'Survey Team' (2004)

For 26 years, I lived with my family across the street from the South Common in Lowell, Mass. The Common is one of two so named in the city, the other being the North Common on Fletcher Street in the Acre neighborhood. One of the largest open green spaces in Lowell, the 22.5-acre park dates from 1845. It was a municipal showpiece for a long time with an ornamental fountain, flowers and bushes, and paved walkways -- an appealing location featured on color postcards of the era. Through the decades South Common activities drew crowds to baseball games, high school field day exercises, military celebrations, carnivals, swimming programs, and the Lowell Folk Festival. Beginning in the 1970s, changes in city life and in neighborhoods around the park led to its declining status and quality, however, there is a renovation plan and City- and state-funded improvements are in progress.

For several years my exercise routine involved early morning walks on the track around the sports field. During that time I began writing about the South Common in various forms: blog posts for the RichardHowe.com blog, a set of haiku later collected in a limited-edition handmade book produced with artist Susan K. Gaylord, random prose sketches, and an essay, "Cut from American Cloth," in my book Union River: Poems and Sketches (Bootstrap Press, 2017). The names in the piece below are invented, the situation is not. 

Survey Team

Mr. Nguyen and Mr. Tran are ahead of me on the track this morning, both wearing faded camouflage baseball caps, which makes me wonder if they are two veterans of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, South Vietnam, who have lately gathered with local Vietnam War vets for Memorial Day ceremonies. Chanthy, a nursing assistant at the community health center, is a quarter-lap behind me, and gaining. When I passed her earlier, I read the back of her T-shirt, “Survey Team,” left over from the last census. Everyone walks in the same direction, against the clock, face into the low sun until the turn at the pool. Now and then someone crossed the soccer-lined infield diagonally, rushing to the train station just beyond the western lip of the Common.

When I arrived at 6 a.m., Mr. Vu was already stretching near the track with four neighbors from South Street, friends who likely would have been strangers had he passed them in a Saigon park where he lived during the war. He wears a brown fedora out of a Humphrey Bogart movie, tweed sport coat, gray pants, white shirt open at the collar, and blue canvas shoes. Before he starts walking around the South Common’s asphalt oval, he pulls out of his coat pocket eight small plain stones, which he arranges in two rows of four on a bench near one of the green oil-drum trash barrels. After each turn around the track, he stops to return one stone to his coat pocket.

He doesn’t keep up with his companions and sometimes waits until they catch back up to him, so he can chat again. With his cane, he can match their pace for more than an eighth of a mile. When I pass his group on the inside lane, saying “Hello,” Mr. Vu and friends nod, smile, and wish me a good morning before getting back to their own words, not one of which I understand. The peppy conversation reminds me of my grandparents and parents chewing over the day’s events in French. He probably knows French from the old country. Mr. Vu is about eighty and arrived in the city in the late 1970s, at the beginning of the resettlement period for thousands of refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Eliot Church atop the rise on the north rim of the Common kept an open door for people arriving from the refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines. The sign out front today announces Swahili services and Brazilian Communidade