On the Road to Jack’s House
From time to time, different Kerouac House alumni will write in and tell us what they’ve been up to, or how their residency helped prepare them for the writing life. This month, we hear from Spring 2002 resident, Ray McNiece.
In January of 2002, I set out on yet another poetry performance tour, this one down to the house where Jack Kerouac was living in Orlando, Florida when On the Road became a national sensation in 1957 and where he wrote The Dharma Bums in a two-week riff fueled by benzedrine and wine. The Kerouac Project Committee had recognized years of my own road wanderings and subsequent scribblings, and I was awarded a residency at the house they had recently refurbished. A fellow road-warrior writer, I was coming full-circle. I’d have six weeks to write from one very famous still point of the turning world, to relax and breath into the bones of words some meaning of verbal being where it all turned for Kerouac — for better and worse.
I’ve been down many roads already. And back again. I was born the son of a traveling salesman who had been a sailor in his youth. Join the Navy, See the World, he read on a billboard. And he did, sailing out from the hills and hollers of his Ohio Appalachian youth. My kinfolk had lost their land to the banks during the depression and rode the hillbilly highway north to work in the mills of what is now known as the rust-bowl. Cleveland that is — steel mills, chemical pools, union jobs.
When World War II ended they went back down-home, but dad enlisted in the Navy as a dental technician on an LST, seeing action at the Inchon Landing. Earning a purple heart driving a landing craft. After Korea, he went directly to Cleveland to marry his sweetheart, my mother, a good Slovenian girl who he first wooed by giving her free rides on the flying-cars during summer vacations at Euclid Beach amusement park on the shores of Lake Erie.
Dad was a charming, Shawnee-haired Irish Hillbilly carney full of blarney. After they married, he worked his way up from a stock clerk of a dental supply company to its top salesman. It became work that kept him away from home for weeks on end. Though I was not born on the road, we moved before I saw my first birthday and kept moving nearly every year thereafter. Even when we did finally settle in one town — Willoughby, Ohio — we moved from house to house there, until my old man (who never made it to be an ‘old man’) could not make one more move.
His schemes to become his own boss never came to fruition. Every time he saved enough to start his own company, he’d lose it in that endeavor. We could never afford to buy a home. After the third or fourth salesman’s attempt at living the American dream, he was broke and beat. Flat out flat-lined in the West End Hospital ICU, dying as much from a broken heart as a heart attack. The nursery rhyme “this old man comes rolling home” had portentous resonance all through my youth, recalling one of his many weary returns from yet another business trip. Traveling is down in my own walking bones. ‘I learn by going where I have to go’ Roethke’s poem advises. ‘Just like your father,’ Ma says, when I tell here I’m heading out on the road again. I wrote a song in his honor a few years back:
My old man was a travelin’ man,
traveled all across this land,
looking for a place to call our own,
looking for a house to call a home.
We traveled here, we traveled there.
We traveled damn near everywhere.
Always there was somewhere else to go,
always has been somewhere else to go.
It got so bad my mother kept
the boxes in the garage packed,
knowing we’d be heading down the pike,
knowing we’d never be coming back.
I was driving with his ghost last night,
saw that old familiar porch light,
knowing they were sleeping there inside,
my old man broke down and cried.
We drove right by that maple tree
where he hung a swing for me.
No children swing there anymore,
only strangers staring from the door.
Part of the elegiac energy of On the Road comes from Sal and Dean’s search for Ol’ Dean Moriarity. The missing or absentee father remains a prevalent motif of 20th century America. The advent of the car culture and the inevitable get up and go in search of a better life even if it means leaving family created a nation of children of wandering patriarchs. My own old man’s travels were more often travails, motivated out of necessity not wanderlust. But he always kept his green canvas sea-bag in the closet, “Mac” emblazoned on the side. It was stolen out of my car down in Bahama Village when I was doing shows in Key West in the mid-90s. All my props for my solo theater work, Us? Talking Across America, including a backdrop outline of the United States made from 50 flags saved from being burned at the flag factory were recovered hours later in an alley, but not the bag, slung over some homeless dude’s shoulder no doubt. I still scour thrift stores when I visit there in search of that talisman of his sea faring days.
Not having the responsibilities of 6 children, I’ve been free to heed the call to roll pretty much whenever and wherever I wanted. Like Kerouac, the trips have been as much an exploration of self as of country. The jottings, dramatic encounters and verbal snapshots along the way have become my own continuing saga. So it flows. I heeded the same call Kerouac records in On the Road when Dean roars out of New York towards New Orleans: “Whooee!” yelled Dean. “Here we go.” He hunched over the wheel and gunned her…We were all delighted. We realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one noble function of the time, move. And we moved.” The exhilaration of what’s around the next bend inspires me to go one more mile, finding home wherever I lay my head — which has been damn near everywhere. I know I’ll come full circle in this world of wheels within wheels as I couch surf across America.
We move and have our being in relation to each other. I am the sum total of all those people I’ve met on the way. So in a sense, you have all been along for the ride:
I am a gypsy poet and rhyming’s what I do
from Beantown to San Fran on through to Tuscaloo.
I’m known from Nawlins to Chicago and back,
and they know me by the name of Buddy-Ray Mac.
Jack’s books didn’t start this odyssey, but his adventures validated my own essays in search of an America that is itself constantly moving, being torn down, and created anew. And although my college literary training had me composing in either the deep image Midwestern sublime school or in the Yeatsian cadences that were my own Celtic predilection, I mainly walk the talk of Whitman’s innovations, the song of the open road in spirit and form that leads to democratic vistas.
I’ve looked East into the dawn from a dune at the end of a trail through the windswept hummocks that lead to Eugene O’Neil’s beach shack outside Provincetown and, crossing the Golden Gate, looked West from the Headlands’ cliffs as seals barked into the big, cold, cobalt surf crash Pacific sunset. I’ve logged thousands of miles and miles of miles and miles, crisscrossing by car the great flyover states between the coasts. I’ve heard the crunch and spit of gravel on Ohio back roads, the honk and blare of Chicago intersections, and the clattering tunnels of cornrows in Iowa. I’ve sucked oysters in New Orleans, chewed rare steak in Omaha, munched sushi in LA, and sampled biscuits and gravy in restaurants off I-40 from North Carolina to Arizona. I drove right down the centerline of the freeway out in Montana where I never saw another car for three hours and actually did see where the deer and antelope play, as the cowboy song Home on the Range describes. I’ve withstood the g-force white noise of a daylong haul-ass across the flatland of the Texas panhandle, lumps of gray Mule deer the only things breaking up the monotony in that 12-hour example of infinite perspective all the way from Houston till ol’ El Paso — where just across the state line the sign reads 1,003 miles to Barstow. “The thousand is no problem,” says Gregorio. “But those three miles, man, that’s gonna kick my ass.”
And “kicks” is why I did it in the early days before I got on the performance poetry circuit I helped start. Oh, I might have had a gig here or there. It’s better nowadays than in the cold war era when, as Gary Snyder said, you had to travel a thousand miles to find a poetry reading. My main running partner and I, Steve Sundberg, AKA Bobcat, were still exploring the yearning of rebels without a cause or a plan, giving vent to James Dean’s aimless modus operandi lingering on from the late 50s. ‘Why do we do it?’ James Dean’s character had asked on the cliff after the hot-dog hot rod crash in Rebel Without a Cause. ‘We gotta do something, man,’ the other racer responds turning away from the scene. That energy was translated into the hippie era’s long strange trips “Hippie” itself comes from Beat Slang, a derisive term from Hepcats for the next generation’s wanna-beats. In fact, it was Dharma Bums‘ call for a rucksack revolution that fostered much of the back to nature migrations in search of counter-culture paradise. But Jack’s urge was more in the Tao hobo, crazy poet sense than the desire to start a peace/love commune. Kerouac was in essence a lonesome traveler even though his most celebrated book commemorates friendship.
Meanwhile, I recall Bobcat beating on the dash of the drive-away car we were delivering from Boston to San Diego, a $30,000 example of German engineering which we later got stuck in 2 feet of cement-like clay in Chaco Canyon, yelling Dean Moriarity’s mantra “Go, man, go” over the Doors’ Break On Through as I’m screaming along through the New Mexico night. Now he’s beating me on the shoulder.
“No, man, I gotta go. Pull over at the next rest stop.”
That goof comes from one of our first forays out to blaze our own trail like countless other young males trying to answer Jack’s existential query, ‘whither goest thou, American, in thy shiny car in the night?’ The road buddies’ adventure has since become a genre of American film and literature, a cultural initiation ceremony of male character.
I had no idea when I visited Jack’s grave up in Lowell that the same highway A1A that starts in Maine and ends in Key West would carry me to the house where he lived when On the Road broke nationally. And those adventures down the American road, as in the Beats’ international forays, prompted a broadening of my own range out into the wider world’s roads.
I’ve bicycled ribbons of moonlight winding the cliffs of Amalfi for romantic interludes and lurched along rusty steel rails screeching to stop in the dingy Belgrade station with a wheeze of diesel. I’ve wheeled around the traffic circles of Roma through spring evening fog in a VW bug with bad brakes, lubricated with spumante and the gleeful expletives from a carload of Italian poets. I’ve gotten dancing drunk reciting Rimbaud with a clochard on Rue de Mouffetard in Paris. I’ve squinted down the first paved road at Knossos on the island of Crete as it ran past a souvenir stand and off into the sunset and walked the beech and poplar and pine-lined lanes of Peredelkino outside Moscow with Yevtushenko and up the driveway of Pasternak’s Dacha to hear stories of his exile thereafter Dr. Zhivago was banned in the Soviet Union. I’ve washed dust from my sandals outside Lorca’s house at Fuente Vaqueros in Andalusia and sat at Yeats’ grave under Ben Bulben watching horseman pass by. I’ve sat alongside Ferlinghetti in the back of the bus past Mt. Vesuvius on the Pullman My Daisy Tour listening to tales of the Beats from one of their mentors and wondering how all those wheels within wheels conspired to carry me along the way of the word.
I arrived at Jack’s House on Valentine’s evening. My host told me to call when I got to the Beeline Expressway and she’d give me the final directions. It wasn’t my plan to drive in around rush hour. I’ve been on the road long enough to know better and I’ve been through Orlando’s rush hour before and never was there a truer oxymoron. Stall-hour more like. One accident snarls the whole city to a standstill. I’m a little leery of driving in Central Florida anyway since I got totaled in Tampa on a rainy evening by a 16-year-old who had just got his license just as I was starting yet another tour back in ’96. He splattered on the back of my ’78 heavy metal, undercover-cop blue Ford Fairlane, bending the frame and my lower back to boot. I’m always looking over my shoulder in this neck of the woods. So I stopped at Route 15, my lucky number and the Tibetan Buddhist number of perfection, which is an exit before Semoran Boulevard, the airport exit, to gather my wits about me, fearful of tourist traffic inevitably sucked into the Disney Vortex. She gave me surface road directions to avoid I-4 congestion. Semoran to Colonial to Edgewater to Shadylane. Simple and straightforward. Four turns total. But they were maneuvers that would have to be performed in the middle of the worst time to be on the streets of Orlando. It took an hour to go 10 miles.
It was my own fault. I got a late start in West Palm after taking up Karen on her offer to trim my hair. She’s a fellow thespian who I had crashed with the night before after her invitation to go the poetry set at Speakeasy’s. Nothing like a shampoo and trim by a lovely and sure-handed woman to make a man’s vanity peacock up. I took her out to lunch after our Samson and Delilah duet. Such are the beautiful digressions of the road. This tour I vowed to enjoy every nuance and byway of the journey. Although it is difficult to like being stuck in traffic that has only moved a quarter-mile in the last 20 minutes. So the ride in was not the top-down, tunes blaring, goof accompanied by a be-bop tokay wine jug bongo scat-singing breeze up to the door and spill into the ultimate hepcat crash pad I had hoped it would be, but more of a brake-stomp, teeth grit, sweat drip, bumper to bumper, cut-off, expletive-laced crawl of frustration. I turned right off Colonial just after the I-4 overpass onto Edgewater, then a left onto Shadylane.
There is no sign, plaque, or empty wine jug to designate Kerouac’s House. I sized up the possibilities on the four corners of the sleepy College Park neighborhood and chose the most nondescript house, a tin-roof, blue-gray painted single story shack beneath a spreading live-oak dangling Spanish moss. I guessed right. 1814 1/2 Clausen. My Host opened the house and presented me with a Jack Kerouac key chain for the front door key. I waved goodbye, stretched out the last legs of the three thousand miles I’ve driven in the past three weeks to finally get here, and walked back inside.
Well, Jack, Whaddya think I oughta do, I said from the dining room to the empty house, write a novel? Look what happened to you. How ’bout a toast? I walked my ghost into the bottle-green counter, matching green and white linoleum tiled period refurbished kitchen and open the fridge – not an icebox. The Kerouac Committee has provided a bottle of cheap French white. It’s not the vintage 1957 tokay rotgut he preferred, though that is the date of these time-capsule decorations. In a sacramental gesture, I pour a glass for him and put it on the writing desk in the back porch bedroom beneath the only known picture of him in this house, a grainy black and white photo of him hunt and peck typing on an Underwood manual, wearing his classic plaid Canuck lumberjack shirt. I place also there a wooden beaded rosary I had blessed in Assisi that I intended to give to my alcoholic older sister homeless in Tampa — if I found her somewhere in one of the cloverleaf hobo jungles off an I-75 exit ramp. I ask a blessing for both their souls and walk from room to room talking to Jack all the while, telling him about the road that carried me here, soaking in the silence after the echo. Back at the dining room table, I open up his Buddhist notebooks, Some of the Dharma, at random to divine a response to my earlier question. Page 185, my finger falls on a paragraph that is frighteningly appropriate and portentous of the success that finally found him while living in this house and his ultimate undoing:
The Bodhisattva must first walk calmly through his danger, practicing charity and sympathy for the sake of all. He must retain his non-entity state and avoid fame. He must walk straight to his goal not caring what happens on the way…he must cast off all attachments…If he retains fame he will become valuable and no longer resemble the useless Tao tree no carpenter can covet. Being famous he will be hounded to his death.
He wrote that in 1954 in the notebooks that became the basis for the Dharma Bums that he completed while living here in 1957. This is the house where he got the call that On the Road was going to be published. This is where he was living when he was crowned, almost overnight, the “King of the Beats” – a title he never wanted and disavowed the rest of his life. This is the house where it all turned for him for better and for worse. Before, he was an obscure, heavy-drinking writer. After, he was a famous drunk. The first literary celebrity of the tv age. I picture him groggy, on Buckley’s Firing Line. Buckley, the New England Catholic Brahmin wanna-be, sneered down his nose at this dumb Canuck hack writer. Jack in his stupor couldn’t set this square on end. Kerouac was painfully shy and the only way he could stand the limelight was soused to the gills. Be careful what you want, Emerson advised, you will surely get it. But really all Jack wanted was to be a respected writer, not an early media celebrity.
A mere three years later, in the fits of alcoholic DTs, he composed Big Sur, his last great work with its comic-horrific descent into hallucinations culminating in a redemptive vision of the cross. Ten years after he broke big-time he’d be dead. I reread the passage. He couldn’t have given better advice if he was standing right next to me. And in the Buddhist sense of the continuous present, he was. In the Catholic belief of divine presence, he was there too. I realize I’d been standing up for an hour, stunned, in my boots. I pull them off my bones and drain the last of my wine and look at the empty glass. Here I am. And here I will lay me down. I’m beat, Jack. I’m freaking beat. I hang up my black denim jacket on a hook in the closet. I hang up my aspirations with a sigh and shed a tear for Kerouac, a tear full of Avalokiteshvara’s compassion, and recite a haiku:
Keouac, we knock
Yr pickled bones together,
Two days later, a cold Saturday night, I have to put on the heat. It blows dust through the vents that Kerouac would have tasted, waking in the night to write. The neighborhood is still. Much too cold for the locals who stay inside, transfixed by Samsara’s blue eye of illusion. I think of Kerouac walking these quiet streets, back from Lake Adair, pondering the great American sleep of consumerism that was just then dawning, that post-war prosperity of the late-fifties and it’s attendant cold war paranoia. Dharma Bums, composed in this climate, took the travel theme off the road and into the quietude of mountains for an inward journey of Buddhist meditation.
Apparently, he did quite a bit of inward travel while here. “He hated it here,” says Karen. “Too Hot. He used to take something like twelve showers a day. There was no air conditioning in the house then. And this was the back porch. It wasn’t enclosed.” She’s pointing from the doorway of the back bedroom where he slept. There’s a stuffed Pooh bear on the bedstead, conjuring the end of On the Road. “And don’t you know God is Pooh Bear….” She points out a roll of what she calls ‘bum-wrap,’ teletype paper, on a bookshelf just outside the bedroom that Kerouac composed his spontaneous bop prosody on so he wouldn’t have to stop. Karen is a local poet, fellow mid-westerner, and beat poetry devotee. She found the address of this place via the library’s microfiche even before the Kerouac Project located it. He had sent letters to the editor of the Sentinel bemoaning the xenophobia of Orlando. In those post-McCarthy days, they still printed your address along with your views just in case the John Birch Society decided you needed a visit.
At least one of the locals still doesn’t think much of him. Mr. Rogers who lives across the street now and who’s lived in the neighborhood for fifty years calls him a drunk. ‘I never met him. But I heard he was a queer drunk at that. Shit, he didn’t live there no more than a year. Him and his mother walked to St. Pete. And that back house shouldn’t be given no tax break. They say it’s historic cause he slept on the back porch. Hell, my dog sleeps on the back porch of my house!” This negative hearsay echoes the response he received in his working-class hometown of Lowell where he was considered an odd-ball and confirmed ne’er-do well. It wasn’t until 1989 that the town fathers finally approved funding for the Kerouac festival, the same inaugural festival where I performed my first one-man show, Dis-Voices from a Shelter, an homage to the wisdom of the down and out street fellaheen of Boston, to a sparsely attended auditorium.
The festival has grown correspondingly with Jack’s fame as a counter-culture icon, due in large part to Ginsburg popularizing the Beats. Yet this little pivotal house, out of the spotlight of New York and the mystique of San Francisco, is virtually unknown. Only once in my six-week stay did a pilgrim arrive, a middle-aged Italian immigrant who had read Kerouac as a young man in Naples. True, Jack only lived here a little over a year, but who lives anywhere for very long anymore in America. It’s appropriate for the transience it represents – of one life and the life of a nation. The Kerouac fad will come and go. The writing and the spirit it embodies will linger in the holy contour of life and the golden scripture of eternity unrolling.
Ray McNiece is the author of nine books of poems and monologues, most recently Love Song for Cleveland, a collaboration with photographer Tim Lachina and Breath Burns Away, New Haiku (Red Giant Press, 2019) The Orlando Sentinel reporting on Ray’s solo theater piece “Us — Talking Across America” at the Fringe Festival called him “a modern-day descendant of Woody Guthrie. He has a way with words and a wry sense of humor.” His most recent theatrical piece, Lives of A Poet, premiered at Cleveland Public Theater in 2016. He toured Russia with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, appeared on Good Morning, Russia, and performed at the Moscow Polytech, the Russian Poets’ Hall of Fame where he was dubbed ‘the American Mayakovsky.’ He has toured Italy twice with legendary beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He fronts the blues-rock band, Tongue-in-Groove. He was appointed Poet Laureate of Cleveland Heights in April 2020. Find him at RayMcNiece.com.