The Karma Bum

Playing Frogger with the king of the Beats


| May-June 2011


I was 9 years old in 1983, when my father, a professor at Rice University, invited Allen Ginsberg to Houston to give a poetry reading with the promise of financial assistance from the dean of humanities. Ginsberg asked for a $300 honorarium and economy airfare, which must still rank as one of the greatest entertainment bargains of the modern era.

I wasn’t along for the raucous trek to the airport to extract Ginsberg. Initially, my father insisted that the welcoming committee be a “class operation”—just him and the dean of humanities—but word of the poet’s itinerary got out among the students. (We lived on the Rice campus, my parents serving as “masters” to one of the residential colleges. From what I could tell, masters were responsible for talking down drug-addled students and assuring them that their parents would not disinherit them if they switched majors from mechanical engineering to French.)

“Goddamnit, you’re going to get the boy high!” roared my mother, as throngs of Beat poetry enthusiasts, adjunct professors, incapacitated English majors, and sundry other ne’er-do-wells spilled into our house. “Richard, get this merry band of walking felonies out of our living room and into some kind of van, please!” My father did his best to herd the felons toward the curb.

I asked my mother what the big deal was. After all, we’d had a few dignitaries in our house. The world-renowned and often-nude China expert Joseph Needham (see Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China) stopped in for some video games and a lecture. James Dickey oozed onto a dais, began to read the emcee’s introductory comments, raised an eyebrow, and danced a mazurka into the proctor’s wife. We’d had our share of eminence, but this, my mother’s nervousness told me, was different.

Hours later, my father led the dean and Ginsberg—minus the throngs of deviants—through the front door. All three appeared worn. There were brief introductions between Ginsberg, my mother, and me. He shook my hand. I liked to squeeze as hard as I could to show I was strong when I shook hands. Ginsberg played along until he pretended I’d hurt him.

“Oooh, macho. A viselike grip.” The first thing I remember about Ginsberg is that he didn’t talk like people I knew, like people from Texas.