W. O. P.

W. O. P.

 
By Melissa Tawn
 

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

---Emma Lazarus, 1883


 
 

CHAPTER 1. PAPERS

Her immigration permit was stamped


W. O. P.

which stands for “with out papers”. That means that the personal information which she provided

NAME: Antonia Bocci

SEX: female

AGE: 25

PLACE OF BIRTH: Angri, Italy

was not backed up by any documentation. The immigration officer at Ellis Island knew, as did just about everybody else, that “Italy” - as Metternich is said to have put it - was a geographic expression, not really a country. It did not have the governmental infrastructure that could provide reliable documentation on births or deaths. However, this did not, in itself, mean that Antonia could not legally enter the United States. After all, the USA welcomed immigrants, at least those from Europe. The officer who handled Antonia remembered that his own mother had come from Ireland forty years before with more hope than papers. She worked hard; she succeeded to some measure, married a local man, and her children were fully Americans. He had looked at Antonia sadly. She was almost sure to end up in the sweatshops of the garment district of Manhattan or Brooklyn, working 14 hours a day at a starvation wage. But she was healthy and cheerful-looking and would undoubtedly meet some nice man too and get married and raise a family. Her children, too, will be fully Americans. Her grandchildren, in all probability, would not be able to conduct a conversation with her in Italian, just as his children could not talk to their grandmother in Gaelic and the children of his colleague at the next window, Dan Cass (born Daniel Katzenellenboigen) could not talk to their grandmother in Yiddish. Welcome to the melting pot!

The immigration officer smiled back at the nervous young woman and added the final stamp to her permit.

Next!

CHAPTER 2. THE SEAMSTRESS

Antonia too smiled as she left the great hall clutching her satchel of belongings and her permit. Every bit of information written on it was wrong. Care and a hard life made her look 25, but she was in fact only 19. She was not born in Angri, but in Montecito. More importantly, she was not female, though she did dress and behave like a woman. Under her skirt, she was biologically male. And the name given to her at her christening was Antonio, not Antonia.

Antonio Bocci knew, by the age of five, that something was wrong. He understood that children were divided into two distinct groups: boys and girls. He did not understand why he was somehow put in the “boys” group and not in the “girls” group. He felt much more in common with his sisters and with the other girls his age than he did with the boys. No matter how much his mother (who died when he was six) his father, and the priest tried to explain it to him, he kept on repeating that he didn’t care what he had or didn’t have between his legs. He knew that he was a girl with as much certainty that he knew that he was a Catholic - probably more, actually, but he thought it best not to mention that to the priest. Antonio’s father was a simple man and had a simple man’s method of dealing with something that could not be explained to a stubborn child - beat it into him. The result was a state of constant warfare between father and (purported) son which ended when, at the age of 12, Antonio ran away from home. His father did not make superhuman efforts to find and return him.

For the next two years, Antonio survived by wits and cunning, drifting vaguely westward from Montecito and living by occasional odd jobs, begging, and stealing. During the winter, he slept in deserted buildings, in barns and in stables; during the summer, under the skies. He bathed in streams and stole food from the fields. Occasionally he managed to land a fish or kill a small animal for meat. Then, one day, he had a lucky break. As he passed a farmhouse not far from the town of Angri, he saw girl’s clothes hanging on a clothesline to dry. He took one dress and tried it on; it fit perfectly. Crossing himself and uttering a short prayer of thanks for what he was sure was a sign from God if not an outright a miracle, he took all of the remaining clothes and tied them into a bundle which he made from a sheet, also taken from the clothesline. He then disappeared into the forests.

A week later, Antonia Bocci made her way into the town of Angri. She told a sad tale of being orphaned from her family, all of whom were killed when their farmhouse burned down after a lightning strike. In the end, she was taken in by a local widow, a seamstress, as a combined apprentice and servant. Signora Gambolati turned out to be a kind woman. Not only did she teach Antonia her profession, she also helped her learn the deportment and manners of “a proper lady”. She found out Antonia’s secret after a few months - one cannot live in close proximity with a young girl without seeing what is to be seen - but was unfazed by it. After Antonia broke down and told her the whole story of her life, she took Antonia’s head and held it tightly to her breast. “You are a sweet girl, Antonia,” she said, “no matter how you were born. I can only wish that more young ladies would realize that being a woman is a privilege, not an automatic right.” Antonia cried and hugged her tightly. And so Signora Gambolati took it upon herself to help Antonia learn to be a woman. She became the substitute for the mother whom Antonia barely remembered and guided her through the difficult years of puberty. She showed Antonia how to permanently remove unwanted hairs from her face and body using a honey-and-wax mixture. Fortunately, there were not that many of these. Also, fortunately, Antonia’s voice never broke.

Of course, a teenage girl, and a pretty one at that, cannot escape the attention of the boys. In particular, a young man named Francesco Raffaele Nittoni paid special attention to the beautiful apprentice seamstress. Antonia liked him, and allowed him to kiss her one day in the street behind the church, and many times thereafter. However, she would not allow him to “go further”, and he respected it. Slowly, Antonia fell in love with him, and he seemed to reciprocate. However, their relationship was cut short when Francesco’s father - who had immigrated to America several years before - sent money for his wife and children to follow him to the New World. Antonia and Francesco said a tearful goodbye, and - inwardly - Antonia vowed to herself that one day she too would cross the oceans to meet him again.

CHAPTER 3. THE PASSAGE

Antonia confided her plan to Signora Gambolati. She scrimped and saved as best she could, but it was hard going. Finally, after two years, Signora Gambolati said that they needed to have a serious talk. “I am getting old, Antonia, and my eyes are beginning to fail me” she said sadly. “I can no longer continue my work. I have therefore decided to leave Angri and move in with my widowed sister in Pagliano. You have been like a daughter to me, but there is no room in my sister’s house for you too. Therefore, I am afraid that we must part. I want to give you one last present, and thank you for all you have done for me. You have been the daughter I never had.”

Signora Gambolati handed Antonia an envelope. When Antonia opened it, she saw that it contained some money and, most importantly, a paid-up ticket entitling her to one steerage-class passage to New York on a boat leaving Naples in two months’ time.

And indeed, two months later, Antonia was among the horde of people packed into the steerage accommodations of a rusting and barely-safe Greek-owned steamship headed for New York. She slept in a narrow wooden bunk bed (four levels high) in a crowded poorly-ventilated room full of the sound of screaming children and the smells of vomit and urine from the overflowing and inadequate toilets. Surviving the passage through rough seas was an ordeal which few would forget and some could not endure (over fifty of the steerage passengers died on the trip; their bodies were unceremoniously thrown overboard by the crew) but when she managed to get on deck and see the Statue of Liberty raising her torch of freedom as they entered New York harbor, all was forgotten and forgiven.

CHAPTER 4. GROWING GRAPES IN ILLINOIS

Antonia stood on the dock and thought about the immensity of her transition. From a runaway Italian boy, living off the land as best he could, she had become an American woman. She was not a citizen yet - that would take time, she knew - but she was a legal immigrant with everything to look forward to. More importantly, she was legally a woman, and had the papers to prove it. She knew she was pretty and even desirable in the eyes of men - every male under the age of 40 on the boat (including members of the crew), so it seemed, made passes at her. She had told them all that her fiancé, Francesco, was waiting for her in America. Perhaps “fianc锝 was too strong a word, but in her imagination she could see herself walking down the aisle in church with him at her side. If only … .

Antonia wanted to find Francesco, of course, but had no idea how or where to begin. In any case, she first had to get settled. She had heard enough about the tenements and sweatshops of New York to know that she did not intend to stay there. Fortunately, she had another alternative worked out.

European immigrants tended to congregate on the East Coast, where they arrived, unless they were transported farther westward, usually under the aegis of a “settlement company”. These companies would buy government land in the west cheaply or obtain it under the Homestead Act, usually fairly near a railroad line. They would then invest a certain amount of money in building materials and farming or other equipment, and bring in a group of settlers from Europe to work the land, often with an option of later buying it from the company. Each group of immigrants came from the same area, often from the same village. They brought the customs of the old country with them, and frequently the place names as well. Thus, Swiss dairy farmers settled in southern Wisconsin in towns they named New Glarus, New Berne and Lake Geneva, Norwegian and Swedish loggers settled in the forests of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, and so forth.

The settlement companies were usually formed with the idea of making a profit, but sometimes they were “philanthropically” organized by members of various immigrant associations who sincerely felt that they were helping their compatriots find a new and better life. One such company was the Columbus Settlement Society (CSS), founded in New York by wealthy Italian-Americans to help newer immigrants move out of the eastern seaboard. The CSS had several projects under consideration, but the largest of them concerned the Tolland Valley in southern Illinois.

The project began with a proposal by a St. Louis attorney named Marco Grimaldi, who sent them a copy of a long report by Prof. Harold McCann of the University of Illinois School of Agriculture showing that the Tolland Valley, hitherto unsettled, was ideal for raising wine grapes. Prof. McCann’s detailed study - over five hundred printed pages in length and full of drawings, charts, graphs and tables - considered all aspects of the Tolland Valley from a geological, meteorological, and hydrological point of view. While Illinois is usually not considered grape country, the particular soils in the Tolland Valley, coupled by the protection from the winds afforded by the surrounding hills and the abundance of good water sources, made it ideal for that purpose. Attorney Grimaldi proposed that CSS purchase the entire Tolland Valley and organize a large group of Italian wine growers to come and settle there. Members of the CSS were enthusiastic and agreed to the proposal. They authorized Attorney Grimaldi to purchase the land and change its name to New Benevento. He was also to incorporate a new company, New Benevento Vinyards. Wine experts were sent to Italy to organize a group of expert wine growers and arrange for the shipment of cuttings of the best vines to bring with them. This project was sure to be a great success (and, by the way, insure a nice profit for the CSS). All details were planned in the most meticulous way possible. Large sums of money were sent to Attorney Grimaldi to insure that sufficient building material and food supplies for the entire group be brought to New Benevento by the time the settlers arrived.

The members of the New Benevento group sailed on the same ship that carried Antonia and she befriended them. She enjoyed the company of several of the group’s members, and especially that of Giovanni Fortunato, one of the leaders who was both very smart and very hardsome. If her circumstances weren’t what they were, she thought, she would surely fall in love with him. When one of the women in the group - who was to be the town’s seamstress - died during the passage, Giovanni asked her if she would like to join the group. She gladly accepted.

So, three days after she disembarked from her ship in New York, Antonia climbed onto a railway carriage which was to take her far to the west. The train was a special one, chartered by the CSS. It carried not only the settlers but also all of their precious grape cuttings, their agricultural equipment, and other materials necessary for wine making. Nothing was left to chance and no expense was spared. As she and the others sped along the tracks, they fantasized about their new home and the paradise which awaited them.

It wasn’t there! The Tolland Valley turned out to be a swamp, must unsuitable for any sort farming, let alone growing grapes. True, there were plenty of sources of water - too many, in fact, for the poor drainage to handle. The soil was unsuitable and rocky. The hills did not block the winds which howled off of the plains. The promised construction materials and food which attorney Grimaldi was to have purchased did not appear. One of the leaders of the group rode to Urbana only to come back with the news that, according to the secretary of the School of Agriculture, nobody named Harold McCann had been on the faculty of the University of Illinois in the past 25 years. Another returned from St. Louis saying that Mark Grimm, aka Marcus Grimstein, aka Marco Grimaldi had been disbarred by the Missouri Bar Association after being indicted as part of another land scam there. His matter was still in court but he had apparently skipped bail and disappeared. His present address was unknown.

The representative of the CSS who had accompanied the New Benevento group was devastated by the events but there was nothing he could do. He telegraphed the details to the society’s executive committee, which could only sit back and calculate the amount of money which they had poured down the drain. The land deeds themselves, fortunately, were in their hands (though they did not know that Marco Grimaldi had paid much less for the land than he reported to the CSS) but everything else was a total loss. Moreover, it was unlikely that they would be able to raise any more capital to help the settlers whom they had now left stranded in the middle of nowhere. The best they could do is come up with the following offer: the deeds to the land and the agricultural equipment would be distributed gratis among those of the settlers who wanted to stay in the Tolland Valley. Those who wished to leave would be offered free railway tickets back to New York and a minimal financial compensation. Nobody would be asked to recompense the CSS for the cost of their travel from Italy to America, as had been specified in their original contracts.

The CSS’ offer split the members of the group. Most elected to return to New York and make the best of it, the same as hundreds of thousands of other immigrants, even if it meant giving up the agricultural way of life they had known. A minority decided to remain. These were dedicated farmers who thought that something of the situation could be saved. Foremost among these was Giovanni Fortunato, who was convinced that the drainage problem in the valley could be solved by building a canal connecting several of the creeks, and by clearing a certain blocked-up area. It would be hard work, but it could be done. If the settlers managed to drain the valley, and if they managed to raise some crops (grapes were clearly out of the question), they would end up owning farms which, by the standards of the villages in Italy from which they came, were absolutely huge.

Antonia was a special case. Since she was not a member of the original group, it was not clear that the CSS’ offer applied to her. On the other hand, CSS did acknowledge a certain responsibility to her. Furthermore, as an unmarried woman with no farming experience, she was certainly in no position to own and run her own farm. There were several unmarried men in the group who were attracted to her, and while the whole drama of what to do was playing out, she was besieged by attention which culminated in three offers of marriage. As a woman, she was very tempted to say “yes”, especially to the handsome and daring Giovanni Fortunato who was clearly destined to be a leader. (Giovanni, much later in his life and by then a very successful farmer, did in fact go into politics and served in the Illinois Legislature and the US Congress, but that is another story.) On the other hand, she was oh-so-well aware that she was a woman “with a difference” which men were unlikely to take too kindly if they ever found out. All of the young men who proposed to her talked about their desire to raise a large family, something that she knew she could not do. So she fell back, again and again, on her story of a fiancé waiting for her somewhere in America.

Finally, Antonia reached an agreement with the CSS to receive railway fare to Chicago, rather than New York, and a cash settlement which would enable her to set up work as a seamstress.

CHAPTER 5. CHICAGO

Antonia settled in a small apartment on South Halsted Street in Chicago. It had two rooms, one of which served as her private living area and the other as her dressmaking studio and fitting room. Chicago was a booming transportation and manufacturing center which managed to attract a large immigrant population, including many Italians, many of whom lived in the area of South Halsted Street. Before long, Antonia had a reasonable stream of clients. One of the first of these was Victoria Moresco, a well-known Chicago madam (though Antonia did not know this at first), who had recently married the racketeer Vincenzo (“Diamond Jim”) Colosimo. When Victoria heard the story of New Benevento, she was incensed and told Vincenzo about it.

Vincenzo may be a crook and a thug, but he was also a good Italian and cared about his countrymen. He did not like the idea of Italian-Americans being cheated - unless, of course, he was the one doing the cheating. So he decided to act. A week later, Antonia read in the Chicago Tribune that the body of one Marco Grimaldi, a former Missouri lawyer wanted by the police in that state, was found lying on State Street. Its tongue had been cut out and its hands had been cut off. Around the same time, Giovanni Fortunato received a letter from the “Santa Cristina Italian Benevolent Society” of Chicago offering to supply him and his group with the services of two engineers and all of the steel and concrete they needed for their drainage project, at no cost to them. The Society would also be glad to supply an agronomist who would advise them on which crops could grow successfully on the reclaimed land.

Victoria Moresco also chose Antonia as dressmaker for her growing chain of bordellos (which, in a few years, numbered almost 200). As time went on, the two became close friends. When Vincenzo invited Johnny Torrio to come to Chicago from New York, Antonia helped welcome him. Johnny and Antonia soon became very friendly indeed, and Johnny became the first male to learn of Antonia’s genital secret. It didn’t faze him and he promised not to reveal it to anyone without her expressed permission. He told her that he knew several women like her in New York, and in fact intended to employ a few at The Four Deuces, a new exclusive brothel he was opening on South Wabash Street. In fact, he knew that the person he was bringing in from New York to work there, a young kid and former lieutenant of his named Alphonse Gabriel Capone, was rather partial to women like her. Antonia asked him not to tell Capone either. She was saving herself for her fiancé. Johnny Torrio agreed, but told her that if she ever changed her mind, he knew several nice men he would like to introduce her to.

Capone turned out to be a very likeable and charming guy, in his own way. He was born in America but his mother had come from Angri, the same town that Antonia listed as her place of birth. That made the two of them practically paisani. Al worked himself rapidly up the ladder in Chicago and it was not many years before he, too, was bringing in a lieutenant from New York. “He is another paisano from Angri,” Al told her, and he is just a bit older than you are, so you might even know him.” When Antonia asked what his name was, Al laughed. “He calls himself Frank Nitti these days, but his real name is Francesco Raffaele Nittoni. He and his wife will be arriving at Union Station in two days.” Antonia blanched - after all of these years, Francesco was alive, he was coming to Chicago, and he was already married!

When the time came, Antonia accompanied Al Capone to Union Station. Frank Nitti alit from the train, accompanied by his wife, the former Chicagoan Rosa Levitt. Al introduced Antonia to them. “I am so pleased to see you again,” Antonia said to Frank in Italian. Frank looked rather bewildered. “Don’t you remember me?” asked Antonia. “You used to kiss me behind the church in Angri.” Frank was still a bit confused. “I used to kiss many girls behind that church,” he replied lamely. “I can’t be expected to remember them all.” He then asked her to speak English since his wife (who had just dug her elbow in the ribs) did not understand Italian. “Never mind,” replied Antonia. A few moments later, she excused herself and let Al take the Nittis to their hotel. Only when she was out of sight did the tears begin to flow.

Antonia was still crying several hours later, when she telephoned Johnny Torrio and told him what had happened. Johnny came right over to South Halsted Street; he took Antonia in his arms and held her tightly as she let out all of her frustration, not only at Frank but also at herself, for being a woman “in all but the most important part”. Johnny wiped away the tears from her face. “I have hundreds of girls who put that part to work every day for me,” he said, “but you are more of a woman than any of them. You are a good woman, Antonia, and you should never ever think otherwise.” Johnny then said that he knew someone - a client of the “special services branch” at the Four Deuces - whom he thought would be perfect for her. “He is a man of gold,” Johnny said, “and should really find a wife and not have use my services. He is partial to women like you, and it is a shame that he cannot find a respectable one. Let me introduce you to him.”

Reluctantly, Antonia agreed. A week later, Johnny telephoned her and told her that he had reserved a table for the two of them at one of the fanciest restaurants on Michigan Avenue. Johnny would bring the man in, but - because of prior business arrangements - could not stay. On the next day, precisely at 1:00, Antonia walked in to the restaurant and the maitre d’ showed her to the table reserved for her. Two minutes later, Johnny came through the door and with him was the man he had selected for Antonia.

Johnny pointed to the table where Antonia was sitting (with her back to them) and excused himself, after telling the maitre d’ that the entire dinner was to be put on his tab. As the man came over, he coughed politely. Antonia turned around - and nearly fainted. It was Giovanni Fortunato!

For the next two hours over dinner, and another three hours in a park next to the lake shore, Giovanni and Antonia talked and talked. She told him about her successes as a seamstress, and he told her about how the Tolland Valley had been successfully drained and turned into productive farmland. The settlers of New Benevento who had elected to remain were now prosperous farmers. He also told her about his desire for women with “special parts”, and how he hid it because he was afraid of what people would think. She, in turn, told him how much she was attracted to him on the ship and, later, in the early days of New Benevento, when he had proposed marriage to him. “I very nearly said ‘yes’,” she confided, but was afraid of what you would say when you found out what I am.” “You said you had a fiancé in America,” he said. “Well,” she admitted, “I had a boyfriend whom I elevated to the ranks of fiancé in my dreams. But I have recently found out that he married an American woman.”

“My proposal of marriage is still on the table,” he said, “if you would have me.” “I would rather have you than anyone else in the whole world,” said Antonia, and leaned over to kiss him. “And I you,” he replied, and kissed her back.

Three months later, Giovanni Fortunato and Antonia Bocci were married at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral. After their short honeymoon at Lake Geneva, they moved into the home which Giovanni had built in New Benevento. Over the years, they adopted and raised five children who were fully Americans and who, in turn, later presented them with several grandchildren. With these, Antonia had to speak English, for the grandchildren were not able to conduct conversations with her in Italian.

~~*~~

AFTERWARD: This story is fiction but, as usual, I have incorporated real people into it. All of the people mentioned in connection with the Chicago gangland are real. I had to take a small liberty with the date Frank Nitti left Angri to go to the United States (in real life, he left at the age of 12; I extended this by an unspecified few years). The Four Deuces bordello is also a real place and definitely a Chicago historical landmark.
Nothing in this story is to be taken as supporting the pejorative stereotype that Italian-Americans are all Mafiosi of one form or another. Nothing is farther from the truth. I needed to involve Antonia with the Chicago gangland in order to provide help and clout for the honest and decent settlers in New Benevento and to help reunite her with Frank Nitti. The rackets were one of many ways for first-generation immigrants (Irish, Jews, Germans, etc. no less than Italians) to advance out of the tenements of the eastern seaboard; joining the police was another.



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