© Jon Horne
I was working as a waitress in the Tenderloin.
The customers always talked to me. I knew how to listen. Theyd say things they wouldnt tell their wives or their best friends or their mothers. The other waitresses and the bartenders pretended to listen but it was just a game, part of the job. With me it was real - I understood what they were trying to say to me. They were trying to tell me about their secret lives. I had one of my own.
My secret life was shared with a ten-dollar Remington typewriter. Every night after I came home from the bar, Id put on my Bluenote records and let them play soft while I clacked in time to the music, pouring out my spirit onto paper rolls, which I wound around wooden spindles like Old Testament scrolls. The letters from the old typewriter would jump around the line, as if the words were rolling along a bumpy road. Sometimes the keys would miss the ribbon, just as the Bird hit one of the broken keys on his beat-up old horn.
Everything came out onto the page. The old, worn-down soul that lived in my young body would rise up and scream - the pain and searching of the past, the hard-won, living, loving present, and the who-knows, que-sera of the future. No one was going to care about me, but when they read what was on the paper rolls, theyd know the truth, my truth - the truth of a free white girl who never learned the rules.
When the New York boys arrived, I knew theyd be the ones to understand. Theyd walk in with Whitman and Melville and Wolfe under their coats. They sat and read aloud, then theyd fight over a line, an image. Sometimes they brought in scraps of paper, and theyd read poems that said things that Id never heard expressed before. All the crazy stuff that was coming out of me when I was fired by be-bop and wired by exhaustion - here it was again, springing from the hearts and the pens of these strangers from back east.
It was me who approached them. In those days, you see, I had no fear. I knew I was special. Id already written more words than Id ever spoken.
Jimmy and Cal were too tight, too sure of themselves, impenetrable. One night, late, I caught Benny alone. Benny was the quiet boy, beautiful and vulnerable and still too much in love with Jimmy to really know who he was. I cut a foot of prose from the roll and placed it in front of him. He stared a moment with weak eyes, then without a word put on his thick glasses and began to read. He never looked up for a minute. When hed finished, he just put a dollar on the table and walked out.
It was Cal who hit on me. Benny had told them about me, and they were approaching me the only way they knew how. Before long, I was sharing my single bed with Cal, then Jimmy. Every night, one of them came home with me after I closed the bar. I read from the roll, they brought out the scraps and fragments, we listened to Bird and we made love and we jammed on the Remington, a line at a time. Cal was too crazy, but Jimmy had his insanity on a leash. I loved his words the way I loved my own.
The first suspicion came when, one night, laying in Jimmys arms, he told me that I was free.
Damn right I was free! I didnt need to be told!
When Jimmy and Cal prepared to go back east, Jimmy played at being blasé. He said: I hate to hurt you honey, but I gotta go. I wasnt hurt. I was back where I was, in the bar till the small hours, and writing all night. Why did he think hed hurt me?
I knew soon enough. One day, Benny called for me and we walked up to North Beach. He took me to a bookstore. There on the counter were ten copies of Jimmys book. That night, I read with excitement, and with pride in my friend. Benny complained how they had taken Jimmys prose and cut it up, broken the jazz rhythm, but I didnt care. I laughed at the way Jimmy saw himself - the nervous, mother-fearing straight, lost in Cals crazy world.
I saw myself, and laughed again. Jimmy had made me a blonde - he always wanted girls to be blonde. Then I stopped laughing. My character was just blonde, nothing more. I kept turning the pages and still she hardly spoke a goddamn sentence. Passive, a dumb chick, passed from Cal to Jimmy and back again - was that the way they saw me? Was there a mention of the words I wrote, night after night, just like them?
No. There I was, immortalised on the page, feeding them, fucking them, keeping them alive so that they could write their beat poetry, holding down a home so that they could be free.
About that time, I was bringing my book to a close. Laboriously I went through the rolls, disciplined the late-night writing, and produced the finished work. I sent the manuscripts away, and waited for the replies.
They came thick and fast. Sure, there were a lot of rejections, but there were a lot of positive replies as well. No one had accepted the manuscript outright, but the publishers wanted to talk to me.
I thought that they were going to do to my work what they did to Jimmys - cut it, put it in nice, neat, prosaic paragraphs. What the hell, I thought. I can live with that.
I was wrong. The interviews followed a pattern:
- Loved the book.
- Youre the chick in Highway Blues, right?
- The womans perspective - good angle.
- Lose the stuff about when you were a kid, OK?
- Tell us more about Jimmy.
- Living with two guys in the same house? Thats crazy!
- Beatniks? Hey, youre the beat-chick!
I wouldnt do it. I have my own stories to tell. One day, the world will hear them - one day, when they stop asking me about Jimmy and Cal and Benny and all the other men.
Maybe when Im dead.
You see, its been forty years since that time, and Ive stayed free. Maybe I didnt win my freedom, I just kept it. Thats me. I never followed the script of what a woman of my generation was supposed to do. But my words are not free. What the system failed to do to me, the free-loving, freedom-loving beat poets have done to my words. Even after all this time, you just want to hear about Jimmy, and here I am telling you.
When Im dead and gone, no one will be able to interrupt me and say What about Jimmy?
Then youll read my stories and then youll know.
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