The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Springfield Sojourn

To Ol' Pine Point

I was in Springfield all day yesterday, and of course I took some pics. When I first arrived downtown I was saddened to see that Paramount Pizza has gone out of business.

However I was glad to discover on further examination that it has simply moved to a location further up Main Street.

The restaurant that used to be in that location is where I went for breakfast in 2003 after a hard night of partying to celebrate the victory of Charles V. Ryan in that year's mayoral election. Trying to aim the fork at my mouth despite seeing double, I remember seeing Robert McCollum, the controversial politician in charge of Springfield's scandal-plagued school construction program, walking by with a big frown on his face. No doubt McCollum knew that with Charlie in office his day was done, and I must admit that the sight of his frown made me smile.

I looked in the window at Sitar's, where acts visiting the city sometimes dine, such as .38 Special and Englebert Humperdink.

Politicians apparently hang-out at Sitar's as well, such as Angelo Puppolo, Deval Patrick and Tim Murray.

In the heart of downtown I was pleased to see that Hot Table has opened up in the location of the old Gus and Paul's.

For years that was a hang-out for sleazy pols, with Anthomy Ardolino holding court there practically every morning. The decor has been radically changed, with the ghosts of corrupt politicians chased off by a whole new look and a warm inviting fireplace.

I predict that Hot Table will be a big success there. In fact, with the new bank in the old Valley Bank space, both ends of Tower Square (Baystate West) are now occupied with private businesses for the first time in many years.

Only the most bitter cynic would deny that things are looking up for downtown Springfield these days in a way that it hasn't in a long time. Could the corner have been turned at last? That's what the economic development grand poohbahs used to keep saying in the 80's and 90's, that Springfield was "turning the corner" usually just before the city hit another new low. We critics used to say that if Springfield turned anymore corners it would get dizzy and fall down. How refreshing it is at last to be able to say that things are looking better and mean it.

Arriving at last in ol' Pine Point, I got off in front of the ruins of Russell's.

This is what it looked like in 2005.

At the time of it's closing, I wrote the following essay:

This is a sad time for Springfield in general and Pine Point in particular as the historic Russell's Restaurant closed for good after over 50 years in business. It started as a 1950's style car-hop, with waitresses that served you in the covered parking lot after you gave your order through little radios next to each parking spot. It was also a prime greaser hang-out along with Abdow's up the street, with muscle cars on parade up and down Boston Road every weekend, cruising (and sometimes drag racing) back and forth between the two burger joints.

One terrible night in the 1950's two cars burning rubber went squealing out of the parking lot. When they got to the area of Harvey Street, near a place called Mascaro's Cafe, one of the cars spun out of control and wrapped itself around a telephone pole, killing all four passengers. The oldest person in the car was nineteen.

For many years afterwards one would hear occasional stories of drivers spotting a young person signaling for help near that deadman's curve. Yet when the driver would pull over there would be no one there.

Last week on a sunny day in a different century I stopped by Russell's before going to the radio show, visiting for the last time a restaurant I had first entered as a toddler holding my mother's hand. As a student at Tech High my mother had dated Ray Russell, the restaurant's founder, so if things had turned out differently my name might have been Tom Russell. It was sad to see all the old holiday decorations set out for sale to the highest bidder.

Sandy Russell was the dutiful daughter who kept the restaurant going during her parents declining years. Ray Russell died about a decade ago, and the death of the family matriarch several months ago did much to seal the restaurant's fate, although other factors such as constant break-ins, vandalism and the declining neighborhood also took their toll. Sandy told me she was actually somewhat relieved to let the restaurant go before it lost all profitability.

Russell's also played a political role by being a "Rushraunt," a place where during the height of the Rush Limbaugh craze you could dine in one of the off-rooms while The Rush Limbaugh Show played. It was also one of the first places to allow me to distribute The Baystate Objectivist in their free papers section. When I departed for the last time, I left a print copy behind in one of the racks.

Okay, okay, so call me a sentimental fool, I won't deny it. Blame it on the Irish in me!

Heading down Breckwood Boulevard, I stopped into the woods where the dam is that created Breckwood Pond. My father used to swim here as a boy.

A little down the Mill River, I was amazed to see a supermarket carriage stuck by a fallen tree. That carriage must date back to when the Big Y supermarket was located on Wilbraham Road. Kids from Duggan Junior High used to steal them and throw them off the dam.

I used to work at that Big Y in the meat department. Today most meat arrives at the store pre-cut by largely automated processes, but when I was cutting meat we got in whole sides of beef, missing only their heads and skin, and had to break them down into steaks.

The worst was cutting chickens, hundreds and hundreds of chickens for a typical Saturday sale, done on a slippery spinning saw, and if you made a mistake that whirring blade could take four fingers off your hand before the first pain signal had a chance to reach your brain. I still know the routine by heart - two long cuts to remove the backbone, one across the middle to separate the breast, slit the breast in half and for some packages, slice the thighs from the drumsticks. Repeat ad nauseum until there were enough chickens for all the people of Pine Point, a lower middle-class community where every family ate more chicken than steak.

A lot of the guys who worked there cutting meat were immigrants from Poland. At lunch they would go next door to Mory's Pub for a chili-dog and as many shots and beers as they could down in a half-hour. No one in Big Y management openly frowned on this practice, since it was too hard to find good cutters like the Poles. They relished hard work, and they would've quit if told they couldn't drink.

I don't recall a single accident occurring that could be blamed on alcohol. It was actually better to be a little loose while cutting meat, because it was when you were uptight that the blade would slip. Besides, it wasn't the knives and saws that ruined their hands, it was the constant exposure to frigid flesh; that icy coldness would seep into your bones, leaving your hands gnarled claws of arthritis by the time you were fifty. That's one of the reasons I quit meat cutting, I figured I could still become an alcoholic without ruining my hands in the bargain.

Once the novelty of being in a totally refrigerated environment with parts of dead animals all around you wore off, the work was pretty repetitious. To escape the boredom, the guys used to tell stories. Not all of us, I was too lowly in the pecking order as a novice cutter to hold the floor and the girls who did the meat wrapping were also excluded. We were the designated audience, and glad for it, because some of those guys had some compelling stories to tell.

The most interesting ones were about their life in Poland under the communists, you couldn't listen to them without concluding, whatever your political background, that socialism was the most stupidly evil thing on earth. Most of the stories though were just about normal stuff, marriages under strain, trouble with kids, funny things that happened. I believe I learned a lot from those guys about how to tell a story, skills like how to hold people's interest over a long narrative by withholding information and then doling it out when it packs the most punch. It was better than a graduate seminar in literature, those slow afternoons in the Big Y meat room, although I'm not sure how many of those guys could read or write, at least not in English. But they could tell better stories than a lot of English professors.

Continuing down Wilbraham Road, I laughed to see this sign indicating what the homeowner did not want the neighborhood pets to do.

I stopped to visit relatives and friends in Saint Michael's Cemetery, where these flowers decorated the Virgin.

Doyle the now blind Twig Painter drew this self-portrait in 1983.

Doyle's cat.

Good-bye Pine Point, until next time.

This and That

Northampton multi-media artist Dann Vazquez (with Silent Cal in the clipping above) alerts me to this 1999 V-Mag with local entertainment entrepreneur Eric Suher on the cover. I miss that magazine.

Bax and O'Brien have a message for you.

Hey you Valley science fiction and fantasy freaks! This is the event of the summer!

Today's Video

This classic 1997 video shows a Greenfield TV performance by The Figments featuring Northampton's Brian T. Marchese. The introducer is Johnny Memphis of WRSI.


Anonymous said...

That Bax and O'Brien video is so funny!

Mary E.Carey said...

Really interesting story about the Polish meat cutters.