Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Hero

My grandfather on my mother's side, Pasquale Camardi, could have been the poster boy for "American Immigrant" magazine. One of the regrets in my life is that I wasn't smart enough to sit down with Grandpa when he was still alive to hear the stories of his travels from Grassano, Italy to America. I would have asked him what life was like in the old country, and what made him leave all that was familiar to risk a new life in a foreign land. With help from the Immigration Records Center at Ellis Island, and assisted by the charming written recollections of my Uncle Mike (Grandpa's youngest child) I was able to tie together some pieces of Pasquale's life. When I was a kid, Grandpa was just a nice old Italian man who didn't speak much English and always wore white shirts and grey cardigan sweaters. Who knew then that when I grew up Grandpa's real worth as a man would sink in to the point that he would become my hero.

Pasquale came from a small town in southern Italy called Grassano, in the Privince of Matera in the region of Basilicata. I don't know if it had any influence on Grandpa's decision to leave Italy, but in 1908 there was a horrific earthquake that hit the area just south of Grassano. Hardest hit were Messina, on the northeast Sicilian coast, and Reggio di Calabria, in the province of Calabria on the Italian mainland. From all accounts, both cities were completely destroyed and reduced to rubble. The devastation caused by the earthquake was amplified by a tsunami that shortly followed, engulfing the coastlines on either side of the Straits of Messina, striking with waves exceeding 20 feet in some locations. Coincidentally, Grandpa made his first trip to America on March 31, 1908 sailing on The Brasile, but I'm guessing that it was more the economic hardship that prevailed in Italy at the time rather than earthquakes and tsunamis that motivated the move.

Pasquale made a second and final trip to America on May 1, 1912 on the ship San Guglielmo. He was followed by his wife Caterina on September 6, 1912 who traveled for some reason under under her maiden name of Schiavone, with their daughters Anna and Mary, on the ship Sant’ Anna. Interestingly, on the ship's manifest, Anna and Mary's last name was mis-spelled as "Amardi" instead of "Camardi." Because of the mis-spelling I never would have located their immigration records if I hadn't checked under the name of Schiavove. The family settled in Brooklyn, moving into a cold-water flat on Dean Street, between Rockaway and Hopkinson Avenues. In this same cold-water flat another daughter named Frances (my mother) was born on February 22, 1915.

(The following is excerpted from Uncle Mike's narrative)

Pasquale provided for his family by working as a laborer in laying sewer pipes in Brooklyn. Caterina, who was an excellent seamstress, worked at home, sewing by hand the linings in men’s coats and jackets. The cold-water flat contained a cast-iron stove located in the kitchen. The stove burned wood and coal and was used for heating the flat and for cooking. To save money, Pasquale got up every morning at 3:00 AM and walked along the Long Island Railroad tracks in Brooklyn picking up coal that had fallen off the train cars hauling coal to the freight yards. He used what coal he was able to gather to heat the flat. Caterina, in between sewing jobs baked bread and pasta, bottled tomato sauce, made and preserved sausage, made her own root beer and sarsaparilla and later on, home brewed beer and also prepared every meal for the family.

Soon after Frances was born, Pasquale and Caterina left Brooklyn and settled in Camden, New Jersey. With the little money they had saved in Brooklyn they were able to purchase a brick row house at 440 Clinton Street, Camden. In 1917, a son was born to Pasquale and Caterina. They named him Michael. Sadly, Michael passed away in 1919 at age two. He died of diphtheria. In 1923, another son was born. They also named him Michael (Uncle Mike) born on May 4, 1923. During their stay in Camden, Pasquale worked as a craftsman doing carpentry and as a steam fitter. Caterina was still working at home sewing garments. In 1926, Pasquale and Caterina moved back to Brooklyn where they rented a cold-water flat at 103 Hull Street (between Hopkinson and Rockaway Avenues).

During this time, Pasquale worked for the Brooklyn Union Gas Company. Caterina was still taking in home work as a seamstress. In 1928, Pasquale decided he wanted to quit his job at Brooklyn Union Gas and go into business. With the few dollars Pasquale and Caterina had saved over the years, and whatever small profit they gained from the sale of their house in Camden, Pasquale opened a men’s hat cleaning and blocking shop located at 475 Sumner Avenue, Brooklyn. The shop not only provided a hat cleaning service, it also sold new men’s hats or fedoras from such brand names as Stetson, Knox, and Dobbs to name a few. It also had a five-chair shoe shining section. The business proved to be quite successful, and in 1950 Pasquale decided to move his store to a new location on Rockaway Avenue near Fulton Street.

I remember the store at the new location. It had a wonderful smell from chemicals used to clean the hats, and from leather and shoe polish. Grandpa seemed like another man at his place of business. At home he didn't say much, relaxing by watching wrestling matches on TV and yelling at the villains on the screen as if the faked matches were for real. At the store, he was much more animated, greeting customers, giving orders to his crew, and generally fitting the mold of the successful entrepreneur. Pasquale, like so many immigrants, came to America to work, to become an American citizen, and to make a better life for his family. Unlike today's illegal immigrants who sneak into America to take what this country foolishly gives them for free, Grandpa and his generation came to America to give. They built this country and became a proud part of it. Grandpa, if you're listening, you made us who we are, and so we honor you.


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4 comments:

The Whiner said...

Nothing like reading about early immigrants to make one feel like a slacker. It always amazes me the lengths they went to to save money and how hard they worked, especially since they didn't have the modern things we have now. Pretty strong folks.

Jim Pantaleno said...

I can only imagine how hard it must have been for them in the old country to risk everything to come to America only to work as hard as they did. We are privileged to descend from such amazing people.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I often watch my children and nieces and nephews, and marvel at what they do, yet I always go back to Grandma Frances and what she started! Teachers, artists, etc. crowding the dinner tables at parties, and bringing in such wonderful people to help expand the family! And the key ward is always: "Sacrifice", the thing that make us all!

Jim Pantaleno said...

So right Joe, our grandparents may not have gone to college but they knew opportunity when they saw it and siezed it with both hands. We owe them so much for what they sacrificed for us.