Still searching for Sal Paradise – Whatever became of the Beat Generation?

There’s nothing like a crisp December morning in New York City to get your mind racing.

My bed for the night, a plush leather couch, still bore my imprint. I fluffed up cushions and folded the throw before padding, barefoot, to the apartment windows overlooking 50th Street. Eight storeys below, Manhattan’s Upper West Side teemed with life. Yellow cabs, cars and vans sat bumper to bumper as wrapped up pedestrians shuffled along sidewalks.

It was 7.40am. I was wide awake, hungover and contemplating a full day searching for Sal Paradise, Jack Kerouac’s alter ego from the Beat Generation bible: On the Road. Sitting back on the couch I spread a map over a glass coffee table. St Patrick’s Cathedral, a well known sanctuary for Catholic Kerouac, was just a few blocks over on 5th Avenue. I dotted it on the map, got up to go to the bathroom, and sat down again, holding my head.

The previous night with Preece ‘Stan’ Stanhope, who was currently, I presumed, fast asleep in the adjoining bedroom, came flooding into fragmented focus. I bemoaned my tolerance levels to alcohol that had dipped severely since Stan and I were students, 25 years previous. You’re indestructible at that age; ready to go again and again, night after night. You don’t think about the future. There’s no time to settle down. You’ve got to keep moving; got to keep writing. Go go go.

Until it’s time to move on, grow up, get a job, responsibilities, a New York City apartment.

Kerouac farted in the face of maturity and it was New York and the characters he’d encountered whilse travelling that went on to shape his lifelong quest for literary immortality.

“Kerouac fully intended to become a writer when he was a boy. Ever the observer, he kept copious notes in his breast pocket notebook with an eye toward writing the stories up in the legend of his life.” Jerry Cimino, founder of the Beat Museum in San Francisco

Other members of the Beat Generation, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, were also acclaimed writers and legendary hell raisers, with counterculture classics Howl, Junkie and Naked Lunch still devoured by readers, young and old. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for all the Beats. Neal Cassady was a prolific letter writer and yearned to be an author, but never had anything published in his lifetime.

“Dad loved playing with words. He especially loved alliteration, as I do. In prison, he’d write to Mom using all words starting with the same letter, taking turns with all the consonants. He’d write a whole letter with words beginning with ‘b’, then one using ‘c’, and so on. Must’ve drove Mom nuts!”Cathy Cassady, daughter of Neal Cassady

Although a loving father, Cassady would go on to be something of a parody of himself, still living fast and loose with characters including Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, inspiring and entertaining all who met him, right up to his death in 1968, at the tender age of 42.

As I sat, holding my head, I wondered how many other wannabe writers and soul seekers succumbed to booze and Benzedrine binges but failed to shine as brightly as Burroughs, Kerouac and, even, Cassady. Stroll down city streets the world over, not just New York, and you’ll see cardboard box communities, transient hobos and semi-permanent panhandlers. How many of these people started off with a dream of writing or travelling only to be thwarted along the way?

So many stories, yet to be told.

The picture painted by Kerouac of life on the road is always romantic. I wondered if anyone who’d lived a similar lifestyle in 2018 would compare their own tales to that of Sal Paradise. Before I’d arrived in New York I’d asked Cathy Cassady if she thought it possible to go ‘On the Road’ in 2018. Here’s her response:

“I feel those were definitely ‘the good old days’ as far as travel was concerned. You could hitchhike, for one thing. The traffic was slower, so you could see the terrain as you passed. The roads were not multi-lane, so there were fewer cars to deal with. I would guess there wasn’t as much road rage as there is today with all the stressed out folks behind the wheels. It was more laidback, and, luckily for the guys involved when Dad was driving, the highway patrol officers were probably spread further apart. A trip attempted today as described in On the Road would be difficult to pull off and not as enjoyable.” Cathy Cassady

Undaunted, I still intended to search for Sal Paradise, and the origins of the Beat Generation. Kids may not be able to get their kicks on Route 66 but surely the essence of the Beats is out there, somewhere? I just needed to wait for Stan to wake up and I was good to go, go, go.

New York City, December That evening Stan and I headed to MacDougal Street in the Village. We were looking for kicks, for Beats, for jazz. Stan had been drinking double vodkas since midday, after starting with a Bloody Mary in the Red Rooster in Harlem.

Yellow cab after yellow cab had taken us Uptown, Midtown and now Downtown. Stan never let me put my hand in my pocket. My role in our financial arrangement was solely ‘tip man’. Lights were switching on as we drove past the Brooklyn Bridge. It was cold. Stan had managed to score two tickets to Café Wha? a well known Beat hang out, back in the day. I was excited. Stan was drunk. We got out of the cab around 9pm. Stan paid. MacDougal Street was buzzing. Comedy clubs and live music joints touted for business as cars crawled past crowds falling in and out of bars.

Stan flashed his phone at the guy on the door and we strolled down the famous Café Wha? steps like lambs being ushered into hell. Black painted double doors opened up to an honorary guard of waiters and waitresses welcoming us into the underworld.

“Where you wanna sit?”

We looked around. There was the stage set up with mics and instruments. There were booths, long tables.

“Where the fuck is everybody?” enquired Stan.

“We’ve just opened, it will get busier soon. Do you wanna drink?”

Stan and I sat down, near the stage. Eyes watched as we made up our minds. Stay or go? Stick or twist?

“We’re going to come back in a bit.” Stan said to the guy on the door.

“Ok man, no problem.”

The first bar we picked to kill time until Café Wha? ‘kicked off’ was standing room only. TV screens hung off the walls, as per usual. The music was loud indie rock. Students shouted whilst Stan and I stood with our drinks. I was loath to shout that I couldn’t hear myself think so I just kept quiet, watched the game and nursed my beer. Stan had a double vodka.

When we returned to Café Wha? it was packed out. We were ushered to a long table full of smiling chatty couples. They shuffled up for us. We did the same for other couples. It became a thing. Stan ordered a double vodka and two bottles of beer. One was for me, I hoped.

The rest of the evening was lively. The house band, touted as the best in New York, rocked. People from our table stood up. Whooped. Danced. I joined them. Arms in the air. More musicians came onto the stage. More people got up and danced.

Waitresses and waiters ran the gauntlet of middle aged party goers. Our welcoming guard of honour had been reduced to table service sailors on a seething sea of swaying bodies and annoying elbows. The music was mainstream but fun. It was designed to get the crowd up and rocking. A night to remember, or try to. Everyone was having a great time. That was what you’re supposed to do at Café Wha?. Have a great time. Listen and dance to the best god damn house band in New York City.

Stan was by my side, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ he shouted. I nodded.

In no time we were sitting at a shared table in Groove, another MacDougal Street hang out. An R&B band were playing. Stan ordered a double vodka and a beer.

“Now this is music man, this is music!” Stan’s eyes were wild.

I nodded and smiled. I felt sleepy.

“Yeah man, go, go, go.”

The singer came round with a bucket. Stan gripped his arm as he slipped a 20 dollar bill into his hand. “You’re amazing man.”

The couple next to us were taking a selfie. Stan stopped them mid-smile.

“Let me take that.” It was more of a statement than a request. They agreed. Still, thankfully, smiling.

“No wait. My phone’s much better. I’ll email you the photo.” The couple’s smile turned to confusion. I kept my eyes transfixed on the stage as the female singer belted out Proud Mary.

An hour or so later Stan and I were back on the MacDougal Street sidewalk. I looked at Stan as he struggled to get on his coat. His eyes were somewhere around his hairline. It was just after 2am.

“Jazz club?” he mumbled.

His eyes now completely shut. I gave him my shoulder.

“It’s ok man, we don’t have to.”

I hailed a cab heading to Midtown. Stan fell asleep. I finally got the chance to pay.

Cathy Cassady, and her siblings, Jami and John, are responsible for keeping memories of their father, mother and friends alive at the Neal & Carolyn Cassady website. Jerry Cimino is the founder and curator of the Beat Museum in San Francisco.
Written by Chris Owen
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