I was born on the Fourth of March, a time of year in Buffalo, N.Y. when Winter still locks the area in its icy grip. Spring always seemed a long time in coming. At that time, my family lived at 207 Amber St., in a two-story frame dwelling, on the South side of the City. We lived in the shadow of giant steel plants like Bethlehem and Republic. The air smelled like sulfur and anything left outside would soon be covered by a fine layer of soot and metal flakes. No one noticed. It wasn't until many years later, when I first brought my future wife home for Thanksgiving dinner, that I became aware that there even was an odor. Mary is from Rochester and noticed the aroma as we neared the homestead. I guess we just learned to live with it.
My Father was a Buffalo City Fire fighter, who always worked at least two or three jobs, to support his brood of 12 children. I was the sixth in line. My Grandparents, Aunts and cousins lived up the street. Many cousins and other assorted relatives lived within a few block’s radius. Our clan had " migrated " to South Buffalo, in the 1920's, from the Old First Ward, in search of better surroundings.
I only recall snatches of my first three years of life. I was one of a gaggle of children who roamed the neighborhood seeking adventure. An old blue 1937 Chevy, with a hole rusted in the left front fender, was Dad's means of transport for the whole gang of us. Faint images of Buck Rogers television programs and a fall that injured my forehead, rounded out my scant recollections of the period. It was an area where you learned to look after yourself. I remember the first time somebody struck me, at age three, in a childhood squabble. I ran crying to my Mother, looking for sympathy. She looked me over to see that I wasn't hurt and calmly said, "Go and hit him back!" Thus, began my training.
At age 4, in1953, we moved two miles away to 10 Seneca Parkside, a dead-end street, across from Cazenovia Park. It was a street with many two-story frame doubles and loads of children. At one point, there were over 60 little urchins who lived on the street. The surrounding streets were laden with small people as well. Rarely was there quiet in the neighborhood. It was like a carnival every day for us. Nearby Cazenovia Park and the municipal swimming pool provided us with a wonderful means of burning off youthful energies. Sports were our principal interest and the days were always full and interesting.
For the next fourteen years, at regular intervals it seemed, we had new additions to the family. By this time, the house took on a Mother's Hubbard appearance, with 12 kids ranging in age from 1 to 23. We ate in double shifts around a small kitchen table. Everybody on the first shift was pretty good about leaving enough food for the gang on the second shift. If you weren't on time for dinner or were inclined to be picky about your food, you had to fend for yourself. Keeping track of a crowd like this wasn't easy. Sometimes, you could spend the night at a friend's house, without telling anyone, and not be missed until the next day.
I guess, at the time, we would have been considered people of limited means, but none of us knew it or cared. Besides, everybody else in the neighborhood was in the same condition. It made for some interesting discoveries later on in life, like tasting real butter in the 6th grade. It was a little salty but rich and delicious. It could be comical at times as well. When I went away to college, I was issued two sheets for my bed. I had no idea what the second sheet was for. Luckily for me, I didn't admit this to anybody or the friendly ridicule would have been considerable.
It developed in me, an appreciation for the basic things in life. The food in the cafeteria, to me, was plentiful and therefore good. Others, raised in 'better' circumstances, tended to whine about the quality. It is a trait that I carry over into adult life. More equals better.
I remember watching, with interest, people getting individual salad and vegetable bowls and unlimited amounts of fresh milk. I had a poor person's reverence for food and a third worlder's respect for availability and variety.
Our family weekly consumed a score or more of loaves of bread and huge jars of peanut butter and jelly. Being Irish, there was always a large sack of potatoes on hand. We still count on them as a staple to this day.
My mother and Father ate the same as we. It wasn't until later in life that I began to appreciate just how much they had sacrificed to raise us.
We always had freshly laundered clothes, even if they were hand me downs. To this day, I appreciate new clothes and take very good care of garments, so that they will last longer. My brothers and I had continual battles over who wore whose clothes. Usually the first ones up were the best dressed.
I still don't know how my Mother did all of that washing and ironing without complaint. In fact, I never heard my Mother or Father complain about their lot in life. My Father often worked three jobs, sleeping when he could, to provide for us. Later, my Mother worked as well to help make ends meet. Dad had a working man's pride, that he never took a dime in charity from anybody.
We always had food to eat, a place to sleep and clothes on our back. What more could you ask for? We didn't need fancy bikes or expensive toys, we had our imaginations and a Park to play in. Yet somehow, every Christmas, my parents managed to come up with a sack full of toys for everyone. We never went without new toys at Christmas and always appreciated what we were given, even clothes!
We learned pretty early in life that if you wanted the "extras,” you had to go out and work for them. Two paper routes in the family were handed down over the years. They provided a source of pocket money for us and taught us responsibility. It bred in us a spirit of competition and self- reliance, that has served me well all of my life.
Though poor in financial resources, we were rich in spirit. We were voracious readers and literally drained the Cazenovia Library that stood 100 yards from our house. My first library card, a passport to the imagination, was obtained at four years of age. I couldn't write yet, so my brother Jimmy made up a signature for my application. Since then, some of my most pleasant memories have come from the quiet precincts of Libraries and the many books borrowed and enjoyed.
All of the kids in our neighborhood went to the local Catholic Grammar School, St. John the Evangelist. There, in addition to our regular studies, we were instructed in the perils of life and the damnation of sinners by a community of nuns from the Order of The Sisters of Mercy. The nuns were pretty much adjunct Mothers and, although inclined to be crotchety, cared about us and looked after us. It wasn't unusual for them to step in quietly and help with clothing and food where the situation warranted it. They did this with the finesse of experienced diplomats, in a blue-collar community that prided itself on accepting charity from no one.
Going to a Catholic Grammar School was like being raised by a churlish maiden Aunt. You spent all day with these women. Their authority and concerns encompassed your whole life. If they got wind of mischief or bad habits after school, they were on you like a detective the next day. No hardened policeman ever perfected the third degree as finely as these women had. One way or another, they managed to extract the details of the transgression from you, with threats of hellfire and damnation. Then, the call would go home to your parents, and things would be decidedly unpleasant there as well.
I remember one incident in particular, that involved throwing snow balls. The Mother Superior lined up about twenty of us in a row and methodically questioned each of us, as to our culpability in the incident. Anyone dumb enough to admit guilt, got a backhand across the face. Nobody had to tell us about the theory behind the self- incrimination principle of the fifth amendment. We had already figured that out for ourselves. As far as education went, the nuns did a pretty fair job with limited resources. We weren't allowed to "not do the work", or we faced hellfire and brimstone. It was pretty intimidating at that age.
Most of the members of this order of Mercy were of Irish-American extraction. Guilt then, as a behavioral modifier, was honed to a fine science. To this day, I still have uncomfortable memories of threats and exhortations, promising eternal damnation, over minor transgressions.
The Parish priest too, was a figure to be reckoned with. He was the unquestioned arbiter of the moral code that ruled our daily lives. He was the top banana of a tight-knit, Catholic Community. If he put the finger on you, you were in for it, good. You could count on a pretty fiery sermon the following Sunday, at mass, detailing the particular infraction involved. You also squirmed like hell in your seat praying that he wouldn't name names. It was a very real and much feared threat. The nuns and priests loomed rather large in our young lives. They did care for us, however, and spent their lives in relative poverty, looking after the well-being of other people's children. They were special people.
You learned early however, how to con the religious community. Contributing your allowance to Catholic Charities and selling a bunch of subscriptions to the local diocesan newspaper were good for openers. Then, sell as many fund-raising raffle tickets and candy bars as you could, to defenseless relatives and friends. After that, you could get away with almost anything, short of skipping mass and communion. Throw in support for a few pagan babies, for insurance, and you were practically untouchable. A lot of the slack you got at school, depended upon the amount your parents kicked into the weekly collection and whether or not they helped out at the weekly bingo sessions. If you were covered on those ends, the road to heaven was illuminated with plenary indulgences, dispensed locally. Overall, it gave you a pretty fair understanding that whoever paid the piper called the tune.
As with the religious, Police, Firemen and Politics were family traditions. Two generations of my own family preceded me into what my Uncle fondly called, "The Whore's Game". Men, like my uncle and his uncle before him, were the fabled Ward Healers who cranked out the vote at election time, often at $3 a copy. There weren't many rules in those days and the local bag man was a respected member of the community. I can remember stories of election times past, when Uncle Edward said that they would drop by the Party H.Q., for a few handfuls of cash, to spread around. This was to keep the lads in good spirits and prime the voting pump in the neighborhood taverns.
Uncle Edward looked the part. He was silver haired, with shined shoes, a nicely tailored suit and a tweed hat. In a working-class community, this singled you out as someone to be reckoned with. He always seemed to be driving an official car and have a large office, with a secretary. These were powerful icons in a community that, for the most part, sweated for its living. Sure, he must have made my Grandfather, Emmanuel, proud. He, that was a shoveler of grain on Buffalo's waterfront. "Scoopers" they called them, hardy Micks with wooden shovels, that unloaded the grain boats. Plugs of tobacco kept the mouth free from the gritty grain. I still remember buying "Pa" plugs of "elephant tobacco,” for Christmas. He sat in his chair, with the bronze spittoon next to it, and held court over the clan. Occasionally, he would send one of the local lads up to the corner saloon, to fetch a “growler” (an open bucket) of beer. His pleasures were simple and his life was hard.
Traditions die hard among the Irish and the dislike, of one family for another, was often carried down two and three generations. Of course, the grudge was carefully nurtured with grand fist fights, in the neighborhood saloons. It is here, amidst the occasional Donnybrook, that the Irish Politician learned his trade. Sure, how could you be ill disposed towards the grand lad that had just bought the last few rounds? Bless his sainted Mother for bringing him into our midst.
My Paternal Grandmother, Mary Tevington, came from a family that was a more refined sort. "Lace Curtain" they were called, they that had fruit in the house when nobody was sick. Her Father, Thomas, was a Businessman and property owner in Buffalo's Old First ward. How she was to become the wife of old Emmanuel Martin is lost in the mists of time. But sure, "Manuch" and his brothers, Willy, Dan, Jack and Ralph were a grand lot. Willie, a N.Y. State Senator, owned a few saloons, Dan, a boiler works in Erie Pa, and Ralph, a restaurant that catered to the Vaudeville Crowd. They were a rough and tumble bunch that made way for nobody and called no man sir.
Stories were passed down about Great Uncle Willie's Saloon on lower Main St. If he were present when a fight broke out, he would quietly lock the doors and then beat the bejesus out of the luckless brawlers. This was the waterfront area, and hard measures were needed to deal with hard men. It was an article of faith in the Family that when you got knocked down, you got back up. And if you got knocked down again and again, you continued to get up until the opposition got tired. Then you went to work on them.
These were working men, who didn't know about Sicilian Vendettas or Edgar Allen Poe's " Cask of Amontillado.” The theory of Mutually Assured Destruction hadn't yet evolved. They only knew, on a primitive level of survival, that when your family was threatened, the threat had to be dealt with. It didn't matter how long it took. And if the retribution had to be visited on the second or third generation of the offender, that was alright too.
These are my antecedents, a rough and tumble bunch that had crossed an Ocean and made their way in a new land. The Catholic Church was a formative influence in our lives. Taverns were our meeting ground and the occasional punch 'em up was just lively visceral communication. It wasn't Walton's Mountain, but to us it was home.
Joseph Xavier Martin