Labor Day Road Trip in Kerouac’s Lowell

Textile Mill Working All Night in Lowell, Mass. by Jack Delano (Library of Congress)

You can take the kid out of the mill town, but you can’t take the mill out of the kid. I carry a mill inside of me, and so did Jack Kerouac. Built in the dark, yearning north woods of my childhood, my mill stands by swiftly moving grey waters and blocks out the sun. In a real mill, there’s noise, dust, heat, speed, sparks, boredom, and sometimes blood. In my phantom mill, there are echoes of long-dead voices rattling through the bones of the broken brick walls, along with the never-ending thunk-click, thunk-click, thunk-click of a punch clock.

A Labor Of Love

My relatives wanted to be other things — novelists, artists, poets — but they clocked in every day as a labor of love, to support their families. They haunt my mill. They keep a silent watch over its crumbling stairwells and parapets. Their dreams spiral in and out of the broken windows like lost birds. The shoe shop, the woolen mill, the machine shop, the hame shop where my great-grandparents, grandparents, mother, and uncles worked. The mills meant survival — bread and beans, clothes and shoes — and you had to be tough to survive them. There was pride in doing good work and camaraderie. There were also bleak days, owners who pushed workers past the breaking point, lay-offs. Each time you punched the time clock, your dreams flew a little farther away. For many, family and laughter lightened the toil. For some, faith got them through. For others, booze with a chaser of rage did the trick. There could be all-consuming darkness when you lived in the shadow of a mill. The darkness could deepen when the mill moved its work away.

Abandoned brick fortresses line the rivers of many New England towns. Walls lathed thick, sweat and tears soaked deep into the soil beneath. So deeply rooted are the mills, that even when they close down, they stay put. A few morph into condos and high-tech hives. Others lie in rubble, nature nibbling away at their guts each year. And some move inside people — passing down through the generations. They hold on to towns and people for decades. “We made you what you were — and are,” they whisper, wind whistling through the gaps in their foundations, “We gave and we took away.”

Store Going Out of Business, Lowell, Mass. by Jack Delano (Library of Congress)

Cooped up in the back of a station wagon, I spent my childhood touring the husks of New England mill towns. To an eight-year-old, the mills looked like castles. The faces of broken-down clocks on tilting towers gazed sorrowfully down on me. Grey, winter-torn streets slushed with regret; jobs moving elsewhere, leaving no forwarding address; heroin moving in, leaving no family untouched. Mills can be an uneasy heart for a town — have you ever met a child who is dying to grow up to work in one? Yet, when they leave, they suck a town dry. Slowly, the town shrinks back and collapses inward. Shops, restaurants, stores, nightclubs become memories. Soon, all that’s left are unused train tracks, one diner, a gas station, and churches with empty pews.

Dead or alive, mill towns are a great way to inspire melancholy in a child. They bring out rage and rebellion, love and loyalty, bad and good — all the biggies. They cause guilt, when your parents spend their lives in there for you, and even a filthy kind of class shame (“Can they see my roots?”) and defiant pride (“These are my roots!”). I see all of these things in Jack Kerouac (1922–1969, check out his books if you have not done so). I suspect that he carried an old mill inside him, too, whether he was in Morocco or Mexico. The farther away from the mills he was, the closer they felt. Like his relatives, Jack was driven by the motto, “Love. Work. Suffer.

“…blue with mill rags in the alleys, cotton dust balls and smoke pots, litter, I walk along the long sunny concrete rale of the millyards in the booming roar of the windows where my mother’s working, I am horrified by the cotton dresses of the women rushing out of the mills at five — the women work too much! They’re not home any more! They work more than they ever worked! Dicky and I covered these millyards and agreed millwork was horrible. What I’m going to do instead is sit around the green jungles of Guatemala.” (Jack Kerouac, Dr. Sax, written in Mexico City, 1952; published in 1959)

Eager to Turn Every Known and Fabled Corner

Growing up in Depression-era Lowell, the mill mecca, Jack and his friends played in the long shadows cast by the smokestacks of the textile industry. And, while Jack wrote his way out of Lowell, he never truly left — the mills, his mother, the ghosts of Lowell, or the malt that killed him. A great film, Henry Ferrini’s Lowell Blues, blends Jack’s words with ghostly footage of Jack and images of Lowell old and new — the mills, the mighty river, the children, the shadows moving across the city and across time. The film ends with a quote from Kerouac, “My thought does not have to be improved — because I got it from heaven — where you got yours.”

Near the mills in Lowell, Mass. by Jack Delano (Library of Congress)

Alas, almost everyone wanted to improve Jack’s thoughts. Although a generation of Beats adored him, equal numbers of squares disdained him. Lowell now celebrates Kerouac, and you can head there for the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival every October (in 2018, it’s happening from October 4–8, with an art show kicking off on September 24), but few greeted the idea for a Kerouac commemorative park with enthusiasm.

Back in the 1950s, the media saw Jack Kerouac as an evil Pied Piper leading youth astray, while some hardcore hipsters sneered at his devotion to his mother. He bobbed and weaved, trying to duck being defined as just one type of person, even as people tried to pin him down. Was he a boozehound? A Zen poet? A mama’s boy? A jazz musician with words as his instrument? An athlete? A meticulous editor? A lover? A wild road tripping warrior? A recluse? A “flame-out”?

While streams of stories about Jack insist that he was all of these things, and many more, I think the one thing he never stopped being was a mill town boy. In honor of Labor Day, my relatives, and Jack, I decided to travel to the place where he fell in love with words, where the castles of industry and the faces flowing through the streets captured his soul. A Labor Day Road Trip.

“I’m going back there soon because there are more books in that little Christian city than you could have packed in Carthage. A golden Byzantine dome rises from the roofs along the canal; a Gothic copy of Chartres rises from the slum of Moody Street; little children speak French, Greek, Polish and even Portuguese on their way to school. And I have a recurrent dream of simply walking around the deserted twilight streets of Lowell, in the mist, eager to turn every known and fabled corner. A very eerie, recurrent dream, but it always makes me happy when I wake up.” From Conversations with Jack Kerouac, edited by Kevin J. Hayes 2005, University Press of Mississippi

Tiptoeing in Jack’s Footsteps

Driving to Lowell, I can tell that I am going to be a piss-poor tourist. It’s a muggy day and sweat is trickling down my thighs. I already know that I have no patience for museums today. I always used to be up for a museum. Yet, in the words of a Lowell millworker, “The sunny hours of girlhood have flown away, like a bright dream, too pure to last” (Maiden Meditation by An Old Maid, Lowell Offering, June 1845). Today isn’t going to be about museums, and it isn’t going to be about exploring Lowell’s many fine watering holes. Today, I just need to slither along the periphery and tiptoe in Jack’s footsteps.

Finding a sweet parking spot close to all the action feels like a good omen, and when I make my way to Dutton Street, a ton of cool joints (New England Quilt Museum, Whistler House Museum of Art, American Textile History Museum, National Streetcar Museum) are in walking distance. Quietly, I promise my inner mill that I’ll come back and visit each of these museums (and I do and I do enjoy it). Today, I just stand slack-jawed and sweaty, gazing at the National Historic Park Visitor Center and former mill across the street and contemplate the fact that Lowell survived when so many mill towns died.

The Visitor Center is a clear sign that Lowell has not had the life sucked out of it. Instead, in the 1970s, a time when lots of cities plowed their history under in the name of “revitalization,” two men — educator Patrick J. Mogan and Congressman Paul Tsongas — spearheaded the town’s transformation into a sort of Mill Disneyland. Today, there’s a brown-hatted urban national park ranger on every corner instead of a fat-headed Pluto. Hey, I kid because I love. Mogan and Tsongas made a bold, brilliant move. As a result, much of Lowell is preserved and a fair, if quieter, facsimile of how Jack would have seen it.

A Street in Lowell, Mass. by Jack Delano (Library of Congress)

Women like Jack’s mother who spent their lives in the mills were far less thrilled with the plan to save and salute Lowell’s history. Lots of millworkers didn’t understand why they would create a park to honor an experience that made them miserable. As one local guy that I meet tells me, “My grandmother didn’t get why they would celebrate the mill owners — her life was horrible there…from Poland straight to hell. I had to tell her, ‘Nana, the museum and the park are here to honor you.’”

Something close by catches my eye. It’s a newspaper box with copies of the The Lowell Sun News, where Jack used to work as a sportswriter and where, “…his enthusiasm for sports and his love of words combined in some of the most creative coverage of any local sports event Lowell had witnessed in a long time…” (Kerouac: Visions of Lowell, John J. Dorfner, p. 45). Jack was into sports. He came up with his own, intricate fantasy baseball game, complete with personalities for the players. So, I bet that he would love that he has a bobblehead doll in the Baseball of Fame, and I’m sure he’d dig the minor-league Lowell Spinners team.

Breathing in a rich, fried potato and bacon fragrance, I hunker down outside the yolk-yellow Club Diner (“Booth and table service!”) to take a closer look. At the bottom of the page, there’s a story called, “He put his beer down, saved a life.” An off-duty firefighter used a martial-arts kick to break in a door, rescued a woman, then, as he says, “I went out and finished my beer.” This tells me that this is still a town that has a bold heart and appreciates liquor. Rising up, I start to move quietly through the streets, brushing up against people now and again to take the pulse of the city, I find that the city is as diverse as it was in Jack’s day. There are scores of newcomer-owned businesses run by people who, like Jack’s parents and so many of our parents, work tirelessly so their children can have the luxury of pursuing their dreams.

As I continue to wander along, thunderclouds glower overhead and the mugginess grows more intense. I stroll past the massive, sprawling high school from which Jack graduated in 1939. It’s the only school I’ve ever seen that takes up much of a city block in the heart of downtown, has a canal in its front yard (back yard? I can’t tell), and a quaint trolley clattering by it. Lucy Larcom Park runs alongside the canal and has a bunch of cool markers and historical plaques. Even I, in my museum-shunning mood, can appreciate the spell of the words juxtaposed with the water and trees.

I Think There’s A Case With That Guy’s Stuff

At the Boott Cotton Mills Museum Store a stone’s throw away, I purchase many items to support the place, the roar of my inner mill at a high decibel, and ask the lovely counter staff, “Do you have any Jack Kerouac exhibits?” They tell me to go to the Mogan Cultural Center, because “They know all of that.” I feel that it must be a good thing in life to “know all of that,” so I head to the Mogan Cultural Center for enlightenment. Inside, a young museum dude tells me, “I think there’s a case with that guy’s stuff here somewhere.”

I thrust some money into the lad’s hands and speed-walk through the exhibits until I get to the Kerouac case. It contains his Underwood typewriter (always classy) and the contents of his road knapsack: Rain poncho, mighty stiff looking argyle socks, a purple handkerchief, Mad Max funky looking sun goggles (but average for the era), dishtowel, scrubbing pad, wine cork, matches, sewing kit containing a small tin of Bayer’s aspirin, a cooking kit including metal nesting pans/bowls, a measuring cup, 2 mismatched spoons, a fork, and a knife, and a plastic glass, water bottle, and cup.

I imagine his mother buying him the sewing kit and cooking kit to help him create a home away from home. The road that Jack took in life, always circling back to Lowell, might have been easier if he had broken out of some of his old habits and haunts. He had lots of romances, but few lasting relationships with women. From all that I read, Jack struggled to juggle his mother and his friends she didn’t like, his mother and his girlfriends she didn’t like. But, how do you break away from the Sunday roasts of a plucky little good-hearted woman who, sure, hates all of your girlfriends and helps you get a good drunk on, but works so hard to support your dreams? If you are her only son, and her first son died, and her husband died, and you are a mill town boy, it is no choice at all. Your loyalty guides you every time. You sever ties with friends and girlfriends. You push away the things that keep you away from home. You are proud of your roots and you stay close to them, even if they can rise up and strangle you.

Devoured by the Darkness and Find the True Light

I head toward Kerouac Park on Bridge Street, walking past Arthur’s Paradise Diner (Home of the Delicious Boott Mill Sandwich!). A ranger that I meet tells me that Jack definitely hung out in this Paradise. “Sure,” she says, beaming brightly, “You can still find people in the diners and bars who remember Kerouac. They’ll probably say, ‘Oh, that bum?’ Mostly to get a rise out of you…but, most folks in Lowell didn’t recognize the need for the park over there. ‘What? That drunk?’ pretty much captures how lots of them feel.”

I cross the street and enter the Jack Kerouac Park. It is small but lovely, carved out next to the rushing waters of the Merrimack River and across the street from Paradise. Willows, vine covered trunks of maples, aspens…shiny marble columns with Kerouac’s writings and glazed marble benches. Two kids are skateboarding in the park, gliding slowly alongside the benches and sliding their hands along the smooth, arced surfaces. I walk around and look at the quotes for awhile — from Visions of Gerard, On the Road, Lonesome Traveler, Mexico City Blues, Vanity of Duluoz, Doctor Sax, Book of Dreams, Town and The City, Maggie Cassidy — and then I just lie down on a bench.

Children Skating in Lowell, Mass. by Jack Delano (Library of Congress)

As I stare up at the clouds, the whushing Merrimack, vooshing traffic, and swooshing kids weave into a wind-blown song. I think about Jack growing up in the shadows of the smokestacks and mull over a Jack quote, “Stare deep into the world before you as if it were the void: innumerable holy ghost buddhies and savior gods there inside, smiling…rest and be assured: While looking for the light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.”

Back in my car, I listen to The Best of the Beat Generation. Even before I hit the highway, I’m jamming my foot down on the accelerator hard, without even noticing, and feeling a little bit cooler. Forward, homeward, I speed into an inspiring trip down a Beat memory lane of spoken word selections set to music, songs, scat, and novelty items. There’s a lesson in “Basic Hip” lingo, “Three Little Pigs” and “Marc Antony’s Funeral Oration” done hipster-style by Jazzbo Collins and Lord Buckley, respectively.

The brick castles of Jack’s Lowell grow smaller in my rear view mirror. I replay the first selection, “October in the Railroad Earth,” twice. This cut, spoken by Jack with backing piano by Steve Allen, is my favorite. Jack’s voice, with a little French-Canadian here and a little Lowell there, brings his already vivid words to life in a new way. As the twilight streets of Lowell resonated eternally with mill town boy Jack, his word pictures, whether heard by ear — twining through your head when spoken aloud — or skipping in front of you on the page, continue to resonate. His work still has a lasting impact, even if his road trip through life ended too soon. Haunted and anchored by an inner New England mill, hard-living his family’s motto, Jack gave a true light to us. Kindled in a mill town, it burns as a beacon to all who love, labor, and suffer.