An essay I wrote years ago, posted today in honor of the birthday of poet Arthur Rimbaud
A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
I saw him again the other day.
He stood in front of the St. Mark’s Hotel in the East Village beside a straggly-haired woman showing the ravages of meth on her face, and he was talking at her fanatically, gesturing with his filthy hands, in a dreamspace of self-importance and grandiosity.
For a brief autumn I had dated him.
I met him the day J.F.K., Jr. disappeared. The body had not yet been found. I stood in line at the A&P deli counter, in Hoboken, wearing a backwards baseball cap, overalls, and hi-top sneakers. What I am trying to say is that the day J.F.K., Jr. disappeared, the day I met Thomas, I looked like a Peanuts character, not at all dressed for romance. Coincidentally (bizarre, considering what day it was), I happened to be reading Chris Matthews’ political biography of Kennedy and Nixon. I had my nose in the book as I stood in line, until I heard a tough-guy voice say, “It’s a shame, ain’t it?”
I looked up and there he was leaning on the other side of the deli counter, white apron on, looking right at me. I didn’t know what he was talking about or why he was talking to me.
“What’s a shame?” I asked.
“Shame about his son,” he said.
It did not escape my notice that the guy behind the counter was gorgeous in an overblown young-John-Travolta way. He had thick wavy black hair, he was about six feet tall, and his eyes were startling. A blazing green. His skin was pale, and he had strong Italian features. Total looker, not my type at all. My type runs towards pasty beefy Irish boys, not green-eyed matinee idols in white aprons.
“Whose son?” I asked.
He gestured at my book. “His son.”
I looked at my book, and then understood. “Oh! Yeah. It is a shame. Just awful.”
It struck me as notable that he would look up from slicing turkey, see Peppermint Patty waiting in line, glance at the title of her book, and then speak about it, as though in mid-conversation. Not “Is that a good book?” or “What are you reading?”
But “It’s a shame, ain’t it?”
Two days later when I saw him sitting on a bench outside the A&P, having a cigarette on a break, I took a second to get my courage up and then walked over to him.
He remembered me. We immediately started talking about J.F.K., Jr., who had by then been found.
He told me his name was Thomas.
Thomas was odd in a way I couldn’t quite place. It was like he was ten years old inside that handsome body, he had the same open-faced enthusiasm as a child, the same fearlessness with strangers. I am much more reserved.
In that first conversation, which lasted all of fifteen minutes, I learned that he loved Rimbaud and Henry Miller. He also loved Wallace Stevens and said to me, “With my white apron on in there, I feel like the goddamn Emperor of Ice Cream.” He did not come off as pretentious or as though he was trying to name-drop me to death. He was simple, open, free. He wanted to be a writer. I would later learn that he had written a novel (unpublished), and had stashed the manuscript with a friend who was a dishwasher at a pizza joint on 12th and Willow in Hoboken. “Yeah, I let him read it. He didn’t really understand it though. I need to get it back from him.”
That first day on the bench, he asked me for my phone number and I gave it to him. He called me the following day and we met up for drinks later that night. He showed up on the date with no money, and although I was willing to pay for a couple of beers, he told me “I’m kind of a hustler” and went off to get some drinks for us. It made me uncomfortable, especially when he returned from wherever he went, wielding two Heinekens. Had he begged? Pestered? So he actually was a hustler. We sipped our beers and I listened to him talk. There seemed to be no pretense with him. It was disarming. He talked and talked and talked, flowing from one topic to the other, yet always connected to me. He picked up on every gesture I made, the smallest of expressions. I learned that he lived at the YMCA in Bayonne, a pretty bleak place, and he was on the waiting list for the YMCA in Hoboken, a step up. He told me he had lived in Union City for a while, but had to move because he thought that the person in the apartment across the way was flashing lights at him from window to window, trying to pass on some sinister message. “Union City is a bad place, man,” Thomas told me. “Even the light is evil there.”
He said at one point, out of nowhere, “I hate deja vu. I feel like one day I’m gonna go into a deja vu and never come out.”
Although much of what he revealed (in his speech, the stories he told, his actions) was alarming to me, we started dating. There were those blazing green eyes to consider.
But what really happened was this: I loved how he talked about books. I could not get enough of it. I grew up surrounded by language, and I grew up with parents who loved to read. In my family, you come home for a visit and two seconds after you are asked, “How are you?” you are asked, “So what are you reading?”
Thomas discovered literature late. He had not grown up in a family who valued language or education. His father was violent and cold, his mother simpering and ineffective. His older brother was in prison. Thomas put himself through college. He majored in English. His family thought going to college was a stupid thing to do, a waste of time, and majoring in English was flat-out insane. But Thomas was drawn to books, to words. His taste ran to the difficult and the surreal. He could be a snob about anything that was too “easy”.
Rimbaud was the hook for Thomas, his way in to the world of words. He had never encountered anything so thrilling. Thomas could talk about Rimbaud for hours, and he did. To anyone who would listen. Bartenders, strippers, co-workers who spoke no English, the ex-cons who lived with him at the Bayonne Y, people on the train. He always carried a battered taped-together paperback of Rimbaud’s work in his back pocket so that he could pull it out at a moment’s notice and read out loud the passage he wanted. Rimbaud was not a distant literary figure to Thomas, he was a companion. We’d be sitting my room, and Rimbaud would come up (as he always did) and Thomas would reach into his back pocket for the book, laughing at himself as he did so. “I get so excited I’m like a little kid.” Rimbaud wasn’t really my cup of tea, but it was riveting to hear Thomas proclaim Rimbaud’s words out loud, in my room on a rainy morning, on the A train, on my fire escape, on the steps of the YMCA:
And since then I’ve been bathing in the Poem of star-infused and milky Sea,
Devouring the azure greens, where, flotsam pale,
A brooding corpse at times drifts by.
The phantasmagorical imagery of Rimbaud’s writing seemed to express to Thomas what it was actually like for him, inside his own head. Rimbaud would certainly understand the flashing evil light of Union City. Rimbaud would also fall into a deja vu and never come out.
Thomas talked about writers as though they had written their books specifically for him. He did not come to “the greats” with preconceived notions or the sense that he should be intimidated by them. He met them fresh. To hear him talk about Yeats or Eugene O’Neill or Shakespeare was, for me, like blood to a vampire. None of it was passive received knowledge. He took it personally. So personally that he tried to commit suicide in college after reading a book by Carlos Castanada. He had spent intermittent months in institutions since then, diagnosed as bipolar. His demons were strong, but he resisted medication even though it was supposed to help him not perceive flashing lights from an opposite window as ominous Morse code. He didn’t like the dulling effects of the meds, he didn’t like having no sex drive, he wanted to still see blazing lights, even if they were sometimes scary.
His attachment to me happened instantly. I became the normal sane thing in his crazy life. I would pick him up at the Y, and he could escape into the confines of my cozy apartment, where there was food in the cupboards, a TV to watch, a warm bed, and he could be fed and nurtured for a bit. But I don’t like clinging, and he clung. I was not allowed to have a day to myself because he would start to get frayed and confused when not in my presence. I would say to him, “I really am not the kind of person who needs to see someone every day. As a matter of fact, I am the opposite kind of person. I cannot see you tomorrow. I need some time to myself, goddammit.” But then at 8 a.m. the next morning, a knock would come on the door, and there he would be, pleading, “I won’t get in your way! You can have time to yourself. I’ll just sit in the other room and read or something! I won’t bother you!”
Right before I met him, Thomas’ father had been diagnosed with throat cancer, and instead of facing chemo and treatment he instead chose to kill himself, shooting himself in the head in front of his wife and son. Thomas told me that no matter what he did he couldn’t shake the image of his father’s head exploding all over the living room. He would wake up in my bed screaming.
I was not really serious about Thomas. I was not in love with him. I was in love with the manner in which he approached literature, and I was in love with how he talked about it. But I didn’t take him seriously for one second as a mate. At that point in my life, I felt I could not afford another heartbreak, and it was safe to hang out with Thomas, because he would never hurt me. This was unfair of me. Thomas was madly in love with me although I never could tell if his feelings were genuine or if he was just clutching at a safe zone, someone to take care of him in the midst of his madness and chaos. He was a hustler, remember. He knew how to get his needs met. But still. It cannot be denied that when I had had enough of the 8 a.m. knocks on my door, the badgering and pleading, the irrational outbreaks, and the nonexistent sex, I cut him loose. He never saw it coming. I hadn’t realized as it was happening how much he had deteriorated in the short time I knew him, but when I looked back at our first meeting, the difference was startling. Being under my wing made Thomas feel he didn’t need to take his medication anymore, so he slowly began to fall apart. I got out just in time. To make matters worse, he pleaded with me to change my mind, grabbing onto me in my car, stopping just short of getting too rough, tears in his eyes, begging me. It was awful. I had to pry his hands off of me and push him out of the car. Slowly, shoulders hunched, he trudged back into the YMCA, and it tore at my heart to see him.
I wondered what would happen to him. I now could see the evil ominous light that had driven Thomas from Union City. It followed him around.
A week or so later, he called me (collect). I was instantly angry. “Thomas, I told you. I am done.”
“I know, I know, sorry, but I just had to tell you that I have a whole new plan. I just can’t take Bayonne anymore. It’s getting me down, you know, and I’ve been reading Hemingway a lot, and you know, he really dug Key West, and I think I’m gonna go down and live there, where there’s no winter and people can just live. I can sleep on the beach, and I can write. I got my book back and I want to work more on it. Hemingway was real macho, but he was an artist, too. I think Key West is gonna be good.”
It sounded crazy, but it seemed right to me, too. “That sounds good, Thomas. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
He was manic. I could hear it in his voice. “Tennessee Williams loved Key West, too,” he babbled on. “And he was gay and everything, but that’s the thing about Key West – it can handle the two poles of masculinity” (his exact words) ” — the Hemingway and the Tennessee Williams – so it can handle me, too. I don’t want to be tough all the time like I have to be here.”
Of course Thomas had an angle in calling me. He always had an angle. All he needed from me, one last thing, was money for a one-way bus ticket to Florida. I hesitated. It wouldn’t be a lot of money, but I had already bailed him out financially a couple of times (especially since he was fired from the A&P for getting violent with a customer and also for stealing some of the deli meats for himself). But he pleaded. “This is the last time I ask you for money, I swear. And I’ll pay you back every penny.”
I gave him the money and Thomas hopped on a one-way ticket ride to the land where the Two Poles of Masculinity could remain in balance and he could hover between the two, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams holding hands across the blazing white sand.
He called me once more after that (collect, of course) to tell me how things were going. He was dismayed to learn that sleeping on the beach was not allowed in Key West and the cops were really strict about it. He was homeless for a while, stashing his duffel bag with the book manuscript in places where he knew it would be safe. He washed dishes at restaurants, crossed paths with some sketchy characters who offered him money to strip in gay clubs or have sex with older tourist women. He finally was invited by a drug dealer he had met to crash on the couch at the drug dealer’s psychedelic home, full of swirling colored tiles and mannequins hanging from the ceiling draped in Mardi Gras beads. It was something out of a Tennessee Williams play. Thomas had reached the Camino Real. It sounded, frankly, terrible to me, way worse than what had been going on for him in Bayonne, but Thomas talked about it all as though he got a kick out of the whole thing.
I asked, “So how’s that whole Two Poles of Masculinity thing going for you?”
“You know what is so weird about that, Sheila? Key West is full of roosters and stray cats. They’re everywhere. They walk like they own the streets. But I like to think of them as cocks and pussies. Everywhere you look here are cocks and pussies.” He started laughing at his own pun.
“You’re crazy. You should write all that down.”
“I go hustle drinks at Sloppy Joe’s and sit in the seat where Hemingway used to sit. It’s the island of misfit toys down here”
I hung up with Thomas, imagining him sitting in Hemingway’s chair, surrounded by cocks and pussies, and I figured that was that. He sounded cheerful, at any rate, and at least he was out of my hair.
One wintry day a year later, I was walking down the street in Hoboken, and I glanced at a grubby figure lying in a doorway, got one glimpse of the bright green eyes, and stopped, jolted to a standstill. My heart pounded. That couldn’t be him – could it? Why was he here? He was supposed to be in Key West. When did he come back? What happened? He was so filthy I couldn’t be sure it was him, so I circled the block to take another look. I wasn’t sure why I was so frightened. It was terrible to imagine him being so lost like that. I confirmed, in my second walk-by, what I had known from the moment I saw the green eyes. It was him. The homeless man lying in the doorway was Thomas. I was upset, but what shocked me the most, scared me the most, was that his thick black hair had gone completely white in just a year. He was an old man. Whatever grip he had had on reality when I knew him was obviously gone. He was talking to himself, muttering in a cranky self-righteous way. He had his hand out for change and his fingers looked like something out of a Walker Evans photo. The light in his eyes was no longer sane. It was now unearthly, floating about untethered, never landing in one spot. The “azure greens” were now unhinged, staring at “flotsam pale” corpses 24/7. Union City got him after all.
I did battle with myself. Should I speak to him? Remind him of the freckled girl in overalls he had once cavorted with through the midnight streets of the East Village? Remind him of that one night when we were parched and couldn’t find an open deli, and Thomas grumbled, in an annoyed voice,
“Water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink!”
Would he remember me, or was his madness one that had obliterated the past, wiping out everything along with the image of his father’s head in pieces on the sofa? I moved on, without speaking, pricked with guilt, shaken up for the rest of the day.
I kept my eyes peeled after that, giving each homeless person a second look to see if it was Thomas. But I didn’t see him again, at least not in Hoboken.
And then, the other day, as I mentioned, I saw him again, this time in Manhattan, hanging around on the corner outside that den of despair, the St. Mark’s Hotel. He was arguing with his meth-whore, giving her the business, and I stood back to watch. Thomas, that beautiful sensitive man I had once loved to listen to, staggered away from her, enraged, the over-oxygenated look of a religious madman on his face. He was smoking a cigarette, his clothes were falling apart. He was skin and bones.
As he lurched past me, close enough to touch, I found myself peering at his butt, battered jeans hanging off his hipbones. I had to check. For that dog-eared copy of Rimbaud. I know it’s naive, but if he still had that book, I thought it might mean … something.
But what would it mean? What difference would it have made, ultimately? He still would be a homeless man, off his meds, staggering down the street.
Of course there was no book in his back pocket.
I almost hadn’t recognized that dirty white-haired man. It wasn’t just his appearance that had changed so much, although he had gone through a radical transformation. It was that the actual person looking out of those green eyes was different: He, the tough sweet guy behind the deli counter, was no longer in there, and the Rimbaud had probably been lost a long time ago.
On high roads in winter nights, without roof, without clothes, without bread, a voice gripped my
those whom I met did not see me.”
But I saw. I saw.
It’s a shame, ain’t it.