Dharma Bums

We are in the hall of the New York Public Library with the exhibit of Jack Kerouac’s typewritten scroll for “On the Road,” and after gazing over the scroll for about an hour, I am ready to look at other items on view.

Most of my time was spent looking at pages for “Some of the Dharma,” his creative exploration of Buddhist thought … it’s more than 400 pages of haikus, poems, long paragraphs of essay-type observations that’s inscrutable and dare I say, nearly unreadable, but I’ve done my best. There were the pages, typed by his own hands.

For years now I’ve been reading Jack Kerouac’s letters (both volumes), journals, even his “Book of Dreams,” along with the autobiographical “Lonesome Traveler.” I’ve always felt connected with Kerouac, as if he were a member of my family, say on the Hines side, or maybe a moonshiner on the Blackburn side. Maybe because he lived in Rocky Mount for a time … or, because of the compulsive list-making, his French-speaking, his hungry-for-life inner engine, the sense of sadness he never could shake … from the first time I opened “On the Road” in 1981 I felt I knew him, felt a kinship with him.

Several years ago, I was writing poetry on long rolls of newsprint I got from the newspaper where I worked, before I knew he wrote his novel on a scroll. I can deeply understand wanting to write and write, without interruption, without physical breaks in the paper-road.

Somehow seeing his own scroll, and all those notebooks and sketches, was a validation that I’m not totally alone in some of the ideas I have for writing.

I must say, though, Kerouac was an incredibly hard worker. You can’t help realizing it after you’ve seen this exhibit, which was really just a fraction of his ideas, notebooks, paintings and sketches. He studied all the classic writers — Dostoyevsky was among his favorites, but he read the British as well — and did it on his own, often while holding down demanding jobs on ships, with the Merchant Marines, and later as a railroad brakeman.

While I feel close to him through some invisible writer-ties, I am humbled by the focus, diligence and imagination he brought to his work. In that respect, I must still earn my family crest.

AHEAD: Chinatown!

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