AWKWARD NEW YORK is a weekly column about the uncomfortable experiences of Chris Vespoli in and around NYC. Every Tuesday is another cringe-worthy account, from being fat shamed by a Dunkin’ Donuts employee to crashing Fashion Week.
I joined Ancestry.com on a whim. For those of you who have better things to do with your time and money, Ancestry.com is an online genealogy resource. You may have seen the commercials on TV. An upper-middle class white woman is deep diving into her family history over a nice cup of tea and comes across some documents revealing that her great-great-great-grand-whatever was Abraham Lincoln’s personal photographer. (I actually might be conflating a few ads into one in my head, but they’re really all the same.) The advert was contrived and lame, but it was clearly intriguing enough to convince me to sign up for a 14-day trial while I was in the throes of a tryptophan coma over the Thanksgiving holiday.
After a few solid days searching through passenger lists, immigration and naturalization records, and United States censuses, the life history of my great-grandfather, Melchiorre Vespoli, started coming into focus. But whereas the discovery the lady in the Ancestry.com commercial made was empowering and enlightening, my discovery was, well, emasculating. I learned a lot of fascinating things about Melchiorre, but the more I uncovered about this selfless, brave, industrious man, the more I realized I’m not any of those things. Here are the ways in which I don’t stack up to him:
1. Melchiorre Vespoli was born on September 17, 1877 somewhere near Naples, in Italy.
Let’s start with the obvious: I wouldn’t have lasted one day in the 1870s, let alone in an agrarian society. I don’t know how to farm, and the closest I’ve come to harvesting food is ordering Seamless from my iPhone like a feeble, miserable caged lab rat desperately pressing the feeder bar every time it craves sustenance, blissfully unaware of its inevitable, impending death.
2. In 1902, when Melchiorre was 25 years old, he immigrated to New York City.
It’s hard to fathom the balls it took to leave behind the only life he’d ever known and take a chance on an uncertain future in America, half a world away. No backup plan, no safety net — just the determination to make something out of nothing. I, too, embarked on a risky journey when I was 25; I moved to Los Angeles with hopes of freelancing in the entertainment industry…and ran back to New York with my tail between my legs within 11 months, broke.
3. According to the 1920 census, Melchiorre’s first place of residence was on Eighth Avenue (now Frederick Douglas Boulevard) at 123rd Street.
I live off 109th Street, which means I’ve done nothing to advance the family in nearly a century (unless you call moving 14 blocks downtown “progress”). My father tried; he moved the Vespolis out of the City and raised me in suburban Long Island. When he heard I had designs to move to Manhattan after college, he famously derided, “our family spent 50 years trying to get outta the City…and now you wanna go back?” It’s good to know I’ll go down in my family’s history as the schmuck who permanently retarded our social mobility.
4. Melchiorre worked at the family fruit and vegetable stand, and later as a “laborer.”
That was his job — just general, nondescript, manual labor. “Hey, Melchiorre. What are you doing for work these days?” “Ah, laboring.” Meanwhile, I’m a white-collar weakling who gets paid to write. I’ve never had a job in my adult life that was in the least bit physically demanding. The most labor I take part in is struggling to get up off my low-rise CB2 couch after inhaling a braised pork burrito.
5. Melchiorre had a sixth-grade education…and seven children.
He was able to raise, clothe, and feed a family of seven without a high school — or even a middle school — diploma. I, on the other hand, can barely support a wife and a dog with my college degree, not to mention I’m still buried in debt because of it. Spending thousands of dollars to major in television (really, my major was television) sounded like a great idea in 2006, but now, not so much.
6. In 1940, Melchiorre’s monthly rent was $30.
Yeah, I know, inflation. But even so, my wife and I pay $1400 a month for a studio apartment. I’m sure when Melchiorre envisioned the kind of life his great-grandson would have 70 years henceforth, he wasn’t visualizing me in a single 400-square-foot room above a Dunkin’ Donuts. If he were alive today, he’d take one step into my place (which would already put him at least halfway to the back wall) and say, “I left Italy so you could live like this?” In English. Yes, he also taught himself how to speak and write English. Three words of Italian and “where’s the bathroom?” in Spanish is the extent of my foreign language skills.
7. According to Melchiorre’s WWI draft card, his physical build was “short and stout.”
Lastly (and sadly), it appears there’s no improving my squat, rotund body because apparently all Vespoli men are genetically predisposed to be shaped like a teapot. And if Ancestry.com has taught me one thing, it’s that there’s no denying your genetics — no matter how badly you wish you could.
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