Friday, June 25, 2010

Grandpa Carmelo

Carmelo Gili circa 1920 (Far Right with shovel)

Waves of immigrants came to America and are still coming. The American dream in its conception and pursuit is almost unfathomable in its design and yet perfect in its simplicity. Live and let live. Worship or not as you wish. Put your faith in yourself and what you can do through hard work and fair play. Some folks still believe in such things and others might think they are owed something and that life is all about getting over. Well, this story is not about that group.

Carmelo Gili or Charlie as he would later be called, left his homeland on the tiny island of Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea in 1907at the age of 13. Imagine that? 13 years old. I certainly couldn't imagine my son or daughter or myself being on my own at that age. I guess back then it was a lot more common for young people, kids really, to venture out and try making it on their own. Just to make his situation a bit more challenging, Carmelo not only left Malta and his family, but he went to sea as they say, to sail the seven seas.

In those days ships didn't really sail much anymore as in sail boats or clipper ships. For the most part, ships were powered by steam. Steam ran the engines that turned the cork-screw propellers that drove those ships through the oceans of the world.

To describe making steam as hard work would be a bit of an understatement, especially by today's standards, but that's what 13 year-old Carmelo did. He stoked furnaces in the bellies of ships from Valetta to China and San Francisco, to South America, Australia, India, Casablanca and Madagascar, Jamaica, Liverpool, Cuba and probably 100s of ports all over the globe, in his seventeen years aboard ship.

Stoking a ships furnace in those days was dangerous, back breaking work. The "stokers", later called fire-man (a person who tends fires), would basically shovel coal into a furnace. The coal would burn and heat water that would create steam to power the engines. Simple right? Except that there was no OSHA on those ships, no unions, very little safety precautions for the laborers and little law as we know it. Basically, it was tough it out or simply, just get out.

Grandpa Carmelo entered New York Harbor to stay, in 1924 and he brought with him arms wrapped in anchor chain tattoos and a chest adorned with a tattooed, fully-rigged ship, broad shoulders, the money he'd saved from his years at sea and his shovel.

He met and married my Italian grandmother Eva Colombo an accomplished seamstress in 1927and they rented a walk-up apartment on Mulberry Street in Manhattan's Little Italy. Carmelo went to work for the Heide Candy Company (founded in 1869 by another immigrant from Germany.) Grandpa made use of his shovel again and his ship-board education of boiler systems was valuable experience, since boilers were also used in the candy making process.

Hard work and determination eventually earned Carmelo and Eva enough money to buy their own home on East 2nd Street, in Kensington. They had two children; my Aunt Angel and my dad, Anthony. Later on there were 8 grandchildren, with me arriving first and named after my grandfather. (If you ever meet a Charles or an Anthony Gili anywhere in the world...guaranteed, they are a relative of mine!)

Working for the Heide Candy Company had its rewards! Around Christmas time we'd all wait for "The Box" to show up in the mail at grandpa's house. We lived just across the alleyway from my grandparents, so we'd usually see it (the box) coming! You see, some of the employees who worked for the Heide Co. would get this big box around the holidays and it was loaded with all sorts of Heide candy products; Mexican Hats, Red Hot Dollars, Jujubes and my favorite; Jujyfruits! The extra neat thing was that the candy was packaged in the giant-sized boxes that you can get these days, but you couldn't back then. The only time I ever saw a giant box of these candies as a kid, was when they showed up in the special carton that was delivered to my grandfather.

When people find out that I have a Maltese heritage, they always think that Malta is somehow a part of Italy, but it's not. It is its own country, most recently gaining independence from England back in the 1970s. Its location in the middle of the Mediterranean has always made its possession a strategic holding in wars dating back before the Crusades and it is probably one of the most "conquered" pieces of real estate in world history. The language is very guttural sounding, much closer to Arabic than Italian.

Sundays were always a big deal. It was often a day to "have company." You don't hear that expression much anymore, but this was the common phrase back then. This basically meant that someone or many some ones (usually family) were coming to visit, to eat with us and usually they would bring some cake or pastries. We'd all go to church in the morning, but my grandmother would go to the earliest mass at IHM, ahead of the rest of us because she wanted to get back in her kitchen to start some monster cooking marathon for "the company" due to arrive later on.

Sometimes those family visits were just for fun and other times they were for some kind of project. If there was some big thing that needed doing, the Gili's didn't often, if ever, hire a contractor. Roof needed repairing, new sidewalk needed pouring, brick face needed rehabbing, no problem. Call out the family and they'd come with tools and material. Once the work was done, it was time to eat!

After dinner, Maltese men into one room to scream and yell in Maltese about the politics of the day, usually about independence from the English. Grandma and the women would be cleaning up and starting to reheat and push the leftovers at you or make coffee, so we could eat the company's cakes or pastries. (By the way, they called the coffee pot the percolator.)
Italian grandmothers are about as famous as Jewish grandmothers for making you eat until you're almost ill. After that they toss more plates of food at you and look at you like your crazy when you say you're full. I have a feeling that's true of all grandmothers regardless of their heritage!

Grandpa Carmelo loved America. He became a maniac NY Mets fan and the sight of a drooping chest pocket during baseball season was common on game days. That pocket held a small transistor radio and a single wire ear plug ran up to his ear.
You'd always know if the Mets were doing poorly. If you saw my grandfather rip that wire from his ear, take the radio out of his pocket and spin that little on-off dial to the off position, mumbling something under his breath that we weren't supposed to hear, you knew the Mets were not having a good day.

If I "caught" him doing that, I'd be ready to rib him about his Mets, since I was a Yankee fan. He'd cut me off and say, "The Yankees, they stink!" He'd wave his hand at the air and go back to griping about his team. Baseball got in his blood pretty good. Looking back, I think that baseball was one of the things that helped him assimilate in America.

Grandpa Carmelo lived in Kensington for about 40 years. He never left. The 13-year-old little boy from Malta did what he set out to do. To simply live a good life. Family was always the most important thing. He never owned a car and never made tons of money, but he had his home and his family. He never wanted anything for nothing and never expected anything for nothing. After all, HE was an American.

As my grandfather got into his later years, I would always expect to see him sitting in his chair at the window at the front of his house. When I left for school he'd wave goodbye and when I came home he'd wave to welcome me back.

I was a senior at FDR high school in 1974 and coming back home on a cold, wintery day. There was a few inches of snow on the ground. As I neared my grandfather's house at 208, I noticed his snow shovel inexplicably lying on the ground near his front stoop. This struck me as odd, since he was a stickler with taking care of his tools. I glanced up to check his usual window perch, but he wasn't there.

I picked up his shovel to let him know it was left out front and made my way around to the alleyway entrance that we used each day. I walked in to find out that grandpa Charlie was gone. His 80 year journey had ended with a heart attack earlier that afternoon. The shovel I picked up was the one he was using when he died. The shovel he was using in front of his own piece of the American Dream he found in Kensington.

The family used to scold grandpa about doing heavy work at his age, but another trait of the Maltese is that they "have heads like rocks" as my family would say. At 80, with a shovel in his hands, I don't think my grandpa would have wanted to leave this world any other way.

I still have one of his shovels in my garage that my dad had in his. Some people might find it an odd keepsake, but whenever I pick it up it reminds me of where I come from and of two of the wonderful men who taught me what it means to be an American in Kensington.

Charlie Gili

(Thanks again Charlie for another wonderful story)
Ron Lopez

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