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DEAD POETS SOCIETY

part 1 of 2 The rain-slick road whispered beneath the car, the windshield wipers keeping the beat as he drove south into Chicago through the gray evening. Bill Harper felt drained. Empty as a chapel. There hadn't been much rest in the four days since the telephone call. Chris is...
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part 1 of 2
The rain-slick road whispered beneath the car, the windshield wipers keeping the beat as he drove south into Chicago through the gray evening.

Bill Harper felt drained. Empty as a chapel. There hadn't been much rest in the four days since the telephone call. Chris is dead, bro. OD'd on heroin and alcohol.

He'd tried calling Allen Ginsberg in New York to let him know that Chris Ide, the 27-year-old junkie Ginsberg had proclaimed the best young poet in America, would not be writing anymore.

He'd called Boulder to let them know at the Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics that one of Jack's spiritual descendants had joined him on the road to self-annihilation. To tell them at the Penny Lane coffeehouse and the Beat Book Shop that another young voice had been strangled by drugs.

But most of them had already heard. They didn't seem surprised; some weren't even saddened. No one questioned his brilliance as a poet, but Chris had torched a lot of bridges on his way out.

When he ran out of people to call, Bill escaped into routine. He got up in the morning. Lit a cigarette and downed a cup of coffee for breakfast. Drove to work at the car-rental agency. Did his job. Drove home.

Routine. It had worked the year before when he went through hell to kick his own addiction. Routine and Chris's love, he reminded himself as he turned onto Lake Shore Drive and into the tail-end of rush-hour traffic. But now, as he drove, images of their frenetic times together kept coming back through the rain.

Chris riding him piggyback on a downtown Chicago sidewalk, aching for a fix, mad at the world and screaming at a sea of gray suits. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...

Chris, his wrists bandaged, in the agonies of the screaming DTs. High as Icarus before the sun melted his wings.

Lazy summer afternoons at Naropa poetry sessions, rapping with Ginsberg, wild parties afterward.

He and Chris had been desperadoes. Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Taking what they needed. Experiencing life, man. Tasting it. Smelling it. Writing about it...and then it overdosed, lonely and limp as a rag in a fleabag hotel room.

Alone in the car, Bill began to sob, buffeted by wave after wave of guilt. Chris had saved him. But Chris had died abandoned by his friends. By Bill.

Ahead, the taillights of other cars blinked red in the gloom. Bill didn't notice. Now that the floodgates of memory had opened, he searched for a reason for Chris's death.

Then it clicked. He knew. He knew. And just as suddenly, he was out of time. Twenty feet ahead, another car was stopped in the road. Bill Harper rear-ended reality at forty miles an hour.

Go back ten, eleven years ago. Before he knew Chris or Ginsberg. Before that first taste of heroin. Sixteen-year-old Bill Harper thumbed through a small volume of prose.

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy,
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity's sun-rise.
Slowly, he closed William Blake's Songs of Innocence.

A teacher had given him the book; it wasn't the sort of material his fundamentalist Baptist parents would have around. The only books in the Harper household were a set of encyclopedias, Reader's Digest condensations and the Bible. Home was very safe. Very stable. A palm-tree-lined middle-class neighborhood in South Florida. And very boring.

He was expected to go to college, maybe become an engineer like his father. Since early childhood he'd heard about the tuition money his parents put away each and every month.

But at seventeen he dropped out of high school and left home, determined to find beauty and truth and joy. And like Blake, he would write about it.

Only there was a hitch: reality. He lost his job at Burger King on the second day when he defied his boss's orders. Unemployed, his rent covered for only a month, he began hanging out with the other street people in his neighborhood north of Miami Beach.

Kids with shaved heads and nose rings, smoking grass, talking about where to crash that night because their folks had kicked them out. Again. Small-time drug dealers running a curbside service for the yuppies who rolled through in their BMWs. Whores jostling for the best spots on the sidewalks.

Bill was smoking a joint with another kid one afternoon when the boy said, "Let's go make some money."

"How?" Bill asked.
"We'll pick up some old queers, get 'em to give us money, and then jump out of the car before they know what's going on."

The other boy showed him the ropes. Where to stand. How to prance about to attract the men cruising the boulevard.

But Bill soon discovered the lie. Most of the people who came to the area looking for boys were canny enough to keep their money tucked away until services were rendered.

Years later, Bill still couldn't put a finger on what made him do it. Maybe it seemed like a choice between this or moving back with his parents. Whatever. A man picked him up, he did as the man told him and a few minutes later he was standing on the curb clutching forty bucks.

Bill used the cash to buy cocaine. When he had snorted his last line, he went out and turned more tricks. The more tricks, the more he needed. Funny how that worked. A snort of nose candy and he could hardly hear the tiny voice in his head. This ain't it, bro. A little snort, and he could even write about it.

Enter...Jack the hustler, dog tired.
Tired of the comic precedent, pistol whipped,
set by the idle twirl of his congregation.
Pretty-boy with god given talent.
Taste the splintered plywood that surrounds
the glory hole, like the suspension of disbelief
does him, as he turns his best trick.
"Tongue this crisp twenty dollar tip," the
wretched cock diseased, and drink the salty
flavor of its demise.
cigarette money...
Fifty year old holy man's bag of rock salt
pours down in the wound, throat, that coughs up
with the taste of resignation.
Peep show, show him how to make a life from the
remnants of this mini-movie and he'd give any
one of you his last quarter.

He told his parents he was working odd jobs. He dated girls. Even went to a high school prom in 1984, the year he would have graduated, dressed in a tux. Laughed like a kid. Looked at all the other laughing, smiling faces of boys and girls who would soon be off to college.

Unreal, he thought, and then went back to life on the streets.
There were few things he wouldn't do. He lied. He cheated. He stole from friends. He said things to hurt the people he loved. He took the money his parents had saved for his college education and blew it all on an old car, a few cases of beer and cocaine.

Friends finally convinced Bill's parents to send him to a drug-rehabilitation program. A little worried about his inability to stop, he agreed. But as soon as he got out, he was hustling for drugs again.

He was living in a Tampa halfway house when he noticed a friend's book collection. "Here's one you might identify with," the other boy said, handing him a thin volume. It was Tristessa, Jack Kerouac's story of a Mexican prostitute.

The hero of the story, in reality Kerouac, is sick on dope and hopelessly in love with an indifferent young prostitute. Wow, Bill thought as he read. Here was a writer who understood what he was going through.

He finished the book reluctantly and returned it to his friend.
"If you liked that," the boy said, reaching for another slim book. "You're going to love this. It's Kerouac's best."

On the Road, written in 1951 but not published until 1957, is the mythologized account of Kerouac's manic cross-country adventures with the amphetamine-hyped, joy-riding, womanizing philosopher of benign anarchy, Neal Cassady--the book's Dean Moriarty. It is full of sex, drugs and bop.

And the kind of people other writers ignored, Bill thought, like the junkie Old Bull Lee (really novelist William Burroughs) and Carlo Marx (the poet Allen Ginsberg), whose all-night rap sessions with Moriarty became legend.

Bill read the book. Then read it again. Kerouac took to the road believing he would find "girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me."

Forty years later, Bill followed.

The old Honda barely made it to the hill above Boulder, where it coughed and died. It didn't matter. Somewhere below, in the bowl that held the city against the Rocky Mountains, was a legendary community of artists, writers, poets.

Down there was the Naropa Institute, the Buddhist college founded in 1974. And somewhere on its serene campus was the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where Ginsberg taught and Burroughs sometimes spoke.

In Boulder, Bill thought, he would truly make his mark as a poet.
A year later, needle tracks marked him as a heroin junkie.
He started slow when he got there in 1989, smoking a little opiated hash, telling himself he could walk away from the shit anytime. Older junkies tried to talk him out of going to harder stuff, but Bill wouldn't listen. He was convinced the drugs had let them in on some secret he needed to know as a poet.

It hardly mattered that Burroughs's description of junkie hell didn't glamorize heroin. What it said to Bill was: Burroughs was a junkie, like me. Kerouac and Ginsberg used drugs and they became great writers, like I want to be. Burroughs and Ginsberg survived it. So will I.

After reading On the Road, Bill had gotten curious about that eclectic group that sprang from Columbia University in New York in the late Forties and early Fifties--the spiritual descendants of Thoreau, Blake, Whitman. The Beats. He dove into their work: Howl and Khaddish by Ginsberg, Burroughs's Naked Lunch. He went to libraries and checked out their biographies.

Burroughs seemed the most eccentric. The scion of a wealthy family, he eschewed the good life for the underworld of petty criminals, prostitutes and junkies like Herbert Huncke, the Times Square needleman who introduced Burroughs to heroin. Burroughs had been an addict for fifteen years before kicking.

Kerouac was a sadder figure. On the Road made him famous, a legend for his own generation's rebels and the hippies who followed. Yet he liked neither, detesting the conformity of their nonconformity, and remained the redneck Catholic of his childhood.

Kerouac's work had given rise to the whole concept of Beat, which he argued stood not for beaten but rather beatific, a state of bliss. But he found neither peace in the recognition he'd so desperately sought as a writer nor escape in alcohol and drugs. Except the final escape. Kerouac died in October 1969, drowning in his own blood, a drunkard's end.

He'd outlasted Neal Cassady by a year and a half. Their friendship had really been close only in those few years that became On the Road and Visions of Cody. Cassady wore everyone out. Raised in a Denver skid-row hotel by his wino father, taught sex by assisting brothers in the rape of their sisters, Cassady was an amoral, if brilliant, user of other people. A nonstop talker who couldn't stay in any one place, or with any one woman or man, for long.

After On the Road made him a legend, Cassady enjoyed a brief resurgence as one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, immortalized in Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But he died in February 1968, from exposure after he wandered away from a wedding in Mexico and passed out next to a railroad track.

Ginsberg was more life-affirming, the humorous, self-described "queer poet" who emerged as a folk hero in the Sixties. He shocked the nation's parents with his open homosexuality and advocacy of such things as dumping LSD in drinking water. And he, like Burroughs, had to fight to keep his work on bookshelves.

Bill liked Ginsberg and felt a special kinship with him after he learned that the author of Howl cited Blake and Whitman as influences.

Following one Naropa reading, Bill introduced himself to Ginsberg. He told him he was trying to write poetry.

"Have you been to Europe?" Ginsberg asked.
"Not yet," Bill replied, confused.
"What are you waiting for?" Ginsberg shot back. "If you want to write poetry, write poetry."

Bill got the point. He kept a daily journal and jotted down all he saw, and when it seemed right, he translated it into poetry. He couldn't afford classes at Naropa, although occasionally he managed to sneak in.

More accessible was Penny Lane, a coffeeshop with a reputation as a countercultural gathering place. Bill was impressed one night to see David Crosby there drinking a cappuccino, reminiscing, before heading back for a concert in Denver.

The children of the counterculture--white, bored kids steeped in the mythology of their parents' generation--hung out there, too. They were known as the Dharma Brats, a reference to Kerouac's book Dharma Bums.

Tom Peters, owner of the nearby Beat Book Shop, had started Monday night open-mike sessions for aspiring poets at Penny Lane back in 1987. Bill went as often as he could, but it took months to work up the nerve to read one of his own.

"This is called `Trick or Treat,'" he said the night he finally found the courage. His voice sounded shaky to him. Maybe this is a mistake. But he closed his eyes and began.

Sing me a requiem
grow me a flower
I'm not going to fuck you
till you take a shower...

I gave you ten dollars
it better be good!
as your ass starts to stick
to the paint on the hood
of my car, as I drive
with my sabre-toothed-treason
down the tollroad that tortures
you, beyond believing

Just how did you get here
no, don't say your name
I've done so many of you
you all look the same
tonight, you are splendid
a holy example
like gifts from your parents
and boy you have ample

time to destroy that
sweet dream you once had
that flew from your grip
back when you were a fad
and a fashion with purpose
an elegant smile
I've been there myself
at least once in a while

dear lover
please know
that it makes me so sick
but it's better to buy
than to sell your last trick.

The applause was long and enthusiastic--more than the other poets got that night. He liked the sound and came back for more.

On a warm April night in 1993, Bill wandered the few blocks to a friend's house. He was feeling good, thinking about the prize in his pockets--a little morphine and a small stash of opium. He was still turning the occasional trick at Boulder's gay bars and copping drugs for friends which he would then cut either to sell or to use.

He knocked on the door. His friend told him Chris Ide, the young poet, was there. Bill hurried in.

He saw a handsome young man with short dark hair asleep on the living-room couch. Heck, he even looked a little like Kerouac, or maybe Cassady.

"Hey, Chris, wake up," Bill said, shaking the sleeping figure.
Chris opened an eye and smiled shyly.
"Bill, this is Chris Ide," his friend said. "Chris, this is Bill Harper. You two should meet."

Bill had been hearing about Chris Ide for about a year through mutual friends. He was familiar with some of Chris's work. In fact, reading Chris's poetry could be intimidating. It was as if he took the things Bill wanted to write about--and then wrote about them better.

Chris had been published in the New York Quarterly, one of the nation's leading literary magazines. And he had recently given a reading with Ginsberg at City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's legendary San Francisco bookstore that had published the first editions of Howl. At that reading, Ginsberg introduced Chris as "the best young poet in America."

Chris was already well-known in Boulder. His talent had earned him free admission at Naropa; Ginsberg had even considered making him his teaching assistant for the 1993 summer session.

Now here he was in a friend's living room saying he had read some of Bill's work. Saying he liked it.

The pair hit it off right away. They had more than poetry in common: Chris was in Boulder following a stint at a California treatment center for heroin addiction, paid for by Ginsy, he said.

Bill rapidly lost interest in sharing the morphine with his old friend. He wanted to do it with Chris. A few minutes later, the new friends made some excuse and left for Bill's place.

They lost no time shooting up the morphine, and they kicked it into yet another zone by smoking the opium. When the buzz began to fade, they broke open Vick's nasal inhalers and ate the wicks for the amphetamine. The wicks weren't as strong as they were in the old days, when Joan Burroughs snarfed them by the handful to keep up with her junkie husband, but they still turned up the brain amp pretty good.

And through it all, they talked about poetry. They brought out their poems and exchanged verse. Feverish, they suggested words, phrases. And kept talking, talking, talking, nonstop like windshield wipers in the rain.

The world outside was growing light when Chris rose and went into the bathroom. Bill waited impatiently; there was still so much to say.

But he was speechless when Chris walked back into the room a few minutes later, his wrists dripping with blood where he'd cut himself with a razor. Chris didn't speak; he just looked at his wrists as though they belonged to someone else.

The wounds weren't serious, and Bill cleaned and bandaged them. Still, it was obvious his new friend needed psychiatric help. Where he was going to find it was another question, especially in the condition they both were in.

Bill decided to take Chris back to his friend's house, which was cleaner and more comfortable. The walk was longer than he remembered, more dreamlike than real, especially after Chris procured a bottle of rose wine--from where, Bill would never know--that they swigged along the way, stumbling against each other for support.

Somehow they reached the house. Chris immediately passed out on the couch.
Bill returned to his own place. He woke up several hours later to the sound of the telephone ringing. It was his friend. Panicked.

Chris had woken up, he said, and found a bottle of anti-depressants--which he promptly ate. "He overdosed, man." An ambulance had just taken him to the hospital, but the doctors were going to need to know what else Chris had used that night.

Bill went to the hospital and tried to answer a nurse's questions. He asked to see Chris.

"Are you a family member?" the nurse asked.
"I'm his lover," Bill responded, although that wasn't true then--or ever. He was allowed to stay.

Chris had the DTs. The best young poet in America was convinced that cigarettes were burning on his chest and the room was filled with spiders. Bill held him during the worst of it.

Two days later, when Chris was released, they still hadn't talked about what had happened that night. They never would, but Bill understood the lure of suicide.

They just went on. Every day they got high, helping each other find usable veins, then thumbing through each other's manuscripts. Working out difficult verse. Learning about each other's life.

Bill told Chris about hustling. Chris said he'd screwed around with women but was pretty sure he was a homosexual. He liked 'em young, like Ginsberg did.

Chris had met Ginsberg at a reading in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he'd grown up. They corresponded for more than a year before Ginsberg returned to Michigan for another reading and looked up the young poet. After that, Chris had done a few readings, even traveled with Ginsberg to places like New York and San Francisco.

Chris appreciated Ginsberg's compliments, but he wasn't comfortable with that "best young poet" tag. Most days, he confided, he didn't think he was much of a poet at all. In fact, he said, he thought Bill's stuff was better. More honest.

Chris didn't tell Bill whether he and Ginsberg had become lovers. But they collaborated a lot. He and Ginsberg had even put some of Blake's poetry to music.

These days, though, they weren't as close. Ginsy didn't like Chris's out-of-control drug use, and even cut off money for his methadone treatment when he realized Chris was just combining it with heroin.

Chris admitted to Bill that during one of the Naropa summer sessions, he'd been sent to pick up a prescription for one of the guest speakers. But he took off with the drug--an opiate--and didn't return until it was all gone. That had really ticked off Ginsberg and other faculty members, who lectured him about responsible drug use.

Chris and Bill were together only a month before Chris's mother convinced him to return to Chicago and enter another rehabilitation center. Before he left, he handed Bill a copy of a manuscript containing his poetry.

"If something happens to me, get this in the hands of someone who can do something with it."

Chris had several someones looking out for him. Karl Kuhn had been his friend for ten years. Although they attended different high schools in Grand Rapids, they'd met one afternoon at a skateboarders' hangout.

Chris was a popular kid, the guitar-playing leader of Holy Terror, a real headbangers' band. "He was always `on,' always the center of attention," Karl recalls. "But he had a lot of friends, because you knew the moment you met him that he really cared about you.

"He did all these other things, but from an early age he considered himself first a poet--that, he thought, was the great calling."

Karl was with Chris when they went to see Ginsberg read at Michigan State University. It was the second time the two poets--young and old--had met, and Chris volunteered to give Ginsberg a ride to Detroit, where he was staying. In the middle of the night in a blinding February snowstorm, the three piled into Karl's old convertible Volkswagen Thing.

"The whole trip, Chris sat in the back, singing at the top of his lungs with his headphones on, high on some shit," Karl says. "Allen sat in the passenger seat, meditating, while I drove, praying we weren't about to slide off the road."

In Detroit Ginsberg directed them to Edie Parker Kerouac's house. She was the writer's first wife, and the boys eagerly pored over the original manuscripts in her possession.

"Chris was never comfortable with `the best young poet' thing," Karl says. "He didn't believe it. But there was more going on than that.

"He was confused about his sexuality. He'd proclaim how queer he was, but it wasn't the case...he had girlfriends. I think it was just a way to further disengage from society."

Karl, who was working as a photographer in Chicago, saw Chris often when the young poet moved back after his Boulder suicide attempts. But Karl distanced himself as Chris slid further into his addiction.

When Bill called to tell him Chris had died, he cried for days.
"I tried calling people and kept getting this response: `I'm surprised it took so long.' At first I was shocked, and I'm still upset that people who used to be his friends wrote him off like that," Karl says. "But looking back, I think Chris made a decision at an early age to go out in flames."

In May, a month after leaving Boulder, Chris wrote to Bill. He was working to get his manuscript to a publisher. Ginsy had agreed to write a foreword. He wanted Bill's opinion on what to include.

"I'm going to get this book out if it kills me," he wrote. "Actually, it may be the one thing that will inspire me to stay alive."

He urged Bill to join him in Chicago. "We'll have a ball. Do some jazz. My mom would dig meeting you, too." He was seeing "a shrink for $150 a pop" and missed Boulder, "home of the wayward kids."

Chris also enclosed a poem, Epitaph.

That future boys and girls might read
these days I drag ass through and feel
a bit less lonely fear, I send back
my love, a confused, hungover thing now,
Nonetheless, take heed, my heart slows for you
from whatever foreign city, state,
or body I now inhabit
I pray to touch you.

"What do you think of my epitaph?" Chris asked, then quoted Ginsberg: "The weight of the world is love."

A few weeks later, Bill arrived in Chicago broke and depressed after bouncing around a dozen small Nebraska towns. He had set out on an old motorcycle with a load of hashish, Kerouac-style, hoping to find the real America.

He didn't succeed, but with the help of Chris's mom he did manage to track down his friend to a dilapidated halfway house.

Chris didn't know Bill was in town, but he flung open the door as though he'd been waiting and said, "This is great, Bill, we've got a connect in the house."

The halfway house was in a neighborhood called Wicker Park. In the old days, it was home to a large Polish-American community. Then the Latinos moved into the brick three-flats, and rents went down until it was now populated by students, struggling artists and musicians, junkies, winos, prostitutes and the drug dealers who supplied them all. It was becoming fashionable, in a low-rent sort of way; Rolling Stone would label it the breeding ground for the next great music revolution after Seattle's grunge scene.

Chris introduced Bill to friends like Karl Kuhn. Karl seemed a little standoffish, but Bill shrugged it off--junkies prefer other junkies for company, and Karl wasn't one of them.

Chris and Bill spent their days getting high, listening to old Bob Dylan or even older Charlie Parker, the jazz genius and junkie idolized in Kerouac's books, who died young from his own addictions. And they wrote poetry--getting some of it published in local magazines.

They paid for their highs by stealing, taking jobs as cashiers so they could rip off the money in the registers. Chris even swiped a copy of Howl from a bookstore, scribbled Ginsberg's name on the inside and then went to another bookstore to sell it. Since the owner knew of Chris's connection to the poet, she was suckered into giving him a few bucks extra.

The two often discussed the Beats. Burroughs, they agreed, had it easy compared to them: writing in Mexico City in the Fifties, supported by a stipend from his wealthy family. Now the world's oldest surviving junkie--as they called him--was making a buck selling running shoes for Nike.

"Ain't Bohemia a smooth motherfucker when your trust fund's paying for your dope," Bill wrote in a poem.

Still, it was hard to write and do dope. They envied Burroughs and wondered in their poetry how he'd managed it.

end of part 1

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