This was before Nick Sampas started to get the booty. One of his jobs was running a dive beside the railroad tracks. It was just a working man's joint. Jack Kerouac, Nick's sister Stella's husband, liked to go there. By then Stella had given up trying to hide from Jack the five bucks he needed to get drunk. Some say she gave up too easily. But wives of drinking men will tell another story. Jack drank stone cold pounders. He always sat on the same bar stool. It was his bar stool. "This is where Jack used to sit," Nick said. They kept it as a place of honor, a shrine. I never dared to sit on it. Now the bar is more of a yuppie bar. I went by one day. The bar had been modernized; Jack's bar stool was no more. I am sad when a piece of contemporary history has been forgotten.
I used to drive up to Lowell from Boston to make a day of it. I'd drive to the Edson Cemetery and park near Jack's grave marker, a square of marble lying flat in the ground. Admirers left beside it trinkets or blossoms or beer cans, poems, old rubbers. Somebody in the family now and then cleaned up the junk, leaving a small symbolic pile. By then I understood something about this Lowell kid's sacrifice. He had burned up his life to make Art. The alcoholism and Jack's early death disturbed me, and I said about that a prayer. I put together Jack's death and Plath's suicide, which created an awful, tragic vision for me to unravel. But the words on the grave marker were the most disturbing: "He Honored Life". I worried that the words might be a platitude. But aren't platitudes usually long winded? The words continue hollowly, and the people nod and drop asleep. The advantage of Jack's words was in their brevity. I thought that brevity was a master writer's strategy. Jack himself must have directed them. One day I said to Nick, "I think those words must have been there at the beginning." His eyes lit up and he nodded. They require that you put one foot in change and the other in changelessness, and also they speak as much to the head as to the heart. I worried about those words while I waited on Jack at the Edson. I worried that maybe I was dumb because I worried about them so much. While the important things, such as Jack's drinking, floated by me like a wisp of smoke, I wondered if I was worrying inordinately over a trifle. But was it a trifle?
Then I'd start my beat up Honda and wander to the dive. There was always a crony. "Jack Kerouac! Yeah, I knew him. Jesus, that kid could bullshit!"
The dive people loved him, and they were proud that he was one of them. He was always on their side. He understood that the poor endure and nothing ever changes. The poor say "fuckkit" or "oh well". That's how they understand life. They put up with the ceaseless mouth flapping of the politicians and the bosses. Jack was poor all his life, a fact that is often ignored. But his heart was pure. Thus, he became immortal. It was so simple. I doubt he thought about it much. The dive people wanted him to come back.
Jack and Clara drank together many times. She was French Canadian, educated in the parish school. Somebody'd be down the dive. Jack hung out with Clara or Charlie or any one of the others.
When someone stopped beside her, Clara always glanced down to check the polish on your shoes. A well polished shoe might endanger her privacy. Shoe polish is not my thing. Clara read everything. Either she never married, or she married too many times to care to mention it. She was a peculiar Catholic solitary reading nut, God's friend. "Did you talk to Jack about literature?" I asked.
"Not much. He seemed to like to reminisce about our Lowell upbringing. He never talked about Buddha. It was the Pope, the Roman Catholic thing he worried about."
And there was Charlie. Wacky Jacky traded insults all day long with him. It was Charlie who accused Jack of being a bullshitter. The first time I heard him describe Jack with that word I flinched. Jack wrote bullshit; Jack had bullshit dripping out his nose; Jack's blood was bullshit. Charlie did not smile often, but when he got a rise out of somebody supposed to be smarter than himself, then a big grin would flicker across his ragged jaw. They said that Charlie and Jack struggled against each other. This is the scene as I imagine it. Moonlight slanting over spectral Lowell sidewalks, gutters crusted with mud. Damp shreds of paper litter the curb. Two men are fighting in the street lamps' twilight. One man is cynical, the other credulous; one is angry, the other gentle. The one cannot throw down the other; each man's pale hands wrestle to throttle the other's head. "You lied; you smoked too much dope, and you blew it!" "No! I told true! I tried hard. I cared." There is a shriek of laughter. I imagine stinging blows, blood. It is because both men are poor, and truth is what has money behind it.
Anybody can fill you in on Jack's drunkenness. He'd fall over dead drunk, sleep on the floor. Why go on? What was he doing in Lowell? He was on the cusp of fame! Why would he want to return to Lowell? And before that Florida! Even more nutty. He died in Florida. There is nothing to do in Florida. It is duller than Vegas. There is nothing to do in Vegas. Who's Jack Kerouac? Lowell wanted to know.
(But one day not too many years after Jack died, Lowell's sons and daughters got educated. They threw out all the old mob and their "councilors". Like everything else that comes to good in this world it was a grass roots movement. The Songas family helped. These were the sons and daughters of Lowell, and they realized that one of their own was becoming immortal, so they built in his honor a really touching monument, and maybe it will endure. Every time I visit it, I am inspired.)
What brought him home? Traveling as if in a great circle, he saw a good bit of the world. And, as if it had been decided at the beginning, he came home. He had not long since written Vanity of Duluoz, so he was working at a very high level. In fact, you'd swear something holy was going on. We know Jack was smart, but this? which seems so almost unreal? Compare it to Great Expectations, for instance, if you don't believe me.
Charlie swore that Jack blew it through the sin of bullshit. That happens sometimes, even to people who are very smart. And it may have been that Jack lied. But never claim to me that you know a writer who didn't. Art is not always about factual truth, but it always is about wringing time out of experience, which makes a deeper truth than factual truth. When Adam noted that the apples dropped and rotted into the ground, he knew that he wasn't in Eden any more. Struggling with that observation is a simple, eternal human activity.
Whether he really blew it or not, toward the end, after he started to get famous, he came back to his boyhood home. Nobody thought Memere had much to do with it. She was following Jack around by then. There was the drinking, his invitation to death.
Clara said: "I think he just got tired of thinking. He never mentioned his own works. He was on to another thing, another mother lode of experience. So he was finished with all that. They say that is a hard time for a creative person, when they're onto something new. One day he was dead drunk and grumbling his way through 'Antony and Cleopatra'. He looked so unhappy! And I asked him about Japhy in Dharma Bums. And he didn't seem to know, he went blank, and then he went right back to 'Antony and Cleopatra'. I swear God was in his head and he couldn't shut off the voice. Eventually, it must hurt to live, and you fall out of love with it."
One day Nick came in. He said to me: "I want to show you something. You mentioned 'He Honored Life'. That was one thing. So you're on the right track in my opinion. Another thing is this. Jack was great friends with Saba. I'm sure you know that. They wrote poems back and forth to each other. Saba worried about Jack, the life he was leading, and so on. Saba died at Anzio. Saba wrote Jack a letter from the front. When Jack read this letter, he went outside and cried and couldn't be consoled."
So I read the letter. It was as if the words were alive some thirty years later and I didn't even know the guy. I couldn't focus my eyes. The words were more than words. And this is true, and I swear it on a holy thing. This happened in the dive beside a street of Lowell on the wrong side of the tracks. It was as if Saba had returned and he was standing beside me. Maybe it was Saba. Maybe Saba brought Jack home to patrol the streets of Lowell, looking for Art. Saba was waiting for Jack. And so am I.
The immortals belong to everybody! There is no beating you take waiting for Jack. It is just waiting.
|I love this picture. He was a great literary thinker, too. But not professorial.|