I’m watching – for the 10th time!! – one of my favorite movies, THE SEARCHERS. The John Ford masterpiece starring John Wayne, Ward Bond and Vera Miles and the breathtaking Monument Valley, a bigger “character” in the movie than even the human actors, except for John Wayne. The movie still stands. Tall, graceful, haunting 70 years after it was made. Nothing soft or sentimental about this movie. It is true … and, for me, depicts both sides of the Indian/White Man rift with brutal truth. Yes, one side had to annihilate the other!! – this country was so gorgeous!! – worth fighting to the death for! The two cultures were incompatible; it would have been impossible to co-exist. Rape, murder, devastation of homesteads, even the brutal taking of scalps (initiated by the Whites) took place on both sides.
Wayne is racist in the movie, but director Ford isn’t, so his vision, his story, isn’t. The forced march of the Comanches, the American barracks the women and girls are held in, the slaughtering of all the women and children in an Indian camp by American soldiers, the murder of Luk, even the old scrawny Indian extras of the movie – real Navahos from a nearby reservation – break your heart.
Back to the story: Wayne’s niece is kidnapped by Skar and his band of Comanches during one of Skar’s murder raids. Skar is the John Wayne of Indian country – big and tall and strapping, the wise and brutal king – he must be killed. Skar and his band of marauders torch the homestead and kills the family of Wayne’s character, Ethan: All murdered: Ethan’s brother, Aron; the nephew; sister-in-law Martha and another niece. The women are raped before they are killed. Seven-year-old Debbie is spared – she is kidnapped by the Comanches. To see Wayne making his way through the charred rubble, to watch him pick up the blood-soaked blue dress of his true love, Martha, to know what he understands … He calls MARTHA!!! at this ground zero – not the name of his brother. But MARTHA!!!, his brother’s wife. This is the person who is HOME for Wayne in The Searchers:
I don’t care what anyone says, Wayne was a great actor!!! His visage grows darker and heavier with each loss in the movie. To see that close-up of him as he leaves the barracks where white Indian teenaged girls, all kidnapped when they were little, are housed in, is to see a beautiful portrait … of hatred. Wayne becomes mad – eaten up – by his vindictiveness. He WILL FIND DEBBIE, he tells fellow searcher Marty! EVEN IF IT MEANS SEARCHING FOR HER FOR YEARS! But when he finally tracks Debbie down, after five years of searching, he learns she has assimilated…lives with the Comanches as family, is the wife of an Indian, will have his children, Ethan turns on her, hates her. She must die. He intends to put a bullet in her brain. She is no longer his people, his family – but belongs to the other tribe.
As I watch this movie in my early old age, it feels Shakespearean. Epic like Homer. Or Steinbeck. I love when Wayne speaks … never coming down hard on a line, like his sidekick Marty does to show “emotion” (it’s like the young actor has turned it up to 11 for the entire movie!). Nope. Not the Duke – he’s marinated in nuance. His creased and heavy face tells his story, reflects his pain, his hurt, his loneliness, his aloneness. Ford shoots him so lovingly. And when he does cry out, it’s feels Olympian.
I won’t give away the film’s ending, in case you’ve never seen it, but to hear John Wayne, middle-aged, heavy shoulders, deep-voiced tell Marty he will find Debbie, that it is their inexorable fate, like “the turning of the earth” … WOW. Or to hear Wayne talk of the Indian after-life, as if he almost believed in it himself … after shooting out the eyes of the Indian buried in the red dust so the Indian’s a lost, restless wanderer in the afterlife, for eternity. As bereft and homeless as Ethan is in this amazingly beautiful country! The way Wayne uses his hands and arms in the movie, with graceful flourishes, to mimic the wind, winding paths, forks in the road, geese in the night sky is to watch and listen to a poet tell his story. You are captivated by his adventure!
The movie is BEAUTIFUL to look at. The final shot of the film is beautiful and heartbreaking. What does it mean? No happy ending for Ethan! He’s got no home, even after his gallant act, with the Jorghunsans. They are white and friends – but they don’t welcome him into the fold the way they do the young Marty. He doesn’t fit in. He can’t fit in! The Indians fear and respect Ethan but reject him, too. The heavy wooden front door closes shut on him, and he walks into the sun absolutely alone, with that signature John Wayne walk. He’s outside, with the other untamable things. A force of nature in his own right. What cabin, bunkhouse, tee pee could ever hold Ethan?
Driving down Green Street into the new “Peanut Square” makes me feel old. Old because all the upstart trendy shops on my once working class childhood street/magical touchstone – the new all-bacon restaurant, the bo bo tapioca drinks, the glorified high-calorie pub food, the black bralettes, the shabby-chic reclaimed/refinished furniture – are meant to attract the young. I would have loved this new Green Street if I were “newer” – say 25 years old, or maybe even rounding 30 … Ahh! The perfect blouse! Now I know that guy in philosophy class will notice me! … Hey, what’s the customer next to me buying? She’s prettier than me! Sigh. … Cool end table at this shop! Perfect for my new one-bedroom by the highway!
I will be 59 years old next month. I call it 60. May as well. I usually go a step further and label myself an “old broad.” The chuckles rounded with … sadness, wistful feelings.
When you are old like me, cool end tables don’t excite you the way they did when you were 25 and an apartment virgin. You have lived in a bunch of apartments! In third-rate cities with your – or so you thought – first-rate dreams! The funky sofas and vintage lamps you have scored through the years blend into each other these days. A waste of time, all that ridiculous shopping. But necessary at the time! I was 27 and in love with blues, all hues. These days the chairs and plant stands and water gobblets are an afterthought as you begin to ponder … death. YOUR death!! A very real, tangible kind of possibility. Now an impossibility. You are 60 now and can imagine it death “happening” to you. Say in 10 or 20 years. The blink of an eye! It will, like birth, be painful. It will, like birth, be a solitary exercise. Vintage end tables seem pointless compared to the Grim Reaper. I fear the reaper!!
You dream of your estranged sister, both of you kids in your childhood home in your dream, in the old ugly living room on Lafayette Street watching The Honeymooners on Bapy’s black and white Philco TV. The conversation you had with your estranged sister in your dream two weeks ago feels more real than the chit chat you had today with your pal down the street! …
Lucky times, missed opportunities. You see the big picture and realize: It was all a crap shoot!! You controlled so little of it all! Your birth. Your birthplace – and time. Your family. Even your marriage. Your remarriage. Your move to this city or a hightail to that town…and then life just sorta unfurled. Sometimes slowly, sometimes fast enough to give you whiplash. Sometimes with such heart-wrenching beauty or cruelty. You marvel at all the goodness in the world and you’re horrified by all the ignorance. You realize the men who loved you in your diaphanous blouses can leave you, no matter how seductive you look in that billowy blouse. For new girls in new blouses. Maybe made of linen – or (horror of horrors) even polyester! And he sticks with polyester girl – and you say: POLYESTER!??? … You realize blouses have nothing to do with love! Having similar ethnicities, churches, work ethics, childhoods and values are better predictors of “love” and successful relationships. Two neuroses “clicking.” That’s what love means to me at 60. I don’t take it too personally these days.
At 60, you look at all the gourmet donuts, fancy sugar-laden cupcakes (again gourmet), artisan pizza pies in all the Green Street shop windows and your arteries ache.
At 60, you have seen a lot, and you begin to make up your mind about people in about 20 minutes. This is bad. But you’ve been around and think you sense the patterns – like the old f*rt (a stereotype!) you’ve become! You see and ignore: the shallow bland blond rich white girl with nothing to say; the arrogant blobby millennial guy who works in IT and thinks he’s attractive but is a fat slob to you and most Boomers who were slim, at times anorexic, when we were young. Then there’s the white trash young woman and her six kids … the junky homeless guy … the pointless WASP money guy, so oblivious to the working class.
They all have their stories but you cannot hear them. A disgrace! You are alarmed at your closed mind, but you are trying to make sense of your little existence! You realize you were just a drop in the universal water bucket but you were eternity, too. Just like all the other people-drops …
Funny. I’m watching Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in YOU’VE GOT MAIL. On my TV. This Nora Ephron rom-com from the 1990s (I love her Meg Ryan movies💚) is based on the Jimmy Stewart classic movie of the early 1940s, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER: guy meets girl through writing of letters/emails, falls in love … but no! The love of his life, the object of his bookish desire, can’t be the horrid woman he works with/against. She hates him, too! In fact, they go around crowing to each other about their secret pen-pals and how the Hanks/Stewart can’t hold a candle to their true love’s wit, erudition, compassion … It’s all in their letters/emails …
Finally, secret pen pals plan on meeting in person – in a coffee house. The gal will be at a cafe table reading a book – and displaying a rose, laid across the cafe table.
But the guy now knows the gal is from his work world, knows her identity, so in a love jest, he meets up with her, teasing her about her lover pen pal – making her furious but ultimately getting her to fall in love with him. Jimmy Stewart and the Jimmy Stewart of our day, Tom Hanks, are funny and charming in these scenes … and winsome, handsome.
Of course, our gals fall in love – want their secret writer/lover to be Hanks/Stewart!!! I will not give away the endings of both movies … But just now I cried, burst into tears while watching YOU’VE GOT MAIL. Not at the happy ending – but at Meg Ryan arguing with her current boyfriend in A CROWDED MOVIE THEATER! I cried at the old America, at HUNDREDS OF FILM LOVERS SITTING NEXT TO EACH OTHER, SHOULDER TO SHOULDER, enjoying – together!! – a movie! This is what made me cry! Our past life – before COVID 19, before facial masks and six feet apart and elbow bumps when greeting old friends. I cried like a baby over this scene, pre-global pandemic, arguably one of the most pedestrian scenes in the movie!
I miss all the casual closeness, the casual but deep intimacy, society’s grubby humanness … sharing germs – and laughs and tears – at a filled-to-capacity movie house.
The DVDs and Video cassettes will do for now …
… but when things get better, when the vaccine comes out and I have been vaccinated and our COVID flick fades to black, I am driving to Northampton, to a real movie theater, a beautiful one – not a ghastly humungous mall cineplex in Worcester – and I am gonna buy a bucket of popcorn, a box of Jujus and sit smack dab in the middle of HUMANITY AND WATCH A MOVIE WITH A FULL HOUSE of my fellow humans. Laugh with them, snicker with them, gasp and tear up, too. While watching the movie. Together, with them!
THIS IS HOW FILMS WERE MEANT TO BE EXPERIENCED!
It will all come back … eventually. This is just the middle of the movie we are all in now. There may be a Tom Hanks pandemic epic classic on the horizon!
So, it’s the end of St. Mary’s, the little red brick Polish elementary school on Richland Street, near the now Peanut-shaped Kelley Square! …
Kelley Square: now a shadow of her former glorious self!
Its tough as nails pastor from Poland made the announcement to parents and students in the middle of the pandemic. The final blow for a school struggling to pay teachers, bills, administrators … The same fate befell St. Stephen’s parish school later this summer.
Rose’s Polish immigrant grandparents used St. Mary’s schools and church as a life resource, support system and spiritual anchor for decades.
How my old Green Island Polish neighborhood has changed! Now it is Yes! to the Red Sox AAA team, $10 slices of artisan toast and trendy boohoo tea. And it’s No! to the genuine immigrant experience, Catholicism’s wonderful, oppressive teachings … the St. Mary’s elementary school filled with cute, round-faced Polish kids, the big concrete cross jutting over the school’s no-nonsense double front doors, St. Mary’s once cracker-jack boys high school varsity baseball and basketball teams, Monday evening St. Mary’s catechism classes for public school kids like me, with strict parents like my Mom.
Along with its attached junior and senior high schools – the teeny elementary school built almost a century ago – Worcester will no longer have a good little Catholic school to anchor and calm down what’s pretty much become an inner-city drug neighborhood. As the WPD Swat Team busts down the doors of Ward Street and Perry Ave apartments looking for baggies of heroin and AK 47’s, St. Mary’s school and small junior and senior high school buildings – add-ons from the early 1960s when the kids of Polish immigrants had grown up and assimilated into Worcester life and THEIR kids could aspire to college or high-end office work in Worcester’s many banks and insurance companies – will bid Worcester a quiet adieu. The neat brick buildings, with shiny hardwood floors and high old school ceilings (some decorative), will probably be snapped up by some Boston developer to be converted into chi chi Canal District condominiums. And so goes gentrification …
I believe my old neighborhood’s transformation is a reflection of Donald Trump’s America: It’s all about money and spending it on STUFF to impress yourself and others. It’s all about STUFF. Acquiring the best STUFF – and selling the rest of your STUFF to make MONEY. And now the trendy boo boo tea has arrived and, as always, the millennial pubs/barrooms with their expensive, glorified pub food, beckon. Places to see and be seen.
To heck with the Virgin Mary, God the Father, short, sadistic St. Mary’s junior high nuns (my two kid sisters, St. Mary’s students grades 5 through 12, knew a few). Goodbye to St. Mary’s high school’s pretty good cheer leader squad, May Day Virgin Mary processions to our Lady of Czechtohowa church down the hill on Ward Street. The holy parade began at the St. Mary’s schools on Richland, students from grades 1 to 12 lined up in pairs. It was led by the prettiest high school senior girl – usually blond haired, lithe and fresh as the delicate crown of flowers she wore! My late mother, a student at St. Mary’s until grade 8, when she had to go to work as a housekeeper for the Bishop of Springfield, remembered the holy songs they sang in Polish during the walk down the hill. She sang them to me: awful. Lugubrious. Like many Polish church hymns. Plus, my mother couldn’t carry a note. Like I said: God awful!! The female students, grades 1 to 12, dressed in their grey, red plaid modest school uniforms, skirts below the knees, and all the boys, even the adorable but sloppy six year olds, in navy blue slacks, white shirts and red ties … all following this vision of perfectly virginal young womanhood. A paen to purity!!! A symbol of love of God!!
St. Mary’s schools were filled with statues of the Infant of Prague (like this one – Rose’s) and the saints – in all classrooms and hallways.
The schools’s teachers – all nuns in my mom and sisters’s school days – the classes were not as advanced as the best Worcester Public Schools classes, my educational petri dish, grades K through 12!! … but the St. Mary’s kids were all good kids – weren’t tough like the WPS kids I swam with – and the classes were solid, a good foundation for Worcester State College. The St. Mary’s classes, in the beginning, were bilingual, taught in English and Polish … the Three R’s were taught in clean, perfectly hushed classrooms. Memorization was a must, perfect penmanship expected, lots of reading about the saints – and America! You were taught to revere American history and to read lots of American poetry, my mom once said. The nuns honored Jesus – and Longfellow and Whitman. Ma once showed me her 8th grade English black and white comp book – yes, she saved it. In it, in her crisp penmanship, English sentences were diagrammed, verbs conjugated and “CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN!” was written out in her American Poetry section. All the students in Ma’s class had to copy the poem carefully into their comp books, as Sister Justine wrote the stanzas on the blackboard for them. Then they had to go home, memorize the poem, and the next day, stand up by their desks and recite the it in front of the entire class. For a grade. Best reciter got a special First Place rosary from Sister Justine!
Rose’s mom, left, and auntie were St. Mary’s school students until grade 8. Then they went to work as housekeepers, during the Great Depression, to help support the family.
The funnest part of the St. Mary’s experience – for me, my kid sisters and half the St. M’s school population? The walk down Richland and Endicott streets after school was let out to Pete’s Dairy Bar, at the corner of Endicott and Millbury streets. A kind of Green Island Happy Day’s hangout bar, with rock n roll music playing on the juke box, kids slamming the sides of the big pinball machines by the windows – for a quarter, hot fudge sundaes and hamburgers, French fries and Cokes brought to your booth – or you could eat your burger at the counter and banter with the miiddle-aged owner-soda jerk. After school, for more than an hour, as kids waited for their parents to pick them up or buses or just to hang out with their friends, Pete’s Dairy Bar, on a great school day, was swarming with kids – 50 or 60 kids in uniforms, neckties loosened, the first few blouse buttons unbuttoned. St. M’s kids, all laughing, joking, a little rowdy, letting off steam – and sipping their root beer floats or Cokes. I was one of those kids, after a day at Providence Street Junior High, meeting up with my St. Mary’s kid sisters … and seeing their friends, kids with names like Barbara, Mary, Joannie, Joseph, Francis, Paul. … All good kids who graced Pete’s …
Worcester’s small parish schools did gangbusters in the early 20th century when fresh off the boat Polish immigrants like my Bapy and Jaju – who couldn’t speak a word of English – pretty much ran to their neighborhood’s ethnic Catholic churches and parish schools for HELP. They needed clothes, food, jobs, schooling for their kids – as well as a sacred place to pray to their God in their native tongues. As the decades wore on, the schools mission modernized but not by much. You still prayed before and during school. You made your first holy communion with your classmates, you studied hard and were respectful to your teachers. Worcester had a bunch of these church-parish school duos, all over the city: St. Stephen’s on the East Side for the Italians, St. Casmir’s in Vernon Hil for the Lithuanians, St. Peter’s in Main South for the Irish. A terrific immigrant support system and America rah rah!! machine!! You learned: SPEAK ENGLISH! WORK HARD! HONOR YOUR ELDERS! GOD IS GREAT! AMERICA IS GREAT! BE A SUCCESS IN AMERICA! STRIVE! ALWAYS STRIVE!
Now, all a memory.
Now, you brush the hair from your pandemic forehead and behold: all the homeless young people congregating and sleeping under the Green Street bridge, the sweet 15-year-old Ward Street kid meeting his man … he is so beautifully pale, ethereal. He is so sweet to your two dogs while sitting on the curbstone waiting for his man. You go home – and cry for him. The pretty Madonnas in bathtubs in front yards all along Ward Street, Perry Ave, Sterling Street – all gone. Most of the three deckers there don’t even have curtains on their windows …
When I was a kid growing up in Green Island, we never saw this scene, walking under the Green Street Bridge, on our way downtown to Woolworths or the Mart: photo below – of a gaggle of young, attractive homeless YOUNG people. People in their 20s or 30s with their whole lives ahead of them – zonked out, high, sprawled out before garbage pails overflowing with refuse. In the chi chi Canal District a 2-minute walk from the gourmet cupcake shop and organic makeup vendor and doggie speciality shoppe. …
On Lafayette Street, when I was a little girl, we had a few homeless people in the neighborhood, but they were usually guys – older guys, hardcore alcoholics suffering … from aloneness, hunger, DTs. They were, heartlessly, called bums or winos back then. No one talked about addiction or mental health or physical health problems. These guys were considered weak, “losers” – failures at life. No one expected them to ever get a job, get married and live with a wife in a home or even sober up, stop drinking. Lafayette Street, especially Millbury Street towards the Crompton Park side, was lined with crumby dank uriney smelling bars where these guys drank and drank for cheap and then stumbled to Hotel Vernon or some other Millbury Street flophouse to sleep it all off. As a teen, I once counted 24 stinking hole in the wall barrooms on Millbury Street. So Worcester’s Canal District was once Worcester’s Skid Row! … You saw the “bums” walking to school or catechism class at St. Mary’s
… There they were, sleeping it off, hunched over, disheveled and smelly in various and sundry Millbury Street doorways. The guys could be a little scary when they were awake – rush up to a little kid to demand a quarter. Many a day my kid sisters and I RAN past those Millbury Street bars on the way to visit our mom at work at the cleaners or grab a hamburger at Messiers Diner after school. The bums didn’t stop us from enjoying the real pleasures of Green Island – we just had to run down Millbury Street to get to them!
I suppose, despite the phony political correctness nowadays and new Canal District moniker and dreadful gentrifier Allen Fletcher STILL squatting on our Ash Street – THINGS HAVE GOTTEN WORSE IN MY OLD NEIGHBORHOOD. Instead of just a handful of winos sprawled out on the Canal District streets, there are a ton of heroin-addicted, glue sniffing YOUNG PEOPLE there! Street kids who have no flophouses to give them shelter from the storm – or a place to temporarily sober up. … Nope. Worcester is TEEMING with alcohol- and drug-addicted YOUNG PEOPLE – you see them by the train tracks outside the new Blackstone Visitors Center, a stone’s throw from Holy Cross College. You see them on Cambridge Street, Webster Square, Vernon Hill. Backpacks on tight, maybe walking with another pal from the streets. With the pandemic forcing many of us to curtail our activities, some days, driving around Worcester, that’s all I see is homeless people! Some days I will see MORE HOMELESS PEOPLE THAN average Woo working peeps. It is heartbreaking. It is bleak. It is the New Woo Normal. Encampments in our woodsier city parks or green nooks. Right before the last storm, I saw a guy, in his 30s, over stuffed backpack on back, casually walking into the woods on Greenwood Street – going home, to shelter in maybe the tent he set up.
WHY DO WE AS A CITY ALLOW THIS? WHY CAN’T WE HELP? GIVE THESE YOUNG PEOPLE SAFE, CLEAN, DRY PLACES TO SHELTER …or just to sleep it off? 50 years ago flophouses served a purpose, as did SROs, as did the PIP: to keep the lowliest among us from suffering in the gutter. Dying in filth. To GIVE ALL AN AFFORDABLE HOME. We have lost our way as a society. Our Worcester city councilors and city managers leading the march to NO EMPATHY LAND. We thought by eradicating these cheap cots/hots we would eradicate addiction, human pain, hopelessness from our city. But there is no limit to human suffering, and when the Red Sox AAA stadium is built the homeless kids under the Green Street Bridge will be pushed out … to a new Worcester bridge or underpass, with their used works, beat up cell phones and overflowing shopping wagons in tow.
Rose’s kid sister “Mary,” to the left of the pony, in the big play area of the Girls Club – or Winthrop House – on Vernon Hill with chubby sis Rose, far right, and twin sis standing next to Rose.
My sister, who lives outside Boston, has Parkinson’s Disease. I got the news about three weeks ago. Still “processing” it but have given up trying to figure out how I can SAVE her, how, as my wont, I can jump in and RESCUE “Mary,” make this awful sickness go away, like I tried to do for my late mom when she got sick. My kid sister, like all of us in the family, came up tough, so she is pretty stoic – her stoicism wrapped in HOPE and her love of God. So, like our late mother would do, probably like I would do, too, she is keepin’ keepin’ on: going to work, 9 – 5, Monday – Friday, except that now a special needs van picks her up and takes her to her job in the human services, which she LOVES, and brings her home at the end of her work day … going to church on Sunday, cleaning her apartment, being a part of her parish’s prayer group …
My sister, like our late mom, always loved to work. She got her first job at 14 1/2 (her new social security card and work card in her new Whites Five and Ten vinyl wallet) on Millbury Street working as a clerk at Commercial Fruit Store, working for one of her favorite bosses – “Macho,” a Greek(?) immigrant who was funny, loving/gruff and opinionated, spouting critiques of his customers and family who worked by his side and falling over little patches of ice in the big Commercial walk-in freezer. His goofy insults were delivered in jumbled, half-English “Machoisms” that my sister loved to share with us all, after she walked home from work, still wearing her mint green sales girl smock (proudly, I think). “Phillip, where you know … ” my sister would yell in a thick trippy accent or, because Macho was short, squat and had the butt of a picnic table, big and squarish, my kid sister would have fun backing into our kitchen the way Macho would back out of his Commericial Fruit freezer, butt first and swishing back and forth, his own bustling bustle, if you can imagine it. We all laughed at her Macho impressions! She was skinny but everyone could see Macho in her!!
Macho treated my sister like family and, even during her college years, Mary worked for him and his family with LOVE, reveling in the Christmas holiday spirit at the shop where, under soft yellow flourescent lights and surrounded by all matter of fruit beautifully displayed on sky-blue-painted staircase shelves that circled the entire little store she made holiday fruit gift basketd. Amid all the laughs, orders and the silly Machoisms flying in the middle of that Millbury Street staple (located next door to Lisbon’s Shoe Store), Mary made gigantic fruit baskets. Easy! She would take a ton of delicious Commercial fruit, a can of mixed nuts, a package of sweet, sticky, pitted dates and artfully place then arrange them in a big basket with big arched handle. Then she’d wrap it all in clear or colored cellophane wrap and shiny Christmas ribbon – then top it off with a big red or green bow secured to the top of the handle. Saw her work her magic a few times. Sometimes after school at Burncoat High, I’d visit. Mary was always industrious and smiling. She was the pretty one, with high forehead and straight teeth and pretty smile. She loved to walk downtown on a Saturday snd buy herself a pretty dress at Filenes Basement – and often a little gift for Ma and me.
Of course, my sister gave all her pay check to our mother, a single working mom struggling to keep our poor little gang together with her own minimum wage job at the drycleaners down the street. Our peripatetic Daddy was “with” us during our junior and high school years, but he left our Lafayette Street flat each morning, after Ma made and served him his breakfast, with his own agenda and itinerary. A job to help support wife, three kids and old granny definitely not on his list. So Mary, at 14 1/2 years old, was the Daddy.
Mary was so generous. She would, as they used to say, “give you the shirt off her back.” Ma raised her to be selfless, but it also came naturally to Mary, I think. She just loved to give. She was the kind daughter. Our downstairs neighbor was told our mother, with emotion in her voice: “She’s gold.”
Mary learned, through her early experience on Lafayette Street, that giving is its own reward, kinda like the way I felt when I gave out around 100 new donated hats and scarves to Worcester’s homeless folks this past winter. When I first got my first batch of donations from gal pal Dorrie, I winced and felt: This is going to be uncomfortable. BUT IT WASN’T! IT FELT GREAT!! TO GIVE SOMETHING TO SOMEONE WHO REALLY NEEDED IT, TO FEEL THEIR THANKFULNESS, to have them come up to you and say, BLESS YOU! THANK YOU, ‘MAM! THANK YOU FOR BEING SO NICE!
It was only a hat!
I got hooked on the love! I asked my friends for more donations, even got a beautiful long fake sheepskin winter coat, like new, AND GAVE IT TO A SLIP OF A WOMAN SITTING UNDER the Green Street Bridge. I would drive by in the dead of winter and see her in jacket coughing her head off … FOR HER, A WARM COAT …
Mary would do this years before it all became trendy. When I was in college, she would go to Charlies Surplus sports store on Water Street and buy and send me a half dozen pair of white basketball tube socks. I didn’t play basketball and they went up to my knees, but I loved them. Charlie’s!! When I successfully completed my first year at college, she sent me a dozen roses from her and Ma. She would give our loser father money, if her asked for it! Right after college, holding her first professional job, Daddy put the pinch to her – and Mary gave our loser father $800! A lot of dough back then! I went nuts! He is so awful! I said to her. GET IT BACK! She just looked at me and shrugged her shoulders …
So my other sister calls me last week with a similar gripe: “Mary is giving money to people she meets on the T! And on the streets! I told her: ‘You need the money!’ ”
I could hear the panic in my sister’s voice, but I was PROUD of Mary. And moved. Our Mary – as radical as ever! I could never be that GREAT. It was like standing next to my kid sis on Lafayette Street, by the old Philco, laughing about Macho, marveling at her sweet pretty smile. I said to my other sis: “It’s her money. Let her spend it the way she likes. This makes her happy. The people are grateful, they love her.”
Then I hung up my phone and said out loud to no one in particular: “Gold.”
Amherst: Rose, left, with kid sister “Mary” who came to visit Rose on Rose’s graduation day from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.
Too hot out to do anything (90 degrees here in the city) except hang out in my shack and lounge with the dogs …
Lilac lounging on Rose’s bed as Rose writes this blog post. pics: Rose T.
… and kitty Cece … three rotating electric fans on, HONEYMOONERS videos playing, making me smile, chuckle …. LOVE my Honeymooners. The TV show is 70 years old, in black and white, primitive set, picture grainy … you can see the beads of sweat trickle down Jackie Gleason’s heavy bulldog face as he acts his heart out under those bright, hot spotlights. He was inventing this new medium, Television, along with Lucy and Desi and Uncle Milty. … Gleason was also doing therapy on himself, bringing back to life HIS impoverished childhood in NYC … his struggling family, the early family deaths … he was channeling his Irish American father who was poor and died early leaving the young Jackie to support the family. My late mother loved Gleason. Now I understand why. Now I do, too.
I have my fave Honey Mooners episode on now:
The beautiful SONGWRITERS.
An atypical Honeymooners episode. The shows usually revolved around more homespun themes: Ralph forgets his wedding anniversary, Ralph wants to get the $50 that is in his old coat pocket, the old coat Alice just donated to the Salvation Army … Ralph and Norton buy a neighborhood candy store … The two couples, city slickers, go camping … Ralph and Norton have a fight and stop speaking to each other … Ralph and Alice almost, almost, adopt a baby girl abandoned on Ralph’s bus.
This show, for me, the best Honeymooners show, hands down, transcends all that. A Lost Epidode, but one that lets me find myself and America over and over again!
In it, Ralph and Norton buy a piano and they decide they are the next Rodgers and Hammerstein. Songwriters! From Brooklyn!! Sure, there are the usual fun Honeymooner bits: the hilarious Norton gestures and flailing arms, the make-up kiss Ralph plants on his pretty wife’s lips at the end of each episode, the trusty Trixie playing sounding board to the exasperated Alice, the fat jokes, the sewer jokes, but … Something about SONGWRITERS, for me
The show opens with the boys at their weekly RACOONs meeting; a professional songwriter visits these NYC blue collar Elks to deliver the new Raccoon theme song he wrote special for them. The Raccoons president pays him $100 for the song!! For a simple little ditty! Ralph’s eyes bulge – especially after the songwriter tells Ralph the $100 is peanuts for him – you make the big bucks as a professional songwriter: from royalties, radio play, records.
The boys think: THIS IS A SNAP! We can do this!! Norton has a way with the piano, he can play a song on a piano right after he hears it. Ralph used to write his own Valentine’s cards when he was in grammar school!
So the boys take the money with which Ralph was going to buy a new refrigerator for his apartment – the old icebox’s door fell off again – and buy a new upright piano. It is delivered to their apartment the next day when Ralph’s at work:
When Alice, at home being a wife, sees the huge delivery box in her kitchen, she thinks it’s a new fridge. Ralph comes home, pulls off the front and Alice pulls on her ENRAGED, I MARRIED A DOPE persona. Just a mask. …: “RALPH, GET RID OF THAT PIANO!!”
Ralph responds with his I Make the Money – I’m King of This Castle bellow: “Don’t tell me what to do!” GET OUTA THE WAY, ALICE! SONGWRITERS AT WORK!!
This 20 minute Honey Mooners episode says it all: America, the poor America, the dreaming America, the upward-bound America, the Great Depression America – before and after FDR. Back then, all of Hollywood’s writers and directors and the Broadway songsters ACTUALLY DID HAIL FROM BACKGROUNDS LIKE RALPH’S. They were often poor Jews, Eastern Europeans from THE BIG CITY GHETTO. FIRST GENERATION AMERICANS – or immigrants – that the rest of America looked down on, laughed at even: Irving Berlin, Billy Wilder, Herman Mankowitz, to name a few. Ethnic poor boy geniuses … who could self-actualize in the great, shiny America! Bloom here, change their names and work their genius, become rich and buy mansions in new beautiful neighborhoods in their new beautiful country! And they wrote the most beautiful American movies and songs! Movies we still watch and love, like SUNSET BOULEVARD or THE APARTMENT. Or songs we still sing with affection. Tunes that have the best lyrics and are a joy to chirp, like I’LL TAKE MANHATTEN! … Ralph and Norton were being realistic when Ralph bought that piano!
I’ll take it!
I also, in this lost HM episode, still see American city poverty. I see my Lafayette Street childhood. Irving Berlin’s and Jackie Gleason’s, too: the drab, old kitchen where ALL the important discussions took place. Where all the fights happened. All the hugs exchanged, all the kisses planted – demurely and passionately. For 17 years I did my Worcester Public Schools, K – 12, homework at our kitchen table, our old, round-cornered refridgerator up against the wall, humming in the background, Ma peeling potatoes for our beef stew over at the gas stove, Bapy’s Jesus picture from Poland nailed crookedly above the small fridge. Me, a kid, looking up at the Jesus picture, Jesus’s arms raised, his heart pierced and bleeding like in an x ray. I feel safe and content. In the ghetto.
In the ghetto kitchen impoverished lives unfolded. Didn’t happen in a living room, or a shrink’s office, or at a restaurant booth, or even in the confessional booth at St. Mary’s church! Nope. It all happened IN THE BIG KITCHEN, just like at the Kramdens. You opened your back door – really your front door – and walked right into your kitchen. The biggest room in your tenement. Communal. Community. Family. Food. Love. Plans. Disappointments. Coffee. Warm stove. … Bedrooms were small – meant only for sleeping. Bathrooms small,too, corridor-like – 100 per cent utilitarian! No spa-like experience ever in our Lafayette Street bathroom!
But I digress: Back to Ralph and Norton. They are in their big kitchen, Norton seated at their upright piano, Ralph hovering over the piano. They are trying to compose a tune. Create.
Norton is driving Ralph crazy with his musical warm-ups. Ralph is reciting his grammar school poetry: “ears as soft as a bunny’s…” he sings. … The night wears on. The piano goes back to the music store tomorrow. The boys are getting nowhere…singing snippets, Norton tinkling the ivories …
Then a neighbor upstairs in their building starts screaming: SHUT UP! YOU HAVE NO TALENT! Another: I CAN’T SLEEP!! Ralph gives it back to them, yelling: “McGarrity, you wouldn’t know a good song if you heard one!” McGarrity: “Why don’t you try me, Ralph?!”
… and this married dame in the building … her baby cries all night and keeps Ralph up! Why is she carping?! Ralph runs to the kitchen radiator pipe to hammer it in anger at her. … Then it hits him: His neighbors’ noise, the clanging garbage cans, the banging of radiators, his GHETTO WORLD … That’s the SONG! There’s THE POETRY!!!!
“THE GARBAGE CANS GO CLANG/
THE RADIATORS GO BANG …” Ralph croons.
The boys go with the flow, chronicling their city-living trials and tribulations, but still finding TRUE love, amid the city buses and sewers. They write a great song!:
“A car outside gets a flat/
Someone steps on a cat …
“… You can have your quiet/
It takes a little riot/
to make a house a HOME. …
“IT’S MY LOVE SONG TO YOU.”
Ralph’s love song to his life with Alice and their best friends. Jackie Gleason’s love song to his hardscrabble childhood and a poor but HOPEFUL America … a love song to my ol’ Green Island, too.♥️
Gleason only filmed 1 Season of The Honeymooners – 39 episodes.
Couldn’t find clip of Ralph and Norton singing the song.
Yesterday I saw our WPD – our day to day beat cops – at their BEST. Guns were fired on Hope Ave. and WHOOSH!!!! I was driving in South Worcster running my biz – but SoWoo quickly became A MOVIE! It was like the ENTIRE Worcester Police FORCE WAS RUSHING TO THE GUNFIRE. Scores of guys from all directions. To Save people. To get the bad guys! To put themselves in harm’s way for … the citizenry. In a matter of minutes!
On Cambridge Street I saw WPD police cruisers converged on a three decker.
Cambridge Street. pics: R.T.
Up a ways on Canterbury I saw one of their cool undercover vice squad guys zooming to the action. So young! So fearless. Now the lights were flashing and the the siren was on in his crumby hoodmobile. The cop looked just like a punk. I mean. WOW.
Then a ton more police cruisers on Webster Street where several kids were stopped, on the sidewalk, outside their vehicle looking … concerned. One cop was GINGERLY leading one of the kids into the paddy wagon. Handled with care. No police brutality to my eyes. And, of course, Hope Ave. was yellow taped and our boys and gals in blue were down there on top of things. Pics were taken of this long black box in the driveway of the Webster Sq Firehouse by a cool lady cop.
Webster Square Fire Station
Hard at work. Serious stuff.
Traffic was stopped and slowed down. All the cops were working together, no yelling, no strutting their stuff. … I couldn’t even hear them talk! And believe me, I was doing some serious rubber necking! Our police officers were total professionals. The WPD at its finest.
Now, a letter from one of our readers:
I am emailing you to let you know of the problem of fireworks going off and the WPD response to our complaints. I live at 44 Elm St. and a man comes to the parking lot of the Ghanaian Presbyterian Church almost every night (except when it rains) and shoots off fireworks. He has set a nearby bush on fire (photo attached) and terrified two Yemeni children rescued from the fighting living next door.
I am terrified he will set the trees under my unit on fire or disrupt the gas meters on the outside of the building. When I have called the WPD …there is no action taken when the fireworks are being shot off at that moment. Last night (7/8/2020) the police claimed they never heard of the Ghanaian Presbyterian Church (the former Chestnut Street Congregational Church)!!!
Today, myself and a friend went down,in person, to WPD headquarters to speak to an officer and were sent home with a promise of beat officers coming to speak with us. We came home and waited…no one called or came.
My friend called the WPD again…said no information or contact info was left…we left contact info. This is so frustrating.
Could you cover this problem? I am sure we aren’t the only people who have experienced this recently.
Editor’s response: Althea, we’ve been on this CITY-WIDE ISSUE since the end of June!! THESE NEW FIREWORKS ARE MAJOR. LIKE EAST PARK FIREWORKS. LOUD. PROPULSIVE. LIKE BEING IN A WAR ZONE. They can start fires in buildings, if fired too closely – which they usually are, right in the middle of our densely populated city neighborhoods. We call, too. And we stay on top of the guys that shoot the works! You have to! The cops are overwhelmed with major stuff(see my above post). … We called you – and left a voicemail. Call us!
– Rose T.
Ever want to make a pasta topping that doesn’t have tomatoes in it? Well, there are other options!
This quickie is simple. You need to take about four or five carrots, peel them and run them through your food processor or grate on a box grater …
Like a regular sauce, you add onion and some garlic to a sauce pan and sauté them down …
Add the carrots and a little water …
… and simmer with a cover. When the carrots are soft, add chickpeas or navy beans or any other kind of beans you like:
If you like, add a little salt and pepper. Voila! You have a great light summer sauce!
Instead of carrots, you can use zucchini …
… – or both! To really dress it up, just before you serve, add a handful of fresh, chopped basil. Enjoy!❤
GREEN ISLAND HOOP DREAMIN’
By Rosalie Tirella
I can’t wait for all this pandemic stuff to end … eventually … so the brandy new Crompton Park basketball courts can open up to Green Island kids and the city’s Crompton Park Summer Basketball League can start up again! …
The City of Worcester did a GREAT job: new courts, new hoops, new bleachers, benches, landscaping … outside: new sidewalks, trees …
The Endicott/Harding streets entrance to Crompton Park, left. Trees are being planted …❤
❤When we were kids growing up in Green Island, my younger sister Rita LOVED PLAYING HOOP! But the Crompton Park basketball courts – and league – were the boys’ business and young men’s, and the guys who hung out at Ben’s Cafe or the PNI on Lafayette Street – many tough, buzz-drunk and knife-carrying. I remember walking by the Crompton Park basketball court with Rita on the Endicott Street side. I was oblivious to the men, boys, sweaty, grunty pick up games, but Rita kept looking wistfully at the guys dribbling that b-ball and doing those fancy lay-up shots – which my kid sister could also execute, perfectly, with her own signature flourishes! – and taking those “free throws” from the court’s faded white lines – which my kid sister could also easily execute.
But the times were different back then. My sister and I knew that she was out of the games because she was a girl, a skinny girl, a quiet girl. Still, she found ways, as all athletic girls in the ‘hood found ways to celebrate their God-given talents. Rita was young and gifted: she found all the places in the city a girl, in the mid-1970s, could play hoop, could be brutally athletic, could run unabashedly, like a boy, and leap and yell and not care how she looked or sounded to the world. Not lady-like. But beautiful in her own beauty! … So Rita played hoop in my Uncle Mark’s driveway with our boy cousins. Uncle Mark had tarred the parking lot, nailed up a brand new basketball hoop with backboard above his garage door. Every holiday, many summer, spring and fall days Uncle Mark would leave his cozy Burncoat ranch and drive to our Lafayette Street three decker, and honk his car horn right under our tenement and Ma and us kids would run down the stairs, scramble into his big gold Elektra and drive off … so we could all hang out in his and his wife’s, our Aunt Mary’s, big back yard and have a hamburger and hotdog cook out, courtesy of Aunt Mary. Ma would sit at their big picnic table and chat with Aunt Mary as she made the feast. I would be on a blanket with my cousin Mary playing Barbies – my cousin had Barbie, Stacy, Skipper, Ken and three Barbie wardrobe cases filled with Barbie clothes and shoes. … Rita would play basketball with our two boy cousins. Both jocky. Whomp. Whomp. Whomp went the real, regulation sized basketball against the backboard. Whoah!! yelled my cousins and sister as their basketball game heated up. My Uncle Mark was an elementary school principal but had loved and played football in college and almost went pro at college graduation. But his life changed when he met and fell in love with my aunt, married her, had three kids with her, began teaching history, bought a teeny house in Burncoat and reveled in the Eisenhower American GI Dream. Uncle Mark loved to see ALL kids playing sports and running under hoops and nets. He always took the older balls from his school and gave them to us kids: scuffed up basketballs; pink, slightly deflated dodge balls; hard regulation sized brown footballs that could smash a window; and less than pristine (beige) volley balls … My sister coveted them all. Uncle Mark gave us our share … I see: Ma grabbing a football from Uncle Mark and smiling her pretty smile…I see het carrying it up our old stairs to our third floor apartment … where Rita slept with her fave Uncle Mark hand-me-down basketball!
Rita’s other second homes: the St. Mary’s high school gym with new basketball court and rows of polished wooden bleachers and shiny red and white painted line floor … and the Winthrop House Girls Club on Providence Street. Our Vernon Hill Girls Club had a big, beat-up basketball court that doubled as a roller-skating rink for us girls …free roller skates for us to use, a free p a system where we could play donated ROLLING STONE albums … Rita played hoop there or often roller skated along the perimeter to I CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION.
I read my old TIGER BEAT or played Jacks with my cousin, Mary, Uncle Mark’s daughter, in the gym, off to the side, swaying to the Stones. I FELL IN LOVE WITH THE ROLLING STONES MUSIC then, in the corner, outside the painted foul lines, of the Girls Club basketball court, playing Jacks with my cousin.
Anywhere there was rope netting strung through a metal hoop there was my kid sister! Rita loved to run on the St. Mary’s basketball court, the Lamartine Street School cement schoolyard, Uncle Mark’s little driveway … loved to run. Period. She’d hang out at the Lamartine school yard and play Dodge ball or even soccer, not as popular back then, with our downstairs neighbor boys. Sometimes the boys would come up to our flat, to our screen door and rap on it loudly and ask Ma: CAN RITA COME OUT AND PLAY BASEBALL?
It was in the sandlot next door – with a gifted kid named RICH GEDMAN leading the show! Rich lived down the street from us and had his own hardscrabble childhood to overcome. The future Red Sox catcher was a good, quiet kid who could swing that bat and hit that ball over the roof of Val’s building a half block away!! My sister would run wicked fast after that home run! Rich liked Rita. He, like all the boys, never had much use for me – never asked Ma for me to come down and play baseball or softball. Sometimes whiffle ball, if they were desperate and needed a warm body on their team. I was the useless book worm. Rita could hit, field, throw, even pitch. I watched outside our third floor window sometimes but went back to my crafts or my writing.
Rita never walked anywhere in our ol’ Green Island. She ran to Whites, to Oscars, to Messiers Diner, to Petes Dairy Bar on Millbury Street. I always ran after her, struggled to keep up with my jock sister, my knee socks falling down around my ankles. Wait for me, Rita! I’d yell. She had so little body fat. I was mostly body fat.
Our mother, seeing all the uncorked Rita energy EVERY DAY in our house, in our dirt backyard, on the sandlot next door pushed Rita to try out for the St. Mary’s Girls JV and Varsity Basketball Teams. Junior and Senior High Teams. Rita did – and made the teams. She got: a cool red uniform, b-ball practices in the school gym, demanding coaches, home and away b-ball games – and her #1 rabid fan: Ma.
Our single, working-poor, over-worked mother would walk to the St. Marys gym on Richland Street after working all day as a counter girl at the Millbury Street dry cleaners to watch Rita play her home games. …
Still standing: Oscar’s, the dry cleaners where Ma worked.
… or to get a ride with another parent to an away game. Sometimes I would join my mother, but I wasn’t into sports. I got bored during the games, only tagged along because I had a crush on Rita’s teammate and friend’s big brother John. He often went to the games to watch his kid sister play b ball. I went to gawk at him: his tallness, his pretty eyes, his artistic/drawing abilities … his beautiful, thick wavy blond hair that brushed the tops of his shoulders.
But Ma was really engaged! She watched the score board with hawk eyes. Got up and cheered and cheered! After a 10 hour day at the dry cleaners! After her paltry snack and brown bag lunch at work … I can still see her: dumpling shaped, with slightly hunched shoulders from all that labor … getting up, standing on her bleacher seat!! TO CHEER AND SCREAM if Rita intercepted the other team’s pass and got the basketball and was now dribbling the basket ball up the court, going for that lay up. To score those precious two points to help WIN the game!!!
GO! GO! GO, Rita!! our little hunch- backed mother would scream. GO!!! Rita dribbled that b-ball like mad, in her own zone, hearing Ma just along the edges, I am sure. I see my gangly kid sister, knobby-kneed, running and bobbing and weaving in and out of enemy territory TO SCORE! I see Ma in her plum, beige or maroon polyester pants and long matching vests in the same drab colors, the ones that covered her middle-aged-lady tummy, the vests she bought at White’s – with their two big side pockets that held her work pens, scratch pad, receipt pad … and rosary.
I was a little embarrassed. My little mother, an inch over 5 feet tall, flecks of grey hair at the temples, was going bananas! In the bleachers! With the other kids! Ma’s arthritic, knotty knuckles raised in fists with the kids … pumping up and down in the humid, sweat-smelly gym. GO, RITA! GO, RITA!!! Ma screamed.🏀🏀🏀🏀 Our unforgettable mother, Cecelia, with her great, unbreakable heart CHEERING HER SCRAWNY JOCK DAUGHTER TO THE HEAVENS! Hoop lady. Prayer lady! I am next to her now, turn to see Ma whispering a Hail Mary for Rita and making a cross with her crooked right thumb on her thin lips. Hoop prayers. Hoop dreams for her beloved daughter … Ma …
Still standing but soon to be gentrified: Lafayette Street where Rose and her two kid sisters grew up.
Ma and toddler Rose, at Crompton Park: on the knoll, now gone, a ways from the b-ball court.
Pic of Rose when Green Island celebrated July 4th with BONFIRES!
I’ve celebrated the Fourth 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 grandmother in “the Island”:
I am a little kid – about 9 – 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 middle-aged lady who lives across the way from our rickety three decker in her rickety six-unit building, on her third-floor porch. A big, weed-choked, empty lot lies between our buildings but that is all. The vegetation hasn’t kept Val from inserting herself into ours – everyone’s – lives.
She is wearing a negligee today – for the Fourth of July. I can see it from my back porch. She is on her back porch talking loudly. I swear I can see her bright red lips from my third floor porch! In 10 years I will have learned the word “slatternly,” and it will remind me of Val … but today I am a little kid so Val is just … Val.
AMERICA – ALWAYS #1 IN ROSE’S HEART
Val is very drunk on this special national holiday – in a very happy, friendly way. She is talking with anyone who passes 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 chat back. I am standing on my porch, quiet as a mouse, not even smiling because I know Val can be scary sometimes. On a few occasions she has battled with my granny, called my granny, also feisty, a DP – Dumb Polack – during one of their shouting matches held across their back porches. DP, my mom tells me, really stands for Displaced Persons, what they sometimes called immigrants. Val is being mean when she yells DP at my granny, who doesn’t miss a beat and yells back: KISS MY ASSY! and turns her plump little dumpling shaped butt to Val – while standing on our back porch – and tap, taps her butt which is covered in those sweet all flannel nighties with little pink rose buds on them. Bapy – Polish for Granny – 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 the kitchen, at the head of the kitchen table, a place from which she candrink her cup of coffee, eat her egg sandwich and see and comment on all the household happenings. She has been sitting there my whole life! I love her with all my heart!
But I digress. Val is out on her porch today in her negligee because it is the Fourth of July, a special day – for her and America. Val has turned and gone inside her apartment, a flat that is also home to her wimpy boyfriend, gorgeous blond 18 year old daughter from another guy, and two huge attack dogs: a German Shepherd and Doberman. Both fierce. Both having chased me up a fence more than a few times. Val doesn’t believe in walking her dogs to do poop. She just lets them out, they rush down the three flights of stairs like noisy moose and shit and pee in the little front yard and rush back upstairs. Val has them trained to a tee.
This ol’ Kodak Instamatic photo, taken by Rose when she was a kid, depicts her Green Island view from her third floor back porch. “Val”‘s building is on the right.
Val has come out of her flat – this time she is carrying her portable record player. I am watching all this from my back porch – not saying a word, not even smiling. Just waiting … . Val puts her record player down, hooks it up to a bunch of extension cords and I see her going back in, cord in hand. Then she comes out with a record album – a big one. I am guessing it is the same one she played last year, has the songs which we – the entire Bigelow Street neighborhood – heard last Fourth of July: patriotic tunes. The kind you can – like Val – march around on your Green Island porch to. Later I would learn these songs were written by John Philip Sousa.
Val puts on her lp. Cranks it up! Da da da da da da de da da! La da da da de da da! Boy, this music is good! Very up beat! I am tapping my feet! I look across the way and see Val crack open another beer and take a sloppy swig and lie on her reclining beach chair on her porch. I can see her relaxing through the slats on her porch through the slats on my porch!
The music is great! Val is getting drunker. …
It is a few hours later and Val is singing – to the entire neighborhood! The folks in our hood are getting ramped up! People are coming out and throwing chairs and sofas 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 flat. I go in doors and crow to my mom: THEY ARE GETTING READY FOR THE BIG BONFIRE, MA! To myself: HOORAY!
My mom, careworn, grimaces. She doesn’t say a word, never voices her disapproval of Val. But I know she is not thrilled with the situation. Sometimes she is the one who will call the Worcester Fire department when the flames of the big bonfire grow too huge and lap up the July night air and orange sparks fill our Green Island night. The fire has never spread cuz the neighborhood kids and adults have kept it in check with big poles that they use to poke at it. But the flames still worried my mom …
But the eve has just begun! I so want to be a part of the celebration and throw some of Bapy’s rags onto the bonfire! She has so many that she wraps her arms in for 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 old rags and puts on new ones. She always smells fecund. I love her odor! I still miss her Bapy smell!! If only we could re-smell all the people we have loved through the years. The men I have been with, my late mom who held me to her heavy Heaven Scented perfumed breasts as a child and a teen, my Bapy’s immigrant 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 mayhem. It was all a little too wild for us. We were the good kids. My mom the perfect mom who worked so hard at the dry cleaners and went to church with her three girls every Sunday. My mom knew everyone in the hood and was always polite and talked with folks, etc – she was not a snob. But, she liked to tell her girls, she would never sit and have a cigarette with the ladies, like half the women in our hood did – visiting each other in each other’s tenements, gossiping about folks, bitching about cheating husbands and boyfriends. My mother was busy raising her girls as perfectly as she could, making sure they went to school every day and did all their homework and got all As and went to bed early and ate well. She had no time to wallow in her poverty – or her husband’s wild ways. She – we – transcended the shit.
So, there I was, stuck on our third-floor porch. An observer. My sisters would be home from Crompton Park soon. They would love 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 watch.
My father would disappear for the day. Celebrate in his own fashion, I guess. He was as crooked as some of the guys in the hood, but he played out his crookedness in other parts of Worcester. I suspect the East Side of town. What my mom and us kids didn’t know wouldn’t hurt us.
… It was dark out now and Val was singing up a storm and marching around her porch. La di da di da!!! Bang bang! Someone had lit the bonfire and everyone was gathered around it! Except for me and my kid sisters. We were on our back porch eating Freeze Pops, mesmerized by the flames – they must have been two stories high! The folks in the hood out did themselves this year! It was like something you would see in an old Western movie – the Indians roasting an elk on a spit they had set up over the flames. People’s faces orange from the glow of the flames. Very primitive and real.
“Come out here, Ma!” I yelled to my mother. “Ya should see how big the bonfire is this year!!”
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 the next day. They 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 best of all. A day off she could celebrate with her favorite sister in her sister’s big back yard, my Uncle Mark grilling hamburgers and hot dogs on the big three legged grill he had stoked with those black brickettes he always doused with lighter fluid. Yum, yum, yum ! We were all pre-vegetarian in those days – ate meat, Nissaan white rolls and buns, potato chips, soda, Cheez-Its … the typical American BBQ 1960s fare. Heaven!
Ma would have none of it. She was busy making sandwiches for the cook out at Uncle Mark’s. She wanted us in bed early for tomorrow. We kids would have none of it. The flames were roaring! So was Val! Some jerk threw too many old tires on the bon fire, so now the air smelled awful! It was thick with gray smoke. We kids started coughing. Ma came out and took a look. Her mouth fell open. She looked at her three silly girls and frowned. I knew … She was calling 911.
In a matter of minutes the Worcester Fire Department had come and the fireman were hosing down the bon fire with their big hoses. The flames were doused out! Smoke was 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!
Chuck Berry. AN AMERICAN ICON. A FOUNDING FATHER OF ROCK N ROLL. … When I was in college, my boyfriend at UMass was a professional lighting technician for rock bands. All kinds of musical shows. Jazz and folk, too. He did lights for many a Chuck Berry show. He said: Chuck always worked alone. Not too friendly. Always brought his own gear. Tough to work with … A MUSICAL GENIUS.
… My guy LOVED DOING LIGHTS FOR BILLY JOEL AND BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. He said they treated their crew – everybody – with total respect and love.