As I left the Union Theatre the other night after the LGBT Film Festival's presentation of "Howl," the mesmerizing love letter to poetry, free speech and Allen Ginsberg, I remembered that I'd once seen the man himself a few hundred yards away in the Union Ballroom.
He'd been invited to speak at Marquette, but at the last minute the invitation was pulled after pressure from philistines, so the reading was moved to UWM. Defiantly, hundreds of MU students marched up to the East Side to hear him, along with legions of UWM students and a scattering of high school hipsters.
It was 1967 and I was a junior at Riverside High School. Back then "East" was mainly a neighborhood school. Geography determined where you went, and the Riverside demographic pie split three ways:
- Working class Black kids who generally lived east of 7th Street.
- Working class white kids who generally lived east of the river to Maryland, and in what we later called Riverwest.
- Middle (and higher) class kids, sons and daughters of professionals and intellectuals, who generally lived east of Maryland to the lake.
I was fairly anti-social in high school and I may not be the most reliable historian, but I believe these groups all got along reasonably well, with a fair amount of social leakage between them. In fact, Riverside in the late '60s was an excellent place to practice social mobility and to try on new identities. I was desperately sick of my given one.
Though I was solidly working class, my weird obsession with books and reading alienated me from my family at a young age. By 16, I aspired to brainy, more interesting "east of Maryland" status. But we lived in a flat on Bartlett, my father worked at Briggs & Stratton and there were no books or ideas in our home except the ones I smuggled in. I had a Milwaukee Sentinel paper route from age 12 and this gave me enough income to purchase a few accessories for my new avant garde life.
The antiwar and civil rights wave that was sweeping the nation also passed through Riverside. The epicenter was Julie Gibson, with whom I was deeply, secretly and hopelessly in love. Julie’s parents were English professors and published poets. They seemed caught between being outdated beatniks and premature hippies. At the time, I just thought of them as by far the most fascinating people in Milwaukee. Especially in comparison with my own parents.
Their home on the corner of Park and Maryland was a magnet for anarchists, writers, communists, activists and left-bankers of every sort. Julie’s mother Barbara was the opposite of my mother Betty in just about every way imaginable.
When called to the school because we refused to stop selling the underground newspaper, Kaleidoscope, on school grounds, or for passing out flyers accusing a despised gym teacher of being
a racist fascist or for a number of more Dadaist pranks, Mrs. Gibson would invariably side with us, and lecture the principal about the constitutional rights of students.
Mrs. Eklund, on the other hand, who had to take time off from her job at the La Rosa noodle factory on Holton Street, saw only incomprehensible mischief on the part of her son, and no violation of his rights. She was mystified by my new friends; to her it was as if I’d been invaded by body snatchers. The principal advised her that I had fallen under the influence of some bad actors. True, these were not juvenile delinquents, but the smartest kids in the school. It made no difference, they were troublemakers.
I shadowed Julie like a lovesick puppy, but I was always an extra in her show. Fiercely individual, she was in frequent hot water for her appearance -- one day a scandalously short skirt; the next, elaborately patterned old-womanish scarves and shawls covered with political buttons and armbands. Her tinkling chains, bells and rings made a little Julie soundtrack as she flowed through the halls between classes trailing clouds of patchouli.
She was passionate and political, and picked fights with teachers at every opportunity. The Vietnam War was a personal affront to Julie. A book had just been published by Doubleday called "Where is Vietnam: American Poets Respond," that included a grim entry from "Julie Gibson, age 14." It was
called "Typical Eve-of-Destruction-Type Poem Written by a Typically Frightened and Disgusted Person-to Him, to You, to Me and to Us." On the facing page was a poem by Allen Ginsberg.
Despite my somewhat marginal relationship to Julie-world, I spent a lot of time in it. There were afternoons we played hooky, hanging out in the Gibson’s living room, listening to Jefferson Airplane while her mother practiced yoga. There were lunch hours with fish sandwiches from East Side Foods or
French fries from Francesca’s. On one hilarious occasion Mrs. Gibson pretended to be my mother and called in sick for me so we could all attend an open housing rally.
Somehow the idea of asking Julie out on a date seemed too square, even if I hadn’t been shy to the point of catatonia. But there were times together that felt like dates, or potential ones. She’d say "You’re going to that be-in at Lake Park Sunday, right? Please say yes." I’d imagine us sort of floating through the park in a little private bubble, but instead we were quickly swarmed by the usual crowd of her other admirers.
Once we went to hear some folk singer she was excited about at the Avant Garde on Prospect. I ordered a plate of potato chips and two coffees but by the time they arrived we’d been joined by some college students she knew -- glib, smart, intimidating.
But despite all that, when she asked me one morning whether I wanted to go with her to hear Allen Ginsberg read at UWM, I agreed instantly. And imagined that this time it would be a date. "He’s staying at our house!" she noted. That should have been a warning. If the choice later that evening was to be between being entertained by Allen Ginsberg or John Eklund, I was in trouble.
I realized that I had nothing to wear to an Allen Ginsberg reading. Luckily, I had just done a round of collections from my paper route customers and had $30 in my pocket. I took a bus to Johnnie Walker’s on 3rd Street and selected a dark, oversize dress shirt with enormous white polka dots to go
with my burgundy bell bottoms and brown corduroy jacket. My parents were aghast as I left the house on the evening of the reading but my younger sister thought I looked cool.
We met at Julie’s house and waited for the Marquette marchers to come up Maryland. As they passed, we joined. We were alone for the rest of the walk, and when we got to the Ballroom the UWM students who were already seated gave the Marquette arrivals a rousing ovation. It seemed personal, like they were applauding Julie and me.
And Ginsberg? Oddly enough I barely remember anything about him. He looked a bit creepy. James Franco’s Ginsberg was a lot more adorable than Ginsberg’s Ginsberg. There were long poems that angrily bashed Lyndon Johnson. There were lots of theatrics -- incense, candles and chanting. There may
have been a squeezebox involved but I don’t remember whether Ginsberg played it. Julie watched it all in a kind of rapture. I watched her.
Afterward, as we stood outside the Union, friends of Julie and her parents gathered to talk. I tried to stay near her, which was easy at first when the interlopers were people I knew. But gradually the spreading cluster of grad students, professors and bohemians became mainly strangers, and somehow Julie slipped away. I was left standing with a group of people I didn’t know. Because I hadn’t really said hello I was too self-conscious to risk attention by saying goodbye and walking away. So I just
stood there silently for a very long time, listening to clever talk while becoming increasingly invisible.
Eventually, Allen Ginsberg emerged surrounded by an entourage, and our group drifted over to join that one. I turned west on Kenwood to walk home. It was nearly midnight and I had to do my route at 5 a.m.