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.
And now Ginsberg was leaving, too. Hale felt like he was being left behind, owing a debt he thought he could never repay.
July 1985, Boulder
The party in the Varsity Townhouse apartment was dark and loud. Almost everyone was drinking heavily, shouting and laughing all at once. A haze of cigarette, cigar and marijuana smoke hung over the poker game that was the center of attention as the party's host, Gregory Corso, dealt cards and crudely propositioned the young women in attendance.
Seventeen-year-old Peter Hale had arrived at the apartment with his friend, 35-year-old photographer Steve Miles. They'd been invited by Allen Ginsberg after a poetry reading at the Naropa Institute -- where Hale was enrolled in the summer program -- and Miles had insisted they go.
Ginsberg was one of Miles's heroes. As he explained it to Hale, the poet was one of the founders of the Beat Generation of writers in the '50s, which had started the whole counterculture revolution of the '60s...not to mention that Ginsberg was gay and, like Miles, attracted to teenage boys.
Miles lived with his mother in a nice, older neighborhood above the University of Colorado campus. Over the years, their house had been a refuge for wayward kids from every era. Hippie kids. Punk-rock kids. Goth kids. Buddhist kids. Skateboarders and slackers. And Miles had photographed them all, many in the nude -- including Hale, who'd posed with his hands strategically placed over his genitals as light and shadows played across his chest and the classic features of his face.
Miles was in love with his young friend, whom he'd spotted outside the Boulder Mall record store where Hale worked. But Hale wasn't interested the same way. Although Hale thought Miles was interesting and empathetic, he didn't want to be some "old guy's boyfriend."
But he did want to go to the party, because he thought he might meet up with one of Ginsberg's Naropa colleagues, William S. Burroughs. Hale didn't know much about the Beats. He had first seen Ginsberg a few years earlier, when the poet had visited his alternative high school and read "Bomb," a poem by Corso, the man now leering at all the women; a schoolmate had told him that Ginsberg used to hang out with the Beatles.
Burroughs, however, was credited on the album jackets of avant-garde recordings that Hale had seen at the store. A fellow employee was a big Burroughs fan, and he'd pointed out that the writer had collaborated with musicians such as Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Debbie Harry, Philip Glass, Patti Smith and Lou Reed, as well as bands as diverse as Genesis and Throbbing Gristle. The previous Christmas, Hale had begged his parents for a copy of Burroughs's most famous book, Naked Lunch. He had skimmed through it, but he was mostly interested in the writer's music collaborations.
Hale was considering a career in music, perhaps as a jazz pianist, and he'd turned a school internship into a job at KGNU as a disc jockey in the midnight-to-3 a.m. slot, playing alternative music from punk to hip-hop to "trance electronic/experimental." So when he realized that Burroughs was teaching a class at Naropa that summer, he prepared a list of detailed questions regarding his musical work.
"Oh, they were fun...lots of explosions and wild experiments," Burroughs replied, after Hale worked up enough courage to ask his questions at that first class. But that was pretty much all Burroughs had to say on the subject. Nor did he say much more a week later, when Hale posed with Burroughs for a photograph at Miles's request. Hale thought the party might be his chance to finally get into a meaningful conversation with Burroughs.
Hale didn't see Burroughs at Corso's party, but then he heard that he was hosting another gathering in his own apartment downstairs. He left Miles chatting with Ginsberg and went below, where he saw a few people drinking and quietly talking. Burroughs was asleep, he was told, but Hale did get to meet Jerry Aronson, an independent filmmaker working on a documentary called The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, and James Grauerholz, Burroughs's personal secretary and manager. Many years earlier, Grauerholz said, he'd wanted to work for Ginsberg, but the poet hadn't needed his help. Instead, Ginsberg had set him up with Burroughs, who was just moving from London to New York City, and Grauerholz had been with him ever since.
When Grauerholz learned of Hale's interest in his boss, he said Burroughs was leaving the next day, but that Hale should stop by in the morning to chat. Hale promised he would, and then Miles arrived to drive him to KGNU for his radio program.
Hale overslept the next morning. By the time he realized his mistake and ran to the Varsity Townhouses, he'd missed Burroughs. The only one left in the apartment was Ginsberg, who was sweeping the floors when Hale knocked on the door. "You just missed them," the poet said, inviting Hale to sit down while he finished cleaning the apartment for his old friend.
Hale took a seat. He was nervous; he'd been warned about Ginsberg by some of the other teens who hung around Naropa, the first accredited Buddhist college in the Western Hemisphere. The college had been started in 1974 by a small, bespectacled Buddhist teacher, or "Rinpoche," named Chogyam Trungpa, who'd asked Ginsberg, one of his students, and Anne Waldman, who'd helped found the St. Mark's Poetry Project in New York City, to create a writing program in Boulder. The two poets called their project the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics and designed it with special summer programs featuring important literary figures, including some of Ginsberg's old New York cronies like Corso and Burroughs, both East Coast Beats, and also some of their West Coast counterparts, such as Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The program was like no other in the country, and the Naropa parties were just as legendary. Between both Boulder's and the Beats' historic penchant for recreational drug use and Trungpa's drinking binges, the after-hours scene was wild. The parties had a reputation as a sexual free-for-all: Trungpa was known for hitting on young women, and Ginsberg was notorious for putting the make on teenage boys. "Careful, or he'll have your pants down around your ankles before you know it," other youths had cautioned Hale.
The conversation lasted for a couple of hours. Ginsberg encouraged Hale's fledgling interest in Buddhism, and they discussed meditation techniques. Ginsberg was also enchanted to learn that Hale was gay, noting that the teenager was "very, very attractive." But he didn't make a pass, or at least not much of one.
Instead, the talk turned to writers. Hale was embarrassed to admit that he wasn't very well read compared to other students in his classes. Rather than scolding or belittling him, though, Ginsberg scribbled on a sheet of paper for a couple of minutes, then handed it to Hale. "We'll start with this," the poet said. It was a list of poets and novelists including Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Kerouac and Burroughs. There were also two of Ginsberg's own works listed: "Howl" and "Kaddish." Hale didn't realize it, but his life had changed forever.
At Ginsberg's suggestion, Hale began attending the Saturday morning symposiums where the writing faculty gathered to discuss ideas that had come up during the week. It was at these seminars that Hale learned more about some of Ginsberg's associates, especially Corso. The short, dark-haired poet reminded him of actor Peter Falk, except that Corso had a reputation for loud and profane outbursts during lectures. "You're a fuckin' asshole, Ginsberg," was one of his favorite retorts.
Ginsberg would bear these attacks calmly. If Corso had a point, he'd apologize, or he'd note that Corso was the better poet, which only served to infuriate his colleague more, with Corso now accusing him of "passive self-complimenting." They both seemed brilliant to Hale, as they quoted passages of poems by Rimbaud or William Carlos Williams like tennis players volleying.
Several times a week, Hale would visit Ginsberg at the mansion on Mapleton Avenue where the poet was staying for the summer, a home loaned by a wealthy fan. Hale was never quite sure if Ginsberg was interested in him for his brains or his looks, but he was fascinated by the world to which Ginsberg was introducing him. So he kept his distance when the poet made overtures -- he didn't want to be thought of as another one of "Allen Ginsberg's boys."
Although Ginsberg kept trying, he never let Hale's lack of reciprocation sway his efforts to educate his young friend. One night he invited Hale over to sample a new drug, Ecstasy, which had a reputation for enhancing sexual experiences. Ginsberg had already tried the drug a couple of days earlier and now raved about "the empathy" it engendered. But he wasn't going to take the drug himself that night, he explained; he had some papers to grade, and it took a couple of days to fully come off Ecstasy. He gave Hale his last pill.
After Hale swallowed it, they meditated for 45 minutes, waiting for the Ecstasy to take effect. Hale had done his own experimenting with drugs -- pot, LSD, alcohol, prescription amphetamines, even some heroin with friends who were in a punk-rock band -- but this was a new high that gave a surreal quality to the evening.
Ginsberg led him on a walk through the garden, played a little piano and introduced him to Nanao Sakaki, a Japanese poet who was also staying in the house. They listened to wax recordings: a 1912 conversation in French, Marlene Dietrich singing. "This is some of William's favorite music," Ginsberg said, aware of Hale's continuing fascination with Burroughs. That night there were no great revelations, just an impression of brilliant minds exchanging ideas over the centuries.
Then the summer was over and Ginsberg was gone. Hale was left with his reading list and one last bit of guidance from his mentor. He planned to graduate from high school that winter and was unsure of what to do; a friend had suggested that he attend college and study Greek and Latin to get a solid foundation in Western literature. When he told Ginsberg about the suggestion, the poet was enthusiastic. One of his literary heroes, the poet Ezra Pound, had studied the classics, he told Hale. It was an excellent idea.
But that wasn't Ginsberg's only advice for Hale. "Go to college, get a good education under your belt," he said, then added, "Get married, have kids."
Get married? Have kids? That seemed like an odd statement to make to a gay teenager. It wasn't until many years later that Hale wondered if the poet was warning him off the road that some of his other companions had traveled.
August 1986, New York City
Hale stood sweating in the masses of people who pushed and jostled past him on a quintessential summer day in the Big Apple. The sound of jackhammers, sirens and a million voices enveloped him in a blanket of white noise. After his second summer session at Naropa, Ginsberg had offered to let the now-eighteen-year-old stay at his apartment on the Lower East Side of Greenwich Village. Since Ginsberg wasn't going to be in New York the first week -- he was visiting Burroughs in Kansas -- he gave Hale explicit instructions on how to take the train from the airport to the Port Authority station in Times Square.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although Ginsberg didn't have much money, his fame got him invited to some swank events and parties, including one hosted by billionaire financier George Soros at his place next to the Guggenheim Museum. Gary Snyder, described by Ginsberg as a poet and old friend, had arrived at the apartment the day of the party. Ginsberg wanted him to come along, but Snyder pointed out that he was wearing tennis shoes. "That's okay," Ginsberg replied. "He knows we're bohemians."
Snyder ended up begging off, but Hale, wearing black sneakers and a Salvation Army tie Ginsberg had loaned him, went. The occasion was a reception for a Russian theater troupe, and the guests ranged from Nobel Prize-winning physicists to philosophers to philanthropists. Hale took his cue from Ginsberg, who never seemed out of place, and enjoyed himself.
After they left the party, Ginsberg insisted they stop by Times Square to check out the sex theaters and porn shops. If it was a scary place to Hale during the daytime, it was infinitely more frightening at night. As usual, though, the poet seemed oblivious to dangers real or imagined.
With Ginsberg lost in the glossy magazine pages, Hale was on his own to wander the sidewalks, avoiding the homeless who peered out from the shadows or curled up on grates. It was harder to stay away from the drug pushers and prostitutes who approached from all angles, offering to sell anything and everything. Hale had just finished rolling a cigarette when he was accosted by a man who thought he was rolling a joint and tried to snatch it from him. When he told Ginsberg about the incident, the poet only chuckled -- the scallywags were a great source of amusement.
Ginsberg was even more delighted when he spotted one of the Russian actors who'd been at the Soros party peering through some pornography. "Ha, ha," Ginsberg chortled as the Russian, who didn't have his translator with him, smiled sheepishly. "Bet you can't get this in your country."
May 1987, Vermont
The morning of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's funeral started off cloudy, but as the ceremonies began, the sun broke through, surrounded by a rainbow. The same thing had happened four years earlier at the funeral of another important Buddhist teacher, Ginsberg explained to Hale. After the service, the appearance of a second rainbow that looked as though it emanated from a dragon-shaped cloud completed the mystical aura of the occasion.
Naropa's spiritual leader had died April 5, after a long illness. Hale, who'd already planned a return trip to New York City in May, asked Ginsberg if he could tag along with the poet and Orlovsky when they drove to Vermont for the funeral. Ginsberg was handling Trungpa's death calmly, but Orlovsky, who'd also studied with the Rinpoche, was beside himself. "What's a student to do without his teacher?" he wailed.
On the drive home, Ginsberg talked about what Buddhism meant to his life. He had a knack for turning fairly complex concepts into tangible, relevant bits of information. He described the trikaya -- the three bodies of Buddha, Dharmakaya, Sambogakaya and Nirmanakaya -- as ways of breaking down experiences into those of body, speech and mind. Three weeks later, Hale made the first step toward Buddhism, called "taking refuge": vowing not to use misleading language, not to engage in sexual misconduct, not to kill, not to steal, not to use intoxicating substances. Although doing this required no major commitment, Hale was acknowledging that this path was sensible and that he aspired to it.
But aspirations were one thing, and actions were another.
On the Fourth of July, there was a big party on the Naropa campus. Among those attending was Chris Ide, a young poet from Michigan whom Hale had met the previous summer. Ide had just arrived in Boulder, still riding an emotional high after spending the winter in San Francisco. At a reading there, Ginsberg had introduced Ide as "the best young poet in America" to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who owned the City Lights bookstore and an underground publishing house that had been the first to publish Howl and Other Poems. Ide was counting on that connection to get a book of his own work published.
Ide was in top form at this party -- a wild man, downing beer after beer, screaming with delight over the fireworks. Whoo-eee! Whoo-eee! Afterward, they'd all gone back to Steve Miles's house, where they spent the rest of the night drinking beer on the roof. The moment was recorded when Miles took a photograph of Ide, Hale and Ginsberg sitting together.
From that night on, Hale and Ide spent every moment they could in each other's company. Not as lovers, but as friends with common interests. They shared an interest in literature -- although Ide was much better read and knew more about the Beats -- and pined together over the young teenage boys who frequented the Boulder Mall and the Naropa scene. Ide called them the Dharma Brats, a sarcastic play on Kerouac's The Dharma Bums.
It was just fun to Hale, but Ide was constantly falling in love, allowing his heart to be broken, moping bereft for hours or even days on end. Hale soon realized that his friend's self-inflicted misery had a purpose: He used it as an inspiration to write, just as the Beats had used their experiences with love, life and drugs for inspiration.
Ginsberg had told Kerouac of his early "social anxieties" about being homosexual and his attempted relationships with women before finally announcing his homosexual freedom with "Howl." Ide, too, sometimes wrestled with sexual confusion, and he put that confusion into poetry, including this lament about longing for the brother of a former girlfriend:
So this time I chose
an inconvenient cherub to seek,
fifteen years old & the brother
of one who loves me...
Ide told Hale he had met Ginsberg when the poet was reading in Detroit. The next time Ginsberg came through town for a reading, he'd contacted Ide and invited him to attend. After the program, Ide had convinced a friend to drive him and Ginsberg through a blinding snowstorm to Edie Parker Kerouac's home. She was the writer's first wife, and Ide had eagerly pored over the original manuscripts she possessed.
Not everyone in his life was so understanding of his choices, Ide told Hale. His father was a retired Air Force officer who didn't accept his son's homosexuality, drug use or career choice. The contentions sometimes popped up in Ide's poetry.
"I don't see any want-ads for poets,
do you wanna be a dishwasher all your life?"
Dishwasher/poet, it's not so bad a title,
a drifter, the parents'll say,
but don't they see that they too drift
towards that place where no dishes are washed?
Like most students and faculty members in the Naropa reading program, Ide idolized the Beats, and that included the writers who'd influenced them. He was particularly attracted to the works of Arthur Rimbaud, a French poet in the last half of the nineteenth century and an originator of the free-verse style that Ginsberg later adopted. At age fifteen, Rimbaud had run away to Paris, where he'd studied occult writings, Plato, the Cabala and Buddhist scriptures. He'd denounced women and the church, willingly lived in squalid conditions and took drugs as necessary muses for his art, the most famous of which was A Season in Hell. He'd stopped writing by age twenty and died in poverty and pain.
Hale tried reading Rimbaud, but it was difficult. The poetry was dense, replete with the writer's drug-induced fragmented imagery and ideas. But Ide carried around a copy of A Season in Hell and greatly romanticized Rimbaud's life as a "suffering artist." He took his motto from the book's opening line: "Once there was a time when all things flowed like wine... but now more about suffering and pleasure's end."
Ide had little patience for those who didn't recognize the importance of the Beats, as he complained in his poem "Who'll Wear Rimbaud's Pants?"
"I needed a bed to sleep in, a grave to rest my ashes,"
sings Allen Ginsberg, American Poetry Review, December '85.
60 years old now, our Whitman,
he too will leave behind the earth madly spinning,
will take that final spontaneous leap to where Jack Kerouac
lies done with the jazz/blues of the earth,
will leave behind those of us whose throats are sore
from trying to find our voices.
Meanwhile, "Howl" is required reading in English 453
& we discuss the "beat generation" as if it were
some sort of baseball game--
"Did Ginsberg get a hit? Kerouac slide into home?"
In the classroom we listen to a cassette of Ginsberg
no one runs round the room in tears,
nothing but blank faces behind desks & i'm almost embarrassed
when the ghost of Jack Kerouac appears rolling round the
front of the room, with a pint of rotgut, giggling.
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed..."
by fear of nuclear devastation,
tongues drenched with Budweiser escapism,
guts all aflame with the six o'clock news,
whose poetry reviews seeped flowery academia--
who'll wear Rimbaud's pants?
All of you grad school poets
clutching your polished manuscripts,
let's drop out of the New Yorker world series
& sing in the romantic unpublishable streets.
One night Hale, Ide and Ginsberg went to a party at a frat house. Hale and Ginsberg had taken Ecstasy and were strolling around the yard, pleasantly high, when a young man yelled down from the balcony, "Hey Ginsberg, your poetry sucks."
Ginsberg wasn't bothered in the least; he enjoyed engaging detractors. The eternal list-giver, he made suggestions for what he thought his antagonist should read: Whitman, Rimbaud, Kerouac, Corso. He reacted calmly when the young man gave a less-than-polite response.
But Ide was livid. "Fuck you! What do you know!" he yelled. "Who do you think is a great poet?"
"Robert Frost," came the retort.
"Ha! He's probably the only poet you've ever read except Shakespeare," Ide responded. "You don't know jack shit!" When they left the party a few minutes later, Ide was still fuming.
That summer seemed so innocent, even though they were breaking all the rules. Young enough to believe they could defy death, they embraced life.
Yet it was all Hale could do to keep up with his effervescent friend. Ide always had an angle on making sure the fun continued, such as taking beer from refrigerators at parties and stashing it in bushes outside. "That way, when the party runs out of beer, we'll still have plenty," he'd laugh. Although he'd been experimenting with harder drugs, including heroin, in San Francisco, to Hale he didn't seem to be taking drug use to extremes. Except for Dilaudid and a little methadone, the substance they abused the most that summer was alcohol.
The summer session ended too soon for Hale, especially after Ide left. His friend had helped him really begin to appreciate poetry and understand its relevance. Ide's poetry wasn't just about unrequited lust or past poets -- he wrote about growing up under the threat of nuclear war, about rampant commercialism, about art.
And now, when Hale finally heard "Howl" read aloud by Ginsberg, he understood it. The lengthy poem even reminded him of Ide:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...
That fall, Hale at last read Kerouac's On the Road -- at Ide's insistence. Hale was glad he'd waited. Not only did he now know the code names of the real-life models for the book's characters -- the Beats were famous for using each other in their writing -- he knew several of them personally. As it had so many young people before him, the book gave Hale the urge to travel and experience the full range of life.
But school was starting, and he turned his back on the road. For now.
July 1988, Boulder
Burroughs was ill and wouldn't be able to attend the summer session. So Naropa had flown Corso in from Rome to replace his Beat cohort. But now Corso was feeling poorly, too. His illness, however, was self-inflicted: He was trying to kick his heroin addiction on methadone but hadn't brought enough with him, and the withdrawal was making him miserable.
Corso, Hale and Ide were over at Ginsberg's apartment. "Don't worry," Ide volunteered. "I'll get ya something, Gregory."
Ginsberg approved of the plan. Although Ide had gained a sour reputation in San Francisco the previous fall, when he drank heavily and dabbled further with heroin, he'd gone back to his father's house in Michigan that winter and cleaned up his act, he told his worried mentor. As a reward, and because he genuinely thought Ide's poetry was something special, Ginsberg had invited his protegé to Naropa to teach a week's worth of classes.
Ide had a plan, all right, but it had nothing to do with helping Corso. He and Hale excused themselves and then, when they were out of earshot, Ide called Ginsberg's Boulder doctor, explaining that Corso was sick and suggesting a medicine he thought would help: a powerful, codeine-based cough medicine that Hale knew could be prescribed over the telephone. That done, they arranged for a ride to the pharmacy.
Instead of bringing the medicine back to Corso, the friends drank the whole bottle themselves.
The next morning, Hale went back to the apartment, feeling a little guilty but unwilling to confess. Corso was feeling worse, and Ginsberg now decided his own pain medication might help. The poet could be something of a hypochondriac, and the cabinet was usually well stocked with prescription drugs of every sort. But Ginsberg returned from a trip to the bathroom with empty pill bottles and a puzzled look on his face. "Who would have taken all of them?" he wondered. "Even Burroughs would have left one, in case someone else needed it."
But if Ide was on the wagon, Hale knew he was slipping back off. He was using heroin again, and he'd also been helping himself to Ginsberg's pain medication.
Practically the first thing Ide did when he entered someone's house was head for the bathroom to check out the medicine cabinet and help himself to anything worth taking, but Hale kept quiet.
Corso looked at Hale. "Maybe it was someone who you don't want to believe did it?" he asked the poet. They all knew Ginsberg turned a blind eye to his friends' foibles. He wanted to believe the best of people, but for someone whose relationships had been so adversely affected by drugs, Ginsberg could be more than a little naive about addicts. "Maybe it was Chris or Peter?"
Hale felt his face turning red as Corso persisted. "I mean, look who their role models are: Huncke, Burroughs, Kerouac," he said, ticking the names off on his fingers.
Ginsberg shook his head. Ide was "on the wagon," he said. Then he turned to Hale: "Was it you, Peter?"
The question stung. He'd already disappointed Ginsberg once that summer, when the poet had asked him to participate on a panel discussing Burroughs's work. Hale had worked hard on his presentation, but in public he began to ramble, and his formerly patient teacher had started heckling him. Now Ginsberg seemed willing to believe that Hale was a pill thief.
The next day, when Ginsberg decided to send Corso to his doctor, Hale realized the jig was up, and he and Ide finally confessed to the whole scheme. Ginsberg was angry, and he began lecturing Ide about "responsible drug use."
"You need to take a good long look at yourself," he shouted. "You're wasting your mind."
Hale was still thinking about Corso's remark of the previous day: Look who their role models are: Huncke, Burroughs, Kerouac...
Maybe Ide wasn't consciously trying to emulate the Beats, but he certainly harbored romanticized images of them -- Burroughs living in lawless Morocco, Huncke scraping by day to day on the streets of New York City, but living to tell his stories. He copied some of their habits, drinking the cocktails favored by Kerouac; he admired Ginsberg's ability to limit drug use to experimentation and thought he could, too.
There were occasions when, high and romantic, Ide suggested that the Beat lifestyle, even the bad experiences, was necessary to his writing. Some of the Beats had romanticized self-destructive behavior. Kerouac himself had cut his fingers to write, he said, in "the blood of the Poet." Ginsberg's Columbia University roommate, Lucien Carr, an aspiring writer, had stabbed to death a man who made homosexual advances; Kerouac had based a character on Carr and used that incident in his first book, The Town and the City. Burroughs had shot his wife, Joan, to death in Mexico City during a drug-and-alcohol binge -- placing a glass on her head and attempting to shoot it off like William Tell. He later told an interviewer that he never would have become a writer if not for his wife's death, which, he said, "brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice but to write my way out."
The friends' days and nights were consumed by highs and poetry and music and fantasy. One night they laid in bed with Steven Taylor, a straight guy who'd been Ginsberg's guitar accompanist since the '70s, who kept them giggling until the early morning hours with stories about touring Europe with Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Corso.
They loved the one about Corso's run-in with Dutch customs. He was ahead of the rest of the group when he was taken into a room for questioning and ordered to have a seat on a chair with wheels. The poet had thrown one of his legendary tantrums, and his language and behavior so upset a customs official that he shoved Corso, sending him and the chair rolling through a plate-glass window. Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Taylor had come around the corner just in time to see the glass shattering into the hall, along with a cursing, sputtering Corso. The poet was even more indignant when he was immediately deported and forced to fly back to San Francisco.
Knowing Corso, it was easy to picture his tirade - another wild but harmless Beat story. Not everything that summer was so harmless, though. Ide had screwed up his teaching job at Naropa from the first day, partying all night and well into the morning with Hale and then showing up late for class. Ginsberg couldn't understand it: Not only was Ide being paid for the teaching assignment, but it was valuable exposure to people involved in the poetry scene across the country. The old poet man threw up his hands in bafflement.
If Ginsberg couldn't understand Ide's inability to act responsibly, Hale thought he did. The drugs and alcohol were part of it, but he also thought the teaching job was too much of a burden for his friend. Most of the students were older, and some had published more work than Ide, best young poet in America or not. For all his devil-may-care wildness, Ide was insecure and took criticism to heart, especially when it came from Ginsberg. His voice had a soft roughness to it, and he sometimes had difficulty making himself heard at readings. Or, nervous, he would read too fast. And then, from the back of the room, Ginsberg would pipe up: "We can't hear you back here. Speak up!"
Ide would fret for days after such a performance, afraid that he'd disappointed his mentor again. He was truly miserable that he'd botched the teaching assignment, but he just didn't seem able to help it. He'd resolve to do better, then step over the edge again.
Toward the end of the session, Ide came up with yet another crazy plan, this time to score heroin, going in on the cost with Hale and Sebastian, a large German addict with a vile temper. The plan went bad from the beginning: Ide and Hale spent three hours at a Denny's in Denver waiting for a male prostitute to bring the dope, then returned to their rented house in Boulder much later than they'd intended. Hale's mistake, though, was believing Ide when he said that Sebastian had asked him to keep his share of the heroin until he could claim it.
Ide was gone when Sebastian showed up outside the house at 3 a.m. and began yelling to get in, that he wanted his dope. Hale opened the door and tried to explain that Ide had his share, but Sebastian went berserk. He pushed Hale aside and searched the house. When he couldn't find Ide, he tore the posters off the walls. He then moved on to Miles's house, looking for the thief. Ide wasn't at Miles's house, either, so Sebastian took his anger out on a young kid who was staying there, walloping him in the face and breaking his nose. Then he emptied a fire extinguisher throughout the house.
After the angry German junkie left his house, Hale decided it would be wise to vacate the premises. He waited until later that morning to return. The German had come back, busting four windows and then leaving. Now Ide was in the kitchen, calmly scrambling eggs.
Hale was angry and told Ide to move out. Ide shrugged. Shit happens, he said, and besides, he was planning on leaving town anyway.
Soon Hale left Boulder himself, returning to New York City.
This time, Ginsberg was feeling flush. In the past he'd had to support himself through lectures and poetry readings that required nearly constant traveling. In 1987, though, he'd accepted an offer to teach at Brooklyn College, which allowed him to slow down and travel less. But Ginsberg hadn't used this new affluence to move out of his apartment.
As he learned more about Ginsberg's past, it became obvious to Hale that the poet was mellowing. Ginsberg even regretted some of his earlier political stances, such as his support of the North Vietnamese and the Iranian mullahs; they were worse than the regimes they replaced, he now acknowledged. These days his political activity was much more localized. Ginsberg was always defending or agitating on behalf of the "unusual people," such as the homeless in nearby Tompkins Park, or squatters who took up residence in the abandoned buildings that proliferated in the area. His files were filled with stories out of The New York Times concerning city politics and corruption. Although his causes weren't always popular with some of his neighbors, who complained that supporting a needle-exchange program would encourage junkies to move in, that was Ginsberg, speaking for people who had no voice of their own. And other causes were easier to accept, such as loaning his name to organizations like poetry centers and Buddhist groups that needed the support.
Ginsberg had always had a love-hate relationship with the press. Reporters frequently called him for a quote about some issue like the "war on drugs" or CIA conspiracies. But Ginsberg frequently complained that his "hometown" newspaper, The New York Times, would not give him his due. It was a constant battle to get the newspaper to review his books, and when it did, the reviewer implied that he hadn't written anything of note since "Howl" or "Kaddish."
What publicity he got Ginsberg often didn't like -- even if he brought it on himself. He was getting plenty of attention for coming out in support of the North American Man-Boy Love Association. To anyone who would listen, Ginsberg explained that he was not himself a pedophile -- he preferred males who were post-pubescent and beyond the age-of-consent laws -- but this was a free-speech issue. NAMBLA members had a right to meet and discuss their predilections without being monitored and harassed by the FBI and police, he said. The press and the public didn't get that distinction, though, and even some of Ginsberg's friends, who understood his lifelong abhorrence of censorship of any kind, thought this was a battle he should have avoided.
Hale was much more interested in Ginsberg's past than in present controversies. He loved hearing stories about Ginsberg's visits with important, if somewhat obscure, players in twentieth-century literature and arts. Ginsberg flying to Paris to see painter Marcel Duchamp, or going with Corso to London to meet with poet Dame Edith Sitwell. These vignettes were made more real by Ginsberg's memories of small details. In the '60s, Ginsberg had lunched in Rome with ex-patriate poet Ezra Pound. The older man ate pasta and answered Ginsberg's questions between slurps. Other recollections weren't as amusing. When Burroughs and Ginsberg had gone to talk with Celine in Paris, the writer's dogs had barked and snarled, and Ginsberg wasn't reassured when Celine told him they were only there "to keep the Jews away."
Ginsberg wasn't the only one whose stories Hale treasured. He was still hoping to hear some from Burroughs, and thought he'd have his chance the night he and Ginsberg went to dinner at an apartment known as the "Bowery Bunker," where Burroughs had lived during the heyday of the Beats.
Three years after Hale asked his first questions of Burroughs in class, he realized just how little he'd known back in 1985; this time he was determined to say nothing stupid. So Hale kept quiet during dinner, listening to the others talk, and then, to his horror, suddenly found himself alone at the table with Burroughs, trying to think of something clever to say.
"So," he began, "you used to live here?"
The silence seemed to last forever. Fortunately, there was a crash in the next room, which Burroughs used to excuse himself. Hale stayed in his seat, his face bright red. So you used to live here? What an idiot!
July 1991, San Francisco
"Fucker stole ten Valium from me...When I'm done here, I'm going to go find that asshole."
Hale and Ide were standing in line at a methadone clinic in San Francisco's Tenderloin section. The two had been summer roommates in 1989 and again in 1990, but they'd never been as close after the summer of 1998, when Ide left, angry, after taking the drugs.
But they'd stayed in touch, calling each other out of the blue every few months.
Ide was living in San Francisco, trying to write. He'd visited Ferlinghetti at City Lights several times to present new material, at meetings usually set up by Ginsberg. But Ferlinghetti always told Ide that he needed "more experience" so that he could produce more varied material. It was frustrating, Ide complained; hell, if he experienced any more life, it'd probably kill him.
Ide was still wrestling with his drinking and drug use. Ginsberg had even helped pay for methadone treatment, until he learned that the best young poet in America was just combining it with dope. Ide would clean up only to begin using again, sighing resignedly but not very seriously about living the "artist's life." He said he'd assumed it would lead to an "early exit," and he and Hale joked about how his poetry should be handled after his death. With all the pederast laments and references to drugs, Ide laughed, it'd probably all be burned, especially if it fell into his father's hands. But beneath the humor, he desperately wanted his poetry published.
Hale had his own troubles. In 1990, their time together ended on a similar note. Hale had a little bit of morphine, too little to share with his friend, he thought. Ide was persistent, but when Hale wouldn't give in, he left the house and Boulder in a huff. They would never live together again. By the fall of 1990, he was deeply addicted to heroin. There was a steady, cheap supply in Boulder where he was going to school, and his involvement was no longer so innocent. Hale couldn't say when he'd passed the threshold from experimentation to addiction, but first he'd noticed that every activity was better when he was a little high, and then he noticed that there were few activities he could enjoy without it. He managed to miss only a few of his courses at the University of Colorado, and he didn't seem as bad off as some of his friends, who couldn't get out of bed without a fix, but he knew he was in trouble.
Then Hale's dealer left town and the supply dried up. He knew it was time to make a choice. A lot of his friends and fellow addicts immediately went on methadone, but he'd seen its impact on Burroughs and Corso and didn't want to switch one addiction for another.
Once again, Ginsberg stepped up for a friend, paying for meditation classes to help Hale find the strength to overcome his addiction. Hale committed to a training weekend and forced himself to stop taking any drugs for a week beforehand. Still, he stashed a little morphine on the side, promising himself he'd have it as a treat once he got through the weekend. But the meditation classes helped Hale appreciate what life could be like without heroin, and when he finished the course, he went home and discovered that he didn't need or want his morphine treat.
During that same weekend, Hale had also fallen in love -- and he realized he couldn't pursue the relationship if he was strung out. Between meditation and his new romance, Hale found enough reinforcement to stay clean. Although the relationship didn't last, his freedom from opiates and his dependence on meditation did.
Ide, however, couldn't seem to make the break. The news Hale was hearing about his friend was getting worse and worse. A mutual friend reported finding Ide sleeping on a park bench in San Francisco -- ragged, dirty, homeless, a modern-day Rimbaud storing material for future prose. The friend had invited him to stay at her apartment until he could get on his feet, and Ide had repaid the gesture by stealing from her to buy drugs.
In 1991, when Hale traveled to San Francisco to visit other friends, he decided to look up Ide. He found him living in a sleazy hotel, wearing clothes that he'd found on the street. Ide was inordinately proud of the pair of tattered jeans he'd dug out of an alley dumpster and was now wearing.
Ide was on his way to a local methadone clinic, so Hale decided to go with him. More disturbing than Ide's dirty clothes was the fact that he couldn't seem to carry on a conversation that wasn't drug-related. While they waited for his dose, all he could talk about was the "fucker" who stole the Valium. "I'll kill him."
Hale left Ide still boiling mad over his missing drugs, conjuring up ways he might score some Xanax, an antidepressant. Before, Hale had thought Ide was joking about that early exit. Now he wasn't so sure.
September 1992, New York City
After graduating from the University of Colorado in May 1992, Hale went to London, where he took in the sights and worked in a pub. When he came back through New York City four months later, he stopped in to see Ginsberg and happened to ask if the poet needed any help at his office.
Although Rosenthal was disinclined to hire any of Ginsberg's young male friends, Jaqueline Gens, who'd taken over some of the secretarial work, put in a good word. With a reluctant okay from Rosenthal, she put Hale to work cataloguing Ginsberg's photo contact sheets. That task led to another, and then another, and by late fall, Hale had committed to staying through the winter. By the following summer, he'd fallen in love with Joseph, a young painter, and decided to remain in New York for good. Ginsberg made the decision easier by giving Hale a full-time job after Gens left.
Hale's new secretarial duties included typing Ginsberg's handwritten poetry drafts, retyping endless revisions and keeping track of what the poet read at which appearances. An unofficial task seemed to be keeping track of Ginsberg's friends.
Orlovsky was always a handful. There was always some new crisis, like the evening he came flying into Ginsberg's apartment in a panic, sure he had AIDS. "I've been shooting up cocaine with guys on the streets," he explained.
Ginsberg was generous with his friends and helped support both Huncke and Corso, giving them regular checks to help them get by. But this process was not simple. The two men had known each other for more than thirty years -- and fought with each other almost that long. As part of his duties, Hale was to make sure they didn't arrive at the office at the same time. Despite his best efforts, however, they sometimes collided.
It took some time for Hale to realize that the two men were actually friends. Corso would sit in one chair and Huncke in another, leaning back a few feet and saying in his raspy voice, "Maybe somebody should ask Gregory how he's doing." Corso would respond that someone should inform Herbert that he was doing just fine -- not that it was any of his business.
Corso remained as cantankerous as ever, and hypersensitive to whatever Ginsberg might say that could be interpreted as condescending or critical. But the old men clearly had a deep love and a great respect for one another. Ginsberg truly thought Corso was a superior poet, and Hale had come to appreciate the power of his verse as well.
Huncke was another matter. He'd turned out one last book in 1990, an autobiography titled, appropriately enough, Guilty of Everything. But it didn't make him much money -- not that it would have made a difference if it had. Even in his late eighties, Huncke was spending his monthly $500 Social Security check on drugs, which left him constantly short of money for his rent. In 1993 he moved into the Chelsea Hotel, and the manager was always calling the Ginsberg office, screaming that he was going to "throw Herbert out on the streets" if the rent wasn't paid.
Although Hale privately believed the hotel manager enjoyed the notoriety of having such famous characters living in his place, Huncke's friends -- and others who'd never actually met him, like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead -- would scramble to come up with money to save him.
Ginsberg knew that his old friend would use any money he got for drugs. While he didn't condemn any of his friends for their addictions, neither would he support their habits. So he tried to make a deal with Huncke: If the addict would put his next Social Security check toward the rent, Ginsberg would pay the rest right to the hotel. Huncke agreed. But when the time came to pay the rent, Ginsberg learned that Huncke -- who'd once told an interviewer that he saw even his Beat friends as "marks" to be hustled -- had spent the money on heroin. He told Rosenthal not to send the check to the Chelsea.
Of course, Huncke called and wanted the check brought to him; Rosenthal told him it wouldn't be coming. But from that day forward, whenever Huncke saw Hale, he'd look puzzled and say, "What I don't get is why you never brought that check over."
Although Hale had kicked heroin himself, he wasn't through with drinking and other drugs. Cocaine was easy to come by on the Lower East Side, where struggling corner-store owners tried to make ends meet by selling drugs. But alcohol was a bigger problem for Hale. He'd go out night after night drinking and then come hung over to the office the next day. Finally, Ginsberg got tired of it and laid down the law: If Hale wanted to work for him, he had to sober up.
He did. It was time, and besides, Ginsberg needed him.
The poet was growing more nostalgic about the old days. In their strolls around the Village, he'd pause outside a bar and quietly note, "Kerouac used to drink here," or "This is where I met Corso."
Sometimes it felt to Hale as though he was being prepared for something important, although he didn't know what that might be. He was being fed details, nourished by pieces of history.
Occasionally Hale would hear from Ide, who'd call or write beautifully poetic letters that detailed his battle with drugs.
8/17/92... Dear Peter H/Allen...2 plus months off methadone now, no longer sick but insomnia lingers so up most days before the sun w/coffee & scribbler...feel better now than I have in years, clearer, but difficult to face how much junk truly thieves and leaves a hollow shell of a poet...void takes time and patience to refill...I had to make this decision to do this, it's so slow rediscovering who I am clean & oft-times gut-wrenching...Any correspondence would be cool...avoiding even the poetry scene where well-wishers are too quick to buy me drinks/turn me onto dope...Much love, Chris Ide.
But Ide never seemed able to shake the well-wishers or himself, and it nearly killed him: 12/15/92...So here I am makin' another start at the clean life, I really was gettin' outta control all over again...did a big old shot and remember the rush and lighting a cigarette & the next thing waking up in E.R. surrounded by Drs. & not knowin' where the fuck I was or why a nurse said to me "You dunno how close you came to buyin' the farm."...I do wanna stay clean...because I honestly dunno how much longer I'll live if I keep fuckin' around...& cuz my writing suffers hard from dope, booze...
Hale and Ide met again in Boulder in the spring of 1993. Ide was just arriving, and Hale was leaving for New York City. He thought his friend looked good, and he was pleased to hear that not only was Ide clean and sober, but his future was looking bright again. He'd been published in the New York Quarterly, one of the top literary magazines in the country. And Ginsberg, that eternal optimist, had given him another chance as a teaching assistant at Naropa.
They left each other promising to reunite soon. Maybe he'd come to New York, Ide said. Sure, Hale replied, that would be great. But Ide never made it.
Ide was sleeping on the couch at Miles's house one night that April when a young poet, Bill Harper, dropped by with some morphine and opium that he wanted to share with the photographer. Harper was another Beat aficionado who bought into the idea of emulating the Beat lifestyle: Burroughs was a junkie, so he was a junkie; Kerouac and Ginsberg used drugs and became great writers, so he used drugs to become a great writer.
Although he'd never met Ide before, he was familiar with his work and was more than a little impressed that Ginsberg had labeled him "the best young poet in America." He decided to do the drugs with Ide instead of Miles, and they soon split and went to Harper's place.
They shot up the morphine and smoked the opium. When that buzz began to fade, they broke open Vick's nasal inhalers and ate the wicks for the amphetamine. The wicks weren't as powerful as they were in the old days when Joan and William Burroughs snarfed them by the handful, but they still turned up the brain amp pretty good.
Through it all they talked about poetry... exchanged verse, suggested revisions. The world outside was growing light when Ide excused himself and went into the bathroom. When he returned a few minutes later, his wrists were dripping with blood where he'd slashed them. The Blood of the Poet.
Harper bandaged the wounds, which weren't serious, and he took Ide back to Mile's house. Several hours later, Harper was awakened by a call from Miles: Ide had discovered a bottle of anti-depressants and swallowed them.
Ide survived the suicide attempt and a month later left for Chicago, where he entered yet another rehabilitation center at his mother's urging. He again wrote Hale from "some trendy literary cafe w/pics of Burroughs on the wall & all...I arrived one eve at the point where I went apeshit & decided I no longer wanted to inhabit this body & (gads) swallowed the remainder of Steve's antidepressants, after an unsuccessful attempt at slitting my wrists w/part of a disposable razor--jeez how pathetic...I don't mean to sound aloof about this thing, but it almost seems laughable now that I lived through it..."
And now that he'd lived through it, Ide was eager to get some of his poetry to an interested publisher. He told friends that he thought that seeing his poetry published might be the one thing that would keep him alive. But Ide was hedging his bets, sending his friends copies of his poems with the admonition that "if something happens to me," they were to try to get them published. Among the poems was one he titled "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.
In the summer of 1994, Naropa scheduled a tribute to Ginsberg's work. It was the culmination of a satisfying few years for the poet. In 1992 he'd been awarded the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture -- essentially the French equivalent of being knighted. Then in 1994, Bill Morgan's work organizing Ginsberg's papers paid off when Stanford University agreed to pay $1 million for them. The Naropa tribute was going to be the icing on the cake.
Everybody who was anybody was expected to be there. Literary types, including Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, David Cope, Anne Waldman, Ken Kesey.
Everybody who was anybody, except for Chris Ide.
In June, before the big event, Ginsberg had stopped in Chicago for a reading -- where Ide had shown up high. Ginsberg, his protegé and Ide's mother went to lunch, and they'd taken a photograph together. When Hale saw the picture, he was startled. His friend was smiling, but he looked like a ghost, pale and almost translucent...as though he wasn't really there anymore.
He certainly didn't show up in Boulder. A few days before heading back to New York, Hale got a call from Ide. His voice still had that charming, rough softness that always made Hale smile. But he didn't warm up to his friend, particularly after Ide mentioned that he might want to come visit him in New York in a few weeks. Hale couldn't help but think about the easy availability of drugs, and while trying not to sound displeased with the idea, he didn't encourage Ide to make the trip.
One hot day in August, after a long day at Ginsberg's office, Hale arrived back at his own small apartment on the Lower East Side. He noticed a light blinking on his message machine and punched the button.
"Hi Peter, this is Ben." It was Ben Schafer, another young Ginsberg protegé who'd been in Boulder for the tribute. "I hate to be the one to tell you this," Schafer said, "but Chris Ide is dead."
Hale later learned that Ide had overdosed on heroin and alcohol in a fleabag hotel in Chicago, with a recording of Charlie "Bird" Parker, who himself had died of a drug overdose, playing over and over on the stereo. Harper had called Miles with the news. And Miles had called Ginsberg.
"Don't tell me, a drug overdose," the old poet said with a sigh. Ide had had a gift, and his death was a loss for everyone who loved poetry. Still, the boy should have known better, if for no other reason than he knew what had happened to Kerouac and Cassady, knew what drugs had done to Burroughs and Huncke and Corso. It seemed like there were always a few of the genius kids who got it wrong -- no one wrote poetry from the grave -- and then the stupid ones in the next generation would glorify them as martyrs to art, perpetuating the myth.
"Such a waste," Ginsberg said to Miles, and hung up. He asked Schafer to call Hale.
After he got the message, Hale walked around the room, crying. But once the shock wore off, Hale wondered why he'd been surprised by the news. He realized that he'd expected the call; he'd just expected it sooner.
April 1996, Paris
In the spring of 1996, Ginsberg went to Europe for the foreign-language publications of his book, Cosmopolitan Greetings, in Italy and France; he also had scheduled a reading in Prague with neo-classical musician Philip Glass. Ginsberg invited Hale to go along as both secretary and guitar accompanist, taking on Steven Taylor's musical role. Also in the entourage was Geoffrey Manaugh, a promising young poet who'd attended the Naropa sessions.
The trip's highlight was a party in Paris at the home of Christian Bourgois, an important publisher from an old arts family. Literary bigshots from all over Europe were in attendance -- a daunting guest list for the younger Americans, including Hale's lover, Joseph, who'd been studying in Holland. When the trio had a moment to themselves, Manaugh and Hale confessed that among all those brilliant minds, they feared they wouldn't live up to their roles as Ginsberg's bright young stars.
Although Manaugh was well regarded on the college circuit, he worried he wasn't good enough to begin his international career with this crowd. Hale was feeling rather small himself, recalling how accomplished Taylor was. He didn't admit it to the others, but he was also sensitive that some of these important people might think he was just "another one of Ginsberg's boys."
Ginsberg had never stopped noting his attraction to Hale, but it was more like teasing these days. Their relationship had changed considerably in ten years. The old poet was still Hale's teacher, but they were also friends.
Still, Hale realized he'd been a small part of his teacher's life, and at this Paris gathering, he was reminded again that he should have taken notes on some of the people he'd met through Ginsberg. In 1994, for instance, he'd been with the poet when he got together with Bob Dylan; as they parted company, Ginsberg had whispered in Hale's ear, "Write everything down." That time he had, and later he and Ginsberg had compared recollections of the conversation. Most of the time, though, Hale felt so unimportant that he thought no one would care about what he observed.
Now Ginsberg told him that wasn't true: Hale was a witness, a living historian. He'd met Corso and Huncke and Burroughs and Dylan and so many others -- including the author of "Howl" and other poems. People would be interested in his perceptions and recollections, both today and in later years. Ginsberg himself had considered it a duty to tell the world about his friend Jack Kerouac, to keep his work alive. Someday, Hale might be asked to recall what he'd seen and heard about Allen Ginsberg and the others he'd met. And so tonight, he certainly belonged here in this company, on stage by his friend's side.
The little talk didn't transform Hale into Taylor, who was a genius at making up for beats that Ginsberg might add or leave out. In fact, Hale thought his collaboration with Ginsberg was quite dreadful. But there were fun moments, which included listening to his frightened friend Manaugh squeak through his readings.
During their stay in Paris, Ginsberg sometimes seemed wistful, as if looking at a treasure for the last time. He talked about how he'd lived there with Corso and Orlovsky in 1957. Corso had arrived first and found a small rooming house later dubbed "The Beat Hotel," which was where Ginsberg introduced Corso to heroin. From there they'd made forays into Holland and Tangier. Since Ginsberg was rarely nostalgic about "the old days," Hale was surprised by this flood of memories.
He realized what had unleashed them later that summer.
If Chris Ide had died too young, Herbert Huncke had lived much longer than anyone would have imagined back when he first became a muse for Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac. But even immortalized junkies must someday fade away.
Huncke had been devastated when his longtime companion, Louis Cartwright, was murdered in a drug deal gone bad in 1994. After that, a terrible gloom settled over Huncke, who kept saying that he should have been the one killed. By 1996, Huncke had wasted away to little more than frail skin, brittle bones and blue veins that he continued to fill with drugs -- sometimes heroin, but mostly methadone and cocaine. Still, whenever he was out of the hospital, he carried himself in his usual dignified manner and continued engaging Corso in running battles.
If anyone could get under Huncke's skin worse than Corso, it was Ginsberg in his Jewish-grandmother role. Before Ginsberg's European trip, two women from France had come to New York to film Ginsberg, Corso and Huncke reading with Ornette Coleman in his Harlem recording studio. The women had arranged for a limousine to pick up Ginsberg, Hale and Corso before it fetched Huncke. For some reason, Ginsberg decided this was a good time to lecture Huncke for the umpteenth time about his irresponsibility, dredging up the time when the old addict had spent the Social Security check that he was supposed to use to match Ginsberg's rent subsidy.
Ginsberg scolded Huncke until the old addict drew himself up and spat back, "Allen, I will not have you talk that way to me in front of these people."
Hale, who'd always found Huncke to be pleasant company, had to admire that. Huncke had lost just about everything he'd ever owned or loved, but he'd never lost his dignity.
Huncke went back into Beth Israel Hospital in June, came out and went back in again in July. The hospital was only a few blocks from the nice, sunny loft on 13th Street, where Ginsberg had finally moved earlier that year. They'd set up the office in one part of the loft; the poet had his living quarters in the other part. Ginsberg wanted to have a big party in the loft when he got the chance. But Huncke would not be among the guests.
Ginsberg was visiting Burroughs in Kansas on August 8 when they got the call that the Times Square junkie had passed away during the night. There was one less Beat in the world.
February 1997, New York City
Hale was working in the office one dreary morning when Ginsberg came in. He'd been preparing for his class at Brooklyn College, but "I'm too tired to teach today," the poet said. He canceled class, assuring Hale and Rosenthal that he just needed to rest.
But no amount of rest seemed to help. Over the next few days, Ginsberg grew weaker. He'd been suffering from heart problems for years and now decided he needed to see his heart specialist in Boston. There he learned that the problem wasn't his ticker, it was his liver.
Ginsberg canceled class and stayed home, but he also began pumping out poetry at a frantic pace, like a man on a pay telephone running out of both time and change. The outpouring of words was so great that Hale had difficulty keeping up with his other office work. He was too busy typing poems.
They soon learned that it wasn't the medication that was affecting Ginsberg's liver: He had hepatitis C, a bloodborne virus. Ginsberg decided he'd probably been infected in the mid-'60s, when he'd shared hypodermic needles. The irony was inescapable: Of all the New York Beats, he'd been the least into drugs, particularly heroin. But now he was paying for the mistakes of his youth, no differently than Kerouac, Cassady, Huncke or Ide.
Still, Ginsberg didn't let the bad news block his writing. If anything, the pace increased. His new poetry covered a gamut of subjects, including his disease and the increasing presence of death -- Moloch, the destroyer of men -- but Ginsberg approached even the most serious topics with humor.
As was his habit, Ginsberg wrote when the mood took him. It was obvious he was thinking about his old companions when he composed "Kerouac" on March 12.
I can't answer,
reason I can't answer
I haven't been dead yet
Don't remember dead
I'm on 14th St & 1st Avenue
Vat's the qvestion?
By the fifth week of his enforced rest, Ginsberg wasn't any better. In fact, on Friday, March 21, he was so much worse, coughing and throwing up blood, that Rosenthal called Ginsberg's cousin, Joel Gaidemak, a physician. Gaidemak told him to get Ginsberg to the hospital immediately.
Rosenthal and Morgan rushed their friend to Beth Israel Hospital. This time the tests included a liver biopsy. While he waited in the hospital for the results, Ginsberg kept writing, handing his scrawled drafts to Hale to be typed. One untitled verse addressed his disease and a bleak future:
This kind of Hepatitis can cause ya
Nosebleed skin itch bowel nausea
Swell up hanging hemorrhoid heads
Easter lillies by your hospital beds
Back at the office, Hale and Rosenthal were eating lunch when the telephone rang. Ginsberg. His voice was so soft that Hale had difficulty understanding when the poet asked if he'd typed all of his latest work.
"Most of it," Hale replied. "I needed to get some other business out of the way."
"Drop everything else," Ginsberg interrupted, "and type them."
Hale knew that something was very wrong. When Ginsberg asked to speak to Rosenthal, he handed over the phone and went to Ginsberg's bedroom, where he could see Beth Israel from the window. His head was spinning.
A minute later, Rosenthal came in and led Hale back to the office. There were tears in the older man's eyes when he gently said, "Allen's dying...liver cancer. He has about ten months to live."
Ginsberg wanted to keep the news quiet until he'd had a chance to tell his friends and family. In the meantime, Rosenthal told Hale, there was work to do. He had to type the poems as quickly as he could so that they could be revised and retyped -- and still, they should go on about their normal routines.
Over the next few days, Ginsberg began calling people he wanted to tell about his prognosis before they read it in the newspaper or heard it on the television or radio. Hale stayed busy typing the drafts of poems and taking them to Ginsberg in the hospital, often walking in on weepy conversations that always seemed to end, "I'm going to miss you, dear."
Despite the tears when he was on the telephone, Ginsberg more often than not described himself as "exhilarated" at the prospect of finally finding out what lay beyond the end of this road. He'd never been a big believer in the Buddhist theory of reincarnation, but he wasn't discounting it either.
He liked to laugh about how his oncologist came to the room. The old poet looked at his face and, before the physician could speak, said, "Ummm... prognosis negative...terminal cancer." The doctor nodded. "Whew! Got that out of the way," Ginsberg said.
One afternoon, Hale arrived at the hospital to find Ginsberg asleep. He sat down on the bed and searched his face. The poet opened his eyes, smiled and patted him on the hand. "I'm going to miss you, dear," he said.
Ginsberg was allowed to go home on Wednesday, April 2. Hale and Rosenthal were surprised by how much energy he showed. He moved about his apartment as if saying hello to an old friend after a long absence. Later, he changed into his pajamas and came into the office, sitting in Hale's chair as he liked to, and answered the telephone.
The poet wasn't about to let the last ten months of his life slip away. He'd been planning an MTV event with Bob Dylan, who was going to fly to New York and record with him. He asked Hale to come to the loft, listen to "C.C. Rider" and write down the lyrics as a possibility. Ginsberg seemed in a good mood as they sat together on the couch, listening: I'm goin' away now baby...and I won't be back till fall...Just might find me a good girl...might not be comin' back at all...
Ginsberg's current Buddhist teacher, Gelek Rinpoche from Jewel Heart Buddhist Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had given the poet hand-written notes for Tibetan dying practices -- visualization of certain deities and mantras to be chanted at specific times. The techniques were for advanced students only, and Ginsberg had to get his teacher's permission to give them to Hale so that they could be typed.
That evening Hale sat by his mentor's bed and went over the notes. Ginsberg was delighted to have something to work on, even if it was preparations for his own death. It took an hour to go through the eleven pages, and then Ginsberg fell asleep.
The doctor had said ten months. But by the next day it was clear to everyone that time was running out much faster than that. Ginsberg hardly got out of bed, and he decided that it was time to call the media and let them know that he had terminal liver cancer. Ginsberg was anxious that there wasn't going to be time for the personal goodbyes he envisioned. He'd arranged it so that everyone would come visit, starting with his oldest friends first. Lucien Carr was due to arrive the next day, and Burroughs would come next.
Hale hardly spoke to Ginsberg that day, except words of comfort when the old man vomited. He helped Orlovsky change the poet's shirt and clean him up. But at least Ginsberg didn't seem to be suffering; the oncologist had said that it was not a painful cancer, just a swift and deadly one. Before Hale left that evening, he looked in on his friend one last time. His face had a soft, gray look, his big brown eyes luminous.
The next morning, Glass and Corso showed up at the apartment. Then Carr buzzed to be let in. Momentarily forgetting the circumstances, Orlovsky playfully attacked Carr before he could get off the elevator. "How's my Lucien baby?" he shrieked. "Come here and give me a kiss."
Carr fended off Orlovsky with his usual dry-as-a-bone humor, walked into the loft and asked for Ginsberg. Carr was famous for his imperturbable stoicism; he could crack a joke that would have the others rolling on the ground while his face didn't even show a hint of a smile. Hale would never forget Carr's reaction -- a momentary welling of tears when he heard that Ginsberg had slipped into a coma and was dying, then a quick recovery as he picked on Corso, who was standing with a bottle of whiskey in his hand.
Morgan, Rosenthal and Hale found a few moments to discuss who should be invited over for Ginsberg's final hours, and who might be offended if they weren't invited. After they'd made their list, they began calling, and soon the loft was buzzing with the voices of poets and painters -- Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Taaffe, Larry Rivers and Francesco Clemente -- and musicians like Patti Smith and neighborhood friends such as Rose and Simon Pettet. Ginsberg's family was represented by his stepmother, brother and cousin, whom he'd asked to be the attending physician at his death.
It was the party that Ginsberg had always wanted to throw in his new loft. They told old stories and laughed and wept (out of earshot), smoked pot, drank, listened to music and sent out for food.
About 4 p.m., Gelek Rinpoche showed up with three of his senior students. Several senior students of Trungpa Rinpoche, who had been in town on their way to Vermont for the tenth anniversary of their teacher's death, had also arrived. Before long, the loft was reverberating with Buddhist chants.
All that day and into the night, Ginsberg held on as if determined to enjoy the gathering. He was given morphine, not for pain but to ease his breathing. By midnight, most everyone had gone home to get some sleep. Corso weaved out of the apartment with explicit instructions that he be called when the time arrived. Gelek and his students also left, but before he did, the Buddhist teacher took Hale aside.
Hale was much stronger in his Buddhist beliefs than when he tried to first "take refuge" so many years before. He was sober and, with the help of Ginsberg, believed in the path. Now, Gelek had a very important task for him. Ginsberg's soul was going to need one last bit of food for its travels, he said. He'd ground up a small brown pill and placed it in a silver spoon. "Give this to him after the last breath has left his body," the holy man said.
Hale looked at the contents in the spoon. "What's in it, yak dung?" he asked no one in particular. Irreverent or not, it was a very grounding thing to say in the midst of so much he couldn't comprehend...the sort of thing a young monk might joke about before an important ceremony. Gelek chuckled and headed out the door.
At last, it was almost over. Gaidemak hovered at the left of Ginsberg's bedside, checking his cousin's heartbeat every few minutes. Standing in a semicircle around the bed were Gaidemak and a hospice nurse, then Morgan, then the Pettets, then Patti Smith and her friend Oliver, then a young friend, David Greenberg, then Rosenthal, and finally, across from Gaidemak, Hale with his spoon.
"His heart's still strong," Gaidemak said, though it was clear that the poet's breathing was growing increasingly erratic. Each breath drawn and released was more quiet than the last. Then there was one last tiny gasp and nothing. Gaidemak placed his stethoscope on the thin quiet chest, listened for a moment, then stood and asked those gathered in the room to check their watches to authenticate the time of death: 2:23 p.m., April 5, 1997.
Allen Ginsberg aka Leon Levinsky aka Irwin Garden, Carlo Marx, Adam Moorad, Alvah Goldbook...queer poet...defender of unusual people...gadfly...teacher...was gone, exactly ten years to the day from the death of Trungpa Rinpoche. He left the Earth, as his protegé Christopher Ide once wrote, madly spinning and took that final spontaneous leap to where Jack Kerouac lies, done with the jazz/blues of the earth...But his soul didn't leave hungry.
Hale had held his silver spoon near Ginsberg's lips, hoping he wouldn't react too late and doom his teacher to a bad reincarnation. He couldn't think of a single moment in his life when he'd been more present in a room. He'd known Ginsberg all of his adult life, a dozen years. The poet had fed his mind and soul and now, a moment after 2:23 a.m., he tipped the spoon and repaid the favor.
September 2000, New York City
The New York of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr and Gregory Corso is no longer quite so Beat. Herbert Huncke may be rolling over in his grave at what they've done to Times Square. The once-seedy domain of one-legged junkies, the deranged homeless, aggressive prostitutes and panhandlers has been scrubbed, polished and repopulated in an explosion of urban renewal. Truth be told, there are more panhandlers on the streets of Denver.
The Lower East Side is quiet, but much cleaner. The space where Allen Ginsberg once lived is now occupied by a young white couple. Meanwhile, his office next door continues to conduct Ginsberg's business.
There used to be more photographs on the walls -- Ginsberg was an avid and well-regarded photographer -- but Larry Rivers, the painter upstairs, kept flooding his loft, so most of the pictures were removed to prevent future water damage. Still, a number of black-and-white reminders testify to the life and times of Allen Ginsberg. The broken-nosed profile of a T-shirted Neal Cassady at the wheel of the Merry Pranksters bus. Another of Eileen Lee, the real-life alter ego for Mardou Fox, the diffident love interest of Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans. One of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, another of Grateful Dead bandmember Bob Weir. And a color photograph of Ginsberg standing nude, holding a staff, superimposed on a photograph of Ginsberg in a business suit.
Next to a lineup of books are more shelves holding row after row of neatly catalogued boxes containing Ginsberg's negatives and contact sheets dating from the pre-Beat '40s to his trips to India with the Beatles in the '60s to just two days before his death -- a photo shoot of producer Robert Frank with Peter Orlovsky. Against another wall are thousands of file folders -- collected newspaper and magazine clippings that Ginsberg found interesting, maddening or amusing -- as well as correspondence from everyone who ever wrote him over the years.
Ginsberg collected everything. And now the work of maintaining, cataloguing and retrieving the archives falls to the handsome young man sitting at a table in front of two computers.
The phone rings, and Hale answers. It's a reporter with the Boston Globe who wants a quote about Ginsberg's controversial defense of the North American Man-Boy Love Association a dozen years before. The reporter says she's working on a story about age-of-consent laws. Declining to speak for Ginsberg, Hale suggests she check out the poet's book Deliberate Prose. "He's got an essay in there on NAMBLA," he says.
Not once did Ginsberg's lengthy obituary mention NAMBLA. In fact, the New York Times had published a fairly decent writeup on Ginsberg's death on Sunday, April 6, 1997. The writer had called Ginsberg the "poet laureate" of the Beat Generation, "whose 'Howl' became a manifesto for the sexual revolution and a cause célèbre for free speech in the 1950s, eventually earning its author a place in America's literary pantheon."
The piece quoted Burroughs as saying that Ginsberg's death was "a great loss to me and to everybody. We were friends for more than 50 years. Allen was a great person with worldwide influence. He was a pioneer of openness and a lifelong model of candor. He stood for freedom of expression and for coming out of all the closets before others did."
There had been a small, Jewel Heart funeral for close friends and family and then, a few days later, the big funeral Ginsberg had wanted. Maybe too big, since someone revealed the location on the radio and thousands of fans showed up, forming a line that was blocks long. Afterward, walking to catch a cab, Hale overheard Lou Reed and Kurt Vonnegut interviewed by the media. "There aren't many people like him in this world, and he's gonna leave a big hole," Vonnegut told a reporter.
Hale felt that hole in his own life, and it grew larger four months later, when Burroughs died on August 2, 1997.
Hale had always found it ironic that Grauerholz wanted to work for Ginsberg and ended up with Burroughs, while he wanted to meet Burroughs and had instead been befriended by Ginsberg. Still, he was glad that things had turned out as they did, for he was much more like his teacher than like the author of Naked Lunch. Burroughs had believed the world was an inherently evil place, but Ginsberg believed it was inherently good -- it just needed to be prodded every once in a while.
(It certainly needed to be prodded when the Beat Generation crashed into one of Colorado's biggest news stories. But this time there was no Allen Ginsberg to come to the rescue of Steve Miles, whose name and photo appeared on the cover of the October 21, 1997, National Enquirer, which touted an "exclusive interview" with the man the tabloid claimed John and Patsy Ramsey were accusing of killing their daughter, JonBenét. The story was ludicrous: Miles was never a suspect, nor was there any evidence that the Ramseys had accused him. But Miles had been in trouble with the law: He'd been arrested in 1989 after a failed drug bust and charged with sexual exploitation of a child -- because of his nude photograph of then seventeen-year-old Peter Hale. Ginsberg had hired a lawyer that time, and the exploitation charge was dropped. This time, Miles sued both John Ramsey and the Enquirer for libel, but the case was dismissed.)
After Ginsberg's death, Rosenthal had asked Hale to stay on and help organize Ginsberg's work. Along with Morgan, they decided to put together one last book of Ginsberg's poetry, called Death & Fame, that would include many of the pieces he'd written in those last few weeks. Ginsberg's previous book, Selected Poems 1947-1995, had been reviewed after his death. The gist, as usual, was that the poet had never written another "Howl." That made it all the more nerve-racking trying to decide what to include in this book (published by HarperPerennial in 1999, listing the three as editors): They didn't want a bad review to be Ginsberg's legacy.
Their selections included "New Stanzas for Amazing Grace," composed at the request of Ed Sanders for his production of The New Amazing Grace and performed November 20, 1994, at the Poetry Project in St. Mark's Church in-the-Bouwerie. The five stanzas were typical of the man Hale knew:
I dreamed I dwelled in a homeless place
Where I was lost alone
Folks looked right through me into space
And passed with eyes of stone....
Plowing through the journal Ginsberg had been keeping in his final days, they'd come across Ginsberg's last poem, written on the morning of March 30, after he'd received the fatal diagnosis. It was called "Things I'll Not Do (Nostalgias)."
The poem mourned places he would never see again, like Kashi, "the oldest continuously habited city in the world,"
or do, "such as bathe in the Ganges & sit again at Manikarnika ghat with Peter..."
or people, known and unknown, he wouldn't have the opportunity to speak with such as "older Sunil & the young coffeeshop poets."
Ginsberg's notes had been difficult to read, with lots of changes, and Hale often found himself searching an atlas for the spelling of places he'd never heard of, such as Duhuang and Beluchistan. But other locations and thoughts were hauntingly familiar, such as the line about "never climbing E. 12th Street's stairway 3 flights again," and a reference to "no more sweet summers with lovers, teaching Blake at Naropa."
A year ago, along with the executors of the Kerouac and Burroughs estates, Ginsberg's associates pulled together the auction the poet had suggested to help pay the estate taxes. Hundreds attended, including musician Paul Simon and actors Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn and Winona Ryder, who read poetry...badly.
The estate work is almost finished, and the calls are less frequent these days; Hale knows that his job will soon end. Three years after the death of his teacher, Hale still misses him. He misses the exhortations to visit museums and art galleries, the advice on which book to read -- even though, in truth, he no longer needs such marching orders. He also misses the walks through the Village, the history lessons.
As Ginsberg had suggested in Paris, Hale witnessed the end of a literary era. Huncke, Ginsberg and Burroughs are gone, and Corso is battling the last stages of cancer. When he dies, the New York branch of the Beat Generation will disappear. Yet the Beats live on, in a movie version of On the Road, renewed interest in poetry slams, rock musicians imitating Beat dress -- berets, goatees, black clothes -- and an Internet full of Beat Web sites, including LiveREADS, which last week published a previously unreleased novella by Kerouac titled Orpheus Emerged.
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When he thinks about all the dead poets, Hale misses his friend Chris Ide. At times he wonders whether Naropa, by creating the Jack Kerouac school and, by extension, condoning Beat behavior, set the stage for Ide's demise. Most of the writers who passed through the school, however, did not follow Kerouac's road to self-destruction. Most are like Geoffrey Manaugh, who continues to write and who got married and had kids.
Hale also recalls Corso's remark about role models and wonders if the Beats were responsible. But Ide knew Burroughs was not living some wonderful life, jetting around Europe; he knew Kerouac had died a lonely drunk. If he wanted to choose a role model from among the Beats, he could have chosen the man who believed in him. He could have chosen Allen Ginsberg, who continued writing until he was an old man. The simple truth -- though others are free to disagree -- is that Ide was an addict. While he might have used the Beats to romanticize his lifestyle, he was killed by drugs, not writers.
Just as Ginsberg struggled to keep Kerouac's name alive, Hale would like to see a volume of Ide's poetry published. But Ide's parents have resisted attempts to publish anything that refers to homosexuality or drugs -- and for better or worse, those topics represent a good percentage of his work. To ignore them would be like asking Ginsberg to publish a similarly censored "Howl." As Ginsberg once told his own father: You don't have to be right, you just have to be candid.
Hale doesn't know what he'll do when his work for Ginsberg is done, but he no longer cares if someone thinks of him as one of the poet's boys. A generous, complicated man once took an interest in him, and because of that, a kid from Boulder, Colorado, lived an extraordinary life. He closes the office door and walks to the subway, no longer afraid of scallywags or the future, he climbs aboard the E train and, with a rumble and a roar, is gone into the machinery of the night.