Obituary for a Hipster
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February 28, 1963, Vol. VIII, No. 19
Obituary for a Hipster
By Don Carpenter
SAN FRANCISCO -- A quote from "The White Negro": "the unstated essence of Hip, its psychopathic brilliance, quivers with the knowledge that new kinds of victories increase one's power for new kinds of perception; and defeats, the wrong kind of defeats, attack the body and imprison one's energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people's habits, other people's defeats, boredom, quiet desperation, and muted icy self-destroying rage."
I first heard of Lee in the mid '50s, when he was mysteriously called "The Frenchman" and was supplying most of the Oregon contingent of North Beach with high-grade Acapulco Gold for fifteen dollars a lid. Those making the run, as we called it then in our comic youth and freedom, would return completely stoned out from the viper's tradition of a free turnon at the point of sale. Lee was described to me: the skull, the bonecrack, the glowing eyes dreamy in his thin medicine-man's face; sitting in his room waiting for people to come by and score.
I never made the run; I was too scared to after the stories I heard: for example, the time two of my friends were there and a gigantic wild-eyed Negro burst in through the second-story window like an apocalyptic angel come from hell to get them all (they were high and experienced the full gush of loaded fear -- half naked terror, half joy at the experience), and turned out to be only a friend of a friend whose dramatic entrance was caused by the doorbell being broken. He had heard Lee could get him some cocaine. When Lee said no, he asked for benzedrine. No again, and he finally settled on marijuana, but unfortunately he didn't happen to have any money on him at the time, and so had to satisfy his urgings with a few free puffs from the passed-around joint. After which he went back out the window. It all seemed so uncool to me.
A couple of years later I was sitting in the Coffee Gallery with friends and one pointed across the room and said, "There's The Frenchman." I saw standing in the entryway my own romantic narrow-bodied trig vision of Hip: topcoat, mad grinning cool face, dark tragic eyes, black hair and tight yellowish skin; and my friend go up and went over to him. They stood and talked for a moment, and then moved out onto Grant Street and stood close together talking, Lee's head -- skull -- inclined thoughtfully. My friend returned and grunted, "No," and Lee went on down the street. I didn't see him or think of him again for three years.
A lot happened in those three years. A decade died. Mine, our, youth died. Marijuana no longer quite seemed a gallop to freedom so much as another doorway out, like lush or money or master's degrees in creative writing. Something happened to the excitement of jazz and the new mock-hero of the new mock-freedom played tenor banjo and knew half a thousand worker songs; the tempo changed and poets no longer seemed to go mad, but disappeared overseas or into Mexico or the Mission District, their reputations secure, their books dusty unsold in bookstore basements; the night people on Grant Street lost their look of open happiness and were transfigured into sullen shadows whose pockets bore knives and ampules of methedrine instead of manuscripts and grass. Some of us got rich and some went to Venice West or the Village; some went on and on and parked cars for a living or painted houses or did cabinet work and periodic drunks; some stayed cool and some died and others wrote novels on a dead run for their faculty post. People even stopped bothering to say, "The Beat Generation is Dead."
Then I heard about Lee again, and after I moved back to San Francisco, even met him. David Deck and I were drunk and playing snooker in Mike's when he came in. David introduced us, using Lee's real name. After he left, I said, "How long have you known The Frenchman?"
"Who?" said David. he had known Lee for years, known him in Berkeley, heard the story he told me, of how Lee had been a drummer and collapsed, was taken to the hospital with hepatitis, was told that with good hospital care he would probably last about six months, how he dressed and checked out of the hospital and into a North Beach hotel room, which he only left to get food and new books. For a year he lay there alone in his hotel room, reading, waiting to die. He was thin and weak and spoke to no one. The year passed, and he decided he would not die just yet. But he couldn't play the drums any more; he didn't have the stamina. And of course he couldn't work. He took a room outside the district and went into the marijuana business, more or less by accident, selling off the price to friends, and then to friends of friends. He became, in the inflated self-conscious language of that time, "The Frenchman."
David didn't know about any of this Frenchman stuff, but he told me Lee was a Faulkner reader, a painter, an expert on jazz, and many other things. When I saw Lee again, this time in Vesuvios about three months ago, we smiled at each other, sat down together and talked about Faulkner, and then about Joseph Heller, and then about Seattle, and then Portland, and we discovered that we both came from Portland and knew almost all the same people, from different times. Later, I asked him how he happened, with his name, to get the moniker "The Frenchman." He stared at me.
"The what?" he said.
I explained, and he laughed with embarrassment.
"No kidding," he said. But other than that we got along fine, and when, about a week ago, I was walking down Columbus he called to me from across the street, and I joined him for coffee. I asked him about his girl, and he said they had split, and then he took me up to his hotel room. We sat quietly, and he picked up a guitar and began to play a soft, quiet tune. It was his own tune, and he told me about not being able to play drums any more, and how painting didn't seem to work, and so he was learning how to play guitar. But even with guitar, he told me, there wasn't much hope for him, because he didn't have the stamina for a musician's life. I asked him where he got his money, and he shrugged. He had unemployment, but he would have to go all the way downtown to get it, and be hung up with a lot of questions. He bent his head over his guitar and played. His room was neat and orderly, filled with his books, clothes, a couple of fine, dark paintings (his own); his ashtray had a couple of roaches in it, as if Lee were too concerned with other things to partake in the normal viper's paranoia.
A couple of days later we went to his room looking for him. He wasn't there, but we found him on the street, talking to a painter. he went to lunch with us and we talked about Portland and old friends. He told about one who had stolen a car to go to LA, picked up a hitch-hiker, and allowed the kid to drive the car while he grabbed a nap. The police stopped them, having the license number of the stolen car, and the Portland friend said he didn't know a thing, this kid had picked him up hitch-hiking. We all laughed. It seemed like something from the dead past, somehow.
I told him I had heard the story of his hepatitis and the year in the hotel room, and he smiled. "Someday I'll tell you about that," he said.
But he didn't. Three days ago he took a handful of Seconal caps, boarded the bus to Land's End, and sat alone on a hillside looking out at the ocean until he died. In his pocket they found the telephone number of the county morgue: a gentle, gentlemanly help to the people who would find him.
It was like Lee that his death should be surrounded by confusion, even though he had made things as clear as he could: I was telephoned by one person who said he had died on a hillside somewhere of hepatitis -- the story he got from Lee's landlady. I drove to North Beach filled with a pain of loss I could not control, to try to find out what had happened, and was told by another that he had killed himself in his hotel room. The two of us went to a third person, a book dealer, and he told us that Lee had tried to die before, but some of his friends, wondering where he was, picked the lock of his hotel room, found him on the floor with a faint pulse, jammed methedrine into his blood, and called an ambulance. That had been about three months ago, the book dealer told us, and Lee had been pretty upset with his friends for stopping him.
So the romantic gesture of going out to Land's End wasn't so romantic after all: he had gone out there to make sure no one would stop him. And, of course, no one did.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
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