By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
The first time I encountered the above phrase, which translates “The man with five hands,” I wondered what it meant. Was it, by chance, a metaphoric nickname of little significance, or one indicating a social position of notable importance? It might suggest a personage of some status, not necessarily because of a high official office, but some cultural authority over the paesani (villagers}. To put it in the mafia vernacular, “A man of respect.”
It was at the urging of Vito’s father that he was on his way to “The Land of the Dollar,” to earn and to remit a goodly portion of his wages back to the family because of its chronic need. Vito’s odyssey began at the border of his small farm village, VALLELUNGA Pratameno, Province of Caltanissetta, in the Sicilian hinterland, 37 miles southwest of the port of Palermo. The ship passage took a full month. Vito landed in the spring of 1906, not the best of years for the U.S. economy.
A naïve 19-year-old, Vito was one of a mass of Italians crossing the Atlantic in that era. The world was big and unknown and he wanted to test himself against it. After clearing customs at the Ellis Island Immigration Station, thoroughly confused by its mob-like, hectic atmosphere, he followed his compatriots from the Battery to the teeming South Bronx. The group of ten was to settle in with their paesani, who had taken over a block of tenements in the midst pf an overcrowded, noisy and ever-growing immigrant community, a phenomenon that the writers of the day described as “colorful”. Vito was the youngest of his bunch; the oldest, a veteran immigrant who cued-in the others. The great and seemingly endless metropolis was, at first glance, a heady experience. Vito hung on to his every gesture.
Alas, jobs were not for the taking. The main opportunity was at the piano factory, a complex a few streets north, employed Germans and Italians. The former consisted of skilled workers, the mechanics who built the pianos. The Italians, at seven dollars weekly, took the unskilled jobs, many of them as polishers. The two foreign groups did not get along, to no one’s surprise.
With no job and little cash, Vito was reduced to relying on the beneficence of others, living in one of the crowded tenement apartments, sleeping on the floor, and getting his meals gratis from women who knew his family back home. A daily pattern emerged. The jobless men would hangout on the street in front of an immigrant all-purpose store, a peculiar institution of the period that met many needs of the immigrants. The owner was obliging and offered a variety services including advice. It was a general store, a bank, taking in earnings, and giving out loans; in effect, a village piazza, a gathering place, the community news location. This businessman was trustworthy, one of them. Not all such merchants were honest; a few absconding with the bank savings. He was a father figure, a font of information, and Vito leaned on him.
Shortly after Vito arrived he was introduced to an older man, a paesano, the guy to go to for employment. He controlled the employee flow to the piano factory. Vito’s older brother back home had mentioned Mr. Five Hands as a friend of the family. For Vito, and the others, he was the portal through which one entered the piano factory. Big in stature, soft in voice and manner, he chose his words carefully. Well, it turned that Mr. Five Hands had his hands full; his relatives were first in line. Yes, he said to Vito, he had an extra bed but a claim from a close cousin had already been made. A job at the factory? Things are a little slow these days. We’ll see. Vito felt insulted. He wrote a letter to his brother complaining about the brush off and told him to write to Five Hands to remind him of past favors received. Vito does get a job and becomes a piano polisher. After a few paydays he found himself back on the street with the other miserabili.
The question is: How can we put into perspective the man that was known as L’uomo con cinque mani? Does it suggest mafia? That depends on your definition. We are looking at a slice of life rooted in the Sicilian culture of the day, a cultural aspect of some duration transported to America by Sicilian immigrants. Once here, it is transplanted in the fertile opportunistic soil of America. Evolving and adjusting, manifesting itself in various forms as it encounters different circumstances. One example is the Black Hand extortion racket that exploited its own kind. There was the flowering of American ethnic gangsterism, especially in the 1920s because of the alcohol Prohibition legislation, which made possible the formation of numerous crime gangs and organized racketeering on a massive scale. There were many “men of respect” glorified by the Press and enjoyed by the public, those with many hands in many profit-producing pies, who openly sought quick illicit gain. It is in that sense that perhaps Vito met one of the forerunners, the fixer of the South Bronx, who in Vito’s day lived off the sweat of others, yet did perform a vital function in the era of mass migration.
AFTERWORD L’UOMO CON CINQUE MANI. We find that this phrase had a long history, stretching back to the Feudal era. In that period, there was a ceremony, an investiture, a formal bestowal, by which a Feudal overlord bestowed on his vassal a parcel of land to be cultivated. With both of hands grasping the hands of the overlord, the vassal swore fidelity. With the vassal’s other three “hands” two of them pointed down to the soil to be cultivated, and the third pointed to himself who would see to its cultivation.
FOOTNOTE An artist’s depiction of the five hands agreement can be seen. Google search “L’uomo con cinque mani” Hit site: 1 – scuolabook. Scroll down to page 33.
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