Monday, December 7, 2009

A short story

An Immigrant's Hart Island
© 2009; Julie Suzanne Lantz;All Rights Reserved.

I, Giovanni Salvatore Terrazzo, entered my new life in 1922, laying my feet upon the land of New York. With nothing more than a knap sack, the clothes on my back and my young bride, Theresa, by my side, I landed on Ellis Island after nearly a month of voyage from my native home, a little village not far from Sicily. I was just 23 years of age. “Life in this new world will be so much better” I told Theresa, and so I set out to find my way.

Seven years had passed since my arrival & I continued to do all I could to help support my now growing family which included my children, Marco, Maria, Alfonse and Salvatore, Jr. Peddling fruit, shining shoes, picking rags, laying brick; all the tasks hands of men who belonged to the upper echelon of New York would not touch, I did. No job was too much or too little and never did I allow my pride to get in the way of the goal I set for myself as I set foot on Ellis Island – to make life better for the children I had not yet created. My young bride, Theresa, no longer resembling the young girl who arrived in this new land with me, just a mere 19 years then, bore all four of our children, with another on the way, while she took in laundry, cleaned houses, delivered newspapers, all for just pennies a month. Life was surely tough but we were happy – we had each other.

Life went on and, while dying may have seemed better than living, we had a good life. The children prospered and did well in school – Marco was the first in our family to graduate high school, receive a degree and go on to teach others. Alas, the children eventually moved away to other parts of the world, began their own families and lived their lives.

It is now fifty years later and 73 years have passed since the day of my birth. Theresa, God rest her soul, passed away just a few years back – I was now alone. Perhaps life did not turn out the way we had planned but we did reach the goal I set – life for my children was, in fact, better, and their children’s lives would be better, and so as it should be.

One spring day in 1972, while walking down the main boulevard in the old neighborhood, out of the sky came a brick, hitting me and landing in such a place on my head where survival was not an option – that quickly I died! Police were called, an ambulance arrived, and I was taken to the local hospital. Identification was not something I ever carried – Theresa, constantly reminded me New York was not like the little village we grew up in where everyone knew everyone; here, no one knew anyone. And, so, there I lay in the City Morgue, covered by a sheet – “who is this man?” I could hear voices asking. As is custom in all big cities, a certain amount of time is allowed before a body must be buried. And, so with no one to identify me, no one to call, no relatives to claim me, I was buried in the City’s Potter’s Field, a place for the unknown, the unclaimed, the poor, the indigent, and the forgotten.

It is nearly 40 years after my death and I’m still on Hart Island. Red tape, bureaucratic haggling, and the ignorance of those who could and must help, have delayed the peace of mind I and my family deserve. It appears here I will remain for all eternity and so I ask, “Must my final resting place be a place where my family is not permitted to visit? Where others are not permitted to pay their respects to me, and the thousands of others who now call this place ‘home’? Can nothing be done to help transform this most hallowed ground they call Potter’s Field into just that, hallowed ground?” Will no one plant a flower?

A great contrast in the words first spoken as I stepped off that boat so long ago, I now ask, “Is this how I end up? Is this how the “land of opportunity” pays tribute to so many who, perhaps, helped shape this city, those who probably helped build this place called “Potter’s Field”? Will no one help?”


Giovanni's story is fiction but representative, I've no doubt, of hundreds of thousands who lay bare, exposed and alone on Hart Island. The words of Giovanni, crying out from his grave, must serve as a reminder to us all that no one is disposable, no one is to be forgotten, and the dead deserve a peaceful and kind resting place, they deserve visits from family and friends, and they deserve to know they are not alone. These forgotten souls deserve to look back on their lives and know, no matter how difficult their road was in life, they will, at least, have that final resting place they can call “home”. They will be safe. They will not be alone.