A remarkable book and a remarkable person
JUST A BED, a wardrobe, desk and chair and my portable record player. It was a pleasingly simple arrangement there in that attic with its sloping upper walls that followed the shape of the roof. There, I would spend time sitting at the desk just looking out over rooftop and hill, not focusing on anything in particular but letting my eyes wander over the folds of the city. Sitting in something of a free-flowing mental state, I again experience that sense of calmness that I had earlier known when looking into the distance from some high vantage point.
For reasons no longer clear I came to associate that outlook from my high, east facing window with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that, I think, was there in my modest stack of LPs (long playing records, for those who don’t know) along with Dylan’s Blond on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. I knew nothing of Gershwin’s music nor the circumstances of the piece but it seemed to somehow speak of the city and sitting there at the window with it playing softly it created a sense of calmness and excitement that were somehow combined. It’s a feeling that I still experience when I hear the piece.
I had come to live in Kings Cross, I guess, because it was reputedly the arty bohemian quarter. That was true at that time, but it would soon change with the influx of US military personnel on rest and recreation leave and something that they would bring from Vietnam with them—heroin.
Yet there was still time to enjoy the Cross before it changed… the bookshop in the plaza off Macleay and Orwell streets where I found a volume of drawings by Aubrey Beardsley and where I spent a lot of time browsing… the record store on the corner nearby with its Francois Hardy EPs (extended play record, for those who don’t know) in the window… and the streets lined with old buildings in need of a good paint job—this was well before the time when those same buildings would be accorded ‘heritage’ status. Then, they were just old and faded.
I had come into contact with a group of friends who were among the crowd I knocked around with in Brisbane not all that long before. They had moved into a squat, a huge old terrace house just around the corner and down Bayswater Road a short distance. Their names have long faded from memory but I remember one of them, a slim, short guy with a mop of yellow-blonde hair who wore square, wire rimmed sunglasses like those of Roger McGuinn of The Byrds fame. I don’t know how we came to meet up again, but they didn’t stay around all that long and after once visiting them in their squat I never saw then again. Another dissipation of friends going off in different directions in life.
At the time I was working for one of the city’s old family-owned department stores—Nock and Kirby’s—where I was part of a small team that did merchandising displays in the store. “Meet me at seven at Museum Station this evening”, Jack Hawkins, a signwriter and member of the team, said on noticing a book by American Buddhist, Alan Watts, in my back pocket.
Watts, I later learned, had been one of those creatives of the American cultural underground of the fifties, the Beats, along with writers such as Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. I was unaware of that fact then and a year or two would pass until I stumbled upon On the Road. That book affected me with its depictions of a freewheeling life that went on below that supposedly conformist, white-bread, white-shirt-and-tie surface of American society of the fifties. It led me to another of Kerouac’s works, The Dhamma Bums, and, learning that Kerouac’s practice was to write about his life and his friends simply by changing their names and disguising fact as fiction, the books became more real to me as I realised that, yes, there are ways to live other than that of the social mainstream.
Kerouac’s books seemed to offer tangible confirmation that my sympathy with the nonconformist, the different in society, was a reasonable predilection to have. Why I felt this, that there were better ways to live than the paths offered by the mainstream, I don’t know. Perhaps in some subtle way it was my father’s influence. Not that he lived that sort of life–his was a life well and truly within the social mainstream–it was just that he had a mind that was open to the acceptance of difference. Maybe that had rubbed off on me.
You couldn’t help but notice that Jack Hawkins was an ordinary-looking man possessed of an extraordinary calmness and insight into life. That night I found out why. We met at seven and Jack took me across Hyde Park to a meeting of the Buddhist Society. That was my introduction to Buddhism and, later and after much reading, I came to understand Jack’s equanimity when I encountered it in others involved in Buddhism. For me, though, it was all too early. Life was there to be lived and it encouraged a more dynamic interaction than that proposed by Buddhism. I was not quite ready for a life of contemplation.
Memories of Jack remain with me. His calmness, his insight, his focus on doing his job well, his apparent satisfaction with life and his place in it, his taking the time to introduce a wayward youth to a new idea after noticing that particular book in his back pocket. That, I realised years later, was practical Buddhism in action, Buddhism expressed by someone who had integrated it into their life. Perhaps it’s because of that connection with Buddhism and the writings of Alan Watts that I associate Jack with his namesake, Jack Kerouac, whose writing I would discover soon after I lost contact with him. I couldn’t put my finger on those things at the time but I somehow understood that here was a man apparently conventional on the outside but quite different to his contemporaries on the inside. This was something I hadn’t encountered before. Jack was ordinariness and extraordinariness combined in one person and I think it was this unity in contradiction that impressed me though at the time I doubt I would have been able to articulate that feeling.
I don’t know how long I stayed at that job but it couldn’t have been all that long, and when I left I didn’t think anymore of Jack. But as the years went on the memory of him would return as flashbacks triggered by something in the moment… our meeting at Museum Station, those earnest middle aged people at that meeting that night, Jack carrying out his work with a methodical approach that was impressive, and the link with Alan Watts, and… did Jack know of Kerouac and did he ever read him? Not that I would be at all surprised if he had.
I left that job, I guess, because I was restless and I knew that within a couple years life could turn out very different if my marble was plucked from the barrel of chance and I was sent on an all-expenses-paid journey to a hot and sweaty land of forested mountains, rice paddies and hostile people far away. But that prospect seemed far off at the time and I didn’t think about it… it simply wasn’t a presence in mind. Now it was time to move on in life. I had met my memorable character and maybe I set out in search of more. Was I living my own search for meaning? If so I couldn’t have put it in such terms at the time and I had no consciousness of doing anything like that despite the influence that Watts’ book had had on me. Maybe it was something carried out below the level of everyday consciousness.
It was on cold winter mornings that I descended the switchback stairs of the building that was temporarily my home at the Cross, to emerge onto the empty asphalt of Macleay Street and walk downtown to work. At that time of day the city was fresh, not in the sense that it was clean, there was just this newness to it and that brought a feeling that, yes, life was alright and I was glad to be immersed in that moment on that street in this city. Wind would blow pages of discarded newspaper along the footpath and the few people about hurried here and there on their business. I would join them on that grey, early morning street until I turned towards the city to walk down William Street past the crumbling, down-at-heel enclave of Wooloomooloo, a place close in distance but not in mind. That would change, but not just yet.