Droopy eyes under the hat. An old, creepy looking man leaning on the bar, crouching like a frail spider among a few smarmy-dressed women. The 50-ish ladies sneered at me when I wandered in off Bleecker and Houston streets on a Tuesday afternoon, but the spider just squiggled his mouth in a thoughtful glance toward me. He then screeched something inaudible to my ears, and his ladies cackled in response like obscene muppets.
I was hungry. That’s what I remember most about that day. I had just started a new job in furniture sales and was sending every penny I made back home (which was still nowhere near enough). I had lost weight, but I felt good and desperate. A stranger.
The Bowery Poetry Club was one of my stops, along with Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, the Nuyorican Cafe and the Yippie Museum. By the end of the night I would be in front of a bunch of veteran NYC poets at Big Mike Logan’s demand (he pushed me to the stage at the Yippie Museum) reciting my own complaints/poetry after seven drinks on an empty stomach, but I hadn’t gotten there just yet. It was only 3 pm as I sifted through all the flyers in the dark, beer-musked Bowery with the screeching spider and his smarmy muppets.
“You’re a fucking whore!” the spider exploded in a slurring outrage, then lowered his voice into a gentle compliment. “But we do, do, do love you.”
I looked behind me and noticed there was another man around him now, but it was obvious the spider was the center of attention. He orchestrated the crew. Whipped them up into their cackles and they did their best to match the spider’s wit and spontaneity.
“Aren’t you pretty,” the spider said to me as the whole group looked on while I ordered a drink.
For the next hour or so I listened to the strange old man and his muppets. I couldn’t place him, but I thought for certain I had seen his face before, but as the drink splashed in my empty belly, muddling my senses, I couldn’t figure out where. I kept thinking of Jean Genet, the French vagabond/gay writer who was long dead.
He swept away the beer puddles in front of him like a diva sweeps past dawdling reporters. He squeezed the titties of his one of his ladies like an effeminate pimp and made her pull one out to show us. He made demands of the bartender to bring him champagne, though she just smiled. The entire time he drank. Bringing his shaking beer to his lips for a tiny sip like a doe at the river.
I knew I was on to something. I knew I had just witnessed some kind of superstar, but I wasn’t sure who he was. To me, he was a screeching spider in a dark place on a Tuesday.
He was Taylor Mead.
I didn’t know that for some time still, but when a film school friend turned me on to some Warhol films, I found my screeching spider as a young man. I had seen these movies when I was younger as my mother was a big fan of the Beats in New York City. She graduated from high school in 1966 as a clean-cut Brooklyn-Irish girl that had emigrated to Long Island, but by the time she was twenty, she had morphed into a hippie. She used to tell me about New York in those days and made me watch all types of movies that I’m certain none of my friends were made to watch. Easy Rider I saw at nine years old, Godard’s Week-End, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Deer Hunter. And The Flower Thief, which starred my demure and violent spider.
“I saw that guy in a bar, Lower East Side,” I told my buddy.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I think he’s still alive.”
Mead had become a relic, but was as ingenious as ever in his late age. He hadn’t changed a bit, though the world had. Manhattan had become a brand and was fast gentrifying. The fears of the Beats and the hippies had come true just as the warnings of George Orwell were used as a guide by the enemies of art and freedom. As life treated us more like consumers than free souls, the likes of Taylor Mead and the experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s faded into a muddled, recent history.
I feel bad that I didn’t spend more time with him. That I didn’t reach out to him more, other than listen to his rants for an hour over a couple drinks. Why didn’t I go back to look for him? Now that he’s dead, I really wish I had. So do you … To listen to his half-smiling mouth recite the poetry of old New York as he sat there holding his tall, shaking beer. To watch his droopy eyes with the sad light in them tell stories.
A prince of American poetry has died, uncrowned and evicted. Many see the losing of his Lower East Side apartment as a direct correlation to his passing. Many see him better than ever, now that he’s died. But we should have spent more time with him while he was alive.