Category Archives: family history

QUESTIONING The ANSWER: How to Get Labeled the “Troublemaker” in Your Own Hometown.

 

Anybody who was born in Erie, Pennsylvania within the past century knows.

This town has an unspoken history.

What has appeared in print, alternately surreptitiously or boldly depending on the relative acceptance of the author’s credibility, has alluded more than once to what everybody has always known: this was a Mafia “mob town”.

Back when Italians and Irish were the dominant first generation immigrant population, the “connected” families were well established. One of them led the city’s government for decades. These were the days of scenes from The Godfather movies; small business fronts, numbers runners, clubs, and neighborhood networks all set up to keep everything smoothly under control.

Into this picture, my Italian father appeared as a displaced citizen. A Bostonian ward of Massachusetts, he’d found himself here by way of a night train and a native Erieite who would become his wife, twice – the first time, in 1944, and again in 1955. Having graduated from barber school after WWII, he would set up his first shop on what, in those days, was the center of the East side: Parade Street. A decade later, he would move to purchase a cement block building on the corner of East 5th & Wallace Streets, and serve a regular clientele of Russian and Polish immigrants as well as city officials for 44 years.

I can remember Dad speaking about the BB gun holes in his plate glass windows on 5th. He and Mum would discuss them, in front of my brothers and me; these were Union people, harassing him to join and follow all their rules for price fixing. I cannot remember when the BB gun holes ceased, but something happened to end them because, once they stopped, they never appeared again. The city officials, however, continued as loyal customers until their deaths by natural causes. Many a final haircut would Dad give, to each of them, in their hospital beds at Hamot, St. Vincent, and over at the Vet’s.

A dear widow and long time Erie resident told me her take on the city, recently. Her late husband was beloved, and well known. And, as secretary to an attorney’s office, she knew who all the racketeers were, by name. She said that, back then, there was no crime in Erie; the mob saw to it that the streets were clean.

Nowadays, Erie is in transition from being an industrial mecca to a vacation resort, and shows promise. But, socially, vestiges of its history can be found in a continually manifesting tribalism. Because, geographically, the city is set on the water’s edge of Lake Erie its flat terrain is laid out in the “Philadelphia grid” style of endless, square city blocks. Consequently, there is nothing to distinguish one neighborhood from another except immediate, unspoken boundaries of ghetto; those living in poverty can be found one square block away from the wealthy, investing elite who own historic villas converted into office space and executive rentals just down the street from City Hall.

So, these tribes of peoples, set apart by closely juxtaposed neighborhoods from Glenwood Heights to the upper lakefront blight, still function in parallel proximity. Even as each nationality represented continues to celebrate its heritage in the multiple summer ethnic festivals, one problem persists: Social segregation. Now, who is in control?

And, that is the first question.

In Erie, as in these United States, every citizen is free to ask that first question. Ask any question, once.

The answer given is expected to be accepted.

But, what if the answer, often the official position on any topic, isn’t acceptable?

What if there is a problem with its content?

I have always been the inquisitive child. If Why? is the question, I will be the first to ask it. Unfortunately, though an established professional in my own right, I am merely the barber’s daughter. Who will give me the straight, factually accurate response? Do I need to know it?

In Erie, you can ask; but, you cannot ask, again. If you challenge the answer you are given, what happens to you is swift and inescapable: you are labeled the “troublemaker”.

And, once branded, you had better retreat into the shadows and stay away. Control is everything to those grasping after it and, in a town where the history was all about leaving well enough alone, if you wonder you are to do so in solitude; if you doubt, you are to keep quiet; if you disbelieve, keep your religion to yourself.

To what end can we know how Erie, Pennsylvania will survive those who do?

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© 6/12/19   Ruth Ann Scanzillo.  Born at Hamot; raised on the East side; educated in the public schools; taxpaying homeowner on the West side; lifetime Erieite. God Bless Our Home, and all who dwell within it. Thank you for your respect.

littlebarefeetblog.com

 

 

“Thank You, Very Much.”

She was shorter than I, with soiled, shoulder length salt and pepper hair and a walking tripod cane. I recognized this cane, as Dad would use one in his final years while living with me. Because her head was lowered slightly, I couldn’t determine the woman’s relative age; but able to, on account of my relative height, I reached above her to hold the door open to enable her to navigate into the lobby of the South Erie Postal Station.
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Silently, she preceded me.
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Taking those few steps required to reach the service window enclosure, again there was a door and again, as she reached forward, I took ahold and held it for her so she could get through with her cane.
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Again, she remained silent, not looking back in my direction.
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As we waited in line, she having stepped past both me and the others utilizing the materials island to prepare our packages for mailing, I silently observed her. Perhaps she was a “deaf mute”, the term my father had always used for one of his neighbors across from the barber shop on 5th. Or, maybe a first generation immigrant, preferring not to speak unless she could converse in her native tongue. These speculations, I decided, would explain her silence.
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Having completed the woman’s transaction, the postal worker wished her a good day. At that point the woman turned left, preparing to make her exit. In so doing, she spoke. Clearly, and distinctly, in perfect English:
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“Thank you, very much!”
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I watched her, moving slowly with her cane, to the door and out of the station. Checking an impulse to break from the line and follow her, I thought better of it, considering the number of tasks awaiting me at home.
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But, I wanted to follow her. I wanted to catch up, and speak to her. I wanted to ask her, to confront her. Why had she not thanked me, even once, for holding the door for her?
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What was it – my dark hair? my sunglasses? my yellow raincoat? The jeans. All my colors. My complexion? my bone structure? my ethnicity?
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Was it some vestige of either fear, or repugnance, she felt at the sight of me?
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Perhaps she’d preferred to make her own way through the doors, without any assistance at all. Was my gesture interpreted as condescending, or some unnecessary spotlight on her apparent infirmity?
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Some fleeting recollection of childhood spun across my subconscious. I was the only brown girl, in a legion of Anglo-Saxons. Always complimented for my “beautiful skin”, by our grandmother, for a moment I was that girl again, the one different from everybody else in the family. Then, fast forward, to Customs in the Toronto airport, 1984. My curly perm, and the cans in my carry on from the Scottish butcher shop; detained, interrogated and then, me, running with all my might to get to the gate before the plane closed its doors.
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I left the post office, walking through the doors of my own accord and out into the sun. I didn’t want to feel hatred, only wonder, and a little sadness.
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She was gone. Still, I heard my voice speak to the woman, declaring my self, my family history, reveling in the clarity of my perfect English. I, too, was a woman, my father’s daughter, and proud, thank you very much.
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5/31/19    Ruth Ann Scanzillo.     All rights those of the author, whose story it is, and whose real, Biblical, birth name appears above this line.
littlebarefeetblog.com

The Kiss.

 

I swooned with everyone else.

Not only was he tall, strong, and handsome, Cuomo was fresh, well rested, adroit, and the picture of health. A shrewd contrast to Maddow’s incisive, rapid fire analysis, this broadcasting commentator offered a more streamlined, to the point style which appealed not exclusively to heterosexual females but to everyone on the go seeking a solid, bottom line summary of the day’s political events. The package was just the icing on the beefcake.

Frankly, tuning in was already old to me; I’d been a daily news viewer for years. Perhaps growing up in a fundamentalist sect affected my latent thirst for up to the minute real time check ins on world realities. Who knew? For the past decade following the ticker had become my thing, and what better way to finish off the day than with a face which harkened to my own beloved? It’s true; both Cuomo and my significant other are genetically similar, bearing the wide, toothy grin and broadly open eyes of either Calabria or Campania, though mine a decade or so ahead in age and, okay, we Dagos like to keep it in the family. Besides, being on call in a hospital keeps my own absent on most evenings. But, you aren’t convinced.

So, it was time. Time for the latest heartthrob of the astute and vigilant to visit Colbert Nation.

He wouldn’t have been the first. AC had already been, as had his own late night comrade, D Lemon. But, he would be a first, and inimitably so. Chris Cuomo would bring his winsome charm all the way to the mats.

They’d made it nearly to the end of predicted reparte, “getting after it” for a solid twelve. Can we even remember how it came next? No. We can’t. But, we won’t forget it, either.

Somebody challenged somebody to the floor. Who could do 100 push ups?

The ties came off. The cuffs came up.

It was brain to brawn, lean to clean, waddaya mean. Counting aloud, the audience held their collective breath.

Then, just past 40-something, the inexplicable happened. The five second delay kicked in, and the frame froze. No amount of rewind could retrieve it; the outcome was lost. Cable rarely gave out, not nearly as often as dish, but it would be the next day, on the Tube, that we’d see why.

The host had been the first to give, well, because he was the host. Collapsing to the floor, Colbert curled almost fetal, closed his eyes, and smiled like a baby in a bassinet.

Then, Mario’s youngest did what all good Italian boys do. He laughed, crawled over on top of Colbert like a puppy in a litter, hugged him, and kissed him on his face.

Did the tape stop, on purpose? Was there a mad dash to edit?

Now, it might only be the Italian Americans who will have understood. We claim no corner on the market of affection, but we do hold this court. And, I’m betting that even the most stoic Swede in Minnesota felt it, right where open meets honest and fake is the joke, right?

That’s right. It’s all there, in the heart of everyone with a will and a brother.

Swoon on.

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© 5/29/19   Ruth Ann Scanzillo.   Thanks for the read, and the respect. Be well.

littlebarefeetblog.com