“Merrimac and Moody St. Regulars” Jack Kerouac Walking Tour Debuts with Roger Brunelle

(Also posted in the Lowell Sun, July 24, 2013: "Man's walking tour brings Kerouac's Lowell to life.")

On a brilliant Saturday morning in June, Roger Brunelle of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac debuted his new “Merrimac and Moody Street Regulars” walking tour with two Jack Kerouac fans, Rick Dunfey of Boston and myself. Roger is well known for his “Ghosts of the Pawtucketville Night,” “Mystic Jack,” and other Kerouac tours that carry people back into the 1920s and 1930s world of Kerouac’s boyhood in Lowell, exploring the neighborhoods, churches, schools, and other landmarks. Brunelle brings them alive with his dramatic readings in French as well as English from Kerouac writings. He has been researching and giving these Kerouac tours since 1986 at the start of the revival of interest in the legacy of Jack Kerouac in Lowell, leading to the creation of the LCK organization and the Jack Kerouac Commemorative on Bridge St.

Brunelle started off this new tour in front of City Hall, pointing out the monuments to seven of the major ethnic communities that shaped Lowell. He said that the bell monument dedicated for the Franco-American community in the early 1970s was the first and the others followed. He led us to the Pollard Memorial Library, a favorite destination for Kerouac and his older sister, Nin, as they walked from their homes in across the Merrimack River to spend hours in the library.

“The libraries are like schools. They don’t change from generation to generation,” Brunelle said as he showed us the children’s area on the lower level. He stressed that although renovations were made to the library, they were done sensitively so that the interior still has the period integrity of when the Kerouac children visited on their Saturdays.

“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 our Saturday morning library books. All the night before I’ve been dreaming of books,” wrote Kerouac in his “Dr. Sax” novel.

When Kerouac was in his junior and senior years at Lowell High School, a star student-athlete, he spent many days playing hooky at the library, as many as 44 days when he was a senior, said Brunelle. He said that the intellectually brilliant Kerouac often found his classes boring, while the library allowed him to explore the world of literature as he began to write more and more, igniting his imagination and modeling himself on authors he discovered in the library.

Walking along Merrimack St., Brunelle stopped to point out the still surviving brick box of the old Royal movie theater attached at the rear of 484 Merrimack. He added that he has been inside the once ornate theater and projection room, and it survives amazingly intact, if abandoned. “That’s all we thought about, go to the Royal. Now that we’re grown up, we read books,” Kerouac later wrote.

Figure: Rick Dunfey and Roger Brunelle on Moody St. over Western Canal, 6-15-13

We then cut over to the parallel Moody St., which was once an important street that ran all the way from downtown across the river and through the heart of Pawtucketville. Brunelle said that in Kerouac’s youthful years, “Moody St. was a very infamous street in Lowell.” He described the nightclubs and bars that lined the street here, which was a major attraction for the soldiers on weekend leave from Fort Devens.

Outside the Club Passe-Temps on Moody St., Brunelle said that Jack’s dad, Leo, probably visited all seven of the French social clubs, as well as Jack later in life. Leo was even the manager of one, the Pawtucketville Social Club. Although these clubs survive today, French is no longer the primary language in these ethnic centers as it was before World War II.

Figure: Above front entrance of social club, Moody St., 6-15-13

For Kerouac and his friends growing up in French-Canadian families, French was the predominant language heard at home as well as in the churches, schools, and gathering places of the community. Kerouac said later in life, “All my ideas come to me in French, and I transform them into English.” Brunelle said that Kerouac’s books such as “Dr. Sax” should be read out loud to hear the French language influence on the flow of his English passages.

Figure: American and Canadian flags at monument by Club Passe-Temps, Moody St., 6-15-13

Outside St. Jean de Baptiste church and in view of where Kerouac attended 5th grade at St. Joseph School, Brunelle noted that this was not Kerouac’s family church, but he must have attended every school day while he was at St. Joseph. The imprint of the French Catholic heritage is indelible in the spirituality and themes of his writing. Both Kerouac and Brunelle became good friends with the very liberal and popular pastor of St. Jean, Father Armand “Spike” Morissette, who called Kerouac a saint.

Morissette performed the funeral service for Kerouac in 1969 at St. Jean, an event that drew many of Kerouac’s closest writer and poet friends, such as Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and John Clellon Holmes. Brunelle posed the question as to why Stella Sampas Kerouac, his widow, would have chosen St. Jean for the funeral service when his family parish ties were at St. Louis and St. Jean D’Arc in the neighborhoods across the river. He theorized that she probably chose St. Jean Baptiste because she grew up in the adjacent Greek neighborhood in the Acre and this church would have represented the “French church” to her.

Figure: Father Garin was first French-Canadian priest in Lowell and founded St. Jean Baptiste Church, Merrimack St., 6-15-13

The tour would typically include a walk to Textile Memorial Bridge because of Kerouac’s dramatic writing about that bridge and its physical connection to his family homes across the river, but the tour was running late, thanks to much discussion back and forth in the small group, and so we ended the tour with a visit close to where Kerouac’s dad, Leo, had his printing business located in the 1930s behind the Royal Theater. He said it was at 463 Market St., which today would be very close to the Olympia Restaurant.

Brunelle closed by quoting Kerouac from “Visions of Gerard” in what he said was “the best description of ethnic Lowell, a kind of linguistic map” of Lowell in that era. “’Ben mue’ too shpeux usez un bierre, (well me too I can use a beer,’) both of them [Leo and his work friend] suddenly reverting to Frenchy slang since nobody’s there to hear them anyway, just as you might expect the Greeks that you could see across the way thru the great dirty wire windows, breaking from their usual Greek to talk some English for the benefit of business there ‘ska ta la pa ta wa ya’ here we go again, the great raving patois of Lowell on all sides, Polocks on Lakeview Avenue and Back Central, and practically pure Gaelic or at least lilting lyric Gaelic English on the Highlands and downtown—Syrians to boot, up the canal somewhere—And your old New England Yankees eating Indian Pudding for desert in old stately houses with lawns, on Andover, Pawtucket and Chelmsford, with names like Goldtwaithe and Smith—And thin noses and thin lips and read Walden by the fireplace on howling nights—“

A variety of Jack Kerouac walking tours, many led by Brunelle, will be offered during the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival in October. Other tours are still being planned for September. If you have a group that would like to request a special Kerouac tour, you can call c.978-501-1021 to plan this.

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