Thursday, September 26, 2019

Magpie's Illusion

Even at her advanced age of eighty-seven, Magpie was one tough cookie. Up the Flint, that section of the city where the Notre Dame church was before the fire took out half the neighborhood,  yeah the Flint, and it was always up the Flint, Magpie was nearly legendary.  She had come to America with Florio, her husband of what would be nearly seventy years when he died at ninety-four years old two summers ago . The two of them opened a sandwich shop near Columbus Park in the mid-fifties. 

     They raised their family on the triple decker’s second floor, while Magpie's sister raised her own family on the third floor.  In the old country, Florio's family had run a bakery.  He brought the recipes and work ethic to the Flint. Magpie added her love and personality to the mix and the very first Pasta Factory was born.  An amazing recipe for tomato sauce and two large, brick ovens were their not so secret secret.  Before the ovens became popular and commercialized, those two ovens, fueled with coal, served generations up the Flint and throughout the city. Before anyone had heard of personal pizza, Magpie started serving the house special, a 6x8 inch slice with the customers choice of toppings.

     Around 1965, the ovens were converted to wood burning and for a year or so the regular customers seemed less than thrilled.  Florio's secret sauce, however, would win out. When their daughter ‘Lita took some responsibilities,  she actually started to market jars of the sauce. That simple plan took a small family business into another level.  ‘Lita had two sons, Little Flori and Tony.  They all lived in the next house over from the Factory.  The boys worked hard alongside their grandparents and mother.  Magpie loved her boys.  They seemed never to be further away from the woman than her shadow.  Little Flori had a flair for art, and in less time than his grandmother wished, he went away to college to study design, Tony, had studied to be a chef at the famous school in Providence.

     The summer sun was high and hot as Magpie walked down her street slowly, toward the giant chain drug store.  The one with the three letter name.  She never really learned English, just words, enough to get by, and her accent was so thick, one might not be able to tell which words were spoken in English unless you really knew her, or worked for her.  She had a way of making her needs known.  She looked toward the drug store.  She smiled in her way, knowing that chain never would have located in this area, not without the anchor that the Pasta Factory had become.  Her boys used the education they received to grow the Factory into one hell of a business.  Tony began importing Italian meats, cheeses, olives, and exotic olive oils.  He made fresh pasta in the giant kitchen and packaged it for sale in the shop.  There was an Expresso bar, a Cheese bar, a deli, a sandwich counter, the famous pizza slices were still being baked in the same two ovens and then there was the precsuto and parmesan grinder, toasted in those same ovens.  

     Magpie loved Tony’s way with his grandfather’s old recipes and the fresh twist he brought to the baking. Florio loved the marketing his namesake brought to the business.  He had dropped the ‘little’ from his name after his high school graduation.  His grandfather adopting “Big” in front of his own.  So, Big Florio and Flori they became, and Magpie felt her heart swell.  These memories flooded her heart as she walked down Bedford Street, her friends and neighbors waving and calling to her.  Not much Italian spoken anymore.  It had been a long time since any old school Italian or Portugese families had immigrated to the city.  Hispanics and Asians were the current “greenhorns” flooding the few manufacturing jobs that were left, and they faced the same obstacles, and worse, that the old world Europeans did when they came to America.

     “Magpie!” someone called from a window overhead.  She looked up and waved.  It was Ti Moniz, her Portugese friend.  Ti Moniz had worked cleaning the Factory as a girl, eventually becoming a cook, and working until she could collect her monthly security check.  Magpie would not need her own government retirement check.  Her boys saw to that.  She received a deposit from the factory every month.  And the gifts, no, she was not left to want or need a thing.  It was said, Magpie never had less than a few hundred dollar bills in her purse.  She was also rumored to have tipped with one quite often.  Ti Moniz had been on the receiving end of many of those tips, and still, the boys saw that Ti Moniz got fresh bread, pasta and sauce at least one a week.   They were also known to feed folks who found themselves homeless or short a few bucks at the end of the month.  It was quiet, but effective charity.  Magpie’s heart had grown with the Factory, and the boys had understood how to use it.

     Sometimes the American Dream takes a generation or two to work.  For this family, it has worked very well. Never forget.  Big Florio and Magpie started with nothing but dreams and a good recipe.  "Never forget.”  She had repeated this to those boys before bed throughout their childhood.  The old woman smiled at the sweet memory of her boys in bed with the blanket pulled to their chins, the smell of backing bread wafting up from the brick ovens and the promise of dreams yet to be filled.

     Another shout, another wave, and she got closer to the pharmacy.  She looked ahead to the intersection.  Two men, both young, barely older than high schoolers stood waiting at the traffic light.  They were laughing, joking, smoking and living a free spirited moment.  One of them wore a red ballcap with a now familiar political campaign slogan printed in bold block letters.  She wondered why they would say “Great Again.”  To her mind, it had always been great, it just required some self motivation and hard work.  No silver platters in America, wasn’t that the real point.  Anyone could do it.  Although, she knew, sometimes even the hard work wasn’t enough.  Some folks needed a little help and a little luck. She and Big Florio had some of both, and and the family had done very well even if  Flori and Magpie didn’t know how to speak the language very well.

     As she approached the traffic light, the one across from the pharmacy, the one the young men were hanging around, she clutched her purse a bit tighter to her self, “'Scuze Me.” She said.

     “Huh, whachu say?’ the one with the hat spat.

     “’Scuze me, please.”

     “I think the ol’ wop wants you to move,” the other one, Dylan, said in a singsong voice.

     Dylan was bad news, and in the very near future, Dylan would be the news.

     “Please,” Magpie said again.  From above, Ti Moniz had already started to dial 911.  She recognized these two, not by name, but by their reputation.  They had accosted three older ladies this month.

     “Speakay Engay?” red cap yelled.

     “Please,” Magpie said again.

     “Ya got ta pay the crosswalk toll.” Red cap sneered. 

     “Foreigners take, take, take from real Americans, time to give back, immigrant bitch.”
Red cap reached for the old women’s purse. She pulled back. Not as hard as she could,  but enough to make a statement. 

     “Mine,” Magpie said.

     “You, Stop!” Ti Moniz hollered from her window. Red cap held his left hand over his head, long center finger extended completely. 

     Magpie tugged again, neatly pulling red cap from his feet.

     Dylan pushed the old woman.  Magpie stumbled back. She took a long step in reverse and the half of another before falling to the ground.  Dylan yanked her purse from her arthritic hand as her ample bum found a hard seat on the sidewalk.  He tossed it to red cap and the two boys took off in full sprint, crossing the oncoming traffic and disappearing behind the chain store pharmacy.  

     Ti Moniz came running up the sidewalk.  She had tears streaming along her fat, rose colored cheeks.  Her big, brown Portuguese eyes were wide with concern.

     “Magpie, Magpie,”  she called nearly as loud as the approaching sirens.  The black SUV slid to a stop beside Magpie as she sat on the curb, waving her hands and displaying a great big grin.

     The officer leapt from the vehicle. Slamming the door behind him, as he spun around the from bumper toward the giggling woman sitting on the city walk.  He recognized Magpie and Ti Moniz instantly.  He had been a high school friend of Little Flori.

     “Magpie, are you okay?  Why are you laughing?”  The office spoke in badly broken Italian.  Magpie looked at him and her laughter grew more powerful as she found his pronunciation ridiculous.  She reached her hands upward.  The officer took one, Ti took the other as they helped Magpie to her feet.

     She spoke in that halting English that those who knew her had come to love.

     “They took my illusion.” She said between her laughter.  She reached her left hand into her blouse.  Her arm disappeared halfway to the elbow before she jiggled her forearm and removed it.  In her hand was a fine leather wallet.  “My money here.  They stole illusion.”

     Her purse was as empty as the political promises the red cap symbolized.  As she explained in her way, the three of them stood on the corner sharing a hearty laugh and a few giggles.  The small box on the officers chest squawked a hardly audible sound.  Red cap had been caught two blocks ups behind the pharmacy.  

     Across the way, a large man stood in the shadow of the smoke cloud emanating from the large cigar pressed into his mouth.  He was smiling a sick grin, teeth exposed like yellowed bones.  He inhaled, knowing there would be another debt collected soon.  Big Jim, turned from the fracas and Magpie continued toward the pharmacy, her money back in her bra, Ti Moniz, a little pale, but smiling, walking at her side.