I occasionally pull out Kerouac’s On the Road and open it up randomly, much as I have seen people do with the Bible. What does Jack have to say today, I wonder to myself.
“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.” (Kerouac, On The Road)
I read it and smiled. The hegemony of smooth well ordered conventionally productive lives lured in even the mighty Jack K. The civilized sidewalk walkers, the desirable order and smoothness of a life from the cradle to the grave, spent in a desperate mundanity, making sure never to bother or jolt, to disturb or concern, paying your way, biding your time, until one day you wake up screaming that life never started at all, holds a certain draw for those of us who have lived life on the road, left of center, on the edges of society.
I call this fascination the white picket fence syndrome. Every junkie dreams of white picket fences, neat and tidy, ordered and pristine, keeping out the riff raff from the sidewalks to the glorious kingdom of the well manicured lawn in which they will sit, clean and neat and tidy, the Ruler of their ordered domain.
I would never have willingly wanted to take Boy and Girl on the road with me, I would have preferred white picket fences, and that was what I thought I was going to give them, marrying my successful man in a suit with his shark smile and his firm handshake, but life doesn’t always give you what you ask for. I certainly never got the dish I ordered. I played the game, I accepted my pristine domain, I gave it my best shot, I went off to a life teaching English to business-people, my own white picket fenced normality. I ordered up quiet mundanity, and got chaos served stone cold on a plate.
So on the road we went, me and the children. It was our only option for survival, to leave the sidewalks of life, to enter the circus of the ragged craziness of it all, the hellish nights of distressed cows mooing wildly as we tried to sleep in rest areas, the parking-lot stealth sleeping, the plains and the forests, the windstorms and the floods and the fires, with nothing but a tin can or canvas between us and the elements. You do not know senseless emptiness until the rain drums on the canvas or the tin camper roof for six months straight, dripping in from a loose guide rope, or a crack in the sealant: drop drop drop drop night after month after year. You fall asleep to the mindlessness of the darkness of it all, the feel of the sponge of moss under your boot, and the damp of the ground under your sleeping roll.
I would check on them, huddled in their sleeping bags, perched on their ledge, cozied up in blankets and tarps, safe from the fist, from watching their mother murdered piece by piece, and I would worry about them rosy cheeked and lean and brown. I looked at them compared to their soft pampered counterparts, plump and pillowy, whey faced and video-game fingers, and felt a sense of accomplishment. They were not loud or silly, not whiney or spoilt. Life had meaning in collecting water in jugs, cleaning the camp, starting a fire, working outside on their schoolwork, or painting or learning how to throw the meanest knuckleball in the west, polite and deferent, solid and sensible, imaginative and industrious. I decided that there were worse things than the disorder of life with me.
For me, Pig chasing us in various ways, trying to use legal means against me was the real hell of that time on the road. I always baulk at the word “stress”. It seems to mean, too mundane, too narrow. It takes away the seriousness of it all, stress is somehow not real, a fault, a weakness, not the result of constant assaults on your body, psyche and safety. He was the author of the chaos, the confusions, the hell-time, and the absolute emptiness of the future that I am staring down the barrel of, coming to meet me at vast speeds, ready to explode my life in a shattering in the illusions of happiness.
San Francisco always seemed like a “home” in on the road, a safe point, a rest area, a giving up. “Meet me in San Francisco” one or other of the gang seemed to be saying. San Francisco was bearable, a place where you could stop, and rest and live some semblance of normality, as much normality as you could bear. San Francisco was luxurious, appetite sating, enticing. The road always called them back, but San Francisco was there when the bodies needed rest and nourishment.
“In the window I smelled all the food of San Francisco. There were seafood places out there where the buns were hot, and the baskets were good enough to eat too; where the menus themselves were soft with foody esculence as though dipped in hot broths and roasted dry and good enough to eat too.” (Kerouac, On The Road)
It was time for some nourishment for us too, for me and the Boy. We needed some of that hot broth of life, some of that roasted dry and good enough, some of that deep decadent sense of living life, grabbed and baked warm fresh from the oven. San Francisco will never be the white picket fence dream, it will never be that pristine mundanity that people chase down for a life time only to hunger for something more, something wilder, something brighter. San Francisco will never be that to me. San Francisco is starving and crazy, wild eyed and torn, San Francisco is the fog on the morning peaks, and the dirt on the streets. San Francisco swallowed the Road, that broken road, that old-trod road, that mortal-remaining road. San Francisco is that flying-shoe shod road of my nightmares, where clowns appear from shadows, cracked out and crazy, wielding long knives ready to stab me in the back while zombie babies cry their green rotten tears begging for mama mama mama as I look for an escape or an easier ending.
San Francisco is the road, whether you want it or not. It recognizes the ones that are just travelling, it cradles them and throws them out into the bookstores and bars, the freeways with their cars leading out to places that are more real, places like Fresno and Sacramento, where truck stop drivers shoot 8 ball in sketchy casino backroom bars, but all that is up the road. All that is far far away from me.