Larry angeluzzi spurred his jet-black horse proudly through a canyon formed by two great walls of tenements, and at the foot of each wall, marooned on their separate blue-slate sidewalks, little children stopped their games to watch him with silent admiration. He swung his red lantern in a great arc; sparks flew from the iron hoofs of his horse as they rang on railroad tracks, set flush in the stones of Tenth Avenue, and slowly following horse, rider and lantern came the long freight train, inching its way north from St. John’s Park terminal on Hudson Street.
In 1928 the New York Central Railroad used the streets of the city to shuttle trains north and south, sending scouts on horseback to warn traffic. In a few more years this would end, an overhead pass built. But Larry Angeluzzi, not knowing he was the last of the “dummy boys,” that he would soon be a tiny scrap of urban history, rode as straight and arrogantly as any western cowboy. His spurs were white, heavy sneakers, his sombrero a peaked cap studded with union buttons. His blue dungarees were fastened at the ankle with shiny, plated bicycle clips.
He cantered through the hot summer night, his desert a city of stone. Women gossiped on wooden boxes, men puffed cigars of the De Nobili while standing on street corners, children risked their lives in dangerous play, leaving their blue-slate islands to climb on the moving freight train. All moved in the smoky yellow light of lamp posts and the naked white-hot bulbs of candy-store windows. At every intersection a fresh breeze from Twelfth Avenue, concrete bank of the Hudson River, refreshed horse and rider, cooled the hot black engine that gave warning hoots behind them.
At 27th Street the wall on Larry Angeluzzi’s right fell away for a whole block. In the cleared space was Chelsea Park placed with dark squatting shapes, kids sitting on the ground to watch the free outdoor movies shown by Hudson Guild Settlement House. On the distant giant white screen, Larry Angeluzzi saw a monstrous horse and rider, bathed in false sunlight, thundering down upon him, felt his own horse rise in alarm as its tossing head caught sight of those great ghosts; and then they were past the intersection of 28th Street, and the wall had sprung up again.
Larry was nearly home. There was the pedestrian bridge that spanned Tenth Avenue on 30th Street; when he passed beneath that bridge he would be home, his work done. He set his cap at a jauntier angle, rode straight in the saddle. All the people sitting on the sidewalk from 30th to 31st Streets were relatives and friends. Larry made his horse gallop.
He passed swiftly beneath the bridge, waved to the children leaning on its rails above his head. He made his horse rear up for the people on the sidewalk on his right, then turned the animal left into the open railroad yards that formed a great spark-filled plain of steel down to the Hudson River.
Behind him the huge black engine chugged white clouds of steam, and as if by magic, the bridge and its children vanished, leaving behind them thin beautiful screams of delight rising to the pale, almost invisible stars. The freight train curved into the yards, the bridge reappeared, and scores of damp children hurtled down the stairways to run along the Avenue.
Larry tied his horse to the hitching post by the switchman’s shanty and sat on the bench against the shanty wall. On the other side of the Avenue, painted on a flat screen, the familiar world he loved came alive inch by inch.
The brightly lit bakery was near the corner of 30th Street, its festooned lemon-ice stand surrounded by children. The Panettiere himself filled white-ridged paper cups with cherry-red, pale-yellow and glittering-white crystals of ice. He scooped generous portions, for he was rich and even went to race tracks to squander his money.
Next to the bakery, toward 31st Street, was the grocery, its windows filled with yellow logs of provolone in shiny, waxy skins and prosciutto hams, meaty triangles hanging in gaily colored paper. Then there was the barber shop closed for business but open for card playing, the jealous barber even now alert for any freshly cut heads that did not bear the mark of his scissors. Children covered the pavement, busy as ants, women, almost invisible in black, made little dark mounds before each tenement door. From each mound a buzzing hum of angry gossip rose to the summer, starry sky.
The dwarf-like switchman came from the tracks and said, “No more trains tonight, kid.” Larry unhitched his horse, mounted, then made the animal turn and rear up.
As the horse rose in the air, the row of tenements, the western wall of the great city, billowed, tilted toward Larry like some fragile canvas. In the open window of his own home, on the top floor of the tenement directly opposite, Larry saw the dark shape of what must be his little brother Vincent. Larry waved but there was no answering motion until he waved again. In the wall there were only a few scattered panes of yellow light. Everyone was down on the street, everyone was watching him. He struck his horse across the neck and galloped up the cobblestones of Tenth Avenue to the stable on 35th Street.
Earlier that evening, in twilight, when Larry Angeluzzi saddled his horse in St. John’s Park, his mother, Lucia Santa Angeluzzi-Corbo, also mother of Octavia and Vincenzo Angeluzzi, widow of Anthony Angeluzzi, now wife of Frank Corbo and mother of his three children, by name Gino, Salvatore and Aileen, prepared to leave her empty flat, escape the choking summer heat, spend her evening with neighbors in quarreling gossip and, most of all, to guard her children playing in the darkness of the city streets.
Lucia Santa was at ease tonight, for summer was the good time—the children never ill with colds or fevers, no worries about warm coats, gloves, boots for the winter snow and extra money for school supplies. Everyone rushed through supper to escape the airless rooms and move with the tide of life in the streets; there were no evening quarrels. The house was easily kept clean since it was always empty. But, best of all for Lucia Santa, her own evenings were free; the street was a meeting place and summer was a time when neighbors became friends. So now, heavy jet-black hair combed into a bun, wearing a clean black dress, she picked up the backless kitchen chair and went down the four flights of stairs to sit on the Avenue.
each tenement was a village square; each had its group of women, all in black, sitting on stools and boxes and doing more than gossip. They recalled ancient history, argued morals and social law, always taking their precedents from the mountain village in southern Italy they had escaped, fled from many years ago. And with what relish their favorite imaginings! Now: What if their stern fathers were transported by some miracle to face the problems they faced every day? Or their mothers of the quick and heavy hands? What shrieks if they as daughters had dared as these American children dared? If they had presumed.
The women talked of their children as they would of strangers. It was a favorite topic, the corruption of the innocent by the new land. Now: Felicia, who lived around the corner of 31st Street. What type of daughter was she who did not cut short her honeymoon on news of her godmother’s illness, the summons issued by her own mother? A real whore. No no, they did not mince words. Felicia’s mother herself told the story. And a son, poor man, who could not wait another year to marry when his father so commanded? Ahhh, the disrespect. Figlio disgraziato. Never could this pass in Italy. The father would kill his arrogant son; yes, kill him. And the daughter? In Italy—Felicia’s mother swore in a voice still trembling with passion, though this had all happened three years ago, the godmother recovered, the grandchildren the light of her life—ah, in Italy the mother would pull the whore out of her bridal chamber, drag her to the hospital bed by the hair of her head. Ah, Italia, Italia; how the world changed and for the worse. What madness was it that made them leave such a land? Where fathers commanded and mothers were treated with respect by their children.
Each in turn told a story of insolence and defiance, themselves heroic, long-suffering, the children spitting Lucifers saved by an application of Italian discipline—the razor strop or the Tackeril. And at the end of each story each woman recited her requiem. Mannaggia America!—Damn America. But in the hot summer night their voices were filled with hope, with a vigor never sounded in their homeland. Here now was money in the bank, children who could read and write, grandchildren who would be professors if all went well. They spoke with guilty loyalty of customs they had themselves trampled into dust.
The truth: These country women from the mountain farms of Italy, whose fathers and grandfathers had died in the same rooms in which they were born, these women loved the clashing steel and stone of the great city, the thunder of trains in the railroad yards across the street, the lights above the Palisades far across the Hudson. As children they had lived in solitude, on land so poor that people scattered themselves singly along the mountain slopes to search out a living.
Audacity had liberated them. They were pioneers, though they never walked an American plain and never felt real soil beneath their feet. They moved in a sadder wilderness, where the language was strange, where their children became members of a different race. It was a price that must be paid.
In all this Lucia Santa was silent. She waited for her friend and ally, Zia Louche. She rested, gathering up her strength for the long hours of happy quarreling that lay ahead. It was still early evening, and they would not return to their homes before midnight. The rooms would not be cool before then. She folded her hands in her lap and turned her face to the gentle breeze that blew from the river below Twelfth Avenue.
A small, round, handsome woman, Lucia Santa stood at the height of her powers in health, mental and physical; courageous and without fear of life and its dangers. But not foolhardy, not reckless. She was strong, experienced, wary and alert, well-equipped for the great responsibility of bringing a large family to adulthood and freedom. Her only weakness was a lack of that natural cunning and shrewdness which does so much more for people than virtue.
When she was only seventeen, over twenty years ago, Lucia Santa had left her home in Italy. She traveled the three thousand miles of dark ocean to a strange country and a strange people and began a life with a man she had known only when they had played together as innocent children.
Shaking her head at her own madness, yet with pride, she often told the story. There had come a time when her father, with stern pity, told her, his favorite daughter, that she could not hope for bridal linen. The farm was too poor. There were debts. Life promised to be even harder. There it was. There could be found only a husband witless with love.
In that moment she had lost all respect for her father, for her home, for her country. A bride without linen was shameful, shameful as a bride rising from an unbloodied nuptial bed; worse, for there could be no recourse to slyness, no timing of the bridal night near the period of flood. And even that men had forgiven. But what man would take a woman with the stigma of hopeless poverty?
Only the poor can understand the shame of poverty, greater than the shame of the greatest sinner. For the sinner, vanquished by his own other self, is in one sense the victor. But the poor are truly vanquished: by their world, by their padrones, by fortune and by time. They are beggars always in need of charity. To the poor who have been poor for centuries, the nobility of honest toil is a legend. Their virtues lead them to humiliation and shame.
From the Paperback edition.