Updated: May 1
I’m a child of the 1940’s and 50’s; the son of Italian immigrants. You know: Dagos and Wops and Guineas, those troublesome little brunettes from the Mediterranean? The piccolo mundo (small world) on Chicago's South Side where I grew up bore no resemblance to the more affluent environs my own children were forced to enjoy. Sometimes, I feel sorry for them. But sometimes, I don’t.
The war was on and Mom followed Dad (MIA 1945) around America from army camp to army camp. She typed up orders, filed reports and issued shipping documents for the tons of munitions that would soon follow her husband overseas aboard the President Franklin, a rusty tin-can of a vessel that, like my parents, has long since gone to the bottom. Mom had a stylish khaki uniform that she'd sewed herself, topped off by one of Dad’s peaked military caps. It was a time before security clearances, when citizen soldiers stepped forward to battle tyranny half a world away. Fully 10% of the American armed forces in WWII were comprised of Dagos, Wops and Guineas or, more precisely, Italian-Americans.
Our first home was with my grandparents in a district now called ‘Armour Square.’ In those days, it was the multicultural Catholic parish of Santa Maria Incoronata where a life-size, polychromed statue of the Virgin was often carried through the streets on the broad shoulders of local toughs, funded by Mafiosi and accompanied by the raucous blaring of a brass band, and where the 10 a.m. Sunday sermon was delivered in Italian and – believe it or not – Chinese. It was an immigrant community, a blend of 19th century housing intermixed with light industry, a ghetto one might say, before small family owned shops were replaced by supermarket chains and the factories moved to the suburbs, sending the area into an economic and social tailspin.
As the only child in a home dominated by five strong women, I was indulged, protected, and spoiled rotten. Mom’s three spinster sisters, all living at home with my grandmother, put me on a pedestal, the family's shining hope. I’m afraid that if they were to see me today, they’d wring their embroidered handkerchiefs in despair, sadly disappointed to find their story consigned to an obscure blog entry.
It was a hot and muggy August afternoon when I last visited Armour Square with nonagenarian Auntie Angela, the only survivor of my mother's generation, shoehorned into a tiny white rental car without aircon. She insisted on rolling up the windows and locking the doors until we’d reached more gentile, safer environs. Not that our old neighbourhood had ever been gentile or even ‘safe.’ There was plenty of crime, even in the 40’s, even with a war on. But in those days, the cop walking the beat was usually known to everyone, more likely having grown up in the neighbourhood himself and speaking the same Italian dialect, hence a small measure of accountability. He’d drag the bad kids home by the ear, where they had more to fear from their parents than from social workers and juvenile courts. He didn’t huddle inside a police cruiser, a faceless interloper isolated from the people he’d pledged to serve and protect.
Once, when I was around seven or eight-years-old, I snuck off in the company of a cousin who was only a year older to visit an abandoned quarry a few minutes’ walk from our house. That’s right. A limestone quarry right in the middle of the city. By then, the gaping hole resembled a small lake. Most people didn’t even know it was there because the dominant feature of that area wasn’t the clank and clatter and dust of a mining operation. It was the stench of death that came from the nearby stockyards and, in winter months, was punctuated by the choking emissions from coal burning stoves and furnaces in every house, a major contributor to air pollution and emphysema. Later, we both caught hell for having strayed too far from the nest. This, in fact, was to become the story of my life.
Despite corruption, discrimination, poverty, social unrest, and a healthy cast of ordinary and not-so-ordinary criminals, the Chicago I knew as a kid was far safer than almost anywhere in the USA today.
For starters, there was no ICE (the American Gestapo and worst nightmare of all recent immigrants). There were no drive-by shootings and no school shootings. There were no Walmart shootings, and not just because there were no Walmarts. Mass shootings were unheard of. My grandfather had an ancient pearl-handled Colt revolver that he’d brought back from his wanderings in the Old West, but manhood/womanhood was not yet validated by gun ownership. Parents didn’t need to worry about whether their children would come home from school in a bus or a box. The NRA didn’t send candidates to Washington.
And most striking of all: there were no smartphones and no Internet.
Was it a better world? Was it a better environment in which to raise a family? If I were to suggest yes, then the supporting evidence would be mostly anecdotal. Still, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, right? Nostalgia is a familiar and seductive refuge for the elderly.
Back in the late 19th century, Grandpa Salvatore miraculously survived a steamship voyage from Palermo in Sicily to New York, alone at the age of seven. How this was possible, or if he had any relatives or friends to receive him and what brought him to Chicago, nobody can say. There is no available ship manifest listing him as a passenger or any evidence of his having cleared the Ellis Island immigration station, although a fire there in the 1890’s may have claimed the paperwork. This fact supported the hypothesis that he had been put ashore inside crates of Sicilian lemons that were exported in quantity to the U.S. East Coast before refrigeration made Florida and California fruits competitive with the Sicilian product. My grandfather was an illegal immigrant.
Young Salvatore never attended school or learned to read and write and was consequently reduced to humbly signing himself with an X. For more than a decade, he worked as a cowboy, in mining camps, and as a section hand on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in the days when bandits and renegade Indian raiders still roamed the plains, making off with supplies and murdering construction crews. Hence the souvenir Colt that he later kept hidden under a loose floorboard in my grandparents’ bedroom.
Fifty years after my grandfather abandoned the Old West for a more settled life in the city, nobody among his descendants had traveled any further afield than Minneapolis, except Big Auntie Mary – whose real name was Concetta – when she mounted a stuffed bronco in Colorado after riding the same rails earlier laid by her father.
Each Christmas, Grandpa Salvatore distributed shiny round silver dollars in the living room of the house at West 24th Place. The grandchildren were assembled into single file according to age and height, youngest and shortest in front, then one after another each stepped forward to receive the ritual coin. There were seven of us by then and we joked that our grandfather was handing out the seven pieces of silver that Judas received from Pontius Pilate when he betrayed Jesus. The coins always bore a date of 1898, a feature that never varied over the years. Most of the country’s silver came from the state of Colorado. That was where he’d punched cows and laid track and worked in the mines.
The hardest part of this annual rite was the obligation to repay our grandfather’s largess with a kiss on his rough, unshaven cheek. This small gesture became especially difficult and repulsive when he developed a permanent drool with the onset of Parkinson’s disease in the mid-1950’s and acquired the characteristically sour odor of the incrementally dying. The process of human fermentation had set in. He would reach into his trouser pocket for a soggy handkerchief to wipe away a string of spittle suspended from the corner of his lips before handing over another silver dollar and submitting his stubbly cheek to another reluctant kiss. The only time anyone ever condescended to kiss the old man was when he was handing out money.
My grandfather distributed silver dollars every Christmas until he died in 1963. Rarely speaking, he struggled to hide the merest shadow of a smile that played across his features with each grandchild’s hesitant embrace, as if longing desperately to drop the charade and embrace this new life and these strange, foreign-bred loved ones. Yet capitulating to a reckless display of emotion, like cascading dominoes, might have caused him to forfeit what little dignity he thought he still commanded. Time and old age had nonetheless already effected a de facto transfer of power to those who read and wrote and whose world it had now become.
Grandpa Salvatore was a 19th century working-class person set adrift toward a new and different world. To feel civilized and empowered, one must sense that he truly does belong somewhere in space and time and for this he must be able to read and write. Today, a person needs more than literacy; he or she must be connected through social media and possess at least a master’s degree. Grandpa Salvatore was analfabeta, illiterate. We little ones had already trumped all his life’s achievements simply by virtue of our having completed the First Grade.
“Look Dick, look. See Jane. See Spot run” our school primers announced. Our ancestor could only puzzle at the pretty watercolor illustrations of two well-scrubbed children and their cute spotted dog enjoying a happy childhood; “happy childhood” being for him a totally alien concept.
This is a world that my own children, 'connected' as they are, cannot imagine. Yet, it’s a world that many new immigrants experience today under the same pressures that my grandparents’ and parents’ generations once endured, along with the new stresses of being vilified by a hostile, racist Administration in Washington and it’s goon squad, the Gestapo-like ICE. Arrive inside a crate of lemons like Grandpa Salvatore and get your arse booted back to whatever 'shit hole' country you came from. Arrive with millions in cash stolen from the public treasuries of the same shit hole countries and you get the red carpet treatment, especially if you're up for a multi-million dollar condo in Trump Tower and a hefty donation to the Trump 2020 campaign fund. Go figure.
Poor, unlettered, and unloved immigrants built this country and defended America against its enemies, but only the rich are now welcomed here.
“You Wanna Be Americano…?”