Playing Frogger with the king of the Beats
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.
“Tippecanoe and Tyler, too,” he said, referring to my name. “Have you heard that one, little one, little man?”
“Yes,” I said. “My dentist says it to me every time I’m there. He has hairy arms and smells like smoke.”
“Bad medicine,” said Ginsberg. I noticed there was food in his beard.
By traditional standards, or at least those of a 9-year-old boy, Ginsberg was ugly. But it was a serene homeliness, like a gentle troll, or Yoda, but with bigger ears. His hair was inherently wild, and it became even more so as he raked his stubby fingers through it in perpetual agitation. He was also a prodigious sweater and pushed his glasses back up his slippery nose every few seconds, only to have them succumb to grease and gravity as soon as he made the adjustment.
Sitting in the living room, Ginsberg and I bonded over our mutual love for the Clash, although my primary attraction to the band was the army fatigues the members wore in the “Rock the Casbah” video. I put on a fashion show for Ginsberg, in which I played Combat Rock out of my ghetto blaster, dressed in fatigues from an army surplus store-cum-saloon in Galveston. My prized possession of the moment was an old plastic Kalashnikov that made a machine gun–like rata-tat-ratatat-ratata, and while I paraded around in front of Ginsberg, I fired my gun into him, which he seemed to enjoy, indulging me with spot-on death rattles and war cries. I was even more thrilled to learn that Ginsberg had been enlisted by the Clash to chant the Heart Sutra on “Ghetto Defendant.” Before my bedtime he read to me from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. Our favorite poem was “Captain Hook.” He said he knew Silverstein, said the man was “fucking crazy . . . maybe don’t tell your mom and pops I said that word.”
“It’s OK. They say fucking all the time.”
The following night, after Ginsberg’s poetry reading (why would I want to go to that?), a group of students eager for him to impart morsels of omniscience were forced to wait outside my room while we played video games on my Atari 2600—I destroyed Ginsberg at Frogger, but he eviscerated me on Combat. In a lame attempt at armistice he explained something about angles of trajectory and mathematics, but I went supervoid. He said he’d never played Combat before, but nobody is above suspicion.
Of course, it wasn’t all Atari, Shel Silverstein, and the Clash. After the third day, Ginsberg’s residence in our home took on a quotidian routine. My mother, Ginsberg, and I would wake up early in the morning and sit around the dining room table, eating Cheerios.
“I’m sorry we don’t have better cereal, Allen,” I said. “I always ask for Cocoa Puffs. My mom and dad never get it for me.”
“Well, there’s always the teeth to think about. Lisa, pass me the sugar if you would.” My mom passed the sugar and Ginsberg went back to a stack of papers. Mom went back to the crossword, and I to my Boy’s Life. Ginsberg was especially moved when I read aloud the account of “Scouts in Action” in which some kid fell out of a motorboat, was caught up in the rotors, then somehow was rescued by a Boy Scout using his Boy Scout skills, which included a bandanna.
“Yeowch! Thank God for the Boy Scouts, eh? Tyler, you’re a Boy Scout?”
“No, I was a Webelo.”
“It’s before Boy Scouts. But I got kicked out.”
“Bastards,” said Ginsberg. “Why?”
“I hit Jason Yost at the Scout Jamboree because he said my mom’s garlic bread tasted like fart bread.” I noticed my mother smile.
“You don’t do that, man,” said Ginsberg, shaking his head. In retrospect, I like to consider that Ginsberg meant that you don’t call somebody’s mom’s garlic bread fart bread, ever, but it does occur to me that he may have meant you don’t punch people.
Ginsberg went off doing things with my father and a knot of giddy academics and hangers-on. I went about my business, eager for Ginsberg’s return.
The final morning of his visit, trouble came to paradise. Ginsberg asked my father and me to join him in yoga and meditation. Ginsberg took his Hinduism very seriously, and as we began the process in our living room he gave us a short but impassioned lecture about the importance of yoga.
Before Ginsberg could utter the opening lines of his mantra and assume the proper meditative posture, my father and I began to chortle uncontrollably. Our guru was not at all amused and promptly stormed out of the living room, leaving us on the floor in hysterics.
My father assured me that we’d be forgiven—a true sign of yogilike compassion from our resident Beat poet. But it was not to be. My father suggested that I go and apologize, which I did, at which point Ginsberg grimaced, urinated on himself, clutched his hand around my shoulder with violent force, and fell to his knees.
As it turned out, he was in the process of passing an enormous kidney stone. I ran up to my room, leaving Ginsberg in an awkward heap on our kitchen floor. I felt a tangle of emotions: betrayal, guilt, a sense that I’d blown it with this cool, hideous man, at whose feet all the world seemed to kowtow. I was crushed. Mad at myself for not taking things a little more seriously.
A battery of physicians arrived at our front door and attended to him on my trundle bed. Ginsberg convalesced quickly and by that afternoon was well enough to shout on the phone to someone in Mexico about a grapefruit and a Krazy Straw. Later that evening, it was time to drop off our poet at the airport. Ginsberg remained silent nearly the whole ride until, perhaps as a last-ditch effort to put the cosmos in order, he suggested gruffly that my father and I accompany him in a mantra. He began:
We nearly made it. An almost imperceptible snort by my father (or was it me?), and that was all it took. It was over. Blasphemous paroxysms of laughter echoed throughout the Toyota Carina as my father and I chanted our own unfortunate mantra: “We’re soooo sorry.” Disgusted, Ginsberg alighted from the family car, muttering, “You have a lot to learn about the perfection of wisdom, both of you,” grabbed his bag, and disappeared through the revolving doors of Houston Intercontinental Airport.
Twenty-five years later, as I waited outside an Austin yoga studio in the scorching heat of my girlfriend Mary’s Honda Civic with the windows up, a vision of Ginsberg appeared before me. “You have a lot to learn about the perfection of wisdom,” he muttered again, exhausted. There were Cheerios in his beard.
Excerpted from The Morning News(Jan. 5, 2011), an online magazine published weekdays since 1999. www.themorningnews.org
This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.