My grandfather’s baby grand Steinway & Sons piano stands on sturdy mahogany legs in my parent’s living room. The rock maple case is encased in black walnut veneer giving off that classic Steinway & Sons presence. The Steinway & Sons name is scrolled in gold paint on the fall board. The white keys are ivory, and the black keys are ebony. Old baby teeth markings remain on the cheek of the case; ancient reminders of the generations that have lived with this piano. Sometimes the lid is tilted open exposing the finely crafted harp. While my dad played the piano, I remember being mesmerized watching the key hammers hit the strings mixing the individual strikes into beautiful harmonies. Even today, despite its centenarian-plus age, the timber resonates full-bodied music throughout the house.
My dad, now 84 years old, will sit on the piano bench and play his favorite carols and passages. He has long abandoned reading music but relies on finger memory and his musical ear. These days, as he plays, I think he conjures his father, William—Willy—Truglio, the piano player—a gentle man with a deep devotion to family and friendships, and a passion for music that surrounded his being.
My dad, Bill Truglio, told this story. He is Willy’s eldest son.
My father was named William Joseph after his mother’s fun-loving little brother who died a few months before the baby’s birth. Everyone called him Willy. The new century had just begun. Willy was the first-born American of Italian immigrants. My grandfather, Vito, worked the Manhattan docks while my grandma, Angelina (called Nellie), cared for her growing brood and took in homework from the garment factories. They began their life in a tenement on the lower east side of Manhattan. Life was crowded, noisy, and busy. Dad’s three brothers and sister were quickly added to the family. An additional brother, Alfred, came along when Dad turned 15 and baby sister Tosca was born ten years later. Newly arrived relations always came and went. The neighborhood hummed in Italian, Yiddish, and Irish brogues.
My father grew up running with his brothers and friends through the streets, playing stickball on the tenement blocks and later, in the Brooklyn alleys. My grandma was a good friend to everyone. She listened to woes, gave advice and helped a good cause by offering small loans. Sometimes the payback was in bread, a record, or a pair of shoes. Her greatest barter was a piano and lessons for her son, Willy.
I am not certain if he graduated high school, but I do know my dad had a great capacity to learn. He understood the workings of mechanics and electricity. I remember detailed conversations with him on the theories and applications of perpetual motion, magnetism, and gravity. And he studied music—classical music. He knew operas, recognized all of the masters’ work, and appreciated the details of classical composition Music was his art. Whenever free time availed itself, my dad could be found at his piano, working through a difficult piece of music or adjusting a harp string until it sang true.
During my father’s boyhood, music was everywhere. It was on the phonograph. Arias were sung a cappella in living rooms and kitchens, and there was always music playing on the street corners. Ragtime jazz and exciting technologies had emerged during that time capturing attention and fueling imaginations. At a young age, my dad earned money as a piano player in the movie theaters. He quickly learned music improvisation to convey setting and drama while watching the silent films. He played at weddings, in speakeasies and neighborhood bars. Later, he formed the Billy Doyle Band with his brother, Micky, and traveled to the Catskills, throughout the east coast and a few cities in the Midwest. Dad was Billy Doyle. He was the piano player accompanying Micky’s song and dance numbers.
Dad met my mother, Mary Caristi, in the late 20s. They were deeply in love, but a traveling musician was not an acceptable vocation for my mother’s family. Dad’s Uncle Tom set him up to operate and eventually own a men’s clothing store. It was in a popular shopping area on 86th Street in Brooklyn. I think that is the Bensonhurst area. I remember marking time by the west end elevated trains rumbling overhead.
The store was called Truly’s. Dad was the buyer and salesman. He developed and customized patterns, fitted garments, kept the books and swept the floor.
My parents were married in 1932 and lived with my mother’s family at 2202 East 5th Street in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn. The household included Nonno, Nonna, mom’s 15-year-old brother, Tony, and a cantankerous parrot who periodically trilled “Puerto Rico!”, demanded café each morning, and squawked at Nonna’s insistence of his daily shower. The dining room converted into the newlyweds’ bedroom at night. Mom’s older brother, Leo, lived in the downstairs flat with his family. I arrived a year later. The living arrangements were tight, but everyone was used to it, and everyone got along.
Dad worked seven-days-a-week, eleven-hour-a-day. Slacks, draped on valet stands, and neatly hung jackets dressed the front windows, and the floor had a short maze of clothing racks. The industrial sewing machine and a heavy iron and boards were in the back. Just as he worked on perfecting his piano playing, Dad operated the sewing machine with delicate precision and wielded that huge iron with strength and rigor to create perfect creases and pleats.
The business started slowly. The Great Depression bore down on everyone. Sometimes customers paid in sandwiches, a record, or a promise. Like his mother, his greatest barter was a piano—the baby grand Steinway and Sons. Somehow it fit in the corner of the dining room/bedroom. He took loving care of the piano and kept it perfectly tuned by his own ear. When Dad played, the house filled with glorious music.