You would think that someone so enamored with with Americana, with writing, with art, with the Beats, with culture in general, would have made numerous trips to New York City. Not the case for me. Last week marked my first time there other than a layover or two at JFK. I'm sure like most people going to New York for the first time, I had my preconceived notions of the place. I probably bought in to some of the myths. You know the ones I'm talking about: people are rude, city is dirty, everything is expensive. Frankly, I didn't know what to expect and really didn't care one way or the other. I had training for my new job and I had a big, wonderful, amazing city all around me. Once there, it was time to take it all in, good and bad, as much as I could in one evening in Manhattan.
I wish I could report that all of my time was spent in the City, but the company's headquarters are in Jersey City, right on the Hudson River, and from the boardwalk surrounding the building I found myself mesmerized by an amazing view of Lower Manhattan (webcammed right) and that ghostly gap in the skyline, New York's phantom limb. Unfortunately, due to numerous graduations and other events in the area, I couldn't get lodging in Jersey City, so the hotel room they found for me was in Newark on the airport grounds. That made travel a little hectic and my schedule was already jammed with long days of meetings and training and by the time I got through with work, I didn't have the energy for taking on a city that requires just that from you. All I could do was drag my fatigued brain to my hotel room, wonder if Jimmy Hoffa happened to be buried in the area (who knew?), and order room service while watching the Braves stream through my new work laptop. But I made sure to keep Wednesday light; I made arrangements to meet up with Levi Asher, proprietor of one of my favoirite Websites ever, Litkicks. I've been a fan of Litkicks since the mid-nineties. In fact, I do believe it was the first literary site that I ever stumbled upon on the Internet. For the last year or so, Levi and I have kept up a steady correspondence, so when I learned of this trip, I asked him if he had time to show this Southerner some of his city. Not only did he agree, but he found an event that he was sure would make this Beat historian happy.
Although we'd planned to meet up at the Gertrude Stein statue in Bryant Park (not named after me) some corporate event made access to the statue impossible. But thanks to cellphones, we finally managed to meet at a highly pollinated spot in the park before beginning our journey to the 63rd Street Y where a reading and discussion of The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later was taking place. Instead of catching a subway for the twenty or so blocks, we decided to walk it, detouring slightly from a direct course so that Levi could show me Times Square. I actually have only a vague memory of walking through it what with all the people surrounding me and the dangers of every crosswalk but mostly because of the great conversation with Levi. It turns out that despite our geographical and baseball-fandom differences he and I have a lot in common. It's always nice to find someone who shares many of the same passions as you. Even the strange singing waiters at a Times Square diner which serves an Elvis Sandwich--three layers of peanut butter, jelly and sliced bananas--couldn't distract from our discussion of the four Bs: baseball, the Beats, books, and blogging.
We eventually did make it to the reading where in the small George Washington Room three dozen or so people, and apparently a mouse gathered to hear Bob Rosenthal, Jason Shinder, Eliot Katz, Vivian Gornick and Kurt Brown discuss Howl. By far, the highlight was Rosenthal who was Ginsberg's personal secretary for much of the poet's last years. Rosenthal put an interesting spin on the term howl. While most people tend to think of howling as an animal's cry of pain, Rosenthal asserted that in fact it was a cry of loneliness and despair, a crying out for companionship and community. He played a brief sample of a wolf howling to demonstrate. Then he did something I don't think I'll ever forget. He handed out little cutouts of various lines from Howl.* He then had all of us read our lines simultaneously while moving around the room and listening the resulting "sonic forest." Three dozen people reading at once does create a sort of howl and it was both riveting and haunting, and it seemed as if no one in the room wanted it to stop.
After the reading, someone asked Rosenthal one of the better questions I've ever heard asked at a reading: what was a typical day in the life of Allen Ginsberg. Rosenthal said that he was quite a workaholic. And a night person. That he would generally do most of his writing between 2-5 in the morning. Would sleep a few hours then get up to the paper and coffee, read the mail which Rosenthal had sorted for him, go out to dinner with friends, and then begin the cycle again. No, he wasn't a pothead. Rosenthal said he kept weed around but generally only for visitors. Not that he didn't do drugs, but narcotics weren't an essential part of his existence and Rosenthal certainly didn't believe that Ginsberg was an addict of any kind. He was much too busy and driven.
Before leaving, Levi introduced me to Rosenthal who graciously gave both of us a copy of a CD called "Howl--A Three Part Invention," a recording from the Howl Festival in Tompkins Square last August. The CD includes Steven Taylor's choral interpretation of "Footnote to Howl" and readings of portions of Howl in seven languages.
With a few minutes to spare after the reading before the company's car service was to pick me up for the return to my Newark hotel room, Levi and I walked over to Lincoln Center where he was able to coax a total stranger into snapping our photo. After twisting my arm for permission, I consented to his request to post the photo of the two of us on LitKicks. I'm the starry-eyed one on the right. I do believe this is the first public Internet photo of yours truly and though the lighting was bad I can't blame that for the results. Still, it's a good way to remember a truly remarkable night. What better way to remember and celebrate my first trip to New York.
*The cutout lines I read:
"who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish,"
"...Newark's bleak furnished room, [Ed.: fitting]
who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,"
"Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions! gone down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! Ten years' animal screams and suicides! Minds! New loves! Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time!"