Lifelong Friends from Downriver Visit Lowell: An Appreciation
St. Joseph’s Day, 2022 (Part II)
By Mike McCormick
“In my opinion Lowell, Massachusetts is now the most interesting city in the United States Of America.” – Jack Kerouac, 1962.
I’m thrilled to have any opportunity to visit Kerouac’s old neighborhoods and haunts. Prior to this journey to Lowell, I traced his boyhood wanderings on maps. I tried to picture him in various settings. As I travel through Lowell, abstract ideas transform into more complete thoughts; mental images become clearer. Mapped routes spring to life.
At his birthplace at 9 Lupine Road in Centralville, I show my longtime friend Jack the third-floor windows where the Kerouacs resided; I tell him the Kerouacs lived for a time on the second floor but moved one floor higher to save on the heating bill. I share that Kerouac has written about the red glow in the sky, the sound of melting snow, and the roar of the Merrimack on the late afternoon of his birth.
We lower the car windows and listen. We hear neither the Merrimack roar nor the melting snow trickle. Damp air races through the windows. We roll them up and move on.
There will be no red glow in the sky tonight.
We pause a moment at the Beaulieu Street home. The gray shuttered well-kept silver house has three stories with a third-floor dormer window. Visitors can enter through a door on the side of the vestibule on the front of the house. I picture Kerouac’s mother Gabrielle welcoming Gerard’s St. Louis de France School teaching nuns into the house to comfort and pray for her sick child as he lay on his death bed. I look up the street and think of four-year-old Jack Kerouac calling in French to his father Leo that Gerard is dead, as described in the novel Visions of Gerard.
Before leaving Centralville, we park in front of St. Louis de France School (now permanently closed) where the three Kerouac children started their elementary schooling. Jack and I observe that the red brick building (dated 1907) had roughly the same exterior design as our first school in Haverhill, St. Gregory’s, opened in 1901. I picture Gerard with his bookbag arriving for classes from the Beaulieu Street home; I conjure up an image of Caroline “Nin” Kerouac escorting her younger brother Jack here during his first year of school.
In Pawtucketville, we locate the modest single-family houses on Phoebe and Sarah Avenues where Kerouac invented the fantasy baseball, football, and horse raising games described in Dr. Sax, Lonesome Traveler, and Desolation Angels. I could live contentedly in this neat and peaceful neighborhood; I can understand why Kerouac was happy here.
In contrast, when we arrive at Kerouac’s next house, we imagine that he was taken aback when, in 1937, his family relocated for the eighth time in his first fifteen years of life. The 4th floor walkup tenement apartment stands on what is still a busy commercial street. When the Kerouacs moved in, neighborhood businesses bustled with customers from the tightly packed tenements in the heart of what many people outside “Little Canada” considered slums. Kerouac used the word “gloomy” more than once when he wrote about life in the building.
I recall the circumstances of the relocation. Leo Kerouac had lost his print shop building when the Merrimack flooded in 1936. By 1937, due to a variety of factors including gambling, his business collapsed entirely. He could no longer afford the Sarah Avenue rent; the family moved to a less expensive place.
The move was a visible and decisive step downward for the family.
“Can you imagine how it would feel to move here from that nice neighborhood we just left the year before your senior year?” I ask Jack.
We drive across the University Bridge over the Merrimack River. Kerouac often crossed the same bridge, known in the 1930’s as the Moody Street Bridge, on his way to school, to downtown Lowell, and on evening walks with his mother.
As a young boy, the thought of falling into the cascading waters (which he likened to wild horses) while crossing the walkway frightened Kerouac. Once, when he and his mother crossed, they saw a man carrying a watermelon drop dead right before their eyes. That death (written about in Dr. Sax) along with the knowledge of suicides from the bridge
(“…everybody in Pawtucketville had the perfect opportunity to commit suicide …” he wrote) haunted Kerouac.
We pull onto a blacktop in front of the brick building that opened as a Franco-American orphanage in 1908. In its prime, the orphanage took in children from as far away as New York. The building now houses luxury condominiums.
I inform Jack that now he is going to see a part of Lowell unlike anything we had in Haverhill.
“This is the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.”
Designed to approximate the Our Lady of Lourdes site in France, the grotto was conceived by St. Joseph’s Parish parishioners as a place to inspire and uplift children living in the orphanage. Since opening with great fanfare in 1911, the location has served as a spiritual refuge for Lowell’s residents and visitors.
Jack saunters to the first of the fourteen stations of the cross. Each scene is represented by finely detailed carvings, all enclosed in freshly painted white houses. After viewing the scenes, Jack climbs the winding concrete steps, the site’s “scala sancta,” to the top of the hill. I meet him there under the cross that holds Christ’s hanging body. We peer north across the Merrimack’s valley and enjoy the expansive view of Pawtucketville.
After we descend the stairs, we duck inside the actual grotto. There are candles in the sanctuary but no donation box to place money for a votive offering. A battered spiral notebook on the altar serves as a guest book. I find entries in Spanish, French, Arabic, and English.
Please take care of Jack and his mother and brother.
Much love from some young poets.”
Keep my friends safe until we meet again.”
I suggest we sit for a minute on a bench along the walkway. I read passages from Dr Sax aloud; Kerouac describes a visit here with his mother and her friend Blanche. He perceives the presence of the ghost-like Dr Sax as the three of them make their way through the shrine after nightfall.
“….Doctor Sax was there flowing in the back darks with his wild and hincty cape.”
“I always liked to get out of there…”
Leaving the Grotto, I point to the red brick building across from the parking lot.
“That’s Archambault Funeral Home-that’s where Kerouac was waked.”
I recognize St. John Baptiste from the many pictures I’ve seen of Allen Ginsberg
and Lowell townspeople carrying Kerouac’s casket down the church’s wide stone steps at the author’s funeral. Kerouac himself, who served as an altar boy in the church, referred to St. Jean Baptiste as “the ponderous Chartes cathedral of the slums.”
The massive gray stone edifice is impressive. Several online sites tell that it was constructed in the Byzantine Romanesque Revival style between 1889 and 1896. The church was designed by Patrick Ford, the same Boston architect who worked on our boyhood church, St. James.
More than a hundred people have filtered into the room for today’s ceremony
where Jack Kerouac will be honored as an esteemed native son in his city. Additionally, the event marks the launch of a campaign to convert the dormant cathedral into a performing arts center and museum in Kerouac’s memory.
The two of us sit on folding chairs at the side of the room. I take in the sweeping lines, the huge arched windows, the two balconies, the organ pipes. It’s an elegant- even breathtaking – space.
Jack says to me, “I never knew how beautiful the church we went to was when we were kids. I took it for granted.”
We are chagrinned when the speeches begin. The sound system is no match for the cavernous space; we strain to understand the words.
Speakers deliver carefully crafted tributes to Jack Kerouac, thank and recognize individuals and organizations that have supported the Kerouac Centennial Events, and share visions related to the creation of a performance center and museum. Polite applause follows the conclusion of each speech.
Someone introduces Mayor Sokhary Chou and thanks him for his support of Kerouac’s legacy. Like Kerouac, he attended Bartlett Junior High School; he knows about Kerouac’s life and is familiar with at least some of his writings. He announces a “Welcome Back Home Citation to Jack Kerouac.” Jim Sampas, Kerouac’s nephew by marriage and nationally lauded music producer and performer in his own right, accepts the honor on behalf of the Kerouac Estate.
The din grows louder after the mayor’s talk. Clusters of people, drinks in hand, chat as though they’re at a cocktail party.
When Mayor Chou walks away from the microphone, we’ve had enough.
Jack suggests we visit Kerouac’s gravesite.
We travel the same three miles of road the funeral procession covered on October 24, 1969. The gates of Edson Cemetery are open wide when we arrive.
In 2014, the Sampas family, Kerouac’s in- laws, placed a waist high granite slab where the author rests. One side has the names of Sampas family members interned into the plot; the other has the author’s signature and a simple quote: “The Road is Life.”
Even though the 2014 stone is handsome, Jack and I are more interested in the inlaid stone that was placed here decades ago following Kerouac’s death. The stone reads:
John L. Kerouac
Mar 12, 1922- Oct 21, 1969
-He Honored Life-
Stella His Wife
Nov. 11, 1918 – Feb 10,1990
Someone has set out cake decorations- Happy Birthday, 100th- on the frozen ground beside it. There are scattered pennies, dimes, and quarters. A waterlogged two-foot-long paper scroll holds a lengthy handwritten poem called “A Chorus for Ya Jack:”
“…Blowing into emptiness/Crushing air into nowhere/Singing Cymbols/Into Silvery Smoke/ Then Dissipates…”
Kerouac’s monument sits next to another identically sized inlaid stone where Jack’s closest boyhood friend, Sammy Sampas, (SG Sampatacacus on the stone) is buried. The conscientious objector died during World War II in non- combat duty on March 2, 1944 in the Battle of Anzio.
In a 1973 interview published in Barry Gifford’s book Kerouac’s Town seventeen years before her own passing, Kerouac’s widow Stella explained that her brothers pushed for her husband to be buried in the Sampas family plot. They wanted Kerouac’s body to be placed with his best friend Sammy, their own deceased brother, and not in the Nashua, New Hampshire’s French-Canadian cemetery where Kerouac’s mother, father, brother Gerard, and other Kerouac family members rest.
As Jack and I talk about the decision to place Kerouac here, I improvise a scenario.
“Imagine, Jack, if you’d died in Vietnam and they brought your body home to Haverhill to be buried. Then, twenty-two years later, after I’d been twice divorced, I married your big sister Anne. And imagine that when I died, Anne’s family decided to have me buried right beside you. And then, when she passed, she was buried beside the two of us….”
All day I have anticipated dinner with Jack at one of the Greek restaurants on Market Street. But now time is tight. We only have an hour until we should be at the theatre for the event with world class musician David Amram, who was Kerouac’s friend and collaborator.
I ask if we should try to squeeze in good meal or venture into South Lowell to see the home of Mary Carney, Kerouac’s inspiration for his novel Maggie Cassidy.
Jack does not hesitate. “Let’s go to Maggie’s!”
Fog rises as we navigate the road paralleling the Concord River that leads to “Maggie’s street. We turn sharply under a railroad bridge and cruise by a single streetlight that Kerouac mentions in his novel.
Apparently, Irish people still live in the pale green house. Shamrocks adorn the window, green lights twinkle along the eaves of the porch, a green banner and some type of leprechaun-like stuffed figure hangs from the front of the residence. The house retains a white porch and picket fence, two details mentioned in the novel.
I direct Jack to drive to the end of the street. I want him to see the swimming hole mentioned in Maggie Cassidy. The inky water lies still under the charred railroad trestle bridge. Jack brakes the car. We both think of “The Cove,” the backwater swimming hole near the railroad tracks where we skinny dipped in Little River.
We sit silently. The mist casts a slightly creepy and sinister feel over the scene. After only a minute of quiet Jack says, “It’s like the cove… but there we didn’t have to watch out for Dr. Sax.”
He shifts into drive and spins away.
Heading back to downtown Lowell, we fathom the distance between Pawtucketville and South Lowell. If the descriptions in Maggie Cassidy are accurate, Jack’s courtship of Mary Carney was physically exhausting. Under the best of circumstances- when he’d take the bus-he might have to cross the Moody Street Bridge and walk nearly a mile just to reach the bus stop. Add if it was a weeknight, he traveled following a full day of school and athletic practice. If he stayed with Mary after the last bus returned to Lowell, the frigid New England spring and winter weather could turn the three mile walk through the black night into bleak misery.
When we emerge on the 4th floor of Mill # 5 (a commercial shopping development that opened in a repurposed 1873 mill building), we are happily surprised to find ourselves in the glow of a warm indoor streetscape of salvaged historic buildings. Cafes and soda fountains, a used record store and an apothecary, a garden supply shop and a local press and bookstore tempt us to browse.
But since we’ve come to Mill # 5 for an event, we resist all temptation and beeline past the shops to the Luna Theatre at the end of the hall. We arrive just in time to claim two of the last vacant barstools in the back of the eighty-seat venue. As we take off our wet jackets, Steve Edington, the president of the “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac” committee, introduces 92-year-old David Amram.
Amram and Edington discuss the black and white, 26-minute film released in 1959 called “Pull My Daisy.” Amram appeared in the film and provided the score. Kerouac wrote the script, adapted from his unfinished play called “The Beat Generation.” The author also provided the voice over narration. I’m excited to see the film for the first time.
The film is something of a romp featuring Allen Ginsberg, Peter Olovsky, Gregory Corso, and others. Alert audience members break into raucous applause when Amram turns up on screen. The music is scintillating, the black and white is crisp and clean. There’s much drinking smoking, and goofy hijinks. Occasionally, something of Kerouac’s text makes me laugh such as when he asks, “Is baseball holy?”
Following the screening, Amram improvises on a keyboard and wind instruments behind four locals as they read from On the Road and other Kerouac writings. Amram’s son, playing congas, and a standup bass player shuffle onto the stage for three pieces that, “Jack always enjoyed.”
The three numbers include a Sonny Rollins tune and the theme from the 1955 movie “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.’” Amram’s solos on pennywhistle and French horn are inspiring. Our credulity is stretched witnessing the ninety-two-year-old playing wind instruments with such speed and precision.
Amram calls up an electric guitar player who looks a quarter his age to jam with his trio on the last number. The band leader reminds us that back in the days when he and Kerouac (and such jazz immortals as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie) collaborated in the Village, they embraced diversity and welcomed all kinds of people to create together.
Hearing Amram’s words, I decide that he and Mr. Kerouac would fit well in Lowell’s current multicultural community.
Jack turns off his MapQuest as we head out of Lowell on Route 110. We both have only a general sense of how to get back to Jack’s Bedford home. But since there’s no rush, we don’t care if we make wrong turns.
It’s been a wonderful day. We’ve relived memories from our long past together and enjoyed experiences and places that we’d never shared before. We’ve come to Lowell to learn about Kerouac, but we’re leaving with knowledge and memories about so much more.
I look forward to visiting Lowell again. There’s endless history to dive into. I’d like to tour the canals by boat, and kayak in the Concord River. There’s the Whistler House and art galleries galore. I’d like to explore the library in depth. And walk along the river and canals. There are areas such as the South Commons that I want to wander through. And facets of Kerouac’s neighborhoods still awaiting discovery. And I have an ever-expanding list of restaurants to sample and cafés to hang out in. And there are markets. And festivals. And fairs…
As Lowell preserves and honors its past, it seems focused on the future. The University, the National Park Service, the Community College, the municipal government and dozens of other agencies, organizations and individuals appear to be working together to create a bright future.
I may be naive or overly optimistic, but when I’m in Lowell I feel as though I’m seeing the roots of a better community taking hold. There are moments when the city feels to me as though it’s in the vanguard of a bright, emerging America.
In Lowell I love celebrating, learning about, and remembering personal and community history.
But truthfully, I’m more excited anticipating what’s yet to unfold.