It was 1954. Pius the XII reigned. Beatniks were unknown to me; we all had wiffles. The Red Sox finished forty-two games out; Williams having returned from Korea, led the league in hitting. Ike was in the second year of his presidency, Paul Dever was the governor of Massachusetts, and Cousy – a strange looking kid from faraway Long Island – after starring at the Cross was making people in Boston notice basketball. Hockey still reigned supreme. I was twelve years old.
The mile from Harvard Square to the corner of Huron Avenue and Appleton Street is one of the longest miles in the world. Joe Agopian, an Armenian – I only recently realized Armenia was even then part of the USSR – ran the grocery store on that corner. When I say "ran," I mean rented, operated and worked it, as best I could tell, at all times. Nothing was done for Jerry's kids in Joe's convenience store. The wood was dark, the room was dingy, there seemed to be little inventory but you could usually get what you needed – Wonder bread, Hoodmilk and tonic (it was never soft drinks or soda pop); I liked moxie. Joe was a significant part of my life; he was always there, complaining, fussing, reading his paper, but permanent (that corner store is now a fish market, run by several bright well-spoken women wearing outfits that remind you of granola. I wonder what will happen to them with the full realization that lobsters suffer pain when boiled alive).
I suppose Schlesinger, Galbraith, and Kissinger – all young professors – were nearby thinking big thoughts. Samuelson was redefining Keynesian Economics at MIT and Archibald McLeash was doing the poetry thing. They all were in my immediate presence; I of course knew nothing of them nor cared anything for them. Rather, the corner was the central focus of my life. How I performed and was perceived there formed for me a major sense of who I was.
In my revisionist recollection, I often say that the boys of the corner were from Irish, Italian, and central European families – I remember it as a great melting pot. In fact, on careful reflection, they were virtually all Irish with one forceful member being Italian and at least one with no origin known to me, his name was Long and he looked like a bulldog. McNamara's band had nothing on us – Murphy, Mahoney, Fitzgerald, Cody, Duffy Downey, Hickey, Tansey. Ironically there were no "O's" among the gang, which always concerned me. Were we authentic?
Fathers then were quiet, distant, unfeeling figures. There were no practices at the Y to attend or Saturday games with referees, clocks, uniforms, and whistles and parents watching. We played every sport every day on the lawns of the rich people up the hill, on the streets and in vacant schoolyards of nearby private schools for the privileged until asked to leave. We always returned.
In retrospect, the corner seems so tribal and territorial. As I count it off, every participant lived within two blocks of the corner. If you do it by houses, the furthest was ten houses away, albeit in three different directions. The fourth direction – up the hill – housed the "ritzier" with summer homes in Maine, VW bugs, no socks, and most important, an imagined connection with Harvard or Yale. They were polite, entrenched and successful. They had been there a long time, and as I saw it, did not experience life the way we did. They were happy, self-assured and, most of all, secure.
There were other corners spread throughout the area. The one immediately adjoining us down Huron Avenue toward Fresh Pond was only four blocks away – the two blocks in our territory and the two blocks in their territory. The dividing line, however, was very real, it was palpable. I honest to God didn't know those kids, although some of us attended the same school. They were from the other corner, they were different and alien, although I suppose virtually all Irish. Were they bigger, stronger, better athletes, better fighters? I suspected yes in all categories.
The corner represented "our territory" – common turf, belonging, identity. It was a male's world. Where did we learn the codes, the ways of doing and belong? No one told us, yet we knew. Young warriors at puberty intuitively reconstructing an entire sociology. There were leaders and followers, strong and weak. Long and Lecesse – the Italian – were strong, could fight and, interestingly enough, were also smart. I was smart, observant and avoided physical conflict at all costs. I fully equated leadership with physical courage and prowess and therefore followed. There, of course, were the tests: would you light fire to the huge stack of leaves in early November, would you derail the trackless trolley from its wires, would you ridicule John O'Malley and taunt Joe Doherty?
John O'Malley was a slight, thin, ageless man – I suppose in actuality he was no more than 30. He was intelligent, but apparently unemployable. I can still see his slight, effeminate shuffling figure wandering almost aimlessly up and down Vassal Lane. He lived with his mother in a triple-decker and talked constantly about the Catholic hierarchy. God knows how modern psychology would classify him; he would have no place in a modern, affluent suburban neighborhood. We, however, in our sometimes taunting, irreverent and callous way, took care of John. I secretly felt empathy for him, always listened, and, when not observed, had a kind word. I was told by many in later years that he idolized me. I was the bright, thoughtful, sensitive boy among the gang. This was my first inkling that I could use those traits to hide myself and yet gain respect.
The ritual required me to ridicule John in public, but he always knew how I felt. He would rail about Monsignor Murphy, the Pastor at St. Peters with a Harvard education and a degree from the American College in Rome. I can still hear John's cynical imitation of the Monsignor – "When I was a student in Rome" – delivered in a stylized Harvard accent. The Monsignor, in John's view, was clearly putting on airs, he was lace curtain, he was better than all of us and he would never let anyone forget it. I can still see the red ball atop his liturgical cap, his flowing cassock with red buttons and seams, and his statuesque figure. His entry into our classroom would trigger a leaping of the class in unison to attention, and a strong and clear "Good Morning Monsignor." In retrospect, we were like the brown shirts; that may be a little strong but you get the point. John, I think, was onto something.
Joe Daugherty would also not exist in a modern neighborhood. (People like Joe and John always existed then. Where have they gone?) Joe was probably a mongoloid; we thought of him simply as an idiot. He would drag his left leg around, was phenomenally strong and would literally grunt in response to our taunts. Because of his strength, however, we were all secretly afraid and in awe of him. I still carry a scar on my right shoulder from the time he hit me with a rock.
"Ingle's is a penny pusher" was the taunt we used to make Ingles, the overweight Irish bus driver who drove the trackless trolley on the route through our neighborhood, furious. He had the temerity to always insist upon the full fare. Members of the corner would yank the wires from his bus sending sparks flying through the air, inevitably resulting in Ingle's storming from the bus, attempting to get at us. We taunted, laughed, and ran. I'm not sure I ever actually pulled the wires.
In the life of the corner, perceptions were crucial. I learned to maintain facades and to suppress how I really felt. I actually liked John, pitied Joe, and wanted Ingles to be relieved of his torment. I abhorred violence, disliked destruction, and even wanted the Monsignor to admire me. What did the corner mean? My romantic view tells me it was the place of learning to belong, experiencing rights of initiation, developing bonds of friendship and moving toward manhood. There was also a dark underside which I am just beginning to come in touch with. Survival of the fittest comes to mind. Deceit and deception were part of my game. Those skills were honed and challenged each time I entered the corner community – virtually every day of my young life. Despite the underside, the realty of that experience – contact with human nature as it was – is an experience that I have difficulty duplicating in my skyscraper world. If I could again live the corner with the insights of a middle-age man, would the experience differ? Would those insights help me achieve a sort of youthful Utopia? I doubt it. The corner was fulfilling and terrorizing – safe and confusing. The corner had to be.