Friday, February 14, 2014

my grandfather, aka: the flying phantom, one of nyc's earliest bike messengers

My father (Nicholas John Santoro)'s father Nicholas Paul Santoro passed away today at the age of 99. He was born on November 7, 1914, the youngest of seven children and the only boy (an older brother did not survive past childhood). He and two sisters were born in New York City - his parents and four eldest siblings were born in Gravina in Puglia, Italy.

My grandfather's father lost a leg in an accident (he is wearing a prosthetic leg in the picture above), so, to earn a living, he and his wife embroidered tablecloths in their apartment in Manhattan. My grandfather dropped out of elementary school to dedicate himself to supplementing the family income, eventually earning a high school diploma by studying at night. He worked in Loft's Candy Factory in Long Island City (Queens) in the 1930's where he met my grandmother Anne Mamoliti, a fellow worker who was also from a family of Italian immigrants. They married once my grandfather secured a job with the US Post Office, where he worked first as a letter carrier, then latter as assistant postmaster, until he retired. During his early days as a mailman he was in charge of special deliveries on the Upper East Side. An avid cyclist, he realized he could deliver faster, and thereby earn a few extra cents, using his bike. So efficient was his technique, he earned the nickname "The Flying Phantom" from his fellow letter carriers, who took his lead and began making deliveries by bike.

In the 1950s my grandfather was able to get a transfer from the post office in Manhattan to one in Tenafly, NJ, a suburban setting well-suited for the raising of a family – they had two children, Mary and Nick. My grandmother, who had a beautiful singing voice and loved to cook using the best ingredients she could find, became a bank teller. She died from a stroke when i was 8 years old. 

My grandfather read the New York Times every day for 80-some years. On most days during many of those years, he worked on the crossword puzzle. In his late-80s he admitted that the early weekday puzzles were easier to complete - the Friday and Saturday puzzles were becoming more of a challenge. 

He also rode his bike avidly during his retirement, slowing down from 15 miles per day to 5 or 6 miles per day only once he reached his 80's. When he turned 90 and eye trouble prevented him from riding, he continued to walk, clocking himself diligently to make sure he was getting enough exercise. Only recently did my grandfather begin to slow down considerably.  For the past nearly 15 years he lived independently in an apartment, only needing outside help in the final months of his life.

Nicholas P. Santoro died on February 14, 2014 at home surrounded by family.

In 2007 I (granddaughter Alyce Santoro) conducted an interview with my grandfather, mostly concerning his lifelong relationship with bicycles:

From granddaughter Jennifer Pitts, daughter of Mary Santoro Pitts:

Grandpa was a wonderfully steadfast, reliable, and comforting presence in my life, especially from the time I moved from San Francisco to the East Coast for college, when he became my nearest family member and his house became a kind of home base for me. He was the one who dropped me off at college for the first time — we drove up the Merritt Parkway together, while he told me about his parents, his older sisters, and his early years in New York with my grandmother. A few years later, I lived with Grandpa in Tenafly for a few months when I worked for the New York City government. He’d see me off to the bus every morning, and we had dinner together most nights. He made terrific eggplant parmigiana, and he had an inexhaustible supply of stories along with an incredible memory for detail. It’s those stories and their details that I’ll always remember most fondly about him.

He especially admired his oldest sister, Lena, who in her teens was already the family’s main breadwinner. He liked to tell how she worked her way into a management position at Metropolitan Life by submitting winning ideas month after month to the company’s contest for employee suggestions until the downtown executives insisted on meeting the young woman from the Bronx office and gave her a promotion. Maybe it was her example that inspired him to study as hard as he did for the civil service exam that got him a position at the post office when he was about nineteen. He was proud that he had beat out what he called “college men” for what was a great, steady job during the Depression.

He had recently begun seeing my grandmother, whom he’d met at the candy factory and who lived at 124th Street in East Harlem. When he started working as a letter carrier on the Upper East Side, Grandpa would send her express-mail love letters. When he arrived at the station at 6 am, he’d use the pneumatic tubes that linked post offices up the East Side to get a letter to a friend who delivered mail in her neighborhood. That friend would hand her the letter as she walked to work.

Maybe his favorite moment working for the post office happened when a letter came in to the station late one night from President Roosevelt for Mrs. Roosevelt. He insisted on delivering it right away, despite the hour, and when he rang the bell, Mrs. Roosevelt in her bathrobe answered the door. He remembered the address — 65 East 65th Street — well into his nineties.

Grandpa was still playing the violin in those days when I was staying with him. And he knew every piece that came on the classical music station and would hum along as he cooked. Though he gave up playing the violin for good when he left Tenafly, he took his love of music in a new direction when he joined the Brookside Village choral group, led by Virginia Hakim, who has been such an important part of his life. 

My daughter Lucia, who is eight and learning the violin, enjoyed playing pieces for him over the phone and on visits to Brookside. Grandpa always had both praise and a few words of advice about what to work on. He liked to tell her the old joke he told us all as kids. A little boy carrying a violin case comes out of the subway and goes up to a man on the sidewalk. “Excuse me, mister,” he says, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, my boy, practice,” says the man. Lucia feels very lucky that she was able to get to know her great-grandfather, and during her last conversation with him about a week ago, she was eager to play him her newest pieces. She will really miss him. 

When my husband Sankar and I found out that our second child was a boy, I knew right away that I wanted to name him Nicholas after my grandfather. It meant a lot to me to be able to introduce the year-old Nicholas to his 99-year-old great-grandfather this past Thanksgiving and Christmas. I hope he’ll inherit something of Grandpa’s steadiness and his affectionate nature — he’d be lucky, too, to get his Grandpa’s iron constitution and his great memory.

From grandson John Pitts, son of Mary Santoro Pitts:

My grandfather was such an intelligent, intellectually curious guy – not only was he not slowed by a lack of formal education, he was probably spurred on as a result.  He was so interested in and well-informed about world events.  At lunch two years ago, when I asked him what it was like growing up in the Italian-American community in New York, he rapidly turned that into a discussion of Italy’s politics, the timeline of key events in World War II and the Mafia’s secret collaboration with the government to help the Allies conquer Sicily!

When I graduated from UCLA, three friends and I drove around the US for 2 ½ months.  We were lucky enough to stay for two nights at Grandpa’s place on Serpentine Road where he cheerfully put us all up and fed and entertained everyone.  In addition to appreciating his great hospitality, my friends were amazed by his engagement with the modern world, definitely not stuck in the past like “grandparents they were used to meeting”.  His nearly 100 years covered probably the most pronounced, rapid development in history yet he perpetually seemed most interested by new events unfolding  He also asked a lot of questions about my friends, their families and their future plans – 20 years later, they still recall our visit with Grandpa with fondness as a real highlight of our trip.

His knowledge of and interest in the world was all the more remarkable considering he never had the chance to travel himself (and given the one area in which he remained decidedly “old-school” – he never personally had much use for the internet).  I’ve been living in London for over 10 years and he was so interested to hear about places that I’d traveled to.  Hearing about destinations he had read about but never visited himself seemed to spark his imagination.  He was instrumental in helping my mother achieve her dream of attending NYU and studying in France.  And although it was not part of his own experience, he was always supportive of me living abroad for similar reasons, something which I’m really grateful for.