Saturday Night - DeKooning
Travel Essay by A.E. Sadler
In the month of April 1993, having little money and no job but plenty of credit cards, I was ready to follow Jack Kerouac down the American highway. I'd just finished graduate school, all but my thesis, and had somehow managed to convince my professors that--aside from giving me a great chance to see the country--retracing Kerouac's steps across America would yield this last bit of required scholarship. Route 66 exists only as a fragment of its former self, so I headed east on Interstate 10. Leaving San Diego in a rented Buick with Allison, an acquaintance whom I barely knew but who was equally hot to get out of town, we drove through the backside of the sunset into the empty deserts of Arizona, the endless stretches of land that are Texas, bogs and bayous of the South. The only thing we had less of than money was time: we were reenacting Jack Kerouac's cross country scrambles far more closely than I had ever intended, or wanted. Like Jack when he complained in On The Road, we too were "rushing through theworld without a chance to see it."
Moving at this pace, my experience of place transmuted into a kaleidoscopic slide show flashing past at warp speed. I had less than sixweeks to hit as many cities straddling both coasts. The effort left me dazed and uninformed about the deeper histories of my everchanging surroundings, mottling me in an intense mosaic of sensory impressions.
By the time we reached the eastern seaboard, Alllison and I decided to head in opposite directions. I hopped on a northbound train destined for Times Square in the heart of New York. Allison, Great Despiser of Cities that she is, opted for suburbia instead and steered the Olds south towards some Levittown facsimile lying on the outskirts of D.C. We would reconnect in Philadelphia within three days to start our trek back West.
I'm on my way to New York. I'm on the train. Its rhythm keeps rocking me to sleep, and I awake with a start...worried about missing my stop, since the route is unfamiliar to me. Thinking about Kerouac's statement that the east is "brown and holy and California is white like washlines." The difference between old and new. Old being decrepit and historic. New meaning clean and vacuous. Brings to mind the TV ads I saw when I was a kid, ads for cleansers. The whole homogenizing kind of television commercials that were so popular back then. I think about fresh smelling bedsheets and the scroungy apartment that's got old dirty laundry on the floor and is a real pig sty...yet has all kinds of stuff there.
Warm air wafts by me. It smells unclean, like it's coming from the bathroom. Faces reflect in the train's window like pictures in a frame.
Well, I'm in New York, I'm in Greenwich Village and I'm hitting that moment that I knew I would...when I'm beginning to wonder about the validity of this whole idea of mine. Does it really make any difference to be where Kerouac was? Perhaps my conclusion will simply be that the thing about literature is that it takes you to worlds that you might not otherwise get to experience, and the thing about On The Road is that it compelled more people to go to those places and see for themselves. And that's just exactly what I'm doing. One of things I think I'm finding is an understanding of Kerouac's fascination with the open road because he lived in a place where he didn't drive, where he didn't need to drive. Being the one behind the wheel, and with the endless stretches of highway...it's a new kind of freedom to him. It's more of an extreme kind of freedom to him, whereas on the west coast we're always behind the wheel and the open road is crowded with traffic.
And Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, his pal, his Huckleberry friend...just a diversion, an entertaining diversion for Kerouac. Because he ultimately had his suburban home to return to, and his middle class respectability. Places where Dean could never go. Dean was just a lark for Kerouac.
Is the quest an excuse for living however you want to, without regard for anybody else or their feelings?
Times Square, one of the many places that is mentioned again and again throughout the time spent in New York in On The Road, and really it's a terminus. It's a terminus, and so I guess it becomes the landmark of arriving home for Kerouac.
I'm on Bowery Street, venturing into the part of town someone warned me against. Paranoia seeps in. This state of mind--I came in open, trusting...and met with warm and generous encounters with people. Now I find I'm closing myself off because I've been told that's the "smart" thing to do. "Trust your sixth sense," my waiter at the first cafe told me. But my sixth sense is going all out of control and I feel like I've dropped acid and walked into some strange different world. All of a sudden, everyone's noticing me, how out of place I look. All of a sudden, everyone's plotting scams. I'm testing my limits and finding out what they are.
I dash off a note on the back of one of the photographs I've taken along the way, using it as a postcard to send to my friend Randy back in San Diego:
20 Apr 93
I had initially harbored hopes of tapping into some wild, crazy mode, a network of irregular characters as adventurous as Moriarty, or as hip to the literary scene as Kerouac--the looseness with which they invaded the homes and lives of the people by whom they passed.
"Of course, all of this is much different from how it was in Kerouac's time," says Daniel (he's one of the 2% of the acting community able to actually earn a living in the theatre). "None of the places he hung out at are even around any more." He takes me through Times Square late at night and points out how the drug dealing that used to go on there back in the '50s has radiated much further out.
Phoned my friend Ken earlier, complained how the wild literary crowd Kerouac ran with is unavailable to me. That even if it exists today, I'm not tapped into it. He said that the network of Kerouac's time is no longer around.That the literary community of the '90s is disjointed. He'd given me a long list of writer friends of his before I left. Looking at it now, I see what he means: they're scattered all over the country. Many of them don't even know one another.
Last night in Philadelphia, I sat on the living room divan with my Uncle Ed going through the collection of photographs he's taken over the years. He's got so much passion for photography, and skill and talent. And didn't pursue it as a career because he thought it would prevent him from being the kind of husband and father he wanted to be. He traded away that passion in favor of stability.
Kerouac writes feverishly of something he calls IT: "the point of ecstasy" he'd always wanted to reach, a "complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows" where he finds himself "hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotuslands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven." He gets there only when he's at his most "beat" --beaten up by "nightmare life"?
Capturing life's brightest flame within your hands. George Eliot writes that:
The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs (Middlemarch).
Maybe Ed found IT, after all.
Saw a western tonight in New York City. The myth that propelled Kerouac down the road. "It's ironic...to be in New York, watching a western," I told Daniel, me a westerner, having just driven through those spaces only a week earlier.
St. Mark's Bookstore. It overwhelms me. The shelves go up twenty feet into the air, and they're all filled. I see a photograph of Geena Davis on the cover of a magazine. She looks like a little girl. It makes me think, that's exactly what women are in our society. What they're supposed to look like. They're supposed to be little girls.
I can see now why New Yorkers are so hooked on their city. Where else do you have this richness in variety of everything...street vendors, fruit stands, international newspaper stands....
Cities are places where people can express themselves...free of the small town stare. New York's a crowded city where there's room for everybody and anybody.
Time for another postcard?
21 Apr 93
People before I got here talked about how Soho and Greenwich Village have grown trendy, gentrified, tourist-y. Yet if I'm seeking the literary community, the Village (the East Village to be precise) I am told is still the place to go.
I gravitate toward a restaurant called Dojo, and wind up sitting between a Czechoslovakian student and Peter, a fundraiser for PBS who recently returned here after a nine year stint in L.A. Allen Ginsberg still lives in this neighborhood, the student informs me. Sometimes you can see him passing by. This instantly sparks a fantasy of a chance meeting with the poet--for who better to talk to about my reason for being here? I'll soon be in California, visiting a friend of a friend who lives nearby some land that Ginsberg and Gary Snyder own.
There is something brown and holy about the East; California is white like washlines. Peter says he prefers the people here because they have "substance."
"L.A. is so pretentious," he tells me. "People have to find out what hill you live on, what kind of car you drive, before they decide if they want to know you."
"The people in New York are real," says Daniel--a former resident and native of L.A.
The people in L.A...?
I pull out more postcards, grab a pen, and tell Randy that on
21 Apr 93
[and also on]
21 Apr 93
To be continued...
Kerouac "yearned to see the country," a feverish desire spawned by westerns, the mythic cowboy heading into the sunset. In On The Road, he departs from New York numerous times. Yet he always returns. In his life, he went back to California, even tried to relocate his mother there. Eventually went with her south to Florida, where he dwindled ever further into alcoholism.
Being here in New York, it's easy to see how Kerouac's community of friends grew up--New York is a place where people congregate, have contact with one another. It's a place of interaction.
The West is a place of isolation.... of that rugged individual that the myth deifies--the lone cowboy disappearing into the sunset. Kerouac senses, experiences the isolation of the West during his stay with former Columbia classmate Remi Bronceur in the back country of northern California. It's a place that doesn't hold him for long--though the mystique, the romance of the myth (IT?) lives in him much longer. When he leaves the West, he is still held in its thrall, and continues seeking--the myth/the romance of the myth/IT/any or all of the above?--all the way down into Mexico...which is the place where he comes closest to grasping his Holy Grail within the flesh of his own experience.
"We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic," he writes. In California, he finds the disappointment in running out of land. In Mexico, he eventually gets dysentery and Dean abandons him to the fever. Throughout, the emphasis is on moving, never stopping.
I tell Randy that it's still
21 Apr 93
What am I finding out by being here in New York myself? Primarily, the sense of community that still thrives here...the sense of romance about the West by those who have never lived there. We Americans belong to a huge country...its sheer magnitude feeds our imaginations, imaginations expanding to meet the land. How far we can go and still be inside our own borders...to the end of the road, the end of the rainbow? A pot of gold waiting in sunny California (a fool's gold waiting when you land in Tinsel Town.)
I turn over the last of my photographs.
21 Apr 93
Amy E Sadler lives in San Diego, California. "Searching" is excerpted from a journal written while pursuing the ghost of Jack Kerouac across the U.S. Amy's favorite website is Pogonip, home of Leroy the wonderful editor.