The shoe repair shop in Price is closed and the shoemaker himself lives in a nursing home in Salt Lake City. His hands, stained black his entire working life, are clean and frail now.
In the nursing home he's just one more old guy in a wheelchair, but in Price he was the kind of man who got a whole day named after him. "Mr. Dominick Besso Day," the proclamation on his wall at the nursing home reads. The mayor of Price honored him in 1989, on the occasion of Besso's Shoes' 60th anniversary. After that, Besso put in another 14 years, until a stroke last year sent him to Salt Lake City to be near his daughter Margaret.
The Bessos are Italian. So not long ago, when a friend of Margaret's went to Italy and brought back a baseball hat with the word "Italia" on it, Margaret proudly gave it to her father. But Dominick Besso wasn't interested. He said he'd rather keep wearing his "Luxor" hat from Las Vegas.
Maybe it's a second-generation vs. third-genera-tion thing. When your parents came from the Old Country, as Dominick's did around the beginning of the last century, you might think of that country as, well, old. Your second-generation life is all about being in the new country. For Margaret, though, another generation removed, Italy has taken on an allure.
Here's what she's enamored of, she says: "the kindness of the people, the generosity of their time, and their loving nature." It is not so much Italian opera or Renaissance art that interests her, but Italians themselves. Italians like the ones she grew up with in Price.
When Margaret was little she would listen in on the party line while her Grandma Martina talked to her friends in rapid-fire Italian. Now, whenever she hears people speaking Italian at the Italian-American Civic League, Margaret says, "it's like music to my ears." Mostly they speak so fast she only gets the drift, though, because the Bessos spoke the Piedmontese dialect from their native Torino, and also because by now Margaret has forgotten a lot of the Italian she once knew.
Grandma Martina came to America as a bride and had never learned much English. So, instead of venturing out on her own, she would send Dominick to run errands and do the shopping, even to buy her underwear. Unlike some second-generation teenagers, though, Dominick was never embarrassed by his parents, Margaret says. He was proud, she says, that his own father, James, was able to help other Italian immigrants get their citizenship papers. James had studied for the priesthood and spoke five languages.
James thought about being a miner when he arrived in Price, but after one trip down into the mines he never went back. He opened a cobbler shop instead. Dominick started working there when he was 5. As an adult he worked six days a week, never charged nuns, priests or Mormon missionaries, and pretty much never took a vacation, Margaret says. Once he did go on a hunting trip, but it turned out the snow was knee deep so he came home, sold his camping equipment and never gave hunting or camping another thought. He owned the same car for 16 years and put only 57,000 miles on it.
Occasionally someone would suggest a trip to Italy, but Dominick wasn't interested. Margaret has never been to Italy either, but she hopes to go some day. In the meantime she's a member of the Italian-American Civic League, which yesterday celebrated its 70th anniversary, and participates in the Italian Cultural Center and the Italian Center of the West. Next Saturday she'll take part in Ferragosto, an "Italian Cultural Street Fair" at Pioneer Park, featuring bocce, movies, Ferraris and food.