(Names have been changed in respect of privacy)
My fondest early memories are of the sounds and smells of a working waterfront where three uncles and two aunts and my mother earned their livelihood. My young senses were thumb-printed with the exciting impressions of my environment ... Fishing boats with full holds of fresh catches, cutters sharpening fillet knives, sardines being steamed for canning in dockside packing factories, keen-eyed wholesalers and buyers with scaly hands, weathered boat crews waiting for their money to bring home, a foamy green ocean tide slapping against the sides of snail embedded pilings and gangs of squawking herring gulls overhead - “Aha! You missed me! ” Unfortunately, a bull’s eye often happened when sitting on the docks, our targeted backs exposed, as we fished for tinker mackerel when the season was right.
From birth throughout our lifetime, as far as we always knew whether that awareness was inbred or absorbed conditioning, that there were only three areas of this bustling coastal urban center that were the real jewels of the city of Portland, Maine: The West End, Munjoy Hill and Gorham’s Corner, populated by the strongest backs and most courageous hearts from Ireland - sturdy men and women, children of brave souls who had struggled against the infamous potato famine only to be driven, by starvation, from their beloved land. I still can hear the old grandmothers singing, in their Gaelic tongue, from the kitchens of their neat homes.
… It had been a tough and tender place, this West End of mine, similar to embroidered burlap that endures the wear of time and the abuse of scrub boards. Memories easily slide forward in my mind and images immerge from 70 plus years ago; indelible markers to the familiar streets of my childhood where aged brown and gray tenement houses crowded the narrow shrub poked alleys between them. Bare attic windows reflecting back their visuals, dirty from coal dust and the lack of a soapy wipe. From smudged chimneys and beneath ill-fitting doors, the odors of fried fish and boiled potatoes and cabbage escaped and mingled with the smells of coal and kerosene burning kitchen stoves. High above rooftops and gnarled oak trees, seagulls dipped and glided and scolded rowdy children who darted between moving cars beneath their outstretched wings.
“Get away from that bloody road, will ya!”
Mothers hollered and heavily laden clotheslines strained from rusty reels as frosty garments cracked in the wind and became targets for an irresistible pitch of a snowball.
On a gradual incline from the waterfront, overlooking the Irish area which abided one French family, a few Polish residents and one Greek family, the resonant sounds of Saint Dominic’s Church bells announcing services pierced an early evening sky. Matronly women, mitten-covered hands clutching worn rosary beads, puffed clouds of steam as they hastened to the center and pulse of the neighborhood. Cradled under its spires, a red brick school building smugly projected special importance where creamy-faced Sisters of Mercy nuns with rosy cheeks, sternly taught catechism and the basics and lectured on sin and the need to save south sea pagan babies with donations of money from our parents that could be equated with pulling teeth from pit bull terriers. And, as always, the nun’s appeal was followed by a long discourse on frugality and self denial and, unrestricted generosity, an oxymoron I could never make right. This building was an all girl’s school but not all of us were the ladies we were groomed to be for had it been up to some of us, the donation would not have been for a pagan baby we would of ‘saved’ but ourselves with sweet raspberry tarts or puck’ery sour pickles the size of a policeman’s baton from a corner store, and swallowed down with a few ‘Hail Mary’s’ lest St. Peter had witnessed our dastardly deed and sent a memo to the ‘home office’. A booted tin can away where the hem of the parish brushed across the harbor, pubs like strategically placed fire-hydrants, lit the length of Commercial Street to the wharfages of the harbor.
Now, contrary to a popular belief, very few Irishmen who frequented the pubs did not become drunks nor did they drink to excess unless it was on St. Paddy’s Day or there was a wedding or a wake or the birth of their first grandchild. These men, including my French uncles (my Irish uncles lived in South Portland across the then referred to span over Casco Bay as the ‘Million Dollar’ bridge were the backbone of the West End of Portland, Maine. They were fishermen, longshoremen, cops, construction workers, mailmen … and most efficacious of all, politicians and priests. Plain ordinary men who could sing and dance and knuckle a fist if need be. And, tearfully, when telling stories of Ireland, their beloved ancient mother, they showed you her heart and her bleeding wounds as no other can describe with such beguiling words and fervor. Now, if you were Irish and French as myself (who genetically possessed the best of both nationalities) then you knew you’d been swaddled, at birth, in the ancient wrappings of your ancestors, your neighborhood, your waterfront and though more poor than wealthy you were magnificently affluent!
If I was to list what priorities came first with our families it would have to be: church and then the pharmacy, and the doctor if you please, the insurance man and the corner grocery store. When it was rained or snowed, the stores’ neon lights sprayed an array of colors onto the sidewalks that glistened in the evenings like crushed crystal. Once inside, your pockets couldn’t hold the amount of money needed to satisfy all the ‘wants’ that ached in our minds. In particular, mouth-watering steaks and lamb chops behind a glassed-in case smeared with fingerprints that had pointed to rolls of bologna, lackluster hamburg, and a tray of bacon ends. On Sundays and holidays we had roasted chicken and, depending on cost, pork or corned beef.
A basement junk shop in a two-family home that bumped it’s chest with end of York street, was a bit mysterious to us kids referred to as Zeeskyte (Sweetie) who just had to visit it once aweek. The several steps into the dimly lit shop were like walking down a straight ladder so we jumped them and, always, broke our fall against the thick door. “Go, Go home! “How many time I tell you this? “Oy vey, you make me Meshugeneh!” Fact is, we liked eachother.
Outside the shop, on the sidewalk and unmovable, was the reason we were there to begin with - A four foot tall, iron cast lion stood grinning at us. Why not? The boys (dear hearts to their mothers) could never come up with a way to steal him. What a magnificent animal he was and so shiny, a sheen we were told that came from frequently being larded down so weather wouldn’t effect it too much. No matter, after a few quick wipes, we took turns riding him and kicking his flanks through the Serengeti plains of Africa! “Alise Marie, (AliceMary have you been riding that lion, again?”
“How do you know, Grandmere?” (Grandmother)
“How do I know? ... Take a look at your backside, and see for yourself!”
O’Houlahhan’s Fish Market was another favorite place. The old man spoke with a thick Irish brogue and wore home-sown bib aprons made from ‘sail cloth’. Most of the times, he saved the lobster bodies for my grandmother, three for a nickel, who patiently picked the meat, a savory enhancement to her delicious fish chowders.
“Have a grand day, Mademoiselle from Armentieres.” I hated him calling me that!
“How can I, Irishman, when you’ve raised the price of these lobster bodies?”
I can still hear his booming laughter echoing from the past like the sounds of the factory horns calling in the sardine packers fusing with the undulating tones of buoy bells ... the creaking of docked vessels ... hoarse whispers from a confessional ... an unguarded argument …
A few blocks away; sandwiched in, as an after-thought, between a radio repair and shoe shop, a drab restaurant bar aptly named the “Catch-All” netted in all sorts of folks from the neighborhood and docks; diners, local kids, merchant seamen, sailors, tanker crewmen, shipyard workers and a reporter or two from the Portland Evening Express or Portland Press Herald looking for leads on a waterfront story that was circulating … “You must have heard something – You can trust me.”
The owner, a soft touch for drunks and kids did manage on occasion to wash and wax the floor. Doing both with the same frazzled mop that only sealed in grease and spills on the cracked tiles. Once in a great while, a city inspector would visit and for weeks afterwards, word would spread like melted butter about how clean and neat the “Catch-All” was and how the tables were covered with colorful new oil-cloths. It was then that we’d drop in on a draggy afternoon after hounding our parents for a few cents.
“Well now, what brings you crumb-snatchers here?”
“Can we have a quarter’s worth of potato fries?”
“Why don’t you go home and eat?”
“You cook better fried potatoes than our mothers do.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah ... Your mothers will be chopping me up for bait.”
Half an hour later the 3 or 4 four of us had plates rounded with chunky fries and chopped onion, and four sodas, consuming it all with delight. “Here’s your quarter, thanks a lot, the potatoes tasted so good.”
“Yeah, yeah, keep your money. Just say the rosary for me.”
We never did tell our parents of our rare fried potato outings but did regale Sister Michaela with our latest visit to the “Catch-All” who, after regaining her composure, insisted we go to the chapel and say prayers of thanks for the owner and prayers of penance for ourselves. Next time, we would bring her some!
It was beginning to snow. As if following an invisible maestro, December snowflakes pirouetted and waltzed in larghetto, then gracefully descended upon heaped piles of trash that awaited the rubbish trucks. Wet paper bags with their contents spilled and scattered about by scavenging cats and dogs had been strewn against pot-bellied cardboard boxes. Knocked over rusted barrels, with missing lids the boys had used for shields and sleds, leaned on snow-banks that were streaked with disgusting dog markings. Slowly, a cover of snow began to conceal the eye-sores that would, the following day, be cleaned up begrudgingly.
Off in the darkness, a foghorn emitted a lowing, shofar sound and a solitary and iced-over fishing boat - its running lights barely visible -headed towards harbor. A kitchen light came on and a steaming teapot was moved to the back of the stove. The odor of freshly baked bread permeated through the house.
In the hush of dawn, a sleepy voice was heard coming from a chilly bedroom …
“Grandmere, can I get up and have a cup of tea with you?”
“As long as you say the rosary first, Alise Marie.”