The Ryan Report -- Episode 414 "The Blue Butterfly"
On a case recently I ran across a man who was desperately trying to change the image of his grandfather. The grandfather was a notorious mobster, but the grandson wanted people to see the other side of him - the community builder and the father. I can relate.
See, when my grandfather came to America, he had a kind of inauspicious start. He was fleeing a mafia kingpin in Italy, but when he got here, he himself turned to a life of crime to make ends meet, eventually creating one of America’s largest crime families – tragically and ironically becoming the very man he fled in Italy. Okay, fine, that’s The Godfather Part II, but seriously my grandfather did do some things that weren’t exactly worth bragging about. Still though, his story means a whole hell of a lot to me, and I’m inspired by it every day.
Growing up his family was poor, but in those days saying a family was poor didn’t exactly differentiate them – no one had any money. What did differentiate them, and him in particular, was their craftiness in getting out of poverty. The way my grandfather used to tell it, everything started with a pair of shoes. In their family, which was pretty big (they were Irish after all), they would buy one pair of shoes for the oldest boy and one pair for the oldest girl. Then, when they out grew them, they’d pass the shoes down the line, until they finally wound up on my granddad’s feet.
Well, by the time my grandfather got them, after four or five rotations, they weren’t shoes with holes in them; they were holes with little bits of shoe on them. To make matter worse, he walked everywhere. I don’t mean that when he had to get from point A to point B he chose to walk – that was the case for pretty much everyone where he lived – I mean he walked everywhere as in he literally walked every square mile you could possibly walk on the island of Manhattan. Other kids played baseball, or, you know, turned to lives of crime and started powerful mafia families – my grandfather walked. He estimated that by the time he died he walked enough miles in Manhattan to circle the globe a dozen times. That’s trouble for a rinky-dink pair of shoes.
One day he was walking around in a wealthy part of town and the shoes were really getting to the point were a cost/benefit analysis was in order. He was about to kick them off into the yard of this mansion, and risk the shards of glass and the communicable diseases, but just before he did, the mansion’s door opened. A woman stepped out, hefting a burlap sack. She took it down to the curb, dropped it on the ground and then walked back into the house.
Actually, my grandfather just assumes she walked back into the house. He didn’t actually see that. His eyes were too stunned by what he saw fall out of the top of the bag – a brand new pair of shoes.
At least that’s how he told it. More likely they’d been worn their fair share, but they were far and away better than his glorified socks. Apparently, these rich people were too busy to try and pawn off their old shoes, and clothes and all that, so instead, they’d just leave them on the curb for the sanitation crew to take care of. My grandfather wasn’t about to let that happen.
From that first haul he got a new pair of shoes, a new coat and pretty much everything else a little scamp needed to fend off the winter. And more. When he got home, he piled it all under his bed, but it didn’t take too long for his brothers and sisters to notice. Being the generous and entrepreneurial fellow that he was, he offered them the goods in exchange for chores or a little extra dessert at the dinner table.
Before his initial supply even ran out he found other deposits on other curbs in the nice part of town. Soon, everyone in the house had more than they needed – and that’s when it happened. With a satisfied household, the obvious next step was to expand outward – to other homes. He sold items to their neighbors, for a fraction of what they cost in the store. He expanded from clothes to furniture and supplies – whatever folks would leave out, my grandfather would take.
Before long he enlisted his brothers and sisters to help him carry and to scout out new locations. After that the apartment got to be too small to hold everything. But my parents had saved some money, so when that time came they moved everything out of the apartment and opened a storefront.
Of course, this didn’t last forever. There is only so much useful stuff people put out on their curb, other kids started following my grandfather, picking off some of the best merchandise before he got to it and finally, when the wealthy neighborhood was overrun by street urchins, the police got involved, and people stopped leaving their leftovers on the curb. After awhile, my grandfather’s walks stopped being hunts for new treasure, and just started being walks again.
The glory days were few, but they were glorious. And they were enough. My family had its foot in the door. They had enough money to start buying new merchandise, so as the streets dried up and the second-hand supply dwindled, they filled the shelves with new items to take their place. And just like that, they had a profitable business.
It started with some torn up shoes, and it ended with my family making something, if just a little something, out of themselves. I think about that a lot. How he took advantage of an opportunity no one else saw was there and how he used that to help those that he loved.
I’d say it’s pretty darn inspiring.