I grew up the son of a Teamster. My Mom and I got two checks. One, we stood in line for down at 250 Church Street at the Welfare Office. The other came in the mail from the Union. My dad’s union benefits were our lifeblood after he died. I was brought up to believe in “Unions and the Brotherhood.” The actual name was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. We were a ‘local 237’ family. The checks were written to Antonio Avitabile, but the guys at work and around the neighborhood, and in my family called him “Chippo.”
On the second night of my Dad’s wake, about 25 men showed up. They were all mostly Italian and Puerto Rican, short beefy guys with big mitts. They were all in suits and ties. Some were obviously uncomfortable in these rarely worn formal clothes. After paying their respects at the coffin, they approached my Mom and I, who were sitting up front. I don’t know what they said to my mom, but to me they each individually said the same thing, almost as if they had all gotten together to practice it outside before they came in. For the most part it was similar to, “Yer Fadda, was a great man. If it weren’t fer him, I’d of been a bum.”
I was grateful for their paying of respect but totally lost as to what they were talking about. My dad was a truck driver. He drove a stone truck for a Pizatello Stone Works in the Bronx. So I walked up to my uncle Jimmy, who also worked in construction. I asked him what they were talking about.
He led me outside the funeral home into the Bronx night. Then he said the words that you never want to hear at your dad’s funeral; “Your Father didn’t want you to know this while he was alive…”
My heart sank; I steeled myself for what was to come.
Flashback 1960: I was 6 or 7. My dad would come home from work to our 5th floor walk up tenement. He’d be cut, his jacket ripped and splattered with blood. He had been in a fight. For my young cartoon-like understanding of the world, he expressed his condition as the result of having “squashed a bug”. That was code language between my father and me for his squashing a Volkswagen Beetle with his huge truck. He hated those German cars (he was a WWII veteran). And to my Bugs Bunny schooled view of the world, I’d imagine he flattened the Beetle and the guy who drove it came out of it all flat with his arms flailing screaming like Popeye, “Hey… Whad’ya doin? Ya big Galloop!” Then I imagined my dad would jump down from his truck and they’d go at it. The fight would look like a giant fur ball with fist, dirt and # signs flying as they rolled around. And I’d always ask, “Did you beat ‘em up dad?” And he’d say, “Yeah, I beat him up.”
Well, that night of my dad’s wake, Uncle Jimmy brought that cartoon episode into stark living color, in live action, with all the grit, dirt and blood. He told me that my dad was a union organizer. In those days they go onto a jobsite and try to organize the workers into a union. Of course the management was wholly against this, and they had hired goons who would come down and “break heads” with bats, bottles, bricks, whatever was handy. My dad’s injuries and ripped clothes were the result of battling for, and winning these men a living wage. In fact, the men who came to his funeral that night, were immigrant workers, who were forced to work for 5 dollars a week. Because of the union and guys like my dad, they were able to make a real income. They were able to provide for their families. Many of them were able to send their kids to college and as a result many doctors, lawyers and teachers were created by that battle in trenches of the American labor movement. A noble fight in which my dad, Antonio (Anthony) “Chippo” Avitabile was a soldier, and on that night, the night of his wake, an honored soldier.
Editors note: To top it off, Tom attended and was student council president of Samuel Gompers High in the Bronx. Named after the labor leader and co-founder of the AFofL-CIO