Life on the weekends

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Life on the weekends
by Alison Barnet Contributor
Tuesday Oct 19, 2010

Recap: As a college student at the Franklin Square House, Alison Barnet felt at home in Sixties’ South End.

The Sixties in the South End were an entirely different kettle of fish from the Sixties on college campuses. Although I was proud when the BU News came out with the brave headline, "IMPEACH JOHNSON," and that we were the first school in the country to send a student news correspondent to Vietnam, I was only indirectly involved. Instead, I was trudging back and forth from the South End and working twenty hours in the library. On scholarship and loan, I never did anything on campus at night, never went to a march on Washington, or anything else expensive. Students who lived on campus were close to the university libraries, the Student Union, and the head shops. I had timeworn gents with long yellow toenails sitting on rooming house stoops, a furniture store with a leopard skin set in the window-couch, chairs, tables, and stereo speakers-and a fortune-telling jogger. The South End may not have yet emerged from the Fifties, but it was, as we said then, real.

The Franklin Square House had its own chef, and we ate well. On Sunday evenings when the dining hall was closed, we zigzagged through the grounds of Boston City Hospital on our way to HoJo’s (Howard Johnson’s at Newmarket). We expected to come across a bloody ear or a severed arm, but worse was crossing a foul-smelling little sewer behind the morgue, which years later I learned was the residue of the Roxbury Canal. We wouldn’t have cared what its history was anyway; we were concentrating on which of the twenty-eight flavors we’d be eating on the way home.

On Saturday afternoons, I walked downtown on Washington Street, checking into anything that looked interesting along the way. I loved the names of the neighborhood’s businesses: Uncle Ned’s Money to Loan, Big Jim’s Shanty Lounge, Baby Tiger’s School of Boxing, Checker Smoker, Turf Tavern, Miah Murray’s bowling alley. Doctors and dentists put signs in their windows: "The Drs. Grover, Dentists," "Dr. Rosemowicz." At tiny Buy-Rite grocery, people pushed shopping carts down narrow aisles of shelves piled high with bashed-in cans and boxes; Brown’s Bakery did a brisk business in round cans of Boston brown bread; I could smell from a block away the fried food at tiny Puerto Rican holes-in-the-wall; and I loved to watch the big puffs of pita bread roll to the end of the Lebanese bakery’s conveyor belt, deflating in front of me. Near Dover Street, I made a stop at the Old French Trader with its three rooms of fascinating junk. I always bought something-an art deco ashtray, a brass Buddha, and the bizarre portrait of a goatherd that still graces my bookcase.

On Saturday night, when I went out with friends, I took the last elevated train or the last Harvard-Dudley bus home, walking to the Franklin Square House from Northampton Station, a stretch that flaunted no fewer than nine bars, two poolrooms, two liquor stores, several vacant buildings and a cemetery. Often a stumble-down drunk insisted on escorting me the rest of the way, which was fine with me, because it insured against anything worse. I met Harold while reading on a bench in Franklin Square. He lived in the yellow-brick projects on the far side of the park. I didn’t know it was unusual for a healthy 18-year-old to live on his own in public housing; neither did it occur to me that reading on a bench in Franklin Square seemed odd. We started taking walks together, up West Newton Street and around the brand new Prudential Center, coming back down Mass. Ave. and stopping for a cup of coffee. But, one day, crossing Washington Street on my way home from school, I saw Harold with a young woman, pushing a baby carriage.

To Harold, I must have been exotic, a college student from out of state holed up in a women’s residence in a rough neighborhood. I later learned that in the Forties and Fifties local boys thought that the girls who stayed there were foreign birds trapped in a cage. Loose foreign birds. "The Franklin Square House was the crème de la crème for finding women," said one man, who used to meet girls in a basement bookstore around the corner and sneak them home to his hall bedroom on West Newton Street. I heard tales of boys stealing into the graveyard behind the Franklin Square House and scaling the back wall trying to get in. At Boston College High School (now Penmark condos), boys were severely reprimanded if they turned their heads toward the Franklin Square House’s windows during class.

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