My name is Nick Ruggieri and I am a second-generation Italian-American raised in the Washington, DC area. My memories of growing up in Washington have strong roots with my Sicilian grandfather, Nonno, as he was affectionately called by my family. Nonno was born Nicola Ruggieri in Fiumadinisi, Sicily in 1896 and came to America in his early twenties. Fiumadinisi was a small town where crime was relatively non-existent due in large part to a town center that engaged in public displays of its own form of civil law. Those caught stealing got a finger chopped off in front of all to witness. It was that simple…you do the crime, you pay the price.
Nonno’s travel experience to this country was never discussed and we gather his time at Ellis Island was quite unpleasant. Legal entry to the United States required a sponsor from one’s country and $50 cash in one’s pocket. In years to come, my grandfather sponsored other Sicilian immigrants who followed his lead in making a new start and finding work in America.
In the early 1930s Nonno launched his business, Nick’s Valet on 14th and Irving Streets NW. He set out to establish himself as a shoe cobbler and haberdasher of sorts, providing shoe repair and design, as well as tailoring, dry cleaning, and shoeshine services. The back of the shop housed living quarters in which he and my grandmother, Nonna, raised two daughters and one son - my dad. All were born with the assistance of a midwife in this tiny little apartment. The family later moved a few blocks away to 3805 13th Street NW. They lived in a beautiful row house with three floors, each having long narrow rooms that seemed to stretch on forever. Planted in the backyard were wonderful fig trees that many Italians seemed to cherish back then.
As kids growing up in the 6os my brother and I had the wonderful opportunity to work in Nonno’s shop performing the more menial tasks - sweeping floors, working the cash register and greeting the customers, but our greatest joy came in observing and talking with Nonno’s employees. By the time we started frequenting the shop, most of the older Sicilian workers had either retired or passed on. They were replaced by African-American men hired by Nonno. Two guys I will never forget were Joe the shoeshine man and Louis the tailor.
The shop shoeshine stand, quite in vogue back then, consisted of five leather-cushioned chairs that sat high upon two steps of smooth white marble. Joe would grab his tools of the trade and begin slapping shoe polish directly from his hands to the shoes. With a brush in each hand, he’d go about polishing the shoes in a rhythmic pattern that sounded quite like a jazz drummer playing with brushes. Next he used his buffing cloth to draw a brilliant shine out of each shoe. When he snapped that cloth three times over each shoe, you knew his work was complete. Man, in all my then-eight years of existence that was the coolest music I ever heard coming out of a human being! I truly believe my interest in drumming came from watching Joe do his thing.
Louis the tailor, on the other hand, was a character to say the least. By week’s end, when Friday rolled around, Louis was already half in the bag and spinning more yarns than cloth. He shared wild stories with my brother and me, staring at us with his gleaming madman eyes, while his wicked smile proudly showed off his two gold teeth. He often argued with Nonno, and I can recall one incident in particular in which Louis threw a shoe at my grandfather beaming him right on the head. My grandfather wasn’t the kind of guy to take crap from anyone, and many times my dad had to jump in between those two to keep the peace. One Saturday morning I accompanied my dad to the DC penitentiary, which at the time was located next to the DC Armory. I distinctly recall waiting in the car while my father trudged through the gates to bail Louis out from yet another Friday night venture that landed him in the drunk tank. (My father said it was the eeriest feeling to have those gates slam shut behind him, and I often recalled those words when growing up - they helped me in choosing between right and wrong on many an occasion.) After what seemed like an eternity, my dad finally re-emerged through the gates with Louis staggering behind him, sporting a fat shiner on his right eye and reeking of cheap booze. We drove Louis straight to the shop to start his work day not even stopping for a cup of coffee. Louis may have had his shortcomings but he was a good man and I loved him dearly, as did all who came into contact with him.
Not only were those two guys a constant source of wonder to me but the endless stream of persons who walked through Nonno’s door on 14th Street were like none other I had ever experienced in my lifetime. But I’ll save those stories for another time.
Nonno’s shop burned down in the ’68 riots and for years there was an empty lot where Nick’s Valet once stood. From time to time I would drive by and just stop and stare, remembering what once was. I would still have the same special feelings that I once had as a kid on that block. Some memories are just etched in time.