Bridge Views: The Feast of St. Rocco
A feast steeped in tradition
The Feast of St. Rocco is to old Fort Lee what the San Gennaro Feast is to Little Italy--an annual event steeped in tradition that keeps the memory of the community that once thrived on those streets alive. A tradition that evokes, for our generation, a sense of comfort, knowing that even if only for a few days, we can indulge our senses in the flavors of the place we once called home.
If the centerpiece of the feast is the enormous statue of Saint Rocco covered in various denominations of dollars, then the highlight is the Sunday parade of men, women and children marching up and down the hills and hollows of West Fort Lee to the off-tempo beat of the Society band.
For nearly a century now, men have hoisted the platform upon which the statue of St. Rocco stands onto their aged and crooked backs. Proudly they have marched through the streets stopping only to pay respect before the home of a deceased member, and to eat a pasta dinner with homemade wine at a member’s house on Ann Street.
The ordered procession is now as it was then. The parade is led by the fathers whose sons follow behind knowing that in a quarter century they will be charged with carrying on this tradition bequeathing the same inheritance to their as yet unborn sons.
Bearing the weight of all the generations walk the Nona’s dressed in mourning black from the lace of their veils to the soft soles of their orthopedic shoes. Clasping behind their backs fingers gnarled from years of scrubbing floors and wringing water from wet laundry; their stooped bodies distorted from the weight of carrying more babies to the grave than to the cradle. To them belong hearts that cannot break, but do not heal.
Flanking them come the young women sharing the laughter of girls--unconscious of the pain that life has yet to deliver to them; hopeful for a future that may not be as kind to them as they imagine.
Last follows the mass of exuberant children dancing spasmodically to the music of their own mirth oblivious of the line of lives they trail behind.
When the feast was new to me, my parents, aunts and uncles would settle their green and white nylon lawn chairs in front of the gas station that sat adjacent to the Yellow Front Saloon (now J.D.’s Steak Pit).
There they sat dispensing gin and tonics from a large plastic thermos into small plastic cups; greeting old friends who gathered their own lawn chairs around them; the earth beneath their feet conjuring memories of growing up poor on lower Main Street, evoking for me a fondness for a time I never knew.
My grandmother, Carrie Viola – mother of ten, grandmother of way-too-many-to-count—who lived on the second floor of the Gnasso house (now In Napoli) as she sat regally on her nylon throne like the female Godfather as people stopped to offer her respect.
Every year at the feast my mother would send me into The Yellow Front Saloon to retrieve my father, who always managed to lose his way into the bar. Gathered around the pulpit of his stool stood men young and old eager to hear his stories because the way he told a story could bring a room filled with people to their knees in laughter.
The bartender, his eyes never straying from the tales being woven before him, handed me a chilled pint of Coca-Cola with a cherry in it with blind precision.
Losing myself to my father’s stories I would be charmed into abandoning my assigned search and rescue mission. This always resulted in my mother charging in, only to find us both sitting on barstools before an audience of laughing men sipping from our drinks with raised pinkies. The severity of her looks could iron the mirth right off your face and was so powerful that it made me feel what it was like to be married to an Italian woman … and I was scared.
Perhaps the most pungent memory of the Feast is the scented smog of sweetened dough frying in the kettle drum of sizzling oil. Crowds of people walking up and down Main Street clutching in their hands wrinkled brown paper bags stained with the grease and powder of zeppoles.
Rows of Harley Davidson motorcycles parked on the northern side of Main Street across from the First National Bank, their leather-vested owners standing cross-armed beside them while across the street the firemen of Company No. 1 sat on their folding chairs watching the crowds pass by.
Every year as I stand, one in a crowd of many who return home for the Feast, I can’t help but look back on those days gone by and feel a deep homesickness for those ordinary moments that now seem monumental. To hear my father’s laughter float from a barstool, to see my family seated around the old gas station laughing with old neighbors and childhood friends, and drinking gin and tonics from small plastic cups—moments once taken for granted, now resurrected by memory as the empty streets of lower Main Street are briefly brought back to life.
Thank you to all the members of The St. Rocco Society, who keep the memory of those who came before us alive every year by carrying on the tradition of your fathers.
The Feast of St. Rocco runs from Wednesday, Aug. 3, to Sunday, Aug. 7, on Martha Washington Way.