2016-06-10

Kerouac’s Kids: A Story (As Told to his Wife Kathleen Touchstone)
—Fiction by D. S. Lliteras

As I look back on it now, I do not remember how it got started. The conversation. A continuation of the one long conversation that we’ve been having for 45 years of married life.
A conversation sometimes starts with something one of us is reading. He reads about ten books to my one. Other times it begins with something one of us has written. And then there’s the real life story. His real life has been much realer than mine. A Vietnam vet—combat corpsman with First Recon First Marine Division. A Merchant Marine. A deep-sea diving and salvage officer for the U.S. Navy. A theatrical director. A short order cook. A firefighter with 15 years on the job. One year in our marriage, he amassed fourteen W-2 Forms.
This time the conversation involved all three R’s—reading, writing, and real life.
I’m fuzzy on the details of the progression—what came first. I had just finished reading Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-58. He had read it before I had, as he had Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac a few years earlier when he first discovered Joyce Johnson. At that time, he had said: “I learned more about the Beats from her book than I did reading all the books by Kerouac or Ginsberg or Burroughs.”
He was smitten. And who wouldn’t be by the shadowy blonde on the book cover of Minor Characters? But it was her prose, not the pose, that captivated him. When he read the Letters, he often read excerpts aloud to me. It was always Joyce’s quotes, not Jack’s, that he plucked from her book.
It could have been the Letters that led the conversation, but it could equally have been one of Danny’s books. Recently I had googled his name to see if a review of his recent novel had been posted online. A link to Allen Ginsberg’s archives popped up in the Google search. I clicked the link. For Lliteras, D. S., the manuscript In the Heart of Things 1989 was tucked away in Box 260.2, folders 2, 3, and 4.
Coincidentally, or maybe not, a reading of a screenplay on which In the Heart of Things was based was scheduled at the 52nd Street Project in NYC in a few days—late October, 2015. It had been organized by Chris Ceraso, Danny’s co-author of the screenplay. Danny would go to New York and I would stay here—in Alabama. It is what I do. I stay. And I write. What I write about is unimportant to this story. Although not unimportant to me. To me it ranks second only to World Peace. But I digress.
I stay. And it is in the staying that I identify somewhat with Joyce Johnson. And sometimes, when he returns, I get a story. Of all the Southern stereotypes that abound, the one that universally applies is that we enjoy hearing a good story.
As I recall, it was the end of the day. We were sitting on our respective love seats reading. I was sipping camomile tea. At some point, I mentioned the manuscript in Ginsberg’s archive.
“I had asked him for a blurb for In the Heart of Things,” Danny said. “He had really liked In a Warrior’s Romance, but he sent a note back saying he was 65 and retiring from excess work. When I spoke to him at the Beat Convention . . .” “I didn’t know you had met Ginsberg,” I interrupted.
“Sure, I told you . . .”
This kind of exchange between the two of us occurs with increasing frequency of late.
“When did you meet him?”
“I told you—at the Beat Convention . . .”
“But when was that?”
And thus the story commenced. This was no tale of derring-do that had so often characterized his life. It didn’t involve clinging precariously to a limb jutting from a mountainside in Vietnam, while taking on enemy fire. He had not been dipped in the ocean like a tea bag to salvage a downed U.S. Air Force fixed-wing aircraft, togged out in Mark 12 diving gear, and encircled by sharks. He was not on the tip of a swaying aerial ladder 30 feet from earth, poised to leap to a slippery window ledge of a burning building as lightning cracked the surrounding sky. There were no bullets to be dodged, lives to be saved, or elements to battle. 
It was a story about the last hours of an era. It was a time that was not simpler nor slower nor safer. Because for the majority of us, to the extent those conditions have existed, it has been an illusion. This was an era of illusions. Illusions created by progressive jazz, abstract expressionism, and Beat poetry. There was the illusion, forged by Kerouac, of the limitless open road. An illusion that has particular significance for those of us who stay.
The story concerned what was to be, among other things, a celebration of the Beats.
A Beat Generation Convention had been scheduled to take place in New York during May 1994. Gerald Nicosia, author of Jack Kerouac’s biography, Memory Babe, asked Danny to take part in an event to be held concurrently with the Convention. Jan Kerouac, Jack’s daughter, and Al Aronowitz, a Beat chronicler, were also attending.
Gerry envisioned a shadow event—a counterpoint to the Beat Convention. Instead of the stifling sterility of a conference hall, Gerry imagined an atmosphere befitting the Beat mystique: dim lights, the bite of bitter coffee, the beat of a bongo, the pulse of poetry read aloud.
Gerry saw the four as Kerouac’s progeny—four writers and poets whose lives had been changed by the “King of the Beats.” They were to be billed as Four of Kerouac’s Kids: Gerry, his biographer; Jan, his daughter; Al, his interviewer; and Danny, his spiritual heir. Gerry had dubbed Danny, Kerouac’s spiritual heir. “And who was I to argue?” Danny declared. It was a label that had been appended as a result of Danny’s novel, In the Heart of Things, about Zen Buddhism in America.
Danny was also asked to take part because, even though he was now a Virginia resident, he was a native New Yorker who knew his way around the city. Gerry was the mastermind of the event and Jan was the heart. Danny was to locate the space for it to take place, and Al was to supply the music—literally the beat on which their words would dance.
Al Aronowitz was legendary for having introduced Bob Dylan (whom he briefly managed) to the Beatles. One myth that endures (and like most myths is very likely true) is that he persuaded Dylan to take up the electric guitar. Al’s association with the Beats began when he was dispatched to San Francisco by New York Post’s editor to interview (according to Aronowitz) some “pansies posing as poets.” Thus began his kinship with Kerouac, Cassady, and Ginsberg. An intimacy with drugs ultimately alienated him from many of his acquaintances, but by 1994, he had been clean for nearly a decade. More kith than kin, he, like the other three “kids,” was attached to a time that each, in his or her own way, was intent upon resurrecting.
Those conversant with the Beats are familiar with Jan’s tragic tale. The only true “Kerouac Kid” of the four, she had been denied by her father, seeing him only twice during her life; once for a paternity test when she was nine (after which she was awarded $52.68 a month child support) and another in 1967, when at age 15 she visited him before venturing to Mexico with her boyfriend, John Lash. She suffered a stillborn delivery in 1968, and by 1994 had been treated for kidney failure with dialysis for three years and counting. Yet there was no sense of the victim about her. A “gentle spirit,” Danny called her, yet ambitious. Anxious to give voice to Trainsong, her second autobiographical novel. Gentle, restlessly adventurous, creatively ambitious. These traits, along with a striking appearance, she inherited from her iconic father. But that was all. Gentle, Jack may have been, but generous he was not—not with his time nor his money nor his heart.
It was Gerald Nicosia who persuaded Jan to challenge the will of Jack’s mother (which left Jack’s estate to his third wife), claiming that it was a forgery. While in New York, Gerry wanted not only to promote Memory Babe, but also to see a performance of his play, Jack in Ghost-town. Danny offered to help get the play produced. At that time Danny had friends who were active in the New York legitimate theatre; friends with whom he had studied acting, directing, and playwriting while getting their Masters of Fine Arts.
“The four” roomed in a second-rate hotel in the Village near Washington Square. From the 17th through the 22nd of May, they would rendezvous in Jan’s hotel room to talk strategy at least once a day. Danny said: “Happy to get away from the sun’s heat on the streets of New York City in May.”
It’s not easy being cool while pounding 90-degree pavement. For Danny’s part, he was able to convince Pete, the manager of Dean and Deluca’s Espresso Café on 11th Street and University Place, that reciting poetry and reading stories in the fashion of the 1950’s Beats would sell drinks. Their agreement was forged with a handshake. Aronowitz arranged the musical accompaniment—the jazz trio: Joel Roi, Haze Greenfield, and Brian Glassman. Gerry printed flyers announcing time and place: Friday, May 20, 2-3:30 PM, D & D’s Basement. Danny also prevailed upon friend and graduate alum Rick Falklen, to produce and direct Gerry’s play.
The play was a success. It was an off-off-off Broadway production. “I was very grateful for Rick’s monumental efforts,” Danny told me. “My only regret is that I don’t remember thanking him enough. All I can remember now is how hard I worked trying to produce the ‘Kerouac Kids’ at D & D’s.”
The street flyers, posted in Greenwich Village restaurants and storefront windows, brought in a packed audience on the 20th. Or it may have been the hot mid-afternoon sun that induced the crowd to descend D & D’s wrought iron spiral staircase to eat and drink and soak in the darkness. Regardless of what had lured them in, what kept them enraptured was the rhythm of the poetry flowing through the veins and voices of Danny and his three new best friends supported by the sounds of Greenfield, Glassman, and Roi. The four were not shadows but real. And as with all flickering events, when it ended it felt eternal, at least it did to Danny.
This was in sharp contrast to the Beat Convention, which Gerry, Jan, and Danny crashed one afternoon after Danny had spent mid-day lunching with Gerry’s mother. She had also spent the week in New York, but until now Danny had failed to mention it. Hers was a welcomed presence in their daily crowded hotel gatherings. It forced them to portray a lightness they otherwise may not have felt and camouflage anxieties they otherwise would have.
She and Danny lunched at one of those cramped New York cafés crowded with tables, their tops the size of postage stamps. It sold aromatic coffee served regular— which for non-New Yorkers means with milk and sugar. He probably ordered a burger— medium. He liked Gerry’s mother, her calm eyes and her empathetic soul. I can envision his animated gestures, hear his easy laughter, see the flash of his smile—a smile that charms and disarms me still.
“After lunch, Gerry, Jan, and I went to the Beat Conference,” Danny said. “When we reached the building I saw Allen Ginsberg standing in the shade of the street.”
He approached Ginsberg. The others held back. Although Ginsberg was Jan’s godfather and had been kind to her in the past, apparently their relationship had become strained since she had pursued the lawsuit. By way of introduction, Danny reminded Ginsberg of In a Warrior’s Romance, thanking him for the note he had written Danny about it. But Ginsberg looked vague, frail, older than his years.
After exchanging another sentence or two, Danny told me: “I wished him well and backed away from a man who had not moved from where he stood during our entire encounter. He simply stared blankly at me as I subtracted myself from that beat scene.”
Danny re-joined Gerry and Jan. They entered the building, finding their way to the conference room. The Beat Generation Conference seemed conventional by comparison to the Four’s “Shadow Event.” Its stale stillness seemed to confer upon its attendants an extra 90-degree angle. In the Village, in Washington Square, where nobody wanted to be “a square,” the conference attendees seemed to have five 90-degree angles. Squarer than square.
Danny continued: “We approached the conference room, making a grand entrance that wasn't so grand when I think back on it. Anyway, by then Allen Ginsberg and Ann Charters were on stage with other notables like Michael McClure and Gregory Corso. They were sitting behind a long table because this was going to be a panel discussion— you know, one of those critical analyses about literature and blah, blah, blah. Allen and Ann stiffened when they saw Gerry and Jan. Then again, it may have been my imagination. It seemed anti-climatic from that point on. Gerry and Jan took a seat up front and I remained in the back and listened to the dull talk about the Beat Generation and its literature and eventually I yawned, then went outside and found a place to have a beer or two or three. I didn't ask Gerry or Jan what happened at the end of the day. It didn't matter. As far as I was concerned, we had had our day at Dean and Deluca. It had been real. And that's all that mattered to me.”
Since then, Gerry has continued to write and remained Jan’s advocate and friend until her death two years later, at which time the lawsuit remained unsettled. Ginsberg died three years hence, and Al Aronowitz passed on in 2005. And, of course, there’s Danny, who’s had the good fortune to remain alive and literarily active.
He and I sit now in silence, a momentary pause in our conversation. I look at us on our twin love seats at the end of the day and think of the years together that have created this illusion called “us” and realize that what sustains and entertains me now are not our shared hours, but those apart, when I stayed and he did not.
My mind drifts to the closing of In the Heart of Things with the character Llewellyn riding a bus to some unknown destination, and I am reminded again of the necessity of illusion:
As I sit and wonder
I wander as I sit:
Whatever in this mortal world
Is going to happen to me?
Knowing that it doesn’t matter
 knowing that whatever’s only:
that which is inevitable . . .
When that comes it will be easy:
that short journey to the nowhere.
It’s the now and the here
that’s not so easy;
It’s the taking apart that which is called . . . time.
It’s the now and the here
that’s not so easy;
To sit for its own sake
quietly . . . alone.


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D.S. Lliteras is the author of twelve books that have received national and international acclaim. His short stories and poetry have appeared in numerous national and international magazines, journals, and anthologies. He has a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts degree from Florida State University.

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Kathleen Touchstone is the author of the book Then Athena Said as well as several scholarly publications. 

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