Few men are lucky enough to have mentors. Allen Ginsberg was both a mentor and friend, and one of the most influential, over 30 adults around RAT.
Allen told me stories about cruising 42nd Street, west of Times Square, as a gay young man when gays existed as an underground tribe with special signs of recognition much like young Mexican gang members use today. He shared stories about black WWII GI’s coming back from Europe, re-encountering racist America, and turning Harlem into a seething cauldron of anger, rebellion and socialist thought.
By about 1947, the power structure responded with a pacification program. Heroin suddenly became cheap and available. The Harlem pacification program worked to the extent that some years passed before the next explosion. For inexperienced young rebels like ourselves, the Beatniks had vital oral histories that connected us to the insurgencies of the past.
Buddhist Allen moved about town playing his harmonium. Lover Peter Orlovsky sang along, off-key but enthusiastically, crowds joined in chanting Buddhist mantras.
Allen was so Jewish that I felt his Buddhism was layered on top of his Judaism. Both are powerful, and not contradictory, understandings of the world. I thought Allen’s roots would win out over what he learned from the Tibetans. I predicted to friends that Allen would die a Jew.
I was wrong. His last rites were Buddhist.
Allen argued with me about RAT. He felt rhetoric like “pigs” created the “Other,” the first step in dehumanization. Allen wanted us to treat everyone, including our enemies, with compassion.
This wasn’t fear of battle - Ginsberg was at the forefront of thousands of demonstrations in his life. I remember a demonstration when we had gone limp, and the cops had to carry us to the paddy wagons because we refused to cooperate.
It’s hard work, carrying bodies, and the cops were pissed. When we got to the station, they were still pissed. They started throwing demonstrators out the back of the paddy wagon like sacks of flour.
When they got to Allen, all I heard was, “Hernia. Hernia. Be careful. I’ve got a hernia.”
I thought it was nuts. The pigs would take advantage of weakness and be rougher.
But I was wrong. The cop inside passed his body to two cops below who helped lay him on the ground.
Another profound Buddhist moment was in Miami. We all were arrested resisting Nixon’s nomination for president. About 200 of us were crammed, mattress-to-mattress, in the Miami stockade past the latrines. The authorities wanted to release most everybody but keep high bail on the leaders. Like the other two, our stockade group voted to strike: Everybody out or nobody out. We built a mattress barricade at the door so they couldn’t pull us out.
The stockade commander was a short, stocky, bull-necked red neck. He wasn’t happy.
Meanwhile inside, we had a great time. We went around the room and everyone told the story of how they got there – fascinating stuff, and we had lots of time to listen. Allen, whose mattress was next to mine, told me of when he was a very young man, he slept with a very old man who when he was a very young man slept with Walt Whitman!
Of course I had to ask because this was almost direct underground lore, “How did Walt Whitman make love?”
“Very gently. He treated the boy tenderly, like an object of beauty.” (Sorry, I don’t remember the name of old man who was the link, which I wrote down and lost.)
After three days, the stockade commander was going berserk. I’d been elected negotiator and had to go out and, well, negotiate. This was the kind fat racist Southerner I detested. I was good at being a wiseass shit with these people.
But the Buddhist Allen kept insisting, “Talk to the Buddha in him. Don’t talk to the sheriff. Talk to the Buddha. NOT the redneck. The Buddha.”
Outside, the commander was redfaced and screaming, literally screaming!
“I’ve been jailing people for thirty years and I never had anyone refused to leave jail. You people are crazy.”
The more he screamed the angrier he got.
“I’m going to call the highway patrol to drag everybody out.”
Thinking I might as well try Allen’s approach, I started mirroring the Commander, stamping my feet and yelling.
“You’re right. You’re right. My people are crazy. It’s terrible. You’ll call the highway patrol and they’ll build barricades. There’ll be fights at the barricades. It’s illegal to fight with the highway patrol. They’ll be dragged out, and everybody will be arrested for fighting the highway patrol. Then they’ll just be back in again.”
This undeniable vision was making him even crazier.
So I stepped in with the talking to the Buddha part, delivered with a lot of passion and stamping and looking at him directly as a human.
“It’s not your fault! You didn’t create this situation. It was the judges. It’s not your fault! You didn’t create this crazy mess. It’s not your fault! It was the judges. It’s the judges.”
Now, for a moment, we were some strange allies. He was still yelling but at a reduced volume, and still repeating himself: “What do I do? What can I do? This crazy... What do I do?”
Me: “Call the judges. It’s their fault. It’s their fault. It’s not your fault. Call the judges and tell them they have to let everybody go.”
The Commander marches over to the phone, dials some big wig judge and start yelling some more.
“I’ve got crazy people down here. They won’t leave. You have to let them all go. I can’t stand it. You have to let them all go.”
There’s not much more to add.
Like Allen advised, I negotiated with the commander’s Buddha. Half an hour later our lawyers called. Everybody was released without bail.
(Aside: Talking to the Buddha inside is a good approach and a tactic to remember, but I wouldn’t use it every time. If the Nazis were hauling people off to the death camps I think guns would be preferable. But Allen’s compassionate influence still resonates with many of us with a RAT legacy.)
RATUndergroundNews © 2016
Jeff Shero Nightbyrd was the founding editor of the original Austin Sun.
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To watch Shero's two short films on Ginsberg, click here