by Joe DeLucia
A illiterate laborer's quest for pride
By Joseph A. DeLucia
Andy stood proudly, chin up, chest out. There was a large sign hanging directly over his head. Andy waited in the labor hall with his best clothes on. Second-hand clothes he gladly claimed. It’s funny, how clothes from charity give-a-ways are always dress clothes. I guess the wealthy have excess clothes and toss them away when out of style. Wealthy or white-collar workers wear dress clothes. Andy could never find work clothes at charity stores. The working class wears their clothes until they can be worn no more.
On his broad shoulders, rested a gray, tweed, sports coat. The sleeves were a little long and rolled up. The buttons neatly fastened. Barely showing from underneath the coat was a fading yellow, white dress shirt. Of course, every button was buttoned, making it snug around the neck. Andy wore dark brown, wool dress pants. Being only five feet, four inches tall, Andy needed to roll up the hems. High hems helped Andy show off the feature he was most proud of, ankle high, leather work boots, double tied, ready for action. With heavy leather and wood bottoms, those boots showed Andy meant business.
Today may be Andy’s day to work. His day to get chosen as a day laborer and bring money home to feed his family. It was the dark days of the 1930’s recession in New York City. Unemployed men, mostly new immigrants would stand in front of labor halls, hoping to get picked for a day of hard work. The labor boss sat on a platform, directly under the sign.
Andy’s wife, Rose stayed at home with their two young daughters. Rose would piece sew and iron at home. She charged a penny for each hem sewn or item ironed with pick-up and delivery included. Rose hated ironing bed linen or tablecloths. They took so long to iron, crease and fold, but still only earned a penny.
With the money they both earned in a day, if Andy got chosen to work, they could buy a day’s worth of groceries and put a little towards the rent. Paid at the end of each day he worked, Andy would walk home past the many fruit and vegetable stands. “Never pay retail,” Andy stated. He would argue for the best price on bruised potatoes, broken carrots, and mildly molded turnips. Never sparing on the best flour, Rose could make a fine pasta. If he worked a few days in a row, Andy would splurge on tripe or tongue.
The family lived in a fourth floor, two-room flat, the tenements on the lower east side of Manhattan. The winding staircase that led to their apartment was dark and creaky. The odor of sweat, dirt and various foods filled the hallway. There were four flats on each floor. Centrally located on each floor was a single toilet in a room no bigger than a broom closet. Inhabitants of all four flats shared this one toilet.
Andy and his family lived in the rear flat. Rent was cheaper than a front flat because the only window opened to an enclosed alley providing minimal ventilation. The flat consisted of that back room with a window, used as a sitting and dining room. The back room was connected to a windowless front room by a wide opening, no door. The front room contained a large sink used for washing dishes and bathing. Next to the sink was a single gas grill. A mattress was stood on its side during the day and laid flat during the night to sleep.
A shame Andy and Rose never spoke of but thought of constantly was their young son. Andrew Frank died at nine months old, succumbed to pneumonia. His parents knew not what to do. Alone, unable to afford medical care, and unable to circumvent access to charitable care, Andy and Rose rocked their young son in their arms. They cuddled, comforted and soothed Andrew Frank’s struggling, feverish, wheezing body until there was no more noise. Andy still remembers signing ‘X’ on the death certificate. Wrapped in rags, the coroner came and took the toddler to potter’s grave. All the more reason to work hard. Andy was not going to allow another of his family to perish.
The labor boss shouted from his platform under the sign, picking out men and assigning them to work crews. Andy worked his way through the crowd until he was finally front and center under the sign. He stood proud and straight. His dark olive skin was weather worn. Dark brown eyes and black wavy, almost curly hair made him distinct. An immigrant from Naples, Italy, Andy had the typical Italian build, short, square, upper body shape, and strength similar to a primate. Andy knew it was going to be his day to work. He made eye contact with the labor boss and stood as tall as his 5’4” frame would let him, directly under the sign.
The sign read:
Whites $2.50 Blacks $2.00 Wops $1.50
As many other men got picked and sent off, the crowd was thinning out. Andy was getting discouraged. The early morning air became chillier even though daylight broke through. He became concerned that he would not get picked or even if he did, there would not be enough time to put in a full 12 hours. Finally, the labor boss pointed to the three last men, which included Andy. “We have three jobs left. Sewage line collapsed under the street. Need to dig a trench and clean out all the shit.”With a grin on his face, Andy threw a shovel over one shoulder and a pick over the other. He walked the several blocks to the collapsed sewage line. He would be able to bring home food for his family today.
Day after day, Andy and Rose worked. They never gave up. Never qualifying for a ‘better’ job, Andy’s strong back kept the family fed. Life did get better. Andy succeeded beyond the days of waiting and hoping in labor halls. Andy went from being a day laborer to holding a series of steady jobs. His employment always consisted of doing what other, educated people wouldn’t do. Without any education, Andy had to rely on his physical strength to earn a living. “Digging is the best exercise in the world,” he would say, “You use every muscle in your body, especially when throwing dirt over your head.”. Andy dug trenches, shoveled coal, cleaned sewage, emptied trash and had contempt for those that took advantage of him.
Over 30 years later, Andy and his wife Rose were hosting Christmas in their home. Rose and Andy were proud of their home. Saving their money for years, not being able to purchase it until in their late 50’s, it was the only home they ever owned. A typical Long Island Cottage home. A step down from the post-World War II, mass production Levittown homes. Cookie cut homes on stamped sixty by sixty foot lots. The homes were a perfect square divided into four rooms. No hallways, the rooms just opened into one another. The size of two flats with their own bathroom, Andy and Rose roamed about in their spacious accommodations.
Andy and his family gathered in the living room. The aroma of tomato sauce drifts from the kitchen mixed with stale cigarette smoke. Everyone smoked back then. At one end of the living room was a large, combination console TV and record player, long, rectangular with dark wood stain. With all the doors closed, it resembled a coffin. In the corner was the Christmas Tree. It’s pine scent mixing with the smell of popcorn strung around it. Sitting in his easy chair, his grandchildren on the floor around him, Andy was obviously the center of attention. The room was so crowded; you could not move from one spot to another without someone else having to move.
It was my turn to give Andy, my Grandpa, his present. I walked over to him, holding the present out to hand to him. He grabbed me and sat me in his chair next to him. Snuggled tight, we opened the present together. His thick muscular fingers, covered in dark calloused skin gently tore the paper open. The present was a large book. The type of book one would call a coffee table book. You didn’t read it; you left it on top of the coffee table for show. The book was photographs of battle scenes from World War II. Each sheet had a full-page photo. There was a small caption under the photo of just a few words describing the scene. Grandpa loved stories about the war. He asked if we could read it together.
Word for word, I pointed to and read out the small captions under the photos. Grandpa told me how smart I was. He confirmed, somewhat nervously, that I was reading correctly. “You’ll never have to dig ditches if you keep going to school and reading like that.” Small tears in both of our eyes, unsure if from embarrassment, shame or possibly pride. I wondered if Grandpa realized I knew he was illiterate. He wondered if I knew.
Most of all, I wondered if he knew what the sign meant.