Thursday, May 23, 2013

Men at Work: The Pete Charlia Story

If you wandered the streets of my New York City neighborhood these days, you would be hard-pressed not to conclude that the economy is rosy and jobs pretty plentiful—in the blue-collar, build-and-fix things trade at least. Scaffolding is everywhere. Local streets are forever being dug up to repair or replace antiquated infrastructure. Old edifices are being torn down and new ones are going up. Area homes are being gutted and rebuilt to twenty-first century standards that beget twenty-first century rents. Hard hats, street dumpsters, and cigarette butts are ubiquitous.

Now, while I’m certainly pleased there are all these jobs for all these people in these difficult times, I can’t help but resent having to run daily obstacle courses in my travels and endure the incessant noise that comes with the territory. Gone are the days when men at work and such mayhem appealed to me. Granted, I was only a ten-year-old kid at the time when a six-story building went up across the street from me. The foreman in charge of the construction crew was a man we all knew as “Pete Charlia”—a little Italian guy with a potty mouth and boxer shorts that rode up his stomach and backside, too. He was ahead of his time.

In the 1970s, Italians—from Italy no less—were still building things in these parts. And we kids in the neighborhood relished watching them ply their trade. The grating sound of a pile driver was music to our ears. When the building’s foundation was initially laid, a handful of daring youth—much older than me—would walk along its maze of concrete and risk serious injury or worse. In no uncertain terms, Pete Charlia informed us one day that he intended to push—to his death if need be—the next kid he caught in his work in progress. This way, he reasoned, the others would learn their lessons and appreciate the risks of falling into the abyss of his foundation. Invading his domain, which was fenced off to keep interlopers out, had its consequences after all.

I don’t know why I thought of Pete Charlia today—some four decades later—as I observed so many men at work. And, guess what, the man’s last name probably wasn’t “Charlia” after all. A Google search of the surname took me to the United Kingdom and Australia, not Italy. His first name was probably “Pietro,” too. Pietro could very well have been in his thirties when we knew him. But everybody seemed so old to us back then. Pete Charlia—or whatever his real name was—could still be among the living all these years later. But I can't help but wonder where his life took him after this building job in the Northwest Bronx. On his staff was a tractor driver that we nicknamed the “Head” because he wore a variety of headwear, including a Slapsie the Cook hat, to ward off the hot sun. Even with our often errant youthful divining of ages, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the “Head” is dead. Whatever became of the whole lot of them, I don’t know, but I’m happy to have known Pete Charlia and his crew all those years ago.

P.S. The photograph is of my father, not Pete Charlia. The pile driver, however, belongs to Pete.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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