January 2008 – When Jack Kerouac Came To Venice

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By John Thomas

Jack I didn’t know.  Never met him.  Only saw him once — not much more than a glimpse, then.  And he surely wasn’t at his best that night.

What night?  Back in 1959 — late summer, if memory serves me.  In Venice.  I was running the Gas House and cooking free meals twice a day for some twenty artists, sculptors, writers.  Well, Bill Riola came bopping in from the Ocean Front, looking even more amped than usual.  

“Hey, man!” he said to me.  “Kerouac’s out there!”

“Kerouac?  Really?  Where?”

Bill drew me to the front door and pointed up to the Match Box, a lesbian bar a block away.

“See ‘em all up there?  They been drinking their way to Larry Lipton’s pad.  Wanna go to Larry’s?  Come on!”

And it was Jack, with a few hangers-on.  They were obviously drunk.  Jack was shit-faced.  

He was trudging along, swigging wine from a half-gallon jug.  White port and lemon juice it was, by later report.  As they headed north towards Park Avenue and Larry’s place, he periodically burped loudly and yelled out into the night.

“I’m a genius!  I’m a fuckin’ genius!”  Over and over.  “Listen, I’m a genius!”

They disappeared into the Match Box, only to emerge again, cursing, in a New York minute.  Scotty, the double-tough night bartender, would serve no man.  The only time I’d gone in, she’d hefted a machete.  God’s truth.  After that I drank (when I drank) at the Bamboo Hut.  Peaceful.  Just outlaw bikers.

“Well, fuck you too!” Kerouac shouted as they left.  “You just eighty-sixed America’s greatest living writer!  I’m a genius!”

I turned and headed back to the Gas House kitchen, where I’d been cooking barracuda chowder.

“I’ll pass, Bill, but you go ahead.  You can tell me about it tomorrow.”

Which he did.  And since Larry Lipton taped everything, I heard the entire evening months later.  Not inspiring.  Essentially it was Larry asking lame questions and Jack repeating (you knew already, right?), “I’m a fuckin’genius!”

Later, I did try white port and lemon juice.  Just once.  I don’t recommend it.

But let me lay three truths on you.  Truth:  I loathe most drunks.  I detest them.  A personal prejudice I can’t overcome.  Truth:  Kerouac brought a great new spirit to America … and reading him surely changed my life.  Truth:  he was — at least in several of his books — a lovely writer.  As he yelled to Scotty that summer night, Jack was a fucking genius.

Jack Kerouac, author of On The Road, was the leading inspiration of the Beat Generation. John Thomas was the bouncer/cook at the Gas House Coffee House at Market Street and Ocean Front Walk. He was one of the great Venice West poets and, later, husband of Philomene Long.

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