FALL RIVER, MASSACHUSETTS – Sitting in the Highland Luncheonette, you quickly figure out that you can learn a lot about a city by hanging out in a local diner.
This diner at the corner of Robeson Street and New Boston Road isn’t very large, but it’s unique in a few other ways – especially for someone like myself, who grew up in this city, spent 38 years here … and then moved on, to the sunny shores of Orlando.
Sitting there having lunch with my dad on a mild fall day, on my first visit back to this city of hills and mills in nine years, I realized a couple of things that time and distance had taken away from me.
Let’s start with …
HISTORY. The walls of the diner are covered with amazing photographs of the city’s earliest years — buildings that no longer exist, that were a part of Fall River more than 100 years ago. Right next to my table was a photograph of a prominent Protestant church, the Union Methodist Church, at Highland Avenue and Pearce Street. It was dedicated on May 15, 1927, and was a beautiful building …
…. except that it no longer exists. I was still living in the city when the building got torn down, as it simply got too old and ravaged by time to remain a fully functioning church. Instead, it got replaced by a smaller building that looks like a modular unit. I guess when you’re ministering to lost souls, it doesn’t matter what the church looks like. But in truth, I miss that older, historic building. Being in this city — where the signs in front of Fall River City Hall point out that the city dates back to 1803 — reminds me that history is worth preserving.
Sadly, that’s not easy. Dennis Binette, curator at the Fall River Historical Society, pointed out to me during a visit there how challenging his mission is.
“Unfortunately, history is very expensive to preserve,” Binette said. “That’s something we have to constantly deal with. We operate on a small trust fund, and we have to find ways to make up the rest if we’re going to continue to offer the programs we have.”
There are signs all over the city of how rough the national recession has been here: empty storefronts in downtown, foreclosure signs and “short sale” ads, and beautiful old historic houses in the city’s Historic Highlands neighborhood that look like they’d been abandoned. I don’t think they have been, but some of them are so badly in need of repairs and a paint job on the exterior that they’re sad to look at. As a child growing up in this neighborhood, I can remember these same homes looking so pristine. Today it’s like wandering around a ghost town.
Even at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast and Museum, this tourist attraction in downtown Fall River — the same house where Lizzie Borden was accused of gruesomely murdering her father and step-mother — the manager, Lee-Ann Wilber, said business hasn’t been strong enough in recent years to keep her head above water financially.
“It’s not doing well enough that I can make my mortgage or meet payroll,” she said, as she prepared a bedroom for two guests coming in that night. And with the cold winter winds blowing strongly, this seasonal business will move into the slow period. Southeastern Massachusetts is a tougher sell to tourists in the frigid winter months.
ETHNICITY: Highlands Luncheonette has a lot of standard choices for a diner — a pastrami sandwich, a foot long frankfurter, a chicken salad plate, even Texas style French Toast. But it also has something that I would have a much harder time finding in Orlando, unless I went looking for it: a Chourico Sandwich.
Served with sauteed peppers, onions, mushrooms and French fries, this Portuguese sausage is a popular meal in Fall River, and for good reason. It’s a reminder of how this city attracted so many migrants from the Azores, who came to this city in search of opportunities in the textile mills, or perhaps fishing off the shores of nearby New Bedford. They include my grandmother, Mary Moniz, whose parents came to nearby Tiverton, R.I., from the Azores. I can happily remember so many of the Portuguese meals that my grandmother used to make for me as a kid. I miss that, even if Orlando does excel at just about every imaginable type of ethnic restaurant you could think of.
Then I glance at the ads on the menu — St. Anthony of Padua Federal Credit Union. Oliveira Insurance Agency Inc. Mr. Sardinha & Sons Plumbing and Heating. Businesses that maker a point of saying “Falamos Portugues” in their advertising. It’s a rich, vibrant diversity that Fall River has to offer.
Another thing I rediscovered in this city: the elderly urban barber. They’re almost impossible to find in Orlando. There, I get my hair cut at an upscale salon, Lunatic Fringe, in Atlamonte Springs. The hair designers there are all young, cool, hip and beautiful.
In Fall River, I found a 79-year-old man who had his own small barber shop in downtown. He happily welcomed me in, and loved to talk, telling me about about his years in the Air Force, and how he knew my father when they were growing up, and the decade he and his wife spent living on a boat in Mount Hope Bay. All aging cities have men like this, the barber who doesn’t want to retire and loves the opportunity to trim some hair and chat. I’ve missed this experience.
One thing I haven’t missed: the crazy drivers. I always thought Interstate 4 in Central Florida was a driver’s nightmare, but on the actual streets of Orlando, the motorists seem polite, patient and orderly in comparison to what I’ve seen during four days in Fall River.
For one thing, the drivers here don’t believe in obeying a stop sign — they barrel through it and then come to a screeching halt midway through the crossing street. The speed limit on residential streets, usually around 30 mph, gets doubled or tripled by most of the horribly impatient drivers here. It’s scary. As my father told me, “You always have to be alert in Fall River for the wackos.”
GHOSTS: Strolling along the streets of my old neighborhood, it’s easy to marvel at some of the remarkable old Victorian and Greek-revival style homes here on High and French streets, the blocks I used to play on while growing up. When I was kid, though, there were certain homes that I always firmly believed were haunted. I walked by one of them, on French Street, and for some reason I couldn’t quite take my eyes off it. It still looks haunted to me, and I’m not sure why. But there’s something just a tiny bit ominous about the look of this house, almost as if …. once you go inside, you may never come out …
I brushed off a chill, and then kept walking. Maybe it was the 40 degrees temperatures this morning that I simply wasn’t used to as a resident of Orlando, where 90 degrees in October is still common.
Or maybe it was that shadowy figure I noticed out of the corner of my eye, moving across the second floor window of that home …. maybe not a person walking past that bay window, but something else …
Historic older homes seem like the ideal place to find ghosts. It makes sense, because these houses have been around for more than a century, so a lot of people have died within their walls. There’s another house I always thought was haunted: the one I grew up in on High Street, near the corner of Lincoln Avenue, that my father bought in March 1963 and still lives in today.
He showed me the papers on the home: it was built sometime around 1850, at a different location, then moved to the current spot in 1883. I’m sure a lot has happened in that home. I know my mother died here in 1979, and my grandmother died in the exact same room in the 1990s.
But long before their deaths, I always suspected my house was haunted — and I knew exactly where the ghost was: in my bedroom.
I slept in the attic, in a spacious room that was suffocatingly hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. Why did I stay up there? Who knows? When you’re a kid, you have different standards, I suppose.
I was the only one in the house who slept on the third floor; everyone else, including my parents, sister and grandparents, slept one floor below.
And at night, in the pitch darkness, all alone up there, I would hear odd things …. almost like the sound of footsteps in the attic hallway that leads to my room. There was a small closet at the back of my room, and in it a door that led into the attic hallway. I can distinctly remember waking up with a start in the middle of the night, hearing that door open — then shut. My forehead now bathed in sweat, I would look up in an absolute panic, ready to scream out loud for my parents to rush in and save me …. only I always suspected that if I woke up my father in the middle of the night, he would scream even louder — and not at the ghosts.
So I remained quiet, and did the next best thing: frantically pulled the covers over my head, with the occasional half-glance over those bed sheets to see if that door in the closet had opened up once again …. just in case someone was standing there in the doorway …
…. silently watching me.
I went back into that room today. In the years since I’ve been away, it now looks sparse, with a minimal amount of furniture and none of the books, records or toys I once proudly stocked in there as my little sanctuary. Once intimidating at night, it looks so ordinary in the daylight, so plain.
I haven’t gone back up there at night, in the darkness.
I don’t plan to.
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