In this story from January 1955, the beloved entertainer known as "Schnozzola" tells of a quartet of very special people who blessed his life.
It’s so tough down there on the lower East Side in New York where I was born we always think any kid who walks around with two ears is a hopeless sissy. In other neighborhoods the truant officer chases the kids; in our neighborhood we chase the truant officer. On the level, it’s a real rough neighborhood.
Later when I start playing the piano in Coney Island joints, I’m rubbing elbows with gangsters, gunmen, bootleggers and kidnappers.
None of that stuff dusts off on me hard enough to stick. For that I owe a lot to many people, but mostly to four special ones. To remind myself of what I owe them, and because I love them, I carry on a chain around my neck four little gifts they give me.
I wear them so long they’re like part of my flesh. I know they’re part of me that isn’t flesh. They’re like four commandments that aren’t listed with the big ten.
Every morning I put my fingers on the chain around my neck and I feel rich. I mean you can probably buy the four things and the chain for 50 cents and still get change. But I feel rich for what they give me in my heart.
One of these gifts is a medal of the Madonna. My pop give me that.
He was a barber, and when I’m a kid he lets me lather up the faces of his customers. It’s his hard-earned dollars, and there were never a lot of them, that learns me how to play the piano. Bartolomeo Durante, the barber, the kindest, gentlest man I ever know.
In giving me the medal he teaches me the art of giving. If his customers don’t have the price, he’d cut their hair anyway. To the day he died he wants to give away everything he has.
When he gets too old to barber he lives with my sister Lillian in Brooklyn, and he walks down the streets and passes out all the money he has to anyone who needs it. It gets so bad he can’t carry any money with him. So I send it to Lillian and make her his banker.
You know, I don’t think I ever see him mad a minute in his whole life. I’d like to be like him.
“Watch the friends you pick,” he always says to me. “Some will steal your heart and your thoughts. Avoid them. You only pick the ones to whom you can give your heart and your thoughts.”
I always try to.
The second gift on the chain around my neck is a medal of the Crucifixion. My wife, Jeanne, give it to me when we was married in 1921. We was married for 22 years. She died in 1943. Lord have mercy on her.
Her medal of the Crucifixion always reminds me of the art of forgetting and forgiving. Even how I met her reminds me of forgiving.
She came from Toledo, Ohio, and she’s a very pretty girl. Pretty inside as well as outside. And she’s a great singer. What a pair of pipes she has.
I’m working in an uptown joint in Harlem then, the Alamo, and she drops in looking for a job. The boss eyes her, and says:
“Let’s hear you sing. Go ahead, Jimmy, play the piano for her.”
I resent that because I’m busy—I don’t know what I’m busy about. But I feel busy. So I play a few blue notes and clinkers. She stops, and she’s real angry, and she says:
“You are probably the worst piano player in the world.”
“Them are the conditions that pervails,” I say.
First she busts out laughing, and then she lights up the room with the shiningest smile I ever see.
So what do I do? I marry her.
Jeanne knows people and how weak-minded they get, and watching her heart work I learn what forgiveness is. One day she entrusts an acquaintance with some money. A slight loan, you might say. And when it’s time to return it, the money isn’t there.
So the guy says he’s sorry and tells her why he hasn’t got it. Jeanne never asks him again.
“I feel resentment when I ask and he refuses,” Jeanne says. “I don’t want to feel resentment, so I’ll never ask him.”
I never want to feel resentment, so if anyone owes me anything I never ask either.
Jeanne is always telling me: “If anyone does something wrong to you they’ll be more unhappy about it than you will. So forget and forgive.”
I’m not proud—it takes a lot of time and trouble to keep even the smallest nose in the air.
The third thing on my chain is a St. Christopher’s medal. To me it’s the art of friendship. Through the years I learn it from my friends Eddie Jackson and Lou Clayton. Lou is around us still even though he died. But a stranger I still don’t know and the St. Christopher medal keep reminding me of what friendship means.
I get the medal about six years ago. I’m ready to start a 17-day grind of one night stands across the country on a bond drive tour when Lou Clayton takes me to the doctor for a check-up. The last X-ray shows a polyp in my lower stomach.
So I’m elected for surgery. No tour. No radio. Nothing. But Al Jolson, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and Frank Morgan took turns doing the radio show for me. That’s what success really is, to have friends of that sort. Do the best you can. Stick with your friends. Pray they’ll stick with you. The rest is in God’s hands.
If I don’t have that operation, that polyp could have gone malignant and I am in real trouble. God is really with me.
When they give me that shot in the arm, right before I go into the surgery, and I’m just about getting subconscious I feel someone touching my neck. When I wake up from the antiseptic I see this St. Christopher medal around my neck and I ask the nurse:
“Where does this come from?”
And she says: “Right before we took you up a nice lady with grey hair, dressed very nice, comes in, and kneels down, and says a prayer, and then slips this around your neck, and then she begs the doctor: ‘Please doc, take good care of him,’ and then she runs out.”
Anyway I can never forget this stranger with the St. Christopher medal.
Before my mother dies over 25 years ago she gives me a little beat-up cross. That’s the fourth gift on my chain. She wore it all her life, and when she gives it to me she says: “Never take it off, and God will always be with you.”
It isn’t true that I start each day with a song. That’s second. I start each day with a prayer. That I get from Mom. She teaches me the art of believing. That’s probably the greatest of the four commandments on my chain.
Oh, she teaches me all the commandments, all right, my mother. A saint. God have mercy on her soul. One time, I think I’m about five years old, I’m walking down the street with her, and we pass a vegetable pushcart. I just snitch a piece of corn; all the kids do.
Two blocks later Mona turns around and sees the corn and asks me:
“Where did you get it?”
“Off the pushcart,” I says.
She hauls me by the ear for two blocks all the way back to the pushcart and makes me explain to the peddler and give it back. I am highly mortified. But that’s her way of teaching me the commandments.
As a kid she tells us: “Without believing, you’re nothing.” And she points to one of the tough guys on the block: “He hasn’t got God in his heart,” she says. And she turns to a good guy like my father and says: “This one, he has God in his heart.”
And we always follow her to church, without her asking, to find where God is. Even after she dies I still follow her.
For a while there’s a time when I think I’m too busy to follow her, and during this time I’m helping Father James Keller; he’s head of the Christophers. I am helping him make a movie, and he asks me:
“Going to church regular?”
I got to admit I miss here and there. “I been very busy,” I alibi.
“You find the time,” Father Keller says. “You find time for everything else.”
He’s real severe about it. Would you believe it? And there I am doing a picture for him for free.
But after that, when I think I’m too busy, I touch the beat-up little cross on the chain around my neck, and remember to follow my mother to where God is.
And you know the nicest thing about following my mother to where God is? I always feel it’s like walking out of darkness into the sun.
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