It was an anthem for a generation caught between the hippies of the sixties and the punks of the seventies. Jim Carroll spanned both. But he always belonged more to the punk sensibility – a blue collar New Yorker originally from lower Manhattan, the son of a bartender.
Jim Carroll lived in my neighborhood during my own scuffling days. Yeah, I scuffled, and hung out with poets and poseurs, punk rockers and philosophers. It seems like a strange combination, but not really. One of the seminal Punk groups, The Tuff Darts, had a hit with the song "Your Love Is Like Nuclear Waste," which was actually composed by an art school graduate, Jeff Salen, who was a middle class intellectual who knew the difference between cant and Kant. I know because I once dated him.
And Jim Carroll, who died last Friday, lived in my neighborhood. Actually, our neighborhood was home to Mount Sinai Hospital, which was the border between the edge of the middle class, professional Upper East Side and the beginnings of Spanish Harlem. It was conveniently located in close proximity to some of the most renowned smack dealers on the one side and respectable employees of Mount Sinai’s hospital and medical school on the other side. I worked for the medical school, writing grants. But that was just my day job.
I also wrote poetry and belonged to the St. Marks-in-the-Bowery Poetry Project. Luminaries of that writers’ cooperative included Allan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Richard Hell (also here), Ann Waldman, and of course, Jim Carroll. I certainly wasn’t one of the luminaries, but my poetry was decent enough that I once got to read it once on WBAI, the New York Pacifica station.
And, of course, I had a nodding acquaintance with my neighbor, Jim Carroll.
One day I walked out of the small corner candy store. and there he was, leaning against a car, waiting for somebody. I had just seen him perform at a lower Manhattan club with the ironic name The Ritz. It was a retro 1950s Punk Rock club with Zebra striped banquettes, plush purple velvet upholstery, and Formica tabletops. The place stunk of stale beer and cigarettes.
When Carroll broke into his hit song, “People Who Died,” the crowd of young people shouted out the chant at the top of their lungs, raising their clenched fists in the air. It was part keening for those we had lost and part a howl of protest at life itself. It was tribal, cathartic, and ecstatic.
So, when I saw him just hanging out on the corner where I lived, I introduced myself and we had a conversation about his performance, the St. Marks Poetry Project, and the neighborhood. After that, I used to see Carroll a lot. We had a few things in common besides writing poetry. Both our fathers had been bartenders, so we knew what it was like to have an absent parent – bartenders don’t usually work 9 to 5. We swapped tales of the mean things we had done to guilt our fathers for not being there for us during normal waking hours, which was usually when they slept.
One day I told him about a woman I had seen at open mike night at St. Marks. I think her name was Helen. She was a burn-out case. Jim laughed, “She was a bag lady even when I was there.”
I asked him how somebody like that would know when it was time to quit poetry and leave Manhattan. I wasn't really thinking about Helen, though. I was thinking about my growing sense of futility at chasing the seemingly elusive dream of success as a poet. It was increasingly looking like the old Zen conundrum of seeing the reflection of the moon in a lake and thrusting your hand into the water to grasp that reflection. The mirror-like reflection shatters into a million pieces and the water just runs through your fingers, but you can never grasp a reflection. Is that what my dreams and ambitions were like? An impossible to realize mirror image of reality?
As if knowing what I thinking, Jim fixed his pale blue eyes in a laser-like stare and said, “Karen, you will know when it’s time to quit and go home.”
And I did. Our paths certainly diverged. I moved to Fort Lauderdale, met my husband, Dan, and started a completely different life. Jim really and truly cleaned up his act and went on to be the brilliant writer and poet he always was meant to be. And he stayed in Manhattan, which for him was always home. It's where he lived and where he died.
Jim Carroll was compassionate, talented, and smart. But I find it amazing that he died of something as mundane as a heart attack at 60 years old. I never figured him to live so long or die of natural causes. Rest in peace, Jim Carroll. You wrote our pain, you chanted our nightmare, and you lived our worst fears. It was not an easy road but you traveled it and wrote it with your own grace and dignity.