Italians love joining clubs and the North End of seventy five years ago had an abundance of social organizations where men could gather and enjoy the company of their friends.
There were many clubs honoring saints from a particular city or town. We still have the St. Anthony’s club, the Madonna della Cava and the Madonna del Soccorso club. There were also political / sports clubs such as the Hull Knights, Hanover Associates and the Christie Club, and religious clubs like the Knights of Columbus and Holy Name society. Coffee shops, pool rooms and taverns functioned as clubs, and each had its own cadre of regulars.
Perhaps unique to the North End were the many gambling clubs like Cheegelo’s on Endicott Street, BeeGee’s on Prince Street and Angelo DeMarco’s in the Cafe Vittoria building. Fiore DeChristoforo, who sponsored the Christie Club sports teams, ran a high stakes Barbooth game on Garden Court Street for several years before he was gunned down in 1961. These clubs met in storefronts, which could be rented for as little as $25 per month or in rooms at local settlement houses. But this story is about the Sulmona Club on Fleet Street, which was started by paesani from the city of Sulmona in Abruzzo.
I took the picture above in the late 1960s in front of one of the local pool rooms located on short Prince Street. The sign says Guy’s Pool Parlor, but the owner was an old Italian man named Giuseppe Mazza, who had recently emigrated from Italy with his two sons, Nicky and Tony. Old man Mazza was a gnarled, scruffy man who smoked a pipe filled with crushed up stogies. The smell would gag a horse but, despite this, his pool room was our hangout six days a week, winter and summer.
On a beautiful day in the late summer I asked two of my friends, Walter and Matty, to come outside and pose for the picture. They’re all duded up because later that night they were going to the Sugar Shack on Boylston Street, a Rhythm & Blues club owned by a local connected guy named Rudy (Hippo) Guarino. The Shack hosted many of the great R & B acts – Gladys Knight, Lou Rawls, Stevie Wonder, Frankie Valli, the Four Tops, Little Anthony and the list goes on. Customers of all races were welcomed at the Sugar Shack and, with Hippo in charge, it had the reputation of being one of the greatest R&B venues in the United States.
A few years before this picture was taken, I was in Mazza’s pool room watching some of the local hustlers play a game we called “shit eight” on the front table, when a car pulled up onto the sidewalk. Matty got out, came inside and said, “Anyone want to take a ride?” “Sure,” I said, since I was broke and wasn’t doing anything. Matty was a little crazy, but always fun to be around. I got in the back seat with Walter, who was sitting behind the driver. Matty was riding shotgun.
The driver was a kid called Red who I barely knew. He lived on Fleet Street in a top floor apartment with his father who kept a day fishing boat down on Packet Pier. Red and his father fished tub trawls out on Stellwagen Bank, hard, dangerous work. The car was a beautiful two-tone Pontiac Bonneville and I wondered where Red came up with the money. I leaned over and whispered to Walter, “How can Red afford a car like this?” “He can’t,” Walter whispered back, “He stole it.” Great, so now I was riding around in a stolen car with three out of control guys. Red was bobbing up and down on the seat like it was a trampoline keeping time with the radio blasting Arnie, Woo Woo, Ginsberg’s Night Train show.
Matty told Red to take a right onto Fleet Street and stop in front of the Sulmona Club. The wood door was shut and nothing was visible through the small window. Matty kept staring until another car pulled up behind us and gave us the horn. Red drove down to Atlantic Avenue where he took a right onto Commercial Street.
When we got to Cross Street, Matty pulled out a gun and handed it to Walter. I quickly realized this caper was taking a decidedly sinister turn. “What’s going on” I said. Here, the story became somewhat convoluted. As best as I could decipher, someone Matty knew loaned a lot of money to a guy who occasionally hung out in the Sulmona Club. The guy hadn’t paid any of it back and couldn’t even make the weekly vig. Matty’s friend said if Matty could collect the money he would pay him a commission. Matty thought shooting some bullets through the door of the club would somehow send a message to the deadbeat that he should pay up.
Well, this made no sense at all and I tried to explain this to Matty. “First of all,” I said, “There’s no guarantee the guy is even there and second, what if someone else is standing behind the door and you kill the wrong guy?” This unassailable logic got Matty agitated. He turned around in the seat, took another gun out of his pocket and began waving it around, his finger on the trigger.
“I don’t care,” he yelled. “They all deserve it. Only assholes hang out in the Sulmona Club.” I couldn’t argue with that logic, but I was starting my second year of college in a few weeks and spending the next twenty years in jail didn’t sound like a good career move. I asked Red to stop and let me out, which he kindly did.
I never found out what happened at the Sulmona Club that night and I never asked.
Matty died way too young and left a trail of broken hearts in the North End. The Sicilian girls on North Street couldn’t get enough of him.
I visited Walter a few months ago in the nursing home where he was recovering from a small stroke. He looked pretty good and we reminisced about the old days and the good times we had.
Matty and Walter were two North End originals or like we used to say, a pair that’ll beat a flush.
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.