Allen Ginsberg and me

I see that this fall will bring two new movies about Allen Ginsberg and the beats, which reminds me, since I’m getting along in years, that it’s time to try to recapture more of my memories of Allen.

I met Allen in October of 1946. I was a member of a class of Lionel Trilling’s at Columbia that was discussing William Blake. Allen was sitting in that day, and his observations about Blake impressed me enough that I struck up a conversation walking out of Hamilton Hall and proceeding to the Amsterdam Avenue bus stop. Amazingly, after boarding the bus at 116th Street, and leaving it at 92nd, we found ourselves entering the same building, at 200 West 92nd (Considerably spiffed up, it was still standing the last time I was in Manhattan.) He lived on the second floor in Mrs. O’Connor’s apartment, and I lived on the fourth in Mrs. Goldhurst’s.

I liked to think of myself as cool, though the word was not in use back then. The fact was that I was nineteen, had only arrived from West Virginia in January of that year, and was not nearly as sophisticated as I thought I was. To say that I found much of what I learned from Allen novel if not shocking would be a considerable understatement.

The first lesson was easy: it was to say “hip” instead of “hep.” The second, however, took a little more adjusting to. Allen introduced me to one of his friends, a gaunt thirty-one-year-old named Herbert Huncke, describing him as a petty thief and hustler, words that had theretofore not struck me as commendatory. (By the way, in those days Allen used the term “beat” to refer not to himself or Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady, but to people like Herbert, who seemed drained of hope and resigned to life on the margins.) Allen and Herbert introduced me to marijuana, a substance that had been unknown at my high school in Charleston. And while I was just worldly enough to realize that Reefer Madness had exaggerated the drug’s perils, I wasn’t quite sure by how much. In any event, it turned out that I couldn’t inhale, which would later make me the only living citizen of the United States of America who believed Bill Clinton.

Allen had met Herbert through their mutual friend William Burroughs, who, Allen would later tell me, had tried to imitate William Tell with a .22 pistol but had missed and accidentally killed his wife Joan. Was Allen making this stuff up? Then he told me about how his friend Lucien Carr had not only murdered his gay lover in Riverside Park but had gotten away with it. Allen assured me that Lucien now had his life back together, working as a reporter for United Press. Still, you will understand that it was with fascination tinged with wariness that my friendship with Allen began. It was to last for fifty years. More about it next time.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.