When I Was Cool

When I Was Cool

by Sam Kashner

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First student of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Sam Kashner tells with humor and grace his life with the Beats. But the best story is Kashner himself -- the coming-of-age of a young man in the chaotic world of the very idols he hoped to emulate.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews,


First student of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Sam Kashner tells with humor and grace his life with the Beats. But the best story is Kashner himself -- the coming-of-age of a young man in the chaotic world of the very idols he hoped to emulate.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
When I Was Cool is much more captivating than the standard tales-told-out-of-school reminiscence. And if it does not fully establish Mr. Kashner as the eloquent writer that he wanted to be, it makes up in self-knowledge what it lacks in flair. Mr. Kashner now freely acknowledges trading on the kinds of unrequited crushes that made the Kerouac School go round. — Janet Maslin
The Washington Post
… poets don't count for much in the larger picture of the real world. Nobody cares much what they do at all. At some point Kashner must learn to live in that real world. How all that transpires is a lovely, affectionate, touching story. — Carolyn See
Publishers Weekly
With characteristic modesty, writer Kashner opens his memoir with a caveat to readers: this isn't an encyclopedic history of the beat generation. Rather, it's his own story of how it felt to leave home and learn to be a poet by hanging out with the great beat poets, albeit in their more gentled phase (past their road-tripping days, but still full of "crazy wisdom"). It was 1976 when Kashner, a fresh college dropout, decided to follow his dream and apply to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, a yet-to-be-accredited division of the Buddhist Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo. As their first (and for a while only) student, Kashner's assignments included finishing and typing Allen Ginsberg's poems; preventing Gregory Corso from scoring heroin; cleaning the home of their guru, Rinpoche; and mediating between William Burroughs Sr. and Jr., not to mention attending the odd lecture. Kashner undertook all this weirdness with fretful earnestness-e.g., forever worrying that Ginsberg would attempt to seduce him, that Corso would shoot up and he'd be branded a failure, that the school wouldn't get accredited and his parents would regret letting him go there, and that his lack of poetry expertise would be discovered by his teachers. Were this just the saga of an innocent in beat bohemia, Kashner's chronicle would be merely amusing, but his genuine love for his crazy-wise mentors makes this a curiously affecting coming-of-age story. 8-page b&w photo insert not seen by PW. Agent, Nat Sobel. (Dec.) Forecast: A word-of-mouth campaign could help Kashner's book get momentum, fueled by a three-city author tour. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This memoir by the first student at the Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics is the story of a young Long Islander who fled to Boulder, CO, in 1976 not just to study the Beats but to become one. The book includes irreverent portraits of the unorthodox faculty, which included Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, Anne Waldman, and Gregory Corso. Surprisingly, Corso emerges as one of the school's most positive figures in spite of his heroin abuse and disruptive antics. The late Allen Ginsberg, always fiercely loyal to his friends, would have been upset by Kashner's descriptions of Burroughs, Waldman, Diane di Prima, and the poet Antler. To be fair, however, Kashner (The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollyood in the Fifties) also mocks himself, and his reflections display affection as well as malice. Ironically, his education at Naropa seems to have been effective, as it shattered his illusions and taught him to think for himself. Highly recommended.-William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Coming-of-age narrative from the first alumnus of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, the original Buddhist college in America. (It was not the Ivy League.) A generation ago, young Kashner (The Bad and the Beautiful, 2002, etc.) left home in Merrick, Long Island, to sit at the feet of the Beat masters in Boulder, Colorado. Allen Ginsberg was his mentor, and the core faculty contributing to Sam's expanding education included Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Peter Orlovsky, and beautiful poet Anne Waldman. Most of the Rat Pack of Poesy were approaching their geriatric phase, but they were infected still with some things rich and strange. Like Byron before them, they were all mad, bad, and dangerous to know-also, in their way, great teachers. Deconstructing jerrybuilt poetry at the Kerouac School and working with its special faculty was no trust-fund, Buddhist-style caper like the rest of Naropa's classes. The Beats, brightest of their generation, required close acolyte attention. Enticing vinegary Burroughs out his orgone box to care for his son, keeping rowdy Corso as straight as possible, completing and typing moody Ginsberg's poems while calculating the sexual permutations would tax the abilities of any apprentice bard, especially one carrying a fond father's credit card. It was scary, certainly, attending those mythic Olympians, bohemian heroes passing into hipsters or junkies. And it was clearly wonderful. It all started to unravel at a Parents Weekend, during which visiting elders had to post bail for their kids, and after a romp overseen by the Tibetan meditation master of Naropa, it was over. Kashner, who learned to write quite nicely indeed,whether or not at the Kerouac School, blows a kiss to yesteryear. Witty and warm grace notes to the cool history of the Beats. (8 pp. b&w photos, not seen)
[Kashner’s] memoir is about enlightenment, the kind that comes from looking back with compassion but with eyes wide open
San Francisco Chronicle
“Engaging [and] illuminating.”
“Hilarious and touching.”
Rocky Mountain News
“Consistently funny … moving and always sharply observed.”
Time Out New York
“[This] headlong, infectious tales honors the author’s youthful idols by remembering them with tenderness and affection”
Entertainment Weekly
“A memoir worth some howling.”
Village Voice
“Fond, funny and finally heartbreaking.”

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When I Was Cool
My Life at the Jack Kerouac School

Chapter One

A Postcard from Allen

Growing up on Long Island, my father used to tease me. He said that I knew John F. Kennedy's birthday but that I didn't know his. May 29, 1917 -- that was Kennedy's; my father was right. But I knew the year John Kennedy was born only because Seymour was born the same year. My mother, Marion, was younger. She grew up in her own house in Brooklyn, my father in a cramped apartment on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. My parents met in the Weiss & Klau building on Grand Street in lower Manhattan. They had a four-year courtship. My grandmother, my mother's mother, Lilly Greengrass, used to call my father "the undertaker" because he always looked so serious and wore dark suits.

They got married in 1950. Only recently did that start to sound like a long time ago. We lived in Brooklyn on Avenue J, in my grandmother's old apartment. She had since moved to South Fallsburg, up in the Catskill Mountains, with my grandfather, a retired furrier. They rented rooms and little apartments in an old house they bought. Eventually, my father moved us to Long Island, around 1960. I remembered watching television on a rolling stand in our new house empty of furniture, our front lawn just sand and rock. Our house stood on filled-in swampland before it was a town named for a tribe of Indians called Merokes (translated as Merrick).

I watched John Kennedy being sworn in as president on television that year, but all I remember is that you could see his breath when he spoke, and I liked how his hand chopped the air as if he were chopping through ice so I could see him better.

My sister was two; I was five. As we watched America's youngest president chop the air, I sat in my fire chief's car and she stood in her crib. My mother was upstairs with the first friend she had made in Merrick, Mary Stamler. Like Mrs. Weiner, Mrs. Stamler was very glamorous looking. I didn't know it at the time but my mother was also beautiful. I do remember that I wouldn't let her get old. When I started to notice her gray hair (I was about seven years old), I asked her to get blond hair. So she went to the beauty parlor and had her hair dyed. She looked like television and the things on it that caught my eye. I never really saw my mother then, in those days. But I can see her now.

My sister is named Gella. It had been my father's mother's name before she came to America. They called her Gertrude in America, but Marion thought "Gertrude" was too old-fashioned and it would be a burden in the playgrounds of Merrick, where we kids played baseball and climbed the monkey bars over the burial grounds of the Meroke Indians. So the name Gella came back to America, as everything comes back, one way or another.

My sister was a smart, dark-haired little girl with cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie blowing his crooked trumpet. She always made the honor roll. I did not. She was always a good girl. She cried the first time she cursed in front of my parents. She hit her elbow and said "shit," and then looked at our parents and the tears came. They thought it was funny and told her nothing bad would happen just because she had said "shit." This was only a moment, but it shows what the rest of her life might be like.

I wasn't that way. I was more of a contrarian. If my life was easy, I wanted it to be hard. When it was hard, I wanted it to be easy. Before I knew what the word meant, I wanted life to be "beat," but I also wanted a hot towel waiting for me when I got out of the shower. Maybe my parents sheltered me with too much love, too much affection -- is that possible? Maybe they should have made me go to a conventional college. Maybe I should I have brought my laundry home every weekend. Instead, I sent home Allen Ginsberg's laundry once a month. I started sending Allen's laundry home because when he gave it to me to do, I didn't know how to work the machines.

After Philip Weiner went to college, my two best friends on Long Island were Fred Mollin and Neal Warshaw. Fred lived in the older part of Merrick, called North Merrick because it was north of the Long Island Rail Road tracks. Fred's father worked as the manager of a Key Food store. He was a grumpy guy with three children. Fred was the youngest. He had long, long red hair. He loved music and was something of a genius on the guitar. He wrote songs. I was his manager. I wrote a letter to John Hammond, the record producer who had "discovered" Bob Dylan; he must have taken pity on my terrible handwriting and guessed that what I wanted was for him to hear my friend. So he invited us to come into the city and play for him in his office at the CBS building.

We took the day off from school. Fred carried his guitar in a big black case. He had his song titles Scotch-taped to the side of the guitar. He played a few songs for Mr. Hammond, who sat behind his desk with the shortest gray-haired crew cut I had ever seen. He liked Fred's songs, but he said he wanted a second opinion, so he called for someone to come into his office. He introduced us to Al Kooper.

Al Kooper had played organ on "Like a Rolling Stone" for Bob Dylan. Fred, who was already pale and nervous, started playing for Kooper ...

When I Was Cool
My Life at the Jack Kerouac School
. Copyright © by Sam Kashner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Sam Kashner, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author of three books of nonfiction and one novel, Sinatraland.

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