It was mid-September, and I was scheduled to take leave back in Boston in early October and learned that Lowell had started holding a festival of a sort each fall to celebrate Kerouac, one of its most famous native sons. In spite of all the constant moves my family had made in my childhood, none had reached as far as Lowell. Between the memory of that first trip to Lowell with my mother and all that I was now learning, I started to develop a connection I couldn’t explain and I decided at by now, some thirty years later, I’d include in my trip back home taking my second ever ride up Route 3 to Lowell from Boston to see for myself what seemed to be this “holy ground” that could so inspire one soul to produce such a prodigious and poetic testimony to its very essence. I read everything Kerouac I could before taking that trip, with hopes of making my time in Lowell as meaningful as possible as I retraced the streets, steps and places prominent in his life and works.
I parked my rented Dodge in the lot designated for the Lowell Visitor’s Center, and found my way to the main entrance. It was a cold but brilliant and sunny day, and I felt excited and alive to be on this unexpected adventure, about to take my own Kerouac city tour. The Visitor Center was nestled among some of those old brick factories I’d seen so long ago, now repurposed to house it and what appeared to be apartments or condos. It was a treasure trove of Lowell history, and had a wonderful collection of books for sale. I grabbed some free literature and a map and set out on my quest.
My first stop was to take a look at the Paradise Diner on Bridge Street, then across the Merrimack River to snap a picture of Jack’s birthplace on Lupine Road. I continued on for the next few hours visiting places and haunts I’d read about to include the Franco American School’s Grotto, the Pawtucketville Social Club where he played pool, and the Boot Mill Museum to see what few items he’d left behind in this world, including his knapsack and typewriter. At every stop there were others like me, or clusters of people on guided tours huddling up close to their guide, straining to hear. I eavesdropped when I could for any nuggets of information and ended my tour at Jack’s grave site at Edson Cemetery where a group stood by silent by as someone read from one of his works.
After listening for a few moments I drifted back toward the car, reflecting on the last few, amazing hours, and felt as if I’d discovered something for which I’d been searching but couldn’t name. Some connection. It came to me as part of a subtle feeling of Déjà vu and that sense of having been there before. Something mystical, but comforting and familiar. I’d moved so many times as a kid and now with the military, but none of those places made me feel as if I belonged there. Lowell somehow did. Standing by my car I gave the cemetery one last long look as I said a silent prayer to Jack, and felt a firmness in my feet as though they were taking root there, telling me with certainty, I’d be back, little knowing that I’d end up attending graduate school there at UMASS so many years later.
Dad’s last job, before he got sick, was in a carpentry shop at the loading dock for a company in Dedham, Hersey Inc., that built water meters, some as large as a small car and were buried underground, and where he served as shop steward. He led his crew in making wooden crates large and sturdy enough in which to ship those giant meters and he relished his role as their union representative. They were also prodigious in trading porn magazines and dime store novels with each other. He’d come home some nights and hold court at the kitchen table and in his toughest voice make us listen as he told us how he was handling this or that grievance on behalf of a fellow union member. “I’m the fucking shop steward and I’ll take ‘em to the fuckin’ judge!” he’d say talking about management and slapping his palm on the table, flecks of spit coming from his toothless mouth. He always took his full upper and lower dentures out the minute he came home, and his cheeks would deflate like popped balloons, instantly aging him ten years. He’d wrap them in the snot filled handkerchief he always kept stuffed in his back pocket to store them away. “They’ll see who they’re fuckin’ wit!” he’d lisp.
Truth was he was a blowhard who when challenged “had no lead in his pencil” as my old hockey coach used to say. There was a time we were out driving when I was in the fourth grade and he started swearing, his neck craned out the window, and honking his horn at the driver in front of us for what he thought was the guy cutting him off. The guy jammed on the brakes, ran back to my father’s driver side window, and caught him squarely on the side of the head with a thumping right hand as my father desperately cranked on the window handle trying to roll it up. Seeing my father had no fight in him, the guy just threw his head back and laughed as he walked away. I remember the lump on his head and the fear in my father’s eyes as he drove away, pale and sweaty. Not exactly a lesson in manhood for me.
To be continued….