2. Lost Dreams

NICOLA WAS A 43-YEAR-OLD PEASANT FARMER when he had arrived in America from Italy aboard the SS. Patria on April 21, 1902. He had left his wife, Angelade Mergiota, and their seven children in the isolated Abruzzi village of Farindola. He and Vincenzo had traveled together from the village, hoping to find better work in America and to bring the earnings home to their families. The two men, both in their forties, had originally been accompanied by two other men from the village, both in their twenties.

There was so much excitement and promise at the start, as the four men rested their sea-weary eyes upon the uplifting gaze of the Statue of Liberty and disembarked at Ellis Island that spring day, each holding $10 and innumerable dreams. None of the four had ever been to America, and none was joining a relative. The final destination for all of them was supposed to be New York. Filled with hope upon sight of the great city, they knew that all they needed to do was to ride the ferry from Ellis Island across the Hudson River, arrive among the impressive buildings on the other side, and hunt for work in Little Italy, which awaited them smack in the middle of Lower Manhattan. Little Italy would be the launch pad of their American dreams.

Within two months, however, the dreams turned to nightmares for Nicola and Vincenzo. Like most Italian migrants of their day, they were illiterate and mostly unskilled. But unlike most Italian migrants of their day, Nicola and Vincenzo were also considered to be old. Their younger companions, in contrast, could also read and write in Italian. The four men discovered that there were many opportunities in Little Italy for men from Italy who were literate and in their twenties, but there were few opportunities in Little Italy for men from Italy who were illiterate and in their forties. Nicola also tried but failed to find work as a butcher in New York City’s meatpacking district.

By the end of June 1902, Nicola and Vincenzo found themselves penniless. Resigned to the disappointment of New York City, they decided to try their luck in Philadelphia, where others from Farindola had settled. The two younger men gave Nicola and Vincenzo money for food, but they still didn’t have enough money for the train. And so in early July 1902, ten weeks after their arrival in America, Nicola and Vincenzo were riding the rails on their way to Philadelphia, still looking for work.