So much of my life is connected in some way to the intersection of Mount Vernon Street and Dorchester Avenue. It’s where I met all of my lifelong friends, learned about life and the world, and met the girl who showed me how together we could do and see so many of the things that I read about in books.
This is how I wound up there.
When I was about 14 and living with my parents in the Old Colony projects in South Boston, I got a phone call from my “old” friend Peter. Peter had moved out of the projects when we were both about 11 or 12, which was a bit of a blow for me.
We had met in the 2nd or 4th grade (we still debate which) at St. Augustine School and became close friends. I would usually walk over to Peter’s house, a couple of blocks away on Burke Street, and we would hang out and play in the large communal backyard with other boys from school, usually Doug and Tommy. Doug lived outside the project on F Street, but Tommy was a project kid.
A favorite game was Nazi sub commander. We thought the Nazi’s had by far the coolest uniforms. In our defense, we were 9 or 10.
Like most project buildings, the back door from Peter’s opened into a pit, with railings and about three or four steps up onto the paved yard surface. This was our U-boat. Peter was always the Commandant (In most everything, as I remember it) and we would all be crew, responding to orders issued in pretend German. I remember we sank a lot of Japanese ships, so historical accuracy wasn’t part of the appeal.
We would rush around the pit yammering gibberish at each other, while Peter barked orders and other groups of boys and girls would play in the other three pits or in one of the two or three simultaneous ballgames always in progress. On a good summer day, there would be 30 or so kids, from six to sixteen, playing in an area about half the size of a football field while moms hanged washing out in the communal “clothes yard” on their assigned day of the week.
Then, a couple of years after moving away, Peter called me from his new home right across the line in Dorchester and invited me out to meet his new friends.
Since Peter left, I had become pretty close to Dougie, and was spending a lot of time at his house. He was smart, a talented artist, funny, and adventurous. He was the oldest of five siblings, including a twin sister, and his house was a trip. Doug’s parents were loving and kind but also defined the “I don’t want to know” school of child rearing, and we (quietly) ran amok at his house.
It was a three-story single family across from the Boys Club, and Doug’s room was on the third floor. We would climb out the dormer onto the pitched roof and, sitting on top of the dormer with a transistor radio, yell to people we knew on the street. I remember lots of fun and we hardly ever lost anything of value over the side.
We also rode the subway to Wonderland and Suffolk Downs and the Airport and everywhere a nickel would take us. And if the paper transfer we offered wasn’t valid for the return fare, a kind-hearted bus driver would let us aboard for the price of a stern, fatherly lecture. The secret world of twelve-year olds.
Anyway, I digress. Peter called with the invitation and Doug and I decided to head over to his house that Saturday morning. Doug met me in the project and, following Peter’s directions, we headed for Andrew Sq. and Dorchester Avenue.
Walking the mile or so from the square to Mt. Vernon Street was only memorable for being “jumped” by the Rebels on Belleflower Street. We soon got to know them as just Richie, Boxer, Russo, et al and we all became friends, but we met weird.
As we crossed Belleflower on Dot Ave, Doug and I were suddenly surrounded by four or five boys about our age, self-consciously trying look as menacing as they could. They were the Rebels, they announced, and we were now on their turf. We noticed that they were acting strangely, bobbing back and forth, fingers snapping, spinning, kicking (at each other) in what appeared to be choreography.
We weren’t nearly as intimidated as they hoped, and when asked what we were doing on their turf, we answered “Looking for our friend Peter’s house.”
One of them said “Oh, I know Peter. He goes to the Russell” as he bobbed and weaved. “What do you want him for?”.
“He’s our friend. We know him from the projects.”
Now this seemed to gain us a bit of respect. Evidently, outside of Southie, “the projects” carried some kind of macho cache, because they stopped dancing around so much and gave us directions to Peter’s street.
We found out later that “West Side Story” had been playing up at the Strand and they had all been greatly affected by it.
Doug and I continued to Peter’s house, a first-floor apartment in a three decker on a short dead-end street. A small backyard shared a fence with the expressway exit and its constant buzz of traffic. Two houses down, his street turned into an overgrown field that followed the off ramp for a block, excellent cover for beer drinking and other teenage malfeasance.
We had a fine day as Peter led us up to the corner of Dot Ave and Mt. Vernon, where we met his friends. The plaque on the Mt. Vernon-Roseclaire sign named the intersection Canavan Square, in memory of some hero or other, and it was to become the center of my social life for the next decade or more and the origin of the close friendships I still have today.
At the time, it was really two hangouts. On the west side of the avenue, the collegiate kids hung out in front of Acme Air and went to Rosie’s Variety.
Across the street, we hung out in the doorway at 850 Dot Ave and went to the Mt. Vernon Spa next door.
Peter’s friends were the Polish kids and we lightly followed the “rat” dress code. At the time, people who slicked their hair, and dressed and talked in the 50s fashion (think “Grease”) were called “rats”. Really.
Proto-hippies, in their benchwarmers and madras pants and long hair, were called “collegiates” (adj: “colleej”). It was analogous to the Mod/Rocker teen cultural split happening in England at the time.
As time went on, we noticed that the boys at Rosie’s actually had girls who talked to them, so we quietly began to ditch the pegged sharkskin pants and let our hair grow out. I even bought penny loafers.
By then, Doug had transferred to Brighton High for the art program and spent his time with kids from out there.
A third group, the “little kids” who were about three years younger, hung out on Buttonwood and came up to the Spa and we got to know them well.
There was no cross-avenue hostility, really, everyone knew who everyone was, but we just all stayed with our friends.
A few months after my arrival, one of the Rams, an imposing thug named JoeC walked up to us on the corner. He was looking for Billy. Billy had done him wrong, somehow, about some girl.
Whatever, we wanted no beef with his Ram friends, so we nodded and told him that Billy hung across the street and that, as soon as we saw him, we would certainly tell him about JoeC’s concerns. He growled and left.
About an hour later, four or five collegiates in benchwarmers walked up from Columbia Station and I recognized one as the Billy in question.
“We should tell him.”
I walked over.
“You’re Billy, right?”
“Yeah. Who are you?”
“I’m Jeff. This enormous JoeC guy came by an hour ago and told us he was going to kill you.”
“You think I’m afraid of JoeC? I’m not afraid of that fat piece …”
“Look man, I just thought you should know. I don’t know him, I don’t know you. Just telling you.”
His friend Charlie or Steve spoke up.
“OK. Thanks for the info. We know JoeC, we’ll take care of it. You’re one of Peter’s friends? From where?”
So, we chatted a bit.
By summer’s end, the crowds had pretty much merged. We left the cramped confines of the doorway at 850 for the more spacious doorway of Acme Air.
Then, as youth culture took hold in the world, came the Beatles and dances at the Surf. The hoodsie hop was at BC High.
Spring to fall, there were free Summerthing concerts in the park, on the Boston Common, on Cambridge Common, in Harvard Stadium, at the Orpheum or the Garden. I remember music everywhere.
We grew from walking or thumbing, to borrowing some parent’s car, to driving our own $300 clunkers. Soon we were all driving down to the Cape, or to a secluded camping spot on Rt 112 in the White Mountains. Camp in the summer, ski in the winter.
Some of my friends even drove to Woodstock.
The common denominator?
“Meet up on the corner and we’ll head out from there.”
Yes, I know, it all wasn’t happy times and music. There were fights and heartbreak and scandal, but we managed to mostly avoid the hardcore problems in the neighborhood, and I think the lives we are all living today testifies to that.
Most all of the friends that we still socialize with have ties to Canavan Square. Either they stood there in the rain and snow with me, or they married somebody who did.
I never lived in Dorchester in my life, but it will always be the place that I’m from.