Local Stories: N.C. in S.M.A.

Randee Silv
September 2017



they took me to where he had lived — where he drank — street corners he had turned down — and to the train tracks he was following when he died — most had never heard of Neal Cassady —  those that had wanted no part of using Cassady’s name to enhance the mystique of San Miguel de Allende — some said he’d been there more than a dozen times — others said it was only a few — a student from Instituto Allende remembers drinking with Cassady at the La Cucaracha bar in ’60 or ’61 — a “dark & raunchy dive” popular among gringoes — across from the central square El Jardín —  he said Cassady was “intense and introspective and liked to talk philosophy” — he remembers seeing Cassady & Kerouac — & maybe Ginsburg — or maybe it was Corso — driving around in a dusty green Mercedes  with a naked girl in the back seat who wanted to go into the bar exactly as she was — at that time women could be arrested just for wearing shorts — someone did get her some clothes — they said they were the Beats — when asked what he thought had brought them all to Mexico — “pulque and peyote” — of course — and  looking for the muse — the La Cuca eventually relocated to Zacateros 22 — now there’s a Banamex bank where the old cantina had been — in April ‘67 during a road trip to Oaxaca —Prankster George Walker’s Lotus Elan was in need of repairs — they decided to head to San Miguel — neither had been there before — but they had this invite from the Van Leeuwen sisters whom they’d hung out with in Puerta Vallarta — they all stayed at hotel El Palomar — Cassady stuck around to pursue a 23 year old “hippie chick from California named J.B.” — another alluring future — Janice Brown — she worked in the theater at the Instituto — they lived on the top floor of Beneficenia 17 — he had this reputation among certain circles of artists, writers & ex-pats for his “perpetual-motion silver hammer act and dazzling [them] with his washboard abs.” — he split — she split — he returned — he stayed — she returned — he returned — leaving LA  in January ’68 Cassady was refused entry at the border for “disheveled appearances” — in a second attempt he hooked up with a film crew and got himself in — he  arrived in Celaya by train on February 2 — took a taxi to San Miguel – J.B. had been waiting for him – next day around noon– high on drugs he set out for the train station at the end of Canal Street where the sign still reads 549.3 kilometers to Mexico City 941.3 kilometers to Laredo – a circulating detail is that he had this notion of wanting to count how many railroad ties there were to the next town – 15 miles away — no reason no explanation — but supposedly he’d told J.B. that he needed to get to Celaya to  pick up his “magic bag” that he had left at the depot —  in it was maybe a “bible and letters from Jack & Allen” —  it was cold & rainy that night — mountains on the horizon — hills covered with mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus — wasted, wired & incoherent  — he came upon a wedding party — they invited him to drink pulque — how much how little — questionable — some say they saw him downing unknown quantities of seconal— they watched as he walked off alone into the darkness  — two ranchers discovered him unconscious the next morning along the tracks — he was taken to a nearby hospital  and died a few hours later — February 5, 1968 — 4 days before his 42nd birthday — autopsy not reported in full — exact cause vague — he was a foreigner and drugs were involved — death certificate said “general congestion in all systems” — newspapers reported “exposure” — J.B. took care of the legalities – 4 months later she showed up with the ashes to give to his ex-wife Carolyn — Cassady had told her that “the fire purifies the body and makes a quicker and easier transition possible for the soul’s release”— some unnamed Englishman went to the spot where Cassady had been found — 200 meters out of town — he placed a wooden cross on a small pile of gathered rocks — legend has it that Cassady’s last words were “sixty-four thousand nine hundred and twenty eight” — but according to Carolyn Cassady the idea that he was counting railroad ties comes from the character Houlihan in Ken Kesey’s story The Day Superman Died — she’s written that Neal felt that he had “utterly failed in his mission, and he knew he could never go back. He died inside; only his body survived. This he did his best to destroy. He no longer believed in suicide, but he did all he could to be killed.” He had told her “how he loathed himself for the way he was behaving, but his will wasn’t strong enough not to when everyone expected it of him.”

In 1968, I went down from San Francisco to visit Carolyn Cassady in Los Gatos. There’s a poem of mine called On Neal’s Ashes which is a record of that visit, of opening the wooden container from Mexico City which had a silken bag full of his ashes. I opened the box and touched my finger inside of it and then looked in it and there was all this black and white cinder with a little rough stuff in it, pieces of bone that were burnt and blackened. So I said, ‘Oh, so that’s what happened to Neal Cassady.’ It seemed magical that he’d disappeared and transformed into this tiny pound of gritty ashes. But it was definitive as his death. I realized it had all come to that. I hadn’t seen him for a number of years and his disappearance was no big deal until I actually saw the remains of his body.

— Allen Ginsberg




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