A Lowell Evolution
By Steve O’Connor
“I can’t wait to get the f*** out of Lowell.”
How many times did I hear those words spoken in the smoke-filled bars of my youth?
How many times did I say them myself?
Even then I saw the setting sun that spread roses in the vacant windows of the red brick mills, the gray stone clock tower of City Hall reaching upward into the blue of mid-day, a vastness from which a golden eagle descends with spread wings to alight at the tower’s apex, the cobbled streets that rattled our rusted cars, the sluggish canals that disappeared mysteriously through granite archways under the long factory floors, once turning giant turbines that sent power through gears and belts, shaking endless rows of looms into clanking life.
All the things that speak to me so deeply now, were, in those days, merely the tired artifacts of a run-down mill town, an archeology not worth digging up; an old hag that rumor whispered had once been a beauty courted by presidents, celebrities and writers, but now, like Depot Annie, just a madwoman rambling past empty store fronts, kicking at wind-swept garbage and roaring obscene invective at passers-by.
None of us knew or cared much about the city’s history—we only knew the story we lived. The drinking age was eighteen. It was a city of cheap bars where a pool game or an insult or disagreement could lead to a brawl; where the Hells Angels had settled into derelict tenements from which they sold drugs and sometimes guns; where I overheard a down and out heroin addict on Merrimack Street say to her equally forlorn friend, “Lowell sucks! The f***n’ bars open at 7:00!” Where the drunks filed into a Gorham Street business to watch peep shows in dark booths that smelled of whiskey and human effluvium; where nothing good happened after midnight, and not much good happened before.
It was the seventies, and we all blamed the old hag of a city for the sordidness of our lives. We sang along with Eric Burden, “We gotta get outa this place!” That was the mantra of our drunken ashram, our cri de guerre, the chief tenet of our simple philosophy. Get the f*** out. There’s a place that’s better than this.
Many of us got out, some to college and then later, to various places around the country or the world. One wild friend was given the old option by the judge: jail or the Service. He spent the next twenty-five years ploughing the seas on a destroyer. Some never left, and too many—the ones who got deep into booze and drugs—died. Heroin, barbiturates, amphetamines, and coke—they don’t lend the user longevity. Especially the ones who shoot the drugs. At forty they were old, and soon they were buried in the town they had so often sworn they’d leave. Looking back, it wasn’t the town that killed them so much as the time. It was “The Eve of Destruction,” when Jim Morrison sang of my only friend, the end. “Born to Be Wild” was on the radio and the juke box, and Hendrix sang the haunting refrain: If I don’t see you no more in this world, I’ll see you in the next one, and don’t be late.
It’s a funny thing, how time changes a place, and how it changes us. I ended up going to school in western Mass, then in Ireland, working there and later in France, with a lumberjack, then in a garage putting snow tires on cars, and in the late summer, harvesting grapes in the rolling green hills of the Beaujolais region. Sometimes, in the evenings, the workers would talk about the places they were from. I’d tell them about Depot Annie, and about Nip, arrested for drunkenness three nights in a row, Phil, who brought his future wife to a shootout with the Hells Angels on their first date, Kingston the cabbie, who, at the Highland Tap, took a billiard ball square in the forehead and never flinched, Tommy, who challenged the entire Celebrity Lounge to step outside, Billy, who told a judge he never did drugs and was asked why then he had a home-made tattoo on his forearm that said TUINAL, Bobby, whose dog was hit by a train, after which he laughed and threw the dog’s head in the river, Blackie, and the desperate act that won him respect in jail, Jimmy, who used to get drunk at the Tap and shout, “You think I’m crazy? Of course I’m crazy! I was twenty years old they threw me out of a f***’ airplane in Normandy with tracer bullets whizzin’ by me—and into me! Look at this!” He’d pull up his shirt to show scars of slits and punctures. “Don’t you think I should be crazy?”
I concluded these tales with the comment, “Well, you must know people like that in your home-town.” Inevitably, the workers would shake their heads and say, “We don’t know any people like that.” And in my memory, the old hag of Lowell became something else, more beautiful, in the way that the Sean Van Vocht, the poor old woman of Irish mythology may become the lovely Cathleen Ní Houlihan, with “the walk of a queen.”
For me, the hag of Lowell began to wear the dignity of the worker, the pride of the battered fighter who would not go down, with all the endurance of the tireless machines in her red-brick belly. Later, when I told an old friend that I’d like to write about the people of Lowell—our people—he replied, “What will you call it? A Sewer Runs Through It?” He had gotten out of Lowell and saw no reason to look back. I laughed and didn’t try to change his mind. Every person who has lived in a city has a different version of that city in his or her heart.
I returned to Lowell after years away and saw it in a new light. The city had changed; I had changed; I no longer spent so much time in bars, and the bars were less gritty and more genial as the university expanded. The establishment of a National Park sparked a rehabilitation of historic buildings. The old characters faded. Depot Annie was gone. Poor old Ding Ding did not shadow box on corners. The gruff and seemingly eternal Arthur did not pour sudsy 50 cent drafts and push a damp rag over the long mahogany bar at the Old Worthen. Officer Tiny Muldoon was no longer on the force, laying down the law and reminding tough guys that they were not as tough as he was. The strip joints were gone. The Three Copper Men, the Celebrity Lounge and Nicky’s where Jack Kerouac once recited Shakespeare. I watched the businesses change and bloom with new ethnicities, their signs in foreign alphabets, all around me the sounds of languages I never heard in my youth. So many different Lowells.
My wife, an immigrant herself, urges me to take her elsewhere, just for a change. Long ago, she left the city of her youth in Colombia. I understand her feelings, and, as an Irish relative used to say, “A change is as good as a rest.” Still, it’s hard for me now to think about leaving. Three of my grandparents came from Ireland to this city. The fourth, my mother’s mother, was born in Lowell, but her parents, Daniel and Elizabeth Powers, immigrated from Ireland.
A while back, a cousin sent me Daniel Powers’ obituary. He was “stricken while driving a team of horses at the intersection of Merrimack and Suffolk Streets, and carried to his home on Fletcher Street, where he died.” I park my car by Excel Liquors and walk to the intersection. Looking up, I see the spire of St. Patrick’s Church and wonder if he saw it as he lay there. How many times had I passed this way, never knowing the connection it held to my blood? How many other places do we pass every day, we who have roots in one place, never knowing the scenes that were acted out in the lives, and maybe the deaths, of our forebears. Here are the homes and landmarks in the backgrounds of the old black and white photos. This was the house on Fletcher Street where Daniel Powers was brought to die—the house where now, a Buddha with folded hands contemplates a garden.
There at the corner of Fletcher and Broadway, my grandfather materializes, as I recall him one day. It must have been 1974 or 1975 as I drove along Broadway. There was John O’Connor, as large as life, standing in the sun on the corner with his straw hat cocked, no doubt fresh from Cuckoo O’Connell’s Bar, twirling his cane and smiling broadly, a Prince of the Acre surveying his domain. I pulled into Anton’s Cleaners’ parking lot and walked up to him. “Shhteeephen!” he cried. “Have you the machine?” That was his way of asking if I was driving.
Much of the conversation we had is blurred, now. But I remember that I found it—I don’t know the word—curious, amazing, strange, odd—that I was here in this time and place because this Irishman, and my other grandparents had boarded a vessel long ago, crossed the Atlantic, and come here, to Lowell, with nothing but a single suitcase and a lot of hope.
I asked him if he missed Ireland. “Ah,” he said. “I’ll never forget dear old Ireland, Stephen. But I’m so proud to be an American. America is the best country in the world.” He spread out his arms as if to encompass the entire country, but to him, really, America was the Acre, with its Irish and Greeks and Hispanics. It was Lowell, with its French Canadians and Poles and Africans. It was the city where he and my grandmother had bought a home and raised eight children on a house painter’s pay. America, the young country that had already done what Ireland could never manage—to drive out the Redcoats and give the King a black eye.
I stopped at the city library recently, a great castle of stone, and on the way back to my car, I heard two guys sitting on a bench on Shattuck Street. I paused to read a plaque, but really to listen. “She was playin’ up at Motorcycle Night on the rivah. She had a cowboy hat pulled low, ya know? An’ a leathah fringe jacket. So, I couldn’t see her too good. Damn, that chick could play! She sounded like f***n’ Duane Allman.”
“Shut the f*** up!”
“I’m tellin’ ya!”
“How old washe?”
“She had the cowboy hat pulled down, so I coun’ tell, but what I seen, maybe late twenties, early thirties. Young. Hell, everybody looks young to me now—I’m sixty-six.”
“No shit. The cops look like kids.”
“Playin’ the livin’ shit outa that guitah.”
I’ve travelled around a bit, met all kinds of people. But here I am by a cobbled street, the sun is baking the timeless bricks and granite, and nearby the canal still flows. The people flow through the city, too. There are six billion people in the world, they say, and thousands of languages, but I could sit beside these two on the bench with no introduction and join the conversation. We would understand each other perfectly, every inflection, every nuance, every reference.
Van Morrison sang in “Irish Heartbeat,” “I’m goin’ back to my own ones.” For better or worse, these are my own ones. I couldn’t wait to get the f*** out of Lowell, but over these long decades, the city I once reviled has got into my blood. I could no more escape it than I could escape my own body, and where I go, it will go with me.