Up on the Platform
At the Worcester Street Silver Line stop, everyone’s standing, avoiding the hard blue slabs that pose as benches. Thinking back, there was nowhere to sit up on the Northampton Station Elevated platform either, but who’d want to sit when there was so much to watch down below?
In the late Sixties, a gypsy fortune teller sat behind a big plate glass window. When men walked by on Washington Street, she would rap on the window, and sometimes one of them would mount the stairs. I’d watch as she let him in and they crossed in front of the window, disappearing into a room on the other side. If the train didn’t come, I’d see him leave after not-too-many minutes, and she’d resume her position in the window. Funny how women never wanted their fortunes told.
On the stairs going up to the fortune teller was a sign that said, HIGH GRADE WORK. It referred to the Drs. Grover, dentists, but might have applied to both-or should I say all? Three Drs. Grover shared an office.
Downstairs from the fortune teller was Lee’s Chinese restaurant where my friends and I used to sit in a high-backed booth and laugh at the characters that came in for takeout, which was just about everyone. Food and drink were the hallmarks of Northampton Station. I watched people go in and out of Joe and Nemo’s, an offshoot of the famous Scollay Square restaurant, where you stood at a counter and ate a hotdog. The corner of this block, now Parmelee Court, was anchored by one of the huge cafeterias found everywhere in the Sixties-not "Hayes Bick," but Walden’s.
Once while waiting a long time for the train, which was unusual for the El, we were all craning our necks down Washington Street, trying to see if anything was coming. A blur was moving towards us at high speed. Pretty soon, we could make out a dog running down the middle of the track and the train poking along behind it. The dog kept running until it disappeared into the tunnel.
From the other side of the platform, I looked at shadowy figures bouncing around in the upstairs windows of Baby Tiger’s boxing school. Directories listed the owner as James Tiguere. Later, police targeted Baby Tiger’s as a bookie joint. Downstairs was Jack’s Men’s Shop, the tiny NAT & MAC novelty smoke shop-smoke shops, let alone men’s shops, are in short supply these days-and Big Jim’s Shanty Lounge, where I once bought a drink for a drunk. Big Jim Mellon, who was Greek, owned a couple of bars in the area. He was said to be a big gambler, famous in Las Vegas. No one ever bothered him.
Directly across the street was Louie’s Lounge, also Greek-owned, while, farther down, Basin Street South was known to be owned by gangsters. During the day, the area was quiet, but nighttime was another story.
Folsom’s Market and the Goodwill Thrift Shop were between Northampton and Lenox streets. Folsom’s claimed to be Boston’s Busiest Food Store, and indeed people came by El from all over the city to shop there, not because it was the only store around-the case sometimes today-but because it sold specialty items. A Swiss woman on Tremont Street thought of Folsom’s as "an Old World delicatessen." I took a picture in December 1968 when Folsom’s windows were covered with ads for Swift’s Premium Butterball Turkeys at 20 cents a pound, pork chops at 59 cents a pound, fruit cakes for 2.99, hog heads, hog maws and chitterlings.
My entire wardrobe came from Goodwill next door. Sweaters were 59 cents-the same as a pound of pork chops-and, speaking of Christmas, I found all kinds of wonderful gifts there-"automatic" spaghetti forks with cranks that turned the tines, pitchers with little pictures of U.S. presidents’ heads all over them, and "finger lights," handy in the dark.
Walking down the platform as far as I could go, I found myself looking down on Uncle Ned’s pawnshop, where I once pawned a typewriter but never went back for it, and Skippy White’s record shop, where, in the Sixties, we all stood sorting through the record bins on Saturdays. It was popular with hippies and men with huge Afros. Across Mass. Ave. were Olympia Florist and the Puritan movie theatre. In 1968, two "B" movies at the Puritan were 49 cents, and you could bring your own popcorn, beer and wine.
In the Eighties, with the push to tear down the El, one of the things people said was that the structure blocked the sun on Washington Street. That was because they weren’t up on the platform.
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.