A vintage story by Gavin “Noir” Keenan:
Up for a walk tonight? How about joining me on a late-night beat shift in the early 1980s? The downtown was still thriving then; a square filled with businesses, bars and people on every corner at all hours of day and night. Beat cops were kept busy, especially on warm summer nights and weekends. Just to make it more interesting, we can cheat a little bit. It’s okay, we’re all friends here. Let’s stride along on young, strong legs, but look at things through older, wiser eyes. So what do you say, want to take a walk?
It’s a little before midnight on a Sunday in August. It’s still warm outside, but it should be quieter tonight than on a Friday or Saturday. No need to work up a sweat. We can move at a slower pace and chat about the things we see.
We’ll start out in the cellar of the old Town Hall on Elm Street. That’s where the police station locker room is located. It’s a dank place this time of year, with an odor that can only be described as municipal malaise. Hear the agitated voices blaring out of the Inter-City Police Scanner? Boston Cops requesting assistance with a stabbing on The Common, M.D.C Police working a bad accident on Storrow Drive, the Revere Cops responding to a huge brawl at the Wonderland Ballroom. Listening to this stuff before you go on duty can either jack you up with anxiety or make you glad that you work in a town like Ipswich. Usually, I find it’s just better to shut it all out and concentrate on getting ready for my shift
Okay, so the boots and leather gear are shined and the badge is polished, but the summer Stetson hat still sits funny on my head. I hate these lids. They never look right, fit correctly, or feel comfortable. The brim curls cock-eyed, and when you’re not paying attention, the hat slips back on your head giving you that Roscoe P. Coltrane look. I’ll take a regular cop hat any day, but we have a lot of CW fans on the Department who love these things, so I guess I’ll be wearing it for some time to come. Now, a look to see that the four cell K-Lite is working then a safety check of the Ruger .357 and we’re good to go upstairs and check in.
Behind the dispatch desk in the duty room, the evening shift Sergeant is briefing his relief. Someone is yelling from the nearby cell block, and there’s another guy wearing a wife-beater sitting handcuffed in a chair. Charlie Cooper grabbed him for OUI-L, which is short hand for drunk driving. He’s waiting to take a breathalyzer test and looks pretty wasted. The Sarge says that he just took a forty-five second leak in the cell toilet – you could hear it all through the tiny stationhouse- and in the Sarge’s estimation, the duration of this urination gives a strong indication that the guy will blow a .20 at least.
I reach around him to grab a portable radio from the wall charger. He has a huge breath-on and is definitely a prime candidate to make the team. Checking the log, I see that the evening shift responded to two fights and made three arrests since 4:00 p.m. One made bail, one’s still screaming in the cell, and the other’s ready to fall out of the chair. My Sarge does not look happy with the prospect of having two drunks for company all night, especially screamers. The angst shows on his face, and I’m getting the vibe that this is probably a good time to hit the street. Follow me.
Oh, yeah. I work midnight to eight in the morning. Another cop will report in for 1:00 a.m., and work until nine. There’s still a couple of evening shifts working until 2:00 a.m., so we have enough people around when the bars close. I spend the first two hours of my tour walking a beat downtown, and then I have a cruiser patrol until shift change. On the beat, I check all the businesses from South Main Street through the downtown and out to Central Street. I keep an eye on the crowds leaving the clubs, and generally try to maintain the peace and protect property.
We check the businesses to prevent breaks, or discover one that’s already happened. Chief Brouillette hates to get a morning phone call from a business owner who’s pissed off that his place was broken into and the cops didn’t find it. The Chiefs displeasure flows downhill and an ass-chewing from “The Brouill” is never an enjoyable experience, I can tell you. But as long as we find it first, it shows that we’re doing our job. Needless to say, it would also be nice to catch the bastards once in a while.
We’ll start on South Main. This is mostly a door check; the Drop in Center, Q.L.F building, Getty Station, Betty’s Beauty Salon, Patterson Plumbing, Immie’s, etc. Crossing the street, watch out for the cars gliding south bound over the Choate Bridge. At this time of night, it’s a safe bet that most of the drivers have had a few pops and shouldn’t be behind the wheel. It looks like the Carriage House is shut down for the night; the G-Man’s out from behind the bar and headed for home. The Shaker Tree Bookstore moved from Market Street into the old Paramount Cleaners building. Having a good bookstore in town is a great thing, don’t you think?
Standing on the bridge, I shine my light over the side to see if anyone is sprawled out on the riverbank. The Caldwell Block’s next. It’s pretty run down now, but I hear it’s been sold and may get a face lift soon. Chapman’s TV repair is secure. The door to the AHEPA is locked tight – members only. The Pub is still rocking, the people inside topping off their weekend at Loudmouth Beach or Plum Island. At the strike of 1:00 a.m., Angus will shut it down and the die-hards will move it out onto the corner. Some will head home, some will walk to Chick’s for a sandwich, others will just linger until there’s no one else left to talk to.
On Market Street, I check the east side first. The Cut Hut Barber Shop, the hairdresser, Co-Op Bank and Ipswich News. Further along; Sullivan Insurance, Ross’s Law Office, Tetrualt Jewelers and then down the alley to check the back doors. Up the rickety stairs to the rear of the Ipswich News. Jump up here for a second and take a look at this. The sheltered platform is stuffed with unsold newspapers and magazines, old display cases, cigar boxes and a million other things that no one wants. It connects to the back room where the real treasures are located. It’s always open like this and it’s a wonder that there hasn’t been a fire here. Careful climbing down, now let’s make the rest of the block around Woolworth’s, On Time Travel, Maybe Its Here and Ciolek’s Hardware. Sometimes Mr. Manning will be working late in the Five and Ten and give me a stiff nod of acknowledgement. I gotta say, the guy puts in the hours.
We’ll slip down Union Street and wave to the driver making deliveries at the side door of Levere’s Auto Parts. Across at Sylvania, I see Teddy Viator hard at work in the glass room. He comes over to the window to say hello and we spend the next few minutes bitching about working midnights and being tired all the time. Misery loves company, you know.
A check of K & G Lanes is always in order. A few weeks ago, someone came in through the roof and cleaned out the vending machines. With the side and back looking secure, let’s walk out front and give the entrance doors a good shake. There’s Bob Kroll on the corner of Estes and Saltonstall locking up the PLAV before he climbs into his Chevy Nova for the ride home.
In the K & G parking lot, Jim Souter and Dick Burns sit driver to driver in their parked cruisers. Looking down onto Depot Square, we chat for a bit until they get a call to go to the V.F.W. for an alarm. From this vantage point, we can see a few people hanging out in front of Bannon’s. The number of cars parked on either side of the Square tells me that there’s still a good sized crowd inside. But it’s fifteen minutes before last call, so we have time to check the rest of Market Street.
At the Getty, the gas pumps look like they were left on by the kid when he closed up earlier. This place is headquarters for the local V-Eighters. They all drive muscle cars and like to lay strips on Linebrook and Northgate Roads. When they can get away with it, they’ll burn rubber downtown, too. I call in and request that someone come down to secure the pumps just as Nick Zervas drives slowly down Market in his arc of a milk truck. He doesn’t have a reliable parking brake on the truck, so he glides across the yellow line and snugs the left wheel to the curb in front of the Post Office. When I went to the French School in the 60’s, we got our milk from Zervas Dairy. It came in cases of small glass bottles delivered by Nick himself. Left out front in the wee hours of the winter morning, it would still be frozen solid at noon time. Our thin, paper straws were useless in breaking through the ice. Nick seemed old to me then, and twenty-five years later I’m amazed to see him step down from the truck and move with stooped but surprising agility to the mailbox. As he climbs back into the cab, he waves and pulls away from the curb with nary a glance in the rear view.
Let’s walk down Market to Quint’s corner. The evening beat cop can spend half his shift moving the kids who hang out here and along Central Street. For the most part they do no harm, but if you don’t stay on them, they’ll block the corner and the sidewalk to the point that pedestrians can’t get by. The shop owners hate this, and complain to us all the time. But at this time of night on a Sunday, the corner only holds two young guys who tell me they are waiting for a ride. Above The Pub, the lights are on in the AHEPA clubhouse, a sure sign of a combination business meeting and card game in full swing.
Strolling back toward Depot Square, I shine my light into the Haverhill Gas Company. The water heaters and furnaces on display stand like sentries in the darkened office. Next comes the Window Book Shop and then the new Hill’s Clothing Store. The original was destroyed in the 1980 fire that also took out the Sherman Williams Paint store. Ed Walsh worked the fire, and told me that cans of exploding paint flew across Market Street like Cruise Missiles. Taffy and Wendell persevered though and rebuilt the block into something shining and new and more popular then ever. At Christmastime, the press of people to get in is so heavy that Taffy hires us for crowd control. It’s a good gig and fun too. You work until the store closes and then escort Taffy to the bank at the end of the night. Confidentially, there’s a lot of cash in those Levi’s.
Let’s loop the Ipswich Savings Bank and the alley between the Post Office and the Hayes, LeDoux, Whipple and King Law Firm. If you’re agile enough, you can squeeze between the fence on the other side of the Post Office and cross to the First National Bank. Even with alarms, we pay close attention to the banks. The pros have been known to spend all weekend working on a vault, so better safe than sorry.
Next up is the Strand Theatre. The blood red asbestos siding and dark green doors give the old opera house a gloomy appearance, and there are several cut outs and odd angles on both sides of the building that make great places to buy dope, drink a beer or do any other thing that you don’t want to be seen doing. The front doors are loose and don’t lock properly. The marquee says that The Blues Brothers ends on Thursday to be replaced by Smokey and the Bandit II. I have to ask you, why does Hollywood insist on ruining a good original with a crappy sequel? The first movie I ever saw here was “The Birds’ back in 1963. I went with my brothers and the movie scared me so much that I had nightmares for a week. Check inside the lobby – the big popcorn machine is waiting for the next show, and I can imagine Spin Galanis in his red blazer at the ushers stand ripping tickets in two. The old cops tell me that on cold, snowy nights they would sneak up to the balcony half way through a movie to warm up and relax.
Attached to the Strand is Sunburst Jewelers. It has a small window on the alley side that’s been a target for B&E’s. The glass is still shattered from the last break, so I guess the owner isn’t all that concerned. Next up is Williams Bakery and Zodiac Paints. Let’s climb up on the rear platform and give the back door of Zodiac a good pull. You can hear the juke box inside the AMVETS from here. In an hour or so, Charlie Vassilopoulos will pull up in his huge sedan to get Williams Bakery going.
Sometimes I’ll stop here at 3 a.m. for a change of pace from Marty’s. Art LeClair might pull up in his oil truck for a coffee. He’ll shout out “Hi, Sport” to old Charlie – who’ll just nod a greeting and keep to his work. Art’s on the Board of Selectmen, but a regular guy that you can talk to. He has great stories of working on his father’s ice truck back in the 1940’s. I think he might have been a Special Cop once, too. But back then, half the guy’s in town were Special Police.
Someone stumbles toward us from the AMVETS. He’s had a few, and crosses the street to avoid our scrutiny. This place usually draws a late crowd, and they behave well enough. At least they keep it inside. Then, you have the Damon Block with the Country Kitchen and the doorway to the apartments upstairs. We respond here on occasion for people having problems, people causing problems. You get the idea.
In Depot Square at the intersection of Market and Washington Streets, better known as Cumberland’s Corner; headlights reflect along the glass storefront of Strand Furniture, cigarette butts and empty bottles litter the gutter. This is the low-rent end of the block. See that red light on the telephone pole up above? There’s another in Market Square. Back in the days before portable radios, they were used to signal the beat man to call the station. If he called on a pay phone, he would always ask the operator to return his nickel. The switch in the station still works, but we only use it now to turn on the downtown Christmas Lights.
The clock just struck 1:00 a.m., and we wander a ways along the sidewalk as Bannon’s empties out. The sign for Pleasure Time Pool & Billiards still hangs over the door near the corner, but Moose Sotiropoulos closed the place years ago. The “Poolroom” was in the basement of the Damon Block, and served as a gathering spot for locals, a place to make a friendly wager or three and a shelter for the town’s homeless in the day’s before society recognized it as a problem. Oh, you could play pool there too. Next door is the Ipswich Inn restaurant, formerly called The Spa, and it’s attached at the hip to the infamous Bannon’s Bar.
Bannon’s is a ragged old place with a bar on one side, tables down the other, and a pool table near the men’s room. The beer is inexpensive and flows like water. A lot of drugs flow here too. The atmosphere can get heavy with cigarette smoke, so you might find the front and rear doors open on warm nights. It’s popular with the locals and has a reputation as a tough bar.
There are lots of fights here, but no one bothers to call us unless they spill outside. Ipswich has its share of skilled fighters, so these things get settled quickly with a designated winner and looser – sometimes two, depending on who’s involved. Like Theresa and Harold’s down the street, the crowd here moves out onto the sidewalk at closing time. This can be a problem some nights when fifty plus people – pretty well lit and still looking for some action – gather on the sidewalk. Too much booze can make them rowdy, and it’s not unusual for one to yell “Pig” at a passing cruiser. When that happens, we move them along. Sometimes, the big mouth will act up and get pinched for disorderly. They seem sedate tonight, so I’ll walk past them to keep the sidewalk open and let them know I’m around. After that, I’ll stay in the area, but give them their space. Eventually they get uncomfortable with cops around and drift off.
During the weekday, the parking spaces along Washington Street fill with the cars of commuters who take the train to Boston. By 7:00 p.m. these spaces turn over to the bar crowd. On Friday and Saturday nights, their cars, trucks and motorcycles take every parking space in the square and more out back. The crowd is usually a ten-to-one, guy to girl ratio and this can cause some problems. You’ll note that the phone booth next to Strand Furniture is busy all night and even more so after closing time. Who can people be calling at that hour, and for what reason?
Let’s circle Strand Furniture and Peoples Package, turn right and check the train platform out back along the Boston and Maine tracks. The tracks are stained and greasy from years of diesel fuel leaked from the old B&M engines. Ipswich is the last stop on the north-bound line. All of the stragglers, drunks and drifters with no place to go get tossed off the train here by the conductors. We move them along, place them in protective custody if necessary or give them a ride to the town line when feasible.
The platform is dark and another magnet for cigarette butts, broken bottles and trash. As a bonus, tonight it carries the fragrance of a urinal. At the back corner is Pete’s Taxi Stand. I hear some noise behind us and turn to see Mozart Benjamin strolling down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Farragut Road. Tonight, Moe’s dressed to the nines and carrying a picture frame he found somewhere. He crosses the tracks chanting, “Hi, Cop,” and then puts his face in the empty rectangle and say’s he’s been framed. Moe is one of a kind and generally harmless. A hard worker in his day, he and his brother George were masons with a reputation for quality work. But like so many, Moe drank too much and his life went sideways.
As Moe wanders off, the group is still lingering in front of Bannon’s. It’s so easy to see them as just potential problems, not real people. The fights, the accidents, the arrests can quickly cloud your perspective and cause you to loose the thread that they are just folks like the rest of us. Most of these guys will be at work before I get home in the morning. I’ll see them driving by in their beat-up rides, going to tough jobs doing construction, house painting, roofing, paving driveways, clamming. They work long hours and struggle every day just to get to the end of the week. We could easily cross the street and become the other.
Over time, most of them will age out of the bar scene without too much damage. Others will remain caught up in the crush and follow a trail of misery and hopelessness; broken lives land marked by failed relationships, ruined health and jail stays. For some, it ends with the cops responding to their fatal car wrecks, suicides, overdoses and heart attacks. Links in the chain of addiction and abuse, they will leave behind loved ones shrouded in despair and left to wonder why they were cursed in such a way. I’ve never been able to figure out the reasons for this. It’s just the way it is.
Closing in on 1:30 a.m., the last men standing are finally moving off. I watch as a cute blonde in a white halter top leans inside a jeep and gets passionate with the guy wearing a bandana sitting behind the wheel. She eventually climbs in the other side and they drive off. If their mood calls for a romantic view, I might come across them later parked at Pavilion Beach or Bakers Pond. If not, probably down Hayward Street or behind the Doyon School. Passion knows no bounds.
With all the cars gone and the square deserted, let’s pause near the empty granite steps and crumbling foundation of the ancient Hayes Hotel. This is all that’s left from that terrible night in August 1969 when fire swept through the run-down rooming house and claimed three lives. In the morning stillness, it’s not hard to imagine the flames and smoke, the frantic voices of the firefighters, the pleas of doomed men trapped in narrow hallways. During the day, some of the old tenants still sit on these steps, pint bottles in paper bags stashed nearby. Are they thinking of better times, departed friends, or wondering why they survived?
Across Washington Street, North Shore Weeklies stands idle, the night press gang off for the weekend. This used to be Grossman’s, until it too burnt down a few years after the Hayes fire. I knew the place well as my old man worked there. Back in the day, Grossman’s was one of the big three building supply businesses in town, along with Lumber Town on Hayward Street and Tedford and Martin In Brown Square. When a truck would pull in and need unloading, Pop would walk across to the Spa and hire guys looking for a few hours work.
Time’s passing, so let’s loop Brown Square. Easy checks at Elliot Fuels, Dick McCormack’s Auto Body and Blacksmith Shop, Tedford’s, Soffron Brothers Clams. Whoa, what’s that running along the curb? Have you ever seen a bigger, slimier looking rat in your life? It must weigh ten pounds. As it squeezes into the storm drain, we can walk through A.J. Barton’s Monuments and make sure all the tombstones are there. This used to be the old Pickle Factory. From here, we’ll zigzag along Hammatt Street, checking Lavioe’s Barber Shop, Ipswich Today, Ted Lucas’ Car Wash and Laundromat, Tom’s Clams and Agawam Auto.
Back down Brown Square, we can cut through the alley over Farley Brook behind the laundry. DeMario’s Jenny Station’s kept going after Orlando died. I’ve heard it may have been bought by Cumberland Farms. Captain Harry’s Seafood Restaurant is next and then the Tailor Shop. Ed Rauscher and Teddy LeMieux were here yesterday morning for a squabble between the neighbors. It ended peacefully when Eddie told them it was Sunday morning for Crissakes, and why didn’t they just go back inside and finish reading the goddamn paper? Badge One is a master of getting right to the point.
Central Shoe Repair is all laced up, the display case showing the latest in imported Clogs. The Salem News office is in darkness. Across Central Street, Will Maker and Dave Bowen are sitting at the desk in the Firehouse. They just cleared a false alarm at the Caldwell Nursing Home. We can stop by later for a few laughs and check what’s on the telly. I guarantee you, a few minutes talking with Bo is all you need to brighten your mood – even at two in the morning. The air hose has been left out at Avellis’ Arco. Hopefully it will still be there when Andy shows up to open at 5:30 a.m.
After making sure the back door of Conley’s Drug Store hasn’t been kicked in again, we’ll jump up into the alley next to Chick’s and out onto Central Street. Bobby’s behind the counter cleaning up for the night and just a couple of people are sitting at a table. If this were a Friday or Saturday, Chick’s would hum until the 2:00 a.m. closing. And yes, we even respond to brawls here. Charlie Schwartz is our department expert at putting a disorderly drunk in his place. And he usually manages it without making an arrest or scuffing the shine on his boots.
Further along, I light up the inside of Lou and Fran’s Luncheonette. The front window is partially obscured by fading yellow contact paper, but you can see the blackened grill and stained coffee urn, the lunch counter and booths. This place is a throwback to another era. Once commonly known as Beaver’s, a lot of the old timers still come here for coffee, chow and the pinochle game out back. Sgt. Frank Geist scoots down on his Moped every morning for breakfast before his day shift. These places are fading away now, and soon you won’t see the likes of them in town. There was a pool-room and barber shop on the second floor. One night I saw the upstairs window open, so I climbed the fire escape to have a look-see. Old slate pool tables, cue racks, barber chairs encased in a layer of decades-old dust. Ghostly relics of a simpler, less complicated world.
Strolling past Marcorelles Package Store now; slip down Wilde’s Court to check the backs then up the alley between Ursula’s Gifts and the Skoll Shop. Music and voices drifting down from the rooms upstairs. We visit here regularly as uninvited guests for disturbances, fights, that type of thing. Usually, someone leaves with us. The sporting goods storefront is loaded with items of all kinds. If you can’t find what you’re looking for at the Skoll Shop, you probably didn’t need it to begin with.
The venerable Ipswich House of Pizza is closed for the night. The fish market looks okay; the apartments upstairs are usually quiet in the night. Fabian Karol will be sitting on the steps out front by mid-morning. There’s another hour or so before Marty shows up at the donut shop. We check his place especially well. Marty’s is the lifeline for the night-shift worker. Super-hot coffee and day old donuts. By 4:00 a.m., the early birds will be perched on the stools along the counter. Nick Markos will pull up in his white van for a cup before heading off to his condiment business. Benny Colas will have a copy of the Boston Herald spread out, getting revved up for another long day at the Banana Plant on Mitchell Road. The morning crew from Soffron’s; Tim Player, Bucket Steen and Joey Jaslowich will shuffle in for caffeine and a brief conversation. But we’ll beat them all. Barring accidents, arrests or other Acts of God, the cops are here faithfully at 3:00 a.m. If Marty’s late, we just open up with our key and get the coffee started for him. Anyone who comes in knows to leave their money on the register.
The television in the window front of the Cable TV office is left on all night projecting an endless loop of grungy-looking rockers on something called MTV. The Tyler Block is secure and Quint’s corner is finally vacant. Above the Pub, the lights in the AHEPA clubhouse just switched off, and the cars pulling away from the curb signal that business is concluded for the night.
Soon, the big tractor-trailers from Nova Scotia will roll down Route 133 to Gloucester. Once loaded, they’ll head back the way they came, leaking all over Central Street and leaving the downtown smelling like a dead fish that’s been left on a fence post too long. But here, standing in the empty town square, the air is light, the breeze soft and the dark sky speckled with twinkling stars. And I realize that for all the upside down effect this job has on my life, it’s still a great way to make an honest dollar.
Hey, thanks for keeping me company tonight. Its 2:00 a.m. now and time to head back to the station and take a cruiser. This cop gear gets heavy after a couple hours of walking, and I could stand to get off my feet.
But before you go, let me leave you with this simple thought. It seems to me that our world is made up of unique people and places that we expect to always be there. But things change constantly, and often the change is so subtle that it escapes your attention. Then one day a business closes or moves to another town. Or you realize you haven’t seen a certain someone in a while, only to learn they’ve passed away without even making a ripple on your pond. But when you’re from a place and stay put, you pay attention to these things. It’s the stuff of life that let’s you know where you belong.