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Life on the Corner: Hey, Wall-Yo’

Four North End “gualioni” in the Parmenter St. Playground where the Library is now located. I’m in front.

Hey, Wall-Yo’.

How many times did I hear that expression growing up in the North End?  I would be walking down Salem Street and some old lady would yell that at me from a fourth floor window. If I stopped and looked up she would let down a basket on a rope of clothesline with some coins and a shopping list; coffee, bread, perhaps some milk, which I would buy for her and place back into the basket. She would then slowly pull it up, say “grazie” and maybe throw down a nickel for my trouble.

In the days before health insurance and hip transplants there were many elderly, arthritic women who virtually never left their apartments. They would sit by their windows watching the street activity and when they saw a young, boy (gualione) who they deemed trustworthy they would call to him using the Neopolitan slang word for street kid, “hey wall-yo”. These ladies, and they were almost always women, sat by their windows and watched the streets day and night. They were better than any CC TV camera and were one of the reasons the neighborhood was so safe. Like Jane Jacobs said, “eyes on the street”.

These are four of the guys who hung out in BeeGee’s club on Prince Street. North End social life was centered around these clubs and we only have a couple of them left, the Sulmona club on Fleet Street and the Madonna della Cava on Battery Street.

Since almost all Italian immigrants to the North End came from Southern Italy or Sicily, the common vernacular of the neighborhood was Neapolitan dialect. In many neighborhood shops you would hear Neopolitan Italian spoken as often as you heard English and we children used these words in our everyday speech.

A person who was a stubborn, was a “gabba tosta”, hard head. Calabrese were especially prone to this.

A mild curse was “fa Napola” literally, go to Naples which for a Southern Italian, especially a woman, was the equivalent of going to hell.

A stupid person was “stunada” which means stoned and a really stupid person was a “stronzo”.

If you were disgusted by something you say, “che schifo” and your sister-in-law always had a “face brutta” which meant she had been kissed by a frying pan.

There are many more slang expressions which were common to all Italian American communities and if you want to hear more just watch re-runs of the Sopranos.

In the North End, we also had many expressions that were unique to our neighborhood and I can give you an example of this with a story that resonates closely with my extended family.

Let’s say your no good brother-in-law asks you to lend him five thousand dollars to open a cigar store/bookie joint on Fleet Street. No lose proposition, right? Guess again, because instead of opening the shop the bum splits for Vegas with his “putana” girlfriend and blows through the five large in a week. You’re feeling pretty stupid and ask, “when do you think Sal will pay me back the money”? Today the answer might be the anodyne comment, “when hell freezes over” but in the North End of the 1950’s the answer would be, “when Cimbo (pronounced CheemBo) straightens out” and everyone would immediately know what you meant. Cimbo, you see, was a local character and a ferocious gambler. A sharp dresser whose territory encompassed BeeGee’s gambling club on Prince Street, the Florentine Cafe, where his bankers sat at the back table and the grandstand at Suffolk Downs. Cimbo was also a hunch back with the posture of a boiled shrimp so the odds of his straightening out were not very good.

A generation earlier, in my grandmother’s day, they had their own expressions and my next post will discuss one of her favorites which was really a curse. If you were a miser and didn’t change your ways you would suffer, “La morte di Ciccio Sessa.”

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.

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16 Replies to “Life on the Corner: Hey, Wall-Yo’

  1. Found myself laughing out loud over this. I am from a totally different culture. But I kept thinking of the elderly Mrs Minot, perched on a second floor balcony with binoculars so she could evaluate whether proper yankee behavior was up to code at a posh Maine yacht club below. We teenaged sailing instructors called her Hawkeye. One afternoon we decided to throw several smart aleck kids off the yacht club wharf. It did not happen again.

  2. Nick you are the best, you bring back to me memories of some good days, here in the wonderful North End.
    Thanks Again
    Bobby Church

  3. Nick, reading your comments is like taking a walk down memory lane. I remember Cimbo & basically grew up in Bee Gee’s horse room. The word shark had a much different meaning for a N.Ender & your average person.

  4. I also grew up in the north end lol thank u for some of the memories if we could do it all over again I would in a heart beat
    Frankie

  5. Wow Nick, you never dissapoint us for sure! Thank God we have our memories of our classic North End, So special and fun. Sometimes i wonder if people get it Your the best looking forward to next time.Laughter is so good for the soul!

    1. Corrine, People will never understand how living in a neighborhood & building without heat{only a stove fed by a hanging oil can} no hot water, no shower, a bathroom that was out in the hallway & was shared by every family living on the same floor could be our fondest & most precious memories of a time, a place and far too many people who are gone.Summer nights filled with Feasts,water baloon fights which turned to snowball fights in winter.The neighborhood had the aroma of home made wine coming from the cellars.Old timers either sat on the “stoop” to share gossip & tales spoken in Italian or were perched looking out their windows.[our version of a surveillance system] The Gassy as well as other places were a teenage lovers lane without cars. But my favorite memorie are of the characters mant gone some still around and the great nicknames.The list is endless and I have to leave a lot of names out but heres a few. The aforementioned “Chimbo” “Rocky the tailor” “Bobby Popcorn” “Josie the one arrned bandit” ‘Butch Ross” “Johnny Pie” “Angelo the caveman” “Cowboy” “Minnie” “Harpo” “Floppy””Joe Gorilla” “Rocky the tailor” “Candyman” “Joe Candy” “Jazzbo” “Canary””Paul the Butcher” ‘Fat Abigail” “Fat Ronnie” “Roger two loose” Freddie Box” the infamous ” Lenny Ouahog” “Charlie Pegleg” “Guyo” Bozo” “Peanuts””Lobo” People I could never forget.

  6. The building in the background is the one I grew up in, the clothes hanging on the line is my apartment. I remember my mother if she wasn’t washing windows she was washing clothes. Their was a alley between the two buildings that led to Salem Street. My mother always put the basket down and I had to go buy bread up Salem Street. At that time it was a way of life, how fortunate I am to have been part of that era. You had to live it to really appreciate it today. I wouldn’t change one thing. Thanks Nick for the memories!

    1. For people I know should have known when I said the building in the background was my apartment ! Background=
      (rear)

  7. Thanks Nick, for the great memory revival. I grew up on Prince St and well remember those times I was sent to Pepi’s for bread, etc by the aged ladies who were the eyes and ears of the neighborhood.
    They had a dark side…they also squealed on us whenever we did something out of the ordinary, like sneak in a cigarette at the Gassy, or pick a fight with the Endicott St kids. By the time we got home, all 30 or so “mother’s” on the street knew of our crime and passed it along to the “executioner”, sitting at home with the wooden spoon.
    The sentence was passed the second we walked into the house. They had an insidious ability to transmit information across the clothes lines. I never figured it out. Some sort of Morse Code.
    Fond memories.

  8. Dr. Nick, On Friday I was walking home and the ABCD elderly club was breaking from Villa Michelangelo. As I was walking up Charter St. I see this Italian woman, in her 90’s having a hard time to get onto the street off the curb. I yelled to her In Italian “Signora, wait I will help you”. I asked her where she lived, she said Hanover St. and quickly put her arm under mine and we slowly walked down Charter to Hanover St. On my way back home, it brought back memories of helping the elderly ladies back from Salem St. with their heavy shopping bags, they would go into their bags and repay you with a peach or a plum. Thank you for reminding us of the wonderful memories and why some of us stayed.
    Mafalda

  9. Loved the North End and all the stories….priceless… I’m full blooded Irish but have aleaus haf and still do have beautiful Italian friends… ❤

  10. I lived in the North End in the fifties on Endicott St. I also lived on Jackson Ave. We moved To East Boston, then to Western Mass. I remember Josephine the baker, Canary, and Johnny Pie aka Arigo. When I go back I almost cry because I am so overwhelmed with beautiful memories. My children think it was a most incredible experience to live there. They are right! Thanks for the nice stories Nick.

  11. Sorry to be late here, but I just found this blog. These names and sayings are a riot. One Friday night when there absolutely nothing doing, I ran into Bobby Popcorn. He asked me if I wanted to catch a Celtics game. I said “yes”. I asked him if he had tickets. He said “no”. He said don’t worry about it; we’ll get in. When we get there we stood in front of the entrance waiting for something(?) to happen. I was beginning to have some doubts about Bobby and my own judgement to listen to him. Then a guy came up to us and asked Bobby if he wanted a ticket. Bobby took it and said let’s go as he headed to the entrance to the Garden. I said Bobby “we only have one ticket”. He said “just follow me.” When we get to the usher, he hands him the ticket for both of us. The usher said “you only have one ticket”. Bobby told the usher not to worry because we would both sit in the same seat and we walked right in. ?

  12. Hi Nick,

    My parents both grew up in the North End, so as a kid I spent a lot of time there visiting my grandparents (every Sunday). My dad was John Serrecchia and he grew up on Hanover Street. All his friends with the crazy nick names, Lefty Joe, Fish Cake, etc would all hang out on the street in front of the Blue Front Restaurant, owned by the Pasacantilli’s. I can remember going into the North End, when Nick’s Tavern was there. Was that your dad’s place? I had my first Shirley Temple drink there at the bar. Ha ha…..My mom’s name was Iole Domenici and she grew up on Hull Street, and her dad, my grandfather used to hang at the Prado by the Paul Revere Statue. I have many memories from those days and your article hit a lot of those in the heart. My dad passed away 8 years ago. I can remember one of the last times I brought him into the North End, he was a member of some club on Battery Street. When I picked him up later that day he said “its just not the same, and no one is around anymore”. When I go into the North End now, its a whole different world from back then, but not in a bad way. “Its just not the same”. But thanks for sharing some history and memories.

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