By Rosalie Tirella
Everyone’s favorite Green Island deli. file photos: R.T.
Some file photos and old Green Island pics, including the Water Street of my childhood and youth. Back then you could be a kid and do all right at the eateries and shops of Water Street, Millbury Street and Green, walking alone or with your kid sister or brother, feeling like a queen or a king in the neighborhood you called home. You rode your bike down Millbury, you held your sister’s hand tightly as together you crossed Kelley Square. You waved to the lady who owned the bakery. You chased stray puppies up alleys to take home and call your own. You were about 10, flying solo without your mother or another grownup, yet you felt safe and confident and were up for an adventure! There was stuff to see, stuff to eat, stuff to buy – plenty of 50¢- and $1-treasures. You never felt deprived even though most of us were poor.
We had murals on Water Street decades before they became de rigueur for up and coming Woo places!
We didn’t feel poor because our neighborhood was geared to us, as well as adults. You could feel terrific as a tween walking home from Water Street with your kid sister, a few bulkies bouncing around in a big brown paper bag, baked fresh in the morning at Widoffs or Ledermans. The counter girls at Widoffs and Ledermans were always nice to you – didn’t dismiss you because you were a poor kid from the neighborhood. You, too, were a customer. So you bought your two bulkies. They cost you pennies and dimes, and you and your kid sister ate them both, pillowy and fragrant, before you got to your three decker.
Rose’s Bapy and Jaju got it all started in Green Island when they came to America in the early part of the 20th century. The American Dream worked back then for lots of poor immigrants who had no opportunity in “the old country” and took a big chance on their new country, America. Here, Rose’s Polish grandparents sit in their Green Island tenement in “The Block,” on Bigelow Street, circa 1940.
Or, as a kid out for a Saturday morning stroll, you could walk to White’s Five and Ten on Millbury Street from Lafayette and be wowed by the tall, elegantly dressed Mrs. White, always made a foot taller by her hair style – a bouffant, dyed a jet black and as big as a wedding cake. Mrs. White, wearing her pencil navy blue or periwinkle skirt, white blouse and matching jacket, and smart navy blue or black pumps, sashaying over to you in her bouffant and her cherry red lipstick … mesmerized you. She was out of the old technicolor movies you watched with your Bapy on your TV at Lafayette Street. You were in Oz and Mrs. White was the talking tree – but beautiful. She towered over you and your little sister, and she had to bend at the waist to talk to you both, the munchkins. You loved Mrs White, but your little sister “Sue,” when she was six, was actually afraid of her. Years later, when Sue was in high school and worked at Commercial Fruit, a few stores down from White’s, she’d visit Mrs. White after work and they’d chat – for like a half hour or more! That’s the way it was back then: adults talking with kids, teaching them, joking around with them – enjoying their company. Today Mrs. White would probably be arrested for being close to my kid sister. Nowadays adults can’t really talk with and be friends with kids unless they’re family. I suppose you weed out the pedophiles when you’re overly cautious, but you also cut off great fun, learning … meeting and experiencing new people and their world views. Learning their stories.
Anyways, you stared at Mrs. White whenever you visited her store, and you took your quarter out of your pants pocket and paid for your coloring book – White’s had quite the selection – and ran home with it, eager to get out those Crayola Crayons – the big box with hundreds of shades of colors – and start your masterpiece. If I was with my mother, I pleaded for a sticker game – they were called Colorforms – my favorite “toy.” The longish, almost flat, box came with a colored, shiny scene from your favorite comic book or Saturday morning cartoon – Popeye’s ship or Mickey Mouse’s jalopy on the road or Bugs Bunny’s rabbit hole. You’d pull apart the vinyl stickers on top of the scene. Cartoon characters along with “props” like chairs and lamps and flowers in flower pots, and you’d “stick” them onto the scenery board to create your own story. I had about 15 of these Colorforms sticker boxes. I used to set them all out in a big circle around me on our big kitchen floor on Lafayette Street, and I’d lie in the middle of my circle and carefully choose a box and begin my story. Yogi Bear and Boo Boo were having a picnic at the picnic table in the woods …or, opening another Colorforms box, Fred and Wilma Flintstone were leaving Betty and Barney Rubble behind as they set off for vacation in their stone car … Where was Dino? Everything was slower, hands-on and person-to-person when I was a kid.
Rose’s kid sister on their Lafayette Street back porch.
And you always saw kids walking down Millbury Street or Green Street or Water Street, at the stores where our parents shopped or worked. Many of my classmates at Lamartine Street School lived above the mom and pop stores in Millbury Street – I remember three or four friends whose families lived above a bakery or a bar. It made me grateful for our ugly but big and airy Lafayette Street apartment with all its windows and front and back porches.
My kid sister, the jock, loved walking from our Lafayette Street tenement to Charlie’s Surplus for basketball socks when she was in high school (she played girls basketball, varsity, at St. Mary’s). “Mary” bought all her sports clothing there – sweatshirts, running shorts, gym socks. The store sold slight irregulars for cheap. It was dingy and disorganized inside. Charlie sat in a corner and chatted with his customers, old and young jocks eager to talk sports.
My cousin, the super-sewer, bought all her fabric at the Atlas Fabric store on Green Street. Thousands of big bolts of amazing fabric stacked one on top of the other to the ceiling. Some called the store a firetrap; my cousin called it heaven. Lots of the material was inexpensive, too – perfect for girls just starting to take sewing lessons at the Girls Club on Winthrop Street, girls like me.
I especially loved walking to The Broadway restaurant for a hamburger, French fries and a Coke with the same sister who loved Charlie’s. Sam owned the Broadway back then and he was there every day to keep an eye on everything. Sundays, after Mass, half of Worcester was lined outside the Broadway waiting for a booth or to sit at the counter. Sam, always wearing a dapper sports coat, stood at the front door of his establishment politely greeting all his customers as they came in one by one. He’d shake hands with the men and give a little nod to the ladies…always a smile to our mom and “Hello, girls!” to me and my two sisters as our mother let the waitress lead us to our booth – we always waited for a booth because we loved those big pink cozy clouds you could sink into and relax in. Half the menu was on the walls, handwritten in black magic marker, a thick cursive, onto white poster board: Home-made hot fudge sundae, Cheeseburger with onion rings and a Coke, Fish and Chips, Roast beef sandwich, Hot turkey sandwich… You really didn’t need a menu, all you needed to do was turn your head right to left. That was the way it was at Woolworths and the Mart – white poster board and black magic marker …the homemade signs hanging all over the store, telling you everything you needed to know. In English. If you were with your Nona from Italy or your Jaju from Poland you translated for your relative who, until their dying day, was still trying to learn English, still trying to be an American.
Fast forward to 2023 when everyone is in their silo and we can’t agree on the idea of America. These days do you see gaggles of kids walking around in the old neighborhood, now the new Canal District, feeling like the neighborhood is theirs? Do you see their smiles, their clunky bikes, their hard working parents? Of course not. Gentrification is all about wiping out snotty-nosed street kids and their families from the scenery. It is all about disinfecting an urban environment, homogenizing it, safeguarding the new, rich denizens – and marginalizing the poor.
The old White’s Five and Ten store on Millbury Street is a club these days. The beige building across the street used to be home to Maurice The Pants Man!