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”.
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.