Bill's Story Part 1: Growing Up In Jersey
If you've ever met my father-in-law, Bill Schlegel, then you know that he is quite a guy. The son of Hungarian and German first-generation Americans, Bill grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey. He is one of those rare diamonds in the rough, an inspiring success story of a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks creating an extraordinary life for himself through grit, relentless positivity, and good old-fashioned hard work. It's been a real privilege getting to sit down with him and listen to his story. What follows below is a brief excerpt from our earlier interviews, and a sampling of our manuscript in progress. Enjoy!
I was in my mom’s belly on the day they bombed Pearl Harbor. It was December 1, 1941, and I wasn’t born until February 13, 1942. Later in life, I would to tease the kids I worked with as a teacher that when I was born, I came out with a machine gun, a helmet and combat boots. The kids would laugh. But it was the truth.
I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, and I was named after my dad, who was also William Joseph. My family lived in the same apartment for my whole life, until the building was finally condemned in the '70s and they had to move. It was a railroad apartment, long and narrow, with three small bedrooms and one bathroom all in a row. The apartment was about fifteen feet wide, with tall, ten foot ceilings, and you could fit a 9x12 rug in the living room. Each room was connected to the next by a door, and my dad removed the doors to help keep the place warm. There was no privacy.
My sisters, Corinne and Barbara, shared a room, and my two brothers and I shared a room. The kitchen was right next to our bedroom, and my mom and dad’s room was also the living room. The only place we had heat was in the kitchen.
Needless to say, we were really poor. Food, however, was one thing my mom and dad always provided. And while we always had enough, we were hungry all the time. We ate Spam a lot because it was cheap, and we became pretty creative when it came to food.
My brother Joe and I used to put white bread on the stovetop instead of in the toaster, and we’d burn it on one side and turn it over. Then we’d rub a garlic clove on it and put bacon fat on top because it was salty. It was like garlic bread. Joe and I could make it anytime because we always had a jar of bacon fat in the fridge. We’d go outside and Joey Cazenza would be there playing cards with a bunch of the other big guys in the neighborhood.
When we approached, Joey would say, "Man, who stinks?"
I'd respond, “Joe and I just had bread with garlic.”
“Well, you guys stink,” he said.
But we never thought about it. I don't remember all of us stinking, but I’m sure we did. We were dirty, and we had to make due with what we had. Being poor, however, also made us resourceful. From the time Joe and I were about five or six years old, we found ways to make some extra money. We’d run errands for people, shovel snow, or shine shoes, and sometimes we’d even pool our resources and partner with a couple other kids in the neighborhood.
Joe and I would save things like newspapers, copper, and brass in the basement. We’d borrow a little flatbed wagon, and we’d go collect them from the neighbors. Then we’d stack it all and take it to the rag shop about five blocks away, where they’d weigh it all and give us about two cents a pound. Glass bottles would fetch about a nickel each if we took them back. Errands for the neighbors would pay about a quarter. Gerty from upstairs on the fourth floor would send us out to buy her Parliament cigarettes for twenty-five cents a pack, and another neighbor would send us to the liquor store four blocks up the hill to buy their wine. We were just little kids, but everybody knew everybody, so we were able to get away with it.
My favorite thing to buy with the extra money I’d make was food- especially candy. I loved to buy bitza bread from Chris and Sally Vitalli’s corner store. The bread was round with a hole in it, and we’d make pizza with it using swiss cheese, oregano chips, and Progresso pizza sauce. I’d go to the store and buy sliced pork or turkey and a quarter of bread. It was seven cents for a bottle for Pepsi Cola, and the Coca Cola was six ounces for the same price, so naturally we’d get the Pepsi Cola. We’d buy those extra long pretzels for a penny, and we’d stick it in the bottle of soda. It would fizz from the salt and we’d chew it when it got soft.
We used to get together with all the guys in the neighborhood: Andrew Demore and his cousin, Gigi; Harold Claire, whom we called Oakey; Joey Lazaro; and my brother Joe and I. They nicknamed me Dry Gulch, from some cowboy movie. We’d all go to Peppi’s Italian Restaurant, about three blocks up from Montgomery. We’d buy a dozen muscles in tomato sauce for a dollar and a quarter, along with the long Italian bread. The bread was so good fresh, but if it was a day old, you could kill somebody with it, because it was as hard as wood. The meal came with all the butter you could eat, and we’d dunk the bread in the tomato sauce. Then we’d buy a pitcher of root beer, and we were set.
We also liked go to the Chinese Kitchen, up on Bergen Avenue. It was upstairs, and the whole second floor of the building was the restaurant. There were China-looking tables, and Chinese stuff all around. We’d sit in one of the booths, and we’d always get their green tea, making sure to put extra sugar in it because we didn’t like the taste. They always gave you as much as you could drink. We’d order shrimp chow mein, and they’d give us as many fried noodles as we wanted. We loved soda with our meals, and then as we got older, it would be pitchers of beer.
We were probably about eight or nine years old at the time. Anytime we had money, we would do things like that, because we were always hungry, and it was a real treat. And while we always had enough food to get by, other things, like clothes, were always kind of shaky.