A few years after I moved to Tennessee I figured out that Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were getting together each summer at a school in Colorado. The school, Naropa Institute, was the headquarters of a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. I knew I had to go.
I had read through all of Jack Kerouac’s books and had gotten to know Ginsberg and Burroughs as characters in his books. I went on to read all of Burroughs books and a lot of Ginsberg’s poetry. Also I had been reading extensively in Tibetan Buddhism but never had the opportunity to be around a Tibetan teacher. It was the place for me.
I made it to Boulder the next summer and each day I was able to attend classes and readings given by Ginsberg or Burroughs or a host of other literary figures who were on hand. It was just one event after another all day long each day. At the end of my first week I heard Ginsberg was having a party in the apartment building where all the teachers stay.
When I walk in Peter Orlovsky is buffing the stainless steel stove top in the kitchen, cleaning up after supper. Peter has been encouraging me to learn to meditate. He says Allen is an instructor and might be willing to give me instruction. I look around the party for Ginsberg. It doesn’t take long to find him. He is standing talking to a young couple who are asking him about a poster on the wall. It is a big poster of Walt Whitman with a full white beard flowing down over his chest. Allen is trying to get them to figure out who it is. The best they come up with is Karl Marx. Finally he tells them. I wait behind him until he finishes the conversation, then reach out and grab his elbow,
he turns to me,
“I’ve been talking to Peter, he tells me you are a meditation instructor.”
“Yeah, would you like some instruction?”
“Yes, if you are into it.”
We walk out and down the corridor to his apartment. He opens the door, Gregory Corso is laying on the couch reading a book.
He tells Allen, “Someone’s been knocking on the door. They’ve been here three times so far, knocking and yelling. Standing there yelling, ‘I know you’re in there’. Obnoxious bastard.”
“What did you do?”, Allen asks.
“Nothing, I ignored them.”
“Well, we are going upstairs to do some sitting.” He tells Corso who goes back to his book.
I follow Allen up the steps.
“Pardon me,” he says at the top of the stair, “I have to make pee pee, would you like to make pee pee?”
“No, I’m fine.”
I look around the bedroom, very tidy, a couple of books laying out, the bed made. He comes back in.
“You’ll have to pardon me, I’m tired and drunk.” Then as if to illustrate he leans over, almost
loses his balance and quickly places one foot out to catch himself. He gives me a shy little grin then picks up a white rug that is folded on the floor. He spreads it out and puts two cushions on it, one
round, one square. He explains that the round one is a Zen design, the square one a Tibetan design.
“I’m not a very good instructor,” he says. “I don’t sit enough, usually about an hour a day.” He invites me to sit. I sit down, we are facing a wall about ten feet away, there is a dresser against the wall and beside it, sitting on the floor is a framed picture of the Buddha.
“Just sit here,” he says, “really you’re doing nothing.” He pauses, “wasting time.” He lets out a little laugh. He shows me the posture, he is in a half lotus and says not to worry about the lotus position, that without proper practice it can be damaging.
“It is important to have three points touching the floor to make a firm foundation, keep your face forward, nose lined up to belly button and ears with shoulders.” He straightens my back and tilts my head a little. “Now relax your eyes.” I take off my glasses and he does the same. “Be as comfortable as possible and just breathe slowly out your nose, concentrate on the breath going out your nose, let your mind mix with your breath, don’t worry about the in breath, just the out breath. Focus your attention, your concentration, on the out breath. Then as thoughts come into your mind just be mindful of them as they arise, then go back to your out breath. When I’m sitting sometimes I go to sleep or have sex fantasies or think about things and that is alright. Just be mindful and when thoughts stop be mindful of that and stay with your out breath. Now let’s sit for say seven minutes.” He removes his watch and places it on the floor in front of him.
“Ok, you ready?” he asks.
“Yeah, I’m ready.”
We sit side by side, my vision blurred by the loss of my glasses. I relax my eyes, watch as they want to shift around, relax them again, catch my breath going out. Feel the sensation in my chest as the air leaves my body. My thoughts return to the party, wondering what my friends are doing. Then I catch an out breath, focus on it, then more thoughts pour in, then I feel an out breath and return once again. I feel a tingling in my back, shift my weight slightly as a small pain aggravates a muscle beside my spine. It goes away as my attention goes back to my breath. I feel the breath leaving my body, try to imagine the air moving out through my nose. I wonder about the time then put it out of my mind and concentrate on the next breath. Then as I relax more I notice the blurred outline of the picture beside the chest of drawers. In a couple more minutes I see Allen reach for his watch.
“That ought to do it,” he says, “any questions?”.
“Well, not really, it was interesting, watching the play of thought and sensation in my body and trying to stay with the breath, very nice in fact.”
We stand up.
“Well”, he says, “it’s an old tradition at least 2500 years old, passed on from one person to another all that time.”
He looks at me intently, I feel the awareness of a tradition being passed along carried on Allen’s voice as he emanates the teachings and practices of the ancient sages of another culture. As I look at him it is as if his face becomes translucent and there beneath it is another face, this one with a darker complexion and a wild head of black matted hair that extends into an enormous beard. I can see another face behind that one and another behind that. Faces receding in an infinite regression, stretching deeper and deeper back, some white haired, some with no hair. Then I sense someone sitting silently in a forest, and another within that image, an another and another.
Then I focus back on Allen’s face, I cock my head in wonder and give him a big smile. He goes back into the bathroom talking about pee pee again. I get my glasses and go downstairs. Back at the party things are jumping. There is a guitar player and people are dancing. Allen goes in and gets in a circle of young people who are dancing and starts shaking his ass. I go out on the porch and look at the mountains shooting up out of the earth to the west, a great slope of the Rockies looms up with exposed rock faces called the Flatirons. I feel like I am at the edge of a new vista looking into an unexplored terrain. I sense that Ginsberg is showing me a new technology, an internal technology that requires only concentrated attention. I feel a thrill of anticipation, an excitement at learning how to tap an unexplored inner state.
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS
I was sitting around a small table in a rather bare apartment talking to William S. Burroughs. I ask him,
“Have you ever had an out of body experience?’
“Oh yes, of course, it happens all the time.” He responded.
I was a bit taken back, I assumed that he was talking about dreams as an out of body experience so I asked him, “Other than in the dream state?’
“Oh yes, you have it all the time.” Then he said, “Uh, ok, where were you an hour ago?”
I look across the table at him, shift my eyes to the blank wall behind him, watch my vision
unfocus as my concentration shifts to an inner mind search back into my memory. I feel almost dizzy as my mind sorts back through the immediate past, like sifting quickly through a bunch of cards. Then bang, it stops. There I am in another apartment, this one dimly lit, a few other people lining the walls and Philip Whalen sitting, shaved head, enrobed in black and white Zen robes, a string of beads around his wrist. I can hear his gentle voice pervading the atmosphere. Then I focus back on Burroughs, all this taking so little time there is no break in the conversation as I reply,
“Uh, with Philip Whalen.”
“Ok, when I said that you put yourself back there.”
“Yes, that’s right. I was there. I saw it.”
The awareness dawns on me, in that memory I was there. I’m amazed. Burroughs goes on,
“Well of course, that’s what happens.”
But I don’t follow the rest of his sentence. I start to laugh, yes, I was out of my body. I was there, for just an instant, only part of an instant, I was back in that room with Philip Whalen. I experienced it, there I was in a different time and place. It makes me laugh, the simplicity and the directness of it. Burroughs goes on speaking,
“It’s just a matter of intensity.”
“Do you relate that to astral travel?” I ask.
“Yes, this is astral travel. It is, it’s the same thing.”
In the early 1980’s William S. Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas to get away from the drug scene in New York City. Later that year I was traveling across the country and had the opportunity to go through Lawrence. I called William when I got to town. He invited me to come over and gave me directions. I found his house in a very quiet little neighborhood. It was a single story wood frame house on a modest street not too far from the campus.
He invites me in and almost immediately excuses himself. He says he is just finishing up a few things and will be out to talk with me in a few minutes. He says to make my self at home. I look around the house. It has a fairly large front room with bookshelves and a couch, it leads right into a dining room and on to a small kitchen with a screened in porch. Ruski, his favorite cat, is sitting on the back porch. I call Ruski over and pet him for a few minutes, then I notice a litter of kittens in one corner of the porch. They are just a few weeks old.
I wander back into the dining room. He has a large Robert Rauschenberg canvas on the wall. It has the words, “Language is a virus” inscribed in the painting in bold letters. I recognize the words as a quote from William and assume Rauschenberg has given him the painting since he used his words. There is a small dining room table under the Rauschenberg. There against another wall is William’s old typewriter. He has a small work desk and this ancient looking manual typewriter. On the wall over the typewriter is a painting by Brion Gysin. Beside the writing desk is a stack of paintings sitting on the floor.
I look through them. They are William’s work, small shotgun paintings, mostly pieces of plywood with splatters of paint on them where he has put tubes and cans of paint and blasted it with a shotgun. Some of them have brush strokes where he worked with the random design of the splattered paint to bring out a figure of some kind.
In the living room I look through the bookshelf. There are three file cabinets beside the bookshelves. I would really like to look at the files and see some of his rough drafts but I stay out of the cabinets. There are several magazines about guns laying on the coffee table.
Then William appears from the back bedroom.
“Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“No problem, it is interesting to look at your artwork and your books.”
“Would you like a cup of tea.”
“Sure, that would be great.”
I follow him to the kitchen.
“I got to pet Ruski and I saw your kittens.”
“Did Ruski let you pet him?”
“Yeah, sure did.”
“That’s very unusual, he usually won’t let anyone but me touch him.”
“Well, I’m a cat person, cats take to me almost immediately, cats and babies.”
He heats some water in a sauce pan and pours it into two coffee mugs. He gives me a tea bag and we go into the dining room.
“I won’t take up too much of your time.” I had been thinking of the questions I wanted to ask and decided I had better start right in. “Of course I read Cities of the Red Night, what an interesting book.” It had just been published a few months before. “I could sense you were trying to say something about evolution and about the possibility of life outside the body.”
“Yes, yes, quite right. I’m advancing the theory that we are not biologically designed to remain in our present state any more than the caterpillar was designed to remain a caterpillar. The human species is in a state of neoteny, that is a biological term used to describe an organ that is fixated in what would ordinarily be a larval or transitional stage.
This is very important in the book. Evolution is a one way street, once you lose your gills you never get them back. It doesn’t matter how the change takes place, it is irreversible. If you consider these evolutionary steps you get the feeling the creature is tricked, for instance, as far as the fish is concerned once it leaves the water it has made an involuntary step. I wouldn’t necessarily say it is a forward step but it is a step. Looking for water it has found air. Perhaps the next step the human makes will be made in the same way. The astronaut is not really looking for space, he is looking for more time to do exactly the same things he always does. However, looking for more time he may find space instead, and then find there is no way back. This type of evolutionary step involves changes that are virtually inconceivable from our present point of view.”
“Yes, I had the feeling that you were telling us that the next stage of human evolution is something as radical as the change from water to air.”
“This is the real meaning of the space program. NASA is simply an attempt to take all our insolvable problems and transport them somewhere else. The space program treats the human organism like a fish in an aquarium. I think it is a tremendous achievement to get off the planet but there are lots of things to be considered. One of the most important is weight, the human body weights about one hundred and seventy pounds. They have to encapsulate the whole environment and transport the environment with all that weight. I am suggesting a much lighter model, that is the dream body. This model gives us a clue as to the change from time to space. I think the dreams give us insight into space exploration. Dreams are a biological necessity, if an animal is deprived of dream sleep it will eventually die, that’s how necessary dreams are to our organism. Dreams are a vital link to our biological and spiritual destiny, dreams and the dream body are the key to space travel.”
“Would you say that is the theme of Cities of the Red Night?”
“Yes, of course, the theme, to put it as succinctly as possible, is basically, the limitation imposed through biologic structure and the potential for transcending this through biological change.”
“I thought all the material about the pirates was really interesting. Was there any historical basis to the pirate’s colony you described?”
“Oh yes, certainly, there was a colony on the coast of Madagascar that was founded by Captain Mission, that part is quite accurate.”
“What happened to them?”
“They were slaughtered, there were only about three hundred of them and the natives ganged up on them.”
“Did they make it very long?”
“No, only about seven years.”
“Somehow I doubt there were many pirates like those you described.”
“Yes, yes, they were all different. But there were lots of types of pirates. Some of them had respectable positions, one of the most successful was the governor of Jamaica. He lived to a ripe old age as a very wealthy man. Then there were the privateers, they were attached to the navy of England or France. They raided but only on enemy vessels, whatever that meant at the moment.”
We had finished our tea.
“Would you like to see the yard?”, he asks.
“Why yes, certainly, lets take a stroll.”
As we start to go out the phone rings. William goes off to the bedroom to answer it. I look at my watch. I figure I have to leave soon. William returns in a few minutes and we go out the back door. He says the house was built in 1927 and the street number is 1927. He has a small back yard and an old garage. We walk around to the front.
“It has been very kind of you to take a few minutes out of your day.” We talk for a few minutes about Naropa and discuss meeting up there later in the year. I ask about Allen and Herbert and John. Then I bid him farewell. As I get in the car he goes up the front steps, then stands in the open doorway and waves as I drive away.
I got to know Harry Smith at Naropa during my two week stay in the summer of 1988. One evening I was attending a Balinese shadow dance in the performance hall at Naropa. I went all the way across the hall and sat in the top row of the bleachers. I was quietly looking over the crowd when Allen Ginsberg walked in. There was this little old man with Allen. He looked like a cross between Merlin and a Bowery bum. He had long white hair and an unruly white beard with the white of his hair and beard turned aged yellow. He was wearing thick horn rimmed glasses and was bent with age, hunchbacked, shuffling along. I thought that he was one of the most interesting looking people I had seen at Naropa and made a mental note to inquire with Allen about who he was and where I could find him. Allen looked around for a seat then sat in the front of the auditorium. The old magus came across the floor picking his way between the chairs, came over to the bleachers and to my complete amazement, slowly and almost painfully climbed up the bleachers and came over and sat down beside me. I took one look at him and grinned from ear to ear. It was love at first sight. He had a tape player and he started hooking up a portable microphone.
“How you doing?” I asked him.
“You’re not going to try to talk all during this performance are you?” he replied in a high pitched nasal whine.
I just raised my eyebrows in a quizzical gesture and watched as he taped the entire performance of the Balinese orchestra that accompanied the shadow puppets.
Harry was, without a doubt, the most amazing person I have experienced. He, more than anyone, could see beyond any single point of view. He had an openness that went beyond any one way of seeing or doing or being. He had a clarity such that when we were together and I shared in his awareness all I could do was smile with that little shit eating grin that we see on the sublime statues of the Buddha. He constantly created that moment of awareness, like in the dark of night when there is a flash of lightening, and, in that instant, everything stands out in complete clarity.
Harry had an apartment on the Naropa campus. He was an incredible collector and like everything in his life, his collections were works of art. After he died they put a bronze plaque on the apartment memorializing it as his home. He was considered a shaman in residence and presided over an unending classroom that took place in the apartment. He received a Grammy that year for lifetime achievement. He was best known as a musicologist for his anthology of folk music released in 1952. It was credited with being the launching pad for the folk music revival of the sixties. His anthology had been a bible for Bob Dylan who used three of the songs from Harry’s anthology on his first album and has continued to mine it throughout his career. Harry’s next most famous recordings are of Kiowa Indian peyote songs. Ginsberg’s first album was recorded by Harry along with the first album of the Fugs. He was the first to record zydeco.
Harry was getting a grant from the Grateful Dead because Ginsberg had told Jerry Garcia that Harry was living in poverty. Garcia knew Harry’s work and had been influenced by the folk music anthology. As a result he had the Dead’s foundation grant Harry $10,000 a year. Harry was also an incredible influence on film making and was considered the primogenitor of avant garde film. He had been one of the first to put paint on film, painting his movies frame by frame. His abstract films had been the prototype for the psychedelic light shows that came out of the San Francisco art and music scene and much of what we now see on MTV came from Harry.
On top of that he was a great graphic artist although he never showed his art and it was rumored that he had destroyed or lost much of it. It was also rumored that he had been one of the first Americans to be shown at the Louve and that he had done a two man show with Marcel Duchamp. He had a photographic memory and was a voluminous scholar with interests that ranged from string figures to decorated eggs to anthropology and included occult and esoteric sciences of every description.
I gradually learned more and more about Harry and what he had done and each new piece of information continued to amazed me. But none of it mattered to me. All that mattered was the sheer joy I felt in his presence and the sense of expansive imagination that emanated from him. Harry’s apartment was a gathering spot where all the celebrities that visited campus came to pay homage. It was the first place I went in the morning and the last place I left at night. It was a tiny apartment, only two rooms.
The living room furniture consisted of a log about five or six feet long and a big rock. The log was the couch and the rock was the chair. One day one of the young students who was there told me to look in the freezer. I had already nosed around in the refrigerator. There was a quart of milk in it and nothing else except a dead mouse wrapped in cellophane and kept in the butter dish. So I asked Harry to show me his freezer compartment and after several requests on different days he cautiously took me over to the freezer and warned me to stand very still and not to disturb anything. I stood stock still while Harry reached up and carefully pulled the door open very slowly. Inside were a bunch of saucers and on each saucer was a very bright display of color. The colors looked like crystals that were growing in fantastic shapes like crystalline castles. Each saucer held a different color and each color was fabulously bright, glowing with a psychedelic aura. He only opened the door wide enough for me to glance in and then closed it again, very deliberately, before the cold could escape. I thanked him and we went on with our business.
His bedroom had no bed, he had a pile of old clothes in one corner and that was apparently where he slept. The room was stacked with boxes full of things he was collecting. Several of the boxes were filled with decks of cards, others with pop-up books, and boxes and boxes of books.
Harry was a modern Prospero. He was on some kind of line between the benign indifference of the cosmos and the karma retribution of cause and effect. His multi genius reached out in all directions. His art was strangely hidden, his status was oddly apparent. I asked if he had any graphic art I could see, he said he didn’t have any of it where it could be seen and there didn’t seem to be any reproductions. He did refer me to a copy of Alister Crowley’s book, The Holy Books of Thelema, which used a graphic design of his on the cover. He also did a graphic design that Allen Ginsberg used on the cover of his collected poems. There were no displays of his art other than the odd collections that he had placed around his house.
In his bedroom he had a shrine of sorts. It was a small table covered with a cloth with a Tibetan tangha of a wrathful deity sitting on the back. In front of the tangha was a very small bronze dog sitting on its haunches looking up at the painting and between the dog and the tangha was a broken egg shell. This simple display had an elegance impossible to describe. It somehow illustrated how Harry could take something mundane and make it stand out as a work of art. It transcended the everydayness of the objects it was created from and made itself into something of matchless proportion. It carried a profound and captivating message that had been disguised, or hidden, in its commonness.
Harry’s clarity had something of the eagle soaring in the expanses of the sky, plus something of the salmon leaping out of the water and back into the depths. Harry would look at me with his watery blue eyes reflecting his own sadness and the emptiness of this world and would amazingly transform his poverty and Spartan existence into some sort of palatial grandeur.
In my first encounter with Gregory Corso he was stretched out on Allen Ginsberg’s couch reading a book. Allen left me with him and went upstairs to get something, I sat on a chair opposite him.
“What you reading?” I asked.
“God damn it, I’m trying to read, can’t you see, people, fucking people all the time.”
I got up and went into the kitchen, the apartment was one long room with the kitchen separated from the living room by a counter, at one end of the counter was a built in refrigerator. I stood behind the refrigerator out of his sight. I waited in silence. Then I hear Corso, “It’s ok man, you don’t have to leave”. But I was in no mood to either sit and watch him read or to converse. I stood my silence. He apparently went back to his book, in a couple of minutes Allen reappeared. He looked a little surprised to find me standing behind the refrigerator.
The next year Corso was back at Naropa for another conference. This year he had a room of his own in the apartment house. One day I got up my nerve and went to his door. I had a couple of books for him to sign. I knocked on the door, heard him moving around in the room, Then I hear his voice, coming through the closed door. He is obviously standing on the other side of the closed door.
“Who the fuck is it?” he asked.
I told him my name.
“Well who the fuck are you?” he asks again.
“Just me”, I respond.
He opens the door and steps out. He looks at me.
“Have you called home yet?”
“Called home? Whose skin do you think this is?”
“Well, have you got laid yet?”
“No, afraid not.” I responded. At which he takes off down the hall calling to this woman who happens to be walking by,
“Hey-hey”, he yells at her. She stops.
“Are you a Kerouac groupie? Listen I’ve got a first class Kerouac scholar here.” She looks at him like he is crazy and takes off down the stairs.
“That’s ok Gregory, I’ll take care of myself.” I show him the books, he takes the copy of Long Live Man, it has a beautiful cover photo of a dense galaxy of white light in the darkness of space.
“See that” he says pointing at the cover, “that’s my cum.”
“Bullshit.” I respond.
“No man”, he insists, “I had to jerk off on this black paper and they took a picture of it.” He is standing right beside me, in fact as he talks his face is not more than an inch from mine. Then he gets down on his hands and knees and lays the book on the floor to sign it. He pops back up, once again standing right up against me, his face next to mine. He takes the other book, his latest volume, Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit.
“I’ll correct this one for you.” He pages through it fixing some errors in punctuation and spelling, on page seven he changes the word sutra to sura remarking, “They didn’t think I knew my sutras from my suras.”
In the process he stops at a poem.
“Hey, listen to this.” He reads the poem, holding the intimacy of his nearness, reading, “A free spirit is a divine fuck up”.
I laugh, “Yes, that’s great.” He goes on through the book, reads another one, a long one. He finishes correcting the errors and gets down on the floor to sign it. I get down on the floor and watch as he scribbles his name on the title page, he hands it to me and gets up.
“Thanks a lot.”
“Sure”, he says disappearing back inside the room.
I got to know Corso pretty well over the years, got to see him at Naropa and then in New York City. When I went to jail he was really nice, told me how to get by inside and promised to write me, though he never did. I came to learn that with Corso and Ginsberg and so many of the famous it is one thing to read their works and another thing to get to know them personally. Reading about them is exciting and their eccentricities are cast in the light of their genus but in person they are a whole lot harder to take.
One day Gregory Corso came by Harry’s while I was there. Gregory has a long history with Harry. They had both lived in the Chelsea while Harry was making some of his movies. It was supper time and I invited them both to join me for supper. Harry had to consider it, he had serious health problems, his throat was constricted and he could barely swallow and if he got anything caught in his throat he would throw up. He warned me about his condition and then accepted my invitation as did Gregory who seemed pleased about the prospect of a free dinner.
I had a borrowed truck I was driving that summer. It was an ancient old pick-up, about a 56 model. It was barely running and I limped around town in it. The damn thing belonged to one of my friends, the antenna had broken off and he put a potato on the stub. He was very proud of it, it had great reception although the radio only had the AM band. Harry and I loaded into the front seat and Gregory got in the back of the truck and we headed for downtown which was only a few blocks away.
At Gregory’s urging we went to the Boulderado, the oldest hotel in town. It goes back to the days of the old west in Boulder. Once we got in and got seated Gregory pulled a big round red cherry bomb out of his shirt pocket. He sat it down on the table. In a few minutes the waiter came by and asked if we needed anything. Gregory, smiling, asked for a pack of matches. When he saw the waiter returning with the matches he picked up the cherry bomb and held it between his teeth. When the waiter got to the table Gregory looked at him,
“You got a light?” he ask waging the cherry bomb between his teeth.
The waiter looked at him like he was crazy and tossed the matches down on the table. Gregory has a bad reputation for tossing around cherry bombs at inappropriate times. He had been at Naropa one year and had gone to morning meditation, he sat up a camera in the back of the room and then lit a cherry bomb and took a picture of the people as the firecracker exploded.
We ordered. Harry got some soup. When it arrived he could hardly eat. He was bothered with phlegm and had to be constantly clearing his throat and was spitting up all this mucus. He tried to work on his soup but wasn’t making much progress. It was obvious that he couldn’t talk much during the meal so I carried on the conversation with Gregory. Gregory was really pissed at Allen Ginsberg. He was calling him a fascist and ranting and raving because Allen had Peter Orlovsky committed to a mental institute.
“What’s the matter Gregory?”, I asked. “You afraid you might be next?”
He gave me a dirty look and went on about Allen, “I guess so, it could be huh, he’ll have anybody he gets tired of put away, I might be next. Is this what I have to look forward to in my old age? That fascist, what a Judas. Oh, everybody loves Allen. Yeah, good old Allen, watch out. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
I was tired of him going on about Allen so I started asking Gregory questions about Harry. I asked if Harry had ever been married. He said no but told me that Harry had helped raise a young boy, he wasn’t Harry’s son but his name was Harley, “Named after the motorcycle”. Harry seemed to be doing a little better so I directed a question to Harry.
“How old is he now Harry?”
“Why don’t you just ask Gregory.” He said.
He went on to tell me that the boy was grown now and was doing quite well. Now Harry seemed to have his voice back and managed to finish his soup. He told a story about being in Oklahoma recording the peyote songs of the Kiowa Indians. He said he would be with an Indian or a group of Indians and they would all be drunk walking down the street and the sheriff would stop and haul all the Indians off to jail and leave him standing there all by himself. He said he finally did manage to get himself arrested and had to spend 10 days in the jail.
“What did they get you for Harry?”
“It’s funny,” he replied, “they could arrest you for something they called ‘staggering'”.
Gregory got a laugh out of that. Then Gregory started in.
“Oh Harry, I’m so lonely.” He said, “Here I am 58 years old, my cock still gets hard, I still like sex but nobody will fuck me. What am I going to do.” He went on and on about how he loved sex but wasn’t getting any. Then he started in on the details, how he likes to look at hard cocks and pussy and how he likes to sees cocks inside of cunts and how it turns him on to see his cum on somebody’s face. Then he wants to know about me. If I like that kind of thing and what turns me on.
“Sure Gregory, I like to see all that stuff. It’s exciting.”
“Oh sure”, he says, “sure, I’ll bet you like it, did you hear that Harry, this guys like to watch sex, this guy likes to be in pictures and see himself screwing all the girls, he likes to pose like that with women.”
“No, no Gregory only live.”
“Oh, that’s it huh?”
Then Gregory gets back to his theme about being lonely. He looks at Harry and laments, “What am I going to do, Harry. I’m 58 and nobody loves me, nobody will have sex with me. My mother is dead, my father is dead, I don’t have a lover, I need somebody to love. Oh Harry, what am I going to do.”
Gregory was really getting worked up now. It looked like he was about to cry. His nose was getting red and starting to run. He took his napkin and blew his nose real loud. Tears were starting to run down his cheeks.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or to feel sorry for him but his emotions on his sleeve seemed too pathetic to be real. Finally Harry looked at him and said,
“Well Gregory, maybe I can fix you up with Nancy Reagan.”
That got a laugh out of Gregory and I really broke up. I couldn’t believe it, it was perfect and showed that Harry obviously had a lot of experience dealing with Gregory. After that Gregory was fine. The bill came. I paid for the meals and Gregory put down a tip.
I was worried whether Harry had enough to eat. I asked if he wanted anything else or if we could get him something from a store to take back to his place. He just looked at me with that Zen patriarch look he had, his sad blue eyes demonstrating the ultimate emptiness of any striving or attachment. I helped him climb into the truck and proceeded back to Naropa. Harry had had enough for this day. I dropped Gregory off at the apartments on the hill and took Harry by his little room on campus. I went to the poetry reading that night. Anne Waldman was doing her bone poem when I went in and found a seat.
Corso is the master of the RUB. The rub is one of his favorite things to do with people he has just met. He tries to find out what it is that you are sensitive about, or tries to discover what it is you are pretensive about, and he is very good at it and can usually come up with something very quickly. Then as quick as he figures it out then he starts rubbing it in.
One night I was with a couple of friends at a party. We went over to Corso, he looked at my friend,
“That’s your wife over there isn’t it.”
“Yeah, that’s Debbie.”
“See that guy she is talking to.”
“I’ve been watching her, she really wants to fuck him. She is waiting for her chance. You better watch out. She will be going off with him next.”
While the rub seems like some perverse way of acting out the dark side of fame I eventually came to see it as a bizarre sort of test. If your ego is sticking out or your attachments are showing, Corso has a third eye visionary sense that sees it and as quickly as he sees it, he puts on the rub. It is like sandpaper on raw skin. Yet, at the same time, it feels like, in some way, it is your own fault. You realize that if you didn’t cling to your attachments, if your sense of self importance didn’t matter, the rub would not work.
So finally it is an act of compassion, an act most people simply won’t bear. As quickly as he rubs them they run off, but if you want to stay around you get used to the rub and eventually it comes to be a crazy wisdom technique for provoking egolessness. Then all that you have left is spontaneous intuition. You have to trust your gut and speak without pretense.
The last time I saw Herbert Huncke I was in New York for a week during the summer. I got his phone number from Allen Ginsberg when I arrived in town. I called right away. He didn’t sound well. I asked if it would be ok to come by, he said to call back the next day. I waited till after 11:00 the next morning and called. He answered the phone and sounded a little better but was still reluctant to see me. This was really unusual, always in the past he had been happy to have a visit. It worried me, I was afraid he was sick. First he told he just didn’t feel up to it and then he relented
and asked if I could come now. I said sure I would come anytime he wanted. He gave me the address and asked me to bring some orange juice.
I took a cab to the corner nearest his address. It was a really rough looking neighborhood of very run down three story buildings. I went in a little grocery to get the juice, the guy behind the counter weighted about three hundred pounds and had huge tatoos on both his arms, he was wearing a pistol in plain view. It was a Hispanic neighborhood with young hoods standing on the street corners looking mean, wearing black patent leather shoes and razor thin mustaches. I hurried across the street and found his door in the basement of one of the seedier looking buildings. I knocked and waited a few minutes rather apprehensively until finally the door opened a crack and I saw Herbert’s dark eye looking out the narrow opening. He removed the chains and let me in.
The years were really beginning to show. He looked incredibly gaunt, nothing but skin and bone, his hair obviously died jet black standing out from the deep lines that age had etched into his face. He led me back through a big apartment, room after room. Each room was filled with large canvases. He said his roommate was a young artist. Some of them looked really good, others not so good. We finally came to his room. It was a narrow little corridor of a room with a single bed and a bookshelf and an old beat up kitchen chair.
“Did you bring the juice?”
I pulled it out of the paper bag I had in my hand.
“Good. I need it for my methadone.”
He had a little plastic cup by the bed. He poured a small vial of methadone into the cup and filled it with the orange juice.
“I only do half. Then I can trade the other half for something better.”
I had a copy of Guilty of Everything. It was his newest book and he had been talking about it for years and finally it had come out in a very nice hardback edition.
“I was really happy to get a copy of Guilty of Everything. What a great title.” I handed him my copy.
He held it gingerly. “I’m not totally happy about it. I haven’t been paid a cent. I’m sure they are ripping me off.”
I handed him a pen and he opened it to the title page. I watched as he wrote. “For Michael. A friend for lo these many years – one I will cherish until the last. Best of luck – always. Love from one man to another.” Then he signed his name.
“Thanks so much Herbert. That’s really nice.” I smiled at him. I had brought him a nice bag of sensimilla from Tennessee and I had slipped a fifty dollar bill in the top of the bag.
He opened it up and sniffed it and saw the money. He took it out and put it in his shirt pocket and looked back in the bag.
“I’m sure it’s good. Let’s smoke one.”
“I have one rolled.” I pulled out an extra large joint I had prepared for him. I lit it and pass it to him. It was some of the best I had seen all year, a dense thick Indica bud that tasted like fine hashish. The kind of pot that makes you cough when you smoke even the smallest drag. We smoked it down to the bottom.
“I was really sorry to hear about Louie.”
Louie was Herbert’s young lover for many years. Louie was a fixture in Herbert’s life and even after they stopped being lovers they had continued to live together. Louie was constantly getting into trouble of one sort or another, going to weird sex clubs, getting beat up or in trouble with the cops. Finally Louie had gotten knifed just a few months before.
“Oh Louie. He was always trouble. Troubled, troubled man. I really miss him. We weren’t together any more you know. He had moved out and then I had left the place at Henry Street. Couldn’t get up those steps anymore.”
They had lived on the fourth floor of a building in the Bronx just across the river from Manhattan.
“Well,” I said, “He was always nice to me. But he always wanted me to go to those clubs with him. I was glad you warned me off. It wasn’t my kind of thing.”
Herbert always had a sad look about him even when he smiled, but today it seemed exaggerated.
“I’m afraid I’m not much good today. Probably shouldn’t have told you to come over.”
“I’m really glad you did Herbert. I wanted to be able to spend a little time with you no matter what. It will be ok. I won’t stay too long. If you get tired just say so and I will let you rest.”
“Oh Michael, you are always so considerate. A complete gentleman. I mean it man.”
“I can’t take it much longer.”
I thought he was talking about our visit. He was worn out. I wondered if he had been staying up late or was feeling sick. Then he went on and I realized it wasn’t me he was talking about. It was his life. I looked into his dark face, his eyes black and shadowed. He was peering across the boundary of life and death. He was surveying the topography and reporting back. He was totally dispassionate about it, giving me an unbiased accounting.
“Death really isn’t the enemy that most people think it is.” He says. “Really, man. It’s just there. We all know but most people just try to ignore it. Which isn’t too hard, until, until something happens, you grow old. You watch other people die. You see the people around you, the people you love, they die and then you know. It will be alright. Nothing to it really. Just the great sleep. No different than before you were born. We are here only to look around. To suffer for a few years and then we are gone. It doesn’t matter. What will it matter? In a few years no one will know or care. Then those that are here at that time will die and their passing will be no different. That’s all there is to it.”
I reached out and took his hand. He had been staring at the wall only a few inches from his bed. He looked at me. He smiled a wan smile. I said,
‘Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.'”
It was the only long passage from Shakespeare that I had ever memorized.
Herbert smiled and said,
“‘Sir, I am vexed.
Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled
Be not disturbed with my infirmity.
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose.'”
It was perfect. It was the rest of the quote and for him it represented the repose of death. I could sense its closeness. Herbert leaned back, then laid down on the bed. I stood up and patted him on the shoulder.
“I’ll see myself out Herbert. I’ll give you a call tomorrow. If you feel up to it I’ll take you out for a meal.”
He wasn’t in the next day when I called and the day after that I flew back to Tennessee.