For Kerouac, Off the Road and Deep Into the Bottle, a Rest Stop on the Long Island Shore
NORTHPORT, N.Y. — The King of the Beats was already a literary celebrity when he moved with his mother, Gabrielle, to this Long Island harbor town in 1958, but the locals remember him mainly as a broke barfly who padded about barefoot or in bedroom slippers.
“He never had any money, so he’d get your ear till you bought him a drink, always Schenley’s whiskey,” Bob Reid, a 69-year-old clammer, recalled of Jack Kerouac’s six years here, much of them spent in Murphy’s, a salty bar overlooking the public dock where the fishermen, lobstermen and clammers would come in still wearing their smelly hip waders.
“He dressed like a bum, wore an old ratty overcoat and always needed a shave,” Mr. Reid added. “We knew he was a writer but we didn’t know he was famous. He never talked about books, maybe because we weren’t exactly a book crowd.”
Another clammer, Denny Teal, 63, stepped off his work boat and waved his hand dismissively when asked about Kerouac. “He liked to sit by the gas heater in the back of Gunther’s,” Mr. Teal said, referring to another tavern Kerouac frequented, “and he could talk up a storm when the drinks were flowing. If he could’ve wrote down half of what he was rambling on about, that’d be the best Kerouac book of them all.”
Using some of his advance from “On the Road” for a down payment, Kerouac, at 36, bought a house on Gilbert Street, but he shunned the persona of suburban square.
He did not mow his lawn, drive a car or have a job. He read avidly from the local library, but refused to enter, choosing instead to have a librarian retrieve his books while he waited outside. He drank at home late into the night, playing music from his vast collection of reel-to-reel tapes, often blasting macabre selections from requiem Masses past midnight.
“He never had a car, so he walked or got a ride wherever he was going,” said Louis Goldin, 77, who lived next door to the house Kerouac moved into in 1962, at 7 Judy Ann Court. “He was just another guy in the village. You’d see him walking into town pulling one of those old-lady shopping carts for groceries.”
Associated more with places like Greenwich Village or San Francisco, Kerouac told friends that the bucolic New England feel of Northport reminded him of his hometown, Lowell, Mass. In Northport, an hour’s drive from Manhattan, he could maintain contact with artistic and publishing circles, yet escape the pressures and pitfalls of fame.
He was not especially productive here, working unsteadily on a number of shorter projects and a novel he called “Memory Babe.” Emotionally fragile and beset by alcoholism, not to mention a complicated relationship with his mother, Kerouac was declining physically, disillusioned by his celebrity and growing apart from his radical friends and artistic colleagues.
Yes, there were visits from Allen Ginsberg — local legend has it that he wrote poems on the drink coasters at Gunther’s — and from his traveling companion Neal Cassady. But mostly, Kerouac enjoyed the friendship and support of suburbanites with day jobs. One was Larry Smith, an architect who would throw a football with Kerouac in the local schoolyard or join him for weekend softball games.
“He always dressed in khakis and a T-shirt, and he was usually barefoot,” Mr. Smith recalled. “Dressing up was putting on a nice pair of bedroom slippers for walking around town.”
Kerouac was uncomfortable with his King of the Beats reputation, and generally avoided the groupies who came to town to meet him, but when drunk he would entertain them with free-associating sermons or go along on raids on abandoned North Shore mansions.
Pete Gunther, 72, then and now the owner of Gunther’s on Main Street, said that Kerouac’s mother “would only give him a little bit” of money at a time “to keep him out of trouble,” so he tried to stretch his drinking dollar by keeping a bottle of Canadian Club in his briefcase.
“We used to wonder how he’d get so drunk on just a couple of bar drinks, until we found out he was taking swigs of his own bottle in the bathroom,” Mr. Gunther said. “Well, we ended that.”
Once, with no money for a tip, Kerouac gave Mr. Gunther a signed first edition copy of his book “Visions of Gerard,” which Mr. Gunther said he soon gave away.
Though Kerouac’s daily routine revolved largely around drinking, friends said, Kerouac would often visit the studio of Stanley Twardowicz, a painter, conveniently situated above a Main Street liquor store. He kept a cot there for napping, and would frequently paint pietas or crucifixes, always with the canvas set flat on the ground.
Mr. Twardowicz, 88, saved some impromptu poems called “The Northport Haikus” that Kerouac composed during a party.
His wife, Lillian Dodson, recalled that “once, after a night of drinking, Jack lay down in the middle of Main Street and no one could get him up.”
She remembered: “So Stanley said, ‘Hey Jack, does this mean you’re back on the road?’ And Jack started laughing and got up.”
In August 1964, the night before Kerouac and his mother were to move to St. Petersburg, Fla., to care for Jack’s sister, Caroline, there was a small farewell party at the house on Judy Ann Court. Kerouac sang along with a Mel Tormé recording, according to a tape Mr. Smith made of the event, and rose to waltz his beer around the room, wearing a fedora with a turned-up brim.
He related stories — of a prostitute in an Oakland jazz club, his time in a Navy mental hospital, how he finagled his way out of military service, how Fire Island police officers hassled him for being intoxicated.
“How could I be intoxicated?” Kerouac said on the tape. “I’m only drinking beer.”
Dreading St. Petersburg, which he derided as “a place where little old ladies walk all by themselves at midnight, talking to themselves on the sidewalk,” Kerouac said he had to be up by 6 a.m. to depart, but nonetheless proposed a game of pool at Gunther’s.
When no one spoke up, he said the last words recorded on the tape: “I’m not going there by myself.”
The next day, Mr. Smith said, he stopped by the house and found Kerouac’s mother on the floor of their empty house holding a bottle of liquor and complaining that her son had disappeared. He was found two days later sleeping in a field three miles away in Centerport.
The King of the Beats did leave Northport, never to return before his death from internal bleeding in 1969.