Note: On September 6, John Herald would have turned 76. He died in 2005, apparently a suicide. I spent a few days with him in 1975.
My roommate Jerry Leichtling (who is—among other things—a music critic for The Village Voice) invites John Herald to stay with us. John was a member of the Greenbriar Boys, one of the authentic folk music groups I’ve worshipped for years. (Bob Dylan opened for them at Folk City.)
John is in a fallow stage of his career, with few gigs and no recording contract. His new agent has booked him into a club in California, but he can’t afford to travel cross-country, and he will stay with us while he tries to rustle up the money, partly by singing on the street. John has two suitcases, and one is filled with hardcover books about mushrooms. He talks more about mushrooms and money than he does about music.
I fantasize bringing a date home and, after talking about folk music, we’ll hear John strumming in the next room and singing “Little Birdie.” She’ll say, “I didn’t know that John Herald recorded a solo version,” and I’ll reply, “Let’s go ask him.”
One night my ex-girlfriend Alicia visits with her new husband, Steve. I am so busy being a saint despite my aching heart that I forget all about the John Herald card. As we walk down the front steps to go to dinner, John comes bounding up the block and up the steps two at a time, saying, “Hey, Alan,” before disappearing into the brownstone.
Steve stops in his tracks and does a triple take. “That was John Herald going into your building,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say and move closer to Alicia.
Steve starts singing “Little Birdie” and says, “I can’t believe John Herald is going into your building.”
“Yeah, he’s staying with me,” I say, as casually as possible.
“Wow,” Steve says. I look for a glimmer of I-blew-it in Alicia’s eyes.
A few days later I hear John talking to his agent on the phone. He calls her “dear.” She has bought him a bus ticket to California. He packs up his mushroom books and we help load him into a cab right after sunset.
That night, Jerry Leichtling picks up his guitar and starts improvising a song about John Herald heading across the country. “Old Johnny Herald’s gone away, off to Californ-i-yay,” he sings sweetly, and I really miss Johnny Herald. Not John Herald of the Greenbriar Boys, not John Herald my temporary trophy roommate, but Old Johnny Herald at a crossroads in his life scrunched into a Greyhound seat studying mushrooms.
August 16 would have been Mal Waldron's 90th birthday (he died in 2002). I spent a moment with him in 1983.
“Look,” I say, pointing to a sign in a Greenwich Village club window, “Mal Waldron is playing.” Mal Waldron (when I first saw his name in print I thought it was a typo) was immortalized in the last line of Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died,” in which O’Hara recalls leaning on the john door of the 5 Spot while Billie Holiday “whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”
Someone who performed with Billie Holiday and was written about by Frank O’Hara is within reach. We get a table.
Mal Waldron is in the middle of a set, playing melodic bebop. I am transfixed by his eyes, which seem to float in his head, not looking at the keyboard or the audience but seeing everything inside and out, past and present. We can’t see his hands, there is only Mal Waldron’s eyes and the music. I want to lean up against the john door and briefly stop breathing.
After his set he sits alone at a table with a drink. I muster the courage to approach him. I ask him about the O'Hara poem and he says that lots of people have mentioned it to him.
“Do you remember the night—when Billie whisper-sang only for you?”
"It could have been a lot of nights,” Mal Waldron says.
(Jerry Garcia died 20 years ago on August 9.)
One evening in 1971, a date and I are walking along Riverside Drive in the low 100’s, overlooking the park. We don’t have a whole lot in common and I have already used up my joke about the statue at 106 Street of General Franz Sigel on a horse: “If it wasn’t for that guy, we’d live in constant fear of attack from New Jersey.” Several women have laughed and walked closer. Not this one.
I lead my date to the huge boulder at the top of the park off 91st Street, where I often go during the day to read. We hear rock music, barely at first, then more distinct. Guitar dominates. There is no mistaking the lilting, roaming voice of the guitarist. “Jerry Garcia is in the park,” I say, with disbelief and conviction.
“Jerry Garcia. The Grateful Dead. He’s here. Let’s find him.”
“What would he be doing here?”
“We’ll ask him when we find him.” I take her hand, which tenses.
“I don’t want to go down there, it’s probably just some kids.”
The music is getting fainter. Somehow Jerry Garcia and friends are able to keep playing while they move away from us. We retreat to Broadway.
The next day, I read in the Post that a record company had a party the night before on a boat circling Manhattan. Music by Jerry Garcia and friends.
The lobster tank is sparsely populated. It is unlikely that any of them will make it through the night. One of the lobsters scuttles across the tank and attacks another. I wonder what brought this on. Has it been simmering since their ocean days? Is it rage against the dying of the light? First I think: Is this the decision you want to be making right now? But watching them, as the others somnolently await their fate, I want to shout: Go at it, beat each other to within a foot of your lives—it won’t be lethal with your crusher claws taped like boxers’ hands. Then live in peace as brothers-in-arms for the rest of your hours. And who knows, maybe no one will want your ravaged carapaces, and you will live to fight another day.
Knowing we’ll have to change trains in Strasbourg—with announcements we don’t understand, signs we can’t read, and stairs and tunnels between tracks—I insist to Erin that we check our bags. Erin thinks separating ourselves from our luggage is a terrible idea, especially since we didn’t pack a carry-on with essentials. I remind her that I am weak from a bout with knockwursts.
The clerk doesn’t speak English, but another traveler translates, I pay some money, we are unencumbered, and I feel proud of my traveling savvy.
The train is crowded, and we can’t find seats together. There’s an empty seat next to a friendly young French guy, and one next to a child. I feel too sick to deal with friendliness, and leave Erin with Pierre. I force a smile at the child—that’s all I have to say to him.
While Pierre and Erin talk and laugh, I have flashbacks to jealous days. The child stares and sees right through me. I get up and move back to the space between the cars, where a young man with a knapsack reads a book and sips coffee. My body collapses like a folding chair against the wall. My head throbs along with the thrumming of the train. Erin visits and asks why I moved. “I just didn’t want to watch you and Pierre laughing and exchanging life stories. I know you’re doing nothing wrong, it’s me, but my head feels like it is going to explode.” She shakes her head with her eyes and goes back to her Frenchman, but returns with two Tylenol.
The conductor enters the car, and I realize Erin has the tickets. I tell her I need mine, and she says, “Are you leaving me?” My mind can’t process humor, and I snap, “Just get me the damn ticket.”
At the Strasbourg station, we become a threesome, as Pierre, of course, is also going to Paris. Pierre negotiates the sprint to the transfer (which we would not have made with the luggage). Our new train is the Maurice Ravel—a good omen—and this time we have reserved seats, which means Pierre must retire to a lower class. Pierre says to Erin, “Maybe we can get together,” and I assume he means in Paris, but Erin tells me he said, “Maybe we can eat together,” and he meant on the train. “I don’t think so,” I say after Pierre departs.
We eventually go to the dining car—Erin doesn’t seek out Pierre—where we enjoy the food and the view. I am calming down and looking forward to getting to the hotel so I can crash and restore. I don’t tell Erin I actually thought I might die on the last train.
When we disembark at the Gare de l’Est, Erin goes to a payphone to check messages from work while I pick up the bags. The guy at the luggage counter looks at my ticket and says “Demain, demain.” I realize that I have shipped our suitcases, which contain all our clothes, 20 rolls of undeveloped film, and prescription medicines. My stomach whips up knockwurst flashbacks.
I join the line at Thomas Cook to get French francs, excavating my German money out of the scraps of paper and no-longer identifiable substances in my various pockets, so I won’t have to dig for it at the counter. I hold the cash in my hand as I approach the window. I feel a jolt, and the money is gone, a large man running with it—a perfectly executed handoff, only he is decidedly not on my team.
I chase him, like a dog after a car. I yell, “Police, police!”—thankful it’s the same in both languages—then “Arrêt that monsieur!” I am joined in pursuit by another man—a plainclothesman?—who instructs, “Stay here, I’ll get him!” He follows the thief into the Metro. Neither emerge, and I realize they are partners.
My cash is gone, our suitcases are MIA somewhere between Germany and France, and Erin is returning from her phone call with a big “we’re-in-Paris!” smile.
“I was mugged,” I tell her, going for sympathy on the mugging before fessing up about the bags. We go back to the Thomas Cook window, where I tell the clerk that I was robbed. He seems excited that I have returned: “I saw the whole thing. I can identify him if you go to the police. I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Is he in cahoots with them? Did he notice me on the line and signal his cohorts with a flick of his eyes? Will he describe someone who doesn’t look anything like the culprit? I imagine myself testifying in a French courtroom (“C'est l'homme qui m'a fait pauvre!”), and I decide not to go to the police.
Erin remains calm through it all and has enough cash for a cab to the hotel. In the taxi, I can’t find the luggage ticket—did it get mixed in with the money that was stolen? Will the thieves wear our clothes, develop our film, and consume our medicine (feeling better than they ever had, maybe even cured of their criminal impulses)? I excavate again through the crumpled papers and no-longer identifiable substances, and this time locate the baggage receipt, which I hold in a life-grip on its way into my wallet.
Using a credit card, we get francs at a money-exchange, and check into the hotel, where we tell François at the desk all about it.
François is sweet and comforting. We upgrade to a more expensive room, and Francois recommends a restaurant on Saint-Germain, which turns out to be an oasis of calm serving cassoulet and crème brûlé.
Next to us, a woman eats with her 12-year-old daughter. They haven’t seen each other in quite some time—the kid seems to be in boarding school—and their conversation is painfully polite, especially when the subject of “your father” is raised. The aroma of the food erases the aftertaste of the knockwurst. Our troubles are transfigured in the Paris café light: How can a poet complain about being down and out in Paris with the woman he loves and just the clothes on our backs—along with a credit card and a lovely hotel room on Rue Jacob.
The next day we return to the baggage claim at Gare de l’Est and get the bad news that the bags still aren’t there. We go to the main information room, where the clerk explains that it will probably take a few days, but he can’t check on the computer because it is Sunday.
I call American Express to see if they can help us with our medicine like they do on the commercials (“What will you do? What will you do?”). I am transferred to a medical expert, who tells me that yes, indeed, he can arrange to get our prescriptions transferred, but he may not have to, because French pharmacists have a lot more discretion than in the U.S. He gives me the address and phone number of a pharmacy on the Champs Elysees, and tells me to talk to Franc. “We’ve worked with him a lot.”
I call Franc, who tells me to “Come here and we will talk.” We take the Metro and walk along the Champs Elysees, looking for a quaint pharmacie with vintage elixirs in the window. I picture Franc as being hirsute and wise, able to diagnose us with a glance and select our medicines without being told.
Instead, we get to a modern little shop inside a beneath-street-level mall. I ask for “Frank” and the clerk smiles and says, “You mean Franc.” She points to a young, kind-looking man. I explain the situation to him and, without challenge, he sells us the pills. I tell him I need a razor and he shows me a Gillette Excel. Excited, I say, “That’s what I use in New York!” and he replies, “Yes? It is good?”
The next day, I return to the luggage claim area, where the clerk disappears with my claim ticket, emerges empty handed, and says, “Demain demain.” I go back to the main information desk and explain the situation to the same fellow who told me he couldn’t check on the computer because it is Sunday. Now, he is incredulous at the notion that his computer could possibly be of any use on any day for locating bags that originated in Germany.
We return each day, only to be told “Demain, demain.” Meanwhile our hotel closet is filling up with new clothes as François guides us to one fabulous meal after another. In shops we no longer ask ourselves, “Do we really need this?” Of course we do; we have nothing.
After a few more days of demains, I try one more time at the information desk. “I know I have to come back each day, but we have to reschedule our flight. Can you possibly guess how long it will take.”
He shrugs, smiles, and says—not unkindly—“I don’t know. One day? One year? Your life?”
The more demains the better.
1984: I meet Erin at a Christmas party, and we get serious quickly. Erin comes from a devoutly religious family. Her father, Paul, is a church organist, composer of liturgical music, and music school Dean. The 1975 Baptist Hymnal contains a hymn by Paul titled “Erin” (“Jesus, friend of thronging pilgrims…”), and his "God of Grace and God of Glory" has been performed widely (https://youtu.be/q7k6CRWfpB8). Erin has always sung in a church choir. She doesn’t have a problem with my being Jewish—she dated a Rabbi for a while—but it does bother her that I am not observant.
When it looks possible that we may be spending the rest of our lives together, Erin starts to feel troubled about the eternity dilemma. Erin hasn’t been brought up to think that Jews go to hell, but she does believe that devotion to Jesus and his teachings will result in a heavenly eternity with God, His son, and His followers. She isn’t sure that non-Christians will be excluded, but even the possibility of spending our mortal lives together only to be separated for eternity scares the hell out of her.
The subject comes to a head one night at a restaurant. We become engaged in a discussion more serious than any previous political, artistic, or social deliberation I have ever been part of. I am arguing for my life: if I cannot convince Erin that we won’t be separated for eternity, I might lose her for the only chunk of time I can count on.
I am good at debating, but can my persuasive skills counter Erin’s faith? How can I even fathom what she is feeling? I remember my mother’s father davening, and I try to put myself into his skin. I feel a moment of clarity, fusing logic with a feeling I have never quite had before, a feeling I can only denote as faith, which I try to express to Erin:
“It doesn’t make sense,” I say, “that God would exclude good people from heaven. It makes even less sense that God would punish you forever because I don’t believe in Jesus Christ as my savior.” I realize that at some point I have stopped not believing in God, though I still don’t believe. I am becoming an agnostic, which I previously thought was reserved for those without the guts to come out and say they are atheists.
I now have utter faith that if there is a God, He will do right by Erin and me. And Erin comes to have faith in that, too.
My first dinner with Erin’s parents. After the food is on the table, Paul asks if I would mind if they said the blessing. I say okay, that we sometimes do that with my family: my father asks someone to say “grace,” I say “grace,” and we eat.
Paul takes Erin’s right hand with his left, Erin takes Esther’s hand, and Esther offers her hand to me. I take it, and complete the chain by grasping Paul’s right hand. We bow our heads while he recites: “Heavenly Father, accept our thanks for this food and for all of Thy blessings. In Jesus Christ’s name we pray, Amen.”
The word Jesus comes as a jolt, and I recoil when Erin’s parents squeeze my hands as they repeat “Amen.”
I freeze inside. I don’t mind saying grace, I don’t mind holding hands, but I do mind the invocation of Jesus while holding hands. I feel like I have been manipulated into the first step of a conversion protocol.
I don’t say anything to Erin until after her parents leave, and then I let it out. She says she understands my discomfort and assures me there is no plan afoot to bring me into the fold. She wonders how long I will be mad at her carelessness and how long she’ll “have to pay for this.”
“My God,” I reply, “what have those other men done to you?” and I hug her.
The next time we have dinner together, Paul says they’ll skip the blessing, but I hold my hands out and ask him to please go on. We all take hands and Paul says: “Heavenly Father, accept our thanks for this food and for all of thy blessings. Take care of our loved ones. We pray, Amen.”
And I squeeze hands and say “Amen,” devoutly faithful to those at the table.
In 1962, my father sells the milk route (no more work days starting at 2 a.m.) and looks for a business to get into with Bill, from Shelly and Bill’s candy store in Brooklyn. They decide on donuts, and scout locations in Brooklyn and Queens, settling on a storefront in Bensonhurst. After much discussion, they name the place “P & S Donuts”—the first initials of the wives, Pearl and Shelly. My mother comes home on opening day, and says with her face aglow: “We sold two hundred dozen.”
All goes well for a couple of years, until a donut chain opens a branch a block away and undercuts their prices. “They’re gonna drive us out,” my father explains, “then raise their prices.”
Not enough money is coming in, and my father wants to expand into a luncheonette, but Bill won’t allow it—he doesn’t have children to support and likes the slow pace. Finally, Bill agrees to a hot dog grill, and I go in occasionally on the weekend to turn the hot dogs. I love watching the hot dogs and my father schmoozing with customers.
The donut business continues to be siphoned off, and my father suggests opening on Sundays, when the chain store is closed. Bill says fine as long as he doesn’t have to be there. To maximize profit, my father will make the donuts on the extra day. He apprentices with the cook.
After just a few nights training, the cook declares my father ready to solo. He gives my father a congratulatory handshake and one of his aprons. He never returns.
Throughout my high school years, my father bakes seven nights a week, and works the first shift on the counter. He brings home donuts each day, and they are wonderful—the cook taught him well, the old-fashioned way, with yeast.
My father is back to leaving the house at 2 a.m., with less income than the milk route. He never complains about the work—at least not in front of the kids—but we hear plenty about Bill.
Still, they can’t keep pace with the corporate competition. During my first semester in college, my father and Bill walk away from the store with nothing.
There will be no donuts in the house for many years, which is fine with me because none come close to my father’s.
Out my bedroom window is a large empty lot. At the far edge, just off Sunrise Highway, is the back of the Long Island Water Company. Occasionally—with no pattern I can figure out—a light shines from a ground floor window. I imagine it’s a mad genius scientist working on something new to do with water.
My father leaves home at 2 a.m. every other night for a 12-hour shift on his milk route. Some nights when he is gone and the light in the water company is out, I feel lost in vastness. But every once in awhile, my grandmother stays over with her sister (Aunt Jenny), my father is on his off-night sleeping next to my mother, my sister is in the next room, and the mad scientist is burning the after-midnight oil. I lie in bed listening to Long John Nebel on the transistor radio under my pillow (which enhances the sound while muffling it from others) talking to someone who has traveled on a flying saucer—and I feel cozy in my corner of the universe.
One night, while blindly scanning the dial under my pillow looking for Long John, I stumble upon a radio drama of drunkenness and thievery. Eventually, the drunken thief winds up at a mission called the Old Lighthouse, where he accepts Jesus and begins a life of devotion and virtue as the episode ends. The show is Unshackled, and it airs nightly at 2 a.m., opening with a fanfare from Lucille Becker’s organ, which goes on to punctuate the show. The Old Lighthouse is the nickname for the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago.
I visualize a lighthouse with a revolving, glowing cross on top, rising out of a derelict-infested street, a line of sinners waiting for soup and salvation. Each episode features a life gone wrong—drunks, gamblers, and scoundrels—righted by the Mission’s good folks and the Good Book. I love the stories, right up until the transformation (which is quick and takes place late in the show) when I switch back to Long John’s tales of aliens in the heavens and ghosts on Earth.
At a dance during my senior year in high school, I hang around the ticket table, where a junior named Gabby is on duty in case there are late arrivals. I have seen her around school and been looking for a chance to approach her. On the table are loose rubber bands, and she offers me one. I put it on my wrist, and she puts one on hers. “We have matching bracelets,” she says, and we talk the dance away.
I call her the next day. My sister has advised me to make some notes, and at the top of the list is “rubber bands.” Her laughing response gives me the courage to ask her out.
In the movie theater on our third date, with my arm around her heavy sweater, I maneuver to her breast and she doesn’t resist. I recall the phrase “her hard nipples” from somewhere, and I try not to smile. I will never again experience a nipple that hard, nor do I experience it now, as I finally realize it’s her elbow. After a few more dates, she allows me under her bra, but no lower.
One night, alone in her house, making out on the couch, we are interrupted by a phone call from her mother. “No, mom, I am not kissing that boy.”
After the senior prom, we go to the beach and I notice blood on the crotch of her white pants. This will not be the night, she says.
The next night she calls to tell me she has listened over and over to the Bob Dylan record I gave her and there is one phrase that makes her think of me every time: “somebody thinks they really found you.”
Found then lost. She told me, early on, that her strategy for getting out of a relationship is to act so badly that the boy will break up with her. It takes a week of nastiness before I put two and two together. Still, I valiantly try to save us. “Like a Rolling Stone” has just been released, which I preview for her by bellowing, in the back seat of a convertible during a double date: “How does it feeeeeel?”
She says she feels like she can’t do it anymore—be nasty, or be my girlfriend.
The rest of the summer I learn how it feels to be on my own, a complete unknown, until I take the direction away from home, north to college.
That winter, Gabby starts to write me friendly letters, hinting that she wasn’t ready for a sexual relationship. She writes that she heard somewhere that people light matches when they’re horny; enclosed is a book of matches, half of them spent and taped back in. I light the rest and send her the empty pack.
Gabby accepts my invitation to Spring Weekend: Louis Armstrong on Friday night and Otis Redding on Saturday. I book a room in the Travelodge. We will stay together; it’s time, she says. The editor of the school newspaper doesn’t have a date and must vacate his fraternity room because his roommate does; I offer to let him stay in my dorm room, more to brag than out of generosity. The editor asks me three times if I am positive I won’t need my bed, and I assure him I won’t. It’s time.
After the Friday concert, Gabby and I make out on the Travelodge bed. She allows my fingers inside her for the first time. As I am putting on the condom, she starts to cry. She explains that it has nothing to do with me, her uncle died the other day, she shouldn’t have come up but she didn’t want to disappoint me, she needs to go home, she’ll take a morning bus, she’s so so sorry but she really needs to be alone.
I leave the motel, stunned, with no bed to sleep in. I sneak into my room, but the editor wakes up and mocks me for being there. “And you were so sure you were getting laid tonight.” Impulsively, I hold my finger to his nose, then curl up on the floor in a corner.
One Plus One (1956): When one of the older kids in the neighborhood is told he “has no balls,” he replies, “I’ve got two of them, how many do you have?”
This is a question I have never asked myself.
That night, in the bath, I nervously count.
And no more.
Bobby and Joanie (1964): Someone tells me that in 1961 he was staying with a friend in Cambridge. From Harvard Yard he heard a male and female voice having a drunken argument. “Stop it, Bobby,” said the female. “Aw come on, Joanie, come back here,” said the male.
I will repeat the story many times, to the great pleasure of my listeners, who will choose, as I do, based on no evidence, to believe they were Dylan and Baez.
Sartre’s Concept of Good Faith Demonstrated by a Waiter in a Chinese Restaurant (1965): My father’s won ton soup is lukewarm, so he calls over the waiter and says, “The soup isn’t hot.”
“Soup is hot,” the waiter declares.
“No it isn’t,” my father says.
The waiter sticks his finger in the soup, and agrees with my father.
Do You See Where You Are? Do You Know How You Got Here? (1965): During my driver license (yes, that’s what NY State calls it) road test, the examiner asks me to cross a six-lane highway. I get halfway across when I realize there’s an onslaught of cars coming from the right. I squeeze the brake pedal and hope everyone stays in their lanes.
The examiner looks up from his clipboard and calmly asks: “Do you see where you are?”
“Do you understand how you got here?”
He makes a notation, clicks his pen shut. His work is finished.
What He Does (1974): One of our transient roommates is Ralph, who works for EMS. He never talks about what he does.
One night, we’re all watching the local news. The reporter describes a triple murder in the Bronx, and says, “One of the victims was dead at the scene, the other two died at the hospital.”
“Two were dead at the scene,” Ralph says under his breath. “And the other one died in the ambulance.”
Concentric Circles (1970): She’s a friend, she says she is horny, I ask what are you going to do about it, and she responds: “I thought about fucking you, but I knew you wouldn’t because of your girlfriend. You see, you put a circle around yourself. You’ll do anything within that circle, but you won’t even consider going outside of it.”
I tell her that I am always working on widening that circle.
She replies: “You’ve missed the entire point.”
Two Things My Mother Said: “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” “Like this you kill a day.”
“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken” is attributed to John Buchan in 1919, and later appropriated into a song made famous by Faron Young and Maurice Chevalier.
“Like this you kill a day” seems to be hers.
Shithole (1983): I have some kind of intestinal bug that won’t be snuffed. To make sure I don’t have an exotic parasite, the doctor sends me to a diagnostic lab that specializes in feces. You need to get several negatives before they rule out parasites. The lab is a converted apartment. Everyone there is leaving samples; often, chemical inducements are required.
I could go on, but I don’t want to write it. And you wouldn’t want to read it.
Youthful Pain (2001): I trip and scrape my knee against the pavement. During the two-second delay between the act and the pain, I remember crying as a little boy when I scraped my knee. As the pain kicks in, I think of John Berryman’s line “I am not a little boy,” and I feel tearful. It hurts so good to be a little boy for a few seconds.
Mama Rat and Her Children (2001): While the moon is being eclipsed, a mama rat and her children are crossing Riverside Drive as a taxi is paused at the Stop sign. The mama stops in the middle, waiting for the kids to catch up. The taxi driver honks his horn—two gentle beeps. The kids speed up and the whole family reaches the other side. The taxi goes on his way. The moon returns.
I have a tie with a Windsor knot made on my neck by my father's hands. He stood behind me and I watched his hands, trying to memorize the path of the fabric. Now all I remember are his aged hands, which my hands are beginning to resemble.
My father’s hands: a child’s hands that carried his dead dog to bury in a lot before his mother came home so she wouldn’t see what he saw; a young man’s hands that carried my sister when she was an infant, blue with an undiagnosed disease, out of the hospital that had given up on her, into the car and to another hospital where her life was saved; hands that lovingly touched my mother; hands that never struck me in anger; hands that delivered milk, bread, and laundry through storms and illness; hands that were called upon to throw dirt on my mother's casket way way too soon; his hand on the kitchen table, near the end, as if he is about to throw the dice for the last time.
Hands that steadied me as I posed on a pony in Brooklyn: I looked at that photograph dozens of times before noticing him crouching behind me, the way he would, decades later, tying the Windsor knot.
Sinatra sings about an unlikely couple: “She was Mozart, I was Basie… She was polo, I was racetrack.” Although Erin’s father, Paul, doesn’t frequent polo matches, my father is frequently racetrack, and they do make an unlikely pair:
He is South, he is Brooklyn
He is Europe, he is Vegas
He is Episcopal, he is secular Jew
He is PhD, he is high school
But the refrain would be:
He loves Erin and Alan
He loves Alan and Erin
And for both of them it is always 5 o’clock somewhere:
He is martini, he is martini
They get along splendidly when Paul visits New York, so Erin and I don’t feel too badly when we ditch them at Macy’s, saying, “We’ll meet you back at the top of the escalator in ten minutes.” An hour later we are lingering over tea in the basement café.
The longer we linger, the more concerned we are about the consequences. After 20 minutes all they’d have left to talk about is how worried and pissed they are at their runaway children. They’ve probably split up and are searching the World’s Largest Department Store.
But as we head up the escalator, they are right where we left them, in animated conversation, with barely a nod to us. Finally, Paul says, “Matty was just saying, ‘If the kids are any longer, we’re going to have to start shopping for furniture.’” And they both laugh.
This is a story they will each tell for the rest of their lives.
During my June 4, 1976 visit with Allen and Louis Ginsberg for The Village Voice, Allen mentioned that he had just recorded an album of his songs, and had been on tour with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. The ensuing conversation (with footnotes added by Allen upon reading the transcript) was not included in the Voice piece but subsequently appeared in Poets on Stage (a special issue of Some magazine, edited by Harry Greenberg, Larry Zirlin, and myself).
AZ: Did Dylan let you do any singing on the tour?
GINSBERG: Actually he's done me a favor, he was dubious about my singing but he kept pushing me to recite poetry, till finally in Fort Collins I did, and in Salt Lake.
AZ: Why did he have to talk you into it?
GINSBERG: I sort of had this fatuous idea of myself as a singer, they have enough singers and musicians and rock and roll stars there. He was interested in the poetry part—I was shy about that, partly scared, I couldn't figure what you could say to 27,000 people, what could engage the minds of that many people in the hysteria of a giant rock and roll thing. One day in Fort Collins as Dylan came off in the intermission, casually over the shoulder he said, "Why don't you go out there and read a poem?" So I went out there and read a very brief poem called, "On Neal Cassidy's Ashes" because that's Denver area (half the audience did know who Cassidy was)—seven lines, one exact, clear, sharp, solid, brilliant image, in the middle of this rock and roll hysteria saying, "All ashes, all ashes again."
ON NEAL'S ASHES
Delicate eyes that blinked blue Rockies all ash
nipples, Ribs I touched w/my thumb are ash
mouth my tongue touched once or twice all ash
bony cheeks soft on my belly are cinder, ash
earlobes & eyelids, youthful cock tip, curly pubis
breast warmth, man palm, high school thigh,
baseball bicep arm, asshole anneal'd to silken skin
all ashes, all ashes again.
AZ: How did the audience react?
GINSBERG: Well, cheers. I couldn't tell whether cheers of recognition, derision, or just to have somebody talking. I wasn't announced, I just went out and bellowed words out over a microphone and when I got off Roger McGuinn shouted my name and then the band went into their thing.
AZ: I think it would be entirely appropriate to read poetry in that setting.
GINSBERG: It turned out to be—Dylan's imagination was just right, I hadn't realized. Then I read again in Salt Lake, a poem which was just right for a Mormon, mystic town:
HOLY GHOST ON THE NOD OVER THE BODY OF BLISS
Is this the God of Gods, the one I heard about
in memorized language Universities murmur?
Dollar bills can buy it! the great substance
exchanges itself freely through all the world's
poetry money, past and future gold plated currencies
translated by the mind's Urim & Thummim into
owl eyes identical on every one of 90 Billion Dollarbill vibrating
to the pyramid-top in the United States of Heaven—
Aye aye Sir Owl Oh say can you see in the dark you
observe Minerva nerveless in Nirvana because
Zeus rides reindeer thru Bethlehem's blue sky.
It's Buddha sits in Mary's belly waving Kuan
Yin's white hand at the Yang-tze that Mao sees,
tongue of Kali licking Krishna's soft blue lips.
Chango holds Shiva's prick, Ouroboros eats th' cobalt bomb,
Parvati on YOD's perfumed knee cries Aum
& Santa Barbara rejoices in the alleyways of Brindaban
La Illah El (lill) Allah Who—Allah Akbar!
Goliath struck down by kidneystone, Golgothas grow old,
All these wonders are crowded in the Mind's Eye
Superman & Batman race forward, Zarathustra on Coyote's ass,
Lao tzu disappearing at the gate, God mocks God,
Job sits bewildered that Ramakrishna is Satan
and Bodhidharma forgot to bring Nothing.
But it had to be fast, sharp. And there was no announcement (before or after) who I was or anything, I just went out and knocked that language out. So the review in the paper said that a gentleman in a tuxedo got up and recited a poem in the intermission. I had gotten a five buck shantung silk tuxedo from Salt Lake Salvation Army and wore it on stage.
AZ: Did the reviewer think it was just somebody from the audience?
GINSBERG: No, they understood it was part of the show, like "an interesting part of the show was when a guy in a tuxedo came out and recited a poem."
AZ: Many years ago, Dylan read a poem to Woody Guthrie in the middle of a concert and the audience responded enthusiastically.
GINSBERG: Everybody wants to hear Dylan talk, anyway.
AZ: The spoken voice in the context of a music setting can be very startling.
GINSBERG: Well, I must say I was a little scared because I figure after all the rhythm and harmony and powerful enunciation of vowels and consonants on Dylan's part, how talked poetry could engage people's consciousness and rivet attention. At best, poetry is soft spoken actual speech like someone talking to himself very quietly, but saying things so clear that it is literally comprehensible and the sound is clear and the mind is clear. In rock and roll, the mind is not necessarily clear. So the poetry can have the clear mind talking directly, and not raising the voice. It would be interesting in the middle of Rolling Thunder to get to that. Another thing is the oratorical "Howl" or "Sunflower" like that "Holy Ghost" poem I did in Salt Lake—in an oratorical rock and rolling voice. But to do Reznikoff or Williams style work that doesn't have rhyme, (Whitman is still oratorical)—it's an open field for experiment, but Dylan seems to want experiment.
AZ: It's such a great opportunity to get the work out there.
GINSBERG: And to develop a form, maybe there is no poetic form yet developed for an audience of 27,000 people. That's a whole new physical setting: there's the form of coffee house and there's the form of the Greek amphitheatre, and there's the form appropriate to the movie theatre, and there's a form appropriate to vaudeville, a form appropriate to the YMHA hall, and a form appropriate to the university cafeteria, ballroom, auditorium, lounge or classroom, or a form appropriate to the Australian aborigine tribal community chanting led by the Songman with song sticks. So there's all different forms appropriate to different situations. Now the situation of quiet speech—quiet, sensible non-manipulative speech to planet crowds is something that hasn't been quite taken up yet. It's been taken up on the radio with fireside chats or on television to a certain extent, but the in-person just-talk to so many people and without raising the voice has not yet been experimented with.
AZ: The closest we've had to large poetry readings has been when the Russian poets come to such places as Madison Square Garden, but they raise their voices.
GINSBERG: Yes. I've worked with them and I know them and I know their style. First of all, it's only crowds of 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000, and they are people attuned to poetry. But here, it's crowds not yet attuned to the tradition of spoken poetry in vast crowds. And it's not crowds of five or ten thousand, it's crowds of 20 and 30 or 40,000 people, a Shea Stadium or Yankee Stadium crowd potentially, Astrodome crowds, Be-In crowds—events like Woodstock might be 100,000. I've been in front of 100,000 people, but in a foreign language—in Prague, May Day '65. What I did there was chant, just reduce to pure sound, syllables of "Om" and "Ah" and that worked out. But to speak in America to large crowds is different. Dylan, I think, saw the space there before I did, and tried to encourage me to do it, which is an amazing piece of generosity on his part—intelligence—or just natural mind, Dylan has common sense—freedom—ease, ease. So, he's talking about continuing working on that.
AZ: Is he going to keep on touring?
GINSBERG: Well, we talked about it a couple of weeks ago, he said he's a gypsy and he wants to go on touring for the rest of his life, absolute wandering, and I said, "Well, I have to go home and take care of my father." He said, "Listen, when you're an old man, we'll take care of you on your death bed." He said, "We're gonna be gypsies, go around the world and tour forever, never never never never come home again." It was late at night, and we were all drinking.
AZ: Are you going to hold him to it?
GINSBERG: No, I'm sure he was just babbling poetry.
FOOTNOTES (added by Allen Ginsberg):
 Fort Collins Colo., Site of Hard Rain concert, May 23,1976.
 Actually I was kidding. By June 3, 1976 I had finished recording First Blues album under direction of jazz historian John Hammond Sr., with musicians I'd worked with since late 60's Blake Songs album, and the 19 yr old cherubic David Mansfield of Dylan's Rolling Thunder group
 Read at Salt Lake May 19,1976, Rolling Thunder Revue. This version as altered for Mormon Salt Lake Context—Urim & Thummim are Mormon revelatory gold plated artifacts.
In late May, 1976, I got a call from Richard Goldstein, one of my journalism heroes and an editor at The Village Voice. (Check out his recently published gem of a memoir Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ‘60s.) Richard told me that Allen Ginsberg’s father, Louis, was dying, and asked if I would be interested in writing a profile about their relationship. Richard assured me that Allen was enthusiastic about the prospect because it would give a boost to his father, who always wanted to be written about in The Voice.
“Why me?” I asked, when there were so many big-time journalists who would jump at the chance. Richard—whom I had only met a couple of times—replied that they weren’t as sensitive as I was.
I said yes, with trepidation: this was a high stakes piece (was I up to the task?), and my newspaper experience included its share of botched edits and misleading headlines. I was relieved when The Voice signed an unusual contract with Allen, ensuring that he would be able to offer notes on the piece and have veto-power over the headline.
The beginning of the 4,500-word article filled the back page of The Voice’s July 5, 1976 issue, under the headline “Allen Ginsberg Sees His Father Through” (a banner at the bottom of the page read “David Mamet: Best New Playwright of the ‘70s”).
Louis Ginsberg died on July 7. I received a card from Allen, letting me know that Louis had been well enough to read most of the article. Among his last words were, “I have read enough.”
As far as I know, the piece has never been reprinted or digitized, so today (June 4, 2015), exactly 39 years after my visit with the Ginsbergs on the day after Allen’s birthday, I keyboarded the text. I made no changes (no matter how much I was cringing) other than to correct a few typos.
Allen Ginsberg has been spending a lot of time in Paterson, New Jersey, lately. He stays in a spacious, softly-furnished three-room apartment in a modern brick building in the suburban East End of the city. The telephone—like the one in his Lower East Side apartment—needs frequent attention, wired into Allen’s network of involvements, which lately have included recording an album and touring with Dylan. But much of Allen’s attention these days goes to his 80-year-old father, Louis, who is seriously ill with a malignant tumor. At the Paterson apartment Allen shares with his second wife, Edith, Allen is mostly a son, giving care and company to his father. On June 3, he was 50.
Louis Ginsberg has lived in New Jersey all his life, teaching English at a Paterson high school for 40 years, which overlapped with 20 years teaching nights at Rutgers. Louis Ginsberg is also a poet, but, unlike his son, he used words as flesh for skeletons of traditional meter and rhyme schemes. Although Louis is widely published, including three books and numerous anthologies, he is best known among contemporary poetry audiences for his readings with Allen over the last decade.
A Ginsbergs reading often climbed the media scale to “event” status, a rarity on the poetry scene; perhaps only Russian poets reading at Madison Square Garden have attracted more press coverage. It was a natural and often oversimplified story: old and young, square and beat, meter and breath. Father and son. Their first reading, for the Poetry Society of America in 1966 in New York, was billed as a “battle,” and police were actually called to stand by in case the crowd got unruly.
Allen Ginsberg now finds the police incident funny, but at the time, “I was really pissed off! Calling the police? My father and I reading, and they’re calling the police? Undignified! There was a tendency to stereotype, and to exploit the situation as conflict rather than harmony which would have been more helpful socially, and probably more aesthetically pleasing." And there was often humor in their byplay which eluded the media. "Many think we bridge a generation gap," says Louis. "We've had many wonderful times."
Now that Louis is mostly confined to his apartment, Allen stays by his side as much as possible, and there is more harmony than ever. It would be tempting to think of their current relationship as the Son Comes to Terms With His Sick Father, but the son never strayed too far, and they are merely continuing a process that has been going on for, well, a generation. A process which accelerated when they were on the road together—"When we traveled, we also traveled inside each other," says Louis.
They used to argue about the Vietnam War, until Louis changed his opinion around 1968. Allen had thought it was just a political disagreement until he overheard his father attacking the war to someone else, and Allen realized that their clash also had something to do with their relationship. "It was a personal ego conflict between us of who was going to be wrong and give in." This peaked in an argument during a car trip when Allen got so exasperated that he blurted out, "You fuckhead."
Louis didn't respond verbally, but Allen remembers a quizzical fatherly look of, "you'll feel badly later that you spoke to me like that." Louis knew that "when Allen lost his temper at me he'd usually call later to apologize."
Allen did regret his harshness, but "it sort of broke the ice in a way. It was so outrageous that it was human and funny. It was the intensity of love; I was so concerned about communication with him, that we be on the same side, that I was really like going mad and crying and yelling at him." Eventually Allen became "more gentle," giving his father "space to change."
And now, communication-through-gentleness is the motif that decorates their relationship. Allen describes it: "As his life draws to a close, there's a possibility of total communication and poignancy of our being here this once and realizing that it's closing. It makes all the poetry of a lifetime come true, at its best. It's a good, open space, very awesome and beautiful." Both agree that they're more open with each other than ever before; their closeness was evident during the course of a day I spent with them in early June.
Edith Ginsberg gets a chance to I go out with her friends when Allen is around, secure that her husband is being well cared for. When Louis says he is thirsty, Allen is halfway to the kitchen before Louis has told him what he wants to drink. Louis tells me that Allen is a "wonderful son, waits on me hand and foot," and they spend their time talking, about such things as "death and illness, elemental things." Allen returns to the living room with a glass of ginger ale for his father, and adds, "olden times, modern times, poems that influenced our youth."
On the day of my visit, references from father and son came from the likes of Wordsworth and Milton, two poets who had a strong presence in Allen's childhood along with the lyric poets of Louis Untermeyer's anthologies (including Allen's father). While young Allen would be lying on the floor reading such comics as Krazy Kat and The Katzenjammer Kids, Louis would walk to and fro quoting poetry (perhaps a graduate degree could be built on the combined influence of Milton and Krazy Kat on the poetry of Allen Ginsberg).
Louis recites, from memory, a section from "Paradise Lost" he used to read to Allen some 40 years ago:
Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruin and combustion down. . . .
A word is sometimes just beyond his reach, or he falters on a phrase; Allen sits on the couch, body angling toward the gold armchair which holds his father, feeding the correct words when needed, so the two of them complete the passage. Allen has done less formal teaching than his father, but both are marvelous at sharing knowledge and wisdom. When they converse together, they comfortably trade teacher and student roles.
Some lines from Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood" come up:
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home.
Allen recalls that the other day Louis said this image was "correct, but not true," and Louis adds that by "correct" he means that it is a "good figure of speech, but I don't think it's true." “What of immortality?” Allen questions Louis about heaven, and Louis says it is "wishful thinking."
"What about hell, is there a hell?" Allen playfully jabs his words with a smile. Louis doesn't believe in hell, either; he is more interested in talking about the awe and wonders of the galaxies. "Why this prodigious display of energy?" Eventually stars burn up. "You wonder what it's all for."
"That's pretty cheerful," Allen replies, "because that leaves us completely free to do whatever we want in a closed dream system."
Louis has been mulling all this over. He starts to build something out of the fragments of talk: "Thinking really is poetry, although we don't call it poetry," he says, establishing the teacher role.
"Thinking is poetry?" questions Allen, the student.
“All kinds of thoughts are mental constructs," answers Louis, referring to such concepts as heaven and hell, adding, "In poetry you have a mental construct, but you have someoriginality of language that startles you" (like ‘trailing clouds of glory’). "Every metaphor, every figure of speech is a new construct."
"That's the first time I ever heard you say that all thoughts are poetry."
In the dialogue that ensues, Louis makes the point that, like poets, scientists construct images which may or may not hold up as true, such as the concept of "atom," which is derived from the Greek, meaning "not cut." This concept was proved to be untrue, and a new "thought/poem" had to be created.
Allen did not know the derivation of the word "atom" and asks Louis to repeat it. Louis continued as teacher, explaining that the nucleus is made of quarks. Like a playful student, Allen shouts with glee a duck-like, "Quark Quark! The answer is quark, quark, like Lewis Carroll."
He soon shifts into the teacher role to explain that what Louis has been saying is similar to the Buddhist concept that all conceptions of the existence or nonexistence of God or self are equally arbitrary.
"I would agree to that," Louis replies.
“The decay of the body,” Allen continues, “underlines the arbitrary nature of the idea of self.”
“I know,” Louis says softly.
“Throughout the conversation, Louis looks at his watch every few minutes. He seems to have a purpose for it, though I know he is not expecting anyone. Each look at the watch is inconclusive, till finally, with surety, he hands it delicately to Allen, saying, "Allen, will you wind this up."
"It's now 10 of 11, Louie, so it just stopped, your watch just stopped 10 minutes ago."
Allen tapes many conversations with his father, including: recollections of Paul Robeson at Rutgers; conversation about his grandson (Allen's brother, Eugene, a lawyer and a poet, has four children); description by Edith of a visit to Dr. Levy; Louis reading his early poem, “The Poet Defies Death”; recollections of a recently deceased friend; conversation on Book Two of “Paradise Lost”; and Louis having a dizzy spell.
Allen also sketches his thoughts and dreams about his father into his journal (which provides the raw material for his books. Periodically, Allen goes through the journal, picking off the “cream”). In the black-covered, lined notebook with “Record” printed on the cover, Allen entered the following on May 18, 1976, after he and his father had read Wordsworth together (“With tranquil restoration:—feelings too / of unremembered pleasure….”)
Wasted arms, feeble knees
80-years-old, hair thin & white
cheek bonier than I’d remembered—
head bowed on his neck, eyes opened
now and then, he listened—
I read my father Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’
“When I was a boy we had a house
on Boyd Street—” —“Newark?”
“Yes, the house was near a big empty lot,
full of bushes and trees. I always wondered
what was behind all those green branches
and tall grass. When I grew up
I walked around the block
and found out what was back there—
it was a glue factory.”
Allen reads the journal entry to his father, introducing it by saying, "I wrotethis down, I don't think you've seen it." He refers to it as, "my latest poem," but corrects himself by saying, "ours," before reading it.
As Louis listens, he is in the same posture as Allen describes. He nods at the accuracy of his son's words, which capture the approach he's used for much of his poetry writing: "I will see a flash of the past; suddenly it'll swim into my ken some picture of that incident. Like starpoints, when you're far away from them you can see the pattern."
One of Allen's dreams about his father, from an April journal entry:
"Louis was in bed in front room of Park Avenue apartment. I was with Edith by his side. He slumped over on the bed, eyes closed. I put my palm to his forehead and held him close, hugging him. Ah a tremor in his chest near his heart, a few spasmodic movements deep inside his body. I said, ‘Ah,' clearly to him as if the vibration of my voice through my hands or into his ears might be heard far off as a sign of openness. Ah he was still alive, that his movement hadn't ceased, very subtle stirrings still, though breath seemed to have stopped. Ah. Edith sat by attentive silent."
"Ah" is a Buddhist mantra meaning "appreciation of present, endless space."
One of Louis's last poems says that "somewhere" there is a tree and a patch of dirt which will be made into a coffin and grave for him; but he is “patient.” "When you get older and you're seriously ill, you think of these things," he comments about the poem, which he has paraphrased from memory because his only copy was submitted for publication.
·At midday—after a morning of conversation, a nap, and lunch prepared by Allen, Louis is beginning to wear down. He is more grounded in his chair, holding tighter to thearmrests. One must speak louder and more distinctly, and I find that I too am wearing down and have trouble speaking loud enough. I am beginning to withdraw from Louis, perhaps because the seriousness of his condition—which was an abstraction when I agreed to do this article—has seeped into me and I am beginning to feel a closeness to him. But Allen breaks my slipping away by yelling “Louder!" tempering his voice with a playful laugh. It works; as I continue speaking, Louis has less trouble hearing me. I am back with him. But soon it is time for him to return to bed.
"In the afternoon," Louis explains, "a lethargy enfolds me and I want to lie down."
Allen wants to know. "What does it feel like, exactly?"
“It plagues me to close my eyes and relax my body. It embezzles my will."
"Do you have any pain?"
"No pain, that's the fortunate part of this, to give it a light name, infection. If any questions arise, I won't be sleeping, I'll just be lying down in my study, so you can come inand if I don't know the answer, that doesn't stop me from talking."
After Louis goes inside, I think about my momentary withdrawal a few minutes ago, and ask Allen how he and Louis related to the news of his condition. How was he told? How did he face it? Was there any panic on Allen's part?
The only panic, according to Allen, was during the limbo before Louis was told of the doctor's diagnosis, after the family already knew. "I was in a panic that the lack of communication would grow to a point where it would be insoluble. We'd all be trapped in a series of illusions." Louis had been worried that he might have a tumor in his head because he had trouble holding it up (“It felt like my head was falling off"), so when he was eventually told that there was a malignant tumor in his spleen/liver area, he responded with relief that it wasn't as bad as he'd fantasized. In fact, he made a joke about it. Louis has been contributing puns to a local newspaper for many years, one of his most notorious being, “Is life worth living? / It depends on the liver." After he was told of the diagnosis, he said, “I never thought my pun would come back to bite me."
Before Louis was told of his condition, Allen's "pain was in worrying about him, not realizing he could take care of himself; the pain was in projecting our own fears. This is the one time you can really totally communicate. Some of my relatives said they wouldn't want to know ifthey were going to I die. I was really shocked. When I told my father of the delay, he said, 'Ah, so you kept a secret from me.' He marveled that we were so . . . so. . . “ Allen sifts through words in his head before coming up with the right one: "foolish."
The day before I visited was Allen's birthday. “It’s interesting to relate to because he's 80 and I'm 50.” He spent his birthday in the studio recording an album of his songs—“It’s great to be 50 and up there shaking my ass making rock and roll with a bunch of 19- year-old musicians."
Allen would hope that his recent flowering in new creative areas and his relationship with his father could be a model that would partially offset what he calls "ageism” among some young people who believe that “everything is shit and people grow old and they can't do anything anymore and they lose their balls and life is just 'kicks.’ That just develops a punk attitude rather than a wise man attitude. It cuts ground from under unborn feet."
With his father, "a very old, natural situation has developed, where we're both so soft and tender to each other.”
Is it surprising to hear Allen Ginsberg talkso "conservatively" about family and wisdom of the old? It may be surprising, says Allen, if your information about him comes from the "CIA FBI Time magazine stereotype of dirty unwashed evil beatniks eschewing their parents."
It is not surprising to Louis, who says, "Contrary to what people thought, that Allen was a Wild Man of Borneo, he's really compassionate."
Although Allen never totally broke away from his family, there was a time when he was drifting. But even then, while Allen was moving quickly—living the life he and his friends made their reputations writing about—Louis set up a room for Allen in the house he and his new wife moved into. “Allen picked his own wallpaper, Oriental. . . . In the course of a life, the youngster doesn't want to be tied by strings to the family, so Allen started to wander, but he always had a place to come and get what he needed.” In one visit, Allen brought Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky and they all typed up poems for “Combustion," the first mimeographed poetry magazine. Allen typed up the first section of “Kaddish.”
For Allen, full disclosure has been his poetic mode, and perhaps the fullest of his disclosures was “Kaddish,” his classic rhapsodic explosion of words about the insanity and death of his mother, Naomi. Louis was part of that experience and therefore part of the poem. Even though Louis has been happily remarried for 25 years, he is frozen in the minds of tens of thousands of readers as the confused, helpless husband:
Louis in pyjamas listening to phone, frightened—do now?—Who could know? my fault, delivering
her to solitude? sitting the dark room on the sofa, trembling, to figure out—
I ask Louis how it felt to see the play version of "Kaddish” a few years ago.
“It was a novel experience. Here I was listening to words that I spoke 40 years ago. My curiosity held my feelings of grief at bay." But this is so far away, that Louis does not want to dwell on it. "You can make mention of these things, but not too much, because that's an era that's passed."
Now Louis sits straight in his chair and talks about the different approaches he and Allen took in dealing poetically with that time. “My first wife died: in my book there are some love poems—Allen wrote 'Kaddish,' which is more first hand. I used what you call 'aesthetic distance.' Let's say I'd go to the sanitarium where she'd be, I’d write: 'the father and two sons observed the wife sick.' Maybe I'm introverted, I don't want to wear my sorrow on my sleeve, but Allen speaks right out. I think one of Allen's strengths is that he has said what young people think but are afraid to say." But for Louis, “sometimes a side blow or a hint is better than the forthright exact sentence."
In the case of "Kaddish," it was painful for Louis and the family to see parts of it in print, but Louis I feels its function for Allen was to “exorcise and give vent to his feelings, so sorrow was eased and there was solace." Louis seems accepting of the difference in their presentations, but what was more difficult was that Allen had been away from home a lot in the midst of the turmoil over Naomi's condition.
"There was a time when my wife was in the sanitarium and Allen was roaming, I thought he was fleeing from sadness, running away from a tragedy."
Allen returns to the room from a phone call in time to hear the last few words. "What was I running I away from?"
"I said you were running away from tragedy."
Allen looks at his father and says, "Well, I didn't get very far. Here we are." Although it was said playfully, he reconsiders, "maybe that's overdramatizing."
They set about the process of exploring this conflict by focusing on some lines from Louis's poem, "Still Life," about the time Naomi was in the sanitarium.
No one is in the house but tensions swarm
The mother in a sanitarium broods.
Her sons by traveling try to chloroform
The loss that burrows in their solitudes
And dreams of how her two grieving sons will climb
Up marble stairways through facades of fame.
Allen picks up on the word “facades,” perhaps avoiding the central conflict by saying, “‘Facades’ in the sense of maya, illusion, naturally because all existence is illusionary.” It is Allen the teacher talking and it sounds inappropriate. He eases into a softer tone, “I always thought you liked the fact that I was getting well-known as a poet.”
“I felt sad that you had to run away or hide from a great sorrow.”
“What do you mean, ‘run away’?”
“You went here, there, you went to Colorado, to San Francisco.”
“I didn’t think that I was hiding, I thought that was exploring, going out.”
The circle is not completely closed. They are, however, a bit closer in touch with each other.”
Poets do not usually achieve fame with the general public. And certainly not quickly. Allen Ginsberg got famous quickly. This was due in part to the controversy over the use of obscenities in “Howl.”
“We didn’t like obscenity and told him not to use it,” Louis says, adding, with hindsight, “But it wouldn’t be Allen if he didn’t use it.” Louis was supportive during Allen’s legal battles over “Howl” and, “although we were somewhat bewildered by Allen’s soaring into fame, we were delighted.”
Allen interrupts to say, “You always keep speaking of it as fame rather than beauty. I’m mad, that’s not fair.”
Earlier that morning, I sat in Ben and Bob’s coffee shop/candy store down the block, where Louis used to spend a lot of time before his illness. Proprietor Marty Singer recalled that Louis was in “seventh heaven” and “tickled pink” about Allen’s success and the fact that he was a part of it: “The colleges want both of us,” Louis would say with a smile of both a proud father and proud poet.
A photograph in Louis and Edith’s apartment shows the father and son giving a reading at the 92nd St. “Y,” but Allen is lying on a couch with his leg in a cast. Even though he had broken his leg, he refused to cancel the reading because he “didn’t want to disappoint my father.”
There was a long time when Allen was not at ease with his father’s poetry. Louis Ginsberg is a lyric poet (“with a modern touch,” he adds) and so was the young Allen Ginsberg. “My early poetry was just like my father’s, same rhyme schemes. I had to deal with my own resentments and discriminations and rebellion against traditional forms which I grew up with.”
His poetic journey took him away from his father’s approach, and along the road he picked up metaphysical, objectivist/imagist, surrealist, dissociative, and Buddhist influences. Then, in the late ‘60s, he had a public reunion with his father’s verse in his introductory essay “Confrontation with Louis Ginsberg’s Poetry” to Louis’s book “Morning in Spring.” Allen wrote, “I won’t quarrel with his forms anymore: By faithful love he’s made them his own.”
Louis Ginsberg’s work is his own. In the process of doing this piece, I too had to confront a style I had set aside. Many gems shine through Louis’s poems, and it is interesting to see how he deals poetically with many of the same themes Allen explores.
Louis is quick to point out that Allen’s latest book, “First Blues,” uses rhyme. “There was a time when Allen derided regular meter and rhyme. We had arguments. As time went on, he influenced me a little bit. I’ve written some free verse. Maybe I influenced him.” Allen notes that a major difference between his latest rhymes and his earliest is that “I’m singing.” The new poems include music, the original partner for lyric verse. Allen’s handwritten inscription on the copy of “First Blues” he gave his father reads: “Ah for Louis New Years Eve day December 31, 1975 while we’re all still alive a book of rhymed poems ending the poetry war between us….love, Allen.”
Louis is lying down on the couch in his study, drifting along a fitful half-sleep. Allen shows me around the room while a few feet away his father is exhaling a steady stream of delicate sighs.
“I see you keep your National Book Award here,” I mention, pointing to the certificate on the wall commemorating Allen’s “The Fall of America.”
“I gave it to him, it’s his.”
The sighs from the couch gradually change shape to form a word, which eventually reaches Allen as the sound of his name.”
“Hmmmmmm…what?” Allen answers, hovering over his uncovered father, ready to bring him whatever it is he wants. But he doesn’t want anything, except to say, “Allen, you’re all right.”
“Yeah, I am all right.”
“You’re all right, Allen,” Louis repeats, looking through almost-closed eyes at his son.
“Yeah, I’m all right. You’re all right?”
“You’re all right, I’m all right, you’re all right,” Louis says clearly, completing the conversation.
A few minutes later, Louis says, “Allen, I feel a draft, close the window.”
Allen brings the cover, which he pours over Louis’s body, pausing to hold Louis’s arm for a while, fingers breathing on his father’s flesh.
In the living room, while his father is napping, Allen mentions that William Carlos Williams’s widow, Flossie, just died. “I hadn’t, alas, been in touch with her for many years.”
We talk about Charles Reznikoff, who died a few months ago. “I wonder who’s keeping Mrs. Reznikoff company,” Allen says.
Louis returns from his nap. He wants to know if I have any more questions, and requests that he be sent copies of the article. He sits down and says:
“I was talking before about the constellations and immensity, unfathomable of the universe—are you taking this down?—no matter how small men are, they are greater than the biggest star, because they know how small they are.
“I wanted to complete that thought.”
Erin has asked me to pick up a dress that she bought and left to be altered at Fowad, a discount clothing store on 96th and Broadway. I make my way through volumes of knock-offs and seconds, down a narrow stairway to a cluttered corner where a man hovers over a sewing machine.
After two minutes of reaching and re-reaching into my pockets, I conclude that I have forgotten the ticket. The man asks me if I can describe the dress, but I have no idea. “I wasn’t with my wife when she was here,” I say, and start to leave.
“Ah, your wife, is she large?” he says pointing to his hips.
“No,” I respond, puzzled.
“Your mother-in-law, does she sew but is in Florida?”
“Yes,” I respond, more puzzled.
He rummages through dozens of pieces of clothing and snatches out a dress. “This is it.” It looks like something Erin would wear, and indeed her name is on the tag.
When I tell Erin what happened, she thinks for a moment, then grins: “When he was pinning the dress, I explained to him that my mother usually does this for me.”
I am eight when my head starts to itch soon after we move from Brooklyn to Lynbrook. The Lynbrook doctor says I have a ringworm infection, adding that I probably caught it leaning back in a Brooklyn movie theater seat; he emphasizes Brooklyn. It is highly contagious and I will miss a month of school.
As we wait for the doctor to write a prescription, I devise a plan to go to lots of movies and single-headedly turn Lynbrook into a village of scalp-scratchers. I stop smiling when the doctor orders my head shaved so salve can be applied daily. And, a nurse will come to the house every other day to give me a shot in my backside.
My father insists on shaving me himself so I won’t be humiliated in a barber chair. The walk to the bathroom feels like a march to the electric chair; my mother even let me choose pizza for supper. I sit on the closed toilet bowl, and my father cuts as much as he can with scissors. I keep my eyes shut and imagine I am a soldier who won’t squeal no matter what. My father plugs in the electric razor and starts shearing. When I feel my scalp exposed I begin to cry.
My father is thirty-five when he shaves his son’s head in the new house in the suburbs. He leaves the room, and I sit there wondering if I will have to finish the job myself. He returns with his Kodak Brownie camera—which I’ve had my eye on—and says I can have it.
I run my hands over my bald head and start to cry again. My mother comes in and hugs me, singing a Yiddish song I haven’t heard in years: shlof, mayn kind. My father says he has to do the books for his milk route, and he leaves me in my mother’s arms, bald and crying on the closed toilet seat.
Before the diagnosis, I checked out a thrillingly illustrated version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from the school library. My mother tries to return it, but the librarian says I can keep it “as a gift.” My father buys me a stocking cap, even though it is April. A kid teases me and I get into a fight. The cap comes off. No one wants to fight me after that.
I ride my bike in the early afternoons, and many days vow not to be home when the nurse arrives to inject my backside with a burning needle. But I never pedal so far that I can’t make it back on time.
I come up with a new plan: I’ll tell the toughest-looking kids how ringworm gets you out of school, and I’ll spread it to them through a head-rubbing initiation. I will lead a gang of elementary school dropouts. We will charge the enemy—whoever they may be—wearing our matching stocking caps. Then we will stop, bow, and tip our hats before letting loose a blood-curdling yell as we initiate the vanquished, emptying the schools and filling the streets with bald boys on bikes. All will be captured by my Kodak Brownie.
Instead, I ride alone. Eventually my scalp clears, my hair grows back, and I return to school.
In 1982, if you go as far west as possible on 125 St, you reach Marginal Street and what I imagine is the “old broken-down river pier” where Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac watched “the long, long skies over New Jersey” at the end of On the Road. And that’s where I find myself out of breath, pausing on a run, shortly after dark.
A car appears from Somewhere headed for Nowhere, and out come two young men, long scraggly hair, tattooed arms, heading straight toward me, stopping a few yards away.
“Hey there,” one of them says. “We drove up from South Carolina to see what New York looks like, and now we’re trying to get back across the river but looks like we reached the end of the road and don’t have the money to gas up.”
There is nothing menacing about the way he speaks, but I am boxed in.
“Two bucks should do it,” the other guy adds, asking for just enough to get me to reach for my wallet.
“That’s all you need?”
The second guy points to the long skies over New Jersey. “We got a buddy waiting for us in a diner, too chicken to come to the big city.”
I take out my wallet and peel off two bills while keeping my eye on the guys. But I now have two twenties in my hand. I put them back and this time make sure I get singles.
“Here you go, two bucks.”
“Much obliged to you, sir,” the first guy says and walks toward me.
I stiffen as he sticks out his hand for the bills, which he stuffs into his pocket. Out comes his hand again, hovering in front of me. Nothing happens. I shake his hand; he nods and turns around.
They wave as they get into their car, make a U-turn, and head toward the gas station up the hill.
Two guys came across a stranger at the end of the road, and he helped them back onto “all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.”
In 1978, after dinner with my parents, my mother drives me to the poetry workshop I am teaching in a neighboring town library. I am surprised when she asks if I’d mind if she sat in. The only books my mother reads are romance novels, and I am a little concerned about how she will fit in. She sits off to the side and writes on one of the yellow legal pads I’ve distributed. She doesn’t share her poem with the group, but I read it as she drives me to the train station.
I sit in my chair
It is quiet late
They are asleep and they
Smile at me from the walls
“Did you get that I’m referring to the family pictures?” she wants to know.
“Yes,” I reply, though in fact I hadn’t until she said it.
"I meant to write 'quite' but didn't have a chance to change it."
"'Quiet late' is lovely. Quite lovely!"
She smiles like in her high school class photograph.
Because Art forgets to leave his keys in the car, Gay can’t drive me to the airport on Martha’s Vineyard.
Because Gay can’t drive me, we walk to the airport, a long shot to make the plane, but we can always get langoustines at the airport café.
Because we walk, a neighbor driving her daughter Beth to the same flight sees us and gives us a ride.
Because I meet Beth, we have a drink at the bar after hearing the announcement that the flight is delayed for mechanical difficulties.
Because when our flight is called two hours later, Beth asks a maintenance worker if they “really fixed the plane or just decided the hell with it” and the worker responds “Oh we fixed it—we only have two planes and can’t afford to lose one,” we laugh and Beth touches my arm.
Because Beth has touched my arm and we have a couple of complimentary drinks on the plane, I overcome my shyness and ask Beth for her phone number.
Because I am sober 99% of the time, I don’t call her.
Because I run into Beth on the street weeks later, she tells me “It is so gratuitous running into you,” and invites me to a party at her apartment.
Because I go to Beth’s party, I become infatuated with one of her roommates, Meredith, a singer from Traverse City, Michigan.
Because I get involved with Meredith (and that’s a whole other story) I go with her to Traverse City and she takes me to the Interlochen Academy campus. I see the showcase of visiting writers, and Meredith says, “Why don’t you get a job as visiting writer-in-residence here and we can live together for the term?”
Because Meredith said that, I apply for—and get—the job; with it comes a cabin with a fireplace.
Because Meredith and I break up, I find myself alone at Interlochen, and become friends with Clara, who soon moves to New York.
Because Clara moves to New York, we get together when I return home and she introduces me to her friend Jen, and Jen and I become friends.
Because Jen decides to go camping one Saturday, she calls me on Friday to cancel our date to the Village Vanguard later that night and, as an afterthought, perhaps so I won’t feel rejected, she asks me to join her at an early-evening Christmas-season party.
Because I go to the party, I am introduced to Erin who, it turns out, lives around the corner from me.
Because I am introduced to Erin, I find lasting love.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.