Sunday, April 19, 2009

Impressions of Lowell

Budget: $690

Realizing tomorrow is a holiday, I decided it was time to fold, and left Lowell. I zipped pretty quickly through towns like Tewksbury

and cities like Reading.

I stopped at a bench on a lake in Wakefield for lunch.

My mood was generally good. I'd had a decently good time, and at the same time, I was glad to have left. Having no work the first day had been OK—I'd just walked around the city, exploring—but by the second day it was lonely. ("It's easy, so long as you can deal with the loneliness," said Charlee, a man who had saved up the money and toured for nearly a year on his bike without working.)

I'd spent the weekend partying with the people I'd stayed with and their friends, and it was a fun time, but I figured there would be plenty of time to do that on the road.


On the way out, I was on a bike for the first time after winter, and it was a new one. By the time I was on the way back, I was again able to signal to motorists, let the uncooperative ones by, signal my thank-yous, and shoot diagonally through a complicated intersection without having gotten off the bike. On the way there, it took much longer, because I kept having to get off the bike, and walk it not only through intersections, but also down miles of sidewalks on roads where the traffic scared me.

The new bike was a road bike, so the brakes weren't where I was used to having them, the gear shift wasn't where I was used to having it, and by the time I learned how to pedal so as to keep my pants out of the gears, it was a bit too late for that pair of pants.

They're my work pants, though, so they'll be fine like that.

I was quite happy to finally see the sign,

but it was miles more before I caught a glimpse of the actual city.

Lowell has a bad rap in Massachusetts, and I firmly believe it deserves it.

However, I was impressed by how nice parts of it were. Lowell used to be a mill city, and to power the mills, there are canals all over the place.

There are gatehouses on every canal,

and I picked one a ways off as a place to eat lunch on days when it's nice out.

The canals had been dug by Irishmen, mill work itself being reserved for those born in America. I wondered where all the rocks from the canals had gone. There was usually some site where such things had been dumped, and, to my surprise, I found it, though it was a bit unexpected:

The mills themselves are completely ubiquitous. Everywhere you go, there's a mill.

I found it interesting to walk around the old, largely abandoned mills, remembering books like Lyddie, which I'd read in middle school, and compare the work there to work today.

The bell tower in the above photo was to signal when workers could leave and when they had to return. The gate on the left was where they walked in and out, and it was locked promptly after time was up. Anybody who came in late had to us the side entrance on the right (now the entrance to the museum), where an official would take down the worker's name and either dock his pay or fire him. The hours were long, and work was six days a week.

Part of why I had decided to take this trip was because of the liberating nature of day work: just because I work today doesn't mean there's any expectation that I will come tomorrow. But I think even the most "oppressive" employment today doesn't take over one's life the way mill work in the 1840s did. I've done day jobs in dusty, murky environments, but I don't see myself lasting long at a job where I'm expected to show up regularly and am threatened with that kind of punishment for being a few minutes late.

I walked around an abandoned mill, thinking about that.

I think it's important to note that the primary workers' right, courtesy of capitalism, existed even then: the right to quit. We take it for granted here, but in the USSR, that right didn't exist. Also, unlike in a benefits-based system like Soviet socialism, in a money-based, capitalist system, one who saves or invests well gets to keep what he earned at work even after being dismissed (whereas benefits can terminate immediately).

The reason the workers chose to stay at the mills was because mills paid more than other jobs. The dream was to save up money and then leave.

With modern innovation, it takes less work to achieve the same quality of life, and even people who have no education and work relatively little have things like flushing toilets and electricity that, a few hundred years ago, kings wouldn't have dreamt of (in the US, even completely impoverished people, unable or unwilling to work at all, have such amenities, but that is only thanks to subsidies from the taxes others pay). Used to the life we have, we view conditions in the mills as an abomination and a horror, and are glad it is safely in the past, smashed and shuttered away.


I walked along the Merrimack River,

thinking about that, and about how amazingly integrated "pretty Lowell" and "real Lowell" are.

With the work I was going to try to get, I was going to be familiar with a very different Lowell.

My mind shifted to modern 9-5 office jobs, and I wondered what our descendants 200 years down the line will think of them.

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