Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing America Chasing Cool, Part Two
January 11, 2008
By Audrey Sprenger
San Francisco | There is an alleyway in San Francisco named for Jack Kerouac. It links Grant and Columbus Avenues, the main drags of Chinatown and North Beach. Identified by a proper city sign and locatable on city maps it is, except for the granite slabs embossed with Kerouac and other writer's words, a perfectly ordinary San Francisco street. Which makes it an extraordinary memorial. Like the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where you can slip behind the bookcase and in to the annex apartment where Anne Frank lived and kept her famous diary, this 60-foot alleyway overtly marks both an author's life and a literary setting beneath our feet. Jack Kerouac wrote here, it reminds us.
He arrived in the late 1940s, during his travels crisscrossing the United States, sketching notes for what would become his most famous novel On The Road. But it would be years before this novel was published and Kerouac would become, literally overnight, both the prototype for the country's newest pop cultural caricature, as well as the spokesman for the small community of struggling writers and artists he associated with. The caricature was, of course, the spaced out, monosyllabic Beatnik, the community of artists and writers, the down to earth and poetically articulate Beats and even though these two media inventions couldn't have been more different from one another, both were credited with heralding significant social change, a story, which alongside ones about Jack Kerouac, you can literally read in these same Chinatown and North Beach streets.
Just across the way from Jack Kerouac Alley on Broadway at Columbus, there is an entire museum dedicated to the history of the Beatnik and the Beats where you can purchase buttons and t-shirts that bear Kerouac's image and writings and name, and on either side of the alley, a little more than an arm's length away, are City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio's Bar, two storefronts that like Tosca's on Columbus and Caffé Trieste, a few blocks away, have, since the years Kerouac spent time there, generously given writers and artists both literal and creative space. They are, alongside Jack Kerouac Alley, a living history of an author and a novel and a time now past that just as easily as it is remembered, could also be erased. For once Jack Kerouac Alley was called Adler, its name slowly eroding from the white metal street sign, which officially marks this place.
So perhaps even more solid than any San Francisco memorial to Kerouac are the actual writings of this city he once made while roaming these streets. From On The Road, written sometime in the late 1940s then revised again and again, throughout the 1950s, "There were places where hamburgs sizzled on grills and the coffee was only a nickel. And oh, that pan-fried chow mien flavored air that blew into my room from Chinatown, vying with the spaghetti sauces of North Beach. Add fog, hunger-making raw fog and the throb of neons in the soft night, the clack of high-heeled beauties, white doves in a Chinese grocery store window." These words were written over fifty years ago, yet still I can smell them, I can feel them. They are a San Francisco, which is still well within reach.
This blog is bring written by Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D and David Amram during the third and final run of Sprenger's cross-country sociology and documentary-making course "Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing America Chasing Cool." The next entries by Sprenger and Amram will appear January 11, 15, 19. 23, 27, and 31, along with an "audio ethnography" produced by students participating in this course on February 4. Readers are also to join Sprenger and Amram for a FREE Retrospective of the 50th Anniversary of Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" in New York on Friday, January 11 at 8pm at the Theater For the New City and Sunday, February 24 at 2 pm in the B2 Conference Center of the Denver Public Library. Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D is an ethnographer, audio producer and professor of sociology. The author of the true-life novel/community study Home Goings, she creates artistic and educational programming for the Denver Public Library. David Amram is an internationally acclaimed composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and author. His most recent orchestral work, "Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie" made its world premiere in San Jose, California this past September and his third book, Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat was published a month later. Today is the first of a seven-day diary they are collaborating on together about the life, times and 50th anniversary of On the Road, Jack Kerouac's second novel.
Ashley Vaughan is a documentary photographer. Currently a journalism student at the University of Denver, she has received several academic grants for her photographic projects including a Fred McDarrah Grant for Young Photojournalists. An assistant archivist for biographer Bill Morgan, she is also the art director for the David Amram Archive and is currently working with Audrey Sprenger on Jack Kerouac's America, 50 Years Old.