Friday, February 27, 2009

Colombia, Part I (Having Very Little to do with Colombia)

I tried to read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez back in 2004. I didn't get very far. In fact, when I picked it up last week to give it another shot, I found a receipt keeping my place at page 16. Apparently at 3:00 pm on April 21st, 2004 I was filling up my tank at a Hess gas station in Lowell, Massachusetts.

I hate Lowell. It's usually the standard by which I judge other awful places: "Well, it's pretty horrible here but it's better than Lowell." This is, of course, completely unfair and 90% to do with the fact that I was miserably unhappy while I was living there. That's also why I never finished the book. I was too busy listening to John Mayer and crying into my Easy Mac.

But anyway, in the interest of fairness, we should probably take a minute to talk about it.

Lowell, population approx. 105,000, is located in north-eastern Massachusetts on the banks of the mighty Merrimack River (which also runs through my hometown of West Newbury). It's very close to the New Hampshire border and all of the lovely malls and liquor stores the Granite State has to offer.,_Massachusetts

UMass Lowell, a satellite campus of the University of Massachusetts, makes up a major part of the city. You may also know it as an important center of the American Industrial Revolution. Tindall & Shi in America: A Narrative History (an A.P. U.S. History textbook I've saved for occasions like these) write:

In the early 1820s a steady stream of single women began flocking toward Lowell and the other mill towns cropping up across the region. To reassure worried parents, the mill owners promised to provide the "Lowell girls" with tolerable work, prepared meals, secure and comfortable housing, moral discipline, and a variety of educational and cultural opportunities such as lectures and evening classes. Initially the "Lowell idea' worked pretty much according to plan...But Lowell soon lost its innocence as it experienced mushrooming growth. By 1840 there were thirty-two mills and factories in operation, and the blissful rural town had become a bustling, grimy, bleak industrial city.

Well, there you have it. It hasn't changed much.

Want a list of famous people born in Lowell? I know you do because everyone loves to know where famous people were born. Here it is:

  • Bette Davis
  • Olympia Dukakis
  • James McNeill Whistler
  • Jack Kerouac

I heard a story once that Jack Kerouac failed to show up for a speaking engagement at UMass because he couldn't bring himself to cross the bridge that connects the two parts of campus. If it's true, I can't say I blame him. It's a particularly scary bridge that sits over what I now know is called the Pawtucket Dam. The combination of the cars crossing and the water pounding makes for a pretty shaky experience. And of course, like everything else in Massachusetts, you're never entirely certain anybody's bothered to take a look at it since it was built in, you know, 1765 or whatever.

As for Bette Davis and Olympia Dukakis- who knew! Well, I guess "Dukakis" probably should have tipped me off. And yes, she is related to Michael (cousin). It's also worth mentioning that Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, NOT the next town over, but close and also an old mill town. Who knows, maybe it will be a Double Jeopardy question someday.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, on the other hand, was born in Colombia.

Come back later for Colombia, Part II, which will probably be about Colombia.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Armchair Traveler

My car is an absolute disaster. If Goodwill had a clearance section, I imagine it would look a lot like the pile of junk in the back of my little Accord Wagon. What I dread most is having new passengers. At least my friends, the frequent fliers, know what to expect. They've mastered the subtle technique of getting the broken doorhandles to work. They anticipate the sound of an obnoxious crying baby when I put it in reverse. They know that the Dunkin Donuts coffee in the cup holder is old enough to be a bio-hazard. The new passengers have no idea what they're getting themselves into. To make matters worse, they're unfailingly polite about it. It kills me.

Let's face it, a person's car says a lot about his or her place in the world. Obviously mine is not the vehicle of the financially secure. I'm sure there was never a good time, economically speaking, to be an indebted graduate student in music, particularly one with lofty ambitions to travel the [entire] world in some sort of nebulous "writer" capacity. But this morning, driving my death-trap to campus and thinking about the article I read over coffee about our country's dire financial situation, I had trouble imagining a worse time.


Actually, I'm an optimist. Or something. Economies are failing, wars are raging, the planet might be dying, and I can't even afford basic cable. I'm sure, though, that it will all magically work out and in a couple years time I'll be happily trekking in the Australian Bush or watching the Northern Lights in the remote Arctic or running from lions in the Serengeti (and coming home to HBO On-Demand, of course). In the meantime, the best I can do is come here to write about the places I have seen, the places I hope to see, and the places I might never see outside the pages of my National Geographic.

Come back soon and maybe we'll go here...

...or here...
...or maybe even here...