Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
Looking back as far back as I can remember I always visualize an older woman from my Northside neighborhood sweeping the sidewalk. Of course as a youngster this seemed like a meaningless activity and a waste of time. Grandmothers of either German or Italian origin seemed to be the key participants in the realm of sidewalk sweeping. For a kid who wasn’t paying attention the grandmothers were difficult to understand. They seemed more comfortable speaking in their native language. Adding to the confusion was how the broom became a tool for communication. I guess if the words didn’t get through the shaking and pointing of the broom did the trick.
We lived in a two family home at the top of the hill on Mary Street. In the warmer weather I would ride my bike sometimes on the sidewalk, sometimes in the street. My mom wanted me to ride on the sidewalk because she was afraid I’d be hit by a car. However, whenever I started coasting down the hill in either direction and I saw a grandmother sweeping the sidewalk, I used the street, hoping to avoid conflict and the broom.
Sammy Geiss was a friend and he lived just down the street. On this particular warm summer day I remember his grandmother out sweeping the sidewalk. As I pedaled my Huffy up to cruising speed I decided this was a day to use the street. Coasting downhill with no hands on the handle bar I unwrapped a piece of gum and without thinking flung the wrapper in the street, right in front of Sammy’s grandmother. I was on my way to the Cozy Retreat to pick up a new pack of baseball cards to add to my collection.
The Cozy Retreat was a soda fountain hangout for what I perceived to be the cool kids from North High School. Greased back hair, white T-shirt worn backwards and blue jeans epitomized the style of the day. But I was more interested in who was the better center fielder of the season, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. I never gave the bubble gum wrapper lying in the street in front of Sammy’s house another thought. I bought a new pack of baseball cards and found neither Willie Mays nor Mickey Mantle in the group. After listening to one of the high schools kids go on and on about Willie Mays basket catch, and leading the National league in triples and I decided to head back home.
Cruising along once again with no hands on the handle bar I made the mistake of riding up the sidewalk on Mary Street. I had completely forgotten about the bubble gum wrapper. Suddenly, Sammy’s Grandmother appeared wielding her broom like a lacrosse defenseman, first slap checking, and then crosschecking my advance up the sidewalk. I slammed on my brakes and almost lost control of my bike. “I know your father, Joey Russo!” she said in an ominous and threatening way. She extended her broom and pointed to a piece of paper in the street with one hand and held the handle bar of my bike with the other hand. “Remember this?” She said firmly. “Nooo” was my reply. “You remember” she emphasized with the shake of her broom, “now pick it up!” I knew if I didn’t pick it up she would be waiting for my father when he got home from work. At the time it seemed unreasonable but looking back from today’s perspective wouldn’t it be nice if current Northside residents took neighborhood cleanup as seriously as the old timers did.
Back then, I picked up the bubble gum wrapper to avoid the wrath of father. On April 12th I’ll be back on the Northside picking up papers and sweeping sidewalks for a different reason. The ‘Cuse Clean Up brings back the spirit and pride of the old Northside. Yes, things have changed and they will never be as they once were, people are fond of saying. But on Saturday April 12th if you see a gray bearded grandfatherly man with a broom and a bunch of kids on North Salina Street picking up trash, it just might be the “old times” once again.