Saturday, July 14, 2012

Tenement Dwellers - Hart's Package Store

Lawrence – My Hometown Hart’s Package Store By Richard E. Noble The drug of choice for my generation Lawrencian street elf was alcohol. We started at a very early age. I remember the first sip of Muscatel I sneaked from the fridge. It was so bad. I could not understand the attraction. My fist sip of beer received an equally poor reception. But …

So there we were (the Howard version of the Bowery Boys) staked out around Hart’s package store on Lawrence St. We had already sent in most of the older looking guys. They were all laughed out of the store by the owner. We were waiting for an unfamiliar face – preferably a man with a large red nose and a meandering, uncoordinated step. Finding such a man was a rather expensive proposition. As our package store representative, each “agent” claimed to be providing us with a very low commission rate or service charge – in truth they acted more like Lehman Brothers, Charles Shawarb, or Liberty Mutual. They were taking the Bowery Boys for a ride.

In the past we hired such agents as we found sleeping in the coal bin at Cronin’s Coal Company on Hampshire St., or May and Mary, ladies who were known to do “anything” for a drink. To these girls we were like a free ride – all profit with no bed tax.

But most notorious of them all was, Billy the Bum, self-proclaimed King of the Hoboes. Billy came wandering out of the woods one day up at the Howard Playstead. He was something right out of the Adventures of Huck Fin or Tom Sawyer – like Injun Joe or some of Mark’s other infamous theatricals. Billy had story after story. It was from Billy that we learned of such things as the National and International Hobo Convention, the differences between a Hobo and a Bum, riding the rails, making a Mulligan stew, Hobo script, and the infamous Hobo jungles.

Billy made no advances towards the position of Liquor Store Agent for the Howard Bowery Boys, we solicited his services. He was very exacting in giving us the details of his purchases on our behalf. I guess there was no such thing as a sales slip back in those ancient times. But Billy only showed up at certain times of the year. It was imperative that we founded our own agency. We often fell upon that big, red-nosed man with a meandering step but we yearned for the day when one of “our gang” could present a suitable image. We finally found such an image in the deceptive maturity of a young man in the gang by the name of Michael T. Michael had this air of “old” about him. He was a very large child. He was swarthy complected and may have been shaving at an early age. We badgered Mike to accept this challenge. This could mean big saving for the gang as a whole and provide needed revenue for future gang investments (hockey sticks and chess boards). Mike agreed to step up and give it a shot.

He wore his “old man” overcoat, work boots and I think may have even doffed a felt hat. The night was cold and it was snowing lightly when Mike went sauntering into Hart’s. We were all huddled in a lump away from the entrance to the store hanging onto someone’s chainlink fence.

The tension was excruciating. It seemed like Mike was taking forever. Maybe old man Hart had finally lost it and called the cops. Mike could be inside handcuffed to the liquor counter. What should we do?

Finally Mike came strolling out with a shopping bag full of quart bottles – they could have been either Black Label or Narragansett GIQ’s; those were our favorites.

“What the hell took you so long?”

“I was shooting the breeze with old Mr. Hart. I was telling him all about my kids and the work at the mill.”

“Come on – you’re kidding?”

“No, I told him all about the boys and little Susan, my youngest.”

“Oh brother, you better remember all that hooey when you show up next week.”

“No problem. I got a brain like a bank vault.”

“Yeah right! Empty, heavily guarded and usually closed.”

“Well, you are entitled to your opinion but I got the booze, didn’t I?”

From that day forward we were independent brokers. We bought our own shares and pocketed the commission. Mike was our liquor rep from age sixteen forward. I presume he kept his family history straight for Mr. Hart. Old Mr. Hart was still asking me for ID when I was twenty-six years old for god sake. As time passed, there were three of us who would meet every Friday night – payday. I worked at the First National on Broadway, Mike worked at the Stop and Shop further down Broadway and Jimmy worked at the new Stop & Shop between Chelmsford and Spruce Streets.

Jimmy was the only one with a car. He would pick us up and we were off to PJ Pizza on Broadway and then to Hart’s on Lawrence St. We would get Italian meat pies and Sicilian style pizza (thicker crust – more to eat) and then head up to the baseball dugouts at the Howard.

We would sit in the dugout and gorge ourselves. On those cold, snowy winter nights, we would remain in Jimmy’s car with the heater on and the windows fogged up, slobbering our way through the evening discussing world affairs and laughing and joking about all the failings of our respective employers and supervisors in particular. I’m not kidding when I say I can still taste that beer. Beer had a flavor in those by-gone days that just doesn’t exist today. Maybe some of these new mini-breweries today can match that flavor, but I don’t know. The teams of surgeons and medical people who now supervise my behavior have told me that my liver has had enough beer. I question their medical expertise and I am searching for a second opinion. I’m looking for a Doctor whose last name is Narragansett – Dr. Robert Narragansett or Dr. Rupert Narragansett maybe. I don’t think a Dr. Nancy Narragansett will do the trick. Women have always harbored this innate prejudice toward drunken men. I don’t get it. It must be a “girl” thing. Of course, the meat pies and pizza were not and still aren’t “heart happy” food choices.

Richard Edward Noble is a freelance writer and columnist. His local column, the Eastpointer, won the first place 2007 humor award from the Florida Press Association. He has published several books. All of his books can be viewed and purchased on He can be contacted at for bookstore discounts and volume sales.

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