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In 1953, Beat writer Jack Kerouac lived pensive times in San Luis Obispo

Seventy years ago, one of the most famous writers of the 20th century — Jack Kerouac — lived in San Luis Obispo, but few locals knew of him then.

Nobody in San Luis Obispo, maybe not even Kerouac himself, could have imagined the fame that would come to him later.

Kerouac, along with writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, was at the center of the Beat movement. The author of “On the Road,” “The Dharma Bums” and “The Subterraneans” would have turned 95 this month if his life hadn’t been cut short at age 47 after years of heavy drinking.

Some credit the Beats with setting the stage for the hippie movement, which Ginsberg embraced. Kerouac, however, distanced himself from the antiwar protests and openly criticized them before his death in 1969 while living in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he was a high school football star. He lived in New York in his 20s as he started focusing seriously on his writing career, and then began his travels.

In the spring of 1953, Kerouac came to San Luis Obispo to earn money as a railroad brakeman, according to his writings and the biography “Kerouac” by Paul Maher Jr.

That historical trivia tends to fascinate local Kerouac fans, said Pete Kelley, a researcher for the History Center of San Luis Obispo County.

“He hadn’t published his famous books yet,” Kelley said. “‘He did a lot of odd jobs, but he was continually writing. It’s hard to say how long he was here, but it likely was not more than a few months or so.”

Although Kerouac had already written his most famous novel by that time, the manuscript wasn’t published as “On the Road” until 1957. Depicting free-spirited and hard-partying characters as they traveled across North America, “On the Road” earned Kerouac commercial success and literary fame as other key writers of the Beat Generation also rose to prominence in the 1950s, including Ginsberg, Burroughs and poet Gregory Corso.

According to his biography, Kerouac met with a literary agent in New York in February 1953, and soon afterward he came west to work for the railroad in California. The biography dates Kerouac’s stay in San Luis Obispo specifically as April and May of 1953 immediately before he took a job at sea working on a freighter.

According to the New York Public Library’s timeline of Kerouac’s work, he wrote “Maggie Cassidy” and “The Subterraneans” in 1953, though they were published later, meaning he could have been working on them in San Luis Obispo.

While he was in San Luis Obispo, Kerouac lived in the Colonial Hotel for $6 per week.

San Luis Obispo was then an agricultural town with a population of about 14,000 people. Cal Poly was still an all-male university. Kerouac embraced the town’s isolation from big-city life.

“He wrote about going down to the creek by the Mission and trying to score pot in one of his sketches,” Kelley said. “‘Dharma Bums’ starts out with a guy talking about hopping a freight to San Luis Obispo. (Kerouac) wrote poems about working on the railroad in San Luis Obispo and one about Avila Beach. He even talked about moving his mom to San Luis Obispo, which he never did.”

Letter to his mother

Staying at the Colonial Hotel, on April 25, 1953, Kerouac wrote a six-page letter to his mother, Gabrielle, in New York, with whom he was extremely close.

The auction house Sotheby’s posted snippets of the original note online. The letter sold for $8,538, according to the site.

“I’m in San Luis Obispo,” he wrote, according to the truncated Sotheby’s post. “I won’t make much more than $80 this end-of-the-month but things will start rolling in May, and by Christmas I’ll have $2,000 saved, or bust.”

The letter continues: “The best idea I think will be for us to start in a trailer, for about a year, till we get a start. … One thing sure, — California is beautiful and ideal and will be our home. … Ma, I have a great little hotel room, $6 a week; I cook steaks, eggs, toast, coffee. … The sun is warm, the birds sing in my window; at night I curl up & get a good sleep to the tune of crickets. You haven’t lived till you’ve lived in California.”

The New York Public Library houses a collection of Kerouac’s works and literary materials and has a copy of the letter. The library wouldn’t release the letter without permission from a representative of Kerouac’s literary estate, who didn’t return requests for permission. It was later learned that the estate representative had died and the request for permission couldn't be processed by the print deadline of this article.

But Mary Catherine Kinniburgh, literary manuscripts specialist at the Berg Collection, summarized its contents by email.

Kerouac “notes that San Luis Obispo will have two television stations coming in the following two months,” Kinniburgh wrote, and he described San Luis Obispo’s peaceful mountain setting close to the ocean and a hotel with a mountain view. He had a severe nasal infection but seemed upbeat.

“He invites his mother to visit for the Fourth of July” and talked about “how California is rejuvenating him,” Kinniburgh said. “He asks about personal news and requests her to mail a letter to his agent.”

The return address for the letter was 103 Santa Barbara St., which no longer exists.

But through research of directories and phone books with former New Times reporter Kylie Mendonca, who wrote eloquently about Kerouac’s stay in 2009, Kelley was able to trace it to the current address of an 18-tenant cooperative living residence known as The Establishment, at 1703 Santa Barbara Ave.

“He definitely lived in what is now The Establishment,” Kelley said.

The SLO experience

Kerouac’s experience in San Luis Obispo quickly changed, however, and he likened it to “a sanitarium,” according to Maher’s biography. His restlessness had him yearning for the “feverish intensities” of San Francisco.

Kerouac’s reference to a sanitarium might have come from an actual sanitarium facility that existed across the street from his hotel room. Kelley operated the former Pete’s Southside Cafe in the area for many years on nearby Osos Street, and the “sanitarium” sign on the building was preserved long after the facility shut down.

“Now it’s a sorority house,” Kelley said. “But it was an old state-run sanitarium.”

Working for the railroad as a brakeman was a dangerous, physically taxing job that required workers to be outside applying brakes on cars. Kerouac’s duties involved safely ushering trains down the Cuesta Grade, which he alluded to in a poem.

“It was a rough, rough life,” said Brad LaRose, president of the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum. “The work was outside, in the elements, and it was easy to slip. Brakemen were responsible for uncoupling the cars and operating the handles on the switches. It was probably the roughest job on the train.”

In his “Book of Sketches,” a collection of writings from 1952-57, Kerouac penned a sketch about Avila Beach: “I hear propellers of the big Union oil tanker warping in at pier — A great lost rock sits upended on the skeely sand — Who the f--- cares.”

He also composed another on the San Luis Obispo mountains behind “big engine 3669,” where the young firemen of California wait to make the hill “up to the bleakmouth panorama plateau of Margarita.”

Eventually, Kerouac suffered from a “lack of weed that left him uninspired and disinterested in his work” that began to take its toll on him in San Luis Obispo, according to Maher’s biography.

But for a brief period in his often restless and meandering life, Kerouac enjoyed San Luis Obispo and “slept soundly to the pulsing chorus of crickets. He felt good. He felt revitalized,” Maher wrote.

A contemplative poem, apparently from a day spent in town, reads, “I am now going out to meditate in the grass of San Luis Creek & talk to hoboes & get some sun & worry about where my soul is going & what to do & why.”

Locals talk Kerouac

As a way to celebrate the Kerouac tradition at the “The Establishment,” building tenant and artist Tony Girolo painted a portrait of the famous writer that hung temporarily on the wall.

Girolo has read several Kerouac books and believes the Kerouac tradition is a part of the lore of The Establishment, which dates back to the 1880s when the rooming house was The Call Building, according to the 1972 publication “Discovering San Luis Obispo County.” In its early history, the old hotel building was rolled on logs from downtown on Monterey Street to its current location to attract business from the train station. Later, it became “Park View Rooms.”

Tenants of The Establishment aren’t sure which room Kerouac occupied, though they suppose it’s upstairs because of clear views of the mountains from the second story.

“Kerouac’s presence is still there, in a way,” Girolo said. “He had an interest in intellectual and artistic ideas, and he went against the mainstream. That fits with the current culture of the house.”

Mendonca, a former tenant in The Establishment, now a Cal Poly graduate student in botany, said that it was a rumor among friends that Kerouac had lived in town, though they debated whether it was the nearby Alano Club or The Establishment.

“I was never that into Kerouac because I think his writing is more guy stuff,” Mendonca said. “But I wanted to nail it down, and so with Pete Kelley’s help, we were able to verify it. I learned a ton about Kerouac, about San Luis Obispo and about The Establishment.

“When hippies and artists first moved into the building many years ago, it became ‘The Establishment’ as a kind of play on the ‘Anti-Establishment’ way of life. Kerouac, too, was part of the fringe,” Mendonca said.

Notable Jack Kerouac publications

  • “The Town and the City,” 1950
  • “On the Road,” 1957
  • “The Subterraneans,” 1958
  • “The Dharma Bums,” 1958
  • “Mexico City Blues” (poetry), 1959
  • “Doctor Sax,” 1959
  • “Book of Dreams,” 1960
  • “Big Sur,” 1962
  • “Visions of Gerard,” 1963
  • “Visions of Cody,” 1972
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