Author Interview: Lea Graham on “Rumors at the Blackstone Canal” and the Manuscript From the Hotel Vernon

by Carolyn Bernier

PY: What is your connection to the city of Worcester, Massachusetts?

I moved to Worcester from Chicago in 2000, following a former spouse who had just gotten a job there. I lived there for seven years, teaching in various colleges and universities, most notably Clark University.

I didn’t really like Worcester for most of the time I lived there. I found it gritty and hard to break into socially. It wasn’t until the very end when I worked at the Hotel Vernon that I began to have a greater understanding of the city. This was largely due to a sense of community that existed there and also my learning its history through long-time residents. People would come in and tell me all kinds of stories about the city and its neighborhoods. Its name actually means “city of work”—and it is a place that so many people came to work and still do. From my own work experience bartending at the Hotel Vernon, I began to really see the city for the first time through the prism of pride that people who really knew it had.

I think that having such a changed perspective about Worcester because of the personal-historical connection taught me a lot about place and how any place can be a good place to be—depending on what and who you know and your openness to it and them. I stopped being snobby about places and was able to move beyond the cliché of “here is hip/sophisticated/interesting versus there is only poor/dirty/dull.”

 

PY: Can you talk about your inspiration for writing “Rumors at the Blackstone Canal”? Was it based on people around you, a curiosity of history, or something else?

The Blackstone Canal still runs under Harding Street, which is one street over from where the Hotel Vernon is located on Millbury Street. In the early 1800s, it was the longest inland canal in the country, starting in Worcester and running down to Rhode Island, to the Narragansett Bay. It was only active for about 20 years as a canal, but it stood open until around 1898 and was, according to my research, more or less an open sewer. They covered it over just before the turn of the century, and if you stand in the middle of Harding Street, you can see how the street bows. You can also lift the manhole covers on the street and peer down into the canal.

I always like thinking about how that history of the Industrial Revolution lies beneath us. It hasn’t gone away. [A brief digression: there is a group that wants to “free the Blackstone Canal.” They believe opening it up (and cleaning it, of course) would be a benefit to the city. I love the fact that they meet every Wednesday for a pizza lunch at the Hotel Vernon to discuss how to find funding and gain political weight behind the endeavor, and have been for years.]  In any case, my curiosity lay in trying to connect the “grand history” with what is left, and so I not only read books and articles about the canal but also took walks in the neighborhood and sketched it out to think about its spaces.

 

PY: Was there any research you conducted for the poem? Can you talk about the Blackstone Canal and its cultural/historical significance?

A lot of the information for “Rumors at the Blackstone Canal” was taken from 150 Years in Worcester: 1848-1998 by Albert B. Southwick (Chandler House Press, 1998). But some of the information was anecdotal. Allusions to people like Abbie Hoffman, who was originally from Worcester, or Maurice the Pants Man, a guy who apparently sold blue jeans to most of the people I knew in Worcester during their childhoods and whose shop was across from the Vernon, are references I gleaned from just talking to people and are part of the lore that you learn if you live in Worcester for very long. Same thing goes for Blue Monday with the Cockroaches, which was the pseudonym for the Rolling Stones, who came through Worcester and played “undercover” one night at, what was then The Cove (and now Lucky Dog). I guess the secret got out, from what I understand, and the place was packed.

I guess my inspiration came from thinking about what still exists in Worcester, what happened or what is no longer there, and what you read or hear about. I am always just as interested in what the rumor is versus what the truth is. Rumor is one way we make fun for ourselves. A rumor also aggrandizes things—even if it’s a bad one. One of the things I was thinking about as I wrote the poem was people’s attempts to make the canal and parts of Worcester more significant than what they are often credited (or discredited) with. It is an old city and one that reflects some of the best and worst decisions we have made in this country. They covered up the canal because the water had become so putrid it was a health hazard. Covering up the river/canal has meant that there is no waterfront in the city; it also indicates what we have done and continue to do to our natural resources. These aren’t things that reflect only on Worcester. Worcester’s history helps us think about what we’ve done in the name of progress.

 

PY: In a Worcester Magazine interview, you talk about learning about the city during your time at the Hotel Vernon. Can you talk about that a bit? How has your understanding of the past has helped you to understand the present?

One of the things that I learned most about Worcester was how palimpsestic it is. Nothing ever seemed to fully go away but was renamed or only partially erased. It seemed to me that people would come in and feel a pride about how far they could recite what a particular bar or store had been called (“Rizutti’s Goodnight Café was once called ‘Old Billy’s Lounge’” …or… “Nic’s used to be Stoney O’Brien’s and where our grandmother would go and drink gin with her boyfriend even in her 60s, giving us quarters for the jukebox to keep us out of her hair”). I think learning about what these places had been called in previous incarnations and also about the vibrancy of the neighborhood before it was diminished through the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, cutting off foot traffic to local businesses by 1970, got me thinking about what happened in this country—again—in the name of progress. I have always been excited by what is left behind, partially covered or erased. It is like reading a Sappho poem: the fact that I know it’s fragmentary increases my interest because it leaves a place for the imagination to expand in.

Also, I am a sucker for names. I love names and the act of naming, and Worcester is a place rich with names and nicknames. I have a poem in the manuscript From the Hotel Vernon entitled “Namecouth.” The title is a now obsolete word that means “infamous or notorious.” The poem deals in names that are truer than our given names: “Everyone, you tell me, has another / name or several, better known than their own….”  I loved learning the names of places before they became what they were. It is an insight into the present when you know the names of the past.

Working at the Vernon was so interesting and informative for a lot of reasons. The hotel/bar/restaurant had been built at the turn of the century—just after they covered up the Blackstone, they were building the Vernon. It was supposed to be a fancy hotel at the edge of the city where politicians could do their backdoor deals. Once Prohibition hit, men would go down to the speakeasy; the password, supposedly, was “Madame Rhubarb sent me.”  (Madame Rhubarb, by the way, was a name given to the Polish chambermaid who worked at the Vernon by one of the newspapermen who used to frequent the Vernon.)  Babe Ruth even drank there during his rookie year with the Red Sox.

As the decades went on, the hotel became more of a neighborhood joint. The group of guys—newspapermen, artists, etc.—that hung out there formed a kind of club they called “The Kelley Square Yacht Club.”  It was kind of a thumbing of the nose to Bostonians. The owner’s son-in-law, “Captain” Joe Miron, who bartended there, was a trained painter out of Boston School of Fine Arts. He and some of his artist friends painted murals of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (his favorite poem) in the 1940s. They are beautiful and still exist there in the bar. The only wall that doesn’t depict the poem is a mural of sailors on the beach painted by the cartoonist Al Capp. I realized I wanted to work there one night when I was talking with a young documentary maker who was a kind of artist in residence that summer. When he told me that piece of information, I got really excited. Al Capp, of course, did the Li’l Abner cartoons; reading them was one of the few ways as a kid that I got to see my native state of Arkansas depicted in any kind of national way and outside of school. I liked the coincidence of finding an Arkansas connection within the Vernon. I was about to leave Worcester at the end of the summer for a job in New York and I thought, why not?

Of course, by this time, the hotel was more of a boarding house with shared bathrooms. Once the foot traffic from the neighborhood diminished in the 1970s, the Vernon became known as “Bucket o’ Blood.”  So in 2007 when I was there, it was still living with the weight of a reputation that included drugs, prostitution, and murder. While it wasn’t at the height of its rough history when I was there, there were some tough and interesting characters still living there. It is mostly their stories that I wrote into the manuscript. I think listening to their stories and writing them has given me more of a sense of the “American” story. It is raffish and multiple. It can be ugly, but so interesting we can’t turn away. I think being American is about being a whole lot of different things, and that excites me as a writer. I began to think that the story of Worcester and the Vernon was at least a small version of the story of America.

 

 



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