DECEMBER 12, 2019
LAST SPRING, on a chilly Tuesday in mid-April, I rode an overnight Amtrak train from New York to Boston for the sole purpose of visiting Jack Kerouac’s grave in the nearby town of Lowell, Massachusetts. Many thousands of Kerouac fans have made that same pilgrimage in the half-century since Kerouac’s passing — he died on October 21, 1969 — and I was happy to be joining their ranks at last because I have long owed Kerouac a debt of gratitude for saving my life.
I was a 16-year-old wannabe writer when I first read Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel On the Road in 1965, and it fired my imagination in ways no book I’d ever encountered had before. Kerouac’s story of his cross-country road trips with his manic sidekick, Neal Cassady, crackled with mad, onrushing energy and jazz-inspired rhythms, and it opened my eyes to a whole new way of writing (Kerouac called it “spontaneous prose”). Little did I suspect that, 22 years later, On the Road would be instrumental in rescuing me from personal disaster.
In 1987, after a decade-long slide into cocaine and alcohol addiction left me unemployed and homeless on the streets of Manhattan, I fled New York and hit the road like Jack Kerouac, hitchhiking and panhandling my way to the West Coast in a last-ditch attempt to find a place where I could begin to rebuild my life. It was a humbling journey with no lack of hardships, and I wouldn’t have survived it without Jack Kerouac’s inspiring example. To keep my spirits up, I jotted down daily notes about the people I met and the places I passed through as I drifted west, brief sketches that I told myself might one day provide the raw material for my own version of On the Road. A pipe dream, perhaps, but it allowed me to get through each day with a scrap of dignity intact, and by the time I finally landed on skid row in Portland, Oregon, I had collected a considerable stash of stories. But, as John Lennon famously noted, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans,” and three decades would pass before I finally followed through on my dream and expanded those road stories into a book. That book, my memoir Idiot Wind, was just published by Canongate Books (with French, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch editions slated for publication in 2020), and, at the unlikely age of 70, I have become a first-time author. That’s why I decided it was high time I visited Kerouac’s grave and paid my respects to the man who showed me the way when I was lost.
As the train rattled north in the dark through the little Connecticut towns along the shore of Long Island Sound, I was glad I’d chosen to make the trip to Kerouac’s hometown by rail, because Jack loved trains (he even worked for a time as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific line). And one of the perks of traveling by train, especially at night, is that it allows you the freedom to let your mind wander. That night, I found myself reflecting on the many ways that Americans choose to honor the people who have touched their lives most deeply, and I wondered why, in a nation where fan culture is so thoroughly ingrained, America’s literary stars don’t get the same treatment as actors and musicians and elite athletes.
When you think about it, every professional sport has a Hall of Fame its fans can visit to pay their respects to their idols. Ditto for rock musicians. And the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which attracts 10 million visitors per year, outdraws the Shrine at Lourdes by a whopping four million pilgrims. So why is it that America’s writers have never been similarly honored?
Perhaps it comes down to the fact that reading is a solitary pastime, one whose fans don’t flock to stadiums or movie theaters or concert venues to celebrate their heroes in the company of other fans. Still, even if that’s the case, I’m sure I’m not the only avid reader who wishes it were otherwise. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a Literary Walk of Fame where we could celebrate our favorite authors (and snap the obligatory selfies)? To me, the perfect site for it would be the stretch of sidewalk on Fifth Avenue that fronts the lion-guarded main entrance to the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan. Of course, as a native New Yorker, I’ll admit that’s a biased opinion, but New York City has long been the publishing capital of America, so I’ve got history on my side. But until that happy day comes to pass, worshipful readers will just have to keep visiting the graveyards of their literary heroes.
The morning rush hour was in full swing when I arrived in Boston’s South Station shortly after eight o’clock, and as I crossed the concourse I saw many travelers half my age who were hobbling with the same unsteady gait that arthritis has imposed on me in recent years. Which puzzled me for a moment, until it dawned on me that I’d arrived the morning after the annual running of the Boston Marathon.
Forty-six years had passed since my last visit to Boston, and as I hiked from South Station to North Station to catch an MBTA “Charlie” train to Lowell, I was amazed at how much the city had changed during my absence. Except for the venerable Faneuil Hall, I hardly recognized a single landmark among all the new skyscrapers. But as I discovered an hour later when I arrived in Lowell, the march of progress had stalled well short of Jack Kerouac’s birthplace. The streets I traveled while riding a local bus five blocks from the Lowell train station to Edson Cemetery were lined with vacant storefronts and tired old buildings that had been waiting decades for a fresh coat of paint, so I was pleasantly surprised when I got off the bus at the cemetery’s main gate and saw the trim little building clad in vinyl siding that sat just inside the wrought-iron perimeter fence.
Assuming the building housed the cemetery’s grave registry, I stepped inside and was immediately acknowledged by a smiling young woman who looked up from her desk and, to my delight, greeted me with the question: “Are you here for Jack?” When I admitted I was, she joined me at the reception counter and handed me a Xeroxed map with instructions for finding Kerouac’s gravesite. In a nod to Kerouac’s French-Canadian heritage, the instructions were printed in both English and French, and, according to the map, I had a quarter mile walk ahead of me. Thanking the clerk for her help, I started hiking to the gravesite, and as I fought my way through the biting wind that had been blowing like mad all morning, I wondered if the backpack slung over my shoulder was the clue that prompted the clerk to ask me, “Are you here for Jack?” That seemed likely, but it tickled me to think she’d gotten so accustomed to Kerouac’s fans turning up in her office that she’d adopted that question as her default greeting.
I had no trouble finding the gravesite, thanks to the large stone monument the City of Lowell erected in 2014 to honor their town’s most famous son. The new monument sits only a few feet behind Jack’s grave marker (a less-imposing slab of marble, set flush in the ground) and is beautifully engraved with Jack’s name and a well-known line from On the Road: “The road is life.” On the day of my visit, the top ledge of the monument was bedecked with small white stones placed there by those who had made the pilgrimage before me, and for a moment I felt disappointed that I hadn’t crossed paths with any of them. But then I realized I was lucky to have a private visit with my favorite Dharma Bum, and my mood brightened as I stepped over to examine the contents of a large, pedestal-based white urn that stood midway between the monument and Jack’s gravestone.
The wide-mouthed stone urn was stuffed to overflowing with a hodge-podge of mementos deposited by Kerouac fans: dried flowers, cigarette packs, pint bottles of liquor and wine, ballpoint pens, and personal messages written on folded slips of notebook paper. Seeing all those tokens of affection, I decided I couldn’t end my visit without making a deposit of my own. So, I dug into my backpack, pulled out the bound galleys of my memoir, and tore out the title page, which I folded into smaller and smaller rectangles before stuffing it deep into the urn’s obliging maw. With that deposit, I felt I had honored my debt of gratitude to the man who saved my life, and with a heartfelt tip of my cap, I bid Jack Kerouac farewell, cheered by the thought that On the Road still sells at a rate of a thousand copies per week — which means that Edson Cemetery will continue to draw many more pilgrims who’ll be happy to answer “yes” when asked: “Are you here for Jack?”
However comforting it is to know that Kerouac’s popularity has proved to be evergreen, the fact remains that there is no comfort to be found in the tragic story of his premature death. The esophageal hemorrhage that took his life at age 47 was a direct consequence of his addiction to alcohol, which had escalated precipitously in the late ’60s. Those dark days have been well documented by Gerald Nicosia, whose seminal 1983 biography of Kerouac, Memory Babe, will soon be reissued in a revised edition. And in his latest book, Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century, Nicosia has more to say on that sad topic.
He recalls being told by Nick Sampas (Kerouac’s brother-in-law) how “appalling” Jack’s behavior became near the end: he’d go days without washing, wearing the same filthy, worn-out clothes; he’d pick fights in bars, fights he wouldn’t even try to win, and sometimes got arrested for his troubles. But when Nick suggested to his sister Stella, Kerouac’s wife, that it would be wise to get Jack into an alcohol rehab program, she rejected him out of hand. “He won’t do it,” she explained, “and if you try to force him to stop drinking, it’ll just drive him away.”
It pains me to admit it, but Stella was undoubtedly right. If my own struggles with addiction have taught me anything, it’s that no one succeeds in overcoming a substance-abuse habit unless they’ve freely chosen to make the effort. Family and friends can lobby a loved one to seek treatment, but until an addict decides on his or her own that the time has come to fight for sobriety, no amount of pleading or well-meaning advice will ever have the desired effect — at least, not in the long term.
I credit my own recovery to the fact that, even in the depths of my addiction, I never stopped believing that my life was worth saving. The tragedy in Kerouac’s case was that — despite the great success of his early life — by the end, he’d clearly lost the crucial sense of self-worth which makes recovery possible. Fifty years on, those who love his work are still left wondering why Jack chose to let his demons have the final say. But, as Kerouac reminds us in the prescient closing passage of On the Road, the truth is that “nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.”
By the time I got back to my house on Long Island at 11:00 p.m. that night, my personal “Boston marathon” had taken 22 hours to complete, and I was so beat I was seeing double. But that didn’t stop me from making a feeble jump for joy when I spotted the bulky carton that had been dropped off on my front porch while I was away. One glance at the name on the shipping label — Canongate Books — was all I needed to guess what the carton contained. And sure enough, when I got it open, there they were: 20 advance copies of Idiot Wind, hot off the press! I picked one up and smiled at the heft of it, and as I did, I thought to myself: Bless his heart, old Jack is still here for me, too.
Peter Kaldheim is a former book editor who went to jail after he sold drugs to an undercover police officer. He wrote about his experience in the memoir Idiot Wind, and now lives in Lindenhurst, New York.