"What else do you do," Judge Adrian Burke of the New York Court of Appeals asked Mario Cuomo, recently graduated first in his class from St. John's University Law School, "besides read and write?" "Well, I was a ballplayer. I signed with Pittsburgh," Cuomo replied. He had omitted the information from his resum,e as irrelevant, not the sort of thing a law firm would be interested in -- although only one Wall Street law firm would even give him an interview, most being little interested in Italian-American graduates of a law school in Queens. "You what?" the judge roared. "If it's not relevant, then you're not as smart as your resum,e indicates." It turned out that Judge Burke had played shortstop for Holy Cross, and he hired Cuomo as his clerk on the spot.
This was fortunate for Cuomo, who thereby got the credential that could get him a legal job anywhere, his first experience in Albany, and the paycheck that he, as the son of a grocer and the father then of two children definitely needed. Cuomo had lived over the store until age 17, in a neighborhood in South Jamaica, Queens, that today looks more industrial than residential: just south of the Long Island railroad tracks, with little factories built of cement block, and a row of three-story buildings with diamond patterns above the second- story windows in lighter-colored brick.
Mario Cuomo's father opened his store at the height of the Depression and kept it open seven days a week. An immigrant from the Salerno area, he was able to finance it with earnings from digging sewer trenches and selling from a pushcart and because "the salesmen" -- i.e., the wholesalers -- "liked him." In turn he gave credit to all his customers, keeping track of their debts in a big ledger.
"We were at the center of the community," Mario Cuomo says now, a community of blacks and Irish, Jews and Italians. "I learned a lot about people."
After his clerkship, Cuomo could have gotten a job on Wall Street; he went to an established Long Island firm instead. The lawyers there were mostly WASPs, with a few Irish Catholics; they specialized in office work. He was very definitely Italian, and ready to go to court. They worked for Republicans in local government on Long Island; he mediated community disputes in Queens in the 1960s and ran for office in the 1970s as a liberal Democrat.
And he was aggressive. One early case -- Town of Hempstead v. Goldblatt -- he took to the Supreme Court, and won a 7-0 decision upholding the town's right to declare a sand and gravel pit a menace without paying compensation. "How can you win?" the trial judge asked him. "How can we lose?" said Cuomo. "They haven't introduced evidence to show there's any more sand and gravel to get out." And Cuomo wouldn't let the judge ask directly questions which would tip the other side off to what was missing in their case.
In 1949, Cuomo's family moved to a place two miles out from South Jamaica in Hollis Wood, a neighborhood on a hilly rise. His mother still lives there in a comfortable house with a brick barbecue in a pleasant side yard; Mario Cuomo and his family live in a three-story brick house on Pompei Drive that looks narrow from the street but goes far back into a deep yard. Across the street are three-story 1950s-style garden apartments: it is a comfortable, but hardly a plush, neighborhood.
Mario Cuomo, whose parents came so far, has lived most of his life within the same few miles; he first achieved political note mediating a controversy about locating a public housing development in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens.
He knows the fabric of life in the tight-knit urban villages of the outer boroughs of New York City, and if his views on some issues are more liberal than those of most of his neighbors, he also defends articulately the kind of government programs they have long taken advantage of -- and take for granted.
He speaks to a crowd with absolute ease and without the uh's that punctuate the speech of so many politicans; he has a gift for making an argument with a homey analogy or a quick turn of phrase.
Cuomo is an appropriate defender of the welfare state, a man who has made his way up within it by brains and hard work. He is a man interested in ideas -- he first got to know his wife by talking with her in the St. John's cafeteria about Don Juan in Hell and George Bernard Shaw, until she asked him to spring for a movie -- but who sees ideas as tools to be used in the service of institutions and a way of life that his experience tells him are good.