Friday, September 09, 2011
[First published in 2005 - small update following]
This past Sunday, for the first time in almost 12 years, I walked down Caddy Road. It was the street I grew up on. It was the street I called home for the first 37 years of my life.
Caddy Road is a side street off of a side street off of a side street. It is located in the Mattapan/Dorchester section of Boston, a couple of blocks away from where Baker's Chocolate had its headquarters on the Neponset River prior to their moving in the early 1960's. When I was a kid, the entire neighborhood smelled of chocolate. It was wonderful.
There are 12 houses on the street, all duplexes built in 1953 or so. Each duplex apartment consists of two bedrooms and a bath upstairs, a living room and kitchen on the ground floor, and a basement area. My Mom and Dad bought our house, number 14 (and the other side, number 16, which they rented out) in 1955, the same year they were married. It cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $14,000. I would guess the going price now might be $250,000 - perhaps a bit more, perhaps a bit less.
When my Mom and Dad were divorced, in the mid-70's, my Dad kept the house and I lived with him. I was an only child and my Mom felt (and my Dad agreed) that this was best for me; to not be uprooted and to live with my male parent as role model. I am eternally grateful to them both for considering my welfare so thoroughly and not making me choose between them or anything else similarly hideous. They both made it quite easy for me, despite whatever they were going through emotionally themselves.
My Dad entered a prolonged period of depression during and following the divorce - he was on anti-depressant medications for a long while - and, not caring, he let the mortgage payments slip. As a result, the house was sold at auction. However, we continued living there, as renters, as did our former tenants, the Murphys.
Over the course of the next 20 years or so, the neighborhood changed gradually. Where once it had been a quiet upper-middle-class neighborhood, almost exclusively white, Irish, and Catholic, it became a mostly black lower-middle-class neighborhood, and not nearly as peaceful. Crime in the area increased and properties were not kept up as well as they had been. This is not to blame just the blacks, by the way. The economics of the neighborhood changed and, whereas previously the houses had been occupied by owners, most of the houses were now rented on both sides of the duplexes. There was less pride in the properties, more a feeling of transience, and this was among both the black and white renters.
In 1988, my father suffered a heart attack. The doctors who examined him determined that it was actually one of 4 or 5 he had had over the course of his lifetime, but it was the first one for which he received treatment. He underwent open heart surgery a couple of months after that and was out of work for a long time. Meanwhile, his employer fired him. In 1990, he won a judgment against them and received a (somewhat small, all things considered) monetary settlement. He then began looking for a place to buy for his retirement years (which would, regrettably, turn out to be too few.)
He found a house in northern New Hampshire that was affordable, so he bought it and moved there. He invited me to live there, also, but I was dating MY (future) WIFE at the time, as well as attending broadcasting school. I wanted to remain in the Boston vicinity, so I stayed at 14 Caddy. MY WIFE moved in with me shortly afterwards. We were married in 1992 and it was our first home together.
We last lived there in 1994, the year of my father's death. That was a very hectic time period for us. Over the course of 12 months, my father died, both of her parents died (a few months apart), and we were forced to move during Christmas week, due to the impending sale of the house. We hurriedly found another place, in Watertown, packed up and moved. There are lots of good (and bad) stories concerning that move, but they don't really belong here. Another time.
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Until we were forced to move, I had never seriously considered having to live anywhere else. The house at Caddy Road was almost a physical part of my being. Every sound the heating system made as it kicked in, every creaking stair, the feel of every doorknob, the time it took for the hot water to actually run hot after turning it on - these things, and many others, were all ingrained in my subconscious. That house was my womb with a view, so to speak.
During the 12 years since we moved, I had driven through the old neighborhood 3 or 4 times but never actually walked it. Until I did so, I had no idea how strongly it would affect me. As it turned out, very much so.
The reason for the walk was simple enough. MY WIFE has a volunteer position on the MBTA (Boston public transit system) Rider Oversight Committee. She had heard that the small trolley line which serves the old neighborhood was going to be shut down, supposedly for repairs, to be re-opened at a later date, but we both feel that once it's shut down it will probably become a permanent closure. Anyway, she knows how much I like that little trolley line - also a major part of my youth in that neighborhood - so we decided to go for what might end up being a last ride on it. Since we would be riding the trolley, why not get off at the Central Avenue stop and stroll around the old neighborhood?
The first thing we both noticed, as we crossed the river and approached Caddy Road via Sturbridge Street, and then Monson Street, was that the neighborhood in general seemed a bit nicer than it had been at the time of our move. It was generally cleaner, and some of the houses had beautiful gardens in the front yards. It was very quiet, too, which was not the case when we left. It was Sunday, but that had never really made a difference in the last couple of years we had lived there. It did on this day, though.
We noticed a police car in one of the driveways on Sturbridge. It wasn't making a call; it was parked there and we assumed it was now the home of a police officer. This was a bit of irony, as the last tenant we knew there - since passed away, and a nice guy despite what you'll read next - had done time for multiple bank robberies.
As we approached Caddy Road, I found myself feeling rather odd. It wasn't melancholia, but rather a feeling of spatial displacement. I felt like my body didn't fit me anymore, and that the street itself was much smaller than it should have been. I felt as though I should be smaller, too - about 10 years old, agile and very thin, with a full head of hair and all of my own teeth. Instead, I was 48, carrying 15 extra pounds around my middle, with a bald head and half a mouth of implants.
As we walked, MY WIFE said this and that about the houses - "Oh, look at the nice way they've redone that porch", "That one looks better now with siding" - but, while I heard her, my mind was spinning. I actually felt slightly faint at one point. Somewhere in my heart of hearts I think I had still considered this "my" home, but as much as I may have wanted to feel as if this were a homecoming of sorts, I instead felt as though I had become part of a "Through The Looking Glass" type of story, my body grown too large without my knowledge or consent. It was akin to one of those dreams where you're in public and all of a sudden you discover that you're naked. I felt totally out of place. I half expected people to come out of the houses to stare at me and point and laugh.
The street as a whole looked very nice. It was as close to the way it had looked, when I was growing up, as it had been for at least 30 years. Whoever owned the houses now was taking care of them; keeping the yards trim, doing painting and fixing cracks in walkways. There was new masonry work, cheerful windows with pretty drapes, and the street itself was clean. I had expected the street to be even more rundown than it had been when we moved, and this would have made me feel better about having left. Instead, the street was almost taunting me. "You thought you were leaving me for dead. But, I'm back and I'm beautiful again. And you? If either one of us isn't what he used to be, it's you. You're the one headed for the dirt nap, not me."
I sorely wanted to go into "my" house. I wanted to see physical reassurances that it was not "my" house any longer. I wanted to see, with my own eyes, that "my" bedroom did not contain "my" bed; that "my" kitchen table was long gone; that "my" television set and stereo were no longer playing. But, that would have entailed me looking like a raving looney to whoever lived there now. I contented myself with seeing a sign posted on "my" front porch. "Beware of Pit Bull", it said. "My" house had a very friendly cat in it, not a vicious attack dog.
MY WIFE said such a sign indicated that the neighborhood wasn't as safe and peaceful as it might have seemed. That made sense, so I latched on to that thought and held it close. Yes, it was NOT the neighborhood I loved growing up in. It was dangerous and full of snarling, barking animals.
Eh, whatever. I still felt sort of empty. I do realize the futility of holding onto a past that can't possibly have been as nice as the one that lives on in my imagination. Still...
We walked around a bit more on a couple of other streets and then caught the little trolley back to Ashmont station. As we waited for the subway train, the little trolley left Ashmont headed back to Mattapan. As it rounded the turn and the steel wheels squealed against the rails, it was (at least to my ear) singing a farewell song to me. This also was a sound ingrained in my subconscious and I was very glad to really hear it one last time.
Finally, we took the subway to Alewife, picked up our car, and drove home. We could have taken public transit all the way, back and forth, as they have a trackless trolley in Watertown that goes to the subway, but I really didn't want to do that. They call it a trackless trolley, but it's just an electric bus.
My trolley is a trolley.
Six Years Later
The trolley did come back, with a bonus of lovely new paint, and is still running.
It's a beautiful example of World War II era PCC-type public transportation, and well worth a ride if you ever find yourself in the area. The MBTA takes a lot of heat, much of it well-deserved, but this is one thing they got marvelously right.
I had opportunity to drive down Caddy Road just a couple of weeks ago. I was playing in a fast-pitch softball tournament nearby, so I decided to revisit the old neighborhood while I had a couple of hours between games. My friend, Big Jay Atton, accompanied me, and I no doubt bored him to tears showing him things that weren't there anymore. The "Beware Of Pit Bull" sign is still on the front porch at 14 Caddy. I suppose that should make me happy, since it means "my" house is still not "my" house, but somehow it doesn't quite bring a smile to my face. On the bright side, though, it probably means that the house has steady ownership and tenancy, and I love the house, so I'm glad somebody else may love it, and Caddy Road, as much as I did.
Soon, with more better stuff.