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A novel of the '60s by Burl N. Corbett
"If an ox herder were to take opium, he should dream of oxen." From The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey
Breakfast at Julio’s
On an early May morning in the spring of the 1967 "Summer of Love," Sean McClaskey looked up and down Bleecker Street for any spoil sport cops before he pushed his ruined sofa off the fire escape outside his fifth-floor loft window. Nothing was stirring, not even a narc, and the only sound was that of the traffic light at the Bowery intersection clicking through its changes with the dry, pulsing insistence of a gigantic insect. By mid-morning, a scrum of competing winos would be at its feet waylaying stopped motorists for "donations," pawing awkwardly at the windshields with filthy rags, hoping for a quarter or dime to buy another punch on their one-way tickets to oblivion. But at 4:30am, they were sleeping off their drunks in the doorways and vestibules of the Bowery: the shabby seam where the aesthetic sensibility of Greenwich Village butted heads with the brutal indelicacy of the Lower East Side, a vile slum that the media in the journalistic equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig had dubbed "The East Village."
"How's it look?" Sean shouted down to his roomie, Mark Fetter, a native Brooklynite serving a summer's internship as an apprentice beatnik before deciding whether or not to cannonball into the countercultural waters. "All clear?"
"Bums away!" Mark punned, giving Sean a double thumbs up.
Sean double-checked the street; it was deserted. The city's fauna had gone to den; nary a teeny-bopper or hippie was in sight, not even a toked-out beatnik or a brain-dead junkie. With a chuckle, he tipped the decrepit couch over the rail, then watched with satisfaction as it gracefully descended, revolving exactly 360 degrees to land with a God-awful crash on its legless bottom. A billowing cloud of ancient dust bunnies, marijuana residue, and many decades of grime mushroomed upwards, then slowly drifted toward Washington Square Park.
"Like, wow, man!" Mark yelled, bouncing foot to foot. "What an outrageous gas!"
Sean thought it pretty cool, too. He glanced at the row of lofts on the opposite side of Bleecker to see if any late-night heretics might hold differing opinions, but not even a heat pipe coughed, let alone a disgruntled beatnik/hippie/pothead hipster choking on a lungful of Acapulco Gold. Evidently, a Zen tree had fallen in a Zen forest and no one had heard it.
Chortling like a pair of mad bombers, they smoked a nightcap in their cold-water, direct current, shower and bathless loft, rehashing with joy their exploit. Mark turned on WBAI-FM, a listener-sponsored radio station that was a great favorite of the hip set. Absolutely non-commercial, it didn't run annoying ads, air boring public service announcements, or pretend to be objective. Since it accepted no public funding, it had no obligation to present opposing views. It was anti-war, anti-Establishment, and didn't care who liked it. Besides the eclectic political content, which ranged from Ayn Rand-libertarianism to New Left autocracy, they played a lot of groovy music, some of which you could actually dance to, not that there were very many besmoked heads up for a quick boogaloo or shimmy.
As Sean passed a fat doobie to Mark, the disc jockey announced the commencement of the station's semi-annual fund drive.
"Aw, shit, man!" Mark bitched, reaching for the dial. "Not another two weeks of that crap!"
"Wait a minute," Sean cautioned. "Let's hear him out. There's a rumor going round that they have a new scheme planned to get our bread. Turn it up."
"Dig it, all you cats and chicks, we gotta raise some bread to operate," the dee-jay explained, "but instead of bringing down your heads by begging and hassling you, we've decided to play nonstop, as in twenty-four hours a day, that all-time favorite of all you patriotic hipsters, Sergeant Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets," until we reach our goal!"
"WHAT?" Sean shouted.
"He gotta be putting us on, man," Mark hoped, frowning.
But the fiendish disc jockey had already cued the record; the first verse blared out in all its martial glory:
"Fighting soldiers/ from the sky/ Fearless men who jump and die...."
"ARGGGH! Turn it off!" Mark moaned. "If I gotta hear that shit all day long, I'll jump out the window and die!"
Sean unplugged the radio. "Well, either we chip in a few hundred or listen to another station for a few weeks."
"I vote that we find another station," Mark said, climbing the ladder to his platform bed. "I need my bread for dope."
Sean hadn't the money for either, so he flopped onto his floor mattress and fell asleep, dreaming of sofas parachuting from C-130s, gung-ho for glory.
The warehouses and businesses on the shitty end of the Bleecker Street stick opened at eight, and shortly thereafter the tourist buses and taxis and delivery trucks began their day long crawl from the Village to the dead-end intersection at the Bowery. The defenestrated sofa was dragged to a basement landing where its skirts and lining were crudely eviscerated by desperate wino numismatists who mined eighty-two cents in change, including two buffalo nickels, one fairly scarce Morgan quarter, and five Indian head pennies. A reputable coin dealer would have bought them for enough money to finance a four-day spree, d.t's included, with enough left over for a carton of smokes. Instead, the thirsty treasure hunters settled for a pint bottle of "Pete's Five-Star," an unspeakably foul double-fortified muscatel that by state law could only be sold in New York City. The pulverized residue from broken bottles frosted every sidewalk and stoop from Cooper Union to Canal Street with a glittery rime, over which the legions of drunkards unsteadily navigated, a brain-dead army stumbling towards their personal Little Bighorns.
As these benighted outcasts slowly drank themselves into historical oblivion, a new swarm of future casualties began filtering across the bridges and through the tunnels: the hippies. A bastard offspring whom the remaining Beats denied fathering, and the media denied birthing, they began to infiltrate the two Villages by some weird sort of cultural osmosis. However, the West Village--the traditional haven for aspirant artists, musicians, writers, and quaint eccentrics--was a bit pricey, even for well-heeled suburban kids mooching off their parents. On the other hand, despite its terminal seediness, the East Village was eminently affordable. And there these naive pilgrims from gentler shores found refuge, only to become the prey of vigilant take-off artists, native junkies, Puerto Rican street gangs who despised longhaired maricon "heepies," gung-ho police narc squads, and greedy slum lords.
Acting as if they had invented happiness, these flower-bedecked, unshorn naifs blithely pranced and gambolled past the stumbling, odoriferous bums much as the pioneers had trudged past the wind-pierced, sun-bleached skeletons of starved horses and mules, thinking, Nah, that won't happen to us. Instead of seeing the godforsaken wino tribe as living warnings against overindulgence, the hippies merely accepted them as colorful denizens of a shared ecosystem, picturesque oddities akin to animated cacti, ragged sun-stunned owls disoriented by the midday sun.
Sean woke up just before eleven, splashed his face with cold water, and walked down the block to his friend Sam Hardy's loft, skipping nimbly over pools of urine and caked vomit, rebuffing panhandlers with a practiced ease. Under Sam's second story window, Sean called his morning greetings.
After a minute or two, Sam's curly-haired head and stubbled face cautiously peered out, his brown eyes squinting in the sun. "Shit, man!" he groaned. "It's like so early, man! I, uh...like...." Overwhelmed by inertia, his voice faded to a stop.
"Throw down your key," Sean said. The shaggy head vanished, then a roach clip keychain with a single key flew from the window, narrowly missing a passing rabbi. Sean picked it up and entered the building's open vestibule, only to find an unconscious bum blocking the door.
"Jesus, what next?" Sean muttered. The man was either sleeping off a drunk, or dead. Waking a comatose bum wouldn't be easy, but dealing with a dead wino would be a hassle of a much higher magnitude. Police would have to be called, boring questions answered, and besides the time wasted, there would be the future risk of being called for a coroner's inquest. Any way you looked at it, it was a horribly inconvenient way to start one’s day. A real "bummer" one could say, he-he-he.
Fortunately, after a bit of prodding by Sean's genuine Pakistani water buffalo sandal (with a big toe loop), the choice of discriminating beatniks from San Francisco's North Beach to New York City's Greenwich Village, the forlorn bum regained a sort of insect awareness and lurched erect, reeking with an appalling effluvium of unwashed clothing and decaying flesh pickled in wine puke and well-seasoned with urine and badly wiped excrement. Peering about, his dead and rheumy eyes portals to a vast emptiness; he staggered past Sean into the sunlight, his very existence an insult to humanity, and possibly God as well. Within an hour, resurrected by a few drinks, he'd be working the squeegee hustle at the traffic light, a proven tourist attraction in his busted clothes and exploded work boots that had never known a lick of work harder than dragging a soiled rag across the windshields of stopped cars.
Sean unlocked the door and entered the cluttered downstairs hallway. On the right was the storefront apartment of Dave and Donna Bonner, long-time Village residents whom had once witnessed Jack Kerouac during one of his monumental and pointless binges. They had been unimpressed. "He just wasn't cool," Dave had recalled, easily separating the myth from reality.
"Yeah," Donna added, "he seemed so sad, so frantic. Definitely uncool."
Their heresy had surprised Sean. When he met Sam on his first day in the city the previous year, Sean still cherished a naively romantic view of the Beat forefathers, unaware that Kerouac, Ginsburg, and Burroughs had spent as much time uptown as down, or that Kerouac preferred to share a jug with Bowery bums rather than hobnob with the Washington Square folksinger set that Sean wanted to join. Wounded internally, Kerouac had retreated to his mother's nest in the early '60s to die, and his sporadic visits to the Village entered legend as the peripatetic wanderings of a flawed saint. But as Sean was to learn, even saints have their sceptics, and heresy is an all-inclusive religion open to all. So far, Sean neither worshipped with the true believers, nor stood with the agnostics: He remained unaffiliated.
At the bottom of the stairs, a suspended low-watt bulb burned night and day, illuminating dusty political posters from the '30s depicting noble farmers and factory workers surging forward in the heroic stances so beloved by the hack illustrators of the Old Left "Communard School." Exhortations in Cyrillic which Sean mistook for Greek, urged the masses to rise as one and overthrow whichever running-dog capitalist scheme that was then afoot. That linguistic ignorance proved advantageous one smoky evening when an unappreciative neighbor who had a thing about loud music summoned two of New York's "Finest" to squelch the decibels.
The cops invited themselves into the downstairs hall where they quickly spotted the lurid posters. Peering about warily, as if expecting Fidel Castro or Ho Chi Minh to leap from behind the mounds of junk waving a hammer and sickle, the older officer poked the curled edge of a fly-specked poster and asked, "What the hell's that say?"
"Beats me," Sean confessed. "I can't read Greek." The mollified cop then delivered a boilerplate warning about "keepin' it down, fer Christ's sake," blah, blah, blah. His younger partner examined the posters with a more worldly eye, smiling wryly to let Sam and Sean know that he recognized Commie propaganda when he saw it, but didn't give a damn, knowing that nobody outside of the John Birch Society took seriously the leftover claptrap nailed up forty years ago by an unrepentant Trotskyite. The cops did take seriously, however, the drug laws, so Sam skilfully maneuverered them back to the front door before they decided to investigate the source of the loud music. But chickenshit complaints like this one were a pain in the ass for the cops, too, and after a last half-hearted warning, they split to catch a few z's at their favorite back alley "coop," leaving no one worse for wear except the whining neighbor who would now live in dread of some sort of nefarious beatnik retaliation.
"Whew, man," Sam whewed after the squad car drove away. "That was close! I'm just glad that you told him that the writing was Greek instead of Russian. We don't need the fuzz thinking we're Commies as well as dope fiends." They went upstairs, fired up a celebratory joint, hurled a few threats out the window to the subdued complainant, and turned down the radio a half-decibel.
That was then, but this was NOW, and past the posters and up the creaking stairs Sean raced to Sam's loft, pushing open the knobless, lockless door to enter a beatnik lair of stupefying disorder. Amid a scree of crumpled cigarette packs and sheets of discarded notebook paper, dirty clothes and dirtier clothes, sat three sofas as ratty as the one thrown from Sean's fire escape. They formed a rough "U," its throat open to a blackened fireplace last used to burn the collection of parking tickets accumulated by Sam the last time he had "owned" a car, and usually bedded overnight guests who had ventured one toke too far over the line. Actually, Sam had "borrowed" the car—a Volkswagen Karman-Ghia --from a storage garage when its owner left for a hitchhiking tour of Europe, using it to tool around the Village picking up girls, "junking" for discarded goodies on uptown trash set-out nights, and zooming to Jersey for the odd carpentry job to pay the rent. Eventually the local junkies stole the battery, then the wheels, and until the city finally towed it away, it sat forlornly on the corner of Mulberry and Bleecker serving as a "bum" shelter, pun intended. For a brief time Sam fretted over his friend's future reaction to the loss of his "short," but then word came across the Atlantic that his hitchhiking pal had gotten busted in Portugal for possession of hash, and very probably would not be returning for a while, and just like in the movies everything sorted itself out nicely.
Sean found Sam sitting full-lotus on the floor, fiddling with a radio he had Frankensteined together from parts scavenged in the streets. It glowed and hummed like a jury-rigged robot in a low-budget sci-fi B movie, but it was better than nothing. It perched on a wooden crate that served double-duty as a table and a stool to reach the ceiling fan switch. Once it had a chain, but Sam figured that replacing it would enmesh him in a long, complicated series of boring tasks, each more onerous than the preceding one: Schlep to a hardware store, find a chain, and pay for it; schlep back home only to discover that the goddamn chain doesn't fit because the fan is almost fifty-years-old and obsolete; schlep back to the store and get involved in a "no return policy" scene with the uptight cat behind the counter; then after an incredible hassle, get back the goddamn ninety-six cents and schlep home again (by now, it's fucking raining!); roll a joint and get high. So why not just skip the preliminaries, say "Fuck the chain'," chill out in comfort, and toke up?
Sean pushed aside a heap of mildewed tee shirts and flopped on the opposite sofa. "What's happening, man?" he asked.
No reply. Sam was totally engrossed in a radio scene, turning the tuner to and fro with a screwdriver, staring at Sean with his typical unblinking, penetrating gaze that Sean at first had found profoundly unsettling until he realized that it wasn't some sort of weird intimidation ritual, only Sam's normal method of socialization. After sailing through seas of static and dead air, the tuner found WBAI, which of course was playing Sergeant Sadler's mindless paean to die-at-the-ramparts patriotism.
"What a bummer!" Sam moaned. "They've been playing this crappy song all day! What's the point of it anyway? Don't they know how many heads they've brought down?"
Sean laughed. He brushed back his almost-to-the-shoulder brown hair, pulled at his moustache, and began cleaning his round, wire-rimmed glasses on his semi-clean tee shirt, explaining the while how WBAI decided to blackmail their listeners into ponying up their ransom bread.
"What a total drag," Sam pronounced, fruitlessly attempting to find the classical station. "Fuck it, man, let's get breakfast at Julio's," he said, yanking the cord from the outlet and springing to his feet.
With youthful vigor, they galloped down the stairs and exploded into the glorious sun of a New York City day, where anything was possible, instant gratification imminent, and enlightenment waited just around the corner.
Julio's was a long, narrow Latino eatery wedged incongruously in the middle of a block of anonymous warehouses and mysterious offices in which nondescript workers conducted enigmatic tasks of an unfathomable nature. Lower Manhattan was dotted with similar four and five-story buildings, many sporting ornamental cast iron facades and Grecian-styled concrete friezes and cornices. Once imposing, they were now soiled and eroded by smog and time. The restaurant seemed vaguely out-of-place, like a blacksmith shop plunked down in the midst of uptown's "Diamond Row." But Julio served good, cheap food only a half-block from Sam's loft, and, best of all, extended credit to anyone with the cojones to ask, which Sam had in spades.
The first time that Sam had stopped in, he made the honest mistake of assuming Julio was a Puerto Rican. He had been instantly corrected. "No, no, amigo! I'm Mexican, not Puerto Rican! They no damn good!"
Sam, a typical "Ban the Bomb" liberal and civil rights supporter, found Julio's prejudice not only perplexing, but counter to the liberal mantra of "racial solidarity," a basic tenet of the "Movement." Puzzled, Sam concluded in a not untypical bit of "Progressive" rationalization that it was just a "Spanish macho trip, man. What more can I say?"
Sam had been elucidating his convoluted theories of racial politics ever since Sean had come to the Village the previous summer with only a Martin 00-16C guitar, a child's suitcase with one change of clothes, and a fuzzy desire to follow in either Bob Dylan's bootsteps or author Henry Miller's pecker tracks. With the optimism of a nineteen-year-old, both had seemed possible. But now, a year later, neither seemed likely and Sean was content just to have fun.
"Hola, amigos!" Julio called as Sam and Sean entered and took counter seats. "The usual, no?" Sam lifted two fingers and grinned. With a smile, Julio began frying slices of ham, potatoes, and sunny side up eggs.
"Uh, do you mind putting it on my tab, man?" Sam asked.
Without turning, Julio switched the spatula from his left hand to his right and pencilled on the wall another two slashes, then resumed cooking, humming along with the jukebox. The present tally was nine meals--$7.20. Old tallies from months past were scribbled over, never erased. It was an unusual arrangement, given that Sam and Sean were Julio's only gringo customers. Sam often wondered where all the Latino patrons came from; the nearest barrio was several blocks away in the Lower East Side, aka "The East Village" or "Alphabet City," a seething slum that began at Avenue A and grew progressively worse as one traversed Avenues B and C en route to the unmatched squalidness of Avenue D. Beyond that nadir of crime and poverty was the East River, and perhaps dragons. But at Julio's that fine May noon, no one was worried about social inequality or racial injustice, or even the breakfast tab. When Sam or Sean scored some extra bread, they'd square things away with a tip and a sincere "Gracias, Julio," and a few days later, broke again, the score would begin to mount once more.
After wolfing down their food, they went outside to smoke and watch the steady stream of humanity pass by. Sometimes Sean felt like he had wandered into a documentary on comparative religions. Down the sidewalk came Orthodox Jews and their Hasidic brethren; preoccupied rabbis muttering in Hebrew; pairs of black-habited nuns, fingering their rosaries as they placidly tacked through the throngs of believers and heretics and the neutral; gaggles of Hare Krishnas ommming and chanting and tinkling their silly bells, the slap and scruff of their flip-flops accompanying their weird incantations; the bearded and burnoosed of arcane sects; the Arabs and Sikhs and Hindus; the stray itinerant preachers from their church of one; and, for all he knew, Jesus in disguise, bringing in His anger a terrible judgment.
But today, that vengeance was held in abeyance; the apocalypse postponed. As they came to the corner of Mulberry Street on their way to Sean's loft, Sam asked Sean if he felt like checking out a few Canal Street junkshops.
"Sure, I have a few bucks to blow. I'm planning to work at Minuteman tomorrow anyway," Sean replied. "Who knows? Maybe we'll find a magic lamp with a stoned genie."
They turned right onto Mulberry, and a few blocks later entered a foreign country.
To be continued...
Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA. Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm. Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965. Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back. Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968. Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer. Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won four PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first and two honorable mentions); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales, recently published by Xlibris; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs. My first novel, A Haven from Violence, is available at Xlibris.com or Amazon.com.
Authors note: Dreaming of Oxen is a 52-chapter, 556-page tour de force in search of a literary agent or an independent publisher willing to disregard my present circumstances and focus instead upon my art.