REMEMBERING HERBERT HUNCKE
Forever frozen in time there remains an indelible image of writer Herbert Huncke: Homeless and alone, crouched in a Time Square pay toilet with notebook on his knees, furtively composing his latest tale from the underground. That was before he had met Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, long before any notion of literary recognition. Toiling in obscurity since leaving his upper-middle-class Chicago home in the late 1920s, he transcribed his travels and adventures as a hobo, drug user, and petty criminal. “To live outside the law you must be honest,” sang Bob Dylan; Huncke’s code of honor speaks to this higher order. It also speaks of a lost America, of box cars and all-night cafeterias, pool halls, rooming houses, of the open road.
The discovery of Herbert Huncke by the Beats in the late 1940s was something akin to novice explorers stumbling upon a great archaeological find. He was the Ur-Beat: Kerouac’s lonesome traveler, Burroughs’s junkie, Ginsberg’s angel headed hipster. Primitive and incipient, Huncke’s life and writings became the Rosetta Stone of Beat sensibility, not only for the experience imparted therein, but for the prose itself. While spontaneous prose and cut-ups were mature elaborations in Beat literature, the earliest writings of Kerouac and Burroughs were marvels of clarity. This clarity is best embodied and preserved in Huncke’s deceptively simple and plain-spoken style. To write as one speaks is one ideal of literature. Huncke’s prose accomplishes just that to such a degree that the experience of reading him is akin to sitting across from him in one of those famous all-night sessions where tales were unraveled and the human condition examined into the early hours of the morning.
Raymond Foye and Herbert Huncke, 437 East 12th Street, NYC. Photo by Chris Felver
I first met Herbert Huncke in 1978 in a bar on New York’s Upper West Side at a book party for his old friend William Burroughs. I was standing at the bar with a friend when Herbert passed by; we acknowledged him with a nod. As ever he was elegantly dressed in suit and tie, olive-green in color, set off by a russet wool knit sweater. He drank brandy from a snifter, and smoked Players cigarettes, likewise William Burroughs’ current brand. Of course I knew who he was. If ever someone’s reputation preceded him, it was Herbert Huncke. Yet I was unprepared for the refined gracefulness of his speech and deportment. He was loquacious, but his choice of words was exacting. His manner was elevated and noble. Clearly aware of his charm, he wielded it deftly. All in all, he bore the air of one from another era, which indeed he was. Whatever one might say of him, he was unmistakably a writer.
And yet there was another level operative in this encounter, and I would call it aversion. An aura of danger suffused his personality as if a confidence game were being played. I sensed that not only would he cheat, con, or deceive, but moreover he would do so on general principles. Little did I realize then how true that would prove to be. Over the next eighteen years I, like all those who knew Herbert, was given my share of instructions from the master: Engage me at your own risk, accept me for who I am, don’t complain about the consequences. To befriend Herbert was to enter into a consensual agreement in which nearly all rules of conduct were challenged, save for those of acceptance and style. He was the Duke of Deception, an office he bore with the haughty air of ruined nobility. One of nature’s aristocrats, what he rankled in me more often than not was my own hypocrisy and pride. In the end I came to feel of Herbert a higher morality than the common one he so cavalierly betrayed. Call it Huncke’s Paradox. If there was one notion that Herbert returned to in his conversation, time and again, it was the relative nature of all experience: Everything is determined by its relation to something else. “It’s all in the way you see it,” Herbert would often reiterate. “I see it one way, you see another. Both are valid.” Or, in an even more familiar and succinct phrase of his: “So be it.”
Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Francesco Clemente. Small Press Book Fair, Mechanics Library, NYC, 1990. Photo by Allen Ginsberg used by permission of the Allen Ginsberg Literary Trust.
There’s no shortage of war stories on the part of anyone who knew Herbert. Trading these stories was and still is a common activity among his friends. Why then, one might ask, did anyone continue to associate with the man? His appeal is less remarked upon. To engage Herbert Huncke was to enter into a world in which life was examined with a broad, knowing eye. Herbert was a philosopher of the streets. Human nature was his subject, and he approached it with sympathy and penetration. In this regard his range was truly Shakespearean: Life as the Human Comedy. Not that all of it is funny, but that it is all so varied and so improbable. What he loved most was to sit late into the night, in a bar, a cafeteria, or later in his Chelsea Hotel room, and discuss the peculiarities of human behavior that so delighted him. He was a student of the human condition who sketched his ideas and observations with a writer’s eye. To be in his presence was to participate in this great act of creation: Bringing into existence through memory and imagination a world so vivid that one felt more alive and more connected to the very cosmos than one did at any other point in one’s life. It was also to experience the lost art of conversation, for he listened as carefully as he spoke.
Until Herbert entered his eighties he was remarkably fit and healthy, maintaining a busy daily routine that begin with a visit to his methadone clinic. That would be followed by lunch with friends, visits to local booksellers, and various small errands around town. On occasion he would give readings or attend book signings. I recall an appearance before an eager freshman English class at New York University where his honesty and charm won him a crowd of new admirers. Although his range of friends was all-inclusive, he valued the company of young people above all. Often he would impart sage advice, not without an ironic chuckle, that he should be counseling others on how to live. He loved to wander the streets of Manhattan; to accompany him on such walks was to see the city as an open book. Every block held stories of crash pads, speakeasies, or all-night jam sessions with Charlie Parker or Dexter Gordon.
Herbert’s friends always banded together to provide whatever they could whether money, drugs, or simply company. Finally quite desperate in old age, Huncke decided he pay a visit to New York’s Department of Social Services, to see if there might be some way he could get a little assistance. Herbert, to my amazement, had an antique-looking Social Security card from 1935, the first year of issue. After entering Huncke’s number in the system, nothing came up. Half a dozen case workers stood around silently marveling at a completely blank computer screen. “How did you manage to survive?” one woman asked finally. “Oh, a little of this and a little of that,” Herbert replied, dismissing an entire lifetime of gainful employment with a casual wave of the hand. In the course of the interview he managed to charm all the women who worked in the office (an accomplishment not easily achieved). “I think we can fix you up with a little something,” the supervisor said with a kindly wink.
Herbert Huncke Flier NYU Talk 1990
In his 80th year his health began to fail. His small furnished room, number 828 in the Chelsea Hotel, became the center of his activities. The Grateful Dead, in a fitting homage, paid his rent in the final years. Here he continued to write and to receive friends. Photographers, rock journalists, and literary historians increasingly sought him out. As ever unfailingly generous with his time. He would explain this impetus simply, “Talk is my stock in trade.”
It soon became necessary to arrange for home delivery of his methadone. Someone at the clinic later told me this was the first time that had ever been done in New York City. He still had to give urine for the mandatory drug test, and when the first results came back, he had tested positive for five different drugs. An exasperated young doctor tried to reason with him. “Now Mr. Huncke, don’t you think it’s time you stopped all this nonsense?” Not joking in the least Herbert replied, “Well, to tell you the truth, Doctor, I’m afraid to stop.”
Daily medical attention and frequent hospitalizations became the norm in his final year. Dr. Gabe Zatlin and his colleagues at Beth Israel Hospital attended to him with great professionalism and kindness, often making house calls in the summer heat. Without a penny to his name, recompense was out of the question. But like everyone who knew him they were repaid with an uncommon mixture of old-world wisdom and charm. Once he fell in the middle of the night and gashed his head badly on the sink. The scene that morning was quite frightening, a hospital visited seemed unavoidable. In preparation Herbert fussed around the room for what seemed like hours. He spent a good twenty minutes deciding which ascot best matched his shirt and jacket. I lost my temper at this point. “For God’s sake Herbert, would you please hurry up.” He drew himself up to his full 5’3″ and addressed me in that famous haughty tone of his. “Oh, who needs you.” “Well, you do,” I thought to myself but kept silent.
Every morning around 10 a.m. I would make him tea and raisin toast and carry it down the hallway from my apartment in 814. The maids who worked the floor noticed. Soon they were checking in on him themselves. When he could no longer walk, I found a wheelchair and parked it in the hallway outside his room, but his pride would not allow him to go out in it. After a few weeks he relented; we went down to the donut shop on the corner of 23rd and Eighth, his regular spot. Although it was less than a block away, it took about twenty minutes to get there because so many people along the way stopped him or came out of their shops to say hello. Unfailingly courteous and polite to everyone, I never realized what a wide circle of acquaintances he had assembled. But that made sense for someone who got by on small acts of generosity, or as he called it “the hustle.”
Huncke’s stash box, Chelsea Hotel, 1995
I can still see Herbert in those final weeks, sitting on the edge of his bed, wrapped in a favorite Guatemalan shawl, taking in the marvelous view of lower Manhattan and the Hudson River. “I wish I could say I’d hit up on the answers to the great mysteries of life,” he mused one evening, as if to sum up his life. “But it doesn’t make any more sense to me now than it did on day one.”
[A slightly shorter version of this text was published as an Introduction to the Herbert Huncke Reader, edited by Ben Schafer, New York: William Morrow, 1997]