A woman named Magdalen sells me a first-edition Kerouac. It’s Saturday at Portobello Market, and at her stall Magdalen has thick collections of Rimbaud and Cummings, a shelf devoted to the Beats and a Kierkegaard section. It’s the sort of selection I would’ve curated in ninth grade, at the height of my belief that I had been born in the wrong era, before I knew what it really would’ve been like to be the woman riding shotgun with the Kerouac gang as they bulleted across America, getting their kicks. Magdalen has ruddy cheeks, and wears mittens in the April afternoon. What she sells me is Mexico City Blues: 242 Choruses. “It’s lovely,” she assures me. I buy it, and promise to bring my friends back to the bookstall. “We used to have a shop but we couldn’t pay rent,” Magdalen tells me. I love her name so I say “I’m sorry to hear that, Magdalen.”
The book is wrapped in plastic since this edition is considered “rare.” On the bus ride home I open it and see an inscription in black ink, half-bleeding onto the front page — there’s no way to express the things I’d like to say… so I’ll just have to leave it at this: ORANGE. The poems mention that things like the self depends on the existence of other/self and The Great Vehicle Being. There are cheap rhymes: the decay is slow — /children grow. “Mexico City Blues” was a hard collection for Kerouac to get published after the success of On the Road. It’s a lyrical, pseudo-Buddhist argument against permanence, riddled with proper-noun references to his poetic contemporaries like Corso and Ginsberg. In a 1959 review of the collection in the Times, poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote, “The naive effrontery of this book is more pitiful than ridiculous. Mr. Kerouac’s Buddha is a dime-store incense burner, glowing and glowering sinisterly in the dark corner of a Beatnik pad and just thrilling the wits out of bad little girls.” On the bus, the collection feels thick in my hands like all books feel when you just buy them, heavy with what they might show you. The bus takes forever, circling around Hyde Park. I want to tell it to run the red lights. Circle around and around, an endless loop, while I read the poems. They’re not good, but somewhere inside me my fourteen-year-old self shivers.
In the flat that night I thumb through the pages. I tell my flatmate Julia that his poetry isn’t like his prose, his prose is electric. I tell her about reading On the Road on a train ride up to Boston one winter. Julia says she’s never read it. I tell her that Kerouac went on all these mad adventures with mad people, then when he felt done with his travels he sat down at his parents’ house, threaded a long scroll of paper into his typewriter, and wrote it all down over three weeks in one long paragraph. It was 1951. Kerouac added paragraphs and changed the names of characters for its publication in 1957, but the energy of that one long scroll is still packed in there. It’s packed in all the times the cars hug the white dotted highway lines, in all the times he spends his last dollars on whiskey, in the tragic western dust. I find the novel online. “You have to hear this,” I tell Julia. We drink red wine from water glasses as I read the opening chapter aloud to give her a sense of Kerouac’s rhythm, the prose that snatches you into the passenger seat, exalting and implicating you. I get to the end of the chapter and look up at her. “Let’s just read it all,” she says, so we do. We recline on opposite twin beds and I read it aloud. My blinds are open. From outside you hear the man who plays bagpipes on Edgware Road, the bass thumping from cars stopped at red lights, the sirens. Life hums against the glass, and we hum back in our quiet little way.
The book’s shorter than I remember, the prose more stark and sparing. Sal Paradise whiplashes from Jersey to Denver to Frisco and back, leaving people behind, always at the fringes. Julia gets sadder and sadder. “Why does nobody like him?” she asks. I have no answer so I say, “I know.” Seventy pages in I think maybe there’s something wrong. There’s supposed to be a baby by now, but we’ve met no baby. The characters have gone so many places but haven’t moved. Reading it is like falling into a dark cave. It’s hollowing me out. The sounds of the cars on the street start to chip away at me like ice. “Hold on,” I say, then look the book up on Wikipedia. It’s supposed to be 320 pages, not 93. We’ve spent almost two hours reading an abridged version. I slam my laptop shut, my throat hoarse from all that reading. Julia says, “I hate the Internet.” But it’s pretty funny, in the end.
In London if you feel like you want to go somewhere you can nip off to the pub. Our generation’s road trip is the Internet, the stark, isolated version that some asshole cut down for digital publication without any forewarning. We can emerge from hours in our bedrooms, then blink out blearily into the hallway light as if no time had passed at all. My eyes hurt from reading from the screen, so we kick against the Internet and head down the street to our “local pub,” The Chapel, which we’ve only actually been to three times over the course of the semester. Julia and I order pints then sit across from each other on the outside terrace, listening to a group of Frenchmen who have gathered around the center heat lamp in off-brand business suits. When they leave we notice they’ve left behind a backpack. Julia picks it up and goes after them. They look at her for a moment, then one notices the pack. “Ah! Un sac!” Once they’re gone we stay outside for a while longer, until the bartender comes out for a cigarette. Julia bums one. His name’s Nick and he’s nineteen, younger than us, not quite young enough for me to say unironically, you’re just a kid!, but I do anyway. Nick lives upstairs with his family. “But on Friday I go back to Greece,” he explains. “I have to do military service.”
“You’re going to the army? This Friday?”
He nods gravely. “Yes.” Tattoos up his arms, hand-rolled cigs, slouchy pants, beanie. He’s got the grungy give-no-fucks aesthetic down pat.
I lean forward. “Are you scared?”
He shrugs. “I haven’t thought about it.”
On the way out Julia and I leave our phone numbers and tell him to come out with us the next night, which pleases him. We take sambuca shots with him and his manager, on the house, as a goodbye, almost like a thank you. Julia and I sing back down the street to the flat. He doesn’t come out with us. But after that we take to remembering him. “I wonder how Nick’s doing,” we’ll say.
At Indaba, the yoga studio five minutes away in Marylebone, there’s a shelf of yogic books. It’s mostly nonfiction and coffee table books with photographs of people in impossible bendy positions. After yin yoga one night Julia and I drink tea in the lobby. They have Kerouac on the shelf, under “Fiction.” I pick up On the Road. “Look,” I say. “He was a Buddhist for a while.” I hand it to Julia. She thumbs through its pages then says, “Wow, can you believe it only takes two hours for us to read this whole thing aloud?”
Sara Luzuriaga | firstname.lastname@example.org .