No One Ever Interrupted Me: Jim Carroll & The Petting Zoo
Elizabeth and I had cut class one autumn morning circa 1986. We’re LES kids and we don’t behave properly. We wandered, touring shops with no certain destination. Liz dragged me into Unique Boutique on Broadway. We tried on pink vintage prom dresses spinning in front of three-fold dressing room mirrors about the dimly lit second floor as the clerk eyed us suspiciously. Next we meandered through the Village drifting further and further west stopping in gemstone shops to finger hematite. The cold wind blasted through my ripped jeans and Liz’s black leggings. We dove into a bookstore that was inviting and warm. Hanging around with Lizzie in any shop meant I’d have to deter her from shoplifting. This was annoying since I couldn’t easily separate myself from her. We matched. We were both dressed mostly in black and my hair was “Violet.” Lizzie’s was “Vermillion Red,” purchased from Tish and Snooky’s Manic Panic on St. Marks Place. Liz refrained from stealing there out of shear reverence. A book caught my eye – The Basketball Diaries. There was a guy with long hair and sinewy arms on the cover, his shoulders curved with musculature, his face obscured by graphic design. The word “basketball” was in the title so I was immediately put-off by it. I placed the book back on the shelf then picked up the one faced out next to it. The title seemed infinitely more promising – Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries. I purchased it to Liz’s protest of “you don’t need to pay for stuff, you know” and read it that night.
The charmingly gritty New York of 1971-1973 unfurled in my imagination. It was a New York that predated the 800,000 strong Great White Flight and near bankruptcy of the city that loomed ahead in the late 70s. It was a time that I was too young to ever possibly have been a part of. Some of the characters I recognized immediately from their absurd all encompassing fame while others were mysteries and discoveries – Andy Warhol in The Factory filled with typewriters on glass desktops, D.M.Z. (Larry Rivers) driving an El Dorado tossing works into the Harlem River, Robert Smithson commenting on a laser-beam of light, Jenny Ann (Patti Smith) at the Chelsea Hotel, Voznesensky reading at Town Hall, Salvador Dali stealing a cab, Jackie Curtis delivering a blow job in the alley behind Max’s Kansas City. Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky all eating at the original Ratners on 2nd Avenue. “So Allen and Bill and Ted and Anne talk, and I watch. And I listen. I listen and I watch. Even while I eat, I listen. Watch.” Carroll’s writing resonated in Polaroid color. I discovered his books on my own at a point when discovering things on your own is vital. I had no idea that transgression could take place in a literary context. I didn’t know that no topic is off limits and that anything is permissible, especially in poetry.
Liz falls away into the periphery and the year changes to 1995. I’m a junior at Eugene Lang College at the New School for Social Research. I intern at the Poetry Project for a semester. Every Monday night I help Edwin Torres and David Cameron set up chairs, collect admission and break down chairs. Ed Friedman is the Artistic Director, Jo Ann Wasserman the Program Coordinator and Brenda Coultas the Program Assistant. One Wednesday afternoon a week I help Jo Ann and Brenda with office work. I enter to them casually joking, loopy from grant writing at Ed’s house, “the Big House.” Sparrow enters and leaves the office bearded and disheveled. “I keep seeing him in all the journals,” Brenda tells Jo Ann quietly. “I get ‘em before they’re big.” Jo Ann giggles slyly. “Have we heard back from Tuli?” she asks.
I enter the office the following Wednesday. Eleni Sikelianos had just come to town and the owner of Second Avenue Deli had just been shot while making a night deposit. “I can’t believe it.” Brenda shakes her head, eyes downcast, the scar across her neck dangerously sexy and the backdrop of the large arched church window illuminating her form perched on the edge of a metal desk. “All the nerd boy poets were flocking around her like flies.” Jo Ann quips in her little girl voice smiling. “Is she really that beautiful? Who’s died?” I ask. “There’s not enough room in this town for all of us!” Jo Ann smiles at me, playfully narrowing her eyes.
I enter the office the following Wednesday. “Margarita, there’s a big reading tonight, can you stay to help out? And how are you with cheese?” Jo Ann asks. I’m sent out to Triangle’s, the Israeli restaurant at the SW corner of 10th St. and 2nd Ave. to pick up food donated to the cause. Hummus, tahini, babaganoush and circles of whole wheat pita. Then on to East Village Cheese. I walk with other interns and volunteers. We carry trays, platters and bags into the kitchen of the church, chattering. We deposit them on the countertop. I’m left alone with blocks of Swiss, cheddar, muenster, brie, strawberries, bunches of grapes and knives, cases of merlot, cabernet and pinot grigio. I begin unpacking bags. Unwrapping cheese and carving it into bite size slivers. I cut pita into triangles, arrange poppy seed crackers. Allen Ginsberg walks into the kitchen. He’s little, gray and fuzzy. I’m wearing platform boots. I tower over him. I’m nervous because Howl is an act of genius. “Hi!” I say to the little man, self-consciously amused. Genius is supposed to be Byronic and angular, at the very least taller. “Oh. Cheeeezzzz.” He responds softly extending his little neck. “Would you like some?” He takes a sliver of Swiss from the cutting board, begins munching, makes a “Mmmmmmmm…” sound while nodding then moves on.
This evening will be a benefit, Ginsberg will read in the Sanctuary and afterward there will be a reception upstairs. A table is set up before the stained glass window facing out onto Stuyvesant Street between the office doors of the Poetry Project and Danspace. The reading doesn’t begin for 2 hours and I ask to go home promising to return. I live alone. I go to college and work full time, then I intern. I sleep whenever I can. When I return, Jo Ann is wringing her hands and Brenda’s brow is furrowed. Gregory Corso is in attendance. Jo Ann walks up to me. “Margarita, we have a very specific job for you,” she says guiding me upstairs to where Corso is seated with his 20 something year old sycophant/assistant. Corso is wearing what appears to be a white sweatshirt with a big Mickey Mouse head in the middle with stains peppering his gut and Mickey’s face. His hair is unwashed and unruly. He looks as though no one is taking care of him and he can’t take care of himself. Jo Ann waves to him as we pass. “Ok,” she says positioning me equidistant to the buffet table and Corso at the rail overlooking the Sanctuary. I can see my cheese platter vulnerable and exposed, quivering unprotected in the distance. “Just stay right here and make sure Gregory doesn’t get to the food and especially not the wine before the reception starts.” “Excuse me? Is he known to do that sort of thing?” I stammer back. “You’ll be fine,” she whispers encouragingly rubbing my shoulder before walking away and waving to me, then to Gregory. His sycophant looks over and smiles. The house lights drop.
The house is packed and Ginsberg is on. Corso is relaxed and happy. Smiling, enjoying himself. If Corso’s happy, then I’m happy, I think. A lull falls over the church as Ginsberg, having finished reading a long piece, gathers himself together for the next poem, sips water, riffles through loose 8 ½ x 11 pages. In the quiet, Corso’s voice unexpectedly rings our loud and nasal from above – “AAAAlllennn….!” Ginsberg’s head darts around in every direction momentarily confused looking for the source of the call. “ALLLLENNNN…!!!” The call comes again, insistent and urgent. Ginsberg looks up to the rafters and responds gently, somewhat confused. “Gregory?” he asks surprised. “Allen!” the call comes back with immediacy. “Yes, what is it Gregory?” Ginsberg asks infinitely dignified, smirking and shielding his eyes from the stage lights. “I just want to tell you one thing!” Corso’s nasal voice whines back. “Certainly, Gregory. Anything. What is it?” Ginsberg responds now smiling. “Allen, just one thing.” “Yes, Gregory. Of course.” “Allen, just let me say one thing?!” “Gregory, please, say anything you’d like, go ahead.” Ginsberg yells back up. Corso’s voice emanates through the church as he leans forward over the rail and yells –
“NO ONE EVER FUCKIN’ INTERRUPTED ME!!!”
I sit facing the door collecting money, half monitoring those who enter and exit, and half listening to Alice Notley reading softly from what must have been The Descent of Alette. Jim Carroll walks in the room mid reading. I have that uncomfortable feeling of - is he supposed to pay or not.He does. During the break, he chats with people then approaches the table, holds up Notely’s book and surveying it says “I’m glad those fuckers at Penguin finally decided to publish her.” His voice has that peculiar quiver that nearly all men who’ve used heroin acquire. I don’t know how to respond to this and nod. Carroll is still attractive in a distinct way; healthy, somewhat youthful and quite tall. He takes long strides and walks at a strange angle as though he’s perpetually running up a basketball court while looking over his shoulder for a ball to be passed. He wears a black leather blazer and his hair is conspicuously red. Even though he’s clearly manorexic in earlier photographs, he’s at a healthy weight and obviously clean. I see him read often in the 90s. A cute loser had taken me on a date to see Carroll read at NYU’s Loeb Student Center to a packed house that autumn. As an intern, I saw him read at The Poetry Project both solo and at marathon readings. When the cute loser dumped me, my friend Laura took me to see Carroll read at Summer Stage to cheer me up. He reads snatches of prose and poetry, both old and the more mature poems from 1998’s Void of Course where he playfully alters the line “some other joker/dot com mediocre” to “dot com motherfucker.” He reads excerpts from his forthcoming novels.
Jim Carroll introduces his prose by mentioning that he’s working on two novels simultaneously, one of which is called The Petting Zoo. He reads excerpts from it. A scene involving his hero, Billy Wolfram, experiencing an anxiety attack at a gala in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when confronted with the genius of Valezquez. Billy, falling into a self imposed exile cultivates seeming agoraphobia by sequestering himself in his loft. For some reason that I don’t remember, instead of rising to go to the bathroom, Billy urinates in a Snapple bottle of Lemonade and wakes up to find his penis covered in ants – this scene doesn’t make the final cut. Billy sitting on the toilet “with a piece of veal wrapped around his dick” trying to masturbate for the first time when his very Catholic mother breaks into the bathroom to announce that John F. Kennedy has been shot. He reads prose about anxiety and isolation. Prose laden with the fear of sex in particular and fear of other people in general.
Is The Petting Zoo a failure? Perhaps, but then novels that are failures can sometimes be more interesting than novels which succeed, like a hot mess walking down the street can be sexier than a woman so put together her skin is dry ice. It’s tempting to assign blame to the forces which must have influenced the writing of the book – too much expectation placed on the enfant terrible who succeeded too fast too soon. A writer who bridged the Beats to the Punks suddenly lost in time watching his material become dated as the years spent on his project go into double digits. It’s also tempting to describe the novel as a swan song, but the last song of a dying swan does not take over twenty years to materialize. I don’t like the myth and legend of the novel. There are many different kinds of writing and many different kinds of writers. Jim Carroll may have been someone who functioned best when dealing with a concise medium, the poem or the essay. Perhaps, he was a sprinter who did not have the stamina to complete the marathon race that is writing a novel. Or perhaps, he over tinkered the book to the point that it became devoid of immediacy, spontaneity and humor. Perhaps he just got lost in the rooms of his own mind.
The Petting Zoo is the story of Billy Wolfram, a painter who drops out of Cooper Union after a year but still manages to experience a remarkable amount of success early in his career when his single painting contribution to an art show is discovered by art dealer Max Bernbaum in 1972. Max loses his way and randomly follows some trendy young people to what he surmises is his destination but turns out to be Billy’s group show instead. Max makes Billy a star. After mentor Max’s death, Billy falters, falling down the rabbit hole of what is both an existential and artistic crisis. Billy lives in a loft, in a building he’s inherited from Max, happily and obliviously trapped in a conspicuously sexless relationship with his personal assistant Marta. Marta is in love with Billy. She’s patiently waiting him out. Billy is pathologically obtuse to Marta’s desire. An innocent of sorts he treats her like a placebo wife/maid until she forces the situation and literally mounts Billy who subsequently confuses her love for general lasciviousness and accuses her of sleeping with his best and only friend, rock star Denny. This dooms their relationship and relegates Billy to true isolation. Billy produces a triptych painting. He keeps company with a raven, who theorizes on why a dove got all the glory in the bible while Billy obsessively watches dated television shows and shoots pool in his loft.
The novel is divided into three sections. It opens with Billy’s anxiety attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he runs to the petting zoo, hits his head, gets blood in his eyes, is momentarily blinded then picked up by the police and taken to the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital. The reader is made aware that Billy has been drug free all his life when the time to line up for medication comes. We learn of Billy’s failed first attempt at masturbation that cauterizes his libido, relegating him to seemingly permanent virginity as his mother tells him the reason Kennedy was shot was that he’d committed such a heinous act that the Lord’s attention was diverted away from protecting the president. Part two is a maddening walk down Billy’s memory lane reiterating how he’d been discovered as a painter, his love for art dealer/father figure Max and best friend Denny. It’s laden with flashbacks to childhood where Billy questions his sexuality as it is solidifying. Billy is experiencing painter’s block though a show looms in the near future. Themes of loneliness, isolation, reclusion and anxiety surface time and again. In the third and last section Billy has his final art show, waxes on about funding for the arts and has a failed confrontation with Marta who refuses to stay with him. At its best, The Petting Zoo attempts to be a contemporary romance. Here, I mean romance in the medieval sense, where an errant knight must remove himself from the everyday and immerse himself in a world tinged with elements of fantasy while going on a journey. At its worst, it’s an overly indulgent and over worked collection of stories relayed in an anecdotal manner that digresses too often from the main narrative thread. Although The Petting Zoo is set in late 1980s New York, time is ambiguous in the novel and it suffers from not being firmly grounded in a concrete year. Because time is ambiguous, the New York described in the novel lacks in subtle details which would bring the era Billy exists in to life. While Forced Entries is a memoir and not a novel, it’s fair to say that it’s a brilliant and fun description of the New York Downtown scene of the early 70s. The Petting Zoo would have benefitted from an infusion of zany characters and parodies of iconic locations but instead Carroll’s protagonist seems afraid of interacting with the fictional world which he inhabits. That being said, and fully aware that my opinion is laden with sentimentality, I don’t dislike the novel.
It’s a sweltering summer Sunday in 2007. I’m making the rounds at the Brooklyn Book Festival. It’s late in the day, perhaps 5PM. I haven’t attended any of the panels being too busy surveying wares at booths and a bit intimidated by the hordes entering and leaving the courthouse on Joralemon Street, its tall stone steps lined with civilians, its marble interiors glutted with crowds. I have to use the bathroom. I’ve hydrated by sucking down two 1.5 liter bottles of Poland Spring well aware that plastic bottles are bad for the environment. I make my way up the steps and through the crowd. Once I get to the main level, I start turning right to the narrow hall that leads to rooms which house panels directly across from the women’s room. There’s a line forming for whatever panel is up next. I haven’t bothered to check the schedule. I weave in and out of people packed together bumping into one another. I call on all the training I got negotiating crowds at shows as a kid while trying to make it up front to the stage to see the band. I have blinders on and my destination is nearly in reach when someone calls my name and gently touches my left elbow. I turn somewhat startled, definitely over-stimulated by the day and wide eyed, “Aaron!” I squeal, smiling. Aaron Cometbus casually recrosses his arms having got my attention. He smiles out of the corner of his mouth and leans against some random folding table that somebody has forgotten to remove. “Hey. Margarita.” “Hey!” I reply. “Are you waiting on line for a panel? What are you up to, Aaron?” I ask. He pauses, then smirks and coolly nods to a snaking line before saying, “I’m here to meet Jim Carroll women.” Both our heads turn to survey the long line leading up to the door of the room where the panel will be held. We see women in their twenties with bangs dyed maroon, as well as women in their forties with bleached and blue streaks in their hair. They are adorned. They wear black, have fishnet sleeves, carry studded leather purses. We begin chuckling simultaneously then laughing audibly. “I didn’t know that Jim Carroll was reading here. Aaron. O, I really like his writing! God, I haven’t thought of him in years.” “Yeah, you should come.” “I don’t think that I can, still have a couple of publishers to see. What’s the topic anyway?” “The work in progress,” Aaron replies. “I remember now. He’s been writing that novel since the dawn of time. I wonder if it’s finished?” We wave to one another and I wander off to the restroom just as the room where the panel is to be held empties of spectators from the last talk and begins to fill up with Jim Carroll women. I try to peek in but can’t see anyone at the panelist’s table. I look back at Aaron and smile before ducking into the women’s room where there’s a blessedly short line.
The topic of the panel was the work in progress and the panelists were Joe Meno, Jim Carroll and Gloria Naylor. Naylor was a no-show. Joe Meno, very much the professional, read his piece then kicked it over to Jim Carroll. Carroll had arrived with a large stack of coffee stained pages. He prolonged the reading with a rambling introduction. Once he started reading his chosen excerpt he couldn’t finish because he couldn’t find the final pages of his chapter. He began rummaging through loose pages. Unable to find the missing pages he decided that he’d sing a song instead. At some point he was informed that the panel was going overtime. He kept trying to salvage the reading but wasn’t able to. He appeared different, much older, no longer the enfant terrible. When his microphone was cut he protested. What I know about the panel I heard Joe Meno recount at a gathering later that day. Aaron Cometbus observed, “Jim Carroll didn’t understand the power he had. He didn’t understand that we were all there to see him and there for him.” Brenda Coultas reminded me later, “You remember what he was like. He’d call the office at the Poetry Project and keep you on the phone forever telling those great stories.” Jim Carroll didn’t have a sense of the basic fiber difference that exists between the laid – back atmosphere of The Poetry Project and the large scale efficiency of The Brooklyn Book Festival. It’s the difference between Corso interrupting Ginsberg and a Festival employee interrupting Jim Carroll by cutting his mic. Simultaneously, something must have been terribly wrong as Carroll was by no means a novice writer doing his first ever reading. In the end, a person’s life does not hinge on one event although a writer’s identity may hinge on one book, whether that book is The Petting Zoo for Jim Carroll remains to be seen.