By the spring of 1897, things were looking up for our family. We moved from Baxter Street to a new tenement building on Cherry Street. Now we had a kitchen, a parlor, and two bedrooms and there was a toilet down the hall instead of outside in the yard. Even though we had to share it with three other families on the floor, we all thought we had moved up in the world.
Papa came home from another hard day working as a longshoreman and smiled as Mama filled a big pot with water. “Now we have a proper kitchen,” Papa said. In our old flat we had no running water or stove.
I was doing homework at the table. Papa put his hand on my shoulder. “What grade are you in now, Davey?”
I looked up at him and saw how weary his eyes were. “Third grade.”
He kissed my forehead and said, “You stay in school and get smart and a job where you don’t have to break your back all day.”
“Yes, Papa,” I said.
After dinner Papa sat with his pipe and a glass of wine, watching Mama put my sisters to bed. The three girls slept in a bed in the parlor; our baby brother Nicky slept in a crib in my parents’ room.
“Julia, when does Tessie start school?” he asked.
Mama said, “Tessie starts in September, Tony. You already know that.”
“I want them all to go to school and get smart.” Papa got up, took the toilet seat from the hook near the door to the hallway, and said, “I hope Mr. Lasky isn’t asleep on the bowl again.”
“Be nice, Tony,” Mama said.
I had finished my homework and went into the bedroom that I shared with my older brothers Sonny and Louie. They were tough on me and made me sleep in the middle. Sonny was already snoring in bed, and Louie stood looking out the window smoking a cigarette. “I’m starting a job over in Brooklyn tomorrow.”
I put down my notebook and said, “That’s great, Louie, but what about school?”
Louie flicked the cigarette into the darkness beyond the window and mumbled, “No more school. This place costs ten bucks a month. Someone’s got to help Papa. Sonny’s going to quit too.”
“I didn’t know it was so much more than Baxter Street,” I said.
Louie sat down and took off his worn old shoes. “It’s six bucks more a month. That used to buy food.”
“Oh, boy, I better quit too.”
Louie grabbed me by the arms and squeezed tightly. “No, Sonny and I are doing this so you and the girls can go to school. You can become something then. You stay in school. Understand?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
The next day after school I decided to visit Papa at work. I liked going down to the docks and seeing all the ships and imagining them coming into New York from all over the world. I saw Stretch, the tall guy with no teeth who was Papa’s best friend. Stretch pointed to where Papa was working, and I went and watched him drenched in sweat carrying a heavy satchel.
He dropped it on a pile with others like it. As he turned Papa saw me, a big smile lighting up his face. “Davey, what are you doing here?”
“I just came to see you,” I said.
Papa wiped his face with a rag and pointed to a ship. “You see that one? It’s from Genova!”
“Oh, where Nonno came from?”
“We come from a long line of sailors,” Papa said.
“But Nonno’s an organ grinder,” I said.
“He’s too old now, but he once sailed the seven seas.” A man yelled at Papa and he looked at me. “I have to get back to work.”
“Okay, bye, Papa!”
Papa never came home that night, so Mama sent Louie to find him. Mama had put the girls to bed and sat in the kitchen looking at me with sullen eyes as I tried to do my homework.
Louie came back with tears streaming down his face. He stood there twisting his cap with both hands. “I’m sorry, Mama, but Papa…”
Mama jumped up from her chair and started crying. She grabbed Louie by the arms saying, “No, it can’t be….”
“He collapsed on the dock, Mama.”
I wanted to cry but stopped myself as not to upset Mama more.
Mama looked at Papa’s place at the table where a covered plate and glass of wine awaited him. She wiped her face with the backs of her hands and stared at us in a way that frightened me like nothing ever before or since.
Papa lay in the plain wooden coffin in our parlor for three days. Nonno came with Teo, his monkey in the little bellhop uniform and kept saying, “My boy; oh, my boy.” Aunts and uncles and cousins came and went, bringing bowls of food and jugs of wine. Everyone was crying and Mama, who hadn’t cried since she learned the news, kept staring into an oblivion beyond the walls of our flat.
Papa’s three brothers, Stretch, and Sonny and Louie carried the coffin down the stairs after the service. We all came home from the cemetery and sat quietly in the parlor, the smell of Papa still hanging in the room after those three long days.
The next day Mama took me to Heinz the milkman and got me a job, thus ending my schooling. I worked hard each day and hoped that my sisters and little Nicky would be able to go to school one day.
Mama sewed, cooked, and cleaned for other people all day long, and each night sat at the kitchen table almost too tired to eat.
One night I touched her hand and said, “Mama, I feel so bad how much you work.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said touching my cheek with a rough hand, “it’s a labor of love.”