The Last Christmas Tree

After Thanksgiving Christmas trees crowd the sidewalks of New York.

On the corner of Fulton and St. Felix Streets the holiday franchise has been run by Laurent and Amy, who have transported evergreens from the northern forest of Quebec for the last six seasons. We spoke in French with their accent a provincial Quebecois and my r-less speech betraying my Boston roots.

Last year they gave me a small tree for my bedroom at the Fort Greene Observatory. I called it Ole Tree.

I thanked them with a bottle of wine, which we drank together right before they returned to Canada.

“Meci.” I was sad to see them go, but they said, “Next year.”

We hugged good-bye and I returned home to adorn the two-foot tree with Buddhas, ribbons, and a silver star.

Most of our neighbors tossed out the drying trees after the New Year.

I kept water in the small bowl beneath the severed trunk and Old Tree remained green throughout the winter. AP’s kids liked Ole Tree. We ate cookies in the Observatory, while I told them stories of the north woods. Lizzie and James liked my tales of lumbermen along the St. John’s River. I had heard them from my grandfather.

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It was a cold one and I told my landlord and his kids about burning Christmas tree on a lake in Maine.

“The ice is a foot thick and everyone brings out their orange-dry trees to pile them high. Someone tosses a match and the trees go up in the whoosh of flames. I wish they did that here.”

Instead the city mulches the dead trees with a wood-chipper.

“Just what the city needs. A bonfire to burn down all of Fort Greene.” AP was a good dad, but I had the feeling that Lizzie and James wouldn’t have like to see Ole Tree in a bonfire.

“When are you throwing out your tree?” asked his wife.

“Soon.”

January became February with March rolling into the city with a vengeance. April was also cold, but winter relinquished its grip in May.

Ole Tree seemed comfortable in my room, despite its needles turning orange.

“It’s time for it to go.” AP rightly considered the tree a fire hazard.

“Soon.”

“You’ve been saying that for months.”

“What if I burned it in the backyard?” A good fire was an honorable ending for Ole Tree.

“Not a chance. Those trees burn hot.” AP had gone to RISD. He knew New England and New Englanders. People from cold climes are into flames.

In May I was in Thailand visiting my children.

Upon my return AP said, “My wife wants the tree gone. Actually she wanted it gone long ago.”

“Ole Tree’s a ghost of Christmas past,” protested James. He was my good friend.

“Christmas was six months ago. Get rid of it.”

I didn’t want to say good-bye and a few more weeks passed, then the summer turned up the heat. AP was worried about instantaneous combustion and I had to admit Ole Tree presented a clear and present danger.

On a hot July morning I apologized to Ole Tree tree and carried it down to the street on my way to work. I didn’t want to leave my old friend in the trash, so I walked to the corner and poised the tree on the wall of a church.

“You be good.”

“I walked away, expecting never to see Ole Tree again, but upon coming back from work at the diamond store I discovered Ole Tree had moved to a stump on the sidewalk. James and Lizzie went outside to speak with Ole Tree. AP thought I was crazy, but he was a New Yorker and not a New Englander.

A week passed before Ole Tree hit the road and vanished forever.

It didn’t leave a forwarding address, but winter will be back and so will Laurent from Quebec with a new crop of firs.

At least it wasn’t not burned and that’s a good thing for a tree.

Fare thee well Ole Tree. I love thee for a long time and will love the Son of Ole Tree just the same.

Bien Sur.

The # Of Me

This morning I googled a friend’s name. Nine of him lived in the USA, although the number dropped to one once I typed in his middle edition. I’m not so scarce. There are over 66,000 Peter Smiths in the USA. They live in every state of the union. They work at most professions. I know none.

Once I entered in my middle name, I became unique on goggle except for another Peter Nolan-Smith in Canada and he uses an hyphen, so I am one out of 66,000.

1/66000 = 1 / 66 000 = 1.51515152 × 10-5

That’s 10 to the 5th power.

Some maps are 1/66000.

Same as me.

The one and only of my kind.

But isn’t everyone.

ps the photo is Keira Knightley from BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM.

She’s one of a kind too.

Just like everyone in the world, past, present, and future.

SHADOWS OF THE COMBAT ZONE by Peter Nolan Smith

In the late 60s lower Washington Street was anointed Boston’s Combat Zone for sex and sin. Working-class drinking dives became go-go bars named the Naked I and Two O’Clock Lounge. Gay clubs like Jacques and The Other End flourished freely in the alleys. Porno theaters openly screened XXX-rated to enthralled men and the cops ceased to persecute the flesh trade, so hookers plied their trade in front of Goodtime Charlie’s on La Grange Street.

Everyone was getting their cut.

The Mafia, the bartenders, the pimps, the musicians, and the taxi drivers scored cash off these strippers and hookers.

They were a gold mine.

From 5pm to 2am the hookers strutted their stuff. Hospital workers, lawyers, firemen, and sailors loved them and the girls loved them back for a price.

A quickie was $20.

An hour ran $50.

Showgirls cost a lot more.

The nearest hotel was the Avery, although most johns opted for the short-time rooms above Goodtime Charlie’s.

Sherri was the hottest girl in the Combat Zone. The blonde’s long legs stretched out of tight hot pants and her cupcakes breasts popped under a tube top. Platform heels transformed the 18 year-old into an Amazon.

She was better than good.

Sherri was wicked.

But she was far from easy.

Sherri was a freelancer in the Combat Zone. Many pimps tried to recruit the freelancer into their stables, but the blonde teenager was too hot for a single man and the police protected her for the sheer pleasure of her smile.

A few of the go-go dancers offered Sherri competition, but they needed beer, booze, and a three-piece band to create her aura of lust. The trios of sax, organ, and drum played low-down soul and the dancers loved grinding flesh to James Brown covers.

The strippers danced like ballerinas on ‘Ludes.

It was a true art form.

Bad people walked on Washington Street

The Combat Zone had dark alleys. Crazy Jack was the King of the Shadows. No one was scarier on those back streets.

Crazy Jack was running ten girls. The pimp treated them bad. He asked Sherri to be his queen. She told him ‘no’ every day of the week and Crazy Jack wasn’t happy hearing those nos.

Sailors from the navy Yard haunted the go-go bars. The girls never fell in love with them. Sailors had sweethearts in every port. One lieutenant said he loved Sherri.

“I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“Only you, Sherri. Only you.”

It almost sounded true.

Sam had gold braid on his shoulders.

He was an officer and a gentleman.

Normally Sherri ended her nights at the Hillbilly Ranch across from the bus station. The 45s on jukebox were mostly country-western. Hustlers drank at the bar and none of midnight cowboys queers bothered her.

A gin and tonic cost $1 and she liked the music on the jukebox.

Sherri came from the South. She never said where, but she listened a lot to Patsy Cline.

The Hillbilly Ranch was her home away and after work she pulled on a red wig to be someone other than herself.

Boston’s bars closed at 2am. Combat Zone was empty by 3. Sherri walked out of the Hillbilly Ranch at 3:10. The owner asked if she needed a cab. She shook her head.
“I’ll walk.”

Her apartment was short walk across the Commons on Beacon Hill.

She took a shortcut down an alley. Someone followed her into the darkness. Sherri walked faster, then heard a wet smack.

Crazy Jack lay out cold on the sidewalk.

The sailor was walking the other way.

She called out to Sam.

“You want to have a coffee?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll meet you at the coffee shop in ten minutes.” Sam walked away into the shadows.

Where she didn’t ask.

Nine minutes later Sherri checked at the clock. Sam was almost late.

A girl like her didn’t wait more than fifteen.

She had someplace to be.

And that someplace was bed.

With or without Sam.

FOTOS BY JERRY BRENDT, ROSWELL ANGIER, AND JOHN GOODMAN.

Pong

During the late 1960s and early 1970s I played pinball at the arcades on Boston’s Washington Street. My skills flourished and I competed against older wizards on machines such as Centrigrade 37 and Strikes and Spares. We loved the lights and bells accompanying our struggle to prevent the steel ball from ever dropping into the death hole.

Pinball machines were also very popular in bars up and down Commonwealth Avenue and I was # 1 on Royal Flush at Concannon and Sennett’s Bar. My good friend FM and I played doubles against BU co-eds for beers. They were good, but we were better, but at a quarter a pint we could afford to be losers to pretty sophomores from New York, although none of us were ready for the November 1972 appearance of PONG.

Few of us had ever seen a computer, even though I had been a math major in my first two years of university. FM and I tried our hand at PONG. One hand and good eyes controlled the paddle and the game sped up the longer you kept the ball in play.

The 2-D table tennis game cost a quarter.

FM and I were soon the best in Boston, but we tired of the game and returned to pinball, which was a much more physical exercise.

Neither of us foresaw the future demise of pinballs in bars, but electronic games were the wave of the future and exiled pinball machine to museums or basement rec rooms.

No one plays PONG anymore, especially not FM and I.

We like drinking beer instead.

And we did in the 1970s too.

And so did BU co-eds, because some things never change.

HillBilly Ranch Bar Boston

As you get old you forget. as you get older, you are forgotten – anon

I know that I didn’t come up with that quote, because I haven’t really forget everything yet and the other day I was reminiscing about Lost Boston with a few old-timers at the bar of Jacob Wirth’s.

“Remember when they didn’t let women drink at the bar here?” William hailed from Savin Hill. He was a double eagle same as my older brother. They had worked together on several senate campaigns for Ted Kennedy.

“Yes, I used to bring my feminist friends here for a joke. They hated that the bartender would serve them at the bar. I thought it was a good laugh.” I was a long-hair college student on the other side of the barricades from my older brother and William, who was fourteen years older than me.

“Maybe the bartender didn’t think it was that funny.” William had been a Marine.

“No, he loved telling those hairy girls to take a seat in the dining room.” I couldn’t remember his name, but we agreed that a woman’s place wasn’t at the bar of Jacob Wirth’s.

“You dirty hippie and I mean that in the best of all possible terms.”

My brother showed up later and our collective memories toured the city of our past. We extolled the prune rolls at Warmuths, the grilled hot dogs at WT Grants, the strippers at the Two O’Clock Lounge, and relived my brother’s bachelor party in the Combat Zone. It was a blank in my mind.

“I vaguely recall stumbling out of the Naked I into the Hillbilly Ranch. I think I wanted to hear MAMA TRIED.”

“We lost you for about an hour.”

“Probably ended up with the drag queens at the Other Side.” William laughed with his beer belly juggling like defrosted jello. The beer at Jacob Wirth’s was better than good.

“No, I’d remember that. At least I think I would, but something sticks in my mind about getting up on the stage of the Hillbilly Ranch and singing a song.” I had seen Sleepy La Beef, John Lincoln Wright, the Bayou Boys, and other southern b-bands of the 70s at the Park Square dive.

“That was a tough bar owned by Frankie Segalini. You were lucky that you weren’t rolled in that place. it was filled with Navy peckerwoods and crackers. They didn’t like us Irish.”

“You returned to the Naked I intact.” My older brother had a head for long ago. He was a lawyer.

“And we made it to the church in time.”

The three of us clinked glasses to those times gone by.

We thought that they would never end and they don’t at Jacob Wirths’ or in your heads