back to the Black Table

 "I think, dear Jack, weíve underestimated money. I predict a lucrative year for me, since Iím goiní to make money one object of this yearís struggle."

— Neal Cassady, in a letter to Jack Kerouac

* * * *

I have recently begun reading Off the Road, the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady, where she tells in unrelenting detail tales of life with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg in their prime, when their chief objective was ripping shit up, putting it back together, tearing it down again, and then gracefully elucidating the glory of it all just when they were about to become too insufferable to withstand any longer. Itís a fascinating book, not just because of her observations — as the most lucid, sane pseudo-participant, which was no great feat really — but also to see how the trio was a pack, the boys, like-minded in the important ways, fundamentally distinct in the tragic ones. The three of them pushed each other, farther, into the gorgeous nether of madness and chaos and beauty, and back again. They were each otherís muses, and burdens, and inspirations, and anchors. They struggled together. And it seems like they never really questioned themselves. They did, because they must.

Thereís something wonderful about the notion of a pack, particularly for us literary folks. Who among us has not felt that our friends, ourselves included, are somehow the most enthralling people on the planet whose peculiarities and eccentricities must be chronicled for future generations to understand and appreciate? This is why we have friends. Theyíre interesting. I have met people in this world whom I would have thought it impossible to exist in real life. And yet, there they are.

These are the people we want to throw all caution to the proverbial wind with, the people with whom we just want to go hop in a car and do something crazy. We just want to experience life with them, record their perceptions, expand on our own, try to make some sense of this constant pandemonium that swirls endlessly, find the absolute peace and splendor we all perceive is out there, somewhere, somehow, it has to be, right? And we love people just as nutty as us. People who see the world the way we do; as scary, beautiful, enchanting, aloof, full of awe, something to be tackled and dealt with, however we deem fit.

God I love these friends. Something about them makes me feel like Iím a part of something bigger than myself, that we are a troupe, that we are sages, seeing the world like no one else does. Iíve had many of them over the years, and just thinking of them gets me fired up. Itís the one aspect all my friends have in common; they are all seekers. They are introspective, questioning, inspiring, alive. They are wild bulls of souls, unleashed, rampaging onward, trying to find the meaning, the truth.

But I am romanticizing them, I realize now. They were all those things. They are all those things. But they are not just all those things. They are real people. At the end of the day, Neal Cassady had to make a living. We live in a different time now. My friends are not in college anymore. They are grownups. They are married, or they are getting married, or they are worried about the mortgage, or the direction and fiscal security of the company. I blinked, and they all became regular folk. Somewhere down the line, they saw where they fit in in the universe, and they adjusted accordingly. They saw one path leading to mental destruction, and they chose the other, healthy, wise one. It is to be a visionary to question this whole existence; it is to be an adult to shut up about it and make sure the bills are paid and the trains run on time.

And I am out there, adrift, wondering which way to go.

Can I simply be? I wrote an email to a group of friends the other day, one of those impersonal, hey-look-you-were-included-on-my-close-friend-list type of things. It was a pithy little comment on how I was doing something particularly domesticated that evening, full of self-mocking and look-at-what-itís-come-to faux irony. One friend responded to the list saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I was right, Will had become a blissful little suburbanite, heís going ice skating and cooking and watching the Olympics and buying Nike and voting Republican and laughing with Katie Couric and all the things youíre not supposed to do if youíre the plucky outsider doggedly resisting social mores. It was funny and played into my joke. Another friend responded to him, hitting a little closer to home.

(Iím paraphrasing) ďWhich do you think Will likes more? Being domesticated, or the fact that weíre all sitting here talking about him being domesticated?Ē And he was right, of course. Iíve always enjoyed being the little odd duck that everyone looks at as the peculiar one. His email disturbed me greatly, because he was so right. Did I really want to be that guy? What didnít I shut up and play ball, live like a normal person? Nothing all that special about me. Nothing all that special about any of us.

Another example to prove my rapidly shifting point: I was talking to an old, old friend who knows me as well as anyone the other evening. She met me in St. Louis, at one of my many self-congratulatory birthday parties. She was a friend of a friend, so on, and I was new to the city, about four months removed from the terrors of Los Angeles. That birthday evening, I was the new guy to town, telling my tales of the West Coast, of ex-fiancees and beaches and artsy writers and self-doubt and romance and transcendence and insanity and the loss of God and anything else that would make it more likely the gorgeous blonde girl in front of me would continue to listen, and she was staring at me, weirdly fascinated. She told me the other evening that she was compelled that night not so much by my stories — who could be? — but the fact that I had been somewhere, that I had done something. ďI was looking at [her other friend] and was like, Ďum, we went to Bermuda for a week once. We live just down the block from each other.íĒ

And I had been nowhere. I had done nothing. It is all relative, and ultimately, like everybody else, Iíve sold out. Real curiosities, the true lost souls of this world, will forever be roaming, searching, struggling, dreaming, wondering. I donít have it in me anymore. It is no longer worth it for me. I want to play ball.

In the end, I was far more like my friend than the weirdo whimsical outsider I wanted people to believe I was. I am a dreamer, but I am also a human being, one who just wants happiness and serenity and a comfy chair to prop my feet up at the end of the day. Calm.

I will never just hop in the car with a cohort and drive across the country for assorted aesthetically realized misadventures, I will never be nuts again, I will never cut all ties and just go go go GO, man! Not anymore. I like my apartment too much, I like my job too much, I like my comfort too much. I am tied to this world, in a way the true visionaries never were. I cannot step outside it all, pretend that I am Neal Cassady, just not giving a fuck, ambling about, seeking seeking seeking seeking seeking. No longer. My peace is to be found in a room thatís clean, in checks that donít bounce, in a family I can call at the end of the week. I didnít think thatís where it was found. But I think it might be. This doesnít make me any different than the rest of humanity. It is who I am. It just took me longer than most to realize.

So where does this leave me, or any of us who are starting to understand that, after a while, it takes too much energy to try to be the special unique snowflake all the time? That being normal has its advantages? That thereís a reason people choose comfort and relaxation and playing the game the right way? Thatís OK, isnít it? Isnít it?

But, Will, you say, this whole series of incoherent ramblings seems to have been focusing on some sort of final goal, some sort of intangible Meaning of It All. We want some sort of resolution. The answer to this whole thing, itís not becoming a corporate drone, is it? Is that what this all means? Do you conquer the demons and figure out what it all means? Do you find a way to be yourself in this universe without becoming what youíve always fought against? Well, Iím afraid, this story has a rather mundane, mediocre conclusion. Iím just a regular guy, a squirrel trying to get a nut. I have a boss, and rent due, and a phone bill, and a cat that needs fed. I have visions of a family and a life I go home to every night, with a wife and children, and neighbors from whom I borrow tools, and membership in the Elks Club, and Little League practices, and maybe a dog. I hope to get there someday. I am not Neal Cassady. Far from it.

I recognize Ö What is pulling me back to earth here? What has made me see the notion settling as something that ainít nothiní to run from no more? Is it an inherent Midwestern desire to have a home, happiness, tranquillity? If that was what was important, why would I have ever left there in the first place? Or was I just fooling myself then, thinking there was something else out there? Does it even make a difference? I just donít want to run anymore. I donít want to search. I just want to be normal. I want to work and go home and have a drink and relax and listen to music and watch sports and not be so damned peculiar and hungry for answers anymore. Is that so wrong? Is it? Seriously. Is it?

But no matter. Worry not. In a week, Iím sure Iíll feel the exact opposite. I am crazy, you know.



Life as a Loser runs every week. Join the Life as a Loser discussion group at: