Category Archives: Rosalie’s Blog

BABKA BREAD❤️⛄🎄

By Rosalie Tirella

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Rose’s ROOTS table. photos: R.T.

I just got in and plopped my just bought Babka bread on my ROOTS-table – the place in my new apartment where I’ve displayed photos and memorobilia of deceased dear ones, so I see them every day, so they’re a part of my daily life, inspirations for good living – and hopefully good columns! I plopped the Babka bread, a tall, round, Eastern European sweet bread, next to the big picture of my Polish immigrant grandmother, Bapy, seated with her eldest daughter, my Aunt Mary, and it landed with a thud. I smiled.

Babka bread is my favorite bread, and it was Bapy’s favorite bread. She could eat it every day of the week – plain, without butter – and never tire of its light texture and light, sweet taste. Bapy had no teeth and never wore her dentures, so she would “chew” away on her soft hunk of Babka, tearing pieces off and putting them into her small, shriveled mouth. She chewed all her food in a kind of yammering manner – her egg sandwiches, her slices of pound cake, her mashed potatoes, her mashed turnip, her cooked canned spinach – always looking a bit pained, but she wasn’t in pain – she just had to work a little harder at masticating. And she was in heaven during Christmas and she was feasting on Babka bread! Ma always served her a nice thick hunk of Babka on a pretty saucer, and she placed it right next to Bapy’s cup of Sanka, always brown with coffee stains and covered with bits of bread crumbs or egg yolks from the day’s meals.

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Rose’s Babka.

Babka is soft and sweet and practically melts in your mouth. There’s plain and raisin and raisin with rye seeds. Babies – as well as toothless Bapies – can eat plain Babka bread. I always loved the one made with raisins and rye seeds. Real peasant food: the rye seeds got stuck between your teeth but they gave the bread a hearty flavor, and the raisins were never added that special something, and you still tasted the egg and vanilla paste …

My big hunk of heaven was on sale at Price Chopper today for $7, so I grabbed it: a Polish girl’s childhood Christmas treat! I remember diving into so many “loaves” as a kid growing up in Green Island. Water, Green and Millbury streets – the neighborhood’s commercial streets – still had that Eastern European flavor, still reflected the delicacies and dreams of the Polish, Jewish and Lithuanian immigrants that once lived and worked in the neighborhood – my Jaju and Bapy from Poland, then Ma and her siblings, Bapy and Jaju’s kids. You could buy an ok Babka bread at the bakery on Millbury Street – and maybe pick up a pretty good one – not baked on the premises – at Bueler Brothers Market down the street – the famous sausage place. You could buy your Babka to go with the guys’ fresh made kibasa and jars of pigs knuckles. But cross Kelley Square, and the bakeries on Water Street were where the best Babkas in Worcester were sold. Every holiday season Worcesterites from the West Side, East Side, South Side, Main South, Downtown and Green Island converged on Widoffs and Lederman’s to buy the breads for their holiday dinner tables. Thousands of bulkies, tucked into thousands of brown paper bags, were sold. Hundreds upon hundreds of rye – marbled with pumpernickel, seedless, seeded – flew out the doors. Customers entered the bakeries, grabbed a number from the red ticket machines and stood shoulder to shoulder, smooshed up against the bakeries’ display cases for what seemed like eternity, waiting, waiting , waiting for their number to be called. “I’LL HAVE TWO DOZEN BULKIES! … AND A BABKA!” went the mantra. Our little family was so poor! But never felt poor on our street – Water Street! The bulkies were cheap, we bought them every Sunday morning after mass, along with hundreds of Worcester folks. The Babka was a bit pricey…but it was Christmas time, and Ma had her small Christmas bonus from the dry cleaners, so she could treat us and Bapy to a fancy bread. Bapy lived with us on the third floor of an old Lafayette Street three decker – she was old and crippled and never left our tenement, but when she was young and raising her children she – and Jaju – shopped in Water Street. In the early part of the 20th century, the street had more of a market place feel to it – Jaju said the shop keepers sold live chickens and rabbits for stew and he’d tease the little monkey wearing a hat and dancing for the customers’ pennies. The monkey’s best trick – sticking his rear end out to customers – and patting it. He was saying: Kiss my ass! Jaju always got a kick out this. Then he bought his bread and walked home.

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Bapy and Jaju in their tenement in The Block on Bigelow Street in Green Island, mid-1940s.

Years later Ma’s customers at the dry cleaners in Millbury Street gave her boxes of candy or Christmas cards with $20 bills in them as holiday gifts. Ma was a great counter girl – neat, polite, well spoken, excellent with numbers, never making mistakes on the cash register. She was well loved by lots of her customers – even the East Side goodfellas, toughs who’d bring in their long camel haired coats to be dry cleaned for Christmas. For church. Once Ma showed me the lining of one such fella’s coat – a few long, extra pockets sewn inside, large rectangles that no one could see. “That’s for his guns,” she told me, her eyes looking into mine. I was a little kid – and knew no better – so I was fascinated. Probably as fascinated as Ma was. I liked “Tom” – he chatted so amiably with my mother over the counter at the dry cleaners whenever he came to pick up his suits or coats. And he was always so nice to me and my two kid sisters. We were never afraid of him – he was right up there with the politicians and Holy Cross priests who came in with their dry cleaning! And Christmas time he always gave Ma a big tip.

The Old World Water Street. I miss it.

TONY ON VETERANS DAY🇺🇲

By Rosalie Tirella

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Tony. photos: R.T.

I visited my old pal Tony Hmura this afternoon. He has been dead for several years now, living longer than most old people – eating very little for years because he read somewhere that being very underweight increased your longevity. Swore by fresh cherries and cod liver oil as cures for his arthritis. Voted Republican every election cycle to save his hard earned cash but let all the Democrats running for office in Worcester stick their political signs all over his property… He delved into weird conspiracy theories about who and what wanted to take over America. A little scary. … Despite all that, Tony Hmura was my good friend. Sometimes a great one – for 15+ years. Tony had a lot of common sense and was easy to talk to and didn’t try to change you. When the going got rough, I found myself at Breens bar on Cambridge Street gulping down spoonfuls of their delicious homemade soup or munching on a grilled cheese sandwich – bowl of soup and sandwich courtesy of Tony, who sat at the bar with me and nursed a beer.

Worcester County is a quieter, less controversial and less fun city (for me, at least) now that my pal is no longer walking – with a bit of a hitch – this earth. Canterbury and Cambridge streets were Tony’s world. He loved his sign shop, Leader Sign, located on Canterbury Street, and he loved going to Breens after work or the Webster House. He loved getting all kinds of visitors – feral cats, which he fed… drug addicts, whom he always gave a fiver to … women on the cusp, whom he took under his wing and gave $20 bills to…at his shop. He took one neighborhood lady to his grandson’s birthday party in the suburbs one summer. With 30 guests milling around, she still managed to steal $500 bucks. Tony’s sons were livid. Tony felt she wouldn’t have stolen the cash if she didn’t need it. Tony felt bad for the women who prostituted themselves for drug money. Once he told me about the woman across the street from his sign shop who gave a guy a blow job on his porch…They’re sitting on his porch, afterwards, watching the pigeons. She says, “Pigeons are such dirty birds.” The guy cracks a beer bottle over her head.

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Tony’s sign shop.

Tony saw the ugliness of city life, but he went back at trying to make things better in Worcester every single morning. He was at his sign shop by 8 a.m., Monday thru Saturday, even when he was in his 90s. Tony talked with everyone, heard and reacted to their hard luck stories. A social worker without the degree but following his misguided heart. He felt addicts would always be addicts – so why lecture them? Just give them the dough. For their booze or their drugs. Tony had a line of alcoholics and more waiting for him at Leader Sign every morning. After he died, they all went away.

Tony was born on Lafayette Street in Green Island and, because his Polish immigrant dad had a nervous breakdown and became incapacitated (was in his bedroom all day) when Tony was very young, Tony never had the dad he had hoped for. Tony began working to support the family when he was 7. He started an earthworm business and went around Green Island selling earthworms out of his little red wagon to guys who were going fishing. Tony got a full-time factory job while still in junior high school. He gave his money to his mother for bills – and saved the rest. He was the sole provider for his mother, father, two sisters and brother. They were very poor, but Tony was growing his bank account. Tony got very tough – boxing, running – and cynical – his life was pretty crumby – and at such an early age. He deflowered many a neighborhood girl who needed money during the Great Depression. He had no problem paying them. He even worked for a veterinarian as a vet tech – no anesthesia for the dogs they castrated!

After the war, Tony became a Worcester sign maker and owned his own shop on Canterbury Street for decades. A proud Polish American – first generation – Tony fell for the glamor of America in a big way: he loved Hollywood movies, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, pop songs, JFK, FREEDOM. Tony was obsessed with freedom – freedom from nagging wives, freedom from his own kids, even. He loved going out and driving and being unencumbered by family and responsibilities of the heart … he loved the ladies, night life, clubs and restaurants … and money. Like most Americans, Tony believed that with the right amount of cash, he could get exactly what he wanted – fancy wrist watches and suits, fancy trips to Florida, fancy ladies … yet he never seemed happy.

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The Polish Santa!

There was his lovable side: Every Christmas, year after year, Tony dressed up as the anonymous “Polish Santa,” giving out little gifts to neighborhood kids or classrooms of kids at St. Mary’s elementary school on Richland Street. He would give waitresses at various dives $50 bills – and be happy with their hugs of thanks. Occasionally, his good deeds went … punished, like the time he bought 30 Christmas turkeys and tried to give them to a local social service agency – and they didn’t want Tony’s turkeys. And Tony didn’t know what to do with them. Or the time Tony went to a City of Worcester elementary school as the Polish Santa with his sack of toys for a classroom of students, many underprivileged – and the school rejected the Polish Santa’s presents for the kids because two students in the classroom were Johovah Witnesses. This enraged Tony! Every Christmas he’d tell me the story and wonder what America was coming to. A stupid, Christmas-loathing country, that’s what! “Drill holes in their heads! Sawdust will pour out!” he’d say to me of his fellow Americans.

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Tony’s final sign: his tombstone. Tony picked it out, paid for it, designed it, had it erected several years before he died. Here’s his WW II bomber plane – Tony was a gunner.

You can see him spraying bullets at the enemy in this detail:
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🇺🇲🇺🇲🇺🇲

Tony proudly fought for America during World War II – not so much hating Hitler as wanting to prove his manhood, his toughness…to be a HERO. He was about 18 when he enlisted and was up for the adventure of a lifetime. Turned out it wasn’t that way at all – Tony’s plane was shot down a few times, and he thought he was going to die. Some of his pals died – crying for their mothers. After a bombing raid they’d be cigs laid out on the guys’ cots – and shots of hard liquor. Guys’ hands would be shaking as they put their cigarettes to their mouths, Tony used to tell me. But Tony refrained – he felt smoking and drinking were signs of weakness. Years later, I believed Tony suffered from PTSD, from the war. Once a week, without fail, he’d go to a local support group for vets. He never told me what anybody talked about – but I know this support group made Tony feel better.

During the war, Tony and bomber plane mates were led by Hollywood film actor James Stewart. Tony liked Stewart – “He was a regular guy” … “He told us Ginger Rogers was the best piece of ass he ever had.” I loved the Clark Gable stories too… loved the photo of Jimmy Stewart and his crew – Tony included – standing in front of one of their bomber planes, some wearing bomber jackets, Stewart looking like a movie star, all of them young and a bit cocky. All of them smiling easy-going smiles, their jaws relaxed, their arms casually draped over each other’s shoulders. Tony isn’t hugging anybody and you can see the fearlessness in his eyes – he was a loner even back then. But you can tell he’s glad to be with his mates, a Green Island kid fighting for his country. America!

Stop by Leader Sign and see this terrific photo that Tony framed and hung on the wall in his sign shop so many years ago. His son, Bryan, still works there, part-time. He’d be glad to show it to you.

Boots👢

By Rosalie Tirella

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Rose’s boots. photos: R.T.

Winter’s coming on, and I’ll be delivering thousands of CECELIAs/ICTs in the snow, sleet and mush – like I have been doing for the past 21 years. I’ve traipsed through so many miles of snow, gone through so many pairs of boots … all in the name of a good local read. My moxie was inherited from my late mom and Bapy, but the boots were courtesy of gal pal Dorrie. Thank God for my former vintage store owner friend – she knows her product, she knows what size my feet are, she knows what styles will suit my needs and fashion sense. Dorrie’s kept me in warm, cute, walkable boots for years! I’ve been able to run my newspaper, deliver InCity Times or CECELIA with dispatch and in style, in all her winter boots: black ones, fringed ones, hippie style ones, booties…beige and faux fur lined! But last year I was so dispirited about my situation that as soon as the ground began to thaw I dumped my perfectly fine UGG knock-offs Dorrie had gifted me to survive homelessness – and promptly forgot about them. I had worn them continuously all last winter while homeless. Without socks they were so warm. I even wore them to sleep; they covered my calves and were fake fur lined. They kept me warm in the snowy fields, as my dogs loped through the snow, excited and so happy. Which made me happy. Me, my dogs, my boots … They were in good condition when I let them go, still, I didn’t want to own them anymore, see them, be reminded of the hard winter I had spent. In a car! At age 60!!!! So one warm March morning, I just drove up to a Dumpster outside a restaurant, brushed my boots clean and gingerly, strategically, placed them next to the Dumpster. For the next homeless person to find – and hopefully wear. They looked ok.

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Rose’s cool, dog-walking boots.

Last winter I also owned a pair of cute, almost-new, grey, ankle boots. Kept them under the passenger’s seat. But my ankles were swollen from mostly sitting in my vehicle – not having a bed to sleep in, an apartment to walk around in – so they didn’t fit right. Way too tight around my ankles! I gave them to another gal pal to keep – or to give away to a young person who might have needed them. They were that cool – and in excellent condition.

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This year Dorrie gave Rose a pair of real UGGs!

This year is a celebratory year – we are HOME!!!! I have all my Dorrie boots lined up on a shelf IN MY HUGE, WALK-IN CLOSET! To reflect the daily weather – and my fashion whims. Yes! I can be fashion conscious, have fun with clothes again! I can slog through the snow looking good. I can slip and slide on black ice with panache in this pair of black UGGs Dorrie gave me just a few weeks ago (pictured). “They’re UGGs!” Dorrie said with pride. … Or I can pull down and pull on the multi-colored beauties she gave me three years ago – my Quinsigamond Village Jett and Lilac walking boots. Or I can take the Dorrie black booties that were a staple of so many winter days, looking just fine with skirt and leggings.

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Poetry in motion!

See these fringed boots? Well, about four years ago I was walking to my car in a Worcester shopping plaza parking lot, when a youngish guy stopped driving, jumped out of his red truck and handed me a $10 bill! Wow! That never happened to me! Before I could thank the guy, he had already jumped back into his truck and was taking off. He had just admired the poetry of those fringed boots in action (pictured here). They do have a rhythm of their own – the fringes bobbing up and down, some of the strands catching the wind and flying in all directions… I told my then CECELIA art director about the incident – happy. I appreciated the compliment – and needed the 10 bucks. A former gal pal, she was appalled: “Rose! You didn’t take the money!”

I said: “You bet I did, Ruthie! I didn’t do anything! I just walked across a parking lot in these great pair of boots!”

Sometimes gals who aren’t your real pals can make you feel like a whore.

But like blue eye shadow and shiny gray locks, every old lady needs a pair of calf-hugging, fringed boots – to channel her inner-Janis Joplin! To feel young again!!!

Worcester’s Central Mass Housing Alliance just got funds$$$ to house Worcester’s homeless youth … a suggestion🏘️

By Rosalie Tirella

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St. Paul’s rectory. photos: R.T.

Worcester’s Central Mass Housing Alliance just got a huge HUD GRANT to house Worcester’s homeless youth. Kids on the street – in wintertime, maybe abused by family members, thrown out of the home because they’re gay, bi or trans. Suffering. Exploited.

My question: Central Mass Housing Alliance has gotten the $$bucks, but will they follow through? Will they be able to provide the actual physical room or apartment for the homeless young person? This past year there were 30 Central Mass Housing Alliance clients walking around town with HUD housing vouchers – and STILL HOMELESS! Worcester agencies were pointless, useless. A tragedy unfolded, quietly in the streets.

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St. Paul’s School on Chatham Street – a big beautiful building – underutilized by the Catholic Church – and perfect for studio apartments or SROs for Worcester’s homeless youth. Here’s the entrance to their food pantry – open only for 6 or so hours a week.

A suggestion, echoing Father Reidy’s idea that he shared with me a year back. He’s a big important person at the Diocese of Worcester Chancery on Elm Street, but he is also a compassionate, down-to-earth guy. He was at one time a parish priest in Oxford and visited the elderly in nursing homes – my late mom included. He delivered her eulogy. The good padre suggested that the old but beautiful St. Paul’s School on Chatham Street be used as a shelter for the homeless, to help the hopeless, to care for our neediest. I thought it was a great idea, but in light of the CMHA grant$$$, suggest renovating St. Paul’s School and converting the huge building into studios or small apartments for homeless young people. The old St. Paul’s school and rectory, across from St. Paul’s Cathedral on Chatham Street in downtown Worcester, is probably the most underutilized beautiful, functional building in Worcester. The Catholic school was once home to AN ENTIRE SCHOOL. TEACHERS (nuns), A COUPLE OF HUNDRED STUDENTS, OFFICE STAFF (nuns and priest). Now you’ve got Vo Robert’s Elder Outreach office, a City of Worcester agency, sucking up space there. Her office suites take up half a floor – and it’s just Vo and two part timers – 9 to noon for two young people on alternating days. Ridiculous. Vo has three big rooms to herself – and she’s out half the time. Once I suggested to her that her space would make for two lovely studio apartments – and bring money into St. Paul’s. She poo pooed the idea. At the other end of the long corridor where Vo works sits one secretary. Alone. Behind a huge desk. THAT’S IT.

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About five people work out of the school today! UNDERUTILIZED!

Theres a food pantry in the basement that the church opens for six hours a week…and a janitor named Gary who had the whole basement area smelling like piss the whole winter. (Two women finally did his work and cleaned properly.) BUT THAT’S IT!! The little Catholic radio station moved out a year ago – now it’s just basically Vo Robert – and a little fiefdom that the Catholic Church would sell IMMEDIATELY IF A BIG TIME DEVELOPER CALLED THE BISHOP AND OFFERED HIM MILLIONS OF DOLLARS FOR IT. Just like what happened with Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Worcester’s East Side.

But right now it’s all a secret – as is the St. Paul’s rectory. A HUGE building with basically the pastor, Father Hugo, and a young priest living there. Rooms and space galore – all underutilized.

The St Paul’s school is pristine. Shiny hardwood floors, maple – or mahogany – door jambs and window frames. The Catholic nuns years ago kept the building sparkling – free labor that priests and Bishop exploited years ago. But now the free teachers – the nuns – are gone. And the free janitorial help, too. The school, like many Catholic schools, closed because paying decent salaries to lay teachers and principals and office staff was all too expensive.

So now Vo Robert and Gary the janitor rule the roost.

Why not take the rectory, the school and create an apartment complex – or an SRO – for our homeless kids? HOME. They deserve it. Winter is closing in …

Ma’s Medals❤️❤️

By Rosalie Tirella

A few days ago, while unpacking my books in my new digs, a little grey envelope fell from between book covers and landed on the floor. I picked it up, curious: I had scrawled “Ma’s Medals” on it in blue pen years ago. I smiled and spilled the contents onto my open palm, knowing exactly what they were! No, they weren’t medals my late mom won in some war – though much of her life seemed like a battle, the protracted, losing battle of the poor. And, no, they weren’t medals for cooking the tastiest apple pie or yummiest cranberry bread. Ma was a lousy cook, and her 1940s General Foods Cookbook and good wife/hostess guidebook languished in the back of her closet, unopened, for decades. No, these medals, old, dirty and worn smooth and thin with age (Ma wore her medals 24/7 on a gold chain around her neck year in and year out), were Ma’s “holy medals” – medals with little imprints of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and a passel of saints stamped onto them. Saints whom my mom prayed to every day.

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Ma’s medals. photos: R.T.

Ma had collected these little trinkets – some blessed by the poor – as a maid for the Bishop of Springfield during World War II; she added more medals to her collection during Downtown Worcester shopping trips with us kids in the 1960s – to O’Brien’s Religious Store (behind where the Midtown Mall is today). And, later, they were sent to her, cheaply made, often plastic, from Indian missionary schools in some no man’s land in South Dakota, as a gift for her anticipated donation of $5. Or they came to her taped to little booklets from the street priest in New York City who ran a shelter for homeless boys. Years later he was convicted of child molestation and removed from his position. Ma kept sending her money to the organization and getting her holy medals – from the new director, a good nun.

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Pray for us!

O’Brien’s was a Catholic’s one stop shop for all things prayerful. They sold books on Jesus, laminated little prayer cards with all the saints printed on them (and a prayer to them on the back), bookmarks with Celtic crosses embroidered on them, his and her Bibles, in black and white, respectively … plus white tapers, pretty votives, rosaries, rings, framed paintings of Jesus on the cross. And they had those fun 25 cents plastic holy medals for us kiddos and sterling silver and gold-plated medals for the adults. They also sold very expensive but very beautiful statues of the Infant of Prague or Saint Joseph or the Blessed Mother. Jesus always wore a red robe, Mary’s was sky blue … They cost serious bucks!! Every statue was lilly white – all the pictures of the Virgin Mary looked like Maureen O’Hara, the movie star. Jesus was always a white man – and, truth be told, he always looked a little wimpy. Now historians recognize Jesus to be a dark, Middle Eastern guy with thick features and a gorgeous head of curly hair – and he was tough and a man who loved a good party. Ma skipped all that and made a bee line to the sterling silver medals. She’d buy just one, all she could afford, usually representing the saint who was missing from her collection on the gold chain with its big tarnished links, the one she wore around her neck. A saint who had a special power for her – a power Ma needed right at that time to get through whatever challenges she and her little family – me, my two kid sisters and Polish grandmother, Bapy – faced. Maybe Ma felt hopeless about money – that no matter how long and hard she worked at the dry cleaners on Millbury Street, she could barely pay the bills to keep our Lafayette Street tenement warm in the winter or stay on top of rent payments. That problem called for a St. Jude medal – he was the patron saint of Hopeless Cases. He would turn things around for us, if Ma prayed to him every day, kissed his medal at night before she went to bed. Our case would not be so hopeless then!

Or maybe Ma had lost her wrist watch, the one from Springfield that the Bishop had given her for Christmas. He gave a wristwatch to each of her sisters, too – they were housekeepers at the Bishop’s with Ma. Well, if she prayed to Saint Christopher, patron saint of Lost Objects – and Safe Journeys – maybe that precious wrist watch would be found, come back to Ma.

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Saint Theresa – the Little Flower.

Ma was also big on St. Anne. She was the mother of the Virgin Mary – Jesus’ mother. I think my mother felt St. Anne was a good role model, that she did a terrific job of raising her daughter if she grew up to be Jesus’ mom! I remember our St. Anne statue on the shelf in our kitchen – standing next to a young Virgin Mary. Anne’s holding an open book, the Bible. Both mother and daughter’s heads are bowed – they’re reading the Bible together. I never really prayed with my mother after fifth grade. I was into my own stuff now: reading all the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Black Beauty, buying pet hamsters at Woolworth’s, finding a kitten, school projects like building soap flake volcanoes for Mr. Monfredo’s science hour at Lamartine Street School. Ma never judged me, scolded me or made me feel I was wayward. She let me go my own quirky way. She wanted me to be number 1 in my class and was proud of my straight A’s. I did have a weekly “holy” chore – to dust Saint Anne and all the the other saint statues lined up along a thin shelf above our kitchen sink. I loved this chore – the plaster saints were about 10 inches high, dressed beautifully in their flowing robes, holding Bibles or flowers or rosaries. My Bapy loved flowers and “decorating,” so often she would join in, hobble over in her cute knit slippers, dumpling shaped, four feet, 10 inches tall, and tell me to place some red or blue or yellow plastic flowers at this saint’s feet or by that saint’s hair. Sometimes we placed the flowers in small glass vases next to our favorite saints, flowers and vases courtesy of White’s Five and Ten on Millbury Street. I remember Bapy added her little weather vane from Poland to the mix – incongruous and ugly, but she was Bapy and always prevailed! It was a small dark plastic house with a witch inside and when it was windy a little boy or a little girl came out the door, running away from the witch. The girl stood on one side of a thin strip of plastic, the boy stood on the other. The plastic was attached in the middle to a screw and swiveled at the slightest breeze. The witch had a long nose with a pimple on the end and always lurked inside and less you took her out of her grim abode. The little girl clutched a small basket of poseys to her flat chest. The boy just stood there. Once a week my chore would be to take all the saints statues off the shelf, witch’s house included, dust them off with a damp rag, rinse off the plastic flowers – and rearrange as I saw fit. Maybe the witch house would lead the parade this week, followed by St. Joseph holding Jesus, then the tiny creche I got at catechism class from the nun. Maybe St. Anne and daughter Mary would be in the middle of the shelf all nice and clean and get the plastic pink rose, in the pretty vase. The frilly White’s Five and Ten plastic shelf paper, thumbtacked into the old wood by Ma, added that special touch!

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A holy medal for sailors?

But I digress! At home, back from O’Brien’s with her new medal, Ma would take her gift and hook it to a tiny safety pin and then pin it to her gold chain where it would clink and clank with the other medals between Ma’s two heavy breasts. She never took that chain off in all the decades I knew her – she wore it around her hunched neck (hunched from serious manual labor, starting when she was 12) to bed, she took it off only for a few minutes, in the morning when she was just starting her day, kneeling on a wooden chair from our old kitchen, the pale morning sunlight making our old cafe curtains look pretty … Ma would bless herself, kiss each medal individually and murmur a little prayer to it. She believed these saints had a direct line to God, were able to advocate for her and help her. Because God loved them so much, he’d listen to them – and help Ma and the humans who were struggling here on earth. The saints were like celestial case managers, without the MSWs – these humans who walked the earth and died but, through their devotion to God, their piety, their good deeds when alive, were able to perform miracles from the grave. People never forgot them – prayed to them, in fact! So they weren’t really dead. They were and are as eternal as love. Through beatification by the Catholic Church, they moved up the holiness ladder – not quite angels, but definitely in heaven sitting on their clouds right next to Jesus. They have his ear! They’re trying to help people in trouble, people like Ma trying to make it to the next paycheck, the homeless kid trying to make it to the next bus stop, the best up wife trying to make it to the kinder husband, the refugee crossing that wild river to get to that safer country, the riper fruit, the more fertile land, the water, HOME…LOVE…GOD. Unfortunately, so we were taught in CCD class by the St Mary’s nuns, most of humanity, except for people like MLK or Ann Frank and such, never become saints – we’re usually stuck in Purgatory for a few centuries after we die. Not engulfed in flames in Hell but bored as hell in Purgatory, just waiting around to get into Heaven. Purgatory, for you non-Catholics, is like a spiritual Greyhound bus station: crappy coffee and those hard plastic seats.

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❤️

I touch my mother’s holy medals now. So small, so dirty … so worthless. I see the medal with the anchor… interesting. Ma’s brother was in the US Navy during World War II. He must have given her this medal – and she prayed to it, to Saint Elizabeth (patron saint of calm seas?) for his safety. … Ma loved St. Theresa, the Little Flower, who wrote her own book about her relationship with God. Ma read it and for years I had the copy. Lost or stolen during my move to the country. Then there’s the big plastic medal from the Indian missionary school in South Dakota…”PRAY FOR US” engraved on the back of Ma’s Saint Joseph medal.

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The plastic medal from the missionary school in South Dakota

And pray Ma did. My father, Daddy, whenever he sauntered into our apartment, after being gone for a night or a week or two months …or three years would say to his wife, kneeling on that rickety kitchen chair, praying to her little chips of metal, so intently, so intensely: “DONKEY!! KEEP PRAYING!! YOU’RE AS SIMPLE AS THE DAY AS LONG! YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN A NUN!! FUCK NUT!!” And then my father’s face would turn red and he’d pivot to leave what he saw as an absurd scene – but not before yelling to my praying mother that my twin sisters were too skinny!! or why did she encourage me to write poetry when I should be typing, studying to become a secretary?!

But Ma just kept on praying. She knew God was the answer.

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Ma, left, as a young lady, with her mom, Rose’s grandmother from Poland – Bapy!

Adjustments …🏠🚙🦅☀️🐾💕🐶

By Rosalie Tirella

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Coffee and Jett 💕 in the new apartment. photos: R.T.

Today: breakfast at HOME!! God, it feels … almost surreal! I’m still not used to the domesticity! I’m used to waking up at 5:30 a, watch the sunrise (always magnificent), throwing off the blankets, getting out of my car, slipping on my shoes, stretching, taking the dogs to pee and poop, running them in the dog park…staying in park for an hour so Lilac and Jett can have some real fun. I’m drinking my morning coffee that I bought at McDonald’s (they open at 6 a) and enjoy an egg biscuit sandwich they make special for me because they know I don’t eat meat…or sometimes I slurp yesterday’s yogurt, all the while listening to nature greet the day. And what a show! All the birds are chirping like crazy, they’re almost too noisy, too ecstatic about the new day! The grass in the field and dog park is sopping wet – my shoes are soaked. Lucky I’m not wearing socks! The sunlight is not very warm but looks so pretty on the trees and leaves. Jett and Lilac are so happy, they’re sniffing the ground by the rocks, on the hunt for still drowsy snakes and chipmunks … They’re like the singing birds – excited for the new day!

Home life is a bit … less dramatic. This past year+ I learned nature is amazingly dramatic, noisy, ecstatic … intense! Something is always buzzing, swooping, chirping, being born or dying … It takes such energy! I once watched a hawk take wing – not at all a pretty sight like I’d imagined it would be. Nothing graceful about this hawk. Athletic is the better adjective. You could see his gargantuan effort to become skyborne: the hawk crouching low on his big powerful claws, then as he pushes up with those thick feathery “legs” like two tree trunks, he starts moving his wings…once, twice, they gather the air, the hawk leaps off the ground … and I think is he gonna do it? Whup, whup go the big wings… he’s young so there’s not the huge wing span. I once heard a reddish HUGE hawk fly off a tree branch directly above me as I walked the dogs at Holy Cross college. Frightened at the tremendous noise I looked up to see the hawk push it’s way skyward. His wing span was easily as broad as I was tall…at least 5’6″. I read a few years later that a red tailed hawk had been killed in Auburn, a town right by the college. I wondered if it was my hawk who had been killed; I never saw him in flight, over the Cross, ever again …

Why kill something so majestic????

Another gal pal gave me a new French press; so I made my morning coffee here for the first time☕. … And look who’s peeking ’round the corner!💕🐾My best ramblin’ boy, Jett! … I think he misses our outdoor adventures …

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Jett at the dog park.

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Lilac romping …

John Lennon …

By Rosalie Tirella

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There’s John! photo: R.T.

October 9 – John Lennon’s birthday. Here’s one of my favorite Lennon songs❤️🎶. Hearing this tune for the first time, when I was 15, sent me summersaulting into the stratosphere! The song, the entire album … the Beatles outfits, their long hair, the color of their clothes. The trippy lyrics, that nasally Lennon voice. Everything changed for me after hearing “Sergeant Pepper” – young guys singing the truth about being young to another young person – for a whole album! The tunes got to me: SHE’S LEAVING HOME. LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS. LOVELY RITA METER MAID. A world that was kaleidoscopic in its beauty. Sad, too. Wistful … Just turn the tube to the left or to the right, and the colors of the flowers changed or now you were in love with the kid in chemistry class and he loved you back and that beautiful maxi dress with the paisley print at the Walrus shop in the mall would be yours … and you would dance in it with your sweetheart. Imagine …

Lennon and co. got me feeling cool, introspective, sexy, curious … HAPPY. No small feat for a band from Liverpool! I was a kid growing up in Worcester! I grew up poor in a crumby three decker in rough and tumble Green Island. No money. No father. No car. No nothing … just my imagination and my mom, kid sisters and Bapy. … Daddy could be an absentee as*hole. Bapy could be a nag: GET ME MY SANKA, ROSALIE. BRING ME MY LIVER PILLS, ROSALIE! Ma could be quiet and steady and strong and good but too often the fight had depleted her. But THE BEATLES NEVER DISAPPOINTED. THEY SWADDLED ME IN INTENSE FEELINGS. About LIFE. THROUGH THEIR MUSIC.

Wow.

The Beatles weren’t like Sinatra who could be too cool and worldly, though the kids (my mom) loved him in the 1940s and ’50s. The Beatles were not like Elvis – whom they idolized. For me, Elvis was too sexual, too dangerous, too hicky. The Beatles were sexy but cerebral … in a very funky way. … They were not like the Stones, who are, in my 61-year-old mind, the greater of the two bands (check out the lyrics of SATISFACTION, and the music is AMAZING!). No. Lennon, McCartney, Starkey and Harrison were the artsy boys who sang of and from a different world. Possibilities. Alienation. Neighborhood. Friendship. Complexities. Love. Love. Love. That’s one of their gifts to humankind: The Beatles were never ashamed to sing about love. They may have been idealistic about it, but they were never gullible. Maybe they sang cryptically of love and sex like John did in his NORWEGIAN WOOD. Maybe they sang openly about a universal coming together as in ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE. Best of all, they told this Green Island girl that being different was ok. Even good. Being yourself, in your tree, with no one else in it … that was ok. You were gonna be just fine. That nasally Lennon … so young, so wise!

I had bought my Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in the tiny record section of Jordan Marsh in the old Worcester Center Galleria and, when I returned home, closed my bedroom door, plopped it on my old Emerson portable stereo my mom had bought for me at Radio Shack, sprawled out on my bed and closed my eyes … and listened. And dreamed …

Happy Birthday, John!

Little black dress

By Rosalie Tirella

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Ma’s dress. photos: R.T.

Yesterday I found my late mom’s black dress and hung it up in my closet to get the wrinkles out. Ma wore this dress in one one of my favorite photographs of her – Ma sharing a laugh with her big sister Sue. It was in the early 1960s: Ma was about 34 years old and had just given birth to my sisters – identical twins who were born premature – “they were as big as the chickens at Supreme Market!” Ma used to like to say – and she needed help. The twins were just home from their extra long stay in the hospital, where they could grow bigger, stronger. Ma was worried. She was stressed: caring for newborn “preemies” and me, just around 2 years old…plus our demanding Polish grandmother Bapy, plus her useless, peripatetic husband – “Daddy” – who was hot tempered and angry at being made a father once again – he refused to support us financially. “GO TO WELFARE!” he’d scream at my mother, who never did because she had so much pride. The twins’ birth made Daddy mad enough to slap my mother’s pretty face after she had just gotten home with two tiny adorable babies! When my sisters and I were little kids Daddy would storm out of our tenement and not return for weeks. It was all just too much for him.

So big sis Sue came down to Lafayette Street in Green Island to lend Ma a hand and teach her how to care for three teeny ones with very little support from anybody. Ma did it all – and loved it. Babies and little kids were her metier… teaching them, dressing them, putting pink ribbons in our hair, letting us play with her costume jewelry and putting on her old Al Jolson records on Bapy’s Victrola – HALLELUJAH, I’M A BUM AGAIN! we’d sing along with Al, Ma smiling as she cooked her beef and potatoes over the stove.

Ma’s favorite mommy chore? Buying those sturdy little kids tie-up shoes at Lisbon’s Shoe Store on Millbury Street – with us kiddos there, standing on that special kiddie foot ruler that Mr. Lisbon used to measure our feet, looking up at Ma to explain what shoe size was best for us and explaining foot growth in children. Ma would listen intently, keenly interested, and then she’d buy those no-nonsense brown little shoes for the three of us. Three pairs of the the leather beauties. Expensive for Ma who worked at the dry cleaners down the street, but the shoes were excellent: had great support for growing feet, growing kids, who needed to walk straight and tall. Ma didn’t want us to have “fallen arches.” She wanted us to grow up with “good posture.”

Ma was fascinated with little kids on so many levels… how we learned to read and write and draw and paint. Often she’d jump in with her own drawings of little girls she’d just sketched on some drawing paper. She’d give them to us to color with our Crayolas – lying on the kitchen floor in the middle of all the domestic hub bub. Ma’s girls were always wearing dresses from the 1940s, with aprons, and they had round, apple cheeks. I’d color Ma’s drawings for her, which made her smile. Our very own little art project!

Ma was made for little children…but we were so much work! That’s why she swam in this black dress…and it’s a pretty small dress to begin with! The shoulders, look at them!

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❤️

My mother had such small shoulders! Yet for years she carried the weight of the world on them!

My sweet mother …

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Little Rose and her mom at Crompton Park, circa 1963

Barbara Haller

By Rosalie Tirella

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The Barbara sign on her building. photo: R.T.

Former Worcester District 4 City Councilor Barbara Haller died a few days ago. I drove by Haller’s Main South office space yesterday and saw her sign on her building at the corner of Main and Castle streets, the sign that’s been at the top of the edifice for all to see for years … big, bold and direct: BARBARA HALLER CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 4.

Someone once said to me, miffed: She lost the election! That sign is still up!

The person was hinting that the old guard – Barb – just couldn’t let go, couldn’t face the fact that the new guard, a Latina representing the now pretty much Hispanic district, District 4, was the future. That the white working class that had voted Haller in a decade ago, the same folks who voted in the late great D 4 city councilor Jan Nadeau, Haller’s political mentor, were dying off, not really defining the Main South, South Worcester and Green Island neighborhoods anymore. The heart and soul of District 4. When Nadeau died, her supporters and political network became Haller’s. Haller, even though brilliant, artsy, educated – really phenomenal in so many ways – reflected their old school values back on to them, thru her presence on the Worcester City Council. She represented her district well for that time: She, like everyone else, declared NO prostitution in our neighborhood! NO drugs! NO PIP wet shelter! NO homeless people! NO crappy three deckers with their crappy slumlords! WE MUST TAKE BACK OUR MAIN SOUTH! WE MUST TURN THIS NEIGHBORHOOD AROUND SO WE CAN ENJOY OUR BACKYARDS, PARKS AND SIDEWALKS ONCE AGAIN!

During her council tenure, Barbara Haller did all that – and more. Not only – as D 4 councilor for more than 10 years – did Barb Haller “clean up” her Main South neighborhood and surrounding ‘hoods – she helped them flourish. Made them walkable. Made them greener. Made them artsier, healthier … It was Barb and life partner Frank Z and former mayor Joe O’Brien (a one time denizen of Main South living a few streets away from Barb and Frank on Castle Street) who cleaned up Castle Park and made it pretty, clean and safe – devoid of used heroin syringes, garbage strewn under trees … It was Barb who got former City Manager Mike O’Brien to revive the last municipal swimming pool in Worcester as he was shutting the rest down. Not only was the Crompton Park pool saved, it was redone with adorable amenities like spray slides and new benches, new shower area … everything! Crompton Park, in D 4, is a city gem – Barb helped make it sparkle.

Barb got the handball courts rebuilt… they’re off the old Maloney’s Field on Cambridge Street in South Worcester – not in Main South, Barb’s neighborhood. Still, she brought her passion to the project, and they went from being drab to beautiful and new. These inner-city handball courts instantly drew hundreds of Latino folks during all seasons to play, exercise and have fun. Families who bring babies in strollers and sometimes pack a lunch to enjoy a summer day at their park together!

Barbara would patrol her District 4, a densely populated, sometimes dangerous D 4. She quit her job at National Grid to devote all her working – some would say waking – hours to her beloved District 4. As a reporter and friend I drove around the district (also my childhood stamping grounds – I grew up in Green Island) with Barb. More than a few times. I was with her as she checked on all her neighborhoods, three decker by three decker, park to park, mini Mart to liquor store. In her big old rusty SUV, Barb braking and accelerating, stepping on the gas or brake pedal in her cute signature brown or beige sensible shoes, wearing her faded denim long skirt, white cotton shirt and topped off with a black cotton blazer, Barb was on a roll. Little notebook by her side, pen by notebook, she checked the three deckers with busted windows, broken doors, used works – needles and other crap that heroin addicts had left behind in HER district. Barb was fearless in these inner-city fact finding missions, where she’d check on drug houses or abandoned warehouses, climbing over fencing, pushing aside bushes and brambles. Once, on one of our little jaunts, always followed by a nice lunch at Peppercorns or the Webster House – always on Barb – she and I saw two groups of young guys, in their late teens and early 20s, squaring off in front of a liquor store in Piedmont, baseball bats in hand. Fearing violence, smashed heads galore, I said: Barb, Oh, no… there’s gonna be a fight. Let’s call the police!

Well, Barb, being Barb, doesn’t hear I word I say and stops her vehicle just two yards away, in front of the soon to happen brouhaha and opens the SUV door to get out …

I say: No, Barb! What if someone pulls a gun on you?

All were so young and strong, bicep muscles showing definition in the summer sun…Barb was a senior citizen, heavy and sometimes … waddled.

I’m 63, she tells me, quietly. I’ve lived a long life …

and she gets out of her vehicle cool as a cucumber, John Wayne in THE SEARCHERS. Barb walks up to the guys, talks with them and they disperse.

My late mom used to love to watch our city council meetings when Konnie Lukes and Barbara Haller were on the council. She admired Konnie’s toughness and in your face political style. She thought Barbara was always intelligent – and that she always looked so cute! “She’s wearing her outfit!” Ma would say, between sips of coffee and nibbles on her danish. “She has her pencil sticking out of her bun!”

Yep. That was the great Barbara Haller. Fine grey hair pulled back into a neat little bun with a yellow number 2 pencil protruding. I don’t think I ever saw Barb’s hair down once, even when I visited her in her home – always her neat bun, a few grey wisps of hair framing her round pleasant face. The pencils spelled brilliant mathematical genius engineer – and they were also there in case she needed to take notes on District 4.

I am making Haller sound a bit severe – and she could be. That was maybe part of her political downfall – seeing every Main South addict as a criminal, every homeless person on Charlton or Sycamore streets as the enemy, every PIP client someone to eject from her neighborhood forever. Her biggest political mistake? Saying, on the record, that some days, walking past the PIP, walking along Main Street, she felt she was “the only legitimate person” in her ‘hood. This comment brought on a slew of haters and political opponents. From then on Barb had one political opponent after another vying for her seat on the city council, election cycle after election cycle – in Worcester, that means every two years! So there was Lynn, a founder of the Worcester Youth Center, Grace the progressive but pokey WAFT saint, even Dave from Dismas House on nearby Richards Street got into the act and tried to register homeless people to get them to vote for the person running against Barbara that year. Barb called him on it through placing a call to a T and G columnist who wrote a scathing column on Dave, making him look sneaky…reprehensible. Dave quickly moved to Westboro with his wife and little child.

Which leads me to say: Barb was a politician. A very savvy one. A true operator. I say this with pride, as a woman. Barb was ALWAYS the smartest person in the room. She knew exactly what every character was up to – and she knew how to foil their plans, making those phone calls, button holing this person, taking that person to lunch. Male pols do this all the time. It’s high time we acknowledge female politicians for doing the same…for better and for worse.

Barb was a joyful person: after she and partners sold the Gilrein’s blues club on Main Street to new folks, she threw a party. I went to it and watched Barb dance up a storm! The music started, the boxy, buxom Barb lept up, and light on her feet, with grace and rhythm, boogied with Joe O’Brien’s wife and then maybe one of Joe’s (at the time) young kids and then … alone. Just for the joy of the dance.

Once I gave Barb a Dollar Tree Christmas mug for Christmas. It was the best I could do that year. We were in her SUV when I gave her snowman mug to her. She looked at it and started to cry. She said: Thank you! It’s just what I needed!

When I got home later that day I wondered, why the waterworks? A few years later I realized it was because she loved me …

I could go on and on about how terrific a human being Barbara Haller was and how lucky Worcesterites were to have her live with us, for us. … A few years back, right before they were going to tear down the beautiful Notre Dame church in downtown Worcester, I saw a small group of people putting on some kind of farewell concert to the church – right before its demise, in front of the ugly brown tarp and silver chain-link fence that had cut the church off from the community. But the community had come! A few high school and college kids were reading poetry before the church, another person was playing a violin to her … There was a small audience. And sitting in a folding chair, before the little group of young people, before the great church with its high arches sparkling in the sun, there sat Barbara Haller, witness to it all, waking a friend that would soon die, even though she tried to save her! Barb was swaying gently to the music, and though I only saw her from behind, I bet she was smiling … and crying a bit, too.

Just like I am today! Goodbye, old friend! Like Note Dame, you were a once in a lifetime gift to Worcester!

Love …

The El

By Rosalie Tirella

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The El’s famous stuffed grape leaves. photos courtesy of the Worcester Historical Museum.

I loved the El – as in the now long gone El Morocco restaurant and jazz club up on Wall Street. Up on the hill, a bit past the Friendly House, the crown jewel of an East Side Worcester neighborhood that for years was home to Armenian, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants.

My late mom adored El owner Joe Aboody who was the sweetest guy in the world. Joe had the cutest little grey poodle that was clipped to pom pom perfection, and he’d bring his poodle into the dry cleaners where my mother worked and plop him down on the counter. The dog would “sit” and Ma would give Joe his drycleaning, all the while admiring his smart, regal little companion, who was a star in his own right.

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The first El Morocco with a few Aboody family members.

At the restaurant/club Joe and his handsome brother Richie made the rounds as guests dined and wined. They’d visit every table making each and every guest – from actor Al Pacino to Cecelia Tirella of Lafayette Street – feel like a ✨star✨. The Aboody’s put 1950s glamor into gritty, “utility closet” Worcester and Woo wallowed in the opulence. There was gold painted on the walls, chandeliers that cried sparkling glass tear drops, camel decor on the outside of the building, sconces inside the restaurant that dramatically lit up the faces of patrons sitting at the bar or around dining tables, making everyone look beautiful …

How do some people do it? Attract EVERYBODY? Flash a smile and instantly gain a rapt audience? The Aboody brothers were the sultans of any room – they oozed charisma.

When older, in college, I’d go with my kid sister to the El. We’d take a cab to go listen to Scott Hamilton and other cool cats. Sometimes I’d see the assistant principal of Burncoat Senior High School, my alma mater, at the El! He’d be wearing dark shades and smoking a cigarette and acting very cool, blowing right past me! I loved it when after a jazz show Joe would invite me and my sister to the restaurant’s noisy, busy kitchen, seat us at a high, round table for two and serve us, on the house, plates of the El’s delicious hummus and baba ganoush with plenty of triangles of Syrian bread for dipping. Joe knew we were poor. He knew our mother was proud of us, her good girls going to college – she’d only finished the eighth grade. So he lavished us with his love – great food – and then he raced back out to the busy dining rooms packed with people. I mean hundreds of happy, gregarious, buzzed, dancing, flirtatious people, shoulder to shoulder … it was always a tight squeeze at the El …

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A restaurant booth from the first El – the second El was much fancier!

Every Christmas the Green Island dry cleaners Ma worked at would have their annual Christmas party at the El. I remember going a few times with Ma and watching her beam at the whole scene, out for some much needed fun, a little drunk from her drinks, soaking up all that Rat Pack Old Hollywood atmosphere: the gorgeously dressed and coiffed men and women, the clinking of wine glasses as couples canoodled, the silver rings of cigarette smoke spiraling up up up … everyone so florid … so boisterous…so happy … the gold shimmering on the walls, the bar packed with guys and dolls flirting. Ma loved to dance and always sashayed around the dance floor with the owner of the dry cleaners who was her ally for decades … Ma wore her Elizabeth Arden red lipstick that night, effortlessly reapplying it during and after her meal, straight from the bullet, no mirror needed.

I miss the El. You can see some of it, photos, forget me nots …. an old restaurant booth from the original El … at the Worcester Historical Museum, 30 Elm St. Trust me, the historic artifacts don’t begin to capture the excitement.