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Two Lives in the Days of Allen Ginsberg

by Michael Steinberg


Autumn 1996

I'd meant to get to the bookstore on Haight Street an hour before he was to appear, but the transcendent beauty of another late fall San Francisco afternoon had gotten the best of me. So when I did arrive the modest number of seats had already been taken, and people were standing 10 deep behind them. I found a spot that afforded me a clear view of the podium and started doing my time until the sage would reveal himself.

Time. How long had it been since I'd seen Allen Ginsberg? There'd been his image on TV last summer in the midst of more contra drug smuggling revelations. They'd allowed the madman a few non-soundbiteable incantations before cutting back to their commercial world.

But in the flesh? That seemed like another lifetime ...

Spring 1970

We'd all come to New Haven on May Day to save Black Panther Bobby Seale from being framed on a murder rap by the fascist pig state. Nixon had just invaded Cambodia, and we'd shut down nearly every university and college across the nation.

We'd taken over the New School in Greenwich Village where I was begrudgingly enrolled and turned it into an organizing center for resistance to the Vietnam War. The fact that Ellsworth Bunker, US ambassador to Vietnam, was an "honorary" trustee at our school, was exposed and further enraged us.

I didn't give a flying fuck about school what with the world going to hell before my eyes. The idiotic isolation of academia at the time was fully illuminated when the New Left guerrilla group the Weather Underground blew themselves and their brownstone to bits earlier that year in what the media called the Greenwich Village Bomb Factory on West 10th Street.

At that very moment I had a class scheduled at the New School just up the block. But as was my habit those days, I'd purposefully slept through it. The next time I saw someone from my class I asked what's they'd done when the explosion ripped through the building down the street. "We looked up," he said. "Then we went back to what we were doing."

No more looking back now. We were going forward to the Revolution, and no one could stop us. Everyone was in New Haven. Earlier that May day, Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden had spoken to us from the New Haven Green while National Guardsmen in full battle gear with fixed bayonets had surrounded us on all sides.

Abbie said if the pigs didn't free Bobby we were going to send the court building across the street to the fucking moon, and promised that we'd liberate the New England states by the fall. Tom said the time for action had come, and that this was probably the last speech he'd ever make.

I wanted to believe it all, but back where I came from, 40-some miles east and a world away in southeastern Connecticut, they were putting the finishing touches on another General Dynamics-built ballistic missile nuclear submarine, and getting ready to fire up the first of what would eventually be three wretched nuclear power plants at Millstone Point.

And undoubtedly making the final preparations for another high school buddy who'd gone off to Vietnam with a duffel bag and come back stuffed in a body bag. For that matter, there were probably people I knew out around the Green right now with fixed bayonets in the National Guard.

After the speeches we'd filed back to Yale, where they'd graciously offered us free room and board after we'd threatened to take the campus over too.

On the main quad they'd set up a stage where radical rock bands entertained us as the evening came on. I positioned myself next to the bank of speakers on one side and took in the swarming electrified sights and sounds.

Suddenly word went out that some of us had gone back down to the Green to bring the war home by taking on the pigs and the capitalist system. They were trashing everything in sight and clashing with the Nutmeg State National Guard.

We fully expected the pigs to invade our sanctuary, just as they had the Viet Cong's in Cambodia. The rockers abandoned the stage and panic swept through the night. Someone got on the microphone and gave hurried instructions about how to deal with doses of tear gas, which the Guard was unleashing on our off campus comrades, whom I wasn't feeling too fucking comradely towards just then.

In the midst of this madness he appeared on stage, a long-haired, much-bearded bespectacled freak with a harmonium. He squeezed out soothing sounds and improvised wisdoms that brought us all back together in the name of why most of us were really there, for peace and freedom and sanity, and yeah yeah yeah, love.

Here he was, an openly homosexual older man, acting the father to the afflicted flock of youth that had wandered off into the fields of violence and hate.

I could still feel the stunned silence in our crowd from that afternoon when a speaker from the Gay Liberation Front had railed, "We need to off the word 'faggot' from the Movement!" Everything was changing so fast, and anything seemed possible.

Back in the night, at one point the sage droned to those at the far end of the quad to come back in, to stop hanging around that flashpoint "like Brooklyn drugstore cowboys." The humor and warmth of his words reassured me that this world and the next, today and tomorrow, were all one, and one way or another we were gonna be OK.

This momentary epiphany fled into the riotous night when the tear gas stung me and I ran into the dorms where someone gave me a wet cloth and helped me clear my vision. But the National Guard cleared the quad with their chemical warfare without ever coming near.

Except for a few. Allen Ginsberg staying sitting crosslegged on the stage throughout the fray, not to be silenced or exiled, the eye in the storm that saw it all through to the end.

Myself, I couln't stomach the idea of myself, a Jew, being gassed into submission. But then I wasn't a Jewish Buddhist like him.

A few days later the pigs killed students at Jackson State and Kent State. The next year I went back and finished school forever. I lived on East 10th Street between B and C on the Lower East Side, and I would sometimes see Allen Ginsberg walking the steets of our neighborhood in a long flowing robe, with a staff, smiling, like a prophet of old in Babylon.

More than a quarter century later, I looked over my shoulder and saw that it was now standing room only all the way out onto Haight Street.

We were told he wasn't feeling well, had a touch of the flu, and when he came out to read from his new selected works, he looked aged and ill.

He started off by playing the title piece from his new CD, Ballad of the Skeletons, on which he was accompanied by the likes of Paul McCartney and Phillip Glass.

Then he began reading and reciting, in the baritone unchanged and as engaging as it had been all those years ago on that tear gas filled state in the quad at Yale.

His spirit and vision again brought us together and as he wove his spell it became clear that we were in the presence of one who we'd likely not see again in our time. His selections became progressively more what we used to call political, concluding with one about homelessness as a new version of "Amazing Grace."

Before reciting it he told of some friends who lived on the streets of the Bowery in New York for a few days to witness what it was like. "They said the cold was hard, the food was horrible," he said. "But the worst thing was the isolation, totally being ignored."

A nice summation of the corporatized view of the '90s, and what's gonna happen to you, kid, if you don't cooperate. They'd like us to believe nothing much can really change, not much good is possible for us.

Abbie decided on Suicide For the Hell of It, and Tom recently went down to resounding defeat in LA in what may become a living death.

But Bobby Seale is still, in his own way, free. And so are the many thousands, in our hearts if not our minds, who came to New Haven that quarter century's spring ago, the millions who took to the streets. For spring must always return.

The world's National Guards may momentarily isolate us, but their masters can never again ignore the vision that one young man, confused and supposedly insane, howled at them:

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 ...


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