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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

North End Stories

I've been having flashbacks about some of the events and experiences that occurred from 1980 to 1984 when I lived alone in Boston's North End neighborhood. These stories are absolutely true.


There were no big supermarkets in the North End, only the famous outdoor food market at Haymarket that runs on the weekends year-round. I didn't shop there often since I was buying only for myself, but the prices were (and I assume still are) excellent. I soon learned that ethnic groups from places like Viet Nam and Cambodia would appear as the market closed down on Saturday afternoon to get the bargains. Since the vendors did not want to take surplus product home, it would be sold for any price late in the day on Sunday, or end up being thrown on the ground to rot before the garbage trucks arrived. The real bargain hunters just waited until the vendors were gone, and picked through the remains like vultures. So there I was, with elderly ladies from the Far East picking through piles of trash and looking under cardboard boxes for salvageable produce. It is amazing how much good food in this country gets thrown away, and it was kind of fun to get something for nothing.

Later, I met an Italian teenager who I knew from the neighborhood. He was working at one of the fruit stands. I ordered some stuff, gave him a $5 bill to pay, he filled up a large bag, and then without expression gave me change of five singles. This continued for one or two weeks until I realized that there is no free lunch in the North End. If I kept accepting his favors, he or his father would call on me one day with a request return the favor. That's the way things work in the North End. You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours. If you break the code of ethics, who knows what could happen. It scared me enough to avoid the whole situation and pay cash for my bananas.

Mistaken Identity

One foggy morning I was walking in Christopher Columbus Park minding my own business and looking out at the Boston harbor. The view is awesome there. You can watch airplanes take off and land at Logan, or just spy the seagulls and luxury yachts docked alongside the Boston Marriott Harbor hotel.

A Boston policeman on a motorcycle saw me from the distance and cautiously came my way driving over the grass of the park. Before I knew it he had his service revolver out and he ordered me to put my hands up and spread my legs. He pat me down looking for weapons checking both sides of my black rain coat. He then asked for ID and I gave it to him, hands shaking. I told him I was a graduate student at Brandeis. After looking over my ID he explained that there was a bank robbery just a few minutes earlier and someone meeting my description was involved.

But he then, as fast as he came, he said "we haven't had too much trouble recently with Brandeis students" and then rode off.

(Note: Perhaps he was unaware that two former Brandeis undergraduates, Susan Saxe and Katherine Powers, had been on the FBI's 10-most wanted list... )


North End Diplomacy

I would often do odd jobs for my landlord (Joey) for in exchange for a reduction in rent. For example, he had me paint the hallway of the apartment building, and I did a very good job at it too. So instead of paying $225 per month, my rent would have been less.

One day he came to me and explained that he was having a difficult time with some really bad tenants in another one of his apartment buildings. He asked if I could kick in their door, go inside, and take whatever I wanted. He said it was safe to do so since they would be at work during the day. I was shocked and said flatly that I would not do anything like that. He smiled and dropped the subject.


Russian Roulette - Italian Style

For a number of years I had a part-time weekend job at Martignetti's in the North End. It is a well-known wine and liquor store right at the entrance of the North End at the intersection of Hanover and Cross streets. I was a "stock clerk" but it was a weekend job that helped with living expenses. The day manager, a man named Joe, hired me because I had an Italian last name and thought I came from Abruzzi (which my family did not).

The night manager was a grotesquely fat thug, but I treated him politely. One night at closing time we were about to set the alarm and go out the door. I handed the manager his jacket, which I noticed was very heavy and had something in the pocket. I could clearly see by the expression on his face that it was a gun, but didn't say anything. He told me to walk him to the bus stop at Haymarket. Knowing that he had a gun I played dumb, but I was very polite and walked along with him. Soon he started asking me what I thought of him. He appeared to be very nervous and more unstable than usual. I started to realize that he was trying to get me to come along with him to his apartment.

Somehow I talked my way out of that situation and slipped away safely into the dark of the night. I ran home to my apartment in a state of shock.

The Snake

For the first two years of my North End residency I lived in a run-down efficiency studio at 19 Tileston Street. It was across from a parochial school which was later converted to luxury condos. I had very little contact with my neighbors. The entrance to my room was in an alley just off the street, and my drab but cozy room had a street-level window with a bright amber street-lamp just outside which would give me light all night long. The building was in the shadows of the historic Old North Church where I would ring bells once or twice a week.

At a dilapidated store-front around the corner was a window display by an eccentric elderly Italian man. He had created an invention that he was apparently marketing to the world. All the locals knew him, and a few of the hordes of tourists who roamed up and down the old streets with canoli in hand glanced curiously at his bizarre window display. He had invented a pulley and track-guide system so that sheets and blankets would never fall off of the bed. The linen could move from the top of the bed to the bottom, but not sideways off the side of the bed. He was very proud of his invention, but apparently this was the sole prototype and he waited patiently for customers (or perhaps a venture capitalist) to walk by and make a deal.

The North End is considered one of the safest neighborhoods in Boston. The local Italian women seem glued to their open window sills. They peer out to the street relentlessly - day and night - like watchdogs looking for trouble before it ever ignites. In the summer the men, usually severely overweight and wearing plain white T-shirts, are outside on the street sitting backwards on their chairs, with little to do other than guard parking spots. Rarely would one of their cars actually move, but if it did, plastic orange emergency cones would be dropped into the empty spot immediately to protect it from a renegade tourist looking to park their car.

Prince Street, which is just the next block over, was the scene of an early 1970's television commercial featuring a little boy named Anthony. His mom yells out the window for Anthony. It is "Prince Spaghetti Day." In the commercial Anthony hears his mom from blocks away and he immediately scurries home for his Wednesday pasta meal. Anthony was and is for real. He was a neighborhood kid, one of the many from the Martignetti clan. I knew him, and he could still be there today, sitting backward on a chair, wearing a white under-shirt, and guarding his parking space like a pitbull.

It was easy to tell the tourists apart from the locals, and their cars too. If a tourist's car inadvertently made it into a local's parking spot, there was a good chance its tires would be slashed with the precision and accuracy of a brain surgeon. It is a safe neighborhood, as long as you didn't cross the the wrong people and avoid the orange cones.

Many of the old-timers had sold out. They had converted their apartments to condos, cashed in by selling to well-heeled working professionals who were willing to pay a premium to live within walking distance of their corporate jobs in the business district. The old-timers retired to the suburban Medford and planted a garden of tomatoes. But the ones who stayed behind, they were the hard-core North End residents, and they "owned" the neighborhood by simply having been there the longest. They allowed affluent outsiders to rent their apartments, dine at their restaurants, and shop at their shops. But outsiders - even if they were Italian - were only paying customers and not a legitimate part of the community.

One summer day I was standing on Tileston Steet in front of my closet-sized apartment when one of the ladies in my building yelled at me from her third-floor window. "Hey you..." she said rudely " that your snake?"

From what I could ascertain from her crazed rant, one of the upstairs inhabitants of a place in the alley had a pet snake that was curled around the fire-escape outside adjacent to their open up-stairs apartment window. She knew it wasn't mine, but as an outsider, I was guilty by association. The snake repulsed her beyond description. It was as if Satan himself had ascended from the depths of Hell to the neighborhood and was going to swallow up her children. The chatter of these women filled the air like howling cats. Within minutes everyone knew about the clear and present danger. The alarm had sounded.

I made myself scarce.


The Italian Club

I've never had any piano students - then or now. But once I earnestly attempted to attract students by printing up handsome yellow business cards and posting them in town hoping that someone would see it. At first I put a few in high-traffic areas such as the two laundromats in the North End. But nobody ever called. Then one day I got the idea to put my cards in a few of the many Italian private clubhouses scattered across the neighborhood.

These North End clubs are numerous but hidden and non-descript. Their membership is restricted to people who came from this or that little village in Italy or Sicily. Each group has their own patron Saint, and the clubs take turns sponsoring a street festival each weekend during the summer months as a way to raise money. Typically it looks like a store-front, but without a store - just that curtains cover the windows. On a summer day you can peak inside the door and see a handful of old men playing cards and drinking a Bud. "Looks non-threatening enough" I thought to myself. If I could post my business card there, perhaps some cultured parents would decide it was time for little Johnny or Agnes to learn the piano. It's an untapped market. Right?

My strategy was to wander into the clubhouse door looking like a lost and disoriented tourist, and before anyone could notice me, pin or tape a business card on a bulletin board. At the first place I visited, this approach worked like a charm. They hardly noticed I was there. I was in and out in 10 seconds flat.

The second place I visited was a club near the Bova Bakery on Salem street. I got in the door and found a place to post my card, but as I was heading out of the door a thin man with grey hair blocked my departure. "What are you doing?" he asked. "I'm a piano teacher, and I thought you might have some members that would like to learn to play." I said in defiance.

"We don't" he snapped back. I was annoyed. "You don't have anyone here who likes music?"

Without raising his voice he handed back my card and politely announced that he never wanted to see me again. I got the message and left, wagging my tail between my legs.

Not long after that there was a car bombing in the middle of the night close to the Bova Bakery. Nobody was injured, but I saw the broken glass everywhere on the street the next morning. One North End resident was apparently sending a message to another one. You only get one warning in this part of town. You have to learn to read the signals. Sometimes the messages are subtle, and sometimes they are not.

Years later the news about the notorious mafia figure "Whitey" Bulger came to light. He ruthlessly plotted murder in private clubs similar to the ones I had been visiting. In fact, the headquarters for the Winter Hill Gang was at the Lancaster Street Garage, just down the street from Bova's. Without knowing it, I could have met him face to face. It gives me the chills.


For years I got my haircut at a tiny little barber shop on Salem street. The barber was a slight Italian man by the name of Orlando. As is typical with barbers and me, we would talk about an entire range of subjects. For example I learned that he made his own wine at home. I arranged for a bottle, and the following week he proudly sold me a gallon of his homemade vino. It wasn't bad at all, but alas it soon turned to vinegar. I learned that he planned to retire in Naples Florida, a place where the climate reminded him of Italy and where he had already established some roots. Orlando learned that I was a musician and composer, and that I played the piano. He said he played too.

The day came when I had to vacate my little studio apartment on Greenough Lane and put everything in temporary storage. I had been awarded a grant from the university to travel to Europe for a few months. I decided to part with my baby spinet and immediately thought of Orlando as the piano's potential next owner and caretaker. My piano was old but in good shape, had a small keyboard, and could easily be moved around by two people. In fact it had followed me from apartment to apartment over the years as I moved around to different neighborhoods within and around Boston. Friends reluctantly helped me carry it up and down many flights of stairs at various student apartments over the years. I was very attached to my baby spinet, but felt that both of us needed a change. I wanted more keys so that I could play through repertory other than Bach and Mozart. I had visions of diving head-on into the extended range of Beethoven's late piano sonatas too. But my piano simply did not have the keys to play all of the high an low notes needed in those more recent works.

At my next haircut Orlando expressed a strong interest in purchasing the spinet for his Salem street barbershop so that he could play songs inbetween waiting for customers. My asking price was $200.

When I was in the final stages of clearing out of my apartment, I arranged for Orlando to come over. Together we rolled the piano through the streets of the North End, from my studio on 19 Greenough Lane, past the Old North Church and Tileston Street, and into the door of his quaint barber shop near the North Bennet School. Then we pushed it the final leg, just a few more feet into a little dark back room where it would sit behind a stained curtain out of public view and under a crucifix. This was Orlando's resting spot between customers. His haven. It would become my piano's next home.

Orlando then explained to me in his broken English that he was told the piano was worth only $150. His information was based on what one of his customers - a piano technician at the North Bennet School - had told him. I tried to argue with Orlando about the price I thought we had already agreed on, but finally I gave in since I had no other options at that point. He was convinced that $150 - paid in cash - was a fair price.

I left, cash in hand, feeling like I had left part of my life behind. I had sold my piano for the equivalent of about a morning's worth of haircuts. I felt like a jerk.

A year passed, but I continued to get my hair cut at Orlando's, although I now resided in Brighton with Willemien who I had recently married. I only heard Orlando play the piano once, and he played traditional Italian songs with a nice flair. I could see that he really enjoyed making music on it.

We talked about other things since the piano was a touchy subject, and he was curious if my wife and I were going to have children. He asked my age, and I replied honestly "...34." Then he said, almost with impunity "what are you waiting for?" His comment was penetrating. For some reason it stunned me and made me aware of my selfishness.

Not long after that Orlando sold his North End practice to another Italian barber. The new man told me that Orlando had retired to Florida.

Within a few years my wife and I had a child together. I never learned about what happened to the piano, but my 88-key electric keyboard does not have a soul.


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