Arthur’s Paradise Diner is tucked in along the canal in the shadow of the Boott Cotton Mills. Eating there is like eating inside an old wooden tool box that is perfectly designed, without an inch of wasted space between the griddle and the booths. Tom ordered the cheese omelette and gave in to the cook’s urging to have just a minor pile of homefries while I chose the “small” French Toast breakfast (That’s three pieces for small; the large is six, can you you believe it?) with potatoes on the side, which I didn’t finish. I think he said he hadn’t eaten in the diner since high school. I don’t imagine the decor has changed much since the late ’50s. The place was busy on Saturday morning even though Bridge Street was quiet at 8.15 a.m. It was a good morning for a walk.
From the diner we headed up the Eastern Canal with the sun at our backs, admiring the craftsmanship in the preservation work and new construction at the Boott, the restored boarding house (Mogan Cultural Center), not-so-new Boarding House Park pergola/performance pavilion, Robert Cummings’ three-part sculpture, Canalway path and railings, all the improvements in the area that says “National Park” more than any other except for the Lower Locks Complex between Middlesex Community College’s main building and the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. Tom recounted stories of his extended family that are filled with enough drama for a family saga trilogy. You don’t have to be Shakespeare to see the drama in your driveway.
We crossed French Street at Lucy Larcom Park and paid our respects to the poet, editor, teacher, abolitionist who had her own park before Jack K. got his in 1988. Ellen Rothenberg’s serial public art installation in the park includes an unforgettable quote from Sarah Bagley, editor of the fiery Voice of Industry pro-labor newspaper of the 1840’s: “Truth loses nothing upon investigation.” That would be a good slogan for a politician trying to beat back opponents who treat facts like a twistie that you use to tie up the bread bag. Apparently, no photo or illustration of Sarah Bagley exists. She was a pioneer among women working beyond the farm and village, and became the first female telegraph operator of her day.
Our path turned up Merrimack Street, through Monument Square and the Ladd & Whitney tribute (Luther Ladd was 17 years old when he died on the street in Baltimore on his way to help protect Washington, DC). We stopped to take a good look at the Smith Baker Center, whose exterior red glowed in the early morning sun. I told Tom about the plans for the Kerouac Creativity Center and the prospects for a high-energy community arts program in the building. He liked the location, right across the street from Pollard Memorial Library and City Hall, and within sight of the Whistler House Museum of Art. We kept going up Merrimack, where he pointed out the same liquor store that sold him beer when he was in high school and way under 21. He said he had heard from someone that the pizza was tasty at Brothers Pizza at the corner of Cabot and Merrimack. We cut up Cabot and curled back on Market, passing the CCA, one of the stalwart social clubs that dot the city. It strikes me that most of these gathering places are primed for a generational turn. Maybe with an influx of new members these clubs can be re-energized as the vital “third places” that younger Lowellians say they are looking for.
When we got to Nick’s barbershop across from North Common Village, the owner I presume was dozing in one of the swivel chairs. Somebody has got to document this fantastic shop in photographs and/or video while it has its amazing interior. The walls are completely adorned with posters, snapshots, polaroids, news clippings, tickets, stickers, you name it. No fine artist could do a better job with an installation evoking time and place and culture. There’s a strong Sinatra thread, but so much more. It’s a time machine and wall-mounted archive. My friends at the National Park Service should certify this as a historical site and work with the owner to save it as is to show what Lowell culture is like in this long moment. And let the haircuts continue.
We crossed Market and stepped behind one of the brick housing units at North Common to get in back of Holy Trinity Church, where there was still a topping of snow on the faux temple ruins in the newly landscaped and paved parking lot. From there we headed toward the Whistler House Museum, which has a Lowell-theme art exhibition this month. The opening reception is next Saturday. Tom said he’d wander back in the afternoon to see the show. We looped back on Dutton and turned south on Market to get back to the ICC where he is staying. Tom said the downtown looks wonderful compared to the business sector he had driven through on Rte. 38, going from Lowell to Tewksbury the day before. He said that mish-mash of commercial sites, shopping strip, parking-lot heavy parcels, fast food drive-thru’s, and auto service outfits of all kinds reminded him of nothing so much as Wasilla, Alaska, home of she-who-must-be-heard. Although he winters in Maine now, Tom’s permanent address is still Alaska, and he has his own view of what you can see from there.