|My grandmother at the Bay of Naples, 1998.
In 2003, I had the luxury of spending a few days with my grandmother, Amelia Anita Crescenzo, and her brother (my great-uncle), Richard Perillo. I knew that the two of them had some great stories that I wanted to talk to them about, so I got out a TASCAM four-track recorder, set up a few boom mics in the living room, and interviewed them for an afternoon. I got about an hour’s worth of great material, and it is from this source that I put together a six minute track called “Banjo Plays While Still Runs.”
The transcription that follows is labeled ME for me, UR for my uncle, Rich Perillo, and GC for my grandmother, Amelia Crescenzo. The story they are recounting takes place in our hometown of Jeannette, Pennsylvania, during the days of prohibition. You can listen along, listen, or both.
Both my grandmother and my uncle are gone now; I wish I had thought of some more questions to ask.
ME: OK, well, let’s get to the mafia stories. I want to hear some mafia stories. You told me once that they called Jeannette “Little Chicago”?
ME: What was going on there?
UR: Well, all the bootleggers selling whiskey. They all stayed in Jeannette—lived in Jeannette—because the guys running the place, they were from Jeannette. And that’s the leaders, you know, the bootleg leaders. You bought their whiskey or sold their whiskey. They controlled the whole whiskey business.
ME: How did your father get involved in that?
GC: He was making it for himself, you know.
ME: Your dad was making his own moonshine?
GC: He was making moonshine at home, you know, a little still, what they called it, a still, and he’d make it himself, you know. But then there was a bootlegger, uh, Sticky. You remember Sticky?
GC: His name was Sticky. And I don’t know his real name. And he lived up on the hill, not too far away, and he was making it too, see? He was making moonshine. But he had to have a place to store it. So my dad had a big house, and the upstairs was all empty—it was all rooms. So he says to my dad, he says:
“How about if you rent me the upstairs?” he says. But he didn’t tell him what he wanted it for, you know.
And he said, “Sure, OK.” And then after he said okay he found out it was to put the moonshine. After you made the moonshine, they would take it and take it over to our house, you know. And all these barrels, you know, of moonshine–
ME: So you were growing up around all these barrels of moonshine?
GC: So I don’t know how many—there were several barrels—there were steps to go upstairs.
UR: Several barrels? There were plenty. Maybe around twenty of them.
GC: Well, there were quite a few, yeah.
UR: It was mash. You know.
GC: Because they’d make it, and that’s where they’d store them. And every time they needed the moonshine they’d take it and fix it somehow and then they’d sell it. You know, and there we have the surplus.
UR: He had the mash upstairs and they’d bring the mash down in buckets and they’d put it in the still and make moonshine. And they would sell it. And the rich people was the ones who was buying it. Not the small people. Then, even when whisky was legalized, they still bought that moonshine, they still liked the taste of the moonshine. That’s the well-to-do people. And how many times I delivered to them.
ME: Really? You delivered the moonshine?
UR: I was the youngest bootlegger in Pennsylvania, probably in the United States. I wasn’t fourteen years old yet.
ME: Wow. That’s some entrepreneurship right there. So how did he get caught? Tell us about how he got caught.
GC: They had an argument about something. You know, I don’t know, with the people downstairs, because there was a lot of people living in the house. They had different apartments. So, then they started talking and talking and so the police came…to raid them. And [the police] talked to my dad and said, “Do you have an apartment upstairs?”
He said, “Yeah.” He said, “But it’s rented.”
And he says, “Who lives up there?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I give them the house and they pay me the rent, and I don’t know nothing about it.”
ME: Which was a lie, right?
GC: And they said, “Well, we’ll see.” Because they already knew. And you could smell it—my goodness. There was a ditch in our yard that a lot of water would come from the hill and come across the road and into the ditch, you know, and come into our yard, and you could smell it. And you could even see the mash, you know. And everybody knew. And nobody said anything, you know.
And so they said, “Well, we’re going to find out. You know their name?”
He says, “No. All they do—they pay me the rent and I don’t bother with them at all. They’re nice people.”
And he says, “Well, we’ll find out.”
And they came with picks and whatever, and they broke the door down to get in from the outside, and they went upstairs and they could see all those barrels.
Well, they’d bring the barrels close to the steps and they’d bust them—they were wood. They were wooden barrels. And they drove ‘em down the steps and everything would go out. Until they got it all cleaned out.
ME: What about the newspaper article about it? When they came in, and he was playing the mandolin?
GC: Oh. So then my dad used to play the banjo a lot, and he’d play at home and sing. And here he was playing the banjo and we were all around because it was in the evening and here there was a knock on the door and we went to see. And Pops said “C’mon in, c’mon in!” And they were singing and drinking and everything.
And here there was a big write-up in the paper: Still Runs While Banjo Plays. Banjo Plays While Still Runs.
ME: I would love to get a hold of that newspaper.
GC: I wonder if you’d just go to the…the newspaper place.
ME: Well, that’s a good story. That’s one of my favorite stories.