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.
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.
… in my new apartment in Spencer … two levels (loft-fun), which are coming together. Outside my door: Spencer adventures.
I’m not all about the Better Homes and Gardens country life “style” you see schlepped in the trendy shops or on TV or even in some Kevin Costner movies! You know, visiting perfectly curated country farm stands or pawing the not-so-old “antiques” in stores run by savvy biz folks who may take you for a country ride! Then there are, like in other rural towns we know, the newcomers: well meaning folks who are working to turn beautiful but brutal Nature and its very real, sometimes rough-hewn inhabitants into some kind of country-boutique “experience.” Like a display. Like a Technicolor Tourist Trap. Not exactly vilifying the locals but intimating: You’re not enough anymore.
Yesterday was another CECELIA delivery day …
… Saturday morning heading to Worcester – driving down a Spencer country road in my jalopy, jonesin’ for McDonald’s fair trade java … blasting the radio … loving the gentle hills outside my car window and smiling at the long rows of still-growing bright orange pumpkins strung out in the dirt before me like a little girl’s dime store plastic necklaces. The farmers inject them with dye to give them that day-glow orange color. For the tourists.
But my brain didn’t stay on the toy pumpkins very long cuz, on the side of the road, I spied a big box of lps!!! FREE FOR THE TAKING! Come to me, Connie Francis! Yes! Ella!!! I slammed on my brakes, sent Jett and Lilac flying into the front seat ash tray, screeched to a clanking halt in front of the pretty country house, leaped outa my car and made a mad dash for the house’s ejected Kitty Wells, the Classics, Volume 1, – and all her vinyl-enshrined friends.
There they all sat, in a long, white cardboard box: 40 or so old albums, smelling damp and moldy like they had been in someone’s basement for years: Pearl Bailey, The Dave Clark Five, Bobby V, Peggy Lee on Broadway … MAHALIA JACKSON! (Who lives here?! I wondered. I wanted to meet him!)
Well, my Saturday was made! The scores of bundles of CECELIAs I (and my terrific, stalwart InCity volunteers) had to deliver that day seemed less like work and more like lark! I couldn’t wait to finish delivering my babies and come home to listen to my “new” Ella lp, Pearl Bailey … to my music!:
I picked and chose the lps I wanted and left half for the next gal or guy, so folks wouldn’t think I was rapacious. Also set out: clothes, shoes, toy trucks, sheet sets, magazines. ALL FOR FREE. I took five or six 2017 mags and called it a country morning.
Hey, hey, hey…I didn’t fret that my car’s gas tank gage read below E! I drove off … but soon realized I was gonna sputter to a halt any minute, and my record high would dissipate. I did not want that to happen! So I pulled into the next gas station I saw.
Because it’s me, I had $1.83 in my purse. I am always apologetic in circumstances like these. The gas station attendants deserve better. This one was a tall, heavy-ish kid, shaped like an eggplant, with big watery blue-green eyes. He was about 20, 21 … walked over to my side of the car as I was (literally!) counting my pennies.
As he looked down at me, I sat there organizing my change. “I’m sorry!” I said, looking up at him sheepishly. “I’m on fumes. I need to put a little gas in – ”
“Don’t worry,” the kid said. “I’ll put in 5 dollars worth for you. I always have five dollars on me, in case some one needs it …”
I sat there, stunned, star struck.
“WOW,” I said, pouring my pennies back into my change purse. “That is so NICE OF YOU! THANK YOU!”
The kid looked into my car, stuffed to its roof witb CECELIAs, a stack of records teetering on top of a bundle of papers in the passenger seat and said, “You got all these records.”
“Yeah, I just got them. On the side of the road!”
He seemed curious about all my shit – in a very nice, low-key way.
I filled him in: “Yeah, I got all these great jazz artists. For free! Ella Fitgerald! Do you have records?”
“Great!” I said. “I love Ella Fitzgerald. I love the stuff she did for Verve. I have some of her Verve albums. I like them more than her records for Columbia. Too many strings -”
The kid piped in: “Like they wanted all this control.”
I said: “Yes! For me, it was too commercial sometimes. … Are you putting in the gas?”
I didn’t want to seem rude, like I was uninterested in his story – I was! – so I said: “I’m working today. I have to deliver my newspapers.”
“You have a newspaper?” he said, impressed in a nice way.
“Yep! For almost 20 years! Do you write?”
“I like to write but I’m not very good at it.”
“You like to write. You’re half way there. Here’s my card. If you want to, email or snail-mail me anything you’ve written. I am always looking for new writers.”
I LIKED this country kid! He wasn’t bold, rude, or even apathetic. He was interested… He was HAVING A CONVERSATION. Person to person, the way so many people in Spencer seem to do. They tell you stuff. Important stuff. About themselves.
The country kid walked to the back of my car and, while he pulled out the gas nozzle and tightened the gas cap, I mentally inventoried my “new” lps: Ella, Dave Clark 5, Mahalia… I wanted to give the kid a good lp – not white toasty, something different and enriching – but I didn’t want to part with my faves. I decided on Pearl Bailey. I grabbed the lp as he was coming back around to my window …
“Here,” I said. “For you.”
“That’s so nice!”
“I’m just returning the favor,” I said. “A piece of American history. She’s great!” Then I drove off.
I waved back to the big kid, a young adult, working his crap job and thought of all the nice, polite, full-of-potential young adults I meet every day (hello, Worcester’s Greenwood Street McDonalds cashiers and cooks!) working their full-time crap American jobs, not having the middle-class parents for help, not even making enough money to afford a crap car like mine.
“Babes in the woods,” I said to my two dogs. And I felt sad for the first time that Spencer Saturday morning.
My “country kids” now, since we’ve hightailed it to Spencer! Beautiful nature all over, kissing my soul – but rough, too, even around the delicate purple flowers still growing towards the sun in my small side-yard.
And there’s an adjustment period – for me – and Jett and Lilac, my two dogs. For instance, we’re learning all about Spencer dogs – the Dog Situation in the country! Different from the Dog Situation in the city! While Spencer seems strict with regards to licensing their town pooches, leash laws are thrown to the Spencer winds: big old German Shepherd mixes, big-boned pitbull mixes, big, ol’ fine-boned Doberman pinschers and big black lab crosses run free here. A plethora of protective, aggressive, just plain ol’ MEAN country watch dogs, often belonging to the town’s poorer folks, who seem to define themselves – they don’t have good jobs (the mills here closed years and years ago) or own homes (they rent all the wild, funky roaming poor people’s digs all over downtown Spencer and its side streets – folks who define themselves by their big ol’ mean dogs and motorcycles, and long hair and bandanas for the guys, and cute, sexy boyfriends for the gals.
The dogs, like the people here, go their own way.
The dogs even have the run of our downtown! Dawgs that wanna mow you down and tear the shit outa you! Dogs who are beyond command. The good folks in Spencer town hall are probably aware of this Spencer social phenomenon but know they can’t do a damned thing about it. They’d be going against nature …
Last week, I was walking Jett and Lilac ON MAIN STREET here in town. Main Street, for God’s sakes! – and just like a locomotive exploding through the Gates of Hell, from across the street, I heard a terrible growling rushing me at the speed of sound. I looked up and saw a Spencer BBQ happening outside the crappy apartments across the street – poor folks sitting in their plastic chairs at their long plastic foldable table – red meat on their grill – enjoying the gorgeous sunny Sunday Spencer September afternoon on their cement driveway right outside their front doors. A nice community affair.
And their untethered Dobermann Pinscher.
When I yelped “hi!” the fat lady at the table threw her ample arms around the sleek black Doberman pincher’s wide-as-a-barrel chest, straining to constrain him. I waved to her, smiled at her, real neighborly, but squeaked to myself: FUCK!!!!! My two goofy dogs wagged their tails at the enraged Dobbie. Yay! A party! they seemed to signal. Smell all that cookin’ meat!! – we never smell that smell on Mommy’s stove!
I pushed and tugged Jett and Lilac into seriousness and pulled their leads for them to follow me as the fat lady put a leash on her wild Doberman.
Good God, I thought to myself …safe now…ready to make a little circle aroud the Price Chopper strip mall. I wondered: Where did that mean ol dog come from? I wanted to price the supermarket’s mums and pumpkins…BUT WHOA!!!!! A lump hit me in my chest as A BIG OLD GERMAN SHEPHERD AND A BIG OL’ TAWNY PIT BULL MIX charged me and my dogs as their stringy-long-haired master scooped up their massive dog poops outside his funky old Spencer apartment, in his cement parking lot with motorcycle dutifully parked…
I felt: FUCK! We are dead!!! and just ran with Jett and Lilac straight into … the Price Chopper shrubbery! Falling into their half dead mums, clutching the big Price Chopper pole – to show the mean old dogs: SEE? WE ARE FAR AWAY FROM YOUR TERRITORY!
The mean ol’ dogs stood at the periphery of their shitty little world – and watched us …scramble off…to my car, parked yards away.
Last week I saw – on lead, thank God – a brindle, pointy-nosed bull terrier. The Spuds McKenzie dog – but dirty as it hung out with its owner and friends outside a Spencer chop shop. Its muzzle looked smudged with dirt. Or was it blood?
Even the little chihauhau next door is a mean ol’ dawg! – wants to kill my dogs. Wearing her rhinestone studded collar she CRASHES UP AGAINST HER SCREEN DOOR, GROWLING like a mad dog, wresting demons from her pint-sized soul! Her traumatic backstory? Her little chihauhau sister “was murdered right in front of her by my ex-husband!” says my very nice next door neighbor. “I’m so sorry!” I tell her. “I’ve got a restraining order against him,” she says.
… 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.
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.
I’m eating lunch, and there he sits, between my make-up “counter” to the left and my cocktail shaker-mini bar to the right, behind the tip of Cece’s tail in the photo: Saint Behind the Glass.
Jesus behind the glass. Or, more accurately, the Infant of Prague behind the glass. He used to have a change of costume – one for winter and one for summer. But his summer wardrobe has gone missing, so he wears his maroon velvet cape, fur trimmed, year ’round. There’s a light bulb at the top of the inside of his glass house and, when you screw it tight, it lights up. Still. For night show.
The Saint Behind the Glass was my Mom’s for 50 years. It’s been mine for almost six, the number of years since her death. It’s been sitting in my kitchen, watching over me and my crazy life, ever since.
The Bishop of Springfield, my mother’s old boss, gave it to her when she left Springfield to move back to Worcester. He also gave a Saint Behind the Glass to each of my mother’s two sisters, my aunties, as good-bye gifts. They too were leaving the Bishop for good. Now, in their early 30s, and having successfully supported Bapy, Jadju and themselves through the Great Depression and World War II, my mother and her sisters’ family obligation was fulfilled. Their mission accomplished – not with missiles but with maids’ brooms, dust pans and sponges. Working for the Bishop as live-in maids/housekeepers for 10+ years kept the money coming in during hard times: kept them well fed, well clothed, warm and sheltered. My mother and her two sisters ate roast beef at the Bishop’s house, after the Bishop ate his big meal, and where Ma and my aunts shared a big bedroom, while many Americans went without. Or worse (hungry AND homeless). Their friends back in Worcester, included. Ma and my aunts bought themselves snow suits, Doberman pinschers, took in litters of stray kittens…
Rose’s mom in Springfield, holding one of her and her sisters’ several adopted kitties!💜
My aunt bought a new car for herself. My mom and other aunt saved their money for their futures: kids, husbands, a home … They all chipped in and bought Bapy a nice new ringer washer, Jadju a new television set on which he could watch all his cowboy shows, and, for the both of them, a kitchen set from Millbury Furniture, a Green Island dream store for many Polish immigrants.
The Bishop also gave my mom and her sisters radios, his personal, older plush rugs that he replaced with new ones and his older office furniture, which he also replaced with new goodies. My mom got the Bishop’s HUGE, hand-me-down, stand-up mahogany radio with a record player on top and lovely gold cloth and wood trim in front. Inside, when you opened the heavy wood lid, you saw the green faded felt turntable where you played your 33s under the heavy shiny silver arm with stylus at the end. I remember that radio from my childhood. It was in our parlor on Lafayette Street – twice as tall as I was and gorgeous, even old. It was too tired to play records any more, and the radio didn’t work either, but I believed it was magical! As a child, I dusted it with Pledge on a cloth, every Saturday morning – a fun chore – to make its wood shine. I’d turn its big, black, shiny knobs, pretending I was tuning its radio or upping its volume, all the while singing one of my mother’s favorite songs to myself, the one that she always sang around the house:
She just loved that country song! She really got into it when she was cleaning our tenement or making French toast for us kids on a Sunday morning! She’d dance around the kitchen, one shoulder up, then the other … she’d clap her hands in a downwards motion. She looked so young and pretty in her flower covered “duster” from the Mart, her dark brown, almost black, hair in a curly perm, clapping, singing loudly (and off key!). I’d peek out from under the covers in my bed (I was still in bed, it was Sunday, after all!) and loved my Mother more than anything in the world! I’d jump out of bed, ready for my French toast!
I know all the words to Jambalaya by heart, having them “imprinted” on me as a toddler!!
Back then, in Green Island, Jesus Behind the Glass had his complete wardrobe. I’d watch my mother change him every winter and spring, staring in wonder as she took the Saint out from behind his glass, lifted his glass house ever so gingerly above his head, carefully untied his cape and, one arm then the other, lifted his delicately embroidered “dress” off. I watched, raptly: Did Jesus wear underwear? What did He look like naked? Like me? Would Ma wash him in the old tub in our old bathroom, like she washed me?
No such luck. Jesus was just wearing a plaster robe. Ma dusted him off with a cloth, softly whistling, and quickly put on his new outfit. I didn’t dare ask to play with this beautiful doll! I never even touched him in all the years Ma had him! Ma let us all feel He was sacred. Like the statues in church or a museum.
Saint Behind the Glass! Just cool vintage decor for me these days, but such a living presence – God Himself! – when I was a little girl growing up in Green Island, when The Saint Behind the Glass belonged to my mother! First it sat in the parlor, along with the stand up radio, where all the fancy furniture was located. But Ma closed the parlor all winter long to conserve heat – we only had the gas stove’s “gas log” to warm the entire tenement during winter, plus a space heater for my bedroom – so Jesus Behind the Glass was cut off from family life. Which I’m certain is the reason why Ma hauled Him out of the parlor one November night, right before she shut the parlor door for winter. She moved Jesus and his glass abode into my two kids sisters’ bedroom – on their bureau, between their matching twin beds. There Jesus Behind the Glass sat, at night his light on. My sisters had the coolest night light in Worcester!! During the morning, before Ma woke us kids up for breakfast and school, around 5:30 a.m., she’d grab a wooden kitchen chair and softly place it before Jesus Behind the Glass. Then she’d kneel on the chair’s seat, holding on to its stiff, high back, and say her morning prayers. Sometimes, from my bed in my bedroom, I’d watch her praying in the early morning light, with my sisters still sleeping in their beds, looking so cute and huggable… Ma would “bless” herself (make the sign of the cross), lift up her two strong arms to heaven, murmur softly “Oh, Infant of Prague, have Mercy on us sinners … .”
But we weren’t sinners! We were one, poor, single, car-less, clothes-dryer-less Mom, her old arthritic Polish immigrant Mama and three little girls – our existence precarious! Hanging from a thread! Hanging from Ma! Our Daddy was a useless fool! Gone most of the time and abusive as soon as he set foot in our door way! Ma was the bread winner, the payer of rent and bills, the grocery buyer and getter, the cook, the teacher, the coach, the doctor, the EVERYTHING. No wonder she prayed to the sweet-faced, pale blue-eyed Saint Behind the Glass! two to four times daily. He was Jesus! Son of God the Father! He held the whole world in his hand! He’d hold ours, too!
Keep Ma, Bapy, my two little sisters and me safe! Keep us from entropy! Now and forever, Amen.
Ma was before the Saint Behind the Glass feverishly saying her night prayers every night, fervently whispering her morning Novenas every morning, stopping in sometimes just to look and say a few prayers, words of grace, to Saint Behind the Glass. Saint Jesus of Lafayette Street!!
Saint Jesus smelling the morning coffee Ma brewed. Listening to Ma scrape butter on her two – always two! never three! she was the most self-disciplined person I’ve ever known – slices of toasted Wonder Bread. Enjoying the warm April breeze as it separated and blew through the pretty, flowery! rose-covered plastic draperies in my sisters’ bedroom window, just bought special by Ma from White’s Five and Ten on Millbury Street. For 50 cents.
Oh, Saint Behind the Glass! Tight-lipped just like Ma! Never showing your true feelings to the world! Instead, listening to the beautiful Beatles music and the peppy Polkas blaring from Ma’s old radio atop our round-edged refrigerator. …Watching my two little cute sisters sleep, their faces so open and peaceful … Catching Daddy stick his big red face into the bedroom where Ma is praying to You to yell: HEY, FUCK NUT! SIMPLE AS THE DAY AS LONG! KEEP PRAYING!!
It was a spring day in 1974. I was a seventh grader at Providence Street Junior High School, located at the top of Vernon Hill. I was riding the 11 Upsala bus downtown – “Prov” had just let out – and my classmate, Patty, was talking about sex and Robert Redford in the hit movie THE WAY WE WERE (also starring Barbra Streisand). I was not close friends with Patty – she could be a little snobby. Her dad was a professor, she owned a horse and went on real vacations – out of the country! to places like Ireland. Most of us Prov kids had blue collar parents and went to places like Leicester or Rutland for vacation (camping), and we only “rode” horses during neighborhood carnivals. Still, I was riveted … Patty was talking about Robert Redford’s love scene with Barbra Streisand – when he crashes at Barbra’s apartment, too drunk for SEX!!, but still in her bed!!! And gorgeous!!
I lived in my mother’s house, in Green Island, the poor cousin to Vernon Hill. It was an Old World, conservative, Catholic household. I was an Old World Conservative Catholic girl: prayers every night before bedtime, mass every Sunday after breakfast, Catechism class at St. Mary’s every Monday, 4 p.m., after public school. God above all. Sex? What was that? Only for old, boring married people who did it just to have kids.
Patty was really spicing things up on the 11 Upsala! She was educating me! No, Rose, Patty said, Barbra didn’t have an orgasm in that scene in the movie. She was just stroking “Hubble”‘s (that was Redford’s character’s name in the movie) hair and FANTASIZING about IT. The SEX.
We were sitting in the front of the bus, and the bus driver, a moody guy who always wore white socks with his black bus driver shoes, was whistling as Patty talked. I had seen THE WAY WE WERE too but hadn’t gotten as much out of it as Patty had. I sat on the edge of my seat and listened to Patty: Yes, they were really really in love, Patty said. But it wasn’t meant to be! Her sentence was freighted with significance.
And then this: She too had a handsome boyfriend, and he kissed her exactly the way Robert Redford kissed Barbra Streisand in THE WAY WE WERE!
I was so far behind! I had a crush on the big Swede in homeroom, but I never spoke to him – let alone kissed him deeply. With my tongue. I did sit directly behind him where I could admire the way his thick blond hair cascaded down his beautiful neck. I so longed to caress his blond locks, his blond bangs, just the way Streisand caressed Robert Redford’s in THE WAY WE WERE!!
I knew I loved my homeroom boy AND Robert Redford and that some day I was going to meet a boy in college (I WAS going to college!) just like Robert Redford. He’d be a writer like Hubble, too. And he’d fall deeply in love with me – also a writer. The most important thing: He’d be unspeakably handsome – look like Robert Redford. That was the whole point of having a boyfriend, after all, wasn’t it?
Even though the Kings of Movies/Acting/Directing in the 1970s were all Italian Americans – Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese … the list went on and on AND I DID GO to see all those films – most girls, myself included, wanted Redford. The Italians, like my crazy, abusive Italian father, were too visceral. I was for romance … romantic, candle-lit dinners, romantic, slow long kisses on the beach, romantic, slow dancing in front of a roaring romantic fire … listening to the radio together on a Sunday afternoon.
My mother, a movie freak, wasn’t a Redford fan in the least. Ma lusted for Al Pacino, saw all The Godfather movies!
She could relate to all the crazy, I guess, having chosen Daddy as her one true love. I, on the other hand, wanted the opposite of my Italian Daddy who walked around our Lafayette Street flat talking to his sister on the phone in Italian and slamming walls. He cheated on Ma, slapped her across her pretty cheeks. No, I would have none of that. I wanted blond, cerebral … a quiet talker, someone who didn’t shoot his mouth off, hit women and talk wicked fast in Italian – the exact opposite of my old man. Whom I loathed. To this day, I have never had a relationship – or even dated – an Italian American/Italian. It would be too traumatic. Never “dramatic,” like in the movies.
Like I said: I joined the millions of American girls and women who flocked to all the Robert Redford movies, all, by the way, wonderful: The Great Gatsby, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Jeremiah Johnson, All the President’s Men. The ’70s was the era for magnificent ethnic actors, yet there was my WASPY Robert Redford, a great actor too but underrated because he was so stereotypically handsome. A man who, in his movies and real life, personified the Modern Age, a new America. He embraced a woman as his equal. He was aware, progressive – always did the right thing. He loved his guy friends (see Paul Newman 💜), the environment (see Jeremiah Johnson) …
… Native Americans (JJ again), THE TRUTH (All the President’s Men). Why wouldn’t millions of girls and women in the liberated, liberating 1970s fall – and fall hard – for Robert Redford?
I can still picture the afternoon: My cousin Ann and I sitting in the red plush velvet seats of the Paris Cinema – before it became an XXX movie house – along with 300 or so rabid Robert Redford (and Barbra Streisand) fans, waiting for the red curtains to noisily part on THE WAY WE WERE, the lights slowly dimming, the big chandelier hanging from the red vaulted ceiling dripping jewels.
And we saw: sail boats, flowers, Redford in a tux AND officer uniform!, Redford jogging on a college campus. And for me: Heaven – having your one true love read your short story! … A WASP falling for a Jewish girl during the 1940s … I can still hear the signature Redford voice – clipped, almost terse, always “manly”: “Really, Katie?” Or, to Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy: “I can’t swim!”
How could you not love a man so vulnerable – even while sporting a moustache or beard? That was the golden word back then, manifested by our golden boy: Vulnerable. Men being vulnerable. Sharing. Their feelings. Maybe for the first time. Every woman in America was listening to James Taylor and Jackson Browne emote. How could we not listen to Redford, too? And he listened to us! Our opinions mattered! It didn’t hurt his cause that he was charming as hell. Even when he was the bad good guy in The Sting.
Or in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
What a name! Sundance! It evokes everything ’70s! Joy, light, nature, free love, music!
Redford isn’t very tall – he used to put lifts in his shoes for his films. But those eyes, especially when they squinted at you … those white wolf teeth glinting in the sunlight and, of course, the Redford fine, flaxen hair … and that funny bump on his cheek, an imperfection today’s actors would laser away. Redford kept it. Made him more beautiful.
Redford’s dust-covered cowboy boots in Butch Cassidy, his boring neck ties in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, his scruffy beard in Jeremiah Johnson…
I see Redford walking towards me from movie screens all across the old Worcester, a vision of quiet elegance – or burly elegance. Often accompanied by a horse.
As a tween and teen, I waited excitedly for each and every Robert Redford movie. I went to see all genres: Western, romance, suspense. I watched them when, three or four years later, they were on TV. The Movie of the Week. There were no videos, VCRs, nothing, back then. Just you making a date with your favorite cousin to go drool over Robert Redford while he shone on THE BIG SCREEN, greasy yellow popcorn making our chins shine! But Redford was always fresh. Something new for me and all American girls: The sensitive male. The guy who actually talked to the girl. No pedestals, thank you very much. Just a level field. Sun drenched, certainly.
As a freshman at Clark University here in town I met boys who may have been as cute as Robert Redford but did not have his gravitas. They were not political enough (at least back then), and I was searching. So I transferred to UMass Amherst for my sophomore year and changed my life. THE ENTIRE PIONEER VALLEY WAS hip! to EVERYTHING!! Die-ins, marches, protests, rallies, poetry readings, the women’s center, organic gardening – I tried it all. I heard Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem speak at a campus event one night – the crowd went wild! I had a very cool boyfriend who sold weed, got 800/750 on his SATs and took me to Sarah Vaughan concerts. I was home.
Sometimes I think Worcester needs to get more Robert Redford. As in progressive, liberal, clean, open. But we’re too gritty, too ethnic, too repressed, for that. Which I kinda like, perversely speaking. You’ve gotta mix in the Pacino’s with your Sundance. It’s the way of the world.
The Easter Bonnet has lost its cachet! When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island, Easter Bonnets were all the rage – right up there with going to church all gussied up Easter morning and the big dinner at my Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark’s pretty Burncoat area cape after mass. There we ladies – small, teenaged, middle-aged – took off our Easter bonnets and greedily converged, along with the guys, on the big dining room table where Uncle Mark had placed, center stage, his buddy’s homemade kielbasa – “smoked” in his shed in his backyard in Chicopee! An Easter gift, that big boy was king of our Easter repast, with the glazed ham smothered in Dole canned pineapple slices a distant runner-up. It was a very Eisenhower-era household, so there were vegetables on the table, but no one cared a whit about them. Back then it was: You gotta eat your vegetables! Gak!!! I can’t remember one tubular anything from the ground hitting that table! Maybe a big bowl of mashed turnip??? A few platters of Jolly Green Giant canned green beans, French-cut??? The exception? My Aunt Mary’s white, smooth, creamy, buttery mashed potatoes. And, of course, the unforgettable, made-fresh Easter morn hot “bulkies” from Widoff’s Bakery on Water Street. Slathered in butter, of course.
You can see how our 1950s diet chunked us up. Here are my cousins and me at one of my mother’s Lafayette Street birthday parties for me:
Note the high hats!
Anyways, Easter Sunday…there the (lucky!) 14 of us – my mom, my two kid sisters and me; bachelor Uncle Joe, my aunt, uncle and their four kids; my aunt and her two kids – sat around that fancy dining room table with the big thick clear plastic covering over the beautiful off-white lace table cloth…salivating over the Chicopee kielbasa, praying prayers of thanks to God for all his gifts, and then digging in, not making too much chit chat because we were eating heartily like the Polish peasants we were! At ease with each other, in love with each other, our Catholic Faith, our American Life, proud to be Americans, proud of our American accomplishments: my Uncle Mark (first generation) an elementary school principal, my Aunt Mary the cute homemaker in her cute home in a nice middle class Worcester neighborhood, the kids all in school and getting As and Bs, with the two boy cousins planning to become doctors (they did), one girl cousin a school teacher (she did) and the other girl cousin a math genius! (she graduated from WPI, earned two Master’s degrees and became an engineer – I forget which kind). But back then, we were all clay, eager to be molded into American success stories. Optimism with a capital O, THE FUTURE wide open. To come from nothing and BE SOMETHING! That is the gift of America🇺🇸💜!
In my aunt and uncle’s bedroom, on their shiny, gold comforter, sat – jauntily – all the gals’ Easter bonnets. Heavy cloth crowns and brims of varying widths festooned with pretty silk flowers, even plastic violet berries…a pink straw hat for me and Robin’s egg blue toppers for my sisters bought special for us, by Ma, at Jack and Jill’s children’s clothing shop on Green Street. My mom’s little white pill box beauty with the stiff, sexy lace falling from the front, hiding my mother’s pretty brown eyes and Romanesque nose! Finally, there was the feathered topper my aunt loved to wear in the spring. Here she is donning it to visit my Bapy in our Lafayette Street tenement during a happy spring occasion: right after her daughter, my cousin, made her First Holy Communion:
pics – R.T.
I still remember that number! Long, red-brown feathers that framed Auntie’s face in an almost comical way. The wind would blow outside church and Auntie’s hat looked ready to take flight, with her feathers bending in the same direction the wind blew! The feathers were so soft (real) and glinted in the sunlight! PETA wasn’t around to let Auntie or us know that birds died HORRIFIC deaths to make her hat, so we all foolishly enjoyed it!
Here I am, with my Jadju in my Easter Bonnet, before Easter mass with Ma:
I loved that hat! My all-time favorite! White, softly woven straw trimmed with pretty, pale pink cloth flowers and small, pale green cloth leaves. A few years later I would be a kindergartner at nearby Lamartine Street School where we would make our own Easter Bonnets with our red-faced teacher. We’d color white paper plates with our Crayola Crayons, glue on decorations we had cut out with our small kiddie scissors. We’d dip our fingers into that yummy smelling Elmer’s Glue – my friend George always ate a little of his white glue puddle that we shared on a square of scrap paper – and have a ball! Then our teacher would punch holes with her hole puncher on either end of our Easter Bonnets and run two long pieces of cheap ribbon through them so we could actually wear our Easter bonnets, tie them under our chins. Then teacher would put on her special Easter record – IN MY EASTER BONNET sung by Judy Garland – and we girls (and boys!) would get up and saunter up and down the aisles of the classroom wearing our Easter bonnets, walk right out of our classroom door and straight to the school principal’s office where my favorite school secretary sat at her desk with her cat’s eyes eyeglasses sliding down the bridge of her skinny nose. She was everyone’s favorite grown-up at Lamartine, along with the lunch lady who crocheted us poor kids colorful, warm vests during winter time! So… There we paraded in front of the secretary, Miss K., who’d smile, ooh and ahh, and shower us kids, many of us wearing shabby, smelly clothes even during Easter time, with the most magnificent of compliments! A beautiful way to end the school day right before Easter break!
Sometimes Ma didn’t look so happy on Easter, either. Mind you, she loved hats and wore them all seasons:
But life without – and with! – our Daddy was hard. He never celebrated holidays with us, or attended our school plays/recitals (Ma never missed one!) or even our high school graduations. My Godless father never went to church with us on Easter or ate Easter dinner with us at Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary’s – if he was home at all! Ma was always under duress, worked 60 hours a week at the dry cleaners for minimum wage…ready for bed by 8 p.m. I remember her those evenings: We kiddos watching The Ed Sullivan Show, Ma sitting up right on the sofa, trying to watch the show with us but sleeping! Snoring! Heavily, deeply. The train rolling down the train tracks down the street. The traffic on Lafayette Street. The TV show blaring. We kids laughing at the Little Mouse puppet…Ma was dead to the world.
The only times Ma felt pampered was at my Aunt Mary’s – on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. There, during those holidays, my Aunt Mary let Ma, her beloved sister, have a true “Day Off.” Mary took care of everything: Ma didn’t have to make a side dish or even bring drug store chocolate candies to the dessert table. She didn’t have to help set the dinner table or clean up after the feast or rinse dishes or help load the dishwasher. Aunt Mary made Ma sit in the big comfy Lazy Boy lounger in the living room – and rest. And, after the meal, with the guys watching TV and we kids playing Monopoly, Ma would laugh and joke and just take it easy, her feet literally up for an hour or two! Then Ma’s treat: In came Auntie Mary with a big cup of Maxwell House coffee, on a pretty saucer with blue birds on it..The coffee had real cream (too luxurious, expensive for our Green Island household) and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Auntie Mary knew Ma was a coffee junky from the age of 14, the beginning of their days in Springfield working as maids/housekeepers for the Bishop of Springfield. So she always kept her caffeinated! Ma loved coffee so much – probably a wee bit addicted – she always had a brand new coffee maker waiting as BACK UP if her current one died! As a tween I admired Ma’s forethought!! I too have two coffee makers – a Keurig and Ma’s brand new Joe DiMaggio Mr. Coffee machine, still in its box, the last of Ma’s work horses that Ma never got to use because she passed…
Back to Auntie and Ma: In a kind of tip of the Easter Bonnet to my mother, Aunt Mary always served Ma her cup of coffee FIRST – before anyone in that cozy living room got theirs. Before my other Aunt, our bachelor Uncle Joe. Even Uncle Mark – Aunt Mary’s husband and head of the home! Ma accepted the honor with grace and cooed in Polish to her sister: Oooh, thank you, Mary! So so good! And she began sipping … and soon her laugh – always a husky, sexy, whiskey-laced, cigarette-smoking laugh (though she wasn’t a smoker and imbibed judiciously) – filled the room! I miss that sexy movie star voice! I wish she had “given” it to me!
But I did inherit her love of hats. Our whole family was obsessed with them! Here’s a Polish relative – my Jadju’s sister – rockin’ one:
I really like it! It feels kinda modern, even though this photo was taken in Worcester, on Vernon Hill, in the 1920s. Hell, if it were around today, I’d take it to the dry cleaners, get the must out, then clap it on my fat head and sashay around the ‘hood! Run my life with panache!
Here is another picture, from Dudley, a Polish immigrant haven where my grandfather first lived when he came from Poland, working in the nearby textile mill in Douglas…
Jadju’s employee insurance information booklet
Obviously, the little lady to the left went overboard when accessorizing:
First, I must stress: These people are too ugly to be my relatives!!! And, like I said, the lady, seated, does little for her cause: a bucket-like hat plopped on her head – she could take it off and take a crap in it!; a skanky dead animal hanging from her neck – its claws prominently displayed; a fat, ugly corsage around her thick wrist, a wide, ribbon “skirt” … And look at those shoes! Tight, pointy, a bazillion straps squeezing all that flabby flesh…a tad S & M for Easter, don’t you agree?!
Thank God they’re all dead!
Next to that photo, is another. My pretty aunt? I have no idea, but I love her Communion veil …
Pic taken right here in the neighborhood, too:
Because, you see, there were no selfies, Instagram or even cameras back then. The cameras existed – but not for the masses. People didn’t own them – professional photographers did. They were huge, expensive, complicated contraptions … usually owned by photographers who set up photography studios in cities and towns all over America…in seemingly every immigrant neighborhood in Worcester! In our downtown, too! Going to the photographer was a big deal – reserved for special occasions, family milestones, like weddings, First Holy Communions, special family portraits. People dressed to the nines for their photo shoot – and never smiled when the big flash bulb exploded into whiteness. Their photo session was too important. They were making history. Their History.
Something permanent. And here the photos are, for you, for me, almost a hundred years later. Coming ’round the bend, my huckleberry friend, adorned with little flower bells…
… pretty posies, because back then America was one big fuckin’ Easter Parade. Where everybody went to church to celebrate Jesus and ate a ton of red meat and smoked Lucky Strikes and bought Chevy’s and walked down the street in front of their church or cathedral on Easter day to see and be seen. To show off a jewel-bedecked sweet heart, to admire and compare/contrast tuxes, top hats, suits, bow ties, hats, handbags, glad rags, corsages… Cute, dressed up little kids and teens (boys hot and bothered in their neck ties, girls sweet and virginal in their pink taffeta dresses and shiny black patent leather Mary Janes) … your new automobile you purposely parked a block away just so you could get out of it … and promenade!
To strive to be so white, too white, in one of the most racist countries on the planet! To forget about Jim Crow laws, segregated neighborhoods and schools…to be that white, rich doctor or white, rich small business owner and ditch your inner-Polish peasant! To shout Fuck off! I renounce you! to your pigs knuckles, your pierogi, your cabbage soup … your religion, your mother … After just a blink of an eye in America, immigrant sons and daughters follow their own personal American dream to (for my family) Michigan, Arizona, Florida, California…to SUCCEED IN AMERICA – and to SCREW UP IN AMERICA! It’s an adventure, all right! One big, sloppy, gorgeous, greasy, delicate, delicious, sex-driven, musical, mysterious Easter Parade!