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Lowell, MA: Jack Kerouac

Lowell, MA: Jack Kerouac
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From Yankee Magazine September 1994

Writer Jack Kerouac died 25 years ago, down on his luck and estranged from the city of his birth, Lowell, Massachusetts. But his literary star is once more on the rise, and his hometown seems to have found a way to forgive him.

Jack Kerouac was dead before I even knew he’d lived. He died in 1969. I discovered him a year later, my junior year in high school — first The Dharma Bums, then On the Road and The Subterraneans.

The voice that came surging out of those books felt like the voice of an older brother whose urgent stories, told late at night in the stillness of a Vermont farmhouse, conjured a world of footloose adventure; a voice like the freight trains that used to blow one long blast as they sped through Claremont Junction, five miles across the valley from where I lay reading.

Eventually, I forgot about him. Then, five years ago, I read in a magazine: Visit Lowell and the Merrimack Valley this summer during its season of special events. Sandwiched between the New England Quilting Show and the Lowell Folk Festival, was the announcement: “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!”

Jack Kerouac? Who once said, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn,” a writer who ended his short life a bitter, drunken bum — this same Jack Kerouac was now the object of a hometown celebration? This I had to see.

Because Lowell is a national park, one of the sponsors of the Kerouac celebration is the United States Department of the Interior. In consort with numerous local organizations, they have assembled a variety of entertainments for Kerouac fans. There are bike tours, walking tours, an author’s luncheon, an art opening, a dance performance, a literary forum, a writer’s workshop, a night of jazz and poetry, and a bus tour.

My bus tour turned out to be an inspired choice, because its leaders were Roger Brunelle and Reggie Ouellette.

Roger was a Lowell schoolteacher. Reggie worked for the city of Lowell in the Division of Planning and Development. He was born two doors down from where Jack Kerouac lived in the Franco-American section of a neighborhood known as Centralville.

Reggie had the French-Canadian equivalent of the blarney. “I see some of you are looking at my pin,” he cried, when the dozen of us who’d signed up had shuffled into place on the sidewalk in front of St. Louis Church. He pulled off his beret and held it aloft so all of us could see the large white pin. It was decorated with flowers and a big K.

“This pin was a gift from the Kerouac Club of Quebec. They read him up there as a French-Canadian writer, and it’s really because of them that Roger and I are here today.”

About nine years ago the Kerouac Club of Quebec contacted the Catholic diocese of Lowell and asked if someone could show them Jack’s Lowell. The diocese tapped Roger, who solicited Reggie. Using old phone books plus copies of Kerouac’s novels, they put together two tours. The Classic Jack follows the writer’s life from birth through many moves to his final resting place. On my visit they were also premiering an offshoot of the Classic Jack tour, something they called “The Mystic Jack Experience” — “Relive the dream of Gerard and the ride to heaven,” they promised.

“The trip we are about to take is very, very close to the womb,” Roger said as we motored through downtown Lowell. “It’s based on Jack’s favorite book, Visions of Gerard.”

Written when Jack was 34, the book describes in painful detail the few months surrounding the death of his beloved older brother, Gerard. The centerpiece of the book is a vision of heaven Gerard receives while daydreaming in his third-grade classroom. Soon, Roger assured us, we would be standing in that very classroom.

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