In Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958 by Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson, Kerouac writes to Joyce, “It was a good thing you didn’t come back on the ship with me because it only went to big gas tank barges off Perth Amboy.” Kerouac was headed on the Yugoslavian freighter to North Africa on a Sunday, February 15, 1957, and would meet William Burroughs in Tangier.
Joyce Johnson writes in Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir, “I was going to stay on board all night and leave in the morning before the Slovenia went on to Perth Amboy to take in fuel.”
Perth Amboy, New Jersey: tankers, tugs, barges, oil refineries, storage tanks and towers, a massive smelting and refinery company, cooper works, cable works, dry docks. What type of date would Joyce and Jack have had in the late 1950s? Being that he was mostly always broke, she could have bought him hot dogs downtown at the Coney Island restaurant or from a pushcart. They could have walked along the waterfront on the boat basin wooden piers and climbed the stairs of Bayview Park, ambled along streets lined with big old houses and mature trees or strolled on the beach, checked out the colonial cemetery at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (1685), or taken a look at numerous synagogues, Catholic churches, Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Byzantine rite churches, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran churches.
They could have stopped at taverns and saloons and bars, plenty of those. In fact, Harbor Light tavern was right on the waterfront with a backyard and boat slip looking out at Raritan Bay across from Staten Island. Jack probably would have felt quite at home and the drinks were cheap, cheaper than New York. With its immigrant mix: Irish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Slavic, Scandinavian, Jewish, Italian, established African Americans, newly arrived Puerto Ricans, and even a few French
-Canadians, in some ways with its red-brick factories, Perth Amboy had similarities to Lowell, both Northeastern industrial cities (Lowell twice as large in area and population) with all-important rivers that provided both an identity and a livelihood for its residents.
Joyce could have gone shopping in the downtown area where there were several furriers, hat shops, dress shops, lingerie shops, jewelers, fabric stores, a department store, furniture stores, hardware stores, five-and-tens, bakeries—a Jewish bakery that sold famed rye bread and kosher butchers—but being that Joyce was bohemian and secular, Jack and Joyce could have spent time digging the locals at the train station with trains headed to New York City or south to the shore, and they may have seen bums or even a hobo—they certainly would have seen rough characters—or they could have walked over the Outerbridge or taken the ferry to Staten Island and bought farm-fresh eggs or gone horseback riding. Or they could have hopped on a bus and gone back to New York (about twenty-five miles north).
They could have browsed in the record store or stopped at a coffee shop or a soda fountain or maybe the farmer’s market to buy a chicken or vegetables. Whatever they did, there would have been things to do and something to write about. Or being that Jack and Joyce were bookish, they could have gone to the Perth Amboy Library and read the newspapers. And if Jack was looking (who, Jack?), he probably would have seen a few dark fellaheen beauties.
On Jack’s ocean-bound ship from New York, perhaps the route taken was through the Kill Van Kull—a tidal strait between Staten Island and Bayonne that connects Newark Bay with Upper New York Bay—past the Arthur Kill ship graveyard, and through the Arthur Kill—a major navigational channel of the Port of New York and New Jersey, with its numerous fuel and chemical storage facilities. After the ship fueled up, it headed for the high seas from Raritan Bay to the open Atlantic.
“The barge…was beaten…beat…”
Antony and Cleopatra
Act II, Scene II
(GK Stritch was raised in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and her family has lived there for four generations.)
(“Headed for the High Seas” www.studiostu.biz/highseas groovy jazz by seaman Victor Deribeprey)