Down in the Capitol building, several twists and turns of the basement labyrinth from the Senate trolley, an old black-and-white photograph of five young newsboys hangs in a corridor. Shoulder to shoulder on the Capitol’s West Front, they stand in battered shoes, newspapers tucked under their arms.
Over the past ten years, I’ve walked that hall and many others on the Hill as MSNBC’s congressional correspondent and an NBC producer, rushing from press conference to interview to live shot. Yet that image always brings me up short. Captured by pioneering photojournalist Lewis Hine in 1912, it’s one in a serial exposé of the child-labor practices of 100 years ago. From the look of the boys—reported by Hine to have been cited for “incorrigibility in school”—they didn’t have an easy life.
But it wasn’t so much how they lived as who they were that makes me stop. There’s an eerie vibe to the way the picture draws me in, makes me search their faces. For years I was curious about their people, their ethnicity.
When Samuel Alito came to the Hart Senate Office Building to stand for confirmation to the Supreme Court, he began his testimony with the immigrant saga of his father and the struggles of other Italians who came to this country. What Alito probably didn’t know was that he was sitting on top of some of that history, because the ground on which the Hart building was constructed back in the 1970s was once the site of an Italian ghetto known as Schott’s Alley. It was an early home in America for families with names such as Ambrosi, Giovinazzi, Anastasi, and Passero.
My family was among them. My great-grandfather, Francesco Passero, came to this country in 1899 and moved to Schott’s Alley. He was known as Babuce, and he supported his wife, Mamarella, and eight children by getting a huckster’s license and pushing a fruit cart around the streets of Capitol Hill.
Another great-grandfather, Domenico Ambrosi, came over in 1904, working his way down to Washington from Boston on the railroad and eventually settling in the same enclave. He ended up staying here only after taking a bet while working on the rail bridge that spans the Potomac River at 14th Street. A coworker had 50 cents that said Domenico wouldn’t jump off the bridge and swim to shore. Down he went, and here I am.
I always figured the odds were good that one of the boys in the photo was one of my people. It turns out I was wrong: Two of them are.
Tony and Joseph Passero—the short boy in the middle and his older brother, on his right—gaze forward through 97 years of history, looking out for me, their grandnephew, as I ply the news trade in the same building where they struggled. Hine recorded their names.
So I have on my side generations of family to welcome and guide me, to calm me down or tip me off each day as I cover the Hill. Everywhere I turn, there’s another reminder of my heritage, another sepia-toned image to conjure. Walking daily through the Capitol’s rotunda, I imagine my grandfather playing as a boy in the dome, clambering up and down the steps that wind between the inner and outer shells, one of a gaggle of children running around the building on a whim. A visit across the street to the Library of Congress is reason to pause and listen for the echoes of my grandmother singing her Neapolitan favorites as she works on a cleaning crew.
That same woman married the man whose name I bear, a Spaniard from Galicia. In 1930 she gave birth to my father at 225 E Street, Northeast, steps away from Union Station. Sometimes during lunch when Congress is away, I’ll stand across the street from that house and envision what I might have seen if I’d been there in the same spot 70 years ago when three generations of ancestors lived under one roof.
I see the brick risers on the porch steps and recall the many times I was told as a boy that my great-uncle Vince had laid that front walk. I contemplate the idea that a thing as inert and simple as a brick could be imbued with the energy of those who created it, held it, walked over it. I’m not otherwise given to musing about the metaphysical, but these thoughts provide a sense of peace as I compete in a world of deadlines.
The best way to describe it is the feeling you get as a kid when your mom pats you on the head and tells you everything’s going to be all right. It’s a sense of perspective, of reassurance that however dire my crisis of the minute might seem, time will keep moving. My everyday problems are simply not that big a deal.
I wonder what my father, at that moment alive in my mind’s eye, might be dreaming of for his own future. At eight years old—the same age as my son today—could he have imagined my brother and me? The life before him as a Marine, a teacher, a father? That his beloved neighborhood—for decades before and since home to the city’s poorest laborers—would undergo so many changes? That the modest brick and brownstone rowhouses lining these Hill streets would now be coveted by 21st-century Washingtonians?