I spent a series of cold, foggy mornings when I was a young man of about twenty-one working at a door shop in Jacksonville reading On The Road on my way to work. It was my second time reading the book, but the first time I really got what Kerouac was trying to do. I was haunted by the people and the time, haunted by the palpable vibrancy of Kerouac’s telling of that madcap journey in a way that colored my whole perception of my hometown and myself. Those sodium-lit winter mornings haunt me still. They remind me of what a book can do, how it can shape us. Let me explain.
Jacksonville is an old railroad town. You come across it sometimes in old novels when people are taking the train South with a Capital S. James Bond passes through town on the old Seaboard Silver Meteor in Live and Let Die, for instance, where he grabs breakfast in a greasy spoon around the corner from the station before climbing back aboard and moving on. These travelers never stick around, but it was a grand train station–which is still there, incidentally, only today they have gun and exotic bird shows in a convention space that used to shelter weary travelers and anxious lovers. An old steam locomotive sits behind a fence outside, holding out brute silent testimony to the grand past for anyone who will stop and listen. Hundreds of thousands of people drive by the locomotive everyday as they make their way in and out of town from the surrounding sprawl.
I was one of them when I worked about a mile away from the Convention Center. I had about an hour-long bus ride from my apartment way out on the southern fringe of the city to the steps of the Convention Center–look, I know this geography doesn’t mean much to you, but it pleases me to tell it–where I would jump off the bus and double back toward Stockton Street through a tunnel that ran up underneath the Interstate 95 overpass. I had an hour with the book, therefore, in the peculiarly calm atmosphere of a city bus rumbling across town in the dark of a cold winter morning. Putting the book away and climbing off of the bus was like sliding out of a warm blanket, gasping as the icy air blasting across the St. John’s River slapped me in the face. People don’t think Florida is cold. Those people have not walked a North Florida mile to work at Dark Thirty o’ clock on a January morning.
I wanted to be the kind of guy with a book hanging out of my back pocket, so there it was; and I remember, for some reason, taking it out of my pocket and reading as I walked. Now, to get to work from the Convention Center, I had to walk over about five railroad crossings that cut through the old half-assed industrial zone where our shop was located. And, without a doubt, there would be a train on one of those crossings. Probably parked. I could wait for the train to shudder to life and clear the tracks eventually, which would be smart, but forbearance is for the aged. So I put the book away and faced hard reality once again to climb up over the behemoth flatbed cars and continue the journey with the book slapping around in the back pocket of my hand-me-down blue work pants. My pants were spotted with caulk and dyed a dull white by fiberglass dust blowing out of door machines, and I knew I was climbing over the same rails and walking by the same warehouses that stood when Kerouac wrote and it was somehow profoundly meaningful for me one morning in particular, I remember, as the sun came up over the end of the road and rails.
Something about the trains; the morning night world; the bus and the tunnel; the alternating warmth and cold, dark and light; the variety of light, from harsh fluorescent to dim, orange sodium; the blue-gray dawn; the contrast between Sal Paradise’s free-wheeling life on the road and my routine working in a wood shop for eight dollars an hour; something about all of that came together like a fine recipe that somehow contributed to who I am today. I’m sure any reader could share a similar story of strange alchemy, of a worn paperback working with time and place to shape them into something else. It is a beautiful geology of the soul.