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,
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 Marshall
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. Pontiac
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
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 Levis . 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
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
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
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 Massachusetts 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 Nancy on a scrap of
paper, but couldn’t find it the next day. I never did. Tampa