'Letter to Charlie' (June 2004)

Cross-posting this from the RichardHowe.com blog several weeks ago. Dick Howe, Jr., encouraged me to mine my files for writing that can be posted on the blog as a way to look back on recent history. Over the years, Charles Nikitopoulos and I have exchanged hundreds of email messages about all kinds of things. Charlie is a retired professor of psychology who taught at UMass Lowell for many years. He guided me through the master’s program in community social psychology as an “older” student, for which I will always be grateful. The two of us have had a thousand discussions about community life in the city. Sometimes I send him letters by email about what I’ve been doing and thinking. Here’s one letter from June 2004, which I realized after writing it sounded a little like Charles Sampas’s legendary daily columns in the SUN newspaper, “Sampascoopies.” I’ve always enjoyed walking around the city to see what is going on. Here’s one bulletin from the Time Machine.—PM

Letter to Charlie, June 2004

Dear Charlie:

Just back from one of my routine hikes around the city. Quick route is downtown and back, about three miles. I’m always surprised at how few people in a city of 100,000-plus are on the street when I walk around early in the day.

Small scenes sting my nostalgia nerves and lead to feelings of goofy affection for humble community life, like the uniformed delivery man returning to his Drake’s Cakes truck after dropping off fresh treats at Ray Robinson’s luncheonette at the corner of Central and Jackson streets, where a few early birds stare at their coffees. Luncheonette is one of those Lowell yokel words, wouldn’t you say? And, speaking of coffee, the business-suited young woman entering the Pollard Exchange Building with her extra large cup of Dunkin Donuts java.

The up-early teenagers heading for Kirk Street and Lowell High School, counting in their brains the school days remaining in June. The sun-brightened dimpled surfaces (accomplished with pneumatic hammers) of Carlos Dorrien’s massive granite art monument to human builders set on old foundations mid-Pawtucket Canal just upstream of the Lower Locks canal plaza. And the sun-washed gray stone of the old Post Office, former School Department office, that Nick Sarris did such a fine job of reclaiming for future generations. The scaffold-less towers of the 19th-century train station on Central Street that gave its name to Towers Corner, a long stone’s throw from Danas’s vintage corner market, meal counter, and confectionery, same one featured in the 1980s movie School Ties, which made room for a few Lowellians as extras—the fight scene was staged in the alley aside the market. And next to the market is a distinctive small building, a miniature of the famous Flatiron Building, a wedge-shaped structure across the street from the restaurant supply store.

The unusually quiet Revolving Museum whose young people made bold creative statements about what’s important to them in tall windows on Merrimack Street. Manager Manya Callahan has a display of Father’s Day gift books at the Barnes & Noble. An offer for Dave Matthews tickets taped to the door of the Old Court pub, the name of which pays tribute to a favorite spot in co-owner Finbarr Sheehan’s old-country home, Sheehan being a host, barkeep, writer, and UMass Lowell graduate who may have a pile of short stories or even a novel in the back room. Banging hammers in the left-hand storefront of the rehabbed Moeller’s Building on Middle Street with its spacious lofts and street-level curio shop judiciously packed with Cambodian paintings, slightly aboriginal ceramic heads, a pair of seats from a Brooklyn ballpark, and more vintage treasures.

Back at the South Common, a couple of diligent souls pacing around the oval track at the base of the park, the field in the center worn to dirt from goal cage to goal cage. Wouldn’t new grass or a composite material turf like the beautiful Cushing Field at UMass Lowell be a bonus in this active park? Paving machines ran all night on Thorndike Street, applying a thick coat of asphalt on one of the gateway routes into the city, the scraping and leveling going on for two weeks. Outside the Bishop Markham public housing, whose mid-rise buildings are the color of Cheerios cereal, a woman walking her small dog says to her pet, “Be polite, stay on your side, that’s right,” as she passes a man in an Astros baseball cap outside the courthouse.

All for now. More later. — PM