A long way from New Zealand, writer Robert Metcalf encounters Orlando’s literary community and those who seek to commune with the spirit of Jack Kerouac.
I am awoken at 3am by voices. They seem to be in the room with me and so I start from sleep. There should be nobody here but me. As my confusion recedes, I realise the voices are outside the window. But I’m awake now, and they’re talking loudly. I hear footsteps on the porch. I wonder whether I should get up, rush to the door and fling it open, shake my fist at them like some log cabin madman in underpants. I decide against it. Instead, I lie there and listen to the voices ringing loudly in the usually silent street. There’s a word that echoes through their conversation, a name: “Kerouac… Kerouac.” For this is not just any house on a quiet suburban street, it’s the house in Orlando, Florida, where Jack Kerouac once lived and where he wrote The Dharma Bums. The voices continue. No longer on the porch, they have retreated to the front lawn, and are now discussing movies. I rise quietly from my bed and reach across to the blinds, parting them slightly and peering out at the garden. And there they are, a guy and a girl. They look like bookish types, undergraduate students perhaps, full of inspiration after a night out drinking. She wears a houndstooth print dress; he wears a beret and horn-rimmed glasses, sits cross legged on the lawn and does most of the talking. Now he’s onto Ginsberg. For a moment I fear he might traverse the entire Beat pantheon, but their attention soon drifts. They rise from the lawn and weave down Clouser Avenue, under Spanish moss and moonshadows, to some other room somewhere else in the city.
When I arrived to take up my three month residency in the Kerouac House in December, I didn’t know what to expect. I had read about the house on the Kerouac Project website and looked at it on Google street view, but when it emerged from the early darkness of a winter night it was something different entirely: a real, actual house in a quiet and sparsely lit street under the spreading branches of an ancient oak tree. I was shown around by my hosts then left there to settle in, thirteen thousand kilometres from home. It was strange at first, being transplanted to this leafy suburban neighbourhood on the other side of the world. The locals found my New Zealand accent hard to place – was I Australian? Or perhaps from Venezuela (the lady across the street had misheard “New Zealand”). No one was geographically wider of the mark than the psychic I visited. “So, you’re from England,” she began.
I soon settled into my new residence and learned more about the house. Jack Kerouac lived there with his mother during 1957 and 1958. He arrived a relatively unknown writer and left as the celebrated author of On the Road, which was published in September 1957. His time in Orlando seems to have been quiet and productive. Away from the restless activity of the New York and San Francisco literary scenes, Kerouac had time to write, to sit on the back steps in the sun, and to meditate beside nearby Lake Adair. Kerouac’s influence was palpable throughout the house, a picture of him and Neal Cassady hung above the mantelpiece in the lounge, another large picture of Kerouac graced the laundry, a replica of his Underwood typewriter sat on a shelf, and pictures of him typing the scroll of The Dharma Bums adorned the wall of the small room where he wrote that very book in the winter of 1957.
Was Kerouac present in any supernatural sense? If so, I didn’t feel it. One evening I sat in Kerouac’s old room with the back door open and the blinds up as the sun set behind the trees. The fading light illuminated the back wall briefly and fell upon a small picture of Kerouac and Cassady. The light burned with intensity for a moment then drained from the room as the sun dipped below the horizon. The open back door framed a rectangle of sky webbed with black branches and leaves. I looked at the ink drawing of Kerouac on the wall and for a moment the dark spots of his eyes seemed to draw me into the frame. That was the closest he came to being in the room. But that proximity gave me a strong sense of the man himself, the quiet and ordinary life that necessarily sits in the shadow of the legend. I gained too a sense of the tremendous sadness that increasingly consumed Kerouac and led to his early death at the age of 47 from the effects of alcoholism. While Kerouac had been an energetic and productive 35 year old during his time in the Orlando house, it was in another house, a couple of hours down the road, that his journey would end. I had never expected to visit that house, as it was closed to the public, but then my residency was full of surprises.
A few days after arriving in Orlando, I received a call from the president of the Kerouac Project board, asking whether I would like to accompany her and another founding board member on a trip to Kerouac’s last house in St Petersburg. Kerouac’s brother-in-law and executor had been in touch, the place was about to go on the market and he wondered if the Project would like any of the old furniture for the Orlando house. So, on a sunny Friday morning we drove down to St Petersburg and found the house, a small ranch style place in a quiet neighbourhood. As we entered, I saw a note that had been slipped under the door. It read: “Hey Jack, how’s the beatitude? Toby.” I put the note on a ledge and we made our way inside. Nobody had lived in the house since Kerouac’s widow Stella died in 1990, and the interior was like a time capsule. The floral patterned curtains in the lounge were drawn, heavy wool upholstered furniture with dark wooden arms sat where it had been left decades earlier. A copy of the Reader’s Digest from September 1967 sat on a table. A large blue Westinghouse fan from the 1960s was angled towards a battered brown armchair. Patched and worn, re-upholstered in different fabrics, it had been Kerouac’s chair in the last few years of his life, where he sat and drank whisky, watching television behind drawn curtains. I had seen pictures of him sitting in that chair. The sun blazed in the quiet suburban street outside, throwing long fingers of light across the room from the gaps between the curtains. It was here, on an October morning in 1969, that Kerouac began to feel unwell and then collapsed. He died the following day in a local hospital. Sadness hung about the St Petersburg house like the Spanish moss in Clouser Avenue.
There was something in the note from Toby that hinted at a phenomenon I noticed more and more as my residency progressed. People are drawn to Kerouac still, decades after his death, and their curiosity is often accompanied by a reverence that indicates his mythic status. During my time at the Kerouac House in Orlando, people stopped outside on a daily basis. Most simply walked around outside, maybe took a photo, but kept their distance. A few were more bold. One afternoon I was sitting in the lounge on a skype call home when a young man knocked on the open door.
“Hey man,” he said, “I’m an English major and I was wondering if I could take a look around.”
“Sure, have a wander around outside,” I said, “Kerouac lived in the back part of the house.”
“Thanks man,” he said, then paused, “do you think it would be cool if I took some leaves or something?”
I nodded. Why not? But it made me wonder: what was it about Kerouac that brought these pilgrims to the door? I thought of my own introduction to Kerouac, at age fifteen, when I discovered a copy of On the Road in my dad’s bookshelf during the long summer holidays. As a suburban teenager in New Zealand, I found the idea of restless travel utterly compelling, and the earnestness with which the characters discussed the mysteries of existence captivating, not yet tempered with the critical distance I developed later. Kerouac is a master at conveying excitement, especially the youthful excitement that impels young people to move, to seek out new experiences and new people. And yet, amid this excitement, this energetic sense of wonder, there is a consistent note of sadness, an awareness that all things – friendships, seasons, and people – must pass. Kerouac’s biography can be seen as a struggle between these two emotional forces, wonder and sadness, with the latter ultimately triumphant. Yet his ideas continue to inspire new generations of readers. And his influence remains strong enough to bring people from all over the United States and the world to the Kerouac House. It is a vibrant place that brings like-minded people together. The wonderfully welcoming board of the Kerouac Project make a real effort to involve the residents in local events and to introduce them to people in the community. I made many friends there. The house itself is a venue for events: during my residency there was a book discussion evening open to the public, a book launch and a public reading. I also attended a number of events around the city – a monthly reading series in a gallery downtown, a regular story-telling evening in a suburban café, poetry slams, an evening of erotic poetry – the variety and energy of Orlando’s literary community was impressive. It was a great privilege to be a part of it.
On my final day in the house, a removal van arrived with the furniture from St Petersburg, the old brown chair among the shipment. A pilgrim arrived at the same time as the movers and wandered through the open door. I spoke to him as the house filled up with former Kerouac furniture. He was from Utah, had recently attended a conference on hallucinogenics in Detroit, and took a polaroid photo of me next to the newly arrived chair. Later, after I had stood on the porch in the Orlando twilight for the last time, I went inside and sat in Kerouac’s chair. I had a whisky and listened to the sound of windblown leaves ticking across the roof above me. I thought about Kerouac and how he had sat beneath this very roof, the clatter of typewriter keys filling the space while his mother sat in the neighbouring room. And I thought about how he remained an influential man, decades after his death, how a community had grown around this house, and how it still led pilgrims to the door in search of something ineffable. When at last I went to bed the street was quiet, the silence broken occasionally by a distant train whistle ringing across the Florida night; somewhere across town, at a party or a bar, an earnest university student was leaning towards a young woman, saying loudly over the music: “you know, Jack Kerouac lived in Orlando, not far from here, we should go and check it out.”