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Creek Running North
November 11, 2004
A long time ago
The church was crowded when I walked in: seemed like there were more Allen Ginsberg fans in Buffalo than I expected. All the chairs were full, and about a hundred people sat on the floor. I scanned the room looking for friends: Eileen, who I'd just met that week, looked up and waved.
I sat with her. She was with a few friends, all women of about the same age.
Ginsberg and his lifelong pal Peter Orlovsky entered the room to appreciative applause. They read for about an hour, including a short piece Allen had written the previous week on draft resistance. I don't remember much else of what they read, for reasons I'll get into in a moment, but I do recall being sorry the reading had to end.
About halfway into the first poem, Eileen's hand found its way into mine. That hand was suddenly the only thing in the room. Somewhere in the middle of poem three, she looked at me and asked, brightly, if I'd let her lean against me - her back was sore. I nodded dumbly, and she scooted directly in front of me and leaned back against my chest.
Despite the fact that this was in the lascivious early 1980s, that was as far as it went - we were in public after all. The reading ended and we walked outside to Allen Street.
Eileen's friends grumbled just in earshot — something about her getting all the guys – and walked a little bit away. We faced each other, her right hand in my left and vice versa.
"You headed to the Schuper House?"
"No," she smiled, "I have to get back out to Springville."
"Yeah, but call me, 'kay? Here's my number."
"OK. I will." She kissed me and ran to catch up with her friends.
My housemate Rick and best friend Joe were joking at the door to the church. "I see you met Eileen," Joe leered.
The three of us drove to the Schuper House, named after a local idiom for a very large container full of beer. The Schupe had a good pool table, a back room with stage and about forty square feet of dance floor. My feet seemed barely to touch the floor as I walked in, still dazed and infatuated. Bob Sienkiewicz, an ex-housemate, was there, as was my anarchist pal Ellen (not to be confused with Eileen). Beers were bought, cues chalked, and the place slowly filled up. I knew about half the people there: Buffalo was that kind of town.
An hour or so later, we were sitting in the back room when Ginsberg and Orlovsky strode onto the stage - if Ginsberg's "old Uncle Moe" shuffle could be called a "stride." Orlovsky carried a harmonium. They set up a couple zazen cushions and started singing Blake poetry set to simple, repetitive melodies - with harmonium accompaniment.
An hour of this followed, the crowd losing not an ounce of boister the whole time, and the poets announced they'd be taking a break. We all got up. Ellen asked what I'd been drinking, and I lied. "Tequila!" She vanished and then reappeared with a shotglass full of smoky brown mescal. Down the hatch. With her other hand, she held out a pint of dark beer.
I still love Ellen. She's still like that.
I went to the men's room, unzipped at the urinal next to Orlovsky. "Hello," I said. He smiled. "Um, has anyone ever mentioned that your singing voice is very much like Robin Williamson?" "No," he said. "Who?"
"Robin Williamson, with the Incredible String Band. He's fun."
"No. Thanks, I guess."
Back in the bar, Bob S. - at least I thinkit was Bob S. was chatting up Ginsberg. I walked over, and Allen turned to me. "and you are?" I introduced myself, and he asked what I did, which was in those days pretty much what I've been describing here.
I said, "Um, I'm a draft resister,"
(I'd been making the rounds of the news shows that month encouraging people not to register)
"and, uh, I write some poetry."
He looked moderately interested, and so I recited to him the one thing I'd written that I had committed to memory verbatim - an execrable sonnet I'd written at age 14. He made polite noises and it was time for the second set.
Watching the set, I began to suffer an attack of self-consciousness. This was Allen Freaking Ginsberg I'd been talking to, and instead of asking him his views or advice or whatever I had buttonholed him, I told myself, and forced him to listen to an embarrassing piece of adolescent whinge. Ellen brought me another beer. This set was more a standard Beat poetry reading, alternating between Allen and Peter. After some time, it broke up, I worked up my nerve, and somewhat obsequiously approached Ginsberg.
"Allen, I think I owe you an apology. I treated you as a celebrity "Allen Ginsberg" instead of, you know, you. I'm sorry.
Ginsberg smiled. "Well, to tell you the truth, I was actually going to ask you if you wanted to come home with me."
I hadn't seen that coming. Was I wearing a sign today or something? Acutely aware that I was likely disappointing any story-loving grandchildren I might someday have, I declined. We kept chatting, and the evening went on for another few hours. Last call was at four a.m. in Buffalo in those days. I think it was at about 3:55 that Ginsberg, heading out the door, looked back at me and said "hey Chris, last chance."
I waved at him, and he left.
Eileen told me two days later that she was some months shy of her 18th birthday, which gave me a few moments of inner turmoil. Still, I spent a lot of time with her the next few weeks, hiking in the woods and carousing with her friends in South Buffalo. I fell hopelessly in love. We camped for a weekend on Joe's land east of Springville: caught in the rain, we bailed and walked into her parents' house dripping wet and barely clothed. Her stepfather was upset.
I dried off and hitchhiked the 30 miles into Buffalo, went to Berna's house, drank tea and chatted, told her that I had met the woman of my dreams.
Eileen came into Buffalo the next weekend, to spend a few days with me before going off to the Black Hills Survival Gathering. This was to be a big meeting and festival of environmentalists, human rights folks, and Native people. Eileen would be in South Dakota for a week. We chatted sweetly about things we'd do together when she came back. But she never came back.
Oh, no tragedy was involved, not that I would have said so at the time. She met someone there, fell in love, moved eventually to Spokane and bore him a child she named after an herbaceous plant, who would be older now than Eileen was then. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Three weeks after she'd promised to return, Eileen called me from the bus station in Tulsa to say she didn't know when she'd be back.
I got an envelope from Ginsberg the next day. It was a signed copy of the poem on draft resistance, with a personal note written across the top. "This is so cool," I thought. "I know I'm going to hold on to this for the rest of my life."
Posted by Chris Clarke at November 11, 2004 03:50 PM
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Checkovian. Thanks.Posted by: Dave at November 11, 2004 05:23 PM
Posted by: Jarrett at November 11, 2004 09:32 PM
Dang. I obviously studied way too much in the '80s.
I spent the early 80s in diapers. Sigh.
And I feel petty saying this, but I am painfully jealous of your writing. (And tremendous portions of your life, too, but that's a different matter.) Thanks for that fantastic story. (Please, sir, may I have some more?)Posted by: Siona at November 12, 2004 01:02 AM
Wow. Lovely.Posted by: the_bone at November 12, 2004 07:28 AM
Fabulous story. Those were definitely the days...although Ginsberg was in Vermont uite a bit, due to ties he had with Trungpa Rinpoche's Buddhist community, I never met him up there. The closest I got was at a march against nuclear weapons in NYC - I think in the 1980s. I was behind Bread and Puppet, in the Vermont delegation, and when the march, which was huge, turned a corner I looked over and there was Ginsberg, right next to me: he'd also joined up with Vermont, for which I think he always had a soft spot. We smiled at each other, but that day there was no "celebrity" - we were each just individuals bodies standing up for what we believed in.Posted by: beth at November 12, 2004 02:52 PM
Now why didn't John Prine ask me to come home with him when I sang to him at the Shebeen?
He knew he'd only disappoint you, because you'd already heard me singing Angel from Montgomery?Posted by: Chris Clarke at November 14, 2004 10:26 PM