Summer in the city

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Summer in the city
by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com Contributor
Tuesday Nov 2, 2010

Last time: Big Jim’s Shanty Lounge and drunken escorts-Washington Street in the Sixties was never boring

During the summer of 1965, eager to live without supervision, two Franklin Square House friends and I rented an apartment in Brookline. In August, the landlord claimed he’d rented to only two and threw us out. Probably he was concerned about all the boyfriends-we’d come a long way from Franklin Square House beau parlors, the little rooms off the ballroom where we were supposed to entertain men. Cathy and I, free until school started in late September, made the rounds of real estate offices looking for a two-bedroom for $100 a month. One said he knew of a place-"but I wouldn’t want my own daughter to live there."

Down Mass. Ave. we went, past Mr. Kelly’s, Wally’s, and the daytime hookers. We took a left on Tremont and an immediate right at the Rainbow Lounge, an alleged "bucket of blood." On East Springfield Street, three short blocks from the Franklin Square House, the realtor parked in front of his old friend Mary Grant’s place. Boston City Hospital, famous for the treatment of gunshot wounds, was a stone’s throw away.

The shabby, once grand, hallway was papered in faded roses, the woodwork a sickly orange-brown. With difficulty, Mrs. Grant, 82, led us upstairs to two huge pink rooms with high ceilings and ornate marble fireplaces.

An old sleigh bed dominated the front room. There were ponderous gray upholstered chairs, a couch, and framed pictures high on the walls. We recognized "The Blue Boy" but not a murky little drawing Mrs. Grant was proud of-a "signed Daubigny." The apartment had two makeshift kitchens: an all-in-one aluminum unit in the front room sticking up above an Oriental screen designed to hide it, and in the back a sink, two refrigerators, and an antique hotplate on curved legs. There were three refrigerators total but only one worked. Mrs. Grant took us through a broom closet to an opening with a tiny bathtub on legs and a high sink-friends would later say I had a midget’s tub and a giant’s sink-and then into a hall toilet. We instantly fell in love with the place. The rent was $50 a month-heated, furnished, utilities included.

All night, prostitutes sat on the steps next door yelling to men driving by. A pimp in a kimono supervised from the stoop. When a car stopped, a "girl" got in and went off with the driver. We watched from behind the curtains.

Blanchard’s Liquors (Liquor Land, now CVS) was visible from far away, its entrance ramp lined in yellow light bulbs-"the Gates of Hell." Inside, it was like a bottle-walled cave, with liquor packed floor to ceiling. A cross-eyed wine steward sat on baskets of bottles, jumping up if anyone wanted wine.

One night we decided to give a Martini party. For some reason Blanchard’s didn’t sell ice, and our only working refrigerator couldn’t make more than a couple of cubes. We walked into City Hospital carrying our bag of bottles. A nurse opened a refrigerator and gave us a big bag of ice, no questions asked.

Roger, an old friend, came to visit. He was a big bear of a guy who stank of beer, let bits of food accumulate in his big red beard, but he was a folk music expert and played the twelve-string guitar. We were sitting in my cavernous apartment drinking beer and listening to his blind Rev. Gary Davis tape when we heard a strange thump and scraping near the front windows. Roger was paralyzed with fear. A window began to creak open and a hand appeared, followed by Cathy’s boyfriend. They had forgotten their keys.

Most of my old friends were horrified by the South End. It was always interesting to see big guys like Roger cower in the face of essentially nothing. Cathy and I didn’t feel threatened; on the contrary, we delighted in the neighborhood, and strange scenes were a welcome daily occurrence. We had found a sort of humanity that didn’t seem to exist elsewhere.

It was clear that a lot of the eccentric people who lived on our street wanted to be left alone, at least sometimes. They were interracial couples, unwed mothers, artists, prostitutes, and others who had good reason for living an anonymous life. They didn’t want to be bothered and weren’t about to bother us.

We stayed a month. Students under 21 were allowed to live with a relative, but my father refused to write a letter to BU claiming Cathy was my aunt. I returned to the Franklin Square House for a second year.

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