Fisherman Joe Comparelli (b. 1923) shares memories of delivering newspapers as a child, attending the Grandview School of Commerce, and living in Little Italy.
My family seemed to come here in stages; in 1900, a few of them came over, then my dad came here for the first time in 1912 when he was 16 and he worked in an iron factory in Montreal. One of my uncles came over in 1907 or ’08. My mom came here in 1920 or ’21, evidently because they were starving to death. One of my uncles was a blacksmith and another was a butter maker. They went to Germany first, and when they came to North America they came right to Vancouver. They both worked for Ross and Howard, I think; one worked as a blacksmith in a logging camp, on the other side of Powell and the railroad tracks.
My father was from a well-to-do family family with 15 children. He was a barber and worked at Balfour and Guthrie from the 1923 or ’24 to 1931 or ’32. My uncle was the superintendent there and he had about 300 men who handled boundary supplies. When there were shipyards, they dealt in shipyards.
I was born in Vancouver in 1923. The first house I remember was 975 Keefer Street, then we moved next door to 981. I delivered papers and we had a shack behind Sacred Heart Church—a paper shack—before they built the school. My paper route was around Union Street. When I was about 6 years old, I delivered papers and I got a nickel per week to deliver the Vancouver Sun on 900 block Keefer Street, and that got me an ice cream cone.
I was raised the old fashioned way. If you had a penny… “Don’t you spent that on junk! Come here and I’ll give you four cents more and you can buy an ice cream cone.” My parents didn’t believe in candy. We used to have a guy with a horse and wagon come around and sell ice cream cones and we bought packaged ice cream from 25 cents.
You could buy local bread for 4 cents, a quart of milk was 10 cents, and a pound of butter was 13 cents I think. We grew beets, Swiss chard, radicchi—an Italian lettuce which was kind of hearty and survived the cold weather. In the spring time it would be nice and tender and would survive the winter. I don’t remember how cold it got, but I think it was a little warmer in then ’20s than the ’40s or the ’50s.
Grandview School of Commerce
I had a hip operation when I was 14. I had a slipped bone that was twisted, and they had to put a pin it it and straighten it. I was in the hospital for four months and I had to wear a walking caliper for six months. I had to go back to Grade Nine again at Grandview School of Commerce. I figured secretarial work was all I could do with a bum hip. Them days, there weren’t many men doing commercial work.
During the War
Well, of course, at the beginning of the War everybody was unemployed, and then, when the War broke out, all these unemployed people had to go somewhere. If you were a worker you would be able to find a job at the ship yard on McLean Drive. My boss was a riveter and I was a reamer. I started out a passer when I was 16. Riveting was a rough job.
We didn’t find rationing too tough. People used to sell their butter and sugar coupons if they weren’t sugar users or a bakers.
After the War, I grew up. I started fishing—the first river job I had was at Glenburn Dairy at Boundary and Hastings. I oiled trucks and filled the radiators. I didn’t have a driver’s license but I learned to drive there. I fished from 1941-’53 and I was in what they called the Sane Boat—there were nets. We finished the Johnstone Strait, on the inside waters; we had Vancouver Island protecting us.
I remember Strathcona. I lived at 900 block Keefer, just below Campbell Avenue, and these Italians guys were way up on the hill. It was a society difference; I was at the bottom of the hill. From Campbell Avenue it flattened out. That’s where Little Italy was: Prior street, Union Street, Georgia Street—that’s where most of the Italians lived. Then we moved into Chinatown on the 200 block at Keefer and Georgia Street. I think at Keefer and Pender was where the Chinese men sold their chicken.
Story edited by Jade McGregor