Sunday, September 21, 2014

Growing Up on Stacy Boulelvard in the 1940s

                                      (Charles Olson and Ann Charters walking on the Boulevard in 1967)

And as I go down
the boulevard toward
town …
the bridge sounds
rising like
a light thunder…
and bang
as I go by the Fisherman’s
the bridge gates open
the last sound I shall hear
& here report

Charles Olson, “Oceania,” The Maximus Poems

When I walk along the Boulevard these days, I have a sense that I’m moving in two directions.  One is forward through the present and into the hoped for future of Gloucester’s sadly neglected crown jewel.  The other is backward in time into my childhood and pre-adolescence, when life on the Boulevard, the city’s major entrance and community gathering place through every season, was the focus of the only life we knew.
            Between the Tavern, once Gloucester’s premiere lodging and restaurant, to the pumping station near the Blynman Bridge, men fished from the railings that lined the waterside concrete walkways.  If you weren’t fishing you were watching to see who caught what, usually the ubiquitous perch, which natives called “cunners.”  Mothers wheeled baby carriages or strollers, stopping to exclaim over how big their children had grown from winter to spring, as the sun reflected off the water of the outer harbor brightening the facades of houses that lined Western Avenue in that vanished era “when Gloucester was Gloucester and all the houses were white and green,” as an old fisherman told Peter Parsons and me; the green, I suspect, relating to the shutters.
            I was born at the Addison Gilbert Hospital in November of 1937 and was taken immediately to 3 Perkins Road, where I remained until I turned 13, the front windows of our second floor apartment facing Ten Pound Island.  My father owned the Boulevard Sweet Shop, on the corner of Western and Centennial avenues.  There was variety store a block away toward Main Street, Nick’s Grocery, owned by another Greek, Nick Cocotas.  Irving Morris’ First National Store was on the corner of Western Avenue and Perkins Road, a few steps from the bridge.  Our mothers did not have far to go to shop, unless they went “upstreet,” as we called the trip from our house to Saul Bloch’s National Butchers on Main Street, next to Henry the Hatter’s, where my mother bought the meat—when there was any during the war; or at Shepherd’s Market, which was part of Brown’s, even further upstreet, a store of unimagined delicacies like tomato aspic, pickled chestnuts, and sardines in mustard sauce.
            The Boulevard was a microcosm of city life.  As we lived our lives daily in its precincts we came to know the city of our birth in the variety of its ethnic residents, the panoply of languages we heard around us from Sicilian and Greek to Finnish.  The Bloch brothers spoke Yiddish to each other as they cut my mother’s lamb chops behind the counter in the store whose floors were strewn with sawdust to keep them dry.  On the Fort, where my grandfather Angel Polisson took my brother Tom and me to watch the fishing vessels being unloaded, everyone spoke the Teresinian dialect.
My grandfather, who had attended seminary in Greece before eloping to America with my grandmother, first to Lowell and then to Gloucester, read and wrote Greek, English and French, picking up Italian and Portuguese from the customers in his shoe repair shop on Stoddard Lane (I still have his Greek and English dictionaries and his Bible in Greek).  They called him “The Consul,” because he was often asked to write letters for those who could not read and write.
It was a cosmopolitan world, the one I grew up in on the Boulevard, although there were some in that xenophobic war era, who did not like what Gloucester had become, among them old Mr. Henderson, whose family had founded the Henderson and Johnson Paint Company, on Duncan Street, near what is now called Harbor Loop.  He referred to my brother and me and the Bloomberg brothers, who lived in the big stucco apartment house on the corner of Centennial and Western avenues as “those goddamned Greeks and Jews,” and he refused to enter my father’s store, though his grandson, Russell Baxter Henderson, our best friend and the neighborhood trickster, did not share those prejudices, openly flaunting his friendship with us, the Bloombergs, and little Joey Nicastro, who died of “ammonia” when we were in second grade.
Not that our own families were without prejudice.   My brother and I were not allowed to visit the homes of our Catholic friends, as if once inside our own strange (to us) Greek Orthodox beliefs would either be threatened or expunged .  Of course, we paid no attention to our mother, freely entering the houses of our Italian friends to eat the meatballs and anis cookies whose aromas tempted us daily on the way to and from the Hovey School.  Naturally we walked to school in those days, rain or shine, twice a day: home for lunch and back to school—I do not remember too many overweight kids.
We got to learn the routine of life on the Boulevard, not just mothers and baby carriages or the fishermen who preempted the railings along the concrete walk; painters painting during the summer, and the Coastguardsmen drilling in formation during the war.  We played up and down the river bank and at Newell Stadium, watching the fishing vessels, glazed with ice in winter, negotiating the way through the canal. We even had two beaches, Pavillion at the Fort and a smaller beach to the right of the canal, which everyone called Crab Beach because of the profusion of crabs in its tidal pools. As soon as we got older we were allowed to walk to Stage Fort Park, where we swim at Half Moon Beach or Cresseys.  The Park was also the place for carnivals, which returned after the war, and a real circus, with a parade down Main Street and along the Boulevard.  You can imagine our excitement when we actually saw real elephants and lions!
   The neighborhood men gathered at the Blynman Bridge House to keep the bridge tenders company with games of cards or listening to ballgames on the radio, or even more essentially the talk, we kids who always eavesdropped, could not get enough of: stories about the fisherman who had killed his wife and cooked her liver in a skillet; Irving Morris mugged on Middle Street, on the way home with the day’s proceeds from his market; the city worker whose leg was mangled by the snow removal machine (we rushed upstreet to see the blood, still on the snow banks); or, during the war, the nighttime monkey-business of the sailors billeted at the Tavern that had been taken over by the Coastguard .
It was the war especially that left its mark on us Boulevardiers.  Everyone whose house faced the water was required to have black shades to be pulled down at night so that not even a slit of light was showing.  If the helmeted air raid wardens, who roamed the Boulevard and Perkins Road each night, saw any infractions, they immediately knocked on your door.  The point of the shades and the doused street lights was not to allow potential enemy subs or planes to see exactly where the city lay.  Threats of planes and subs were real, as was the war itself we saw on the newsreels at the Stand and North Shore theaters during Saturday matinees: troops storming the beaches of Normandy or the Pacific, planes dropping bombs—the sounds of explosions, the smoky air.  German submarines had been spotted off Cape Elizabeth, Maine or from fishing vessels closer to Gloucester, the thought of which terrorized us kids, so that each night we hid under our blankets in rooms so dark that you could not see your hand in front of your face.  To this day I can only sleep in a pitch black room and I still have nightmares of objects falling on me from the sky.
The war’s end was celebrated by two parades along the Boulevard, on VE, or Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945, followed by VJ Day, August 15, 1945, the day to celebrate the end of the war in the Pacific.  Soon our uncles who had been fighting those wars came home and went back to work, and life seemed a lot brighter along the Boulevard.
On Sunday strolls people wore new clothes for the first time in years. They’d be snapping pictures with their “Brownie” box cameras.  Or they’d be getting their own pictures taken by Louis Blend, who held onto his post in the circle in front of the Fisherman’s Monument until the days grew cold and the rains washed down Stacy Promenade, and the wind blew the leaves out of all the trees along Western Avenue.
Louis would snap your picture—it couldn’t have cost more than a quarter in those days—and the most fun would be watching him develop it right there, dipping the print into a little tank of chemicals, washing it off (you could smell the “hypo”), and handing to you in a stiff gray cardboard “Souvenir of Gloucester” frame.
How many of us have had our childhoods recorded in a series of images by Gloucester’s only street photographer?  Can you see yourself now in bathing suit or shorts, or even in your Easter finery, in front of the statue, the backdrop always a row of Western Avenue houses?
To look through Louis’s pictures today would reveal a Boulevard life that is not so terribly different from the era I am describing.  Though the people we knew and who knew us and watched over us as closely as our parents would—Gardiner Deering, the Blatchfords, the Crowells, the Wallaces, Doc Barron, Larry and Merille Hart, old Doc Pettingill, who lived on the bottom floor at 103 Western Avenue, where the Barrons and the Harts also lived, the Perrys next door—are gone today, along with our parents, and even some of the kids we grew up with, the atmosphere of the Boulevard seems hardly to have changed.  It is still the city’s principal place to take the air or to walk your dog.  Kids play catch and toss Frisbees, old timers, like myself now sitting on the benches when not exercising.  Who could have imagined those of us who laughed at our grandparents’ impaired mobility now making our way along that same Boulevard at a far slower and more laborious gate, with canes even!
The Boulevard is the place of my first socialization.  It is the larger neighborhood where we learned what it felt like to live beyond the confines of our family homes—the place where, to us at least, a more ample life was being lived, especially after the war.  A place, too, where events happened, where people said and did things that shaped our lives, remaining forever in our memories.  Like the day when Russell Baxter Henderson, my brother Tom and I wandered off Centennial Avenue into Mrs. Anderson’s back yard by the incinerator, where everyone in the neighborhood burned their trash.  Hanging on her clothesline to dry were her girdle and an enormous white brassiere.  Immediately Russell took them down and began to put them on.  Just then Mrs. Anderson, who only had one arm, appeared at her back door.  She waved that single right arm in the air and began shouting our names.  Leaning against the side of her brown clapboarded house were three pairs of stilts that belonged to her grandsons.
“Let’s get out of here,” Russell yelled, mounting a pair.
I grabbed another and my brother Tom took the last pair of stilts.  Quickly we followed Russ out of the yard and onto Centennial Avenue.  With Mrs. Anderson chasing us, we started clopping up the street on the stilts.  At the sound of the commotion some of the other neighbors came out onto their porches. By that time we were well ahead of Mrs. Anderson, who was clearly out of breath.  Russ held the lead dressed in Mrs. Anderson’s girdle and bra.  Tom and I followed, and the neighbors stood there watching.  Then Russ turned the corner across from my father’s store onto Western Avenue.  People in cars stopped to stare at this kid on stilts wearing old ladies’ underwear over his T-shirt and jeans.   All the traffic along the Boulevard was held up, as Russell danced and pranced on those stilts all the way up Western Avenue, finally turning into Babson Court near Nick’s grocery store, where he disappeared among the narrow houses.

(This is the text of a talk delivered on September 20, 2014 at the Cape Ann Museum as part of a program celebrating the Stacy Boulevard.)

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