Friday, May 09, 2014
***Frankie Riley’s Atlantic Summer's Day, Circa 1960-With Those Who Came Of Age In The Atlantic Section Of North Quincy In Mind
A little something to set the mood for this sketch…
A YouTube film clip of the Capris performing their doo-wop classic, There's A Moon Out Tonight. This is sent out by request to Elaine from the old neighborhood from Frankie…
This is the way my old junior high school friend, Frankie, Frankie Riley, told me the story one night, so it really is a Frankie story that I want to tell you about but around the edges it could have been my story, or could have been your story for that matter:
Frankie walked, walked along the pavement that morning, that Atlantic early summer morning he insisted that I tell you about, in long, winter-weight black-pants, long- sleeve brown plaid flannel-shirt, and thick-soled work boots. 1960s faux beatnik posing attire for him, summer or winter. A not so subtle fashion statement that Frankie thought made him “cool,” cool at least for the be-bop, look-at-me-I'm-a-real-gone daddy, bear-baiting of the public that he relished as he anguished over the job to be done that day, that late August day. Anguished over his grandmother-ordered mission while he melted in the late August sun like some Woolworth’s grilled cheese sandwich, as he stood for a moment almost immobile looking toward the vacant Welcome Young Field in front of him on the Sagamore Street after he had already traversed Atlantic Street, Walker Street, and Newbury Street after being dispatched from Grandma’s house situated on a street off of the far end of East Squantum Street. As he looked the field over Frankie slowly and methodically pulled out, for about the eighteenth time, or maybe about the eighteen thousandth time , a now sweat-soaked, salt-stained, red railroad man’s handkerchief to wipe off the new wave swear-to-the-high-heavens-inducing sweat that had formed on his brow.
Frankie, after leaving his own house on Maple Street earlier, had already crossed the long-abandoned, rusty-steeled, wooden-tie worn Old Colony railroad tracks. Those tracks separated his almost sociologically proverbial well-worn, well-trodden “wrong side of the tracks” from the rest of Atlantic. (That track, now used as part of the Red Line subway extension system, still stands guardian to that dividing line.) He faced, and he knew he faced even that early in the morning, another day in hell, Frank-ish hell, or so it seemed to him like that was where the day was heading, no question. Another one of those endless, furnace-blasting, dirt-kicking, hard-breathing, nerve-fraying, gates of hell, “dogs days,” August days. Worse, worse for old weather-beaten, world-beaten Frankie, a fiendish, fierce, frantic, frenzied 1960 teenage August day.
Yeah, it was not just the weather that bothered him, although that was bad enough for anybody whose metabolism cried out, and cried out loud and clear, for temperate climates, for low humidities, or just the cool, sweet hum of an ocean breeze now and again. But also, plain truth, it was also being a befuddled, beleaguered, bewildered, benighted, be-jesused kid that gummed up the works as well. Frankie had that condition bad. Nowadays there are not, mercifully, double “dog days” like that heat-driven, sweltering, suffocating, got-to-break-out-or-bust teenage days, not August days anyway.
Now all the 21st century angst-filled Frankies on those heat-swept streets are buried beneath some techno-gadgetry or other, and are not worrying about being be-bop, or real gone daddies, or being “beat”, or worrying about bear-baiting the public or anything like that. But that’s a screed for another day; at least I want to put it off until then. So Frankie was a pioneer. But even writing about this day, this Frank-ish day, right now makes me reach for my own sweaty, dampish handkerchief. Let’s just call that day a hot, dusty, uncomfortable, and dirty day and leave it at that.
Frankie, by then a finely-tuned, professional quality sullen and also an award-worthy, very finely-tuned sulky teenage boy, usually, waited that kind of day out, impatiently, in his book-strewn, airless, sunless room, or what passed for his room if you didn’t count his shared room brother’s stuff. The way Frankie told it to me he might have been beyond waiting impatiently for he was ready, more than ready, for school to go back into session if for no other reason than, almost automatically come the “dog days,” to get cooled-out from that blazing, never-ending inferno of a heat wave that never failed to drain him of any human juices, creative or not.
Nothing, nothing, in this good, green world, seemingly, could get this black chino-panted, plaid flannel-shirted, salty sweat-dabbled, humidity-destroyed teenage boy out of his funk. Or it would, and I think you would have to agree, have to be something real good, almost a miracle, to break such a devilishly-imposed spell. In any case, as we catch up to him putting his red handkerchief in his back pocket moving out on to Sagamore Street, he had left his stuffy old bookcase of a room behind and he was walking, in defiance of all good, cool, common sense, long-panted, long-shirted, and long-faced, as was his defiant statement to this wicked old world in those days, and had begun to cross Welcome Young Field to cut across to Hancock Street. That is as good a place, the field that is, as any to start describing this “on a mission” scenic journey.
Come late August this quirky, almost primitively home-made-like softball field was a ghost-town during the day. The city provided and funded kids’ recreation programs were over, the balls and bats, paddles and playground things were now put away for another season, probably also, like Frankie, just waiting for that first ring of the school bell come merciful September. The dust that day was thick and unsettled, forming atomic bomb-like powder puffs in the air at the slightest disturbance, like when an odd kid or two made a short-cut across the field leaving a trail of baby bomb blasts behind them.
At that early hour the usually softball game-time firm white lines of the base paths were broken, hither and yon, to hell from the previous night's combat, the battle for bragging rights at the old Red Feather gin mill where many fathers, uncles, and older brothers tossed down a few to take the heat and the sting of a hard life away. The paths then awaited some precious manicure from the Parks Department employees, if those public servants could fight their own lassitude in that heat. Frankie had to laugh when he thought about the condition of the playing field and about how if the base-path work was not done, not to worry, the guys who played their damned, loud-noised, argue, argue loudly, over every play with the ever blind umpire, softball game under the artificial night lights, if he knew them and he did since his father was a player, knew the grooves and ridges of the surfaces of the base paths like the backs of their hands, so nobody needed to fret about them.
This field, this Welcome Young Field, by the way, was not just any field, but a field overflowing, torrentially overflowing, with all kinds of August memories, and June and July memories too. Maybe other months as well but those months come readily to mind, hot, sticky, sultry summer mind. Need I remind anyone, at least any Atlantic denizen of a certain age, of the annual Fourth of July celebrations that took place center stage there as far back as misty memory recalls. The mad, frenetic, survival-of-the-fittest dashes for ice cream, the crushed-up lines (boys and girls, separately) for tonic (a.k.a. soda, with names like Nehi, grape and orange, and Hires Root Beer for good measure, for those too young to remember that New England-ism and those brand names), the foot races won by the swift and sure-footed (Frankie said he almost won one once but “ran out of gas” just before the finish), the baby-carriage parade, and the much anticipated, ride on a real, if tired, old pony, and other foolery and frolic as we paid homage to those who fought, and bled, for the Republic. Maybe, maybe paid homage that is. A lot of the reason for celebrating part got mixed up with the ice cream and tonic.
Hell, even that little-used, usually glass-strewn but for the occasion Parks Department cleaned-up asphalt-floored tennis court on the corner got a workout as a dance/talent show venue, jerrybuilt stage platform and all. Every 1960s local American Idol wanna-be, misty Rosemary Clooney/McGuire Sisters-like 1940s Come On To My House, Paper Dolls torch singer jumped, literally, on stage to grab the mike and "fifteen minutes (or less) of fame." Needless to say every smoky-voiced male crooner who could make that jump got up there as well, fighting, fighting like a demon for that five dollar first prize, or whatever the payoff was. Later as it got dark, tunes, misty tunes of course, some of them already heard from those "rising stars" like some ill-fated encore, wafted in the night time air from some local band when the Fourth of July turned to adult desires come sundown after we kids had gorged, completely gorged, and feverishly exhausted, ourselves. That story, the dark night, stars-are- out, moony-faced, he looking for she, she looking for he, and the rest of it, (I don’t have to draw you a diagram, do I?), awaits its own chronicler. I’m just here to tell Frankie’s story and at shy fourteen that ain’t part of it.
This next thing is part of the story, though. In this field, this bedlam field, as Frankie recently reminded me, later, after Fourth Of July celebrations became just kid’s stuff for us, and kind of lame kid’s stuff at that, we had our first, not so serious, crushes on those glamorous-seeming, fresh-faced, shapely-figured, sweetly-smiling and icily-remote college girls, or at least older girls, who were employed by the Parks Department to teach us kids crafts and stuff in the summer programs. And more to the point had our first serious crushes on the so serious, so very serious, girls, our school classmates no less, determined to show Frankie, Frankie of all people, up in the craft-creating (spiffy gimp wrist band-making, pot-holder-for-Ma-making, copper-etching, etc.) department when everyone knew, or should have known, Frankie was just letting those girls “win” for his own “evil” designs. And maybe me, maybe I let them "win" too, although I will plead amnesia on this one.
But enough of old, old time flights of fancies. I have to get moving, and moving a little more quickly, if I am ever going to accomplish “my mission,” or ever get Frankie out of that blessed, memory-blessed, sanctified, dusty old ball field, sweaty flaming red railroad man’s handkerchief and all. I‘ll let you know the details of the mission, Frankie's mission that is, as I go along like I told you I would before but it meant, in the first place, that Frankie had to go on this “dog day” August day to Norfolk Downs, or the “Downs” as I heard someone call it once. We always called it just plain, ordinary, vanilla-tinged, one-horse Norfolk Downs. And Frankie had to walk the distance.
He, hot as he was and as hot as it was, was certainly not going to wait for an eternity, or more, for that never-coming Eastern Mass. bus from Fields Corner to meander up Hancock Street. Not that Frankie was any stranger to that mode of transportation, to that walking. Frankie, as I know for certain and have no need to plead amnesia on this, has worn down many a pair of heel-broken, sole-thinned shoes (and maybe sneakers too)on the pavements and pathways of this old planet walking out of some forlorn place (or, for that matter, walking into such places). Just take my word for that, okay.
You can take my word for this too. Frankie was now officially (my officially) out of the softball field and walking, walking slowly as befitted the day, past the now also long gone little bus shelter hut as you got up on to Hancock Street near the corner of Kendall Street. You know that old grey, shingled, always needed painting, smelly from some old wino's bottle or something, beat-up, beat-down thing that was supposed to protect you against the weathers while you waited for that never-coming Eastern Mass. bus into Boston. Frankie insisted that his observation of that hut be put in here despite the fact that he had had no intention of taking the bus that day as I already told you.
Well, if you get, or rather, if back then if you got on to Hancock Street, down at the far end of the Welcome Young Field and were heading for Norfolk Downs you had to pass the old high school just a few blocks up on your journey. Just past the old Merit gas station. That gas station (now a Hess station sits at that location) had been the scene of memories, Frankie memories and mine too. But those are later high school gas-fumed, oil-drenched, tire-changed, under-the hood-fixated, car-crazy dreams; looking out at the (hopefully) starless be-bop ocean night; looking out for the highway of no return to the same old, same old mean streets of beat town; looking for some "high white note" heart of Saturday night or, better, the dreams accumulated from such a night; and, looking, and looking hard, desperately hard for the cloudless, sun-dried, sun-moaning under the weight of the day, low-slung blue pink Western-driven be-bop, bop-bop, sun-devouring sky.
Do not be scared (okay, okay, afraid) of the thought of having to read about approaching the old high school though, we all did it and most of us survived, I guess. What made that particular journey on that particular day past the old beige-bricked building “special” was that Frankie (and I) had, just a couple of months before, graduated from Atlantic Junior High School (now Atlantic Middle School, as everyone who wants to show how smart and up-to-date they are keeps telling me) and so along with the sweat on his brow from the heat a little bit of anxiety was starting to form in Frankie’s head about being a “little fish in a big pond” freshman come September as he passed by. Especially, a pseudo-beatnik “little fish.”
See, Frankie had cultivated a certain, well, let’s call it "style" over at Atlantic. That “style” involved a total disdain for everything, everything except trying to impress girls with his long-panted, flannel-shirted, work boot-shod, thick book-carrying knowledge of every arcane fact known to humankind. Like that really was the way to impress teenage girls, then or now. In any case he was worried, worried sick at times that in such a big school his “style” needed upgrading. Let’s not even get into that story now, or maybe, ever. Like I said we survived.
Frankie nevertheless pulled himself together enough to push on until he came to the old medieval times-inspired Sacred Heart Catholic Church further up Hancock Street, the church he went to, his church (and mine) in sunnier times. Frankie need not have feared that day as he passed the church quickly, looking furtively to the other side of the street. Whatever demons were to be pushed away that day, or in his life, were looking the other way as well. The boy was on a mission after all, a trusted mission from his grandmother. Fearing some god, fearing some forgotten confession non-confessed venial sin like disobeying your parents, was child’s play compared to facing Grandma’s wrath when things weren’t done, and done right, on the very infrequent special occasions in his clan’s existence. I knew Frank's grandmother and I knew, and everyone else did too, that she was a “saint” but on these matters even god obeyed, or else. This special occasion, by the way, the reason Frank felt compelled to tell me this story, and to have me write it, was the family Labor Day picnic to take place down at Treasure Island across from Wollaston Beach. (That’s what we called it in those days; today it is named after a fallen Marine, Cady Park, or something like that.) This occasion required a food order; a special food order, from Kennedy’s.
And there it was as Frank made the turn from Hancock Street on to Billings Road. You knew Kennedy’s, right? The one right next to the big A&P grocery store back in those days. As Frankie turned on Billings, went down a couple of storefronts and entered that store he had to, literally, walk in through the piled sawdust and occasional peanut shell husks on the gnarled hardwood floor. At once his senses were attacked by the smells of freshly- ground coffee, a faint whiff of peanut butter being ground up, and of strong cheeses aging. He noticed a couple of other customers ahead of him and that he would have to wait, impatiently.
He had also noticed that the single employee, a friendly clerk, was weighing a tub of butter for a matronly housewife, while a young mother, a couple of kids in tow, was trying, desperately, to keep them away from the cracker barrel and the massive dill pickle jar. The butter weighed and packaged the matronly women spoke out the rest of her order; half pound of cheese, thinly sliced, a pound of bologna, not too thin; a third of a pound of precious ham, very thinly sliced; and, the thing that made our boy pay attention, a pound of the famous house homemade potato salad, Kennedy's potato salad.
Frankie winced, hoping that there would be enough of that manna left so that he could fill his order. That, above all else, was why he was a man on a mission on that day. Something about the almost paper thin-sliced, crunchy potatoes, the added vinegar or whatever elixir was put in the mix that made any picnic for him, whatever other treats might surface. Hey, I was crazy over it too. Who do you think got Frank "hip" to the stuff anyway? Not to worry though, there was plenty left and our boy carried his bundled order triumphantly out of the door, noticing the bigger crowds going in and out of the A&P with their plastic sheathed, pre-packaged deli meats, their tinny-tasting canned goods, their sullen potato salad, probably yesterday’s, and their expressionless fast exit faces. Obviously they had not been on any mission, not any special mission anyway, just another shopping trip. No, thank you, not today to all of that. Today Frankie’s got the real stuff.
“Wait a minute,” I can hear patient readers, impatiently moaning. This madman of a Frankie story-teller has taken us, hither and yon, on some seemingly cryptic mission on behalf of an old friend, under threat or otherwise, through the sweat-drenched heat of summer, through the really best forgotten miseries of teenage-hood, and through the timeless dust and grime of vacant ball fields. He has regaled us with talk of ancient misty Fourth of July celebrations, the sexual longings of male teenagers, the anxieties of fitting in at a new school, and some off-hand remarks about religion. And for what, just to give us some twisted Proustian culinary odyssey about getting a pound of potato salad, famous or not, for grandmother. Well, yes. But hear me out. You don’t know the end. I swear Frank said this to me, shaking off the heat of the day on which he told me the story with a clean white handkerchief from the breast pocket of his light-weight suit jacket. After that purposeful journey Frankie said the horrible heat of that day didn’t seem so bad after all. That comment, my friends, made it all worth the telling.
And this one is sent out by request from Al to Frankie and speaks to his raging need to get out of the old neighborhood…