TALLY: AN INTUITIVE LIFE
All Things That Matter Press 2013
It all began with an invitation, this intersection of lives. Rogue invited me to meet him in Greenwich Village. We came together on the corner of Greenwich Avenue and West 10th Street.
Rogue’s dark eyes had a deep inner glow, his smile a wild spark. “I need to prepare you, Erin, for what you’ll see.” Rogue’s voice was hesitant but melodious. “PJ was a recluse for some time before I met him.”
I sensed it was a dare to enter a new world.
Rogue took out a key and opened the side door of a three-story colonial building. Steep stairs led along the outer skin of brick wall to the upper floors. Rogue’s sandals and my sneakers fell lightly, but the stairs creaked with age and neglect. A narrow hall with a rickety wooden railing stopped at the only door on the top floor.
Rogue’s call was laughing, tongue-in-cheek, but I heard a note of euphoria. “PJ.”
I followed him into a Village garret stripped bare of any amenities.
“I’ve brought someone to meet you.”
A tall, gaunt man with a bent hawk nose and intense blue eyes peered at me. His whimsical smile was wreathed in a white beard and curving moustache. His white hair fell back from his forehead and almost to the collar of his light blue dress shirt.
The garret was every artist’s twilight nightmare. Walls were scuffed, doors scarred and furniture scourged down to the flesh. In the cluttered front room, art claimed every perspective.
PJ’s long bony fingers swept over drifting stacks of books, papers, paintings, typewriter ribbons, photographs and found objects, all jumbled together, everything melting into some other form, a rebellious lack of form. “Dali would have had an idea of the melodramatic squalor in which I live.”
I looked about in amazement and distress.
“This is how I’ll end up.” Rogue cupped his chin; his smile a concupiscence of anxiety and merriment. “I’m drawn to old age because I want to know how it all adds up, or does not add up, at the end.”
Two World War I gas masks hung from a post by PJ’s bed. I wondered aloud to Rogue, “For a pair of lovers? Or paranoid lovers?”
PJ hovered near a battered desk and primordial Royal typewriter. Behind him, bookshelves lined the long outside wall. Typewriter paper boxes were stacked on them.
I picked up one box. “What is this?” I blew the dust off.
“That’s The Document.” He passed a hand over the collection. “My lifelong stream of consciousness work.”
Inside each box were hundreds of pages of onionskin paper filled with words, single-spaced and in a tiny font.
“For the first two years,” he said, “everything I wrote was rationalization. After that I wrote to renew my innocence.”
In the aura of a fading Village, with PJ’s guidance, Rogue and I began cleaning dirt and debris away, clearing a space around PJ’s bed and desk.
As we began to make order out of the rubble, the deeper we dug the more the vivacious past leaped out. I sorted through photographs of PJ as a young man, his wife and daughter, and old postcards, pamphlets, letters and theater flyers.
I showed a small handout to Rogue:
It is raining love in Greenwich Village (one time the capital of romantic love). Like autumn leaves falling, pieces of yellow paper flutter down to settle in doorways or on sidewalks. About three inches square, they bear, printed in large letters, a dirty four-letter word. Under it is a very artistic monogram: PJ. What other can the obscene word be but: LOVE (a word of limitless obscurity.)
I was puzzled. Why is love an obscene word?
There is a rumor going ’round that anyone, collecting a thousand pieces of these litterings, on delivering them to the WORDS office will get the prize of a thousand (useless) dollars. PJ (the provocateur of this misdemeanor) confronted with this rumor, smiled, and spoke with love: We’re out to litter the world with love. He continued with a grin, No one can deliver a thousand pieces to the WORDS office because we are underground. No office. We seek litterers all over the world. We have the small papers, printed on one side: LOVE/PJ. These may be handed out to people wherever gathered, parties, theater lobbies, bank lines, buses …
“Those are his Love Tokens,” Rogue said. “In the early 1960s, he left them around the Village, in bookstores, cafés, for anyone to pick up. It was a kind of performance art. That’s when he was the Professor of Love.”
I shifted to look at PJ. He had been watching us in silence. “Do you know how The Old Man met Rogue?”
“No,” I said, loudly, realizing he did not hear well.
He folded his long body into a straight-backed wooden chair. “One Christmas Eve I went out in a terrible snowstorm to a poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church in the Bouwerie. Rogue did the same thing, independently. And there we stood on the steps of the church and read together that the night’s reading had been cancelled.”
He invited Rogue to his garret for a glass of wine. That was how the relationship of the Aging Bohemian and his equally bearded protégé began.
“Are there coincidences in your life?”
Yes, I nodded.
“There were in mine,” PJ said. “It’s incredible how my life became entangled with others, seemed to work in and out of others.”
We sorted through his books, broadsides, letters, book layouts, and pamphlets. The design work was simple and elegant, with an economy of style.
“It was a new American, non-British, style of typography and printing design,” PJ explained, “with spare, clean lines.” He showed us some of the books he had designed. “I chose the typeface and illustrations, the kind of paper, and determined the placement of text on the page, and designed covers or slipcases for them.”
“What made you a book designer?”
PJ said, “I spent hours in the Atlanta Library reading the latest literary journals. I fell in love with an illustration of a woman in Bruno’s Weekly, a literary magazine published in the Village. I found The Quill there, too, so I was already following the Village in my teens.”
So, I thought, that was how he came to Greenwich Village.
“I didn’t come directly to the Village.” He was given some money by a church to go to Yale to study at the art school. After one semester, though, lack of funds meant he could not continue.
“I fled to Woodstock from New Haven after a romance went sour. I was a fresh young man from the Old South and I couldn’t kiss a girl unless we were engaged. So she said all right, we’re engaged and proceeded to give me the whole works. Then she started taking up with a roommate of mine and to settle it, she proposed that we take a trip around the world and whoever made it would have her. She had a cousin or uncle who was a sea captain. I lasted one bitter cold morning in dry dock. It was very cold and I was fore and I went aft and the captain said why have you left your post? He said, get off, you’re fired.”
PJ reflected. “It was in Provincetown that I first read Playboy.”
“Named after Synge’s play, Playboy of the Western World. I wrote to the publisher, Egmont Arens. He said, Come and see me when you come to town.”
But it was not immediately after arriving in the Village that he approached Egmont Arens. He did visit the Washington Square Bookshop on 8th Street, owned by Arens and his wife Jo Bell, but he “was too shy to be known to Egmont ’til the following summer.”
Egmont had set up his printing press and office in the back room. It was a jobber, large, and centered in the room. Artists and writers came to sit on the benches along the walls and exchange their views on articles and topics for the magazine. Playboy was dedicated to a new wave of writers and artists: e. e. cummings, Djuna Barnes, Ben Hecht, Lola Ridge and D.H. Lawrence, Alexander Brook, Harold Brodsky, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Rockwell Kent.
“I came to the Village to study painting,” PJ said, “but I was soon distracted. Egmont was my first connection with the intellectual people of the time. He became a strong influence in my total life, a source of direction.”
He “transited” into the art of fine press printing, working for Arens’ Flying Stag Press. There he helped print books and portfolios of art.
After his marriage a few years later, he worked at Alfred Knopf. The job lasted one year, with the “soon to be prominent publisher” telling him, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” Of course, he wanted to prove Knopf wrong.
During the next fifteen years, PJ moved between Woodstock and the Village, publishing and printing broadsides, books and newsletters. Woodstock, he said, was a “suburb” of Greenwich Village’s Bohemia. Hervey White hired him to be the editor and advertising manager of Hue & Cry, Woodstock’s artistic newspaper.
For a decade he worked as a book designer for Van Rees Press in the Village, designing thirty books a week for trade and university presses.
“I’m not able to do book design anymore,” PJ said, “and I lost interest years ago.”
Seeing pages piled next to his typewriter, I asked about them, and he said he continued to write, even though he was going blind.
“I can help you,” I offered. “I’ll read what you type and re-type it.”
With shaking hands he pulled a page from the typewriter.
“Can you read that?”
I sat down and started to read, deciphering the text. He had gotten off the right line on the keyboard but I was able to reconstruct the words.
After we left PJ’s garret, I asked Rogue, “What does PJ stand for?”
“He makes up a lot of names, but this one is from his real name: Paul Johnston. He refers to himself as PJ, the Old Man, and others, in the third person.”
Rogue ran the poetry program at San Caliente, a midtown church, where I worked behind the scenes in the theater and volunteered, with a strong draft from the church administrator, to assist Rogue with the Poetry Celebration.
Summer brought Rogue and I out to the streets. We strolled through the ways and byways of the Village, east and west, spending eight or twelve hours at a time together. We were the new Bohemians.
After wine, tea or coffee at O’John’s or The Riviera, and stopping at cafés for salad or hamburgers, we visited PJ. We left him to attend poetry readings or search for delectable pieces of text in bookstores, ending the night in bars upscale or dive where poets, writers and other vagabonds played pool, parodied their own and other’s poetry, and fell down drunk.
Rogue and I became friends very fast, more rapidly than I ever had experienced before. We talked for hours about poets and poetry, and at the outdoor cafés he introduced me to poets and writers. The weeks were filled with new people, images, sensations and a feeling of lagging behind in taking it all in. I was saturated. Rogue never seemed to stop or rest.
One afternoon, we decided to meet PJ. I got off the subway and waited for Rogue. On the next corner we could see PJ sitting outside with his Fair Weather Gallery. On days when the weather was good, he set up his artwork on the street near his apartment, by the library or in the park.
“Let’s circle around,” Rogue said, “and come at him from different directions.”
So we circled around the block and walked up to PJ at the same time from opposite directions as if by coincidence.
PJ looked from one of us to the other, and laughed. He was bemused by our interest in his past, but eager, even restless, to work on current projects.
But we were curious. “How many places have you lived in the Village?”
“All over. I can recall four or five.”
“Can we walk around and you can point them out?”
It was a good excuse to walk in the Village. In the evenings when it was cooler, PJ in a beige turtleneck sweater, long white hair flowing, accompanied us. He pointed out quaint brownstones where he had once lived, or friends lived, and one where he had rented a room for assignations after his divorce because his garret was “already in disorder.”
“A roué,” Rogue said.
I smiled; that was a word I heard PJ use.
“Vivi and I came down from Woodstock and rented a place in the Minettas from Don Miller—another story,” he said, “and I set up my press in the basement. The Alder’s Gate Press.”
We walked down Eighth Street, passing the hotel where Bob Dylan had lived, and turned down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square Park. On the south side, we meandered.
“Someone tipped us off that this guy named Henry Miller had taken a house down on Minetta Lane,” PJ related. “Now the Minettas was a sort of red-light district. Third Street over to Macdougal and down to Bleecker Street. Miller took this house over and thought he would rent it out to young writers.”
We walked through the narrow cobblestone streets on our way to Bleecker.
“So Dreiser came down there one time and he was nosing around and Miller says, ‘Wouldn’t you like to have an apartment with me?’ And Dreiser said, ‘Well you know, I’m a writer and I’m not making very much money just now, so I don’t know whether it would be wise.’ Miller says, ‘Oh, you’re a writer, I’m a writer, too.’”
PJ laughed, “After a while, Miller begins to feel Dreiser is putting on a big act for him, and he probably was. He was telling Miller how he was setting up a benefit for young writers soon. And Miller was getting overwrought with these big stories Dreiser was telling him. Miller said, ‘I’ve heard this story a thousand times. They’re writers and they’re going to get published and all this sort of rot.’”
“Lo and behold,” PJ said, “Dreiser was a writer.”
We came out onto Bleecker. I thought of Bob Dylan. Hearing this success story and thinking of Dylan, I felt confident of my own success.
We stopped at an outdoor café. PJ said, one day, driving back to New York, his wife saw a house on a bluff overlooking the river.
“She had to have it.” He bought the house, but not long afterward, the marriage went up in flames.
“You met your wife in Woodstock,” Rogue said.
“I was coming from the Post Office along the road that led to Overlook Mountain and I see in the distance a full blown woman. She walks toward me and as she approaches closely, I stop. She walks by with her head in the air. I said to myself, well, she’s the one I’m going to marry.”
He returned to the city. “A bunch of us were lolling around the bookshop when I saw the young woman come in. At first I thought she was alone, but then I saw her with an older man. It was kind of an electric thrill that went through me when I thought he might be her boyfriend or husband. All the next week I waited, hoping she would appear once more. Instead, the man came back and I began a conversation with him. It turns out he and his wife had split up, and he was a progressive sort who liked literature and the arts, but his wife was a small town girl who wanted a home, children and a garden. They had a daughter named Vivian, the young woman I saw, who visited him in the city. She was only 14.”
“How old were you?”
“I was 22. I asked her father if I might write to his daughter and he said yes, but you know she’s very young. And so I started a correspondence and within a year I was asked to visit her. You cannot imagine my excitement, and my dilemma. Should I go?”
Rogue nodded his head. “You did go, of course.”
“What a trip, every hill seemed like a mountain, every turn one too many more. Oh God, I loved her already.”
I flinched. The two men stared at me.
“I mean, women are always portrayed as being this way.”
“Oh no,” PJ said. “She was cool as a cucumber. But by the time I left I had received a furtive kiss from the precocious girl. The first thing I did when I got back to the city was go to see her father. He said I’d have to wait until she was 18.”
“Three years,” Rogue said.
“She was being shipped around from relative to relative. Vivi and I got pretty well disgusted with that. So we eloped. The engineer of the elopement was Egmont Arens. He was an old friend of Rockwell Kent, who had a place in Vermont. She could marry there at sixteen without her parents’ consent. The only crime I could be committing was crossing state lines. We were married by the town clerk. Carl Ruggles played the wedding. The town drunkard was our guest of honor. And instead of her father, Rockwell Kent gave her away.”
Rogue and I left PJ in his garret and went to Rogue’s place, where he made coffee and I looked through his bookcases. He read parts of a novel by PJ called World’s End. It began with: “The world’s end has come and gone, and no one is the wiser.”
The book sounded like an original folk masterpiece. It was very intellectual, but not in the scholarly sense. He detailed the history of “intellectual leadership” in the world from ancient times, to its first weakness, and current decadence.
In another piece, for modern times and minds, PJ had redefined the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They were: the hospital, the telephone company, the power company and your choice of bureaucracy.
In his late 70s, PJ was beginning to bend from the weight of so many years and thoughts warping about in his head like spaceships carrying aliens and exiles. His chest and shoulders curved from trying to turn round on himself, to go back or flee, to see what wreckage he had left behind, at the same time to advance towards death.
“I’ve lived so long, looking like death, because I keep so close to it that death forgets I am here.”
Tally: An Intuitive Life on Amazon/Kindle Paperback $16.95 (check for discounts) and Kindle $5.99. Tally is in Amazon’s Matchbook program, which means you can buy the print book and get the Kindle for just $1.99. Send one as a gift!