On Forgetting or Why I Can’t Remember Interviewing Allen Ginsberg
by Bryan Monte
Whilst moving house two years ago, I unexpectedly came across some old photographs from the late 1980s/early 1990s taken by San Francisco photographer, Rink. They were in a box I had packed and sealed in 1993 before moving from San Francisco to the Netherlands and hadn’t opened at my next three addresses. The photographs were of people I had worked with and/or interviewed when I was a radio reporter and a writing instructor. This was the time of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, when many support organizations, such as the AIDS Foundation, Shanti, and Project Open Hand, were in their early days and still working out of old warehouses and donated shops.
Sorting through these pictures of writers, painters, comics, politicians, and other public personalities from this time, I came across a photo of Allen Ginsberg surrounded by three men. Ginsberg, with his trademark, rumpled suit, bald head, and salt-and-pepper beard, was easily recognizable. From the camera angle, however, I could only see the back of the heads of the three people surrounding him. One head, with a whorl of hair right at the crown, however, struck me as a bit familiar, but I still couldn’t identify the person.
Thankfully, the photo was the first of series of what are referred to as contact sheets—positive photos in strips the size of negatives. As the photographer circled around the group of men, the face of the man with the whorl of hair who held a notepad and who was asking Ginsberg a question came into view—and it was me! But how could that be? How could I have forgot such an important meeting with the then pope of leftist gay, American poetry? And more importantly, why had I forgot just this meeting?
It wasn’t the first time I’d met Ginsberg. That was in mid-1980s when I was a graduate student at Brown University. That evening, Ginsberg sat alone on Sayles Hall’s wooden stage, reciting his poetry for hundreds of enraptured students, including sections from Howl, as he accompanied himself on a zither. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to talk to him and to give him a copy of my gay magazine, No Apologies. Ginsberg was gracious and genuine and he took his time to talk with everyone unlike the dozen or so other well-known American or British celebrity poets I’d met previously. Soon thereafter, I received a review copy of his Collected Poems, 1945-1980 from his publisher. All these details from an even earlier meeting I remembered, but not the second time four years later in San Francisco that had been completely and inexplicably wiped from my memory. How could this be?
I’ve since researched the causes of long-term memory loss especially since I feared it might be due to my multiple sclerosis. I found plenty of articles on short-term memory loss, (Where are my keys? Oh, we had an appointment!, etc.), but nothing really conclusive about long-term memory loss related to MS. In fact, the causes of this type of “forgetting” were usually due to head injuries for those in their 20s and 30s (due to vehicular accidents, combat—including post-traumatic stress—and injuries from domestic violence), strokes for those in their 40s and 50s (due to high blood pressure, overwhelming jobs and/or debts, raising children or divorce), and dementia for those in their golden years.
I don’t remember suffering any blunt trauma before, during or after this period. In addition, I don’t think my MS related injuries or medications are the cause. In general, MS is tracked in the brain as well as in the spinal cord through lesions that are created when the body’s immune system starts attacking the nerve endings’ myelin coatings. Most of this damage, reportedly, only affects short-term and not long-term memory. (Although it seems logical that if a lesion short circuits part of my brain affecting how my legs and hands work, then it might also have some effect on locating, storing or transferring information in the scarred area).
No, according to popular wisdom, MS and physical trauma are not likely the causes of this missing memory. Considering the time period and location involved, ground zero in the AIDS pandemic, however, I think it’s more likely it’s due to post-traumatic stress syndrome. You see, unlike Tony Kushner’s Angels in America where only one really bad guy, Roy Cohn, dies on screen and one drag queen gets a fabulous, send-off complete with professional Sicilian mourners and an Afro-American gospel choir, my experience with AIDS in San Francisco was a lot less colourful and the dying were everywhere—literally hundreds of them. These included at least two dozen friends and acquaintances I knew from grammar school, high school, and college, men from work, church, writing groups, support groups, bars and political clubs—and two ex-partners.
Before combination therapy became common in the mid-90s, men I knew sero-converted, fell ill or died every month. According to the official statistics, the mortality rate was 50 per cent. If it wasn’t you, it was the man next to you—an epidemic of rapturous proportions. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken, the other left; two women grinding at the mill; one will be taken, the other left. (Matthew 24:20) In my building, however, the mortality rate was even higher—two out of every three or 67 per cent.
The weekly gay newspapers were filled with pages and pages of obituaries of men in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s. Living at ground zero, it was almost impossible to go to work, buy groceries, get my hair cut, buy clothes, or rent a video without seeing at least one, slow, emaciated man, too young to be leaning on a Zimmer frame or a cane, carrying a big bag of prescriptions from the corner drugstore or supermarket pharmacy. Even out at Ocean Beach, where I lived miles from the Castro, there wasn’t a week when I jogged along the breakwall that I didn’t see a man sitting in his car with an IV hanging from a sun visor, watching the sunset between the Farallon Islands, forty miles out in the Pacific Ocean.
Other images that still remain in my brain were the visits by out-of-town relatives who were conspicuous by their accents or dress. I remember a mother talking in a Southern drawl walking down Market Street, her son wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, his face aswarm with purple, Kaposi Sarcoma lesions. Or a farmer father with a sun-burned, red neck and a John Deere green and yellow baseball cap, sitting in Just Desserts on Market Street, his pre-teenage son enjoying his cheesecake seemingly unaware of the tired, pained look on his father’s face. I also remember stories of dying lovers giving their possessions away before their out-of-state families, many of whom they hadn’t heard from for years, arrived just days before they died. Immediately after the funerals some relatives then emptied their sons’ shared apartments and bank accounts as if they had been living alone. One man, whose partner died of AIDS, came home one day from work to discover his apartment plundered by his dead partner’s family. They took all furniture—even a sofa he had purchased on credit and was still paying for.
And those who died came from different walks of life. Ken worked in my insurance company’s purchasing department. He came back from his experimental cowpox treatments mooing in good spirits even though he knew he’d be feverish and barely able to work the next day. Jerome (whom I knew in first grade as Jerry), was the mistress of Wednesday night, jockstrap jello wrestling at Club Chaos. He painted miniature, nail polish portraits until he went blind from CMV. Mike designed the cover of the magazine I gave to Ginsberg at Brown. Two years later walking through Golden Gate Park, I thought I saw him and called his name, but he kept going. A few days later I asked someone who knew Mike if he’d seen him lately. The man paused for a minute, then told me that after a long, difficult illness, Mike had passed away a year ago.
One soon learned not to enquire about the missing. When the Falsettos, the gay a capella group, returned after a six month absence from the radio show, I made that mistake. “What happened to X?” I asked. My question was met with stares and stony silence. Anyone who was out of sight for more than a month or two was considered ill or dying, so many died so suddenly or went back home to spend their last days. (In fact, even thirty years later, I’m still being recontacted by friends afraid they would discover, via an Internet search, that I was dead).
In the late 80s/early 90s, multiple medications, hospitalisations, disappearances and funerals became normal. One attended a funeral (now euphemistically referred to as a memorial service) every other month or changed plans so someone else could. Funerals became so frequent that it became common to compare services and wakes for music, attendance and refreshments. And undertakers (now referred to as bereavement councillors) placed their advertisements in the gay papers next to the pages of obituaries.
The great, the good, the average and the below average, the messy and the fastidious, the courageous and the cowardly, the promiscuous and the monogamous in time were all taken by an illness from which there was no escape and no cure due to powers corporeal or incorporeal. The rich, though, still tried to cheat death by checking into private clinics in Switzerland to have their blood exchanged. The religious made pilgrimages to Loudres, Rome or Israel. All they bought in the end, however from what I could see, were a few more months of suffering. One summer, twenty-five years later, one of my eighty-year-old church friends complained to me that she’d attended five funerals in eight months. “You wouldn’t know what that was like!” she snapped. I just stared at her. She immediately apologised.
And if the rising body count (and strangely enough, apartment rents) weren’t traumatic enough, then the jobs in San Francisco began to disappear. My company went through five reorganizations in five years before moving its headquarters to a “cheaper labour market” in Chicago. And with the rounds of corporate restructurings and reorganizations, came the suicides. That’s when the redundancy compensation packets jumped from two weeks to two months to six months to prevent lawsuits.
I made it through the first three restructurings, though I started looking for other work during the second. At this time I also held three, minor, evening jobs working as a technical writing instructor, an English as a Second Language tutor and a writing workshop leader. In addition, I occasionally sat in on focus groups for Silicon Valley software firms, so I thought I might have some chance to find something else. But in three years, the closest I ever came to finding a new job in San Francisco was an e-mail promise of an interview for a six-month, no health benefits, supervisor’s position at a pharmaceutical firm’s call centre an hour’s drive down the road in Palo Alto. And I was informed by Human Resources at my insurance company that my unemployment compensation from the state would be only half my monthly salary.
I remember one cattle-call interview for a now prominent, world-wide, Internet company (which made the ADSL box I now use at home) that took place in Silicon Valley, for which I had to take a half day off work at my own expense. Applicants were made to stand in queues of 10 to 15 people in a large hall until they were pulled out at what seemed like random (I still don’t know what their criteria was). If selected, you were brought over to a table and still standing, asked to explain who you were and what you could offer the company. I stood in the queue for more than an hour until my lower-back pain flared up. I knew from experience that if I didn’t sit down immediately, I wouldn’t be able to work the next day. I left without being interviewed. At home that evening, lying in a warm bath that sometimes, but not always, eased my pain, I saw my future and realized I wasn’t going to find another job in San Francisco—even though I still kept trying.
At any rate, due to my present amnesia concerning the late 80s/early 90s, my journals are becoming increasingly interesting—as if they’ve been written by someone else as time fades, distorts, or even buries some facts. Reading them three decades later, I no longer feel guilty about not getting back together with one attractive, intelligent former boyfriend (he’d slept with five men that week) or with another (who’d had someone on the side during our “relationship”) once I moved back to San Francisco after graduate school in 1987. My journals from that time help me remember things correctly and put my doubts to rest.
In fact, when I first returned to San Francisco in 1987, a gay politician warned me: “Assume every one is (HIV) positive until you know otherwise.” It was good advice and I acted accordingly. Maybe that and distributing some of the first AIDS information pamphlets in 1982, (years before the government would print or distribute any) at the Gay Freedom Day Parade saved me. Four out of the five people who passed out that information are still alive today. Or maybe it was my overactive immune system, which causes my MS, my white blood cells attacking my nerves thinking they’re enemy invaders. At any rate according to the extensive blood tests I had the last time I was hospitalized, I’m still HIV negative.
Even more interesting about my journals from this period are the gaps of days, weeks or sometimes months between entries when I was too busy working or looking for work, out on my beat looking for a story, writing my news scripts, or preparing and correcting students’ lessons or papers when I should have been sitting down collecting my thoughts and putting my poems and stories on paper. I wonder what I could have written then if I had held a steady job and found an emotionally and financially stable partner in San Francisco in my 30s. Instead, I spent that decade and most of my early 40s trying to survive physically and financially, making a new life in a new country, trying to outrun AIDS, and get as much living in as possible before it caught up with me. (With so many dead friends, I just assumed, I wouldn’t make it).
Ironically I was blind-sided by another unexplainable and incurable disease: MS. Now disabled and out of work but finally with time to write, I wonder whether I will be able to finally write my stories through my daily fog of forgetfulness, fatigue, clumsiness and pain caused by my illness and medications, and how many other important events in my life, like interviewing Ginsberg, I’ve also forgot.