Searching for Beat New York by Micheal Angelo Rumore
Searching for Beat New York by Micheal Angelo Rumore
First Place for Creative Nonfiction 2011
Beat Generation and American counterculture enthusiasts regularly make the trek to the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City in hopes of finding a sprawling Bohemia of Beatnik writers and aging hippies. Regrettably, this Greenwich Village no longer exists. Rapid gentrification and extremely high housing costs have long since taken their toll on the neighborhood’s reputation as the pulse of American counterculture.
Being something of a recovering hippie, I came to Greenwich with a hard head. It was, after all, the Mecca where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg loitered about, where William S. Burroughs scored smack, where an entire sixties culture generated spontaneously from the vibrations of Bob Dylan’s harmonica. There had to be some traces of all this. But where?
I started at Bleecker Street, once a main artery for Bohemian consciousness. I quickly became discouraged. The street was littered with Marc Jacobs boutiques and groups of girls wearing Juicy Couture sweaters and Jimmy Choo pumps, speculating where Rachel Zoe would appear during Fashion’s Night Out. Such places and people belonged on Madison Avenue, not my Beat New York. So I left disappointed and disenchanted.
I followed the rich girls to the campus of New York University—now the Greenwich’s most notable feature. I passed the signature fountain at Washington Square Park, the pulse of the NYU area. The more straight-laced students threw frisbees, walked their dogs, or caught up on schoolwork. Others feigned inconspicuousness as they puffed one-hitters under the trees. A chess player at an empty table beckoned me to play a game. I considered, but figured I’d either be roped up for hours or embarrassed in ten minutes. I decided to press on.
I left Washington Square and made my way to Broadway. A bookstore caught my eye—Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers. I went inside and glanced over at “K” for “Kerouac.” I expected to find the same old editions of On the Road and The Dharma Bums. To my surprise, I was immediately taken by a book that seemed to be thrown in. The Beat Generation in New York: A Walking Tour of Jack Kerouac’s City by Bill Morgan. The book lays out walking tours one can take through the New York frequented by figures of the Beat Generation. Just start at page one and follow the directions. Still, most of the places were no longer Beat, but once Beat. Nonetheless, I found the book helpful to my Beatnik quest and went to the cashier to buy it.
Sensing my interest in the Beats, the cashier said, “You going to the Howl Festival?”
Off guard, I answered, “The what?”
“The Howl Festival. You know, like Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl.’ There’s a festival celebrating it in the East Village this weekend. Poetry readings and stuff.”
I thanked him and rushed out the door and, sitting on the Broadway curb, I confirmed the festival on my iPhone, feeling stupid that I had not heard of it. The Howl Festival has been held at Tompkins Square Park in the East Village every year since 2003. Inspired by Allen Ginsberg, it is a free three-day festival of art and poetry on two stages. Later that night was the first event, a poetry reading. I knew I would be there, but what kind of audience would attend? Do people still care about the Beats? Does anyone still care about poetry? Judging by the new attitude of The Village, I wasn’t so sure I’d get a favorable answer.
At Tompkins Square Park I was floored. Various poets performed a group reading of Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl”—the crowning achievement of Beat Generation poetry—that brought me to tears. On a big stage, even! And, most amazingly, a sizeable crowd to hear it. All kinds of people filled the park—wearing everything from office ties to daishikis. I thought poetry wasn’t read on big stages anymore, much less to anyone.
Newly renewed, I returned to Greenwich Village to again search for vestiges of the Beats’ New York. This time I found them. I stopped at the nearby Café Wha?, the site of Bob Dylan’s first New York performance. Though Café Wha? is closed during daytime hours, a sign by the door recounted musicians that played at the venue in their younger years, including Jimi Hendrix, but most notably Dylan. Dylan’s fingerprints were hidden all around, actually. Thanks to a quick glance at the Greenwich Village section of The Beat Generation in New York, I found that above an unremarkable vintage clothing store I had previously passed was an apartment once owned by Dylan.
I had coffee at the Cornelia Street Café, a refuge for the old Greenwich spirit. Opened in 1977, Jack Kerouac may not have been alive to see it, but the café holds live jazz, poetry, and art exhibitions almost nightly. Outside a girl walked the block, a Bluetooth planted in her ear, reciting poetry to whoever was lucky enough to be on the other line, proof that the Beat Generation spirit still exists if you look deep enough for it.
A sign outside a bookstore, Left Bank Books on 8th Avenue, promised: Books!!! Rare first editions! They had a section devoted to first edition Beat books—Allen Ginsberg poetry collections, masterpieces by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. I wanted desperately to flip through them, but sadly I could not. Housed in a glass case, only those with serious money could touch much less afford them.
Instantly I thought it a perfect metaphor for what’s happened to Greenwich Village. Despite jacked prices and protective barriers, the spirit of the Beats is still there, through the glass. The Bohemian stereotype of Greenwich Villagers may no longer be true, but those that want to experience Beat New York for themselves can still do so. You just have to look closely.