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'Carry the Light' Excerpt: Customary Madness

This San Bruno writer shares a story about a pre-World War II Italian tradition on the Peninsula. The story appears in the "Carry the Light" anthology.

'Carry the Light' Excerpt: Customary Madness 'Carry the Light' Excerpt: Customary Madness

Editor's Note: For the first time in the history of the San Mateo County Fair, a 300-page anthology has been published that includes more than 100 stories, poems and essays from writers who submitted award-winning work for the fair's literary contest. The idea was the brainchild of Bardi Rosman Koodrin, a San Bruno resident who runs the fair's literary contest, and the anthology, titled "Carry the Light," features work from many Peninsula writers.

From p. 258, “Customary Madness”

In the 1930’s, Italian families gathered in the house basements of South San Francisco on Saturday nights to sing and dance to the music of their homeland. An accordion, drum, clarinet and a bass fiddle provided the evening’s entertainment. The concrete floor had been sprinkled with polenta meal, so dancers’ feet would slide easier. Wooden benches lined the walls where mothers with babies and toddlers sat. They gossiped about the week's activities while bouncing children on their laps.

One corner of the basement was set up as the refreshment center.  Jugs and bottles of wine in various sizes, lined an oilcloth table. Two or three different brands of whiskey, a large tub of ice, and several brands of soda crowded the table. A large coffee urn perked in the center, and would be ready for the older Italian men who only drank coffee royals. 

The only man in the community, who owned a bass fiddle, was a smallish man who measured five feet in height. He had no family in this country, and lived alone on the second floor of an apartment building in town. Each Saturday, around six o’clock in the evening, the next door neighbors heard the thump, thump of the bass fiddle being dragged down the stairs of the apartment, supported by the smallish man. Once he reached the sidewalk he bent over, and eased the bass fiddle onto his back, holding it by placing both arms backwards on the instrument as he started walking up the Avenue. When he heard music and laughter coming from a basement, he entered amid a chorus of “Franking made it.” The men in the basement removed the bass fiddle from his back, and placed it upright in the corner with the other musicians who were starting to play. Franking made his way to the refreshment table and poured himself a glass of wine. Franking drank his wine in two or three gulps, and walked to his bass fiddle.

The small man joined the other musicians and, spun the bass fiddle around a few times to the delight of the crowd. He started drawing the bow back and forth across the body of the instrument.  The music produced from the group, who had no training in the instruments they were playing, sounded pretty good, and dancers started shuffling around on the polenta strewn basement floor. Some danced with children in their arms; others had little daughters whose shoes were planted on top of their father’s feet dancing with big smiles on their faces. One jovial man in the group always danced with a filled glass of whiskey placed on top of his head. He never spilled a drop as each of his partners glanced upward, nervously.

Franking, the bass fiddle player, fortified himself frequently during the evening with glasses of wine. After playing for two or three hours, his arms and hands weren’t gripping the bow as they once were.  The bow sometimes got pushed into the sounding hole of the instrument, and he tugged to remove it. The effects of the wine were slowing down the small man’s movements, and the strings of the bow were becoming quite frayed. One last sweep across the bass and the bow became lodged in the opening and Franking started teetering back and forth as he fell to the basement floor clinging to the bass fiddle, which fell on top of him. Everybody laughed and kept right on dancing. The small man took a short nap with the bass fiddle. 

So, the customary madness of a Saturday night ended, but would resume on Sunday at the picnic in Saratoga, in the true tradition of the Italians of South San Francisco.

Excerpted from "Carry the Light" with the permission of Sand Hill Review Press, the publisher. The book is available for purchase for $12 on Amazon.com. Bernadine Fornesi is a 65-year resident of San Bruno who began writing just three years ago.

To see all of the excerpts published on San Bruno Patch, visit the  "Carry the Light" anthology topic page.

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