July 17, 2009
It’s December, 1988, a few days before Christmas. The Lower East Side is undecided between becoming an ocean of slush or a frozen plain of icy glass. It settles on cold and damp and stays that way into the new year. The invention of Prozac is still years away but if we had any we would be tossing them back like M & Ms.
I’m en route from NYC to Ohio to visit my ailing father. My mother had died the year before, followed by a sixty day stint I did in rehab to mend a massive predilection for alcohol. I was back in NYC now, not drinking, healthy and properly feeling the delayed grief my boozing had bottled up.
Before I returned to Ohio, I stopped at Allen Ginsberg’s apartment on East 12th Street to do some last minute cataloging. During that time I worked as an archivist for Allen, cataloging the endless parade of cassette and video tapes of his readings, lectures and various antics. Once or twice a year his staff would take the latest load up to Columbia University who agreed to store the many miles of Ginsberg documents. I wondered if they would ever run out of space.
Allen was impressed with my recovery which included weight loss and a lowering of blood pressure. I was a bit more coherent needless to say. Even my thinning hair had started to return. It was as if someone had cleaned up a toxic chemical spill on a site that was slowly being reclaimed by nature. I was on the express train to health and immortality it seemed. My ascent seemed unstoppable.
This picture of Allen, snapped before I left his apartment that day, evokes that time for me, my cross roads between watching my mother die a slow, painful death from lymphoma and nearly killing myself in the process – to a bridge of reconstruction. My sanity (such as it is) and health returned like a severed lizard’s tail while I tried to pull my father out of the black hole he had succumbed to. It was both an exhilarating and painful time as I wallowed in the amazement of my own survival in the face of such destruction. I was shocked and wobbly like a new born lamb.
I worked at Allen’s kitchen table that day, sorting through a box of his latest accumulated tapes, assigning them coded numbers and recording them in a master index. I imagined generations of future scholars, listening with cocked heads, trying to make sense of a time they never lived in.
Allen joined me at the table to drink some green tea. We compared our latest blood pressure readings and weights. We talked of my mother and how to live with the hole death leaves in your life.
“I hope to see you read Kaddish someday,” I told him. I’d been reading that poem for comfort of late, Allen’s homage to his own deceased mother, Naomi, who died years earlier in a mental institution.
“I know it’s a special occasion poem,” I rambled on. “It must take up most of the night.”
Allen nodded. He was eating some seaweed a friend in China had brought him. We both seemed lost in our own thoughts. Suddenly he rose as if he remembered something and left the table. I continued notating his tapes under the watchful eyes of Whitman and Rimbaud whose images hung in his kitchen. Allen promptly returned to the table with an old well-worn black and white City Lights paperback of his own poems—it was his own copy of Kaddish. Allen donned his reading glasses and opened the book. He began to read:
Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets and eyes…
I was floored. Allen was giving me my own private reading of Kaddish. I sat stunned and transfixed as he uttered the words of what I think is one of the greatest poems of the 20th century.
…I’ve been up all night talking, talking, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph…
Allen became lost in his own poem, reading it with his animated accents and exclamations. I was too moved to cry and could only sit and listen as the familiar words haunted my ears. Finally he stopped after reading the first section and looked up. “I’m too old to read the whole thing at once!”
“Thanks Allen,” was all I could say. It sounded so inadequate because it was. I didn’t know what to do. I’m hoping he noticed how moved I was as all I could say again was…thanks.
Later that day, I flew back to Ohio, buoyed by Allen’s words gliding through my head. I felt like a ghost myself as I returned to the midwest. I don’t think I was ever the same.
…the final moment-the flower burning in the day-and what comes after…
The picture brings it all back, every damn time I look at it, all in one blurry snapshot. A thousand words plus.