IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS WAR
IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS WAR
Most large east coast cities like Portland, Maine, have a Little Italy section. They are mixtures of many ethnic groups, but mainly monopolized by Italians. A small minority of these Italians are gangsters. This is where I grew up, along with my mixed ethnic friends.
As young children we did not see race, color or religion, we saw ourselves as friends, living safely in a protected neighborhood. All the parents looked out for each other’s children, and the gangsters looked out for the entire neighborhood.
Two square miles of a self-contained miniature state within a state. Every conceivable item, from groceries to doctor or lawyer existed here. We had no need to leave the neighborhood for anything, and there was no reason for outsiders to come into our space, except for specialty food items, and catch the boat to the islands, and usually before nightfall.
This was not a law of the neighborhood, but the streets could be unsafe at night for strangers. We had our share of delinquents, most of whom had a curfew imposed by the neighborhood and the city.
About all the local police had to do was put out parking tickets and collect little rewards from the fruit stands and cafes. Some of the higher-ranking police, collected presents from a few business owners, including my own father. I had occasion to deal with some of these crooked cops years later, when I became a businessman. By then, there were only a few of these cops not retired yet, and I was not as easy to deal with; as was my father.
The United States became involved in World War two in 1939. My life during World War II was not much different from any other kid in the neighborhood. We kids knew there was a war going on because of the news on the radio, the movies, and Portland’s harbor was full of battleships, destroyers and aircraft carriers. Add about fifty thousand navy men, a new shipyard, air raid wardens, blackout curtains, and air raid siren practice. I guess I was about 9 years old when it started. One did not have to be too bright to figure it was not a game.
We lived in a roach and rat infested cold water flat across from the bar my father owned. We were two blocks from the state pier, and the waterfront. When the sailors came ashore by the hundreds, all you saw was a sea of white hats climbing the cobble stoned hill of Franklin Street, right into the heart of Little Italy, my father’s beer bar, Peter’s Café, and Sam Punsky’s, Franklin Pharmacy, with its soda fountain, and one of the hangouts for some of the Wise Guys. Their regular place for gambling and drinking was the “Banana Club”, a member only meeting spot a block up Middle Street from the drugstore.
With the arrival of the navy; my father and Sam Punsky hit the jackpot, as did many of the other merchants in Portland. The shipyards converted from the building of fishing boats to warships. It was the age of the Great Depression, and people came from all over the state for the new jobs, and high salaries paid by the new war industry.
My mother told me that my father was so lucky, if he fell into a pile of shit, he would come out covered with gold. She also told me the old saying, “You took after the one you were named after”. He was Pietro, a semi-retired gangster of the Prohibition era, and I was Peter, a gangster wannabe. It gave me hope for the future. My two brothers were named after our grandfathers, both had been honest workingmen. Fred and John became successful government employees, and I followed in my father’s footsteps, and as I grew older I passed him.
Everyone in town complained about the war, the trouble the sailors made, but they sure loved all the money it put into their pockets. The local bars, weekend bootleggers and a house of prostitution made most of the money from the navy. Only the house of prostitution was owned by a non-resident of our neighborhood. It was owned by a lady from Boston, whose sons operated an import outlet of exotic foods for the upper classes of the city. To my knowledge the grandchildren of this lady still operate that store in the old neighborhood
By 1943 my father’s business was so good he expanded into the adjoining empty store. He had hired three new waitresses in addition to Florence, who had been with him since he first bought the bar from Tanno Leo, in 1939 for $750.00, which he borrowed from his sister Katie in Brooklyn, NY.
For us children, every day of the week except Saturday and Sunday was the same. By the time we awoke, for breakfast and got ready for school, our father had already gone across the street to his bar. Our mother cleaned her house and prepared supper, and after we got home from school, and were fed, she joined our father at the bar until it closed at midnight
My father opened the bar at six o’clock every morning and closed at midnight, every day of the week except Sunday. Sunday was the day the bar got a complete cleaning. He did this himself, with the help of my older brother Fred, always after we boys went to Mass, and sometimes with me if Fred had a school game. I don’t know what he paid Fred, but I got to keep all the change I found under the tables, usually a few dollar bills and lots of loose coins.
My father sold Italian spaghetti with meatballs, and sandwiches. A glass of beer was only ten cents, but with a packed bar of thirsty and hungry sailors, merchant seaman and shipyard workers eighteen hours a day, six days a week, I still haven’t figured out where our parents got the energy to run a business and still take care of three growing boys.
During the war there was a city curfew at 9:00 PM for kids under eighteen. My father had his own curfew for his boys, and the cop on the beat enforced it if he saw us out after 7:30 PM.
My parents became second parents to many of the young sailors who were far away from their homes. Some of these young men were stationed on the “U.S. Eagle”, and were never to leave the Portland harbor. A German submarine, later captured a few miles up the Maine coast, torpedoed “The Eagle” killing many of these young men. Many of these young men called my parents mom and dad. To my parents it was if they had lost some of their very own children.
The war went on and we began to get used to the Air Raid Wardens, blackout curtains closed over our windows at night; hiding the lights within; headlights on cars half covered pointing their beams downward, and the testing of air raid sirens every night. We young children had a city curfew at 9:00 PM every night, but my father had a 7:30 PM curfew on his children. The apartment was directly across the street, but both parents were working, and needed to know we were safely indoors.
In the spring of 1944 it became obvious my mother was pregnant. She kept working with my father to the day she had to go to the hospital and give birth. My mother was a strong woman, who had helped her husband in his racketeer life, and had given birth to five children at home, previously, two by her first husband, so this was not new to her. My father had three boys, and wanted a girl, and that is exactly what my mother gave him on June 16, 1944.