In Italy, about the turn of the century, the one before last, there was much marble used in even the poorest of dwellings. The country had an abundance of it. Italian marble was sought after in many countries. But for the natives, of certain parts of Italy, it was easy to come by. Floors, walls, perhaps even ceilings were made of the stuff.
It endured for many years in the homes of Italians. Even when it was no longer highly polished, or could be admired for its beauty; it was still sturdy, and did its job as good interior surface. You couldn’t kill the stuff. Well perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration. I am certain that bombs dropped during the second world war shortened the lifespan of this durable building material. Over all as a floor, under normal circumstances, it is virtually indestructible. The Italian homemaker thought little of pouring buckets of hot soapy water onto the floors in order to shrub them, and maintain cleanliness.
This practice didn’t travel well to the apartment buildings built to house the tenants of 425 East 116th Street.
Lena, who lived in the back apartment on the fourth floor, came knocking on Grandma’s door one afternoon. She was obviously in a panic as she whined that it was getting unbearable to live here any longer. Lena was afraid to go to the bathroom in her own apartment. Soon the bathtub from upstairs, Antoinette Pizzi’s apartment, would be crashing down into her own.
Now, usually, Lena was a gentle, quiet, woman. When she made her home-made macaroni out of flour and ricotta, they looked like little hats*, she always brought over a big bowl for us to enjoy. They really were delicious, but each of these little hats was a belly bomb. After a half a bowl even the most spry person had to be helped out of the chair. We never mentioned this after effect to the kind woman.
On the day that Lena banged on the front door in such a state, Grandma was really surprised, as this was not her norm. After calming her, my four-foot nine, tower of strength, went with Lena back into her own apartment to assess the situation. Sure enough it was bad.
Not only was the ceiling darkened with black mold, but there were mushrooms of all shapes, sizes and colors growing upside down and sideways. It was amazing, and a first even for the old building. The only way this could have happened was for the ceiling to be constantly fed water. But that wasn’t really logical. If a pipe had burst, surely by now the ceiling would be running water down. There had to be an investigation.
Never one to allow moss, or in this case mushrooms, to grow under her little feet, Grandma immediately went one flight up to Mrs. Pizzi’s apartment to knock on her front door. Always keeping to herself, and never very friendly, I am certain she was surprised when she opened her door a crack, peered out, and saw my Grandmother there asking to be let in to check out the Pizzi bathroom.
All the bathrooms in the entire building were made exactly the same. They had a pitted, white, five foot tub on four claw feet, a small round sink with a hot water knob and a cold water knob with individual spouts, and a porcelain goddess (toilet) that boasted an over head water tank with a pull chain to release the water flush. The floors were all one inch square, white tile, with disappearing grout.
After much coaxing by Grandma, who wasn’t going to take no for an answer, she was permitted into the apartment to have a look. No water appeared to be running, but an old metal bucket standing in the corner gave her a suspicion. “How do you wash the floor?” she asked the very annoyed Antoinette Pizzi.
Of course, we all know her reply. My Grandmother instructed the now befuddled Mrs. Pizzi, who was only recently from Europe, that these were tile floors, not marble, and someone lived downstairs. She had to clean the tile without throwing down buckets of water. Perhaps a modern wet mop would do. (string mop as opposed to a rag mop)
That done, Lena was assured by Grandma, that she could have the janitor come scrape the ceiling, plaster and repaint. The mystery of the mushroom garden was solved.
Naturally, when Grandma went back into her own apartment, she warned the entire family not to accept any food from Lena that was made with mushroom.
*The reason these macaronies looked like little hats was after you rolled out the dough on the table you would pinch off little pieces of dough with your thumb and tip of your index finger, shaping little bowler hats as you dropped them into the boiling water. It had to be done very quickly and was extremely labor intense. Therefore, it was generous for anyone to give you a bowl.