"I knew he'd been a good football player, and I was aware of him as a good-looking Greek—that's what I thought he was. Greek. To me he was this nice-looking kid who came from Lowell. How the hell did I know he'd do all these things later on?"
Kerouac quit the Sun and became a merchant seaman, sailing on a supply ship across the Atlantic. When he returned from that trip in October 1942, a telegram from Little was waiting, inviting him back to Columbia. Kerouac went, but only long enough to sit on the bench against Army. After leaving Columbia for good, he started working on his novel The Town and the City and hooked up with a group that included Ginsberg, who was a Columbia student at the time, and Burroughs, who would later be given the title for his most famous novel, Naked Lunch, by Kerouac.
For the next several years, Kerouac and his friends, along with a shifting cast of visitors, lived the bohemian life, sampling the jazz and drug subcultures of the city. When a grammar school dropout and reform-school veteran from Denver named Neal Cassady dropped in on the group in 1946, Kerouac was spellbound. Here was a man who had hitchhiked cross-country, who was living the wild life. Cassady once thumbed more than 1,000 miles just to see a Notre Dame football game. Kerouac was an actual football star, the kind of athlete Cassady had always wanted to be. The two became fast friends, and in 1949 they undertook the cross-country adventures that would be chronicled in On the Road.
But before Kerouac totally broke away from Lowell, he returned for one more stab at conformity, in 1950, when The Town and the City was published. It was a conventional novel, containing nothing like the fireworks of On the Road. Kerouac played the role of conventional author, coming home to Lowell for a book signing at a department store. This wasn't quite what his friends had expected of him, but at least he was the kind of writer they recognized.
"He looked beautiful," recalls Chiungos. "He had on this green velour jacket, sitting there signing autographs for the book. He looked great, just like a real writer."
Father Spike was there too. "I went and bought a book and was standing in line for the autograph," he says. "And Jack looks up and shouts at me, "Aha! I told you!"
"I says to him afterward, 'Jack, that's a very nice book. Very well written.' "
But critically and commercially The Town and the City hardly caused a ripple. Not until On the Road was published would America take notice—even as Lowell turned away from him.
"His life-style by then was something else," says Chiungos. "And this is what I think is what a lot of people in Lowell held against Jack."
Samaras thinks of the guy who greeted him back in the '60s when he delivered the bottles of Scotch Kerouac ordered over the phone during his last years in Lowell. "The minute I walked in the door, he'd get down like this," says Samaras, dropping into a three-point stance. "He'd say, 'Hit me, Sam, go ahead and hit me!'