From Darkness Into Light—Thankful Tonight
By Ed DeJesus
Tuesday, November 9, 1965, began like every school morning—but it sure ended differently for this fifteen-year-old boy from Lowell, Mass.
I was fortunate to grow up in a ten-room, two-story tenement on Cambridge Street that my Dad, a WWII Vet, bought with a VA loan in 1950 and converted to a single-family. The noisy steam radiators didn’t always warm the drafty linoleum floors, but my three siblings and I had it good. My mornings started with the quick tempo of the Beatles bridge in “A Day In The Life,”
Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…
Found my coat and grabbed my hat, made the bus in seconds flat…
But I never wore a hat or took the bus. Instead, I walked two extra miles before and after school for the job I held in my sophomore and junior years. I rushed out the back door at 6:50 a.m., my brisk pace necessary to make the 1.2-mile leg to my first stop by 7:10. It was chilly, and I had to be careful not to slip on the morning frost. I pulled my hood up and tucked my hands inside the pockets of my lined vinyl jacket—worn over my required school dress code, a burgundy V-neck sweater, button-down blue shirt, and paisley tie—it kept me warm and dry.
We lived in a section of Lowell called the Lower Highlands, and I headed to the Upper Highlands. I rushed up Cambridge Street, turned left on Hale, and passed by the Abraham Lincoln Monument in the center of Lincoln Square. I dodged traffic and bolted across busy Chelmsford Street. I hiked up the steep Liberty Street hill, crossed Smith, Powell, and School streets, and turned right onto Hastings, which brought me to Cupples Square by Pages Drug Store at Pine and Westford Street. The Timex on my wrist showed five minutes to my destination. I took a right down Dover Street to Dover Square at the intersection of Branch and Middlesex Street. I crossed to Middlesex, headed left, and walked briskly until I reached Wilder Street’s corner.
At ten past seven, I rang the side doorbell of the stately two-family Victorian home. I heard the heavy footsteps of my hefty boss cautiously descending the back hallway stairs. “Good morning, Eddie,” he cheerfully greeted me and locked the door from a key chain attached to his belt.
“Morning, George,” I said, then hooked his left arm with my right arm and guided him down the porch steps and along the walkway to Wilder before steering him left onto Middlesex. I kept George on the inside, away from the street. Arm in arm and lockstep, we began our mile-long journey towards the downtown Lowell Workshop for the Blind on Middlesex Street. George Zermas and seven other visually impaired coworkers made straw brooms and strung wicker chairs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The modest-looking shop had a storefront window with a Lowell Association for the Blind sign and its touching tagline: From Darkness Into Light.
Big, burly, jovial George was forty-two, nearly six feet, and weighed over two hundred pounds. I was only five-three then, but with strong legs and a stocky one-thirty-three frame, I had beaten everyone in my weight class. Coach Bossi wanted me on his wrestling team, but when I explained that I had an essential after-school job, he nodded and never asked again.
I’d never seen George use a white cane or seeing-eye dog like other blind men. He preferred conversation and companionship. I was happy to oblige my Greek philosophical boss. He was therapeutic; he let me open up and talk about my family, friends, and relationships.
“How come so quiet today, Eddie?” George asked softly, tilting his head in my direction as we walked briskly. I replied, “I left my English book at home and have a test today.”
“Oh good,” he chuckled, poking me with his elbow. “I thought you were having trouble with your girlfriend, Suzy.”
I didn’t want to share with George that the brief romance—between cute-as-a-button, too-shy Suzy and I—had faded quickly on our Saturday night rendezvous in the cozy private seats in the rear of the Commodore Ballroom. The sweet, innocent, French brunette from Pawtucketville with the turned-up nose and irresistibly perfect lips wasn’t as receptive to making out as the more assertive girls I’d dated from the housing projects, the Flats, and back Central Street.
Knowing George was a polished Tenor in a Lowell Barbershop Quartet, I asked him, “What songs did you sing Saturday?”
“Let Me Call You Sweetheart. And, of course, Shine on Harvest Moon,” he said gleefully. “Of course, it’s that time of year,” I said.
As one of my earliest mentors, I appreciated George’s wisdom. Blind from birth—but with an enormous brail library in his second-floor apartment—he was intellectual. As was his sister Penelope, who lived on the first floor with her husband Peter Demogenes, co-owner of the Epicure Restaurant on the corner of Market and Central Street. Penelope was Valedictorian at Lowell High, class of ‘38, and was a Professor Emerita at UMass Lowell, College of Education.
George and I were near Washington Park—now known as Roberto Clemente Park—on Middlesex Street when we heard the beep of the bread route driver, who slowed and offered us a ride. It never mattered how cold it was; I watched the vapor come out of his mouth as he routinely declined. The city bus loaded with my Lowell High classmates from the Upper H ighlands passed by; I kept my head down under my hood and pretended I didn’t see them gawking at us. It wouldn’t happen today; no kids would look up from their phones.
The most challenging part of our journey was getting George safely across the hectic rotary and dual intersections known as the Lord Overpass that spanned Thorndike Street. A rotary for anyone outside New England was a roundabout, only crazier.
There were no traffic lights then. I gripped George’s arm tighter while we hurried across the rotary and descended the ramp on Middlesex Street. We passed by the Registry of Motor Vehicles building, and two doors beyond the Workshop for The Blind, we entered Picanso’s Café, where George had breakfast every morning. Along with my modest per diem pay, George would buy me a cup of coffee and an English muffin, which only cost a quarter then. I got George settled in a booth; the Portuguese owner, Arthur Picanso, asked George how he wanted his eggs today. Mr. Picanso treated me well, as he knew my dad—Tony DeJesus, pronounced Dee Geezus—was the first President of the Portuguese American Club on Charles Street.
I’d finished my muffin and was sipping coffee. George was still working on his scrambled eggs and sausage links. He reminded me, “Tonight is Dicky Doyle’s surprise birthday party. Be here at five-fifteen.” Dick, the oldest blind man at the workshop, was turning sixty. Instead of getting George by 4:30 when the shop closed, I’d come to Picanso’s.
George pulled out his wallet to pay the check. It had a change pocket that snapped shut, and he knew every coin’s value by its size. In his billfold, the singles were kept flat, the fives folded in half, the tens folded in half length-wise, and the rare twenties were folded in thirds. He never accepted deuces or large bills. His sister would drive him to work if I were sick. Except for snow days, I had perfect attendance. Aside from two weeks in July when the workshop was closed, I was George’s weekday guide for the other fifty.
George sipped his bottomless cup, and other visually impaired gentlemen arrived for coffee along with Leo, the shop’s foreman. George would be in good hands as I headed to school. Instead of taking Middlesex to Central to Merrimack, then Kirk Street, I took the shortcut through the alley to the Jackson Street mills.
I crossed Jackson, took the driveway over the Hamilton Canal, and caught a nasty whiff of whatever the mills were discharging into the black, murky water. I hustled across the Dutton Street parking lot to the red brick Market Street building that today houses Lowell’s National Historic Park, which features the amazing industrial history of the Spindle City. My grandfather immigrated to Lowell in 1890 from Madeira; my grandparents and parents all toiled in the Boot Mills.
I walked up Shattuck Street, crossed Merrimack, and entered Lowell High School by the Kirk Street Clock—just in time to get to my locker and first bell. School got out at 2:15 p.m. My close classmates and I hung out in front of the Dutch Tea Room on Merrimack Street. Most students waited across the street in front of the Bon Marché department store where the city’s busses would transport them to Lowell’s distinct neighborhoods: the Acre, Belvidere, Centralville, the Grove, Highlands, Pawtucketville, Sacred Heart, and South Lowell.
Several popular girls gathered on the sidewalk, clutching their schoolbooks, waiting for their buses to arrive. A handsome driver pulled to the curb in a sharp ’57 Chevy Bel Air with the windows down and radio blaring. An attractive senior with long black hair and shapely legs slid in the coupe and waved goodbye to her giddy friends while McCartney’s voice poured out onto Merrimack Street, “Oh, I Believe in Yesterday.”
After the busses departed and the crowds thinned, I climbed the stairs to Alex’s billiards room to shoot pool, as I did every day for over a year, biding time before I picked up George. I played snooker for an hour to sharpen my eye for future nine-ball games at fifty cents per money ball. I observed a preppy college guy take forever to beat another inexperienced player and knew I had my mark. He broke and left the table wide open. A few shorts later, I sunk the five-ball, made an extra money ball, ran the rest of the table, and collected my winnings.
I left the pool hall forty minutes later than usual to get George. It was already dusk when I entered Picanso’s café and found George and his boisterous co-workers crowded in a booth. Remnants of burgers, fries, coffee, and birthday cake littered the table and tiled floor. A bottle of Jameson and shot glasses were in front of Dick Doyle, the birthday boy; his guide, Bobby Gervais, sat next to him; Leo, the workshop foreman, and George sat across from them.
Leo handed me a napkin and a piece of chocolate cake. I thanked him and George shouted, “Eddie!” when he heard my voice. I wished Dick a happy birthday and devoured the cake. I used a napkin to wipe frosting off George’s chin, brushed crumbs from the front of his jacket, and bid goodnight to the party animals.
It was dark and chilly when we stepped onto Middlesex Street at 5:25. We walked arm and arm past the old Registry, RMV building. When we reached the Middlesex street ramp, all the lamp posts lighting the sidewalks went out. Lord, help us. It was pitch-dark as we ascended the ramp towards the Lord Overpass! Horns honked incessantly as we reached the top of the busy rotary. I looked to my left, and no lights were shining on the Commodore’s marquee billboard, and to my right, I could not see the Wilder Grain buildings by the canal. No lights were on in any of the homes ahead in the Highlands or the stores we left behind us.
I froze at the curb, hesitant to cross the first busy intersection. I pulled George tighter and tried to stop my trembling. The headlights from oncoming cars blinded me, and the panicked, hectic rush-hour drivers were struggling to adjust to the darkness. “What’s going on, Eddie,” George asked. A scent of whiskey on his breath.
“I don’t know. All the city lights are out. It’s pitch dark, and we must move quickly across the rotary. Hang on tight and keep up.” “Okay,” he shouted over the blaring horns.
I raised my free hand to stop the traffic and hustled George to the other side of the first intersection. I rushed us along, and while the horns kept honking, we repeated the process on the second section of the rotary. When we descended the ramp on the other side of Middlesex Street, I slowed down, took a deep breath, and said, “Whew, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“It looks the same to me, ha-ha,” George said, nudging my side to calm my nerves.
Today, the cliché from George might have been, “Welcome to my world.” And at that moment, I had a partial sense of what it was like for George to navigate in his world. Candles illuminated windows on many of the triple-decker and multifamily homes we walked by on Middlesex Street. Residents sat on their front steps with cigarette lighters firing their tobacco sticks. As we approached the busy School Street light that wasn’t working, a loud, deafening roar of two motorcycle engines started up in a driveway and blinded me with their headlights. I stopped abruptly and felt George’s arm tighten. The Hell’s Angels revved their Harley Choppers, pulled out, and roared up Middlesex Street.
When my heart stopped racing, I picked up our pace and continued down Middlesex Street until we got to the corner of Wilder. I saw the shadow of someone holding a flashlight and aiming it at our feet as we approached.
“Thank God, you made it!” we heard George’s sister Penelope say as she touched his shoulder and patted my arm. She explained what she’d heard on her car radio, “The power is out in Massachusetts and several other northeast states.”
Silhouettes lingered by windows illuminated with flickering candles while I jogged home through the eerily dark side streets and sprinted across the horn-blowing main streets. My dad’s car was parked in the driveway. He’d made it home safely from his job at the VA hospital in Bedford, Mass. I entered the back door. My older sister was doing her homework on the kitchen counter by candlelight; Mom turned away from the gas stove and hugged me. Dad and my big brother in the parlor listened to the news of the northeast blackout on a transistor radio. My younger brother shined a flashlight on me and shouted, “Eddie’s home! Let’s eat. I’m starving.”
We gathered at our candle-lit dining room table. It wasn’t a feast like Thanksgiving—but before our close-knit catholic family enjoyed chicken pot pie, mashed potatoes, and biscuits—we said grace and were thankful tonight. I told them about my adventure with my boss. Mom made a sign of the cross, my big brother high-fived me, my sister and kid brother smiled, and I sensed my Dad was proud of me for getting George home safely.
My wife and I raised our family in the Lowell suburbs. I toiled in technology but kept in touch with George ‘til he passed. Each year, the Lowell Association for the Blind opens a competition for the George E. Zermas Memorial Scholarships for worthy students preparing to work with the blind and visually impaired. This memorial grant was established by his late sister, Penelope Z. Demogenes, Director Emerita, and her late husband, Peter N. Demogenes. Source: (1) Facebook
Boomers and other seniors may recall where they were when 30 million people in ten states and parts of Canada lost power in the ’65 blackout. Source: Northeast blackout of 1965 – Wikipedia
I know how disruptive power outages are, as I retired in Fort Myers, FL, and survived two category-four hurricanes and a recent heart attack. Consequently, I don’t need turkey, pumpkin pie, and football games to remind me of what I’m thankful for.
My latest contemporary novel, The Vulnerable, set in greater Lowell and Florida, pays homage to the grit and spirit of the hard-working people in the spindle city. Lastly, I’m always moved by the Bee Gee’s ballad, “Massachusetts.”
Feel I’m goin’ back to Massachusetts
Something’s telling me I must go home
And the lights all went out in Massachusetts…
And Massachusetts is one place I have seen
I will remember Massachusetts…
About the Author:
Edward (Ed) DeJesus studied Computer Science at Boston University and Creative Writing at UMass Lowell. He is a member of the Florida Gulf Coast Writer’s Association. His latest contemporary novel, The Vulnerable, is set in greater Lowell and Florida.
Ed is a former tech executive, entrepreneur, and software engineer, published in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Design Automation IEEE journals. He was the president of Sightline Solar, CEO and co-founder of JustZip.com, and VP of Engineering for Manufacturer’s Services Limited. He served in the US Army Reserves during the Vietnam era and was the proprietor of a record store in the seventies when vinyl and tapes were all the rage. He was a Massachusetts realtor and mortgage originator and owned several investment properties in Lowell, where he was born. He custom-designed his family’s homes in Westford, Chelmsford, and Tyngsboro, Mass, before retiring in Fort Myers, Florida.