Above: 104 Duke Street in July 2021. It was demolished in December.
When something like this happens, you don’t even know where to begin. But, I am going to try. There are so many memories and I will take a walk down the hallway in my mind to that little room where memories live. There are so many. They are so good, mostly, though right now a lot of people are crying as they reach back themselves and conjure up the good thoughts they have of a time, a place, a people.
… It started out as a cobbler’s. My Grandpa Ucci was a cobbler. They called his wife “Shoemake.” Little did they know she came from royalty in Italy. Her father and mother were the baron and baroness from that area. She was “of the manor born” but ran away with the stable boy. Everyday she would sweep the sidewalk between the house (still there) and the store (just torn down). If any kids were fooling around near her she would give them a swat with the broom.
Imagine that! My mother used to say, “If everyone swept in front of their own house, the whole world would be clean.” Maybe my grandmother was practicing that.
Later it became a neighborhood grocery store. East Greenwich had one on almost every corner back then. After that it became an icon: Tar Tar Ucci’s Variety Store. A place to buy your groceries. A place to hang out. To swipe penny candy. A place to pitch pennies. A place to play tackle football in the street. Most made it there at least once a day. Some even more.
… Picture Tar leaning on his counter. He just bummed a cigarette from one of his “boys.” The older generation all served in Korea and all came back to hang around the store and the corner, maybe have a cool one across the street at Mulley’s (Oaks Tavern).
There was Torchy (John) Tortolano; Fred and Ray Turgeon; Bebe; Polack (Tony) Kasyan; Frenchy LaCross (later owner of The Oaks, called Mulley’s by locals); Bert Robinson; Jumbo and Bobby Zubee; Brizzy (Anthony) Montini; Tony, Frank and Vinny Lallo (next generation was Bob and after him lil’ bro’ Richard); Kelly (Paul) Kelly; Jake Murray; Ducky Gardiner; Eddie (Edward) Denice; and Doodie and Bubba Jones (followed by Lolly, Lollipop Jones of my generation).
Later it was Robert, Dom, Michael, Vinny and, after them, Benny, Dipper, Victor, Frank and Twanny then Wayne and Joe and Fred. Some of those boys went to Vietnam. They, too, all came back but some were not the same again. Still, Tar kept a protective eye on them all.
He had been a local hero. All State in two sports. A pro in two sports. One local businessman (Mr. Daff Gammons) offered to pay his way to Brown just so he could continue to watch Tar play football. He was that good. The local Jim Thorpe. Now he tended the store from 7 to 6 and in doing so he saved a neighborhood and the people in it. And even some from afar.
… The football games in the street. Rough and tumble. Some to set up the new boy. Initiate him with a hard tackle. A high pass to come under and swipe him, setting him down hard in the street. Tar watching. No one dared to cry or show pain. What would the Legend think?
… And then there were the card games. Held in a room off the storage room in back. A peep hole allowed a sight of who was there. The teachers, coaches, police, administrators et al who would show up for a friendly hand of poker or blackjack, or whatever.
And, the carved out space under the store beside the boiler. Slots and craps and card tables and the like. I don’t think they will find them now. Seems I remember them finally being removed. But the stories they could tell. I was only allowed down there twice. Once to get something and once to plant a picture in my mind of a time that once was and is never coming back. God! It was a great time and those of us who lived it didn’t want it to die. Since it has gone, we will keep it alive in our remembrances, our stories.
But, though that was a truism, The Store was more. The Proprietor even more so. It was a place that restored people. Kept them afloat. A meeting place. A social event. An iconic spot. I found it funny listening to my “Medegone” friends, who talked of going there BTH. Maybe with their parents. In a car. Driving through and pointing out the spots. They certainly never walked down there alone. In fact, I was not allowed to go down there without one of my parents when I was younger. There was a reputation there, maybe deserved, maybe not. Just recently one person asked, “What building was that?” about a picture of four boys in front of the store. Someone else even picked the wrong side of the building as the place where the pic was taken. It was ingrained in us who hung out there. It was iconic. How could you miss it? I was there every day. I stacked the canned goods and the boxes of spaghetti, macaroni, penne, shells and such. Remember the coconut strip candies? Brown, white and pink. And, oh so good. Bon bons.
Twizzle sticks, chocolate babies. How about the pizza strips? Dough. Paste and cold.
Now it is just a pile of bones. Soon to be swept away for Progress. Condos. A fancy name for an apartment so you are conned into paying $500,000 or more. I saw the rendition of what it will become. It is nice but I’ll never be able to look at it again without seeing The Store. And Tar standing in the door frame. Elbow up, leaning and looking.
And. That one time. He had sent me for a wagon of sand. I was pulling it by Hanson’s Grain and there he was. In the doorway as I’ve described.
“Your mother wants you home now,” he said. When I walked in the house the kitchen was filled with people. “You’ve got to be … ,” someone said.
And it was then that The Store came to be for me and played a large role in my life everyday ‘til I went away. College. Service. Jobs. Only to return to visit The Store.
Edythe took over the store and made it a sandwich shop. We used to call it Edooch’s Zoo. It was warm and funny. And family. Famiglia. Everyone the Uccis touched became loved and a part of the whole. My mother (Dora) and Aunts Vicki and Jesse and Uncle Frank. They all pitched in. They’d be in back, making the pizza and talking and arguing and loving and laughing.
One time a gentleman came in and ordered a meatball sandwich (usually 4-6 meatballs, a large roll and plenty of sauce for $3.95). He waited and waited, finally asking where his sandwich was. Turns out Edythe, in preparing it, had been tasting the sauce and sampling the meatballs and had accidentally eaten the whole thing.
Did I mention Laughter? It went along with the Love and was a Big part of what went on there. The old Townies knew and word spread and people congregated there for lunch and to partake of the Love and livings and laughter. Especially the Love.
That was The Store.
And now it’s gone. The Store is no more.
* From the memory of Bruce Mastracchio, who lived those 28-hour days and 8-day weeks that made growing up here so special. Knowing the characters like Edooch, The Golden Girls and Tar made it even more so.
Editor’s Note: We will be running more stories from Bruce’s archives about The Store in coming weeks.