A Beat in the House

Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg photo © Robert Birnbaum

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?”


“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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