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.)
It was June of 1960. We had a new president and everybody was happy. Against all odds, some guy from Massachusetts, named Kennedy, won the election. I did not care! At seven years old I had more important things to worry about, a bicycle for the summer.
Once again summer came, and once again I had to schlep myself around the neighborhood. My hope of exploring the nearby neighborhood of Charlestown was out of the question without wheels.
I asked my mother for a bicycle for the last two years in a row. Her response was always the same, “Maybe next year.” She looked away from me as she responded hoping to hide her sadness, but she couldn’t hide the fact that we were poor. I knew it.
Some neighborhood kids were very lucky. Occasionally, a family friend would have an old bike they were storing in the basement, and give it to you for your birthday. If you were real lucky it might be a Raleigh, thin tires, reflectors, and hand brakes! Regardless, anything you got from them was better than “nothing.” My mother called such gifts “hand me downs.” They were mostly clothes, sneakers, but seldom a bike. She demanded for us to be grateful for such gratuities. Mom always said, “Some people get by with much less.”
I dreaded this summer. Another eight weeks without the ability to explore the world around me, like the McGrath Highway Bridge. Until one day when a neighborhood kid gave me the tip of a lifetime. The Somerville incinerator, he said. I didn’t understand what he meant. I said, “The what?” “It’s the place where they take the rubbish. On the way to Bradlees, just after the Boston Edison truck yard. There are piles of bike parts there, hidden within an enormous stack of metal. Look for the big yellow brick smoke stack, that’s it.”
So, on Saturday morning I ventured down to find this gold mine of bicycle parts. I didn’t tell my mother, for if she knew I would be forced to stay in the house for days. I just told her I was going to the bottom of Glen Hill to play ball, a small lie for a decent catholic boy from St. Benedicts Parish.
I walked to the famous Glen field. I detoured thru to Franklin Street, then to Washington. Finally, after going thru the B&M railroad underpass I came out the other side, I saw it, “the yellow smoke stack.” It looked close, but not that close. I had to walk blocks before reaching it. As I approached the huge yellow brick building with its towering smokestack my heart raced with excitement. The top of the stack was pouring out a stream of light gray smoke. I surveyed the perimeter noticing a huge pile of metal stuff behind a chain link fence. What? No entrance from the street. There were gates on the other side, but that was near the truck entrance. I was afraid to go in that way for fear I would get in trouble. Now, having traveled all this way for nothing, I was NOT giving up. No way! I wanted a closer look.
I knew there were bikes in that pile of junk. I could see pieces of them. Peering through the webbing of the fence I spotted a rim with a tire, a pair of chrome handlebars, and a red Columbia frame. I didn’t come all this way just to go home empty handed. I made a plan to sneak in. There was noise coming from inside the huge building. I didn’t care. Outside it was abandoned. So, I snuck into the fenced area. As I got closer to the pile there it was, bicycle heaven. More parts than the sport section of the J.M. Fields store near the Wellington Bridge! I went right to the red Columbia frame, no chain or handle bars, but the frame was good. I pulled it from the pile and set it aside. Now for a rear rim with a chain sprocket, any size would due, a 24”, or 26” could fit.
Suddenly, a man yelled at me, “What the hell are you doing in there kid? Get out of that junk pile, before you get hurt.” As I continued to rummage in this pile of steel, he walked closer. He appeared angry, but I was intent on staying till I got what I needed. “You can’t be here,” he explained. I looked up and told him I’m building a bike for the summer. My parents can’t afford to buy me one. I thought of stealing one but my mother would send me to jail. His freckled face displayed a slight smile.
The strapping man was as Irish looking as the brogue in his speech. It seemed to be mutually understood what I was up against. He asked me where I lived, and how I got there. He told me to take the couple of parts I had already found and go home. As I was leaving he said. “Come back next Saturday. I’ll see what other pieces I can find for you. But do not trespass on the property!”
Happy as a lark, I struggled back home dragging the few pieces of old bicycles. I was on my way to having my own bicycle. At the bottom of Glen Hill I stopped. I thought to myself, today’s a good day. Soon I may have a bicycle, albeit from the rubbish pile, it certainly beats walking.
The frosting on the day was the possibility of making a new friend. A total stranger in my corner, this person didn’t laugh at me, or call me bad names because I was Italian. He was kind, he didn’t know me, but somehow he understood my plight. He was a good man intending to help me accomplish my dream. I knew this summer would be great.
Today is a good day in Somerville, Massachusetts. This story is true as authored by Paul Maisano.