don’t look you in the eye. They are constantly on their phones, on
their iPads, on the internet…..They work at jobs they don’t really like. They
only get an identity when they buy a home they can’t afford, …..a thousand dollar suit…two hundred dollar sneakers… Can all this
shit give you an identity?
A grand old man who is an immigrant, a family man, a liberal, a rebel who struck out on his own, one who does not want the US to be globo-cop. His advice for ambitious but challenged youngsters would be to learn something useful to do with their hands. In our opinion he represents most faithfully the American spirit and sense of purpose.
I pass a tiny shop in Greenwich Village with a no-nonsense signboard
above that says ‘Greenwich Locksmiths’. Just below this, an additional
tag-line reveals ‘Master Licensed Locksmith Since 1968’
Saeed Akhtar Mirza: Let’s start with your family. Tell me about your parents.
Philip Mortillaro: My father came as an immigrant from Italy
and my mother was from here. My father had a good job and my mother was
a seamstress. Both of them worked really hard to raise a family.
S: How did you get into the lock business?
P: I was in high school and it all started out when I was looking for
a summer job when I was 14 years old. All kids look for a summer job,
you know. Someone told me there was a hardware store and they were
looking for someone to help them move. It turned out it was not a
hardware store… they were locksmiths. I kind of offered to help them
move, and worked there all summer long. When the summer was over, they
asked if I wanted to go back to school or work with them and learn a
life-long trade. I chose the life-long trade.
P: I got to like what I had learned, so I started out as an
apprentice at 14th and 2nd Avenue. By the time I was 18, I opened my
own shop, and worked there till I was 20—till 1970. Then someone
offered to buy my shop…it was an open air space that had a license for
10 years. He gave me 25,000 dollars for it. That was a lot of money…a
lot of money! So I decided to travel…I bought a car and I travelled
all over the country … to San Francisco, Seattle, Idaho, Wisconsin
… then I came back here and bought another shop…the one right here.
S: What did your father think about your move to quit school and learn a trade?
P: He didn’t like it. He expected more from me.
P: It’s tough convincing the mindset of the poor immigrant. He works
with his hands and he expects his children to go to college—work with
their minds. My father never once visited my shop till the day he died.
S: That’s a pity.
P: Yeah. He couldn’t believe I could be proud of my work. Liking your
work is one thing, to be proud of it is another. Let me tell you a
story. I was about 21 years old and I got this call from a Japanese
gentleman. He had a problem with a door that had come apart. Now to fix
that sounds simple but it was not. The door had the lock and hinge in
the middle—most door have it on the side. It was a complicated job…but I
fixed it. The Japanese guy was surprised and smiled. You know what he
said? He said ‘Yankee Ingenuity’. Can you believe it? ‘Yankee
Ingenuity’! I felt so proud for a job well done. And we Yankees did have
ingenuity. We could make things. Fix things. Look at us now—we can’t
do a damn thing with our hands, we’ve lost our respect for it.
S: When you say America has lost respect for people who work their hands, is there a price being paid for that?
P: Of course there is. No one wants to work hard with their hands
anymore. We’ve let the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans make things for
us—and they do a damn good job of it. There is such an emphasis on kids
getting a college education—a finance degree or study to be lawyer or a
doctor. By the time they do so, many of them are up to their necks in
debt. They become adults in trouble rather than children in trouble.
Most of them don’t get the jobs they want and end up in the mail room
or some such hell-hole.
(He took a deep breath and then continued)
P: Let me tell you another story. I know this one lady, her daughter
didn’t go to college and became a beautician because she wanted to. She
worked hard and five years ago she bought her own shop. She did what
she wanted to and now has her own shop. She’s doing great and is
earning more than most college graduates, who start out in life with a
debt on their heads.
S: Are you saying a college degree has no value?
P: No. What I’m saying is that it isn’t everything. Can every kid
with a college degree get a job that he really wants? It isn’t
possible. So many of them are miserable—jumping out of windows, getting
into drugs. They think money is the answer. If only they have more
money! For me work has to come first. Not the money. When I look at a
job I try to figure out how am I going to do it—What’s the best way?
How to get it right? Kids today think differently: they want to know
how much does it pay? They don’t ask themselves what they’d really like
to do, just how much will they earn.
S: How did all of this money mania happen?
P: Through the government and the media—they sold a dream. And
everybody got sucked in. (Shakes his head) It’s entered our blood
stream. Young kids today have a hard time talking to a person. They
don’t look you in the eye. They are constantly on their phones, on
their iPads, on the internet. They are scared. They can’t meet people.
They don’t meet people. They work at jobs they don’t really like. They
only get an identity when they buy a home they can’t afford, when they
wear a thousand dollar suit—two hundred dollar sneakers or shoes, most
of it on credit. That’s the dream being sold by the media. Can all this
shit give you an identity? Look at me. I have an identity in this old
tee-shirt and this old pair of jeans. Everybody in the neighborhood
knows me. They know Philip, the locksmith.
S: Is Philip, the locksmith, happy?
P: You bet I am! I earn more than a hundred thousand bucks. I have
had three wives, two mistresses, I have five children, two
grandchildren. Isn’t that a life of a happy man? I’m better-off than
most guys with degrees.
S: Do you always compare yourself with them?
P: Not really. But sometimes I do because I worry where kids are
heading today. Not just kids, adults too. I worry about what we’ve done
to ourselves. Ever seen people on the streets? When they see a work of
art or a piece of architecture that they like, they don’t soak the
experience in: they just take pictures and move on. They are in such a
terrible hurry—fucking pictures. Can you believe it?
S: They have no time to stand and stare.
P: Yeah. I hope they have time to see the pictures they’ve taken.
S: How long do you think that people like you, who work with their hands—how long do you think they are going to last?
P: Depends on the part of the county. In other parts of the country
it will last for a little longer, over here I don’t know. I don’t even
know if any of my kids would take over from me.
S: What kind of an America would you like to see?
P: Let me think. There were some things in the 60s that I didn’t
like. I didn’t like the Vietnam War. I didn’t like the racism. If you
were black in this country, you were fucked. You had to face a lot of
shit. It’s much better now. But the wars are still happening—we are
into too many wars.
P: I don’t know—we are a violent country. Look at our movies,
television, video games. There’s a lot of violence out there. When we
had the draft during the Vietnam War people questioned why their kids
were being sent. We questioned the war.
We don’t have the draft
anymore. It was scrapped. So now we have an army that can’t question
and many of our soldiers are new immigrants. So we promise them a Green
Card after their stint. We promise them some kind of college
education, so now they do four years in the army just so that when they
get out, they can get to go to college or get a Green Card. So they go
to fight, they have no choice.