Twenty years is a big chunk of a man’s life, no doubt about that. The day in 1955 when Billy DeChristoforo walked out of MCI Concord he swore he would never go back. The twenty best years of his life were gone. In 1935, the year he went in, the country was in the middle of the Depression, Prohibition had just ended, and WW II and Korea passed him by. His sister, Connie, picked him up at the prison and he was going to live with her in Malden until he got on his feet. Eddie, Connie’s husband, offered him a job at his gas station, but Billy wasn’t going to pump gas for a buck an hour. No, he had different plans. Real big plans.
When he returned to the North End most of his old crowd had dispersed. Many had seen action in the war and were now married, living in Medford or Somerville. A few were still living with their mothers in the North End and worked as waiters or bartenders in one of the restaurants. Small timers, he thought, losers who were stuck doing garbage work for short money and gambling their money away. His old friends started calling him Twenty Years and that name stuck to him.
His first stop was to the Genoa Cafe on Hanover Street, Henry’s hangout, though Henry was the reason Billy got sent away. Henry had asked Billy to try and collect some money he was owed from Louie Limone, Lemon Lou they called him. Billy had caught up with Lemon Lou in Sharky’s pool hall in the West End. When he told him to come up with the dough, Lemon Lou started jabbing Billy in the chest with his pool cue. The other guys who were watching the game started laughing and taunted Billy, but he had his brother’s gun in his pocket. Billy pulled it out to scare Louie, he never meant to kill him. Instead of backing down at the sight of the gun, Louie got even more aggressive and dared Billy to shoot him. “Go ahead” Lou said, “be a big man, shoot me”. The gun was only a .22 Beretta and Billy had never fired a gun before, but he fired the shot and Lemon Lou bled to death on the pool room floor.
The D.A. wanted to charge him with murder one, which meant a sit-down with Old Sparky in Charlestown, but Billy copped a plea for manslaughter and the judge gave him twenty years. Billy thought Henry owed him something and would make him whole, but when he asked him for a job and some cash to get started Henry laughed in his face.
“You didn’t go to jail for murder,” Henry said, “you went away for being stupid. I never told you to shoot the Limone kid, that was your doing, and I don’t want no morons working for me.”
Billy was humiliated. He served twenty years because of this guy and now he knew he was on his own. The next day he borrowed $50.00 from Eddie and bought a gun from some guy in the South End. It was a US Army issue .45, a pocket cannon.
Billy decided to become a shake-down artist. He went from store to store, up and down Hanover Street and the side streets, showing his gun and demanding weekly tribute. He wanted $20.00 a week from Nunzie the barber in North Square. Rosario, the fruit and vegetable guy was doing a good business, so Billy wanted $25.00 from him. When Sal, the butcher, refused Billy pistol-whipped him. Soon word got out and everyone else fell in line. In just two weeks Billy was collecting $250.00 a week in walking-around money. The merchants were upset. Not only did they have to pay off the local cops, but now Billy was shaking them down for even more money. This was crazy, they couldn’t afford it and something had to be done.
A few weeks later the shop owners had a meeting and decided to send Mario, who had a shoe store, to speak to Henry and ask for his help. Henry was the consigliere for the local mob, the guy who’s job was to settle beefs like this. Henry listened and sent his young associate, DeeDee, to speak to Billy. But that didn’t work. Henry demurred, he didn’t want to start a war, so he backed off. He didn’t want to call police attention to his craps game on Charter Street or the two restaurants where he was a silent partner.
A few weeks later, on a Saturday night, Henry had some high rollers shooting craps at his club. Salvie Maffeo was the stick boy and everyone was having a good time when a masked guy broke in and held up the game. He also stole wrist watches from the players and Henry had to make good for the cash and the watches. The damage was about $500 bucks. Word on the street implicated Billy.
The following Monday Henry called Mario to a meeting at the back table in the Genoa Cafe. “Come up with $1,500 from your friends and I’ll see what I can do to solve your problem.”
Mario collected the money and a few days later Henry called DeeDee aside and told him to pick up a guy at South Station on Saturday morning.
“His name is Mr. Rogers,” Henry said, “He’s taking the 10 o”clock train from Providence and he’ll be carrying a dark blue gym bag. Drop him off at my sister’s house on Bowdoin St. in Medford. The following day pick him up and take him to the Trailways terminal in Park Square. And DeeDee,” Henry added, “don’t make no small talk, mind your own business.”
DeeDee did what he was told, and when he dropped the guy off at the bus terminal on Sunday afternoon Mr. Rogers tucked a fifty dollar bill into DeeDee’s shirt pocket.
“Easiest grand I ever made, kid,” said Mr. Rogers as he got out of the car.
About a week later a motorcycle club was driving down the Lynn Marsh Road heading from Salem to the Ebb Tide lounge on Revere Beach Boulevard. Herb Reed and the Platters were playing and they wanted to catch the late show, hoping the Platters would sing their number one hit, The Great Pretender. The lead rider saw a bunch of sea gulls flying low around the dense reeds on the side of the road and pulled over to investigate.
When the cops arrived and the medical examiner had a chance to examine the body it turned out that Billy was shot once in the head at close range with a small-caliber handgun, probably a .22. There was one entrance wound near the temporal bone right above the right ear but no exit wound, a professional job. The killer held the gun to the victim’s head and the .22 had enough power to enter the skull at its thinnest point but not enough to exit. The bullet ricocheted around inside Billy’s skull, turning his brain to jelly. Billy died instantly. The funeral was held at St. Anthony’s in Revere but no one showed up.
Back in the North End, Henry got a haircut and shave at Nuncios’ and left him a generous tip. Sal pounded veal cutlets nice and thin with the flat end of his cleaver, just the way Mrs. Matarazzo liked them. Rosario, the greengrocer, slipped an extra ficodindia into Mrs. Repucci’s bag because they were her husband’s favorites. Old man Polcari was roasting coffee beans in his store on Salem Street, and over on Prince Street Detective Cashman pinched Blouser Mike for selling slugs (fake coins).
Life in the North End returned to normal.
(The events in this story are basically true. I had to take some liberties with the dialog and sequence to make a coherent narrative. Most of the names and some of the locations have been changed to protect the privacy of all those involved.)
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.