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  • Ednold

Kerouwacked Part 1 6/30/22

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

I suppose not everyone out there is a big Kerouac fan, and that’s ok. And some people may not even know who he was, which really isn’t ok. Jack Kerouac was a writer, but not your typical, conventional, run-of-the-mill kind of writer. He was a seriously flawed man whose propensity to abuse just about any drug he could get his hands on was only one of his many faults. But he was also a very bright guy. He was a star athlete in high school and was smart enough to earn a scholarship to an Ivy League university. They don’t hand those things out to just anybody. Lots of people think he was a genius. Just as many, or more, think he was an idiot who wrote garbage. Whatever you think of him, the list of people who have ever influenced the world more than he did is pretty short, and that’s not debatable.

Not long after Elvis Presley changed the music scene in the 1950’s, Kerouac’s writing changed the social scene, and nothing since then has been the same as it would have been without him. His most popular book, On The Road, was published in 1957 and, as we all learned from Back to the Future, if the 50’s had been different then everything that’s happened since would be some alternate-universe version of what really happened. The unconventional adventures of Jack, or Sal Paradise as he called himself in the book, and his wild friend Neal Cassady (the book’s Dean Moriarty), as related in On The Road, changed everything. It’s safe to say that none of us, even the people who don’t like him or have never even heard of him, lead the same lives we would if he’d never come along.

Sadly, social impact wasn’t really what Jack was aiming for. He was actually a pretty conservative guy who wasn’t comfortable with the progressive hippie culture that he helped to inspire. His real goal was to create a new kind of literature, one that didn’t conform to the established rules. And though he was never successful in earning the respect of the literary establishment in his lifetime, he certainly does have a unique style. All the cool kids on their social media these days who think they’re the first ones to make up new words and ignore proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, and every other rule we learned in school are following in Jack’s footsteps.

So, I decided I’d follow in his footsteps too. It is 2022 after all, the year Jack Kerouac would have turned 100 if he hadn’t drunk himself to death before he even got halfway there, and the year couldn’t go by without Ednold marking the occasion in some way. So, Mrs. Ednold and I recently decided that the state of Oregon could get by without us for a few days, and we took a long weekend and hit the road. We were going back to Cali.

In true Kerouacian fashion, we took advantage of an offer from our friend in the Bay Area suburbs, and crashed in her living room for a few nights. We woke up bright and early Saturday morning and headed for the train station. Jack would usually roll into Frisco in one of the freight cars on the Midnight Ghost from L.A. I would be taking BART from El Cerrito. Not quite the same, but in the same spirit. Mrs. Ednold and Ms. Donna dumped me from the bucket and I waved from the platform as they headed back for a day of shopping, wine, and girltalk.

There aren’t many feelings in the world like emerging from a hole in the ground in Times Square, or Trafalgar Square, or Market Street in San Francisco. Your mind knows what to expect; you know what you’re going to see. But somehow you can’t prepare for the sights and the smells, the atmosphere and the energy all around you. Even sixty-five years ago it’s easy to see why Jack, an easterner originally from Massachusetts, liked the place. From the top of the Montgomery Street Station stairs I could see the distinct silhouette of the Transamerica tower a few blocks north, where it marked the southern end of Columbus Avenue, and the starting point for my trek around town.

Just a few blocks north on Columbus I came to Jack Kerouac Alley. It’s been turned into a tribute to Jack and like-minded artists and thinkers, with commemorative art on the walls and quotes on the ground from lots of people I’ve never heard of. The alley separates City Lights Books, where many of Jack’s friends had their work published over the years, and Vesuvio Cafe, where Jack spent a lot of time drinking. It was a little early to drink a toast to Jack, and their logo didn’t exactly whet my appetite.

I continued north toward Grant Avenue at the base of Telegraph Hill. During Jack’s heyday the big hangout for his group of beat friends was The Place at 1546 Grant Avenue. I knew The Place was long gone, but I still wanted to see where it had been, and I discovered it’s now a seamstress’ shop. I could have pretended that I needed my elastic-waisted basketball shorts altered just for the chance to go inside, but I decided against it. The Place could get pretty rowdy back in the late 50’s and the neighbors wanted to close it down so they could get some peace and quiet. That’s when the patrons started the tradition of snapping their fingers to show approval instead of screaming and clapping, in hopes of keeping the neighbors off their backs. It worked for a while, but by the end of the decade The Place was gone. I also discovered a small display in the window a few doors down on the corner of Grant and Filbert explaining that it had once been the publishing house for City Lights Books, and there’s a little plaque on the corner sidewalk commemorating that history.

As I headed west I looked around at the rooftops of the other houses in the neighborhood and wondered which was the one that Ken Kesey and the future Mrs. Jerry Garcia ascended to one night in early 1966 to smoke their dope. I had no way of knowing, but I picked one out and imagined the cops climbing up there to arrest them. It was Kesey’s second arrest in three days and eventually, after lots of drama and six months in jail, prompted him to return to Oregon and spend the rest of his life in Pleasant Hill. It was the end of an era, after which the hipster scene of North Beach morphed into the hippie scene a few miles to the west - that big community of peace and love known as the Haight. I wonder if any of them were sober enough to see the irony in that name.

After a few more blocks I came to Joe DiMaggio’s boyhood home on Taylor Street. Joe’s dad Giuseppe was a fisherman and wanted his son Giuseppe to be a fisherman too, so he moved the family to this place near Fisherman’s Wharf. Little Giuseppe, or Joe, as he preferred, was having none of that smelly business, and spent as much time as he could honing his baseball skills at the local park now named for him. I guess he turned out to be pretty good, though his image was forever tarnished by the fact that he played his entire career for the Yankees and then managed to ruin his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, becoming the only person in history to make those two mistakes in the same lifetime. Though he never mentioned it, it’s hard to believe that Kerouac, the former star athlete and massive baseball fan, wasn’t aware that he was spending lots of time just down the street from where Joe, who was at the height of his fame in the late 40’s, had grown up.

I decided to backtrack a few blocks east and check out Joe DiMaggio Park. When I was midway through the crosswalk on Columbus Ave., from the corner of my eye I noticed something falling out of the sky in front of me. I wasn’t sure what it was until it landed about five feet in front of me and bounced and for just a moment I was back at third base for the Pacific Power little league team. Before my mind had even registered exactly what was happening, my left hand had reached out and snagged it as it went by. It was a tennis ball. There were no cheers for my cat-like reflexes and impeccable hand-eye coordination. In fact, none of the other half-dozen people I was crossing the street with even acknowledged what had just happened. And I wasn’t sure what HAD happened. How does a tennis ball just appear from nowhere? I had my answer when I reached the other side of the street and saw that the park is sunken below street level and there are, in fact, two or three tennis courts down there. I couldn’t tell which person from which court was responsible for the stray ball, but my first instinct was to just throw it down there and let them sort it out. But I didn’t.

I wasn’t around when DiMaggio was playing, so I never got the chance to catch one of his homers or foul balls. To me he’s a guy who sold coffee makers on TV. But I’d just made an amazing play on a foul ball hit out of Joe DiMaggio Park! I was not going to thumb my nose at such an obvious sign from the baseball gods. No way was I throwing that ball back, and it is now proudly on display in my home.

Next up was a short climb up Russian Hill to see if I could find Neal Cassady’s old house. For a while he had settled down enough to move into the place with his wife, Carolyn, and Jack would stay with them when he was in town. I was a little disappointed to find that the houses on Russell Street look much like all of the other houses in San Francisco: Lots of stucco, with a garage on the bottom and one or two floors of living space up above. I just couldn’t imagine Neal living in one of them. But when I got to number 29 I was pleasantly surprised. Of course, it was the one house on the street that looked a little different. It’s an architectural outlier in the same way that Neal was a social outlier. It was perfect, and I could totally imagine him and Jack in there, drinking and catching up on whatever craziness was going on in their lives.

Continuing west, I made the long walk out to Fillmore Street in the Marina District to find the location of what had once been the Six Gallery. That’s the place where Allen Ginsberg had organized a poetry reading for October 7, 1955 during which he gave the first public reading of his famous poem Howl. Kerouac didn’t read any of his own poetry that night, but he was present, and he and Neal played their parts by passing around their jugs of red wine and providing vocal encouragement to the poets. I’m not even really a big fan of poetry. If it doesn’t rhyme and make me laugh I have a hard time getting into it. But this one event was the spark that started the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, and I think any time you have the chance to see where any renaissance started, you should do it. Whether it’s the Sheboygan Polka Renaissance of the 1970’s or the Marianna Finger-Painting Renaissance of the 80’s, you should always take the opportunity to see a place where history was made.

I snapped a picture of the plaque outside what was once the Six Gallery, and is now Tackos taco shop, then I turned around to head south. It was not a welcome sight. I had already trudged several miles and I may never have gotten up that hill. So, I walked back east to Van Ness before turning south and had a much more gradual grade to climb as I made my way over Nob Hill toward Market Street. As I passed Geary Street I glanced to the left just long enough to prompt memories of some fun times down that street a few years ago, and it was at about that point that I realized I was the only person around who wasn’t clad in some type of rainbow garb. As I got closer to City Hall and the Civic Center it dawned on me that there was a big PRIDE celebration going on, with thousands of people milling about in their rainbow pants, shirts and hats, many of them carrying rainbow banners and flags. I could hear the rainbow music and the amplified rainbow voices coming from a block or two away, so I skirted around the mob and kept walking south. I’m not against the PRIDE thing, but I was on a mission to Mission.

So far I had stayed pretty much on the routes that Jack had described in his books, but now I added a short detour to visit Mission Street where it meets Van Ness. I worked briefly at an office In the middle of that block a long time ago, and I remember two things from my mornings walking to the office from the BART station on Mission and 16th: The huge lines of immigrants lined up at the INS building across the street under the Central Freeway on-ramp, waiting for the doors of the office, and the country, to open to them, and the aroma coming out of the sausage factory just past the Armory above 14th Street. Frustratingly, you couldn’t buy the sausage. You could only smell it from the sidewalk and be tempted to break down the doors to get a taste of it. They say that you’d never want to eat sausage if you watched it being made, but to just smell it being made is something different altogether. Maybe it was because it was a Saturday, but there were no crowds at INS and no aroma of sausage where it should have been. I snapped a pic of the IRS office, which apparently isn’t the IRS office anymore. I know they didn’t go out of business, but I guess they’ve moved on, so I did too, back up to Market where the parade of craziness was in full swing.

Most of the pedestrians were part of the PRIDE crowd, judging by their dress, but as I walked east another group became more prominent: Giants fans. By about Powell Street the horde had become about 50/50, with those in black and orange making up half the mass now, and the closer I got to the bay, the more of them there were. Coincidentally, Kerouac and Cassady had both worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the railyard was off of 3rd Street, right about where the Giants’ stadium is today, which saved me a short walk to check out Jack’s old boarding house, which isn’t there any more. At Montgomery Street I had completed my loop and walked down the stairs to catch the train back under the bay. I was tired. I’d hiked eight or nine miles up and down those hills, but I’d seen everything I came to see.

Our Red Line train popped up out of the tube in Oakland and traveled just a few hundred yards before slowing and finally coming to a complete stop. We sat there for a good ten minutes before the driver came on the PA and let us know that our ride would not be continuing. There was a “significant police situation” at West Oakland station, and no trains were being permitted in or out. He would be taking us back to the city, where we would await further instructions on how to proceed. Strangely, but not surprisingly, the driver’s voice had triggered something in my bladder, and I suddenly had to pee in the worst way. After arriving back in San Francisco I found that all the underground restrooms had been closed some time ago for security reasons, and I couldn’t leave the platform area without buying another ticket to get back in. Many in the growing crowd of people waiting to get across the bay probably thought I was one of the headliners in the PRIDE celebration the way I was prancing around trying to keep from wetting myself, and I had no idea how long I’d be confined there before we could leave. After about 20 minutes that seemed like 20 hours, we were informed that service to Oakland would be resuming, and it did soon after. West Oakland was still closed and no trains were stopping there, but we flew through at full speed to the stations beyond. I found out later that there had been a shooting on a train as it waited to leave the platform, but the injuries were not life-threatening so I guess it ended happily for everyone except the shooter and all those people who missed their flights out of SFO. They were not happy at all.

I was ecstatic as we pulled into Downtown Berkeley station. I had somehow managed to arrive without being shot or, even worse, peeing my pants. I had a few more stops to make on my little tour, the first of which was at the McDonalds down the street, where the price of a Coke was a pittance for the privilege of being able to use their restroom. Whew! Back outside I found Berkeley Way and walked downhill to the west for a few blocks to find the site of Jack Kerouac’s old house. In May, 1957 he moved with his mom from Orlando, Florida. He had spent a lot of time in Berkeley and thought she would enjoy living out her days there just a few blocks from downtown Berkeley and the Cal-Berkely campus. She hated it, and less than two months later he moved her back to Orlando. But during those two months On The Road was published, and this is where Viking Publishing delivered a box full of copies of his book. It’s just a big apartment complex now, but you can still imagine him and his friends, and his mom, opening that box and passing around copies of that book. Copies of the first printing of that first edition in good condition go for $25,000 today. I don’t have one.

A few blocks away on Milvia Street I tracked down the little place where Allen Ginsberg had lived; another place where the gang had all congregated back in the day. Of course, it’s gone too, with nothing much to see there. But, across the street the Berkeley Arts Magnet school has created a Poetry Garden to commemorate all the poets that had come and gone in that neighborhood. It’s a nice little spot, and while I was there they were exhibiting some of the entries from the school’s poetry contest. I’m not sure who won the contest, but my pick would have been “Shadows” by fifth-grader Zach.

Well, that was about it. It does make a book more fun to read when you can envision the places where all the action is taking place, and now I could picture in my mind a lot of Kerouac’s Bay Area locations. Back underground, I found that there still weren’t enough trains for all the people heading into San Francisco. The trains were running, but not fast enough to carry everyone. I was heading north, though, so it was smooth sailing as I dozed all the way to Richmond. The problem was that I had got on that morning in El Cerrito, and that’s where Mrs. Ednold was expecting to pick me up. Oops. I would have just called and told her where I was, but I’d used up my phone battery taking pictures and running my Google Maps all day. No problem, there’s a pay phone right over there. Except the handset had been ripped out of the phone. It took me a while to find a functioning pay phone, and when I did the computer-lady-voice told me it would cost a dollar to place the call. I counted my change and came up a dime short. Surely, the guy at the ticket booth can break a dollar for me? No, he couldn’t. But the lady in line behind me heard me ask, took pity on me, and plunked a dime into the open palm of a person I’m sure she took for a homeless bum needing ten cents for his next vial of crack. I didn’t care. I thanked her profusely and placed my call. Ten minutes later Mrs. Ednold and Ms. Donna appeared, both clearly surprised to find me still alive after spending half an hour at the ‘hoodiest station in all of BARTland. I think the people in Richmond station were a lot more afraid of the homeless, penniless crackhead than I was of them. I’d had nothing to worry about.

To be continued.

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