A guest post by Sandra Pierce. Our thanks to Sandie for sharing her childhood memories with us.
Many knew Mae Carlson as Albany’s rooming house queen, but I called her Mamay— Mother Mae, as I grew older. Bill Costigan, I called Dad. I was only two years old, when they adopted me in 1957. Their Lancaster Street apartment became my home.
I remember summers before the South Mall as noisy and fun—kids everywhere, skating, playing, laughing, fighting. Smoking and gossiping on the stoop, parents would look up to yell and swear at their kids. But the hullabaloo would continue.
Preparations for summer began in late June with a massive neighborhood-wide spring cleaning. Mae’s tenants and employees cleaned the rugs, mended curtains, cleaned the stoops, swept the hallways, painted window frames, raked the yards. Bill would haul off all the broken furniture and other rubbish. He had a tandem-wheel blue box truck, and I always went with him for the ride.
After all the busy days of cleaning, Mae would walk around checking and admiring the results. She believed that people who live in clean places look better and feel better about themselves. They are nicer to each other, and they pass that down to the kids. She told me over and over, “It’s not where you live as much as it’s how you live. Don’t forget it, Sandie!” I never have.
The goal was to finish cleaning by July 4. Then summer became a time of constant celebration.
Mae and Bill threw parties throughout the summer, but the two biggest were at the beginning and end of the season. The first, on July 4, opened the Hawk Street Playground for the summer.
As part of the spring clean up, the park was prepped for the summer. Mae and her employees made sure the swing set, slide, fences were painted and repaired. They spread grass seed and planted petunias.
Bill was in charge of the fireworks—sparklers, poppers, black snakes. He was a big kid at heart with a Santa Claus laugh. Cherry bombs were his favorite. For several nights before July 4, he would throw them off the front stoop. His loud laugh always followed, with a “Hey did you like that one, here’s another!” Bang! The men would cheer and the kids run around screaming. Soon, our stoop would be crowded with men yakking and throwing cherry bombs.
To prepare for the party, Mae and Bill’s employees set up long tables behind the Arlington Arms (42-48 Lancaster Street) and sat at them, filling wooden boxes with fireworks, toys, and bags of candy. They spent hours blowing up ballons and hanging them everywhere in the yards, on the street, in the park. Bang! As ballons popped, Mae or Bill would laugh and say, “There goes another one.” A lot of times the older kids were popping them. Mae would just tell the worker to get more out. “Blow up more.” Hundreds of balloons of every color, tied to the swings and fences and railings.
I remember all kinds of toys: jump ropes, hula hoops, skates and keys, kaleidoscopes, party whistles, punching balloons, clickers, marbles, jacks, kites, horns, rubber-band airplanes, cap guns, yo-yos, crayons and coloring books. There was a doll for each of the girls and a firetruck for the boys. There were treats for the kids’ mothers and babysitters as well—boxes of chocolates, black licorice (Mae’s favorite), and saltwater taffy, along with packs of cigarettes.
A cookout followed the parties at the park, and on these days, the same tables were filled with food. Mae began preparation for the cookout days before the event. Burgers, hot dogs, chicken, potatoes in garlic butter, corn on the cob, and Bill’s sauerkraut. For dessert, there were large tubs of homemade tapioca pudding with raisins. The adults drank beer and chain smoked, while the children played with their new toys. The leftovers went home with any child, tenant, neighbor, or friend who asked.
Smaller parties continued throughout the summer. So did the treats. When kids visited Mae, sometimes they were hoping for candy; sometimes they were looking for help. She was always ready to tend a scraped knee with bandaid and mercurichrome. A hankie would wipe away the tears, and bubble gum would bring a smile. Sometimes kids brought notes from their parents asking for bread, butter, money. Mae kept track of her little visitors by how much was gone each day from stash of candy she kept beside her rocking chair. She would sometimes brag about the number of visits she received in one day.
Mae loved the children who lived in her properties. In her mind they could do no wrong. She even paid babysitters to keep an eye on them. On rainy days, the kids were allowed to play in the hallways. If tenants complained, Mae would tell them it’s time for them to find another place to live.
The last party of the summer, in late August, was the best of the year. It started off in the park and ended up at the Arlington Arms, music blasting. That night, the kids were allowed to stay up after dark. But in addition to toys and candy, they also received pencils and paper. School would soon begin again.
All this would change in the summer of 1964. The South Mall (or “Rockefeller Center,” as it was known in the neighborhood) meant that we had to move two blocks up the street from 48 to 120 Lancaster. By that time, most of the houses around us had already been demolished. Two weeks later, I would watch our former home burn. But I will never forget Mae and Bill and the tight-knit community I knew on lower Lancaster.