The Sicilian Factor

The local culture reinforced his genetic heritage. His grandfather, Francesco Scorsese, came from Polizzi Generosa, in the region around Palermo, the major metropolis of the island.1 After his mother's death, Francesco hired on as a live-in farmhand, and at the age of nineteen he fulfilled his dream by migrating to America. He settled on Elizabeth Street with his wife, Teresa, also from Polizzi Generosa. He supported his family as a laborer in the shipyards during World War I and later as a pipe fitter and then manager for the New York Steam Company, which was to become incorporated into Consolidated Edison, the major power company in the New York City region. By his son's account, he rose to a significant managerial position, despite his lack of formal education. Francesco's son Luciano, or Charles, Martin's father, was born in 1912.

On the other side of Elizabeth Street lived the Cappa family from Cimmina, a village south of Palermo in the center of the island. Orphaned at an early age, Martin Cappa left his stepparents and joined the cavalry. In Italianamerican Catherine Scorsese tells a lovely, if romanticized, version of her parents' meeting and their love at first sight. As Martin rode through town in his dashing blue uniform, her mother, Domenica, spotted him from her second-floor balcony, and an exchange of glances and a touch of fingertips started them down the path to marriage. Reluctantly leaving his new bride behind, he came to New York to seek his fortune. He eventually sent for her, and they settled on Elizabeth Street, where he supported his wife and nine children as a scaffold rigger. For a time the family tried the rustic life in Staten Island, but eventually they moved back to Elizabeth Street, where they supplemented their income by taking in three boarders who shared quarters with the eleven Cappas. In the closed atmosphere of the block, probability edged into inevitability that Catherine Cappa and Charles Scorsese would get to know each other and eventually marry.

Assimilation into American life came slowly for both sides of the family. In the film, Catherine tells about her father's taking an interpreter with him to his naturalization hearing because after thirty years in America, he still had little confidence in his English. The immigration officer expressed some dismay at his failure to learn the language of his adopted country after so many years. Martin the patriarch may not have been proficient, but he did know enough to realize that he had been insulted, and he was able to reply in the idiomatic English he had learned on the construction sites. For him, at any rate, in the closed world of Elizabeth Street and the even more closed world of his own apartment, the English language was superfluous.

Money was tight during the Depression, even for those who had regular work. Young Charles Scorsese gave up on his plans to continue his education and went to work in the garment industry, first making vests and eventually working as a presser of very expensive formal wear. Catherine Cappa, her mother, and her sisters did piecework at home to supplement their father's income and rent from the boarders. After their marriage, Charles and Catherine moved across the East River to Sunnyside in the borough of Queens, where Frank was born, and then Corona, Queens, where Martin was born (the names of their two grandfathers). When Martin was six, the family gave up the house with a lawn and trees and moved back to Elizabeth Street. Until they found their own place, they stayed with his grandparents, Francesco and Teresa Scorsese, for four months. Martin Scorsese claims that he never understood the reason for their move. One explanation he offers is that his father ran into "business problems," but this scarcely clarifies the case because he continued to work as a wage earner and never went into business on his own. More likely is an alternate explanation that they had trouble with the landlord.2 In any event, after a bucolic infancy, Martin Scorsese grew up in the very same street where his grandparents first struck roots in New York.

As a youngster Martin suffered from asthma, and as a result he had to stay close to the apartment and the neighborhood. Unable to participate in sports or the rough-and-tumble social life on the streets, "Marty Pills" (as he was known to his friends) took refuge in the movies and television. To compensate for his lack of ordinary play with boys his age, his father, and to a lesser degree his older brother, Frank, regularly took him to the movies. The family also invested in one of the first television sets in the neighborhood, surely as a means of providing Marty with a form of recreation that did not place a strain on his precarious health. For amusement, he drew sketches to illustrate stories just like the comic books, but the hobby soon matured into a form of storyboarding for film setups. His assimilation into the American mainstream, and more to the point his early understanding of the America beyond Elizabeth Street, came from the media—comics, television, and the movies—rather than from personal contact with the outside world.

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