“Hard, Fast Lives”
In 2008, I had only been in New York for about three weeks when I walked down to Tompkins Square Park and stumbled upon the “Howl Festival.” It was a celebration of the work of Allen Ginsberg, and right as I arrived on that random evening, I witnessed a live performance of the epic poem for which the festival got its name.
Before I got to New York City, I had a very basic knowledge of the literary minds of the Beat Generation. I had heard of Jack Kerouac but that was about it. I never read any Allen Ginsberg, or my favorite, William S. Burroughs.
Back then, I was more entranced by the music of the 1960s, which was a by-product of the Beats from the previous decade. I loved Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground, and I moved to St. Mark’s Place because I knew it was a famous street during that time period.
I was impressed with the history, and the energy the area still held. I felt like I belonged there, even though previously I’d done nothing to display that I did. I was a short 22-year-old woman from Pennsylvania who bought tacky clothes at Charlotte Russe.
Over the next decade, I started personifying a Beat existence, save for excessive drug use. With gratitude, I acknowledge this is probably the reason I’m alive today.
The stories I collected over the years made the words I heard in that live reading of “Howl” so much more relatable, and writing about my experiences helped me make sense of them.
I asked my friend recently if I ever told him about that day at the park. He said I had; a storyline that if he’d seen it in a movie, he surely wouldn’t believe it.
“Girl moves to the East Village, and on her first day she walks through Tompkins Square and there’s a public reading of Howl! Real life never works like that,” he said.
Of course, it didn’t happen on my first day, but the embellishment was close enough.
I’m not part of that life anymore.
I’m a marathon running health junkie. I meditate to Deepak Chopra and read random texts about discovering inner wisdom. I’m wildly fascinated by spiritual people, and I believe in God, the universe, and the beautiful force inside me that manifests and creates abundance.
I shop at Trader Joe’s and I put MCT oil in my coffee in the morning. You’d never know that 11 years ago, I was a chain smoker living in an apartment with a communal bathroom where people sometimes smeared excrement on the walls.
We lived “hard, fast lives.”
We used to meet at the bar at 2:00 a.m.
My friend would have his vat of Jack Daniels. I always had a beer and the usual side shot of some whiskey. Then, the race was on. Who could consume most of the elixir before 3:30? That’s typically when my friend would leave. I’d close it down with whomever else I was with that evening. There were many of us.
During the recession, the rest of us would be hanging off of the stools until at least 4:30, and then we would stumble into our taxis or down into the bellies of the train station and make our way home.
Midtown was always alive, but during the hours of the suit slumber, it got a bit surlier. I would call the people zombies; those were the ones who would walk by with the mannerisms of a bobblehead doll, always over or underdressed for the weather, mouths open, saliva dripping from their tongues. If you were smoking, they’d almost always stop to ask you for a cigarette. If not, they’d pass on by, so long as you could avoid eye contact.
We all smoked. It was the habit that bound us together. Smokers are social with other smokers because they’re the lepers of society.
We knew all of the homeless people who roamed 45th St.
Jerome used to sit on the Standpipe by the Lyceum Theater and was very kind. I’d usually toss him a few smokes, and he’d graciously tell me “now, don’t hurt nobody.”
Andre was another one. He would serenade us with “In the Still of the Night,” and “Under the Boardwalk.”
And then, there was the strange schizophrenic who I sadly watched decay from lack of medication as the years passed.
He disappeared for a year once. When he came back, he recognized me immediately.
“Where have you been,” I asked.
“RIKERS,” he replied. “STRAIGHT OFF THE BAT!”
“You’re like my daughter,” he said to me one night, and then followed it right up with “I fucked my aunt!”
We were 21st Century Beats, living by night, sleeping by day. If my eyelids scratched the whites of my eyes a minute before 2:00 p.m. it was blasphemous.
It would take me about two hours just to get around each afternoon, my consciousness completely unattached, my tongue white with a coating of sour.
The only time I kissed the morning was when I was brazen to drink long enough to welcome it. We did this in various venues over the years.
There were three different Irish bars in the 40s that did after-hours. One would lock you in before 4:00 a.m. and that was it. Another would allow newcomers after closing, so long as they knew to knock on the red door. That was O’Flats (short for O’Flaherty’s.) I’ll use their name because they’ve been long out of business.
The third Irish bar which was on 46th only did after hours around the 2011 era. They’d break out the ashtrays after the doors locked, which were just little cups of water. I don’t remember if we had to pay cash or not, but it didn’t matter. We always had pockets full of it.
When all of those options ceased, we would retreat to the upstairs area of the Cranberry Café Deli, sitting at the cold tables in the dark with all the lights out but one, looking out the window, waiting for sunrise to warm the garbage lined streets.
We weren’t shy about sexuality.
I don’t think any of us had the amount of sex we wanted to be having, but there was no shyness when it came to describing the act.
The nuances and details of encounters were as public among us as we could stomach to make them. As we got more physically debilitated, sometimes the primal side of inebriation would overtake us, and we would gum and bite one another in the street.
I was always on a quest for the most sexually liberated of men. One time, I ventured as far as to start a conversational discovery path with a subordinate my bartender would only refer to as “the Deviant.” He wanted to be tied up and pegged and urinated on, completely humiliated in all regards. I never did these things, but we romanced about them often, mutually masturbating several nights a week.
There were all sorts of stories like these, men and women alike, curious about pushing past the vanilla.
We would sit and talk about them as we swallowed our whiskey, musing about our respective lust, and conquests of the past where we triumphantly mounted another being and drove them to orgasm.
Like the Beats, a lot of it was nothing short of homoerotic.
We were always in love, in whatever capacity we understood it. Beat love was brief love, and it ended with the first piss of the morning.
Some of us maintained adulterous flings, completely disregarding the parameters of those unions. For us, to feel anything, anything at all, was our liberation.
We chased chemically-induced euphoria which we felt first in our genitals; the feeling of someone crawling inside of you and collapsing, first shaking violently and then immediately falling asleep.
“We were the heroes of decorated halls.”
By the time we strolled in at night, the smell of yeast and human dander had overtaken the aroma of the dinner hour. All of the suits had retreated to their slumber, and those who didn’t could be found slumped, cross-eyed, waving a bluish-green Corporate AMEX to close the tab they’d spend hours of the following afternoon trying to justify.
We were the heroes of the decorated halls, and the bartenders were the keepers of lost memories, cradling us like cherubs, serving lullaby’s in snifters.
For everything, seemingly, in New York City was for the suits and tourists, but the late hours were for us; the people who maintained the illusion for them that life was a playground. We served them, stared at their raw humanity, and understood them profoundly. They had grey souls, but ours were magenta.
They were predictable in mannerisms and actions. They were of an entirely different class than we were, and we relished in it. For how could we ever allow ourselves to be such “sheep?”
We were privy to income disparity, panhandling, prostitution, and the other side, extreme wealth and success.
We had stories, but many weren’t very long.
As I sit now and try to describe that era of my life, I think of people and the stories that I collected. All of the stories were so short, and people were blips on the map, passing through our timelines, not the other way around.
So many of the stories were simply “this person existed, and this is what they did, and then I never saw them again.”
It was always something minor, as most of our individual contributions to society and humanity are very small; small, yet astronomically important.
Our stories were beautiful in the fact that they were raw. People who sit at a bar for hours might as well be naked, and only those who live in bars understand what that means.
I think that’s why so many people have trouble walking away from a life like that. It’s a life filled with “action seekers,” as Erving Goffman talks about in Interaction Ritual, where everything is episodic, and we all waited to take a bite of that glorious peach that ripened just before dawn.
It isn’t so much that we were addicts. I mean sure, we were, but it goes deeper than addiction. So many people who live in bars create a whole romantic narrative around their lives. They suck the fruit of life until the flesh is white and dry. When I use language like this, everyone gets a clear picture of what I’m talking about, even though I described nothing but some citrus pulp.
For every sunrise we met with dirt on our fingers and a bottle between our legs, we bid farewell to another piece of our innocence. Sometimes when I get overwhelmed, I still wish for the warmth of the inside of one of my decorated halls, running my hand along the thigh of the man sitting next to me.
There’s such a disconnect between people who are living that life and people who are on the other side of it. I’m still having trouble becoming a suit. Three pieces, I think. “Sometimes, always, never,” and a pacifier between my lips.
People who are still living the former look at me and they see me as “other.” They see me as a Zen, healthy person who couldn’t possibly understand the underbelly of society because I’ve become a “motivational” writer. In reality, I swam along with the sludge current longer than many of them.
I still remember the smoke rings coming from my lips as I sat on my bathroom floor by the toilet at 5:30 a.m., penning irreverent gibberish in my notes.
Months into sobriety, I would assemble pieces I wrote while drinking into a collection entitled “What it Was Like;” a title lovingly stolen from my only sober friend who regularly attends AA.
Some of them were written in my travels. Others were written belligerently at home after I’d proactively purge my last round of drinks, knowing if one more ounce seeped into my bloodstream, it might coagulate.
I’ll end this with an excerpt from “What It Was Like, #4”
“When I think about the best times I’ve ever had, both intimate and otherwise, I think about the fact that they had little to do with the people that I was with, but rather the experience of discovery I was having within myself.
I feel like if I could just keep everything innovative and new, I possibly could stay relevant for the rest of my life.”