Photo of Nicolo Anthony Prato
The Watermelon King
By Marie Prato
Nicolo Anthony Prato was born on October 14, 1927, in his grandfather's home in the Bronx. His father, Pasquale, often bragged that within minutes after giving birth, his wife, Agnes, would get out of bed, take the wrapped baby in her arms, and prepare a meal for the family. Philip, their first son, told his mother that he hoped the angels wouldn't take Nick the way they had taken his baby brother, Ralph. Agnes looked at her newest son and commented about the curls that were already forming in the baby's reddish brown hair.
Naming the new baby was easy. Children in the Prato family and most other Italian families at that time were named after their grandparents, starting with the husband's side. Sorting out who was who when talking about another family member was the hard part of the naming process. In order for anyone to have an inkling of what particular Philip, Nick or other similar named member they were referring too, the person would have to relate the person's lineage. Agnes hoped that naming Nick after her father would mollify him for her marrying the handsome, wild Pasquale despite her parents' objections. When Nick was about five, Nunzio was born, followed the next year by Anastasia, who was the only one of the children born in a hospital.
In 1936 Agnes and Pasquale bought a house of their own in the Bronx.
"I hate rats," Nick would say. Then he would push back his curly hair to show his ear. "One bit me on the ear when I was in the crib. My mother said the rat was as big as a cat."
Rats were one of the problems of raising chickens in the backyard of their Bronx home. And, as Nick often said, Bronx rats were nothing to mess with. Besides selling the eggs and manure from the chickens, Agnes worked in the garden, raised her two sons and also operated a sewing machine in a local factory. During lunch and breaks, Nick would be carried into the factory so she could nurse him. Pasquale sold vegetables and fruit from his truck. Before the holidays, Nick's dad piled his truck high with Christmas trees.
When Nick was barely school age, he started working with his father. On the way to markets in New Jersey and Upstate New York, Nick, his older brother, and their dad would open the bag of sandwiches his mother made for them and eat their breakfast on the road. Stuffed with cutlets or sausage and peppers, the sandwiches were so thick that the boys could hardly get them into their mouths. When money was scarce, Agnes would use eggs from her chickens and potatoes and onions from the vegetables her husband sold and stuff the omelet into sandwiches for them.
As soon as Nunzio was old enough, he also took turns on the truck. After arriving at the market, their father would pick out the best fruit and vegetables and the boys would help him load the truck. Once, when Nick had gone to the market with his father, he fell asleep behind the seat of the truck while waiting for his dad to finish talking with the other peddlers. Preoccupied with the load of vegetables and driving, Pasquale didn't notice his son's absence until he was nearly home. Thinking he had forgotten his son among the vendors, Nick's father drove all the way back to the market. Just as they were pulling into the parking lot, Nick woke up and called out to his dad.
Even during the school year the Prato boys had to help their father. It was common for Pasquale to pull up in front of the school his sons attended and beep his horn. Knowing they were needed to help support the family, Nick or one of his brothers would leave school and jump on their dad's truck. In addition to working with their father and doing chores around the house, the boys did odd jobs for neighbors or businesses, including working at a chicken market for a free plump chicken to bring home to their mother.
"The winters during the depression were the worst," says Nick. "I stuffed my feet in my mother's old stockings and packed newspaper in my shoes to keep the snow from coming through the holes in the soles."
Often, while shoveling snow for the family or to earn money, Nick's bare hands would bleed. Gloves and new shoes were a luxury the family couldn't afford. Sometimes, when food was scarce, Nick and his brothers caught sparrows so their mom could add the birds to the spaghetti sauce. With three growing boys in the house, it took a lot of the little birds to make a decent meal for the family!
"Especially Nunzio," Nick would say years later. "My mother had to hide the sauce pot or he would eat it all before dinner."
Despite the Depression, the children in the Prato family still managed to have fun. Their parents would pile them into the truck, use a wooden macaroni box as a portable cradle for the baby, and head to the beach. While at the beach, the boys and their dad would dig for clams. No sooner were the clams pulled from their muddy home at the bottom of the inlet, than Agnes would open them up with a knife and pop them into their mouths. When the sun was about to set, the family would pile back into the truck for their trek home. Other times, Nick and Nunzio would go to the water by themselves and try their luck at catching crayfish.
There was one Mother's Day during the family's lean years that will always stick in Nick's mind.
"We were very young at the time and very poor," said Nick. "We didn't really understand that what we were doing was wrong. All Nunzio and I knew was that we wanted to get our mother something for Mother's Day. So we pulled our old wagon to the Botanical Gardens and dug up some plants. I guess the workers must have thought we were helping out because no one stopped us as we left with our Mother's Day gifts."
As hard as life was, his mother and father found money for the most important event of Nick's young life—his Communion. Dressed in a white shirt and suit with good shoes on his feet, Nick made his First Communion at Saint Lucy's Church in the Bronx.
After quitting school to help the family, Nick worked with his dad on the truck. On top of the family house, he built a pigeon coop so he could raise pigeons. The flock grew and so did the quality of his birds. When Nick was of age, he went into the service. Finishing his basic training in Texas, Nick was waiting to be sent overseas when World War II ended.
After getting out of the service, Nick married Antionette Migliorino. The newlyweds lived first with her parents and then moved into the Prato household while he went to school to become a mechanic. Their first child was born on December 1, 1948. Following the family tradition for naming children, the girl was named Agnes after Nick's mother.
As soon as Nick graduated mechanic school, the three of them moved to a basement apartment in Queens near the overhead railroad. The rent was cheap but the burner that occupied a tiny room beside their apartment went on fire a few times a year. Although Nick had gone to mechanic school, he found that the money in construction was much better. Since he was earning more as a carpenter and had joined the union, the three of them moved to a larger and safer apartment in Corona, Queens.
When his daughter, Agnes, was four and a half, she went to St. Leo's Catholic School. On July 22, 1954, Lilly, named after Ann's mother, was born. While Lilly was still an infant, Nick's father died. Nick took his dad's death very hard.
The family enjoyed living in Queens. They were near relatives and Nick had an easy commute to the various construction sites he worked at. In an effort to do a better job and make more money, Nick started studying site plans and drafting on his own.
Whenever there was a difficult scaffolding job at one of the sites, they would send for Nick, knowing he would get the job done. Due to his knowledge of construction and his ability to motivate the workers, Nick was promoted to foreman and then to General Foreman.
"It was cold standing on the tall buildings doing nothing," Nick would say. "Sometimes I would pitch in and help the men but whenever the union found out they would make me stop. I wanted to go back to being a carpenter but the money was better as a foreman."
When the union was on strike, between jobs and on weekends during the warm months, Nick sold watermelons. Getting up in the wee hours of the morning, Nick and his daughter, Agnes, would get into his truck and head for the markets in New Jersey. Nick bought the watermelons for .10 to .18 cents each. When the truck was loaded, they went back to Queens. Driving up and down the streets, Nick would yell, "Watermelons, sweet watermelons," from the open window of his truck. Sitting on the back of the load, Agnes made sure the watermelons didn't shift.
When someone came out to buy a watermelon, Nick would walk to the back of the truck and the buyer would point to the watermelon they wanted. Agnes would then roll the chosen watermelon to her father. Since a whole watermelon in the 1950s sold for .35 and sometimes .50 cents, the buyer expected to sample the fruit before handing over any money. Nick would cut a wedge into the watermelon they had selected and let the prospective buyer taste it. If it passed approval, they handed him the money and he gave them the watermelon. The workday ended when there were only two watermelons left or it got dark. Then Nick and his daughter would go back to Corona. Stopping in front of the house where they lived, he would cut one watermelon up into slices for Agnes to share with her friends on the block. The other watermelon was carried to their apartment for the family to have after dinner. When not in use, the truck was parked in his mother's yard.
"I always called my dad the Watermelon King," says Agnes. "When the other kids in Queens would brag that their father was a policeman or worked in an office, I would say that was nice but my dad was the Watermelon King. Years later when I worked in an office in Upstate, New York I started talking to a new employee who had lived in Queens. She still remembered my dad peddling watermelons on her street and the curly-haired girl who rode on the back of his truck."
During the summer, when they weren't peddling, Nick's family, his mother, and his brothers and sister with their families would get together at the beach. Still making huge sandwiches for her children and now for her horde of grandchildren, Grandma Agnes would sit on the beach and hand out the food. As her sons brought bags of clams to her that they had dug from the ocean floor, their mother would open the clams and pop the tasty morsel into a waiting grandchild's mouth. By the time the day was over, much to her sons' dismay, there were very few clams left for them to take home. At other times of the year, the family would gather at the house in the Bronx to play cards and eat their mother's delicious cooking.
As convenient as living in Queens was for working and being near the other relatives, Nick felt it was time to build a home so his daughters would have a yard to play in. After selecting a nice-sized piece of property on Long Island, he drafted the plans for the house that he intended to build. Working on weekends and staying in a shanty he had built on the Holbrook property, Nick, Ann and ten-year old Agnes poured cement for the basement while Lilly toddled around the yard.
When it came time to move the huge iron beam that had been taken by crane from a demolished apartment building in the city and trucked to the Holbrook property, Nick rigged up a pulley to move the three sections and scaffolding to hold the beam in place while iron supports were secured beneath it. With no help except for his wife and oldest daughter, they managed to move the beam across the basement walls and bolt it in place so that it would support the rest of the construction. While working, the three of them kept an eye on Lilly so she wouldn't get hurt or into trouble. In 1959, the house was mostly finished and the family moved in. The first thing Nick did after moving into their new home was to convert the shanty that the family had stayed in on weekends while the house was being built into a pigeon coop. On February 23, 1962 Pasquale was born.
Weekday mornings Nick would get up at 3:00 a.m., dress, than drive to whatever construction job he was currently assigned. Going at times as far as Staten Island, he would get to the job before the men arrived at 7:00 a.m. to make sure everything was ready for the day's work. On the weekends, he often went to meetings at the pigeon club he had joined or participated in pigeon races the club held.
"Sometimes during lunch I would visit other pigeon club members who worked in Manhattan," said Nick. "The first time I walked into this lawyer's plush reception area and said I wanted to see him, the woman behind the desk looked over my work clothes, probably wondering what possible business I could have with an expensive attorney like her boss. Within seconds after she rung him, however, the lawyer hurried out to greet me, told his secretary to keep the coffee coming and to hold all his calls. We sat in his office talking about our pigeons until it was time for me to go back to work. After that, anytime I went to his office, his secretary would call me sir and put up a fresh pot of coffee."
One by one, Nick's brothers and sister moved their families to Long Island. Grandma Prato would come to Long Island from the Bronx with her dog or her little monkey, and stay for a few days with her daughter or sons. When she had enough of the "wilderness," one of them would drive her back home to the Bronx. In each of her children's families there was a child named Agnes and one named Pasquale.
Besides racing pigeons, Nick also kept horses in the yard. Princess was his first horse. Later he bought Molly for his daughter, Lilly, to ride and a pony for his son, Pasquale. Enjoying the horses and knowing what a good rider Lilly had become, Nick decided to rent a stable in a nearby town and start a part-time business. The barn had pony rides and rented horses by the hour. Lilly rode English style and competed in shows besides working at her father's stable after school and on weekends.
In 1967 Nick walked his oldest daughter, Agnes, down the aisle and cried in the church as she took her vows.
In 1969 his mother died at the age of 66.
Then, in 1970, Nick and Ann divorced. Nick moved to Guilford, New York and remarried. While living Upstate, the couple had a daughter named Nicole. At first, Nick continued working in New York City, staying on the job site and commuting home on the weekends. The long commute and his increased difficulty breathing from the years he had worked in asbestos contaminated buildings, however, caused Nick to stop working on construction jobs. He went back to the job he knew and loved the most—peddling.
Buying truckloads of hay, he hauled his merchandise to buyers as far away as Long Island. When tag sales became popular, Nick started a flea market. His throw rugs with Elvis Presley, horses and other pictures on them flapped on a long clothes line suspended between two trees. On the ground were new merchandise he ordered from catalogs and used items he bought at other tag sales. Sometimes Nick would buy out someone's whole yard sale, and then selling each item at a profit. Many people in the tiny community and neighboring villages made it a point to visit Nick's stand after church on Sunday. Besides the flea market, Nick and his wife raised parakeets and other types of birds in their home. He also worked at times with a local modular homebuilder as a foreman, and did odd jobs.
"A couple from Manhattan asked me to build a rock wall for their summer house," Nick said. "I had never built one before but I needed the work so I gave them a price and started the job. That wall looked so good when the job was done that the wife took pictures of it to show to her city friends."
On September 14, 1974, his daughter, Lilly, married Eugene Mancuso.
On July 25, 1976, Lilly gave birth to a daughter. Annmarie Mancuso was Nick's first grandchild. After their daughter was born, Lilly and her husband Eugene had three sons, Michael, Johnny and Kevin. On December 14, 1993, Annmarie gave birth to a son named Joey, making Nick a great-grandfather.
By the time Nick reached his late sixties, problems with his breathing from working on asbestos during his years in construction increased. Despite his increasing disability, he continued to shop at tag sales to replenish the merchandise he had sold. Despite his doctor's advice, Nick came to Long Island on November 4, 1995 to attend his son's wedding. In the new suit he had bought for the occasion, Nick watched as his only son married a beautiful Cambodian woman named Banha.
In 1999, Nick was diagnosed with lung cancer. Tests showed that the cancer had spread throughout his body. Wanting to enjoy whatever time he had left, Nick refused pain medication and any treatment. In May of that year, his brother, Philip, died. During the rest of 1999 and the summer of 2000, Nick gradually deteriorated. Despite the pain and increasing difficulty breathing, with the help of his wife and eldest daughter, Agnes, he continued to go to tag sales and sold the items he bought on his front lawn.
Knowing the end was near, Nick had two wishes—one was to make a final trip to Long Island to see his son, daughter, four grandchildren, four great grandchildren and his remaining brother and sister. The other wish was to die in his own home without having to take drugs or be cared for by strangers.
In April 2000, after Nick had spent weeks designing and having his van equipped with oxygen and anything else he would need for the trip, Agnes and her friend went to Guilford, picked up her father and drove his van to Long Island for a week long visit.
On September 13, 2000, his other wish came true. On the day he finally allowed Hospice to set up a hospital bed in his living room, his wife came back from the drugstore after filling a prescription for painkillers. Still laying on his own couch and refusing to take the narcotic pain killer, Nick reached for his wife's hand. Then the Watermelon King closed his eyes for the last time.
THE WATERMELON KING
© Marie Prato
Published by U.S. Legacies: September 2004
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reprinted without the prior consent of U.S. Legacies or the original author.
Marie Prato is a freelance writer from Mahopac, NY.
- Log in to post comments