I visit Denver for work once a year and I absolutely hate the fucking place. Cowboy culture makes me ill. When I take that 45-minute ride from the Denver airport to downtown, all I can think of are Marshal Dillon riding with his posse across the expanse and tumbleweeds. Look, I love a good cowboy movie but the dimestore cowboy culture and the country music that goes with it can go extinct any time now. I have other reasons for not liking Denver, but none that are worth exploring now.
My first few times in Denver I noticed a large homeless population, which struck me as odd. More on that in a bit.
I finally got around to reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road this summer and it affected me. I had that kind of wanderlust in my younger years. When I joined the Navy at 18, I couldn’t sit still for five minutes. My pals and I were constantly hopping in the car for road trips. Funny how it was always my fucking car. Most of the time we were heading home for a long weekend and dropping cats along the way and picking them up on the way back. A 15-hour drive from Memphis to Rochester, N.Y., is lonely and expensive. It was always good to have travel companions to help share the time and chip in gas and snack money.
What struck me about On the Road was that Denver was basically the birthplace of the Beat Generation. Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady et al ran the streets of Denver and caroused and drank and listened to the birth of jazz and gathered the experiences that led to some of the best of 20th century American literature. Who the hell knew Denver was a hopping spot in the late 1940s? I sure as hell didn’t.
I was determined to look at this city through new eyes.
No, I didn’t go all Minority Report and get an eye transplant. But in the days leading up to this weekend business trip, I visited www.denver.org and found what to do as far as Denver’s Beat history is concerned. Did I do all that I planned? Hardly. I couldn’t find any hep cats to pal around with. That’s okay, I didn’t mind exploring alone.
The first stop on the list was My Brother’s Bar on the corner of 15th and Platte. This was supposedly the spot where Kerouac, Ginsberg and Cassady drank and plotted and schemed and launched many a night of bar-hopping. I enjoyed a glass of Cutthroat Porter. I have developed a taste for this variety of beer. It looks like a stout but it drinks much lighter and smoother. I asked the barkeep what my beer was missing and he replied, “a side of whisky?” Tullamore DEW Irish Whisky, neat, was my chaser of choice. Both served well to wash down the bacon cheeseburger and fries that disappeared far too easily. My Brother’s Bar will give you, free of charge, copies of some Cassady/Beat memorabilia, including a letter Cassady wrote while incarcerated. My Brother’s Bar claims to be the oldest bar in Denver. Now, you might want to argue that the Buckhorn Saloon qualifies. The Buckhorn boasts the oldest liquor license in Colorado. That’s a whole different animal, as evidenced by the taxidermy on the walls of the Buckhorn.
I find it fascinating that Cassady was born into Denver’s homeless community and that the homeless population in Denver is generational, systemic. I saw several people standing outside the Denver Rescue Mission as I was riding into downtown tonight.
As much as San Francisco seems to be the place known for Beat goings on, I felt very much in touch with the original beatniks in the place of their origin. I must have looked silly with the idiot grin on my face as I asked the My Brother Bar’s bartenders question after question about the history of the place and what Kerouac and his contemporaries were like.
I’ve said it and I have written it. I am too successful and not disaffected enough to fancy myself “beaten down” as the Beat Generation did. But I have grown disillusioned enough with the “system” and my place in the universe that I certainly identify and relate. My blog style is reminiscent of Kerouac’s autobiographical narrative. I am no Kerouac. But neither was he when he started. And at 46, I have no intention of popping off at 47 as Kerouac did.
The next stop on my adventure was The Tattered Cover bookstore. Mother’s milk. God, I love a bookstore. According to www.denver.org, The Tattered Cover boasted quite the collection of Beat literature. The clerk I asked didn’t deny this, however, there wasn’t exactly a section a la City Lights in San Francisco. I did find a Kerouac volume worthy of my money, as well as a horror novel. I came upon a trio of young people discussing warped tales. A young lady who was trying in vain to hide a half drunk bottle of Wild Turkey, and two young men who were either confused or trying to get the young lady into bed or both, were talking about Lolita and American Psycho. I found the subject matter fascinating and jumped into the conversation. The young woman was surprised that I knew anything about Humbert Humbert and his pedophiliac proclivities or the concept of the unreliable narrator of American Psycho. Was he really a serial killer or was it all in his head? I left the youngsters to their own devices and headed for the little café at the front of the store.
I ordered a mocha from the café attendant, Tom, who was kind enough to throw a few bookmarks in with my purchase (and a Lindor truffle), along with a pen that resembles a pencil. A fan of the Beat himself, Tom mentioned My Brother’s Bar and we high-fived after I told him I had already dug the joint.
I had walked from My Brother’s Bar to The Tattered Cover. I walked the 16th Street Mall back to my hotel. I marveled at the Christmas decorations and the number of people out experiencing Denver’s nightlife despite the snow and the sub-freezing temperatures. I wondered if Jack Kerouac had wandered the same streets. I imagined him and Neal Cassady walking briskly with their bare hands thrust into their pockets and collars turned up against the cold as they hustled to the next jazz spot in the Five Points Neighborhood. I walked past Confluence Park and I thought about Neal Cassady walking along the banks of the Platte River and contemplating his next grand theft auto.
I went back to my hotel room to finish my coffee and drop my purchases. Had I planned better I would have purchased tickets to a jazz concert and found myself in a smoky corner somewhere grooving. But I made my way to the bar at the Palm Restaurant. I bumped into a friend and enjoyed a cognac. After my pal retired for the evening, I spied the Tullamore DEW Special Reserve on the shelf. There wasn’t enough for a pour so the barkeep “comped” me what was left.
In On the Road, I seem to recall Kerouac writing about wasting money on Scotch while trying in vain to pick up a girl.
Another bartender and I discussed the death of the cowboy culture in Denver and the re-birth of the Beatniks and emergence of hipsters. Apparently this phenomenon has something to do with the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. “Yee-haw” has been replaced with “dude.” Fine by me.
Perhaps someday I will write my own novel. I have some ideas. I have started one. I haven’t touched it in four years. But at least I started it.
My days of wanderlust are long gone. I do not wish to traipse across the country from New York to San Francisco with stops between. However, I sure didn’t mind some solo exploration of the birthplace of a literary movement and I certainly enjoyed walking in the footsteps of one of my literary heroes.
Maybe one day folks will want to frequent my old haunts and walk in my footsteps.
I listen to Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs tell Jack Kerouac’s story through Hey Jack Kerouac as I write this and I’ll leave you with it, for now.