The things I do in pursuit of the true Jack Kerouac . . . it’s always daunting driving into New York City from the landscaped suburbs over the George Washington Bridge down the Henry Hudson Parkway passing 115th Street by the river (the scene of the David Kammerer murder) continuing south to the lower numbered streets and then finding and squeezing into a parking space, not ever knowing for sure if the car will be there when we get back. There’s a great deal of anxiety driving into and around the island of Manhattan, even if you’ve been doing it for fifty years. We park the car on 21st Street and Ninth Avenue, close to the apartment where Jack lived with Joan Haverty on West 20th Street, stop for a tiny Manhattan-priced crème brulee doughnut next to the Chelsea Hotel, and walk the twenty blocks north to the Beaux-Arts landmark New York Public Library, navigating scores of tourists both on the streets and throughout the corridors of the great marble building.
I had written directions on how to approach the Berg Collection Reading Room that houses the Jack Kerouac archives on the third floor. Check coat and handbag in ground-floor cloakroom, carry wallet in plastic “Researcher Bag,” go to main reading room and apply for a library card, walk through the vast corridors with interesting framed exhibits on walls, from there ring bell at Room 320. A young woman appears and asks, do you have an appointment? No, but I have an email with permission granted for a visit. Okay, let me check the emails, one moment please. I wait. She comes back. Okay, found the email, please come in and I’m given more instructions.
A European professorial-type sits at the only other occupied table, away from the glass doors, at a long polished table, in the oak paneled room absorbed in his work. I fill out three pages of forms and sign here and there. Then, I’m presented with a big binder with all the archive items listed. I select 15.9 a second-draft typescript “I wish I were you (1945) Philip Tourian story” with later holograph note “45 Ryko Tourian novel,” by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, which, of course, is a manuscript of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.
The young woman retrieves 15.9 and brings it in a folder. Keep it flat on the green felt square on the table.
I do, and there we are, just the two of us, Jack and me . . . alone. I with Jack’s thin old typewritten pages in my hand, and I let out a little sob and weep. I weep for the humanity those pages represent, for the life of a man, a writer, who labored, suffered, and died. These pages verify a life and many, many other lives, the lives of his family and neighbors and friends, and now most of those people are dead, so I’m overwhelmed, and look at the single-spaced pages filled with big blocks of text, and, yes, Jack was a good typist, hardly an error with the type going all the way to the very bottom of the page, maybe to save paper because Jack was poor for a long time. There are a few corrections and handwritten notes in pencil and red ink, and a few sentences crossed out in pencil and all those words, words, words.
The room is temperature-controlled cold. It’s a big, probably often lonely room, sumptuously paneled (but without a fireplace or decanters of rare whisky and brandy and no cigars), a noble public library for researchers and scholars, and it is a privilege to be here. Jack would have written a good description of the rich dark room and the shaded lamps and the young archivist with soft hair and stylish eyeglasses who skirts about wearing black jeans and urban sneakers and a wooly sweater.
And then I start to read Chapter One pages 1-8. Here is a little of what Jack wrote:
“Everybody in the group came from the four corners of America . . . That’s what Manhattan is, a place full of little groups . . . Manhattan is a death trap, built right over hell: have you not seen smoke coming out of holes in its streets? What more proof does one need?”
And I smile, because Jack’s funny.
These second-draft pages are different than the final published story And the Hippos, but here’s the scene with the chewing of glass and razor blades, oh, those guys. Phil makes a safety pin earring, an early punk, and I look up and see tourists peering in the glass doors to look at the scholars, and all they get to see is me.
I don’t stay more than an hour because my kind and loyal husband—who indulges my romance with the Columbia troika of New York City Beats—and who drove me in is waiting outside in the November chill and wind. He isn’t permitted inside the room and it’s cold in here, too. I feel tired and sad, because I’ve been looking through the belongings of someone I’ve come to know as a friend. I close the folder and let the young librarian know I’m leaving. Thanks so much. She returns with my wallet and emails me more information on the online files. Perhaps I’ll come back again soon.
I’m happy to find my husband, and as we walk back to the car, we pass smoke coming out of holes in the street. I read out loud my notes and we laugh. That Jack, he was really something.
Thanks to Isaac Gewirtz, Curator, and staff at the Berg Collection, New York Public Library.
Very nicely written. So many details made me feel like I was in the small cold room with you.
Nice mood piece. Takes you right there, both inside the Berg and onto the streets of New York…