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When it Comes to Your Neighbors, You Just Never Know...

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I was born in Boston in June of 1956 on Flag Day, and spent the early years of my life living in Mattapan in a two-family house on Duke St. that was owned by my paternal grandparents, who lived downstairs. 

A few years later, in the early '60s, my parents bought a small two-bedroom ranch-style house in Sharon (approximately 20 miles south of Boston) that was built in 1950 in an area called the "Heights." The part we lived in was across from the Heights Shopping Plaza (opened in 1952), and because South Main St. was a busy road, me and my friends stayed on our side of it. Later, when we were old enough to cross the street ourselves, we had lots of friends who lived on the other side of South Main, behind the plaza, in a similar type of neighborhood. 

The plaza had a grocery store in the middle called Morse's Food Mart, a Chinese restaurant on one end, and a hardware store on the other. There was also a drug store, clothing store, cleaners, record store, bakery, barber shop, delicatessen, and a beauty salon. The large parking lot extended just beyond the length of the plaza and was four rows deep, with ample space on both sides of the double row in the middle for cars to pull in and out. It was also where school buses picked up and dropped off kids from the Heights grades 5-12. 

(Photo courtesy of the Sharon Historical Society) Not sure of the year this was taken

Everyone walked to the Heights Elementary School on South Main St., which was about 3/8th of a mile from the plaza. There's a three-way intersection at the school, and back then, a police lady directed traffic at the crosswalk. On the way home from school, we usually stopped at the Penny Candy Store that was next to Sweetman's Garage, which was a full-service station on the corner of South Main and Walpole Street.

Most of the houses up the Heights near the plaza were small single-story straight ranches on small lots, but there were lots of kids, and I never had to go far to find friends. The neighborhood I lived in was shaped like a ladder, Hampshire Ave was on one side, Berkshire Ave on the other, and there were short streets that ran perpendicular to them in between, Carlton, Francis, Marbet, Leo, and James, which we always called James Hill because It was where we raced our homemade gocarts. The end of Berkshire extended well beyond James to a dead-end, and there was a canyon in the woods just beyond the last house on Hampshire. They were both cool places for kids to hangout…

Our house was midway down Berkshire, number 20. My father converted the single-car garage into a master bedroom so we'd all have our own bedrooms, doing a lot of the work himself. The backyard had tall hedges midway across that split the yard in half. The opening in the middle of the hedges made it perfect for playing "Hide and Seek." I was very happy living there; I never thought of living in a bigger or a better house.

20 Berkshire Ave. (1,096 sq. ft) The two windows are where my father converted the garage into a master bedroom. 

My father worked for the International Lady Garments Workers Union (ILGWU) at the time. He was a union agent, and he made sure his union workers got fair wages and safe working conditions. When there were strikes, he went into action. I still have some of the paraphernalia he used to prevent scabs from crossing picket lines and driving company trucks…

I don't have many keepsakes from my childhood, but I kept a pair of my father's union tire spikes. Simple but effective. Those trucks weren't going anywhere with two flat tires…  

He did his job well and was well liked by his bosses. Once a year during the summer, we drove to Pennsylvania for a big union convention held at a resort called Unity House. I remember ordering a slice of Nesselrode Pie for dessert because the name was so intriguing, especially to a 6-year-old kid. It's a chilled, creamy pie, traditionally made with roasted chestnuts, candied fruit, and either rum or brandy, and considered to be one of the most decadent pies of its time. I loved it, but I was never able to find it again, anywhere. Apparently, it was a popular pie in the '40s through the '60s but then disappeared from menus completely. I was lucky I ordered a slice of that pie when I did.

Petee's Pie Company on the Lower East Side started making Nesselrode Pie, and it's bucket list stuff! 

While at Unity House, my father must've impressed some of the right people because after we returned to Massachusetts he was offered a promotion, but with one caveat, we'd have to relocate to Pennsylvania. My parents immediately put our house up for sale, and with great schools and a lake in town, that little ranch sold quickly. 

We drove back to Pennsylvania, stayed in a hotel, and went looking for a house in the Johnstown area. We got to ride up the side of a mountain in the Alleghenies in what was called an Inclined Plane, and everything about Pennsylvania was to my liking. I was excited about becoming a Pirates fan (Bill Mazeroski/Roberto Clemente) and Steeler fan (Bobby Layne/John Johnson), but after spending two weeks looking for a house, my parents were not happy about all the anti-Semitic remarks they were hearing, and we got back in our car and headed back to Massachusetts. 

Driving long distances in those days was tedious. The average family car was heavy, not real comfortable, and the speed limit on highways was 55 and strictly enforced, making for long, tiring rides. 

When we returned, my father immediately tried to cancel the sale of our house, but it was too late; it was already a legally binding sale. For a while, we lived in my Uncle Mike's basement in Needham, and all I can remember about that was having a tough time falling asleep because of the noisy crickets chirping all night long…

For a short time after that, we lived in a second-floor apartment in Foxboro, and it was while we lived there that JFK was assassinated (November 1963). I remember my family sitting together and watching the funeral procession on our 16" black 'n white TV and seeing my parents cry for the first time. We had a framed picture of JFK on our wall, and because my father campaigned heavily for him, we had boxes of bumper stickers and styrofoam skimmer hats left over from the campaign…

Bettmann. Getty Images.

Driving through a major city, in this case, Dallas, in an open convertible, is something you'll never see another President do…

We ended up buying a slightly larger ranch-style house in the same area of the Heights that was built in 1951 on Carlton Rd, the first street between Berkshire and Hampshire. It felt good to be back in the neighborhood.

Carlton Road, like all the other crossing streets, had five houses. There were three new ones just recently built (1963) on what had been a large vacant lot full of overgrown grass and weeds, basically a hayfield, and two older homes that faced them and were part of the original neighborhood. We lived in one of the older ones. Behind those three new homes were three other new homes, one on Berkshire, one on Hampshire, and one in the middle of the two that faced the plaza on South Main St. 

A year or so after we moved in, the house next to us on the corner of Hampshire and Carlton went up for sale; the previous owners owned their own business and had done very well and were moving to a newly built upscale neighborhood in Sharon. When their house sold, everyone in the neighborhood waited patiently to see who the new neighbors were…

It was customary in those days for everyone to chip in and buy a "Welcome Wagon" basket for new neighbors, and everyone got together to start the process, but when the new neighbors arrived, and they were black, no one wanted to give them a proper welcome. They were pissed at the previous owners for selling them the house. I remember how angry they were, saying that the previous owners didn't care about their old neighborhood and only wanted to get the most money they could, even if it meant selling to a black family from Dorchester. (November 1967)

My parents were different, not a racist bone in their bodies, and so they decided we'd welcome our new neighbors to the neighborhood ourselves. My mother picked out a small gift basket and loaded it up with some useful household items and some fruit, and we headed over to introduce ourselves and welcome them to the neighborhood properly.

I remember feeling a bit anxious about meeting our new neighbors for the first time while standing on the concrete stairs next to my sister and behind my parents when my father rang the doorbell. When the door opened, and only the screen door separated us, a beautiful woman with a welcoming smile greeted us … As soon as she made eye contact with my mother, she said "Dodo!" (childhood nickname for Dorothy), and my mother said "Vera!" My father looked at her husband and said, "Hi Joe," and he smiled back and said, "Hi Erwin," and while they shook hands, the two women hugged each other. The four of them attended Roxbury Memorial High School together and were friends all during high school.

They invited us in, and we sat in their living room and met their two sons, Joe and David, who would both become great friends of mine, and we all had a great time.

The Ring Magazine. Getty Images.

Big Joe was a Boston motorcycle cop, and he had a cleaning business on the side. He hung a heavy bag downstairs in the boiler room, attaching a thick chain to the main carrying beam, and David and I used to watch him hit it. He was five foot nine with broad shoulders, a narrow waist, and ripped. He reminded me of "Smokin' Joe" Frazier. He put some serious hurt into that bag and it was fun to watch. 

Vera worked at a big bank in Boston, and since there's a train station in Sharon, commuting was easy. She was ambitious, attractive, and smart, and as a result, she was making her way up the ladder quickly.

Young Joe was five years older than me, and an incredibly gifted athlete, not too unlike his father had been back in high school. Young Joe was a tad over six feet and absolutely chiseled. He was built a lot like Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann, with the same type of smile too, but with one exception, Joe had light blue eyes… 

When basketball season came, Joe earned a spot as starting guard on the varsity team and me and my best friend Michael, who I met when he lived on James Hill, went to every home game and almost all the away games too. Joe had moves that no one had seen before, especially on a high school basketball court. He had big hands and could palm the ball, and one of his first signature moves was a behind-the-back layup. Michael and I went absolutely crazy when he did it in games. 

Michael had dark skin, medium-length wavy brown hair parted down the middle with the faint beginnings of a teenage mustache, and Joe jokingly started calling him Miguel, and I went with it. It was perfect, and to this day, 50 plus years later, I still call him Miguel.

Miguel and I used to ask Joe what his next move was, and he'd say, "You'll have to come to the game… " The next game, he was driving to the hoop, and Miguel and I figured Joe was setting up for another behind-the-back layup, and so we watched and waited… He started going behind his back, but then, halfway around, he pulled the ball back and did a traditional layup, fooling everyone in the building. Oh my!

Joe had another move where he went around his back and then between his legs and in, without traveling. He and I played a lot of basketball in my driveway, where he taught me all those moves. 

Shutterstock Images.

We had a narrow driveway, and my father mounted a piece of plywood with a rim on the roof of the garage, and that's where I spent a lot of my time shooting around. To the right of the garage was a slightly elevated paved walkway that started at the driveway and led around back. My house rules stated that the elevated hunk of pavement was inbounds, a legal extension of the driveway, and I made sure everybody understood the rule. I practiced and perfected a right-hand hook shot where I planted my left foot on that elevated hunk of pavement, used my left arm as a shield, and kissed a "can't miss hook shot" high off the backboard no one could block. 

Joe would come over, and we'd go one-on-one, and if he didn't close it out quickly and I got the ball back, he couldn't stop my hook. When he decided to block the walkway, I'd do a reverse left-hand layup I rarely missed. 

Joe would laugh hysterically when I told him I was calling his coach and telling him that I should be the starting varsity guard instead of him. He couldn't beat me on my driveway because he couldn't stop that hook!

I was also pretty friendly with David, who was a couple of years older than me and less social than Joe, more of a loner. There was a lot of pressure on him to perform like his older brother. David had an awkward left-handed shot with very little arc, not that he wasn't capable of burying several in a row from downtown, he was, but he never approached his older brother's skill level, very few high school basketball players did. He and I hung out a lot together. One time we were shooting around in his driveway and I had his basketball in my hands, and he was talking smack; at that moment, a guy drove down Hampshire in a yellow convertible, and I threw David's ball into the backseat of the passing car, and the guy, unaware of it, just kept driving. David was pissed, and we got into it, and then I calmed him, "Relax Dee-Dee, I know where the guy lives," and we went to the guy's house and got his ball back…

We moved to Connecticut in November of '69, and when we moved back to Sharon two years later, we lived on the other side of town, and I didn't see David, Joe, or their parents except on rare occasions. I heard that Joe married a girl from Sharon, his high school sweetheart and that David was doing well.

Years passed, and then tragedy struck in 1978… Young Joe and David were no longer living at home, and when Vera's sister hadn't heard from her in a while, she called local police. The police went to the house, and when no one answered the door, they forced it open and discovered a murder-suicide… Never saw that coming. When we lived next door to them, all we ever heard out of their open windows was laughter… 

A month before I got married (August 1979), I was stumbling down the boardwalk at Paragon Park on Nantasket Beach with my friend Steve, we'd been drinking beer since noon, when I saw David walking up ahead with his girlfriend. I immediately got his attention, and we talked quietly; it had only been a year since the tragedy. I had him laughing when I reminded him about his basketball and the yellow convertible, and then we shook hands and went our separate ways. I was happy I bumped into him and glad he wasn't alone.

Two years later, I was working as an apprentice plumber for my father-in-law when he sent me to that house to re-pipe the water meter; the waterline from the street to the house, which had been galvanized pipe, became clogged with rust and had to be replaced with copper tubing before the pending sale could be finalized. Apparently, the house had been empty for quite a while. It was strange going in there after the tragedy, a house I had such a personal connection to…

Shutterstock Images.

I was on my knees working on the piping by the water meter not far from the cellar stairs when I heard the heavy bag start swinging in the boiler room… At first, it freaked me out, but I figured I must've been imagining it. Then, when it didn't stop, I knew I had to go into the boiler room to see for myself. I got up and went in, and no one was in there. The heavy bag was still hanging from the main carrying beam right where Big Joe attached it, and it was gently swinging…

RIP, good neighbors…