For weeks, I’ve been planning this post, my paean to Jack Kerouac and the influence he had (along with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, George Orwell and J.D. Salinger) on my early life as a writer.
But the hustle and bustle of daily journalism has once again thwarted my best intentions.
50 years ago today, Kerouac’s “On the Road” was published. Reading it as a teenager–if only I could remember who had first handed me a copy–led me on an odyssey of discovering and devouring the subversive, onomatopoetic oevre of the Beat Generation and its writers. Since then, many others have surmounted Kerouac’s primacy in my pantheon of literary gods, but I still hold a soft spot for him (and the dozens of editions of his books I still hoard).
My desire to mimic Kerouac, and his brief stint as a sports reporter, led me to explore journalism as a career.
Then, my high school English teacher, with his heavy Southern accent and affinity for heavy suede workboots, spied me reading “On the Road” before class (it was not on the syllabus).
“Y’know,” he said, “Ol’ Jack drank hi’self to death back in ‘69.”
That teacher turned me on to H.L. Mencken and taught me to write a news story.
A couple weeks ago, I rode my bicycle through Brooklyn and Queens to visit Kerouac’s former apartment in Ozone Park. Over what is now a flower shop (“Little Shoppe of Flowers”…hilarious), he lived with his parents and wrote “The Town and the City”. I believe it was also the apartment where his father died of stomach cancer, exacerbated by his drinking. On a busy morning, I rode through traffic on Crossbay Boulevard to visit the site. A man washed his ambulance on the street outside. He looked at me like I was crazy for taking a picture of the building and the small plaque next to the door:
So now, let me join the chorus of writers who have come to praise Kerouac and to bury him. Maybe it’s time I picked up “Vanity of Duluoz” or “Maggie Cassidy” one more time. It’s funny, the places these circuitous trails lead you.