One Night at the Old Worthen in Lowell: A Poem

This poem was written in the 1970s, when I spent many nights at the Old Worthen tavern (established in 1834) on Worthen Street in Lowell, Mass., close to City Hall and the Whistler House, birthplace of the famous artist. The drinking age dropped to 18 years old when I turned 18, so my friends and I got going at the Worthen right away. Glasses of beer were 25 cents. Small glasses. We can debate whether that was a good idea or not—the lower age, not the small glasses. Today, it’s called The Worthen House Cafe, a popular place to eat and drink. There’s a raven on the business sign, referring to the legend that Edgar Allan Poe drank at the tavern when he visited Lowell. Around the same time that I wrote the poem, my older brother Richard made a drawing of the Worthen, which was reproduced as a black-and-white print. The version below was adapted for a Christmas theme with color added. The poem is included in my recent book Union River: Poems and Sketches (Bootstrap Press, 2017), which is available for purchase online.

Lowell was the Christmas city when I was growing up in the small semi-rural town next door, Dracut. My mother worked in a women’s clothing store, Cherry & Webb, on the corner of Merrimack and John streets downtown, so we felt close to the city. Plus, my parents grew up in Lowell and lived there when starting a family. Lowell was the choice for Christmas shopping when I was young. The Bon Marche department store was the commercial centerpiece of Merrimack Street. It remains a standout building that is a fine example of historic preservation. Bon Marche always had elaborate decorations and a lavish toy department with full-scale displays of featured toys. Gift-wrapping was available upstairs. You’d also find toys in the five-and-ten stores, Woolworth’s and S.S. Kresge’s, in Poirier’s hobby shop, and at the Giant Store. Record Lane and Garnick’s sold the latest hit albums. We went downtown at least once during the season to see the colored lights on buildings and streets before visiting the Nativity scene with large figures of the Holy Family, Three Wise Men, shepherds, sheep, and angels in front of City Hall. I don’t recall Christmas parades in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, but there may have been parades on Thanksgiving weekend.

When my friends and I were old enough to drive, it was special to get a bunch of guys and girls together and go to Midnight Mass on Christmas. We’d choose one of the big old Catholic churches in the city, the ones with tall stained glass windows and marble columns like cathedrals—even though most of us had stopped going to Mass on Sundays. And even if there were a couple of Protestants in the car. It was a good excuse for a late-night group date. I ran the elevator part-time in Cherry’s during my first two years of college—a manual elevator for which an official tan sports coat and an operator’s license were required—and enjoyed the holiday shoppers when I worked nights and all day Saturday. By the late 1970s, the malls and suburban shopping strips were drawing people to Burlington, Methuen, and over the border in Nashua N.H. with brand-name stores offering more products than were found in Lowell.

“Old Worthen” by Richard Marion, c. 1978

“Old Worthen” by Richard Marion, c. 1978

One Night

The good way

Dan turned his

head and dropped

three nickels

into the bent

tambourine of

the Salvation

Army-man between

sips of 25-cent draft

and bites of pretzel

at the Old Worthen

in one of the high-

backed booths with

his three friends who

had stopped the cribbage

game when the deaf

Frenchman in a

blue-green overcoat

came to the table

with eyes of a

saint and handsome

brown gloves that

held the jingling

pan so our good

Christmas will

would get us to

push a few coins

his ever-loving way.