Borrowed from The Philadelphia Enquirer
Birthplace of a Beat
Strolling through Lowell, Mass., is like riffling the pages of Jack Kerouac. The old mill town plays a big part in his novels, and it returns the favor by annually celebrating him.
By Barbara Claire Kasselmann
FOR THE INQUIRER
Jack Kerouac, a native son, helped make famous the mills of Lowell, Mass. (For the Inquirer / Barbara C. Kasselmann)
LOWELL, Mass. -- The first thing you notice about this city is that it looks exactly as it should. The man who took America On the Road in the 1950s couldn't have been from anywhere else.
It's all here, as Jack Kerouac saw and lived and wrote it: the endless old red brick mills along dark canals and wide, falling rivers; the "wide gloomy street''; the "bleak gray paint tenements''; sad little houses and beloved little houses; dark, shadowy hamburger luncheonettes and little back-street bars.
Somehow, however, it all seems to glow in a mystical fashion, especially when the soft light of dusk pours down the long wide streets and bounces off rows of gray and tan and yellow peaked roofs.
Lowell is a blend of hard, everyday reality and mystical etherealness, a place where beautiful and ugly constantly duke it out. The city is a delicious stew of tough boom-and-bust industry and great natural beauty, of living history and lively literature, of ebbing and flowing waves of immigrants.
Some have said Lowell was Kerouac's womb, and the man whose writings inspired (if not created) the Beat Generation never gave up his quest to return home. Seven of his novels are based in Lowell; most of his other novels and poems return here in one fashion or another.
Just as Kerouac celebrated Lowell in almost everything he wrote, so the city now honors the author every year with a "Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!'' Festival. This year's 10th annual festival will be Oct. 2 to 5.
The festival is always held in October, the time of year Kerouac loved best, and the time when Lowell is at its most hauntingly lovely.
"I was going home in October,'' he wrote in On the Road. "Everybody goes home in October.'' In fact, Kerouac made his final trip "home'' to this city of 100,000 in October 1969, at age 47.
And every October, Kerouac admirers, freaks, scholars and students, and the just plain curious, gather along the banks of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers to honor and remember the man who, as poet Allen Ginsberg said, "made Lowell sacred'' through his writings.
Beginning at 6:30 Thursday evening, Oct. 2, with a walking tour of downtown Lowell, the more-than-full weekend of events will include walking tours and bus tours, poetry readings, scholarly symposia and performers.
Best of all for some of us hard-core Kerouacians, there will be plenty of time to just hang out with like-minded souls and talk about the Beats and their King.
There will be time to check out Kerouac's local haunts and homes, to walk the streets and visit the churches, the bars, the library, and to get a feel for the strange and fascinating city that was so much his essence. You can even visit the Grotto and the stations of the cross that haunted Kerouac as a child and followed him throughout his life and writings, particularly in Doctor Sax.
Though certain modernities of the late 20th century have come to town, they seem not to have altered the city's soul. Lowell is still Lowell. If Kerouac came back today, he could still get a burger at one of his favorite all-night diners, and he'd have no problem finding a brew and a few buddies at his old hangouts.
It's spooky to know he sat on this bar stool or knelt in that church, was born in that house or is buried beneath this soil. The ghosts of Kerouac are everywhere. If you read On the Road once in college, you'll be dying to read it again -- and ready to try Dharma Bums, Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, The Town and the City, and Visions of Gerard.
You don't have to be a card-carrying Kero-Wacky to dig Lowell, however. The restored mills are fascinating, and much of the city is a National Historical Park. Really.
Lowell was the first successful industrial city in America, the place where abundant water power, cheap imported labor, the American entrepreneurial spirit and the ever-present demand for textiles combined to build a prosperous city of mills.
The history of those mills and the American industrial and labor movements are all documented at Lowell National Historical Park, in old mills that line canals throughout the heart of the city. On hilltops east and west of the city are the many mansions of wealthy entrepreneurs who built the mills and related industries.
An informative slide presentation at the National Park Visitor Center, 246 Market St., gives a good overview of the city and provides insight into Lowell's multicultural heritage.
It was the influx of immigrants into the city and its mills from the mid-19th to the early 20th century that resulted in Kerouac's being born here. The Kerouacs and the Levesques (the author's mother's family) were among the thousands of French Canadians who came to Lowell and nearby Nashua, N.H., seeking to whirl the spindles and find the American dream.
The walking tour that begins this year's Kerouac Festival starts at the Pollard Library at 401 Merrimack St., where Kerouac consistently played hooky during his high school years.
The tour also includes Jack Kerouac Commemorative Park on Bridge Street in downtown Lowell. Here, eight red granite pillars bear inscriptions from his Lowell novels, plus passages from On the Road, Mexico City Blues and Book of Dreams.
The awarding of the annual Jack Kerouac Literary Prize, at the opening of a photo exhibit at Whistler House Museum of Art (birthplace of James McNeill Whistler, as in "Mother''), 243 Worthen St., will conclude Thursday's tour at 8 p.m.
The exhibit will feature work by Gordon Ball, editor of Allen Ginsberg's journals, and photographs by John Suiter of Desolation Peak in Washington state, where Kerouac served as a fire watcher for three months in 1956.
One of the most popular festival events is the poetry reading at the Rainbow, a tavern on Cabot Street in the "Little Canada'' neighborhood. Show up at 4 p.m. Saturday to enjoy readings in a little bar steeped in authentic Kerouac ambience.
Long one of the author's favorite watering holes, the Rainbow is one place any Kerouacian homager must go. The spirit of Kerouac drinks on here, and it's still pretty much as it was: a crucifix over the door, a jukebox, old wooden booths, and a back room with pool table and lots of old photos of Kerouac and pals.
To read your own poetry, or listen to the work of others, attend an open-mike session at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Coffee Mill on Palmer Street, downtown.
The festival's featured event, at 8 p.m. Saturday at Smith-Baker Auditorium, across from the Pollard Library on Merrimack Street, will pay tribute to the memory of poet Ginsberg, who died in April. Tickets will be $7.50 at the door. Most other events are free.
There will be a small-press book fair at Pollard Memorial Library from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. A number of new books, including a 40th-anniversary edition of On the Road and a new compilation of Kerouac's writings, will be available at the fair and at events throughout the weekend.
For those with a scholarly interest in Kerouac and the Beats, there is an all-day symposium on Friday at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Visiting scholars from around the world will address "The Beat Literature Symposium'' in talks and panels throughout the day.
On festival evenings, after readings and other events, "We often go to a `water fountain' - possibly Cappy's,'' said Roger Brunelle, vice president of the Kerouac Festival and a knowledgeable tour conductor. Cappy's Copper Kettle on Central Street was another of Kerouac's watering holes and is now a hot spot for beer and poetry readings.
Friday and Saturday are good days for just nosing around Lowell. Although there will be free tours throughout the weekend, you might want to drive or walk around on your own and get a feel for the city.
The places where Kerouac lived, read, prayed, walked, played hooky and drank aren't tough to find. Mostly, Kerouac and family lived in three Lowell neighborhoods: Centralville, Little Canada, and Pawtucketville.
Lowell isn't difficult to get around in -- except perhaps at rush hour. Rivers and canals weave throughout the city, causing a few glitches. Merrimack is the main east-west street; Bridge Street becomes Central becomes Gorham, running north to south. People I met in shops and luncheonettes and the visitor center were helpful in steering me around. And the locals freely offer their opinions on the city's most famous/infamous native son. Kerouac would be 75 were he still around, and there are still quite a few Lowellians with tales to tell.
The house where Kerouac was born.
Kerouac was born in a plain, brown 2 1/2-story house with yellow porch railings at 9 Lupine Rd. in the Centralville section. The neighborhood is north of the Merrimack River, between the Bridge Street and Aiken Street bridges.
Kerouac's own "memory'' of his birth is typically filled with more than a touch of his romantic imagination: "It was in Centralville I was born,'' he recounts in Doctor Sax. "Across the wide basin to the hill -- on Lupine Road, March 1922, at five o'clock in the afternoon of a red-all-over suppertime, as drowsily beers were tapped in Moody and Lakeview saloons and the river rushed with her cargoes of ice reddened slick rocks ... I remember that afternoon, I perceived it through beads hanging in a door and through lace curtains.''
Other points of interest in Centralville include family homes at 240 and 320 Hildreth St., the "Castle'' of Jack's imagination in the trees at Bridge and 18th Streets, and "sad Beaulieu,'' the house at 34 Beaulieu St. where Kerouac's beloved, revered brother Gerard died when the author was 4.
Some of Kerouac's favorite homes and hangouts from his early teen years were in Pawtucketville, where his father managed the Pawtucketville Social Club on Moody Street (now University Avenue, at 123). Kerouac played pool at the Social Club and hooky across the street, upstairs from Lambert's, where a friend lived.
Lambert's is now Aunty's Neighborhood Deli, where you can get home-cooked food and fish-and-chips specials on Friday. Several little restaurants, breakfast shops and pizza parlors along this stretch have replaced the lunch carts where Jack and friends liked to get "greasy midnight hamburgers.'' You can still find good breakfast specials, burgers and Mexican specialties nearby.
The scene around University Avenue, the bridge and Riverside Street is pure Kerouac, a place where the author had a fourth-floor room and "the kitchen window looked down on bright wild street scenes,'' as he recounts in Maggie Cassidy.
The houses on Riverside, he writes in Maggie, "were just regular old French Canadian two-story wooden tenements with washlines, porches, long boards ... with brown lights in the kitchens, dim shadows, a vague sight of a religious calendar or an overcoat on a closet door, something sad and homely and useful.'' In most ways, they still are.
Just north of University Avenue, off Gershom Avenue, is a little neighborhood of mostly one-story bungalows where Kerouac spent some of his happier years amid friends who later became characters in his books.
The house at 35 Sarah Ave., off Gershom, was one of his favorite houses. And around the corner at 16 Phebe St. was his "beloved Phebe.'' On vacant lots and dark parks in this neighborhood, Kerouac and his friends traded comic books and stories of ghosts that later appeared in Doctor Sax.
Across the School Street Bridge and behind the Franco-American School is the Grotto. As a child, Kerouac often visited the site with his mother. The stations of the cross there are all in French, and lit with a red light by night. The Grotto is a re-creation of the one at Lourdes, France, complete with a Bernadette of Lourdes figure.
Nearby, the city's Little Canada section, along and near Merrimack Street east of the river, is filled with scenes from Kerouac's life (and death), and is well worth visiting.
The former St. Jean- Baptiste Church.
Here is the St. Jean-Baptiste Church, which Kerouac called "the ponderous chartreuse cathedral of the slums,'' and from which he was buried on Oct. 24, 1969. The imposing neo-Romanesque structure, once the main church for 20,000 Franco Americans working in the mills, now serves a mostly Hispanic congregation and has been renamed Nuestra Senora del Carmen Iglesia Catolica.
The area here has long been known as the "Acre,'' once the most densely populated neighborhood of Lowell and home to successive waves of immigrants seeking their fortune in American industry. A few homes remain from Kerouac's days, but many have become parking lots, glass-strewn basketball courts, medical walk-in centers and corner stores where people talk with their buddies and buy lottery tickets.
If you decide to come to Lowell for the festival, plan to keep an open mind and an open schedule. Impromptu tours, readings and gatherings are bound to materialize at odd hours, and all around town will be book sales and art and photography exhibits. Every year, the festival expands.
While Kerouac's gravesite might turn up on a tour, you may want to go on your own. It's two miles south of downtown. Follow Central, which becomes Gorham. Go under the black bridge that says "Spaghettiville,'' take the right fork in the road, pass St. Patrick's Cemetery, then enter Edson Cemetery on the right.
In the cemetery, go straight down the main road, turn left at Lincoln Avenue. Kerouac's stone is just past Seventh Street, behind the Blodgett marker, in front of Eisentraut. It's just a flat stone, but there will probably be a wine or beer bottle or two, perhaps a cigarette butt.
As Kerouac said, "Everybody goes home in October.''