(Jean (Caligiuri) McKenna recalls simple memories from a simple time of the Rockaway Beach she knew as a young girl growing up in the 1930s and 1940s).
From my earliest memory, the valuable learnings of good sense and behavior generally came from all of the traditional places we are familiar with. Manners were learned in the home; the Golden Rule, at church. And while my reading, writing and ‘rithmetic came from within the halls of old P.S. 44, some of my most treasured tutorials as a youngster occurred within the walls of a barbershop.
My father, Eugene Caligiuri, emigrated from Italy in 1891, journeying from Ellis Island to Chicago to Manhattan, before opening a local barbershop in the 1910s on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and 84th street. Active within the melting pot community, he also purchased several houses in the neighborhood, renting them out as apartments to locals. All the while, he managed to raise three children as a widower, before remarrying in his mid-50s.
When I came along unexpectedly, he was a graying and softening 60 and my growing years found an amusing relationship between us where he seemed to teeter between father and grandfather. Instead of wielding fatherly discipline, he assumed more of a role as mentor, educator and storyteller, entertaining me with anecdotes of history and moral parables. As a kid on Saturday nights (before television), instead of listening to the radio, I would head up the block to the boulevard for the early Daily News Sunday edition to follow Dick Tracy’s comic strip, then visit Papa’s barbershop after closing hours to hear him chat with the neighboring shoemaker, Mr. Novello.
On these visits I often found myself as his audience, listening heartily while he endowed me with tales of the Great Caruso’s operatic vibrato or Michelangelo’s lifelike sculptures. During the day hours, I also frequented his barbershop, zipping in and out after school or on lazy Saturday afternoons, often seeking a dime for a malt in Greenberg’s candy store or to go to the movies at the New Theater on 81st street. Amid the serenity of casual chatting, snipping scissors and talcum powder haze, it was here, in-between customers, that he ‘introduced’ me to our 26th President Theodore Roosevelt.
A large sepia-brown photograph of him held up by a brown corded string hung on the wall facing anyone entering the shop. I can remember Papa holding the scissors in his hand like a conductor’s baton pointing to the picture and convincingly declaring in his finest Calabrese accent; “See!! Thatsa Teddy Roosevelt, the besta president!! He said ‘Speaka Softly and Carry the Bigga Stick!!” From time to time afterwards, as if giving me an indelible lesson, Papa would proudly recite this mantra often quoted by President Roosevelt. With prideful delight, he also told me, with great gusto, that he had the honor of shaving him once, years before as a young barber. He would habitually remind me of this as I listened dutifully, usually with one youthful foot out the door. I knew nothing of politics as a youngster, so I just took what my father told me as gospel, assuming that his personal liking for the President naturally came from serving him with a shave.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that these two men, with very different backgrounds, shared a commonality of values that forever touched the communities around them.
“Speak softly, carry a big stick, and you will go far” was a favorite proverb used by Theodore Roosevelt, and while history remembers him for leading the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill, forging the Panama Canal, and trust-busting with a ‘Big Stick,’ he achieved even more through his ‘Speak Softly’ diplomacy. As president, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by brokering peace in the Russo-Japan War, as well as winning over the common American with a ‘Square Deal.’ He believed in lifting up citizens of all color and class on the spirit of merit and many a dispute was resolved through good sense and empathy for his fellow man.
My father, serving, shaving and renting to various customers and tenants of color and Jewish faith, endeared himself to them with a congenial kindness and respectful manner, as they were the ones who (as he always reminded me) “put the butter on our bread.” He may have quietly allowed buffers on due rent if there were hardships and always had a welcome glass prepared on the liquor tray when a guest came to pay the rent. Though generous, my father too carried an invisible ‘big stick’ that read ‘no shenanigans’! He believed in the ‘fool me once’ adage, but never wore it on his sleeve. People seemed to know this and never took advantage of his valued trust and good faith. In fact, his speak softly approach fostered such a mutual respect and affinity that there was nary a problem, as I even recall tenants showing up Saturday mornings to our house on 84th Street, eager to pay their rent on time to him. How this small elderly affable man navigated through waters without hardly ever a squabble became clearer to me over the years. The ‘Big Stick’ that stoutly allows us to stand firm in trials may never be needed when guided by the small but persuasive rudder of speaking softly with goodwill and respect. That may explain how an unassuming Italian immigrant found admiration and common ground with a larger-than-life robust American cowboy; they both spoke the same kind of ‘language.’
In my child’s eye, this kindled my own lifelong admiration for Teddy Roosevelt, as he and Papa became entwined together as two great Americans, each in their own unique way. Over the years, as the occasional summer or autumn visit to the Roosevelt Museum home on Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay would rekindle this admiration, it would, too, bring sentimental memories of my father along with it. I was always touched by Papa’s unwavering affection whenever he motioned to the President’s portrait. There it hung on the wall of the barbershop until it was razed to make way for the Hammel Houses in 1950.
In my youthful haste I never thought to ask exactly where or when he crossed paths with Theodore Roosevelt; as New York City Police Commissioner in 1895? as Governor in 1900? or as President Roosevelt. In 1911 after leaving office, Roosevelt was involved in the promotional campaign for a tuberculosis hospital in Neponsit and letters to Jacob Riis at the time, suggest that he may have visited both Coney Island and Rockaway. Could it be the former President stopped in for a shave on Beach 84th St. and Rockaway Beach Boulevard? The possibility was real! How I wish I asked when I had the chance! A lesson not forgotten!
Several years ago, I attended a July 4th celebration in Old Bethpage Long Island and there was a costumed impersonator with a reasonable facsimile of the iconic Mr. Roosevelt, the spectacles, mustache, knickers ‘n boots-such a likeness! I could almost feel he was the real thing. I went over to him and asked him, “Mr. President, do you remember when my father Jimmy Caligiuri shaved you?” It was perhaps the only time in recorded history ‘Teddy Roosevelt’ appeared puzzled and speechless.
Though I will never know if those treasured learned days of my youth occurred in the same room where Theodore Roosevelt once sat down for a shave, they will always be synonymous with my father’s loving stories and my first real lesson in American history. If called to the head of the class today, I could still loyally recite with pride, the life wisdom I learned long-ago from his barbershop classroom; “Cherish Every Lesson; Listen Heartily, Ask Eagerly, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick: You Will Go Far.”
Somewhere, Papa and Teddy Roosevelt are smiling!
By Jean Caligiuri McKennaBLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS