Saturday, February 14, 2015
The Smells, Ah, The Smells Of Childhood- Ida's Bakery Redux-With The Doors’ The End In Mind
In memory of Peter Paul Markin, 1946-1972, North Adamsville High School Class of 1964:
This is the way the late Peter Paul Markin, although he never stood on ceremony and everybody in the corner boy night at Jack Slack’s bowling alleys down near Adamsville Beach called him plain old ordinary vanilla Markin, would have wanted to put his response to the question of what smell most distinctly came to his mind from the old neighborhoods if he were still around. Many a night, a late night around midnight usually, in the days and weeks after we got out of high school but before we went on to other stuff, maybe some of those nights having had trouble with some girl, either one of us, since we both came from all boy families and didn’t understand girls, or maybe were afraid of them, unlike guys who had sisters, who maybe didn’t understand them either but were around them enough to have figured a few things out about them we would stand holding up the wall in front of Jack Slack’s and talk our talk, talk truth as we saw it although we never really dignified the jive with the word truth.
Or maybe dateless some nights like happened a lot more than either of us, hell, any of us if it came right down to it, would admit to (I won’t even discuss the shroud we placed over the truth when talking, big talking, about “making it” when we were lucky to get a freaking kiss on the cheek from a girl half the time) we would talk. Sometimes with several guys around but mainly Markin and me, since we were the closest of the half dozen or ten guys who considered themselves Frankie Riley-led Jack Slack’s corner boys we would talk about lots of things.
Goofy stuff when you think about it but one night I don’t know if it was me or him that came up with the question about what smell did we remember from the old days, the old days being when we were in school, from around the neighborhood but I do remember we both automatically and with just a couple of minutes thought came up with our common choice- Ida’s Bakery. Ida’s over on Sagamore Street, just up the street from the old ball field and adjacent to the Parks and Recreations sheds where the stuff for the summer programs, you know, archery equipment, paints, sports equipment, craft-making stuff, how-to magazines and all were kept during the summer and after that, between seasons. Since both Markin and I when we went to Josiah Adams Elementary up the next block (named after some guy related to guys who ran the town way back when) would each summer participate in the program and as we grew older (and presumably more reliable) were put in charge of the daily storage of those materials during the summer and so got a preternatural whiff of whatever Ida was baking for sale for the next day. So yeah, we knew the smell of Ida’s place. And so too I can “speak” for old Markin just like if he was here today some fifty years later telling you his story himself.
Unfortunately Markin laid down his head in a dusty back alley, arroyo, or cul-de-sac we never did really find out which with two slugs in his heart and nobody, not even his family, certainly not me and I loved the guy, wanted to go there to claim the body, worse, to start an investigation into what happened that day back in 1972 down Sonora way, that is in Mexico, for fear of being murdered in some back alley, arroyo, or cul-de-sac ourselves. See Markin had huge corner boy, “from hunger,” wanting habits back then, going back in the Jack Slack days. Hell I came up with him and had them too. But he also had a nose for drugs, had been among the first in our town as far as I know although I won’t swear to that now since some kids up the Point, some biker guys who always were on the cutting edge of some new kicks may have been doing smoke well before him to do, publicly do right out on Adamsville Common in broad daylight with some old beat cop sitting about two benches away, marijuana in the mid-1960s. That at a time, despite what we had heard was going on in the Boston Common and over in high Harvard Square, when the rest of us were still getting our underage highs from illicit liquor (Southern Comfort, cheap gin, cheaper wine, Ripple, more than a few times, Thunderbird, when we were short on dough, nobody, including our hobo knight in shining armor who “bought” for us as long as he got a bottle for his work, wanted to bother lugging cases of cheapjack beer, say Knickerbocker or Narragansett, out of a liquor store and pass it on to in obviously under-aged kids so we all developed a taste for some kind of hard liquor or wine). Markin did too, liked his white wine. But he was always heading over to Harvard Square, early on sometimes with me but I didn’t really “get” the scene that he was so hopped up about and kind of dropped away when he wanted to go over, so later he would go alone late at night taking the all-night Redline subway over, late at night after things had exploded around his house with his mother, or occasionally, his three brother (and very, very rarely his father since he had to work like seven bandits to make ends meet for the grim reaper bill collectors, which they, the ends never did meet as far as I could tell and from what I knew about such activity from my own house, so he was left out of it except to back up Ma).
One night, one night some guy, Markin said some folk singer, Eric somebody, who made a name for himself around the Square, made a name around his “headquarters,” the Hayes-Bickford just a jump up from the subway entrance where all the night owl wanna-be hipsters, dead ass junkies, stoned-out winos, wizened con men and budding poets and songwriters hung out, turned him on to a joint, and he liked it, liked the feeling of how it settled him down he said (after that first hit, as he was trying to look cool, look like he had been doing joints since he was a baby, almost blew him away with the coughing that erupted from inhaling the harsh which he could never figure out (nor could I when my mary jane coughing spurt came) since he, like all of us, was a serious cigarette smoker, practically chain-smoking to while away the dead time and, oh yeah, to look cool to any passing chicks while we were hanging out in front of Jack Slack’s.
Of course that first few puffs stuff meant nothing really, was strictly for smooth-end kicks, and before long he had turned me, Frankie Riley, our corner boy leader, and Sam Lowell, another good guy, on and it was no big deal. And when the time came for us to do our “youth nation,” hippie, Jack Kerouac On The Road treks west the five of us, at one time or another, had grabbed all kinds of different dope, grabbed each new drug in turn like they were the flavor of the month, which they usually were. And nobody worried much about any consequences either since we all had studiously avoided acid in our drug cocktail mix. Until Markin got stuck on cocaine, you know, snow, girl, cousin any of those names you might know that drug by where you live. No, that is not right, exactly right anyway. It wasn’t so much that Markin got stuck on cocaine as that his nose candy problem heightened his real needs, his huge wanting habits, needs that he had been grasping at since his ‘po boy childhood. And so to make some serious dough, and still have something left to “taste” the product as he used to call it when he offered some to me with the obligatory dollar bill as sniffing tool he began some low-level dealing, to friends and acquaintances mainly and then to their friends and acquaintances and on and on.
Markin when he lived the West Coast, I think when he was in Oakland with Moon-Glow (don’t laugh we all had names, aliases, monikers like that back then to bury our crazy pasts, mine was Flash Dash for a while, and also don’t laugh because she had been my girlfriend before I headed back east to go to school after the high tide of the 1960s ebbed out around 1971 or so. And also don’t laugh because Moon-Glow liked to “curl my toes,” Markin’s too, and she did, did just fine), stepped up a notch, started “muling” product back and forth from Mexico for one of the early cartels. He didn’t say much about it, and I didn’t want to know much but for a while he was sending plane tickets for me to come visit him out there. Quite a step up from our hitchhike in all weathers heading west days. And of course join him in imbibing some product testing. That went on for a while, a couple of years, the last year or so I didn’t see him, didn’t go west because I was starting a job. Then one day I got a letter in the mail from him all Markin-y about his future plans, about how he was going to finally make a “big score,” with a case full of product that he had brought up Norte, he always said Norte like he was some hermano or something rather than just paid labor, cheap paid labor probably, and was too much the gringo to ever get far in the cartel when the deal went down. Maybe he sensed that and that ate at him with so much dough to be made, so much easy dough. Yeah, easy dough with those two slugs that Spanish Johnny, a guy who knew Markin in the Oakland days, had heard about when he was muling and passed on the information to us. RIP-Markin
No RIP though for the old days, the old smells that I started telling you about before I got waylaid in my head about the fate of my missed old corner boy comrade poor old Markin. Here’s how he, we, no he, let’s let him take a bow on this one, figured it out one night when the world was new, when our dreams were still fresh:
“There are many smells, sounds, tastes, sights and touches stirred up on the memory’s eye trail in search of the old days in North Adamsville. Tonight though I am in thrall to smells, if one can be in thrall to smells and when I get a chance I will ask one of the guys about whether that is possible. The why of this thralldom is simply put. I had, a short while before, passed a neighborhood bakery on St. Brendan Street in a Boston neighborhood, a Boston Irish neighborhood to be clear, that reeked of the smell of sour-dough bread being baked on the premises. The bakery itself, designated as such by a plainly painted sign-Mrs. Kenney’s Bakery- was a simple extension of someone’s house like a lot of such operations by single old maid, widowed, divorced or abandoned women left for whatever reason to their own devises trying to make a living baking, sewing, tailoring, maybe running a beauty parlor, small change but enough to keep the wolves from the door, with living quarters above, and that brought me back to the hunger streets of the old home town and Ida’s holy-of-holies bakery over on Sagamore Street.
Of course one could not dismiss, or could dismiss at one’s peril just ask Frank, that invigorating smell of the salt-crusted air blowing in from North Adamsville Bay when the wind was up hitting us in front of Jack Slack’s bowling lanes and making us long to walk that few blocks to the beach with some honey who would help us pass the night. A wind too once you took girls out of the picture, although you did that at your peril as well, that spoke of high-seas adventures, of escape, of jail break-out from landlocked spiritual destitutes, of, well, on some days just having been blown in from somewhere else for those who sought that great eastern other shoreline. Or how could one forget the still nostril-filling pungent fragrant almost sickening smell emanating from the Proctor &Gamble soap factory across the channel down in the old Adamsville Housing Authority project that defined many a muggy childhood summer night air instead of sweet dreams and puffy clouds. Or that never to be forgotten slightly oily, sulfuric smell at low- tide down at the far end of North Adamsville Beach, near the fetid swamps and mephitic marshes in the time of the clam diggers and their accomplices trying to eke a living or a feeding out of that slimy mass. [Sorry I put those smelly adjectives in, Markin would have cringed.] Or evade the funky smell [A Markin word.] of marsh weeds steaming up from the disfavored Squaw Rock end of the beach, the adult haunts with their broods of children in tow. Disfavored, disfavored when it counted in the high teenage dudgeon be-bop 1960s night, post-school dance or drive-in movie love slugfest, for those who took their “submarine races” dead of night viewing seriously and the space between the yacht clubs was the only “cool” place to hang with some honey. And I do not, or will not spell the significance of that teen lingo “submarine race” expression even for those who did their teenage “parking” in the throes of the wild high plains Kansas night. You can figure that out yourselves.
Or the smell sound of the ocean floor at twilight (or dawn, if you got lucky) on those days when the usually tepid waves aimlessly splashed against the shoreline stones, broken clam shells, and other fauna and flora or turned around and became a real roaring ocean, acting out Mother Nature’s high life and death drama, and in the process acted to calm a man’s (or a man-child’s) nerves in the frustrating struggle to understand a world not of one’s own making. Moreover, I know I do not have to stop very long to tell you guys, the crowd that will know what I am talking about, to speak about the smell taste of that then just locally famous HoJo’s ice cream back in the days. Jimmied up and frosted to take one’s breath away. Or those char-broiled hot dogs and hamburgers sizzling on your back-yard barbecue pit or, better, from one of the public pits down at the beach. But the smell that I am ghost-smelling today is closer to home as a result of a fellow classmate’s bringing this to my attention awhile back (although, strangely, if the truth be known I was already on the verge of “exploring" this very subject). Today, after passing that home front bakery, as if a portent, I bow down in humble submission to the smells from Ida’s Bakery.”
That’s good enough for the Markin part, the close up memory part. Here I am for the distant memory part:
You, if you are of a certain age, at or close to AARP-eligible age, and neighborhood, Irish (or some other ethnic-clinging enclave) filled with those who maybe did not just get off the boat but maybe their parents did, remember Ida’s, right? Even if you have never set one foot in old North Adamsville, or even know where the place is. If you lived within a hair’s breathe of any Irish neighborhood and if you had grown up probably any time in the first half of the 20th century you “know” Ida’s. My Ida ran a bakery out of her living room, or maybe it was the downstairs and she lived upstairs, in the 1950s and early 1960s (before or beyond that period I do not know). An older grandmotherly woman when I knew her who had lost her husband, lost him to drink, or, as was rumored, persistently rumored although to a kid it was only so much adult air talk, to another woman. Probably it was the drink as was usual in our neighborhoods with the always full hang-out Dublin Grille just a couple of blocks up the street. She had, heroically in retrospect, raised a parcel of kids on the basis of her little bakery including some grandchildren that I played ball with over at Welcome Young Field also just up the street, and also adjacent to my grandparents’ house on Kendrick Street.
Now I do not remember all the particulars about her beyond the grandmotherly appearance I have just described, except that she still carried that hint of a brogue that told you she was from the “old sod” but that did not mean a thing in that neighborhood because at any given time when the brogues got wagging you could have been in Limerick just as easily as in North Adamsville. Also she always, veil of tears hiding maybe, had a smile for one and all coming through her door, and not just a commercial smile either. Nor do I know much about how she ran her operation, except that you could always tell when she was baking something in back because she had a door bell tinkle that alerted her when someone came in and she would come out from behind a curtained entrance, shaking flour from her hands, maybe, or from her apron-ed dress ready to take your two- cent order-with a smile, and not a commercial smile either but I already told you that.
Nor, just now, do I remember all of what she made or how she made it but I do just now, rekindled by Markin’s reference to that sour-dough yeasty smell, remember the smells of fresh oatmeal bread that filtered up to the playing fields just up the street from her store on Fridays when she made that delicacy. Fridays meant oatmeal bread, and, as good practicing Catholics like my family going back to the “famine ships,” and probably before, were obliged to not eat red meat on that sacred day, but fish, really tuna fish had that on Ida’s oatmeal bread. But, and perhaps this is where I started my climb to quarrelsome heathen-dom I balked at such a tuna fish desecration of holy bread. See, grandma would spring for a fresh loaf, a fresh right from the oven loaf, cut by a machine that automatically sliced the bread (the first time I had seen such a useful gadget). And I would get to have slathered peanut butter (Skippy, of course) and jelly (Welch’s Grape, also of course) on oatmeal and a glass of milk. Ah, heaven.
And just now I memory smell those white-flour dough, deeply- browned Lenten hot-cross buns white frosting dashed that signified that hellish deprived high holy catholic Lent was over, almost. Beyond that I have drawn blanks. Know this those. All that sweet sainted goddess (or should be) Ida created from flour, eggs, yeast, milk and whatever other secret devil’s ingredients she used to create her other simple baked goods may be unnamed-able now but they put my mother, my grandmother, your mother, your grandmother in the shade. And that is at least half the point. You went over to Ida’s to get high on those calorie-loaded goodies. And in those days with youth at your back, and some gnawing hunger that never quite got satisfied, back then that was okay. Believe me it was okay. I swear I will never forget those glass-enclosed delights that stared out at me in my sugar hunger. I may not remember much about the woman, her life, where she was from, or any of that. This I do know- in this time of frenzied interest in all things culinary Ida's simple recipes and her kid-maddening bakery smells still hold a place of honor. And with a tear in my eye as I say it fifty some years later my boy Markin did too.