"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh..." Jack Kerouac "On the Road"
Over the Christmas holidays I have been catching up on some reading out of the pile of to-be-read books. My first choice was a book by the former wife of my favorite writer of the '50's, Jack Kerouac. "You'll be OK" was about their short, bitter-sweet marriage, and it gave me a lot of insights in this writer I have for so long admired. Today I began another book about Kerouac "Conversations With Jack Kerouac". It has revived in me an interest to go back and read a couple of his famous books that had a huge impact on me as a budding writer and a young woman trying to 'find herself' back in the end of the '50's and during the '60's.
Jack Kerouac Mar 12,1922- Oct 21, 1969
This was my pin-up boy picture in the late '50's and 60's. ( I think I've still got it among my papers and clippings about Kerouac)
I remember my first visit to New York City and what a thrill it was to me, and how it literally changed my life and way of thinking. I was fascinated to be in the city where Kerouac had spent so much time and especially to be staying in the Village. On a second trip to NYC in the mid '70's I stayed in the Bronx, but near a place where he had lived for a time. In future travels I'd spend more time in San Francisco, another of his haunts. And the two books I just read I had purchased at the City Lights Bookstore a couple of years ago on a visit there. I remember being so excited to find a little street named "Jack Kerouac Street" and to be in that book store where all the Beat poets had hung out.
Here is a memoir I wrote some time ago about that first visit to New York. It's a time that I will never forget because it truly changed my life.
FINDING MYSELF IN NEW YORK CITY
In the ‘60’s I was living in a new suburb of Edmonton in northern Alberta, a young stay-at-home Mom with a toddler daughter and a six year old son in grade one and a husband who was quickly descending into the bottom of a vodka bottle. Up until the time we’d moved there, when my husband was transferred as plant manager for a big new retread plant, I’d worked in a newspaper editorial department on the Coast, with dreams of being a writer, and an interesting group of friends including some I’d met at art school.
Life in that northern city sapped the creativity out of me. I was so absorbed in trying to figure out what to do about my home-situation at a time when there were no counselors available and no family to call on for help, that soon I lost ‘myself’. I stopped writing and eventually stopped painting too. To keep busy and creative, I started up my own nursery school, mainly for neighborhood kids. And in time I saved up enough money so that I could take myself on a vacation -- the first vacation I’d had in years on my own. Two of my best friends had moved East, one to New York, the other to Washington D.C. I was going to visit them. In Vancouver, we’d been the “Three Musketeers” and it had been several years since I’d seen them.
It had been a dream of mine since I was a teenager to go to New York. When I got there, I thought I’d died and gone to Beatnik heaven! There I was smack in the middle of Greenwich Village, home of my hero Jack Kerouac. I strode the streets of New York fearlessly, in awe of everything I saw.
My friend Bobby, on the other hand, had been living there for some time and had become totally paranoid. I couldn’t get over all the bolts and locks and chains on the door to her apartment. She scolded me for speaking to people on the street, or for sitting on the stoop in the evening chatting to passers-by.
“You can’t do that!” she said. “This is New York.”
“But I’m doing it,” I retorted. “I like it here.” I did. I loved New York. I felt it right into my soul. I was like Alice in Wonderland. What a thrill to sit at a sidewalk cafe overhearing a conversation at another table between a man and woman who, I realized, were discussing their friend “Janice” (Joplin, that is). And another time, sitting in a small bar beside some handsome young men who were relating the funny story of appearing on Ed Sullivan (the Everly Brothers).
It was August 1969. Everyone at the time was discussing “Woodstock”. Was I going to Woodstock? I had no idea what they were talking about. Sometime during my visit I was introduced to marijuana and hashish. At first I was afraid, because ten years before I’d seen my boyfriend destroyed by heroin. Drugs were a bad business to get mixed up in. But they educated me. MJ was a medicinal herb, and hashish it’s derivative. I tried it. Nothing terrible happened to me except a warm and fuzzy feeling.
I spent a few weeks in New York, walking around freely, gawking at the sights, going up into the Empire State Building (then the tallest building in the world as it has become, once again) Wow! What a thrill. Walking up the spiral staircase inside the Statue of Liberty. Breathtaking! Riding the buses and subway, walking in Central Park. Every breath I took, every step along those busy, exciting streets, I got closer to finding ‘myself’. Alberta and my problems were far, far away.
My other friend, Joan, was living in Washington DC. She was the “private secretary” of a wealthy Black lawyer. I hopped a train and went down to visit her, again, stepping into another Wonderland.
Joan’s “boss” had put her up in an elegant Colonial apartment filled with antique furniture.
She was socializing with the White House crowd and rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. As I was her out-of-town guest I had to pass the ‘inspection’, and was later invited to join her and a group of her boss’s friends at a swanky exclusive private club for professional persons of colour. She and I were the only two women in the group and the only white people in the place. Quite an experience and one that I have never forgotten, all because of a very nice African American television journalist who befriended me.
After drinks at the club, he invited me to come with him to “a very special bar” where he said there was an incredible pianist/singer entertaining. It happened to be shortly after the Washington Race Riots, and he wanted to talk to me about it, fill me in on the situation first-hand and from an African American person’s point-of-view.
I didn’t know the name of this bar until I found a remastered CD of this singer’s music, recorded about the time I’d been there, and released the following year, projecting her into the limelight. The bar was known as The Bohemian Caverns. The singer, he told me, was so talented that she should be Nationally known. Her name was Roberta Flack. It was a small, dark piano bar. She played the piano and sang and she was truly magnificent. This was when I first heard her sing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and I’ve never forgotten it. I’ll never forget how, at the break, I was in the washroom and she was there too and we talked. It was a great thrill. I knew I was meeting a ‘star’, although her first album was not released until the following year. Now, as I sit and listen to her remastered CD, singing those same songs she sang that night I first heard her, I remember that night, and I remember how that visit to New York changed my life forever.
I returned to New York several days later. When I arrived at Bobby’s apartment, she was not at home. Fortunately I had the keys to get in. Shortly after I arrived, someone came to the door to call for her. It was a young man named Nickie. He was surprised to find me there and concerned about Bobby’s whereabouts. It seemed he had been with her a day or two before and they had gone to visit a friend of his. Apparently when they were at this friend’s apartment, there was a huge drug raid, because the ‘friend’ it seemed was a big dealer of LSD. Bobby was found to be carrying a bag of marijuana and had been arrested. It turned out she was carrying her marijuana in her purse because she had been afraid I would ‘smoke’ some of it. Consequently, because of her paranoia, she was incarcerated in the immigration detention centre. Seems she had been living and working illegally in New York.
I hung around New York with Nickie after that and we visited Bobby in the big red-brick prison, took her bags of cookies and other treats. She was going to be deported. I was going to fly back to Alberta. But I didn’t want to go.
Nickie was probably one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. He showed me a different way of thinking and living. And by the time I boarded that plane to fly home I was a changed person. I had found myself. And from then on, my life would never be the same.
New York skyline, Sept 2006
Me, posing with a wax figure of Morgan Freeman. NYC 2006