I was born at Lawrence General Hospital during a howling February 1946 blizzard, spent my first 17 years kicking around South Lawrence until leaving for college, and lived to tell about it. The entirety of my universe was bordered by aristocratic Andover to the south and mysterious Methuen to the north, beyond which loomed the foreign country of Salem, New Hampshire. I never set foot in Lowell, but I knew it was the fierce rival of Thanksgiving high school football. And Boston was the magical kingdom of Oz, approached on a terrifying black Boston and Maine Railroad train once every two years or so for the Ice Capades or Fenway Park.
If Lawrence was all I knew of the world, it was all I needed to know. There, I learned to read, write, fight, love and brave the onslaught of puberty and dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Through vanilla years of the Eisenhower ’50s and the golden Camelot of Kennedy ’60s, I emerged bleary-eyed into the cauldron of Vietnam civil war at home, when families were torn asunder and Lawrence was lost to me forever.
My folks were well established in the old mill town. Both, Andrew and Rita, were born there of immigrant settlers. Dad’s father was a barber from Glasgow, Scotland, his mother a pious Catholic from Cork, Ireland. They met on the boat from the Old Country circa 1910. Ma came from French Canadian stock of Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, down from the farm for the factory jobs that made Lawrence what it was, a dense warren of Dickensian soot and toil. Both families stocked the population. I had 30 aunts and uncles, most of whom married, and cousins by the dozens.
The Lawrence of my youth was poor, but not perceived as dangerous. Irish politicians notwithstanding, its real government was the Archdiocese of Boston and Cardinal Cushing, whose one visit to St. Patrick’s on South Broadway was as grand as a papal audience. The city’s grid was laid out around close-knit ethnic faithful of Catholic parishes, each with its own school and lordly cathedral. Immigrant clusters of Irish, French, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Greek Orthodox families had their distinctive street fairs, food shops, diners, barrooms, and “social halls,” where men drank oceans of beer and danced with their wives and floozies. Most everybody went to Mass on Sunday, when businesses were shut. People stayed home and factory smokestacks stopped belching. Kids ran around outside in all weather, and made their own amusements and mischiefs in the years before television brought in “Howdy Doody,” “The Lone Ranger” and “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
Lawrence was home, rock solid in a way that no other place has ever seemed like home to me. Our house at 58 Bowdoin St. was a typical three-decker stack with broad porches front and back and kids spilling out of every tenement, a forlorn fenced backyard always dusty from young feet tearing up Dad’s futile attempts to grow grass, and a towering flagpole on the side. I was one of four kids, with two younger brothers and an older sister.
Our French-speaking grandmother, Memere, lived with us and seldom got out of her bathrobe.
That is, until Liberace came to call. We were not the first household on the block to get a television and Memere had never encountered such a wonder. She believed the people on TV could see and hear her just as she could them. Her personal favorite was that toothy, candelabra-lit, pompadoured pianist who visited every Sunday afternoon. Liberace winked at her, tickled her romantic soul as he did the ivories. She was smitten.
But he mustn’t see her in a bathrobe looking old. No, she had to put on her best dress, stockings, lipstick, rouge, perfume, insert her dentures and do up her hair in preparation for the date. She cooed, blew kisses at Liberace, professed her ardor in guttural Quebecois, waved her hankie, beamed. Her performance upstaged the piano recital, and soon the whole neighborhood started dropping by to witness the spectacle, and crack up.
One auntie was determined to prove to Memere that Liberace could not see her. She backed up to the TV, lowered her panties and threw a moon at the screen. Furious, Memere leaped out of the rocking chair and chased her daughter around the room, berating her for insulting our guest. And when President Eisenhower preempted Liberace the next Sunday for a speech on the Suez Canal, she cried mournfully. “Of course he didn’t come back to this house, after my daughter showed him her ass last week!”
Working-class people gotta work. Our parents were scarred by the Great Depression and haunted by fears of unemployment and hunger. Dad spent 35 years toiling for the Merrimac (no “k”) Paper Company in a redbrick pulp mill banked at the foot of the Great Falls, which bisected North and South Lawrence. The roaring grinders and hissing rollers scared the daylights out of me, but Dad loved them. He was in his element, surrounded by “real men” (and no women at all, not even in the office). Ma, once the kids were no longer little, sweated the assembly line at the Frank C. Meyer shoebox factory. She got me a summer job there at age 16, and I was mortified with embarrassment at the crude sexual banter to which she was exposed.
Before that, at age 12, I took over management of the largest paper route in South Lawrence, 210 copies daily of the afternoon Lawrence Evening Tribune. I hired my kid brothers to take a fourth of the burden each, and delivered the other half myself. Ma sold the Tribune on us as a dynasty. I was a little merchant, collecting 42 cents a week per paper, of which I could keep a dime, and paid my little brothers a nickel. They complained about the wage inequality, but Ma said “he’s the boss.” From Andover Street to Salem Street, from St. Pat’s to the Wetherbee School, we knew the insides of households big and small, prosperous and squalid. I called on Lavoie’s Tavern, Morrisey Drugs, Casey the Florist, and the small candy store where you could bet on the Rockingham races in the back room. An old lady in the Kenmore Hotel sent me on errands and gave me her used paperback novels.
I was a hungry reader. While other boys chased footballs or tried out for Little League, I haunted the South Lawrence Public Library, a somberly quiet retreat from the clamor of the streets. Nobody told me Robert Frost lived in Lawrence, or Jack Kerouac from Lowell. Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Beverly Cleary were my favorite writers.
Books are stories, and stories fueled my imagination beyond Lawrence, but my own story was an idyll by the Merrimack. Few people may describe Lawrence as idyllic, but in my first 12 years, before the toiling began, it was my fantasy universe of city streets, back alleys, secret hideaways, and open skies over scrawny patches of trees on vacant lots that we took for the Forest of Arden. With my buddy Roger from next door, born the same week in the same ward of Lawrence General, we covered every inch of our territory, inventing adventures and risking all hell until our mothers hollered us home for supper.
Summer was infinite and glorious. The Alicon municipal swimming pool was open for boys three days a week, girls three days, and families on Sunday. If we had a nickel, that was enough for a bag of penny candy from Vickie’s corner store. If we didn’t, we’d steal bubble gum from the benignly gullible Belgian grocer, Luke. I collected bottle caps. The riverbanks of the Merrimack provided endless entertainment; we once pushed an abandoned car into the current to watch gleefully as it tumbled over the falls. We stashed Playboy magazines and cigarettes in a tree hollow and sunbathed shirtless on our personal Riviera.
Autumn was solemnly crisp and full of portents. Darkness fell on Bowdoin Street, Christmas was coming. Winters were for sledding and ice-skating on a pond, shoveling snow for pocket change, forts for snowball wars. The Premier theater had Saturday matinees for kids, two features plus serials and cartoons for a dime; pandemonium ensued. Essex Street was downtown, big time. Spring brought color back to the sickly maples and fresh hopes to our little hearts.
Lawrence was never heaven on earth. Real poverty, arson fires, corrupt politicians, pedophile priests, burglaries and bums darkened our horizons. But my story sprang dauntless from there, and is the soul of everything that followed me around the world.