It’s a little over one-tenth of a mile on University Avenue in Lowell from the corner of Riverside Street to White Street, but oh, what a tale that stretch of road could tell.
Back in the 1970s, when that area became my stomping ground, the road that started at the bridge at the VFW Highway and extended all the way into Dracut was known as Textile Avenue. When Lowell Technological Institute became the University of Lowell — before it became UMass Lowell — the street name was changed to University Avenue. It’s still Textile Avenue once you get to the top of the hill at Old Meadow and West Meadow roads and cross over into Dracut. But I suspect that for a lot of people it will always be Textile Ave.
I had some time between assignments recently and I stopped at the Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner of Riverside and University, where for 60 years stood Gagnon’s Hardware Store. Good old Tony Gagnon, who died four years ago at the age of 65, had just sold the building, which included 10 apartments, and was ready to enjoy his golden years with his wife, Danielle, but Tony was felled by lung cancer.
I bought a large cup of coffee and walked a few paces up the street to an area affectionately known as “The Court,” which just may be the only park in the world nestled between two buildings. The official name is Father Bourgeois Park and 30 years ago it was filled with people, day and night. We played basketball there. Had a summer league under the direction of George Gregoire. The lights on the court shone brightly well into the night back then. Now, on this biting cold autumn night, I stood in the darkness at center court, holding my coffee. In my mind’s eye, I could see groups of kids playing cards in the bleachers. I could see a young Dennis Shaughnessey playing guitar as friends joined the chorus. I could see Lowell police officers Leo Marquis and Arthur Diette entering the park from opposite directions to tell us the park was closed for the night.
“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” Diette would say.
The basketball court is located at the bottom of a slope. At the top, lining the street, were dozens of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Eventually, we would graduate and gravitate to the top of the court.
From there, it was just a few steps into the Pawtucketville Social Club, with its brick facade and thick frosted windows. A cast of characters entered and exited the club in those days, with colorful names like Bou Fou, Toup, Tank, Soupy, Party Artie and Mush Doog.
Next door to the court was a black Pentecostal church. One night, when the shades were drawn, dozens of us pressed up against the front door and windows to listen to what sounded like an exorcism taking place inside.
“Come out, you devil! Come out, I say!”
That building has gone through a couple different incarnations. Today it is once again a storefront Pentecostal church.
Across the street from the Court was the Record Rack, on the corner of Textile and Gardner avenues. The smell of patchouli wafted out the front door and onto the street. I met New Hampshire folk artist Tom Rush there, as well as Jorge Santana, Carlos Santana’s brother, whose band, Malo, was playing at the university’s Cumnock Hall. The Rack is now a Lowell Police Department substation.
Next door to the Rack was the Textile Lunch Cart, owned by Gerry Renaud. Long before there was a Cheers in Boston, the Lunch Cart was one of those places where everyone knew your name. Next to that was the Campus Restaurant, the present-day site of the Egg Roll Cafe. Pappy’s, anchored the other corner at 94 Textile Ave. Before it was Pappy’s, it was the 94 Take Out. Today, it is Suppa’s, and at midnight on weekends, it is packed with UMass Lowell students.
Between the Campus Restaurant and Pappy’s was Dufresne’s Barber Shop, which still exists today and is located across the street. Roland Dufresne died in 1988. In the 1970s, he would stand outside his little shop, tormented by the sight of all of us across the street, our long hair cascading over our shoulders.
“Come on in and have a seat,” he’d tell us. “It’s free today.”
The cold wind ripped through my jacket as I made my way back to the car. Nothing lasts forever.
Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.