Observant readers of this blog post will quickly point out that Jack Kerouac died in 1969. Fair point, but in my recent travels I did come across Jack Kerouac Alley and, curiously enough, a poet for hire. I watched a few people pass by him, and just before he was about to get up to take a break over a cold beer in the bar next door, my curiosity made me wander over.
Wikipedia tells us that Kerouac is known for his ability to come up with “spontaneous prose”. This particular writer, Ben Aleshire, said he only needed to know a bit about me and he’d have a personalized poem for me within 10 minutes.
My first reaction was that this would be some sort of gimmick or scam, but after reading a few lines from a book of his recent poems that he had published, I quickly realized that I was in the company of a very talented writer. Perhaps trust is something that I need to work on, especially had I known the outcome of this particular meeting beforehand.
I told Ben that I was a photographer and that my wife and baby daughter were back home, and that I missed them very much. I told him that I was taking pictures of strangers on the street but that with each shutter press I wished it was my family in front of the lens. He immediately connected with that sentiment and went to work.
During the time he was at work, Ben was unfazed. He looked left and right and very deliberately typed his lines when lightning struck. It was not fast typing, it was extremely calculated and thought out. He had as much control over his typewriter as a painter does with his brush. The permanence of the ink slapping the custom yellow paper and searing Ben’s creative sparks onto the page was charming. Vinyl records - film photography - typewriters: there’s a reason that these are preferred by more and more people nowadays over their digital equivalents. Sometimes convenience and speed can be an enemy to a creative pursuit.
I took a few more photographs of the surrounding area and the space that made up Jack Kerouac Alley, including a shot of a beautiful newlywed couple that I couldn’t keep myself from poaching:
It turns out that Kerouac himself frequently visited the Vesuvio cafe at this corner. I wouldn’t know it until later, but this alley was only recently converted to a pedestrian-only walkway dedicated to Kerouac. On one end of the alley you have north San Francisco and Chinatown on the other. Indeed, one feels like you can go from the West to the Far East just by walking through this alley. Case in point, the photos below: one of the newlywed couple and the streets of San Francisco at one end of the alley (Western world) on the left, and one of the scene you’d find at the other end of the alley (Far East) on the right:
At one point, I lined up a portrait of Ben while he worked on my poem and he glanced my way. “Oh snap!” he said, “Are you shooting 120?” I knew I liked this guy…
Just about 10 minutes later I had the poem in my hands, with the promise that if I liked it I could pay whatever I wanted for it. I read it once. Then twice. Jack Kerouac may not have been there that day, but the “spontaneous prose” that Ben produced was as eloquent and fulfilling as I’d ever read. It resonated with me instantly. Ben began to attract more business so I happily paid what I could and took my new poem with me, clutching the yellow piece of paper carefully so as not to bend it. I made sure to send more people his way as I continued down the street. “He’s the real deal!” I remember enthusiastically proclaiming to one couple who noticed his sign.
I’ve copied the poem below so that you can read it, and I highly encourage you to look more into Ben’s web site and more of his work (linked below the poem).
Side note. You should know what the following word means before you read the first line of the poem. I consider myself to have a pretty decent grasp of the English language, but obviously Ben has an even better grasp!
a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather.
— For Amanda + Abby
City Lights, S.F.
by Benjamin Aleshire
I read the poem repeatedly as I walked away, only looking back once to see more people approaching Ben for work. I don’t know if he ever did get a chance to get up and get the beer that he had been wanting.
After researching more about Jack Kerouac and that famous alley where I met Ben, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that this mysterious poet for hire that I happened to come across had vanished into thin air had I looked back a second time.
35mm photos: Fuji Superia 800 on a Ricoh GR1s
120mm photos: Fuji 400h (pushed to 800) on a Bronica SQ-A / 80mm PS f/2.8