Italian sauce, Harlem’s famous Rao’s (“New York’s most exclusive restaurant”), the Yankees and Joe DiMaggio, and Marilyn Monroe — those are just some of the stories from the first chapter in the upcoming memoir, Harlem to Hollywood, My Real-to-Reel Life by Det. Sonny Grosso:
Chapter 1 — Italian Harlem....the Very Best of Times
Fuggedaboudit! Who wouldn’t have wanted to have lived there, back then? Well, Sonny Grosso did and his stories reveal an intimate snapshot of another time in place, growing up in wonderfully loud, colorful and very real, Italian Harlem:
“Each block in my Italian Harlem neighborhood had the smells of rich, thick Sunday sauce and the music of Frank Sinatra, Dean Marin and Tony Bennett along with Mario Lanza, and Jimmy Roselli singing ‘Mala Femmina’ — every Italian guy’s anthem back then and a song they used on The Sopranos. You went to churches like Mt. Carmel, St. Anns or Holy Rosary. Everybody knew somebody. And everybody respected everybody. But you conveniently forgot everybody’s name if you got questioned by the law...if you ever knew their real names anyhow. And each block had a social club and, you guessed it, a wiseguy. There was also a restaurant called Rao’s, which was rumored to be a hangout for those very same ‘neighborhood’ guys. Just around the corner from where we lived, our Ma always used to tell us not to look into the establishment. Of course, you know what we did when we ran by it — we peeked in!
“Growing up in Harlem, you may not have had a lot but you never wanted those good times to end. We remembered our mothers shopping on First Avenue, bringing back all the fresh foods to make those great sauces that only Italian mothers can make. And also all the gossip that only the neighborhood people knew — about who’s getting divorced, who’s sleeping with whom, who went to jail.”
Grosso’s mother, Lillian, had met his father on the Asbury Park boardwalk in Jersey, and it was love at first sight like in that old Drifters’ song — “Oh, under the boardwalk, down by the sea, yeah/On a blanket with my baby is where I'll be...” Those words and tune was the theme song for their lives together. Grosso continues:
“He told her he’d back the next summer to propose, and he did. Ma never had eyes for anyone else, ever. My father Benny was my hero, a real man’s man, tough as nails but fair. Think John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Steve McQueen from the movies. He’d come home from work with his big trailer truck that he used to make deliveries with. Sometimes he’d have these big vats of butter and we’d come down with macaroni pots, jump in the truck and help ourselves to scoops of butter with big spoons to take back home to mom. Yeah, you could say that butter fell off the truck!”
Fell off the truck is a saying that speaks to New York in that time, a simpler time, when things were more innocent, when your word was your bond, family was key, and your dad was always there for you.
“I remember dad sitting at our table in our 115th Street apartment in his skinny t-shirt with his muscles protruding and protectively eyeing us over his Journal American newspaper. He was the rock of my family. He took me and my three younger sisters everywhere. We’d drive two hours out to Mastic Beach, with four kids, mom and dad, and a dog, all squeezed in a car in the summer heat, eating sandwiches and singing out loud like we had no cares in the world. And all without air-conditioning!
“He used to coach our neighborhood softball and football teams. He took me to see Joe DiMaggio play for the Yankees and after that I wanted to grow up to be like Joe — when I played softball, I wore number 5, and also number 55 when I played football, that’s how much I admired DiMaggio. But we never did anything without dad. Anytime I hear someone like Andrea Bocelli sing my dad’s favorite song ‘Amapola’ (‘My pretty little poppy’), it brings it all back to Harlem.
“Those were the days, my friends. One big thing I learned growing up in the 1940s, something that would come in handy with my life in law enforcement, was that things like respect and fear go hand in hand. Growing up in Harlem, my father was a straight shooter. All my friends respected him. He gave me plenty of cracks across the ass when I was a kid. But every time I got punished, I deserved it. Thing was that everything he promised me good, I got it, and everything he promised me bad, I got it, too…only quicker!
“Because I learned that there were consequences for my actions, I was never going to use drugs or mug someone. Respect and fear are opposite sides of the same coin. You respect God because you fear burning in hell for the rest of eternity. You respect your father because you feared he was going to smack your butt when you did something wrong. As for my mother, she loved me so much that if someone told her I’d killed somebody, she’d say, ‘My son must have had a reason to do that.’ You just can’t beat that unconditional love that moms give!”
Another example of stories from a different time, about neighborhood and wanting to help others brings up an hilarious take about tap-dancing. Yep, Sonny Grosso The French Connectioncop once tried to do a little soft shoe.
He laughs telling this one:
“One time, my mother wanted me to demonstrate something for my father. You got to understand when I was about ten growing up, you took piano or accordion lessons or tap dancing from two ladies who had lost their husbands and this would help them get through the tough times. We supported others in our neighborhood. But, I didn’t want to play the piano or the accordion so I was left with tap dancing. I had had some lessons and my father is sitting at home reading his paper, my mother comes over and says, ‘Sonny wants to show you something.’ So he puts his newspaper down and my mother winks at me, suggesting that this was going to turn out real good. Then she proudly says, ‘Show him, Sonny.’
“So I start, but my stunned father asks, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ My mom says, ‘He’s tap dancing.’ So, my father puts the paper back up: ‘Let him do it in the bathroom.’ My mother is still winking and still trying to encourage me. She says, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll get used to it.’ So we’re walking down the hall towards the bathroom and from behind the paper he shouts, ‘And close the door!’ I was going to kill myself! But my mother puts me in the bathroom and she’s going, ‘Shhhhh, don’t worry, he’ll understand, he’ll really love it. Just go on and practice.’ And she closes the door. I’m in this small little bathroom with tiles on the floor and I’ve got my taps on, staring at myself in the mirror, and I start dancing.
“Finally, I think, ‘Am I nuts? This is the stupidest thing I ever did in my life!’ So I walk out and ma says, ‘What’s the matter?’ I say, ‘Ma, it’s over!’ She asks, ‘What do you mean?’ I took a stand: ‘I ain’t going to do this no more.’ I never wanted to do it to begin with. Maybe I should’ve taken the accordion lessons! Later on, I found out my father told my mom that when he first saw me shaking my arms and legs, he thought I had Saint Vitus’ Dance — an affliction that involved involuntary jerking motions, kind of like epilepsy, although nobody really knew what the hell it was. So my father sees me shaking and I probably looked a little spastic. Hey, I wanted to play for the Yankees, and be like Joe DiMaggio. I didn’t want to be no tap dancer. My mother tried her best and had spent some money but I said, ‘Ma, I’ll clean the roof, I’ll do errands, I’ll walk the dog, clean up after him but I ain’t tap dancing no more!’ And I remembered what my wise grandfather used to say: ‘Just because you put tap shoes on an elephant don’t mean it can dance!’”
Think about that for a second or two. True, right?! Anyway, Grosso has so many fun, great and often unbelievable stories, the ones he’s been telling whenever he has an audience:
“There’s the day I skipped school to try and meet Joe DiMaggio. Back then I never had any thought about becoming a cop. I dreamed about being another ‘Jolting Joe’ and playing center field for the Yankees. I loved DiMaggio so much. I looked up to him and he was everything I wanted to be — elegant and a gentleman at all times. My boyhood pal Eddie Torres, who later became a famed New York state Supreme Court judge and successful author (Carlito’s Way and Q & A), says DiMaggio had a ‘majestic, royal quality about him’ that appealed to Latinos as well. DiMaggio was the first big Italian hero, before guys like Frank Sinatra, someone I filmed three movies with. But DiMaggio crossed over ethnic lines, a man who just played the game. And after that, he got married to the gorgeous Marilyn Monroe.
“When I met Joe, after he retired, for an unforgettable dinner at Maducatis Restaurant, I told him I had a scrapbook on him. But also when he met Marilyn, I had begun a collection of clippings on her, starting at the back of the same scrapbook. And the two collections met in the middle. I remember Joe laughingly replying, ‘You telling me you caused me to marry Marilyn?’ Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio — what a honey and what a guy!”
Stay tuned for the upcoming book, Harlem to Hollywood, My Real-to-Reel Life by Det. Sonny Grosso.
Ashley is an award-winning journalist/author/blogger who has written for Playboy, Toronto Star, Movie Entertainment, Sports Illustrated, Maclean's and others. He's interviewed various "leaders" in their fields, including: Oscar winners (Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Lawrence, Alicia Vikander, Jane Fonda, Mira Sorvino, Geena Davis, Anthony Hopkins); Grammy winners (Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Ice Cube, Pete Townshend); MVPs in sports (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky, Kobe Bryant); and, business leaders (Amazon's Jeff Bezos). He has an upcoming novel, REJEX, coming out on Pulp Hero Press. And he has written several episodic TV shows, appeared on CNN, and blogged for Mademan, Medium, GritDaily and HuffPost.