StoryCorps 515: Keepers of the Temple
Michael Garofalo (MG): If I ask you to remember your childhood home, what associations and memories come to mind? Whatever you’re thinking of, I’d wager it doesn’t involve thousands of strangers visiting the place you live, almost every day of the year. But for the people we’re about to hear from that was exactly what their childhood homes were like.
Take the Bizzaro brothers, James and Paul. They grew up on Liberty Island, in the middle of New York Harbor in a house right behind the Statue of Liberty.
[MUSIC “BIRD LIFE IN THE BRONX” BY RAYMOND SCOTT]
Paul Bizzaro (PB): My father, he had the opportunity to become a guard at the Statue of Liberty in 1937, and he and my mother decided that would get us out of the contaminated city. So, we moved to the Statue of Liberty.
James Bizzaro (JB): Half of the island was for the visitors. The half that we lived in–we had that whole half to us.
PB: But we were allowed to do whatever we wanted. So, we used to go up to the torch.
JB: And if you shook enough, the whole arm would shake.
PB: You could shake the whole arm.
JB: Once my mother walked up, and we shook it.
PB: She never went up again.
JB: We used to go on the ferry to go to school. And I remember Sister Alphonsus Marie — she was tough, like a truck driver.
PB: She gave me a bloody nose one day because I was talking. The only bloody nose I ever had in my life.
JB: She was mean. But she was always talking about the island, so I invited her to come to the Statue, and we climbed the head. And she says, ”Oh!” She says, ”This is the closest I’m going to get to heaven.” But she never treated me any better or any different.
PB: We moved off the island in 1944, but my dad still commuted.
JB: And the way a person knows every corner of his house, he knew every corner of that Statue of Liberty.
PB: When he retired, it took 11 men to replace him. He was the man that kept the Statue lit. The lights, they never went out when he worked.
MG: From NPR this is the StoryCorps podcast. I’m Michael Garofalo, and in this episode stories of people whose childhoods were spent hidden in plain sight in one of the busiest cities in the world: New York.
We’ll be right back after this short break. Stay with us.
MG: Welcome back. We started this episode with the story of the Bizzaro brothers, growing up in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. It turns out, that’s not the only New York City landmark that doubled as a family residence.
In the late 1940s, just a few years after the Bizzaro family moved off of Liberty Island, Raymond Clark’s family moved into a public library.
He was a library custodian, and back then, custodians who worked for the New York Public Library system often lived in the buildings with their families.
For three decades the Clark family lived on the top floor of a branch in Upper Manhattan.
And recently, his son, Ronald, sat down with his own daughter, Jamilah, to talk about how growing up in the library shaped the man he would become.
Ronald Clark (RC): As a child, I always thought I was rich, and one day at the dinner table, I said something like, “I’m so glad we’re rich.” And my father almost choked. And my mother said, “Well, honey, we’re not exactly rich.” And dad said, “We’re poor! You understand? We’re poor!”
And then they offered my dad the position as the library custodian. And my father was the keeper of the temple of knowledge.
In some libraries, it’s all chewing gum wrappers and dust. My dad’s library, you saw nothing but wax. He would even wax the tops of the bookshelves. And when you walked up those stairs and looked down on the book stacks, they gleamed.
Jamilah Clark (JC): Did you realize how different your home was from your friends?
RC: At first, I was kinda ashamed of it as a child because you always want to be normal. I would never invite any of my friends to visit. They would always say, “This guy lives in a library. I mean, he literally lives in the library!” You know, but nobody else had as many books as I had. You had to be very quiet during the day. But, once the library closed, I was the only kid in the building! I could run and scream and jump and yell. And if I had any question about anything, I would get up in the middle of the night, go down, get out a book, read until 3 o’clock in the morning. I began to realize how great I had it because the library gave me the thirst of learning. And this just never left me.
Coming from a family in which nobody had ever graduated from high school, much less gone on to college, I was the first one. After I graduated, I got a position teaching at a college. I took my dad, and I showed him the classroom and my name on the door — Professor Clark. He just nodded. You know how Daddy is, quiet. But I saw the way he looked at it. He wanted me to have higher horizons. And I can hardly even imagine what my life would’ve been like had I not lived in the library.
[MUSIC “BEEN THIS STRANGE” BY JULIAN VELARD]
MG: Ronald and Jamilah Clark in New York City.
And I’m joined now by two of our producers, Liyna Anwar and a woman who has a name made for public radio, Afi Yellow-Duke. Hi guys.
Liyna Anwar (LA): Hi Michael.
Afi Yellow-Duke (AYD): Hey Michael.
MG: So I never knew that people used to live INSIDE libraries here in New York. Do you guys know, what did their apartment look like?
LA: Yeah, Ronald described it in the interview, and this was prime Manhattan real estate.
RC: “The custodian’s apartment had these huge French windows that opened inward and you could look out all over Manhattan. It was just a beautiful view. And I still remember looking out the windows at the skyline of New York and seeing the lights and all the other buildings and then how the sun would set and reflect off all the buildings, sort of a golden look. I fell in love with it.”
[MUSIC “RHAPSODY IN BLUE” by GEORGE GERSHWIN]
MG: Really, this seems like every nerdy kid’s childhood dream…
LA: Yea, Jamilah — who actually also grew up in the library — told me it was like “Willy Wonka’s Factory without the chocolate.”
MG: So, do they explain why the custodian would live in the library?
LA: They do. Actually, back in the day, living in libraries was actually really common in New York City.
RC: “They had coal fire furnaces and you needed someone to keep those furnaces fired all night or else the library would be cold. So the best way they realized to do it was to have someone live there. You know, you had a night watchman, someone who was there 24/7, 365. And there were cases where the building was broken into. And I remember dad and I routed a couple break-ins.”
[MUSIC “SIX FLAGS” BY ROGER PLEXICO]
MG: So, it’s safe to say that there was more to this job than just sweeping the floor.
AYD: Yea, before taking on this job, Ronald’s dad had a variety of different jobs. He was a second baseman in the Negro Leagues, and he later worked in the car tires department at Sears-Roebuck and had this incredible work ethic, and that carried over into his job as the custodian too.
RC: ”The other custodians would come to him and if they needed help or needed training, he would be the one who did it. And you know, his library was so superior, that the head of the public system would bring foreign dignitaries. To show them the New York Public Library, they’d pick my dad’s library.”
LA: Ronald’s dad didn’t have a formal education past the 4th grade, but whatever he did he did it well, and that passed that on to his son.
AYD: Yea, and Ronald himself has lived twenty lives. He learned how to build a boat just from reading a book in the library. He built it from scratch, just by reading, and then sailed it up the eastern coastline to Cape Cod. On that sailing trip, he pulled into a nearby harbor to call his family. But he accidentally dialed the wrong number and on the other end of the call was a young man who was suicidal and about to kill himself. Ronald talked him down and then actually convinced this stranger to keep living!
LA: And what we learned while we were producing this story is that Ronald was sort of always that way. We talked to one of Ronald’s friends who described him as “Peter Pan” because he would just always take them on these crazy adventures.
AYD: And his daughter grew up with that too. She literally spent her first night right at the library.
RC: “I remember we made a little cradle for you out of a drawer and we put all the soft stuff in it and everything and there you were in your little cradle in the drawer in the library.”
MG: So when did they eventually leave that apartment?
AYD: They stayed until Raymond retired in the late 1970s. Jamilah had been living there about five years and the family all moved to Massachusetts.
LA: It was bittersweet for them. They told us they were thankful for the years they got to live there, but they told us that life just never felt the same afterward. Ronald actually said to us, “Once you lived in a temple, you’re not really satisfied living in a tent.”
[MUSIC “2ND MOVEMENT” by CRANSTON]
MG: Afi, Liyna, thanks for sharing this story with us and for telling a little bit more about the Clark family.
LA: Thanks for having us.
AYD: Thanks for having us.
MG: “Once you’ve lived in a temple, you’re not satisfied living in a tent.” Anyone who’s had to leave a beloved childhood home behind can understand Ronald’s statement. And in New York City, things change so quickly and often so dramatically, that the places that mean so much to you can be replaced in the blink of an eye. The city is built on layers upon layers of memories, invisible to all but the people who have kept them fresh in their hearts and minds.
Nicholas Petron is one of those people, and the fashionable Chelsea neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan is one of those places.
Today, there are fancy day spas, pricey restaurants and bars on the block where he grew up. But once there stood a building that his family called home. A building cared for and maybe even loved, by his grandfather, who came to New York City as an immigrant from Italy.
Nicholas Petron (NP): My maternal grandfather, Rocco Galasso, was a superintendent in an apartment building for probably 18 years of his life. And at some point he bought the building and so we grew up there. He would say to me, ‘Nichole, we’re going for a walk.’
And I always wanted to go with grandpa. And he would get a pastrami sandwich the size of my head. And he would buy me a hotdog and he would say, “Don’t you tell anybody. We just go for a good walk, right? You want another hot dog?” And in this building, every apartment was filled with an aunt or an uncle, and every Sunday, Rocco cooked. So, all of his family would show up for dinner, all 30, 40 of us. And, one Sunday at dinner, Rocco made it clear to us that we were all going to have to move. That the city had condemned all of these buildings to build these brand new apartments. And so we had I think eight months to a year to relocate. And then one day, my mom, my dad, and my brother Michael and I, went to Rocco’s apartment for the Sunday meal.
Now, we no longer lived on the first floor, everybody else was gone, it was abandoned — except for that one apartment. We had our meal and at some point Rocco said to me and my brother, “Let’s go downstairs and put some coal in the burner.” And we got down to the coal pile and instead of grabbing the shovel he said, “Pick up as much coal as you can and put it into your pocket.” So we stuffed our overcoat with coal and our jean pockets with coal, and we went to the backyard. And there’s one light on and all of the other apartments are dark. And he takes a piece of coal out of his pocket and he throws it through one of the windows. And tears are streaming down his face. And he says, “Come on! You break the windows with me.”
So my brother and I just started throwing — we thought it was fun at the time — and we’re smashing windows and my mom and Aunt Lucy stick their heads out going, “What are you doing, Pop? Stop it! Stop it!” But we didn’t stop till all of the windows were broken except for his apartment.
At first my reaction was, they took his building away, that’s what I thought it was about, but I realized much later that it was about the destruction of the family, which I think he knew. A month later he had to leave, and never again were we ever together on a Sunday in that way.
[MUSIC “MILO” by FREDRIK]
MG: Nicholas Petron in New York.
[MUSIC “YEYEY” by TIPTOE INTERNATIONAL]
MG: That’s all for this episode.
These stories were produced by Anita Rao, Eve Claxton, Liyna Anwar, and Vanara Taing.
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Until next time, I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.