We grew up in a city eight miles north of Boston on the ocean, a town built around a natural crescent of coastline which followed the ocean’s curve into an inlet under an arm of land called Lynn, in its cupped palm, a town called Nahant. From Revere Beach we could see across the water to Nahant. South of Revere was Beachmont and Winthrop and then East Boston.
As the oldest child in a family of six, home was cramped quarters of poverty and abuse. The outdoors was where I went to escape and feel alive.
Had I been born and raised in the country, horses might have conveyed the sense of adventure and romance my impressionistic mind long for. I might have dreamed of taming a wild horse, riding her bare back into the sunset.
But it was the city of Boston in which my mother birthed me, and I was raised in an urban ocean culture where nature was just a backdrop to the more tawdry culture of commercial enterprise known as amusement concessions. The truly exciting glamorous steeds of steel that rode the coastline known as Revere Beach rode unmuffled, the leather vested motor cycle heroes, rode with bare backs, swerving in and out of the traffic along Revere Beach Boulevard, saluting with special signals those in their brotherhood who they would later meet at the far end of the Beach past Hurley’s park.
In the l940’s Revere Beach was an amusement area, Great Gatsby gone brass. And the brass had tarnished. Some said it was the Mafia who were responsible for Revere’s urban renewal. By the l950’s the glamorous dancehall had burned down, the hotel across the street burned and had been abandoned, and the pier which once led to a glittering ballroom now ended with a tackle and “boats for rent” sign. Nature had also taken her toll on the `40’s dream for the resort town. The copper tops of the bandstand and covered pavilions built every half mile or so along the length of the coastline had turned green, and the massive concrete steps had crumbled a little bit more after each storm.
Across the street from the beach Revere flaunted its cultural decadence in the tacky rides and concessions crowded like a carnival along the boulevard. Packed together halfway to the northern tip of the crescent were the Merry-Go-Round, the Ferris wheel, the double Ferris wheel, the Roustabout. There was the Hippodrome merry-go-round with its hand-painted, made-in-Germany wooden horses, and the Roller Coaster, which was famous for something– perhaps the number of sailors who died each year because they had dared to raise their arms into the air, ignoring the warning to keep your hands under the rail.
Inspiring the most terror, for me at least, was the Wild Mouse, a ride that pointed the nose of a little car over the edge of a ten-story high track as though it would soon drop over the edge, and then violently the car jerked back on to the track to yet another precipice-like corner. There was a ride called the Virginia Reel which I never got to take, but looked like a flying saucer gliding along the rollercoaster track. There were bumper cars, hot dog stands, and dart games with stuffed animals playing back-up to a big bellied hawker with a cigar for a baton. Mid-boulevard sat the façade of a huge building with bowling alley upstairs and a miniature golf game downstairs, and a lounge with famous entertainers featured on the doors closed to kids. There were open-air pizza stands, fried clam stands, pizza parlors with juke boxes, huge halls with pinball machines and picture booths; all these lined up like candy on a necklace across from the mother of it all, the ocean.
If it was the ocean which gave birth to all these man-made entertainments, it was the MBTA which made it fertile economic ground for concessionaires. Come spring, no matter what weather, you knew it was Easter when the color hit the boulevard; blacks from the city paraded in spiffy suits of canary yellows, lime greens, raucus orange and whatever new style might wake up the night. Revere was one of the few ocean beaches which could be reached by the working-class, train-transported public in the cities. Every day in the summer people would get off the train to spend the day at the Beach. Either side of the boulevard these commuter waves of people left paper cups, plates, straws, bags, and bottles in their wake, and between that and the seaweed, Revere was one of the trashiest beaches on the Atlantic.
Still, as kids, we did not know better. Revere Beach was “the beach,” our Paradise. Every week a uniformed band played at the bandstand and we kids would join a dancing crowd of funky older men and women who danced to the beat of their favorite big band music.
Before I started school, we lived on Shirley Ave, and when I was five we moved to Beachmont, which was a neighborhood of Revere. I had traveled past there before on the MBTA. My five year-old-mind imagined Beachmont was a huge mountain of ice cream with a cherry on top like the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” I had heard Burl Ives sing of. When we actually moved there, my picture of Beachmont changed. It widened to become the huge hill—a mountain!–above the beach; it was rampant with fruit trees, red ants and natural “jungles” to build forts in. It was a kind of magical place to me.
We lived in six rooms of a deep four-story apartment building that had not only a cellar but a scary sub-cellar. Stacked in the back were three floors of back porches over which planes flew every hour or so on their way into Logan airport in East Boston. If you stood on the condemned, pigeon-infested back porch, which we were not supposed to do, it looked like they were coming straight into the backside of the house. Whenever they flew by at night, I hid under the covers in terror because this time they might drop the bombs we practiced for in our school air raids. In school the teachers had to quit talking while the planes roared overhead.
Beachmont was also a short distance from the ocean, this time the south end of Revere Beach, where the amusements and pavilions gave way to rocky coastline with no amenities, except a park and the fishing pier, and a mile further south, a massive seawall with bathers openings. Between the pier and the seawall were huge rocks of breakers behind which some houses were built, but no public bathing was allowed. When the ocean crashed through the seawall every few years during a storm these houses were flooded, sometimes demolished, and those of us who lived just a half-mile away up on the hill wondered at the folly of those who lived right down there on the water.
In late November we would walk up Bellingham Avenue down to the southern end of the beach toward Winthrop and collect the quahog shells which had washed up on the beach by the ton. They’re a strong, heavy shell, like the tiny periwinkle, and many would survive the crashing surf in perfect shape for our Christmas craft-making of ashtrays painted with watercolors, to be sent to Aunts and Uncles in the Adirondack Mountains where my mother had grown up. We rarely went to the beach in the wintertime when we were little, though when we were in our teens the bowling alley and pizza parlors drew us down to the shore. While we lived in Beachmont it was the summertime I loved best.
My mother would load up thermoses, bags of food, pillow cases of extra clothing, and the stroller, and she would pack her four, five and six kids down to the beach for the whole day. We would eat two meals and then be met by my father for dinner at 6 or so, just before it got dark.
Even though Revere was a city, our early life there was filled with the wonders of nature. Seagulls squawked from the air while the plentiful pigeons hopped around pecking at discarded French fries or onion rings littering the beach. The ocean brought in clams, and worms and jelly fish, and once a sting ray washed up on the beach. Long serrated shawls and skinny green ropes of seaweed washed in at high tide for our investigation and creative application. Mostly we tried to scare each other with it because it was so otherworldly, like witches’ hair. Holding it with one finger, wet and dripping, I discovered the perfect slimy surprise for the back of someone’s sun burnt legs. The weather was hot, but the ocean wind would tingle and cool our salt-stained skin, and when it got later in the day my mother would call us to come put on a sweater, “That old East Wind is blowing in,” she’d say.
Knees nestled into the sand, we three older children ages 4, 5, and 6 would finger-dig the granulated firmament deep enough for the soft sand to give way to a wet, congealing consistency, and then we’d dig with a shovel from there to begin our creations. Sometimes we made castles, piling the sand up until it was chest high, then we packed it down and round with our palms, an artful swack from the shovel back here and there, and then mimicking the design of certain seashells, we used the trough of the shovel to sculpt a spiral pathway from the castle’s dome to base. We tried rolling bottle caps on their sides down this passage until we discovered the little red balls detached from ping pong paddles. These had far superior rolling action down the chutes and bobbed neatly in the moat we had filled with our pails.
Other times we sculpted sand-boats, daring to scoop them from sand close to the shore when the tide was coming in so they would be surrounded by ocean when we were done. We’d quickly pack down rectangular forms for benches and sit on them while the waves washed over the bow, half-screaming, half-squealing at whoever was still packing down the back of the boat to jump in. “We’re sailing now!” Our imaginations were limitless as we hung our make-believe fishing poles over starboard, or blew a fog horn to another boat until our vessel was ensconced and melted away by the incoming tide. We splashed and played until exhausted and hiked back up to our blanket, which was weighted down with stones at each corner in the deep, soft sand above the tide mark. There my mother would be picking sand from a sandwich for one of the kids or changing another’s diaper, or simply bouncing a baby on her knee.
We were rarely still unless exhausted. If the tide was high we would move up the grassy park before the beach and swing on the horizontal poles that formed a separator of park and beach. We practiced cartwheels and somersaults, yelling, “Hey, Ma. Watch this!” The outdoors was our playground, and the possibilities were endless. In the early morning at low tide we watched the clam diggers in their rolled up-pants as they padded the softened sand, and when a clam spit up at them, quickly turned to the worm-like opening through which the clam threw his watery wake, and began digging, chasing and overtaking the mollusk. We’d try to catch these slippery devils digging with our little hands, while looking with envious admiration at those who walked along with pails full.
Much easier to track were the hermit crabs who hung out in little pools around rocky areas, but they were neither edible nor pretty. A few times we’d come across the carcass of the beautifully shaped starfish. I used to always comb the shore for a certain small, white shell shaped like the oyster into whose apex a little hole was sometimes worn away. These I would string for earrings and necklaces. Shells made good windows and doors for our castles too. We had bright colored pails we’d deposit these treasures into, and when we came back to the blanket they would be laid out in some design for presentation for my mother to pick her favorite.
When we were really young and lived in Beachmont, we spent half our time down the beach, Steven in a stroller, Kathleen in a harness, and Billy, Chris and I hovering near like loose particles around a nucleus. My mother used to cut a branch and make a switch, whipping the backs of our legs if we strayed out of her orbit.
One day we are walking along, and suddenly, she yells to me and Bill, and in one movement she pushes us over the soft embankment of sand and bushes that slope down from the sidewalk opposite the boulevard. She flings the stroller past and partly through the bushes down a steeper dune, and from where we lay we see the boom of a large crane pass over our mother who is lying face down on the sidewalk. It chops down the huge steel lampposts like they were trees. Quickly we scramble to her. As she gathers us all in her arms, the cars yell to her. “Sue `em! Sue `em!”
“I just thank the Lord we are alive,” she tells them all, and we continue down the street. “What does “sue” mean?” I ask.
“Some people like to make money on other people’s misfortune, dear,” she tells me, and from the tone of her voice I am glad we are not like that. Even if we don’t have enough money to buy pizza later on.
When we were younger we went to the park at the Beachmont end of the beach, but as we grew older my brother and I migrated further south, to the bathhouse, and then to the bandstand where there were more people and there were pizza stands, slush machines, ice cream vendors and the amusements. We would look for bottles thrown away by tourists and turn them in for a penny or two and collect enough sometimes in one afternoon to buy a piece of pizza. I used to dream of a day when I could eat all the slices I wanted, since the few times my mother took us for a treat the pizza was rationed. She used to cover it with hot pepper so I’d be forced to eat it more slowly. We were not allowed to drink soda pop, but I used to stare at the six bottles lined up on the counter separating the dining area from the kitchen of Bill Ash’s pizza stand: R.C. Cola, root beer, Coke, Pepsi, Orange Crush and ginger ale. I knew ginger ale from the times I was sick and my mother would give me the tonic to make me burp. I loved the fizz against my tongue and would sometimes hold my tongue in the glass a long time to savor the sensation as bubbles stimulated the mouth watering glands beneath. As I grew older, I grew bolder in my desires to have more of these treats. Billy and I soon became so industrious as to approach people drinking pop to ask them if we could take their bottle for them when they were done!
The discovery of the man-made amusements down the northern end of the beach ended our exclusive fascination with Nature. There were some pretty interesting sights down the other end. One of my favorites was to watch the big people; mostly I was fascinated with the culture of romance, personified by the foreign sailors docked in Charlestown who came over on the MBTA. They would begin their days alone or in male packs, and we would follow their progress with the pretty girls and be entranced by those who held the young beauty in their arms in broad daylight behind the seawall or lying on a blanket facing the beach.
I suppose it was the uniform which attracted me to sailors: my father had been in the navy. Down by the bandstand where I also studied the culture of romance, it was the lack of clothes which fascinated me. Here paraded the exhibitionism and masquerade of young adulthood fascinated with its own physical presence. Looking for empty bottles I waded almost unseen among the card playing, sun-worshipping and radio blasting blankets of big -hipped women in skimpy bathing suits and muscled men in cut-off shorts. It amazed me how fat women’s thighs were with their skirts off, and how hairy men seemed. I watched them play handball against the seawall, and I watched them watch each other. They were far more interesting than the blankets of families where my mother sat. They seemed to have an excited sense of their own importance which I did not have in my pre-puberty stage.
After I’d cashed in all the bottles I could find, if I wasn’t babysitting one of the little kids, I could wander across the street to the arcades to play pin ball machines or look for coins amidst the gum wrappers, combs, condoms and other assorted trash under the tilt-a-whirl and flying cars. Without money, I just watched.
I watched the motorcycle mamas with their tattoos press themselves against the red flesh of the motorcycle men, whose only concession to the sun was to bare their chests above their leather pants. I stood transfixed in front of a high cage where African monkeys chattered, hung, and swung, and they climbed the fences which kept them from the people. I have no idea why there were monkeys in this one outdoor amusement park, but the memory of standing there watching them climb their cages is with me today. They were as interesting as and no less strange to me than the motorcyclists or the sun-worshippers, but I did pity them their lack of freedom.
Sea breezes, sand, lapping water, much loving and affection as babies–this childhood sensual involvement with nature, followed by the voyeurism of pre-puberty, was then turned off–adolescence. Mine was tough, as I tried to create an identity separate from my family, in the midst of the chaos of poverty and abuse, preparing my escape from them. My mother was a romantic and my father a pessimist was also mentally ill; the two faced the realities of a big family and little resources. They had eight children in ten years, and lost two within a five year period. When I was 10, we moved to the urban section of Revere; my father lost jobs, and as we kids older kids entered into adolescence, our innocence was tainted wandering the seamier sides of the boulevard. These years my picture of the glitter and glamour of the Revere Beach grew more distorted, like children’s figures in the funhouse mirrors do.
The 60’s racial tensions left on Revere emotional scars: mortality rates increased; stabbings, beatings, and robberies were blamed on the blacks who came in from the cities, and the concessions burned down one by one, the roller coaster, the Hippodrome, and the Virginia Reel which I had dreamed of one day riding. Urban Renewal Revere-style took the form of mysterious fires, reported in the newspapers, arsonist never found.
I can remember my brother and I exploring for trinkets through the charred timber of one of the Arcade Bazaar in the sixties. Amazingly enough we found scorched but not melted plastic wallets, smoke infested but intact stuffed animals. For a kid, it was weird to find the salvage and treasure it, but it felt good to find something left behind the ruins.
As we got older we heard more about the Mafia. A friend’s father was shot down in front of his home; bodies were found and identified as gangland slayings. When I was in high school a young man who hung out at my pizza parlor, Ray Lucetta, was found with his balls cut off and stuffed in his mouth. A warning for fooling around with a gang member’s wife, the story went. These stories intrigued us, as we were not personally touched. Years later a male prostitution ring was broken up. It had been headquartered in a karate school where some of my young male childhood friends used to get us our Friday night booze. We had all been touched; we just didn’t know it.
I go down Revere Beach today, and it has changed again. Green park-like strips of land and high rise housing have replaced the old burnt-out ruins. There are still a few good fried food places, and the bandstand and 40’s bathhouses functioning in disrepair are better than nothing.
But it is the ocean side of the boulevard which makes Revere worth returning to. Down Revere Beach I will always be a child, despite my adult eyes. The ocean is a mother, promising to always be there, deep in her mystery, sparkling in the reflection of the sun, broiling in angry fury at the disturbances in the atmosphere, and then heaving watery sighs on to shore, receding from the washed-up gems which are the broken shells of her tumultuous home.