Story Walk: checks

Story Walk: "checks"

Lou Mitrano by Tracy Mitrano

Every business day of my father’s life, he would take an old cigar box filled with checks cashed for customers to the bank. There he knew many of the tellers as well as vice presidents. They were his customers in the days when an opera house was on the corner of Main and South, before the block was torn down to build the Convention Center.

One day it was his fortune to step up to a new teller who, following protocol, asked for identification. One of the vice presidents nearby overheard the conversation, jumped up from his desk, and introduced my father to the teller. He indicated that she should always remember him. He proceeded to take my father down the long line of tellers to be sure that each one knew him personally. There stood my five feet two inch father, a man who never finished high school, holding his head up proud as any lettered high school athlete or college valedictorian.

As a child, it was fun to walk to the bank with my father. We would walk over the bridge covering the Genesee River towards the corner of State and Main. Dad would speak to about every second or third person. With his cigar box, held together with duct tape and containing thousands of dollars, he would point out people. “See that guy over there? He owes me three dollars. And that one, he is a [fill in the blank: a judge, a lawyer, a vice president at Xerox, or an old bum with a chip on his shoulder]. My father knew them all, and so long as they were decent people, he treated them in an even-handed way. If they saw Dad’s motions, they always waved back. “Hi Louie!” was a familiar refrain.

When Lincoln, now Chase, Bank finished the construction of their downtown Rochester “skyscraper” in the mid 1970s, both the bank vice presidents and the foreman of the construction workers invited Dad to the top of the building for a flag raising ceremony. He was given a construction hat to wear in an act of bonding with the men, many of them members of the Mohawk Nation, known for expertly scaling the tall beams. One of the off-site officials for the construction company finally asked a foreman who that little man wearing a hard hat was. “That’s Louie,” he replied, bringing him over to the meet my father. At the western edge of the forty -story building he pointed down to the restaurant. “There’s his restaurant, where he takes care of us every day!”

My father did take care of people. In the days before urban renewal tore down single-occupancy housing, his place was a congregation hall for many who later would be homeless due to thoughtless social policy. There were a few rooms upstairs from the restaurant rented out on a weekly basis. Some of those men lived there for much of their lives, at least in the years that I knew them, and they were, I am proud to say, my friends. All alcoholics, and I do not mean heavy social drinkers but people who ate almost nothing and drank constantly, every day, not a one was ever mean or abusive towards me. To the contrary, on more than one occasion they showed genuine kindness and even, when an occasion called for it, protected me. One year on my birthday as a child, Jack O. gave me an empty liquor bottle filled with loose change. My mother made the astute observation that it was a real gift because he often had more week than money by Monday and that change might have come in handy when he was, as she put it, “thirsty.”

Suspicious of check-writing to charities in the fashion of many old-world Italians, my father showed charity in a face-to-face manner. He would eschew the term. For him, it was common decency tarnished by labels or accolades. But it remains worth telling now as a tribute to good man who served hundreds of people in his almost 50 years as a restauranteur in Rochester, who made birthday cakes out of half a hamburger bun and whipped cream before chain restaurants made such celebrations common, and who modeled simple decency to me.

The stories of Leo Green, Bill Manning and Frank Frye included in this series are examples.