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Life on the Corner: A North End Christmas Story

North Square Christmas Tree

The phone call came at the worst possible time, but isn’t that always the case? Christmas was in four days and Angela was pregnant with their first child. They were living in a fourth floor walk up on North Street which was somewhat renovated. It had heat, hot water and a private bathroom. It was the first time either of them had lived in an apartment where they didn’t have to share a toilet with another family.

Angie had inherited a house in Revere from her uncle. At first they thought they might live there after some renovations, but Angie thought the schools were better in Melrose so the new plan was to clean up the house, throw in some new kitchen cabinets, spruce up the bathrooms and sell it. The real estate agent told them the house had “good bones” and should easily sell once it was fixed up. Mike didn’t know houses had bones and he thought she must have been referring to the studs inside the walls, but how could she see them? He was taking real estate law next semester at Suffolk and he would ask his professor about it.

The problem was, the house was filled with old furniture and the contractor was coming to start  renovations right after Christmas, anything left in the house was going into the dumpster. The furniture was old but in surprisingly good shape and Mike thought he could sell it. For three weeks in a row he had taken out an ad in the Sunday Globe offering it for sale, at first for a thousand dollars but he was now down to five hundred, still without any interest. Then the call came. He had a hard time understanding the caller because he had an impenetrable Southern drawl and was obviously a black man, but the caller lived in Mattapan and was interested in all the furniture. Since he didn’t know how to get to Revere, Mike set up a time to meet him in the parking lot of Linda Mae’s bakery on Morrissey Blvd. in Dorchester. This was really getting to be a nuisance, but if he could score 500 bucks it would be worth it.

So on a cold late December afternoon, Mike drove down the expressway to Dorchester and waited, but of course the guy was late. After hanging around for an hour losing his patience minute by minute, Mike was ready to leave when a wreck of a pickup truck pulled into the parking lot. The fenders were hanging off and there was more rust than paint holding it together. He knew it was the guy he was waiting for because the truck had Georgia plates. Mike waved and the fellow drove over, got out and vigorously shook his hand. His name was Simon and inside the truck was his wife and son who looked to be about seven years old. Simon looked like he weighed about a hundred pounds and his suit hung off him like clothes on a scarecrow. His wife was enormous and seemed to be bursting out of her coat while the boy just glared at Mike with round white eyes. Their skin was as purple black as an eggplant and they were clearly destitute, but they were all smiles and anxious to see the furniture.

Mike led the way, praying their truck wouldn’t break down, and they followed close behind. The drive took almost an hour with all the holiday traffic, and they didn’t arrive until well after dark. Mike opened the door, turned on the lights and made small talk with the father.

Mike asked what brought them from balmy Georgia to frigid Massachusetts in the winter, just before Christmas. “God led us here,” Simon answered. “He told us to come here and start a mission because there are souls to be saved and blessings to be shared.” Simon had rented a large, abandoned store front on Blue Hill Ave. near Seaver Street. He had built a wall separating the main sanctuary from their living quarters where they were sleeping on the floor. They had no furniture at all and were cooking on a hot plate. A folding table was the altar and there were a couple dozen metal chairs for then congregants.

“Okay,” Mike said. “Let me show you what we have.”

The house smelled like a second-rate nursing home. The floor was covered with old newspapers, and piles of used Meals-on-Wheels tins covered the kitchen cabinets. Nevertheless, Simon and his wife were ecstatic, this was just what they had prayed for and they would take everything that would fit into the truck. The thing was, they had very little money and would Mike please consider taking a little bit off the asking price?

As they stood there in the cold parlor, Mike could see the look of fear on Simon’s face. Mike knew he had something these poor people desperately wanted, and the thought flashed through his mind that he could perhaps get more than the $500 he was asking. And then Mike thought about another family who left their hometown 2,000 years ago to travel to a distant city. They too had arrived late in the year and had to stay in a stable because nobody would offer them a room. Mike felt ashamed of his greed and condescending attitude toward these poor people. Even though he certainly wasn’t wealthy, he had so much more than Simon and his family. Here they were, sojourners in a foreign land, coming to Boston at Christmastime to do God’s work, and he was trying to squeeze five hundred bucks from them.

“I’ll tell you what,” Mike said. “I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse. You can have anything you want, the entire houseful of furniture for free.” Simon raised his eyes to the ceiling spread his arms wide and said, “Praise be to the Lord!” His wife wrapped her arms around Mike’s neck pressing his face into her massive breasts. “This will be a Merry Christmas after all,” she said.

For the next hour and a half Mike helped them load the truck with furniture until the springs squeaked. After they left in a flurry of waves and thank yous, Mike got into his car and headed back to the North End. As he drove through the cold, clear night he thought the Christmas lights in the windows of the houses he passed seemed to glow a bit brighter, and the stars in the dark, cloudless sky were so close they seemed to kiss the earth.

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.

10 Replies to “Life on the Corner: A North End Christmas Story

    1. It’s a true story, Paul, but, as Sargent Joe Friday used to say, “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

      1. Your daughter outed you Nick!! Thanks for sharing what life was like in simpler times.
        Merry Christmas to you and yours 🙂

  1. Reading this story made me feel a bit of guilt I must admit. It may sound corny but it is better to give than receive.

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