In September 2006, I had the opportunity to visit California for the first time in my life.
I grew up in Toronto; live in Montreal; been going to New York City and Boston for at least 30 years; lived for periods of time in Paris and Quebec City; traveled Europe; worked as a wilderness guide for a year in the Yukon Territory.
But besides New York, New England and Alaska, I had never been anywhere else in the States.
Been to Cuba but never been to California...
On Labour Day weekend, I flew to Chicago, and then to San Francisco.
Meetings were planned in San Francisco, Sausalito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Monica and Los Angeles, over the course of the week, with partners in the online advertising industry.
I was traveling alone and on a relatively tight schedual.
Depending on the results from my first meetings, I was going to be driving down to San Luis Obispo on the Wednesday afternoon or the Thursday morning.
Business went smooth; I thought it was fun that my hotel was on the corner of Dashiell Hammett Street; and, on the Wednesday morning, I packed up my room, left my suitcase and things with the concierge, and then taxied over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito.
One of the morning meetings led to my continuing things in the afternoon and postponing my departure until Thursday morning, as planned if necessary.
The address in Sausalito was right on the waterfront, so instead of taking a taxi back to the city, I ended up on the ferryboat.
Just a wonderful way to come across the bay: seeing Alcatraz up close, sailing ships and freighters, and the incredible view of San Francisco.
When we landed in the port authority, I decided to walk back to the hotel and check out the address where I was supposed to pick up my rental car the next morning.
Across the street from the rental office, in an old converted hotel, was a youth hostel.
I hadn’t reserved anywhere for this last night in San Francisco.
I really did book out of my room, when I left my bags with the concierge, playing it by ear, since, if things went a certain way, I would have got on the road that afternoon.
It seemed it would be kind of an adventure to spend the night at the youth hostel.
I asked the people at the front desk if they had individual rooms.
I was told they were all taken, but that the regular rooms included only two sets of bunk beds, and each room had its own toilets and showers.
When I told them that sounded fine by me, I think they thought I was a bit crazy.
Here I was in a full business suit, neck tied, and I obviously didn’t have a youth hostel membership card.
Took care of all that, got my card, paid for my room, and told them I would be back in a less than an hour with my things.
A trolley car up, and a taxi cab back, from my original hotel, and the registration desk people gave me my sheets and my key for the night.
The elevator was broke; lugged my bags up the three flights; put my key in the door and, when I walked in the room, stretched out on the bottom of one of the bunks, I saw this long-haired guy, with his arms folded back and behind his head.
He looked at me sweating in my suit-and-tie and asked:
“What are you doing here?”
I smiled and said facetiously:
“I am following the road of Jack Kerouac.”
Well, he shot out of bed, whipping up to me with his arm held out, started shaking my hand, and goes:
“I can’t believe you said that.
“My name’s Tony.”
Right then-and-there our relationship was sealed.
We started speaking back-and-forth to each other, at about 200-words-a-minute, laying out our life stories, in particular as they related to Jack Kerouac.
Tony was a painter.
He told me about how he knew Gregory Corso, back at the Chelsea Hotel, and on Horatio Street, and all the habits they shared.
I told Tony how I had had the chance to meet up with William S Burroughs, at a bar called ‘The Edge,” and how I recently attempted to work with Burroughs’ spin-doctor from Kansas, concerning a novel one of my friends’ wrote (and right then, I gave him a copy of the book - I had taken to always carrying two copies with me, as I traveled).
Well it turned out Tony knew Burroughs’ spin-doctor from Kansas, from back in the days when they both had worked, at one-time-or-another, at the Gotham Book Mart.
Then we learned that we had crossed paths at the St-Marks Bar & Grill, when Tony was starting to succeed in art, tripping with Harry Smith and Allen Ginsberg, and I was doing that one last trip, before going off to Paris, and meeting Foucault at the library, and Maurice Girodias with the neighbours.
I had even stayed at the old YMCA, across the street from the Chelsea Hotel, when Tony, Harry and Corso all lived there.
(I didn’t have enough money for the Chelsea).
We both had kids.
My son was turning ‘one’ the next week.
Tony’s children had children.
In less than 15 minutes, we knew a whole bunch of stuff.
We even both agreed that this actual old-hotel-now-a-youth-hostel might have been the one-and-the-same hotel where Neal Cassady dropped off Jack and Luanne, after that cross-country trip recounted in ‘On the Road’ and ‘Visions of Cody”.
So then we decided to walk out to North Beach, Tony knew it well from living here before.
I loved North Beach, since adventuring there a couple of days before.
For some unknown reason, I had a packed an Adidas track-suit top with me – something I hadn’t worn since I was in university - in any case, I dressed down, and Tony and I headed out.
He wore what looked like a brakeman’s cap.
Passing through Union Square, detailing our lives as we walked along Montgomery Street, swinging past the TransAmerica Pyramid, crossing the border from the Financial District to North Beach, Tony and I kept each other enthralled with the scope and intensity of our respective endeavours.
It wasn’t one-upmanship…
I think we both had just never met someone like each other.
(If you don’t mind my saying so…).
Then before we hit where Montgomery segues out to Columbus Avenue, an Econoline van pulled over to the curb, as we were walking on the sidewalk, and a guy in the passenger seat rolled down his window and waved us over.
He was holding some sort of long-thin book, or a pamphlet, half out the window.
As Tony and I walked over, he asked if we could give him some directions.
He handed me the book.
I had just started wearing eyeglasses to read and, holding the book out at arms-length, tried to see what he had passed to me.
Turning the book over to the cover, I laughed.
Its title was something like: “The Beats’ Guide to San Francisco.”
I said: “Hey Tony, this is too funny. They are looking for the apartment where Neal Cassady and Carolyn lived on Russian Hill.”
The girl who was driving asked, as Tony and I broke up laughing: “What’s so funny?”
When I told her that Tony and I had just met, and that we had spent the last hour sharing our Jack Kerouac stories, and his Gregory Corso and my William Burroughs stories, it was all-too-hilarious to top it off with their Neal Cassady pilgrimage – Ha, ha.
She whipped out a business card, lent across to the passenger’s window, and, as she handed me the card, asked: “Can we interview you?”
Taken aback, I looked at Tony.
The guy in the van said: “You will have to sign a release.”
Then they explained that they worked for Francis Ford Coppola.
He was producing a feature film from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and the director, Walter Salles, who directed ''The Motorcycle Diaries," has a documentary about Kerouac in the works, to go along with the feature film.
Laughing, we both said “Sure, why not,” and then the back and side doors of the van burst open.
A guy with a boom microphone, and another with a tripod and a camera, came jumping out onto the sidewalk.
Within seconds, the original guy and girl informed us that they didn't know how Salles would use the footage, but they would like to take turns filming and recording us.
The idea was that while one of us recorded a story about “On the Road,” the novel, and our relationship to it, the other would be filmed for about 10 minutes, in a full body direct shot, not moving, or trying not to, and not smiling, or trying not to, so that the images could later be “voice-over-ed” into the movie.
For the next 45 minutes, we filmed on the street, me telling a story about first reading Kerouac after having already read and met Burroughs.
It was when I lived in the Yukon, and worked at a North Face shop, which served as a sort of headquarters for wilderness guides, when we weren’t on canoe trips or helicopter skiing.
I had Mondays off and used to go to an abandoned cabin, looking out on the water, downriver from Whitehorse.
It was an enchanting spot, on the trail to the flats where the first nations lived, and I used to spend the day reading, while waiting for Indians to come and trade me mason jars of porcupine quills for bungee cords, or pieces of fur for strips of Velcro.
That’s where I first read “On the Road.”
Kerouac was telling the same stories that I had read about in Burroughs.
It was an amazing literary feat, from my perspective, and I was more than inspired.
I started to dream of heading south, when my time would finally come to leave the Yukon, and hitchhiking a big ‘U Turn,’ heading down to Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, L.A, and San Diego, then making my way across to New Orleans and Jacksonville, before heading back north to NYC and Boston, and then returning to Montreal.
Later, when I finally did start that trip, heading south from the Yukon, I made a left turn at Vancouver and never did make it to California…
Until this trip, 25 years later, where I meet Tony the Artist and get the chance to be interviewed for an eventual film celebrating Jack Kerouac.
Tony told them about a party in the Lower East Side where a group of them were reading aloud sections of “On the Road,” and it ended up becoming an orgy.
We were all excited when everything was over, and the girl and guy and their crew packed up, telling us they were going to the airport and flying to Santa Monica.
With the business card contact details, they told us we could always follow up, and we all said good bye, hugging and laughing and feeling so fine, like there was something incredible we had just accomplished.
When only Tony and I were left, we crossed over to Columbus Avenue.
I kept telling Tony there was something familiar about the name of the company on the business card.
We continued laughing and saying this was quite wonderful and totally fit with how we both lived, and, somehow, our “Jack Kerouac connection.”
Farther up Columbus, we could see Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore.
Then we walked up beside the green ”triangle building,” that looked so good juxtapositioned against the TransAmerica Pyramid, when I had been visiting North Beach a couple of days before.
“Look at that Tony,” I said.
On the black awnings for the restaurant on the ground floor of the fantastic green ”triangle building” was written “Zoetrope.”
At the very “point” of the triangle, there was a long red plaque announcing that this was the historic ‘Sentinel Building,’ home of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope.
An uncle Coppola ran the restaurant.
We asked a black girl passing by to take our picture, with Tony and me standing on either side of the plaque, and holding out the business card.
This day started our relationship.
We had supper, bought pastries in an Italian bakery, eventually made out way back to the youth hostel, spoke into the night, said our farewells when I took off the next morning, my suit back on, with plans to lunch in Big Sur.
There are 45 months more of stories that Tony and I would share.
Some of them as intense as this first day we met.
Tony passed away last Friday or Saturday, we're not sure.
His caretaker found him Monday morning, and he had already passed for some time the police said.
In August, Walter Salles will start directing the film version of “On the Road.”
He has the guy from the Joy Division movie, and the girl from the Twilight films, who also played the Runaway, starring, and shooting starts here in Montreal, if you can believe it, before moving on to New Orleans and Mexico.
I can’t wait to see the documentary.