SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 5, 2012

McAllister: Remembering Salem institutions

Essex County Chronicles Jim McAllister
The Salem News

---- — In the interest of providing some levity in these post-Sandy, pre-election days, this column is devoted to somewhat personal anecdotes relating to various Salem institutions.

One August day in the early 1970s, I don’t remember the year exactly, I was watching the late, lamented Salem Heritage Days Parade with Mike Wilson on Essex Street near the intersection of Hawthorne Boulevard. Leading the parade was the then-governor of Massachusetts, Francis W. Sargent.

Looking dapper, casual and confident, Sargent worked the crowd on both sides of the street as he marched. After shaking hands with a few potential voters on the opposite curb, the governor started to cross to where we were standing. Suddenly, Mike turned to me, a big grin on his face, and said, “Watch this.”

Before I could say a word, Mike stepped out into the street and started waving enthusiastically in the direction of the governor. “Frank, Frank,” he yelled while continuing to wave his arm back and forth. Sargent found the voice in the crowd, and for just a second, a look of concern came over face. Recovering quickly, he headed confidently toward Mike, who was now almost halfway into the street.

Shaking Sargent’s hand and giving him a couple of pats on the shoulder, Mike said warmly, “Great to see you. It’s been a long time. How’s the family?”

“They’re great, and great to see you,” yelled Sargent, who was already moving on to the next group of well-wishers.

Returning to my side with an impish grin on his face, Mike said to me, “He’ll spend the rest of the day trying to remember who I am. But we’ve actually never met.”

Our second story relates to Red’s Lunch, another Salem institution that has outlasted the Heritage Parade. For many years — and many years ago — Red’s was owned by John and Annette Giardi. As John was busy with his job in the city of Salem Electrical Department and private work, Annette pretty much ran the restaurant. Since I was in there all the time, and shared her sense of humor and love of good-natured banter, we became friendly.

Even when there were minor issues that needed to be resolved between myself and the restaurant, humor was always the vehicle for doing so. One day, I was sitting at the counter enjoying a club sandwich and a heaping plate of fries when a thought came to me. The next time Annette was in my area, I shared that thought with her.

“Hey, Annette,” I said, “let me ask you something. If I order a sandwich, I get a handful of potato chips (they didn’t have the small individual bags yet) with it, correct?”

“Yes. You should know that after all these years,” she replied.

“Now, if I order a side order of french fries, which I pay for, I still get free chips with my sandwich, right?”

“That’s right.”

I was ecstatic over this opportunity to zing my friendly adversary. “Well, you’ve been cheating me for years, because every time I get fries the chips seem to disappear.”

Annette made no attempt to refute my claim, and offered nothing that even hinted at an apology.

Instead, she slid the large Tupperware container full of potato chips down the counter in my direction. “Eat until you think we’re even,” she yelled over her shoulder as she headed off to pick up another order.

Problem solved.

Our third and final true tale involves the longtime editor of The Salem News editorial pages, Nelson Benton, who is now more or less retired and sweating it out in Arizona. For many years, Nelson and I were connected through this very Essex County Chronicles column. During that time, I came to appreciate his innate curiosity and humor.

My favorite interaction with Nelson had nothing to do with the column, however, but rather an early morning call I made to him from my cellphone. I had just deposited the required three quarters in a Salem News box on Washington Street, and when I went to pull open the door to get my newspaper, it wouldn’t budge. I had then pushed the coin return button, expecting to get my three quarters back. But again, the cantankerous box refused to cooperate.

Partly to have some fun with Nelson, and partly to alert the paper of the problem, I complained to my editor that The Salem News had just ripped me off. His response was immediate, unsympathetic and to the point.

“How do you think we get the money to pay you for your column?”

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Salem historian Jim McAllister is a regular contributor to these pages.