My friend Gloria recently went to a diner in Dedham, where the cover of a book for sale caught her eye: street signs at the intersection of Northampton and Fellows streets. Gloria, who grew up in the South End's New York Streets, read enough to discover that the author, Charles M. Caizzi (Charley Caizzi to me now) grew up in the Forties and Fifties at 28 Northampton, the house where James Michael Curley started out. He calls it Roxbury but I see it as part of the South End. She called me up.
It didn't take long to find Caizzi. Soon we had an exchange of books, his Just So You Know and my South End Character, and began talking on the phone.
I wanted to see where "the field" on Fellows Street was. "The field was the central location for all our sporting activities," writes Caizzi, who left the neighborhood in 1958. "Now this field was not any kind of formal playground. This was simply a field. No one cleaned it; no one took care of it. No one paid any attention to it, that is, no one but us kids."
My neighbor Jim and I set off. Needless to say, the field is no more, Fellows Street has changed, and other places Caizzi mentions-Sam's Junk Yard, Bond Bread, and Hurley's Log Cabin, known for strippers-are also no more. We walked past Water and Sewer, which used to be Green Shoe and later Stride-Rite-Caizzi and I both worked there-and crossed Melnea Cass Boulevard to the original Dearborn School (not the building recently in the news), where Caizzi went to grammar school. We found ourselves in Orchard Park, the park itself, now named after Edna Bynoe, where Jim ran into a friend, and we talked about the neighborhood. A good day!
A couple of weeks later, I retraced those steps with Charley Caizzi himself. We started out at the Victoria Diner, where he remembered they used to have "the best peach shortcake." Taking a spin around the neighborhood afterwards, he commented on how small his old stomping grounds looked. The block of Northampton between Albany and Harrison used to have lots of houses, including the ugly "pig sty" building on the corner of Fellows-after it was torn down, his house was subjected to drafts.
Several members of Caizzi's family worked at Boston City Hospital, a couple of them as barbers, and his grandfather owned a tavern on Washington St. He remembers Johnny Corey's bar and the Puritan Theatre, and was glad to see that "Chinese Alley" is still there, so-called because there was a Chinese restaurant at the end. It runs from Harrison Avenue's Pizza Stop (once Sam's Spa) to Parmelee Street, no Chinese restaurant.
Is he "nostalgic"? Charley shakes his head. "It's fact," he says-getting things right, finding out what was where, what was what, and who was who, told by someone who was there. When people say my columns are nostalgic, I feel misunderstood. Nostalgia is sentimentalized, a buzz word, say my friends, and a way to write off people. If you have no connection to a place or a time, no interest in it, you may be quick to label stories such as ours "nostalgic." What about telling a good story-a true one? Isn't that history?
Soon after discovering Charley Caizzi, I met Bonnie McIlvaine and bought her memoir, 5 Squares. Bonnie's father was Johnny McIlvaine, owner of several nightclubs, including Trinidad Lounge and, briefly, Basin Street South-the same location as Charley Caizzi's grandfather's tavern. He was also manager of Chester Square's Professional and Businessmen's Club, but probably didn't call it Chester Square. The 5 Squares were Bonnie and four high school friends who frequented local bars and lounges in the Sixties "when we couldn't see the forest for the trees." It was a hard tale to tell and not what's thought of as nostalgic.
The McIlvaine home at 78 Hammond Street "was always busy with people from all walks of life and cultures. Businessmen, entertainers, musicians, dancers, photographers, vocalists, politicians, gamblers, mobsters, doctors, dentists, lawyers, movie stars, pro ball players, hustlers, pimps and their ladies, con men, policemen, family and friends. Daddy said that he even knew Specs O'Keefe and the rest of the crew who were involved in the Brink's Robbery...."
In 1985, at the end of his life, her father lived on West Rutland Square, across from Titus Sparrow Park, named after her grandmother's nephew. Bonnie lived in apartments on Chester and Worcester Squares, and I was surprised to see the Worcester Square Christmas Tree Lighting mentioned (it seemed so innocent).
Charley's book can be purchased by sending $18.95 to Just So You Know, PO Box 297, Middleboro, MA 02346, and Bonnie's through Amazon.com or FriesenPress.com.
Alison Barnet is the author of South End Character, Speaking Out on Neighborhood Change. You can buy her book at the South End Food Emporium, 465 Columbus Avenue, and the South End Branch Library. Both do it for the neighborhood and make no profit from the book.
Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.