The Canalway (1987)

Here's a sketch built from notes I made on a walk-around of the canals in downtown Lowell on May 20, 1987. This is the first time it's been aired out.

Merrimack Canal-water is as dark as oil. You can see yourself in the mirror slick. Some days I enjoy this city and could walk the streets forever. The blue sky playing off red bricks from bank to bank boosts my attitude. I forget about the slimy waste-brown debris revealed in every drain-down. The pipes, tires, and nameless crap caught in the underflow. Other days I see a face I don't admire in the water's flat black, and feel like I should get the hell out fast. Where the canal current makes a right toward the Boott Cotton Mills, you find sections of quick water and bursts of foam. From a burnt-out gatehouse, the water throws itself down in greenish glassine bolts.

In front of RRR Records on Paige Street there's a tall woman with long black hair and an angular face. She's attractive in a fierce way, smoking a cigarette and maybe thinking about what dance club she and her guy will go to this Saturday night. She's familiar, and I may have seen her another day with girlfriends standing in front of the hair-dressing academy close to Cappy's Copper Kettle tavern.

Two kids fish off the Central Bridge, one has a sheath-knife. I follow the Eastern Canal past the Curran-Morton Warehouse, a huge rock-solid ten-story bunker with large holes punched in the backside and part of the roof bashed in. A couple of old-timers nose around the police barriers. Maybe they live in "elderly apartments" nearby. Life down here is a little less boring these days.

I meet the fishing boys again on the walkway over the Pawtucket Canal at Lower Locks. They climb down under the footbridge onto a chunk of land cropping out over the Concord River, running high this week. One boy casts his line with a long hiss. A full curtain of water spills over the Lower Locks dam. Looking up the Concord, I see water churning ahead of the famous confluence of Merrimack and Concord. 

At Jackson Properties, workmen relax on a small bridge over the Hamilton Canal, which feeds south from the Pellon Corporation. Yellow hard-hats sit on the railing. This is a school vacation day. Kids ride bikes in the middle of the streets when I cross into the Acre neighborhood. An Irish-looking girl in a pink running suit jogs toward me. I walk up to the Marion Street sign only to see that it has been spray-painted white on one side. The name is not my Marions. I'm not related to the old Swamp Fox of the Revolutionary War. 

Along the Western Canal in the Acre I pass a young Latino guy lugging a two-foot-long boom box at max volume. These banks were groomed in the 1970s and then let go. Benches and walkways remain. Between the lean stone tower of St. Patrick Church and the Grecian gold dome of Holy Trinity Church, Ecumenical Plaza spans the water. A couple of gray pigeons pace around pecking at bread crumbs. An uncle of mine who raises birds calls these "commies," short for common pigeons. In the right light you can see their iridescent neck feathers, shimmery blues and greens. Father along the canal a woman on a ladder fixes a window in "Cement City," the sprawling harsh-block housing complex that replaced part of the Little Canada enclave of wooden tenements. From the open back doors of her well-worn company van comes the sing-along ending of "Hey Jude" in all its rousing nobility. 

May 1987