Saturday, 14 February 2009

From "Holocaust Behind the Counter: L&G Luncheonette and the Origins of the East Village Poetry Scene"

By David Rosenberg (in The Chicago Review 54:3).

I recall one of the annual New Year's Day readings at St. Mark's Church in the early '70s, when I met some of my colleagues rarely seen at the L&G Luncheonette -- Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh -- now filling the counter, ragged manuscripts in hand. The action on New Year's Day always surprised the counter-men, and I tried to explain this literary ritual to them. "It's a marathon, a nonstop twenty-four-hour theater of poets presenting a slice of their lives." The chasm of understanding, however, was too great. "From this you can make a living?" asked the counter-men. The fact that these Holocaust survivors could work at all, after the work-to-death ethic of the camps, was miraculous: to throw some things on the grill and watch, while you smoked a cigarette with no one to shoot you, was surreal poetry enough to them.

We young poets were the miracle-doubting ones, especially after Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin died in quick succession. Ron, Anne, Leis and I could talk like working class writers about "everyday life" and "necessity" but at the time we showed no serious interest in the authentic history of the survivors serving us. Our idea of history was rebelliously aesthetic: it had seemed to begin a month after The New American Poetry came on the market. Not that we discounted the European catastrophe; rather, we felt clueless before it, so that questioning how or why seemed a mug's game.

A retreat into human consciousness (and seeking to widen it, like a highway) looked like the best answer to the concealed bestiality in civilization and its dream of totalitarian social engineering. Meanwhile, the angels from the dead stirred the eggs and slung the hash, sneaking sympathetic glimpses at the faux cosmopolitans they served. This sympathy was based on the sense that we were losers too, although too young to know it, and like them, we still found bearable work to do, like writing manuscripts that few were going to buy, and taking surprising solace in a cigarette.

What were they thinking, the angelic counter-men, not about us but about the beatific cataclysm of their own lives? I never really asked nor do recollections of conversations with them help much. Some had wives, some had rooms, some "lived with their brother" -- the most mundance of lives. One had a daughter about to enter college.

"Which one?" I asked.

"The one upstate, Cornell," he answered.

"Wow, that will cost a mint!" I offered.

He shrugged. "That's what she wants." He clearly hadn't yet faced the music nor had the daughter. Tuition crisis would be her prelude to facing the Holocaust since, unlike the typical poor who planned to start in community college, she was a dreamer up until the last minute, like her father. "I never thought they would come for us, even after I heard they were not making airplane parts at Auschwitz." Either his daughter would be forced to wake up and listen to that, or she would throw away the key to the family closet.

Practical matters were only a fraction of the thoughts of the counter-man with the unfashionable tattoo. He told me he hadn't thought about what might have been if there was no Holocaust because "Europe was a graveyard." In other words, he couldn't think pre-Holocaust, just as most of us today don't think post-Holocaust anymore. Instead, history begins with us, and with actively finding the key to the problem of America (the rest of the world was like the Kiev restaurant, open twenty-four hours for us to mentally slum in). We hardly guessed back then that we'd have to mature in thought; we assumed that action was what it took. We were social activists in art.

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