Ghosts and the City of Worcester

Text and photos by Rosalie Tirella

If you read some of the literature, they’re called “ghosts”: immigrants who never acclimated to life here, the US of A. “Ghosts” never learned a smidgen of English; they didn’t go out and get factory/low level service jobs or join their little local ethnic churches (so often the spiritual and emotional nexuses for first-generation Americans). They didn’t connect to their neighborhood schools or market places, biz enclaves like our 1930s Water, Green and Millbury streets, streets bustling with Poles and Lithuanians from the “Old Country” and Jews, newcomers too, who often owned the delis or shops but lived in better digs at the top of Vernon Hill.

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Water Street deli in the 1970s

No, the ghosts were emotionally incapacitated – often they had had very quiet or very loud nervous breakdowns in their tenements or flats, their brothers, wives or sons clutching them to their breasts, wrangling with their demons, too. Or just staring at their loved one in shock and terror. Like late Leader Sign owner Tony Hmura’s dad, a Polish immigrant who just crumpled in Worcester and became bedridden unable to work and compelling son Tony, just a little kid at the time, to be the new head of the Hmura family. The new breadwinner. At age 7.

With the ghosts it was often up to their kids, sons like Tony, to take over the family, or at least be the
family bill payers.

Tony, my dear, departed pal, now “resting” in Notre Dame cemetery,

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had to get out his toy red wagon when his dad became a ghost. No longer a toy but a tool, Tony filled it with dirt and earthworms and started selling the worms as bait to the local factory guys who went fishing on their day off. Tony had his own small biz at 7! It was very robust, he told me. His red wagon was perpetually filled with rich dark soil into which hundreds of thick juicy earthworms twisted and twirled as deeply as they could, away from sunlight and little Tony’s pulling, grasping fingers. He walked all over the city, pulling his little red wagon filled with worms.

A few days ago I visited Tony at Notre Dame and saw his grave unadorned, unloved during Christmas. This would have upset him! So, remembering our friendship, his love for his parents and his hardscrabble beginnings, I cleared the ice off his huge! headstone…

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… and decorated it as best I could.

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On his headstone, I placed a Christmas card, a Black Lives Matter postcard (unenlightened to the end!), a penny for good luck, a purple flower and a duck wearing a baseball cap. Tony loved flowers, and he wore baseball caps when he dressed to go to his Canterbury Street sign shop or to some family gathering.

The cemetery was so lonely, desolate! Everyone had forgotten their dead!
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Easy enough to do. No judgements. My late mother, as resilient as they came, used to say, “My Rosalie, life is sweet!” or “Rosalie, life is for the living!”

So I hung out with Tony for a few minutes, scraping the ice off my car, something he would have wanted me to do in this weather, and drove off. Here’s Tony’s song, from me:

But I digress! Like I was saying, the neighborhood’s “ghosts” had had some kind of break with reality and/or now suffered from major depression, mental illness. Sometimes they killed themselves. I remember as a little girl growing up in Green Island there was a Polish family that had such beautiful daughters: long wavy blond hair, pretty smiles, comely figures… But I never saw their dad. Not once. For years. He was always in the house. Finally, my mom said he had hanged himself one day. She said it so matter of fact that I didn’t feel shock. It was in the cards. … One young neighborhood woman, not an immigrant, but the lesbian daughter of our neighbor across the way, killed herself, too. Being gay in Green Island back then could be as hard as being an immigrant! In my childhood, homosexuality was considered a mental disease! Gay people suffered terribly. So alone in places like Worcester.

The U.S. had no social safety net back in Tony’s childhood, and homosexuality was not accepted or ever discussed when I was a kid. So mostly our neighborhood “ghosts” stayed away – hidden from us. In back bedrooms, where their families dealt with their craziness, depression or bed-ridden ways. There they ate their suppers or stared at the four walls. Or denied their gayness – or castigated themselves for it. Families fed them, bathed them, comforted, supported them, prayed over them, played them their favorite records on their Victrola’s …

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Rose’s Victrola – it was her Polish Bapy’s!

… and sometimes beat them – the “cripple” who dragged down an already poor, bereft family.

So if the ghosts didn’t commit suicide, they were pretty much “entombed” in neighborhood tenements or three decker flats. For life.

There are ghosts in Green Island today! In lower Vernon Hill! Main South! Piedmont! Canterbury Street! Any place where poor immigrants and refugees live, freaked out by Worcester and American culture! Struggling to/unable to take it all in! They’re newbies from Vietnam, the Mid East, Central America, the Congo – so many places from all over our wonderful planet! It is up to Worcester – all of us here – to embrace them and weave them into our wonderful Worcester tapestry.

This is why CECELIA and the InCity Times website SUPPORTS the City of Worcester Human Rights Commission’s push to allow our REFUGEES AND NON CITIZEN Worcester residents to sit on, be voting members of, ALL City of Worcester Boards and Commissions.

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Screw City Councilor Konnie Lukes’ backwards – and dangerous – view of the issue! THANK GOD cynical, race-baiter, loathsome MIKE GAFFNEY is OFF CITY COUNCIL! These folks do not understand how diverse Worcester is, that every day we grow browner. So often our newcomers sit on the periphery of Worcester life, sidelined by all the immigrant baggage: poverty, lack of skills, lack of education, unable to speak English, unfamiliar with our laws, city hall. Even our city libraries feel foreign to them…

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West Boyslston Street – the Frances Perkins branch library

… The police force scares them, too.

Refugees and most likely undocumented workers are here in Worcester to stay, folks, and must be recognized. They are working hard to survive. They must be allowed on our city boards and commissions to speak on behalf of their communities. We cannot, as a city on the move, turn folks who may be here illegally, from all over the world, INTO GHOSTS. THE LIVING DEAD. We must accept reality with open minds and hearts.

How will this city flourish with ghosts dying behind closed doors? Why permit all that human suffering? Why not work to eradicate it?? Why not unlock human potential and happiness?!

But newcomers from Vietnam, the Mid East, Central America, Africa, Albania etc are not the only folks who struggle in Worcester. There are our regular old Worcester residents, people who have something to add to our urban stew, but are overwhelmed, also. Turned into or turning into ghosts by poverty, domestic violence, violence on their streets, drug addiction, drug selling, hunger, dead-end low-paying jobs. They are our ghosts, too! Some heartlessly call it the “underclass.” As if it’s a permanent thing. Bull shit! These folks must be helped, be loved, too!

Our city is a beautiful, diverse, complex place!!! Let’s embrace, celebrate, this wild ride!!! This Christmas Day: No more ghosts!