Rose and George. pics: R.T.
By Rosalie Tirella
Tonight I’m holding tight my late mom’s George Washington calendar from the 1940s (above). Like many young poor folks of the Great Depression and World War II – kids who knew they were lucky if they were eating a square meal a day – my mom was resourceful. For example, she collected her own “art” from the free or inexpensive advertising lit all around her: With trusty scissors in hand she cut out and saved grainy black and white photos or colored illustrations (often muted – not very colorful at all!) from school and church calendars, Hollywood movie fan magazines and sheet music cover pages, church prayer cards – even Polish Christmas wafer wrapping paper – anything that captured her young imagination. My mother loved music and drawing. She was very good at sketching! She used to draw pictures for me and my sisters when we were little kids. We’d sit and watch Ma as she quietly created her art for us with an old number 2 pencil: a little girl with pigtails, a little kitten with ball of yarn, a cherub perched on a cloud … the cliches of her day, beautifully rendered. I remember in our Lafayette Street flat, in a closet – now lost forever! – the huge poster Ma drew in pencil of one of her beloved Boston Red Sox batters in mid-swing! She was 12 – a total baseball freak! – when she drew it and it was a fine sketch! But I have none of my mom’s big sketches – usually made for a St. Mary’s School project – only lots of her “clipped art” – all in pretty ok shape for gussied up scraps of paper three quarters of a century old!
Ma made good use of her finds, like the sleek, smart crow who weaves bits of shiny gold ribbon into her cozy nest … She taped some of the art to her bedroom walls, used some pieces as book marks for her prayer books and sent some pictures to friends, instead of store-bought greeting cards. But mostly she saved her paper jewels – a poor girl’s dreams – in a small, wooden brown chest in her family’s Green Island Bigelow Street tenement and later in our Lafayette Street flat. The contents became mine when Ma died. I gave the small painted brown chest (painted by my grandfather) to one of my sisters.
The chest, I believe, was a kind of hope chest for Ma, a love song to America in which she kept all her American dreams. America was new to her family – her parents were Polish immigrants who experienced the promise – and ugliness – of America. My grandfather worked like a slave in a textile mill in Douglas and, to relax once he got home, played the harmonica and smoked the unfiltered cigarettes he rolled for himself using his own little white square smoking papers and little cig rolling machine, a funny looking little contraption that Ma used to work in the mornings, to roll her Dad’s cigs before he went off to work. Cigs he could smoke during break … My mother’s mother, my “Bapy,” raised five kids, cooked everything from scratch, prayed every hour on the hour, went to mass EVERY day, but outside her Catholic faith and family, was lost in America. If not attending church or friends and relatives’ Polish weddings she stayed home. Praying and cooking.
Ma was the baby of the family, and the apple of Bapy’s eye. So she grew up an optimist and focused on the bright spots: special memories from her Polish immigrant church by Kelley Square, like her First Holy Communion prayer book which I have! (below), …
… postcards, prayer booklets and stamps from her 10-year stint in Springfield as a housekeeper for the Bishop of Springield, pretty little gifts that her big brother – my Uncle Mark – brought back from Japan after he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. I especially love the calendar cover my Uncle Mark gave Ma (from his ship – probably taped above his bunk): a sexy Miss America hanging from a huge American flag. A gorgeous but stern Lady Liberty wearing an oooh la la blue diaphonous robe that showed her perky little breasts and “mound”! My uncle was pretty good looking and a bit of a ladies’ man. Ma teased him when he came home from the war with blond hair. She believed he dyed it – he said the tropical sun bleached it. This Lady Liberty was right up his alley! – worth fighting for! I ended up with the picture and crudely framed it a few years back. Saint Lady Liberty – the patriotic pinup gal proudly wearing her Virgin Mary-blue sheer gown over shaved pussy! AMERICA = #1!!!😄
But I digress! Back to GW! My mom was a huge George Washington fan because she was born on his birthday – February 22! And because he was America’s first President – perfect to her – America’s God, back in the days when the ideas of America and God were entwined in complex, beautiful, dangerous ways. My mom, true to her generation, and I, like all Baby Boomers, grew up hearing the George Washington grade school lessons/myths, almost Biblical: George Washington at Valley Forge in the winter, leading his troops …they wore torn boots, their frozen feet wrapped in cloth…The young George Washington chopped down the cherry tree when he wasn’t supposed to but said: I CANNOT TELL I LIE! IT WAS I WHO CHOPPED DOWN THE CHERRY TREE!
Ma and I were getting the boiled-down-for-the-plebs American history lesson: George Washington had a TON OF INTEGRITY. What we didn’t know: When some of the colonists clamored for him to be King of America for years and years – because he was such an outstanding military leader and first President and the times were so chaotic – Washington said: No way! That’s not what this country is going to be about! There are no kings here!
At the bottom of my mom’s George Washington calendar picture, it reads: “The love of my country will be the ruling influence of my conduct.” – Washington
Can you imagine these words coming out of the mouth of our new President, Donald Trump? Can you imagine the IDEA even blooming in that narcissistic, almost insane brain of his? (Neither can I!) He is someone who wants to buy America’s love, on his terms only. LOVE DONALD – OR ELSE!
For me, Trump’s inaugural speech was Hitler-esque. Dark, foreboding, fist-pumping, military might-extolling, self-aggrandizing, self-idolizing … maniacal. I’d never read or heard an inaugural speech where America, the land of George Washington and Mrs. Tirella!, was painted in such ugly terms – “American carnage” and “tombstones” stretching from sea to shining sea! No wonder wife Melania chooses to live in NYC – and keep her little boy safe by her side. To live with such a sick man always peering into the abyss (or is it just a pose, a con so that Trump can trash America only to lay claim that he saved her? ), a husband with such a soul-shrivelling world view, dipped in Trump gold!, is too much! I predict Mrs. Donald Trump will be a sexed-up version of the late Mrs. Harry Truman: No thanks, White House, I pass! I’ll live somewhere else. Mrs. Truman was the epitome of post-WW II frumpiness; Mrs. Trump is the epitome of 21st century foxiness. But they’re cut from the same cloth: at heart, small town girls freaked out by the prospect of living in the hub of the world’s Super Power. War. Peace. Laws of the land. It all begins with the stroke of the Presidential pen. Scary, for some people.
Funny, but here on Ward Street these past couple of days, it felt like the kind of America Donald Trump painted in his inaugural speech. Very different from the Ward Street my mom walked down as a young girl with her Polish mother as they made their way to their Polish church, Our Lady of Czetchowa, a church that still stands and which I can see from my kitchen window …
These days Ward Street is Heroin/drug Central of Worcester. Last year I wrote about the big drug bust next door (complete with confiscated cash – 40K! – and weapons – machine gun!!!) But we’ve got the low-level drug runners, too, here in our ‘hood: Kids (usually boys) 15 and 16 years old who hop on to their beat up bikes to pedal to our inner-city backyards to do drug deals. In like 5 seconds! These kids don’t live in our houses, just use our backyards as office space! – out of the way, hidden places to sell packets of heroin. A quick sale. Money exchanged for smack. Then they put their ear buds back into their ears and hop on to their bikes and pedal away wicked fast! The deal goes down in seconds!
A few days ago I saw such a speedy transaction occur in the yard adjacent to ours. The kids, both boys, about 16 or 17 years old, were there during school hours. They had come on their bikes and I had come upon them! They looked and acted hard and business-like in a way many of our neighborhood kids don’t look and act. Lots of kids in my neighborhood are sweet, skinny, sad, fun loving. They’ll smile at you and tell you about their little adventures or pets. But these two kids? Uh uh. It was so easy to see.
One of the kids looked surprised and miffed to notice me at the periphery of his deal. The other kid, scrawny and tall, looked frightening in his hardness. When he saw me, he unzipped the front of his thin jacket and his hand went to a shirt pocket. I thought: He’s going to shoot me now.
So I chatted him up. Played the un-hip, oblivious middle-aged lady. The box that society puts you in.
“Don’t be afraid of my dogs! They’re friendly!” I said, smiling.
With a cold, dead-already face, making perfect eye contact with me, he said, direct and serious: “I’m not afraid.”
A day later I saw the same kid, his pale ghoulish face smiling as he rode away lickety split on his bike, being chased by a police cruiser in the middle of our downtown. The cruiser’s siren was off because it was the middle of the afternoon, but all its lights were pulsating.
The kid was in the middle of a gang of kids – 20 or more youths – all on bicycles! Three or four of them wore Halloween masks, pale, scowling ghost masks that covered their entire faces. Lurid and other worldy… Four or five of them wore cotton bandanas over their faces – right up to their eyes – so you couldn’t see their features. They looked like they had rolled straight out of some sci-fi Western! But they weren’t galloping through Dodge on horses – instead they were riding, herd-like and hard, on our Main Street, yards away from Worcester City Hall, on ramshackle bikes! Laughing! Free! Most likely – at least a few of them – armed!
I was mesmerized by this dystopian image coming straight at me (I was in my car driving by the Hanover Theatre), straight out of the Donald Trump playbook. I pulled over and the group of kids – they filled the entire street – rode past me. They were laughing and talking easily among themselves, as the police cruiser chased them. I saw and heard my ghoulish kid barking out something to the other youths. He was smiling. High on an adrenalin high. He felt safe – and cocky – in the herd.
Had they just robbed somebody? Mixed it up with another bandana-, mask-wearing group of kids? Or were the cops just pursuing one kid? – a definite challenge when he’s in a large pack of kids, all on bicycles. Bikes are the perfect getaway vehicle – they can easily go up and down one-way streets, go off and on sidewalks, sail through back yards and city parks, be carried up flights of stairs and stashed in apartments …
As I watched this wild little spectacle, I saw how these kids showed ZERO fear. They acted like outlaws! And like their Wild West counterparts, they were indeed misfits – unhealthy outsiders, bedraggled and maybe unloved – still riding to their next adventure. With a few firearms thrown in for good measure.
The herd sailed right by me, then the police cruiser.
I found myself rooting for the kids. Their nihilism was so honest! They were America … America’s underbelly. Her lack of love for her poor, especially her poor children. One in five kids go hungry in America! That means Worcester, too. … The Worcester factory jobs are gone for their un-skilled parents – men and women who read at the third or fourth grade level. Minimum wage jobs don’t begin to pay all the bills. Parents feel trapped, go MIA. Our public schools sometimes become holding pens for these kids, a safe place to eat govt funded, free breakfast and lunch and, sometimes, a place to rest or sleep, if there’s violence/drugs in the family.
Trump’s America! The one he says he wants to save! Here in Worcester! Here on our Ward Street and Main Street!
His solution to a deep, generation-spanning societal ill, often sealed with depression, PTSD or other mental illnesses? More police. Good paying jobs.
I don’t think two – or even three – Worcester police cruisers chasing the masked kids through our downtown would have changed the narrative. Saved the kids.
Maybe good paying, WPA type infrastructure jobs would help. Young people or their parents working on rebuilding our bridges and highways a la Franklin D. Roosevelt for good pay … Yes, that may make things better. So that our families, instead of developers or investors, can buy and live in the three deckers in our old blue collar neighborhoods. Like it used to be on Ward Street, Perry Ave, Endicott and Sterling streets – all over lower Veron Hill and Green Island! Homeownership 101. The rhythm in all our Gateway Cities for most of the 20th century. The American Dream!
Trump is right: The global economy has left behind thousands and thousands of neighborhoods like mine. Millions of working-age adults who live in them! I don’t believe in all the Moral Majority crap: poor families are Godless and gone to pot – that’s why their neighborhoods are “bad.” Most parents in my neighborhood try to love their kids – I see their love displayed daily, despite the harsh circumstances! – but the pressures keep mounting on them – from all sides… . Families implode.
Good paying jobs for our people will help. Tremendously, to use a Trumpian word!
Maybe the Donald is onto something. If only he’d drop all his nefarious baggage…