When I was a child and Mother warned, "Someone is always watching," I knew she meant either God or Mrs. Kristian. If the warning followed a vivid recounting of some mischief I'd done in the neighborhood, then I knew that the watcher was Mrs. Kristian because God never gave Mom any details, whereas Mrs. Kristian rendered an exact description of the offense every time.
Mrs. Kristian was old. Old people always watched over the streets of the city when I was a child. In the summer, porches and stoops attached to the rowhouses were their guardposts. Or they manned wood-slatted park benches that straddled the edges of concrete walks and tiny, four-by-six front yards.
All day they sat on patrol, going inside only to eat or to get something to drink. They drank iced tea, lemonade, and beer. Only did Italian men drink wine back then.
In the wintertime the old people were posted, night and day, at windows. Occasionally, while walking home on a snowy night, my sister and I saw a momentary pinpoint light of a cigar or cigarette flashed from the darkness of the framed glass. One time we thumbed our noses at the telltale bit of light and whoever was behind it, watching from the blackness. Then we ran home through the snow, nervously giggling at our boldness.
During the '40s, my grandfather watched over Kentucky Avenue. He sat at the front room window in an old green upholstered chair which he had molded through the years into a lumpy facsimile of his contours.
My sister and I visited our grandfather's house frequently. It was also the home of two of our aunts and an uncle. Because one aunt's husband was in the Navy, there was a small banner hanging in the front window with a star in the middle.
I never talked much to Grandpoppa. I never asked about what he saw out of his window. I would ask now, if I could.But back then I'd just hurry through the front door, which was never locked, and rush into the house. My sister would say, "Hi, Grandpoppa!" and keep going. I'd go over and give him a kiss. Arriving and leaving, I would always kiss my grandfather. It was a duty I imposed superstitiously upon myself. I was sure that if I ever forgot to kiss Grandpoppa hello and goodbye, something awful would happen.
After the brief greeting, I'd hurry through the hallway, headed for the kitchen. My aunts would be there, waiting, with the only two things a child ever needs -- love and food. We ate and talked and laughed in that wonderful kitchen of my childhood, while Grandpoppa watched over the front street and listened to the radio.
Mostly our aunts laughed at themselves and we laughed at them, too. In that house my sister and I were never excluded. In that house we were never scolded. We were fed and loved amidst laughter and a world war that hardly touched us. Never again would we feel so safe as when we set in the kitchen and Grandpoppa sat in the front room, watching out the window, listening to the radio and writing numbers on a slip of paper.
It was a long time before I understood what "getting the number" meant, but I knew it was Grandpoppa's job to get it. I remember that the radio announcer would say something like, "In the fifth race, My Lady paid five-eighty, three-sixty and two-thirty . . ." and my grandfather would write the number on his slip of paper. And later my aunts and uncle would ask, "What was the number today, Poppa?" And my grandfather would answer very slowly, "Fi-i-ve-thir-r-ty-two-o."
Grandpoppa talked slowly. Maybe that's why no one talked to him often. We were getting used to the fast-paced voices of the radio correspondents who told us the latest news, the war news, the important news. Not what an old man saw out of a window. We were evolving towards the time when reporters like Walter Cronkite would become everyone's wise grandfather and old people would stare at TV screens instead of watching city streets.
Still, I've always remained skeptical of reporters, especially electronic ones. That's because, after I got older, I found out that playing the numbers was illegal and I figured that the radio announcer just had to have known that all over the city people were writing down all those race results which he purposely read off each day. If he didn't know, then he wasn't as smart as my grandfather.