Go to England; Discover Kerouac
By Mike Boudreau
Mike Boudreau grew up crisscrossing the city of Boston before settling in Tyngsboro, MA, in 2002. After a 28-year career in the U.S. Air Force, he returned to New England and earned a Masters in Community and Social Psychology at UMASS Lowell in 2004. This post is part of a memoir, “Acts of Contrition.”
At the time Dad met my mother in late 1950, it was a couple of years after his stint in the Coast Guard. He had apparently just come back to Boston from living in Texas for a while, and moved back into that small apartment in the Mission Hill Projects in Roxbury with his parents, that oddly enough, was just a few hundred yards from where we’d all later end up at 33 Plant Court. He spent the next few years bouncing from job to job. As a high school dropout he really had no skills beyond the cooking he’d learned in the ship’s galley, but there were plenty of laborer jobs around at the time so he ended up working at warehouses, loading docks, and factories and mills in towns like Chelsea and Medford, and one of which I inexplicably always remembered that was way up in Lowell at one of the now long-dormant brick mills with their spewing smokestacks.
Other than my mother dragging me along with her one early winter day in the early sixties for the long ride up Route 3 to pick up Dad from work, Lowell was “foreign” to kids like me from “JP” where we were now living following, yet again, another eviction. To us, places like Lowell, we presumed, were populated by dangerous and territorial kids, far afield from the sanctuary of our own friends and neighborhood. I couldn’t say now where the factory was exactly, but I remember marveling at all of the beautiful brick buildings and the sense of strength the city seem to give off. It didn’t look scary to me.
I sat in the back seat, shivering, as the car heater had given out weeks before, and listening to my mother cursing that Dad was late getting off work and her constant muttering saying “where the hell is he?” Finally, just as it was getting dark, Dad came out from the heavy metal door by which we waited at the back of the building. The sky was steely and the feel of snow to come was in the air making the skyline look more white than gray in contrast to the bright red bricks of the factories. Ma slid over to the passenger side of the Rambler’s bench seat as Dad got in and took the wheel, not saying a word to either of us. Quickly, we were back on Route 3, headed south. As we drove, I remember thinking Lowell was nothing like I’d imagined it would be, and I didn’t give it another thought until 1990.
It was while stationed with the Air Force about fifty miles north of London and during a creative writing class I’d taken as an elective in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at night, that the professor told of his personal adventures with a band of drop out writers and poets, including Ken Kesey, that called themselves the “Merry Pranksters.” This quickly led to more revelations that introduced me to Jack Kerouac, his works, and to learning how the Mill City and his having grown up there served as his muse for an impressive body of literary work. I sat in class thinking how it seemed impossible that having been born less than an hour from Kerouac’s very stomping grounds that I’d never heard of him, his book “On The Road,” and this phenomenon that came to be called “the Beat Generation” of which I later learned he was a reluctant pioneer. Reflecting on Lowell now, in a classroom a world away, I suddenly saw my Dad coming out of that back door of that long-forgotten mill, and my mother and I sitting and shivering in the parked Rambler waiting, lost among the maze of red bricks.
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 brilliantly 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 mills I’d seen so long ago, these 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.
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 his knapsack and typewriter. At every stop there were others like me or clusters of people on guided tours. 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 quietly by as someone read from one of his works.
After listening for a few moments I slowly headed to 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. It came to me as part of a subtle feeling of Déjà vu and that sense of having been there before somehow. 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 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.