Jack Kerouac would have had his 100th birthday in March, if he hadn’t died in 1969. I know this because I am sitting with a spoon and an egg-lemon soup in the Athenian Corner Restaurant in Lowell, Mass., having detoured off the interstate on the drive home from New Hampshire in a heavy rainstorm, and banners on lampposts, with a cartoon drawing of Kerouac’s face and a quotation from his writing, announce the centennial at every street corner. The quotations are mostly pretty juvenile — “jejune” would be the right word: “The best teacher is experience,” says one, and “The road is life,” and “All of life is a foreign country.”
Pfft. I am a Kerouac fan — “stan,” the kids say — and have been since I was an adolescent writer myself, but his work doesn’t lend itself to T-shirt quotes or inspirational posters. His writing was improv, bebop, and meant to be musical and in the moment: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
I think it’s fair to say that Kerouac wasn’t a great thinker, but he was a great artist, regardless of what it’s fashionable to say. He was an artist, like Elvis or Whitman, who was raw to what it meant to be American, and that feeling came pouring out of him.
Weirdly, when I navigated off the interstate today, I knew exactly where the cemetery would be with Kerouac’s grave. I turned off at Exit 91 and thought, “The cemetery will be just ahead, on the left,” and there it was. This is strange because I didn’t arrive by car, or come from this direction, when I was here 40 years ago. I came to Lowell last by train at the age of 15 — my daughter’s exact age, now that I think of it, 15 years and two months.
I just dropped her off at Exeter, the boarding school, for the first time. She is not, so far, happy, and has been sending me texts offering me cash if only I will drive her home.
The first time I made a pilgrimage to Lowell, Kerouac’s hometown, I had been at boarding school in Concord, Mass., for only a few weeks, having started in the middle of the school year, after Christmas. One Saturday I took advantage of the lax regulations — and lack of house-parental situational awareness — to go off by myself into Boston on a train and then catch another train that took me into Lowell: Everything on that trip was memorable and seemed significant; I felt like I’d slipped through a portal into a time warp. A group of boys in white sailor suits and sailor caps rode with me on the train, and I walked from the Lowell station in the pouring rain. I don’t remember if I bought a map of the town or just asked someone where the graveyard was, but I remember walking a long way, stopping for an ice cream in an empty soda parlor where the soda jerk wore a white paper hat, then going onward, soaked to the bone. Other pilgrims had left flowers and empty booze bottles, but I had nothing in my pocket to leave for Kerouac except my own boarding school ID card, which I propped by the headstone.
Teenagers don’t do that sort of thing any more. Certainly mine never would.
Lowell seems to be doing well, though. I remember it feeling deserted in the 1980s, and it no longer does. The cotton mills have become loft apartments. But there is still a strong feeling of time warp. This is a strange Greek restaurant, with wall-to-wall carpeting in the dining room; it looks appears to have last been decorated in approximately 1968. I like it in here. I’ve just paid a visit to what the sign calls the Powder Room, and it was so time-warped — blue tiles and plaster statuary painted gold — that I took iPhone photos to show friends later. The less said about the roast chicken the better.
This morning I was in a soft bed at the Exeter Inn in New Hampshire, texting furiously with my daughter, who is already lonely and asking how soon she can drop out of boarding school and return to her friends, who are pulling warm hoodies on over their bikinis in Montauk and preparing for the first day of public school. (“Is two days enough to count as ‘giving it a try’?”) Nettie moved into her dorm yesterday. I am in a fog of emotion, confused about what to do to help her and confused about how to feel. Before I ripped off the Band-Aid and left her alone at Exeter, I went into a gift shop on Water Street and spent a lot of money on a care package of comfort items — chocolate-covered Oreos, and (anticipating rivers of running mascara) a fancy face towel made for removing makeup, and a stupid small bag of Positive Energy polished stones that she won’t have any use for.
The last time I came to Lowell was an important day to me, in my life, for some reason. Maybe because it was the first trip I ever took alone. Just a day trip, but still, my first literary journey.
I have an hour or two to kill before I need to get on the road again to New London for a 5 p.m. ferry, so I am driving around looking for things that must have been here when Kerouac was alive. I drive past Dave DuCharme’s Auto Sales (what a name!) and many pizza slice parlors. Cotton mills, silk mills, canals, the Merrimack River, which has dams and waterfalls and is full of rocks. It smells like weed in front of Excel Bottled Liquors, which has a vintage pink-neon sign and definitely dates to Kerouac-alive days. This is an immigrant neighborhood, not French-speaking like the Kerouacs but Spanish-speaking. Los Monstros Barbershop. It smells so strongly of weed outside of Jack’s childhood home at 136 Moody Street, on a hill above the river, next to a coin-operated laundromat, that it seeps through the sealed windows of the car.
I cannot believe I walked all the way from the train station to Edson Cemetery and back again when I was 15; it’s nearly three miles each way. I must have been hypothermic when I visited Lowell that first time, because it was January or February and I refused to wear a coat at that age and it was raining hard and I was on foot and Lowell is not that small a city. This is one thing my generation had in common with today’s teenagers: They still don’t want to wear winter coats. (I’m just now remembering that, actually, I did get pneumonia that winter of my sophomore year at boarding school, was so weak I tipped right over when I hopped out of my bunk bed one morning and had to be helped to the infirmary, where I lay alone for a week with a high fever.)
At the Edson Cemetery, the ground is sodden and my shoes sink into the mud. People have left offerings at the gravesite for “little Jean” Kerouac: ballpoint pens, a handful of vapes, pink plastic flowers, two different room keys from two different hotels, some stones painted with hearts, a small American flag — the kind you wave at a parade, but half-torn from the stick — beer cans, of course, and lots of empty single-serve booze bottles like you get on planes. The pilgrims all seem to have the same idea: They want to pour liquor on the ground for Kerouac but don’t want to waste too much. You can hear traffic moving on the interstate as you stand here looking at his plot. Kerouac drove on two-lane highways, though. It is not the same road.