Tag Archives: Boston

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?





© 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.







The floor was bare wood under her summer shoes. There were no rugs. People, clocking and clunking up and down the steep stairs with their heavy feet, then around the corners, the tallest men tipping their heads to pass through the small rooms and narrow doorways all making her feel as though everybody there knew each other like family.

She was five, now. Being small and just five made moving around in the Old North Church with so many tall people, and smelling the real bare wood, wildly exciting.

They stepped out into the street in the bright sun, squinting ’til their eyes almost shut. Mum wore her hand-made cotton white print dirndl skirt, the flat black cotton shoes with the tiny turquoise stars on them, a sleeveless blouse, and clip-on sunglasses over her real ones. Mum had made her two new sunsuits, and she wore the pink one today. Daddy, who always wore a hat, had his straw brown one on with the light blue ribbon, a plaid short sleeved shirt, his favorite slacks, a brown belt, change in his pocket, and his walking shoes on. They held hands with Daddy to get to the house across the street, bending their heads to follow everybody else inside.

She could just reach the soft velveteen tubes draped between the posts that circled a man seated at a strange round table that moved under his feet. Her little fingers loved the feel of the smooth fabric wrapped around the firmness beneath, and she could just reach all the way around if she used her thumbs, though mum said she mustn’t. Her eyes fixed on the man seated at the round, spinning table as he threw a wet, grey mound onto the center of the part that moved. When it jumped off, he tried another. She watched as he squeezed his smooth, long hands around its middle, making it turn into mum’s leg and then mum’s waist, and then, like magic, his fingers forming a perfect circle rim and turning a tiny spout like Mammy’s English teapot. Mum said: “oh! my…lookit thayat!” All the tall people around her breathed out at the same time as they recognized what they now saw. She looked up at everybody, looking at each other, smiling and nodding.

There were wooden chairs, and wooden buffets against the wall with plates and pots and cups on them, and embroidered doilies like Great Gramma Learn made in her rocking chair back at Mammy’s house. There was a fireplace, too, with shiny cans the color of a Lincoln penny sitting nearby. And, she thought she saw, up on the wooden wall, resting on hooks, guns as long as a clothes pole, black and heavy looking. Paul Revere had lived here, a long, long time ago, Daddy said, and this was his house.

After lunch that Mum packed, Dagwood sandwiches and cold milk, off they went down toward the water. There was no grass under her feet, but bricks, each one a little bit different than the next. She kept her eyes on the ground, away from the squinting sun, hopping onto the next favorite brick each step. Daddy whistled and hummed: “lol, lol, lol; LOL lah – lol…..” Mum smiled under her sunglasses. In the distance behind them, the bell bonged its tune from the Old North Church. She stopped, and swung from Mum and Daddy’s hands, lifting her bare legs up all the way off the ground.

It was during that big swing that she saw it. The biggest boat in the whole world. A ship, Daddy called it. Not a rocket ship, but a boat almost the size of one. They got in line behind the tall people, and up the ramp they went, with the water lapping in the sun under their feet.

The boat was a huge sailboat, and the sails on it whipped as loud as Mammy’s awnings on the front porch when a storm was coming. There were ropes as prickly as Pappy’s arms, twisted like Mighty Fine donuts but as long as a whole block on Perry Street. Men with straight backs walked on the ship, taking long slow steps, wearing dark blue coats with shiny buttons down the front of them and cornered hats like she had never seen. And, the floor was bare wood under their buckled shoes.

*   *   *   *   *

Daddy was bon heah, he said. He was a little boy from Boston. He never knew his mum, or his father. His Uncle Gabriel would let him visit once in awhile. “Wall-yo! Come uppa downstauhs an’ bring a peecha wine!” Hah, hahhhh! Daddy laughed. Mum looked at Daddy. They smiled, and were quiet.

Then, they got in the car, and headed to Aunt Frances and Uncle Al’s house in Springfield. The house was grey, and the whole porch was made of the same grey wood. The wood moved under their feet as they crossed to the front door. Inside, Uncle Al was tall and silent, and Aunt Frances ran to the door, rocking from foot to foot as she stretched out her arms to pull everybody close.

Aunt Frances was dark, like Daddy, and funny. Her fingers were long, and she touched everyone’s faces with her hands. Uncle Al stood, next to the refrigerator, looking out from his twinkling eyes while Aunt Frances stirred the ziti in the big pot. Ziti was different from the rigatoni Daddy liked for suppah, and Aunt Frances had meat in her sauce.

She clamored up to watch the ziti simmer in the pot. Aunt Frances took her into her lap, to hug her and smooth her hair and give her a little taste of ziti. Uncle Al wanted to show everyone a trick. Eyes closed. Eyes open, and a piece of candy in his hands appeared. She saw that Uncle Al was missing the first part of his middle finger. She asked Uncle Al what happened to his finger. He said that he played clarinet in Artie Shaw’s band, but his finger got caught in a machine at the shop, and he had to stop playing clarinet. So, now, he did magic tricks. And, his eyes twinkled when he said it.

*   *   *   *   *   *  *

They were in Boston for five days that summer. This was the first and last time. The only vacation the family ever took together that she could remember. Aunt Frances would come to visit seven years later, and one more time until she and Uncle Al moved to Fort Lauderdale. They never saw The Walter E. Fernald School where Daddy grew up, or Mrs. Bracchi’s house where Aunt Frances had lived, or Uncle Tom’s, either. But, they’d been to Boston. And, now they knew.

They knew how to make ziti with meat sauce. They knew the smell of real wood, that the streets could be made of brick, and that some peoples’ houses could live longer than the people in them. They knew how teapots were made, and where the biggest ships sailed. And, she knew where her Daddy had come from.

*   *   *   *   *   *

Many years later, she went back to Boston. Once, with her then-husband, and again by way of Harvard Square.

But, her father still calls her, from the depths of his childhood. She feels his hands on her face, and she wants so to answer.





© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

3/3/15  all rights reserved. Not yah story, not yah right.