Monday, December 29, 2008

On hiatus

Gentle reader,

Like an auto plant, Whalehead Enterprises is taking a brief hiatus to restructure before embarking on the new year. Please rejoin us on January 3rd. In the meantime, best wishes for a Happy New Year to you and yours.


Friday, December 26, 2008

North-South is obsolete

Dorchester is traditionally divided into North Dorchester and South Dorchester. This may have made sense when the neighborhood added density during the years of streetcar expansion just after annexation. The more populated areas were located closer to Boston proper and the more rural and suburban parts, with the exception of the factory hamlet of Lower Mills, were farther away. Dorchester in the 21st century looks much the same if you cross it on a north-south axis.

From a demographic point-of-view, Dorchester should be split east-to-west, though the demarcations are a bit hazy. Like time zones, the boundaries between East Dorchester and West Dorchester zig zag between each other. Demographically speaking, the neighborhoods closer to Dorchester Bay are a world apart from those further inland. It is a matter of income brackets, ethnicity, and urban culture. I'm not telling any secrets when I say that most of the crime headlines in the daily papers are generated in the western half of Dorchester while most of the heart-warming, human interest stories, such as they happen to appear, are set in the eastern half of this great part of Boston.

Columbia Point, Savin Hill, Neponset Circle, Pope's Hill, and Adams Village are very different from Morton Village, Codman Square, Geneva-Bowdoin and Upham's Corner. But the two opposing poles intermix and intersect. There is a big difference between the areas surrounding Field's Corner and Ashmont Stations, and the one around Shawmut Station which sits between them like a rose between two thorns. Despite the real estate hyperbole about new developments around Peabody Square (Ashmont Station), this neighborhood isn't gentrifying. That said, Ashmont Hill contains some of the most beautiful mansions in Boston. The Kennedys hail from there originally; and Melville Avenue between Codman Sq. and Fields Corner is home to what I think is the most perfect house in all of Boston. That's saying something in a city rich with beautiful domestic architechture, the Back Bay included.

There are other examples in Dorchester of pockets of affluence amid rot just as there are examples of acres of ruins surrounded by tidy , working-class burghers minding their own business and tending their gardens. Dorchester is larger than the imagination, neither wholly black nor white but all the shades of a polyglot palette. Currents cross and mix in Dorchester. It is called the Dot for a reason, but it isn't flat. It is well-rounded but more an orb, a point where gravity coheres a collection of citizens around a common goal: making thier surroundings as livable and good as they can.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Intensive care

The owner of a particular hair salon in Savin Hill asked that no revealing details be told in this report. We respect his wishes. By naming the shop's neighborhood we are not letting any cats out of any bag. Like everywhere in Boston, Savin Hill is flush with hairdressers as well as barbers, manicurists, convenience stores, pizzerias and Chinese take-out joints. To say that one catagory of establishment is in any broad jurisdiction is not a secret; there are dozens within blocks of each other.

The salon in question doesn't have any remarkable features if one looks through the front window. It is clean and stylish enough to entice women and metrosexual men to stop in for a hair cut. The receptionist at the desk looks welcoming and unintimidating enough. There is a special room in back, however, that maintains its sterility through positive air pressure, where a few special clients are admitted access. As the owner told me, "We don't like to advertise our services. We already serve clients beyond capacity and, really, the facilities are for emergencies only."

Before we started our tour his cell phone rang. He listened intently and barked a few questions: "How long has this been going on?...Mmm hmmm...How rapid are the contractions?...Mmm Hmm...Do you feel you can drive? Should I call an ambulance?...Okay. Get here as quickly as you can." Then we started our tour.

I was ushered past the chairs and mirrors and sinks and that make up the main salon through a locked, panel door that opened with a whoosh that blew my forelock back on my scalp. What greeted me was what may be Boston's premier intensive hair care unit. It was empty at the moment and this allowed the owner to show off and demonstrate all the equipment. The room is about the size of a typical pantry and most the wall space is lined with shelves holding bottles and polystyrene bags of exotically colored gels and small, mad scientist-style machinery. At the rooms center is a typical barber chair covered with a foam, egg crate mattress to prevent clients from developing pressure ulcers while they undergo treatment.

We proceeded clock-wise. The owner explained, "Here we keep our nutrient protein-enhancers and on this shelf we store the collagen formulae. Down here are the coco butter and lanolin for easy access at hip level in the case the patient, I mean client, goes into split arrest." He directed my attention to a device that sprouted a kaleidoscope of telephone wire tipped with alligator clips. "This is our follicle defibrillator," he said, "And over here is our parenteral conditioning unit." His tour was full of descriptions about micro-sebaceous pumping mechanisms and trans-dermal vitamin infusions and cytogenetic dye spectrometry. I have to admit I didn't follow most of it but he seemed to know what he was talking about.

As we wound up my visit a young woman wearing a turban burst through the front door. "You have to help me," she exclaimed, "I'm going to a party tonight and I can't go like this. I tried to do a touch up job bleaching my roots and now my hair is falling out!" The hair stylist on call took her pulse for thirty seconds and then fetched a flashlight out of his pocket to check her pupils. He turned to me and said, "I have a serious case here. Do you mind if you show yourself out? I'm going to be very busy for the next hour or so and I can't be disturbed. Lock the door behind you, if you don't mind." I said I understood the gravity of the situation and I did as he requested. As I closed the door I heard the stylist call to his assistant, "Fire up the autoclave. We've got a case of acute, achromatic alopecia here!"

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


This story is bizarre beyond being believable, but here we go anyway. Someone has to tell it and I was present and accounted for.

I received an email recently from an agent of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services. It read, "Mr. King, We understand you are familiar with events occurring in Dorchester that may not be followed by the usual news media or government agencies. We request a meeting to discuss some unusual, medical occurrences that have taken place in Dorchester and would like to learn your insight on developments concerning a demonstrable uptick in back alley surgical procedures. [italics mine]." This certainly seemed like my bread and butter so I agreed to an interview on the eleventh floor of One Ashburton Place downtown.

The agent and I sat at an empty conference table while nibbling catered sandwiches delivered from rebecca's cafe (lower case for proper nouns dictated by rebecca's corporate HQ). The agent asked me what I knew about illicit, unlicensed surgeries being performed in Dorchester. I admitted that this development hasn't registered on my radar.

A little back story: Over the past few years Mass Medicaid has been approving and paying for gastric bypass surgery for beneficiaries whose overall health is threatened by morbid obesity. As one would expect, rerouting a person's esophagus more directly to the small intestine is an expensive affair, even at government rates. The surgery is generally successful in alleviating the condition it is supposed to cure. Patients on average lose between 65% to 80% of excess body fat very quickly. This rapid weight loss often results in the patient acquiring a pannus about the patient's midsection.

Pannus is the Latin word for cloth though in this case it may be more properly translated as 'apron.' The patient's skin cannot contract as quickly as the excess fat being lost and hence an apron of empty skin develops that, in some cases without the underlying support, can hang almost to the knees. The Health and Human Services agent informed me that rumor on the street is that Mass Medicaid considers removal of this pannus after gastric bypass surgery isn't covered by the program since it is considered cosmetic surgery rather than therapeutic. I could see the reasoning. After all, I don't see any supermodels with an apron of excess belly skin strutting the catwalk, not even at Boston fashion shows.

The agent explained that some panniculectomies, as the surgical removal of this apron is called, are medically necessary. The underside of the pannus is often subject to dermatitis either of the fungal kind because of difficulties in keeping these deep folds clean and dry, or of the mechanical kind due to excessive rubbing against other surfaces. She emphasized that when medically justified the surgical removal of excess belly skin is a covered service under Mass Medicaid guidelines. This sounded reasonable to me.

The agent leaned in so close that her hair was in my egg salad, "Do you know, Mr. King, that we have seen a twenty-seven patients at Boston hospitals who are suffering complications from panniculectomies performed for private payment in unlicensed operating theaters in the Dorchester area?" I admitted that didn't know that. She continued, "Most of these beneficiaries are eligible for coverage under Mass Medicaid rules from contracted providers but they don't go there because they've been told the Commonwealth is cutting back on reimbursement for this procedure. They are going to unlicensed surgeons to correct their deformity and paying out of pocket. Granted, it's a reasonable fee considering the work being done, but it often much more than what Mass Medicaid has determined to be the proper reimbursement rate. Naturally, providers not certified by the Commonwealth don't always adhere to the standards we here at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services beleive to be in people's best interest. The system is starting to see the consequences in post-operative infections and sponges being left in the wounds." It was all news to me.

She said, "Do you know where most of these operations are performed?" I knew the answer already before she said it, "Mattapan."

Of course, Mattapan, that neighborhood where all sorts of trickery hatches without breaking egg shells. Mattapan...Where truth and falsehood exchange hats and every passing face is an enigma that asks. "How do you do?" Mattapan... Where fake IDs are passports. Mattapan... Where every shyster and accountant and hedge fund manager proudly hangs a store-bought diploma behind his desk. Mattapan... Where the best hot dogs are served, where best suits are tailored, and where the most well-attended churches make room to shelter their congregations. Mattapan.... Sweet, trusty, shady, sparkling, sparking Mattapan, the part of Boston that is most a'glow with unbridled opportunity. Mattapan...

The agent asked me if I could shed any light on the department's statistics. I said no and I thanked her for the sandwich. Exiting onto Ashburton Place, I looked at Boston's skyline looming and stretching to the south. I was only a few miles from Mattapan but I was a world away, slender and stylishly dressed in a bespoke suit and a shirt sporting folded-over cuffs. I get my tailoring done in Mattapan by an unlicensed tailor. If I needed a panniculectomy, I might consider the unlicensed neighborhood surgeons headquartered in that part of Boston. It is a place known as much for its bargain quality as for skirting around regulations. The two go hand in hand. Let the buyer beware and do due diligence. Any sawbones with a paring knife and a bottle of rubbing alcohol can hang his or her shingle in Mattapan but so can any respectable surgeon. You roll the dice for relief and the chance to improve your condition. You take your chances but there are worse places than Mattapan. There aren't any statistics for all the successful operations.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Snow on fire

Timmy Tyrole's trick would have been a neat one if his grandmother hadn't put the kabosh on his scheme. The hands of idle boys are the Devil's insturments.

Timmy is a student at Everett Elementary School on Pleasant Street. He lives on Cushing Avenue in N'orchester, but with school being cancelled due to inclement weather, Timmy spent the weekend with his grandparents in Lower Mills, a few miles south and expected to stay until after X-mas. In history class, Timmy has been studying the Eastern Roman Empire and he's been quite taken with the notion of 'Greek fire.' This was a weapon the crafty Byzantines deployed against invading navies, an unknown, petroleum-based product (hypothetically) that set the waves themselves aflame around foreign armadas that couldn't be extinguished. Timmy, though overall a good boy, likes to play with matches. He is like a moth when he is around fire.

Timmy's grandparents live on Old Morton Street in Lower Mills, a few blocks from the Walter Baker Chocolate Factory that has been converted to apartments. Faced with spending a few days exiled in Lower Mills, Timmy brought his history book to pass the time and get ahead on homework. During the recent snowstorm he was puttering around in his grandfather's workshop located in the cinder block garage detached from the main house. He was eyeing the jars and cans of mysterious liquids his grandfather has collected over the decades, and Timmy decided to see if he could replicate Greek fire.

He took an empty spackle bucket and mixed gasoline and kerosene and stirred in a pint of old turpentine that had congealed into jelly. He splashed in a dash of cadmium-based acrylic paint because red is the color of fire. His original thought was to toss the whole load into the Neponset River, the way the Byzantines would, but like a good scientist he considered the consequences and didn't want to see his experiment wash out to sea. Figuring snow, which was everywhere, is also water, he trucked his bucket into his grandmother's back yard and poured it over the snow drifts.

Luckily, Hattie Tyrole was washing the breakfast dishes while Timmy was going about his preparations. She rushed out the kitchen door and said, "What do you think you're doing, young man?" Timmy answered, "I'm making Greek fire."

Even with the wind blowing snowflakes and frigid sea breeze off Dorchester Bay, Hattie Tyrole could smell the fumes off Timmy's concoction. "No you're not,"she scolded, "You're getting yourself inside where I can keep my eye on you."

Hattie made hot cocoa and lectured Timmy while he stirred the marshmallows in his cup. "What sort of fool thing were you up to? Do you want to set the whole neighborhood on fire?" Timmy was sullen. He said, "I wanted to make Greek fire. I wanted to see if it really worked." His grandmother said, "What do you know about Greeks? All they're good for is running diners not setting fires. Why don't you be good and dry these dishes? That will be enough fun for both of us."

Timmy wasn't convinced. While he dried the dishes and handed them to his grandmother to put in the cabinets, he looked out the window at the snowdrift he had stained with his imitation Greek fire. He knew he wasn't going to get to put a match to it, the snowfall was burying it at a rate of two inches an hour. His grandmother said, "You're a smart boy, when you grow up you can experiment all you want. Just don't do it now and don't do it in my back yard."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jungle love

With a blanket of snow over Dorchester, we were surprised to hear the soothing sounds of exotic tiki music wafting out of an open, third story window on Sagamore Street. The ukulele strains were so hypnotic, a gaggle of Dorchesterites had stopped in the middle of the middle of the street with ears cocked upward. Nobody was doing a lot of driving today but the streets were thick with pedestrians heading though the snow flakes for milk, malt liquor, bagged snack food and pizza made to order.

A young man sporting a frizzled beard was one of the people stopped on Sagamore Street listening to the music that issued out of this apartment. He said, "I feel like I'm in Hawaii." He said it spontaneously to no one in particular and he was quickly hit with a snowball by a companion who said, "I couldn't do this in Hawaii, buster." The whole group guffawed and scooped snowballs from around their feet and started pelting the guy who exaggerated the situation too much.

It didn't feel like Hawaii in Dorchester or any other part of Boston today. It felt like New England in winter, the worst time to live here. Despite that, it did feel care-free. There is something about a snow storm that makes everyone congenial. We are all in this together. The inconvenience of not being able to travel as far as you choose forges a bond with other people in the street, in the stores, in the pizza parlors...we just want to get out a bit and see that the world is getting on. It's nice to be alive in a winter wonderland. Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury, Eastie, Charlestown, Chelsea, Southie, the Back Bay, the South End, West Roxbury, they are all pretty places but they become even prettier under a blanket of snow.

One of the women who stopped on Sagamore Street, she was 60 years old if she was a day, said, "This music puts me in mind for the beach." She looked at her squire and said, "Why don't we take the Blue Line to Revere and walk the beach?" He said he would load his ipod with tiki music as soon as they got home and then they would be off like a shot for Kelly's Roast Beef and a stroll along the picturesque shores of exotic Massachusetts Bay.

Dorchester breeds daydreams along its shortest streets.
A little shameless promotion. Here is a nice gift for the gal at the front desk who greets people who enter your high-flalutin' brokerage firm and politely tells them to cool their heels while they wait to consult with you on a high-risk, high return scheme. In the world of high finance, it's the receptionist who makes or breaks deals.
This cup also is good for any immigrant Bostonian of the fairer sex. It is popular in Roxbury kitchen cabinets as much as in the board rooms of the BPL, the BFD, the BRA, the ICA and at the diners clustered around Broadway Station in Southie. Smart women do live in Boston. Most of them drink coffee.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Selling ice to eskimos

Chauncy Dibble trudged through the snow this morning with a grocery cart packed with a card table, paper cones and bottles of syrup. He believes that today, in the aftermath of yesterday's blizzard, is snow cone weather. "The raw materials are here for the taking."

He set up shop at the intersection of Lithgow Street and Talbot Avenue, not the busiest place for automobile traffic but pedestrians travel back and forth between Codman and Peabody Squares, either to pick up sundries on Washington Street or to catch the T at Ashmont Station. Mr. Dibble unfolded his card table at 9:30 expecting to tuck a tidy profit into the pockets of his down parka. "Sure you can just bend down and scoop up a handful of snow," he said. "I add that little bit of tropical sweetness that makes you forget you're in New England. When you eat a cone, you're happy to have the snow."

Mr. Dibble has an array of bottles on his table: Pomegranate, Mango, Passion Fruit, Watermelon, Sour Cherry, Pina Colada, Banana-Raspberry, Guava, and Clementine. We happened upon him at 2:00 this afternoon while he was filling two paper cones with snow from the sidewalk and drizzling one with Passion Fruit syrup and the other with Guava. Minnie and Millie Blackstone were his customers and both said they would never have thought of enjoying a snow cone today until they saw Mr. Dibble's display. "He's very convincing," Minnie said. "I'm really looking forward to the rest of my walk to Walgreen's," Millie said.

Chauncy Dibble explained that he chose his location because the intersection of Lithgow and Talbot is protected from the splash of plows and passing trucks so the snow retains it virgin quality throughout the day. He is armed with an oversize serving spoon that he uses to pack the paper cones from a pile he keeps replenished from nearby lawns and walkways. He says, "The neighbors don't mind me harvesting their snow for profit. I promise to keep the paths to their front doors clear and they wish me well." How's business? Mr. Dibble is coy about the numbers but he did remark that he expects his children to have a happy X-mas this year.

The Guava cone tastes like real guava.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Burger King smells better

Burger King, that hamburger empire with outlets on Dot Ave and Columbia Road is branching out of the food business and into the scent business. We don't mean the aromas that waft out of the fry-o-lators into the surrounding neighborhood. We mean the scent of seduction "with a hint of flame-broiled meat" as only Burger King can do it. Flame broiling is what separates BK's burgers from McDonald's, as much as customers being able to have it their way. Now you can have it your way after a shave and not be a slave to the corporate tastes of Drakar, Canoe, Stetson or Old Spice.

Burger King has introduced its own cologne, or 'body spray' as the marketing wonks at Axe like to call it.

I was in line to order a loaded Angus Burger at the Dot Ave BK, standing behind a couple of toughs. You know the kind, construction workers wearing grimy, Carhartt overalls with baseball caps that haven't seen a washing machine since they were made. and bandannas in their back pockets caked with half-frozen snot and grit scraped from V-8 engines' headers. They had beards speckled with crumbs from yesterday's lunchtime subs and teeth as stained and crooked as the tombstones in the Old Burying Ground on the Common. These guys didn't place an order for food. They asked for the new Burger King cologne they has heard about from their buddies, the cologne that drives carnivorous women wild.

The cashier thought they were crazy so she summoned the assistant manager, a pudgy fellow who has obviously enjoyed his share of complimentary Whopper Jr.'s in lieu of a decent wage. He took control of the situation and told these customers that the cologne was only available for sale via the website The shorter of the two protested, "But I don't have a computer." The taller one pulled him aside and said, "You can use mine. I'll get a bottle for each of us."

After enjoying my scrumptious Angus Burger, I went home to confirm the facts. It is true, a meat scented cologne is for sale under Burger King's aegis, concocted to their exclusive, trademarked formula. After all, who could do it better than these experts in the field of flame-broiling beef for the masses.

I called Esmelda Perez, who is planning to open her "Smell Good Shop" on Upham's Corner. She told me over the phone, "Oh, I'm all over this one. I've already ordered a case and written the product line into my business plan. This will go over big in Dorchester. I smell dollars."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Where the good eats are

Yesterday was pleasant in Edward Everett Square, 59 degrees on the benches by the giant Clapp Pear Statue. Directly behind the park that sits at the bend where Columbia Road branches off the beginnings of Mass Ave and Boston Street, is a KFC that perfumes the neighborhood with the savory smells of fried poultry and Col. Sanders' special, secret blend of eleven herbs and spices. Taking advantage of the weather, five teen-aged boys were enjoying a ten-piece bucket of the Colonel's extra-crispy thighs, wings and breasts and commenting on their meal.

One boy said, "This chicken is okay but it's not as good as New York Fried Chicken. We could have walked three blocks and gone to New York."

The boy next to him replied, "There's nowhere to sit outside at New York. There's just a traffic island in the middle of Hancock Street. I'm not sitting there."

The boy next to him chimed in, "We could always sit inside. The tables are a little scrubby but the lights are bright. We would see what we're eating." This occured around 5:30 in the afternoon, dark in pre-winter solstice Boston even with the streetlights lit.

The second boy added this rejoinder: "Yeah, it's bright in there. It's bright enough to see the dirt."

The fourth boy said, "They run a clean joint but do you know where I want to go? KFC is okay and New York Chicken is okay but I'd rather be in Fenway. There's a Popeye's in Fenway."

The boy at the end of the last bench took a big bite of succulent breast meat. "Mmmm," he said, "Popeye's, now that's good fried chicken. They're living good in Fenway."

His companions nodded and smacked thier lips in agreement while they polished off the bucket. They made a plan to take the Red Line the next day and then any Green Line train but the "E" to Knemore Square. The first boy rubbed his belly and said, "I can't wait to pop in at Popeye's"

Monday, December 15, 2008

Strong medicine

When we introduced local beekeeper Leon Murphy yesterday, space constraints prevented us from reporting on a sideline he's developed from his hives on Norwell Street. We were eating pancakes at Saint's Diner in Codman Square when he explained it to me. In his words:

"An old, Haitian woman down on Morton Street heard that I raise bees and she came to me to purchase fifteen of them because her great-granddaughter had the croup. I didn't sell live bees at the time so I asked what she wanted them for and she gave me her recipe for croup cure. She took fifteen live bees and ground them in a mortar and pestle. Then she steeped the mash in boiled rainwater. After eight minutes she strained the tea through a cheesecloth and then squeezed every last bit of juice out of the bees. She said a teaspoon of this bee tea every hour along with rubbing chicken fat on the baby's neck and chest would cure the croup.

"I was skeptical but I sold her the bees, fifteen exactly for $2.50. Soon enough other people with croupy babies were knocking at my door. I figured, heck, I've got enough bees so I started making the tea myself and putting it into old pickle and peanut butter jars to save people the time of having to crush the bees themselves. It's not fun to do. It's worse than putting a lobster in a pot. They crunch. I even bought a mess of chicken fat from a friend I have in Newmarket and wrapped it in little packages of wax paper to go along with the tea. I charge twelve dollars a cure and I've got batches of the stuff in my hall pantry."

I said this sounded like a sound product. Leon Murphy replied, "You know what else? Even if you don't have a croupy baby it's good stuff. It's a love potion. I gave a few jars to my sister, Adelaide. She spiked her boyfriend's vodka and cranberry with it one night, without the chicken fat, of course. He proposed to her the very next day and they've been happily married for thirteen months. He's got eyes for nobody but her. There's power in my bees."

I didn't want to burst Leon Murphy's bubble. I've run into his brother-in-law a few times at Ka-Carlo's on Hancock Street. This chap is a tomcat of the first degree, flirting with the ladies and making time with whoever will answer his mating call. That said, I've also met Adelaide Murphy while she was still known by that name. Any man would love her.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A bit o' honey

Dorchester beekeeper Leon Murphy of 202 Norwell Street expressed his concerns over next year's honey crop. Mr. Murphy's hives have so far survived the blight that has been ripping through bee stocks around New England but he is concerned that no matter how much extra care he takes of his charges they may not bring in the revenue they used to. He is afraid a number of factors beyond his control may collude to bring his sideline apiculture business to an unfortunate end.

Mr. Murphy pays his rent and other regular, monthly expenses changing tires at a shop on Blue Hill Avenue. For frivolities and nights on the town and philanthropic endeavors, he relies on the bees he keeps in his back yard and the honey they produce. He sells most of his honey either to a dealer who operates a farmers' booth at Copley Square, to the Saint's Diner in Codman Square, or by a lucrative deal he arranged a few years ago with the makers of Bit o' Honey candy through a Haymarket wholesaler.

We were at Saint's Diner on Washington Street enjoying pancakes drizzled with some of Mr. Murphy's home grown honey when he told me what was troubling him. He said, "I'm afraid the flower gardens won't be as expansive as they have been. With the economy and all, people won't be putting the top notch flowers in their beds. My bees visit gardens all over Dorchester, collecting the pollen and bringing it back to Norwell St. Sometimes they get as far as Roslindale or Milton or Southie, but their bread and butter is here in Dorchester, especially around Melville Avenue. If people aren't going in for expansive, expensive, fancy gardens next spring, I think my honey might suffer."

Leon Murphy explained the mechanics of honey production to me while we ate our pancakes but I won't bore you with the details here. In summary, he believes the mix of perennial and seasonal flowers unique to Dorchester allow his bees to produce a honey superior to most others on the open market. He told me, "A Swiss gent from Nestle came to my apartment two years ago to taste my honey. I dipped a McDonald's coffee stirrer into one of my kitchen window combs for him to take a taste. As soon as he put his tongue to the gold he called up my agent in Haymarket to seal the deal. He had a German accent and he said right where I could hear, 'Dis honey is sehr gut!' I've been getting a good price for everything I can harvest since then. I don't want that market to dry up."

I tried to cheer up Mr. Murphy by telling him not to believe everything he reads in the papers. The economy is sound. He didn't seem convinced when we shook hands and parted ways. "I hope you're right," he said, "I hope people still like pretty lawns next year. If I'm going to give to my church the way I have been, I'm going to have to sell more than a little bit of honey. I'm going to have to sell a whole lot. It will make a lot of kids happy."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Smooth Sounds of the New Dorchester

Top forty and hip-hop have their places in Dorchester. This is a neighborhood of middle-aged, middle class, working folks out to dance like it's 1999. It is also a neighborhood that pulses with the fresh and angry sounds of disaffected, disenfranchised, urban youth. Between these two extremes there is another demographic that is a little more suave, a little more laid back, a little more je ne c'est quoi, if you know what I mean. They're cocktail people.

D Bar caters to these clientele. So does C.F. Donovan's. So does the Blarney Stone and the Ashmont Grill. Other joints have upped their sophistication to lesser degrees but there's a new beat in Dorchester and it's measured in 3:4 time. To be or not to be? I would tell you after last call, but by then I've forgotten the question. There's no such thing as too much lounging. It is good for the soul, if a little soggy on the gray matter.

We were in the Twelve Bens on Adams Street when some joker played Herb Alpert and His Tijuana Brass's classic "A Taste of Honey" on the jukebox. The patrons were a bit riled as this album has never been played in the Twelve Bens and they didn't know what to make of it. There was a vote to pull the juke box's plug and it was done unceremoniously.

A younger guy sitting in the corner stood up and said, "Hold on a minute. If you don't like that, I think you'll like this. It's the same thing, only better." He pulled out his ipod and plugged it into the house stereo. The John King and Dust Bros. remix of "A Taste of Honey" came through the overhead speakers and peace settled over the bar. It wasn't an Irish lullaby but everyone got swept up with the refrain and the back beats. Everyone agreed this is the sound of the new Dot.

This is your father's Herb Alpert:

This is the new, re-whipped cream:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sin in Neponset

S.I.N. is a bit of graffito that gets scrawled around Neponset Circle and Pope's Hill. Graffiti in this vein usually reads "KEEP OUT," or marks gang turf. Not in this part of Boston though. This is friendly terrain that welcomes visitors. S.I.N. stands for "Stay In Neponset." It's like a welcome mat laid out for all to step on. At big neighborhood gatherings the master-of-ceremonies will offer a traditional toast to everyone gathered, "Let's SIN and enjoy it!" People nudge each other and wink and guffaw.

Some people take the acronym more seriously and actually do sin. Nothing mortal; all the sins committed in Neponset are the venial kind: wedgies, whoopie cushions, white's a community of cut-ups made up of the nicest people you'll ever meet.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The beer they call liquor

Haffenreffer Private Stock, that supposed scourge of the inner city, 'liquid crack', ghetto-juice, actually has a respectable history with roots in Boston's brewing history. In fact, the site where it was orginally made is home to a national brewery that is either reviled or admired depending on your point-of-view. Boston's own Sam Adams Beer is made where the recipe for this supposed, modern urban scourge was first concocted:. As the label says: "Malt Liquor...with the imported taste." The Boston Brewing Co. is doing well on the foundations laid by Haffenreffer & Co. just after Prohibition was repealed. A little history.

When malt liquor was first introduced (please don't call it beer) it was sold as an upper class drink. The first national brand was 'Country Club' sold in tiny cans for cocktail party sipping because it tasted like champagne. The breed of yeast, among other things, lends understated, flavorful undertones reminiscent of fine wines. You can find this beverage in many corner package stores not just in Dorchester and Roxbury, but in East Boston, Charlestown, the South End, West Roxbury, Hyde Park, and in the surrounding communities of Somerville, Chelsea, Cambridge, Milton and Quincy.

Of course people now associate malt liquor with poverty, skid row, bums, and pocket-poor college students and hip-hop imressarios looking to make a quick endorsement buck. It didn't start out that way. I am just starting to scratch the surface of my malt liquor research (don't ask how this project came about) but one of the more popular, earlier brands was called Champale for a reason. It was intended for the upper crust or, at least, the upwardly mobile. Natty tennis players drank it. That's not an image you associate with gangsters sporting low-slung, baggy pants even if they can "sing."

Boston didn't invent malt liquor but the city, Jamaica Plain and Stony Brook in particular, played an important role in its evolution. Haffenreffer Private Stock is still made according to the original recipe and it is still sold here and enjoyed by thousands of Bostonians. To see how it matches up to other brands, click here. Indepent experts agree it stands up pretty well to the competition. Sam Adams would be proud.

If you are interested in malt liquor let me know. I prowl all the packies in the Dot and can offer reviews of what's on offer. It's a head-splitting job but somebody should do it to set the record straight.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Solving Dorchester's Murder Rate

Compared to yesterday, today's temperature was pleasant so I walked over to the little park on the Corner of Columbia Road and Buttonwood Street. One of the usual denizens had already taken up his position. He answers to Sal and he has never told me his last name. He was just twenty ounces through his second bottle of Haffenreffer Private Stock when I sat across from him to soak up the December sunshine and engage in a bit of conversation. I mentioned that Dorchester experienced its 23rd murder last night.

Sal took a long swig from his bottle and looked at me seriously. "I've got a solution for this crime wave," he said, then he fished a bent, half-smoked cigarette out of his parka pocket. He asked me for a light I didn't have, then he elaborated.

"When I was in the service, that was Vietnam you know, those danged hippies used to put flowers into the barrels of our rifles. I thought they were crazy then but you know what? We never shot one of them." He smiled as if having proven a point.

He found a lighter of his own and talked while cupping his hands around his mouth and moving his lips around the cigarette butt, "I think the city should pass out flowers to everybody in Dorchester. Then, if somebody pulls a gun on you, Plup! you put your flower in the barrel and nobody gets shot."

I thought it may be a little more complicated than that. Sal got agitated, "Who's got anything against flowers? They're pretty. They make people happy! You wouldn't shoot a man with a flower would you? It would be like hitting a skinny kid with glasses." Maybe.

"Besides," he continued, "If you saw a pretty girl who caught your fancy you'd have a flower to give her." I pointed out that if everyone was carrying flowers the girl would already have one. Sal shook his finger at me, "Then you could trade, that's all. It's the thought that counts."

Warming to his idea, Sal stroked his beard, burning a few wild hairs in the process. He looked contemplative. "I'll have to mention this to the Mayor the next time I see him," he said. I encouraged him to do so as I left to walk home on Dot Ave.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Toilet Water Sold in Dorchester?

I was having lunch with Esmelda Perez at Liriano Restuarant at Bakersfield Corner (112 Stoughton Street). I had beans and rice while she tucked into a roast chicken platter. The meal was satisfactory but the conversation was more interesting. Ms. Perez pitched a business idea that got me thinking. Her idea is a humdinger.

We were about midway through our meal when she hatched her plan to me while biting the skin off the wing of her half chicken, "I was on Newbury Street a few weeks ago," she said, "And I noticed all the specialty shops. They have stores that only sell a few things. It's not like up the road at Upham's Corner. Here it's all dollar stores except Foot Locker and CVS, and even CVS sells more than medications. There isn't any place that specializes in one thing I think people need. Like I say, I've been thinking, and I think I've found a niche that will succeed in this neighborhood. I've been doing some research. Even if we're in a recession, there is one thing people always want."

The suspense was killing me. "What is it?" I asked.

She took a sip of Diet Coke to wet her whistle. "People want to smell good," she answered. She elaborated, "They want to smell like a million even if they don't have a million bucks. Ladies always want to smell good but they want their boyfriends to smell good too. They'll spend the extra money if it's worth it." It sounded plausible.

"What do you have in mind?" I asked.

"There's an empty storefront across the street from New York Fried Chicken. I've looked into it and the rent's not too bad. I want to stock it with fancy soaps and deodorants and perfumes. I can call it 'Esmelda's Smell Good Shop.' That's what it will be: a smell-good shop. I was originally going to call it 'Cool Water' after the cologne I buy for my boyfriend. I love the smell of that, I think it's sexy, but I figured people wouldn't get it so I settled on 'Smell Good Shop.' What do you think?"

I like it. People do want to smell good and why should all the perfume emporia be located on Boston streets more chi-chi than Columbia Road? I told this to Ms. Perez and she asked if I would co-sign a loan for her to get into business. I deferred, referring her to the Small Business Administration for entrepreneurial advice. I did pick up the tab for lunch in appreciation for this scoop on a new business developing in Upham's Corner.

Here is what Esmelda Perez likes her boyfriend to wear: For the ladies, there's this ...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Polka Dot

The Polish part of Dorchester between Columbia Road and Andrew Square was all a-stir this past week. Rumors were travelling like wild fire and excitement was in the air about an impending celebrity visit. The Polish flag has been flapping with local pride on Boston Street in the winds that sweep off Dorcheser Bay.

Word had it that Jimmy Sturr & His Orchestra were scheduled to make a stop at the Polish-American Citizens' Club at 82 Boston Street. The reason for the appearance was said to be the release of the orchestra's long-awaited new album, rumored to be entitled. "Lost in the Polish Triangle." Hope and pulses were running high.

As everyone who loves polka music knows, the inimatable Mr. Sturr has accrued more Grammy nominations than anyone in the history of polka. He has been nominated for a polka Grammy Award 23 times. He has won 17. He is a legend in the genre who has captured the hearts of a generation of beer barrel dancers. No wonder Dorchester's population of Polish descent was all a'flutter.

The excitement soon dampened however when the rumors proved to be false, the way word on the street often gets amplified. It turns out that a local DJ has acquired a bootleg copy of a recorded Jimmy Sturr concert that he was going to play at the club. The fidelity of the recording is so fine it would have seemed that Mr. Sturr and His Orchestra was really in the hall. The concert has been cancelled but if all the fervent fan letters out of Dorchester reach Mr. Sturr's heart, there may be an actual appearance after all.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Coolidge Corner vs. Field's Corner

This runs a little longer than usual but I think it is important.

People who live there can have their Brook-line. I prefer the Dot. In Morse code "Save Our Ship" consists of three dots, three dashes, and three more dots. When communicating important, imperative information, dots obviously matter more than lines.

You end your definitive statements with a period. You go off on leaps of fancy with a dash. I dashed to Coolidge Corner in Brookline today, taking the Red Line to connect with the Green Line's C train, but I would have spent my time better going in the opposite direction. I give Coolidge Corner a passing grade of C, pretty much like the train that serves it. I don't mean to insult the typically efficient service the MBTA delivers on its surface trolleys. I will say the Green Line above ground is no Mattapan High-Speed, and then I've said enough about that.

What makes Coolidge Corner so good? It has a theater and it has a collection of shops. Field's Corner lacks a movie theater but national chains are nearly non-existent in this (and mostly every) part of Dorchester. I passed a Walgreen's. I stepped into a Lens Crafters. I can finagle a bagel at Coolidge Corner when the nearest real bagel to Dorchester is about two miles away. This is not an endorsement for either the Finagle a Bagel or Bruegger's chains; I'm happy with the Vietnamese bakeries in the Dot or the kindly, neighborly service at the Mud House on Neponset Circle.

I don't need to ride to Brookline to get a cup of Dunkin' Donuts' coffee. I visited the Brookline branch of Trader Joe's but America's Food Basket is just a short walk from the Field's Corner T station and the food is just as wholesome, just a fresh, and a good deal less expensive. The ride is shorter and faster, and I don't need to change trains. There are just as many bank branches, nail salons, hair dressers, pizza ovens, delicatessens, travel agents, opticians, physical therapists, electronic stores and cell phone vendors at either location. What makes Coolidge Corner better than Field's Corner? Nothing but cachet.

Field's Corner doesn't do any marketing as an entity. It is sui generis and self-sufficient. Coolidge Corner does. Field's Corner exists to serve the people who live around it and who will benefit from its services, both entrepreneurs and customers. Field's Corner is an enmeshed part of Dorchester. Coolidge Corner is part of Brookline, but it identifies with greater Boston. It is a tourist destination for the families of college students. Dorchester is an official part of Boston in the raw, but even students at UMASS Boston don't take their families a little farther outbound down the Red Line than they need to go. If they did, their benefactors would see the real city working and churning, dirty, getting by and getting things done.

Students direct their tourist family members inbound to taste the delights ethereal, history-dreaming Boston has to offer. It's a captivating, squeaky-clean world where everyone feels safe, but that isn't where life is lived. Nobody takes a tour of life in the round. Life is lived through fisticuffs and struggle and diplomacy. If Dorchester has anything in common with Boston proper, it shares traits and experience with Roxbury, East Boston, South Boston, and Hyde Park. Pick your neighborhood. If it isn't Beacon Hill or the Back Bay, chances are that if you're scratched, you'll bleed the same color as a Dorchesterite.

We recently screened the 1970s movie 'Westworld' at Whalehead Central. It depicts a resort for the wealthy where those who can afford the price can participate in a themed scenario: Roman World, Medieval World or Wild West World. The writers may as well have included American Revolution World. That is what Boston is becoming, not a working city but a sterile tourist destination that mimics visitors' expectations. Parts of Boston resist this temptation to chase the easy money. Many parts of Boston would like to make money the old-fashioned way, earning it by providing valuable products and services more than just providing a pretty setting for cocktail parties and debutante balls or movie openings.

Comparing Coolidge Corner to Field's Corner is like comparing an orchid to a potato. One looks and smells nice while the other provides nourishment though it seems rather plain to the eye and the palette. Field's Corner is like nowhere else in America and it doesn't realize it and it doesn't care. Like every other part of Dorchester, it aims to get by, making a buck and trying to be the best it can be. How fancy do you have to be to be happy?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

What's a roti?

There is a roti shop in Upham's Corner so I could easily answer the question myself by walking through the front door, but that would detract from the air of mystery about this food. My first thought is that it is some kind of croquet, a ball of dough wrapped around a ball of other ingredients and then deep fried. I don't have any reason to think this. I just do.

I've seen roti shops in Mattapan and other neighborhoods but I was never hungry when passing through so my ingnorance remains unsullied by experience. I like not knowing what this mystery food may be. It makes the future more tantalizing.

I've never been to a party when, during a lull in the festivities, someone shouts out, "Let's get some rotis for take out!" Pizza, yes; Chinese food, yes; a run to McDonalds or Burger King, sadly, yes.

I've never been in a group of friends discussing what to eat and someone fake-coughed into their sleeve while exclaiming, "ROTI!!" I haven't met anyone yet who can tell me what a roti is. I must travel in the wrong circles, and yet a roti shop isn't hard to find. They must be selling them to somebody. Again, I must travel in the wrong circles.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Better a day in the Dot

Even when it seems nothing is happening in Dorchester, the neighborhood is simmering with activity. Pacts get made and broken, and vendettas get settled with lawless flourish but newspapers are delivered every morning without incident and the majority of good citizens in this part of Boston go about their daily business unmolested and even undisturbed. It is hard to ruffle a Dorchesterite. They are as jaded as they are contented.

Norfolk Street wends its way from Codman Square to Blue Hill Avenue in Mattpan crossing some rough terrain. It's no Parisian boulevard but it's ours. It isn't neccesarily scenic but it has its delights to entice the eye. Just after New England Avenue is a string of murals depicting machinery that would make Man Ray and Max Ernst salivate with Dada-ist envy. Teams in homespun uniforms play cricket and soccer (known as futball in this part of town) on the fields of the Walker Playground and crowds gather to cheer.

It's a sort of bombed-out, forlorn, urban landscape, the kind of place Englishmen would visit in 19th century Italy in order to write love poems amid the ruins of a grander time. The people who live here live operatic lives full of drama about which tidy burghers can only romanticize. The reality doesn't quite measure up to the dream but no one who lives here complains overly much. It's a good life when you make the most of what you have and give thanks for small blessings.

Most natives and quite a few transplants say, "Better a day in Dorchester than a lifetime on Commonwealth Avenue." They're right. They would soon be bored in the Back Bay. Dorchester may not be the choicest cut of meat, but its got the sizzle of the best filet mignon.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

No goose sale at Shaw's

I was at the Shaw's Supermarket at Harbor Point (hard to reach off Morrisey Blvd. by car but a short walk from the JFK/UMASS station) and noticed some frozen geese shrink-wrapped in plastic for sale. Don't quote me to the manager if you go looking, but goose is selling for $9.95 a pound. Those are some expensive birds. I checked the tag on the smallest one and the cost was $44.00. A feast fit for a king perhaps, but not this one.

There were six geese at the end of the open topped freezer display. They were wrapped in white packaging, as decorative as one could expect for a bulk poultry display. Next to the geese were four similarly sized bird carcasses wrapped in yellow with the word 'capon' prominently printed in red letters across their breasts. A capon is a castrated rooster which, like veal, is known for its abundant, tender meat. Retail price: $3.49 per pound.

X-mas is a few weeks away and I'm not really in the market for a main course to serve at the holiday feast. I am going to my mother's and I'm not going to carry a cooked bird in the trunk of my car for three and a half hours across the breadth of Massachusetts. I didn't compare the prices of these exotic viands to turkey or even regular chicken. I don't expect Shaw's to move a lot of goose this year and I don't think capons are a part of traditional Dorchester Yuletide festivities. That said, Shaw's is offering the option should you be so inclined. Check your bank balance first and weigh your chances of being laid off in January. If things look good, at least give the capon a try. It may be a memorable meal.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Pennies from Dorchester

When Betsy Trumbull was burying her guinea pig in the back yard of her Tonawanda Street three-decker, she made a fortuitous discovery. It was the day after Thanksgiving. Chirples had died the day before Thanksgiving but there was a wake to be held and no one, not even a guinea pig, gets buried on a holiday. During the Thanksgiving meal, Betsy offered up the sentiment that even though Chirples was gone, he had lived a good life. He was six years old when he met his maker.

It's been a warm autumn this year and the ground in Dorchester hasn't been locked up with frost. The shovel slid into the dirt as Betsy Trumbull and her father excavated Chirples' final resting place. Her father tossed a shovelful of dirt out of the ground and Betsy noticed a velveteen bag mixed with the soil and puddingstone pebbles. She called the operation to halt to examine it. The bag was worm-eaten and moldy but still intact and drawn closed with a scarlet silk string. Inside the bag was a carefully folded envelope fashioned from butcher's paper. Inside the envelope were ten tarnished coins.

"What are these?" Betsy asked. Her father replied, "Some kid's treasure buried and forgotten. It looks like Chirples is being buried in a special place." After the funeral service was concluded with all due solemnity, Betsy and her father took the coins into their kitchen. Her father said, "Let's leave this in a glass of Diet Coke overnight and see what we've got."

By morning the carbonation had scoured the coins free of all accumulated debris and corrosion. Betsy found herself in the possession of ten shiny Indian Head Pennies minted in 1908. The following Monday (today) Betsy and her father took the pennies to the check cashing parlor on Edward Everett Square. They were informed that pennies of this vintage and in this condition were worth a dollar a piece. Mr. Trumbull urged cashing them all in. Betsy thought otherwise. She cashed in nine for nine whole dollars. She is keeping the other one in memory of Chirples and his final resting place. She knows she won't live on Tonawanda Street forever. Someday, she hopes to live on Melville Avenue and then she will be able to look at this penny and think of where Chriples is buried.


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