Prior to the Internet communication at a distance was for most either telephonic or epistolary. Since coast-to-coast calls were pricey, and because I liked to drink and type, I preferred writing letters.
My ex-wife and I moved to New York City in the summer of 1988 so she could attend medical school. We drove across the continent in a 1971 VW bus, leaving Berkeley at the end of July and stopping off in Reno to get married in a commercial wedding chapel; we did this in order to qualify for the married student housing provided by Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
While she was in class during the day I worked a series of dead-end clerical jobs downtown. In the evenings she would hit the textbooks sitting at her big metal desk in one corner of the living room and I would sit not too far away in front of an AT&T personal computer and drink beer and type letters (using WordPerfect word-processing software) to friends on the West Coast.
It was an interesting time politically and socially in the city. Mayor Koch held shrill, haranguing press conferences that seemed to be on the TV local news every night. I had never seen anything like it. Crack cocaine, which had started on the West Coast, was beginning to flourish in Upper Manhattan.
The complex of buildings which made up the medical school spread west from Broadway down to Riverside Drive and the Henry Hudson Parkway; it was a relatively safe area compared to other parts of Washington Heights.
There was a large men's shelter on 168th Street across from the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital emergency room. One evening our first summer in Manhattan when we were returning from downtown with some good friends who were visiting from Berkeley we came upon a guy stretched out flat on his back on the sidewalk in front of the men's shelter a big knot the size of large egg growing out of the top of his forehead just like you see in old Warner Brothers cartoons. His pants pockets were turned inside out and he was moaning. I remember thinking, "Oh, this is what is normal here." I guess it was a Friday, a payday, and this guy, an older black man, had been rolled. Someone ran across the street to the ER to get help.
By the time I typed the epistle below to my friend back in Oakland I had been a year and a half in New York City. I was an old salty dog compared to the newlywed who had arrived with his bride in a beat-up Volkswagen with a "The Strength of the Brave is the Tribe" bumper sticker. Koch was gone, dethroned by David Dinkins in a bitter campaign.
Why post old letters? What's the point? I think there is a historical value, not only to provide social insight into what life was like before the advent of the World Wide Web but also as a project of personal illumination; it was a prime motivator to start a blog in the first place, knowing I had all these heartfelt missives of a young man's first contact with the megalopolis. So bear with me.
I had a bad habit of not dating my letters. When my wife and I split and she got the computer I had the good sense to print hard copies of all my correspondence; I scribbled in pencil on top of each letter the approximate time that it was written. The one below reads "Winter 1990." If my memory serves me it was late January, the week leading up to the Super Bowl in New Orleans. How fitting. As you can see I was enamored, as are most schoolboys and hipsters, with Jack Kerouac.
Thanks for the parcel! I just polished it off tonight -- plenty good. As it turns out, Ginsberg's introduction to my McGraw-Hill paperback edition of VISIONS OF CODY, entitled "The Great Remember," is a cleaned up cut down and commercialized rendering of THE VISIONS OF THE GREAT REMEMBERER.
I liked the introduction a lot, rereading it twice; but, needless to say, it doesn't come close to doing the things that the Denver-set (early 70s Ginsberg going back to old haunts of the late 40s, all torn down) ampersand-ridden plaintively analytic prosepoesy original does; -- in particular, the last two pages: a discription of the 1967 meeting between Kerouac Cassady Kesey and the Merry Pranksters "all together at last under unofficial mock but real Klieg Lights with microphone reverb feedback wires snaking all over the electrified household living room floor 86th St. upper east side -- An American Flag draped over the couch, on which shocked Jack refused to sit -- Kesey respectful welcoming & silent, fatherly timid host, myself marveling and sad, it was all out of my hands now, History was even out of Jack's hands now, he'd already written it 15 years before, he could only watch hopelessly one of his more magically colored prophecy shows, the Hope Show of Ghost Wisdoms made Modern Chemical & Mechanic, in this Kali Yuga, he knew the worser death gloom to come, already on him in his alcohol ridden trembling no longer sexually tender looking corpus" wow! that says it all. But Ginsberg doesn't stop there; he goes on to talk about the last words of VISIONS OF CODY -- "Adios, King." -- (the ending of VISIONS OF CODY is probably the greatest ending of any book I've ever read; if you'd permit me the last three sentences: "Goodbye Cody -- your lips in your moments of self-possessed thought and new found responsible goodness are as silent, make as least a noise, and mystify with sense in nature like the light of an automobile reflecting from the shiny silverpaint of a sidewalk tank this very instant, as silent and all this, as a bird crossing the dawn in search of the mountain cross and the sea beyond the city at the end of the land. Adios, you who watched the sun go down, at the rail, by my side, smiling -- Adios, King." Ouch, it makes me cry; it makes me feel proud for having chosen such a true hero to be my hero). And, once again, Ginsberg is right on top of it(he really must've loved him) and says exactly what should be said, namely, "'Adios King!' . . . a nameless highest Perfect wisdom, a humility in the face of 'the necessary blankness of men' in hopeless America or hopeless World, or Hopeless Time Heaven . . . a compassionate farewell to Love & the Companion" -- yep, that's it. Thanks again Ben.
The letters included in THE VISIONS OF THE GREAT REMEMBERER are pretty good too. Ginsberg's wordy intellectual bitchy 1947 ultimatum love letter to heterosexually-prone Cassady is something else (embarrassing) . Cassady's letters, a total of four, are better -- more informative; a lot of 'em are about
the difficulty he has with writing and about his mind becoming empty from smoking too much weed; in the last letter, written in 1952, he waxes about the sane staid masculine beauty of Kerouac, something I'm not used to, seeing it's usually Kerouac who's saying it about Cassady.
Well, let's see, what's new to report. -- I quit my job two weeks ago, and Colum, who has been around for most of January, left for Guatemala on Monday, and shit I guess the 49ers are buying beers on Bourbon Street. (I wouldn't mind buying a beer for Terry Bradshaw; he's absolutely right -- fuck Elway, he's a fucking shit-assed brat sequestered and protected in Ginsberg's aptly perceived sterile and commercial war-machine Denver (it's true, I've driven through Denver, right through, and you know where I ended up? at the gates of a big military base -- big cyclone barbwire fence -- that borders the suburbs, in fact the suburbs blend into the military base, very scary; I was promptly told by a fatigued and helmeted pimple-faced corporal to turn my Volks around and go back whence I came); and I was thinking last night while watching the 11 o'clock news that if you had to characterize Bradshaw's heart/soul it'd be a football field, while if you had to do the same for Elway it'd be an egg carton -- really, I mean come on, at least Bradshaw, a four-ringed hall of famer who has nothing to gain and everything to lose (i.e., his CBS job) by shooting off his mouth, has the juevos to get drunk and speak his honest mind, giving the reporters something real to talk about: that there's no comparison between a Montana and an Elway, that it's all a con job, that Elway is not fit to lace Montana's cleats. 'Nuff said. It'll all be old news by the time you get this anyway. (Niners over Denver 37-12, my prediction; and I'm mailing this tomorrow, the 26th, so it's on the up and up.)
The night of the day after I quit my job I got on the A train at West 4th Street. Colum and I had been at a boring bar on Bleecker Street. Colum had had two beers -- a Molson and a Becks -- I had had a Guinness Stout and a Jack Daniels. I got on the uptown A and Colum was over on the other side of the track getting on the downtown A. At 14th street a guy got on, a kid, probably about 20 years of age, blood spots on his dirty warm-up pants and grease under his fingernails. I thought I recognized him from somewhere before, maybe a long lost cousin: thick brown-blond hair complete with sprinkles of dirt pebbles and crums from the hot dog bun. He sat down next to me, right next to me -- on purpose, I thought. The train shook uptown. He was right next to me; I felt him there --a young tough, a white hispanic cousin; I loved him.
At 81st street he asked for the time. I told him, coldly. He was warm, but I was cold.
At 125th Street he pulled a thick gold chain out of his parka pocket, a gold pendant was attached to it; he turned and asked me if I thought the pendant was gold. I told him, "I don't know. Is it heavy?"
"Why, is gold supposed to be heavy?"
He moved the necklace up and down in his upturned palm.
"I thought gold was soft and light."
He handed it over to me; it was an ugly barbaric fucking butter yellow rope; I took it and said, "No, soft and
I lifted it a few times and then told him, "The chain's probably gold, but I doubt this is," pointing to the pendant.
"Really? I thought gold was supposed to be light," he repeated.
"I don't think so. But I guess I can't really say for sure."
At that point he dropped his handsome young urban elf jaw down to my left hand and the wedding band thereon. All of sudden I started to worry that he was going to roll me for my ring (ugh, small petty refractory city-dwelling paranoia rearing its knobby head), that the necklace chat was just a set up to get me comfortable so that he could bonk me on the skull and run off with the goods. But I decided that I'd rather do battle with a long lost cousin (I was bigger and feeling surly with bourbon on breath and under brow, though weapons hidden in his parka weren't out of the question) than cower to my own inner illnesses.
So I took off my wedding ring and said, "I don't know; this is gold, but it's too small for me to tell whether it feels heavy for its size."
"How much did it cost you?"
"Sixty I think."
"Something like that must have a lot of personal value though."
And that was it; we were already at 168th street. Both of us got out. He gave me a respectful "Take care," and I returned him a dutiful "You too."
I loved him because he was me. All that fear and for what? Nothing; it was just me. At least I had given him/myself some hardheart advice though when I admitted that I just didn't know (which is the hardest thing to admit to anyone, anytime, anywhere).
I left the subway station and walked home down deserted inky streets, rats whispering in shadows.
Earlier that evening I had heard a fat woman mumble over a platter of chicken tandoori that "It's not a question of craving, it's a question of time." At first I'd thought that she was discoursing on artistic production or philosophical ontology but then I figured out that what she was really talking about was dieting. Oh my gosh, it's all the same.