The Beats Go On

April 1997, New York City

Peter Hale woke up as usual to an AM radio station that rattled off traffic conditions, sports highlights and news updates every ten minutes. Sunlight was already sifting in the windows of his loft in Greenwich Village as he left his lover, Joseph, asleep in bed and rose to fix a cup of coffee.

The radio station wasn't known for its attention to the arts in the city, so he was surprised when the newscaster came on at 8 a.m. and announced, "Allen Ginsberg has terminal liver cancer." But there was no time to ponder that before the telephone rang. "Peter, you'd better get over here fast...Something's changed...it may be happening now."

The caller was Bill Morgan, the archivist who'd put Allen Ginsberg's papers together for sale to Stanford University three years earlier. Hale rushed to get dressed and out of his apartment, heading for Ginsberg's building, where he worked as the poet's secretary -- typing his handwritten prose for revisions, cataloguing and retrieving photographs and recordings, booking readings, fielding inquires from the press, even shopping for groceries and other household chores after the poet began to fail in February.

Normally, Hale would have enjoyed the short walk on a warm morning, one of the first that spring. The city was coming to life after a long, cold winter. But his eyes were clouded by tears, his mind by memories.

This wasn't supposed to be happening now. The doctor said ten months! Plenty of time for more poems...that television special with Bob Dylan they'd worked on just two days ago...strolls around the Village or Times Square reminiscing about Ginsberg's early years with his fellow Beats, Jack Kerouac, Herbert Huncke, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, and other friends. That's 161 West 4th Street. Dylan lived there when he first came to New York City. It's where he wrote "Positively 4th Street" -- "You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend... when I was down, you just stood there grinnin'..."

Hale reached a turn-of-the-century brick building between avenues A and B on 13th Street. He punched the code into an electronic security system, entered and hurried down a long, windowless corridor to an elevator. The lift had been installed on the cheap by one of the building's longtime tenants, painter Larry Rivers, so that he could move his art. It was always slow, but this morning it took forever to reach Ginsberg's fifth-floor space.

The loft was divided in two. On one side was the office where Hale and Ginsberg's manager, Bob Rosenthal, conducted the business of Allen Ginsberg. On the other were the poet's living quarters, from which Morgan now emerged. He quickly filled Hale in: Rosenthal had showed up at the office at about 7:30 a.m. and had gone to check on Ginsberg, who'd come home from the hospital two days earlier. He'd noticed that Ginsberg was breathing strangely, so he'd called the hospital, and the oncologist had come right over.

The doctor was still there. Ginsberg was in a coma, he said, and there was nothing anyone could do but keep him comfortable and wait for the inevitable. It wouldn't be long.

Hale might want to go sit with Ginsberg for a moment, Morgan suggested. "It might be the last chance you get to be with him alone."

Already the calls were going out: Ginsberg's dying, come now. Lucien Carr, Ginsberg's oldest friend from his days as a student at Columbia University, was driving up from Washington, D.C., for a previously scheduled visit. Longtime companion Peter Orlovsky was there, having spent the night. Musician Philip Glass and poet Gregory Corso, who both lived in New York, had been notified and would be showing up any time now. Rosenthal had also called Ginsberg's current Buddhist teacher, Gelek Rinpoche, who'd immediately left for the airport in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The loft would soon be filled to overflowing.

Hale walked into Ginsberg's bedroom. He was afraid. The old man lay on his back beneath the covers, his breathing steady but rapid. His left side had been paralyzed by the stroke that had sent him into a coma, and his head was twisted to the right. He had a look of concentration on his face, as though mulling over a difficult line in one of his poems.

Looking at Ginsberg, Hale's fear gave way to sadness. The poet had been his teacher and guide --sending him off to museums and galleries, giving him lists of books to read, introducing him to the world of art and artists, especially the Beats. He'd made Hale, a kid from Boulder, Colorado, a witness to the end of an era. Although Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady had died long before Hale's time, Herbert Huncke had died just the year before. Burroughs and Corso, trapped by their methadone addictions, were on their way out. Chris Ide, a young poet and Hale's friend who'd worshiped the Beats, had burned too fast and was gone.

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Steve Jackson