The summer of my undergraduate junior year – it was 1966 -- I couldn’t seem to hold a job. I began as a manual laborer for a company that maintained power lines for the electric utility. I had obtained this position through the intercession of the power company’s CEO, the father of a friend. The foreman felt annoyed by this rare directive from the executive offices into his domain, considering me a punk-ass college student. Even if I thought more appropriate terms would be sensitive and artistic, I would, I think, have welcomed being called a bit neurasthenic at the age of nineteen. Whatever the terms, the sequel justified them. I believe I actually passed out digging in the heat or maybe I just felt I was about to, but, at any rate, I resigned, much to my supervisor’s satisfaction.
I then took a place at a drill press in a filthy foundry casting blast furnace parts on the west side of Chicago. This place had an all-black work force on the floor. They had no vacation days whatever, no benefits, cash pay at week’s end. Workers would simply leave for a while when they needed a break and then return, allowing me to insinuate myself as the only white person in this constantly fluid staff. I have no doubt that the place violated every labor and health code in the book, but they had doubtless made arrangements with the regime of the elder Daley. Every afternoon they would pour the molten metal, creating infernal clouds. At the day’s end one would shower on the premises and the water would run black. At home I would blow my nose and find my handkerchief gone quite black and noxious. Here I lasted a week.
A friend then suggested I join him at the Loop employment agency where he had been working for a few weeks with great success. The place paid employment counselors like salesmen: a low base guarantee, bolstered by commissions for every person placed. This system emphasized the common interest of company, counselor, and applicant in such a way that it encouraged unethical, even illegal practices. Where to begin? In training one was initiated into a secret code by which employers could include race among their requirements and their preference would be preserved in a way that was not explicit. In contacting past applicants, whether they had found a job with the company or not, we were instructed to try to find how much money they were presently making and then claim to have an opening that would pay twenty percent more.
My friend had such fluid verbal skills that he had been a roaring success, generally defeating the veterans at winning the weekly bonus that went to the most productive worker. He was willing to say anything to anybody, and had the ability to size people up in a few moments and address them in the most effective way, making small talk and side comments that made people instantly trust him. Well it worked for him, but not for me. After a few days I was off again.
I gave up on employability at this point and headed down to Champaign-Urbana where I could hangout with friends and enjoy the atmosphere of the large depopulated University of Illinois campus. As it happened, that summer the National Student Association had chosen to hold its national convention there. It was to be another year yet before the revelation that the organization had been funded since its formation in 1947 by the CIA, but those reactionary spooks must have been worrying about their investment for some time. The government’s strategy was the same as in covert CIA support of, for instance, the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party which ruled for fifty years, that is, to see that socialism made no headway. Created to supplant the leftist student groups of the thirties, some of which were still alive, if feeble, the NSA’s president in 1966 was David Harris.
Harris was the Stanford student body president who had gone south during the Freedom Summer of 1964. He was to resist the draft, indeed, to help found the organization called the Resistance and to serve fifteen months in federal prison. In the summer of 1964, though, the draft was not the issue it became several years later. Apart from discussing the widening war in Southeast Asia, the NSA was set to debate legalization of cannabis, and I discovered that Allen Ginsberg had come to educate the delegates on the benevolence of the good herb. He was to stay for a week.
Led by a slightly older poet, Michael Holloway, a group of four or five of us went in search of Allen. We ran in to him almost at once in front of a dormitory elevator and introduced ourselves as the local poets. Graduate students, undergraduates, drop-outs, seeking then to establish a new American culture, we knew each other through happenings and parties and several had appeared the previous spring in what we regarded as the hip issue of Oblique edited by Holloway.
Ginsberg engaged us at once, taking a aggressive tack and saying to Holloway, “You’re a poet, you tell me. Well, what’s your best line -- the best you ever wrote -- come on -- what is it?” Not surprisingly, Holloway hesitated and, after a dramatic pause, Ginsberg continued, “You know, a beautiful line like my friend William Burroughs, wrote, like ‘Motels . . .motels . . . motels . . . loneliness.’”
After regaining his equipoise, Holloway questioned Ginsberg’s mission. “You shouldn’t be spending time with those guys hung up on politics. Isn’t your place with the artists?” Ginsberg asked if we hadn’t had friends busted for pot, and wasn’t it a love-act to advocate for them. He wanted not just our coterie (where marijuana was pervasive) but the “mainstream” NSA, representing the future, to declare for legalization and, to that end, had painstakingly compiled fact sheets proving cannabis innocuous, citing evidence from scientific authorities, laid out in a logical array, and photocopied on pink pages.
We succeeded in distracting Ginsberg as the marijuana issue only consumed a half-day of the convention’s business. Most evenings he attended parties in funky student apartments and talked for hours. I don’t really recall faculty there, though some may have found their way to the scene. There were some alienated high school students sniffing glue or something in a closet which elicited a warning from the poet: “That’ll cause your brains to drip out your nose.”
I have heard accounts of Ginsberg behaving badly, but I have none to report. I would not count the incident of my straight friend who caught the poet’s eye. Asked to visit the dorm room where Ginsberg was staying, he headed off happily, though even a nineteen-year-old undergraduate might have known what would happen next. Twenty minutes later, he returned, shaken. “Man, Ginsberg just went in the room, and I shut the door, and, by the time I turned around, he was sitting on the floor naked and, oh my god, it was just like this big mass of hair with a penis sticking up!”
Allen Pestering: a postscript of second-hand anecdotes
Fearful of idealizing the poet who meant so much to so many (including me), I add a few anecdotes told me by an Indian friend concerning Ginsberg’s visit there in the early sixties. Being a guest in a culture for which he had such interest and admiration did not obviate the poet’s fondness for shock. Without such a taste, we would never have had Howl and Kaddish, both monuments of twentieth century American poetry.
He enjoyed people’s reactions when he introduced Orlovsky as his wife. More than one thought this term must be explained by some gap between Indian and American use of English. When presented to a prominent writer, son of a previous prime minister, Ginsberg immediately asked the man if he were fond of masturbating. He pressured a leading journalist to help him obtain a visa extension and then not only vanished without thanking him, but, according to my friend, later snubbed him when the Indian was visiting New York and happened to meet him again.