Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fenton Traces Kerouac’s Trail by Connor Adams Sheets -

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Pat Fenton began to chase the ghost of Jack Kerouac across Queens in 1986.

From Ozone Park to Richmond Hill and the Van Wyck Expressway to Phil Rizzuto Park, he has followed the beloved writer’s footsteps throughout the borough the so-called father of the Beatgeneration inhabited for 12 years.

Fenton, now 68, first discovered Kerouac when he was a 17-year-old growing up in the hardscrabble Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he said young boys mostly aspired to careers as policemen or firemen, not writers.

At that young age, he read “On the Road,” the seminal Kerouac masterpiece, and was inspired. On a whim he and a friend followed their idol’s lead and took a short-lived drive from an Irish bar in New York to Chicago with a couple of girls, spurred on by Kerouac’s tales of open highways and wild America.

And Fenton has continued to pursue the essence of the deceased author for several decades through his writings as a part-time freelance journalist and playwright and his advocacy for a greater awareness of the importance of Queens in his life.

He formally started down the path toward becoming a Kerouac expert in 1986 by securing an assignment to freelance a story looking into Kerouac’s past in Queens for New York Newsday’s magazine.

His first dalliance as a bona fide Kerouac sleuth led him to Glen Patrick’s, an Ozone Park bar across from an apartment in which the writer once lived.

It was not a successful jaunt, seemingly confirming Fenton’s Newsday editor’s concern that Fenton would be unable to find enough information for a story about Kerouac in Queens.

“I went into the bar and they didn’t know who he was,” he said. “But I could imagine Jack Kerouac there playing shuffleboard.”

So Fenton kept at it, and his investigation soon led him to Columbia University’s rare document’s collections, where he spent eight hours poring through “a literary supermarket” of documents and correspondence which revealed his local history. “After those eight hours, when I was on my way back downtown, I felt like I saw Jack Kerouac’s life passing before my eyes like in a penny arcade,” he said. “And I felt like I’ve got to follow this and see where it takes me.”

So for more than 20 years he has criss-crossed Queens, drawing from conversations with the author’s relatives and friends, such as poet Allen Ginsberg and composer David Amram, as well as the texts of his writings, to put together a narrative to explain Kerouac’s place in the borough’s history — and its in his.

For years he has led people on free tours of southern Queens sites of prominence in the author’s life, a task he says he would like to pass on to a new guide.

He has petitioned the city to assist with posting plaques at the locations, so a new generation can take the tour once he can no longer lead them. “If he can make someone who’s a year away from 80 and who knew Kerouac feel enlightened and interested, imagine what he can do for a young schoolchild or someone who loves Kerouac and didn’t know he lived in Queens,” Amram said.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.