The Barber from Sicilia
Little did I know, when I first started writing the series “Reflections of a Nation of Immigrants,” that a mere six months later our next-door neighbors – and now dear friends – would, in many ways, perfectly reflect and tell the classic American immigration story.
You see, Joseph (“Joe”) and Grace Zambito left their homes in Italy in the 50s and early 60s, respectively, to seek a better life in America, as nearly six million Italians had done before them, becoming part of the great American melting pot.
Joe and Grace (Grace Lasala at the time) ventured across the ocean at an early age on different ships and five years apart. Their families risked everything, even leaving some loved ones behind — because of immigration laws at the time — and headed for the “land of opportunity,” not a cliché expression at the time.
Joe arrived in New York on the S.S. Vulcania on a warm day in June of 1955. He was 15. Grace sailed into a cold and snowy New York Harbor aboard the S.S. Cristoforo Colombo three days before Christmas 1960. She was 12.
Joe traveled with his father and sister. His mother and another sister had to stay in their native Sicily’s small hometown of Siculiana.
Grace left Foggia in southern Italy with her father, mother and one brother. Her two older brothers and a sister had to remain behind in the “old country.”
For a culture where family is so important, leaving immediate family behind is a heart-wrenching experience. Both families would endure long and painful separations, all in order to give their younger sons and daughters a better opportunity in America. In Joe’s words, “to give us a future.”
But neither the absence of loved ones, nor the weather kept young Joe and Grace from experiencing sheer awe and joy at their first sight of the Statue of Liberty, of the “promised land.”
When asked what his first and most memorable impression of America was, Joe says, without hesitating, the sight of that magnificent Lady on Liberty Island, followed closely behind by his first New York ice cream sandwich. Remember, Joe was only 15. Both Joe and Grace were fascinated by the New York skyline, “those tall buildings.”
An old photo of a steamship passing Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor (Library of Congress)
Joe and Grace would meet a few years later and experience amore at first sight, “Italian style.” That is, “arranged” and blessed by the respective elders. Married in 1969, they went on together to experience the American dream for the next 50 years in New York and now in Texas.
Joe’s first job in New York was at an Italian butcher shop in Manhattan. Of trim build and perhaps too young, that career would not last long for Joe. After cutting his finger and suffering a hernia from lifting too many heavy sides of meat onto hooks, Joe went on to do what many Italians have done so well and so successfully.
My wife and I first got a hint of Joe’s second career when, invited to enjoy one of Grace’s fabulous Italian dinners, we spotted a beautiful barber’s chair occupying a prominent and honored place in the Zambito home (below).
“Little Joe,” as he became affectionately known “in the business,” attended barber school after his short butcher career and progressed from barber’s assistant to become one of New York’s most loved and sought-after Italian barbieres.
After practicing his newly acquired skills on friends and neighbors for a couple of dollars a trim, Little Joe went on to eventually apply his craft and art on New York’s “rich and famous” at befitting prices. His clients included celebrities such as Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey, Jan Murray and many others.
Soft-spoken, with an unmistakable Italian accent and a great sense of humor (Italian, also), Little Joe can spend hours telling you about his immigration story, his career, his life, proudly sharing the many mementoes, letters, accolades and photographs.
Photographs such as the one below with Jack Rudin (to the left of Joe), philanthropist and patriarch to one of the wealthiest families in the U.S. and one of Joe’ most generous and faithful customers. To the right of Joe is Jack Rudin’s younger brother, Lewis Rudin, both deceased now.
It was in one of Jack Rudin’s buildings on Park Avenue — the fashionable and exclusive “345 Park Avenue” — where Joe had his most memorable experiences and his most notable clientele.
Sadly, five years ago, after “cutting hair” for over half a century, Little Joe suffered a mild stroke and was unable to continue practicing his craft.
But Joe continues to offer friendly advice on hair style and all “hair matters” to friends and strangers alike, as he always has.
As he did back in 1979, when he advised then-Senator Edward Kennedy to wear his hair shorter and still retain “that long look.” The Senator did not respond. His loss…
On the other hand, legendary New York journalist and broadcaster Marvin Scott took Joe’s advice to heart and significantly improved his hair style.
Very recently, noticing the conspicuous swirls of grey in Texas Senator Ted Cruz’ brand new beard, Joe offered to work on the senator’s beard and render it “picture perfect.”
We’ll see if the senator listens to a man who knows.
Little Joe is not another John Paul DeJoria, nor a Mario Cuomo, who have had buona fortuna, financially and politically. But he does represent millions of “typical” immigrants and their descendants who, through hard work, loyalty, respect, tradition and strong family values and ties, have made America that unique “Nation of Immigrants.”
That is what makes “Little Joe’s” story so fascinating to this fellow-immigrant.
With two sons, “born in the USA,” and other Italian family members eventually re-joining the Zambito extended family, the wonderful legacy of the Barber from Sicilia is here to stay and inspire for a long, long time.