Chauncey Street

Valerie Forde-Galvin

© Copyright 2024 by Valerie Forde-Galvin

Valerie and Uncle Nat.  Photo courtesy of the author..
Valerie and Uncle Nat.  Photo courtesy of the author.
In the nineteen-forties, Chauncey Street was a hotbed of activity. We were working class, one car families. Fathers went to work; mothers stayed home. Kids walked to the local elementary school and, after school, played outside until called in to supper. Everything happened in the neighborhood. Just on our own street there was as much drama as you'd find in any television series. I suppose you could think of Chauncey Street as the Downton Abbey of Dorchester.

When Chauncey Street daughters got married, their families held wedding receptions at home instead of at a fancy restaurant. These people had no pretentions. When you live from one paycheck to the other, you don't have money to waste. So, after attending the church ceremony, neighbors just congregated back at the family home, got falling-down drunk, and unsteadily walked themselves back home to where us kids still sat reading our comic books. We never quite understood how adults coud be so stupid.

We were a community of mostly Irish Catholics tolerating the occasional Italian Catholics. While we might have had our ethnic differences, we were united in our obedience to Holy Mother Church. Under the watchful eyes of the neighborhood, nobody dared negect their obligatory attendance at Sunday Mass. Any dereliction of this duty would be noted. Young people who kept late hours raised a few eyebrows. And you can bet families who produced fewer than a dozen children were suspect. Marital discord was expected as a way of life but divorce was unheard of. One couple on Chauncey Street stopped talking to each other in 1944 and carried on this mute relationship for the next thirty years.

Gossip on the front stoop was an established social custom. It could be compared to the Facebook of today except that it was more honest and direct. Since these gatherings were in person, nothing could be faked or glossed over. Conversations were real. Chauncey Street neighbors knew each others' business. We didn't need security cameras. We had our own version of Neighborhood Watch; everyone had their eyes on the street. That fact alone might have given everyone the incentive to behave.

If we ran out of interest in the people next door, there were plenty of characters who routinely passed through the neighborhood. Deliverymen brought the essentials to households like ours who were without a second car and therefore unable to shop during the week. Since Massachusetts Blue Laws required businesses to close on Sunday, our one shot at shopping was Saturday. However, with three growing kids in our family, food supplies ran out before the weekend, hence the need for various delivery men. That's right – men. Women had not yet blazed those trails

Milk was delivered early each morning and left on the doorstep. Pasteurized, not homogenized, milk came in glass bottles shaped in a way that allowed cream to settle in its own little glass bubble at the top. Whoever happened to be the first one up in the morning had to retrieve the bottles before they froze in winter or soured in summer. Our milkman was Harold Sheehan who just happened to live across the street. Harold and Mamie Sheehan were childless so Mamie kept herself busy growing roses and baking cookies for the neighborhood kids. With luck we'd also get free ice cream treats left over from Harold's route when he got home. It's obvious now that sugar fueled our childhood while its detrimental effect on our teeth put our dentist's son through college.

Ernie the iceman regularly delivered huge blocks of ice for the top compartment of our icebox. That's right – icebox. The concept of refrigeration was slow to reach Chauncey Street. With the artful use of tongs, Ernie extracted ice from the back of his truck. Muscles bulging, he hefted the block of ice onto his shoulder and walked up the side alley to our back door. Watching Ernie perform this ritual was an afternoon's entertainment. My sisters had a crush on him but I wasn't impressed by muscle. . . or sweat.

Sparky the eggman showed up every Tuesday and hung around with my mother to smoke a cigarette and tell a few dirty jokes. As a result, it always seemed to me that a blue haze hung over the living room, partly from cigarette smoke and partly. . . well, lets just say from the indelicate nature of the conversation. Sparky was unaware that a kid was in the next room but there I was, home with yet another cold. Mum used to keep me home a lot. My guess is that she was bored and needed company. In my opinion she could do better than the guy who delivered eggs and told jokes I never understood.

Our mail was delivered by John the mailman. John was never alone walking his route; he was always accompanied by a dog. Whether because of age or alcohol, John was unsteady on his feet and local dogs provided assisstance. I assume that the local canine population worked out a relay system as he moved through their distinct territories. Rumor has it that John dropped dead on his route one day and the designated neighborhood dog stayed with his body until it was discovered by the policeman on the beat.

Like the mailman, each community had its neighborhood cop who patrolled on foot. His uniform and billy club commanded respect and a little fear. Yet we gratefully accepted the presence of this unnamed enforcer of the law because we understood that his mission was to keep order. We chose to think of him as a stern uncle who made it his business to see that each of us kids stayed out of trouble.

Because we lived on the subway route to Boston, we did go on occasional shopping expeditions. These trips were time consuming and exhausting especially in summer when hot winds from the subway tunnel covered us with soot and grime. We were thankful when Mum found more comfortable ways to spend money. Along came Jacob the peddler and his nineteen-forties version of online shopping: a shop-at-home business run by a kindly old man who brought his catalog and order forms to the house every other week. With my sinuses keeping me home again, I often watched Mum play the grand lady as she pored over Jacob's catalog of treasures. “Just put it on my account,” she'd say when ordering whatever caught her fancy. You see, our mother dreamed about a life of luxury. Instead she got three kids and a mortgage. So she chose to play out her fantasy by living beyond her means. We were always in debt to Jacob and, when he came to collect, we stayed very quiet until he stopped knocking and went away. We didn't have to worry about late fees, interest payments, or lowered credit rating. These were simpler times.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed, young men rushed to enlist in the armed services. A spirit of noble idealism prevailed and, in defense of their country, men were willing to die. However World War II brought no gold stars to Chauncey Street windows. Its residents were either too old or too young to serve. My father's work at the shipyard was considered essential for the war effort so he was not called up. But our family didn't entirely escape military service. Filled with patriotic spirit, my uncle Nat joined the army and proudly visited Chauncey Street wearing his new uniform. Unfortunately he was later injured in a training accident and got stuck with a desk job. All dreams of glory faded.

After World War II ended, my father lost his job due to lay-offs at the shipyard. There were some lean years for a while. We ate a lot of tuna casseroles. Hand-me-down clothes got handed down as usual but were now augmented by cast-offs from the neighbors. My aunt gave us her old refrigerator so we had no more need of ice deliveries. Jacob, with apologies, shut off our credit. Harold the milkman died. His widow across the street still tended her flowers and baked cookies for us kids although we did miss Harold's ice cream treats. Eventually my father opened his own auto repair shop and my parents took out a second mortgage. Bills got paid and we could afford things like hamburg and clothes that fit.

During those lean years, only Sparky the eggman continued his deliveries on Tuesdays, sharing cigarettes and smutty jokes with Mum. Since my sinuses had cleared up, I was spending more time in school so I rarely listened in on Sparky's visits. One afternoon when I was coming home from school, I spotted Sparky's truck parked out front. I knew my father's car was still tucked away in the garage. After being laid off, he'd been working odd jobs at night and often doing much needed repairs on the house during the day.

As I walked up the street, I could see my parents and Sparky standing out on the front walk having a loud grownup conversation. Everyone looked unpleasant. That's how I knew it was a grownup conversation. I couldn't quite hear what they were saying but I recognized some profanities. I guess you could say the air was pretty “blue” that day. Just as I reached the house, the eggman jumped into his truck and drove off, tires squealing. It was a dramatic moment which, I'm sure, did not go unnoticed in the neighborhood.

At supper that night, Mum offered her daughters these words of wisdom: “Never laugh at a guy's dirty jokes. It sends the wrong message.” Well, that was hardly news to me. Since the boys in my class were pretty gross, I'd already figured that out for myself. But it did seem to me that grownups are slower to learn. After that we never saw Sparky the eggman again. I think maybe we even stopped eating eggs. I think the neighbors even stopped eating eggs. No doubt the events of that day have become Chauncey Street legend.

Inevitably, time brought changes to Chauncey Street. The area never did become gentrified, although a few of those houses built in the early thirties did get a face lift. The old families died out with their descendants, like me, scattered to the four winds. Chauncey Street wasn't much and, frankly, I was happy to leave it. But it was my childhood home and the place comes back to me often in dreams. I guess my roots will always be there.

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