"Frank! Come on!" he yelled. "Are you comin' or not?"
But Frank was still batting -- Piggy on a Bounce. And he told Joe to cool his heels. Just a few minutes more...he was on a streak!
Joe sold The Call at Sutter and Sansome, near the Market Street trolleys. It was three cents for the paper and the kid who sold it got to keep a penny. On a good day, you'd come home with a buck and a half -- two bucks or more if the World Series was on or Lindbergh was flying. When Dempsey knocked out Firpo, you could sell 'em for a quarter -- people wanted the paper that bad. All the North Beach boys sold papers, if they didn't have some other job. Tony Santora worked at Hyde and Union, Shabby Minafo had the Standard Oil Building, Dario Lodigiani sold at Montgomery and Sutter, Frank Venezia was three blocks away at Battery and California. Joe had a good corner, banks on both sides and offices stacked on the floors above. By four p.m. there was a steady stream of businessmen heading home. They wanted papers. He didn't have to say a word. Joe's little brother, Dom, started hawking papers before he was ten (he took the corner right across from Joe) -- and even Dommie brought home more than a dollar a day.
The best spot was the safety zone where the Market Street trolleys stopped. That was Niggy's. Who was gonna fight him for it? In the safety zone, a guy would flip you a nickel, you'd hand him his paper and then dig around your pockets, like you had to hunt around for two pennies change. Half the time the guy's streetcar would come, and he'd say, "Forget it," and jump on his tram. Niggy was in tight with the wholesaler, Howie Holmes. One day, Howie told Niggy that some guy was giving his paperboys a hard time. So Niggy went and punched the guy out. After that, Howie would leave Niggy's papers in the safety zone. Nig could pick 'em up any time he wanted. Niggy made a lot of friends with his fists.
One afternoon, Niggy's little brother jumped on a streetcar to sell his last papers, but the conductor smacked him, and shooed him off the car. Joe got the number of the tram and told Niggy. The next time that car came through, Niggy jumped on, walked up to the conductor and hit him in the jaw with a straight right hand. The conductor went down -- change was rolling all over the car -- and Joe and Niggy took off, laughing. Joe still had papers to sell, but, for once, he didn't mind. "You hit him a pretty good shot," he said. Niggy nodded happily: "He won't hit no little kids anymore."
If Joe ever got in a beef, Niggy was there to take care of business. Not that it happened much: Joe never courted trouble with his mouth. And he wasn't the kind to push his way into someone else's fight. That was one thing the guys liked about Joe: he didn't try to be like anybody else. He didn't have to fight. That was fine for Nig. He didn't have to try to talk to girls. That was Ciccio's specialty. Joe was sufficient to Joe.
That's what Frank Venezia admired, why he liked to hang around with Joe. They were both quiet. But Joe was without need to talk. Joe was quiet at the bottom of himself. He had control. That's the way he was with a bat. Never eager, never jumping at the ball. He'd just stand there, while it came to him. Then he'd hit the tar out of it. That's the way he was about everything. If they had a good day selling papers -- they had enough to give to their mammas, and then some -- Frank would stop with the other guys at the U.S. Restaurant, on Columbus: fried ham on French bread, a big sandwich for a dime. But it wasn't really about the food. They were young, out at night, with money in their pockets -- how could they just go home?...But Joe would say, "You guys go on." And he'd be gone, with his dime still in his pocket. Joe always brought his paper money home. His parents were strict about that. But he always had some quarters, if he needed them, for cards. One time, Frank and Joe signed up for the Christmas Club at Bank of America. You'd put in fifty cents a week, and in December, you got a fortune -- twenty-five dollars. Frank gave up by summertime, took his money out, blew it that day on a new glove. But Joe kept going and got all the money. And that was his. Frank always figured that Joe's family didn't know about that twenty-five. The way Frank saw it, Joe was always a winner. And in his own eyes, Frank was always a loser.
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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