Sunday in Kerouac Alley
Photo (partial) by Chafin found on Panoramio.com
It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon in San Francisco in May 2007, sweater weather but not cold. Scott Thorson was long in my past by then; although I had secured a signed Consent and Release form for the rights to his life story in May of 2004, the ineluctable workings of economic law prevented me from turning it into a payday or a worthwhile project.
In the middle of 2006, I was forced to give up a freelance trade magazine gig when the magazine converted from a “payment upon acceptance” policy to payment deferred until one month after publication. The rock began rolling downhill and when it came to a rest I found myself far from Los Angeles, ensconced in a cramped residential hotel on Columbus Avenue, rumored to have once been a bordello at some point in its long history, above Molinari’s Delicatessen in the bohemian enclave of North Beach. The room had no cooking facilities, faulty electricity and heating, communal bathrooms and showers down the hall, and overlooked Kenneth Rexroth Alley, a notorious breeding ground for rats.
Unable to face day-to-day life in an 11x11 room with unreliable electricity, I found myself a home for the long mornings and afternoons: the world-famous Vesuvio bar, just across Jack Kerouac Alley from the equally famed City Lights Book Store. I integrated well into the community of writers and poets and artists and musicians, each and every one of them with one foot in the gutter and the other on a banana peel.
An interesting thing happens to people forced into abject poverty, when one is no longer living day-to-day but often literally hour-to-hour: You learn to live not just by your wits but by a sense of ethics you never knew you had. Your empathy meter reads very high. If you can afford to buy a beer or a glass of wine for the broke, depressed, melancholic artist sitting next to you at the bar, you do it without flinching and next time he or she is in the black they will remember the kindness and do the same for you.
In the lower depths you meet people you are bound to never forget, people who would truly take a bullet for you, all they ask in return is that you do the same for them. It’s an unwritten policy that one learns fairly fast.
On that Sunday afternoon in May I slipped from my usual perch at the bar and stepped outside and into Jack Kerouac Alley for a smoke. Along comes a group of tourists down Columbus Avenue past City Lights, three plump and matronly women in their late 50s accompanied by an adorable ten-year-old little girl.
“Oh, look,” one of the matrons exclaimed, “this is Vesuvio, the bar I was telling you about, the one that Jack Kerouac used to go to in the Fifties.”
The other matrons joined their friend in peering through the windows. The momentarily unattended little girl began dancing and skipping on the faux marble plaque on the sidewalk that bears Jack Kerouac’s name. As she bounced and jumped, a small, neatly folded cache of one dollar bills fell out of the band of her ankle-length Mickey Mouse socks, landing neatly upon Kerouac’s name in gold lettering.
She didn’t notice.
The little girl continued skipping and jumping to her unknown financial loss. I eyed the money. Three or four bucks at best. In a few moments they would wander on down the sidewalk and I would just casually walk over and swoop up my new-found cash. Things were very tight, after all, and I wasn’t certain where money for dinner was coming from that night. I was certain that Kerouac would have taken the money.
But then it dawned on me that for a little girl, three or four bucks is a fortune. She would burst into tears the next time she proudly reached into her sock to pay for a tourist trinket only to discover that she lost her money. The matrons would probably scold her and only begrudgingly agree to pay for her toy after a lecture on responsibility.
Jesus. Some days a guy can’t win.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said to the nearest matron, “the little girl dropped her money on the sidewalk.”
She exclaimed profuse thanks and instructed the little girl – her name was Rachel – to pick up her money in a not-so-polite voice.
“And say thank you to the man, too,” she growled. “He could’ve just said nothing and swooped in and took your money as soon as you were down the street.”