Wednesday Jun 19

EXCERPT - Legends of Little Canada: Aunt Rose, Harvey's Bookland and My Captain Jack

Other than almost getting killed three times, I had a pretty good summer.  However, the wrist-and-arm injury would have a dramatic impact on life at home.  I couldn't pick up my guitar, and the timing was terrible because I was more fired up than ever after we saw The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night at the Strand on Central Street.  But that was nothing compared to Mom quitting her Hub Hosiery job, which had no health insurance, and getting back on welfare to cover me for the medical treatment I'd need for the rest of the year.  She had to crawl back to creepy Mr. Lague, the social worker, and she knew that all the same jerks who put her down for being on welfare before were going to be talking behind her back all over again.  And it also meant that she was going to have to go back to working under the table at that rotten barroom again so that we could have enough money to survive.  All my stupid fault.

I was worried about Mom and tried hard to control my temper.  Sometimes it felt like I was so nervous and upset I was going to explode.  Then another bombshell hit.  They announced a whole bunch of new buildings were going to be torn down in Little Canada, including all the apartments on our side of Ford Street.  This included the building that Al and Henry lived in on the corner of Ford and Austin streets.  I still wanted to know who "they" were.

So, it would be goodbye Henry.  His family moved to Lawrence, about fifteen miles downriver toward the ocean.  He wasn't coming back.  Al and his family got a place on the other side of the North Common, about a mile away.  He'd be close enough.  This bombshell was the worst yet.  Only a miracle was going to save the rest of Little Canada from the wrecking ball.  Who were these "urban renewal" ghost people and how could they do all this?  Buildings were coming down on the other side of the downtown side of the canal and down Moody Street, and the number of buildings being abandoned and readied for demolition spread like a plague.  Those of us left in Little Canada felt like people in the Middle Ages when the Black Death hit, watching all their neighbors dropping like flies, and wondering when they and their loved ones were going to get it.  Like the Middle-Agers, we had no idea how to stop it.

I was afraid to visit my Aunt Rose because I didn't know what to say to comfort her.  She knew our backs were against the wall as the "urban renewal" wave of destruction was almost on our doorstep.  I'm not proud to say I avoided visiting her for about a week after the Ford Street families were thrown out.  More people were leaving all the time.  On my tonic bottle collection route each week there'd be more empty apartments.  Not only were we surrounded by completely abandoned and boarded up buildings, but also the ones that still had people living in them gave us the feeling that they were slowly dying.  Tenements that had once been filled with tons of families bustling up and down the stairs greeting each other in the hallways and streets now had a trickle of people.  People who once used to talk about all kinds of things when they met outside now barely said hello.  If they spoke, it was news about who got an eviction notice and where that family was headed.  Ouelette's Diner closed, which meant Harvey must've been looking for another place where he could buy meal tickets for Captain Jack.  The tiny gas station closed, so that meant Mr. Berra had to find some other place to terrorize kids.  And then the Holiday Diner closed, my favorite place to eat, where Al's mom worked.

Only the Urban Renewal office was busy.  Families who were being thrown out had to stop in to get "help" finding a new place to live.  The worst part of this damn place was that it was on the corner of Austin and Moody streets, in direct eyeshot of my Aunt Rose when she sat looking out her window.  She saw the people being forced out of Little Canada marching into and out of that place.  They might as well have put up a big neon sign saying, "We're Coming to Get You Rose, and Your Little Doggie, Too!"

I finally got the nerve to visit her and, sure enough, when I got there, she was sitting in her chair by the window, clutching her rosary beads, with her eyes fixed on the Urban Renewal office.  Even though it was only a little over a week since I saw her, she looked like she was a lot older.  There were dark circles under her eyes, her hair had more silver streaks, and her face was sagging so much it looked like she was melting.  But when I heard her voice, it really broke my heart.  I could barely hear her speak when she told me Uncle Clarence and Daisy were out shopping.  She asked me how my arm was and how school was going, so I lied and told her they both were fine.  I also didn't tell her anything about Al or Henry being kicked out.  She told me that she missed watching me play on Austin Street.  I told her I'd be out there again doing things as soon as my arm healed.

The main reason I wasn't out there was because so many of my friends were gone.  In fact, only Richie, Paul, Billy, and Dave were left, because I found out the day, I visited her that Donna, Frenchie, and Bum were also on the way out in two weeks.  Bum's father would still manage Benny's Variety, but they were moving to Centralville across the river.  Donna'a family was going to Shaughnessy Terrace, the same tough housing project that Dicky was relocated to, but at least Donna could take care of herself.  Frenchie and his family returned to Quebec.  I still hadn't taken this all in when I was visiting my Aunt Rose.  The best gang in history was being blown apart by Urban Renewal.  But as bad as that was, my sadness about the gang was nothing compared to my pain and fear about losing our home and Aunt Rose being forced to move.  This thing was killing her.  I could see it.

I asked her if the priest was still coming to see her and she said he did but she was very upset with him.  When she asked him if they were finally going to stop throwing people out, he told her that it was up to God.

She snapped.  "Up to God!  The nerve!  I told him that was blasphemous.  I told him God had nothing to do with it.  People are doing this, and the church doesn't care and is hiding behind God.  The church leaders lied to us when we kept asking them if our homes were in danger of being taken.  I told him to get out and never come back and that God would judge them someday."

Then she started crying.  As I hugged her, Uncle Clarence came in with Daisy.  They both rushed over to us, and Uncle Clarence already knew what was wrong as he patted my head and kissed Aunt Rose's cheek and told her that a person he had talked to downtown told him that some buildings would be left up and we just needed to pray that our building would be spared.  He said he heard the Club Passe-Temps and the row houses on Cabot weren't going down and because they were close to us maybe we'd be okay.

Aunt Rose calmed down, and he said, "I bought food and I'm going to bake my special apple pie that you love.  I got one of Daisy's favorite soup bones at the market so hang around for a while Charlie and we'll have a special dessert together."

Daisy slowly nuzzled Aunt Rose like she always did and after Aunt Rose petted her she came over to me so I could say hello and pet her, but I noticed that she didn't bound over to me like she usually does because she seemed sad.  After I petted her, she went right back to Aunt Rose and stayed by her side every second, instead of hanging out with Uncle Clarence in the kitchen while he was making dinner like she usually would do.

That night I felt like my whole world was falling apart.

Charles Gargiulo has been a community organizer in Lowell, Massachusetts and organized the Coalition for a Better Acre (CBA) to fight urban renewal successfully in that neighborhood of Lowell. Legends of Little Canada is available from Loom Press at