Thursday, July 24, 2014

"The Dharma Bums"

Clickage will make the image big enough to read the dialog. It's funny.

As something of an antidote to this Blood Summer, I ordered a couple of books from afar (no, I don't use Amazon, these were ordered from Abe Books): "The Dharma Bums" and "On the Road -- the Original Scroll" both by Jack Kerouac -- and they came yesterday. There was a yellow card in my post office box with a whole series of hand-written numbers scratched off, and at the bottom was my box number with a (2) beside it. That's how they let you know you've got to go to the counter and pick something up. They don't actually tell you that, they just leave the yellow card in the post office box, and one day when I was laid up Ms Ché checked the mail in the box and found one of those yellow cards and she didn't know what it was. She thought it was maybe a mistake so she left it there and it stayed there for days. She was expecting a package though, and she said to me that it hadn't come, and she wondered what happened. I said that when there is a package, they'll leave a yellow card sometimes and you have to go to the counter to pick up whatever it is.

"Oh. There was a yellow card in the box the other day. I didn't know what it was, so I left it there. I thought it was a sorting thing or they made a mistake or something."

No, that's how you find out there's a package. So when she went to the post office that day, the card was still there and she took it to the counter, and sure enough, there was her package, waiting.

Yesterday there was a yellow card in the post office box and I took it to the counter and the woman at the counter said, "Good morning, Mister Ché. I see you have a package." and she took the yellow card from me, "No, I see you have two packages! I will be right back." And she disappeared around the corner to where the packages that have arrived are kept. Sure enough, within a few seconds she returned with two bubble packs, looking about book size, and placed them on the counter. "Here they are, Mister Ché. Will there be anything else?" I told her that no, I was fine, and then I dropped a few of the other mail pieces that had been in the box, "except I'm dropping everything this morning." She laughed. "Would you like some stamps?" "No, thank you. I'm fine." As I picked up the things that had fallen on the floor and scooped up the bubble packs from the counter, she said, "Well you have a very nice day, then, and we'll see you next time."

There are times when I've had my differences with the Post Office, like just a few days before, but this was not one of them, and I wished her well. I think her name is Lorene, but I get her confused with Mary who is also quite friendly and well-wishing and they don't wear name tags so I'm not sure which is which. I wished her well as well and went on my way.

When I got home I opened the bubble bags and there were the books, new Penguin editions, large format paperbacks, really quite nice, and they made me smile and then I laughed out loud when I read the cartoons on the end flaps of "The Dharma Bums." I will attempt to scan and add them to this post in due time.

"The Dharma Bums." It was, as far as I can recall, the first Kerouac book I read, but it may have been the second, after "On the Road." One loses track. It was a long time ago. At least 50 years ago. I opened the book yesterday and skipped over the scholarly introductions (imagine "scholarly introductions" to a Jack Kerouac novel fifty years ago!) and went right to the meat and was transported in a sense back to that time fifty or more years ago when I first read it.

And I've been more or less devouring it ever since -- well, except for this break to write something about it. It's an odd sensation because I read the book all those years ago and it made quite an impression on me, but I didn't actually carry it around with me and use it as a kind of talisman or bible or anything, I just read it and said, "Whoa," or maybe "Wow." As I'm reading it now, the words and images and sometimes whole passages are firing off in my memories, "Oh yes, I've been here before..." oh yes. Absolutely. But here's the thing, what Kerouac is writing about, the places at least, are places I have been, or near where I have been, like Berkeley and Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, and climbing in the Sierras and San Francisco and so forth, and North Beach and all of that, I've been there, spent lots of time there, traveling up and down the state of California and eventually traveling into Oregon and Washington, and up into the mountains and getting drunk on cheap wine in San Francisco with friends and talking all about everything far into the night with friends I thought were smarter than me and certainly much more fashionable, some of whom even became famous.

I didn't know anything about Buddhism when I first read "The Dharma Bums," so many of the references and even the title went right over my head, or maybe they entered somehow and germinated there eventually, because as I read it now, I know what most of the Buddhist terms refer to like "Bodhisattva" and so forth, and the various things you do when you're a "Zen Lunatic" and what not. It's all very familiar to me now but I can't imagine I knew anything about it when I was 14 or whatever when I first read the book, so I've been trying to figure out how I might have imagined what all this foreign gobbledegook meant at the time, and I can't do it. It couldn't have meant anything, and yet it must have, because now it all seems just right.

Practically everything seems just right now.

It's surprising and a little bit scary.

I realize I'm writing somewhat in the style of Jack Kerouac right now. It's because his influence is very strong on me and it's a style I've always liked. It's a style that always seemed very real and honest to me, far more so than the styles of so many tamer novelists who make their livings churning out the same thing over and over again that never actually says anything. Kerouac is saying something different and whipping you about this way and that and making you look at things you may never have seen before -- or like me, you may have been seeing or doing them all your life but never actually paid attention. As I re-read "The Dharma Bums" I wonder if he actually had more of an influence on my life than I could even imagine.

No, I say to myself, just because I have been to some of these places, done some of these things, known some of these people -- well, people like them or people who actually knew the people he's writing about  -- it doesn't mean very much in the vaster scheme of things. Everybody could say the same thing, couldn't they? They did and they knew many of the same things some novelist or other did and knew as well, didn't they? We're all related in some way like that, aren't we?

I don't know.

I don't know. And so I'll read some more and see how much more I remember. It was fifty years ago or more after all, and who can remember everything?

One thing I keep thinking about which may not mean anything at all is that Kerouac wrote "the Dharma Bums" in the mid or late 1950s and I read it in the early 1960s and I felt it was very contemporary, that it wasn't about a previous time at all. And I feel the same way about it now, it's not about a previous time or an earlier, safer and saner and more innocent era, it's about right now, today. These things and these people are going on right now, today, in some of the same places, in contrast to the chaos and the bloodfest our rulers are delighting in. Of course it was different then, but it wasn't. Not really.

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