By the time this goes up on the Tahoma Literary Review blog, by the time you read this, I’ll have left Orlando and the Jack Kerouac House for a road trip across the country. But right now, I am sitting on the porch, Spanish moss swaying from the Live Oak that hangs over Clouser Avenue and my yard. I have just returned from canoeing Wekiva Springs with a poet friend who insists alligators are nothing to fear, a friend who took me paddle boarding with the manatees and dolphins last weekend. We did see alligators while canoeing, and they were indeed something of beauty rather than something to fear, sunning themselves on logs near shore. “They are so small,” I thought, “one alligator would only make for one pair of cowboy boots.”
I have three days left of my three-month residency through the Kerouac Project of Orlando in the house where Kerouac wrote Dharma Bums, the house he was living in the back of, with his mother, when he got word that On the Road would be published. The wall that separated Jack’s small portion of the house no longer exists, and furniture from his St. Pete home is scattered throughout. The living room has blue walls and a crooked mirror, pictures of a young Jack writing at the House, and tacky fish curtains that fit so well with the knickknacks and decorations of Jack’s era. There is a globe and an old Polaroid camera by the door and shelves of books—one entire row devoted to Jack. In the back is a beat up and patched recliner that was his. Volunteers rescued this house when it was ramshackle, about to be bulldozed, and restored it to the comfortable and clean house it is today. A volunteer board keeps Kerouac House running smoothly as four residents come through every year. I am the 51st lucky resident.
Living in Jack’s house has prompted a rereading of a number of his books, and to understand him as something other than the derelict male-chauvinist I’ve long believed he was. I know now that Jack cared deeply for others, which is perhaps most clear in Big Sur as he hopes those around him move forward happy, as he questions whether he has caused anyone pain. He was never satisfied with where he was, always wished to be back somewhere or moving forward to some new place. Even as he jotted down conversations and descriptions—a near constant activity—he felt outside the circle of people he surrounded himself with. He wrote On the Road several times over several years in his notebooks before he sat down for his crazed few weeks typing up the final version on his Underwood. He probably never knew how his work affected people and he certainly never knew how his life and work would become a legacy that would give young writers time and space to write and to live.
I have written a great deal in Kerouac House, but what is as important are the friends I have made, the community I have become a part of. When I arrived, I was surprised to be immediately embraced by a thriving literary scene. I read both my poetry and fiction at events, and hosted readings and gatherings at the House. My farewell reading a few days ago was packed, standing room only. The Kerouac House board member who introduced me did so by making up an outlandish story, as I do for anyone reading with me. My list of thank yous that prefaced the reading was several minutes long. The crowd sipped wine and clapped after almost every poem. A group stuck around after… to sit on the side patio and read poems and sing along to the Cowboy Junkies, Lou Reed, Waylon. This is my Orlando, folks: a city where more than the weather is warm, where writing and reading are imperative, and where friendships are quickly made and long-kept.
What I will miss most is the porch. How many days did I spend writing on this porch? How many afternoons and evenings did I spend on this porch with writers of international note, with emerging writers like myself, with pilgrims (our term for the people who come hoping for a glimpse of Jack’s ghost), with neighbors? All the stories told, tears shed, poems read, and all the countless bottles of wine are forever embedded in the boards. There are so many unforgettable days on this porch. The one when a filmmaker breastfed her baby. The one when a tremendous fiction writer and I sat for ten hours, ordering pizza rather than leaving for even a minute. The quiet rain-swept days and the muggy ones when the shade and the breeze kept me from going inside. This is where all parties began and most ended. This is where I began every day with coffee and my notebook, the sun rising over the trees and the lizards starting to skitter about.
More than any other part of the House, this porch is what I will carry for the rest of my life. I will carry the kindness and spirit of the community and the energy of Jack Kerouac and the 50 residents before me. As I prepare to leave, I do so knowing that my life is richer because of this residency, because of the boundless generosity of so many Orlando folk sharing their lives and work with me, and because someone like Jack Kerouac lived and wrote with everything he had.