A Beat in the House

The first time I met Allen Ginsberg he peed on
my foot. But, that is not the only thing I remember about the vaunted
poet of the “Beat Generation.”

Allen Ginsberg had been called down to speak at Rice University
as part of some kind of lecture series featuring unpredictable poets.
A few weeks before Ginsberg’s arrival in Houston, the campus
grew uneasy. James Dickey, the university’s last visiting
poet, had stormed through the halls of Rice snot-slinging drunk
and upon his “reading” scooped up the first piece of
literature he saw and began to recite the emcee’s introduction,
eventually flailing off of a makeshift dais onto the seat of the
Proctor’s wife.

So, it was with a sense of trepidation that Rice University welcomed
Allen Ginsberg. There were stories of mescaline-fueled rampages
that either spawned the genius of “Howl” or found Ginsberg
trying to make a collect phone call to Yahweh. Which Ginsberg would
we see? I confess, however, that I didn’t ask myself this
question because at the time of the venerable poet’s appearance,
I was only nine years old.

My father, a professor of history at Rice and my mother, then working
at an art gallery, were enlisted to be what the university calls
“Masters.” Rice is set up like Oxford, with seven residential
“colleges” within the superstructure of the university.
Each college has a pair of Masters whose job it is to talk students
out of jumping off of the campanile in LSD-fueled curiosity, break-up
food-fights in the dining commons and bail 18-23 year old drunks
out of the campus gulag. For this, the Masters were given a house
on campus that could accommodate a small family and the occasional
Beat poet.

For a nine year old, campus life was like a wonderland. Endless
quads to run around playing “sniper” with my little
friends and cool college quasi-grownups who treated me as one of
their own (Of course, I now realize that Will X was more scared
of being caught giving Larry Y a torrential palm-job on his couch
than he was of my faux M-16 as I barged into his room unannounced)
made for absolute pre-teen nirvana. I also became a staple at the
campus party scene where it became my job to suck the foamy heads
off of ill-poured beers. My father put a stop to this practice,
though, after one night when I expelled the foamy contents of my
stomach on the family dog, an ornery cocker spaniel called “Fudge.”

While I don’t remember the specific rigmarole involved in
luring an aging Allen Ginsberg to Rice, I do recall that we got
him for a song. At one point, I was moved to hang up on his agent
who had been looking for Ginsberg for around a month (Ginsberg had
been living a chaste life in some grotto in Kansas at the time)
as I wasn’t sure who or what “that crotchety old queen
is doing in fucking Houston.” I was told we were going to
have a visitor of some renown, but I was virtually certain that
no kind of queen had ever found her way into our modest house and
when my parents reported my frustration with the agent, Ginsberg
pissed himself at our house for the first time.

I assume that Ginsberg arrived in Houston after my bed time, because
I was more than a little confused when I woke up to feast on some
leftover cookies when an odd looking man with crooked eyeglasses,
sweating profusely and clad only in some thermal pajamas approached
me and rubbed my hair avuncularly.

“Hey, man” Ginsberg offered in his gentle baritone.
“You have any juice?” I panicked for a moment, thinking
that my family had been slaughtered by this sweaty, juice-monger,
but soon realized that this must be our honored guest and I squeaked
out a whimpered, “Yes.” I pointed Ginsberg to the refrigerator
where he removed a carton of orange juice and sipped it straight
from the box. This forbidden maneuver excited me and I asked him
to pass the carton on to me. I emulated the outlaw drinking technique
and felt an immediate kinship between us. This dude was all right.

My parents came down stairs shortly and introduced the two of us,
remarking to me that our visiting poet had recorded a song with
The Clash, my favorite group at the time. While true I had never
heard a song by The Clash, I had seen a picture of them decked out
in army fatigues, which made them slightly cooler than my next favorite
band, Iron Maiden who, though blessed with a mascot who ate brains,
never really piqued my interest as a cohesive “band.”

Ginsberg spoke slowly, deliberately: “Yeah, I do a little
chant at the end of ‘Ghetto Defendant.’” He then
closed his eyes and began to mumble “Gat-eh gat-eh para-gateh,
gone, gone, o’er gone,” for an eternity. My father rolled
his eyes at me and I laughed, sending Ginsberg into a rage. He seemed
not so mad that we had disrespected his mantra, but that we had
interrupted a moment of inner peace and serenity.

“Son of a bitch,” he said. “I just pissed myself.”
He had. As Ginsberg ambled up to the guest room to change, my mother
followed him, offering her sympathy and some boxed cinnamon oatmeal.
He passed on the oatmeal and continued up to his room (located one
room down the hall from mine) to presumably change and perhaps finish
his mantra. I felt horrible for laughing and scolded my father for
making me insult this man with whom I had established a musical
and somewhat roguish juice-quaffing bond.

“Ah, son,” my father said. “He peed on you.”
I looked to see the workings of my sock and his urine molecules
fusing into one. My father fell into a fit of uproarious laughter.
“You’ve just been peed on by a famous poet.” Poet
or no poet, famous or pedestrian, I still couldn’t get around
the fact that when it comes down to it, a weird old man peeing on
you is just what it is—uncomfortable.

Morning drove on and since it was Saturday, I spent the better
part of the A.M. playing Frogger on my Atari 2600. Frogger was one
of those games that inspired fear in all takers. That little low-res
frog that resembled a pneumoniac’s loogie must first dodge
a barrage of automobiles whose velocity increase with every level
completed. Then across a haunting stream of disappearing and reappearing
driftwood, the driftwood often home to menacing creatures that off
one’s balance and try the soul. Then, the real bete noir.
Assume you pass the whizzing of cars and the vicissitudes of the
driftwood gauntlet, one is then faced with a true reckoning of one’s
mettle—the alligator infested “home base.” With
just enough aperture to squeeze your frog into the base on level
1, as the levels increase, the pace of the game whirrs and it is
all one can do not to have a coronary, even at age nine. I sweated
and steered my frog until he could take no more and was devoured
by a crocodile around level 5. At this, I cracked my knuckles (“Tyler,
stop doing that! Dr. Richards says it gives you arthritis!) and
hit reset to embark on another round when I heard the all too familiar
baritone: “You killed the frog, man.” I looked behind
me to see Ginsberg, now showered and somewhat plausible—a
welcome difference from his former incarnation as an incontinent
sack of lackluster amino acids. He smiled at me.

“Yeah,” I said. “I can’t get past level
5.” I think that in retrospect it would have been nice of
me to apologize to the king of the Beats for laughing at his mantra,
but in front of the 2600, that was my sanctum sanctorum and no maudlin
apology was going to push me past level 5.

“You want to play?” I asked. I now think what a ridiculous
thing people might think that was to ask Allen Ginsberg. But, aside
from being nine, I think I’d still rather play Frogger with
Walt Whitman than talk to him about slant rhyme.

“Where should I sit,” asked Ginsberg. Since I presumed
that the poet hadn’t had much exposure to Frogger, I offered
him my chair in front of the TV and I moved to the floor. He could
have the handicap, but I had to wrest away my controller from his
hands, explaining that he had to take the cold, unused joystick.
I like my controls warmed. I began to explain the intricacies of
the game to him. “This joystick moves the frog up and down
and side to side,” I said. “Avoid the cars and don’t
let the logs disappear.” I guessed correctly that he wouldn’t
make it to home base anytime soon, so I would explain that to him
later. I’ve seen worse, though. One time my parents invited
a Chinese historian of some note to our home and when I challenged
him to a game of Frogger, he took the joystick in his hands and
promptly had a heart attack. The historian, like Ginsberg, is dead
now, but not because of Frogger.

Ginsberg began to take a liking to Frogger. He had interesting
questions about the frog’s motivation and the ephemeral qualities
of the driftwood logs. He even managed to make it to Level 2 at
which point my pre-pubescent male pride swelled up and I made him
wait for thirty minutes while I racked up as many points possible.
I believe he understood my behavior, as all poets and children are
innocent, albeit fierce competitors.

Around lunchtime, a knot of patchouli-lathered co-eds and former
counter-culture professors rolled in to our home via sandal or in
the case of the latter, via Saab. I am giving my sense of irony
at age nine too much credit—but someone must have noticed
this. I recall my looking over my shoulder more than Ginsberg did.
In fact, I don’t remember him looking over his shoulder even
once. We had tired of Frogger and moved on to “Combat.”
Again, in retrospect it seems odd that a man known for bringing
quietude and understanding between Hell’s Angels and peaceniks
would be so enthralled by a game that consisted of blowing up your
opponent with opposing tanks. He couldn’t get enough of it.
I think of Peter the Great who toiled as a common laborer in the
shipyards of England while on hiatus from greatness. He became,
as legend has it, one of the most accomplished ship-builders in
England. And so it was with Ginsberg on his time away from poetry.
I have never, in all my years, taken a beating so badly at “Combat.”

“It’s the angles, man,” he said to me. “You
have to look at the angles. Anticipate where your shells are going
to bounce. You can’t be too aggressive. You have to wait…wait…wait
for the right moment” then BANG, my pastel green tank exploded
in a blast of low-res gore, leaving me hopping mad and Ginsberg
eager for more.

I imagine what the onlookers were saying.

“Is Allen Ginsberg playing “Combat?”

“What a bold naturalism he displays at the controls.”

“I see tendencies in his later work to eschew the jejune
deliberations on life and art. This makes sense to me. This makes
sense to God.”

“Does anybody know where to get some pot?”

During one of our battles, my father approached Ginsberg to inform
him that lunch was going to be served and would he like to meet
some of the students and sundry professors.

“One damned minute,” he growled, maneuvering his tank
toward a bunker.

“Yeah, dad, one damned minute,” I aped. My father began
to grumble something about how “profanity would not be tolerated
in my house,” but Ginsberg set him straight.

“Forgive them father, said the man on the cross one Friday
long ago,” he said, proceeding to annihilate another one of
my tanks.

Many people assume that Allen Ginsberg was a vegetarian. At one
stage of his life this may have been so, but I maintain that while
the bemused guests talked reverently, then impatiently about the
old poet playing video games with a nine year old, he and I shared
a bucket of Popeye’s extra crispy as we moved on from “Combat”
to “River Raid” to “Pitfall” to “Q-bert.”
At Q-bert, Ginsberg finally left to meet his guests, explaining
the game was “making me fucking nuts.” Upset at the
endgame, but satisfied, I sat at the common table where academician
glares burned starbursts through my over-sized army fatigues.

Students and professors alike asked him all sorts of questions
that I didn’t try to understand. I ate more Popeye’s
extra crispy and wondered, for the first time in my life: How come
some people get more attention than I do? I had been the star of
my elementary school the entire six-week period, as it was discovered
that I could throw up on command. Now this old curmudgeon was stealing
my thunder.

I hadn’t told my parents that my newly discovered “talent,”
nor had I told them that my talent had been cultivated by my entrepreneurial
colleague, Ira, who charged our fellow classmates a nickel to watch
me throw up behind the jungle gym at recess.

Annoyed at all the questions and attention lavished on Ginsberg,
I began to tickle the back of my throat with my tongue. Since nobody
had any inclination that the bespectacled red-head at the far end
of the table was up to something, my coup de grace came as a compete
surprise. I vomited, once again, on Fudge the dog, causing mayhem
and a quick exodus of all the dinner guests to other, less pestilent
locations.

“Oh, my God!” my mother screamed, “are you sick?”

“No, I can do it whenever I want,” I replied.

“What the hell is the matter with you, Tyler?” my father
continued, as my mother ran after Fudge with a mop.

“I just wanted everybody to see.”

“See you throw up?”

“Yeah.”

“Christ, we should have had another kid,” my father
said, “This one is a god-damned socio-path. . . Go clean yourself
up. We have to get to the commons for Mr. Ginsberg’s reading.
You, you lunatic, will stay here and clean up the floor and clean
your stinking dog. We’ll bring you some dinner, but you are
not leaving this house.”

I couldn’t see what the big deal was with missing a “reading.”
I still don’t, to be honest, except for the free wine. So,
while Ginsberg read, I toiled around our empty house, practicing
one of those odious beginner scales on the family piano, organizing
my baseball cards by year and coloring my Star Wars action figures
with red marker to give them a battle-weary look. The sun went down
and I lay in bed reading “Mad” magazines, then fell
asleep.

I woke to Allen Ginsberg sitting on my trundle bed and singing
some unintelligible song. I will never forget that baritone—it’s
what all poets should sound like. When Ginsberg saw that I had been
roused by his melody, he smiled and produced a bowl of green peas
and a plastic spoon.

“Hey, man. Hey little man,” he whispered. “I
brought us some peas.” I have never shared peas with anybody
else in my life, I think, but I shared them with Ginsberg. I must
have thought that was weird, sharing a bowl of peas with an old
man. But I can’t remember. I don’t even particularly
like peas. I will say that I find peas to be the most innocuous
foodstuff on the planet, aside from raisins. There is violence in
chicken.

Ginsberg and I didn’t say much to each other, sharing those
peas. I may have asked him some more about “The Clash.”

It turns out that the reason why Ginsberg kept pissing himself
was because he was passing a kidney stone. I learned this as my
father, his colleague Jobe, Ginsberg and I all shuffled into our
beat-up, periwinkle-blue Toyota Corrola to take Ginsberg to the
airport the following morning. My father and I laid down beach towels
on the car seats, as a quantity of tar had melted all over the seats
in the Houston heat—this was a regular procedure, not just
one limited to dignitaries. In fact, our family rolled out the beach
towel treatment for our 41st President when he was the ambassador
to China. But that is a different story.

All the way to the airport, Jobe was asking why Ginsberg had taken
issue with his chapter on the 1960s counter-culture in his new book
(Jobe had had Ginsberg read the galleys in the hopes that he had
correctly identified the zeitgeist) while Ginsberg reached a boiling
point and fumed, “Fuck that, man!”

I whispered in my dad’s ear from the back seat, “What’s
wrong with him?”

“Kidney stone, Tyler. He’s passing a kidney stone.”

“What’s a kidne…”

“Just be quiet, son. I’ll explain later. It hurts like
shit.”

“Fucking A it hurts like shit, man.” Ginsberg had been
eavesdropping.

Going against the protests of my father, Ginsberg refused to see
a doctor. “We have the best medical center in the world, Mr.
Ginsberg!” Instead, Ginsberg demanded we “just fucking
drive, man” to the airport and began to launch into another
one of his sonorous, however this time, a little strained (Imagine
a constipated Dali Lama) chants and insists we chant along. And
there it is. Two academics, one nine year old and Allen Ginsberg
tooling up Highway 45 North toward Houston Intercontinental airport,
chanting a Buddhist mantra.

In Houston, where there are four mad comrades all together singing
the final stanzas of the. . . . Ginsberg made his flight. The three
remainders drove back to Rice University in delirious spirits.

I listened once to the recording of Ginsberg’s reading. It’s
a Ginsberg’s greatest hits with some newer things thrown in.
I can appreciate the voice on the tape, appreciate the lines—but
I still get frustrated that I can only hear him on the tape. I want
to see him; sweaty, a little queer, glasses always falling down
his face, piss running down his leg. Combat.

Walking in a supermarket in Houston, though, I wondered: Ginsberg,
what were you doing down by the green peas?

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