6. BEFORE THE DELUGE (VINCENT JAMES “JIMMY” BONANNO)

Jimmy Bonanno was a union man, but he watched the WPA labor strife with no particular concern. Ever since 1933, almost six years now, he had bent over a last at the Columbia Slipper factory at Prince and Crosby Streets in New York City, turning out slippers on a piecework basis that paid him between $27 and $30 a week. He and his wife, Teresa, had one child, Frank, whose birth in May 1935 coincided with the advent of the WPA. They also took care of Teresa’s little brother, Gerry, a responsibility for which they received $20 monthly from the City of New York’s Bureau of Child Welfare, since Gerry, like Teresa, was motherless, had been abandoned by their father, and so was considered an orphan. The household’s combined income, which could approach $150 a month, was good money for the times.

What complaints Bonanno had were related not to his job but to his living situation. Their apartment, on Allen Street between Delancey and Rivington in the heart of New York’s Lower East Side immigrant quarter, had gotten too small for them, and bums were a constant presence, sleeping in the building entryway and warming themselves over wood fires built in empty oil drums in vacant lots around the neighborhood. And he was getting tired of paying 3 cents at the public baths across the street when he wanted a hot bath.

“They’d give you soap and a towel, and you’d go in and when the bell rang you had to get out. They’d give you maybe ten minutes,” he said. “This was cold-water-flats days.” In the middle of 1939, they decided to move to an apartment with hot water in Brooklyn.

Bonanno turned thirty that August. He had been born on the Lower East Side in 1909 but left with his parents for their native Sicily in 1917. After ten years, when he realized that they probably would never return to the United States despite frequent promises to do so, he and his brother Umberto came back on their own. They disembarked from the boat on a Friday in June. Jimmy, who was still called Vincenzo then, was not yet eighteen but already a man, and along with his luggage he carried a box of carpenter’s tools. These he took with him on Monday when he went to meet his cousin, Dominic Logalbo, a union carpenter with whom he now began an apprenticeship that lasted, he later remembered, “quite a few years.”

Still, from 1927 to 1929, his income as a young carpenter met his needs and more. “I was a rich man,” he said. Then came the depression. The work that had been plentiful during the good times began to disappear, and soon he was scrambling—“jumping around,” as he put it—to find odd jobs to sustain himself. He lived with his cousin, so the rent was cheap. New York’s Lower East Side had always been poor; now it was a virtual showcase for the woes of the depression. A soup kitchen opened a block away, on Chrystie Street near Rivington, and he watched the lines of people shuffle along, buckets in hand to receive steaming bean soup and rice ladled out of garbage cans. Another cousin had a barber shop on East 3rd Street, and one day the talk was all about the older upstairs tenant who had thrown himself off the roof after losing his job and spending the last of his money. There were the men who slept on park benches, one a lawyer who collected empty cardboard boxes and took them to a store on Delancey Street where neckties were made, where he would be paid a nickel for a box, but who refused handouts if he had no boxes to sell. After Roosevelt took office and government relief became a possibility, Bonanno was among those who didn’t want it. “To me, relief was a joke,” he said. “I wanted to work.”

Providentially, work appeared in the form of a job at the slipper factory. Bonanno put away his carpenter’s tools, joined the boot and shoe workers union, and began the steady routine of a slipper maker at the factory at Prince and Crosby, in a part of the Lower East Side that would much later take the fancier name of Soho. He rented an apartment on the second floor of the building at 122 Allen Street. Above him lived a taxi driver named Nick Furco, who went out every morning and drove until he had a quarter in his pocket. He would purchase breakfast with the money and bring the food home to his wife and two daughters. When they had eaten together, Furco would hit the streets again.

In his new stability, Bonanno found romance. Teresa Fiore was sixteen. Her mother had done hand embroidery on women’s coats, and it was Teresa’s job while still a child to deliver the coats back to the factories that had sent them over. This she did, summer and winter, though in the winter she had no coat of her own, only a sweater. After her mother died at Bellevue Hospital of internal bleeding, Teresa and her infant brother fell under the care of an aunt, who took them in grudgingly. Teresa went to work in a non-union garment sweatshop, where she sewed for pay of only $5 a week. This money, said Bonanno, was taken by the aunt and used, among other things, to clothe her own daughter. “The daughter was dressed like a princess. Teresa dressed like a beggar. That was how she was treated,” he recalled.

Bonanno courted Teresa for a little over a year. There was family trouble, Bonanno’s uncle at his behest complaining to the aunt about her treatment of the girl. The aunt moved out, saying to Bonanno, “You take her. I don’t want her.” Teresa was then seventeen and Gerry three.

She and Bonanno were married on January 27, 1934. Her uncle accompanied them to city hall and stood up as her father when they applied for the marriage license. The wedding was held at the Church of the Nativity on Second Avenue. Bonanno wore a rented tuxedo and Teresa a rented gown, white, with a long train and a white hat. Her hair was done in marcelled waves, she carried white calla lilies, and lipstick adorned her cupid’s-bow mouth. Her rings came from a pawn shop on the Bowery (he would exchange them later for better ones) and the wedding pictures were taken at the M. Ficalora Studios, also on the Bowery. For the reception, they went home to his Allen Street apartment with the bathtub in the kitchen and its four rooms furnished only with the bedroom and kitchen sets on which he had spent $300. “It was all the riches I had under my name, but I told her, we buy on cash, not credit,” he said. Workers at the slipper factory passed the hat and collected $35 as a wedding present. Relatives brought them towels and lamps and other household items. The sandwiches for the reception came from Buffa’s Luncheonette, where a plate of spaghetti and meatballs cost a quarter. Friends, among them a mandolin player and a singer, provided entertainment. Bonanno’s brother Umberto supplied sodas, as well as copious hard drinks that rendered the building’s super, another cousin, drunk, as well as the cop who walked the Allen Street beat. The super retired to his own apartment, while the wedding party undressed the passed-out cop, put him to bed, and later woke him up in time to get back into uniform and make his shift change.

The second year of their marriage brought a child, Frank, born on May 23, 1935. Frank was four when his parents decided to abandon the teeming Lower East Side for Brooklyn. It was a fateful move.

Two weeks after they moved into their new apartment on West 5th Street, the Columbia Slipper factory closed its doors at Prince and Crosby Streets and fled to Pennsylvania, leaving behind a broken union and fifty jobless workers. One of them was Vincenzo Bonanno.

After the relative comfort of a steady job, Bonanno was now reduced to once again “jumping around” in order to find work. When his efforts failed and the monthly $20 from the city for the care of Teresa’s younger brother was no longer enough to cover their expenses—their rent was now $30 a month, up from the $14 they had paid on Allen Street—he turned to the relief he had earlier rejected. The $11 weekly payments gave them enough to scrape by. More important, it qualified him for the WPA. In December 1939, with the summer’s strikes a memory, the WPA rolls stood at 2,122,960, down a million workers from the year before. Harrington attributed the reduction to improving business conditions, but the economy remained too slack to absorb all the job seekers who weren’t working for the WPA. Its waiting list stood at over a million, and Bonanno joined a long line of eligibles impatient to move into jobs.

In no time, however, he was working, thanks to the eighteen-month rule that churned new people into the system as established workers met the limits of their eligibility. His first jobs were small ones. He remembered that somebody handed him a shovel and he cleared out a vacant lot near his Brooklyn church, Our Lady of Grace. The next assignment was in St. George, on Staten Island, where he built shelving for food storage at the borough jail and added screens against insects. By now he had dusted off the tool box he had brought from Sicily and was rediscovering the carpentry skills he had given up when he went to work making slippers. When he rejoined the carpenters union, the WPA sent him to the airport at North Beach, where crews were working to complete pieces of the infrastructure that remained unfinished when the airport was hurriedly opened at the end of 1939. In March 1940, he was among 380 skilled workmen putting the finishing touches on Hangar Four, a steel-framed structure longer than a football field and half as wide that was to be occupied by Trans-World Airlines. Bonanno was working on a wooden scaffold inside near the roof, building wooden boxes that would route ventilation ducts to the outside. Alongside him worked plumbers and electricians who were installing sprinkler pipes and power cables.

On the afternoon of March 5, he had finished work for the day, hung up his overalls, and stowed his tools in his locker and was about to go home when the crews were ordered to hold at the airport. “My foot was already on the bus. All of a sudden they shut everything down and wouldn’t let us leave,” Bonanno recalled. Then there was a wail of sirens and he saw a column of smoke rising over the hangar, the middle one of three on one side of the administration building. A fire had broken out inside, and twenty fire trucks roared to the scene as glass in the roof and windows shattered in rifle-shot explosions, the heavy steel beams glowed red and sagged, a section of the roof collapsed, and seven-ton steel doors curled like wood shavings.

The fire was later traced to the workers’ paint shed inside the hangar, filled with volatile solvents, where a worker had hung up his overalls leaving a lighted pipe smoldering in one of the pockets. Once the fire broke free of the paint shed, it was fed by the framework of scaffolding. Estimates placed the damage to the $1.25 million structure at $250,000. Bonanno lost his tools and work clothes in the workers’ locker room, but the damage assured him of additional work when repairs commenced and the hangar was completed.

By then, however, the kinds of civic improvements that Mayor La Guardia’s pet project signified—public works, which had been the stock in trade of the WPA—were about to be eclipsed by a different kind of work. For Jimmy Bonanno, and for millions of other WPA workers, what was happening in the European war at last turned the nation’s attention to the urgent need for defense, and the resulting buildup began to produce something no one had seen in years: more jobs.

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