(Ma, My Dad, and Pa, in a happier time, following this story.)
My Grandfather, Tom Sullivan, was not a lazy man. He worked hard when there was work to be had. He ran his ass off – pretty much literally, as you’d know if you saw any photos of him in his later life - during many years as a milkman for H. P. Hood. When that work wasn’t available to him any longer, he drove a taxi, braving muggers, thugs and thieves every night in Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Roxbury, and other sections of Boston. Before becoming a milkman, he did construction work, among other things. However, even if you’re willing to sweat, there’s not much you can do if nobody has a job for you.
In the early 1930’s, the United States was in the throes of The Great Depression. Times were tough. Lots of people were without steady work and, as a result, sometimes without food. Among those without food were my grandparents.
Pa and his wife, Mora (also known as Ma) had been married not too long ago. They now had a son, my Dad. If it had been just the two of them, they might have toughed it out a bit longer without resorting to what follows. However, with a small mouth to feed, necessity took precedence over pride.
My grandfather’s aunt, Etta, was employed in the kitchen at Boston City Hospital. As a result, she was able to offer Pa an out, if a slightly nefarious one. She told him that if he could make it down to the hospital, she’d smuggle some food out of the kitchen. He could then bring it back home to Forest Hills, to feed his wife and child.
The biggest problem with this scheme was being able to get to the hospital and then back to Forest Hills, about a 4 mile journey each way. Pa had no car. Even if he had owned one, he wouldn’t have been able to afford any gas for it. So, Pa had to take the trolley from Forest Hills to Northampton, and then walk to Harrison Avenue, where Boston City was located. It cost 5 cents to take the trolley.
Pa had exactly 10 cents, in pennies, to his name. He wouldn’t have a single cent left after taking the trolley both ways, but he would have the food that Etta promised, and that was more important. He, his wife, and child were very, very hungry.
Well, Pa set out for his Aunt Etta’s place of employment. He walked from Bournedale Road down to Forest Hills, where he got on the trolley. He gave the conductor 5 pennies for the fare, and he rode to the area around Northampton Street. When he got off the trolley at Northampton, the hospital was still a few blocks away, so he walked down towards the building. He was to meet Etta at a side entrance to the kitchen, where she would give him the food.
Pa met Etta at the entrance. Etta told him to wait while she went back in and got the food.
Etta was a small woman, but top heavy. She was very well-endowed; busty, in other words. And what she did to get the food out the door and into Pa’s hands, without being caught, was hide it in her ample bosom area.
The food she had for him was a big fish.
She slid the fish between her ample breasts and walked - as casually as it is possible to walk while a big fish is nestled between your boobs – back to the door where Pa was waiting. When she got there, she pulled the big fish from out of her top and gave Pa a sheet of newspaper to wrap it in. The newspaper barely covered the fish. It was a BIG fish.
Pa thanked Etta profusely for this lifesaving bit of petty theft. They were exchanging small talk when Pa noticed, out of the corner of his eye, his return trolley. He hurriedly told Etta thanks again and then started running to the trolley stop, cradling the big fish in both of his hands.
Unbeknownst to Pa, while he was running for the trolley, one of his remaining five pennies somehow jostled out of his pocket.
Pa reached the trolley stop just as the trolley was leaving. He climbed on board, shifted the big fish carefully under one arm, and reached into his pocket for the five-cent fare. He pulled out four pennies, but the fifth penny was nowhere to be found. He got a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as he realized that he didn’t have the fare. He’s standing there with a big, smelly fish under one arm; four pennies in his hand; and a mean old Boston Irish conductor giving him (excuse this, but it’s the best phrase available) the fish eye.
Pa tried explaining his circumstances to the conductor - his family was starving; he had to get this fish home to Forest Hills to feed them; he had somehow lost a penny - but the mean son of a bitch would have none of it. For want of one cent, the bastard kicked Pa and his fish off the trolley.
Pa now had to walk all the way home to Forest Hills, lugging this big smelly fish that was quickly disintegrating the bit of newspaper it was wrapped in. In the nicest of circumstances, walking 4 miles up Washington Street wouldn’t have been great fun. As it stood, it was a small bit of hell. And it was about to get worse.
Pa trudged along, feeling sorry for himself, gripping the slippery life-saving fish as best he could. After a little while, he thought he heard a small sound behind him. He turned around. There was a cat following him. And another cat. And a third one. When Pa turned around, they looked at him - and at the fish - hungrily. They meowed.
Well, Pa felt sorry for the cats. After all, they were hungry, too. When people can’t afford food, lots of animals don’t get any, either. However, he couldn’t give this fish to the cats. It was meant to feed he and his family for two or three days, and if he tore off pieces and threw them to cats, he’d be starving his wife and little son.
Pa turned around and started walking again. The cats started following again. And, every block or so, another cat joined the parade. Soon, Pa had 5 cats following him. Then 10. Then 20. Then 30. There were tabbies and tigers and black-and-white Sylvesters and red cats and tortoise shells and Siamese. There were cats with bushy tails, stubby tails, and no tails at all. There were one-eyed cats and lop-eared cats and cats so ugly you wouldn’t know they were cats at all except here they were in the middle of this bunch of other cats that had grown to about 50 by this time, all following the man with the big smelly fish clutched ever-more-closely to his chest as he quickened his pace, trying to lose this growling, hissing army of felines looking for a meal.
Pa was walking very fast now. He looked over his shoulder and saw all these cats yowling, and clawing at each other, and spitting, and some of their eyes meeting his with murderous intent, and then he started jogging. He had the fish in a death grip, it’s big head swinging to-and-fro, hitting him in the chest every other step. The cats all picked up the pace, too, and ran after him, meowing and panting and growling.
Pa finally reached Bournedale Road in a full dead-out sprint, having run the last half-mile or so. He bolted towards the safety of his house with close to a hundred pissed-off cats nipping at his heels. He threw open the door and jumped inside, the precious fish safe at last. One or two of the poor cats surely lost a couple of whiskers when Pa abruptly slammed the door in their faces. Ma looked on in amazement as Pa fought to get his breath back. The disappointed cats set up a caterwauling chorus on the front porch, bemoaning the fact that they had come all this way for nothing but the exercise. It was hours before they all dispersed.
The family ate the big fish. Ma cooked it up – she was a fine cook, especially of seafood – and it kept them from starvation for a few days. For the next few weeks, though, whenever Pa saw a cat, he walked the other way. Can’t say that I blame him.
Soon, with more better stuff.
(A gigantic "Thank You!" to my Uncle Jimmy for relating this story to me the other night. I laughed so hard I almost cried as he told it to me.)