Joe Villari

In the 1940 Census, he is listed as the head of household at 912 Tree Street, Lower Moyamensing, Philadelphia PA. His wife, Frances, was a bit younger. Both were born in Italy (my Mother, Maddelena Villari, seemingly did not know her Mother was not born here, because she told me otherwise); Joseph in 1895, Frances in 1900. He arrived as a 16 year old at Ellis Island in 1911, after boarding a ship in Naples. I remember holding the woolen cap of his U.S. Army uniform, in which he served from 1918 to 1919, when he was sent to Camp Greenleaf, Georgia. The army record is surely accurate. I remember Grandpop (and I had only one, since my paternal grandfather died before I was born) telling me about the time that he and some army buddies scoured the streets of Chattanooga, TN, looking for a plate of spaghetti. I figure that Camp was no more than 20 miles away over the Tennessee line. If that was the worst that happened to Joe during his hitch, he didn’t have it so bad. He was naturalized in 1919.

He was not an educated man, although he was literate in that he could read and write. He got as far as third grade in Sicily, and Grandmom, the seventh. I was never quite able to figure out the details, but, God love them, they had an arranged marriage in Philadelphia, and they were inseparable until the end–over 50 years of marriage starting in 1922. I can remember Grandmom getting exasperated with Grandpop, usually starting out with “Joe!” But I never saw them fight. I never saw him really angry with her, or with anyone, for that matter. They were a big part of my world growing up–Hell, they were my world growing up. And I was lucky. Day care in extended Italian families was all part of the deal; and for me, it worked out wonderfully. I had four parents.

For a cabinet maker and a seamstress, they didn’t do too badly. They had three daughters and an income that would have been worth over $50,000 today in 1940. I remember when Grandpop died, my father, “Lou Larkins”, helped settle the estate. Dad was not the communicative type, but he was stunned at what Grandpop had been able to do. “Rich, I don’t know how the Hell he did it,” which was more or less a direct quote, a it being a stash of US Savings Bonds, that astounded my Dad. Yes, they raised a family, and yes they owned three homes in their lifetime. But they had no real expenses other than food, clothing, and shelter. Their family was everything. And I mean everything. And they were raising it in a country of genuine opportunity, genuine mobility, and, for what it’s worth, genuine democracy of which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was their patron saint. You may say, correctly, “but your grandfather was listed as ‘white’ on the census form”. Other Sicilians, like the ones who got strung up in Louisiana, were less fortunate. That was the extent of Joe’s white privilege. The rest was work, and I saw it, so don’t be giving me any crap. Maybe that country no longer exists. I frankly don’t think it does. But that does nothing to diminish what two very modestly educated immigrants achieved.

Joe’s life was uncomplicated. He went to bed around 8 or 9 PM. He rose at 4 AM. He commuted by trolley, subway, and the Ben Franklin Bridge to RCA Camden where he worked as a cabinet maker until 1960, when he retired. His big entertainment was the Friday Night Fights on our RCA (naturally) cabinet tv. He tended his garden in the front of the house–the rosa bushels (“rose bushes”) and enjoyed a glass or two of wine with spaghetti, bracciole, or some close substitute every night in the kitchen. The wine came from Tomasello in Hammonton, NJ, in large glass jugs. Vintage Tuesday, probably. He re-bottled it in a Four Roses Whisky bottle and after dinner, usually smoked his pipe on the front porch, depending on the season. Until he was well into his sixties, I never saw Grandpop in Church. That was for Grandmom, and I guess he had a good bit of that bred-in -the-bone anti clericalism that Italian men often had. In fact, the only real dispute I remember between him and Grandmom was over some building project at Saint Donato’s that Monsignor Pasta (Honest to God, could I make it up?) was dunning the parishioners for. I don’t know how much was involved, and I was a little kid. But I got the impression he thought Monsignore should keep his hands out our pockets. As he got older, and mortality dawned, he’d go on Sundays, usually dressed beautifully in a suit and box coat that would’ve done Luca Brasi proud.

Joe was stout. His English was a thing of beauty, and his son-in-law, Stan the Man, compiled quite a Joe Villari Concordance. When he finally moved out to the suburbs in the early 1960s, Grandpop set up a real vegetable garden that was in production all summer long. His deadly enemies were the “habbits” (rabbits) and them God-damna squirrels. What little profanity he used he saved for his varmint foes, although “managia” and “pada Madonna” did make an occasional appearance. Sicilian he saved for card games with his buddies, and I couldn’t understand a word. Of course, wine, laughter, and the less-than-transparent rules of the game, “Abriscula” (Briscola for Tuscan purists) didn’t help. Man what a character he was. When he was decked out in his rumpled farming clothes, deeply tanned, and grinning from ear to ear, he was a sight. If I managed to make an appearance, I’d be greeted with a boisterous “Reechee old boy!” I’d give anything to hear that again. It was no accident I took “Joseph” as my Confirmation middle name. In my own weird adolescent way, I thought he’d be with me forever. My friends fussed over Joe and Frances–“Such handsome people,” one said. Damn right. Dignified, hard-working, unassuming, you name it. How could you not love them?

When I say that Joe and Frances were generous with their family, I’m not exaggerating. In their house in West Philly, I can remember a time when Mom and Dad, yours truly, and an aunt who had taken ill (with her husband) were all in residence. Yeah, it was a big house, but Joe’s attitude was his entire family should be there. And on the major Catholic holidays–Christmas, Easter, New Year’s–everyone was there. We had these massive family dinners laid out in the kitchen, spilling over into the dining room, with turkey, spaghetti, soup, nuts, salad, fruit, pies, cakes, beer, wine, whiskey, more or less like in the Godfather holiday meal scene, sans fisticuffs. The benign Philadelphia presence of broadcaster John Facenda (our Walter Cronkite) was always hovering in the background on Channel 10, to the point where he was–as in so many other Italian families–more or less an honorary guest. These were all day affairs, at least, starting sometime early in the morning and stretching into the night hours. And always with Grandmom intoning “Nobody’s eating!” although Grandpop did a good imitation. Yeah, there were all the usual frictions. Probably even more I had no inkling of. But with Stan the Man and Joe Villari around, you really didn’t have to pretend much that we all liked each other, because sure as Hell, everyone liked them, and some kind of transitivity seemed at work.

I didn’t just like Grandpop. As a little kid, I worshiped him. In the summers, I guess when he was on vacation, he’d take me to the park to play horseshoes. He’d get me crackers and a soda. I think he let me win a lot, because I remember once I didn’t and started crying. God, he was so upset, but really amused at the same time. We’re talking about an event that probably occurred 65 years ago, so if you think his kindliness didn’t make a Hell of an impression on me, guess again. In 1960, he retired from RCA. I remember the surprise party the family gave him, the shocked look on his face as he came through the door on Haverford Avenue. That night, for the first time in my life, I got to stay up past midnight, all thanks to Joe, who joined me in watching Science Fiction Theater before the tv station signed off. Now you want to win a kid’s heart: let him win at horseshoes and stay up past midnight. It’s not complicated,

1960 was, in a lot of ways, a really critical year. Over Grandpop’s objections, my Mom and Dad moved just across the City Line to verdant Penn Wynne, which is today some kind of fairyland suburb that enjoys all the virtues of diversity, inclusivity, political liberalism, a Great Public School, you know, all that stuff that owns the Libs. Back then, it was nothing special, and some of the neighbors openly feared the integration of the neighborhood by Eyetalians (I first heard dago and wop on the mean streets of Lower Merion, for God’s sake). I think my Mom was worried I was in training to become some kind of city hoodlum, which seems laughable now. So for a while, I saw less of Joe (and Grandmom). I got yanked out of Saint Donato’s, where I was happy, and sent to Presentation BVM, where I was not. But in the meantime, not to be deterred, Joe found a nice stone house with a back back yard (i.e., potential farm site) in Penfield, a ten minute walk from where we had moved, albeit in Delaware County, far less distinguished than Montgomery Country. Who cared? We were practically reunited. Thank God. Suburbs or not.

I spent a lot of time at that house, particularly after school, in the years leading up to high school. Joe and I watched a lot of afternoon tv, which, in those days, seemingly included a lot of news. The news was not always good , with Cold War vibes, albeit leavened with Jack Kennedy’s press conference humor (and you wonder why Trump made so many of us ill?). There was also a good dose of Bull Connors’ dogs in Birmingham mauling Black people on film, great afternoon fare. Which we all watched in stunned and disgusted silence. I can say–and I’ll swear to it–I never heard a racist word in any language come out of Joe’s (or Francis’) mouth. Grandpop solemnly told me that Democrats were for the working man (him) and Republicans were for the bosses (them) and that was that. I think I unconsciously absorbed that assumption being around them so much. Joe had been out of work for three years during the Great Depression. He would’ve wondered how the Hell anyone with a brain in their head could have classified that as voluntary unemployment based on rigid money wage. Meanwhile, Grandmom, a crack seamstress, went out to work, sending her three daughters to be monitored by her mother on Cross Street in South Philly. You detect any running themes here: family, taking care of each other, a kind of gentle class consciousness based on decency and a peasant Catholic culture–if not rigorous church attendance? We do for each other. That’s a given. We’re loyal to each other. That’s a given. Coppola got a tart and aggressive version of it right: never take sides against the family. Besides, why would you want to? It wasn’t enforced by guns, dammit. It was enforced by an unself-conscious and implicit understanding of this was how the world worked. And, maybe until 1960 or thereabouts, it did.

Mercifully, Joe Villari died suddenly in 1978. He never suffered, and he was literally in the arms of his daughter and son-in-law, who frantically tried to revive him. His death almost killed my grandmother, who simply withdrew from life for a time. I remember running my fingers through his beautiful head of white hair at his wake, not quite comprehending what had happened. My Mother kept numbly repeating “He was so good to us.” I said goodbye at his graveside, in the bitter February cold, and walked away. I went back to his house and got plastered. Life was never the same.

The ship that brought 16 year old Joe to Ellis Island

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

5 thoughts on “Joe Villari

  1. Another magnificently written piece of family history. I marvel at the parallels and similarities. When we moved to Newtown Square from Wissinoming (lower Northeast) when I was 6, my mother’s father looked at the backyard and started talking about vegetables, farming, and chickens. My father was not so accommodating. But that’s another story. But we did end up with a huge garden, and my brother and I “turnda over” a lot of ground. The big family gatherings, the food, the bickering (rarely arguing, just bickering) . . . we both lived it. I have only one regret, and that is, before my grandfather died when I was 14, I had neglected to pick his brain for every bit of family history and life in Italy before he emigrated. Fortunately, Mom had done some of that before I had arrived and when I was young, so this time around, trust me, I have picked Mom’s brain. Still.

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  2. I guess that coming from related “peasant Catholic cultures” is partly what helps some of us to understand each other across the borders that very different people drew in 1848.

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    1. When I got the differences in Mexico straight–and you know there are plenty–I often felt with my Mexican friends like I was living at home. After a bit it was home. I showed a picture of Joe to a friend of mine at the AGN and he remarked “Parece muy Latino.” Lo fue.

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  3. Thank you my friend, another Rich piece of writing. My dad’s parents lived in West Philly too. My main memory was Mom Mom’s never stopping food assembly line. It was unbelievable the amount of food that a kitchen the size of a closet produced. Sadly, my cousins, all girls, have been trying to replicate, unsuccessfully, some of the recipes for the last forty years. So much is lost because when we are young, life is about tomorrow, not realizing the the future stands on the shoulders of the past.

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