A Sicilian New Yorker

Photo by Ondřej Šálek/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Photo by Ondřej Šálek/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

“I barely spoke any English when I got off that boat. You can imagine how tough school was for me at first.” Now, Emma’s Grandpa barely spoke any Italian.

“I was a skinny little guy. I was something like one-hundred and eight pounds when I was sixteen, when I got here.” Gigi picked up a Boston Crème donut out of the box his granddaughter, Emma, had brought over just a few hours ago. She had gone over to her grandpa’s house, like she had every Sunday for her whole life. It was a tradition their Italian family started back in Sicily with Gigi’s grandmother. It was a day that could easily ruin anybody’s weight-loss diet.

“When I was your age, we could never afford these.” He held up the donut and winked at her, taking a huge, grandpa-sized bite. He was definitely not 108 pounds anymore.

“When we moved into that first apartment, I couldn’t believe so many people could fit into one part of the world. New York City was…” He paused to take another bite of the donut. “I don’t want to say that I hated it at first, ‘cause I was glad to be back with my dad. But I was used to waking up and having to go out and get the eggs from the coop out back, not the refrigerator. And I was used to knocking on my buddy Benny’s door, so we could race our way to school. I had never been on a school bus before, and Manhattan was the biggest piece of concrete I’d ever seen.”

“Grandpa, what was your first day of school like?” his granddaughter asked.

“Well, our apartment was small for the seven of us, and what was funny was how little my father had put in it. There were three bedrooms in there, one bathroom, a kitchen—a very tiny kitchen—and a living area that was attached to the kitchen.”

I’m pretty sure I asked about school, not the apartment, Emma thought to herself.

Gigi thought about that first apartment they had called home for two years, until he graduated from high school. Walking in, they were immediately faced with a washed-out, pale green wall. In order to see the rest of the apartment, they had to make a sharp left, and walk through to it. He wasn’t used to such a cramped space. Back in Sicily, they had all the space in the world (or so it seemed) on their family’s farm. Two acres to be exact, all to his family of six. They didn’t have too many animals, just a few chickens, rabbits, and goat or two. Their planting fields took up the rest of the space. It didn’t look like Gigi would be seeing any planting fields here in Manhattan. Let alone any cute, little farm animals.

Gigi knew he would have had a tough time adjusting to such a small living space. A corridor of bedrooms lined the front hallway. It was so narrow that it was tough for two people to walk next to each other through it. Once they passed the bedrooms, they entered the miniature kitchen, and it barely even held its own space. With a mini refrigerator, a wood burning stove, and a singular countertop, it did not take up a lot of room. Not that it had any room to take up. Continuing the walk through, the last room was the living room.

There wasn’t enough money to move the entire family to America, so his father courageously moved there first. It wasn’t for another two years that the rest of the family could follow him. The opportunities that were rumored to be hiding in New York quickly enticed countless Italian families. More jobs, more money, fewer problems.

“I remember walking in, and I saw my dad had his mattress and a dresser in his room, and a single chair and table throughout the rest of the house. That was it. And it was then that I realized my dad was working at a shoe factory, but he didn’t have any extra money to use for comfortable furniture because he was sending it back to us in Sicily. I don’t remember if I hugged him, but I must have because I remember my mom had tears in her eyes and we were all pretty silent for those first few minutes of realizing this is where we lived now. I was filled with emotion and thankfulness because we struggled, and so did families like Benny’s back home, but we had gotten here and my parents were back together after two years apart,” Grandpa Gigi continued.

He stared into space for a few seconds. Even after all these years (he was 94 now). Gigi thought of Benny, or what he remembered of him and his friendship anyway. Benny’s family had more chickens than Gigi’s had, but Benny’s family had more mouths to feed. With eight kids in Benny’s house, they needed all the chickens and eggs they could get.

Gigi looked around at his home now, in a suburb of Long Island, where he had eventually started his own family. He and Emma waited for all their relatives to come over for Sunday Dinner. Emma arrived earlier to talk to her old grandpa about his earlier life since she had never asked. Expected to arrive were his children, thirteen grandchildren, and now three great grandchildren had arrived over the summer.

This is my heaven, he thought, and silently thanked his father up in heaven for everything he had done to bring them here.

“My dad wasn’t living in poverty, but he wasn’t living as well as we were back home. We weren’t rich there either, but we always had breakfast and dinner, and that’s what mattered most to us,” Gigi said, finishing his donut and helping himself to another one. Every time Emma saw her grandpa, he told her he was down three pounds. She smirked at his second choice of a jelly-glazed and began to question just how true that was.

“Did you ever end up even going to high school?” Emma asked.

“We slept on blankets that were folded up on the floor those first few weeks, and I started school sometime during that. But again, I had barely known any English. My dad had taught me a few basic sayings like ‘how are you?’ and ‘good’ and ‘can I go to the bathroom?’ But conversations were unimaginable, and I was sleeping pretty terribly, so waking up early was really tough. I remember the first day, after my mom and pop had registered me for school. We all went together because my mom didn’t want to start the two girls at lower-level school until the week after. So all seven of us went together to the high school to see me and my brother off for our first day, in a New York school. We took a subway and a bus to get there, and we got lost because my dad had no idea where he was going either. We ended up on the wrong side of the city, but we finally made it to the school, probably around two or three hours late. Pops was the only one who knew how to talk in English, so when we met in the office, he did all the talking—most of it was gibberish to me and the rest of my family. We did a walk-through of our days, so we could memorize where we had to go and would never have to ask for directions.”

Gigi chuckled, imagining what a silly sight that must have been. Six people, five of them knowing not a bit of English, walking through the halls of a 1950s public high school. He imagined how they must have looked like such a mess, all sweating and tired from a morning spent in the wrong places of New York City. Upon walking into the school, they were were greeted by a woman who must have been the principal of the school. Gigi wished he could remember what was said, but he had no recollection since he didn’t know how to speak the language yet. He did remember what everyone in the school looked like though. The boys were dressed nicely, with dress pants of varying colors, and always button downs. Some even wore ties. The girls were dressed very daintily with colorful pleated skirts and frilly blouses. They all looked at him and his family as they walked by, books in hands and friends bouncing around them.

“It was the 1948, and I think my school’s tuition cost my parents something like three dollars a month. It wasn’t a terrible amount, but I felt so bad they were paying it in the first place. After only being in school for at most a week, I went to look for a job.” Gigi stopped talking, took a swig of his coffee, and looked towards Emma with a huge smile on his face.

“I ended up at the local newspaper agency and got my first job as a paperboy. They hired me on the spot and lent me my very own bicycle. Since English was not a requirement to throw papers at people’s doors, I started the next day. My only problem was that I was assigned to the same block that my family’s apartment was located!”

Gigi thought about how he had borrowed one of his dad’s hats to wear while he was delivering the papers. When he rode near his apartment building, he put the hat on low to cover his eyes and kept his head down, hoping nobody came out of his building to notice he wasn’t in school.

“My dad hit me when he found out I was sneaking out two mornings a week to deliver papers early instead of going to school. Especially since I was getting an English teacher to help me before classes so I could learn English quicker. My dad caught me, and I think it was by my third shift, he was leaving early and saw me riding past the house with a basket of newspapers. He chased me down three blocks, and all but dragged me by the hair back to the apartment. Gave me a nice shiner for what I did, and I had earned only fifteen cents for all the trouble.” Emma laughed along with her grandpa. For as long as Emma could possibly remember, Grandpa Gigi had the same laugh. It was quite staccato—raspy and muted from forty years of smoking.

He continued, “I had to start taking school seriously. I was straight A’s back home, but in this New York school, I couldn’t even read the kindergarten books my tutors were having me read. At first, it was all books by this doctor…doctor Steve? Doctor Sully? Doctor—” He stammered over the author’s name.

“Dr. Seuss!” His granddaughter exclaimed.

“Dr. Seuss! Yes! Is he still around?”

She chuckled. “Yes, Gramps, he’s still around. Well, not him exactly, but his books are.”

“The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. I read that book so many times, I could’ve told it backwards. That was the first English language book I read cover to cover. I remember because my teachers made me read it upwards of two hundred times. I never minded though, I was learning English, and with each bolded and blocky word, I understood more and more of what I was reading. I remember feeling so silly being sixteen-years-old, with my book-bag full of a six-year-old’s average day of reading.” Gigi recollected how strange it felt to be looking at something he knew he should understand but couldn’t. It’s a bizarre thing, recognizing letters but not being able to grasp the sounds they’re supposed to make together. Even when Gigi could sound a word out correctly, he had not a clue what it meant.

“I’ll tell you what; I arrived in late September. It was less than two months later that I considered myself a fluent English speaker,” Gigi said, still visibly proud of his accomplishment. He sat back and smiled wide, the crow’s feet around his eyes signifying how long it had really been since his first few days in New York.

“Wait, Grandpa! What happened with the newspaper? Did you quit?” Emma said.

“No, I didn’t quit! Your grandpa ain’t no quitter! I just had to tell the boss man that I couldn’t deliver except on Saturdays and Sundays. He was pretty angry when I told him, but the only reason he didn’t fire me was because your great grand-dad came with me to tell him and your great grand-dad was a scary bastard.”

Emma had never met her great grandfather, but she had heard that he was quite the crazy guy. In other words, he didn’t take any shit from anybody, least of all his kids. And her grandpa always avoided any question that related to the Italian Mafia.

“Every couple of weeks, I would come home with a pocketful of change. My dad wouldn’t let me chip in for the three-dollar tuition, so when he would try to give me money for lunch, I would always proudly shake my bag of change and say ‘No, thanks.’ We were allowed to leave school for lunch, and I would walk around trying to familiarize myself with the huge city.”

“Did you have any friends? Did any girls think you were a hunk?” Emma joked.

“Once I learned English, I felt really normal living in New York. I had lots of friends, and even though my accent stayed with me for many more years, I had assimilated really well. Sure, I made friends! Your grandpa was a hip guy! But I never liked to go out at night to the bars or ice cream parlors. I was scared of trouble. I was also scared of what my dad would do if I did get into trouble. My friends always called me a fool for wanting to stay in on the weekends.”

“But you never went out with them outside of school? Not even once?” Emma asked, incredulous.

Emma’s grandpa smiled. “Well, finally I did. We went to the bowling alley. And that’s when I met your grandmother.”

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