My grandfather, Willy Truglio, had the soul of a musician. As my father recounted his stories, it became clear that Willy held a deep love and loyalty for his family, friends, and neighbors. He cast a wide net of devotion laced with music. My father, Bill Truglio, continues to convey his father’s gentle being.
My father’s work day was long—10 am until 6 pm, an hour home for dinner, then back to Truly’s, his men’s clothing store, to prepare for the next day. Before opening, he would stop by his parents’ home on West 7th Street, to see his mother and share the day’s second cup of coffee. Grandma’s coffee was legendary—the worst imaginable! No amount of sugar or milk could mask its bitterness. It didn’t matter. These daily moments with his mom were part of his being—part of Grandma’s as well.
Truly’s was the only place my father did not have a piano. He did, however, have a radio set to WQXR. It is still a classical music station! As a boy, I would go to the store after school to run errands, man the cash register that seldom needed manning, and clean the front windows. During those afternoons, men who had businesses on the street would sit in the store and enjoy a chat. Very few bought anything. They would discuss the neighborhood, business, and the war raging in Europe and the Pacific. Mostly, though, they talked about music. Conversations about opera, classical music, composers, and the latest conductors were serious and passionate. I learned so much from these talks.
Dad did have some reliable customers. Not only did they appreciated his workmanship, they also relied on his kindness. He patiently dealt with a deaf family who would come in to get their growing boys fitted. A local celebrity would attract a crowd when he parked his black Packard in front of Truly’s. Johnny Roventini was a popular radio personality and the voice of Philip Morris cigarettes. The poster ads had him dressed in a red bellhop uniform paging a “Call for Phil-lip Mor-ris.” He was from Brooklyn and attracted a crowd when he pulled up in front of the store in his customized Packard. Johnny stood all of four feet tall. Dad fashioned him men suits that fit his boy-sized body.
I marveled at Dad’s loyalty to his friends at the expense of his business. He sent out easy jobs to his boyhood friend, Hymie, who would slowly completed a poor job. While Dad fixed the sloppy work, he would swear never to give Hymie work again. But friendship always won out when Hymie would again ask for another assignment.
Dad usually worked alone but every now and then, another old friend, Louie, helped out in the store when he needed work. Louie had an unending list of grievances to complain about. He had a short fuse and was a staunch anti-communist. One Saturday morning, a man came in collecting subscriptions for the Communist Daily Worker newspaper. Dad gently declined but, winking at me, told him the man in the back room would be interested. The explosion from Louie could be heard above the thunder of the elevated trains. The poor guy had to flee for his life.
There was a disheveled black man, Mr. Stern, who came looking for a handout. He enjoyed listening and talking about music and was quite honest about his alcoholism. Dad would send him on errands and paid him in a free lunch. Occasionally, he let Mr. Stern sleep in the back room, and cook over an open fire, and take a shower in the back yard with a hose. One day, a long-time customer insisted on examining a pair of pants she wanted to buy in the sunlight. Before Dad could stop her, she rushed through the back door into the yard where Mr. Stern was showering. What a sight! That old lady dashed through the store and out the door screaming louder than the soprano sustaining a high note on the radio!
On Friday nights, Dad would join his brothers and brother-in-law at my Uncle Mickey’s house to watch the boxing on TV and play pinochle. They played pinochle for bragging rights and could remember every hand to hash over the mistakes. Inevitably, Dad would find his was to Mickey’s upright piano. Soon he was accompanying all singers no matter the key. Dad was always the piano player for every gathering.
When I was ten years old, the merchants on 86th Street decided to close on Sundays. It gave my father a relaxing day to spend with me and my two younger sisters, tune his baby grand piano and play the beautiful music he had heard all week on the radio. Early on Sundays, he would drive to the store to check on the awnings and the doors. One morning, he spotted flames leaping in a linoleum floor store window across the street. He ran to the upstairs apartment and rescued the family from the smoke-filled rooms. Another Sunday morning, when I was with him, he noticed smoke coming out of the stable for the peddle-cart horses. He made a sharp U-turn on 86th Street. I jumped out of the car and lifted the door latch. The frantic horses burst out and disappeared down 86th Street. I don’t think those work horses ever ran so fast.
That same year, Dad and his brother-in-law, my Uncle Billy, put $400 together and bought a tiny cottage on Long Island’s south shore, in Copiague’s American Venice area. The developer attempted to create canals, roads, and statues mimicking Venice, Italy. His timing was terrible. The Great Depression ended up bankrupting his dream. It was, however, an advantageous deal for a city family looking for an escape. It was called the Country House.
This tiny cottage became the focal point for the entire extended family. There was always a crowd. My sisters, cousins, and I were in heaven rowing, swimming, clamming, and fishing all summer. There were army cots and several thin mattresses. Kids slept in the attic. Mothers and aunts prepared volumes of food. Late at night while the cards were being played and singing echoed, Grandpa Vito cooked up a big pot of aglio e olio—a peasant spaghetti dish made with garlic, seasoning, and olive oil.
A piano was soon acquired and added to the second-hand furnishings. The Schultzes, who lived across the street, donated their piano to Dad because he played so much better than Mrs. Schultz and she preferred to sing. The little time Dad spent at the cottage was a great outlet for him playing the piano and surrounded by the people he loved.
After WWII, the small shops gave way to the encroaching department stores and supermarkets. Street vendors disappeared. Uncle Billy gave up his butcher shop to work for Pathmark. Dad was finding it harder to keep the store solvent. He was also missing out on spending time with his little boy, my youngest brother, Victor. JC Penney offered Dad a fitter’s position. He couldn’t believe the money he would be paid just for hemming pants. He worked there four days when, tragically, he suffered a heart attack. My father, Willy Truglio, the piano player, died too young at the age of 53. Although he is missed, his legacy of love and loyalty stills plays like a song in our hearts and memory.
My grandfather’s piano lives in my parent’s living room. At Christmas, my dad plays from memory surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He may not believe he plays as well as his father had but the joy the music brings is just as powerful.Diana & Bill, my parents
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year with cancer.