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    On the Road
    by Jack Kerouac
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Entries in beatnik (33)


On the Road: Paterson, New Jersey (end of trip)

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Wow!  It's taken us four years to travel along with Sal Paradise across the country and back.  Along the way, we've seen a lot of interesting things and done a lot of introspection about life, both in the 1940s and all the way to today.  This is the last post in this particular string of literary wandering, but upcoming are more trips for you, and eventually, we'll also come back to Jack Kerouac.  So take a look at the map.  Also, be sure to check out the Google Earth kmz tour that has now been uploaded.  Click here, or click on the link to the left under "Maps."

Book Quote

"I had to panhandle two bits for the bus. I finally hit a Greek minister who was standing around the corner. He gave me the quarter with a nervous lookaway. I rushed immediately to the bus.

"When I got home I ate everything in the icebox. My aunt got up and looked at me. 'Poor little Salvatore,' she said in Italian. 'You're thin, you're thin. Where have you been all this time?' I had on two shirts and two sweaters; my canvas bag had torn cottonfield pants and the tattered remnants of my huarache shoes in it. My aunt and I decided to buy a new electric refrigerator with the money I had sent her from California; it was to be the first one in the family. She went to bed, and late at night I couldn't sleep and just smoked in bed. My half-finished manuscript was on the desk. It was October, home, and work again. The first cold winds rattled the windowpane, and I had made it just in time."

On the Road book cover

Back in Paterson, New Jersey

Coming home after being away is always an adjustment, at least to me.  At the time of this writing, I am 46 years old, but going home is always fraught with peril.  I fit very easily into my old family functions, and dysfunctions, and even after 25+ years out of my mom's house, I sometimes find that it is difficult for me to don those roles again.  Why does my mom treat me like the teenager she used to when I visit the kitchen, hovering over everything I do there?  Why is it we talk so easily over the phone, but when I get home getting her to talk to me about something serious is like pulling teeth?  My wife comments on the weird relationship I have with my mother.  Over the past three years, my sister has been living with my mom, and now those two have come to some sort living arrangement that makes interlopers like my wife and I even more uneasy sometimes because of unknown boundaries and rules that they've worked out for themselves.

I don't want to give the impression that I don't feel welcome at my house.  I do.  But I also keenly aware that "my" house, where I grew up, isn't my house anymore.  So even though I'm at home, I'm not really at home.

I compare and contrast this with Sal's experience.  He comes home, and his aunt welcomes him with words of concern.  She also talks as if he hasn't been gone for months, but has been gone for a day and has maybe gotten himself into some trouble.  I'm sure Sal, after traveling for days with little money and wondering if he is going to get home, is happy for some loving care.  I think, however, that it will be difficult to answer his aunt.  Sal's world has expanded so exponentially that there is no way that he's going to be able to adequately convey his experiences to this kindly, uncomplicated woman who is worried about how skinny he looks.

My experience with my mom is similar.  I find that there are "safe" topics that I can discuss with her.  The weather.  The doings of our neighbors.  The animals.  What my sisters and extended family members have been up to.  She usually picks out whether I feel down and tells me platitudes that she's built up over the years:  "You have to stop and smell the roses," or "It's time to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and put your best foot forward."  But my mom has a high school education and does not understand a lot of my reality since I left home.  I can give her generalities about the difficulties of being a PhD looking for a job, or what life in Albuquerque is like, or discuss vaguely the things that I find interesting, but I can't fully connect with her on these things.  It creates a bit of a gulf between us.  My wife, on the other hand, has a very accomplished family.  Her father and one sister is a PhD, her brother is in information technology in health care, another sister is an MBA, lawyer and CFO, and another sister is a highly accomplished artist.  Her mother is also very accomplished as well.  My wife can bring up anything with them and have good discussions with them on practically any topic.  I would like to have this kind of relationship with my mom, but my overeducation precludes it, though I value what my mom gives me as she is.

So Sal is now back home, his life stretching before him, a manuscript of a book waiting for his attention, and a kindly aunt taking care of him.  Before long, the itch to travel will overtake him again, and he will meet up with Dean Moriarty and once again make a cross-country trip.  It's hard to resist the lure of adventure and the road, especially when you have a devil-may-care friend.

I will close this string of reflections on the first trip of On the Road with my gratitude to everybody who has read from this blog.  There have been few comments but many visitors, and I hope it has been enjoyable for you.  I will start on a new book and a new set of reflections shortly.  I will probably also come back to Kerouac sometime in the future, because he made three trips that are chronicled in On the Road, and I've only mapped out the first one.  So look for more Kerouac eventually.  Comments are welcome, if you wish to make any, about anything you see in this blog.

If you want to know more about On the Road or Jack Kerouac

30 Writing Tips by Jack Kerouac
Haiku by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac Quotes
On the Road online
On the Road Symbolism, Imagery and Allegory
Penguin Reading Guides: On the Road
Youtube: Kerouac interviewed by Fernanda Pivano
Youtube: Kerouac interviewed on the Steve Allen Show
Wikiquote: On the Road quotes

Next up: Wherever another book takes us


On the Road: Times Square

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Sal gets the skinny guy starving himself for health to take him all the way to Times Square.  He's almost home, and so are we.  Click the map to see our progress.

Book Quote

"Suddenly I found myself on Times Square. I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing 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, the mad dream-grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City. The high towers of the land - the other end of the land, the place where Paper America is born."

On the Road, Chapter 14


Times Square, New York City

I put this video up because I really like the billboard where the guy smokes, and because it was taken in the 1940s about the time Jack Kerouac was in and out of the area.  I can imagine Jack, searching for cigarette butts on the ground to get a puff or two off underneath the billboard as he tries to figure out how to get over to Paterson without any money.

It's hard for me to imagine Times Square as it was, because I only began traveling to New York City in earnest, three times a year, for a job from 1995-2000.  At that time, the transition of Times Square from a seedy place filled with porno shops and cheap sex shows to a clean, family friendly Disney atmosphere was almost complete.  In 1995, you could still find some of the old Times Square off on some of the side streets, but they were fast disappearing under the onslaught of Mickey Mouse.

The interesting thing about Sal's statement above is how he describes being in New York City once again after having been on the road for so many months.  He almost describes the feelings that I have heard some describe after living for a while in a developing country.  The hubbub, the busy-ness and the businesses, the traffic at rush hour (which I'm sure is even worse today than in the late 1940s), the chaotic swirl of life in America's biggest city.  When you've been standing for hours in a place like Shelton, Nebraska, or picking cotton in Selma, California, or even just riding a bus through places and past names that have almost a mystical sound to them, a jolt of New York City can definitely be a shock to the system.  I suppose that in a way, large portions of rural America in the 1940s were akin to a developing country.  Though America had awakened its industrial giant in World War II, there were still large portions of rural America that didn't have running water or electricity.  If you were near a populated area, you most likely had electricity, but the farther away you got from cities or towns, the less chance that power lines extended out to you.

Sal also makes a distinction between "Paper America," or the business and legal America, with the rest of America he has just seen.  In rural America, life must have been even more in stark contrast with the city than it is today.  If one doesn't have electricity or running water, one is forced to live a more simple lifestyle.  The trappings of a modern society are not needed, nor are they missed because they have never been there.  Contracts and stocks, bonds and licenses are not as important.  Most likely, even currency was not as important because more bartering took place, i.e. a couple of dozen eggs in exchange for use of tools to fix the old truck.

For Sal, or actually Jack, stepping back into New York must have been quite a culture shock.  I'd be interested in knowing if, after visiting a more simple and innocent America, whether he saw things like smoking billboards and the hustle and bustle of Times Square as exciting, or overkill?  I know that for me, after spending a month in a developing country, getting used to the hectic pace of my own life back in the states was an adjustment.  The rhythm of the road or trip, replaced by a new beat of life.

If you want to know more about Times Square

42nd Street: At the Crossroads
An Appreciation of the New Times Square (video)
History of Times Square
Seven Decades of Times Square (video)
Times Square Alliance
Times Square: Crossroads of the World
Times Square (short film)
Wikipedia: Times Square

Next up: Paterson, New Jersey and end of trip


On the Road: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Sal starts hitching again, trying to make it home on his last dime, facing a kind of judgment day.  Follow along with us by clicking the map.

Book Quote

"I had three hundred and sixty-five miles yet to hitchhike to New York, and a dime in my pocket. I walked five miles to get out of Pittsburgh, and two rides, an apple truck and a big trailer truck, took me to Harrisburg in the soft Indian-summer rainy night. I cut right along. I wanted to get home.

"....That night in Harrisburg I had to sleep in the railroad station on a bench; at dawn the station masters threw me out. Isn't it true that you start your life a sweet child believing in everything under your father's roof? Then comes the day of the Laodiceans, when you know you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, and with the visage of a gruesome grieving ghost you go shuddering through nightmare life. I stumbled haggardly out of the station; I had no more control. All I could see of the morning was a whiteness like the whiteness of the tomb. I was starving to death. All I had left in the form of calories were the last of the cough drops I'd bought in Shelton, Nebraska, months ago; these I sucked for their sugar. I didn't know how to panhandle. I stumbled out of town with barely enough strength to reach the city limits."

On the Road, Chapter 14

Harrisburg in the 1940s as Jack Kerouac might have seen it. Photo on Flickr as part of "kawkawpa's" photostream.Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Who among us hasn't faced our own day of Laodiceans?  Okay, as a Catholic, and as I explained in an earlier post, I don't know the Bible at all so I had to look up Kerouac's reference.  This particular reference comes from the Book of Revelations, in which the Lord instructs John to address the church of the Laodiceans.  The Laodicean church is admonished for being neither "hot" nor "cold," but "lukewarm," meaning that it doesn't lack for faith but it doesn't act upon its faith like it should.  It's tepid fervor makes it unworthy - it has grown rich and does not realize that despite its material wealth, it is "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."

It is a challenge, of course, when we realize that we've reached that day, or sometimes days, as I believe that the day of the Laodiceans can happen whenever we move into a comfort zone.  Something happens to jar us out of our sense of complacency.  It can happen when we move to a new place, and need to find new friends and create a new community for ourselves.  It can happen when we take a new job and negotiate our way through the first week of work, wanting to prove that we belong and hoping nothing goes badly.  Sooner or later, we will cease feeling the adrenaline and nervousness and grow into our new communities and jobs, and become complacent again.

It often happens when a love ends or a love is lost.  How many times have I felt the way Kerouac describes?  Too many, and upon realizing that the person loved is gone from my life forever, I have gone out into the world with the "visage of a gruesome, grieving ghost...shuddering through nightmare life."  The blue sky seemed not so blue, the brilliant greens of nature turned a sickly yellow, and my troubles seemed to weigh down upon me like some great mass pressing me from above.  "All I could see of the morning was a whiteness like the whiteness of the tomb."  Eventually the wounds healed, the garish colors of remorse and self-pity morphed back into their natural states, and I moved onward toward my next day of the Laodiceans.

In Harrisburg, Sal reaches his own day of the Laodiceans.  The purpose of the Revelations passage is not to condemn, but to challenge.  The Laodicean church is challenged to take action, to repent, and to let in the Lord.  Similarly, Sal has become complacent in long bus rides across the country. He only has cough drops from another place, Shelton, Nebraska, where he faced uncertainty about his decisions.  It's ironic and poignant that sugar bought in Shelton is nourishing him now.  He is being challenged to draw upon himself to finish his journey, to put aside his romantic fantasies that led him on this adventure, and to begin the next phase of his life.

If you want to know more about Harrisburg

Blog Harrisburg
The Fly Magazine (alternative newsweekly)
Hershey-Harrisburg Welcome Center
Jersey Mike
The Patriot-News (Newspaper)
Sara Bozich
Slow Food Harrisburg
Vegetarian Dining in the Harrisburg Area
Wikipedia: Harrisburg

Next up:  Allentown, Pennsylvania


On the Road: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Sal reaches the city at the conjunction of two rivers that combine to form a mighty third.  He's out of money.  To get home from here, he'll have go back to hitching and waiting for a friendly ride.  To see where we are, click on the map.

Book Quote

"...and I slept all the way to Pittsburgh. I was wearier than I'd been for years and years."

On the Road, Chapter 14

Downtown Pittsburgh in the 1940s as Jack Kerouac would have seen it

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh is one of those cities I've always wished I visited, but haven't.  Most people that I've met that are from Pittsburgh, or lived there for a while, really like it.  I think of it as one of those mid-sized northern cities, like Milwaukee where I once lived, that holds on to its blue-collar identity despite the demise of the blue-collar economy because that's what made it strong and put it on the map.

I remember when I was young, watching the Pittsburgh Steelers win Super Bowl after Super Bowl.  The television sports announcers would extoll the hard working, industrial image of the Steelers with monikers like their "Steel Curtain" defense, and I grew to hate them with a grudging respect for their accomplishments.  Of course, I knew the nickname attached to Pittsburgh, the "Steel City."  But I was more intrigued by the name of their former football stadium, Three Rivers Stadium.  I liked the image of three rivers coming together.  I had no idea what those rivers were, but growing up on the coast of California and spending a lot of my summers 20 miles inland, swimming in a river that ran through some property we owned, I felt an attachment to rivers. I liked walking up or down them, learning what new features could be found with every bend or curve.

I think of Sal, coming to the city defined and delineated by three rivers, which I have learned somewhere in my adult life are the Monongahela and the Allegheny which combine to form the Ohio.  As I wrote in a previous post about the Hudson, rivers are representative of pathways to new places or even for escape.  I think of Huck Finn rafting down the Mississippi, or Lewis and Clark using the Missouri River to make their way into unexplored territories.  Even escaping prisoners often make for rivers to follow in the hopes that tracks will be washed away and scent concealed.  I was always told, when hiking alone in the mountains as a youth out at our property at Irmulco, California, that if I got lost and I found a stream or streambed, follow it down and continue to work my way along the water until I found someone or something to get my bearings.  I put this advice to use once, and it worked perfectly, bringing me back to the railroad tracks that got me back to our property.

But rivers are also boundaries, borders, and barriers.  The Greek myths place the River Styx at the boundary to Hades, where the boatman Charon ferries souls across to the afterlife.  In history, before it was possible to build bridges across large rivers, they presented significant obstacles to the movement of peoples and armies.  Even in the age of bridges and ease of travel, rivers can wash out crossings, flood their banks and create difficulties in getting from place to place.  In going home to see my mom during the winter holidays, I often end up staying longer than I intended because the rivers flood and roads are closed until they recede.

Perhaps I'm making more out of Sal's Pittsburgh stop than need be.  After all, it's the farthest he could get on the bus with the money he had.  But it seems symbolic nonetheless.  If he truly is weary, the confluence of two large rivers to create an even mightier third symbolizes a new strength and vitality.  It is also a boundary, where his bus ride ends and where he now has to rely on his ability to persuade others to take him the rest of the way.  Rivers continue to flow to their end, time moves on, and Sal's journey will continue through time and space back to Paterson.

If you want to know more about Pittsburgh

Digging Pitt
I Heart PGH blog
Pittsburgh Bloggers
Pittsburgh City Paper (Alternative newsweekly
Pittsburgh Green Story: America's Three Rivers
Pittsburgh Point of View
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Newspaper)
Three Rivers Arts Festival
View from the Burghchair
Wikipedia: Pittsburgh

Next up:  Harrisburg, Pennsylvania


On the Road: Columbus, Ohio

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Sal and a situational girlfriend (i.e. bus traveling companion) make it to Columbus, where they part ways and he continues his journey back home.  While her path diverges into the unknown, we'll keep following Sal to the conclusion of his.  Click on the map to get your bearings.

Book Quote

"She was coming from Washington State, where she had spent the summer picking apples. Her home was on an upstate New York farm. She invited me to come there. We made a date to meet at a New York hotel anyway. She got off at Columbus, Ohio..."

On the Road, Chapter 14

 1940s or 50s aerial view of Columbus as it looked when Jack Kerouac came through

Columbus, Ohio

In 1995, my fiancee, who was studying journalism at Marquette University, went to Columbus for a summer for an internship at the Columbus Dispatch.  She spent her time copy editing, usually getting home late at night to her apartment in Columbus' German Village.  We were due to be married that September, but she wasn't getting back to Milwaukee until August, so a large share of the wedding responsibilities were going to fall to me.  As most women understand, men aren't usually known for their involvement in planning weddings, and for me it seemed like a daunting task.  I got her settled in the German Village, and after a weekend helping her get situated, I drove away feeling quite lost and lonely and aware of the responsibilities that I would have to shoulder.  I hoped I wouldn't screw them up.

A year before that, she had gone to Topeka, Kansas as a summer intern for the Topeka Capital-Journal.  It was her first internship, and really, her first summer away from me since we had started dating.  I wasn't feeling as lost or lonely at that time, but she certainly was.  She got settled in an apartment with someone she didn't know, and I spent a couple of nights with her before driving back.  She was very nervous, couldn't sleep, and actually made herself nauseated with worry over her internship and my leaving.  She cried when I headed back to Milwaukee in the small van we rented to take her bed and other things down to Kansas, but she soldiered on and had a successful summer.

I mention these partings simply because human contact in a time of change seems so very important.  The emotional support is often needed and wanted by people undergoing change or facing uncertainty.  I can think of other times when my wife and I parted, such as when I made a four week journey to Bangladesh as part of my Masters program, or when she went to India for five weeks as part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange, or when I most recently in 2008 spent five weeks in El Salvador at a language school.  The support she gave me, and the encouragement, was invaluable, and especially before my foreign trips where I was very nervous about heading into the unknown of a developing country alone.

Yet I often wonder if I would have felt so much apprehension, loneliness and even regret if I hadn't had that support.  Would I have just plunged in, devil-may-care, because there was nobody holding my attention, nobody I had to worry about, nobody who would worry about me?  I wouldn't trade my wife's worry for me for anything because it makes me feel special and loved.  But, how would my attitude have been different were I unattached?

I ask because clearly, Jack writes Sal's character at times as that same damn-the-torpedoes type of adventurer who has no attachments or worries, who takes off at the drop of a hat when he feels like it.  But at other times, he shows Sal to be a man of attachments; a man who pursues Dean Moriarty all over America, who shows the very human emotions of regret and wistfulness as he leaves Terry, and who seeks out female companionship on a bus ride across America back home.  I suppose we all have these two aspects of character as we travel to new places and search the unknown.  Mark Twain once had Huck Finn state his desire to "light out for the territories," and I often have that urge to just get myself up, out and on to exploration.  But as I grow older, and my attachments deeper, I have a better sense of what I leave behind when I go, and that makes it harder.

If you want to know more about Columbus

the 270-a Columbus blog
CMH Gourmand
Columbus' Best Blog
Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau
Columbus Dispatch (Newspaper)
Columbus Foodie
The Other Paper
Wikipedia: Columbus
Wikipedia: German Village

Next up: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania