by Karen Moller
(Swans - October 8, 2007) In 1959 Kerouac seemed to me to be some kind of God, a sort of prophet sent to liberate us from the conformist middle-class lives we were being programmed to live. He recast the myth of the American West for me, a restless, idealistic art student from rural Canada. Instead of, Go West, young man -- freedom is waiting for you, the myth became, Go East, young woman, and forge a new identity.
In my third year of art school I often spent my Saturday afternoons browsing the local bookstores. Curiosity made me pick up Kerouac's On the Road, the book that sent me on my travels. Today I'd probably dismiss Kerouac's heroes as macho guys treating women badly but at the time I didn't notice it, and somehow it didn't matter, probably because there were no female heroes anyway. As I raced through the first few pages I began to tremble with exhilaration. Here was a voice I wanted to hear as he asked the same questions I was asking. Why go for mediocrity, life measured out in sensible portions? Why accept sameness and routine when new encounters and novel adventures are out there, just waiting to be sampled?
No sooner had I discovered that book than I saw my friend Suzan with a copy of On the Road in her handbag. "Gosh," I said, "Kerouac's raw, exciting prose really gets to me. He fills my head with yearnings to be off, to be doing, to be living out loud."
"Yeah, Sal and Dean are real cowboys, well, rebels," she said. "I'd like to be like them, defying my parents, the world, whatever, living life at dizzying speeds."
"Imagine!" I said. "Just a couple of troublesome free-spirited guys zigzagged their way across America in an old jalopy, hating mediocrity and reinventing every single moment.
Suzan and I sat in our favorite coffee shop that day envying those guys. She quoted several passages and then said, "I'd just love to be doing what I want, like those guys. You know, answering to no one. Being a guy, that's real freedom.
And so it went till one spring day, as we sat in the same coffee shop, it just seemed natural and right when I asked, "Why can't we be guys?"
"Yeah," she said. "Let's hitchhike to San Francisco."
Once the idea was voiced, there was no stopping us. The next morning we hit the road in an adventure that we felt belonged only to us. In true Kerouac spirit, we should have driven those one thousand five hundred miles in an old jalopy, but neither of us had a car or knew how to drive.
Hitchhiking might sound romantic to the young, but the problems started as soon as Suzan and I were dropped off at the nearest US border, two hundred miles south of Calgary. How were we going to get across? Suzan twisted her long blond hair nervously around her fingers. "Hey, you know, it's a criminal offense to take someone under twenty-one across the border without a passport," she said as we stood in the street, thinking things over. "Maybe they might put us in prison too," she added.
I shrugged, worried that she was going to quit on me and go back. I suggested we take a bus across. Like so many schemes hatched out of desperation, it seemed like a good idea; even Suzan was pleased with it. We boarded the local bus to the nearest US town, but when the bus got to the border, the plan started to unravel. At first, I could not figure out why the customs inspector was giving Suzan funny looks, until I took a good look at our fellow passengers in their conventional suits and dresses. Beatnik clothes would not raise an eyebrow now, but in 1959, normal was twin sweater sets, longish skirts and bobby socks. Our black art-school existentialist outfits complete with long straight hair, pale lipstick, and black stockings, made us stand out like space aliens taking a holiday on Planet Earth.
I panicked. Oh, god! We are in trouble. He probably thinks Suzan's off to Hollywood. She was too pretty and although blonde, a look-a-like for Juliette Greco, the 1950s famous Saint Germain singer and existentialist. The inspector was not so interested in me: just a kid, he was probably thinking. Nevertheless, he kicked us both off the bus in the middle of nowhere, with only a kind of shack offering snacks and coffee.
"So much for your ideas," Suzan said dismissively.
"Listen, I know the next border crossing. It's near my hometown, two hundred miles west." She looked very reluctant until I asked, "Where is your Kerouac spirit?" No sooner had I spoken than a red station wagon with three unreliable-looking young men in baseball caps pulled over. "Are you going anywhere near Kamloops?" I asked hopefully.
"You wanna go there?" asked the driver, a sweaty, florid-faced kid with some serious acne scars. "We ain't doing nothin'. Get in."
As soon as we accepted Suzan started complaining and giving them a run-down of our troubles. "You wanna cross the border?" the driver asked, giving a wink to the others. "Me and the guys will run you across the back hills into the States. C'mon, it'll be fun."
I was getting scared. Suzan was attracting too much attention from the wrong sort of guys. "Thanks," I said, "but my Dad's the chief of police in Kamloops, and if you'll just drop us there, I'm sure he'll take us across." I saw them glance at one another and back at Suzan. For once, she knew enough to keep her mouth shut.
In Kamloops, they dropped us near the police station and we belted down to the Greyhound Bus café. "Suzan," I said as I dragged her into the ladies' toilet and started rummaging through her bag, looking for something that would make her look like the girl next door off to visit her aunt across the border. "You have got to change your clothes."
She struggled determinately against my suggestions to change her style, particularly opposed to the idea of removing her black eye-makeup and tying a scarf over her beautiful hair. Nevertheless, in the end she gave in and we crossed the border with no problem. I thought that was the end of it but Suzan had bought into her role so wholeheartedly she couldn't stop living it. For an hour I sat in the seat behind her, trying hard not to laugh as she gave the man next to her glimpses of her imaginary, straight-laced aunt. "Oh, I've never hitchhiked," she exclaimed as she leaned into the man's face -- her special technique, as she called it, to convince someone she was telling the real truth. "Auntie Pru wouldn't approve!"
On the outskirts of Spokane, Washington, we were picked up by two boys driving down to Portland, Oregon, on the Pacific coast. Not exactly the shortest route but in the general direction that we wanted to go. In Portland they wanted to take us home to meet their mom, and Suzan, hoping for a free bed for the night, wanted to take them up on it.
"No way!" I told her emphatically. The way our luck was going, I suspected we were likely to get more than we had bargained for.
The boys seemed disappointed by my attitude and perhaps to get even dropped us off near the docks, a seedy, rundown section of downtown Portland. At a hotdog stand where we got something to eat, the vendor directed us to a shabby hotel. Suzan insisted I cut down on expenses by taking a single room while she climbed the fire escape to wait for the opportunity to creep through the window. By then it had turned into a cold, damp night and was pretty late. The intensely bright light of the moon shinning on Suzan, high up on the staircase, gave her the look of a blue angel hovering over the area. This image apparently didn't detract one wino, who called up from the alley, "Wanna make a quick fiver?"
We didn't know it then, but we had stumbled into the red light district. And in the clear light of morning, Skid Row looked even more sinister than it had the night before. Shabby men lounged on street corners, and broken bottles littered the sidewalk. At breakfast in a small café, a bearded man sat down next to us and began talking to Suzan about Jesus and the second coming and whether or not she was "prepared." To my surprise, Suzan sat there nodding and agreeing with his religious ranting. I finally realized that she was counting on him to pay for her bacon and eggs. Separating her from her would-be mentor became quite an ordeal, as he was convinced that she had been converted to his faith and he wanted to take her off to his "church," whatever that might have been.
Leaving Portland became quite an ordeal till two policemen put us on the highway heading down the coast toward San Francisco. Distance became illusory as days merged into nights in a sleepless blur since we no longer stopped at hotels but hopped from one car to the next.
A couple of days later the pale light woke me as we rocketed into San Francisco at about six in the morning. The driver, a young boy about our age, refused to let us off in the run-down area of North Beach because, he insisted, it was full of beatniks and far too dangerous. Such was the power of a few rebel poets and writers to inspire fear.
The April fog was hanging in ragged streamers above the Bay Area as we dragged ourselves out of the car and walked the final mile to North Beach.
"Hey, we made it," I said, smiling happily and giving Suzan a nudge. Suzan, half asleep and looking like a rumpled bag of old clothes, shook herself and looked around slightly dazed as if trying to make out where we were. I laughed, but glancing down at myself I realized we were both in quite a disheveled state.
The first thing I noticed as we reached North Beach was the way the beatniks were dressed. The girls either looked like Juliette Greco, or tried to look like her with their long hair, black stockings, and blackened eyes. In Canada, I had adopted that look too, not in imitation of the beatniks; I hardly knew what they looked like but in imitation of the arty French look, evocative of Existentialists and life in Sainte Germain des Prés. The head teacher of my art school, an old fuddy-duddy, had threatened to ban me from the school for looking too consciously rebellious. Rebellious certainly, but I was pretty sure it was my thick black stockings that he found most unacceptable. They were, in an old-fashioned way, too provocatively sexy.
The original beatnik look adopted by Kerouac's generation had begun in the fifties and was personified by the young Marlon Brando as the motorcycle-riding rebel in the film, The Wild One. Brando wore a tee shirt and jeans, signaling his desire to be affiliated with the working class. His leather bomber jacket connoted the heroic derring-do of the World War II fighter pilot. Early beatniks copied him, but by 1959 the look had evolved into something more self-consciously "artistic" with beards and French berets. To tell the truth, it was not just the look that antagonized people. It was the idea that a rebel group had the nerve to turn against the American good life.
The San Francisco press and in particular the local Establishment denigrated the movement as a resident phenomenon and treated the beat writers, poets, and artists as purveyors of childish nonsense. They mocked the bearded, longhaired men and black legged "girls of easy virtue" who hung around Grant Avenue in their dark sunglasses (a nod to the black jazz musicians).
From the moment the Beat movement received its name, it formed a group identity and was unstoppable. Herb Caen, the writer coined the word "beatnik," derived from "beatitude" and "beatific," to describe those bestowing or possessing bliss, rather than the alternative meaning sometimes given to beat -- beaten down by society.
Full of awe and idealism, Suzan and I also felt unstoppable, at least for the time being. We rented a room in a reasonable hotel in North Beach, the heartland of the beatnik community. Unfortunately, the owner saw us "hanging around with those good-for-nothing beatniks" and decided we were an undesirable element. One morning she met us on the landing, frowning as if we had somehow insulted her. "I run a respectable place here. I only gave you a room because you came from out of town and didn't look like lesbians," she growled. "But I'm not having people like you in my hotel."
There was nothing for us to do but shrug, pack up our possessions, and leave. When we were out of the woman's earshot Suzan said, "I didn't like that place anyway." She paused, puffing under the weight of her bag. "You know what that woman's problem is? She's mixed up. She thinks, like the straight world, that nonconformity is one bundle of intellectuals, painters, dropouts, sex perverts, and dope fiends."
I nodded. "Our freedom scares her," I said. "Damn it! Europeans fled to America to be free. Now we've got to go to Europe to be free."
Suzan nodded enthusiastically. "Right, Europeans have seen it all. I bet we could dress like we do, hang out in cafés discussing heavy stuff all day over a coffee, and nobody would blink."
Now the closest Suzan ever came to Europe was watching old French movies, but she was right anyway. Europeans do tend to accept rebels, loners, and eccentrics as a part of their society. We plunked our baggage down in the nearest café and ordered coffee. I thought about some comments my Danish father had made as he sat listening to the news one particular morning when I was fifteen. He objected strenuously to North American conformity and insisted that at least people who live in small communities could still believe in the ideals that had helped create America. "We can make it like we want, but city dwellers..." He shook his head in dismay. I had pondered his words for many days before asking him what he meant.
He shook his head again. "It's all very complicated, but the folks in the city think that experts know best. They conform and let other guys tell 'em how to live." He sat in his chair, his newspaper on his knees, while I waited for him to continue. He seemed to hesitate between his desire to return to his paper and the novelty that one of his children was actually listening to him. Then, deciding my interest was genuine, he went on to explain that during the Depression, the cities suffered the most. "Unlike us country folk, they starved back then, and now for them work is just a job." Only later did I understand he was saying that in the cities, work as man's self-expression had ceased.
Our problem at hand, though, was much more pragmatic. Suzan and I had no place to live. We sat dejectedly in that coffee shop, philosophizing until our problem was solved by an acquaintance, a young journalist that we had met briefly. He had a room to rent, he said, on the roof of a building high above the North Beach area. The room, as it turned out, was just big enough to hold a double bed, but the location, perched like a white seagull on the slopes of Telegraph Hill, had spectacular panoramic views. On one side the city and in the distance, the gray sails of ships were just visible as they made their way across the bay. The whole building was enveloped not only by the salty smell of the sea but the wildflowers that covered the top of the hill and the sharp tang of sourdough bread that floated up from the bakery below our window.
We were enchanted and managed to ignore the owner's too-friendly impromptu visits and his constant suggestion that we take our showers in his apartment. As the days passed, we discovered that the enormous terrace was a perfect place to read and the tiny room more than big enough for the short hours that we slept. But then, we had little time for sleeping. We were too busy exploring the beatnik territory and getting to know the inhabitants.
In the percolating underground of the beat community, I recognized my own impatience for talk, for joy, and perhaps enlightenment. At the same time, in that refuge of misfits and rebels, I was hoping for something more. To a degree, I found what I was looking for, the sense that I belonged, especially in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookshop, the epicenter of the beatnik underground. It was a treasure chest of information, new publications, small press releases, as well as announcements of poetry readings and jazz concerts. I was relatively ignorant intellectually and puzzled my way through the walls devoted to poetry and poets including Ferlinghetti's own book, Pictures of the Gone Wind, a collection of oddly whimsical and surreal poems, similar to poetic telegrams. Mostly I was grateful to sit among those shelves full of books, in the bright, lively atmosphere, and listen to the intellectual ponderings of those authors and poets who dropped in and who sat around discussing many subjects.
City Lights and its treasures mesmerized me, and so did Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He was in many ways the éminence grise of the local Beat scene. Often Ferlinghetti emerges in my dreams and mixes with certain events that are ever changing and, like his stories, rich in detail and full of moments of joy and grief. He, like Kerouac was a mentor to the young, a point of reference and remains for me where it all began.
Many years later I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti again in the wine hills of Verona. At the age of 82, he was still lean and spry. Even the mass of fine wrinkles that ran over his youthful exterior merely added an extra dimension of beauty to his lively face.
"Ah! I remember you," he said with a charming smile. "Not only in London, but I also remember that 20-year-old girl hungry for life arriving from the Canadian prairies with little more than a copy of On the Road in her bag."
He described me perfectly, but I found it hard to believe I stood out from all the other young girls who conceivably hung out in his shop, reading his books, drinking his coffee, and listening to his abundant literary criticism. Perhaps they had all faded into one, and for the moment, that one was me. The thought made me happy.
"Well, Karen, we are almost the only beatniks left," he said shaking his head.
I smiled, doubtful that many beatniks would have included me in that category, especially since I had rejected the unspoken rule that beatnik chicks should be an available, common sexual property. I hoped Ferlinghetti included me in the Beat Generation in the way Kerouac described Beats as "characters with a special spirituality, who did not gang up, but were solitary Bartlebys staring out the dead windows of our civilization." Bartleby, the character in Melville's short story, was in my opinion an apt symbol of the beatnik refusal to participate in conformist society. I sensed deeply that spirit of rebellion, the refusal to accept that my life was predetermined, especially predetermined by the fact that I was only a girl.
Now when I reflect on Kerouac's book I realize it was not just the raw, exciting prose, the hating of mediocrity, the yearnings to be off; to live life at dizzying speed. Kerouac didn't give me a doctrine on how to live; but I got the message that I needed from him and it had saved me from years of wandering in the wilderness. On the Road flashed a warning sign that all was not right with the world but it also said all is possible. It was with that spirit and sense of freedom that I took off for San Francisco, the beatnik heartland, just as hundreds of other young people were to do in the years that followed.
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