Chapter 4

Life in the ‘Burg

Early in the Spring we moved back to Ogdensburg, except for my brother Pete. He found work at another restaurant, the Blue Point Inn, whose specialty was sea food. I think Pete quit school in the sixth grade and at this point he was eighteen years old and on his own.

We moved into a long, one and a half story building, extending from the railroad tracks to Gibbs Street and containing three identical four-room apartments with shed attached. This was across the street from Kelley, Leonard and Forrestal Coal Company on River Street. Shortly after we moved there Big Don lost his job in Utica and so all the Davidsons came to live off us for a while. There was Big Don, my Aunt Leona and Bereford and Don Jr., the sons of Big Don. Bereford also brought along his wife, Lina. Bereford and Lina spent most of their time arguing, due to the fact that Lina, while trying to spread a little cheer among the unhappy denizens of Utica, picked up a dose and generously shared it with her husband, who resented gifts given to his wife by other men, free or otherwise.

Chicken Thief

As no one was working, meals were a problem. Young Dick and I managed to get a job peddling advertisements for the Crazy Crystal Water Company, a preparationguaranteed to cure everything from impotence to cancer. At the end of Commerce Street was a small house where an old fellow kept chickens. One night my father cleaned him out. He came home in the wee hours with two burlap sacks filled with dead chickens. We lived comfortably for a week or so, although most of the money we made went for hootch for the adults, except for my mother, who never drank.

The Rossie Iron Ore Company

The Davidsons went back to Utica after a couple of weeks, and my father got a job with the Rossie Iron Ore Paint Company. The plant was also across the street from us and its operations consisted of grinding large chunks of red iron ore into the consistency of talcum powder. It was then sacked. When mixed with water it could be used to paint barns in the country. Every man who worked there looked like a red Indian. After work at night it took about an hour to wash off the powder. The men were red from head to foot and some of those who worked there for years never did remove it from their skins.

The Trial of the Century

One of the most spectacular trials of that time was the case of the $100 bill. I like to think of it as such, as it was one of the few I was ever involved in. My father sent me down to Felix Boyer’s grocery store on Lake Street to cash his check, which was for just over $11.00. In those days before the supermarket, he had the largest store in town, even bigger than the A&P is now. I bought a ring bologna and a ring liverwort and Felix wrapped up the change in what I assumed was a ten dollar bill, and cautioned me not to lose it. As I skipped merrily along home, I looked at the ten dollar bill in my hand and noticed it had two zeroes. I ran the rest of the way home and told my father I had been given a hundred dollar bill.

 My father told me I was crazy, but when I handed it to him he exclaimed “By God (expletive deleted), it is!” He then rushed out the back door with the bill just as Felix and two cops knocked at the front door. My mother, of course, had to tell the police he was not at home. They came several items looking for him, just in case he returned. The next day the police and the mayor, Ralph Morissette, came while my father was there and the mayor, being a friend of my father’s told him that if he had spent any of the money, he, the mayor, would make up the difference. My father, of course, denied having the money and Felix pressed charges. The case came to trial shortly after.

I was subpoenaed as a witness. On the day of the trial my father told me and my brother Dick to take a hike to the woods where I could not be found, as he was afraid I would tell the truth under questioning. My brother and I and Jimmie Hoadley, a cousin of my father’s and a little older than us, took out for the woods. While we were in the woods, Jimmie hit me in the left eye with a slingshot with such force that I was unable to see. As they were taking me home, a prowl car pulled over and asked our names. When I told mine, I was immediately put in the car and taken to City Hall where the trial was in progress. When I got there, the trial was recessed for a few minutes so my father could ostensibly wash my eye out, but in actuality to brief me on the lies he wanted me to say.

Normally I would have been terrified of the police all around and being in court, but my eye caused me so much agony that it left little room for fear. I insisted to the court that running off to the woods was my own idea, and I denied any knowledge of any hundred dollar bill. The lawyer for Felix Boyer was unable to trap me, and so the case was thrown out of court.

 Immediately after the trial was over, my father’s friends and even the police gathered around me and complimented me on my guts. Needless to say, from that point on I never again found it necessary to sneak off to the cattle sheds when I was constipated. My father bragged for some time afterward on the guts I had, even in my hearing. But it always bothered me that the one time in my life that my father was proud of me was based on the short time in court when I was as big a liar as he was.

My father bought my brother Dick and I a pair of high shoes with a pouch containing a jackknife on the side, the latest style then. He also bought me a small mechanical tractor, a few groceries for the house, and then went on a binge. He told me after, that the night he ran out with the bill, he took it to Art Powell who ran a grocery on New York Avenue, who changed it to smaller bills for him. He also called an eye doctor as soon as we got home from the trial. I was totally blind for a couple of months in that eye, was kept home from school and had to keep it bandaged to keep out the light.

Trouble in School

I finally went back to school with the bandage still on. The school, by the way, was Washington School, somewhat obsolete now, but then it was the latest thing in schools. This was the year that I was in Miss Moore’s class. As I have mentioned, it was she who had instructed my father until he quit. I had a front seat in the class and while I was off a girl named Berenice Larue used my seat. I was told this by my classmates the first morning I was back. After basking in the admiration of my friends for nearly having my eye put out and my impressive bandage, the class came to order.

It had no more than done so when this same Berenice LaRue stood up and told Miss Moore that there were some initials carved in the top of my desk. I had no time to notice it before, but when I glanced at my desk, sure enough, there were some initials carved there. By a very strange coincidence the initials were “B.L.” Miss Moore immediately started to scream at me, and I can understand her distress. This was a new school, just two or three years old. I tried in vain to point out that this girl had sat in my seat for two months and not noticed the carving, and yet was able to see them from her seat across the room. This was certainly an open and shut case, even to a moron. but Miss Moore was so pleased to revenge herself upon my father that she was not about to listen to reason. She called me a miserable little brat and swore I would pay for the damage.

 And pay I did. I really believe I had the finest education of the class that year. She called on me constantly to answer questions on our classwork, and woe betide me if I did not know the answers. I spent far more time on my feet answering questions than I did sitting down and studying. This same Berenice Larue was burned to death in a house fire, a retribution that saddened me as I then put all girls on a pedestal. I would have gladly shouldered the blame had I been given a chance.

Living on River Street

In our house on River Street lived three families. Grandpa and Grandma Recore were on the end, then there was us, and in the other end lived an elderly alcoholic named Libby Woods. A long board fence split the tracks and the front tenements on Main Street from the slums on the river side, meaning us. In the front row lived the Harneys on the end, the Heagles, my aunt Lena, and Scoop Roach. My Aunt Lena lived with Dave Wicks, while my mother’s sister Vina married his brother, Henry Wicks.

The Wicks Family

This was an interesting family and so I should mention what I know of them. I third brother was named Ralph, but everyone called him “do-die” or “too-die”. It seems that his mother caught him masturbating and hollered “Ralph, if you don’t stop that, you will die!” But Ralph, coming to the most interesting part hollered right back “I don’t care if I do die, do die, do die.” From then on he had earned his nickname. My uncle Henry Wicks worked for the Remington Arms outside Utica during World War One. Figuring he had done his bit of the country, he refrained from working henceforth. His brother Dave move in with my Aunt Lena whose husband, George LaBuff, was killed in World War One. Dave managed to live the rest of his life on her widow’s pension. These three boys were the sons of old John Wicks, who also managed to be supported by his wife. The only one of the lot what worked was Ralph.

My father, next to drinking, liked fighting best. The Wicks boys were all afraid of him because he was just as handy with his fists as he was with a bottle, but my Aunt Lena did not fear him at all. One day my father and mother had an argument, so Ma went over to my aunt’s to get away from him. After some time , my father instructed me to go to my aunt’s and tell her if my mother did not come home, that he would go over and clean house. While Dave cowered in a corner, my aunt told me to tell him to be sure to bring a mop and broom with him. This struck me as enormously funny and I could not help snickering as I reported back to him. However, he did nothing.

Dad Fighting

My father was in jail quite often. Each time he managed to get drunk, he would also manage to get into a fight. Many time she had a black eye. The best way to fix a black eye then was to go to a drug store and buy a leech. The leech was put on the black eye and after it had sucked the bad blood out, it was discarded. I often heard my father ask my mother for money to buy a leech, but as far as I now, he never used one. I rather think he went out and bought another shot with the money. Perhaps he didn’t have the nerve to use one, because even a small cut bothered him whereas he though nothing of taking on a tough in a saloon with the chance of getting his head knocked off.

Many times my mother sent one of us boys down to the jail to bring Pa a sack of Bull Durham to smoke. The jail then was in the back of a store opposite the City Hall. The City Hall had not been built then, so the city offices were scattered all over town. Since the walls of the old Opera House were sound after the fire, there was talk of rebuilding it. But the City fathers finally tore it down and erected the present monstrosity.

Tobacco

The Bull Durham I just mentioned came in a small pack. It cost a nickel and had a package of rice straw paper glued to the outside. If you have ever watched a western move, you can imagine how it was smoked. You extracted a paper from the small package, made a trough in the paper by putting one finger in the center and a finger on either side, then you opened the draw strings of your sack and poured what you considered to be enough tobacco flakes for a quirly, as it was called, or rolling a smoke. After you shook the tobacco down so it was even, you wet one side of the paper with your tongue, rolled the paper around the tobacco, and twisted the ends to hold the flakes from coming out. Since this made a very short smoke, you generally burned all the hair out of your nose while lighting it. Those older people who happened to have a handsome mustache or were afraid of fire, generally settled for cut plug or chewing tobacco. The rich people smoked pipes or used snuff, as did the old women, or bought manuftured cigarettes, called tailor mades. All the he-men, however, used chewing tobacco, plug, or rolled their own.

Other brands besides Bull-Durham were Golden Grain, R.J.R. or Dukes mixture. As I mentioned, this tobacco came in very small flakes, very dry, and were sweepings from factories and tobacco warehouses. As the southern farmers were partial to mules, and as mules had to go the same as humans, they went, and their debris was swept up with everything else and sacked. This was a bonus for the tobacco dealers, of course, but was hardly enjoyed by the smokers as mule manure has a very bitter taste. For this reason, most men refrained from inhaling until the fire had burned by it.

Snipe Hunting

Many of the kids in our neighborhood used to make a little money on the side in an activity called snipe hunting. The best place for this was the Railroad station. Many of the better class of citizens smoked tailor-mades. When the conductor on a train yelled “All aboard” they would throw their half-consumed cigarettes on the ground. We would immediately pounce upon them and put them out. After we got enough of them in a used cigarette package and sell them to the older boys for a few cents. The older boys used these snipes to impress their dates. They could light them up while their girl friends were looking elsewhere, and naturally the girls thought these boys were loaded, which, if they had a dollar, they probably were. One dollar then would take you and your girl to the show, provide a hamburger afterwards, and with the remainder you could buy a couple of short beers - after repeal, of course.

Rolling Your Own

In closing I might add that most men then who rolled their own could start from scratch and have a quirly lit before you could extract a cigarette from a pack. I myself have won many a wager by doing this. The fastest man I ever saw, however, was an old western fellow who played bit parts in horse operas. His name was Gabby hayes, and he rolled them with one hand so fast that you could not see it done. In less than two seconds, I would say.

The Tobacco Companies

While we are on the subject, the big four of the tailor-mades were Lucky Strike, Old Golds, Camels and Chesterfields. These were the only brands you could buy in stores, saloons, or most places that sold cigarettes. If you were a little snooty, you could go to the Piquet or the O’Conner Algie tobacco stores and buy Sweet Caporals, the first cigarette manufactured, or Fatimas, a slender coffin nail designed for the ladies. These all came in packs of twenty, wrapped in wax paper - cellophane not having been invented yet. The big four also came in what was called flat fifties, a flat can holding fifty cigarettes or round cans holding a hundred. The two latter items were designed for the snobs who could offer their guests a perfect cigarette, which I presume also generated perfect cancers, rather than the sweaty packs pulled out of a back pocket, redolent of the various vapors and fumes acquired from certain malodorous areas of the lower torso.

Federal taxes were paid on each cigarette and one enterprising company came out with a brand called “Twenty Grand”. These came four to a box, about ten inches long. By cutting each cigarette in five pieces, you had twenty cigarettes. These were not on the market very long, however, because the Bureau of Infernal Revenue caught up to them.

Cut Plug

Since I have not seen cut plug for years, I should explain that it was tobacco leaves pressed into small cakes, together with various condiments to give it a taste. Its devotees enjoyed it, if that is the correct word, by trying to gnaw off a bit with their remaining teeth or plates. You could always tell a lover of cut plug, because he had few teeth left in his head. Since all false teeth then were made of porcelain, they were called “China Clippers”, after the early flying boats, or vice versa.