“I just started hustling, just knocking around, you know, scrounging, learning I guess.”
This is Herbert Huncke: drug addict, criminal and writer. He moves in his own little group of junkies and criminals, otherwise he is cut off from people –– “people” meaning those who truly belong to society, who are connected and in control and help in some small way to shape the direction of the world. And yet, though isolated, he must continue to live, binding his own life into order. No matter to what depths you sink you must still go on living, which for a human being means making choices, taking responsibility.
He peers into the cracks looking for clues, keys and maps that might guide him, aid him in survival. Those who are cut off like him can find no ready-made order in their lives. He must find his own way, intuitive, delving into winding depths, never across or upward, never in a straight line.
And his displacement means he occupies a unique space, discovering truths that exist only in the gaps. Truths you notice only when you are forced to take strange paths. Truths you can sometimes articulate if you are a writer. Allen Ginsberg said:
“In his anonymity & holy Creephood in New York he was the sensitive vehicle for a veritable new consciousness which spread to others sensitised by their dislocation from History and then to entire generations.”
Huncke’s prose jumps around in time and space. He’s telling us about a time that Johnie was with him, then he jumps ahead to Johnie’s death much later, shot to death by police in a drugs raid. This is what Henry Miller called “spiral form”, prose circling away from past to future to present and back so that past present future become entwined.
The spiral form echoes the helplessness of Huncke and his friends. Before we’re even done with the story, their fate has been decided. Johnie will die, there’s no way to change that. History, even the personal histories of those in this small group, has been written independently of them. Dislocated and isolated, these people are of the kind Henry Miller described when he wrote “We are all alone here and we are dead.”
But Joey Martinez has a guardian angel. “Nothing bad will ever happen to me because someone looks over me and takes care of me.” Humanity has forgotten Joey, so it’s left to the angels to look out for him. When you’re dislocated from history, you need to believe that someone is there, making changes for you, helping you out. Guardian angels exist for those who live in isolation and are unable to make change happen on their own. Joey didn’t ask for help. What human being would help him? But he knows an angel is there, watching over him.
Elsie John is a giant of six and a half feet, with long bright red hair. He wears lipstick and paints his nails. He is intersex, or “hermaphrodite” as he calls himself, as society calls him if it doesn’t call him “queer” or “degenerate”. Huncke’s story of Elsie is a sad and terrible one: his last memory of him, Elsie is in a prison yard surrounded by men who are screaming obscenities and exposing themselves. Where was Huncke when he saw this? Didn’t he step in to help? More evidence of helplessness, dislocation.
Guardian angels are beings that feel pity, and feel it enough to act upon it –– something human beings rarely do. Faced with another’s suffering, human beings often become like Huncke in the prison yard, frozen in his pity. To become an angel, just for a moment, make pity your driving force and motivation. Accept that some cannot do for themselves, that society offers some among us no way to help themselves. They need help, they need angels. Forget fear. And forget the ideology of self-belief that serves only the rich, the ideology that says Anyone Can Be Anything, and if you fail it is Your Fault.
This will set you at odds with the world, just in that moment. You’ll see the cracks and secret pathways and you will sense others like you, the angels in others, hidden in the hearts of the most lost and most helpless, the most cold, the most hardened . . .
(I’ve been reading The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters and published in 1992 by Penguin Classics. It’s a collection of some of the best writing from the Beat Generation, with interesting little introductions to each writer.)