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St. Petersburg bar pays tribute to Beat author Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac stares from a window at an ice cream stand across the road. He looks young, much younger than when he lived in St. Petersburg at the end of his life. If the Kerouac in the window walked up to the Flamingo Sports Bar now, the men sitting on the patio might not recognize him.

"Jack never walked in and identified himself," said Ron Tichenor, one of the author's drinking buddies from the 1960s. "Back then, he really didn't have that much identity. He was more famous in France and Europe than here. I think the reason he liked Florida is, he was under the radar."

Alan Sansotta, an old nine-ball partner, nods. "He liked St. Petersburg for that reason: He was anonymous."

It's a little like that today, too. St. Petersburg may be where the iconic Beat author spent his final years, and it may be a pilgrimage site for On the Road fans, but tributes to the author and his connection to the bay area are few and far between.

The Flamingo, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N, aims to change that. In addition to the huge, framed poster of Kerouac in the window, there are photos and magazine clippings on the walls, and a "Jack Kerouac special" — a shot and a beer wash — on the menu. For $15, you can buy a T-shirt with an image of Kerouac on one side and a passage from On the Road on the other. Several times a year — including tonight, the 42nd anniversary of Kerouac's death — the bar hosts music nights in his honor.

Why? Because the Flamingo, they say, is "the bar where the legendary Beat author had his last drink." It's an iffy claim, impossible to verify. But 42 years later, good luck finding another bar in St. Petersburg where he actually hung out. Most of his watering holes have moved, closed or been razed. The Flamingo may well be the last Kerouac bar in town, if only by attrition.

• • •

Jack Kerouac is said to have described St. Petersburg as "a good place to come to die." That's exactly what he did, on Oct. 21, 1969.

He was a notorious drunk when he arrived, and a notorious drunk when he lived here. So when he left his house, it was often to go to a bar.

Most biographies of Kerouac list a few of his known Florida hangouts: the Wild Boar, a University of South Florida bar in Tampa; the Beaux Arts Gallery, a coffee shop and artists' dive in Pinellas Park; the Cactus Bar, a predominantly black hangout where Kerouac was badly beaten for running his mouth, just two weeks before his death. All have long since closed.

The Flamingo is not mentioned in any works about Kerouac. But that doesn't mean he didn't drink there.

Dale Nichols bought the Flamingo after returning from Vietnam in 1969. The dim, smoky dive has never been much fancier than it is today — they've added a patio, a coat of paint, and another pool table in the front. But he said it's largely the same as it was in 1969, when the author used to sit at the southwest corner of the center bar.

Nichols didn't know much about Kerouac then. "When I first met him, I asked him what he did," he said. "He said, 'I'm either writing or drinking.' "

The two got along fine — Nichols wielded a mean pool cue, and Kerouac was always up for a game of nine-ball. Kerouac asked about Nichols' time in the war. Nichols looked the other way when Kerouac brought in a flask. They once shared a joint in Nichols' truck.

Drinking with Kerouac was an adventure. He would pick arguments, talk junk, play games and drink freely.

"He was so spontaneous, and so free with his emotions, that it blew my mind," said Tichenor, who now lives in Tarpon Springs. "He had a very simple life, but his life was depicted in On the Road as about adventure. It wasn't about infamy or being famous. For Jack, it was just about what's around the bend."

• • •

Nichols would not have embraced the Flamingo's status as Kerouac bar if not for two local musicians, Pete Gallagher and Pat Barmore.

Gallagher lived in the neighborhood as far back as the 1970s, when some of Kerouac's contemporary barflies were still regulars. Barmore graduated from Largo High School in 1969, and promptly took a 21/2 month road trip in a Volkswagen van, thinking he would look up Kerouac when he returned. He was too late.

After years of hearing stories about Kerouac at the Flamingo, Barmore and Gallagher decided the bar needed to publicize its tiny connection to the author's life.

Nichols was initially hesitant. "He wasn't sure about it,'' Barmore said. "He's an old Southern guy, and for a while, he was suspicious of me. … 'Who are these guys to tell me what to do with my bar?' "

Barmore contacted John Sampas, the executor of the Kerouac estate, to ask permission to use Kerouac's image in a giant poster in the window and on T-shirts. Sampas agreed. "He was so willing: 'Jack would have wanted that,'  " Barmore said.

The poster went up in April 2010. The T-shirts arrived this May. None of it has made anyone much money. But it has brought a new clientele to the bar: writers, professors, college-age fans who want to snap a picture.

"Now, all of a sudden, people in there are getting Kerouac's books," Gallagher said. "I think Dale's read most of them by now. Suddenly the bartenders know a lot about Kerouac."

• • •

Ken Rollins was dining at Hook's Sushi one night when he noticed the poster of Kerouac at the bar next door. He walked in and struck up a conversation with Dale Nichols. They had a lot to discuss — Rollins met Kerouac back in the mid '60s, when he used to frequent the Wild Boar.

"When I first went to San Francisco in 1966, the first places I went were places I'd read about in On the Road, where the beatniks used to hang out — Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookstore, Vesuvio's bistro, Enrico's," said Rollins, now 69 and a fine arts dealer in St. Petersburg. "The book really spoke to me in terms of exploring and finding yourself, and seeing what's out there in the world."

It's that same curiosity that has drawn Kerouac fans from around North America, hoping to trace the author's final footsteps. Hanging on a wall at the Flamingo is a photo of a Toronto woman with a long passage from On the Road tattooed on her back. She's been here.

The bar has become the area's de facto gathering spot for Kerouac aficionados to swap stories. Sitting on the patio, Alan Sansotta, who shot pool with Kerouac every week in the late 1960s, said he understands why the connection still matters.

"The first time you read On the Road, you think, 'What the hell am I doing with my life? I need to open my head up and see what's going on in the world,' " said Sansotta. "His literature really did change my life. …And I thank god for that, because no doubt, geez, I'd have led a pretty boring life without Jack."

A concert

for Jack

8 p.m. today at Flamingo Sports Bar, 1230 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg. Performers include Ronny Elliott, Gove Scrivenor, Rebekah Pulley, Dog Peter Pat, the Spark Notes, Wendy Barmore and Valerie C. Wisecracker. Free. (727) 510-5474.

St. Petersburg bar pays tribute to Beat author Jack Kerouac 10/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 28, 2011 10:44am]
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