|Aug/Sep 1998 Travel|
It’s called the Bohemian what?
Claire: The Bohemian Cigar Club.
Spence: That’s what I called it.
Bohemian Cigar Club?
Spence: Right. You can’t miss it.
Claire: The corner of Columbus and Union.
The corner of Columbus and Union? Okay.
I never do wind up finding the Bohemian Cigar Club, I’m not even sure exactly what it is. I’m staying with former roommate Claire, husband Spence and their two kids in suburban San Rafael. “Hey, travelers are welcome here any time,” Spence assures me. Of course,this is before he realizes Claire’s going to jump on me like her only ticket to freedom and leave the childcare to Spence during my brief stay while she takes me into “the City”—impervious, if not actively bristling, at his suggestion that “we all go,” ‘we’ meaning, of course, the entire family, tykes an’ all.
Jack: "I learned that Dean had lived happily with Camille in San Francisco ever since that fall of 1947; he got a job on the railroad and made a lot of money. He became the father of a cute little girl, Amy Moriarty. Then suddenly he blew his top while walking down the street one day. He saw a ‘49 Hudson for sale and rushed to the bank for his entire roll. He bought the car on the spot. Ed Dunkel was with him. Now they were broke. Dean calmed Camille’s fears and told her he’d be back in a month. 'I’m going to New York and bring Sal back.' She wasn’t too pleased at this prospect."
Before Spence and Claire settled down into this domestic suburban lifestyle, I’d always thought of them as among the most quintessentially bohemian people I knew. Now, without quite realizing how it happened, they’ve found themselves living a scenario directly out of “Leave It to Beaver” and seem rather baffled by this turn of events, to say the least.
I decide not to rock the boat of marital bliss any more than I already have and cut my visit short. Claire, leaving Spence behind with the kids, enlists her neighbor Jan to accompany us as she delivers me into heart of San Francisco.
I’m in Vesuvio’s, on Kerouac Street. And, I am finding out, surprisingly enough, that this project is coming together best when I’m by myself instead out with drinking buddies. I was out with Claire and her friend Jan earlier and...their reality is that their lives are being mothers and I’m getting Claire into trouble by taking her out and carousing.
Bartender: I was reading an article that the Mission now is the North Beach of the ‘90s. They’ve got a lot of coffee places and a lot of young people hanging out, talking about.... So they... It’s was so far gone then, because On The Road was published eight years after it was written and he was a young man, and he was....
Does it seem that people come around here?
Bartender: No, because...I mean, you hear about this place and you hear about North Beach. Now I’m a bit jaded because you realize that it wasn’t...I don’t think he was here as much as legend has it. And, basically from what you hear, he was pretty much just a nasty drunk. He was just a guy that went drinking....
Bartender: Yeah, you know. But I try to be mindful of it...people come here, they make pilgrimages to the place, you know. But...the thing about this place is, he is, like, such a small portion. There’s so many better stories about.... I mean, there’s been thousands of people here, you know, that come in here. And you hear so many stories totally, other things besides that. This bar is—there’s ghosts in this place. It’s weird, you know? There’s so many people and so many stories. You get people who come in here and say, “I was here twenty-five years ago.” You get that all the time.
You said you were originally drawn here because of the legend?
Bartender: Yeah, yeah. I was in a big Kerouac phase when I got here. And you hear about this place and City Lights, it’s nice to go to a bar where there’s a little bit of literary stuff to it rather than it’s just a bar, you know? It’s got a nice connection to it, it really does. But the legend has grown...beyond the proportion of really what it was and how often he was here.
Well, what about what the legend was? I mean, it did something to you. Something in his writing reached out and grabbed you, or did it?
Bartender: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Definitely.
What was it?
Bartender: It’s the searching...the search. Because he was looking for something in a lot of his books, most of his books.
What was the something?
Bartender: Searching for some kind of happiness.... He was an extremely unhappy person. You read biographies of Jack Kerouac and they’re always so depressing at the end because he was just so unhappy. You know, a bottle of Johnny Walker Red in the daytime. It was sad, it was sad.
And yet at the same time there was something in it that opened doors up for you.
Bartender: Yeah. Which was great, because he touched me and he touched a lot of other people.
Have you moved out of your Kerouac phase?
Bartender: Um...well, yeah. I read all the books. You realize that there’s...there’s the drinking and stuff, drinking the port wine and that kind of stuff. You can’t live that. That’s not me.
I’m sitting in City Lights Bookstore. An entire wall of the Beats. Two rows of Kerouac. The Dharma Bums, Doctor Sax, Mexico City Blues, On The Road, Visions of Gerard, Tristessa, The Town and The City, Sartori, Sartori in Paris, Scattered Poems, Subterraneans, Tristessa. And I try to sit here and write. It just doesn’t feel right.
All this poetry—once again (?) the “in” thing—or has it simply kept rolling since the Beats? Is it a lot of pretension—these “new Bohemians”? Is it a renaissance when everyone, it seems, is an artist or poet? Why do I get the sense that most of this poetry will be forgotten in a few years’ time, that little of it will endure? Is it the cynic in me? Is it the classic lack of appreciation for the familiar, for what’s growing up in your own backyard?
Why is it the work of Kerouac and the other Beats endures, touches people in such a broadbread way? Was it luck? Self-promotion? Timing? Or...talent...is that level of talent such a rare thing? Or is it simply what is honest and relevant—were Kerouac & Co. free of the pretension that seems to cloud so much writing and art—the brow-knitting seriousness with which it is approached? Shouldn’t art be fun? Lighthearted, even? Why not? Coyote.
I’m sitting at the Caffee Barberini, across the street from Sincere Federal Savings Bank (great name or what?) and a couple doors down from City Lights Bookstore. The bartender at Vesuvio’s last night said this is the area where it all happened...the reason that drew him and many others here, on some sort of weird pilgrimage (the Land of the Free) looking for “something.” He says most of Kerouac’s hangouts are gone now, that this area has changed completely from that time, exploiting his celebrity with the naming of the alley in 1988, their own bar’s featuring the ‘Kerouac Cocktail’ (a concoction of tequila, OJ, rum cranberry juice—something the bartender tells me Kerouac himself likely never tasted: “He usually drank anything brown: bourbon, Scotch”). Commercial enterprise feeding on Kerouac’s literary success long after he passed through for the last time...seen by many as “just a drunk, a bum.”
NOT ONLY A TRIP
Jack: "Major sat in his silk dressing gown composing his latest Hemingwayan short story—a choleric, red-faced, pudgy hater of everything, who could turn on the warmest and most charming smile in the world when real life confronted him sweetly in the night. He’d just written a story about a guy who comes to Denver for the first time. His name is Phil. His traveling companion is a mysterious and quiet fellow called Sam. Phil goes out to dig Denver and gets hung-up with the arty types. He comes back to the hotel room. Lugubriously he says, 'Sam, they’re here too.' And Sam is just looking out the window sadly. 'Yes,' says Sam, 'I know.' And the point was that Sam didn’t have to go and look to know this. The arty types were all over America, sucking up its blood. Major and I were great pals; he thought I was the farthest thing from an arty type. Major liked good wines, just like Hemingway. He reminisced about his recent trip to France. 'Ah, Sal, if you could sit with me high in the Basque country with a cool bottle of Poignon Dix-neuf, then you’d know there are other things besides boxcars.'"
Alan Temko: To see how Kerouac actually lived in the places they lived is not a bad idea. You should read every one of these books on Kerouac. It wouldn’t take you long and it’ll save you a lot of trouble. And you should go in his footsteps. You might even have a publishable book out of it. Did you see the places in Denver? I think you probably could search out most of the places he lived, although in Denver there’s been a lot of urban renewal, so-called. They’ve destroyed lots of that. You know, Jack lived with me there. When I had that apartment from Ed White’s family, and—did you meet Ed White?
I did not have a chance to meet him. I got hooked up with him kind of late in my stay at Denver. But I did talk to the owner of...El...it’s one of the old jazz bars in Denver. He served Jack Kerouac when he used to come in. He just thought he was a drunk, and...it’s kind of interesting to see his perspective of “Why do these people keep coming in here year after year and asking me these questions?” How does it feel to have all these people coming to you, year after year?
Alan: Well, I feel that they’re sincerely interested in Jack and that he was a pretty good writer, and there’s a whole cult of Kerouac. Because of differences in generations and culture, the social gradations in society as it existed then, when young men like Ed White and I were upper-middle class boys and Kerouac was strictly a working-class kid, and Ginsberg was different because he was...well, the child of intellectuals and his mother was a beautiful mad communist poet in her own right.... You can’t really understand it without seeing all the social gradations. A guy like Burroughs came from a family that ran the country. A different kind of family. So that’s what’s very interesting. And Kerouac, his range of going from the dregs of American society to pretty high up in that society. He knew all these different people, so I think that—
That’s something I noticed in his biography, that he seems to have had no trouble traversing different—
Alan: No. And he was always himself. He never tried to change his personality for that. He certainly changed his behavior to people who sometimes could do him some good. And he had this problem with bisexuality, that complicated his life. And that’s in Jack’s Book. Did you read Jack’s Book?
I did read Jack’s Book and—
Alan: There’s the episode with Gore Vidal.
Alan: That’s not the only one of that type. They had a strange attitude toward women, those guys. Of course, Ginsberg made a stab at going straight for a while. But he was primarily homosexual.
That was pretty radical then.
Alan: It was radical to be as open about it as Ginsberg was. Kerouac was never really open about it. To that extent. Kerouac was Catholic. He had all kinds of hang-ups. But what can I do for you?
Well, I think this has become a cult thing. I mean, you’re seeing people who are coming from a completely different generation, and read On The Road—
Alan: You can’t possibly understand Columbia at that time, or San Francisco at that time. They’re different places today.
I realize that. I’m going to these places and, like in Denver, Larimer Street’s been completely redeveloped. The people that I talk to are talking about the difference between what Skid Row was like forty years ago and what it’s like today.
Alan: There’s different people. There were Indians then. The place was filled with Indians.
Do you feel baffled why a book like On The Road still continues to draw people?
Alan: No, because dissatisfaction with.... In the forties and fifties there was a certain...there were certainties about American life. You took it for granted that certain things had absolute value. And you believed in them. I did. I thought I was put on this earth to make the world a better place. That was the attitude of most educated young people of that time. That continued right up to Kennedy. “To those much is given, much is expected.” That was gone forever with the Vietnam War, the corruption in Washington. But these people, the Beats—which is a misleading name—had come to that conclusion a whole generation before. Unless you...I don’t know how well educated you are, I don’t think very well educated. Have you read Dostoyevsky?
Alan: Yes. See, so you are...these books had a tremendous influence on Jack. Books like The Possessed by Dostoevsky. These books really affected the way he thought. So on this journey...he was propelled into this journey by a mixture of personal experience and literary experience. He was a writer. Have you read his earliest book, you know, The Town and The City? You know, you really can’t do serious work unless you do the reading. You can’t understand On The Road unless you read this earlier book.
The Town and the City.
Alan: You should read it because it’s fun, you buy it in paperback from City Lights. I’d like to help you, but I don’t know exactly how I can because you—these other people have all come doing full books on Kerouac and this is just a term paper.
Yeah. And I’ve had to really work at trying to keep my focus narrow and not let it get too broad—
Alan: The trip is not only a trip in space but it’s also a drop through American society till you hit bottom and you find Neal Cassady and people like that. And people who are in many ways quite destructive, even criminal. This infatuation with the criminal class...it’s different than just a dropout class of people. I mean, people who did real harm, like Burroughs shot his wife and I consider that not a nice thing, to kill your wife. And these guys were thieves. See, so I don’t share the general admiration that Kerouac had for someone like Cassady.
There was a guy when we were young—Thomas Wolfe—and Kerouac loved him. I thought Thomas Wolfe was a jerk. A good writer, but he had no self criticism, like Kerouac. The stuff came pouring out. Thomas Wolfe also had journeys. There’s a train ride from North Carolina. His sister married a sort of white trash guy, or a kind of red neck guy. I shouldn’t say white trash, I didn’t know himm. But, no one reads Thomas Wolfe today except a certain kind of English major.
And yet people read Jack Kerouac.
Alan: Yes, but when we were young, Thomas Wolfe was almost as far in the pack as Kerouac is now.
So the real test will be in the next 40, 50 years?
Alan: It’s not going to be a classic forever. It’s not like Huck Finn. Huckleberry Finn is the greatest American book. The most important analogy to On The Road is Huckleberry Finn. Have you read that? Alright. So the trip on the raft with Tom and Huck—Kerouac thought of Cassady as the kind of Huck Finn character in the twentieth century, and he thought of people like Bob Burford, upper-middle class Denver boys, as smart aleck Tom Sawyer. And the difference between their attitude on the raft going down the Mississippi. But that’s a false analogy. Because Huck is always good. Huck is always noble and Neal was a rat. And betrayed people. Huck never betrays anyone. Kerouac saw this the way he wanted to, and you dropped through the bottom of respectable society and found yourself in the basement full of fascinating characters. Kerouac made a great contribution with that. You know, it’s a good book. It’s going to last for a long time. It’ll always be read, probably by young people who want to get out of the trap.
So you basically look at it as a window into a different reality.
Alan: He himself was a deracinated French Canadian. Canook.1 He came from what was the equivalent of a French hillbilly. They were a fossilized group of French in New England and Canada. They didn’t even speak correct French. It was a kind of patois. His pronunciation of French was not as good as mine. It was the way he—
It was a dialect, wasn’t it?
Alan: Yes, it was a dialect. In On The Road he doesn’t treat me very kindly. I’m the character Roland Major. He sees the snootier side of me. There’s some truth in that, because I didn’t like his friends. Some of them. But he was my friend.
You didn’t like the other friends, you didn’t like Neal Cassady because you thought he was immoral?
Alan: Yes, and a rat. And a pain in the ass. He was a bad type. Bad news. You didn’t want him anywheres around. I never felt that about Ginsberg. I’ve remained very friendly with Ginsberg. I thought Cassady was a conman.
That seems to be the general—
Alan: Well, no! Young people still think he’s a saint of sorts.
They respect, they enjoy the fact that he was a conman.
Alan: Well, you look at the movies today, these antiheroes.... James Dean was sort of the first nonhero hero of movies. Iit’s people who don’t share the values of mainstream America at all. And there’s a lot of nice young people who are horrified by certain aspects of American society, or established society any place, so they like this. But that book is incorrect in certain ways. Although Kerouac had the social range, he wasn’t particularly sensitive to gradations in it. And then he shared this apartment with me, that I rented. I had a friend who shared the rent but he went to join his family in Canada for summertime. So I asked Jack to come in. And one night he showed up, it’s a passage in On The Road, with Cassady and other people, and I didn’t let them in the apartment. But that was not because I was so snobbish toward them. But because I had someone in the apartment with me and it would not have been proper, appropriate for her to meet them in the circumstance.
So you had that whole evening commemorated forever.
Alan: As if I were —
That was very gallant of you.
Alan: Yes. But I was a gentleman. And they were not. And decidedly not. And Jack, who had kind feelings, didn’t care about those things. So...it’s more complicated and more simplistic. But that’s my part in the book. We had all come out from Columbia—Jack didn’t come out with us, but a group of us came from Columbia after graduation. I thought I might settle in Denver because I liked the Denver boys so much. There’s a guy in California now, I’ve lost touch with him, named Hal Case, who figures in all of this. He’s called Chad something or other in On The Road. And he’s very grouchy so I don’t know if he would talk to you. But he was another character. And he was married to a fantastic girl, woman, named Ginger Baily who, even when she, if not married yet to Hal was certainly living with him, put naked pictures of herself into Kerouac’s desk drawer. So that got Case angry. So there were all these complications. But if you could read the, uh—
The Town and The City?
Alan: The Town and The City, you’d get some idea of the background for this, and then some of the biographies of Jack. You don’t have to read them all. It gets very sad after....
I was very depressed after I read Jack’s Book.
Alan: You know, Scott Fitzgerald said a famous thing: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Well, there was no second act in Kerouac’s life. He became a parody of himself. The drugs and the drink really destroyed him. And he had physical problems. He had nephritus, this vascular disease, from football injuries. He was a superb football player, at a time when football players were smaller than they are now, and he could have gone to Notre Dame. He had a scholarship, an athletic scholarship.
What do you think—no. That’s prying into his personal side.
Alan: Well, that’s all right. He’s fair game. Everyone’s pried into his personal side. You’re not the first. He’s a very complicated guy. A terrific writer, although Truman Capoat said, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”2
Today in classrooms, people are saying he revised On The Road for three years.
Alan: No! He never revised. He just typed it.
He just retyped it?
Alan: Well, I don’t think he revised it much. At one time he had a roll of paper and it went endlessly through the typewriter. But even when he worked, at his best, when he was hardworking and got drunk only occasionally and was on drugs only occasionally, he was a very very impressive and charming man.
Did you ever have any understanding about why he had that trouble with alchohol? Was it just that it runs in the family and you get it with each generation?
Alan: Well, there’s a classic Freudian psychoanalytical theory, maybe it’s discredited now, that alchoholism is a suppression device for homosexuals. And, whether it’s true or not, I thought it might be true in his case. That he had...he was very shaky sexually. That’s a big key to him. I’ve told this to several people, and I said it in Jack’s Book, that he got quite girlish, quite coquettish with Giroux, Bob Giroux, who was gay. And, you know, the sense of restless flight with men, sort of a parable of homosexuality. There’s a correspondence with Moby Dick, sailing over the whole world. This way, you’re driving in cars over a continent.
There’s something you’re running away from?
Alan: Yeah. And always coming back to his mother, who was a powerful character. Very stubborn. She once told me that the nuns—she was raised in a strict Catholic school—she did something that displeased the nuns, they would make her kneel on rice as the punishment. Uncooked rice, so the rice kernels would dig into her bare knees. She said, “It hurt me a lot, but I never apologized to them.” So, I think...when do you have to turn in your paper?
My goal is to have my first draft completed by mid-May. I’m just going to see how it works out. I want to approach this in a very open-ended way, without preconceived ideas or expectations.
Alan: That’s very Kerouacian. Wanting the constantly fresh experience this experience of the frontier or the new places. There’s something, the frontier, you come to a place and take what you can from it. You even soil it. And then you move on to a new place. And that’s what the pioneers did.
Yeah. It seems like an eternal cry, sort of this eternal call of the wild, that final—
Alan: Jack London is a writer, you know. Kerouac even looked like him. Those young handsome photographs of Jack Kerouac in a sea captain’s hat or, petty officer’s hat. Jack London posed that way too, handsome. That was before Jack London got fat, bloated, drunk. And Jack London, in a very innocent way, was a thief. He used to rob oyster beds in an earlier time. So if you go on with your studies of Kerouac, there’s some analogy.... So I think if you can capture that....
I keep coming back to the question of “Why do people still keep reading this?” I mean, my younger sister, who is into a completely different thing, is into this capital I, capital T thing, you know, the IT he talks about in the book.
Alan: Another influence is Rimbaud and, have you ever heard of the French poet Rimbaud? There’s a famous poem called [bato evre], “The Drunken Boat,” in which the poet himself is like a drunken vessel going down this powerful river without a destination, saying good-bye to the ancient parapets of Europe, parapets meaning the old castles and palaces of Europe. And he went to Abyssinia, and he had certain similarities to Kerouac. Bisexuality.
I thought he was pretty definitely homosexual.
Alan: Yeah, but then he went straight in Abyssinia and had been homosexual with Verlaine and violent. He stabbed him. So, yes, you get that wildness which verged on criminality. Kerouac himself was not vicious. Kerouac was basically kind and he always thought people would get along together if he liked them, that all of his friends liked one another. But they couldn’t. That’s just not the way the world works. Everyone doesn’t love everyone else.
Didn’t he get pretty alienated from his friends?
Alan: Yes. In the end, Ginsberg.... You know, he always had this anti-Semitic side to him and his mother hated Jews so...they had this narrow, bigoted French Canadian Catholic outlook. It’s hard to imagine the primitiveness of that life.
WHITE WASHLINES OF PALO ALTO
I could swear the train conductor said Pearly Gates was the next stop.... I’m standing out here, exhausted and freezing at the Palo Alto downtown bus station. I’m learning that when I’m tired is the worst time for me to be moving around. That I get to a certain state of exhaustion and then all of a sudden all the shadows turn into monsters, just like when you were a kid and left the closet door open before you went to sleep.
On this trip, I have seen gang graffiti absolutely everywhere. In San Francisco, they even have it inside the buses. It’s all over the train stations, it’s all over America. In May 1993, every square in of turf in America is staked and claimed. Marked out.
The moon is coming through. It has a halo, a hole in the clouds that it’s shining through. And of course the face is always there. Looking down on me in dismay. Dismay at these crazy things I do, and why? The night’s coming on. Getting colder. “Danger warning,” says the sign in front of the tracks. But Palo Alto’s supposed to be pretty pristine, is it not? It’s just me, my state of mind. My exhaustion. In my hand is my little alarm, my only protection if somebody decides to bother me.
My time in SF was chiefly colored by Claire and my getting immersed in her whole family thing. It’s an immersion she herself was feeling a little fried on at the time I was passing through—and she jumped on me like a ticket to freedom. Spence spent all day Saturday and Saturday night home with the kids, and the next night too, while Claire and I ate our favorite pizza in North Beach, splurged on books in City Lights. Calire took me shopping at the Goodwill in the Haight District, while schooling me in bohemian survival methods (“You find the ugliest house on the street,” she kept saying. “That’ll be the cheapest rent.”). By the end of my time there, I was feeling a little less welcome to Spencer, who clearly had his fill of sitting around the house. It doesn’t seem to suit either of them, really. Claire is going crazy.
I rambled around the city on my own yesterday. Kept coming back into North Beach—that’s the area that drew me. The Haight District, the apparent neighborhood of the current art scene, was simply too much of a scene for me.
Kerouac Street and Kerouac’s face on the side of the City Lights building might be an ostentatious claim to literary heritage, but there felt something down home and at least real in the way everyone there didn’t have to be in costume.
Jack: "My whole soul leaped to it the nearer we got to Frisco.... I wandered out like a haggard ghost and there she was, Frisco—long bleak streets with trolley wires all shrouded in fog and whiteness."
Why is it that men refer to vehicles (ships, etc.) and cities as “she”? Like a woman, these are something you enter? Well, if SF is a woman, she’s one I would definitely consider a bitch. After spending a few days in this place, I can easily see why it was here—and not Denver, or New Orleans, or NYC—where Kerouac reached his most beat. I couldn’t wait to get out. SF...is something that will draw you in, but never really embrace you. Alan Temko, “I don’t know how well educated you are, I don’t think very well....” The world is not a soft place.
Today I sit among the white washlines of Palo Alto at my friend Lisa’s. I tell her my impressions of San Francisco. “It’s snobs,” Lisa says.
Cinco de mayo. Have you ever felt that you’re living a movie instead of a life? As I stepped down the stairs from Lisa’s Palo Alto apartment, lugging my luggage, I heard a train whistle in the distance, out here in the suburbs.
Each time I carry my luggage now, I start doing a mental inventory of all of the items I should have really left out. Like, I shouldn’t have brought that extra pair of boots or tennis shoes. Now I’ll know, just in time to arrive home. Motion time space—I’m getting dizzy. On the bus scents commingle, cheap cologne mixed with body odor.
Safe. Almost a month—and the moon is full again, as it was upon my departure. The L.A. train is running late. Which means? The earliest I’ll arrive in L.A. is 9 p.m. Lyrics to a song by Paul Simon play in my head—I’m standing at the railway station, got a ticket for my destination.... The ticket (to ride) is the destination. I had theorized before taking this journey that Kerouac’s road trips were all attempts to escape from pain.
I hear something, a train. A train chugging in the distance. I feel like dancing on the railroad ties. Flirtin’ with disaster. In retrospect this trip has been safe.
Jack: “'It’s not my fault! it’s not my fault!' I told him. 'Nothing in this lousy world is my fault, don’t you see that? I don’t want it to be and it can’t be and it won’t be.'"
"I watched him curiously, once again with the feeling that I had to be careful of what I said, like I’d felt the first time I met him on Avenue B when I was nine. He was desperately trying to keep his shield in place, at a loss for what to say.... I think he was afraid that I wanted a big emotional father-daughter reunion. Right there in the same room was his mother to whom he had lied long ago, telling her that Joan Haverty’s baby wasn’t his doing. He knew that wasn’t true. I could see the painful recognition in his eyes flash like a tiny blue spark each time our gazes met.”
The words above are Jan Kerouac’s, daughter of Jack. I’ve known people, kind, good-hearted people, gentle, sweet people who can only remain this way if you are at a distance. Come too close and they lose their moorings, grow inconsiderate, snide, sarcastic. Move away, and they return to grace you with genuine interest.
Jack: “'It’s just that I love boxcars and I love to read the names on them like Missouri Pacific, Great Northern, Rock Island Line. By Gad, Major, if I could tell you everything that happened to me hitching here.'”
Once aboard the late-arriving L.A.-bound train, I find myself in the dining car sitting across from an older (60ish?) white woman. A middle-aged white man hears us talking and wants to join us. He squeezes into the seat next to mine. Our relatively congenial meal is interrupted by a large fluttering insect, which lands right on me, of all people.
Older White Woman: I stopped for a week in Santa Fe, to go to an elder hostel. And my roommate at this elder hostel turned out to be a person from San Francisco, who was traveling in an even smaller volkswagen than I was. She was traveling in a Beetle and she was camping also. And she does this all the time. She’s never, I don’t think, gone out for so long at a time but she goes for a month or at two at a time. And you know, it’s kind of unheard of. I don’t meet a lot of women traveling alone.
Middle-aged White Man: You know, talking about Beetles, I took a Beetle one time, you know, volkswagen. Small volkswagen.
Older White Woman: Which year was it?
Middle-aged White Man: What is it?
I don’t know.
Older White Woman: Has it landed on the floor?
I don’t want it near me. Would you mind doing something with it? Oh!
Middle-aged White Man: I was in a volkwagen, I took a passenger....
“Do you have gulls here all year round?” a man asks, approaching me.
“Yes. Gulls and pelicans are the main residents here.”
“But could you bring a picnic here to the beach,” adds a dark-haired woman coming up beside the man. “I mean, would the gulls all swarm around you?”
“Oh, no. They’re not that aggressive.”
“I thought that was why they were all around you,” the man says, “because you had food in your bag or something.”
“No. It’s just because they know I like them.” But it is really more than that. I do not merely like these birds, I love them. They are such beautiful life and I envy the way they can float on the wind. There is a gull who stands directly before me and the ocean. He just gave a high squeak call in Gullspeak. There is something very endearing about him—he now walks past me, and I can no longer see him. Or, I do not desire it to the extent I will turn from my westward ocean-facing position. It is cool here, near Crystal Pier, the ocean breezes blowing, the waves crashing their everpresent heartbeat—the rolling thunder of water. Why is the sea such a powerful balm...just to be near, hear, smell, feel its moisture in the air.... Amniotic fluids of sea foam, Aphrodite born of the surf.
My heart keeps breaking and I don’t know why. The cows watch us pass, nonplussed. There’s huge gullies carved out of the hillsides, the velvety rolling hillsides of blonde meadows. Trees here rounded, plumpy, soft...in contrast to the tall straight spiny spiky pines of the north.
Saplings grow out of walls of rock. Tall, satiny grasses, the winds are playing through them. It could just be my mind playing tricks on me, but it seems that birds everywhere else in the country flap their wings an awful lot when they fly. And in California they don’t, they just soar.
Neil Young’s singing about Alabama. Did we pass through Alabama? It’s all a blur to me now. Black dirt. I’m waiting for my first sighting of the Pacific. I am thirsty for the Pacific. It seems like the sun’s always shining, on the Pacific.
The sky is blue and clear and sunny. Where’s the water? The water? I see it. I see it. Foamy surf hitting the rocks, fading into the haze of clouds, low, horizontal, hugging the shoreline.
The ocean ignited by the sun. Sunny California. I’m back. White caps, the Pacific rolling in, curved shoreline shrouded in clouds. Misty.
The Pacific Ocean just spreads out into forever. Waves rushing towards the beach like a herd of white stallions. The magnificent Pacific. Surf’s up.
Mossy dunes. Trains have great names. For example, out of Chicago I took the California Zephyr. This train I’m on now, I believe, is the Night Star. And on home to San Diego I’ll be taking, of course, the San Diegan.
The mighty Pacific breathing, expanding below. The hawk flies past, floating on the wind. The Pacific throbs beneath the...white veins and arteries. An oil derrick out on the horizon. It just feels so good be up against the Pacific again, after all this time. I’m grateful for this ocean. Foam like white lace.
White caps look like doves. I remember Jay said that we find what’s familiar as beautiful.3 The waves wash over the rocks, wash over everything. Wash it clean.
I’m not looking for Paradise.4 I’m just looking for happiness. We’re on a road to nowhere, sings David Burn of the Talking Heads. We’re on a road to Paradise. Here we go.
Undulating. The ocean is undulating beneath me. There’s some strange species indigenous to California. The waves undulate beneath me. I taste the salt. Smell the sky. I leave my bloody footprints everywhere I go.
The crying face of the moon comes through the train window across the aisle from me. I saw the country in a marathon race. Sort of my typical way of doing things. Telephone line moves in rhythm with the music of ELP. Black line against shadow sky. It is night and we approach L.A. A strange smell. Tar?
2 Again, I am spelling this phonetically based on Alan’s pronunciation. The actual spelling is Capote (and the correct pronunciation is “Ka poat ee”—he was another New Journalist, like Tom Wolf, famous for In Cold Bold which was later made into a film starring the same guy who starred in the TV series, “Baretta.” He also wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a film starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, in a role that seemed very Kerouac-like).
3 A friend with whom I’d been having some strangely esoteric conversation while walking along the beach at sunset before I left, which prompted me to ask, “Why is a sunset so universally recognized by our species as beautiful?” This was his answer. And so, I posited, if we were all living on Mars instead, we would consider the six suns—or however many it has—bouncing their settings off each other in all manner of different colors than the ones we’re used to as beautiful, and an earthly sunset we would think strange. Jay gave me the same kind of look my mother used to give me when I was growing up and asked, “Why?” that one time too many.