"Passages East, Brooklyn Unbound:
On Bridges, Bumbling and Allen Ginsberg"
To my left, the cathedral arches of the Brooklyn Bridge tower above the East River. Though the Brooklyn Bridge is the architectural poster child for Brooklyn, I said all my prayers while driving across the Manhattan Bridge. At my first crossing, while stuck to the inside lane, never the right lane, I gripped the wheel white-knuckled. I would not glance down over the cliff-like edge that led down to the East river. Procrastination and fear sometimes stopped me from taking practical steps in my life—crossing new bridges—so, two weeks earlier when I was afraid to cross the actual bridge, the expanse of the Manhattan Bridge that married Manhattan to Brooklyn—or vice versa depending on how you looked at it—I had to have two friends come along and coax me across. My transition from prayerful, slo-mo driver, was swift, and complete.
Two weeks later, I’m speeding like a taxi driver, weaving between the lanes across the Manhattan Bridge. The Clocktower looms up alongside my right. Time this big spurs me on, so I step on the gas and push from 55 to 60 where I can. I was about to be late for my first day of class as a graduate student at Brooklyn College. It’s the late 1980s, long before the new Dumbo or Jane’s Merry-Go-Round. All the other developments.
Along Flatbush Ave, I race with other cars in the right lane and switch back to the left to get around double-parked delivery trucks or cars. A few blocks away from Bedford Ave, I almost rear end a double-parked Coke truck on the corner and veer over, cutting in front of a brown Buick. I hit the brakes. The driver veers left sharply, just missing an on-coming car, flips me the middle finger and drives on. I exhale, relieved that we didn’t crash.
Around fifteen minutes later, there’ll be an actual collision. Where crossing the Hudson to Brooklyn would be part of my coming age story, a crush of poetry would be a sort of climax, a small but concussive moment that would propel me forward, literally.
After parking in an illegal spot on Campus Road and dashing across the quad, I race into Boylan Hall and across the large entrance hall on first floor, thinking about how much I did not want to be late. This is when I crash into the poet, Allen Ginsberg. My books and his books tumble onto the floor and lay askew around our feet. Alongside my upside down Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, my new blue spiral notebook is splayed on the floor open like a gymnast doing a split.
Allen’s eyes goggle ever so slightly out of his head like cartoon eyes that extend from a character’s face so they can see more clearly or when they are surprised. He has brown searching eyes. He is tuned into irony, tragedy, comedy and people’s bullshit. He is a gay, Jewish, Buddhist, Beat poet, and human rights activist, who didn’t take to being censored. At this point he didn’t have to be. It’s been over 30 years since he stood trial for indecency charges for his book of poems, Howl. His lips remind me of Mr. Potato Head’s, kind of placed onto his face over the contours of his salt and pepper beard. Though verging on old, somehow he maintains a sort of child-like innocence.
“Oh, Jeez,” I sputter, “I’m sorry. I shove his books into his arms, then pick up most of my own. I notice that the last book I thrust into his arms is William Blake’s, Songs of Innocence and Experience.
Allen is oxymoron. You know, two things that don’t seem to go together, like jumbo shrimp or loving hate. Innocent lamb, experienced activist.
“It’s Ok,” he says, smiling, his demeanor calm and measured to my chaos and frenzy. He stoops to pick up my notebook. I didn’t want this older man who I just barreled into to have to pick up my stuff, so I bend quickly to try to get it first. In doing so, I just missed head butting him. Apparently grace is not my strong suit, though unintended physical comedy is. Neither one of us is laughing.
He scoops up my notebook first, closes it, and hands it me.
I don’t’ say: Oh my god, you’re Allen Ginsberg, the famous poet! Or: I met you at a poetry reading in Rutherford, New Jersey during the William Carlos Williams Centennial Reading. Instead, tardy, and tongue tied, I mutter, “Thanks. Sorry. Sorry. I gotta run. I’m late for class.” He smiles and takes off also in haste towards the long staircase on the west side of Boylan Hall and I, unsure of where my class is located, run towards the long stair case on the eastside.
I take the steps three at time so that the cartilage in my knees jar and my shoulder-length spiral curls rise up into the air, then crash down over my face. I did not want to be later than I was already. It was bad form, but mostly because it would be embarrassing and my face might turn bright red under florescent lights of the classroom.
As I open the door, trying not to breathe too heavily after my sprint up the many stairs, I see Allen sitting at the head of the table. He nods up at me and smiles, as I place my books on the conference table the other students are sitting around, and drop into the chair. He asks the students to introduce themselves.
I had no idea that Ginsberg would be my teacher or that he was teaching at Brooklyn College at all. Still a clumsy waitress--an oxymoron or an occasional moron--I had just graduated from college and was big on winging it--a carpe diem kind of attitude that often had consequences. Besides the dangerous stuff, like nearly being mauled by a wolf in the Prague zoo while trying to pet it as a rehearsal to touching the tiger, or riding my motorcycle alone into NYC to go clubbing and then ending up stuck on the desolate covered roadway outside of Hoboken on the return, being out of the loop was one of them. It turned out John Ashbery had been teaching at Brooklyn College before Allen. I didn’t know that either. Two of my undergrad, creative writing professors, Klein and O’Brien—I called them by their last names--also poets, told me that said I had to get my MFA in Creative Writing, so without much forethought or research, winging it again, I applied to Brooklyn College and got in.
On the classroom wall to the left of me, hangs what looks like a real Miro painting. The disjointed reds, green and blues of the flying triangular figures are as frenetic as my thoughts. Wow, Allen Ginsburg and a Miro! As an undergrad, I was an English major and an Art minor, so poetry and art, still plush and new to me, were like twin babies I wanted carry around in my arms all day. Myself and seven other students, including future published poets and writers: Paul Beatty, David Trinidad, and Karen Kelly, are sitting around the rectangular wooden table. We were about to get to know each other, each other’s poetry and Allen.
He was never elitist or highfalutin. Allen used to have us, his graduate students of Creative Writing, over to his apartment on East 12th Street in Manhattan for potluck gatherings. We would sit on his couch and look out at the beautiful white church across the way with its bright turquoise pediment, the odd, yet pleasing, mix of Greek columns and two Spanish-influenced bell towers (now all lost to condos) and chat about poetry. Or art. Or anything all. Because Allen was a vegetarian, I cooked up a big pot of cream of mushroom broccoli soup and toted it to his place to share.
He shared his knowledge and his friends with us. Once he had Gregory Corso take over his class. Wild-eyed, Corso railed about how we had “save words,” that people were no longer using as many words as they used to—vocabularies were getting thinner and thinner so “YOU—THE POETS—NEED TO SAVE WORDS!” (Corso was wild-eyed and flirtatious. He also tried to chat me up, which I played dumb to.) Back at Allen’s apartment, among others, we met Allen’s partner, Peter Orlovsky and writer, Herbert Huncke.
Allen was the real deal. He cared about the well being of others, and us, his students. I can’t speak for my classmates, but I appreciated his quirky smile and wry wit, the way he cocked his head to the side when he listened carefully to you. His graciousness.
When Allen died in 1997, Brooklyn College held a memorial reading. Poets, former students and his friends read poems in honor of him. Allen had many connections to poets, present and past. In a visionary experience, he met William Blake, who recited some of his poems to him. But what about Walt I found myself thinking? He and Walt Whitman would have gotten along great, Bards and friends of Brooklyn. If Whitman were to read a poem at Allen’s funeral, he would probably read some lines from his poem “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry” with its shuttling passengers from one place to another and setting sun:
Others will enter the gates of the ferry
and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west,
and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others…will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide,
the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
But somehow that somber resolution doesn’t seem a perfect fit. Allen was an upbeat Beat, celebrating both the metaphysical and the physical worlds. Although he sometimes came off as a sedate academician in class, he could be zany-humored and fun. If Allen were to read a poem at his own funeral, he might recite a few lines from a poem he wrote with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy:
Pull my daisy
Tip my cup
All my doors are open…
Pope my parts
Raise my daisy up