"Sky Bar"

Here's a memory piece I wrote in 2000 when I was thinking about growing up in Dracut and Lowell, Mass., in the 1950s and early '60s. My ancestors on my mother's side (Roy) and father's side had migrated from Quebec to Lowell around 1880, in synch with the vast migration of French Canadians to the riverside mill cities of New England. By the 1950s, the family was Americanized but still integrated into the local French culture that would thin out substantially by the 1990s.--PM


THE BARBERSHOP ON UPPER Merrimack Street had a candy vending machine against the long side wall where customers waited in padded steel chairs. When I had a dime I'd slot the coin and pull the handle for a Sky Bar in a yellow wrapper with its four squares of flavor. I always felt I was getting a lot for my money with its variety: caramel, vanilla, peanut, and fudge encased in milk chocolate. You could break off one or two sections and save the untouched others in the wrapper for later. Yes, you could, technically, but I always ate the whole thing. The candy bar had premiered in 1938 with ads in skywriting. There's the name. 

My father would drive my brother David, five years older, and me to the Majestik Barbershop one block north of the public library. I don't know why my father chose that shop from among a couple of dozen others around the city. Maybe because it was on the edge of the historic French neighborhood, Little Canada. A gray-haired man and his son owned the business. My impression is that the father was from Greece or Syria. On Saturday mornings, which was our time for haircuts, sometimes there were three barbers working the swivel chairs facing a wall of mirrors. Wide black leather strops hung from the chair-backs like something out of a Wild West frontier town barbershop. On these strops barbers sharpened straight razors used for shaving or cleaning the backs of necks as the finishing touch of a haircut. Colorful bottles of hair lotion and after-shave arranged on the counter under the mirror wall resembled a line up of liquor bottles at a bar, yellow-green, amber, light blue, rose. 

It was the era of Brylcreem, whiffles, and regular boy's haircuts with a little turned-up wave in the front--no hair touching the ears and no curls falling over shirt collars. This was pre-Beatles America with military neatness as the norm. (Exhibit A was Elvis getting clipped in the U.S. Army.) And in our mostly Catholic network that neatness was reinforced by the cleanliness-is-next-to-Godliness doctrine, all intensified by the French-Canadian social chromosome that drove mothers and grandmothers into battle against dust and grime, determined to keep homes, clothes, and children safe from the dirty devil from hell-ville down below.

Those were the days of fashion shaped by Dick Clark's American Bandstand on TV, the at-first clean-cut Philadelphia region kids who wore sports coats and dresses when they gyrated to songs with "a good beat." The days before the Great Denim Revolution of the late '60s, days when my friends and I still called such pants dungarees, never thinking for a second that the word begins with "dung," or sometimes called them overalls even though in my neighborhood no self-respecting kid over nine years old would be caught wearing farmer-style bib overalls. The bib bluejeans would show up in force in the 1970s, after Woodstock and the first cultural shock wave of back-to-the-land hippiedom. In high school the freaks, guys in this case, did the bib jeans look with shoulder-length hair when the idea of any haircut became foreign. I knew young women in college who liked to wear farmer jeans because it was a comfortable way to skip a bra. With a t-shirt and the bib they were all freedom-loving country stars, and had my vote. I didn't go down the rural working-class hero route, keeping to the middle of the rock-and-roll road in fashion. Back in the eighth grade I had a polyester blue Nehru jacket a-la India-period Beatles (from Stuart's Department Store) that mostly stayed in my closet except for a couple of school dances and one Sunday Mass at St. Therese's Church. In the bedroom mirror, checking my longer hair and snug mod jacket, I desperately hoped the look said, cool. 

I graduated from whiffles (crew cuts, buzz cuts) after the first grade, so that meant biweekly trips to the barber. Before the Majestik Barbershop routine, my father would take my brothers and me to the cellar of a house on Martin Street in the Rosemont section of Lowell, a sub-neighborhood that forms a border between the Centralville and Pawtucketville neighborhoods, along the meandering Beaver Brook that flows south from the New Hampshire state line on its last leg before washing in to the Merrimack River. The area was a mix of single family homes and tenements with a few small businesses tucked in. For a time in his youth, my father had lived in the Rosemont, heavy-duty French Canadian-American breeding ground. Almost every family had a yard full of kids, five or seven being common. The Marions were one of the big clans in the Rosemont, as were the Lachapelles and Brunelles. One Mr. Lachapelle cut hair on the side to make a few extra dollars. When you have a raft of kids this do-it-yourself solution makes sense. Pretty soon he was taking customers from the parish and extended family. A dad could get his kid a whiffle for fifty cents or possibly a quarter, no complaints allowed. 

Down in the Rosemont they tell stories of "The Flood," the great Merrimack River flood of 1936. My grandfather would talk about an old guy who raised pigs. He herded his pigs up to the first, second, and finally third level of the three-decker tenement he lived in as the water engulfed each floor of the block. This story was told in French, with grandad (pepere) Marion laughing hard as he imitated the man who owned the pigs, Francais, as he was called, trying to save his animals, which he did. This is the same Francais who had the horse-drawn "honey wagon" that he used to collect pig swill at small farms and even from backyard pens in the area. I've seen photographs of people in rowboats on the inundated streets, checking houses for anyone stranded inside.

One time I asked the family genealogist, Florence Y. Marion, about the name "Rosemont," meaning maybe "rose hill" or "rose mountain," but she didn't know the origin other than to say it was perhaps the name of a farm that had once filled the area before houses were built on the property. I thought there may have been a swath of wild roses there at one time or that the farmer, if there was one, had cultivated special rose bushes on his land. In his true-story novel Doctor Sax, set in 1930s Lowell and which includes mention of "The Flood," Jack Kerouac, who lived close by for many years, names the area "Rosemont the Mysterious."

For me, the Rosemont is a place of origins and psychic power. It's a place of beginnings and myths even, from the riverside natives and colonists to immigrants turned rooted occupants, citizens, and storytellers, the people who achieved a stable enough life to have time to cut each other's hair and buy candy bars for their kids. For about 100 years, people attached by thick or thin strands to French Canada had a saturated presence in the immediate area. I can unwind from that cultural spool, but the thread will never give out completely.