Big Beat

A ghost from the past doles out the essential readings of Jack Kerouac

Damp December Seattle dimmed from gray day to black night before my eyes. "Whup! Whup! The Big Heart of Kerouac's back in town to teach youse a lesson!" With old brooding Rainier behind me and a heaving sack of paperbacks flung over my shoulder, I started among the spewing smokestacks south of downtown, stopping right in front of a loft-dwelling bohemian with empty pockets and an empty heart. "Oh, man, that spirit's shrunk. You've got the cynic in your forever frowning eyes downcast on the pavement. The Long Night of Life can seem eternal, friend, but you've got the power to bring on day and dig!" I handed him Mexico City Blues (Grove, $12), my spontaneous poesy, wild wails, and beatific prayers for the past and future of myself and all the other City Cynics crushed by the weight of skyscrapers, walking corpses with pennies for eyes, lonely old mothers wilting away in some distant state. Before he could thank me I was off, gotta go and never stop going down that road that's nurturing and lamb-eyed like a Blake poem even though we think of it as a monster, gnashing its teeth for our ends. I poked my head inside a Pioneer- Square-not-square saloon to find two lovers throwing red-dagger eyes at each other. I stepped between them like an omnipotent narrator in the sweet and sour story of existence. "Without Love is Loneliness." She flew into the street, screaming for a taxi and a way out of now; he shuffled to the jukebox, hands in pockets like a failed boxer forced outside the ring of romance. But not before I had tucked The Subterraneans (Grove, $11) inside her purse and Tristessa (Penguin, $10.95) in his jeans pocket, so if they never saw each other again they'd understand the universality of an aching heart that yearns for another—The Subterraneans about my crazy difficult interracial love affair with Mardou Fox in Frisco, Tristessa testament to my love for a Mexican-junkie-rose of a prostitute while I was shacking up with Burroughs, bless the now-dead prophet. Always go- go- going I darted up the street like a bennie addict, right smack into a dead-eyed suburbanite outside a hiking store; he was loading his truck with tent, climbing boots, 20 pairs of long underwear, too many things he didn't need (a habit when you live among rows of identical houses and your wife mistakes Joe Neigh-bor for you). "Whoo, man, you got too much on your shoulders. All's you need for nature is food, holy books, thoughts, and beautiful mornings." He hurried inside his truck, like the time slave we all become in life unless we wise up. Into his truck bed I chucked The Dharma Bums (Penguin, $12.95), tales of my sacred days spent in the Washington mountains, when I learned about the emptiness of the universe and the finiteness of poor Canuckian me. Before he could say mad Himalayan monk, I was gone. Night was now in full swing, so I hopped on over to a Belltown jazz joint, packed with girls giving me hootchy- kootchy eyes and some old cool cats reviving the spirit of Charlie Parker and the great bop innovators on stage. "Blow!" I slid into a booth beside a group of beat-down artist types, unpublished writers, starving painters, a hipster worried about the death of poetry. Cigarettes were smoking and wine was flowing but the mood was molasses, them mumbling, "We've got to get ourselves real jobs, with insurance, vacations, and pay enough so we can park our butts inside condos." I jumped up on that table and stamped my feet like an ecstatic Jesus at the Last Supper, a bodhisattva for art's sake, loud enough so that the whole crowd heard me. "It's about the road, cats, it's about speeding down that path where your dreams lead, no matter who's trying to box you in or choke you with a tie!" They were so beat they could only sigh into their drinks and think about going home to bed. Oh, suffering life, that we have to sleep through most of it! I slipped a copy of On the Road (Penguin, $12.95) into each of their laps, that one wild book that mapped my highest highs as I zigzagged across the country, hitchhiking, smoking reefer, digging the best minds of my generation—soulful Whitman-like Ginsberg, handsome god of my heart Cassady, and all the rest of you unmentioned crazy angels. Outside, a hunched-over hobo dressed like Santy Claus gripped a bottle of Jack Daniels and glared at the world around him. He looked just like me. "Never seen anyone so down and out, except myself. Chin up, old fella, no need for anything but compassion." While he took a swig I reached into my sack, coming out with Big Sur (Penguin, $12.95), woeful account of my darkest day spent with the bottle, when I fled Frisco for the peace of the ocean but ended up matching every drop of salt water with a drop of liquor. The lovable old fool nodded off into the oblivion of sleep, and I disappeared, off to Capitol Hill, Ballard, all the beat places in the Pacific Northwest, the West Coast, America, the globe, calling out like St. Francis greeting the pigeons, "Happy holidays to alls, and to alls a good life!" David Massengill is the assistant editor at Seattle Weekly.

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