At the age of twelve, he happened upon a copy of Studs Lonigan, and found eerie comparisons to what he read in the book and in the cruelty and injustice he saw in the streets he was raised in. However convinced that poets were Sissies he didn’t take up writing until the age of twenty-four. When he did begin writing, it was with a desire to find poetry in the everyday happenings of life. He sensed that true poets don’t choose poetry, but that poetry chooses them, and that in the end it’s the way you live your life that counts.
Walking the streets of the Village and Harlem, he inherited the richness of the culture, especially the culture of black jazz musicians. He found himself drawn to the warmth and humor of the black poets and musicians whom he encountered in the after-hour Harlem jazz clubs that he regularly frequented.
As a young man, he was a major part of the Greenwich Village 50’s Beat movement, and identified himself with the street poet, Maxwell Bodenheim. Early on he became friends with Eddie Balchowsky, a classical pianist, who had lost his arm in the Spanish War, and had gone on to become a visual artist. Balchowsky walked him through the alleys of New York, pointing out things that Micheline had never noticed before.
“Balchowsky gave me my eyes,” he said, explaining that Balchowsky had told him, “Before you can see you must first rid yourself of the misconceptions that ordinary people accept without question.”
Micheline described Greenwich Village as a poor, working class Italian neighborhood, where the rent was cheap, and the people poor, but the center of artistic expression, a place where people were at ease relating to one another.
Tiring of the New York Village scene, he left in the early 60’s for California and adopted San Francisco as his new home. It didn’t take him long before he became a force in the North Beach literary community.
“Poetry was everywhere. We drank a lot. Every day Bob Kaufman and I read a poem. It isn’t part of history, but I was arrested for pissing on top of a police car, the same day that Kaufman was arrested outside the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. We were taken down to the Kearney Street police station and thrown in the drunk tank, where they beat me and Kaufman up.”
If he screamed poet loud and often, perhaps it’s because the literary establishment unfairly ignored him. He did, however, achieve his fifteen minutes of fame when in his late years he appeared on the “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” TV show, where he read a poem accompanied on the trumpet by his long time friend, Bob Feldman.
We don’t know much about his years growing up as a child. We do know that he was born premature; a six month, two pound-six ounce baby, who had to fight for survival, even as he did in later life. By his own admission, he described himself as a shy boy, who grew up in the poor section of the Bronx, born to parents who fought all the time.
In his writings, he describes his mother as a religious woman, who cried a lot, but who possessed a heart of gold. He paints a portrait of his father as a bitter postal worker who seldom smiled after losing everything he owned in the 1929 stock market crash.
He said that as a kid he felt lost in crowds, and preferred to walk the streets alone, “Looking at the lights in the neighborhood houses.” or walking to the Bronx Park, which was miles away from his home. It was here, at the park, that he was able to find a semblance of peace, listening to the waterfall rushing down the Bronx River. It became a welcome relief away from his parent’s constant fighting. He said of those early years:
“I always seemed to be nervous and on edge.”
He was forced by his mother to regularly go to the Synagogue and take Hebrew lessons. Carrying his Hebrew books under his arms, on his way home from school, he often had to defend himself from neighborhood Catholic boys lying in wait for him.
He said, that it was not easy being a Jew. “I did not know what to believe, or who to believe in. I did not know my mother, my brother, or my father. No one seemed real. Everyone seemed to be acting a part in a play.”
In a short story, he talks about coming home after receiving a beating by neighborhood bullies, and how his mother tended his wounds and tried to console him.
“I went to my room and cried, and tears and torment poured out of my head. It was a hell of a world. “There had to be a place somewhere where it wasn’t hell, where fear didn’t choke you like a knife, where you wouldn’t have to hide in your own skin, and swear at the Bastard earth.”
In search of that elusive peace, he began a long trek across America; recording in his notebook everything he saw and heard, even at the age of seventeen serving a stint in the Army Medical Corps. By the time he was nineteen, he found himself in Israel. Then it was back to the United States where he worked at a variety of odd jobs while traveling Kerouac’s On the Road.
–to be continued–
(first appeared at emptymirrorbooks.com)