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The Essay
Show #538
The Beat Generation
David Gunn

It is a steamy, sultry Saturday night in New York in August of 1956, so hot that half the members of the cobblers guild are cooling their heels at the iceberg lettuce assembly plant on Rikers Island. But in a large, cramped apartment on West Twenty-seventh Street, the mood -- no matter the absence of air conditioning -- is preternaturally cool. The sound of an ice-cold Billy Holiday ballad drifts down from a phonograph speaker that is unconvincingly attached to the ceiling by one small screw. The chilidogs on the kerosene grill in the vestibule, even after a ten-minute assault of searing flame, remain steadfastly chilly. Even the kitchen coolie is stalwartly cool to the advances made on her by the hot-blooded refrigerator repairman. The living room wall is covered with facsimiles of the latest abstract impressionistic art -- Max Mondrian, Piet Pollock, Jackson Ernst -- with one exception: in the corner hangs a garish velveteen print of dogs playing poker. Directly beneath the picture is a table around which are gathered in a silent tableau that closely mirrors the print five men: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Beano Bengaze: the lost and foundering fathers of the Beat Generation. These five nonconformists had rebelled from the ways of their more traditional colleagues -- who they denounce as prawns of "The Establishment" -- to engage in a spontaneous and often chaotic form of creativity. The poker game in progress is proof of this, as the men eschew playing cards in favor of neon tetras that Burroughs had scooped out of his aquarium in the bedroom. The little fish doggedly wriggle out of the players' hands, and confusion reigns as they try to pick them up while figuring out who had which fish. Ginsberg, who, a moment ago, held a queen-high straight flush, abruptly finds himself in possession of five octothorpes, a suit that has a negative value in the current game. Feeling cursed by his bad luck -- he has already lost six hundred and fifteen consecutive hands, plus nine fish -- the poet begins to howl. Instinctively, Billy Holiday joins in, her ballad metamorphosing into the kind of scat that brings to mind the organic fertilizer surrounding a lemming den. A chorus of bays seems to emanate from the velveteen picture, and while it certainly sounds doggish, none of the snouts of the depicted poker players moves. The grilling chilidogs, catching the vibe, utter a group squeal of their own, agitato con carne. One by one, Ginsberg's tablemates abandon their nonconformist ways and join him in the wailing. Only the refrigerator repairman, feeling as out of place as an earwig in an otorhinolaryngologist's lunchbox, keeps his trap shut, an attitude that at last wins likewise tacit approval from the kitchen aide.

It was Kerouac who had dubbed the group the Beat Generation, in honor of Corso's invention the year before of the metronome -- that is, the mechanical ticker, not Pierre Bonapart, the evil-smelling dwarf who lived in the tunnels of the French subway system. (See Wikipedia reference at le Metro gnome.) However, to hear the five of them keening together in a quintessential anti-rhythm that would drive a citizens band director batty, one might reasonably question the accuracy of the term.

The yowling rekindles happy memories in Burroughs. When he was in his late twenties, he had been spirited away and raised by wolves. Although he was openly critical of his den mother's hygiene, he was never more content than when he participated in the nightly group howl. Now, his dark basso profundo, mixed with the bass of Corso and Bengaze and the baritone of Ginsberg and Kerouac, brings to mind the sound of sixteen-foot organ pipes, leading one of the poker-playing dogs to re-christen the group the Beats of Bourdon.

As the hours pass, the howling increases in volume, catching the attention of the city's Decibel Constabulary. Two law-and-order bullies show up at the door with an ultimatum: either pipe down or by morning they'll all be deadbeats. Beano fashions a compromise with the help of a peace pipe he employs in his shamanic business. He fills it with a blend of bachelor's and mescal buttons, passes it around, and soon the group is basking in a quietly communal pipe dream, the group bay reduced to a fading memory.

Ten years pass; the group splinters. Corso and Ginsberg journey to a Mexico City health clinic to have the splinters removed. While the medical attention they receive is first rate -- Ginsberg howls for only a moment as the wood slivers are withdrawn -- the two men are even more impressed by the clinic's cuisine. Turning standard Mexican fare into a high art form is the food service chef and premiere gastronome of the day, Edgar Rice Burritos, who is later obliquely referenced in Ginsberg's second major poem, Kaddish Cheese.

Meanwhile, Kerouac and Burroughs head for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they enroll in that town's prestigious university. A chance encounter with budding soil scientist and recreational poet Michael McClure convinces the two to forsake their creative writing studies and instead explore the wonderful world of agronomy. Their enthusiasm for certain root vegetables leads to the genesis of a new sociologically controversial movement, the Harvard Beet Generation.

And what of Beano Bengaze? His mid-sixties splinter flung him well past the Rikers Island iceberg lettuce assembly plant into the most dogforsaken reaches of the New Hampshire desert, where to this day he appears in visions, the latest of which is to remind you, our listening audients, that you are tuned to the 538th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, the busy festivities of which are already underway, thanks to the on-air traffic control of Kalvos.