Note to readers: Well, final edits nearly complete according the publisher, so looking at final cover and polishing up cover copy! Early spring release looking good! I’ll keep everyone posted, and already working on ideas for a follow-on project :)….
“Having been poor is no shame, but being ashamed of it, is.” – Benjamin Franklin
“Sure, I’ll give him a call and see if I can get him to pick up,” I told her. Ma had given up calling Dave long ago because she knew he’d never pick up for her. God bless caller ID. Lately he’d been hard to reach. I’m sure he was getting tired of getting preached to whenever any of us mentioned that he really ought to give her a call at least once in a while or maybe check in on a holiday. I guess he felt he was through with her, at least for now, so he was keeping his distance. He’d more than earned the break from her.
“When was the last time you saw him?” I asked. Had to be over a year at least I was thinking.
“Shit, I don’t know,” she said sounding angry. “I just remember he stopped down the street at Johnny’s Market and brought me some juice and a quarter pound of bologna and that’s the last I ever saw of him.”
“Well, I hope they didn’t recognize him,” I said half-laughing.
“Why?” she said. “What’s that matter?”
“Ma, please. You don’t remember that Dad left Johnny hanging like he did to so many other guys?”
Johnny Vaccaro’s store was really named Marascio’s Market after Johnny’s father-in-law who’d originally bought the place. It was the prototypical neighborhood “connah store” and just a couple of blocks from Ma’s house and it sat on the corner of River and Norton Streets, right across the street from Tommy’s Car Wash. Probably fair to say that every family in every neighborhood in Boston always had their own corner store and Johnny’s was now Ma’s—again.
It was owned by the Vaccaro family that had lived in Readville I imagined for generations since he took it over about 1959 or so, and nowadays was apparently managed by one of the children since Johnny himself had become too old to do so although I heard he still kept a hand in and sat around at a card table all day with a few cronies in a little room of the store just off to the side of the main counter. I heard he’d worked up until just a couple of years before, still slicing and wrapping cold cuts behind the vintage deli counter with its case filled with all kinds of delicacies we rarely if ever got to enjoy. Imported parmesan cheese, balls of sweet and soft mozzarella, bright green olives, and my favorite, prosciutto di Parma. He was known around Boston and Readville as “The Sausage King,” making them fresh every day, and ran Mayor Menino’s mayoral election night parties for twenty years making five hundred pounds of sausage for each event.
Years before during the early seventies when we lived just down the street on Edson Terrace, Johnny’s was our corner store, and I could remember even then Johnny or someone else behind the counter handing me or one of my brothers or sisters countless packages of those wrapped cold cuts, almost always only bologna, although we’d sneak in a few slices of Genoa salami once in a while, and then him writing the price right on the wrapping with a black Sharpie. He’d check us out at the register along with other items like maybe a half gallon of milk, a loaf of bread for sandwiches, and a couple of envelopes of Kool-Aid, like Goofy Grape. All of it on credit of course. He’d then write down each item on our family’s ever-growing IOU that he kept along with any others in some kind of ledger or book. I remember he sometimes even generously threw in a package of Oreos or Hydrox cookies at no charge especially for us kids.
“You tell your father to pay me next time, eh?” he’d sometimes say. Or, “You kids gotta eat more too, you tell your mother! And those teeth!” He’d even put Ma’s Kotex pads on credit whenever she’d send one of us on a special trip down to the store with a folded note telling us to “hand it to the man.” I made sure I was scarce during her time of the month. Things were embarrassing enough already. He was among the kindest and most generous people we’d ever known, and I could only imagine how many countless others like us he helped throughout his life.
Who knows how much money was owed to Johnny by the time we’d moved on from Edson Terrace to take up our next new residence and the ultimate victimization of another unsuspecting landlord and corner store proprietor. Although it wasn’t our fault, we kids always felt guilty and conspiratorial about taking so much from these nice people over the years across so many neighborhoods, and hating doing it but didn’t know what else we could do. It felt like shoplifting, but with the owner’s permission.
Sometimes when I happened to stop into any of those corner stores still in business, and there are plenty, I’d “accidently” include an extra ten or twenty dollar bill with my payment, leaving the money on the counter and tell the clerk to “keep the change.” I knew I could never make full reparations, but I figured a little bit here and there couldn’t hurt.
Dad himself would never go in person and make the arrangement for credit at whichever corner store happened to be ours at the time. Since Diane was the oldest, he’d write one of those folded notes and send her to the store with the instructions to hand it to the “boss.” That person would then called my father on the phone, where he’d be smooth talked by my father into believing that he’d receive full restitution by the fifteenth of every month, no problem, from a grateful father who just needed a little help from time to time to make ends meet while feeding eight hungry kids and a sick wife.
He’d stay true to his word for the first month or two, but like clockwork, that would erode and we’d be sent to face the store owner and his mounting frustration, month by month, but who couldn’t, most of the time, deny food to the skinny, hungry kids with the rotting teeth. After a few months of that we knew that it wouldn’t be too long before we’d see the rented moving truck so we’d start to stock up on empty cardboard boxes. We wouldn’t get them from Johnny’s or whichever was our corner store though so as not to tip them off. It was always best to just disappear without warning.
To be continued….