I had the chance to kick Gregory Corso to the curb. Could you blame me for mistaking him for a homeless man who had wandered into the gallery that afternoon? He had on a more than well-loved down jacket, one side hopelessly stained with what I hoped was coffee, and beneath it the left pocket had been completely torn away, exposing the white stuffing inside. He had barely a tooth in his head by that time, and his hair was matted as if he had just woken from a Rip Van Winkle sleep. He appeared in my tiny office, mid-sentence. I didn’t hear “hello,” or “what’s your name?”; maybe the world “lunch” was in there somewhere. Standing, I hoped to encourage his departure. I had grown up in Brooklyn and had had my share of experiences with street people. No direct eye contact was an important dictum, one that applied equally to madmen as it did to babies and dogs. Be firm and say little. Shut it down, and fast.
Whether or not I figured into his decision, he wandered out of the office, and I followed him into the the gallery. “Nice view,” he said, considering the bopping Soho streets downstairs. By then we were already long into that neighborhood’s artistic demise. It had become a shopping mall, a retail theme park. The gallery was more of a hold-out than a pioneer. My boss, Brent, was selling classic fine art photography: Steichen, Steiglitz, Siskind, Arbus, but was trying to break out of that aging milieu and into contemporary art and other more adventurous directions. The market was soft, too, so Brent took long sojourns through Asia while I sat in the gallery, answered the phone and worked on my first novel on his snazzy new Macintosh computer. I loved the downtime, poring through the flat files during the long, quiet afternoons alone, eating lunch beneath an Avedon triptych of an elderly Stravinsky slowly opening his eyes. It greeted me each morning when I flipped on the lights. I thought it was symbolic. I was a recent graduate with an art degree and still dizzy in those first days of adult freedom.
I also had two brothers with AIDS, brothers I’d eventually lose. They were creative guys as well, but our paths were definitely different. Neither had the pretentions that my good liberal northeastern college had endowed me with, and in a way I envied the bliss of what I thought was their ignorance. Neither would know who the hell Corso was, and really so what? We were all kind of invested in ignorance then, pretending at a future we knew would never come to pass. Maybe ignorance wasn’t bliss then, but hope.
“Corso! There you are!” It was Brent, back from lunch with Allen Ginsberg, whose photographs the gallery was preparing to show. Corso! I realized this was the man who had written Gasoline, one of my favorite books, who was given Lucky Luciano’s cell at Clinton Correctional (later called the Poet’s Prison for his attendance there, as well as Tupac’s and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s), whom they called the Urchin Shelley, and who made me instinctively feel for my wallet in my back pocket. I shouldn’t have been surprised by his appearance though. None of the so-called Beat Poets actually wore turtlenecks and berets. They were bohemian in the true sense of the word, which meant crazy, desperate, hungry, dangerous, ugly, dirty, and, more than likely, unknown. Corso was the Beats’ apparently very far-fallen angel-headed hipster. The youngest and perhaps the most bohemian, and some say the best of them all. The real deal. The authentic article. No wonder I had thought he was a bum.
Ginsberg and I, on the other hand, had crossed paths before. Once during a college road trip to the Zen Mountain Monastery upstate, where he played the harmonium and read poetry accompanied by a disdainful cat; and not long after on the subway near my childhood home in Midwood; I was traveling with my mother for some reason, the famous poet sitting opposite us on the D train after teaching his classes at nearby Brooklyn College. Later, at NYU, I’d take his poetry class and fend off his friendly advances during our one-on-one conference. “Got anyone on the hook?” he asked. I regretted to inform him that I did.
Besides making poems, Allen (as he asked to be called) took pictures, and with same Buddhist perspective. A photograph, to him, captured a sacred moment, a Holy Now, ephemeral and fleeting, leaving us at best with only a shadow. But what shadows! Kerouac, Dylan, Patti Smith, some half nude boy sleeping on the floor of his Avenue B tenement. Each photograph captioned by hand, in the same distinctive script that had appeared in line edits on one of my poems, and that for some reason looked the way I’d imagine Charlie Brown’s would: kinda goofy and earnest.
“Allen probably blew the kid,” Corso deadpanned, sidling up behind me to consider the sleeping youth’s prodigious morning wood. “I slept at Allen’s place a lot too, especially after I got out of prison,” he added. “He mighta blew me, too, but who remembers, I was so drunk.” (For the record, he didn’t.)
The two poets struck me more like brothers than anything else. They had both a closeness and a comfortable disregard for one another that I definitely recognized from my own family. When Allen missed one of his NYU lectures, Corso filled in for him. Despite his marginal appearance, he was as comfortable and witty on stage as Dick Cavett but and also a bit dogmatic, dismissing most poetry as a lot of bunk. By then, of course, Allen had offered us the similarities between haiku and cocksucking (you know, mouth delicacy and devotion and all that), so the perspectives were at least fair and balanced. In addition, Allen had the entire lecture hall meditate with him, a hundred or so of us writers and scholars, as well as the looky-loo’s only interested in the famous poet’s hippie antics, none of which were on display—just his unique brand of candor and deep knowledge and love for his art. When he died of liver cancer a few years later, someone close to him said that he was writing poetry right up until the end and meditating on his departure, that yes he was scared, but he was ready.
I had just published my first poem around then, though honestly the last thing I considered myself was a poet. I was all wrapped up in the future, even if it would turn out a lot different than I ever could have imagined. I’d have my own Buddha-worthy trials with life and death and poetic oblivion, and I’d have a few other jobs too, not all as glamorous as answering phones in a Soho gallery and rubbing elbows with famous poets. I was living in an apartment the size and shape of a bowling alley, but it was mine, which was what mattered. I’d spend my nights reading and writing and trying to pierce the veil of maya that surrounded the world, all while trying to make the rent, which equaled what I now spend on coffee each month.
My brother, Vincent, lived just a few of blocks away in the Village, in one of those Edith Wharton townhouses, occupying the grand front room with its crown moldings and a marble fireplace. His bedroom had once been a closet. His kitchen: another closet. A fastidious decorator, he died before he got a stick of furniture. “I feel light,” he told me, sitting cross legged in the hospital, close to the end. Enlightened? I wondered. Brent came to the funeral with a cute Asian boy who wandered into the Teamster funeral in the room next door, American flag made of roses and all. Our two tribes mixed in the ugly sitting room. What did the lama say to the hot dog vendor? Make me one with everything.
I went back to my desk. My sandwich was waiting and Brent had a massage appointment to book. In my few years working behind the scenes in the art world I was still mystified by how it all got done. I hadn’t typed a single invoice but at least I almost had a first draft of my novel. My whole life was ahead of me, and I was excited for whatever might come. Eventually the Beats tottered off, and the guy who ran the modeling agency next door came over to gush. “Allen Fucking Ginsberg in the same building as me!” But he was always saying something corny, and as usual I didn’t pay him any attention.