The Gresco Family
Little Italy/Chicago, June 1942
The war in Europe continued to escalate as the United States prepared to enter the war in retaliation to the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. The war forced the United States to begin the rationing of food, gasoline and other commodities.
Running south to north, South Wabash Avenue was lined on both sides with bakeries, butcher shops, fruit and vegetable stands, and clothing stores, all situated at the street level of four-story apartment buildings.
The avenue was alive with activity from 7:30am when stores opened, until dusk when all stores closed because of the ever-present threat of an enemy aerial attack. Every few days the sirens would disturb the night’s silence resulting in the dimming of all streetlights as people pulled down their shades. From an aerial night view, Chicago would disappear.
On the corner of South Wabash & 11th street, you could hear the paperboy every morning and afternoon shouting, “Extra, extra, read all about it” bringing the latest news on the war and any other major stories to everyone within earshot.
All of which was transparent to eight-year-old Theodosio Gresco (Theo) as he raced and darted between the crowds of pedestrians that cluttered the streets of the Chicago area known
as Little Italy. The shoppers-mostly women - looked to buy their groceries for the day before heading off to the city’s war factories. In the afternoon, the pedestrians consisted of military men -Navy personal ready to hit the nearby bars or eateries. By the end of the day, the crowd transformed to women and men returning home from work, picking up last - minute necessities.
During the summer, the local elementary school provided breakfast and a recreational area for the neighborhood kids where they hung out while their parents worked. Unlike other kids, Theo’s parents worked in the neighborhood and as a result the folks who ran the school knew Theo would be out the door by midday.
On this particular day, Theo was anxious to get home, pick up his camera and the film he had taken to be developed. Running east on 9th street he turned south onto South Wabash Avenue, entered Building 915 and raced up two flights of stairs and into his apartment.
“Mama, I’m home,” he shouted to his mother.
Lucia Gresco was on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, a pail of water next to her. She glanced back at her son as he darted into his room at the rear of the apartment.
“I see that,” she responded smiling as she knelt and sat back on her legs.
“How was school? Did you eat all of your breakfast?” she shouted out to him.
“Good. Yes, but I have to go and see Papa about making my pictures for me,” he answered, racing for the door.
“Hey, you didn’t give your mama a hug! You come and go. That’s it? You don’t love your old mama anymore?” she teased him.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” he answered, and hurried to her and hugged her as she remained on her knees.
He now stood a head above her as he bent down and hugged her.
“I love you Mama,” he responded, released his hug, grabbed his Brownie c1915 box camera, and ran out the door.
“You be careful crossing the street!” Lucia shouted after him.
Theo had received the camera as a gift on his last birthday. “Keeping your hand steady, you aim and shoot,” his father instructed him.
Since, he had seldom been without the black box camera hanging from his neck. He would race up and down the street taking pictures of anything and everything - neighbors, friends, and strangers - no one was spared.
Whirr. He wound the film to the next frame.
Sounds his parents got used to while he took his pictures. At one point, his father had to scold him for taking pictures of people who did not want their picture taken. Soon Theo learned how to take pictures without being spotted and as a result, he had images of almost everyone in a two-block radius. Shots of schoolmates, people’s pets, and strangers who never noticed him snap. He had boxes of pictures under his bed of the entire neighborhood and almost every stranger who had passed through the area within the last six months.
As he scurried down the stairs, he looked into the count viewer noting that he had three pictures left before the roll would run out.
“Got to take three more pictures before I am able to wind up the film and give it to Papa,” he thought to himself.
Theo headed towards his Papa’s shop, located on the corner of South Wabash and 11th Street; he walked looking around for a good shot, when across the street he spotted two older boys walking ahead of him. Running, he waited on the next building’s stoop and aimed his camera, when the boys were almost adjacent to him, he snapped.
Whirr. He wound the film and continued his trek up South Wabash. About one quarter block ahead, he saw Mrs. Garcia stacking fruits on her stand and took the picture.
“One more to go,” he thought to himself.
He reached the corner of 11th and South Wabash and noticed his father outside speaking to an older boy. Papa was holding the boy by his right elbow, while shaking a finger at him.
Whirr. Theo wound his camera.
His father looked up in time to see his son winding his camera.
“Papa!” he shouted to him as he ran towards him.
“Theo,” papa smiled.
“What mischief have you been up to?” he asked him.
“Nothing Papa, I’ve been good today,” he responded smiling.
His father turned to the boy and released him, sending him on his way running.
“Who was that, Papa?” Theo asked.
“His name is Nick Costello, son of Anzio Costello, a prominent businessman here in our community. I caught him trying to steal some candy sticks. He should be ashamed of himself, having more than boys his age,” responded Sergio Gresco.
Sergio Gresco and his wife Lucia migrated to the United States from Sicily some ten years ago. He brought with him enough money to open a shop, where he sold tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, candy and some household goods. Occasionally, it served as a soup kitchen.
The war had a huge impact on Sergio’s business as the rationing of sugar and other products required him to monitor what he sold. Additionally, the War’s cost forced people to tighten their belts; those who were not in the military or working for companies that supplied materials to support the war were finding themselves going through hard times. Once in a while, someone would try to steal from the store, causing Sergio to be more vigilant concerning the comings and goings of his customers. Because he understood this, he was often generous to a fault. He extended credit when the situation warranted it, remembering what his father had told him years ago how life was during WWI, explaining we all need to do our share to help each other.
“Papa, my camera has run out of film. I need a new roll,” Theo said.
“Come on in and let’s see if I have anymore film for your precious camera.”
The store was square with enclosed glass display rows running alongside opposite walls. Atop of the displays were
jars of different types of candy. Because of rationing, they were either empty or half-full. The rows led customers to the Store’s center where they faced a three-foot high display counter. Sergio managed his store from behind this counter for the better part of the day. His wife Lucia would join him in the afternoon. Theo also pitched in with little tasks that his father would assigned him; taking the trash out to the curb or stacking the lower shelves with the latest tobacco products, opening the lids allowing customers to see the cigars and newest pipes from all over the world.
In the backroom, Sergio had built a small dark room where he would develop Theo’s pictures. It became a profitable side business and soon others were bringing their film to be developed. Yes, though times were hard, Sergio managed to stay in the black and turn a modest profit every year.
Sergio removed the film, replaced it with a new roll, and handed the camera back to Theo. Theo’s excitement was clear on his face as he rushed out of the store, now armed with twenty more clicks of ammunition.
In his excitement, he ran into two men who were entering as Theo raced out.
“Whoa there, young man,” one of the men said as he reached down and held Theo by his shoulders.
“Got to go, Mister” Theo responded.
The man released him and Theo raced out into the street.
Theo stopped at the entrance and looked back as the men went into the store.
Theo got them from the side.
The sound caused them both to turn but Theo was gone in a flash.
Sergio looked up and nodded at the two men as they approached the middle counter.
“Mr. Gresco we are here representing a client who is interested in doing business with you,” the taller of the two men said.
“What business are you talking about, Sir?” asked Sergio.
“Well, my client offers protection to the local merchants from burglaries and break-ins,” he explained.
Sergio stared at the two men for a few seconds. He was tempted to grab the baseball bat that was leaning against one of the counters by his feet and bashing their heads in.
One of the men stood about six feet tall and appeared in good shape. The other man was bulkier and stood around five feet seven. Both were wearing dark suits with open white shirts.
“How much will this protection cost?” Sergio asked.
“We figure about 20% of your profits should be about right” the man responded.
“Wow that is steep. With things the way they are and the economy and all I don’t see how I would be able to pay. I am sorry. I can’t afford to pay for your protection,” Sergio responded.
The two men stared back at Sergio. As one of them approached the counter, Sergio looked the man right in the eye as he tightened his grip on the handle of the bat.
“No, I am not interested in your client’s offer,” Sergio told the man closest to him.
“That’s too bad. I am sure my client will be disappointed,” he told Sergio.
Sergio brought the bat up onto the counter causing the closest man to step back. The other man reached into his jacket as if reaching for a holstered weapon.
They all froze and turned to see Theo standing at the entryway staring at them.
A second later, they were looking back at Sergio, who had come around the counter wielding a baseball bat.
The man closest to Sergio smiled back at him and nodded.
“Under the circumstances I hope you have not jumped to any final conclusions. We are offering you a service at a reasonable rate. We mean no harm and your well-being is our only concern. But I see you have made up your mind,” the man said nodding towards the bat Sergio was holding in his hands.
“I hope it was in your best interest,” the man added.
Sergio knew that he had to show them that he was not afraid, that he was not one to be intimidated, yet knowing that he had to be cautious.
This is America and there are laws protecting us from those who would try to extort money. He also knew that the law often moved at a snails' pace and that these men did not come right out and threaten him.
By the time the men exited the shop Theo had crossed the street and at a safe distance -
Sergio appeared in the doorway a few seconds behind the men staring out at them as they got into a nearby 1938 Black La Salle V8.
Theo’s camera caught them as they entered their vehicle and drove off.
Another picture of the car caught as it headed south on South Wabash entered Theo’s collection.
Theo saw his father at the store’s doorway and took another picture. By the time Theo looked up again his father had retreated into the store. About a minute later, he saw his mother arrive.
He watched the front of the store for about two minutes before turning his attention to a group of kids across the street playing stoopball.
Suddenly, someone shoved him from behind.
“Hey, Squirt,” Theo heard.
It was an older kid.
“What you got there?” the kid asked pointing to the camera.
Theo stared at the boy who stood about a half foot taller than he did.
“It’s… it’s a camera” Theo responded.
Theo snapped his picture.
The boy reached for the camera as Theo pulled it back to his side.
“Hey, I want to see it,” the boy said.
“You can’t see it,” Theo responded.
“Well, suppose I take it,” the boy said advancing towards Theo.
Realizing he had no choice and without any warning, Theo kicked at the boy, getting him on the shin, and took off running across the street.
The boy screamed with pain and took off after Theo.
Theo crossed the street with ease and was in front of his father’s store in seconds. Seeing the boy coming after him, Theo ran into the store. The boy followed Theo only to stop in his tracks when he saw Theo’s Father.
“What do you want with my boy?” Sergio asked him.
“No… nothing sir,” the boy responded as he retreated out of the store with some speed.
“Theo, you need to stick closer to the store from now on or bullies like that will try to steal your camera,” he told his son.
“Ok, Dad,” Theo responded.
“Wow that was a close one,” Theo thought to himself.
“Theo, you stay here with your mom and clean up. I’ve got some errands to run. You are in charge of closing up so I’ll see you at home,” Sergio said.
“Huh! Ok, Dad,” Theo responded.
Lucia was in the back and overheard Sergio speaking to Theo and came out.
“Where are you going?” she asked him.
“Got some business with the other store owners. Don’t you worry that pretty little head of yours,” he told her.