In the fall of 1959, Ciro Scala, just out of high school, was commuting to a clerical job in Times Square from Staten Island and also going to City College, uptown on Convent Avenue in the evenings. The trip home — which relied on the IRT to Lower Manhattan, the Staten Island Ferry and then a bus to New Brighton — took about two and a half hours, although sometimes it extended to three, getting him home, in every instance, past midnight. Ground down, he eventually gave up and stopped attending classes, which he did with a sorrowful resignation.
The youngest of five children, Ciro was the son of Southern Italian parents who had resisted assimilation. “They never talked about school,” he told me recently. “We had to work. The whole idea was to get a job. High school, yes, but after that, college was not discussed.” Instead he was to help support his family.
The move to Staten Island, when Ciro was a teenager, meant they had a home with a shower for the first time. Previously, the family had lived in a cold-water flat in Brooklyn on the border between Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant at a time when the area still had many factories. Bathing was a matter of standing at the kitchen sink. Ciro’s three sisters all shared the same bed — two at the head, one at the foot. In the summer when it was hot, everyone slept on the roof.
Success, of a kind he had not foreseen, would come in the decades ahead: a climb up the ranks of the textile business, which began with a stint in a mail room; a Brooklyn Heights townhouse, bought fortuitously in 1979; a daughter sent to private school; summers on the East End of Long Island. But these markers of an urbane, affluent life on the other side of the world from where he had grown up, only a few miles away, were not the endgame. He could not shake the regret he felt over failing to complete his education. Now in his 70s, he resumed the journey that had been interrupted so long ago.
“I just never wanted to die without a diploma,” he said. “I lived a life. I felt I was successful. But without that diploma I was not whole. I didn’t want to leave that legacy for my grandchildren.”
Ordinarily, I would have met with Ciro at his townhouse, where my husband and I had rented an apartment on the top floor 14 years ago. When my son arrived early, in advance of the crib I had bought, we got …….