Wednesday, two days ago, marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. A few weeks earlier I’d ordered the newly published original unedited scroll version of On the Road, which I’d hoped to have something to say about on Wednesday but, alas, it still hasn’t arrived. About 47 years ago I read the Signet pocketbook Road and a few weeks later ordered the hardcover edition from Rodick’s on Ste Catherine Street. It cost me about $2 and I still have it and have read it about three times. Every time I wonder if it stands the test of time and it does, and then some.
Today I had coffee with Renee, on the beach two blocks from my home. I’ve known Renee almost as long as I’ve known this book. Renee and I were part of a gang of four that also included Murray and Debby, that hung out in the cafes of Stanley Street, the Potpourri bookstore, and the Sir George Williams College film club.
Debby was pretty much my first insane love mania. But I was so bashful and insecure, and she so seemingly uninterested in me, that all that ever came of it was a goodbye kiss when I moved to New York. Debby so loved romance and melodrama that after I was gone she spoke of me as her departed lover. I guess she liked me better that way. (The handful of poems I wrote and gave her one day in the back room of the Potpourri really helped.)
Renee and Debby were pals and today, when I told Renee about the one letter I got from Debby she said I ought to write the story. There’s not a whole lot to it but here goes.
I stayed at my Uncle’s on West 96th Street before getting my own apartment on the Lower East Side where day and night I longed for Debby. One day my uncle called to say there was a letter for me. It was from her. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven and was reborn and died again. Every atom of my being buzzed in hope and anticipation and fear. Although I wasn’t aware of it then I know now that the yearning and craziness was more painfully thrilling than love itself could ever be. I was so intoxicated and frightened that although I left for his place immediately to get the letter, I made it take as long as I possibly could. I could have been there in twenty minutes on the subway but walked instead, something like 100 blocks from East 6th and Avenue D to West 96th and Amsterdam. It took most of the day. When I got there I was invited to have dinner and I put off opening the letter. When I left I got the subway continuing uptown to the Columbia University campus where I’d already planned to see Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet. I walked around the campus looking for the perfect poetic spot and eventually found a concrete pedestal under an oak tree. I sat and studied the envelope, waiting for the light to fall on it in just a certain way, or some damn thing, heart pounding in my chest.
Eventually I got out my penknife and slit open the envelope, extracted the single page folded in quarters. The entire edge had been singed, with a cigarette or something. To denote what, I didn’t exactly know. I read the thing finally. I didn’t then, and still don’t now have any idea what it said. It was utterly baffling and ambiguous but the one thing I know it didn’t say was come home I love you and want to be with you for now and ever. Or anything concrete whatsoever. I was clueless and thought, if this is what and how women will communicate with me I am lost forever and might as well resign myself to a solitary loveless life.
I did eventually see her again, twenty or more years later. She remembered nothing about the letter but quoted, verbatim, whole verses from the batch of poems I’d given her all those years before.