In Search of a New and Innocent Life

Chapter 2 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

In PJ’s apartment, Rogue showed me PJ’s fine press work, the hand-colored prints of Joseph Low, and letters to and from typographers, printers and publishers: W. A. Dwiggins, Burton Emmett, Dard Hunter, Eric Gill, Bennett Cerf and Ward Ritchie.

“Who’s Francis Meynell?”

“The founder of Nonesuch Books.” Rogue handed me more letters and broadsides to sort through. “I could do some research on PJ in Woodstock. I’ve been talking to a man who was interested in setting up a poetry reading there.”

“Really?” So far away, I thought.

“I’ve been thinking about moving up there. The city is getting too much for me.”

I hid my surprise and alarm with my silence, focusing my eyes on the documents. In the lamplight my bangs were lit up with red and blonde strains; all the range of colors that made my hair an ever-changing reality: in less light, brown, in more light, strawberry blonde.

Looking at PJ, I wondered what color his hair had been, how he had looked in his early days in the Village, and what he was thinking as we sifted through his much younger life.

Rogue set up an art exhibit for PJ at San Caliente.

PJ prepared a leaflet that said his art “was unique in all the world” and other things that I could not decide were meant to be sincere or satirical.

After hanging the exhibit we ambled down Ninth Avenue to a Spanish restaurant for dinner. For dessert, we went back to PJ’s, then to Washington Square Park. It was crowded on this late May evening. We sat on a bench near the fountain, students and mothers with children scattered about, a spring breeze in the young green leaves.

I took photographs in the park. Rogue was sketching and PJ encouraged him to work intuitively, without preconception, to let it happen.

Rogue was as beautiful as a young Don Juan, with his gleaming auburn hair, brown eyes and sparkling smile. His sketches grew greener and greener as night fell.

I thought we formed a wonderful threesome, two young aspiring artists and an elderly man whose mind was sharper than ours would ever be.

At San Caliente’s reading series, Rogue introduced the poets and small press publishers. He asked me if I would like to meet them, but I preferred to stay by the door handing out flyers. I was too shy to introduce the evening’s featured poets, much less read my own work. Instead, I took it all in with stunned dismay or awe.

At one reading the featured poet entertained us with ribald, working class poems. Jake was a heavy set young man with stringy light brown hair. He invited everyone to a book party at his East Village bookstore the next Saturday.

I heard Rogue say, “That’s Erin.”

“That’s Erin?” Jake gave me a surprised and appreciative look. He approached me and urged me to come to his party to “Celebrate Spring.”

My friend Rue and I arrived a half hour late. Light flowed from the small storefront, moving with the people as they moved. The place was packed. Literary magazines swayed like loincloths on a clothesline in the large plate glass window.

“Where have you been?” Jake roared at me, looking like a lost hippo among flamingoes.

The crowd milled around free-standing stacks of magazines, comic books, and small press chapbooks. The walls were lined with metal shelves displaying arcane, esoteric, famous and once-banned literary books. Two fluorescent light fixtures with exposed bulbs hovered over us like time-lapsed explosions.

People in the crowd kidded Jake, “Where’s Ted Berrigan? Did you even talk to him, or were you drunk? How many mushrooms did you eat?”

“He said he’d be here,” Jake bellowed, his face flushed by stress or drinking.

Rogue arrived with PJ, who lingered tall and frail by the door. Someone brought him a chair. His smile was genuine, childlike. He was offered food and wine, which he accepted.

I introduced Rue to PJ and Rogue.

Jake rousted his large body through the crowd. “You never spoke to him,” a man said to Jake.

“He was here.” Jake’s blue shirt was open two buttons down and sweat poured down his face. “Promised me he’d read tonight.”

We waited, we ate the cheese and drank the wine. I drank more wine.

“He’ll be here at midnight,” Jake announced. “He just called and he’s on his way.”

“He forgot,” a friend of Jake’s shouted. “They’re just as high as we are.”

Everyone was high, whether on wine, pot or excitement at being at an impromptu, late night reading by one, or perhaps two, of the last of the great Beat poets. Where Ted Berrigan went, Allen Ginsberg might also. Maybe he could be persuaded to speak.

Rogue told me PJ had to leave because of his health. Rue had to catch the last bus to New Jersey at midnight. We hailed a cab on Second Avenue and all climbed in.

Rue and I sat in the back with PJ. He was looking for his nitroglycerin. “It was a good party,” he said. “I’m glad I came.”

***

A few days later, Rogue and I met at PJ’s. We thrashed our way to the unwashed front windows. The Jefferson Library wavered beyond them like The House of Usher.

“The Women’s House of Detention used to be there.” PJ pointed to a garden behind the library, an Impressionist vision through the years of dust.

He hung his shirts from the mantel in a line in front of the fireplace. “All bohemians do that,” he said. “They never use the closet for clothes.”

In the hallway all sizes of matting boards leaned against one wall. A large skylight in the bathroom caked with grime let in almost no light, but that was the landlord’s responsibility. Very few repairs had been done on his apartment, partly because he would not let workers who were strangers in, and because he was a rent-controlled tenant paying a pittance each month and the landlord was waiting him out.

Next to a small round kitchen table, an ironing board stood upright, covered with papers, letters, bowls of paper clips, nails, rubber bands, screws, and small linoleum blocks used for print designs. A tray held ballpoint and felt pens, screwdrivers and assorted tools. On one shelf rested an ancient cutting and splicing machine for films.

I helped PJ line up bottles of pills and tubes of skin ointment on the counter by the gas stove. On dingy once white walls a calendar with a full-lipped smiling woman and a drawing of PJ by Rogue flirted beside a room thermometer.

The brick inner wall of the front room featured an ad of a beautiful woman half-clad in a bath towel.

PJ saw me looking and said, “Olga,” he said, “O.”

The famous O, his last love. He had written thousands of pages to her and about her.

There were boxes in the front room labeled “O,” and others labeled: Loves, Early Loves, and Later Loves.

At first, the Bohemian lifestyle shocked him but, in fact, he was running from his puritanical upbringing. “I came to Greenwich Village in search of a new and innocent life. At the age of 18, I was already leaving behind a guilty past.”

“Guilty? So young?”

“I had a tumultuous relationship with my mother,” he explained. “She had an unnatural love for me, all her life. We shared the same bed until I was twelve. I had strange dreams as a child that may have had a factual basis.”

“But that’s not your fault.”

“I started to watch the girl across the street and walk naked around the house. Finally, I went outside without a stitch of clothing and walked down the street. A black woman I knew worked in one of the houses saw me. She didn’t blink an eye and told me, ‘Young man, go home.’ I didn’t know it then, but I was becoming an exhibitionist and a voyeur.”

As we cleaned the place, I found piles of newspaper and magazine clippings about pornography: sex and violence, theater and nudity, art and censorship. Many images were lurid and over-the-top. I was disgusted and thought of walking out on PJ. I mean, it’s sex. Just do it.

There were stacks of nude photographs of men and women that PJ had taken. He also made erotic and pornographic films; the reels were scattered around.

“I was in a porno film once,” he said. He knew other filmmakers and went to see their movies. I picked up early editions of Screw and several volumes of Casanova’s memoirs.

“Casanova wrote his memoirs in his old age,” PJ said. “How much exaggeration do you think there might be in an old man’s memory?”

Sexual exaggeration. I looked around. That’s what it is. What had he been looking for in all this? His youth of wild passion? Compensation for lost love?

He told me Egmont Arens and Jo Bell had been the previous tenants of the apartment. Jo Bell had been involved in a court case about obscenity in literature.

“Apparently she had the look and demeanor of innocence,” PJ said, “because the judge dismissed the charges. It was a big issue then,” he said. “Ulysses was banned, and later Lady Chatterley’s Lover and A Farewell To Arms.

I was surprised to hear about A Farewell To Arms.

Rogue told me PJ talked about the galleys and handling the plates for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He had done some research, “The book was banned in December 1929.”

“So that means PJ would’ve worked on it probably in the 1930s.”

“He said he took the books to Frances Steloff at the Gotham Book Mart. I went up there and spoke to her, and she asked, ‘How is Paul Johnston?’” Rogue smiled. “I said he was clinging to his sense of humor.”

 ***

Egmont and his wife were divorced and one day, passing by, PJ saw a note on the downstairs door saying that the garret was for rent. The rent was low and he took the apartment. Gas and electric, though, ran five times higher than the rent. A few years ago, he told me, he had an outstanding bill to Con Ed for several thousand dollars. One October when it was beginning to get cold, his gas and electric were shut off on a Friday afternoon. There was nothing he could do about it until Monday. Because he was going blind, he could not read their bills or notices threatening discontinuing service.

After this, the city found him eligible for visiting nurse and home care. But PJ refused to let the women in the front room or give him much nursing attention. The home care attendant kept the bathroom and kitchen clean, basically housekeeping, and had to wait for him to leave the apartment before she could charge into the front room and change the sheets.

Rogue was setting up a contribution of PJ’s fine press work with the New York Public Library. PJ would receive some much-needed compensation.

After I cleaned the kitchen and swept the hallway, I moved to the front room, clearing paths through the rubble, sorting out trash for PJ to inspect and agree to discard. We gathered like things together, making sense of years of artwork and book design.

There were handwritten letters.

“Elmer Adler?”

The Colophon,” PJ answered. “It was a quarterly for book collectors.”

Into a box went Adler. “One from D. B. Updike? And Bruce Rogers?”

“Bruce Rogers,” PJ said, “who in 1899 or so he was working for Houghton Mifflin. Updike was a very careful and thoughtful printer. Both Updike and Bruce Rogers had nobody to lead them in their styles, but themselves. They had only the history of good printing to look back on, and they were making their contributions to a movement that started in the 1400s, well, I would say, 1500, began to take on a very distinctive style and even after …

“See, I researched all this in the New York Public Library. The library was my alma mater. I used to go in there all the time, spend the day and days and days in there, looking up old specimen books and old printing work. I found an unknown New York printer who had, like Updike, a style of neat printing, and they were printing dissertations of students and politicians and poetry. In the 18th Century, in the 1790s, to put some style in their work they were publishing dissertations. T & J Swords. So I researched and did a story on them. I did all that research in the library. When Updike began in Boston in 1900s, early 1900s, he had nothing to guide him but his own good taste in printing. He was not imitating because there was no style in printing. Rogers was up against the same thing.”

His research and correspondence led to his book, Biblio-Typographica: A Survey of Contemporary Fine Printing Style, published by Covici-Friede in 1930.

While I collected his fine press work, placing them in clean boxes and labeling them, I admired the book designs, the exquisite fonts and covers and binding.

“All that ended when I died in the hospital,” PJ told me.

PJ’s innocence ripened for forty years before it was plucked from the vine. “I plucked it,” he said, “but isn’t that often the case? I was in an affair, and so was my wife. I thought I was in love and I sensed that my wife needed to be free of me. But after the separation it became unbearable. I’d made the worst mistake of my life. The affair ended, of course.”

When he realized he was losing his wife, he became ill and was hospitalized; surgery on his heart led to complications. In the hospital, he physically died and was revived by the doctors.

Afterward, he began The Document. In the early years of writing, he was often depressed. “You do not want death, no matter how much you cry that you do. Yet you are fighting against life. You fight it with illness. You fight it emotionally, being unwilling to love others, to be full of love and attract others who could and should be loved. You have discovered that your lassitude and illness is an evasion of the necessity of making your life worthy of yourself.”

After a pause in which PJ sat with his hands loosely clasped, he said with a hint of a grin, “I wonder how many who wish for death in their youth, at the first stroke of disintegration, live to be a hundred?”

***

Jake told me he was going on vacation, and asked me to work several days at his East Village bookstore. For the job, I wore my best blue jeans and a short-sleeved Asian-style blouse. On the last day, Rogue came by, lounging among the book stacks. He looked Continental Communist in lightweight European-style pants and a workman’s pullover shirt. We walked as evening brushed the Village with its paints. To escape the summer heat, we stopped to browse in air-conditioned stores along the way. I had a drink at a vegetarian restaurant on Spring Street that made me woozy.

As darkness fell we saw the lights of the Our Lady of Pompeii Festival bloom above the low-rise tenements and brownstones. We bought calzones, and one for PJ, and strolled up Sixth Avenue to his apartment.

In the night, with people swirling by, PJ occupied a lawn chair on the corner of Greenwich Avenue.

I asked him why he had not brought out the Fair Weather Gallery and he said he had just come out to cool off.

His face lit up when we handed him the calzone.

***

Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble: 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!

Tally: An Intuitive Life, Excerpt from Chapter 1

PJ_1979“But by God, two people have met in the maelstrom, by the fragile thread of human involvement, and intuitively (shall I imagine it?) become one.”

Chapter 1, Entangled

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.”

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 mustache. 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.”

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.

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 is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble: Paperback $16.95 (check for discounts)  and Kindle $5.99. Tally is in Amazon’s Matchbook program: you can buy the print book and get the Kindle for only $1.99. Barnes and Noble paperback $16.95 and Nook $5.99.

Beauty & The Book, Fine Editions and Cultural Distinction in America, by Megan Benton

This is an excellent book about the heyday of fine press printing in the United States. The author gets it right about the admiration certain printers, typographers and book designers, such as the iconic Bruce Rogers, enjoyed in the early part of the 20th Century. However, she has a single-minded focus on her hypothesis that fine printing was a harkening back to a grander past and catered to those who wanted to flaunt their social and economic status.

There was another important movement of the times, particularly after World War I. Some fine press printers were publishing the work of new and adventurous writers and artists. Egmont Arens’ Playboy magazine featured such newcomers as e. e. cummings, D. H. Lawrence, and Rockwell Kent. Arens’ Flying Stag Press published a portfolio of Kent’s drawings in 1924. His protégé, Paul Johnston (PJ), who also wrote about the history of fine printing, urged printers to publish the new literature. There is some evidence that PJ printed copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover after it was banned, and he certainly corresponded with Frieda Lawrence (his 1934 letters to Frieda Lawrence are in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin). This spirit of rebellion and enthusiasm seems lost in Beauty and The Book.

Benton assigns publication of the daring new literature to “private presses,” differentiating them from the work of fine printers, although she admits the line is blurred. However, and most notably, fine printers Albert and Charles Boni, as well as Bennet Cerf and Alfred Knopf, were publishing contemporary writing and art. Founded in 1929, Charles Boni’s Paper Books meant “to place good books, well-designed and carefully made, within the reach of any reader.” This venture included the fine printer Elmer Adler, writers Padraic Colum and Louis Untermeyer, and artist Rockwell Kent. The first “paper book” was Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

If she had expanded her vision a little, her analysis of the innovations of the 1910s to the 1940s would have added to the wholeness of the subject.

Review posted on Goodreads at: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/435009891

Paul Johnston (PJ) is the subject of my book, Tally: An Intuitive Life, published by All Things That Matter Press in August 2013; available on Amazon/print and Kindle/ebook.

Tally: An Intuitive Life

Tally: An Intuitive Life, published by All Things That Matter Press

TALLYFRONT

PJ (Paul Johnston) came to Greenwich Village, New York City from the Deep South, in 1919 at the age of twenty. There he willfully and willingly entered into substance and style of the Bohemian lifestyle. There were years of creativity and equally, of decadence. His marriage ended and he soon fell ill; at mid-life he “died in the hospital” and was brought back to life. With horror, he realized he was no longer the man he had been, but instead was reborn or “re-based” in a skeleton, a ghost of the father, husband, and artist. He felt he had lived past his destiny. But he had to accept life. wrote daily in a journal, and discovered his death had cleansed him of all guilt. He was reborn innocent as a baby, but with the body and memory of as grown man. And then he began to create new reasons to live, and form new identities. This was his “new world beginning.”

Feeling he’d lost the “female half of himself” he created several female identities, gave them histories, wrote twenty page letters to them. “Pearl Joying and Justine Paris, what a pair of gals they were!” Among the identities, some sequential and others simultaneous, were The Artist, The Writer and The Professor of Love.

When the young poet, Erin Yes, meets PJ, he is approaching his 80th year. Losing his sight, he calls her Eyes and tells her she has given him a future. PJ is re-envisioning his long, eccentric life. What seemed to be separate and unrelated begins to fall into place, as this re-envisioning is guided by a greater understanding or perspective on what matters. He found that his intuition had guided him in the “many, small unconscious choices” he made throughout his life. As a young man, these choices were sometimes “conscious, inner decisions,” but then consciousness of them faded. Later in life, he became conscious again of the intuitive process.

PJ struggles with the challenges of aging: the push-pull of independence versus dependence; the effects of chronic physical illness on his mental state; and the increasing limits on what he can do in daily life.  And while he has gained perspective to help him, he is also impatient, and swings from empathetic to self-absorption quickly, and more quickly when he hears the clock ticking.

Discover how he sums up the worth of his life. Tally: An Intuitive Life is available in print and ebook format on Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com

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