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facing the door was Jimi Hendrix, his head lowered, eating with his hat on, across from a blonde. There were musicians everywhere, sitting before tables laid with mounds of shrimp, paella, pitchers of sangria, and bottles of tequila.
I stood there amazed, yet I didn’t feel like an intruder. The Chelsea was my home and the El Quixote my bar. There were no security guards, no pervasive sense of privilege. They were here for the Woodstock festival, but I was so afflicted by hotel oblivion that I wasn’t aware of the festival or what it meant. Slick got up and brushed past me. She was wearing a floorlength tie-dyed dress and had dark violet eyes like Liz Taylor.
“Hello,” I said, noticing I was taller. “Hello yourself,” she said. When I went back upstairs I felt an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people, though I had no way to interpret my feeling of prescience. I could never have predicted that I would one day walk in their path. At that moment I was still a gangly 22-year-old book clerk, struggling simultaneously with several unfinished poems.
On that night, too excited to sleep, infinite possibilities seemed to swirl above me. I stared up at the plaster ceiling as I had done as a child. It seemed to me that the vibrating patterns overhead were sliding into place.
The mandala of my life. Robert and I took a little money from our savings and walked to 42nd Street. We stopped at a photo booth in Playland, to take our pictures, a strip of four photos for a quarter. We got a hotdog, Papaya drink at Benedict’s, then merged with the action. Boys on shore leave, prostitutes, runaways, abused tourists, and assorted victims of alien abduction. It was an urban broadway of Kino parlours, souvenir stands, Cuban diners, strip clubs and porn shops. For 50 cents one could slip inside a theatre draped in a stained velvet and watch foreign films paired with soft porn.
We hit the used paperback stalls stocked with greasy pulp novels and pinup magazines. Robert was always on the lookout for collage material, and I for obscure UFO tracts or detective novels with lurid covers. I scored a copy of the Ace double novel addition of Junkie by William Burroughs under his pseudonym William Lee, which I never resold. Robert found a few loose pages from a portfolio of sketches of aryan boys in motorcycle caps by Tom of Finland. For just a couple of dollars we both got lucky. We headed home holding hands. For a moment I dropped back to watch him walk. His sailor’s gait always touched me. I knew one day I would stop and he would keep on going, but until then nothing could tear us apart.
The last weekend of summer I went home to visit my parents. I walked to the Port Authority feeling optimistic as I boarded the bus to South Jersey, looking forward to seeing my family and going to the second-hand bookstores on Mullica Hill. We were all book lovers and I usually found something to resell. A first addition of Doctor Martino signed by William Faulkner. The atmosphere in my parents’ house was uncharacteristically bleak. My brother was about to enlist in the Navy. My mother, though intensely patriotic,
was distraught at the prospect of Todd being shipped off to Vietnam. My father was deeply disturbed by the My Lai massacre. “Man’s inhumanity to man,” he would say, quoting Robert Burns. I watched him plant a weeping willow in the backyard. It seemed to symbolize his sorrow for the direction his country had taken. Later people would say the murder at the Altamont Stones concert in December marked the end of the idealism of the 60s. For me, it punctuated the duality of the summer of 1969, Woodstock and the Manson cult, our masked ball of confusion.
Robert and I rose early. We had put aside money for our second anniversary. I prepared our clothing the night before, washing our things in the sink. He squeezed out the excess water as his hands were stronger, then draped them over the iron board we used as a clothesline. In order to dress for the occasion, he disassembled the piece where he had stretched two black T-shirts on a vertical frame. I had sold the Faulkner book, and, along with a week’s rent, was able to buy Robert a Borsalino hat at the JJ Hat Center on Fifth Avenue. It was a Fedora and I watched him comb his hair and try it on different ways. He was obviously pleased as he jokingly pranced around in his anniversary hat.
He put the book I was reading, my sweater, his cigarettes, and a bottle of cream soda in a white sack. He didn’t mind carrying it, because it leant him a sailor’s air. We boarded the F Train and rode to the end of the line.
I’d always loved the ride to Coney Island. Just the idea that you could go to the ocean via subway was so magical. I was absorbed in the biography of Crazy Horse and I suddenly returned to the present and I looked at Robert. He was like a character in Brighton Rock in his 40s-style hat, black net T-shirt, and huaraches.
We pulled into our stop. I leapt to my feet, filled with the anticipation of a child, slipping the book back into the sack. He took my hand. Nothing was more wonderful to me than Coney Island with its gritty innocence. It’s our kind of place: the fading arcades, the peeling signs of bygone days, cotton candy and Kewpie dolls on a stick, dressed in feathers and glittering top hats. We wandered through the last gasp of the side shows. They had lost their lustre, though they still touted such human oddities as the donkey-faced boy, the alligator man, and the three-legged girl. Robert still found the world of freaks fascinating, though of late he was forgoing them in his work for leathered boys.
We strolled the boardwalk and got our picture taken by an old man with a box camera. We had to wait for an hour for it to be developed, so we went to the end of the long fishing pier where there was a shack that served coffee and hot chocolate. Pictures of Jesus, President Kennedy and the astronauts were taped to the wall behind the register. It was one of my favourite places and I would often daydream of getting a job there and living in one of those old tenement buildings across from Nathan’s.
All along the pier young boys and their grandfathers were crabbing. They’d slide raw chicken as bait in a small cage
Document on a rope and hurl it over the side. The pier was swept away in a big storm in the 80s, but Nathan’s, which was Robert’s favourite place, remained. Normally we only had money for one hotdog and a Coke. He would eat most of the dog and I most of the sauerkraut. But that one day we had enough money for two of everything. We walked across the beach to say hello to the ocean, and I sang him the song Coney Island Baby by the Excellents. He wrote our names in the sand. We were just ourselves that day, without a care. It was our good fortune that this moment in time was frozen in a box camera. It was our first real New York portrait. Who we were. Only weeks before we’d been at the bottom, but our blue star, as Robert called it, was rising. We boarded the F Train for the long ride back, returning to our little room, cleared the bed off, happy to be together.
Harry and Robert and I sat in a booth at the El Quixote sharing shrimp and green sauce appetisers, talking about the word magic. Robert would often use it to describe us, about a successful poem or drawing, and ultimately in choosing a photograph on a contact sheet. “That’s the one with the magic,” he would say. Harry, feeding into Robert’s fascination with Aleister Crowley, was claiming to have been fathered by the black magician. I asked if we drew a pentagram on the table, could we make his dad appear? Peggy, who joined us, brought us all down to earth. “Can any of you second-class wizards conjure up the dough to pay for the check?”
I can’t exactly say what Peggy did. I know she had a job at the Museum of Modern Art. We used to joke that she and I were the only officially employed people at the hotel. Peggy was a kind, fun-loving woman with a tight ponytail, dark eyes and a worn tan, who seemed to know everybody. She had a mole between her brows that Allen Ginsberg had dubbed her third eye, and could have been a fringe player in a beatnik movie. We made quite a crew, all talking at once, contradicting and sparring, a cacophony of affectionate arguing.
Robert and I didn’t fight very often. He seldom raised his voice, but if he was angry you could see it in his eyes, his brow, or the stiffening of his jaw. When we had a problem that needed hashing out, we went to the “bad doughnut shop” on the corner of Eighth Avenue on 23rd Street. It was the Edward Hopper version of Dunkin’ Donuts. The coffee was burned, the doughnuts were stale, but you could count on it being open all night. We felt less confined there than in our room and nobody bothered us. All kinds of characters could be found at any given hour. Guys on the nod, hookers on the night shift, transients and transvestites. One could enter this atmosphere unnoticed, inspiring at the most a brief glance. Robert always had a powdered jelly doughnut and I had a French cruller. For some reason they were five cents more than normal doughnuts. Everytime I ordered one he’d said, “Patti! You don’t really like them; you’re just being difficult. You just want them because they’re French.” Robert tagged them “poet’s cruller.” It was Harry who settled the etymology of the cruller. It wasn’t French at all, but Dutch: a fluted ringshaped affair made from choux pastry with a light and airy texture eaten on Shrove Tuesday. They were made with all the eggs, butter, and sugar forbidden at Lent. I declared it the holy doughnut. “Now we know why the doughnut has a hole. Harry thought for a moment, and then scolded me, feigning annoyance. “No, it’s Dutch,” he said. “It doesn’t translate that way.” Holy or not, the French connection was permanently squelched.
One evening Harry and Peggy invited us to visit the composer George Kleinsinger, who had a suite of rooms at the Chelsea. I was always reluctant to visit people, especially grown-ups. But Harry lured me with the information that George had written the music to Archy and Mehitabel, a cartoon of friendship between a cockroach and an alley cat. Kleinsinger’s rooms were more tropical forest than hotel residence, a real Anna Kavan setup. The draw was supposed to be his collection of exotic snakes, including a 12-foot python. Robert seemed transfixed by them, but I was terrified.
As everyone was taking turns petting the python, I was free to rummage through George’s musical compositions, stacked randomly among ferns, palms and caged nightingales. I was elated to find the original sheet music from Shinbone Alley in a pile atop a filing cabinet. But the real revelation was finding evidence that this modest and kindly snake-rearing gentleman was none other than the composer of music for Tubby the Tuba. He confirmed this fact and I nearly wept when he showed me the original scores of the music so beloved in my childhood.
The Chelsea was like a dollhouse in The Twilight Zone, with one hundred rooms, each a small universe. I wandered the halls seeking its spirits, dead or alive. My adventures were mildly mischievous, tapping open a door slightly ajar and getting a glimpse of Virgil Thomson’s grand piano, or loitering before the name plate of Arthur C Clarke, hoping he might suddenly emerge. Occasionally I would bump into Gert Schiff, the German scholar, armed with volumes on Picasso, or Viva in Eau Savage. Everyone had something to offer and nobody appeared to have much money. Even the successful seemed to have just enough to live like extravagant bums.
I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively. There were rumours of Oscar Wilde’s trunks languishing in the hull of the oft-flooded basement. Here Dylan Thomas, submerged in poetry and alcohol, spent his last hours. Tom Wolfe plowed through hundreds of pages of manuscript that formed You Can’t Go Home Again. Bob Dylan composed Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands on our floor, and a speeding Edie Sedgwick was said to have set her room on fire while gluing on her thick, false eyelashes by candlelight.
So many had written, conversed and convulsed in these Victorian dollhouse rooms. So many skirts had swished these worn marble stairs. So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars.
Patti Smith’s Just Kids is published by Bloomsbury