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‘When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School’

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The title of Sam Kashner’s new book. In 1975, he found out that Kerouac had just started a new college, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, in Boulder, Colorado. Kashner was a 19-year-old kid who lived on Long Island and worshipped the leaders of the Beat generation.

In his book, he writes, “Most of all, I wanted to be in the picture… the photograph in front of City Lights Bookstore of Allen Ginsburg, Peter Orlovsky, and Neal Cassady. They had their arms around each other. They looked happy.”

By some miracle of persuasion, Kashner persuaded his parents to pay for him to attend the Kerouac School. His acceptance postcard from Ginsburg, one of the faculty members, read, “I look forward to meeting you. I hope you can type. Sincerely yours, A. Ginsburg.”

It turned out that Kashner was not only the first student to sign up to attend – he was the only one. From the moment he arrived, he was bamboozled, ignored, and taken advantage of.

Allen Ginsberg put him to work typing poems and helping out his lover, Peter Orlovsky. He also made it clear he was sexually attracted to Kashner. Writes Kashner, “I spent a lot of time in front in front of the mirror before I went over to Allen’s because I noticed that the better looking you were, the more Allen liked your poems.”

Ginsburg once said to him, “You’re a sweet boy. So unborn.” Then there was the time Ginsberg’s Buddhism instructor required him to abandon vanity and shave off his beard. Kashner, in his role as housekeeper, found the beard in a cigar box.

Another Kashner assignment was trying to keep Gregory Corso clean, sober, and productive, a nearly impossible task. Corso was a wild man by trade, juggling drugs, drink, children, wives, and sex partners. Corso liked to threaten, extort, and kidnap Kashner, who nevertheless treats the poet with the utmost affection. Kashner recalls Corso telling him, “We’re just old men, soon to poof into the air.”

Then Kashner was introduced to William Burroughs, who spent the summer idly looking on as his only son Billy tried to drink himself to death. Billy’s diet consisted primarily of of Lucky Charms cereal because the marshmallows were easy to chew. Meanwhile, Burroughs senior contemplated a Martian invasion of the Midwest and taught a course about imaginary maps.

At one point, Kashner realized that some of the female poetry admirers in his midst were also hookers. “You must be here on one of those ‘born yesterday’ scholarships the Jack Kerouac School gives out,” the younger Burroughs told him.

Billy Burroughs, who had a decidedly unromantic view of his father and the rest of the Kerouac faculty, said to Kashner, “They stood in front of a cracked mirror, Sam, and they fell in love with that cracked image. They’ll just stare at it until they die.”

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About bookofjoe

  • Chris Kent

    I suppose anyone could write a book, applying a strategic needle to the balloon of the Beat Generation mystique. Burroughs and Ginsburg were eccentric masters. If they were not unique, how could they have created such brilliant works as “Howl” and “The Naked Lunch?”

    I much prefer to hear about these great talents in their prime, before disillusionment, drug/alcohol addiction and boredom took hold. Once Kerouac and Cassidy died, these men were kind of walking ghost shells anyway – not that they weren’t already. Not that Keroauc and Cassidy weren’t at the times of their deaths. They were great American heroes, as human as the rest of us…..

  • Mark Saleski

    yea, i don’t know how many more tales of the ‘bad times’ i can take. i read caroline cassidy’s book and it as a real eye-opener.

    maybe we don’t want to know everything about our heros.

  • Emily

    Sorry to nitpick, but his name is spelled “Cassady”, guys.

  • Chris Kent

    Sorry, never read one of Cassi/ady’s “novels.” Now I can spell Dean Moriarty…..

  • Mark Saleski

    his name is spelled “Cassady”, guys

    wow, how pathetic is that?!! i’ve got a whole shelf dedicated to beat writers and i didn’t catch that one.

  • Chris Kent

    Well, she is right. It’s not like Neal was related to Butch Cassidy or Ted Cassidy or even Shawn Cassidy (Or is it Shaun?).

    Off the top of my head, that was all the Cassidy’s I could come up with. They’re not exactly exploding like spiders across the stars…..

  • Eric Olsen

    I once had a co-worker named Cass A. Dee


    Kerouac did not found the school in Boulder, Ginsberg did. Kerouac died in 1969. Christ, do a little research, would ya. Cassady never wrote any novels. His claim to fame is having inspired Kerouac, and his influence upon the writing of “On the Road”. Christ!

  • Nick Jones

    Cassady did write “The First Third”, but I’m not sure if it’s autobiography, fiction, or autobiographical fiction. I owned it 20+ years ago, and I couldn’t finish it.

  • Rodney Welch

    Thanks for the input, SCOTTO — I’m no Beat reader, but I know Cassady’s reputation isn’t built on his writing.

  • Tommy Gun

    My dad was a young writer in the 1950s. Because the themes of his novels seemed to dovetail with those of the Beat Generation, he was labeled a “Beat writer.” Though he thought most of the BG stuff was crap, he met up with them. What a bunch of dope-addled, talentless wastrels!