A Shoe Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Nobody in my family ever bought a sack of charcoal. It would have been considered a disgrace, right up there with leaving the lights on after you left a room.

Paying money (excuse me, "good money") for something you were going to set on fire? To the Italian-American psyche, this is an act of supreme madness!

Problem is, Italian-Americans happen to enjoy a good barbeque. What to do, what to do?

In my family, we got around this problem by gathering all the wind-fallen branches we could find in the leafy suburb of Douglaston, Queens. There always seemed to be enough wood around for a good cookout, and if there wasn't, we'd pray for hurricanes.

We got by, and for the past fifty years, my father has been thumbing his nose at the charcoal companies.

But for my father's Uncle Mikey, the charcoal-free barbeque was more of a challenge. Uncle Mikey lived in the East New York section of Brooklyn, which was de-forested long, long ago. He loved cooking out in his fenced-in back yard, but wind-fallen branches were hard to find in his neighborhood.

So he got by with a little help from his friends, most of whom worked in construction and destruction.

The word was out on Atlantic Avenue -- if you had scraps of wood you didn't need, throw 'em over Mikey Gallo's fence. The sawed-off ends of two-by-fours made for many a marvelous barbeque at Uncle Mikey's house. You just had to be sure you weren't standing near the fence when the scraps came flying over. Uncle Mikey's buddies weren't the kind of guys who phoned in advance to announce a delivery.

Then one day, Uncle Mikey hit the jackpot -- such a big jackpot that his pal in the wrecking business actually phoned ahead prior to delivery.

"Mikey, we're knockin' down a factory where they made shoe trees," his pal reported. "You want 'em?"

Of course he wanted them. Back then, shoe trees were much more popular than they are now, and they were made from hardwood -- the same lumber used to make baseball bats. They'd burn hot, all right.

"Throw 'em over the fence!" Mikey told his buddy.

When Mikey got home from work that night, he couldn't believe his eyes. There was a mountain of shoe trees in his back yard, a Matterhorn of wooden feet. Kingdom come!

Soon he became a master at regulating the fire, depending on what was on the evening's bill of fare.

"Hot dogs cook fast," he'd explain. "A pair of sevens is enough for that. Pork chops need a hotter fire. For that, I throw on a bunch of size twelves, triple-E."

It was always a treat to eat at Uncle Mikey's house, and if we were well-behaved he'd let us stoke the barbeque fire with shoe trees. Nothing tasted quite as good as a hamburger grilled over those flaming feet.

Those shoe trees lasted Uncle Mikey a couple of years. He beat the system, all right, but that wasn't the main thing.

The main thing was, it was crazy, crazy fun. Jesus, it was fun! The kind of fun people who buy charcoal will never know.

Charlie Carillo's lastest novel is One Hit Wonder. His website is www.charliecarillo.com. He's a producer for the TV show Inside Edition, and he does not use shoe trees in his footwear.