Barbara Ann Branca

For Katie Antico

raining again in the gray part of the city
a guy walks in front of you holds his umbrella high
and you wonder if he bought it cheap from somebody
on the street way downtown and
it'll go inside out when it's windy and
he'll just drop it in the gutter, collapsed, abandoned.

not like the kind the old ladies made
in the flatiron building where 5th and broadway cross
where the cops yelled twenty-three skidoo
to the guys who tried to look up girls' skirts when the
wind blew 'cross to the old madison square garden.

ladies like my great-grandmother a hundred years ago
who would take the el back to canarsie
carry a tin of metal rods and black snaps and
colorful taffeta circles and presto piece 'em together
into an umbrella to bring in monday morning
get paid by the piece they called it piecework
but it was peacework too 'cause she worked real hard
two jobs saved money made her feel peaceful, secure
live the american dream.

she came from calabria on the ionian sea,
learned to butcher meat in her father's store
over on jane street and Hudson
that's why she ate provolone and bread.
i'm-a like a rat she said.
she got married off at fourteen
to an italian coal miner and
went to pennsylvania having babies one after another
and all but two died.
baking bread with the ration of flour and salt and sugar
the wives were given to feed their husbands when they
came home outta the mines
with grimy faces and startled looks.
the wives would sit on the porches waiting at twilight
as exhausted men would stumble down the lane in
twos and threes hungry for supper.

and one night he didn't come home there was an accident
and that was all.
this was before the united mine workers before the unions
before the firebrand organizers with bushy eyebrows.
no nothing.
you have to leave with the clothes on your back.
packed up her two babies and came back to
new york learn something to do
make umbrellas piecework
she was twenty-four.

she never married again
not even after mr. swan asked her three times
but she outlived him and the rest of her canasta group
so she taught us kids rummy five hundred
and we played for money
she always knew your hand before you did
and when we grew up we figured out
she was nobody's fool, ever.

and we'd remember how she'd get out the old tin
let us make doll skirts with the taffeta circles or
wear 'em like rings on all our fingers
there in the kitchen where she made us pizza
after beating the dough with powerful fists
letting it rise on the big silver radiator hissing with steam.

it was the basement apartment
but that was the warmest place.
see, she owned the building, bought the house
on west ninth street in bensonhurst.
she was the landlady and the tenants would bang on
the pipes for more heat
but she was careful, she was thrifty
she could do the numbers in her head
to heat that three family house
just how many umbrellas it took, piecework.


Barbara Ann Branca is a performance poet who has read original works on National Public Radio, at Cornelia Street Café, Bowery Poetry Club and Greenwich Village Bistro in Manhattan and at the Huntington Poetry Barn, Wyld Chyld Tattoo Cafe, Beanberry Cafe and numerous libraries and bookstores on Long Island. Her poetry is based on her lifelong passions for music, her heritage, and the environment. She is a versatile singer who has toured with a jazz orchestra as well as a published science author.