Family Mythology

One of the first times I took notes with a source, laying-out a location was when my grandfather walked me around Boston to show me where he used to work.

My grandfather was a newspaperman in Boston starting in the 19-teens. Technically he painted the Sunday magazine covers like Norman Rockwell did for his paper. He knew Norman Rockwell. Before papa died, he took me around to show me where he and the guys from the paper would hang out. I was in the 6th grade.

That morning, we got to a bar called The Bell in Hand. This was the where the really old-timer newspaper men met for lunches. The name was mysterious – he had to explain what the hell a town crier was (Boston’s last one opened that tavern). Widespread public literacy is nice.

Papa’s paper, The Boston Post, used to eat lunch upstairs of the upstairs at Durgin-Park. The private 3rd floor was theirs. When they went to lunch, they all went, and they went to the same place – for decades. Carved initials and years are still visible on the restaurant’s exposed beams. There are still old black-and-white photos of the newspaper men at those long bench tables.

I was then brought into the Union Oyster House. The upstairs there was the meal room of a different newspaper crew, I think either The American or The Herald – maybe one, and then the other. That upper floor had actually BEEN a newspaper office 200 years ago, he said, called The Spy because it overlooked the British barracks wall and informed on collaborators. (The British barracks used to be where Boston’s City Hall currently looms.)

No, he wasn’t an alcoholic. Every different labor union and trade association had its own tavern, pub or coffee house. And every business had its own food place as well. Many homes didn’t really have full kitchens back then. And in a freezing cold city, public houses are life.

Papa’s specific guild, the city’s ‘Cover Art and Advertising Illustrators,’ had their own meetings at the upper floor of a coffee house on an alley called Wesley Place.

He took me down a couple different alleys from Wesley Place to what he said was the most important building in America. It’s now a coffee shop in the North End called Contrada. It used to be the Salutation Tavern. He explained that the Salutation had been the tavern for a bunch of guilds including two key ones: 1) precious metalwork (like silversmiths), and 2) the guild for ship hull caulkers and rope twisters.

Picture that mix of men; one group well-connected to elites who were rich enough to afford silversmithing, drinking in the same alehouse with giant badass guys who built ships for smugglers like Hancock. The giant badasses were under the spell of former Nassau Pirates, guys who retired to places like New York and Boston where they preached a variation of the proto-Socialism of the radical English Levellers). These two groups of men at the Salutation Tavern conspired to pick the streetfight that ballooned into The Boston Massacre. A pre-planned, propagandized outrage that led directly to the Revolutionary War shortly later in 1775.

The leader of the Silversmiths Guild was Paul Revere, and his partner, the leader of the longshoremen, was Crispus Attucks.

Papa took me through those alleys, all around the old North End, explaining that back in his grandfather’s days, alleys were called “cuts.” Many alleys ended with a dead-end wall. These walls sometimes featured a little door.

Sometimes the doorway opened to a yard, or sometimes they opened into another alley. But there were other times when, waiting to pounce on the other side of these doors was a dangerous gang, guarding turf. “Short cuts,” as these alley doorways were called, were dangerous because they could end up being …dead ends.

My grandfather’s cover art was beautifully painted and he clearly had a knack for poetic thought. I’ll never forget a word of that tour.

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