By Rosalie Tirella


I visited my old Green Island neighborhood a week or two ago. My birthplace and stamping grounds for my first 18 years! The locus of so many childhood joys and horrors: my angel mother, my loving Polish immigrant grandparents, Bapy and Jaju … my first dog, Belle … and my distant, emotionally abusive father … the loud barroom brawls right outside our kitchen windows, the grinding poverty. … Being so cold on winter nights, being so happy with the little bags of cashews Ma would buy us at the Millbury Street package store during the Christmas holiday, walking over to McGovern’s in her trim boots after her job at the dry cleaners across the street. Then walking down Lafayette Street to our old three decker. … Sledding at Crompton Park with my kid sisters and being thrilled with my cousin’s second-hand furniture (the cheap pine bed had a bookcase for its headboard!) … friends’ hand-me-down sweaters (kinda neat!) … Puppies being clubbed to death…the big white sled dog who lived across the street walking down Lafayette with blood dripping from his face and body … walks to and from my school in the fall when there were still big maple trees on Grosvenor Street and you could gather the leaves off the sidewalk to press in your thick dictionary at home. Loving Lamartine Street School – our school yard faced the old jail! Once, as a cautionary field trip, one teacher took us there for a tour! … The fragrant lilacs in bloom on the two big lilac bushes – little trees really! – in front of our ramshackle house. … All the violence and beauty of the urban ghetto neighborhood experience of the last century. My childhood.

Rose, about 10, in the kitchen of the family tenement on Lafayette Street.

I was looking for my old friends – my late mom’s favorite Lafayette Street family! I wanted to tell them what I’d been through this past year – and for them to see Jett and Lilac, as they love my dogs and had so many pups and kitties through their years on Lafayette Street! They were our downstairs neighbors for decades. Back when no one moved around or ever left their neighborhood. The mother was smart as a whip – after work she’d read her romance paperbacks in the backyard – and biracial – which we never noticed. Her husband was a short-tempered alcoholic in recovery who adored all dogs… their kids were sharp and lively. Our age.

I wanted to see the daughter and son – friends who still lived in the old three decker in my old neighborhood. With a few of their kids and a few of their dogs and a cat.

But they were gone! After a century+ of living on Lafayette Street! On that day my big ramshackle homestead was empty: no mail box, no curtains in the windows, no barking dog at my footsteps… As I ran to the back of our three decker, panicked, looking for clues as to where they could have disappeared to – all of them – I cried, got all choked up! HELLO! HELLO! I yelled up into the Worcester winter sky, hoping for a HERE WE ALL ARE, ROSE! HERE WE ALL ARE!

But I knew, based on the City papers taped to the window panes, that they were all gone and maybe I’d never find them again. I looked at what was such an ugly edifice (for years!), so broken down and ready for the wrecking ball, and bawled like a baby! I saw the husband … he was a short order chef at a Millbury Street restaurant now long gone. He was at his gas stove making his beans. He made his own baked beans – a vat of them! – during the winter months. The best baked beans around! Sweet and savory, with big bits of pork swimming around in the molasses sauce. Always he gave us a huge bowl for dinner. “John” would knock on our front door and say in his gruff, impatient voice: CEL! GIRLS! I MADE SOME BEANS!! HERE! TAKE THE BOWL! Ma would practically run to our front door – it was a favorite family dish. You could smell those baked beans in our hallway, opened the door and their delectable, comforting aroma wafted right in! Ma would always invite John in to our tenement, but he was kind of a jumpy guy, so he never entered our parlor. Just gave Ma his gift and rushed down the stairs back to his clamoring clan. THANK YOU, JOHN! Ma would yell down the stairwell to John, who had already closed the front door to his flat.

Then Ma would shout: ROSALIE! John brought up his beans! …Then she’d walk to one of our kitchen windows and yell out the window: TWINS!! UPSTAIRS! John’s beans! And my two skinny but athletic kid sisters would run from the field outside lickety split….and clunk clunk clunk their brown buster brown type shoes would sail up the three flights of stairs to our flat. Ma would be spooning out our Christmas treat in little five and ten bowls, and we’d all sit around the kitchen table and eat those baked beans. Ma and I would scoop up our beans with slices of soft white Wonder Bread to get every drop of that sauce. My sisters ate their beans “plain.”

But John had died years ago! And now his, our, three decker faced its almost certain demise! After decades of family life and friendship on Lafayette Street! The family I had most wanted to wish Merry Christmas to! Every last person – vanished! Their used cars parked out front no longer. Their mail box ripped off their ancient front doorway. I ran in front of my old ramshackle home and looked down my old ramshackle street – now on the outskirts of the tony, gentrified Canal District. Soon enough it would all disappear, and another McMansion market-rate apartment building would be thrown up. A real dump. The rents would be exorbitant, no place for poor families to bond, to help each other, to lighten the burden of being poor in America …

Lafayette Street – Rose grew up here.

I turned around and saw a young Black guy walking up my Lafayette Street. Our neighborhood was always multiracial. I said: Do you know what happened to “Junior” and his sister and family? Do you know where they moved to?!

Never heard of them, the guy said.

Why, they lived here for 55 years! I said.

The guy mumbled something to me and moved on. He looked so poor! Just like we all did on Lafayette Street!

And so I took some pictures of my childhood home, where the Green Island Grrrl was born, where tears were shed, where giggles filled our bedrooms, where baseball bats were swung as practice, where I heard my first Beatles song, where Ma tried to teach me to dance the Polka, her rough, veiny hand placed gingerly on my waist, the other one holding my right hand high, up very high: NOW, ROSALIE, FOLLOW ME! ONE, TWO! ONE, TWO! The home where my kid sister displayed her trophies for second or third place at the Friendly House neighborhood road races. The spring from which all my Green Island Grrrl columns flow. The best part of myself.