Still my all time best digs: a gorgeous fourth floor apartment (two bedrooms) on Ward Street in Worcester’s lower Vernon Hill neighborhood. Chef Joey’s dad’s building. Totally revitalized by Skippy, the family’s long time carpenter, so I got to enjoy real tile squares in the bathroom, sleek hardwood floors, a view of Worcester from my kitchen windows that slayed me every night when I pushed back my sweet kitchen curtains back to look for the steeple of Saint John’s Church, lit up and a perfect white against the cobalt sky. Like all three decker flats there were lots of windows and the kitchen was big. Bonuses: a new gas stove, plus the original pocket door, mahogany, still functional and beautiful. Old Joe Cancelmo installed an extra wood bar in my hall, running the entire length of my hallway, so I could hang up all my coats, jackets and coat sweaters (dozens). I remember the day he and Skippy came up to install it: Skippy scrawny from drink and the cancer; Joe hearty and healthy and confident from money and success. Mr. Cancelmo, as I called him, was an insurance salesman and Woo landlord with many three deckers and buildings under his belt when he and his wife Helene were younger. Now, both in their mid-80s, they were down to four or five Woo buildings. Mr. Cancelmo gave me my first gin and tonic when I visited him and Helene to sign the apartment lease. I had never been asked if I wanted a gin and tonic upon entering someone’s apartment to sign a lease – very continental! And very understand because the senior Cancelmos lived in Southern France – outside Cannes – for half the year and just grooved in a different way than we chaotic Americans. I remember Mr. Cancelmo was wearing a black cap, almost a beret, over his white hair and had a very nice coat. Skippy was wearing a windbreaker that flapped in the breeze. He was borderline homeless for years. Both men died several years ago.
I set up my bedroom in the living room of 48 Ward St. to take advantage of the room’s roundness and three huge windows. I was so happy with all the sunlight pouring in, all my fur babies sleeping with me on that big old bed at night, all my music and a small bookcase filled with my favorite books just at the finger tip. Three strings of twinkly lights were wrapped around the bed’s headboard I had fashioned from a curtain rod and sheer draperie panel. My vintage sheath dress hung elegantly from the window. A big old painting that a biz class pal had painted and given me 20 years ago still hadn’t been donated to the Salvation Army thrift store on Cambridge Street.
More girly than what I have today. Obviously, I mourn the Blackstone River Road theft of my audio cassettes – and my wavy CD stand! – but with a few tweaks, this bedroom in the country could also be perfect Rose Room.
I stopped kidding myself: The days of being creative, living a free, artsy, boho life in Worcester’s older neighborhoods, in nice apartments where you could write short stories, paint, make music and maybe substitute teach on the side to pay your small, manageable bills are over. Worcester’s older three deckers in its old ethnic neighborhoods like Green Island, Vernon Hill, Main South, Piedmont, Quinsigamond Village are no longer priced for us bohemians – or working class families. Having sophisticated old landlords who insist on mixing you a gin and tonic as you sign the paperwork? Forget about it!
The developers are here slicing and dicing the old three deckers and charging exorbitant rents for a quarter of the space. Trying to refashion itself as an artsy city, the new Worcester has actually pushed artistes out. There are no cheap tenements for painters, musicians and writers to ply their trades, to develop as artists. Even if it’s only to find out it’s a hard way to live! So Chalk it Up to youth! Chalk it up to idealism … and become a full time teacher and savor the memories of exploration and dreams! Now, today in Worcester? You’ve got a hollowed out, ugly Downtown…an overpriced, over-built Canal District. The old great restaurants, cheap yet culinary treasures, are gone. Poof! The funky three deckers and airy light filled apartments with the old ethnic landlords who weren’t greedy but emotionally tied to their property! Because they grew up in the building or their wife was born on the first floor or their sister still lives on the second floor and sometimes his wife still dreams about the old Perry Ave apartment even though now they live in a nice single family house on the other side of town …
My entire InCity Times newspaper writing adventure got started in Worcester almost a quarter of a century ago because the city was so inexpensive – housing, cool eateries, shops – you name it. I never felt poor as a young woman banging out InCity Times every two weeks in Worcester, from various three decker flats in the city, but I was! But I was happy. Writing, reading, editing stories, selling ads, delivering my papers, working with other writers just as thrilled as I was to have a forum … A blast! I didn’t feel deprived in any way because I was living in Worcester, my hometown – a city where you could chase your crazy dreams. For cheap.
Thinking of the late, great Peter Stefan, the powerhouse behind a Main South funeral home, a swinging saxophone player, a writer of corny jokes, an inveterate flirt and a great friend. Thinking about how many people Peter would have saved this winter, if he were still alive. Thinking about how he would have shaped the City’s conversation around tiny houses for the poor, homeless villages and City-run homeless camps or converting hotels to affordable studio apartments for the homeless. Peter would have advocated for them all – loudly, intelligently, passionately and with the tenacity of an old pitbull with his favorite shoe lodged firmly between mighty upper and lower jaw.
I am thinking about what I saw…the homeless guy sleeping on the grates outside the courthouse in Downtown Worcester, just yards away from the theater with all its patrons rushing to their cars in the garage after the show… running as a cop stood in the crosswalk and stopped traffic so they could cross the street, get to their cars in minutes because it was so cold out… meanwhile a homeless man wrapped in a nylon comforter slept on a grate. Just yards away. I’m thinking about the opioid-addicted young woman, shoeless, bent over and holding a long piece of metal, gripping it so tight in the Canal District. Had she shot up? Was the drug killing her – not making her high, not making her forget? Her pain was so obvious. Everyone on Millbury Street could see… And the senior citizen who couldn’t afford his insulin this winter and unlike prior winters couldn’t knock on Peter’s big heavy Victorian front door and ask for his help … and get it.
Peter, if he knew about any suffering, man or beast, would step in and get to rescuing. I mean pronto. In his prime, up until his late 70s really, he was his own social service agency, the most hands-on Good Samaritan in Worcester. He’d drive to crime scenes to pick up burned bodies …then give the usually homeless person a wake at his Main South funeral home. The body would often be cremated for free. … Or Peter would fund the Worcester Senior Center podiatry clinic. Or he’d start a school supplies drive in the fall, out of his funeral home, for poor neighborhood kids going back to school. Or he’d be out driving a car-load of sweets and loaves of fresh bread from Nissan’s bakery/wholesale shop in Green Island to the PIP shelter on Charlton Street – treats for the often drunk, stoned, “actively using” homeless PIP clients who were often sprawled out on the floor by the entrance way. Peter would enter the PIP, make the donation to PIP Executive Director Buddy Brousseau, another terrific person, and together – because Peter was on the PIP’s board of directors – they’d hash out solutions to a few of this week’s crises. As Peter reminded me and Worcester at every turn: all homeless folks, everyone who’s shooting up in some stairwell or stumbling drunk in the Canal District and may be hungry and exhausted “has a mother and a father. Everyone is someone’s son or daughter.” Peter always saw the person drowning in his or her addiction, and he acted with love because he knew the person was in pain.
I miss my friend today! So much! When good people die they leave a hole in your heart, in the community’s soul, too. No one can quite replace them, their special way of helping, relating to people and animals. In my case, it was often a cute smile, a bawdy joke or two, a stroking of Lilac’s floppy ears and referring to Jett as “The Little Charm” – and then his ad $ donation. And InCity Times/CECELIA lived to fight another day.
For so many, it’s a colder winter without Peter Stefan …
… to plan the community meeting (read: meet with old Green Island squeaky wheel Lorraine Laurie and what’s left of her nursing home brigade on Endicott Street) before the kids can put their skateboards to concrete … and sail! Create a new dream, a new Worcide … for the Woo kids of TODAY.
Lorraine is gonna dig in. She’s told me as much. But this time, the self-appointed Mayor of Green Island (who’s done a ton of good for the ‘hood over the decades!) needs to back off! Accept a new, changed Green Island neighborhood, with a new population – dads and mom’s with kids who wanna have fun. Get exercise, be outdoors…
This will not happen, re: Lorraine. Old habits die hard. Lorraine (who lives a mile away in her late dad’s three decker at the corner of Providence and Dorchester steeets, for Christ’s sake!) and pal Maureen (who last we heard moved to Chicago!!) STILL WANT TO PUT THE KIBOSH ON THIS MOST EXCELLENT PROJECT FOR OUR GREEN ISLAND YOUTH! A few years back, when Crompton Park had a master plan drawn up by city planners, a skateboard park was part of the blueprint. Lorraine made a lot of noise and, I assume, phone calls – and scuttled the plan. It was brushed under the rug.
Now, with the dismantling of the iconic Worcide skatepark on Washington Street by the City, Lorraine and her 3 old lady gal pals will make a ton of noise. They shall protest too much! They will spout the usual NIMBY bull, EVEN THOUGH THIS PROJECT IS NOT IN THEIR BACK YARDS!! Far from it!
The noise, the noise, they will say to City Manager Ed Augustus and Woo Parks guy Rob Antonelli.
“It’s in a flood plain!” Lorraine yelled at me a month ago.
She had just learned of the resuscitated plan to relocate Worcide to Crompton Park – and was upset.
For her, it spelled:
Today’s Worcester – different from Lorraine Laurie’s vision. pics: R.T.
Brown kids! Brown teens!
A changing neighborhood!
Lorraine needs to join the Woo of 2019 and leave the Crompton Park of 1975. This skateboard park MUST BE BUILT, if anything to show Lorraine and her ancient chorus that they must step aside and accommodate a new city, a new Endicott Street, a new Green Island.
The city of Worcester destroyed the kid-built skateboard nook under a Washington Street bridge. It was special, hand-built, concrete slab
by concrete slab by the state punks themselves and had a national reputation for coolness.
But city officials claimed folks there were shooting heroin, camping out, sleeping in the space, living there – and shitting all over Worcide. Used syringes and shit. Not a good image for the gentrifying Canal District. The homeless kids under the Green Street bridge, nodding out from junk, and the Worcide skate punk kids had somehow become one – and a menace to the chi chi Canal District. Unfortunately, we sorta agree with this assessment. You can’t have skateboard bohemian rhapsody, if you’ve got a shooting gallery, shit-filled skate park. You can’t be free if you’re nodding out on junk.
So onto Crompton Park!
The new Worcide is supposed to run along Quinsigamond Ave and Endicott streets – on the corner, I guess. Out in the open. Accessible. Under the watchful eyes of the neighborhood – and the WPD who patrol the area. The new park may not attract the old skateboarders – many now middle-aged adults who should get jobs, but I bet it will attract a new crowd: young, cool Worcester and Green Island kids – kids of color – who don’t want to shoot up, are not homeless/lost on the fringes. Kids who want to play, skate, listen to music … SOAR!
Here at 29 Elm St., Spencer, my landlord Brydi Riccard’s girlfriend (they live here), across the way …
… is banging on my front door as I write this …
… bullying … trying to intimidate me because this morning I took photos of Elm Street for this New Year’s Day post.
Spencer’s poorer digs: Elm Street
What is wrong with this woman?
What ails a 40-something woman who has no job, perpetual housing and does nothing to contribute to society … just smokes and spies on this “outsider” as I live my life?
I haven’t a clue what ails her!
A few guesses: Living in a place like Spencer, so cut off from the direction America is heading, makes many people here afraid of anyone/anything new, I think. Also: Refusing to work, earn your keeps, contribute to society makes you … unwell, mentally and physically. Also: many here are stuck in a kind of cultural 1950s racist, rigid small town America. Many here embrace the worst of America: its racism, xenophobia, fear of knowledge, hatred of new ideas, new people. Instead, they have embraced: vaping, smoking weed/siting pot shops, smoking tons of cigs, running tattoo and chop shops …
The DEAD AMERICA that Trump trumpets!! Exploits! So he can stay President! Spencer/rural folks are the unknowing victims, pulled under the moving train!
As a New York real estate developer, Trump was a Democrat, espoused Democratic ideas, embraced gay people, even hung out with Hillary Clinton!! But he went low when he figured he might be elected prez if he played into rural America’s worst fears and prejudices! He figured right! So it has been two years of Trump blatently and not so explicitly excoriating immigrants, brown people, black people, refugees, transgendered folks, the poor … And the CRUEL JOKE IS ON ALL OF US!
We have a dumbing down – in Worcester, Spencer – AMERICA – that Trump exploits – and perpetuates. No good jobs here in rural America and in our older cities. No free college for our low-income young people so they can compete in the new, tech-driven economy and get middle-class jobs. No hope in the inner-city like Green Island or in small towns like Spencer because they have experienced years of atrophy. Of course, you’re gonna get crime, opioids, mass murders, as well as the more mundane shit: vaping, tons of mary jane, all the tattoo and chop shops.
Where are our books, America?!
Where are our civics classes, grades K – 12?!
Where is our CIVIC EDUCATION – like I was force-fed in the Worcester Public Schools as a kid? Just like the OIF got in the Lynn Public Schools when he was a kid! And he got a very good honors public school education IN LYNN!!! We both got the Sousa marches, our own personal little mini-booklets of the U.S. Constitution to keep!
I remember: In 4th grade St. Mary’s catechism class in Kelley Square we had to march around the periphery of our classroom, MARCH! – as Sister Justine, a human trapezoid, severe and pimply, but on that day ecstatic, as she played on her little portable record player: ANCHORS AWAY! The U.S. Navy rah rah song! While we 30 little kids marched around her classroom singing and, yes!, having fun, as we sang along with the record. Sister Justine rewrote the lyrics of the marching tune to teach us about Jesus. So we sang, while marching: THIS PROVES OUR LOVE FOR GOD/ IN ALL WE SAY/ AND ALL WE THINK AND DO!!!!
Let’s have our public school kids listen to John Philip Sousa again!
At assemblies! Where our American flag, big and beautiful, is carried by a WPS student down the middle of the auditorium aisle – with other students, black, brown, white leading the procession, too!
It is our American collective consciousness that we are losing and need to tap into again!!
So we can be more whole!
“E pluribus unum”! “Out of many, one”! It’s our motto, for Christ’s sakes! It’s what we are all about! WHAT REALLY MAKES AMERICA GREAT!
In Spencer, my heart breaks for the children here! Most little Spencer kids, according to state tests, are not ready for kindergarten. I assume this holds true for much of poor rural America.
The high school down the road is only half full! Because Spencer is a dying town! It is a town comprised of white old folks who have lived here forever. Trump territory! Tragic! Visit a local eatery and most customers at the diners and restaurants here are 70 years+ old! These places look haunted! Ancient. Ghostly.
BROWN, BLACK, WHITE FAMILIES AND YOUTH = VIBRANCY, LIFE … ART! Immigration, welcoming the world’s disenfranchised, is how America regenerates herself! Spencer – all of rural America! – NEEDS to get this!
But, hey, that is just the beginning. Spencer, like most of a big chunk of rural America that relied on mills and small/big factories for its wealth decades ago, needs to change! And EMBRACE EDUCATION, NUTRITION, HEALTH AND HEALTH CARE!
No health center.
No mental health services.
No WIC, SNAP hub for poor families – to feed their kids, many of whom are rail thin.
No food hub. LET US EMULATE GREENFIELD AND GET A REAL FOOD HUB FOR WORKING FOLKS HERE IN SPENCER. The poo bas of Worcester killed that food distribution dream cuz they were afraid of competition for their chi chi farmers market – a TOTALLY DIFFERENT ANIMAL WITH A TOTALLY DIFFERENT CUSTOMER BASE.
Worcester’s Cambridge Street
In the shadows of Worcester’s Canal District
So 1 in 4 kids in Worcester is hungry/food insecure.
(For America, it is 1 in 5) Go, Woo Sox! Let us have another 1,000,000 stories on the Worcester AAA Red Sox team and baseball stadium and two about Worcester’s hungry kids!
Go, Woo City Manager Ed Augustus!!
Back to Spencer:
No vibrant downtown: Some downtown Spencer buildings need to be fixed up – or condemned! And Town Clerk Laura and the Spencer Selectmen damn well know this!!
A downtown Spencer building
But let us not forget Worcester’s shit buildings! The city drags its feet re: them, a la Spencer! God help us if this Jan/Feb we’ve got homeless folks camping out in this building and they rig up some funky propane stove to start a fire to stay warm. God help our Worcester firemen and women who will bravely enter the fire-fray because of the City Manager’s negligence!
Back to Spencer:
No diversity …No young people to plow new energy and ideas into the town!
No new investment. Because, like Worcester on many levels, the same old connected crowd gets grandfathered in and sweet-hearted-dealed in. And stays enfranchised! HOLDS TIGHT ONTO THE GOODIES/POWER!
In Worcester, former Mayor Joe O’Brien, had the right idea: HE PUSHED TO HAVE DISTRICT REPRESENTATION ON THE WORCESTER SCHOOL COMMITTEE. Like our Worcester City Council with districts 2, 3, 4 and 5 – which enable more inner-city neighborhood folks to jump into politics, run for office and REALLY GIVE VOICE TO THE FOLKS WHO LIVE in the city’s neighborhoods. Of course, the WPSchool Committee members – many of them old farts in their mid-70s and/or politically connected – were RESISTANT! SHOCKED!!! ABSOLUTELY MORTIFIED THAT THEIR COLLECTIVE CRAP-WISDOM WOULD BE QUESTIONED. Of course, they voted Joe’s just and true proposal down!
The WPS bozos cut off a great path for immigrants, minorities to represent and advocate for their kids in the Worcester Public Schools – a MAJORITY MINORITY SCHOOL DISTRICT!! now “ruled by” a bunch of old (we are looking at you WPSchool Superintendent Maureen Binienda) Irish-American Good Old Boys. Even if they are female.
These folks have been ruuning Worcester for almost a century; so Spencer isn’t the only place with its head up its ass. This is why urban spaces like Green Island, Vernon Hill AND Spencer/rural America are in trouble: the white old group, enfranchised, unwilling to relinquish power, won’t let go! They cling to power, even as their people suffer. People of color, new comers, the young … locked out.
I mean, look at the daily’s series on Worcester’s older neighborhoods: for the most part, the stories trotted out the SAME TIRED OLD WHITE retreads. Regurgitated. Again. Not exactly the most accurate picture of our city’s neighborhoods!
I am packing today, next week, …
… moving back to the city for what I HAVE MISSED MOST about it: ethnic, racial and cultural diversity … immigrant energy. New beautiful faces. Youth. The AMERICA OF TODAY!
I like my Spencer neighbors and the town’s first responders. They are usually polite, soft-spoken and carry a quiet, under-stated sense of humor. They exchange niceties with me when I’m out with my dogs, but many are so downtrodden! To see grown men limping, slow motion, down Elm Street, rail thin, clothes dirty and hanging off them … is surreal and heartbreaking. They say hello to me, I say hello back, respectfully.
The promise of America broken in two!
WISHING ONLY THE BEST for city and country in 2019!
They say when John Lennon was gunned down under the Dakota archway by madman Mark David Chapman who fired four shots into his back, two sailing straight through Lennon, that as the artist/musician collapsed to the pavement, as 80% of his blood gushed out of his aorta, veins and arteries, audio cassettes, the small plastic rectangles of recording tape we all listened to or recorded music on in the ’80s, came tumbling out of Lennon’s pockets and crashed to the pavement with him.
The groups he was listening to at the time (he really liked the B 52s!) and the stuff he was recording with life-mate Yoko Ono.
This past weekend, I could not shake the image: the frail 40-year-old Lennon (he was so skinny, eating all that macrobiotic food!) and his fraile, plastic audio cassettes hitting the cement sidewalk outside his grand home, simultaneously.
Minutes later, at Roosevelt hospital – after the cops said TO HELL WITH THE AMBULANCE! and flung Lennon into the back of their police cruiser to drive him immediately to the ER themselves (he told them: I’VE BEEN SHOT, then went into shock), even after the ER doctors pulled Lennon’s heart out of him and held it, worked feverishly on it, to save him, he died.
Chapman, his madman murderer, who has been denied parole year after year after year because he is hated by the whole world, was carrying THE CATCHER IN THE RYE in his pocket the night he killed Lennon, who was coming home with wife Yoko after making music that night at the recording studio. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger. The maroon paperback we ALL read 20 times as high schhool or college kids – the book we all carried in our bluejeans back pocket! A misfit’s guide to fucking up – and proud of it! The psychotic Chapman made the book his his own, his talisman. He thought he was Holden Caufield! Sick! The slim novel was in his pocket as he stood quietly in the background waiting for the cops to take him away.
The night my mother died at that terrible nursing home near the old Higgins Armory, she was wearing a silly beige kiddy wristwatch I had bought her a few weeks before. Rubber and soft, its big “face” in the shape of a racoon – pointy ears and all! It made her smile and was easy to read, even if her Alzheimers made it hard for her to “tell time.” It made me smile, too – so cute! Just like Ma!
But when she died and the OIF and I went to her shared room at the nursing home to get all her personal belongings, the raccoon wrist watch was gone. Stolen? Lost? Her other dimestore jewelry was in the drawer of her bedside table…her raccoon wristwatch gone.
For some reason this devastated me! I wanted to wear her silly watch. Forever! I pictured a nurse or nurses aide pilfering the adorable time piece – for a grandchild? A nephew or niece? Their own kid?
And so Worcester firefighter Chris Roy died a brutal death fighting flames in some shit slum building (look at those popsickle stick porch rails! look at all that shit toxic vinyl siding slapped over the porches!) in Main South, fighting for the lives of ghetto folks half the city despises, even as he was losing his own …
I wonder: WHAT LITTLE THING, THE MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL!, did Chris have with/on him the day he died?
A metal cross on a sterling silver chain?
A little photo of his kid – or a picture of a woman he loves, once loved?
A ring on his big finger?
Family will want that, anything really, because in death, in leaving for good, people tend to keep/want the stuff that really matters. The precious stuff: things that have nothing to do with dollars – more often cents! It is all memories, unbreakable, unfathomable. I imagine, every day, Yoko rakes John’s music cassettes across her old cheeks…every day I think of that stupid raccoon wristwatch Ma wore at the home … and every day Worcester firefighters, especially the ones who called into the flame-engulfed windows of that inner-city shit hole: CHRIS! CHRIS! MAN! – already knowing that their mate was unconscious (it’s the smoke that kills) – will hold a pin, ring, medal, badge … and hurt.
The “Green Island fire station”: American flag at half mast; white Leicester fire truck, its guys hoping to ease their brothers’ pain/help out in any way they can, parked beneath our flag. photo: R.T.
When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island, I could tell what kind of Thanksgiving Ma, my two kid sisters and I were gonna have as soon as Ma told us which of her sisters, my two favorite aunties, we’d be spending the holiday with. We were gonna have a great Thanksgiving if we were invited to Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary’s house in Worcester’s suburban Burncoat neighborhood. We were gonna have a gonzo holiday if we spent Thanksgiving with Auntie Gertrude and her family.
Ma, left, and her big sister, Rose’s Auntie Gertrude – an experience!
This Thanksgiving it was to be Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark’s house:
Aunt Mary, married to elementary school principal Uncle Mark, had the perfect Post-World-War II, new suburban, white bread American life that I coveted – even as a five year old. After growing up poor, with Ma and her sisters and brother on Bigelow Street, in The Block, in Green Island, Aunt Mary hit the Jack Pot – wife, stay at home mom, middle-class ‘hood – the American Dream.
Aunt Mary on her wedding day, with her Polish immigrant dad, Rose’s grandpa or “Jaju” (on that day, Father of the Bride).
But Aunt Mary was no princess. Like my mother and their big sister Gertrude, she had been farmed out by her parents, my Bapy and Jaju, during the Great Depression – to Springfield, to the Bishop of Springfield’s rectory, where she was a maid, cook and housekkeeper. She had a job!, made money to send home to Worcester to her parents so they could eat, pay their rent, survive the lean American times. And, just as important, Mary and her sisters were eating the best food and sleeping in a warm bedroom in 1929, ’30, ’31, 32… each sister sleeping in her own twin bed, in a big room in the Bishop’s house, with two great, fearless Dobermann pinschers snoozing at their feet, Bridgette and Rocky – both the brainchild of my Auntie Gert who loved the breed and fast-talked their doting Bishop into buying the pair of guard dogs for them. Rocky, Ma’s fave, would lick between her toes at night and howl while sitting next to the upright piano my Auntie Gert would bang away on, singing the popular tunes of the day.
My mother and aunts were 14, 15 and 19 years old, and they loved to walk and cuddle their babies, Rocky and Bridgette, who proved to be the neighborhood menaces, biting one guy, mowing down a nun and breaking her arm. But you know all about Bridgette and Rocky…
And you know how Ma and her sisters were sent to the Bishop’s to live and work as kids and how they stayed for 10 years, bonding for life.
But in this column it is the 1960s/ 1970s and Aunt Mary had done well for herself: she had married a school teacher, my Uncle Mark; and lived in an adorable, Baby-Boomer, kid friendly Worcester neighborhood; she had a cute ranch with big backyard for the kids, new GE appliances and a huge Electra parked in their garage. It was Gold. Plus, Aunt Mary had four fun, happy kids – my cousins – who were smart, silly, loved to play and joke around and, best of all, had the best, on-trend toys – toys that my two sisters and I could only dream about, toys you saw advertised on TV! – and NOT on the dusty shelves of White’s Five and Ten on Millbury Street, like mine and my sisters’ toys – or my (real) violin that Ma rented for me and had pressured me into learning to play at Lamartine Street School …
Rose still has the little “pitch pipe” that her mother bought for her when she took violin lessons, for free, at Lamartine Street School. She was just 6 years old and hated the violin!
Today, this pitch pipe is always in Rose’s purse, always with her, a memento of her mother’s love of music – and her.
… toys like Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots!!, Easy Bake Oven!! and Mystery Date!! board game. On Thanksgiving, my kid sisters and I would get to play with ALL of these incredible toys!
On Thanksgiving day, late morning, Uncle Mark would drive up to our tenement on Lafayette Street in his big golden Electra and pick up Ma and us kids (we never had a car – we walked (mostly), bused and cabbed everywhere) and drive us to his/my auntie’s house in the pretty, safe part of town to eat a ton of tasty food, play all the cool games, boisterously, with our four cousins and, for Ma, a single working Ma who worked 60 hours a week for minimum wage at the dry cleaners down the street and never had a day off, the chance to sink her tired body, already slightly hunch-backed from all physical labor in her 30-something life, into a huge Lazy Boy and be served!! coffee and dessert by Aunt Mary, her work shoes off, her nylon-knee-highed-feet up luxuriantly on a puffy, poufy hassock. Queen for the day!
Uncle Mark was a big, hearty soul with thick, square shoulders that filled our front doorway when he visited us on Lafayette Street. He had thick, jet black hair that he styled with a slick pom. Polish, the son of poor immigrants struggling in Green Island, he seemed All American to me. Not at all from the Old Country. He spoke English like a professor would, he read books and Sports Illustrated; he went to church on Sundays; graduated from COLLEGE!!; played football at his alma mater, Fordham University, and almost -could have – become a pro football player! He loved watching all sports on TV, was so proud to live in America, bragged about going to college in the Bronx – New York City, enjoyed his Jesuit classes at college, playing football, being on a TEAM, and being super strong and athletic. A jock. And still, Uncle Mark was such a gentle giant! So full of warmth – always smooching his wife and hugging his kids, so opposite our father, “Daddy,” who never hugged us kids and never smooched Ma. In fact he made a habit of yelling at her: “DONKEY! FUCK NUT!! Simple as the day is long!” When he left our apartment, disappeared for months at a time, we were grateful. Every day was Thanksgiving!
Uncle Mark was a totally different sort, almost a new kind of man to me – and Ma. He had fallen head over cleats in love with my Aunt Mary and gave up his football dreams to move back to Worcester to marry her, raise a family with her, become a school teacher, and give her and his kids a house, car, safety … a cocker spaniel.
“HI, PEANUTS!” he’d yell to me and my sisters who were swimming in the back seat of that huge, brand new Electra. We were going to his house for Thanksgiving! Ma sat in the front with him, wearing her best polyester pants and cotton turtleneck she had bought at White’s Five and Ten. She also wore her red Elizabeth Arden lipstick – expensive and still a classic! – and turning around to look at her precious three little girls, smiled her perfect, white Pepsodent smile at us. We smiled back at our beautiful, happy-for-today mother!!
“HAPPY THANKSGIVING, UNCLE MARK!!” we’d yell back at our big uncle, giddy, silly at the sound of his booming, warm (and also a little silly) voice – and with anticipation of Aunt Mary’s excellent bread stuffing and gravy, the game of Pickle we’d play in his grassy, fall-leaf-covered front yard with our cousins after the meal, and the lying about, tummies bloated, all us kids sprawled out on the living room’s sky blue shag wall-to-wall carpeting, after all the food and playing outdoors … we kids playing a board game, Monopoly, and eating icecream cones – Hood half-gallon box of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla scooped into supermarket waffle cones – that Aunt Mary had made special for each of us and proudly bestowed on each of us, her chubby round body brushing up against us all as she made her way around her snug living room stuffed with kids, laughing, her breath smelling like Bell’s Seasoning.
How was it that my mother didn’t feel a little “funny” when Uncle Mark called me and my sisters “Peanuts”? Sure, it was a term of endearment. And the Peanuts comic strip was at the height of its popularity, with those classic Peanut holiday TV specials (Christmas, The Great Pumpkin/Halloween) still fresh and new and watched by millions of American families on Sunday night, on network TV.
Snoopy and Woodstock do Thanksgiving right!!!
And, yeah, my sisters and I were cute like the Peanuts characters and we had small Peanut-y voices. But, compared to our middle-class cousins in the suburbs who ate meat and mashed taters to their hearts’ content, drank gallons of milk every week – Uncle Mark’s kids – we were puny, runty – PEANUTS. My sisters, identical twins, had been born prematurely – around 3 pounds each. “You were the size of chickens” you’d buy at Supreme Market, Ma used to like to say to them. They were kept at the old Memorial Hospital on Bell Hill for a few months after they were born, in incubation tents, too fraile to go home. As little kids, they were fussy eaters and therefore skinny, their big knobby knees and stick arms a visual assault to my father and an excuse to abuse Ma. “Fuck nut!” he’s scream at her, red-faced. “Don’t you feed the kids!?”
Ma would reply: “Dr. Lawrence [our pedetrician] says they’re ok! They’re healthy!”
But looking at some old family photos today, writing this column, with my own two dogs at my feet …
… I see my old man’s point: My sisters DO look bony in their cheap matching short outfits Ma had bought for them at The Mart. Being old school, Ma never tried to tailor meals to their tastes – or to mine. If we were hungry, we’d eat what was on our plates. An impoverished childhood had taught her that. Ma cooked basic, healthful Polish peasant food – cabbage soup, with bits of cheap, fatty beef. Turnip with butter. Kielbasa slices and bread with mustard. Boiled potatos and carrots – and cabbage. Tuna sandwiches and Campbell’s Tomato Soup to switch things up on Saturday night. Pigs knuckles for her and Bapy on the weekend, bought at the Polish market on Millbury Street. Latkes for breakfast on Sundays. My sisters pushed their Polish grub-laden plates away and ran into the living room to watch “Leave it to Beaver.” I wasn’t a fussy eater and, especially after Ma handed me a bottle of Hine’s ketchup so I could flavor up my meal, gobbled everything. Like a turkey. Always. Except the pigs knuckles, though I may have tried a nibble.
Today, I believe my sisters, so skinny and sensitive, stayed so skinny because they were so sensitive! They were traumatized by our abusive father screaming, red faced FUCK NUT at our sweet Ma in the middle of our kitchen every day. Sometimes even slapping her pretty cheek with his big rough junkman’s hand! Now I understand! My two sisters were too terrified to eat! Their little tummies were always in knots!
I hated my father and, when older, would have gone after him with a turkey carving knife, if he had laid a hand on Ma. Daddy knew this and, I believe, learned to stifle his worst instincts.
On the other side, my mother, like Uncle Mark, also had her prejudices around food/body image. As the years passed and the Thanksgivings rolled on, Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark grew … rolly polly. Fat. Ma would sometimes make fun of Uncle Mark – and Aunt Mary – back at our Green Island tenement. She would say: “Yes, your aunt sits at the sewing machine sewing up his pants – the seat of his pants! Over and over again! Ha! Stuck at home! With her allowance – a few dollars a week! She can’t work, make her own paycheck!”
Wow. I was only 10 but Ma was telling me, in her Ma code, that 1. being fat was a joke, and 2. being a housewife and stay at home mom was even a bigger joke! You were not free! You were not an independent woman! You were your husband’s servant and cheerleader. Ma would never be stuck at home, away from her beloved customers at the dry cleaners! “I love my job!” she used to say to me – often. “I love working with the public!” she would say to me – often. Almost as often as she told me the story about Aunt Mary sewing and resewing the ample seat of Uncle Mark’s pants!
And, so, like Ma, I never married. Was no man’s seamstress, handmaiden or cheerleader. The moral of Ma’s story always seemed to be about Freedom. Freedom to be the MAIN CHARACTER in your story. Not a bad feeling, unless I was imbuing the love that bloomed between Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark. Like in the fairy tales I’d read as a child. He called her “my Queen.” He called her “Angel.” On Thanksgiving Day, I remember always seeing Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark hugging, laughing together – FLIRTING! Over the kitchen stove. Next to their big color TV. In front of us kids. In front of Ma! Aunt Mary, an “old lady” to us kids, would actually blush, at my Uncle Mark’s deep, sweet coos and compliments. Once I heard her say to Ma: “I hope I die before him. He won’t know how to live without me.” She was right. 60 years later, she died of cancer. Uncle Mark sobbed for two months. That is all he did. We all had never seen him cry. Ever. He was a pillar of strength – the Fordham football hero who filled our Lafayette Street front entry with his bulk and vigor and self-confidence and good cheer. Then he died. Then he died. Skinny now, he had stopped eating.
So Ma got it. At the end. I got it at the end too … But my epiphany began years ago, one Christmas day, at Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark’s. I was 16 and maybe a bit anorexic. All A’s in school. A perfectionist. Now wanting the approval of boys…all so cute and out of reach … poring over my latest issues of Glamour, Seventeen and Mademoiselle to learn that I was different from the models cavorting with the cute boys on the beach on those glossy pages in their butter cup yellow bikinis: my hair was too thin but my body was not thin enough; my breasts were still too small, the gap between my two front teeth still gaping.
So that Christmas I was ashamed of my aunt and uncle. They were fat! And there they were, by their big fake Christmas tree in their living room, KISSING! Two fat people! How gross! They looked nothing like the models in my magazines or my favorite movie stars: Dianne Keaton, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Barbra Steisand, Faye Dunaway … And they were in THEIR FORTIES! kissing!! Hugging each other, slobbering over each other, practically in public!
Then they stopped.
Uncle Mark had an announcement: For Christmas he had bought Aunt Mary a John Denver album! It had THEIR song on it! And he was going to play it for us. We were all going to sit down and listen to the song when he put the lp on their stereo record player inside their big, mahogany console.
Groan… I was 14 1/2 and listening to cool stuff: Layla, the Beatles’s Abby Road and White Album … The black magic marker scrawl on my school’s girl bathroom stall was on point: CLAPTON IS GOD. Period.
My cousin, now 17, and quite the beauty, went to a private girls high school in the city where all the beautiful girls had cute botfriends (some in college!) and listened to/were in love with Jim Croce:
So there we all were: Ma, my sisters, my four cousins, all trapped. With John Denver. Uncle Mark took the new lp out of its pristine sleeve, gingerly put the record on the turntable (which I never saw him use) and found the song. Then he cranked up the volume!
My beautiful cousin was moved (“He’s her Prince Charming!” she whispered to me.), my boy cousins were respectful, Ma and my kid sisters and I were … uncomfortable. Life with our Daddy left no room for romance and sentiment. What was true love, after all??? What did we know any way?
The song played on… Aunt Mary walked over, emotional, red-faced, to Uncle Mark and nestled herself within his big bulk. They held each other tight, swayed back and forth…almost slow dancing…
A few years ago, I bought two John Denver lps – for Annie’s Song and some other John Denver tunes I am no longer ashamed to admit I like. I wanted to connect with my now dead uncle and auntie. I threw Annie’s Song on my turntable and listened intently and cried like a baby. I saw them both, my aunt and uncle, in their little Burncoat living room, next to their huge fake Christmas tree, dumpling shaped, hugging each other close. I saw the love in Uncle Mark’s soft brown eyes, misty with emotion, as he looked down at the top of his small wife’s head. I saw my aunt’s eyes, too: soft and brown also, misty, too. Yes, they were together. Both wearing those ’70s style matching fleece jogging outfits! Both grinning, ear lobe to ear lobe. Surrounded by their beloved family. Ensconced in love. That was all that mattered. “Togetherness!” my Uncle Mark would say loudly, like a declaration, in the middle of his kitchen. Yes! I saw it all! Remembered every note!
I called her Miss Boo – after the character in To Kill a Mockingbird. When I first moved to Spencer, during one of the first summer days I took the dogs out, Miss Boo stood on her porch watching me and gave me the sweetest smile. Looking back, I’d call it beatific. I smiled back and waved to her.
Then I heard a man’s voice, snide, rough, condescending, calling from inside the apartment: “What are you doing out there?”
Miss Boo’s face dropped, her smile all gone. She turned away, wilted, and mechanically walked back into the house, like a dog obeying her master’s stern command. I grew worried for her…
A few nights later, I was getting out of my car, home from work and heard this from Miss Boo, in the Spencer dark, her voice loud and menacing: “YOU WITH THE X-RAY VISION! GO AWAY! LOOKING! LOOKING! LOOKING! … X-RAY VISION!” Her top-of-the-lungs, bizarre rant was wrapped in platitudes, too. And right away I 1. called the Spencer Police and 2. Guessed, because I worked with folks like her one summer in college, that she suffered from schizophrenia and was having a psychotic episode. I wasn’t afraid…based on my experience during that summer in college (I was an activity director), she wouldn’t hurt me and it would all simmer down. A tormented mind. A mental illness… It was her special needs mind saying one thing, and the rational side saying another – truth but wrapped in stray voices, mental incoherence that she probably worked hard to control. And succeeded. Most of the time.
Kudos to the Spencer police officers. They, because there are no social services/health clinics in Spencer, have to be police officers AND NURSES AND SOCIAL WORKERS AND SOUL SOOTHERS. The friend in need – but with a gun. The officer told me over the phone: oh, them. Her. We’re there all the time. She’s harmless. She has her good days and her bad days. Just ignore her.
The Spencer cop was right on the money. I told him I agreed with him 100% and described my college summer job years ago. Still, I said to him: I don’t want to come home to this every night! She’s loud and disturbing and I’m doing nothing wrong!!
A week later I noticed that the farmer’s porch had been stripped bare: it had been practically shrink-wrapped in heavy, yellowed plastic and stuffed to the gills with junk. Then I saw her landlord come by and carefully remove the stray weeds from the side yard. A few days later an old refrigerator, broken down/ its door off its hinges, was being hauled away in a pick up truck. Then I saw the porch all clean and sparkly white (had it been repainted?) with three potted plants, evenly, perfectly, spaced, hanging from the top of the porch! How pretty and clean!
But at night, you could see into the shadeless windows. The apartment was empty…
I was told: “She moved out.”
WHY??? I said.
I had liked Miss Boo. I knew she was suffering through no fault of her own. I was on her side!
But Miss Boo saw my newspapers, no doubt watched me photograph the neighborhood for my blog and … Moved out. In the dead of night. No crime committed. Just suffering from, most likely, a terrible, undiagnosed mental illness in rural America. In Spencer – a town that may not have the resources but nonetheless can’t do the research, make the connections to Fran’s super Family Health Clinic in Worcester or … be creative and come up with the grants/funding$ for nurses or social workers. So Miss Boo suffered … silently, not so silently, always bravely … and changed her whole life. Moved out!
God love the Spencer and Leicester police because, when things come to a boil, they’re the ones who are called. And, ya know, they do a fine job! No fancy degrees. No lecture halls for these guys and gals. Just small-town police officers embedded in a small town. They know the people. They are humane, they listen … very real. And then, because, they are not medical experts, psychiatrists … they don’t really solve the problem. But they do offer perspective, empathy and homespun wisdom. The Leicester Police station on Route 9. Good people here, too!
But you tell the young Spencer cop, based on your weird Spencer landlord and Miss Boo that you now understand why there is an opioid epidemic in rural America! No help here! No clinics! No diagnosis! No nothing! So the people, in their pain, self-medicate. YOU GOT AN OPIOID PROBLEM OUT HERE, you tell the young Spencer cop. YOU NEED HELP – IT SHOULDN’T FALL ON YOU!
And when the young cop looks at you, grateful, and sighs, Yes, as in YOU GET IT, LADY, somebody finally gets it, your heart breaks. For Miss Boo, the community, the cops.
So, next day, YOU ARE ON THE CASE! YOU CALL FRAN A. AT FAMILY HEALTH CENTER AND TELL HER VOICEMAIL: The people in Spencer need help. Depression, psychosis … it is all here and there is no help! Please help!
You go to Spencer Town Hall and demand to speak to the Town Manager about the problem, but his middle-aged personal secretary with the big hair and cold heart blows you off. You say, in the middle of Town Hall: GET A HEALTH CLINIC RUNNING IN DOWNTOWN Spencer. To help. To combat the erroneous, dangerous self-medicating that goes on. Or the anguish that goes untreated! Every town empliyee, even Laura, the very nice Spencer Town Clerk, looks annoyed at me. It is Wednesday – almost their weekend, as Spencer is so $cash-strapped Town Hall closes for the week on Thursday, noon!!
You call Jan Yost at The Health Foundation and leave a desperate message. She calls you right back. She gets it and tells you what to do next, whom to call, and how, maybe, Spencer or Leicester can secure the $$grant money to get a social worker inside the police stations, working hand-in-hand with the police officers.
Wonderful! Hopefully … A win for Spencer! A YES for rural America! Compassion and understanding for Miss Boo!
When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island fall/winter was the time for celebrating Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Clack, clack, clack, one right after the other, my favorite holidays fell like little pink dominoes – always celebrated out of the neighborhood, at our Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark’s house on the nice, suburban side of the city. The Burncoat neighborhood. This is where my two kid sisters and I rang in the holidays, every year, pre-K to grade 12, along with our single mom who coordinated everything with Aunt Mary, her sister, over the phone, after we kids had gone to bed.
Burncoat: the Worcester neighborhood where the city’s middle-class Irish-Americans lived out the 1950s American dream in pretty ranches and capes on little tree-lined streets. The moms were stay-at-home and the dads were often teachers or principals and assistant principals in the Worcester Public Schools, a nepotism-ridden school system, where, as one exiting teacher once told me, you had to be “mega-connected” to get a job and, of course, Irish-American.
My Uncle Mark was a school principal in a little town outside of Worcester (he was Polish and un-connected) and seemed to know a lot of the other teachers in the neighborhood. All the men wore the same grey suits, crisply pressed white dress shirts and nondescript ties to work. Their physiques were nondescript – very Spencer Tracy-like, when Tracy was in love with Katherine Hepburn and they made all those great movies together in the 1940s. Still, the guys, like Tracy, were respected: they were the heads of their families, the bread winners, the ones who made the suburbs turn.
Visiting my relatives in Burncoat in autumn was a fun, peaceful, orange-maple-leaves-on-still-green-grass kinda day for us kids and our sweet mother – a vacation from our Lafayette Street tenement and our inner-city street filled with kids, winos, stray dogs, barrooms, stores, junk cars, obstreperous neighbors, sand lot baseball …
Uncle Mark had pulled Aunt Mary out of Green Island, the old neighborhood, when he married her … swept her off her pretty litte feet and set her over the threshold of an adorable little pink house in Burncoat, with the added attractions of a big Buick, a big Zenith color TV, a big automatic washer, dryer and dishwasher. And for their kids: new bikes, a huge backyard and basketball hoop nailed above their garage door. Of course, the kids would all be honors students, go to college and become doctors and teachers. Which my cousins did.
It was crazyland in Green Island. Sure, my cousins didn’t have a penny candy store and cute corner grocery nook like my sisters and I had on Lafayette Street, but our old three decker was planted right across the street from two raucous barrooms where fights broke out regularly – fights that were always taken “outside,” the throw-downs usually between man and wife. My kid sisters and I heard and saw everything! We were 6, 8 and 10, and I remember always running as fast as I could past the sour-smelling barroons after a day at my beloved Lamartine Street Elementary School – to skip all the madness (there was one bar on either side of our street) – and not be grabbed by a drunk. Men, beer-bellied, soiled white tee shirts tight around their protruding stomachs, slapped their women around – and were oblivious to the pain they caused. The women were embarassed, distressed… I remember one woman, dumped by her bar man, who walked Lafayette and Millbury streets in just a shirt/jacket – and her panties. No shorts, slacks, skirts… She did this in fall and the colder weather. Her thick, black long hair was dull and matted; she talked to herself all the time. But you could still see her beauty. She had a beautiful face! And when my mom and we kids passed her on the street, while walking home from the dry cleaners where Ma worked, or after shopping on Millbury Street, Ma pulling our shopping wagon filled with food behind her, Ma always said a warm hello to the woman! The wonderful lessons Ma taught us on Lafayette Street!
But I digress … my cousins and our neighborhoods, just 15 miles apart in Worcester, a 15-minute car drive on I 290, were on separate galaxies. At Uncle Mark’s we were in a happy, safe, kid-focused environment. At home we were in choas-ville. Sometimes I didn’t want to go home after a Sunday afternoon playing Pickle with my cousins in their Burncoat front yard. I’d get visibly upset as my uncle got ready to drive us home (we never had a car). So my Aunt Mary let me sleep over – in the twin bed with my silly, smart, older and very beautiful cousin, Sue. I have told you all about her… Sue, 15, was my intellectual, physical and spiritual superior. She highlighted her long hair with a special lightening spray she bought at the drug store … she took piano lessons, sewed herself pant suits with linings! and wrote her own music on the trim, upright piano in Aunt Mary’s blue-wall-papered living room. She knew everything about boys and had a stack of Beach Boys 45s a foot tall. Sometimes, just after we went to bed, Sue would put on a Beach Boy record in her Close and Play record player and we’d get up out from under the covers and dance on her bed – pretend we were surfing on her Sealy and make waves with our arms … like we were swimming at Hampton Beach…
Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark never shut down our beach party. I think Aunt Mary liked the music and the fact that, for one night, her only girl had a little sister!
Autumn time, my sisters and I did Halloween with our cousin Sue in Burncoat. More sophisticated than I and my two sisters could ever hope to be, Sue would dress up all pretty/sexy in a gypsy’s costume she had sewn for herself, and she’d wear sparkly blue eye shadow and mascara. Her gypsy’s costume came with a sparkly silver bra she had designed and made herself. She
cut the butterfly patterns, sewed them onto her silver bra…all on her Singer sewing machine in her little bedroom in Burncoat. Before trick or treating, she modeled it for us. My aunt and uncle oohed and ahhhed and called her their “Polish Princess” and told Ma and us kids: Yes! Sue is practically a model! She is that beautiful – and the right height! Models had to be a certain height back then – 5’7″ tall, at least! My sisters and I were poor and had no flair for home economics or modeling. So a few days before October 31, after all the good costumes were grabbed up, Ma would take us to Woolworth’s on Front Street and buy me an ugly witch mask and costume and my kid sisters would be saddled with two Snow White’s Dwarves costumes, one always Dopey. Depressing.
The good part: We trick or treated in Burncoat! A special place where there were no barrooms and everyone had pretty homes and their front porch lights stayed on all night so they could hand out the good stuff to us kids: chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate!
One Burncoat Halloween night I especially remember: My mom had bought me a new white, hooded fluffy winter coat with beige trim and “antler” buttons at Lerners. I put that coat on and it was like magic! I was warm – and looked so cute! It was – and still is – one of my favorite winter coats. I put that coat over my ugly Woolworth’s witch costume and still felt cute – and happy. My sisters were in their Dwarf costumes but their new cute brown Lerner coats, bought by Ma on layaway, made them proud and happy, too.
There we were on Hallows Eve, on a perfectly beautiful twinkly Burncoat side street with my cousin Sue, kicking up the crispy, fall leaves in the gutter following our beautiful cousin Gypsy Sue to pretty house after pretty house to have person after person at each door of each pretty house throw chocolate bars into our gaping pillowcases. And Tootsie Roll pops and boxes of Good ‘n’ Plenty and boxes of Dots … and rolls of chewy black licorice and packs of Bazooka Bubble Gum. And handfulls of wrapped gum balls.
We made a killing! We could not have gotten any luckier! Then it was back to Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary’s to sort all the candy – and trade. Maybe they’d be a game of Monopoly with our cousins and my game piece would be the little silver terrier! My favorite Monopoly game piece!
Hours later, after eating a good bit of our Halloween stash, playing Monopoly with our cousins in Sue’s bedroom, it was time to return home to Green Island. I felt sad and anxious, but I dutifully followed the mother I loved and my cute kid sisters into Uncle Mark’s car. For the ride across town, back to Green Island, away from Burncoat. My candy-coated coach had turned into a crushed beer can.
I was still in bed. I peeked outside my window: her little rodent face looked determined yet placcid.
Bang, bang, bang!Bang, bang, bang!Bang, bang, bang!Bang, bang, bang!Bang, bang, bang!Bang, bang, bang!Bang, bang, bang!Bang, bang, bang!Bang, bang, bang! went my landlady’s fist (hammer?). Like a thug demanding entry.
I felt like I was being physically assaulted.
“This fucking town!” I thought to myself, 3/4-asleep, in bed (8:15 a.m. Saturday morning, my day off) – “It’s like living in DELIVERANCE – without Burt Reynolds! Or fab banjo pickers!”
Liking the poor people here in the hopeless, hungry part of town but frowning at the Spencer landlords, money folks. Rednecks with clout. The absolute worst kind.
They run my neighborhood, and it is easy to see that for years Spencer officials, politicians – the Town of Spencer and all its poobas – have given these bullies a free pass. So they’ve done what they’ve damned well wanted to do. Built twirly, rickety staircases. Own buildings with busted windows -DOWNTOWN!:
Arrogant. Uncaring. … Entitled…oblivious to a tenant’s rights, a shopper’s sensibilities.
For 20 minutes straight my landlady banged and banged and banged the shit out of my back door. Jett was runnin’ wild and barking his head off. Cece had hid behind the coffee maker. I ran downstairs to my wee kitchen and opened my back door, incensed.
There my landlady stood, short, squat, round and ugly – stuck to my backporch like a prickly Spencer shrub. With two electrician-kids from Rhode Island (so much for supporting local biz!) standing quietly behind her.
“This is very hicky of you!” I said, red faced, my brain coffee-less,un-edited.
I stared at the RI electrician kids and, because I loved and went out with the OIF, a contractor extraordinaire, said: “Let me see your license! Are you licensed electricians?!!” (I wouldn’t let them in if they weren’t.)
One of the kids, tall and pale, dutifully pulled out a card, like a driver’s license, and politely gave it to me to read. It read: “journeyman electrician…Rhode Island.”
“Ok, come in!” I said, frowning, still in my torn, flannel pajama shorts and tee shirt.
The kids hustled into my kitchen, my landlady wisely evaporated. Watching the guys, in their early 20s, working feverishly on my light switch, I felt guilty. I didn’t want to shit on a couple of working class kids from Lincoln, Rhode Island – kids who were just doing their job, were just starting out in life. They were good kids, polite and professional – unlike my landlady who, despite being in her late 30s, acts like a spoiled kid. Her mother is incapacitated, so she now manages the boxes (I won’t call them apt complexes) that her Ma owns and that the Town of Spencer has allowed to grow funky and weird like an empty bottle of booze smashed into the Spencer gutter.
My landlady lives, with her girlfriend, across the way from me. Five yards away… See that funky stairway that gives the finger to the Spencer building inspector and building codes??:
That is the stairway to their apartment. Her poor tenants! What if there is a fire and they need to escape the roaring flames? Or: wanna visit my landlady on the top floor? You’ll kill yourself scaling that steel contraption! … Just the way she wants it!
The other side of her building looks normal:
Her Ma’s bar, the tattoo shop … joining all the other booze, motor bikes, tattoo and chop shops here in my neighborhood … to the detriment of the people who live in the tenements here, folks, who despite their poverty and challenges, have been polite to me. Even quietly friendly. Small town nice. A hello here, a smile there. Weary but maybe open …
Years ago, to support the working class here, across from my apartment, there was a grocery store – filled with local veggies and fruits – produce for the people! But the produce store is long gone, along with the factory/mill jobs to support the working class here. Now the former fruit-veggie grocery stand is an A Cap – autoparts for sale! – shop, and the Spencer guys who work there make a dollar or so more than minimum wage.
When the town was very recently repaving its core streets (thanks to Congressman Jim McGovern bringing in those federal$$ funds to fix up the beat up center-of-town streets), I’d hear the A Cap guys rib the union guys doing the street work. Union guys making a man’s paycheck, sitting a top their bull dozers and heavy machinery … The A Cap guys, friendly but resentful – you could hear the jealousy and sadness behind their words – would say: “Breaking for lunch already?” Done for the day???
Yes, indeedy! The union guys had the good jobs, the good paychecks!
As I make my way around town…
… this is what breaks my heart:
All the underemployed men in my ‘hood! And gals! Good people – smart people – the sons and daughters of sheet rock workers – what Spencer used to be – FORGOTTEN. Poor. The good jobs gone, along with HOPE. Now I see why rural America is Trump Country! The president, when campaigning, reached out/still reaches out and promised/promises GOOD JOBS to his “base.” But Trump misstates at every turn – or is too incompetent to deliver on his promise of good jobs for the forgotten working class.
This is what I love about Spencer: Every guy in town can wield a hammer, build a stair case on the fly, fix a squirrely sink, mig and tig weld!
Hell, my back entrance is boarded up (ILLEGAL) …
… by my landlady, but she is building me a super staircase! A girl!! Fast, efficiently … her stairway is clean-lined, sturdy. Zzzzzz goes her electric saw on Saturday mornings … Tzip, tzip, tzip her electric drill sings into the Spencer air. It joins all the banging hammers, crashing truck doors, clanking shed doors, drawn rakes noising up the Spencer country air and mixing with the twisting leaves in the autumn’s bending branches … Hear the wind chimes!, see the rainbow air socks and big dried flower wreaths that the Spencer gals make and hang on their doors and back-porches! Lovely!
So much untapped talent and potential here! And Trump can’t demand a LIVING WAGE for them or FREE RETRAINING AT ALL OUR U.S. COMMUNITY COLLEGES!
Sure, a lot of stuff here is gerry-rigged, messed-around-with … While replacing my light switch the Rhode Island electician kid shook his head in disgust and told me the electrical wiring in my landlady’s house was “like a ball” and he made an imaginary beach ball-sized ball with his hands. I guessed he meant the building’s wiring was a freakin’ mess. I frowned, and stressed-out, yelled, in the middle of my kitchen: LIVING HERE IS CULTURE SHOCK! NO ONE WEARS MAKE-UP HERE! … NO ONE CARES ABOUT MASCARA!!!
Screw the wiring!
The electrician kid looked at me funny.
I gave him the latest issue of CECELIA and my business card. I told him my story. I said, “I SHOULD HAVE MOVED TO PROVIDENCE! THE RENTS ARE CHEAPER THERE THAN THEY ARE IN WORCESTER! I DID THE RESEARCH! I was gentrified out of my city!!!!!”
I really needed that first cup of coffee.
The electrician kid looked at me and then discussed Providence rents, told me they were cheap on the city’s outskirts but increased as you moved closer to downtown/the Brown University area. His parents were landlords and what my landlord had done to me was uncool. “It has to be 24 hours notice,” the electrician kid said. He also said my place seemed ok, but my landlady’s digs across the way? “Just a long box.” He looked calm but disgusted. For the first time I noticed that funny Rhode Island accent/twang and smiled. This kid knew how the poor could be exploited, this kid just beginning his electrician carreer, his adult life. Maybe he would be better than my landlady. Have compassion.
Lucky kid! He had a good job! A future! He would be able to realize the once ubiquitous AMERICAN DREAM: a house, maybe an RV or camper, new cars, vacation getaways, investments – like the union, high way guys working outside my door last month.
The opposite of most of the men in my Spencer neighborhood – all over rural America. The men here in Spencer, all polite, even a bit playful to me … the poor guys who, without cars – or anger – walk their little dogs to the nearby park, or fix their jalopy jeeps in the rented yards, or just saunter straight up to Main Street to go “downtown.” They are tough – but hurting, too.
Saw the usual un-smiley stuff in Worcester yesterday: the brutal demolition of the once majestic Notre Dame church continues, unabated … but ever so softly! I NEVER HEAR ANY NOISE!:
The City of Worcester still hasn’t produced (as promised) a new, comprehensive city garbage pick up/recycling blueprint. So we get this all over our inner city. Main South:
… Just a few buildings away from the city’s new LUXURY APARTMENTS … our supposedly shiny new downtown!
And the poverty, still soul-smashing – especially the little girls in their bright, festive little skirts happily boppin’ around their dads or moms who are pulling toy wagons or little portable hampers filled with their belongings through Worcester traffic. The parents so desperate, the little girls so oblivious, so twirly and dance-y! I see this and I think: Are they leaving or returning to the homeless camp behind WalMart?
Sometimes I cannot reach Woo folks, I can just write about them … but here, in the Spencer ghetto, …
… the folks on the fringes bloom, profusely, strangely, honestly, right in front of you:
The week before last, in the driving rain, flood times, driving through the Spencer country, trying to follow the road between beating wipers and grey sheets of rain … My jalopy heated up, and all my dashboard’s red lights flashed mean. I pulled over into a strip mall parking lot and got out to pop the hood. My two stalwart dogs were in the back seat. Dogs are more useful in the country …
In about two seconds I was soaking wet, my hair plastered to my head, my big sweater hanging, dripping wet. In about four seconds a beat-up rusted at the bottom black van with a big ol’ red wheel barrow strapped on top screeched to a halt before me. Two guys, in their 40s, poured out of the shit van. Both bald. Shaved heads. The tall one looked dumb and easy going; the short guy looked intense and edgey: he had dark green leaves, weeds, medalions tattooed on his face. Drawn, entwined, indelible all over his sinewy neck, his jowels, cheeks … they fringed his cheekbones. I couldn’t help but stare.
“We’re driving into Worcester to sell this van,” he said. “We need $2 dollars to get to the junkyard.”
I said, my face screwed up, my wet bangs plastered to my big round sunglasses: “Can you help?! My car is over heating!! Does the radiator need water?”
A deal needed to be done. I had to save my jalopy.
The tattoo-faced guy looked at me, miffed. But we were out on a main drag in the country, so I engaged. His tall friend got out of the van’s passenger seat, and in two seconds he was drenching wet. There we stood together, huddled, wet as three river rats.
“I have a gallon of water in the car trunk,” I told the tall one, making a mental note of where my pocketbook was (front seat, on the floor, beneath a ton of CECELIAs…the dogs wouldn’t let them invade that space). “Can you put some in for me?” I asked innocently, not wanting the radiator to spray up hot in my face.
The little tattoo-faced guy grimaced. I went to the trunk, opened it, got the gallon of water and a few rags out and gave them to the tall guy. “Watch out!” I said. I didn’t want his face sprayed with hot radiator fluid either, but I sure as hell wasn’t gonna go near that radiator cap. I walked away to the edge of the parking lot, by the street. “Let it cool!” I shouted to him.
The little guy looked annoyed. “Don’t open it!” he said to his pal and asked me for money.
Then he said: “Does your anti-theft” car alarm work?
I said (lied): “Yes.”
We were soaked to our skivvies. Jett and Lilac circling in the back car seat…
I said, cuz I know them all: “Which junkyard in Worcester are you driving to?”
The little tattoo-faced guy said, the stenciled vine on his face contorting, “The one behind the Salvation Army.”
I couldn’t recall a junkyard located there, unless you counted the new expanded yard on Freeland Street, the Balciewicz junk yard, with old one-armed Balciewicz and his junkyard dogs shitting up the city. From my childhood I remember Mr. B: his stump never stopping him, him driving his big 18-wheeler with his stump, cut above the elbow, stump pressed hard against the steering wheel…and his other arm, fingers tight around the steering wheel…he was/is on Lafayette Steet still making a mess of my old neighborhood.
Little tattoo-face was right up Mr. B’s alley…
“Oh, yeah,” I fibbed, worried about my jalopy. What if it died?? – the engine gone kaput?
“Should we put the water in??” I said, meaning should YOU put the water in?? I mustered all my girly girl pretend dopiness. I wanted to blow this popstand. I felt these two maybe wanted to rob me in the cold, driving rain, and little tattoo-face’s brain was circling ’round the possibilities.
The tall guy grabbed the cloth and the jug of water and walked to my car’s open hood and wrapped the rag around the radiator.
“Watch out!” his companion shouted to him. His solicitousness shocked me! Brothers? Lovers? We all were soaked to the marrow and looked ugly. As I shifted from foot to foot, my shoes squeaked and water seeped out of their soles. It looked like Spencer was flooding over …
The tall guy unscrewed my radiator cap, to zero fanfare, and looking at me as if I were stupid, poured the gallon of water in. “You can add more later – there’s an overflow compartment.”
“THANK YOU!!” I said, slammed my car hood shut and ran back into my car, locked all the car doors and rolled my window practically shut.
The little guy was right at the window (the tall guy had jumped back dutifully into the van) and through the slit in my window, he said: “Do you have money?”
I told him the awful truth: “I only have two dollars,” I said. “I’ll give you half.” I grabbed my purse, peeled one dollar out of my purse and slipped it through the crack in my car window, and the little guy grabbed it. I felt sad. They had, after all, saved my car. I looked up guiltily, saw his vine tatooes blurring at the edges through the rivulets of water streaming down my car window. I decided not to drive to the Spencer police. I figured: what the hell! I stared at the guy’s tattoos for one last time, fascinated by the leaves, the vines splayed all over his pale weather-beaten face, his bald head looking like the squat pumpkins being sold at the picture postcard cheery, magazine cover ready farm stand just up the road (HA!) and drove away. I waved good bye.
What could my dollar bill buy them, really? Add $$$ to? I had my buck – my McDonalds coffee money: $1 buys you a large unsweetened French vanilla! – so I was doin’ OK.
When I hit Worcester, I drove steaight to my Greenwood Street McDonalds – for my coffee and to get out and add water to my car – a shitload of water, even though the flashing red dashboard lights were now off. Except for one: the car door icon was blazing red, even though my driver’s door and passenger door were shut tight. The dogs can’t open their doors … But walking around my car I noticed my right back seat door had indeed been opened – and closed. Softly. While I was on the opposite side, standing shivering in that Spencer parking lot
Yep! In the pouring, distracting rain, while his pal saved my car, little tattoo-face had quickly, furtively, checked my backseat for pocketbook. I smiled to myself and hurumphed.
Most likely tattoo-face had met up with a low-growling Lilac. Lilac, my bright girl, once put her big teeth – she didn’t bite! – on CECELIA writer/pal Ron O’s forearm. She does this whenever he reaches into the backseat for some copies of CECELIA. Invading Lilac’s beloved kennel on wheels?? Not gonna happen! She’s gonna tattoo you!
I unscrewed my car’s radiator cap, poured the water ’til it overflowed, bought my fair trade McDonalds joe (always so fresh and tasty!) and drove back into the relentless rain, wondering if Cambridge Street had flooded and if I would see, like I’d seen before, the big slick wet river rats running, fat-assed on teeny legs, for cover.