In the 1990s I worked at the San Gennaro Feast in Manhattan’s Little Italy for about 5 years running, an 11-day affair that saw Mulberry Street transformed for 12 blocks starting at Canal Street and ending on Houston Street. This is the largest, longest and most famous Italian American street fair in the country, and a popular enough attraction to be mentioned in tourist brochures, but is the only touristy thing attended overwhelmingly by New Yorkers themselves and Greater Metropolitan Area residents.

It centers around the 2 weekends surrounding the September 19th Feast Day of San Gennaro, who turns out to be a bishop of Naples, Italy who was martyred by some Roman Emperor way back in 305 AD for rubbing him the wrong way. Emperors, Holy Roman or otherwise, tend to be a touchy lot, and it’s best for most of us to avoid them if we value our heads.

The fact that almost no one knows a thing about San Gennaro is not an issue at all, however, and Mulberry Street was selected because it’s the block in Little Italy with the church, the beautiful Basilica of St. Patrick where the opening ceremonies and a short parade begins, kicking off the festivities.

Mulberry Street is transformed into a carnival for 11 days, closed to vehicular traffic and lined on both sides of the street with everything from simple wooden booths to elaborate carnival trailers, selling sausage and peppers, zeppoles, Italian Ices, sweet confections and other ethnic culinary treats, sideshow attractions, kiddie rides, games of chance lined with young fellows trying to win a kewpie doll for their special girls, vendors selling jewelry, T-shirts, CDs or souvenir merchandise, clown-ducking booths and, finally, to the very heart of the San Gennaro Feast and where I came in, in one of dozens of wine and beer vending booths keeping the whole enterprise lubricated, happy and animated.

I just so happened to be the very best wine vendor in the San Gennaro Feast, approaching the job like a carnival barker and spending 11 days in row selling my wares at the top of my lungs. New York City street festivals are legendary for their chaos, and are noisy and crowded affairs, with exactly no specific itinerary and holding different charms for different people. 

People just sort of wander where their feet takes them, and when they wandered in the vicinity of my wine booth they were likely to hear any or all of these lines:

“My wine is better, my beer is colder – it’s just that simple!”

“Check your watches, it’s Vino Time”

“Step right up for liquid love, ladies! Form a line!”

“Let’s talk, people… because Chianti!”

“Whatever the question is, wine is the answer!

I worked for a young man named Ciro, an Italian immigrant I met in the ice cream business who became a wine wholesale sales rep, where he made the connection to be able to rent several booths at the San Gennaro Feast, a coup for anyone in the street vendor world. And yes, these connections were of the dark variety, as in the Mafia. No sense dancing around that fact. I never asked questions, just showed up and did my work, for which I was paid very well.

His other booths were food stands selling calamari and other seafood, where I had no desire to spend 12 hours a day reeking of squid, and where my talents as a barker would be wasted. Ciro put me where I belonged, and I sold more beer and wine than any other 2 wine booths combined. I rarely encountered any of the wiseguys who were the shadow bureaucracy of the Feast, dealing only with Ciro and my thousands of customers.

The Feast represented my highest earnings for the year, an incredible amount of work in only 11 days, but a project that paid off very well. Our household budget was usually fixed of its usual shortcomings this time of year, and in truth it was a hell of a lot of fun.

The people that you meet working there year after year were an eclectic and fine bunch of souls, the salt of the earth and a lot of fun. And so were the customers, running just about the entire gamut of New Yorkers, as diverse a bunch as anywhere on earth, seemingly all of them talking at once and gesturing with their hands in the finest Italian American tradition as they got into the swing of things.

The mayor of NYC at the time was Rudy Giuliani, a former US Attorney and a vain little popinjay who claimed credit for nailing Mafia don John Gotti, when in fact it was Giuliani’s successors at the US Attorney’s Office who succeeded in convicting Gotti after Rudy tried and failed twice. Matter of fact, it was Giuliani’s famous failures to convict Gotti that earned him the nickname “The Teflon Don.”

Giuliani was one of those Italian American lawyers who had some mob ties in his family and became obsessed with purging that stain by prosecuting the Mafia at every opportunity to prove to the world he was “clean.” Towards that end, when he became Mayor, he had the City of New York take over the San Gennaro Feast, appointing a commission of legitimate Italian-American businessmen to administer the street fair and collect the rents.

This only served to cost vendors double rent, to Giuliani’s mini-Chamber of Commerce and also to the mob that still controlled Little Italy and the Feast from the shadows. Several vendors took exception to the double-payments, refusing to pay the mobsters, and the result was their booths being reduced to splinters in the dead of night and all their merchandise destroyed. The public wound up paying the extra rent through raised prices and the Feast went on for most of Giuliani’s 2 Mayoral terms exactly as it had for almost 100 years prior.

What really made me hate Rudy Giuliani (who just gives you so very many legitimate reasons to hate him) would come later in his tenure, when he started airing a personal vendetta against another staple of NY Street Celebrations, Puerto Rican Day. The Puerto Rican Day Parade draws over a million people, and one year there was a fatal stabbing.

In a million people anywhere in one spot for any reason, a single violent death seems an inevitability, but for the race-baiting Giuliani, it was the opportunity to oppress a minority, an impulse Rudy had long since proven helpless to resist. His obsessive need to punish and demonize minority citizens overrode common sense, and he banned the street sales of alcoholic beverages at every NYC street fair in order to punish Puerto Ricans without appearing to single them out (no one was fooled).

One result was me and a great many others being shut out of our best paydays of the year, a petty and vindictive act that hurt my family financially for years, and just the latest in a series of vicious attacks on street vendors by Giuliani that eventually forced me and countless other workers out of the street vending world entirely.

The longest-lasting result was that people now must visit a watered-down San Gennaro Feast, unable to enjoy a glass of Chianti in the granddaddy of Italian-America Street Festivals, unless they leave the street fair for a restaurant or bar, and even worse, no one gets to have fun with the best carnival barker ever to come out of Brooklyn. Scrooge has nothing on old Rudy.

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