“It was a glorious time.”
“Where are you going?”
“No place, ma…I’m just going to the club.”
During the 30s and 40s and on through the decades of the 50s and 60s, Taylor Street had clusters of Social Athletic Clubs (S.A.C.s). Growing up in Little Italy you were identified as a member of one of these clubs as much as you were identified with the school you attended or the street you lived on. Like fiefdoms, they were spread throughout Taylor Street’s “Little Italy”…from Halsted Street on the eastern boundary of Little Italy to Western Avenue bordering its outer fringes. Clubs that proliferated our neighborhood bore names such as the Cecilia Boosters’ S.A.C., the Morgan Fads’ S.A.C., the Vernon Park S.A.C., the Survivors’ S.A.C., and a host of others too numerous to mention here. The clubs (licensed as a type of neighborhood social center) were actually pool rooms. The social gathering of men, ages 15 (and oftentimes younger) through retirement age, had more to do with gambling than any social events. The athletic events were limited to shooting pool, tossing a pair of dice or shuffling a deck of cards. Most of our organized sports activities took place elsewhere–at the CYO, the Duncan Y, Sheridan Park, or Hull House. Of course there was also Cinder Stadium and Dante school yard with their one dimensional, straight center field, softball fields.
Today there exists, within the eastern vestiges of what remains of Taylor Street’s Little Italy, three “clubs.” Barely 25% of their members still reside in “the neighborhood.” The remaining 75% reside outside the neighborhood. Most, if not all of these men who return to the old neighborhood to be with their boyhood friends, are retired. Some make daily pilgrimages to the “old neighborhood” to spend a few hours with their friends each day. As predictable as the migratory habits of the Alaskan caribou, virtually all of those former residents are part of the weekend migration that returns to Taylor Street’s Little Italy. The “locals” (those still residing in the neighborhood), typically are daily visitors to the clubs.
Visit one of these clubs, specifically the Blue Boy’s Club at Polk and Aberdeen, on a Friday evening and the aroma of the traditional southern Italian dishes will fill your nostrils. The men use this opportunity to practice (and sometimes show off) the culinary skills they acquired from their mothers. At the Blue Boys’ Club, you can always find a pot of pasta fasule on the stove. The aroma of freshly cooked home made pizza (and all of the childhood memories it conjures up) may also be present on any particular day. Among the several culinary artists who are members of the Blue Boys’ club is Johnnie Parise, the youngest of the Parise boys raised by Nick and Mildred Parise who emigrated from St Cartran, Sicily, along with a multitude of others who had also emigrated from the shores of Southern Italy at the turn of the century. The Parises chose to settle on Des Plaines and Arthington Streets to raise their family. I mention Johnnie Boy’s name because he is recognized as the unofficial president and caretaker of the club. The club, priding itself on the culinary skills of its members, has a roster of chefs ranging from auxillary chefs on through to the executive chef. They include Marnell, Freddie, Horse, the Bad Vince, Duffy (he mostly collects the money), and whoever decides they want to give a demonstration on “real” Italian cooking. Stop by! Whether you were Taylor Street bred or not, you will, as part of the southern Italian tradition, be treated as an honored guest.
Card playing also serves as a staple catalyst that brings together the competitive juices that once defined Taylor Street’s young men. If you listen carefully, you may hear words that applied only to card games that are rooted in our Italian ancestry–card games such as briscola and scopa. If you’re observant enough, you may see some games, steeped in Italian tradition, being played where they not only deal from the bottom of the deck but also deal the cards out counter-clockwise. The number game (mora) is also a staple when a major function is sponsored by a club. However, it’s played mostly by youngsters (2nd and 3rd generation Italian Americans) at those reunions. The old timers seem content to simply watch and recount stories of the “old days.”
We never knew how good we were as card players until we were old enough to venture out of our neighborhood. One club, the Morgan Fads S.A.C., produced 2 international champion gin rummy players plus a third contestant that came within a whisker from making it 3 out of 3 for the Morgan Fads. Imagine, in the whole world, one little known inconspicuous club harbored, arguably, the best gin rummy players on the planet. Jerry “Bugsy” Piscatello won the first Las Vegas International championship. Almost back-to-back, Eddie “Steady Eddy” Giampa also won the international championship. And Joe “Hammer” Delassandro barely missed winning a third championship (7th place). All three were from Taylor Street. All three were from just one of the numerous clubs that saturated our neighborhood. All three were first generation Italian Americans. It seems that we, as the prologue to the Taylor Street Archives attests, did “excel in virtually everything the larger society had ordained for us…from digging sewers to enterprises in which only the most talented and courageous could excel.”
One afterthought that I must record in these archives for posterity: During a Friday night poker session at the Morgan Fads Club, we experienced what statistically was a billion to one shot. All eight players, in a poker game of seven card stud, face down, were dealt three of a kind. Needless to say, the betting was ferocious and all the players stayed in until the last card. There were not enough cards to give all eight players a seventh card so a spit card (community card) the queen of spades, was turned over as the seventh and final card. All eight players wound up with a pat hand (full house or better). The winning hand, four queens, was held by Nicky “the rabbit” Balice…beating out aces full, kings full, four jacks, four deuces, etc. A billion to one shot!
It was a glorious time and we, indeed, were a special breed!