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Carl Vickers: The Roxbury I Remember

I was born and raised in the Roxbury section of Boston. The house I was born in still stands at 5 Alvah Kittredge Park, which is two blocks up Highland Street from Eliot Square. That section of Roxbury was quite a diverse neighborhood with Irish, Italian, Greek, Jewish, and black families.

Back then, Eliot Square was a shopping mecca in the community even though it had no supermarkets. We had a First National and an A&P, but there was also a fish market, a shoe repair shop, a drugstore, a tailor, a battery charging shop, a soda fountain, and a sweets shop, which was located in what people called the Roundhouse.

Bill Bell’s drugstore was on the corner of Linwood and Highland streets. When you bought an ice cream cone and the owner liked you, he put a marshmallow in the bottom of the cone as an extra treat. Next to the drugstore on Highland Street was a bakery where we purchased all kinds of goodies.

My mother did her food shopping on the weekends. Saturday was a great night to go food shopping in Faneuil Hall Marketplace. She took two or three of her five children with her. At that time, there were still a few horse-drawn wagons on the street. She told us children to wait in front of a store for her, and off she went to buy her provisions. She returned from the grocer’s or the fish market with two or three bags, left them with us, and then went off to do more shopping. When she was finished, we all helped carry the bags to the old elevated railway to bring them home. She could do a week’s shopping in one night, and she never carried more than twenty dollars in her purse.

My mother was a quiet, loving lady who was always involved with her children and their friends. She never turned away anyone who needed a helping hand. My father was just the opposite of quiet. He never smoked, but liked what he called “a little taste,” meaning a beer from time to time. He used to make home brew, and we helped him bottle it; you put the bottle on the stand and pulled it down with the pressure caps.

I fondly remember my mother making carrot marmalade and all the siblings pitching in to prepare of all the fresh ingredients, citrus, grated carrots, and sugar. What a heavenly aroma! This marmalade was preserved along with many other jams, jellies, fruits, and vegetables. Of course, these days you don’t find many families canning. At that time, canning was the best way to keep food year-round. We didn’t have refrigerators. Just about everyone had an icebox instead. I remember the iceman coming through the neighborhood to deliver ice from his truck. We paid fifteen cents, twenty-five cents, or fifty cents depending on the size of the ice block. Like everyone, my mother had an ice card that she would put in the window to denote the size of the piece of ice that she wanted that week. My family was the first in the area to get a refrigerator. When word got out, many of the neighbors had to come to view this new “ice machine.”

Some weekends my father and godfather went away on weekend trips to New York City, which cost three dollars and fifty cents round-trip. They left Boston on Friday night and returned Sunday night to visit their friends. On Saturday morning, my mother told us children to roll up the rug in the living room, move the furniture, and call our friends to come and enjoy a fun evening of dancing and good food. She was a very good cook, and she made different dishes or snacks. She also used to make homemade root beer.

I was never a dancer myself. We listened to Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, and Frank Sinatra. We didn’t have all these electronic gadgets. We had a wind-up gramophone that had a handle on the side, and we put the disc on, wound it up, and it played. When things improved, we got an electric turntable. We paid twenty-nine cents for a platter, a 33 ¹⁄³ rpm or 78 rpm disc. A spindle or a disc was placed over 78s in order to play 45s. A switch moved from 78 to 33 to 45 to adjust to the speed of whatever was playing. When the Saturday night party was over everybody pitched in cleaning up and returning the rug and furniture to their original places. When my father returned, he never knew there had been visitors in the house. Everybody loved my mother. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a whole lot of clean fun.

Some Sunday afternoons she got all the kids in tow and rode with us all over the public transportation system. We saw everything from the train. Back then when you went downtown to go shopping or went out, you went looking decent. You went looking like people. Even as kids, we never went out wearing what are now called jeans, what we called dungarees. We couldn’t even wear pants like that to school. You had to wear your Sunday go-to-meeting clothes.

We often used public transportation to go to the beach, but my parents also had a good friend who had a car with a rumble seat. He lived in Cambridge, and he would take his family to the Salem Willows Park in Salem, Massachusetts, and then come back to get my family. At the end of the day, he would take his family home and then come back to get mine. My mother was concerned about our safety at the beach, and she always said, “The ocean doesn’t have a back door.” She meant that there was only one way to come out of that ocean, and that was the way you went in.

As a young boy, I delivered newspapers to my neighbors. At that time, there were several daily newspapers in Boston. In the afternoons, I delivered the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald Traveler, and the Boston American, early and late editions. At night, I delivered the Daily Record. People paid two cents for a paper at that time. The Sunday paper cost ten cents. You can imagine how much — or how little — I was making.

As I got older, I graduated from James P. Timilty Junior High, the “Tim,” and from Charlestown High School. I went on to Franklin Institute, and graduated with an associate’s degree in electrical engineering. I also took courses at Boston State College, Emmanuel College, and Boston University. My mother was a great influence on all her children and took a great interest in our schoolwork. In ninth grade at the Tim, I made a few items in woodworking class, two of which I still have. One of them is a three-legged table. My most treasured is a solid mahogany desk that cost me just two dollars for the wood. I use that desk to this day, and it looks just as good now as it did then.

I had a good childhood in Roxbury. I had good friends and parties, roller-skating in the street, arts and crafts at the Norfolk House Center, and story time at the library. What I miss most is my mother’s carrot marmalade. Sadly, no one in my family ever got the recipe from her. Sometimes I think I can still taste it.