Celeste Villani, 93, lifelong Thompson resident

Celeste “Sally” Villani in a recent photo, above, and as a young woman, below.

BY JANE HEIL USYK | Celeste Villani, known as Sally, died Sat., May 21, in the Hopkins Center for Rehabilitation & Healthcare in Brooklyn.

Celestina Stephani Grippa was born Nov. 9, 1922. “Celeste” was actually short for her name at birth. She lived on Thompson St. all her life.

Her death took me back to 1964, when I first moved to Thompson St. The street had scared me when I was at N.Y.U. a few years before, living on Washington Square South. It was dark, and had guys rolling back and forth on their heels in the doorways. But just a few years later, I heard about an apartment there that was half the price of my one-bedroom on E. 35th St. I wanted to reduce my expenses so I could be a freelance writer and not have a steady job.


The apartment was perfect for me at that time. It was sunny and a five-flight walk-up, but I was 24 and fleet of foot. The place came with neighbors: Sally and Pin and their family. Her children were 12 and 14 at the time. Sally must have been around 40, but to me she seemed ancient.

She married in 1946 and had lived there ever since, with her extended family all around her. Her sister Chubby lived on the fourth floor, just underneath Sally, with her husband John and three children. Her sister Carmela lived next door. Her cousin Mary lived next to Carmela, two buildings up. Her husband’s mother lived three or four blocks down Thompson St. And there were other relatives — cousins and aunts and uncles — on Thompson, Prince and Spring Sts.

They started to become neighborly, mainly by offering me parts of their meals, especially Sunday dinners. I didn’t have any family, except in Connecticut and on the Upper West Side, but there was no one around Thompson St. (by design). So they filled in, knocking on my door with spaghetti and meatballs, eggplant parmigiana, lasagna and cake. Sally gave food to whoever was in my apartment, even if it wasn’t me. My friend Sheila, who sometimes stayed there when Michael and I were away, said she received “many a meatball” from Sally.

Sometimes they would knock and invite me to join them, and I would. There were often nine or 10 people around their kitchen table, all relatives, plus me.

In those days I wasn’t doing much cooking, so it was quite a help. Sometimes Pin went fishing; mainly, he went to Sheepshead Bay, and usually caught a lot of fluke there. And when he brought it all back home, I got a fish or two.

I remember one day in my twenties, I had a date with a guy who was from Connecticut, very well connected. (His uncle was a famous English professor at Yale.) But when he drank, I was surprised to learn, he became violent, and he grabbed onto my wrists and wouldn’t let go. I started to scream. Pin and Sally heard me, and Pin knocked on the door and asked me if I was all right. I wasn’t. I told him this guy had to leave, right away. And Pin stood there until he was going down the stairs, saying nasty things to Pin all the way.

I often wonder what would have happened if Pin hadn’t knocked on my door.

In my forties I met Michael, and he moved in with me. We were married a few years later. Sally started feeding him, too.

In the 1970s, Sally’s daughter Andrea got married and moved — across the street, where she still lives.

Her son Frank moved to Florida.

They were quite strong; Pin, in his seventies, went down the street to his mother’s apartment — she also lived on the top floor of a walk-up — and took meals to his mother for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and he fed her, too. Otherwise, she wouldn’t eat anything. So he carried meals up five flights of stairs three times a day, for years. His mother died at 106, and then he stopped. One day we figured it out: Our stairs are about 83 steps for five flights, so up and down, is about 170 steps. Then do that six times a day (our building and his mother’s building), and you have climbed about 1,000 steps a day.

Every day.

Sally was very slight. I never heard her raise her voice, not once. She was tough, and nobody could put anything over on her, but she didn’t act tough at all. I learned quite a bit from her —mainly, how to stand strong in an argument and not back down, but not raise your voice, either.

When Michael had just begun living with me, in the 1980s, he came home one very hot day. In the fifth-floor hall, outside our doors, were Pin and Frank, sitting in beach chairs in their underwear and tank-top shirts. That was the only cool place on the really hot fifth floor, because it had windows on both sides. They were relaxing, and both had their toupees off.

“Eh, Mike!” they said, “How are ya?” as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Bye, Sally. You and your family were wonderful Village neighbors.