Old Men and No Sea
A group of weathered fishermen now share coffee and stories instead of the ocean.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
The Sicilian fishermen of Monterey used to spend their morning hours scouring the bay in boats in search of the day’s catch. But now a core group of the men sit at a large wooden desk at Monterey’s Café Lumiere, casting out jokes and stories in their native Sicilian.
For the last decade, the fluctuating group of up to 20 guys has met at local coffee spots including Morgan’s and now Café Lumiere.
“We discuss fishing politics,” says the youngest guy in the group, 51-year-old Vince Costa.
“We talk about the problems of the world,” says Anthony Campo, a big, welcoming man with a mustache.
As I sit with the fishermen one morning, apparently fascinating stories and jokes are told in Sicilian and accented with long bouts of laughter. A few of the guys joke in English that they’ve known each other for too long.
“Some of us are from the same town in Sicily,” Ventura Manuguerria says.
A lot of the men immigrated to Monterey from Sicily in the mid-1950s to work in the local fishing industry. Campo, Manuguerria and their friend Domenic Mineo all hail from Marettimo, an island off western Sicily with just 700 residents. Others come from exotic sounding locales like Isola delle Femmine and San Vito lo Capo.
A lot of their conversation laments the state of the local fishing industry.
“Sooner or later, you won’t have any fishermen around here,” Campo says despondently. “Monterey was mostly created by the fishing industry. Everything has just changed and now it’s a tourist trap.”
Today few members of their families’ new generation are pursuing a living from the sea, though Mineo notes his two sons still run a squid and sardine vessel called Mineo Brothers.
“That’s the dirtiest boat there is in the marina,” Campo says, ribbing his friend.
Then, one of the guys announces the arrival of an old-timer. Everyone looks around as Tom Di Maggio, a thin, animated 88-year-old, sits down.
At the table, Di Maggio, who the others call a pioneering local fisherman, is obviously well respected. As I attempt to glean some information from Di Maggio about his fishing career, the spry old man leans towards me and looks at my notebook.
“Do you want to know the history of the life?” he asks. “That’s a lot of writing.”
Di Maggio has been an integral part of Monterey’s fishing community since 1940. Born in Trapani, Sicily in 1922, he moved to Monterey and worked in the sardine industry. When the industry began to die out, Di Maggio continued fishing for perch and halibut and skippered squid vessels.
“I never went to work on shore,” he says. “Never.”
Di Maggio also headed to Bristol Bay, Alaska in 1948 to fish for sockeye salmon during June and July, a practice a few local Sicilians did before him. Though Di Maggio no longer travels up to the fishing camps there, a handful of Monterey’s Sicilian fishermen still spend six-week periods in the summer fishing Alaskan waters.
The longtime fisherman’s involvement in the local community led to Di Maggio being proclaimed the “grand marshal” of this year’s Santa Rosalia Festival, an annual celebration in Custom House Plaza with Italian food and music.
“They give me a stripe and then they put me in a Ferrari convertible,” he says fondly.
As Di Maggio turns back to the table to speak with his friends, barista Tanina Oglesby delivers another espresso. “Gratzi,” Di Maggio says to Oglesby, who speaks Italian with the fishermen.
While Oglesby returns back behind the coffee bar, Campo reveals why he and his friends frequent Café Lumiere instead of other Monterey coffee shops.
“Tanina for us is like a, a,” he says as he searches for the right word to describe Oglesby, “a mother.”
Throughout the morning, the fishermen shout “ciao” to friends who leave the table and head home. As the crowd dwindles, Costa comes over and confides how much this group means to him.
“I’m the youngest guy,” he says. “In a few years, a lot of these guys might be gone. I don’t know what I’ll do.”
A few minutes later, all of the fishermen have headed home to lunch with their families. In just a few hours, most will be back together playing the Italian card games Scopa and Briscola at the Monterey Elks Lodge.
According to Costa, the afternoon’s card playing is just as animated as the morning’s espresso meeting. “Very emotional,” he says. “Very enthusiastic. A lot of arguing.”