Tourists love visiting the North End. They love exploring our narrow streets and alleys, buying a slice of pizza at Umberto’s or some cannoli at Mike’s. They are always fascinated by the bustling street life in our Little Italy which is very different experience from their suburban lives where, except for an occasional jogger, the streets are empty.
The question they most often ask is, “why are all these men hanging around the street corners and coffee shops and not working?” What tourists don’t understand is, these men are working but in a different way. What they are doing is gathering information, listening to gossip, finding out who is making money and how, doing all the things Italians have loved doing for millennia.
In the Merchant of Venice when Salanio asks, “Now, what news on the Rialto” he was doing what Italians have done since ancient Rome because the Rialto bridge in sixteenth century Venice was where men met to learn whatever gossip was current and how they could use that information to their advantage, just like North Square was to our grandparents.
The postcard I’m sharing today depicts North Square at the corner of Garden Court Street around 1895-1900. Examine it carefully because the details are fascinating. The first thing you notice is there are only men in the photo standing around, talking, and sitting on the curb stones. You would see similar scenes in Cinquecento Venice, contemporary Naples and even Hanover Street today. The buildings depicted in the post card have remained the same even after more than one hundred years. There is a photography studio in the background, probably to take passport pictures, and on the corner of Garden Court Street, now occupied by Mamma Maria’s restaurant, is another Italian bank, Banca Ettore Forte. Small photos are pasted to the inside of the window and some men are examining them. In the days before Twitter or Facebook these window notices were the way people communicated with each other. They could be pictures of newly arrived immigrants looking for family, flats for rent or job notices. The men outside are milling around waiting for work because most were hiring themselves out as semi-skilled day laborers. The daily rate at that time was $1.75 for a white man, $1.50 for a Negro and $1.25 for an Italian.
My grandfather lived in the building on the left, 5 North Square, and he could be one of men waiting for work. At that time there was still an active coastal shipping trade and ships loaded with cotton and wool from the South would dock at Lewis Wharf. Bales of cloth would be stored in the wharf buildings to be sent on to the mills of Lawrence or Lowell.
When a ship arrived word would spread around North Square that they were hiring men to offload the cargo and one day my grandfather, Nicola, went down to the wharf hoping to be hired. When he arrived he saw a large crowd of men gathered around the gang boss, a tough longshoreman named Irish Jack. No Italians were hired that first day and the same thing happened on the second, third and fourth days. Nicola had a young family to feed so he persisted and on the sixth day he noticed that only Italian men came for the shape-up. He shoved his way to the front of the crowd and was ecstatic to be chosen. As he walked down the wharf toward the ship he thought it odd that he could only see the masts not the hull and then it dawned on him. The tide was low that day and instead of wheeling the 300 pound bales down the gangway he would have to push the two wheeled trolley up to the wharf. Nicola may have been uneducated but he wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to destroy his twenty year old back for one dollar and twenty-five cents so he picked up his lunch pail and left. When he came to the head of the wharf Irish Jack called him a wop, spit in his lunch pail and told him if he walked off the job he would never work on the docks again. A short time later Irish Jack passed away but he was right, my grandfather never again worked as a longshoreman. In fact, he never worked for another man as long as he lived.
My grandfather died when I was a young teenager and the wake was held at my uncle’s place in Medford. I was standing off to one side feeling self conscious, when I noticed three elderly men enter the chapel. They were small, stocky and dressed in old fashioned, thick wool suits. Each of them held a felt fedora hat in his hand, real Mustache Pete’s. When they approached me the one in the middle asked if I was Nick’s grandson. I said I was. He then asked if I was the one named after him and again I answered affirmatively. He then said they came just to shake my hand and tell me that my grandfather was the toughest man they ever knew. I shook hands with each of them and the three amici turned and left without saying a word to anyone else. I never saw them again and can only guess what they meant.
Life in the North End wasn’t always cappuccino and cannoli.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.