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Mike Cote: 'Mr. Green Gene' had many guises

June 14. 2014 8:32PM

A young Gene Cote displays his prowess on the drums. (FAMILY PHOTO)

"MR. GREEN GENE" was a man about Manchester.

My father has been gone for a few years, but his ghost haunts this town.

Eugene Francis Cote spent most of his life living and working in Manchester, where he was born and raised. Though he and my stepmother spent their final years in Oxford, N.C., I bet he would have resettled here - just as I did after a long stretch living elsewhere - had he licked that second bout of cancer at 71.

Instead, he left me to recollect the memories of his past lives, the ones I define by how he made his living, the yardstick with which we tend to measure ourselves no matter how hard we try to separate who we are from how we earn our pay. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker.

The son of Charles Cote, a church custodian, and Kathleen Donovan Cote, a seamstress, my father grew up on the east side of town in a modest Laurel Street neighborhood that endures but seems to have its best days long behind it. I drive by Nanny and Poppy's former home occasionally to see how the old house is holding up, a small tribute to my Scottish-Irish and French-Canadian heritage.

It's one of several city landmarks that remind me of my father. Another is the Music & Arts store on Elm Street, until a decade ago the longtime home of Ted Herbert's Music Mart, before the family of the late big band leader sold the retail side of the business to a national chain. (Music & Arts plans to leave that space in July and move to South Willow Street, leaving the still-family run Ted Herbert's Music School behind upstairs.)

In his younger years, my father played drums with a band that gigged at social events around town. His obituary published in the Union Leader in October 2010 said he played with Ted Herbert's band, but someone in our family got that part wrong, an innocent touch of misplaced grandeur. I can say for a fact, though, that my father and his band performed at the wedding of my mother's younger sister.

The drumming was a side gig. Over the course of his life, my father worked as a cook and restaurant manager, as a salesman and store manager (cars, jewelry) and as a small-business operator. When I drive around town, I see him in all those guises.

At the Derryfield Country Club, I always spy the empty spot on the southwest side of the green, just near the fence that separates the course from someone's house, where my father briefly operated a hot dog cart. He once chided me for jingling a pocketful of change, joking that the customers would think we were rich and that he was charging too much. Neither was true.

In the same block as Julien's Country Kitchen restaurant at Union and Bridge streets is a small storefront that used to be home to "Mr. C's Appliance Store," one of my dad's several stabs at entrepreneurism.

In the mid-'60s, he operated a coffee vending company that he had bought out from his partner. My mother would help him in our tiny kitchen on Cumberland Street, making sandwiches that he sold in the machines. They included a Kraft spread that came in jars we would later use as juice glasses.

He stored aluminum coffee urns and supplies in our garage, where long after he shut down the business, we could still fill our pockets with sugar cubes.At the corner of Valley and Elm, now the home of Triangle Credit Union, my father worked as a cook and manager for Mr. Steak, a once popular national chain that popularized double-thick slices of white bread as Texas toast. The kids menu, featuring nursery-rhyme-themed items like Little Jack Horner Steak and Chicken Little Chicken, was printed on the back of a plastic sheet cow puppet.

My father also worked at Ferretti's restaurant, several blocks north on Elm Street. My older brother and I would visit him on Saturdays, feeling like kings as we dug into a half-chicken dinner, the only unaccompanied minors in a dimly lighted restaurant that always seemed like it was nighttime inside.

One of my father's last occupations in town was selling jewelry as a store manager at Zales in the Mall of New Hampshire. My dad liked to boast about his sales acumen and would spin tales about how well he could size up prospects and figure out what it took to hook them. And because Gene Cote sold so much, he would say, his co-workers took to calling him "Mr. Green Gene."

That would have made one heck of a stage name for a drummer and bandleader. "Mr. Green Gene" and the Salesmen wish you a happy Father's Day. And a one and a two ...

Mike Cote is business editor at the New Hampshire Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321 ext. 324 or

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