Within weeks of each other, Little Italy's two oldest "Mr. Johns" died. First, John Pente, the 100-year-old King of the Open Air Summer Film festival, followed last week by equally colorful John Trovato. Mr. Trovato — regularly signaled out by the Duck Tour operators as "Baltimore's own John Travolta" — had possessed a 1960s-era, Crayola-blue Ford Falcon until it became a junker held together by blue duct tape. Known for collecting aluminum cans and for attending every Happy Hour in every bar from the Inner Harbor to Little Italy for free eats, Mr. Trovato also crooned his favorite tune, "Paper Moon," along with the band at Della Notte's on Friday nights. The absences of both Mr. Johns mark the end of an era characterizing Little Italy as an insular ethnic enclave.
Like the two Mr. Johns, many residents still live much of their lives in the same dozen or so square blocks that have been known as Little Italy since the late 1800s. Yet, the neighborhood of the elders' youths, the one of mine, and that of my children represent different places.
At its inception, the neighborhood shared a dual identity; a church sat on Exeter toward the east and a shul on the same street, one block west. At that time boys wore knicker pants, suspenders and button-down shoes and worked as shabbas goys for Jewish families. They shot marbles in cobblestone streets, scavenged for wood slats at Duker's Lumbar Yard and played on freight train tracks, listening for the brakeman to blow their horns warning that the train was coming.
Horses pulled the milk wagon, clopping along the cobblestoned streets, empty milk bottles rattling. And by age 13, children worked, selling fruit off carts — bananas for 5 cents a dozen, lemons and oranges for 10 or 15 cents a dozen, then considered exorbitant. Farmers drove trucks to market, puttering by in Model Ts bursting with corn, and children carried the loaves of dough their mothers had made to the bakery where it would cost a penny per loaf to bake them.
Children rooted for treasures like an old, broken down and rusty horse troughs that their fathers would repair into usable bathtubs, placed in the kitchen where they'd bathe, all in the same water, saving 10 cents each at the nearby bathhouse.
One of my neighbors recalls a family story of her uncle as a child chasing a loose turkey from Lombard Street's merchant area to Patterson Park because the store owner told him if he could catch it, he could keep it. "My uncle caught that turkey, tied a rope around its neck and walked it all the way home because that turkey meant a couple of days worth of food," she says.
Italian immigrants who'd first settled the area worked as ditch diggers, railroad workers, cooks and laborers in hospitals, the construction and garment industries, and in factories, often 10 or more hours a day for no more than $1.50. By the time my generation arrived, the same work ethic applied to professions such as lawyers, physicians, engineers, bankers and entrepreneurs.
Wrought iron coal hole doors and decorative pieces used to wipe horse dung from one's shoes at the foot of stoops still serve as reminders of the days when the two Mr. Johns were youngsters, while remnants from my own youth have vanished: Street lamps painted Italian-flag red, white and green had stood like sentinels over fire hydrants painted to look like miniature policeman, priests and chefs, all sporting amazing curled moustaches under their painted caps.
Gone is the August rush for muscatel grapes that would bring clouds of gnats and September's sweet aroma of fermenting wine. Gone are the elementary school, the pharmacy, Mrs. Julia Poggi's piano studio, and the sole funeral parlor — one of the few Baltimore establishments that held Gypsy funerals. Gone is Lopresti's Butcher Shop, where slaughtered animals hung outside on a hook as a form of advertisement, and Bepo's confectionary store that sold only bread, stale candy and tobacco but which conducted a brisk trade in off-track betting. Gone are the two playgrounds where neighborhood children congregated and complained about having nothing fun to do.
Growing up in the insular, often oppressive confines of "da neighborhood" meant forced transparency and conformity, a boon for parents and a bane for teenagers. At 13, some friends and I gathered on the funeral parlor steps to smoke cigarettes, opening new packs of Salems, Luckys and Malboros spirited from the stashes of smoker parents, passing them around like biscotti. Thinking we'd found a safe spot, we puffed cigarettes on the broad stoop with its faux-elegant red carpeted steps, innocent of the fact that we were already in deep trouble.
As the generation of the two Mr. Johns slowly exits, the neighborhood is shucking off its reputation as an ethnic conclave. At this point, Little Italy remains a fish bowl: Everyone knows everyone, their relatives, their children, their heartaches, their triumphs and tragedies, foibles, strengths and business. And like the two now-late Mr. Johns, many, including myself, probably won't leave until we die, after which our assimilated children, with less tying them to the area, will create their own American dreams somewhere else.