May 14, 2023

My Brief but Deluded Life as a Beatnik

For Maria

For the past thirty months I have been blessed with the services of a wonderful caregiver named Maria. Along with my girlfriend Lauren and my daughter Kathryn, Maria has been a godsend to me. Without the loving care of these three women, I would surely no longer be here to badger you with my blogs.

Maria is in her late 30s, and does everything for me that I can no longer or easily do for myself. This includes shopping for groceries, driving, doing washes for me, running errands, lifting things that are too heavy for me, and so forth. But although I am almost fifty years older than Maria, she has come to take an interest in both my professional and romantic life, so sometimes she induces me to talk about my storied past. And just the other day, we wound up having another such long conversation (or I should say, “monologue”) about my early college days when I was a student at Cal-Berkeley.

What prompted this excursion into my youthful follies was something Maria happened to mention that astonished me. Maria is not really a reader (she just doesn’t have much time as she has a full-time job quite apart from keeping me afloat); instead she listens to books. And the book she has been listening to lately (indeed, she told me that she had already listened to it three times) was Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. I had no idea Maria was interested in writers of the Beat Generation that began to flourish in the 1950s (before hippies and well before the emergence of “the counter-culture”). Although I had never read Kerouac, not even his groundbreaking book, On the Road, which was published while I was still matriculating at Cal, the Beats were important to me and prefigured an important turn in my life away from conventional society and interests toward alienated youth and wild poets.  

So, naturally, I held forth for the next half hour or so as I regaled her with my tales of my wayward past while Maria listened raptly. Before leaving, she made it clear how much she enjoyed our conversation. Thinking about it afterward, I figured maybe you would also be interested to learn about this significant turn in my life.

If so, read on. But this story actually begins – and will end – with another important woman in my life, my first girlfriend, Carolyn. You will need to learn a bit about her and my relationship with her before I can get to my life as a beatnik.  


When I was a junior in high school, I acquired my first girlfriend after a very romantic and somewhat antic pursuit. Naturally, we spent a great deal of time together and I had my first sexual experiences with her, though whether we ever actually had intercourse is still not clear to me. (She later devised le mot juste for it – “outercourse.”) I was very strongly drawn to her, however, and we did make out a lot.  A friend took this photograph of us in a characteristic romantic embrace:

Nevertheless, we had another kind of passion between us: violent arguments about religion. At the time, I was a committed and dogmatic atheist whereas she was deeply religious and intent on becoming the first woman Presbyterian minister. Still, during our high school days, I was a pretty conventional teenager. My passions were chiefly classical music, baseball and girls, although at the time Carolyn was girl enough for me. Apart from liking to attend symphony concerts and operas (to which I dragged Carolyn), my tastes and habits were entirely ordinary for a kid of my age and time. I enjoyed movies, going to the beach, playing golf and softball, and diverting myself with various card and board games such as Scrabble, among other pedestrian pastimes.
I was never a “wild” kid, was an increasingly successful student, never played hooky, didn’t drink or smoke and never had been in trouble with the law. I graduated from high school a half-semester ahead of Carolyn and, more or less by a fluke and at the last minute, decided to enroll in college at the University of California in Berkeley. At first, I continued to live with my parents, but as soon as I could afford it, I moved out and lived near the Berkeley campus. 

When I was a freshman, Carolyn and I were still going together, but within a relatively short time, I found myself very strongly drawn to the then just emerging “Beat culture” and began to identify with the lifestyle of what later came to be called “alienated youth.” I had gone from being a relatively conventional, clean-cut young man who used to attend Cal football games in a white shirt salivating after “pom-pom” girls (i.e., our cheerleaders) to becoming in effect a bearded slob, a kind of a caricature of a Jules Pfeiffer cartoon figure, who took pleasure in flouting the pretensions of bourgeois society and who came to view himself a young existentialist. The Berkeley campus didn’t really afford a café society, much less a Left Bank, but if it had, I would have easily found a niche for myself as a denizen of that world.

All this appalled and disgusted Carolyn, and before too long, she had decided she didn’t know me anymore and wondered how we could continue as a couple.

I myself have only very dim memories of those days and what I must have been like then, but several years after I had rediscovered Carolyn much later in life and began corresponding with her, she reminded me of them and told me how she remembered me during that period:

As you acknowledge, you were drawn to Beat culture. I remember a particular bar that you frequented. You took me there once and tried to pressure me into drinking a glass of beer that I did not want. Part of this Beat culture seemed to be aversion to bodily cleanliness. Instead of remaining lovers we were pulled into a destructive nagging mother/rebellious son relationship that was no fun for either of us. I was always after you to get a haircut, shave, wash your clothes, take a bath, and you responded with all the sarcasm that you are capable of. Furthermore, you just dug in your heels. I seem to remember a period where day after day you wore the same soiled clothes. I am sure that the pants were grey, and I think that the shirt was as well. The smell of sweat combined at times with the smell of beer made me gag. I wanted to cut the tie that bound us into this destructive relationship but was reluctant to hurt you. I hated not only what you had become but what I had become.

Carolyn finally broke it off—and broke my heart—but by then it was too late. I actually rued her loss in my life and mourned it for the next several years, but I was set on my course and would not look back. For my part, I had no intention of trying to rectify my behavior for her sake or anyone else’s. To me, I was just behaving in a way that had quickly come to seem natural to me. I had already learned to identify with the radical fringe and alienated youths like me. And the wild poets of the Beat generation strongly attracted me, too.

Case in point: I remember when I first came across Allen Ginsberg’s famous cri de Coeur, “Howl” with its arresting initial lines like a punch to one’s gut:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, hysterical naked,
Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix, 
Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night….

Wow! I remember just where I had discovered and bought the book, what it looked like, the effect it had on me. It opened up a new and thrilling world of sensation. I was now a long way from Whitman and Blake; this was a voice from my own time, speaking as it were, to my soul. I was finding my people.

So I began drinking, mostly beer and gin, as I recall, and hanging out with kids like me, if I could find them, and in time, I could. As Carolyn noted, I started dressing differently, too, as if my changing my clothes, sporting a beard, and affecting an insouciant matter, I could change my character. In effect, I had found new role models now.

An example: By the time I was a senior, I found myself living with a Belgian immigrant. His name was Dwight David Gaston, and since he arrived on the shores on the United States when Dwight David Eisenhower was the President, the customs agent who processed him, who couldn’t understand this newcomer’s accent, gave him a new name.  

Dwight was quite a character and our living arrangements were unusual, too. We had rented a small house without a bed on the south side of campus. We had to share a pull-out couch. But I didn’t always share it just with Dwight. Since this was the beginning of the era of “free sex,” sometimes Dwight would ask me if I wouldn’t mind studying at the library of an evening. I would usually comply, only to find when I returned home, Dwight had brought along a comely companion from San Francisco to share our bed. Oh well, I just turned to the side and pretended to be asleep. Still, I spent so much time in the library, I got straight As that semester and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.  

Dwight was always more adventuresome when it came to sex than I was, and was really a somewhat raffish character, though not dissolute. In fact, I was very fond of Dwight, but it was he, not I, who was really living the beatnik life I was just playing at. My forays into the Beat world were mostly superficial and, in truth, something of a pose. I never truly had the cajones to explore and fully embrace that life, much as I was drawn to it.

And it’s only been recently, thanks to Maria, that I learned that in those very years, in the same neighborhood that I was living in, the most infamous of the Beats – Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the poet, Gary Snyder – were hanging out. They were effectively just next door. Why did I not know that? I had blown my chance to pal out with those guys. Now I can but wonder how my life might have developed, if only I had taken the trouble to track them down and not just breathe in the heady atmosphere of Berkeley that they had created. I missed my chance to become a real dharma bum.  

The Dharma Bums of Berkeley 

After my chat with Maria, I decided I should do some remedial reading, so I ordered and am currently reading Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. It was from that book that I learned that the Beats depicted in that book (but given easily identifiable pseudonyms) were spending time, drinking and whoring and writing poetry, just down the street from me, so to speak. Just to give you some idea of what kind of thing I had missed out on, I will simply copy out for you one long passage from the book. In it, Kerouac has given himself the bland name, Ray Smith; Ginsberg has become Alvah Goldbook; Gary Snyder is now memorably dubbed Japhy Ryder. Here is a typical scene from the lives of these Beats: 

I forgot to mention [that] a rock artist had called on Japhy in the late afternoon, a girl had come right after, a blonde in rubber boots and a Tibetan coat with wooden buttons, and in the general talk she’d inquired about our plan to climb Mount Matterhorn and said, “Can I come with ya?” as she was a bit of a mountainclimber herself.

“Shore,” said Japhy…”shore, come on with us and we’ll screw ya at ten thousand feet” and the way he said it was so funny and casual, and in fact serious, that the girl wasn’t shocked at all but somewhat pleased. In this same spirit he’d now brought this girl Princess to our cottage, it was about eight o’clock at night, dark. Alvah and I were quietly sipping tea and reading or typing poems and two bicycles came into the yard: Japhy on his, Princess on hers. Princess had gray eyes and yellow hair and was very beautiful and only twenty. I must say one thing about her, she was sex mad and men mad….

I went into the kitchen to get a bottle [of wine] and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Japhy and Alvah taking their clothes off and throwing them every whichway and I looked and Princess was stark naked, her skin white as snow when the red hits it as dusk, in the red dim light. “What the hell,” I said.

"Here's what Yabyrum is, Smith,” said Japhy, and he sat cross-legged on the pillow on the floor and motioned to Princess who came over and sat down on him facing him with her arms around his neck and they sat like that saying nothing for a while. Japhy wasn’t at all nervous or embarrassed and just sat there in perfect form as he was supposed to do….

“But what’s she thinking?” I yelled in despair, I’d had idealistic longings for that girl for the past year and had conscience-stricken hours wondering if I should seduce her because she was so young and all.

“Oh this is lovely,”said Princess.“Come on and try it….”

“Take your clothes off and join in, Smith!”

Believe me, this is the expurgated version. This comic madcap orgy goes on for pages. Who was I kidding? This was not exactly Puccini’s La Bohème, which was frolicsome enough for me. Had I come into this bacchanal, I would have fled in terror. If this was the beatnik life, I clearly wasn’t cut out for it. I now thank my lucky stars that I just contented myself with Dwight’s casual bedroom pleasures and never actually ever encountered the Beats next door.  

When my college life was over, so was that romantic affectation. I would become a professor and though I would indeed go on to have my share of sex, drugs and rock and roll (at least the Stones and the Beatles) in the years to come, my fantasy life as a would-be beatnik dissipated like a dream upon awakening. It was never real at all.

Carolyn Redux

What did last – or at least resumed – was my relationship with Carolyn. She had married a philosophy professor and moved to Canada. We continued to correspond occasionally over the years. She still had difficulty understanding me, however, and professed to be puzzled by all the amorous relationships I had had during the course of my life. Most women I have known had found me a winsome fellow, but not Carolyn who was completely impervious to my charm. She never really loved me either – certainly not the way I had loved her.

But when we were still encoupled at Cal, we happily participated in a rather daring escapade. Some friends of ours had wanted to get married, but the girl was underage. So she and her husband-to-be hatched a plan. Together with a third couple, we would drive up to Reno so they could get married. We wouldn’t tell our parents or anyone else, but we pulled it off. It was great adventure.

Fifty years later, this same couple wanted to re-enact this ceremony and get married again. All six of the original party were still alive, so we all met again fifty years later to the day, and reunited.  It was a beautiful occasion and that’s when I saw Carolyn again for the first time in nearly half a century.

After the ceremony, we repaired to some kind of large general function room with a restaurant, and as we were having dinner, a young woman from another party came over to our table, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Would you like to dance with me?”  

I winked at Carolyn and as if to say “See?” Carolyn looked non-plussed as I waltzed off with this woman to do my version of the light fantastic, despite having been born with the equivalent of two club feet. Carolyn could only shake her head in disbelief afterward.

Since that time, we have, according to what Carolyn has told me, exchanged more than a thousand e-mail messages. We still argue about most everything except now we have switched sides.