Although we missed most of Lowell’s annual Jack Kerouac festival, Aurora and I were able to attend some of Sunday’s events: the Amram Jam at Lowell Beer Works, the watermelon drop on Textile Memorial Bridge, and Roger Brunelle’s “Ghosts of the Pawtucketville Night” tour.
The mix of joy and sadness during the celebration was astounding. The late afternoon sun cast the Amram Jam in a lazy yellow glow, the perfect setting for a drink and reflection. It’s a blessing that a restaurant occupies that space–so many of the best mill spaces are private, either apartments or offices.
The room was filled with perhaps several dozen, many having traveled from quite far for the weekend’s event. Despite being late on Sunday, there was a great deal of energy, and the program ended with an amazing performance of “Pull my Daisy” by David Amram–a ten-plus-minute jazz riff with improvised lyrics (in this case about Kerouac, Lowell, and the love of sharing art). We were sorry to miss two Lowell High School students’ performance earlier in the day.
We noted that at least by the time we got there, only a few young people were in the audience. Most seemed to be from only a generation removed from Mr. Kerouac. This wasn’t true of the watermelon drop afterward–a mix of students, Lowell folks, and out-of-towners turned out to the Textile Memorial Bridge, listening to a passage from Dr. Sax. Kerouac recounted an experience passing a man carrying a watermelon:
Suddenly the man fell, we heard the great thump of the watermelon on wood planks and saw him fallen– Another man was there, also mysterious, but without watermelon, who bent to him quickly and solicitously as by assent and nod in the heavens and when I got there I saw the watermelon man staring at the waves below with shining eyes (“Il’s meurt, he’s dying, my mother’s saying) and I see him breathing hard, feeble-bodied, the man holding him gravely watching him die, I’m completely terrified and yet I feel the profound pull and turn to see what he is staring at so deadly-earnest with his froth stiffness–I look down at him and there is the moon on shiny froth and rocks, there is the long eternity we have been seeking.
One attendee noted that Kerouac scholars tracked down who the mysterious “Watermelon Man” was: William Mulgrave, a man who had been in ill health. Perhaps a banal detail, but I think it makes the story dreadfully poignant. After that, the group dropped flowers and a watermelon to the Merrimack below. Knowing that this will likely be the last drop, as the Textile Memorial Bridge will soon be demolished, made the event all the more affecting. However, this is part of the Lowell story: On Mr. Brunelle’s tour of Kerouac’s old neighborhood, we learned that Kerouac returned to Lowell after leaving but felt his friends had changed–grown up–and things weren’t the same. That recognition seemed to be in the air as we discussed the changing neighborhood; many in the group seemed wistful yet knowing that all things must grow. We would have loved to hear their stories.
There were several takeaways from the evening: Kerouac’s relationship with Lowell is far more complex than “love” or “hate.” Kerouac’s work is much better listened to than read silently. And art–poetry, music, visual–is alive in Lowell, and being around it makes one want to stop “consuming” for just a moment to join in the creative endeavor.