Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Interview with Al Hinkle

This is a "red letter day" for The Daily Beat. What follows is our interview with Al Hinkle, who our readers know as Ed Dunkel from Jack Kerouac's On The Road. We owe a debt of gratitude to Al for sharing his time and thoughts with us. As with past interviews here, we conducted this via the magic of e-mail, but with an extra twist: Teri Davis, Al's webmaster/biographer, and Dawn Hinkle, Al's daughter, collaborated on reading the questions to Al and typing out his answers in order to send them back to us for posting. We owe Teri and Dawn a huge thank you for the critical part they played in getting this interview accomplished.

Dear readers, find a few minutes, sit back, and enjoy this wonderful interview with a true beat generation legend and icon, Al Hinkle. For more information about Al, please check out his website (ably run by Teri) at http://www.alhinkle.com/.

The Daily Beat Interview with Al Hinkle

The Daily Beat: Readers of The Daily Beat are going to know you as Ed Dunkel from On the Road. Can you fill us in on where life has taken you since your adventures with Jack Kerouac?

Al Hinkle: Most of my experiences with Jack were in 1949 and 1950, before publication of On the Road; in fact, even back before publication of The Town and the City. When Jack was out here (in San Francisco) in 1952, I got him a job on the railroad, and he worked a short time; about 4 and a half months. When the season was over on the first of January 1953, he took off.  But he either kept in touch with Southern Pacific, or they had an address for him, because when they called him back to work in May of 1953, giving him 30 days to respond so he could keep his seniority, he came right back.

Jack cashed only one paycheck; his first.  He held onto the rest, planning to turn them into traveler’s checks after the work season was over and go down to Mexico for a year to write, which he did. When the season was over, I went back to school at San Francisco State.

By the time On the Road was published in 1955, I had used the time I had been laid off to continue to further my education. In 1957, when I graduated from San Francisco State, I had a decision to make – I either had to make a commitment to Southern Pacific or spend my life doing other things. It wasn’t easy! But I decided to stick with the railroad...and also decided I would try to make a trip to Europe, spending as little money as possible.

In 1960, I got a leave of absence from the railroad so Helen, my son Mark, my daughter Dawn and I could spend six months in Europe (or ‘til we ran out of money, anyway). When we got back, Southern Pacific offered me an executive job with them, first as the Assistant Train Master and then Train master, running the railroad from Tucson, Arizona to El Paso, Texas, which required a move to New Mexico. After one full year of living and working in New Mexico, I decided to go back to San Jose and work as a conductor. I was definitely not cut out for executive work – I worked a whole year without any time off, and with the telephone ringing anytime day or night to call me in. It was just too demanding, and I didn’t get to do what I loved the most – just riding the line.

I kinda dropped out from the Beat Scene after that, staying on the margins and hardly ever making it up to North Beach, the “home of the Beats”, so to speak. I stayed with the railroad for forty years, retiring in 1987. The railroad has always been very good to me, in terms of money as well as lifestyle. They gave me a leave of absence to tour Europe again in 1968, where Helen and I were able to distribute the works of San Francisco beat poets for my friend Allen Ginsberg. He had given me a list of names of people to see in Europe, and we had a lot of adventures and fun distributing poetry across Europe to be translated into their native languages.

I stayed friends with Neal until he died in 1968, and continued my friendship with both of his wives; Luanne, until her death last year, and Carolyn and the Cassady children, who I am friends with to this day. Carolyn lives in England now, but John, Jami and Cathy live close by and we see them frequently. So that kind of brings us up to date…  

The Daily Beat: What did you think about Jack the first time you met him?

Al Hinkle: I thought Jack was a true intellectual. He had a great shyness and a quiet intensity about him, but and I felt that primarily he observed and internally recorded the American scene. When I spent that month in New York with Jack, Neal and Allen, Neal was the dominating character, always loud and always 'on,' and I had difficulty having anything more than short and unsatisfying  conversations with Jack or Allen because Neal was constantly butting in and trying to get in the act.

The Daily Beat: Why did Jack refer to you as “Big” Ed Dunkel?

Al Hinkle: That was because I was 6 foot 6 – you see the picture of Jack and I from 1952 [below]? That’s really how much taller I was than Jack – a good foot or so.

The Daily Beat: Did you make a trip from San Francisco with Neal (Dean) and Luanne (Marylou) to visit Jack in Virginia, and, if so, can you please describe anything significant about the trip that Jack didn’t mention in On the Road?

Al Hinkle: The trip was actually to North Carolina, not Virginia. You know, at 85 years of age, some of it’s a bit hazy, and it’s sometimes hard for me to differentiate between things that actually happened and situations that Jack described for the book.

I do remember that we were driving through Nebraska on that trip when we skittered off the road into a ditch. Neal and a sailor that we were giving a ride to walked a few miles to a farmhouse, and the farmer hooked up a team of horses and pulled the car out of the ditch. I don’t remember that in On the Road. I think it is significant to me because that was the only accident I remember Neal ever having on his record. And I can’t remember whether Jack had written about the conversation that Luanne and Neal were having about their plans for New York. I was in the back seat, and I guess they thought I was asleep. They were discussing how they both wanted to have an open and free relationship. By this they meant that they could each sleep with whomever they chose. The main thing was that they wanted to experience new things (and new people) in New York. Then Neal put in the one exception – he told Luanne, “You can sleep with anyone you want – except Hinkle!” Luanne asked if Neal was jealous of me, but I didn’t hear the reply. I wonder where that came from – maybe because I was a newlywed. Or maybe Neal was worried that I would try to steal Luanne away? Guess we’ll never know.

I think Jack did mention in On the Road that we went into a diner that was so understaffed that the poor cook couldn’t juggle the cooking, the orders and the dirty dishes, so we pitched in to help. Luanne did the dishes and the rest of us cleaned up the counter and mopped the floor. The cook was so happy that he piled on the food. We had hot cakes and coffee until we were full to bursting.

The Daily Beat: Can you fill is in with some background and additional details on the story about you realizing you were a ghost walking in Times Square?

Al Hinkle: I did talk to Jack about walking around Times Square and feeling unseen and unnoticed, but I don’t recall telling him about any ghosts. I think most of that was due to his creative imagination. I mentioned before that Jack had a quiet intensity – it seemed as if he took everything he observed and changed even the most mundane happening into a unique vision of his own, adding it to his never-ending internal narrative. 

The Daily Beat: Since I live in Maine, I have to ask you about the reference in On the Road to you slipping away from your wife, Helen (Galatea), with Tommy Snark (Jimmy Holmes) and going to Portland, Maine. If that really happened, why Portland, Maine, and can you give us some details on your experience?

Al Hinkle: Yes, that really happened. Here’s the story:

A few months after Helen and I had returned from New Orleans, I had a job for about 3 ½ months with the Census Bureau. It was sort of a political job – I got it through a judge in SF because of my Union contacts on the railroad.

My friend Jimmy Holmes came to visit me in San Francisco. Jimmy was an old school chum from Denver and a good friend; he was also friends with Neal and Luanne. Jimmy was the pool shark at Pederson’s Pool Hall, and Neal had once asked Jimmy if he would teach him how to play pool in exchange for Neal teaching Jimmy about philosophy. I don’t know if Jimmy ever took him up on that.

Jimmy came out because his girlfriend in Denver had just dumped him and gone back home, to Buffalo, WY. He wanted me to go to Wyoming with him and help him win back his girl.

At this point, my job was done, and I was at loose ends. Helen was planning to move in with Carolyn at that time (this would have been in summer 1949) to take care of Neal and Carolyn’s first born (their daughter, Cathleen), so Carolyn could keep the good job she had. And Helen knew I was hankering to take a trip, so with her blessing, off we went.

After spending a week in Wyoming, we knew it was fruitless and Jimmy gave up. I had started receiving unemployment pay from the railroad, and Jimmy had an annuity of about $80 a month. He said he wanted to take a bus trip to get over his broken heart. I asked him, “Where do you want to go?” and he said, “As far away as I can.” I told him that would be the state of Maine!

We bought Greyhound bus tickets with a stopover in Detroit, where Jimmy had an uncle, then on to Portland, Maine. We were there about 2 ½ weeks. The room that we stayed in had no air conditioning – it was miserably hot, even for the middle of September. We would sleep in the heat of the day; at night, we would stay up until 3-4 in the morning, reading or talking, then walk to an all-night restaurant down at the train depot, about ten blocks away.

We were walking back from there one night around 4 am when we were stopped by the police, who wanted to know what we were doing out so late. We explained about the hot room and sleeping during the day so we could enjoy the cool of the evening.

I guess our story didn’t go over well. The next morning, two Portland detectives came into our room and searched it (illegally) and told us that the Chief of Police wanted to see us at noon down at the station. We were there right on time, and after a 45 minute wait, he sat us down and questioned us about why we were really there in Portland, where we were staying and many other questions that generally worried both of us. So, that night we caught a bus down to New York. Do you blame us?

I do have to say that we had a lot of fun in Portland. We spent a lot of time at Old Orchard Beach, and went dancing on the pier with some girls we met. But money was still tight. After we headed off to New York, and after some adventures there (one of which involved being rescued by Allen from an embarrassing situation which I won’t go into right now), I returned to Denver with Jimmy.

The Daily Beat: Which of Jack’s books is your favorite and why?

Al Hinkle: My favorite book of Jack’s is On the Road. It was such a surprise to read! After reading The Town and the City twice, which was classic American literature, I read On the Road, which totally blew my mind. It was so different from The Town and the City. It was nothing like anything I had ever read; it was brilliant.

I remember that when On the Road came out in 1955, Jack had just moved to Berkeley and had been there a couple of weeks. I picked up Neal and Luanne and we drove to Berkeley to see Jack. We found him opening a package with some advance copies of On the Road. He tried to hide them from us, but Neal grabbed a copy and started reading passages out loud, jumping around with excitement. It was very exciting to read about our adventures, something written by our friend.

Jack was worried that we would hate him because of what he wrote about us. When we assured him that we loved it, he was very relieved, and said, “I’m very happy to hear that, because I have seven more books ready to go!”

The Daily Beat: How do you see the Beat Generation’s influence playing out in today’s culture?

Al Hinkle: I think there’s a big movement growing for more freedom and less government interference in our lives, and I truly believe that it’s due to the Beat Generation’s influence on people today. People want decriminalization of some of the drugs, marijuana in particular; they want the same rights to be extended to gay people, and I think these things and many more go right along with the Beat philosophy, which was basically to celebrate freedom in all its aspects, and to neither take anyone’s freedom away nor push your beliefs on others. I still believe in that today.

The Daily Beat: What are your thoughts on the casting of Danny Morgan to play Ed Dunkel and Elisabeth Moss to play Galatea in the upcoming On the Road movie?

Al Hinkle: I met both of these people, and the other actors, in person up in San Francisco on one of the days they were shooting there, and later got to know them better at a party thrown for the cast, which my daughter Dawn and I were invited to. I thought they were great; I fell in love with all of them. I was really pleased to see how all of these young actors took the story, and the philosophy, to heart and showed it so much respect. I’m really looking forward to the movie, and I think it’s got a shot at the Academy Award!

The Daily Beat: What’s the most important thing you want readers to know about Al Hinkle? 

Al Hinkle: I think it’s that I have had so much fun in my life. I had a job that I loved; I would have worked for free. I achieved my goals, even with having dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. After I graduated from Stanford, I was offered a teaching position in a junior college…but the railroad was too important in my life to give up. I had a year as an Executive; I worked for the Union as President of the San Francisco Region…I think the most important thing I’d like to let people know is that I’ve lived a full and interesting life, full of good adventures, good times, good luck and wonderful people. I love having lived a life filled with liberty and freedom.

It’s been 85 great years. I have no complaints, no complaints at all.


Gregor Singleton said...


john j dorfner said...

i love it...he even mentions north carolina...so he did remember. i'd love to see what he remembers of rocky mount. i beleive he would remember jack's family at christmas. glad to see you're reading my Kerouac: Visions of Rocky Mount. my next project??? Kerouac: Woodstock at Rocky Mount Music and Arts Fair. i think it has to be done.

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

What's Woodstock at Rocky Mount all about?