Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Walking the Streets Where We Used to Walk, the City as a Living Theater, Dad, Howl and the Beats

Then and now in time with Dad, the streets, and the globe. 

The day dad died, Walter Armstrong posted a small message on my facebook page.

it will not be simple, it will not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple
it will touch through your ribs, it will take all your heart
it will not be long, it will occupy your thought
as a city is occupied, as a bed is occupied
it will take all your flesh, it will not be simple
You are coming into us who cannot withstand you
you are coming into us who never wanted to withstand you
you are taking parts of us into places never planned
you are going far away with pieces of our lives
it will be short, it will take all your breath
it will not be simple, it will become your will

Adrienne Rich s right, the city really is occupied with thoughts and memories. This week, my city, our city feels occupied with these final notations.

The night after Dad died, I went to see Judith Malina at the Living Theater and remember my father who knew all the world was a stage.  The Living Theater is a place to open the mind across time, through space, and memory, blurring the space in between public and private, life and death, memory and experience.   I go there whenever I can.  Its been there at my lowest points and some of the most lovely, allowing me to take pain, sit with it, throw my hands in there air, and let it go.

The anarchism of the living theater inspired a generation.  It seemed to find its way into some of the fateful goodbye notes for dad. 

John Jordan, posted this not on facebook, sending you lots of love, cross Atlantic hugs and some thoughts on the equilibrium of life and death: "For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. It's shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To somebody who did not understand growth it would look like complete destruction.

The force to destroy is also a force to create Bakunin famously argued.  This paradoxical quality opens up a way to think about how to be, to live, as well as make sense of the experience of my Dad, so caught in the contradictions of modern living.  He felt devoted to his roots, while always leaving them, loved the moderns and reveled in where he came from, fought war and loved the army, hated the law and practiced it, preached in a church and didn’t believe in god, loved literature and walked away from teaching or writing about it – over and over and over again. He chose the margins.

“We have to endure the reality, digest it, and go on with our life” one of my students reflected earlier in the day, after we talked about grief in class.

But enduring it, looking at the pain, and transforming the negative into a new way of living, we achieve a kind of magical power, Marshal Berman wrote, paraphrasing Hegel, before his passing last year.

This meditation found its way into the performance at the theater, where I stretched my arms into the sky, remembered and lived.  This is a space to be in time to imagine, and exist, to dance, see friends, perform, be crazy and commune with the living and the dead.  There is no place to hide from these experiences, even if Dad did ridicule those who ducked away from them as "ontologically challenged." 

The billing for the show explained:

The Living Theatre celebrates its 67th season with the world premier of NO PLACE TO HIDE -- A new work-in-progress written and directed by Judith Malina

Thursday, March 27 @ 8PM

@ Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center (107 Suffolk Street)

At a time when surveillance is a household topic, NO PLACE TO HIDE asks about the how, why, and what of hiding, and takes the audience on a journey through the untold history of New York. Challenging political, philosophical, and moral spheres of concealment, the play questions the boundaries between the private and the public while blurring our sense of intimacy. 

NO PLACE TO HIDE looks at the reasons and consequences of hiding and invites the audience to explore alternatives together with the ensemble. The play about the human condition is presented in workshop format as a work-in-progress. This is the first production of the company after leaving their home of seven years on 21 Clinton St.

The Living Theatre was co-founded in 1947 by Judith Malina and Julian Beck. For more than six decades, the company has presented a unique body of work staging nearly a hundred productions and performing in nine languages in twenty-nine countries on five continents. Under Judith Malina's guidance and experience, The Living Theatre vigorously continues its ongoing research of innovative theatre forms involving audience participation and new methods of communication and social/political organization.

Throughout the show, we were lined up and forced to divulge secrets, many funny, as we meditated on those things we can’t hide from – including our own life and mortality.  Many smiled as we navigated this panopticon. Only the living theater could create a performance about surveillance which makes us all smile as we take part.  Somehow there is a relief in facing such fears.  

After the show, I rode home and looked at the sky, wondering about Dad, unshackled from this mortal coil, liberated from so many of the “ghosts and excitements” as godfather Richard had recalled his life.

Bye Dad.  Have a great trip, I thought riding over the Manhattan bridge, looking at the sky. 

A gift awaited me on my return. 

The night was a long one, full of memories, trembling grief and relief, and reflection, before waking the next day for a trip to Albany, returning for a court date for our disorderlyconduct charges from the week before.  Driving  up through the country, we saw the sun arise, falcons flying in the Catskills, and a truck burning to pieces.  The heat made its way into our van as we zoomed past.  Heat made its way into most of the day, of the night.

Hurry up and wait, that was the message at court.

“The law is an ass” I found myself recalling Dad’s fond expression, born of law school and years of practice.  Dad’s fond irreverence for most everything is perhaps my most enduring experience of him.
It’s a lingering, lovely part of a messy legacy.

After court, we ate at a greasy spoon and drove back, enjoying still more images of mountains and falcons, bridges and waterways, woods and creeks from Albany to New York City.

I looked at the Catskills and thought of My Side of the Mountain.   With these stories and ancestors, memories, spirits, bodies, ghosts, and memories, we stay connected in time.  Throughout the drive, i found myself thinking of John Donne’s metaphysical poetics and watching lives pass in front of our eyes:

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

And so, we all end where we began. So Dad, the relationship we build together from grilling chicken together on Sunday nights decades ago, through Mom, John, and Will leaving home for it to be just us for my school years, to music shows, to see Jerry Jeff Walker and Cafe Noir on Greenville Ave, the theater, poetry and stories we shared as the years continued and  grew older, it all lingers.  But these are connections in time, between hands spinning through the years, of knowing what the other might say, or laughing about what it was, and letting go, and holding onto to what life was and could be, of learning from what should not have been, and embracing what was, being patient with tempers, and feeling the connection with that past, and letting it go to be another person.  Letting go of the boy who needed the father, so desperately needed the father, and a father who mentored the boy through years of growing, writing, mom and the brothers moving out while we stayed, careers stress, and eventual tenure, to become the man who appreciated his friendship, as he became older and lost his ability to walk and remember, and had to let go.  

I think of him solitary in a hospital and I despair.  When I think of him flying away, it feels better to imagine.
These cycles of feelings churn through my mind, thinking of dad, hanging around the city and walking the streets where we used to walk, looking at the city he came to visit, that we shared.  

Remembering things we did on these streets.  Walking, going to the Village Vanguard, eating at El Quixote. Sitting at the bar after a football game or even a street riot as happen from time to time here.

Dad and my romping grounds in NYC.
El Qu
ixote for dinner and the Village Vanguard for jazz, and then back to the Chelsea Hotel to talk all night. 
The girls visiting at the Chelsea Hotel the last time Dad stayed there.
Below Jan
is, patti smith bob robert just kids, among other guests and scenes at the old hotel. 

Feb 15th, 2003, he visited New York, taking a stroll out of the Chelsea Hotel, where he was staying.  I was going to meet him in the streets, but didn’t find him until we both reconvened back at the hotel hours later on that day, that was later described as the largest day of protest in world history.  Dad took part in march turned street riot. 

The day of the rally, the City of New York had withheld permits, cut off the UFPJ’s phones, escalated terror alerts to discourage marchers, and shut down trains and transportation routs from Brooklyn to Manhattan and throughout the city–all contributing to a climate of panic. Despite the state imposed barriers, activists from all walks of life descended on city. The day of the march, the police sent horses to break up the marches, sought to separate crowds from each other, pushed marchers off sidewalks with batons, and tear gassed those in the streets. My father, a 66-year-old retired pastor, who was in town over the weekend observed, “We started out at 51st St, then 57th, then 62nd, and then 68th up 2nd Avenue. At 68th Street, we realized we were being pushed out of town. Every time we’d try to turn down to go to the rally, the police would push us up away from the rally. It was perfectly clear that was what they were trying to do. It was crowded like a VE day. They brought out batons to push us and we chanted, ‘Let us through!!! Let us through!!!’ Every time it would calm down, the police would try with to stop us, yet most of us broke through anyway. I was just a citizen trying to gather with other citizens to have a conversation with the President. I was trying to communicate how I felt about this. I’m a citizen. I pay for this war. My friends are going to go get shot for it. I’d like to have a say so. I don’t want to have my head patted or told what to think, being told my opinion doesn’t count. Being told to pay attention to people who know what they are doing like Kenny Boy and Dick Cheney, the important people. We’re going to war. Bush says, Trust me. I’ve got a memory long enough to remember the last time a president said, trust me, I have a secret plan. Nixon’s secret plan to get us out of Vietnam was to invade Cambodia. All Saturday, it was quite clear they were running the marchers out of the streets, like a defense used to run Tony Dorsett out of bounds. They were running people away from the rally.” By the end of the day, this 66-year-old retired pastor had engaged in direct action, working with a crowd to push up through a police line to get past police to get to the rally. And he was not alone.

Scenes from Feb 15th 2003 where Dad made his way through the crowd.

"We have always been scared of becom
ing communist," he explained at the time referring to the red scares which tear at the country periodically.  "But we never came close.  What we have become close to being is fascist."

Later that night, we took a subway back home to Brooklyn. 

“Looking good,” a homeless man commented, reflecting on my drag outfit I had been wearing at the riot as part of the Absurd Response team.

Dad loved that.

Once  in Brooklyn, he met our daughter for the first time. I’ll never forget walking into the house with Dad and seeing Dodi there, looking up at us, just three weeks old.

Dad loved so much, but confessed, he could only endure so much of it.  He was a first class snob and a supporter of the Beat Movement, which challenged so much of conventional narratives of the Post War Eisenhower era in which he grew up.  The beat movements transforming his way of seeing the world.   His memories of that period,  stories of learning to be his own person in an era of 1950’s total conformity, went on and on.  We talked about that era over and over again.  These conversations inspired me again and again.  My first oral histories were with Dad, as he reflected on this era.  I wrote down his musings for a class on the US in the World after WW2. 

My professor, one of the founding faculty at the college, specifically referred to my paper in the class noting:

“And Benjamin interviewed his dad who a part of the Beat Movement.” 

Maybe there might be something for me in these oral histories? They helped me love looking at history.
Years, later my essay “History, Narrative, and Sexual Identity: Gay Liberation and Post-War Movements for Sexual Freedom in the United States" in P.  Hammack and B. Cohler’s. The Story of Sexual Identity: Narrative, Social Change, and the Development of Sexual Orientation,” featured another interview with Dad about the Beats.

Preparing for the essay, Dad and I read through Howl  together, taking it apart, piece by piece, line by line. The story of the poem, was very much a narrative which transformed Dad’s life, catapulting him from Harvard, out West into another way of seeing the world.  This was a generational pursuit. Dad’s experience in this movement was my entree into seeing history as a living entity, something ebbing and flowing from the past into our current moment.  

Writing about the Beats, my essay situated a young Dad among the crowd in post-War San Francisco:

Among the waves of dreamers to find their way to San Francisco was a group of writers, who came to inspire a new movement for freedom…

Allan Ginsberg

Perched in a smoky coffee house deep in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, Ginsberg would contribute to this burgeoning queer civil society with one of the great feats of recently literary history. He first read, performed, screamed “Howl” at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955. The first lines are now familiar enough, yet from the vantage point of 1950s America, they are striking:

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, angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night (Ginsberg 1956). 

“Howl” is a spiritual poem, full of references to the Old Testament, the sky, and illumination. The poem is a deadly attack on material culture. “I dropped out of college and hitchhiked to San Francisco after I read it,” recalled Reverend Jack Shepard (2006), who was an undergraduate student at Harvard at the time. “It was an apocryphal poem about breaking out of the mold that they were trying to put us in.”

While “Howl” did not explicitly speak out about gay liberation, its striking imagery did openly express longing for another way of being in the world and the plight of those on the social margins:

animal screams and suicides! Minds! New loves! Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time!
Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the
roof! to solitude! waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!

Within this search for another way of being in the world, the poem features images of queer sexuality with a positive, albeit tongue-in-cheek humor:

I'm with you in Rockland where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs
all night and won't let us sleep.

This passage, like much of the poem, is a nod to Walt Whitman: a wry queer reference. The passage about cuddling under the sheets in the madhouse is one of many queer references in the poem. The poem’s heroes are those who struggle to live authentically, those who could feel, those who, Ginsberg wrote:

broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons,
who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in police cars for committing no crime but their own wild
cooking pederasty and intoxication.

“Committing no crime” is a reference to police enforcement of blue laws and harassment of homosexuals. The following line refers to those who were arrested for partaking in the public sexual culture of queer meeting spaces such as subways—a historic cruising groundfor gay men (Munoz 1996; Turner 2003). Here, the image of those taking risks for contact

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering
their semen freely to whomever come who may,
who hiccuped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond
& naked angel came to pierce them with a sword,
who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar.

Ginsberg’s narrative links capital with heterosexuality in what queer theorists of a generation later would describe as “heteronormativity,” in which the opposition is normativity, not necessarily heterosexuality itself (Warner 1993). Just a few lines earlier, he refers to Marlon Brando and the “saintly motorcyclists” from a film of the same period, The Wild One.

At its foundation, “Howl” is a poem is about love and lack of love. “They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!” What emerges within this narrative is a cultural abundance, capable of cultural transformation, “lifting the city to Heaven.”

Of course, the “Moloch” Ginsberg speaks of is an Old Testament reference to a Palestinian fire god to whom children were sacrificed. For Ginsberg, Moloch is the answer to what it was that drove the children crazy. She is a manifestation of cultural dependence on commerce, a deity of materialism. Within the lines that follow, the poem traces a broad desperate frustration with the commoditization, the blandification of U.S. cultural life in the 1950s:

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys
sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose
buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!

With Moloch’s blood “running money!...whose fingers are ten armies,” Ginsberg turns “Howl” into a broad critique of the alienation of 1950’s U.S. culture, the fixation on money, and the venal quantification of everyday life. This is not to say, however, that Ginsberg’s condemnation is anything less than culturally global.
While “Howl” never speaks to the politics of early homosexual organizing, it reflects themes which would accompany many of the narratives of gay liberation: a call for an end to attacks on public sexuality, an appreciation for the spiritual potential of Eros, and a critique of consumer culture an all its material trappings.

Perhaps the greatest condemnation that Ginsberg leveled against the entire culture that drove his generation mad can be encapsulated in the single word “lacklove.” “Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch.” The term “cocksucker” here is rendered as an insult, albeit with queer imagery. With the phrase, Ginsberg is catching the erotic. The next, “lacklove,” is a critique of capitalism and its own perversions: you, Moloch, lack love¾you throw me in jail for being with a man. And here the poem speaks very specifically to the conditions of the burgeoning movements for sexual and social freedom. It is the lack of love that is driving everyone mad. There is no love in an ammunition dump. It is not getting love that drives people crazy. It was a message before it time.

Dad read the poem to my friends and myself several occasions.  We talked, laughed, and wondered about what he was talking about. We talked about Moloch.  And as the years continued, the story opened up.
The beats inspired Dad in ways few of could imagine, creating a redemptive narrative he lived for decades of his life. It  helped him see the road as a liminal space, opening us to experience something of a “holy America.”   These poems helped him see streets and minds could be filled with words, creating an alchemy of nonsensical verse, that helped us define ourselves, opening up alternate narratives of living. It transformed his life, as it did mine. 

Reading it and walking through the city streets of San Francisco, of Manhattan  we used to stroll, thinking of dad, it is hard not to imagine the memories as ghosts walking down the living theater of our city streets, their reflection lingering in the colors in the rain, in the illusions between bodies, crowds, and memories.

As the years went on we always read poetry when we hung out, those poems chiming through Dad’s head, a chorus of voices ringing across the theater of his mind. Sometimes we read as we drove or camped along the California Coast.  As the years went on, i just visited him in Texas where we drove or just stayed home and read. 

“You are like the poem Dad,” I confessed to him the last time I saw him, reflecting on the Robert Frost poems we’d been reading and his lust for another day to live and be, to love and watch movies and enjoy those around him. Somehow, Dad seemed to give up his resentments and frustrations as he got older.  “You are the thought that wanted further thinking. That’s like you,”  I smiled, looking at him as he lay in bed, referring to the Robert Frost poem we had been reading. He was smiling too. “That’s me.”
All these years later, even with the battles lost and won.  We had come full circle.

That was late January 2014.  

Over the next month, he was less and less able to take my calls.  I’d call and he would not pick up or he would be in the hospital.   When I did reach him, he was still anxious to get out the hospital, for us to read more poems together. 

“Next time, we’ll read the Outlaw Book of Poetry,” the book of beat, outsider poems Dad loved.
“We’ll just get together and read some stories.”

  On another call I asked if poems were still running through his head.

“Less now, less,” he confessed, as if acknowledging that he was going into a quieter space, an internal room, where the chorus was more solitary. But the stage was opening, into a vaster place, beyond the limitations of our temporal bodies. 


We are all a part of this living theater, sharing in this globe theater of our streets and minds. The world outside the stage is really the illusion, Dad reminded me over and over again.   The real world is the stage.  I’ll enjoy staying connected with my Dad, bumping into him in the corners of my mind, grabbing a seat together, sharing a seat and a memory in the Globe Theater. 

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