In the spring of 1949, when the poet Allen Ginsberg was twenty-two, he came very close to becoming a common thief.
He was living at 1401 York Avenue in New York’s Lenox Hill neighborhood on the Upper East Side. His favorite low-life friend, Herbert Huncke, had arrived penniless, sick, and near starvation one cold February night. Huncke, a mesmerizing storyteller as well as a thief and heroin addict, fascinated Ginsberg. He took him in.
When Huncke recovered, he invited a strikingly tall, red-haired woman who went by the alias Vickie Russell and her diminutive boyfriend, Little Jack Melody, to stay at Allen’s place. Little Jack and Vickie were burglars who knew a good opportunity when they saw one. Before long, they had filled Ginsberg’s apartment with contraband, including high-quality furniture and a cumbersome cigarette machine.
Ginsberg realized what was going on but felt powerless to stop it. Not quite done with his Columbia degree and working nights as a copy boy for the Associated Press, he lacked the courage needed to kick out his three unsavory roommates. Huncke, Little Jack, and Vickie all talked enthusiastically about art and culture, and that made it harder to see them as criminals.
The voyeur in Allen, moreover, was curious about what they did. One night he rode along with Vickie and Jack in midtown Manhattan where they were looking for cars to break into. Ginsberg waited behind as a lookout and joked that he wasn’t ready to lose his “cherry” in this business of crime. But for all practical purposes, his cherry was long gone: he had no intention of reporting his pals to the police, and the stolen furniture had improved his standard of living.
It was a worrisome time. “The household set up which I both hate and desire, that I have, is an example of my uncertainty of path and dividedness,” Ginsberg wrote to Neal Cassady. “Perhaps I shall find that I have been self destructively greedy on this score.” Still, he did nothing.
Then an alarm sounded. Ginsberg’s friend William Burroughs was arrested on drug charges. Ginsberg feared that the police would read the incriminating letters they had exchanged, show up at the apartment full of loot, and arrest him. It was time to move away and make a fresh start. In preparation, he packed up all of his personal papers, which he intended to store at his brother Eugene’s place.
On the morning of April 22, 1949, Little Jack and Vickie, no doubt delighted that Allen was moving out and leaving the apartment to them, agreed to give him a ride to his brother’s. There were to be two stops beforehand: first a visit with Little Jack’s mother and then a business meeting with a fence presumably interested in the stolen goods filling up Little Jack’s car (also stolen).
After a happy visit with Mama Melody, things rapidly fell apart. Little Jack made a wrong turn and found himself headed the wrong way on a one-way street in Queens. A cop appeared and shook his head sternly. The gesture may have only meant that Jack needed to turn around, but given the circumstances, and the fact that he was on parole, he panicked and roared past the startled officer.
A car chase ensued, and with Ginsberg feeling quite rightly that doom was upon him, the car flipped and the papers he had wanted to keep private were scattered everywhere. The dazed driver and passengers emerged from the car. Vickie and Allen ran away.
By the time they got back to York Avenue, Huncke was on alert, but there was no time to prevent the inevitable. The police showed up close on the heels of Allen and Vickie and arrested both of them along with Huncke. Though Huncke hadn’t been along for the disastrous ride, he was wanted on other charges.
In the end, Little Jack and Vickie spent very little time in jail, thanks to their families’ aid and influence. With no one vouching for his character, Huncke was sent upstate to Sing Sing prison for five years. Ginsberg’s father, brother, and Columbia professors sprang into action to protect him. Instead of prison, he was consigned to a mental institution for the better part of a year.
It was there, at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute, that Ginsberg met a fellow patient named Carl Solomon, who would figure prominently in “Howl.” Solomon was just one key ingredient in the poem’s making, however. Ginsberg’s downward-spiraling life among thieves, Huncke prominent among them, gave him crucial material as well as the mindset he needed to write the Beat Generation’s defining poem.
That April day in 1949 was surely the worst of Ginsberg’s life up to that point. Yet he transformed it, in retrospect, into one of his best days. For Allen Ginsberg, going the wrong way was the right way to poetic inspiration and literary achievement.
Read more about Ginsberg’s relationship with Huncke in my book, Herbert Huncke: The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation (Schaffner Press).