Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Why I Never Slept with Jack Kerouac

            The hero of my youth was sitting at a booth in Harry’s Grill, a Southern college town’s version of a bohemian hangout, flanked by a couple of young guys who looked like faces off of wanted posters. The year was 1965. My friend Marshall was there, too, waving me over.

            Ten minutes earlier, Marshall had telephoned me at the weekly newspaper where I was reporter, ad salesman and circulation manager. “Art, I would not lie to you—Jack Kerouac is sitting right here.” He had been hitchhiking when a dusty Pontiac stopped for him and he discovered that he had hit the would-be beat writer’s jackpot.  He found himself on the road with On the Road himself.

            Marshall and I didn’t know it, but we were caught up in events that deserve to be called seminal. As the sixties unrolled around us, social culture was heaving with labour pains. We were drifting on this current without knowing it, like wood chips in a swollen stream.

            Kerouac looked up as I approached the table.  He slid over and patted the seat next to him. “You sit your sweet English ass right here,” he said. I knew that Kerouac was thought to be obsessed with ethnic identity, or—as some would later claim—racism.

            He looked older and heavier than the photos on the back of his books. But I was twenty, and everyone looked older to me. He was dressed in a lumberjack’s flannel shirt and had thick forearms that took up a lot of room at the table. I was tongue-tied. Kerouac did all the talking.  He seemed to know something about everything. Words kept tumbling out of him without spaces in between, like passages from his books. He schmoozed the waitress and engaged in a heart-to-heart with Grits, the cook with the scarred face who had been wounded with a pan of scalding porridge by a waitress who had misunderstood his friendly advances twenty years before. When he turned his attention on me, all I could say was, “Man, you don’t know it, but you got me through high school.”

            My adolescence was spent in Jacksonville, Florida, where “coloured” music, like that of Muddy Waters, was banned from the radio, and “beat” meant what happened to you if you looked slantwise at a redneck at the drive-in. It was made endurable by a thirty-five cent paperback copy of On the Road, which I carried in the hip pocket of my Levis until it decomposed. The fact that people like Kerouac and Neal Cassidy existed at all was enough to keep me going until I was old enough to escape to New York.

            We made a move, and I was surprised to find that he and I were alone. We hit several student bars. In one of them, he suddenly shouted out, “Hey you—hey Negro!” The lone black man in the Tempo Room turned slowly to look at us. He was big, like a football linebacker. I was trying to make myself small.

            “What you want, honky man?” the guy growled.

            “Did you know that one of the famous gunslingers in the Old West was a Negro? A man named Jesse Sublett?” Kerouac went on cheerfully, and signalled the barman to pour a round of drinks.

            “No, I didn’t know that,” said the black guy. He accepted the drink, shook his head, and walked away muttering, but smiling.

Word got around. An emissary from the Chapel Hill literati arrived and invited Kerouac to a private party at the home of the now renowned writer, Russell Banks. It was behind Eben Merritt’s Esso Station on the Pittsboro Road. On the way we stopped at the Quick Mart and bought 28 bottles of Blue Nun Liebfraumilch, warm.

            By the time we arrived, every literary hopeful in the two nearby universities had packed the small frame house. My pretty girlfriend, Nancy, showed up too. The literary set smoked pot in the living room and listened to Dave Van Ronk on the hi-fi.  Nancy and I sat in a little den with Kerouac and his two sidekicks. We each held our own bottle of Blue Nun.

            The literary lions grew impatient. One of them, now a fabled sci-fi author, came in and abruptly asked, “Now that LSD is on the scene, things are different.  Beats are passé. What do you think about that?”

            “What do you think about the Four Horsemen of the North?” said Kerouac. The lion departed. We laughed and drank more Blue Nun.  I couldn’t understand why the local literati seemed to disapprove of him. They appeared to have generational issues, quibbles about relevance. I wanted to shout, “Man this is Jack Kerouac, don’t you get it?” It was as if JFK had risen from the grave and dropped in among us. I sat on one of Jack’s knees and Nancy sat on the other. I was starting to see double, but it seemed to be agreed: Kerouac would stay with us, in our one-room digs that had only one bed.

            He said he was on his way to Massachusetts to see Buffy Sainte-Marie, his old friend. I started to get up, to ask Russell to put some Buffy on the stereo, but was too dizzy. Lions came and went, Blue Nun corks popped.  Then I was over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift on the way to a car, where Nancy crossly nursed me all the way home. Later I heard that he had kept going all night, Blue Nun and all. I had written down Jack’s mother’s phone number in Tampa on a scrap of paper, but couldn’t find it the next day. I never did.       



  1. glad to find your blog. years ago someone asked me to write about the week kerouac was in town. i did and sent a copy to russel in case i had ruined his reputation. don't know what happened to what i wrote, probably hanging out in cyberspace somewhere. i spent most of the evening of the grand finale party in a back room playing guitar with someone obsessively. i took a look into the big room and crowd only to see one of "us" standing in front of kerouac and shaking his finger at him, yelling "yes but you said in... blah blah blah". later i glimpsed our host weaving in front of a couch mumbling something about his family and jack's, they were both from lowell mass.

    at the end of the evening - which was early morning - jack was still in rocking chair w/ a women on each arm rest surrounded by "us", except for a line of us leaning on the back wall. for a long time with the help of a gallon jug of muscatel, he kept up with many different flows of conversation. he was like a matador, bobbing and weaving, absorbing hostility with poetic babble. all i remember was some thing about the seven frozen kingdoms of the north. it was a a stunning performance.

    later i rode with him in ray's car. we had to stop for him to tumble out of the car and throw up, after which he ate a candy bar.

    1. Everybody remembers something different. Sort of like when Kennedy was shot and 9/11. It must have been an actual game-changer after all.

    2. there was an article in triangle paper a few years ago, the weekly tabloid called, i believe the independent, by a youg lady who i don't think was not present at the time but she did a pretty good job i think.

      whatta ya think? i am becoming decreasingly verbal; wonder what i'm not saying.

      but i am #14 in reverbnation asheville alt music and trending fast. i'm not sure who hears what when.

      i am pulled towards that very human drive to express, tall a story. one possibility is an ebbok. doing one now for ross, old chapel hill scene, c. 1959. we're both old and slow so no deadline fever. another thing has my interest, a hi definition short movie youtube with a cartoonish aura. i've learning and have 3 tests up at youtub/modpez [HD}

      thing about 5 minute film: needs form, unlike my usual texture heavy dazzle and drip(?). ie need a begining, middle and end. hegalian?
      happy 4th man. why not?