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I am pleased to offer this free excerpt from my award-winning book, Essays for my Father.

 

Essays for my Father

 

     I don't recall my father ever saying, "I love you, Son." For that matter, I don't remember him ever hugging me, although he must have when I was a child. He was not a cold man. We Mutis are simply not given to displays of affection. When I was enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy, there was exactly such an offense in the disciplinary code: "Public Display of Affection—No midshipman shall engage in a public display of affection while in uniform. Four demerits." I am reciting the verbiage from memory after 52 years, but that was the gist of it. I never got fried (read: put on report) for that particular offense, although the inch-thick regulation book offered an abundance of other violations for my superiors to pick from. No worries, though, when the family visited Midshipman 4th Class Richard Muti; the banks of the Severn River in Annapolis, like everywhere else, were a hug-free zone for us. The relationship between my father and me wasn't as extreme as that between the Rebbe and his son in Chaim Potok's The Chosen. There was no deliberate regime of silence between us, to toughen me for a leadership role later in life. My father's reserve was purely the result of the way he'd grown up, thrust into the role of head of family at 15.

     My father wouldn't be considered a great man by most people, at least not in the normal sense of that word. He made no scientific discoveries, invented nothing. He built no skyscrapers. He was not a captain of industry, nor did he achieve fame in any other field. He led no armies or navies and won no medals for bravery in battle. Beyond the life spans of those who knew him, he is not likely to be remembered.   

     And yet, there was something about him.

     I realized this about my father early in life, by observing the way his mother and brothers and sisters treated him. There was a certain deference paid, a respect. Like survivors of a long, hard struggle looking up to the person who'd endured it with them and was responsible for leading them through it. He was the person everyone in the family went to for advice or help. At Sunday family dinners when I was a child, with all the Muti siblings and their spouses gathered around, my father always sat at the head of the table and was served first by his mother and sisters.

     Because I was my father's son, I was automatically entitled to an exalted position in the family. In an old photo of my grandmother surrounded by grandchildren, I'm the one she's clutching closest. Years later, after becoming head of my own family, I'd often speak with my father's sister, Aunt Sally. She would invariably end our conversations with this plea: "Richard, you take good care of your father. He's special to us."

     What was there about him? What was so special? Why did he have this effect on his family? To understand, you need to know a little of the Muti family history, what went into the shaping of Mauro Richard Muti, my father.

 

* * *

 

     In late 1906, Sergio Muti, 23 years old and recently discharged from the Italian army, left his home in Molfetta on the southern Adriatic coast and headed across the boot of Italy to Naples, the major port of embarkation for Italians emigrating to America. U.S. immigration officials had a special classification, probably pejorative, for the darker, less educated, and mostly poor arrivals from the lower third of the Italian peninsula: Italian South. Still, in those days, America was truly the land of Emma Lazarus's famous poem. It took in all comers—even those who were poor, unskilled, and illiterate, like my grandfather Sergio—so long as they were not anarchists and were healthy and willing to work.

     In that regard, Sergio's story is no different from that of millions of poverty-stricken immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, leaving homes and families and enduring hellish Atlantic crossings in the bowels of over-loaded ocean liners for a better life in the New World. Some went to Argentina and Chile, establishing large European populations in those countries. Most came to America.

     The ship's manifest for the SS Hamburg, upon its arrival at Ellis Island on November 8, 1906, described Sergio Muti as having a dark complexion and standing five feet, two inches tall. In the column that specified how much money he had with him, someone wrote in $10, but then crossed that figure out and wrote "0." Fortunately, Sergio had an older brother, Nicolo, already established here and working as a longshoreman. 

     My paternal grandmother, Rosaria Potenza, was just 17 when she made the crossing in 1907. She did it on her own, except for a younger sister in tow. I still remember her story of the "tempest-tost" sea voyage they endured in steerage, Grandma's first and last encounter with a boat. In later life, an immersed ankle was the most she would venture at Coney Island or the Jersey shore, so great was her dread of the ocean. But she was fearless in every other aspect of her life.      

     I know nothing about how my grandparents met and were married. To my regret, I never thought of asking about that when my grandmother was alive (she died in 1970 at 80), although I saw her every day of my childhood and early adulthood, except when I was away at college or in the Navy. There are so many more questions I wished I'd asked, of her and of my father.

     In 1911, Sergio and Rosaria came to Ramsey, New Jersey, where he found work as a laborer paving Franklin Turnpike, an old stagecoach route that was still a dirt road in the early 1900s. They lived for a time in a small apartment at Don Bosco, a boys' boarding school. My grandfather took care of the grounds when not working on the road gang, and my grandmother cleaned for the priests. Carmella, their first child, was born in Ramsey, but after the Franklin Turnpike job ended, Sergio was out of work and, so, moved his family to Brooklyn, where he got a job on the docks, alongside his brother.

     My father, Mauro, was born in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn on January 23, 1913, but shortly after his birth, the family, at my grandmother's insistence, moved back to Ramsey. She was a country girl from Calabria and had no use for city life. Over the next 15 years, another child was added about every other year—Angie (Sally), Vince, Josie, Nick, Rosie, Tony, and Jean. Nine in all. At some point, Sergio built a gray stucco house on Carol Street. It was small and crowded, and had no indoor plumbing (that convenience was added later), but it was home. As a child, I spent many happy hours in that house on Carol Street and wrote about it in an essay that The New York Times published in 2002.[1]

     As the oldest son, my father started working early. I have his first bank book, which he kept all those years. He opened the account with his father in 1922, when he was nine years old, and deposited into it all his earnings from an assortment of jobs—newspaper boy, grocery store delivery boy, and soda jerk in an ice cream parlor. Each calendar quarter, the bank book shows a withdrawal. My father's savings went to pay the real estate taxes on the family home.

     A few weeks before my father died, when his mind was beginning to deteriorate, I tried to prod him into more lucid moments with questions about his childhood. I asked him what he remembered about his mother and father. About his father, he said just three words: "Work, work, work." About his mother, he said, "The best woman." In that house on Carol Street, there was not much verbalization of emotions. They did not feel the need to remind each other about their feelings. Love, affection, loyalty—these were taken as givens; they were expressed through actions, through the everyday struggle to survive.

     In 1928, tragedy struck the family. Sergio Muti, while working at a construction site, cut himself on a rusty shovel. To save the expense of a doctor, my grandfather ignored the injury. When his body became progressively worse with stiffness and pain, he went first to one doctor, then another. Finally, the third doctor correctly diagnosed the problem—tetanus, or "lockjaw" as it was called back then. But it was too late. On June 17, 1928, Sergio Muti died. He was 44 years old and left a pregnant wife and eight other children.

     Just as the Great Depression was about to start, just as millions were about to be thrown out of work, just as bread lines and Hoovervilles were about to spring up everywhere, 15-year-old Mauro Richard Muti, as the oldest son, became head of the family. He accepted that responsibility without complaint and offered to quit school, but his mother insisted he finish high school. So he did both, working mornings before school and nights after school and, of course, Saturdays and Sundays.

     A few months after Sergio died, my father's nine-year-old brother, Nick, cut his foot. The bleeding wouldn't stop, so my father carried him about a mile to the doctor's office—the same doctor who had correctly diagnosed Sergio's illness. The doctor was still owed money, probably a small sum, for the services he'd provided to Sergio, and he wouldn't treat Nick until he was paid. My father left his brother at the office, ran back home, and, somehow, he and my grandmother scraped together the money. Nick's foot was sewn up, and my father carried him back home.

     My father graduated from Ramsey High School in 1930. His framed diploma hangs on my office wall as I write this essay. Although he was intelligent and showed promise as a student, college was out of the question, given his family circumstances. In addition to required studies in English, history and math, my father mostly took courses in basic business skills. His first full-time job after graduation was working as a garbage collector. It was a disgusting job then, as I'm sure it is now. In those days, the garbage was hauled to nearby pig farms, there used to fatten the stock. My father couldn't eat pork for years after. When he told me about that experience, it was as though I'd been there, myself, breathing in the stench.

     Mauro dutifully turned over pay to his mother. It wasn't much, but in those days, a few dollars could feed the family for a week. Finally, though, the job got to him, and he asked his mother if she'd mind if he quit and looked for other work. He could deal with the hard work but was embarrassed to be seen by his friends collecting garbage.

     Dad got a job working for Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. and, in a few years, became produce manager for a number of its markets. His brothers and sisters were getting older by then and were helping out with the family's needs, so he could begin to think about other things besides work.

     While assigned to the Ho-Ho-Kus A&P, my father was sweeping the sidewalk one day when he spied an attractive young woman walking by. Mafalda Milano, a 17-year-old Waldwick girl, had to pass the store on her way to work. She and two sisters were domestics in the home of a wealthy Ridgewood family. I don't know if it was love at first sight, but Mauro and Mafalda began courting.

     My maternal grandfather, Giuseppe, tried, in the Italian tradition, to divert my father's attention to my mother's older and still unmarried sister, Elena, but my father would have none of that. He and my mother were married in April 1939. He was 26, she was 19. Later that same year, they opened the Community Lunch in Ramsey, a place that could have been the prototype for establishments on Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives," one of the Food Channel's most popular shows. But if it were not for my mother, Mauro would probably have kept to his $25 a week job at A&P.

     My father was not a risk-taker. Years later, when I owned shares in a few standardbred horses, I'd take him to the Meadowlands or Yonkers to see them race. He was financially comfortable by then, though never rich. Even when he "heard it straight from the horse's mouth" that one of my horses was ready to win, he'd make just a $2 bet, usually for place or show. And he was just as happy cashing those tickets as I was, collecting my considerably larger winnings.

     My mother was the gambler—she taught me how to play poker before I was out of grammar school—and it was she who persuaded my father to open up the restaurant. As the third oldest daughter in her own large, Italian immigrant family, she'd learned to cook at her mother Pia's side and had no doubt she could manage any culinary challenge that a small luncheonette could offer. They rented a storefront on Main Street for $60 a month and bought equipment they needed with no money down from a restaurant supply house in Paterson. The economy was expanding in the run-up to the war, so suppliers were eager to take on new customers and build their businesses.

     Together, "Muffie" and "Dick," as they were known, ran the Community Lunch for 16 years, staying open 24 hours a day during the war to accommodate the heavy traffic of truckers passing through town. Just about every one of their younger siblings worked in the place over the years, almost as though it were a rite of passage. I got into the act when I was tall enough to see over the top of the lunchroom counter—probably in fourth or fifth grade. My father would triple fold a white apron, just like his, and tie it around, up under my arms. I'd help out after school and on Saturdays, sweeping up, clearing tables, and washing dishes by hand (the place never had an automatic dishwasher). As I got older, I progressed to waiting on customers, working the soda fountain, and short-order cooking, besides doing the other stuff.

     My father was a volunteer fireman, and he'd often run out to answer a call—his fire truck was garaged half a block away—leaving my mother alone to take care of the lunchroom. The customers, mostly townsfolk, would cooperate on such occasions, helping themselves to coffee and pie and leaving their money on the counter. One of my biggest thrills was the first time my father responded to a fire call and left me, no older than 12 or 13, in charge. My mother was probably off taking care of my younger sisters. I'll admit to being a little scared, but I managed just fine, with no serious mishaps that I can remember.

     On good days at the Community Lunch, my father would count up $60 or $70 in the till at closing time. Not bad when coffee was a nickel and the blue-plate special, a dollar and a quarter. If I'd been working and was with him when he locked up, I'd get a dollar if business was good, nothing otherwise.

     My parents had a dream of one day opening an Italian restaurant in Ramsey—a more formal, sit-down place and not a luncheonette, a place where my mother's cooking talents would be put to better use. They achieved their dream in 1956 with the opening of Milano Restaurant, named for my mother's family.

     In the one-year interim between the closing of Community Lunch and opening of the new restaurant, I put my soda fountain skills to the test as a counterman at the new Howard Johnson's on the highway, for the huge wage of a dollar an hour. My father had taught me well: I was a star in the 28-flavor world at HoJo's and stayed an employee there through high school, even after Milano Restaurant opened.

     As a lifelong resident of Ramsey and local businessman, my father knew everyone in town, not a bad springboard into politics. He belonged to the local chamber of commerce and rose to become its president. He also joined the Ramsey Republican Club and would eventually become its president, too, but not before showing a streak of independence that angered party stalwarts.

     In the 1953 New Jersey gubernatorial election, my father backed maverick Republican Malcolm Forbes for the party's nomination. Forbes lost the primary to the organization's candidate, a man named Troast, and my father ended up voting for the eventual Democratic winner, Robert Meyner.

     The Forbes-Troast contest was my first taste of politics. I was a seventh grader at the time and remember debating a classmate as to who was the better man to represent the party. Naturally, I took my father's side. Soon after, my father began running for local office, losing his first couple of races, for county committeeman and council—once by seven votes. I passed out leaflets with him at the train station, catching commuters as they left in the morning for jobs in New York City and as they returned home in the evening.[2] Dad finally won a seat on the Ramsey Borough Council in the mid-1950s and would never lose another election. He served nine years, five as council president, leaving office only to run for tax assessor, a full-time, paid position that was an elective office in those days, but is an appointed post now. By then, Milano Restaurant had been sold.

     The business had done well, but after running through a succession of partners, including my father's brother Nick, my parents were ready to move on. The site has been home to a number of restaurants since then, the latest being the highly successful Greek seafood restaurant, Varka.

     Unlike his three brothers, my father never served in the military during World War II. I don't know why and never asked him about it, but I sense it was that same feeling of obligation to look after his mother and extended family that kept him home. The draft didn't reach his age level and dependent status (he had two children by 1943) until late in the war, which ended soon after he got his 1A classification and notice to report for a pre-induction physical. Two of my uncles—Vince as a B-24 tail gunner and Tony as an infantryman in Patton's Third Army—saw combat. Vince was seriously wounded by shrapnel after more than 20 missions over France and Germany, but recovered and returned, with a Purple Heart and multiple air medals, to his pre-war job with the post office. Tony suffered no wounds and came home with his share of French and American decorations. Nick served in the Navy, but not in a war zone.

     In my youth, I think I was a little ashamed of my father's failure to volunteer during the war—foolishly so, now that I look back on it. That feeling was probably a major factor in influencing me to spend a good part of my life in the military, first at the Naval Academy and then as a Navy pilot.[3]    

     Dad was the thriftier of my parents, by far, and we liked to poke fun at his tendency to be tight with a buck. When I delivered his eulogy in March 2000, I started out, only half-jokingly, with the assertion that almost everyone who heard the news of my father's death was saddened by it. "Almost everyone," I said, "because one group did have mixed emotions—the boys down at Midas Muffler."

     My father was proud of the fact that he'd used his Midas Muffler lifetime guarantee five times on his 1983 Volvo wagon. He kept the guarantee in a strongbox, next to his will, deeds, and other important papers. In a sense, he never was able to escape the Great Depression mentality. He thought of money in terms of 1935 dollars; he loved a bargain and hated waste. Until his illness, he ate every speck of food my mother put before him, unfailingly. My mother attributed it to her good cooking, but I suspect there was a trace of remembered days when there wasn't enough.

     Perhaps we need to rethink how we measure greatness. Perhaps the courage of a teenage boy, striving to hold his family together and to lift them up in the face of unimaginable hardship, is as important as courage on a battlefield. Perhaps the willingness of a young man to work relentlessly for the improvement of his and his family's status in life, to build a foundation upon which his children could reach even higher goals, counts as much as any engineering feat.

     Mauro Richard Muti was human; he had his share of human frailties and shortcomings. But, in a way, my father was great, too. This book and collection of essays are dedicated to him on the 100th anniversary of his birth, January 23, 2013.



[1] I loved that essay so much I included it in my first book, Passion, Politics, and Patriotism in Small-Town America, (WingSpan Press, 2008) and now include it in this collection, too.

 

[2] Fifty years later, I would pass out leaflets at that same train station, this time for my own campaign for mayor of Ramsey. Imbued with the same independent streak as my father, I ran as a Democrat—party label never meant much to me—and defeated a four-term, organization Republican in a landslide, thanks, in part, to name recognition and folks who remembered my father. The only downside to that red-letter day was that he wasn't there to see it.

 
[3] I never saw combat, although the Viet Nam War was raging during my service, and never volunteered to go, a request the Navy surely would have granted. In a way, I'm disappointed in myself for not taking that route. We all have regrets and curiosity about "the road not taken." I've learned to live with mine.





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