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by Paul Esposito
This past weekend, at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, I had the pleasure of learning more about Neal Cassady and his relationship with Denver. To quote Birthday Bash organizer Mark Bliesener, “This is the most important 20th century pop culture figure to come out of Colorado,” ranking above John Denver, Elway, and though not mentioned, The Frozen Dead Guy.
The panel dug in on what brought Neal Cassady his iconic status as part of the Beat Generation and the central role Denver played in their antics. If that was all the night brought, it would’ve been worth the money. (Note: It was free, even the beer and pizza!)
Cassady documentarian Heather Dalton and author Jon Leslie attended. Read about her documentary film “Neal Cassady: The Denver Years” and give Jon a pat on the back for his book Down in Denver. His story on publishing is as brutal as you’ll hear. Hopefully, both of their Cassady-centric projects will get the recognition they deserve. Then, we can all forget the Hollywood treatment of On the Road a few years back, shall we?
As I slogged through my corporate job, I thought about things like, What makes growing up in America such a unique and cherished, but also risky endeavor? I recently watched “Boyhood” which showed the dangerous traps that exist growing up in America. The kid in that story missed most traps, while Neal fell in every one.
I was nineteen in 1991, starting a summer internship at an acquired mortgage company outside of Hartford, Connecticut, where everyone was waiting for their ‘package’. I was left gasping. Is this what a degree in finance gets me? Nineteen is the age where life gives you the “full frontal.” That summer, I was accosted by On the Road. I started to question what kind of game was out there. It exposed me to acts, both beautiful and heinous, as well as drugs, equally beautiful and heinous. I mean, I grew up as the youngest of five siblings of the seventies, so I saw people with “Neal-like” characteristics. There were legends with legendary stories who met a similar fate. What would happen if I unleashed one of my small town legends “… on the road”?
As many of us have learned at Lighthouse Workshops, exposition and backstory, when properly wielded, can be used quite effectively. We just leak out enough, then keep the rest until the reader is burning to know. It was fun to be reminded about Sonny Lawson Field, East High, the curb near the courts, the “Cassady Tour” at Denver.org, and since he was such an avid reader, The McNichols Building (formerly the library). We found out that during the naming process for the new library on West Colfax, Neal Cassady’s name was considered.
Hearing the history added so many elements to a city I love. However, the unknown backstory is what really grabbed me. Neal Cassady’s early destitute life on skid row in Denver was tough, as was staying fed, surviving sexual abuse, and an alcoholic father. The backstory paints another image and answers some questions. What compounded the hurt, particularly because I have a third daughter due, was hearing from Neal’s daughters, Cathy and Jami. Their view presented a stark contrast to Kerouac’s. The sisters were as surreal to us as we were to them. From their perspective, Neal was their disappearing father who left a ton of pain and emotional scars, but also some amazing times. To the audience, not just those present, but also according to plenty of website dedications across the globe, he is a uniquely American icon, representing a fascinating legacy. My generation had Tyler Durden, the Chuck Palahniuk creation, raging against the confines of modern America. The Beats had Neal Cassady, a kinder, gentler “prankster,” but a real human, with a family, and there were his daughters on the panel in front of us.
My grandfather traveled in Vaudeville in the 1920’s, but my father hid his travel logs until it was “safe.” I asked the sisters how they came to discover the backstory. That’s when we heard about Neal disappearing for years, showing up occasionally to roughhouse with the kids. He sometimes brought around Uncle Jack and Uncle Allen, Kerouac and Ginsberg respectively. Periodic good times, but the kids didn’t know about the writing. They didn’t know what they were part of until their teens. The last time Neal Cassady was seen by his oldest daughter was when his first grandchild was born. He showed up in Texas looking ancient, though only in his early forties. He then disappeared to Mexico where he was found unconscious by train tracks. He died hours after.
The romanticized San Francisco scene held epic stories of hard partying and the early spirit of tasting what American has to offer. The Beats were in deep and it ended badly. An audience member mentioned that Neal was a pioneer, pushing the sixties onto the fifties, then the seventies onto the sixties. Like anyone fighting for a cause, the risk is that everything is sacrificed, including family and self. Seeing Neal’s two beautiful daughters, who lived full adult lives, reflect on life without a father, it is easy to feel conflicted. Their father and their childhood were sacrificed, yet so many millions of kids hold him up as the icon who showed that the world is there to be absorbed. We may owe it to his daughters, and their father’s sacrifice, that we are still a country of alternative cultures reaching past creative and cultural boundaries. Read On the Road, or any Beat writings, and you won’t be “forever a lost ball in the high weeds of personal developments.” But his daughters are there for us as the counterbalance—take it too far and all is lost.
I’m excited to read Carolyn Cassady’s perspective in Off the Road to bring the tales together. Thank you Lighthouse for a chance to make Denver, and all of its stories, a bigger part of the world my girls will grow up in.
Paul Esposito is a NYC transplant currently living and writing in Denver, Colorado. He is the youngest of five children, a husband and a father of two. His writing is influenced and inspired by fifteen years in New York City along with thirty or so trips to India.