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I used to wander around on lower Broadway in Manhattan when I was still a teenager. I had a dead-end job at a valve company taking orders from plumbers wanting a gate valve or oversized coupling for an apartment building going up. Broadway at the time, maybe still is, a desolate street of old warehouses long boarded up and given over to the rats. You might see an occasional drunk sleeping in the doorway of one of these 19th century caverns, with his tattered overcoat wrapped around him, and his shoes worn down to the uppers. He might even be wearing a fedora to keep out the drafts. I was fascinated by these scenes, especially because twenty blocks north was the Great White Way, home of musicals and startling dramas, swank cocktail bars for the rich and famous, a sleazy row of porn houses for the desperate. But down here, it was a vision Tom Waits would turn into plaintive, often wry songs about the broken-hearted.
My rented room was on 15th street, and I could see the rooftops of Greenwich Village from my window. I made fifty dollars a week and paid fifteen to have a roof over me. It was my first summer away from home, and I loved wandering around in Chelsea before it was gussied up into all the art studios and millionaires’ condos it has now. I’m sure I passed Bob Dylan some of those afternoons along Bleecker Street, who might have been looking for gigs at the Cave Wha? and other haunts of the folkies. I may have even passed E.E. Cummings returning to his mews after a morning of coffee and writing in his notebook. I would have stopped him for a quick chat, but he was notorious for being rude to strangers. My kind were the anonymous office workers, store clerks, young drifters coming into town to hang out at the fountain in Washington Square to flirt with girls down from Vassar and Mt. Holyoke. They were as delicate as fawns, and spoke in a crisp New England accent they picked up in prep school.
I was on the cusp of adulthood, an odd precipice to stand on, given all the contradictory hormones assailing me. I was still a kid, but my mind was reaching out for something beyond bikes and hamburgers. I would haunt used bookstores; in those days there was one on almost every street corner, a dusty old storefront with shelves sagging under library cast offs and professors’ unwanted troves of criticism and histories. I found a copy of Isis Unveiled by the Russian poseur, Madame Blavatsky, the “lady with the magic eyes,” as one English biographer described her. It was hard to read, and I gave up after twenty pages. But it was the lady on whose lap the Irish poet William Butler Yeats once sat as a boy. He was thrilled. He believed in a lot of that arcane stuff, and I even found a copy of her other book, The Secret Doctrine, which I also gave up on after a chapter or two. But her fake visions were eloquently stated, and she had many followers who later joined her chapters of the Theosophical Society.
Clearly I was going nowhere. Just a skinny, shaggy-haired kid who was dimly aware how little I knew about the world. I haunted the waterfront which still had a few ships tied up to its piers. Melville and Whitman both would hang out here and watch men in straw hats gazing out at the open sea with serious longing to escape their drab lives. I felt the same tug on my heart, but I would have had to go to Brooklyn to find some rust-bucket freighter to try to get work on. That life was too rough for me. I was a suburban kid, used to mowing the lawn, sitting in my bedroom listening to Red Prysock wailing on his saxophone, dreaming I was in the cafe, at a back table smoking a cigarette and stroking the arm of some fading socialite. Instead, a girl in the accounting office of the valve company took a liking to me. She lived in the Village with her family. She was already a little pudgy at eighteen, and lonely. I told her all sorts of lies about myself, how I had worked as a merchant marine on an Indian pack boat, sold dope in Tangiers, made and lost a fortune in ivory in Hong Kong. She lapped it up, and must have seen me through one of those distorted mirrors they have at carnivals. Everything I did was a dead end. Love was no different.
New York in the late 1950s was hustle town. Everyone was in some bizarre walking race hurrying to catch some vanishing chance at the end of the block. I even applied for a job at an insurance company. I took a test to determine my fitness for the job. I was told I was a regular introvert who didn’t like talking to strangers. And besides, I needed to supply fifty names of friends and relatives in the city to whom I could pitch a policy. I only came up with my aunt and uncle in Brooklyn, and they were barely making ends meet. I wouldn’t even bother them with some spiel I would have to learn by heart. A kid my age got hired. He told me he had said the reverse of everything they asked — he was cheerful, eager to please, believed everything ever said about democracy. He laughed as he told me. They said he was the perfect candidate and he had grown up in New Jersey and knew everybody as his dad’s country club. I envied him. He would get rich one day and live in Florida, and drive some sleek convertible Cadillac, and send his kids to Groton. The good life. He wore cologne and smoked Dunhill cigarettes as we sat at a bar that didn’t check I.D.s.
When summer was over I took a bus back to my parents’ house, packed my bags and went down to William and Mary for my Freshman year. I had left my hair long and wore black sweatshirts. The frat boys found me ludicrous. They threw my bike on the roof of a shed, and would get girls to come up to me to flirt, who would then run laughing back to their crowd. I was miserable and would leave after a year, back to New York. The same old shabby tenements and desolate side streets, this time on 15th and 8th avenue. A school friend said I could have a room in his apartment for twenty-five dollars. I found a job working for a Harvard grad who had gone to seed, a lawyer twice disbarred for ethical violations. He sold aviation pieces to obscure air forces in the Middle East. I said I could speak French and would write some demotic French pitching a carburetor still in use on some planes. He even got orders for them. It was another dead end. But it was New York. I was happy. I had escaped from the lingering remains of the Old South, the belles wearing flared skirts, the boys strutting around like plantation owners.
I would go west in the early fall with my new girlfriend and come back east a year later to return to William and Mary. I was changed. But so was the school. It was full of long hairs like me, girls in blue jeans and no make up. We were cool, smoked a little dope, played the Beatles records at deafening volume at our parties. My marriage failed soon after, and I was alone in my apartment on a street in some Archie Bunker neighborhood. I had sloughed off my suburban skin and was now a man in a desert thirsting for wisdom. My oasis was a professor’s apartment where he served up sherry and pungent Turkish cigarettes. We talked about Max Beerbohm, the Cheshire Cheese, the young Yeats writing those pale lyrics about wild swans and noble women. He was an Oxonian and spoke in paragraphs, with allusions to books in parentheses. A great mentor to me. I had arrived, even if the dais I stood on was only a half a foot off the ground. A middling life, to be sure. But I had discovered I could write poetry, even fiction, and would spend my nights under a study lamp tapping away at my dreams. I had compressed some long sea voyages into a few rented rooms and a long line of cafeterias with cheese sandwiches and runny slices of apple pie. Self-made, a raw-edged autodidact who ran out of knowledge after a few learned sentences. I would smoke my Turkos and sip Gallo red and cross my legs the way Edmund Gosse was said to do. He was the one who stood naked in a basin of the British Library mens’ room taking his weekly sponge bath. He was my kind of hero. I was born out of Zeus’ forehead, a cultured snob with no real ballast to his hull, but plenty of sail and lots of wind to blow me into the coming storms of my life.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2022 Paul Christensen