The Old Reliable is a bar that was then on East 3rd Street between Avenue B and C, and it's a bar that I frequented with various friends at that time. And this is a poem that was written some twenty years later about those days and it's dedicated to Lewis Ellingham who now lives in San Francisco, and it has an epigraph from James Fenton's poem 'In a Notebook', "the laughing soldiers fought to heir defeat".

Nights of 1964-1966: The Old Reliable


for Lewis Ellingham

The laughing soldiers fought to their defeat…
James Fenton, ‘In a Notebook’

White decorators interested in Art,
Black file clerks with theatrical ambitions,
kids making pharmaceutical revisions
in journals Comp. instructors urged they start,
the part-Cherokee teenage genius (maybe),
the secretary who hung out with fairies,
the copywriter wanting to know, where is
my husband? the soprano with the baby,
all drank draft beer or lethal sweet Manhattans
or improvised concoctions with tequila
in summer when, from Third Street, we could feel a
night breeze waft in whose fragrances were Latin.
The place was run by Polish refugees:
squat Margie, gaunt Speedy (whose sobriquet
transliterated what?). He’d brought his play
from Lodz. After a while, we guessed Margie’s
illiteracy was why he cashed checks
and she is perched near the threshold to ban pros,
the underage, the fugitive, and those
arrayed impertinently to their sex.
The bar was talk and cruising; in the back
room, we danced: Martha and the Vandellas,
Smokey and the Miracles, while sellers
and buyers changed crisp tens for smoke and smack.
Some came in after work, some after supper,
plumage replenished to meet who knew who.
Behind the bar, Margie dished up beef stew.
On weeknights, you could always find an upper
to speed you to your desk, and drink till four.
Loosened by booze, we drifted, on the ripples
of Motown, home in new couples, or triples,
were back at dusk, with IDs, at the door.
Bill was my roommate, Russell drank with me,
although they were a dozen years my seniors.
I walked off with the eighteen-year-old genius
– an Older Woman, barely twenty-three.
Link was new as Rimbaud, and better looking,
North Beach bar paideon of doomed Jack Spicer,
like Russell, our two-meter artificer,
a Corvo whose ecclesia was cooking.
Bill and Russell were painters. Bill had been
a monk in Kyoto. Stoned, we sketched together,
till he discovered poppers and black leather
and Zen consented to new discipline.
We shared my Sixth Street flat with a morose
cat, an arch cat, and pot plants we pruned daily.
His boyfriend had left him for an Israeli
dancer; my husband was on Mykonos.
Russell loved Harold, who was black and bad,
and lavished on him dinners ‘meant for men’
like Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin.
Staunch blond Dora made rice. When she had
tucked in the twins, six flights of tenement
stairs they’d descend, elevenish, and stroll
down Third Street, desultory night patrol
gone mauve and green under the virulent
streelgiths, to the bar, where Bill and I
(if we’d not come to dinner), Link, and Lew,
and Betty had already had a few.
One sweat-soaked night in pitiless July,
wedged on booth benches of cracked Naugahyde,
we planned a literary magazine
where North Beach met the Lower East Side Scene.
We could have titled it When Worlds Collide
Dora was gone, ‘In case the children wake up.’
Link lightly had decamped with someone else
(the German engineer? Or was he Bill’s?).
Russell’s stooped vale brushed my absent makeup.
Armed children spared us home, our good-night hugs
laissez-passer. We railed against the war.
Soon, some of us bused south with SNCC and CORE.
Soon, some of us got busted dealing drugs.
The file clerks took exams and forged ahead.
The decorators’ kitchens blazed persimmon.
The secretary started kissing women,
and so did I, and my three friends are dead.

from Selected Poems 1965-1990 (W W Norton, 1995), used by permission of the author c/o Frances Collin Literary Agency. Poetry Foundation recording made on 28 February 2007, Atlanta, Georgia.

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