The little brick house at 5169 10th Ave. N isn't much to look at. But in 1969, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times walked past the palms and knocked on the door and found the grizzled jowls and red-rimmed eyes of the 46-year-old king of the Beats.
Jack Kerouac, author, artist, cult hero, was watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news, volume turned silent, while Handel's Messiah blared from the record player. He was smoking Camels, drinking whiskey from a medicine vial and chasing it with Falstaff beer in a half-quart can.
"You better not try to take my photo, or I'll kick your a--," Kerouac said.
He'd been living in obscurity in St. Petersburg for several years with his third wife, Stella, and his mother, who was paralyzed. The man who had written 17 books, including On the Road and The Dharma Bums, was clearly fading.
He complained of making just $1,770 the first six months of the year. He complained that he was lonely and didn't get out much. He complained that he was ill.
"I got a g--d--- hernia, you know that? My g--d--- belly-button is popping out. That's why I'm dressed like this," he said. "I got no place to go, anyway."
He was dead from gastric hemorrhaging a few weeks later, at St. Anthony's Hospital, where they tried to save him with 30 units of Type A Positive.
There's not much left of Kerouac here, save some stories and old acquaintances and a favorite bar stool or two. And this house.
His mother died not long after Jack, and Stella passed in 1990, but the house has been mostly empty of humans since the '70s. To walk inside is to be transported back 40 years. Tchotchkes from the era line the shelves. A '72 Chevy Caprice sits on flats in the two-car garage. A Reader's Digest from September 1967 sits on the record cabinet. A 1969 telephone directory for Lowell, Mass., is shelved on Kerouac's desk in the bedroom. A Boone's Farm box is in a closet. An official mayoral proclamation for "Jack Kerouac Day" in Lowell, Mass., hangs on one wall, near a Buddha statue and a crucifix.
"This was Jack's chair," said Pat Barmore, a Kerouac fan who gave an impromptu tour Friday. Barmore graduated from Largo High School in 1969 and set off on a two-month road trip, thinking he would look up Kerouac when he got back. But Kerouac was dead by the time he returned.
Barmore is working with a few others to start a nonprofit called Friends of Jack Kerouac to raise money for repairs on the house. He first spoke to the home's current owner, Kerouac's brother-in-law John Sampas, to ask for permission to use Kerouac's likeness on a poster and T-shirts for the Flamingo, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N, where Kerouac liked to drink and play pool.
A month ago, Barmore said, Sampas called him to report that someone had broken out a window. Sampas, who lives in Massachusetts, asked Barmore if he'd take care of the property.
"He said, 'I'll pay you,' " Barmore recalled. "I said, 'I don't think you'll have to.' "
Kerouac's following, he said, is strong enough to fund the upkeep on the man's last abode. The mailbox gives a hint that he might be right — it's full of notes from fans.
"Dearest Jack," reads one. "Thank you for everything. Your work is why I write, and write to live."
"Hey Jack, We came by to say hello," says another. "Sorry we missed you."
Barmore and Pete Gallagher have been hosting Kerouac-themed concerts at the Flamingo to raise money. They're throwing one tonight with a lineup of bands and some beat poetry.
They've bleached the toilets at the house and are trying to get rid of the rats. They need to replace a window and repair some furniture. They envision cleaning the place up, making it look like it did when Kerouac slept here. Then, who knows? Maybe it could be a writer's residence. Maybe they could open it to the public a little bit, invite people in.
"I'm glad to see you," Kerouac told the Times reporter in '69, "because I'm very lonesome here."
It's too late to give him company, but maybe it's not too late for his place.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.