I was about to meet Jack Kerouac, pioneer of the beat generation, the man who wrote On the Road in twenty days on Benzedrine, typed it on a 120 ft. scroll of tracing paper taped together like only a person high on Bennies would do, the guy who practically invented the style of spontaneous prose. Was this the most exciting night of my life? Alas, I was just a seven year old girl. Meeting Jack impressed me less than knowing that I could stay up late that night at Aunt Mary’s party.
A man in a wrinkled trench with a Florida tan, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he stood before me. Auntie Mary handed me paper and a pen, told me to ask for his autograph. He was creepy, his undershirt was showing and he was… wobbly. With trepidation, I did as told.
“What do you want me to write?” he asked Mary, cigarette hanging between lips and acting as though he’d been pestered by a bug.
“Write something nice about Jonna,” she said and spelled my name for him. He wrote just that. Jonna… just Jonna and tried to hand it back to me. “Come on, Jack write something nice,” she goaded. He wrote more words, signed the page and handed it to Auntie for perusal.
“Jonna is a goner in Glockamara. Oh Jack, you’re so silly,” she laughed and passed the page to me.
I may have been only seven but I knew that this guy wasn’t normal. I thanked him and retreated. With signature in hand I ran to my place, my place behind the large potted plants to try and figure out, with my seven year old mind, what the heck the famous writer meant by Jonna is a goner in Glockamara. I knew about alcohol. I liked when the people at Mary’s parties got wobbly, everyone laughed and danced. There was even some old lady who would sing when she was wobbly. I could watch everyone from my little secret place but tonight I was keeping an eye on him, this guy… Kerouac, this weirdo that everyone seemed to be so gaga over, I mean… somebody had to.
What was so great about him? Look at how he was dressed. People wore their best at Mary’s parties, how come he got to wear dirty old clothes? And he was wobbly but he wasn’t singing or dancing or having fun. He wasn’t… enjoying wobbly.
“Oh, Jack, let me fill your drink.” I heard from somebody.
I spied Uncle Dino, crossed the room and climbed onto his lap. He explained that Jack was an alcoholic and I comprehended that notion pretty well. “Well if he drinks too much then why is everybody getting him more?” I asked… when life was still simple.
“Watch what he does. He takes his drink then he sits over there.” He pointed to the chair next to my place in the plants. “Watch him”. Jack sat; hunched over, sipped his drink. I soon got bored and started playing with Uncle Dino’s face. “There.”
“You missed it. Go watch him from the plants like you do.” Well this just floored me. How did Uncle Dino know about my place? People never paid attention to me at a grown-up party. Wasn’t I invisible? I skulked back to my place, as close to Jack as a plant to dirt.
“Jack, let me freshen your drink,” said some lady I knew. I looked across at Dino. He nodded and I realized that Dino was sitting in his place. That seemed pretty funny to me, that Dino had a place where he watched people too. We smiled knowingly, one observer to the other as she served Jack his drink; he took a small sip and held the glass precariously in his lap. I watched this old guy sip his drink and it was still boring, but a small leather notebook peeked from his pocket and it caught my eye. Jack shifted his weight and it stuck out a bit more, then he may have crossed his legs or something and it was right there…
I can’t say for sure if the book fell out of his pocket or if I helped it out. I may actually have picked the pocket of Jack Kerouac and then I hid the journal between the pots. Uncle Dino gave me a stern look from his place then tipped his chin for me to watch Jack. That was about as exciting as watching ice melt. His drink of amber, still half full, Jack lifted his head sharply, looked around then he dumped his drink into the plant beside him. What? Why did he do that? I looked to Dino for answers.
Jack jumped up to argue again with someone about something and I flipped through his book, his book of scribbles. I couldn’t read any of it but I recognized one symbol, the crucifix and it was on most every page. I guessed it was a prayer book and I reverently placed it in his chair and made for the shelter of Dino’s lap.
Jack died about ten years later, in 1969, of cirrhosis. I refreshed that memory with Uncle Dino several times and he confirmed that not only did he witness Jack dump drinks frequently but that he often saw him transform from nearly passed-out drunk to completely sober within seconds in order to read a passage or a poem, perfectly enunciated, for the crowd.
That was also the year when I first read On the Road I understood none of it. I’ve re-read the work several times since. What holds me to the pages is the rawness of his words, the feelings of how never did anything ever go right, the desperate a search to find meaning in a messed up life. In that way, I suppose, it’s every man’s story.
We were from Lowell. In 1959, the year I first saw Jack, Lowell was a distressed mill town of greyness and brick. Our family home overlooked greenery. About forty years earlier, he grew up near the smelly Merrimac which rippled its flotsam and side-floating fish. Everyone in town called him Jack… just Jack.
You can swim in the Merrimac River now. The mills are museums and trendy shops. Kerouac Park, downtown by the river… there, the homeless sleep. Monoliths engraved with exquisite quotes of his work shade the drug deals and wear spray paint graffiti. Somehow I think he’d be okay with that.
Jack claimed that his stories were about his search for God. I only know that I saw the crosses in his journal with my young impressionable eyes. To me his work will always be about hope, hope for the disenfranchised, hope for the oppressed, for the different, for the mad.
Glockamara, next I heard of Glocca Morra was from Finnian’s Rainbow. It’s a sentimental song about a fictional Irish town with little brooks, willow trees and a carefree boy with twinkling eyes. It sounds heavenly, doesn’t it?
So, how are things in Glocca Morra, Jack, since you’ve been gone? I imagine that you are resting by a gentle stream with a cool breeze on your face. I hope you found peace and I hope you found God, because when I saw you, Jack, you drank alone.
Pictured above, Charles G Sampas (my uncle and Godfather), my beautiful mother, Rachel Ellis and Jack.