Until quite recently, I had never really been anywhere. New York is a cluttered place where everything I could ever need is in the palm of my hand.
And in that cluttered place, the 1 train meanders along the West Side. Taking it all the way downtown is the slowest way for me to get home, but it’s the one I used to take most often. I would get off at Christopher Street on the opposite side of the city and aimlessly walk east, passing my old library and the local elementary school on the corner of 11th Street and Sixth Avenue. If I was really looking to wander, I would pass the Washington Square Park Dog Run and watch for hours at a time. Eventually, I would make it to the East Side and encounter the church I have always lived adjacent to. During the warmer months, I used to sit in the church’s courtyard and draw for hours—ironic, a young Jew finding solace in a church.
I grew up a measly 7.5 miles away from my former college dorm. I knew the hills and busted concrete of Morningside Heights before I ever called the neighborhood home. I can recount memories of the black cherry trees that line the old hiking trails of Riverside Park and remember Sundays when the subway would skip my stop and small piles of snow would melt in my boots as I trudged home, leaving my toes cold and damp.
Morningside Heights was part of my city, a part of my borough even, but it still felt like a faraway place—one that required me to take two subway lines and a bus to reach. It was close enough to be a very long walk, but the thought of planning train transfers and exposing myself to the cold for the bus was enough to keep me away.
I mostly read on public transportation, calmed by the quick rumble and the anonymity afforded by being packed in like a sardine. I experienced On the Road for the first time in high school on a long Megabus home from a choir trip. I was then around half the age that Sal Paradise will eternally remain, but my naïveté did not translate into blind emulation. Sal caused havoc on every stop of his trip, but I sunk into my corner seat of the M1 bus as it passed the Christmas lights that flickered across Fifth Avenue.
I have never felt close to Jack Kerouac. He may be considered one of Columbia’s greatest, but I see none of my experience in his. Kerouac let himself fall apart when things got hard—he broke his leg in the second game of his first-year football season and moaned about it until the green grass turned to brown and the leaves drifted off the trees. He did not leave his room in Wallach Hall for the rest of the semester and did not play another game during his Columbia career due to his constant arguments with the administration. I don’t think I have that in me, even though I wish I did.
I had no empathy for Sal, for Kerouac, or for the pages reeking of masculinity. This was a book meant for future financial analysts looking to feel something. I was a pretentious English major who felt too much, so On the Road was not the right fit.
And yet, since my fateful trip on the choir bus, I have read On the Road on six different Megabuses, on a Greyhound on which the passengers held a mutiny against the driver, in three different libraries, on the Math Lawn, and now on my childhood bed, watching as the world seemingly goes on and I am back where I was before my life ever truly began. I cannot tell you why, but something about On the Road continues to draw me back time and time again.
Those opportunities to read on the Fifth Avenue bus route or a 1 train trip downtown are now long gone. I could if I truly wanted to, but I would be riding to nowhere in the middle of a pandemic, taking a risk for $2.75 worth of pleasure.
I last read On the Road back in my dorm room during what feels like a lifetime ago. As I sat on my mattress, where I held oh-so-many hands, I felt pity for Sal Paradise—pity for Kerouac—as he left all the hands he held behind.
At present, however, I feel envy in place of pity. I want to run away; I don’t want to feel nostalgic for hands I cannot hold. I want to be somewhere else, on a bus traveling aimlessly toward anywhere. Most importantly, I want to be back in that dorm room feeling bad for a fictional character and a dead man instead of getting an inkling that they have begun to feel bad for me. It’s hard to believe that I underestimated the power of 7.5 miles: that span of land encompasses a new life abandoned, an old life returned, and regret for not seeing a trip on the 1 train as more than 45 minutes to sit and read.
I felt the need to read On the Road more than ever at some point during this pandemic. I needed to witness travel, interaction, and change. I slowly began understanding Kerouac’s desire to travel because he could not mature at home. I sat at home and felt stagnant, my headspace confined to my bedroom, unable to think past its four walls.
Though I have never felt close to Jack Kerouac, I have recently found myself embodying some false sense of him, as if his yearnings were my own. I’ve spent the majority of my time at Columbia writing sports articles for the same publication, walking the same streets, and reading the same assigned books for class that he did. I feel cynical, stuck. I struggle with what it means to truly grow up.
And, in short, that’s why Sal initially goes on the road: to finally grow up. Each time I came back to the book, I felt his exhilaration as he took off for the first time, witnessed him grow more disillusioned with every trip, and watched as he realized things were better back at home. Perhaps you don’t need to leave everyone behind, or chase people and ideas, in order to become someone.
I squandered all of the months I spent cooped up in my apartment. Now, pangs of regret consume my thoughts as I ponder why I devoted so much time to staring out windows and hoping to return back to my new life at college when I had opportunities waiting for me at home. I felt stymied while wrapped up in the familiar, sacrificing time for spite toward a pandemic that does not care about my anger. Most days I felt—and still feel—stupid, and then I feel angry for feeling stupid, and then I feel stupid for feeling angry, and so on. I couldn’t reconcile how I was supposed to become an adult when I hadn’t figured out what exactly that meant. I was still in my new life. Why was I so afraid of experiencing elements of my old one?
At this point, I can barely remember the sensation of walking down a crowded College Walk. I can recall bright flashes of feelings more than anything else, spending the entirety of each semester with people—no meal eaten alone, no quiet study times. For the last 10 months, there has been a lot more time spent eating alone. Now I have returned to campus, and yet I am still eating along.
My big Sal Paradise coming of age will have to wait—hopefully not as long as Sal waited. However, it was not like my college life was a picture-perfect-YA-novel experience of growing up. Distance had not made me into a new person, as living away from home did not equate to a growth in maturity. In my months-long desire to return to campus, I was foolish and naïve in not dabbling with the idea that perhaps life would not resume to where it was when I lug my bags up the stairs of my dormitory building. Returning to campus would not bring my great moment of self-actualization, just as my return home to the East Village would not hinder it.
Perhaps, instead of becoming a new person, I just began to grow up and put a wrench in that myself, creating a false equivalency between home and immaturity. I don’t have a Dean Moriarty to pull me into the dark side of reckless decision-making, but I have a tendency to come undone when things get too hard and encourage myself to run away.
Just as much as On the Road is about finding yourself, it’s also about losing yourself in the aftermath. After creating a mess and leaving everyone and everything behind, Sal always hops on a bus back to New Jersey to the safety of his childhood home. Every time he searches for liberation, he finds it, but he goes too far and must return to aimless wandering. I guess I do that too.
Sal has the bus back home; I have the 1 train. I don’t hitchhike to the other side of the country when things get rough, but instead, I catastrophize and travel inside myself. The cost-effectiveness makes it far more dangerous.
I can’t help but feel some bond to the fleetingness of On the Road. My lifetime of trips has only just begun, but in doing so, a former lifetime had to come to an end. This is the requiem.
And here I sit on my dorm bed, a copy of On the Road stuffed between the frame and the drawers beneath. Locked in the Spectator office sits a plastic teal nightstand with the train ticket stubs from all the places I’ve been, postcards from places I want to go, and a small crumpled up photo of the church across from my childhood home stuffed into the top drawer. Those markers of distance hold my ambitions to run, but also remind me that my biggest feat was moving up half of a half-marathon to a neighborhood even more sterile than my own.
Situated between the black cherry trees of my youth and the University buildings of my present, I felt lost. However, I was able to tell myself that my feelings of confusion were just “growing pains” of becoming a real adult. Back home between my dusty bookshelf and the window looking out on the church, I feel just as lost. When I drag my suitcase up the stairs of the 116th Street station, I don’t predict those feelings will change. However, now I am not afraid of returning downtown when the time does come. Distance has not made me wiser, but perhaps time will.
However, I continue to fantasize about taking the easy way out. I flit between images of cities and open roads and the people who inhabit both. I look at bus schedules and tickets I will never buy—if I could, I wouldn’t. I am still around a decade younger than Sal Paradise, but I’d like to believe that I’ve learned more. There is no point in running away; I have already been on the road enough, even within the span of 7.5 miles.
I have written more sports articles than Kerouac ever did. I have never been out West and have no imminent plans to do so. I am nothing like this man, the legend he created, or the bruised legacy he left behind. I hope to never become him, either. Kerouac died angry, drunk, and far removed from his prime. Gone were the days of Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury, replaced with a musty Florida town and a deep antagonism toward politics. He didn’t just grow up; he grew old. He was no longer the same person who wandered the hallowed halls of Columbia decades ago. Will I ever forget the feeling of walking up to the seventh floor of Hamilton? Did he?
I will never love Jack Kerouac, just as I’m sure he would never love me. My life can be defined by trips spanning only one borough of New York, unlike his chauvinistic romps across the country. And yet, I feel nostalgic for his antique Americana that never existed because maybe, just maybe, it’ll teach me how to grow up.
As I prepared to formally depart my childhood bedroom for a neighborhood I knew so well, I no longer felt the urge to separate the two. A week before I was once again given a room key and a meal plan, I had an inkling, an urge, a desire. I took out my MetroCard and let the steady pace of the subway carry me to the black cherry trees. It was the middle of the night, but there was one more place I wanted to read—it was the other side of home.
So on Low Steps as the sun finally rises and I sit on the antiquated neoclassical stairs watching the emerging, emerging sun over Butler Library, I think of Jack Kerouac. I think about young Jack Kerouac as a simple sportswriter before On the Road. I think of Jack Kerouac.
Enjoy leafing through our first issue!