Life on the West Side

I stared long and hard at that box of Blackjackgum. I’ll bet there were two-dozen packages in the box. Came the moment of decision, I reached over, picked up the entire box, jammed it under my arm like a football and high-tailed it down the street.Suddenly from behind, a big, heavy hand grabbed my shoulder and stopped me in my tracks. I whirled around. There I was, facing the biggest man of the law I’d ever seen in my young life. He was the local cop on the beat and he looked ten-feet tall.

We had a little talk. His approach was stern but not unkind. Then he walked me home to the apartment, two or three blocks away. By the time I trudged up the stairs, I was almost in tears. I had to face my mother.

Throughout her life, my mother held firm to a stubborn honesty. That day was no exception. She gave me a tongue lashing I’ll always remember.

“You don’t take something that belongs to somebody else,” was her tough credo. She lived by it. And I learned my lesson well.


Agnes Peterson lived in the apartment directly above us. She was a tall, jolly, round-faced woman in her early thirties, about the same age as my mother. The two of them hit it off immediately. They became close friends.


Agnes worked as a hostess in a downtown speakeasy. On late rainy afternoons, before going to work, she’d often stop by for a cigarette and a cup of coffee. My mother and Agnes both smoked Chesterfields. They’d put on a fresh pot of coffee and the two of them would sit at the kitchen table and talk and talk and talk. Sometimes I picked up all kinds of things.

That’s how I learned that the speakeasy where Agnes worked was located in what had once been the meeting hall of a German Turnverein, two blocks from City Hall. She worked for a guy named Battisti or Batuzzi or something like that.

Over a stretch of several afternoon visits, I also learned that Agnes had been married twice—her first husband was a merchant marine sailor lost at sea during the war—she was born and raised in Minneapolis—she liked to attend the fights at the Portland Civic Auditorium—she was trying to cut down on her smoking—she hated wearing girdles—she liked bootleg beer, French fries, kids and jazz—and her 21-year-old niece, Emma, was about to get a divorce.

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