That sort of money could take them to the movies. Hell, the way they worked it, a dime took them all to the movies. One guy would buy a ticket at the Acme, or the Peni-a-cade -- those were the two cheapest theaters -- and then the guy who paid would fling open the back doors and everybody else got in free. (How's the usher supposed to catch fifteen guys?) It was movies that brought the roar of the Twenties to North Beach. Romance at the captain's table on some swank ocean liner, champagne socialites dancing in speakeasies -- the boys knew all that stuff from picture shows. When pictures started talking, in 1927, even North Beach was abuzz. But when The Jazz Singer finally arrived, they charged a quarter to see it. So Joe didn't go. Anyway, Joe didn't favor movies with a lot of guys in tuxedos, singing and dancing. He liked that desperate squadron of airmen in The Dawn Patrol...or tommy guns in the streets of Chicago -- Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar...or maybe best of all, Gary Cooper, The Virginian -- or Johnny Mack Brown, the Alabama running back (hero of the Rose Bowl in 1926), who now bestrode the screen as Billy the Kid.
Outside the picture shows, it was like the boom of the Twenties never happened -- not in North Beach. In Joe's world, the papas still woke in the middle of the night and walked down the hill to the wharf and their boats. They'd be back in the afternoon, each with a catch to sell, with nets to fold, with maybe a secret paper sack (illegal striped bass, to carry home for supper). In Joe's world, meat was still for Sundays -- and Mondays, when the mamma made the leftover scraps into stew or soup.
Maybe Joe's house was poorer than most: nine kids, and a dad whose boat wasn't big enough for crabbing. But everybody had leftovers on Monday -- and the same pasta underneath. All the boys on that ballfield could trace their personal histories back to the rocky Sicilian coast -- to Sciacca, Porticello, Ísola delle Fémmine -- all the parents came from the same poor towns. Even in the present, on this vast new continent, the lives they made (and taught to their sons) had the clammy jumbled intimacy of the village. Take LaRocca's Corner, up on Columbus: the building was owned by an uncle of the pitcher, Ciccio LaRocca. But the apartment upstairs was the home of the batter, Frank Venezia (Vince LaRocca was his uncle, too). And now that Frank's dad had died (eating bad clams), Vince LaRocca was trying to marry Frank's mamma. This was a world folded in on itself.
And the future...well, that seemed just as contained -- and alarmingly close. With Frank's dad dead, Frank would have to go to work, for good. Niggy Marino's dad was sick: Niggy would have to take over the boat. Joe's older brothers Tom and Mike -- they already had to go fishing. No one ever saw them playing ball anymore.
Joe didn't want any part of a boat. He couldn't stand the sea, the smell of the fish. But even so, he would have bet five to one his future lay somewhere between that wall on Powell Street and the foot of Columbus -- Fisherman's Wharf. At that point, he couldn't see how he would ever escape his father's life, much less the world of North Beach. He barely left the neighborhood now. Why would he? Except when his mamma sent him off to buy meat -- that was cheaper over the hill, a half-mile away, in Chinatown. And afternoons he made the trip downtown to sell newspapers. That's how he brought money home -- and escaped having to help his dad unload and fold the nets on Fisherman's Wharf. That's why he was waiting at the playground, that afternoon. He and Frank Venezia would always share a nickel tram fare down to Market Street, to pick up their papers. They should have been on their way already. Joe never liked to wait. And if you showed up late, you could get screwed. They'd give half your papers to some other guy.
Copyright © 2000 by Richard Ben Cramer
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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