When I Was Small, 1944-1952

 

My first memories are between one and two years old. I remember lying in my crib at night and, wherever I look on the walls, I see outlines of a crowd and the ceiling looks like the sky. It’s as if my crib is in the middle of Fenway Park on game day. The people in the crowd are shadow-like and I can hear them roar. I feel very comfortable. Another memory is a little less pleasant. I wake up to screaming in the other room. I fall back to sleep but the next morning, crawl into my parents’ room and see blood on the mattress. Later, I learned that Ma had a miscarriage.

Until I was about five, my whole universe was the backyard of Carnes Street, 2 houses down in either direction, and across the street. Carnes Street was in a working class neighborhood of small cottages and three-decker tenements. Directly in back of our own rental and sharing the driveway was a brown single-family owned and occupied by our landlord, a Mr. Trahant. The Trahants had two kids, Judy, my age, and Buddy, a year or so younger. Judy was my playmate and first love. After all, we were three. She was to be my friend until we moved when I was about six. We played mostly in the backyard; we weren’t allowed to play together in the house. Judy had a tricycle that she would let me ride around the yard. This was our first adventure. I drove while she stood on the back while holding my shoulders. We went clear across the yard to the wooden fence.

"What’s over the fence?" I asked.

"The Ragman lives there!" She responded.

The Ragman had one of the few remaining horse and buggies to use the roads. Uncle Teddy who lived across the street would sometimes follow the ragman down the street and scoop up the horse’s poop for his compost pile. Anyhow, Judy and I climbed the wooden picket fence and peeked over. There was just a brown house and a barn and nothing else to hold our attention. A second incident occurred on our way back from the fence. We heard Buddy yelling as his dad came running out of the house and carrying him down the front steps. Blood was streaming from Buddy’s face. Luckily, he only needed a few stitches. It seems he fell down the cellar stairs.

These memories, one in the twilight zone, the other two bloody, now that’s something to keep the Freudians busy.

And, of course, those were the days when commerce came to you. This was ‘BS’ or ‘Before Supermarkets’. First was the Palleschi Brothers’ milk company. They were both built like bulls and carried metal 6 pack containers of glass, bottled milk. We had a similar container on the back steps that held the empties. We had to be careful not to drop and break the bottles otherwise we’d be charged for a replacement. It was Pasteurized at that time but not yet Homogenized. The top 10% of liquid in the bottle was cream and you had to shake the bottle every time you poured a glass to keep the cream mixed with the milk. At the top of the bottle was a crimped, paper outer cover. After you removed this, there was another thick, paper cap. You lifted up a tab on top and then pulled the entire cap off, poured the milk, put the cap back on, and put the bottle back in the icebox. That’s right, I said icebox. It was wooden, had shelves inside and a place for a block of ice that was about one foot cube. Now, our Iceman was a cool guy. He wore a big, black apron that was made out of either leather or rubber. He grabbed a block of ice from his truck with tongs. He rested the block against his apron to deliver the ice. He was a short, well-muscled, ruddy faced Irishman and was important in my life for two reasons. He taught me how to wink a single eye and he taught me how to whistle. He was always whistling (something that was fascinating to a three year old) and always winked when he walked by.

Trash in those days was divided into swill and rubbish. Every house had a swill container that looked like an oversized bedpan. The swill comprised table scraps like vegetable peels, meat, and anything else in the icebox that made it past leftover day (usually Wednesday). The rubbish bin was a galvanized steel barrel into which went dry waste. Trash and swill were picked up weekly. The process of swill collection was interesting. You carried the swill out each night and put it into an underground container that held a 15 or 20-gallon pail that could be lifted out. To keep critters out and keep the smell in, there was a heavy iron cover on top with hinges and a foot pedal. When you stepped on the pedal, the top would open so you could throw in the swill. Of the two occupations, the rubbish collector had more prestige. The lowest of the low was the swill collector. Flies, seagulls, and a stink to make a zombie retch always followed the truck. We’d hide way back in the yard to avoid the smell and we’d watch the swill man who had a dirty apron and huge rubber gloves that went up to his elbows. He’d remove our swill bucket and bring it out to dump it in the truck. I have no idea what he looked like because we never stood close enough.

The Fish Man came by on Fridays. He had a small pickup with an insulated, wooden icebox in back to keep the fish fresh. Surprisingly, flies, sea gulls, or a stink didn’t seem to accompany him.

Happy Home Bakery was in competition with Cushman’s Bakery. We thought Happy Home was the name of the bald headed truck driver and, being an aficionado of chocolate chip cookies, I preferred his chocolate chip cookies to Cushman’s. Besides, Cushman’s didn’t have a truck but a vehicle shaped like a hearse and painted white.

I saved the best two for last, the Knife Sharpener Man and the Mosquito Fog Man. The Knife Sharpener Man rode a three-wheeled bike. The handle bar had a grinding wheel on it and a kickstand on each side that lifted the front wheel off the ground. He then shifted the chain to the grinding wheel. It was quite a sight to see him pedal and watch the sparks fly from the grinding. We’d follow him down the street as far as we dared. He had a hand bell on the handlebar that he’d ring as he went up the street to summon the housewives, the same ploy the Ice Cream Man used on pay day, Friday night, to bring the kids out with their nickels.

All of the above, however, paled in comparison with the Mosquito Fogging Man. Picture a huge flat bed truck. On the bed, mounted 10 feet above the ground was a machine straight out of Buck Rogers. He looked like the gunner on a Destroyer. The Mosquito Fogging Man wore a safari hat and had a mask over his face. As he turned the wheel, the contraption he was sitting in would swivel back and forth, its gun-like shape belching out fogging death to mosquitoes (and every other life form that happened by). Watching this was my greatest prepubescent thrill.

At four years old, there were three boys in the immediate neighborhood, a fellow named Montejunas with whom I played war, and Tommy Kostu and Jackie Burt. The mothers of the last two were more memorable than they. In the apartment house next to ours, on the second floor, lived the Kostus. On the second floor of the apartment next to the Kostus lived the Burts. A driveway separated the apartment houses. On Monday, everyone did the wash (laundry) and the houses had clotheslines next to the windows that went from one house to the other. The lines were on a series of pulleys so that as you hung an article of clothing with a clothespin you moved the line out to make room for the next item until the line was filled. Both Mrs. Burt and Mrs. Kostu leaned out of their respective windows and would use the occasion of hanging out clothes in order to chat. Mrs. Kostu stood about 5’8", a big buxomy woman with a kerchief covering her hair. She also wore glasses whose lenses were Coke bottle thick and she constantly squinted. She had a deep voice like a drag queen from Monty Python. Mrs. Burt was shorter and thinner with a high whining, nasally voice.

"Oh, Mrs. Kostu?"

"Yes, Mrs. Burt."

"Did you hear about Dana, down the street?"

"No, Mrs. Burt, who is Dana?"

"Why he’s Mr. Carmody’s friend, the one who drives a motorcycle and an atheist, you know."

"Mr. Carmody?"

"No, Dana."

"Anyways, it seems Dana pulled some hairs out of his nose."

"You don’t say, Mrs. Burt."

"I do say, Mrs. Kostu, and his nose got infected."

"I can understand that."

"Well, the infection spread and he died last night."

"How awful, Mrs. Burt."

"So young, only thirtyish, but fortunately and thank the dear Lord, he had no wife or children."

Other neighborhood gossip would ensue until all the laundry was hung. The same scene played out up and down the street. And, in this manner, everyone in the neighborhood knew everyone else’s business by the end of the day. This ritual disappeared with the advent of automatic washers & dryers and..............television.

"How about a nice cuppa tea, Mrs. Burt?"

"I’ll be right over as soon as the dishes are done."

As an aside, what the heck is a nice cuppa tea? Do you know of anyone who has ever been offered a bad cuppa tea?

Anyhow, right across the street from us lived Aunt Marie and Uncle Freddy. Uncle Teddy and Aunt Thelma lived next door to them in the rear. At this early point in my life, I don’t remember having had much contact with them. Strange?! I do remember, though, family affairs at Peperes (grandfather on the French-Canadian side of the family) about a mile away on Western Ave. The whole family would meet there. The adults sat in the living room and the kids scattered elsewhere as we were ordered to be seen rarely and heard never. I was also morose a lot in those days because I wasn’t accepted by my male cousins and, frankly, never was until after high school. And so it goes.

Next to Aunt Marie’s lived the Finnedys. They had a cream colored house surrounded by a huge cream-colored fence. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a cream colored moat around the inside of the fence. If a ball or anything else went over that fence it was lost forever. It makes you wonder how many lost balls have gone to parallel universes. I have no idea what old man Finnedy did for a living, but he and his wife looked down on us as if we carried disease. They didn’t actually look down on us but rather they looked up in the air when they passed any of us. The only time we saw them was on Sunday morning when the big gate swung open (and I swear a drawbridge went down) and a huge black town car would pull out. Mr. Finnedy would get out of the car and with his nose reaching stratospheric heights he’d close the gate, get back in the car and drive off. He was dressed like a banker all in black including a top hat and vest with gold watch and chain. You could see the outline of old lady Finnedy’s veiled visage through the limo’s window. A crusty old couple if ever there was.

Then, without warning, school days started. The first day at St. Jean-Baptiste, a French-Canadian parish school, 44 kids showed up for ‘baby grade’ class. Let me explain. The school was run by the Soeurs de Sainte Anne, i.e. nuns based in Lachine, Canada outside of Montreal. For ½ day, the classes were in French and ½ the day in English. You went to baby grade before first grade to learn to understand French. You’ll notice I didn’t say learn to speak French. We never, in the 13 total years we spent in the school, learned to speak French. All we needed to do was understand it. Maybe they figured we couldn’t give them any back talk or other grief if we couldn’t speak the language. Go figure. Anyhow, in baby grade, we learned the essentials of the language. Adding one extra year to our schooling did have repercussions down the line because when we graduated from high school, the Vietnam draft was in effect and your age was a factor. But that’s a tale for another time.

Returning to day one of school, two events stand out. Artie Connelley who became my best friend in school threw a tantrum that lasted a half hour and Gerry Bourque lost control of his bowels. Sister Albert Marie had to evacuate the class while someone cleaned up the mess. It was probably Tim the janitor. He was an old Canuck who spoke Franglish or broken English. He never really learned to speak English and over time forgot most of his French, the results of which were sentences interspersed with words from both languages. He always had an unlit stogy of a cigar sticking out of his mouth and he wore a tattered white shirt (at least it was white at one time) and a large pair of coveralls made of faded dungaree material. Tim tried to keep the place clean and was constantly kicking high schoolers out of the bathrooms where they smoked.

"Hey, you gars, allez the hell dehors." You translate.

Second grade was with Sister Emelienne de Florence. Her greatest accomplishment that year was teaching us to roll our ‘Rs’ by vibrating your tongue against the roof of the mouth, something quite difficult to do once you turned seven. Sister was obviously a Pavlovian because she rewarded us with jellybeans for the right response. I drove everyone crazy for two days while learning to roll my Rs.

"Good morrrning ma, arrrrrre you alrrrrright?"

"Enough!!!! I’m going to kill that nun!!"

"Whateverrrrrr forrrrrrrr?"

The year was now probably around 1950. I was six and madly in love with my cousin Joan. She was the oldest offspring of Uncle Freddy and Aunt Marie. Joan was famous for doing a header during a Christmas pageant at St. Jean’s. About 150 girls in school uniform (blue, drab, and shapeless - the uniforms not the girls) were on the stage of the auditorium. The overflow stood on steps at each end of the stage. There were 5 steps on each side. Joan was on step four from the bottom right. While singing some nondescript French ditty, Joan began to sway. The rest of this incident occurred in slow motion. The audience got caught up in the drama. It was like a tennis tournament. As Joan swayed to the left, all 300 students in the audience swayed with her. As she swayed to the right, the audience did likewise. Back and forth...back and forth, it was mesmerizing. With each sway, you thought she’d finally tumble over and down the stairs taking three girls on the other steps with her. He face began to take on a greenish hue. Father Boucher darted from his front row center seat and caught her in his arms 5 degrees from horizontal. I looked over at Art Connelley who seemed genuinely disappointed that she hadn’t hit the ground.

Anyhow, Joan had a friend Jeannie Condon. Jeannie’s parents had a camp somewhere in New Hampshire. We were invited. The event was notable for two reasons. I kissed Joan on the mouth and this was the birth of Rock and Roll. Jeannie had a 45 RPM record of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’. We played it at least a thousand times and sang it all day. By the way, Jeannie’s mother Marion belonged to our family’s Every Other Monday Sewing and Knitting Club. The club comprised most of the female members of my mother’s family, in-laws, and a select few outsiders. Marion Condon was one of the select. On any given other Monday, about 10 or more would assemble on a rotating basis at a different house. It started around 7:30PM and ended with a collation at 10:00ish. Only 2 ever knitted and no one sewed. This was an excuse to get together and discuss family events and happenings as well as the news of the day without husbands putting in their two cents. And, now that I think of it, the husbands mysteriously disappeared on club night. We kids loved it when it was ma’s turn for club. The best dishes and cutlery were brought out and the air held the promise of glorified leftovers for us; cakes, candies, and undreamed of delights. The weekend of ma’s turn for club would find her cleaning and polishing. I still remember putting my fingerprints on the lemon oil slick left on the furniture.

"Get your fingers out of there before I knock you into the middle of next week" She’d shriek. While club was going on, we’d keep our bedroom doors open and hope they’d talk about us. We were rarely disappointed.

The Move To Mall Street

When I was about seven, we moved about a quarter mile to Mall Street. It seemed like three planets away. It meant trying to make new friends in an alien world. Let’s talk about the street for a moment. A debate has raged for at least a hundred years as to the pronunciation of Mall. One camp pronounced it like ‘all’, the other camp like ‘al’. We were in the ‘al’ camp. Dad and ma bought the gray three-decker at #83 through the realtors Moran and Moriarty. Mr. Moran was about 6’2" and had a pronounced stomach protruding through his vest. #83 was the fourth house from the corner of Mall and Boston Streets. The three houses to the corner were three-deckers also. Unlike Carnes Street, the driveway and yard at #83 were paved. On the right side of #83 were three pieces of property owned by the notorious Alec Bezargian, Lynn’s original slumlord. We called these the junk houses, as they were unoccupied, dangerous, and we were forbidden to play around them. One of these properties right next door to us was once a single-family house now in ruins. The other two were dilapidated brick buildings that had served as warehouses for a department store called Magraine’s. Goldenrod and other weeds weaved their way around the junk houses. Defying my mother’s orders, I sometimes played with Stanley in the weeds around the junk houses. One day, Stanley came out wearing a genuine Zorro costume complete with black hat, cape, mask, and cap pistol. Not to be outdone, I ran into the house and looked in the ragbag. This wasn’t a bag but an old trunk, the last refuge of hand-me-downs and worn out clothes. Thinking quickly, I grabbed one of ma’s old beige slips, holes and all. This would serve admirably as a cape. I wrapped an old brassiere around my head the same way you’d hang a bandana. Next, it was off to my bedroom for my Flash Gordon plastic ray gun. I looked in the mirror. What a resplendent image sure to send Stanley into fits of jealousy. Unfortunately, by the time I got outside, Stanley was gone. I was despondent as I went back into the house and almost walked into ma.

"What in God’s name are you wearing....???? That’s one of my slips and bras. Just wait ‘til your father gets home." She shrieked. It seemed, as I got older, she did more shrieking. Stanley, by the way, lived on the second floor of the three-decker next door to the left. They moved out a couple months after we moved in and were replaced by the Cohens, my first experience with a conservative Jewish family. I played with their son Izzy who told me his penis was different from mine. He was reluctant to show me though. I remember the particular smell of the Cohen home. It was like a combination of potato latkes and chicken soup. Mr. Cohen was always in a three-piece suit and wore a funny cap on his head. I was invited to supper there once. They said a prayer and I responded "Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen." That went over big. They were also horrified when I asked for a glass of milk during the meal.

"This is a Kosher house, you can have milk after supper."

Jews were definitely a source of confusion to me as a kid. They celebrated Sunday on Saturday. They couldn’t eat ham or bacon, or pork. They couldn’t eat camels. But, then again, neither did we. Ma said that when they were young, Uncle Billy and Uncle Teddy were paid a few pennies to go to the temple on Sabbath to light the candles. In retrospect though, there was something we Irish and French-Canadians shared with the Jewish people --- GUILT. A Jewish mother couldn’t hold a candle to the guilt trips we took with ma, the nuns, and the priests in our parochial school education. It’s taken me years to work it out of my system.

We lived on the first floor at # 83. A widow, Mrs. Brown, lived on the second floor, and a bachelor, Mr. Walsh, lived on the third floor when we first moved in. Mrs. Brown, I recall, wore old lady dresses and old lady shoes. Mr. Walsh, who was probably as old as Mrs. Brown, always wore a brimmed hat whether he was inside or out. I never saw the top of his head. The house itself was heated by three coal furnaces. Heat rose on its own, as there were no motors. One of my chores (I really enjoyed it so much, it wasn’t work) each night was to make sure there was enough coal burning in each furnace. Dad taught me how much to shovel into each furnace. If the coals were out, I got to light it with real wooden matches. I’d crumple up some old newspaper (the Telegram News or the Item) and throw them into the furnace. Then, I’d shovel in the coal, throw in some more paper, and ignite the whole lot. Next to the furnaces were the coal bins. You ordered coal by the ton and coal delivery day was always an adventure. Our coal dealer, and later our oilman, was Bill Welch. Bill was built like a circus strong man. His face, with its pug nose and hands, had the appearance of a miner, black with coal dust. Bill would drive his truck up to the three separate ground-level cellar windows. The windows had hinges on top and opened from the bottom. There was a hook on top to hold the window open. Then, he took a six-foot metal chute and attached it to the back of the truck. It extended about a foot into the cellar. When everything was in place, he’d jump in the truck, move a bunch of gears, and the back of the truck would start to move up and send coal down the chute into the cellar’s coal bin. This was repeated at the other two coal bins. By the way, a coal bin looked like a stall for horses with rough-hewn wooden walls separating each. It took about a half hour before the dust settled and I could go into the cellar to inspect the delivery.

One day, to our surprise, a family moved into the junk house next door. They were the Barnetts and there were three daughters. The oldest I don’t remember; the middle girl, Marie, was in high school; the youngest was Gloria, the second love of my life. Mr. Barnett used to look funny when he came home nights. He walked funny too, sometimes stumbling on the sidewalk, other times walking into trees. He had drool on the side of his mouth and mumbled a lot. Often, you could hear him yelling inside the junk house. I was about eight at the time.

"Are you poor?" I asked Gloria.

"Nope, cuz I have a bicycle and you don’t."

Good point, I thought. "A bicycle?"

"Yup, a two wheeler."

"Can I see?"

She went up on the porch and brought down a green Schwin. It looked reasonably new. It was also what was called a girl’s bike. I didn’t know what the difference was at the time. Later, I learned a boy’s bike had a straight bar from the seat to the handle bar neck the way all bikes are built today. But a girl’s bike had a curved bar that made it easier to mount the bike.

"Can I try it?"

"Sure."

And that was the beginning of a relationship with my third love --- the bicycle. All at once, I became mobile. She let me use the bike any time I wanted, even without asking first. I’d bike up and down the streets of my neighborhood, getting more daring each trip out. This went on for about four months until I got home from school one day to discover the Barnetts had moved away. I never saw the bike again --- or Gloria. And that house was never rented again while we were there. Oh well.