‘Cut from American Cloth’ (2)

Cut from American Cloth (2)


     The land to the east of my house steps down to the western bank of the Concord and until recent times was called Wamesit Hill, though the only Native American in sight now is the one positioned at the center of the state emblem that appears on the Tercentenary plaque on Meetinghouse Hill and on the flag of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts displayed outside the Superior Court House nearby and at the Gallagher Transportation Center a block away.

     In the early winter of 1943, twenty-year-old Jack Kerouac had a night job parking cars at the Hotel Garage on Middlesex Street, on the back slope of Meetinghouse Hill. He was in sight of a handsome brownstone train depot, since demolished, a short way up the tracks from Gallagher terminal. Long before he composed his signature burst of spontaneous prose called “October in the Railroad Earth,” he sketched the local scene during down time in the garage office, itself now gone:

     “One night, returning from work in the casual, squalid atmosphere of railroad yards, warehouses, switch towers, idle boxcars, and one lonely little lunch cart across the tracks, as I was approaching the rail crossing near the old depot that we have in my home town, I had to lean against a sagging fence (black with soot-years) for fully ten minutes while a mighty locomotive went by freighting ninety-six cars: coal cars, oil tanks, wooden boxcars, all types of commercial rolling stock. While I loafed there with a cigarette, watching each car rumble past and checking the cargoes, a thought came to me with swift and lucid impact, with the same jolt of common sense and disbelief in the scantiness of my own intelligence that I had felt when first I understood the working of a mathematic equation. ‘Why,’ I asked myself, ‘does not this rich cargo, these cars, that terrific locomotive belong to me? … and to my fellow men?… Why are they not, like my trousers, my property? Who covets these great things so that myself and my fellow men are not heir to their full use?’ Then I asked myself, ‘Are we not all men living alone on a single earth?’”

     The morning freight train slides behind the long red flank of a former patent medicine lab and continues past the terminal while passengers wait for the 9:07 a.m. run to Boston. Copper flashing gleams on the adjacent roof of gray granite Keith Academy, once the turreted city jail and since renovated into upscale apartments. The boxcars are blocks of American place. Appalachicola, Port St. Joe Route, Soo Line, Maine Central, Rio Grande, Milwaukee, Santa Fe, Illinois Terminal, Penn Central, Southern Pacific, Bangor and Aroostook, Atlantic and Western, Boston and Maine—national freight, movable goods, raw material, made things—the weight that spreads cross country. Everything seems to come through Lowell. Burlington Northern, Springfield Terminal, Canadian Pacific.

     What happened to the Canadian Sausage Company of Lowell? The red-and-white trucks scooted around the city, delivering fresh meats to grocers and butchers. Like the freight cars of place, the sausage trucks stood for the French-Canadian presence. If you were French Canadian, you noticed when the truck passed by. You saw that word “Canadian.” It was like seeing maple leaf cookie packages in the crackers-and-cookies aisle at the market. And it made you think of grandparents, who served plates of maple leaf cookies and offered Christmastime gift boxes of painfully sweet, grainy, creamy maple candies.  . . .

—Paul Marion (c) 2007