Kerouac & The Streets of San Francisco

What first comes to your mind when you hear the words “the streets of San Francisco?" Maybe it just makes you want to take a walk - uphill. Or if you’re a 1970s crime drama fan, surely you will conjure up images of Michael Douglas as the rookie cop with gloriously feathered hair rising so high it almost blocks out the Golden Gate Bridge behind him in the stock promo shots.

But the real streets of San Francisco – for me – are those streets leading to hep bars and crazed jazz clubs inhabited by my beloved Beat Poets. Their ghosts, anyway. You might notice my protagonist, Henry Quantum, kind of channels the spontaneous prose of Jack Kerouac, via a circuitous literary route backward that ends (begins?) with the influence of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. Henry’s tale is told very much in the language of how he thinks, or how I imagine he thinks, or how he imagines I imagine how he thinks.

Henry wanders the streets of San Francisco in The Heart of Henry Quantum – searching for something – and part of that something just might be what was left at the bottom of the glass by the Beat Generation in the 1950s - a certain undefinable spirit - you can feel it if you just say their names: Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and my personal favorite, Neal Cassady ... not to mention the women, jazz musicians, struggling artists, writers, philosophers and drug dealers they befriended.

I do love the Beat Poets, and totally fell for their schtick hook, line and sinker in my college days. But then, what 18-year-old wouldn't want to throw caution to the wind and hit the road, hang out, deconstruct the meaning of life ad nauseum and just … be? The Beat Poets were all about spontaneity and thrusting off the trappings of materialism and modern life. They were the initial flame of what became the 1960s counterculture movement.

Not surprisingly, a number of the Beat Poets really got into Zen Buddhism. Kerouac shares his brand of spirituality most famously in the great work Dharma Bums, one of my favorite Beat novels and one in which Kerouac’s characters seek transcendence through simplicity. Which isn't always easy, even in the 1950s.

And like the Beat Poets, my hero Henry seems to have some leanings toward Buddhist philosophy, whether he knows it or not. He does profess a love of Zen koans, puzzling with the tiniest and biggest of life’s problems. Realizing in flashes of Zen enlightenment that “if you look, you miss seeing.”

Taking my character’s advice, I stopped thinking about how cheesy I thought that ‘70s cop drama The Streets of San Francisco might have been and had a flash of recognition of the connection between these moments in our cultural history.

Streets star Michael Douglas became famous in his own right, besides just being the son of classic film star Kirk Douglas, by acting in this series, and in 1975 used his success to produce author Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Ken Kesey considered himself – and was considered by others – as a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. This link was literally personified in the person of Neal Cassady, who was the inspiration for the main character of Jack Kerouac’s iconic work On The Road and drove the infamous Ken Kesey psychedelic Merry Pranksters bus decades later. And so the streets intersect and the ghosts meet … with far less than six degrees of separation.

If you doubt the influence of the Beat Poets on San Francisco, know that there is actually a MUSEUM dedicated just to them. The Beat Museum is open daily from 10 am to 7 pm – pretty tame hours for beatniks! But they were savvy enough to snag the domain name, and museum staff offer scheduled walking tours on Saturdays at 2 p.m., during which you can walk in the footsteps of the Beat Generation – hitting the bars they frequented, the landmark City Lights Books, the famous street corners they reference in their writings – and maybe crossing over a few of Henry Quantum’s footsteps while you’re at it?


*The Streets of San Francisco image credit: By Source, Fair use.