When the Southern Italian immigrants first arrived in Boston at the end of the nineteenth century, one of the few professions open to them was being a barber, and the North End had scores of barber shops. My maternal grandfather had a barber shop on Haverhill Street near North Station, and my cousin’s son has a barber shop today on Salem Street.
Italians were known for their skill in hair cutting, and on Saturdays all the local shops would be full to capacity. Most of the larger shops would let a local boy offer to shine shoes for the customers while they waited for a cut and a shave. I shined shoes in Grande’s barber shop in North Square, which lasted for one day because I hated getting my hands dirty.
There was a small barber shop next to my father’s bar room on Lewis Street, which was owned by a barber who was deaf and dumb, so his street name was, of course, “the Dummy.” He was a nice guy, stocky, with a full head of hair and a pristine white jacket. I would go there for haircuts because he was right next door to the tavern and, being a pre-adolescent boy, I was intrigued by the girlie magazines and calendars he had on display. Thank God my mother never figured out why I was always anxious to get a haircut.
The interesting thing about the Dummy was he wasn’t so dumb. He was known for giving great shaves with his cut-throat razor, and people would come from all over for one of his close shaves. He would start by laying the customer back in the chair and wrapping his face in a steaming hot towel to soften the beard. Oftentimes, the customer would fall asleep and that’s when the Dummy would spring into action. If no one was watching, he would go through the sleeping guy’s coat and dip into his wallet. Once a customer parked his car right outside the shop, and while the guy snoozed, the Dummy got his car keys and pilfered some of the meat he had just bought at the Sulmona meat market on Parmenter Street. When the poor guy got home, his wife berated him for forgetting the veal cutlets, but that night the Dummy and his family had some very tasty Vitello all Milanese.
Farther down Hanover Street, near the Coast Guard base, was the North End’s most famous barber shop, the one owned by John Cammarata, known locally as “Johnny Shoes” because his father was a cobbler on Salem Street near the Old North Church. Johnny was a character and having one’s hair cut by him was always an adventure. People would go to his shop not only to get a haircut, but to watch the never ending comedy show.
Growing up, Johnny struggled in school and his parents despaired about what would become of him. He attended the Eliot School on Charter Street, but never brought his report cards home. He just signed them himself and told his parents not to worry, everything was fine. After the sixth grade, Johnny went to the Michelangelo junior high father down Charter Street. One day, his parents received a letter from the principal informing them their son, John, had been placed in the “special class.” His parents had no idea what this meant, so when Johnny got home they asked him what was going on.
Quick as a flash, he told them the special class was only for very special kids, kids that were so far ahead of all the other kids they put them in a very special classroom with very special teachers. Johnny’s father was astounded. All this time he had thought Johnny was a bit slow, and now he finds out his son was a special student in the special class. Beaming with pride, he told everyone who came into his cobbler shop about Johnny’s new, special student status.
This went on for a couple of weeks until a kind soul told him the special class at the Mickey’s was a dumping ground for sociopaths, class cutups and those who still couldn’t read by the sixth grade. When Johnny got home that night his father gave him a very special kick in the pants.
There are a thousand Johnny Shoes stories, but the one I like best is about the time he and his friends Sonny and Danny the Mugger rescued the weathervane on top of the Old North Church. No, they didn’t climb up the steeple. In late August of 1954 Hurricane Carol roared up the East Coast and became one of the most powerful tropical storms to hit New England.
Sustained winds over 100 MPH toppled the steeple of the Old North Church. Fortunately, it landed right down the middle of Hull Street and didn’t seriously damage any of the tenement buildings. Johnny and his friends ran out during the storm to inspect the damage, which looked like a pile of bricks and shattered wood. The only thing worth salvaging was the gilded weathervane, which they grabbed and hid in Sonny’s cellar farther up Salem Street.
For the next several days, the Boston newspapers were filled with stories about the hurricane and the damage to the Old North Church. There were ardent pleas from the mayor, the rector and several historical societies asking for the return of the weathervane. The steeple itself was a replacement, the original one was toppled during a hurricane in 1804, but the weathervane was priceless and irreplaceable.
Finally, the guys relented and Danny the Mugger returned the weathervane. The church rector accepted it grudgingly and gave Danny a withering look of contempt. No reward was offered. Years later Danny told me the story and said, “You know, Nicky, we saved that weathervane. If some tourist had grabbed it who knows where it would have ended up? If it weren’t for us it wouldn’t be sitting up there on top of the church. Those cheap Protestants didn’t offer us a penny for all our efforts. Let me tell something, that was the last honest thing I ever did.” And the Mugger kept his word.
The Dummy, Johnny Shoes and Danny the Mugger, all North End originals.
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.