Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Maria Mazziotti is the second of three children born to Italian immigrants Arturo and Angelina Mazziotti. Arturo first came to America when he was 16. During the Great Depression as a young man, he returned to Italy to find himself a wife. He spotted Angelina, who was chasing a pig in her mountain village, and fell in love. He had been living in Paterson, spurred there by other people from his home in Cilento, but his boss gave him trouble and he couldn’t straighten out the paperwork in time to bring his wife back with him. During the next six months, he was able to resolve the immigration issues, and his then-pregnant Angelina came to Paterson in December 1936.

From her desk at the Hamilton Club on Paterson’s Church Street, Maria recalls her childhood in the city she still loves. She didn’t speak English until she attended PS 18, living within the Italian enclave in the Riverside section of Paterson. She didn’t know the family was poor until she watched television. Both her parents gave away what they had. While the family may not have had much money, they had plenty of love and generosity. Angelina’s domain was the home. Her Sunday dinner table at the Mazziotti home filled with friends and family, invited to share in meals of macaroni, meatballs, bracciole, homemade bread, and more, with vegetables from the large garden.

Arturo, a labor organizer, was more outgoing and belonged to some of the city’s 50 Italian clubs. In particular, he helped out with the Cilentano society, made up of immigrants from Cilento. He helped kids get music lessons to keep them off the streets. He helped immigrants bring over their families and resolve property issues in Italy, sometimes taking three buses with them to Newark to do so. He taught Italian to those wanting to attend medical school in Italy, because they were not accepted into medical schools in the United States. Though a janitor at Central High, he sat in the back of math classes and absorbed instruction. English, however, always eluded him, but that never stopped him from speaking his mind to newspaper editors. He was frequently relied on to help get out the Italian vote.

Maria specifically chose Paterson as the home of the Poetry Center, inspired by William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and her own upbringing. Paterson became the core of her poetry. She has been running the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College for 35 years. She also credits PS 18 and Eastside High School for instilling in her a love of learning. She recalls her trips to the Riverside branch of the library and the personal attention she received there from the librarian.

She also recalls watching her mother sew at a factory off lower Main Street, horrified to see her in such dire surroundings and the victim of a floor walker’s brow-beatings. She honors the immigrant spirit, then and now, and immigrant values that eventually bear great fruit in the vein of giving back to the community and to the world.

 
 

Interview Transcript

Note: This transcript is based on the audio recording. The video recording produced by William Paterson University divides the interview into three separate files. The file breaks are noted in the transcript below.

Interviewer:

This is Barbara Krasner and today is Tuesday, November 18th, 2014 and I am in Paterson with Maria Mazziotti Gillan and we are at the Hamilton Club. Good morning, Maria.

Gillan:

Good morning, Barbara. Great to be talking to you.

Interviewer:

Yes!

Interviewer:

So I’m thrilled that you were gracious enough to agree to an interview, you are so important to Paterson and we’ve invited in a film crew today to capture you on film. So I’d like to start out talking about Paterson with a very broad question: What is your connection to Paterson?

Gillan:

I was born here, in a tenement on Fifth Avenue. My mother delivered me herself, the doctor never got there until after I was born. My mother was very neat, so she cut the cord herself and cleaned me up and wrapped me up and she had laid out these towels she had brought from Italy and soap in the bathroom and the doctor came, stood in the doorway, and never came inside the room.

Interviewer:

Ah, that’s interesting.

Gillan:

She said, when she was dying, she said, “You know, he never even touched me. He said, ‘You’ll be okay.’ Then he washed his hands and he left.” And she said, “Well, you know, he was afraid of catching it,” and I said, “What?” and she said, “Poverty.” She really said la miseria, which is the Italian word for poverty. So I thought that was very interesting. Anyway, my connection to Paterson is very strong. I grew up here. I went to school here. My love for poetry was formed here, basically by teachers at PS 18 and Eastside High School. I had the same teacher that Allen Ginsberg had at Eastside, Miss Durbin. We were really fortunate to have Mr. Weiss as my English teacher, he retired maybe ten years ago from teaching in Paterson but when I read in New York, no matter what the weather or how far away in the city it is, what borough it’s in, he’s always sitting in the front row. And so it’s so wonderful that this English teacher I had when I was 14 still is so supportive of me and my work and that’s what I think of when I think of the Paterson schools. I certainly had plenty of awful teachers as everybody does and people who weren’t so supportive but the ones who were so supportive taught me to love poetry, to love the sound of language. And the other thing that was important for me was that I was able to go to the Paterson Public Library. My parents didn’t speak English. We didn’t have books in English in the house and so I was able to walk to the Paterson Public Library, the Riverside Branch, and get all the books I wanted. And there was a wonderful librarian, Christine, who just let me read whatever I wanted. So I started at A and worked my way around. And when I was 11 she said, okay, that’s enough in the children’s section, you can go in the adult section, and again, I started, it was a very good learning experience for me, because I pretty soon picked up on what was good and what was bad in the writing that I was reading. And I knew when something wasn’t as good as something else, wasn’t as gripping, wasn’t as beautifully written. It was a very good education for me. I would have loved to have gone to Harvard, but that was a very good education for a kid who didn’t speak English when she went to school. So, for me, Paterson is a very big part of who I am today and I grew up in what was essentially a little Italian neighborhood in Paterson. I rarely left Paterson, because my father didn’t drive and we took buses when we went somewhere. We walked and so my experiences outside of Paterson were very limited. And I always felt that there was something very alive about Paterson. I have very fond memories. Although we were very poor, we didn’t have a television until I was 11, and so I never got to see upper middle-class people until I saw them on TV. And so it wasn’t something that I missed because I didn’t know that I was missing anything.

Interviewer:

None of your friends had it either, so…

Gillan:

Well, no, they didn’t. We were probably poorer than a lot of people because my parents were the first generation to live in the United States. I was second generation, but I actually didn’t speak English until I went to school. Inside the house was Italy; outside it was America. But our social contacts, my parents, were all Italian, so we go visit honorary aunts and uncles and real aunts and uncles, but they spoke Italian so I grew up feeling I was in Italy rather than America in some ways. And that part of Paterson I really loved. And then when I started high school I started taking the bus from the Riverside section of Paterson to downtown Paterson and I was able to go to Eastside and then I worked at the Paterson Public Library, which expanded my ability to read a lot. It was a wonderful library. First of all, it’s beautiful. It’s the Danforth Memorial Library, it was quite beautiful. It had wonderful art. It had an extensive collection of literature, which when I worked there, I was able to really read all these poets and all this literature that I hadn’t been exposed to before. And Eastside was an amazing high school and I was in the Alpha classes, so I was really exposed to amazing teachers, who exposed me to every kind of American and British and world literature you can imagine. I was really very fortunate and I loved the city. And I came back to it when, after my husband finished graduate school, we went to live in Kansas City for three years and I taught as an adjunct there while he was on the regular faculty. My children were little. We came back to New Jersey and after a few years I started adjuncting at different schools and one of the places was the Passaic County Community College and that’s when I realized this was where I wanted to do my work. Paterson was where I wanted to do my work. And for me, it was really connected to poetry. It was connected to William Carlos Williams, and his epic poem “Paterson,” and the other poems that he wrote, they were rooted in the city. As a doctor, he had many patients in the city. So he made me look at Paterson in a new way. And then I became exposed to Ginsberg, and Ginsberg made me look at literature in a completely new way and so I think that basically Williams said the universal is in the particular. For me that was an important statement. It influenced my own writing very much to include all the things I’d been trying to run away from until I was 40. I was trying to write poems about Greek gods and all this other esoteric stuff, because I had to prove that I was smart, that I wasn’t just this Italian immigrant kid. And then when I was about 40, a graduate school professor said to me, wait a minute, it’s in this poem about your father that you find the story you have to tell. A gigantic light bulb went on in my head and I thought well, why can’t I write about growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, why can’t I write about my Italian immigrant parents, about being poor, about growing up in a tenement with a coal stove that heated the whole apartment (well, it didn’t, it heated the kitchen). The rest of the apartment was freezing. And so I started writing about that, what was it like to be a daughter, a granddaughter, what it was like to be a child of immigrants who never met her grandparents, what was it like to be a mother, a wife—all of that became part of what I was trying to do. Very influenced by Ginsberg. I wasn’t, he was much more daring in his writing about sexuality than I ever was, but he taught me about the value of specificity. But I think in reading “Kaddish”—what an amazing poem that is, how brave he was in that poem. Who could read that poem and ever forget the details that he uses in describing his mother. Even the details that had to be very painful for him. That ride to the mental hospital on the bus. How could you read that and ever forget it? And it made me aspire to writing like that rather than writing the way I’d been taught in college, when I was taught all these English romantic poets, which I tried to be. Or Shakespeare which I tried to be. And I really found the story I had to tell and I try to encourage my students to find that story. What is their story? What is the world they see with their eyes? What is the world they hear with their ears? And I still try to encourage people to read and read and read. Because I think that shapes you, the way you use language, that shapes the way you write. And there is a music in the language, how I fell in love with the way English sounded, how I fell in love with the way poetry sounded when it was read by those teachers in PS 18, when it was read by Miss Durbin in Eastside High School or Mr. Weiss. Can you imagine today assigning 30 books a semester to students to read, can you imagine such a thing? Yet that’s what the Alpha class students were made to do and I loved every minute of it. I will forever be grateful to Eastside High School and to those teachers.

Interviewer:

So, let’s go back to your parents for a minute. So, first generation from Italy.

Gillan:

Right.

Interviewer:

Did they come over as a couple? Did they meet here?

Gillan:

No, my father came first and then as many immigrants did, he went back to Italy to look for a wife and he had his mother searching to see who was available. And on the day he was supposed to go visit my mother, my grandmother was very bright but a little scatter-brained and she forgot to let them know they were coming. So they walked from the top of the mountain down to my mother’s town which was probably a half hour walk and they get there and mother is chasing the pig. And my father said he saw my mother chasing that pig and her face was all red because she worked in the fields so they had very high color because they were outside all the time and it is the top of a mountain. So he saw her and she looked very sexy to him and he said that was it. He saw her and said I knew she was the one. Later on he would talk about watching her chase that pig and she would go, oh shut-upa you. Shut-upa you. Don’t talk about the pig. Don’t talk about me chasing that pig. They were married three months later and then they went on a one-week honeymoon in Rome where my mother got pregnant with my sister and when they got on the ship to come to America some of her papers were not in order. Some of the papers he had to file were not in order, so they wouldn’t let her on the boat and she had to go back and live with her mother-in-law for, because now she was married and she couldn’t go back home, she had to live with her mother-in-law whom she barely knew, until he could get the papers straightened out. My father had been a labor organizer in Paterson and the man he worked for was angry at him, because he had fomented a strike, so he wouldn’t sign the papers saying he worked there, even though he did. It took him maybe, it took six months to get it straightened out, and then he had to deposit money, there was a whole bunch of hoops he was made to jump through, but finally my mother was able to come. She rode to America on a ship in steerage by herself and she was sick the whole way over. But she talks about getting up and getting dressed on the day they were docking and wearing the one good dress she had, a hat and heels. She goes up and waits on the deck of the ship and she sees him waiting on the dock and she said it was so exciting to see him there. She was already six months pregnant. So my sister was born here and then I was born three years later [1941]. And then my brother was born.

Interviewer:

So about what year…

Gillan:

That was right in the middle of the Depression. Who comes here in the middle of the Depression, 1936. She arrived here in 1936 in May and my sister was born in September. [Angelina Schiavo Mazziotti arrived on the SS Vulcania from Naples, July 9, 1936 – age 23, born San Mauro, Cilento – going to husband, Arturo, living in Hawthorne, 932 Lafayette Ave. – she was 5’2”][San Mauro Cilento is in the province of Salerno in the Campania region of southwestern Italy – in 2010 its population was 982] [Note: Arturo was actually a naturalized U.S. citizen – November 16, 1906 in Philadelphia, PA]

Interviewer:

And when did your father first come?

Gillan:

My father came in 1916.

Interviewer:

So he was pretty young when he came.

Gillan:

Wait a minute, I’m wrong, he came in 1922 [Note: That cannot be right if he was naturalized in 1906, which sounds like the year of his birth.] He was 16 years old. He came here by himself, then he called for his sister to come. And, you know, that’s what they did. They would start with one person, but they always went to a part of the city that had a lot of immigrants from their region…

Interviewer:

Right.

Gillan:

Many from their own town who spoke the same dialect, because Italy was really a whole bunch of little states and so the dialect in each part of Italy was different. You could go 15 miles and it would be a different dialect. And I still speak that dialect, which is now 100 years out of date, I have to say.

Interviewer:

So what brought him to Paterson?

Gillan:

Other people who were from his town said this was a good place, come here, and so he did. He was always active, he was always very outgoing, always very political, he was a really good orator. There were 50 Italian societies in Paterson when he came here. Can you imagine, 50 Italian societies, and they formed a society called the Cilentano Society, because they came from Cilento. And it was before Social Security and all that, so they started a death benefit for their members, and they started a health benefit for their members so if somebody died, they would give the widow money and they would help with the children and all that. So, and then they built a building on Butler Street in Paterson, which is in the Riverside section, right off 6th Avenue, and they had a large membership of people from that region. And then I went to give a talk at the Italian Society in Kinnelon and one of the people in the audience said to me, “I know your father.” And I said, “How do you know my father,” and he said, because we grew up on Butler Street. And there was no money, people didn’t have money, but your father, people wanted to take, the kids wanted to take music lessons, but the parents didn’t have money, so my father went to Mr. Seletti, who was a band player and a band organizer and he said to him, “Would you be willing to give these kids lessons?” And so, he said to him, “If you get 25 kids to give lessons and give 25 cents a week, I will give them lessons.” And he did, at the Cilentano Society, the kids came after school. He gave them music lessons. Then he ended up buying them instruments, because he didn’t have instruments, then he got music for them, and he then said, “I will never forget him. I made my living as a band leader and five of the people in that band came from, studied with Mr. Seletti. Then because he saw we didn’t have enough to do after school, he organized the building of a bocce court and he had the old men teach us bocce. So we would go after school and we would have nothing to do and he didn’t want us to get into trouble and he said, I’ll never forget him as long as I live, and he said I gave my trombone and trumpet to people from the club whose grandchildren wanted to play and he said, I still remember him doing that, making a place for us in that club when we had nowhere else to go. So, you know, I think that’s where I get my desire to do things for other people. My father always had that desire, so it was really nice to hear that. And then he was a janitor at Central High School, my father, and he would go in and sit in the math classes. He was a wonderful mathematician. He was horrified by me, because I am not a wonderful mathematician. But he was a wonderful mathematician and one time I was giving a talk and a teacher said I remember your father, he used to come and sit in the back of my math class, and he would quickly get everything, because he could really multiply and divide in his head like crazy, and so, and he would say to his algebra class, would you look at this, this man could do it and you, stupid people, can’t do it? And this man is sitting here and he’s a janitor in the school and he’s able to do it and you can’t do it. You should be ashamed of yourself. He said, I’ll never forget him. He got algebra, he got geometry, he understood the whole thing. So, I think the city was good to us in many ways and gave us a lot of opportunities. They didn’t have the opportunities that people have now, Passaic County Community College, for example, when they can’t speak English and take ESL classes. They didn’t have those opportunities. They had English classes at night at Central High School, they would have English classes for immigrants, but they were to teach them how to say hello, how much, that kind of thing, but they weren’t like English classes like people today have. They didn’t have those kinds of opportunities for immigrants back then. So my father’s English was really pretty atrocious, except he could read in English and he wrote letters to the editors of the local newspapers, but I had to fix them for him, because the English wasn’t any good, but his ideas were wonderful. I have to say, he would call up the editors of the papers in Paterson and say, how could you possibly publish that editorial? He’d say it in his broken English and trying to get them to change their political stance in the newspaper and he would call arch-conservative editors and say, you really shouldn’t say such a thing in the newspaper and here’s what you should have written, and he would explain to them in his broken English what they should have written. I’m sure they thought he was insane but he did try, he tried the best he could. And he would give speeches at all the clubs in Paterson. He was responsible also for teaching. A lot of people from the neighborhood would go to Italy to study, to become doctors because they couldn’t get into medical school here, so they would go to Italy, they had to learn Italian and my father would teach them standard Italian so they could go to Italy and many of the doctors who practiced in Paterson for many years were able to do it because he sent them to Italy with a knowledge of Italian so they could take classes in Italian.

Interviewer:

Wow. And his name was Arturo?

Gillan:

Arturo.

Interviewer:

And your mother’s name was…?

Gillan:

Angelina.

Interviewer:

Okay. So what do you recall about his labor-organizing days?

Gillan:

I recall that he had his head broken on Fifth Avenue in Paterson. He walked from Hawthorne to Paterson, which is not that easy, it’s not that close and walked to Fifth Avenue and they all met, and they were trying to get five cents more an hour. The police came with billy clubs and they broke it up. They knocked him on the head. He went home with blood dripping, my mother was ready to murder him. She thought the family was the most important thing. [END OF FIRST VIDEO FILE. BEGIN SECOND.] He thought the family was important but you had to do something for the larger world, too, so, but she was so annoyed at him, because he comes home with a concussion, and there was blood dripping and he said, I’m still glad I did it, even though we didn’t get the five cents more, and they broke it up, we had to do it anyway. So that’s the kind of thing I remember about him. He would try, he was very important trying to get the vote out in Paterson, and he would get, because he was a really good orator, he would go to these clubs and try to get the vote out, and the mayor would call him and say, can you help me get the Italian vote out, and he would go around knocking on doors, and getting people to come out that he knew. Everybody knew him. When my mother died, my mother was very introverted, and very few people knew her, but they all knew my father. He must have had 500 people at his funeral, I don’t think I’ll get 500 people at my funeral, but he had all these people who knew him from going to all these clubs and being so active and of course my brother was also a doctor so people knew him but mostly they came for my father and it was wonderful. It was just wonderful to see that, that people remembered the things he had done.

Interviewer:

Did he encourage the helping the world philosophy in you?

Gillan:

Oh, yeah, that really was, he said, you can’t be for yourself. If you’re only for yourself, what are you? You’re nothing. Isn’t there a Jewish saying to the same effect?

Interviewer:

Tikkun olam, repair the world.

Gillan:

Yeah, and he felt that was important, caring for the world was important. My mother felt earn more money, we need more money for the family, the family needs money, but my father, she also gave away food. We always had 20 extra people at every meal. But he gave away help. The Italians were afraid, basically, I mean they came from a poor region, they often were not educated, they had trouble learning English, they were afraid to go outside this Italian little enclave, and he knew that, so he learned how to do, for example, he was wonderful at math, so he learned how to do the income tax and he did income tax for probably three-quarters of the people in Paterson who were Italian or for anybody who asked him. And he would learn it by looking at the income tax book. Now I could look at that income tax book until I’m blue. I still couldn’t do the income tax. Here’s a man who had no formal education, who taught himself how to do income tax so that he could do…he did my brother’s income tax forms until, my brother’s a doctor, his income tax started getting very complicated, and when it got, my father was about 86 and he said, this is getting too difficult for me, this is beyond me and the income tax book, you need a real accountant to do your income tax and, but he did mine for years and I was never audited until I did it myself. When I did it myself, I was audited. I was never audited when he did it, I have to say, so he did, also, in order to sell property in English, he usually had to go to the Italian consulate in Newark and you had to fill out all these papers and he would take people because they were scared to go. He would bring them to Newark and he would talk for them and then he would help them fill out the papers and send for people or sell property. He had to fill out a lot of forms to get somebody to immigrate to the United States so he would help them do that and they knew they could go to him and he would take them to Newark, sometimes taking three buses. He finally got a car when I was about maybe 13. He got a car and then he would take them in the car to Newark. And he had a really bad limp, he had a tumor on his spine, he had to be operated on, he had a terrible limp, but he would walk all over the place, take them on three buses to Newark and so he was remembered very fondly by many, many people in the city.

Interviewer:

What was a Sunday like in your house growing up?

Gillan:

A Sunday in our house was – my mother would get up about 4 o’clock in the morning and start cooking. She would get us all up for the 9 o’clock mass and we’d go to church…

Interviewer:

Which church?

Gillan:

Blessed Sacrament Church in Paterson. We would walk there and it was up a very steep hill. Paterson is very hilly in the Riverside section, and we would go there, and when we came back, she’d be cooking and she had made meatballs and she had made her own bread and the house would be just so full of the smells of cooking and everything and then we would have a ten-course meal –in which it wouldn’t be only us, it would always be extra people that would be invited and as we grew up we would invite our friends – everybody wanted to come to our house for Sunday dinner because it was a 12-course meal and so she would start with the Italian things, she would start with, you know, macaroni, and meatballs and bracciole, and sausage and then she’d move on to roasted chicken (not in the beginning, because they couldn’t afford chicken in the beginning. In fact, we had a neighbor who threw out chickens and my father had had an operation, they couldn’t afford anything, they lived on $350 a year for that year and she said they would toss chickens in the garbage and she would look at those chickens and think, I can’t, it would be too humiliating to go get those chickens but she would have loved to have grabbed those chickens and make chicken soup for us and give us more protein than she could afford to give us that year. And when she was dying, she was convinced that that year when we had to live on $350 a year we had farina and spaghetti and farina and spaghetti, homemade bread, farina and spaghetti and homemade bread that year. And she couldn’t afford to give my sister five cents for milk that they had to pay in order to get milk in school, she was convinced my sister got rheumatoid arthritis as a young woman because she didn’t have milk that year. And when she was dying she was still worrying about the five cents she couldn’t give my sister for milk. But as soon as they had anything, they shared it. And my mother said, it was a miracle – the more I gave away, the more I have to give. And I’ve really taken that to heart and I’ve taken my father’s sense of the world as a place that you’re responsible for the world, you’re responsible for other people and I’ve really tried to live my life like that and tried to be responsible for other people. I give away poetry, I give away opportunities to people. I can’t give food because I’m not that great a cook. When I was a good cook, a long time before I forgot, I gave away a lot of food, too, but my mother gave away that, I tried to give away assistance and help and nurturing …

Interviewer:

Like your father…

Gillan:

Like my father and I’m more out in the world in the way that he was out in the world, I’m out in the world and I think, I thought it was an Italian thing, but the more I talk to other people and talk to people from differeent religious backgrounds, I see that that’s a big part of other religions. I feel very close to Jewish people, because they have that same idea, it’s a mitzvah, it’s something that you do for the world, for somebody else. And in a way it’s like bread carries on the waters, it comes back to you in so many unexpected ways. I have had a very blessed life, I think. I didn’t expect growing up in a tenement, the kind of tenement I grew up in (I’m going to drink a little), that I would be able to go to Yugoslavia and read to 10,000 people, I’m sorry. Who would have ever thought of such a thing? Where I grew up, wearing hand-me-down clothes, never having quite enough, no – getting Christmas presents, undershirts, white cotton undershirts and underpants, that I would be able to give my children the kind of life and education that I’ve given them. And my mother said, my daughter was editor-in-chief of the yearbook at Georgetown and my mother was looking at the yearbook and there’s all these upper middle-class kids and their straight teeth and their vitamin-enriched skin and their beautiful hair and everything and my daughter took their pictures. And my mother’s going, oh how beautiful, and she kept touching the pages and going, how beautiful, how beautiful, and she said, only in America could we go from where we came from to Jennifer doing this. And then she got up, put on her apron, and began to cook again.

Interviewer:

Well, that’s what she did.

Gillan:

That’s what she did. But she kept saying, only in America could we go from where we were, because when I went to her town for the first time, it is absolutely beautiful, it’s on top of a mountain, it’s gorgeous, it’s really gorgeous, the vistas, they’re just wonderful, but they were dirt poor up there. And the animals, they would bring them down off the mountain, because they were afraid of being attacked, they were always being overrun, so they had the Turks attack them, the Greeks attacked them, the Arabs, everybody attacked them. How they got to the top of that hill, I don’t know, because it takes 45 minutes by car to reach the top of that mountain. But they must have had horses, I don’t know. They were overrun by everybody, so the houses are built as though they could be protected because they’re all next to each other and then the fields were up in the mountain so they would have to walk up to the top of the mountain and the fields were built like steps to the top of the mountain. They would come back and in the winter, they’d bring the animals down to live in the barn which was attached to the house. Because they had to protect the animals, too.

Interviewer:

Right, right.

Gillan:

So, you know, who would expect to go from there…my brother’s a doctor, his son is a professor at the University of Chicago in theoretical chemistry, I’m sorry. Would you expect that from… they certainly have given back. That’s why I hate anti-immigrant comments, because these two, coming from nothing, have managed to give the world a poet and a professor, my sister was a nurse for, until she got too sick to be able to do it anymore, for 35 years, my brother’s been a doctor and he was a professor at Columbia before he went to medical school and now his son is a professor at the University of Chicago in theoretical chemistry. He’s 40 years old and he’s a full professor already. My daughter’s a full professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, my son’s a lawyer. You know, who would have expected that, and you could expect that from all these other immigrants who coming to, because they’re hungry and they want to do so much. I think you could see it in the Jewish immigrants who came here, you can see it in the Jewish immigrants who came to Paterson, and how then they opened a little store, and then it became a bigger store, and their children have gone on to do wonderful things. Why can’t we welcome the new people who are coming? I really think, and I know it was hard, it was hard for my father to get my mother into America, it was hard, they had quotas, that’s why so many in the ‘50s, I was just reading, in Canada, they said the reason there were so many immigrants to Canada is because they had a quota on the number of Italians who could come into the United States. It was so small in the ‘50s that they went instead to Canada. Not that they wanted to go to a cold place, but, you know, they had no choice. If they were going to leave Italy after the war, that’s where they had to go. And what I loved about Toronto was the very diversity of the place. I love it, I love that diversity is what I remember about Paterson and what I see now, I see the kids with their Arab headdresses, I see the kind of diversity here now that was the same kind of diversity that was here when I was a kid. And the lack of opportunities is the same kind of lack of opportunity that was here when I was a child. That’s why I thought it was important to establish the poetry center here, because first of all, this is so rooted in poetry here, but in addition to that, it really fostered my love of poetry and so I wanted to pass that on. And when I first started the poetry center, people said you’re crazy, nobody’s going to come to Paterson for poetry. Well, I think I’ve proved them wrong.

Interviewer:

I think so.

Gillan:

The poetry center’s 35 years old. I have completely proved that you can do it. That people will come to Paterson if you give them poetry that speaks to them and you don’t try to give academic and esoteric poetry. So I’ve completely stayed away from that kind of poetry. And we have a big program going into the public schools as well. So we send writers into schools, we send, we have theater programs for the school children in Paterson, and so we have professional theater companies coming into Paterson. I love this city, I love the Falls, the way the sky is at night when you leave the building. I don’t know if it’s chemicals, but it is the most incredible color. I love seeing the little kids coming to our theater to watch the programs. When we first started doing this, they would start screaming. They had never been in a theater, so you’d get first and second graders and you’d turn the lights off and they were frightened. They had never been to a theater. So I remembered that as a kid, we never had anything, we never left, so I wanted to give them, I couldn’t bring them to New York, but I could bring New York here for them.

Interviewer:

Yes.

Gillan:

So, I do love this city. There’s some wonderful things. Garret Mountain is so amazing. Lambert Castle. There are so many wonderful things. The little ethnic neighborhoods are still here. Go into South Paterson, it’s really interesting, you can find food of every culture. I find that so much more exciting than suburbia, which can be so deadly dull. So, I think if we give kids the opportunity, if we open the door for them, they can walk through. You just have to give them a chance. And who would have thought, who would have thought, I never would have expected to have had the life I’ve had. Never, not in a million years. And I feel that Paterson, and those teachers in PS 18 and those teachers in Eastside High School, made that possible for me.

Interviewer:

Now, in your documentary, when it opens up, you’re standing with the Great Falls behind you.

Gillan:

Yeah.

Interviewer:

So what made you choose that location?

Gillan:

Oh, I didn’t choose it, the filmmakers chose it. But for me, the Falls are really symbolic of Paterson, the energy of that, they not only made it possible to have an industrial city, but it’s so incredibly beautiful. And my father used to talk about swimming in the Passaic River when he first got here. He was 16 years old, they would go to the shore and jump in. Nobody thought pollution. It was probably polluted even then but they didn’t realize it and he said it was clean and he said they would picnic on the side, so for me, I was attracted to it because of my father’s stories, but also there’s something so incredibly beautiful about it, isn’t there? Look at the Falls after a rainstorm. And it’s wonderful. I’m still mad that they took some of the water away and diverted it up, I don’t think they should have allowed then to do that, I really don’t, but when they allow all the water to flow over and there’s been a rainstorm, it is the most incredibly beautiful vision of power. And I think the thing that Paterson has was this whole slew of immigrants who came at different times and there was a lot of people who came through here at different times and sometimes they moved on to the suburbs and left the city behind but there are a lot of new places to take their places and I think that the energy the immigrants bring is an energy that’s like the energy of the Falls. And it needs to be harvested. It needs to be cared for. When I see people going out to clean the raceways and everything, I am heartened by that. I love the Paterson Museum. I love standing near Alexander Hamilton’s statue. I have to tell you in 19, in 1988, I think it was, a conference called Paterson, wait a minute, the Falls, and the City: The Poetry of Urban Experience and we had Allen Ginsberg and we had Miguel Algarin and we had Jimmy Santiago Baca. We read William Carlos Williams’ poem at the, “Paterson,” at the Great Falls and we started at 9:30 in the morning and Miguel Algarin was always a ham, got up there reading from they all read, everybody, C.K. Williams. It was just an amazing day. He got up there and he was reading, and they all read sections of William Carlos Williams’ poem and the Falls are in the background and there was a large crowd and suddenly a rainbow came. And the United Press Service, the international press service was here and taking shots, and the Star-Ledger, and Bergen Record and they were all taking pictures and we had a saxophonist playing and suddenly he’s reading this, lines from the poem, and this rainbow appears over the Falls and Miguel, who’s a ham, turns around and he goes, I think William Carlos Williams has just joined us. And so there’s this picture of the Falls and the guy who’s playing the saxophone and Miguel with his arm raised toward this rainbow and it was just incredible. It was such a beautiful moment, it was captured and it went all over the country, it was wonderful. Then we moved over to the museum and we hadn’t expected the number of people that we got. So I had arranged to have tables and we were going to have lunch for everybody, with sandwiches, we had to get the audience to take the tables down, because there were so many people, we couldn’t fit them. So we had to just set up chairs for people and they had to eat, when we had lunch, they had to eat at their chairs and we still had to turn people away. It was too many people. It went on until 5:30 in the afternoon. Allen Ginsberg was there and he had just had heart surgery and he came anyway and he comes in with his step-mother, holding her hand, it was so lovely. And he sits down, he makes sure she has something to drink and something to eat and it went on all day and he had just come out of the hospital and he stayed all day, then he signed posters, then he was helping people with their work. These kids were coming up to him asking for his advice on their poems and he was giving them advice and then some young people came up to him and said, we’d like to do a video of you. Would you be willing to stay and he stayed until 8 o’clock at night. And he had just gotten out of the hospital. And it was that kind of generosity of spirit that I certainly have tried to emulate. I saw it in my father, I saw it in Ginsberg. I think the really great writers have that generosity. You don’t say, I’ve got to keep everything for myself. There’s not enough to go around. There’s plenty to go around. It is the loaves and fishes, it is the sense of doing something for the world that comes back to you. I felt Ginsberg grew in stature as he got older, not only grew in reputation, but grew as a human being as he got older. And he was always ready to do things for other people. And he was always trying to get readings for other people. I thought that was such a wonderful quality to have.

Interviewer:

So, just a few more questions. What do you recall of the mills in Paterson?

Gillan:

What do I call them? Wait a minute, I have to think about what we called them.

Interviewer:

Not what you called them, what do you recall?

Gillan:

What do I recall? Well, I recall that when I was 17, my mother didn’t want us to know how hard their lives were. If she could keep it from us, she did. And she never complained. She never said, we don’t have money. She never said, she never made it seem as though we were poor, although obviously once we got a television it became quite clear that we were poor. But she never, never said that. She did the best she could and she always tried to keep the uglier sides of life away from us. But when I was 17, I had to bring her something at the factory where she worked and it was right down the street over here off Main, off lower Main Street. And I climbed up these rickety steps to go to where she worked and opened the door and when I got in, the noise level, it was horrible. And all these people sewing and one light bulb hanging over their tables and my mother was sewing by hand and there was another row of women sewing on machines. There was a sound of the machines and dust, there was dust, so much dust because they were working with material. My mother was there, sewing on the linings of a coat and I remember that there was a floorwalker behind, I don’t know what you would call it, like a manager…

Interviewer:

Supervisor

Gillan:

Like a supervisor behind them, walking and checking their, he picked up the coat she was sewing and said, this, you call this sewing? And he threw the coat on the floor. And I was standing in the door and my mother saw me. And her face got so red. And she just lowered her head and picked up another piece and began to sew again. I’ll never forget this as long as I live. She didn’t want us to see that.

Interviewer:

No.

Gillan:

She didn’t want us to see what it was like. And it was a difficult life, it was a very difficult life. The owners of the factory were trying to get the most they could out of the, each worker. The workers tended to go to work in a factory where others came from the same region so they could talk and have conversations and the pay was really dreadful. When we were little, my mother worked for Ferraro Coat Factory, which was about 12 blocks from our house and they would drop the coats off and then after we were in bed, she would sew the linings in the coats and if they made 25 cents for these coats, it was a lot.

Interviewer:

Yeah.

Gillan:

It was really a small amount of money. In the morning they’d pick them up again and drop off more. And they had to do it, they had to eke out whatever living they could eke out. There was a very, very small amount of money a week they were able to earn and they were grateful to earn it.

Interviewer:

Yeah.

Gillan:

They needed to earn it. They were grateful to have the work. And my mother was always very good with money. She never bought things in stores. She made everything herself. So they were able to get by on the same amount of money, they were both able to work. The ones who did better were the ones who were healthier, and my father, because he had that tumor, the limp, he wasn’t able to do some of the things that the men who were stronger, like I had an uncle who was stronger, six feet tall, and very healthy, very strong, and he was able to lift those big rolls of silk. My father couldn’t do that. And so he had to take lower level kinds of jobs. So they never had as much money as some of the other people. But my father never let that stop him from helping other people and my mother never let that stop her from helping other people. So, she used to have a big garden and she would give away tons of food and she said, it was that business of saying it’s a miracle, the more I gave away, the more I had to give. They both lived their lives like that. It didn’t matter that, look, my brother ended up as a doctor. Who would expect, coming from there, that their kid would end up as a doctor? And taught at Columbia. You just wouldn’t expect, you know, considering how poor they were that they would be able to manage that. And I’m not saying every immigrant family was able to manage that, because they weren’t. And they didn’t have, like I think, they didn’t come to the United States with an education. They came without an education, their own language, and then they had difficulty learning the new language. So there was always a big learning curve for them. I think some other immigrants came to the United States running away from persecution, they may have had a better background. I talk to Henny Wenkart, whom I love, do you know who she is, she’s so wonderful…

Interviewer:

Yes.

Gillan:

I love her and her family was a very well-to-do family…

Interviewer:

From Vienna…

Gillan:

In Vienna and they were educated, she was educated but, you know, they ran away, and she was on the Kindertransport, but she came from a family with a lot of advantages that money gives you. I didn’t realize until I was middle class myself how many advantages being middle class gives you. And the advantages I was able to provide for my children that my parents couldn’t provide for us. They would have loved to have provided them, but they couldn’t provide. But when I look back, I think in a way they gave us much more than I was able to provide for my own children even though I was able to provide private schools and very expensive colleges and everything, I couldn’t give them something my parents gave us and that was just tremendous drive…

Interviewer:

And values…

Gillan:

Yeah, those values, I tried to pass those on and I think I was successful to a certain extent, but in a way when your children are surrounded by upper middle class people, they don’t realize how hard the first generation had to work in order to be able to get to that point. I was able to help my children, because they saw my mother and father and they saw how hard they worked and they understood, I think, because we were there so much and they were around them so much, some of the values that they passed on. But my grandchildren grew up far away from me…

Interviewer:

Yeah…

Gillan:

So there was a limit to what I was able to pass on to them and I think in a way the more influenced they were by the upper middle class values, the less the real values that my parents admired and adhered to were able to be passed on to my grandchildren. I’ve tried to be a presence in their lives and I love that when my granddaughter writes about the person she admires, she always writes about me, and I love that. But she grew up far away from me, physically. I tried to be as present to her as I could, but still, they’re not right…we were, we all lived, my mother kept us very close. My brother’s office is two blocks from my house. His house is five minutes away. My mother lived three minutes by car. I lived across the street from my sister. My brother’s house is a few minutes away. We were encouraged to stay close to one another. My mother really believed we had to support each other and that it was part of the family’s responsibility to support one another. My father believed in the wider world and supporting the wider world. So I think both my brother and I have tried to do that very much.

Interviewer:

Did your parents have other family in Paterson? You mentioned your father had a sister.

Gillan:

My father brought his sister here and that was the only real family we had here, but we had a lot of honorary aunts and uncles, we had godparents, we had friends who were people from the village, we would call them aunt, but they actually weren’t related to us by blood…

Interviewer:

Right.

Gillan:

We had all the people from the Cilentano Society, so we had a big circle, a support circle, which I think we don’t have in suburbia. I think sometimes, you know, I have a little garage door clicker and I pull into my garage and, you know, how many of my neighbors do I really know. We’re isolated. I don’t think we have the kind of support system that they developed. When my mother was in the hospital, I still remember this woman who was a friend of the family came and she took care of us when my mother had to be in the hospital. And she washed the floors and she made us soup and you know I don’t know, other women came with bread that they had baked and other meals that they had baked. We don’t have that kind of support system anymore. We have sort of a support system of poets, but we don’t have the kind of support system they had in everyday life.

Interviewer:

Yeah.

Gillan:

Where if I fall on the floor, I better get myself one of those clicker things and then I realize, who am I going to call? Who am I going to put on the support system thing to make phone calls for me? Who’s going to come help me, I don’t know. Where my mother and father could have had 900 people who would’ve come for them, because it was a whole different way of life. The more professional people we became, the more isolated we became. It’s kind of sad.

Interviewer:

Yeah, yeah. Now I was just thinking about the society your father belonged to, where groups of people from the same region or same village would get together. We have the same thing in our culture.

Gillan:

Yeah, where people get together and they are there for one another. You need a loan, you have people to go to for a loan. If you have a woman whose husband is electrocuted, for example, a woman across the street from us on 17th Street, her husband, she was an absolutely beautiful woman, two little kids, and they came to tell her her husband had been electrocuted in the factory. And people rallied around her, because this is one of your own who is hurting. But it wasn’t even that, my father helped everybody. It didn’t have to be someone from their region. If he saw a need, he would try to help, like getting Seletti to give them music lessons, talking the man into giving them music lessons, the kid couldn’t pay, he gave them music lessons anyway. It took my father to say, look, here’s this man to teach them, it would get them off the streets, and it would give them something they could do and as that man said, I became a band leader that’s the way I made a living my whole life and five of those kids were in his band. And isn’t that what you want? You want to affect people so that 50 years later someone says, I remember when you helped me. Or I remember your father, he did this for me.

Interviewer:

Right.

Gillan:

And I think that’s what we all want. And I think, whatever the ethnicity, there’s a certain comfort in being with other people who understand your culture. And I think that, and also, they were limited by their language. I think a lot of the people I know whose grandparents came here and were Jewish immigrants they learned English or they already knew English. And they learned English very quickly. One of the things is that if you come from Germany, the language is similar, whereas my father said, I can’t get my tongue around English, and he couldn’t. He was just abysmal, not that he couldn’t understand. He read newspapers. If you asked him about a war in Ethiopia, my father knew all about it, in some obscure country, he knew all about it. So he would read news magazines, he would read in English, he could read, but he couldn’t articulate it in English.

Interviewer:

Well, there’s different learning. So you could understand it, that’s more passive. But to speak it, that’s a whole other…

Gillan:

The romance language he had and the English sounded “kh, kh” [guttural sounds] to him…

Interviewer:

Yeah, yeah.

Gillan:

Instead of sounding natural, he had trouble articulating the words. And so, but anyway, I think it’s interesting how many connections there are though. Maybe there’s a reason why I feel very comfortable in talking to Henny, although her social strata, status, was much different from where I grew up, we understand one another, and I just really love that woman and I have the sense that she’s always been extremely generous and has been, I think, very good in helping causes, trying to create places, like starting the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, trying to create space for other people. She’s always been generous in that way. I hope we see that coming back to her, because you know, she deserves to have it come back to her.

Interviewer:

So, let me just wrap it up with a final question: What do you want today’s generation to know about Paterson?

Gillan:

I want them to know that if they get past their prejudice, they would find a place that has so much to give them. Wonderful ethnic restaurants. Beautiful vistas. A beautiful location, the Falls are gorgeous. That whole historic district is really interesting. The cemeteries, I know this sounds weird, but the cemeteries are really interesting. The kinds of mausoleums that are in the cemeteries. The statuaries that are in the cemeteries. Eastside Park. There’s so many beautiful things here. If they would get past their prejudice about what they think of is an impoverished city. The city is not an impoverished city. It has a lot to teach us about immigration. It has a lot to teach about all the immigrants and groups of immigrants who came here and left their mark. Like Federici, who did a lot of the public sculpture in Paterson. He was an Italian immigrant. He was a wonderful, wonderful sculptor. One of the things I love about the Hamilton Club is that we have the Federici collection, the studio collection that we’ve been able to recreate his studio in this building, which wouldn’t have let Federici in. They wouldn’t have let a Jewish person in. They wouldn’t have let a woman in. They wouldn’t have let an Italian in. They wouldn’t have let a black person in. This was a very, very exclusive gentleman’s club. And a lot of people were not admitted. And then gradually, Italians were let in, Jews were let in, finally women were let in, finally blacks were let in, finally Hispanics were let in, but it took a long time to get to that point, so I love that here’s this Italian sculptor who could not have been admitted here, here’s this Italian woman in charge of this cultural center that’s here, they would not have let me in, and it’s in this wonderful historic building that’s so beautiful and I bet a good amount of the carvings in this building, a good amount of the handiwork in this building, the staircases, the moldings, were done by Italians and other immigrants. And so now it’s come full circle. And here I sit. I spent 11 years behind a bookcase in the library, at the Learning Resources Center at Passaic County College and now this is a part of the college and we’ve created a contemporary art collection that’s spread through all the buildings of the college. And also I was able to get the money to restore the original art in this building—18th and 19th century European and American art. It was in a storage facility in New York. When I went to look at it, it was ripped and dirty and I thought, how, what can we do? We were able to raise the money to restore that art and it’s on display here. And we have people coming in every day to do tours of this building, for the art, for the Federici collection, for the contemporary art. I’m really excited by what this building represents in this city and also by the fact that we have a national park, that we’ve been able to work with the national park in doing a program in the public schools, through a grant in the NEA, it’s a very exciting thing. And the more things we can do to make the historic district bigger, because look, we have City Hall, which is an absolutely gorgeous building. We should have people coming to look at it. Stained glass windows, stained glass windows in this church, I think it’s a Baptist church here on Van Houten Street, those are Tiffany windows. There’s so much beauty in this city, if people would just get past their idea that if they come here, it’s going to be somehow dangerous. It’s really an incredible city. And I love it and I love coming here every day. I’ve never been mugged, I’ve been coming here for 35 years. I leave here late. Nobody’s ever bothered me. I want people to come here and see what’s here. It’s so beautiful. They should go to the Paterson Museum and visit the Paterson Museum. They should go to the Great Falls. They should go to the Great Falls Visitor Center. And go and look at the Great Falls. It’s beautiful. And Hinchcliffe [sic] Stadium should be restored as well. Anyway, there’s so much to see here. And so much wonderful architecture, too. Think about the courthouse. Think about what used to be the old post office. It looks like a church. It’s absolutely gorgeous. There’s a lot to see here, there’s a lot to do. I hope people will come.

Interviewer:

Great. Thank you so much, Maria.

Gillan:

I love this city, don’t you?

Interviewer:

I know.

Interviewer:

So, it is now almost 12:30 and we’re wrapped up.

Gillan:

Oh, good.

Interviewer:

Thanks again.

Gillan:

Thank you. I’d like a copy because you know my archives are at the university. I’d like to keep a copy of everything I do for the archives.

Interviewer:

Sure.

Last updated: June 19, 2019

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