The Beats Go On

How a kid from Boulder became an eyewitness to the passing of an era.

Ginsberg had warned him to beware of "scallywags" when he got there, but Hale wasn't exactly sure how to tell the scallywags from the filthy panhandlers, one-legged junkies and in-your-face prostitutes. From Times Square, Hale was supposed to catch a subway to Ginsberg's apartment. But there was no way in hell Hale was ready for that, so he climbed in the first taxi that stopped and gave the address of a fourth-floor walkup on 12th Street.

Hale wasn't sure what he'd expected, but he knew it wasn't this. The neighborhood had a bombed-out look. There was trash everywhere -- broken bottles, newspapers drifting in swirls in the hot, thick air -- and the storefronts were boarded up or encased behind folding steel fences secured by chains. Few walls had avoided the ravages of youths with spray paint, and the ancient rusting fire escapes looked incapable of doing their job. Ginsberg's building was no different from the rest, except that the battered door looked even flimsier than those on other buildings.

Hale had figured that a man of Ginsberg's fame and stature would have decent accommodations, and he was shocked by the small, shabby one-bedroom apartment where the poet had lived since 1975.

Chris Ide in the early '90s, when the drugs were catching up to him.
Steven Miles
Chris Ide in the early '90s, when the drugs were catching up to him.
Peter Hale as photographed by Steven Miles in 1985.
Peter Hale as photographed by Steven Miles in 1985.

Once he was inside, Hale wasn't about to wander back out. He reasoned that he'd venture forth the next day, after he was rested. But he found it difficult to sleep. The apartment didn't have air conditioning, and opening the windows to the muggy night brought little relief. What it did bring was noise: Instead of the cool quiet of a Colorado evening, New York hummed with the workings of a million air conditioners behind the unceasing din of traffic and sirens.

In the morning, the blare of salsa music and the shouts of people speaking Spanish and other languages he didn't understand were added to the mix. Now Hale wasn't sure he was ever going to leave the apartment. But while he stuck close the first couple of days, he quickly met some of the colorful characters who lived in the building.

One was Rene Ricard, a flamboyant queen who'd banged on the door one day. When Hale opened it, in sauntered a tall, skinny man who announced that he needed laundry detergent.

Another day, a middle-aged man in thick glasses and a button-down, short-sleeve shirt barged right through the door, harrumphing and asking Hale, "What are you doing here?" This was Peter Orlovsky; Hale had certainly heard of him.

Back in the summer of 1955, Ginsberg had been living in San Francisco, where he'd met painter Robert LaVigne. At LaVigne's apartment, he'd noticed a huge nude portrait of a teenage boy -- Orlovsky. Ginsberg had insisted on an introduction, and the two were soon lovers and roommates. Shortly after that, Ginsberg began writing "Howl."

Years of drug and alcohol abuse had affected Orlovsky's mind. By the early 1980s, he was exhibiting increasingly bizarre behavior -- howling in the streets, running nude through the apartment building at odd hours -- though it was sometimes difficult to differentiate whether Orlovsky was crazy or simply acting that way to indulge his offbeat sense of humor.

But knowing that didn't help Hale deal with Orlovsky, who was now stomping around the apartment talking in circles. "Do you know who I am?" Orlovsky asked, then answered, "I'm Juanita Liberman's boyfriend." Before Hale could do much more than nod, he asked, "Do you know who Juanita Liberman is?" And answered, "She's Peter Orlovsky's girlfriend."

Hale retreated to the bedroom, hoping the madman would go away. Instead, Orlovsky followed him. He picked up a black marker and asked Hale for his name.

"Peter," Hale replied nervously.

To the youth's horror, Orlovsky promptly scrawled "PETER" on the bedroom wall's peeling plaster. Orlovsky then asked for his last name and how to spell it. Afraid of what that might inspire, but even more afraid not to answer, Hale told him. With each letter, Orlovsky yanked a drawer from the bureau and flung it across the room.

Hale was wondering whether to flee when another middle-aged man walked into the apartment. He introduced himself as Bob Rosenthal, Ginsberg's office manager since 1977. After Rosenthal gently coaxed Orlovsky to halt his performance and leave, he explained to Hale that he was just dropping by to check on the apartment, which also served as the poet's office.

Toward the end of the first week, Hale began to venture out of the building, often in the company of Ricard. At times he got the feeling he'd stepped into a painting of hell by Hieronymous Bosch. The air of the Lower East Side was ripe with the smells of 100,000 people living in a small space -- sweat, spices, garbage, perfume, marijuana, exhaust, cooking, asphalt, even a hint of briny water as he approached the East River. A constant hum from all those voices and engines, punctuated by the New York principle of stress management via car horn, made the air tremble; every so often, the ground shook and a roar came up from grates in the sidewalk as a subway train passed beneath. Dozens of homeless and damaged people inhabited nearby Tompkins Park.

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