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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Other Side Of The Tracks–A Very American Story Of Love And Class

There were two sides of the tracks in New Brighton – the wealthy, old, Anglo-Saxon side, the descendants of the captains of industry who made the town what it was, an economic powerhouse of the mid-19th century, manufacturer of arms and materiel for the Union Army in the Civil War and purveyor of tools and hardware to the Expeditionary Forces in World War I – and the rest of the town.  There were actual railroad tracks in New Brighton, but they came nowhere near the leafy enclaves of the West End, and cut through the factory East End.  Freight trains from the Baltimore & Ohio loaded at Broad Street sidings and rumbled their way to Bridgeport and New York through the Polish tenements on Broad and Arch Streets unheard and certainly unseen by the Bishops, Porters, Frisbees, and Landers whose old colonial homes backed onto the 14th Hole of the Burleigh Maple Country Club and fronted on Lincoln Street, the carriageway that led from the corporate and law offices downtown to the oak-shaded neighborhoods of the West End.

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The first settlers of New Brighton had come in the yearly 1600s, members of the Davenport-Eaton team who, having heard from the Wampanoag Indians that the protected harbor of what was to become New Haven, the temperate climate and the abundant seafood of southern Long Island Sound, broke their journey from Salem and stopped in Connecticut.  Davenport had urged them to continue to New Haven – there was no good information about the Indians in the Connecticut River Valley, and the winters would certainly be far harsher than on the water – but Harold Vibberts saw things differently.  Access to both the Farmington River and the Connecticut River would give access for products and produce from the rich land surrounding New Brighton.  Vibberts was an entrepreneur, land manager, and skilled artisan, and was confident that he could make the community profitable.

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The house he built in 1640 is still standing on Lincoln Street, marked by a prominent placard over the front door.  Of course it had been adjusted and modified for the times.  Over the years the fireplaces had been replaced by coal- and then oil-burning furnaces, the outhouses removed and plumbing installed, insulation fitted in the attic and many new slate and then tile roofs built; but it still retained its early American look and spirit.  The Vibberts descendants had never shirked their ancestral responsibility and had kept the original furniture, paintings, and appointments.  Lincoln Street had been widened after the Great War, and many new homes were built to overlook the Southington and Meriden mountains; but the character of the West End retained its exclusiveness and Old World respectability.

The children of these West Enders went to country day school and exclusive New England preparatory schools, summered on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, skied at Gstaad and Aspen, and wanted for nothing.  The more ambitious, after Yale, went on to financial success on Wall Street while most others were happy to live on their private incomes, remained in New Brighton and led happy, exclusive, and privileged lives.

The other side of the tracks – the other New Brighton, was less homogeneous.  There were the Polish immigrant laborers who worked in the ball bearing, hardware, and tool-and-dye factories in the South End; the Swedish and Norwegian carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and house painters who served the West End and their own; the Jewish merchants whose drug and jewelry stores and clothing emporia catered to the better-off factory workers; and the Italian, Polish, and Irish doctors, lawyers, and dentists who served their own clientele.  They lived and worked not on the other side of the tracks but on their various spurs.  The communities never met except over the counter, never aspired to much more than they had, and provided the labor and patriotism that small towns needed to prosper.

The borders between railroad sidings were not impermeable.  Billy Trower, for example, was a young man whose father was one of the first settlers of New Haven and whose mother was a direct descendant of John Smith.  His ancestry represented a unique combination of early Southern and Northern American history.  Billy had been brought up accordingly – a respect for his ancestral tradition, the Anglo-Saxon culture from which it was derived, and a very latter-day American spirit of honor, duty, and respect.  His great-great grandparents on this mother’s side had all been baptized in Christ Church in Irvington, Virginia, one of the first Anglican churches of the early colonial period and one of the first Episcopal parishes after disestablishment.  His father’s family, as has been noted, came on the Mayflower, travelled with Eaton and Davenport, and were instrumental in developing central Connecticut.

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Marilyn Petrucci was the daughter of a first generation Italian from Bari – a laborer at Fenwick Bearing who had never made his way up and off the factory floor.  After decades of sweeping steel shards and shavings in the underground machine works, he was no better off than when his parent arrived.  She, however, was a comer – a girl with enough good Mediterranean looks, smarts, and social savvy to land one of New Brighton’s best and brightest.  Yet she had no idea how hard this mountain would be to climb.  Not only did she live on the other side of the tracks, she had no idea what it was like anywhere else.  Where were her opportunities?  Not in Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, or at the Country Club, or at St. Grottlesex or the Seven Hills Country Day School.  Her pickup hangouts were the Bowl-o-Rink on the Berlin Turnpike, the ten-pin alleys on Arch Street, and the grinder joints on the East Side.

Her best bet was at one of the sidings on the spurs of New Brighton.  If she could not catch a member of old, Anglo-Saxon New England, then she might have better luck with a son of the up-and-coming bourgeoisie.  Benny Rozscicki, for example, son of a dentist who had found a way to cross ethnic lines.  He pulled the teeth of West Enders and Jewish shopkeepers.  Benny had his eye out for young girls and being a ‘tweener’, neither working class nor upper class,  he had advantages.  He could dip down and pull up a recent immigrant and reach up and pull down a susceptible plum of the elite.  It was Le Rouge et le Noir all over again – poor boy with ambitions but with a demanding sexual instinct.  He wanted Nancy Lowell, tempted her with his ‘reality’, but could never refuse lovely Polish novitiates or Italian working class princesses.  It was to this side of his nature to which Marilyn Petrucci appealed.

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Their affair lasted only a year.  “It stinks of pussy in here”, said Brad Gamble, scion of Ohio fortune and Billy’s Yale roommate.  “We’re married now”, said Marilyn after a long weekend in his small, shared bunk-bed room in Trumbull College. 

When Billy’s parents got wind of the cross-tracks affair, they did everything in their power to derail it.  They sent him on an all-expanse paid summer vacation to Europe, bought him an Alfa Romeo, and introduced him to New England’s most promising, elegant, and well-bred beauties.

He needed no such enticements, for when he caught Marilyn in an unguarded moment unzipping the pants of Hartley Pease, he  threw her and five dollars onto College Street – payment for Saturday night or train fare back to New Brighton, however you want to look at it.

There were a few sort-of successes.  Samuel Booth had a long affair with Susan Carlson, daughter of a housepainter and frequent date at Choate, Loomis, and Hotchkiss proms, and married her.  Married her twice in fact after she had left him for a better prospect in the early 70s.  Mary Bristol married the son of one of New Brighton’s wealthiest and most successful thoracic surgeons – not quite the town-gown dipping that Sam had done or what Marilyn Petrucci had tried, but still something to remember given the very inflexible and quite definitive social borders of the town. 

Most everyone else was content to stay with their own.  In the long run, despite the boredom and predictability of skiing and yachting in the Caribbean; or the equally predictable Easter dinners, Church benefits, and Sundays at the shore, it was better to hang with your own kind. 

America is a democratic country, more or less.  Equality of opportunity is the meme and the anthem; yet everyone knows his place. There is no room for Marilyn Petrucci in the West End or for Billy Porter on Alexander Street.

A boy like that
Who'd kill your brother
Forget that boy
And find another
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind
A boy like that

Will give you sorrow
You'll meet another boy tomorrow
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind


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