RAY BREMSER MEMORIAL
COLUMN SEVENTY-FOUR, AUGUST 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)
CHAPTER ONE: POETS AND ODDFELLOWS
(Copyright - 1997 Brenda Frazer)
First there was me. Then there was Ray and me. It happened like this. I had dropped out of college and Ray was fresh out of jail, practically at the same time. I was living in DC at 19th and F near Pennsylvania Avenue, just two blocks from the White House, my first apartment. It was 1959. I was nineteen years old, Ray was twenty-five and came down to DC with a bunch of New York poets.
I met him at a poetry reading at the Odd Fellows Hall. I had
seen the poster in the window of a little lunch counter near GW University. I
thought it was going to be a student event but it wasn't. I remember how I got
ready for this evening, more important than I knew. Bathed and girdled up,
didn't know this was the last time I would put on a girdle or a bra in my
life, never again. Even as I looked in the mirror and lifted my arm for
deodorant didn't know that someone one, someone like him, would prefer my
I just thought I was getting ready
for a poetry reading. Maybe it would even be a little dull, too intellectual.
Art and ideology all together in a bookish atmosphere, a round table where poets
wore glasses and droned monotonously, something like that. My own image was
Bohemian. I put on my black stockings and a skirt, a black sweater too, loafers
and a camel hair coat. My hair was very short like Francois Sagan on the cover
of BONJOUR TRISTESSE.
And there would be music too the
poster had said. I was curious and even more because of the name Odd Fellows.
What was that about? Anyway it was a reason to go out. My social life was nil,
more and more withdrawn. I'd stayed in bed with my copy of Balzac the last few
weeks before I left college. Now I read Shakespeare every chance I got, home
from work for lunch sitting on the trunk that held my belongings, the only piece
of furniture besides a bed and a kitchen table, both there when I moved in. My
apartment was near the federal office building where I worked as a clerk-typist.
Lunch was Campbell's vegetable soup with chili powder. I was dieting again.
Anyway that night it was dark and
raining and I didn't know where the Odd Fellows Hall was. I'd take a cab.
"Do you know where the Odd Fellows Hall is?" I asked the cabdriver,
and felt silly just saying it. "The one at 9th and T Northwest?" he
asks. "They're having a poetry reading, I guess that's it." Was
there more than one Odd Fellows Hall?
February was cold in DC. The bare
trees, wet with the winter rain, were close around the entrance of the Odd
Fellows Hall as I got out of the cab. A surprise. The big glass doors, though
pointed obliquely into the winter wind, were brightly lit, and winter stayed
The lonely day fell away from me as
I entered. The atmosphere was warm and I felt my face relax as I looked around
to see if people were staring at me as I was at them, amazed at the differences.
But no one noticed me, for the poetry reading had already started. I was free to
study the interesting faces there. What beautiful long hair and gentle
expressions. Soft smiles, a little ecstatic. But even more, a sense of
excitement, perhaps it was hope, shining from eyes. Maybe the poetry was doing
it, opening emotions, lifting the spirit. Maybe it was communication making them
all understand as one mind. It felt good to be there and yet the familiar
discomfort in my own skin made me an outsider. Had I experienced any of that
communication? Would someone teach me? I took a deep breath, trying to be ready
for whatever came.
The crowd more than filled the hall and I leaned against the wall on the nearest side where many people were sitting on the floor. From there, I could see well and yet was somewhat removed. Down front was a stage with a grand piano and a small table with one chair. All of the lights were on in the hall, illuminating the audience as well as the stage. No artificial barrier between the crowd and the poets except the elevation of the stage. The poets stood around the stage. This small Negro guy apparently was in charge making introductions. He introduced the next poet Peter Orlovsky. Very blond and good looking. I thought I would like to know someone like that. He laughed at himself while reading a very short poem. Then another poet stood and read in an
'. . .this tall guy with an army fatigue jacket and red sweatshirt underneath. . .'
excited voice about a lion in his bedroom closet. "Yeah, a lion
wow!" I thought, laughing with the people around me, catching the
excitement of his reading. Who was it? Allen Ginsberg? But he was funny.
"There goes my image of an English professor," I thought, glad that I
The crowd was noisy and excited.
"Thanks to the education of the New Jersey penal system, a jailhouse poet,
Ray Bremser!" I heard the announcer say something about Poems of
Madness. And then there was this tall guy with an army fatigue jacket and
red sweatshirt underneath, the hood drooping down his back. He looked like a
monk. He sat at the little table looking down at the audience, reading with a
strong accent. A black binder full of poems was on his lap. The poem was about
how his father always bet on the horses. The words came fast in a barrage and I
couldn't catch it all. But the rhythm carried it and I found I could
Here one of my shy moods overtook me. What if someone spoke
to me, or asked my opinion? Suppose I was expected to be friendly, spontaneous
and free like these other people. I'd have to come out of my aloof, stuck up
shell, even admit that I was painfully scared of people. What if I had to turn
my head and look direct at the person next to me? I was uncomfortable that way.
I felt suddenly confused and wanted to get outside again, back to my apartment,
and yet the same time I wanted more than anything to be a part of this crowd for
once, to fit in. On an impulse to leave, I moved to the back of the hall. OK, so
maybe I am a phony, so what, I swung my ass a little, in defiance of the human
"Hey wait a minute! You
can't leave like that! Don't you like the poetry?" This tall black guy
accosted me just when I was about to escape. I mumbled something inarticulate,
thinking that would get rid of him, but no, perhaps he thought I'd made no
reply. He told me stay and wait to the end. There was going to be a party and
he'd take me. He told me that the reading had been set up by him and some
other students at Howard University. "The poets read at Howard last night
too. Where were you?" he said, facetiously. I knew he wanted to impress me
with the fact he was the organizer, and I was, but still said nothing. "My
name is Brick," he said.
The poets were reading again,
another round. They acted as though they were trying each to come up with
something better than the other. It was exciting. Brick told me their names as
they appeared. The reading was in full swing now. Gregory Corso came to the edge
of the stage, shouting out into the air with a large gesture. "BE A STAR
SCREWER!" And then the announcer Leroi Jones read his own poem about music.
Then the piano player Cecil Taylor
comes on and Brick asks me, "Do you like jazz?" and I have to say yes
because I like this large music being played now. And I like very much the
intense face of the piano player with his round and intellectual eyeglasses.
"They are almost done" Brick says to me "You wait for me here,
When Brick came back he took me up
to the stage and introduced me to some of the poets. Then a bunch of us got in a
station wagon with a guy named Dave driving. I was in the front seat while Brick
and AB Spellman, another student from Howard University were in the back. The
poet Allen Ginsberg rode with us too. Brick told me "Dave drove the van
with the poets in it down from New York." Then Dave said,"Yeah, I had
to take over the driving from Peter O. because he used to be an ambulance driver
and he never drives slow." "Besides he was too high," said Allen
G. in the back seat, and "Who's the pretty girl up front?" and so I
was introduced to him too. We were passing through Northwest DC. The special
feeling that black neighborhoods have, people still on the street. Where's the
party? When we arrived the others were already there and gave a shout of
greeting. Allen was obviously the favorite.
Brick got me a beer and left me alone. Allen sat right down
on a big hassock in the middle of the room with a fat black guy. They got into
an intense conversation that made their faces shine with sweat and happiness. I
wandered to the kitchen where Peter O. was. I found him almost as shy as I was
and we only talked for a few minutes. I was disappointed and retreated to the
bathroom. Looked at myself in the mirror in a negative way, and asked myself
what was I doing there? The excitement and cold air and maybe the beer had made
my cheeks flushed. I went and sat down on a couch in the other room by myself.
Almost immediately Ray Bremser came
and asked if he could sit next to me, which he did for about five minutes
without saying anything. Somehow I was entirely reassured by his quietness. Then
finally he said to me "Do you like this party?" and I said
"No" and he said, "Well why don't we get out of here
then?" I said, "OK".
Driving around in another taxicab
and Ray was trying to figure out a place to go. Now I knew where we were. We had
just passed the Greyhound bus station. Across the street was an art movie
theater. A week before I'd gone there to see the new film sensation, Bridget
Bardot. She danced on the screen, bigger than life and more or less nude. With
tropical skin and long loose hair, she was soft and sexy as sand between bare
toes. I wanted to be like her.
We were just passing Pancake
Heaven; all lit up like an oasis in the night. "Do you like pancakes?"
I suddenly craved butter and syrup, comfort. "I love pancakes!" The
bright lights in the pancake house were like a spotlight on us. I could see
Ray's handsome face, pockmarked and angular, savage and gentle at once. His
curly hair fell over his forehead, not quite a pompadour. I was nervous about
the conversation and we didn't get very far. We talked about my leaving school
and he told me "I never got beyond the seventh grade. I didn't like
school. But when I was in jail I was the librarian and could order books from
anywhere, read what I wanted, things you can't find in the store." I was
strangely reassured by the fact that he'd been in jail. Perhaps it was
immediately proof that he was different, like me.
Even when we lapsed into silence it
was not so painful. He was gentle with me and instead of pushing questions he
said "I like quiet people. It shows they have thoughts they've never
expressed. Most of the women I know talk endlessly about nothing." I liked
being seen as different from other women. He pulled a wad of bills from his
pocket saying, "I just got paid for the reading." He gave me a sense
that everything was ok and only today mattered.
"What now?" I wondered.
He simply asked, "Would you like to come with me?" And I simply said,
"Yes." It was Saturday night; no worries and no work tomorrow, no
virginity after all. I trusted him without thought. We got into another cab and
drove to the address where they were staying. We entered down some stairs that
went directly to a room with two beds. It was a basement apartment with several
rooms. "We'll kick them out if they try to get in," he said, turning
on the bare light bulb over the bed. I was standing shyly not knowing what to
do. He noticed and turned the light off again. "I hate bare bulbs," he
said and I could hear him taking off his clothes. I undressed in the dim light
from the street window, balancing on one foot as I peeled the girdle off.
As I got into bed he handed me one
of two lit cigarettes, twin burning coals in the darkness. We were strangely
relaxed and quiet, smoking, perhaps wondering what to do and how to do it. Then
he said, "Are you tired?" And almost disappointed I said,
"Yes". But it was a lie and he knew it. Maybe I thought we could spend
the night just pretending to sleep. He reached over putting his arm lightly
around me and said in a surprised voice, "Jesus! You're naked!" And
we laughed together at the silliness of shy preliminaries. "Well what did
His body was long and sinewy. His
kisses were chaste and gentle. He used his lips to delicately touch my face, my
neck, and my mouth. His fingers brushed lightly over my skin as he said "So
smooth." And I felt his skin a little prickly with hairs rising. "Was
it a good ball?" he asked afterwards as I touched his face tenderly. And
without answering I thought that between my legs he was a perfect fit. Large
enough to seem completely new, as if the first love.
We rested in each other's arms smoking again and there were voices of people arriving in the next room. Ray sighed, "The party must be over, here they come." A voice came through the wall, "I'll bet that Bremser is in there getting laid. Bet he's with that chick from the party" "That's Gregory" Ray whispered. "Weighed, Laid, and Parlayed, as they say in New Jersey," he imitated
Ray's accent which he could do almost without trying since his own New York
accent was heavy. "Look out for Gregory, he's a rabbit fucker." Ray
laughed in my ear and called out "YEAH, GREG IT's ME!" "Oh man
you're so cool the way you bird dogged that chick from Brick," Gregory
again. "No man, I ain't cool. I'm hot!" And we heard other voices
laughing as Ray pulled me to him. "Leave them alone" someone said.
"That Ray's a Romeo" said Gregory
This time as we balled, oblivious
of the voices in the next room there was a loud thump and we rolled off onto the
floor as the bed collapsed. A voice from the other room, "What happened
man?" And Ray answered, "THE FUCKING BED BROKE!" And we laughed
The sky was getting light through
the basement apartment windows. Already up, so we dressed and left the broken
bed behind. Satisfied anyway for the moment and full of joy from the feeling.
Where will we go to breakfast?" he said as we stepped up to the sidewalk.
"Why don't we go to my place?" I suggested. "Well why didn't
you say so before?" and we got into another cab and went there.
Remember my place was barely
furnished. Although a nice old brownstone house, my apartment on the top floor
had been painted over too many times. The thick pink covered the boarded front
and mantel of an old fireplace. A chocolate cake on the kitchen table had been
left open to the air. I liked it stale. Kidney stew in a small skillet on the
stove, which I?d, made the night before. Ray said, "What the fuck is
this?" and threw it out so he could use the pan for eggs. He told about
cooking in the jail over a roll of toilet paper. "The skillet has to be hot
for eggs." He was standing on the step up to the stove and fridge in the
corner of the kitchen. Kind of like on a stage and I watched him perform.
My first apartment seemed even
cozier now that I had a lover. The welcome sunshine came in the window through
shutters in the little bedroom. In the diffused sunlight we could see each
other. His long body looked like a naked Jesus, stretched out in undershorts. We
stayed awake only long enough to make love one more time. And to talk about my
sexual history, the four or five men that I'd been to bed with. And he?d
been with at least that many in the past two months. "I was a virgin until
I was twenty-five. Angel, the dancer, took my cherry. It's all here in my
address book." He showed me his system of letters and dots by women's
names. He marked the tally of our lovemaking on the pink paint of the bedroom
wall, four lines and a diagonal across. "Keep that there now."
He was modest though and put his
underwear on again as soon as we made love. He was self-conscious of the acne on
his shoulders. "In the jail we always had to wear short sleeved shirts and
I hated it. After I became a trustee I was allowed to wear long sleeves and to
keep my collar up."
While we were falling asleep the pigeons cooed on the little
balcony outside which overlooked the park across the street. Ray spoke of how
they had arrived in town on Thursday and immediately went to see the White House
and the statue in Lafayette Square, which was covered with pigeon droppings.
"Gregory hates the government buildings. He says they make him feel guilty
for something, anything, for just being alive. He practically grew up in jail
you know. He says the pigeon shit everywhere is poetic justice."
In the afternoon when we woke, Ray
called Dave who said they were all meeting for lunch in a restaurant, which was
only two blocks away from my place. I knew that they were planning to leave soon
and I began to feel frightened and insecure. As we walked down the steps of the
brownstone house I wondered what was going to become of me. At the restaurant we
ate hamburgers while Gregory told us about the milk bath he'd had at Elizabeth
Arden's. Afterwards we went out on the street and Gregory came up behind us
and said, "Hey Ray! Did you tell her about your wife and kids?"
His words were like a shot to my
heart and it collapsed noiselessly within me. Maybe, could it have been all a
lie between us. What a fool I'd been. I barely knew his name! "Aw
Gregory, shut the fuck up," I heard Ray say. And we walked back to my pad
where the others would pick him up later when it was time to leave. As we turned
the corner I said, just barely able to get out the words, unrehearsed.
"What does he mean, your wife and kids!" Angry tears of frustration, I
felt the shadow of doom. Never that angry at anyone before. Stupid me to trust?
No! It wasn't my fault! So what does it mean? Obviously he would have to leave
his wife. At that moment I realized I was in love.
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