By 1932, the good life gave way to survival. Camps for the homeless sprang up just outside of the city, seemingly overnight. Families shivered in makeshift tents, cooking and warming themselves around fifty-gallon drums of burning wood. Men huddled in groups on the street, waiting, praying for one or two hours of work. At night, I watched from my bedroom window as people draped in burlap slept on the bag company’s grounds.
Papa’s once lucrative recruiting business had gone bust, and we too were forced to leave our home behind. We moved a lot after that. It got to be where we could pack in a heartbeat. Each time, we’d scrape together five dollars to put down on a rental. My daddy always tossed out the skeleton keys we got to each new place, so we couldn’t have locked our doors if we wanted. “Why’d you do that?” I finally asked. “What if someone comes in and robs us?”
“They’d be a damn fool,” he said.
Once we were settled in a new place, it took at least three months to get evicted. If we got lucky, my father scored odd jobs in the meantime, menial tasks, whatever he could find. He paid a month’s rent here, a month there. Mama pitched in, capping strawberries in late spring, sewing year-round, and shucking oysters at the waterfront until her fingers bled. We kids helped as we could. Everyone did what it took to get by.
Our family went for long stretches without heat or lights or running water. We sat on sticks of wood for furniture. I slept in the attic, wedged against my brothers with no sheets or pillows on the bed. My brothers and sisters and I bathed in tubs of cold water, stinging our skin with two-cent bars of lye soap. We chopped down trees to burn in the kitchen stove. We used candles instead of expensive lamp oil, dripping wax on chipped saucers to hold the tapers in place.
There wasn’t a thing to spare—no spare heat, no spare food, no spare space, no spare clothes. Hard as it was, it wasn’t something to bellyache about. It was the way we lived, the way my friends lived. Life was just life. Nobody assigned blame for being poor, or in the street, or the child of immigrants. Instead we endured, faced external hardship with internal strength, and focused on keeping our integrity intact.
I started classes at St. Mary’s parochial school then, in 1932, taking flight at age seven as poverty descended. Mama sent me off each day with mismatched buttons, patched, roped-up pants, and socks folded over at the toe to cover the holes. I looked tattered, but clean. Always clean. My mother made certain of that.
Like most kids my age, I took nothing for granted—certainly not my supplies for school. I’d mix flour and water into paste and cover my torn books with brown paper. I used pencils right down to the nub. Even the rubber had value. I’d chew the metal fitting on the eraser in class, scraping my teeth against the tin to squeeze out every last bit.
School was such a luxury. I escaped into books, stories about real people and far-away places that often seemed more strange and exotic than any sort of make-believe. I dreamt of being like my godfather, Mr. Gelardi—an educated man who’d been an officer in the King’s Army. He’d married my sister, Mary, and owned a furniture shop in town. He didn’t have a driver’s license, so every day he dressed in a suit and tie and rode the bus to work. Once there, he changed into working clothes, put in a day’s labor, and then donned his dress clothes for the short trip home. My entire family respected him and his European ways.
Mr. Gelardi wrote better with a quill pen than anyone I knew, even fancier than the writing on my school copy of the Declaration of Independence. His bold, beautiful strokes demanded respect, so whenever I needed a note, I asked him to write it. Then I’d wait, anxious for the next day, when I could hand it over to my teacher and watch her face as she read the carefully penned script. See that, I’d think, blown up with pride.
We may be poor, but we’ve got potential.
The real sorrow for me was seeing the pain in the eyes of adults. I watched grown men shiver in ragged clothes standing in line in the winter, feet wrapped in flour sacks, waiting for a bowl of soup and three stale crackers. Sometimes, a man with a sad, beat-up face would look at me with hollow eyes, but more often than not, he’d simply look away.
Still there was joy in being a kid. With so few possessions, my brothers, my friends and I competed to see who could get the most use out of a particular object. We chomped apples down to the core—seeds, worms and all. We dug up potatoes and ate them dirty and raw. Every little thing had value, and nothing was more shameful than waste.
On Christmas or birthdays, we celebrated in small but meaningful ways, candy and a fresh, shiny apple in a sock. An apple with no bruises or worms. On good years, we’d get an orange, or maybe a cheap toy. The smallest touch made things special. I learned early to go out and take everything life had to offer—to take from life, not from others. And we never dropped our heads in shame simply because we were poor.
“Money don’t make you a person,” my daddy always told us. “Your actions and your words—that’s what makes you a person.”
All of my life, I always knew this to be true.