Marching a religious statue through the streets surely was a tradition brought from Europe. For the people of East Harlem, July 16th, the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, was waited for with as much if not more excited anticipation than they felt for the arrival of Christmas. Devotees walked barefoot behind the float and Perry Como was broadcasted from the church, his beautiful voice singing Ava Maria. We listened from the roof top.
At its height the Feast ran from ten to fourteen days. Streets were decorated from 106th Street to 125th. Gaudy tinseled street crowns appeared a day or two before the official beginning of the celebration from Pleasant Avenue to Third Avenue with the decorations becoming more elaborate as you got closer to the church on 115th Street between First and Pleasant. They were lit on the first day of the celebration and didn’t darken until the last weekend.
The Italian immigrants carried traditions from the old county. To honor the Blessed Mother they would hang their best bedspreads out of the front window. When the float carrying the icon passed , the Virgin would be honored by embroided beauty instead of the old, tired, brick of the tenements. When I was a teen I would climb out on the fire escape and tie crepe paper streamers all along the rail for the parade. My Grandmother was so happy that I did it for her.
Truck rides, ferris wheels and half moons among them, were set up from north to south on Pleasant Avenue in front of Benjamin Franklin High School. It being summer no need to worry about interfering with school sessions. Pleasant Avenue was also bordered on the south by Jefferson Park, therefore they could close down the street for two blocks, 114th to 116th Street. No through traffic. On the side streets were all kinds of games of chance, although very few people ever won anything of real value. There were vendors selling macadamia nuts on a string, blocks of torrone candy that was cut with an axe (torrone is a nugat candy with nuts in it. Every time you bit into a piece the chances of breaking your teeth were fifty-fifty), pastry stands (cannolis, cream puffs, st. Josephs, Napoleons etc.), zeppola stands (a fried puff of dough sprinkled liberally with powered sugar), calzone and pizza stands, clams on the half shell, and of course the piece de’ resistance, sausage and peppers.
Men and women took off days from their regular nine to five jobs, set up a tent and became a street vendor for a couple of weeks. They put on aprons and called each other Cheech. The streets were filled with the aromas of boiling oil for the calzones and zeppolas. Peppers and onions sizzled on grills waiting for the sausage. No one worried about trichinosis. I don’t recall anyone dying. After all it was for the saint, the Virgin Mary. Automatically, you have an immunity to disease from food bought at the Feast.
There were also vendors who walked around selling toys on a stick. Every year I got a thin plastic doll with painted on hair and a betty boop face. Her dress was a couple of layers of brightly colored tulle and she was beautiful on her stick. When you brought her upstairs she lived tied to the post of your bed until she got so dusty you threw her away. One year we stuck her on the top of the lamp shade, but the plastic was so thin it melted from the heat of the lightbulb and set the doll and lampshade on fire. Fortunately we were alerted and my aunt Connie put it out before anything else caught.
Aunt Frances and Aunt Mary with their husbands Uncle Henry and Uncle Tommy and their five children came from Brooklyn, to enjoy the main feast day. There in that small apartment was also Aunt Connie and Aunt Butchie, my mother’s other sisters. Sometimes Uncle Donnie, my Father and Uncle Christy. Grandma and my Mother (who did all the cooking for this event) my kid sister, Christine and of course me. They would have to take apart my Grandmother’s bed so a table could be spread from the parlor into the bedroom. Everyone had a seat at the table. The traditional feast fare came out in abundance accompanied by a couple of gallons of red wine.
As I got older I would march along side of the float taking donations and handing out scalpulers to the faithful. Later in the evening I danced in the streets with my friends. Different candy stores pulled out their jukeboxes and dancing would go on till the wee hours of the morning. All the rules went out the window during the feast. I remember one time joining in a huge circle dance (the cross town bus waited until we were finished. The driver was a neighborhood guy) to the song, That’ll be the Day.
By anyone’s standards we were poor. We lived in the slums. However, no one can ever claim to have had the fun that those two magical weeks brought to the steaming sidewalks of summer in East Harlem.