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Ciao, Johnny Shoes

Johnny Shoes (photo courtesy Stefano Salimbeni)

Johnny Shoes (photo courtesy Stefano Salimbeni)

“È finita la canzone,” the song is over: it was the first quote by Johnny Shoes Cammarata that I ever put on television; many more followed. The year was 1998, and I — 31 and hungry for the spotlight — had just begun telling Italian and Italian American stories for RAI, the Italian national TV network I still work for today; Johnny, then in his mid-sixties, was already in a nostalgic mode, constantly looking back to the ‘good old days’ when “everyone knew everyone” in Boston’s North End and “you could leave the doors open”… all that jazz old timers play, letting a longing for their own younger years contaminate actual memories of their surroundings.

Yet, Johnny was aware of the improvements that over the years gradually turned the neighborhood where he was born from a Sicilian shoemaker (hence the nickname) and lived his entire life from a sort of ghetto for Italian immigrants — looked upon with suspicion and disgust by many — into one of the most coveted residential sections in the city of Boston. In fact this full-figured, energetic barber, with a sharpness in his humor matched only by the thickness of his Italian American accent, never let nostalgia completely take over. In another TV feature, a few years later, he let my camera peep into his private world: the basement of his house at walking distance from the barber shop, where he built miniature renderings of the “good old days,” complete with human figurines in a perfect scale. “From a health point of view,” he admited, “this place is much better today!”

Gino Colafella cutting Johnny Shoes' hair (photo courtesy Stefano Salimbeni)

Gino Colafella cutting Johnny Shoes’ hair (photo courtesy Stefano Salimbeni)

Although the so-called gentrification of the North End had degraded human interactions (not only in his opinion), he never surrendered to it. In fact, thanks to Johnny, his barber shop on Hanover Street was and still is a bastion of old school social life, of the “everyone-knows-everyone” kind. Walking down the North End’s main thoroughfare, the sight of him trimming a customer’s hair through the window was for me a reassuring sight and, more often than not, an excuse to enter. As a journalist constantly searching for Italian-angled stories, I knew I would certainly come out from a visit with some useful new information about something or somebody; and in the worst case scenario I would get a couple of good laughs from the continuous fun-poking with Gino Colafella, his business partner for 40 years, who while working closer to the wall rebutted every joke and provocation in a theatrical, heartwarming, routine.

Johnny Shoes and Stefano Salimbeni (photo courtesy Stefano Salimbeni)

Johnny Shoes and Stefano Salimbeni (photo courtesy Stefano Salimbeni)

The last time I interviewed Johnny, on a gloriously sunny winter day in early 2014, he had just retired; he talked to me in his store through the mirror while Gino was cutting his hair. “All over the world, if you wanna know something… you gotta go to the barber,” he said. “Barbers… they know it all!” By then he was walking a little slower but his mind was as fast as ever. At that point, for a quick joke, or piece of information or advice, instead of looking through the window of the barber shop one had to walk a few steps up Hanover Street to the coffee shop at the corner. He would be sitting there, also by the window. When I asked Gino how he felt after his retirement he said: “Oh well, he didn’t move to Florida, he just moved a few yards away!”

Then, Saturday, February 20 “è finita la canzone,” the song was over for real. Johnny Shoes’ song suddenly ended, and my barber/informant/friend, moved away for good, leaving behind an entire neighborhood, an entire community, in grief. The fact I had to write this article through tears, at exactly the same time the funeral service was taking place, made it even harder, for me, to bear. Yet it was the only way to see it published on time. I guess it was my way to carry his coffin on my shoulder.

About Stefano Salimbeni

Stefano is a Boston-based freelance reporter, correspondent and producer for Italy’s national TV network RAI. Over the past 15 years he has produced more than 800 “Italian-angled” news stories and features from New England and from around the United States for RAI’s international channel, RAI Italia, broadcast to over 60 million viewers of Italian origins or of Italian descent living outside of Italy. He also assisted, and occasionally still does, RAI’s main correspondents in producing news stories and special reports during major news events. For the past three years, Stefano has also been the US correspondent for Famiglia Cristiana, one of Italy’s most widely circulated national magazines. He came to Boston in 1996 to earn a master’s degree and fulfill a lifelong dream of being a journalist. Stefano’s work can be viewed on his personal website, www.stefanosalimbeni.com.