A Boyhood Spent On Park Street Bridge

Am I the only one who knows West Roxbury is the shape of County Roscommon, Ireland? Did someone show me a map or did I imagine it in a dream? Thirty years later, in that self-absorbed frenzy of mid-adulthood, I still hear the voice which told me so, its faded Celtic lilt apparent even after fifty years in America. Those little morsels of questionable wisdom I gleaned from the everyday folks who inhabited that five-block universe at whose center was the Park Street Bridge. And it wasn’t just the Irish. I was at the counter of Steve Slyne’s Deli ordering a Roast Beef sandwich when an old Greek lady told me that chewing gum while cutting onions will keep you from crying. Another time I was in line at East’s Drug Store when a well-dressed man of some Arabic extraction informed me that wearing neckties too tightly could cause a stroke. I may have balked at the time, but I was relieved the following year when told that the school uniform at Don Bosco Tech required only clip-ons. Yet none of us would ever be taught what we could learn for ourselves. The West Roxbury of my youth was an … Read more…

I Never Felt More American Than When My Family Sang Irish Songs

More than any other day, March 17th reaffirmed for my family just how American we were. Each year we gathered at my grandmother’s house—aunts, uncles, cousins and friends—to practice the uncertain traditions of our distant heritage. Because it was my great-grandfather who had immigrated, we were nearly a century removed from the Old Country and the only links to our ethnic past were some grainy photographs, a few anecdotes and the inexpungible fact of our Celtic surname. Everything else had been given up or forgotten. But we lived in a Boston neighborhood that was heavily Irish and so every resident was obliged to honor, in some way, the memory of our patron saint. Since the date coincided with my grandmother’s birthday, it held an almost mystical significance and was, in order of sacredness, only second to Christmas and Easter. The only thing predictable about Saint Patrick’s Day was that it started at the dinner table and ended in the den. Rising early, my grandmother and aunts would peel, slice, chop and boil what they thought to be traditional Irish Corned Beef & Cabbage. What resulted, however, was more like New England Boiled Dinner and was an overcooked concoction of brisket … Read more…

A Bully’s Lament

If you ever question whether kindness in the world has—at least some bit—increased since the days of your youth, then consider this: as a child, there was a boy in my neighborhood who, due to a hideous birth defect, was known as Freak Nose. It wouldn’t happen today—it could never happen today—because if any kid suffered one-tenth the abuse he did, the school authorities, Department Of Social Services, local police and maybe even the ACLU would be involved. But it was the 80’s, before the anti-bullying movement and before teen suicide awareness, a time when such pathological harassment was seen as normal grade school teasing. For Freak Nose, the only thing worse than the era he was born in was the place he was born into. Boston was then, in many ways, still a hardscrabble city and a strain of blue-collar cynicism ran through the soul of every resident. Whether it was from the climate or tumultuous history, children were as harsh as their parents and in that small universe of street corner bravado there was little room for differences or disabilities. From the back or side, Freak Nose looked like any boy his age, with big feet, a mop … Read more…

Lionel

I didn’t so much meet Lionel as discover him. It was a hot July night, in a church parking lot at the intermission of an A.A. meeting, and I saw something move in the bushes. When I looked over a second time, Lionel stepped out of the shadows with a bashful grin. Before anyone could ask, he announced, “I dropped a flaming cigarette. I was afraid to torch the place down.” Everyone looked at one another—there were a few chuckles. Although Lionel spoke perfect English, there was always something stilted in the phrasing, awkward in his choice of terms. And his thick French accent was almost comically refined compared to the R-less street-slang of the many long-term Bostonians he associated with in A.A. It was a slow, melodic drawl that bent and contorted words. When he said my name Jon, it had three syllables. A simple ‘allo would span an octave. Long after he knew better, Lionel continued to mispronounce common place names. Lowell was Loo-ELL—Worcester was WOR-sess-ter. At first glance, Lionel was odd looking. Pale and rounded-headed, he had a little mouth and stereotypical French jowls that were reminiscent of a chipmunk. If you looked at him quick, you … Read more…