“Lower Belvidere” by Tom Sexton
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.
5 Responses to “Lower Belvidere” by Tom Sexton
Great essay – I love these sorts of little personal histories.
It’s been an odd fifty years since we met through mutual acquaintances of ours, Jay McHale, from the Highlands and Mike Sokolowski (Sok west). I lived in the Flats across the Concord River from you, just a stroll, raft ride, or swim over to your ‘backyard’.
Here’s one of my poems evoked by your writing.
How blind and cold I’ve been
To think my father would not burn
Through the leaves of autumn.
His tilted gray soft-hat,
Slid the rim between his bent
Index knuckle and thumb,
And smiled with his marvelous eyes:
Stick around the yard Danny. I’ll be back later.
His square, cocky shoulders
Turned the corner as I raked the leaves.
Goldy the ragman snorted down Lyons Street
With his horse and wagon.
Arr ranks, arr ranks, arr ranks,
He shouted as he shuffled along,
Sniffing the temperature for the coal man
And the Italian man who shook the windows
With sounds of vegetables in his pushcart,
Cu-cukes, tomarts, summer squash, potarts,
And the knife sharpener whose sparks
Warred with the air as he pumped his feet
To make the grinding wheel spin
With the tzzzzz tzzzzz and the glowing
Sparks scattering in air, and vanishing
Like me father. I shivered as I raked the leaves.
Gallagher the ice-man slashed and struck
A block of ice with a shiny pick.
He handed me a saber-toothed chunk,
Cold and jagged with silver crystals.
My eyes glazed when they all melted away
And disappeared around the corner.
The chill left when there was nothing
Between my father and me, only sticks
Of wooden matches, a pile of dry leaves.
I bow low, close down to the ground,
Kneel, and strike a match. The back yard
Is alive with the aroma of burning leaves.
–Daniel ‘Danny’ Patrick Murphy
What a wonderful poem. Thank you.
Some neighborhood bars had a sign ladies and escorts, and others were taverns that were closed on Sundays and 11 Pm at night, and only allowed men.
I really love the way you expess yourself, your descriptions make me feel like I was back there. I lived on Pleasant St, around the corner from the Polish Church,,,I too am a prooduct of the Immaculate and then to Lowell High Class of “53. I left Lowell right after I was married and lived mostly in the mid west, CA. and last , Conn. before retiring to VA.Having followed my husband,John’s Corporate transfers.
I read Alice Barton’s (Concord St.) first novel called South Station. Have you read it? She has the neighborhood and surroundings to a tee. I loved it. iExcept for visits to families in the early years, we haven’t been back. There are still contacts there and I am not ashamed to say I am from there. A childhood friend e-mailed your essay to me.