.Beats Go On

Making connections at Kerouac’s centennial

The unbreakable connections between San Jose, Monte Sereno and North Beach solidified even more on Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday.

Cathy Cassady, whose childhood included a house still standing on Santa Clara Street, recently appeared at the Beat Museum on March 12, along with a slew of wonderfully nefarious characters shuffling in and out, all during the daylong celebration. Poetry, jazz, architecture, Jungian synchronicity and the roles played by women in the Beat Generation took center stage. There was even free pizza.

Neal Cassady, of course, was the chaos agent of the Beat era, yet his wife, Carolyn, never gets enough recognition, which is where daughter Cathy comes in. For years now, Cathy has been elevating her mom’s story in the historical record.

The Cassady family—Neal, Carolyn and the kids—lived on Santa Clara Street in the early ’50s, all of which I have written about in this space. At times, both Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg stayed there. Kerouac, who eventually died at age 47, stole a copy of Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible from the San Jose Public Library, which helped introduce him to the dharma.

Ginsberg was not so lucky. In the process of throwing him out of the house in 1954, Carolyn drove him to San Francisco and dumped him at the Marconi Hotel, which still exists today, kitty-corner from City Lights Bookstore and just across the alley from the Beat Museum. A spiritual connection can be established between San Jose and the intersection of Columbus and Broadway in San Francisco. If I don’t do it, nobody will.

After Santa Clara Street, the Cassadys migrated to Monte Sereno. That house is long gone, but for some reason it gets mentioned in all the folklore much more than the San Jose house ever does.

Nevertheless, it was enlightening to see Cathy Cassady once again wandering around the Beat Museum on what would have been Kerouac’s 100th birthday, admiring pictures of her parents, pointing out her parents’ books, and also hearing stories about Kerouac, who spent so much time at both Cassady homes. 

Kerouac would have loved the synchronicity which then ensued in his memory. At the event, Cathy Cassady was introduced to her second cousin, Michaela, a long-lost family member. Michaela is the granddaughter of Neal Cassady’s sister. The two women, Cathy and Michaela, had never previously met. The coincidence was mind-blowing. Attendees were shaking their heads in disbelief.

But the day wasn’t just about spontaneous family reunions. The event also erupted for the purpose of announcing the vision for a new Beat Museum nearby at 535 Green Street in the old Buon Gusto Building, a legendary North Beach landmark. To make the announcement, Beat Museum honcho Jerry Cimino took the microphone and read a neighborhood passage from Kerouac’s novel Desolation Angels that mentioned the “white ships seen coming in the Golden Gate down below the etched Rimbaud milky rooftops,” and the “great stores like Buon Gusto’s with all the hanging salamis and provelones and assortments of wine, and vegetable bins—and the marvelous oldworld pastry shops—then the view of the tangled wood tenement child-screaming daydrowsy Telegraph Hill.”

Then came the space-age solar duds. Architect Eugene Tssui, one of the Bay Area’s all-time legendary eccentrics, has been tasked with designing a potential new Beat Museum. In addition to exhibit space, the facility might include a café, a bookstore, below-market-rate flats, a community theater and various ecological tricks of the trade, Tssui’s forte for decades. He took the microphone wearing a full-blown solar-powered suit with panels on the shoulders to harness the sun’s energy. It looked straight from Lost in Space. Tssui was also the one who invited Michaela to the event, since they were neighbors.

The meaningful coincidences did not stop there, of course. Also present was Tssui’s wife, Elisabeth Montgomery, who produced a documentary on Beat poet ruth weiss, a spectacular film that screened at Cinequest in 2020, where weiss also received the Maverick Spirit Award. (Full disclosure: I was one of the poets on the bill for that event.) 

Sadly, weiss passed away later that summer at age 92. She lived almost twice as long as Kerouac. All I can say is, may the Beats continue!

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