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'Naked Lunch' in Mexico City: On the Beats' trail

The Roma neighborhood of Mexico City was a once-wealthy enclave of mansions in decline when Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs lived there. That has turned around in recent years.

Associated Press

The Roma neighborhood of Mexico City was a once-wealthy enclave of mansions in decline when Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs lived there. That has turned around in recent years.

MEXICO CITY — Mexico City was a magnet in the 1950s for some of America's greatest Beat Generation writers — Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and others.

The Beats came to Mexico City seeking a refuge from mainstream America. They were searching for enlightenment, and sometimes fleeing criminal cases. Their stomping ground was the Roma district, a once-wealthy neighborhood of mansions that was in decline by the time Kerouac and Burroughs lived there.

In recent years, Roma has enjoyed a mild rebirth and is now filled with pretty parks, hidden cafes, galleries and upscale restaurants. But it still has a bohemian side with working-class eateries, tortillerias, cheap hotels and repair shops. Most Beat landmarks are in Roma, within walking distance of one another.

Notorious night

First stop for any Beat pilgrim would be an anonymous building at Monterrey 122 on the busy corner of Chihuahua Street. It's a dingy apartment block with cheap taco and enchilada restaurants on the ground floor, but it has a notorious past: During a night of drinking in 1951, Burroughs, the Beat godfather, shot his wife dead in an upstairs flat in a game of William Tell gone awry.

Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch, Junky and Queer, had placed a glass on Joan Vollmer's head and fired his pistol, only to hit her head by mistake. He was eventually convicted of negligent homicide and given a two-year suspended sentence. He later wrote that without Vollmer's death he would never have become a writer.

The apartment where Burroughs shot Vollmer was above the legendary Bounty bar, where expat Beat writers drank till dawn. Now the Bounty is an unassuming cantina called Krika's, where locals eat cheap meals largely unaware of what happened above their heads more than a half-century ago.

Even more anonymous is Jose Alvarado 37, a rundown white building on a side street across from the Plaza Insurgentes shopping mall and a Sears outlet.

This was Burroughs' first address in Mexico City — Cerrada de Medellin 37 at the time — after fleeing a drug possession case in the United States. He was there when Kerouac and his buddy Neal Cassady showed up in 1950 on their famous road trip to Mexico. Cassady was characterized as Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's Beat classic On the Road. Kerouac later penned the poem Cerrada de Medellin Blues.

A 10-minute walk from Cerrada de Medellin is the former site of the Beats' informal Mexico City headquarters, Orizaba 210. The original building is now a red-brick apartment block.

A favorite hangout

An obligatory stop on any Beat tour is Plaza Luis Cabrera, on Orizaba at Zacatecas Street, an attractive cafe-ringed plaza with trees and a fountain. In the 1950s, it was a favorite hangout for Beat writers talking nirvana in a haze of marijuana, heroin and alcohol.

Kerouac's surreal strolls continued past the Palacio de Bellas Artes — an art nouveau gem known for murals by Diego Rivera — and down San Juan de Letran street, now part of a thoroughfare called the Eje Central.

Visitors seeking to walk in Kerouac's footsteps will be relatively safe in nearby Plaza Garibaldi; bookstores and markets nearby sell arts and crafts. On Sundays, a large street market along Cuauhtemoc Avenue sells everything from pirated movies and DVDs to food, clothing and even guacamole made fresh from avocados on the spot. But La Lagunilla lies next to Mexico City's notorious Tepito district, still considered a risky place for tourists.

At the end

A fitting end for any Beat journey through Mexico City is the Panteon Americano cemetery in the city's north, near the Tacuba Metro station.

At the very back of the cemetery, on a rough concrete wall lined with rows of anonymous, crudely made niches, the cemetery puts the remains of people whose families didn't continue paying the rent on their graves.

Among these last resting places of the forgotten or poor, one small niche has a name inscribed on it.

"Joan Vollmer Burroughs, Loudonville, New York, 1923, Mexico D.F. Sept. 1951."

The niche is unadorned by flowers or any mementos honoring the role she played in an extraordinary moment in American literature.

'Naked Lunch' in Mexico City: On the Beats' trail 04/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 7:49pm]
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