(Copyright 2002 Al Aronowitz)


(Copyright - 1997 Brenda Frazer)
First there was me. Then there was Ray and me. It happened like this. I had dropped out of college and Ray was fresh out of jail, practically at the same time. I was living in DC at 19th and F near Pennsylvania Avenue, just two blocks from the White House, my first apartment. It was 1959. I was nineteen years old, Ray was twenty-five and came down to DC with a bunch of New York poets.

I met him at a poetry reading at the Odd Fellows Hall. I had seen the poster in the window of a little lunch counter near GW University. I thought it was going to be a student event but it wasn't. I remember how I got ready for this evening, more important than I knew. Bathed and girdled up, didn't know this was the last time I would put on a girdle or a bra in my life, never again. Even as I looked in the mirror and lifted my arm for deodorant didn't know that someone one, someone like him, would prefer my natural smell.

I just thought I was getting ready for a poetry reading. Maybe it would even be a little dull, too intellectual. Art and ideology all together in a bookish atmosphere, a round table where poets wore glasses and droned monotonously, something like that. My own image was Bohemian. I put on my black stockings and a skirt, a black sweater too, loafers and a camel hair coat. My hair was very short like Francois Sagan on the cover of BONJOUR TRISTESSE.

And there would be music too the poster had said. I was curious and even more because of the name Odd Fellows. What was that about? Anyway it was a reason to go out. My social life was nil, more and more withdrawn. I'd stayed in bed with my copy of Balzac the last few weeks before I left college. Now I read Shakespeare every chance I got, home from work for lunch sitting on the trunk that held my belongings, the only piece of furniture besides a bed and a kitchen table, both there when I moved in. My apartment was near the federal office building where I worked as a clerk-typist. Lunch was Campbell's vegetable soup with chili powder. I was dieting again.

Anyway that night it was dark and raining and I didn't know where the Odd Fellows Hall was. I'd take a cab. "Do you know where the Odd Fellows Hall is?" I asked the cabdriver, and felt silly just saying it. "The one at 9th and T Northwest?" he asks. "They're having a poetry reading, I guess that's it." Was there more than one Odd Fellows Hall?

February was cold in DC. The bare trees, wet with the winter rain, were close around the entrance of the Odd Fellows Hall as I got out of the cab. A surprise. The big glass doors, though pointed obliquely into the winter wind, were brightly lit, and winter stayed outside.

The lonely day fell away from me as I entered. The atmosphere was warm and I felt my face relax as I looked around to see if people were staring at me as I was at them, amazed at the differences. But no one noticed me, for the poetry reading had already started. I was free to study the interesting faces there. What beautiful long hair and gentle expressions. Soft smiles, a little ecstatic. But even more, a sense of excitement, perhaps it was hope, shining from eyes. Maybe the poetry was doing it, opening emotions, lifting the spirit. Maybe it was communication making them all understand as one mind. It felt good to be there and yet the familiar discomfort in my own skin made me an outsider. Had I experienced any of that communication? Would someone teach me? I took a deep breath, trying to be ready for whatever came.

The crowd more than filled the hall and I leaned against the wall on the nearest side where many people were sitting on the floor. From there, I could see well and yet was somewhat removed. Down front was a stage with a grand piano and a small table with one chair. All of the lights were on in the hall, illuminating the audience as well as the stage. No artificial barrier between the crowd and the poets except the elevation of the stage. The poets stood around the stage. This small Negro guy apparently was in charge making introductions. He introduced the next poet Peter Orlovsky. Very blond and good looking. I thought I would like to know someone like that. He laughed at himself while reading a very short poem. Then another poet stood and read in an

'. . .this tall guy with an army fatigue jacket and red sweatshirt underneath. . .'

excited voice about a lion in his bedroom closet. "Yeah, a lion wow!" I thought, laughing with the people around me, catching the excitement of his reading. Who was it? Allen Ginsberg? But he was funny. "There goes my image of an English professor," I thought, glad that I had come.

The crowd was noisy and excited. "Thanks to the education of the New Jersey penal system, a jailhouse poet, Ray Bremser!" I heard the announcer say something about Poems of Madness. And then there was this tall guy with an army fatigue jacket and red sweatshirt underneath, the hood drooping down his back. He looked like a monk. He sat at the little table looking down at the audience, reading with a strong accent. A black binder full of poems was on his lap. The poem was about how his father always bet on the horses. The words came fast in a barrage and I couldn't catch it all. But the rhythm carried it and I found I could understand anyway.

Here one of my shy moods overtook me. What if someone spoke to me, or asked my opinion? Suppose I was expected to be friendly, spontaneous and free like these other people. I'd have to come out of my aloof, stuck up shell, even admit that I was painfully scared of people. What if I had to turn my head and look direct at the person next to me? I was uncomfortable that way. I felt suddenly confused and wanted to get outside again, back to my apartment, and yet the same time I wanted more than anything to be a part of this crowd for once, to fit in. On an impulse to leave, I moved to the back of the hall. OK, so maybe I am a phony, so what, I swung my ass a little, in defiance of the human race.

"Hey wait a minute! You can't leave like that! Don't you like the poetry?" This tall black guy accosted me just when I was about to escape. I mumbled something inarticulate, thinking that would get rid of him, but no, perhaps he thought I'd made no reply. He told me stay and wait to the end. There was going to be a party and he'd take me. He told me that the reading had been set up by him and some other students at Howard University. "The poets read at Howard last night too. Where were you?" he said, facetiously. I knew he wanted to impress me with the fact he was the organizer, and I was, but still said nothing. "My name is Brick," he said.

The poets were reading again, another round. They acted as though they were trying each to come up with something better than the other. It was exciting. Brick told me their names as they appeared. The reading was in full swing now. Gregory Corso came to the edge of the stage, shouting out into the air with a large gesture. "BE A STAR SCREWER!" And then the announcer Leroi Jones read his own poem about music.

Then the piano player Cecil Taylor comes on and Brick asks me, "Do you like jazz?" and I have to say yes because I like this large music being played now. And I like very much the intense face of the piano player with his round and intellectual eyeglasses. "They are almost done" Brick says to me "You wait for me here, ok?"

When Brick came back he took me up to the stage and introduced me to some of the poets. Then a bunch of us got in a station wagon with a guy named Dave driving. I was in the front seat while Brick and AB Spellman, another student from Howard University were in the back. The poet Allen Ginsberg rode with us too. Brick told me "Dave drove the van with the poets in it down from New York." Then Dave said,"Yeah, I had to take over the driving from Peter O. because he used to be an ambulance driver and he never drives slow." "Besides he was too high," said Allen G. in the back seat, and "Who's the pretty girl up front?" and so I was introduced to him too. We were passing through Northwest DC. The special feeling that black neighborhoods have, people still on the street. Where's the party? When we arrived the others were already there and gave a shout of greeting. Allen was obviously the favorite.

Brick got me a beer and left me alone. Allen sat right down on a big hassock in the middle of the room with a fat black guy. They got into an intense conversation that made their faces shine with sweat and happiness. I wandered to the kitchen where Peter O. was. I found him almost as shy as I was and we only talked for a few minutes. I was disappointed and retreated to the bathroom. Looked at myself in the mirror in a negative way, and asked myself what was I doing there? The excitement and cold air and maybe the beer had made my cheeks flushed. I went and sat down on a couch in the other room by myself.

Almost immediately Ray Bremser came and asked if he could sit next to me, which he did for about five minutes without saying anything. Somehow I was entirely reassured by his quietness. Then finally he said to me "Do you like this party?" and I said "No" and he said, "Well why don't we get out of here then?" I said, "OK".

Driving around in another taxicab and Ray was trying to figure out a place to go. Now I knew where we were. We had just passed the Greyhound bus station. Across the street was an art movie theater. A week before I'd gone there to see the new film sensation, Bridget Bardot. She danced on the screen, bigger than life and more or less nude. With tropical skin and long loose hair, she was soft and sexy as sand between bare toes. I wanted to be like her.

We were just passing Pancake Heaven; all lit up like an oasis in the night. "Do you like pancakes?" I suddenly craved butter and syrup, comfort. "I love pancakes!" The bright lights in the pancake house were like a spotlight on us. I could see Ray's handsome face, pockmarked and angular, savage and gentle at once. His curly hair fell over his forehead, not quite a pompadour. I was nervous about the conversation and we didn't get very far. We talked about my leaving school and he told me "I never got beyond the seventh grade. I didn't like school. But when I was in jail I was the librarian and could order books from anywhere, read what I wanted, things you can't find in the store." I was strangely reassured by the fact that he'd been in jail. Perhaps it was immediately proof that he was different, like me.

Even when we lapsed into silence it was not so painful. He was gentle with me and instead of pushing questions he said "I like quiet people. It shows they have thoughts they've never expressed. Most of the women I know talk endlessly about nothing." I liked being seen as different from other women. He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket saying, "I just got paid for the reading." He gave me a sense that everything was ok and only today mattered.

"What now?" I wondered. He simply asked, "Would you like to come with me?" And I simply said, "Yes." It was Saturday night; no worries and no work tomorrow, no virginity after all. I trusted him without thought. We got into another cab and drove to the address where they were staying. We entered down some stairs that went directly to a room with two beds. It was a basement apartment with several rooms. "We'll kick them out if they try to get in," he said, turning on the bare light bulb over the bed. I was standing shyly not knowing what to do. He noticed and turned the light off again. "I hate bare bulbs," he said and I could hear him taking off his clothes. I undressed in the dim light from the street window, balancing on one foot as I peeled the girdle off.

As I got into bed he handed me one of two lit cigarettes, twin burning coals in the darkness. We were strangely relaxed and quiet, smoking, perhaps wondering what to do and how to do it. Then he said, "Are you tired?" And almost disappointed I said, "Yes". But it was a lie and he knew it. Maybe I thought we could spend the night just pretending to sleep. He reached over putting his arm lightly around me and said in a surprised voice, "Jesus! You're naked!" And we laughed together at the silliness of shy preliminaries. "Well what did you expect?"

His body was long and sinewy. His kisses were chaste and gentle. He used his lips to delicately touch my face, my neck, and my mouth. His fingers brushed lightly over my skin as he said "So smooth." And I felt his skin a little prickly with hairs rising. "Was it a good ball?" he asked afterwards as I touched his face tenderly. And without answering I thought that between my legs he was a perfect fit. Large enough to seem completely new, as if the first love.

We rested in each other's arms smoking again and there were voices of people arriving in the next room. Ray sighed, "The party must be over, here they come." A voice came through the wall, "I'll bet that Bremser is in there getting laid. Bet he's with that chick from the party" "That's Gregory" Ray whispered. "Weighed, Laid, and Parlayed, as they say in New Jersey," he imitated


Ray's accent which he could do almost without trying since his own New York accent was heavy. "Look out for Gregory, he's a rabbit fucker." Ray laughed in my ear and called out "YEAH, GREG IT's ME!" "Oh man you're so cool the way you bird dogged that chick from Brick," Gregory again. "No man, I ain't cool. I'm hot!" And we heard other voices laughing as Ray pulled me to him. "Leave them alone" someone said. "That Ray's a Romeo" said Gregory

This time as we balled, oblivious of the voices in the next room there was a loud thump and we rolled off onto the floor as the bed collapsed. A voice from the other room, "What happened man?" And Ray answered, "THE FUCKING BED BROKE!" And we laughed hilariously

The sky was getting light through the basement apartment windows. Already up, so we dressed and left the broken bed behind. Satisfied anyway for the moment and full of joy from the feeling. Where will we go to breakfast?" he said as we stepped up to the sidewalk. "Why don't we go to my place?" I suggested. "Well why didn't you say so before?" and we got into another cab and went there.

Remember my place was barely furnished. Although a nice old brownstone house, my apartment on the top floor had been painted over too many times. The thick pink covered the boarded front and mantel of an old fireplace. A chocolate cake on the kitchen table had been left open to the air. I liked it stale. Kidney stew in a small skillet on the stove, which I?d, made the night before. Ray said, "What the fuck is this?" and threw it out so he could use the pan for eggs. He told about cooking in the jail over a roll of toilet paper. "The skillet has to be hot for eggs." He was standing on the step up to the stove and fridge in the corner of the kitchen. Kind of like on a stage and I watched him perform.

My first apartment seemed even cozier now that I had a lover. The welcome sunshine came in the window through shutters in the little bedroom. In the diffused sunlight we could see each other. His long body looked like a naked Jesus, stretched out in undershorts. We stayed awake only long enough to make love one more time. And to talk about my sexual history, the four or five men that I'd been to bed with. And he?d been with at least that many in the past two months. "I was a virgin until I was twenty-five. Angel, the dancer, took my cherry. It's all here in my address book." He showed me his system of letters and dots by women's names. He marked the tally of our lovemaking on the pink paint of the bedroom wall, four lines and a diagonal across. "Keep that there now."

He was modest though and put his underwear on again as soon as we made love. He was self-conscious of the acne on his shoulders. "In the jail we always had to wear short sleeved shirts and I hated it. After I became a trustee I was allowed to wear long sleeves and to keep my collar up."

While we were falling asleep the pigeons cooed on the little balcony outside which overlooked the park across the street. Ray spoke of how they had arrived in town on Thursday and immediately went to see the White House and the statue in Lafayette Square, which was covered with pigeon droppings. "Gregory hates the government buildings. He says they make him feel guilty for something, anything, for just being alive. He practically grew up in jail you know. He says the pigeon shit everywhere is poetic justice."

In the afternoon when we woke, Ray called Dave who said they were all meeting for lunch in a restaurant, which was only two blocks away from my place. I knew that they were planning to leave soon and I began to feel frightened and insecure. As we walked down the steps of the brownstone house I wondered what was going to become of me. At the restaurant we ate hamburgers while Gregory told us about the milk bath he'd had at Elizabeth Arden's. Afterwards we went out on the street and Gregory came up behind us and said, "Hey Ray! Did you tell her about your wife and kids?"

His words were like a shot to my heart and it collapsed noiselessly within me. Maybe, could it have been all a lie between us. What a fool I'd been. I barely knew his name! "Aw Gregory, shut the fuck up," I heard Ray say. And we walked back to my pad where the others would pick him up later when it was time to leave. As we turned the corner I said, just barely able to get out the words, unrehearsed. "What does he mean, your wife and kids!" Angry tears of frustration, I felt the shadow of doom. Never that angry at anyone before. Stupid me to trust? No! It wasn't my fault! So what does it mean? Obviously he would have to leave his wife. At that moment I realized I was in love.

"Aw, you don't really believe that do you? Gregory's just jealous because he sees we've got something going." (Something going. Does that mean that he feels the same way?) I stopped crying, but only after I made him say the words. "No," he said, " I?m not married. And I told you before, I was a virgin till two months ago, so how could I have kids? Gregory's a troublemaker. I told you that too. Now who're you going to listen to?" He put his arm around my shoulder holding me to him as we walked.   ##




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