James Lizzio: “I can’t sit still.”

Jim Lizzio portraitJim Lizzio lives right around the corner from where he was born in 1916, in lower Manhattan’s Little Italy. Housing projects and the encroachment of Chinatown have changed it a lot since hung out at Mulberry and Bayard. Now he’s more likely to be spotted at Senior Center over in Knickerbocker Village, but he keeps his visits short. “You sit down, you talk, you play bingo.  I’m not that type,” he told me over coffee in his cozy pink living room.  “Those people are too old for me.  And I’m 93.”

 

 

Lizzio’s the go-to guy for countless neighbors. “Most of them are alone, crippled, can’t walk” he explained. “‘Jimmy, get me some milk.’ ‘Jimmy, get me stamps.’ I enjoy doing that.” That’s if he’s not at his job as a maintenance man for an Off-Track Betting office, or visiting a pal in the hospital, or bringing a little something to a cousin in the nursing home. Or at the grocery store. Or dancing. Or traveling.

 

Lizzio met his bride-to-be at the feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy, which still floods the streets with the aroma of sausages and zeppoli every spring. Her family lived about an hour away, but “once a year they’d come down from Westchester for it, because they were Neapolitans. I’m Sicilian, but I’d go too.” He and Mary married in 1940. Called up in 1943, he spent six months on a battleship in the Navy and credits his mother’s prayers to Sister Cabrini — “one of our patron saints, who came from Italy and started a nursing home for the immigrants” — for his safe and swift return.

 

Lizzio went to work as a messenger for the John W. Crawford Company, an advertising firm, worked his way up to shipping clerk, then learned how to operate a varnishing machine. “We’d put a coating on all advertising matters, and they would place them in the subway. Very interesting. Dangerous and smelly.” He held the job for sixteen years, “and never a day late — is that a record?” Then, diagnosed with throat cancer and given three weeks to live, he retired on doctor’s orders. Fifteen cobalt treatments permanently affected his voice, but cured the cancer.

 

After coming out of retirement, Lizzio worked for the Emigrant Savings bank as a guard, then as an elevator operator in a city-owned building. Intensely sociable, he found the job interesting because “you meet all kinds of people: good, bad, nasty, sarcastic, impatient.” Another long hiatus from work occurred when his wife, who’d been in and out of hospitals for years, began to fail. “I was married over 60 years to the same person,” and when a son, Peter James, arrived after 17 years, “we had a big party,” he told me proudly. “I had to leave to take care of Mary. And I took care of my mother, who was around the corner. And Peter was small.”

 

The only time he didn’t feel like working was after Mary’s death. But after sitting at home for a couple of weeks, the gregarious widower ran into a friend who worked at an Off Track Betting Office. The audio clip below describes the go-get-‘em approach that landed Lizzio his current position. He works from 1:45 to 7:15, five days a week, doing “porter work: cleaning, mopping, putting bulbs in, whatever. I enjoy it. I enjoy working. I enjoy the people,” he says — in what, at 93, feels like an overstatement but clearly is not.

 

No doubt a happy second marriage has something to do with Lizzio’s vitality. While married to others, he and Kathy met through his parish church and recently celebrated their tenth anniversary. “Big wedding,” he reported happily.  “I was a little less than 80. Kathy’s 62 now, so take 10 years off. I’m a lucky man, considering. Who’d want a guy 80, 90 years old?  But I don’t look it, I don’t feel it. I feel 65, 55. I can’t sit still” — and up he jumps from the dinette to show me his wedding picture. Kathy works in the pension office of the NYPD, and shares his love of travel. “Barcelona, Portugal, Spain, all over. It’s expensive, but we’re both working!”

 

If it’s not the romance or the jumping around, maybe it’s Lizzio’s cooking. People are always asking what he eats. “First of all, a lot of spaghetti, two, three times a week.” Not much meat. And his favorite dish is “beans and macaroni or pasta fagioli. I make extra for the next day or the day after.” Kathy’s penchant for restaurants is a mystery. “I say, ‘Honey, why do you wanna eat out? I shop, I cook, what’re you worrying about?’” Faith sustains him too, though he describes himself as a “practical Catholic”: “I don’t care what religion it is, you need prayer today, with the war and that Bush. And that Hilary, she’s no bargain.”

 

“So when are you going to retire?” He hears it all the time, he conceded, but countered with, “Why should I? I’m happy I’m contented, I feel good.” Despite the physical demands, he has yet to have someone tell him that he’s too old for the job. The reason is simple: “If I tell them my age, they wouldn’t believe me.”  Even his doctor has a hard time: “he shakes his head, takes my blood pressure, checks my entire body and says, ‘Jimmie, you’re like a baby.  I can’t believe it.’  I can’t sit still,” Lizzio continues. “Shop, drive, cook, dance, I do windows . . . I did my windows yesterday. You’ve never met a person like me.”  That’s the truth.

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