October in the Railroad Earth

October in the Railroad Earth is a long, flowing prose poem recounting Jack Kerouac’s memories of his experiences as a “student brakeman” on the Southern Pacific Railroad in California. In his interview with Paris Review, Kerouac cites the poem as an example of his disdain for periods, and says it was “intended to clack along all the way like a steam engine pulling a one-hundred-car freight with a talky caboose at the end, that was my way at the time and it still can be done if the thinking during the swift writing is confessional and pure and all excited with the life of it.”

All poetry is made to be heard aloud; maybe that’s even more pronounced in Kerouac’s case–the words really come alive when you hear his voice and phrasing. Here’s Jack’s reading of it, from the 1959 album Poetry for the Beat Generation, accompanied by Steve Allen on the piano.

There was a little alley in San Francisco back of the Southern
Pacific station at Third and Townsend in redbrick of drowsy lazy
afternoons with everybody at work in offices in the air you feel
the impending rush of their commuter frenzy as soon they’ll be
charging en masse from Market and Sansome buildings on foot
and in buses and all well-dressed thru workingman Frisco of
walkup truck drivers and even the poor grime-bemarked Third
Street of lost bums even Negros so hopeless and long left East
and meanings of responsibility and try that now all they do is
stand there spitting in the broken glass sometimes fifty in one
afternoon against one wall at Third and Howard and here’s all
these Millbrae and San Carlos neat-necktied producers and
commuters of America and Steel civilization rushing by with San
Francisco Chronicles and green Call-Bulletins not even enough
time to be disdainful, they’ve got to catch 130, 132, 134, 136 all
the way up to 146 till the time of evening supper in homes of the
railroad earth when high in the sky the magic stars ride above
the following hotshot freight trains–it’s all in California, it’s all a
sea, I swim out of it in afternoons of sun hot meditation in my
jeans with head on handkerchief on brakeman’s lantern or (if not
working) on book, I look up at blue sky of perfect lostpurity and
feel the warp of wood of old America beneath me and I have
insane conversations with Negroes in second-story windows
above and everything is pouring in, the switching moves of
boxcars in that little alley which is so much like the alleys of
Lowell and I hear far off in the sense of coming night that engine
calling our mountains.

Jack Kerouac mugshot

But it was that beautiful cut of clouds I could always see above
the little S.P. alley, puffs floating by from Oakland or the Gate of
Marin to the north or San Jose south, the clarity of Cal to break
your heart. It was the fantastic drowse and drum hum of lum
mum afternoon nathin’ to do, ole Frisco with end of land
sadness–the people–the alley full of trucks and cars of
businesses nearabouts and nobody knew or far from cared who I
was all my life three thousand five hundred miles from birth-O
opened up and at last belonged to me in Great America.

Now it’s night in Third Street the keen little neons and
also yellow bulblights of impossible-to-believe flops with dark
ruined shadows moving back of tom yellow shades like a
degenerate China with no money-the cats in Annie’s Alley,
the flop comes on, moans, rolls, the street is loaded with
darkness. Blue sky above with stars hanging high over old
hotel roofs and blowers of hotels moaning out dusts of interior,
the grime inside the word in mouths falling out tooth
by tooth, the reading rooms tick tock bigclock with creak
chair and slantboards and old faces looking up over rimless
spectacles bought in some West Virginia or Florida or Liverpool
England pawnshop long before I was born and across
rains they’ve come to the end of the land sadness end of the
world gladness all you San Franciscos will have to fall eventually
and burn again. But I’m walking and one night a bum
fell into the hole of the construction job where they’re tearing
a sewer by day the husky Pacific & Electric youths in torn
jeans who work there often I think of going up to some of
’em like say blond ones with wild hair and tom shirts and
say “You oughta apply for the railroad it’s much easier work
you don’t stand around the street all day and you get much
more pay” but this bum fell in the hole you saw his foot stick
out, a British MG also driven by some eccentric once backed
into the hole and as I came home from a long Saturday afternoon
local to Hollister out of San Jose miles away across
verdurous fields of prune and juice joy here’s this British MG
backed and legs up wheels up into a pit and bums and cops standing around right outside the coffee shop–it was the
way they fenced it but he never had the nerve to do it due
to the fact that he had no money and nowhere to go and O
his father was dead and O his mother was dead and O his
sister was dead and O his whereabout was dead was dead but
and then at that time also I lay in my room on long
Saturday afternoons listening to Jumpin’ George with my
fifth of tokay no tea and just under the sheets laughed to
hear the crazy music “Mama, he treats your daughter mean,”
Mama, Papa, and don’t you come in here I’ll kill you etc.
getting high by myself in room glooms and all wondrous
knowing about the Negro the essential American out there
always finding his solace his meaning in the fellaheen street
and not in abstract morality and even when he has a church
you see the pastor out front bowing to the ladies on the make
you hear his great vibrant voice on the sunny Sunday afternoon
sidewalk full of sexual vibratos saying “Why yes
Mam but de gospel do say that man was born of woman’s
womb-” and no and so by that time I come crawling out
of my warmsack and hit the street when I see the railroad
ain’t gonna call me till 5 AM Sunday morn probably for a
local out of Bay Shore in fact always for a local out of Bay
Shore and I go to the wailbar of all the wildbars in the world
the one and only Third-and-Howard and there I go in and
drink with the madmen and if I get drunk I git.

The girl who come up to me in there the night I was
there with Al Buckle and said to me “You wanta play with
me tonight Jim, and?” and I didn’t think I had enough money
and later told this to Charley Low and he laughed and said
“How do you know she wanted money always take the chance
that she might be out just for love or just out for love you
know what I mean man don’t be a sucker.” She was a goodlooking
doll and said “How would you like to oolyakoo with
me mon?” and I stood there like a jerk and in fact bought
drink got drink drunk that night and in the 299 Club I was hit
by the proprietor the band breaking up the fight before I
had a chance to decide to hit him back which I didn’t do
and out on the street I tried to rush back in but they had
locked the door and were looking at me thru the forbidden
glass in the door with faces like undersea––I should have
played with her shurrouruuruuruurukadooky.

-Jack Kerouac