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O Pittsfield!

The unique places, stories, tastes and sounds that made a hometown boyhood special

by Stephen Leon on June 19, 2013 · 9 comments

If I had a quarter in my pocket and Mom wasn’t expecting me home immediately after school, I might have headed over to Elm Street when Egremont Elementary School let out. Jules Superette was a small variety store with one unique feature: penny candy in small wooden bins behind the counter. You told Jules what you wanted and he scooped them into a brown paper bag for you: peachstones, Red Hots, string licorice, candy cigarettes, and those straws full of—well, it must have just been flavored sugar. Heavenly.

If you continued down Elm Street several blocks, you’d find Palmers, a traditional corner variety store, with everything from groceries to magazines to household necessities. But like Jules, it had personality—and The Sporting News, and Archie comics. A couple more blocks and you reached Angelina’s sub shop, where as teens we spent our pocket change on their house specialty “Original” subs (just Italian mixed subs, basically)—served with personality and in broken English by the very welcoming family that owned the place.

I think I followed a fairly typical blueprint for any kid getting to know his hometown: At first your parents take you to stores and parks, and you may or may not pay too much attention to where you are or how you got there. I always paid attention. In the summers my mother would take me to the Berkshire Hills swimming pool several miles away across town. Driving there meant zigging and zagging along city streets, passing through Little Italy and the sprawling GE plant before ascending the final hill on Benedict Road. I could have biked there on my own when I was 10, had I been allowed.

Growing up in Pittsfield, Mass., a city of about 50,000 people (fewer now), I drew a mental map that expanded from my neighborhood to the places my parents took me, including the businesses on Elm Street and the downtown commercial district on North Street. There was no mall yet, no big boxes—almost every store I can recall was locally owned. Not all of this is gone, and I don’t mean to sound too nostalgic for the good old days, but my children may never really learn the pleasure of browsing a favorite record shop. If you wanted guitar strings or sheet music along with the latest pop single, you might hit the orderly Sammy Vincent’s on North Street; if you wanted to feel a little more hip, get a good new album recommendation, and catch a strong whiff of incense while you shopped, you went to New Wave Music on Fenn Street.

My memories of downtown Pittsfield are too numerous to mention—though I have to say it was pretty cool buying your Converse Chuck Taylors from a certain all-star shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles (whose brother happened to be my high school soccer coach) at Besse-Clarke. And my memories of the Highland Restaurant—where the veal cutlet, the pies, the wait staff and the impossibly low prices never seemed to change—were reinforced once in a while when we’d stop in with the kids over the years. It’s still there, and it still hasn’t changed much. Places like the Highland keep the heart of any hometown beating.

What other town could boast three joints that served mini hot dogs? One was the Doghouse on or just off of Tyler Street; I think it’s long gone. But the Hot Dog Ranch on Linden Street not only had the dogs, it had a lively scene then into the wee hours. When I was in high school my friends and I worked the Friday midnight shift stuffing advertising inserts into the Berkshire Eagle; we’d finish by 1:30, collect our wages and head over to the Springs. The chatty old guy who worked the grill on that shift was known simply as Danny Eggs. I remember him lining up eight or nine of those little dogs on his arm and applying the condiments, all the while keeping tabs on the eggs cooking on his grill, none of which distracted him from the stories he told nonstop.

And I remember sitting with a friend and his father, a Pittsfield cop, at the bar at Teo’s, the locally legendary restaurant on East Street that specialized then (as now) in those mini dogs. It was a Saturday afternoon, and in front of me were three loaded dogs and a frosted mug of root beer. (Sometimes my memory tries to convince me it was a frosted mug of Pabst; I must have been 16 or 17, the drinking age was 18, and whatever the officer said would have been fine by the bartender. But it probably was root beer.) What made that afternoon special (besides the dogs) was listening to a cop tell stories about things going on in the city’s underbelly, things I otherwise wouldn’t have known about because they hadn’t made the newspaper—not yet anyway. Some years later as a part-time reporter for the Eagle, I would have a similar reaction listening to former Mayor Remo Del Gallo tell stories at his bar on Newell Street.

We bowled at the popular Imperial Lanes, which had candlepins, or the larger Ken’s Bowl, where I’m sure I sat and drew pictures and drank chocolate milk as a 3-year-old while my mother bowled in a ladies’ league. But it was much cooler to discover bowling alleys that were hidden from obvious view; a small, second-story establishment called Jefferson Lanes on North Street, and the basement lanes in the Stanley Club on Wendell Avenue. My father went there occasionally and mentioned the bowling, but I don’t think he ever took me there. When I finally was in the place in my late teens, finding the lanes was like stumbling onto one of father’s secret hideouts.

Arlo Guthrie immortalized the Berkshires in “Alice’s Restaurant,” and over the years we’ve graduated members of J. Giels, the Dixie Chicks and John Mellencamp’s band. But my favorite flirt with Pittsfield musical not-quite-stardom was when we started hearing buzz about a singer-songwriter who was playing Thursday nights during our high-school senior year at the Spaghetti Factory on Dalton Avenue. We started going there to hear Stu Nunnery, as did hundreds of other locals drawn to this new scene, and those nights quickly got rowdy. Before long his gigs were canceled, the Berkshire Eagle reporting that people were spilling out of the club into neighboring yards and “fornicating on the lawns.”

As for Nunnery, his recording career was relatively short-lived, but it did produce a beautiful piano ballad called “Madeleine,” and made him something of a star in . . . Brazil. Should you research this online, you will find that fans there have made videos of his songs that are both touchingly adoring and crudely amateurish.

I hear that Jackson Browne’s concert at Tanglewood this July 4 will be the 40th anniversary of his first appearance there. I could not have been there for that first show, but I definitely saw him there two or three summers later, when my friends and I had drivers’ licenses and would cram into a car and make the 15-minute journey from Pittsfield. Lawn tickets were inexpensive, though it didn’t really matter, as one of our friends’ fathers worked the gate (kind of like hopping the fence without the fear of being caught, or the torn jeans).

Though primarily the summer home of the BSO, Tanglewood always offered a Popular Artists Series, a short list of shows typically featuring low-key singer-songwriter types. Earlier, there had been big rock acts such as the Who, but by the mid-’70s the venue shied from the noise and potential audience overstimulation of high-powered rock & roll. No matter, it was our summer ritual, and we gladly snuck in through the main gate to see James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Dan Fogelberg and Browne. Not that we always paid close attention to the show: We were 17, do the math. But I do recall lying back on my blanket and listening to Browne’s “For a Dancer” for the first time, its piano elegance, lyrical sadness and resilience turning me into an instant fan.

In the ’70s, the Music Inn in Stockbridge had more adventurous booking than Tanglewood, and the concert scene there was a little wilder, the fan base (and staff) a little crazier. I wrote about this in 1985 for Berkshires Week, though I don’t think you can find it online. Highlights for me included interviewing Jimmy Giuffre, a prominent jazz musician who had been part of the Music Inn jazz scene before it became a rock venue, and Stockbridge Police Officer William Obanhein, who had figured prominently in Guthrie’s epic “Alice’s Restaurant.”

When you go to college with people from all over the country, Pittsfield doesn’t sound like much. So you brag about what you can: Bousquet had the first night skiing (thanks to GE—and I think this is true). The largest building in the world! (GE again—Building 100, where they assembled transformers, I think. . . . Is it a contemporary art museum yet?) Herman Melville’s home!

I’m not sure if I ever bragged about the Berkshire Eagle’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing (earned by Roger Linscott), but that prize did put Pittsfield on the journalism map, and in the 1981 film Absence of Malice, Sally Field’s character reminisces about her first job at the Eagle. A college buddy from Dallas was back home, watching the movie in a theater, and when Field made the Pittsfield reference, he blurted out, “Leon!”—then sat back embarrassed, because of course no one in the theater knew who or what the hell he was talking about.