Frankie Spin doesn't actually work at Haymarket anymore, but he likes to drive in from Saugus Friday and Saturday mornings to hang out on his old turf. When it gets busy, he "pinch-hits," as he puts it. He patrols the stand and acknowledges customers with a firm "Yessah!"
An army vet, he's a natural entertainer of the pitter-patter-chatter variety. He plays Sinatra and Pavarotti CDs on a boom box, singing along (in Italian, when the song calls for it) as vendors set up at blue-streak pace. Sometimes he'll have a beer when Durty Nelly's, the bar on the Blackstone Street strip, opens at 8 am. One morning he bought me one. He'll tell you about the time he saw an unknown performer named Barbra Streisand in a Revere Beach nightclub. ("Can you imagine that? She was a child — she was a star.") He'll show you pictures on his iPhone of him and his late wife, a couple of impeccable sartorial taste. They liked to go to nightclubs.
Spin has a gravelly voice, gentle eyes, and a stiff Patriots cap. He grew up in the North End with five brothers and four sisters. His Italian father dug holes for the telephone company; his mother raised the children. At that time, the North End was half Italian, half Jewish. (Salem Street was once known as "Shalom Street," he points out.)
Spin got his start at Haymarket during World War II, when most men were in the army and women and children were needed for work. He was 10 years old, walking through Haymarket, and someone recruited him to help with a stand.
His tenure at the market continued erratically in the 1950s after he got out of the military. He couldn't be a cop or a fireman, he says, because you had to be at least five-foot-seven, and he didn't make the height cut. He'd come down and work friends' stands while he looked for a job that paid more than the $35 he received each week from the army.
He still talks with swagger about how he was a tough kid. ("I was nominated to go to Boston Latin. I'd been a wiseguy hanging in bars. I coulda been a great lawyer.") And about how he was arrested in 1973 at an IHOP at 1:30 am. He called a waitress's attention to pay his $5.85 bill. A cop told him to knock it off. Next thing he knew, he was handcuffed. He was wearing a beige double-breasted coat ("down below the knees, know what I mean?") and a fedora ("one of them Al Capone hats").
"The way I looked — the policeman thought I was a mafia guy. He wanted to impress the waitress," he says. But he had a clean record, so they let him off.
"Spin" is not actually his last name. It's a nickname he acquired after a childhood incident involving a box of wet spinach. ("I don't like the name. I accept it, but I don't like it.") His last name is Penache. "It comes from Italian, 'pennacchio.' Not French, Italian."