FIRST DAY ON THE JOB
In 1953, my father applied for his first job in the sales division of a pharmaceutical company. A part of the application process included interviews with family members. My mother, engaged to my father at the time, was pulled out of class by a nun at the College of Mount St. Vincent and led to a small room, where two men from the company were waiting to talk to her. After friendly banter, the men began asking serious questions, most of which focused on whether she would willingly accompany her husband if he got transferred to a different part of the country. Yes, of course I will, she answered, again and again. This was the 1950s; wives followed their husbands’ lead. The men seemed pleased and went away.
The other interviewees, much to my father’s chagrin, were his parents, Tony and Desolina. This was not going to be easy. Born at the turn of the 20th century, Tony and Desolina grew up in farming communities where life hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. After immigrating in the 1920s to America, they’d collided with modern life; they were confused by telephones, refrigerators, banks, tape recorders, TV wrestling, and modern trends that seem natural to us. Their English was poor. He wondered how long the interviewers could converse with Tony and Desolina before everyone ran out of things to say.
My father was even a little worried about the neighborhood. Hell’s Kitchen was a tough Irish-Italian neighborhood, especially if you were an outsider. Located on Manhattan’s middle west side, the area was a combination of tenements, rail yards, and warehouses. On summer nights, when the wind was blowing from the west, my father would lie in bed and listen to the lowing of cattle and the baaing of sheep in a nearby slaughterhouse. The peace was shattered when the animals, smelling the blood of their brethren a few paces ahead, began to wail and scream. If the wind was strong enough, the smell of blood wafted into my father’s window.
Nevertheless, a day was appointed. The two men, Max and Val, were to come at 7:30 p.m. My father left word with the thugs on the block that Max’s Ford was not to be meddled with.
After huffing up four flights of stairs to the apartment, Val and Max got a warm welcome from Tony and Desolina. Everyone took a seat at the kitchen table and made small talk. My grandfather was pretty good at this, while Desolina nodded and smiled. Soon it became evident that refreshments were in order. My grandfather, a terrazzo worker with biceps of steel, offered his guests whiskey or bourbon. There was also beer, purchased by my father because he knew Max Lum loved cold beer. Max could have been at the finest restaurant in France, but would have ordered a Rheingold on draft.
Tony also offered wine, homemade, he noted, if they would like to try some. Probably to be polite, the two men signaled wine as their choice, and Tony dispatched my father down to the cellar, where each tenant had a small storage space. In addition to wine, my grandparents used it to store cheese and salami. My father unlocked the door – whose lower half was covered with tin so rats couldn’t gnaw their way through the wood – fetched a bottle, and returned to the apartment.
By this time, Desolina had served cake, and Tony was waxing philosophic about America’s greatness. My father uncorked and poured the wine. Max and Val raised their glasses and drank. The wine went down smoothly, unexpectedly so for Max. He soon emptied his glass and asked for another.
Tony talked on and on. Max related his thoughts about the greatness of America--for example, the fact that in a single generation, a man like him, with a fourth-grade education, could send a son to college. Val concurred with everything that had been said. Desolina said nothing, just bid her guests to eat. More wine was consumed. It was time for another bottle.
Tony motioned to his son to go down to the cellar. This time, to save himself an extra trip, if necessary, my father came up with two bottles. They were actually champagne bottles, which my grandfather got from a friend in the restaurant business, and so a bit larger than average wine bottles. This time, Tony himself took the corkscrew to do the honors. While the screw was penetrating the cork he bragged a little about how his wine was made with only the finest grapes. Max wasn’t as interested in the provenance of the grape as he was in getting his glass refilled. This was the best damn wine he had ever tasted, he said. He would think twice now about automatically ordering beer.
Down the wine went. More cake and cookies were eaten. The other bottle was opened. Everyone was loosening up. It didn’t matter anymore that Tony’s English wasn’t so good or that he kept repeating himself. Or that Max was slurring a little. Everyone understood what everyone else was trying to say.
My father’s drinking did not keep pace with that of his guests. He had to keep a level head; this job meant good money. He had little to worry about. Max’s face was getting flushed. He was very happy.
When the third bottle went dry, Tony stated, “I make white wine, too.”
“White?!” asked Max, excitedly.
“Would you like to try some?”
Max and Val said, “Sure!”
Tony jerked his thumb towards the door. My father got up with a sense of foreboding: Not only did mixing red and white cause hangovers, but his father had shouted “Porta su du botì!” (“Bring up two bottles!”) as he headed out the door.
Max enjoyed the white nearly as much as the red. Tony showed him how Italians dunked their cake in wine. They continued to talk, the men smoking cigarettes, Tony puffing away on a Toscano cigar. Desolina was pleased everyone had had cake and, more importantly, that she’d eaten the lion’s share.
After three hours, the evening was over. Everyone felt that it was a success. Val and my father helped Max down the stairs and packed him into the car. Val was sober enough to drive Max home.
The next afternoon, my father got a call from Val to tell him he had gotten the job. It was really Max’s place to call, since he had seniority, but he was at home with a monstrous hangover, Val said.
Tony was very pleased when the news was delivered that evening. All the sacrifice he had made by coming over to America, the long hours he worked, the saving and scrimping, it was paying off.
And how much will be you making? he asked my father.
“Four thousand dollars a year,” my father said.
Tony looked up at the ceiling to give thanks to the heavens. He had been a working stiff for forty years and didn’t make close to that kind of dough.
“And a company car, too,” my father added.
“Una macchina!” my grandfather said with pure pleasure. “A car!” He and Desolina didn’t even know how to drive.
My father was not slated to begin the job until after the New Year. He reported to work after the holidays and was told to go to the personnel office to fill out some paperwork. He was informed that, like all employees of the company, he would be receiving an automatic cost-of-living salary increase of four percent.
That evening, at dinner, my grandfather asked his son how his first day of work went. There was not too much my father could explain to his parents about selling drugs, so he went into little detail. As for cost-of-living increase—well, how could you ever explain that concept to peasants? So, my father simply said, “By the way, Pa, I’m not making $4,000. My salary was increased to $4,160.”
Tony just about gagged on his gnocchi. He looked over at his wife, pounded the table, and said, “Can you believe it Desolina? One day on the job, and he gets a $160 raise! What a job! What a company! God bless America!”
Desolina did not bother to apply for U.S. citizenship because she believed she would return to Italy after my grandfather had made his fortune. However, during World War II, Italian aliens in New York had to report regularly to an immigration government office so their movements could be watched, and Desolina grew tired of this routine. Moreover, it didn’t look like she would be returning to Italy to live high on the hog anytime soon—not with Tony making $45 per week. She decided it was time to become a U.S. citizen.
She dispatched my father down to the immigration office to get an application. Among the papers he brought back was a booklet with sample questions that might be asked during the exam. Desolina’s English was poor because she rarely ventured out of the neighborhood and, in her interactions with the outside world, she was assisted by family and friends. Now she would have to stand before an examiner alone.
My father tried to get her to study, but she didn’t take it seriously.
“Who makes the laws of the United States government?” he asked, sitting at the kitchen table while she cooked.
“Ai-bo! Ugh! What do you mean who makes the laws? The politicians make the laws, and they make them in their own self- interest,” Desolina said.
“How many years does a U.S. Supreme Court Justice serve?”
“Too many,” she said, throwing breadcrumbs in a mixing bowl. “Ai-bo!”
My father shook his head; Tony smirked behind his newspaper.
On the big day, my father accompanied his mother to the exam. He stood next to her as the examiner began the questions.
“Who freed the slaves?” he asked. 29
Desolina looked over at my father and asked, “Cos la dit? What did he say?”
My father responded to her in Italian, “He wants to know who freed the . . .”
“Hey! Hey! Who are you?!” yelled the examiner, pointing an accusing finger at my father.
“I’m her son,” he replied. “She doesn’t understand English very well, so I thought I would translate . . .”
“You’ll keep your mouth shut,” said the man. “I am the one who asks questions here. Understood?”
My father nodded.
The examiner had an Italian name, though it was clear from his diction and demeanor that neither he nor his parents were just off the boat.
He shuffled some papers. He spoke in broken Italian: “Signora Vescovi, today I ask you question so you become American citizen, OK?”
Desolina nodded obediently.
“Allora, e vero che Abraham Lincoln ha liberato I schiavi?” (“Is it true that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves?”)
Desolina hesitated, then said, “Yes.”
“Brava!” said the judge. “Brava, Signora Vescovi. Allora, numero due: E vero che George Washington era il primo presidente degli Stati Uniti?”
“Yes,” said Desolina, now with a dash more confidence.
“Molto bene, Signora!” said the judge. “Numero tre: E anche vero, Signora, che un senatore sta in uffocio per sei anni? “(Is it also true that a senator’s term in office is six years?”)
“Ma si!” said my grandmother, “but of course!”And so Desolina passed with flying colors.On the day she, with a few hundred other newly-minted U.S.
citizens, took the oath of allegiance she was again accompanied by my father. A judge asked the candidates to raise their right hand and then, in English spiced by a dozen accents, the crowd took the oath more or less in unison.
My father was watching his mother. It was clear she didn’t know any of the words. She moved her mouth up and down, like a Charlie McCarthy doll. Half way through, she turned around to him and winked.
NO CHARGE FOR THE LABOR
Every few years, my grandparents boarded a train in Manhattan and visited us in Michigan. Desolina spent her days attending luncheons with my mother, while Tony puttered around the yard. He also toured the Upjohn pharmaceutical plant and had lunch with my father in the executive dining room.
On the way out, the two crossed paths with the company CEO. My father introduced him as “il padrone delle compagnia, the boss of the company.”
When the CEO asked Tony how he liked the facilities, he said, in broken English, that he was very impressed. This was why America was so great—such machinery, and miles and miles of assembly lines where millions of pills dropped into bottles, all to help people around the world. As a boy, Tony had to walk three hours to a doctor, who often didn’t have medicine. No, this company was truly great.
But, what was not so great, Tony continued, was the terrazzo in the lobby (terrazzo, which he’d laid for 30 years, is a flooring made of cement with marble chips and polished to a sheen). The craftsmanship was awful, he continued, a disgrace to the trade. The company deserved better.
However, since he was so grateful that Upjohn had given his son a wonderful position, enabling him to afford a beautiful home, two cars, and admission to a fancy country club, he himself would return with his tools in a year, after retiring, and lead a crew to re-do the entire floor—at no charge. Upjohn would pay for the materials but, he repeated, for the labor, no charge.