The Beats Go On

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

Hale wondered why Ginsberg lived in such a location; it was so dirty and dangerous. But he also recognized that the neighborhood was home to many struggling young artists, which meant plenty of art, music and poetry at cheap prices. He found himself alternating between loving the artsy variety of the place and abhorring some of its seamier aspects.

When Ginsberg finally returned to New York City and his apartment, Hale didn't want him to know that he'd huddled indoors for the first few days. But he had to admit that he hadn't visited the museums and art galleries that the poet was now naming.

Once again, Hale found himself with a list. There was the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Met and, at the very top, the Frick Collection, which had a few Bellini paintings. Ginsberg made it understood that the places on this list were compulsory viewing. And so Hale came face-to-canvas with Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and Bellini's "St. Francis in Ecstasy," close enough to see the brushstrokes, almost feel the emotions the painters had felt as they worked on their masterpieces. Again, Hale came away with the impression of having touched great minds and ideas of the past.

Peter Hale as he looks today.
Steven Miles
Peter Hale as he looks today.

Of course, not every Ginsberg outing was purely educational. He liked to take Hale to gay bars and play a guessing game of what the other patrons might be thinking. "They probably think I bought you for the night," Ginsberg smiled.

"Maybe they think you're my uncle," Hale replied hopefully.

Ginsberg loved to stroll around Greenwich Village or Times Square, and he never seemed intimidated by the surroundings. People would walk up to him, ask if he was the poet, and then want to talk or share something they'd written. Others, particularly the street people, didn't care about poetry, but they knew that Ginsberg would listen to their problems. He was particularly patient and sympathetic with those whom Hale came to view as the "unusual people," and he was a soft touch for panhandlers, never passing an outstretched hand without digging into his pockets to deliver whatever change he found there.

Hale learned lessons of a different sort on these outings. They'd stop by the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas had drunk himself into a fatal coma. They'd sit in Christopher Park, a small triangle trapped by a tall, wrought-iron fence, and Ginsberg would talk about how back in the '50s, an inebriated Jack Kerouac once labeled this park the "center of the universe" after he'd hit his head on Lucien Carr's fire escape. Or they'd walk past the Chelsea Hotel as Ginsberg listed the great writers and other artists who'd resided there over the years: O. Henry, Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. Or they'd have a drink at the tavern where Burroughs was tending bar when he and Ginsberg met, or the lounge that served as the backdrop for Kerouac's The Subterraneans.

But there were interesting people right inside Ginsberg's building. Initially, Hale had assumed Ricard was just a character, but it turned out he'd launched the careers of several notable artists and was an accomplished, if little known, poet in his own right. One day he asked Hale to meet him and a friend at the Metropolitan Museum; Hale had another appointment and declined. Later he learned that the friend Ricard was meeting was Andy Warhol. "But I wasn't going to tell you that beforehand," Ricard teased, "and have you go just because of Warhol."

Rose Pettet was another resident; she and Ginsberg went back to the mid-'60s, when they'd been introduced by Bob Dylan's then-girlfriend. Rose had been part of Warhol's Factory scene and was now married to poet Simon Pettet. No one knew New York City like she did. She'd grown up on the Upper East Side, and there didn't seem to be a block that she didn't know something about. "This is where the old whacked-out woman lived with her dolls for forty years," she'd say on a stroll with Hale, or she'd whisper to him as they walked by the apartment where "the vampire couple lives." Since the Pettets had so little money, Rose had figured out all the angles for wringing the most out of the city on a budget: She knew how to get into the Met for a nickel.

And then there was Orlovsky. Ricard was absolutely terrified of him and would run into Ginsberg's apartment for safety whenever Orlovsky decided to howl up and down the hallways. One day a television crew came to the apartment to film Ginsberg for the upcoming twentieth anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Orlovsky showed up nude and began pestering Hale to get him some vanilla ice cream from the refrigerator.

Occasionally Hale would meet someone without realizing the role he played in his mentor's life. For example, there was the immaculately dressed little old man with impeccable manners whom they met up with at a Fifth Avenue bar. His name was Herbert Huncke. Hale, who still had only a cursory knowledge of the Beats, knew nothing of the man who'd served as the role model for Burroughs's book Junkie and whose repetitive use of the word "beat" to describe his own exhaustion living on the streets had been adopted by Kerouac as the name for a literary genre. Huncke was just a polite fellow who nodded sympathetically when the discussion turned to marijuana and Hale complained that pot made him paranoid. "I understand completely," he said.

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