Henry in his Queens apartment drinking German beer— it was fall, the year was somewhere between 1970 and 1980. He was listening to a Met’s night game on the radio. What the score was didn't matter, he listened to the sound of the game like it was music, it relaxed him.
He had been reading the stories of John Cheever over the past week, Cheever was a lion.
Cheever was a writer who placed language above plot, he was known as the suburban Chekov.
He often said that alcohol was creative juice, saying,
The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are similar.
I stayed up late, drank a pint of bourbon and worked like a streak on Thursday. I hope it has nothing to do with the degeneration of the tissues.
Henry had seen the film, The Swimmer starring Burt Lancaster that was based on the Cheever story of the same name. He remembers Lancaster looking great in a swimsuit, going from pool to pool in a New England suburb and the occasional make-out sessions with suburban housewives in two-piece swimsuits next to swimming pools.
At one point the swimmer, Natty was his name, swims 4 miles in 8 different pools in one hour. As Henry watched the film he got the feeling that Natty was—going off the deep edge in the deep end of the swimming pool. Natty succeeded in escaping the mundane facts of his own existence regardless.
Cheever saw stories in people he saw walking down the street, or in conversations he overheard, scraps that shaped his award-winning work.
He saw the advent of modern life in the 20th Century as the end of communalism resulting in a rootlessness which lay at the heart of a new evil.
Cheevers continued to believe in modern life though, his writing was partly an effort to find a—miracle resolve.
His work a dialogue between good and evil spinning like a wheel in circular motion, the yin, and the yang.
Henry was hungry by 830PM, so he showered, dressed and snorted a few lines of cocaine, the beer he drank during the day had deadened his mind.
He would leave his apartment building and take the short walk to Chaim’s Deli. When he gets there he sees a hand-printed sign on the door saying,
Chaim's will be closed today for the Sabbath.
This was a first, maybe Chaim had gotten religion and converted, Orthodox.
Henry continues his walk, reaching the Bowery where he is greeted by a bum he had seen before, a bum they called Coffee Can. He says to Henry,
are you hungry son? There is a free dinner at the Salvation over there, go get you some!
Henry walks to the Salvation Army, it is situated in a 4 story red brick building with a chapel, dining room and sleeping quarters with cots. He walks in and is greeted by a bum in a second-hand suit who is holding a bible, a sober bum Henry thought. The sober bum shakes his hand saying,
this is God’s house there is no alcohol allowed here, enjoy your meal.
The free meal is served cafeteria style—Henry grabs a plastic tray, some plastic ware, and a paper napkin. Another sober bum, a fat lady in a tent-shaped dress fills a plate with navy beans, chunks of ham, cornbread, and okra, she hands the plate to him. There was a big vat of coffee at the end of the line and you could fill a cup if you pleased, no cream or sugar was offered, black coffee only.
No booze, no cream and sugar, the Salvation Army had a hard-on for joy.
It was institutional food, everything out of a can except for the cornbread, like a jail meal Henry thought, but the price was right and he was hungry.
After eating at a long table with a group of sober bums, Henry heads for the door, the sober doorman asked,
Are you staying for the chapel service after the meal? Henry says,
No thanks Mac I’m an atheist, but all the best, see you next time.
On the street again, Henry lights a joint and takes a slug of whiskey from a flask that was in his vest pocket, feeling relieved— he felt uncomfortable in churches and chapels, the idea of prayers being heard and processed by a spirit entity in the sky was repugnant to him.
He would go to the Village to hear the beat poet Michael McClure read. McClure studied with Robert Duncan and in 1955 got his start at the infamous and revolutionary Six Gallery reading in San Francisco that featured Allen Ginsberg ’s premier reading of Howl.
McClure would read that night at a bar slash coffee shop called Last Exit. When Henry got there it was already packed with bookish type NYC hipsters, he stood at bar and orders a double Jack Daniels and soda. There was no smoking allowed in the place, Henry knew McClure didn’t smoke or drink and was a vegetarian— surely the reason he survived all of the Beats and is alive to this day.
Michael McClure enters stage left, walking a few steps to a wooden podium, all the chatting and laughter stops. He then puts his hands together and raises them, Wai’ing the crowd Thai style, then getting right down to the poetry, shuffling through some typewritten papers and saying,
this is a poem I wrote in honor of Jack Kerouac a brother, blessed be, eternal samadhi.
from The New Book/A Book of Torture
IN DARK HELL IN LIGHT ROOM IN UMBER AND CHROME I feel the swell of
smoke the drain and flow of motion of exhaustion, the long sounds of cars the brown shadows on the wall. I sit or stand. Caught in the net of glints from corner table to dull plane from knob to floor, angles of flat light, daggers of beams. Staring at love's face.
The telephone in cataleptic light. Matchflames of blue and red seen in the clear grain.
Vita Nuova--No! The dead, dead, world.
He read rhythmically as though he was playing a bongo drum, metrically but in variation.
McClure read 20 poems that night and time went by quickly.
After the reading Henry walks up to Michael McClure who is still standing near the podium and says,
I’m Henry Lucowski, I’m a writer and a fan of all things literary,
oh, Henry Lucowski my friend Allen Ginsberg tells me that you're an up and coming short story writer.
Let me tell you this Henry, you're on a bountiful journey, it's a trip to behold.
Henry shrugs and vigorously shakes Michael McClure’s hand with both his hands, then turning and walking out the cafe door.
Instead of taking a taxi home to Queens he decides to walk.
Henry looks up at the sky as he walks. It was a cool fall night, the air crisp and fresh, stars glowing more than one color, blues and reds contrasting the orange crescent moon.
For now, Henry felt braced and sorted out. All of it, every bit of it was enough for him, it was exactly right as it was, no need a for a God to bog it down.