The Ragman was an unshaven, boozy-smelling, intimidating character for most Kenosha kids in the 1950s.
He wore tattered clothing as he led his horse-drawn cart laden with stacks of rags, bottles and cans that smelled like a fetid basement. He shouted, “Rags and bottles!” as he rattled down the alley.
Most young kids were frightened of the Ragman, including Kenosha native and retired priest of the Milwaukee Archdiocese the Rev. Domenic Roscioli.
The fear may be easily explained, however, as he was not the only child whose mother threatened to sell him to the Ragman for misbehaving.
Stories of the Ragman and other “Alley People,” such as the garbage men and the Scissors Lady, are featured in Roscioli’s new book, “10 Things I learned Growing up in the Old Westside/Columbus Park Neighborhood in Kenosha, WI.”
Each of the 10 stories is accompanied by photos and a life lesson appropriate to the tenor of today.
The book should be available by the end of the month, Roscioli said.
Roscioli came up with the idea for the book after moving from his childhood neighborhood and ruminating on the past.
“As you move away, you look back and wonder about that part of your life and what you learned when living there,” he said.
“I was sharing with my mom, (Angie) who is 95, and she was talking about her memories growing up in the Columbus Park neighborhood, and it got me thinking about my childhood.
“I found that a lot of the little things I learned were pretty big lessons in life; some of those lessons I have used with people who were dealing with situations where they were not sure how they were going to go on,” he said.
“While I do miss those old days, I try to re-create them wherever I am. This time in our country is very difficult to deal with, and there is a good side that forces us to make people feel welcome from different backgrounds.”
Many of the life lessons learned are shared during Roscioli’s visits to Next Step, a free camp for those over 16, and run similarly to the late Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camps for children dealing with life-threatening illnesses. Part of the proceeds of this book go to Next Step.
“It’s really a blessing at camp. So many children are meeting Muslims, Jews or blacks for the first time, and they pay no attention to their differences because their common denominator is the fragileness of life,” he said.
The changing neighborhood
One of Roscioli’s favorite stories in the book is titled, “Only Catholics Go to Heaven,” and surrounds the familiar “fire-and-brimstone” type homilies many seasoned Catholics heard in their youth.
“We were taught that some things in life are certain: It was good to be Italian; it was good to be part of the neighborhood, and it was good to be born Catholic. Why? Because only Catholics go to heaven. I believed that. There was no reason not to believe it,” Roscioli writes in Chapter 7.
Roscioli goes on to describe a new family that upset the Italian Catholic majority in the neighborhood. A family of Baptists from Mississippi moved into the lower level of the home next door, and surprisingly, he and the family’s young son, Joey, became best friends.
A Lutheran family moved into the home upstairs, and the Protestant house next door became big news in the neighborhood.
Young Roscioli’s new friendship was shaken when he learned in church one Sunday morning that Joey wasn’t going to heaven. Roscioli was upset by the news and didn’t want to tell Joey, but felt an obligation to inform the boy about his ultimate destination.
“I expected him to cry when I told him that only Catholics go to heaven, but he told me that his preacher told him in Mississippi that only Baptists go to heaven,” laughed Roscioli.
The two figured a way out of the conundrum by cutting their fingers with pocket knives and becoming blood brothers. It was a way to cover their bases, as surely God would allow them both past the pearly gates considering the circumstances.
“It taught me at an early age that you just have to let God be God, and no matter what his church or mine was teaching, we knew who we were, and if we became blood brothers, God would let us both in,” he said.
Write it down
Roscioli hopes readers will get a sense of the importance of writing down memories before they are too old to recall them.
It is a gift to share childhood stories with family members, he said.
“I also hope this book will awaken in them how we have to celebrate the diversity of all the people God made, and in terms of this country, be the welcoming country we have always been and be open to people of different backgrounds and lifestyles,” he said.
“We need to respect where they are coming from and celebrate who they are and not judge by appearances.”