Kevin O’Brien Remembers Needle Park

I’m often surprised how far this “06880” blog reaches. Approximately 1/3 of our readers are former Westporters, living all around the globe. Most have fond memories of growing up here. Otherwise, they would not be interested in what happens here today.

Of course, everyone has a story. It’s important to remember that not all of them are wonderful and rosy.

The other day, I got an astonishing email. I don’t know Kevin O’Brien. Yet his tale — which he allowed me to share — is like nothing I’ve heard before.

But — at least as much as everyone else’s — it needs to be told.

—————————————-

I lived in Westport 45 years ago. After dropping out of Staples High School, my sister kicked me out of her house.

I was a hippie type. I slept in Needle Park [the former hangout — now a concrete plaza — on the northwest corner of Main Street and the Post Road, across from the old YMCA Bedford Building], on a bench in the snow.

A kind young policeman sometimes checked on me to make sure I hadn’t frozen to death. I had just turned 17.

"Needle Park," circa 1970.

“Needle Park,” circa 1970.

Across from Needle Park was a diner. Early in the morning, rolls were delivered. If I hadn’t eaten in a while, I’d pilfer one.

I sometimes panhandled for change at Needle Park. If I got 25 cents I’d get a huge slice at Westport Pizzeria. When I wasn’t lucky I used kitchen packets and hot water to make “tomato soup.”

I was 6-1, 140 pounds. I often went days without eating.

I volunteered at the telephone hotline crisis intervention center in the Y basement. Seasonally, I worked directing parking at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Kevin O'Brien celebrating Christmas in Westport, 1970.

Kevin O’Brien (center) celebrates Christmas in Westport, 1970.

We had a group of mainly homeless friends we called The Family. I miss friends like Susan Burke and her sister Sarah, and Helen “Cricket” Wooten, none of whom I’ve seen since then.

Two other friends were Dee Dee and Marie. They occasionally used heroin, which was everywhere in Westport. I would like to find either of them.

For a while we rented the upstairs and attic at 35 Post Road West, across the foot of Wright Street.

We sometimes hung out at Devil’s Den, and imagined the dragon/troll that lived under the bridge.

There were seemingly a lot of aimless, homeless kids back then. Celebs like Paul Newman and many more never stopped or tried to help any of them. I never understood that. They were all very charitable, just not in their own hometown where kids really needed help.

As tough as life could be, especially in winter, I loved Westport and have many fond memories. I guess it’s the difference between experiencing all that at age 17 and 18, rather than age 62.

I’m brokenhearted to see what happened to Needle Park (on Google Maps street view). I’m glad the pizzeria is still there, even at a different spot. On a visit in the ’80s I left notes written on paper plates for lost friends on the wall behind the counter, but never heard from anyone.

Kevin O'Brien, in the Navy.

Kevin O’Brien, in the Navy.

Eventually I left Westport and returned to Florida. A few years later I enlisted in the Navy. After 10 years of senior enlisted service I was given a meritorious commission as an officer.

I retired from the Navy in 1998, was elected to city council, and became vice president/director of operations for an international corporation in Georgia. I later retired for good, and moved to North Carolina.

I’m planning a visit to Westport in a couple of weeks, on the way back from a road trip through New England. Having developed some serious health issues, this is a bucket list trip for me. Westport is a chief stop. God bless Westport.

I guess I’m living proof that a homeless, aimless kid living on the street in Westport can turn out okay.

26 responses to “Kevin O’Brien Remembers Needle Park

  1. William Adler

    Dan, thanks for posting this amazing email. Kevin, thanks for sharing, and I hope your visit to Westport is something special for you. A lot has changed although some still slip off to Devil’s Den to imagine dragons! I am the same vintage and remember Needle Park – my sister hung out there and I recall it well. I remember Cricket from earlier childhood. Paul Newman came to Staples in 1969 or 1970 and talked to kids about drugs – I remember it was a riveting presentation. That was an amazing time with a lot of things in play, and with hindsight I can see why there were many among us who felt disjointed and disconnected. I’m glad you had such success in the Navy and that you’re connecting the dots back to a turbulent but very real, formative time in Westport.

  2. Joanne Romano

    So glad Kevin shared his story and so glad he made it through. It’s just a stark reminder that not everyone had it easy growing up in Wesrport but many took that experience and turned it around! The cold darks truths are the ones no one wants to share!! Thanks Dan and thank you Kevin for sharing. All the best to you and hope your trip here this time isn’t a complete shock. Westport has changed… Really changed!!

  3. Terry brannigan

    Wow

    What a remarkable story. Kevin please let us know when you plan the here. We’d love to welcome you home in person

    Terry

  4. Jack Whittle

    Ditto what my friend Terry said – wow – and I would love to be a part of a welcome back to Westport and here a little bit more of your story – perhaps a slice or two at Westport Pizzeria with Mel Mioli would be in order?

  5. Jill Turner Odice

    I remember Kevin from the Open Line days when Erik Russ was running it. I was part of the “Open Line Family” . Open Line gave us a place to hang out and to meet new friends. We went to free concerts on Jessup Green ( Before the Levitt…), hitched rides to Devil’s Den, Vector the Dragon’s Bridge and Hell’s Hole to swim.
    There was a lot of drug use back in those days, pot, mescaline, LSD, you would see kids tripping in Needle Park or wandering around downtown in their tie dye shirts and bell bottom jeans…Many of them were helped to get their lives together at Open Line or Renaissance with Tom Samose and Debbie King running things.
    Westport was very different back in those days. Many of us from back then have passed away, or are spread all over the USA. I myself have “Run into” many of them on Facebook groups like Chou Chou’s “You Know You Are From Westport If…”
    I am grateful that I got to live in Westport back in those days, growing up there was a real experience. It is always interesting to see what became of folks we knew from back then. If Kevin wants to find friends from back in those days, that group on FB would be a perfect place to start.
    Kevin might remember me from my nickname back then of Joie 🙂

  6. Dan, If I remember correctly, Paul Newman lost his son, from an earlier marriage, to drugs. I am not making excuses for those, who didn’t seem to care. We just don’t always know the whole story. Kevin, your email is a success story. Thanks for the story and I hope the trip is a good one for you.

  7. Francine Radford

    Amazing story. Thank you for telling it.

  8. What a wonderful story. Through it we were able to live your life, fast forwarding through the struggles to your success. How uplifting and comforting — (Parents worry: “what if, what if, what if…?”)
    Please do return to Westport with a great sense of dignity as we will welcome you. And please, be kind…it’s different today, hopefully you’ll see, for the better. Just different.

    Take care.

  9. Dan– you should find out when he is in town, so Westporters can meet him at the old Post Office (which he won’t recognize), now a restaurant with a grand wrap-around bar, and all buy him a drink and toast him and thank him for his long and meritorious service in the Navy. What a warm welcome back to Westport that would be!

  10. That is very powerful. God bless you!

  11. Kevin… glad it worked out for you! As for helping kids… 1) i think it was hard then to know how hurting kids were and 2) how to help them… I lived thru alot and didnt know how to get help. Its really hard to identify who needs it unless they come forward and even then its difficult to find the right help (even today tho its better now). Good to hear a success story.

  12. Thanks for telling your story Kevin. That took strength, I’m sure. Although I haven’t seen Cricket in a few years, last I knew, she was living in Washington state. I hope your journey is all that you hope it to be.

  13. Poignant story, Kevin. Thanks, Dan, for publishing it. I, too, remember Cricket. If you need a place to stay while you’re in town, you’re welcome to stay with my husband and me, depending on when you’re coming. Feel free to email me at prillboyle@gmail.com. –Prill Plantinga Boyle, ’72.

  14. I remember Kevin and also Cricket, Susan, and Sarah. My friends and I (them included) all hung out at “Needle Park”. I had no idea they were homeless as I came and went from my parents home on Coleytown almost daily. I feel guilty learning this. I thought all the “kids” went “home”. I don’t remember what we talked about but I know it didn’t include sleeping there on the benches. So sad! Needless to say I’m deeply moved by Kevin’s story.
    Thanks for sharing!

  15. Marcy Anson Fralick Staples '70

    Kevin’s story moves me, and I know many kids from my class (1970) have gone down Kevin’s path, and are no longer with us. I’m so glad Kevin found a way to get out of “Needle Park” and make a life so wonderful. A meritorious promotion to officer is a big deal, and something to be incredibly proud of. Kevin, if you’re ever in the Tucson area, I’d be honored to meet with you. I’m on Facebook under this name, so don’t hesitate to contact me!

  16. David Pettee

    Thank you for your service to our country while in the US Navy and best wishes on a welcome return to Westport.

  17. Michael Calise

    great story of a life fulfilled in spite of adversity
    best to you Kevin!

  18. Does anyone know if that’s Ti Jean Barrere in the fur coat in the picture of Needle Park? I recognize 2 or 3 others but the names have escaped me. I hung out there a bit myself with my good friend Danny Smith,,,,who is no longer with us unfortunately. I moved in ’69…just before Woodstock . Good memories, good times, just wish everyone was still here to reminisce about it. And Kevin, congrats to you on your journey, you are one of the lucky ones!

  19. Welcome Home Kevin! You have traveled an amazing route in life!

  20. Dick Lowenstein

    My own Needle Park story occurred in the mid-80s. On a Saturday morning, as I passed the Park, I saw a man sleeping, I recall, on a bench and next to him was a bottle, presumably an empty bottle, a bottle labeled Chivas Regal. Only in Westport!

  21. Kevin O'Brien

    You all are so kind. Those were days when life could have taken us (me) in any number of directions. Many of them bad. For Cristina; Susan and Sarah Burke and Cricket weren’t homeless. Cricket lived on King’s Hwy North with her mom (I lived there for a very short time in the Summer, much to her mother’s chagrin). Sue and Sarah lived with their parents. For a time Sue and I were boyfriend and girlfriend, as were Cricket and I. My time in Westport is what kept me motivated to succeed in life, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. The start to my Can Am trip through New England was postponed for a few days because of the weather here in the Carolinas, but it looks like I’ll be starting out tomorrow. Westport will be on the return leg. I can let you know more accurately a little further down the road as I get closer. Love to see you guys and gals.

  22. Jill Turner Odice

    Have a safe trip Kevin…Thanks for pointing out Susan, Sarah and Cricket were not homeless as I had been to their homes myself 🙂

  23. Susan Hopkins

    Kevin: All of us are journeymen who hope to bring things full circle before time and circumstance catches up with us. In that vain, I wish you Fair Winds and a warm Welcome Home.

  24. Jarret Liotta

    Great piece … But the question STILL remains why & how Westport ever let the retailers — starting with Cafe Christina in the ’80s — usurp that park and pave it over!!

  25. I’ll be in Westport on Saturday, October 17th around 4pm+/-. I’m planning to have a slice of pizza for old times sake at the pizzeria and maybe a drink at the old post office. If you see a red Can Am Spyder, that’s me. Sunday I’m off to visit the 9/11 memorial in NYC, and points south. 🙂

  26. God bless you Kevin and your homecoming! I’m glad you soared, glad to hear that Cricket’s alive and well- that so many of us survived! OpenLine run by Erik Russ was a great resource for a troubled time- kids reaching out to other hurting kids. Kids caring for kids on such a scale was pretty remarkable. Needle park was always a safe and interesting place to hang out.

    Photo of the Library Park is November, 1968. It is not Ti Jean Barrere in the racoon skin fur coat. Paul Newman would drive around looking for his son and his sons drug-dealers.

    There were only five families on welfare in the Westport Public Schools System 1967-71, my family was one of the five at times (I learned after his death that my father had always paid child support, but being homeless or moving around, we didn’t receive it. Landlords would double, triple and quardruple rents to prosper off the summer crowds in Westport, thereby leaving some families who couldn’t afford the increased rent to become homeless during summer months. Some landlords summered in Europe on what and while they rented out their homes to rich summer clients. With no over-night parking at Compo, the train station was a safe place to sleep in the car, and had a public restroom. If the train station parking lot was full, the Unitarian Church was a safe place for a mother and children to sleep in the car. My older brother, younger sister and I were blessed to have friends to stay with, and friends to drive around with all night; I worked as a live-in mothers helper in summers to not be homeless. My family and I would rendezvous at the park at a preset time to stay in touch.

    It is so sad to see the Library Park gone. Long before it ever became “Needle” park, it always was the COOLEST place in the town of Westport to sit in the shade, hang out, visit, watch life pass by on the Kings Highway/Old Boston Post Road, or read a book. I remember when Chou Chou Merrill and I as young playmates played in the park because it was the only cool and shady spot in town. I believe the library was the first building in town to have air conditioning, and when the library was closed the only respite from the humid summer heat was under the cool shady tree of the library park, and of the generations before us.

    I’m so sorry I’ll miss you at Westport Pizzeria Kevin! (It’s moved.) Welcome home! Hey, if the party to greet you gets too big, there’s a very cool park bench under a huge shady tree where you will always be able to eat your slice of pizza at Longshore CC overlooking the marina and sunsets… the “Hugging you tightly” Chou Chou Merrill bench.