Landmarks & places to explore for channelling Jack Kerouac
Climb a secret stairway
Tucked behind the former Franco American School, The Grotto is a hidden gem mentioned in Kerouac’s Dr. Sax and was also paid a visit by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and musician Bob Dylan in the 1975 documentary, “Renaldo and Clara.” Open to the public since 1911, it was modeled after the original legendary grotto of Massabielle near Lourdes in southern France. At night, the pathway is still illuminated by glass enclosed statues representing the 14 stations of the cross, and, at its base, is a faux cave where prayer candles flicker 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A stone staircase along either side of the ivy-covered rock hump climbs to the focal point — a towering crucifix. It was here that Ti Jean glimpsed Sax in the shadows behind the Stations.
357 Pawtucket St.
Visit Kerouac’s grave
Sometime in 1954, Kerouac wrote a list of 31 commandments that he supposedly tacked to the wall of Allen Ginsberg’s hotel room a year before Ginsberg’s famous Howl poem was published. One of them was “be in love with yr life.” Life and love are filled with ups and downs, and while Kerouac battled his own demons he was also a force that burned brightly, leaving behind a piece of his soul in his written works. His later years were lived mainly in seclusion in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he died of a gastric hemorrhage in October 1969. He was 47. Buried in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery, his simple stone slab is engraved with the words: He Honored Life. Forty-eight years later, visitors who never met him but who are influenced by his work leave mementos, notes, empty wine and whiskey bottles in tribute.
1357 Gorham St.
Tour Lowell’s historic pubs
Kerouac frequented several downtown taverns including The Worthen, 141 Worthen St., one of the city’s oldest watering holes with an antique fan-belt system still in working order. This friendly neighborhood bar has cheap $2 drafts and is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe. The former Nick’s Bar at 110 Gorham St. has been closed for years. But before the most recent tenants—Ricardo’s Trattoria—permanently closed their doors earlier this year, regulars swore the bar was actually haunted by Kerouac’s ghost (but we think Jack’s spirit would prefer roaming the stacks at the Pollard Library). Cappy’s Copper Kettle, 245 Central St., is a real time-warp bar complete with a vintage four walled telephone booth. Every year Kerouac fans gather here to remember Jack with music and poetry.
Feel the pulse of the city’s night scene
Jazz fueled Kerouac’s spontaneous prose. From the Zorba Music Hall (437 Market St.) and the Old Worthen House to UnchARTed (103 Market St.), Dudley’s (19 Merrimack St.), The Blue Taleh (15 Kearney Sq.), The Luna Theater (250 Jackson St., 4th fl. at Mill No. 5), Mandarin Bistro (24 Market St.), Thirsty First (280 Central St.), Life Alive (194 Middle St.) and Brew’d Awakening (61 Market St.), you’ll find original live music every weekend to get your own creative juices flowing, or just get your groove on.
Eat Cotes beans
Want to know what it was like growing up and eating dinner at Kerouac’s table? Visit Cote’s Market, 175 Salem St., a family owned and operated business for nearly 100 years. Every Saturday come rain or shine, people line up for traditional French Canadian food like pork and salmon pie, and especially beans to go. Clerks will tell you they dish out about 300 pounds of beans a week. Regulars say there’s a reason for this — the small white beans are slow cooked for about nine hours to perfection in loads of salty pork fat. Kerouac would approve.
Explore the mighty Merrimack
Growing up in a mill town along the Merrimack River had a deep impact on Kerouac’s writings. Even after leaving Lowell, he would return and find himself writing and pondering on the banks of the Merrimack and Concord rivers. Walk the River Walk year round (beginning behind The Boott Cotton Mills Museum, 115 John St.) or catch a boat tour at the Lowell National Park Visitor’s Center, 246 Market St., that details all the drama and intrigue of the Merrimack’s history — open from spring through Columbus Day weekend.
Peruse the Pollard Library
Explore the building at 401 Merrimack St. that awakened Kerouac’s literary consciousness. He pays homage to the hallowed halls and dusty stacks in Dr. Sax, where he writes, “By Saturday morning the sun is shining, the sky is piercingly heartbreakingly blue, and my sister and I are dancing over the Moody Street Bridge to get out Saturday morning Library books. All the night before I’ve been dreaming of books — I’m standing in the children’s library in the basement, rows of glazed brown books are in front of me, I reach out and open one — my soul thrills to touch the soft used meaty pages covered with avidities of reading — at last, at last, I’m opening the magic brown book…”
Visit The Kerouac Commemorative at 75 Bridge St., where granite pillars stand under the shade of willow trees and are engraved with passages from Kerouac’s writings, including his so-called “Lowell books” — The Town and The City, Dr. Sax, Visions of Gerard, Maggie Cassidy and Vanity of Duloz.