Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.
Ringo Heretic was the most successful writer that I knew on a personal basis. He was working on a novel. He cut a very impressive figure. That night I remember he read from a section about a tragically hip, and…hot waitress. She was calling to him for help on the telephone. Eventually I would call on Heretic for help myself. His work was so self-consciously cool that it gave you chills. I was naïve enough to buy the whole pose hook, line and sinker. He had a motorcycle and long, stiletto sideburns, German pale blond hair and complexion, and something of the concentration camp commandant in his aspect. In his work and in his persona he gave off the aura of someone who had been through the whole East Village drug scene and come out the other side. He wore a golf cap with a Valium emblem. 15 years later I found a copy of his abandoned novel, water-stained and fouled by vermin carcasses and droppings under the sink of my own apartment. In fact there was something crawling in the pages and I was so startled that I dropped it on the floor and stomped no less than three times, later shaking out an enormous hairy and multicolored centipede from the pages into my trash receptacle. Evidently he and my ex-roommate had been close friends. What a small world we inhabited. We thought it was so big.
Ringo Heretic organized readings at the St. Mark’s Church, a historic space with a dramatic and ancient graveyard on 2nd Avenue between 10th and 11th, and this was how many of us little mice were able to brush up against the big cat literary luminaries of the East Village. Corso, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Jim Carroll all came there to read. Any one that was alive enough to prop against the lectern. Heretic had announced an event on the night of my initiation. It was really crowded out in front of the church and all the neighborhood freaks were out. I had copped a couple bags before walking uptown and did half of one across the street. Outside an older man with white hair sat on a blanket with a pile of paperback books. He caught my eye as I stood in the long line and motioned me over.
“Hey kid,” he asked. “How would you like to get in free?”
He explained that he was selling copies of his poetry collections and if I bought one he would be happy to get me in. I looked at the cover and saw the name Peter Orlovsky. This was Allen Ginsberg’s lover of thirty years selling books outside the event. Maybe I should not have, but I felt sorry for him. Anyway I had not yet begun to spend all the money I had on dope so I bargained him down to five bucks. He pointed behind him to a back door at the other end of the graveyard.
“Just walk in?”
Once inside I went upstairs to the bathroom. It was weird. Just as I went into the bathroom, a kid of not more than fourteen walked gingerly out of one of the stalls. He had a terribly glazed look, like someone had licked all the milk off of his fresh face. He was followed by one of the oldest, most wizened looking men I have ever seen. The good student that I was, I quickly realized that he was the one and only Herbert Huncke, the Times Square hustler who had used Ginsberg’s Columbia apartment as a stash drop for his larcenies back in the 40’s. Both had been arrested, I believe; Ginsberg landed back in the nuthouse and Huncke upstate in prison. I just remember being freaked out that the kid was so young. I went into the stall they had vacated and sniffed the other half of the bag of dope. A few moments later, I stood in the back of the grand theater space as Gregory Corso read from his famous poem, Marriage. All of the faces in the great room glittered. Later Ginsberg sung and accompanied himself on some sort of primitive guitar- like instrument.
Weeks later I showed up unannounced at his office on Union Square. It was in the same building as Julie’s design agency job. On the downstairs directory his name was misspelled as Ginsburg and Assoc., like a Jewish law firm. I walked up the fourteen flights of stairs stopping along the way to do lines of blow off flat surfaces, windowsills, stairs and the metal tops to fire hose containers. By the time I reached his floor I was sweating and talking quite loud and very fast. When his door opened I directed some of my verbal fusillade in the great poet’s direction, pressing a flyer in his palm and inviting him to attend a reading I was giving from my novel at an art gallery in Soho. Ginsberg, as anyone who knew him would tell you, was a big sweetheart. He was also very famously fond of earnest young men like myself.
“It’s my sixtieth birthday,” he told me. He went on to explain that he was trying to concentrate a little more on his own writing.
“My God, that is exactly what you should do!” I shouted. I went on to compare his work to Walt Whitman’s and raced on about any number of other quite irrelevant asides. He nodded graciously, scribbled his phone number on a page of my notebook and slowly closed the door. I probably never stopped talking. Somewhere I am quite sure that some version of me is still doing blow off some odd surface in that stairwell and talking out loud to the dust.
My mother did attend that reading. She recorded it for my grandmother who was my greatest booster as a writer and New Yorker but at that time too feeble to attend. The reading went great. Afterward my sweet innocent mother who graciously lent me twenty five dollars for the occasion accompanied me, Julie and some friends to Life Café. This was a boho joint with tattooed waitresses on the edge of Tompkins Square Park which in just a few weeks would explode in a police riot. I did not eat much, but I did slip out on the pretext of going to the bathroom and spend my mother’s money on coke and dope.
Later as she dozed on the couch at the other end of the apartment, a few feet from Julie in our bed, I sat at the kitchen table and snuffled drugs, too “excited” to sleep. There exists a photograph of mother and I at the Life Café. She is dressed in white and the light shines on her; I am dressed in shades of black, skeletal, my facial features twisted into a hideous smile. She looks like an angel, and I do not. In my mind it was a triumphant night, to read my work before the public on such an occasion. Only her eyes (they look like two moist puddles of blue) does one sense how worried she was about her middle son and only in my own is suggested how hard I was working to hide the reality of the situation from my own heart. My grandmother listened to the audio tape made for her but my voice came out too garbled to be understood.
Within weeks I ran into Heretic on the subway. I made a date with him.
“I need to talk to you about, uh…drugs.”
He nodded and smiled with superciliousness, as if he had been waiting for me to bring this up.
“Meet me at the Washington Square Coffee Shop, tomorrow morning.”
That night after Julie went to sleep, I slipped out and spent the night handing out copies of a novel chapter on the dance floor of the Limelight, another historic church turned into a nightclub. It had been published in a now defunct East side broadsheet called [i]Village Beat[/i]. When I ran out of copies I went into the Ladies bathroom where I chatted up the attendant and told her my ambitions and the problems I was having with drugs and my wife. No one really looked askance at my presence there. Those were the days. When I wanted to get high, I went into a stall in the adjoining men’s room. The Ladies room attendant had blonde hair and beautifully full lips. Her lipstick sparkled and I stayed there until closing, talking fast and staring at her lips, at her skin and the opening of her dress. She wanted to be a writer too and I think she was impressed by my success. I had accomplished more than her, I guess. We grasp at anything, don’t we?
The next day I met Ringo Heretic and he told that I needed to abstain from drugs completely and the way I would learn to do this was by talking to people in the basement of a local schoolhouse.
He nodded. It sounded utterly preposterous.
He gave me the address of the place. This was a Monday. The meetings took place on Tuesday and Thursday. On Tuesday for some reason I was on the west side, wandering around, doing blow as always. Around four I got on the crosstown L train to make the meeting between 1st and A. I rode back and forth on the train, getting off at stations along the way to get up my nerve. It was not until Thursday that I made it there. Everyone there had the same troublesome aura of Heretic. Their eyes were bright and shiny and clean. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom imagining that no one else suspected what I was doing in the stall. Finally near the end of the hour and a half, I was called on to talk. The tears came all by themselves. When I was finished at least one third of the maybe seventy five people in the room came up to hug me and push pieces of paper with phone numbers into my hands. I went outside and stood on the corner, smoking until everyone was gone. It was the same East Village crowd that attended the punk rock shows and poetry readings. Everyone paired off and went to eat, talk, play music whatever. They all asked me, but I could not bear to come along. One other guy ended up out there with me. We went into the bar next door together, had a beer, and ended up talking. Eventually we went east to cop. We were doing the best we could.