Lifelong Friends from Downriver Visit Lowell (Part I)

Lifelong Friends from Downriver Visit Lowell: An Appreciation
St. Joseph’s Day, 2022 (Part I)

 By Mike McCormick

“In my opinion Lowell, Massachusetts is now the most interesting city in the United States Of America.” – Jack Kerouac, 1962.

As my lifelong friend Jack and I start down the walkway outside the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center, we realize that this is the first time we’ve been in Lowell together since 1970. Our Haverhill High School football team lost to the undefeated, state champion, Red Raiders on their Cawley Stadium field by a score of 19-0 on that long ago day.

Reaching a pedestrian bridge above the Concord River, we spot a large, brilliant white duck-like bird with a green head and fiery beak trying to paddle upstream.

“Look Jack, a common merganser!”

“How lucky is that! Beautiful bird, McCormick”

As the merganser takes flight, Jack recalls that we’d seen a hooded and red breasted merganser two days before along the Maine coast.

“We’ve hit the merganser trifecta,” I remark.

Jack and I have traveled to Lowell, the hometown of Jack Kerouac, to join in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth. I’ve read more than twenty books by-or about-Kerouac since first learning about him in the late sixties.

I’m most drawn to Kerouac ‘s writings set in Lowell. For years I’ve been telling Jack, who’s never read a Kerouac book, about scenes and situations in the writer’s books that remind me of our own boyhoods in Haverhill, our factory town twenty miles down the Merrimack River. I’ve piqued his curiosity to the point that he jumped on my suggestion to spend a day doing mostly Kerouac related stuff.

The air is saturated with mist when we reach the Kerouac Commemorative Plaza in Kerouac Park on Bridge Street. Jack reads the excerpts from Kerouac’s writings that are engraved on eight granite monuments. Thinking about lunch, I glance across the street at Arthur’s Paradise Diner.  The squat black and white one room diner with a curved roof is tucked between the street and a bank of towering brick mill walls. Reportedly, it’s the inspiration of the diner sketch that opens Kerouac’s Visions of Cody.

As far as I know, there are no historic diners left in our hometown or in Bedford, New Hampshire where Jack currently lives. The Paradise – along with the Club Diner, The Owl Diner, and other joints – keep unpretentious dining traditions that pre-date Kerouac’s boyhood alive. They are colorful threads in Lowell’s historic fabric.

As tempted as I am to bring Jack to the Paradise, I know a place he’ll like better. I suggest we finish reading and head out for lunch.

On Central Street, I resist an impulse to duck into Espresso Pizza (family owned and operated since 1962) for cheese pizza that tastes almost as good as our favorite Haverhill boyhood pizza joint – Napoli’s Pizza (founded 1945).  Crossing another of Lowell’s one hundred sixteen bridges, we peer at a flock of mallards paddling across brick mill buildings reflected in the Pawtucket Canal’s placid, gray waters.

We turn west on Market Street where Lala Books, my favorite Lowell bookstore, displays Kerouac novels in their store window. On my first excursion to Lowell after graduating from college in the mid 70’s, I searched a Merrimack Street bookstore for Kerouac’s books.  I couldn’t find a single title. Today his visage coupled with quotes from his writings (Examples: “Something good will come of all things yet,” “Love is all”) waves on banners along downtown sidewalks.

Kerouac’s writings, in addition to poems and essays by Tom Sexton, Paul Marion, and other writers with Lowell connections, provide multiple perspectives. For instance, looking at the iconic SUN sign perched above Kearney Square, I remember columns from the “Lowell Sun,” the newspaper the sign advertises, written by Kerouac during his brief sports writing career there; I recall details from Tom Sexton’s poem “Elevator Operator” about working the elevator in the Sun building. And I remember Paul Marion’s poem, “Labor Day Eve-A Walk” from the book Strong Place: Poems ’74-’84, where I learned the SUN sign viewed from the North Commons is a different color than the SUN sign viewed from Centralville.

The writers help me see the city; walking the streets helps me appreciate the writing and the authors. Taken together, the writings, authors, observations, and memories from my own boyhood in Haverhill create a synergistic understanding of aspects of this place.

As we reach the edge of the neighborhood (one of fourteen delineated in Lowell) called The Acre, I point out Cummiskey’s Alley. The garbage strewn passageway is named after the Irish immigrant who led a crew of thirty countrymen to dig the Pawtucket Canal two hundred years ago.

The Acre, sometimes referred to as Greektown, has hosted waves of immigrants since the 1820’s when the first Irish arrived. As of 2019, more than 30% of the residents were born outside the United States. Most of the newcomers are Asian or Hispanic. Lowell’s current mayor, Cambodian born Sokary Chou – one of an estimated 30,000 plus Cambodians in the city of about 111,000 – lived there with his family when he first arrived in Lowell in the mid-1980’s.

Cutting through the North Commons housing project, I show Jack where, a few days earlier, I watched a tattooed, bearded man trim bushes on the sidewalk along the Western Canal with a chain saw powerful enough to fell a redwood. Today, a dreadlocked teenager skateboards circles in front of the gold domed Holy Trinity Greek Church.  Jack notices that Holy Trinity is located a little more than a stone’s throw from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church; the two churches are almost right next door to each other, just like St. James and the Holy Apostles Church where we grew up in Haverhill’s Acre.

Outside St Patrick’s Church, Jack calls my attention to a vine covered arbor in a tranquil garden space that reminds him of the grapes that his Greek grandmother grew behind her house.  A sign in front of the church lists five Sunday services each in a different language: English, Burmese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Espanol.

Jack is delighted by my choice of Olympos Bakery for lunch. His family often patronized his uncle’s Greek bakery (now long gone) just below Winter Street, minutes from our homes. Jack orders spinach pie, a favorite that his mother made when he was a boy. I settle on a chicken cutlet sandwich and a raspberry twist. We grab seats at a bar in front of the window and peruse Broadway Street.  The buildings across the way remind us both of our childhood neighborhood.

“I keep seeing reminders of Haverhill everywhere we go,” Jack remarks.

A black man wearing a heavy navy-blue coat coughs violently on the top step of the Pollard Memorial Library (built 1893) as we slip past him and step inside. Even on this rainy day, natural light falling through the tall, wide, windows brightens the wood beamed rooms; the natural light coupled with the soft glow emitted from half dome lamps dangling overhead create a warm and welcoming space on this damp Saturday.

I lead Jack to “Jack’s Corner” where the Kerouac used to hang out reading when he skipped high school.  When I tell Jack about Kerouac’s truancy, he relates. He and I also skipped regularly in our senior year. Like Kerouac, we played hooky to enhance our knowledge; we visited Haverhill’s Historical Museum, Whittier’s Birthplace, Boston’s Freedom Trail, and other scenic and historic sites until our football coach turned us in when he discovered we were cutting classes.

Jack reads the plaques about Kerouac and the Young Prometheans (the literary group Kerouac belonged to as a young teen) while I browse the poetry and literature collection anchored by author and publisher Paul Marion’s four hundred volume book donation. I could spend hours here reading, admiring architectural details, studying the stained-glass windows, and appreciating the historic murals.

But it’s approaching midafternoon and we have multiple experiences ahead of us.

On the way out, we peruse a bulletin board. Besides festivities connected with the Kerouac Centennial, there’s a two day “Town and the City” music festival (name derived from the title of Kerouac’s first published novel) and a series of lectures about Irish Canal Builders.  A flier from the Merrimack Language School solicits part-time instructors to teach Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and other languages.

Our ramble takes us past the stone City Hall with its 180-foot clock tower. The impressive Romanesque building harmonizes with the library next door. Lowell is fortunate to have these treasures. When Jack and I were young, Haverhill boasted both a stately red brick city hall and a library built before our parents were born. Both buildings were razed during controversial urban renewal projects that cleared away densely packed working-class housing and numerous established businesses.

Lowell residents also suffered through urban renewal demolitions; much of “Little Canada” and The Acre was bulldozed. Somehow, the public library and City Hall here were spared.

We pause at “Mother’s Hand Monument,” a sculpture in memory of victims of the Armenian genocide that sits aside a monument honoring the Contributions of the Portuguese Community.  A few blocks away we admire illustrations painted on boards and mounted on a wooden wall:  Words for “home” in at least twenty-five languages; a board filled with Khmer greetings; a drawing of five children with a range of skin colors holding hands in front of a dozen flags. These works and contemporary murals that adorn nearby building walls make the city feel upbeat, colorful and happening.

I’m impressed with the art celebrating immigrants. I’m impressed too by the number of new restaurants offering tastes from Africa, Asia, South and Central America – from it seems, all over the world.

Although I’m happy to see new businesses springing up, I’m delighted two long established Greek restaurants- The Athenian Corner (since 1974) and The Olympia Restaurant (since 1952)- appear to be still thriving. And when I pass Lowell’s oldest active tavern and restaurant, The Worthen House Café (the building dates to 1834), I smile at the sign in the window: “They’re Back! Canadian Style Meat Pies – Order Yours Today! $15. Each.”

When we finally reach the National Park Service’s Market Mills Visitor Center, we’re ready to focus on Jack Kerouac.  The Park Service has created a display centered on the author’s Lowell years with a map, photos, and text. Most photos show Kerouac in his younger years. There’s one that could be an elementary school picture; there’s another of him in his football uniform carrying the pigskin; and there’s a charming shot of him in sweater and knee-high socks standing with his parents, sister, and a family friend.

A display case holds an assortment of personal belongings including a sewing kit, a wallet, Bayer aspirins and Tums, and a pair of snow goggles; Jack and I agree that the artifacts are the coolest part of the exhibit.

As Jack puts on headphones to listen to Kerouac reading his work against a backdrop of improvising jazz musicians (recordings I have copies of in my home collection), I slip away to an adjacent exhibit that convey insights into the lives of Lowell’s black residents with photos and quotes. I snap a shot of words by a young man named Bobby Tugbiyele that are relevant to our country’s current cultural and political discussions.

“I think being a Black person in Lowell is a story of diversity in itself. That there’s no one type of Black person. We’re not a monolith….”

Backtracking down Shattuck Street, I point out Lucy Larcom Park where I’ve watched dozens of sleek, topknotted waxwings flutter amongst the bare branched deciduous trees. Jack is impressed by the beauty of the park and by Shattuck and Palmer Streets, the District’s cobblestone gems.

We pass the bay windowed Bon Marche’ building on Merrimack Street, now Lowell School District headquarters, where Jack Kerouac had a book signing for his debut novel – The Town and the City– more than seventy years ago.  Jack is fascinated when I tell him a business at the location was called “This is Mitchell’s” when it opened as a dry goods store in 1878; our favorite downtown department store on Haverhill’s Merrimack Street was also called Mitchell’s.

The founders of each of the stores were not related.

We’re stunned the moment we enter the Bootts Cotton Mill Museum gallery to see “The Jack Kerouac Centennial Exhibit: Visions of Kerouac.” We’re most interested in the twenty-four-foot section of the 120-foot original scroll of Kerouac’s most famous novel, On the Road. But stepping into the exhibit, we realize there’s much, much more than the scroll here.

The scroll is stretched out inside a blue sided display case. Since only one other person is viewing the manuscript, we gravitate immediately to it. Jack and I read sections of the single-spaced novel as we walk along the case. I look for corrections and typos on the thin tracing paper; I think about the many rumors, misconceptions, stories, and truths surrounding the scroll’s creation. I wonder how this scroll compares to the three other scrolls that Kerouac blasted novels out on. I think of my friend Neil Comeau – like Kerouac a proud descendent from French-Canadian immigrants – who owned and read most of Kerouac’s books before he died suddenly a half dozen years ago.

He would have loved this.

Although I feel a pang of remorse thinking of Neil, a surge of pleasure passes through me when I glance at Jack as he focuses on the scroll. It’s a joy to view this literary relic with my close friend. I’m thankful that the manuscript has survived; thankful that the owner, Jim Irsay (who also owns the Indianapolis Colts football team), believes in sharing this piece of history with interested people on our continent and beyond.

Jack and I work our way methodically around the room. The section called “Lowellian and French Canadian” expands and reinforces ideas expressed in text and pictures in the Visitor’s Center. The large format photos by Allen Ginsburg and John Suiter brilliantly spotlight different phases of Kerouac’s life. Although I’m familiar with most of the Ginsberg shots- many have appeared in biographies-it’s a pleasure to see the large, sharp mounted images here.

Suiter’s work is more of a revelation. I recognize some of the photos from black and white shots in his fine book Poets on Peaks. But seeing the large format pictures in color brings my appreciation to a whole new level. Even better, I love the pictures of Lowell – most, or perhaps all, of which I’ve never seen.  My favorite is a night scene of the house on 34 Beaulieu Street where Kerouac’s brother Gerard died.

Jack likes the photos too, but he’s more drawn to the artifacts such as a typewriter and a cat carrier that Kerouac used. He’s also taken by Kerouac’s paintings; they add an unexpected dimension to Jack’s appreciation of Kerouac since he never knew that he dabbled in art. He likes the colors and the passion expressed in what one critic described as Kerouac’s “abstract expressionism.”  Jack compares the pieces favorably to works by Chagall.

It’s exciting to watch Jack’s enthusiasm for Kerouac grow. Now that we’ve dived into two exhibits, I wonder if he’s ready to absorb more. When I ask if he would like to travel to some of the houses where the author lived, he’s raring to go.