Jack Kerouac's birthday was this past Monday. That complex, sometimes brilliant, sometimes agonizing writer would have been
80 90. (Damn, we're all getting old.)The Beats are not a totally extinct species — Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are still out there — but it's hard to find traces of the movement's truth in a world where the trappings may still be on sale, but the meaning is not a traded commodity.
On the Road is still a perennial favorite of those wanting their first taste of life away from conformist systems. It's an ideal starting point, not only because it conveys so much of the excitement but because it admits to the dangers and the finiteness of it all; after one last indulgent run to Mexico, Sal realizes that the life he knew can't continue. The time comes to grow up.
And sometimes that's not such a bad thing. You grow up, you try to come to terms with the system (Kerouac never did, hence his rather pathetic death in 1969), but you also try to keep a bit of the spark alive while knowing that reality demands, and benefits from, a certain civility.
You also learn to keep yourself safe in the face of those who know more than you, as Tonyola proved by not keeping anything in a secret compartment as he did a freewheeling trip through Mexico a good while back:
My older brother and I drove all throughout Mexico in 1976 in an old Mustang packed to the sills with camping gear and the like. We made absolutely sure we were 100% clean before we went in (no seeds'n'stems here!). While we had a great time in Mexico, we were periodically hassled by the Federales who were looking for drugs, so we didn't partake in anything illegal at all in fear of Mexican prisons. We headed back to the States after six weeks and made our re-entry at Nogales, AZ. After our experiences with the Mexican police, we expected to be forced by US Customs to completely unpack the car and be thoroughly searched.
The middle-aged Customs agent: "You boys have anything to declare?"
"Nothing but a couple of souvenirs, sir."
"OK, please get out and let me look in the car"
After a very cursory check, the man then asked us to open the trunk. After another quick look without asking us to unpack anything, he shut the trunk and said "OK, boys - that's it. You're done and welcome back to the USA."
"Er, that's it?"
"Listen, had you boys been smuggling anything, you would have tipped me off with your faces and actions right away."
Photo Credit: Tom Palumbo