Road Trip

st joseph's hospitalI had to drive 100 miles on that cold short day and already it was 3pm.

I stopped first at my local gas station where the attendant always speaks to me in such a friendly manner.

“How was that funeral you went to?” he asked.  “It was in your home town, you said.”

“The funeral was really beautiful, but it was sad seeing the changes there. I went past a hospital that they’re tearing down now. I had to drive by twice to get it through my head that it would soon be gone.” As I spoke my thoughts strayed to the times we visited my mother there when she broke her hip, and our cheery aunts and uncles kept coming with sherry and little crystal glasses to drink it from, talk about your vanished world!

“The whole building was laid open,” I told him, “like a dollhouse, only with the roof gone too. It’s hard to see change like that, you know?”

“I know,” he said. “Oh, I know!”

He did know. Of course he knew. We are all refugees from the past.

I began my long drive then, and noticed after just the first few miles that the large box I had dropped on my foot just before leaving home was still ‘with’ me. Though it hadn’t hurt much at the time, a sharp pain was now radiating up my leg and into my hip..

I saw I had no choice. I would have to use the last of the fading light to get off the highway and buy some sort of analgesic.

This I did, literally limping into the first discount drug store I passed. I grabbed some Tylenol gel caps from the ‘pain’ aisle and limped out again, heading for the fast food joint next door in search of water to wash it down.

“What can I get you?” said the young woman behind the counter. “Oh, what’s wrong?” she added, reading the look on my face.

I told her. She gave me a big cup of water, no charge, and just as I was tipping back the two capsules she stopped me.  “That’s Tylenol PM!” she cried, half a second before it had gone down my throat, thus saving untold numbers of motorists from sharing the road with a seeming narcoleptic.

I thanked her and got back on the highway.

There was traffic by then and it had begun to rain.

An hour passed. Two hours. Finally, just ten miles from my destination, I stopped to gather myself a bit and elevate my foot.

I chose the 99, a chain restaurant. I love all chain restaurants, for so many reasons: The breezy manner of the wait staff, the speediness of the  service, the way they know right away that yes, you would like some popcorn while  you’re looking over the menu and so they just bring it to you.

I ate and looked around and slowly my stress level ebbed.

And when I saw the little girl gently leading her blind grandpa by the hand to the booth their family had chosen, the stress went away completely. It went away because there,  near the end of my long day, I realized what its lesson had been: That we are not alone in this life. That we too are led, escorted in a way, both by those we love and by kindly strangers.

This all happened last week. It was a good lesson to end the year on.

the tylenol pm

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The Day Before the Thanking Day

Yesterday here in the precincts north of Boston we had classic Day Before Thanksgiving weather, with air like apple cider and a sun so strong the shadows lay black on the bright-green grass.

If I were still little, I’d have looked out at that bright green grass and seen pheasants doing their strut-walk in our yard, funny as it seems to say that since we lived in a city.

Lowell was the nation’s first planned city, a factory town filled with mills and rowhouses and churches for every wave of immigration… And yet here we had pheasants out back.

Why? Because the city sits on the confluence of two rivers, muscular and sudsy, and they are the real main characters in Lowell’s story.

Even now, you drive through Lowell and Lawrence and Haverhill and all you have to do is squint your eyes to see the old fields lying just beyond the downtown, just under the suburban-style homes with their driveways and their swing sets.

Our old house in Lowell sits on what had been, since Revolutionary times, an apple orchard. The house to our right was the farmhouse and the one to our left was its barn. We were the dooryard between the two, with this row of little apple trees marching out back, crooked and stooped like the oldest soldiers in the parades of your childhood.

The oldest soldiers at the school assemblies of my youth were from the Great War mostly. I even remember one from the Spanish American War, that fraudulent 1890’s conflict cooked up by a nation bent on empire. When my mom was little they saw veterans from the Civil War at their school assemblies, imagine it! There’s footage on YouTube of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg that would break your heart.  It makes me think of how seldom we ever think on the blood that was shed over time. After Memorial Day, after Veterans Day, who thinks of all that sacrifice, besides the families whose sons and daughters who have most recently shed it?

I feel ashamed for all we take for granted in this country; I mean for the peace, both and political that allows someone like me to dream back and paint pictures of times gone by.

We wake today to rain in New England. Rain with all its own charms. Rain that send us hurrying back indoors, grateful for the hot tea and the dry towel…

I opened my eyes at 6am to the rain. Then I closed them again and saw those pheasants, and our neighbor’s great old dog Tramp coming over to greet us as we jumped in the swirling leaves, the brown oak leaves that are falling this week, the last to go always, like me the most reluctant to acknowledge an end to the gaudy party. 

the next door neighbors’ glider, with the old apple trees that dotted both our yards

The Past is Our True Home Town

Anytown High School here – sigh. Immediately after I wrote yesterday’s piece about an old Atlantic City-style beach town I was  invited to join a Facebook page called “I Remember Revere When…”  I don’t in fact “remember Revere when” but I’m glad for all the people who do, as I see them happily writing about their bikes and their hangouts and the brightly striped tube socks of the era.

Last Sunday I spent the better part of an hour on a page called “You Know Your from Lowell when…” and yeah sure it bothers me that whoever put up this page misspelled the short form for “you are” but it seems mean to point that out, the site being full of so many tender memories.

Turns out I’m very nostalgic about the place where I came of age and have been since long before Mark Wahlberg made The Fighter there. Before Ricky Gervais and the dimpled Jennifer Garner filmed The Invention of Lying on its streets too. I wrote about both films, one at the end of December of 2010 and one nearer to that month’s start.  

Lowell became my home when I was 9 and I lived there until the summer after freshman year in college when a prescription for diet pills so altered my judgment that I was walking eight miles to my job every day, madly cleaning the house when I got home at night, and generally living like a combination over-achieving social worker/nun and a speed freak. (I swear all the doctors who gave those pills out to people should have been barred from practicing medicine.)

In early adulthood I probably thought the place hadn’t affected me much but it did. Of course it did, though in a graduating class of 988 kids I really knew my neighborhood pals and the other drama-and-chorus nerds like myself.  

We sigh looking back at the fashions of our young years.Whether it was the Princess Grace-style French twist or feathered-back Farrah-style bangs or that signature 80s  look like Jennifer Beals had in Flashdance when her hair rose like a living Burger King crown from the top of the head.

Poodle skirts, saddle shoes, minis, maxis, the images of a hundred styles and ways to be all live in our minds. All are waiting for us, held and kept safe for us in the memories of the ones we are moving through time with. It’s wonderful isn’t it?


Hometown

Last month I watched 30 whole minutes of a movie before realizing it had been filmed in my own home town. Suddenly I realized I recognized those chesty buildings, I even recognized  the light itself for light over water has a special look, and my city is a city of waters.

I wasn’t born there really, but I think of it as my hometown anyway. We moved there when I was nine and the world just …opened up for me. I got to go to the public schools and ride bikes with the kids in my classes when school got out. I fell in love with every tree in our neighborhood, with the bell Mrs. Talbot used to summon her kids home, with the snuffling sounds the dogs made on their jingling early-morning rounds.

And seeing that movie brought it all back.

‘What an Eden!’ I thought as I watched and ‘how lucky I was to live in a place with parades and winning teams and every high school formal like an old-time cotillion with an actual Grand March at the beginning!’

All this was last month.

This month, on the very first hour of the first day it was showing, I drove back to my hometown to see a second movie that was not only filmed in Lowell Massachusetts but is about that city during some of her hardest years, now thankfully behind us all.

It tells the story of a boxer and his relationship with the family that both encouraged him and held him back. We see the peeling paint, the abandoned mill buildings, the local jail where a neighborhood dad took his little sons to put the fear of God in them as he told our mom. In other words, we see a much darker picture of the city I grew up in, whose problems are every city’s problems.

Some people fear all cities, saying there is danger in them. Once, curfews were mandatory in all cities, partly because no street was safe before the dawn of artificial light.

Homes weren’t safe either: The word ‘curfew’ is from the French. ‘Cover the fire’ it means, since always there was a great fear of conflagration and rightly so: In 1666 four-fifths of the great city of London was destroyed by an oven fire in the king’s own bakery.

So you could say there is danger wherever there are people. Or wild animals. Or disease. Or even weather like the storm we are now having here in the east.

And yet we sleep each night in faith that all will be well.

I look back over the last month and marvel at the affection I’ve been feeling for that old city, I guess because we are all like the infant in the mother’s arms: what we look on when we first come awake in life is what we love and think of as home.

The darkness finds us there, and so we light the lamps, and lie down and take our rest.


The Fighter

When I turned into the Showcase Cinema parking lot at 10:30 yesterday morning the cars were already streaming in for the first  showing on the very first day of  The Fighter’s limited opening. On the way I passed through the city center and the neighborhoods, past peeled paint and fresh paint, mills and row-houses, the churches the shops housed in what I know to be inns and taverns still standing since the 1850s.

‘Still Standing’ would also have been a good name for this film about two brothers born in my hometown, the older one when I was in 5th grade at the Moody School, the younger when I was trudging home from the bus stop, an armful of books hugged tight to my chest. Both began boxing in the years I was coming home from college to find out, in that thrilling underage way, just what a boilermaker was and who you had to walk in with to get served one.

This is a story about blood, both the kind you share with your family and the kind you leave on the floor as life hits you the way it hits us all sooner or later, “head-body-head-body” as Micky explains his chief tactic to his girl Charlene.  And the violence of the sport seems so much worse the way this film reveals it, principally on the faces of the ones who love Micky as they witness the carnage, just inches from the ropes.

Somehow you end up rooting for them all, not just for the two boxers and Charlene and the Greek chorus of mouthy sisters, not just for the by-turns tough-and-tearful mom and the heart-of-gold dad but even for the asphalt. Even for the poor forlorn and childlike crack addicts.

Almost 900 students graduated my year from Lowell High School and sure many have left; but many have stayed too and still work and/or live there. They are loyal in the same way any Bruce Springsteen fan would understand. In a way that those of us who left understand too, all of us children of a place that sits at the confluence of two great rivers, its  ropey waters braiding and twisting like the sinews on a young athlete’s back.