Beat culture and hippie culture were both long gone as a central movement by the time I was growing up, but hop on the bandwagon I did. As a teenager, there was nothing I wanted more than to get the hell out of dodge, my hometown in the California Bay Area, filled with cow patties, rednecks and suburban normalcy.
Without having read Jack Kerouac’s books (yet), I adopted the ideas of the Beat generation. And when I finally read his daughter Jan Kerouac’s book, Baby Driver, I felt like she had written my book. There are definite differences in the way we grew up–she grew up with a single mom in NYC, playing in the tenements of the Lower East Side with neighbor kids, the shadow of her father looming large over her life. The first time Kerouac met her dad, she was ten, and he told her he was not her father. He asked for a blood sample. When she met her dad again, later, he was drinking a fifth of whiskey, watching TV from a chair. She was headed to Mexico with her boyfriend. He told her to write a book, to use his name to make some big bucks.
Kerouac and the Beats espoused a belief system I modeled for years: the open road, freedom, friendships, and yes, drugs. I did it all, roaming through North America, hopping in and out of vans, perusing festivals, exploring forests from the Ozarks to the Kentucky back woods, waking up in 32 states. I had the best and worst times of my life, and since both the Kerouacs wrote about their own adventures in an engaging style, I was thus inspired, as soon as I got off the road the first time, to pen my own.
I used the first recollections I put on paper when I was a teenager to flesh out my story again and again over the next fifteen years, but continually faced a quandary. Every time I sat down to write my story, I had even more adventure to add to the constantly expanding tale.
It’s as if me, the adventurer, was telling me, the memoirist, that it wasn’t yet time to cash in on my adventures by sharing them with others: I needed more. Fine, said the adventurer, you traveled up and down the coast as a 14-year old. Sure, at age 15 you took off and traveled from Oregon to New Orleans, up to Canada and through Missouri, often hitchhiking alone, meeting truckers and hippies and punks and locals, taking in the varied, resplendent landscape of the United States. Then you did it again one last time as a gutter punk, sleeping in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, adopting a devil-may-care attitude.
Oh, says the adventurer, the Beatnik side of me taking notes, don’t forget the trip to Jamaica for reform school, how they brainwashed your desire to travel right out of you, and for four years when you got back, you played around with religion and good clean crushes, not even entertaining the thought of a French kiss, using your past history of debauchery to win you admission to Brigham Young University in Utah. And certainly don’t forget to add the musician in Hollywood who asked you to sing on his songs, and then to move in with him, the relapse on alcohol that led to cocaine, pills and rehab, the complete demoralization that followed.
And on it goes.
There’s an underlying theme in my travails that I can’t avoid. It seemed a noble act at age 13, stealing liquor from my neighbor’s cabinets. All my heroes drank, it seemed, to loosen their tongues, inspire deeper conviviality, friendship, bonding–to provoke chance. And I have to say that adopting this alcohol-enhanced view of life, liquor and the endless cycle of thus inspired relationships, gave me a lot of material to draw from.
I would hate to be a poor advocate for the next generation out there wondering what to do next, not quite knowing how to heed their inner piper’s song. Coming from a sober vantage point, a time in my life where I travel with my pen instead of my feet, and do things like compete in kettlebell, a Russian sport, to get a rush, I’ve given up the idea that I need alcohol to be free. If anything, following my former interpretation of the Beatnik way of life for the period of my teens and early twenties allowed me to settle into adulthood with a sense of having actually been there, done that. I regret nothing.
I picked up a hitchhiker the other day, driving down Highway 1, past Pacifica, on my way to Santa Cruz with my husband. The kid was dreadlocked, wearing rag-tag attire, possibly 19 or 20. He had a bag of nuts in his hand, and offered us some. He was kind, if a little subdued, put off perhaps by my normal attire and shiny non-descript Honda Civic. It was a trip, being the neatly pressed driver, picking up a traveler in my clean car, out for a pre-planned day off from work, heading to the Swanson Strawberry Farm in order to get some sun and fresh ollalieberry pie.
He talked about California, how there seems to be more regulation in this state than any other–he’d been picked up for vagrancy a couple of times. I remembered trying my damnedest to stay away from California when I was out on the open road. It was a tough place to be a wanderer, what with cops always lurking around every corner, aware of all the hot spots. The only safe harbor back in the ‘90s was Haight Street. There were so many so-called vagrants they just didn’t care.
I read an old newspaper article recently, written back during my adventures in the mid ‘90s, about my ex-boyfriend, Schwill. The article talked about the gutter punks of Haight Street, how they had no hope for the future, apathy had replaced the idealism of the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s true that Kerouac paved the way for a lot of us, he came from a world that wasn’t unlike today’s: mundane jobs, mowed lawns, packaged everything. A world where abuse took place behind closed doors–though in his time, there wasn’t an internet to blare it all out for public perusal. If he could see our world now, I doubt he would have put down the whiskey for a second, probably would’ve played out his life exactly how he did. Might’ve had a rollicking message board somewhere on the intrawebs.
But lest you judge diverse bands of gypsy wanderers based on their attire or mode of identification, from punk to gypsy to hippy to wanderer, we all, in whatever guise, hear a similar siren call. Get out of scripted space. Explore the world. Be yourself.
Some use drugs, some don’t. Some have trust funds, some don’t. Some panhandle and wreak havoc, some just meander, engaged in living life. Many put pen to paper to tell their tale.
Whichever way you choose to do it, the moral is the same. Don’t let someone else tell you how your life will play out: play it out yourself.