‘Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?’ . . . Lowell?!
1) Like a sore thumb
Ashare drops me off, frantic Matt Ashare from my paper, swilling coffee in a ceramic mug at the wheel of his sulky-blue Saturn Ion and ranting about dogfighting. “The dog is innocent!” he cries, “That’s the thing!” — all injured at 9:30 am by the depth of human cruelty. Nimbly and desperately he pilots the shiny car — “The dog doesn’t know what’s going on!” — setting me down in the end on the side of Route 9, at the last stoplight before the exit for 128. To hitch a ride around to Route 3, and then another one straight into Lowell, is the plan. “Dude?” he says. “Good luck.” And then it’s just me and the scornful motorcade of oncoming traffic, my thumb out and the good roadside weeds of America at my feet.
In imitation of Jack — on the 50th anniversary of On the Road — I’m embracing the highway, I’m entering the blue wilderness of possibility, I’m casting my bread upon the waters as advised by Ecclesiastes 11:1. And in imitation of Jack, I’m writing (perhaps you noticed?) in sub-Beat saxophone-run gone-daddy don’t-revise-me prose, because that’s what it’s going to take to find the man beneath the layers of Lowell, IF I ever get there, IF. Look at my sign so childishly printed. (“Did your son help you with that?” asked the waggish Ashare.) Who will stop for a solitary man? Who will get me on the road? Sweet spirit of Kerouac, in this the year of Our Lord 2007 it would surely have to be an angel of mercy or a frigging lunatic. Strange vehicles loom out of the morning, and I hear the voice of my dear mother-in-law, nearby in worried Waltham. “Some terrible trucker will have his way with you!” Then: “If you get in trouble, you must tell them ‘I have a beautiful son who needs me!’ ” I feel foolish, helpless, ballsy . . . existential, in a word. What’s it going to be? Will I be lucky like On the Road’s Sal Paradise and experience “a twinge of hard joy” as a woman stops for me in a little coupe? Ho hum ho hum . . . Brown-eyed landscape gardeners regard me solemnly from their trucks. In the nicer cars, faces flinch away behind windshields. Now and again a howl of something is directed at me from a van — abuse? Fraternity? Glorious random uproar of the American Id!
Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and would have died there, but for being off with his invalid mother on what biographer Ellis Amburn calls “one of their chronic alcoholic geographics,” bleary thrusts around the continent, living for no discernible reason in St. Petersburg, Florida, at the moment when his booze-besieged 47-year-old body finally burst and rejected all transfusions. Always a divided man, a dual nature: clutched at by Catholicism, ventilated by Buddhism, compassion-sodden and full of destruction. “Always considered writing my duty on earth,” he wrote in an author’s introduction to Lonesome Traveler. “Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the ‘beat’ generation. — Am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic . . . ” And angelic presence on the highway? Let me feel you, Jack. I’m waiting.
Cop cars slide incuriously by, one, two, three; I’m breaking no law. An hour passes, and now a huge benevolent bodhisattva mailman comes treading toward me at his own pace, the stuffed bag over his shoulder. “How do you like my chances?”, I ask him. He stops and smiles and shakes his head. “These days . . . ” he says. “I dunno. Maybe if you were on Martha’s Vineyard.” And smiling sweetly he leaves me in my spot. No rides, no rides. A photographer materializes, spectral, keen, snapping at me with the long lens. He tells me he works for the MetroWest Daily News and spotted lonely need-a-haircut me as he motored between assignments: apparently I am cutting something of a figure at roadside here, with my sign and my anxiety-shimmer and my whole thing. “Are you an On the Road kind of guy?” he wonders before vanishing again. Two hours now. Two hours of the weeds tickling my boots and the clinging monoxide of anti-climax on my clothes . . . Fuck this, daddy-o. I’m catching the commuter rail.