Wednesday, August 12, 2015
FINDING THE FOUNDATION OF CHAOS--CHAPTER 5: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
It was overcast and cold that September day I went into Greenwich Village to register at my sixth, and last, college, The New School for Social Research. I remember Coltrane’s Blue Train riding with me into the city. The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel cost half a buck, a pack of Lucky Strike’s was about the same, the decayed West Side Highway, a deathtrap, was overhead, and parking spaces, especially in The Village, were worth their weight in gold. The New School was housed in buildings spanning a small space between 11th & 12th Streets, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Finally, I parked at a meter at the corner of 12th & Sixth and went into the coffee shop on the corner. I spoke to one of the counter guys, gave him five bucks and a buck’s worth of dimes to feed the meter, bought a cup of coffee, walked up the block and into The New School. Registration was in the auditorium. I picked up a packet with my name on it and then climbed the stairs to near the top where I could perch and get a good view of my fellow students as they entered. You can tell a lot just by the way someone comes into a new situation. Me, I liked to either sit by myself and observe, or sit near a quick and easy exit. Mostly every person that I saw who entered the auditorium and took a packet looked absorbed in ways that hinted at intelligence and differences and eccentricities that ran deep. I certainly had not been around these types of students ever in any of the educational institutions I had been in and wondered if I could step up to the plate and hit this type of pitching. I was waiting for the festivities (orientation) to begin when I noticed someone come in looking to be about my age, 5’11" or so, disheveled, squinting, wearing a beaten raincoat, hair that can best be described as a random collision of cuts, carrying an open container of coffee that splashed on his hands as he climbed up to where I was sitting. I got up and grabbed the container from his hands. “Thanks,” he muttered.
“Yeah man, sit down before you kill yourself,” I said laughing.
He looked at me for a second, smiled, “Suicide by scalding is not the way I want to go out,” he said as he took the container from my hand.
“Savage, Norman,” I said and stuck out my hand.
“Yeah, Brasz with a z; some weird Jewish working. Where ya from?”
“Yeah, that’s cool, Coney Island; I meant what school you from?”
“Oh, that; been in six of em, which one ya want?”
“Six? Shit, more than me; I came from Northwestern, first Princeton. You?”
I rattled off the six, finishing with New York City Community. “I’m a mutt; no pedigree here.”
“There ain’t a Jew with a pedigree; Jews ain’t white.” I would learn later that the jazz great, Cecil Taylor, told him that. Brasz was full of surprises. He spoke 3 or 4 languages, a philosophy genius, a painter, a baseball-pitching prodigy who, despite being half blind (I could imagine how the batters felt who saw him squinting in from 60’6” away), found the plate with a fastball, his only pitch. He lived with Theresa, a beautiful country girl from a small Louisiana town, on East 3rd Street in the East Village in a sixth floor walkup for sixty-five or seventy-five bucks a month with the bathtub in the kitchen.
We watched the others file in commenting on them with the kind of sarcastic irreverence of people who are carving out an area of their own. We simply struck a chord in each other. I told him that I was a writer. It was the first time I had ever said that to anyone that I met. It felt a little weird saying that, but Brasz did not bat an eye, did not blink. He seemed to say, “Sure, why not, of course, yeah.” Later, after I plugged into him like someone would to an electrical outlet, he would validate me. We became fast and close friends and would remain close for twenty odd years later until something I did, or something I didn’t do, changed that.
Being part of The Humanities Program at The New School required that you take two courses in your junior year and one course in your senior year. We were allowed to sit in on every class The New School offered, both day and evening, for free and, in our senior year, we had to do two additional things: turn in a tutorial project that was acceptable to the faculty (almost everything was acceptable in those days) and teach a course. Being that I was already writing poetry, and never wanted to do anything that would require more work, I decided to work on a poetic manuscript for my tutorial. I would hinge the work around a major poem, The Nuremberg Egg, which I began writing in November of that year. The New School arranged a meeting between Paul Blackburn, a well-known and well-respected New York City poet, soon to become my mentor, and myself. After meeting with Paul a few times and showing him my work, he easily saw how influenced I was by Ginsberg. He asked me if I wanted to meet him and arranged this. Both Blackburn and Ginsberg would act as mentors for me during the year and a half that I was at the school by editing, challenging, and finally critiquing my work. The Nuremberg Egg would be thirty-two pages in length and the manuscript itself would be one hundred and twenty pages.
The course I would teach was, The Literary, Musical and Artistic Achievements of the 1950’s. Using Kerouac On the Road as the text, substituting the road for Twain’s river, listening to Ornette Coleman’s free jazz, do-wop groups, viewing the abstract expressionists of the time, we gave the Eisenhower years an alternative meaning. We tried looking beneath the smile and the green golf carpet to the last radical stew in American culture before the explosion into America’s living rooms a few years later, televised and in living color.
The New School was infused with an eclectic bunch of outcasts, iconoclasts, and outlaws in those days. Transfers from the Ivy League were common. Less traditional academic venues such as Reed, Goddard, and Bennington were well represented. This was quite the contrast with the students I’d been around in the community colleges I went to and, much different than those I still had as friends in Seagate and Coney Island. While greatly enlarging and adding to my world it also confused the hell out of me and, in no small measure, frightened the shit out of me. They represented a kind of independence that I was drawn to without being able to articulate it, much less achieve it, could not fathom the unconscious battle this initiated and was very willing to be singed, sometimes scorched, by the heat it generated.
Sam, living above a surgical supply store on Delancey, wanted to build a cabin in the wilds of New Jersey. Charles, a collector of thousands of classical albums, was trying to synthesize those longhairs with jazz in an electrical configuration. Susan, who I was crazy about, drank a fifth of Hennessy a day, wrote prose poems that haunt me to this day, could not pay her tuition and left for Denmark where, she told me, she would get old men drunk and roll them in alleys behind the bars she picked them up in. Some things I don’t know how to explain sensibly, they are simply the truth.
Brasz’s wife, Theresa, had a propensity to take off her clothes on the New York City subways. We would be sitting in his apartment, high as kites, and the phone would ring: “Yes, this is Mr. Brasz...yes,..hmm...yes, oh, Theresa, yes...be right down.” He’d turn to me. “Hey Savage, gotta go to Bellevue, be right back.”
“Want me to go with ya?”
“Nah, nah, it’s cool, thanks but nah; be better for you if you weren’t here when I get back.”
“Yeah man, I’m sure.”
Theresa was this beautiful, milk and honey skinned farm girl, whose nerves picked up electrical stimuli from the world she inhabited. The medication that would relieve some of the behavior associated with bi-polar illness would also relieve the mania that Theresa loved. There was never really a choice for either one of them. She had a mom who would call her every month or so from the little town she was from in Louisiana to tell her of disasters of every kind, from floods to sickness to accidents to: “Theresa, do you all remember uncle Earl who had that cousin MaryAnn who was from Mississippi and had that farm with her husband Harry who had them twin boys Billy and Barry who married them sisters from Juno, Emily and Charlene, then had them kids, well the second of the two had this terrible accident on interstate 101 with a tractor trailer and his head nearly torn from his body and he dead.”
Theresa would think for a second and say, “No, mama I don’t.”
“Oh, that’s funny, I was sure you would.”
“No, mama,” she’d repeat, barely able to suppress the laughter in her throat, “I gotta go.”
“Oh go ahead dear, I gotta go myself.”
The NY State Department of Vocational Rehabilitation was picking up the tab for tuition, books, and supplies because I was diabetic. It was money wisely spent, because Brasz gave me an education that worked outside the confines of the classroom yet augmented everything that I was doing inside of one. More importantly, he helped me fill in my gaps of ignorance. He’d go with me to Barnes & Nobles on Fifth and 18th Street and walk with me through the aisles, piling books on top of each other. “You gotta read him; you haveta read that; he’s an asshole but an important asshole; you hip to this? that? No, you haven’t read him yet, ya gotta read that, he’s comin’ right from where you’re comin’ from.” And so on.
I’d read and we’d talk. I’d write, and he’d read. Brasz and I were able to talk about anything, sex included. When two men start to share a sexual candor, their friendship becomes complete. Most of the time that doesn’t happen. I’m not talking about a physical intimacy. I’m talking about two men talking about their sexual lives apart from the friendship. When two men start talking about sex, they are talking about the friendship as well. With Brasz I was not afraid of being shamed, judged, criticized or betrayed.
And we were hot. It was a time for ideas and music and poetry and painting. We went to The Lions Head, a writer’s bar, where Joel Oppenheimer would show me how to write religious sonnets to toughen up my line. I’d go to Ginsberg’s pad on 10th Street to learn how to breathe life into my line and imagery into my words. At night, we’d smoke some reefer and after going to Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston Street for a pastrami and turkey sandwich on club with mustard and a diet Dr. Brown’s cream, Brasz and I would hit Slugs, a jazz joint on East 3rd between avenues C&D in the East Village. Slugs, In the Far East, would become one of my reference points for the next two years. Slugs was practically the only club left in New York City that would allow musicians to play for more than a week at a time. The Half Note and Five Spot were no more, and Fat Tuesdays had yet to be born. For a couple of bucks, you could hang there for a night, hear three sets and go across the street to The Old Reliable, a saloon, for a nightcap, or up the block to The Chicken Shack for some fried chicken, shrimp, and ribs before heading home. After awhile, you’d become friendly with the bartender and the bouncer. If they knew you knew some of the musicians who played there, who Brasz did and, in turn, so did I, they were even friendlier. I can remember listening to Miles at the bar talking not about music but about boxing, his passion, specifically Joe Louis, his love, one night while listening to Tony Williams and waiting for him to sit in for a set, which he never did do.
I was introduced to and finally heard Brasz’ friend, Cecil Taylor, the avant-garde pianist and his Unit, Andrew Cyril, Jimmy Lyons, Alan Silva and Sam Rivers. How to explain the energy and beauty contained in the music is a problem for me. I have sat here and have tried and nothing that I have written, ever, begins to communicate those feelings in words. James Baldwin comes close in Sonny’s Blues and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka in his poetry. I marvel at their ability to turn language into jazz riffs and will not try to emulate them, for it would diminish the experience for those who might be reading these words. Rather than talk like another academic asshole about what they are trying to do, or have done, and why it works or doesn’t, let it just be said that being in the presence of this music was pure transcendence. Suicide, an on-again off-again companion of mine, is made mundane, even boring.
And then there was the bathroom at Slugs. I learned as much about life from that toilet as I did from most any other thing I can think of. It was a small, thin, rectangular room, with a shitter in the corner and a sink at the entrance. A bare yellow bulb hung, like a dead man, above the toilet. Even taking a piss in there fucked with your imagination. It reeked of sex, quinine, morphine, reefer, body odors, and wastes. There was only one bathroom for both sexes, and there was usually a line waiting to get in there, especially between sets, comprised of individuals, and sometimes couples of the same or different sexes. You learned patience and courtesy. Sometimes you fumbled rolling or smoking a joint. Sometimes it took longer to get hard, or sometimes it was harder finding a vein. The one’s with priority were the musicians, of course. They had to take care of business and get back up on the stage, sometimes easier said then done.
One night I was at Slugs drinking at the bar and listening to Lee Morgan, a terrific trumpet player. A woman came in and sat down at the elbow of the bar, near the door. When he had finished the set, he walked from the stage to where she was sitting and I got up to go to the bathroom. I stood behind a few people who were waiting to get in, when we heard the shot. We turned around and the first thing I remember thinking is that it was as quiet as a library. Apparently she had taken out a pistol and shot him dead, then put the gun on the bar and finished her drink. I later learned she was Lee’s common law wife. Lee, a junkie, was cheating on her. It was bad enough giving Lee money to support his habit but sleeping with another chick, and feeding her habit as well, just didn’t cut it. I could see her point. I stored that information away. They closed Slugs not too long after the shooting.
As much as I thought I was burning with ideas, I had no direction. I had no thought of the future. There was nothing that I wanted to do that I wasn’t doing, and so when the desire to use junk intermingled and sometimes stood outside my daily comings and goings, I was somewhat confused. Ever since that first taste I’d had with Suzanne it stayed with me as my secret that sent shivers, sometimes shudders, up my spine at unexpected times. It was not a decision that one day I woke up and made. I did not do it to make me more attractive to chicks, though there were some who found heroin, or those who did heroin, mythological heroic, romantically tragic, and for those reasons, seductive, and, as I’ve said before, it did prolong orgasm. But in fact, heroin gradually made being with a woman beside the point. No, it was fear based. Although I would not have been able to see, much less admit that at the time, fear was, beside the other hundred personality traits that comprise heroin addicts, the foundation from which desire sprang. I did not go very often, at first. I thought I used junk judiciously and, though I had enough syringes at my disposal, did not shoot the drug, but snorted it. I thought that I was rather fearless in going after the fix. I went alone, even though I had to go into some pretty bad areas to obtain anything of quality; and I was white. Hence, my myth of myself was intact, powerful and deadly.
My Porsche and I were running to and from Brooklyn, the East Village, Coney Island, and parts unknown. I was editing The Nuremberg Egg with Blackburn and Ginsberg, (when he was available) and Brasz. I was taking evening courses at The New School, a course on Dostoyevsky with this old Russian professor, Tartak, and a poetry course with Diane Wakoski. It was at the poetry course where I met Fran Lebowitz. We became fast friends and would remain friends for many years to come. She had just begun living in New York City and had hopes of becoming a writer herself. She had begun reading her poetry at The Village Vanguard on Sunday mornings and invited me down to hear some. After reading her other writings, both Brasz and I told her we thought her poetry “sparse” and to this day take credit for her career as one of the finest writers of biting satirical prose of our time.
Fran was friendly with Susan Graham Mingus who was married to the brilliant bassist and musician, Charles Mingus, and also the publisher of Changes, a magazine that competed for a time with The Village Voice. Fran was instrumental in helping get me published for the first time. She introduced me to Susan who in turn took four of my poems for publication. They were placed on a separate page next to photos that Warhol took and provided for the issue. Fran remains, in many ways, one of those people who were part of my life and continues to be, although many years go by where we don’t have much, if any, contact with one another.
One night, riding to New York City from Coney Island, where we just had dinner at my parents’ home, I was talking to her about the fact that I was drawn to a life that was the antithesis of my parents’ ideas of what and who I should be. She looked at me and, in her own inimical way, said, “Norman, if you fucked a hooker, you’d be concerned with whether or not she came. Get over what you’re going through, and get on with it. Besides, if you’re writing for or because of your parents, you’re playing to the wrong audience.”
It was also at this time that my work started to develop an edge, a hardness that had been lacking before. I was finding my own voice. It was a voice that was coming out of all the voices I had read and heard, an amalgam of voices, and an alchemy of spirits. It was becoming fluid and second nature, like pissing.
Who among us is prescient enough to see their own death clearly? After King was assassinated, Rosen came into our class and read, Turning and turning in a widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer. After Bobby Kennedy bought it in L.A., I turned off the TV and for the 100th time read the poem from where the above lines came, Yeats’, The Second Coming. I watched the DNC from Chicago and grew silent. I listened transfixed, to WBAI and the play by play of cops forcibly removing SDS, (Students for a Democratic Society) demonstrators from the administration buildings at Columbia. The aftermath was BAI playing Dylan’s Desolation Row for 24 hours nonstop. Yet, it was also a time when, for 10 bucks, I heard the solo performances of Cecil, Ornette Coleman, and Sonny Rollins at The Whitney Museum, discovered Pynchon’s V and Bukowski’s Erections, Ejaculations, Emissions and Other Tales of Ordinary Madness. I watched in a saloon across the street from The New School, The Mets winning the ‘69 World Series. I heard Miles at the Fillmore East and his electric/jazz fusion, and I wrote.
As long as I had these avenues to travel down, my demons were satiated. They ate and drank from the same trough that this crazy fascistic masochistic impulse of creation comes from, and were cooled out. And, even though I could hear them rushing to close off all these avenues of impulse and desire, I was, if not safe, not eating myself up, which is what true alcoholism and drug addiction are: The host eating itself up. If an artist does not practice his or her craft, that craft will eventually turn against them. I’d take bets on that.
Brasz also didn’t know. The New School had offered him a Carnegie grant to continue his studies in philosophy. He wasn’t sure he wanted to do that. What he was sure about was that he and Theresa would be hitting Europe that summer. Brasz had a friend, Bob Yarber, who was a painter studying at Cooper Union. The three of us, each with some kind of physical disability, wedded to whatever humor and creativity we had, became friends. Yarber wasn’t sure about much either, except that he knew he’d be going to Europe that summer and meet Brasz at a certain point and then to Tulane to teach art that Fall. I felt a bit jealous that I wasn’t going with them and in fact, never really addressed my own feelings of not being of their caliber both intellectually and artistically. I felt he and Yarber were closer and sometimes felt like an interloper. I’d harbored these insecurities all my life among certain personages who I wanted to be like or emulate and now they manifested themselves in these two bohemians. I wanted them to ask me to go with them but they never did.
My other friends from Seagate and Coney Island, Donny, Steve and Tony were tame by comparison but they still held for me the link to my father’s world. We still played ball together, went out together and went to my home, as we had done hundreds of times in the past, and shared with my folks as much of our lives as we could. But they had gigs. Steve and Tony were teachers in the public school system and Donny was looking for a job as an accountant. In this world it was me who they looked to for their kicks and worldly stimulations. I had turned them all on to powerful types of marijuana in the last few years and in Tony’s case some amphetamine, coke, and a little smack as well. I had encouraged Steve to write and had taken him to Slugs where he’d really begun digging jazz. The four of us began talking about going to Europe that summer, too. I was still trying to negotiate both worlds, but irregardless of which I inhabited at any one time, thought myself less of a man by not being able to say what I felt without fear of rejection or alienation. I carved my way in these worlds carrying the weight of an arthritic man trying to do slight-of-hand tricks.
A panel of professors read my manuscript, and a few had sat in on my class at The New School. If they understood or liked my stuff, or didn’t understand it or like it, they didn’t let on. They asked questions that seemed designed to make them appear hipper than they really were. It has always been very difficult for me to hear, accept and, most importantly, believe, words of praise, no matter who they’ve come from. I had tremendous respect, even love, for Brasz, Yarber, Ginsberg and Blackburn. They had all, to a greater or lesser extent, worked on, encouraged, edited and pushed me in directions I never suspected I had it in me to go. They helped me combat the inner voices that screamed, “You ain’t shit, and you’re never gonna be shit. Who’re ya kiddin? Not me, you ain’t kiddin’ me. I know who the fuck you are, and you ain’t shit.” Recently, I’ve gone over that manuscript and have found that a few of the poems have held up quite well these thirty years, and The Nuremberg Egg, the centerpiece, commands attention even now.
Graham Greene has stated that “the artist is doomed to live in an atmosphere of perpetual failure.” That “atmosphere,” has crippled me for periods of indeterminate but considerable duration. The world gets you quickly enough, but you get you quicker. If you’re not ready to hit that hard slider that paints the outside corner after brushing you back with one high, hard, and tight, you better stand back from the plate and give someone else a chance. Life really doesn’t give a shit who it pitches to and, like Michael Jordan, doesn’t know what move it’s gonna put on you next, so how are you supposed to know?
We graduated, but none of us went to our graduation. If you put a gun to my head and asked where it was held, I’d be a dead man. I was not interested in seeing where I’d been. I was too strung out on my future (or lack of it) to sit down and reminisce. What’s next, what’s next, what’s next? That’s what I heard. I met with Brasz and Yarber at Brasz’ pad, smoked some reefer and talked. Talked about the summer, about chicks, about Europe, and about September. Nothing was resolved except we decided to see one another before they left for New Orleans/Baton Rouge at the end of August. Donny, Steve, Tony and I also decided to kid around in Europe that summer. My folks, as a graduation gift, made it possible for me to do that. I was the first person in my family, on both sides, to graduate from a college or university. I didn’t think too much about it, and neither did they.
I stashed a half ounce of Acapulco Gold (a particular potent blend of reefer that a chick brought me back from Texas), in my suitcase with assorted dexedrine spansules, a few highly prized hashish cubes, insulin, syringes, writing tablets, pens, Eliot’s Four Quartets and LeRoi Jones’ Preface To a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and The Dead Lecturer, and off I went. First stop, Paris. The night we landed and got to our hotel room, my travel companions were too tired to go out. I couldn’t spend my first night there sleeping. They looked on in astonishment as I showered, got dressed, rolled a few joints, and went out into the night.
I spoke to this cab driver the best I could and found, to my delight, that the word “jazz” was completely understood and was a different form of passport. He took me to this cave like dwelling. I walked down a passage where there was carved stone on both sides opening into an intimate room where I heard the familiar sound of a tenor saxophone lamenting. I went to the bar, ordered a drink and listened to a pretty good quartet.
Between sets, I went upstairs and outside to smoke a joint and was soon joined by a couple of people who must have heard me ordering drinks in English. Needless to say, I got them whacked in a few minutes. The night unfolded. Being native Parisians, they showed me around after the next set. We walked around the Left Bank, got some espresso at an all night cafe, smoked the second joint, and walked some more, not saying much. They were hip and just let me look at and admire their beautiful city. I got back to my hotel as the sun was coming up.
We left Paris the next day. We cavorted all through Europe, hitting the Italian and French Riviera, Switzerland, Spain, London, and Monaco. There were times we got whole towns drunk and other times where the people from these places welcomed us into their homes.
In Lerici, a small port on the tip of the Italian Riviera, a place where the poet, Shelley, committed suicide, I fell in love with Anna-Maria. She was an incredibly beautiful Cuban with skin like a Brandy Alexander, eyes dark, like Godiva chocolate, a mouth made to kiss and Oh so smart. She lived in Madrid teaching English as a second language. Originally, she was born and raised in Georgetown in our nation’s capital. She was ready to take some risks, and I was ready to have some risks taken. I left my friends midway through the trip to live with her in Madrid but not before my friends and I went to Monte Carlo.
There, I persuaded my friends to let me hold four hundred dollars and play roulette. Our money was slowly getting exhausted. Either we’d win and live large for the last few weeks or go home early. The first bet was the 400 on rouge. The next bet was 800 hundred on noir. We now had 1200 to divide and spend. We threw the croupier a chip that was worth a hundred dollars in American money and walked out like gentlemen after a day of sport.
In Madrid, Anna took me to The Prado, and I got so close to the Goya paintings I could have smeared my face in them. She took me to see a bullfight and later to eat a meal for seventy-five cents that was delicious. Working men and families were sitting at these long communal tables eating from large trays that passed filled to the brim with steaming meat and potatoes and rice and vegetables and salad, and pitchers of wine were being passed. You could see some with eyes filled with hard work and fatigue and others with work yet humor and still others with sadness and merriment. I was determined to have her come to New York. She said she was planning a Christmas visit to her parents. It was not soon enough for me.
Little did I know that I had graduated into oblivion. I was free-falling through clouds of teflon-coated razor blades.
pgs 60-66--From Chapter 5: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015