Tom Sexton is a Distinguished Alumni of Lowell High School and the former Poet Laureate of Alaska where he lives in the winter. He’s a regular reader of this site and has sometimes shared his poems and comments with us in the past. Today he shared the following essay about his Lowell neighborhood, Lowell Belvidere.
Not long ago I met a man from Lowell who like me has lived in Alaska for decades and never wanted to go back to Lowell not even after he was dead. He made it clear that he hated the place. He’d recently retired from the post office and had some land near Talkeetna. After we talked for a few minutes, he asked me where in Lowell I was from, and by that I knew he meant in what neighborhood and what church did I go to. Two things that would tell him all he needed to know. He asked it the same way people ask what college you attended. I responded Lower Belvidere with the emphasis on Lower so he would know exactly where and what I meant: blue collar and near the Concord River and the mills. The Immaculate Conception marked me as most likely as Irish-Catholic, but his question and my answer had little to do with religion. I didn’t want him to think I meant the other Belvidere of fine Victorian houses and manicured lawns, houses with a view of the city and what now remains of the mills below. For some reason, reverse snobbery perhaps, I didn’t want him to think that I was from that other Belvidere, the Belvidere that climbs almost straight up from Nesmith Street. I know the taunt: if you can’t get a girl, get a boy from Belvidere.
The way we move around today from place to place, I doubt many ethnic neighborhoods still exist. A childhood friend, a woman I hadn’t been in contact with for almost fifty years, saw something about me in the Lowell Sun a few years ago and called me in Anchorage. During our conversation, she remarked that she hadn’t realized we lived in an Irish-Catholic ghetto until we went to high school. Her comment wasn’t exactly true. Our neighborhood store was owned by Mr. Danas who was Greek, and certainly there were neighbors who were neither Catholic nor Irish, but the neighborhood did give us a shared identity. It bound us together in many ways. We all walked to church on Sundays, and our fathers drank in the same neighborhood bar, a bar with a separate entrance for women and a booth near the back door where a priest could feel comfortable.
It’s said that James Joyce living in exile could name every street and alley in Dublin. I can’t say the same for Lowell, but what I can say is Lower Belvidere is my touchstone, the place I always return to in my daydreams and even in my dreams. In my mind, I still walk along Fayette, Perry, Concord and Pleasant streets. I still climb Fort Hill to look for Indian arrowheads and get my hair cut by John the barber on High Street who is still unhappy with his son. I’m still waiting for a girl from Rogers Hall to fall in love with me when we meet in the corner store even though I know she’s been told not to talk to the locals and to cross the street when she sees one of us on the same side. Looking back, I have no idea how I know this.
Leaving downtown, Lower Belvidere begins when you cross the Concord River where Merrimack Street becomes East Merrimack, a street dominated by the Immaculate Conception Church once you’ve passed the auditorium. The Immaculate Conception School is at the top of the hill where High Street begins. The old brick school that I attended is long gone as is the convent and all of Bartlett Street where we lived at one time. Across from the church is Gormley’s diner where we ate English muffins washed down with cherry cokes after church Sunday after Sunday. The Gormley’s no longer own Gormley’s diner.
If you were Irish, you most likely attended the Immaculate Conception unless you came from a mixed marriage. My uncle Paul was married to a woman from Little Canada, and they went to her church. If you were Polish, your church was St. Stanislaus on High Street beside a school where the nuns spoke Polish when they chased us from the yard where we played basketball after dark. If you were Lithuanian, you attended St. Joseph’s where the priest wore a pink shirt with an open collar on Wednesday, which was his day off. He was considered scandalous by most. The Portuguese had to trek across the river to St. Anthony’s if they wanted to go to their own church. There is a Protestant church across the street from the Immaculate Conception, but we paid it little attention. A street might be Polish for a block, then suddenly it would be Irish for a few blocks, and then Portuguese until it ended. You could always tell if a street was Portuguese by the grape arbors in the yards.
I realize now that Lower Belvidere is in reality only a small slice of the city. My father grew up in Pawtucketville across the Merrimack River, and he never felt comfortable in Lower Belvidere where my mother was born and had no intention of ever leaving. Her world was a grid of cobblestone streets and mostly two-family houses with small yards and a couple of fruit trees. Today the yards have been paved over for parking. The churches are mostly empty, and just about everyone I knew moved away years ago. Most moved to the suburbs. We moved all the time, so I lived in many places for a couple of years. Every move brought us closer to the river, but no matter where we lived, I knew exactly where I was: Lower Belvidere, home.