The Old Man

Vince Guerrieri Vince Guerrieri

Vince Guerrieri is a journalist and author in Cleveland. He's “left Youngstown, but has never really escaped it.” He’s written at length about Youngstown for Belt, POLITICO, and Ohio Magazine.

Vince Guerrieri è un giornalista ed autore di Youngstown, che da anni lavora a Cleveland. Ha scritto a lungo su storie, fatti e protagonisti della vita di Youngstown per The Belt, POLITICO, e Ohio Magazine. Di lui, infatti, è stato detto che “ha lasciato Youngstown, ma non è mai veramente riuscito a sfuggire.” Lo scrittore racconta con affetto dei suoi antenati italiani, che come migliaia di altri si trasferirono in Ohio dal Michigan, attratti da uno sviluppo industriale in fase di pieno boom, dopo essere emigrati negli Stati Uniti negli anni ’20 o ’30.

During my college days at Bowling Green State University, I mentioned to someone that I was from Youngstown. “Are you Italian,” she asked. I kind of figured my name gave that away, but I told her I was. “Everyone I know from Youngstown is Italian.” “What an unbelievable coincidence,” I told her. “A lot of the people I know from Youngstown are Italian, too.”

Dad is of Italian extraction. Mom’s Lebanese. It’s a cross-pollination that’s surprisingly common in Youngstown (both ethnic groups settled on the city’s east side). They begat two sons. I’m the Italian son. My younger brother, who is shorter and darker than I am, is the Lebanese son.

The Guerrieris, like a lot of families, came to Youngstown in the 1920s (or possibly the early 1930s; they didn’t like to leave a paper trail). My grandfather, known to one and all as Charlie, and all his siblings – eight brothers and a sister – were born in Cardale, a coal patch town in Southwestern PA.

Family lore had them headed to Detroit, but the pull of relatives and a booming industrial economy led them to Youngstown. They might have also been persuaded by a legal climate that was, uh, let’s say, extremely forgiving. The Old Man, as Charlie called his father even after he, himself, had become one, made wine during Prohibition. Charlie and most of his brothers ran “The Bug,” the illegal lottery in town. (Charlie kept his receipts in the hub of the steering wheel of his Buick Sedan, a safe place until a partner ratted him out; his career in organized crime ended shortly thereafter.)

He wasn’t the typical grandfather and he didn’t share typical grandfatherly bedtime stories. He made WWII sound like a really good time, occasionally interrupted by having to do real work. He gambled at the Jungle Inn and went to NYC to watch prizefights.
Once, I showed him a picture from a magazine article detailing an auction of famous movie props, including the car driven by Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca;” a 1940 Buick Roadmaster four-door convertible. “You know who had one of those?” he said. Obviously, I didn’t.  “Sledgehammer Jerry.” Now, mind you, I didn’t think it was the least bit out of the ordinary that my grandfather knew a guy named Sledgehammer Jerry. Apparently, he’d earned that sobriquet by smashing coin-operated machines with a sledgehammer and later met a mysterious, but likely unsavory, end. They found his car. They never found Sledgehammer Jerry.

After sowing his wild oats, he married (the last of his siblings to do so), had two children and, despite never graduating high school, found a respectable way to make a middle-class living – largely a testament to his work ethic, which bordered on inhuman. He started digging ditches for the water company as a teen and was a member of the plumbers’ and carpenters’ unions. He was on call whenever possible and never took vacations.

And then, it all ended. He retired early because of disability and found himself with more free time than ever in his life. He was also a grandfather for the first time and found in me a willing accomplice – if not a confidant. I was a willing audience. He taught me to shoot pool, throw dice, swear in two languages … and keep a secret. He told me stories. Now I tell stories for a living.

Did he consciously set me on that path? Probably not. By his own admission, he read a book once. He couldn’t remember the name of it, but he didn’t enjoy it. But in every story I tell, I feel the thread pulling me back to the front seat of a Cadillac sedan 30 years ago.