Jack Kerouac: From the Road to the 'Burg

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“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!” 


It's difficult to read these words and not imagine the life of the mad, mad, mad man who penned them, a novelist and poet, morbidly alcoholic, erstwhile 'Burger Jack Kerouac. Forty two years ago today, after draining his last glass at the Flamingo bar, Jack went home to die.

Today, the 
Flamingo, on ninth street beside Hooks Sushi, is one of the many meccas for fans who make regular pilgrimages to the places he lived, or wrote about, and St. Petersburg, where he died. Toronto writer Tess Adamski is one such fan; she immortalized Kerouac on her own back--as seen in this picture that hangs in a place of honor on the wall of the Flamingo. Tess makes pilgrimage to the Flamingo regularily; most often on the anniversary of Kerouac's death, on October 21st, 1969, and his birthday, March 12, 1922. 

This year, the former lands on a Friday, and will be marked with an unprecedented lineup of local folk stars, many of whom have penned their own homages to the poet. Local folk laureate Ronnie Elliot will most likely perform his Jack's St. Pete Blues, a nod to the poet's conflicting urges to drink booze and create prose.

...a shot of whiskey and a wash of beer...
They called Jack the "King of the Beats"--a title he squirmed under--because his free verse approach inspired a generation of beat poets. But to many, like Allan Sansotta of Treasure Island, he was just a cool guy, a good pool player and a man who really knew how to drink. In the 60's, Allan and Jack would start in with the beers at 5:30 and by sundown, Jack was getting into the shots.

That's one way Flamingo owner Dale Nichols honors Kerouac's memory: With a drink combo he calls the "Jack Kerouac Special, the best deal in town"--A shot of whiskey and a wash of beer for $2.25. 

"I didn't know who he was when I met him," says Sansotta. "We used to play pool at Mastry's. I was pretty good. One day Jimmy Mastry said we should stick around and meet Jack, who was pretty good too. He must have said Jack's last name, but I didn't make the connection at the time." 

It wasn't until much later--five months, by Allan's reckoning, that Allan found out who his pool-playing drinking buddy really was.

"I was at the Beaux Arts, this bohemian place up in Pinellas Park. They had poetry readings and art exhibitions on the walls. Jack comes walking up the aisle, and I ask him what he's doing there. He said he was just going to do a reading. He read [Allen] Ginsberg, and some of his own work. I'd had no idea."

As a younger man--before meeting Kerouac in his late twenties, Allan had read On the Road, but he'd never connected his friend with the book. Today, Allan says Kerouac had a greater influence on him as a writer than as a friend.

"Upon rereading  On the Road and knowing him, I can see as an author he had more to do with the directions of my life than he did as a person," continued Allan. "That free feeling of adventure has fit well on me. Never feeling comfortable in a groove--Especially imbued upon the mind of a young man. He set me on a path of not being happy with just being content."

That's not always a good thing, Allan says--like Kerouac, he married three times. Today, at the age of 72, he travels half the globe dividing his time between North Carolina, Treasure Island, Namibia and Capetown.
Peter B. Gallagher, aka Sunset Beach Pete at WMNF, was instrumental in planning tonight's homage to the father of Beat. He says a lot of local musicians and songwriters hang at the writer's former watering hole and many have written about him. Friends, fans, and sometimes pilgrims continue to visit the bar.

"Every once in a while someone would come in with a story--some who knew him and some fans. There's a trail of places where he's done or written something about. Many people follow that trail and end up here."

If the bar acts as a living memorial to the writer, memory of the house where he lived and died, died with him. There's no museum, no memorial at 5169 10th Ave. N--not a plaque to indicate the mad soul who might linger. According to Peter, Kerouac's belongings remain at the house that is, today, owned by Kerouac's brother in law, John Sampas.

Asked why he thought Kerouac effectively drank himself to death, Allan speculates. "I think maybe he was a victim of his own success. In the 50's, he got a lot of notoriety and I'm not sure that it fit him. The guy I knew in '67 was not comfortable being in the spotlight."

Perhaps Kerouac was simply uncomfortable being in his own groove. 

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