“He had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because
there was nowhere to go but everywhere.”—Jack Kerouac
The first time I stepped foot into downtown St. Petersburg, I felt a sense of sadness wash over me. A reminiscent sadness probably brought on by the old buildings and the quaint sleepiness of a town that begs to be ignored. Who knew that a place with the most consecutive days of sunshine could be haunted by such a pervading sense of gloom. It’s no coincidence that legendary beat author Jack Kerouac spent his final days here remaining true to his nonchalant statement that St. Petersburg is “a good place to come die”.
Every local business that Kerouac frequented during his time in St. Petersburg has become a historical landmark in a sense, bringing members of the community together to reminisce about the nondescript writer as they remember him when he walked the streets of St. Petersburg in the late 60’s. Jack Kerouac was one of the most influential writers in the U.S. in the 1950’s with a modern writing style that was unfamiliar to people of his era. The majority of his books are biographical, based on his actual journeys through the states and written in choppy, fragmented sentences.
Kerouac’s pieces describe rushed experiences during his travels and random social encounters that tantalize readers with the false promise of finality but rarely reach a grand moral conclusion. His books tell of young people, eager to soak up as much of the world as possible, living for the thrill of the ride. Kerouac used the term “Beat” in conversations with his friends and fellow writers, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to refer to the concept of living solely for ecstasy and adrenaline. Soon the term "Beat” caught on and it wasn’t long before the popular author was deemed the father of the Beat Generation.
The writer’s well-known book, On the Road which chronicles the cross-country journey of several carefree men reflected Kerouac’s actual nomadic lifestyle. Before moving to St. Petersburg to live out what were once referred to as his “melancholy years”, Kerouac traveled from Lowell, Massachusetts to various places in the U.S. ranging from San Francisco, California to North Port, Long Island to Mexico City. But of all the cities Jack Kerouac frequented, St. Petersburg is the place he stayed longest.
In an interview with St. Petersburg Times, Dale Nichols, owner of local bar, The Flamingo where the author could be found playing pool with buddies while downing shots and a beer wash on a daily basis, told interviewers that he had the pleasure of playing pool with Kerouac regularly and once smoked a joint in the back of Nichols car, a memory he will surely never forget. Owners of The Flamingo go so far as to say that this is the bar where Kerouac had his last drink a questionable claim but one that brings college students, and Kerouac lovers from all over the world to sit at the only remaining bar in St. Petersburg where Kerouac once sat.
The Flamingo isn’t the only place with fond memories of Kerouac. A paranormal investigation unit in St. Pete called SPIRITS claims to have communicated with his ghost that was said to be inhabiting Tampa bookstore Haslam’s where the author went weekly to read. Investigators say the ghost looked to be a middle aged man with graying hair and an unmistakable nose that resembled Kerouac’s. Carl Adkins, a St. Petersburg local and Jack’s pool hall friend said Kerouac once aired his frustrations to him about his lack of genuine success in the writing field, saying "All the rich kids buy J.D. Salinger in hardback, and what do I get? Bums like you buy one paperback for half a buck and then let ten of your friends read it".
Back then Kerouac probably would’ve never guessed that 60,000 copies of his novel On The Road would be sold each year up to this day, or that the worth of his literary archive would soar to over ten million dollars after his death. Kerouac’s ordinary one story St. Petersburg home on Tenth Avenue North caused major upheaval in the typically quaint Pinellas County as his friends and family scrambled to get their hands on his remaining possessions all of which tripled in value more than twenty years after the writer’s death.
Though he died poor, to say that Kerouac became rich after death would be an understatement. Reported in the St. Petersburg Times, his raincoat was sold to Johnny Depp for fifteen thousand dollars and eighteen thousand dollars was paid by Levi Strauss just to use his name to advertise their jeans. The once peaceful life Kerouac led in St. Petersburg became a spectator sport in which a high bid was paid for what little he owned down to the wooden desk in his room. A purchase invoice shared in court regarding the legalities of Kerouac’s 20 million dollar St. Petersburg estate lists the authors suitcase sold for $2,000; a letter to friend, Neal Cassidy sold for $5,000 and a cancelled check made out to a liquor store was sold for as much as $350 dollars. The troubling part of the money war to occur in Pinellis County over every one of Kerouac’s belongings is that the author showed no real desire for materialistic things and was ultimately unconcerned about what money could buy him. In his best pieces Kerouac’s characters are poor and jobless and find satisfaction in life itself.
Kerouac died in St. Anthony’s Hospital in 1969 at the young age of 47, a death that was said to be the result of excessive alcohol consumption which eventually took a toll on his liver. However, in recent years his cause of death has been questioned when taken into consideration that Kerouac got badly beaten in a bar brawl at St.Petersburg’s, The Cactus, two weeks before his demise. He never sought treatment from the hospital and even wrote to a friend two days after the incident that his wounds were affecting him badly and went on to describe his poor physical condition at the time.
Whether the stories circulating in St. Petersburg about the life of Jack Kerouac are fact or fable, one thing is certain, his death unified the city through a sharing of memories that celebrate the legendary writer. St. Petersburg locals who recall meeting the author describe his sarcastic sense of humor, understated presence and that unmistakable friendly disposition; they all describe the same humbled man. Kerouac’s name can still be found in the city directory of 1970 and his house looks the same way it did when he bought it in the late 1960’s. He found eternal peace in the small city, the exact thing he sought to find in moving to Florida. Regardless of the death that occurred several decades ago, all through St. Pete Jack Kerouac’s presence is felt. As poet Jack Micheline once put it when recalling the literary genius Jack Kerouac, “he wanted to take the pain out of the world-- No one can do that”.
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JMedvetz on August 14, 2012:
Awesome article, very interesting!