One Man’s Trash Is A Young Boy’s Treat

One Man’s Trash Is A Young Boy’s Treat

By Ed DeJesus

It’s funny how certain things can trigger a series of memories. We live in a thirty-three-story high-rise in Florida and place our garbage down a trash chute—but haul recyclables down to our dumpsters on level one’s covered garage. I was taking the elevator to our fitness center and marveled at my neighbor’s Superbowl party remnants of beer, bourbon, wine bottles, newspapers, pizza, and Amazon boxes. The happy Chief’s fan filled a red canvas wagon with his recyclables, which reminded me of some wonderful times growing up in Lowell with wagons.

In 1960, my big brother Tom salvaged a rusty orange rim with no net from someone’s trash and nailed it to a piece of plywood on the telephone pole. One day, my brother, our neighbor Johnny, and I were playing HORSE—shooting baskets on Cambridge Street in Lowell. Richie, a tough French kid from Hale Street, showed up with two of his Lincoln Street friends and challenged us to a game. I was ten, the shortest one out there, and they only let me play because they needed another player for three-on-three. My brother, who was four years older and the best player, told me to steal the ball and pass it to him or Johnny. Vertically challenged with quick hands and close to the ground, I was only good at disrupting dribblers.

It was a warm June afternoon, and we played shirts against skins. Richie was a show-off; his team took off their jerseys and T-shirts. I was glad because I wouldn’t get as many scrapes if I dove on the street’s asphalt to steal a ball. It had more traffic before the Lowell Connector was built and Cambridge Street was cut off. It used to run from Chelmsford Street, past Hale, and then across the Hale’s Brook bridge down to Tanner Street, where the junk yards were. The cars and trucks weren’t the only thing that interrupted our basketball games.

Our game was halted on this day when we heard the rhythmic clip-clop, clip-clop sounds of horse hoofs hitting the pavement. The sound grew louder until we saw a junk-filled farm wagon coming into view, pulled by a big, beautiful white horse. An old, grungy-looking man was holding the reins atop the wagon. It was our local legend, The Ragman. Some called him Goldie because of his gold tooth and sun-bleached blond hair, now frazzled white. His voice echoed through the street as he shouted, “Rags… Rag a ragga, rags”

Goldie was hauling a load of rags, newspapers, and scrap metal that he’d redeem for cold cash at the salvage yards on Tanner Street. My dad said he also sold rags to the hardware stores and gas station mechanics. This was the day before trash pickup; some neighbors had dragged their junk out early and piled newspapers next to their old metal barrels on the curbs. Goldie stopped, jumped off his wagon, and grabbed stuff along the curb while we waited on the other side near the basketball hoop.

The Ragman pulled on the reins, and his horse and wagon slowly moved down the street. Tough guy Richie shouted, “Woah, Woah,” and started chasing after him to stop! Ragman had grabbed Richie’s team shirts that they’d left on the sidewalk. We laughed ‘til our sides ached at Richie and the others who climbed on the back of the wagon and sifted through the junk for their shirts while Ragman swatted at them with a dirty, tattered towel.

Our neighbor’s German shepherd started barking loudly at the horse. Mr. Daily came out to calm down his chained, ferocious dog and laughed. When the skins jumped off the wagon with their smelly shirts and the Ragman pulled away, his horse left a large pile of unseemly brown manure in the middle of the street. Mr. Daily tossed his camel cigarette in the street, grabbed the garden hose he used to water his lawn and hedges, and washed the horse’s mess down the storm drain.

My brother and I had everyone in our family of six laughing hysterically about it at the supper table. My dad pointed with his fork and said, “Don’t make fun of that old man; he’s been making a living at that for many years… You kids could make some spending money if you collected newspapers and bottles.” He’d drive us down to Tanner Street. My brother had a paper route, my sister babysat, and I wanted to earn money.

In 1960 you could buy potato chips—with no air inside the small bag—or a six-ounce bottle of Coke for a nickel each. They didn’t require deposits on ‘tonic’ bottles. We didn’t call them soda, as we had Moxie Tonic, manufactured in Lowell by Father John’s medicine. If you wanted a soda, you went to the soda fountain counter at the drug store or Woolworth’s Five and Dime to get a Cream Soda or Cherry Coke in a funneled paper cup.

My little brother—a year younger than me—fetched our rusting red Radio Flyer wagon in the cellar we got one Christmas. That first winter, my kid brother and I fit in that wagon together, and our big brother would pull us along, make a sharp turn, and dump us headfirst into a snowbank. We loved it.

Armed with our big brother’s address book from his paper route, my kid brother and I canvassed the neighborhood for old newspapers. Most people were friendly and gave us their Lowell Sun and the Boston Herald. One neighbor gave us their thick Look Magazines. We grabbed old whiskey and tonic bottles and stored everything on our back porch. On Saturday, my dad’s day off from the VA Hospital, we were disappointed when he said, “Wait another week; you don’t have enough yet.”

We grabbed newspapers off the top of barrels the next week before the trash man got to them. We filled my Dad’s ’53 Ford station wagon with a two-week haul. We spent our money at Mickey’s Variety store in Lincoln Square, buying chips, candy bars, and Pepsi. And we had plenty more to buy cotton candy and Carnival rides at the Fourth of July celebration on the South Common. Later we watched the fantastic fireworks with my family. Great summer fun.

Many of our neighbors held their papers for us in the following weeks instead of tossing them in with their trash. One neighbor gave us a wooden crate with empty bottles of Moxie. That Moxie crate came in handy when we used it to hold bottles upright in our wagon.

I pulled that red Radio Flyer wagon with my kid brother inside, down Hale Street, through Lincoln Square, and over to the Lincoln School playground. We’d watch our big brother and his friends play baseball at Durkin Park and gather their empty Coke, Pepsi, RC Royal Crown Cola, Orange Crush, and Hires Root beer bottles. One of the older ball players suggested we search in Jack’s junkyard at the other end of Hale Street, where a fire destroyed several tenements. (Years later, Jack’s moved to Pawtucket Street, and this side of Hale Street became the Lowell Regional Transit Garage for the city’s buses.)

At Jack’s, we found bottles in the tireless junked cars without windows and seats. We found the remains of a campfire with two old bench car seats with cigarette burns and springs sticking out of them. We gathered smelly beer bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon and big brown Narragansett bottles that wouldn’t fit our Moxie case. Later, I learned that the big beer bottles were called GIQs Giant Imperial Quarts.

That was our best payday, and after stashing some in our piggy banks, we still had plenty to spend at Mr. Temple’s comic bookstore in Lincoln Square. We bought a bag of penny candy. My kid brother purchased a shiny black yoyo, and we tried to make it walk and rock the cradle. I bought packs of Topps chewing gum with baseball cards. By summer’s end, I had collected the Allstar outfield of the Red Sox: Ted Williams, Jimmy Pearsall, and Jackie Jensen, plus second baseman Pete Runnels and their All-star third baseman, Frank Malzone.

As for Lowell’s legendary Ragman, this shameless, hard-working, enterprising Jewish man owned a big house with a barn where he kept his horses and wagon on a double-sized lot on lower Howard Street. Zady Dashevsky, The Ragman’s real name, attended the Montefiore Synagogue on Howard St with his two sons: Harry, an accomplished musician and violinist, and Samuel, the other owned Sam’s Variety Store, initially on the corner of Hale and lower Grand Street. We lived two blocks away and attended the same schools as our neighbors.

Hale Street—labeled as slums with several condemned buildings—plus Lower Grand and Lower Howard Street housed a large Black and Jewish community. Hale, Howard, and lower Grand Street’s tenements were torn down in the mid-sixties for urban renewal, displacing dozens of families. It was eventually replaced with an industrial park from Hale to Chelmsford Street.

Number tattooed on arm from WWII German concentration camp.

Sam Dashevsky moved his store and Grand Realty office to the corner of upper Grand and Chelmsford Street. His mother would sit on a chair and watch the customers; on her forearm were the distinctive tattooed numbers of concentration camps; she was a holocaust survivor.

Instead of Goldie the Ragman, the survivor should have been memorialized as Lowell’s regaled Recycle Man. And, for one memorable summer in 1960, my kid brother and I were Cambridge Street’s first recycling entrepreneurs and contributed to the local economy in Lincoln Square.

4 Responses to One Man’s Trash Is A Young Boy’s Treat

  1. Paul Marion says:

    Enjoyed this slice-of-life from late ’50s and early ’60s in Lowell. Smooth transition from today’s Florida to the old neighborhood. Sparkling detail helps to conjure the scene: products, people. activities. The Lowell story in the 19th century is well documented. Anybody who adds to the narrative of the 20th century, especially post-WWII through 1980, makes a valuable contribution. Thanks.

  2. Ed DeJesus says:

    Jackie, I’m happy to hear this evoked childhood memories. Your family experienced first-hand life as a Sun carrier in Kerouac’s old neighborhood, and you charmed Lowellians with The Paper Route.

    Paul, I genuinely appreciate another of your succinct takes on my stories. They read like book blurbs and hearten me to dust off more of my other Lowell stories. Wishful thinking … but I may pull them all together and send them your way for a potential LP title. Thanks!

  3. Steve O'Connor says:

    I just got around to reading this. Brough back memories of the Ragman’s cry and the sound of the horse clopping over the cobblestones of Marginal Street. Reminds me once again what a different world we grew up in. Good job, Ed.

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