1970s

Tale of two Federal Hill stores

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, April 17, 2016.

The click of Mom’s blinker came one exit early. Instead of taking the usual way home to our Elmhurst neighborhood in Providence, she steered her blue Ford Maverick off Route 10.

My younger brother, in the back seat, noted the detour. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“I want to drive down the avenue,” my mother said. It was Sunday evening, with almost no light left in the sky. The three of us were returning from the beach.

By “the avenue,” she meant Atwells Avenue, a street so central to our lives in the mid-1970s that we referred to it with verbal shorthand. Likewise, “the Hill” meant Federal Hill, and “the store” was Vincent’s, my grandfather’s baby clothes and children’s wear store, which stood at the corner of Atwells and Acorn.

Papa’s store had thrived for nearly half a century. Even when boarded-up buildings began appearing on Federal Hill in the 1960s, and despite the opening of two malls in Warwick, Vincent’s remained Rhode Islanders’ go-to place for communion suits and dresses, as well as christening sets.

My mother worked in the store six days a week. My younger brother and I served as stock boys on Friday nights and all day Saturday. My older brother, since enrolled in college, had done the same before us — as had perhaps a dozen cousins before him.

Mom first worked full-time at Vincent’s upon graduating from Mount Pleasant High School. She replaced her oldest sister, Grace, who was starting a family. My mother stopped working when she got married, only to return to the store in 1969 after she and my father separated. Vincent’s provided the financial security that made it possible for her to leave her marriage — a rarity for women at the time.

Still, it was duty, then necessity — never choice — that had placed her behind the glass-fronted oak showcases ringing the store. It was clear she didn’t enjoy waiting on customers the way my aunts and godmother did. And Mom and Papa didn’t always see eye to eye.

But waiting on people, the old-fashioned way, was a must at Vincent’s. Much of the merchandise was inaccessible to customers — behind glass, in back of counters, or folded away in drawers. To get a bonnet or sundress for your child to try on, you needed a salesperson.

Once, when my grandfather was having supper at our house, my mother broached the issue.

“People buy differently now,” she said. “Young moms want to wait on themselves.”

“Those showcases have worked for 50 years,” my grandfather said.

“I’m thinking self-serve racks could do some of the merchandising for us,” my mother said, putting her fork down and looking at him across the table.

“Customers come to our store to be waited on,” he replied, not looking up. “Why change?”

But change was afoot on the Hill. Soon, thanks to federal and local revitalization projects, the sidewalks were widened and paved with handsome square bricks. A stately fountain graced DePasquale Square. And a sculpture of a “pigna” or pine cone, a traditional Italian symbol of welcome, hung from the massive arch that served as the neighborhood’s eastern gateway.

Life changed for my mother too. She and nine fellow merchants — mostly men — formed a company to purchase a building on the avenue. They had a vision: as Federal Hill gentrified, they would invest in properties and renovate them.

My mother’s Maverick crept along Atwells Avenue until she pulled up to a four-story building with a “sold” sign on it.

“This is where I’m going to have my store,” she said, pointing at the first-floor retail space.

My brother and I were speechless. The thought of my mother leaving Vincent’s was outlandish to me — and exhilarating.

Three months later, Mom opened a teen and junior fashion boutique. As women browsed the sparkling chrome racks, a large blue sign proclaimed the store’s name: Norma & Sons. The crisp white letters stood out like stars on an American flag.

It was my mother’s declaration of independence.

Her store would change our lives — but that is a story for another day.

Play Ball! Wiffle Ball, That Is

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 1, 2014.

Baseballs and city neighborhoods don’t mix. Windows loom; shattered glass and lost allowances are just a line drive away. When I was a kid, we didn’t even think of playing hardball in my backyard on River Avenue in Providence. But we didn’t have to. We had Wiffle ball.

In 1953, in Fairfield, Conn., David Mullany came home to find his 12-year-old son trying to throw curves with a small plastic golf ball, to no avail. Mullany, a former semi-pro pitcher, knew that throwing breaking balls wasn’t good for adolescent arms. So he set out to design a ball that would let his son do so without harm.

Mullany found inspiration in an unlikely place: the hard plastic orbs that served as packaging for Coty perfume bottles. After cutting holes of various sizes and shapes in the re-purposed spheres, he arrived at an eight-slot design that made them curve and rise and sink when thrown.

While Mullany was the inventor, his son was the marketer. The 12-year-old came up with the name for the ball, a play on “whiff,” which is slang for “strike out.” (Whiffing batters was the whole point of throwing curves!) In an act of typographic economy — and branding brilliance — the Mullanys dropped the “h” in their spelling. Thus, the Wiffle ball was born.

In the early 1970s, Mullany’s plastic masterwork transformed our tiny Providence backyard into baseball heaven. We threw curves like Steve Carlton, with no fear of shredding elbow ligaments. We swung for the fences like Harmon Killebrew, with no worry of destruction.

Our playing field was quirkier than Fenway Park. The trunk of a maple tree and a clothesline post became our foul poles. An eight-foot concrete retaining wall, adorned top to bottom with a painted garden mural, provided a welcome backstop. We oriented home plate in front of one of the wall’s giant sunflowers. The span of its petals formed our strike zone.

And there were strikeouts — the curving, rising, sinking Wiffle ball lived up to its name. But there was plenty of contact, too. We rapped liners off den windows for doubles, dinged the dormer of my bedroom for triples, sent long balls over the roof for home runs. When a gutter swallowed the ball (ground-rule double), my little brother would climb out a second-floor window, creep down the crunching shingles, and pluck the ball from its aluminum holding pen. Don’t tell Mom!

The copy on the Wiffle ball package explained why the ball was a godsend to those of us playing in city backyards: “BAT IT! BOUNCE IT! SAFE ANYWHERE!”

Anywhere but our dog’s mouth, it turned out. A bouncing Wiffle ball turned Georgie into a canine Bert Campaneris. When she chased down a ball, we were one chomp away from disaster. We’d carefully pry the ball from her clench and then banish her to the house.

When a Wiffle ball did crack from all our mashing and Georgie’s gnawing, duct tape prolonged its life. And when a ball was beyond repair, we pooled our change and ran up to Wolcott’s five-and-dime on Chalkstone Avenue to get a new one. There is nothing better than pitching with a brand new Wiffle ball.

My brothers, friends and I all played Little League baseball, of course. I remember one Opening Day at Nelson Street playground: a blaze of sunshine and promise. Crisp uniforms bore the names of local sponsors: the Lawyers and the Medics, Quinn’s Funeral Home and Lions Cleansers, Fifth Ward Democrats, the Elms.

But as much as we liked organized baseball, it was Wiffle ball that we lived for. You could always get a game together — Wiffle ball accommodated various numbers of players. And best of all, like basketball, you could play one-on-one.

My best friend, Chris, and I squared off against each other for what must have been 60 Wiffle ball games in the summer of 1972. I know that the Yankees, my team, won the regular season and that the Orioles, Chris’s team, took the World Series. After the seventh game, we ran into the locker room (also known as the garage) to celebrate. I poured champagne (soda) over Chris’s head, and he took it as the honor it was intended to be.

A grainy Super 8mm film from 1967 plays in my mind: I see my father in Bermuda shorts, cigarette in one hand, Wiffle ball in the other. He pitches to me, and I hit a hard liner off his calf. “Ow!” he mouths, grabbing his leg. Then he grins at me in approval.

Cross-fade to a video from 1997: now it’s me as dad, throwing a pitch in the backyard to my 4-year-old son. I watch as the Wiffle ball, like the arc of my life, bends to his eager swing.

 

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