Mr. Russo

by Harry T. Roman


With his white hair, round belly, and jolly smile for motivation, my mind quickly locates and plays back flawlessly his broken English voice, “Don’t forget boys, the grapes are coming on Saturday and I’ll need you all to help. Make sure you tell your mothers, because we have to make the wine for the Holidays.”

Every Fall that big red truck would squeeze up North 4th Street from Bloomfield Avenue, scrapping the branches of the old maple trees - loaded to almost overflowing with boxes of red and white grapes. It came chugging much to our delight and excitement, because this event kicked-off a series of other events that became our Fall neighborhood ritual. Little did we realize then as we do now, that this was an important re-creation of our grandparents’ homeland tradition when grapes were harvested and wine made for the winter and special events.

Mr. Russo was the grandfather of Ralph Serio one of the boys in our neighborhood. They both lived in the same house, a very common occurrence on our block to have extended family either in the same house or in a house nearby. In fact, almost every house for two blocks on our street, with only a few exceptions, was inhabited by “paisanos” With the Fall came the many traditions and smells of the coming Holidays.

As soon as the truck stopped, the men and boys would begin unloading the magic grapes while Mr. Russo took care of business with the drivers. Up the alley they went and down into Mr. Russo’s basement where a big wine press was waiting to gobble them up. No grapes went in until Mr. Russo was ready to supervise the process. Soon the press was squirting out rich grape juice as we watched with our mouths agape. “Look at that flow! Looks like Welch’s Grape Juice”, someone would exclaim.

Then the bottles were filled and neatly placed on their stone shelves. The area around the press was lovingly designed in a semi-circle of stone and brick to hold the bottles while the wine aged. Mr. Russo knew his art. “You tell your mothers that before Thanksgiving we are going to have some very nice wine. I will call when it’s time for each of you to come here and bring your mother back a bottle of wine.”

The big reward for helping Mr. Russo was we could take the wooden grape boxes and use them for scooters. We had plenty of wood leftover for other important projects too that kept us busy after school and on Saturdays. How excited I remember being at the prospect of being able to take those old grape boxes apart and use the nails and wood to make all sorts of “stuff”. We even made wooden pinball machines, using nails and elastic bands to make the pockets for the marbles we used for balls.

Do kids today make such things? How many have seen wine made? Do their grandparents have accents? Have they roasted chestnuts or smelled that unforgettable aroma? Did they ever walk down their street in the Summer and smell tomato gravy being made by hand (crushing tomatoes using a pointed strainer and a wooden roller)? I guess my skills at making scooters out of grape boxes and the two ends of metal roller skates is a lost art. Not much demand for that sort of thing.

Back to the wine.
When the wine was aging sometimes I would get to go into Mr. Russo’s basement to turn the bottles and imagine what was going on inside them. Perhaps in my child’s mind I expected a sign to appear on the bottles saying perhaps, “I am now wine!” Or maybe, a bell to go off, announcing that the grape juice had suddenly become wine. Mr. Russo, “When do you know it’s ready?” I would ask. Then I would get that big smile. “I’ll know he would tease….I’ll know”.

Every morning we would pass Mr. Russo’s house on the way to school and you could smell the remains of the grape skins slowly turning to mulch in his backyard, not too far from the big rain barrel that collected the water for his garden. You knew something special was going on in those bottles in his basement. We waited for him to call our mothers.

About 8 weeks later, the phone rang on a Saturday morning. “Anna (my mother), Anna, Signore Russo….the wine is ready. Send Harry.” This was it, the big day. I flew to Mr. Russo’s house to find other neighborhood boys there too. “All right men, he would say, the Holiday wine is ready. Now be very careful with your bottle and go straight home, no stopping”. Then he showed us how to cradle the bottle. “Walk slow and watch your steps.” I never remember a bottle being broken.

I don’t think I can ever drink wine without thinking of Mr. Russo. Every Fall, my mind sends me a tantalizing whiff of those old fermentation smells from Mr. Russo’s basement; and I think about the old wine press, the big truck full of grapes, and Mom so happy to get a bottle of home-made wine.

I vividly remember one hot summer day when our youth provoked all kinds of trouble and Mr. Russo gave us a stern talking too. Then he sat us down in the shade and told us stories of his hometown back in Italy. He calmed us down and had us listening open-mouthed to his long-ago tales.

Probably that same summer, we had the big race between Mr. Russo and his friend Mr. Ambrose who was building a new house on the previously empty lot across the street. Mr. Ambrose and he were joking and calling each other “old”, and the next thing we knew, the two were racing down the street to see who was fastest. Their wives were yelling at them as the two senior citizens were huffing and puffing their way across the finish line. They later had a good laugh and a glass of wine to celebrate their joint victory.

That was 4th Street. Always something happening.

Mr. Russo…….thanks for the
memories…….Salute !


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