Brooklyn's Little Italy 1900  Part II

The Largest In America
The Italian Post Office.

When a letter arrives in Brooklyn for Giovaccina Rappaninini with no street address, it requires the services of a medium or of an Italian postal clerk to deliver it. So Uncle Sam, ever mindful of the wants of those who seek liberty and lucre on his shores, has established a sub-post office for the exclusive convenience of this quarter. When letters arrive for persons with unpronounceable names address in an indecipherable hand, the genius of the Italian postal clerk is brought to bear on the subject and his brilliancy seldom fails to illuminate the dark spots. This clerk is a wonder. it is not only necessary that he should be able to read indistinct writing, but he must be mind reader. He must be able to transport himself, in his mind, to distant Italy and there ascertain the sender's intention regarding the destination of the letter, and at times he has but this to guide him in delivering it.

The Saving of Money

The Italian is a worker and an economist. He is by nature a saver. hence, those that have been here a few months have money and their first consideration is to find some safe place of deposit. This they seek in various ways and in queer places, deeming no place insecure so long as it be obscure. Chinks in chimneys, cracks in doors, holes in cellars and slits in furniture all have served as money repositories. But many have come to perceive the unsafely of these. Notwithstanding their obscurity, they, with their valuable contents, are liable to destruction by fire. From these hiding places they first sought the services of Italian private bankers. While the Italian is naturally honest there are those who are dishonest, and nearly every one of these went into the private banking business. To be sure, there are many of them who have a first class mercantile rating and a good standing with responsible bankers: but there are those who have not. As a rule, they do business in small offices, place the savings entrusted to them in small safes and some night, perhaps, disappear, leaving no clew. This has made the more intelligent wary and hundreds now deposit at the Hamilton Avenue Bank, appreciating the superiority of an American over an Italian banking institution. it is a mistake to believe that the Italian comes to this country, accumulates a small fortune and then goes home. A very small percentage of them ever return, for when they come to these shores, they come to stay, to rear and to educate their children here and to become excellent American citizens.

The Italian laborer shaves so seldom that he does not learn to shave himself. But he needs a shave on feast days. Hence, Signor Glaco, among others, has an establishment where this work is done, and he has proclaimed the fact to the world by means of a sign whereon one reads the words: "Tonsorial Artist." It is further stated on his window in painted letters that he charges 5 cents for each and every artistic performance in the tonsorial line. The small collection of private cups inside displays such an array of names that it is lucky they are not on use in everyday conversation. it is small wonder that Signor Glaco's razors are dull when the character of the beards that enter his place is considered. They p resent an appearance of toughness sufficiently great to turn the edge of a broadax, much more a razor. When the victim of Signor Glaco's tonsorial or diabolical art gets seated in the tonsorial chair., the signor proceeds to lather him. This is not a pleasant operation for the victim, judging from his facial contortions. After the signor thinks that he has enough soap in his patron's mouth, he ask him in Italian if he wants a close shave. He usually does, for then he will not be compelled to shave again so soon. And he gets a close shave with a vengeance: it is a close shave for his ears, nose and other projecting features. When that razor gets in motion everything goes before it, and the writhings of body and the twistings of countenance show the victim to be suffering excruciating agony. But there is no crying out, no moanings, the "shavee" bears it as the American Indian bears his tortures in silence. Still the very acme of pain is yet to come, in the shape of copious applications of alum, to innumerable gashes. This trying operation over, there are applied several soothing lotions. Assuredly, the patient is in great need of them by this time and his expression testifies that he appreciates them. Then comes vaseline in great quantities and the hair is brushed down so smoothly that the head looks like a skating rink. But the man is pleased. he pays his 5 cents, surveys himself in the glass with every sign of satisfaction and walks out a happier and a cleaner man.

A Sťance in the Photograph Gallery

Plain as is the appearance of the ordinary Italian to an American his vanity frequently leads him to have his picture taken. The studios where this work is done are of the Coney Island class, where tin types are taken at the rate of four for 25 cents.

Signor Mugs is not one of the beauties of Little Italy, but he has no fear of posing before the camera. The other day the Signor entered one of these photo nurseries and said:" How much for taka de pick?" The camera manipulator replied that it would cost the Signor 25 cents for four reproductions of his charming and prepossessing countenance. (The photographer had operated at Coney Island and knew how to give a "come-on" talk.) His words so pleased the Signor that he took his seat preparatory to preserving for future generations his Neapolitan type of manly beauty. The artist viewed Signor Mugs through the lenses, took extra precautions to steady the legs of the camera and then told the Signor to look more pleasant. This was difficult, but the Signor finally contrived to break his countenance in twain with a smile. The photographer was compelled to ask the Signor to reduce its dimensions. He had no difficulty in doing this, and a cloud such as quickly gathers in a tropical sky, instantly hid the smile. Then the head was too high, when he lowered it, it was too low: then it was too far to the right and when he moved it, it was too far to the left. At last the photographer crossed the room with the intention of laying hands on Signor Marissa's countenance and placing it precisely where he wanted it. This was too much for the noble descendant of numberless generations of brigands. He arose in all the strength of righteous indignation and shouted, "Taka de pick, or I breaka de face."

The Theater That Rivals the Tower of Pisa

Undoubtedly one of the most interesting sights in Little Italy is the theater, on Union street, but it might be passed a number of times without the least inkling that a theater was in the vicinity, for the building would be taken by other than a native for a woodshed. In times past this structure was a high board fence, but a collection of cull slabs has been added to it until it has risen to the dizzy height of twenty feet. And as it rose it, by no means kept a line perpendicular to the horizontal. Indeed until one has seen this extraordinary building it would be impossible to believe the degree of the angle to which it leans: the leaning tower of Pisa is of no interest compared with this physical phenomenon, wherein the building retains its equilibrium with its center of gravity lying outside its base. A close observer might suspect that long ago the whole had been covered with a coat of whitewash, but time and dirt have removed nearly the last vestige. The entrance to this affair is made through an opening where two boards have been removed from the fence and swung upon hinges, and if the malodor permit the visitor to proceed farther, he may select any seat in the house for the not exorbitant fee of 5 cents, which is received at the door by a woman. If the stranger entertains any curiosity to see the audience, he will probably take a seat in the gallery, provided he is able to mount a flight of rickety stairs that lead thereto and possess as little stability as the ordinary household stepladder. Once inside, the real odor, of which only a suspicion reaches the entrance, obtrudes itself in all its vigor or the sensitive olfactory nerves of the visitor, and a great desire for a germicide possesses him. After the eyes become accustomed to the clouds of smoke, the interior decorations, in their gorgeous splendor, break upon the spell bound gaze. The poverty of the English language makes it impossible to depict the magnificence of these, and it can only be said that they differ but little from the suspicion of white-wash outside. The ceiling must be excepted; for the proprietors of the institution, in the fullness of their love for Uncle Sam, have covered this with the Stars and Stripes, it, in its turn, be covered with smoke by the patrons.

But the audience! Never was a crew more fierce in appearance assembled in the forecastle of a piratical craft. No doubt they are all honest workmen, but lowering brows and thick, matted, unkempt hair belle their real characters. In the boxes, of which there are four, sit the elite, and it is no very uncommon thing to see a person in these favored corners wearing a white collar. The seats possess hardness to a degree which it would not seem that wood could attain. Stimulants are not sold in the place, but considerable is brought in, so that none seem to suffer of thirst. The other evening there sat in the front row of the gallery what appeared to be a father, mother, son, daughter and an infant of unknown sex. Among these there passed with frequency several bottles of beer; another being opened as soon as one was emptied. The daughter, a girl of 14 or 15, drank as though she was thirsty, but not with that avidity that indicates a growing taste for alcohol, and, strange to relate, the infant was not excluded from the inhibitions.

Neither the building that encloses it, nor the audience that gazes at it can be compared to the entertainment. For those unacquainted with Little Italy, it possesses the merit of novelty, and is well managed for an affair so crude. it is a marionette show, and consists of life sized puppets that are made to act Italian epics. The figures are worked from above by iron rods, and dressed in fantastic costumes, they are danced on and off the stage. Their gesticulations portray with tolerable correctness anger, forgiveness, love, hatred, pleasure, and grief, as the Italian manipulators who shift the figures interpret these diverse moods. But the person who speaks for all the figures must be a marvel of versatility. One moment he is a man, the next a woman; now he must weep, then he must laugh; instantly must he be able to change from a volley of Italian oaths to a soothing tone like the sigh of a breath of air in nearly the same instant he is compelled to hurl imprecations at the head of a defenseless woman, and to pray for mercy in her pleading tones. This man is a star; he is out of his element in Little Italy; big money is awaiting him somewhere, and no doubt will continue to wait. The only thing in the theater that has an appearance of Americanism is the piano, but the seven-dollar-a-week artist throws a shadow of Italy even over this. Seven dollars a week does not secure a proficient piano player, but it hires one that seems to please the audience. The light of the body of the building is supplied by two gas jets and the total number of footlights is also two, the last being equipped with tin reflectors.

There is no doubt that these people are intensely interested in the play, for it is the only place in the entire section where they remain quiet and refrain from jabbering. This is the more remarkable for the plays are usually Tasso's poems and require in some cases four hours every night for eight months to complete their production. Even the lower classes of Italians must love high art to worry through eight months of seeing puppets acting epic poems. To the stranger this is interesting as a novelty, but he leaves the place with visions before his eyes of stilettos, thirty-eights, Mafias, and above all a strong sense of the necessity of being fumigated.

A Corner From an Italian City

Everything in this quarter is strictly Italian; the denizens make Italian love; an Italian priest marries them; they pull Italian hair, and an Italian lawyer divorces them. If they feel bad, they shed Dago tears; if they feel happy they are wreathed in Dago smiles. They wear Italian clothes and eat Italian food; and the only thing they do not do is to drink Italian stimulants for the reason that nothing possesses sufficient vileness combined with cheapness to satisfy them except New York beer. Despite the efforts of an Italian physician or perhaps assisted by his efforts, they die, and for the sake of the sensitive nostrils of the reader it is to be hoped that they go to an Italian heaven. There are two establishments in Little Italy, however, that are not conducted by Italians, and this fact need scarcely be mentioned when the nature of the institutions is known. These are a pawnbroker's shop and a clothing house on the front of which it says, "Retiring from business."

A Moral and Generally Law Abiding Class.

The police report that the people of this quarter, with the exception of their feuds, are very law abiding. There are almost no professional crooks among them and the social evil is a thing unknown in the neighborhood. They are seldom if ever drunkards and the arrests made for this cause are nearly always attributable to sailors. Property owners say that there is no nationality that pays rent so promptly and that an eviction is never necessary. Their internal strifes are never wanton attacks, but the punishment of some real or imaginary wrong. They love satisfaction and they want to take it in their own way. They never ask for the assistance of the law nor do they desire police interference. They are perfectly willing to avenge their wrongs and wish to be left entirely alone. In this desire they differ very little from other people, but where we only think, they act. After one knows well the Americanized Italian, he cannot be regarded as other than a valuable addition to American society. he is dirty, to be sure, but what laborer is not? And this is a small matter when considered in connection with his many virtues. He loves his wife and children and supports them equally well as himself. he likes to avenge his wrongs, but who does not? He is neither a drunkard nor a libertine. He is honest, and pays 100 cents on a dollar, and although he is a Christian and expects to be forgiven for his sins, he does not live in this world as though he expected to get into heaven by paying 10 cents on a dollar.


Website: The History
Article Name: Brooklyn's Little Italy 1900 Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 20, 1900
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