Jack Kerouac Doesnt Live Here Anymore
Kyle couldn’t tell if the old hippie had emerged from the woods or if he had made his approach from the far side of the empty field. Kyle was sitting crossed-legged in the grass of Golden Gate Park, covering his eyes with both hands when he heard the voice. It was a voice that was ancient and innocent all at once—like a baby who had transitioned directly to raspy manhood. The hippie was already close enough to cast a shadow across Kyle’s face when he started to speak, leaning on the thick knobby branch he was using as a walking stick.
“How’s the meditation going?” the old hippie said.
Kyle lowered his hands and squinted from the grass. The man looked like one of the graybeards who were clustered at the entrance to the park: frayed blue jeans, torn flannel shirt, red bandana. There were dozens of them sprawled across the lawn listening to hand-me-down iPods. The old hippie was better put together than his compatriots. Sturdier, more muscular. Even the walking stick seemed more like a prop than a necessity—a gnarled scepter to mark his place among the anachronisms.
“I wasn’t meditating,” Kyle said. “It’s my new contacts. They’re killing me.”
“New contacts,” the old hippie said. “That’s funny.”
“I’ll get used to them sooner or later. At least that’s what the doctor told me.”
Kyle wasn’t normally the kind of person who bothered with small talk but he had been in San Francisco for five days and was hungry for conversation. He had come to the West Coast to conduct research for a historical novel set during the Beatnik era. Although Kyle had hoped to interview some bohemian holdouts in the North Beach walkups, he actually spent most of his time hunting down rare editions of paperbacks at used bookstores. He passed his nights alone in bars along Columbus Avenue, eavesdropping on programmers in T-shirts and hoodies, stubble-faced coders discussing data compression algorithms while sipping craft lagers and IPAs.
“You really should start meditating,” the old hippie said, poking at the foliage with the branch. “Turns off the mind and helps you forget yourself.”
“That’s my problem,” Kyle replied. “I get paid to remember things.”
Kyle told the old hippie how—in addition to creating listicles about budget vacations for travel and tourism websites—he wrote nostalgia pieces for a series of local newspapers across the country, evoking forgotten moments in fading communities: the opening of the Berkshire Inn in Atlantic City, the erection of the Hammond Building in Detroit.
“Oh, yeah?” the old hippie said. “You got anything you want to forget?”
Before Kyle could respond, the old hippie lifted the branch and swung it like a baseball bat, whipping it about a foot over Kyle’s head.
“Did I scare you?” the old hippie said. “I was only kidding.”
All Kyle could do was remain frozen in the grass. Until that moment, he hadn’t registered just how massive the branch was—the damage it was capable of inflicting. The old hippie was too close for a safe retreat. If Kyle tried to spin away, he could get clubbed in the back of the head.
“That’s what happens when you meditate,” the old hippie said. “You learn how to take a joke.”
Kyle wasn’t sure what he was expected to say, so he curved his lips into the shape of a slight smile. He wore the mask of a student kneeling at the black-laced boots of his guru, a pilgrim about to receive his first traces of revelation.
“I used to get really angry about things until I started meditating,” the old hippie said. Kyle nodded and watched him adjust his grip on the timber. “I mean how the hell was I supposed to feel? One night you’re nodding off to a guitar jam at Winterland. Next thing you know, it’s 40 years later and you’re choking on the fumes from the goddamn Google bus.”
The old hippie leaned forward and pressed down on the walking stick, grinding the tip into a patch of soil.
“And then I finally figured it out,” he said. “Time is the biggest joke of all. Once you understand, you stop being a punch line. You know what I mean?”
Kyle blinked his reddening eyes. He could sense that this would be his final opportunity to speak, to alter the trajectory of this conversation. He needed a response that would be both honest and expedient—a convincing set of words that would allow him to return to the asphalt path on the far side of the verdant field.
“This whole damn city’s gone to hell,” he finally said.
The old hippie laughed as Kyle started to ramble about everything that had gone wrong since his arrival: a missed appointment with a librarian, an incorrect address for the Historical Society. He stammered through a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of his novel-in-progress and then offered a shelf-by-shelf account of his visit to the City Lights Book Store. The old hippie propped the branch back over his shoulder as Kyle started to describe the cover art of the first edition paperback he had purchased of On the Road.
“You really are funny.”
The first blow landed against Kyle’s left ear. All he could think of as he collapsed onto the grass were the sketches on that faded book cover: the cartoonish rendering of the hero, Sal Paradise, brooding on the highway, flanked on one side by the silhouette of a jazz trumpeter and on the other by a dark-skinned woman dancing barefoot in a white bikini. The image faded and all that remained was a distant lament that Kyle had never received an invitation to the party.
“The joke’s on you,” the old hippie said. “Jack Kerouac doesn’t live here anymore.”
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