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From Chapter 1
As he approached the land where he was raised and the village where he was born, Amerigo viewed the terrain with far more objectivity than the boy who had left. There were not enough trees and too many rocks. He decided the people had struggled to overcome the land for so long they didn't know any other way to live. Every field had been plowed and replowed countless times, and still the boulders kept thrusting themselves up. These were utilized to make stone fences, barriers to separate each field, each plot of ground. The land was worn out, and the people seemed to be equally weary, bone-tired.
Amerigo knew he had to get away. Yet when he saw the familiar whitewashed village crowning a rise in the land, near the cliffs, and within sight of the Adriatic, he felt an inner stirring. It would not be easy to leave this place where his roots had wound themselves so tightly around the rocks. Still, like the boulders that showed above the soil, they could be torn loose, if the driving force was strong enough.
After he left the train and made his way home on foot, a scraggly brown and white puppy accompanied him barking all the way.
Amerigo's mother nearly crushed him against her thin bosom; and his father, sturdy with powerful hands from years of toil, first shook his hand and then kissed him on both cheeks, but still had to hug him.
"You're home for good now," his mother said. "No more going off to France and travel. You're satisfied?"
"I don't think so, Mama. I have to tell you right away I've been doing lots of thinking."
"Thinking is all right," the father said, "so long as you stay where you belong."
"Mama, Papa, you named me Amerigo. Why did you do that?"
"Amerigo is hope," his father explained.
"We want the best for you, our only son. You know after you, I could not have any more children." The mother pulled her son close once again.
"Mama, you told me if I didn't want to be miserable, I better get moving."
"I was talking about going to France to learn. What are you suggesting now?"
"I want to go to America."
"America! We talked about France. You didn't say anything about the United States, America."
"But now I'm telling you that I am going to go to America, and I will become a winemaker."
"Who put that idea in your head? Was it your father?"
"No, of course not. This is something I have chosen for myself."
"Well"frail as she was, the woman faced her husband"what do you have to say about this?"
"What do I have to say? You are the one who says everything around here, and suddenly you want me to say something."
"Oh, you are such a donkey. Amerigo, let me tell you something about your father. When he was a young man, he got kicked in the head by a mule. Poor animal. It broke both his legs. They had to shoot it."
"You exaggerate. If you want to talk about a hard head, show Amerigo what the hair is hiding on your head. Show him."
She tilted her head toward Amerigo. He felt through her graying hair to the bone. A large chunk was missing, as though someone scooped out a spoonful of bone.
"We were working in the fields, my cousin Tomaso and me. He was chopping ground with a hoe, and I reached down to pick up a basket of cauliflower. By accident the hoe came down on my head."
"So you see, nothing can get through her skull that she doesn't want in there."
The woman shrugged off her husband's remark. "Amerigo, that is what I want for you, the hard head that will give you strength to survive. You have to be strong in this world."
"Then you approve of what I want to do?"
"America is at the end of the world, and you'll be alone."
"I was thinking of asking Carlo if he would come with me."
"Carlo? No, I've watched him grow up. I don't trust him."
The father interceded. "You say that because he is related to my side of the family."
"No," she said, "I say that because I don't like his eyes. He tells you one thing and looks in another direction."
"Anyway, tomorrow I'm going to ask him if he wants to go to America with me."
"Tomorrow? You don't mean you're leaving that soon. You mean sometime in the future."
"No, Mama. I have to leave right away. I can't wait and get caught up by the army. I want to go in maybe two weeks."
"Ohhh, no, no, let's eat, and then we'll talk some more."
Amerigo hugged his mother, wanting to say something to erase her concern. "I will send for you as soon as I get settled."
She just shook her head knowing that such promises are well intended but rarely come to happen.
His father sat at the wooden table, his head down as though he had been beaten again. "This is your home. Remember, this is where you will always be welcome."
"Thank you, Papa. I hope that means you're giving your consent. I need your approval."
The man lowered his head, but nodded slowly.
In the morning Amerigo went to visit his distant cousin, Carlo Barbosso. On the walk over, his mother's observations caused him to wonder about Carlo, but he still thought he would make the offer. A companion, especially a relative, would make the journey more bearable.
He knocked tentatively on the door. Gina, a local girl he knew, opened the door. Gina did not explain why she was there in Carlo's house, but she was obviously quite pregnant. She led Amerigo over the worn, faded, living room carpet to the small bedroom.
"My cousin," Amerigo addressed Carlo who was lying in bed sick with the influenza, "I came to ask you if you are ready to leave this village."
"Oh, I'm ready to leave, but that is not possible for me."
"If you can't travel because you're sick, I'll wait for you to get better."
"No, the problem is I now have an added burden. You saw her when you came in. While you were away, I married."
"Gina. I remember we called her little Gina. She always was a pretty girl."
"Ah, pretty yes, but a dullard, a real donkey-head. She can't fix garbanzo beans without burning the water, and look at her. She's as big as a house, and she's only twenty-two years old."
"But she can hear."
"No matter. She is my wife. I can say whatever I like about her."
"Yes, yes, but we don't have to talk about that now. Do we?"
"I'm going to America. I've saved a little denaro, enough for a boat ticket. I want you to come with me."
"Maybe never for me." Carlo rolled out of bed and walked barefooted to a chest of drawers. He knelt down so he could slide open the bottom drawer. He lifted out a metal box. "Here. My life savings." He opened the lid of the box. In it were a few lire and a broken watch. "I'm twenty-six years old. I don't have enough to hire a goat cart to drive me to the coast. And now I have a family started: a wife, and a baby on the way. So you know what my chances would be."
"Do you want to go to America? You could make a better life for yourself there."
"Yes." Carlo nodded. "If I could find a way to get there."
"You'll find a way," Amerigo assured him.
Carlo crawled back in bed and pulled a hand-crocheted afghan up to his neck. "Write to me, then. We'll see."
As he walked through the house, Amerigo saw his distant cousin, sixteen-year-old Teresa Barbosso, sitting on the ragged sofa. She smiled at him, and he thought, my God, how beautiful she's become. He extended his hand. Madonna Mia! How soft and willing. For a few moments he was struck with astonishment that anything could possibly change his plans.
"You know I am going to America soon."
"Yes, I heard," she said melting into his eyes.
"Do you want to go for a walk with me?"
"No, I just mean outside."
They strolled along in the center of the cobblestone street. Amerigo tried to understand what his emotions were doing to him. He kept looking at Teresa, wondering how she could have grown so beautiful when two years ago she was a scrawny kid.
"I can't ask you to wait for me, but maybe someday."
"Well, we'll have to wait and see."
He walked her back to the house. She came up to him, put her arms around his neck, and kissed him softly on the mouth. "I've always liked you, Amerigo."
That night became a long, sleepless ordeal for Amerigo. The unknown continent of America lay ahead. Teresa's dark beautiful eyes were Italy and everything he would leave behind.
On the morning he planned to leave, Signora Pugliesi stood with her thin arms held tightly at both sides. She could not speak. Signor Pugliesi, with tears flowing down his face, hugged Amerigo, then filled his arms with bread, wine, cheese, and fruit. Finally his mother leaned over the food to kiss Amerigo on the lips. He did not understand why her eyes were dry. All she could do was shake her head from side to side.
With food held by one arm and clothing tucked under the other, he made his break. After he'd gone a few yards down the road, he stopped, turned and ran back. "See, I told you I'd return. Scudi! Scudi! I forgot to take the money."
His father went into the house. He came out waving a little packet of denaro. Amerigo embraced both of his parents, then ran down the road without looking back. Rain began to fall before he reached the road that led to the new railroad depot.
The waiting station smelled of paint and fresh cement. Amerigo sat on a cold bench alone, a big bag of food and wine on one side, an old cardboard suitcase with his few belongings on the other. He tore off a hunk of bread and cut back a slice of pungent cheese, then drank some of the wine to wash it down. Finally the train screeched and groaned to a halt. He boarded another third class compartment, this time getting off in Bari for a connection to the port of Naples.
The track paralleled and then crossed the Appian Way. He could imagine Roman soldiers who had trod in the opposite direction centuries before, heading for the port of Brindisi. He'd heard the story that Caesar had invented heels for troop's sandals so their feet could withstand the pounding on the uneven stone surface.
Amerigo dozed off and wakened to see cultivated fields with women arching their backs in labor. Olive orchards and rows of tall cypress trees passed the windows. Patches of wooded areas, villages and streetsall fell behind until they pulled into the large steel and glass railroad station in Naples.
As soon as he could, he left the train and the station, wanting to see everything. He saw more beautiful girls than he'd seen in Rome or Bari. Two times he changed directions to follow a shapely girl, only to stop and question himself about what he was doing. He walked from the railroad station to the Bay of Naples in time to see a golden sunset spread out before him. Around the curve of the bay, houses built on the hillside appeared familiar to him. People lived in them and had been living in them for generations, maybe centuries. He wondered if his ancestors had ever been a part of that continuous flow.
I'd better find a ticket agent, he thought, bringing himself out of the reverie. Here I have a new continent to explore. I can't be distracted by every skirt and thought that passes my sight or my mind.
After purchasing a one-way ticket on a steamer to New York, he learned he had a two-day wait. He bought an English grammar book and sat at a café in the glass-domed Galleria to teach himself English. That was a shock, for he had known in America they speak another language; but he thought it was only different like French or Spanish from Italian. This was strange. He tried the pronunciations: "Gude," he said aloud for bene. An attractive girl sitting next to him gave him a skeptical glance. "Yaas," a strange way to say si. He looked at the words good and yes. There were no friends in this book, little that he could relate to. So for the rest of his stay in Naples, he attacked the language, walking up and down the sidewalks and through the Galleria groaning with the grammar.
After Amerigo boarded the ship and the land began moving away, a feeling he hadn't expected overcame him. Until then he had only looked forward. Now he had to restrain himself from leaping into the water and swimming back to shore. My father was right, he thought. I don't know what I'm going to find.
Late that night, lying awake in a small cabin with strange men snoring close by, he thought of Teresa and Italy slipping away. The dark sea enclosed him with loneliness. You have to be strong, he tried to convince himself. He had to accept the darkness and the loneliness before he could sleep the sleep that would begin his future.
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The next morning with the grammar book in hand, he approached a round-bellied woman stretched out on a lounge chair. "Scusi, Missus, how theesa you say?"
"Good morning," she answered.
"Ahh. And thees?"
"I'm going America."
"I suppose so. That's the only place this ship goes."
Not understanding the sarcasm, he tried a complete sentence. "You gotta have language."
"In America you can't succeed without English," the stout woman answered.
She smiled, lifted her weight off the sagging chair and walked off with an elderly gentleman. Amerigo nodded his thanks and looked up the word succeed.
He next approached a man who was leaning on the railing. "Grammar is not one of my strong suits," the man said. He noted the enthusiasm Amerigo brought to a dull language book, so he became willing to help him understand some of the sounds and proper arrangement of the words.
All day, every day, he continued approaching people and practicing his English as they moved across the Atlantic.
"You will make it," one American told him.
"Make eet?" Amerigo raised his eyebrows.
When he arrived in New York the spring of 1916, Amerigo was eighteen and a half years old. He told the immigration officer on Ellis Island his full name, Amerigo Pulgiesi, and he declared his wealth: "I gotta seventeen dollar and a fifty-four cents."
The officer gave him a number. "Go to that line." He pointed to a long line of people waiting for a medical exam. While waiting an hour and a half, he saw several people were turned away. One man walked close by him with a deep cough and runny, red eyes. Amerigo resisted clearing his throat. Finally the examiner looked down his throat and into his ears and eyes. "Any diseases?"
"No." Amerigo hoped that was the right answer.
"Move on to processing." The man directed Amerigo to another line.
He carried his suitcase and set it on the floor next to him, kicking it forward as he inched along. For two hours, he stood in the line, not saying any more than necessary and being careful not to cough accidentally. Finally he reached the head of the line. A uniformed man sitting behind a table, read the forms he had been holding, stamped both of the documents and handed one back to him. "You are cleared. You may leave now."
In his excitement, Amerigo wanted to shake hands with the man to finalize the moment, but the official just motioned for him to move on.
Amerigo left the building, saw others boarding a ferryboat, which he took for a short ride away from the confusion of Ellis Island to what seemed to him the total chaos of Manhattan. He didn't know there were so many people in the world, even more than Rome. He walked about in a state of amazement. The buildings were taller than trees. He saw red-headed men, blonde women, Orientals with braided pigtails, tawny-skinned Negroes.
Two unshaven men approached, speaking to him with slurred speech. He had no idea what they were saying or wanted. He wandered around, looked into glass-fronted stores, stepped over a man sleeping on the sidewalk, avoided horse-drawn buggies and more automobiles than he had ever seen. Young boys pushed racks of clothing along the sidewalks, people shouted at each other. A woman with missing teeth and stringy hair smiled a toothy grin at him.
So this is America. With so many people, why do I feel so alone? These people don't care. There are too many here already. I might have been better off if they put me back on the ship. It would be nice if I knew even one person somewhere, he thought. He wondered if maybe he should try to earn a few dollars and go back to Italy. Seventeen dollars would not buy a return ticket.
Later in the day, he wandered by a grocery store that displayed hand-painted Italian signs on the windows and outer walls. He entered the store, bought a hunk of salami, some crusty bread and engaged the owner in conversation.
"You just arrived?" the sweaty-faced man asked with a lisp. "You go to this address. It's a boarding house." He gave Amerigo the address and explained how easy it was to find your way on the streets of New York.
A handsome, heavy Italian woman greeted Amerigo at the door of the house. She led him to a room and pointed out a toilet down the hall. At dinner that night she told him what he already knew. She touched her forehead and said, "You 'ave to 'ave an idea, a dream."
Amerigo nodded to himself as well as to her; however, he kept his plans to himself. They had carried him this far and he hoped they would sustain him, though he'd had serious doubts since seeing New York City. He stayed at the boarding house for several days, walking the streets, studying the ways of this new country, and learning the language by talking to people and reading all the store and street signs on his meanderings.
From a withered old Cicilian sitting on the front steps of a house in Brooklyn, he learned about a practical way to get to California. The old man told him where there was a company that needed workers for the railroad.
Amerigo rode a bus to the Bronx. He found the red brick building where the old Cicilian said it would be.
"Lavoro?" he said to a man who came down the hallway.
"You want work?" the man said.
"Yes, work." Amerigo put the word in his memory.
"You go to that room with the glass door."
Amerigo furrowed his eyebrows but didn't say anything. "Another Dago," he heard the man mumble as he walked away.
In the room, a woman dressed in men's clothing asked him, "You want work on the railroad? Lavoro?"
"Yes. I'm a good work."
"I bet you are," she agreed and hired him.
The following day Amerigo boarded a train to Seneca Falls where he started as a day laborer. The crew chief thrust a hammer into his hands and showed him the rudiments of working the rails. By swinging a hammer, sleeping in railroad cars, and saving ten cents of every dollar, he moved slowly westward.
Eight months later, he quit the railroad when he reached San Francisco. He rented a small sleeping room in the International Settlement. Not much of a room, he thought, but it included a cot and a wash basin, a major improvement over the shacks and box cars he'd shared with railroad workers migrating west. He went out to explore the city.
Never had he seen so many Orientals, more even than New York. He discovered that Orientals occupied an entire section of the city. He walked along Grant Avenue. The men wore long pigtails and baggy trousers. Several women were out on the streets in public. The Orientals fascinated Amerigo. They went about their business with seriousness and single-minded focus, and unlike New Yorkers, never approached strangers. They seemed content to keep within themselves.
Amerigo felt some loose change in his pockets. He pulled out his wallet and counted his savings. Now he would have to pay for his room and meals, so he tried to figure out what kind of work possibilities existed. He looked into a Chinese restaurant, saw no one in the dining section but heard the voices of men arguing in the kitchen. Looking in on them, he found they weren't arguing, but just talking in animated Chinese.
One man chopped a chicken into small chunks. The cleaver cut through skin, muscle, and bone. After the bird was diced into small pieces, he scooped them up and dropped them into a huge Chinese wok. Amerigo figured if he stood there long enough someone would speak to him.
As soon as the chicken started to sizzle, the cook acknowledged Amerigo. "You want question?"
"I want work."
"You Chinese cook?"
"No. I canna no cook Chinese. I'm Italian."
"You Italian cook?"
"No, no, I can no cook."
"You want cook job, you no can cook?"
"I want work job. Help in kitchen."
"You wash dishes?" He mimicked washing a dish.
"I go ask Mr. Wang. He owner."
The cook went into an office. A tall, thin Oriental man, dignified and straight as a pole, looked out of his tiny office at Amerigo. Amerigo could see his white hair and wispy white goatee, but could read nothing from his face. He and the cook exchanged a few more words before the cook came out of the office.
"Mr. Wang says you work first two days, he feed you. You stay more, he pay wage and food."
Amerigo agreed. He started scrubbing pots and huge pans and stacking different-sized China plates. The work gave him time to let his mind wander. He figured what he would do on his day off.
One day each week, Amerigo arose early and set out by bus to explore the countryside. He soon discovered several regions not far from the bay where soils and climates were right and grapes already were growing in abundance.
He visited Tiburon and Richmond and Livermore, ventured as far south as San Jose, then began searching farther north. One day he rode a boat up the Sacramento, studying the shore and the land as it drifted by. On another trip he reached Napa Valley and returned through Sonoma. So far that seemed the most exciting country for someone seriously interested in winemaking. He also heard there was more rich land north of Santa Rosa and even more in a wide area near the Russian River. Soon he would have enough saved to leave dishwashing and spend full time finding a job in one of the wineries.
One uncomfortable day before quitting his job, he had to register for the draft. All the young men in the city were warned via the newspapers and posters of their obligation. When he returned to the restaurant, he thought he'd better tell the owner about his plans. Mr. Wang stood to his full height when speaking to Amerigo. The man remained reserved but not aloof.
"You have questions about the restaurant business?"
"Not that. I 'ave to tell you pretty soon I will leave this job to work in winery."
"If that's what you want. You are a good worker."
"Do you own more restaurants?"
"No. I am active in the Chinese Benevolent Organization."
"Is that like the Tongs I heard about?"
"No. Tongs protect illegal businesses. Here I am legal. They cannot touch me."
Amerigo thought he understood what Wang was saying. "I know about organization like Tongs, only not like Tongs. They bother honesta business people. Call 'em La Famiglia. Sell protection. I think to protect from them."
"I read about the Famiglia," Wang said.
"Well, thank you for the talk. Now, I go clean 'em up the dishes."
Not many days afterward, a draft notice arrived in the mail. Amerigo couldn't believe it. He thought he had escaped the army by leaving Italy. He pounded his fist against his forehead to drive out the bad luck. That action didn't make any difference, so he reported on the assigned day. Basic training lasted six weeks after which he was attached to an infantry company in the 1st Division.
In less than three months, he was on a troop ship bound for Europe.
----- [Snip] -----
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