Monday, December 14, 2009

Who WAS Jack Kerouac? (A Rhetorical Question)

[This is a piece I did a couple years ago that this webzine accepted for publication but never published...maybe it's just no good. But it kind of explains what I've been up to the past few years...and you may notice it was written in "the bush era."]

I was rockin' down the highway mesmerized by 70s oldies. My gas gauge had been busted for months, yet once again, I was startled near point of death, by that fuel light shining so brightly from it's wedge between the speed and o domitors. Shining as if screaming, as if an electronic child screaming for attention from between it's round and dominant older siblings.

So down the exit ramp I rumbled, at Lowell, Mass, where the sign says there's gas, hastily decelerating as well as my overstuffed mini-van could manage, chock full with hundreds of pounds of books and shelves, the brakes in need of work. Upon acknowledging possible dangers, my neurosis perfected after living 20-some years in Brooklyn, take over, my life flashes before my eyes, my death flashes before my eyes. Such an end to such a life: ploughing through the intersection, the horns, the crash of metal, the ricochet of my van into the living room of, say, a family of five, not so unlike the Simpsons, or the Kerouacs, as this is Lowell. Regardless of which collision course physics would propel me towards, I would surely be crushed to death by my shifting load. The headline: Rare Book Dealer crushed by his own mistakes. That's a joke, son, the word is that in the Rare Book world, inventory is a synonym for mistakes. The good ones sell immediately, the rest become inventory. And such is life: whatever you have is too soon gone. What ever you want bears a heavy price. And there is another slogan and another, for this is America and we live, die, and live to repeat slogans. God Bless America. What goes around comes around. I won't even touch psychobabble.

This is where I came from: An Antiquarian Book Fair in Portland, ME. Need you know anything else? I'm in my 40s, hair gray and too long, in need of exercise and a shave. But I do my best to be charming. After a day of chatting up a few dozen strangers, some of which leave you money for your goods, most which do not, every bookman is confronted with the persistent disappointment of still owning 19 of the 20 boxes of books he brought to the fair. Then the realization hits in both a physical and metaphysical manner the state of one's existence, usually during the tedious packing up process at the close of each fair. That's when you see those who did worse nursing a cigarette at the back door reciting the following: "The internet killed this business" "Books are now ephemera" or more common for those who do not deal in Modern literature and despise the money made in that area, "books are just props for dust jackets." But for myself, I'm no old timer. I have no well-established theories on the marketplace. I don't even know what bookselling was like before the internet. But I can lend this observation: The book dealer is a mere schlepper, constantly transporting impossibly heavy dead weight, a helpless custodian of matter that is unaware of its absurd physical bulk, and the inconvenience it presents to its custodian. Ironically, these strongboxes of typography transport the weightless spirit of a man from one generation to the next. Like Lowell's own Mr. Kerouac.

There's a first in jacket of Big Sur behind me somewhere, which I'd hoped, to no avail, would have been bought by a 20-something with tattoos and a goatee. Either him, or a balding hippie who took his kids to Woodstock, 2000. But that didn't happen, did it? Rather, upon the failing of my brakes, during the slow motion reality of these moments, as the front of the car crumples into my legs, Big Sur will no doubt fly forward from its box, lodge itself in the back of my skull, or spine, or plunge through my shoulder blade like an axe into a seven-layer cake. Big Sur, Naked Lunch, 17 leather-bound volumes of Thackeray's Works, an entire brigade of travel books, and not in the least, that big-assed Joel Peter Witkin folio, will dice me to pieces and present me to the forensic team as some macabre chopped-corpse-salad in a startled stranger's living room, quite the photo op for either Witkin or Weegee. The headline reads: Rare Book Dealer Dissected in So Many Words, then 12 year old Gregory Labatt, distant nephew of Jack, successfully treated former orthodontal patient, collector of hockey cards, and 6th grade master of glib commentary, tells the Lowell Herald reporter, "We were just watching TV and voila!"

For now, I've kept the reaper at bay. I'm off the freeway and moving at a wheelchair's pace up the congested causeway of Jack's hometown. Perhaps for years, this road has been abused by delivery trucks bouncing over it's small-town potholes, their springs squeaking their cacophonous song, their loads pounding the earth a million times heavier than a battalion of kettle drums. Perhaps at one time this road snaked past Jack's house, those clamoring rigs waking holy Jack, old drunk holy Jack there passed out on a sofa, wrapped in his American flag like a very, very old and bloated old babe in a manger, old Jack that he was. Or sweeter yet, young Jack, not yet ordained as the dharma bum he would become, napping, safe to dream in one of those clap-board houses, over there, up the hill in the distance, past the new, ugly, instant sprawl, franchises that grow each year like cancerous ganglia from each and every interstate exit across the country pumping more and more toxins into innocent American hamlets, siphoning cars from the freeway, bloating bucolic valleys with spongy piles of food waste from styrofoam eateries. Oh, for those old days! Back then, when young Jack napped, dreamt away the wrestlessness cultivated in all these small towns, feeding the need to dream of bigger things: big ideas, big philosophies, big boobs, big places half-way around the globe, manners, customs and dress never seen, or more likely a comely waitress on rollerskates serving a cheeseburger topped with pungent summer tomatoes, effervescent coke in harmony with her sweet 16 lilt, just off Route 66, half way across the country, Kansas, Iowa, wherever they warehouse those midsummer wet dreams.

And what was the world at large thinking? The great war ended. Roast Beef at the corner. Communism. Yes, that great mobilizer. Suddenly the 57th parellel was so fucking important. All the ideas in the world, all the possible progress of mankind came to this one intellectual bottleneck: the cold war.

Remarkably similar to this very street. At this point in history, this street is that it's way too skinny. Traffic slithers like snails down hill and up and down again, car dealers encroaching to the left, shopping center to the right. All drivers on edge, waiting for the moment to nudge one car ahead. No Citgo, yet. Has to be Citgo, Venezuelan-owned Citgo, really, I mean the people not some dictator of Venezuela, not the international investors in Venezuela, no President Chavez won that victory for and by the people, fair and square. Even Jimmy Carter said so. Unlike Shell, which places hits upon reporters, or Texaco, that fat, flatulent bullhorn, shamelessly belching forth it's namesake, that horrid, bull-in-a-china shop state which has colonized the country from a small intestine near Crawford, declaring a majority rule by drones in ticky-tacky little twit-towns, void of culture, every house smelling new and brimming with prosperity, the antithesis to the quaint hidden by-ways of Lowell. Oh, sure, they love quaint, but only in quotation marks. A quaint bistro would be way too messy, way too flavorful. Chicken, not lamb, please. And make it white meat. Towns manicured like an elegantly dressed clipping from a magazine, newtown-bright with nothing to say, its armies pushing forward to the furthest point seen through the sites of their AK-47s, numbly marching and marching on, trampling the sweet, the subtle, killing anything that is worth putting effort into understanding, silencing witnesses by belching forth loud, stupid, obscenities from behind mesmerizing shields, evil 5-pointed Texaco logos, re-writing history, Texas-style, claiming a lone star flag blanketed Lowell's laureate, who by that time of his life could barely work up the consciousness to contemplate his own flatulence, let alone argue with history over the number of stars in the flag. Just let the old fart repeat his patriotic slogans -- might mobilize the evildoers.

Yes, from the land of Lincoln, to the Virginian hills of Jefferson, Washington and Lee, to the great cliffs and valleys alongside the Pacific, and right here in Lowell, you can watch as the new part of town, devours the old. Those over-funded tumors, fortified by so many IRA accounts, those random, thoughtless malls that are rated for investment portfolios according to how many dollars per square foot per year is made, or worse, is merely possible to be made, those impossibly moronic standards that drive the market place…what's that, you ask? What does an IRA account have to do with a mall? It's simple, I meant that literally. I once had a clerical job at Shearson Lehman, and the money for IRA accounts went straight into all those brand names, and those brand names are contained in malls, and there are huge quantities of charts and graphs analyzing profitability, strategies in turning over money, and if you are an MBA you might assume everyone knows this, and yes, by now, it's come up on NPR, PBS, and perhaps even Fox has defended Wallmart, but it goes on and on, and now the same economic strategy is hitting cultural Europe. Stupid, soulless numbers blaze the trail for the coming culture vacuum. The culture war is the war on culture. Life should be a song of subtle variations whose verses unfold in slight variants every time it is sung. So, please, for the love of culture, lets not privatize Social Security any more. Texas, even you are at risk.

And another thing, while I'm waiting to move forward 6 fucking car lengths so that I can turn off this lard-encrusted artery into the fan-fucking-tastic Citgo station, at every exit across this great interstate system of ours, one must drive further and further from these exits to escape the Styrofoam eateries in search of indigenous trees and the last and largest hill in this little holler of Lowell, Mass. Sweet God Almighty, an overdue relief to the eye after all that suburban blight. I've been through the valley, and now I see, at the hill's foot lies a Citgo, with older pumps, no steroid-bloated whipped-stucco fa├žade, rather Citgo looks frozen in a vintage photo: 60s, or, maybe 70s remodeling showcasing sparse, smoothe metallic lines that divvy up shiny vertical planes of white enamel, the ever so softened corners of the red Citgo triangle. It's neighbor across the side-street, from an even earlier generation, perhaps Jacks, a no-name roast beef place, white clapboard, green roof and carport, welcome mat, one neon light flashing in a large picture window: "Roast Beef", "Roast Beef". There isn't even a business name that I can see.

I get out to pump the gas but a red-head kid about 16 with his name on a blue denim jump suit greets me. I'm surprised, "Full service?" "Yup." It seems my wallet only bears a twenty and 3 fives, and I have a long drive back to the city. You see, I had more cash in my wallet, but just before the fair closed, I saw a nice copy of "Out of Africa", clean, right price. I can double it. So now me broke. "Make it 20." Though, I really hope that's enough to get back to Brooklyn. "No wait. 19 and one for you." I remember the days I spent as a porter at an auction house, the faint reward of recognition, the slightly larger than appropriate tips from those like to make your day. The hope that one day you might be in their position, and look at you now…

He squeezes the bill of his cap in a "Thank you" gesture, while I collect empty water and soda bottles from the car. Just a dollar, I think smugly. From over the trashcan I see there's a Wendy's up the street, and though the cursive neon "Roast Beef" beckons me from it's clapboard shell, clapboard similar to how I imagine Jack's house, I know it will be all the money I have left and I need that money for tolls. "Roast Beef" be gone, and retreat from my mind, as if a retreating turtlehead disappearing into it's clapboard shell. Convictions be damned, I'm broke! That's my new slogan.

Anyway, I've always had a soft spot for Wendy's since I worked at one after school when I was a kid in Nashville. The Wendy's up the street from Citgo is exactly like the one I used to work in when I was a kid in Nashville. Men's Room with an "Out of Order" sign taped crookedly to the door, here at 7 pm on a Sunday, probably no different than the 7 pms on Sundays, crooked "Out of Order" signs on the men's room was when I was a kid in Nashville. I use the women's room and am greeted coming out by a portly man, regular customer, I suspect, who says, "oh, we're using the women's room, today?" "You got no choice," I say, an exchange perhaps repeated in Wendy's across the country since I was a kid in Nashville. And finally, an adorable, slightly plump blonde cashier, nearly pretty enough for the cheerleaders, but for whatever reason isn't one, takes my order with a fresh-faced smile, just like the slightly plump blonde fresh-faced cashiers I had crushes on back when I was a kid in Nashville. I feel like asking her if they get tons of people here, all looking for Jack's house. But I'm afraid to find out whether she even knows who Jack is. Two junior cheeseburgers and a chili for three dollars! God Bless America.

Get this: The manager is a Mexican Lady. Perhaps she's from the Lone Star State, finally escaped the fate of being one of the tiny brown wheels on which the west rolls. Well good for her, escaping the undertow, riding the surf of corporate colonization, alongside those doughy white suits, quick with their projections, slow in explaining the criminal activity in near every action they perform. It occurs to me that the spirit of the east (coast) is more content with itself, smug, those out west might say, while the spirit of the west is forever discontent, always expanding, colonizing looking for whatever it never had, until those nimble, simple masses, armed with their stories of Donnor party cannibalism and Mormon persecution, finally ricocheted from the wall of Pacific waters, back east to make over their origins in an acquired style that is still not theirs. Left behind out west, little pockets of liberal utopias, those pioneers who gave up and realized they were as content as the lilies in the field, there they clustered in little utopias, flowerbeds of peace, Eugene, Berkeley, Needles, fostering all manners of deliberate and earnest thought about the sustainability of mankind. Not all are liberal, some are the opposite, but regardless of how tolerant they are, or how insanely intolerant they are, whether a hippie commune or a white supremist retreat, they move a step slower than those ricocheting okies who fill mega-churches, mega-malls, mega-freeways, vote as stiffly as blocks of wood, living in the lockstep joy of a dominating mass…or am I just looking into my own past, my upbringing, a twinge of self-hatred, the nobles oblige that applies to the new non-noble power-class, the white guilt.

Funny, the manager is a Hispanic woman, as well as the assistant manager. They are reminding the girl that she entered my order incorrectly. They discuss. I've no clue what they're talking about. Probably she forgot to press the button for pickles. No matter, they are more or less like and unlike the managers and assistant managers when I was a kid in Nashville. I remember the manager who fired me. I'd worked there for over a year, he, for a month, smack in the middle of his middle-age crisis, with Nashville hairspray in his preacher-hair, that silly Wendy's cap flattening his dignity, angry that I would want Sunday off to take my college entrance exam. For weeks, I told successive managers about these exams that loomed over me larger than anything I had yet encountered, but he scheduled me despite that, and no doubt to spite me, and of course I didn't go to work, but rather took the exam (even went to college), and of course he went through with his threat and fired me, and here I am, 27 years later, still annoyed that the cranky little fucker even exists.

Once served on a bright orange tray my 2 junior cheeseburgers and a chili for $3, I take my food across the dining area, feeling not so unlike the new kid in school, as everyone else seems to possess a comfort in their environment that I do not. I walk past table after table, the large man from the bathroom has joined his large wife by the window, who is negotiating the closing of a house they want from her celphone. At another table, a dweebie clique of 3 high school misfits, perhaps even late bed-wetters the way they hunch over anticipating danger from every angle, carrying the scars of abuse with them into young adulthood. I can't read their T-shirts, but if they had grown up in my time, they would certainly bear something related to Dungeons and Dragons. Look up, kids, for soon your imaginations, if not math skills will take you to high-paying jobs, and if you don't mind those cheerleaders, once they've had a kid, and are slightly plump and loose around the hips, still looking somewhat fetching in their mid-twenties, khaki shorts, perhaps even trying that Izod look, you might land them from the jocks of the world who now satisfy their sexual urges with the occasional lap dance at the V.I.P. Lounge on the edge of town. But for now, looking into the parking lot the brawny blonde jocks climb from their blue 80s vintage semi-compact.

You know, I watched the Breakfast Club, I watched Rushmore, I watched a lot of reports on Columbine, and the bowling thereof, & I even used to be involved in this fanzine subculture reading primary source material on the persecution of our more creative adolescents. But I must say, my elementary and tender underclassman years were spent in the unusually kind culture of the Seventh-day Adventists. We had no varsity teams: They foster competitive behavior, while we believed that all are equal in God's eyes, and coveting status symbols is wrong, and it's only a small step from a varsity letter to a flashy car. One should give that money to a less fortunate brother or sister or the church.

Even so, while living in a small Seventh-Day Adventist College town in Michigan during my 6th grade year, there was Cary Atherton, excessively obese, though strangely cheerful. Denny Matheson would chase Cary all around the school, before school, at recess, and after school. Sure, he could run faster than that fatty Cary, but he preferred to make a show of it, and try to get other kids involved in the spectacle. So the mob of jubilant 6th graders, Bible thumpers or not, would chase Cary into the wooded paths behind the school, out into a nearby tomato field, here, there, everywhere. Then they'd knock Cary over on the ground, pinching him in vulnerable areas, punching their kid-sized fists into his massive blubber, and miraculously, Cary came to school day after day, seemingly unphased, seemingly cheerful, even a winsome lad, drawing pictures in his notebook when he should be taking down math formulas, sitting by himself at lunch carrying on jovial conversations with imaginary friends.

About 10 years after high school, I was driving though that town and had the treat of having my gas pumped into my car by none other than Denny Matheson. I asked him how he was. He had married his first girlfriend that he had started dating in 8th or 9th grade and they had a family. I, on the other hand, was living in New York, had recently been to Europe twice, and the last thing I could think of wanting was to be strapped in a rather bland small town, even by standards of small towns, trying to feed a family on a gas attendant's salary. No offense, Denny, but, oh, to be Cary.

Back in Wendy's, Lowell, Mass, the dweeb is fixated on the jock. He envies everything the jock has. Mostly, he envies the admiration that strangers, and mostly girls bestow upon the jock. He is too envious of the phalluses of others to realize the girl who didn't make the cheerleaders has a plump little cherry, pulsating to the beat of the dweebs frightened little heart. If not that girl who didn't make the team, there's no doubt another. And a never ending mathematical equation of kinetic versus potential love wrapped in a weave of vectors, co-signs and tangents. The next Einstein will solve this equation. But for now, this is what transpires in Wendy's, 7:03 pm, Lowell, Mass:

"I know he's an asshole," says the skinny dweeb, the whole of his being remarkably focused on this single, local event, "but he's cool to me." His infectious optimism causes his two table-mates to look towards the door from their perpetual inward slouch. As the jocks enter, dweeby kid's thinking, Christ, this Kevin or Buck (or you, reader, supply the jock name) was nice to me. ME! And I don't want to screw up my chance at popularity. But, of course, when blonde Adonis walks in he barely notices the dweeb and shouts across the room to the older couple by the window. They are apparently friends with his parents. The dweeb sheepishly waves with 2 fingers over his shoulder. The jock shouts over to the couple that he just got back from Costa Rica and dreads having to wake up at 6 for work, no acknowledgement of the dweeb at all.

Costa Rica? That is kinda cool. No one from Nashville ever just got back from Costa Rica when I was a kid. Chalk one up for Lowell and the Jocks that inhabit the place. The jock who hung out with Bowles, the subterraneans wetting their feet in the foam of the Mediterranean. Yes, we know Kerouac made the football team. Kerouac was the reluctant beat alpha-male. And no matter how much you read, how much you reflect, this life comes down to a small purgatorial ring of questions: How content am I? Was I too good for the team? Or am I bitter that I never made the team? Is my discontent spirit propelling me forward into new experiences? Or am I just looking for that something I never had? Was my first love my true love that I will never again know? Or why did I marry the first ovulating bitch that unzipped my fly? Why does my car contain 800 pounds of books? Where is God in all this? Is he a jock? Is God there? Is God beyond Nietzsche, is God is not God, neither dead or alive, or concerned whether or not I play my life to the best of my ability? Is God not even watching while the content clash with the malcontent, or metal crumples into the flesh of crash victims? Does he cradle in his metaphoric arms those who die slowly, drunk, drugged, wrapped in the flag. OK. You've cracked the code. I'm not really talking about Jack at all. I'm talking about the word, which is both god and flesh. As discussed, both weight and weightlessness. The word, the book, society marching forward without a thought of its origins, destined to repeat the dumbest mistakes of history, destined to destroy that which it should treasure. In Iraq, guarding great reserves of mud while the museum is pillaged, in America, dismantling entire support structures to the arts because an artist depicts his gay lifestyle and someone has the gall to exhibit this in Cincinnati. The thick stupidity of it all, marching forward, faster, in greater lock-step, less time to think, less time for any thoughtful reaction. Now adolescents in Indiana who become pregnant are considered victims of sexual abuse and must report to the state before seeking an abortion under the pretext that they and all other youth are being protected by the state from sexual predators. Huh? The twisted morality of it all! You could write a book about it!

Into this children are born. In some classes of people, they are expected to be geniuses at 4, given computers at 3, in other classes, there are no expectations and they get a bottle of Kool-aid. In high school, Army recruiters are given the home telephone numbers of children by principals of schools, so that they can induct children into this hamburger grinder of stupidity. Denny Matheson, what clues are your children giving you about the future of our world? Oh, holy dweebs at the center of the Wendy's dining room in Lowell, Mass, what advise can I give you? What prayer of blessing can I recite? Rama, Rama!

Next week the dweeby kid, riddled by jock-envy, will pursue the accepting arms of counter-culture. Alas, he will meet a 19-year-old poet at Border's Books open mike. He reads a poem about wanting it. She reads a poem about getting it. She's majoring in American lit at the local junior college. Her male counter parts there, all the future restaurant managers, like their women with frosted hair. She calls them young fogies. She likes her men young, dumb and full of cum. He doesn't know what he likes, just knows that its that thing all the jocks envy and the thing that makes him constantly jerk off: pussy. Illusive, mystical pussy. While they walk up and down the isles of borders negotiating sex, he picks up a paperback copy of Big Sur. Once he is older, he will want a first edition in a jacket to memorialize his youth. For now, she tells him Jack was from Lowell. Her hand is in his pants at the check-out. She has a car. They have sex several times over the next week before she tires of him and stops returning his calls. Despondent, yet, now aware that the world is a much bigger place than it was last week, he reads the book. In the preface he learns the alpha-beat, the biggest icon of counter-culture, the messiah of that very sub-group that allowed a dweeb like him to finally experience what the jocks call "pussy" was once a star back at Lowell High. He got a football scholarship to Columbia. After bouncing around the world most of his life, he returned to Lowell with culture that was never really his, swaddled himself in the American flag on his sofa drinking Thunderbird and repeating beatnik slogans to anyone who would listen. Despite dying in his own incoherent blathering, not so unlike Marylin Monroe or Elvis, he joined the pantheon of American Gods, and we all know: Gods Bless America.

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