The nonnas  leave their apartments to shop for food and fabric, to pay their respects at  wakes, to have coffee with one another, and, of course, to make novenas and  go to Mass. Oh, they also throw in a spare afternoon to clean the church. Aside from these obligations, they rarely have to walk out the  front door, because much of the business comes to them.

Today, it is business as usual as the nonnas are having their afternoon coffee. Representing  the world of finance, a stocky insurance agent, huffing and puffing, has made his way to a third-floor apartment, where the nonnas  talk about what  to cook for dinner.  He is there to collect a weekly premium — usually 25 cents, sometimes less, but never more than 30 cents — for a term life insurance policy.

The nonnas welcome him as he places his gray fedora on a chair, unbuttons his heavy overcoat, and takes a seat at the table.

He accepts a cup of coffee,  American, with milk and sugar. The nonnas smile, hands folded across their laps as they wait for the news the agent is about to deliver.  He is the town crier, presenting neighborhood gossip along with a receipt, after he records the payment in a  ledger held together with a thick rubber band.

“So what’s new?’ a nonna asks, offhandedly.  He  verifies the rumor that the man who drives in from New Jersey every Wednesday to deliver eggs door-to-door has, in fact, run off with a local Irish widow.

“Oh, thank  heavens, she had no children,” the nonna says, half blessing herself. “But what about the eggs?” she asks. She is relieved to learn that the elopee’s brother-in-law, his sister’s husband, is going to continue to deliver the eggs.

At the table, a nonna pulls from her apron pocket a three-by-five-carbon receipt for a purchase she made in her living room.  “Today when  the salesman from the religious store visited, I bought a statue of the Infant of Prague in a satin gown.”  She is blissful as  she holds court at the table.  “With the scraps I have left over from sewing, I’ll make  him a lace gown,” she says. 

The clanging bell of the scissor sharpener’s truck distracts them as they bid the agent  good-bye and the hostess nonna accepts a carbon copy of  the  insurance  receipt.  She  goes to the window, opens it wide, and shouts, “Over here, third  floor.” The sharpening man stops his truck and enters the building. When he reaches the apartment, the nonna hands him three pairs of scissors. She warns him to take special care. “One is a hair-cutting scissors,”  she says. “One is thin and fine for embroidery, and my favorite is the one I use for cutting fabric.”

He  leaves with all the  shears  in hand, telling her they are sure to be “like brand-new in 20 minutes.”  On the stairs, he passes the one man who canvasses every apartment in the building. He needs no appointment; he  is the Fuller Brush man. The queens of clean can never purchase too many mops, brooms, bottle brushes, vegetable brushes, hair brushes, and to complete the circle, new mop heads. As the nonnas welcome him, they all begin talking at once.

“That hairbrush, the one I bought last week?” one says.  He knows these women are fierce when they are disappointed. He looks a little worried, fearing she might tell him the product is no good. “That brush is so nice,” she says. “It doesn’t pull my granddaughter’s hair no matter how I brush it.”

For the nonnas, the kitchens become their offices, repair shops, boutiques, and janitors’ closets. Roasting peppers for supper, they are welcoming the pie man who supplies them with dessert. Sitting and sipping coffee, they pass judgment on the recently delivered sharpened scissors. Talking about the “egg-man,” they each agree the insurance man is “a nice fellow” for sharing the news.

Not much business takes place in the tenement on a Saturday morning. But still  the nonnas have a way to spend money at home. Instead of  paying insurance men, purveyors of statues, and salesmen of brushes, the nonnas toss coins to an organ grinder who sets up camp in front of  the building. As they lean out open windows, their elbows cushioned by pillows, they listen and smile.

Onions and Eggs

Serves four

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound onions, thinly sliced
  • Dash salt
  • Dash sugar
  • 8 eggs
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  1. Heat a large nonstick skillet; add olive oil.
  2. Add onions, salt, and sugar; reduce heat to medium.
  3. Saute onions 25 minutes, or until golden brown and reduced by half.
  4. Beat eggs just until whites and yolks are combined.
  5. Reduce heat to low.
  6. Pour eggs into skillet; allow to set for 1 minute.
  7. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  8. Stir and fold eggs into onion about 8 minutes, or  until eggs form large, tender curds.
  9. Serve immediately on a plate or as a sandwich filling.
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5 Responses to The World at Their Doorstep

  1. Dorothy Cassano says:

    Thank you Fran for your Nonna stories. This one today, brings back pleasant memories of the insurance man, & the organ grinder. Life was very pleasant

  2. G. Laspari says:

    This may be the best one yet. However, I say that about most of them.

  3. Fran, Those nonnas were wise women. I learn alot from them! Joan

  4. Laura Weigel says:

    Dear Cousin Fran,
    I am so glad to receive these stories. They are so vivid, I am going to read this tonight to Greg. Be well, love, Laura

  5. […] The other day, I was walking to my neighborhood farmer’s market and saw the knife sharpening truck. I remembered stories from Gran Fran’s childhood that included the traveling knife sharpening man. She had described a horse drawn truck of sorts with some sort of  a sander, which I believe was powered by a foot pedal, but not too sure. You’d drop your knives off and a bit later, you’d get them back. I’m a little hazy on the details, but the truck in my neighborhood seemed to fit the bill. You can read her post about the sharpening man here. […]

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