Brooklyn North: For Allen Ginsberg
Another treasure from the "leather satchel" collection (see previous post "Me and Josey Wales: Poetry played out in real life" is dated 1998, a poem my father wrote called "Brooklyn North" (for Allen Ginsberg), whose early friendship with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs gave birth to the Beat generation of poets and writers.
Allen Ginsberg having received his master's degree from Columbia University in New York would've known the city streets my father was hauling⏤I believe it was U.S. mail⏤through at the time. Ginsberg was an avid anti-Vietnam War activist, voice of 60s counterculture and free speech. He was overtly homesexual, some of which was written about in his most famous work, "Howl and Other Poems," first published by famed San Francisco bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Bookstore.
You are foreign but I love you.
Only way a Reb could ever
love a Yank.
Ramblin' thru yer alleys
and mean streets.
Picking up yer backbeats.
So much wonder
waiting to be recovered.
Hit Flatbush and 3rd.
Orange hair Abundant.
How does anyone sleep
I do - peacefully.
Ghost of Henry Miller
'bout 'hundred six, Streisand
Lou Reed. Neil Diamond,
Ragged steel-fallen souls.
No room for grassy knolls.
Grabbed train to Coney.
We are multi-colored
Where do we go?
Kosiusko (sic) Tombs.
We must begin to breathe
I love yer stinking streets
yer telephones once removed.
Yer blacks browns yellows
and whites and blues.
Yer traffic james and
3 step red lights.
What's not to like.
You are sweet
"Shut up - get in da car already - drive North!"
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My father fancied himself an outlaw and those of us who knew him experienced his unconventional and oft times above- and outside the law ways. His favorite characters of all time were fictitious outlaw heroes like Josey Wales and the real-life Beat poet Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac's friend and inspiration for the Dean Moriarty character in On the Road.
From the time my father was a kid, he thrived on make-believe worlds introduced in stories like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and Mutiny on the Bounty.
English: "Copyright © by Warner Bros. Inc." Photographer unknown., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Daddy wrote to one of my brothers that he went to the movies once with his father as a child and the memory stayed with him. “Thunder Road,” circa 1958 starring Robert Mitchum.
“Pop and I saw it at a Drive-in theatre. It was about a man hauling illegal ‘moonshine,’ which was a vital part of the James City County GNP where I lived. About a man breaking the law with dignity. Mitchum - cool as a cucumber.”
When he was a kid, Daddy proclaimed he wanted to be any number of things, but specifically, he wrote:
Garbageman. Fisherman. Minister. Hobo (now called homeless person). Professional guitarist or musician. Bum. FREE (above all). Actor. Teacher. Shipmaster.
Post-mortem poetry: Finding father fodder
Not all of my father's poetry is worth sharing. He himself didn't think most of it was all that great. But he put down a lot of that brilliantly mushy alcohol-drenched mind of his in writing and sometimes the essence of him shone through.
As I've been writing this memoir, the words come through a bit louder and clearer, with greater context and clarity after reading dozens of letters and poems and memories collected over the span of more than 50 years from my own missives saved to those written other family members and people close to him.
Here's a poem that surfaced in a beat-up leather satchel recently handed over to my brother after 25 years of safekeeping in the unlikely hands of an old family friend.
"Your dad gave me this bag full of letters and poems and thought it might help me. I don't know why I saved them but here you go," the guy told my brother.
Little did he know the content came at such a good time.
Me and Josey Wales
by F. Edward Clay, Jr. (circa 1990)
We are but we are
slim - humble
(Want ya' to have
this her' ring.
My grandmother giver to me;
long time ago.)
I will blow head off entire if necessary.
Civil War blues
in one fucking day.
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In his next missive, Daddy apologized for the harshness while still reaming my mother for even considering buying a new vehicle. My Grandfather Clay did come through and supply her with a car. I think it was the old Chevrolet we had with the turquoise vinyl interior and the “wings” on the back. Daddy told me once the reason they stopped making those cars back in the 60s was because of kids and skateboards. Kids were getting impaled on the wings.
“If you wish to join me say at summer’s end, or fall’s leafy catastrophe, you’d best arrange to nab back $325 or what not from the school and cancel out. The girl has only 2 years before grade school. She should have one of those free - perhaps 6 months of traveling and experience.”
In those early years, my father contributed gladly to my private school education, aligned with my mother on the decision to not send me through what she considered a horrible county school system at the time. He’d say things like, “If you owe any money to Salisbury School, send me the bill. I want to do it for the girl.” Then he sounded so optimistic that she and I would be joining him in Florida, canceling school and our lives in Maryland to be with him. I do kinda like the idea of six months of traveling and experience—but I was three years old after all.
My grandmother, June (left), great-grandfather (Pappap), Daddy and I
My mother and father dolled up for a Salisbury Wi-Hi reunion, standing in front of the fireplace at my grandparents' house, Crooked Oak Lane/Quantico Road
Planning for a future together that never came
The letters continue into early summer, plans being made for Grandfather Clay to drive up to Maryland to pick me up and bring me down to Fort Lauderdale to stay with them for a month. Precautions duly noted about the swimming pool that now had extra locks and doors so I couldn’t get into the pool alone.
Daddy wrote, “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since we talked, and I know that I do need you and want you and hopefully we can work something out in short time if you want to.” He offered to buy her a round-trip ticket to come down for two weeks and she could have privacy at the place in Boca and I could stay with my grandparents. He listed a bunch of record albums and advised her not to buy duplicates unless she planned to remain separate.
But maybe the next sentence didn’t exactly win my mother over.
“Only thing new is my drinking has tapered off this week. Sunday Ray and I took truck to ocean; he two fifths of wine and I did in seven quarts of beer. He threw up magnificently in front of a liquor store and I annihilated myself internally—system was lousy for three days. I’ve only had a 6-pack all week. Take care of yourself, Doll. Give the Pooh a kiss for me. I love you, Ed.”
At my great-grandparents' house at 53 Franklin Road in Newport News, Virginia
Daddy and I, Grandmother and Grandfather Clay, Pappap and Mammonk
LSD, dolphins and such
Through my summer visit to Florida, the letters continued, along with invitations to my mother to come down to Lauderdale to visit or perhaps even relocate. In Miami Daddy went to see Blue Oyster Cult, John Hammond, Alex Taylor, Allman Brothers Band—a benefit for the World Dolphin Foundation.
In the early 70s, people were becoming more aware of the slaughter of dolphins and the inhumanity of captivity, thanks to Ric O’Barry, former trainer of Flipper from the TV show. His work on the set of Flipper prompted his awakening to the ills of captivity and he went on to start The Dolphin Project, receiving significant backing from musician Stephen Stills, of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, who liked what Barry was up to. The Dolphin Project was the first to bring global attention to drive-hunting of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, and the organization continues to bring awareness to the cruelty of captivity.
Ric O’Barry’s best friend was a guy named Fred Neil, a folk singer-songwriter probably best known for “Everybody’s Talkin’” from the movie Midnight Cowboy. A song he wrote that came out in 1966 called “The Dolphins” was later covered by Tim Buckley in a soulful version that’s riveting and heart-aching. (“Listen to Tim Buckley’s ‘Goodbye and Hello,’” my father encouraged in one letter written to my brother Jeffrey in later years.)
From his earlier musings about dolphins, I wonder if they were something of a spirit animal for my father. Frolicking and free, exploring and adventuring—and trying to escape drag-fishing nets that would entrap them or kill them.
Years later, Daddy got a dolphin tattoo on his upper left bicep. Jeffrey remembers one old Pontiac where Daddy mounted two diving dolphins in place of the hood ornament. That’s what Daddy would call “some real Clay class,” akin to stuffing his sock with leftover steamed Blue crabs at the all-you-can-eat restaurant or perhaps breaking wind at the dining room table.
Aside from supporting dolphin rescue and rehab at the concert, my father wrote he’d been “zonked” on acid and had been doing a tab a week of Purple Haze while enjoying Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
A letter dated July 3, 1972, has FUURTHER written across the top in Ken Kesey bus fashion.
“Luscious o’ Cassady in the school bus, Edward in his blue bus, gears churning like molten butter. Whee! My head and that book are two parallel movies. I think I shall get it all together through Cassady’s inspiration. The girl and I both miss mommy.”
Lest anyone think my father was tripping his ass off on acid while I was in his care, it’s highly doubtful. I always stayed with my grandparents when I was down in Florida. Daddy would come and go, as I remember it, always having to leave for work. I don’t even remember if he spent nights on the sofa while I was there. Most of my early Florida memories are of my grandmother and grandfather, not so much of time spent with him.
My Grandfather Clay, Pappap, and Grandmother and I
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In a recent conversation, I query my eldest son, now a junior in high school, “Do people still hold hands in the hallways at school? Like kids that are boyfriend and girlfriend, walking to class together?”
He looks at me kind of funny and shakes his head.
“Nobody does that.”
“What?” I look at him, puzzled, and indignant. “What do you mean nobody holds hands in the hallways? You mean to tell me that kids that are supposedly going out with each other don’t hold hands on the way to class?”
“No, I’ve never seen anybody do that.”
Aside from being completely bewildered—not being able to wrap my mind around the fact that culturally, socially, in just a generation or so, things had changed so much that kids didn’t interact the same way in school at all.
I proceed to rant. “When I was your age, anybody who had a boyfriend or girlfriend, we always held hands in the hallways. Wore our boyfriend’s football jackets and all that—”
“Definitely nobody’s doing that anymore, Mom,” he interrupts, reminding me just how cheesy it was. Or was it?
I find myself savoring the specifics of my generation.
“You don’t seem like the kind of person that would wear a football jacket,” my son says.
“I know, but I was. We were undefeated state champs and my boyfriend was cool, the whole team was cool. Any girl who went out with a guy on the football team wore his jacket, for sure.”
Dazed and confused: A bygone era of debauchery, worn with pride
I ponder the presumed innocence of my 16-year-old—and how completely reckless and wild I was at his age, as were most of my friends, as were a majority (it seemed) of the kids in my high school. I mean, we were like Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Or Dazed and Confused. Drunk girls falling down at keg parties in the woods. Guys smoking weed in their little Chevettes in the school parking lot before school, coming into Civics class blind-stoned with glassy eyeballs and goofy smiles on their peach-fuzz faces.
Not that I condone all that, necessarily, but there’s something a bit rowdier and more care-free—and I suppose residual of the 60s and 70s—that we who came of age in the 80s got to ride the wave of. And it was (mostly) fun.
We were the last generation that had such freedom.
“When I was your age, in high school, my girlfriend wrote notes that she signed from my mom to get me out of class early,” I impart to my son. Now that he’s old enough, I drop hints, sparingly, of just how rebellious we were.
Now I can’t even take my own kid out of school for a day without a dissertation outlining a worthy excuse. Hell, my kids don’t even wanna miss a day of school. That’s how much more rule-abiding they are.
I like that we were hell-raisers. Maybe my crew raised a little more than most but certainly we were well supported in Smallsbury (nickname for Salisbury where I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland) where not mucha nuthin happened unless we made it happen.
“God, remember the time we all showed up in court?” I reminisce with a high school girlfriend about the time we had to defend a boy who was at risk of being sent off to forestry camp. This was after a scuffle with some cops one night when we’d all been busted for underage drinking at a party.
“We hitchhiked from Ocean City—barefoot!—to show up at the courthouse, can you believe that shit? Then the lawyer said, ‘Now who exactly said, ‘Get your fucking hands off of me’? And I was like, uhh, that was me.”
Our friend got sent off to forestry camp anyway.
And who the hell has the cojones, the downright dontgiveafuckness to show up in court barefoot? Let alone hitchhike to get there after a night of partying at the beach.
Such was the tenor of high school life for me so I find myself still fixated on kids these days not even holding hands in school.
“Sheesh,” I say, content to have survived my own madness yet admittedly slightly sorry for my kid, for having not the slightest clue.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s the book I want to write, am writing, and lived and loved through. Walls’ matter-of-fact telling of what for most people would be a bizarre, unconventional upbringing—reminds me that there are many ways to experience family. Our families are not good or bad but make us who we are. Outstanding.
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In December of 1969, we—along with 300,000 other people—descended on the Altamont Speedway for the giant outdoor free concert that was to be the West Coast’s answer to Woodstock, featuring the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana. I was a hippie-baby at Altamont, about fourteen months old at the time.
When I was growing up, my mother would often retell the story of the woman who wanted to hold me at Altamont and next thing they knew she had wandered off with me.
“There we were stoned immaculate when your father realized she was trying to take you.”
I have this image of my father sprinting after the woman, dodging all the drunk and stoned hippies sprawled on blankets.
Years later, my father would insist in a letter to me, "I was not stoned—on anything—I was watching her every move."
In one photo of me, there’s a giant wine jug situated at my feet. Everybody at Altamont can be seen swilling from these massive jugs and passing them around.
We were way far back from the stage like most everyone else, unaware until the next day of Meredith Hunter, the Black teenager who had been stabbed to death by two Hell’s Angels. The Dead had hired a bunch of Bay Area Hell’s Angels to run security at the event. Up by the stage, the Angels had been hostile and brutal. Not the kind of peace and love people were used to. Even Mick Jagger couldn’t get things under control, as you can see in theRolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter, which chronicled the whole debacle.
The footage also shows people completely tripped out of their minds in a display of debauchery that even makes me feel a bit uptight. One clip shows a naked woman, totally tripped out of her mind, being led by the hand by two guys on either side of her. Equally disturbing are scenes of people having bad acid trips and being whacked out in general, behaving like the freaks the previous generation must've perceived them to be.
It’s like being the only sober person in the room watching everybody get embarrassingly drunk and stupid. You just wanna flee. Any romanticized view I previously held of Altamont went out when I watched that movie again after many years. (Though I'm still glad it's on my life experience résumé.)
Ultimately, there would be four deaths at Altamont (not all related to the Angels) and a clear signal that something had shifted. Rob Kirkpatrick, author of 1969: The Year Everything Changed, writes:
Left on its own at the end of the decade and seemingly gathered at world’s end, the Altamont congregation straddled the line between freedom and anarchy and experienced the ugly underside of a generation’s collective dream.”
I’ve never been sure if it’s my own imagination and “created” memories of being out West at that time, but internally, soulfully, I have always felt the weight of it, a bygone disappointment weighing down on our little triad as though the end of the era signaled the end of us, and we were so unbearably entangled in music and hippie culture and a certain time and place that there was nothing left to do with the relationship. Like it had run its course. ⏤ excerpt from Letters from East of Nowhere, a memoir due out Father's Day 2022
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Music continued to keep the lines of communication open between us. I remember for my 12th birthday Daddy brought me a Walkman cassette player with headphones. For my 14th it was an all-in-one turntable with radio and cassette. My gifts to him were often record albums my mom knew he would appreciate, like Eric Clapton’s Slowhand or Bob Dylan at Budokan.
1972 photo of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Left top-Dino Valenti, drums-Greg Elmore, guitar-Gary Duncan. Author; Capitol Records
I remember my father’s sheer delight when he heard I was reading J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in 8th grade, saying it was one of his all-time favorite books ever, so literature, too, became a shared interest. In high school I was soon drawn to Kerouac novels from my mom’s bookshelves and I knew I was drinking from the same fountain as my father. In my mother’s paperback collection, I also discovered the likes of Carlos Castañeda, Henry Miller, Ken Kesey and Anais Nin.
When I later attended University of San Francisco, my father turned me on to Richard Brautigan, another late-Beat generation writer, handing me a collection of short stories, including one particularly haunting one called “The Abortion” set in San Francisco in the 60s.
Brautigan had been a voice for The Summer of Love and parts of his top-selling book Trout Fishing in America were first published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the legendary proprietor of the City Lights bookstore where the Beat poets and authors all hung out in the 60s. Ferlinghetti was still there during my time in San Francisco and for many years after. I saw that he just died in February 2021 at 101 years old.
“Vida was very amused by what was going on. She certainly was pretty. We were all very relaxed lying there on the bed. The whiskey had made us mud-puddly at the edges of our bodies and the edges of our minds. ‘This is delightful.’ Vida said.” — 1970 The Abortion: An Historical Romance
Taking another hit of sweet California sunshine (Quicksilver Messenger memories)
When Daddy came out to San Francisco for my graduation in 1995, we had some time together in my apartment at Stanyan and Oak. One quiet afternoon when everyone else was out, we sat in my living room with the bowed windows facing out over Golden Gate Park, listening to Quicksilver Messenger Service at top decibel.
“I took you with me to see Quicksilver in concert, you up on my shoulders,” Daddy’s voice is low, a little slurry from the wine. He keeps a jug hidden in his duffel in our extra bedroom. I'm kind of half-asleep, or pretending to be, on the futon sofa and he's sitting on the floor in front of me, leaned back against the futon frame. At some point I drape my right arm over his shoulder.
“You know who Dino Valente, the lead singer is, don’t you?” he asks.
“Mmm-nnnh.” I muster.
“Dino Valente’s real name was Chet Powers, ‘fact he just died last year. Guy’s a brilliant musician, also went by Jesse Oris Farrow. He wrote the song ‘Get Together’ you probably know, by the Youngbloods.”
I always felt completely inadequate when it came to such knowledge of music while Daddy was this living, breathing historical reference.
“Yeah, you up on my shoulders at that concert; everybody thought you were al-right, kid.”
I try to imagine my one-year-old self with my father squeezed into a packed indoor concert hall in San Francisco in 1969. Without any other details, the vision fades out. But as I’m lying here, together with my father in the city of my birth for the first time since we both left it when I was barely two, I am profoundly aware of why the music—particularly the Sounds of San Francisco like Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, not to mention Dylan, the Stones, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield--it has always felt familiar, like it’s way down in my bones and deep in my soul.
Daddy gets quiet again. We’re just taking in the music and lyrics, probably the only time we’ve ever listened to Quicksilver together like this, ever. Previously, we might have shared only in conversation. The music somehow just didn’t show up when we were together. (And hell, when were we ever really together, anyway? Rarely just the two of us during those 25+ years since he'd left me and my mom.)
But now Quicksilver croons, telling me to hold on girl and not to be blue. It's “Light All Your Windows,” the song that does it for both of us.
Daddy takes my right hand there over his shoulder, pulls it more snugly against his chest and pats it.
“Aww doll,” he says with effort, as if the weight of it all—my whole lifetime, mostly without him—is here in this moment, in the music.
Some years later, the first seven words of that song would be how Daddy communicated with me from Beyond. The lyrics “bleeped” across my forehead like a radio station tuning in momentarily and then gone again, when I had asked for a sign.
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Hiway 60 a la Neal Cassady
When I came across this poem my father wrote, I decided to get interested in Route 60 and found that it runs from Virginia Beach right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, launching westward for 2,655 miles by way of Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, and landing somewhere around Brenda, Arizona (pop. 676). Los Angeles is about four-and-a-half-hours due west while San Francisco—where my father would always end up—is a good 10½ hours further north of that.
Highway 60 would have been like an old familiar friend to him, traversed both ways numerous times by car, 18-wheeler, and motorcycle as well as with thumb or “palm a-waving” many a time, in all kinds of weather--trying to get east of somewhere he’d rather not be.
It is “here” I allow myself to be in the moment with Daddy, to grant him human being-ness outside of being our father, and just let him be who he knew himself to be for a moment. Let him be Neal Cassady, living with wild abandon on the road with nothing to tie him down and no one to answer to and no responsibilities to anyone. Just the call of the highway, warm smell of colitas rising up through the air in dingy rooms with mamacitas to drink and lay with and never see again. - Excerpt from Letters from East of Nowhere
No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners! My Life in Japan in the 80's by Joe Palermo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Having lived in Japan myself and participated in the same Japanese government teaching program, I found Palermo's anecdotes of life in Japan, endearing and nostalgic--and spot on for cultural quirkiness and awakenings. The author captures what it's like to be a "gaijin" (foreigner), in between worlds, as it were, sometimes a celebrity, sometimes overlooked/forgotten. A few times I felt the author indulged too much in cliches but quickly recovered with the substance of the stories carrying the necessary weight.
This is light, relaxed read of a complex cultural experience. Definitely recommend it for anyone with a "yen" for Japanese culture.
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Tuned in, turned on, and writing about things that matter to me.