MR. PONZI LANDS IN BOSTON WITH $2.50 TO ADD A $15,000,000.00 CHAPTER TO THE HISTORY OF STATE STREET FINANCE.
November 15, 1903, was a Sunday. A Fall day typical of the New England shores, with a fine, steady drizzle blown in by an icy East wind over miles and miles of ocean. One of those exasperating days on which only the sacred cod-fish of Massachusetts would defy the elements along Tremont Street and around the Boston Common without a diving suit on.
In the harbor and on the waterfront, the drizzle and the East wind were even more intense. From the expanse of the Atlantic, they seemed to converge upon a point between Castle and Governor's Island and blow with added force along the path of the narrow ship channel, beating up thousands of white-caps from a dirty and murky looking sea surface.
On that Sunday morning the S.S. Vancouver of the Old Dominion Line could be seen coming up the Boston harbor shortly after 8 o'clock. She was progressing slowly and majestically, pitching occasionally where the channel was deeper and rougher. In those days, a ten-thousand-ton vessel was no fishing boat and the Vancouver was well justified to feel as self-conscious of her size as a modern Cunarder.
A little ways up the harbor, the ship pulled up alongside the Company's pier in East Boston. The gang planks were lowered. A motley crowd of passengers who had been lining the decks began to ooze out of her side and onto the dock.
They were immigrants. Immigrants of various nationalities, but predominantly Italians. Most of them had travelled in steerage, some in first or second class. But they were all immigrants. They were all men, women or children who had left their native country and come to America, temporarily or for good, with the common purpose of finding better wages, better living conditions and greater economic independence.
I was one of those immigrants; one of the motley crowd oozing out of the ship's side; a diminutive figure bedecked in expensive clothes of the latest European cut and followed down the gang-plank by a couple of stewards laden with several pieces of baggage, large and small, labeled "First Class."
Truly, for an immigrant, I did not look the part. There was nothing in my appearance to suggest the bread winner; nothing that could even be remotely associated with the thought of manual labor, of work of any kind; of economic penury. From tie to spats, I looked like a million dollars just out of the mint; like a young gentleman of leisure, perhaps like the scion of wealthy parents on a pleasure tour. And that goes to show that appearances don't mean a thing. In fact, I was in a jam right then and thereâ€”in an economic ham and a critical predicament at that and five thousand miles away from home and five hundred or more miles away from my ultimate destination, in a strange country, with no friends and no money. That's it. Broke right from the start, my entire resources in cash amounting to $2.50.
Less than two weeks before I had left Italy with $200, a maternal blessing and a buoyant frame of mind, bound for the United States. I had sailed on a definite mission and with a definite purpose; on a cinch, to get rich.
"Go and make a fortune and then come back,"â€”had urged my eldersâ€”just like that and just as if amassing a fortune in America was something which could not be helped. "You can't miss it,"â€”they had insisted to overcome my hesitancy. "In the United States the streets are actually strewn with gold; all you have to do is stoop and pick it up." The events of later years showed that there was more truth than poetry in my elder's forecast. In fact, it has been my experience that I did not even have to stoop down to pick up the gold. In 1920 it was actually tossed into my lap; not by the pennyweight and with a teaspoon, but in large lumps and with a steam shovel.
Nevertheless, right after landing, as I was standing on the company's dock, on American soil, my predicament was much too critical. I still had the maternal blessing with which I had set sail but that was all. The $200 had dwindled down to $2.50 on the way over and a card sharp had taken me for most of it and the tips and the bar the rest of it. My buoyant frame of mind was buoyant no longerâ€”it was top heavy. In fact, I stood there with my elders' assurances still ringing in my ears, ready to pick up the gold, but forced into the realization that I had been grossly duped. There was no gold at my feet or yellow nuggets strewn about; only mudâ€”plain mudâ€”sticky, black mud an inch deep which extended from the landing to the gate and beyond it away up the street as far as the naked eye could see. Just mud. And I had come all the way from Italy, over five thousand nautical miles of deep, blue water, to find nothing but mud and shattered dreams of untold wealth easily acquired.
The reason why Boston did not see much more of me at that time, on that particular occasion, must not be ascribed to snobbery on my part. It was that my destination had been planned in advance back home and the change had not been made on my part. I had been destined for Pittsburgh, the "Smoky City" of Pennsylvania, as the presumptive abode of some fifth cousin of some third cousin of ours. Allegedly, he was a railroad contractor, but in reality one not beyond petty pilfering during the slack season in grand larceny. Which goes to show that allegations in general, whether in court or elsewhere, must be taken with a grain of salt.
Not only had my destination been planned ahead, but my elders had seen to it that their plans did not miscarry and I had been provided with unalienable wherewithals to get there. Wise old birds, my elders. They had a hunch, based upon experience, that I might run out of cash before I got to the other side of the ocean, as I had been stranded before on much shorter trips. So they had furnished me with a prepaid railroad fare to Pittsburgh by way of New York. If they hadn't, Boston and I would have got acquainted that very drizzling Sunday.
As it was, I did not leave the dock and with the rest of the New York bound immigrants I waited on that pier until a special train picked us up about 9 P.M., and twelve solid hours in the cold, in the mud and without a thing to eat.
There is no doubt about that train being a special. I hope to tell it was. It was so far out of the ordinary for discomfort and everything else as to make a war-time 40 and 8 look like a Pullman in comparison. It was routed to New York over the Southern Pacific or the Santa Fe. It must have been, as nothing else could explain its getting into the Grand Central the day after noon, unless it ran around in circles all night, or stopped at every crossing, or bowed at every telegraph pole. The well known slow train through Kansas was a streak of lightning alongside of ours.
When we reached New York I was on the verge of cannibalism. An early edition of Wimpy as my stomach had been idle so long that it had withered and I would have traded my soul for anything that I could sink my teeth into, be it a steak of the leather variety or a pole cat. So, the moment the brakes began to screech under the shed, I took a dive out of that train and made a bee-line for the gate.
The cop on duty did not like the idea of my making a race track out of the train shed and he spread out his arms and caught me on the fly. Notwithstanding his embrace, I knew that he was no lost brother of mine and resented his untimely affection. We exchanged words and many of them, but I could no more understand his Irish twang than he could my Italian. It was a draw, an impasse, rather, so we called in a bootblack to arbitrate. The situation cleared up immediately. The cop was told that I was hungry, starved and that I wanted to eat first and talk afterwards. He conceded that my haste, once explained, was beyond argument and withdrew and the bootblack and I withdrew in the direction of the nearest restaurant. We ate; that is, I presume that he did as I was too busy with my own meal to pay any attention to his. He paid the check, but ordinarily I would have paid it, and $2.50 did not permit me to stand on ceremonies, so I let him have his way and winced. After that one experience, I believe that bootblack lost all inclination to be hospitable to incoming immigrants. One such experience is enough for anybody. My appetite must have set him back the price of a suit of clothes with two pairs of pants.
My next problem was to locate the Pennsylvania Station, which, at that time, had not moved into New York, but was still across the River, but I didn't know that, of course. All that I knew was that I had to go by street-car in one direction, then transfer to another car going in the different direction, then walk a couple of blocks to the right, then. Oh, what's the use. The gist of the thing is that I had to get there and did not have the slightest idea as to where or how. Old Teddy Roosevelt must have felt the same way when he was trying to trace the course of the River of Doubt in the Brazilian jungle.
The Pennsylvania Station proved to be the most elusive thing I ever chased after in all my life, girls included. Whenever I inquired about it, it seemed to be just around the cornerâ€”like Mr. Hoover's prosperity. But I rounded dozens of corners and walked dozens of miles and blocks in all directions before I could establish even a remote contact with it. Eventually, I got there, yes, after I discovered that I must head for a ferry boat in order to land on the New Jersey side of the River. But I got there exhausted—numb—dead. For the best part of an afternoon I had been going around loaded with "light" baggage, so-called. Light, from the standpoint of size and space, but not of weight, because it felt like lead. And when the Pennsylvania Station hove in sight, I wasn't interested in trains any longer and I didn't give a hoot whether I got to Pittsburgh or not, or whether I never hobnobbed with the Carnegies, the Fricks and the Mellons. All I craved for was a coffin; a yielding, comfortable one in which I could lay my aching limbs for an eternal rest.