It was Halloween, and Fate was having a good laugh. I was taking a shortcut through Red Hook, trying to get to Manhattan when something snapped and my car shook violently. The chassis was cracked. Two days later, I walked to the local garage to check up on it. When I returned, I found firemen knocking out the windows of my apartment. The crackhead next door set fire to the place, and the firemen had to stop the fire by knocking the roof down into my top floor apartment, and then dousing everything. It was a total loss--all my possessions crushed under the beams or waterlogged. I salvaged a few things and stuck them in a locked room down in the basement. A couple months later, after I found a new apartment, I was moving the last load of stuff out of the building when my car stalled on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It started to smoke, and then burn. I stood on the BQE in the 10-degree chill, looking at the Manhattan skyline through thick plumes of black smoke pouring from my car. The fireman told me that I had traffic backed up all the way to Coney Island. He took a step back when I told him that my burning car was filled with the last load of stuff salvaged from my burned-out apartment. I thought it was funny. It was a cosmic joke. He didn't think it was funny. In fact, he looked little spooked.
So it was no surprise when my new landlord informed me that I was moving next door to Allen Ginsberg. It was one of those times in life, one of those rare two or three month periods when Fate reveals itself in amusing little episodes. Just enough to give you a glimpse of the big, absurd picture. After a couple of months spent apartment hunting, looking at ridiculously overpriced rat holes with sloping floors and bathtubs in the kitchen, I finally found a place I could both afford and conceivably live in. It was in a rundown tenement on a lousy block in the East Village. A four flight walkup. The walls had roaches crawling on them, but I knew that enough Combat would take care of that. The block was the center of the downtown heroin trade, but that didn't bother me much either. Better to be in the center of the trade than on the edges, where people really get hurt. I immediately decided to take the place. The super was who showing me the apartment was an 80 year old lady from the neighborhood. She didn't live in the building, but she kept on eye on it, and took out the garbage. You couldn't exactly call on her in the middle of the night to fix a broken water pipe, but she was a character, and that counted for something. She said: "OK, you seem lika nice fella, but we gotta call the lan'lor' and see what he think." Down into the basement we went, where she picked up this old black phone with no dial; it was the hotline to the landlord. After the usual formalities, the landlord said: "Well, you're an artist. Have you heard of Allen Ginsberg?" The poet? Well yes, as a matter of fact, I have. "You'll be living next door to him. Are you OK with that?" Yeah, sure, I said. I'm OK with that.
I'd been reading Ginsberg since I was 12. I discovered the Fall of America on a shelf in our local library, as a shaft of sunlight fell on the book's spine. Nixon had just resigned, and the title caught my eye. I didn't get all the references, but it had the call of freedom, and that was good by me. I moved to New York when I was 21. I'd see Ginsberg on the streets every so often; in his white suit, walking down Broadway or Saint Mark's Place. I remember thinking once: 'There goes our poet. Our Whitman. Hell, 100 years ago you would've seen Whitman walking these same streets. The streets haven't changed much. Now, Ginsberg is our poet. But Christ, I bet he's a real pain in the ass to have as a neighbor though.' Little did I know then that Ginsberg would one day be my neighbor. And compared to all the crackheaded, drunken, wife-beating, midnight-screaming, apartment-flooding, early-morning-techno-blasting losers I've lived next to over the years, he was easily the best neighbor I've ever had.
One of the first things that I did by way of introduction was to lay a copy of one of my poems by his door, with a little note explaining how much his work meant to me. A couple of weeks passed, when one night, while rehearsing my band in the living room, someone knocked at the door. Figuring it was a complaint, I opened the door, and Allen Ginsberg's head pops in. "Hmmn, well, it seems like a little commune in here." Hi Allen. Uh, no, it's not a commune. We're just rehearsing. "Oh, a band, yes. You make music. Good." I looked at my band--one guy was really excited, one guy was annoyed that the rehearsal was interrupted, and one girl was in a complete state of shock. That kind of cartoon shock where you stand stock still, frozen in position, staring straight ahead. "Well, I read your poem. I liked it very much. I liked the specificity of reference." Well thanks Allen, thanks for taking the time to read it. Then he asked me the question he would ask me every time he set foot in my apartment: "How much do you pay for rent? What?? That much? Do you know what I pay for rent?" Allen had the three apartments next to mine, all rent-controlled, and his rent was the modern day equivalent of chump change. "Do you know what the old man who used to live in your apartment paid?" Yeah, Allen, I know. But believe me, this place is cheap in today's market. "Cheap? How much do you pay again?"
Allen asked me the rent question about once a month. He seemed quite entertained, even delighted by the whole thing. Later, after Allen bought a condo a block away, Peter Orlovsky moved in and took up the regular rent question duties. Allen was funny: he was the original hipster trapped in time. He knew everybody it seemed: Bono and Dylan and McCartney and Trungpa Rinpoche and Joe Strummer and David Byrne and Stipe and Patti Smith all beat tracks to his doorstep, but still, Allen sometimes seemed like one of those old shopkeepers sitting in his little antiquated shop, a hole in the wall with dusty merchandise from 1946, priced accordingly, surrounded by modern new boutiques--the kind of place that makes you ask: 'what's this joint still doing in business?' As much of a pop culture guru as he was, there was something very "old New York" about Allen. The old New York of union meetings and May Day parades in Union Square, the old New York of borscht and cabbage, the old New York of no air-conditioning so you kept the front door of your apartment open all summer, the old New York of Times Square hustlers and Bowery flophouses, the old New York of cafe society and literary salons and existential conversations over drinks at Chumleys or the White Horse or the Lion's Head. The old New York of cheap rents that attracted artists, the old New York of interesting characters, and the old New York of lending those characters an ear, and giving them the time of day.
I had a dream once that he was carefully driving an old black Packard automobile out of the basement of a Manhattan parking garage. My friend Rob Couteau said the dream meant that Allen would probably die soon. He was right. The dream meant something else to me as well: this was a man who really came from another time. I didn't realize until he passed how much of old New York he would take with him.
One day I ran into Allen on th
e stairs. I was just coming off a tour of the South, and he was just coming back from England, so we talked about travel for a little while. "I just got back from London. I played the Royal Albert Hall with Paul McCartney. He backed me up on one of my poems." Then he asked one of those charming Allen questions: "Uh, do you know who Paul McCartney is? He was one of the Beatles. They were big in the '60s" Yeah, Allen, I think I've heard of Paul McCartney. At first, I thought he was messing with me. But then I realized that Allen honestly didn't know how many of the "younger generation" had heard of McCartney, or his contemporaries. (Maybe the old dude had a point: I now know a lot of 20-something musicians who've never heard of the Doors.) Sometimes I'd run into him with a group of his friends or students, and he'd introduce me as "Jim Lampos, the famous musician." His students would all looked puzzled or impressed, and I'd crack up. Again, I thought at first that he was just busting my chops, running a riff on me. Later, I came to realize that he was being sincere; for all he knew, I probably was famous. This was New York. Anybody could be famous. That guy crashing on the couch of someone's room in the Chelsea Hotel could be a famous writer; that chick nodded out in the tenement hallway could be a famous actress, that guy living next door to Allen Ginsberg could be a famous musician.
One thing I never could understand was how Allen tolerated this building. This place is a hole. How can I begin to recount what a dump it is? It goes well beyond the fact that it's a six-flight walkup and you'd always find two or three junkies shooting up on the stairs, or nodded out on the landings. It goes beyond the fact that one day you might come home and find that a legless, wheelchair-bound homeless guy had taken up residence in your hallway and started dealing drugs on the side, and was being sucked off by a crack whore in front of your mailbox, and wouldn't move to let you check your mail until he was good and done. It goes beyond the fact that our super was in her 80's, and dragged the garbage through the halls, leaving a trail of juice that smelled like dead rats. (Ginsberg used to light incense sticks in the stairwell to mask it.) It goes beyond the fact that the front door lock was always broken, or that whenever someone moved out of an apartment, the landlord's men would begin an illegal demolition that could take place at any time of day or night, any day of the week, sending clouds of plaster and lead paint dust into the halls and into the apartments so thick I once honestly thought the building was on fire. Banging day and night, screaming in the halls, leaks, bricks falling out, pigeons roosting in the walls and ceiling, no hot water on cold winter mornings: it went beyond all that. This building has seen a lot of tragedy: madness, OD's, elderly people starving, alcoholism, violence, death. Read Ginsberg's "Charnel Ground": it's about this building.
But that was the worst of it; and it wasn't always so bad. There were also some very sweet aspects to living here. The crime element would come and go, and in general, the people you dealt with on a daily basis were fellow dreamers, characters, malcontents, and oddballs. My kind of people. Some weeknights, Allen would have friends over, and they would chant. Beautiful, peaceful Buddhist chants would waft through the courtyard and hang in the air. I'd sit here, in my back room, and listen to them as I wrote---looking at the same "Heaven Tree" outside my window that Allen saw out of his. And through his place passed a parade of artists and people of spirit---celebrities and world figures at his door and mine. It created a certain standard.
That standard, however, always ran into a headlong confrontation with daily tenement life. Tenement life had a way of bringing it all back down to earth. On every third Friday, the exterminator would come to our building, but no one ever let him in. You knew that all he'd do is spend two or three minutes spraying your food, dishes, bed, and clothes with poison, and the next day you'd feel sick and have twice the number of roaches. So, no one ever let the exterminator in. He'd knock on your door at 8am, and you'd just be quiet, pretending you're not home.
One particular Friday was different. Though a dreamy somnolence I heard the exterminator coming up the stairs, knocking on each door along the way. Bang bang bang. "Exterminator." No answer. Again: bang bang bang, "Exterminator." No answer. And so it went for 20 apartments until he reached mine. He knocked on my door, announced himself; and I rolled over in bed, pretending I wasn't home, and went back to sleep. He goes next door to Allen's. Bang bang bang. "Exterminator." No answer. As I drift back off to dreamland, I hear the exterminator walking away, slowly up the stairs. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere I hear this voice from the whirlwind, sounding like an apocalyptic angel announcing the opening of the seventh seal: it was a voice that resounded through the halls, cut through my brain, and reverberated up through seventh heaven: "AUM. EXTERMINATOR!". I jumped out of bed. What the hell was that????? Then, it came again, only louder and deeper. "AUM! EXTERMINATOR!!!" I swear, it froze my blood put the fear of God in me. Then it slowly...slowly, it dawned on me---it was Allen out in the hall, chanting "AUM! EXTERMINATOR! I NEED YOU!" Has he gone completely mad? He was outside my door, summoning the exterminator at the top of his lungs with his particular Paterson-accented version of Buddhist chant. "HUMM. OM. COME IN! EXTERMINATOR! WE HAVE A PROBLEM!" Leave it to Allen to make the exterminator sound like a cosmic force of destruction.
Looking back, there are a couple of Allen foibles that always make me smile. He'd extoll the virtues of healthy eating habits, but then you'd always find him in KK's Diner having one of their salt-bomb offerings. He had an unbelievable memory, reciting Pound or Lao Tze at the drop of a hat, but he'd forget his lentil soup on the stove and nearly burn the place down. He condemned the tobacco industry, but had a weakness for Salems. He was cynical about the media, but was tickled any time I said I saw him on TV. "They'd blacklisted me for years you know. Nixon, and then Reagan. I could've been on TV all of the time."
Whenever we talked about music, he'd always bring up Ma Rainey. He was crazy about Ma Rainey. I'd always hear her, or Dylan's Bringing it all Back Home coming from his record player. He knew a lot of musicians, and a lot about music, but toward the end it seems like those were his two touchstones. Peter told me that just before Allen died, he got out of bed...."slow as a shrunken turtle" and put Rainey's "See See Rider" on the stereo, listening to it over and over.
The last time
I saw Allen was about a year after he moved to his new condo
on 13th Street. It was a cold February afternoon, and he was
standing at a phone booth. He had a watch cap pulled down
to his eyes, and I didn't recognize him when he waved hello.
I kept walking, realizing a block later who it was. Soon after,
Peter Orlovsky, who now lived next door, told me that Allen
was very sick. One day in April, I awoke to the noon bells
of St. Mary Help of Christians Church. It felt like something
had happened. I turned on the radio, and the first thing I
heard was that Allen Ginsberg died. That night, I went up
on the roof, , and saw the comet Hale-Bopp shining brightly
in the Northwest sky, hanging right over the building where
Allen had just passed away.