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The Journey to America
Joe Giordano Joe Giordano
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Austin, TX
Thursday, November 24, 2022


At the Naples marina the sun broiled humanity like chops on the grill. Leonardo and Anna were on the street at the edge of the crowd. Peasant men in brimmed caps and ill-fitting vests and women in white blouses and billowing ankle-length skirts held onto wide-eyed children and waited to be called for pre-board inspection. Many churned aimlessly around the concrete apron of the port like confused inmates in a mental hospital. Fruit vendors and cheap watch peddlers called out their offers. Mendicant Franciscans solicited alms and competed with threadbare beggars with open palms. Stress sweat vied with rotted fish and raw sewage for the dominant odor. Every baby cried. Carretas choked the Vico di Via Porta entrance to the marina. Prospective passengers’ mule carts were loaded with the bureaus, tables, chairs, casks of wine, kegs of olives, rounds of cheese, and huge cloth bundles tied with grass ropes they intended to take aboard ship. Carabinieri in blue uniforms with silver belts and swords at their sides, wagged their fingers at the owners. Furniture was not permitted; protests were ignored.

A shout of pain turned heads. A dentist in a white smock held a bloody tooth in a pair of pliers. A man was doubled over and held his jaw. The dentist raised his voice for the next person who wanted to board ship toothache free.

Leonardo clutched a cloth satchel that contained the copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy his mother had given him, plus some shirts and underwear. He looked over his mother’s shoulder.

Anna took Leonardo’s hand. “Your father’s not coming.” She had on her only jewelry, gold earrings with antique coral centers.

Leonardo took in a breath and nodded. Anna’s face was wet with perspiration. She patted her forehead. Leonardo called out to a buxom woman who carried an earthenware pot. She sold drinks of water in a common glass. Leonardo paid her, and Anna drank with hands gnarled from heavy toil. The water was warm and flavored with the slight taste of licorice. Leonardo put his arm around his mother. She clung to his waist.

A call rose from the pier, “Germanese.” Passengers for the Norddeutscher Lloyd ocean liner were told to make their final farewells to family and pass through the iron spear pickets of the border control area. The moored Prinzessin Irene’s gray 172-meter length loomed on the horizon. The steamship’s twin stacks smoked black; the whistle let out a long hollow moan. Passengers who’d sailed to Naples from Genoa, the ship’s port of origin, looked down from the railings like gargoyles.

Leonardo hugged his mother tight. She said into his ear, “Be careful in New York.” Her tears dampened his cheek. She pressed a blue envelope to Leonardo’s chest.

He saw the folded edges and raised his eyebrows. “Mama, where did you get money? And dollars?”

She squeezed his hand. “You’ll need this.”

“I don’t want your money.”

She pushed the envelope into his jacket. She shoved a small, wrapped package into his satchel. “It’s some bread and dry sausage for you to eat on the boat.” She gave him a wet kiss on his cheek.

Leonardo’s eyes were damp. He hugged her. “I’ll be fine.”

Their hands slipped slowly from each other’s grasp. He picked up his bag. His mother’s blue eyes welled up. As he walked away from Anna toward the enclosure, he shot looks at her over his shoulder. Anna’s hands held her face. The crowd filled in behind him. He lost sight of her, and emptiness filled his heart.

Other passengers made final hugs of farewell. Men and women’s faces had tracks of tears. Murmured prayers for safe passage were in the air, along with cries of, “Buon viaggio e buona fortuna.”

At the black-gated entrance, a gruff inspector stopped a child, eyes red-rimmed with trachoma, and she was turned away with her mother. A woman whispered it was their third attempt to emigrate. Fear rose on many faces that they might also be stopped from boarding. Leonardo brushed aside dark men who offered to sell him fake passes for the health inspection and counterfeit baggage-fumigation tags. Leonardo shook his head, but some passengers paid. Inside the capitaneria, officials in white uniforms emerged from a dark building like conjured ghosts. They shoved Leonardo along into the steamship broker’s office where his passport was verified, and the American consular agent confirmed his name on the manifest. An official grabbed his sleeve, and he was hustled to the next stop. Before he realized what was happening a doctor roughly peeled up his eyelids to check for trachoma and tousled Leonardo’s curly hair to detect the yellow crust of favus. After he was cleared, an official pushed Leonardo ahead. Behind him officials rejected an older couple as unfit for travel. Another official jerked Leonardo into the vaccination station. Women shrieked and children wailed around him. Leonardo removed his shirt, and the doctor inoculated him for smallpox. Leonardo was pushed ahead before he was dressed. A rotund clean-shaven official behind a table looked into Leonardo’s satchel. He grabbed the cloth-wrapped sausage and bread and held it to his nose.

Leonardo said, “My mother gave me that.”

“Not allowed.” He dumped the food into the trash.

Leonardo gasped. “What did you do?”

“All hand luggage is fumigated.”

The bag was dusted and thrown back in Leonardo’s face. His ears turned scarlet. “Give the food back.”


“You bastard.”

Rotund raised his finger. “Another word and you don’t board.”

Heat spread across Leonardo’s face. He showed a skeleton’s grin.

The man gulped and leaned back. His voice cracked. “It’s the rules.”

Leonardo took two breaths, and the sea breeze cooled his face. He moved on.

Alongside the gangplank, six derricks slung steamer trunks onto the deck above. Leonardo scaled the steep incline like Mount Calvary among passengers dressed in farm clothes, some in Roman refinery, shod or barefoot. The people toted bulbous cloth-wrapped bundles, valises, and fiber baskets. The procession resembled an army of industrious ants.

On deck, Leonardo pushed to the railing and peered out. He saw his mother on the street. Aside him, passengers waved handkerchiefs, parasols, and hats. Leonardo stretched and waved his arms, hoping she could spot him, but Anna didn’t respond. He struck a wooden match, lit a crumpled bit of paper, and held it overhead like a torch to draw her attention, but the wind blew out the flame. He shouted, “Mama,” but she couldn’t hear him. On the pier the high-pitched voice of a young tenor rose with a plaintive song, Addio a Napoli. Other voices tried to join in but cracked with sadness. Leonardo looked at his mother, standing alone, and clutching a handkerchief to her mouth. Tears streamed down both their faces.

When all the compartment baggage was stowed, the first and second-class passengers were escorted aboard to the decks above Leonardo and the other third-class passengers in steerage. The gangplank was withdrawn. The ship’s horn gave a long blast, and the metallic metronome of twisting engine gears began. The screw turned, and the ship was underway. The fading light of day turned Vesuvius purple and gave the gray-blue clouds pink underbellies. As the ship cut through the Bay and passed Capri, the sight of the white buildings of Naples dissolved to black.

An official with a fireplug physique in a black-luster coat and dirty pique cap with a megaphone announced the distribution of ration tickets. He gave Leonardo a jute-wool blanket roll. Inside Leonardo found a tin spoon, fork, cup, a small pan, and a little red card that read, “Good for One Ration.”
Below deck, Leonardo found the men’s sleeping section, hundreds of double-tiered iron bunks in blocks of eight. The mid-ship bunks were steadier when the ship rolled. Those close to portholes with better air and light were already piled high with baggage. Leonardo felt his way into a dark section and found an upper berth above a Turk, who wore a red fez and embroidered jacket. A burlap-covered jute mattress was thrown over the iron slats of the bunk. It was as lumpy as a bag of rocks. A cork-filled life vest was a makeshift pillow. Leonardo’s nose crinkled at the stench of coal fumes. He lay back and closed his eyes.

Soon after the ship reached full speed, sixteen knots, the dinner bell jolted Leonardo awake. He grabbed his tin pan and utensils and squeezed along the companionway with dozens of other men. Atop the steep iron stairs women and children emerged from their sleeping section and converged with the men on deck. The cooks and stewards lugged great troughs of food and baskets of bread, which they lined up along a narrow passageway so that the mass of people were forced to form a rough line to receive their meal.

Above Leonardo on the first-class deck, Horatio Branden, a partner in an uptown Manhattan law firm and his wife, Edith, stood surveying the dinner scene below. He said, “Look at that mob. The Italians are dirtier than the Negro, and the children are diseased.” Branden banged his hand on the ship’s railing. “The policy that allows this rabble to come to our shores is pure folly.”

Edith said, “Horatio, how can you be so cold?”

Branden sensed something in his wife. “Edith, what are you thinking to do?”

“I’ve talked to the other women. We can’t abide the children not having something decent to eat while we feast up here. We’ll drop some fruit and candy down to them.”

“Edith, don’t. There’s a steerage class for a reason. The crew won’t allow it. Don’t embarrass me.”

“You’re too easily embarrassed.” She walked away.

As Leonardo moved past the tanks of food, cooks ladled out macaroni, a chunk of beef, and boiled potatoes on the same small plate topped with a slice of bread. Red acid-flavored wine was poured into his cup. It took Leonardo an hour to be served. He shrugged at the first mouthful. The food was cold, but he hadn’t eaten for twelve hours, and he wolfed down the meal.

By the time he’d finished eating, Mrs. Branden and a number of other women were calling for the attention of the children and dropping apples and oranges into their hands. The children screamed in delight. An officer wearing a black coat went up to the women. His palms were raised as he tried to stop them. The ladies ignored him and only left the rail when their fruit supply ran out.

Leonardo rinsed his utensils in the cold seawater provided. A sailor was stationed to limit each passenger to one cup of drinking water. Leonardo filled his cup with potable water, swished some in his mouth, and swallowed. There’d be no baths until he was again on shore. When they finished eating, many passengers dumped the leftover scraps onto the deck for the crew to swab and hose away. The stewards did a half-hearted job, and Leonardo almost fell in the slippery mess. Some passengers had taken their meals back to the bunks. Morsels littered the floor and mattresses. A few tried to throw food through portholes, many missed the mark. The smell of strewn food mixed with the now active use of the toilets. At night the deck watch required everyone to stay below. In his bunk, Leonardo tossed and turned in the stinking miasma around him.

The next morning the ship’s hatches were open, and a stab of sunlight awakened Leonardo. His hand went to his face. His left eye was sore and swollen half closed, the effect of a bedbug bite during the night. His right arm throbbed with vaccination aftereffect. He was groggy, but the breakfast bell got him out of bed. Topside, Leonardo waited his turn in the food line. He was given a biscuit and coffee. He plopped down onto the deck beside two middle-aged men. The coffee was weak. He tried to crack the biscuit in half without success. He said, “These things are like tufa.”

The first man had a three-day beard and bushy eyebrows. He put the biscuit between his teeth and gnawed. He grabbed his face. “I think I broke a tooth.”

The third man had a scar from ear to chin. He took out a stiletto and cleaved off a chunk. He popped it into his mouth. His face crinkled, and he spit out the crumbs. “It tastes like seawater.”

The three men looked at each other, and they sailed their biscuits over the side of the ship. They laughed.

Bushy brows extended his hand. “I’m Beppo Lucchese from Messina.”

The man with the scar said, “I’m Giuseppe Fontana from Naples.”

After Leonardo introduced himself, Beppo said, “This is my third trip to America. I’m headed for a coal mine in Pennsylvania.”

Giuseppe said, “This is the first time for me. I was promised a job as a mason in New York.”

“You two are lucky. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing.”

Giuseppe asked Beppo, “What are the women like in America?”

“The Americans won’t look at you, and the Italians want to get married. I have two wives, one in America and a second in Italy.”

Leonardo’s eyebrows rose.

Beppo shrugged. “It was a practical necessity.”

They all laughed.

As the Prinzessin Irene sailed along the south of France, the wind raised whitecaps and soon the ship rolled along deep swells. Leonardo’s face turned white, and he grabbed a cleat to steady himself. His gut rose to his throat. The sensation he felt was both uncomfortable and unknown, and sweat glistened on his forehead. He retched, and what was in his stomach spewed out like a fountain. The putrid smell of vomit compounded his misery. The ship pitched savagely, and he was thrown to the starboard deck. He crawled to the hatch. Many other passengers were in a similar state. They made use of the handrail to stumble down the stairs. The darkness and disorientation of the lower deck as the ship rolled caused Leonardo to retch again. No one could control themselves, and vomit sprayed everywhere. Leonardo clawed like a blind man along the line of bunks and managed to reach his. He pulled himself onto the jute mattress.

Prostrate, he felt some relief from the nausea. But the roll of the ship threatened to throw him down to the floor. He urgently grasped the iron edges of the bunk. Some passengers reeled from the odor of the vomit and the toilets and tried to make their way back on deck. They collided with those coming down the steps, and the stairs were clogged with tangled bodies struggling in opposite directions. There were cries of anguish for God to help them. Some moaned. Leonardo wondered if his misery would ever end. He was sure that if Dante had sailed in the Prinzessin IreneThe Inferno’s deepest circle of hell would’ve been seasick victims in steerage.

When the dinner bell sounded, Leonardo lifted his head, but his stomach rose, and he fell back onto the bunk with a thud. Leonardo’s heart pounded.

Few passengers were able to leave their bunks to claim the evening meal. Those who struggled to get on deck collected the pile of macaroni, beef, and potatoes, but managed to swallow only a few mouthfuls. The officers decided to make a health inspection. Stewards held scented cloths to their noses as they walked through the bunks and shouted for people to come on deck. Leonardo didn’t move. A burly steward stabbed Leonardo in the side with a baton. He flushed red. He climbed shakily down from the bunk. The face of the Turk in the lower bed was yellow. Slick smudges of vomit covered the floor and some men fell. Leonardo walked hand over hand, bunk to bunk, as if he traversed the side of a cliff. Step by step, up the stairs he went. On deck, he fell to his knees. Around him, men, women, and children spilled on top of each other like straw. Below deck, the crew swabbed and hosed as much as was possible. Stewards pulled people to their feet for the doctor to examine. A steward roughly grabbed a woman by the left arm. She cried out in pain. Leonardo’s ears turned red, and he rose.

The woman saw his face and begged him not to retaliate for fear she’d be barred from entering America. Leonardo’s death’s head grin caused the steward to take a step backward.

The next morning the ship anchored near Gibraltar. The Mediterranean was calm, and Leonardo decided he could go on living. Bumboats arrived carrying Spanish and Portuguese passengers as well as some additional provisions. The ship was underway in an hour. That evening Leonardo ate some of his macaroni and afterwards practiced English phrases with Beppo and Giuseppe.

On the third day’s sail in the Atlantic they hit a gale. Clouds rushed toward the ship like galloping horses. The ship’s bow rose up a gray wall of water and plunged down into the swell. The captain ordered passengers below. Sailors battened down the hatches, but seawater washed over the ship and flowed into steerage. The high winds brought some ventilation, but the stench from the toilets, vomit, and coal soot overwhelmed all. The ship rolled to port as if it would founder. The Turkish man below Leonardo fell out of his bunk. His eyes were open, but he didn’t rise. Leonardo watched him slide back and forth with the roll of the ship until the storm passed. A doctor arrived, pronounced the Turk dead, and two sailors removed the body. Leonardo relieved his seasickness by lying prostrate. Every time he lifted his head, the specter of nausea rose in his gut. He left his bunk for a nibble of food, the toilet or, when demanded for a health inspection. After four days, Giuseppe shouted down to him that Sandy Hook was sighted. Leonardo struggled up. He had to see land.


Excerpt from Birds of Passage, an Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story

Birds of Passage: An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story – Kindle edition by Giordano, Joe. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

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