North Beach, San Francisco
Wherever I go this morning I see Allen Ginsberg, the poet and author of Howl. He was in City Lights Books earlier when I left a message at the sales desk for my wife, Gina. He followed me next door to Vesuvio’s where I went for my breakfast of tomato juice and beer. Later, when I again checked the bookstore for Gina’s possible reply, he was on the sidewalk schmoozing with a couple of guys. Finally, when I went across the street to El Cyd for some serious drinking, he again followed. No doubt about it, Allen Ginsberg is shadowing me.
I don’t know Ginsberg, but I know a lot of people who do. Gina and I saw him read in Los Angeles earlier this year at some sort of “happening” at UCLA. He had recently returned from India where, I am told, he studied with some Swami or another, and now sports a full beard and wears traditional Hindu garb at public appearances. For most of his UCLA reading he sat cross-legged on the stage while plucking at a stringed instrument and chanting mantras. Or maybe singing, I don’t know. He is becoming as much a California curiosity as he is a poet.
But why is he following me around North Beach? I don’t play in his league.
Yesterday morning Gina called me in Portland from San Francisco. She said she was sick and needed money. We are separated, with me living in Oregon and working at a Portland college, and Gina living in Los Angeles. A trial separation is how we described it last summer, but a month ago she wrote and said that she was going to pack her traveling gear in our station wagon and drive up for what she called an attempt at reconciliation. She got as far as San Francisco.
Actually, she didn’t get that far. She stopped at La Honda, a crossroads village in the redwoods west of Palo Alto. We were up there last year when I taped an interview with Ken Kesey for Pacifica Radio where I was a news director. We stayed a few days at a nearby motel and joined the ongoing party each night at Ken’s big place in the woods. We met Neal Cassady, Mountain Girl, Jerry Garcia, Ken Babbs and other Merry Pranksters, as they call themselves. My guess is that Gina decided to drop in to say “Hi” on her way north but ended up staying. And then ran out of money and got sick.
It was a strange phone call yesterday. Apart from informing me that she was ill and needed money, she rambled on about an upcoming ”Vietnam Day” demonstration scheduled for next week at Berkeley, and about how the Hell’s Angels are partying with the Merry Pranksters, and that things are coming together for a transcendental awakening here in America that will change the direction of the human race. It wasn’t just a strange phone call, it was skizzy. I hope she was just tripping on LSD — which she has grown fond of in the past year — and hasn’t completely lost her mind.
After she abruptly hung up, I called Kesey’s place and spoke with Fay, Ken’s wonderful wife, who told me Gina wasn’t there but that she could get a message to her within a couple of hours. I asked her to tell Gina to either meet me at City Lights Books at 10 a.m. today or leave a message at the desk. The magic word of course is ”Kesey.” He is a celebrity on North Beach and especially at the bookstore. I gave my faculty friend Dawson the keys to both my apartment and my battered TR-3, withdrew $500 from my bank, and caught the Greyhound overnight express to San Francisco, figuring I’d have to drive the station wagon with Gina back to Oregon.
So here I am on a beautiful bright Saturday morning in October, waiting for Gina to either show up or leave a message for me. It’s almost noon, I’m half-drunk, and Allen Ginsberg is still dogging my steps. But I think I’ve got it figured out: he’s checking me out for Gina. I know he’s been hanging out at Kesey’s La Honda place where she’s been staying, she told me so yesterday. I think Gina’s afraid of me for some reason, although I can’t figure out why. There’s never been any physical violence in our relationship, or even the threat of it. But whatever it was that brought us together, lust or love or a combination of both, has faded. We’re bored with each other. We’ve been together for three years and the fire has already gone out.
After playing a few rounds of Liars’ Dice with the bartender, I decide to go down the street to Mike’s Poolroom, which is actually a lunchroom and bar, for a bowl of its famous white minestrone soup. As I leave I bump into — who else? — Ginsberg. He’s standing out in front talking to a young man, Peter Orlovsky, his longtime partner who was with him at the reading in Los Angeles. Peter has the longest hair I’ve ever seen on a man, hanging mid-way down his back. The two of them would probably stop traffic in most other American cities — a fully-bearded man wearing a Hindu kurta, and the other looking like a Prell shampoo commercial — but on San Francisco’s North Beach no one seems to notice.
“Excuse me.” I say.“You’re Allen Ginsberg, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” he says. “Can I help you?”
“Are you following me?”
“Why do you think I’m following you?”
I say, “Because I’m a paranoid and I always think I’m being followed.”
He smiles. “Do you really?”
“No, but I almost tripped over you three times this morning.”
He turns to Orlovsky and says, ”Peter, could you? … it’s okay…” And the younger man smiles at me and moves down the sidewalk, his glossy locks swaying behind him as he walks.
“So, what’s up?” I ask. “What’s Gina afraid of?”
“Gina — my wife — lovely red-haired young woman from L.A.. She’s staying out at Kesey’s place, where you are also staying, or so she says.”
“I left a message for her with Fay to meet me this morning at City Lights. She called me yesterday and said she was sick and needs money. So here I am — dutiful husband and bank messenger.”
“I’m not ‘staying’ at La Honda,” he says. “I’ve got my own place here in town.”
“But you do know Gina?”
“Yes, I suppose I do.”
“Then why the run-around?” I ask. “Why is she having me followed around this morning? What’s she afraid of?”
“She’s not exactly afraid for herself.” he says.
“I don’t understand.”
“She says you have a gun.”
“Of course I have a gun. I’ve had it since I got out of the Army over ten years ago. It’s in my foot locker in Portland.” I open my jacket and turn to show him that I’m not armed, and as I do I see Peter Orlovsky at the end of the block talking to … Neal Cassady.
Ah-ha. Now I get it.
Cassady ducks into a doorway and Peter turns to look at us.
“Dean Moriarity.” I laugh.
“Pardon me?” Ginsberg says.
“Gina’s running with Cassady,” I say, “and she’s afraid I might shoot him!”
“Things are kind of crazy out at Kesey’s place,” he says.
“It’s a goddamn acid bath.” I say, “LSD fuels paranoia like kerosene on a fire.”
“Some of their imaginations do run wild…”
“Look: I’m sorry you got involved in this, man, but the movie playing in Gina’s head is nonsense … my part as the insanely jealous husband is absolutely absurd.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to determine.” he says.
”But she is my wife,” I say, ”and I owe her that agreement, because the ‘for better or worse’ business is not nonsense. Tell her I’m at Mike’s having lunch. I’ve got some money for her.”
“She is sick, but I don’t know what it …”
“I’ll get her to a doctor, too.”
“Okay.” he says, and rips a page from a notebook and writes out his address for me. “Come on by. We’re there most of the time. I’d like to talk to you further.”
“I’ll probably do that,” I say.
“I’ve heard you on radio … Gina says you’re on a sort of sabbatical.”
“I’m kind of a roving correspondent this year.”
The clever little fucker, I think. He knows we’ve got a potential listening audience of 10 million on the west coast alone, not counting our New York station. And I recall he once worked in product marketing…
“Maybe do an interview.” I say.*
“I’d like that.” he smiles. “Sure, sure, we could do that.”
Lucerne, California (2011)
Gina came into Mike’s before I finished the bowl of minestrone. She must have been just around the corner, safely out of sight. For a beautiful woman she looked like shit. We ended up leaving for Los Angeles the next morning. She was definitely sick: interstitial cystitis, the so-called ”honeymoon disease.” I had to rent a car because Cassady had disappeared with the station wagon. After seeing her own doctor and undergoing a brief hospital stay, she rested up at our Topanga Canyon house for a few weeks. When she recovered her health and enough of her sanity, she went off on her own. Actually, she joined the Hog Farm commune and went off on their bus, so the question of her sanity was debatable. But there was no question that our marriage was finally, absolutely, over.
I went back to La Honda to pick up the station wagon. Its new whitewalls had been traded for gas and replaced with black retreads, the Telefunken sound system had been stripped and sold, and one of the tail light covers was missing and replaced with translucent red tape. It broke down on the return trip to L.A. and I spent a couple days in a motel at King City waiting on a new fuel pump. It was hardly worth the expense to get it back and repaired. The same could probably be said for Gina. Neal Cassady, Denver’s most famous drugstore cowboy, had typically ridden both my car and my wife hard and put them up wet. They were pretty much worn out.
It’s a hard life … on the road.
* We never did do the interview. The next time I saw Ginsberg was over a year later at the San Francisco “Human Be-In” at Golden Gate Park. It was also the last time I saw him. He was still chanting.