I was buried with words; precious words. Reading them was like eating the chocolates my nonno would buy me. The first one or two I would savor, holding them on my tongue as their delicious creaminess melted filling my mouth with their earthy flavor. Then with both the books I read and the chocolates I ate, I would be overcome by greed, devouring ever more quickly the thing I loved, knowing that I was only rushing towards the end when all would be consumed. But these words – words that live on after me – are my words, my story. A story that, like the story of so many others who fell with me on that day like heavy wet snow, comes to an end all too soon. So, dear reader, savor them.
I was born in Castellammare in northwestern Sicily not far from Palermo. I don’t remember much from those days, just a few brief moments; some good, some bad. What I remember most was the hunger, the pain always sitting there behind my navel insisting that it not be forgotten. My mother and grandmother would go into the hills to find what food they could, what had been missed by others who foraged to survive. My grandfather would row out in a leaky little boat to catch what he could. More often than not the fish were small, not much to them, but that with some small game, an occasional rabbit or bird, was enough – almost.
It is the memory of my nonno and his stubbly, pointy chin that was the sweetest. When I could sneak away from my mother’s protective gaze, I would go down to the shore, sitting with my toes in the sand, waiting for him. As I waited I would open my arms to the bay before me as if to embrace it, its salty breath would caress me. The sea breeze would fill my blouse and lift my skirt giving me the sense I could fly.
I would run to him as he pulled his boat onto the sand. “Uccellino, why do you come down here alone? If your mother finds out… lei ti riempirà il culo,” he would say with a very grim look on his face, holding his hand out straight as if he was about to spank me, then he would smile. Many of his teeth were missing and what few that were left were black around the roots. It was the most beautiful smile in all the world. He would then put me on his shoulders and walk back home with what meager little fish he might have caught that day.
Home was a stone and plaster hovel, not far from the sea. There was no running water, we got that from a nearby fountain that worked three to four hours a day. Except for nonno and nonna who slept in a small alcove separated by a curtain, we all lived in one room; my mother, my sisters, and my brothers. In the corner was a fireplace we used for cooking and heat. To one side hung a picture of my father who was in America.
When my parents were first married, my father was one of the braccianti, a day laborer who would stand in the market hoping for someone to hire him. Then, after my second brother was born, he went to America with some of the other men from Castellammare making my mother a vedova bianca, widow in white. At first, they had thought he could save enough money to build a better life in Sicily, but every time he came home the money was spent before our lives got better. The only thing that changed was the size of our family, adding a new brother or sister on each of his visits. After I was born it was decided that he would return to America and send for the rest of us after he had saved enough for our passage. Since then a letter would come every now and then with some money to help us along. As a treat on these occasions, nonno would take us into town to buy chocolates.
Then the letter came, the letter my mother had been waiting so long for. We finally had our passage. We were going to America at last. That night I heard sobs coming from behind the curtain of my grandparent’s nook.
I remember the day we left. My nonno was standing in the doorway watching us. “Nonno, vieni qui, andiamo!” I said when I saw him standing there as we walked away. “Andiamo!! Andiamo!!” I ran back to him and he swept me up in his arms holding me close.
“Il mio uccellino,” he said as tears rolled down his cheeks. “Not today, il mio uccellino, but you fly back to me someday. Fly back to your nonno. OK?” he said as my mother ripped me from his arms.
I think of that day when I sit on the fire escape outside our railway flat, when the fetid breeze of this city finds its way down these noisy streets, blowing the hair across my face. I think if only that breeze could lift me up to take me to my nonno. How I missed him. My father, the man my mother so praised when we were back in Castellammare, was a poor replacement.
When we came to America my parents put me in school. At first, I hated it. They made us drink milk with our lunch and told us to eat oatmeal. Oh schifozzza, oatmeal!! But they also taught us to read and I fell in love with words, with books. When they told me that I could borrow books from the school library without having to pay, I thought America was heaven. Every day I would bring books home, holding them close to my chest, to my heart. Then I would read late into the night until one of my sisters would complain; “Julia! Basta with the books! Turn out the light.”
“Books,” my father grunted one day at dinner as he looked at the stack next to my plate. “Books will not put food on the table. Take them back to school tomorrow and don’t bring any more home. Enough with the school, time you start to work.”
“But I want to go to school” Tears filled my eyes.
My father froze, the bread in his hand dripping with sauce as crimson as blood hung in purgatory between the plate and his mouth. Defiance from his daughter? He watched me through red-rimmed puffy eyes laden with the stress of his fourteen-hour workday on the construction site. “You are sixteen, what more education do you need?”
There was no fighting with my father once he made a decision. I closed my eyes. Don’t get angry. Don’t get angry. I prayed my father’s temper would stay under control. One wrong word sent him into a cyclone of crashing dishes and obscenities that was soon followed by the threat of the belt. No one wanted the belt. “Work is a privilege,” he said pointing a fork at me, “it is a foolish man that makes his son smarter than he is. Only a bigger fool with the daughter.” Specs of bread flew from his mouth as he spoke.
And with that my schooling ended. I brought back the books, but while I made my last visit to the library I stole one. It was a thin little book, The Sonnets of Shakespeare. It was so small I didn’t think anyone would miss it and the words were so pretty. At confession that Saturday I told Father Quinn what I had done. He told me to return the book and say a Hail Mary. So, I kept the book and I said two Rosaries. Jesus would not send me to hell for one little book. Would he?
At first, I worked at home with my mother and sisters, learning to sew the American way, nothing too fancy, not too much attention to detail. We just had to be fast. We sewed tiny flowers onto hats for ten cents a hat. All winter long we sat in our stuffy little kitchen by the kerosene stove. Then as spring approached my father came home and announced that he had arranged for me to work at a factory.
The first day at my new job I stood at the intersection of Washington Place and Greene Street, staring up at the windows behind which I would live my life for twelve hours a day, six days a week. I shivered, winter had not yet given up its fight with spring. I felt as if I would forever be bound to this place. So different from the warm beaches of Castellammare and nonno. If only I could take wing; instead I fell in line with all the other women.
After I was given my work assignment on the ninth floor, I slipped into the crowded elevator. My jaws clenched as the metal door slid close, fifteen women crammed into a tiny space staring out of the fishnet-like grating. I thought of the fish in my grandfather’s net, their eyes glazing over as they struggled for breath. “Don’vorry, sveetheart,” a short woman said to me in an accent that was far from Italian. “You’ll get used to it. There used to be four lifts, but we’ve been down to only two for months.”
As I stepped from the elevator, a girl brushed past me bumping my shoulder. “Watch yourself,” she said angrily and continued on.
“Stay away from that one,” said the woman from the elevator. “She’s evil.”
I found my station on the factory floor. As I sat down I looked it over touching the sewing machine with the tips of my fingers, then pulling back quickly as if it were on fire. It sat in the middle of my workspace, in a basket to the right were the parts of the shirts I was to sew together, to the left an empty basket I was to fill with finished work. Nervous and afraid I worked through that first day, with no time to relieve myself, no time to rest, no time for fresh air.
I quickly learned the timing of the factory. I tried to finish my basket of shirts before the runners came through with more. I used the rhythm of the machines to keep me moving. One wrong move meant a needle over my finger which meant a bandage, which meant docked pay. Mess up a seam? Docked pay. Tangled thread in the machine? Docked pay. I had to be perfect. My father watched my wages. When they were off, he noticed. When they were off by a lot, out came the belt.
The boredom of my days, the movement of shirts from right basket to left, stretched from one uneventful week to another. Then as the summer heat began to crush the city beneath its weight a turning point came. After my shift had ended while I was walking towards home I felt a hand on my backside, giving it a squeeze so hard it hurt. I turned to see the foreman standing there, grinning at me. The shirt covering a gut that hung over his pants was stained with sweat. He winked at me and nodded his head to one side as if he wanted me to go with him.
As I stood there shocked, a blur flew past me and he was suddenly laying on his back in the street. Above him stood the girl that brushed past me my first day at the factory. He looked up at her frightened.
“You want that hand, you stroonz?” she shouted at him.
“Oobatz!” he said getting to his feet. He towered over her.
“Oobatz? Oobatz?” she was standing so close to him that she had to crane her neck to look him in the face. A knife appeared in her hand. “Touch her again and I will show you oobatz.” She held the point of the knife to his stomach.
“Someday, you are going to be taught respect, Tosca,” he said as she turned towards me.
“Well, it isn’t today,” she shouted over her shoulder. “Go back to Calabria and fuck a goat like your father did, you gavone!” With that, she grabbed my arm and pulled me away.
“You can’t talk like that! He’s the foreman,” I said as we walked. “What if… What if…”
“What if what?” She stopped and looked at me. “They are afraid of me. They are all afraid of me.” Then looking back shouted, “…and they better be afraid.” Then she suddenly became calm and smiled as she hid the knife in the folds of her dress. “You’re Julia, right? You live in the building next to mine. Your family comes from Castellammare. We’re paesans, my father came over with your father years ago.”
“My father? Your father? My father never said anything about you or your family.” We started to walk again.
“He wouldn’t. Most people are afraid of me, so they keep their mouth shut.” When she saw by my face that I didn’t understand, she continued. “My father came to America when your father first came here, but it didn’t take my father as long to save enough for my mother’s passage. It was just her. When my mother arrived, my father had saved to celebrate her arrival. They went out to a fancy restaurant and saw an opera. Around nine months later, I was born. So, they named me Tosca after the opera. They thought I would be a beautiful singer, instead, I became the Tosca who knows how to use a knife.” She laughed a little laugh and shrugged her shoulders.
“I was born with a veil. Like all Sicilians, my parents believed being born with some sort of caul over my face was a sign of spiritual power. So, they took me to the strega. As they handed me to her, the old hag fell back in her chair clutching at her chest. She told my parents the moment she touched me she had a vision of me wreathed in smoke and fire. That’s what she said, wreathed in smoke and fire. She sold my parents this cimatura, telling them that as long as I wear it we were protected from evil.” She lifted up the gold charm that hung about her neck with its three branches of rue each holding a different talisman; a crescent moon, a knife, and the Sacred Heart. “When I was just a baby the chain broke and my mother was slow to replace it, thinking the strega had simply conned them into buying a useless trinket. Then one morning as I sat playing at the breakfast table, building a little wall of blocks, my father dropped a spoon or something and bent down to pick it up. As he did, I knocked down the wall and the blocks fell on my father’s head. He laughed as he left for work. Later that day my father died on a construction site, a wall had fallen on him. So, these stunades think I killed my father.”
I looked concerned.
“Don’t worry, Julia,” she said taking my arm. “I like you. I won’t let any walls fall on you…” Then after a pause, “… or any pig grab your ass, but I will have to teach you how to use a knife for when I am not around.”
From that day on, Tosca and I were friends. We were the only friends either of us had, but that was enough. At night, while neighbors sat on the front steps and the boys played stickball in the street, Tosca and I sat on the fire-escape plotting our future.
“I don’t want this to be my life, to do this until I am old and ugly and bent over,” I said to Tosca one evening. “I want to live by the ocean like I did back in Castellammare. I don’t want to be imprisoned, where the minutes of my life are measured out by the shirt sleeves I sew.”
“Mincchia! Listen to my friend the poet.” Tosca laughed. “You don’t want this to be your life, then don’t let it be your life. I don’t want this to be my life, either. You think I want people to be afraid of me, but they are. I am evil. Remember? When I am of age, I am going to leave this place behind and no one will know me as the evil one that killed her father.”
“Tosca, how can I leave. My father would never let me.”
“You are in America now, my poet friend. We make our own money. When we are 21 we can do as we please. Your father can drag you in front of the judge and say Mr. Judge this is my daughter and she ran away from home. Then you know what you can say, Ba fungul old man! We are in America now. I make my own money and I am 21. I go where I want and I do what I want!”
“I can?” I paused. “I can… we can! Can’t we?”
“We will save our money until we are 21. Then, we will buy a train ticket to California where the sun shines all year long, just like in Sicily. And we will buy a small farm and grow lemons to make limoncello for the A-mare-i-ghans. Then at night, you can sit and read all the books you want. And if some bastard comes around and tries to stick his thing in us, I’ll cut it off!” She laughed with a slashing motion.
“OK, let’s do it. Let’s go to California.” Then I got very serious and lowered my voice, “But Tosca, before you start cutting anything off, ask me first. I might want to…” I stuck my two index fingers straight out, then holding them side by side rubbed them together.
“Julia!!” Tosca laughed in mock surprise. “You must go to confession immediately and tell Father Quinn you have these thoughts. He will no doubt make you go to at least three novenas!”
The time passed. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. The summer heat lifted, followed by the chill of autumn and the cold of winter. After the joys of the holidays faded, we all waited for summer’s sun and warmth. Tosca and I waited impatiently for the days to pass, wishing away the precious seconds of our lives.
March 25th, 1911 was a raw, unpleasant day. I noticed how the foreman kept eyeing Tosca, watching her every move all day long. As we neared the end of our shift I saw him nod to two other men who disappeared behind some hanging fabrics. No one noticed; they were all busy trying to finish their last bit of work before the end of the day.
“Tosca!” he called out, “come help me in the back.”
“Get one of your lazy runners to help you.” She hollered back. “I have my own work.”
“Ba fungul!” she muttered to herself as she got up and walked towards the back. She could confront him on the street, but he was the foreman in here. He walked a few paces behind her. Then, when no one was watching, I followed him, holding a knife from my station by the blade, handle out. The sharpness of the cold metal in my hand was a comfort somehow.
As I peeked behind the hanging cloth I saw two men holding Tosca down. One of the foreman’s hands covering her mouth as he lifted her skirt with the other. When I saw them attempting to violate my friend an anger grew inside of me, a pressure that pushed its way from the core of my chest out the top of my head. “You want that hand!” I shouted furiously.
The foreman turned. “Another Sicilian whore. You want some of this?” he said reaching down, grabbing his crotch. “Puttana!”
Tosca taught me how to handle a blade. Acting out of instinct, acting without thought, acting so quickly he did not have time to respond, I threw the knife at him. It flew in a perfect arc, finding its mark in his left eye.
“You bitch!” he cried in pain clutching his face.
As his cronies let go of Tosca, turning to face me, all the phones started ringing and smoke started rising through the floorboards. We heard women shouting “Fire! Fire!” The men ran past me leaving the foreman on his knees, blood covering the front of him. I stood for a moment stunned, not understanding what was happening.
“Julia,” I heard Tosca’s voice but I could only stare at the foreman as he moaned in pain. “Julia, we have to run. Now!!” She grabbed me by the hand pulling me towards the elevators. We headed to the one long corridor that led to the lifts but it was already clogged with women. The elevators operators tried as best they could to help the women out, but the rails of one quickly buckled under the heat and women in a panic began to jump down the shaft, some sliding down the cables, landing on the heads of the others below.
“This is no good, Tosca.” I pulled my friend away. “The stairs, head for the stairs.”
“No, no. The doors are locked. Go this way.” Tosca pushed me in front of her as we headed to the lone fire escape. As I crawled out onto the metal grate, I could feel it shivering beneath me. There were too many of us. For a sickening brief moment everything stopped, I looked up at Tosca still in the window. Then there was a groan of twisting metal as the fire escape pulled away from the building.
“Julia!” My friend reached out to me and I to her, but we both missed. As I started to fall, I could feel the sharp ends of the three branches of rue, crescent moon, knife, and Sacred Heart bite into the palm of my hand. I looked up to see my friend, my Tosca, wreathed in smoke and fire.
And that was it.
When my parents finally found me Tosca’s cimatura was still in my hand. When they buried us next to one another they made sure to put the charm back where it belonged, back with Tosca. Before they closed my casket, my father put The Sonnets of Shakespeare in my hands as Father Quinn, the ambassador of a forgiving Jesus, looked on.
They still remember us, the women and children who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Tosca and I, with all the others, watch as they ring a shiny brass bell and read our names. They come to remember their great-grandmothers, and the sisters of their great-grandparents. Our granddaughters and great grandnieces now have books and have learned to be strong, learned as I had learned from Tosca.
When this day is done, when all the names are read, Tosca and I will spread our wings and the winds will lift us to fly to undiscovered sunny shores, white beaches where the breeze embraces me and the sand is warm and soft between my toes. Where Tosca and I eat chocolate and read while I wait for my nonno to come to shore in his little boat. My nonno who is young, and tall, and strong with a gleaming smile. My nonno, who takes his uncellino up in his arms and all our sorrows are gone.