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Archives For February 2010
More so than any other literary movement, the Beats have influenced the world of travel and have helped shape our perceptions of the world around us. From obvious influences on hitch-hiking to more serious questions relating to the environment, Beat Generation literature and history has played a major role influencing people over the past fifty years.
We often look to Jack Kerouac as the great backpacker, whose On the Road is credited with sending thousands of readers literally on the road… but he certainly wasn’t the perpetual traveller many think, and the other members of the Beat Generation – whom are less well known for their journeys – travelled far more.
It is strange that when one thinks about the Beat Generation one invariably thinks of New York or San Francisco, because between there lay thousands of miles that they all travelled, and beyond them lay a near infinite abyss that many sought to explore. But these were mere catchments for the meeting of minds; where the young writers and artists of their day met and exchanged knowledge – knowledge that lead them on the road, and was informed by their own personal adventures.
Hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought you wine.
JK, Book of Haikus
Kerouac is the logical starting point for an essay about the Beat Generation and travel. On the Road is undoubtedly the most famous Beat text, and concerned – as the title suggests – travelling. The book detailed Kerouac’s journeys across North America, and inspired subsequent generations of readers, writers and artists to take to the road for spiritual (or non-spiritual) journeys of their own.
Interestingly, Kerouac was not always fond of hitchhiking, although he has had a huge impact upon hitchhikers. He didn’t really do as much travelling as people seem to think, either. Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts and stayed there until he went to Horace Mann Prep School in New York at seventeen years old. A year later he went to Columbia University on a football scholarship, but broke his leg and eventually signed up for the merchant marines during World War II. He sailed on the S.S. Dorchester to Greenland.
At twenty-five, Kerouac took his first cross-country road trip, and a year later he took his first trip with Neal Cassady. These journeys took Kerouac from one end of America to another, and eventually found their way into the American road classic, On the Road.
On the Road is one book that has changed America. Whether you’ve read it or not, it has had some impact upon your life. Kerouac’s masterpiece has inspired people ever since, and is still as relevant as ever.
“The road is life,” is one oft-quoted phrase from On the Road. It is one that resonates in American society – a country of immigrants, whose classics include Mark Twain, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. The road has always meant something to America; their histories are irrevocably linked.
The idea of the wilderness and self-reliance has been entangled in American literary history since the beginning, and was most notably explored in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Kerouac also believed that it was important, saying in Lonesome Traveler:
No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.
But mostly it was the idea of non-conformity that appealed to people fifty years ago, and which has inspired readers ever since. Kerouac’s call to “mad” people came at a time when people needed to rebel, and his wild kicks on the roads of America were a wake-up call for millions. The idea of rebelling then became tied to that of travelling – of gaining freedom and independence through running away and exploring the world, and to hell with society’s expectations.
Kerouac explained in The Dharma Bums:
Colleges [are] nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness.
In both Japhy Ryder and Dean Moriarty Kerouac portrayed an attractive outsider that stood against everything society demanded. He presented romantic depictions of these footloose individuals that etched in the consciousness of his readers a desire to be that free soul.
Japhy Ryder was based on Zen poet Gary Snyder, whom Kerouac met in San Francisco, after travelling across America with a backpack full of manuscripts. His Buddhist wisdom inspired Kerouac to attempt communing with nature, as depicted in The Dharma Bums.
Perhaps his Book of Sketches is a better example of Kerouac’s travel-writing. He details a nearly three thousand mile hitch-hiking journey from 1952, as he travelled from North Carolina to California, by way of Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. In the book he describes every town he visits and every ride he took in travelling across America.
In 1957 Kerouac travelled to Tangier, Morocco, with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. He didn’t enjoy his time there, but helped Burroughs with the concept and title of what would later become Naked Lunch. This journey was recorded in Desolation Angels – which also details his musings on life as he wanders across North America and Europe. The chapter titles in this book include: “Passing Through Mexico,” “Passing Through New York,” “Passing Through Tangiers, France and London” and “Passing Through America Again.”
Later, suffering from his inability to deal with fame and his disappointment at not being taken seriously by critics (as they viewed the Beats as a mere fad), Kerouac attempted to heal himself by escaping to Big Sur, as described in the novel of the same name.
After Big Sur, Kerouac returned to his mother in Long Island and didn’t stray far from her for the rest of his life. They moved together first to Lowell, Massachusetts, and then to St. Petersburg, Florida.
William S. Burroughs
Burroughs doesn’t exactly strike the same image in the minds of travellers as Kerouac, but certainly travelled more than the author of On the Road. His books are hardly odes to nature or travel, but in his life Burroughs moved frequently, and saw much of the world.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs went to school in New Mexico, and then studied at Harvard. With a healthy allowance from his parents, Burroughs travelled frequently from New York to Boston, and travelled around Europe after studying in Vienna. He returned and enlisted in the army, but was soon discharged and moved to Chicago, where he met Lucian Carr.
Carr took Burroughs to New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Whilst in New York he and Joan Vollmer Adams had a child. The family soon moved to Texas, and then New Orleans. Some of this was described in On the Road.
After being arrested on account of incriminating letters between him and Ginsberg, Burroughs was forced to flee to Mexico, where he famously shot and killed his wife in a game of William Tell.
In January 1953 Burroughs travelled to South America, maintaining a constant stream of correspondence with Allen Ginsberg that would later become The Yage Letters. “Yage” was the name of a drug with supposed telekinetic properties for which Burroughs was searching.
In Lima, Peru, he typed up his travel notes and then returned to Mexico, where he sent the final instalment of his journey to Ginsberg. This later became the ending of Queer.
In 2007, Ohio State University Press published Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs. The book details Burroughs’ journey through Ecuador, Columbia and Peru, and gives insight into his personal troubles.
When Burroughs’ legal problems made it impossible for him to live in the cities of his choice he moved to Palm Springs with his parents, and then New York to stay with Ginsberg. After Ginsberg reject his advances, Burroughs travelled to Rome to see Alan Ansen, and then to Tangier, Morocco, to meet Paul Bowles.
Over the next few years Burroughs stayed in Tangiers, working on something that would eventually become Naked Lunch. He was visited by Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957, and they helped him with his writing.
In 1959, when looking for a publisher for Naked Lunch, Burroughs went to Paris to meet Ginsberg and talk to Olympia Press. Amid surrounding legal problems, the novel was published. In the months before and after the book’s publication, Burroughs stayed with Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky in the “Beat Hotel.” Ginsberg composed some of “Kaddish” there, while Corso composed “Bomb.”
After Paris, Burroughs spent six years in London, where he originally travelled for treatment for his heroin addiction. He returned to the US several times – including to cover the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago – before moving to New York in 1974. He took a teaching position and moved into the “Bunker,” a rent-controlled former YMCA gym.
Burroughs travelled around America from time to time, before moving to Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his final years.
Clearly Burroughs possessed more of an instinct to travel the world than Kerouac. However, his writing rarely glorifies the act of travelling, unlike his friend, who celebrated the road.
In an unpublished essay that can be found in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, Burroughs writes,
As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow ponge silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle. …
This isn’t exactly the sort of image that invokes pleasant thoughts for most readers, but it shows that Burroughs considered exotic locations and global travel as extremely important. He set these things as a goal for himself, even from a young age.
In his work one could argue Burroughs was more interested in the notion of time-travel than of terrestrial journeying. From actual references to time-travel to the cut-up techniques that carried readers across space and time, Burroughs seemed very interested in having everything in a constant state of flux.
In his essay, “Civilian Defence,” from the collection, The Adding Machine, Burroughs argues for space travel as the future of mankind. He seems to be suggesting that to change is to survive, that we need to move to develop.
Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.
From the Allen Ginsberg Trust:
Ginsberg might have been an American by birth, but through his extensive travel he developed a global consciousness that greatly affected his writings and viewpoint. He spent extended periods of time in Mexico, South America, Europe and India. He visited every continent in the world and every state in the United States and some of his finest work came about as a result of these travels.
Ginsberg spent his tumultuous youth in Paterson, New Jersey, before moving to Columbia University and meeting Kerouac and Burroughs. He met Neal Cassady there and took trips across America – to Denver and San Francisco. In 1947 he sailed to Dakar, Senegal, and wrote “Dakar Doldrums.”
Ginsberg returned to New York and attempted to “go straight,” but moved to San Francisco and became heavily involved in its poetry scene. In 1951 he took a trip to Mexico to meet Burroughs, but Burroughs had already left for Ecuador. In 1953 Ginsberg returned to explore ancient ruins and experiment with drugs, and in 1956 he visited Kerouac in Mexico City.
In 1955 he read “Howl” at the Six Gallery and became a Beat Generation icon. When Howl and Other Poems was published, City Lights Bookstore was charged with publishing indecent literature, and the trial helped made Ginsberg a celebrity.
During the trial Ginsberg moved to Paris with his partner, Peter Orlovsky. From there they travelled to Tangier to help Burroughs compose Naked Lunch. They returned through Spain to stay in the “Beat Hotel” and help Burroughs sell the book to Olympia Press. In a Parisian café, Ginsberg began writing “Kaddish.”
In 1960 Ginsberg travelled to Chile with Lawrence Ferlinghetti for a communist literary conference. He travelled through Bolivia to Lima, Peru, where he tried yage for the first time.
In 1961 Ginsberg and Orlovsky sailed on the SS America for Europe. They looked for Burroughs in Paris. From Paris he travelled through Greece to Israel, meeting Orlovsky, who’d taken a different route.
Together, Ginsberg and Orlovsky travelled down to East Africa, attending a rally in Nairobi. From Africa they travelled to India, first to Bombay and then Delhi, where they met Gary Snyder and Joanne Kryger. Ginsberg and Snyder travelled throughout India for fifteen months, consulting as many wise men as they could find.
After India, Ginsberg travelled on his own through Bangkok, Saigon and Cambodia, and then spent five weeks in Japan with Snyder and Kryger. He wrote “The Change” on a train from Kyoto to Tokyo.
In 1965 Ginsberg travelled to Cuba through Mexico, but was kicked out of the country for allegedly calling Raul Castro “gay” and Che Guevara “cute.” The authorities put him on a flight to Czechoslovakia. In Prague Ginsberg discovered his work had become very popular and used his royalties there to travel to Moscow. He travelled back through Warsaw and Auschwitz.
Back in Prague Ginsberg was elected “King of May” by the students of the city, and spent the following few days “running around with groups of students, acting in a spontaneous, improvised manner – making love.”
Eventually he was put on a flight to London after the authorities found his notebook – containing graphically sexual poems and politically charged statements. In London he partied with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and organised a big poetry reading.
On his return to the US Ginsberg learned that his previously deactivated FBI file has been updated with the warning, “these persons are reported to be engaged in smuggling narcotics.” This was not helpful to someone as passionate about travel as Allen Ginsberg, and for two years he travelled around the US.
In 1967 he flew to Italy and was arrested for “use of certain words” in his poetry. He then travelled back to London and on to Wales, before returning to Italy to meet Ezra Pound.
In1971 a plane ticket to India and West Bengal was anonymously donated, and Ginsberg travelled to the flood and famine ravaged area.
Back in America, Ginsberg was always travelling – seeking wisdom and change. He moved around the country, participating in demonstrations and rallies. He trained with Buddhists, founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado, and toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.
Ginsberg toured Europe again in 1979 – visiting Cambridge, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Paris, Genoa, Rome and Tubingen, among other places. He was accompanied by Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky.
In the early eighties Ginsberg settled in Boulder, to play a more active role at Naropa, following a series of problems that had troubled the school. During this time he travelled to Nicaragua to work with other poets on stopping American interference in the politics of other nations. (He returned to Nicaragua for a poetry festival in 1986.)
He spent eight weeks in China following a 1984 poetry conference with Gary Snyder, and in 1985 travelled in the USSR for another poetry conference. In August and September of 1986 he travelled throughout Eastern Europe – performing in Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade and Skopje. In January of 1988 he travelled to Israel to help bring peace to the Middle East. Later that year he returned to Japan to help protest nuclear weapons and airport developments.
After twenty five years, Ginsberg was re-crowned King of May upon his return to Prague in 1990. A few months later he travelled to Seoul, South Korea, to represent America in the 12th World Congress of Poets.
Continuing to travel right up until 1994, Ginsberg went to France in ’91 and ’92, and then toured Europe in ’93. His four month tour took him around most of Europe, including a ten day teaching job with Anne Waldman.
After selling his personal letters to Stanford University, Ginsberg bought a loft in New York, where he largely remained until his death in 1997.
Neal is, of course, the very soul of the voyage into pure, abstract meaningless motion. He is The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.
William Burroughs, on Neal Cassady
His name may not be as famous as that of Kerouac, but Cassady is well known to any Beat enthusiast. He was portrayed as Dean Moriarty in On the Road: the man Sal Paradise followed on his cross-country trips.
Whilst he may remain most well known for inspiring Kerouac, Cassady influenced many people to enjoy their lives, and to break free of convention. John Clellon Holmes talked about him in Go, Ginsberg referenced him in “Howl” and Hunter S. Thompson mentioned him (unnamed) in Hell’s Angels. He was not only a hero of the Beats, but of many during the following psychedelic era.
It could be said that Cassady lived and died on the road. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and raised by his alcoholic father in Denver, Colorado. He was a criminal from an early age, always in trouble with the law. He was frequently arrested for car theft, and known as an exhilarating driver.
After meeting Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York City, Kerouac and Cassady travelled across America and into Mexico. Kerouac was inspired by Cassady’s life and his letter-writing style, whilst the latter sought advice about novel-writing from Kerouac, who’d already published The Town and the City, a novel featuring a far more conventional style of writing than that for which Kerouac later became known.
Both the subject and style of On the Road owe their existence to Neal Cassady. His impact upon Kerouac cannot be understated.
Cassady settled with his wife, Carolyn, in San Jose, and worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He kept in touch with the rest of the Beats, although they all drifted apart philosophically.
In the sixties Kerouac withdrew into alcoholism and what seems like an early onset of middle-age, whilst Cassady took to the road again with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In a bus called “Furthur” Cassady took the wheel and drove the Pranksters across America. It was a trip well documented in Tom Wolf’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Cassady travelled to Mexico many times, and in 1968 he died on a railroad track, attempting to walk fifteen miles to the next town. Shortly before his death he told a friend, “Twenty years of fast living – there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”
In his short life, Neal Cassady travelled back and forth across North America. His wild antics, footloose life and driving skills inspired many who met him to follow him where he went. He was immortalised in art and literature, and continues to be an inspiration today in sending people on the road.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti commented that if Allen Ginsberg was the Walt Whitman of the Beat Generation, then Gary Snyder was its Henry David Thoreau. Through his rugged individualism and Zen peacefulness the young poet made quite an impact upon his contemporaries, introducing the culture of Asia to the West Coast poetry scene.
Snyder was both interested in the teachings of Asian culture and the tough landscape of North America, and his relationship with both is most famously recounted in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder quickly learned the importance of place. He spoke of a Salishan man who “knew better than anyone else I had ever met where I was.” The mountains and forests of his part of the world were dangerous and beautiful places, and respect and awareness of them were key to his development. Knowing himself inside and out was essential for Snyder’s growth and survival.
From a young age Snyder was fascinated with Asia. He grew up on the West Coast of the United States, revelling in the diversity of the cities.
The geographical significance of East Asia to the West coast was palpable, as I was growing up. Seattle had a Chinatown, the Seattle Art Museum had a big East Asian collection, one of my playmates was a Japanese boy whose father was a farmer, we all knew that the Indians were racially related to the East Asians and that they had got there via Alaska… There [was]… a constant sense of exchange.
After years of studying Asian culture and teaching himself to meditate, Snyder was offered a scholarship to study in Japan. His application for a passport was initially turned down after the State Department announced there had been allegations he was a communist. (This was shortly after the 1955 Six Gallery Reading, at which Snyder read “A Berry Feast.”)
Snyder studied and travelled in Japan, and eventually became a disciple of Miura Isshu. He mastered Japanese, worked on translations, learned about forestry and formally became a Buddhist.
His return to North America in 1958 took him through the Persian Gulf, Turkey and various Pacific Islands, whilst he worked as a crewman on an oil freighter.
Snyder returned to Japan in 1959 with Joanne Kyger, whom he married in February 1960. Over the next thirteen years he travelled back and forth between Japan and America, occasionally living as a monk, although without formally becoming a priest.
As mentioned in the “Allen Ginsberg” section of this essay, Snyder and Ginsberg travelled together throughout India, seeking advice from holy men.
Between 1967 and 1968 Snyder spent time living with “the Tribe” on a small island in the East China Sea, practicing back-to-the-land living. Shortly after, Snyder moved back to America and settled with his second wife – Masa Uehara – in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in Northern California. He maintained a strong interest in back-to-the-land living after returning.
Gary Snyder’s poetry often reflects his relationship with the natural world. Throughout his life he worked close to the land, and in his poems we see intimate portraits of the world around him. Issues of forestry and geomorphology are frequently addressed in his poems, as well as in his essays and interviews.
In 1974 Snyder’s Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “Turtle Island” is a Native American name for the North American continent, and Snyder believed that by referring to it as such, it was possible to change contemporary perceptions of the land to a more holistic, balanced viewpoint.
Mountains and Rivers Without End was published in 1996, and celebrates the inhabitation of certain places on our planet.
Today there is an incredible volume of work concerning the poetry of Gary Snyder, and it largely divides its focus between his interest in Asian culture and the environment. It is pretty much agreed, however, that the natural world and a strong sense of community have pervaded his works throughout his entire career.
The only member of the Beat Generation to have actually been born in Greenwich Village was Gregory Corso. He was the youngest of the Beats, and had an extremely tough childhood, growing up on the streets of New York without a mother and did time in both the Tombs and Clinton Correctional Facility.
He met Ginsberg in a lesbian bar in New York and was soon introduced to the rest of the Beats. In 1954 he moved to Boston and educated himself. His first book of poetry was released with the help of Harvard students.
Corso worked various jobs across America, and stayed for a while in San Francisco, performing with Kerouac and becoming a well known member of the Beats.
Between 1957 and 1958 Corso lived in Paris, where he wrote many of the poems that would make up Gasoline, which was published by City Lights. In October of 1958 he went to Rome to visit Percy Byssthe Shelley’s tomb. He travelled briefly to Tangier to meet Ginsberg and Orlovsky, and brought them back to Paris to live in the Beat Hotel. In 1961 he briefly visited Greece. In February 1963 he travelled to London.
It seems that Corso came to consider Europe his home, in spite of having been born in New York. His travels there inspired him, and he spent many years living in Paris. During a return to New York he said: “It dawns upon me that my maturing years were had in Europe – and lo, Europe seems my home and [New York], a strange land.”
Ferlinghetti claimed to have been a bohemian from another era, rather than a Beat. Indeed, he isn’t often viewed in the same light. He was the publisher of the Beats, more than a Beat Generation writer, and he lived a more stable life. While Ginsberg, Kerouac and co. were on the road, gaining inspiration and living their footloose lives, Ferlinghetti was mostly settled in San Francisco.
He travelled a little – going to Japan during World War II and studying in Paris after attending Columbia University. He lived in France between 1947 and 1951.
Politics and social justice were always important to Ferlinghetti, and he was active with Ginsberg in protesting and demonstrating for change. He read poetry across America, Europe and Latin America, and much of the inspiration for his work came from his travels through France, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, Chile and Nicaragua.
His poems are often political and social, but also celebrate the natural world.
McClure has never been renowned for his travelling or travel writing, but rather for his depictions of nature and animal consciousness. His poems are organised organically in line with his appreciation of the purity of nature. They carry the listener (as McClure’s delivery of his poems is fantastic, and often accompanied by music) to totally different place.
He first read his poetry aloud at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and has since read at the Fillmore Ballroom, San Francisco’s Human Be-in, Airlift Africa, Yale University, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. He even read to an audience of lions at San Francisco Zoo. He has read all around the world, including Rome, Paris, Tokyo, London and in a Mexico City bull ring.
His travels have carried him around North America, South America, Africa and much of Asia.
Kaufman was one of thirteen children, and at age thirteen he ran away from the chaos of his New Orleans home. He joined the Merchant Marine and spent twenty years travelling the world. It is said that in this time he circled the globe nine times.
He met Jack Kerouac and travelled to San Francisco to become a part of the poetry renaissance. He rarely wrote his poems down, preferring to read them aloud in coffee shops.
Kaufman was always more popular in France than in America, and consequently the bulk of his papers can be found in the Sorbonne, Paris. Today his written work is hard to find.
Norse was born in Brooklyn and attended New York University. After graduating in 1951 Norse spent the next fifteen years travelling around Europe and North Africa.
Between 1954 and 1959 he lived and wrote in Italy. He worked on translations and used street hustlers to decode the local dialects.
In 1960 Norse moved into the Beat Hotel in Paris, with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Whilst in Paris he wrote the experimental cut-up novel Beat Hotel.
Like many of the Beats, Norse travelled to Tangier after reading the work of Paul Bowles. He returned to America in 1968 to live in Los Angeles, befriending Charles Bukowski, before spending the rest of his life in San Francisco.
by Alene Lee
Catherine was sick. They were going to put her in a hospital. The doctor thought electric shock would be advisable. Alene recoiled. The third one. The last of her sisters. The most vibrant, the one who danced like a LaChaise woman, the one who had loved the most… why must they kill the ones who really live?
She remembered way back. Alene and Catherine had both belonged to the band. The Memorial Day Parade, with the bands from all over Staten Island parading past. Alene and her friends would sit high on the banks of one of Staten Island’s many hills. She never knew whether she enjoyed playing most or sitting high on the grassy mound of sidewalk looking down on the glorious array of clashing colors & instruments in the sun. And then, their band, pounding out wild exciting drum beats like war itself covering with blood the battlefield of life. The melodies were so wild and strong that the pale faces seemed ashen under the tumultuous riot of strict hammering beat that pressed itself out enveloping and deadening all other sounds and attained a threatening ascendancy. And there was Catherine, in her maroon & cream uniform, twirling the baton, an inspiration to the trumpet, drum and fife. She lifted each beautiful muscular leg into the air. Someone whispered admiringly, “An African Queen!” Her clear black skin sparkling, giving off light & vibrant color, so dark you could swim and dream.
The pure joy, the feeling of what you are, pulsating like heart beats, the suppressed pride breaking out—it more than made up for the cold winter mornings, waking up with wind soaring through the brown shackles into your spine. Waking up to a cold stove, chopping wood in the backyard and looking at the majestic hills that seemed to form the round earth itself. To me, those hills were the boundaries of the world. No matter in which direction you looked they seemed to curve round enclosing you.
The sun of band time and the sun of hot summer mornings in the box rooms, sweating and the smell of burning paper, which you had set to the iron bed last night, because it is the only way to kill the bedbugs. The sorrow of mornings, looking out the windows at beautiful stucco & brick houses on the hills surrounded with bushes & carefully tended plants & flowers, a pretty blonde girl tripping down the stairs. How could you not love those beautiful things?
“Hey man, stop doing that, look—here comes Catherine!”
The boys used to love to watch her walk with quick vibrant grace down the uneven sidewalks. Like a prancing filly. A leg swinging, stepping up, head high and, as a boy said,
“Watch it go down, man!”
She was the pride of self in being, that pleased by existing.
I carried these untold things, which I had not thought about in years, across the bright sunshined waters on the ferry, past the Statute of Liberty. The ferry docked on the Staten Island side and I walked up the winding hill towards the home which had once been the only home I ever knew. I passed the old schoolhouse with its 4 clocks, impossibly squatting on the highest hill. Yet despite the stops at what should have been historic streets and corners of my life, I could not feel that things were really very different from what I had known and imagined them to be.
But God, it’s something to have a home where the odyssey of your soul can be bound, even though you may end up defeated by pickles in a wooden barrel run by a man who liked little colored girls. And your mother hiding from bill collectors, leaving Catherine and yourself at the door with the strength of “we don’t know nothin.”
We stole peaches, Catherine climbing the highest and being the stealthiest. We picked berries from the hills. Memories of Catherine playing hide-and-seek and leaving me in a dark wooded garden. Suddenly I heard the splatter of glass, and Catherine sauntered into sight, “What happened?” “Oh, nothin.” And as we walked to the sidewalk a man, “You little bastards!” After a surprised startled moment of immobility, looking first behind at a huge dark figure, and in front at a quickly disappearing pair of fleet feet, we gathered our wits and broke into a run. And I was the one caught and walloped.
But that was later. Very much later. Before that there was the organ grinder man, a funny little man with a hunched back, an old Sicilian, with a parrot he loved. Every week he would come by and Catherine and I would dash out of the house, no matter what threats pursued us, rushing towards the faint sounds which neared as we raced, “bettcha I beat you” to the organ, which I would stand by transfixed watching the old man’s gnarled, sun and aged brown hands move and create a world they seemed to share together with the organ.
Catherine loved the parrot. The old man would let the bird perch on her wrist and she would coo and he would give them each a fortune. We followed him for as many blocks as we could after ducking around our own house singing with him, as people came out of their homes and bought their numbers from the bird. A parrot, an old man, and two little black girls. One in tattered cotton dress, with a naturally regal stance and a long leg usually poised in front, as though it would begin to run when the signal was given.
Catherine had been born on a farm. Afterwards our father ran off leaving our mother Maimie in the midst of the depression without food and money. He came back one day with another woman and he took Catherine. He was taken to the hospital several years later and after a couple of months he was declared “shell-shocked.” So then Catherine had to come to Staten Island to the bare little cold-water flat to live with our mother and us younger sisters, whom she hardly remembered as babies.
Mamma never bothered to tell us we had another sister. But there she was, one day, when I came home from somebody’s house, standing flat in front of my face, looking at us and the small rooms. “This is your next oldest sister. She’s ten,” and that’s all mamma said. Ethel embraced her wholeheartedly.
Catherine was clearly not happy to be there. She looked around the cold water flat, the center of which was the kitchen, like it was a prison. But Ethel’s friendliness touched her. I was distant and resentful. And things got worse when I was no longer the oldest whom Ethel had to mind. “Now Ethel has mamma and Catherine and she doesn’t need me any longer,” I thought. And Catherine Ethel obeyed, which she had never done with me.
But Catherine was my sister… and my mother said she’d come to live with us… and she had just come off her Daddy’s farm. And she was as big and healthy as a cow, too. And neither of us knew what to say or do.
Big, light-complexioned, with a heart shaped face and fine thin eyebrows (not like mine which were bushy and came straight across my eyes), and two of the biggest longest waviest braids that I’d ever seen, all the way down her back. I don’t exactly remember when I knew I was jealous as I could be.
And she had pretty fat legs, too! “Now I ain’t got no black wavy hair.” And she was lighter. No matter what Negroes say about “I’m just as good as anybody” I knew they was favored. And it wouldn’t be easy on me having her there. I had always thought I was the best thing around… and it wasn’t easy to see that maybe I wasn’t. I had never really looked at myself critically before and this was the beginning of it.
I was as skinny as I could be without falling for want of something to hold me up. I was a real tomboy and I used to fight all the time. And I used to win most of those fights, till one day a big hefty red-haired gal from Georgia came and hit me and won a fight outside the school. She didn’t hurt me, but she sure did have me pinned against the wall and I couldn’t get out from under… and I sure was embarrassed, since I realized I couldn’t go round fighting anymore, and that was hard, too. And now–Catherine.
Course, I thought for the longest time that I loved her madly and was proud of her cause I couldn’t take admitting otherwise. But I would dream all day long, sad things that’d make me cry out loud, even in school, about my sisters and mamma. How Catherine took ill and died, or lost a leg, or how her face got burned and how people would take pity on me when they saw how bad I felt about all this tragedy, and they’d say what a good sister I was. I must’ve killed, burned, and mutilated Catherine at least once a day… besides funerals and tragedies I had going for my mamma.
Before Catherine came and before I lost the big fight, I played mischievous pranks on any adult who seemed easy to prey upon. I once sent an old woman rushing up three flights of stairs in the adjoining apartment to her house after knocking on her door frantically and with mock hysteria screaming, “Miss Sadie needs a kettle of hot water right away. Something terrible has happened. Hurry.” It was not necessary for me to witness the ensuing surprise and anger in person. I rolled on the grass with laughter behind the tree on the hill across the street. Of course, I was always punished properly and harshly for these pranks. But beatings did not leave much of an impression on me.
Only Ethel, the youngest of the Garris sisters, had always lived with our mother. And, they had that closeness that develops with the youngest child… an understanding. She was born understanding mamma and she knew she was some strange kind of comfort to mamma. Not like a responsibility, but something of her heart. She was our mother’s pet, loved with mixed tenderness, protectiveness, and resentment. She was not pretty like the three of us older sisters. Bird-like with darting eyes and a small sharp face and rather longish nose, brown enough so that even she was aware of the difference in skin color between herself and us. But mamma was dark like her. And her great strength was in our mamma, who she knew loved her.
Our oldest sister, Ressie, was grown and had long ago left the island after graduation. With memories of breadlines and starving, she married in Washington D.C. After a year or two in the civil service she and her husband had gone into the ‘numbers’ business. Ressie visited us when Ethel and I were very little. She seemed always to be in two positions. Either in bed, smoking, with long curved nails hanging or sitting in front of the coal fire smoking with a cup of coffee. Smoking and drinking coffee, that’s what I learned from Ressie. Maimie had been very proud of her oldest daughter. She would observe Ressie as closely as she could, anticipating the drama that would seem to follow in the wake of such stunning clothes, beautifully coifed hair and beautiful hands. Later, Ressie sent clothing home, expensive clothing, but what was the sense of a $60 suit with no shoes to put on, and no blouse to wear under?
There was always something missing. Something we didn’t have the very next morning—shoes, money for a school book or to go to the cleaners, but none of that really mattered until later, when we were old enough to know. Catherine took a housekeeping job at nine years old to have money for school and clothes and shoes. She was fiercely protective of Ethel, as she would be of a crippled bird.
Our mother worked two jobs, one early in the morning and the other in the afternoon to early evening, yet barely would ends meet. Always hiding from bill collectors because of some small thing, a radio or a chair gotten on the installment plan, a knock at the door, and Catherine at the door, “My mother isn’t home.” “When will she be home?” “I don’t know. She is visiting a sick friend.” “Well, we’ll have to take back the…” “Well you can’t, my mother isn’t home and I don’t owe anything,” slamming the door. That was the home motto, “Don’t let them in.”
I dreaded summertime. After the anticipation of freedom when school ended, nothing ever seemed right in the summer. Although I knew that a good part of the Island went swimming, fishing, and dancing, these activities were few and far in between in my life.
With the arrival of my sister Catherine, the death of my foster mother, Miss Janie, and approaching puberty, my dreams took a mournful cast. I began reading a great deal. I had never belonged to any group, I had no friends, my family was my enemy, and the neighbors with their incessant fighting during the summer nights made morning light become shame.
I began to withdraw from the intimacy and familiarity of neighbors, and became more conscious of the world around me. I began comparing. And, I always came out second best. I envied everyone. Even the ‘everyone’ that I didn’t want to be. My sister Ethel, I envied for her nonchalance and her ability to make light of everything and take the best she could get from life, my sister Catherine, for her beaus and friends and dances, in spite of the poverty of the: ‘not-the-right-dress,’ ‘the hem isn’t straight,’ ‘no handbag to match my shoes,’ and ‘my hair needs doin.’
I don’t know exactly when I stopped liking my sisters, in particular Ethel. But I started thinking that we weren’t really sisters. I can invent some real definite reasons why I didn’t like Ethel. First, she was younger than me. When she was little Mamma made me drag her around with me. She was ugly, she was dark, and she was noisy. And, she was treacherous. But she was smart too and she knew what I was feeling and probably knew why. She was a thief and she’d lie right in front of your face and even if you caught her doing something she’d tell you it wasn’t so and not crack even a bit. I’d know she had the better of me and as a result I would have to show her I was both older and bigger than she by cracking her on the head a little. And that only made me madder ‘cause I had to do it.
But Ethel was a wiser and more quick-witted child than I. And I knew it. I viewed her with a hate mixed with envy and a sort of respect for Ethel’s vibrant swift body and quick mind. The way she always seemed to sink but for a moment and then would be buoyed up and full of irrepressible gaiety and curiosity. I hated her without knowing how much I really hated myself.
One of the places I would take her to was a nice clean playground in a different neighborhood. One day we went to the playground and sang together. I suddenly realized that all those people were white and I perceived what we were in those people’s minds. No one—not one other kid—was colored. All their parents were there with them. And we, Ethel and I, were little “colored” girls who couldn’t make fools of ourselves because we didn’t count in the first place, and that’s what “we” did—sing and dance. Little colored boys and girls singing and dancing for white people. Nothing else. Just little niggers.
And suddenly I didn’t want to be a ‘nigger’ and I never sang or danced there again. And whenever I saw Ethel dancing for anyone, like that grocery store man, who sold pickles in a barrel, with his fat belly and cigar, sitting outside the store, throwing pennies at her, I could have strangled Ethel. But the words for the problem hadn’t formed in my brain yet and I didn’t know how to name the difference and therefore I couldn’t explain to Ethel. I would tell her, “They’re laughing at us.” And Ethel would look up and say “They’re supposed to laugh and enjoy dancin’.” And I would hate Ethel because she reminded me of how I had looked at it too. And, Ethel could really dance and she did not care how she looked to others. She did what she enjoyed and she did it without fear. Ethel was my living past, in the face of a new hate of self that I wanted to forget, pretend never existed.
When Catherine started babysitting, my mother tried to get me to do the same. But I loathed the idea of working for a family as my mother had done all her life as a domestic. It seemed like worse than suicide to me. Any suggestion of my mother’s made her all the more an enemy. I could see no reason why she didn’t manage to provide me with all that I needed, including a home. I hated her for the way we lived. She would nag me, cajole me, beat me, trying to get me to clean the house or put my clothes in order. She would accuse me of lack of pride and I would only tighten up and harden my feelings, redoubling my determination to do none of those things. She would scream, “Do you think I’m your slave?” and I would wish she was.
I was determined to “wallow in filth” (as my mother sarcastically reiterated) before I would lift one finger to make right a condition I felt I should never have been in. I was too afraid of the consequences of any action on my part. Any compromise with the life we were leading, anything done to make it pleasant, seemed to me would lead to destruction through the acceptance of that life.
I would sit on the curb in front of someone else’s house, that was pleasanter, and stare at the red-bricked road. I began to hate the ramshackle house we lived in. That house was so very brown and beat. I have never seen a house so beat. I would try to avoid being seen entering it during the day. If it were absolutely necessary to do so while anyone was passing by, I would pretend that I was visiting someone, stopping to stare upwards and peer at the number on the door, as though I had no idea where I was.
I’d been raised by my foster mother, Miss Janie, since I was a little baby… and, like a sing-song recital, parts of that childhood would come to me from mamma and from Miss Janie, the few remaining times I saw her– ‘How Miss Janie took care of me’… ‘how she loved me’… ‘would I like her to adopt me?’… ‘how’d I like to stay with them for good?’
It ain’t good to give a child that many choices… and sometimes I wanted to be adopted and sometimes I didn’t… and sometimes I wanted my mamma and sometimes I wished she wasn’t my mamma and didn’t take me back.
My foster parents had raised me in a clean, orderly apartment. We had a garden, chickens, and a way of life that made it possible, to this day, for me to remember almost every detail of daily living. Saturday’s I polished the furniture. After school, I went to the store. After supper, I washed the dishes. And in the summer, I was allowed to play for a couple of hours. The kitchen table was round and made of mahogany. The kitchen clock hung on the wall above the refrigerator. The coal stove, which was later converted to oil, was large enough for a restaurant. The wine sat behind the stove. King, Miss Janie’s husband, made his own wine. Paul, their son, slept in the sun-parlor. When I was smaller, I slept with him. The dining room was almost too small to hold the large dining table with at least ten legs and the six knobbed chairs I polished every week. The living room, which faced the street, was wide with a player piano, and a couch with a red-jacketed huntsman and hound dog above it. I slept there. I lived with them until I was six and a half years old. And at about the same age Catherine was when she returned to us, before she got left at mamma’s door, I went back to Miss Janie’s for a short time.
While at Miss Janie’s, I was sick a good deal. I had most of my childhood illnesses there. I remember them pleasantly. I was waited on hand and foot. I was given castor oil, orange juice, ice cream, and treated solicitously.
When I was taken back by my mother and I caught a month long illness, I was cured of being ill for good. My mother accomplished this by making it unpleasant. Whether I made it more difficult for her than I would have for Miss Janie, I don’t know, but I do know that after calling her five times within the hour her voice began to take on a sharp edge and I knew she wished she could slap me. I would brood and feel put upon. Up until recently, I have always considered my mother cruel, unfeeling, and hateful, and though I am past twenty-one, I have harbored ill feelings towards her as a result of her nagging, and supposed ill-treatment of me. However, she did cure me of any desire to be ill and physically dependent.
We lived on York Avenue and we girls went to School 17, on the hill. Our house was the ugliest and most beat up on the street (and in all of New Brighton, for that matter). That house was rain washed brown, with withered worn splitting wood and rusting nails from head to foot. But the view from the hallway was beautiful. You could see the island as round, with trees and an occasional house. I loved that hall window. It gave me a feeling of majesty, surveying my imagined kingdom, to escape the sorrow within.
Six families lived in that old building. Three apartments on each side, one on each of the three floors. And, in the backyard, down a little back-alley hill, there were six different scraggly vegetable patches. And though it wasn’t the country, everyone grew vegetables—and don’t you think they were growin’ em for fun, like some folks do, it was so they could eat during the summer, till winter when there were lean salt-porked times again.
All of the six families weren’t all families to each other either. We were family of sorts, cause we had to be, my mother and I, Ethel and Catherine. We lived on the top floor on the school side of the building (every morning five minutes later than I ought to have—I looked out the window at the red school house with its big clocks, 4 of them, with different times on each, to see I was late again).
Life was eventful at 205 York. I not only thought so but so did the other inhabitants, the neighbors, and the police. There was Miss Sadie, running down the middle of York Avenue with a hatchet, tryin’ to kill her old man. And she had religion too, the fire of religious fervor and conviction. And there was Mrs. Perry and her beer in the sink and in the icebox and the card games. And the iceman comin’ and the woodman comin’–a bushel of wood for 25cents and the coal and a big black dusty bag of coal in the coal bin and the cellar full of ashes, white grey ashes and little half-burned coals. The steady tingle of coal pouring into the bin. That sound of that tingling coal, through a child’s ears, was so absorbing.
And ol’ man Johnson, the number’s runner with his numbers slips and book, a quiet ole man with his daughter Francis and her hunched back. And the Smith girls, three tall, skinny girls and their men who would show up at 205 after midnight, in cars. Miss Ethel out on the streets on Saturday nights with ice picks and knives, cursing and fighting, but who never seemed to get hurt but was always hurtin’ somebody. And me getting’ out of the police car after freckle-faced Ray took us walking all over Staten Island we got lost. And on the first floor, as you went in the door, Miss Minnie (who mamma was real good friends with) and her daughter Ethel. I used to try to figure out what they were friends about cause mamma wasn’t friendly… didn’t think much of anybody. Downstairs, underneath us, Mr. Hicks and his girlfriend, Lucille, stayed. Mr. Hicks was a tall, slender, wavy-haired brown skinned man—an image of konked-hair aspiration. He was real nice to Ethel. He was her hero. Mr. Hicks always had girlfriends and card games. When he wasn’t beating Lucille, there were card games all night long. Men and women would come and leave all night and all day long, drinking King Kong beer, and even whiskey. And sometimes they would play cards for days.
And sometimes Mamma went down and played cards, and of course we found ten thousand different things to ask her, til she would get mad at us. I didn’t like to see Mamma down there playing cards, and she knew it. It made me look like I didn’t want to look. And there were a lot of rough women there too, and she was my mamma. Some of those women came to our house at times and I didn’t like them either. They talked rough and acted rough. Then Mamma would drink too much and I would come down and ask her something and she would kiss me in front of all those people… saying nice things she never thought to say in the dim cold morning or the afternoons when I came home from school. How could I be anything if she was going to be like that? Kissin’ me and showin’ me off in front of all those people… and in front of men I had to run from when I met them in the dark hallways… and her kiss mixed heavy with the smell of beer and wine and snuff to cap it off! And her with such a pretty soft sensitive brown face with high pronounced cheekbones, black hair parted in the middle like a placid Indian… grabbin’ at my hair and tryin’ to show them the streak of red hair right in the middle… why’d she always do that? Not giving it the credit from a father and creating doubt in me about that because I didn’t know where it came from either… and didn’t know why she did it or what it meant.
Winters at 205 York were without insulation. In the winter it was cold. I started making the fire in the stove in the morning for fun when I was seven years old, and I made it so good that mamma stopped getting up til it was warm and before I knowed it was something I had to do.
My sisters and I didn’t love each other none, but in the winter with cold air seeping through the wood slats at night, we’d begin to like each other more. All three of us shared a bed and we’d snuggle up under one another and play writing games on each other’s backs. And we’d get up under one another like puppies ‘til Mamma came and then we were all strangers again, fighting and hating.
In the summer it was hot and the smell of burning paper, used to burn out bedbugs, would permeate the house. Summer mornings I would cautiously awake while everyone was still sleeping, surveying the bed for blood spots and bedbug stragglers. I would feel triumphant. The very fact that it was morning and I was there and they weren’t was a victory of sorts. Out of sight out of mind. I would go back to sleep with relief. The day had not yet come cause dreamin wasn’t done with ‘til Mamma called us, warningly and finally.
My mamma was somethin’ else. She was always complaining either about what we didn’t do, me and my sisters, or about what we didn’t have. When she was drinking she’d promise me a nice house… always talkin’ about that house we were gonna have… and how nice we was goin’ to live in it… and every time me believing it… settin’ me thinking about that house all the time… and mostly looking through the windows of other people’s houses, all over the island… and wishing I was in them… warm and good inside… with us sittin’ down at a dining room table and eatin’ and invitin’ friends in to visit awhile. In reality, we never invited friends to 205 York ‘cause Mamma would sit there and act evil and say real unpleasant things to us while they were there and downright nasty things about them when they’d gone after a strained half-hour or so.
But then that’s a longer story… my mamma… she knew how to create dissatisfaction, alright. I guess she kind of hated us all ‘cause she couldn’t give us anything we ought to have and we were always there to remind her of it.
After Catherine’s arrival I had to start thinking about what I could do that nobody else could do real well. I couldn’t be a big fighter… cause there was always somebody bigger… I couldn’t be the prettiest because not only were there all those movie stars but because of Catherine. I thought, “I gotta do something, be something that nobody can take away from me.” And I pondered, and thought, and I read. And I read many a day and months, and thought… and one morning I woke up and knew that I could get something and be something that I didn’t have to ask anyone for and nobody could take away from me. I could feel harder, think harder and take riches from the world that they couldn’t stop me from having cause most people didn’t know they were there for the taking. And nobody could stop me from having them as long as I didn’t let them know what it was I wanted. And that became mine, my dream. And being black didn’t matter, cause schools, the principal, nobody could take from you what they didn’t know existed. And all I had to do was guard it, and believe in it and it would be mine some day.
Now, I was walking back to that ramshackle house to see if I could stop our mother from putting Catherine in for electric shock. I would try to save my older sister. I wondered, as I walked, how I grew so far apart from everyone on the island? It was easy to know. I had stopped being a part of anything all those years ago. When I became absolutely determined to shake free of my family, I would latch onto other people or be taken up by others for short periods of time. It would be with other girls I liked, or girls whose lives I liked. I always followed people for some quality. I was never sure whether they possessed it or if I endowed them with it. What it came down to was that they seemed free. They were not like me, they were not like my family.
And now, I was coming back home and I thought I should feel glad to know that all I was and felt and desired and been and been thought of by others would be admired. But the world I was walking back into had not changed with time. Only the buildings had gotten more ragged and worn or torn down, but mamma, Ressie, Ethel, and Catherine were all still stuck in the time and place they never moved from. Almost the same as when I had left them years before. I would enter their world and try, try to pluck out my sister Catherine, and try not to fall back into that time warp where I became little skinny, lonely defiant unheard child again.
When Alene submitted this and other stories to Fred Jordon of Grove Press he rejected them, telling her that they would not (at that time) be of any commercial value. And so deterred she stopped writing about her sisters and about Staten Island. But all of this was who she was when she first met Kerouac. All Kerouac seemed to see was a girl who looked Indian and who was sexy and who was available. All he saw was the ‘black thing.’ That is, the ‘black thing’ that only existed in his mind and erotic imaginings.
by Christina Diamente
There is of course no definitive way of knowing a woman who has been dead for almost two decades. Knowing and understanding her in life was equally complicated. Nineteen years after her death, Alene lives only now in Kerouac’s book The Subterraneans, in the fading memories of the few people, still alive, who knew her, and in the faded, disintegrating letters and journal entries she left behind. Excerpts from a woman, who never stopped writing but who never submitted any of her writings for publication, are what remain.
2:00 am, May 28, Memorial Day 1965
How clear everything is just before waking. The inner voice bridging the abyss told me this morning: ‘Alene, you said you were going to wait until you were past forty, just like Conrad, before you began to write. Write. You have as much chance of making several hundred dollars, or even a thousand, if you do what you want to do. Why do you feel so guilty? Time is runnin’ out. Take hold of life before it is too late.’
But I’m such a coward. I know it is not a question of writing, it is a question of beginning to do what you want to do: not doing ‘your thing’ but taking your best hold on existence.
Although Alene did make a serious effort to write consistently from that point on, she never wrote in what she or Grove Press editor Fred Jordan considered to be a commercially viable form. Stories were started but never finished. Outlines were written but never fleshed out. Mostly she wrote journal entries when she was angry or troubled, in times of stress or great unhappiness. Always haunted by her childhood, Alene seemed always to be attempting to survive that past, which constantly threatened to catch up to her. Alene had been told by her mother that their “people died young” and she always believed that she would as well. For Alene, the proof of this was in the actual deaths of her mother before age fifty and two of her sisters before sixty. Alene believed that she too would die at an early age. So, as she began to unravel the details of her childhood in Staten Island, it was always with the sense of one who felt she was recording the events of the ongoing procession towards death from her childhood on. The narrative was always about what was lost and about the pain of living.
Throughout her life she struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness that sometimes manifested itself in delusions, sometimes in manic episodes punctuated by fierce pacing, and sometimes in catatonic and almost schizophrenic fugues. In between these states and sometimes through them Alene wrote, sometimes remembering the past and sometimes struggling to make it through the present. Often she wrote about writing. In the following excerpt, Alene wrote about her writing process on a trip that she took back to her childhood home in Staten Island. She was trying to recapture the Staten Island community of her youth in the 1930s.
“I found a room on a narrow street near the docks, with a family that had recently emigrated from Jamaica. How strange to be here, the original ‘Quarantine’ section of America. Every journey to the island seemed to lead me further back in time, to some original immigrant’s landing place . . . or a place of detention.
I dreamed of these streets of long ago, filled with crowds, colorful costumes of many lands, waiting to gain entrance to America.
My whole life has been one long waiting to gain entrance. I was a first generation northerner, but that had never occurred to me, until a couple of years ago. I had no memory of any other place. North Carolina was a place where my mother, Mamie, was left parentless when she was nine years old. It was a place not of fond memories. Nor was Washington DC, where I was born. My mother had never spoken of these places in any manner that left more than a scent of them.
I would like to write about New York, about Staten Island in the 30s and 40s… and the wilderness that once existed there. The Dutch Huguenot section where we used to fish and wander. The people on Ely Street. The Lorillard snuff my mother used to indulge in. The longshoremen and the fighting and the screaming. The Irish I knew, with their children with long curls. The organ grinder man and the monkey who picked your lucky number for a nickel. The large mansions and the dissimilarity of the homes on the island–Italian white stucco homes, and grapevines across from ramshackle broken down tenements. And Polish sullenness, and the West Indians who were the first blacks to own their homes, and the hatred between them and the southern Negroes. The pier where one could fish before it became a Naval base. And long rides down Holland Blvd., where they finally removed the orange lights after 30 years, because they said it caused accidents.
The steep hills… there are very few flat straight roads in Staten Island. Snug Harbor, the old men and the animals and lover’s lane. Miss Mary, who stabbed and killed a couple of people and who was only exiled from Staten Island as punishment. My friend, Veronica, who was shot, and her husband who only served one year in jail. And that nasty old sea captain with his fat blowsy, purpled-legged, false eyelashed yet extremely beautiful ex-showgirl wife, who went once a week to the store for liquor. And who still lives there and goes to the A&P once a month. He has long since died. She set the house on fire—the roof is gone but she still lives there like a queen. And, most of all, I want to tell the story of my sisters.”
Alene did finally write about her sisters in a short story, recovered here, with all of her sister’s real names. In the autobiographical story, Alene recalls her formative childhood experiences in Staten Island of the 1930s. Alene dedicated the story to her mother and sisters of whom she said,
I see even today, walking along 14th Street, or in Harlem, on a subway stair, reflected in expressions of dejection, fear, bitterness, sometimes secret exultation, the faces of Maimie, Catherine, Ressie, Ethel, and myself and know them well. For they are truly the faces of my mother and my sisters and I feel their secret hurts as my own. I feel for you but I just can’t reach you. This is my attempt.
by Christina Diamente
No girl had ever moved me with a story of spiritual suffering
And so beautifully her soul showing out radiant as an angel wandering in hell
And the hell the self-same streets I’d roamed in watching, watching for someone just like her
The Subterraneans, p.50
Jack Kerouac wrote the lines above about the main character in his book The Subterraneans—Mardou Fox. Mardou Fox was Jack Kerouac’s lost love in the novel, and in Kerouac’s real life Mardou was perhaps the only woman ever to walk away from him before he was done with her. Mardou was, until recently, the only literary persona whose true identity had not been revealed by any of his major or early biographers, or by any literary historians of that period. The real Mardou had remained anonymous, and was therefore one of the few ‘best kept secrets’ Kerouac’s books. The omission of Mardou’s real identity and her subsequent role in the literary history of that time, has left gaps in that history that are both revelatory and parallel to the views of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, and Corso on blacks and women. This absence of her presence is, in fact, partially a direct result of Mardou’s impact on the biographers and their books. No biographer would reveal her true identity, because, in her lifetime, she fiercely (and legally) demanded anonymity.
However, Mardou, on her deathbed, spoke these last words to me* and Maryanne Nowack (a now deceased New York City artist): “I want you to do whatever you can to help keep me alive.” These words, which one could construe as a simple wish to remain alive by any means possible, came during the predicted end-stage of a fast-growth terminal lung cancer, which Mardou had fought for the previous year and a half. The words became, for me, a directive to reinstate the speaker into the official literary history of that time.
Since Mardou knew that she was dying and had requested a Do Not Resuscitate order, it was clear that a fulfillment of this last request would have to be accomplished in a literary manner, since a literal fulfillment of that wish would have been impossible.
Nineteen years after her death, I can finally say that Mardou was my mother. Her real name was Alene Lee (ne Arlene Garris), a 5’2” African and Native American, and an American-bred beauty. She was so renowned for her beauty that men throughout New York City (particularly in the Village and in little Italy, where she was a living legend courtesy of The Subterraneans) pursued her well into her 40s. However, Alene was more than beautiful. She was, quite simply, one of the most brilliant of all the Beats that Kerouac knew in his days in the coffee shops and bars of 1950s New York City. Lucien Carr, one of Kerouac’s closest friends and a literary collaborator (whose persona he used frequently in his novels– Sam in The Subterraneans) said of Alene, “When I was given an IQ test, I scored 155, but I consider Alene to be smarter than I am. She is the most intelligent woman I know.” Allen Ginsberg, also a close friend of both Kerouac and Carr, said in a 1997 interview at the loft of Virginia Admiral, “Alene was a peer, and we [Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr] considered her an equal.”
Alene, however, because of her determination to remain unnamed as the real-life Mardou and perhaps as a result of her sometimes-hostile relations with the Kerouac biographers, came to be depicted by those same biographers as a somewhat peripheral character in Kerouac’s life and in the BeatGeneration. In one photographic history of the era Alene is insultingly described as a “groupie” admirer of Kerouac’s. Nothing could have been further from the truth, nor a more devastating description to Alene, for she was a fiercely independent woman, who had never even been a Beat fan, much less an ardent fan. Another writer, who contributed to the concept of Alene as “less than” the men of the time, was Anne Charters, who referred to Alene throughout her biography of Kerouac as simply “the black girl.” This description had infuriated Alene, since she considered it to be a racist devaluation of herself as a person, and a reduction of herself as a human being to a sex and race. Alene said years later that she felt it was Charters’ way of paying her back for her having demanded anonymity in her Kerouac biography.
As the first biographer Alene worked with, or to be more accurate the first that she refused to cooperate with, Charters suffered the wrath of a woman who was trying to both conceal her identity (because of painful experiences she had as a result of Kerouac’s book about her) and who was also trying to protect the great love of her life—Lucien Carr (who had many memories he was unwilling to reveal or discuss like his conviction for murdering a homosexual friend). Alene had never worked with a biographer before and to her it seemed inappropriate to discuss her love and sex life with a stranger—particularly since the biography subject—Kerouac—was dead. She didn’t feel it was honorable to reveal ‘truths’ about the dead Kerouac or about the then alive Lucien.Exposing her own and others’ private lives and subjecting them to pain, was not something she was willing to do. Unfortunately, Alene would pay a steep price for her reluctance to speak in her interviews with Kerouac biographer Ann Charters. She had to endure years of pain from being portrayed erroneously as a black girl groupie who hung out with junkies.
While subsequent biographers Barry Gifford, Lawrence Lee, and Gerald Nicosia were able to find a compromise pathway for Alene to express her views and experiences on Kerouac and the time of the Beats, Charters virtually eliminated her as a persona and as a figure of that time, potentially as a response to Alene’s demand for anonymity. Alene viewed Charters’ characterizations as deliberate attempts to dehumanize and humiliate her–creating an unsympathetic portrayal of her in the process. Biographers Gifford and Lee, who gave Alene the pseudonym “Irene May,” fared somewhat better, in Alene’s estimation, since they did not interpret or ‘spin’ her words in keeping with the aural tradition of direct quotes that they used in the book. Author Gerald Nicosia, in his biography Memory Babe, referred to her simply as “’Mardou,’ and he printed his interviews with her almost verbatim, to Alene’s satisfaction.
It was Alene’s negative experience with the biographer Charters that led her to demand strict confidentiality and anonymity agreements with all of the subsequent Kerouac biographers that interviewed her and Lucien Carr (with whom she was living throughout the years from 1962-1973). Both Gifford and Lee, who wrote Jack’s Book, and Gerald Nicosia, had to sign elaborate agreements which kept Alene anonymous and which protected, to the degree possible, Lucien Carr, who was understandably less than happy about the constant rehashing of his 1944 murder of David Kammarer.
Carr, in a 1992 phone interview, had actually requested that this work about Alene Lee not be written, admonishing me with his feeling that Alene “would not like it.” He subsequently cut off all communications with me refusing to speak to me or cooperate in any way. It was, in fact, a respectful consideration of that admonition that delayed the continuance and completion of this work for over 10 years.
Alene had loved Lucien Carr up to her death and she had insisted throughout the whole 11 years of her relationship with Carr that he was to be considered and treated by me as a ‘father figure.’ Despite the sense of an imperative to tell Alene’s story before all of the live sources disappeared, the need to respect Lucien Carr’s request weighed so heavily that only after ten years of wandering in the academic wilderness, and as many years of therapeutic purgings, and the study of African American and female writers, and a consideration of the feminist writings about women who never became writers—who were lost forever in time by history, only after the weight of considering all of these perspectives – could I decide to go forward with a history of Alene. To disobey one’s ‘father’ is not a step taken lightly, particularly when the price you will pay is the complete and total loss of that father’s consideration, if not love.
In light of such an active disapproval by Lucien Carr (who had been involved with Lee up to one month prior to her cancer diagnosis in 1989) and in view of a previous strongly stated desire for anonymity by Alene herself, the reader may wonder why then I reveal ‘Mardou’s’ identity, her thoughts, and her involvement with Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr? Is there big money in it? Will it arouse the interest of tabloids? Is it a vendetta and attempt to cast Alene in a “Mommy Dearest” light or Carr in a classic spoiled rich boy goes bad black hat? No. It is quite simply an attempt to put Alene back into the literary history of that time and to enhance the beat history that Kerouac himself had attempted to tell—to chronicle the times, and at least one more of the lively characters that lived in those times.
Alene was a part of the beat history, who, though she never claimed to be a great writer like Kerouac, deserves at least her footnote* in the literary records, if not more. In the spirit of Joyce Glassman Johnson’s Minor Characters, this is the attempt to fill in a blank spot that others have happily allowed to remain blank.
To put it bluntly, an intellectual black and indigenous woman actually existed and was formative in the creation of at least one of the works of what some may call a great American writer. Kerouac was not well known for his collegial or intellectual relations with women and minorities and his depiction of Alene, while it honored her intelligence, mostly portrayed Alene through his lens—that of a male sexual appetite. Not only Kerouac but Carr, Ginsberg, and Burroughswere men focused in large part on their own talents and worth, not the talents of what they called their “old ladies,” or whatever women they were then ‘involved’ with. The ‘old ladies’ were generally expected to “keep their mouth[s] shut” and to exude an ornamental aesthetic of beauty with which the men/writers could clothe themselves in public. A remarkable comment that Kerouac made to Allen Ginsberg exemplifies Jack’s deepest feelings about women. Kerouac said, “I only fuck girls and I learn from men.” (Barry Miles, p 131) Largely touted as a cultural rebel, Kerouac was in fact a member of an exclusive clique with distinctively male privilege.
One of this group was author William Burroughs – the eldest of the literary trio, an heir to the Burroughs fortune,and a Harvard graduate. Another, Lucien Carr, a privileged trust fund child and Columbia University student was the first of the three to formulate the idea of a ‘new vision’ literature that inspired Kerouac. Carr was a Rockefeller relative, and both he and Burroughs were the life-long recipients of trust funds and economic security. Burroughs, from the ivy walled towers of Harvard and Carr, Kerouac, and Ginsberg from the prestigious halls of Columbia University—these three were a male literary and social clique that accepted women as bit players but not as minds to be reckoned with. Kerouac and Ginsberg, though from working and middle class white families, ultimately became powerful literary and cultural icons (often credited with or blamed for, depending on perspective, the onset of the 60s hippie rejections of middle class mores and cultural status quo). And while both helped spawn the ‘revolutionary’ cultural conversion to ‘free sex’ and drug use as norms for the theoretical seeking of alternate/creative mind states in the 1950s and 60s, neither Kerouac or Ginsberg crossed the cultural race barriers that were being torn down by black civil rights activists in meaningful ways. They listened to black poet LeRoi Jones, now Amiri Baraka, and to black jazz musicians like Elvin Jones, and they slept with the occasional black woman, but they never had serious long term involvements or friendships with them. Kerouac, in particular, never intellectually collaborated with female or black writers, though he was an avid admirer of black bebop, jive, and jazz music. His relationships with women and minorities (infrequent) were mostly sexual. Women, blacks, and Native Americans were ancillary to the ‘great myths’ about himself and his friends that Kerouac felt he was destined to write. They were as unimportant to Kerouac as they have traditionally been to the literary academy and the annals of the Great Dead White Men.
But a black and Native American woman named Alene Lee did exist during that same time and place in the 1950s and 60s. She did influence Kerouac, Carr, and Ginsberg. She did write.And, finally, it may be said, she did die still in love with at least one of these men (Carr), and in friendship with another (Ginsberg—who was with her when she died at Lenox Hill Hospital in 1991). Without her person being reinserted into the Beat Generation, what is at stake is the commodification of that history, a portrait with no black or indigenous females in the picture. Without Alene’s perspective, Kerouac and Ginsberg remain more heroically palatable and more mythic literary figures than they actually were. Ignoring her perspective and writings or leaving them buried comes at the cost of ignoring certain harms that Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr and others inflicted on the lesser known members of their beat generation. Ignoring her also comes at the cost of deleting one of the few recorded recollections of the beats as men and artists written by a black and native American woman of that period.
This African and Native American woman lived, breathed, loved, lost, learned, interacted with, fought with, and wrote about Jack Kerouac and other ‘beats’ of that time as well. This is the beginning of an attempt to place that woman—Alene—back into the historical texts. It is the attempt to shed light on another perspective about Kerouac and his peers. It is the attempt to give voice to Alene Lee’s feelings and thoughts about having been immortalized as Mardou in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. And finally, it is the attempt of a daughter to fulfill her promise to a dying woman to help keep her alive.
Please excuse WordPress’s inability to adequately format poetry… For better versions of these poems, please consult Beatdom’s fifth issue, available free through www.cityofrecovery.com.
At the clinic
I wait anxiously, stuffed into
a cramped eight-seat waiting room
that everybody calls “the queue”
sitting between a stone-faced
gangster and a mother who won’t
stop barking at her three children.
I wait quietly, my eyes fixed on
the anti-dope propaganda hanging
from the wall across from me
trying to avoid contact with cranky
fiends and money-hungry cripples
looking to unload narcotics scripts.
I wait uncomfortably, my moist hands
resting in my lap, clasped together
to keep them from tapping nervously.
The curious smell drifting from a grubby
man in the opposite corner of the room
likely doesn’t help my turning stomach.
I wait desperately, my dopesick
cells burning for a nice big shot
but ultimately willing to settle
for the purple potion, a small plastic
cup of bitter juice, the only thing
on earth that keeps me alive.
Alone in TV Land
I am a genuine zombie.
48-hour “Cheers” marathon
I watched the whole thing.
Back-to-back episodes of “Rosanne.”
I despise that show, but
my eyes are stuck to the set
and my legs won’t move.
I’m alone in TV land,
a dark lonely room with
blue lights flashing against the walls.
I haven’t blinked since the last commercial.
I’m wasted on punchlines
and strung out on reruns
but at least I’m in a place
where everybody knows my name.