Early Somerville Living Built Character by Paul Maisano
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
The sweltering hot summer nights were growing less frequent. That huge elm tree across the street with its small oval shaped green leaves will soon shed its umbrella. The late night cheering crowds shall grow silent as the softball season ends, and the lights shall go dark at Glen Park. Autumn is upon the doorstep of our East Somerville neighborhood.
That famous junkyard bicycle will soon be put away for the winter. It was great to ride around the neighborhood this summer. I’ll never forget the Irish man’s laugh when I showed him what it finally looked like completed in late July.
The school year starts in a few days. I am entering my second year at the Saint Benedict school. My mother has surprised me with a new pair of pants, a new shirt, and a nice pair of “hand me down” shoes that my cousin Michael hardly wore.
Our classes are taught by the sisters of St. Joseph. They are called nuns. When they stand together they remind me of a bunch of penguins. I often see them whispering to each other. I can never make out what they are saying, all dressed up in their long black robes. They have these pure white heavily starched bibs on the front of their uniforms. It looks like a piece of hard cardboard.
I often wondered if they have hair on their heads. You can’t see any with that boxy cap they wear. I think they shaved their heads. Those hats seemed to fit like a glove.
The boss priest of the St. Benedicts’ parish is Father Hogan. He is very tough. He walks around nodding his head, and clasping his hands together when he gives his approval. I have never seen him angry.
When he walks someplace, he walks fast, like he is late, or after someone. Rumor has it that his friend, Cardinal Cushing, was going to give him a promotion soon to Monsignor. I’m sure he could use the raise.
Every year Father Hogan comes up with a new way of raising money to support the school bills. As if the twenty-five cents we give every Monday isn’t enough. I added it up times 35 kids in my class. That’s serious cash!
This year they are giving us boxes of religious Christmas cards to sell. It is to help pay for the school oil bill. Sometimes the boiler room door is open. You can hear that thing rumbling like a freight train. I once heard Mr. Crowley say, “That monster drinks oil like water.”
There is a special contest this year for the students to win a prize. One student, from each class, who sells the most boxes of cards wins. For every case you sell you receive a bigger prize. I think it’s a day off from class, or a free ticket to the Saturday matinee at the nearby Broadway Theater.
I can only imagine how difficult it is going to be, selling these boxes of cards with over 500 catholic students canvassing the neighborhood. Plus, we have many Protestant, Baptist, and some Jewish people in the area who don’t celebrate our holiday.
Father Hogan should have thought of that one from a marketing standpoint. If anyone succeeds in selling a Protestant a box of catholic Christmas cards, they definitely deserve a prize in my book.
Today the boxes of cards were handed out. Each student got at least two boxes. The idea was to show the product, take the order, get the cash, and deliver them later.
When I got home this day the only thing I wanted to do was continue building my small fort in the back yard. I scored a couple of old doors from Mr. Fougeres’ rubbish next door. I couldn’t wait to put them in place.
So, I decided to do the card thing over the weekend. Little did I know that my fellow students were already out in force, combing the streets of East Somerville, writing orders from every potential customer. Like a hill of ants they went from house, to house, nearly bumping into one another.
On Saturday morning, I get up and hit the streets. Street, after street, after street, the response was the same, “I just bought some during the week.” After three hours of knocking on doors I was not only exhausted, I was depressed. Not a single sale, no interest at all. The market was saturated. I decided to go home. I gave up.
I climbed Glen Hill to get home as if I was carrying the world. I failed, was all I could think. My grandfathers’ words rang in my mind, “the early bird gets the worm”.
My mother greeted me with a dish of soup and crackers for lunch. She asked me how many did I sell? I looked down to the floor saying, “None. Not a single box!” I exclaimed. She smiled at me and said, “Well, there is always tomorrow.” I appreciated her optimism, but I didn’t share it. My mom knew I was down.
When I finished lunch she turned to me saying, “Can you handle an order for four boxes?” I looked at her very puzzled. “From whom?” I asked. “Me, of course!” she responded.
As I was making the slip out she whispered, “Why don’t you call your Godmother Sue, aunt Sadie, auntie Mary, your grandfather, uncle Tony, and uncle Sammy. I’m sure they all will take a box, or two. They don’t live here in this section of Somerville.”
In less than thirty minutes, I sold over 24 boxes of cards and never left the kitchen. I was thrilled. Later that afternoon my mother sat next to me in the kitchen and asked, “Now did you learn anything today?” I said, “Yes, I learnt it’s not what you do, it’s who you know!”
She was not smiling at my response. She replied, “Well, it may appear that way, but not true. You need to understand, if you want to compete in this world you must put work before pleasure. When you recognized you made a mistake by playing instead of selling, you pouted. You should have been thinking, what can I do next? The other kids didn’t beat you, you beat you, by giving up. Paul, life is not easy. You need to understand that now, rather than later. God has given you many magnificent gifts. Good health, intelligence, and a cute smile. Use those gifts.”
On Sunday morning I went to the 9:00 a.m. mass. Father Higgins does that mass. I like it because the sermon is quick. Thank God!
When I got home my mother said, “Soooo, what are you doing this morning? My reply was that I wanted to watch Community Opticians Talent Show. Her response was firm but clear, “Go down to visit Mr. Pearlman. He’s home today. Bring him a sample box and let him buy a few.” I thought my mother was nuts. I said, “Mr. Pearlman is Jewish. What’s he going to do with Christmas cards?” She said, “Listen, you learnt nothing yesterday.”
She continued, “Mr. Pearlman is the manager of a small clothing factory in Boston. They have many people working for them. Most are not Jewish, but catholic. They always do something nice for their employees during the holidays. Convince him it would be a nice gift for the workers.”
Well, Mr. Pearlman bought four cases of cards, 48 boxes in all, at a dollar each. He paid for them in advance by giving me fifty dollars. He told me to keep the rest as a tip, as he patted me on the back. I put the money in my pocket and walked all the way home with my hand on the cash so it wouldn’t fall out.
A few months later I got another great idea. I contacted the greeting card company to see what else I could sell. They told me the company had another collection called “All Occasion Cards.” You know, birthday, get well, sympathy, graduation, all generic types, no religious stuff.
The rest is history. I sold boxes, and boxes, and boxes all spring. They practically sold themselves. I owned the whole neighborhood, no competition. And talk about money. I was paying 60 cents a box, selling them for a dollar each. My mother said I made nearly two hundred dollars profit that spring. She gave an allowance of two dollars a week for a while. I told her to keep half for herself. Her eyes started to tear up and said, “I’m proud of you Paul. You learned more than I thought.”
It was another good day growing up in Somerville, Massachusetts. This story is true as authored by Paul Maisano.