Fort Point Channel

Summers on Boston harbor and one in the newsroom

Ah,  those usually boring summer jobs. From the time I was 13 to when I was 16 I had a series of the usual jobs --- mowing lawns, cutting shrubs, delivering papers vis bicycle, briefly busboying.  But when I turned 16 I started working at a company on the Boston waterfront called Mills Transfer Co., which picked up stuff brought in by  ship to the Port of Boston and trucked it around the Northeast.

Mostly what I did was utter tedium – filing  multicolored bills of lading and, a bit better, making some deliveries around Boston. Occasional excitement was provided when the IBM punch-card machines malfunctioned,  exploding those “do not fold or mutilate’’ cards all over the floor.

But the floor where I worked had a superb view of Boston Harbor and Logan Airport, and it was fun to be sent down to the loading dock to talk with the truckers. Best was that docked nearby by a lunch boat that my office mates (all of whom were full-time employees; I was the only summer worker) took a couple of times a summer around the inner part of Boston Harbor. The wind was soothing on those hot days, albeit often smelly. Boston Harbor was far more polluted than it is now.

Much of the waterfront then was still decrepit. Boston’s redevelopment took a while to get to the waterfront, and arson seemed to be the most common method of removing the eyesores of crumbling old building and collapsing piers. Still , there was a certain romance to it.

So through the hot and humid days of July and August I would trudge from South Station, where the bus from Cohasset, where I lived in the summer (I lived at school in Connecticut most of the rest of the year) stopped, to Mills Transfer, walking over the foul Fort Point Channel. At 5 p.m., I reversed the trip, noting that upon entering August, the light became noticeably dimmer. And then came the tedious traffic jams on the Southeast Expressway that often maderest of the trip home  take more than an hour.

Still the boredom involved led me to become a loyal newspaper reader: There was nothing else to do.

So as the summer of 1969 approached and I was looking for a new kind of summer job, I lucked out when an AA friend of my mother, a natty sports columnist called Joe Purcell, helped get me a job as an “editorial assistant’’  (i.e., "copy boy'') at the Boston Record American, a Hearst tabloid heavy on murders and “The Daily Number.’’

The Record was in a beautiful granite building on Winthrop Square in downtown Boston. But other than the executive offices, the facility was not air-conditioned . The filthy newsroom  was stifling. There were  jars of salt tablets around to try to ward off collapse and a couple of weak fans.

I helped by cutting the teletype paper before handing wire-service copy to rewritemen (there was only one lady journalist in the room), made “books’’ – 2 carbon sheets sandwiched with three sheets of paper for writing stories, was given money by editors to give to the bookies in the composing room and was sent on rather pleasant errands around Boston.  It was always cooler on the streets than in the newsroom.  (The composing room and press room must have been close to 100 degrees.) For instance, I had to pick up stuff at the Boston Stock Exchange and the Associated Press.

It was the summer of “Woodstock’’ (which of course didn’t happen in Woodstock but rather in Bethel, N.Y.), the moon landing and Ted Kennedy’s  Chappaquiddick scandal. The Record being only about an inch above a scandal sheet, the last story drew the most attention in the newsroom in the Capital of the Kennedys. I heard many salacious remarks, but don’t remember details all these years later.

-- Robert Whitcomb

Sweet, sweaty summers in the city

I've always liked cities in mid-summer. They have a sweet, slow gritty melancholy. The vegetation, turning grayish green, wilts in the heat, but it's a good and pleasant time for rumination. I have considerable nostalgia for  walking slowly around Boston at lunch breaks in summer jobs and then as a reporter for the Boston Herald Traveler (RIP). My boss, the city editor, was more relaxed about deadline assignments in July and August and I could wander around and look for feature stories every few days.

The sulphur smell of the  then highly toxic Fort Point Channel in those pre-EPA days remains to this day a powerful memory, as  the smell of diesel reminds me of Paris.

Even stronger are my memories of strolling down to Battery Park at the tip of Lower Manhattan on Sundays in August as an editor for The Wall Street Journal (we worked Sundays-Thursdays; there was no weekend edition then) to get a hot dog and feel the humid, polluted southwest breeze coming up over New York Harbor. Or walking down Riverside Park between 88th Street, where I lived for a while, and Columbia.

Then there were the slow, sweaty strolls around mid-summer Washington, interrupted by a little work  in the National Press Building and trips to the restaurant-cafe on top of the  Hotel Washingtonian, where the capacious beverages served made one forget the Congo-like heat.

Later there was the openness of Paris in August, when so many residents went off  on vacation,  emptying the parks away from the main tourist strips.  We lived in an middle-class neighborhood (in the 15th Arrondissement). A lot of local stores closed for much of August as residents were in Normandy, Brittany or on the Riviera, but most of the street markets were open and everyone  was quite laid back.

And the densely treed East Side of Providence has its mid-summer charms too -- quiet and parklike. But the college kids come back to  school much earlier than when I was in college. So the summer now effectively ends about Aug. 20 in our neighborhood -- not the week of Labor Day.

--- Robert Whitcomb

Of bills of lading and a stolen $45


 "November Tide'' (oil and oil stick on canvas), by ROGER MARTIN, in his show "Bills of Lading: The Art and Poetry of Roger Martin,'' at the Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Mass., Feb. 14-June 28. Mr. Martin is Rockport’s first poet laureate and author of three books celebrating the people and poetry of his hometown.



The reference to "Bills of Lading'' brought back  memories of working in the mid-'60s in Mills Transfer Co.,  on the South Boston waterfront. The company was responsible for processing the shipping of  various goods, mostly for the New England shoe business, then in steep decline.

While the view  from the office of Boston Harbor and Logan Airport was gorgeous, (though the air was  often rank with the stench of the nearby pre-EPA Fort Point Channel) much of the work consisted of the tedious collection and filing of bills of lading. These are documents issued by a shipper that detail  what's in the shipment and confirms ownership of that shipment. Oddly, or maybe as a partial  and intentional offset to the tedium presented by these documents, the various  carbon copies came in lovely pastel colors, which I found soothing as I squeezed them  into gun-metal filing cabinets and longed for the clock to show 5 p.m.

Of course, this was long before the Internet. We had some electronic equipment, including an IBM punch-card machine the frequently broke  --- "do not fold, spindle or  mutilate,'' the cards warned -- and electric typewriters, but most of the work was manual, albeit with physical labor  in our office no more arduous than lifting with two hands cardboard boxes of  dusty paper files. It was all a bit heavier, of course, on the loading platforms below,  albeit with the aid of fork-lift trucks driven by tough members of the Teamsters union who were often  menacing in contract talks but always kept to the strict letter of the contract once a contract was in effect.

I found these guys very reliable and quite funny as I went down there from time to time for an office chore. And it was nice to smell the breeze off the harbor after a cool front came through and the wind turned from southwest to northeast.

Most of people in the office  smoked  (their favorite was Salem) and were friendly if almost universally sarcastic. I  became pals with most of them over three summers, especially after we took a summer lunch boat cruise around the Boston waterfront, which at the time was still decayed and a lure for arsonists. The great boom that was to turn the Hub into a kind of Midtown Manhattan was some years in the future. Indeed, in 1970--71, when I was a reporter for the old Boston Herald Traveler, the city was still quite dowdy and gritty. I was happy to move to New York City, even though it was falling apart then under the weight of bad (if usually well-meaning) governance, laws that ignored human nature and demographics.

Anyway, the exception  to the sarcasm was a  kindly guy with the wonderful name of Sylvester Gookin. (Dickens would have used it.)

I thought he was about 70, but I learned later he was only in his fifties. His white hair and haggard and sad face misled me. Apparently "Sylvie" (who was  notable for being 0ne of the few nonsmokers in the office and always wore an executive-style starched white shirt) had been an executive of some sort in   Mills Transfer Co.'s parent, the United Shoe Machinery Corp. -- now long dead but for decades Boston's biggest industrial enterprise. (The gold-topped, Art Deco  headquarters skyscraper that  the company  had built is still on Federal Street, but dwarfed by much newer towers.)

Sylvie, for whatever reason -- lack of confidence and ambition or focus  -- had been exiled to this little  fifth-floor office to perform low-paid, boring, but mostly stress-free, work.  But still "white collar''! The company was still cooly paternalistic and so few people were fired. The top execs didn't want the unpleasantness.

One  hot day someone stole $45 I had in the drawer of my desk. I mentioned it to Sylvia, who said in a weary but empathetic voice: "You'll loss a lot more than $45 in your life.'' For some reason, that line still haunts me. I assume that everyone in that office is now long dead.