La Dolce Vita On 13th Street

WE all come with dreams and often they must fade, fragile flowers left over from childhood - a sweetness small and solitary and so very much each his own. The Italians understand this - they sing their dreams, and laugh and cry over them, and they die clutching them. And they catch the light in your eye when you talk of yours. They take your hand and draw you in and for that moment you are all children again, eager and believing. When I was small I wanted passionately to play beautiful music. I managed to prevail on our country church to let me play Bach on its organ and my head swam with the glory of those chords reaching up to God. But then very sensibly life took charge and made me a housewife with five children and I learned that after diapers there were bigger problems. Sometimes there seemed little left of me for me.

I did somehow join the college orchestra viola section, and those two hours a week were like a small shining in the dusty chores of housework. My instrument and I were perfectly matched - it deserved me as much as I deserved it - a hulking, stolid crudity hacked out of kitchen firewood, and I could easily have smashed it over the nearest chair. When I went to get it repaired at De Luccia's violin-maker shop on Thirteenth Street in Philadelphia's Italian section, I was caught up in the whirl of entrancing impossibilities. I hung over the beautiful instruments in the shop that I had no right to own, nor ever would. De Luccia's brother, Gennaro, made priceless violas - I had seen one once and deep inside me, I wanted something so lovely. I thought of the poet I had read - and the yearning line - ``some late lark singing in my heart'' ... a dream - my wistful, small dream.

And then, abruptly, out of no possible expectation, the check came, an unbelievable breathless amount stamped on the scrap of green paper. It was for me. There were no claims on it. I thought of Thirteenth Street and luminous hopes, De Luccia's Shop with its wonders of loving craftsmanship and Gennaro's viola. Suddenly they were all there for me. I put on my hat and with check in hand, I went in on a hot Tuesday night in July.

Shapeless, sweating women were drowsily fanning themselves on the marble steps they had spent all morning scrubbing. The vegetable cart was dropping by a bar and its horse munched on his feed bag and listened to the political arguments of his loud-voiced master in the bar. Petunias and geraniums spilled in a shining brightness over the rusty balustrade of a roof garden. At the corner a butcher was talking to his cat while it nestled between plump hanging cheeses and succulent steaks. Farther down, the Venus Adonis Restaurant had its doors open for coolness and pungent smells drifted out tantalizingly. Somewhere a hurdy-gurdy was playing plaintively from a rented room.

The bakery I always stopped at was enveloped in a warm fragrance of melting brown sugar, hot raisins in butter, and crusty loaves turning richly brown in the oven. The saleswoman, her hair piled high in a bubble of dyed brown, was speaking Italian with a kind of womanly tolerance to an elderly man clutching his package of rolls. She stopped, smiled at me, and with a motherly pat shooed him out the door.

She hustled back to the counter and steadied her tilting hair. ``And where are the children?'' she demanded. ``Always you have the children, and the Model A, such a beautiful car, no? Didn't you bring it? Eh! You wouldn't sell it? Such elegance, no, you couldn't.'' She patted some cookies back into place and looked at me closely.

``Ooo, I see. It's just you tonight, something special, no?'' She smiled and going to the casement she brought out a cannoli - a confection of pastry and cool custard drenched in dark chocolate syrup. ``When it's just you, it's not too expensive, no? Fifty cents, see.''

I paid out the 50 cents and she watched me critically as I crunched into the fragile melting delight. I almost told her about the check but it didn't seem relevant. ``We still have the Model A,'' I said. ``It's economical, and besides we love it.''

``Are you going down to De Luccia's Violin Shop?'' she asked and as I nodded over the crumbs, she glanced behind me shrewdly. ``You didn't bring your fiddles this time - how come?''

I licked my thumb luxuriously. ``They aren't any of them really mine; in fact, they aren't much worth having. And besides they don't need gluing this time.''

``Ah!'' she laughed, ``I get it now, you're going to look, no? A very big night for you, even just the looking?''

I smiled, eating the last bite, and the check felt wonderfully secure and solid in my pocket. ``I've never really come to look before, I've just always pretended.'' I went to the door. ``Wish me luck,'' I said a little awkwardly.

Vincenzo De Luccia's sign - De Luccia and Son, Makers of Fine Violins - hung serenely oblivious to the years which had taken its paint and a small corner off the top. De Luccia was always open Tuesday nights, and light streamed out across the gritty display of several dropped guitars, a pearl-inlaid mandolin he had made as a boy to amuse his growing-up time, and some yellowed clippings about his brother, Genarro, the genius artisan.

Genarro had made his way from Milan through United States Customs with his own eight violas. I had met Genarro once; he was a recluse of gentle gloom. But his restless, energetic hands working frantically, in a world of their own, fashioned violas with a tone ringing in the wood, rich and creamy, an exultant treasure to make bright a whole life - a luminous promise beyond all ordinary hopes. I had once tried one of his violas - now it could be mine. I fingered my check and took a deep breath. This moment was not usual - it would stay with me. Genarro's viola ... ``Some late lark - singing in my heart ... a late, late lark.''

I opened the door and slipped into the clutter of stricken double basses waiting for glue, and violins stacked like cordwood, in and around various customers and relatives all talking loudly. Next to me a swarthy German was hunting through a box for a chin rest. He interlarded his comments of despair with details on a new ``Russian-French Technique'' of holding the violin. Though he invited my opinion, I refrained, edging past him as he returned to his fruitless search.

A small man was waving a raw piece of cedar and yelling politics to a skinny assistant who explained he had just stepped in for his pay. He had been fired for carelessness after he accidentally dropped a $10,000 cello down the basement stairs. The small man with the cedar jumped two feet and said he wanted to pay for the wood to use for a guitar he was making at home and he hated Agnew now, didn't every one? Looking even thinner, the assistant shook his head and glanced at me as he backed into the wall against a double bass. I tried to seem inscrutable and pushed hastily past into the back room where De Luccia generally sat, patiently working and expressing his views.

Among the dusty blue pots, the clutch of horsehair flowing from a nail, and the gutted fiddles stretched out in clamps, a trio was playing some beer-hall favorites with rollicking briskness. A boy, his tanned legs far apart, was sawing at a double bass with its price tag fluttering over his head. Another boy was carefully hunched over a sequin-splashed guitar while his father, a back bench orchestra violinist, was strumming a shower of clickity-clack notes from a tiny mandolin.

A cluster of admirers applauded at a pause, and Emil De Luccia, the balding son of the establishment, came brushing through, wiping his hands on his leather apron and yelling amiably, ``Hey, guys, let me have a go - I'll beat you all to the end.'' He grabbed the guitar with fat, knowing fingers and launched into a hopping, skipping twist of the melody until the violinist cried out, ``Whoa there! Who's doing the solo - you or me?''

Emil laughed and giving the boy a pat, handed him back the guitar. ``All right, all right. So I outclassed you. Just don't get absent-minded and think you've paid for the guitar.'' He winked and, clambering over some relatives, caught sight of me.

``Hey, Pop,'' he yelled, ``we got company.'' He shook my hand warmly as his father slipped out of the inner shadows - a frail wisp of dreamy eyes and a little-boy smile.

``Look at Pop,'' Emil cried, ``just look at him - a regular daisy - no? And I'll tell you something - the Boston Symphony - yes, siree, the Boston Symphony, they come to him for their bows - they know - they're smart - they know.''

Vincenzo De Luccia passed this off deprecatingly. ``They gotta get them somewhere, son. What's an orchestra without bows?''

Emil snorted. ``That's Pop - can't stand praise.'' He patted the old man affectionately. ``Pop's made enough bows. He keeps saying he's got some left in him - dandy ones, too, but I tell him he ought to stop working. Pop, I say, you ain't gonna have your youth much longer, better quit and start enjoying it. But not him - every morning sharp, he's at the bench. And you should just see him at the shore when we're on vacation, pacing up and down, up down, like a chained leopard, so hungry for work he is. It's depressing.''

Vincenzo smiled. ``Someone has to do the work, son, especially if everyone else talks,'' he observed mildly and grasped my hand with a kind of sweetness I found endearing.

``Yeah, Pop. And someone's got to keep you from giving away the store - and that someone's yours truly - and don't you stop remembering it.'' He laughed loudly, but the look he gave his father was very proud and the man knew it.

Vincenzo nudged me. ``What are you coming for?''

I took a deep breath. ``I want a viola.''

The old man nodded and pulled an indifferent one down out of the cupboard - just right for me. I scratched a wheezy note out of it and handed it back.

``The C string - it's like all the others - it's dead - no vibrancy,'' I said.

He shrugged his shoulders and hung it back. ``I never met one I liked,'' he murmured. He spread his hands. ``But what can you expect - the C string - it's a contradiction - no length for such a tone to get going.''

``But Genarro's violas, your brother's ...,'' I persisted.

``Ah yes, they're different - they're something different. Not tubby - never tubby.'' He thought the matter was dropped.

I took out my check. ``Do you remember, once you showed me one of his? Do you have it still?'' I glanced at the cupboard and saw it far in the back. ``This check - it just came in the mail. It wasn't expected, it wasn't expected at all.''

Vincenzo smiled, understanding. ``And so you thought - something you'd get - something not expected. Ah, I see, I see - and the children - they're all growing up - they'll be gone - no? But this will stay, Genarro's viola.'' His voice caressed the name.

He turned to his son. ``Well, what do you think? Shall we?''

Emil frowned and held up his hand for a sibilant confidence. ``Pop, you know what Genarro said on the phone just now? He figures he wants to go to Florida. This would help.'' He inclined his head in my direction.

Vincenzo nodded and reverently lifted out the exquisite instrument shining in muted glory among the shadows. He pulled a bow across the C string and his face lighted up as through the workman's awkward scratch came the haunting, melting beauty of the tone.

``It's a gift,'' he said simply. ``Genarro himself doesn't know it all. It's just he loves the wood and he fits it round the singing note. It's a gift.'' He laid the viola carefully in a satin-lined case. ``It'll stay yours, always.''

Emil dropped the check in a drawer. ``It's a bit of history you're taking out with you,'' he said cheerfully. ``Don't forget.''

``I won't,'' I said fervently. All of this was so unexpected, giving me something beyond all deserving. Now I was at the end of my moment, the moment that was all mine, and I was going home. I could almost feel the viola sounding softly in its case ... some late lark ... singing in my heart ... on Thirteenth Street....

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