“With Birds of Passage, Joe Giordano delivers a rollicking, wholly entertaining take on the Italian immigrant story. His rich cast of characters arrives seeking the usual: Money, honor, love, respect, a decent shot at the pursuit of happiness. But things get complicated fast as they plunge into the rough-and-tumble world of rackets, scams, and politics of early 20th-century New York City. Giordano serves up a thick, satisfying slice of the entire era in all its raw and brutal glory.”
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a major motion picture directed by Ang Lee
MORETTI’S ARM WRAPPED around Leonardo’s neck like a snake. “Walyo, young Leonardo, why the long face? Still no job?”
Leonardo hung his head. “Nobody’s hiring in Naples,” he said in a monotone.
Moretti considered Leonardo. The younger man had sculpted features, and hazel eyes under curly black hair. Women gave Leonardo furtive glances as they passed. Moretti stroked his chin. The elbows on Leonardo’s dark jacket were shiny and the sole of his right shoe was loose. Leonardo didn’t look up at Moretti, who was in his forties, with a mustache like smeared lampblack. His mousy brown hair was parted in the middle, and his chinless face sunk into a white collar. His checkered suit jacket was buttoned over a wide floral tie.
They stood at Moretti’s kiosk under the sign “Norddeutscher Lloyd Steamship Line, Porto di Napoli.” Moretti was an agent for the steamship company, recruiting Italians to work in New York. Near the marina, horses clomped, steel-rimmed carriage wheels rumbled, and a Lohner-Porsche electric car hummed along the cobblestone street that fronted the wharf. The late afternoon sun stretched the men’s shadows like black crepe paper. Beyond the turquoise sparkle of the Bay of Naples, bulbous clouds cast blue-green shadows across the double-humped caldera of Vesuvius. The air smelled of raw sewage, treated wood, and brine.
Leonardo said, “Even the fishmongers told me to come back next week, but I’ve heard that for three months.” Leonardo moved out of Moretti’s grasp. He looked at the sky. Seagulls floated on a cooling breeze and squawked down at him like teasing children.
Moretti said, “I’m amazed that no one will hire a capable man like you.”
A waiter in his fifties with slick black hair and sleepy eyes dodged horses and an open top 1905 Fiat with red spoke wheels and crossed the boulevard carrying two small coffees on a wooden tray. He placed them on the ledge of the kiosk, and Moretti paid.
Moretti put three spoons of sugar into his coffee. Leonardo left his bitter.
Leonardo said, “There’s a shoemaker in the village, Signor Felicio, who wants me as his apprentice.”
Moretti raised his hands. “Shoemaking is an excellent trade.”
Leonardo grimaced. “Perhaps. But Signor Felicio; he likes boys.”
“Ah. I see.” Moretti took his coffee in a gulp. He smacked his lips and replaced the cup on the saucer with a click. His gaze evaluated Leonardo. “I believe your father is a tenant farmer on Don Salvatore Mazzi’s property. Can’t he help get you a small farm to work on the estate?”
“My father asked, but Don Mazzi told him I wouldn’t be hired. He didn’t even offer me a job shoveling manure.”
“I wonder why?”
Leonardo shrugged. “I saw Don Mazzi once, when I was a boy. He rode up to our house. My mother was there. He stared at me but didn’t speak.”
“That’s strange. Well, no matter. I have your answer. You must go to the United States. America’s where a young man can make his fortune.” Moretti’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial tone. “In New York you can get a job and make two dollars a day. That’s many times what a tenant farmer makes, right?” Moretti placed his hand on Leonardo’s shoulder. “And once a man like you finds his way, there’s no limit to the opportunity. Like heaven in the bible, New York’s streets are paved with gold. Perhaps you’ll become rich enough to buy Don Mazzi’s fattoria when you return to Italy.”
Leonardo shook his head. “I can’t leave my mother. She’s devoted to me.”
Moretti nodded. “Of course, the bond with your mother is strong. You’re the sun, and she’s orbiting Venus, the most beautiful woman in the world. But a mother wants success for her son.”
“She’d rather I stay in the village and become a shoemaker.” Leonardo shook his head.
Moretti spread his palms. “How is life in your father’s house when you don’t work? Leonardo, you’re not a boy anymore. A man must have the dignity of his own income. Listen.” Moretti leaned close, and Leonardo felt the scratch of Moretti’s whiskers on his ear. “This is what I’ll do for a special friend. I’ll advance you a steamship ticket.”
Leonardo’s eyebrows rose. “A steamship ticket. What do you mean, ‘advance’?”
“It’s an investment. You’ll pay it back from your wages in New York.”
Leonardo tilted his head. “I don’t know. I don’t want to be in debt.”
“Would I send you to America if I didn’t think you’d make money? And that’s not all.” Moretti released Leonardo. He walked inside the kiosk. He was framed like a wanted poster. Moretti shuffled inside a small wooden drawer and came out with a stamp and ink pad. He opened a silver metal box and took out a steamship ticket. With a flourish Moretti rolled the stamp on the inked pad and pressed it to the back of the paper. His face beamed when he showed it to Leonardo. Diritto di vitto e d’allogio. “This entitles you to food and lodging. My colleague in New York, Signor Gentile, will arrange for you to have a place to stay.” Moretti extended the ticket to Leonardo. “This is an offer you can’t refuse. No?”
Leonardo stared at the paper. America would be an adventure. His mother would resist, but he had no better option. He took the ticket.
Moretti smiled. “My friend, America is your future.”
Leonardo’s father, Nunzio Robustelli, dropped his mud-crusted shoes at the door and trudged into the kitchen. His three-day grisly beard was as coarse as a Rhino’s skin. He was a short, wiry man with a full head of black swept-back hair. The shape of his eyes had earned him the nickname Chinaman from his fellow tenant farmers. He reeked of dirt and sweat. He headed straight for the jug of homemade red wine, grabbed a chunk of goat cheese, some bread, and plopped down at a wooden table next to Leonardo without a word. He carved off a slice of cheese and poured himself a tumbler of wine.
Leonardo’s mother, Anna, didn’t look up when his father entered. Her black hair was streaked with gray; her eyes were as blue as the Mediterranean. She stirred a black kettle of simmering tomato sauce on a wood-burning stove. The smell of garlic filled the house. A gray-stone fireplace was opposite the table, and a beat-up pot filled with warmed water for washing hung from an embedded cleat. Atop the crude-beam mantle was a tiny oval tintype picture of Nunzio in a military uniform. There were steps that led to a loft, Leonardo’s parents’ bedroom, with some simple wood furniture and a straw mattress. Leonardo slept on a narrow bed in the corner next to the fireplace.
Leonardo never heard his father laugh. No matter how hard Leonardo tried, his father was never pleased. Every day Nunzio was off at dawn and home at dusk. In the evening when Nunzio wanted sex with Anna, he’d order Leonardo to bed. Although Leonardo pressed his hands to his ears like a vice, his father’s muffled grunts would drive him into a fetal position. More recently, when Leonardo heard his parents make love, he’d leave the house and sleep outside.
Leonardo fidgeted in his chair. His eyes shifted between his parents. He took a deep breath and stood. “I’m going to America.”
His mother put down her ladle and turned. His father’s face chewed itself into a smirk, but his gaze didn’t rise.
Anna’s blue eyes crinkled into a frown. The creases in her face deepened. She wiped her hands on the linen apron over her ankle-length blue skirt. “I don’t understand.”
“There’s no work in Naples. There are so many competing tenant farmers that you slave all day and can’t afford bread. There’s no future for me here.”
Leonardo’s mother was rigid. His father sliced off another piece of cheese.
“There are jobs in New York. I’ll make good money.”
Anna took a step toward her son. “But Signor Felicio wants you as his apprentice. Shoemaking is a good trade. Everyone wears shoes.”
Leonardo’s eyes rolled. “Mama, I don’t want to be a shoemaker.”
Anna moved closer to her son. “What about Rozalia Valentini? She likes you. I can see it in her eyes. Her parents have promised her a house and some farmland for a dowry.”
“I don’t love Rozalia.”
Nunzio drained his glass. He glanced at his wife. “There are worse reasons to marry than for money.”
Anna’s mouth pursed. She looked at her son. “New York is so far. You’ve never been away from me.”
“Mama, you taught me that the bird leaves the nest. It’s time.”
“Is New York safe?”
Leonardo put his arm around his mother. “I’m old enough to take care of myself.” He squeezed her shoulders. She turned away. “Mama, come on. I talked to Signor Moretti in Naples. He’s an agent for the steamship line. He gets jobs for Italians in New York. He’s advanced me a steamship ticket. Look.” Leonardo took the paper out of his pocket and read the stamped message aloud.
Anna glanced at the paper in her son’s hand. “Moretti was a barker in Chiarini’s Italian circus. Now he recruits unemployed Italians to leave their homes. He’s a moneylender and a girovaghi. He’s traveled and trades in his experience like it was jewels. Why do you trust him?”
“I don’t, but a man needs to make his own way.”
Nunzio leaned back. His chair creaked. He spoke slowly as if to an idiot. “Moretti would steal breast milk from a baby. He’ll profit from you, not the other way around.” He poured himself another glass of wine.
Leonardo said, “You don’t want me to have my own money. You want me to remain under your control.”
Nunzio’s face reddened. “A few lire in your pocket won’t make you a man. When will you complete your military service? The government won’t forget you.”
“When I come home.”
Nunzio faced Anna. “I told you no good would come from his studying English.” He waved at Leonardo. “I’ve warned you. Do what you want.”
Leonardo turned to his mother. “Mama, it’s 1905. Lots of Italians are emigrating to America. I’ll make some money in New York. With steamships I can be home in ten days.” He kissed her cheek. “You won’t even know I’m gone.”
Anna’s eyes glistened. She nodded to him, but sobbed in the night. She awoke to each sunrise with dread. Every new light was one day closer to when Leonardo would leave.