Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Memory Babe (Kerouac) archive, Part 2

As promised, here is a report from my trip to Lowell to access the Memory Babe archive (materials related to Gerald Nicosia's book, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac). This is basically an overview of the whole trip: I'm leaving details about the archive visit itself to Part 3.

I met my friend, Richard Marsh, at the Lowell National Historic Park Visitor Center (parking is free there) at 11:30 on Monday March 30. It was a cold, windy March day with spitting snow. Being lunchtime, we walked over to the Club Diner on Dutton Street (a classic train car diner) where Richard wanted to get his traditional breakfast fare: eggs, home fries, toast, ham, and - especially - "breakfast beans." I had the same thing except with hash instead of ham. We did this because I wanted to take Richard to Jameson's for breakfast Tuesday morning. More on that later. Below is a sign that hangs inside the diner. Since it was established in 1938, can't you just imagine Leo Kerouac and Jack eating there? Maybe the whole family?

The Memory Babe archive is housed in the UMass Center for Lowell History, which is in the building which houses the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center. This is important. I thought the archive was in the Mogan Center itself, but that is not quite accurate. When I called the National Park ahead of the trip, I asked about the Mogan Center hours. They told me 1:30 to 5:00. In fact, the Center for Lowell History is open 9:00 to 5:00. Given that confusion and to kill some time, we walked to The Worthen on Worthen Street (actually the "Worthen House Cafe"), a place where Jack supposedly had a drink or two at some point. We had Sam Adams Cold Snap. Tasty. Oh, on a side note, the young bartender knew who Kerouac was. Not surprising given that a poster featuring Jack is on the wall right across from the bar and they host Lowell Celebrate Kerouac events.

Next we headed to the Mogan Cultural Center on French Street (very near Kerouac Commemorative Park). I will detail our visit to the archive in Part 3, coming soon,

After spending a few hours at the archive, we headed back to our cars and drove to the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center to check in. We used Yelp to see if we could identify a dinner choice beyond our usual establishments and settled on Garcia Brogan, a Mexican Italian place on Middlesex Street. We got there and spent literally 5 minutes trying to find the entrance. When we finally did manage to get inside, we went to the bar and spent another 5 minutes wondering where the bartender was. Given those two shaky experiences right off the bat and its appearance as being for the younger set, we left and went to our back-up: Cobblestones on Dutton Street.

Somewhere in our meandering on Monday we passed Lowell High School and I took the below picture of the clock. Richard reports that Lowell Kerouac docent Roger Brunelle said that this clock was gifted after Jack was a student there, so it can't be the one he writes about kissing Pauline Cole (Peggy Coffey) under in Maggie Cassidy.

Our food at Cobblestones was very good, the bartender (LeeAnne) was nice, and the three Boulevard Dark Truth Stouts I drank (almost 10% alcohol) hit me pretty hard. See picture below.

Richard had three different brews only he can remember. We started back to the Inn after a leisurely dinner and good conversation and as we neared the turn to the Inn I heard Cappy's Copper Kettle calling our name so we stopped for a nightcap (Bushmills). Another Kerouac bar.

We retired fairly early with visions of breakfast grub, the grave, and the grotto dancing in our heads as we drifted off to sleep. We had two queen beds so inadvertent spooning was not part of the equation.

Bright and early we got some free coffee from the Inn's continental breakfast set-up and went outside to drink it while looking at the canal. There were many ducks: below is a picture of one pair. We couldn't have asked for a nicer day in terms of sun, although it was still chilly.

After coffee and ducks, we walked over to Jameson's on Andover Street for breakfast. Crystal and I found that place last October during Lowell Celebrates Kerouac (recommendation from hotel desk clerk), and I had a scrumptious Irish Benedict (hash instead of Canadian bacon or ham). With visions of an Irish Benedict in my head, we walked up to the restaurant and it was . . . closed! On a Tuesday morning? Maybe it's out of business, we thought. I was bummed, but we decided to walk to The Owl diner (another classic train car diner) on Appleton Street (it's actually called Four Sisters - The Owl). We'd heard about this place for years, and I had an Irish Benny (that's what they call it). It was just as good as Jameson's and on top of that we got to  sit at the counter and watch the short order cook. He'd been working there nine years and was amazing to watch: perpetual motion. Busy place. I recommend it. They still have the old individual (nonfunctional) jukeboxes at the counter. See below.

After breakfast, we walked back to the Inn and checked out. It was time for the one required stop in Lowell: Jack Kerouac's grave at Edson Cemetery on Gorham Street. Below are a couple of pictures. Folks, please don't leave cigarette butts at the grave. It's disrespectful and gross.

The original gravestone as we found it minus all the cigarette butts Richard cleaned away

Rick at the "new" gravestone

Richard at the "new" gravestone
For the record, I don't like the new gravestone. The old one was understated and sufficient. The new one is overstated and unnecessary. On the plus side, it does make it easier to find Jack's grave. Or maybe that's not a plus. The way it was meant someone had to have some commitment to find it, Now any yahoo can spot it from Lincoln Street,

Among the many items left there, someone had stuffed a handwritten note on lined yellow paper into a bottle leaning against the "new" gravestone. Richard read it. It started out, "Here I sit at my bullshit job in Flint, MI" or something along those lines. It was a heartfelt letter to Jack from a somewhat America-disillusioned ("America is fucked, Jack") 19-year-old Kerouac fan named Tyler (last name unreadable). Tyler, if you're out there, hit me up with a message on this blog or send me an e-mail and I'll send you a free signed copy of my book for leaving one of the best things at the grave I've seen to date. We wanted to take a picture of the letter to post it here but the writing was too faded to show up.

I read some passages from Dr. Sax and Richard read from Maggie Cassidy (one must read aloud from one of Jack's Lowell books at the grave - it is a requirement). We had a few nips of good 10-year-old single malt Bushmills in Jack's honor (I know, he died from alcoholism and this is gauche and all of that, but I drink at his grave as a celebration of his life for my own reasons that make sense to me). Of course, as always I left a copy of my book (in a baggie with "Steal this book" written on it).

After the grave we drove to the Lady of Lourdes Grotto behind the Franco-American School on Pawtucket Street, a significant Kerouac location. Click here for some background. By the way, Jack's wake was held at the Archambault Funeral Home right next to the Grotto.

We stopped at each "Station of the Cross" and then made our way up the steps to the statue of Jesus crucified. In the cave underneath we read some of the prayers and stories visitors had left there. Moving. Below are a couple of pictures

And that was it. Richard took me back to my car at the Inn and we headed home in opposite directions. When we left Jack's grave Richard remarked how lucky we are to have something like Kerouac's work and life to be interested in and connect with others about, and I think I'll leave it at that. It's something he and I understand, as do a select few others. We'll leave it as an ineffable phenomenon, but suffice to say that the last couple of days were good for my soul.

See you in October, Lowell. ("Everybody goes home in October.")

P.S. Stay tuned for Part 3: details about our visit to the Memory Babe archive.


Anonymous said...

That Tyler sure has the spirit, I wish I had it at his age.

Certainly was interesting hearing the voices of jack's boyhood friends, the actual characters in o many novels. Ol' GJ sure thought a lot of him right til the end.

Richard Marsh

Anonymous said...

Enjoying your blog, I went to visit the Kerouac memorial park in 1992 and saw the play version of Maggie Cassidy. I actually stumbled upon the memorial park by accident while looking for the Lowell auditorium. I was nineteen then and I'm still reading and having discussions about the Beat Generation. Again enjoying your Blog!