LEGENDS OF NEAL
NEAL CASSADY AS AN URBAN LEGEND
by tom christopher
(Originally published in Steam Shovel Press Magazine)
From his birth on the road in Salt Lake City while his parents traveled in a truck with a cabin built on the back to his legendary last words in Mexico, few people of this century have been mythologized like Neal Cassady.
His unfinished autobiography, The First Third reads like a cross between Huck Finn and a sensational 1930’s novel about life among the urban underclass. His cross country trips with Jack Kerouac, and later with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters have been thoroughly documented, and countless newspaper and magazine articles have been written from this source material. The legend continues. Two movies have been made about his life. Old school friends say to this day they’ve never met anyone like him. Ken Kesey was recently quoted as saying ‘There’s something about Cassady that keeps this nation moving and meeting itself.(1)”
Cassady did some of his own mythologizing. At a loss for family history while writing the Prologue to The First Third he simply made one up, a fact he states clearly in the audio tape transcript that became part of Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody (2). Only the events from the time of his birth in the Prologue can be verified, but the older stories, like the one of his great grandfather killing his own brother over a woman, and his mother’s first husband having been the mayor Des Moines (3), have made their into into Neal’s biography as well as the biographies of his friends. It should be understood that the rest of the book can be shown as true, with school and welfare records verifying surprisingly small details, and a walk through the Denver neighborhoods Neal describes from his youth will give a first hand demonstration of how keen his memory was, writing 20 years later and thousands of miles away.
Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Carolyn Cassady, Jerry Garcia and countless others have testified to the reality of the attributes that define his character; his intelligence and physical stamina, his sexual prowess, his use of language and his memory tricks, his inspired driving and sledge hammer juggling, but there’s another, smaller arena, where Cassady has become legendary without anyone knowing his connection to the Beat Generation or the Summer of Love, a place where Cassady’s name itself is forgotten, but his deeds live on. At the Los Gatos Tire shop, 35 years after Neal last worked there, and 15 years since the owner retired, Neal is a working class hero, a real life John Henry, the man who could outwork a machine.
In 1958 Neal Cassady was sentenced to five years to life for giving two joints to a cop. It’s a complicated story that’s told best by Carolyn Cassady in her book Off The Road. He was released 3 June 1960, and found that his drug offense made it hard to find work.
He had worked as a tire recapper 20 years earlier in Denver, and he approached the owner of Los Gatos Tire Company and put his cards on the table in his usual straightforward and meticulous manner: he would be the perfect employee for two years, nine months, and twenty-four days, the length of his parole. The owner, who according to his children had led a pretty interesting life himself, was impressed with Neal and hired him on the spot.
The kind of work Neal signed on for as new man was hard and physically exhausting and Neal was 34 years old. Carolyn writes: ‘As usual, Neal astounded everyone with his speed and efficiency. Employers, employees and customers stood by and watched him with unabashed awe(4).’
Los Gatos Tire Company looks like a million similar industrial buildings. Built in the fifties, with a couple of auto bays and an office off to the side. The building does it’s job. It’s well designed and still seems modern. The company has been there 50 years. Off to the side of the building, there are a couple of shallow ridges, each dropping three or four feet and then the property dips sharply out back, with railroad tracks at the bottom. Cassady used to have a Willies Wagon, which was the sports utility vehicle of it’s day, and when arriving at work he would step out of the car at the first ridge, and turn off the engine, allowing the car to drift down to the second ridge where it would come to rest at the edge of the rise, just before the serious drop to the railroad tracks. He never missed.
While working he was still doing the car parking tricks that so impressed Kerouac and his highschool buddies before that. He would put a car in reverse on the slick cement floor, and hit the gas, making the tires bounce and the rear end squirrel around, and decelerating slowly till the tires could grip he would shoot the vehicle over to the racks, it’s trajectory ending in a short squeal of skid as he hit the brakes.
Neal’s dexterity with a sledge hammer a few years later is well known, but during this time he did some of the same tricks with a tire pry bar, which is like a shortie wrecking bar, used to pry the dense rubber of a tire away from the wheel. His favorite trick was to throw the bar down on its tip against the cement floor while walking. He would continue to walk as the bar bounced off the floor and over his shoulder and into his open hand.
Neal was an average sized guy. Five foot ten and a hundred and fifty pounds, but he could lift a truck tire that out weighed him by a hundred pounds with one hand, bounce it off the floor and using his hip for leverage propel it onto a rack six feet off the floor in one easy motion. Only the owner of the shop, a much bigger man was ever able do likewise, and may have shown Neal the trick.
Despite his stamina and concentration, Neal did get tired, and parole or not, he was always burning the candle at both ends. Once, he was missing in the middle of a busy day, and when the other workers looked around, they found him asleep, standing up in the store room, a tire under each arm wedged into a stack on either side of him holding him up. He had fallen asleep in mid stride
Neal worked at the tire company until his parole was over in the summer of 1963 and he was free to pursue other interests. The business was sold 15 years ago and the owner retired, but these stories have been passed down from worker to worker over the years. No one there knows that the guy who did this stuff was Neal Cassady, the secret hero of Howl, the Adonis of Denver, the fastest man alive, but they know that way long ago the craziest guy used to work there.
(1) Associated Press (AP) 28 July 99
(2) Jack Kerouac. Visions of Cody. page 207, 218 Penguin edition. Thank you to Kim Spurlock for this reference
(3) The real story is that the uncle of his mother’s first husband was City Boss of Des Moines in the turn of the century days of good ol bare knuckle backroom politics.
Carolyn Cassady says Neal believed this story to be true. It may have been a story he got from his father, who’s alcoholism may have led to some inadvertant mythmaking. looking over old records, Mr Cassady seems never to have used the same birthday twice, and over the course of his life changed the spelling of his surname and dropped his middle name. His wife was born Maud Webb Scheuer, but came to be called Jean, and the same confusion exists as to her birthdate
(4) Carolyn Cassady. Off the Road. Page 350
Neal Cassady’s autobiography, The First Third has been in print continuously since 1971. His correspondence with Allen Ginsberg was collected in As Ever, and his prison letters released as Grace Beats Karma. An audio tape transcript of a long conversation with Jack Kerouac makes up a large part of Kerouac’s Visions of Cody. Audio and video tapes of his prankster days are available. An internet web search under his name is always interesting
All text Copyright Tom Christopher.
All Copyrights 2002.
All Rights Reserved.