Monday, March 13, 2006

MANHATTAN DIARY: Huddled masses


Some journeys take you farther from where you started, closer to where you come from. Stepping off the ferry at Ellis Island, a thousand miles from home under soft skies, time and space had compressed. A thousand footsore people spilled down the heaving gangway, yearning to breathe free on dry land and speaking what seemed like a thousand different tongues. We'd already paid for passage, but most had come for Liberty, and the stop at Ellis Island was simply part of the price of admission.

It was already late in the day when we arrived. Light slanted through the enormous windows in the great hall. Over more than 60 years -- from 1892 to 1924 -- some 20 million immigrants passed through this room, this gateway to a new world, a new life. Among them was my grandfather.

On October 17, 1911, Pietro Franscella arrived on the steamer Niagara from Le Havre in northern France. He was 17, alone, having traveled from his small village in the Italian-Swiss Alps to come to America, perhaps giving his philandering father Paolo a convenient scapegoat for a young neighbor's pregnancy. He had $25 in his pocket, mostly to pay for a train ticket to Colorado Springs, where some of his mother's family lived. When the American clerk asked him his trade, he said he was a farm laborer, as so many did, but he didn't want to work in the fields. No, he told the clerk, he was not an anarchist. No, he was not a polygamist. Yes, he had a sponsor, his mother's brother in Brooklyn who'd promised to meet him at the "kissing gate."

I found a copy of the ship's manifest in one of the Ellis Island computer archives. At first, his name didn't come up and I presumed he'd been lost to pen-and-ink American bureaucracy. He'd always told the story of how he'd become an American from the start, dropping the Italian "a" from Franscella, and transforming Giuseppe Pietro Franscella to the name on my grandfather's mailbox: Joseph Peter Franscell. But a Park Service clerk peering over my shoulder suggested a couple tricky clicks, and there he was, officially and forever. He'd given only his middle name, and there was that ancient "a," proud as hell.

I paid for a laser-copy of the ship's manifest, and went out into the Registry Hall, where he'd likely waited for hours -- maybe longer -- with other immigrants to be examined and questioned, perhaps detained further, perhaps sent away. I sat on one of the old benches, my legs thick and exhausted from a day standing in lines, holding my balance aboard the boat, going halfway up every wrong block, standing in more lines, finding something to eat, and following a thousand people wherever they were going. The light had sunken further, and I wondered: When did they stop being tired? Was it when they set foot on the mainland? Was it when they stepped into the first street where they heard a language they recognized? Or did they never stop working to earn what they'd won?

Later, I wandered into a small exhibit in what was once the infirmary and looked at the things they'd carried: Wedding dresses, china, sewing machines, shawls, photographs, holy books. But they brought more, like the strange musical instruments of faraway places, porcelain figurines, even hand-painted Easter eggs. And again, I wondered: If I were a 17-year-old kid leaving home, what would I have taken? What did he take?

I can only imagine the difficulties of his journey. For me, interpreting the babble of a subway map, unscrambling the train codes, turning a dollar bill into a metro card, and screwing up the courage to dive into rush-hour's human torrent for a simple ride Uptown -- my first -- was a simultaneously vexing and invigorating adventure. I take the wrong train, it costs me, at worst, two bucks to turn around. He came much farther, and there was no going back.

My grandfather died in 1985 at age 90. He ended with far more than he brought, including three sons of his own. In 1911, he'd come West from New York, met my grandmother in Colorado, pressed farther to San Francisco and later Los Angeles, where he was a chef in a fancy Hollywood hotel and bought little parcels of land here and there. He taught me to fish in the streams of the High Sierras and cooked every meal that was ever served in his house. And although he'd long ago dropped the vowels and the names that marked him, he never lost the rich Italian accent, and thank God for that. It's the voice I hear in my dreams of him.

He never spoke of New York City to me. But he was here, however briefly. New York was the gateway to his new life. And a good, long life it was. I have spent only one day here understanding my grandfather's journey, which has now lasted 95 years. It was worth the trip because some journeys take you farther from where you started, closer to where you come from.

Statue of Liberty, 3:15 p.m. Monday


Love, Rita said...

What a neat story! My ancestors also arrived via Ellis Island from Italy (a little town bearing our name on the island of Sicily), and like you, I have done a little research into my "roots". I can't narrow down which of my those listed with my maiden name are my direct relatives, because there are several with the same first name within a few year period. At a recent family reunion, however, an aunt gave me a copy of my grandfather's naturalization certificate. I will always treasure it.

I would love to visit Ellis Island someday! Thanks for sharing

Ron Franscell said...

Rita: Ellis Island is just one of those spots in the world where something intimate and important happened for many new Americans and the generations that followed.

I was privileged to know and love my grandfather up close for almost 30 years before he died. I've slept in his house, walked with him, learned many things from him ... but standing in the great hall at Ellis Island -- the gateway to the new life he imagined --I was awestruck by what it took for him to undertake the journey. It helped me understand what I had never truly understood about his character.

Make the trip.

SingingSkies said...

My relatives arrived long before Ellis Island, but it's still a haunting and intriguing place. I don't think you'd have to have much of an imagination to hear the thousands of voices in many languages echoing throughout the building, or see ghosts of crowds in their native dress, huddled around their belongings, wondering if they could go forward or would be turned back. I think my time spent at Ellis Island made more of an impact on me than the boat ride past Lady Liberty.

I'm glad you were able to find record of your grandfather. Did you hear his voice among those in the crowd?

btw - awesome picture of the crowd and the Statue of Liberty! It's timeless!

Michael Gillespie said...

My ancestors, too, arrived from Switzerland and from Scotland long before Ellis Island, but your telling of the immigrant story, Ron, is a positively delightful to read and characteristically well-crafted. Surely your grandfather would be proud.

Anonymous said...

Very nice.

Banjo Jones said...

great stuff from NY

Don said...

That "Waiting for the Liberty Ferry" picture is haunting.

peteola said...

I too have a similar history. My dad arrived at Ellis Island around 1916 at the age of 17. His first name was Pietro and changed it to Peter. He came from Italy. I was able to find his manifest and a picture of the boat he came over on. That was so cool to see those actual papers and picture, which I was able to download and save for my Grandson. My Dad lived in Brooklyn NY and later moved to Long Island. I was raised on L.I. and got married and later moved to Colorado Springs in 1978.

daniel pianto said...

I was interested to see your story re the Franscella Family. My Franscella family were from the Brione Sopra Minusio in Switzerland and I feel they are of the same stock. My ancestor Paolo or Paul Franscella migrated to Australia and was married in Bendigo in 1868 to Mary Ann Augustina Meurillion. I would love to hear from you with any news. Paolo Franscella was born in 1842 in Brione S/M Switzerland to Filio Franscella born 1797 and Giacobina Padlina born 1809. Filipo was the son of Paulus Franscella and Mary Martinetti and Paulus Franscella was the son of Bernardus Franscella and Jacobina Pedroia. Bernardus was the son of Joannes Francella and Domenica Maggietti. So as you can see it does go back a few generations in this area. Best Wishes Daniel Pianto - Researcher and Franscella descendant from Australia.

sandilions said...

I am a Franscella. I would like to know if we are related. My grandfather was Joeseph Franscella who came from Switzerland but not sure where exactly

Ron Franscell said...

It's possible we're related. Email me directly at