Sunday, May 14, 2017

NORTH END MIRACLE by Peter Nolan Smith

Throughout my childhood my mother cooked dinner for six kids and every Friday evening she drove our station wagon into Boston. We picked up my father at 50 Milk Street, where he worked for Ma Bell as an electrical engineer. He took the wheel and headed to a restaurant.

My father loved my mother and they loved dining out even with us in tow.

One evening my father strode from the NET&T headquarters like a man in a mission.

"Where to tonight?" asked my mother.

She always dressed for the occasion.

"A little restaurant in the North End." He pulled out into the street. "A co-worker said George's was cheap and cheerful.

Feeding six hungry kids was a struggle even on a white-collar salary.

"Parking's horrible there," complained my mother

"I always find a parking spot." My father crossed Atlantic Avenue and weaved through the traffic on Hanover Street to turn onto a crooked lane.

"There it is and look. There's a parking spot." My father pulled into the space.

The two burly men outside the eatery frowned at my father, but said nothing, as our tribe trooped into George's.

The restaurant had no customers. The men at the bar glanced over their shoulders and then returned to muttered conversations. The tuxedoed waiter approached our family, as if we were lost.

"You really wanna eat here?" He waved his hand at the empty tables.

"I have six hungry kids and you have food. Where else you want me to go?" My father came from Maine. There was only one Italian restaurant in Portland. Every Sunday night of my early years he traveled across the Martin Point Bridge from Falmouth Foresides to pick up pizza and antipasto, which we ate while watching THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW on our Zenith TV. We were no strangers to Italian cuisine.

"Nowhere, but here. I give you da best table." He led us to a big booth underneath a painting of Naples. My father ordered meatball and spaghetti for us. My mother had a plate of pasta reeking of garlic and they shared a small carafe of red wine.

A few more men entered the bar.

They narrowed their gaze upon seeing us.

One of them pointed at my father and I ate with my head down to avoid his black eyes. My brother did the same, but my mother and father ordered another carafe of wine. The waiter put a coin into the jukebox and played YELLOW BIRD. The men in the bar spoke louder, until my mother started singing along with Harry Belafonte.

I had seen her quiet a cathedral choir with her voice and my father beamed with pride as she wrenched every emotion from the Jamaican song. I was embarrassed by her singing so loud. In many ways I never understood her gift, however when she finished the men at the bar applauded my mother.

The toughest man crossed the floor to our table. A scar bisected his forehead. He bowed to my mother.

"Lady, you have the voice of an angel. My name is George. This is my place. Anytime you want to come, you call and we'll have a table ready for you and yours." He gave my father his card and waved for the waiter to bring another carafe of wine and ice cream for us.

"On me, but mind if you song some more."

"I'll be my pleasure."

My mother sang Dean Martin's THAT'S AMORE and VOLARE. Her rendition of those two songs sealed the eternal gratitude of the gruff clientele and her version of I'LL TAKE YOU HOME AGAIN, KATHLEEN brought tears to every man's eyes.

After that evening we returned to George's at least once a month. My father parked in front of the restaurant and his kids marveled at this driving feat. We never strayed from the meatballs and spaghetti and my mother always sang a few songs for the bar, as my father beamed with love. She was the one woman in his life and his kids were his pride and joy, even as I rebelled against his way of life.

One night in the Spring of 1971 I decided to take my hippie friends down to George's.

Hank Watson, two co-eds from BU, and I took the T to Haymarket. We walked under the Artery into the North End. The parking space in front of the restaurant was filled by a big Cadillac. The two men on the sidewalk blocked our entrance. Hank had hair down to the back of his ass. Mine was shoulder-length. Hippies l weren't welcome in the North End.

"Youse ain't coming in." One of them placed a hand in my chest.

I looked over his shoulder.

George sat at the bar. His eyes glared at me with a puzzled recognition and then he snapped his fingers.

"Hey, Louie, let them in, the good-looking one's the son of the songbird," George shouted from the bar.

"Thanks," I politely said at the bar.

"How's your mother and father?"

"Good." The bartender served us wine.

"Come here. I wanna talk to you a second." George led me into the back and spoke with his arm around my shoulder, "Listen, I don't got no problem with longhairs, but my people they don't like hippies. You coming here is no problem, but you bring other hippies and people will start talking, you understand?"

"You want me to leave?"

"No, I can't do that to you, but next time dress a little better and only come with a girl. No friends. Out of respect for your mother."

"Whatever you want." I was a good boy when it came to family. "Can I ask you one question?"

"Maybe."

"That first time we came to your restaurant and my father parked in front. He wasn't supposed to do that, was he?" THE GODFATHER had come out the previous year. Any questions about George's business were answered in that film. He was one of those guys about whom no one talked if they knew what was good for them.

"That's my spot. Everyone in the neighborhood knows that, but after your mother sang it became her spot. Still is. Enjoy your meal and give your best to your mother." He started to walk to the bar, then stopped, "One more thing, don't ever tell your father that. He's a good man. Name's Frank, right?"

"I call him 'Dad' and my lips are sealed."

"Good boy, one more thing."

"What?"

"Cut your hair. You look like your mother with that thatched roof."

"My mother?" Like most teenagers in the 60s I had told myself that I would never grow up to be my father. Nobody had warned me about my mother. The hair had to go.

"Yes, your mother."

I never mentioned this incident to my father or mother, but every time they went to the North End I call George and the parking spot would be waiting for them. It was a miracle, but then again so was my mother's voice.

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