Peter and I went to the lawyer
on Tuesday and finalized our agreement regarding "Peter's Story." For a couple of years we have been working on the basis of a handshake. Peter is now, I believe, 83 years old, and we needed to get our agreement in writing, for the future is always uncertain.
"Peter's Story" is a memoir of Peter's life in Milwaukee's Italian community in the old 3rd Ward during the 1920s and 1930s. I am co-authoring the story with Peter. We met in November, 2003, when I was teaching a workshop in "Writing Memoir" at the Northshore Library in Glendale, Wisconsin. Peter was one of fifteen or sixteen students, but he stood out immediately. He came into the room with the friend who'd driven him to the library, and he took a place at the table. I looked over at him. It was as if a nimbus enveloped him; he seemed almost as if he were an angel. He sat at the table and smiled. I don't usually see halos around people, so I was intrigued. I walked over and introduced myself. "And who are you?" I asked him. "I'm Peter," he said.
Peter was attending my seminar on "Writing Memoir" because he wanted to tell his own life story, and was struggling with how to do it. He thought perhaps the seminar would help him see his way clear. Peter had grown up in Milwaukee's old 3rd Ward, and he'd lived through Prohibition and the Depression in that community. His mother abandoned the family when Peter was three and a half years old, placing the children in an orphanage, and it was a couple of years before Peter's father got custody and raised the family. His father was a hard man and life with him was a hard life. The subtext of "Peter's Story" might be a child's search for his mother's love and his father's approval - a search that is bound to end in disappointment: if you have to look for it, it's not there.
Peter was a hellion as a youngster, leader of his own gang of 3rd Ward hoods who'd steal chickens from Commission Row and distribute them to needy families in the community. At age ten or eleven, he'd run away and live in hobo camps for weeks or months at a time.
Peter's fearlessness and natural leadership did not go unnoticed. Soon he was "adopted" by a group of pardones in the old 3rd Ward, who at one point told Peter's father in no uncertain terms to stop beating the boy: "He's our son now."
The padrones had errands for Peter to do, and when he wasn't collecting the envelopes, he was working in this butcher shop making sausages, or in that import store sweeping up, or in one of the Italian restaurants learning how to cook.
Soon enough the padrones sent Peter "underground" in Milwaukee, for training in how to protect himself, how to watch others, how to disappear, how to stay underwater for twelve minutes without needing to take a breath. Later he took underground training in Chicago, too. He was introduced to Al Capone simply as "the kid."
Peter lived more life in his first eighteen years than most of us live in a lifetime. He hauled moonshine from southwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Lafayette, Indiana, at an age when he needed to sit on a pile of cushions to see over the steering wheel. He becamed a "wheeler," driving the local padrones to meetings in Chicago, New York, Kansas City. He became a "hunter" and went after men who had betrayed the padrones, brought them back to face rough justice.
Before he was 18 years old, Peter decided that the life he was living was not the life he wanted to live; he wanted to strike out on his own, make his own way, create his own business. Eventually he married (and divorced and re-married and divorced); and, as he had wanted to as a child, he opened his own tailorshop, employing some hundreds of people in sewing and alterations. Those years beyond age 18 are outside the scope of "Peter's Story," which focuses on those first hard years in the old 3rd Ward.
I am co-authoring "Peter's Story" because Peter has had health problems - his eyesight is failing him; his hearing is poor; his heart likes to play tricks. In the beginning of our relationship, I was expecting that Peter would write his own story, and I counseled him to keep writing out the bits of memory and to hang them in chronological order from a clothes-line stretched across his spare bedroom. And he did. Peter wrote and wrote and put the pages on the line with clothes pins, and wrote some more. Because he was nearly blind, the pages were difficult or impossible for me to read. Because he is an oral story-teller and not a writer, the narratives were cramped and crooked and didn't have the flair of his telling, the color of his inflection. Peter is Italian, and you might say he talks with his hands.
Eventually (and reluctanctly), I realized that if "Peter's Story" was going to be done as it deserved, Peter needed more than my advice. And while I really didn't need another project, his is a story worth telling. So I began interviewing him about his life, and recorded twenty-three ninety-minute tapes. When I wasn't available, Peter's friend recorded another ten tapes of his remembering.
"Peter's Story" is Peter's story, his memory of his life in those days, but I have been massaging the oral narratives so they work on the page; and I have been arranging and re-arranging the discrete stories so they make a coherent whole, an arc of greater meaning. I have been the one to insist that, as interesting as his life has been, "Peter's Story" will begin with his first memory - of running up the stairs at that black house on Clybourn Street shouting "I come from another world" - and will end when he leaves the organization before his eighteenth birthday, leaves with the blessing of the padrones. Peter always remained an "honored guest" in their presence.
So my work, at first, was interviewing Peter to get the stories. Then the task became transcribing the interviews. I wrote them out longhand, almost 450 pages of notebook. I am four tapes from finishing the transcribing. Yes! I have completed a raw draft of the first eight chapters, yet keep finding additional materials that need to be tucked in here and there, so some of those chapters will be twice as long as they should be, and will have to be re-crafted.
Last Tuesday I made Peter a promise that we will have a final draft of "Peter's Story" by his birthday in May, and that my publishing house, MWPH Books, will put a finished volume in his hands by mid-August.
That's the plan, then. In February and March and April, Peter and I will be reviewing the final draft line by line. Is this what we want to say? Is this how we want to say it? No doubt Peter will be making us spaghetti and sauce and meatballs and Italian sausages as I read him the pages and we work our way towards the end of the project. We'll finish a day's work and sit down to dinner. I'll go home and make the appropriate revisions. A week later, I'll return with another chapter, and we'll hone some more pages to their final perfection.
Eventually "Peter's Story" will be told, and I'll be proud to have been part of the telling. And it will be a good story. All the more compelling because it is a true story, as true and accurate as Peter and I can make it.
In the meantime, if I seem a little scarce hereabouts, or a little scattered, you'll know what I'm doing - working and re-working Peter's story to make it the best telling we can.