Read an Excerpt
“Should I spend all of my time dancing to become like Fred Astaire or all of my time with a bat and ball and be Phil Rizzuto?”
The winter was mild with little snow in New York City in 1939. Just east of town, in a marshy wasteland in Flushing Meadows, construction proceeded on exhibition halls and pavilions for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In spite of the dark war clouds hovering over Europe, the fair’s theme was one of international cooperation. The exciting lure of the World’s Fair went unnoticed by most immigrant families trying to survive in an unsteady economy and struggling to pay fourteen cents for a quart of milk and nine cents for a loaf of white bread.
On Tuesday, January 10, a child was born to a Sicilian immigrant and his American- born Italian wife in an apartment in Harlem. As is the old Sicilian custom, this third son would be named after his father. Salvatore Mineo Jr. was a healthy baby.
“The original pronunciation of our family name was ‘Min-ayo,’” Sal explained, “but we use the Americanized ‘Min-ee-o,’ with the accent on the first syllable.”
Josephine, a short, well-proportioned woman, was adamant that only English be spoken in her home. Quiet by nature, Mr. Mineo was always self-conscious about his accent, though he was fluent in English. With the exception of a few words and phrases, Sal never learned to speak Italian.
Two days after Salvatore Jr. was born, a gangster was murdered just outside the Mineo apartment, and his parents decided to move their family immediately. They took a small, three-room, cold-water flat on the fourth floor of a brick building in an Italian section of the Bronx. The monthly rent was $20. The bathtub in the middle of the room doubled as a dining table. “The move,” said Sal, “was a step up.”
“My father was born in Sicily,” Sal explained. “He came here when he was sixteen, and for two years he could only get odd jobs, doing all kinds of dirty work.” Salvatore Mineo Sr. was tall, lanky, and darkly handsome. He fled Sicily in 1929 with nothing more than a sense of adventure and a wooden mandolin strapped to his back. In the daytime he sawed wood for carpenters, laid bricks, and carved little animals in ivory and wood that he sold on the street. In the evening, he courted a young, American-born Italian girl named Josephine Alvisi.
“My mother was born in New York City of Neapolitan parentage,” Sal recounted. “My dad tried to date her, but she wouldn’t go out with him—not unless he could speak English. When he finally took her out, she was amazed at how quickly he had learned the language. Here’s a guy with ambition, she felt.”
Salvatore married Josephine in 1931 when they were both eighteen years old. He was working as a cabinetmaker and fi nish carpenter when their fi rst child, a son named Victor, was born in 1935. A second son, named Michael, was born two years later.
When Salvatore Jr. was born in 1939, his father had begun working for the Bronx Casket Company. In the beginning, Salvatore handfinished the coffins. “My father was so good,” Sal said, “they made him a foreman. He worked like a dog—even nights. It was my mother though who really made him. Here you are, she told him, working like a dog for others. You should be working for yourself, and for your children.”
The family struggled for several years. The three boys slept in one bed in a small room off the kitchen. Sal wore hand-me-down clothes. Their baby sister, Sarina, born three years after Sal, slept in a nearby crib. “We always had plenty of food,” Sal recalled, “but we did eat lots of spaghetti.”
“Pop and Mama came to realize that they couldn’t make a go of it on the money he was earning,” Sal explained. “And so Pop decided to borrow money and start a business of his own. He knew something about coffin making and chose that as the business he’d sink or swim with. My father didn’t have a dime, but friends insisted on putting up the money to back him. So, in 1946, he went into business with my uncle, and they opened up Universal Casket Company.”
To begin, the Mineos rented the basement of the building they were living in for the coffin business. A small room was used to show two casket models for prospective clients. Salvatore worked slowly and meticulously, crafting one or two caskets each week.
Josephine decided her husband needed a secretary. She scraped together a staggering $160 and took a business course by correspondence. At first, she did her husband’s accounting at night. But Josephine was ambitious. She told her husband that in addition to doing all the bookkeeping, she would solicit orders on his behalf so he could concentrate on making coffins.
Her husband worried about their four young children. Josephine had this problem figured out as well. “Some days,” she said, “so they don’t forget who are their parents, they come to the shop and they stay with us.
“Of course,” Josephine explained, “I had to take them to the shop more than I thought I’d have to. Because they were only children and they couldn’t seem to stay home all day without me and not get into some kind of mischief.”
The boys loved to play jacks and marbles in the gutter and swing like monkeys on the fire escapes, climbing up one and down the other. They played stickball with broom bats in the street, and Sal and Mike regularly got into trouble for dropping piss bombs (urine-filled balloons) on unsuspecting, and sometimes targeted, passersby beneath the roof of their building.
Kathy Schiano, a childhood friend, recalled Sal fondly. “Sal was just so little, and always trying to keep up with his older brothers. He just threw himself in the mix. Victor stuck close to his younger brothers, but Sal and Mike were thick as thieves.”
“The first five years were the toughest,” Sal recalled. He never forgot what it was like for his father in those early days. “I never saw a man age so fast. He and my uncle used to do all the work themselves—hauling lumber, making the caskets, painting them, even delivering them. My mother used to go down every day. And as soon as they were old enough, my two older brothers worked at the company. And as soon as we were old enough to handle tools, Pop taught us how to pitch in and help with the repair work. Soon all of us boys could use a paintbrush, splice a wire, and solder a pipe.”
Sal’s main job was staying at home and babysitting his sister. “I guess that’s why I’m so close to her,” he said. “I took care of her—everything from feeding to good-night stories when my parents were working late. Sure, I wanted to be out playing with the other kids, but we all had to help out.”
Every penny Mr. Mineo earned went back into the business, and still they struggled. But Mr. and Mrs. Mineo somehow managed to ensure that none of their children ever wanted for anything. “Even if they had to deprive themselves,” Sal added. All three sons got the same treatment, too. If one boy wanted a bike, then all three boys got bikes.
The kids in the neighborhood challenged Sal all the time about his father’s business. “A guy would come up to me and ask, ‘What does your father do?’ knowing exactly what he did,” Sal said. And Sal would defiantly clench his fists and answer, “He makes caskets. What are you going to do about it?”
From the Hardcover edition.