When I was a boy, we used to take a ride every week or so down to Willow Avenue in Hoboken, New Jersey to visit my Neapolitan, maternal Grandmother at her apartment in a brick row house. The visits were boring for the most part for a little kid who would rather be playing "down The Cliffs" overlooking the Hudson River, the Erie-Lackawanna railroad yards and the Manhattan skyline--my childhood playground.
"Gramma" looked like an Italian nonna, with long grey hair always tied tightly into a bun, floral "house dress", a sweet face and just about as short as I was. She was a bit abrupt in those days and her apartment was very formal, with doilies on the backs of chairs, under vases, under candy dishes... basically, doilies everywhere. The candies in the bowls were almost always those hard-as-rock candy coated almonds or sour candies. I wasn't a fan of either.
If I was was offered what Gramma considered a "cookie", it was typically one of those dry, hard taralli which didn't dunk well in milk and threatened to break my teeth. Even if she had the type with icing on top, it was still a very dry mouthful.
For lunch it was usually some pasta with my Gramma's sauce--overloaded with onions and peppers. Not what I was used to (when was eleven, I first tried to blame my appendix pains on her sauce).
For entertainment, there was no TV... only a radio tuned permanently to the Italian radio station. There was no such thing as kid-friendly in those days, and most Italian nonni back then didn't keep a stock of snacks, drinks and toys at their houses to entertain the bambini during their occasional obligatory visit, as millennial grandmothers do nowadays.
But there were two things I loved doing when I went to visit her. My sister and I used to head out across the street to a row house that had a little shop window a few steps down the basement stairs--the Nut Man. He would slide open a heavy wooden "window" and sell us a bag of his salted pumpkin seeds for about 10 cents. They were so thick with salt that my lips would go numb. I loved the salt more than the seeds inside. Then my sister and I would then walk down to the end of the block, spitting out shells as we walked along, to a very special object behind a chain-link fence,
... a visit to Mimi.
In the vacant lot on the corner of Gramma's street was a huge white statue of a beautiful, half-naked lady laying on her back. Her profile reminded me of the Statue of Liberty with a strong nose. Her one arm was laid at her side while the other was held up toward the sky as she lay there. She was beautiful. She looked hot to my 7 year old eyes, but as a young artist, I secretly wished I had sculpted her, like Michelangelo might have.
She was also the only truly large statue I had seen up to that point--a real treat for a budding artist--Mom always said that I could draw before I could talk. I remember doing my first really good portrait of a Chinese boy in my class when I was six. I also shocked my mother once, asking for her to "pose in the nude" for me--her foot. (She got a big laugh out of that joke, but my pencil drawing came out fantastic). Staring at this huge white statue intrigued and inspired me... "Maybe I could carve a statue like that some day!"
Now, I'm not sure who told us the story of "Mimi", as she was called, but there was a spooky, scary legend that I was convinced must be true. We were told that every night after midnight, Mimi would stand up and walk slowly around the streets of Hoboken, and by daybreak she would come back to her vacant lot behind the chain link fence to sleep. But there was more... We were also told that if you stare at Mimi very closely... focused on one thing (her eyes, her hand, her foot) that you might see her move. It might not be much, but just enough movement to convince us that the legend was true.
Well, as I sucked the salt from those pumpkin seeds, I'd stare and stare and try not to blink as I watched the corner of Mimi's mouth or the tip of a finger... and I'm not sure if it really happened or not, or was the effect of all that salt on a seven year old's blood pressure causing my eyeballs to twitch, but I swear I saw her move more than a few times. I was sure the Legend of Mimi was true.
Now fast forward... A while ago I was scanning, editing and enhancing some old family photos when I came upon this one of my Dad standing in front of the Italian Pavilion at the 1939 Worlds Fair. As I blew up the image in Photoshop to retouch it, I suddenly had a familiar feeling... It's Mimi! It had to be. She has the same strong nose, the same lack of proper attire and had one arm raised. She seems about the right size, too.... from 12-15 feet tall or thereabouts
I've since done a lot of research trying to find out what happened to the sculptures after the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York--to no avail. There are some references, which I'm sure are true, about these statues being mostly made of plaster--they weren't made to last. Thinking back, I'm sure Mimi was plaster, not stone.
I'm sure much of the fair grounds were simply demolished and wound up in land fills. But I'm also convinced that some things must have been taken by demolition crews, members of social clubs of various nationalities, and other connected people. Tearing down such a beautiful Worlds Fair must have had the garbage-pickers and hoarders coming out of the woodwork. Plus, Hoboken always had a very large contingent of Italian immigrants living there. Many were active in Italian societies and organizations.
Some had connections back home in Italia (Hoboken and Molfetta Italy, are considered sister cities). Others were perhaps "connected" in other nefarious ways to the Mob--and along with it--to the construction, demolition and garbage haulers of the day. It would be a simple task to truck such a statue back to Hoboken in hopes to use it for something... someday. Who knows, perhaps to decorate a daughter's backyard wedding!
Another interesting thing I discovered, is that the Italy Pavilion was abandoned sometime during May, 1940 (the second summer of the Fair) after fascist Italy invaded France. In fact, some visitors recall that on the night Italy entered the war, the lights on the Italy Pavilion suddenly went dark, causing many Italian-American visitors to cry. It stayed abandoned and dark for the rest of that second summer of the Worlds Fair. The unclaimed statue of my Mimi could have easily been removed by an Italian patriot hoping to save her along with his dream that Italy herself might be saved someday. The Fair officially closed in October, 1940. It's fairly obvious that because of the War, Italy never reclaimed the statue.
After researching the abandonment of the Pavilion more closely, my critical eye noticed something on a photo (the one above) that I already had... it was taken in the winter after the Fair closed, and if one looks closely, Mimi is wrapped in clothes, apparently ready to be moved. Someone removed the statue... did it wind up in that vacant lot on Gramma's street?
To be honest, I never found a direct connection to my "Mimi" and the Pavilion's statue (sitting atop a bust of Marconi, called "Goddess of Radio"), but in my mind's eye, it's her. I can't tell you the feeling I got when I first saw that photo of my Dad after not really paying attention to it in so many years. And I've got to tell you... Mimi did influence me in my art.
After always being known as an artist all through my childhood, I eventually left high school early and got a job as an apprentice metal sculptor for a studio that designed churches all over the world. After that, I eventually found my way into commercial advertising photography, a craft where my art was ever-present. When visiting Italy my eyes were always drawn to sculptures, especially the ones with strong, proud, Italian noses--just like Mimi had.
Perhaps someday I'll find someone who remembers Mimi and how she got to lie on her back in a Hoboken vacant lot. I wonder what ever happened to her...
Darn.... now I'm getting a craving for some salted pumpkin seeds....