Here’s a Fourth of July column I wrote years ago, tweaked this morning:
FOURTH OF JULY, GREEN ISLAND STYLE!
By Rosalie Tirella
I’ve celebrated the Fourth of July on a blanket in Boston listening to the Boston Pops and guest vocalist Johnny Cash. I’ve celebrated the Fourth at East Park here in Worcester. Always a lovely time. Last night I was thinking about my Green Island Fourth of July’s – the years when I was a kid and lived with my mother, father, sisters and Polish immigrant grandmother in “the Island”…
I am a little kid – about 9 years old – and I am standing on our three decker’s back porch. Third floor. It is the afternoon and the sun is shining sweetly. I am looking at “Val,” the buxom, brassy, red-lip-stick-wearing middle-aged woman who lives across the way from our rickety three decker. Val’s in her rickety, six-unit tenement building, on the corner of Bigelow and Elsworth streets. She’s on her third-floor porch. A big, weed-choked, empty lot lies between our buildings but that is all. The wild weeds and vegetation haven’t kept Val from inserting herself into ours – everyone in the neighborhood’s – lives.
Val is wearing a hot red negligee today – for the Fourth of July. I can see it from my back porch, which I am standing on, bring a curious little kid. Val is on her back porch talking loudly, with curse words sprinkled liberally throughout her conversation to herself. I swear I can see her bright red lips from my third floor porch! In 10 years or so I will have learned the word “slatternly” from my reading the classics, and the word will remind me of my old neighbor, Val. But today I am a little kid so Val is just … Val.
Val is drunk on this national holiday – in a happy, friendly way. She can be a nasty drunk, but the Fourth of July makes her woozily playful. She is talking with anyone who walks by her building, her ta ta’s damn near falling out of her negligee as she leans over her porch railing to chat up passersby who always talk back – a few folks out of fear. They have seen Val fight on the street outside her building, they have heard her vitriol … They will kiss up.
I am standing on my porch, quiet as a mouse, smiling knowingly because I know Val can be scary sometimes. On a few occasions she has verbally battled with my 80-year-old Polish immigrant grandmother, Bapy. Val had called Bapy, also feisty, a DP. “Dumb Polack.” It was a common ethnic slur a half century ago, and Val had spewed it at Bapy during one of their shouting matches – held across their back porches for the whole neighborhood to hear. DP, my mom tells me, really stands for “Displaced Persons,” what they sometimes called Eastern European immigrants who chose to build lives in Worcester. Val is being mean when she yells DP at my granny, who doesn’t miss a beat and yells back to Val: KISS MY ASSY! KISS MY ASSY!! and Bapy turns her plump little dumpling shaped butt to Val – while standing on our back porch – and tap, tap, taps it. Her bum is covered in those sweet flannel nighties with little pink rose buds on them that Ma buys for Bapy at the Mart in downtown Worcester. Bapy wore those flannel nighties year ’round – even in the summer.
Granny is not battling Val today. Granny is inside, sitting in her easy chair we have set up for her in our kitchen (Bapy lives with us). Bapy sits at the head of the kitchen table, a place from which she can drink her cup of coffee, eat her boiled egg sandwich and see and comment on all the household happenings. She has been sitting there my whole life! She drives me and my kid sisters crazy, but we love her with all our hearts!
But I digress. Val is out on her porch today in her red negligee because it is the Fourth of July, a special day for America – and for Val. Val has turned and walked back into her apartment, a flat that is also home to her quiet-as-a-mouse boyfriend, her gorgeous, blond 18 year old daughter, the child of another guy, and two huge attack dogs: a German Shepherd and Doberman pinscher. Both dogs are fierce. Both having chased me up a nearby fence more than a few times. Val doesn’t believe in walking her dogs to do poop or to pee. She just lets them out of her apartment. The huge dogs rush down the three flights of stairs like a couple of moose in heat and poop and pee in Val’s little front yard. Then they rush back upstairs. Val’s boyfriend picks up the poop later – Val has everybody trained to a tee.
Now Val has come back out of her apartment – this time she is carrying her beige portable record player and sets it on a folding chair and plugs it into an extension cord she’s run outside the apartment. I am watching her preparations from my back porch – not saying a word … just waiting. Val goes back into her house, then comes out with an lp, a vinyl record – a big one, the kind with many songs on it. I am guessing it is the same record Val played last year and the year before – the songs the whole neighborhood must listen to every Fourth of July: patriotic tunes. Souza. Irving Berlin. Some sung by Kate Smith. Some belted out by Ethel Merman. Most instrumentals – the kind of songs you can – like Val – march around to on your Green Island porch. Tubas and drums. And trumpets.
Val puts on her record and cranks up the volume of her portable record player! Da da de dum da! Dum de da da da da de da da! La da da da de da da! Boy, this music is good! Up beat! I love hearing Val’s concert every year. I am tapping my feet! I look across the way and see Val crack open another beer and take a sloppy swig. She begins to sing. Loudly. Then she marches around her old porch – then she dizzily lies down on her long beach chair, still drinking. I can see her through the slats on her porch through the slats on my porch …
The music is great! So LOUD AND PATRIOTIC! An hour later Val is up again and singing to the entire neighborhood once again. She’s turned the record over several times, playing both sides – A and B. The folks on Lafayette, Elsworth and Sigel streets are getting ramped up! They’re coming out of their three deckers. They are carrying rugs, tires, old wooden chairs, a beat up sofa… They’re throwing their chairs and sofa and old tires into a big pile in the empty lot a few lots down from Val’s place, diagonally across the way from our three decker. I go in doors and yell to my mother: GETTING READY FOR THE BIG BONFIRE, MA!
My mother, careworn, grimaces from the stack of soapy dishes in her kitchen sink. She’s washing dishes. She doesn’t say a word. Ma never voices her disapproval of Val, but I know she is not thrilled with her. Sometimes Ma is the one who calls the Worcester Fire department when the flames of the bonfire grow too huge and lap up the July night air and orange sparks fill our Green Island night. The fire has never spread because the neighborhood kids and adults have kept it in check with big poles that they use to poke it into submission. But the flames still worry my mother …
But the night has just begun! I so want to be a part of the celebration and throw some of Bapy’s rags onto the bonfire! My grandmother has so many rags that she wraps around her withered arms to ease her arthritis. Old country ways/cures die hard in Green Island!Bapy never really changes her clothes. Just gives herself sporadic sponge baths and peels off her old rags and puts on new ones. She always smells fecund.
These days I miss my Bapy’s smell! If only we could re-conjure the odors of all the people and pets we have loved over the years. The men I have been with, sweaty and grunty; my late mom who held me to her big, perfumed breasts – Heaven Scent … my Bapy’s cabbage-y, eggy odor … my long-gone dog Bailey’s gamey scent.
Anyways, the bonfire was being readied for the big night, but my mom would never let me join in the terrific mayhem! It was all too wild for us good Conservative Catholic girls. My mom, the perfect mom who worked so hard at the dry cleaners and went to church with us every Sunday, wouldn’t allow it! My mom knew everyone in the neighborhood and was always polite and talked with folks – she was not a snob. But, she liked to us, she would never sit down and have a cup of coffee with the ladies of the ‘hood. Green Island women enjoyed visiting each other in each other’s tenements, gossiping, bitching about their husbands and boyfriends, smoking their cigs…Val smoked little cigars!
Our mother was busy raising her girls, making sure we went to school every day and did all our homework and got all As and went to bed early and ate well. She had no time to wallow in our poverty – or her husband’s wild ways. She – we – transcended the shit. We girls were all going to college some day!
So, there I was, stuck on our Lafayette Street tenement third-floor porch. Just an observer. My sisters would be home from Crompton Park soon. They loved this spectacle, too! Not as much as I did, but they would hang out on the porch, eating Freeze Pops, their lips ice blue from the sugared ice treat – and they’d watch Val and the bonfire.
My father, Daddy, would disappear for the day. Celebrate the Fourth of July in his own fashion, cheating on Ma. He was as crooked and violent as some of the guys in the ‘hood, but he played out his deviltry in other parts of Worcester. I suspect the East Side. What my mom and we kids didn’t know wouldn’t hurt us …
It was dark out now, and Val was still singing up a storm and marching around her porch. La di da di da!!! Bang bang!! went her steel pot covers – her cymbals! Someone had lit the bonfire and everyone was gathered around it! Except for me and my sisters. We were on our back porch eating our Freeze Pops, mesmerized by the flames. They must have been two stories high! The folks in the neighborhood had out done themselves this year! It was all like something you would see in an old Western movie on TV – perfect for roasting a buffalo or dancing around. People’s faces were orange from the glow of the flames.
“Come out here, Ma!” I yelled to my mother. “You gotta see the bonfire!”
My mother was indoors getting our clothes ready for the Fourth of July cook out we would be having at our Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary’s house the next day. Our relatives, my mother’s sister, lived in a a cute pink ranch house in the Burncoat area – a nicer part of town. My mom liked this part of the Fourth of July holiday best of all. A day off from the Millbury Street dry cleaners! A day off when she could be with her favorite sister in her sister’s big back yard, my Uncle Mark grilling hamburgers and hot dogs on his big, three legged grill filled with those black coals. They made the hamburgers and hotdogs yummy! Earlier in the week my uncle had driven to the Nissan bakery by Crompton Park to buy hamburger buns and white bread and drove to Iandolli’s to buy potato chips, soda, Cheez-Its, the typical American BBQ junk food of the 1960s. Heaven!
Ma would have none of Val’s antics or the bonfire show. She was busy making sandwiches for the cook out at Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary’s. She wanted us in bed early for tomorrow.
We kids would have none of it. The bonfire’s flames were roaring! Some jerk threw too many old tires on the bonfire, so now the air smelled awful! Like burning rubber. The sky was thick with black smoke. We kids started coughing. Ma came out and took a look at the mess. Her mouth fell open. She looked at her three girls and frowned and snapped: GET IN THE HOUSE. I knew what was coming next. Ma was in the parlor, standing over our heavy olive green telephone and dialing 911.
In a matter of minutes the Worcester Fire Department firetruck had rolled in. The fireman were hosing down the bonfire with their big hoses…the water from hoses looked like waterfalls. The flames were doused out! Smoke everywhere.
BOO! BOO! BOO! shouted all the kids and adults at the firemen.
You could hear their laughs, too!
“Boo, Boo! Boo!!!” my sisters and I yelled from our back porch, laughing. “BOO! BOO!”
It had been, as usual, a fab Fourth of July! Green Island style!