When I was a young’un, I respected my elders. Especially my family or friends of the family, in my day you had to in order to avoid a backhander that came out of nowhere and that would set you straight! I sat attentively listening to their stories about the good ole days, when they themselves were younger and how they endured during times that made what we are going through now look like a spring holiday picnic. I mean they survived famines, a few serious pandemics, the big depression and two World Wars, they told me it was tough going but they always got through it, what choice did they have then?
Imagine living in a cold–water flat, without heat or air conditioning that was up five flights of stairs and having to share a bathroom with other tenants on your floor… You would say, “No thanks, I’ll pass!!!”
My great grandparents and grandparents experienced such a thing. My grandfather Freddy, as long as I knew and loved him, was always a class act. A North End city boy and always in a suit and tie wearing a fedora hat. He told me he never owned a pair of “dungarees” in his life, or a driver’s license for that matter, he said… “For what? There are busses and a subway!” He retired in the late 60s, a shoemaker for a prestigious shoe manufacturer in Boston. For the rest of his life, he was an “errand boy” for my uncle and me during my young apprenticeship in the Jeweler’s Building in downtown Boston. Rain or shine, snow, hell or high water, he was trapped in the building during the blizzard of 78’ the only one who showed up early, and it took him eleven hours to get home that day. It was impossible for me to get into the city to rescue him and bring him home; he told me he walked for miles in that storm!
Pa would show up at 8 AM and open the safe, put the jewelry in the showcases and window displays, run errands, go to the bank, post office, fetch lunch, fix things and wait on customers when we were really busy… you name it!
We spent a lot of time together, almost every weekend when I was really small, apparently to keep me alive and well, I was a rambunctious child. A real problem child that even Dominican nuns would pale around me! Ma had three other kids at home, and by Friday afternoon, it would be strike two with bases loaded and she needed a break from me! I never so much as thought of misbehaving around my grandfather, and he never raised a finger to me. On the other hand, my grandmother Josie was a firm believer in not “sparing the rod,” something I tried often to avoid because I was a faster runner than she was. She was a force to be reckoned with if she caught you!
Pa taught me respect and courtesy to customers and the general public as they came in and out of the shop all day. He always told me when I began to fidget to “Watch and learn!” and would go crazy every time he saw my dollar bills come out of my pocket in a confused wad… Even today, I still arrange and fold my cash in all the proper denominations.
To this very day, I cannot remember hearing a fowl word leave his mouth ever. I can’t say that for my grandmother who would curse AT me in Italian during our weekend neighborhood chases! Many of her explicit phrases are still burned into my memory!
There were hundreds of jewelers, diamond setters, goldsmith watchmakers, engravers, diamond and gem merchants in the building, and I knew most of them. I was one of three “building brats.” There was yours truly, and my friend Denis—I got him a job as a salesperson—and Ronnie who “learned” his trade across the hall; his dad was the best watchmaker in the city.
I often skipped school to be there early on Wednesdays. I worked, or should I say “learned” the jewelry business every single Wednesday and Saturday, and that included all school holidays. My uncle Richard and Ernest were both skilled and respected goldsmiths and I spent every summer in that building. I would fetch them coffee or lunch and their “tips” barely gave me carfare! Soon, at age of 12, I was a courier of precious diamond and gold jewelry going from floor to floor and building to building. There were three jeweler’s buildings within a block of each other in the 1960s. I guess they figured who would suspect a young kid schlepping expensive jewelry around town? I felt a sense of immense pride that these professional people would trust me to run around the city delivering or picking up tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of loose diamonds, rings, watches. I once delivered a $100,000 emerald ring to a customer on Beacon hill. I rang her doorbell and the house butler tried to shoo me away. Boy was he surprised when I presented his Madame’s Emerald ring!
Today, it is mind–boggling for me to think about the risks I was taking back then, and I did it without a single incident. I had a solid gold reputation, as good as the old pony express.
Without realizing it, each one taught me something along the way, at the ripe old age of 15, my errand boy days were over. I had my own workbench, my uncle said I was a natural. I learned the old school trade methods quickly and improvised with modern tools and techniques. I soon had my own wholesale repair accounts; I also did benchwork for the same folks I ran errands for. At the age of 18, I joined to Navy, a proud family tradition. When I was discharged in the mid–70s, I returned to the building and picked up where I left off. I started my own wholesale/retail business. I made lots of business mistakes. I was young and foolish and thought I knew it all, and learned from them… I never went to college as my friends did, but I got a heck of an education learning from those old–timers at 333 Washington Street, in Boston, MA.
Last week, I returned to the building and was overwhelmed by how much it changed. All the familiar faces have all passed away and their names are nearly unknown today, but I still remember them all. I would catch hell from Mr. Cohen if his brisket sandwich wasn’t lean, and heaven forbid if they forgot the pickle! There are very few of the original jewelry shops left… Denis and Ronnie are still there, I call them “the Ghosts of the Jeweler’s Building,” and we have remained good friends since those early days. I will never forget how I cut my teeth there, enjoyed a youth well spent and how crazy busy that building was in the 60s through the 80s!
Just a reminder, I’m still replacing your watch battery for three or more cans of food and donating to the local food bank. Please note… I cannot change certain brands of watches that require authorized factory replacements, especially Ironman or multi-function watches or wrist computer. Thank you.
Richard Alan is a designer/goldsmith and owner of The Harbor Goldsmith Marco’s Island jeweler since 1994. He welcomes your questions and comments about All That Glitters at www.harborgoldsmith.com.