Jack Kerouac may have been known as the king of the beatniks, but at the Flamingo Sports bar in St. Petersburg Florida he was just known as Jack.
In October 1969 a young Dale Nichols was driving his old Falcon pickup truck down Ninth Street, heading to work at Flamingo Sports Bar in St. Petersburg, Florida. Nichols had recently bought the hole in the wall after returning from service in Vietnam and enjoyed that he was able to shoot pool with his friends, and afford a liquor license that let him serve beer. As he pulled in around back, a man named Jack, who had begun showing up about three months before, was waiting for him on the green bench outside the bar. Jack never caused any trouble at Flamingo Sports Bar, but was notorious around town for instigating fights at other bars and establishments.
But Nichols liked the guy.
There was something charming about the way he always sat on the same stool, the one in the southwest corner of the bar, which gave him a view of everything that went on around him. It was nice that he was always up for a game of nine ball, no matter how many times he lost against Nichols, or Jack’s friends Clifford Anderson and Ron Tichenor. It was okay that he would prod Nichols with questions about his time in Vietnam. Pretty soon, Jack became a fixture of the place and Nichols felt like he had to turn a blind eye to the flask he would bring in that he’d shoot with a chase of beer.
Legend has it that Flamingo Sports Bar was where Jack Kerouac enjoyed his last drink. On October 21, 1969 at 5:15 a.m. Jack Kerouac died in a St. Petersburg hospital.
Flamingo Sports Bar
It was a romantic idea to discover something new about Jack Kerouac. Stumbling into Flamingo Sports Bar, this common ground where Kerouac was just a regular Joe like us, was more intimate than sharing a pint at The White Horse Tavern with hundreds of other tourists. No, you won’t find Flamingo Sports Bar in any of his novels, there aren’t any known photos of Kerouac shooting pool with his drinking buddies Clifford and Ron and there are no stories about him throwing a punch with any of the patrons. As Kerouac once put it to Nichols, “I’m either writing or drinking.” Flamingo Sports Bar is where Kerouac did the latter.
Nichols, who still owns Flamingo Sports Bar, never really took an interest in Kerouac’s other life. Kerouac left that part of his history back in Europe, New York and Chicago. There were times when Nichols would drive Kerouac home after his shift, and once they even shared a joint in his truck. “He told me that he wanted to share something and I thought, what in the hell could it be? Kerouac was there for my whole shift at the Flamingo.” Kerouac sprinted out the door while Nichols cleaned up and wasn’t found until he reached his car. The passenger door was open and Kerouac was using the glove compartment as a makeshift table to roll a joint. Nichols and Kerouac drove down Ninth Avenue and shared the joint on the way back to his house. “Back then marijuana was a no-no, but he didn’t seem to worry about it.”
I scoured for weeks to find Kerouac’s drinking friends Anderson and Tichenor but kept turning up empty-handed. Anderson did write a book about his time with Jack called Free Beer: Kicks and Truth with Jack Kerouac & other strong drinks. The title “Free Beer” was apparently Jack’s idea for Cliff’s first novel. When I finally found the number for the publisher, it was the home number of some old folks. After about a week of searching for Anderson and Tichenor, I figured it was for the best. Maybe I should just steer away from this idea of calling his close friends and let the story lie.
Then my phone rang. “Hey, man, this is Ron, sorry I’ve been such a hard guy to get ahold of. I just got back from Panama. I’ve been living there in a house I built up on a mountain. It has a tin roof and even if I had a phone up there I wouldn’t be able to hear a goddamn thing!” I told him I was sorry but would have to call him back the following day when I had my recording equipment. “What do you mean you’re sorry? How do you know when the hell I’m going to call you? Sorry? Jesus Christ, man. Call me tomorrow after six.”
My Drink with Ron
Tichenor was the opposite of Nichols. In the beginning of the interview he apologized about using the word “man” so much. He told me that his head was rolled back as he sat on his chair, visualizing his time with Kerouac. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought I was talking to The Dude.
It was safe to say when Tichenor called I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. It seemed like Tichenor was one of those people who was Kerouac’s friend because they were kindred spirits. He had the answers to a carefree life. St. Petersburg was a place that Kerouac went to be Kerouac, and not be known; at the end of his life he was becoming more irate with the idea of being the King of the Beatniks and told Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times in one of his final interviews, “I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic!”
Tichenor commended me on knowing about Kerouac from a young age; that was no thanks to my literary knowledge but to a copy of Dharma Bums my parents had on their bedside table when I was in my early teens. “I can’t imagine meeting Jack through books or any other facet of communications,” Tichenor said. “It gives you a freedom and a different look at the world.” We talked about his time in Panama and how after reading On the Road he took his own road trip, just like the one Sal had. “I got out of school and went on the road. Man, it was a gas. I got this beat-up jalopy with tires on the roof and it turned into all kinds of different stories. But you know what? I never tried to go to Big Sur or tried to mimic Jack because I knew that I was thriving for the adventure that Jack always did, and you got to do that within yourself. You can’t get somebody’s guidelines and do it with them.”
Tichenor was first introduced to Kerouac by his high school friend Anderson, who was the main influence on Kerouac, and Kerouac was the main influence on Anderson down in St. Petersburg. “With Jack you never knew what he’s going to do. He was totally unpredictable,” explained Tichenor. “(When I first met Kerouac) we were in a bar. He turns to me and says, ‘Are you a Jew?’ He always went into these ethnic things, always. He liked to aggravate people, he wanted to see reactions. So I said, ‘No, but I have a bit of German in me.’ He cuts me off and yells, ‘OH, YOU FUCKING JEW!’ I look at him for a moment and say, ‘You motherfucking ass!’ and then Kerouac says, ‘All right, man! I like you.’ ” And from then on, the two were pretty tight.
“If he was alive, he’d piss off everybody. There was nothing about this political correctness on his agenda, nothing. He’d be in trouble all of the time. It didn’t fit into his deal.”
Irish Songs and Fences
“When they first moved here, nobody had wooden fences, especially 6-8 foot ones. Jack somehow got someone to put a big fence in his backyard, which must’ve cost a lot. We were hanging out at his place a lot back then. When we would drink, he would go out into the backyard where there was the huge fence and just take a piss in his backyard. He loved the freedom of the moon and he’d be out there pointing out all kinds of stuff in the sky. One night we ended up on St. Pete Beach. It was St. Patty’s day and there was this one bar out at the end that overlooks the inner waterway. We were totally blasted but Jack was still going. I called my friend Tony to pick up Mamay (Kerouac’s mother) to come with us to the bar. Once she got there Jack started singing all of these Irish songs as if he was going crazy. Mamay was sitting right there and it was just absolutely…” Ron trails off. “I’m trying to convey it to you and it sounds pretty cool but it was the rushes I was getting which were important. It was spontaneous! It was adventure! You do whatever the hell you want to do! But sometimes you get knocked out for doing it. And ultimately that got him at the end.”
Skimboards and Angels
“Jack, Cliff and I ended up in my brother’s pickup truck and were heading up to Moon Lake. Jack was up front with my brother Gino, who doesn’t smoke and is really straight. We both came from a Kentucky family and not into literary or freethinking venture shit, but there Jack was, sitting with him up in the front. The rest of us were already buzzed up by the time we got to the lake. We get the boat out and they get me on this skimboard. Jack’s up front with my brother and Cliff and Kerouac is yelling, ‘GINO, GINO, FASTER FASTER FASTER!’ They had me going so goddamn fast when I went off this piece of plywood it tore my clothes right off. Jack fucking loved that. When we were heading back to St. Pete, which is about a 40-minute drive, Kerouac’s still sitting up front with Gino. At one point Jack gets serious and says, ‘Hey, Gino…’ My brother says, ‘Yeah, Jack?’ Jack whispers, ‘Listen. There are angels around the curve.’ My brother gives him a look and says, ‘Okay, well cool, Jack, what do you want me to do about it?’ Jack says, ‘You need to pull in.’ So my brother wasn’t even thinking about where he was pulling into and when he pulled around the curve he was turning into the goddamn liquor store. So we pulled in and got some wine and beer and motored on down the road.”
Not many people had the opportunity to hang out with Kerouac. And if you did, you were always looking to the next adventure. “I had flashes while I was drinking some wine in Panama and I thought about how great it would be if I hooked up with Jack there. I had some great energy in Panama because that’s the kind of shit he did up in Big Sir. He was the energy force of my life that got me looking for the next adventure. I’m doing a lot of shit now and people always ask me, ‘Why?’ And I say, ‘Man, for the adventure.’ ”
Tichenor doesn’t know this, but at that point I poured myself a drink. It was almost like I was having a glass with Tichenor down at Flamingo Sports Bar. It was as if Kerouac were still here, it was as if Kerouac had never stopped his wild adventure.
Kerouac fans can still visit Flamingo Sports Bar located at 1230 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg. You can’t miss the place as it has a huge photo of Jack Kerouac on the front porch. Every year on March 17th they celebrate his life by having a huge party called St. Kerouac Day. Thanks to common day liquor laws, you’re able to get a “Kerouac Special,” a shot and a beer chaser, for $2.25.