Riding down the old neighborhood streets a while back, the old North Adamsville working- class streets, streets dotted with dilapidated, worn out, and ill-repaired triple-deckers housing multiple families (big immigrant families as of yore, just the countries of origin have changed, trying to make up in person per packed space for lack of dough, as of yore, too) along with close-quarter, small cottage-sized single family houses like the one of my own growing to manhood time. Houses, moreover, that reflected, no exclaimed right to their tiny rooftops, that seemingly eternal overweening desire to have, small or not, worth the trouble or not, something of one’s own against the otherwise endless servitude of days. Suddenly, coming to an intersection, I was startled, no, more than that, I was forced into a double-take, by the sight of some guys, some teenage guys hanging, hanging hard, one foot on the ground the other bent holding up the infernal brick wall that spoke of practice and marking one’s territory, against the oncoming night in front of an old time variety store, a mom and pop variety from some extinct times before the 7/11 chain store, fast food shop, no room for corner boys, police take notice, dark night.
Memory called it Kelly’s of yore, today Kim’s. From the look of them, baggy-panted (actually double-panted the outer pair hanging low, ground low, the latest fashionista footwear name sneakered, baseball cap-headed, all items marked, marked with the insignia (secretly, and with no hope of outside decoding) signifying their "homeboy" associations (I would say gang, but that word is charged with deep negative old time juvenile delinquent murder and mayhem associations these days and this is not exactly what it looked like, at least to the public eye, my public eye). They could be the grandsons, certainly not biological because these kids were almost all Asians speckled with a couple of Irish-lookers, red-faced, blue-eyed shanty Irish-lookers, shanty Irish –lookers out of the ghost be-bop night guys that held me in thrall in those misty early 1960s times.
Yah, that tableau, that time-etched scene, got me to thinking of some long lost comrades of the schoolboy night like the hang-around guys in front of Harry’s Variety, although comrades might not be the right word because I was just some punk young kid trying to be a wannabe, or half-wannabe, corner boy and they had no time for punk kids and later when I came of age I had no time for corner boys. Yah, that scene got me to thinking of the old time corner boys who ruled the whole wide North Adamsville night (and day for those who didn’t work or go to school, which was quite a few on certain days, because most of these guys were between sixteen and their early twenties with very jittery school and work histories better left unspoken, or else). Yah, got me thinking about when the white tee-shirted, blue-jeaned, engineer-booted, cigarette-smoking, unfiltered of course, sneering, soda-swilling, Coke, naturally, pinball wizards held forth daily and nightly, and let me cadge a few odd games when they had more important business, more important girl business, to attend to.
Yah, I got to thinking too about Harry’s, old Harry’s Variety Store over there near my grandmother’s house, over there in that block on Sagamore Street where the Irish workingman’s whiskey-drinking (with a beer chaser), fist-fighting, sports-betting after a hard day’s work Dublin Grille was. Harry’s was on the corner of that block. Now if you have some image, some quirky, sentimental image, of Harry’s as being run by an up-and-coming just arrived immigrant guy, maybe with a big family, trying to make this neighborhood store thing work so he can take in, take in vicariously anyway, the American dream like you see running such places now forget it. Harry’s was nothing but a “front.” Old Harry, Harry O’Toole, now long gone, was nothing but the neighborhood “bookie” known far and wide to one and all as such. Even the cops would pull up in their squad cars to place their bets, laughingly, with Harry in the days before state became the bookie-of-choice for most bettors. And he had his “book,” his precious penciled-notation book right out on the counter. But see punk kid me, even then just a little too book-unworldly didn’t pick up on that fact until old grandmother, jesus, neighborhood saint old grandmother “hipped” me to what was what in that section of the old neighborhood.
Until then I didn’t think anything of the fact that Harry had about three dust-laden cans of soup, two dust-laden cans of beans, a couple of loaves of bread (Wonder Bread, if you want to know) on his dust-laden shelves, a few old quarts of milk and an ice chest full of tonic (now called soda, even by New Englanders) and a few other odds and ends that did not, under any theory of economics, capitalist or Marxist, add up to a thriving business ethos. Unless, of course, something else was going on. But what drew me to Harry’s was not that stuff anyway. What drew me to Harry’s was, one, his pin ball machine complete with corner boy players and their corner boy ways, and, two, his huge Coca Cola ice chest (now sold as antique curiosities for much money at big-time flea markets and other venues) filled with ice cold, cold tonics (see above), especially the local Robb’s Root Beer that I was practically addicted to in those days (and that Harry, kind-hearted Harry, stocked for me).
Many an afternoon, a summer’s afternoon for sure, or an occasional early night, I would sip, sip hard on my Robb’s and watch the corner boys play, no sway, sway just right, with that sweet pinball machine, that pin ball machine with the bosomy, lusty-looking, cleavage-showing women pictured on the top glass frame of the machine practically inviting you, and only you the player, on to some secret place if you just put in enough coins. Of course, like many dream-things what those lusty dames really gave you, only you the player, was maybe a few free games. Teasers, right. But I had to just watch at first because I was too young (you had to be sixteen to play) , however, every once in a while, one of the corner boys who didn’t want to just gouge out my eyes for not being a corner boy, would let me cadge a game while Harry was not looking. When you think about it though, now anyway, Harry was so “connected” (and you know what I mean by that) what the hell did he care if some underage kid, punk kid, cadged a few games and looked leeringly at those bosomy babes in the frame.
Yah, and thinking about Harry’s automatically got me thinking about Daniel (nobody ever called him that, ever) “Red” Hickey, the boss king of my schoolboy night at Harry’s. Red, the guy who set the rules, set the style, hell, set the breathing, allowed or not and when, of the place. I don’t know if he went to some corner boy school to learn his trade but he was the be-bop daddy (at least all the girls, all the hanging all over him girls, called him that and later alone down at some splash Seal Rock ocean front rendezvous did whatever daddy wanted, although that is strictly hearsay on my part) because he, except for one incident that I will relate below, ruled unchallenged with an iron fist. At least I never saw his regular corner boys Spike, Lenny, Shawn, Ward, Goof (yes, that was his name the only name I knew him by, and he liked it), Bop (real name William) or the Clipper (real name Kenny, the arch-petty Woolworth’s thief of the group hence the name) challenge him, or want to.
Yah, Red, old red-headed Red was tough alright, and has a pretty good-sized built but that was not what kept the others in line. It was a certain look he had, a certain look that if I went into describing it now I would get way overboard into describing it as some stone-cold killer look, some psycho-killer look but that would be wrong because it didn’t show that way. But that was what it was. Maybe I had better put it this way. Tommy Thunder, older brother of my middle school and high school best friend and a corner boy king in his own right, Frankie, Francis Xavier Riley, who was a big bruiser of a legendary North Adamsville football player and human wrecking machine and who lived a few doors up from Harry’s went out of his way not to go near the place. Yah, Red was that tough.
See, he was like some general, or colonel or something, an officer at least, and besides being tough, he would “inspect” his troops to see that all and sundry had their “uniform” right. White tee-shirt, full-necked, no vee-neck sissy stuff, no muscle shirt half-naked stuff, straight 100% cotton, American-cottoned, American-textiled, American-produced, ironed, mother-ironed I am sure, crisp. One time Goof (sorry that’s all I knew him by, really) had a wrinkled shirt on and Red marched him up the street to his triple-decker cold-water walk-up flat and berated, berated out loud for all to hear, Goof’s mother for letting him out of the house like that. And Red, old Red like all Irish guys sanctified mothers, at least in public, so you can see he meant business on the keeping the uniform right question.
And like some James Dean or Marlon Brando tough guy photo, some motorcycle disdainful, sneering guy photo, each white tee-shirt, or the right sleeve of each white tee-shirt anyway, was rolled up to provide a place, a safe haven, for the ubiquitous package of cigarettes, matches inserted inside its cellophane outer wrapping, Luckies, Chesterfields, Camels, Pall Malls, all unfiltered in defiance of the then beginning incessant cancer drumbeat warnings, for the day’s show of manliness smoking pleasures.
And blue jeans, tight fit, no this scrub-washed, fake-worn stuff, but worn and then discarded worn. No chinos, no punk kid, maybe faux "beatnik," black chinos, un-cuffed, or cuffed like I wore, and Frankie, Francis Xavier Riley, king of the faux beatnik middle school night, including among his devotees this little too bookish writer, who was as tough a general, colonel, or some officer anyway, as corner boy Red was with his guys. Frankie example: no cuffs on those black chinos, stay home, or go elsewhere, if you are cuffed. Same kingly manner, right? Corner boys blue-jeaned and wide black-belted, black always, black-belt used as a handy weapon for that off-hand street fight that might erupt out of nowhere, for no reason, or many. Maybe a heavy-duty watch chain, also war-worthy, dangly down from those jeans. Boots, engineer boots, black and buckled, worn summer or winter, heavy, heavy-heeled, spit-shined, another piece of the modern armor for street fight nights. Inspection completed the night’s work lies ahead.
And most nights work, seemingly glamorous to little too bookish eyes at the time, was holding up some corner of the brick wall in front, or on the side of, Harry’s Variety with those engineer boots, one firmly on the ground the other bent against the wall, small talk, small low-tone talk between comrades waiting, waiting for… Or just waiting for their turn at that Harry’s luscious ladies pictured pinball machine. Protocol, strictly observed, required “General Red” to have first coin in the machine. But see old Red was the master swayer with that damn machine and would rack up free games galore so, usually, he was on that thing for a while.
Hey, Red was so good, although this is not strictly part of the story, that he could have one of his several honeys right in front of him on the machine pressing some buttons and he behind pressing some other buttons Red swaying and his Capri-panted honey, usually some blond, real or imagined, swaying, and eyes glazing, but I better let off with that description right now, because like I said it was strictly speaking not part of the story. What is part of the story is that Red, when he was in the mood or just bored, or had some business, some girl business, maybe that blond, real or imagined, just mentioned business would after I had been hanging around a while, and he thought I was okay, give me his leftover free games.
Now that was the “innocent” part of Red, the swaying pinball wizard, girl-swaying, inspector general part. But see if you want to be king of the corner boy night you have to show your metal once in a while, if for no other reason than the corner boys, the old time North Adamsville corner boys might be just a little forgetful of who the king hell corner boy king was, or as I will describe, some other corner boy king of some other variety store night might show up to see what was what. Now I must have watched the Harry’s corner boy scene for a couple of years, maybe three, the last part just off and on, but I only remember once when I saw Red show “his colors.” Some guy from Adamsville, some tough-looking guy who, no question, was a corner boy just stopped at Harry’s after tipping a couple, or twenty, at the Dublin Grille. He must have said something to Red, or maybe Red just knew instinctively that he had to show his colors, but all of a sudden these two were chain-whipping each other. No, that’s not quite right, Red was wailing, flailing, nailing, chain-whipping this other guy mercilessly, worst, if that is possible. The guy, after a few minutes, was left in a pool of blood on the street, ambulance ready. And Red just walked way, just kind of sauntering away.