Grinding to the American Dream

Monkey with tin cup standing on one hand. Title Grinding to the American dream

The passenger ship pulled into Ellis Island on a hot summer day. The newly arrived Italian immigrants poured off the ship with hopes of finding a better life. Among them was Ugolini, an older man in his sixties, who was short with well-toned, aged muscles that were covered by bushels of curly hair. He walked with a slight limp as a result of slipping on a banana peel on his kitchen floor. The hunched man carried a ragged leather suitcase in one hand and the paw of a chimpanzee, who wore a tiny red bell hop cap, in the other, as they strolled towards the check-in station to begin a new life.

For the last twelve years, Ugolini had scraped out a meager living by traveling the southern cities of Italy, churning a hand-cranked organ and singing operatic songs in a scratchy, off-key baritone voice. Eventually, he acquired a perky monkey to dart around with a tin cup and collect coins from amused on-lookers, while he concentrated on getting his song lyrics right. The monkey’s name was “Chimps,” and he was rescued from a traveling circus that mistreated their animals (Chimps was required to perform six shows a day as a trapeze act while dressed in a puffy tutu with a few drunk clowns). The name “Chimps” was a misnomer; Chimps was not a chimpanzee, but a larger than normal chubby spider monkey.

In the old country, times were lean. Ugolini would often grapple with his monkey sidekick over a stale roll that a deli owner would supply for free, if Ugolini promised to play his barrel organ on the next block down. Ugolini made the decision to try his luck in America, the land that promised wealth and riches to anyone willing to work hard.

Ugolini’s sister, Rosa, had moved to America seven years earlier and had found residence in Little Italy, on Mulberry Street, in Manhattan, New York. She bore a strong resemblance to her brother, except that his moustache was a tad more bushy. She was well known in the neighborhood for her uncanny ability to give spot-on fortunes by reading the lumps off various vegetables that her clients would set in front of her. Zucchini readings were her bread and butter, and her predictions were spot on. She once warned a woman of an impending horse cart accident just by feeling the bumps on the elongated, tubular green plant. Sadly, the client was a skeptic, refusing to believe anything about the black arts. Coincidentally, the following day said client was trampled by a team of spooked horses pulling a vegetable cart. After that, the lady went on a strict meat diet.

Rosa was excited to see her brother and get the news from the old country. The two united with hugs and kisses outside of Ellis Island, while the monkey scampered in circles, stretching his legs out from the long cruise.

“Wella, I seea youa stilla gotta thatta furry thing?” Rosa stated.

“Heya, thisa monkey isa mya ticket to thea American dreama,” Ugolini responded. “Everyonea lovesa the monkey.”

“He’s a noa good. Whena you gonna getta a reala joba likea streeta cleaner, huh?” the sister clamored. “You’ra back is stronga enougha to a lifta the horsea pooh piles.”

“Shuta your mouth,” the old man barked. “Wherea youa live? The monkey. Hea needsa nap.”

Ugolini settled into his sister’s small, two room, apartment and quickly learned his way around. It was a bustling neighborhood – a prime area to make some money. A man-monkey musical team usually operated on downtown streets. The organ grinder would set up on a street corner, wearing his instrument on a strap over his shoulder, and then support its weight with a stick while he played. Meanwhile, the monkey, tethered to a leash, would scamper around with a tin cup, collecting change. Audiences were dependable, and enjoyed the herdy gerdy songs like: “Dixie and “Funiculi, Funicula.” Sometimes the monkey would tumble, flip, or do a playful jig to the amused people. Then, he’d stick his tin cup in front of their faces, coaxing the dupes out of spare change. Chimps had the routine down pat. After ten to twelve hours on the street, the pair would arrive back home and dump the loot on the bed to count their day’s wages. On a good day, they could make up to three dollars, but that was a rarity.

The old street performer would pour the coins into a cigar box that he had found in a back alley outside a seedy brothel. Deep down, it bothered him that the prostitutes could smoke better cigars than he could afford, but he was at least grateful that he didn’t have syphilis. Chimps watched Ugolini stuff the box under the cheap bed mattress. It would be nice to have some of that loot to make him feel important, he thought.

“Nowa youa getta to beda, sleepy head,” Ugolini said as he shoved the monkey under the covers. Then he took off the little pet’s hat and patted him on the head, “I don’ta wanta youa alla grouchy tomorrow ina fronta alla the paying customers.”

Ugolini began to walk out of the room then spun around to catch the monkey flipping him off with his stubby middle finger. “A littlea wisea guy, huh?” he huffed. The old man flew off the handle and grabbed the little runt from under the covers and put him over his knee and began swatting its behind, hoping to teach him some respect. Ugolini was never proud after he whacked the monkey’s bum, but it had to be done to ensure discipline and it happened all too often. The neighbors knew it too. Every night, they could hear old Ugolini spanking the monkey.

Ugolini sat at the kitchen table staring at an almost empty bottle of wine. “Whatta are youa looking at?” he slurred at the red vino. Since he arrived, he had put in long days on the street and money was barely trickling in. He was disillusioned that he hadn’t yet achieved the American dream. They were just scraping by. Every day was the same, grinding his organ while the monkey got all the attention. Sometimes, the little beast would scamper off for hours leaving Ugolini to track him down, only to find him flirting with giddy dames enamored with his monkey tricks. Time was money and he wasn’t making any when his furry partner wasn’t waving that tin cup.

One day, while out pedaling, Ugolini’s eyes fell upon a shy apple peddler. Her name was Becky and she was beautiful in her own homely way. It was love at first sight. Ugolini stood there frozen, contemplating how to approach the vision of beauty. Suddenly, she looked up and with a big smile she beamed, “You are soooo cute.”

Ugolini, playing coy, bashfully bowed his head as he nervously circled his foot in the dirt. The excited girl raced towards him. He perked up and smiled. She ran up to him, then right past him, and picked up the monkey who was standing behind him. As she twirled the furry mammal around, the monkey stared at the old man while sporting a devious smirk. To add some fuel to the fire, the monkey winked as he snickered. Ugolini’s face turned as red as Roma tomato, as he boiled in anger.

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That night, Ugolini made a six course meal for the monkey. He placed a Caesar salad, a loaf of garlic bread, a bowl of Pasta Fazool, Baked Rigatoni with sausage and cheese, and a slab of tiramisu cake in front of his little partner. As he tied the napkin around the Chimp’s neck the old man gently stroked the back of the monkey’s head as he nicely asked, “Maybe tomorrow you introducea the pretty apple lady to old Ugolini.” The monkey shrugged rolling his eyes then began digging into the food.

Later in the evening as the man was tucking the monkey into bed he repeated his earlier statement, “Yeah, nowa youa bea the good littlea monkey and say somea nice things to thata fruita girl abouta me. Thatsa whata friendsa do. Youa anda Ia, we alwaysa being good friends.” The monkey ignored him as he reclined on his back and lifted his legs up to his stomach. “Oh, youa wanna a littlea belly rubsa? Sure. Why not? Whatsa friendsa for?” The monkey snuggled in for his gentle stomach massage and would later demand a bedtime story.

Ugolini sat on a barrel excited over an introduction. His heart was beating fast, knowing he would soon meet the girl of his dreams. An hour passed, and then another. Frustrated, Ugolini went to find the problem. In the street, he found a vacant push cart with no monkey or apple lady in sight. He roamed the city for hours in search of the pair until darkness set in. Distraught over his predicament, he was about to head to the police station to file a missing animal report when he heard some loud music rippling from the corner pub.

He made his way over and peered through the window, there sat the backstabbing monkey with the love of his life. They were enjoying dinner as they giggled and laughed, sipping on a glass of red wine. The Italian man watched in disbelief while the monkey led the girl onto the dance floor. His wrinkled face dropping in disgust. With his enraged heart pounding, he seethed as he watched the couple Lindy Hop across the floor. It was a cold slap in the face to the Italian peddler. His mind raced, but deep down, there was no denying it; the monkey had game, and he was just a little man who used an animal to do his begging.

As Ugolini lay awake in bed, he heard the monkey stagger in. A flower vase crashed to the floor and soft slurring monkey noises could be heard emanating from the front room. An angry, restless, Ugolini turned on the light to find the drunken animal swaying in the hallway with lipstick on his fur and wreaking of expensive booze as a cigarette dangled from his lips.

“You’rea sada sight fora the sore eyes,” Ugolini huffed.

The glazed-eyed monkey looked at his master as if to say something, but then just vomited on the floor. His head bobbed as he smirked then fell face down.

The next morning Ugolini was dressing the monkey for work. “I’ma putting a leasha ona you,” snapped Ugolini. “Thatta way I know exactly whereas you are and whatsa you’rea upa to.”

Chimps murmured a hungover groan. “Shuta youra little monkey moutha,” the old man chirped. “Ugolini, he knowsa whatsa best for you.”

One hot, sweltering day, things reached a tipping point. The daily take had been poor and to top it off, Chimps had wiggled out of his leash and tied it to the tail of a bulldog. Ugolini eventually figured it out when he felt the dog relieving itself on the old man’s leg. Ugolini spent half the afternoon searching for his monkey, only to find the little thing snuggled on Becky’s lap as she fondly petted him. Ugolini flew into a rage. He walked up and grabbed the monkey and brought him out to the street.

“We’ve been out here alla morning and afternoon anda alla you gotta a show isa twoa pennies anda onea nickel.” The monkey shrugged as if he could care less. “Heys you a littlea monster, you better getta youra heada in the game or I’ma gonea finda newa partner.”

The monkey threw down his hat and squared off to the feisty old man. The little furry beast began circling his dukes as he eyed up his master. “Oh, youa wanna piece of Ugolini?” the old man huffed as he set down his Hurdy-gurdy. Ugolini hunched over like a bareknuckle prizefighter and threw a couple of air punches followed by a quick shuffle of the feet. Unflappable, the monkey squared up to him as a street crowd gathered around. In no time, the monkey scurried up the front of the old man and wrapped his arm around his fat wrinkled head then shrieked as he bit his nose. Ugolini was able flip the beast over his shoulder and onto the ground. The two began to roll about, changing positions of dominance. At one point, they were able to get to their feet; with their arms wrapped around each other’s neck and touching foreheads, they circled each pawing the other for the upper hand. And, within seconds, they were back to rolling around in the dirt.

Becky ran out and got between the two and stopped the fight. “You two oughta be ashamed of yourselves,” she shrieked.

“Wella thata littlea bugger started it,” Ugolini responded.

“I don’t care who started it. You two have worked together for a long time,” she pleaded. “There’s a lot of love here. Now both of you two to try and get along.”

She was right. The pair settled down. They got up and dusted themselves off. Ugolini picked up the monkey’s hat and tin cup, which was overflowing with coins. The crowd had obviously enjoyed the fight. The three of them all went out for lunch, but much to the old man’s chagrin, Becky’s attention was on Chimps, as usual.

That night, Ugolini begged the monkey to put in a good word for him with Becky. Chimps just sat there with his arms folded. The Italian man grabbed his satchel of money and poured it on the table. He pushed half the pile over to the furry animal. “Thatsa for a you. We fifty-fifty partners.” Hey, come on. I do anythinga for a my pal.” The monkey was no fool. He knew Ugolini was now kissing up to him. He wanted the girl and the monkey was the only one who could open that door, but the old man was going to have to earn it.

The next day, the two were back on the street, but things had drastically changed. The monkey was now in control and running the show. The sound of the organ reverberated through the busy Five Points neighborhood. Churning the handheld organ was none other than Chimps, while Ugolini, wearing the small red cap, scampered around on his all fours waving a tin cup in front of surprised spectators. It was embarrassing. Humiliating. And that’s the way the monkey liked it.

While Ugolini did a clumsy somersault in front of the on lookers, he looked up and noticed Becky watching from the crowd. Ugolini had never been so embarrassed in his life – except the time when his mother made him balance a meatball on his nose at a family gathering. The monkey had made a monkey out of him and knew it. On the upside, they made more dough then they ever had before.

“I’ma through witha you!” Ugolini yelled as he threw down his tiny hat. “You’rea nothing buta disrespectfula little scamp, treating your Ugolini likea you have.”

That day, the act split up. The monkey moved to a flop house and soon found gainful employment running numbers for a Five Point’s gang known as the Bum Rum Boys. He was making good cabbage too. While in the mob, he climbed the ladder and started making illegal booze runs. And it wasn’t long before Chimps was strutting around town in a nice tailored suit, smoking a cigar, and flashing green backs…

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by Jeff Charlebois

Cartoon Image of Jeff with a mic next to his book, "Life is a Funny Thing".

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