I, Joe Masi, work my way out of my mother’s womb on November 18, 1899; a second generation American, son of Italian immigrants. My Dad’s from the north, Genoa; my Mom, from the south, Sicily. Dad is a factory worker, operates a stamping press until the press crushes his hand. He reluctantly becomes a one-handed farmer. Mom and we kids Laura, Josephine, Jimmy, and I do most of the planting, growing, and harvesting; tend to the goats, pigs, and chickens. Dad watches the grapes grow; makes and drinks most of the wine.
Mom is our matriarch, a tireless tiller of the soil, fearless fighter for the family against all who threaten its well-being. Even the Black Hand honors her with a wide berth.
Hard Times and The War
Money is as scarce as leaves on a midwinter oak tree. I drop out of high school my freshman year. Work on the farm during the day, hate every miserable moment. At night, I drag my bushed body onto the trolley; ride to a New York City overnight parking lot for the elite; wash each car like it’s the Ark of the Covenant destined to shine in the next day’s sunlight. I ride back dreaming about better ways to make a buck.
United States enters World War I’s murder of soldiers and the innocent. I spot an exit from farm drudgery while still financially supporting the family. I volunteer for the Army, get accepted for limited, stateside duty due to my childhood bout with smallpox. Never in my most mindful (or mindless) moment did I expect to benefit from my pitted face. I’m assigned to the Army’s medical department as a New York City ambulance driver.
I drive to New York Harbor daily, meet incoming ships. I load into my ambulance the broken bodies of men, some with missing limbs, some gassed and gasping for every breath. They’re all young like me but unlike me, shattered with little or no hope for a family or fulfilling job. I curse President Wilson, the racist bastard that condemned them to their meaningless, mangled, motionless state.
The War Ends, Prohibition Begins
A group of liberated ladies form the Anti-Saloon League and bully Congress and the states to outlaw booze. My younger, hot-headed brother Jimmy and I talk business over a couple of illegal beers. Jimmy says:
“Joe, these old hags legally outlaw booze, but that’s like Mom telling Pop to knock off the wine. People are still going to sip the sauce; it’s in every man’s blood. I’m making a fortune picking up illegal booze in Portchester and delivering it to the Drinkwater Warehouse on Railroad Avenue. I can cut you in.”
I lock eyes with Jimmy, decide he is serious and I ponder my plans to be like my older sister Marie who owns a general store, apartment building; assess my apprentice efforts as a garage mechanic; conclude I’m gaining the skills to own and run my own business, but lack the bucks to build the building to house it.
I say to Jimmy, “Tell me more.”
Jimmy explains, “You can make more money in one night than you make in a week of fixing cars. If you want to make even bigger bucks you may have to cross state lines like me. You’ll have to watch out for the Feds.”
I ask, “What if I settle for the big but not the bigger money. What’s my risk?”
Jimmy laughs “There is no risk. We have Mayor Lewis, Police Chief Gleason, District Attorney Tobin, and all the key cops in our pocket. You pick up the booze at Drinkwater’s and drop it off at the Cos Cob, Riverside, and Glenville speakeasies.”
I speculate, “What if a risk-taking asshole like you is collared hauling the hooch across state lines, gets squeezed by the Feds, and squeals on all us less reckless risk takers?”
Jimmy seems insulted, growls, “Don’t you understand we are honorable men committed to one another. Anyone who snitches has his balls and dick cut off, stuffed in his mouth, throat cut, body loaded into a weighted bag, and tossed into the Long Island Sound. See, for you, there is no risk.”
I ponder Jimmy’s twisted logic “Count me in for local deliveries only. Be forewarned, if you get caught and sing, I’ll be first in line to bust your balls.”
Working Towards Success
For the next six years, I sleep, eat, and work: I work full time fixing cars, learn to run my own garage business; at night I deliver booze out of the Drinkwater warehouse to Greenwich’s speakeasies and the private parties of the town’s powerful. I soon become known and liked by the mayor, police chief, district attorney, a few wealthy-folk, and the town’s biggest banker, Frank Carswell. I hear Frank refers to me as a young, up-and-coming go-getter.
In 1926, I meet Adeline Strazza; a bright, eighteen-year-old beauty. I plan to marry her, take her away from her dreary life on her family’s farm. It’s a life she hates as much as I despised my time groveling in farm dirt and manure. Then my matriarch mom takes over, locks arms with my bride-to-be, jointly declare with no room for negotiation, that there will be no wedding until I divorce myself from the hooch delivery business.
The Easy Decision
Turns out to be an easy decision. I’ve put away my planned pile of bucks, devised my business plan, have the business connections to vouch for my bank loan, and gained the experience to build and operate a garage, machine shop, warehouse, and an apartment building. My reckless brother Jimmy gives me a further boost to get out of the booze business. The Feds catch him sowing the sauce across the New York-Connecticut state line. He’s serving a five-year sentence in the Sing-Sing penitentiary.
Jimmy misses my wedding, but not my heavy-hitter friends from my hooch delivery days. My banker friend Frank takes me aside, in-between puffs on his glowing cigar. He says, “Joe, my wedding present to you and Adaline is a honeymoon in Havana, Cuba. While you’re enjoying your well-deserved, first-class vacation, think about this: business is booming, our bank vaults overflow with lendable cash, you have a rock-solid reputation-and one hell of a business plan. When you get back we’ll make a deal.”
Making the Deal
I get back. Frank and I cut a deal. Wife has our first child, named Addie after her mom. I build my garage-apartment complex. I fatefully chisel the building’s cornerstone September 1929, just as the Roaring Twenties stampedes over the side of a cliff. For the first time in my life, I am scared shitless. Why?
I have one kid still learning to walk, another in his mom’s womb. My back bends, my feet stumble under a mountain of bank debt. The customers for my new business are jumping out of windows, losing their life’s savings, getting kicked out of their homes, and being fired from their jobs. Survivors have little or no money to buy gas, let alone to fix their cars.
My four rented apartments take big bucks out of one of my pockets, put little bucks back into the other. My sister Laura and family live in one, my growing family in another, Jimmy’s destitute wife and kids in the third, and in the fourth, another dirt-poor family. All demand costly services while paying half or no rent.
I manage to rake in enough garage revenue to put food on the table and stay current on my bank loan by working my butt ‘til it burns-12 hours a day, seven days a week. By 1935, I have four wonderful kids: Addie, Joe, Dick, and newly arrived Rayne. Their assimilation into the American culture gives rise to another worry that dwarfs my bank loan concerns.
Italian Immigrant Culture
We live in an Italian neighborhood. Go in and out of its stores, gaze around: pigs, goats, and chickens roam the streets; wine vineyards crowd the sidewalks, vegetable gardens substitute for grass and flowers; roosters cackle in Italian; nobody speaks English. It’s the old country! Damn, my Dad got us here, and now it’s my job to convert our kids’ to full-blooded Americans.
I’m a proud Italian, but don’t want my kids growing up speaking broken English. I want them fully immersed in American culture, so I must move the family out of this neighborhood to a home in Greenwich proper.
I huddle with my banker friend Frank, explain my plight, end with, “Frank, I do not plan to have my kids grow up in the Old Country culture. I’ve got to get them out of Greenwich’s Little Italy.”
More Debt Relocation
Frank gives me an understanding look, lays out my opportunities and risks.
“Joe, FDR enacted a program last year that serves us well. It’s the Federal Housing Authority. I help you fill out the paperwork to make sure you qualify. My board approves your mortgage application because the Feds insure your loan. If you default, we still get our money. But if you do default, you, my dear friend are out on the street quaking at the possibility of your garage loan defaulting too. You will be taking one hell of a risk. You could lose everything.”
Frank and I exchange a sober, serious look. His eyes signal don’t do it. Mine shift from a serious concern to their usual twinkle.
I say, “Where do I sign for the mortgage loan?” As we move forward with the paperwork, I add:
“Frank, I’ll sign only if you extend the loan to cover my purchase of a Cadillac limo. You know Frank Riley, our grim reaper, right? He guarantees that I’m first-in-line as his funeral driver. I’ve got other contacts that will wing weddings my way. There is also a couple of your rich friends, the Livingstons and the Luces that want me to chauffeur them on their annual vacations.”
Frank gasps, laughs, says, “OK, OK, OK. That’s what I like about you, Joe. You’ve got balls.”
We shake on the deal. I shudder from a too-late grab in the gut. I just shoveled more manure on top of my already butt-deep debt. Now I’ve got to make sure I don’t let the crap creep up over my head.
The next five years is like walking on a treadmill covered with broken glass. The only bright spot is the limo business: people continue to die and get married; rich still take vacations. Apartment revenue continues to pile up as near-worthless receivable accounts.
Barely adequate garage cash flow puts the family on a daily diet of noodles and baked beans, accompanied on rare occasions with a five-cent Baby Ruth bar dessert, split 6 ways. Oldest kids occasionally get a piece of new clothing, the rest make due with hand-me-down clothes and shoes with paper-thin soles.
To sustain our subsistence living requires a five-year unbroken chain of no holidays, no vacations, no weekends, 80-hour work weeks. Somehow Addie and I shield the kids from the deep fears and concerns we whisper about every night after they go to bed.
War Brings Economic Boom
World War II snaps the Depression’s back in an awful way. It starts with the Lend-Lease Act that Congress passes after an awful political fight, pitting the backers of Britain against supporters of Hitler’s Germany. We become Britain’s arsenal of Democracy.
People go back to work, my business explodes; I’m able to hire a garage mechanic and gas pump attendants. My apartments generate cash as opposed to worthless IOUs. My limo service goes into overdrive; I hire a part-time driver.
The Japs bomb Pearl Harbor, we declare war on them, Germany, and Italy. Everyone except the bed-ridden is employed in support of our sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen. My long hours of work continue throughout the war, but my fear of bankruptcy vanishes as my bank debt begins to evaporate.
The war ends in 1945. My business continues to prosper. I back off my fulltime work commitment; Addie and I enjoy our first vacations since our 1920s marriage twenty years earlier. Each late fall, we drive in Cadillac comfort to Florida. We return after the end of the harsh New England winter.
In the Spring of 1948, we have a special family celebration. Champagne, cake and ice cream accompany the fireplace burning of a fully-paid garage and house loan papers. My oldest son Joe completes a successful high school athletic and academic career, heads to Princeton with full financial support from the University’s work-scholarship fund.
In the years that follow, my younger son, Dick, takes a shot at becoming a priest, backs off when his desire for female companionship continues to challenge his commitment to chastity; settles instead for a liberal arts degree at the University of Connecticut.
Our daughter Addie marries her war hero marine boyfriend, Ralph Roina. They purchase a home on Connecticut Avenue in the middle of downtown Greenwich. She breaks the women-at-home tradition, becomes a strong-minded administrative assistant in Greenwich’s public school system.
Our equally independent middle daughter, Rayne, works for AT&T, marries an Irishman, Ted O’Rourke a graduate engineer. He is at the beginning of his successful career with Chrysler Corporation.
At age 55, I sell our business and home, load up the limo with my wife and our remaining teenage daughter, Maryann. We move to Florida to live out our lives in the warm Florida sunshine.
A pleasant daily routine begins with a morning effort to solve the newspaper’s word puzzles. I spend midday at fruit stands along Route 1. There I search for Connecticut license plates, chat with the car occupants about life in our home state. Addie stays at home glued to TV soap operas or wrapped in one of Danielle Steele’s romance novels.
In the evenings Addie and I participate in our only pleasant recollection about our youth on the farm. We drive to a local vegetable garden; pick tomatoes and other vegetables and fruit off the vine. Our picking effort results in dirt-cheap prices for our fresh food.
This is how a second generation American couple savors its hard-fought achievement of the American Dream: heart-wrenching as transporting bodies broken by battle; dangerous as delivering bootlegged booze; exhilarating as a victory in a fierce fight for economic survival; exalting as the world-wide triumph of democracy; and delicious as the first bite out of a sun-ripened tomato.
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