by Karen Moller
(Swans - August 14, 2006) In 1959, North Beach, San Francisco's beatnik heartland was in the first wave of the Beat and sexual revolution. It was an exciting time. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights, was in many ways the éminence grise of the local scene and his bookshop, the epicenter of the beatnik underground. City Lights was a treasure chest of information, where people hung out discussing new publications and small press releases. One day Lawrence handed me Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. I didn't know much about poetry, or anything for that matter but Howl was something different. I didn't just read it; I sank into it, thrilled to discover that there was a mysterious brotherhood of creative spirits working in a forbidden underground.
In the absence of Kerouac and Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, the so-called Rimbaud of San Francisco was one of the leading lights. He impressed me with his creation and madness, in particular by his stated aim that he was looking around in the gutter for soul. One day, I offered Bob a cup of coffee. As he hunched over it, cradling it in his hands, and apropos of nothing at all, he said, "I'm a fountain of Negro, Jewish, and White mysteries trying to get out of my little blue man." Then he wandered off, down the streets in his castoff clothes, trailing a roll of poems that he was in the process of writing.
After a blissful few weeks, reality began to dawn that I had to get a job. I was underage and an alien but as luck would have it, a restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf hired me. Six months later, I took a cheap, seventeen hours, multi-stop plane trip to New York. After wandering around for a few minutes in Grand Central Station, in a state of near panic, I called Sara, a friend of a girl I had met in San Francisco. Her sprightly invitation calmed my nerves and I confidently headed out into magical New York, that city my father had once described as "populated by men who resembled hard-boiled eggs and ruled by dandies and thieves."
That night, Sara took me to The Cedar Tavern, off Tenth Street. The place was dark and austere with no jukebox or TV, just faded Hogarth etchings on the wall. In the blur of the smoke and noise, a man got up from one of the benches and waved to us. Sara whispered, "The scene is getting a bit boring. All kinds of new types about, but they aren't laid back like the jazz guys or the painters. They don't even talk to you, just jive on about what great writers they are going to be, and get quite aggressive when they can't make out with a new chick."
Larry Rivers, the soon to be famous painter, put his arm around Sara and asked when she was going to let him screw her. The others laughed while Sara pulled free. She introduced me and said that I was on my way to Paris.
"Oh yeah," said Larry, putting his two fingers up in a rude gesture. "Watch out for those Frenchies. They're wicked stuff, like characters out of some heavy novel. They'll give you the 'ooh' and the 'ahh,' but they aren't real men."
"They're not real painters, either," said his companion. "They don't have a Jackson Pollock to make 'em magical paintings that can change your life. They're just reflecting their own sacrosanct egos."
Then someone said, "Americans are accidents. Paintings are accidents, like ciphers. We should sell Pollock by the roll. The action is on the wall, part of life. The next thing is graffiti." These artists were just joking, laughing, and mocking each other. I am sure none of us realized that they had actually put their finger on one of the next important developments in art.
Franz Kline came in, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and sat near by, seemingly drunk. He talked back and forth to our table in what seemed like charged, incoherent fragments as abstract as his paintings, forcing me to fill in the blanks to make any sense of them. He dominated the room, like a tempest coming at you from all sides, and electrified the young men in the bar. All budding geniuses, all unappreciated, their attitude said.
It struck me that Pollock was terribly missed. Everybody had a story about him, even Kline. He said that Pollock had once been banned from the Cedar for three weeks, after a fight with de Kooning and himself. Pollock had been so angry he had turned the place into a shambles: smashing chairs and knocking down the bathroom door. The three of them were all thrown out into the street, where they kissed and made up.
Larry said that on summer days the owner arranged tables with tablecloths on the sidewalk. He got up and, with a sweep of his arm, showed how Pollock would remove the tablecloth, but leave everything in place, glasses, and plates -- the lot!
The night wore on, the smoke grew thicker and the crowd denser. We were about to leave when I noticed Allen Ginsberg, looking very much like a college egghead, with owlish glasses and short hair. He appeared to gather everyone in as if no one was too inconsequential, yet, on closer examination, the paradox was he never seemed to notice when people disagreed with him, almost as if they were too inconsequential. Needless to say, I was captivated by Ginsberg, that maverick Jew who mixed Zen Buddhism and primitive Christianity into a religion. Just what we need, I said to myself. A cleansing shower of rebellious poetry and angelic, lamby politics to give the Establishments a kick in the ass.
I arrived in Paris on the boat train from Le Havre a few months short of my twentieth birthday. That moment was overwhelming as I stood breathless on the Gare St. Lazare platform and gazed up at the streams of quivering light and shade so reminiscent of the weightless screens of color that Monet had captured in his impressionist paintings so many years ago.
I didn't see myself as a hick from the country, but of course, I was. I knew no one and didn't speak the language. Nevertheless, I soon found a room at the Place de la Contrescarpe, a poor area bordering the Latin Quarter and home to an international community of writers and painters. The more notable beatniks lived nearby in the Beat Hotel, that curious and sordid bastion of American bohemia. One evening while I waited for a friend in the bar of the Beat Hotel, I overheard Madame Rachou, the owner, talking to a few of the locals. "Monsieur Baudelaire kept a room here for writing," she said in a confidential tone as she bent over to refill the glasses. "Lived with his mother, just up the street and across the square. Had to go home to lunch with her every single day. Poor man. Seemed such an ordeal for him. He'd be drunk by then, drunk and surly, his mood turning blacker after each absinthe. Sad story. Looked like someone who'd spent a long time in jail, he did." She paused, then murmured almost to herself, "I liked him."
Until the last sentence, I assumed she was telling a story that she had heard from her parents or that someone else had told her. Could she have known Baudelaire, I wondered? After a few calculations, I shook my head. It would have made her more than a hundred years old.
My meeting with the mythical Burroughs in that hotel was memorable and mortifying in more ways than one. I was invited to celebrate New Year's Eve at George Whitman's bookshop, The Mistral (later known as Shakespeare and Co.). Soon after my arrival, I recognized a small Italian-looking guy, whose breathless patter, though fractured at times, went with his bounce. He was Corso, the self-invented misfit and street urchin that Kerouac had encapsulated in his book, The Subterraneans.
I was standing nearby when a man walked up to him and asked, "Aren't you the guy who wrote that poem, Bomb?"
"Yeah, yeah I'm Gregory Corso," he replied in a surly voice, "Who are you?" The man took a step back and looked a bit embarrassed.
"I'm Joe Jones. I'm studying painting here."
"No painting worth shit here, unless you want to paint the hair on somebody's nose. The scene's gone, man. It's gone bye-bye all the way to NY."
Perhaps Corso was on drugs, but I would not have known. I was naïve enough to think his black, burning eyes with the small pupils communicated energy and soul. His whole body shook with indignation as he began to recount his meeting with Jean Genet, the famous Parisian playwright and ex-convict. "He's just ignorant, man, didn't even mention my poem. And so fucking bourgeois! Man, he's sold out! Comes on like one of those English National Health poets who've forgotten what it's like living on bum checks and stolen food."
Corso, as a full-fledged member of the Underground, assumed his right to superior virtue, even certain purity in his poverty. "Like, man," he said, "I told him, you got to stop wasting yourself and just waste time. You have to know how to hang out. Wasting time is a real trial of patience, but you ain't going to do it by pursuing ambition." The party began to melt into a pleasant confusion, and soon Corso singled me out in my pretty dress that Sara had given me in New York. I think he saw me as part of that rich middle-class that he wanted to violate. After many failed attempts to drag me back to his hotel, he pulled out his trump card. "Come on. I'll introduce you to Burroughs."
I didn't believe him. It was two in the morning. "Hey, man," he insisted. "It's probably the only fucking time you can meet Burroughs. He never sleeps."
I still suspected he was lying, but it was a charming lie, and after having struggled through Naked Lunch for weeks wondering why I didn't get it, I was very curious to see Burroughs in the flesh.
We tiptoed up the stairs of the Beat Hotel and tapped on Burroughs's door. It opened onto a sparsely furnished room with one bare light bulb in the center. That empty space of the interior looked like a recipe for not getting ripped off by ones junkie friends and the unmade bed with its saggy springs like a place where it would be impossible to sleep.
"Hello," Corso said, "Happy New Year."
Burroughs nodded toward us, his face going though a series of tics and twitches as if he were fighting off an alien possession.
"Meet my friend Karen."
He nodded again his face, going off into even more complicated twitches.
Burroughs head was shaven; his face was a startling ivory white and, apart from the tics, completely inexpressive. Only his eyes peering through thick prescription glasses seemed alive. He sat on the only chair in the room watching us, not without interest, but with the detached look of someone examining a fly. A long awkward silence followed that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
"Just going out," Burroughs mumbled in impatient factuality and slid soundlessly toward the door like a ghostly shadow. Just before he left the room, he unhooked a hat from a nail on the wall and put it on his head. Silently, he held the door open and waited for us to leave.
"Yeah," Corso said, as we left. "See you."
Standing outside his room, I marveled at the unreal quality of the encounter. Had I been in a monk's room or had I seen the devil? Only later did I hear that Burroughs had a trick to get rid of people. He stared at them and silently repeated, "I love you I hate you" until the person left.
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