Joseph Fornicola stands outside his home, shirtless, smoking a cigarette near the corner of South 9th Place and West Dakota Street on Milwaukee’s south side. Fornicola has a tough look about him, a feeling aided by the many tattoos that adorn his upper body. Then again, he’s spent his whole life on the South Side, most of it around gangs and drugs.
“It became a part of my daily life,” says Fornicola of the gang life. “Till I grew up and realized that’s childish. Had to [outgrow] it, but, for a while, you know, growin’ up, you’re impressionable.”
“Basically, everybody around, like the friends I used to play in the little field with and go to school with, they [were] always just gang members,” he says. “And, ey, you know, I really didn’t have a mom or a dad around so, you know, chased that family life and fell right into it.”
Joseph would see his dad once a week for a couple hours and his mom, who was single, worked all day to provide for her four children. “So, I was pretty much just left alone,” he says.
Fornicola’s home life served to toughen him up, too, in certain ways. There were four siblings in the house in all — Joseph, his two sisters and big brother. Fornicola was the youngest and says his brother, who was 10 years older, was “more like a father than anything.” There were pros and cons to being the baby, he says.
“[You] get beat up by the older siblings but you get spoiled,” Joseph says. “So, I mean, [it] made me tougher. You know, there’s a big age gap between me and the older ones, so you learn a lot, get toughened up a lot; it was good — I liked it.”
He attended Morse Middle School and Sholes, but dropped out before he got to high school. Fornicola says it wasn’t that he had problems with the work, but he would get bored after finishing the work that he’d been given. Plus, Morse was on the north side so he had to take a bus. By the time he got to Sholes, the work they were doing was two grades behind where he’d been before.
“I didn’t like sittin’ in class all day so I just stopped goin’,” Joseph says. “I was always a straight-A student. I more went just to meet people and interact.”
He says more challenges might have kept him interested. “You finish your schoolwork before everybody else, you don’t have anything to do but just be stupid and, you know, crack jokes or play around,” he says.
Besides that, Joseph was just never very patient. “You want me to sit here until I’m 18 and get a degree when I could go to work and get money now?” he says. “I have a single mother, you know, like, bills need to be paid. I don’t have time to wait till [I] get through college and all that.”
So, he ran with the gang and it helped him fill his need for money, family and adventure. That is, until he caught a few cases.
Fornicola, who’s 28 now, was picked up three times in a five year period for illegally carrying a concealed weapon. All the violations were misdemeanors but, because of the frequency, he was labeled a habitual offender and sentenced to a year at the House of Correction. It’s there that Joseph got his GED. He also decided to leave the street life behind.
“A lot of things happened, you know. People grew up. Like, I have a daughter now,” he says. “Just different goals.”
Fornicola’s daughter just turned 3. He and the mother were together for about five years but she decided to move to Janesville and is going through a “hard time,” according to Joseph, so he’s trying to get full custody. “I got this for me and my daughter.” He points to the apartment building that looms overhead. “Two bedrooms, nice neighborhood.”
Joseph also had a son when he was 18. He was in the process of getting custody of his son when he went to jail. So, his son was adopted and lives in Texas now. Fornicola says he sees him every once in awhile, and he gets pictures, but he no longer plays the role of a father.
“It used to hurt a lot — it used to kill me,” he says. “But, it’s been a few years. You know, I kinda learned to accept it. But there’s still them days where it’s hard, where you see a little kid playin’ at a park with their dad, and you’re like, ‘Damn, I got a son that I don’t take care of.’ I think it’s more of an ego and a pride thing, as a man, you know? Like, [we’re] always taught to provide, protect and I’m not doin’ that. It hurts my pride.”
“But, at the time, you know, I was gang bangin’, sellin’ drugs, in and outta jail. I looked at it like, ‘What do I have to offer you?’ Like, ‘You bein’ around me, I’m gonna ruin your life.’ You always want better for your children. If that’s the best way to do it, then so be it.”
So, when his daughter came along, Fornicola knew it was time to sever ties with his past. “You know, we’d still do family cookouts, Father’s Day, kids’ birthdays. But, once I had my daughter, all that stopped.”
“Everything was about her; it wasn’t worth it to me no more,” Joseph says. “Like, there’s random events that you can’t control. Like, I leave with you and you get into somethin’, I’m guilty by association because I’m here. So, I’m not gonna risk getting shot or goin’ to jail and not makin’ it home to my daughter. It’s not worth it.”
He says it was hard saying goodbye to his childhood friends. “But I know that future,” says Fornicola. “A lot of them are dead or in jail. I mean, I keep in touch and check on ‘em — you know, ‘Hey, how you doin’?’ But, as far as runnin’ around with ‘em, I won’t do it.”
“Just to be able to come from that … it’s a great feelin’ to know I can wave at a cop and, you know, I can’t go to jail today,” says Joseph, adding that it makes him feel like a man. “It’s a big accomplishment. I know it’s small stuff but it feels good.”
Now, Fornicola works as a cook, which he says he enjoys. “It pays the bills but not much more.”
He also does some side work at the Greater Milwaukee Auto Show that pays a bit more, but he’s looking for a career, and hoping to go back to school.
Above all, he’s looking forward to having a normal life. “Goin’ to work, comin’ home to a family, you know — wife and kids. It’s beautiful,” Joseph says. “I think that’s more meaningful than running around with your hat to the right or wearing a certain color — it gives you fulfillment.”
Did you find value in Joseph’s story? If so, please subscribe to our newsletter; we publish the story of a different Milwaukeean every week.
Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that works to bring you the real stories of regular people all across our city. This work is solely supported by individual contributions from people like you. Please consider becoming a sustaining member, or make a one-time donation, today.
Patron | $3 monthly (or $50 one-time) donation
Member | $7 monthly (or $100 one-time) donation
Partner | $25 monthly (or $500+ one-time) donation