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The Littlest Hustler


Making mozzarella at DiPalo's.  

The Goldbergs don’t consider themselves a traditional family, and they’re proud of Alex’s precociousness and ingenuity. Richard is impressed when he goes to Knicks games with Alex and watches his son chat up Jay-Z and Beyoncé. He feels the same way when Alex calls from the golf course near his camp in Maine, asking him to send Cuban cigars by FedEx so he might bribe his counselors. Richard was never like that as a kid. He never had that uninhibited ability to create these kinds of opportunities. “All you really have to do is let him loose,” he says.

This is about when Alex shuffles in. “C’mon,” he says. “Let’s go to my room.”

Alex’s room is an adolescent Shangri-la: Xbox, flat-screen TV, PlayStation, digital cable, a loft bed, guitar, bass, amp, goldfish, his own artwork, flags, Knicks ticket stubs, and his treasure: at least 60 pairs of Nike sneakers. He sits in a butterfly chair, one leg slung over the edge, the untied laces of his shoes dangling loose like jungle vines. His hair hangs so low over his eyes it’s hard for him to see, so he fires off short pfffs of air, up and fast, to get it out of the way. What, I ask, does he want to do when he gets older?

“I want to own Nike,” he says.

Almost as soon as he’s said it, he’s bored again. “Let’s get out of here,” he says with a pfff. “I want a coffee.”

It’s almost ten. He needs to get to bed. Robin says no. Alex doesn’t do no. Robin raises her voice.



She folds. Alex is already at the elevator.

The street is the one place where Alex does not get bored. He darts between the old Italian-meat-market crowd and the Chinese vendors hawking pashminas and the tourists puttering around what’s left of Little Italy. How, I ask Alex, has his neighborhood changed?

“I don’t know,” he says, cutting across the street. “I don’t remember anything.”

He keeps on moving, calling out to strangers we pass, never stopping for a response. “Hey, what’s my fortune?” he asks a gypsy. “Hey, can I sit on your bike?” he asks a Hells Angels type. When we make it to his coffee spot, Ferrara, on Grand, he orders a decaf cappuccino. “They make the best coffee here,” he says. “The best.”

Alex is something of a gourmand. “That’s a good olive right there,” he’ll say. Or: “That’s a good burger right there.” Or, as he dunked a hunk of bread into the garlicky wine broth pooled at the bottom of a bowl of linguine alle vongole one afternoon: “That’s the shit right there!” The greatest insult is when, at a restaurant where he is not known, the maître d’ reaches for the kids’ menu.

“He’s really advanced, as far as food goes,” says DeCarlo. In the Peasant kitchen, Alex is always asking questions. Like: “Where you’d get that guinea fowl?” Or: “Those are nice razor clams, I saw them on the beach last week.” And: “Oh, you’re using pig’s liver; I had calf’s liver last night.”

He’s not a bad cook, either. Violanda, at DiPalo’s, remembers one morning when she was making an omelette with asparagus and Romano cheese.

“Why don’t you use Parmesan?” Alex asked.

Violanda explained that she had learned the recipe from her mother, and that Romano is the cheese of Sicily, the region where they lived. Parmesan is from the North.

But Alex thought the dish could be improved upon. “Parmesan is a little more delicate,” he told her. “It wouldn’t take away from the asparagus.”

Then he got an idea. “Viola, I’m going to make you breakfast this morning,” he said. He came back an hour later with an asparagus omelette, just like she’d made, only with Parmesan cheese. “I’m telling you, that dish looked gorgeous,” says Violanda, who now uses Parmesan in her omelettes. “I said, ‘I can’t believe, Alex, you can do such a thing like this!’ So beautiful. And he was so proud to do it for me. I kissed him and said, ‘You are something unbelievable.’”

Over our cappuccinos, I ask Alex what he thinks the difference is between himself and his friends. He takes a steamy sip, leaving a foamy cappuccino mustache behind. “I’m more mature,” he says. “Isn’t this coffee the best?” Then he’s out the door and heading up the street to a Chinese shop. He pops out a few minutes later, wearing a pair of white sunglasses. Wait, how did he get those sunglasses? He doesn’t have his wallet with him. When I ask about them, Alex knows what I’m getting at. He walks back to the elderly shopkeeper, waits until she’s not looking, and drops the shades on the ground behind her. Then he taps the woman on the back. “Excuse me, ma’am, I think you dropped these.” The lady turns around and takes the sunglasses. Alex is grinning. “What a good boy,” she says.


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