Tenements and Tribulations



Neighborhood: Greenwich Village

We moved to Greenwich Village in the mid-1980s, and at every landing of
our fifth-floor tenement walk up there was a nose-full of tantalizing smells. This was in the very Italian section of the West Village, full of tenements that we called “V.I.V’s” or “Vertical Italian Villages.” The older folks, who sat out in front, chatting and fanning themselves in the summer heat, we referred to as the “stoop people.” I suspected that their gossip could sometimes be cruel but was grateful that they were watching out for us.

Next door to us lived a woman named Millie who was very warm and friendly when we first moved in. The smells from her kitchen were the grand culmination to all the other appetizing aromas from the floors we’d pass on our way up the stairs. Millie was a fabulous cook. She was welcoming to my son and me, and she often knocked on our door at dinnertime to offer us a sample plate. Millie was plump and wore loose, pastel house-dresses. I loved watching as she leaned over the stairwell to lower an old-fashioned basket by a rope all the way down to the first floor for a delivery guy to fill. Then she’d haul it back up without a spill. Our front doors were literally inches from one another. Millie often left her door ajar which was great for sharing the wonderful food smells, but she may have had other motivations besides air circulation.

Sometimes as I turned the key to our apartment door, I would glimpse Millie lighting black candles and mutter-singing over them in Italian. I was curious but puzzled that she would leave her door open while doing whatever it was she was doing. Once when she saw me in passing, she mumbled something about her “ex-husband’s new woman” but I didn’t want to hear more details, so I just kept going. Since we lived so close together, I figured it was better to keep things light and friendly.

When my son was about eight his best friend was a lovely girl named Liberty. They often had play dates. Liberty’s dad was a large Trinidadian steel-drum player with thick, elephant trunk dreadlocks down his back. He came to pick up Liberty one afternoon, and we were sitting in my kitchen chatting and sipping tea when my neighbor Millie knocked. I opened the door and when Millie saw Liberty’s dad, she visibly blanched. That may have been the start of the trouble that was to come.

I began to notice that Millie didn’t knock on our door with plates of lasagna or macaroni and “gravy” anymore. One day I even found crazy glue had been stuck into my mailbox keyhole.  

The worst assault was when a child welfare officer arrived unannounced and insisted on looking inside my refrigerator to see if there was food, checking the conditions of everything in the apartment, and inspecting my son’s body for signs of abuse. I stood there, appalled and frightened. The man was calm and not unpleasant as he pronounced me “OK” and mentioned something about a “false report,” and having found no signs of neglect or abuse. I asked him why he had come and he said that someone had called in and reported that I “beat and starved my child and left him alone.”  I was crying tears of rage and frustration at that point as I asked him “Who could have done such a thing?” He gestured silently for me to come to the door, and pointed to Millie’s door, slightly ajar as usual.

There were no more friendly visits or offerings of food to taste, but I began receiving loud bangs on my wall whenever I played the piano. I only played in the daytime within the legal hours allowed by New York City noise regulations. Because I was out working or studying most days, I gave my key to a jazz composer who lived nearby and didn’t have a piano. Leroy came some afternoons to play and compose. He was a man of color. The bangs on the wall got louder and louder and made a mirror fall down. Then I received an order to appear in court for violation of the noise laws.

On the appointed day, I went downtown to the court date with my ex-boyfriend, Old Unfaithful, who came along to support me. When I got there, I saw Millie. Accompanying her was a priest from Our Lady of Pompeii Church. And when the judge came out, I saw that she was an older Italian lady around Millie’s age, and to top it all off, her first name was Carmela Millie for short!  I figured that I was done for.

Judge Carmela (I forget her last name) questioned both of us about the times that I played the piano. In short order, she dismissed the case, telling Millie and the priest from Our Lady of Pompeii that I was within my legal rights, but that I should stop by a “reasonable hour.” Millie’s face looked like a clenched fist as she and the priest left the courtroom.  Suddenly Judge Carmela motioned me back.  “Look!” she said in a stage whisper, as she held out her two gnarled, twisted hands.  “I was a concert pianist and now I have arthritis and can’t play…YOU KEEP PRACTICING!” she told me.

Years later I heard that Millie’s son Paulie married a black girl, which seems like poetic justice. I hope that there were no more black candles in anyone’s future.


Eve Zanni is a jazz singer / songwriter / voice teacher. She leads a community singing class at Westbeth Arts Complex and has published 2 jazz history books one on Billie Holiday and the other one about Lester Young that are available on Amazon.com.  Find out more at: www.evezanni.com

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§ 5 Responses to “Tenements and Tribulations”

  • Joseph Samuels says:

    Great story. Brings back lots of memories. My wife went to school at Our Lady of Pompeii. We were married in Pompeii. Before we were married she moved to a three story walk up in Jersey City owned by an older Italian family. My visits to her apartment were not appreciated, and the husband made it very clear with pounding knocks on the door and commanding to enter the apartment. He also did the same the the man living next door when he brought a girl home. So I know the wrath of an old Italian first hand. Ciao!

  • Judy Cohen says:

    That’s quite a story Eve, and so well a written and descriptive nonfictional piece of art. I am honored to know you, such a warm, friendly, and multitalented woman. Thanks for sharing your experience (sorry some of it was Not very pleasant, but glad it worked out in the end). Thank you for sharing and a huge thanks goes out to Mr. Bellers Neighborhood for featuring it.

  • Sally Davis says:

    At the risk of appearing to be unwelcome to your son and you, I gotta point out that
    “She was welcoming to my son and I” should be “. . . my son and me.”

  • Eve Zanni says:

    You are so right, Sally.

    Thank you for that correction!

    All the best,

  • eve says:

    Thank you, Joseph and Judy for your appreciative comments!

    It means a lot to me!

    Peace, best wishes,

§ Leave a Reply

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