Remembering Jack Kerouac

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[A friend of the author of "On the Road," published 50 years ago this month, tells why the novel still matters.]

One snowy January night in 1957, I found myself in a Howard Johnson's in Greenwich Village buying a hot dog and baked beans for a virtually unknown writer named Jack Kerouac. It was a blind date arranged by Allen Ginsberg, who always looked out for his male friends. As Allen no doubt saw it, Jack needed a place in New York to stay for a while until he could take off for Tangier, and I was that rare thing—a girl who had her own apartment.

My independence at 21 would not be questioned now, but in the 1950s it was definitely the wrong way for an unmarried woman to be living, though nothing would have induced me to go back to my parents. By day, I typed rejection letters for a literary agent, for $50 a week; by night, I was working on a novel about a college student so intent on breaking through the glass wall that seems to separate her from real life that she decides to lose her virginity as a kind of gratuitous act. At Barnard, my creative writing professor had chided me for being "a little existentialist." "Oh, you girls have such dreary little lives," he told his discouraged female students. I was sure he would be horrified at the way young women were depicted in my book.

Just a few months before I met Kerouac, my boss at the agency had given me the task of clearing her shelves of books by former clients. One book destined for the Salvation Army pile was Jack's first novel, The Town and the City, which had been published in 1950. My boss remembered him well—"crazy and impossible." In his jacket photo, though, he looked quietly intense and appealingly melancholy. I left the office that evening with his novel under my arm, opened it on the subway and sat up reading it most of the night. I remember feeling that I had discovered a writer who knew all about me—about my restlessness, my struggle to leave home, my feeling of being somewhat orphaned and adrift yet open to what life had to offer.

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