As the excitement and interest about the infamous ocean liner Titanic and the 100th anniversary of its sinking reaches a zenith this weekend, I have been thinking about my own family story about the great ship. All families have stories that are told and handed down, and one of my grandfather’s great tales was about his ticket to sail on the Titanic, an opportunity which he felt would fulfill all his hopes and dreams. Pop was set to sail on the great ship on April 20, 1912, away from all he had ever known and toward what he felt would be a grand future. Of course, fate had other plans.
Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Pop lived in a tenement apartment with his eight siblings and his parents. The youngest of four sons, Pop got to go to school while his older brothers never did; they had to work as soon as they could get out on the street and do something to earn money. Pop’s decided advantage was learning to read and write, something that would give him an edge in the years to come.
Pop had a fascination with the sea in large part due to his father Anthony, who worked as a longshoreman on the city’s docks. Pop would go and watch his father working, see the ships great and small, and wish for the day he could cross that ocean. While many of his family and friends spoke about the dream of coming to America, the grim reality that he saw all around him was nothing like the hopeful stories that had inspired them all to come to the USA in the first place.
Unfortunately, Anthony died at 35 years old while working on the docks. Pop said it was probably a heart attack, the work being so horrendously arduous and the hours incredibly long. So what little money was coming in from my great-grandfather’s salary was now gone; therefore, Pop’s school days ended and he too hit the streets looking for work after having just completed third grade.
The gritty streets of Pop’s New York in the late 1890s must have been an amalgam of every possible horror known about that period and a hell that cannot be imagined. From all the gruesome stories Pop told, his real New York made something like Martin Scorcese’s film Gangs of New York seem like a church picnic. Pop saw all the cruelty, the poverty, the squalor, and the inequity that existed, registering it deep down but pushing forward because he had no other choice.
Flash forward to early 1912. Because Pop could read and write, he had secured a job as an assistant for a Doctor Martin who lived near Gramercy Park. Pop’s duties included driving the doctor all over the city to various appointments, luncheons, and functions. He also took care of the doctor’s papers and mail, and his salary of ten dollars a week enabled him to buy some nice clothes and help his mother.
Pop still dreamed of getting out, away from this fractured world just like his childhood friends actor Jimmy Durante and singer Eddie Cantor, who had escaped the neighborhood. Pop got his first shave at 16 from Durante’s father, and while in the barbershop that day Jimmy’s brother Robert, a New York City cop, came in and impressed Pop in his uniform with the shiny buttons. Pop asked him why he became a cop, and Robert told him it was either that or become a crook. Knowing their neighborhood, Pop knew how true those words were.
As he was driving Martin every day, they spoke about many things. One of the biggest topics in those early weeks of 1912 was Titanic. In an age before TV and radio, this ship’s story still had somehow consumed the interest of people everywhere. Pop had been reading everything he could about the ship, and he would tell the doctor about the amenities that would be on board: the electric lights, the elevators, the lavish suites, the swimming pool, and the heated cabins. Martin wondered if he should get tickets for his wife and him, and Pop said that would be a grand idea. The doctor later revealed that he had inquired about the cost for the first class quarters he wanted, and $4,000 was too dear for him.
Of course, the well-educated doctor and the poorly educated employee talked about the ship from their own perspectives. When Martin said something like, “The name alone is an incredible case of hubris,” Pop was not sure what he meant. The doctor had said something about Greek mythology, and this inspired Pop to hit the library to look up “hubris” and read all about the Greek gods, especially the Titans. When he went back and spoke to the doctor about Cronus and company, his boss was impressed.
They continued to speak about the ship and its legacy and eventual curse: it was supposed to be virtually unsinkable. Since ships were the airplanes of that day, imagine if we were told by an airline that a plane was not capable of crashing. This captured Pop’s imagination because sinking ships were a reality; he had seen the salvaged wrecks being towed into New York harbor as a boy when he stood alongside his father on the docks. Ships big and small had gone down, sending goods and people to watery graves. The possibility of an unsinkable ship was so alluring, so powerful, and that mystique hovered over Pop’s every thought about the famous ship.
In late March of 1912, Pop had worked a straight 24 hours taking the doctor to all his emergency appointments during a heavy snowstorm. Martin had always admired Pop’s work ethic, but he felt this extra effort deserved some kind of reward. A week later the doctor got in the car and presented Pop a little gift for all the hard work he had been doing: a third class ticket for passage on the Titanic. “Maybe I can’t go, Dave,” he said with a hand on Pop’s shoulder, “but nothing should stop you.”
Pop said he was speechless, just staring at the ticket that he could never have afforded; to save $36 would have been impossible for him at that time. Martin knew Pop had a dream, and it was much bigger than being a chauffeur for him. Pop thanked him profusely, went home excitedly, and showed everyone the ticket. During the ensuing days, he prepared for the adventure that lay ahead of him by going to the library, reading all about London, and thinking about how his new life would unfold after he got off the great ship in England.
By the time Pop saw the infamous headline on the front page of The New York Times about the ship sinking, he was shaking as he stood at the newsstand with the paper in his hand. It was as if all of his dreams had hit that iceberg too, sinking deep to the bottom of the icy sea forevermore with the ship that had captured his imagination. How could an unsinkable ship sink? he wondered. Of course, people have been asking that question over and over ever since.
He made his way down to the docks where his father had worked and died, and he saw the eventual arrival of the Carpathia with the haunted surviving passengers, changed forever by the tragic loss they had experienced out on that icy ocean. Pop took the ticket from his pocket, shed a few tears, and threw it into the water; he knew the dream was ostensibly over. Wealthy New Yorkers like Isidor Straus and John Jacob Astor had died on that ship, and now this poor New Yorker would never have the chance to set sail on it.
The next day Pop went back to the Durante’s for a haircut, and he asked the barber if his son Robert could help him get a job. He became a New York City cop, and later that year he met my grandmother at a dance. They fell in love and were married three days later. Pop always said it was love at first sight, but Nana joked that looks were deceiving, yet they remained married until her death in May 1972, just a few months short of their 60th anniversary.
Pop moved out of the neighborhood, building his own house in Queens where my father and his brother would be raised. Pop lived a life he had never imagined when living in the tenement. Never mind the Titanic; he had a place that he could call his own with a bathroom and yard. He must have thought, with apologies to Titanic director James Cameron, that he was indeed king of the world.
Many years later as an old man he would tell this story with dry eyes. He had come to terms with what happened long ago, and even felt in many ways that the sinking of the ship saved him from making a big mistake. His idea to sail to England and work his way down to Italy was not planned out, and he may never have made it. He could have ended up trading a New York slum for a London one, and what good would that have been? He seemed happy but also felt a great sadness for those lost because, as he said, “Most of them who died on that ship were poor just like me.”
My grandfather had a dream to sail on Titanic, but it was never meant to be. His one regret after all those years was not keeping the ticket. I said that would have been worth something, but he said he would have never sold it. He would have framed it and hung it on the wall in order to always remember that fate had other plans for him.
Photo Credits: Wikipedia, NY Times