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Roy from Kerouac’s On the Road: Kerouac’s novel and real-life experience

“I heard you were one of the characters in On the Road,” I said to Bill, one day in his apartment.

“I don’t talk about it!” he growled. Bill was the executive director of a skid-row service center where I was an intern. He was 40-something, had just left a marriage, and was in transition. I was 20, and trying to figure out what came next in my life.

“Nobody talks about when Carolyn [Cassady] couldn’t afford to get her teeth fixed, or the realities of what life was like.”

In the novel, Bill Tomson (the character named Roy Johnson) is a young member of the Denver group Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady hung out with. Bill/Roy introduced Carolyn to Jack and Neal, and the three of them famously, in life and the book, had relationships with each other.

Bill was still a teenager at the time, handsome, and lied about his age to pass as older than he was. Neal openly flirted with Carolyn and stole her affection from Bill as Bill was sitting there.

I first read On the Road when I was 18, in college, and owned an army surplus backpack with which I hitchhiked. Like others, I wanted to be free, free of the system, and ready to meet life wherever and however it presented itself. That’s how I ended up in an Urban Immersion Experience for a year in Denver. I decided to intern at the skid-row drop-in, the furthest experience from my sheltered Midwestern upbringing.

“[…]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

I believed in the “Seize the Day” ethic and the sense of reckless abandon of On the Road. Roy deflated only some of my romanticism.

He said he had started the shelter so he could give a place, a respite, to the drunks who lived in welfare hotels or in the camps down by the railroad tracks. Neal Cassady’s father had been a bum on skid row, and Neal Cassady had floated among different living situations. It was his promise to Neal, he told me.

When I knew Roy.

Roy’s family came from money in New York City, but they lost it all in the Wall Street crash of 1929, and he had grown up in pool halls in Denver.

When I knew him, he carried a pool cue case and could put on a show at the pool tables. It seems like all the bars had a pool table in those days. I was inadvertently used to set up marks when a pool shark invited me to play a game (I was just learning and played badly), barely beat me, and then was challenged by a newcomer. The shark cleared the table during his turn and picked up the cash bet.

One time when I was with Roy, Allen Ginsberg called him, and another time, Carolyn Cassady called him to chat. He had remained friends with the Beat circle, but never talked about them to me. I suspected it was why he now went by a different name, to distance himself from the association.

His secretary told me that occasionally a researcher would call him about Kerouac, and he wanted nothing to do with revealing his early experience. He had his own life to live, with verve.

I had a boyfriend at school, but Roy was the first man I spent time with.

He set me up for a preference in seeing men who were older than me. I thought he was worldly. I think I gave him his zest, his hope back, in some way. He was downhearted from the marriage falling apart, and before my year in Denver was up, he had met the next woman he would marry.

They were acquaintances; she called him when her husband walked out. He and his buddy drove down to wherever she was living, and his buddy slept in the car while Bill consoled her.

I was in a transitional time, too, and we each provided something to the other.

He drank too much. He preferred scotch on the rocks, which I still drink occasionally. I learned the different scotch brands from him. It was the first time I could smell scotch, booze, coming off someone’s skin.

Later, I, too, directed nonprofit organizations providing services for the indigent. But I never drank that much again or got into serious drug experimentation, as did others in that circle.

I re-read On the Road a few years ago and was struck by its misogyny. Women are treated as playthings, and it is a boys’ club driving cross-country, partying, and living life on the edge.

Two women, if not more, have written brilliant and insightful books that will never live on as iconically as On the Road. Joyce Johnson was Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend in New York City when On the Road was published, and her memoir of that time is Minor Characters. It has been lauded by The New York Times as one of the best memoirs of the last fifty years.

I thoroughly enjoyed Carolyn Cassady’s book Off the Road, which tells the stories of the women and families left behind. Neal Cassady maybe got to play the brilliant party animal for Jack Kerouac and later Ken Kesey and Jerry Garcia, but he left his wife and family to fend for themselves.

I am glad that we as women now live in a time when we can be heroes in our own lives. We don’t have to be the woman behind the man or seek our glory through them — though for a while, I thought that was what counted. Fifty years ago.

I communicated by email with Al Hinkle before he died, after I discovered The Beat Museum in San Francisco online. Al Hinkle was interviewed for the chapbook Last Man Standing by Steven D. Edington. The book copy I have is said to be published by Big Ed Dunkel Press, which was Al’s character name in On the Road. It appears to be privately published in a small run.

Al and I emailed back and forth. Bill apparently died in a hot tub when visiting a lady friend. I suspect he fell asleep — passed out — and drowned, but that is my speculation based on third-hand information. Al said Bill talked about the “Lost Pioneers” as the men of skid row. I think that is just romanticizing again.

I remember many of those characters from skid row. That is a whole other book. That corner of life continued from the Denver described by Jack Kerouac through the time I was there.

There was Granny Gaines, Big Bobby Moore, and Larry who would say “It’s hotter than my second wife!” There was the time a guy pulled a gun on me and random voices around the street told him to stop.

Many people lead alcoholic and drug-addled lives and died too young. Jack Kerouac died that way at age 47. Neal Cassady died at age 41. Bill Tomson made it to 50, I think, but can’t verify.

And many of the men on skid row looked old and died young.

Those are a lot of poems, stories, and living cumulatively lost.

Carolyn Cassady died several years ago at age 90, and Joyce Johnson is still living in New York City.

When I was 20, I might have embraced the notion of living hard, embracing it all, and going out in a blaze of glory. But Jack Kerouac et al didn’t go out in a blaze of glory, they had years of dissolution and a lousy death.

But I understand the sentiment. I enjoyed reading the book based on the Original Scroll, published with excised pieces (originally too explicit) and original names. I saw the scroll of On the Road once, at a museum, and made a special effort to get there. (For those who don’t know the trivia, Jack Kerouac taped together yellow newsprint and wrote the novel as one long stream-of-consciousness piece. Supposedly.)

So, I love On the Road for its reminder of the time, and my time, and my association, though distant. I hate the boys’ club atmosphere. I love Kerouac’s effusive run-on prose. I get mystified by the glorification, the cult-like following, still, and the academic papers and little journals.

But, here I am, posting a memoir.

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2 Responses

  1. Debbie O
    | Reply

    Enjoying your common sage musings, Sharon 🙂 I hope our paths cross again ~ Debbie

    • Sharon Johnson

      Hi, Debbie, So good to hear from you! My email is sharonjo1411@yahoo.com if you ever want to catch up.

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