News & Politics

These Are My People

Capitol Hill is about more than Congress. My ancestors—newsboys, fruit sellers, cleaning ladies—grew up and raised families there. As a Hill reporter, I’m surrounded by their history every day.

The author looks at a 1912 Lewis Hines photo in the basement of the Capitol. Two of the newsboys were his great-uncles. Photograph by Jay Westcott.

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?

Or that his older son would end up working three blocks away in the Capitol as a reporter? To this question, the answer is “probably not.” To him, to his brother, sister, and cousins, to my grandfather, and to the rest of the extended family inhabiting homes in the surrounding blocks, the Capitol was a backdrop and a playground. They were steps away yet a universe removed from the business of the national legislature.

They swam in the Columbus fountain, boxed at the Merrick Boys Club, rode the Senate trolley for fun, caroused in and around the Capitol. They roller-skated in the Russell building’s courtyard and played ball in Stanton Park. As a girl, my mother brought a goat, destined for the table at Easter, to fatten itself by grazing next to Union Station. They shopped at the Sanitary on H Street and took in the movies a few blocks away at the Apollo. Selecting a chicken at the Florida Avenue market, they would probe each live bird until they found an egg yet to be laid. Only then would they put their money down, having assured themselves of a kind of “gift with purchase.”

On the spur of the moment one day in 1933, my mother’s parents knocked on the door of Holy Rosary Church—where the Mass is even today said in Italian—and asked to be married. The legendary Father Nicholas DeCarlo ushered them in and promptly complied. And over the last century, most of my American relatives have been baptized, married, or eulogized within the brownstone sanctuary of St. Joseph’s, still vibrant as it stands in elegant counterpoint to the antiseptic lines of its upstart neighbor across the street, the Hart building.

They attended the parish school at St. Joe’s—back when there was one—and went on to St. Cecelia’s, now a child-development center catering to the sons and daughters of congressional workers. Others went to Carberry and Peabody elementary schools, Stuart Junior High, McKinley Tech, or Eastern High, where my father played defensive end in the late 1940s.

All of these Hill spaces and places are the touchstones of my family history, a spiritual resource within walking distance.

If you happen to know the folks who currently live at the E Street address—or at 626 D, 639 Fourth, 417 Fifth, or 604 E—please tell them not to be alarmed if once a year or so they see a fortysomething man standing out front with a glassy look in his eyes. It’s only me imagining the past.

As my relatives went about their business, they never thought of themselves as part of the political world. They scarcely considered their proximity to history and the people who shaped it. Regardless of the fact that they lived in the shadow of the Capitol, their ambitions were identical to anyone else’s in working-class neighborhoods in any other city in the country. The goal was a good job and putting food on the table. Yes, a position in the federal government was thought to be the ultimate achievement, what with the security and benefits. But for the most part, they found employment in the building trades, the hotel industry, barbering.

My maternal grandmother worked for a time at a pants factory at Second and C, Southeast, near St. Peter’s. Others helped lay the foundations and finish the cement for much of the Federal Triangle. They were happy for the work, no doubt, and took pride in what they did. But sitting back and contemplating the historic setting in which they labored would have been a self-indulgence to them. They had more pressing priorities.

There were times when that other world intruded. When World War I Bonus Marchers set up camp in 1932 around the Capitol, my grandfather, then 21, spent his idle time among them, sympathetic to their demand for back pay from the government. One day, troops from Fort Myer showed up, led by none other than Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower, intent on pushing the marchers off federal land and sending them packing. As the melee began, my grandfather claimed, he was so close to Eisenhower that he was tempted to pull him off his horse. Before he could act, gas canisters deployed by the Army forced him to dip his hanky into muddy water and hold it over his face as he retreated with the routed veterans.

I don’t think my people could have made sense of what I do for a living. Beyond the fact that television hadn’t been invented, there simply was no interest in or occasion for coming into contact with members of Congress. Being Italian, they had an affinity for sausage making, yes, but in the literal sense of grinding pork and veal—decidedly not the metaphorical process of making laws.

Yet it’s that world I’m paid to chronicle. I come to the Capitol each day and bop around the pillars, getting in the faces of public officials and trying to separate the spin from the substance. In this my ancestors have left me with yet another advantage: the strain of laconic, Old World cynicism that comes in handy every once in a while.

You can’t do my job without a jaundiced eye, and you keep that eye focused on the spending of taxpayer dollars, the conduct and motivations of members, and the formation of policy. Journalism is altruism for cynics, and so, as a congenital cynic, I get to feel good about myself all the time.

But the lives of those who came before me were as removed from official Washington as that basement photo of my uncles is from the grand, historic oils hanging upstairs in the rotunda.

Consider the fate of the boys in the Lewis Hine picture, the Passeros. Joe, the bigger boy second from left, took a bad turn and ended up joining the Mob. For a time he had money, however ill gotten, and it was he and another wayward brother who bought the house at 225 E for their mother and father, the house that became the home and birthplace for the extended family. But in 1926 Joe’s choices caught up to him. He was shot and killed in Detroit, left in a gutter to die.

His brother Tony, the small one in the middle, got married at age 17—nine years after the picture was taken—to an Irish-American from Jersey City. They stayed on the Hill, and Tony spent most of his life piloting a cab around town. They had five children, including Sissy, who is alive and well today, and Frannie, who passed away last summer. It has been a joy to hear their stories.

If you look closely at that photo, you’ll see the West Front Terrace Fountain in the background to the right of the frame. It’s still there, visible to me anytime I look out the window of the House Radio and Television Gallery, my home base in the Capitol for the last ten years. In 1929, my grandfather posed for a picture at the fountain, every bit the ham then as I knew him to be for 42 years of my life—all hair, suspenders, and two-tone shoes, his dark eyes evoking centuries of Calabrian forebears as he sits at the water’s edge.

I’m a lucky man, fortunate enough to work in this magnificent building, contributing in my small way to the functioning of our democracy. I’m not delusional—I know I occupy a third-floor efficiency walkup in the great media metropolis. But it’s a great job to have, made even more special by knowing that as I walk amid the granite and marble, I’m surrounded by history—both of my country and of my family. Wherever I go, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, and inspiration is only a step away.

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.