For Ken, Who Saved My Life
In the fall of 1977 I moved to New York City, having dropped out of college to become a hippie poet along with my buddies Tony and Bill. We were going to start a new magazine of American surrealism, which we already called New Honolulu Review. Bill and his girlfriend moved into a microscopic place on E. 61st St., so small the bathtub was in the kitchen. Tony and I found a tiny, mouse-infested apartment in a dangerous Lower East Side neighborhood with one overwhelming benefit. It was cheap. This was important, because I had come to the city with all the ambition and naiveté a young poet needs, but without one essential ingredient of New York life: money.
A few weeks after moving to the city, I saw an announcement in the paper for a poetry reading. Billed as “An Evening of Spanish Poetry,” it was to introduce a new sequence of translations of poets like Lorca, Vallejo, Machado, and Jimenez. The reading would be bi-lingual, and included the most important translators of Spanish poetry at the time: among them Hardie St. Martin and two of my favorite poets, Robert Bly and James Wright. Surrealism, Spanish poetry, Bly and Wright…to me, this was a big time poetry event. Tony and Bill couldn’t go that night, but I was sure going to be there. The address was Riverside Drive, upper West Side. I hadn’t been in that part of Manhattan yet, so I pulled out a city map and a subway map and spread them side by side on the living room floor, which they filled.
I found the location easily on the city map and compared it with the subway map. A simple route from my neighborhood to the reading presented itself to me. I’d take the A train all the way up 8th Ave. to 125th St. From there it was just a few blocks and a quarter-mile walk through a little green splotch on the map called Morningside Park and I’d be right there.
I had already come to love walking through the city. The streets were filled with life, and the parks even more so. On a warm afternoon in Central Park I could stroll for hours, just soaking in images, languages, music. A group of dread-locked men with steel drums and a huge crowd dancing. A lone kid, maybe 13, sitting on a plastic bucket and drumming on another. Nearby two black guys in dashikis playing African rhythms on tall congas. I’d hear people speaking Chinese, then Czech, then full on Ebonics (though the word wasn’t coined yet). An old Jewish man in a heavy black jacket at a stone table playing speed chess against a huge black guy in tee shirt and shorts. Hippies throwing Frisbees. Girls in hot pants on roller blades. Mothers pushing strollers. Hookers and pickpockets and loose joint dealers slipping through the crowds. Record albums, fake imported handbags, fake imported jewelry and Rolex watches laid out for sale along the sidewalks. Yes, a little walk before the reading would be perfect.
I picked out my best jeans— only a few holes— and a button-down shirt. I cinched up my tennis shoes and strolled out into a warm autumn evening in New York City. This was exactly why I’d come here: the city streets beating with excitement and energy, and the big time poetry world waiting. I left early, wanting plenty of chance to mingle with the literati before the reading.
I dropped down into the subway and caught my crosstown train quickly, then transferred at 14th St. to the A train. The ride was unremarkable. I was already used to the shaking and the screeching metal, the flickering lights and sudden darknesses, the bumping and pulling away of too many bodies in too small a space. The smells of ozone and perfume and urine. It was an express train, and a lot of people got on and got off at each of the few stops we made. I found a seat and just stayed there as the crowds came and went and the train rolled uptown. At some point, though, after a stop and a major exchange of passengers, I began to notice there weren’t many white people except me in the car. And then, after another stop, I was the last white person left on the train.
Three years before, at the end of my first semester at Oberlin, I was going back to our house on Fort Meade for Christmas break. The cheapest transportation I could find was a chartered bus the school had arranged for students who lived in the DC area. I signed up and jumped on the bus to discover that I was the only white student going home that way. I didn’t know any of the other kids, so I just snagged a seat toward the back next to the window. The bus wasn’t full, and no one sat next to me.
As the ride went on— it’s about 10 hours from Oberlin to DC— the students got rowdier and noisier. By the time it was dark, the bus was rocking pretty good; kids standing and walking around, lots of loud talking, some girls tentatively singing soul songs. A few comments drifted back my way, things like, “Wonder why that white dude’s riding the bus?” “Ya’ll think he’s the man?” A few guys gathered near me, standing in the aisle, not threatening but they were aware of me, razzing me a little. Some talk about the revolution and rising up went around. “When the revolution comes…” This was actually pretty common talk back then— among my friends, too. And then someone sang/spoke a line from Gil Scott Heron’s famous song, his proto-rap-jazz-poetry piece called “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” A rhythm section started keeping the beat on seat backs and knees. A few guys knew all the words, and each time the refrain line repeated— “the revolution will not be televised, brother!”— they would all join in, giving me the eyeball as they said it. A little special emphasis came with the lines: “the revolution will not be right back after a message from white tornado, white lightning, or white people…. The revolution will be live!”
I knew the song and really liked it. But I wasn’t feeling quite like I should join in, so I just sort of nodded my head along with the beat, tapped my foot and waited out the attention, which drifted away from me after they’d gone through the song a few times. When we reached DC, I climbed into my parent’s car for the ride back to the base, and my mom asked, “So how was the bus ride?” It was hard to explain. I just said what most teenage boys say when asked about something they think their parents can’t possibly understand. “It was fine.”
So, when the subway reached my stop— 125th St. Station— I had a little of the same feeling I had on that bus ride. I was the only white person, among mostly blacks and a few hispanics. But I always try to think of people as just people, whatever color they are or language they speak, and living overseas so much as a kid I was used to standing out in a crowd. Overall, it seemed like a pretty normal looking mixture of well-dressed and worse-dressed folks: young, old, women, men, kids. No one had bugged me, so I figured I’d just follow my mapped-out plan. I got off the subway, climbed up the stairs, and popped onto the sidewalk under the streetlights of Harlem. I blinked and looked around for a sign to get my bearings. I had the map pretty clearly in my mind and just needed to get moving in the correct direction.
But that map was definitely not this territory.
The street was busy, buzzing with action. Groups of young men in tight knots in front of store windows covered with iron grates. Deals going down in front of bars with neon signs half-darkened and unreadable with age. Shop owners were closing for the night, pulling out their accordioning fences, tugging down metal window-shutters which revealed bright graffiti as they unrolled. Women and men with shopping bags; car horns from the street and soul music from boom-boxes; yellow taxis and old Coup Deville’s clogging traffic; cigarette smoke and poorly-burnt gasoline in the air. I noticed a few cops in pairs moving along the sidewalk minding their own business, and the busyness of it all gave me a little comfort and anonymity, even though I was the only white person I could see.
I’d emerged from the subway in mid-block, and while I was still peering around for a street sign to orient myself, I saw a cop across the street look at me, say something to his partner, and head straight toward me, weaving through the thick, slow traffic. I wasn’t holding anything; I’d double-checked my pockets before leaving. So I just braced a little when he came right up to me without any hesitation.
He didn’t wait for me to speak. “Do you know where you are, son?” He was an hispanic guy, not old enough to be calling me “son” but I wasn’t about to question him on it. “Yes, sir,” I answered— always be polite, to cops especially— “I’m on 125th, just got off the subway, you know.” He didn’t want to hear any more. He asked again, rhetorically this time, “Do you know where you are? This is no man’s land!” He waved his arm up and down the crowded street. There were so many people around I sort of wanted to argue with him, but I knew what he meant. This was “no white man’s land.” I’d crossed one of those invisible divides in our culture that we don’t like to talk about. And I was in trouble. He went on, “So, what are you doing up here?” There were only two possible answers: I was here to score drugs, probably heroin, which was flooding the city in the mid-seventies, or I was just an idiot. I chose the truth.
“I’m on my way to a poetry reading, on Riverside Drive.” I answered, demonstrating my idiocy and thus my innocence to the cop. “On the map it says I just need to walk across that park over there…” I actually still wasn’t sure of my directions, so I didn’t point. I can’t imagine what effect the words ‘poetry reading’ had on him, but his level of astonishment exploded when I mentioned walking across the park. “Through Morningside Park?! At night? Don’t you know they call that Needle Park for a reason? You could do that. You could do that. But you won’t get to the other side alive.” He had my full attention. “So, what’s the best way for me to get there?” I asked. He was just shaking his head. He glanced toward the subway entrance but rejected that idea. He thought another second and then said, “Here’s what you’ll do. Turn on the next avenue there, and walk straight downtown toward 110th. Central Park. You should be okay once you get there. Don’t stop!” And without another word he zipped back across the street to his waiting partner.
“Um, thanks.” I said vaguely towards his retreating back. I took another look around, considered my original plan, and headed off in the direction he’d pointed me. I had a ways to go, now, so I walked quickly. But I didn’t want to look scared, so I kept trying to slow down, move casually. When I turned onto the avenue, the commercial character of the neighborhood changed. The street was darker, lined with three to five story brownstone apartment buildings, some nicely appointed, some burnt-out looking with boarded windows and doors. It was rough, but not as bad as the neighborhood I lived in. There weren’t many people walking, only a few cars moving slowly in the street. But lots of folks were hanging out on their porch steps in the warm evening. I heard the call “Hey, white boy,” more than once. “Hey white boy, you looking for something?” “Hey white boy, what you doing up here?” I’d glance toward the voice, and there’d be three or four black guys on the steps of a brownstone, smoking, drinking from a paper bag, looking more curious than threatening. I figured it felt pretty good for them to say that. I’d just shake my head, give the tiniest wave with my hand, and keep walking, steady but determinedly casual. I felt strangely unpanicked, looking back. Maybe I just felt doomed and had already given up. I was going to die, but the situation was kind of interesting, from a cultural standpoint.
When I heard footsteps come up quickly behind me, I pretty much thought it was all over. I forced myself not to turn around.
No blow fell. Instead, a single, tall black man fell into step beside me. He was a big guy, neatly dressed in polyester bell bottoms and a simple button-down shirt. Clean-shaven, medium ‘fro. He walked next to me for a few seconds and then spoke quietly. “So, you lookin’ for somethin’, man?” If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s to look people in the eye. I looked straight over at him and said, as calmly as I could muster, “Nah, man, I’m cool, thanks anyway.” Growing up, my folks had always emphasized politeness, and I will say that simple politeness is probably the saving grace of the American South. In Alabama, at my friend’s uncle’s store, we’d stand outside by the cooler chest, leaning on our bikes, sucking down grape Nehi sodas under the shade of the door awning in the sweltering heat. If a black lady came in the store, my friend’s uncle would be all, “yes, ma’am, how’reya’all (that really is one long word in Alabamian) this mawnin’? Thank ya’ll kindly.” And he would mean it. He’d known that lady for years; he liked her. Then, after she left he’d wander outside wiping his forehead with a handkerchief and say, half to us and half to himself, “Damn nigras is got so much money these days, gonna take over the whole county.”
This guy walked a few more steps alongside me. “Yo, man, for reals, I can get anything, grass, smack, girls, you all name it, this nigga is you man.” I repeated that I was just fine in all those regards. Not looking for anything right now. But, thanks!
Then he touched my shoulder, and I had to turn toward him. He stuck his big right hand straight out at me, and stopped on the sidewalk. Politeness dictated that I had to stop, too, no matter what that cop told me. He said, “Hey, brother. My name’s Ken.” I startled for a second, squinted into his eyes. Then I took his hand and shook it. I could see we’d drawn a little half-curious attention from the doorsteps nearby. “Wow, that’s really weird,” I said, “my name’s Ken, too. Glad to meet you.”
He dropped both of his arms to the side, and said loudly, “For reals, for reals?” “Yeah, really, Ken,” I answered, “All my life.” He laughed for a while, sort of hands-on-hip flabbergasted, and then said, muttering, “My namesake, my namesake, my fuckin’ namesake!” And then he shook my hand again with a real enthusiasm. This seemed to be a meaningful synchronicity to him, and I thought it was pretty cool, too.
“I’m serious, I can find what you need. Pills, blow?” he offered again. And I sort of blurted out in a rush. “Really, I’m not looking to score. I’m on my way to a poetry reading.” This seemed to stump him a little, and he didn’t reply. “James Wright and Robert Bly,” I went on. Didn’t ring any bells. So I kept talking. “But I’m late, like, I thought I was closer, got off the subway at the wrong stop, I’ve got to keep walking.”
I had begun moving again, and he again fell in beside me. Something seemed to click with my last statement and he laughed. “Oh, I got you now, bro. What you need is somebody to walk with you!” He glanced around the neighborhood a little, and we both knew he was right. I admitted as how I was happy to have him walk along with me if he wanted, but I needed to keep going.
“I’ll walk with you,” he said with some finality, “Some of these niggas gots bad blood to whites.” So we walked maybe eight or ten blocks together, until we reached 110th Street, where I could turn right toward Riverside Drive and head back up to where the reading was being held. I don’t remember anything that was said between us, though we must have talked the whole way. It would have been impolite not to.
We reached 110th, the top of Central Park. I said, “I’m turning here,” and he said, “You cool now,” or something like that. Then he said, “So, hey, can you help a brother out some? I sure could use a bottle of Ripple.” I fished the change out of both my pockets. There weren’t any bills in there. 87 cents was all I came up with, not quite a bottle’s worth. I held on to a subway token to get home. “All I got, man, but thanks for walking with me.” I shook his hand once more, and he said, “Ken, alright, Ken, my fuckin’ namesake,” and we parted ways, both of us grinning.
87 cents for saving my life. My guardian angel. My fuckin’ namesake. And all I can do now is thank him in my memory. And the cop, who kept me from following my mapped out route through the park to certain death. Thanks!
I made it up to the reading, in a big, fancy church on Riverside Drive. The scene felt a little high-class for my pony-tail and jeans, and I needed to pee before taking a seat. So instead of mingling, I went into the tall-ceilinged, brightly-tiled bathroom and stood at the urinal. As I was getting started I felt someone come up beside me, and a voice said, “Gonna be some evening!” It was a thin, high-pitched, rapid voice that sounded familiar. I looked over before answering. Men’s johns in America have a pretty strict prohibition against talking to strangers while peeing, though not absolute.
It was Robert Bly. I’d seen him read a couple of times and admired his poetry tremendously, as well as his magazine named after successive decades the ’50s, the ‘60s etc, which, along with George Hitchcock’s Kayak, was our inspiration for New Honolulu Review. Cool. I was still pretty hyped up from my stroll through Harlem, and said something like, “Oh, it already has been!” We chatted a little, pissing there in the fancy and clean urinals. It may have been the only time I actually spoke to Bly. He asked if we’d met before, searching my face. I mentioned seeing him read in Akron the previous spring. Some friends and I had driven over from Oberlin. He had put on a monster mask, and strode up and down the aisles shouting, “Mmm, mmm, good. Mmm, mmm, good. That’s what Campbell’s soups are, mmm, mmm, good!” I’d stood in line for awhile that night to get a book signed. “You know,” he said, “I thought I recognized you.” Bly was excited about the upcoming reading. “We’ve never all gotten together to do something like this before!” he said. I told him I’d never seen James Wright, but I knew his son Franz from Oberlin. Bly thought that was cool. He knew Franz, too, a little. “Franz is a fine poet,” he said. But he shook his head. “That’s a troubled relationship,” and I agreed from what Franz had hinted at. We finished washing our hands and parted ways, he to the podium and me to my accustomed spot in the back of the room.
Bly and James Wright and the others gave a profound reading that night from the Spanish poets, with many of the poems delivered in the rich Spanish language which I love but— like so many things I love— I can’t understand. Bly read from his translation of Garcia Lorca’s “The Poet in New York,” and those words rang with extra meaning for me. Bly introduced the poem saying, “You can’t go out on the streets of New York without seeing something!” I had to agree with that. And he read Lorca’s poem that has these lines:
“the mountains exist, i know that.
the lenses ground to wisdom, i know that.
but i have not come to see the sky,
I have come to see the stormy blood,
the blood that sweeps the machines on to the waterfall
and the spirit on to the cobra’s tongue…
you may as well stop sharpening a razorblade,
you may as well assassinate dogs in the hallucinated foxhunts
as try to stop the endless trains carrying milk,
and the endless trains carrying blood,
and the endless trains carrying roses in chains
towards those in the fields of perfume….
i attack all those people who know nothing of the other half
the half who cannot be saved…
this is not hell, it is a street.
this is not death, it is a fruit stand….”