Saturday, August 9, 2014

"We Had No Money."

Another excerpt from the Scroll version of "On the Road:"
Neal hadn’t mentioned money. “Where are we going to stay?” We wandered around carrying our bundles of rags in the narrow streets. Everybody looked like a broken-down movie extra, a withered starlet, disenchanted stunt-men, midget auto racers, poignant California characters with their end-of-the-continent sadness, handsome decadent Casanovish men, puffy-eyed motel blondes, hustlers, pimps, whores, masseurs, bellhops, a lemon lot and how’s a man going to make a living with a gang like that. Nevertheless Louanne had been around these people -- this is O’Farrell and Powell and thereabouts -- and a grayfaced hotel clerk let us have a room on credit. That was the first step. Then we had to eat, and didn’t do so till midnight when we found a niteclub singer in her hotel room who turned an iron upside down on a coathanger in the wastebasket and warmed up a can of pork & beans. I looked out the window at the winking neons; and said to myself “Where is Neal and why isn’t he concerned about our welfare?” I lost faith in him that year. It was our last meet, no more. I stayed in San Francisco a week and had the beatest time of my life. Louanne and I walked around for miles looking for food-money, we even visited some drunken seamen in a flophouse on Mission street that she knew; they offered us whiskey. In the hotel we lived together two days. I realized that now Neal was out of sight Louanne had no real interest in me; she was trying to reach Neal through me, his buddy. We had arguments in the hotel room. We also spent entire nights in bed and I told her my dreams. I told her about the big snake of the world that was coiled in the earth like a worm in an apple and would someday nudge up a hill to be thereafter known as Snake Hill and fold out upon the plain, fifty miles long and devouring as it went along. I told her this snake was Satan.
This was Kerouac's version of San Francisco (aka "'Frisco" -- obviously not from around there) in 1949 or 50 when he managed to write this part of the Scroll after returning to the World or New York, Queens where his mother lived.

Oh, I know those streets very well, O'Farrell and Powell, Larkin, Hyde and Geary, and down into the Mission and wherever you might want to go on Market Street; Columbus and Broadway and Mason and Grant, too.

I lived in San Francisco for a while, not long, a year or so, but I found that I reacted poorly to the urban-ness of it, the tight-packing of people, the poverty of so many, the jangling noises of the streets, the hubbub of it all. So as soon as it was feasible, I was gone, with a pretty loud "whew!" and commenced traveling all over the country, never staying anywhere for more than a few months at a time until much later in my life.

San Francisco, though, was in my blood, and even if I didn't want to live there again, it became a routine destination stop, a day trip, a Place to go. Our friends who lived there would very rarely venture out of it, and as was the case with Angeleños down the Coast, or Manhattanites back East, they were fiercely and proudly ignorant of anything outside their tight and right little peninsula or plain or island. Beyond the borders of their ken, there was no there there, as Gertrude Stein so apocryphally but truly wrote about Oakland across the Bay. It simply wasn't a Place. Not to a San Franciscan, not to someone who hardly ever traveled beyond the Ferry Building and may never have even been there, at least not before the Earthquake and the destruction of the Embarcadero Freeway which cut off the iconic survivor of the 1906 Earthquake from the City.

When Kerouac arrived in San Francisco the second time, with Neal Cassady and Neal's wife Louanne, he was -- according to his account in "On the Road," which should be taken with a grain of salt -- confronted with the starkness of the City, and it is a stark place to be when you have... nothing or at least no money. It was even then, in 1949 or 50, an expensive place to be, merely because it was a city, and for constantly broke people like Kerouac and Cassady, it was even tougher. The area where they wound up, the Tenderloin, was then as now filled with bums and hobos and con-artists and police, with sharks and their prey.

In "The Dharma Bums" Kerouac writes about being homeless a lot, using that term "homeless" almost as we would use it today, though he doesn't mean "the homeless community to be served by NGOs" and such as is the case now. He wasn't actually homeless, in that he could and did return to his mother's place anytime he wanted, but he had no home of his own. In "The Dharma Bums" his homelessness, staying with others, is one of the points of the novel and the quest for enlightenment he is on. As a bhikku, he cannot have a home of his own in any case, only "resting places," mostly found through the kindness of friends and strangers.

So it is in his magnum opus, "On the Road," except there's no pretense of a Dharmic adventure. That is to say, Kerouac wasn't aware of it at that time. He and Neal and all the rest are on the road without money or with so little money they might as well have none, and they have their adventures on the down low in the multiple senses of the phrase cruising the underbelly of America picking up hitchhikers and stealing much of what they need at a time when that underbelly was largely ignored by most Americans, basking as Americans were in PostWar VictoryGlory, and setting out to settle down in spanking new suburbs with a DeSoto in the driveway and crisp frills on the daughter, rough denim on the boy playing in the dusty yard with the dog.

"On the Road" was written or drafted before widespread television acquisition, but what would come is prefigured. There were enough televisions by the late '40s and early '50s to start making a dent in the mindset of Americans, and by the time "On the Road" was published after several revisions in 1957, television was ubiquitous.

One of the unintended effects of television was that it kept people at home. They didn't go out as much; they didn't go anywhere as much as they used to, so a story like "On the Road," when it came out in 1957, was exotic and peculiar and worrisome and wonderful to people who had never even imagined much beyond what they saw on the idiot box and in their own yards and neighborhoods.

Those without homes, the bums and hobos and Dharmic wanderers as well as the con-men that preyed on them, and the Beats as Kerouac and his set came to be known, were hardly considered at all, but when they were, it was as images rather than as people. The Beats were made into A Thing. Commercial. Movies and publishing and underground coffee houses and bars. Poetry that puzzled and howled. Jazz. Bebop. Then the Thing became another Thing.

And "On the Road."

The images are now permanent psychic messages. The subjects of entire libraries of scholarly research. Pilgrimages by devotees and acolytes on quests to find the Dharmic Truth of Kerouac's life, or of Burroughs or Ginsberg or Cassady or whomever. The Beats became a Lifestyle and then there would be a paradigm shift when the Rucksack Revolution that Gary Snyder anticipated became a reality in the 60s, and nothing would be quite the same again.

Now that I'm old and have settled down somewhat, I look back on my years of traveling, my peripatetic wanderings on the road, back and forth, back and forth, here and there, vanishing, appearing, darting from place to place, with a kind of awe and wonder. I did that? Most people never do. I say I lived in Sacramento for 50 years or more, but thinking back, I realize I was on the road constantly, peripatetic wandering even when supposedly settled down. I wasn't settled down. Not at all.

We lived in this house in Sacramento for 20 some-odd years, longer than any place else in my whole life by far, and yet thinking back, I wasn't there all that much because I was traveling so often for work or for pleasure or just because, and one of my constant destinations -- at least after 1982 -- was New Mexico.

Kerouac noted on his own wanderings that New Mexico had been the site of the first atom bomb test. And he saw a vision as he passed by Alamogordo:
"This Is the Impossibility of the Existence of Anything"
Channeling Oppenheimer?

We've made it a point to go out to Trinity Site where Kerouac never was to pay our respects.  

But that's about as far as we get these days. An occasional day trip within New Mexico to some location with meaning or amusement, then back to rest up for the next one. We go to see the cranes out at the Bosque del Apache, even though they've been coming around to see us, roosting just down the street in the daytime. The Bosque and Socorro and Las Vegas and Trinity... not to forget Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

But not so much anymore.

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