by Spencer Kansa.
I first met Herbert Huncke in the Spring of 1992, during a layover in New York, en route to visiting William Burroughs at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Shortly after my Manhattan arrival, I received a phone call at my hotel from Burroughs’ consigliere, James Grauerholz, who graciously welcomed me to America. During our conversation, I joked how I’d been hanging around Times Square, looking for Huncke, figuring the guy was long gone by now, only for James to tip me off that, on the contrary, Huncke was very much alive and could be found playing poker most evenings at the Chelsea Hotel.
Naturally I was excited by the chance to meet this legendary catalyst to the Beats, and as I headed out from my Midtown hotel that evening, nightwalking the charged, narcotic streets, I felt high just from being on them. I was amazed by how deserted New York became at night, and the fact that you can walk entire blocks of the teeming metropolis – inhabited by over a million people – and not see a soul. The sidewalks fresh from a recent rain shower, glistening under the orange haze of street lights. The skyscrapers as broad and impressive as Robert Mitchum’s shoulders.
I eventually arrived at the Chelsea around ten, but when I asked after Huncke at the front desk I was told me that he hadn’t dropped by tonight, but I was free to wait for him in the front lobby on the chance that he would. I took a seat on the couch there and got talking to Nina, a spaced-out, Mogadon voiced broad who, I later learned, was one of the main drug connections in the place. Studying her puffy, heavily made-up face, I zeroed in on her staring eyes, which never once blinked as she ran through the gamut of famous names she’d met here.
Once Nina left, I passed the time surveying the art trophies on the wall and watching as the former Warhol actress Viva Superstar swanned out of the building, trailing domestic melodrama, before another Warhol acolyte, the dancer Victor Hugo, pirouetted in. I’d subsequently ask Huncke about Warhol, imagining he would’ve been an ideal candidate for the Pop artists’ rogues gallery of outsiders, but Herbert admitted that, when they met, he and Warhol hadn’t gotten along at all.
Over an hour passed and there was still no sign of Huncke but, eventually, a gambling gal pal of his, Linda Twigg, did show up and put me on the phone with him. My ears were soon greeted by a woebegone, Droopy Dog voice which, although mournful, had a strangely suggestive quality to it. After a pleasant back and to, we hooked it up to meet the next day.
At that time Huncke was living in a basement along a row of bombed-out brownstones on East 7th Street, in the furthermost wastelands of Alphabet City, a locale that got progressively more derelict the deeper you ventured into it. I tapped on the dusty window, as per instructions, and heard the man himself shuffling down the hallway. He was small and seemed pigeon-chested, and the hollow cheeks and drawn mouth of his gaunt face, billboarded a half-century heroin habit. But, it was true what they say, the smack really did seem to have suspended his ageing process. It wasn’t only his nice head of slicked back, chestnut brown hair that made you forget that this was man in his late70s. It was also his attire – blue jeans and a dark blue bomber jacket. In fact, he could’ve been Iggy Pop’s long lost father, something I would tease him about later. Herbert actually held out hopes of meeting the stage diving Stooge one day, but I don’t think anything ever come of it.
It was only my second day in New York, and I was already breaking bread with Herbert Huncke, a man who’s gritty autobiography read like a real life film noir. Celebrated by Beat historians as the vice-ridden Virgil who guided Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg through the nocturnal New York underworld of the 1940s: a demimonde of dark delights. The seasoned schmecker who administered Burroughs his first shot of morphine, whose plaintive expression of feeling beat – tired, exhausted and worn-out – was reinterpreted by Kerouac and transformed into the uplifting beatific spirit for their post-war generation.
The next seven hours spent in his company sped by in a cocaine-fuelled gabfest, as I lapped up the hard-won lore laid down by this wily, old street fox, who had spent the best part of sixty years doing whatever it took to survive. Huncke certainly lived up to his legend. I was treated to a personal reading and listened, enraptured, at his first-hand accounts of watching my heroine, Billie Holiday, crooning her heart out at Birdland. Or the yarns spun about his old partner in crime Phil White – AKA The Sailor in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – and the trips they took abroad, including a memorable stopover in London just after the war.
Prompted by my name, Huncke recounted how he once had a black boyfriend called Spencer, who had worked for Gore Vidal and, on the subject of monikers, he reminisced how black pimps used to crack up when he told them his surname, because it sounded so similar to “honky.”
Unsurprisingly, given Huncke’s modus operandi, law and order was a recurring topic of conversation and, during our first encounter, he rapped about the Tompkins Square Park riots that broke out, four years earlier, when heavy-handed cops waded in to destroy the makeshift “tent city” that the homeless had established there. With vexation he described the sickening scenes of violence as cops cracked skulls with their billy clubs and made sure their badges were covered up so they couldn’t be identified and later prosecuted. Huncke then fished a handgun – a .45 – out of a trunk, which he kept as protection.
In the middle of our powwow, Huncke’s friend, Dimitri, showed up. He was also a musician, like myself, and came across as a soulful dude, with Andre Agassi eyes and gypsy features. Over more snorts, the newcomer brought up the controversy over the new Joe Camel advertisement campaign, and the two of them noted how the chain smoking camel’s cartoon face appeared redolent of both male and female genitalia, depending on how you looked at it.
I quizzed Herbert about his friendship with Burroughs and although suspicious of Burroughs’ sometimes waspish manner and caustic world view – “That’s just Bill being Bill”, he sniffed – whenever he spoke about his old confrère it was always in glowing terms. He considered Burroughs one of the worlds greatest writers and gave the impression that he felt both grateful and bemused to have been taken up, originally, as a streetwise fount of knowledge, by these budding literary lions. Before I left Huncke asked if I would pass on his new address to Bill when I met up with him, and I was happy to be used as a go-between,
In contrast to Burroughs’ mordant misanthropy, a bare-bones humanity poured out of Huncke’s own writing, and my favourite memories of him were when he’d read from one of his books, be it Huncke’s Journals, Guilty of Everything or The Evening Sun Turned Crimson. It was riveting listening to him recite his poignant, compassionate portraits of the often marginalised characters he had known in his life, such as the heart-rending story of Elsie John, a six and ½ foot tall hermaphrodite sideshow freak, who took the tenderfoot Huncke under her wing, and introduced him to the joys of junk. Huncke’s relationship with Elsie ended with her arrest and, on a chilling cliffhanger, the reader is left to imagine the fate worse than death that awaits the vulnerable androgyne, as she’s about to be thrown to the wolves in the prison bullpen.
Huncke wrote how, after taking a shot of heroin, he would close his eyes and his mind became absorbed with visions of people and places, past times and old faces. A vanishing world of vaudeville hotels leftover from the Wild West, and a sleazy backstreet bar in New Orleans, where a trick once paid him to watch as he balled a Negro whore. A compendium of folktales drawn from the underbelly of a lost America that was magically brought back to life in the pages of his memoirs, or passed on, via the oral tradition, at his private and public readings.
I especially enjoyed his descriptions of the opium dens he frequented in Chinatown back in the old days and, in common with all many users, Huncke could be a real sweetheart when he was smack sated, but the more he started jonesin’ for his next fix, the crankier he become. If left unassuaged, he could turn into a real crabby curmudgeon. But it all came with the territory. Huncke possessed an incredible metabolism. He remains the only guy I’ve ever met in my life who would do cocaine to get some sleep! Like Burroughs, he railed against the evil and idiocy of drug prohibition and the phoney war on drugs, and similarly blamed their demonisation on an ignorant and histrionic media. He had earned his insights.
Born in 1915, in Greenfield, Massachusetts, but raised in the middle class environs of Chicago, Huncke was barely in his teens when he fled his broken home and all the restrictions it placed upon him. He set out, like a depression era Huck Finn, armed only with a cigar box containing a toothbrush; a razor, a handkerchief and a clean pair of socks. Seeking peace of mind, and possessed with a wanderlust to explore the country, he hit the road, hitchhiking and riding the rails with hobos across all 48 American states.
Under the tutelage of Runyonesque reprobates, he engaged in prostitution and low level larceny – nefarious misadventures that provided him with two pivotal experiences in life – his first joint and his first blow job. Although he could enjoy such hedonistic pleasures while he was still honing his street wits, the outlaw life was a precarious business, and one disastrous nights stay in Los Angeles culminated in an arrest that left him with a lifelong loathing for The City of Angels.
New York, on the other hand, was a different matter, and it was there, in 1939. that Huncke’s wayfaring came to end. Nestled in the bohemian bosom of the Big Apple, he felt a true sense of belonging at last and, for the first time in his life, he could walk around 42nd Street and hold his head up high.
Living the hard knock life of a junkie and petty criminal extorted a terrible price though, and the consequences of his risky choices meant he had to endure the long drawn-out misery of serving time in such brutal hell holes as Sing Sing. It was while incarcerated that he learned that the difference between a faggot and a street hustler like himself was: “A faggot is everyone’s property.”
In the autumn of 1994, Huncke flew into London to undertake a short reading tour in promotion of his books and a new spoken word CD: From Dream to Dream. We hung out while he was in town and I visited him again in New York that Christmas. By then he was ensconced at the Chelsea Hotel, having moved there that summer following the tragic death of his ace boon buddy, Louis Cartwright, who was stabbed to death during a street fight in the East Village, reportedly over panhandled money.
Huncke was living in room 828, a tiny shoebox of a room with a single cot, a sink and a window view of neighbouring rooftops and apartments. His rent paid at the charitable behest of those psychedelic sons of beatniks, The Grateful Dead. Although he was, by then, the only interesting person left in this obscenely overpriced roach pit, Huncke confided that the hotel management didn’t like him, and when I enquired why he sighed, “I’m not good for business.”
The final time I visited Herbert at the Chelsea, he’d just returned from the Kerouac Festival in Lowell, where he had read alongside Patti Smith. A framed poster, picturing the two of them, hung proudly on his wall. Huncke was also basking in the latter-day glory being bestowed upon him by the Whitney Museum, who treated him as a VIP guest at their Beat Culture and The New America retrospective.
It was great to see Huncke getting some legitimate recognition at last. Herbert and Louis, a deeply affecting documentary, directed by Laki Vazakas, was already in the pipeline, and Huncke had recently been interviewed by the BBC for a TV documentary on the pioneering sexologist Doctor Alfred Kinsey, who, back in the mid-40s, had paid Huncke to solicit the colourful denizens of Times Square, (including Burroughs and Ginsberg), to be interviewed for his groundbreaking report into The Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male.
Typically, the book publishers waited until after Huncke’s death to release his collected works. A crying shame, as Huncke could have sorely used that moolah while alive, but, alas, the old adage about how the best work is worth most after the workman can’t be paid, followed him to the crematorium.
One of my lasting memories of Huncke dates from that period. It occurred the night before I flew home to London, and he begged me for a favour. Herbert had an appointment at the methadone clinic the next day and asked if I could supply a sample of my urine for him to take there, as his was bastardised with traces of smack, coke and God knows what else! I was clean at the time and more than happy to lend a, ahem, hand. In fact, it was a dubious honour.
Huncke always used the sink in his room to take a slash, but I passed on that and went to the john at the end of the landing. After I presented him with the beaker of pure piss, Huncke gave me a peck on the lips and promised to call me in the morning before I left for my flight. It was then, as I was descending the staircase, that the screwy thought hit me: God! I hope that is what he’s using it for. I sure hope he’s not guzzlin’ it!
Thank you for writing this excellent piece on one of the most underrated writers of his time. I was lucky enough to meet him as well
and you have managed to bring him back to life for me, if only for a few fleeting moments. The original Johnson.
The piss was surely for a drug test. But that’s one crazy, funny image to close your article with!
Thanks for the complementarily words, Johnny.
Yeah, Huncke was a one-off.
I remember reading your great interview with Uncle Bill in an old Headpress anthology we were both featured in. Terrific stuff.
This is a smooth and elegant account of meeting the memorable character and writer. This writing also delightfully (yes!) makes Huncke come alive – having read many Huncke portraits, this is one of the best.