First Encounters with Allen Ginsberg,
by David Breihtaupt
I live more and more in my head each day as my present circumstances leave little to be desired. I begin to think about the quirks and mishaps that have led up to this day, premeditated decisions and whims. Yes, whims, what in the hell are they? Random fork-in-the-road choosers or foundation of full-fledged pathways to destiny? It was one such whim that changed my life, a why-the-hell not decision that came to fruition several months after I initiated it. One day I decided to write to Allen Ginsberg and offer my services for aid in archives maintenance gratis and sat back to watch the results. A classmate in a writing class taught by Michael Brownstein had some vague connection to Allen and gave me his street address on East 12th Street. I wrote my proposal and dropped it in the mail. Days went by, then weeks. Oh well, I thought, nothing ventured. I forgot about it and moved on.
That is until one day I received a post card in the mail. It was from Bob Rosenthal, Allen’s secretary. He apologized for the delay in answering my offer. Things had been busy. It was NY after all, NY with Allen Ginsberg mixed in. He gave me a number to call. I had Allen Ginsberg’s phone number in my hand.
I circled the card for a day or so. Was it a trick? It looked real. This was a phone number to history. I was seven digits away from the guy that wrote Howl, who penned Kaddish to his looney mother, the visionary who rode with Cassady, Kerouac, Burroughs and Corso. There was almost too much history packed into that phone number. Should I call?
I took the six train downtown and got off at Astor place. I walked north a couple of blocks up to 12th street and headed east. Allen’s apartment was between First Avenue and Avenue A. This was the heart of the village, bordering Alphabet City. The streets were perforated with homeless bodies; paper bagged bottles were the beverage of choice and crack hos whispered propositions in parched whispers.
Nearby was St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, home to a couple of decades of legendary poetry readings including performances by Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden. The neighborhood was soaked in more history than I would ever know or comprehend. All I knew was that I was making my own history as I walked to Allen’s apartment.
Bob Rosenthal told me to call from the corner when I came down. I dialed their number from a ratty pay phone on the corner of Avenue A. The buzzer in his building was broken and they said they’d throw the key down wrapped in a sock. I saw a flutter of movement on the 4th floor’s fire escape. I waved my arms and a small cloth bundle came sailing down to my feet. I picked it up. Inside was the key.
Allen’s building was one of the old originals of the neighborhood with stone stairways so wide you could have driven a sub compact up them. The steps were worn in the middle from decades, maybe a century, of travelers walking treks up and down and down the stairway. I began the ascent and added my own footsteps to the long path of history.
I felt dizzy and was sweating more than usual. My tongue felt dry and I hoped my breath didn’t stink. The alcohol from all the beer I’d drunk last night was streaming out my pores. I suddenly noticed my shirt was damp. I looked like I’d just sprinted through a car wash.
Allen’s door was painted a glossy dark brown – it looked as though an inch of paint covered it like cake frosting. I wiped the sweat off my forehead before I knocked.
I heard footsteps and a hurried unlocking of the door. “Come on in.” Bob waved me in as I entered into a narrow hallway lined on one side with coats hanging on hallway hooks. Bob disappeared around the corner and I followed him through what must have been Allen’s kitchen. He ran into a room off from the kitchen which looked to be the main office and continued the phone conversation I’d interrupted. Suddenly a large man swooped into the kitchen, whom I instantly recognized as Peter Orlovsky, poet and Allen’s long time companion.
“Give me a minute, canya?”
He waved me back into the hallway and I followed, not knowing what else to do. We turned left and entered Allen’s small living room. Peter kept walking and climbed out the window unto the fire escape that had launched my sock. Across the street was a beautiful white stone church with green trim. I suddenly felt like I was in Europe.
“Come on, come on.”
Suddenly I was out on the fire escape with Peter. This was the beginning of a very strange job interview. Peter was trying to unroll a sheet of polyethylene across the escape but was having trouble. I grabbed one end and helped stretch it out as Bob stuck his head out the window.
“Peter, what are you doing?”
“I’m spreading this out, yes, yes, gonna put the plants on it, ” he said defensively in his husky, somewhat manic voice.
“Gotta keep it covered, gotta keep it covered.”
Bob reached out and pulled me back in.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “I see you’ve met Peter.”
“I guess so,” was all I could utter. Peter was still outside, muttering and making adjustments.
“Peter? Why don’t you come back inside,” Bob coaxed. I took advantage of the lull to take in my surroundings. This was definitely one of the original lower east side tenements. Small rooms, crumbling plaster wooden floors, worn throw carpets. Book shelves lined the walls. I saw a hefty record collection, a Buddhist wall hanging and small pieces of original art. I could easily spend a few days here, it was exactly as I imagined a poet’s apartment to be except that it was tidy, very tidy.
“Excuse the chaos, this is life at Ginsberg Central,” said Bob. “Allen, this is David Breithaupt,” Bob said by way of introduction. I was momentarily shocked to hear my name pronounced correctly. I was so impressed by this that I didn’t notice Allen standing next to me, out of nowhere, dressed in a bright red shirt and bowing toward me slightly in what I would come to know as one of his Buddhist habits. God knows what I mumbled back. When I came to NY I was hoping just to see him from a couple of hundred feet back at a poetry reading. Now here I was, standing in his living room, only inches away from him. I still wasn’t sure this was really happening.
We spoke for awhile in one of his small side rooms, what looked to be his own personal Buddhist shrine with a red meditation cushion for sitting practice, a small stand with relics a large tantra hanging on the wall. Outside the window I could hear the traffic on east 12th street, the bells of the church and Peter rambling in one of the nearby rooms.
“Are you a man of leisure?” Allen asked.
“Hell no, I work for the NY Public Library but I have time to pitch in here and there…”
I noticed a large painting on the wall by Corso of Shelley. After years of reading these guys, I finally proved to myself that they truly existed. I sometimes felt all my favorite books were written by a small band of writers living in a large loft somewhere in Brooklyn or Queens. I didn’t think of them as individuals with lives and histories, they were all larger than life. Now I knew better.
I was too nervous to remember little else of what I said; I can only hope I made some sense. We probably talked about books and writing and life. All that stuff. Whatever we spoke of, they ended up giving me the job. I accepted.
Bob showed me the ropes. There were boxes of cassettes and VHS tapes of Allen’s performances and readings. All would have to be notated, assigned a code and cataloged before being sent up to Columbia where the bulk of Allen’s hoard was stored. In time I would be fluent in Allen’s loopy script, able to translate the volumes of script he managed to cram onto those tiny tape labels. I would assign a code to each tape, signifying the year it was recorded and what kind of reading or lecture it was and enter it into a master index. This was in the early 80s, mind you. No PCs, no internet, CDs or DVDs. There were still type writers and white out ruled. This was the beginning of an association with a poet whose influence on my life had been profound. It was also the commencement of friendships of Allen’s staff, who were without exception, the kindest, most interesting people I would ever know. Bill Morgan, Juanita Leiberman, Peter Hale, Steven Taylor, all of them stars. It would become a segment of my life that certainly changed me forever, altered my thoughts on living and death, literature, politics and film, it was an education without a degree. Looking back on it all, I can’t believe how lucky I was to have lived it. Overall, I’d have to say it’s a good thing for whims. I hold onto those memories now more than ever. They keep me company on my sleepless nights.