The year was 1935. The depression was in full swing and jobs were scarce. It was a time when Welfare went by another name: in 1935, it was called Home Relief.
We were embarrassed to let anyone know that we were accepting Home Relief, even though practically everyone around us was rutted into the same socio-economic stratum. But we took one day at a time and my father worked wherever and whenever it could be found.
Among the eight children my parents brought into the world, five of us were boys. We were all first generation Italian-Americans born in Manhattan, New York City.
Although my immigrant father did the best he could to keep us out of trouble, we had a tendency to stray and occasionally break the rules. So just trying to keep us out of trouble was a full time job for my father, like trying to herd cats.
Angelo was next to the oldest of my brothers and it might be said that he had a mind of his own. When Angelo was about ten years of age we were still living on East First Street, between First and Second Avenues, a section known as the Lower East Side.
One of the days when my father was not working, he happened to be standing on the stoop of our tenement building as Angelo came walking up carrying a most delicious looking apple. This, my father surmised, was out of the norm, since it was not likely that Angelo would have had the money to purchase an apple.
As Angelo approached the front of our building, my father descended the steps to the sidewalk to confront him and to inquire into his most recent activities.
It must be said of my father that he was very much like many old-world Italian fathers, in that there was a kind of aura about him which radiated a no-nonsense philosophy coupled with a countenance, demanding absolute accountability. Just a look was enough to get our attention. My father’s question was abrupt and to the point: “Where did you get that apple?”
The abruptness of my father’s question had a disarming effect on Angelo who now found himself at a loss for a plausible story.
“I got it from a push cart on Orchard Street,” answered Angelo.
“Oh,” said my father, “And where did you get the money to pay for it?”
Angelo’s account of how he came in possession of the apple became long and drawn-out and somewhat evasive as well as fragmentary. Instead of talking about the apple, he tended to move the subject in another direction, attempting to mask falsehoods with plausibilities.
However, my father brought him back to the subject at hand by repeating his question, “Where did you get the money to buy the apple?” Angelo was at a loss for an answer and said, “I was just walking down the street and … umm … I got it.” My father again asked, “Where did you get the money to buy it?”
Angelo responded, “Well … umm … I didn’t have any money.”
“If you didn’t have any money, how did you get the apple?”
Angelo was no longer able to withstand my father’s interrogation nor could he look my father in the eye. He knew he was on the spot. He was ashamed of what he was about to say and after a long pause, he finally said, “I just took it.” “You mean,” asked my father, “you took it and you didn’t pay for it?”
Angelo, not able to speak, responded with a simple nod of his head in affirmation of what he had done. And his response was met with a sudden clap of an open hand which crossed the left side of his face, accompanied by a ringing in his ear. Though Angelo remained on his feet, the trauma of the slap released the apple from his grip, sending it rolling across the sidewalk, over the curb and into a waiting puddle of stagnant, dirty water. This apple would be enjoyed by no one.
“Is that what I taught you?” asked my father. “Is that what you want to be, a thief, a crook, a gangster?”
Angelo could not answer and he refused to cry, but the pain of having displeased my father far exceeded any punishment he could have imagined.
“Now,” said my father, “You will take me to the push cart where you stole the apple.”
So, Angelo and my father left the apple, now floating in the stagnant puddle of water, and walked toward the corner of First Avenue. They crossed Houston Street where First Avenue meets Allen Street and then they turned left and walked one block to Orchard Street. They made a right turn on Orchard Street where push carts lined both sides of the street from one end of the block to the other.
They went about halfway down the block until they arrived at the scene of the crime.
My father asked the fruit vendor, “How much is an apple?” “Three cents each,” replied the fruit vendor.
My father then said, “We would like one apple, please,” and handed the man a nickel.
After pocketing his two cents change, my father took a step backwards and instead of accepting the apple from the fruit vendor, he said, “We already have the apple we just paid for. And now my son wants to tell you something.”
Angelo needed no instructions nor did he need to rehearse for he knew precisely what had to be said.
The fruit vendor seemed a bit puzzled by this unusual transaction until Angelo stepped forward, looked at the fruit vendor and admitted stealing from him. He asked to be forgiven and as he spoke a tear fell upon his cheek, but he still refused to cry.
The fruit vendor looked at my father with a nod of understanding and admiration and to Angelo he half smiled with an air of forgiveness. That being done, Angelo and my father began the return walk home.
There was silence for most of the way until finally Angelo spoke. “Pa, I’m sorry I stole the apple.”
My father said nothing at first but continued walking. Then, realizing that he should at least acknowledge his son’s expression of contrition replied, “I know.”