These memories are taken from Simple Pleasures, written by Marilyn Moody about her girlhood growing up in Jamaica Plain in the 1950’s and 1960’s. She lived with her grandparents, Mimi and Rooster, her parents Tootie and Henry, and several siblings in a house on Heath Street near the corner of South Huntington. She calls that residence the Big House. Later the family moved to Lamartine Street. The book is available for purchase from xlibris.com
Rooster and the MTA
Butchie and I would sit and wait in anticipation for Rooster’s arrival home from work. It was another big event in our lives. Rooster worked for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, known as the MTA. He was a trolley car conductor and sometimes a bus driver. He looked so spiffy in his uniform and cap. At the end of his shift he’d park his trolley in the turn-around that was across the street from the Big House. Then he’d cross our street and come up to the front gate. Before he was a few steps into the long path my brother and I would rush towards him. We took turns being first. Whoever picked the correct hand got a candy bar. The one without the candy bar got to click on his coin holder and retrieve a nickel. That was definitely a situation where the winner and the loser were both winners. Either prize was a trophy.
Behind the Big house and over our hill were some woods. Those were forbidden to us and we were constantly being told that there could be dangers there. As we got older we explored them anyway, but we were never harmed. We found evidence that teenagers used the woods as a hangout. There would be blackened fire pits and empty cigarette packages. Going there seemed like quite the adventure, but I wouldn’t linger. Even though it was the fifties, and life was safer then in many ways, I still wasn’t about to press my luck by being caught in any of the big kids’ territory. Beyond the hills were houses and apartments and some of Boston’s famous hospitals.
As I mentioned, across the street from the Big House was the MTA trolley turn-around. Later it was expanded, and soon newer trolley cars and buses were coming and going throughout the day and night. Also, a large Veteran’s hospital was built next to the turn-around. Watching that huge building go up was another exciting event. It seemed like it took years, but at that age time appeared forever long.
On the other side of the turn-around, and across Huntington Avenue, was an orphanage. It only took a threat when we misbehaved of winding up in The Home for Little Wanderers to keep us in line. As I got older I became intrigued by the home. When I was old enough to cross Heath Street, where the Big House was, and then Huntington Avenue, I’d sometimes stop and peak through the fence and watch the children playing in their park-sized yard. It sure gave me something to think about. I’d wonder about them, and realize how lucky I was to have a family and a home to call my own.
Sadly, that old house was eventually sold and torn down. The yards were torn up and it became ugly to look at. A large used-car sales-lot was placed where the front yard used to be. Mr. Smith became the new landowner and he had a small office built on the far side of the lot. His son and I later became playmates for a while. Beyond Miss Donovan’s side of the Big House was a driveway that ended at a dilapidated garage. It belonged to the newer home on the other side of the driveway. I never remember it being used for a car though. Instead the tenants in the house, on the other side of the driveway, used their front yard for a parking area. The driveway between our two houses wasn’t used much by the adults, but my brother and I made up for them. In the winter it was where we’d do our best sledding. It was perfect, as don’t forget we had a little hill behind the Big House. Well, the driveway started at the curb and ascended a long, wide path up the hill. If we got it just right, the ride down was a thrill. We never worried about cars. There was very little traffic, and besides we knew how to steer our sleds into one of the yards before we’d actually reach the street.
To the right of us on Heath Street, and sloping downwards, were red-bricked apartments on both sides. They were old, dirty and extremely crowded. When I started a lot of my friends and classmates came from those apartments. I think, as they passed by the Big House with our car out front, that we must have given them an impression of our being wealthy. I might not have known a lot, but I did know I was fortunate in having Tootie and Henry as my parents and all that they managed to give us. Up the street on our left, were two cottages. They both had long pathways from the street to their front doors. The elderly couples- who lived in them kept their gardens filled with flowers. It was a pretty sight to pass on my way to school in the springtime. Past the cottages were more apartments, but those were newer and homier looking than the red bricked ones below us. Again, friends and classmates lived in those apartments too.
There were three little stores in our neighborhood. There were no 7-Eleven’s back then. Each of the stores was independently owned. The one located in the basement of one of the red-bricked apartment buildings down the street to our right, was where I’d go to buy used comic books. It was only a hole-in-the-wall type of place. It was dark and cramped, and not a place I wanted to hang out in for very long.
Further up Heath Street and on the left side, past the newer apartments, was Bermann’s. Mr. and Mrs. Bermann had a prime location. To get into their store a customer had to climb three tall steps. They had a big, clean window that let in the daylight. It looked out onto Heath Street. Mr. Bermann even had a corner of the store made into a small deli section. It was there where some of the kids from the red-bricked apartments would stop on their way to school to pick up their lunches. A few had standing orders. He’d fix them a bologna and cheese sandwich, and they’d throw in a devil dog cake (two, long pieces of chocolate cake with icing in the middle) and some Wise potato chips, and off they’d go. (I think those were the kids who only had a mother at home, and usually she worked so maybe that’s why their lunches were ordered out.) My own homemade, bologna sandwiches never seemed to taste as good as the way I always imagined theirs to be. I was a little envious of that forerunner of today’s fast-foods lunches.
Inside Bermann’s store was a big, red Coca Cola cooler chest filled with ice and ice water. It was stocked with all the tonics we could ever hope for. I can still recall the feeling of my fingers freezing as I’d dive in with my hand to retrieve a bottle. Mr. and Mrs. Bermann lived alone in some of the neighborhood apartments. As far as I know they’d been married forever and didn’t have any. Well, if they did I don’t think they visited them too often. Mr. and Mrs. Bermann just ran their store, knew everyone’s business-but at the same time they minded their own business too. They were part of our world, but looking back I think we were a big part of their world. Why do I think this?
I was just a child when I made my almost daily treks in and out of their store. I liked them both a lot, but other than common courtesies we never got to know one another on any deep level. Still they were part of my life and I liked them. After I had moved from Heath Street, and was in my late teens, I ran into Mr. Bermann in a strange setting.
One day I was in the Jordan Marsh department store in downtown Boston, doing some clothes shopping. As I was riding up an escalator I looked at a man in a security guard uniform who was riding on the down escalator. He looked familiar, but it took a few seconds for me to realize who he was. The gray uniform fooled me. Mr. Bermann had always worn a starched, clean, white apron in his store. Our eyes met and with it came recognition. He became extremely excited to see me; so much so that when he got to the bottom of his escalator, he turned around and came up to where I was. He was talking all the way. His little, corner store had long since been closed and torn down, and Mrs. Bermann had died.
How did he recognize me? How did he remember so much? He asked a zillion questions about our family, and was sincere in wanting to know how everyone was. It was like I was a long lost family member. At the time I didn’t give it too much thought. We can blame it on my being a teenager. Now I realize how much we meant to them. We might have been their only family.
We bought most of our dairy products and baked goods from the companies that delivered to our door. Back then the milkman would leave Tootie’s orders of milk, cream on special occasions, and eggs in a little cubicle next to our downstairs front door. There was an inside door to this cubicle so whatever was deposited there could be obtained by us without going outside. That little convenience was much appreciated in the winter.
The bakery man would stop in front of the house and Tootie would purchase goods off of his truck too. In the summer the iceman would come down the street. A real treat would be to have one of the adults pick at a block of the ice until we all had chunks to lick on as we played on those really hot and humid, summer days. Sometimes the produce man would come by, and occasionally the ragman with his horse drawn cart. He’d be yelling out, “Raaaaags-Raaaaags” as he went down the street. The ragman was ahead of his time; he was the original recycler.
Past Bermann’s was a huge and long red-bricked building. It had no windows and seemed ominous to me. I had to walk by it every day in order to reach my elementary school. On the next corner block was Pete’s another tiny and very dirty neighborhood store. I tried not to go in there too often. The old man Pete, and his soiled butcher’s apron intimidated me. Teenagers often congregated out in front of his store. They were the stereotyped guys you picture from the fifties, wearing greased-back DA’s (someone once told me those initials stood for Duck’s Ass, but what do I know), white t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up and one sleeve always had the outline of a pack of cigarettes.
Our transportation was by various mass transit buses, trolley cars and trains. Sometimes the cars and trains would go underground, and on other lines they’d be overhead, rattling the stations, stairs and even the windows of apartments built close to the tracks.
When I was growing up in Boston owning a car was a luxury. But, the MTA was what Tootie most often used-and at an early age I was traveling around Boston and neighboring cities, making changes from one line to another. Actually, most of the time the MTA was the means by which I traveled when going into downtown Boston to shop, or to visit friends living near to Boston.
During busy times the platforms down in those dark, cavernous subway stations would be crowded. It was a miracle that we all got on the right trolley cars too. They all had numbers for identification as to what line they were traveling, but they’d be coming and going pretty quickly. As soon as you could read its numbered sign you’d have to jostle your way to the one spot where you’d predict the trolley would stop, and where its doors would open. Of course a zillion other people were queuing up in that same spot too. I never did get on the wrong one, but it gave me a lot to concentrate on. I was always careful to not get too close to the edge of the platform either. Talk about keeping the adrenalin flowing. Then there were the other people riding those cars with me. At times our bodies would be pressed up against each other. If I couldn’t get a seat, and when I was too short to hold onto an overhead strap, I’d have to squirm my way through the mass to reach a pole. Those cars went pretty fast at times, and oftentimes everyone on board would sway together as a group. If one body went one way, all the other bodies did too. Trying to get off was another feat. It was push and shove to get to the door so I wouldn’t miss my stop.
What can I say about elementary school back then? I know I loved the experiences gained and the adventures shared from attending school. I loved the order. I loved the learning, the teachers and my classmates. I loved the socializing that came with it. It was more than fun. Never once during those years did it cross my mind to be unhappy because I had to go to school. My elementary school was named the Thomas Jefferson. It was an old, gray, cement building sitting on top of a cliff that overlooked a large, city playground. There was no grass. Our two school playgrounds had cement yards. The girls had the playground on the left side of the building and the boys had the one on the right.
In the morning all the girls would meet in the playground on the left side. When the bell rang we had to be really quiet and very still, after having formed lines according to our classrooms. Then we went orderly-like, single-file into the basement where the bathrooms were located. Next, we marched up the huge staircases to whatever floor our classroom was located on. We were silent and well behaved. There was never any acting up. Hall monitors from the sixth grades had their jobs to do. Along with the teachers, they watched us march.
The school had three floors, not counting the basement, and there was an auditorium on the third floor along with some empty classrooms. In my seven years of attendance there, I was maybe on the third floor only a half dozen times. Lower grades like kindergarten, first, second and third were on the first floor. The other grades were mixed between the first and second floors. The bathrooms in the basement were spooky. When we went outside for recess the girls would march down the front staircase to their lavatory on the way to the playground, and the boys did the same on the back staircase to theirs.
Okay, there was one thing I disliked about that school. It was the girls’ bathroom. It was cavernous, dark, ugly and very old-fashioned even for back then. The stalls were wooden, and the commodes had pull-chains for flushing. The sinks where we washed our hands were huge, old-fashioned tubs with real antique knobs. It was another place I didn’t want to hang out in. I did my business and got moving pretty darn quickly in order to get out of there. On a few occasions I had to go there alone during class. My need to relieve myself must have far outweighed my fright, or I never would have gone. The large room in the center of the basement wasn’t so bad. It was where most of our Brownie meetings were held. There were fold-up chairs and tables to use while working on our projects. It also had the stairs, and the doors to the playground and light came in through some windows that were way up high. Also, we were never without a warm, loving and watchful adult while we were in that room during a meeting.
Kindergarten was great. There were little wooden tables, chairs and easels for painting. I especially loved the fat crayons and the big pieces of paper. In May we made a Maypole out of crepe paper and danced around it. We could play with toys, or do finger paints.
I thought I’d gone to heaven when I finally got the chance to attend a half-day of kindergarten. I was in amazement over all my teachers. It seemed to me that they knew so much and were so organized and in control. I was an Honor Roll student and usually one of our teacher’s pets. My tests were studied for and my homework was always completed on time. I can’t remember ever being reprimanded. The only time I recall rebelling was when the oral polio vaccine was being administered to all students. I’d already taken the first couple-and I can’t remember if they were in the shot or oral form. When it came time for the last in the series and it was an oral one, I refused it. I don’t know why it became such an issue with me while I was in the nurse’s office. I was adamant, and I did get my own way in the end.
During the sixth grade we had a series of substitute teachers for the whole school year. I don’t know how we managed to learn anything what with the constant changes going on. We never knew who’d be teaching us on any given day. Eventually one teacher came for a few months. She was a black, single lady. I remember her well because she played the autoharp and she sometimes entertained us with her music. I loved it, and decided it was something I wanted to do. Tootie managed to get me a harp and she convinced the teacher to give me private lessons. I picked it up quickly. My teacher lived alone in an apartment on Huntington Avenue and I’d go there after school for my lessons. I need to stop here and regress a bit. Our wooden desks in elementary school came with inkwells. In the second grade we were given wooden, ink pens with replaceable points and a blotter. We learned to carefully dip the tips of the pens into the wells, hold our lined paper at a slant to our desks and practice our cursives. We were taught the Palmer method. If a letter had too much ink, we’d blot it and hope it didn’t smear. The ball point and felt tip pens that are used today are definitely neater tools when it comes to writing.
No-don’t go thinking the boys dipped our pigtails into those inkwells either. I’ve heard about that old trick, but it never happened while I was at the Jefferson. We were much too well behaved for anything like that.
My junior high school was the Mary E, Curley and it was huge compared to the Jefferson elementary school. It was old, but much newer than my first school. The new school had more light and the bathrooms weren’t scary. We were also allowed a little more freedom in our dress and behavior. The teachers were usually nice. In the ninth grade at the Curley I ran for, and was elected to Class President One problem I encountered immediately was the hostility of our Principal and Vice Principal. It was really kind of sad. They were both male and (pardon the pun) from the old school. Having a female Class President didn’t sit right with either of them. And, I need to add it wasn’t just me they felt that way about. For the first time ever in the school’s history, females held all the class offices. We were called the Matriarch. The school year was 1960-61. One of my duties was to address the whole school in class assemblies that were held approximately twice a month in our large auditorium. Writing my little speeches was fun. Giving them was another thing though. My stage fright became worse at each event. By the time June came, and our graduation ceremony, I was thoroughly traumatized at speaking in front of groups. The school tradition had always been that the Class President gave the Valedictorian address. Graduation day came and I was a wreck. My words held meaning, but delivering the message was difficult. I was on a large stage, and I was looking down onto all of those faces. Somehow I got through it, but to this day I beg to be excused from any type of public speaking.
The school years went by too quickly. Soon I was attending Jamaica Plain High School. Jakey High looked like a large, old apartment building. Someone once told me it was the oldest high school in the city of Boston. I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, but it sure was distinctive looking. It was tall, with a red-bricked exterior and it had ivy growing up its walls. We still had to follow rules, such as the boys using one staircase and the girls using another. We even had separate locker rooms. The gym was minuscule, and so was the playground. Our dress codes were strict compared to today’s codes. It was just a completely different environment for a very different generation.
We had an annual Science Fair. Students were encouraged to participate. Each school would enter its first place winner into the large Boston Science Fair competition. Since Cystic Fibrosis had taken two of my family members, I chose that as my subject. I wrote letters, researched the disease and later interviewed doctors in the field. The medical personnel I encountered were wonderful. They were delighted that a teenager would show an interest in an area that was newly being explored. I was invited to visit various hospitals on the East Coast. I couldn’t travel to the distant hospitals, so my primary contact was with the doctors and nurses at the Boston Children’s Hospital.
I was pleased since they had known Butchie. It was there where I narrowed my topic. The doctors gave me a plastic Petri dish that held some substance that looked like what we now know as Silly Putty. By using a child’s fingerprint, pressed into the substance, the child’s bodily salt content could be determined. That outcome, along with other factors, determined an initial diagnosis of possible Cystic Fibrosis. From there further sweat tests were administered. I placed first at Jamaica Plain High School, and third in the City of Boston competition. Many people came by my booth and were fascinated when I explained about Cystic Fibrosis, and the simple test that detected this genetic disease in children. I helped educate the public.
We had girls’ Physical Education. I enjoyed the games we played, but I was never on a real team. We played some basketball, but mostly we did floor exercises. Another little note is about what we were required to wear. You should have seen our gym clothes. We had to buy blue bloomers and wear them with specified white blouses. Both pieces had to be clean and starched at all times. They were quite the fashion statement. I was on the girl’s high school bowling league, but it was more of an individual competition since it was always members of my own high school playing. I was fortunate because being in the Brownies, Girl Scouts, and Y-teens helped me to understand cooperation and team efforts, and also instilled in me the pride of belonging and having loyalty to a group.
Move to Lamartine Street
The Big House was located on a piece of prime Boston real estate. The city wanted the land so that they could build a new hospital on it. Negotiations with the city were completed and the Big House was sold. Within a few years after it sold it was razed, and all that remained were the cement walkway and steps leading to overgrown yards. The steps cracked, and later became covered in weeds too. The move was exciting in that it was new, but still it was sad too. We were leaving a very familiar, comfortable home. Before we were the owners and landlords. We next became the tenants, renting from others.
We lived in the same city, but in a different neighborhood. It was a couple of miles from the Big House on Heath Street. I was still in junior high school and fortunately remained within the same school district. The new apartment wasn’t much bigger than the first floor of the Big House, plus we had two families living over us, and they were our landlords.
The people upstairs were named Sinatra. They told me that they were relatives of Frank Sinatra. Of course I believed them then, but now I wonder about it. Maybe it was the truth, or maybe it was just one of their family’s tales.
In the kitchen was an old-fashioned water heater. That heater and I became well acquainted over the years. Before every bath I would have to light its pilot to get our water warmed up. More than once it puffed out onto me, burning off my hand and arm hairs. Needless to say that was not one of my favorite things to do. The apartment was heated by coal. The other two families had boys to help them shovel the coal into their furnaces. Tootie took over the shoveling since she was the one most often at home when it needed to be done. The coal was stored in the basement. It was actually dumped into a coal bin through a window below our bathroom. Trust me it took massive piles of coal each winter to keep our apartment warm. I don’t know how Tootie did all that shoveling, but it’s no wonder she suffered from crippling back pain in later years.
There were new neighbors to meet and get to know over the years and new streets to explore. I soon discovered dances on Friday nights at a local church. Later I found more dances being held at a teenagers’ recreation hall a few streets over from ours. The new neighborhood had its own corner stores, and we were closer to the small uptown shopping area.
Jamaica Plain Shopping
Uptown Jamaica Plain had a Five & Dime store where trinkets were purchased, and french fries and cherry cokes could be consumed at the soda counter. One of my oldest friendships was with a girl I’d met in kindergarten. Eileen and I would go to the Five & Dime on report card day to celebrate our good grades. That was another tradition I enjoyed, even though it was outside of our family. She and I would collect reward money from our mothers, and then walk to the Five & Dime and order french fries and a coke. We talked while we ate, and felt life was good to us. There was also a Brigham’s ice cream parlor that was a favorite of mine for meeting friends and hanging out. It was close to my junior high school, and later on to my high school. Brigham’s was located across the street from the Five & Dime. When we were teenagers it was the place to walk to on inexpensive dates. Couples would meet there and exchange current news. The more daring souls would carve hearts, initials and dates in the wood on the tables and walls. Some of those relationships went back a long way too.
When we were little Tootie and Henry took us to Jamaica Pond and there we’d ride our sleds down the hills. We’d also skate across the shallow ends of the pond. I say shallow because … Well, here goes another tale that was told to me when I was young. One of my parents told me a story about old, old Boston and the pond. The story goes that a deliveryman was crossing the frozen pond one frigid winter day. He had a horse drawn cart. As they were passing the center of the pond the ice cracked.
Legend has it that the man was saved, but his horse drowned. I can picture it happening because of the horse being attached to a heavy wagon. Needless to say that even when we played crack-the-whip on the pond, I still didn’t skate towards its center. Let’s just say that I had a lot of respect for the ice.
Another place to skate as a teenager was up near the Arboretum. It was a perfect winter evening’s date. We would walk there, which was a considerable amount of exercise in itself, put on our skates and off we’d go. There was a snack shop that sold hot chocolate for replenishing burned off calories and to also warm us up before our long walk home.
While I’m talking about Jamaica Pond I need to add that we went there in warmer weather too. It was a nice walk. There were many fields and meadows for picnics and games. Tootie and her girlfriends would take us there in the spring and summer months. The mothers would find a bench to sit on while they talked, knitted and read. We’d take off running to let out the energy that comes with childhood years. When I became a teenager it was another place to go on a date, just to walk and talk and be together while in a very natural setting. It was also another inexpensive date. In uptown Jamaica Plain, near the pond and towards the Arboretum area was the Boston Children’s Museum. We went there at least once a year. It was another day’s outing for Tootie and her friends. It was a favorite place of mine, until I discovered the Fine Arts Museum and the Gardener Museum in Boston.
As a matter of fact, my first paying job (when I was 15 years old) was across from the Jamaica Pond too. It was at a large nursing home, and I was hired as a kitchen helper and server. The people living there were ambulatory and came into the large dining room for their meals. I think I lasted about six weeks as one of their employees. My uniform and work registration card ate up all the profits too. (I wore a white nurse’s uniform and we had to wear hairnets since the work involved food.) Well, I started out with an open-mind. I took the meals into the dining room and the old folks were wonderful. But, gradually the managers had me doing more and more cooking in the kitchen until I finally quit. I think the cook had resigned suddenly and they were desperate. I didn’t enjoy putting meals together, even though they were simple ones. I especially didn’t like having food on my clothes and under my fingernails. (Some things never change either.)
Next I tried another nursing home that was near my high school. The second one involved delivering food too, but to the patients’ bedsides. Those people were not in quite the same type of situation as the people at the first home. They were very old, crippled and feeble. Some were not in their right minds. Part of my job involved climbing stairs with large trays of food …. and the home had three floors. I’d take the food into their rooms and feel awkward and embarrassed for the lack of privacy the patients had. Most of them didn’t even know I was there, but it still made me uncomfortable. Then too, it wasn’t a really clean place. When I’d go back later to get the trays-sometimes there would be strange things left on them by the old folks. This second job was also short lived and I gave up on the idea of working for pay while I was still in school.
When I was fifteen I enrolled in my first charm school classes. They were held at the Gilchrist’s store that was a favorite of Tootie’s. Gilchrist’s was in downtown Boston and she would take me there for lunch when I was still young enough to be in elementary school. There was a counter type of restaurant inside the department store. I looked forward to going there and loved their grilled cheese sandwiches. It always seemed like such a treat to be eating out even if it was at a counter.
As a young child I started making trips to the library. I was addicted to reading. It gave me time alone, and I could escape into someone else’s life and adventures. I read lots. It got to the point that I ran out of books to read in the children’s section and the librarians then let me into the young-adult section. It wasn’t long before I progressed to adult books. I could read a thick book per day. I’d get lost in the stories and fantasies while reading; or else I’d read non-fiction books about other people’s lives. My favorites, then and to this day, are books about other women. It gives me comfort to relate to the similarities that we share in our thoughts, feelings and struggles. These type of books leave me in awe of the heroics and strength of other women.
Another favorite time of solitude was when I was a preteen. I would leave the Big House and climb the hill behind it. I would walk fast, and with a specific goal in mind. Those were the days when I could feel safe walking streets in unfamiliar neighborhoods. I’d cut through little streets and climb under fences, making my own short cuts to my final destination that was a museum. I never grew bored at the Boston Fine Arts Museum. I’d walk through the rooms looking at statues and paintings. I was fascinated with the history of the pieces on display. The highlight of my day there would always be in the Egyptian rooms. I’d study their beds, clothing and sarcophagi-and wonder what it was like when pyramids were built and Pharaohs ruled.
Editorial assistance provided by Fran Perkins.