Sunday, November 1, 2009

Remembering Papouli

(Polisson Shoe Repair Shop, Stoddart Lane, c. 1940, Cape Ann Museum; Cape Ann Diner, 1972, photograph by Mark Power)

My grandfather, Angel Polisson—we called him Papouli, which is the diminutive in Greek for Papou, or grandfather—had a shoe repair shop in the East End of Main Street, diagonally across from the North Shore Theater in the same alley where A. T. Stoddart’s machine shop was located.

Papouli’s shop was small and dark, even though there was a fairly large window in which he sat to repair shoes. To your left as you entered was a counter behind which his work bench stood. The side of the counter facing him had shelves which held various kinds of leather, shoe nails and shoes that had already been repaid. To your right and toward the rear of the shop was a row of belt-driven machines for cutting, smoothing and polishing new heels and soles. The machines also had brushes for shining shoes. Nearby was a big sewing machine, which looked like a band saw. When Papouli turned the power on to start shaping the new heel of a shoe, the whole shop shook as the machines themselves jumped and rattled.

At the very back of the shop on the left was a glass covered display case full of various brands of wax or liquid shoe polish and sample heels for men and women’s shoes. Above that were additional shelves for shoes awaiting their owners; and against the rear wall was an old couch for customers to sit on while waiting for their shoes or just to visit.

The shop had that characteristic smell of an old-time cobbler’s shop, a mixture of the smells of the different leathers, the waxes and pastes for polishing and shining the shoes or dying the edges of the heels and soles, and the rubber cement, which would be used to fasten on new heels and soles before sewing or nailing them in place. When I wasn’t at my grandfather’s elbow watching him work at his bench, endlessly fascinated by the process of literally rebuilding shoes, which he often did, I would be poring over ancient copies of Life magazine with photographs of the war, just over, or the making of “The Best Years of Our Lives,” or “Life Goes to a Party.” Sometime Papouli would set up a last for me and let me hammer away at an old heel or he’d let me play at “carving” leather with one of the dull knives he must have kept around for such purposes.

The shop also had an unheated back room with a shed attached to it. I would get lost out there for hours, playing with pieces of wood, reading even older magazines, especially National Geographic, making up games in the semi-dark of a late Saturday afternoon—Nick Carter or Lamont Cranston fantasies as I crept down the shadowy cellar steps into what I was certain would be an abandoned crypt, only to be brought back to reality by my grandfather’s voice wondering what I was up to since I’d been so quiet for so long.

In that back room Papouli often prepared tarama, the Greek caviar paste made from fish roe mixed with Italian bread (mashed potatoes can be substituted for the bread), lemon juice and olive oil and chilled after which you can serve it in a salad or as a spread for hors d’oeurves. He made large quantities of it, obtaining the roe locally from Gorton’s, and he would pack it in little wooden tubs, shipping it off to buyers in Boston’s numerous Greek markets. Papouli had stacks of those tubs and I would make several return trips to the back room to stick my fingers into the tarama, never getting enough. To this day, no matter where I eat it, or even if I make it myself, it just doesn’t taste like Papouli’s.

On those Saturdays in the 1940s, when I would “go to work with Papouli,” he would pick me up at 3 Perkins Road and we’d walk to the Boulevard and then the length of Main Street to get to his shop. Like all the older men of the city, he never left home without a hat, which he’d always tip when he met a woman. Once the shop was open he’d tie his apron on and set to work repairing shoes or dealing with the customers. My grandfather was an exacting man, having once been a Greek Orthodox seminarian, and if he didn’t think a shoe could be repaired he’d refuse to take the customer’s money.

Near mid-morning came “mug-up,” which consisted of coffee half-and-half and a chocolate donut at the Hesperus Diner, a few steps up Main Street from the shop. Other times I’d be running in and out of H. C. Brown’s candy and tobacco wholesalers next door with a wooden Indian out front, where Mr. Fraga would give me more candy than he sold me. For lunch—we called it “dinner”—we’d return to the diner. For fifty cents you could order a plate of home-baked beans with fresh cod fish cakes, with lots of catsup on the side. Another favorite was baked macaroni and cheese, which came with fish cakes or the delicious fried cod cheeks and tongues. After lunch Papouli might send me across the street with a dime to catch a Roy Rogers or Lone Ranger matinee at the North Shore Theater. But mostly I’d hang around the shop waiting for certain people who often popped in, like old Captain Brown, who was Portuguese but spoke excellent Greek, or the men from the machine shop who came to pass the time on a break from work. I was too young to be repairing shoes, but I did get to wrap them up for customers in stiff brown paper, though it would be my grandfather who had to tie the string. That took practice.

Those Saturdays seemed to fly. Then Papouli retired and after that he walked with a cane and there were to be no more Saturdays at the shop, which remained empty before they tore it down. Walking by there now I see that everything’s gone except for one of the old houses in the lane and that’s all boarded up. And the alley, which I remember as being such a busy and well-inhabited place ends now in a vacant lot.


Once I'd finished writing about my grandfather’s shoe repair shop, I had a sense I’d left something out, yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on the omission.

I had gotten the shop in, the way the counter loomed chest-high on your left the minute you entered. The shoes were there, too, the ones which had already been repaired and which lay along the window facing Main Street through which you could see the Saturday morning shoppers or the kids in a line for a Sherlock Holmes double-feature matinee across the street at the North Shore Theater.

Then there were the shoes to be repaired. My grandfather would keep them next to his work bench by the window, as I’ve said. Usually he’d save the finishing for last, so that when you came to pick up your shoes he’d polish the heels or the edges of the sole prior to wrapping them for you in brown paper tied with a string.
These details I’d gotten in. And the big Landis machines in a line, too. The noise of them, the rattle and clatter when they started up, the slapping of the leather belts that drove the polishing wheels. There was that and the way the whole shop shook when the machines were going full tilt. I’d also gotten in the smell of everything—the shoe leather, the rubber cement, the shoe polish, the pastes and dyes. I’d even remembered the Greek caviar or tarama, which Papouli made and packed in wooden tubs in the back room and which I couldn’t keep my fingers out of. In fact, a friend recently reminded me that her family used to buy tarama from my grandfather in those days.

I hadn’t forgotten the back room I played in or mug-up at the Hesperus Diner (later known as the Cape Ann Diner), though another friend recalled that where Parkhurst’s radio and TV store is now there used to be the Jonquil Restaurant, and on the other side of the lane where Giles auto parts store is now located, the Pett family had a fruit and vegetable store. H. C. Brown’s, which was a wholesale and retail tobacco store, where I got the penny candy I wrote about, was next to that. And farther down, just before the diner, was a Portuguese market where they sold home-made linguica, which the Greeks called lokanyiko.

So all that was part of the picture I could pull out of the past with my friends’ help. But there was still an omission, I felt. I had told the story I set out to tell. I’d described the places and some of the people who inhabited them on those long-ago Saturdays with Papouli when I was a child, yet I was still dissatisfied.
A few days later while watching some one take out a tall red pack of Pall Malls and light one up, it came to me: “Papouli used to smoke Pall Malls." Yet it wasn’t so much the Pall Malls I’d omitted, though I think having smoked Pall Malls myself for years must have had something to do with watching my grandfather smoke them at his work bench or as he sat reading the Greek newspapers on Sunday afternoons on Centennial Avenue.

It wasn’t the cigarettes themselves or the way he’d hold them European style between index and forefinger, instead of the way most American men held them with thumb and index finger. It was more that by remembering the cigarettes, the distinctive red of the package and the pungent smell of the tobacco, that I’d gotten a much clearer and more distinct, a realer picture of my grandfather himself.

I suddenly recalled how he would appear at our front door every Sunday morning to take my brother and me on a walk to the wharves along Commercial Street and Fort Square. There we would watch the men unloading the fish from the boats just in. We’d stop while my grandfather chatted with some of his old Italian friends. And we’d end our walk at Lufkin’s Diner with steaming cups of coffee half-and-half and the fresh, crisply fried donuts, which might have spoiled Sunday dinner if we hadn’t worked up such an appetite from walking along the waterfront.

I remembered, too, that Papouli seemed always to dress in a dark suit, black or navy blue pin-striped. In winter he wore a gray felt hat, or a Homburg for special occasions. In spring and summer it was a Panama hat. And his thick mustache was sometimes stained by the tobacco from the Pall Malls as were his fingers, which we held on to during our walks.

Papouli was not very tall, but he was a lean man who walked erectly even in his later years or after retirement when he used a cane. He spoke sternly—or at least we interpreted the authority of his Greek, some of which we couldn’t understand, and the patriarchal manner of his delivery as making him stern, even though his eyes would often twinkle behind gold-rimmed glasses.

There he would sit at his workbench behind the counter of the shop, the big, flat-headed shoe hammers, the razor-sharp knives around him, the hat on his head summer or winter, the way Charlie Psalides used to wear his hat in the market on Washington Street or “Uncle Mark” behind the counter at National Butcher’s. And if I return to that picture of Papouli behind his bench or walking with me down Main Street to the shop early on those distant Saturday mornings, it is not to re-tell my story, but only to try and fix its contours with a little more precision, to try to get back in some of the details I’d left out the first time, or that memory had withheld.


The last time I saw my grandfather he was laid out in his coffin at Greeley’s Funeral Home on Pleasant Street. It was April of 1955. In less than two months I would graduate from Gloucester High School. Papouli was wearing his navy blue pin-striped suit with matching vest. He had on a starched white shirt and a dark blue necktie with white polka dots. I noticed immediately that the tie had not been knotted in his customary fashion. His mustache was waxed and his face was made up in such a way that the wrinkles I knew so well were covered as if by pink-tinted putty. His ashen hands were folded just below his chest. They held a cross on a thin gold chain I had never seen him with.

A heavy smell of gladiolas hung over the room and something more pervasive like perfume. My aunts and uncles sat around the casket in folding metal chairs. Some cried softly, others sat staring into their laps. The Greek priest entered in his vestments and blessed my grandfather, chanting loudly and passing the heavy bronze censor over the body, while the smoke of frankincense permeated the room. Suddenly it felt like church and the old feeling of claustrophobia I had experienced since childhood came over me. I shifted in my chair. Sensing my desire to leave, my mother, who was sitting next to me, gripped my hand as if to say, “Don’t move.”

At the cemetery we all stood around the casket before it was lowered into the ground. For ten years before his death my grandfather had come weekly to tend the plot where he was to be buried along with my grandmother. He had already erected a headstone with their names engraved on it. Only the dates of their deaths were missing. By the side of the tall gravestone stood two small arbor vitae, and there were some plantings near them. After the priest had given his final blessing to my grandfather, he poured some drops of oil on my grandfather’s body from the spout of a bronze cruet, and then he picked up some dirt from the grave and let it fall softly on my grandfather’s chest. The mourners were encouraged to follow suit, ending with my grandmother, who was dressed entirely in black. Finally, when the casket had been closed and was being lowered into the grave, my grandmother stood over the opening.
“Fiyeh o geros,” she said almost to herself, “The old man is leaving."
For many years after that, and even after my grandmother died, driving through West Gloucester I would stop at the cemetery and visit their graves. Sometimes you could hear the voices of the children playing in the nearby schoolyard. Otherwise, it was silent except for the sound of insects in the summer.

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