Hangin’ Around in Lowell: Salem Street
By Janine “Beausoleil” Whitcomb
I dedicate this to my Mom and Dad who instilled in me the importance of simplicity.
Reminiscing about my days living on Salem Street has brought back the fondest of memories. It’s as though it were yesterday when I was a neighbor to Saint Joseph’s Hospital. The tenement blocks were filled with large French Canadian families. On second thought, Stas wasn’t French, nor were my babysitters, the McCreedy’s. There was Miss Sullivan next door and Thelma across the way and, oh yes, the Greek woman in the tan tenement block down the street. Anyway, one thing for sure, no child was without a friend, or two, or three. There were plenty of children to go around.
In those youthful days no child would ever be seen knocking at a door to ask a friend out to play. Standing in front of the door, loudly singing out the name of your friend, be it alto, soprano, or bass, was the only way to reach them. A typical day of play might consist of a game of hopscotch, or jump rope, playing with dolls and carriages, hitting marbles around in the dirt and maybe some roller skating. We might play Giant Steps, or Red Light, or even Kick the Can. We’d gather a large group of all ages and have a game of kickball in the “Big Yard” with someone always watching for the “Fuzz.” The “Big Yard” was a private yard and police were always combing the neighborhood, doing their duty and chasing us out. We didn’t have yards or swimming pools. When it was very hot and there was an afternoon rain shower, we would prance around in our bathing suits, splashing about in the puddles and having just so much fun!
In the winter we would play “King of the Mountain” on what seemed to be the highest mounds of snow. Proudly wearing mittens our moms knitted, we’d go about creating snowmen, having snowball fights and digging the greatest snow forts. All of the neighborhood kids would gather at the “Ledge” to do some serious sledding. The “Ledge” was behind the “Moosehead,”* but we never got tempted! After a full day outdoors we’d go home and sit by the stove with our feet in the oven to warm them up.
On any given day if we felt like a snack, we didn’t bother to go home. We would just venture off to Bradt’s Cracker Shop and eat crackers off the ground that didn’t quite meet the standard for packaging. We would get chased away from there too! I suppose the owner didn’t think it was all that healthy for us kids to be eating off the ground, or maybe he meant them to be pickings for the birds. I think we just liked the whole drama of being chased away.
With our nickel in hand we'd head down to “Henry’s Corner Store” for candy. To earn that nickel we may have had to go to Cote’s Market to pick up groceries for mom and Memere too. Every Sunday morning Uncle Jerry would send us down to Elias’ on Merrimack Street for his weekly newspapers. We would do that after Mass, and maybe stop at the Royal Steak House for a muffin, but mostly we’d go to Sweetland Gardens. Yes, sometimes we did skip Mass, and most times we never got caught.
To spook ourselves a bit, we would go off to the Old Ladies Home to peek around in the windows. How fascinating that building was to children. Saint Joseph’s Hospital had the Nursing School, and we'd go peeping in their windows too, to catch a glimpse of the dummy lying on the table, imagining it was real and that we sometimes saw it move. We used to spook ourselves crazy. Then we’d visit the Franco American Orphanage to buy tiny bags of hosts from the nuns. We did like to pretend we were priests and nuns, and we'd pass out Communion. It was all in a day’s fun. We had our holy moments when we’d go to the Grotto and do the Stations, or climb the many cement steps on our knees to pray in front of the cross. They’s be rumors of statues crying in the churches, and we’d pay a visit to them thinking the end of the world was coming. We were definitely swallowed up in faith.
Every Friday during Lent we’d walk down to Marie’s for fish, clams and scallops. It was great that we couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. Then we might pick up beans at Rochette’s on a Saturday evening. Eating out was always a big treat for us. Of course at Easter time we would go to Harvey’s Shoe Store to have taps put on our patent leathers. Easter Sunday we’d walk to Saint Jean de Baptist Church and tap our way to the pews hoping to be noticed. We were really styling!
At Christmas we would always walk to city hall at least one night to see the lights and pray at the creche. If you were lucky to have a dad who was a member at the CMAC Club, you got to attend the most wonderful Christmas parties. My dad even played Santa on occasion. One year my sister’s godmother had the Belvidere Shop stitch up pink velvet dresses for the two of us to wear. We felt so beautiful. We were dressed like twins, two years apart.
There was no shortage of interesting people in the neighborhood. We had “Jack the Ripper” and “Miss America.” There was “Depot Annie.” and “Killer,” and the “Cat Lady.” “Duke” the German Sheppard sunk his teeth into several of us. There were peeping toms and alley cats, and strangers in the night.
As you read this today you might be thinking, “Oh my goodness! Those poor children!” But it was the best life. It was a simple life, never lonely, always very safe. Families watched over each other. There were no enemies. We were friends’ who shared fun and games, laughter and tears, entering in and out of each other’s homes as though we were one big family. We were all equal. So many years have gone by and yet when we are lucky enough to meet up with a friend from our
past – from Salem Street, the moment takes us right back to the simple life, and it's in that moment when we appreciate
how wonderful our childhood really was because we have made friends for life.
* [ed note: local bar]