The first time I traveled to North Adams to give it a serious look, I took a walk around town and happened upon a door that led up to some apartments. I walked in. Why? I was curious. My curiosity was rewarded. I immediately noticed a skylight that illuminates the landing at the top of the second staircase. The sunlight exposed beautiful old wood around the windows and on the banisters, a charming relic of the city’s past. The windows faced out into the hallway, as if looking out on some imaginary street. I snapped some photos and later showed them to a lot of residents I met in the next few months. No one recognized them or had any idea of the location of the skylight. That’s why I always show this spot to Conte Middle School students when I take them on field trips downtown. Where is it? Read on.
Several years ago, Deborah Bullett, a seventh-grade teacher at Conte, started the Oral History Project at my suggestion. She has five classes, about 100 students in all. The students are asked to interview an older family member or friend, using a tape recorder. After the tapes are completed, the students discuss what they heard. I present a 45-minute program to each class, which is designed to teach them the technique of oral history and to stimulate their interest.
I play a short excerpt of my taped interview with Venice Partenope, which appeared in Steeples. I ask the students to tell me what they heard and what was interesting to them. This always provokes a lively and animated discussion. Then I interview a volunteer in front of the class, usually an authority figure, such as the principal or superintendent. After a few minutes of my questions, I turn it over to the students. The kids have a ball. Most of their questions are thoughtful, and a few are playfully embarrassing. Last year, some of the students didn’t own tape recorders, so this year I was able to get a grant to buy some.
Last winter Ms. Bullett told me that many of the students wanted to know if I could take them on a field trip, so they could see some of the things I had told them about. In March and April, I took all five classes, one at a time, on a 45-minute walk downtown. For the first field trip, I had no plan mapped out. I decided to improvise, because I wanted the students to share my sense of discovery.
We left school by way of the exit facing East Main. I stopped and asked them to count the number of steeples they could see. We wound up doing this at three or four other spots. I took them to the area behind the Post Office at the corner of Ashland and Main Streets. There is a fence that faces Main Street just behind the stores at roof level. From there you can see the facades of all the buildings on the north side of Main Street from the second story up to the top, but not the storefronts. I love this view. It forces one to concentrate on the architecture. Most of the kids had never really looked at these buildings before. It was a good lesson. How did I discover this spot? I was curious, and I figured that few people would have a reason to go there.
Then I took them to the building with the skylight. When we got to the top of the stairs, the students were startled by what they saw. Even the teachers were impressed. One boy said he could imagine people leaning out of the windows and talking to each other across the hall or hanging clothes on lines strung between the windows, just like it was outside. I told them about the history of the building.
Several days later, I was downtown, and two of the students rode up to me on their bikes and told me that they were going to various places and counting the steeples. Another seventh grader passed me and said she had taken her best friend to see the skylight. Three kids came out of the Sports Corner and asked me if I could take them on a field trip immediately, because they didn’t want to wait until it was time for their class to go. So I showed them the skylight. So where is the skylight? Read on.
A reporter from Yankee Magazine spent the day with me last Thursday. She met me and my friends at the Bean at 7:00 a.m. Tony Talarico, Tony Sacco, Bob Field, Carl Robare and I talked about the city for an hour while the reporter took down notes and asked a few questions. Tony T. had some little gifts for her. Tony S. described the Richmond Theater, and Carl talked about urban renewal. Bob did his Walter Brennan impression. The reporter ate it up. Then she and I left for a tour that was to last until nearly 4:30.
For most of the day, the reporter followed me around with a tape recorder and a notepad. We walked through the Little Tunnel and looked up at the flatiron tenement on West Main Street above the railroad tracks. She kept looking back while we were in the tunnel, obviously afraid that a train was going to come any minute. We kept going until we reached Hill Side Cemetery, then climbed up to the summit on the north side and sat down on one of the big flat marble monuments. This was a nice spot for an interview, so we stayed there for about 20 minutes. We walked back into town on Route 2, took the path under the bypass, and crossed the footbridge toward Heritage Park. Just as we got to the middle of the bridge, a train passed under us and through the tunnel, hooked up to some railroad cars, and came back through again.
I took her up Furnace Street to show her the view and the big houses and tenements, and then we watched the Hoosac Tunnel movie at Heritage Park. By that time, we were ready for lunch back at the Bean. But not before I showed her the skylight.
After lunch, I took her to see my 100-year-old friend Julia White. She was a delight as usual.
Julia: “I have been having a lot of dreams lately. They seem so real. I had a dream about you.”
Joe: “Okay, so I will go home and dream about you tonight.”
Julia: “Where will you be in the dream? I want to be there, too.”
Joe: “How about California?”
Julia: “Okay. What time?”
Julia: “I’ll be there.”
I drove the reporter back to her car, and she headed home. Two days later, I got this e-mail from her: “I’ve been all abuzz about my North Adams adventure since I returned. I’m ready to move there! There is nothing quite so seductive as potential. I keep thinking about the flatiron building — both of them, in fact.”
So, where is the skylight? Not so fast. If you don’t know where it is, go look for it. But you have to be curious. I was curious. That’s why I found it. That’s why I keep discovering little things in North Adams every time I visit. People keep reminding me that curiosity killed the cat. That may be true, but it took nine times to do it.