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Lowell, MA: Jack Kerouac

“This whole area was a truly close-knit French community with that peculiar medieval Gallic closed-in flavor that you can’t find anymore, even in France,” Reggie said. “Everything was French here, French stores, French tailor — my father was the tailor — French barbershops. Right over there is the Centralville Social Club, one of Jack’s hangouts. A very, very famous hangout for French people.”

Kerouac was born to Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac on March 22, 1922, on Lupine Road in a shabby two-story house that wasn’t included on today’s tour since it would be featured on tomorrow’s Classic Jack. Our destination was Beaulieu (pronounced “Bull – yer”) Street — “the little street that bears the great burden of Gerard’s dying,” Kerouac wrote.

On Beaulieu Street we gathered in front of the small house where Gerard died at the age of nine. Roger read from Visions of Gerard. When he finished, Reggie pointed to a house two doors away and said, “Three years after Gerard died, I was born right there.

“I had older brothers and sisters who knew Jack and Gerard very well. Mrs. Kerouac used to invite my older brother, who was seven at the time, inside to play with Gerard. My brother was the only one she would invite in, so he got to know Gerard very well. This was probably why I got interested in reading Jack’s books.”

Long before they built a permanent church here, they put up a school, importing a community of nuns from Nicolette, Canada, the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin — “like great black angels with huge fluttering wings beating over us and swooping down on us whenever we dared look them in the eye and ask a stupid question.”

The school was at the end of Beaulieu Street. As we arrived on its steps, one of those same black angels swooped down to let us in. “The nuns were powerful because they had corporal punishment,” Reggie whispered in a voice that was probably loud enough for the young nun who was guiding us to hear. “As you can read in Jack’s books, if you didn’t remember six times seven, they’d hit you with a ruler. We all came here. When you look at Jack, you can see he had strong religious beginnings. God is there, Lowell is there, St. Louis School is there.”

We followed the nun into a third-grade classroom where some 65 years ago, Gerard Kerouac experienced a vision of heaven that his younger brother would later memorialize.

“Now I believe I can say this fairly surely, I think that crucifix up there is the one Gerard was actually looking at when it happened.”

Out came the cameras: snap! snap!

During the long drunk of his final years, it was not uncommon for Kerouac to claim that it was really Gerard who’d written his books; that Jack, or Ti-Jean as his family called him, had been merely a channel. And once, on a radio show, when the subject of Gerard’s death had come up, Kerouac had murmured that just before Gerard died “nine nuns filed into his room and said, ‘Gerard, repeat what you told us about Heaven.’ ”

It’s difficult to separate Lowell’s decision to honor Kerouac from the larger rehabilitation that Lowell itself has undergone. Today tourists to the Lowell National Historical Park fill little green tour buses and snap photographs of the gigantic gear that has been resurrected as a kind of signature sculpture. But they have not brought profitability to downtown Lowell.

“Everyone wants to leave,” a girl who worked in a gift shop told me. “There’s nothing here.”

I asked her if she’d ever heard of Jack Kerouac.

“Oh yeah,” she exclaimed, giggling.

“What have you heard? He’s a world-famous writer?”

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Updated Thursday, August 20th, 2009

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