Tag Archives: Green Island Grrrl column

Green Island Grrrl: a Fourth of July column … and pics …

Rosalie took these photos of a very patriotic Ward Street house a few days ago:

20160629_142534_HDR-1

20160629_142601_HDR-1

20160629_142543-1

Go, Ward Street, go!

*******

Here’s the Fourth of July column she wrote a few years ago!

FOURTH OF JULY, GREEN ISLAND STYLE

By Rosalie Tirella

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.

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.

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!

Hope …

20160629_094932-1

 

Rosalie’s view

By Rosalie Tirella

I look outside my kitchen window today and feel … peace.

Peace in the inner city. Or at least in my teeny sliver of Worcester’s urban core. My neighborhood’s drug dealers have been arrested (several residing in my landlord’s house next door!); the shooting gallery down the street, filled with discarded syringes, old matresses and human shit has been cleaned up – no more junkies! – and shut up by the city. The guns and machine gun! (also next door!) were confiscated by the Worcester and state police during a dramatic, exciting RAID!! All this happened during a long , stressfull (and potentially dangerous) several months – during which time I and my law abiding neighbors worked, went about our lives – always looking over our shoulders.

But now the bad guys are gone and their enabling girl friends (usually with two or three little kids in tow – heartbreaking) have moved on to other digs, other drug dealer boyfriends. It’s as if my neighborhood is breathing a sigh of relief! ….Lying back on her urban sofa and feeling groovy, soaking in all the peace and good vibes…letting down her hair these days because violence is no longer in the air, in the offing … .

Dare I say it? These summer days we’re acting like suburbanites! My neighbors are chatting with each other on the sidewalk or across old fences. I hear a chuckle or two! Just yesterday some silent angel placed my torn and stuffed Trader Joe’s brown paper bag overflowing with my recyclables into a big cardboard box to keep my cans, plastic containers and bottles from spilling out . How considerate! I thought as I walked by the clean, oh so perfect cardboard box!… Just now, as I write this,  a guy, walking by with a little girl, exclaimed: THAT’S MY BABY!!

Oh, baby! PEACE in my neighborhood! At last! Hallelujah!!!

This past Saturday night there was a party in a back yard, the long tables draped with pretty paper table clothes, people eating BBQ and laughing. Later the guys would play dominoes. … My neighbor complains to me about my dogs’ poop and leaves me a little shovel in his garden to pick it up. I’m not angry with him because this summer there isn’t that underlying feeling, tone of stress that comes from living in a place on the verge of a shoot out … the threat of violence permeating the heavy summer Worcester air just like magnolias scent the breezes down South. Nope. Today is fine. I say OK! and ask him about his old poodle. He says she died … at last the diabetes got the best of her, despite the daily insulin shots. He has a puppy poodle now! No bigger than a chubby kitten! I see her two days later and she’s a butter ball in fur! I can smile and linger talking as she runs about. Her owner, my neighbor, even gerryrigged a little gate between our two houses so his puppy can’t run out into the street.

So different a tune we all sing here in a Worcester inner city neighborhood that’s taken a respite from violence – thanks to the Worcester Police and  DA Joe Early and Woo City Manager Ed Augustus. Last year my other neighbor, the tension in her voice, talked with me about the drug dealers: The addicts bang on their windows all hours of the night! These people have guns!

This summer we talk about puppies and gardens and don’t feel forsaken by our city leaders because they DID SOMETHING. THEY HELPED US. THEY CARED.

This summer, so far,  feels wonderful! Even the birds seem to tweet gaily, boisterously! Their chirping back and forth to each other makes me smile and think: What are you all saying? Hi! Here I am! Are you here too?!

We are all here!  Feeling pretty good about our Worcester in-city neighborhood!

In training!!!!

20160424_091642_HDR
Like mother, like daughter! Rosalie and her mum …

By Rosalie Tirella

Last time I wrote about shopping in Green Island and the display windows at the Deb Shoppe on Millbury Street. I wrote that the Deb Shoppe was the teen section of the upscale Kiddy Castle children’s clothing shop in the Green Island of my childhood. I told you that my mother never shopped there because it was too expensive for us. But I forgot to mention she did shop there on three special occassions: to buy my two kid sisters and me our first bras. Each visit, for each daughter, a shopping MISSION lead in tight-lipped seriousness by our mother, after she got out of work at the dry cleaners next door.

Ma bought the expensive Deb Shoppe bras for our health. For our proper “development.” For our future womanhood! For her girls there would be no cheapie teen bras from the Mart, the Main South working class “general” store where she usually shopped for our clothing, no clearance specials from the Jordan Marsh discount bin, no funny colors so the dyes would seep into our nipples to give us (my mother foolishly believed) blood poisoning. Only 100% pure, white, breathable cotton bras from the Deb Shoppe would do (my mom didn’t know white is also a color dyed into cloth). Perfect first bras for her girls’ first blush of womanhood.

Ma’s special shopping mission involved a female sales associate at the Deb Shoppe who looked dour, a very cold measuring tape, numbers, alphabet letters, and measurements which were discussed in hushed seriousness by my mom and the dour sales clerk – right in front of us girls, as if we weren’t standing before them half-naked in that teeny Deb Shoppe dressing room!

In our all-girl family you could be in your undershirt foot-loose and fancy-free playing softball with the neighborhood boys in the sand lot next door one year and 12 months later be in that teeny Deb Shop fitting room with your mother AND a complete stranger having your little mounds measured as if they were part of some experiment for your 8th grade science class.

It was as if my mom, a conservative Catholic who NEVER discussed anything “personal” with us girls, even in the sexually liberated 1970s of our teen years, tried to take our breasts out of the sex equation all together! Yes, we were developing into young women, but it would be up to us to figure out what breasts were good for besides breast feeding babies. Still, we would wear first-rate bras as we strode into womanhood.

The “Deb” in Deb Shoppe was short for Debutante. The name implied wealthy girls, wealthy families, tafetta dresses worn at country club dances, punch bowls, chaste first kisses on the veranda … So opposite of the Tirella reality and the kind of sexual initiation I’d experience in Green Island.

There was no teen boys clothing at the Deb Shoppe. It was as if owner Sam was saying KEEP OUT!! to the testosterone-addled young turks who would have lumbered up that slim staircase to the small Deb Shoppe room and mussed everything up. It really was just a large room, the low-ceilinged attic section of his big cottage for kids clothing. It was stuffy in there and cramped – you had to walk carefully, almost softly, as you navigated the display aisles, which were eye catching, the clothing perfectly folded and hung.

So when I got my first period at 14 and a half my mother said the magic words: “I’m taking you to the Deb Shoppe to get you a bra.” Yes, she quietly, discreetly gave me all the supplies I’d need to cope with menses: a big blue Kotex box filled with bulky Kotex pads and small, brown waxed paper bags in which to dispose the “used” Kotex pads, a slim elastic waist belt to hold my Kotex pad in place when I was wearing one during those special four days, and a small bottle of Midol to dull my menstrual cramps. Ma told me how to put things on but didn’t check to make sure everything was on properly so there would be no slippage, “accidents.” Of course, there would be slippage and accidents. I remember a few emotionally harrowing afternoons where the blood missed my Kotex pad and seeped though my underwear and my pants, staining them a smelly maroon – always around sixth “period” at Providence Street Junior High School. My solution entailed a sweater tied tightly around my waist and draped over my butt with my hands fluttering behind pulling the sweater down every half second. That way my classmates and teachers couldn’t tell I had had an accident. Of course they could tell I had had an accident.

Ma didn’t give me the now-you-are-a-woman speech or the birds-and-the-bees lecture when I got my first period. She never said things like “vagina” or “penis” or even “menstruate.” She probably didn’t even know the word “orgasm,” though she had them frequently whenever my peripatetic father popped in for a visit. We lived in a tenement with solid wood doors, but the rooms were close together, emptying out into our huge kitchen, the hub of our household. We kids heard EVERYTHING. The next day, after a night filled with the mad squeaking of my parents’ old bed and their grunting, moaning and sighing, Ma would be in the kitchen happily making breakfast for us kids before we walked to school. As she bent down over us to pour the milk into our bowls of cereal, I could see the funny red marks all over her neck and throat – courtesy of Daddy, I surmised, a man who never stayed for breakfast with us kids. He only ate breakfast with Ma, an hour before we kids got up. It was then I watched my parents from my bedroom, in bed, pretending to have my eyes closed, pretending to be asleep: they always seemed like they were having fun – softly talking up a storm, quietly laughing together, gossiping. It made no sense!

But I digress! … while I was experiencing my first period, Ma was quietly beginning to go through her first and only menopause (early for a woman). We kids saw Ma’s red face and hot flashes, her sweat-soaked night gowns and experienced her sometimes spacey behavior – but we never asked WHY and she never offered up any hints. She never once used the word “menopause.” It fell to our Polish immigrant granny, Bapy, who lived with us – my mum’s mum – to fill in the blanks: Bapy went around our tenement, small and round as a dumpling in her pink flannel night gown saying “THE CHANGE,” “THE CHANGE” in broken English. She’d look at Ma, a little concerned, as she said: “THE CHANGE, THE CHANGE.” I think Bapy comforted my mother with her little incantation, intimating that THE CHANGE was just natural, just a change … in direction, in patterns, in rhythm … like the way the sun rose and then set over the Nissan Bread Bakery in Green Island or the way you threw the soft ball back and forth to the other kid in a game of Pickle.

But here I was, Ma’s oldest girl menstruating and Ma was obsessed with my breasts, as if she wanted to make sure what was happenung in the top part of me matched up with what was happening in the bottom part. That they changed in unison! Hence my first bra. To go with my first Kotex pads. But I was not changing in unison! In our tiny green Green Island bathroom, door closed tight (we didn’t have locks on our doors), I lifted my undershirt and looked down at my pale pancake breasts and frowned. How could my mother buy me a bra?! There was hardly anything there to put inside a bra! Nothing to measure! Nothing to discuss! How could one of my pancakes fill up a whole bra cup?!

But getting my period had put my mother on a puberty roll! So it was off to the Deb Shoppe on Millbury Street, just me and Ma, for my first bra. I remember climbing the famously narrow Deb Shoppe stairway in apprehension. I remember the old lady sales clerk meeting us by the blue jeans section, talking with my mom in a co-conspiratorial tone of voice. She looked at me, unimpressed. Then we – all three of us – walked into the teeny Deb Shoppe dressing room.

Take off your shirt, Rosalie, my mother commanded. I took off my shirt and the matron sales clerk took a rolled pink measuring tape from her vest pocket and very carefully wrapped it around my naked back and then sliding it to the side, very carefully placed the cool measuring tape ends together over my breasts to get the size of my upper torseau – 26, 28, 30, 32 inches??? How wide was I?? … Then she slid the tape over my nipples. She did this to calculate the exact true size of my mounds. To determine what bra cup I would need: a small A, a bigger B, an even bigger C … an Amazon-sized D???… She frowned. Then she left the dressing room, and my mother and I waited in anticipation of my first bra.

“It’s going to be a Maiden Form,” my mom said to me in that decisive tone of voice that meant she was the boss and I was her kid. Then she told me these were some of the best bras sold.

“Maiden Form,” I repeated. I smiled hopefully.

The sales clerk returned with a box and showed it to my mother. She said, “Rosalie’s too small for a bra.” My mom nodded in agreement and, looking at the box, said, “A training bra!” As if she knew what the results were going to be all along. The sales clerk opened the slim square box and took out what appeared to be a boring white half tee shirt! It was sleeveless and boring looking. But when I tried it on it fit like a charm, with an elastic at the bottom to craddle my mounds. It was very comfortable, and I looked cute in it when I glanced at myself – and my mom and the sales clerk – in the full length mirror before us. It didn’t look too different from the kids white undershirt I had on, except cut off higher. But when I looked down and examined it more closely, I was pleasantly surprised: there were pretty butterflies and flowers sewn along the neck line and some white ribbon sewn onto the front, and the smallest piece of dainty white ribbon was tied into the smallest white bow at the top. My mother and the sales ckerk smiled and nodded yes at each other.

No!!!!!!!!! My new training bra was nice BUT IT WAS NOT A BRA!!!!!! Not even a miniscule one because later on Ma told me women with extremely small breasts wore bras with AA sized cups – very small, like the little AA batteries I had in my Patridge Family flashlight my cousin Ted gave me for Christmas a few years back.

I was devestated! My mounds had failed the test! Now they were stuck in a Training Bra. Lots of girls my age wore training bras, Ma told me later. But I was deeply disappointed in myself. Bras were so … exotic, especially the black see-through one my mom sometimes wore and hand washed in the bathroom sink and hung on the shower rod to dry. Here I was stuck in a training bra!

Later on, in my bedroom, sprawled out on my big full-sized bed, listening to my Partridge Family records on my portable record player, I had time to think things out. I thought: Training Bra. What did that mean? For what was I training? And for whom? Was I training my flatties to grow out full? High? Perky? In the proper direction, at the correct angle? And what about my nipples? What were they going to do? Would they grow and change, too? On TV I saw Jane Russell in a commercial for a bra for the “full figured girl.” I thought Jane beautiful and believed she had the ideal breasts, modeling them on TV and all in a tight fugure flattering dress. She even explained how the Playtex CROSS YOUR HEART BRA worked, how it helped full-figured girls like her: “It lifts and separates!” she told the viewer showing the science, the mechanics if you will, of the bra on a maniquen that was wearing one and was lit up from the inside. Watching Jane Russell trace her fingers down the X shaped band that lifted and separated the manequin’s two big plastic boobs I worried that I would never have anything to separate, let alone lift. My mother was unimpressed with Jane Russell, calling her a B actress – B not being her bra cup size but B as in the B Movies Russell starred in. B movies, in my mom’s youth, were the second-tier films in which Hollywood’s second-rate actors starred – you saw them as a coming attraction to the A picture – the great movie you really came to see with the great movie stars like Humphry Boggart or James Stewart. A movies were superior to B movies; you aspired to the A. The exact opposite was true for bra cup size.

I would graduate from “Prov” Junior High next year. When would I graduate from a training bra to a full-fledged bra?! Would I be a ninth grader, technically a highschool freshman, and still be wearing a training bra? Would I graduate from Prov and go onto Burncoat Senior High still wearing a TRAINING BRA?!!!

Apparently, yes!

In fact, I went all through Burncoat Senior High School – took my SATs! – in training bras, my breasts stubbornly refusing to be trained into anything! But it was the late 1970s – the era of Dianne Keaton, Mary Tyler Moore, Louise Lassser. All of these women – movie and tv stars/American cultural icons of the day – were beautiful AND flat-chested. Faye Dunaway – exquisite and flat as a penny. I so longed to look like Dianne Keaton! I wore my hair long like she did and walked with my shoulders slightly hunched like she did. And, like Dianne, my breasts were mere mounds. But that was Ok. All the girls at Burncoat – even the girls in Honors Classes – wore jeans or courderoys (they came in all colors then) from Maurice the Pants Man on Millbury Street topped off with a tee shirt, sweater or dress shirt. That was the cool teen uniform of the day. No booby- or butt-baring garments like today’s teen clothing; no bling bling or pierced belly buttons for us kids. Just pretty, fresh girlhood unadorned. Simple beauty like the buttercups in your backyard. There was no pressure to be buxom or have tits or ass. In Honors Classes we girls studied and studied hard. I don’t think too many of us had boyfriends or were having sex – though lots of us were pretty, a few stunningly beautiful just standing by their lockers in jeans, tee shirts and clunky Earth Shoes. Our parents – many of them the sons and daughters of Irish, Italian, Greek, Lithuanian and Polish immigrants – had done something right. No one seemed too vain, everyone was nice to everyone else. I would like to think my high GPA at Burncoat was, in part, due to the fact that I wore comfy, all cotton training bras. My training bras helped me be at ease during test time, were never a distraction during class presentations. I slipped into my training bra in the morning and only remembered I was wearing it when it was time to take it off in the early evening, after I got home from my after-school job.

Fastforward to college. It is four years later. I’m a freshman at Clark Uiversity, here in Worcester. I’m still wearing training bras! My breasts may have grown a bit fuller, a tad rounder, but my training bras still do the job. Truth? I had grown to love their groovy comfort … sweat pants for boobs. No uptight tight bra straps cutting into my shoulders like they did to some of my best girl friends’ shoulder blades. No achy chafing when breasts felt swollen and sore during menstruation and still had to be coralled into bras. No sweaty smells for me, as I was not wearing spandex or nylon or even polyester. Just a 100% white cotton training bra – almost no different from the undergarment I wore as a kid catching grasshoppers in the big empty weed-choked yard next door – we kids called it the BIG YARD as in: “Are you going to the Big Yard?” I was a hippie bohemiam girl at Clark, like most of the female student body, and my half bras fit right in! And when they didn’t, I went braless!

But then, in the late fall, I lost my virginity to my new boyfriend and everything changed. I had just turned 18 and now I got WHAT ALL THE FUSS WAS ABOUT – breasts being part of the fuss. Yes, my breasts had been felt up when I was in high school by one Worcester guy and it felt great always leaving me wanting more. But we were in his car. I lived at home. He went to college far away. The idea of doing it, going all the way in his steamed up car up at the Worcester Airport – not in his dorm room like a legitimate girlfriend – rubbed me the wrong way, even as “Chad” was rubbing me the right way. Very frustrating.

Then I met “Ed” at Clark – tall and handsome with ice blue eyes, pale skin and shiny jet black hair, the color of the back of a raven – blue black – when the sunlight hit it just right. He loved music, books and had a dorm room! I gave it up in about 10 seconds. And suddenly breast size didn’t seem so important. We were good friends so I could foist my insecurities on him and ask: “Eddy, do you like my breasts? They’re so small! Do you think they’re very small?”

Ed said: “Rose, you know what the French say…Whatever fits into your lover’s mouth is the right size!”

Ed was from New Jersey but never failed to blow my mind. He sang Jimmy Durante songs to me!, introduced me to Marx Brothers movies!, sucked me in all the right places after we finished our Introduction to Logic homework. He too came from a Catholic family, he even attended a Catholic junior and senior high school. But he was hip to everything. He lived not too far from New York City and hung out there a lot – probably with the Ramones and Patty Smith.

After freshman year, I gained 15 pounds, the freshman 15. I grew a bigger butt – and, finally, breasts. I HAD to buy my first bra! I had no idea what size bra to buy, but I remembered my mother told me she wore a 38 B. I looked like my mom “up there” plus I ADORED her. So in honor of Ma, I took the bus down from Clark U to the Worcester Galleria and bought myself a couple of 38 B bras at the Jordan Marsh Bargain Basement.

Good bye, little breasts!

Shopping – Green Island style!

By Rosalie Tirella

When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island we were too poor to shop for kids clothing at Kiddy Castle/the Deb Shop, the upscale, beautiful kids/teens clothing shop right next door to the dry cleaners where my mom worked on Millbury Street. Though hidden in Green Island the store drew comfortably middle class families from Worcester’s West Side, not the immediate neighborhood. My mom – a single working mom – worked at the dry cleaners for minimum wage and didn’t have the money to buy the shop’s beautiful, well made children’s clothing and outerwear for her three little girls. The best we could do was enjoy the wonderful window displays that Sam, the owner of the Kiddy Castle (that’s what everyone called his shop), put up every winter, fall, spring and summer. For Christmas: Big, lifelike reindeers with sleigh bell-decorated belts on their backs and plastic flakes for snow sprinkled on their noses. And Santa’s elves (life-sized, too) standing next to them, about to load gaily wrapped Christmas gifts onto a wooden sleigh. Sometimes the elves twisted at the waist or raised an arm to say hello to you! In autumn: Big vinyl orange and red autumn leaves were pressed onto the big display windows. For spring: Pink and yellow plastic flowers bloomed among the pink and yellow Easter dresses the store maniquens wore – slim plexiglass girls painted a soothing beige and about the same height as me and my sisters. The store was a huge cottage with a sign that read DEB SHOP written in cursive on the top half (the Deb Shop was upstairs) and the KIDDY CASTLE sign, written in blocky, primary-colored letters, on the first level (the Castle was on the first floor). A sight to behold! A tease to the neighborhood’s poor kids and parents who walked, ran and trudged by it in all kinds of weather – but never entered, unless they were selling raffle tickets for a school field trip.

After a while the desire to enter this magical place faded for me and I was content to enjoy the creative window displays – just another cool facet of my densely packed, urban neighborhood that I treated like my own personal carnival ride because there were so many adults, kids, small businesses, institutions, dogs, cats, small biz owners, eateries, ideologies and feelings to experience!

Back to shopping! We Green Island families – the families who lived on Lafayette Street, Ellsworth Street, Sigel Street, Lodi Street, Grosvenor Street and Bigelow Street (we lived on Lafayette) – tuned out the Kiddy Castle and set our sights and change purses on the always bustling Mart, a kind of blue collar general store on Worcester’s Main Street, the gateway to the then-dicey Main South neighborhood. My mom shopped at the Mart for all our undies, play clothes and school clothes. For herself she bought: canvas tennis shoes, cotton aprons, bobby pins to curl her hair, cans of aerosol hair spray to hold her curled hair, pots, pans, cans of Ajax, dish towels and big white cotton panties that, when out of their package, looked as if they could hold two 5-pound bags of flour. My mother – about 43 at the time – wasn’t big – today I’d maybe even call her petite – but she wore big underwear. This puzzled me when I was a little girl: little lady, huge bloomers! Today I think Ma did this out of sadness and utilitarianism: Her husband, our father, was MIA AGAIN and we didn’t know when he’d come home again. Forget the sex – and a second paycheck! So Mom’s undies were the opposite of fun and seductive – they were no-nonsense, durable, easy to wear and care for – made of 100% cotton, a material which “breathes” as Ma reminded us, perfect for … working 60 hours a week at the dry cleaners (20 under the table), raising three little girls, cooking dinner, cleaning house and caring for her elderly, feisty, opinionated Polish immigrant mother – our grandmother, “Bapy,” who lived with us. You could’t live my mom’s life in thongs or even colorful bikini bottoms, the fashion back then.

20160409_165101_HDR-1
Bapy, at the head of the kitchen table, holding baby Rosalie!

Bapy alone would have sent most women to bloomersville: she lived with us and was another full-time job for Ma. Bapy had to be bathed, her long, gray hair combed out each morning and braided and wrapped in a bun at the back of her head, held in place with bobby pins. She needed her cups of Sanka decaf coffee warmed up in pans of hot water we boiled for her on the stove every few hours. She needed to sit at the head of the kitchen table – the hub of our big three decker tenenent – and pontificate in Polish, with a few choice Polish swear words to underscore a point – my father’s uselessness being the main one. She had opinions on everything and never kept them to herself. She expounded on God, grapes, our aunties, our plumbing, the kitchen table, the beef stew on the kitchen table, the downstairs neighbors, the Gomer Pyle USMC tv show, geraniums, birthday cake, gold fish and my dolls, which she’d dress in her old, smelly knee socks.

20160409_164559_HDR
Rosalie has owned this doll since she was 1! Bapy used to dress this doll up!

She’d take one of my dolls, often the one I was holding, take one of her socks, cut off the toe end with a pair of small old scissors and make a little crew hat, which she put on my doll’s head. Then she’d slip the doll’s plastic body into the rest of the old sock to make a long tube dress for the doll. Bapy made all my dolls look like mummies! I always watched her work, flattered she took an interest in me, annoyed that my dolls looked dead.

Sometimes Bapy would take one of her long socks and just make a cap for one of my dolls and put the rest of the sock – the tube end – on her arm, from her wrist to her elbow. That was to warm her arthritic bones. Often she layered the arm socks for extra relief. She’d walk around the tenement with both her arms covered in old socks of many hues – browns, navy blue, white, black. Bapy looked like a walking quilt with her decorated arms, flowered flannel night gown, flowered apron over the flowered night gown, three pairs of knit booties on her old feet … She smelled … fecund.

Bapy baby-sat us when our mother was working at the dry cleaners we’d tell everyone, but actually it was the other way around, with we kids heating her coffee on the stove and getting her the hardboiled egg sandwiches that she munched on from dawn to dusk.

In short, my mother’s life (and ours) was more Army Surplus than Victoria’s Secret, and Ma dressed appropriately for her tasks.

We never owned a car when I was growing up, so we walked pretty much everywhere – my mother, two kid sisters and I. We walked to the Mart often – a fun excursion for us that we’d cap off with a stop at Woolworth’s on Front Street – specifically the luncheonette section – hamburgers, french fries and Cokes for us kids, a cheese Western omelette and regular cup of coffee for Ma. While at the Mart, my mom would buy her wretched panties, my kids sisters and I would run off to the toy section where I always picked up the little package of REAL SEA MONKEYS to give to my mother so she could buy them for me. On the package there was an illustration of a happy cute Sea Monkey family sitting on their sofa watching TV. My mom would take one look at the package, frown and wave me off with: “They’re slimey!”

My favorite part of the walk to the Mart – just before you reached its front doors was the entrance to the Aurora Hotel, a flop house where various and sundry alcoholics and Worcester chatacters lived. The glossy granite entranceway always seemed so elegant to me! There, etched onto one of the smooth granite pillars that framed the entranceway to the flophouse, in exquisite deatail, floated “the mermaid lady” – a slender, lovely lady with long tresses and dressed in a long flowing toga. She was as tall as me and seemed to come straight out of my school book on Greek gods and goddesses. I never called her Aurora, after the hotel, or even tried to name her despite my family’s frequent walk-bys. The mermaid lady seemed too cold and distant for naming, her face turned to one side, in profile, as if always looking away from the gritty, gray, working class downtown she found herself floating in.

My mother bought our “slacks,” as she called them, socks, undies, shirts and short sets at the Mart. She never bought their kids shoes. She believed in good, quality sturdy leather kids shoes for her girls so we would not walk “pigeon toed” and our “arches didn’t drop.” This was all mysterious science to my kid sisters and me – ages 7 and 8 1/2 years old – but Ma must have done something right cuz I’ve logged thousands of miles on my footsies and to this day I have high arches that look ballerina-dancer cool when pointed!

20160409_121040_HDR
Rosalie’s foot – 4/9/2016

So it was off to Lisbon’s Shoe Store on Millbury Street – just 10 or so stores down from the dry cleaners where my mom worked – to see Mr. Lisbon. Like many of the small business that lined Millbury Street years ago the owners usually “waited on” their customers. They were at their shops, very hands on. You got to know them and their families in a peripheral way. If you went to White’s Five and Ten down the street Mr. White was running the store and ringing out customers on their big beige cash register. Mrs. White, tall and elegant in her knock off Channel suits and high, sculpted jet-black bouffant and black high heels – her natural tallness and accessorizing made her about 6 feet tall! – neatened up the housecoat and cotton vests section. If you went to Commercial Fruit, a few stores down, the owners and later their kids, were the ones who bagged your produce and weighed it on their big porcelain scales. The tailor’s shop, also on Millbury Street, a few stores down from the drycleaners, was always home to the tailor and his 25 canaries who kept him company in a big cage that he kept on a stand by his sewing machine. They were in complete, stifling darkness except for the little goose neck lamp that shone on the clothes the little tailor was mending. When my mom and I visited I ran straight to his yellow and orange canaries, my heart swelling with love. I always hoped the little tailor would give me a bird to take home and keep near our sunny kitchen window. He never did.

Mr. Lisbon, the shoe store owner, was always so nice to my mom and my two kid sisters and me. He always made me and my sisters stand up and put our stockinged feet on his foot measuring machine and then he’d slide the measuring stick to get your exact perfect shoe size. He would put your shoes on, lace them up and have you walk around the store to get the feel of them, all the while explaining things to our mother, who listened carefully and nodded her head. She’d buy our no-nonsense shoes and make us put them on to walk home in.

We’d walk down Millbury Street, tired but content – we loved each other, we were together. At the corner of Millbury and Lafayette streets stood McGovern’s Package store. We kids knew before we took that right onto Lafayette Street Ma would go into McGoverns and buy each of us a little bag of salted cashews – a treat! I’d want to eat my little bag of cashews during the walk home but Ma always insisted that I wait until we got home. She was always right: It was more fun eating my cashews with my kid sisters and telling Bapy in broken Polish all about our shopping trip to Millbury Street!

Baby love

By Rosalie Tirella

The newspaper story was four paragraphs long, but I could see it all clearly, this Worcester story, more footnote than story. You’d have called it a “metro note” in the old days when we all got our news from physical newspapers and the physical length of the story, one skinny column, would be maybe four inches long and tucked in the side of the page, like an afterthought … or like something that was either too insignificant to write about or TOO SIGNIFICANT to write about because THIS WAS LIFE and you only had some city beat news nerd on the job, when who you needed was Tolstoy!

So tiny this metro note! It read something like this: A 5 week old baby dead. She was sleeping with her parents on an air mattress, when they discovered she (we’ll call her Mary) had died. The parents in their early 20s, had another baby, just two years old, sleeping with them on their air mattress, too. The other baby was alive.

When the police came to the Worcester apartment on that cold winter night they noted the young parents – children themselves some might say! – were distraught. The dead baby – just 5 weeks old! – had dried blood in her nostrils. They said she had been dead for several hours. The parents said the family was on that one air mattress because they were moving! An investigation is being conducted. Stained Baby Wipes, a sheet, a blanket were taken by the authorities to be tested and studied.

SO GOES THE BABY, SO GOES WORCESTER!

SO GOES THE BABY, SO GOES THE CITY!

Oh, what might have happened on that cold Worcester winter night, in a flat over by Green Hill Park! What fears – what kind of fate – did a poor young family face in wintertime? There are so many of these families in Worcester, all quietly leading lives of hardship.

A family like so many in Worcester, but one who walking the tight rope between tragedy and grinding poverty fell into tragedy, death. It’s no wonder we don’t read more stories like this one! The city is filled with young poor parents and their tiny innocent babies. Why just a few weeks ago, on Ward Street, my street a young man beat his young girlfriend’s three year old babe so badly that he almost died, his intestines were smashed up so badly! I, personally fell in love with a little girl and her two year old brother and wrote about them here. They’ve left Ward Street, I think. I’ll always remember: the little boy, still wearing diapers maybe, being led by his tiny sister, in the dark, across Ward Street, the cars zooming up and down both ways. The little girl holding her brother’s hand. The little boy still smiling softly because I had given him a cute green plush toy to give to his Chihuahua mix, Beauty.

SO GO THE BABIES, SO GOES WORCESTER!

The Green Hill Park family … very poor, on the cusp of homelessness? Possibly moving out of a place they haven’t paid rent on, running to the next shitty apartment … on the run like seemingly half the families of kids in the Worcester Public Schools. The trend has been studied. I forget what our experts called it. All I know is they said very few inner city WPS kids graduate from the Worcester elementary school they started kindergarten in. The families are always moving, the kids fall behind in school work, lose friendships …

So the Green Hill Park family with a few pieces of furniture and four mouths to feed, four bodies to clothe, four minds to nourish … All that preciousness sleeping on a Wal-Mart air mattress – hard, inflated, thrown on the floor, where its especially cold and drafty on a Worcester winter night.

The parents have little but they love their babies! They, like lots of poor folks, are operating on instinct. There is much stress, too. Living so close to the bone, can make for incredible intimacy. The basics are covered primitively but often the gestures, the emotions, are TRUE! When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island, and we lived in a cold, drafty tenement on Lafayette Street, my Polish immigrant grandmother, Bapy, my mom and I ALL SLEPT TOGETHER in my Bapy’s big black squeaky metal bed, under a big goose down quilt from Poland. It was heavy and mountainous! You sweated underneath that behemoth of bedding! As a child I loved to pounce on it during the day! Jump all over it and pretend I was in the Swiss Alps playing hide and seek with reindeers in the white, glistening mountains.

My mom stuck me between her and Bapy so I wouldn’t fall off the bed! I was just a baby then, and I too was cold in my crib! I still recall the smell of my mother’s rounded back! She smelled like sweat and cabbage soup! I loved being snuggly and warm between my chubby grandmother and round-backed mother. Like a bear cub all safe and dreamy in the cozy bear den!

So the five week old was cranky at midnight, on the outskirts of Green Hill Park in Worcester, where the winter wind bends the tree branches and they creak as the wind makes them go left, then right, in ways that are unnatural to them, you feel the stiffness in society’s soul:

How can we, as a city, as a country, allow so many of our children to go hungry, go underclothed and underfed? How can we live with ourselves as they cough in $1,000 a month shit holes, with parents who don’t know enough to ask the landlords for more and landlords who are slumlords in that it’s all about making the biggest dollar on the dime, five week old babies be damned.

And they are! To lives that start out so rough they never really recover! And here we are in Worcester and America STILL DEBATING FREE UNIVERSAL PRE-K and DAYCARE!

SO GO THE CHILDREN, SO GOES THE CITY!

SO GO THE CHILDREN, SO GOES THE COUNTRY!

So the 5 week old on the outskirts of Green Hill Park was cranky in its bed, so the parents took it up and brought it to sleep with them: for warmth, for soothing, for love …

And then: Death. Death comes to a baby who’s hardly been born! A five week old human baby is so small and innocent! It is hard to believe they grow up to be … us!

Have you ever looked at a baby’s finger nails?! Like little moon crescents … like lamb’s dreams and daisy chains … and yet there they be: in a Lafayette Street cold water flat, in a Green Hill Park apartment on an air mattress on the floor in wintertime!

Years and years ago I lived in Hartford Connecticut and found myself a social worker-case manager. It was a job I’ll never forget: Hartford at the time was one of the country’s poorest cities, the families we cared for seemed out of … Appalachia. Fat from frying pans was thrown out into backyards where skittish stray dogs would run up and gobble it all up and run away. Children’s mothers nodded off to heroin, while their little child sat in the kitchen with old, toothless granny who couldn’t read or write but was caring for them because she had the apartment in the projects and she was, I was told, a good lady.

And there are so many good people in horrific life circumstances! Often the smallest ones are the princes and princesses we can never forget! Take this Hartford day, many years ago:

I and my fellow case worker were doing home visits, going into the projects to visit the parents and guardians of the little boys and girls who were in the program. This one little boy, about 4, had a beautiful mother: long, wavy jet black hair, curvy, but lithe figure, gorgeous white teeth, voluptuous lips … Naturally, there were about a million asshole guys buzzing around her door. Once we came to visit her – and she was in the middle of having sex with this gorgeous, muscular Adonis- the kind if rare guy who looks a thousand times better OUT of his clothes! I can say this because he was the one who answered the door bell – came to the door in just his briefs to tell us NOT NOW, GO AWAY, COME BACK SOME OTHER DAY.

And we did!

Now here we were, back again, to complete the home visit, my coworker in the kitchen with mom, the boyfriend out, me sitting in the living room with the little boy standing before me. There was nothing in the living room but two fold out foam chairs, just foam blocks really covered in cheap beige polyester. The walls were beige too and unadorned. But the little boy was so BEAUTIFUL, like a little emerald in a briar patch. He smiled at me and waved for me to follow him into the kitchen. I did. And watched as he went to the refrigerator open the door and took out a little box of juice and turning offered it to me.

I smiled and took his gift, most likely from our program or the neighborhood food pantry. Then I went back into the living room, took the saran wrap off the little straw that was attached to the juice box and stuck it into the little aluminum foil covered hole at the top corner of the little box and began slurping noisily, smiling at the little boy who took a seat on the foam block opposite me. Tears flowed out of my eyes as I slurped my grape juice because I had seen the inside of hos family’s refrigerator when he was reaching in to get the little juice box. There was nothing in it, except one other little juice box! That was it! On all four metal shelves! In the two big, clear plastic vegetable and fruit drawers! The yellow refrigerator 60 watt light bulb shone starkly, shone meanly on all that barrenness.

I remember saying, to the little boy, through my tears: YOU’RE SUCH A GOOD BOY! YOU’RE SUCH A GOOD BOY!

And he was such a good baby!

Just like the five week old baby who died such a premature death on the outskirts of Green Hill Park, on a cold winter night, here in Worcester.

SO GO THE BABIES, SO GOES OUR CITY!

Christmas-time magic

By Rosalie Tirella

Yesterday I stopped into a jewelry store. I was looking for a necklace and knew what I wanted: something big and chunky, maybe with a cross dangling from the end. Definitely colorful. Maybe even clanky! Something FUN. I was at one of the stands sifting through just such an array of clunky, clanky, colorful junk encrusted with ersatz-stones, fake pearls the size of jaw breaker gum balls when it happened, as it always happens to me when I’m at a jewelry kiosk and faced with what feels like an infinite number of choices: a kind of mental inertia sets in as I look at, continue to look at, then gawk at, scores and scores of shiny, blinking, sparkly trinkets, doing nothing, WANTING THEM ALL, but doing absolutely nothing, not lifting a finger, to bring the baubles to Mama! It’s like I’m hypnotized – as if someone had placed a shiny, bright object in front of my eyes and twirled it! To make matters worse my tiny purse with its tightly drawn purse strings, precludes me from buying a bunch of baubles – I can only afford to buy one – maybe two, if I’m being extravagant – necklaces!

I’ve known this feeling (wanting but not getting) all my life – starting as a child growing up in Green Island and walking to White’s Five and Ten store on Millbury Street to “just look” at all the plastic dolls and plastic cookware and high tea sets that I would buy for my plastic dolls – if I could buy the plastic dolls. But we were poor. I knew my single mother, who worked 60 hours a week as a countergirl at the dry cleaners right down the street, couldn’t afford to buy me treats like these whenever I got the itch – they were meant for birthdays and Christmas. I, like my mom and two kid sisters, was used to living lean, but I still liked to pretend shop, look over the goods, enjoyed seeing their lively colors and interesting shapes. Pretty stuffed animals – big and small, bags of cats’ eyes marbles with their own vinyl pouches, Popeye and Mickey Mouse sticker games! Walking down the long toy aisle at White’s was like walking through the carnivals that would sometimes come to Kelley Square and set up for the weekend in St. Anthony’s church parking lot!

So I would “visit” with owners Mr. and Mrs. White, chatting politely with them about my school, Lamartine Street School, and my teachers there, and Yes!, my mom was fine, thank you! Mrs. White, all the while staring at, mesmerized by Mrs. White’s foot-high (no lie!) jet-black-dyed bouffant. Mrs. White was a tall women to begin with, but with her teased-out and poofed-up hairstyle and her no-nonsense high heel shoes that capped off her very business appropriate crepe dresses, she was a human sky scraper to me! No! A natural wonder! I spent these pretend shopping afternoons at Whites literally looking up at Mrs. White at all times, the Sequoia to my tit-mouse!

Now here it was, years later, and I was in the jewelry store feeling just like that little Green Island girl – wanting the goodies but not getting the goodies – with no pleasant sounding and spectacular looking Mrs. White to soften the blow!

Maybe because it’s Christmas time, but yesterday I was missing Mrs. White and all the 30 or so small biz owners and their shops that once lined Millbury Street from Kelley Square to Crompton Park. The folks who owned the fish market, the Polish grocery store where they made their own kielbasa that my sisters and I loved, the shoe store where the owner always had you stand on this giant metal footprint so he could measure your foot perfectly with a sliding ruler, the fruit store with the male manager whose butt was huge and SQUARE!, the dimly lit hardware store, the even more dimly lit (go figure!) tailor’s shop where the tailor kept 30 or so canaries in a huge bird cage by his sewing machine so he could enjoy their beauty while he worked, the diner, the hamburger joint where my sisters and I ate a snack after coming home from junior high, my sister slamming her skinny body onto the sides of the huge pinball machine there to make the balls roll the way she wanted them to – just like the boys did with whom she played…or my mom and her sweet, stalwart ways pulling out our sad little Christmas tree out of an old trunk, the one whose lights had stopped working years ago. It was with those feelings that I turned around in the jewelry store, looking for … I can’t exactly say what …

And there she was looking back at me: a saleswoman wearing a crisply ironed navy blue skirt and blazer, and white blouse – a saleswoman in her mid-70s. This saleslady was so nicely dressed that I immediately thought of the salesladies at the old Sylvia’s Dress Shop on Franklin Street or Barnard’s on Main Street – when downtown Worcester was in her heyday, throwing off her own flinty – never flirty! – white Christmas light.

The saleslady walked out from behind the jewelry counter and stood next to me as I rifled through the jewelry, this time giving the multitude of necklaces a careless swing or two because I was growing annoyed with my indecisiveness.

May I help you? she said.

YES! I said. Which one? (I had winnowed my treasures down to 10 big necklaces) This one? I asked her, showing her what looked to be a spray painted gold cross, with a kind of iridescent inlay. How about this one? I said, as I pulled off a black braided twine number with three plastic silver crosses at the end. Is this a key chain? I said. …then finally, exasperated and dizzy from the fluorescent lights overhead and the garish colors in some of the pieces, I said: I need some help!

The woman looked past my chosen chains and ran her fingers through the necklaces and pendants that hung from several pegs attached to the free-standing jewelry display case. In two seconds she had pulled out a necklace I had not even noticed as I rifled through the strands: a tiny, fine necklace with a little flat silver heart on which a sepia photo of the Eiffel Tower was pasted. It was sealed with lacquer and shone. The heart looked antique, but the chain, made of the flimsiest metal, and the several little white plastic pearls gave its cheapness away – it was almost appropriate for a First Communion gift you might give your seven-year neice, if you were poor. It was the kind of necklace my late mother would have picked out for me, if she had been standing by my side: dainty, delicate, very lady like.

Then I remembered! When I was seven my mom had indeed gone to one of the nicer shops in downtown Worcester and bought me the tiniest gold heart-shaped locket on a delicate gold chain for my First Holy Communion gift! So small! But real gold, she told me! I cut out her face from one of our family photographs and put it one side of the open locket and then I cut out my face from another photo – with my mom’s delicate manicure scissors that she let me, her favorite daughter, use for school projects that required intricate cutting – and placed it in the other side of the locket. If you closed the heart locket we were together in one heart! If you opened it, you saw our two smiling faces!

That gift, along with my childhood rosaries and fifth grade Lamartine Street School autograph book and my Polish grandfather’s harmonica that he used to play in our Lafayette Street apartment were confiscated 26 years ago by a Worcester landlord – he shall remain nameless because (poetic justice!) he went on to become a huge, nasty, all around low life cocaine addict and lost his big West Side house, wife and kids – because I owed him $100 back rent as I was moving out. I begged him for the cardboard box filled with my precious mementos, totally worthless to him. But he never relented, never gave me back objects – touchstones – from my childhood. The months flew by, work and distractions piled up and I forgot all about the box and its precious contents. Only to remember it all 15 or so years ago when I saw my ex-landlord on local tv news and thought: Asshole. And now, that missing, most likely dumped, box holding my little gold, heart-shaped locket and my painted ballerina shaped barret, also a gift from my late mom when I was 7, and all my Worcester Public School report cards gone … to resurface as memories, more concrete, more permanent than the objects themselves!

So the counter woman, standing next to me, looking only about 10 years younger than my late mom before she got sick with the Alzheimer’s – when Ma padded around her apartment cooking a huge pot of her homemade chicken soup for my bachelor Uncle Fred or writing out her grocery list in her sharp-edged, never round or girly cute cursive handwriting. Her golden years when she got me a subscription to The Boston Globe – 7 days a week! – because I had just started InCity Times and she wanted me to read a newspaper that mattered.

That is who the store lady reminded me of – my mom, in her prime senior years: sensitive, sharp, smart, funny, relaxed, at ease with herself. …If Ma were working the counter at the jewelry store she would be dressed just like this lady was dressed, and she would recommend that I buy just such a heart-shaped necklace!

Then, unusual for me because I don’t have much dough, I said: I’ll take it! And I’d like to buy a wristwatch, too!

I didn’t want to leave that jewelry store!

The saleswoman, I never asked her her name and don’t remember if she was wearing a name tag, stepped a few feet to the right and there she was at the wristwatch display case – men’s and women’s. I walked over, immediately attracted to the big pink Velcro girl watch – its big face would be easy to read when I walked my two frenetic dogs, Jett and Lilac, hanging on to their leads for dear life, or pushed it to my face to check – QUICK!- the time, as I’m always late and on the run. But the saleslady picked out something much more understated: a woman’s wristwatch with a small, dainty turquoise leather wrist band and a small round face almost elegant in its simplicity with its narrow minute and hour hands and a second hand as fine as the thread in my blouse. The turquoise wristband had tiny cross hatchings. If you had shown my late mom this wristwatch display case, this would have been the time piece she would have chosen for me! Smart! Feminine! Pretty!

I’ll take it! I said to the saleslady, and the woman, courteous and quiet, not at all gabby or pushy or, Heaven forbid, checking an ubiquitous smartphone – picked up the watch, still in its box, and lead me to the cash register. She mirrored my late mom’s decorum when SHE was a counter lady at the dry cleaners years ago – the transaction felt serious, special. I paid the bill, but instead of putting my watch in a bag for me, the saleslady took it out of its box so she could put it on me, so I got the feel and look if my new wristwatch, of which she seemed proud. I laid my hand out flat, palm up, on the counter. She put slipped the watch on my wrist and fastened it as my hand hovered over the counter top – I didn’t want to scratch its face on the counter while she put it on. It had one of those old fashioned bands – you could call it classic – with the five or six holes on one side of the band and, on the other side, a tiny needle to lock it into place. The saleslady did her job with such grace that I felt … serene.

You know, I told her, suddenly remembering the image, my late Mom used to do the exact same thing for me when I was a little girl and she was helping me put on my first wrist watch (it was a light pink Cinderella wrist watch). The saleslady smiled as she fastened the wristband. She worked carefully, gracefully. It had been years since I had been fussed over this way! The way your mom or your favorite sister or best gal pal carefully adjusts your prom gown strap on prom night, the way your aunt smooths out your Holy Communion dress your Mom just bought for you from Jack and Jill’s on Green Street and is having you model for your auntie.

Then I said: My mom passed away a few years ago, in a nursing home not far from here.

The saleslady had fastened my wristwatch. She looked up at me and smiled. I looked into her old eyes, noted all the lovely wrinkles in her face and said, Thank you! I walked out of the store.

I did not want to tell the jewelry store saleslady this at the counter when she was fastening my wristwatch: but she had put my wristwatch on too tight! Just like my mother used to do! And just like with my mom, so as not to hurt her feelings, I had waited until I was out of her sight to loosen the watchband – put the needle in the next hole in the leather band. I tried to do this once back in my car, seated behind the steering wheel, but I couldn’t see the holes in the watchband through my tears.

Did you know Billy, owner of the Broadway restaurant and catering, …

By Rosalie Tirella

… has been cooking the Thanksgiving dinners for Catholic Charities holiday meals for the elderly/disabled FOR ALMOST 15 YEARS?

That’s right! THOUSANDS OF MEALS! HUNDREDS OF HOURS OF FOOD PREP – HARD WORK AND HUSTLE IN THE HOT BROADWAY KITCHEN … FOR MORE THAN 15 YEARS. FOR FREE. VOLUNTEERING for Worcester. And Billy shuns the spotlight! Doesn’t want the recognition – just wants plenty of elbow room in the Broadway kitchen to prepare the hundreds of turkey meals for Worcester seniors, while his waitresses and cooks do the other work – serving the Broadway customers who come to this Worcester culinary landmark on 100 Water St. for the sweet ambiance as much as the amazing breakfasts, bottomless cups of coffee and homemade baked mac and cheese.

Billy is for family, church, friendship, silly jokes, smiles, bantering with customers, rescuing dogs …

CAM00122
Jett loves visiting the Broadway where the waitresses sneak him strips of bacon when Rosalie isn’t looking!

… talking city politics with city pols!, giving the poor kids sitting at his counter big $2.50 homemade Broadway ice cream cones for a buck cuz that’s what the kids put down on his counter, while twirling around on those red vinyl Broadway seats and chatting Billy up. Everyone is smiling and laughing … Billy especially!

BILLY IS THE BEST! He is the best of what Worcester once stood for and still stands for in many quarters. Not the fake gentrifiers who use social media to catapult themselves into a kind of fake prominence with their mostly fake friends … and cheat along the way, ever so skillfully. They’re an affront to the Green Island that so many of us remember and love – the Green Island that was all about authenticity, modesty, being so good, so true outside the limelight for your neighborhood, for your city, for your husband or wife, for your kids. You just did a good thing. Period.

Thanksgiving time the Broadway is for remembering Worcester’s poor, Worcester’s forgotten – frail old folks who won’t be able to cook their own Thanksgiving feast and may not be going out to celebrate with family – or even have family with whom to break holiday bread.

Every year Billy and his family fill the gap! They get the call from the Bishop, and Billy and the wonderful Broadway folks step up and volunteer.

CAM00225
The Broadway is located at 100 Water St., Worcester!

Every year about this time, if you walk into the Broadway, you’ll see Billy and his wife Betsy and their staff (most of them with the Broadway for years) running all around the big yet cozy kitchen pulling scores of basted and baked turkeys out of huge shiny silver ovens, with long doors, carving the turkeys up, spooning mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and veggies into the aluminum trays that scores of Elder Services of Worcester County volunteers will deliver to Worcester seniors. And the seniors get gravy … and dessert! Billy is focused, running up the tile floor to fetch a huge pot, a helper is stirring the gravy, big ladles and spoons are dipped into big pots and pans, the prep table in the center of the kitchen is overflowing with all things good and tasty … the place smells like heaven. After all, it’s the Bishop who provides the birds! But Billy provides everything else: the sides, the cooking, the work (all those pots, pans and utensils to wash!) Most of all, BEST OF ALL … THE LOVE.

Thanks, Billy!

District 4, Endicott Street: St. Mary’s Church parking area garbage-clogged, as usual

By Rosalie Tirella

Should this little Polish church on Ward Street, Our Lady of Czetchowa, run by the pastor who refuses to let the city install video cameras on church property to catch illegal dumpers, DUMPERS WHO DUMP BEDROOM SETS AND OFFICE FURNITURE AND MOUNTAINS OF GARBAGE, be re-christened:

OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL SLOB-INESS?

OUR LADY OF HOGS?

OUR LADY OF INNER-CITY BLUES?

Yesterday, while running errands, I saw this:

CAM00737

CAM00738-1

The church parking lot walkway was littered with paper. To the right, the box spring mattress had been removed but the other crap remained.

As a kid growing up in Green Island, on Lafayette Street, my family belonged to this parish and my sisters attended St. Mary’s elementary school and jr/sr high school. I trudged to weekly catechism class at St. Mary’s, taking this path through a clean parking lot on whose edge sat a beautiful, open shrine to the Virgin Mary where you could light a candle and kneel and pray (it’s got bars now so people can’t steal the statues and candles) and to fastidious nuns who taught me my Catholic do’s and don’t. The neighborhood was poor and tough then (filled with blue collar bars and a few flop houses), but we kids and my mom, walking to St. Mary’s church or its parish school – and we walked everywhere cuz we didn’t have a car – found the walk to St. M’s … pleasant.

Especially on Sundays! We were going to church! To Jesus and to all his saints! To our church with the organ player from Poland whom I loved so much! He was short, not at all good looking, but did everything with such flair. He wore his long coat draped over his shoulders like a cape and walked past us parishioners dramatically, so his coat billowed in the breeze – just like a maestro! Once in church with my family, sitting in our church pew, I’d love to sneak a peek to the back of the church, the balcony where he played. You weren’t supposed to turn around in church – you were supposed to sit perfectly still in the pew, facing forward, looking straight ahead to the altar where the priest lead mass. But I loved to take furtive glances at the maestro who played the church organ with such flair! drama! passion! His little torso bent over the keyboard, reaching to the left, then to the right, his hands flying across the keyboard, his face sometimes looking up, to heaven, totally blissed out, into his music … his gig for God! While playing, he still wore his coat on his shoulders – like a cape! – like the little maestro he was! Our little church on Ward Street swelled with his music! I felt the whole world could hear his organ playing and the congregation accompanying him with our voices old and young, male and female. Singing on Sunday! A blast!

My mom and my two sisters and I always dressed up for Sunday mass, this special event. In springtime, my mom wore her pretty powder pink gloves – the ones that went to her wrist – to church. Sometimes my sisters and I wore our communion dresses, even after a few years had passed since we had made our First Holy Communion at St. Mary’s! (We also wore the dresses for class picture day! They were so pretty!) Here’s mine, hanging on the wall of one of my spare bedrooms today: a love song to my late mom and the Green Island of my childhood:

CAM00739-1

WE NEVER SAW GARBAGE HEAPED ON ENDICOTT STREET OR IN THE CHURCH WALKWAY on the way to mass. NEVER DID OUR WALKS TO THE CHURCH or St. M’s school feel like strolls through a landfill. Never were we made to feel bad or sad about our little journey, like it must feel now for anyone who walks up Endicott Street.

Maybe everyone here has grown used to the ugliness – and many add to it on hourly basis.

Soul-crushing.

Took this photo today, while driving in downtown Worcester, on Main Street, by the building next to the Registry of Motor Vehicles

CAM00507-1

“And how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”

– Bob Dylan

He was in pristine yellow socks!, scrubs and had a clear plastic cap on – as if he had just been released from the ICU of a hospital. Just lying there, skeletal, in downtown Worcester, when he should have been lying in a hospital bed.

The poor, the homeless, the hopeless, the downtrodden – they will always be with Worcester, as they are always with any city, even the small ones, even the great ones.  Often it’s the most successful neighborhoods of a metropolis that attract the homeless: they can ask for money from the well heeled, they can hope the fancy restaurant has leftovers to give them – or an accessible dumpster.

Driving by and seeing what I saw this afternoon is part of living/working/playing in any city. It’s how the city treats the folks on its periphery that tells you EVERYTHING about that city.

Boston’s late, great Mayor Tom Menino went out every winter, during the coldest nights, pre-blizzard with city outreach workers into the streets of Boston – his home – to give blankets to the homeless people who, for whatever reasons, refused to seek shelter even though the snow would soon be piling up all around them. He did not bitch about the de-institutionalization of these folks or that group and how they adversely affected this strip of stores or that urban hot spot. He just reached out to them, sometimes under bridges, and gave them blankets, food and maybe shook their hands, said some nice things, comforting words that made them feel WARM, human again. Sure, it was a great photo opp, but I believe Menino still would have gone out without the TV reporters and photographers in tow.

 On those brutal New England winter nights Tom Menino sent out a powerful message: The City of Boston cares about all its denizens. EVERYONE, no matter how lost, how tired, how forsaken, how destitute COUNTS in Boston. No one is surplus, superfluous, unwanted. EVERYONE belongs. 

That’s the best part of living in any city! EVERYONE BELONGS.

Worcester officials have yet to embrace Worceter in this deep way! This says a lot about them and us, Worcester. City living thrusts brutal reality right in front of our noses every minute of the day! How do we choose to respond? How do I, Rosalie, choose to respond? This, is what keeps me in the city. Not the fancy drinks or stores with pretty items – you can find that anywhere, in any town, any suburb. Quaint, fun but, I don’t know, not the stuff I’m interested in!

“HOW MANY EARS MUST ONE MAN HAVE BEFORE HE CAN HEAR PEOPLE CRY?”  – Bob Dylan

The answer, my friend, is STILL blowing in the wind!

Text + pic – Rosalie Tirella