South Street Love


I was five blocks from my house this morning when I realized I didn't have my mask on. Typically, I walk with Muttski along the waterfront and spend most of the 90 minutes pulling my mask up and down while trying not to pass too close to Dog People. For the safety of solitude or, more to the point, to avoid the judgmental stares of the masked, I veered off in the other direction, one that I never walk—less scenic, but as it turns out, no less fertile for mind jabber. Today, I walked a good swath of South Street. Historical home of... [cue ominous music...] Cape Verdeans. 

Ah, South Street.

When I first told a certain someone in my life that I was moving back to Plymouth and that we had bought a house on South Street, the response surprised me: 

"South Street?!?!?," he said. Like it's a bad thing.

Surprising, because South Street was, oh, one hundred feet from the house I grew up in; it is an intersecting road with my home street Mt. Pleasant. Mt. Pleasant, which connects South Street to the main drag, is a street of hodgepodge late 19th century/early 20th century New England construction, lined with leafy maple trees, old granite cobble curbs, and buckling sidewalks. South Street: Busier, fewer trees but sidewalks just as bad. 1970s South Street also had a nursing home, the Mini-Mart, a playground, a low-income housing development, and a gas station. Both streets balanced cheery square colonials with a few run-down shacks, knee-high grass in the front yard. No one's dads wore suits to work, unless they sold cars.  The only real difference between the streets: One had more black families. Well, "Not black," as the Portuguese Plimothians used to say. "Cape Verdean."

Maybe this distinction mattered; I don't know. It probably did matter to people then. There were only a few non-white families in the neighborhood in the 1970s, and most had Portuguese (or Cape Verdean) names: Alves, Lopes, Gomes, Pina, Silva. Not black, they said. Cape Verdean. It mattered to them for reasons we may not like but we recognize. In the neighborhood street hockey games, it seemed that color distinction mattered less; everyone fired the slapshots at each other with the same wise-@ss testosterone. I'm sure some racial language was thrown around in jest; people seemed to take it in stride, for better or for worse. For worse, probably.

Street hockey was one thing, but in the home, it was different. My sister started college in 1977. Her  college roommate was Marie, the Connecticut-born daughter of Jamaican immigrants. Not long into the year, my sister started dating Marie's older brother Norman, who I remember as a generous, loving, creative human being. Marian's relationship with Norman was full of music, dancing, and delicious food.  At 10 years old, it was heaven to visit his basement apartment in Brookline with her. We danced in the living room with him and his roommates to the Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Funkadelic. He baked us a turkey with homemade stuffing of breadcrumbs, walnuts, diced carrots, and celery. I had only ever known StoveTop and frozen veg up to that point; I was fascinated, and possibly more in love than she was. One Christmas, he restored an antique steamer trunk for her—refinished the wood, painted it, and hand-made a wooden tray to go inside. Inside the trunk, he placed a handcrafted patchwork quilt that he had made himself. He was around 24 years old at the time. Things seemed to be serious, so finally she brought him home to a family party and was told by my father that if she married Norman, he could never accept the grandchildren. A beloved uncle said something similar. That relationship ended. I still see it as a family tragedy that evolved into a life with more than its fair share of unhappiness.

You may also have guessed that Dad was the one who spoke of South Street so negatively. Over time, we forgive, and he had many good points too, amid the outdated perspective on race. He was a product of where he came from; he chose the way he would evolve from there. But strangely, maybe he changed over time, because when I came home from summer camp five years later and asked to go visit one of my camp friends in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, he dropped me off at their boarded up three-decker with not a comment except, "Have a good time!" Note: They were not white. The neighborhood was very run down. I don't know why it was ok with him, but thank goodness it was. Probably because their mother insisted on speaking on the phone with my parents ahead of time. She was from St. Thomas; her Caribbean accent was so strong that it was hard for the average small towner to understand her. She was a minister, so maybe he trusted that I would be ok. (He had no way of knowing that her church was a storefront whose only heat came from a four-burner gas stove and that the house was full of cockroaches.) But he let me go, and thank god he did, because they were lovely people and that weekend with them changed my life. 

Another story for another day. I close only to say: There are many reasons to love South Street.