Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dot Islands

A tip of the fedora to Dotmass for providing this fun fact: the Lydia Clapp House at 6 Percival Street was the first dwelling to be renovated on the television program 'This Old House." If you caught that episode, you may remember the neighborhood, right next to Saint Peter's Church on Meetinghouse Hill, in Dorchester.

The hammers didn't stop swinging when the TV crew pulled out in 1979. Like any thriving neighborhood, Dorchester is in a permanent state of perennial renewal. Some streets are a tad more down-and-out than others but this provides the neighborhood carpenters, roofers, electricians and whatnot with steady paychecks. A day doesn't start in Dorchester without the whine of power tools modernizing the local architecture. It's no wonder all the major construction unions make their headquarters in the Dot, it's not only where they live, it's where there bread is buttered.

One particle of proof is Mount Bowdoin, between Meeting House Hill and Upham's Corner. Take a turn off Hancock Street past Cataloni's bar and you will enter another world. The 'mountain' is covered with beautifully maintained homes, some of them one family, some of them mansions with breathtaking views that have been subdivided into condominiums. The old Saint Margaret's Hospital is there. It is still run by Caritas Christi as a center for women, though what they use the building for exactly is beyond the scope of my investigations, not being a woman.

All in all, Mount Bowdoin is a tidy oasis with reasonable accomodations and nearby amenities. If you are thinking of moving to Dorchester, this is a neighborhood to investigate. Like many things in Dorchester, it is hidden from easy view, a secret.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

G-8 in Dorchester

World War I, the War to End All Wars, is a memory preserved in textbooks and on granite monuments in Dorchester and Boston. We talk about "being in the trenches" but is was nothing compared to the men who actually lived the battles and boredom that gave birth to this phrase. Even today, three people won't light their cigarettes off the same match, two is the limit, in Dorchester. This custom became common in WWI, the first Big One.

Tiffany Peabody is preserving part of the legacy of the war that defined modern times. She is the great-great-granddaughter of the renowned battle ace, G-8,who isn't known by any other name. Peabody is this lady's married name and she doesn't give her maiden one. As she explains, "Everyone called my great-great grandfather G-8, his fellow legionnaires, the people at Saint's Diner, his children and grandchildren. Even his wife. During and after the war he was G-8 and no one ever said any different."

Ms. Peabody has a roomful of G-8 memorabilia stored and sorted in a walk-in closet in her apartment off Dot Ave. G-8 was born and raised in Dorchester and, after the Armistice, he returned to live a life that was uneventful save for watching his children grow and a next generation take the reins from them. G-8 passed away at Carney Hospital in 1963, though there aren't any obituaries on microfiche to commemorate that detail. Perhaps his exploits seemed too fictional to grace a newspaper of record.

That said, Ms. Peabody has shoe boxes full of medals and mementos that offer testimony to G-8's courage and daring in defense of liberty. They are a treasure trove of memorabilia that reflects the values of Dorchester in days long past that still have relevance today. Many little G-8s are growing up in Dorchester in the 21st century. It would do them well to know of the brave men who went before them.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Good company

There isn't a mass exodus out of Dorchester. It is quite the reverse. People are moving in droves, attracted by low rents, easy amenities, creature comforts and that certain Dorchester je n'est c'est quoi that no one can put their finger on. It's as apparent at the Sugar Bowl as it's apparent at the Mud House as it's apparent at Saint's Diner. Dorchester exerts a magnetic pull that attracts the iron in Bostonians' blood. Going out of business? Not in Dorchester.

Red Line ridership is up and we don't mean the Braintree branch. People are flocking to the stops headed toward Ashmont, Ashmont itself, and on to Mattapan beyond. UMASS Boston and Laboure College are located in Dorchester, but this isn't the most academically minded part of Beantown. This is the working part of the city, full of regular Johns and Janes and Luk Nows and Mimis and Taneshas and Marys and Tyrones and Nathans and Bryces and Toms, Harrys and Charlenes. This is the place where chowderheads and chuckleheads and layabouts and tramps and gypsies find a place to lay their heads and get by, one day after another. The fish are jumping in Dorchester Bay and the living is easy further inland.

Smart boys live in Dorchester. Smart girls do too.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Slap Happiness

You make your own happiness as surely as you decide where you want to live. You wear your neighborhood like a cloak. It could be a hair shirt or it could be a velvet cape. You can be Batman in Dorchester or you can be a midnight can collector pushing a rattling shopping cart. Both are on midnight patrol.

Dorchester...Dorchester...Dorchester...Dorchester...Dot. The Red Line rumbles a lulling rhythm along its tracks through Sydney Street back yards. Dishes rattle, bicycle bells vibrate, pressed pants slip off of hangers, neckties are loosened and tossed cavalierly over a chair. Dorchester is a stiff drink that goes down too smooth for argument...ask the patrons at the Harp and Bard. Whiskey and bubble tea are Dorchester's drinks of choice depending on the season and time of day.

Dash-dash-dash-dot! A melody descends to it's high point. All is well and good in Dorchester. Look around and you won't see an unhappy face. People take pratfalls but they dust themselves off and stride off, starry-eyed to a job interview. Dorchesterites can't lie low, they are too proud and straight-backed, too used to conquering the world or, at least, Boston, to sleep a day away. Flash me a V for victory and I will draw you a swollen-bellied D for Dorchester. The proof is in the calligraphy.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pork pulled at Pit Stop

Anyone who lives in Mattapan knows where the best barbecue can be found. If you're not familiar with the Dot, go down Morton Street and look for the knot of cars congealing traffic around address 888. Three eights are a good numerological number for the Pit Stop Barbecue. A calligrapher couldn't make a better choice. The number eight has a handsome head and a swollen belly, three in a row resemble the line of customers that leads to the counter at the Pit Stop.

The Pit Stop is a little shack on the corner of Morton and Hannon Streets. Its chimney exhales the mouth-watering scent of smoked meats. The people who live in Morton Street Village must be the hungriest in Boston, their appetites are always stimulated by the smoke out of the Pit Stop.

The pork ribs have a national reputation as being the best Texan style, slowly cooked meat north of the Red River Valley. You will sometimes see Winnebegos parked on Morton Street that belong to pilgrims who have made the trip east and north from southern, desert states to taste the best barbecue New England has to offer. It makes me feel fortunate to live a mere mile and a half away.

The pulled pork sandwich is a regular favorite, as are the pork ribs. Rich, salty, flavorful sauce that hasn't been replicated at any other, more fancy outlets complements the smoky meat the Pit Stop offers Thursdays through Sundays at a price every Mattapan citizen can afford. Local high school students and Back Bay Lotharios both report that the best way to get a date in an amorous mood is to offer her a meal of pulled pork. The Pit Stop often runs out of menu items due to excessive demand, but the demand for pulled pork sandwiches always seems to be the first supply that's exhausted. The rumors may be true, the pulled pork may be an aphrodisiac. The theory has been tested enough times to have street credibility.

The Pit Stop is more than a barbecue pit, if hearsay is to believed. It is also a passion pit, at least off premises. There isn't enough room in the Pit Stop for an orgy, only for takeout.

I was chatting up a couple of college students at Teatro, on Boston Common last night. They told me, "Spanish Fly drops have nothing on Pit Stop pork. That sandwich is a one-way ticket to heavy petting and then it's easy to get it punched for a transfer to the next zone." I asked if they were worried about the Swine Flu epidemic that may be heading to Boston. "I don't think past tomorrow morning," one rake replied.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

No Swine Flu in Dorchester

Though I am a dues-paying member of the Casimir Polaski Post #1 of Polish Amrican Veterans in New London, Conn., I don't have a drop of Polish blood in me as far as genealogical records can tell. This must be readily apparent since when I visit the Baltic Deli or Euromart on Dot Ave or D&J Market on Boston Street, all grocers deep within Dorchester's notorious Polish Triangle.
Before I can utter a word, the counter help, who have been speaking Polish to everyone else in the store, addresses me in English. I'm not complaining, but I am wondering how they can tell. What inborn gland activates this Polish radar?

Easter kielbasa is a traditional Polish dish and, with Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Easters all having recently passed, I thought I could score a good deal on a two-foot link of the genuine article. I went to one of these stores and was immediately told when I stepped up to the sausage case, "We don't use Mexican pork." I was told this in English.

I wasn't thinking about trichinosis or Legionnaire's Disease (another fraternity to which I belong) when I considered what to have for dinner tonight. Now, I was suspicious. The lovely lady behind the counter said, "We've been getting a lot of questions this morning because of the Globe article about a swine flu epidemic in Mexico. Now I start every transaction by stating our pork is not Mexican. We guarantee none of it comes from south of the Ohio River. There are no worries here in the Polish Triangle." That was good, if not necessarily fresh, news.

"Can I have two feet of kielbasa?" I asked. "Of course," she answered as she proceeded to separate two curled, pink links from a rope of ground meat and spices smoked in natural casing.

"Is the casing imported?" I inquired, feeling mischievous. "No, sir," she replied, "This sterilized intestine comes only from USDA certified Massachusetts hogs. If not, you can rest assured, the donor came from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, or upstate New York. We like to use trusted, local suppliers. We may depend on Pennsylvania suppliers but you won't find Maine casings here. Mainers only know how to fish lobsters and grow potatoes, but their hog raising practices don't measure up to close scrutiny as far as we're concerned."

The kielbasa weighed down my satchel with pure, local, Polish goodness that didn't add a smidge of gravity or drag as I pedalled my way home. I put the kielbasa in my refrigerator for later use but even with the fridge door closed the lady of house said, "You've been shopping. Something smells good here." Indeed it did. Something was good in the house and it was free of the fear factor of impending disease.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A cure for what ails

My friend had a fever and a nasty, nagging cough. "I've had enough of Dorchester!" she hacked, "I'm moving to JP!" If you are going to stay in Boston, why trade the Dot for Jamaica Plain?

Dorchester, at six square miles and almost 100,000 citizens offers more opportunities than the vaguely demarcated JP with quantified inhabitants unknown. Dorchester is an expanse of one neighborhood sub-divided into sub-neighborhoods and parishes, where one street needn't necessarily be like the next. It is a nest of mansions and warehouses, of factories and cottages, of machine shops and tea parlors, of saloons with spittoons next to chic martini bars, of machine shops next to salons, of green grocers alongside bloody-aproned meat cutters. Anyone can find what they want in Dorchester. Who would trade a spacious third-floor Dorchester apartment, convenient to a Red Line T station for a cold water walk-up a block from a bus stop on Centre Street in JP? Someone was suffering from the vapors.

My friend said, "I feel hot. I need to eat something to cool down. The best ice cream I've ever tasted was at J.P. Licks. The best coffee too. I like the Peruvian blend." I agreed that's a nice cup of coffee but getting to J.P. Licks wasn't an easy proposition.

"What's better," I asked, "Sitting in a crowded bus stuck in traffic or rocking along in a car on the Mattapan High-Speed Trolley?" She answered without hesitation: "The High-Speed." I said to her, "Let's see if we can find a cure for your fever along the Red Line extension."

We did. We went to the Ice Cream Smith in Lower Mills and we each had a pistachio cone which we savored walking up to Dorchester Park, strolling around, and then walking back to the Milton Station. My friend said, "You're right. I don't feel so heated now. There were real pistachios in that cone and I feel much better now. After the ice cream and the walk, my stomach, my fever and my spirits are more settled. I think I'll stay in Dorchester a while longer. Who needs JP?"

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The chicken smell

Claudia Fishburn has a rare medical condition. It isn't life threatening and people who aren't afflicted with pollosinusitis find it comical, but we all have our cross to bear and Ms Fishburn bears hers with a resigned air. You see, everything Claudia Fishburn smells, smells like chicken soup.

When a suitor brings her roses, they smell like chicken soup to her. When she stops by the perfume counter in a department store, all the testers smell like chicken soup. She went to the Wonder Spice restaurant in Jamaica Plain a few weeks ago and ordered the mango fried rice. It smelled and tasted like chicken soup. She's not a gourmet and her kitchen is stocked mostly with canned goods and lean cuisine. No matter what she cooks, it smells like chicken soup. Even her bathroom smells like chicken soup to her, which may be just as well.

She lives on Sumner Street in Dorchester, close to where this street branches off East Cottage. She moved here because it's right behind the KFC in Edward Everett Square. As she says, "I smell chicken all the time so it doesn't bother me. Other people might not like living behind a chicken restaurant, but I don't notice the exhaust off the fry-o-lators. I figured I'd take this apartment and free up one next to the public garden for someone who would appreciate that smell more."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Turkey patrol

I met with the Edison Kid in the apartment he shares with his mother and sister on Edison Green in Dorchester, just south of Dot Ave's intersection with Columbia Road. Edison Green is the street's name as well as the name of the park that the pavement surrounds, and it is the name of the apartment building that makes up the hypotenuse of this quintessentially, strangely shaped Boston street. I vote in that that building. The street runs in four directions. You won't find that in Oklahoma City.

The Edison Kid is fourteen years old and he asked that I keep his secret identity anonymous. Because he is a minor I agreed. He wore a domino mask a-la the Lone Ranger and the Two-Gun Kid while we spoke, though his family's name was prominently written on the mailbox by the front door I knocked on to gain access.

"I'm going to keep turkeys out of the park," the Edison Kid told me and he said it like he meant it. What does he have against turkeys? I told him I hadn't seen any turkeys in our neighborhood and that I walk about just about every day, keeping tabs on what's going on in our shared jurisdiction. "I think the turkeys will eat all the hickory nuts in the park," the Edison Kid replied. "If they do that, the squirrels won't have anything to eat. There'll be no turkeys on Edison Green while the Edison Kid is on watch."

I'm no turkey biologist but I always thought turkeys eat grubs and forest dander. "No, no," the Edison Kid corrected me, "They're scavengers. They'll eat anything that isn't nailed down. They're the goats of the bird world. They're opportunists. They'll even eat tin cans if they have to."

I asked the Edison Kid how he meant to drive the turkeys away. He was wearing a pork pie hat that was a few sizes too large, and he pulled it down so the brim touched the top of his mask. "I'll show you," he said and then he marched into his bedroom to come out again armed with a wrist rocket slingshot. "Is that legal in Massachusetts?" "Sometimes a vigilante doesn't obey the letter of the law," he replied.

"What's your ammunition?" I inquired. He reached into his pocket and shook a 25-cent box of Boston Baked Beans. "Any baby can buy candy," he told me. "I buy these beans for shot. They won't kill the turkeys and they won't give 'em lead poisoning, but they'll scare the bejeezus out 'em and keep 'em out of Edison Green."

Feral turkey sightings have been on the rise in Boston recently in the most improbable places but so far they haven't been seen in North Dorchester. Is the Edison Kid responsible? He admits he hasn't seen any himself but he is on the lookout. Turkeys beware.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Happy people

Happy people make life nicer, even on a gloomy day, even in a neighborhood that doesn't have a reputation for generating good news. Happy people have a secret they are willing to share: when you smile, the world smiles with you.

The Ryan Playground on Dot Ave was a happy place this afternoon. Some neighborhood teens, pleased to escape from school due to the local holiday, had wheeled a portable basketball hoop to the park and they were playing a few sets of pick-up. It was all good sport and clean fun, no machismo or braggadocio, no foul language and plenty of fair play. The wind off Dorchester Bay rippled their tee shirts with hints of last month's abominable weather while they worked themselves into a sweat, passing and feinting, guarding and dribbling.

Over on the swing set, tots tried to touch the clouds with the bottoms of their tennies. The slide was well polished by tiny backsides. Mothers and nannies knit on the benches while their charges squealed between the fences that separate the Ryan Playground's oasis from the busy streets that surround it.

Retired bricklayer "Pudgy" Murphy won a large scratch-off prize while sitting at the bar at Tom English's Tavern. He bought a round for the house. He said, "There's no point in having wealth if you can't spread it around." He was smiling when he said it. Everyone else was too.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven...Dorchester, Mass...Blue Hill distant...Neponset Riiiiver. Life is old here...1630...younger than the puddingstone...Blowing like the breeze...Oh Dot Ave take me home...To the place where I belong...Codman Square...Hard working mothers...Oh Dot Ave...Take me home...

John Denver didn't pen these lines; I stole his idea and framework. A heartfelt paean to West Virginia can apply equally well to wherever you live if you change some words. Its all in the first two words that start this essay, courtesy of Mr. Denver. "Country Roads" can be tailored to the people of East Boston or Jamaica Plain or Charlestown or Hyde Park or wherever. If you live in a place you should love it.

If you live in a place you don't love you are an inhabitant, not a citizen. You aren't a neighbor, you are a face passing through, taking up space and adding little, paying rent to your landlord but not giving to the community. You don't enjoy your neighborhood and your indifference shows. Why live here? You spend your time elsewhere and aside from your rent checks, you spend your money elsewhere.

Dorchester may not be glamorous but it has its action. There are things to do and many hands make light work. Dorchester is in flux, the way any living neighborhood should be. It isn't a museum. It is a vibrant community. For the people who chose to make a life here, it is almost Heaven.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Two wheels: one Dot

It doesn't matter how you get around Dorchester as long as you are in it. I usually use two feet, the T, or my little Ninja motorcycle. I've decided to add another tool to my kit: a bicycle. Dorchester is bicycle-friendly overall.

There are hills in the Dot. There is a Mount Bowdoin and a Pope's Hill and some other slopes that are steeper. None of them are insurmountable. You only need one gear and chutzpah to stand on the roof of Dorchester and, by extension, all of Boston. You need the gumption to reach your destination and then you will be master or mistress of all you survey. Dorchester is a blooming onion, but you have to pass through all the layers in close contact to appreciate its hard-earned musk and savor.

I bought a bicycle today. I intend to take it to work pinioning along Dorchester side streets. Good intentions, of course, are Dorchester's bitter pill to swallow. I intend to swallow it, for good or ill effect, one back lane at a time. At high speed and low speed, Dorchester has never disappointed me. At medium speed, on a bicycle, I will drink up every dram the Dot has to offer. Streets are a community's arteries, the more people on them the better. Cars are coffins.

Some bicyclists make Dorchester home and they love it the way everyone in Dorchester comes to love this neighborhood. Many, many peole live here, love here and learn here.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ticket to ride

The realtor stared at me across her desk. "You knew the ride before you bought the ticket, didn't you?" she asked. I answered that I did but I wasn't prepared for the heart-stopping thrills the destination had in store. "Due diligence is the client's responsibility," she replied, "It's not ours. We represented your apartment in Savin Hill as factually as we could under the circumstances."

I'm not complaining. Dorchester is more than I could have expected and more than that besides. The Red Line trains that run through my back yard rock me to sleep and the rattle of my dishes every few minutes has become a lullaby. We spent the night in Roslindale recently and the lack of rumbling, elevated subway cars until 1:00 AM and after 5:00 AM gave my companion and I a fitful sleep. We couldn't tell what time it was. The whole night was a perpetual 3:00 in the morning when nothing is going on in Boston. The T, like roosters or morning songbirds, is a mark on our day's yardstick. Without the the trains, what time is it?

I wasn't there to negotiate my rent but to pay it. In fact, I would be willing to pay a hundred dollars more a month. Lucky are the hapless souls who make Dorchester their home. A big city writ in lower case cursive, where small amenities and conveniences are kept amenable and convenient; all Dorchester's streetscape is a stage and a haven, a honey pot and a larder, a reservoir of good will and fresh air. Nothing stinks in Dorchester except its reputation and that is only because its reputation is moldy. Not enough people visit to provide fresh insights and reportage on developments in the Dot.

If you are not interested in Dorchester, it is just as well. Your neglect keeps everything affordable. I would hate to see the Harp and Bard be bought out by Chili's or the Tom English's become a TGIFridays or Gene & Paul's Market become a subsidiary of Stop & Shop. We already have a Shaw's within walking distance on Morrisey Boulevard.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Uncle Lumpy

Everyone calls him Uncle Lumpy. He likes to sit in Mothers' Rest park on Washington Street watching the clouds and the traffic go by. It's a nice place to do it. He settles onto a bench like a sack of soggy oatmeal, lets his head droop onto his chest, and just sits in the seat of the contented. He can sit for hours at a time.

He isn't related to anyone in Codman Square as far as anyone knows. He's just a kind of fixture in the neighborhood. No one has followed him home to his front door, but rumor has it he lives on Alpha Road. Children call him 'uncle' because he is kind to them. He hands out coins when asked for the gumball machines at the grocers'. Unfortunately, most of the machines only take quarters nowadays and Uncle Lumpy mostly has a stockpile of pennies. No matter. Children know that a shiny penny is better than nothing and that enough of them can be exchanged for silver.

Sometimes he nurses a bottle of Old Colony brand Uva Soda. It's grape flavored and very sweet. He can an hour to finish it. Then he walks back to the market to collect his nickel deposit. He usually only holds onto the nickel no longer than a block before he donates to a child.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dot labyrinth

Wandering in Dorchester, it is easy to get lost. There is little rhyme or reason to the street plan. There's no grid. Dot Ave runs straight as a rifle shot but every other road is either crooked or leading to unexpected destinations. You cannot intuit where you are headed, you can only hope for the best, following your nose and enjoying the journey.

There is plenty to enjoy. I was on Taft Street today, in a canyon sided by three deckers, each as different as they were the same. There were no trees, just porches stacked on top of porches next to each other in a crowded line on both sides of the pavement. I wandered a tableau of antiquated, human-scale architecture and the smells out of kitchen windows drove home the fact that this is a place where people live their lives and eat their daily dumplings.

Weaving and cutting along the twisted lanes that separate Blue Hill Avenue and Columbia Road, I was in a reverie. So much accumulated experience, all of it hard earned and hard won, settled in a part of the city few outsiders visit. I took a loop through Four Corners and got stuck in traffic on Bowdoin Street. The sidewalks were a hive and a haven abuzz with gossip and little routines, hale greetings, nursed grudges and satisfied smirks. Tourists don't visit these parts, only residents, only citizens, Bostonians, Dorchesterites all.

N'orchester, S'ochester... upper, lower, east and west...the shore and the inland cityscape... vistas stretch far in some neighborhoods and vistas are cut short in others... As much as there is blight there is so much more that is set rightly and true. A square can have any shape in Dorchester, wherever two roadways cross or people gather. This is a part of Boston in which you can lose yourself and come out with more than you brought in.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What's in a name?

I ran into an old acquaintance the other day. She was married when I first met her and her name hasn't changed so I assumed she was still bound by the ties of matrimony. She set me straight in short order.

"You're last name is King, you'll never see any need to change it,"she said. I admitted the idea has never entered my mind. She continued, "Imagine going through the first half of your life as Jennifer Tukus? When I got married I clung to my new last name like a life raft. The best thing my ex-husband gave me, the only good thing he ever gave me aside from our daughter, is my new name. Until something better comes along, I'm going to keep calling myself Jennifer Winner." She had a winning point.

Why is Dorchester called Dorchester, besides the usual accidents of history? What does Dorchester, Mass., a part of Boston, have to do with Dorchester, England? Very little if anything at all anymore. Savin Hill, Neponset, Lower Mills, Codman Square...all these neighborhoods have an organic reason for their designations, but Dorchester? Why? Because Englishmen from British Dorchester settled here four centuries ago? I can walk down every street in the Dot swinging a broom and I won't hit one limey.

I'm not in favor of changing Dorchester's nom-de-guerre for marketing reasons. I'm not in favor of Shadyvale or Pleasantville. Quite the contrary. If Dorchester elects a new name, I think it should reflect the facts on the ground. Palookaville springs to mind. So does Affordabletown, Work Acres, Hope Flats, or Meltingpot. If we want to keep the ties to history, just Dot works fine.

As we have pointed out again and again, Dot is not an disparaging name and the label puts a pointillist focus on a self-contained orb that spins according to rules of its own making. Dorchester is a bull's eye to be aimed at. On Boston's canvas, it is like a spatter of paint that didn't get laid on a Jackson Pollack canvas, one that held all the creator's intended meaning but will never be seen because it's on a potato barn floor somewhere out of sight. It is on the edge of the main show, forgotten and neglected. Only the artist saw its worth but once the paint had dried it was too late to change the picture. The final picture sold for a trillion bucks at auction decades after completion. Dorchester is a work in progress.

I guess it doesn't matter what you call yourself. Dorchester is Dorchester when the day is done. It is full of palookas and hope and affordable rents and the hurly-burly, hurdy-gurdy, sing-song grunt and weft and sweat and chance and happenstance that close company breeds. Dorchester is a Dot, but a name means little on the streets. What is the moon except the thing you see in the sky? Is there a man there looking down? Wave hello. That is the Dorchester way.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dial D for deadly dog fighting

The Boston Globe reports on a dog-fighting arena housed in a first floor apartment on Raven Street in Dorchester. Raven Street is a short, dead end lane off Crescent Avenue in the corner of N'orchester a short stroll from the JFK/UMASS station on the Red Line. It is amazing what things are tucked away in the crannies of a big city. Note that the arena was located in the first floor apartment. You think you have noisy neighbors downstairs?

Dog fighting used to be a fairly common amusement in Boston, along with cock fighting and bear baiting. Bull fights are still popular a few thousand miles southwest of the Boston border and a few thousand miles across the Atlanic on the Iberian peninsula. Overall, blood sports have fallen out of fashion in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Boxing is still respected in Boston and the fine art of pugilism has its practitioners and admirers. When a boxer uses his teeth instead of his fists, the public starts to loose its appetite for one-on-one combat, however. Remember what happened to Mike Tyson's reputation. People fighting each other, man-to-man, mano-a-mano, are acceptable for wagering. Dogs? Not in this civilized city, buddy. We have a society that prevents cruelty to animals.

The Ryan Playground is right around the corner from Raven Street, on Dot Ave between Crescent Ave and Romsey Street. You won't find boxing or dog fights there. The sports run more along the lines of dominoes, pinochle, and mah jong. Even then, tempers run high and violence can break out.

Even dog racing is illegal in Massachusetts now. The proprietors of the Raven Street venue must have known they were breaking the law. All future exhibitions of canine combat are presumed cancelled until further notice.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Puddle glum

A big puddle formed at the intersection of Harvard Street and Norwell Street, right in front of the Mt. Horeb Lodge #10 in Dorchester, this afternoon. Blame it on the rains, not on Boston's Public Works Department. The lodge doesn't occupy the prettiest building on the block, but the competition isn't too cut throat to claim the title. It's a stalemate. Each of the windowless, peeling-paint buildings that occupy this particular intersection were obviously built for other purposes originally, and all four have obviously seen better days.

A pothole in front of the lodge building does, however, claim the title of the best puddle on Harvard Street. Just ask Angela and Nathan Jones. They live a little up Norwell Street on the second story of a non-descript three-decker. They noticed the puddle forming, the way it always does on rainy days, and they decided to float paper boats on it.

Angela has recently taken a class in origami at he biggest Dorchester branch of the Boston Public Library. She taught Nathan how to make paper boats as she had been mentored. Angela put a daffodil head on hers. Nathan put a miniature, plastic army man on his. "My boat is going to shoot yours, Angie," he said when he christened his boat on it's maiden voyage with sweaty palms and a runny nose.

The two paper boats didn't do much except get wet on this pit-a-pat, rainy day that didn't unleash enough wind to make the seas stormy. A Wise Potato Chip truck did the job. The truck nicked the puddle while making a tight turn off Norwell onto Harvard. Both boats were in the wrong harbor at the wrong time. The were reduced to pulp. Nathan fished into the bottom of the puddle and retrieved his gun-toting marine. "I win!" he exclaimed. Angela had nothing but crushed flower petals after the disaster had transpired. They went home to grilled cheese sandwiches and a shared can of baked beans at the kitchen table after they changed out of their wet clothes.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Spitting Devil

There's a mean-spirited man who lives on Auckland Street in Dorchester. He stands out in a crowd because most people who live in Dorchester are good-hearted. This man never has a kind word to say. He is constant complainer for whom nothing is ever good enough. He rails against the street sweepers, he kvetches about the temperature of his coffee, he returns everything he buys because he says it is stale though the expiration is far in the future and it must have been good enough for him to eat 49% of it before he noticed. It is unpleasant to hold a conversation with him, obviously, but it is made doubly so because he spits when he talks. He is Dorchester's Spitting Devil.

Neighborhood children bestowed this name on him first but the moniker spread like wildfire through every age group. Say that you ran into the Spitting Devil in Dorchester and people will fetch handkerchiefs so you can clean up after the encounter. He can spray like the sprinklers that water lawns in Harbor Point when he gets worked up. This is to say, he spits in any weather, under any circumstances, whether the occasion calls for it or not. He is always in a lather.

People in Dorchester like a good complaint as much as anyone else, the more justified the better. To complain for the sake of it, however, is considered bad form. Dorchesterites prefer to count their blessings whether they have hatched yet or not. The Spitting Devil is a bad egg spoiling the bread basket. He taxes the patience of Dorchester's other citizens with his endless harangues. He is all vinegar, as if he has never tasted honey. Even if he has, we are sure he found it not to his liking.

I ran into the Spitting Devil at the Harp & Bard on Dot Ave. He was at the end of the bar, alone, complaining that his stool was too hard. I wasn't interested in interjecting on his monologue. The mahogany bar in front of him was wet, as if he had spilled his Budweiser more than once. One of the Keno players shouted at him, "Why don't you shut up? If you are unhappy here, why don't you go somewhere else? You can go there and die. Nobody will miss you, you devil." This insult got a round of polite hand-clapping from around the bar, but noticeably not from the Harp & Bard staff who are known for their exceptionally indulgent customer service.

The Devil looked up and sputtered. "You know why I don't move? Because nowhere is good enough. I'm happy here, happy being perfect in a rotten little burgh like this talking to stupid mugs like you. When I die, I'll go to Heaven and you know what? It will be just like here."

The Devil's spittle hung in the air under the glow of the Bruins game on the HDTVs that surround the bar. Little black and white and yellow stars floated out of his mouth. He was right. If he ends up in Heaven, which many people doubt, it will be like Dorchester. No matter where he goes, he'll find something to complain about.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Smell-o-vision in sense-a-round

How many square miles lie in Dorchester? Counting the sidewalks and the houselots, and including the countless miles of intestinal and arterial real estate that make up the Dot, the figure seems incalculable. When physical geography is mixed with the psychological and the anatomical there are more total, Dorchester-specific centimeters than the rest of Massachusetts en masse. By disemboweling the roughly 100,000 Dorchesterites who call this part of Boston home, a theoretical scientist could wrap the earth's equator 510 times to a thickness of twelve feet. Don't get any ideas, but it is food for thought.

Taken as a whole, Dorchester is a kaleidoscope, a broken-toothed hurdy-gurdy that plays unexpected tunefully syncopated, entertaining rags at each crank of its engine. Its oil isn't well distrubuted. It has its lubricated pistons and its dry patches. It is vast, containing a variety of landscapes and seascapes and streetscapes and dreamscapes. Still lives abound in the Dot as much as velocity and futurism push boundaries. Ash can painters call Dorchester home. Dorchester says,"Look ever toward tomorrow while appreciating today." Whatever is easily said is easily done in Dorchester.

So many people living so closely interconnected produce a stage where the limelight falls randomly with full smell-o-vision and sense-a-round effect. Dorchester overwhelms and after too much exposure the sensation can seem like too much. So much stimulation causes nerve fibers to fray and numb. There are some princesses who are still irritated by a pea under their mattress but most people in Dorchester sleep the sleep of the contented as the Red Line rattles their cabinet's dishes and sets an alarm clock's hammer tinging during the trains' last runs.

Dorchester, all of it, taken as a whole, is no different from the rest of Boston. It is part and parcel and fiber and sinew and nerve and muscle and fat and soul and skin, thick and thin. Show me a person who has spent a week living in Dorchester. I will show you a person wonderstruck and dumbstruck, happy in speechless awe.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Three cheers for earthworms!

Worm casts are popping up all over Dorchester. It's a welcome, if not exactly pretty sign of spring. It is a sight that warms a gardener's heart however. The earthworms are active and busy turning the soil and keeping it productive. Worm casts are those little piles of granulated earth that you find all over the ground without every seeing why. The worms prefer to do their work when no one is watching.

It is dung is a sense, but it doesn't attract any beetles. The casts really don't bother anyone at all. Stepping in them is certainly better than stepping in what dogs leave behind. If only people would keep worms as pets and take them for walks. The sidewalks would be more pleasant and no one would complain about owners ignoring curbing laws. Are there laws in Dorchester demanding that one pick up after his or her dog? I know people do, but I also know there are people who don't. I'm not too fond of the people who don't.

So, in honor of the humble nightcrawler and his noble, unobtrusive work, a salute. Most species of worms have five hearts and it's no surprise. They give and they give and ask nothing for themselves. They make the world fit for flowers and fruits, vegetables and shady trees, wine, hops and medicinals. Three cheers for earthworms!

Monday, April 06, 2009

Making the Dot sweeter

I was enjoying the beautiful weather this morning by taking a constitutional walk around Savin Hill, both the neighborhood and the summit of the hill itself. I entered Savin Hill Park by way of Rockmere Street and strolled between the puddingstone boulders. Savin Hill was originally called Rock Hill.

I came across young Julia Ward who was planting something in Savin Hill's rocky soil. I asked what she was up to. "Ma says its going to rain this afternoon so I thought today would be a good day to try an experiment," she said.

She was armed with a soup spoon and an empty package of assorted fruit-flavored Mentos, the chewy mint from the Netherlands. "I heard my folks talking the other night and they were saying how glad they are to live in Dorchester, how everything has been so nice since we've moved here. My Pa said that the only thing that could make Dorchester sweeter is if Mentos grew on trees. I'm trying to make the Dot nicer for Pa."

It seemed like a noble plan so I didn't bother discussing basic biology. Instead, I wished her good luck. Who am I to judge? Good things grow in Dorchester. We all know Clapp pears are the best pears money can buy when you can find them. I've heard rumors about a pork chop tree that supposedly grows in Dorchester Park.

True to Mrs. Ward's word, it has been raining since early this afternoon and it promises to continue through the night. If Julia's Mentos don't melt, they just might take root. Want to start your own garden? Here's a chance to get enough seeds to start a farm...

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The road to Dorchester

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope made a series of seven movies together between 1940 and 1962. They started with "Road to Singapore" and ended with "Road to Hong Kong." In 1977 they were planning another sequel entitled "Road to the Fountain of Youth" but Der Bingle died that year. An unannounced sequel seems to have been in the works and abandoned between 1966 and 1968, at least according to a handwritten script recently discovered in a dusty footlocker in a basement on Chickatawbut Street in Neponset.

Long time Dorchester resident Charles McMurphy was an acquaintance of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, the writers behind Crosby & Hope's 1946 vehicle "Road to Utopia." Mr. McMurphy was a bricklayer by trade but he kept up a correspondence with the two screenwriters. His pen pals encouraged him to try his hand at their craft and the result was this neglected script for "Road to Dorchester." Mr. McMurphy obviously believed in that old writers' adage, "Write what you know."

In the proposed film, Crosby and Hope play two a Codman Square-based swells. Crosby spends his time at the Wonderland dog track while Hope is a hapless operative in Mayor Curley's political machine. Dorothy Lamour is an innocent seamstress in the Dainty Dot hosiery factory in the Leather District who is lured away from an honest life of toil by a chocolate factory owner played by an improbably cast Anthony Quinn. The plot is sketchy as befits a 'Road' movie and the dialogue is a bit leaden. Mr. McMurphy seems better employed laying bricks than cracking jokes. He obviously expected his stars to ad lib and put the polish on his script.

"Road to Dorchester," as any filmography will show, was never made. The pages of the script were locked in Mr. McMurphy's WWII foot locker and stowed in his basement until this year. The house is slated to be converted to condominiums and the new owner was cleaning out the debris that had gathered in odd nooks for the past hundred years. Tucked in with the manuscript is a note from Bob Hope himself. It reads: "Hey Charlie! Mel and Norm showed me your treatment and I think it's just swell. If you can get Bing's character to play the ponies rather than the puppies, I think we make a go of this." Mr. McMurphy seems to have taken this advice to heart since the script has several passages where Wonderland is crossed out with blue pencil and Suffolk Downs is written in over it. Why this film was never shot is unknown.

The property's new owner has hired an agent to shop the prospect around Hollywood. Should it fail to make it to the big screen with George Clooney and Brad Pitt, expect this historical curiosity to be auctioned by Christie's.

The film Mr. McMurphy's friends wrote....

To see them all the Crosby & Hope ouevre...

Where our humble narrator will probably end up...

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Three Dorchester flea markets

We criss-crossed the Dot this Saturday morning to visit three local flea markets in quick succession. It was quick because the first two didn't take a lot of time.

The first was sponsored by I'm not sure what the connection is. I got the tip on the markets location from a postcard posted in the J.P. Lick's in Mission Hill, and the website doesn't offer any tie-in. Nor was there any promotional material on site.

This is the second time this market has been held at the old Dorchester High School on Peacevale Road, off Norfolk Ave at the Codman Square end. About twelve tables were arranged in the cafeteria offering CDs, homemade chocolate, used bric-a-brac, and one table supporting a number of steaming chaffing dishes we didn't investigate. We did spend a bit of time exploring the school's ground floor which is largely untouched by the hand of time. The gymnasium is like the gym the nuns dream about in the film, "Bells of Saint Mary's" with a running track elevated above the basketball court.

Our next stop was the Dorchester Flea Market on Adams Street close to Fields Corner. This market has been in operation since at least this past winter. The entrance appears to be a well-appointed clothing shop. We headed toward the back and through a hallway where booths have been set up, but the operation still seems a bit disorganized. Leather jackets and clothing were for sale in two booths and there was an attended kiosk in which people were using a computer but it wasn't clear if they were selling anything. There was a collection of used furniture scattered throughout but little foot traffic.

We then headed toward the grand daddy of Dorchester flea markets, the Maxwell on East Cottage Street, tucked away between Uphams Corner and Newmarket Square. I've passed this old box factory a few times and read reviews of it. Since this was flea market day, today was the day to visit. It is extensive and there is a mix of sellers and buyers. Some of the booths are professional. You can buy home made cakes, sealed videos, all sorts of used furniture and clothing, food, electronics, and root vegetables. A watchmaker has set up shop here and we observed him making repairs with tiny tools through a magnifying glass.

The Maxwell Flea Market is well stocked, we saw three fireplaces with flues for sale and a score of vintage metal file cabinets, but we made no purchases. You can't cart a credenza on a motorcycle, especially when two people are riding. On the way out, through the back parking lot reached by Harrow Street, we overheard a merchant telling a customer that the radio he was inspecting wasn't functional. "Take that one over there," he instructed, "That one works and it's five dollars."

What does the gym at old Dorchester High look like? You'll have to see the movie if you can't get to Peacevale Road. I recommend the film.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Godzilla vs. Kong

Musing, as usual, on Boston's neighborhood makeup, I thought of the 1962 classic film "King Kong vs. Godzilla." Where am I going to go with this? I'm still not quite certain but I'm sure we'll find out, also as usual, by essay's end.

In a city of neighborhoods, Dorchester is obviously the 800 lb. gorilla in the metropolis, covering the most area and holding the most population. It is no eighth wonder of the Hub of the Universe, however. It is jumbled together in a weak rogues' gallery of complacent characters.

I've been to West Roxbury twice in almost two years, both of times fairly recently. West Roxbury is one of Boston's neighborhoods but few people think of it when they think of BOSTONIA, condita A.D. 1630. Dorchester falls into the same league though it is a very different kind of place. I've been to Hyde Park more often, and I know it's part of Boston too, a little farther removed and nothing like downtown. The only commuter rail line that runs entirely within city limits serves Hyde Park and points in between it and South Station.

Roxbury itself (not West Roxbury, which is to the south) is certainly urban and has been connected to downtown Boston for centuries through commerce and Washington Street. It has been connected municipally for over a hundred years, but few people think of Roxbury as Boston either. Even mailmen deliver envelopes addressed to Roxbury 02119, not Boston. South Boston gets to be called part of Boston, the part furthest to the east, and East Boston is also a part of Boston, the part furthest to the north.

There is no Kong in Boston, but there is a Godzilla. Just as metro Boston dominates the Commonwealth's business, the image of Boston proper, downtown and its edges, dominates the fringe neighborhoods that also belong to the entire civic body. Allston and Brighton and Charlestown are all parts of Boston. The mayor, who is quite savvy, is well aware that the neglected border frontiers of the city vote for him, but others take a myopic view of what Boston is. It is a city of many parts, all of them Bostonian even if they are not fashionable.

In the movie "King Kong vs. Godzilla" the giant ape is smarter and more human than the atomic-powered dinosaur. Kong taunts Godzilla during the fight scenes and makes rude gestures. This looks familiar as Godzilla just lumbers along, trampling whatever is in his path, be it vital or defunct. Boston is an old city. Though full of tree-lined, walkable streets, it is powered by an energy that cannot be described by commonly understood physics. It is that spark, like a hydrogen bomb dropped on an iceberg, that keeps one part of the city dominating the other parts. Like nuclear fission, it is the product of many smart brains. Like the Cold War it produces a stalemate affair that occupies a lot of attention when all involved could be working together for mutual betterment rather than struggling to keep up at cross purposes.

A city is made up of many neighborhoods and many component parts and constituencies. When one gets the upper hand, through an accident of history or by design, the status quo lives on past its useful shelf life. What is Boston? It is Dorchester and West Roxbury and Hyde Park and Roxbury and Charlestown and Allston and Brighton, as much as it is the Back Bay and South Bay and South Boston and the Fort Point Channel and the North End and what remains of the West End and East Boston. What does Boston have in common besides the Common? A lot, but most of that is swept under the rug, lost in the tug and the bombast of gorilla versus dinosaur.

So does Kong beat Godzilla or does Godzilla beat Kong? I don't want to ruin the ending for anyone who hasn't seen the film yet. Let us just say that Castle Island is no Skull Island and leave it at that. If you are interested.....

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Superior haberdashery

Ladies love a well-dressed man. This is what I've heard, at least. They love them and they leave them the way they can take them or walk away from microwaved leftovers. It isn't the clothes that make the man, it's the spirit.

Ladies love Cool J (LL Cool J) and ladies love Lloyd Llewellyn Bean (L.L. Bean) and ladies love Dorchester, Mass. You can't blame them. Dorchester, that bright spot on the Boston map, is a place that shows men's' fashions in their finest light. Canvas duck overalls and High-Viz Lime vests look sporty and functional on Dorchester street corners. Ask any utility worker or idle, overtime-earning cop. Red Wing work boots bought at the shop on Dot Ave next to the Sugar Bowl wear just as well as wingtips around South Station. There is something a little extra to be said about a gent in a bespoke suit though.

Dorchester is chockablock with tailors. There is no excuse for wearing ill-fitting clothes in this neighborhood. Sewing machines are easy to hire along Dot Ave to trim cloth to feature your figure at its best; to take in a seam, to cuff a hem, to tighten or let out a waistband. Dorchester knows the power of superior haberdashery and the seamstresses that ply their trade know how to flatter a gentleman whether he resembles a scarecrow or a Franklin stove.

I was at Shanti last night wearing a suit I had tailored at Lien's Bridal Shop. I ran into a gent wearing a suit and tie. His suit was draped off his shoulders like a wet dishrag hung a refrigerator door. He had dried parsley on his lapel and a wet hanky loose in his breast pocket. He said, "I'm well-dressed but the gals look at me like I'm wearing rags. I don't collect cans for a living." I asked him where he purchased his wardrobe.

He said, "A.J. Wright in Fields Corner." Did he take his outfit for a proper fitting afterward? "No." I sized him up. "There's your problem," I advised. "There's nothing wrong with A.J.'s but you can't wear just anything off the rack. You have to make it yours. Take this windowpane pattern over to Lien's or whatever tailor is close by where you live. They'll have you ship shape in no time. Once your clothes fit, you won't be able to shake the ladies off. They'll be like flies on you." I didn't tell him what he seemed like to me.

He thanked me and promised to support a neighborhood business. Whether this haberdasher's sleight of hand will work or not in the long term is up to him. The clothes don't make the man in the end, it is the man who makes the clothes fit him.


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