“Desolation Angels”, a Review

Finished reading Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” (1965), after 4 months of lugging it around in my backpack and car (I find books difficult to read with my current lifestyle, and would have better success if I ignored all the other humans in my vicinity).

In this, Kerouac through his proxy Jack Dolouz begins this chapter of his journey on top of Mount Desolation, on a 3-month summer stint on fire watch for the forestry service. He had hoped to take his mountaintop wisdom from “Dharma Bums” and parlay that into a total Zen Buddhist experience of living alone to think, to watch, to dream, to write, to get in touch with the immortal and ephemeral alike. What we find is Jack struggling with day-to-day ritual, with his only link to humanity being a twice-daily radio network and an occasional supply drop from above.

As Jack descends from the mountaintop, his only goal is to approach the world (via Seattle, San Francisco, Mexico City, New Orleans, New York, Washington DC, Algiers, Morocco, Florida, Berkeley), with new eyes and hungry mouth, longing to take it all in. What he finds is that none of it approaches his highest hopes.

In this book, we find Jack doing a middle-aged about-face. In his search for kicks, it smacks him full-faced and all he wants to do is stop traveling and live a quiet life in his mother’s home. By the end, we find him rhapsodizing about the simple life of his mother, how she quietly mends his torn clothes and admonishes him to stay away from Allan Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs. He turns around and reveals that, in her quiet ways, she has become the Boddhisatva, the holy one, and that the only life to which anyone should achieve is quietude.

Personally, I have not had as many extreme, soul-filling, body-killing experiences as the young Kerouac. I haven’t sowed my wild oats as far as he. So, ultimately, I don’t share his view, but I kinda do. At 47, I realize that there is no way that I, an old creeper in a college town, could find my kicks and get enough fulfillment out of life to the point where I’m saying, “I think I’ll just chill out and write for the rest of my life.” I wish it were the case.

Unfortunately, 47 is also the age our very own Jack Kerouac took his own life. He had found his bitter peace. I wonder what the world would’ve been like had he passed of natural causes.

This book is also the point where we see Jack’s acidic critique of the beatnik subculture he helped create. He was weary of their tenacious “coolness”, as if they saw their own disaffection as a virtue. Jack was about getting hot into the now, baby. Putting on black clothes, wearing goatees and saying, “Charlie Parker should’ve been more reserved” really, really stuck in his craw. The Buddha felt everything with full force; how could these poseurs not see that?

[58] My money came and it was time to go but there’s poor Irwin at midnight calling up to me from the garden “Come on down Jack-Kee, there’s a big bunch of hipsters and chicks from Paris in Bull’s room.” And just like in New York or Frisco or anywhere there they are all hunching around in marijuana smoke, talking, the cool girls with long thin legs in slacks, the men with goatees, all an enormous drag after all and at the time (1957) not even started yet officially with the name of “Beat Generation.” To think that I had so much to do with it, too, in fact at that very moment the manuscript of Road was being linotyped for imminent publication and I was already sick of the whole subject. Nothing can be more dreary than “coolness” (not Irwin’s cool, or Bull’s or Simon’s, which is natural quietness) but postured, actually secretly rigid coolness that covers up the fact that the character is unable to convey anything of force or interest, a kind of sociological coolness soon to become a fad up into the mass of middleclass youth for awhile. There’s even a kind of insultingness, probably unintentional, like when I said to the Paris girl just fresh she said from visiting a Persian Shah for Tiger hunt “Did you actually shoot the tiger yourself?” she gave me a cold look as tho I’d just tried to kiss her at the window of a Drama School. Or tried to trip the Huntress. Or something. But all I could do was sit on the edge of the bed in despair like Lazarus listening to their awful “likes” and “like you know” and “wow crazy” and “a wig, man” “a real gas” — All this was about to sprout out all over America even down to High School level and be attributed in part to my doing! But Irwin paid no attention to all that and just wanted to know what they were thinking anyway.

Acidically brutal.

Sometimes, real truth, real holiness, is in being quiet. And I hope, one day, I can be satisfied, and find that quietude.

A Continental Series of Tubes

By the way, Paris Metro subways are beautiful and not as sketchy as one would read, even though it might be smart to keep your belongings as close to you as possible. The stations are wide like squashed ovals, and have lots of seating and signage. Don’t expect to lay down if you’re stuck in the station for long. Also, prepare for lots of gates and stairs.

Paris Metro, Mabillon station

London Underground tube subways are claustrophobic as Hell, and you really do feel how small and constricted the tunnels actually are. The walls of the cars are not straight; they are rounded to fit the tube, which means you don’t have much floor for standing during peak ridership. Ventilation isn’t great, either. Also, some of the stations are so deep underground, you have to take an elevator and several escalators just to reach surface. Get comfortable with that, and you will be able to go anywhere.

London, Piccadilly Circus station

London has the Oyster card; get one and preload it with fare money, because you are charged between turnstiles, from the station into which you enter the transit system to the station from which you leave the transit system. You tap the card to login, and tap to logout and be charged.

Berlin’s U-Bahn is large and spacious, but trundles with an unknown speed. The stations are frequent, and usually lined with glossy tile, giving the typical Berlin vibe of clean-everything. The S-Bahn overground stations are elevated and as airy as airplane hangars. And the biggest station is the HauptBahnhoff, even though Zoologischer Station is the previous king of West Berlin.

Berlin S-Bahn (S5) line
Berlin, Potsdamer Platz U-Bahn station
Berlin, Potsdamer Platz S-Bahn station

Berlin (and most European cites) require you to handle your tickets in the two-step method: 1) purchase the pass (usually 1 day), and then (most importantly) 2) validate your pass, which starts the timer on the ticket’s usefulness. If you buy a ticket but don’t validate it, you will get fined and/or kicked off the train by Kontrol. The validation machine is usually next to the ticket vending kiosk. And the Kontrollers usually don’t have uniforms; they’re in street clothes, and you will only know them by their badges and their handheld ticket verification devices. There are no turnstiles, so fare revenue is guaranteed only under the honor system of random Kontrol.

Zurich HBf

Zürich’s train stations are lined with steel, concrete, and shiny grey marble, and everything is as clean as a church bus and as punctual as you’d expect from Swiss time. The analog clocks at every platform have a second hand that runs fast and pauses at the top of the minute until a timing signal is sent down the line to start the next minute. That’s what you use to synchronize your wristwatch. The outside platforms have lots of overhead shelters, because it’s generally rainy there.

Zurich S4 S-Bahn station
Köln U-Bahn station

Finally, Köln (Cologne) has an U-Bahn/S-Bahn/Tram system that works very well, keeps great time, and gets you to most places in the city. Be prepared to wait a while on the platform, and you will be rewarded with a busy but clean ride.

Köln U/S-Bahn, route 18, Barbarossaplatz station

Filed under Travel Tips for Newbies and Yanks of All Stripes.

Fold, Stack, Wipe, Wash

One observation I have about Europe is how common it is for residents to have cloth napkins at their dinner tables. I don’t mean the thick, rich satin, fine-dining cloth napkins; I mean basic, all-cotton square cloths. Bedsheet material. Most households have holders for them on their tables, like a flat dish or tray, usually with a rock or hinged weight on top, for easy dispensing.

And you use your cloth all day, multiple meals. That’s why it’s important, and clever, to make your cloths out of a multitude of different prints and styles and mix them up, so your household members remember which is theirs throughout the day.

Then, when the day’s done, or when the cloth is so soiled it’s no longer useful, you toss it in the laundry and clean it to use again. Wash, hang, dry, repeat.

We stayed with a handful of people who made their own, and it’s a source of pride for some. They picked a random selection of cut-off fabric leftovers, took them home, ran a serge seam around the edge, and boom, no more paper napkins.

Me, I’m just a bachelor living alone, but lately I’ve had a change of heart about using fabric napkins. I carry a handkerchief of some sort in my backpack, and I can’t tell you how often it has come in handy (it’s a lot). So why not have some at home?

I think Europeans’ love for fabric napkins comes from necessity; many cities and nations have strict laws about landfill trash. Some places require residents to buy barcoded stickers for their bags. Others just don’t have large dumpsters or frequent service, and your options for throwing away lots of waste are limited and certainly not cheap. So you have to cut back, improvise, and be smart.

Several times on our trip we carried our trash with us as we checked out of the B&B. Being a group of 4, we generated a fair share of it. So in order to not be a financial burden on our B&B hosts (who would certainly pass the fee to us), we trucked our stuff out, and part of our transit to the next train was finding the nearest recycling receptacle. If we couldn’t dump our landfill trash somewhere nearby, we’d carry it to the station.

It’s small things like this that matter. If I’m only using paper napkins to wipe my mouth and hands while eating, do I really need a paper towel when a cloth would do?