On the Road and On the Sidewalk

THAT ARTISTIC ROMANTICISM I spoke about last time was somehow urban: it evoked the thrill and possibility of urban life. Inscribed in the art, in the activity of that age, in its human poetry, was something about the city itself; how the creative energies of artists and writers were nurtured in city, were nurtured by the city; at the same time, Beat culture helped shape this energy, helped nurture this urban communion for awhile. In other words, it both tapped and enriched the energies of the post-war American city. Yet it came with a few contradictions.

One was the sense of liberation embodied in Beat books like On the Road, which marvelled at blasting across the great American plains, journeying coast to coast, in cars and on buses. Such was “the purity of the road,” the freedom “of moving and getting somewhere, no matter where, and as fast as possible and with as much excitement and digging of all things as possible.” “There was nowhere to go but everywhere,” Kerouac says. To move meant “leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!” At one point, Neal Cassady shouts “we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.” “Where we going man?” “I don’t know but we gotta go.” [1]

But to get there you needed to arrive someplace, and that someplace, that there, was invariably a big city—a Denver or Los Angeles, a New Orleans or Chicago, and, especially, a New York or San Francisco. Thus the dramatic tension underwriting On the Road: between road-going and what happens afterwards when the car is parked, when you get off the bus, touch sidewalk, hit the bar or diner. At these moments, the immensity of the road shifts gear into the intensity of the city. And there, in neutral, protagonists inevitably had to confront themselves.

On the Road affirms this fluidity between road-going and big city, between a purity and profanity, and that includes a profanity of the city within the self. The city is where the Beats worked themselves over, often turning this working over into an art form. They revelled on both flanks, loved purity and profanity, dug the immensity of the road as well as the intensity of the sidewalk: “Suddenly I found myself on Times Square,” Kerouac says early on in On the Road. “I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of the rush hour too, making me see with my innocent road eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves.”

And yet, even back then, this peculiar conjoining was coming unstuck, not only through commercial upscaling, but also through the same moving impetus that powered On the Road cross country. Indeed, the development promises of mobility and liberty that Kerouac revealed to a whole younger generation were the same development promises that the era’s titanic expressway builder, Robert Moses, revealed to a whole nation. We’ve seen Burt Glinn photographing interior Beat spaces at night; by day, Robert Moses blasted, bulldozed and bullied his way through entire cityscapes, with little concern for what lay within. “When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis,” he liked to boast, “you had to hack your way with a meat ax.” Suddenly, road and sidewalk were moving in opposite directions, wrenched apart by a deadlier dialectic.

Several of Kerouac’s most cherished neighbourhoods, like the West and East Villages, would have been butchered by the mighty meat ax had Moses’s multi-story Lower Manhattan Expressway been realised. But the plan was quashed, largely because of a coalition of vociferous residents, led by the legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs, who’d mobilised to “KILL THE XPRESSWAY NOW!” By the early 1960s, Manhattan’s West Village had been designated a slum by city planners and government officials. The data proved why. It was overcrowded, run down, in the way of the automobile, the modern future.

So, in February 1961, a month after the manuscript of Jacobs’s famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, had been submitted to the publisher, the campaign to save the West Village was unleashed. Jacobs was chip off the Beat’s own block. A Beat mom, we might say. (She even liked to tipple gin in an old Beat watering hole, the White Horse Tavern, along her Hudson Street block. For a time, Kerouac lived above the tavern, in a tiny apartment.) Jacobs wrote lovingly about grubby streets and busy sidewalks and workaday neighbourhoods. Cities aren’t reducible to statistics and population densities, she said, to something “officially” mapped. There’s a lot more going on, as the Beats knew, a lot more there there, a lot more Wow!

One thing Jacobs insisted upon, like the Beats, was that cities need hearts. Big cities usually have more than one heart. Yet always these hearts beat at crowded intersections, have corner stores and corner cafés, corner bars and corner public squares. And hearts thrive off diversity not homogeneity. The liveliest city blocks mingle high and middling yield with low with no yield enterprises. Although as the decades were to unfold, high yield steadily became the only asking price, forcing many corner enterprises and corner people out of business and out of the neighbourhood. Bustling city hearts, once saved from Moses’s wreckers’ ball, increasingly got economically razed (raised) by financial investment. Out of the old vibrant mix came not much mix: city hearts were ripped out, became functionally and financially standardised, clean and predictable the way they are today. Their blood ran thin. Their hearts no longer Beat.

“ACROSS THE STREET you can see the ruins of New York already started,” wrote Kerouac, perceptively, in his introduction to The Beat Scene. He’s watching the old Globe Hotel, on the corner of 44th Street and 8th Avenue, being torn down. “An empty tooth-hole,” he says, “right off 42nd Street,” making way for something fancier. Kerouac would have been standing somewhere near Times Square, on a street corner “sketching,” as he was wont to do, looking around, feeling and listening, depicting streets like a painter would but doing it with words, creating verbal images from scenes and sounds, “slapping it all down,” he says, “shameless, willy-nilly, rapidly until sometimes I got so inspired I lost consciousness I was writing.” Much of what Kerouac was seeing and sketching was already history, about to be razed and forgotten, rebuilt anew.

For awhile, though, there was no better place to sketch than Times Square. The Square marked journey’s end somehow, the road’s terminus; at the same time as it staked out the beginnings of another adventure, another voyage, down a rabbit hole into the city’s bowels. Times Square was Beat home-ground, where they held court, where the world of road-going encountered the crossroads of their world. This was where the city’s heart throbbed. Things here were chancy and risqué, spontaneous and wondrous, a giant antechamber off which a myriad of other hidden chambers led, full of hipsters and hustlers, castoffs and bums, lost kids and street punks, pimps and prostitutes, buskers and poets, lonely underground men trying to fight off the existential chill, seeking kindred company.

On the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue was Grant’s cafeteria, “our favoured dining place,” Kerouac says. “For 65 cents you get a huge plate of fried clams, a lot of French fried potatoes, a little portion of cole slaw, some tartar sauce, a little cup of red sauce for fish, a slice of lemon, two slices of fresh rye bread, a pat of butter, another ten cents brings a glass of rare birch beer—What a ball it is to eat here!” Twenty thousand customers a day, he reckons, fifty thousand on rainy days, one hundred thousand on snowy days. “Operation twenty-four hours. Privacy—supreme under a glary red light full of conversation—Toulouse-Lautrec, with his deformity and cane, sketching in the corner—You can stay there for five minutes and gobble up your food, or else stay for hours having insane philosophical conversations with your buddy and wondering about the people.”

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“Why does Times Square feel like a big room?” Kerouac asks.

“There’s a whole floating population around Times Square,” he says, “that has always made Bickford’s their headquarters day and night.” Bickford’s, another popular cafeteria, nearby at 225 West 42nd Street, “the greatest stage on Times Square,” Kerouac calls it. Under its glowing submarine light, “many people have hung around there for years, man and boy, searching. God alone knows what, maybe some angel of Times Square who would make the whole big room home, the old homestead… civilisation needs it.”

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In the old days, Beatsters went to Bickford’s in search of the mythical Herbert Huncke, the poor, shady Times Square hustler, the original, almost archetypal Beatnik, the Raskolnikov of 42nd Street, a quintessential William Burroughs junkie. In the 1940s and ’50s, Huncke haunted Times Square and Times Square haunted him. He “used to come in and out” of Bickford’s, Kerouac says, “in an oversized black raincoat, looking for somebody to lay a pawnticket on—Remington typewriter, portable radio, black raincoat—to score some toast (get some money), so he can go uptown and get in trouble with the cops.” The poets came to Bickford’s “to smoke a peace pipe, looking for the ghost of Huncke or his boys, dreaming over the fading cups of tea.”

Bickford’s was a Beat Mecca, and “if you went there every night and stayed there you could start a whole Dostoevsky season on Times Square.” So the road did eventually lead to the whole world, just as Kerouac said, led into Times Square. Its streets took you onto the sidewalk, and that sidewalk spilled into the diner, a terrain the Beat’s made their own. They made its down at heel banality somehow literary, casting neon-light on low American culture and highbrow existentialism, blending Maxwell House with Prince Myshkin. It was probably the last time we’d ever see high and low culture mixing, public and private spaces flowing into one another, coming together in a city that was still accessible, open and brimming with cheap thrills. The greatest trip of all.

 

NOTES

[1] These citations, like all others I am using from On the Road, are taken from Kerouac’s “Original Scroll,” his “uncut” first draft version, hammered out on rolls of teletype paper. In the eventual “novel” edition, published in 1957, a lot of the juicier action is edited out; and the names of protagonists became fictionalised. But the usage of real names—including the narrator’s—together with full disclosure, makes the unexpurgated On the Road more graphic, rawer and wilder. Read as a memoir, everything sounds more convincing, madder, and even more inspiring. Then, too, the fact that the book has no real storyline or structure hardly matters.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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