Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Following Kerouac's Road in Queens by Dennis Hamill - NY Daily News

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For decades, Pat Fenton has tried to put Jack Kerouac back on the road.

And now with an assist from the Queens Historical Society there will be a stop at Kerouac's former Ozone Park home as part of a historic spring trolley tour through Queens with other stops at the wedding site of W.E.B. DuBois in Addisleigh Park, Jackie Robinson's home also in Addisleigh Park, Malcolm X's home in East Elmhurst, the Woodhaven bowling lanes and more. Those tours will roll once a month beginning in March, running through May.

The stop at the former home of Kerouac, arguably the most celebrated writer to ever live and work in Queens, is due in large part to the tenacity of Kerouac aficionado Fenton, a retired Queens court officer, freelance journalist and playwright who meets me on the corner of 133rd St. and Cross Bay Blvd. in front of Glen Patrick's Pub and points to The Little House of Flowers across eight lanes of traffic.

"Kerouac was a soda jerk in that store in the '40s when it was a pharmacy," says Fenton. "His parents moved down from Lowell, Mass., looking for factory work, when he was 21 and just out of the Navy. He moved into their apartment upstairs. Jack used to drink in this bar, when it was called McNulty's, with Neal Cassady, novelist William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet who called Kerouac 'The Wizard of Ozone Park.'"

Fenton leads the way across Cross Bay Blvd. to the entrance to Kerouac's first New York home at 94-10 133rd Ave., on the first leg of a personal tour of not just this historic site but Jack Kerouac's Queens.

"Kerouac lived here from 1943 to 1949, and wrote his first book, 'The Town and the City,' here," says Fenton, who penned "Jack's Last Call: Say Goodbye to Kerouac," a terrific play that's been staged in Lowell and Boston, and on Long Island. It has been broadcast as a radio play on more than 50 public radio stations across America.

It begs for an Off-Broadway production.

Fenton points to the ghostly outline of a missing plaque on the wall.

"In 1996 I finally convinced the Historical Landmark Preservation Center to put a plaque on the wall of this building where Kerouac began writing 'On the Road,' the seminal novel of the Beat Generation," says Fenton.

The plaque was stolen last year.

"We're discussing replacing the missing plaque at Kerouac's Ozone Park residence with one of our historical Queensmarks," says Marisa Berman of the Queens Historical Society.

"For years I urged the previous Queens borough president's people to set plaques into the sidewalks outside Kerouac's two Queens homes, the basketball court where he often played, and the library where he researched 'On the Road,'" says Fenton. "Their response was that they didn't want to memorialize a drunk."

Fenton guides me down Cross Bay Blvd., pointing to the A train rumbling out of the Rockaway Blvd. stop. "Kerouac started his journey for 'On the Road' from this subway station," says Fenton. "He took the train toward Manhattan, somehow wound up in Bear Mountain, before returning to Port Authority and catching a bus to Chicago [on his way to Denver] to meet Neal Cassady."

We proceed to 95-16 101st Ave., once a library where "old silver-rimmed" librarians helped Kerouac map out his famous cross-country trek. Today, a Hispanic woman answers the door of Grace Evangelical Ministries. Asked if she knew that Jack Kerouac mined for literary gold inside, she said she never heard of him.

"There should be a plaque in the sidewalk outside," says Fenton. "It's amazing to me that a literary giant helped create a masterpiece here and that people walk by without ever knowing."

Soon, we are strolling across the deserted basketball courts of Phil Rizzuto Park in Richmond Hill. "Cassady and Kerouac used to play pick-up basketball games here all the time when it was still called Smokey Oval Park," says Fenton. "It's sad to me that we recognize a sports legend like Rizzuto but not a literary legend from the neighborhood."

After Kerouac's father died, he and his mother moved from Ozone Park to Richmond Hill. "Kerouac lived, wrote, played and drank in Richmond Hill for five years," says Fenton.

His address was 94-21 134th St., today a two-family house fortified with steel gates. "Kerouac rented this house from 1950 to 1955, and wrote 'Maggie Cassidy,' 'The Subterraneans' and 'Book of Dreams' here," says Fenton.

"Students come around asking about him," says the wary owner, after confronting strangers outside his house. "I guess he was famous but I never read him."

After "On the Road" was published in 1957, Kerouac moved to Northport, L.I., where he lived from 1958-64. "He hated the celebrity," Fenton says. "So he went out to live with the clam-diggers."

Kerouac died in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1969.

"But his most prolific years as a writer were in Queens," says Fenton. "So I'm glad the Queens Historical Society plans to stop at Kerouac's Ozone Park home on their trolley tour. But I think the city should also embed plaques on a Jack Kerouac Literary Trail in the forgotten footsteps that this literary giant left in Queens."

Great idea.