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In Search of Jack Kerouac

Travel writing by A. E. Sadler


mmm. What's the date today? The twenty-eighth? I think so. It's approaching seven o'clock and I'm standing here at the corner of Eleventh and Zanic, waiting for the bus. Some white guy pulled into the parking lot. Did some weird moves in his car and then all of a sudden he's leaning against the corner of this building. Gives me the creeps. So I took my little alarm out, put it in my more accessible pocket. This neighborhood doesn't really look all so rough. I mean, there aren't bars on the doors or anything. I am heading into the barred area, though.

And what do I really have to say about On The Road and literary criticism and all that? My moods have been shifting with each turn of the kaleidescope. The friendliness in Denver is gritty. It's "tough love." People seem like they're...hostile, but then they wind up telling you that you don't have to pay the bill, you can come back and take care of it tomorrow if you're short on cash, or going out of their way to help you. It's a different brand of helpfulness altogether. Maybe it's more in the spirit of the West, the old West, the rugged individualist. I don't know. In the spirit of those who have rejected the niceties of "proper" society.

What are my general impressions of Denver, of Kerouac's Denver? Last night I really felt silly, sitting in El Ta...whatever it was and talking to the owner, Jerry, about Kerouac. He could really care less. These people who keep coming through and asking him time and time again, as if Kerouac wasn't human but some kind of god. "What's the big deal?" they're all wondering. Those guys who hang out there, that's their everyday life...the stuff that he made his literature from. Just life. So what's the big deal? Isn't life everywhere?

As soon as I got to town I took one glance at the map they handed me at the train station and realized that Larimer Street is so redeveloped, it didn't even draw my interest. This is my last evening in town and I still haven't made it there. I'm planning to wake up real early and cruise it then, I guess. I've been on Colfax by bus, which is one of the streets he mentions. I think it's where Carlo Marx lived.2 That still has personality. Although I'm imagining that it's been built up tremendously since 1947. And what is it about these landmarks from 1947? What exactly am I seeking anyway?

It feels silly. Following in the ghost of somebody else's footsteps.... And where are the proper footsteps, anyway? I mean, is it really in the physicality of where he was? Are the memories as tangible there, or more tangible there than out in the upper stratosphere or who knows what? I decided that I'd try to find the modern day counterpart to the dynamics, if there really even is one. But I figured, why not see what's going on in the contemporary literary scene here in Denver? That's why I'm waiting for the bus right now. To take me to a place where I had apple cobbler--incredibly good apple cobbler--yesterday called Mercury Cafe. It's open mike night and maybe I'll get to catch something interesting. The best I can do on such a short time frame, whipping through the city so fast.

Now I'm at my next bus stop, waiting on Bus Number Eight. I walked a little bit along the mall in their business district today. In a lot of ways Denver reminds me of San Diego, the buildings, the highrises are just as new and just as unimaginative, just as...what's the word? Pasteurized. And so they clean up this one street, only instead of a trolley, even a rubber-wheeled trolley, they have regular buses running up and down. But it's forbidden to cars. And all of a sudden I understood why the guys I was talking to last night were so cynical about these "redevelopment" projects. They're so pretty on the outside and yet, you know, practically on all sides, on all borders people are saying, "Don't be there after dark." Sound familiar? What American city does not have this same dilemma?

I'm now back at the Mercury Cafe--a "literary" scene? Who knows--but the people today in Denver all seem to know about Kerouac. The people in this place seem really young. All college students? And "open mike" seems to mean music (I'd been expecting poetry, but there are no poets here). Just found out, once again, that I'm right smack in the middle of--this time--Neal Cassady's old neighborhood.


"On The Road will tell you about Jack Kerouac watching a baseball game over here on 23rd and Welton," Michael the bartender says. "He wrote the better part of his book two blocks over at Alta Court on Colfax and Lafayette."

The next few days I wandered around Denver. It seemed to me every bum on Larimer Street maybe was Dean Moriarty's father; Old Dean Moriarty they called him, the Tinsmith. I went in the Windsor Hotel, where father and son had lived and where one night Dean was frightfully waked up by the legless man on the rollerboard who shared the room with them; he came thundering across the floor on his terrible wheels to touch the boy. I saw the little midget newspaper-selling woman with the short legs, on the corner of Curtis and 15th. I walked around the sad honkytonks of Curtis Street; young kids in jeans and red shirts....

White kids hung out on the mall when I was there, panhandling and doing an embarrassingly poor job of it--the same girl would ask you exactly the same way each time you passed, as if she had never seen you before. And yet, it's not like there was much of a crowd for her to lose track of you in. Downtown Denver resembles middle class Southern California suburbs far more than anything else I can think of--at least it did when I was passing through--and so these teenagers did not intimidate me in the least, which I guess is the effect they were trying for. Maybe I should have been but it was daylight and renovated sanitized downtown Denver and so I only felt my eyebrows rise slightly at the venomous expletives the girl hurled at my back (from a distance) after I'd pointed out to her that she was asking me for money the third time in a span of 45 minutes and why couldn't she keep track of such a seemingly simple thing?

Black strips of shadow fall over an empty Denver alley in the black and white photo I took--for some reason I felt at the time this scene somehow signified Denver. It was the space they hadn't given one of their startling new makeovers to, it still had its own face, no glitz or sheen, just the shadows, cement gutters and fire escapes that the alley was born with. But I am not even looking at the photo as I write this, I am writing strictly from memory, and what is that anyway, what's more accurate or what's more real? What I've retained on the retina of my mind or the glossy flat image that presents a doorway but no entrance?

We all filed out and went up a typical cobbled Denver alley between incinerators smoking slowly. "I used to roll my hoop up this alley," Chad King had told me. I wanted to see him do it; I wanted to see Denver ten years ago when they were all children, and in the sunny cherry blossom morning of springtime in the Rockies rolling their hoops up the joyous alleys full of promise....

As he wipes down the bar with a damp cloth, bartender Michael assures me emphatically: "This was their neighborhood." He heartily recommends "the one book that Neal Cassady did write": The First Third. The downtown library stocks it--a small tribute to Hometown Boy making good, even though this particular Hometown Boy made good by making what the town initially considered very bad. Michael, it turns out, proves voluminous once on the topic of On The Road.


Michael: I would say that it was really this incredible, important document of American literature, and even though Jack Kerouac was not what I would consider a good writer, he's more of that stream-of-consciousness style, you know...I think it affected several generations of people. I would go further and say that it changed my life. I read On The Road at this particular point in my life when I was living in a big hippie house right here in Capitol Hill. It was fifteen years ago. This whole neighborhood was kind of run down. In the last ten years, a lot of oil yuppie types have bought the houses and renovated them. But in those days, your hippie buddies could get a house for $150. So...I'm sitting there and there's copy of On The Road. And I...I've heard of Jack Kerouac but I don't really know anything about him. And I read that, and I'm just, for whatever reason that I don't even know I can put my finger on it, I just became totally enamored with the whole thing. Three weeks later, I was hitchhiking in the White Mountains of Arizona.

Anyway, from my point of view, certain parts of this book...when they're riding around in the back of a truck and they're trying to hitchhike, and they're getting a bottle of booze, and the big boys--where were they from, Minnesota or something like that?--and it just seemed like the wind-in-your-hair kind of feeling and just being free. To come and go, any time.... It's a frontier kind of thing, you know what I mean? The Wild West is gone but you can still have yourself a little adventure. Does that make sense?

[on On The Road as travel manual]

On The Road is the only Kerouac book that I ever liked. I've read it, I think, three times in fifteen years. It's not just hitchhiking. It's also driving across country. We got those drive-away cars like they talked about. I've done that a bunch of times. They talked about in there somebody needs a car from L.A. to wherever. We've done that. Not only did that book inspire me to do these things. It was also like a little handbook. How to travel, how you do certain things. You remember the book and think, "Oh, yeah, that's the way they used to do it. That's a good idea." And I could see why. Just little tips on camping out on the road. It's not like camping out in the mountains, I have to say. And there's a great description of how you get on and off of freight trains in On The Road, man.... I never hopped a freight train, though. I've always been kind of scared of it. I don't want to be a one-legged bartender, you know what I mean?

[On On The Road and travelling]

That first summer after I read that book, that is what I did. Went all over the country. I read On The Road, and I'm hitchhiking down I-25 South, got stuck on Raton Pass just like Neal Cassady is complaining to Kerouac on one of his trips. Got stuck on Raton Pass, "as usual," and I have to tell you--I was petrified, I was scared to death. Backpack, out on the highway. Absolutely petrified. But I had to do it. I absolutely had to do it. To prove something to myself, or to live a little of the Jack Kerouac type adventure, and as it was the best time of my life.

The next year--are you familiar with the Rainbow Family3 at all?--the Rainbow Gathering, which I was totally into, was in West Virginia. And it was like, "Well, I guess I'll just hitchhike out there." This particular story is like something right out of On The Road--I was there so fast, man, I was flyin'. I got on the road about seven o'clock in the evening just as the sun was setting and kaboom, first ride-- "We got to be in St. Louis by noon tomorrow." This guy picked me up, the first ride that I got, man. He picked me up, he had a truck, he made an Indian get out to make room for me. And he says, "We got to drive all night because I got to be in St. Louis before noon." I say, "Fine." He whips out this sheet of acid, he's got to stay awake. We're doing acid, he's got all these beers, he's getting real drunk. I say, "Okay, I'll drive." We're flyin', man. We had this car--I can't remember the make now and I thought I'd never forget that--it was this perfect gray color and at dusk the road was gray, the sky was gray. I swear to God, we were invisible, we're going a hundred miles an hour down the road and we're just invisible.

[On Jack Kerouac]

Kerouac definitely had a darker side. To me a lot of this On The Road stuff has always been light, free. Everything else I read by him was pretty depressing. Like The Subterraneans or something like that. I mean, that's got to be some of the darkest prose. That's my impression, anyway.... You know, Jack Kerouac wrote pages and pages, and threw it away to prove that he wrote for the love of writing. I don't know, it sounds weird.

[On Neal Cassady]

To understand this stuff, you really got to look at him, because he's the impetus behind Kerouac, or at least On The Road type of stuff. In the late forties, he would be the epitomy of everything that these guys wanted to be. He was from the West. He wore blue jeans. He looked like this all-American western kind of guy. He's handsome, he was a notorious womanizer. They followed this guy, I have this vision of Kerouac and Ginsberg chasing this guy around, notebook in hand, pencil in ear, with sheaves of notes falling out of their pockets, writing everything he said. That has always been my belief.


In a cab on our way to Gabor's bar, Michael points out the local Kerouac landmarks.

"Alta Court, you see this building right here? That's where he lived and he wrote." He instructs the cab driver to turn down Lafayette. "Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road here at 1490 Lafayette," Michael tells me with complete confidence, then, to the cab driver, "Now, you know where Gabor's is-- over on here on Thirteenth."

Gabor's feels like one of those cozy bars, the kind that got locked into some kind of weird time warp where it never goes out of style. The lighting is subdued--easy on the eyes, and a jukebox in the corner spills out old rock 'n roll. As our first round of beers arrive, the Grateful Dead start singing.

Michael: I'm totally into the Grateful Dead. I've been going to Dead shows for twenty-five years, you know what I mean? And to me they're also a part of American history, literature and counterculture. But they are an unbroken chain of writers, artists, musicians going back to Kerouac, Kesey, to Ginsberg to Neal Cassady who drove Kesey's bus to the Grateful Dead to the present.4 See what I'm saying? It's this unbroken chain of weird underground writers, poets, artists. I don't know how much studying you've done on Jack Kerouac. But Ginsberg and these guys, they were totally into metaphysics. They were the first guys to get into this New Age pagan religion philosophy. Are you getting any of this?

Kerouac was pretty Catholic.

Michael: He was brought up Catholic. But by that time--when I say metaphysics I mean, these guys were into reincarnation and all that other stuff that goes with that...astrology...just the way these guys were writing and the things that they were saying. Which was why, in the sixties, these guys were still read.

The critics really came down hard on their whole way of life when the On The Road first came out. They looked at Neal Cassady as a fool and, in fact, I think it was Charles Bukowski who thought that Kerouac set Neal Cassady up for "the sucker punch," to use his words. That was his phrase.

Michael: How so? Explain, I don't understand.

That he portrayed him as a clown. "He'll entertain us, but he's a fool." One person actually used the term "freak show."

Michael: I really don't know what to say, I really don't. Whatever. I mean, he was definitely a freak, and to be around him would be like a freak show. I don't think you and I would ever have the stamina to keep up with the guy. Cause he had unending energy forever. But, yeah, I'm sure it was a freak show. In On The Road towards the end of the book Kerouac is, like, telling his friends--I think he's more successful, he maybe published something--and he's telling his friends, "Dean Moriarty is this great guy." He was so wiped out on speed he couldn't talk any more. And they're leaving in a limo. They're leaving in a limo and Neal Cassady's in New York and he's in his old beat up coat that God knows where he found, and it's winter and he's, like, walking down the street, and they're sitting in the limo. You know, that kind of thing.

That's exactly how it ends. Kerouac was living in dual worlds. But his real life, not that he was wealthy, but ultimately he lived with his mother and this stolid, middle-class predictable existence. Neal didn't have that home to go to. And Kerouac wasn't going to bring him there. Kerouac wasn't going to be that home for him.

Michael: Well, Ken Kesey was, though. Ken Kesey became that home. You see now, Ken Kesey is, like, "Man, this guy is it! This guy is it!" And once again the hand of God or this fate thing--Cassady shows up at Ken Kesey's door. Just hops out of the car and goes, "Yep, I got this Buick, blahdeblahdeblah...." Stream of conversation, and pretty much till the end of his days hung out with Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and that whole scene.

He was into speed for, like, his entire life. He was a speed freak, you know? [to cocktail waitress] Yes, I'll have another one! I hope you don't get the wrong impression, that I would drink too much or anything like that.


Dean was the son of a wino, one of the most tottering bums of Larimer Street, and Dean had in fact been brought up generally on Larimer Street and thereabouts. He used to plead in court at the age of six to have his father set free. He used to beg in front of Larimer alleys and sneak the money back to his father, who waited among the broken bottles with an old buddy. Then when Dean grew up he began hanging around the Glenarm poolhalls; he set a Denver record for stealing cars and went to the reformatory. From the age of eleven to seventeen he was usually in reform school. His specialty was stealing cars, gunning for girls coming out of high school in the afternoon, driving them out to the mountains, making them, and coming back to sleep in any available hotel bathtub in town.


Michael: So...he could talk, you know, blahblahblahblah, and he could talk constantly, and just keep going. In all the books that I've read it's like he could talk and talk and talk and then you might not see Neal Cassady again for six months and the next time you saw him he could jump right into the conversation that you left off six months ago. I've heard a number of times and read this in a few places--he was really into guessing the serial numbers off of dollar bills. When I read this Garcia interview, he's like, "Yep, and he would try and guess the serial number off the dollar bill. And you know? Every now and then he'd get it right." The Grateful Dead have a song named "Cassady"--Lost now in the country miles in his Cadillac.

I guess he came to what they'd call an "untimely end."

Michael: I don't think it was necessarily untimely. At all. I think he was kind of done. I think he was finished. You know what I mean? I really do. Because since '49 he'd been hanging out with some pretty cool people, you know. And he'd done a lot of stuff. And there wasn't really that much more left to do, I don't think, for him. Does that make sense? How long can you be a speed freak?

Back to the Grateful Dead--I don't know if you know very much about Jerry Garcia, you're going to San Francisco, I'm sure you'll hear all about him. Garcia, in one of his interviews they were talking about the phenomenon of people who follow the Grateful Dead and go see these shows all over the country. And his point was, "Well, if you want to have a nice little Jack Kerouac adventure, you can go on the road and see the Grateful Dead." And that's what it is.

Well, what do you make of the fact that Kerouac was actually very virulently anti-hippie?

Michael: It never fazed me. To me, he was just a little too old, came around at the wrong time. To me, it's like "I don't understand why you would be this way when you kind of pushed this thing to a certain extent through your writing. You were kind of a part of this."

Well, Ginsberg was very pro-hippie. They really went such opposite ways.

Michael: They seem to have had a falling out as I recall and I don't really remember what it was over. Ginsberg was totally in love with Neal Cassady. Neal Cassady and Alan Ginsberg were lovers. They were all--Neal Cassady and Kerouac were very bisexual. I don't mean to be rude but my impression was they would fuck anything that wasn't nailed down. And I always wondered if that had something to do with it. Going to a metaphysical thing here, are you familiar with, like, something like the medium of past life readings? Have you ever heard of stuff like that?

Regressions? Past life regressions?

Michael: This was Neal Cassady's past life regression that I read somewhere, this is pretty interesting--he was a contemporary of Jesus Christ and was executed for stealing the jewel to give to the Messiah.

That was his past life reading. That sounds real consistent with Neal Cassady, doesn't it?

Michael: For Neal Cassady, the hippie thing was the next step. And for Kerouac it was a step too far or something like that. I don't know how to explain it.

Then he pulled back.

Michael: As far being an unbroken chain I don't really know where it will go. We do a lot of all ages shows back at our club so I get to see a lot of what the young kids are into, what the scene is. I don't know how familiar you are with the hard core scene but it's, like, considered really cool to get hurt in the mosh pit, and then you've got your scar, man.5 A guy's coming out with a bloody nose because somebody's elbowed him in the face and it's like, "Oh, yeah, this is really cool." He's bleeding all over and has this whole attitude...I mean, when I grew up we were out behind the gymnasium, smoking a little pot and wishing we went to Woodstock or something like that.

Peace, love and hippy beads.

Michael: Well, you could do a lot worse, though. The point I'm trying to make is, when I was growing up, yeah, we were angry and stuff, but we were focused, Vietnam, the environment, shit like that. These guys are just blatantly angry and destructive. It's not all that way. But some of it is. Certainly a lot of it is. To me, a lot of the punk scene is...they're just hippies with different styles, different hair styles or different clothing styles....

A lot of them are Dead Heads, aren't they?

Michael: Some are. There's also the ones that say, "Die, already."

I've never really been a Dead Head.

Michael: You want to go to a show?

April 29
Friday morning. My last day in Denver. Ever since I landed in this town I've been stumbling upon Kerouac's old haunts without even realizing it. Terminal Bar & Cafe...I was on Larimer Street without even knowing it...and then later stumbling into El Chapultechec, however the hell you say it. And then last night being in his old neighborhood.

Denver--the "new West" is on. All the bars and poolhalls Kerouac used to frequent are gone now. It's called redevelopment-whitewashed pleasant-looking facades, behind which lie alleys grimier than ever. As the street fronts have been prettified, so, too, the dark of the fringe areas has changed. It's grown malevolent--drunks and hobos of Skid Row didn't used to be dangerous...now it is much different--with barroom regulars, men who have lived in Denver all their lives telling me they wouldn't venture into such shadowy places. They spent the better part of an hour trying to convince me not to go there. Little did they realize that I'm far too much of a chicken to even try. Like one oldtimer said, "All you gotta do is be wrong about it once. Then you don't have to worry about it any more."

2 "Carlo's basement apartment was on Grant Street in an old red brick rooming house near a church. You went down an alley, down some stone steps, opened an old raw door, and went through a kind of cellar till you came to his board door. It was like the room of a Russian saint: one bed, a candle burning, stone walls that oozed moisture, and a crazy makeshift ikon of some kind that he had made. He read me his poetry. It was called 'Denver Doldrums.' Carlo woke up in the morning and heard 'vulgar pigeons' yakking in the street outside his cell; he saw the 'sad nightingales' nodding on the branches and they reminded him of his mother..... He brooded in his basement over a huge journal in which he was keeping track of everything that happened every day--everything Dean did and said.

3 It's like a huge giant hippi convention. They have it in a different location every year, somewhere in the United States. It's usually on national forest lands, and it's kind of a gathering of the tribes. You go there and all those weird buses, the microbuses...people living like hippies, it's usually five or six miles from the nearest road, thirty miles from the nearest town. It's in the middle of nowhere. And the actual core Rainbow Family scout out an area several months in advance, that has, hopefully, if they can do it they like to use the natural water like right out of the rivers or springs or something like that. It's a totally free thing. You can go to a Rainbow Gathering and you will never starve. You might not get fat, but you'll never starve. And then if you've got something, contribute it. And it's totally a free scene. You're living in the woods with a bunch of people and it's like...it's absolutely unreal. Everybody is smiling, getting high...."

4 Ken Kesey, a writer of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest fame, is an alleged founder of the hippi movement, possibly as the result of a trip he took across the United States by bus with The Merry Pranksters and New Journalist Tom Wolfe of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fame--a book chronicling their Merry Pranks.

5 "You know what that is? The mosh pit is where there's a circle right in front of the stage where all your big guys get in there and do the slamming."

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