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.