In search of Sal Paradise - Whatever became of the Beat Generation?

Midtown Manhattan is bursting at the seams as streets pulse 24/7 to an endless serenade of sirens and car horns. Shoppers, tourists and workers dance under towers of glass decked out in constantly changing images, neon signs and billboards bigger than barn doors.

It's here, 50th and 8th on the Upper West Side, where I find myself spat from a subway at 9pm after a short ride from JFK airport. I'm meeting an old friend who's living in New York City.

When I knew him in England we were both marketing students at Southampton Institute. He was shy, smiley, sweet. Times change. He's become a genuine Mad Man on Madison Avenue, a Don Draper: although he says he's more like the one with white hair.

Divorce, money, muscle and a multitude of sins have created the man I find waiting for me on the 8th floor of a 26 storey luxury apartment block. Scratch the surface and he's the same bloke. Although deeper down, he's different. Wiser, perhaps. Lonely, maybe; depressed, even.

I'm not only in New York to find my old friend. I'm also going in search of Sal Paradise, Jack Kerouac's alter ego from the classic Beat Generation book: On the Road. I'm intrigued as to what has become of the bohemian spirit of America. Do the transient soul searchers still exist? Are pockets of poetry, jazz and philosophy still peeking through the capitalist cracks?

To help in my quest I’d been in touch with Cathleen Cassady whose father, Neal, is credited as having been one of the most profound influences on Kerouac’s writing style:

“Dad always wanted to be a writer and that’s why he was so jazzed when Allen (Ginsberg) introduced him to Jack. It’s ironic that Jack’s writing style, for which he became famous, was actually Dad’s writing style.” Cathy Cassady

Cassady’s fast-paced, hundred-words-a-minute, break neck style flowed from his pen in a torrent of words. Kerouac gobbled up his letters and would have rushed to the mat to greet them. It made me think: do we still get these sorts of heart pumping experiences in emails?

I can remember writing to girls I’d met on vacation as one of my first forays into writing for pleasure. The anticipation of a reply built from the moment the letter was sent. Seeing a different coloured envelope just made my heart flip and I’d greedily hope for more than one page so as to eke out the experience ever longer.

I’m sure that the thrill of letter writing, and the favourable response I nearly always received, is what drove me to wish to become a writer myself. Books too, of course, were a huge influence. On the Road, the Dice Man and Naked Lunch were all passed between friends at college in much the same way as Steinbeck, Hemingway and William Saroyan would have been swapped amongst students at NYC’s Columbia University in the 1940s.

Some books are simply a rite of passage.

But it makes me wonder whether aspiring writers Kerouac and Cassady would have found the same stepping stones to their lofty heights if they’d been chatting over email or Whatsapp?

Here are some more thoughts from Cathy Cassady regarding how her super sociable father would have taken to life in 2018:

“If Dad were around today, I’m sure he would embrace every new gadget and technological advance as it hit the public consciousness. He would LOVE the fact that he could access information at any time. He was an information addict… along with his other addictions, and one of his priorities was learning. He was insatiably curious, and encouraged us kids to “look it up” whenever we had a question or when he referenced a long word in a letter to us. He would be tickled to know he could have an encyclopaedia in his pocket.” - Cathy Cassady

New York City, December

After dumping my bag and supping a can of beer from the fridge I was ready to hit the ground running. My friend - let’s go all Kerouacian and call him Preece ‘Stan’ Stanhope - had only been living in New York for six months, having moved south from Boston, so we were both excited about discovering new neighbourhood hang outs, after dark.

Stan’s girlfriend, Jeanine, bid us farewell from the apartment door. An early start for work the next day, Friday, kept her from our night out. Stan had taken Friday off work. One of many generous acts he’d commit over the course of the weekend.

I’d explained that I wanted to visit a few of the old haunts of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg. Stan was well acquainted with the works of all three but surprised that New York was the birthplace of the Beats. Like many, he thought San Francisco would be more of a starting place for the scene.

We hit our first bar around 10pm. I’d been to New York before but still couldn’t get the hang of sitting on a bar stool. Another thing that gave me the gripes was the wall to wall TV screens. American football played out in silence, with subtitles. I hadn’t watched a game since Walter ‘the Fridge’ Perry was playing for the Bears. I didn’t fancy starting again. I mentioned it to Stan but he was on his phone. I told him off. He put it away and we carried on drinking.

We’d fallen into our natural rhythm as easily as rolling off a couch. Stan told me about his work, New York, his ex wife, his sons, Jeanine. Apparently Jeanine had her own apartment, downtown, but she’d moved in a few weeks ago and let her apartment on Airbnb. This made me laugh, a lot, especially as she was complaining about Stan’s lack of storage space.

Another bar, another row of TV screens. We found a booth. My eyes kept wandering to the nearest TV. I faced the corner of the booth and our conversation continued.

Back in the day Stan and I had been on the same college course and met in much the same way as Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr at Columbia University. We were both interested in traveling the world, reading counter culture stuff and looking for kicks. Although summer work on an Isle of Wight passenger ferry didn’t correspond quite as readily with Kerouac’s turns as a merchant navy seaman.

I mentioned a few bars that I ‘had to see’ during the weekend: the White Horse Tavern and the Kettle of Fish, basically, anything on MacDougal Street. ‘Where are we Stan? Are we near MacDougal Street?’

‘I could check my phone?’

‘Fuck you Stan, fuck you.

It turned out Midtown Manhattan was nowhere near MacDougal Street and we stumbled around Times Square instead looking for the former hang out of William Burroughs, the Taft Hotel on Seventh Avenue. We found what stood in its place: The Michelangelo Hotel and an adjoining TGI Fridays.

Then we found another bar, and another, before finally ending up in some kind of gay-friendly pub. I vaguely recall chatting to an elderly gentleman, questioning him about the Beat Generation. I have no idea what he said. Stan said he was trying to get me to go home with him. Stan took photos, on his phone.

The lights never switch off in New York City. We tumbled into Stan’s apartment around 2am via a sidewalk hot dog stand. I tipped the guy a dollar. He looked at me like I was crazy. ‘I’m getting the hang of this,’ I smiled at Stan. He looked at me like I was crazy.

At Stan’s apartment we drank red wine on the couch. Jeanine got up and used the bathroom. Stan mentioned running around Central Park the next morning. Stan’s a worryingly fit individual. So is Jeanine. I’d foolishly brought my running shoes. I lay out a map I’d bought at the airport. We marked on a few key places to check out the following day. Stan seemed as excited as I was. I fell asleep on the couch.

Cathy Cassady, and her siblings, Jami and John, are responsible for keeping memories of their father, mother and friends alive at the nealcassadyestate.com.

Written by Chris Owen
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