25. Tell the devil you can freeze hell

Creedence Clearwater Revival—Down on the Corner

Chip is sitting in a sour mood drinking and thinking at the dive bar next to Charles’s apartment building, a half-empty pitcher of Bud Light before him on the table. A mediocre jazz trio murders the standards via the joint’s out-of-tune piano. Charles looks in hesitantly from the street, spies Chip and self-consciously walks over to the booth.

“Well, it’s ‘bout time you showed up, you sad sack,” Chip greets him. “Get lost on the wild side?”

“Well, I have never been into this bar,” Charles says.

“It’s next to your fucking building, you moron! You’ve never been here?”

“No,” Charles says, surveying the definitively down at the heels décor: torn vinyl on the banquettes, dusty, fake mounted game fish, and tons of Marlins baseball paraphernalia on the walls. “Not my style.”

“Which you know how? From never setting foot?”

“Cram it, buddy. Whatcha drinking?”

“Spud Light, grab that mug there and I’ll pour you one.” Charles hates light beer, pre­ferring craft stout, but he takes the full glass and sips a bit. He looks around the place. He’s never been comfortable in places he’s never been before, mainly because his beanpole stature and sport jacket often make him stand out. More than one drunken behemoth had given him unwanted attention in similar bars.

Nodding toward the standup bass player on the stage, Charles says, “I think I told you I played bass guitar in a semi-pro jazz band during graduate school. We had what we thought was the coolest—pun intended—name: The Laws of Ice. It’s from a short piece by Ralph Waldo Emerson called ‘The Comic.’”

Chip snorts. “Give me a break! What a highfalutin’ pretentious grad student wimpy pansy-ass name! A name, I’m sure, with a backstory!” Chip pours himself another beer.

“Well, I was in the creative writing program, after all!” Charles says, almost apologetically. “The gist is, even the high and mighty, while out walking, must obey the laws of ice or they go down.”

Chip guffaws at the double entendre. “That’s what she said!”

Mildly exasperated, Charles continues, “Anyway, we thought it was a cool, egalitarian kind of name for a band, but even the English majors didn’t get it.”

“Can’t for the life of me figure why . . .” deadpans Chip, and then snickers.

Charles glares at his friend. “Anyway,” he says, irritatedly drawing out the “a” in the manner of annoyed persons everywhere. “The part of the Emerson passage—which is in general about the ascendency of wit,”—more snorts from Chip—“If I may continue, the part that is germane to our current discussion goes like this, and yes, I did happen to have memorized it, for an Emerson course I was talking,” Charles explains quickly to head off another taunt from Chip, who is making ironic air quote signs in the air. “Anyway, it goes: ‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ That’s the point I’ve been trying to make while you sit there making faces: Just ‘cause you’ve found the way, doesn’t mean there aren’t other sinners out there.”

Chip again makes air quotes while bowing in mockery. “O thank you, ‘perfesser’, for ‘enlightening’ a dumb Midwesterner such as I. I am but a stout vessel which has just shipped a heavy sea after receiving, like a willing martyr, the whispers into his ear of a man of wit.”

Charles almost gasps. “You’ve read your Emerson!”

“Of course, you yay-hoo. I was a damn English major myself; don’t you remember? And the cakes and ale bit is from Twelfth Night, Willy the Shake, not Emerson, you clown.”

Charles flushes scarlet and, nonplussed, grabs an errant ping pong ball from the banquette and whips it at Chip’s head. The ball bounces off his forehead with a satisfying ponk. Chip grabs his mug and mimes pouring it into Charles’s crotch.

After a minute during which he gathers his composure, and his ears turn from scarlet to merely bright pink, Charles leans back self-consciously, affecting what he thinks is a devil-may-care attitude, and takes a drag on his Marlboro, grateful that this dive bar was one of the few left in Miami where you can smoke. Charles blows a smoke ring, and Chip pokes his finger in the center, saying, “Never let it die a virgin. That shit’s gonna kill you, mate,” he says.

To change the subject, Charles says, “Did I ever tell you about when I was Allen Gins­berg’s apprentice?”

“No shit?” Chip says, impressed. “How’d you get a gig like that?”

“Well, it was while I was in graduate school in Denver, around the same time as the jazz band thing. Somehow, I saw a flyer or something about this new school in Boulder, the Naropa Institute. It’s Naropa University now. They’d just started up and had something called The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I thought that was a pretty interesting name, although I was never a great Kerouac fan. Then I saw that Allen Ginsburg was on the faculty. I’d only read a little Ginsburg and thought ‘Howl’ was a great poem, but the thing that had really caught my eye about him was ‘Mind Breaths,’ a poem he published in Rolling Stone. In the poem, the poet imagines his breath leaving his nostrils and traveling out over the mountains, across the seas, and around the world. It was an incredibly evocative poem, and I re-read it probably a dozen times. So, I was intrigued by the thought of taking his class on poetry writing.”

Chip, for the first time since Charles showed up, seems to shed his wise-ass act and looks interested. Charles warms to his story.

“The problem was the cost: $100, a tremendous sum back in those days. I was only making $500 a quarter as a teaching assistant. I prevailed upon my parents to finance the course, which met three afternoons a week during that summer, in Boulder, about a half hour from where I lived. I drove back and forth in an old Jeep Wagoneer that got about a mile a gallon.

“Despite the cost and the commute, it was a mind-blowing experience. I didn’t know what to expect from the course, and it certainly was unlike any other course I took before or since. Each class began with about 15 minutes of mediation—I had never done that before. Allen was as much teaching us how to meditate and to think creatively as he was teaching us how to write. I especially remember we did in-class poetry writing. I adopted that for when I taught poetry. The first exercise stuck in my mind: write a poem about a tree without comparing it to fingers, rivers, or pillars. That set the tone. Allen also did a whole lecture on poetic clichés. Anyway, he said that he was going to take a few interns for the fall semester and those interested could apply. The application was just as unorthodox as he was. I remember he wanted to know the entire history of my poetry production, for example.

“So, I got the gig and I show up at this nondescript apartment complex in Boulder, and eventually find Ginsberg’s building and apartment. The door is wide open, and the day is very warm, probably late September. I knock on the door and wait. Knock again, and call, “Hello?” I take a few steps into the living room and Allen and his lover, Peter Orlovsky, come barreling around the corner from the bedroom, both clad only in tighty-whiteys.”

“Oh, seriously?” Chip says. “What? Were they fucking back there?”

Charles glares at Chip and shakes his head in irritation. “Anyway, I’m a bit taken aback, as one would be to be surprised by a nearly-nude world-famous poet.

“Hi, I say. I’m your apprentice. ‘Oh,’ Allen says. ‘Was that today? OK, give me a minute.’ Allen walks back to the bedroom, but Orlovsky stays and regards me closely from head to toe. ‘So, what’s your name? You should stand up straighter. Get your shoulders back. Do you like fruit?’ He steps very close to me and grabs my belly, squeezing it all over, palpating it.”

“Hah! A half-nude, former male model and famously promiscuous gay guy felt you up?”

“Oh, shut up Chip! I didn’t get the idea he was anything but curious, although he did ask if I was married. Anyway, he carries on saying stuff like, ‘You know, you should only use unwaxed dental floss. Best thing for you. Save the bees. The wax’ll get you in the end.’ Bored at last with feeling me up, he grabs the phone and dials the long-distance operator. Remember the long-distance operator? You needed to call her to place collect calls. He speaks to her in a pompous English accent and berates her when she can’t find the number he needs. I’m not even sure he really wanted to place a call.

“Allen bursts back into the living room, fully clothed, in a white prayer jacket, his skinny white legs sticking out of baggy white shorts, and says, ‘OK, did you bring your journal?’ That was one of his requirements, that I bring my poetry journal. I hand it to him. ‘Here,’ he says. ‘Fair is fair. Read my journal. This is one of the ones I’ll want you to transcribe.’

“He sits, sweating, poring over my journal, striking words, making corrections and adding notes in the margins. To my embarrassment, one of the first corrections he makes is the spelling of his first name. ‘It’s Allen, not Alan,’ he says, fixing his beady eyes on me like I’m an idiot.’ Sorry,’ I say. ‘I knew that.’

“Meanwhile I read his journal. It’s much as you might expect: stream of consciousness musings, bad puns—’At Florsheim’s, I admit the agony of de feet’—and some brilliant turns of phrase and half-poems. He dreams of shoes, and his guru, and of being ignored, and laments his dead love after 10 years.”

“He waited 10 years to lament his dead love?” Chip says with an evil grin.

“You know what I mean, dipwad! Anyway, some kind of assistant from across the courtyard comes in with a gift of crabapples and more dates for his appointment book. Remember appointment books? The crabapples roll off the table, and I juggle to catch them but end up throwing them on the carpet.

“Bored or finished with my journal, Allen rises and asks if I want something to drink. He brings me a huge glass of dark brown cider full of cinnamon. It was magnificent. I can almost still taste it. Orlovsky goes into a headstand, crossing his feet in the air with his head turning red. Abruptly leaving the pose, he grabs my journal and reads a poem of mine about cigarettes. ‘This is great!’ he says. I can’t tell if he was kidding, or sarcastic or what.”

“Probably both,” Chip says. “Plus, he was trying to get in your pants.”

Charles ignores Chip and continues his reminiscence.

“Anne Walden, a famous poet I had never heard of before going to Naropa, breezes in wearing a long flimsy dress—nice boobs, by the way—and goes over to the telephone and phones her mother. After she leaves, Allen goes back to my journal and Orlovsky wanders outside. The phone rings and Allen asks me to get it. It’s someone asking for Jackson Mac Low. Allen says, he’s down the hall. I run down the hall to fetch him. Mac Low is nervous, asking who is it? Is it long distance? I don’t know, and he hustles down the hall to get the phone. I go back into the living room and Allen’s looking at his datebook. ‘I work very hard’ he says, and I agree. He continues to go through my poems, chopping words, altering facts, and footnoting ideas. He goes to the wastebasket with a little thimble sharpener and shaves his pencil.

“Too soon, he apologizes and says he’ll be back in a month and there’s much more we could do. He gives me a box of old journals for me to transcribe, and I get in my car for the drive back to Denver. Orlovsky pokes his head out the door and yells, ‘Keep a clean asshole!’ I’m not entirely sure what to make of that and think about it all the way home. Turns out a couple years later, Orlovsky published his book, Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs.”

“Manfred Mann, that’s a bizarre tale,” Chip says, stretching his arms above his head. “So, did you have anything more to do with Ginsberg?”

“Oh, yes. I did the transcriptions and sent them to him. He corrected them and sent them back. Of course, I was banging them out on a typewriter, and I was a terrible typist back then. Used a lot of Wite-Out. I remember meeting with him to discuss the manuscript and trying to decipher his handwriting. In an entry about traveling through the Rockies, he referred to what looked to be Mt. Thigh. He wrote the thing in 1967 or 68 because it mentions Lyndon Johnson talking about ‘nucler’ arms. This was seven years later, but he couldn’t remember what he was thinking then. We scrounged up an atlas and then a map of Colorado but couldn’t find any mountain by that name. Wait. Let me read the passage to you. I’ve got it on my phone.”

Charles scrolls and finds the document. “Here you go:

Thru Rockies

Sunset up thru the grey rock walls of Clear Creek Canyon
white ice in the rock-sluice below,
pines in late afternoon light
marching the snow-sprinkled wall of Mt. Thigh—
out of Golden on the road that passes Central City 1946

“We agreed to leave it Mt. Thigh in the final manuscript. We met a few more times and he finally accepted the manuscript and thanked me.

“Then, a couple years later, when I started my poetry magazine, I got ahold of Gins­berg again and asked if I could interview him for the magazine and publish “Thru Rockies.” It was kind of a weird phone conversation. You know, Allen was one of the reasons I decided not to become a poet. Here was this world-famous poet living hand-to-mouth, constantly needing to borrow from friends and crash at their places, at age 50. Anyway, when I asked for the interview, he kinda had a hissy fit. Basically, he said, ‘Everybody wants something from me. I spend all my time doing things for people, doling out little pieces of myself, and what do I get? No time to work on my stuff. No time to make any money. I’m crashing on a couch right now.’

“I swallowed hard and explained all I wanted was an hour of his time and permission. He eventually calmed down and resignedly said we could do it. When I saw him, it was after his stroke and he looked terrible. We did the interview, and I asked about Heart Beat, a film that was in production about Neal Cassady and Kerouac. Allen was quite upset about the script and the way it depicted him. He was very hung up on the dialog: ‘They put words in my mouth that I never said, never would say!’ He made the filmmakers change his character’s name to Stryker. When I sent him the interview transcription, he made me break it into two parts called Gossip—the discussion of the film—and Poetry. Years later, I got a request from a Ginsberg archivist wanting a copy of the issue.”

“Wow. So, you decided to not become a world-famous broke poet, eh? Good call?”

“The jury’s still out,” Charles says, smiling. “That issue is available on the web for $25 now. Cover price was $2, so I guess it beat inflation. One good thing came of the whole Ginsberg thing: I started experimenting with my writing. I still remember one of my far-out tone poems but let me find it here.” Charles flips back and forth through his phone.

“Ah, yes. Here it is. It’s called Moon Arup.”

Chip spews Bud Light out his nose. “No shit?”

“Yes. Now listen. You might learn something. Ahem.

Boh Bih Bell
Bin Boo Bar
Ben Swim Nin
Quell, Silent
Run Re Rup
Eeeeen Ar Mut
Sihn Seen Zoot
Mor Mien Moo
Zee Zee Zie Zwie
Cuan Lido Wine

“Oh my God, that’s fuckin’ brilliant!” Chip doubles over in laughter.

“Thank you! Thank you very much!” Charles says in his best Elvis voice and does a little bow.

“But seriously,” he continues, “one real bad thing happened because of my time with Ginsberg. I basically washed out of the poetry Master’s program because I could no longer write the type of academic poetry they expected.”

Chip says, “Wow! That’s too bad, dude.”

“Here’s another one I wrote around that time. It’s about the commute from Denver to Boulder, but other things as well.

Down, blood wrong,
I am lonesome after my own
Tired, played out
Played wrong,
Beat by heat from traffic dazzle
70 miles round Denver-Boulder
Blood wrong, pizza not taking
Shall I chew C&E? or take the
Allergy medicine?
Wrong, played
Out, tendon wires under
Skin jump, sallow empty clear
Skin, old skin, played wrong
Beat out, lonesome after,
Lonesome before, beat by beat
Miles, blood wrong, pizza take”

“That’s a little better,” Chip admits. “What’s C&E?”

“Dunno. Vitamins? Throat lozenge? Something for allergies? Although I rarely had allergy problems while in Denver. So anyway, one of my professors hated what I was doing so much that he took an entire class period to run down the Beats, several times directing his comments directly at me. The whole class was like, ‘Dad just hit Mom.’ When I met with him later, he said his wife thought my poetry was the worst thing she had ever read, and he called it sentimental. I was devastated. I felt really betrayed. This guy was supposed to be teaching me, not tearing me down. I’ve hardly written any poetry since. I changed my degree to English Lit.”

“Man, that sucks. Sorry, buddy.”

“Well it led me to this glamorous and lucrative career in the tech writing and starving newspaper columnist trade, so I’ve got that going for me.”

“Which is nice,” Chip responds. “Hey, that reminds me of a poetry joke.”

“No, dear god, no!”

“A nurse is giving a young medical intern a tour of the hospital. The intern approaches one bedridden patient and asks, ‘Why are you here?’ The patient replies, ‘Wee sleket cowerin’ timrous beastie, O, what a panic is in thy breastie.’ The intern moves on to the next bed and asks the same question. The patient answers, ‘O, my luv is like a red, red, rose that’s newly sprung in June.’ The intern goes to a third bed and asks the question again, to which the third patient replies, ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.’ At this the intern turns to the nurse and asks, ‘What ward is this anyway?’ And the nurse answers, ‘It’s the Burns Unit.’”

“Oh, for crying in the beer!” Charles pulls back his arm as if to slap Chip, who chortles like a madman.

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