“It’s human nature to gripe, but I’m going ahead and doing the best I can.”
— Elvis Presley
Joe Jesus is as happy-go-lucky a guy as you’d ever want to meet.
A couple days after he cancelled New Bedford’s annual '50s Night, some folks are griping about the fact the city couldn’t get Union Street in workable condition in time. Others are griping that Joe wouldn’t move the throwback festival to Fort Taber or Buttonwood Park or some other locale.
But eighty-year old Joe is having none of it.
He’s not blaming the mayor, and he’s not blaming himself. It’s just one of those things, he said, and next year it will be back and better than ever.
“Reminiscing,” Jesus said. “If I had one word to describe '50s Night, it’s reminiscing.”
It was a time when the guys would drive their white-walled tired cars down Purchase Street on a Thursday night and circle around Pleasant to watch the girls going north at Merchants Bank or south at the Cherry and Webb building.
On Friday nights, they’d do the same thing on Acushnet Avenue in the North End.
It’s all about location, Jesus explained, and moving the city’s most popular downtown event wouldn’t be '50s Night if he held it at Fort Taber or Buttonwood Park. It’d just be a car show.
Jesus, who got married when he was 19 and has outlived his two daughters, said he came up with the idea for '50s Night after he had gone to Florida in the late 1980s and saw how popular their gatherings around vintage cars were.
He thought if he could do that kind of event on Purchase Street it would bring back, if just for one night, all those wonderful times when he was growing up. In the early years, he said, he did it mostly by himself but as time went on the bands and the families grew, it spread out beyond Purchase to Custom House Square, and then down Union Street. But it was always about driving around the downtown, and remembering Purchase Street as it was. You wouldn’t get that same feeling by doing it anywhere else.
Jesus said the DPI guys told him they thought they’d have the sidewalks done at least down to Acushnet Avenue by the time his July 19 date came. But they didn’t. It’s a big project — literally replacing all the water and sewer mains for the downtown — and when Jesus arrived at the Green Bean at the corner of Purchase and Union last week, he said he could see '50s Night wasn’t going to happen this year.
“It broke my heart,” he said. “It takes a lot of time to get everybody and everything together.” But he quickly added that he’s not one to dwell on the negative and he’s already moved on.
On the city side, DPI Director Jaime Ponte and Mayor Mitchell told me they tried to get the streets ready but it’s hard to predict schedules on big construction projects. They got delayed by weather and ledge underground during the water and sewer main parts of the project; they just didn’t get there in time with the sidewalks.
Asked if they could not have done one block of the project at a time, or planned to stay away from big areas being torn up during the two consecutive weeks when the New Bedford Folk Festival and '50s Night happen, Mitchell said those kind of scheduling delays would have increased the cost of the projects exponentially.
I’m not sure whether I’m buying that, but in any event it’s important to replace the city’s downtown water and sewage infrastructure and the administration should be praised for going after state funding and taking it on. Even if they didn’t plan it around the summer festivals.
As far as Jesus is concerned, he said that he was heading to “the office” Saturday afternoon to meet with his buddies. His office is the Market Basket coffee area where the septuagenarians and octogenarians gather to gab and reminisce, to talk about then and now.
Jesus, who’s run one business or another in the city forever, said he likes to bring people together, keep families together. He’s also sponsored Christmas carol events over the years.
He’ll be back.
Like Elvis, Joe is not worrying too much and not complaining — probably one of the reasons he’s lived so long since those good old days.
Jack Spillane is the Sunday and editorial page editor of The Standard-Times.