The Bona Fide Beat Train

Denverites don't know it, but there's a bona fide Beat train that stops at the corner of 16th & California downtown. (Hey, eat before you head north: 50 yards north of the stop is Vietnamna, where the lemongrass beef rice noodle bowl is fast, cheap and supreme; or right at the stop is Anthony's NY-style pizza (it's poyfect)). While you're standing there trying to fold the slice for proper mouth entry, look across the street -- you're looking at the old Denver Dry building, where the Denver Dry Goods Company was the prime department store for years. Two months after The Town and the City was published, Jack Kerouac did a book signing in here in May, 1950, before heading down to Mexico. The photograph on page 52 of Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee's Jack's Book was taken at the signing by Justin Brierly, who through the years was Neal Cassady's mentor. For at least the last ten years of its existence, The Denver Dry Goods book department was in the basement of the building where, appropriately enough, there's still a book store. So as you wander downstairs in Media Play's book department, you're probably standing where Kerouac did one of his first (and rare) book signings.

It's time to finish your pizza and quit gawking at the building across the street so you can get on the train (Important: watch for the one that says "30th and Downing"). The train will head straight north for two and half blocks before making its first right turn on 19th Street. Look out the left window and you'll see Holy Ghost Church, where Neal Cassady was baptized in 1936 and spent three years as an altar boy. Starting here, you're also following, almost exactly, Neal's route to his elementary school as he documents it in The First Third. As the train turns left, look quickly to your right. The intersection of 20th and Court Place doesn't exist anymore but if it did, it'd be there: Neal and his family lived here briefly in 1930 when Neal was four. It's not an entirely a non-Beat moment: you're looking at the corner of 20th and Lincoln, where at age 18, just months after graduating from high school in Minnesota, Bob Dylan played in the late summer or fall of 1960, at the Exodus Gallery Bar, at 1999 Lincoln -- the building stands but it's not likely to stand much longer. He stayed in Denver for only a few weeks before trying a semester at the University of Minnesota and then moving on to New York City. He was a full year away from anything even approaching fame. It's not unreasonable to interpret Dylan's arrival in Denver as a reaction to reading On The Road -- of all the cities Dylan could have moved to in 1960 -- Denver's folk scene was no more amazing than any other midwestern city -- he chose Denver.

As you move onto Welton, the Denverites on the train will think you're nuts for jumping from side to side, but between 22nd and 23rd you'll want to be on the right side of the train. Over vacant lots you'll be able to see the playground of Ebert Elementary (410 West Park Avenue), where Neal Cassady went to school for five years. It was in Ebert's library that Neal went again and again for a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo and began to devour books. As you glimpse 23rd street, look over at the boarded-up storefronts and a funky little sky-blue boarded-up shop. This is where Cassady's family first lived in 1928 when coming to Denver -- part barber shop, part shoe repair shop, with way too many Cassadys living in way too little space. Look down 23rd Street (Park Avenue West, now) as you cross and you'll see the front of Ebert Elementary.

Okay, quickly now, look left at the baseball field (23rd and Welton) -- if it's early evening, chances are that there's a game in progress, but this is the field Kerouac wrote about in On The Road; and Cassady walked through this field every day on his way to school when he stayed with his mother. Kerouac watched a baseball game one night here at age 27 in the summer of 1949 during his solitary search for Dean Moriarty, taking essential notes for OTR. Considering all his years as a boy in this neighborhood, it's probable that Cassady played many baseball games on this field.

As you cross 24th Street you enter Denver's Five Points district, where Kerouac came chasing Cassady and Cassady came chasing jazz. On your left you'll see The Roxy and The Casino, and on your right at 27th (the five-corner ground zero spot) you'll see the famous Rossonian, now empty and waiting for new life (last summer Andy Garcia, James Caan and Treat Williams shot parts of Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (thanks, Mr. Zevon) in the Rossonian, and at 27th & Welton)-- all spots where Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and many others played in the twenties, thirties and forties. When you think of the linkages between jazz and the Beats, and Cassady's influence on Kerouac, Denver starts to have an even stronger role in the development of the Beat Generation. Cassady caught some of the last of the great jazz in the early forties, and when he first dated Carolyn in 1947 she mentions going to the Rossonian and Neal recommends it to Kerouac at a later date), but by '49 Kerouac complained that there was no bop in Denver (he's been introduced to the area by Ed White and Hal Chase two years earlier). In the first chapter of On The Road, Kerouac writes about his thoughts on the corner of 27th and Welton during the '49 visit. Kerouac's ethnic nomenclature dates him, big-time, but the passage documents a unique American middle-point between alienation and integration: it wasn't about ethnicity, but about lostness, beatitude, being Beat.

And if you didn't eat before you got on the Beat Train, there is supreme food to be had in Five Points: Brown Sugar's Burgers n' Bones at 24th and Welton provides massive rib/burger portions and the juke box has old Al Green singles -- need I say any more? Ethel's House of Soul is sublime at 26th and Welton, and Zona's Tamales at 27th, across from the Rossonian, is the place for anything: from holy tamales and ribs to that pig's ear sandwich that's had your ame on it all these years. There's a sundries store on the east side of Welton, just up from Ethel's, and now and then (bright, clear mornings) the owner turns the outside speakers on and the street is filled with jazz, and R&B classics. One Saturday morning the street was empty and Aretha Franklin's "You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)" was filling the empty street. All that can be said is that it's one form of heaven on earth.

Stay on the train to its terminus at 30th and Downing so you can get off for a moment and hop on the same train going back southbound. Look around: in 1934-35 (age 8, 9) Cassady lived briefly nearby, in a duplex at 32nd and Downing. Sorry to come back to the pleasure of eating, but Tosh's Hacienda at 3090 Downing has great Mexican food -- just hop and a skip and get the picture.

On the way back into downtown, you need to make a decision. If you feel like a short two-block walk (doing this after sundown is not recommended) to visit the boyhood block that took up so much of Cassady's autobiography, get off at the 25th & Welton stop and walk west, toward the mountains, on 26th Avenue. You'll be entering a neighborhood called Curtis Park, and you'll pass California, Stout and Curtis before reaching 26th and Champa. On the southwestern corner is a vacant lot next to the mustard-yellow Gertrude. This is the site where the Snowden apartment house once stood, the center of Neal's youth during the school months. Looking right you'll see the Puritan Pie Co. building -- Neal's brothers used to bootleg whiskey in their apartment next door using the pie aroma as a cover for their activities; Neal's father used to trade haircuts for pies for the Cassady family in 1932, and his last barber shop was to your left, in the little storefront near the corner on the east side of Champa.

Next to it is The Bakery, where little Neal used to play (you can still see the painted "Cream Butter Cheese Eggs" on the storefront windows). Starting on page 97 of Cassady's First Third you can trace his boyhood on this block. This half block for Cassady was filled with sexual adventure (and misadventure) along with his first-ever mind-eyeball-kicks at the hands of his demonic older brother, who tried repeatedly to suffocate Cassady behind the fold-up bed in the Snowden.

Back on the train (after meditating on how much Cassady survived here as a child), you'll get to check out everything below 24th again because the train follows the same route. The southbound train, though, comes through downtown on Stout Street, where there are two choice Cassady sites. As the train turns left on Stout off 19th you'll see the former main post office (now the federal courthouse), passed every day by little Neal on his way to school from his father's hotel. If it wasn't too cold, Cassady would run between every column in front of the building before moving on to elementary school.

Get off the train at the 16th and Stout -- right at the Walgreen's. Cassady claims to have stolen hundreds of cars in Denver, but in 1949 he wrote to Kerouac and documented the fact that in 1941 at age 15 he and a friend stole a car at this intersection. A Plymouth, in case you were wondering.

Onward to ...

The Beat Beatific Shuttle

The Beat Auto Tour

Literary Kicks
Neal's Denver Contributed by Andrew Burnett