When I was 18 a friend took me to a block party where I didn’t know anyone. I spent the weekend with the hosts older brother, and while everyone around us did keg stands, jumped in the pool, and ran through the streets, we drank High Life, chain-smoked, and chatted excitedly about our favorite books, movies, and music. At some point, religion came up, and it turned out we were both raised Christian but, having read Hesse, had also read a bit of Buddhism. He was in his mid-thirties, everyone else roughly my age or a bit older. I fell asleep sitting up in a folding chair in his room, and randomly woke to see him sitting on his bed shooting heroin, alone, the house full of sleeping revelers. I passed out again, only to be awoken a little while later by him thrashing about, wrapped in a chord, a lamp – on – flinging about the room. I got up off the chair and went and slept on the porch.
The next morning, the host and his girlfriend made us all pancakes and the guy I had spent the weekend with stumbled into the kitchen and, bedhead askew, rubbed his eyes, looked right at me, and said “leave this town. Don’t be like us and stay here all your life,” he looked about the room and back to me. “Everyone is going to stay here, but you need to leave.” He went and took a piss, went back to his room, and I never saw him again…but I spent the next year with that command stuck in my mind. Why did he say that?
I didn’t become convinced I had to leave until I was 19 and read Kerouacs “The Dharma Bums.” My friends and I spent our time lurking around town and going into the city, smoking weed and cigarettes and getting drunk 5 nights a week, but by 19 almost everyone I hung out with had started either shooting heroin (some had been for years) or smoking crack. To me, all of this was totally normal, and none of it made me bat an eyelash. I myself rarely dipped my toe in any of the “hard” stuff, though by this point I had tried everything and been taking acid regularly since I was 15. Compared to my friends though, I hardly even *did* drugs.
The local Dunkin Donuts was a way station in our aimless wandering, either to go skateboarding or find a secluded place away from our parents to smoke weed and drink cheap beer. There we would meet up and swap friends – the guys I skated with who didn’t do drugs would change out for the ones who did – and sometimes even do or sell drugs in the empty car lot out back. There were always two guys in the Dunkin Donuts, back in the days when you could smoke inside, sitting in a booth smoking cigs and drinking coffee. One of my friends – the same guy who took me to the block party – befriended them because one of them drew for comic books (the scene from Mall Rats about inkers and pencilers is real). It turns out, while he was sitting there drawing his comics, the other was writing. It also turns out they were homeless alcoholics, drinking brandy in their coffee.
The comic book guy wasn’t real chatty, usually just showed us his work, but the other guy never stopped talking, and he spent a lot of time reading long passages from Kerouac, whom I’d never heard of. I was the only one of my friend who read books, and sometimes I’d sit there and listen to him read after everyone left. He’d read long passages, but often comment only on the prose, which he thought was the best he’d ever read. He would also have me read paragraphs and comment on them, and he’d show me his journal, which was mostly rambling laments about girls who’d broken his heart, but some pages were just handwritten copies of Kerouac passages (he read many other people, but Kerouac is all I remember).
One day, after talking to him about Buddhism, he gave me his copy of Dharma Bums, and told me to read it, and keep it. Which I did. In it, Kerouac and his friends read Buddhist poetry and adopt Buddhist beliefs, roam the streets of San Francisco, bang back and forth from the East Coast (where I lived) to the west, and at the end even climbed a mountain. Its all rather banal now, I know, but at the time I couldn’t fucking believe it. There was a whole world out there, and you could just *go* there and *do* these things. I had never considered it! And neither had any of my friends…except one.
My friend Kyle was so deep into drugs that by the time we all started getting really fucked up, he was already over it. He was from another crew who lived way out in the country, but because he skated he would come to the city, which is where we met. I had only hung out with him a couple times, and he was already smoking meth and crack, and God knows what else, and hanging out with way older guys. Once in a while he would join us and never, ever talk (which the girls loved), except to me. It turned out, he too had read about Buddhism, and had even spent some time at a monastery and had begun meditating. Eventually he took me to his older brothers apartment, where people drank hard liquor, did coke in the open, OD’d on heroin, and had a steady stream of people, including prostitutes, filter through to buy drugs.
One night though, it must’ve been 1 AM (this was before I’d read Dharma Bums), I ran into him on a random corner. He was drinking coffee, staring off into space. “What’re you doing?” I’d asked. At first, he kept staring off and said “Trying to quit smoking cigarettes…” then he looked at me and said “I’m trying to quite everything.” And he did. A few months later he’d moved to San Francisco on a full scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute. He was a painter and wrote plays, and he sent them a bunch of his work and they went crazy for it and invited him out. Right before he left he gave me three pounds of weed he’d had, which he was supposed to sell for his brother, and told me he was off drugs and that if I ever wanted to go to San Francisco, I could stay with him for free.
“Yeah right,” I thought, “I’m just not the type of guy who does that sort of thing.”
Once I’d finished the book though, I was jumping out of my skin to do something, to get out and live like Kerouac had. I called Kyle and told him I wanted to go out there, and he said he’d gotten a job at Greyhound and he could get me a roundtrip ticket for free, which he did. I took a Greyhound across the country and back (that trip alone deserves its own story), skateboarded down all the hills, slept on the beach, hitch-hiked all around northern California, even spent three days in Yosemite. It was there that I had the revelation that I didn’t need drugs. That psychedelics were a lie, and real life was the truth. While that trip started a two-year period of going back and forth across the country and continuing to do psychedelics, that moment stuck with me and was the beginning of the end for my partying.
By the time I was 25 I was on my path to my career and my family, had been with the same girl for three years (a record at the time) and when I tried to read more Kerouac it was nauseating to me, the drinking, the whoring and sleeping around, the general debauchery and disregard for the future. I became disgusted with him, and wrote him off as the one who sent me down the path of degeneracy. It wasn’t until much later, until I was well into my 30’s, that I realized Kerouac wasn’t the one who sent me down my dangerous path, the path that led ALL of my friends – except Kyle, of all people – to jail, rehab, homelessness, alcoholism, or death. *I* was to blame. *I* dove into that world head first because I thought it was cool, because I thought everyone else was boring (they were), and because I didn’t want to miss out on *anything.* I was well along the path to self-destruction to begin with, and Kerouac was the one who pulled me out. I didn’t see it that way at the time though, I saw my rejection of Kerouac as part of my rejection of that entire way of life.
The major reason, I think, that it took me so long to realize what Kerouac had done for me, how he set me straight, was that he himself went into the abyss. I saw him as one of the many fools who believed the lie, who feel victim to the unrestrained search for pleasure, the all-consuming need to make the absolute most out of every single moment. Many of us lived wild lives in our teens and twenties, only to wind up alcoholics in our 30’s. By that time, the romanticism is long gone. Kerouac died of ruptured varicies – the same thing that put Bukowski in intensive care – an affliction unique to liver disease, a disease often caused by alcohol abuse. Kerouac was estranged from his daughter (Bukowski as well) and by the time he’d died he’d been living with his mother for years. In fact, he himself admits he was drinking himself to death because as a Catholic, he was forbidden from committing suicide. He made it well known that, looking back on the cultural movement he created almost single-handedly, he regretted it or, at least, somewhere along the way it had gone very wrong (Jerry Garcia too, is quoted by a journalist as having said “I’m sorry” about inspiring the hippie movement).
I now understand these people – Kerouac, Bukowski, Garcia, Hunter S Thompson – they weren’t victims of nihilism, they weren’t engineers of it either: they were avatars of Vitalism *in the face of nihilism.* Kerouac himself would often characterize his adventures as taking place “in the void,” and at the time I read him, it didn’t resonate with me, I took it as a superficial adoption of Buddhist phrasing. But I understand it now. We, and they, are all wavering over void, its inexorable pull emanating from its invisible maw. We can cower at it, we can ignore it, or we can rage at it. Some can try to crab walk around it, dam it up, or go backwards, but this is all futile coping: the void will swallow them too, and their attempts to subvert it will end up like the baying of slaughtered sows.
No, too many of us will turn away, or run in circles or, worst of all, accept that life has nothing more to offer than what our “leaders” feed us and expect from us: to stay inside and crush your will with your job, technology, and medications. The Avatars of Will among us, like Kerouac, have no choice but to go forward. And in so doing they usher along many of us who see them, the pale Subterraneans, boldly marching toward the void. We abandon our retreat, we forgo our side-stepping; we follow, and along the way we find our own path. But for them, the only end-point is the void. They are the true Icons of our time, they are the altars upon which we lay our sins, the scapegoats who carry our short-comings and weaknesses with them into oblivion…so that we may live as men, and not scurrying things in the shadow of our inferiors.