Election day, that is. The exact years are lost in the fog of my memory, but much else of the occasion remains.
The day before election day, we were treated to vans and trucks slowly touring the streets, their loudspeakers blaring out partisan messages to the electorate. They were evident all day and evening. Traditional buntings were hung everywhere, and flags were common at the fancier houses. Jimmy Condon, our ward boss, was rushing around passing out beer chits and asking those who warranted them if the food basket had arrived. Jimmy was a busy lad and took his job seriously. He also played a snare drum in a band which would be part of the parade the next day. Naturally, Jimmy worked for the incumbent Democrat mayor, James Michael Curley, who was both celebrated and reviled, depending upon one’s view of life.
Curley delivered no matter what the papers thought of him. He had a tremendous following. (Mary Curley, his sister, was a friend of my mother. Now and then she would appear in her green Nash, with the fold-down front seat, and take us, four kids, out to the Curley house in Jamaica Plain where she would prepare a lunch for us – complete with ice cream.)
The open market on Broadway handed out to children free candies adorned with little American flags. The bars were full – jammed, in fact, and we were quick to run to the ones where fights had erupted. Partisan battles were uncommon in the Democratic South Boston, but not everybody agreed on some details. The area was decidedly Irish in content and tenor.
That evening, we crowded into Blinstrub’s Village trying to see the dancers brought out by the Hibernian Society. The vision of skinny, young girls step-dancing to the squeals of the pipes and accordions, some with medals flapping against their chests, their arms held rigidly at their sides, stays with me. Stanley Blinstrub was much engaged in the community and his place, a large restaurant/club, was quite a popular venue among mainstream entertainers. The noisy preparations for the next day went on well into the night.
Everybody under 16 assembled early in the morning to watch the parade. Beside the marching bands (I remember only two, one dressed in green and gold, with Jimmy Condon in the last rank, banging away on his snare drum) -a few flatbed trucks with men wearing armbands or large flourishes pinned to their coats exhorting the crowds to “vote early and often” (the old joke never fades) and blaring loudspeakers playing marches.
We were eventually rewarded by the presence of “hizzoner” himself, waving and grinning from the rear seat of the first convertible I’d ever seen. People would run up to the slow-moving vehicle to say hello, be recognized in front of peers or even to hand the mayor a note. Of course, Cardinal Cushing was there. At the start of the parade he would walk with a couple of other priests. dispensing blessings to all and especially to the mothers who dared to bring their freshly born babies to him. Soon enough, he would get into another convertible and sit on the seat back for the remainder of the parade.
The bars were closed on election day, as was every other establishment. Nothing mattered but the election, and commerce ground to a halt. In those days, Boston ordinance required all saloons to unscrew their bar stool seats to prevent patrons from even daring to go into a bar on Sunday or certain holidays. I can assure you that the seats were reset with the speed of light when the time came to reopen. Men with beer chits were wandering the streets or congregating near the polls, waiting for the polls to close so they could redeem their little rewards. Police were posted near the polling places to make sure there were no incursions by those who had no business there. Evening came very slowly, but when it did, and the school doors were shut and the ballot boxes were carted off to be opened and the contents counted, the rush to the bars constituted a hazard for any children or older folk who might also be on the sidewalks.
Celebrants felt that they already knew the outcome of the election – even without any notices in the Boston Post. That confidence was shattered in a few years when Curley, then governor, was sent to a federal prison -while still acting as the state’s principal administrator. And Southie failed to recognize the increasing influence of the old Yankees and the new politics. But, compared to how we treat our great, hard won voting franchise today, the “good old days” had a substance and an impact of our lives sadly missing.