An Immigrant Who Never Intended to Stay

By Mary Barnes

He came to New York City believing the streets were paved with gold and opportunity waited for all.

The year was 1950. He stepped off the train from Baltimore and looked around at the bustle of the crowded station—he had finally made it to New York. He walked through the station toward an employee, and in broken English, asked for directions to Coney Island. The uniformed man scoffed, looking down at the 16-year-old Italian boy.

“To get to Coney Island,” he chuckled, “you have to get to New York first.” The boy gave him a puzzled glance.

Salvatore Feola, now 81 years old, thought he was in New York. He followed the man’s pointed finger and saw a sign reading “Newark Pennsylvania Station.” Feola walked back to the platform to await his train.

He had never intended to move to America. One untimely decision changed his life.

Feola was one of 12,454 Italians to immigrate to America in 1950, but he didn’t have the same intentions as many of his counterparts in search of a new life.

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Feola found a home in Astoria, Queens.

He worked on a container ship that made multiple trips between Italy and America, docking in Norfolk, Va.

Immigration officers interviewed the crew, granting shore leave to a few of the workers. The rest of the crew had to stay aboard.

“They come on the boat and ask if you would like to live in America. I say no, I want to go home to my mother in Italy. So they give me pass to leave the boat for a few hours,” Feola said.

He stepped ashore with a friend from the ship and walked around town for a few hours. When they arrived at the dock, they saw the ship had departed; they were stuck in America.

After an exhausting marathon of traveling–a bus ride to Baltimore, a train to Newark, another train to Manhattan and a subway to Coney Island–Feola reached his friend’s house, where he slept on a dirty, bare mattress.

“He was a stinking drunk. The place smelled,” he recalled.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 9.41.45 PMSoon after arriving, he moved in with his uncle in Corona, Queens. Feola struggled to find a job.

“It was lousy,” Feola said, raising his arms and shrugging.

“I was working on the boat inside the kitchen helping the chef,” Feola said, recalling his journey.

“Nobody will hire you with no working papers and not speaking English,” Feola said. He eventually found work at the former Silvercup Bread Company.

Feola spent years living in small houses, sharing a room with five or six other Italian immigrants. He wanted nothing more than to go home to his family, he said, but going back on his own was not something he would do easily.

“I didn’t want to go back with no money. I leave here with less than what I came with. I was ashamed.”

The only feasible way home was deportation.

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“The house took a long time to pay off, but it was worth it. I am still here. I have a place to live here. I own something.”

“Every week the immigration officers came to the house with the picture of the guy [they were looking for] and I would go get him and tell him the officer was there.”

Every time the door bell rang, Feola would hope it would be for him but it never was. “I always go to the room and put my pants on and get my stuff and the officer look at me and say, ‘What’re you doing, we’re not here for you.’ I kept waiting but it was never for me.”

Feola, desperate and longing for home, traveled to the former Immigration and Naturalization Service offices–since 2003 known as the Citizenship and Immigration Services–to turn himself in. He told the officers that he had been living in New York illegally.

“They give me a piece of paper and they tell me to go home and when the officers come for me, to give it to them.”

They never came.

His oldest daughter, Ginny, said Feola always struggled in New York. “It was never easy for him here. He was homesick, didn’t speak English. He was just a kid at the time. The years of work really took a toll on him.”

After years of struggle, Feola found his reason to stay: he met his wife, Mary. She lived across the street and shortly after meeting, they married.  “I moved in with Mary and her aunt Kate, who helped me to pay the bills.” Feola became a citizen of the United States.

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He bounced from job to job to help make ends meet. Because of the difficulties he faced in finding a full-time, steady job, he decided to open a business. Using money he saved from previous jobs, a small bank loan and an offer from the seller of a small store and two-story private house, he moved his family to Astoria and opened “Sal’s Pizza.”

“The guy who owned it liked me, was selling his house with a store; he offered it to me for only $15,000 up front, and I could pay the rest to him little each month.” With that, Feola was a business and home owner, and the family moved to Astoria.

His daughter Cathy remembers her father working hard to provide for the family. “It was apparent he was never very happy living in America. He would always talk about how things were in Italy. We all knew he wanted to go back,” Cathy said.

She and her siblings were the only thing keeping Feola in America; Feola’s wife died in 1987, and her aunt six years later. He didn’t want to leave the family he had here.

“The house took a long time to pay off, but it was worth it. I am still here. I have a place to live here. I own something,” Feola said.

After living in Astoria for 41 years, he achieved the American dream. He had a business, a house, and a family; but it still wasn’t home. He still longed for Italy. Feola has since traveled back to Italy to visit his siblings, but has returned to New York, where his children and granddaughter live.

“It will always be my home,” he said. “If I could go back in time, I would not get off that ship.”