By Phil Cousineau
The amber lights flicker past as we slip across the long stretch of the Golden Gate Bridge. The twin towers loom above us like colossal sentinels. Foghorns moan across the Bay.
Jan stares mournfully at the neon redley twinkle of the white city of San Francisco and her eleven mystic hills, as her father described it on the long roll of butcher paper that became the notorious runaway novel.
I tell her how much I was moved by her story at Gerry Nicosia’s dinner party of how she came to read her father’s work, through the haze of her 4th dialysis treatment of the day. She had described how she was 12 years old and in the hospital for her problem with alcohol. Her doctor noticed the name Kerouac on her medical chart. On a hunch, he asked if she was related to the famous writer. She shrugged. He asked if she’d read any of his books. Petulantly she shook her head no. A few minutes later he returned with a copy of On the Road which he handed to her saying, “Read it. It might help.”
She had told us all this with the tang of regret. “I was up all night,” she had said with end-of-the-world weariness. “By the time I finished I finally understood why my father was never around while I was growing up.”
As we pass under the mighty towers of the bridge, I confess I didn’t get around to reading it until I was 22. I was lost and languishing in London, working for a professor of literature who thought I needed a jolt to get me, well, on the road again. From his library, he pulled down a leatherbound edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence—a history of the English Secret Service—and the first edition of her father’s On the Road.
“Your dad’s book was a kind of hurricane for me,” I tell her. I plunge ahead into No Man’s Land, trying to convey the way I felt when all those windblown words and bebopping rhythms helped catapult me around the world.
A wry smile crosses her face. “Everyone remembers the first time they read that one,” she says, with a sudden, childlike exuberance. Her eyes flashed with momentary delight, then she asks, “But where are they now?”
Her fingers drum nervously on the window molding of the car door. She seems ravaged by the mean mix of health and literary problems —the struggle to finish her third novel, and the bitter fight over her father’s literary estate. She looks like she’s only longing now for the quiet anonymity of her motel room.
Jan’s attention drifts away, as she gazes out at the silver wake left by a ship far out at sea. Her sad face is cast in an eerie silhouette that slowly shapeshifts into the spitting image of her father.
For one phantasmagorical moment he’s leaning back in the passenger seat of my knockabout ‘82 Mustang; peripatetic poetic and beat, to paraphrase the playwright. Jack everlovin’ Kerouac, slick and slack in his brown leather jacket, the original coolhunter, wistful in his world of hurt, caught in some dharma bum time=warp between love affairs, tumbledown motels, ramshackle bars and the long loping backroads of blue bluer than eternity Wildamerica.
In this one crazy Roman candle instant he is staring across the dark Bay, longing for the loony locomotion of the open road, digging the long blue line of the distant lowing foghorn on Alcatraz, marveling at the glorious memories of driving with his Bud Neal Cassady, the holy goof himself, in an old juddering jalopy under a night gliding moon, past groves of lonesome redwood trees, over boundless plains and beyond the Great Lakes, listening for the bone deep cries of jazzmen who might raise men’s souls to joy. All the while they’re reading from the bluesy manuscript of night like a couple of Zen lunatics, maddashing into the heart of strange roads at the crackling of the blue dawn.
Go moan, go moan for man, go groan, I hear in the jewelled weirdness.
Her smoky voice lures me back. “So I guess my father wasn’t around because he was roaring back and forth across the country, driving like a madman, then sitting in a room for months writing about it. He didn’t seem to have time for anything or anybody else, even me. When I figured that out I was finally able to forgive him.”
I ask if she has any other memories of him. With disarming shyness she says, ”I remember him coming into my room when I was a little girl and whispering shush to my little sisters so he wouldn’t wake me. But that’s all I remember until my only other visit with him when I was in my teens.”
“It’s not much,” she seems to conclude with a dash of her father’s doomtragic inflection, “but I’ll take whatever I can get.”
I downshift for the tollbooth, and route around in my vest pocket for some change.
“I’m so tired,” Kerouac’s daughter says with her father’s end-of-the-continent sadness. Her voice is stretched on the rack of night “I don’t expect to be around forever, you know.”
Her voice seems to catch in her throat, as it did earlier in the night at Nicosia’s, when she told the story of the time she visited her father’s house in Orlando, Florida in 1994. She seemed frail and vulnerable in the telling, but strengthened when she said she felt “at home.” After serving tea, the new owner, a relative of Jack’s last wife, asked if he could get her anything else, and in her inimitable way, she said exactly what was on her mind and in her eyes. She said she’d love to have her father’s roll top desk.
“That’s the way the cookie crumbles, Jan,” was the mocking response.
She owned virtually nothing of her father’s. She was crushed.
Remembering those words, I thought that she had come to live by her father’s words, go moan for man, as if they were mad prophecy.
We pass like phantoms through the tollbooth and drive on through the marbleized mist shrouding the Presidio, past the darkly floating boats of the Marina. The father’s words come back to me, summoned by the force of a daughter’s loneliness—the happiness consists in realizing that it is all a great strange dream, and the city that inspired a thousand dreams of zest—as we reach the bright and garish lights of the Holiday Inn on the Wharf.
I drop her off promising to look her up in Albuquerque someday. She nods grievously then vanishes into the motel, motel, motel loneliness her father knew all too well. I imagine locomotives wailing all night long once she closes the door behind her.
Go on, press on, regardless. Everything depends on those who go on, I want to say through the window. But I let her go, remembering her old road-man father’s words, But no matter, the road is life.
This article is an excerpt from The Book of Roads: A Life Made from Travel. A regular contributor to Reinventing Home, Phil Cousineau is the author of more than 30 nonfiction books, the latest The Notebooks of Sisyphus. He is a noted scholar, filmmaker, travel leader and storyteller.