What follows is another excerpt from Charlie Gargiulo’s memoir “Farewell, Little Canada,” in which he describes growing up in tumultuous times in the mostly French Canadian-American neighborhood that once existed close to the big bend in the Merrimack River. This is the second excerpt published on this blog, which we are sharing to give readers a sense of the book-length story that Charlie has written. The story is not yet published in book form. Charlie’s experiences in Lowell of the mid-1960s shaped his world-view and led him to later fight to prevent portions of the Acre neighborhood from being wiped out as had happened to Little Canada in the days of “Urban Renewal” when thousands of people were displaced and many buildings demolished.—PM
Farewell, Little Canada (an excerpt)
. . . .
When I visited Richie one Saturday morning, his oldest sister Arlene answered the door and I knew something was wrong right away because she didn’t insult me like she always did but quietly let me in and said that Richie was in his room. The house was very quiet. Richie’s place was never quiet.
Upstairs in his bedroom, Richie was sitting on his bed doing nothing. He looked up and said, “Did you hear about it?” I said, “No, what’s going on? Arlene looked like she didn’t hate my guts, and you look like you’re waiting to go the electric chair.” Richie said they had to move out. When I said I thought they were safe because the Urban Renewal guys were not supposed to tear down his row house, he said that they were only going to chop off the last two apartments nearest Ford Street and leave the others standing. Richie’s apartment was one of those two nearest Ford Street. Bye, bye Richie.
My face must have turned pale white, like Casper the Ghost, and I felt like I would faint. It was like I was in another bad movie. This was crazy. How many rotten things could go wrong? With all the things I had to worry about, one of the only bits of good news I had heard was that my best friend Richie’s home was safe. That at least I would be able to count on having him around. But as soon as I let down my guard and took his being there for granted, “WHAM!,” like Charlie Brown I landed hard on my butt after Lucy pulled away the football . . . again.
It was so sad. Saying nothing for the longest time, we sat on his bed with our heads hanging, staring at the floor. It was like we were both hoping that maybe if we were quiet, we’d wake up and find out it was just a nightmare. Then when it became clear it was real, I think we both began thinking about how much we meant to each other and how much this was going to change our lives.
My mind replayed memories of our times together, meeting him for the first time, going to Harvey’s Used Book Store, hanging out with the gang, my fight with Roger, getting grab bags and peashooters at Benny the Jips, hanging out with the rats at the Royal Theatre, running from crazy Mr. Berra, almost drowning together in the canal, fighting with his sisters, hearing The Beatles for the first time and planning to become rock stars. I shared everything with him, and it felt like we were a team that could make magic happen when we put our minds to it. And that’s what kept haunting the wonderful memories running through my head, realizing that, although I was grateful for being able to remember what we did, I now had to wipe out the part of my brain that looked forward to all the things I imagined we would do together in the future.
Richie was now going to join my Dad, Midnight, Noel, Ronnie, Dicky, Henry, Bum, Donna, Frenchie, and Bill as people no more real to me than characters on a movie screen. Memories are overrated. I would much rather have a future with the people I love than a past. And it was getting harder to feel secure about having a future with anyone that I loved.
It didn’t take long for Richie to move. Within a week or so, his dad was able to find a place way out on the other side of Billerica. It might as well have been Australia because I was never going to be able to hang out with him living that far away. I spent as much time with him as I could before he moved. We hung out a little bit with Paul, David, and Billy, but we mostly tried to spend as much time alone together as we could. I won’t get into all the things we said to each other, because we shared a lot of things about really personal stuff. The kinds of things guys usually never share with each other like family things that worried us or how scared we were about lots of stuff we didn’t want other people to know. I won’t give away his secrets, but Richie was the first person I swore to secrecy and told about my mom’s drinking. Obviously, he couldn’t fix it, but somehow just being able to know I could trust somebody that much meant a lot to me. Especially, knowing that he cared. About both me and my mom.
The day before he left I took him over to Poitras Hobby Shop, his second favorite store, across the street from his favorite store Harvey’s on Merrimack Street, so that I could buy him a going away present. He picked out a “Creature of the Black Lagoon” plastic model after we wandered this cool place that had a million different expertly built and painted models on display as well as electric trains and other cool hobby stuff. After that we went over to see Harvey.
Harvey’s was empty when we dropped in, and it allowed us a lot of time to hang around chatting with him. It was amazing all the memories we had hanging out with ol’ Harvey, and we laughed or got choked up over just about every one of them. Harvey told Richie how great he was and let him know that he would always have a special place in his heart because he was his first regular customer when he opened his old store on Aiken Street. After talking for at least two hours, Captain Jack popped in to make Richie’s last visit to Harvey’s perfect. When Captain Jack found out Richie was moving away, he pulled an old silver dollar out of his pocket and told Richie it was a good luck coin he had kept from an old treasure chest he found a long time ago, and that he wanted Richie to have it. He said to keep it and give it to somebody else he met someday who was sad and needed a little cheering up. Richie hugged him and started crying and said he didn’t want to move, that he loved Little Canada and all of us. We all did our best to console Richie, and finally Harvey was able to get Richie feeling better with that special gift he had of knowing how to say the exact right things. I don’t need to tell you that Harvey wouldn’t let him leave without making him pick out a bunch of free comics and 45 rpm record singles.
Our last stop on the way back to his home was dropping in one last time together at Benny the Jips, where I first met Richie, so that we could bug Bum’s old man one more time, hemming and hawing over picking out penny candy. Of course, we bought ourselves a famous Benny the Jips rip-off grab bag on the way out. We hung out the rest of the day at Richie’s place, and after going on about how much we meant to each other I said goodbye to his mom and dad and then, to my surprise, realized I was even going to miss his snooty sisters as we shook hands and wished each other well without even saying one nasty thing to each other. Now they were gone, and the shadow spread even larger over Little Canada.
—Charles Gargiulo (c) 2017