The Boston of my youth was a city of well-defined tribes. The Irish in Dorchester, Southie and Charlestown, the Blacks in Roxbury, the Jews in the West End and Mattapan, the gentry in Beacon Hill and the Back Bay, and the Italians in East Boston and the North End.
Intermingling occurred in schools and the workplace, but each neighborhood had its own unique character and culture. Marriages rarely occurred between tribes, but I was adventurous and in 1969 I married a beautiful red-haired Irish girl from the West End, Boston Irish royalty. There was culture shock for both families. At our wedding, my father-in-law refused to serve alcohol even though I was paying for the reception. Contrary to stereotypes, he was a teetotaler and never drank alcohol, not even beer.
Now, a Dello Russo wedding without alcohol was like a high mass without incense, it was unthinkable. Since my father owned a tavern on the corner of Lewis and Commercial Streets, he sent two of his pals, Mahoney and Shamricky, back to the bar room to bring several cases of liquor to the hotel. He rented a room upstairs, duked the hotel manager and made Sham the bartender. A full-service bar was set up in no time at all and the wedding was saved.
I soon learned that Boston Irish Catholic culture was very different from the way I grew up in the North End. When I began dating my future wife I entered a strange new world of lace curtains, blue eyes, and roast beef on Sunday afternoons. The food was, of course, dreadful. Meat cooked until it turned grey, boiled vegetables drenched in butter and dead silence at every meal. Weird stuff, but the thing I found the oddest was their weekend ritual of going shopping for things like major appliances and TV sets.
Since my in-laws didn’t own a car I regularly drove them to dreadful suburban malls where they would pay the full retail price for expensive items. This was a completely foreign concept to me and it made no sense at all. Like all other North End ladies, my mother shopped for food and small household items every day. Fruit and vegetables at Rosario’s, meat at Andy’s on Richmond St. and groceries at Salumaria Italiana or Johnny Gaeta’s on Salem St., but everything else just magically appeared.
In the years right after World War II Boston had a working waterfront and my father’s bar room had a bunch of interesting customers. Fishermen, longshoremen, market men and all kinds of shady characters hung out there. Spending time in the tavern was better than a college education. Along with the loan sharks and bookies, there were guys there who could get anything you wanted. If my mother needed a washing machine my father would send out the word and a few days later one would appear. Sofas, dining room sets, cashmere topcoats, suits, cases of Dinty Moore beef stew, whatever you wanted was obtainable.
Every couple of weeks Frankie the Racketeer would cruise by selling something like razor blades, camera film, or cigarette lighters. Frankie’s wife used to tease him and say he was the only racketeer she knew who didn’t have a racket. Once Jazz Bow came in selling Florsheim shoes, but when the guys tried them on they were all for left feet. Everyone got a lot of laughs out of that. There was even a guy selling slightly used Cadillacs for $1,500. One local funeral home bought two of them. To me, this was the way normal people lived.
The first year I was married we were living in a fourth floor walk up on North Street. It was a small apartment, but it had an inside bathroom and shower. We needed a TV set and Sony had just introduced a small portable color set called a Trinitron that would fit perfectly into a book case, but that cost several hundred dollars. Lechemere Sales had them for about $600, over a month’s pay for my wife who was a Boston school teacher. We were paying my school tuition and couldn’t afford such an extravagance, so I did the sensible thing and went to my father’s tavern. He was in the kitchen cooking fish cakes for the guys and I said, “Pa I need something” He stopped, wiped his hands and said, “Sure, tell me what it is. Whatever you want, we’ll get. What is it”? “Well”, I said, “we need a TV set.” “No problem” my father responded, “We’ll have one here by the end of the week”. “No” I said, “It’s a little more complicated that that. My wife wants me to buy a Japanese TV set at a department store and..”
He wouldn’t let me finish the sentence. He stopped, picked up the big spatula he was using, pointed it at my chest and said, “Are you soft? Who buys TV sets?” Then he thought about it a bit more and said, “I’ll tell you who buys TV sets, suckers buy TV sets, that’s who and no son of mine will ever buy a TV set as long as I’m alive. I’ll get you whatever you want, Motorola, Philco, GE, whatever it is it’ll be here by Friday. Forget about that Japanese crap. We’ll get you a real TV set.” He turned back to his cooking and I knew the meeting was over. I could tell by the look on his face that I had disappointed him and was becoming a different person. That’s the day I realized my old way of life was over.
We never got the Sony Trinitron. I resigned myself to becoming a legitimate, middle class American and began grudgingly buying things in stores. But every time I write a check or charge something on a credit card, I think back to those halcyon days in Nick’s Tavern when anything you wanted was available if you knew the right people. It was a wonderful way of life.
When my father died he was waked out at his brother’s place in Medford. As I was standing in front of the coffin my aunt Wanda came over, offered condolences, and gave me a hug. Looking at the rosary beads in my father’s hands she shook her head and said, “This isn’t right.” I didn’t understand what she meant. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Look, Nicky” Wanda replied, “A Dello Russo is born with a deck of cards in one hand and a bottle of whisky in the other. Don’t you think your father should go out the way he came in?” And I had to admit, aunt Wanda had a good point.
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.