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I always get cheered up when I see a mattress on the floor. It probably started that day in 1961 when our old neighbor from Chicago, Peggy, was sitting next to a big plant on the terrace of a penthouse on top of a white building in the Village. My parents had brought me to New York for a visit. Peggy had just moved here with her husband, who was in the music business, and she was wearing black capri pants and a white shirt tied at the waist. My mother always said, “Peggy dresses for men; I dress for women.” Anyway, my mother, who was probably in brown linen or something and smoking a Pall Mall, was having drinks with Peggy, and Peggy said, “You’ve got to get her Suzuki Beane.” We went to a Village bookstore, where there was all this old brown wood, and I got the book with the little girl on the cover who had eyes like olives.
Reviewers called Suzuki Beane “the Eloise of Greenwich Village.” She lived with her parents, hugh and marcia (there were no capital letters in the book), in a pad on bleecker and the whole family slept on a mattress on the floor and hugh wrote poems and when suzuki’s best friend henry visits and asks, “where are the sheets for your bed?” hugh says to suzuki, “what are you bringing these squares home for . . . with his stereotyped ideas about washing and jazz?”
The book, published in 1961, is long out of print. The illustrator was Louise Fitzhugh, who went on to write Harriet the Spy and died of an aneurysm in 1974 at age 46. The writer, Sandra Scoppettone, subsequently wrote detective novels, first under the pseudonym Jack Early and then a series under her own name about Lauren Laurano, lesbian private investigator. Laurano lives with her partner Kip, a therapist with “a patrician nose,” in a brownstone on Perry Street where the man who “washes down their entryway” is “sleek like a Doberman.” Laurano has a .44 Magnum and eats lunch at the Waverly Luncheonette.
Scoppettone lived on Cornelia Street in the late 1950s in a building owned, she says, “by Mabel, who was married to the man who played Mr. Keen in Mr. Keen, Tracer of Missing Persons,” a radio show. Like all bohemian worlds, there are bundles of connections and associations. Scoppettone cannot remember if her apartment was like hugh and marcia’s but “I think I painted one wall black. Oh God. Ah youth.”
Anyway, after reading Suzuki Beane in 196l, I went back to the Midwest. The only other sort of beatnik person I had known in real life was our former upstairs neighbor Gloria, who had a pixie haircut and Cubist paintings, but her dining room furniture was Spanish like in Zorro. Suzuki Beane gave a clearer picture of the way to go. I was inspired. Though I was not allowed to have a mattress on the floor, I decorated the inside of my closet—here is where it gets a little mixed up with Holly Golightly’s apartment in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—and wrote merde and fou with lipstick on the mirror as if I had just had too many martinis. Then I got a miniature black turtleneck and some chocolate cigarettes. It has been that way ever since.
A page from “Suzuki Beane“
I do not know if this is an attraction to life on a mattress—though for 21st-century bohemians, it is the Ikea fold-out on wheels—or an attachment to furnishings reminiscent of one’s childhood.
I always get happy when I see the butterfly chair in the living room in the Christmas party scene in the movie Blast of Silence (196l) that was shot in New York. Though that living room is a little more civilized, with a sofa and everything. There is a bongo player and the gang is clapping and singing, “Ding, dong, ding.” Then a grumbly hit man says, “I guess I just don’t mix in,” but later he agrees to be in a peanut-pushing contest and he and another man get down on all fours near the Danish modern coffee table and they each push a peanut with their nose across a bouclé carpet.
Though the Blast of Silence apartment did not have a mattress on the floor, the furnishings were a far cry from my mother’s Italian provincial Baker furniture: wooden end tables, sitting there when I had measles, sitting there when my mother was in the chair next to them, holding up the birth control pills that had slipped down the sofa cushion (she was shaking with rage that somebody might have had sex). Those tables were still there when my father was dying and years later when my mother was dying and now my aunt has them. That furniture just goes on and on.
There are some people who never outgrow the bohemian approach to furnishing. There are reasons—beyond the economic, beyond the desire for an empty stage for a better creative life, beyond the rejection of decoration, which is sometimes absolutely meaningless (and not to be confused with a visual artist creating other worlds), beyond hugh and marcia’s political dogma, beyond just revolt, beyond Allen Ginsberg, who was always being photographed on bare mattresses. Perhaps it is about hopefulness: With a mattress on the floor, anything is possible; one is never stuck in a time, a place, an age.
At the end of the book, after hugh tells suzuki, “don’t bring any more squares from squaresville around here,” suzuki packs up some liederkranz and decides she’s leaving her mattress and hugh and marcia because “we just don’t swing the same anymore,” and she and henry are going to go “on the road . . . to start our own village where a square could be a square and a swinging cat could swing in peace” and “man—it was going to be endsville!”