This is a narrative written by my cousin Billy as was told to him more than a quarter of a century ago by our great uncle Dominick, our paternal grandfather Nicola’s brother, pictured below.
These last few chapters concludes the story of our family and their struggles as they immigrated to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. If this is your first time reading, you may want to start from the beginning here, here and then here.
Nicola and his bride stayed with Dominick for a month before they found their own tiny apartment on Mulberry Street. These tiny apartments that I mention were, and probably still are, just that, tiny. Usually made up of one or two rooms with community bathrooms down the hall, there was not much room for a growing family or for any privacy from your neighbors. Fortunately, though, Dominick quickly found work for his brother on the docks, and Nicola saved up enough money that after three years-1924-he moved his growing family to Queens.
One major reason for the move was that Nicola was offered a partnership in an ice business at the time. The story goes that he had a friend, who along with his brother, had an ice business. But this brother died in a freak accident and this, in turn, left the surviving brother in need of a new partner. Up stepped Nicola, and for the next eighteen years he worked the predominately residential route with his horse drawn wagon. Business was good, very good in fact, and he could have bought himself a truck in later years, but Nicola, as well as his wife, Maria Rosa, never did learn to read or write, and, therefore, could not obtain a driver’s license. Illiteracy has its price.
At around the same time, the opportunity also arose for Dominick to enter the same line of work. It seems that a friend of Dominick’s, Michael Lisi, was to start an ice business with his uncle. But this uncle at the last minute decided to return to Italy, and this left Lisi without a partner. Lisi approached Dominick with the idea, and their partnership was born.
Nicola and Dominick’s life as ice men was not easy. They would carry a 100 pound bag of coal on one shoulder, a $.50 piece of ice (50-60 lbs) with throngs on the other shoulder, and walk up three, four flights of stairs to the customer’s apartment. I don’t know about the reader, but this narrator would not have last very long in that business. I’d be screaming for my chiropractor inside of an hour.
Right around 1920, Dominick decided to return to Italy to find a bride. At this point this narrator was told that Dominick did not realize that there would still be a prison sentence awaiting him for his army induction refusal. The story goes that he saved his money with an Italian investor on Mott Street. In those days, the immigrants did not believe or trust in the banking system – too impersonal – and would not leave their money with strangers; they might steal it-but instead gave it to one of their own kind to “invest” or hold much the same as a bank would do. Most of the times this person could be trusted, and one would actually get one’s money back with interest. But there were other times when the investor was a dishonest knave who would steal the money from these poor hard working, trusting, naive peasants. It is with this latter case, I am sorry to say, that poor Dominick fell into. This particular “investor” went “bankrupt”, and Dominick was out to the tune of $4,000. In 1920 that was a lot of money to lose. In fact, that’s a lot of money to lose even today. Needless to say, Dominick was heartbroken. He even had his trunk all packed to leave for Italy. But what could he do? They didn’t have a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation back then like they do now. But it would not have mattered anyway since the money was not in the bank. I think most immigrants learned their lesson after an incident like this happens to them. Dominick wrote to his parents telling them what had happened and that he would return when he had saved enough money again.
Not to be deterred from finding a bride, Dominick asked his friends and Nicola to aid in his search for a good Bitonto girl for him to marry. Unfortunately, the girls that Nicola introduced him to did not appeal to Dominick. And to make matters worse, his best friend got married, making the search even more urgent than before. Then one Sunday morning, a friend of his invited him “to spy” on a girl who was helping her friend make a dress. The two men climbed the stairs to the fourth floor and knocked on the door. Dominick was quite nervous as he felt his heart pound quickly and sweat started appearing on his forehead. He kept hoping that this time this girl would be the one. The door opened. They were ushered into the drawing room by the girlfriend’s mother, and she introduced the two girls sewing in the corner to the two men. Dominick looked from one girl to the other, and as he did, he noticed that this second girl had the most beautiful blue eyes he had ever seen. He looked straight into those big blue eyes and fell in love instantly. The feeling was mutual because this girl also fell in love with Dominick, who just happened to have big blue eyes himself. It was a match made in Heaven. As tradition goes, the girlfriend’s family came in, and they all sat down to tea and coffee.
Once outside, Dominick’s friend asked him what he thought of her. Dominick replied “Which one?”. And to his delight it was the one with the beautiful blue eyes. Her name was Mary Noviello.
Mary was a Bitonto girl who left Italy with her family in 1920. Like Dominick, Mary went to school for a couple of years and learned to read and write. She lived on the third floor (one below her friend’s) of the apartment building where that faithful encounter took place. When she got home that afternoon, her parents, having heard of the events aforementioned, asked her what she thought of Dominick. She replied that “he was short but had nice eyes”. She liked him. But things were far from settled. They had a “date to talk”, and Mary went to Dominick’s work where all the “details” were worked out. It was arranged that Dominick and Nicola, his only relative in America, would come to her home to meet her parents and the rest of the family.
One afternoon, in early November, Dominick met his future mother and father-in-law, and Mary’s brother, Johnny, and sister, Frances. The Noviello’s took an instant liking to our hero and the engagement was set. For six months, Dominick and Mary “kept company”, and then on October 26, 1924, at the age of thirty-one, Dominick took himself a bride. That night, they crossed the Hudson River to their new home on 5th Street in downtown Jersey City, New Jersey, where they would spend the next eight years in happiness. After this they would purchase a home in Jersey City and would live there until well beyond retirement and eventually move to the Jersey Shore.
Meanwhile, the ice business was doing rather well for the Sorgente brothers in their respective operations. By the mid 1920’s, Dominick had replaced his old horse and wagon with a truck. But even though Nicola continued with his horse and wagon until his retirement from the ice business, he was more successful than his brother because he had mostly family customers which were bunched together on his route, and, therefore, could deliver to more customers in a day than Dominick, whose customers were more spread out. This translated into more money.
But this did not mean necessarily that he was wealthier, for Nicola liked to play cards and drink wine with his friends. And we all can attest to the fact that these vices can drain a man’s resources rather quickly, and there is no documentation to show if Nicola had Lady Luck on his side. But it is safe to assume that if he was, in fact, lucky at cards, then he must have spent it as quickly as he had won it. Often he would ask Dominick to join them for a game of cards and drink, but he refused citing all the yelling and cursing that went along with the card games as too excessive and not really his style. Here we must be fair to point out that Nicola being the older brother was a little wilder and outgoing and maybe more impulsive and rash than his younger brother. But this is an observation by this narrator made of the two men when both were in their sixties and seventies, and not as young men with energy and the exuberance of youth. And we must also point out here before we dismiss the subject of wealth was that Nicola raised five children to Dominick’s one. Therefore, his expenses were greater than his younger brother. But let not this deter us from the simple fact that Nicola liked to “party”.
The Mafia, and what would a narrative of two Italian immigrants be without some tale of the Mafia, came around to the two brothers “selling protection”. Protection from what, one might ask. And I am sure by now we all know the answer: protection from the Mafia; the same men who were selling the protection in the first place. I will not bore or insult the reader with any further explanation, since this kind of practice is well documented and is quite familiar, I am sure, to the reader though many films and novels. Needless to say, both brothers refused to pay protection money to them for their ice businesses. This showed extraordinary courage on the part of our heroes because of the extreme consequences to anyone who refused to pay the Mob. Fortunately, for Nicola and Dominick, and for that matter, as well as for me and the rest of the Sorgente line, nothing ever happened to either brother or business. This narrator does not know what really happened. But living on Mott and Mulberry Streets in Little Italy, the two brothers made a lot of friends, including someone named Vito, I believe, and this could have influenced the Mafia’s decision to drop the issue entirely. And my grandfather Nicola’s card playing buddies were also well “connected”. They were never bothered again.
Dominick and Mary’s only child, Joseph, was born July 22, 1925, almost nine months to the date of their marriage. They did not waste much time starting their family. Mary stayed home for the first two and a half years of their son Joey’s life. But they wanted to visit Italy, and so to save enough money for the trip, Mary went out to work in New York City as a dressmaker, a job she kept until she was fifty-six years old. Joey stayed with his maternal grandmother while Mary worked in those sweat shops that were also death traps as well. Again this narrator will not bore the reader with details or long explanations of these sweat shops for they have been well documented on film and in books. Suffice to say that their names and reputation were well earned. When Joey turned five, he moved back permanently to his parent’s home to start school.
Growing up, Joey never went on his father’s ice route, but like most boys at one time or another had a paper route delivering the daily newspaper to the families in the neighborhood. It was a good source of income for school clothes or the Saturday matinee at the local movie theatres. Probably this is where his love for the cinema began while sitting in the dimly lit movie theatres on Saturday afternoons. When he grew up, he became a successful Hollywood director. But that is another story of later years in the chronicles of the Sorgente family and has no room in this present narrative.
As far as continuing to add to their family, Mary only had one other attempt at this: she was three months pregnant when suddenly and prematurely the baby somehow “got out of the womb, slid down the birth canal, and just came out”. Mary and her sister, Frances, tried desperately to keep the baby alive with warm towels rapped around its little body until the doctor could arrive. But alas it died. It was a boy with blue eyes and all its little features already defined and formed. After this, there were no further attempts to have more children. Why? Simple-Dominick did not want any more children. He thought them to be bothersome, too much trouble. One wonders if he wanted any children at all, and if the birth of Joey was just to satisfy Mary’s maternal desire. At any rate, Joey was destined to be an only child.
Shortly thereafter, in 1927, Nicola and Dominick received a telegram from Italy. Their father, Joseph, had died. Dominick wanted to go back home, so he saved up his money only to find out that he would be jailed in Naples upon his return. Apparently, the Italian government had not changed its policy towards the draft dodgers. Once again, it seems, Dominick would not see his homeland at such an important time in his life. As for Nicola, he did not return either. For whatever reason, this narrator could not determine, but Nicola never again, in fact, set foot on Italian soil.
After this incident, Dominick cut all ties with Italy and in that same year became an American citizen. This was a very big and dramatic step for him to give up his Italian citizenship forever. But he had embraced his new country wholeheartedly when he first stepped foot on American soil, that now it was time to go all the way. One could also see it coming for years, what with all his legal problems for draft dodging that this action was really the next logical step in his life. It was a bittersweet day for him. His emotions were mixed, understandably so.
The following year, 1928, Dominick’s partnership with Michael Lisi came to an abrupt end. It seems that Dominick had loaned Lisi $200. When it came time for the repayment of the loan, Lisi balked and said that Dominick had told him to forget about the debt. Well, Dominick was furious. This was definitely not the case at all. Never had he said such a thing. Needless to say, their partnership dissolved over this “misunderstanding”. By the way, if the reader is wondering whether Lisi ever repaid his debt to Dominick, this narrator never found out.
In 1933, Nicola’s wife, Maria Rosa, my grandmother, longed to see her family and homeland once again. Therefore, thirteen years after she left Italy, she returned with her fifth and youngest child, Dominick. Not much is recorded of this trip except that of an amusing tale of “The Lost Child”. Their remaining four children stayed behind in America. While Madeline and Faye were shipped to their friend Carrie’s house, Angie and Joey (Nicola’s son) were packed off to Dominick and Mary’s home in Jersey City. The story goes (it was unclear what happened at the time, so the reader can imagine the confusion and cloudy recall of this episode by Dominick when the story was retold to this narrator over forty years later) that Nicola’s son, Joey, had gotten lost one day and was nowhere to be found. His sister Angie had no idea where her brother was. Dominick’s Joey had no idea where his cousin was either. No one knew where he was. Well, it seems, and here’s where the story gets a little hazy, that Joey was either hiding behind a rather large rock in the vacant lot across the street, or that he was actually lost and was waiting behind this rock until someone would find him. Now I ask the reader, how could someone become lost directly across the street from the house one is staying in? But whatever happened, Joey was sent back to his father in New York City for the duration of Maria Rose’ trip abroad to the dismay of Nicola.
The year 1941 was important not only to the world but for the Sorgente families as well. It marked the end of the two brothers’ respective lucrative ice businesses. World War II served as the last of several inevitable series of events that took place around this turbulent and uncertain time. First, and foremost, was the advent of refrigeration. Even though the refrigerator that ran on gas was invented in 1926, and then later in 1931 which ran on electricity, it was not until the late 30’s and early 40’s when America was climbing out of the Great Depression that this major purchase and innovation was springing up in mass in American homes. Ice was being phased out as a cooling agent for the antiquated icebox and in its place was the refrigerator. If it was not hard enough to fight progress, big business got into the act as well. The major oil and coal companies started taking over the total market which led to the elimination of the small local dealer. So even though the icemen expanded to include oil and coal in their business, this expansion of their services and products was not enough to keep afloat their floundering livelihood. As Dominick stated to this narrator during the retelling of this narrative, “It was hard to fight the big companies.” Nicola’s business folded first in 1941, and Dominick’s followed suit the next year.
At the respective ages of fifty-one and forty-nine, Nicola and Dominick, with families to support, had to find a new way to make a living. Nicola first collected old newspapers which were recycled at the junkyard. But this fell short of his monetary needs. Next he tried his hand working in a coat hanger factory so that he would be eligible for Social Security benefits when he retired. This proved more profitable, and he worked there until his retirement. His wife, Maria Rosa, also went out to work as a seamstress to bring home some much needed extra money and to also qualify for Social Security. As for Dominick, he sold his truck for $200 in 1942 and went to work for Metro Glass Bottle Factory as a laborer for $.73 per hour. Good wages in those days, so this narrator has been told. He worked there very happily until his retirement.
The war took its only casualty of the Sorgente family in the form of a non-participant civilian. Young men across America were enlisting into the armed services by the tens of thousands to serve their country in the war against Hitler. The young Sorgente men were no exception. They could not wait to enter the fray. But this was not without its cost for Nicola. In 1942 he was so overwrought with his oldest son Joey’s enlistment in the army and the possibility of being killed in action, that he developed a brain tumor. The doctors gave Nicola no chance of recovery, but he proved them wrong and lived, even though with a certain degree of senility, after the surgery for another twenty-three years. He was never quite the same after that, and this condition aged him beyond his actual years. His grandchildren never knew the old and vibrant Nicola. This narrator can remember with fondness the quiet, simple, almost child-like man who always seemed to be smiling and who would take me to the park when I was a child and play with me on my level. I guess now we know why. It’s sad in a way, but I feel that it did not bother Nicola in the least. He was a man who lived life to the fullest no matter what the circumstances.
There is a story that no doubt the family must be familiar with by now of Nicola in his later years hiding money from his wife. This, I am sure, comes as no surprise since many men do the exact same thing. It seems that in Nicola’s case, he hid $2,000 from Maria Rosa down in the cellar. Somehow she found out. Whether or not she actually found it, or pieced it together, is still a mystery, but Nicola was had nonetheless. Once confronted, he immediately denied the allegation like any normal man would do when his wife caught him in a deception. But with much yelling, cursing, and threatening by Maria Rosa, he confessed all. He was caught this time, but he knew he would get the better of her in due time. And so he did. This narrator can remember, after Nicola’s death, all the grandchildren going on a treasure hunt in the cellar and throughout the entire house for that matter, searching for Nicola’s hidden loot. The actual figure now escapes me, but what was found was a small fortune by anyone’s standards. Old Nicola had gotten the better of his beloved Maria Rosa. Or did he? We had to turn the money over to grandma at the end. She had won after all.
In 1943 their mother, Madeline, died in Bitonto, the little village where the two brothers were born. Neither brother made the journey back to Italy for this sorrowful occasion. Not until 1961, when the wars were a distant memory, and he was getting on in years, did Dominick return to his birthplace. It was a very emotional but happy return for a man who had left Italy in 1913 at the age of twenty, had lived through two world wars, one world depression and the deaths of both his parents whom he hadn’t seen since his departure in 1913, to return forty-eight years later. This would be his only visit back to the motherland he remembered so well.
Nicola, on the other hand, never returned to Italy after he arrived in 1921 with his pregnant bride. He lived out the remaining years of his life in a small two bedroom, one story house in Ozone Park, Queens, NY, where he tended his fruit and vegetable garden. This narrator remembers that garden well. It is a picture that will never fade from anyone’s memory who laid eyes on it, or whoever tasted its fruit, especially those figs. One would just walk over to one of the fig trees, pluck a fig out of its branches, and eat it right there on the spot, so sweet and tender they were. That taste has never quite been duplicated by store bought figs? That man had a green body, let alone a green thumb. His garden was the talk of the neighborhood. One just has to imagine a patch of earth no larger than a back porch, triangular in shape, amid the concrete lawns of New York City, abound with the artistry of a master. How he could get anything to grow in this 2 by nothing backyard would baffle even the great horticulturists of our day. But he did it and with such great success. One never really forgets or loses what’s in one’s blood. I guess it was a product of the farmer in him that was passed down from generation to generation of Italians. He could have been a very successful farmer if he chose to. That you can be sure of.
Besides his love for his garden, Nicola’s other love was for his grandchildren, twelve in all. They were his never ending source of pride for this proud old man who had ventured forth that faithful day from Bitonto in 1908 to start his life’s journey to South America and finally to the United States.
Nicola died of lung cancer on November 10, 1965, at 5:00 in the evening at home in his bed in Queens. His five children and twelve grandchildren had been visiting him not more than an hour prior to his death, paying their last respects to a tired, old man. He was seventy-five years old. He never became a United States citizen. Maybe it was his everlasting love for his homeland that stopped him from becoming a citizen of his new country. I don’t know why.
As for Dominick, the years passed by quietly in his two story house in Jersey City. But he was getting on in years and could no longer take care of the house the way a home should be kept up. Therefore, with much nudging from Mary, in 1978, they sold their home and moved into one side of a duplex down on the Jersey Shore in the small beach community of Ocean Gate. This was ideal for the elderly couple since the owner of the other side of the duplex was Mary’s younger sister, Frances. But Dominick would not enjoy this peaceful little resort town for long. On April 20, 1979, after a lengthy battle with lung cancer, Dominick died in a South Jersey hospital. The last link in the chain with the old country had finally been broken, and what was left seemed a bit empty.
In Memory Of