Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: Macroinformation.org & Knatz.com / Stories / pk by Age / College Years /
@ K. 2006 09 30
Dumb Existentialism at the Rienzi
I began my studenthood at Columbia College trying, for the first time in my life, to be good, to do the assignments, to distinguish myself. I loved much of the work, more and more. But there was no way I could keep up with it — not with 10% of it: not if I was to continue listening to jazz for half the day: and all of the evening. I needed to be reading a solid twelve hours: and not multi-tasking, just reading. So forget it.
By sophomore year I was resigned to just faking it: and was further resigned to them not calling my bluff and flunking me out. Fakery seemed to be just fine. (Indeed, fakery shall continue to be a theme in this story: as you shall see.)
But hold it: I’m going to beat up to this story from a second tack as well: how tremblingly horny I was by sophomore year at an all male institution. My childhood had been replete with the female: mother and sister at home, no father. And in the neighborhood the girls hadn’t waited for me to suggest playing doctor. But by the final years of my teenhood I was desperately overdue to get my finger wet again. But how could I? Already I wasn’t listening to jazz every waking second. Already I wasn’t devoting my life to Jesus as I’d once planned in Sunday School. Modern life seems to be a series of things that demand allegiance that you are then not allowed to budget for. The Church had seduced me into thinking that Jesus should be followed; but then the state school would whisk me into something else, tout a whole series of other priorities. Nature had no trouble interesting me in the female. And Jazz arrested my mind, body, and soul. Yet there were only twenty-four hours in the day. Supposedly there was only one lifetime in the lifetime.
Anyway, horny beyond belief, well resigned to never completing more than a fraction of the work, I more and more needed to leave the male Hamilton Quadrangle section of Columbia. Mostly I wanted to go to Birdland. Where there was jazz there would also be females. But at Birdland I’d pay attention to the music, not to the other patrons: and it cost $2 to get in. And If I did pick up a girl there I’d have to buy her drinks, maybe feed her. I had no income. I couldn’t sensibly buy myself a drink. So more and more I headed for the Village.
The Village was known for homosexuals. That didn’t interest me. But ah, it’s fame for homosexuals was really an emblem of its cultural and moral tolerance. That did interest me: especially if it meant girls not quite as dedicated to virginity as I had myself hitherto been. (At first I didn’t fuck the girls despite their invitation, their entreatments, because it’s a physical impossibility when you have no idea what an erection is or where quite the vulva borders with the vagina. Yes, my visits to Greenwich Village showed me that the neighborhood was lousy with girls not overly attached to the hymen. And one could visit a coffee house for less than Birdland’s deuce. True, an espresso coffee cost twenty cents, a capuchino might be thirty cents — ridiculous when back home coffee was a dime. And the subway had already gone from a nickel to a dime, soon would go to fifteen cents, that’s thirty cents just to get downtown and back! (How can inflation be tolerated when some people, students, are borrowing money to remain poor?)
This first draft may not have blended or perfected those elements the way I want, but as-is treatment will have to do for now: I was behind in the studies, I was broke, I was horny, I’d go downtown, whether or not I could afford the subway, the Café Figaro, the Café Rienzi …
On one of my first such forays to MacDougal Street I cruised the Rienzi, saw few patrons, no arresting females, went on, cruised the Figaro … For the balance of the 1950s and on into the 1960s I would prefer the Figaro. I liked the coffee machine, the centerpiece for the whole place. Several waitresses could make several cups of coffee simultaneously from the machines multitude of spigots and steam jets. In the back Chaplin’s The Cure looped nightly. But not that night. I went back to the Rienzi. Still empty. I took a seat, ordered an espresso. Did I want a bit of lemon rind? Yes, please.
There. Now I owed at least a nickel tip. Twenty-five cents spent already. I sat and contemplated the place’s name: Rienzi. I didn’t know Wagner’s opera at the time. I certainly didn’t know the novel it was based on: a populist fighting nobles. Which is worse: a bunch of nobles, each able himself to fight, or a populace, now represented by one executive? a Hitler? Youch. No, I had none of those thoughts. All I could think of was rien in French. Nothing. That suited me. It certainly seemed to suit the bits of philosophy that slowly sink amid an actual population.
Funny Face, Audrey Hepburn, 1957
Existentialism came from Jean Paul Sartre: in a context of the 1930s and 1940s, of fascism, of Hitler … of German occupation of France and especially Paris. But Existentialism arrived in my childhood neighborhood in the form of the kid down the street getting expelled from Saint Bonaventure’s for wearing, instead of a belt, a rope around his middle . Well before 1957, the year Stanley Donen‘s Funny Face was released, it had come to Greenwich Village, always full of Bohemians, in the form of long straight hair, black lipstick, black makeup around the eyes, the starved look …
I didn’t have to try for the starved look; I had it naturally. (The belly that waxes and wanes in my sixties, waning at present having waxed too damn far, was not to be found on this teen.) Anyhow, I sit there. Along comes a chick. She selects a table. I can see her face as well as I could wish: except for the dark locks covering one of her sooty-makeup-darkened eyes. She’s perfectly indoor pale. Her slacks are simple black, as is her simple jersey. She’s too starved to have much boob but that jersey still allows hints of her mammalian femaleness. Do I rush over to introduce myself? No. Again: pk is the passive one, the counter-puncher. I need her to make the first move. I need her to make the first two or three moves. (Cretin!)
Along comes a guy. He says nothing to her, just sits down at her table, doesn’t even look at her. She accepts this, and just sits herself. It’s all I can do to just be bored — starved and bored — myself. She rummages in her bag, produces a pad and pencil. She writes: reflects: writes some more.
“I’ve written a poem,” she says to her … er, companion. “Would you like to see it?” She tears off the uppermost sheet from the pad.
Without taking hold of it, he does glance up. “Uh,” he says.
Damn. It’s very hard for me to stay cool. Why is it he who is having this non-conversation instead of me? Why didn’t I write a poem and show it to her?
This damn getting your finger wet business can be so complicated. I sit there. No line, no rhyme, comes to my mind.
The guy gets up and leaves. The chick pauses, trots off after him.
What the …? I think. I don’t remember a waitress coming to her table. I don’t remember either of them ordering anything. Then he leaves, now she leaves. Maybe she was a waitress.
Onto my own table I drop a quarter. On my way out I see that her poem, torn from the little spiral pad, is still on her table. I too glance at it. No need to pick it up to read.
|Here we are.
And here is nowhere.
Let us go somewhere else —
Sophomore nihilism. Jeez.
Notes ‘N Scraps
About a year after that Playboy magazine wrote an article about Beats. Along about that time talk of Ginsberg’s Howl reached my ears in the Lions Den at Columbia, in the West End across the street and down the block. Karouac would come around new and then: or I’d notice his trail: in the Village, or eastward. Hell, those two, a bit older than I, overlapped Sartre’s time in the ’40s. For me, one thing blurred into another.
Funny Face may have come out in 1957 but I don’t remember even hearing of it till I saw it — touted as under-appreciated, at the Bleeker Street Cinema — around 1961. (That was a heck of a festival. I saw Funny Face on a double bill with Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil! Every title on the bill, all unknown to me at the time, proved to front a great film!) (Then again it was only around then that I started going out of my way to study films, film taking time from jazz and from reading. Ah, the life of a consumer!)
Funny Face is a wonderful comedy, a wonderful musical, but I bet the Existentialists were up in arms. Except for how skinny she is Audrey Hepburn didn’t look anything like the Boho Existentialist chicks I saw in New York, or in French films, or on the cover of French recordings. Audrey Hepburn’s character is found in a bookstore in the Village specializing in “French philosophy.” Whisked off to Paris by Fred Astaire’s Richard Avedon character, Audrey sneaks off and finds the character based on Sartre. Hollywood refutes Sartre at a stroke when the plot shows the Sartre character as interested in getting in poor Audrey’s pants. So she’s saved for Fred Astaire! and for Hollywood philosophy.
Same as Playboy‘s?
The Playboy Philosophy!
I haven’t yet seen Meryl Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada but I know before the DVD is released that no matter how good she is as spoofing that one-time female dictator of Vogue, Funny Face had already done it: magnificently. The movie really would be intellectually and morally offensive if it were’s such a good … comedy, romance, musical … Stanley Donen movie.
Juliette Greco: behold the French postwar simplicity.
I listened to a great deal of Juliette Greco in the 1950s. I can still parrot more than one of her songs. (My spoken French, something I used to get compliments on, is pretty rusty, but I bet there’s less rust on my parroting of her.)
I have fond thoughts of Greco now that I’m remembering her, not only thanks to her friendship with my divine Miles Davis but also for an association, public, not just of mine, with the above mentioned Donen movie. The credits there opened with shots of some American model. Suzy Parker perhaps. The model was in Paris, was walking with Juliette Greco. The construction workers, the street guys, whistled, make obscene sounds … The model harrumphed and stiffened her walk. Mlle Greco however spun toward them, beamed, waved, blew kisses! Ah. What a difference culture makes.
These notes I suspect are not as clear as I’d like. What the hell, they’re just scribble. If anything gets fixed it should be my jumping rather than sliding to the beats’ sudden fame, 1958ish.
2015 07 30 In high school my clique had regular beer parties, most Fridays, many a Saturday. By senior year (and after) we had then mostly at Almer’s house. By college I was showing up with girls! girls from Fire Island, from Greenwich Village. My friends, jealous, and they’d never liked me anyway, never trusted me, were set a’tither. I show up one Friday solo. Al pats me down: ribs, pockets, under my arms. “OK, Paul. Where are you hiding those ‘Village girls?”
Thinking back, Jeez, the Fire Island red head I’d shown up with was a real bomb shell. Her pubics drove me nuts. But the real reason to remember her was that it was she who introduced me to the Whitehorse Tavern. Let’s say 1957.
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