Life on the Corner: The West End’s “Shlemky”

The North End and the West End had a lot in common. They were both part of Ward 3 and shared political representation, both were poor tenement neighborhoods and many families had relatives in both neighborhoods. My father had an aunt and uncle in the West End and one of his cousins still lives there. After mass on Sundays my father would take me to my grandfather’s barber shop in the West End for a haircut. The North End had better shopping especially for Italian products and lots of restaurants but the West End had easy access to the Charles River Esplanade and Beacon Hill.

When I was young we considered North Station and Scollay Square as the boundary lines between the two neighborhoods but there was a lot of overlap. The ethnic composition of the West End was always more diverse than the North End and old West Enders love to reminisce about how well all the different groups got along.

Jews always had a strong presence in the West End right up to the end when the BRA demolished the neighborhood and this essay is about one West End Jewish family. The pictures and family history were shared with me by the grandson of the woman in the top right corner of the photo, Bessie Pudulsky. The Pudulskys were one of thousands of Jewish families that fled the pogroms in Russia and came to Boston in the early twentieth century. Many of them settled in the West End because there were other Jewish families there and the rents were cheap. Bessie married a man named Samuel Appel who had children from two previous marriages, both his wives had died. The blended family lived in a West End alley which didn’t even have a name and they had five additional children, all born in the apartment. Sam worked as a rag man but was very orthodox and spent most of his time in shul. Rag men were a common sight in both the North and West End and I remember seeing one pushing a cart down Salem St calling out “rags” in Yiddish. Like most families Bessie’s children and grandchildren moved on to other parts of the city, Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan but Bessie’s brother, Solomon, had an interesting business at North Station. Old North and West Enders might remember him.

In the far right hand corner of the picture, right under Bessie, is her brother, Solomon, who everyone called Shlemky. You can probably see from the photo that Shlemky was a dwarf but even so he had a large presence in the West End. For over thirty years Shlemky had a newspaper stand under the “EL” at the corner of Causeway and Canal Streets. Every day he would arrive early, set up his stand on discarded fruit boxes and saw horses and stay there for the next twelve to sixteen hours selling newspapers to commuters. In those days Boston had several daily newspapers each of which had an early and late edition and Shlemky sold them all. He even sold some New York tabloids and his stand was easily ten feet long. He had an apron around his waist with several pockets where he kept change. Sometimes fresh kids would try and steal some papers from him and sell them on their own but Shlemky was quick to spot a thief and there was a rumor he carried a gun in one of the apron pockets so most kids left him alone. Like so many other small time hustlers at that time, Shlemky booked numbers and had quite a big bookmaking operation. He collected bets all day and in the late afternoon a runner would come and take his betting slips and cash to the “office.” Since he was Jewish Shlemky probably laid off his bets to Doc Jasper and the Jewish mob that hung around Jack & Marion’s in Coolidge Corner. Shlemky would return home every night with his apron bulging with coins and the whole family would sit around the kitchen table and help count it.

Sadly, Shlemky died young. He was an Orthodox Jew and every Shabbos he would walk to his shul. He was crossing a street between two parked cars but was so short an oncoming car didn’t see him. He was struck and killed instantly. His story and that of his extended family is one of thousands of Eastern European Jews who came to the West End as their first stop in the United States. His descendants are professionals; artists, lawyers, doctors, teachers and businessmen. Shlemky never had children of his own but he would be proud of how well his grand nieces and nephews have done. If any old West Enders remember Shlemky I would love hearing from them.

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.

6 Replies to “Life on the Corner: The West End’s “Shlemky”

  1. Hi Nick,

    Bessie Appel was my great grandmother. I have old pictures of Schlemy as the family called him . This story was just so great. I want to thank you for a nostalgic moment . My mother was the last person to remember him. She died this past July at age 87. You truly made my day .

    Thank you again for a much needed smile

    1. Joan, I spoke to your cousin Steve yesterday and reminded him that the money Schlemy made selling papers and booking numbers helped his family get through the hard times of the Depression and WW II. Schlemy was short in stature but he was a stand up guy.

  2. Check out “Goldbergs” on JLTV, a 1950s B&W sitcom about NY Jews in the 1950s who immigrated as children c1900 (my grandparents generation). Molly and husband are 50ish, speak with an accent (born in the old country), and live in the NJ? suburbs (similar to Boston’s Dorchester and Roxbury). Moving on up. Their children are in their 20s (my parents generation). Molly and her husband would have first lived in NY’s equivalent of the North and West End.

  3. I loved this story! My first experience with a Jewish person was our landlady Edith Trotsky-Ferullo. We were living in East Boston. Her husband Sam was one hundred percent Italian. They had three boys. The boys celebrated both holidays. Edith made the best blintzes in the world and stuffed cabbage. She took me in town for lunch at a Jewish deli. I got to learn many Yiddish words from her. She passed away some years ago and is buried in a Jewish cemetery in E. Boston. Keep those great articles coming!

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