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Feast of Friends MAG
Like always, I was having trouble concentrating on the last few pages of my book. My eyes excitedly ran through the final paragraphs of Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, happy to have conquered the nearly 400-page behemoth – but sad to be saying goodbye to the sprawling, whirling, wild Beat literature I had befriended over the last six weeks. Sitting in a Puerto Rican hotel room I shared with my grandparents, at the bar separating the kitchen from what may generously be called the living room, I savored those final two words, marveling at their simple power and poetic beauty: “Adios, King.” All too soon I’d realize those words were not just poetic, they were prophetic.
Only hours later, in the dark small hours of a Tuesday morning in November, a tall middle-aged EMT was telling me in broken English that they were unable to resuscitate my dad. “Adios, King.”
Of all the unspeakable thoughts which tormented me the next few days, none were as hard to shake as that final line. “Adios, King.” That eerily foretelling yet oddly comforting final line. Nothing I’d ever read had meant as much to me as those two little words. Or had something? I was only a sophomore at the time, 15 years old, but I’d read a lot – maybe I was forgetting something. Whether it was because I was genuinely interested or because I saw an opportunity to have something else in my head, I thought back, I thought hard. All the way back to when I learned to read, pondering the different chapters of my life while wandering the expanses of a foreign hotel, looking for sanctuary and finding it where it had always been – in words.
At first it was easy – the “Bob Books” and learning to write when I was a toddler, reading small chapter books and writing cursive in first grade. For most of elementary school, I didn’t like reading even though I was good at it; I went through all seven Harry Potter books just to kill time. Writing, my own or anyone else’s, was nothing more to me than work, a somewhat desirable chore. I didn’t even get to the hotel gift shop by the time I got through thinking about this first chapter in my life.
Standing in that Puerto Rican shop, looking for candy to bring back for my friend’s birthday, it was difficult to keep my mind on the subject. Slowly, steadily, stealthily, it crept back to my dad. No, no. I can’t. Not that, not now. Reading. That’s what we’re thinking about. Books, what books have you read? Think – think hard. What books matter to you?
The Catcher in the Rye. That was the answer. J.D. Salinger’s book was the first I actually truly enjoyed, at the ripe old age of ten. I hadn’t known reading could be much more than a time-killer, so the sheer amount of fun I had reading Holden Caulfield’s whiny retelling of his Christmas break was unlike anything I’d known. I was hooked.
In the next few years I went from not liking reading to devouring anything – from Fahrenheit 451 to Rick Riordan series; Don DeLillo to Charles Dickens; John Steinbeck to 1984. My social life wasn’t anything to marvel at. All these books became my friends. Guys like Sean or Jack or Andrew may have been my best friends, but not far behind were characters like East of Eden’s Adam Trask and Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five and, of course, Holden Caulfield, who I’d caught up with no fewer than 14 times by the start of high school. I had wandered through dozens of books, tens of thousand of pages, and in them I began to admire the loyalty of these new friends and the beauty of words on paper.
If The Catcher in the Rye had opened the door to reading for me, one of the pilots in Catch-22 must have dropped a bomb on the doorway and blown it into oblivion. It took a few weeks, but I didn’t want it to ever end. I’d never laughed at a book before and I couldn’t stop laughing at this one. The summer night in California that I finished Captain John Yossarian’s adventures was the same night I began Kerouac’s On the Road. It is probably the most important chapter in my literary life. The whirling descriptions, the incredible people, the intense language, the blatant disregard for rules and punctuation – how had I never known something like this was out there? Why had no one told me about this? Three weeks later, I finished that word jungle of a book and ran out to the driveway where my dad was washing his car –“This is by far the best thing I’ve ever read!”
“Better than Catcher in the Rye?”
Yes, it was. It wasn’t my first exposure to the Beats, but it was when I fell in love with them. Thirteen months later, I finished Lonesome Traveler, and with it the Duluoz Legend, 15 autobiographical novels by Kerouac. That collection was what cemented the importance of reading in my mind. I devoured Kerouac’s writing, William Burrough’s ramblings which I spent hours trying to decode, and Arthur Rimbaud’s cries to which I related a bit too much during my own season in Hell. It’s no coincidence that my most productive period of reading were the months following that worst day – who wouldn’t turn to a trusted friend in times like those? I may not have known it at the time, but I’ve since realized reading wasn’t just another temporary escape or sanctuary, it was the most dependable and trustworthy friend available. But writing lurked not far behind.
Someone could tell me all those years in the classroom, all those five paragraphs essays, all those vocabulary and classical roots quizzes had something to do with my development as a writer. I’ll never believe them. In the chair in front of my desk in my room, right behind the window, is the exact spot where I began to learn how to write. Everything else was just extra practice. It was on stacks of loose leaf paper, surrounded by my most beloved books, that I started to become a writer. Even if that never was my intention.
It started innocently. That summer I decided I wanted better handwriting, and I knew the only sure way to get it was practice. I pulled out a stack of paper and got cracking. The only problem was that I was a 15-year-old boy. Not even five minutes passed before I got bored and began fooling around in cursive illegible to anyone but myself. At first I wrote nonsense – friends’ phone numbers, birthdays, addresses, my family members’ names – then came the rhymes. Soon it was just whatever nonsense passed through my head. Three days later I found an impromptu journal of loose papers in undecipherable cursive on my desk. The earliest writings reeked of the Beats, though theirs was far from the only influence that gave those papers their trimmings of juvenile imitation. It was full of the sarcasm and irony I’d learned from Joseph Heller, the desire to write at least one true sentence from Hemingway, even Salinger’s angst popped in its head from time to time. There is no marking, no note, nothing, to separate the last entry before embarking on that fall trip and the first one back. It needs none.
Whirling Kerouacian descriptions grew sinister; sarcasm and playful irony degenerated into irreverence; the true sentences were no longer about seeing pretty girls in restaurants and happy memories, they were about helplessness and rotting, festering wounds. I wish it had been in those happier times, the times when I’d sit in my chair still dripping after a shower, that I really began to become a writer. Sadly, I can’t honestly say that. It was in those darker days after my father’s death, sitting in my chair dripping with unnamable emotions, that I began to realize my potential as a writer. That’s when I found my own voice on paper; when my writing became recognizable as uniquely mine; when I began to read as a writer. I started getting better at recognizing what other writers were doing beyond just the words on the page, to figure out what they really meant. I began to understand how words could work together, sometimes I could even feel deeper things happening in my reading, I just didn’t know the words for it yet. Writing turned out to be the best reading teacher I’ve ever had, even if it lacked all the terms and labels that would define later English classes.
Those were dark times. No matter how much time I spent surrounded by friends, just as much seemed spent surrounded by darkened bedroom walls and my own quiet whisper in the night. No matter what, I’d eventually be found alone, without so much as a book to turn to. I had to fill those empty spaces somehow. Which is exactly what writing did.
Writing became my confidante, my therapist, my most trusted friend. With my rapidly growing stack of Kerouac in front of me, and flanked by Ginsberg and Rimbaud, I poured myself onto pages upon pages, howling my own Kaddish and describing my own deliria; soon, I learned that writing isn’t just putting words on paper. Writing is putting yourself on paper. It is deeply intimate and personal, which is why I so quickly became enamored with this other person, this other me, who only came out on paper and yet never left me. Which is why all these writings were addressed to a mysterious “Faithful Reader,” whom I discovered, to my own surprise, was myself. Those “scribbled prayers of nonsense” were so dear because I was offering them up to myself. How could I not have fallen for something so intimate, so deeply personal, in a time when that was what I needed? Looking back, I never stood a chance. Reading had reigned for years, but in only weeks, writing supplanted it and established itself as what completely honest and emotionally true writing really is – the greatest friend you could know.
It was getting dark. Better head back to the room, I thought. After a quick 10-minute walk, and a few wrong turns, I was back at the proper room. Maybe I’ll find some paper and write something tonight, nothing big, just something to do, I thought. Maybe not, I’d rather read.
And that’s what I did. I fished around in my backpack and pulled out my copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I made my way to a grass patch, where 20 or so other travelers had gathered for a bonfire. For the first few minutes I traded funny faces with a little boy, no older than four, one bench over from the wicker chair I’d chosen for myself. Just about the age he should be starting to learn to read and write. Just about the age he’d be meeting my dear friends. I sat back in my chair and opened my book. My eyes calmly walked over the opening lines, beginning a new chapter, greeting an old friend.