“We bounced the car up on the Algiers Ferry and found ourselves crossing the Mississippi River by boat. ‘Now we must all get out and dig the river and the people and smell the world,’ said Dean…” (On the Road, Part 2, Chapter 6)
I’ve always lived where Jack Kerouac has been. I didn’t plan it that way on purpose; it just kind of played out that way over the years, throughout my life.
I was first introduced to Jack when I was 15 or so, by my high school art teacher. I couldn’t put him down after that and by the time I wrapped up college I’d read just about everything that was available. Still collecting, still reading, to this day. What’s great is that my Dad picked up on him too, and then we got into Ginsburg and Burroughs and di Prima and Carolyn Cassidy and that ol bugger Neal too, and Holmes, and all those cats. And we’ve been Beat Scholars ever since.
My intro to Jack occurred when I was growing up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, so I already had a dig in there since he passed through often on his to-and-fro-ing. After college I moved to Denver and anyone that’s read both Jack and Neal know that Denver was where it was for those guys. Neal grew up there, in the old slums on Larimer St. before it got all shined up. Ginsburg lived there. It was a waystation oasis in the middle of nothing for them folks what careened across country many many a time over the course of their flash-BOOM existence.
It was in Denver that the Great Pilgrimage began, for me and Dad. We pored over Jack’s On the Road and also Visions of Cody. Got a pin down on where Ginsburg lived (not too far from me, actually, before I left). Dove into Neal’s The First Third, where he talks about his youth and growings-up. Mapped out his kid-zoom path from home to school and back. Grabbed onto landmarks. Made a plan.
And then we spent a whole day together, finding these places. Feeling their former foot-trods come up through a new layer of pavement. Stuff that Neal and Jack wrote about is still there, man. It was crazy. It was awesome. It was like finding a home that before only ever existed in black and white on a typefaced page.
This was back when I still had the pleasure of shooting with black and white film. I still have the photos, and just today as I pulled my old and well-journied copy of On the Road off the shelf, I found the maps and notes that Dad made when we were preparing for that sojourn. Time to sit at the old scanner and get that story Out There.
Later on, Jack’s original Scroll, the holy writ that made me myself and defined generations of tired poet souls, came to Denver on display at the city library. We went. We pored over it, scotch tape and handwritten notes over type and everything and I wished that I could’ve touched it like some sort of divine relic, blessing the masses. MAN! What a sight. When they finally published On the Road in its original scroll form, we were in heaven.
So, New Mexico and Denver under my belt, here we all come to New Orleans, New Orleans at last, across the vast blank plains of Kansas and Texas in big trucks barreling like bullets through the world and here we land now, at the brief homespace of William Burroughs.
Burroughs lived in Algiers, a hop across the river from the heart of New Orleans. One day, last year, we were at the folks’ house when Dad handed me a slip of black ink on white paper.
That was it. He’d found it. And on Father’s Day, last weekend, we completed another installation in our Grand and Constant Beat Journey.
“A phone call came for me in the drugstore downstairs. It was Old Bull Lee, who’d moved to New Orleans. Old Bull Lee in his high, whining voice was making a complaint.” (On the Road, Part 2, Chapter 3)
I was surprised, when we rolled up on that old house near the levee, to see a sign out front acknowledging that Burroughs lived there. I’m not sure why I was so surprised – this town loves to mark where things Happened; there are signs and plaques all over the place. But I was surprised nevertheless to see Our Guys acknowledged, and it was pure GLEE when we parked the car and got out and got a look at the Old Bull Lee homestead.
Neal and Jack
People live there, by the way. We wonder how many folks the inhabitants view out their front window, who roll up all crazy for this niche in history. If I had any sort of inkling to live in Algiers, I would kill to own that house, and live in it, and breathe every day the old air through which these guys used to pass. I would go out and meet every person who stopped there to pay homage because, if they came all the way out to Algiers to see where Burroughs lived and Jack and Neal visited, then hot damn they must be some folks worth knowing and chatting with for a spell.
So we took some photos. And I breathed in the air of January, 1949. And pictured in my head what it must have looked like when Jack was there.
“We went to Old Bull Lee’s house outside town near the river levee. It was on a road that ran across a swampy field. The house was a dilapidated old heap with sagging porches running around and weeping willows in the yard; the grass was a yard high, old fences leaned, old barns collapsed. There was no one in sight.” (On the Road, Part 2, Chapter 6)
THE best moment I’ve now had in my most recent stage of life was when Dad turned to me, grinning, and said, “WE GOT ANOTHER ONE!!!” and we did our ritual high-five before we loaded into the car toward the next adventure.
If dad was Jack and J was Neal, then I must’ve been Carolyn.
You can’t Beat that.
So what’s next? It’s the end of the living-Road for me, here in New Orleans, because I can’t stand the idea of living anywhere else, ever, for the rest of my days. But I still need to see San Fran, and the City Lights Bookstore and sit in Jack Kerouac Alley and write a poem. But the ultimate journey that simply must happen, now, for me and Dad, would be to Lowell, Massachusetts. Birthplace and growing-up terrain of Jack himself, and also where he now rests. I’ve already researched it. Plane tickets to Boston ain’t so bad. And a 40-minute drive to Lowell after that ain’t so bad, either. Just means an epic dive into The Town and the City. And then I proclaim that we “Go go GO!!!”
“His old house creaks. And the Montana log rolls by in the big black river of the night.” (On the Road, Part 2, very end of Chapter 6)
Featured Image: The House