City Manager Ed Augustus, these pictures are, for me, the real downtown Worcester – the real Worcester. A dad and his little girl walking to where they need to go – Dad holding his daughter’s hand as she holds onto and pushes her dolly stroller (with black AND white babes!💙). They walk down a beat up Main Street not questioning the crappy sidewalks, the city noise and pollution … their poverty… Like so many folks of color here. A world of hopes, traditions, culinary arts … struggles.
The kiddie professionals and students you fawn over in the newly built, pricey boxes you call luxury apartments leap into their cars to head out of downtown Worcester every chance they get! … to shop, eat and have fun (sometimes they grab a bite in their student cafes, on their campuses, entirely skipping the downtown Woo GAStronomic experience!!).
The color and culture of our city is changing in a major way: we have a majority-minority school district. The neighborhood I live in, and most of the older, ethnic neighborhoods in Worcester, the “other side” of Park Ave, are majority-minority, too. Yet our public schools, library and library branches, fire department, police department staffs – heck, even our animal shelter, the lily white Worcester Animal Rescue League! – do not reflect or represent the city’s population. So these places can’t – don’t! – won’t! – really serve the people of Worcester. How can they??? The WPS, the WFD, our public library system etc keep the old Worcester in power, as the new Worcester struggles on the perimeter.
One in four Worcester kids is labelled “Food Insecure” by the federal government. That’s a euphemistic term for HUNGRY! Who can learn, grow, sleep! when they’re hungry?! The Woo children and the adults in their lives are on the MOVE, too – always one step ahead of the absentee slumlord, leaving one shitty apartment for the next. It’s been documented by our school system for years! The graduating classes of our WPSchools elementary schools look nothing like the kindergarten classes that began their public education six years ago. That’s because the kids and their families are always MOVING, which means major family AND neighborhood stress and instability – for roughly half of Worcester! (So unlike the old, poor, but more equitable Green Island I grew up in, attending Lamartine Street School, K – 6, with the SAME GROUP OF KIDS! True classmates.)
CECELIA file photo
You gotta laugh – or cry – about the way this city runs itself! A million stories about the Pawtucket Red Sox possibly pulling up their Rhode Island stakes and coming to the lily white, gentrified Canal District (CM Augustus, city development poobas, the gentrifiers slobbering over themselves in private, while playing cool and tight-lipped, even smug, in the papers) and ZERO MENTION OF OUR HUNGRY KIDS, our poor families, our stressed neighborhoods, our families of color whose first language isn’t English…
ALMOST HALF OUR CITY! Neighborhoods that no longer work for their people…
And, for the most part, at least to me, most of the neighborhood folks of color have been: real, gracious, helpful, hard-working/enterprising, loving (parents – and sons and daughters) as they make their way around Worcester’s periphery. We’ve connected on different levels, not always easy, but I’ve become a better person.
THEIR NUMBERS ARE MAJOR! They HAVE CHANGED THE LOOK, FEEL, TEXTURE OF OUR CITY! IN A GOOD WAY! Yet they are ignored. City leaders, the people in power, don’t let them in. It’s called institutional racism. And that keeps people separated in our city: their lives don’t intersect. People don’t open up and struggle and learn and grow together. Racism is perpetuated.
No, City Manager Augustus, building 100 new affordable apartments WILL NOT solve Worcester’s homeless problem!! What a totally out-of-touch thing to say!!
And, no, the Paw Sox won’t integrate the Canal District – or our schools, libraries, fire department, neighborhoods – even the WARL animal shelter staff!
Unless we all begin to have a dialogue about the real, new Worcester – the majority-minority city we’ll soon be living in – we’re never gonna be a world class metropolis. This is true for our country, too! The America on the horizon!
We say SO LONG! to your chunky frames and your color: creamy whipped BUTTER. Your black utilitarian baskets in front, sometimes with a big headlight attached. God, the light shone bright at night on our city streets! You were the apple of every poor Worcester boy’s eye!
St. John’s Cemetery …
This past Friday was the last day to ride the Ofo bikes. The company and City Manager Ed Augustus’s lackeys were all over our inner-city neighborhoods picking them up. Laughable! Why didn’t they just let our inner-city kids keep them? Ofo’s a global, Chinese company for Christ’s sake! China = the world’s largest, state-run economy.
I guess the millennials and yuppy types Tim Murray and his chamber of commerce poobas were hoping to attract never materialized in big numbers. I never saw one of Worcester’s young up-and-comers with his or her iPad swinging on the shoulder rounding the shoulder of a Worcester hill on a yellow Ofo bike. Off to a meeting with some one who’s wildly instagram-ing his startup’s customers while sipping a latte in some pleasant cafe.
Instead, the bikes were popular where the junkies shot up, the pits were walked and the chicken poppers were poppin’ in their vats of oil. They were most used where they were most needed in a Gateway City like Worcester where one in four kids is “food insecure” (read: HUNGRY) – poor neighborhoods. Lots of them. Poor adults in these neighborhoods, neighborhoods like mine. Adults who were sick of one of the country’s worst public transportation systems … and our BIKE KIDS. City kids whose families don’t have the money to buy them a shiny new bike but still, like all kids, they wanted to have FUN … they wanted to ride!
As a kid growing up in Green Island, my only two bikes were rusty hand-me-downs from my cousins because my wonderful mother was too busy killing herself 60 hours a week for minimum wage at the dry cleaners down the street to pay for the vital things: rent, the gas and electric bill, food for my two sisters and me and her old Mama from Poland. New bikes were not part of our universe. They were something I dreamed over when I stared at them, locked together, at Zayres. Upper-middle-class and even middle-class folks just don’t get this – how hard it is for the impoverished to own cars, washing machines and clothes dryers, new bikes for all the kids … You never see scads of poor kids on new bikes, do you?
Instead, the well off don’t think about the reasons, they just shit on the poor kid or his/her parents or his/her neighborhood …
Losers in Losersville.
Like my “Ma” was a loser! She was the opposite! She gave me everything! She’s been my life’s inspiration! Lots of adults who’ve endured hardscrabble childhoods will tell you the same: their moms, dads, grandparents were HEROES to them. Up against it all and still working the shit job, getting up early to take the two buses to work, making that Duncan Hines Cherry Supreme cake for birthday parties. A recent poll found that half of the American population doesn’t have $400 in the bank to cover an emergency – they’d have to borrow the money or sell something of theirs to pay the bill. So it only follows: HALF THE KIDS IN AMERICA NEED AN OFO BIKE!
By the way: I saw about three Woo girls on the Ofo bikes during the company’s stint here. It was definitely a boy thing! Which means next time around, we gotta get the gals ridin’ bikes! Exercising in the summer sun! Whooping and hollerin’ just like the boys!
Did I find the bike-herds menacing? The groups of boys on Ofos and their own bikes who rode through the city together in a clump, wicked fast. The bike-herds that folks said elicited calls of panic to the Worcester Police Department. Oh, my heavens! Youth! Brown and Black youth! A gang! Call 911!!
Only one out of my scores of encounters with the bike kids flustered me…
Most of the time I felt like the moments our paths crossed were an inner-city gift🎈. After all, I was the one behind the wheel of a 2,000-lbs jalopy! Sometimes I worried about bottles being thrown, especially at Jett and Lilac, but I just drove through, pushed ahead – with resolution. Slowly, but the boys got the message …
And I took pics for CECELIA and my website – the picture-taking threw them off a bit…
To be safe is to live in the countryside or the suburbs surrounded by white people with money in nice, tight homes with nice white teeth. People just like YOU! I prefer my wayward kids and their wayward bottles …
Don’t rue the Woo!
I never saw anyone in Worcester abuse the Ofo bikes, like the T and G trolls claim. Racist lies mostly, I suspect. Yeah, I stumbled upon a few beaten up yellow bikes on our city streets, but our city streets (and sidewalks) were often more beaten up than the Ofo bikes were! What did I usually see? Worcester’s inner-city kids – and poor adults – pedaling their Ofos with pride! Sometimes I’d even see them smiling to themselves. Riding a shiny, new, yellow bike down Millbury Street can do that to you!
Sometimes a gaggle of kids on bikes (yellow and their own) would see me looking at them in cock-eyed wonder, and they’d put on a little show just for me: pop wheelies, ride their bikes for the stretch of the street on only one wheel like a unicycle! I’d drive by slowly to take in the parade! One kid, about 8, brown-skinned with his beautiful brown curly hair cut in a wild, insanely tall pompadour with a kind of tail in back stopped, looked at me, and making direct eye contact, smiled impishly and said, THANK YOU! (I had stopped for the group so they could “cross” the street). Looking straight at him, and with a nod of my head, a tip of the hat, I said, YOU’RE WELCOME. Very genteel. Then we both laughed out loud! Ten kids, 10 brown- and black-skinned kids, friends, just having the best time. Worcester needs more of that in her inner-city neighborhoods!
To me, the Ofo bikes were our ghettos’ JOYFUL TOYS! An affordable gift any inner-city kid could give himself for an afternoon. It cost only $1 an hour to “rent” the bikes. And so the boys rented them and rode them all over downtown and Main South and the South and East sides of the city, all spring and summer long. Sometimes they’d wear funny, colorful, rubber masks on their faces, and they’d take them off for you, grinning puckishly. City Super Heroes! Or they’d tie red cotton bandanas over their noses and mouths, like the cowboys did when they rode through their dusty and dirty America two centuries ago.
Our urban cowboys! TODAY’S mavericks!
I am thinking of these free spirits this afternoon …
Hoping to see them sitting astride on the NEW dockless bikes our COMPASSIONATE city officials are promising to order! Sooner rather than later. I hear autumn in Vernon Hill is divine …
Nothing to do with Ofo bikes, everything to do with boys. I’ve loved this crazy tune since I was 16!
… I thought about the changes – big and small – happening in Worcester, my hometown. Big change: Quinsigamond Village is getting the Blackstone Visitors Center – a bigger-than-I-expected new building now under construction where the OK Wool mills were once located. And next door, part of this urban renewal project, a park with benches, paths and a sleek slice of the Blackstone River. The park is being carved out of the patch of woods that stretches from the beginning of McKeon Road, behind the OK Wool site, to almost the street’s end, a block before its intersection with Cambridge Street:
The urban ecosystem has been defiled … trees cut down, bushes torn up, wild grasses dug up to make way for the new development. The buzzsaws are whirring in the summer heat; the dump trucks are hauling stuff away; cement trucks, with their huge rolling barrels of cement, are making tight turns in the small parking lot of the teeny, three-store ghost strip mall that’s been vacant since I don’t know how long. Working guys wearing hard hats work a full day. The few store fronts will be gobbled up by the Blackstone Visitors Center, too – part of the project.
A small, but heartbreaking change: the wildlife that called that sliver of nature in the middle of our old blue collar Swedish neighborhood is out of balance, freaking out! Rabbits and raccoons are mowed down by cars on McKeon Road as they flee their noisy, shrinking home. The birds seem to be falling out of the sky (heart attacks?) as the heavy machinery and men move in, taking over …
Their teeny paradise is more fragile than ever as it’s devoured by mankind. Invaded, destroyed, sunny day by sunny day. Good work days for the work crews; deadly days for the deers, rabbits, coyotes – all the wild animals who’ve adapted to the space nature had bestowed upon them, right across the street from Holy Cross college. Across McKeon Road sits Holy Cross or “The Cross” as it is known to the old timers and older alumnae. The small Jesuit school ate up the other side of the woods in 1843.
One of the McKeon Road entrances to Holy Cross.
The animals adapted and pretty much stayed on their side of the road. For all these years, except for the past five or so, there weren’t even street lights! Nighttime you’d drive up McKeon Road, a hill, and it felt a little perilous, the road winding, the college dark on one side, the woods dark on the other. But through the woods there were the city lights sparkling, just over your shoulder, beckoning you to admire them. And you had to turn to look at them and smile at the twinkly prettiness. The Old Worcester. Sigh…
Now it’s all changed. The New Worcester. Gentrified in Green Island with bars and pubs filled with people who eat and eat and take pictures of their plates of food. Things are going the same way in the direction of “The Cross.”
A while ago, in the middle of busy mid-day traffic, I slammed on my brakes to let a leggy, shell-shocked fawn cross McKeon Road to stumble onto the Holy Cross campus, the woodsier side where I walk my dogs almost daily. The fawn was skanky, smudged with dirt. It looked undernourished; it was all legs: skinny, dirty little rib cage body riding atop those sharp-kneed limbs. Still, I could see its white spots – a babe in the Worcester woods! And those big brown melt your heart eyes. You could tell it was terrified as it galloped crazily, obscenely, with those race-horse legs. I was struck by her degraded majesty. I quietly sat in my halted car, even turning off the car radio so as not to further stress her … so she could make her mad, wild, clumsy dash, into Holy Cross, literally falling over her legs sometimes … looking for her “Ma,” no doubt. Poor thing.
Of course, the drivers behind me, got right on their horns and started swearing at me up and down McKeon Road. This being the new, faster, meaner, smart-phone-toting Worcester everyone was in a BIG hurry to get somewhere important. And to photograph the event with their smart phones. Everyone was pissed off. At me for holding them up. They let me know just how they felt with blaring horns and “asshole” this or “bitch” that or FUCK YOU. I didn’t react so as not to send the fawn back over McKeon Road: I wanted her to safely complete her frenzied pilgrimage to Holy Cross, where things would be quieter in the teeny patch of woods there. Maybe she could hide there until her mother found her …
I stuck my left arm out of my car window and dramatically pointed at the fawn, as if to say to the pissed off hordes: See? See how wonderful she is?! Let her cross! Watch this miracle hobble up the hill!
“FUCK YOU!” Whahh! Whahh! went a slew of horns. It was a symphony of hatred. Obviously, my fellow drivers weren’t interested.
I didn’t care how they felt. I just sat calmly in my idling car and, solicitous now because I had fallen in love with her, felt the fawn was mine and that I was responsible for her, watched her scramble up the Holy Cross hill, all sharp-angled beauty and frantic – not at all graceful. She was terrified. When she disappeared into Holy Cross woods – maybe this took all of three minutes – I stepped on the gas, my fellow drivers on my ass now, tooting their horns and STILL cursing me!
It was the first time I had ever seen a fawn in “the wild”! Her white splashes of spots, even darkened with dirt, blew me away! Yes, I’ve seem deers. One even up close in Auburn while walking Jett and Lilac. My dogs, on leads, and I almost literally bumped into a large doe as we turned a building corner. Both parties froze and stared at each other – WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?! – before the doe bolted away.
Last week I was walking the dogs at Holy Cross, at the edge of the school’s baseball fields, right across from the woods, right on the cusp of McKeon Road, when I noticed a ragtag family in a jalopy even crappier than mine driving up and down the college entrance road and then finally stopping by the trees (pictured above). There, father (the driver), mother and baby (in her car seat in back) sat, staring at the clutch of trees. The dogs and I hadn’t begun our walk, so I made us mill about: I wanted to watch the car watching the Holy Cross trees. Finally, suspicious, even though it was none of my business, I asked them sternly: “Can I help you?”
The mother, exiting the car, disheveled, now looking more like a girl (the man’s daughter?), said breathlessly, as if under a spell: “We saw a deer go up here! We saw a deer!”
It must have been big and beautiful and they must have, just like me with my fawn, stumbled across her while driving up McKeon, and seen it very up close and very personal. Their paths had crossed! And the humans were enchanted! I knew the feeling. I smiled and said, “A while back I saw a fawn up this very same road.”
The girl was too mesmerized by her dream – the one that had pranced before her eyes. She got back into the car, and slowly, very slowly, the car crawled up the campus hill once more. Looking for their deer.
Were they planning on, hoping to, capture the graceful animal and drive it home for their very own? Maybe they lived in a house with a big backyard. Maybe they lived in a trailer park surrounded by tin and cement. I lifted my smartphone and snapped a picture of the car, making sure I got its license plate in the picture’s frame. They saw me do this and drove off.
And then last week, this:
I’m walking the dogs at Holy Cross, same path …
… and as we make our way to the practice batting cage, right outside the practice baseball and football fields, I see a young rabbit dangling high from the heavy cord netting of a batting cage. I run with the dogs straight to the rabbit; they want a go at it. BACK OFF! I scream, and they know mom means business. So they back off and lie down in the grass, still excited …
… I try to work the dangling rabbit out of the net. It is limp, not stiff. In shock?? Does it have a chance? Its neck is wrapped three times in the cord netting. It must have struggled like crazy, entangling itself more and more the harder and harder it fought to free itself. Its frenzy only made things worse.
I didn’t take a photo of the rabbit like that because it felt exploitative and cruel. I didn’t have a nano-second to lose if I wanted to save it! So I ran, with the dogs in tow, back to my car, to fetch my big Dollar Store scissors. Stored in my driver’s side cubby, I use them to cut the heavy string that’s tied around my lifts or bundles of CECELIA newspapers on delivery day.
I ran back to the rabbit, a brown sugar cotton tail and commanded Jett and Lilac to lie down and stay, which they did, sensing the seriousness of my voice. I began to cut the rabbit free. First, I took its furry little paws out if the netting. Then I began working on its neck. But the problem was, and it was at this point I realized the rabbit was dead, the netting was wound so tightly around its neck I could barely cut it free. I struggled to get the scissors’ blade between the rabbit’s neck and the batting cage netting. It had panicked, and since it’s head was bigger than the netting “holes” it could not pull its head free. So it kept plunging forward, through a new “hole” in the net – which only ensnared it more tightly. It had done this three times – I felt and saw three bands of the netting cord choking its light brown neck – before it gave up, asphyxiated. Still, I went on, cutting the first cord, then the second, then the third, really struggling to slip the scissor blade gently between animal and rope.
The rabbit looked young and healthy when it softly fell to the ground.
I plopped down on the ground, too, exhausted. Then the dogs and I sat there with the rabbit for awhile, just to be with it … to show our respect … acknowledge the fact that it had BEEN. Mystery achieved!
Then I began cutting the batting cage netting like a madwoman and cut a big chunk of Lilac’s leash for rope (I knew she’d follow me back to the car). I cut and cut that ol’ net and strung it up with Lilac’s leash – making an open tent flap. I tied several knots in the leash to make it super secure so another rabbit or any wild thing wouldn’t get caught in it and suffer and die a horrible death.
With all the cars and trucks thundering by. The noise, the desperate aloneness in all that noise. The hot sun beating down on you as you twisted in the wind choking to death. Coyotes, wolves and dogs (I once saw Lilac kill a rabbit in the woods) kill rabbits quickly, efficiently – go for the throat or the belly. Nothing like what happened here on the Holy Cross baseball fields.
Then my dogs and I got up and had our walk. Nature makes millions of rabbits. I have seen scores and scores of these happy, bouncy little creatures. And always, beneath their cuteness, the strength, the nobility. God.
After our walk my pups and I got into my car to drive home. I looked out of my car window.
I had done quite the number on Holy Cross’s batting cage, but nothing compared to what it had done on the rabbit. Repercussions? I decided there wouldn’t be any. Stroking Lilac who had affectionately stuck her nuzzle under my chin like she always does after our walks, I told my dogs: “It’s a Jesuit college. Jesus would have done the same thing.”
Then we drove down McKeon Road, the shrunken woods to our left and, at the bottom of the hill, the half-built Blackstone Visitors Center, all concrete and corrugated roof tops … me missing the way Worcester was all the way home.
Yesterday I stumbled upon a paperback and decided to keep its arresting cover. I tore away its yellowed pages and chucked them into the recycling bag.
I lovingly(!) trimmed the front cover’s edges and, on Fourth of July weekend – America’s birthday weekend – stared, mesmerized, at that rugged face.
What was the attraction??
Everything. He was/is America: sex, money, guns, movement, freedom. That’s us, still, in a nutshell.
The book’s title, CATLOW, has a subhead that says it all: “CATLOW FIGURED IT ONLY TOOK TWO THINGS TO GET THE GOLD AND THE GIRL – HIM AND HIS GUN!”
The book cover also got me thinking of my Polish immigrant grandfather, Jadju, and his obsession with television Westerns…
There I am sitting on my Jadju’s lap in Green Island, a toddler, enveloped in his cigarette smoke watching all those great, sometimes corn ball, TV cowboy shows. Jadju was a chain-smoker and rolled his own cigarettes, unfiltered! While he smoked, he held me on his knee and together we watched Rawhide – both of us fascinated by the guns, the galloping horses, the saloon gals … the majestic American West. … Sometimes there’d be an old John Ford classic on… Stage Coach, starring a young John Wayne, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, also starring John Wayne. Some of America’s finest art, though we didn’t know it at the time. John Wayne: everything a man was supposed to be…tough, yet romantic …
Westerns were HUGE when I was a kid, and my immigrant grandfather, like lots of new Americans back then, watched all the TV Westerns (there were a ton of them in the 1950s and 1960s). They were entertainment, and they were a magical map of America, an amazing country they seldom experienced beyond their neighborhood. Rawhide, Bonanza, Big Valley, The Lone Ranger, Davy Crockett, The Rifleman, Maverick, Daniel Boone, The Wild Wild West, Jesse James … Some of these TV Westerns were made in the ’50s and were in reruns. No matter. Jadju rewatched them all in his stoic way, his heavy, creased faced serious … studying Maverick’s or Little Joe’s predicament… waiting for the inevitable gun fight, the show’s climax, the part where the hero always won … and the bad guys – Indians, Mexicans, the bears or mountain lions (everything our president Donald Trump reminds us we once loathed) – always died with fanfare, falling over cliffs, tumbling into the ravine, drowning in the roiling red river… kicking and raising the brown dirt or the desert sands or the clear cold waterfall as they met their maker. Kaput!
For Jadju, these TV shows were about America, a country that left him, after all his years of living in her, clueless. Still, he was fascinated! America, a beautiful country he left Poland for; the U.S.A., a country in which he planted all his dreams, a country he CHOSE to come to, sight unseen, as a teenager, with just a big wooden trunk filled with clothes, blankets and mementos on his back. A country that, in the end, used him up. His career? He slaved away in a textile mill in Douglas. His riches? He lived poverty-stricken in a congested tenement in the congested “Block” in Worcester’s congested Green Island neighborhood. He did marry the love of his life, the pretty, feisty Bapy, also a Polish immigrant. And he considered their five kids, one who died in childhood, to be their treasures. Jadju neither read nor spoke a word of English – he only understood his God, his Old World Catholicism, his wife and, half the time, (especially my mom, his fave) his kids. His perks during his seventies, his Golden Years? Me (I loved my gentle Jadju!) and sitting in our living room, peeling his fine, tracing-paper-thin cigarette wraps from a small cardboard container and lining them with tobacco to smoke. I remember watching him running the tissue paper and tobacco through his little metal machine, which “rolled” the cigs, making them ready for the smoke … all while watching his Westerns.
Sometimes during the stampeding horses scenes, just to make things more exciting, Jadju would let me clamber atop one of his ankles and he’d grab my little hands and raise his old foot up and down, up and down, and I’d pretend I was sailing on one of those galloping pinto ponies in the TV show!
Pop pop pop! went the blanks out of the Lone Ranger’s gun. I clapped my hands in delight. My grandfather squinted and studied the hero’s every hip swivel, every draw of the pistol. Jadju always dressed for the day – dark pants and a clean white dress shirt, collar crisp, buttons buttoned to the top except for the first button. … On our old back porch Jadju and I would sit together, he looking formal in his white shirt sitting in his wooden chair, me sitting on a long little wooden bench he had made for me (Jadu was no slouch when it came to carpentry) … Out of the dark gray wet modeling clay I patted gleefully, Jadju would mold a perfect little horsey for me. Then he’d take some more clay and pinch and mold a little saddle, then he’d make a kind of stick cowboy, and finally a cowboy hat with a big brim! Then he’d sit the clay cowboy on the clay saddle and place him on his dark clay pony and set the pony on the porch rail for me to admire. Then together we would recite a Polish prayer that ended like this: “And Jesus made the stones came tumbling down!” If I had made a little tower with my A B C blocks, he’d let me smash them down, and I’d recite the prayer again! We’d both laugh!
Jadju was an artsy craftsy guy… Here’s the tin cup he made himself. Almost like the ones in the cowboy movies, the tin cups from which the cowboys drank, while sitting around their blazing campfires:
Here’s Jadju’s shaving cream mug, so precious 💙💙💙 to me!
Jadju had the thick features of a Pole; his cowboy heros had classic American good looks for the era: Angular. Waspy. White. The strong, handsome, silent types. When I was growing up, the face on this CATLOW book cover – even three quarters hidden underneath a red bandana – was the American ideal. What kind of girl could NOT fall for that gorgeous, weather-beaten puss?! Beautiful killer. Rootless interloper riding his runty, but sturdy mustang, both of them only half-tamed, through the tall prairie grass, everything epic about flora and fauna. That was the way on TV: Grand Canyon, mesas, buffalos, two thousand to a herd, and when they roamed, the earth moved! Biblical! Exciting!
But here we were on Lafayette Street. This was America, too!
Jadju and his little buddy Rose on their Lafayette Street back porch.
But Jadju tried to turn it 100 years back! When he worked in the Douglas mill, on his time off, he’d go fishing with his friend, a Black guy, that my Bapy, when she first met him, feared. Jadju would have none of it! He told her, as they sat down together at the kitchen table: “Woman, cook the fish and bring us some beer!” My late mother always told me that story with a smile. Jadju, unlike his TV cowboys, wasn’t a racist; he was good, gentle… He loved the fields just a half-hour walk out of the neighborhood. When my mother was a little girl he would take her blue berry- or mushroom-picking. Together they’d pick berries, mushrooms and bring home “the stuffing” for Bapy’s pirogies. He raised and slaughtered rabbits on our back porch so Bapy could make rabbit stew, but the Worcester Board of Health shut the operation down. He loved nature; he DID have a horse in Poland. So did Bapy. Not for show and excitement though, for farm work.
I wish Jadju’s immigrant journey had happened earlier and had led him to the West, like the Swedes. He would have loved the wide open ranges, even if it meant killing himself with work to cultivate the land or build his house. He would have loved being in the middle of nature. He owned and played the harmonica. How lovely would it have been to hear him serenading a big country sunset? Instead, he got the Woo ghetto. But he wrung his own little private Colorado out of it. And there was always Gun Smoke, John Ford, Henry Fonda…the tumbleweed connection.
I wrote this piece four or five years back.🎉🎉 – R.T.
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!”
Such a fun, affectionate lil’ girl! She’s healthy now; no more limping and collapsing from sporadic feedings at the old place, paws splayed out, Chaplinesque, funny but heartbreaking.
Adopted/saved by Rose!
These days the meals tumble down from feline heaven: Friskies; canned, stinky 9 Lives tuna and turkey with giblets.
When I pulled Cece from the old place she was covered in dust! Just 5 or 6 weeks old, not yet weaned… so today she’s runty; they call her a “patio cat.” But cute and mischievous, nonetheless!
She hops onto my shoulders from the kitchen floor for kisses and a little kitty massage. Then using my right shoulder as a launching pad, she makes a virgin leap (so strong and graceful now!) onto the old washing machine that makes that damn loud banging noise during the spin cycle.
I pull my young and curious cat out of the cabinet she’s leapt into and scold her with smooches💜. I think of all the cats who’ve come before this one: city strays, all of them. Ghetto girls and boys I’ve rescued in my private storyville …
… Grabbed from the maws of pitbulls in Hartford (Chester)…
Pulled from the brink of starvation from the Harding Street feral cat colony I maintained for a decade (Teddy). A DECADE.
That was a long, strange trip, my Green Island feral cat colony! Feeding and watering, every day, all the wild Green Island cats, doomed, of course. Fearing the human touch, they were fated to be homeless! Suffering so in the depths of winter and summer, despite the pretty snowfalls in December or the sensuous heavy “perfume” wafting from the lilac bushes across Harding Street in May. A weird sight! All those pretty little violet flower clusters blooming on the edge of all that pain! Sometimes I’d stumble on a homeless guy squatting under the abandoned rusted RV parked in the lot and chat with him. Sometimes I’d chat with the amiable guy who owned the lot and parked his extra car there.
There is always some hope for the babies, so I’d live trap the little kittens. They could be tamed down by a volunteer and adopted out. But the adult cats were another story. If “lucky,” they’d survive the extreme weather (I put in cardboard boxes lined with hay for their warmth in January) only to be run over by some jalopy barrelling down the street – for kicks! – once the snow melted or the heatwave passed. Their vomit or diarrhea (that’s what roadkill does) greeting me the next day. Me searching for the wounded (or dead) cat in the beautiful wild lilac bushes…traumatized.
I’ve been a cat lover since toddlerhood! I remember all the inner-city felines who’ve wrapped their silky (or puss-encrusted!) tails around my heart. Not so different from the people in this neighborhood! They too skirt around the mundaneness of Worcester life and move me. They are jobless men, in their prime…welfare cheats too used to cheating to feel anything but entitled to cheat some more!…depressed young girls and boys. Obese women. Scrawny women. Kids hiding in their apartments cuz the neighborhood is so rough; they sit on sofas and watch TV behind pulled blinds. When they come out to play, their laughs sound puny. Often fed junk food – drinking that damn red “punch” in gallon jugs bought at the Dollar Store! – they’re as runty as CeCe. Human feral cats. They’ll bite you, if you handle them the wrong way!
I’m listening to John Mellencamp this morning. An under-rated artist overshadowed by the brilliant Springsteen, his contemporary.
I’ve listened to both guys for years – and loved both their visions!
Where’s your vision, Worcester?
I’m bracing for the worst this work week, expecting the City of Worcester to turn its back on the embattled Notre Dame church and allow Hanover to knock her down, faring no better than our feral cats! Or our poor kids! I’ll drive by each day and see Notre Dame’s knocked out windows and collapsed walls. I’ll see the wrecking ball fly, the dust rising …
Remember when she was grand? A part of our lives?
photo courtesy of the Worcester Historical Museum
I do! I have, but cannot locate, the photos of my cousin standing next to the Notre Dame (Our Lady) statue seen in the above photo of Notre Dame. The statue was located outside the church the way many old immigrant parishes planted their patron saint in front of their house of worship. St. Stephen’s got a St. Stephen statue. St. Joseph’s, a St. Joe 😉. As a little girl growing up in Green Island, I believed this big statue of Notre Dame – taller than me – was made of PURE GOLD! My mother said maybe it was just dipped in gold, or covered in gold leaf …
Was the photo of my cousin taken after a First Holy Communion ceremony? A Confirmation ceremony? I can’t recall. I do remember my cousin was wearing a suit – one size too big!
Say GOOD BYE TO STORYVILLE, Rose! Good-bye to a childhood landmark. For me, as a little girl, we didn’t attend Notre Dame. St. Mary’s was our church. But walking to downtown with “Ma” and my two kid sisters (we never owned a car), Notre Dame was the official beginning of Downtown Worcester for us. Its unofficial WELCOME SIGN, telling me: You’re here Rosalie! Downtown! Fun time!
After the half hour walk, it was a well deserved reward. You had walked up your streets, saw Green Island up close and personal: down Lafayette Street where we lived… we trekked past Eddy’s Penny Candy Store, Helen’s Corner store, all the three deckers stuffed with kids, our buddies and classmates at Lamartine, plus all their free roaming, pre leash law!, dogs and cats…Then we walked down commercial Millbury Street, jam-packed, lined! one after the other, skinny alleys separating them, with mom and pop stores, most with apartments on top – again these abodes stuffed to the gills with people and their pets! What a sweet, sad symphony of life! Lisbon’s Shoe Store, Supreme Market, White’s Five and Ten, Sedick’s Hardware Store, Messiers Diner, Charles Restaurant, Vernon Drug Store, Millbury Furniture, Oscar’s Dry Cleaners, the fruit store, Bueleher Brothers sausage shop, a fish market… You could live and die on Lafayette and Millbury streets, and 90 percent of your needs could be met without venturing outside the two streets and their tributaries…It was a world unto itself! People called it a ghetto. I guess it was. I long for it every day! 💜💜💜
Ma, me and my sisters walked Downtown almost every Saturday where there were even more stores and people! There was Woolworths to look at the pet hamsters and mice! American Supply where Ma had an easy chair on layaway and would make another payment on it! Denholm’s for the rich folks. Barnards for fancy secretary work blouses and skirts and bridal wear. The Mart for new underwear for us kids and Ma. White, cotton and no nonsense. Six to a package!
But first the walk up our terrific Green Street, past Jack and Jill children’s clothing store, Molly’s Beauty Parlor, Coral Seafood restaurant, Prifti’s Candy Shop, the Atlas Fabric shop, the restaurant supply building, the PNI club…more people walking to stores, in and out of opening and closing doors! Ma knew lots of people. Often, we’d stop to talk with the person Ma had almost literally bumped into. “Yes! Rosalie got all A’s again!” Ma chirped. A counter girl at a dry cleaners pinning her dreams on her smarty pants first-born!
But we had our hearts set on Downtown Worcester! And I knew we were there when coming out from under the bridge on Green Street, looking to our right, we saw the magnificent Note Dame church! The exclamation point to: HERE WE ARE! The beautiful reward for our half-hour walk, which was reward itself in the sunny days of spring, summer or fall, even winter when we put on our layers of sweaters and flimsy cheap coats! We we poor. We had nothing! We had everything! Notre Dame! The red sticky cherry atop the hot fudge sundae of our journey! After our downtown errands and shopping, we’d head to Woolworths where Ma would treat me and my sisters to hot fudge sundaes with real red cherries on top, before our walk home. The day an adventure to talk about for the rest of the week!
Now, today, what do the Lafayette Street kids have to see? Dirty, filthy cars and trucks illegally parked by the mechanic there – shamelessly clogging up Harding/Lafayette streets; homeless youth under the Green Street bridge, strung out on heroin; gentrification all along Green Street, now half-abandoned because the soft, spoiled millennials lost their free, next-door parking lot and are too fucking lazy to walk the length of two buildings to get to an eatery! Pathetic. Store owners have had to make little videos, as if for little children, to show able-bodied 20- and 30-somethings just how easy it is to walk to their businesses from parked cars! Such a different world from the truly diverse, bustling, tough and beautiful working-class Green Island in which I grew up! Now its the white, gentrified Canal District. If the old timers could come back from the dead and see what was going on in the old neighborhood, they’d never stop throwing up.
So, Goodbye Notre Dame! I don’t think the City of Worcester will adopt you for FREE, a gift from developer Hanover, then pay the few hundred thousand$$ to permanently make you a hollow beauty surrounded by urban garden,trees, benches, picnic tables. A place to celebrate life’s milestones…a place nurtured by our Worcester Public Schools students, like Randy Feldman and other local urban visionaries envision … a kind of new, sacred city space for today’s Worcester kids and grownups.
No, it’ll be smashed to smithereens, flattened and covered with cement and turned into another big box apartment complex, or it’ll be covered over with blacktop and made into a parking lot. It’ll all be so ugly …
Today is the Beatles’ Paul McCartney’s birthday! As I walked through my kitchen this early afternoon, here in lower Vernon Hill, my own private ghetto😉 … the coffee percolating, Cece keeping me company as she always does during meal time …
… I caught the beginning of Paul’s “Fool on the Hill,” written when he was with the Beatles. I was struck by the aloneness of the tune and stopped in my tracks to soak in the lovely loneliness. To really listen to the song. The fool atop the hill, the only one around for miles and miles! Half crazy! Or at least the world believes he’s nuts. No matter to him: there he stands, indifferent to people’s mocking and prejudices, alone and unbowed, face naked to the sunlight, spinning around and around until he’s dizzy, his arms out like a pinwheel! Smiling at the cotton ball clouds, doing his thing, singing his song! He’s utterly alone, yet fulfilled.
This afternoon I thought about the fool. So inspiring! “He sees the sun going down, and the eyes in his head see the world spinning ’round …” Paul sings. The fool is no fool! He knows where his talents lie, he knows his place in the natural world …
McCartney was just a kid when he wrote the tune – around 20. Maybe even 19. He was just a kid when he wrote all his “sad” masterpieces: YESTERDAY, SHE’S LEAVING HOME, FIXING A HOLE, ELEANOR RIGBY – all the beautiful, alone Beatles tunes. …
They’re about abandonment, wistfulness, despair … Yet often the songs are stories (McCartney loves to tell stories) of a shining soul defiant in a hostile world! 1960s youth zeitgeist? I say, oh, to be so young! – at any time! TO SEE AND SPEAK THE TRUTH before it’s muddled in adulthood! Before the lies – big and small –
move in … . “SILLY PEOPLE RUNNING AROUND, WONDERING WHY THEY NEVER GET PAST MY DOOR!” Paul sings in “Fixing a Hole.” Cheers, brother!
Ensconced in gorgeous solitude, Paul McCartney songs get to me – got to me as a kid growing up in Green Island. All these Paul Beatles songs are GREAT – even though you may think they’re a bit melodramatic! They feel deeply … like the brilliant youth who wrote them. Like all youth! Remember when you were 16? Every day you let your heart out to twist in the wind! You unfurled it like a flag …
When I was a teen growing up in Green Island …
… I’d listen to the Beatles in my bedroom, on my Emerson turntable, with its two big black speakers and dream – lose myself in all the sonic rivers and streams of a Beatles tune. Especially the ones written in ’67 and ’68. The Revolver (’68), Rubber Soul years (’67)…
Rose’s new old speakers. She loves her vinyl!
I was 15 years old and looking in the mirror for the first time and seeing a pretty young woman’s face staring back at me. Then I’d riffle through my Beatles paraphernalia to find Paul’s prettier face staring back at me!
It was beautiful! The soul behind the soulful eyes even more beautiful, to me! All the Paul sad songs, imbued with his longing, feelings of abandonment, despair, even prayers … feelings I felt at 16. Sexual feelings. For the blond haired boy in homeroom and the tall, tanned, dirty, lanky boy-man who dropped out of school and worked in the junkyard next door. He couldn’t read; I cried over him!
A beautiful, amazing world – wide open. My Green Island family slamming it shut! Piling up against the wooden door, their asses making a THUD. Abusive Daddy; prayerful, submissive Ma; my two, heart-breaking kid sisters; and always our feisty Polish immigrant granny, Bapy, yelling in her broken English: “Rosie, get me Sanka!! Heat me Sanka!!”
Shut up, Bapy! I wanted to scream in Polish as I jumped off my bed where I was stretched out on my belly listening to SARGENT PEPPERS LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. Yep! Bapy called! And I had to come when called, just like a golden retriever. Bapy was demanding I get up out of my Beatles reverie to grab her dirty, cracked, hard-boiled-egg stained coffee cup half-filled with her tepid Sanka and put her crappy cup of instant coffee into a boiling pan of water. Gross! I wanted to be left alone with the beautiful Beatles in their beautiful nehru shirts! To lie on my bed, with the pink curtains billowing in, listening to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” …
Those Paul songs, swaddled in violins, horns, cellos, symphony orchestras … His lyrics, rough and tumble, from the streets and tenements: “We struggled hard all our lives to get by … She’s leaving home, Bye Bye!…” Mother, in the middle of the night, clutching her natty bathrobe, watching her favorite daughter leave home … forever. Her careworn face too tired for tears. Watching her daughter leaving home for good armed only with the foolish certitude of the young poet. Mother says: Bye Bye!! Bye Bye, Rose!!
When I was a young girl growing up in Green Island, Paul McCartney got to me in ways my mom, school, most books, couldn’t … . Sure, he was adorable and, like most Baby Boomer teenaged girls (and not a few boys!), I fell for his CUTENESS. Those big, sad, puppy-dog eyes. The flirty way, in the early days, he shook his head as he played his (left-handed) bass…(“Watching the skirts, you start to flirt, now you’re in gear!”) Yep! I was a Paul groupie! I knew, through Tiger Beat magazine and the cheap paperbacks I bought or got, …
Rose still has the McCartney bio a friend bought her when she was a student at Burncoat HS!
… that McCartney was left-handed, that he dumped beautiful model Jane Asher for beautiful photographer Linda Eastman, that he loved all animals and had an Old English Sheep dog named Martha about whom he wrote a song …
Paul, Martha and Jane
I read all his song lyrics, pored over his every sentence in every interview I could get my hands on, cut out his newspaper interviews, if I was allowed to, and pasted them into my Beatles scrap book. I tried to dress like Paul – blue jeans and loose, flowing, beautiful, flowery, colorful shirts …
But at the heart of my attraction was the sadness, the loss: Paul’s mother, a nurse, had died of breast cancer when he was just a little kid. His father, a cotton salesman, raised Paul and his little brother.
Paul, right, and his brother, Michael
I understood Paul’s predicament. We were two peas in a pod: I had no real father. I missed a parent, too – a parent I needed to love and be loved by. I just had this asshole Daddy who popped in every other year or so to make Ma and the whole family miserable.
Beatle John Lennon also lost a parent – his mother Julia, who was too young and wild to raise her son. So she gave John up to her sister Mimi to raise …
When John was a teenager Julia came back into his life – only to be run over by a bus!! She died just as John and she were beginning their relationship.
Lennon once said he and McCartney bonded over the loss of their moms. They were alone together. That meant everything. So the searching began, musically … these two working class kids, who just happened to be musical geniuses, remembering, trying to reach their mothers, through sound…
Rose, in Green Island looking for her father, hating her father, yet longing for a Daddy. The good Daddy who sang Frank Sinatra songs in the kitchen and liked to walk in the woods. But this Daddy seldom showed up on Lafayette Street and, when he did, he didn’t stay for very long. Went away … but where??? Died.
How does a working-class, 15-year-old girl figure it all out? Become the hero of her song?
She listens to the Beatles, of course! She buys all their records at Strawberries or Jordon Marsh downtown and replays them hundreds of times in her beat up old bedroom in her mother’s Lafayette Street flat.
Like Paul and John, Rose cries, too!
And always you are pissed off! A hard attitude to cop, if you’re a good Catholic girl. FUCK IT ALL! You snuggle under your bed covers and listen to “Let it Be” one more time. Paul sings: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, Let It Be.” Ma loves this Beatles song! She thinks it’s about the Virgin Mother in heaven and praying to her. You read somewhere that it’s really about Paul’s mother – her name was Mary.
All the things you love on Millbury Street … you see and hear them in Beatles’ songs. Their working class Liverpool is your working class Worcester. Their frustrated parents, your frustrated parents. Their neighborhood, your neighborhood! All the beautiful flowers, animals, rainbows and sky are in their music and lyrics! For you! How lucky you are to live in their time, when they made their melodies and lyrics.
You are in a secret society – the lonely hearts club band – a club whose members are fatherless, motherless, blue collar, alone Baby Boomer-strivers, chip-on-your-shoulder cool, bedraggled, glorious. You don’t say the word “artistic” cuz you’re poor. But you feel this way. You begin to write essays …all the time. Your father, whenever he’s home, laughs at you tapping at your cheap orange typewriter at the beat-up kitchen table. “Fuck nut!!” Daddy yells to Ma. “Poetry?! She should study to be a secretary!” Annoyed, he stumbles, pigeon-toed, to the refrigerator to grab a plum for his walk out.
But the fool at the kitchen table keeps typing away. She knows better …
Reposting… I wrote this column years ago – right after my father died. – R.T.
🏢🏣🏤Rose’s childhood Green Island life. The view from her family’s 3rd floor back porch. Pictured: her English Setter mix, Belle: Pic: R.T.
Her kid sister💜: Pic: Cecelia T.
Another kid sister💜, “planted” before the Saint Behind the Glass!💜: Pic: C.T.
ON SEEING MY FATHER
By Rosalie Tirella
Ever since my father died (about two months ago), I’ve been seeing him every where. When he was alive, he made about 1,000 entrances in my family’s life. Married with kids but not wanting to be married with kids, my father lived with my mother, two sisters and me some months and was Missing in Action (MIA) during others. He was as tentative as the junk yard dogs he loved so much (and owned).
Some of his entrances were comical – like the time he waltzed into our Lafayette Street apartment with some Frank Sinatra LPs and sang “I Did it My Way” to me. My mother had sent him out for a loaf of bread!
But most of his entrances were cruel, small, mean. He made my sisters, my mother and me cry and succeeded at that so well that we eventually learned to … simply dismiss him — cut him out of our world the way you cut the bruise out of an apple. We went on with our lives, worked around our peripatetic “Daddy.” My mother held down a 60-hr-week job to pay the bills, we kids went to school, held after-school jobs, applied to colleges. My father popped in – for weeks or months.
Then, after all these years, my father died in the nursing home two months ago. And Bingo! He’s now larger than life for me – omnipresent, so to speak.
As I drive around Worcester selling ads for my newspaper, InCity Times, with the radio blaring and paperwork to the side of me, I see him. I’m eight years old; my sisters are six. It’s Easter afternoon and my father strides into our Green Island flat, chomping on a big cigar. My mom has my two sisters and me sitting in our three little kiddie rocking chairs waiting for her to get dressed. We’re going to Easter Mass! We wear new pastel dresses with butterflies embroidered on them. My mother “set” our hair the night before, and now our straight brown hair bounces happily around our faces in “baloney curls.” In my father strides, enraged. We had not seen him for almost … forever. We did not know from which land he strode – not the sweet and holy world that my mother and grandmother had created in our apartment, a world filled with prayers to the saints, rosary beads, homework papers, rules and pet hamsters! Was my father going to hurt anybody this time, I asked myself?
No! He was going to have his picture taken with the Easter Bunny! God love my wonderful, hopeful, dreamy mother, she had my father sit in the grownup rocking chair in the kitchen. She would put the big, vinyl Easter Bunny she had bought at the five and ten and blown up (to our merriment) near the rocking chair where he sat. Then she told us little kids to “sit on Daddy’s lap.” We would all say “cheese” on the count of three! It would be a great Easter picture!
I was only eight but thought my mother mad. No, I would not get on Daddy’s lap! No, I would not be in the Easter Bunny picture. My sisters – twins and safe in their look-a-likeness – happily clambered atop my father. Then my mother lifted her little Brownie camera, peered through the little viewer and said, “One two! Say Cheese!” and snapped the picture.
Today I look at the square little photo from the ’60s and see two little gangly girls in pretty dresses in baloney curls looking exactly alike and smiling widely. Each one straddles one of my father’s legs. The bottoms of their dresses fan out over my father’s lap. And there’s my 30-something father; he’s wearing a striped muscle shirt. His hands are on my sisters’ knobby knees and he stares into the camera, looking … trapped. His rugged handsomeness blows me away! When I was a little girl he seemed the ugliest person in the world!
When I’m on the road, I look out of my car window and think I catch my father’s eyes. But it’s just some old man.
“He’s dead!” I tell myself angrily and shake my head as if to shake out the images of him. Then four or so hours later I see my father walking down Shrewsbury Street (his favorite street) and I have to remind myself all over again.
When my father was diagnosed with cancer, he was not living with my mother and us. Mom had stopped giving him second and third chances a decade ago. My sisters and I had moved out of the apartment in pursuit of higher education/careers. So it was a shock to see him walking past the fish and chips joint on Grafton Street, red-faced, his nylon jacket unzipped, billowing out behind him. He wore no shirt that raw, autumn day and he looked dazed. Then there was his neck: as big as a basketball. The lymphoma had set in.
And yet my father went walking around Worcester – his hometown that he seldom traveled outside of –as if nothing unusual had happened. It was one of my aunt’s – his sister – who had found him in his mother’s old house, lying in the darkness, and said: “Bill, you’ve got to go the hospital.” And then he did – quietly and with some grace – because he knew he was dying.
Sometimes I look out my car window and see my father after the cancer ravaged him. I see a helpless old man – my father after the chemo-therapy, the radiation, the blood transfusions. The chemo treatment took all his curly thick hair away and left him with silver, wispy locks my aunt would cut in a bowl shape. Gone was all his wild, curly red hair that rode high above his already high forehead in some grand pompadour, the wild “do” that lead my feisty old Grandma (she was my mother’s mom and lived with us and loathed my father) to nickname him: “The Red Devil.”
Run, devil, run! There you are standing outside the Commerce Building on Main Street, waiting for the bus. There you are walking out of the Millbury Street fruit store, eating a juicy plum and throwing the pit into the gutter. There you are eating the same juicy plum over our Lafayette Street kitchen sink, my sweet mother looking absolutely smitten by you. You have no time for dishes, meals served on plates. Family sit-down meals are not part of your universe. “Gotta get outta here!” you used to say. “Here” being: our Green Island flat, poverty, a wife, three kids, responsibility.
You want to leave – I can tell. But I just can’t let you go, Daddy.
This Mother’s Day I got to thinking about my mother’s mother, “Mama,” –
“Bapy” to me and my two kid sisters … slangy Polish for “Granny.”
Rose’s mother, left, and “Bapy,” circa WW II
If Trump were President back when the above photo was taken, he’d be scapegoating Bapy, her friends and family, trying to keep people like Bapy (and her husband, my Jaju) out of America. After all, they were dirt poor, looked dirt poor, were uneducated, were immigrants from Poland (a quasi-“shit-hole country”); they were unskilled, unable to write and read even in their native tongue. And, of course, they were unable to speak the most rudimentary English – and just like the Trump Adminstration fumes today – these poor immigrants were incapable (especially that first wave…) of adjusting to the American way of life. America was just too fast for them. They were Conservative Catholics, farm people, a little too superstitious in their devotion to their God … a little too voodoo … too foreign for go-go, money-money America.
My relatives knew that – got it – when people in America, in Worcester, in their neighborhood, Green Island, laughed at them and yelled: “YOU DP!!” As in “YOU DUMB POLACK!!” The acronym “D.P.” really stood for “Displaced Person,” Ma taught me, when I was a little girl and the kids used to name call me at elementary school. It was an immigration office label, Ma explained to me, that’s all. But I hated the term and made it a label unfit for me. I would be the smartest kid in class! Read the best books! Get the most A’s! And so this “DP” became an all A student and always first in her class at Lamartine Street School and Providence Street Junior High. The biggest bullies (usually the dumbest kids in class) changed their taunt from Dumb Polack! to BOOK WORM! as they beat the crap outa me!
My pretty sweet mother was a Conservative Catholic, hence a pacifist …
She taught me to “turn the other cheek” like Jesus said in the Bible, which hurt like hell in Green Island … made absolutely no sense! I was dying in the Lamartine schoolyard at recess time! My classmate Frieda, twice as tall as me, red-faced, her two brown pigtails snapping in the wind as she lumbered towards me, enjoyed hitting me, hurting me. But before beating me up – she’d yank my pretty pink sweater off me – the one Ma bought special for me at Jack and Jill’s on Green Street – my favorite sweater with its beautiful pearlescent buttons – and step on it. Flower in the dirt! Once outside Helen’s Corner Store on Grosvenor Street, Frieda took a slug of her Orange Crush soda and spit her drink all over my precious pink sweater!! But I did as I was told. I stayed stoic. I walked home dripping orange soda. I was not a big kid, had a bunch of illnesses as a little girl…
… so I had to be stoic. Ma tried to talk with Frieda’s mother. Our teacher was notified. But it’s hard to make impressions on bullies, usually miserable kids behind all their fisticuffs and bravado. Take Frieda: she was held back twice, couldn’t read even though she was in third grade, and her clothes were two sizes too small for her. Her mother never came to our school’s parents night – my mother always attended, wearing her Elizabeth Arden red lipstick! Plus, Frieda’s big brother was in jail. The schoolyard drama was traumatic … but it all turned out ok. Frieda dropped out of school soon enough, I went on to become the first person in my family to go to college, and I matured to become a damaged but crusading adult – “She’s always for the underdog!” Ma used to say – who lives life as she sees fit and runs a few crusading rags … a broad who does not give a damn what anyone thinks. And I don’t!, so certain am I of my zippy moral compass, infused with my late mother and grandmother’s Old World Catholicism, my Green Island fables and miracles.
Bapy was a demanding Bapy, and we kids were supposed to mind her the way we minded Ma. “Rosie, Sanka!” Bapy would yell to me from her lumpy old easy chair that Ma had set up for her at the head of our kitchen table – Bapy’s throne, her perch, from which she could watch – and COMMENT ON – all the domestic action: what Ma was cooking for dinner that night, my sister’s new shoes, my Barbie Dream House, my white hamster Joy. All in gnarled up Polish: “Rosie, put my cold cup of Santa Coffee in the little pan of boiling water to heat up! … Cecelia, don’t overcook the cabbage! … Mary’s shoes’ shoelaces are too long! She’ll trip over them! … Who’s this ‘Ken’ in your big doll house, Rosa?”
And me, screaming melodramatically in broken Polish: BAPY, STOP FEEDING JOY BIRTHDAY CAKE! SHE EATS HARTZ HAMSTER FOOD! She has her own special diet! Ma!!!!!!
Bapy: Let me feed your fat mouse, Rosie! You Rosie and I Rosie! (true enough. I was named after Baby – Rosalie.)
Bapy was a nag – but a cute one. She was four feet, 10 inches high and always wore two or three, one on top of the other, (cuz she had bad arthritis) flannel night gowns, topped off with an apron, a reminder of the ol’ days when she ran her own household on Bigelow Street and cooked EVERYTHING from scratch: beet soup, noodles, potato pierogi, rabbit stew, gawumoki, latkes … As a little kid you could literally run up Baby – she was like a musty old mountain! – kiss her round face and throw your arms around her chubby neck and bury your head in her huge, now flat as pancakes, bosom. She’d kiss the top of your head and squeeze you very tight. And not let go! All that love! Whenever we wanted it!
Bapy sang Polish songs for us kids…one of my favorite songs was about an old Polish guy sitting at the shore of a lake wanting to hook up with all the pretty Polish gals. But they were too young for him, so he went to the barber and got his hair dyed shiny black. So all the girls at the lake would go out with him! I used to love to sing that song with Bapy! I still know the tune – it’s so happy and silly!
Every Sunday evening I used to love to watch Ma comb out Bapy’s long silver hair (very fine but with a slight wave) to braid it fresh for the coming week. She’d comb out Bapy’s hair, make the three thin strands of gray hair, braid them tight. Then with bobby pins held between her pretty lips, make a big circle, a bun, at the nape of Bapy’s neck, securing each ring of the bun with the bobby pins. I’d watch Ma closely, occasionally stroking Bapy’s crinkly forehead where her pale purple veins pulsed … You Ok, Bapy? I’d coo to her, the way I’d coo to my little pet hamster, Joy. We’d be listening to the portable radio on top of our old round edged refrigerator – practically an ice box. A Beatles song would come on the radio. No one would be talking. Ma would hum along to the Beatles – she had Beatles Keds she loved them so much! All eyes were trained on Bapy’s beautiful bun in the making.
Rose, center, and her two kids sisters, seated in front of the “pulka” in their Lafayette Street tenement.
Bapy gave us chores – little jobs around our tenement that were perfect for little kids. They needed to get done – but were too tangential for busy adults but kinda fun for kids. My chore was “dusting the statues on the pulka” – pulka being the long shelf above the washing tubs in the kitchen. I got a quarter for doing it! Perfect for all the penny candy I was gonna buy at Eddy’s Penny Candy store, directly across the street from our house. Eddy had seizures. So sometimes you’d go into his store to by a few twizzlers and he’d be writhing on the dark wood floor in back. You didn’t have to see it … you could tell just by hearing the thumping and gagging. So you’d turn around, leave the store and go home with plans to return in about a half hour. Eddy would be fine by then, like nothing ever happened. You gave him your three pennies, said: Eddy, can you gimme three twizzlers? and he’d flick open one of the scores of tiny paper bags at his side, making a loud SNAP, and very businesslike put your three twizzlers in your paper bag. He’d bestow your candy upon you. You’d say: Thank you, Eddy! and run out of his store because he sort of frightened you. Ma was on great terms with Eddy – they were both Polish, lived with their controlling mothers, both from Poland, and Eddy’s sister was a nun and lived in a convent while Ma had worked as a housekeeper for the Bishop of Springfield and lived in his house, practically a convent.
Ma in Springfield, with, of course, a pup in need of a home (hers!). She attracted strays of all sorts: Rose’s father, for instance.
Ma posing outside the Bishop’s house, where she worked/lived with her two sisters, during the Great Depression and World War II
But I digress! Back to my weekly chore, which was a blast. It entailed removing all the small statues of the saints and all the plastic flowers from the shelf above the big sink in our kitchen and dusting them all and re-placing them in ANY WAY I LIKED. I was the interior designer – for the Lord! Sometimes I could even run down to White’s Five and Ten and buy some NEW self-sticking shelf trim! My choice of colored plastic! Pink with blue flowers? Mottled gold?! My choice!
I went to town, with Bapy, crippled with arthritis, sitting on her kitchen “throne” commenting on the mini event. Because it was an event! The statues of the saints – Joseph, Anne, Theresa, Jude, Mary – the Virgin Mother all were very alive to us – especially Bapy who was even more pious than Ma, walking to church every morning for morning mass, in Polish at St. Mary’s, when she was young and middle-aged. Like Ma, she prayed throughout her day, a rosary and some rusty saint medals always sitting next to her lukewarm cup of Sanka! Bapy, Ma, we three kids all prayed to all the saints on that shelf, as if they were real! “Put Joseph there,” said Bapy. I’d show her the little Infant of Prague statue and she’d bless herself as she kissed its feet… I’d run to the bathroom, grab some toilet paper, wet the paper with lukewarm water and Ivory Soap and gently wash the statues faces, arms (always folded or raised in prayer), legs, feet…Once I dropped St. Jude and his head rolled off, cracking in two. Baby’s visiting nurse got her husband to put the head back on like new! A hobbyist, he put clay where the paint, plaster had chipped off and painted new colors on the old statue! Perfectly matched! He was an artist!
Like I said, the statues were alive to us. Ma sometimes said her after-work prayers to them. They brought us peace in slummy, sometimes violent, Green Island. Alive and happy in Heaven with Jesus, they lived! But, unlike Jesus/God/the Holy Spirit, they had no real powers. So you prayed to them, asking them to ask God to answer your prayers. Make your prayers come true. The saints had extra pull precisely because they were saints – spectacular human beings while on earth. Much nicer than you or I… Usually, they died for God, their Christian beliefs. Martyrs who were ripped up by lions in coliseums in Roman times – just part of the entertainment. The opening act for the gladiators…It all made me cry. It made me wash their little plastic flowers all the more assiduously in our bathroom sink. Then I’d put them – in different arrangements – in vases next to the saints – or at their plaster of Paris feet, to show my great love and empathy for them. (or, I could have run out of vases.)
You washed their dusty faces and made them look pretty like your favorite Barbie dolls…you changed their shelf paper like you changed the bottom of your hamster Joy’s cage. This is what I did every Sunday afternoon in Green Island, for several years. Bapy watching and validating me. Years later, I’d be home visiting from college and “do” the “pulka”/shelf! Now dustier, the saints more faded and drab looking, I went to work! It hurt me to see Saint Joseph and Saint Theresa looking so old, so under the weather! … So forgotten!
Here is a saint from our Lafayette Street kitchen pulka, the young Jesus who, as a kid, knew more than the rabbis in Temple! So the story goes … This was my favorite statue. Still is:
This Jesus fell off my shelf on Ward Street a year ago and broke in three. His head has come off numerous times – see the old model airplane glue I used as a kid to patch him up and set him back up on the long kitchen shelf?
I used to pray to this statue most of all. He was a kid, like me. His face seemed more life like than the other saints on the shelf. And most
important, I didn’t dicker around with the saints – I did my imploring before the Big Guy himself. No middle men and women for me, no matter how good and kind they were.
I used to grab a kitchen chair, clamber up it and slip Jesus little notes under the base of his statue.
From Rose to Jesus: “Jesus, please let me get an A on my math test Thursday.” “Jesus, please let me be #1 in my class.” “Jesus, please let there be no school tomorrow if it snows.” “Jesus, please let Ma let me have a dog.”
I was a selfish, ambitious kid, who loved dogs, I guess. Never did any praying for Ma, Bapy or my sisters, though I loved them more than anything!
I’d like to think the saints on the pulka/shelf – Joseph, Jude, Anne, Theresa, Anthony, Mother Mary – knew that …
Bapy at the head of the Lafayette Street kitchen table, squeezing little Rose!
Notre Dame church. Erected for and by grubby immigrants in another Worcester century, but the most graceful building on the city block!
Slated to meet the wrecking ball – and lose! – in order to make way for more of our new, Walmart-like downtown! New, plywood, “luxury” apartments – or a big-box, cinder-block parking garage to house the cars of the people who will live in the new, plywood, “luxury” apartments. An act of sheer folly! But to the developers, Notre Dame church IS a folly!
You can’t blame them: They’re money guys. Money is their God. And they’re not from our city – have no history with Notre Dame church. Even if it was only driving by it or walking by it to go to work in some downtown office or to return a book to the public library across the street. Yet always FEELING the church’s elegance, always BEING BATHED in the church’s beauty. It’s – like everything – a subconscious trip!
Cuz Notre Dame is one of the few inspirational – full of Grace! Spirits soar before its cloud-caressing portal! – buildings in our evolving (devolving??) downtown. Also, it’s aspirational! The French Canadian immigrants who called it theirs, who worshipped God there – but especially the Virgin Mother – “Our Lady,” “Notre Dame” in French – had high hopes for themselves and their children. In WORCESTER. In AMERICA! They must have thought to themselves: Look at our gorgeous church! BUILT BY US! The best thing on the block! We can do anything!!
Now … here’s their church …
… drowning in the ugliness!
All the big boxes. With the smaller boxes (the luxury apartments) inside of them.
The church stands alone.
The cheese stands alone.
Could the developer, its owner, have saved it? Yes, of course. But why? Why spend all that extra dough? Why make the big effort for a building they don’t love like the locals do? To them, Notre Dame is just a white elephant they’ve (unfortunately) been saddled with. Notre Dame means SOMETHING to you and me! It means NOTHING to them!!
You’d think the City of Worcester would have/could have worked with the developer to find a solution. Nope. They’re too busy giving blow jobs to every developer who walks through the door! PLEASE! INVEST IN WORCESTER! WE’LL DO ANYTHING FOR YOU! TIFs ARE JUST THE BEGINNING! Or some rich old Worcester yankee, up to her/his nostrils in million-dollar trust funds from our long-gone factories/industrial heyday.
No such luck. It’s all futile hand-wringing!
So, we lose something we love, never to be regained, recreated, resurrected. Like your mother, your old beau, a great friend. You have the memories, but they fade. You tell the stories so you – everybody – remembers. But it’s not the flesh and blood, the kisses, the stones and marble, the person, the First Holy Communion processions, the gold leaf cross, the candles, the perfume, the burning incense. The Church. You know, the Love Parade.