“By this time, from the cold of Bretagne, I got big flannel shirt on now, with scarf inside collar, no shave, pack silly hat away into suitcase, close it again with teeth and now, with my Air France return ticket to Tampa Florida I’se ready as the fattest ribs in old Winn Dixie, dearest God.”
(Jack Kerouac, Satori in Paris, 1966)
When I was an undergrad studying English at the University of South Florida in Tampa during the early 1990s, my favorite professor was a poet and actor named Kelly Reynolds. The first course I took with Kelly was a night class on Contemporary World Fiction and among the books he assigned was Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Kelly’s passion for the work of Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (he called Ginsberg “a visionary” one night in class) resonated immediately with me. I soon befriended Kelly and would often stop by his office in Cooper Hall to talk about literature and ask him questions about the Beat Generation writers.
In the late 1950s, when Kelly was a young actor living in New York City he had befriended Kerouac, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. It was through Kelly that I found out about Kerouac’s later years across the bay in St. Petersburg. Thanks in part to Kelly, I ended up studying with Ginsberg briefly at Naropa University in Boulder, CO during the summer of 1993, at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Ginsberg mentioned Kerouac in his lectures, praising his discipline as a writer who wrote nearly every single day of his adult life.
A few years ago, while visiting my family in Clearwater, FL for Christmas I decided to take the 15-minute drive down to North St. Pete and check out Kerouac’s house, which today is owned by his brother-in-law and literary executor John Sampas. I've passed by there a couple times since then, the most recent just a month ago. I went with an old friend of mine who also grew up in the Tampa Bay area but who had never been to see the house.
(Photo: Joe Morris)
My friend Joe and I drove down from Clearwater and snapped a few photos of the place. It still looks pretty much the way it would have back in 1968, the year Kerouac bought the house. It’s a typical suburban Florida house on a quiet street, like thousands of others around it, but for Joe and I that afternoon it was like paying a visit to Kerouac himself, an exciting few minutes of time travel back to the late sixties. As we walked around the house snapping photos with our phones, I kept expecting Kerouac to step out onto the porch and ask us what the hell we were doing on his lawn.
In March of 2013, the Tampa Bay Times published an article about the house (“Glimpse inside the St. Petersburg home where Jack Kerouac lived”) and John Sampas allowed the newspaper to take photos of the inside, which pretty much remains the same as when Kerouac died in 1969. The article also mentions the Flamingo Sports Bar, a nondescript locale a couple blocks away that Kerouac frequented.
After seeing Kerouac’s house, Joe and I headed over to the Flamingo to check the place out. We sat there for about an hour and took the time to soak in the atmosphere. It's one of the few bars today where you can still smoke, with pool tables and dartboards in the front and back rooms.
(Photo: Joe Morris)
Several years ago, the bar received permission from the Kerouac Estate to put up a large photo of Kerouac at the front entrance of the bar and to sell T-shirts with his image on it. The best homage to Kerouac at the Flamingo, however, might be the “Jack Kerouac” special: “Shot and Beer $2.25.” No one else in the bar seemed to know or care who Kerouac was except for the bartender, who had read On the Road and told us that his readers come in every once and a while asking about him.
Kerouac’s years in St. Pete were probably the worst in his life. He was drinking himself to death and feeling disconnected from his readers among the sixties counterculture, who looked up to him as a role model. I couldn't help feeling sad when visiting his house and the Flamingo, thinking about his depressing later years and his early death from alcoholism at age 47. By the time he was living in that house, he was hardly writing at all and St. Pete at the time must have been a relatively boring place to live.
I haven’t seen Kelly in years, but in 2007 he was interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times regarding his friendship with Kerouac (“Witnesses to a legend: Jack Kerouac”). Kelly moved back to his hometown of Bradenton, FL, just outside Tampa Bay, in the late 1960s but never had a chance to see Kerouac before his death. Kelly’s passionate advocacy for Kerouac in that first class I had with him at USF inspired me to take the legendary poet and novelist seriously, beyond his fame and notoriety. Stopping by his former home, the only house he ever bought in his life, and having a drink at the Flamingo last December were a chance for me to honor a writer whose work has accompanied me for over two decades now.
At Naropa in the summer of 1993, Ginsberg handed out copies to his students of his “Mind Writing Slogans,” a list of quotations and epigrams that he used as the syllabus for his class. One of these by Kerouac that I think of as I write this post is: “Details are the Life of Prose.” The details of Kerouac’s house in St. Pete and the Flamingo Sports Bar take on a richer meaning for me when I think of his time in those places. Neither of them is discussed very much by Kerouac scholars, since they’re relatively minor locations. But their obscurity is what gives them a certain mundane aura that I appreciate. They humanize Jack Kerouac and provide me with a direct conduit to his everyday life.