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Seeking Jack Kerouac’s spirit on the streets of Lowell

Fans leave tokens at Jack Kerouac’s gravesite in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery.

Patricia Harris for the boston globe

Fans leave tokens at Jack Kerouac’s gravesite in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery.

LOWELL — In Jack Kerouac Park on Bridge Street near the corner of French Street, the pretty young woman on a bench converses on her cell in a steady stream of Haitian Creole. Son of Quebec-born parents, Kerouac would have enjoyed hearing that immigrant French is as vital as ever in Lowell. Even the trio of homeless men arguing about sports would have made him smile. They seem avatars of the West Coast boxcar bodhisattvas who populated “The Dharma Bums,” the author’s follow-up to “On the Road.”

Kerouac’s name is practically synonymous with that road trip through America where enlightenment beckoned at every next dot on the map. But Kerouac’s story began in Lowell, and ended here too. He remains the city’s most fervent fan and a timeless tout for its big soul. In all his novels, poems, and rants, Lowell is a magical place seen through the eyes of a child. Its towering brick factories were mighty foundries, its canals a watery spider web enveloping the streets. The mighty Merrimack River represented raw power.

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Jack Kerouac embraced Lowell and never let it go. It was — and remains — a requited love. He wrote of October as a month of homecomings, and every October (this year Oct. 6-10) the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival holds a series of events in his honor. They range from readings to concerts to pub crawls.

Throughout the year, the city honors its native son most concretely at Jack Kerouac Park. Granite stelae erected in 1988 bear quotations from his writings. They are love letters to his birthplace literally fixed in stone. The park makes a good place to begin exploring the Lowell that Kerouac knew, and the Lowell where his spirit lingers.

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Even as old buildings assume new uses, Lowell’s past has never really vanished. At the end of Bridge where it intersects Merrimack Street stands the Lowell Sun Building, where Kerouac had his first paid writing gig. (The newspaper — and Page’s Clock out front — appear in most of his Lowell novels.) A high school football star who went to Columbia University on a sports scholarship, he worked as a Sun sportswriter in the winter of 1941-’42. The discipline didn’t suit him, and he soon moved on. Later, the Sun also relocated; the building became senior housing in the late 1970s.

Up French Street from Kerouac Park is the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center. The “Mill Girls & Immigrants Exhibit” chronicles the growth and changing demographics of Lowell, noting that French-Canadians began to arrive in large numbers in the 1870s. A young National Park Service ranger who grew up in Lowell and attended public schools admits that he read “Moby Dick” and “Romeo and Juliet” but no Jack Kerouac. He has grown adept at guiding pilgrims to the glass case with relics of the author. Along with books, it holds his aluminum mess kit, his big canvas backpack, and his Underwood portable typewriter. It is like seeing one of Charlie Parker’s saxophones. This is an instrument on which Kerouac famously played his “spontaneous bop prosody.”

The yellow brick high school on Kirk Street — as heroically scaled as the nearby mills — was built in 1920 and expanded in 1922, the year Kerouac was born. This is where he aspired to be a writer and where he became a star running back. Much of his education, by his own account, was self-directed. As he wrote in “Vanity of Duluoz,” he would skip school and hole up in the Pollard Memorial Library (401 Merrimack Street), reading encyclopedias in the morning sunlight. The first-floor spot was dedicated as Jack Kerouac Corner on his birthday in 2015.

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The nearby Worthen House was one of Kerouac’s less aspirational hangouts from his adult years. The 1834 building has been a tavern since 1898 and has retained its original long wooden bar, pulley-operated fans, and pressed tin ceiling. Ask the day bartender (who’s equally deft at grilling burgers) if she knows where Kerouac sat and her guesses alternate between the bar and one of the dark corners. “He was kind of shy, I’ve heard.” The tavern has many beers on tap and an extensive selection of whiskeys. But it’s easier to imagine Kerouac lost in reverie, both hands wrapped around a longneck.

This neighborhood bordered by the Western, Pawtucket, and Northern canals is the Acre. It was home to Irish, Greek, and French Canadian immigrants. Today Southeast Asian and Hispanic families have moved in. On Saturday morning, young men pop into one- and two-stool barber shops for a trim to look sharp on Saturday night. In years past, many immigrants worshiped at Lowell’s “cathedral,” the imposing gray stone St. Jean Baptiste Church (741 Merrimack Street). Kerouac’s childhood priest, Father Armand “Spike” Morissette, said the funeral mass for the author here on Oct. 24, 1969.

The church is being transformed into apartments, but the French Canadian past still resonates in the Acre. On Saturday, Cote’s Market on Salem Street does a bang-up business in French Canadian-style baked beans. At 309 Pawtucket St., Archambault Funeral Home, where family, friends, and fans bade farewell to Jack Kerouac, remains an active mortuary.

Practically next door, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Way of the Cross remains a touchstone of Lowell’s spiritual life. In his novels, Kerouac wrote of his neighbors’ devotion to the shrine, and fresh notes of thanks for answered prayers still cover the small altar. In “Doctor Sax,” Kerouac contrasted the serenity of the Virgin with the roaring power of the Merrimack River’s Pawtucket Falls, then visible from the heights behind the cross. Walking around the corner to the O’Donnell Bridge provides much the same view from the Northern Canal gatehouse.

Across the Merrimack, Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac (as he was christened) was born on March 12, 1922, in the Centralville neighborhood on the north edge of town. The two-family house at 9 Lupine Road is a private residence marked with a plaque. Kerouac’s final resting place is in South Lowell. He lies with his last wife Stella in her Sampas family plot on Lincoln Avenue just beyond 7th Street in Edson Cemetery (1375 Gorham Street). The grave is surrounded by empty beer cans, wine bottles, cigarettes, and handwritten poems that bled in the rain.

On a recent afternoon, Jemma Stewart of Somerset, England, was sitting cross-legged, writing in a notebook. “I’m spending my first day ever in America at Kerouac’s grave,” she tells other admirers. “I didn’t study him in school. I found him by myself. I need this in my life.” An aspiring writer, Stewart and a friend are setting out the next day on a two-month journey across America. For her, the road starts here.

For details on the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival, visit www.lowellcelebrateskerouac.com.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.
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