THE BROOKLYN ICEMAN

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BOOK EXCERPT


 

  1. Chapter 1, July, 1917

Prudent archers,  who when the place they wish to hit is too far off, knowing how far their bow will carry, aim at a spot much higher than the one they wish to hit, not in order to reach this height with their arrow, but by help of this high aim to hit the spot they wish to. 

– Machiavelli’s The Prince

It was a hot afternoon. The neighborhood odors were floating along on top of the sultry, damp, muggy air; the rotting fish that missed the trash can, the horse manure in the streets, the reek from low tide in the Gowanus Canal. It was July, 1917 in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Gino Mangiotti stepped off the curb into the cobblestoned gutter. He paused, his stout body arching and his heavy arms lifting towards his head. His face contorted into a tight scowl, eyes closed, cheeks raised and reddened. The sneeze that was building erupted violently from his bulbous nose, spraying out in a four foot arc in front of him. His body, now released from the stress, bowed forward, as he raised the sleeve of his coarsely woven work shirt to wipe. Then he regained his posture and stepped forward into the street, his vision blurry from the tearing that came with the powerful sneezing… but it was too late.

Bruno, the teamster driving the loaded beer wagon, was running late so he cracked the reins. He took the curve too fast and heard the barrels shifting in his wagon. Reflexively, he turned to look at them and did not see Gino Mangiotti in the street… but it was too late.

Gino tried to step back but tripped over his loose shoe laces, fell backwards and hit his head on the curb… it was too late. 

Bruno reined in his whining and snorting horses and came to a stop, jumping off the wagon to see if Gino was all right… but it was too late.

An old lady, dressed in black, hurried to the sidewalk, looked down at Gino, raised her hands to her face and screeched out “Morte!” 

A few blocks away Vincenzo Castella sat hunched over on the hard wooden bench of his ice wagon. His head nodded as he dozed off while his horse plodded his way back to Mangiotti’s Ice and Coal Company. Castella moaned and his face knotted each time the wheels hit a bump in the cobblestone streets, sending a jolt up to the hard wooden bench. The axles, rusty from years of the run off of melted ice, creaked, and squeaked as the old wagon moved.

In his daze, he was trying to figure out how to get out of this rotten, back-breaking, brain-numbing job of lugging thirty pound blocks of ice around all day long. Up steep staircases, down dark alleyways, and into cellars. 

It was worse in the winter. Coal! Either shoveling the dirty, dusty, heavy nuggets down the chutes into the bins or if the bins weren't close enough to the street to connect the chutes then he had to load it into wooden barrels, a couple of hundred pounds at a time, then tip the barrel on its rim and roll it over to the coal bin hatch.

Something better must be out there for him, somewhere.  

Not yet twenty years old and condemned to this slavery for life, it seemed. 

“Vincenzo, Vincenzo,” he heard someone calling, waking him from his half-sleep. He saw his friend Pietro running towards him.

“What? What is it Pietro?” Castella pulled up on the reins. Pietro jumped up on the old wagon.

Pietro was very excitable and often woke Castella out of a good sleep for no good reason. Castella was already mad at him for this time. 

“Did you hear about Mangiotti?” 

“No. What?” Castella said, rubbing his eyes with his hands as he looked around. They were a block-and-a-half from the ice barn. He reached behind him, into the wagon, for a chard of left-over ice. His hand found a piece and he ran it across his sweaty forehead and then down the nape of his neck. 

“He’s dead!” Pietro said, waving his arms in the air. “Dead!”

“What? What the hell you talking about? He’s there… ” Castella pointed in the direction of the barn, “like always, waiting for us. And where’s your wagon?” 

“No, Vincenzo, he’s dead. My wagon is around the block. I didn’t take it in yet. I don’t know what to do. I can’t—”  

“Wait, Pietro. Slow down.” Castella shifted on the bench, turning towards his friend and grabbing his wrists. “Take it easy. What do you mean? How do you know Mangiotti is dead?” Castella's voice dropped as he spoke. 

“When I went to O’Reilly’s bar, over on Atlantic Avenue, I heard,” Pietro said, pointing in that direction. “Then I saw the wagon from The Brooklyn Hospital. I asked. They told me his body was in the morgue. He got run over…or something. He’s dead Vincenzo. Now what?” Pietro said, shrugging his shoulders.

“What do you mean, now what?

 “Well, we don’t have no jobs now. He’s dead… so there’s no boss. What are we supposed to do with no boss?” Pietro shrugged his skinny shoulders and lifted his palms in the air.

“Ohhh,” Castella said, nodding, “so that’s why you didn’t take your wagon back to the barn, huh?” A half-smile crossed his lips as he crossed his arms across his body and cupped his elbows in his palms. He leaned back and shook his head. 

“Well,” Pietro said, slinking down a little and lowering his voice, “what do you think?” 

“What about Signora Mangiotti?” 

“What about her, Vincenzo? What do you mean?”

“Well, shouldn’t she decide who will be the boss now?”
“Naw,” Pietro said dismissively, waving his arm off and shaking his head with his eyes closed. “She don’t know nothing about business. There’s no business there now, without Mangiotti.”

“But, if Mangiotti dies—”

“Dead, Vincenzo. I told you he’s already dead!”

“Okay, okay. If Mangiotti is dead, don’t everything belong to his wife?”

“I don’t know,” Pietro said, smiling and shrugging his skinny shoulders again.

“I see,” Castella said. “You thinking of stealing your ice wagon, huh?”

“Well…”

“Hmm,” Castella said as he leaned back and closed his eyes.

Castella knew enough to think these things through; Pietro just reacted to the news.  After a few moments of thought he said, “No, Pietro, it can’t work like that. Somebody must know. She would call the cops. Somebody is counting the money. If it’s not her… it’s somebody else. Let’s take the wagons in and talk about it.”

“So,” Pietro said on their way home to their boarding house, “what do you think we should do?” 

“I think we go to see Signora Mangiotti… you know, pay our respects.”

“What?” Pietro asked. “What for?” he asked as he stepped around the horse manure on the streets.

“Because, let me ask you something. You know that guy? The one you sometimes borrow money from Pietro? What’s his name?”

Castella was feeling better now. His thought process energized him. He stood up to his full height of five-foot, eight inches and spoke with a sense of serious curiosity.

“Yeah… His name’s Rocco. Why?” 

They held their noses for a few seconds as they walked past the carcass of an old dead horse rotting on the side of the street.

“Well, how much you think you could borrow from him?”

“What? What are you thinking about Vincenzo?”

They stepped over a puddle of animal piss buzzing with flies. Children, playing in the streets, splashed through the smelly, dirty mess. The mortar between the old chipped cobblestones in the streets had eroded, causing depressed grids, collecting the rainwater and creating a hospitable environment for mosquitoes. The kids’ mothers, leaning out from the third and fourth floor windows yelled at them. The grandmothers, sitting placidly on the fire escapes and stoops, watched it all, serene in their knowledge that nothing ever changes. The masonry from some of the old buildings was crumbling. Rats walked along the parapets of the tenements.  

“How much you think one of those wagons cost, Pietro? And the horse?” Vincenzo stopped and turned towards his friend, crossing his arms across his chest and cupping his elbows in his hands.

“Ohhh, I see. You think maybe we should buy those wagons. From who? Signora Mangiotti? I don’t think she knows—”

“Pietro, the wagons are one thing, but what we really need is the list of all the customers. If we want to try to—”

“Stop it! What are you talking about Vincenzo? Do you have any idea? First, I can’t borrow that kind of money. I borrow now maybe two–three dollars at a time. You know… just until payday. You can’t go up to a loan shark and ask to borrow fifty… a hundred… who knows how much? And do you know who these guys are? I mean if you have a problem paying them back...” Pietro shook his head as he scratched his crotch and hiked up his pants, “Oooow. Mama Mia. Anyway, even if we had the money what do we know about running a business? All I know is how to deliver the ice in the summer and the coal in the winter. Oh no, Vincenzo, don’t think you’re gonna get me involved in this…”

Castella combed his fingers through his thick black hair as he thought about it.

The long July day took itself from golden sprays of sunlight to the grayish hues of dusk as the two young men walked over to First Street. The building where Mangiotti lived was decked out in black bunting. Several men were talking in small groups on the sidewalk. One of them, seeing Castella and Pietro pointed to the steps. They walked into the house and over to the apartment door that was open. They knocked on the door frame.

“Si?” The stout old woman, dressed in black and wearing a black lace shawl over her stark white hair, answered the knock.

Scusi, signora. Sono Vincenzo Castella. Le Signora Mangiotti?”

“No. Sono Signora Campozzi.” They spoke in the Barese dialect. “Signora Mangiotti is my daughter. Who are you?” Her eyes squinted with suspicion at these two dirty, scraggly young men.

“Castella, signora. Vincenzo Castella. I work for Signore Mangiotti. I drive the ice wagon. And this,” Castella pointed to his friend, standing next to him. “This is Pietro Patriano. He works for Signore Mangiotti too.” Castella and Pietro had their shirts buttoned up to their collars and they stood there, holding their caps in their hands, bowing slightly to the older woman.

“Come in,” she said as she stood  aside and allowed them to enter the apartment. Heavy, red velvet curtains hung from the doorway partitioning the living room from the hallway. They pushed them aside to follow the old woman into the darkened living room and they saw the open casket set up on a table next to the far wall. There were two or three people sitting around the room in plush upholstered chairs. Three wooden chairs were set up in front of the casket. A woman was sitting in the center chair, sobbing.

“That’s his wife…my daughter,” the old woman said.

They walked up to the casket, past a few wreaths of flowers, through the smoke and odor from the burning votive candles and smoldering cigars. Castella and Pietro made the sign of the cross and said a few words of the Our Father out loud. 

"He looks—"

"Dead, Pietro. He is dead. Nobody looks good when they're dead."

They turned towards Signora Mangiotti. She was looking at them, dabbing her eyes with her hankie.

“Signora Mangiotti,” Castella said, kneeling besides her, “we are sorry for—”

“Who are you?” She asked, her eyes squinting like her mother's.

“I am Vincenzo Castella. And this is Pietro Patriano. We work for Signore Mangiotti.”

“Oh.”

“We came to pay our respects.”

“Thank you,” she said, looking around the room at the others. Her mother came over and sat beside her, putting her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and drawing her closer.

“Signora Mangiotti,” Castella continued, “I need to ask you about the ice wagons. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t ask me. Ask him,” she said, nodding towards a man sitting in the back of the room.

“What? What do you mean, signora?”

“Ticcio. He bought the wagons. Ask him…if you are asking about your jobs.”

Castella and Pietro looked at each other. Pietro shrugged his shoulders, scratched his crotch, and hiked up his pants. 

“You sold your husband’s wagons? So fast?”

“Si. He came right away. As soon as he heard. I’m going back to Bari now with my family. Thank you for coming.” 

“Bing-bang-boom. Open and shut! End of the story. Plans all dashed to hell,” Castella thought. 

“You’re welcome,” Castella said as he got up, disappointment appearing in the droop of his shoulders. He looked over at Ticcio, sitting alone, still in his work clothes and smoking a cigar. They walked over to him.

“Signore Ticcio?”

“Si?”

“Could we speak with you for a minute?” Castella asked, nodding towards the door.

“Sure,” Ticcio said, shrugging his shoulders and getting up from the chair. They walked out into the hallway. 

“Who are you?” Ticcio asked, eyeing the two young men. His jacket was open showing off his expensively acquired paunch of a belly. The buttons on his shirt were straining in their efforts to hold everything in. His sparse head of hair looked like it was carefully combed over to resemble railroad tracks. Here was a truly successful businessman; they could tell. 

“I am Vincenzo Castella and this is my friend Pietro Patriano.”
Ticcio shrugged. So what?

“We…umm…work for Mangiotti. We…deliver ice.”

“Not no more, you don’t,” Ticcio said, chuckling.

“You… bought …everything? From Signora Mangiotti? The wagons and… 

the horses and all?”

“Yep,” Ticcio said, his eyebrows raising. “Why? Did you think you was going to buy the business? You two greaseballs?!”

“Well, what about… our two wagons?”

“What, Vito? What about them?”
“Vincenzo.”

“What?”

“My name. It’s Vincenzo. Not Vito.”

Ticcio shrugged.

“Well, Signore Ticcio? Do you need them too?” Castella was shifting his feet; Ticcio was leaning against the wall, looking up at the embossed tin ceiling and puffing on his cigar. “You thinking about starting a business with two ice wagons? What about coal wagons? For the winter? Ha, ha! No, boys, I ain’t selling you two wagons. Besides, where would you get the money to buy anything? I know how Mangiotti paid his men. You ain’t got enough money to buy the feed for the horses, let alone the horses!”

Ticcio threw the cigar stub to the tiled floor, stamped it out, and turned to go back into Mangiotti’s apartment. “What a joke! These two snot-nosed kids thinking they're going to swipe part of this business!” Ticcio thought. 

“Wait. Wait a minute,” Castella said, tugging at Ticcio’s sleeve.

Ticcio looked down at Castella’s hand and frowned. Vincenzo let go.

“What? What do you want now, Vittorio?”

“Vincenzo!”

Ticcio shrugged

“Well, what about our jobs, Signore Ticcio?”

“What about them?”

 “Don’t you need us to drive the ice wagons?” He asked, kneading the brim of his hat.

“That’s none of your fuckin' business,” Ticcio said, wagging his finger at Vincenzo. 

Pietro was pulling on Castella’s sleeve now.

“But, Signore Ticcio, we’re experienced. We know the customers. We know the horses. We are good workers, and we need our jobs.” Castella was leaning into Ticcio, bowing almost as he pleaded.

“So Vinella, first you want to buy the business, then you want to buy two horses and wagons, and now you just want your jobs. Which is it?”

“Anything,” Castella said quietly, not correcting Ticcio on his name this time.

“Listen kid,” Ticcio extended his hands and pressed his left index finger with his right thumb. “First of all I got two more cousins coming over from Bari; they need jobs.” Then to the index finger. “And I don’t gotta run as many wagons as Mangiotti here did…” he nodded in the direction of the apartment, “See? I put more stops on each wagon.” Next finger. “So I don’t need so many drivers, see?” 

Pietro had stepped away towards the stairs, while Castella stepped closer to Ticcio.

"Signore Ticcio," Castella said, in a low, conspiratorial tone, "what do you need? What do you want? Tell me and I'll help you get it."

"Ha! That's funny! You, a broken down cafone, is going to help me? What cogliones"

“But Signore Ticcio, what about tomorrow morning? Huh?”

“What?”

“What are you gonna do tomorrow morning signore Ticcio? Mangiotti…” this time Castella nodded towards the apartment, “ain’t gonna be there. Who’s gonna feed the horses? Who’s gonna harness them up to the wagons? Who’s gonna drive the wagons over to your place? What are you gonna do tomorrow morning? Don't you need somebody to do that? Don't you want help for that?”

***

The streetlights turned on and lit the cityscape until early the next morning.

“Good job, Valenza,” Ticcio said, standing in his barn, just outside his office. 

 “Vincenzo,” he said, wiping his forehead.  

This ignorant son-of-a-bitch has a successful business and Castella and Pietro have to work for pennies.

“Yeah. Right. Where’s Pattano?”

“Pietro,” Castella said, wiggling the harness off the braying, sweaty horse.

“Yeah. Okay. Where is he?”

“A minute or two behind me.” 

“So, how many wagons you guys bring over this morning?”

“This here’s the sixth. Pietro’s got number seven. Three more left,” Castella said as he led the horse across the straw-strewn floor towards its stall.

“Good work,” Ticcio said, looking at the clock on the wall. “After you finish, come inside and see me. Okay?” Ticcio turned and walked back into his office.

The long summer day wasted away, heating itself up into a diaphanous vapor. People worked, and sweated and ached.

“We’re finished, Signore Ticcio.”

Ticcio looked up from his desk, through the cigar smoke in front of his face. Then he looked over at the clock.

“Good job,” he said as he leaned back in his chair and reached into his pants pocket. He pulled out a few bills and proffered them to Castella.

“Thanks,” Castella said as he took the money and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve. “Now what?”

“What do you mean kid?”

“Well, we need jobs.”

“Oh yeah, right. Well, I dunno. Tell you what. Come in tomorrow. Five in the morning. We’ll see if there’s any work for you then. You did good today. We’ll see about tomorrow,” Ticcio went back to his ledgers.

The milk wagons clattered along, signaling the sun to rise again.

“Okay, boys,” Ticcio said. It was five in the morning. “Charlie and Sam didn’t show up. Probably drunk again. So I’m gonna give youse their routes to run. Here’s the list of the stops.”

Ticcio handed Castella two lists; Castella handed one to Pietro. Castella looked over his list and whistled.

“It looks like more than just one route on these lists, Signore Ticcio.”

“So what ,kid? You want to work or not? Load up the wagons and get out of here. Do the businesses first and the homes later,” Ticcio said, hands on hips.

“We won’t be back until late.”

“So?” Ticcio asked as he turned and left. 

“Vincenzo…” Pietro said, his forehead furrowing.

“Don’t worry, Pietro. There’s no writing on your list. Just numbers; the addresses. You’ll be able to read it okay, except for a few of the street names. Here… I’ll help you to read those now so you can get going.”

***

That night, on the way home, Pietro asked Castella,

“How did you learn to read, Vincenzo?”

Vincenzo had his hands in his pockets and his head drooping down from exhaustion as they walked. He shook his head; he didn’t feel like talking.

“But, when we worked on the farm, back in Italy, there was no time—“

“I didn’t work on a farm, Pietro.”

“No farm? I thought everybody here worked on a farm.”

“No,” Castella said, still shaking his head.

“So, where did you work Vincenzo?”

“In a shop.”

“A shop? What kind of shop? I thought you said you came from…where? Where did you come from again?”

“I came from Potenza.”

“Oh, yeah. The city— the big city in Basilicata. You must be the only iceman that didn’t come from Bari. What kind of shop did you work on in Potenza, Vincenzo?”

“I’m tired now, Pietro. Let’s talk about this tomorrow.”

Castella thought about his father's book shop—well, it wasn't actually his father's, he was the manager there and he hired Vincenzo as his clerk— how pleasant those days were, how much he read and learned, especially English. Potenza is a university town and the students were the shop's best customers. The girls mostly came to see him. Even though he was younger than they were, they were always attracted to the boy in the book shop. Yes, working in that shop was a very comprehensive education.

***

Then August… even hotter. People wilted and food spoiled. Children played in the puddles. Women fanned themselves with cardboard. Men drank beer, got drunk and slept on the fire escapes. 

Ice melted. Everybody wanted more ice. Ticcio added more ice to his wagons. His men groaned and complained... to each other, but not to him. 

Bastardo,” they all called him that behind his back

Ticcio stopped Castella one morning.

“Tell me something, kid, why are you wearing such a nice shirt to work on the ice wagon? And what are those red markings on the shirt?” Ticcio pointed to the lettering.

“Signore Ticcio, do you not read?” Castella asked, surprised at Ticcio’s question. And he called me a cafone! This....

“Only numbers. That’s all I need,” Ticcio said, dismissively.

“Well, signore, here on my shirt it says ‘T-I-C-O’  which stands for Ticcio Ice and Coal Company,” Castella said, puffing out his chest and pointing with his finger. “I like the way TICO sounds, don’t you?”

“Well, sure,” Ticcio said, looking puzzled. He chewed on his cigar stub and scratched his chin. “But how did you do that, and why bother?”

“A lot of my customers are young girls, new wives, home alone, some with their babies; they are new to this thing of running a house. Now someone comes up the stairs and yells out at them ‘ICE-A-MAN’. The young girl opens the door, what does she see? Your men, they look dirty, Signore Ticcio,” Castella said, shaking his head. “Most of them need a shave, and they wear underwear for shirts. The poor girl doesn’t know if they are the iceman or the house robber. She sees the ice, she lets him in, she moves away to the corner of the room, and he puts the ice in the icebox then he turns to her for the money. She pushes the dime at them as quickly as possible and gets them out.”

“So?” Ticcio asked, shrugging his shoulders and holding his palms out and up, “It's always been that way. What's the difference?”

“So,” Castella said, pointing his right pointer finger towards the ceiling. “Now, I go. I say ‘Good morning, here is the TICO Ice man for you.' She opens the door and she sees a clean shaven man with a clean shirt that says he is the iceman. I smile, she smiles. She opens the door. I go in, take out the old ice, put in the new ice, take out my rag, wipe off the drips, collect the dime, and say goodbye and leave.”

“So?” Ticcio asked again, his face screwed up in a puzzled expression and his eyes scowling, impatient with this seemingly nonsensical jabbering. 

“So!” Castella replied, with a smile of victory on his face, the sense of acquiring power where none was seen before, the knowledge that he manipulated the circumstances to provide the rewards that he wanted. “So, instead of a dime she gives me eleven cents, sometimes twelve cents, once fifteen cents. They call it a tip. The shirt? Cost me forty cents. I bought a needle and thread and sewed the markings on myself. The smile? A smile doesn’t cost a cent. At the end of the day I make the three dollars you pay me plus an extra fifty-sixty cents. Plus, now they like TICO better than the other iceman. What do you think of that?” 

“Hmmmm,” Ticcio said. “Go back to work now,” he said, shooing him away with a wave.

***

The seasons were measured by how much ice and coal was sold. When they started delivering coal Ticcio called to Castella.

“Vincenzo, come here, into my office for a minute will you?”

“Sure,” Castella answered, smiling.

“What? What are you smiling about?”

“That’s the first time you got my name right, Signore Ticcio. That’s good.”

“Okay, Vincenzo, I need to ask you something,” Ticcio said, picking up a piece of paper

from his desk. “Since you been here—what is it now? Three months?”


“Uh-huh,” Castella said, nodding.

“In that time, you brought in seven new customers.”

“Uh-huh.”

“How you do that?” Ticcio asked, frowning, his brow wrinkled into a massive knot of curiosity and suspicion.

“Recommendations.”

“The women, huh?”

“Uh-huh. They tell their friends about me. They like me.”

“Listen Vincenzo, I know you’re a nice-looking, young kid, but tell me something, Vincenzo. Are you delivering anything else besides the ice to these women?” He asked, smirking.