From defunct dive bars to reincarnated cafes, follow the footsteps of the Beat writer through the Big Apple.
I settled down to long sweet sleeps, day-long meditations in the house, writing, and long walks around beloved old Manhattan a half hour subway ride away. I roamed the streets, the bridges, Times Square, cafeterias, the waterfront, I looked up all my poet beatnik friends and roamed with them, I had love affairs with girls in the Village, I did everything with that great mad joy you get when you return to New York City.
– Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler
In this silent five minutes of 16mm film, Jack Kerouac is considering Lower Manhattan. He’s on 3rd Avenue and 6th Street with Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and the Carr family, appearing to be partaking in the hippest meal of the day, brunch, in all his casual glory. While Ginsberg takes care of pleasantries and corrals all in attendance, he makes special check-ins with his notoriously moody friend, coming up to him here and there to speak quietly and closely. Maybe it’s my imagination, but Kerouac seems to be appeasing Ginsberg with this midday family outing. It seems he might feel uncomfortable with the camera on him. We see something rumbling and threatening to surface as he smokes pensively, surveys the landscape of the city — a longtime friend and muse — and examines small details, like the peephole of a door.
They enter a long-gone diner called Harmony. If you stumble after Kerouac’s footsteps in New York, you'll find that so many of his old haunts are long-gone. So close but so far away now are the Cedar Tavern, closed in 2008, and the Holiday Club on St. Marks, closed just a few years ago. The seedy Automats and smoke filled Hector's cafeteria are so distant it's hard to visualize their Bohemian scene at all. Even in this film reel on 3rd Ave, Kerouac must be a little annoyed by the urban landscape in flux — a big, imposing construction going up where something undoubtedly full of history has been razed, right behind him.
The city he loved was dying then, in 1958, as it’s dying today, dying all the time. We bemoan that all the coolest parts of our city are turning to ash and wistful memory, probably much like Kerouac did. We shake our fists (okay, discreetly roll our eyes and snidely comment) at the condos, chain drug stores and franchises that rise from that ash. But this is how an enormous city like New York functions: mostly blind to its own romance. The city sure can be a cruel mistress to its struggling artists, who writhe in anguish every time a classical institution is ripped from our New York fantasy.
In Kerouac’s autobiographical collection of city scenes, Lonesome Traveler, you get the feeling that his New York is that hushed yet ecstatic conversation between the city’s grittiest, most absurdly hip or heartbreakingly real elements. Kerouac listens intently and records those vignettes we still experience today on the street, in the bars and … well, mostly in the bars. “Men do love bars and good bars should be loved,” said Kerouac. And from what I can tell, bars are the last remaining places one can go to experience a New York that Kerouac loved dearly. He chose some richly storied, sometimes very notorious venues in which to imbibe. And there’s no question he’s done his research, from bellying up with all kinds of characters at local saloons to keenly observing the Greenwich Village cafe crowd. And those scenes of fringe culture might have faded with the whitebread, ‘50s social standards at which the Beats were throwing up middle fingers to. But there will always be outsiders and the places they go to brood. We all have our favorites. If you’re feeling particularly anti-establishment, hedonistic or just world weary and nostalgic, take a stroll with Kerouac to a couple of these joints, some time-encapsulated and some reincarnated:
When I ask the barkeep about Kerouac, he quietly searches his memory but can't tell me anything for sure. But I have only two choices, he says: light ale or dark ale. Later he comes to find me sitting at a table in back, a book of poetry in hand that appears to document a bartenders' log going back to the beginning which, in McSorley's case, was before anyone was currently living was born, as the menu points out. The bartender brings my attention to an excerpt in the book, a log from 1958: "guy who wrote On the Road here with Sorrentino Blackburn and the writer bunch say its a good read." I tell him that’s fantastic and he says, “I think so, but I’m biased. I wrote it.” Sure enough, his photo is on the back. He’s worked at and lived above the pub since the early ‘70s, when he started the writing program at City College. Needless to say, if you want some history with your light or dark ale, ask for Geoffrey Bartholomew.
Not too many years before Kerouac frequented this tavern (now a bustling cafe bar), Dylan Thomas drank himself to death in a corner booth. The actual wooden bar is original, says the Sunday brunch bartender. Also original is the grandfather clock, which, like any bar clock past or present, is set a little early and mostly avoided by the eyes of patrons.
The Kettle today on Christopher Street? "With the exception of Lambeau Field, the Kettle of Fish is the best place to watch a Packer game" boasts its website. The Kettle of the 1950s MacDougal scene? A mix of the seedier element and the intellectual scene of Greenwich Village at that time: hoodlums, old timers, artists, beatniks and aspiring folk musicians like Bob Dylan, who played the bar’s underbelly stage, where the Beats were also known to read working poems aloud to discerning bohemians. Joyce Glassman, who stands basked in neon behind Kerouac in an iconic photograph of the poet outside of the Kettle, noted in her autobiography that Kerouac was badly beaten outside his beloved bar in 1958.
Looks very much now like it did when Kerouac frequented the coffee house, and much like it did before he ever planted a squat round the literary roundtable that’d been active there since its opening in 1927.
The Minetta you see today isn’t quite what it seems. This incarnation was born in 2009 and could be described as an upscale restaurant with old school aesthetic, but the original Minetta Tavern was an old Italian eatery with a cheap bar, home base to E. E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway before becoming one of Kerouac’s favorite spots. The distinctive neon sign outside is original, while the vibe inside has morphed into contemporary West Village chic.
Where better to write a novel about young, passionate, broke as hell artistic transients than an old Single Room Occupancy. This one at 5 West 8th Street, where Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans, still stands but is now a luxury hotel.
Cafe Bohemia/Barrow Street AleHouse
Craft beer and pub food calls Villagers to the Ale House these days, but the Cafe Bohemia Kerouac frequented in the ‘50s made live record history many times over in the jazz world. The New York jazz scene wasn’t just where the Beats would go for solace and inspiration; it was inextricable from what would become their historical collective identity.
This one might be up for question: This grungy old corner bar isn't commonly associated with Kerouac or the other Beats, but there is photographic evidence Kerouac hung out right here, caught candidly outside the bar by his pal and East Village inhabitant for many years, Ginsberg, in a series of photos that also includes Kerouac goofing off while striding past Tompkins Square Park (top of page).
Cafe Le Metro/The 13th Step
Yelpers describe this spot today as a “college bar” complete with beer pong. Such is St. Mark’s these days. But in the 1950s, St. Marks was the epicenter of bohemian lifestyle. Here, between the West and East villages, poets like Ginsberg and Kerouac would regularly give readings. If you ask me, the energy of St. Marks is still pretty thick with creative residual — you just have to stand there and close your mind’s eye to the modern day array of cheap alternative wear and even cheaper pizza joints.
Pony Stable Inn/Washington Square Diner
Though the Beats weren’t known for raising up their female counterparts, they were taken in by this landmark lesbian bar, one of the first in New York City. Gregory Corso worked here, and Ginsberg and Kerouac would visit him to write poetry at a special table. Sounds pretty charming. Today this is just a classic diner space, but one can contemplate gender equality in the arts over a reasonably priced cup of coffee under the very roof that sheltered this unlikely pairing of clientele in mid 20th century New York.
Know of any other joints frequented by Jack Kerouac and the Beats? Tells us all about it in the comments below or add it directly to our collaborative Google Map!
Shannon Moore Shepherd is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She also contributes to Atlas Obscura. She received a BA in English Literature with a Creative Writing Focus from Bradley University in her hometown of Peoria, Illinois.
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