(In honor of Jack Kerouac’s birthday, March 12th, an excerpt from my Greyhound travelogue, “Stray Passages”)
I discovered Kerouac, by chance, when I was nineteen and as a wide-eyed babe greedily suckling Kerouac’s vision-engorged tit, that which he had eaten and swallowed, that which he loved and was made up of, was passed on to me.
I had been working as an editorial assistant at Families First, a parenting magazine located in the Village. One of my favorite things to do during my lunch breaks was to pop into the bookstores in the neighborhood—Strand, Shakespeare & Co., Barnes & Noble—or to browse the offerings of the book-sellers lining the sidewalks. On this day I had gone to Tower Records, and in the basement there was a section that carried a small sampling of literature and magazines. I saw the book, On the Road, picked it up, read the synopsis on the back cover, and decided to buy it. I had no idea who Jack Kerouac was, knew nothing about the Beat Generation. My reading selections up to that point, aside from that which had been assigned to me in school (and “assigned” reading material, no matter what it was, usually felt bereft of a certain joy, a certain curious warmth, that came to me when I picked or discovered the books on my own, outside of school) had been comic books, Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, The Hardy Boys, horror stories, crime novels, serial killer biographies. My house was not in the least bit a literary one, in that all my father read were local newspapers and the liner notes inside album sleeves, and my mother self-help books.
So I started reading On the Road during my train ride home back to Brooklyn, and as always happens with first love: its stamp was immediate and irrevocable. I zipped through the book in a couple of days and when I was done I was running a very high happy fever. I was hot and giddy with inspiration, I was in that woozy state, which I would experience again later on with books like Tropic of Cancer (Miller) and The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (Saroyan) in which I felt like my brain-breaths had been stopped in their tracks, or were in a state of exalted suspension. I hadn’t known writing could be like that: the musicality, the verve, the livingness of it. The language itself wasn’t just telling about things, it was the thing itself, it reflected and oozed and exuded the essence, and for me, who had spent a lot of time with Joe Hardy and Spider Man and Charles Manson, this Kerouac was something brand-new and different, yet also heartwarmingly familiar.
Thoughts of traveling, of hitting the road, had been ballooning inside me for several years, and Kerouac’s flood had broken me open. I felt ready to do it. While my job at the magazine was a good one—there were the free shows and events and all-expenses-paid press trips, the fact that my editor had become like a second mother to me, the access I had to resources such as the computer and printer and postage meter, all things that abetted me in my quest to “make it” as a writer—I had no desire to be a journalist, nor to climb the editorial ladder. I was obsessed with one thing: Experience. Experience, at the time, meant this magic abstract tangible, a golden grail that if you quested hard and long enough, with the proper context of vision, you could find and hold and have. So, in a nutshell, my goal was: Go and find Experience, as if accumulating pieces of gold, accumulate as much of it as you can, until you are filthy rich with material. Then, convert your currency into words, into writing, and its value will be recognized and appreciated by the World-at-Large.
Looking back at this twenty-year-old, his head throbbing with visions and a preordained sense of destiny, I have to laugh, but my laugh is a heart-gladdening one. I’d root for this kid, and kids like him everywhere, any day. The beauty in foolishness is something that remains very dear and warm to me, and I hope I’m still saying and feeling that when I’m seventy, when I’m ninety.