Cut from American Cloth (5)

This is the final section of the essay about Lowell that I’ve been posting this week.—PM

Cut from American Cloth (5)

     Places change, people enter and exit the stage—we won’t see Paul Tsongas jogging through the South Common, we won’t see Brother Gilbert who taught at Keith Academy after mentoring the young sportsman George Herman Ruth in Baltimore or Ruth Meehan who organized U.S.O. shows around the world and drove a candy apple-red coupe out of the driveway at 48 Highland.

     Some buildings are lost entirely. The Commodore Ballroom, later Mr. C’s Rock Palace, once commanded the middle of Thorndike Street. The big bands and blues greats made it the favored nightspot. In the ‘60s, major acts like Paul Revere and the Raiders and local phenoms like Little John and the Sherwoods headlined on weekends. You have to find it in pictures now.

     Somewhere in my local travels I heard a story about Jim Morrison of The Doors arriving early for a gig at the Commodore in the fall of 1967 when “Light My Fire” was still torching the competition. He had heard Kerouac was living on Sanders Avenue, about five minutes away by car, so he got a ride over to see the 45-year-old author who by all accounts was in serious physical decline. When he got to the house, Mrs. Kerouac, Jack’s wife Stella, refused to let him in. Scruffy young visitors materialized on the doorstep all the time. There would be no grand encounter of bare-chested pop poet and booze-bellied Beat Pop. Jack was sleeping.

     From my front porch, I can take in the site of Simon Willard’s court at Wamesit Village and the present Superior Court of the county, where Daniel Webster argued cases that became landmarks of the law. With St. Peter Church razed, only one of Highland Street’s great gray bookends remains, the sturdy Lowell Jail that became a Catholic high school for boys—which, to some graduates, was not a substantial change of use at all. On mornings when I circle the track at the bottom of the Common’s green bowl, I scan a roster of names tied to the ridgeline of buildings—Rev. Eliot, politician Charles Gallagher, Hood the Medicine Man, theatre-magnate Keith of the Academy, and Congresswoman Rogers.

     These names are entwined in history like the signature grapevines of the neighborhood, hundreds of them planted through the decades by Portuguese immigrants—green signs marking the presence of people who turn open space around their modest homes into miniature farms along the narrow, hilly ways. In the right season, waiting a minute before starting their cars for the drive to work, my neighbors, gardeners like Joe Veiga and Natalie Silva, hear the larks and the locomotive pulling toward Boston.

—Paul Marion (c) 2007