By Bill Geary
I was on a mission! I wanted a bike. My dad said, “If you earn a fin [$5], it’ll be the down payment for one at Victor’s.”
That weekend, I made a circuit of every gin mill I found in the First Ward. During three days of “business,” I earned the fin – enough for the down payment on a brand-new Shelby Flyer, my first two-wheeled bicycle.
Our home at 104 O’Connell Ave., one house from Alabama Street, sat diagonally from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. As I jaywalked toward the OLPH parish rectory, I saw our pastor, Father Mullins, sitting on the porch. I asked if he wanted his shoes shined. He did. Surely my polishing of his black shoes made him look like a “sharp harp” during his heavy Mass schedule.
Father Mullins was so impressed, instead of the customary 15 cents I charged, he gave me a quarter.
I learned then, as an 8-year-old, that doing a quality job could command a good pay, an example that served me well when older. My entrepreneurship had begun.
I walked toward Republic and Hamburg streets to Gene McCarthy’s Tavern, where I found my next “customers.” Long before my time, this section of Hamburg Street was an open sewer ditch. Its sewage flowed from farther up in the Ward and emptied into the river by the grain elevators.
Via the foot of Main Street, where the bums hung out, I continued toward the Greyhound Bus Terminal. My shoeshine territory comprised 20 blocks one way.
On my way back home, occasionally I could catch more shines from those who weren’t there on my outbound pass.
I was born and lived in Buffalo’s First Ward, the old Irish neighborhood. Some called it “the Ward.” Many others called it “the First Ward.” My birthplace was a corner house at Fulton and Hayward streets. I was baptized in Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church on Louisiana Street.
We lived mostly in rentals on O’Connell Avenue while attending OLPH grade school. Franciscan nuns worked hard to restrict our shenanigans from the first through the fourth grades.
Many people don’t know that Timon High School, now in South Buffalo, had its beginning in the upstairs classrooms of OLPH grade school. Our parish priests became great role models for us boys. As an altar boy I was privileged to serve midnight Mass one Christmas.
Despite being poor, we children felt proud living in the First Ward. We learned the value of hard work and hustling. If there was no work, we could “borrow, beg or steal.”
Two brothers, John and Jim, owned the corner store located next to us, which was like a cookie jar. I recall one early Sunday morning, before the store opened and while Mass was being celebrated at OLPH, my younger sister, brother and I planned a caper.
We boys stationed our sister in the alley between the two buildings. Her job was to see that our parents did not catch us. My brother stood at the corner to make sure no “bad person” snuck out of church early. My job was to snatch three glazed doughnuts out of the Courier Express delivery box. Success meant we would run back between the houses and devour our treasure like little ferrets in the crawl space under our house.
Throughout the years, I have remembered my early days in the Ward and claimed it as my place of origin. I always yearned to return. A few years ago I did, and felt at home just as I did back in the days of World War II, where my career as a businessman began.