In a Dream of Strange Cities

In a Dream of Strange Cities #2: “Tannery Palace” prelude

As soon as we got over the shock of first seeing Tannery Palace, Crutch suggested I move the company van a few streets away. The factory/mansion complex was only a long stone’s throw from (redacted) Square and our local guide Hannah K— said she had seen a couple of army cops on patrol that morning.

Normally, I would have been miffed at having to do this while Crutch got to know our appealing new co-conspirator a little better. But the night before I let on that I had attended 4th and 5th grade at the St. Catherine Primary School around the way. I was curious to see this old haunt again, especially now after what I had just seen. How could it be that I had never, until today, seen or known about the outlandish Victorian owner’s residence that sat in the middle of the tannery—especially since my grandfather had worked there and I spent two years at a school that was only two blocks away?

The shuttered but otherwise well-preserved Tannery Palace was no place to park a van whose back-door logo promised adventures in “Dark Tourism.” I hopped in and drove over to the school and tucked it under an oak tree in a corner of the disused parking lot, close by the giant brick wall that formed the back of the Church of St. Catherine Laboure.

I wasn’t particularly old, just a man of a certain age, but it felt like an indiscernible black space separated those years from where I stood now. I looked over at the tall windows of my 4th grade classroom and got a blank stare in return. That did not stop some memories from leaking back. At recess, we used to throw an oversized Super Ball against this back wall. A pack of boys in white shirts and clip-on ties would scramble for the crazy bouncing rebound. A smaller number of girls in plaid skirts would work the perimeter away from the scrum, occasionally catching the more errant sideway bounces.

I started walking back, wondering how far along Hannah and Crutch were with prying away the weak-link plywood of the basement window that was to be our entry point to the mystery mansion. First though, I had to turn back to have a look at the church’s pointy steeple, an architectural detail that had popped up in my dreams at least a couple of times a year for decades. Many of the kids in my 5th grade class would compare the steeple to a witch’s hat, thus revealing the true nature of Catholicism. We were clever little buggers back then. For sport, we would discuss this theory just barely out of earshot of the nuns as they stood in groups of three or four in their white origami-type headgear.

Each sunny school day at the noon recess, at the signal which was the tannery’s blaring lunchtime horn, we would look up at the steeple to see “the witch’s eye.” This would be a glint of sunshine off the church bell seen through the slats of the tower. I stared one last time for a glimpse of this, but it was no use. It was late afternoon already; the moon was even rising. The church, the factory and a lot else around it was closed for good. There would be no supernatural eye to look down on this broken world that had cursed itself.

A prose sample from a work-in-progress, a (graphic?) novel called “The Ministry of Dark Tourism”

Which way to the secret hipster street in the sky?

The shops at Mill No. 5 at closing time. (Photos by author unless indicated otherwise)

by Rick Ouellette

Jack Kerouac is fixed in the public imagination, or at least in what remains of it, with the broad vistas of cross-the-country America and of a declarative personal freedom. But the Beat icon, who was born and raised in the Massachusetts mill town of Lowell, often chafed against that image, preferring to think of himself as a “Catholic mystic” instead. He set six of his novels in his hometown, creating a microcosmic society that in its exacting detail felt as universal as James Joyce’s Dublin and, for me at least, is more impressive than the hedonistic “road books.”

Of course, Jack’s Lowell has changed pretty significantly since the era he was writing about, namely his childhood and adolescence in the Twenties and Thirties. His family was part and parcel of a large French-Canadian migration of mill workers from Quebec to New England, of which Lowell once had a large concentration. Traces of this remain today: the Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union even has a new building and how could I not mention the Ouelette Bridge? But old cities like this are known for their successive waves of immigrants and in recent decades this has meant that Cambodian-Americans have replaced the old “Canucks.” It has also been the scene of a couple of other modern trends: college expansionism (the ever-growing UMass Lowell) and the influx of hipsters and artists from bigger and more expensive cities. For this latter group, the town—bisected by the Merrimac River rapids which powered the mills where so many toiled—is now for many a destination instead of a place to escape.


The Moody Street Bridge may not be called that anymore–the road is now called University Avenue—but the old name fit so much better. It took on such a mysterious aura in Kerouac’s Lowell books that it may as well have spanned the River Styx instead of the Merrimac. In the right background is another oft-mentioned location: the yellow-brick Textile Institute trade college which has been subsumed by the local UMass campus.

Kerouac’s Lowell was an acutely-recalled place of murky canals, forbidding factories, lunch wagons, pool halls and late-night taxi stands. After a grueling day working the roaring textile machinery, men in fedora hats might stop for “another cup of coffee and another piece of pie” in the face of their Depression-era blues.(“The tenemental cold north night of desolation,” as J.K. once put it). While the mills may now be typically converted to condos with an art gallery on the first floor, and the textiles replaced by tech and those tiny diners superseded by health-food cafes, a question remains: where does one go to find that solace that Kerouac always seemed to be grasping at, but was too often just out of reach?

For Jack, it could take temporary form as a meditation in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest or, more prosaically, that self-described moment where he has one arm around a girl and the other raising a tall glass of beer while listening to a transcendent saxophone solo. Nowadays we refer to an important “third place,” neither home nor work, which can be a refuge from both, with all their related concerns and burdens. I recently stumbled upon a very noveau version of this on the 4th floor of 250 Jackson Street, one of those converted red brick mill buildings which are numerous in Lowell. I was looking for a used record store and found not only that but a whole tucked-away hipster shopping arcade in the sky. The way in was curious: into a musty archway then an outdoor wait for a single extremely slow elevator. There seems to be nothing on the 2nd or 3rd floor or at least nobody has pressed those buttons in any of my subsequent visits (there are apartments in a different part of this typically vast mill complex but that place has its own lift). This unpromising approach is in direct opposition to the trendy and popular gathering place called Mill No. 5, an elevated oasis pitched above the streets of a downtown that often seems as rough-hewn as it must have been in Kerouac’s day.


One of the more impressive aspects of Mill No. 5 is the adaptive re-use style of the developer who used salvaged building materials to make a crazy-quilt indoor street where one place may be a Tudor half-timber and the next may be Victorian parlor or a retro movie palace.

There’s a coffee shop, an eccentric bookstore the size of a walk-in closet, a photography studio with old-timey cameras on display, a vintage clothing shop, a farm-to-table café and various artsy boutiques. Best of all is the comfy Luna Theater with its eclectic movie programming and occasional live events. They have a free movie night called Weirdo Wednesdays; the catch is you don’t know what the feature presentation is going to be. So of course I took the bait. I have sworn off hardcore horror in recent years (too many nightmares in the real world and all that) so I kind of braced myself a bit when the opening credits revealed “The Brood,” David Cronenberg’s 1979 envelope-pushing cult horror classic.


“You think RICK is scared? How do you figure I’m feeling right about now!!!”(Still from “The Brood”)

Funny, I had never seen it but made a mental note recently that I should check it out someday, but probably wouldn’t have if the issue wasn’t forced on me. Naturally, I loved it. Even if I got too scared I could have retreated to the upper lobby, where there is a clutch of vintage video arcade games set to free play. Have I finally found my Happy Place? Admittedly, this neighborhood refugee is a bit more low-key than the type of comparable place that Kerouac wrote about. (“The Pawtucketville Social Club, an organization intended to be some kind of meeting place for speeches about Franco-American matters, was just a huge roaring saloon and bowling alley and pool table with a meeting room always locked”).

My first time at the Coffee and Cotton café, I settled into a quiet corner with a cup of single-sourced java and opened my book of E.M. Forster short stories, keeping one observant eye on my surroundings. Predictably, most of the young patrons (average age about 25 tops) were gazing into smart phones and laptops, even in company. These young ‘uns are well-traveled in the four corners of the cyber-universe. As I picked the bookmark out of my Forster volume, I convinced myself that “They may have the youth, but I have the wisdom.” I was pushing 60 and will have succeeded in pushing it over the line by the time this is posted. Lately I feel like I’m doing more “reeling” than “rocking” but then consider that I’ve already lived 13 more years than poor Jack (1922-1969).



The Lady of Lourdes Grotto, behind the old Franco-American School in Lowell, figured prominently in the novel “Dr. Sax.” It was here that the nefarious title character stalked Jack’s boyhood self and his mother, lurking behind the praying stations near the elevated Northern Canal.

I was reading Forster’s amazingly predictive 1909 story “The Machine Stops,” where the world’s population lives underground, each one in an individual chamber, where an all-encompassing technological entity provides each (isolated) individual with all material needs a source for instant “communication.” In an American age where the socio-political discourse is so frightening and vicious that it makes “The Brood” look like a Halloween prank, it’s understandable to want to sail away forever on the wings of our unlimited access and convenience. But when “the machine stops,” as it does in the story… well, you can guess the rest. As for me, well I may pause long enough for another cup of fair-trade coffee and another piece of vegan pie, but then I am walking away, intent to never stop investigating the solid realm of what makes it our world in the first place, in all its empirical pain and pleasure. As Kerouac might say: “Step softly, ghost.”

Find out more at millno5.com
Recommended Lowell novels by Jack Kerouac: Visions of Gerard, Dr. Sax, Maggie Cassidy.