The Queen City
Remembering Manchester in the Granite State 1985-1990For over five years, I called the Queen City home. I lived on Mammoth Road in Hookset, (just over the town line from Manchester, New Hampshire) from August of 1985 through December of 1990, and worked for a company situated in Manchester. I was recently searching the internet on the Queen City and was struck by the fact that the Manchester of today seems about as dreary as the Manchester that I remember living and working in during those years. Oh yes, Velcro was developed there, along with Habitant Pea Soup. Whoop-de-freaking-doo.
Even though the area touts its many schools and colleges, there doesn’t seem to be any grace, ‘soul’, or spirit to the area, unless of course you are a conservative pundit, white, and established. In my eyes, New Hampshire seems a place that you move to, buy property, and live after you have made your mark, and it is not a land of opportunity. When I lived there, much of the population of southern New Hampshire worked in Massachusetts.
I don’t recall anything proud or decent about the local paper, the Union Leader, or its matriarch, ‘Nackey’ Loeb. The only thing I recall the Manchester area actually being proud of in those days was the fact that the state continued in its dogged refusal to acknowledge Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday. The state finally acquiesced in 1999 when it became the last state to do so, sixteen years after the legislation was passed by Congress and Ronald Reagan had signed it into law.
In those years I worked for AIG (American International Group), the corporate insurance conglomerate headquartered in New York City. AIG maintained a data processing development center in Manchester, for tax reasons I imagine. We were located on the west side of the river in an innocuous modern brick building, and there was a large contingent of consultants from Great Britain that worked at AIG as well. Working with, and getting to know them, was one of the highlights of my time there.
Even though the presidential primary season in Manchester was stultifying and tedious, there were riotous moments as well. Some of my co-workers would volunteer in one capacity or another during the weekends in primary season, and we would listen to them swap stories at work on Monday about their hobnobbing with the political elite. One morning there was a general assembly gathered in the break-room in preparation for a message that was forthcoming from our COO. One young woman, MB, who dabbled in political activism, was asked what she had been up to over the weekend, and she proudly announced to the collected gathering, “I drove the head of Bob Dole’s staff!” After a pregnant pause, the entire room erupted into laughter.
There are two reasons why I enjoyed those years in Manchester, the people and the land. I met some wonderful people in the years I called Manchester home, people who were loving and kind, and I remain close friends with some. Together, we enjoyed the mountains, lakes, and winter countryside. The land itself was glorious, from the rolling hills of southern New Hampshire to the mountains of the north; I enjoyed and loved it all. Hiking, camping, snowshoeing, motorcycling, swimming, and canoeing, the Granite State is certainly a place where a person can relax and have fun in the great outdoors. Anyone who has read my stories is familiar with my love for the White Mountains of New Hampshire. During those years, the enduring image of New Hampshire, the great stone face of the old man of the mountain, still gazed out at the state from his perch located on the side of Cannon Mountain, high above Franconia Notch.
I endured my share of hardships during those years in Manchester. I developed a back problem that led to major surgery and a year out of work, and I amassed a mountain of debt keeping the apartment going and paying the bills. That was a trying time and I had my share of dark days during that year. Yet I got by with the help and support of so many friends, friends who put a smile on my face when I needed it most. Prior to my surgery, Brock Anderson and Helen Jalbert threw a party for me and invited some friends to spend the night at their farmhouse in Warner. They made a roast turkey with stuffing and all the fixings, and after dinner we all drank too much and wore stupid hats and sang songs from ‘West Side Story’ and other Broadway shows. After surgery, I lived with my friend Suzanne Cashman for several weeks, and she got me through a time when I was depressed, vulnerable, and fragile.
I can remember a few favorite places after these many years. There were the lamb specials at the Athens Restaurant, and the Easter kielbasa from Golomb’s Market. We went to Happy Hour at the BTC, or Boston Trading Company. The owner John was an active guy, and he would sponsor golf tournaments and fishing trips. The Merrimack River flowed through the town and once powered the mills that sit high above its banks. It is a beautiful thing, the river, and I enjoyed many a lunch along its banks watching the water flow south towards the sea.
The music scene was great, from local groups at small cafes to the big acts that would occasionally roll into town. There was a small area on the Merrimack River called Riverfront Park that hosted concerts during those years. It was a hot place in the summer, what with the heat of the asphalt and the brick buildings all around, and it was located below the old Notre Dame Bridge (if I recall the name correctly), a bridge that sported a beautiful green steel arch on either side of the roadway. In 1986, the Moody Blues played a great concert at Riverfront in support of their new album, and one of my favorite bands from that era, the Fixx, was the opening act. Neil Young played a gig at Riverfront in ’87, and he did the first half of the concert as a solo acoustic show. The first song was a quiet haunting version of ‘Hey hey, my my’, and the last song was a full volume electric-romp version of the same song played by Neil and his band, Crazy Horse. One of the highlights of that show, on a beautiful summer night by the Merrimack, was a memorable rendition of ‘Down by the River’. In 1988, I saw David Lee Roth perform with his band, a group that featured Steve Vai on guitars. That show was a rocking-good concert that included some wonderful moments, such as when a dozen or so high school girls, three or four cheerleaders per squad from the local schools, appeared on stage in their school’s cheerleader outfits to form a kind of high-kicking chorus line while Roth sang ‘California Girls’. It was beautiful and sexy, the girls were flaunting it and the crowd went wild; I smile to this day every time the memory of that night comes around.
In December of 1990, I left New Hampshire for the West and a new start in California. There were storm clouds on the horizon for my friends and co-workers at AIG in Manchester. AIG was one of the first corporations to abuse the H-1B visa program by firing its homegrown Information Technology staff and replacing them with cheaper foreign workers, even though AIG’s profits were soaring. In a few years, it was all over for the little development center in Manchester, and everyone was let go. One of my last managers at AIG, Linda Kilcrease, testified before Congress about what was happening at AIG and at other companies, but her warnings, which were salient and prescient, were basically ignored. She stands out in my mind as the first person who publicly voiced her outrage over outsourcing and offshore IT staffs and worked tirelessly to do something about it; in that regard she was way ahead of her time. Over the years, the assault on the middleclass continued. Now we have major data centers in India supporting companies in the United States while the CEOs of these bastions of capitalism continue to pocket obscene amounts of compensation.
Now I live in California and look back on my years in New Hampshire with fondness and gratitude. I remember warmly the friends I made in those years, and the things I experienced. In addition, I am grateful to have endured dark times and gotten on with my life as best I could, although I am glad that I chose to move on. I hope that my stated observation above is wrong, that the Manchester of today is a vibrant place, and that it offers its young residents the kind of opportunities they require in order to make their lives full. If Manchester is a dreary mill city, then others will need to move on as well. As far as my career is concerned, the assault on those that work in the field of Information Technology continues, and I am glad that my working days in IT are drawing to an end.
Today, almost twenty years on, I remember Manchester warmly. I have forgotten most of the pain, and wish everyone in the Queen City all the best.
Los Angeles, California