Lowell, MA: Jack Kerouac
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.
“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.”