REMEMBERING DORA

She died years ago – on New Year’s Eve. That’s probably why I’m thinking of Dora Ronca today (New Year’s Eve, 2020 as I write). She was the Gypsy Violinist, Vaudeville legend, “last rose of summer.” I believe I interviewed her in ‘76. The nation had turned 200. Dora, at 97, was nearly half as old – but slender, be-rouged, be-jeweled in flowing skirt, her aquiline face bordered by witchy strands of black-dyed hair. I was Norwood Bureau reporter for the Daily Transcript. A local merchant told me of the old lady with the great story who regularly wheeled her shopping cart up Dean Street, and lived in a modest Cape with her widowed niece.

She was an outrageous flirt, patting the narrow sofa space next to her by way of invitation. “I’ve had many beaus,” this nonagenarian told this twenty-something reporter, “but I never cared for any of them – until you.” Charmed , amused, adhering to future pandemic-era social distancing protocols, I smiled, reached over and accepted from her long tapered fingers a plastic sack of jumbled memories – news clips, photographs, reviews by hyperventilating early 20th Century show biz scribes describing “the handsomest girl in the extravaganza, a “stunning brunette with a wealth of black hair, large brown eyes and a fine figure” decked out in faux Gypsy regalia – head scarf, sleeves of red velvet edged with ball trimming, dress embroidered in white chrysanthemums as she performed “a crashing Hungerian melody” with “fire, abandon and verve” on her exquisite 1645 Stainer violin.

The gypsy persona was Vaudeville shtick. Dora was French Canadian, if anything (Roncoeur) One reviewer-wag thought her name, Dora Ronca, made her a cigar, but added, “her name is the worst that can be said about her.” The clips revealed that she’d shared the footlights with better known legends – Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, then just a “droll juggler.” Asked about them, she said, “yes I know them.” No past tense. To Dora they were still out there , still performing.

She’d played Boston, New York, Paterson, Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver, Paris…Newspapers ran obituary for her Boston Terrier. A Syracuse musical instrument dealer named violin strings in her honor. The plastic sack contained, among other mementos, a receipt for a meal in Monte Carlo.

Vaudeville faded, her career ended, the violin disappeared. The rest of her life’s drama was blank. The plastic sack contained an unopened letter returned from WWI-era France informing her that a soldier-correspondent had been killed in action. A lost beau (and I’ll be she did care for him). Her last husband – there had been many – had been military, so she had VA privileges. Months after my story ran, she fell ill and was admitted to the VA hospital in Providence. (New Year’s Eve.)Her niece told me Dora looked up at the hospital building as they wheeled her in and said, “I played here.”

At the funeral home viewing, I saw laid out before me a very old woman with cropped snow white hair – not the fiery, flirtatious rock star of yore.

It was at the Columbia Theater in Cincinnati, November 4, 1906 that she played her violin sweetly as the audience sang sadly, “Tis the last rose of summer, left blooming alone. All her lovely companions are faded and gone.”

Goodnight and Happy New Year, Dora. It was fun.

ONE DUMB ANNIVERSARY

This day, December 30th, is a peculiar “anniversary” for me ( the 47th by my count)– and it’s very peculiar that it sticks in my memory. It’s the day I (accidentally) set the Rubbish Room ablaze at the Elm Farm Supermarket on Morrissey Blvd. Yes, an accident. Dumb accident, though. My punishment was to clean up the mess.

I was a bundle ( or bag) boy at the time at that neighborhood market where my brother Doug had worked before me — and I really enjoyed the uncomplicated business of filling up a customer’s paper bundles (no plastic in those days), loading them into trunks and backseats, cadging the occasional tip. (Maybe I should have made a career of this. I’d been trained as a cashier but wanted no part of handling money and ultimately was granted my request for demotion. I’m not much of a capitalist.)

These were, as it happens, somewhat grim and traumatized times at home and in the world. My father was mortally ill with cancer. And the whole universe was still recovering from the shock of a Presidential assassination a little more than a month before. I guess I was finding a little gleeful escape in my after-school workaday chores — and especially when, periodically, I’d get assigned to burn rubbish in the Rubbish Room off the back loading dock.

Boy, did I love that! Solitary labor in a windowless cell of concrete walls, wildly stuffing collapsed cardboard into a huge furnace. I’d whirl and pivot as I hurled, jammed or otherwise stuffed collapsed shipping boxes and cartons of every dimension into the huge open maw of that raging beast. A supermarket generates tons of empty cardboard boxes, as you can well imagine.

(Just so you don’t think I’m totally weird or suffer from pyromania, I believe all my fellow bundle — or bag — boys enjoyed that occasional assignment of unsupervised work around a warm furnace — especially in winter — away from the cold managers, cranky customers and blustery external elements in which we were compelled to chase down shopping carts left at odd extremities. But they may not have thought of it, as I did, as a kind of ballet or ritual — or perhaps ever gotten as reckless as I did at about 4 p.m. on Dec. 30, 1963.) I’d always love the challenge of cramming as many boxes into the furnace as possible — to the point where you’d see no fire. Then the flames would slowly start gnawing away at everything until fire really raged — and I’d push a button and lower a heavy steel door, ending any danger that hungry beast would breath fire out into the room.

When the fire had died down, I’d push the “open” button. Up would go the heavy steel door, in would go more junk.

It was Christmas time and all the waxed boxes from frozen Christmas turkeys were piled high around me. Boy did they burn! Occasionally, a bit of flaming debris would pop out into the room — and occasionally ignite more debris. No problem. I’d hastily pluck up all the burning matter and pop it into the furnace. Occasionally, more than one little fire got going. Again,no problem. I’d gingerly pick up ALL the burning stuff — I wore heavy gloves — and pop it all into the fire. I guess this added to this rote exercise a minor thrill of danger — the same sense some otherwise sensible citizens might relish at July Fourth backyard fireworks festivities.

But I wasn’t counting on any fireworks. And on this particular December afternoon, one fiery little bit of trash after another got going and my ballet suddenly turned into a fire dance. As the title of a currently popular novel says, there were “little fires everywhere.”

Up to that point, I’d reveled in the sense of “control” I’d always enjoyed while “playing” with that fire. But now, I was introduced to the sensation of facing a fire “out of control” from my own carelessness. And now there was smoke — lots of smoke. And now more fire. Then — everything seemed ablaze, and I was forced out onto the loading dock, looking back in at an inferno. Smoke was now belching out into the open air.

I went (calmly) into the adjacent meat department and (calmly, sheepishly and shamefacedly) announced to the guys in bloody white butcher coats, “ah, fellas, there’s a fire out there.”

What followed had a little air of comedy. The meat men quickly joined up a hose, hooked it to a big running sink and charged for the dock. They jerked up short at the swinging doors.

Time for the real hoses.

Soon the air was full of the sirens. I guess it was BFD Engine 20 responding from down Neponset Avenue. It was, ultimately, a minor fire that took minor effort to extinguish Water was blasted into that little concrete room, leaving a charred sodden mess in its wake.

Lesson learned. Don’t play with fire, master Wayland.

And — don’t forget to recycle. It keeps cardboard away from the likes of me.

NOVEMBER 9TH

Dates, certain days, have come to possess infinite resonance for me. This date, November 9th, though you may be reading this later, if at all, is such a date for me. For the nation, other resonant dates, for better or worse, in pain and glory, would be December 7th, September 11th, November 22nd. I guess now we will all, for different reasons touching on our deep national division, remember November 3rd, 2020. Indeed, all of history will remember 2020. other dates: June 6th is my late sister’s wedding anniversary — and D-Day. And the day Bobby Kennedy died — and my neighbor Frank Trubucco, and the day a teenage friend Jimmy Sweeney drowned in the Neponset River. May 30, the original Memorial Day and the day my father died in 1964. You, the reader, have your own unforgettable dates.

But back to today, November 9th. For one thing, today is my nephew Edward’s birthday. It alarms me that he’s turning 54, the age of my father when he died. You know that feeling about other, younger relative’s birthdays, and how old they make us feel — and how young my father now seems, to have died at that age.

On the religious, specifically Catholic calendar, this is the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Our Savior, considered the mother church of all the splendid and ancient churches of Rome, also called the Church of St. John Lateran. It dates to the third century. Honoring it as the Church does awakens my own tendency to feel a “sense of place” about certain buildings, sacred or secular, or neighborhoods where I’ve lived and my houses or apartments in those neighborhoods.

But then, there are the things that have happened on this date, besides the birth of a nephew. It is also a day, in a certain string of memories, of darkness, dust and, paradoxically, light.

I take you back to November 9th, 1995, Pinellas Park, Florida. A thin, intense 66-year-old man steps off the Greyhound bus into a mild, subtropical autumn dusk…

This was an older friend — twenty years older — from my Boston neighborhood, a retired cop, sports coach, restless itinerant bachelor. He’d come for a brief visit, after which he’d be on the road again. It was good to see him.

We drove west that evening in rush hour ‘s river of red taillights toward the Gulf of Mexico beaches and my little rented place out there. I was working at WTSP-TV Tampa/St. Petersburg at the time. My old friend was finely attuned to the world — sensitive, faith-filled, good company. But it was November 9th and something — one particular memory – kept invading my mind in the presence of this person from the old neighborhood. It had happened just down the street from the house where my friend, named Dick, was born and lived his whole life. It had happened on November 9th, thirty-five years before.

As we drove, I took us back to November 8, 1960: John F. Kennedy was elected President, another memorable election day, another narrow victory margin — about 100,000 votes ( and, I might as well mention, generations of credible talk followed thereafter about voter fraud in that election in “Landslide Lyndon” Johnson’s Texas and Richard Daley’s reputedly corrupt Chicago. ) On the following day, November 9th, a carpenter had punched through the front wall of my family’s small 91-year-old house on Neponset Avenue in order to replace the original narrow double windows with a large, bright, multi-pane picture window. Barely 14-years-old at the time, I was disoriented by this permanent transformation of my childhood cloister, the rush of harsh, naked sunlight into the small living room and, perhaps above all, by the release of sweet-smelling plaster dust into my sanctum; plaster probably dating to the house’s 1869 construction.

I was still smelling that dust a the onset of early darkness when, one by one, my 21-year-old twin brothers Doug and Ron arrived home. ( Doug would arrive in the middle of the coming tragic incident I will describe. All three of my brothers were still unmarried and living at home; sister Anne lived down the street in a three-decker.) My father was home that evening from his coal and oil sales job and all day, as the carpenter named Willy Wendt had been working, everyone had been talking about the election. Doug was in a good frame of mind, having been a big supporter of Jack Kennedy’s improbable run for President at the offices of S.D. Warren Paper Products where he worked in a minor job and where all the managers and major players were Republican and Nixon supporters.

By now my mother had turned on a living room light. Suddenly my 25-year-old oldest brother Bill, ever the joker, appeared standing in the small front lawn, gently and jokingly knocking on the big new front window, yelling, “hey, what’s this?” We would step out to join him, laughing. “I’ve heard of living in a fishbowl,” he chortled, “but this is ridiculous.” Then we turned our eyes toward the warm glow of new window — but then also notice a commotion one hundred yards farther down Neponset Avenue by St. Ann’s Elementary School, my school. Unusually, an Eastern Massachusetts Line commuter bus was pulled over. They made no stops on Neponset Avenue. And we hadn’t, before coming outside the house, noticed — and my brother hadn’t noticed — the orange and silver bus go by our house. They were a frequent sight one wasn’t inclined to notice — each a major connector between the Fields Corner MTA station and the South Shore of Boston. Neponset Avenue was a main thoroughfare for all buses — but Eastern Mass drivers had often been warned to slow down on this thickly settled stretch.

There appeared to be something lying in the avenue. For some reason, our first thought was the neighbor Trubucco’s big, slow-moving mongrel dog. My father, Bill and Ron went down the street to investigate. For some reason, I didn’t. I went back inside with my mother. My brother Doug arrived and, having seen the commotion, also walked down to the scene. After an interval, my sister’s husband Joe ran up to our front door and asked my mother to call the police since they seemed to be slow responding to earlier calls. My mother asked, quickly, assuming someone had been hit, if the victim was going to be all right.

“Well,” said Joe bluntly, “the kid’s dead.”

I’m sure my mother was shocked. I know I was. Neither of us asked the identify of the victim but my brother-in-law, plainly deeply unsettled, must have been the one to impart the information — when my mother asked if death was certain — that the bus wheels had gone right over the child’s head. That, and the knowledge that there was no hope, kept me from walking down to investigate while my mother called police — who in the interim must have finally shown up to what was a horrible scene. I seem to recall sirens. It was brother-in-law Joe who had been walking toward our house on some forgotten errand, saw to it that the body was covered with an available cloth.

All this was exactly sixty years ago today. The triad of disorienting occurrences — the historic election of a native son, the ripping open of my house and that smell of dust (the big picture window is still there today and I think of this day when I see that window and almost smell the ancient dust) — most of all, the violent death of a child keep that date, November 9, 1960, alive in my mind.

The weather was mild — one of those late fall, mild November days. The victim was 6-year-old Jimmy Dwyer, youngest of a well-known neighborhood family of older brothers and sister Noreen. They lived up behind the school. The father was a fire captain. I’d heard one story that he’d even responded to the scene of his youngest child’s death. I had never met this child. Jimmy had been with the third oldest brother Tommy, age about 12, and had gone for an errand to Aggie’s Variety Store on Southwick Street. Tommy was in the St. Ann’s Band and happened and have given Jimmy a drum stick to hold. On the return trip, they’d crossed the street in plenty of time. The on-coming bus might have been speeding. Jimmy had dropped the drum stick, broke free of Tommy’s hand and dashed out….

When everyone returned to the house, Ron sat stricken at the dinner table. Dad and Bill were not much better — but it had been Ron who, seeing Mrs. Dwyr coming down the paved schoolyard, rushed with others to restrain her. It was traumatic. He sat silent and stricken. There was little more than a mention of the exciting election news.

I can only imagine how the bus driver feels now should he still be alive — of felt to his dying day.

When I reminded Dick of that incident as we drove toward the Gulf on November 9, 1995, he put his face in his hands. He remembered Jimmy Dwyer’s eyes, big and brown like a fawn’s.

In the dark, as the moon rose that night on Indian Shores, Dick and I walked five miles up the beach, talk of the death forgotten by now. I reminded Dick — who, as noted, had retired as a Metropolitan Police Officer — of November 9, 1965, another dark moment — but dark for an entirely different reason. The lights in the kitchen at 210 Neponset Avenue dimmed. Out that big picture window, the lights straight ahead up the hill of Boutwell Street dimmed, then rose again, then died for good. This was the Great Northeast Blackout all the way up to Niagra Falls. Manhattan had vanished before astonished pilots’ eyes. Dick, working as a cop that night, saw minimum looting, then people pulling together, students stepping in to direct traffic where streetlight had failed and police were spread thing — a bright moment in the darkness.

Dick, typical to his itinerant ways, bought a bike the next day and was off on his rounds. In his life, he’d traveled through France, Sweden, Iceland, coaching baseball.

One year after that blackout, five years after Jimmy Dwyer’s tragic death, on November 9th, 1966, son Edward was born to my brother Ron who, six years earlier, had absorbed a mother’s terrible grief . Nephew Ed is a criminal defense attorney now.

One day early in this century, covering a fire in South Boston as a TV news reporter, I was approached by the president of the firefighters union, Ed Kelly — son of Noreen Dwyer. He knew I was from Neponset. I don’t have to tell you the first thing that jumped into my mind: this stalwart, grown man and public figure standing before me was the nephew of the six-year-old killed that terrible November 9th. We talked about it. Ed, of course, had not even been born on that date. But he said everybody from that neighborhood of my generation remembered it. (Sometimes, it’s the terrible things you don’t witness with your own eyes that bother you most. I’ve seen dead bodies in the road as a reporter — but the death I didn’t see that November night has stayed lodged in my mind. In part, that’s because the victim was so young and innocent; also, undoubtedly, because that death — the terrible manner of it — was often spoken of, not always in a respectful way, by ghoulish children.)

One day not overly long ago, I would learn of the passing of a neighborhood contemporary, Greg Burke. Greg’s brother had been a chum of Tommy Dwyer. It was mentioned to me that Tommy had been at the wake, a handsome grown man, Vietnam veteran, with a wife and family. He had moved to the northwest and built a home for himself out there. I was so happy to hear all this — to know he survived that trauma — and the war in Vietnam. It remained a terrible cross for the parents. Sister Noreen Dwyer, for her part, became a very active member of St. Ann’s Parish, a beautiful person, a selfless organizer. God protect all of those Dwyers, including Ed Kelly.

Friend Dick Duchaney died of ALS on September 4, 2001 at age 72 at the Soldier’s Home high on a hill in Chelsea, Mass. He’d requested to be there with the soldiers he so loved. Dick had never gone farther than the seventh grade in school, been both a soldier and a sailor, kept going back to school all his life, fighting the odds, learning and rushing at life. He hated being a cop, especially a traffic cop. He was a self-described odd ball, devout, sometimes tortured in mind and spirit, living out his days in that house where he was born, always taking on coaching jobs — baseball, basketball, football.

His sister, a nun, and her fellow Missionaries of St. Francis sang at his graveside on a brilliantly sunny Friday of his burial in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Dorchester. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.

Four days later, terror struck in Manhattan. The world’s cloister was punctured like that old wall in my house. Dust filled the air. I was there; I smelled it. Dust and darkness all around though it was brilliantly sunny.

I saw that tall familiar odd-ball soul from the old neighborhood getting off the Greyhound in the dusk, November 9 — now twenty-five years ago. And I think of that post election night sixty years ago. The darkness of The Great Blackout. The birth in ’66. Happy birthday, Ed Wayland.

This November 9th, in that Roman Basilica across the ocean and in the midst of our own post-election turmoil in a very divided nation — in this Florida house that is now, for however long, my home, I pause and pray for Dick, Jimmy and all the faithful departed. Amen.

THE GIRL FROM RIO PIEDROS

I met her — I forget how — during a two week stay in San Juan. It was in the Candato neighborhood of hotels and casinos. I was staying in a little hotel called El Canario. I had a pleasant room with levered shutters. There were always these trade winds and the constant sound of the coqui frogs. I loved that little place. When one of the maids won a trip to Saint Thomas at a church social, she brought it to the hotel and the amiable anglo front desk clerk informed me that the maid had been to Saint Thomas many times and therefore had no need for such a trip, did I want the ticket? Yes, thank you. And that was a day trip to Charlotte Amalie, to be written of another time.

But the girl from Rio Pedros…well, this will be a simple sad story only because I recall only that I met her probably in one of the grander hotels, probably in the ground floor casino level — and she was very nice and had lived in Atlanta and maybe there had been a marriage that was no more. I think she might have been with friends. She invited me to come to her place for dinner, probably the next night.

And so one night in my little rented compact I set out for Rio Piedros, a San Juan suburb. I have no memory of her apartment building, though I was stone cold sober. There is some vague memory of a two-story complex with a stairway to a second level. This was in June, 1977. That night keeps coming back to me, because — well, it wasn’t like I had any romantic intentions. Did she? Did I, at least have the courtesy to arrive with perhaps flowers and a bottle of wine — or did I just show up? How did I, so often directions-challenged, even on familiar U.S. turf, find her place so easily, unfamiliar as I was with Puerto Rico? Somehow I just recall going up a ramp to join cars on an elevated highway — speeding Puerto Rican drivers all around me, but I was fine with it. I was feeling adventurous. I was 30.

I have memory of a dining room. Not of what we ate or anything we said or how long I stayed. and, of course, I don’t recall her name.

How is it that there was such a night, such a special invitation from a stranger? Does she remember me? My name? My face? For I see — so little, but remember only that gracious invitation, that pleasant woman who must have made me dinner. And then it was goodnight and goodbye — forever.

Forgive me for forgetting so much. I re-live what little I recall and wonder about you — the girl from Rio Piedros. I hope you are well.

A TOKYO MEMORY

Last day of March, 2020. Middle of a pandemic. Trying to comprehend such an enormous thing — and such an enormity — as watching the only planet we know, and all of us who inhabit it, be menaced, from West Bengal to Time Square and everywhere in between, by a potentially deadly pathogen, something bascially as UNhuman as a coiling, twisting vine multiplying and creeping up a wall.

It is giving us all time to think, and remember — especially if you’ve been on this planet for nearly three quarters of a century, like me.

And what do I do? I stay confined — though tending to a sick companion; sick not with the dreaded virus but with an inexplicably  debilitating leg pain that has put her on a borrowed set of crutches following a painful trip to a clinic for an ultrasound and MRI.

And, with no “hook” to make it relevant, I suddenly scour the archives of my memory during this enforced leisure — and my letter file — and discover that I wrote a very accomplished composer some months back after chancing to see his credit at the end of the television series Biography. He wrote the music for that and, apparently, much, much more — and is a well-known composer of experimental and symphonic music as well. Continue reading “A TOKYO MEMORY”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DOUG AND RON

December 12, 1939 my parents had a wonderful surprise. In those days you just didn’t know — and so they didn’t know — that they were expecting not one, but two sons. Twins. Wonderful brothers, handsome teenagers popular with the girls, which had a bit of a coattail effect for me. Just a little. ( I figured out I needed to make my own way in that world.)

Wonderful husbands, fathers, brothers. I want them around forever so I can prove that their “little” brother can actually make something of himself.

Of course, we will always remember the day Ron got off the subway in downtown Boston to find Doug’s summertime girlfriend on the platform. “Doug!” she said, in shock and jubilation. “No….Ron,” said Ron. She was crestfallen.

Or, was it really Doug, just saying he was Ron. I’m vague on that part of the story.

At any rate, there was a good reason that sweet girl would be surprise to see Doug in Boston that day. He’d told her he was leaving town for astronaut training. Actually, he had to go back to the seminary.

Ron has some good stories, too. I’m sure we’ll hear them someday.

Happy birthday, guys.

RETURN TO THE WHITE ROOM

It’s good that I wrote this down,  a white memory from a green spiral notebook.

The notebook turned up in the turmoil of a move; another move, foolish and dismal, leaving only a vision of the dim patch of coarse grass and weeds beyond the metal door to the shed of this new place.

So: an old notebook, things recorded barely legibly or consciously, dream scribble. It contains a memory of an incident in Seoul;  an incident during G.I. times when I journeyed there from a Korean island at the edge of The Yellow Sea. Spring or maybe summer, long ago. Continue reading “RETURN TO THE WHITE ROOM”

A Continental Summer

I. The Attic Window

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One day, an early summer’s day, I set out across the sea — on a Norwegian freighter, no less, bound for Europe. This fulfilled a youthful yearning born of a view out an attic window.

It was a small window in our small house, gray and modest, sitting on a small fenced-off rise above our neighbors below on Salina Road. The view was of the sea — though just a small blue wedge, barely visible over the McIntyre’s green two-story house and the three-decker that, over time, had been home to people like Mrs. Baylion and Jimmy Kinally and Freddie Ferguson. It was mostly a harbor view and bay view: Boston Harbor and Dorchester Bay. Small waters in the grand scheme of things. But that was sea water out there, no less enticing to the embryonic imagination of a would-be Balboa; the blue threshold to the deep ocean of legend — of vast ships and fabulous creatures. A boy of eight or nine would see it that way. I was that boy. Continue reading “A Continental Summer”