Story of an Italian immigrant surviving the Great Depression
Joe The Ragman
Giuseppe Andolina was hanging over the railing of the ocean liner, Freedom, clinging to life. The ship had been traveling through rough seas for six days now and Giuseppe had been suffering from seasickness for the past five days. Only able to drink liquids for the last three days, he no longer had anything in his stomach to throw up, but, the dry heaves were taking its toll on the young man. He was getting dehydrated and weaker by the day and beginning to wonder why he had ever left his family and friends back in Italy.
He was from a small village in northern Italy, the son of a cobbler. As was tradition, it had been expected of him to follow in his father’s footsteps, but, his father could barely keep his family feed. The family business would never support more than one family. Giuseppe was always a free spirit and dreamed of the day when he could travel beyond the limits of his little village just south of Milan. The day the traveler passed through the village talking of the golden opportunities found in America, Giuseppe was enamored with the thoughts of the endless opportunities that abound in America. With the little money that he could scrape up, along with a small gift from his father, Giuseppe, purchased a ticket in steerage on the ocean liner, Freedom.
The two and half month trip was almost the death of young Giuseppe. Every day they were seeing more and more ships heading west. On the seventy fifth day of the voyage, the passengers congregated on the deck to view the skyline of their new home. Giuseppe heard one of the other passengers yell, “Mirar, La Estatua De Libertad, bellisimo.” Giuseppe’s eyes became transfixed on the giant lady overlooking the New York harbor. His new life was about to begin. He was flooded with emotions over the prospects.
After processing through Ellis Island, Giuseppe was faced with reality, not being able to speak the language; he was considered just another dumb Dago by the English speaking Americans. Giuseppe was faced with something he had never encountered, racism and prejudice. Being Italian he was steered towards the existing Italian neighborhoods, in Little Italy and Hell’s Kitchen, if for no other reason, than the ability to communicate with other people. The combination of the language barrier, prejudice and bigotry limited Giuseppe to menial jobs. He never let his disappointment in his new home dissuade him from dreaming of a better life. The year was 1909 and his options were more limited than he would ever admit. He was always on the alert for money making ventures, anything to make him rich. He was constantly looking for that one opportunity that would change his life.
One day after being in America for several months, Giuseppe was passing through the clothing district with some of his new found friends, looking for work, when they approached a trash bin, sitting in the alley, full of old cloth. Giuseppe questioned his countryman about the cloth. They told him that it was remnants from the dress shops. He couldn’t understand why they would throw it out. In his village nothing was thrown out that had any value at all. Later that night lying in the cot in the small flat he shared with six other young Italians, he was trying to figure out a way to make money from the cloth that he could get for free. He knew people used these cloth remnants as rags to wipe the dust off their furniture and for cleaning purposes. Every household used them.
The next day Giuseppe went in search of some scrap lumber that he could use to build a pushcart. He knew that he would have to have a means to transport these rags from door to door. In his search, he found an old battered wooden wheelbarrow. This was ideal for him. He pushed the wheelbarrow over to the alleys in the clothing district to load up on the free rags. He bundled the rags into small bundles and decided to sell them for three cents a bundle.
After the first week, he had sold the whole load of rags. Giuseppe knew that he was onto something. Never one to shirk hard work, for several months Giuseppe was walking the street, pushing his wheelbarrow yelling out his wares for sale. “Rags get your rags, here. He would repeat this over and over from sunup to sunset six days a week, stopping only long enough to make a sale. Giuseppe’s English was improving and shortly he had a new mantra for his thriving rag business. He had built a larger pushcart to haul his rags in and could be heard for blocks yelling, “Joe the Ragman here, get your rags here.”
Joe would come home at night, barely able to climb the stairs to his shared flat. Every muscle in his body ached. He fell asleep many nights with his stomach growling form hunger. Through all of this, Joe was often discouraged, but, never disheartened with his new endeavor. On the days he only sold five bundles of rags, he vowed to sell six the next day.
Joe, as he liked being called now, was contemplating how he could improve his profit. He knew that he could only cover so many blocks in a day and see so many customers a day. His sales were limited only by his own limitations. Always thinking, before long Joe was providing pushcarts for his countryman immigrating to the new world. He also rented a small building to store the rags for distribution to all of the new pushcart drivers. He would provide the cart and the rags and the new immigrants provided the foot power to peddle the rags.
Joe continued his frugal lifestyle. His diet consisted of pasta, homemade bread, cheese and vino. He owned two sets of clothes. He wore one set while the other set was being washed. Joe was a proud young Italian, but, he was willing to pay the price to get ahead in this new land of opportunity. There were days when all he had to eat, all day, was a piece of stale bread and dried out cheese. This was the sacrifice he was willing to make for his future. He had fixed up a back room in the small warehouse to live in to be near his work and to save a little money.
Within a year, Joe had a thriving rag business, providing employment for several of his countrymen. Joe was out in the warehouse every morning at five a.m. to supervise the distribution of the rags. He had hired Jacobi, an elderly man whose young daughter was with him every day to help him. From the first time that Joe had laid eyes on Maria, Jacobi’s daughter, it was like he was struck by a thunderbolt. He was tongue tied when he was around her. She was a vision of Italian beauty with her long black silky hair, her olive skin and her almond shaped eyes. She was ravishing and consumed many hours of thought for Joe. Six months later Joe proposed to Maria and they were wed within the month. Maria proved to be an excellent partner for Joe in his Rag business. Being familiar with the procedure from assisting her father on his pushcart, she was soon able to operate the warehouse side of the business with the help of her father. Jacobi was getting to old for the pushcart and it didn’t look right for the father-in-law of the owner to be out selling rags in the neighborhood. This freed Joe up to expand his business.
Joe and Maria had purchased a small apartment building in Little Italy, where they lived in a flat on the first floor. The other units were rented primarily to new immigrants at a very reasonable rate, in an effort to help them get on their feet in their new homeland. The American side of the Andolina family was started in that small flat.
Over the next several years, young Giuseppe Andolina had overcome prejudice and the language barrier to build an empire that would afford him to bring his parents to America and to provide him and Maria and their six children with an estate on the Upper East Side and private schools for all six. They were living their American Dream.
Joe Andolino had succumbed to the lure of early twentieth century America and its promises of golden opportunities and riches. He had persevered hardships and poverty to build an empire that included a chain of Italian markets, clothing stores and real estate holdings that assured him of a lifetime of comfort. He was the owner of several apartment buildings where he provided sanitary living conditions and, in a lot of instances, employment for his newly arrived countrymen.
By the late twenties, Joe was set for life, his children were approaching college age and Joe was opening up the world for his children. Then came that ominously infamous Black Friday in October when the stock market took a dive and people were losing their life savings. Joe’s empire was not saved from this financial disaster that overtook the country. The Stock Market was still a bit of a mystery to Joe. Joe understood working hard and dealing in tangible items such as real estate, groceries and clothes but had little understanding of the mystical world of the stock market.
Men were committing suicide on a daily bases over their financial loses. This Joe did not understand either. It was only money. He made a lot of it once and he felt confident that with Maria beside him, he could do it again. This would be something new for his children, but not for him or Maria. They would have to teach their children how to cope with the loss of money and to survive and rebuild. It would make them stronger people. His proud Italian heritage would see him through these tough times as it had before.
Over the next ten years, Joe and Maria had rebuilt their empire and in the process had taught their children how an empire is built. The Stock Market Crash made the Andolino family that much closer. As a family they soon became a force to be reckoned with on the financial front all across America. With war brewing in Europe they expanded into companies with defense contracts, which only bolstered their standing in their adopted homeland.
During the later days of the Depression, Joe and Maria had to give up their palatial estate on the Upper East Side. As soon as Joe could, he purchased the estate back from the bank. He presented the estate to Maria and the children at a big celebration that he held at the estate to formally welcome his six children into his business empire as full partners. They had all worked hard and suffered through the devastating financial setbacks that saw weaker families fall apart. They had heeded their parent’s sage business advice and succeeded in helping him rebuild his empire. They earned it. If the Andolino family could adhere to that strict work ethic started by Joe the Ragman they would be set financially for generations to come.