by Patrick Fenton
This story is about the search for the details of Jack Kerouac’s writing life in the conservative borough of Queens, New York. It’s not about ghosts; it’s more about the hallowed ground they walk on.
It all started in the fall of 1989 when I wrote a one page proposal to Mort Persky, the editor of the Sunday Magazine section of New York Newsday. In it I told him that I wanted to go out to Ozone Park, Queens and search for "the ghost of Jack Kerouac." Kerouac lived in Ozone Park for about 6 years. I didn’t know it at the time, but the finished piece would take me six months to write.
In the early 1940’s, after years of trying to make a go of it around the factories of Lowell, Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac loaded up an old piano and moved to an apartment at 133-01 Cross Bay Boulevard, in Ozone Park, Queens. They never recovered from the flood of 1936 when the Merrimack River destroyed Leo Kerouac’s printshop, The Spotlight Print.
In 1943, a weary Jack Kerouac, who was just let out of a Navy psychiatric ward with an "Honorable Discharge With Indifferent Character" (he had served for less than a year), moved in with them.
The parents brought with them a small, green desk that he had used when he was a young boy. When he went to bed at night, the desk and some old movie posters from his father’s printshop that leaned up against the wall of his new room were the only reminders that his boyhood in the New England town of Lowell, Massachusetts ever existed.
I was always intrigued by a picture of a house in Ozone Park, Queens that appeared in Ann Charter’s 1973 biography, Kerouac. The caption under it simply read, "Kerouac House, Ozone Park, New York." The book didn’t give the address. With a letter from Mort Persky stating that "this will introduce Patrick Fenton, a writer who is doing research for an article regarding Jack Kerouac’s life in Ozone Park, Queens, for the Newsday Sunday magazine." I headed up to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University and started to work on, "Kerouac In Queens."
In order to find the address of the Ozone Park house, I needed to get the permission of Allen Ginsberg to go through his letters. After several calls to his office, it was arranged for me to speak to him over the phone. A tired sounding Ginsberg told me that he had not been welcome at the Ozone Park house by Jack Kerouac’s mother. "His mother disapproved of me. She disapproved of all his poet-writer friends, his girl friends too," he said. I told him that the reason I was doing the article was to try and get a plaque placed on his house. "What do you want to see?" he asked. I told him I wanted to see all his letters to Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. He agreed, and the doors of his special Columbia University collection were opened to me.
After filling out many file cards and manuscript registration forms, I waited in a glass-sealed room for Box #44-01 to be brought out. Folders weighed down with manuscripts and letters were wheeled out on a cart to me like some sort of a great, literary meal.
I reached my hand into an envelope and pulled out a small brown note book that was kept by Allen Ginsberg in the 40’s. On the front of it, in a circle, was the brand name "Juanita" in bold, black letters. Further down, in pencil, the words, "notes, Ginsberg." I flipped it open and read some of the first words Allen Ginsberg ever wrote. On page 3 he had written "society bleeds geniuses."
I came across a letter from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg. The return address on it was 94-21 134 Street, Richmond Hill, New York. The letter described two finished manuscripts laying in "the upper right hand drawer" of a desk in Jack Kerouac’s bedroom (Doctor Sax and Maggie Cassidy). He wanted Allen Ginsberg to go out and pick them up from his mother. "I don’t see the sense of letting Doctor Sax rot in my drawer," he said. "Send it anywhere."
Another letter to Ginsberg dated August 1945, Ozone Park, told about a failed try at working in a summer camp. Kerouac was asked to clean toilet bowls for $30 a week, he tells Ginsberg. He talks about working as a soda-jerk (probably in the drugstore under his apartment in Ozone Park where he used to receive calls on the public phone from Ginsberg).
I read the letters for about eight hours, breaking only to run out to the street to grab a quick hot dog. Some of them were bleak. A November 13, 1945 letter to Ginsberg is filled with pathos as Jack Kerouac describes a gloomy night sitting alone and high in his "cursed kitchen" in Ozone Park as he describes how he needs to talk to him.
A letter from Ginsberg written that same year tells Kerouac to wait in the drugstore downstairs from his apartment "at 4:30 in the afternoon and I’ll call you." Ginsberg tells him he’ll call him at, VA3-9822. (Like most stores of that period, there was usually a row of phone booths in them.) With the letter was the envelope I was looking for. It read, "Mr. Jack Kerouac, 133-01 Cross Bay Boulevard, Ozone Park." Another one of Ginsberg’s letters to Kerouac was addressed to "The Wizard of Ozone Park."
In Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee’s Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, Jack’s Book (a work that deserves more attention than it gets), John Clellon Holmes describes Kerouac’s struggle to finish writing On The Road in Ozone Park: "This was about 1949. Then he became more and more hung up by his inability to write the damn thing. He couldn’t find the entry into it. And he wrote this whole thing which is Visions of Cody, Neal’s youth, he wrote that on pot. For a month he sat out there in Ozone Park, every night. He got high on pot and wrote that stuff." Holmes says that Kerouac would wait for his mother to go to bed, then he would stay up all night at his kitchen table and write.
It’s interesting to imagine an early morning in the America of 1949; the milk man making his rounds in the first gray hint of dawn, the cop on his beat, checking store front doors as the conservative, blue-collar neighborhood of Ozone Park continues sleeping, and sitting over his kitchen table Jack Kerouac is high on pot, working away on the great American novel.
When he did get out of his apartment, Kerouac would frequent some of the local Queens bars. In Vanity of Duluoz, a sort of fictional autobiography that he wrote, he talks about a "German tavern on Liberty Avenue and Cross Bay Boulevard" that he drank in with a girlfriend and "Ma and Pa." He describes them walking home through Ozone Park, Queens, "the two couples arm in arm, under the October moon and mild falling leaves."
One of the great scenes from On The Road, the double round trip moving of furniture from Kerouac’s sister’s house in Rocky Mount, North Carolina to Ozone Park, Queens with Neal Cassady at the wheel, exists in the form of a letter to Ed White. White attended Columbia University with Kerouac and appeared as a character in his books. One night he read me the entire letter over the phone from his home in Denver. They drove 2,000 miles "high on tea", rushing through the darkness of small town America, "picking up hitchhikers along the way." Back and forth they went for days, through the Christmas night of 1949 in Neal Cassady’s brand new Hudson.
It’s still possible to look out the window from the bar across the street from Jack Kerouac’s house in Ozone Park, the bar he drank in with his father, and to imagine Kerouac and Cassady pulling up tired and exhausted in front of 133-01 Cross Bay Boulevard, not knowing that they had just driven into the literature of America.
In 1990, while I was working on ,"Kerouac in Queens", Ed White described a typical night at the Kerouac house in Ozone Park for me. "His mother used to call me ‘that fine, decent Ed White,’" he said. Some Saturday nights in the late 1940s he would show up there for dinner. "She didn’t allow him to invite many people out there," White said. They would eat a French Canadian stew that the mother would make, and sometimes Kerouac would run across the street to the local tavern and have them fill up a tea kettle with tap beer for her. Over beers, Jack Kerouac would start reading aloud to his mother from one of his manuscripts. "I don’t think she knew what he was talking about," White said.
Someone walking by their Ozone Park apartment on some balmy summer’s night in the 1940s might have heard piano music coming out of the Kerouac’s window. They might have heard Jack Kerouac playing jazz, or his mother playing show tunes. "He used to play this old piano his mother and father brought down from Lowell to Ozone Park," White said. "He had no formal training, but Tom Livornese, who was a musician (Kerouac went to Columbia University with him), taught him some jazz chords. His mother used to like to play the piano too. She would play mostly popular tunes, sort of little sentimental songs like Canadian Love Song."
In Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac makes reference to drinking with his father in the saloon across the street from the apartment. "The bar across the street, my father in white August shirtsleeves of beery night..." There weren’t too many summer nights of playing shuffleboard with his father and drinking beers in what is now Glen Patrick’s Pub. The father had cancer of the stomach and he started to slowly die. Jack Kerouac used to lay on his bed and listen as a doctor walked up the stairs to their second floor apartment. He knew that he was coming to drain his father’s stomach into a pail in the kitchen where Kerouac wrote.
Then one morning, when he was home alone with him, his father died in a chair after asking his son to promise him that he would always take care of his mother. Kerouac bitterly describes the final scene in Vanity of Duluoz. "So the undertakers come and dump him in a basket and we have him hearsed up to the cemetery in New Hampshire in the town where he was born..."
After his father died in 1946, Kerouac stayed up all night in the kitchen, and for the next three months he lived like a recluse as he finished his first book, The Town and The City.
In 1950 he moved with his mother to 94-21 134th Street in Richmond Hill, Queens. The upstairs apartment they moved into is not far from the Ozone Park apartment. They would live there for about five years. With his father dead and the mother off working as a skiver in a shoe factory in Brooklyn, Kerouac had many visitors. Neal Cassady came there frequently. So did Allen Ginsberg who once described it to me as, "brown, gloomy house, lamp in his room. I remember old, wooden banister leading up to his room on the second floor, a window that faced the street. We used to walk over to the Van Wyck Expressway, which was around the corner from Jack’s house," Ginsberg continued, "The two of us would stare down at the sunken highway, this bowling alley of cars, and Jack would talk about how he thought that it was terrible that they could run a highway like this through a neighborhood and ruin it. He later wrote a manuscript about this called CITYCitycity.
Towards the end of On The Road he describes Neal Cassady and himself playing baseball with a bunch of Richmond Hill kids in a "sooty field by the Long Island Railroad." Then he describes saying goodbye to Neal on Atlantic Avenue and Van Wyck Expressway. He tells of Neal waving to him as he walks away. "I waved back. Suddenly he bent to his life and walked quickly out of sight."
In Desolation Angels he wrote about the old Sheffield Milk Company on Atlantic Avenue whose loudspeakers he could hear at night as workers were paged. There is even a mention of Jamaica, Queens in his book Doctor Sax.
His second wife, the late Joan Haverty, moved in with Kerouac and his mother in early November of 1950. I spoke to her shortly before her death. "We were just married and we moved in with his mother, Gabrielle, who had just moved to Richmond Hill from Ozone Park," she said. (On November 17, 1950, with Lucien Carr as the best man, Joan Haverty married Jack Kerouac.) "Tom Livornese moved my furniture out of a loft in Manhattan."
In the short time that she spent with him, Joan Haverty saw the conservative side of Kerouac, the Lowell, mill-town, working-class bar side of him that stayed with him forever. "We spent a lot of time walking around the neighborhood of Richmond Hill. He loved to stop in the bars that he felt at home in. We would sit and watch the McCarthy hearings on television, and he would drink beer and tell the bartender how he thought McCarthy was right." (The marriage didn’t last long.)
Maria Livornese Fitzgibbon, Tom Livornese’s younger sister, used to drive out from Lynbrook, Long Island to see him. Mention of her appears on page 13 of Visions of Cody. "Jack and I started to date," she said. "I used to visit him in the daytime. I’d just go up to his room and wake him up. My father thought I was in school, but I was cutting classes to spend time with Jack while his mother was working. Jack liked to stay up late, because he slept all day. That was because he liked to write at night. He said he couldn’t write in the daytime because there was too much commotion outside."
Richmond Hill is as important as Ozone Park to the literary history of Jack Kerouac. Late at night, he would sit up in his gloomy bedroom and rewrite On The Road, never knowing for sure what he had with it. He wrote Maggie Cassidy there, and in just three nights, he wrote The Subterraneans, an incredible example of the "spontaneous prose" he believed in. Now it stands as a forgotten house, its second floor holding the memories of a great American writer who managed to stir a generation from here.
One afternoon, shortly after "Kerouac In Queens" was published, I walked through the streets of Queens with John Tytell, the author of Naked Angels, a book about the lives of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. We talked about how amazing it was that this authentic American writer was never recognized in the borough where he created his best work.
Then recently on October 23, 1996, seven years later, I found myself sitting next to John in front of the apartment in Ozone Park, Queens. A friend of mine, Jimmy Smalkowski, had sent a copy of "Kerouac in Queens" to the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center in Manhattan and they had decided to place a plaque on the house. Now, all these years later, myself, John Tytell and David Amram were waiting to get up and talk.
Sitting there waiting to go on, facing about 50 people sitting in the street on metal, chairs, listening to David Amram playing "Amazing Grace" on a flute, an American flag flying next to him as he spoke, reminding me of the flag in Pull My Daisy, I could imagine an excited, young Jack Kerouac coming out of the door behind me, duffel bag over his shoulder as he starts out "on the road" for the first time. "And don’t you know," even in Queens now, "God is Pooh Bear."
(c) 1997 Patrick Fenton and DHARMA beat #8