JOHN THOMAS: A POEM AND A PORTRAIT
Selected Work by Venice Poets
I didn't know. Never met him. Only saw him once -- not much
more than a glimpse, then. And he surely wasn't at his best
What night? Back in 1959 -- late summer, if memory serves
me. In Venice. I was running the Gas House and cooking free
meals twice a day for some twenty artists, sculptors, writers.
Well, Bill Riola came bopping in from the Ocean Front, looking
even more amped than usual.
"Hey, man!" he said to me. "Kerouac's out there!"
"Kerouac? Really? Where?"
Bill drew me to the front door and pointed up to the Match
Box, a lesbian bar a block away. "See 'em all up there?
They been drinking their way to Larry Lipton's pad. Wanna
go to Larry's? Come on!"
And it was Jack, with a few hangers-on. They were obviously
drunk. Jack was shit-faced. He was trudging along, swigging
wine from a half-gallon jug. White port and lemon juice
it was, by later report. As they headed north towards Park
Avenue and Larry's place, he periodically burped loudly
and yelled out into the night.
"I'm a genius! I'm a fuckin' genius!" Over and over. "Listen,
I'm a genius!" They disappeared into the Match Box, only
to emerge again, cursing, in a New York minute. Scotty,
the double-tough night bartender, would serve no man. The
only time I'd gone in, she'd hefted a machete. God's truth.
After that I drank (when I drank) at the Bamboo Hut. Peaceful.
Just outlaw bikers. "Well, fuck you, too!" Kerouac shouted
as they left. "You just eighty-sixed America's greatest
living writer! I'm a genius!"
I turned and headed back to the Gas House kitchen, where
I'd been cooking barracuda chowder. "I'll pass, Bill, but
you go ahead. You can tell me about it tomorrow." Which
he did. And since Larry Lipton taped everything, I heard
the entire evening months later. Not inspiring. Essentially
it was Larry asking lame questions and Jack repeating (you
knew already, right?), "I'm a fuckin'genius!"
Later, I did try white port and lemon juice. Just once.
I don't recommend it. But let me lay three truths on you.
Truth: I loathe most drunks. I detest them. A personal prejudice
I can't overcome. Truth: Kerouac brought a great new spirit
to America ... and reading him surely changed my life. Truth:
he was -- at least in several of his books he was -- a lovely
writer. As he yelled to Scotty that summer night, Jack was
a fucking genius. John Thomas
(from a recently completed unfinished work called "Beat
Portraits" by John Thomas)