Sunday, October 18, 2009

Graveside: Jack Kerouac, "The Railroad Earth"

October 21st will mark the 40th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s death. He’s one of those writers of an era, whose work stays with me over the decades. I’ve revisited his books many times since first reading On the Road in 1977. Jack Kerouac died on October 21, 1969 at the age of 47, and in May of 1983 I went to Lowell, Massachusetts to find his grave.

I’d traveled by train from Chicago to Boston to visit friends. Amtrak was having some sort of special fare. I don’t remember the details of the deal except that it allowed me to make several stopovers along the route so that I could also visit friends in Buffalo for a few days. It was a good enough bargain that I was able to afford a sleeper car roomette, a welcome luxury since most of the trip between Chicago and Buffalo was at night.

Cozy in my roomette, I watched out the window until dusk turned to darkness, amazed at how different the towns looked from my vantage point aboard the train – inside the lowered crossing gates with bells clanging and lights flashing where the tracks crossed streets and roadways. I had a new paperback with me, Joan Didion’s The White Album, and after it got too dark to enjoy the scenery I lost myself in those pages – reading about the power of water in her essays “Holy Water” and “At the Dam” while my train rolled along dark rails at the southern edge of Lake Erie. The tracks ran closer to the lake at industrial areas, where mills still operated at nearly full blast, although the Manufacturing Belt was already corroding into what would become the Rust Belt. Despite my cozy nest in the roomette, I don’t think I slept much that night. I was homesick for California, and reading Didion’s essays for the first time. She had me hooked from the very first sentence of the first essay: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She was writing about the end of an era, the end of the 1960s. It was the beginning of the 1980s then, and I was somehow saying goodbye to the 1970s on this journey as I headed further east, saying goodbye to California even though I’d left it behind the year before with the move to Chicago.

In Boston, I visited longtime friends Sherry and Jeff, who’d also lived in California for a few years after we’d all graduated from art school in Pittsburgh half a decade earlier. I’d been having a difficult time adjusting to the flatness of the Illinois landscape and needed a change of scenery. Needed to travel for a while. Needed hills and mountains. Needed to be near water that moved with oceanic tides. Chicago and Lake Michigan made me feel oddly claustrophobic, and I needed to escape the prairie land of the far southern suburbs where we lived.

Sherry and Jeff wanted to show me as much of New England as we could squeeze into a weekend drive, and we managed to see parts of New Hampshire and Maine. I saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time on that trip. It’s ironic that I would see the Pacific Ocean first, after having grown up living much closer to the Atlantic. Looking at maps during our drive back to Boston, I spotted Lowell and requested that we go there to see the town where Jack Kerouac had grown up as a boy. It was where he was buried, and I wanted to try to find his grave.

Lowell looked exactly as I’d expected it to look, with brick mills along the Merrimac River. Despite there being many cemeteries in Lowell, Jeff instinctively turned the car into the correct one. We found a caretaker who asked, “Who yer lookin’ fer?” When I said Kerouac’s name, he went inside his gardener’s shed and brought out a mimeographed sheet of paper with directions to Kerouac’s tombstone. It pleased me that enough fans came seeking his gravesite that they’d printed directions.

There may be a different marker there now, but the small flat stone in the photograph above marked his grave then. We stayed only a few minutes. I no doubt would’ve lingered longer had I been alone. But, it was getting late in the day and we still had to drive back to Boston. It was just one stop on our journey, a side trip really, before getting back on the road again.

Leaving Boston by train, I thought about Kerouac. I’d read most of Kerouac’s work while living in California. One of my favorite pieces was “The Railroad Earth” in Lonesome Traveler, about working as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad while he lived in San Francisco. In the essay, Kerouac reminisces about Lowell while he’s working in the rail yards and riding the trains between San Francisco and San Jose. There’s something about traveling that makes us think about other places we’ve been and about the people we were with there. I was missing my husband whose job had kept him in Chicago while I was on this trip. In New York City I would change trains and then travel west to Pittsburgh for another stopover before returning to Chicago – toward what was our home for a brief while.

When I was younger I mostly measured time by weeks and months; only long chunks of time such as school grades and birthdays were measured in years. Now, I measure time in decades. I was barely out of my first decade when Kerouac died. As we quickly approach the end of our first decade in the 21st century, I’m already in my fifth decade, having surpassed the length of Kerouac’s short life. Rest in peace, Ti Jean. Your words live on as I continue speeding through my own lifetime.

News and Updates:

• Photojournalist Clyde Hare died last week. Hare came to Pittsburgh to work with Roy Stryker on the Pittsburgh Photographic Library Project and then made Pittsburgh his home for the next fifty years. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news obituary includes several of his images of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Hare’s photographs are included in the collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art and at George Eastman House, among others.

• Congratulations to Jayne Anne Phillips whose latest novel Lark & Termite is a finalist for the National Book Award.

Carnegie Mellon University Press has announced the release of a new edition of Chuck Kinder’s The Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale as part of their Classic Contemporaries list. The new edition includes additional chapters and lost love letters which were not included in the original edition, as well as an introduction by Jay McInerney. Even though I have a signed first edition on my bookshelves, you can bet I’ll be buying and reading the new edition as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Photo Credit:
Jack Kerouac’s gravestone, copyright © 1983 by Dory Adams.

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