Archive for the ‘Roxbury’ Category

Bully (Boy) for the Blizzard

January 7th, 2017

Those whose parents trundled them off to factories to watch candy bars, Q-TIPS® or Fords being made, know there is a more adult alternative. We skidded six and one-half miles in a blizzard this afternoon to keep our tour appointment at Bully Boy Distillers.

Better than shoveling snow or fighting crowds for the last gallon of milk, the tour was worth the $10. (I note here that a long time ago, we toured the chateau of the original Cognac, Otard. They poured liberally, even by French standards. At the end of the tour, the very jolly group bought phenomenal amounts of the brown juice. Good marketing ploy.)

I took notes and intended to write up a walk-through. Then I saw that Boston Bar Hopper had already done that, with pix and product descriptions. You should go there and enjoy that.

Note that:

  • Bully Boy has moved its main operations across the street from 35 to 44 Cedric Street
  • The primary still was 150 gallons that is still at 35 and devoted to their Estate Gin
  • The new primary is 750 gallon and gorgeous
  • The Bar Hopper tour included tastes of six types of their booze. Today’s had eight — American Straight Whiskey, White Whiskey, Boston Rum, White Rum, Vodka, Estate Gin, Hub Punch, and The Old Fashioned


Our tour guide Alex knows more about cooperage and barrel aging (first American Whiskey for 3 years the dark rum for 3) than you or I. Cost, origin, legal requirements, reasons for using them for this or that drink. Listen and learn.
The new site centers on a 750-gallon still. The old 150-gallon is across the street and for gin. The rums and whiskeys start here.
Paired with the still is a bubble column for drawing off the booze at various proofs. They might be at 160 proof (80% alcohol) before dilution and barrel aging. By the bye, Bully Boy used the great Boston water via the Quabbin Reservoir (we concur).
Subtly on the shelves below the antique bottles from great-granddad’s speakeasy hooch are some Bully Boy bottles adorned with some of their many medals.
The barrel room for aging has maybe 120 of them. Whiskey and dark rum sit for 3 years in one of these. They hold 53.5 gallons each (roughly 300 bottles). After the whiskey has aged, the same barrel ages dark rum. After another 3 years, they sell the barrels to craft-beer makers.
The specific oak for the barrels is now rare and the barrel prices have roughly tripled. Alex said they locked in a very good rate years ago for the handmade barrels.

Pix Notes: You’re welcome to anything useful. They are Creative Commons, so just cite Mike Ball once. Click images to enlarge.

In the Bar Hopper post and on the Bully Boy site, several great tidbits thread through. Apparently the Willis guys, Will and Dave, had a fascinating great-granddad. The latter was a college classmate of Theodore Roosevelt (must have been Harvard the Fly Club). He apparently was a bootlegger who ran a speakeasy. They guys found a walled-in room in his basement chock-a-block with old booze, with known names like Bacardi and gone ones like Very Old Cow Whiskey. The distillery displays some of these.

They named their business for their ancestor’s favorite draft horse, a gigantic beast named in turn to Teddy’s, “Bully!,” catchphrase.

Snowy Afternoon

To our particular blizzard experience, we loved getting samples of the eight current Bully Boy products at one time in one place. Alex started each of us by putting a light cocktail in our hands before we began. It was the prepared Hub Punch from a found 19th Century Boston recipe mixed with something like ginger ale…a harmless diversion while we gawked at the distilling hardware and watched Alex’s little beagle in the next room.

  • American Straight Whiskey – really the lead booze of BBD, it is kind of like bourbon but not as sweek because it hkas 45% rye. The dryness offsets any innate sweetness. My wife and I both like this, although I’ll take a good bourbon (think Woodford reserve) in the price range.
  • White Whiskey – fundamentally milder, safe moonshine (only 40%/80 proof). Not barrel aged. My wife liked it. I found it oily, like tequila.
  • Boston Rum – their dark rum is beautifully aged and complex. We both liked it.
  • White Rum – pleasant, harmless, good for mixing, but a taste and smell weak cousin of the dark version.
  • Vodka – made with corn. This extremely smooth vodka could easily sneak up on you.
  • Estate Gin – my wife has gotten to like gin, particularly American-style botanical varieties such as Berkshire’s Ethereal limited edition ones. Hearing the description of this one, she really expected to love it. Alas, she figures they used too many herbs or the wrong ones. I found undertones of sharp flavors, like a cinnamon bite.
  • Hub Punch – one of two gimmicks to my way of thinking. This is what we got at the sart. By itself, it is too thick and sweet. As a cocktail, you could do a lot better with their American Whiskey or Boston Rum.
  • The Old Fashioned – not a bad gimmick. This is a premixed cocktail and a pretty good one.

Fortunately for the tour, each taste was a splash. No one got tipsy and we got to consider each of the eight samples without them stepping on each other. When a single whiskey at a bar can cost $10 or $20, $10 for the eight samples was a good deal. Plus, we got snappy patter.



Tito’s Turkey Power

May 24th, 2014

If you’re running for office in Boston or statewide, you’re smart to show for City Councilor Tito Jackson’s annual turkey fry. Most gubernatorial contenders showed, among others, for this sixth version.

For you left-brain types and other quibblers, yes, there’s a lot more than turkey, like burgers, dogs, BBQ, a few non-meat offerings, sodas and water (no alcohol), ice cream and ta da, a snow-cone machine. Oh, and while Tito is a big guy, he had four loudspeakers in the street, each of which was bigger than he. The music kept people dancing, swaying, eating to the beat, and shouting to be heard. Sweet.

Mostly, this is a street party for the Roxbury neighborhood above Seaver Street. Plus the pols get to mingle while they and their minions pitch planks and promises.  There are surprisingly few events so casual and low-key where pols can have several easy hours chatting up black and Latino voters outside a dais/chair venue.

I tried to behave well, not dominating time with pols nor even taking pix of all of them. Many have been guests on my Left Ahead show. I’d already met nearly all of them and it was a chance to touch hands again. In some cases, we swapped cards and agreed the candidate should come on the show or come on again.

The following are a few images with comments. Among other pols there were Don Berwick and Joe Avellone (governor), Leland Cheung (looey) and Maura Healey (AG). I was there for nearly three hours and saw nothing of a certain Martha Coakley nor any of her lackeys. (Sunday update: I see on Tito’s FB feed that she did show late, after I left.)

Pix clix: Click a thumbnail for a larger view. If it opens in the same window, use your browser’s back button or command to return.

License note: All pix are Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with them. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

Long-term State Rep. Gloria Fox (since 1986) was a crowd please. She asked for support, noting, “I do not play. This is a diverse district (Suffolk 7) and I handle it well.'” GloriaFox
FDarroyo1 Another familiar face and voice was Felix D. Arroyo, former Councilor, father of a current councilor, and candidate for register of probate and family court. He’s always delightful and to us boomers sounds refreshingly like Ricky Ricardo. In fact, he noted that when he first ran for office many years ago, his accent was stronger.He asked one thing of the voters before him, on the Sept. 9th primary, his office will be down at the bottom of a long ballot, he wants to make sure people get all the way down there and finish the job.
Not everything was smiles and sandwiches. The Suffolk sheriff crew showed up with a police-dog demo. Adults a bit, but mostly the kids were impressed at the tenaciousness and training. Titodog
Falchuk Evan Falchuk (governor on the United Independent Party and sure to be on the November ballot) noted both in his remarks and to me that he considers it his job to discomfort the other candidates and raise key issues. In a deep nod to the Roxbury locale, he said that carried over, not so much to where the party was but to where he lives (Newton). He noted that his daughter and her classmates didn’t get the BPS-style warnings about how to behave when confronted by police. He said he regularly draws attention to the contradiction with urban communities of color.
Here’s a small subset of the several hundred at chez Jackson. (Right in the middle is Leland Cheung ([t. gov.] who didn’t want to give up his baby.) Titofront
Tolman Warren Tolman (lAG) pitched specific planks, like support for smart-gun technology.
 In a turnabout that borders on irony, gubernatorial candidate Steve Grossman immediately went to the ice cream table — but to server rather than eat. He loves ice cream but is willing to share.By the bye, he said he wasn’t disturbed ty the recent poll that showed rival Coakley well ahead of all contenders. He noted his campaign had not spent a dime on ads and when it started, the field would level. Moreover, the thought the poll was an outlier. Grossmandip


Train to Gorillas

November 29th, 2013



The quasi-suburban parts of Boston can have their own simple pleasures. Mine today came from an excursion, train time, zoo time!

Here in Hyde Park, as in Roslindale and West Roxbury, we all seem proud of being part of the city, yet very aware we can’t reasonably walk across the central fist of it as you can from Beason Hill or the South or West Ends. Standout successes like the recent new stations and skeds of the Indigo (Fairmount) Line are big deals down here.

For 10 years, we lived right downtown and then for 21, we were in JP, right below Forest Hills. Now in lower Hyde Park, it’s a trek and rigmarole to get places. I and one of my sons bike frequently (it’s quicker to get to Porter Square on two wheels than by T or God forfend by four). We have to plan. Until recently too the infrequent commuter rail just down the hill from us was also $5.50 a trip and only went as far as South Station.

I’ve been taking the zap, pow, wow improved Fairmount line regularly and grokking it. They dropped the fare to subway prices ($2 a trip) and roughly doubled the frequency. There is also a subtext. This is Thomas Michael Menino’s turf also and part of the idea was to pay attention to the Mayor and District Councilor Rob Consalvo in fostering development in Logan Square, a few hundred yards from the Fairmount stop. Moreover, personally, I got my geezer card from the MBTA, so one way is half price — a buck.

Freebie Road Trip

Today was a trial run for many who had not caught the T fever and fervor. Touted in the local weekly, in flyers at the Y and such, the notice was that today at 11:45 AM, we could gather at the Fairmount Grille and head for the 12:03 PM train. We’d get free round-trip fare.

Every station had its attraction. In particular, New Market was the big honking blue-collar South Bay shopping center with anything your little heart desires. Honestly, as much as I bike and sometimes drive around there, I reeled at the mentions of Four Corners and a short walk to the Franklin Park Zoo. I had never gotten off the Fairmount line at that stop and in my rigid mind thought it must not practical…too far.



I decided to do the zoo stop, assured a lackey would appear to lead me. Turns out, I was the only fool headed to the animals in the cold. When we gathered at the Fairmount Grille before heading to the stop, people were talking about shopping, either at South Bay or downtown. Joe Cosgrove (right), the MBTA’s director of planning and development, and Mat Thall, the interim executive director of the Southwest Boston Community Development Corporation, spoke, but did not pitch Franklin Park. We heard that the $2 fare was an experiment, for both Fairmount and as a test for other Boston neighborhood commuter lines shackled to absurdly high fares despite being in Boston city limits. We heard that the Fairmount traffic had spiked 47% since the fare change, and mostly we heard that we had to talk it up.

Clearly, I”m self-interested, but I think it’s worth it. Sure to the rail geeks, Boston has a reputation far beyond our boundaries for how hard the CDCs pushed for the Indigo Line work that has produced the improvements after almost two decades. Honestly, I can attest that we are a model for the hemisphere for the accomplishments. More personally, I want to see weekend service and trains that leave downtown for my neighborhood after the current latest, 9:40 PM. I want to be able to go to the Haymarket on Saturday, thank you very much. Let’s be a real city.

Gorillas, No Giraffes

My hick mindset had the zoo out of range. Despite my frequent bike rides down Columbia, up Blue Hill, through Franklin Park, past Forest Hills, the length of Mass Ave and all of the convoluted Washington Street in various neighborhoods, I fell into the Geneva Ave/Four Corners is distant gang turf. I was ignorant.

Sure enough, I ended up being the only bozo getting off the train at Four Corners. At Fairmount, the conductor was amused and amusing. He was the veritable gang of us, highly unusual for 12:03 PM on a weekday and did a great double take as he greeted us. I was literally the only Four Corners stop requester and the only one who exited for the zoo instead of consumer/Black Friday choices.


As promised, a pleasant young man, Hanad, was there to shepherd me. Turns out, as I was the only one, he didn’t even bother putting me through the half-priced-day gate. I got in for free. So there, shoppers.

Sure, a cold November day is not primo. Many animals are not the slightest bit interested in playing the game below 65F. Even my favorite beasts of all, giraffes, were bunked or huddling inside. No tigers, a single lion, no roos, maybe a third of the areas and cages said exhibit not open. Harrumph, as the expression goes.

Yet there was plenty to see. The parents with kids in strollers and racing ahead of them squealing about dark jungles, warthogs, gorillas and such had a great time. So did I.

(I’ll post some pix on Flickr and update with a link here.)

For the logistics minded, the walk from the Four Corners stop to the zoo entrance is eight minutes. It’s exit the station to the South onto Washington, go four short blocks, then seven short blocks up Columbia to the zoo. It’s a devil of a lot easier and closer than by Orange line or some wacky bus combo.If you want to start from South Station or Hyde Park, this is it. It’s in my mental maps.

We can be as provincial as Manhattanites and a question I heard in the Fairmoumt Grille and on the platform was what can you see in late November at a zoo? Lots, sports fans. The Tropical Forest was fully stocked; the great apes, warthogs, pygmy hippo, wacky carrion birds and more are crowd pleasers.  Nearby in Bird’s World, ibises and lurid finches and parakeets play, while the huge green keas wail and shriek.

A male lion showed off endlessly and on and on and on.

I earned bragging rights for going to the cold-weather zoo, doubled by taking the commuter rail.

Dudley Skeleton Awaiting Muscle

October 6th, 2012

The still-handsome, sturdy, hollow gentleman of Dudley Square is ready for some innards.

At 117 years old, the Ferdinand Building is no longer under wraps. The almost-total demolition left the shell of the former furniture store landmark. It’s destined to become the new public-school administration building, and more important the anchor of redevelopment in the square. Rebuilding should take two years.

Even nearly abandoned and derelict for the past 30 years, the graceful, ornamented building was an obvious symbol of the erstwhile humming, vital square. Back when the Orange Line ran as an elevated train here, this area of Roxbury did just fine. More recent times when it became better known for junkies, winos, muggings and the major bus terminal to be super-cautious using appear to be over.

The Baroque Revival-style 1895 building was originally Ferdinand’s Blue Store (still carved on top). It soon claimed to be the largest home-furnishings store in the country.

Sure, it might have been more efficient to tear it down totally, but I think Bostonians are already glad they didn’t.

The facade is grand and a fitting symbol for what we do well here — press past and future Boston together.

Pix note: These were taken this morning early. They are under Creative Commons; do what you want with either, just credit Mike Ball once. Click an image for a larger view.

BLA blah blah

June 11th, 2012

Yesterday was big doing in these parts. #3 son and his GF graduated from Boston Latin Academy. Her family has one more young’un but that completes our cycle here.

These things changed. I picked up his yearbook a few days ago and before that they had gone to their prom. Each was the same and different from my HS years. For the yearbook, all the pix of kids and staff were in color, and more important, the students got to put their own message beside their image. There was no more CV style, comma-delimited list of sports, clubs and other activities, which set us obsessive sorts apart from those just clinging to the log flowing in the educational river. Both better looking pix and free commentary are good.

The prom though had no theme. With disdain, Isaac explained how old fashioned themed proms were, that they were more sophisticated today. That may be accurate too. Lord knows, I went to several junior and several senior proms in my years. Their Hawaiian or outer space or other decorations were generally pretty tacky, even though those involved spent terrific time and money flogging the motif and its artifacts.

Yesterday, we might have been able to cram everyone, kids and parents, into BLA’s auditorium, but the Matthew’s Arena at Northeastern was more spacious, allowed for flow of grads getting their three seconds across the stage, and provided the sense of transition that fit.

It was a jolly time for students, perhaps too jolly with the smuggled in beach balls distracting from the addresses and making the patrolling teachers look like rasorial birds scrambling, but for the toys instead of worms. After six years of attention, I think the kids were allowed what passes for rowdiness in one of Boston’s exam schools. Having been in numerous other of the city’s high schools, I am always struck by the relative focus and calmness of the teens in the likes of BLA and BLS.

I brought a notepad, expecting some wisdom in the numerous addresses. Only one was worthy, but the others were harmless enough. Both the salutatory and valedictory addresses were LITE. The young women thanked parents (with the valedictorian claiming she had successfully hidden her keynote status from her Albanian immigrant parents up to the moment she walked on stage), praised the school and teachers, and waxed nostalgic with a few mini-vignettes of shared experiences. There was no enlightenment offered.

The salute to the graduates, a.k.a. the mandatory remarks of Headmaster Emilia Pastor, was harmless but atavistic. I’ve been in meetings with her and always found her dreadfully serious. I don’t know about the science high, but BLA and BLS’ headmasters have always seemed to wear their position like chainmail, heavy and demanding deference. In hers, she gave advice on how to thrive in the six years of BLA, only every student on the arena floor had come out the end of the HS machine.

She was more amusing rising from her seat repeatedly to introduce others or start her address. Her skirt was a little above the knee and she offered no cheap thrills to the hundreds of black gowned folk before her. She was acrobatic rising by pressing her knees together, splaying her feet and somehow managing to spring modestly upright. She was attention getting in the way a baby giraffe is rising on his hooves.

Understandably most parents and other relatives were there for their precious one. Those with large claques walked the stage to deafening squeals and applause. Before the presentation of diplomas, quite a few in the audience had no use for the addresses. They shouted to each other and into their cellphones instead. I may have been the only loony trying to hear the words.

It’s a pity they missed what I considered the highlight (short of my son getting his diploma, of course). State Rep.Carlos Henriquez, BLA ’94, spoke in the middle. His was the non-trivial set of remarks. He spoke wistfully of never marching across the stage and his envy of those who were about to. Seems he struggled with a required match course, failing a couple of times, before completing it in summer school.

So he was a dragon at heart as were those about to hit the stage, but without that few seconds of shared glory.

He noted that he continued to accomplish in life in ways he feels that redeem his slow start. In fact, he said one redemption was being the legislator who represented the district where BLA is. Perhaps more so was his candid inspiration to the grads-to-be. He was not afraid to use himself as an example of the struggle and success. They heard the call to go out the next day and start becoming leaders, but then the brief respite came that “Tomorrow you can sleep all day. Then the next day you become leaders.”

Pol Roast on Juneteenth

June 18th, 2011

As a disclaimer, I’m prejudiced in favor of Juneteenth. It is, after all, my birthday as well as a holiday in 37 of our states. The first state to recognize it as such was Texas, where on June 19th, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger announced the Civil War was over and slaves were free.

If much mellower, the sentiment remains, even a couple of thousand mile east northeast. They’re still at it in Roxbury and did it again today at Franklin Park, a day early. As charming loudmouth activist Alfreda Harris said on stage at what is of the cricket pitch there, “We started with peanut butter and jelly and now we have steak and chicken.”

Indeed, we did. The massive field had a tight necklace with family canopies as the jewels all around. Huge sooty smokers and many dozens of grills burned all manner of animal and vegetative matter to the joy and sharing of all comers. It’s a fun day every year and more Asians, whites and Latinos should show. Good food, good music, good feelings, good times.

Probably the most serious attendants were the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Company A and Colored Ladies’ Christian Relief Society. Replete with canvas tents, heavy uniform and period firearms, they remained in good spirits in the heat. They explained their educational goals and pointed to their website for updates on upcoming encampments and events.


I suspect you can discern in the pic which are members and which are politicians LG Tim Murray, and City Councilors Tito Jackson and Felix Arroyo.

I’ve attended several of the local Juneteenth parties. Today, I was looking unsuccessfully for Ayanna Pressley, who had been pitching her attendance. I did not find her and hope it was just because  there were so many tents, grills, people, and locations.

While Bruins fans stood open mouthed hoping for a glimpse of the One True Cross Stanley Cup, hundreds were in for the afternoon in Franklin Park. Many likely missed the ephemeral pleasures on the main stage. Pity.

HarrisMurrayHarris is a delightfully self-absorbed emcee. She introduced the City Councilors, Felix Arroyo and Tito Jackson, the members of the Roxbury Homecoming Committee (hosting the event), LG Murray, and members of the 54th Infantry.

Murray read a proclamation by Gov.  Deval Patrick dubbing tomorrow as Juneteenth, independence day, for Massachusetts in honor of the freeing of slaves.

Ever cool, he could have teased her (passing behind him in the pic) for misnaming his Lieutenant Murphy with something about how all those Irish-Americans look alike and how their names are so similar. Instead, he kept in the spirit of the day and did his do.

She may been at her best in preparing to introducing the pols on stage. She said there were politicians, “And you are politicians, aren’t you?” with slight derision. When Arroyo tried to outquip her with, “We’re community leaders,” she was quick with, “No, I’m a community leader. You’re politicians.”


All three pols were charmed and amused. They laughed.

The takeaway is that Juneteenth in Boston is worth the visit. It’s annually pretty close to my birthday. It’s been in Franklin Park for quite awhile and likely will be next year.

Parking is tight. Be there early (starts at 8 AM or be prepared to hump your tent and grill gear). If you just show, people will be friendly and feed you, but you’ll be in their debt and less civilized.

By the bye, Worcester will have a serious version next weekend, June 25th, from noon to 8 PM.



Census? What Can I Win?

March 10th, 2010

Polygamy, armed drug dealers and ignorami ahead and all around marked the follow-up census I took. I went in as a hippie sort earning some eating and drinking money, but quickly found I was straight and boring in contrast to my assignments.

I was a young thing back in 1970, but deluded myself into feeling sophisticated. The job as advertised in the Boston Globe was to walk the streets carrying my clipboard of names and addresses, and wearing my federal ID on my shirt pocket.

Anyone who was in elementary school through college in America heard repeatedly that the Constitution requires a full count of all of us every ten years. What could be simpler or more common knowledge?

Well, boys and girls, not all of us paid attention when we heard it or when the census forms arrived by mail every decade or on TV or the billboards or in the posters in the barber shops. A freight car of people had no idea what it was about.

Not surprisingly, follow-up, manual census is for those who didn’t return the mail forms. It would have been a lot easier and much cheaper for all of us if folk read their mail, did their duty, and returned the post-paid forms. Then again, hungry college students would have to work in cat-food factories (another of my local jobs) or other unpleasant tasks. Follow-up census costs are a tax we all pay for the obliviousness of a quarter of us.

Don’t Knock Again

My supervisor was African-American, as were many of the follow-up workers. He had a mischievous grin as he handed me my assignment list. He must have thought it was a bit of a joke to send the blond, pinkish guy to the very nonwhite parts of Roxbury.

It turns out that at least then and likely now those most likely not to have returned their census forms were not hippie protesters. Instead, they tended to be the poorest and least educated citizens, those who simply didn’t get it and who tossed the mailer. Then in Roxbury well over 90% of my assignments were African-American.

As my mother’s son and a boomer and a Boy Scout, I grew up with duty and thoroughness. I was to do what I agreed to, I had the Romper Room ideals of Mr. Do-Bee, and I forged ahead.

On my first day though, the steel-plated apartment door thwarted my good intentions. Clipboard under arm, I pounded repeatedly on that door in the big building on Seaver Street. Sure that I heard citizens just needing to be counted, I knocked again.  An elderly woman opened a door across the hall and whispered for me to come to her. She explained that a drug dealer lived there and was as likely to shoot me and dispose of my body as not. She also suggested that if I found other metal-reinforced doors in apartment buildings to pass those by as well.

It was my education turn. I thought of dealers in college terms, like friends of friends who had Baggies of pot or some droopy haired type with granny glasses hawking window-pane acid. Armored and lethal were not words I had linked to dealers…until that moment.

My Wives

Several apartments were very familial in ways I didn’t know as well. I remember the first polygamous family I met. The father and husband to many was there and as candid as one can be. There were five wives and I think 13 children.

My pathetic, stereotypical form had boxes for single, married, divorced and widowed. There was nothing for wives 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Part of my job was to return at the end of each day with my completed forms and reports of any problems or questions. While I was the first to find this situation, my supervisor was not at all disturbed. He said the important thing was that everyone was accounted for by name, gender and age. In this case, I was to report the first wife and have the other women as unrelated adults at that address.

So there.

Wee Melodrama

Having gone to high school in New Jersey and spent a lot of time in New York City, including the Bronx, Boston surprised me in the census. We just don’t know how to do slums here. We have Bromley Heath and other projects, but they aren’t falling-down dreadful.

Likewise, many of the areas my supervisor said were slums had single-family houses. Yes, their yards might have a dozen spent beer cans, but there were yards. People had their own land and own house.

At one such home in so-so shape, the elderly Polish immigrant who came to the door seemed genuinely afraid of me. It was midday, but he fixed on my census ID as though I represented some oppressive authoritarian figure. I was probably a quarter of his age.

He answered my few questions, slowly and with repeated sweeps of my face and clipboard. He seemed to be measuring my every move and motive.

As I thanked him and left, I heard the door close and him gasp loudly. The drama unfolded as he began begging for my help. It turned out that his wife of over half a century was upstairs, she was dying of cancer, and he had locked himself out.

He had a ladder.

He said he was too feeble to climb it, but again begged, this time for me to climb to the third-floor bedroom window which he knew to be open. Then he second and third guessed himself. His wife would surely be terrified to see an unknown man entering their bedroom.

Yet, in the end, that was the only plan he could propose. I am not much for heights, but his terror made me brave enough. I lugged he heavy, wooden ladder from under the house and set to the task.

I called out to her repeatedly before I pushed up the window. As it was, that was meaningless. She was nearly deaf, hardly spoke any English, and was apparently so drugged against her pain that I could have been a centaur and she would not have been disturbed.

I simply greeted her, told her that her husband had locked himself out and would be upstairs as soon as I could let him in, and sidled down the stairs.

He was waiting on the front porch and hugged me powerfully. While he ran upstairs to his wife, I took down and put away his ladder.  He came out of the house with two dollars. I told him that not only was that totally unnecessary, but that we weren’t supposed to take anything of value from anyone.

He’d have none of it. He thought I had done him a great service. Finally, I just took the damned $2. It was clearly a lot for him, but he could not seem to bear the burden of obligation to me. We hugged again and he returned to his vigil.

I told the supervisor who said to forget it and that it never happened.


My badge-like ID was rather plain with just the census seal, my title and my name. Nowadays, I bet they will at least have picture IDs.

However, at one visit, the ID offered a brief, negative bonding moment. It came with a large family. The eldest son, 19, was there, as were numerous siblings and their mother. They were African-American and I was still white.

The mother answered the questions and seemed quite happy to complete the forms with me. Her eldest though kept circling. Finally he couldn’t stand it any more.

He poked my ID and fixed my eyes with his. “Your name is Ball,” he said, letting my last name linger between us. “My name is Ball,” he added with another pause. “We both know what that means.”

His mother was deeply embarrassed and her blush was obvious even with under her medium chocolate complexion. She told him to leave.

Yet, he was quite right. He had no way of knowing, but I did come from slave-owning families. He and I could well be related or at the least could mirror that history.

What Can I Win?

A repeated theme truly surprised me. Many of the follow-up families had no idea what the census was. Again and again, someone would ask what they stood to win if they answered my questions.

For those of us who grew up in regular public schools in middle-class towns, the census was just a once-a-decade process. Everybody knew about it.

That was not so in Roxbury. Instead, it had the glamor of a contest or a lottery. Tell the feds how many toilets were in the apartment, plus your ages and so forth, and what could you win?

Many were both disappointed and incredulous to hear it was just a counting event. Why should they bother if there was nothing in it for them.

I quickly learned not to bother talking about federal dollars for programs and number of Congressional representatives. What was in it for them? Nothing really, but if they answered, the census folk would stop showing up or calling. In the end, they were counted.

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