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Friday, November 20, 2009

Room for enlightenment. USA, LLC

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Jun. 10--LOWELL -- The classified ad for the rental of the apartment at 9 Lupine Road is classically stark: "Washer-dryer hook up. Utilities not included. No pets."

The copy doesn't mention that the small room with a single window just off the kitchen was the birthplace of Jack Kerouac, whose 1957 novel, "On The Road," defined what came to be known as "the Beat generation."

The ad makes no allusion to the fact that Lowell is celebrating its native son this year on the 50th anniversary of the publication of "On The Road," the tale of an alcohol-fueled, coast-to-coast odyssey down the highways and back roads of America in search of "enlightenment," or maybe just freedom.

The sparse wording of the classified ad does not let on that the city that never recognized Kerouac's artistry during his life is now hosting a calendar of events in his memory that will lead up to the September anniversary of the publication of the book.

The festivities will include jazz concerts, poetry slams, and a trolley tour of the city that will stop at 9 Lupine Road as part of a literary pilgrimage through Kerouac's Lowell.

A museum exhibit about Kerouac's life and his unique spiritual quest as a writer will open Friday and focus around the 120-foot scroll of typing paper upon which Kerouac rattled off the original, unedited manuscript of "On The Road."

On display will be personal artifacts, including one of the old Underwood typewriters Kerouac used to bang out his prose, an old brown, felt fedora, the backpack he carried, a beat-up pair of shoes, and a well-worn set of argyle socks from his time on the road.

But the fuss over Kerouac did not move Cheryl Salem, a 44-year-old mother of two who grew up in the house where Kerouac was born and called in the ad for the apartment to the Lowell Sun. That Kerouac once lived there did not seem that big a selling point, said Salem, whose family has owned the property for two generations.

"A lot of people don't know who he is," she explained, shrugging her shoulders.

"People seem to care more about the washer-dryer hook up," added Salem, who works as a clerk for a trucking company.

For Kerouac, such unselfconscious simplicity was the poetry of Lowell. It was what made it all so "holy" as Sal Paradise, the central character of "On The Road" and Kerouac's alter ego, would have described it.

Kerouac's cast of characters emerged from the mills and bars and French and Irish neighborhoods of Centralville along the banks of the Merrimack in his beloved hometown.

The author might have appreciated the practicality of the description of the brown-clapboard, two-family dwelling on a quiet street that is commemorated by a plaque placed by the Lowell Historical Board as "Jack Kerouac Birthplace -- 1922."

Today there's an American flag out front and a "For Rent" sign.

This is how Kerouac described the now-hallowed literary ground in the opening sentence of his novel, "Doctor Sax":

"It was in Centralville I was born. . . . Across the wide basin to the hill on Lupine Road, March 1922, at five o'clock in the afternoon of a red-all-over suppertime, as drowsily beers were tapped in Moody and Lakeview saloons and the river rushed with her cargoes of ice over reddened slick rocks, and on the shore the reeds swayed among mattresses and cast-off boots of Time."

Paul Marion, a published poet who grew up around the corner from Lupine Road and who is a Kerouac scholar and associate vice chancellor at the University of Lowell, said, "He was part of our tribe."

"There was a small-town set of values in America that he never lost, trying to return to that, to find it, was a big part of his spiritual quest," said Marion, who is one of the Kerouac scholars helping to assemble the exhibit.

Mary Sampas, 89, whose husband, Charles, was a longtime editor of the Lowell Sun, knew Kerouac well.

Sitting in the Caffe Paradiso in downtown Lowell last week with her daughter Marina, Sampas pulled out an old black-and-white photograph of a cocktail party in her basement. In it, Kerouac is captured in a ratty old raincoat, holding a drink, turned away from the camera as he holds forth.

"He drank all the time, but underneath that he was actually pretty shy," Sampas said. "He was a gentleman. Sometimes I thought the drinking and the drugs were a big cover over who he really was." Kerouac married Stella Sampas, the sister-in-law of Mary Sampas . It was his third marriage. She inherited his estate, which is to this day controlled by Lowell native John Sampas, Kerouac's brother-in-law.

"Jack always said he would be famous," Mary Sampas said. "He was a prophet that way. He'd say, 'People will come to see my grave. One day you will be asked where to put my statue.' "

Those who knew Kerouac speak of his legendary alcoholism, but they also like to surprise visitors with more subtle truths about the man.

For example, the writer of the seminal road trip novel of all time never owned a car and never had a driver's license, according to Marion's research. The icon of the "beats" favored Richard Nixon over John Kennedy in 1960, say Mary Sampas and others who knew him at the time. Throughout his life, through the haze of alcohol and speed that fueled his writing, until his death in Florida in 1969 of complications from chronic alcoholism and possible internal bleeding from a bar fight, Kerouac took solace in his own tribal brand of Catholicism, which fused with Buddhist beliefs. He remained devoted to his mother, or "Ma," as he called her.

A reader is left wondering how Kerouac might have worded his own classified ad for the brown two-family his father, a printer, rented, and where his mother gave birth to him. Who knows? Maybe something like this:

For Rent: Second-story apartment with room for Enlightenment. Bethlehem of the beats. Stumbling distance to late-night bars. Smoking permitted. No pretensions. Salvation negotiable.

For those seeking such terms, the apartment is still available.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Boston Globe

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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Source Citation
Sennott, Charles M. "Room for enlightenment." Boston Globe [Boston, MA] 10 June 2007. General OneFile. Web. 20 Nov. 2009. .

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