by David Moloney
Whenever we would pull up along the littered sidewalk outside Furey’s Cafe on the outskirts of downtown Lowell—me in the passenger seat of the mini van, my father driving—I always got a sense the brick building was closed. There was nothing on the outside inviting customers to stop in, no neon signs, doors propped open, teasing music to passersby. The black doors in the front of the building were gated and padlocked.
We went on Saturday afternoons. I’d follow my father inside the side door and I’d hurry past smoking patrons seated in the shadows of the café and up to a stool at the bar. Peg, the bartender, would fill me up a coke and start the grill behind her. She was the mother of a kid who was in the same bowling league as me, so the connection with someone I knew made the entrance to the otherwise dark bar on a well-lit Saturday not so strange. Any anxiety I might have felt was also mitigated by the safety of my father’s presence, who had brought me along, as if he thought showing me his money drop-off for the bar’s weekly football pool would make it all cool and familiar to me, as if introducing me to the men he drank with and the bartender who answered the phone when my mother called asking where he was would help me settle in while he paid his tab and checked his numbers.
Peg made huge fatty burgers over an open flame, a tall mound of twice fried hand-cut French fries with a pickle laid across the plate. I’d get it well done; my father would order a beer. The TVs mounted to the ceiling were all on a sports game or car race of some kind. The owner, Al, stood at the end of the bar, seemingly uninterested in anything but the TV in front of him. He would take drags on what seemed like six cigarettes at a time, filling the tiny bar with lung crushing smoke.
There was a regular, Brian, who leaned on the bartop and always welcomed us when we came in. He made me laugh, and I lingered his way when my father got caught up in conversation. He wasn’t shy about cursing in front of me or telling me crude jokes He prided himself on not putting a comb or brush to his hair in six years. When I first met Brian, he was in the midst of the uncombed streak that I found impressive, as much as a twelve-year-old boy could be impressed. His hair was short, seemingly cut on the regular, so when I asked him if the barber ever put a comb to his hair he told me no. He forbade it.
Some Saturday’s, once we left Furey’s—my father with his squares sheet that would go up on our fridge, me with a full stomach—we’d stop by his friend Lyman’s house on Temple Street. Lyman was a heavy set Irish man with a small apartment filled with baseball cards and clunky, primitive, pre-Bose surround sound speakers. He drank beer with my father, talked about sports, put Top Gun’s opening scene on, and cranked the speakers to show their might. I watched Sosa chase McGuire, then McGuire chase Sosa, with Lyman and my father.
Even after I stopped riding in the minivan to Furey's with my dad, after I once went there myself with a friend promising him the best burger in Lowell, I probably still thought about Brian and Lyman more than I realized. In my early twenties, I sported a similar hairstyle as Brian, made claim to an uncombed streak that would have made him proud. And though mine lasted only two years, I went the step further by never getting a haircut. At the time, I felt the misguided, immature pride I imagined, during my youth, Brian must have felt. I made sure to let everyone know about it. I’d sit with my long, curled hair, knotted, with a beer, and watch Top Gun on a cheap surround sound set, an attempt to relive the days in Lyman’s living room. I cursed Bonds each time he made it look easier than Sosa and McGuire ever had.
I never really processed why I was following the footsteps of men like Brian and Lyman. Maybe if my father brought me to an artist’s studio when I was twelve instead of a bar or a man’s lonely apartment, say, to pay down his layaway on a painting of the Lower Locks canal, I may have taken up painting, drank tea, and smoked a lot. Instead, I grew out my hair, drank in bars, bet on football, and enjoyed my burgers only over a flame.
My father surely didn’t anticipate me being impressed by these men. He could not have seen that in my youth I was dissecting my accompaniment as his attempt to impress upon me the traits he sought out in a friend or companion. The visits to these places preyed on my pubescent values; sexual humor, good food served by a mother, the sanctimony of beer, sports, loud noises. It was not his fault, but a culmination of factors that all seemed to work together, to formulate a brain soft and pliable, like fresh Play Dough. A poorly assembled, in-person guide on how to make friends.
When I turned thirty, I did some self-reflection into who I was and how did that happen. Thirty is a milestone year and as a male in a telescopic, individualized culture, I found myself in a state of reflection I couldn’t shake. I am in no way claiming the things that shape us can be found in the people we met as kids, or can be narrowed down to a few Saturdays from the thousands of days from our childhood. But impressions, being impressed upon--those can have a lasting effect, one that can shape us into something we never intended.
There was one cold, weekday night some time ago when I drove through downtown Lowell, past the canal, the mills. The restaurants and bars were all but empty and I saw Brian stumbling on the cobbled streets of Lowell, the buildings serving as a wind tunnel, directing him ahead, his hair wild and uncombed in the breeze. He’d taken up smoking. A part of me wanted to pull up next to him, offer him a ride and ask him how long the streak lasted for. But I’d been drinking myself and there was no eagerness to extend my trip. Brian would be out of the way, I told myself. There was no way he wouldn’t be.