I sit down on a bench, trying to make sense of the map they've given me in the tourist information office, and ponder my next move. A little further along the dusty, quiet street, an old man sits, in short-sleeved cotton shirt, his hands resting on his cane. Without looking at me he says, “It's hot.”
“Is it always so hot in summer?” I ask. He looks up at last, interested perhaps by my accent. I'm guessing they might not get too many Wiganers in their mid-20s in Lowell, Massachusetts.
“Never known it this hot,” he says. He looks at the stuff in my hands, the map of Lowell, the hand-drawn plan of the municipal cemetery, the three or four books, the long tube containing a poster for an obscure documentary movie. “What are you here for?”
Suddenly I start to think, he's the right age. He's lived in Lowell all his life. I bet he knew him. He might have even gone to school with him.
“Jack Kerouac,” I say. Then add, “The writer.”
The old man shrugs and turns back to consideration of how hot it is. “Only famous person I know from around here is Bette Davis.”
This is sometime slap in the middle of the 1990s. Britpop's had its best years, Tony Blair is yet to have his. I am working as a journalist for a local paper in Lancashire. They are good years. Princess Diana is still alive and no-one has mobile phones, really, so journalists aren't hated quite so much just yet. We are between recessions and companies have money to splash about. Companies such as Continental Airlines, which is running a new route from Manchester to Boston, so decides to take a load of local newspaper journalists along on a junket. The IRA have stopped trying to kill us and al Qaeda haven't really started. The prospect of flying to America for the first time fills me with nothing but excitement.
During the course of the three day trip to Boston, somewhere between visiting the actual Cheers bar (where I am carded before I can get a glass of Samuel Adams beer) and going out into Boston harbour whale spotting, where one of the guides goes into paroxysms of ecstasy because he's spotted a Minke whale nursing its young, it occurs to me that we are a scant thirty miles from Lowell, the birthplace and final rest of Jean-Louis Kerouac, the father of the Beats.
My relationship with Kerouac dates back to 1991, when I am 21 and embarking on my first real road trip – overland to northern Spain, where I am planning to emulate another of my newly-minted literary heroes, Ernest Hemingway, and take part in the annual Pamplona bull run. I have bought On The Road to read, and am instantly hooked. In those pre-internet days, I know no-one else who is into Kerouac, and have no Amazon from which to order more books, so spend the rest of that summer calling in to my local independent bookshop, Smiths of Wigan, hoovering up their small stock of Flamingo editions, begging them to order more.
By the time I get to Lowell, I have read pretty much everything I can get my hands on, which has opened doors to William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and I am dipping into the Black Mountain poets. The tourism office in Lowell has some books I’ve never seen before, and a poster of Kerouac. As I pay the man behind the counter hands me two hand-drawn, photocopied maps; one of important sites around Lowell relating to Kerouac, one showing the site of his grave in the municipal cemetery.
I leave the old man ruminating in the heat on his park bench, and tour the sites on the map. It’s a Saturday, and later that evening we are due to fly back to Manchester. The previous night I had asked the concierge in the Swissotel in Boston how to get to Lowell; he’d found the train times and organized me a wake-up call at 6am. I’d ditched the planned itinerary and instead tramped through the city to the station, past knots of men hanging out for seemingly no good reason on street corners ahead of the blistering sunrise who cast me quizzical stares, stepping over the sleeping bodies that litter the station concourse. The train took me out into the parched Massachusetts countryside, and deposited me in Lowell, where as soon as I stepped on to the pavements I could feel a frisson of what I can only guess is a fraction of what Kerouac’s contemporary (and first writer to get the phrase “beat generation” into print) John Clellon Holmes meant by “beat” when he described it as “a sort of nakedness of mind and, ultimately, of soul”.
I’m in my mid-20s, remember. I’m full of bollocks like that.
I could feel a frisson of what I can only guess is a fraction of what Kerouac’s contemporary (and first writer to get the phrase “beat generation” into print) John Clellon Holmes meant by “beat” when he described it as “a sort of nakedness of mind and, ultimately, of soul”.
After seeing the places were Kerouac lived and went to school, and bumming around a little park made of sculptures inscribed with quotes from his works, I strike out for the cemetery. The map isn’t to scale and it takes me longer than I hope, the sun now high in the sky and beating down on me. I pass gardens bordered with honest-to-God white picket fences; a man watering his garden watches impassively as I stagger on under the sweltering heat. It’s like Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet. I’m dying for a drink and ahead of me, shimmering like a mirage, is a Dairy Queen. I’ve only ever seen them in movies or books and it seems so foreign yet so oddly familiar that I almost feel like weeping. I buy a root beer which tastes awful but slakes my thirst.
I don’t know what I’m expecting when I eventually get to the deserted cemetery, and navigate the neat, ordered rows until I get to Kerouac’s grave. Bursts of freeform jazz from a celestial quartet, perhaps. The sky to darken and growl with thunder. Inspiration. Instead, the sun just beats down and I flop to the manicured grass around the stone set flat into the ground. “Ti Jean”, it says. Little Jean in Kerouac’s native Quebecois French-American. A childhood nickname. It’s surrounded by empty beer bottles left in tribute, a rolled joint.
I’m suddenly struck by a vision of Kerouac, not as the latter-day hobo hitching across America, trail-dust on his boots, but by the little boy whose upbringing in small-town America was unable to contain his imagination. I feel a long way from home, and without understanding why, I want to go back.
Which is easier said than done. Back in Lowell the train station is shut. A sympathetic employee tells me that I won’t get a train into Boston on a Saturday afternoon. Nor a bus. It’s Saturday afternoon.
I’m suddenly struck by a vision of Kerouac, not as the latter-day hobo hitching across America, trail-dust on his boots, but by the little boy whose upbringing in small-town America was unable to contain his imagination.
I stand on the pavement outside, wondering if I should hitch. There seems a certain symmetry in that, but the street is empty. And my flight is imminent, and maybe hitching in America is more about mad slashers and the Hills Have Eyes rather than On the Road anyway. So I find a phone box and call a cab.
The taxi driver is huge, with flowing black hair and a luxurious beard, but is younger than me. He wants $80 for the trip, which he insists I pay for up front through the window. He’s never had to take a fare to Boston before. As we set off he gives me a brief run-down of his genetic make-up. All I remember now was that he was fiercely proud of being one-quarter Greek.
It turns out that not only has he never taken a fare to Boston before, he’s never actually been. As we hit the city limits he throws a map at me and demands that I navigate us towards the Swissotel. I eventually get there maybe an hour before my flight is due to leave, but find the rest of the press party lounging around; our plane has been delayed a couple of hours.
The PR guy running the trip wonders why I wasn’t on the scheduled visit to a shopping centre, and asks where I’ve been. I tell him I’ve been to the hometown of Jack Kerouac.
He shrugs. “Never heard of him.”
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