The New York Times In America

March 14, 2004

Jack Slept Here: A Kerouac House Attracts Writers and Devotees


ORLANDO, Fla. Deep in the soft suburban night came a pounding at the door, another stranger haunted by Jack Kerouac's language and legend, seeking a glimpse of this unlikely place he called home for a while.

"Is this it? Is this it?"

Believe it or not, it was: a tin-roofed bungalow in a pleasantly bland neighborhood here, with a back-porch apartment where Kerouac wrote, brooded and hid out in the months after his influential novel "On the Road" came out in 1957. The visitor, a Navy man stopping en route to this city's better-known cultural attraction, Disney World, was among dozens who have hunted down the Kerouac home recently, as Orlando has begun promoting it as the city's first literary landmark.

That the King of the Beats, a restless icon of nonconformism, would retreat near the peak of his fame to then-sleepy Central Florida with his aging mother, no less may be hard to fathom. But Kerouac's sister had moved here, and his mother, Gabrielle, wanted to be near her. A devoted son, Kerouac came along, arriving by bus from New York in December 1956.

Now, in the house at 1418 Clouser Avenue where Kerouac's typewriter clattered late into the night, writers from around the world try to channel his manic energy during three-month residencies. He did, after all, write "The Dharma Bums," his follow-up to "On the Road," in a two-week fit of inspiration here in 1957, and a poem called "Orlanda Blues."

Marty Cummins, who owns one of Orlando's only independent bookstores, thought up the writer-in-residence program in 1997, after The Orlando Sentinel ran an article about the house. It had languished in obscurity for decades and was in sorry condition. Bob Kealing, a local television reporter, had discovered it after a friend from Kansas City tipped him off to the fact that Kerouac had lived in Orlando. Mr. Kealing says the Kerouac biographies do not even mention it.

What kind of literary scene exists in this city hemmed in by big-box retail, resort hotels and theme parks? "It's pretty thin," Mr. Cummins said, adding that he had put a restaurant in his shop, Chapters, because nobody was buying the books.

Yet people have been intrigued enough by Orlando's Kerouac connection to help along a nonprofit corporation Mr. Cummins created, the Kerouac Project. Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster, fixtures of the Central Florida landscape, is among the donors who helped save the bungalow from developers. And while Orlando is not Yaddo, Taos or Key West, a steady stream of writers have applied to live on Clouser Avenue.

Ted May, a Chicago native whose residency at the house ended March 5, used his three months to work on a novel and a blues musical. On his last Sunday night here, he gave a reading at Stardust, a local coffeehouse, and was surprised by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd.

"A lot of people have asked me if I want to stay," he said. "Everybody is bending over backwards because they really want authentic people here, they really want to make things happen."

Yet Mr. May had a hard time persuading friends to visit him here, just as Kerouac did. In a 1961 letter to the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kerouac wrote, "On your trip to Taos and New Orleans, why not come to Orlando also and dig crazy Florida scene of spotlessly clean highways and fantastic supermarkets and Cape Canaveral?" Mr. Ferlinghetti declined.

Truth be told, Kerouac himself never stayed here long. There were trips to Mexico, Morocco and New York. After living with his sister for a few months, Kerouac, then 35, persuaded his mother to hop a bus with him to California. But she hated it, and they returned to Orlando in July 1957, renting the bungalow apartment. "On the Road" would be published months later, and Kerouac could have been living large in New York.

Instead, he and his mother lived in Orlando on and off for five years, eventually abandoning the bungalow for a ranch house in a subdivision called Kingswood Manor. Though more famous than ever, he lived there in relative anonymity, enjoying air-conditioning, a reclining chair and other bourgeois amenities but also mocking his surroundings.

"Across the street big boring Americans looking for togetherness," he wrote in a notebook unearthed by Mr. Kealing. "But won't get it from this old seadog."

In a new book, "Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends," Mr. Kealing documents Kerouac's alcoholic decline and his travels back and forth between Florida, Long Island and Massachusetts over the last decade of his life, always with his mother in tow.

Kerouac's final move was to St. Petersburg, on Florida's Gulf Coast, in 1968. He had lived there several years earlier, moved to Massachusetts, then returned at his mother's behest, little resembling the intense young man who wrote like the wind in Orlando. He drank himself to death in St. Petersburg in 1969, at 47. His ghost is said to haunt Haslam's, a bookstore he frequented there.

Orlando has enjoyed more prominence than usual in the Kerouac pantheon this winter: it was the first stop for a traveling exhibit of the 120-foot scroll on which Kerouac wrote "On the Road." The scroll, which will move on to at least 11 other cities over the next four years, is at the Orange County Regional History Center until March 21.

Meanwhile, the trickle of pilgrims here grows. Besides the Navy man, whom he said he did not let in because it was 2:30 a.m., Mr. May met a local grandmother and granddaughter, a father and son from Louisiana and more late-night visitors whose camera flash glinted off the bedroom blinds.

A sign on the door now asks visitors not to disturb the writer in residence. But those who chance to gaze on the tiny bedroom where Kerouac wrote or the stoop where he ate tangerines from backyard trees might experience something strange.

"There's a great concentration of energy in the back of the house," Mr. May said. "I feel him back there; I do."

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