RAY BREMSER MEMORIAL
COLUMN SEVENTY-FOUR, AUGUST 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)
V. THE VILLAGE SCENE
" 1997 Brenda Frazer)
It was pretty obvious who was who among the crowded throngs of the Greenwich Village streets on Saturday night. The straights were painfully normal, women in high heels and stockings and men in dress shirts. The "villagers? were conspicuous for their hair, sandals and predominantly black or dark blue clothing dressed up to fit their philosophy. As inside or hip residents of the village scene, Ray and I were irritated by the stares of the tourists who had only come to stare. Heavy black make up, cignet eyes, sunglasses at night relieved some of the exposure.
were the kids who came to village from New Jersey, Brooklyn or the Bronx looking
for a good time, hoping to swing. And some of them stayed for good. Two
teenagers from Hackensack, Janine and Barbara. We met them, Ray and I were
introduced to them the first day they showed up. They both had strong Jersey
accents, like Ray. There was grass and beer and we were sitting around in the
dark, somewhere in the East Village. Barbara said "I gotta pee so bad my
back teeth are floating." It was really funny and square with the
background we all remembered from the fifties, and Ray put it in a poem sometime
later. Janine and Barbara stayed with Allen for while and made sexual scenes
with whomever showed up. Sometimes it was Kerouac, Peter and Allen, too, even
though they were homosexual. I heard about it from Ray, not gossip, though. I
myself was curious about the expansion of sexual activities in such a group. But
Ray and I were a married couple and didn't experiment.
only job I could get was at the Caf? Bizarre. I was very unhappy about it but I
was coerced. "How are we going to eat?" And I couldn't argue with
that. The Caf? Bizarre was a coffee shop right across from Washington Square
Park. Everything about it was gross, intentionally grotesque and designed to
hustle tourists. It was a firetrap, the walls were painted black and everything
kind of Halloween-like, but not funny, flying bats and black drapery from the
couldn't remember the names of the drinks, ice cream concoctions with weird
names like Witches Brew. The customers were curious about everything. "What
does the Tahitian Fantasy have in it?" They'd ask. "I think
grenadine, I'm not sure," I said, just wishing they would leave me alone.
Some of them asked personal questions. Some were drunk. We had to wear black
leotards which didn't bother me because I'd always been inclined to the
dance, even studied on Fifty-seventh Street in my own early days when I lived in
New Jersey. But this was different, the leotards were so that the customers
could ogle the waitresses. The other waitresses didn't mind and some of them
made a lot of money. The place was always packed and very hot. Every night I
dreaded it. Then one day I quit and went and sat by the fountain in the square
went back to Allen's apartment on Sixth Street, which we were watching for him
while he was traveling. Only it was hot and I dangled my bare legs out the
street window fire escape and the neighbors complained bitterly to Allen about
it when he came back. Months later a picture appeared in a Swedish magazine, an
article about the Beats, and it was me in my black leotard, legs hanging out the
fire escape window. Everybody was mad at me it seemed Ray was mad because I quit
the job and then Allen yelled at us when he got back for messing things up and
not getting along with the neighbors. His
cats had shit all over the bathtub, maybe they were mad at me too.
I felt defensive at the criticism but the only thing I could say was
"There's never anything in the refrigerator but borscht."
streets in the village. Lampposts and atmosphere. Tenements above the coffee
shops. In the Gaslight Caf? where Ray often read, I was always there; he would
make comments in my direction from
his place on the little stage, and I was proud of his public admiration. I could
have anything I wanted there, but it wasn't the same as if I had a dollar or
fifty cents of my own to go sit at my own table with a cup of coffee, in
Rienzi's or the other authentic coffee shops where the real villagers spent
Gaslight was a place for bad poetry although sometimes a young person would show
up and Ray would be impressed. I was learning to distinguish the legitimate from
the bad. Ray was a very impressive poet and a great performer too. It made me
cringe to hear some of the other poets---pure sentimentality and yet not
sincere, and totally disconnected from any meaning. Ray used the word
"pretentious." The contrast with Ray's work was a lesson in itself. Ray
treated them all as friends, only condescending to whatever degree was required,
and that would allow him to ask them for money when necessary. Because the
quality of your poetry did not determine how much money you made. Many of the
poets did regular sets every hour or so, and it didn't really matter that most
of them read the same two or three poems, because the influx of tourists was
great and originality was not a requirement.
But when Ray read it was different. Even the owner would sit down and people in the kitchen would listen too. The sound of his New Jersey accent, with Shakespearean inflections was
for a place
to impress. The poetry itself linked words, music, rhythm and meaning in a way
that perfectly matched his voice. Even if you didn't immediately understand
the intent of the poem, the sound of it, the artistic impact persuaded you .
few dollars, some food, enough for cigarettes. We wander in the night, down
MacDougal, across Washington Square, under the Fifth Avenue arch in the lights,
looking for a place to stay. We end up in Hugh Romneys' basement apartment on
Bleecker Street. Hugh was one of the Gaslight poets. Ray said he had a good
heart. He wore a beret and clipped his beard in a goatee. I didn't like the
idea of being obligated to Hugh. I wasn't as chummy with these Gaslight poets
as Ray was. But Ray got respect from them, and also got most of what he needed,
whether through loans or marijuana deals. Ray's gentle philosophy was that
many people would give up their money just because they had it. That they felt
guilty about their affluence and it made them feel good about themselves to lose
money even if there were a burn involved. Ray was doing them a favor, validating
their worth. So we stayed at Hugh's that night, maybe for a few nights. It was
very damp and the bedroom was tiny, just big enough to hold the bed, and a mouse
came and sat up on its haunches on the bed covers. I could see its little eyes
looking at me intently, and I was intimidated, couldn't sleep. But Ray could.
He'd had plenty of experience with mice in jail and wasn't afraid of them.
family ring went next to pawn, pay for necessities. Some of these things might
have seemed romantic
if I had had a good night's sleep in between, woke up rested, had regular meals
for awhile and hygienic conditions. And my gums were getting unhealthy from not
having a toothbrush. However I told myself that I didn't miss the things of
normal life, because after all I'd gotten the better part of the deal in being
It was not a comfortable
time. I was still getting used to New York. Ray often left me alone, or had me
meet him somewhere. I had to trust in his way of doing things and it was
difficult because he didn't like to explain. The streets were threatening, and
it was extremely hot. So many strangers, and so much hot concrete, the sense of
no home, no place to hide, no rest except for nights when we had an invitation
to someone's apartment. Sometimes
we stayed in Hoboken at John Rapponick's, the owner of the Seven Arts Gallery
and sometimes we'd hang out with a new friend, Irving R., who had just come in
from Chicago, an editor who had just been through an obscenity trial for his
magazine, Big Table, the first to publish William Burroughs. He had come
to New York City and now was living on East 8th Street, heart of the
lower east side where the beat scene really was.
But even when friends helped us, there was no job, no money, always having to
move fast and arrange to get through the day or night.
if there was a place to sleep, sometimes sleep didn't happen. And not because
of lovemaking. I got puzzled. Ray was uneasy. Was it the heat, was it worry? I
didn't know what to do, how to act. I was completely helpless when he didn't
give me all of his attention. I needed him. One such day we took the subway up
to Central Park in the early morning and waited for the Museum of Natural
History to open. He explained to me about Cleopatra's obelisk which was in the
gardens to the south of the museum. We spent long hours looking at the exhibits,
especially the ones about ancient Egypt. We had smoked a joint. In the early
morning It was cool and pleasant in the museum and things took on a great imaginative depth. Ray was
excited. We were having a good time and felt as though our marriage was somehow
being reconsecrated in this mythological setting. On the way home we walked
along the East River, looking deep at the water that lapped against the concrete
of the breakwater, peering over the railing where a condom swelled and shrank
like a jellyfish, loose and misshapen.
night Ray was completely distant. What was the matter, what had I done? I
couldn't tell if he was asleep or not, lying on his stomach, the toes
overhanging the bed tapping gently to the beat of the music on the phonograph.
Was he doing that in his sleep? I had a sense that he didn't want to touch.
How else to communicate? Maybe he didn't want to communicate. As soon as I dozed
off he got up and left, went for a walk alone, and I awoke more anxious than
ever. No explanations at all, what about the greatness of our earlier outing?
What about the things we'd seen with the same eyes, with the same expansive
came back at dawn, in the few moments of respite from the heat before the sun
came up again. We happened to be in a place where there was a typewriter. He
started writing and stayed at it for two hours. When he was done he showed me
the poem, called Follow the East River, about the experience the day
before, mythologizing it, suggesting the reincarnation of ancient Egypt in us, a
married couple, the king and queen, the cycles of life and death.
was still a sense of uneasiness, although he was back to me with an arm around
me while I slept. Later that day, the sun went down and the sound of the city
changed from the humdrum of business. It was ours again for the night and even
though the Gaslight was a place of jealousies for me, tonight it was the place
began to understand our life in a larger sense as Ray read the new poem, as if
reporting on the day, our outing at the museum. Only, of course, it came out as
poetry, the shape of our lives' daily happenings transmuted
to poetry or something like that. However was I the only one he identified with
Hatshepsut and Nefertiti? Or could there still be some other woman in his life?
And the sound of him against the world sounded as if he were mankind going
through a penitent stage. I did adore him for his role as Everyman, but it made
me even more insecure. Where did I fit in? I began to read things into this
poem, which had so profoundly upset him. His reading of the poem was a release,
the rhythm and cadence of it carrying to the climax where he raised a pedantic
finger as I'd seen Allen Ginsberg do. He announced our high discoveries of
Egypt as an accomplishment and enacted its performance, relived theatrically but
actually in poetry. The poem carried all of the despair, the discomfort,
connected with the larger consciousness, and then resolved it. Calm. OK.
felt like I was the only one who could fully respond to his reading. But as a
poet he belonged not to me alone, and
perhaps the poem had something to do with that, too. Imprisonment in a larger
sense, imprisonment in relationships, imprisonment in layers of history. His
voice was sepulchral as he described the sound of the tunnel stone closing, so
deep and hollow, like the resonance of his cheeks where all of the back teeth
were missing. His voice smoked out of his mouth heavy with nicotine and, I
thought, perfumed with poetry. People responded to him, fascinated, as the
narrative grew in intensity, hieroglyphic with metaphor, speaking with its own
meaning, in sound, in words.
"This is what we are about," I was thinking "and I am a part of it, in a large sense, a part of the poem. Not only the poet's wife now, not just the "old lady? to show off, not only as a woman. But
we are solid, a reality. Not just for thrills. This is our experience
together." And as he read I was moved in another way. I was proud of him,
and proud of myself for being a part of his fame.
crowds moved through. The moment of authenticity vanished. I could have been
anyone, anonymous, browsing in the way the tourists did. How strong was the
impulse to separate from that! The crowds arrived In the yellow incandescence of
the Gaslight Caf? with carnival regularity. We were as much a part of the show
as anyone else. But Ray made the connection, made us human through the poetry,
and also through the way he felt about people. Out for a buck, sure! But the
touch, when he put the touch on them, it was a touch that they wanted. It was a
hustle and redemption all at once. "You see Bonnie?" he explained,
"It all works. It's all ok." He made it ok. His voice, mesmerizing.
The poetry imaginative, yet embellished by his experience of courts of law,
justice, life, civilization. And his understanding of them. Our love made it
expansive and human, palpating with heart, the sharing of our life. The security
I'd been missing was there in the poem, along with a reshaped understanding.
All in one imaginary ride on a barge in the East River, the Nile of our dawn.
The clutter of days before and after was just more artifacts. Our heritage was
But don't forget that
Ray was humorous too. In fact he mastered words
with perfect timing, humor, the poetry coming round on itself. After such a
dramatic poem, he read I Hate Grapes, which had to do with my boyish body
and small breasts and how we liked to ball each other as we called it then. The
poem began "There is a grape dribbling over my wife's bosom/ more flute
in her muted pouting than a Lateef record." Something to do with compulsion
and satiation, the suggestion of an orgy in a bunch of grapes. I left satisfied
with my life as a poet's muse.
A few days later, another
late afternoon, hot as hell. We'd been hanging out with Irving a lot, and at
John Fles? too. John was another
one from Chicago and lived a block away on 9th Street.
Were they lovers? Irving was very particular, almost reclusive, and not
yet ready to commit to the day-to-day drug adventures
that we took in stride. Maybe it was us who turned Irving on to pot the
first time. We'd have jazzy zaney conversations where I'd be very quiet
while everyone else was bopping around, especially Ray. Irving and John were
all in awe of him but scared too. But
the pot would put me at ease and I would size up people, size up the situation,
quiet, then noticing some vulnerability come in for the putdown. It was funny,
no one minded we were all so high and silly. Irving would shout, "Bonnie!
You're TOO MUCH!"
John somehow had got some
peyote and left it for us while he was away for a day or so. Ray and I chewed it
up in the late afternoon. What would happen? The stories had grown legendary,
about how the American Indian Church had gotten the peyote ritual legalized as
part of their religious ceremony. Wow!
heat and the sunset was a sizzler. John's top floor apartment windows had been
taken out of their casements leaving a full view of red sky in the northwest,
above the streets and brick tenements of humanity. As it turned dark we lit a
candle. Kind of spooky at first, the drug not only tasted like the ultimate
alkaloid with extreme vegetable bitterness, but when it hit my stomach there was
an uneasiness like nausea, something green and indigestible residing, palpable
in the stomach. I couldn't tell if I was high and asked Ray again
"What's it supposed to be like?" But just then my focus was drawn to
the flame of the candle as if it were the teacher. "Look, Ray, there's a
man in the candle" I whisper. And we watched the little man who stood with
head bowed and arms folded. The flame was like a halo or a hood on the man's
head and it made me think of Ray in his red sweatshirt when I first met him. I
was afraid and half wanted to switch on the light or shout out loud. But Ray was
beside me and I knew he loved my high experiences so of course I couldn't
stop. We went through it together. "The wick is one with the flame, the wax
feeding it." By that time I was crying. "That's what it is, oneness.
Everything fits tight together, material and energy. The wax, the wick and the
flame consuming!" It was joy " a vision as well as an answer, a cleansing
sight! Then there were changes, just like a key or tempo shift though for once
we were not listening to music. Ray took the candle and wrote on the white
ceiling, low enough for him to reach standing. The flame smoking, the black
letters THERE IS SALVATION.
was a little pissed about that. Or maybe there was a money issue going down
between him and Ray. I didn't know. But I was beginning to understand that Ray
usually came out on top. It had to do with being a poet, as opposed to just an
editor or a literary person. "You still don't have any money, what are
you going to do?" John asked. It was apparent that he was worried about his
privacy. "Money's not the issue, John, not even a question," Ray
said. And I thought, "John surely won't admit that he needs security,
that would be too normal." "Yeah sure, it's not an issue until
something comes up, like hunger, or a party." I knew that he was trying to
allude to the many times that Ray had coerced him, perhaps on the most whimsical
pretext. "It's not! Period! Just only love, just poetry and being
together, making the scene, going places and seeing people," Ray said and
knew that these were things that some villagers actually would pay money for.
John had to swallow his annoyance which was not unusual. When Ray got imperious
and used words like love and poetry there just wasn't any way to argue. No one
even wanted to try to refute him. Probably to save face, John said, "I?m
going to Ohio to get married. You could ride along with me if you want."
Ray was excited, "That's halfway to the West Coast! We could go and see
Wally Berman and Lamantia!" Berman and Lamantia were persons on the West
Coast scene it was necessary for every fine poet to know. "It'll be like
getting high on poetry just to meet them!" It did seem like a good idea,
even if we didn't have any money. Somehow it was decided that we would go in
spite of situations that stood in the way. "All the reason more!" Ray
would say. New York was too hot, too crowded. And Allen and Peter had just taken
off to Tangiers. It was as if the tide had gone out leaving the scene in the
was my turn to feel insecure. Could I have taken a more active part in this
decision-making? Did I even want to? Maybe I was content to just be Ray's old
lady and tag along? But it was scary, no money, never been on the road to
California. But we were living the life, things were happening fast. I had to
believe it when he said it was ok. Something of the awe other people felt for
Ray was rubbing off on me, obliterating independent thought. It was part of the
closeness to let him say, "It'll be ok." At every turn he reminded
me, the philosophy of our love, of our beatness, or even smoking pot and the
"It's our identity, Babe!" I could hear him say, challenging me to
believe. "Have trust and faith in the goodness of what is happening!"
the west coast scene was a whole other situation and I was still hurting from
some of the experiences in New York, even wondering if Ray's brief involvement
with that woman Marlene might mean he didn't love me. "What about the
parole officer?" I asked, even knowing as I said it that it was useless to
insist on New Jersey's right to his freedom. "We'd be back within the
month easily and I'll make sure to stop in just before we go. When we get back
I'll go in there as if nothing has happened. He'll never know."
of risky, but there it was. An opportunity arose, an idea formed and suddenly it
was a reality. Maybe it was the peyote experience, everything was so intense,
the emotions were so exciting that there was no way to consider it otherwise. I
had to trust him and I did. So it was decided.
what was going on? Was this the new face of America? What was happening to us,
to everyone. Didn't know, but it was changing. Was it the drugs? We all talked
about it the next day in Irving's apartment. John told us "It's going
on everywhere. The universities are being funded to experiment with the
psychological effects of hallucinogens. They think that they can remedy mental
illness within the drug induced psychic state."
we are more interested in experiencing those psychic levels," I thought to
myself. "John and Irving are staying on the edges where it's safe, John
with his observations, Irving with his discipline." Irving was, in fact,
worrying that the joint we were now smoking would interfere with him getting to
work the next morning. "What will they think if I come in with my mind
expanded?" And he chuckled in spite of himself. "And now. AND
NOW...!" He said, just to make sure we were paying attention, "You
expect ME to experiment with peyote?" Ray said, "You can't be
natural can you? Just sit down anywhere, it doesn't matter, gulp down the fear
of the unknown, gulp down some buttons. Like us, we were wondering if we did it
right, and suddenly there the experience was! Visionary! Less talk!"
We all smoked pot together in spite of our differences and ignoring the necessities of Irving's disciplined day. The brave and the irresponsible sucking up the smoke right along with the rational, the job and householders. All gone off to another level of awareness together, laughing and high. ##
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