I’ve got to get this letter off, certified, today, and the P.O. closes in an hour. It isn’t a pretty walk– two- and three- family houses with postage-stamp yards, a laundromat, bus stops I’ve passed a thousand times. I could drive, skipping the in-between, but the short walk always feels like a little adventure, a release from the desk and the screen. It reminds me that I live here, not just anywhere or nowhere. Envelope in hand, I head out the door.
Our house is on the crest of a long hill, so as I head down the steps into the late afternoon, I see the skyscrapers a couple of miles off, shimmering like the Land of Oz. The sun silvers the Hancock building, which had gone up two years before I arrived, endangering pedestrians as 500 pound windows popped out in the high wind so that for awhile Boston was “The City of Falling Glass.” Now there’s the Millennium tower with its gilded-cage cap, and the new One Dalton Place with its LLC penthouses rising above the clouds.
Tomorrow is trash day here. I’d forgotten, but my neighbors have started to set out their barrels. This evening some stranger with black plastic panniers will be picking through them for the returnable cans. On Janet’s sidewalk across from us there’s a heap of stuff–a desk chair, a video game machine, bulging boxes of cables and cassettes, curtains and curtain rods. Is her son, who got his G.E.D. last year, finally moving out? (I saw some Navy recruiters in gold epaulettes and white gloves mounting the stairs last month, but Janet told me she would never let him sign up.)
Marlo, in the second floor unit next door, is a relative newcomer. He has already abandoned those raised beds he proudly set out in front of the house when he first moved in. Marlo works as a physical therapist and on weekends he writes folk-rock songs. He can’t be more than 30, but he is caring for his ten-year old nephew, he informed me, without explanation. I see the boy with his little backpack letting himself in before Marlo returns from work. I’ve told Marlo I’ll keep an eye out. There aren’t many eyes on the street any more. It’s much quieter than it used to be when our two girls, along with half a dozen other kids, swooped and settled, like flocks of sparrows, all stoops and all yards theirs to occupy. Now only Marlo’s cat carries on the art of straying.
Still, on this street you can’t stay immune to the lives of others. Some I will see again tomorrow, or miss if I do not. Some I wouldn’t mind missing–those of the lidless garbage cans, the loud family rows. They are all my neighbors, and the street is a palimpsest of my own changing life as well. Yet we are at the same time strangers, with little in common. There isn’t a “we” here really, despite the earnest convening of the Main Streets Project. With a few exceptions I’ve never been inside any of these houses. It’s porch knowledge, errand knowledge–of lives uprooted, transplanted, flourishing, wilting, and seeding.
Fanny Kostopoulos from #85 is shuffling along the sidewalk a bit more slowly than she once did, retracing the steps she took to the bus stop when she worked the late shift at a small asthma inhaler factory nearby. (It was abandoned in the late 90s and taken over by addicts until a fire in 2014.). Fanny’s two-family house, like ours, is painted Aegean blue and white, to remind her of home. While Mr. K was alive the 5×7 plots on either side of the steps were like Turkish carpets, a strictly tended vegetable garden (his) and flower garden (hers). Thick-trunked wisteria climbed up the pillars of the porch. It was always a pleasure to walk by for a look at what was miraculously ripening, as if the plants thought they were in Greece–pendulous eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, oregano, tied clumps of chamomile, rainbows of zinnias. The vegetable side is now solid grass. Fanny’s chatter is still mostly Greek, but she always stops to say hello, at one time to comment on my nice improvements to our shrubs, then on my new baby (zee lukes like you), now to comment on my deciding to go gray (I like your ‘air). Fanny has worn a wig for as long as I can remember.
For many years Greeks like Fanny dominated this neighborhood and this street. We bought our house from Jimmy Pappas with whom Fanny, I later learned, had had a decade long feud. Jimmy was difficult, volatile. The closing, our plunge into adult finances, had not gone smoothly. We should have seen trouble coming.
On our second visit to the house, “Jimmy”– Dimitris on paper– a tiny, fidgety man with sunken eyes, had announced that he could levitate objects and see through walls. But our focus was on those 11-foot high walls themselves, and the 1920’s style we could recover by undoing his DIY upgrades (curling red and black linoleum, water-stained drop ceilings, decaled mirror mosaics, wooden valences, painted woodwork). His idea was to move back to his native Greece, a hero with his Irish-American wife Grace and their three American children, ages 8-13. But his fantasy of a villa on the Aegean was collapsing in the final hour. High in the lawyer’s office overlooking the Boston harbor it was revealed that Jimmy had not paid the water bills or city taxes in many years. There was a lien on the property. He could levitate objects but he couldn’t make bills disappear. When the bills and penalties were deducted, along with the cost of the shipping container he had already filled, and passage overseas, there wasn’t much left of the fortune with which he would build his new life in the old world. He ranted against the government, and then ranted against us for putting his family in the street. But he had signed a binding agreement, the lawyer reminded him; it was too late to change his mind. And regardless, he would lose his house if he did not pay his bills. At that point Jimmy simply stormed out of the room, leaving Grace, stoic and mute through his public tantrum, to face us, the nice, clueless young couple across the table, who had played by the rules and would themselves soon be homeless if the transfer was not completed.
The lawyer suggested we take a break for lunch. Would Jimmy return? Somehow Grace managed to calm him down in the interim. At the end of five cliff-hanging hours the house was ours at least on paper, though a month later, in order to move in when our lease extension was up, we had to agree that he could leave “as is” all the junk filling the big basement. Jimmy was a hoarder. He had been trying to run an unlicensed car parts business out of the house and the basement was chock-a-block in old tires, hand pumps, serpentine belts, jacks, rusty fenders, exhaust pipes, hub caps, rearview mirrors, road signs and oil cans, and other salvaged auto parts, all categorized and labeled. Jimmy’s traces, his mad schemes and odd home improvements, linger here. He had built a bulwark against a youth lived in Greece during Nazi occupation and civil war. Even now his traces remain, the obsessive effort to establish order against the chaos behind and around him: the tool hooks, the crude closets subdividing the space, the pulleys, the elaborate wiring, the eerie chalk marks on the walls where he had outlined each of his tools so as to return them to their proper places.
For years after we moved in we’d get payment notices in the mail for Jimmy or one of his former tenants. The police chief showed up at our door several times unconvinced that we weren’t hiding someone. Jimmy clearly had maxed out several credit cards before sailing back to Greece, and he owed money all over. A year later I was startled to see Grace and the youngest child back at Star Market. How’s Jimmy? I asked. “I don’t really know what Jimmy is doing,” was her glum reply. I left it there, feeling the weight of my part in her woes.
Most of the other Greeks in our neighborhood did not go back but moved out to the suburbs. A few besides Fanny lingered on here, always with the air of transplants. At the Haldoupis house, three doors down, nobody sits on the porch anymore. But when Olympia lived there I used sometimes to go the long way around, because you couldn’t get past without a chat devoted to her laments or a eulogy to her dear departed husband Alex. With her lived her bachelor son Jack, and a granddaughter, Alethea, who spent most of her time at our house after her parents died in a double suicide. “Uncle Jack” had some kind of obscure business buying art to decorate offices, but he also spent most of the day sunning himself on the porch, open shirt or bare chested but for a gold chain, as if he were on a beach in Corfu. They were part of the unofficial neighborhood watch. Jack would head down to the bus stop at around 6 in the evening, coming back just before dawn from who-knows-where.
Bits of rumors, stories we hear or construct as part of the rhythm of life, as we weed and rake and shovel, carry in our groceries and take out our trash. The stories adhere to the houses well after the tenants have vanished.
Those on our street who were not Greek were Irish, many first generation, like the O’Keefes, the O’Mallys, the Keoghs, the Kellys, or immigrants like sweet, nervous Terry McDonald, our next door neighbor in the yellow house, who helped me learn to interpret our first baby’s cries–hungry, wet, sleepy, or teething (she’d been listening in). When the baby started piano lessons Terry gently observed that she was playing her scales rather fast. Terry had grown up in Galway with her husband Michael. In the Plumber’s Union he had made a good enough income to afford a house and three partial tuitions at Holy Name, until he developed leukemia when the children were teenagers. So he spent most of his time quiet on the porch too, until he passed away. The girls were alright, in fact Molly was a big success: she went to Northeastern, commuting from home, and got a job with the Red Sox management. But Michael, the youngest, couldn’t settle; though he had learned his father’s trade, he was too much for Terry, and often got in trouble. One late night his Corvair, which he groomed every free minute, mysteriously went up in flames.
A quiet street, of births, graduations, proms, renovations, retirements, deaths; no picket fence policing, but things learned about in whispers, in noticing–balloons, a limousine, an ambulance, a broker’s sign.
Across the street the Sheerins are still in their place, despite many internal tremors. Mr. Sheerin’s new van is parked in front, advertising “Painting and Wallpaper” in neat letters. It’s parked most of the day now. The old van really was a wreck–you could hear the ignition coughing in the morning. And when you passed by you could hear him starting himself up too, wheezing and groaning. When we first moved in, after spending weeks gouging the walls and choking on plaster dust (7 layers of wallpaper with paint in between, the remains of seven successive families at least) we gave up and called the local expert. Tommy Sheerin and his father-in-law, Dante, would arrive mid morning with bloodshot eyes, but they got the job done.
On the other side of us is Sean O’Mally who buys up ugly houses and flips them. For a time he rented his downstairs unit to a group from the Balkans. I counted five adults and seven children, teenagers to toddlers. On sunny days one of the women would spread the laundry out on the hedges that surrounded the porch. They put an old sofa on the front grass patch and they would all sit there together, talking away in a Slavic-sounding tongue, a few hanging off the sides, like it was some kind of refugee boat.
At times the tide is slow, at other times rapid, bringing the drift from civil wars, downturns, acts of god, piling up in Roslindale– the Irish and Greeks in the 50s, the Irish and the Lebanese in the 70s, the Albanians, Kosovars and Serbs in the 90s, now Brazilians, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Haitians, Dominicans, Ghanaians, a tide bringing them from places where life became impossible, to where it is just hard. Isn’t there still some room for them here –for the cashiers, the house cleaners, the day laborers, the odd job men, some to become the masons, the plumbers, the UPS drivers, the hospital orderlies, the dental assistants, and maybe then the programmer, the engineer, the entrepreneur who will give your kid a job, the doctor who will save your life?
Down near the bottom of the street now, more tight rows of squat bungalows and sagging multi-family dwellings. I don’t know the people, but I appreciate their random attempts at cheerfulness–some dusty plastic flowers, a porcelain rabbit, Christmas balls still on a shrub. The lavender house always has an embroidered flag hanging, for any occasion. This month it’s for Valentine’s. (“Somebody loves us all.”) Even the trees are homely–no graceful sycamore avenues, just city locusts breaking up the sidewalks, and self-seeded Norway maples, taking the squirrels to the power lines. Most yards have been ceded to the “Roslindale weed,” a rampant and indestructible form of deadly nightshade, dormant for now.
Something one wants to call a place still exists in my part of Boston, 42,291209 latitude and 71,124497 longitude, though by the time my husband and I got here it had almost died; the busing crisis, the recession of the 70s, public sector corruption had eviscerated urban neighborhoods. “Rozzie” still doesn’t call up an essence or identity as “Concord” does, or “The North End.” (No one I know says “Rozzie” with a straight face. It’s an invention of the media.) Yet under the disorder there’s the feeling of an order, one without a design. It is always becoming something, an assortment of strivers who have climbed out of the rubble of lives started far away, some who have found a foothold here while others move on, or slip into despair. Their witness is locked into street names, church buildings, fading storefront signage.
As I approach Belgrade Avenue and the bus stop at the bottom of the hill, the walk is more anonymous. Our two-family house had been advertised as “Holy Name Parish,” thus signaling the “good” side of Roslindale, near West Roxbury (white, Catholic and middle class) though in fact we were equally close to the canyon of a dilapidated brick housing project on Washington Street, and to Burger King, Nikos Liquor and Domino’s Pizza. Belgrade Avenue is still a zone of distressed triple-deckers, some with six or more mailboxes around the door–Section 8 not Air B&B. But things are certainly picking up here. The houses that were boarded up and taken over by the city have been sold for a dollar and spruced up with new windows and vinyl siding.
The playground was renovated for the last mayoral election, with new swings and slides. Even on this winter afternoon there’s a couple of teenagers shooting hoops while their girlfriends watch. A different group holds hockey practice on the adjacent court on weekends. The two courts used to reflect the Roslindale divide, but recently I’ve noticed that both hoops and hockey are more racially mixed. There are plans for a new charter school where the Used Chevrolet dealer used to be. This has set off a battle of the yard signs, dozens on each side: “Stop 361 Belgrade” over against “We Support Roxbury High.” Is the issue really density (stated), or is the prospect of busloads of teenagers from the poorer neighborhoods just too much for some?
Belgrade Avenue is more than half residential, but scattered businesses come and go; here, three blocks from my house, is the unknown known. I see that Nancy’s Boutique Housewares, selling faux Italian baroque furniture, Christening outfits, prints of the Last Supper, has a farewell sign in the window. That was quick. Among aspirational businesses, the one that astounds me most is The Busted Knuckle, a bike shop that opened up about six years ago, about the same time the city started painting bike lanes along the streets, lanes that nobody heeds or understands. The store is bulging with bikes, helmets, pumps and other gear, and the metal grid is up, a sign says OPEN, though no one goes in or out–maybe it’s an online business. This year the city has posted several “blue bikes” on the sidewalk at this corner. An affront, or an endorsement? The mechanic next door, Taly’s Autobody, working out of nothing but a hovel, is busy as always. A bunch of guys in oil-stained jumpsuits are standing around the carcass of a Lincoln sedan.
Most of the time I do not “run” my errands, nor do they run me. So I stop in at Silva’s Variety out of curiosity and buy a pack of gum– there is little “variety” on the shelves. When Brazilians started coming to Roslindale, Silva took over one of the less burned out vacant stores of the block and he seems to be surviving. One section sells specialty items–coffee, guava, coconut creme, etc.–the jars silked in dust. It is mostly symbolic. There are always two or three people in the store, gossiping in Portuguese, buying lottery tickets and wiring money through Western Union. These are the things that keep most of the little markets in Roslindale going, the ones where they speak Arabic, where they speak Greek, Albanian, Spanish, Serbian, or Amharic.
Among the other unshuttered stores on Belgrade and beyond, personal care seems to be a specialty. You can be tanned at Taniverse, waxed, botoxed, lasered, scraped and cleansed at Rosanna Zayas Acne and Esthetic Center; barbered at Sebastiano’s, foot massaged at Reflexology, braided at Tracey’s African Braiding, threaded and pierced at Threading for Beauty, tattooed at Zus Tattoos and Supplies, where the slogan in the window is from Leonardo DiVinci: “art is never finished it is only abandoned.” A few years ago Guys and Girls, run for forty years by a Neapolitan couple, was replaced by another ugly wrap around sign, on a plastic marquee: Tina Nails and Spa, where an army of Asian manicurists file and polish into the evening. Salons pop up like mushrooms in Roslindale: Charlot’s Coiffeures, Jesamondo Spa, Dhenia’s Salon, Stephania’s Beauty Parlor, some stylists waxing poetic: Kutting Korner, Hair Today, We are Hair, and for your pet there’s The Doggarie. Reason not the need. Under each hung shingle there’s a loan or a life savings, the business of luxury feeding a family.
A block down, at the intersection of Belgrade and Walworth is another hair salon, Before and After, which shares a building with Home Market, a variety store that also sells lottery tickets, Western Union telegrams and wiring, along with candy, gum, cigarettes. Home Market once occupied the whole of the three-room building, and “Home” meant the Mediterranean. The grocery’s narrow lanes were lined with big barrels of olives, labneh (this was way before Fage) racks of baklava, big bags of oregano, pistachios, sesame, Halvah, filo dough, mounds of tomatoes, peppers, onions. Back then Belgrade Avenue was traversed during the week by shuffling old ladies (old-looking, anyway) in shapeless black shifts, rolled stockings and triangle scarves, lugging sacs. They would haggle over the lamb cuts and debate the freshness of the lettuce. But the real business was on weekends, when the families who had flourished and moved out to the suburbs, returned to attend St. Nectarios church, a block further down Belgrade Avenue. After services they always stopped in to Home Market to replenish their old world ingredients, their language, their memories. Their children having different memories despite years of weekend Greek School at St. Nectarios, gradually abandoned the place, so now Home Market caters mostly to the playground traffic.
The corner of Belgrade and Corinth Street marks the gateway to Roslindale Square, renamed “Roslindale Village” by Main Street revitalizers. For all its demographic changes, the threshold remains defiantly Macedonian. The mayor of Athens, Dimitris Avromopoulos, in 1997 gifted the neighborhood a bust of Alexander the Great. MEΓAΣ AAEEANAPOΣ. The emperor presides there now over a reduced kingdom, “Alexander the Great Park,” about three yards square (the “park” designation seems like a joke) with a couple of miniature Greek pines behind the bust. The walls are painted over now and then to cover the graffiti. Cosmo Frantzis initiated the park project. He was a harsh landlord, but he created a lovely piazza (plateia) with mosaic walls out of an alley behind a couple of bistros, and had the whole of Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka” inscribed there, in both Greek and English. (The Roslindale branch library designed in 1961 also remembers Greece, with a big light blue dome and mosaic walls.) The area lay still and quiet in its nostalgia through the end of the twentieth century.
At the square–“village,” rather–the two Roslindales meet, and it is mostly strangers. The sidewalk ballet quickens. For a long time this area was a kind of no man’s land, little more than a place for bus transfers. A film still of tired people on their way home, or heading to a night shift, waiting, looking out at nothing, at anything but each other. But these days the camera is rolling and offers a bustling cosmopolitan spectacle. I see fewer old ladies in black triangle scarves tied at the chin, but more young ladies in headscarves wrapped around their necks, or turbans piled on their heads. I see Pakistani grandmothers in churidar pants, and African women in dizzying prints. A Philippine man sells frozen yogurt and bubble tapioca to kids after school. Here in the square my eye glimpses and darts; all is surface; all is present tense.
Is Roslindale gentrifying? Diversifying, I’d rather say, from its century of ethnic, blue-collar insularity. Memory marks the changes. Vouvros Bakery, which supplied Greek pastries city wide, is gone after 50 years, replaced by “Gourmet Coffee” in rows of thermoses. Cristo’s has become “The Green T.” The “Melting Pot,” run by an Irishman and then by a Kosovan, failed, but “Square Root Cafe,” opened last week. (The owner is local; he has “roots” in the “square”.) “Distraction Brewing,” its windows still papered, is expected in the spring. The Italian Home for Little Wanderers Thrift Shop has become popular with hipsters and furnishes the retro-decorations for Fornax, owned by an artist couple selling baguettes, rosemary battard and multi-grain boules, things unheard of in Diane’s Bakery or Droubi Brothers Pita Shop. And the Boston School of Modern Languages, “established 1925”, still offers intensive English programs.
The old crowd and the new crowd harmonize but do not homogenize. The Sons of Italy now hosts the Winter Farmer’s Market; the Emerald Society, the Hellenic Soccer Club, the Albanian Social Club, the YMAA (Yang’s Martial Arts Association–with a yin/yang logo) hold their peace. A woman from Columbia opened Solera wine store with her Irish sommelier–a real wine store, not a “liquor store” of which Roslindale has several. A Greek diner stays open next to new bistros and tapas bars. Tony DeBenedictus, of Tony’s Italian Market, since 1963, is tuned in to the “Village” crowd and now organizes live opera aria performances in the store a few times a year.
With all this village pageantry, I’d nearly forgotten my destination, but here it is: the inconspicuous P.O. 02131, a dull one-story tan brick building from the sixties, squatting beneath the four-story Roslindale Community Center (1916) on one side and the 1912 cathedral-like streetcar Substation (repurposed as a beer hall) on the other. A narrow, grimy waiting space (have the windows ever been washed?) with a wall of rented boxes, a littered counter, stacks of flyers (“Apply for Citizenship”) and a sorting room behind it. People backed up to the door, as usual, especially since they started taking passport applications. I sigh at the time I will forfeit, and step into line. Lines are part of the human condition, after all–especially for immigrants, who make up at least half of the stoic service-seekers on an average day.
But there’s a Whitmanesque beauty to the line today, each of us keeping a comma’s, or no more than a semi-colon’s distance: the house painter in his splattered jeans, the dusty construction worker holding his styrofoam coffee cup, the self-employed man with his stack of envelopes, the black teenager standing out in his camouflage, the middle-aged woman in platform shoes and glittery tunic; the person in front of me is holding an enormous, duct-taped box, addressed to El Salvador; one is holding a dog-eared folder, one a toddler who will not be put down; a dwarf, a giant, a youngster, a senior, the homely, the comely, together in a slow, intimate line dance, one shifting left, the other right, one hunched, the other standing tall, one leaning on a cane, another checking her cell phone, all these pilgrims, waiting their turn for the communion at the counter, faithful (or doubtful) that their careful letters, their gifts and supplies, will be sent from this human river to the harbor of the back room with its carts and bins, their missives shipped across oceans, though often to where the mails are unreliable. I’m moved especially by the gentleness of the long-serving postal clerks, these bodhisattvas between us and the bureaucratic gods. I know them well, tall Tony with the hunched shoulders, plump Alice with the high pitched voice, and my favorite, skinny Donna with the piled up white hair and occult earrings, now patiently instructing a client how to fill out a form or address a package. My envelope has a return address marking the place I’ve returned to for most of my life. But a permanent address is something that many here do not have, and only rarely due to wanderlust.
Tony’s window is stalled. A tiny, Asian woman–Cambodian? Philippine?—who could be forty, could be sixty. Her clothes are disordered, oversized, a stained sweat shirt, snow-flake pajama pants, high top shoes folded down to slippers, hair uncombed and crudely cropped, certainly disoriented; possibly deranged. She is alone, lugging a large cloth sac from which she draws paper after crumpled paper, pushing them across the counter and nodding affirmatively. No words. Does she speak any English? From what shirt factory or rice paddy (the stereotypes light up), what distant village or over crowded city, has she come to our zip code?
Tony leans out to her and explains that none of these torn envelopes, these scraps of documents, these notes and memos, proffered like sacred manuscripts, are adequate to the bureaucratic task. She can get an ID at the RMV next door (the line there is always daunting, guarded by a cop, and all the way down the outdoor ramp). She can order a birth certificate online. Does she know that word, “online”? She nods and produces more scraps from her sac. He explains the form, what information is needed. He points to the list of acceptable forms of ID. “If I send this it will just come back. I don’t want to take your money if I can’t get you a passport.” She nods, spreads out the papers like a gambler’s hand. He picks through them, shakes his head. I’m thinking how will this end?
Yet we are silent and patient, all of us in line. Nobody taps a foot, sneers or raises a brow. We know her. She has traveled so far. She is our sister, our mother, our grandmother, our ancient, vulnerable selves. She pulls us together into one body, one focus. Finally Tony finds a document he is willing to try. No promises.
My turn at last. Tony gives me the little green paper that “certifies” my letter will arrive at the proper address. He circles the code that tracks my envelope. I will lose it as always, but it relieves anxiety. There’s not much certainty in this life, but at least there are certificates. My errand is done.
One does not lose oneself on a neighborhood errand, but one may sometimes find oneself, in the intersections with others, their intentions and loitering, the myriad others who together map the changing place no one of us sees whole. As it happens, however, today I am helping someone else find her place. On the way home I am stopped by a young woman with a suitcase who is obviously lost. She has a tattered map in her hand and holds out a paper with an address. Plees can zhou to help? Whar iz thees-a-ztreet? I can’t place the accent. Through her struggle with English I make out that she is a new student at the Boston School of Modern Languages. They have arranged a home stay for her at this address.
I walk with her awhile in the right direction.