[Editor’s note: This excerpt is the first of a series from an upcoming memoir.]
Raymond Duncan. When I was in high school, my classmate David Packman would pester me all the time to go into Manhattan with him to see shows by artists I’d never heard of, like Marisol. I never knew what he was talking about; David lived a different, far more worldly life than I. Even to my 16-year-old Brooklyn self, it was clear that David was someone I liked and should befriend — so I eventually agreed to go to a performance at Town Hall with him; it was November 1964.
It turned out to be a celebration of Raymond Duncan’s 90th birthday. Duncan, Isadora’s brother, was famous for immersing himself in Hellenic culture from the time he was a young man: Greek robes, never trousers, no shoes other than the sandals he made. When the curtain opened, it revealed his gigantic weaving of an ancient Greek ship in full sail, blue and white, hung from the rafters as a backdrop. From stage left, an ancient-looking man walked onstage. He had long white hair and was wearing a toga and sandals, leaning on a staff. “Ship ahoy, ship ahoy!” he shouted. “I hear my ancestors calling.” He recited a long text that I no longer remember, except for the part where he said, “People say that because I am old, I have to walk slowly and bent over. But I say no, and kick off my sandals and stride ahead,” which he did.
Allen Ginsberg. When I was 16, I spent July and August of 1965 in a dorm on Dwight Way, near the campus of UC Berkeley, living with 50 other teenagers of diverse racial, cultural, geographic and class backgrounds. The summer program was organized by the Ethical Culture Society in New York, whose goal, in hindsight, was to take this group of kids and make them into future leaders of an imagined progressive movement in America. Alongside the high-minded curriculum, which included a trip to see migrant farmworkers being hired at dawn in the Central Valley; visits with the poet Kenneth Rexroth; Richard Alpert (the LSD researcher before he became Baba Ram Dass); and the leftist activist Bernadine Dohrn (before she became a leader of the Weathermen), another equally powerful force was at work. It was the summer when two songs, Satisfaction and Like a Rolling Stone, dominated the radio airwaves, their sound changing the way we understood the world.
Harvey Kaufman, who taught 9th-grade social studies at Marine Park Junior High in Brooklyn, visited me at my dorm and took me to San Francisco. He was the kind of teacher whose dedication changes kids’ lives. He once invited three or four of us to go with him on a lark to the Conservative Party rally at Madison Square Garden on October 22, 1962, the same night President Kennedy made his historic televised speech that initiated the Cuban Missile Crisis. William F. Buckley was the headline speaker, and Kaufman somehow snuck us backstage. We were able to approach Buckley and ask him what he thought of Kennedy’s speech. He said, “He seemed nervous.” Then, noting our disappointment, he added, “It seems to me to be too little too late.” Three years later, Kaufman took me for another adventure, this one in San Francisco.
I don’t remember much about the day except racing over the Bay Bridge, trying to get back before my curfew, which I don’t think we managed. What I do remember vividly are two encounters with Allen Ginsberg. By another coincidence, this was the weekend of the Berkeley Poetry Conference, which is widely recognized as a historic moment in the field when Beats and other West Coast non-academic poets staked out their turf. Ginsberg was appointed the “Secretary of State of Poetry” that weekend. Harvey was showing me Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, and I was engrossed in the basement poetry section when Ginsberg wandered in. Kaufman walked up to him and introduced me, saying that I was a young poet,
and did he have any advice? It was more than 50 years ago, but I remember his response as clearly as if it were yesterday: “If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. But first, you have to get laid.” Later that night, Harvey took me to a party at the Sexual Freedom League. It was in an old, second-floor office up a long flight of stairs. It was packed with people dancing, singing, stoned. I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough to take it all in. Suddenly floodlights appeared at the bottom of the stairs, and Ginsberg could be heard tinkling his tiny hand cymbals and chanting while a crew from PBS trailed him from behind as he clambered up to the party. Years later, I told him that I had been there as a kid, and he said, “Man, I was drunk that night.”
Just a couple of years later, in 1967, I was an undergraduate at Colgate University and Ginsberg came to campus to read. I was somewhere in a coffee shop in the tiny town of Hamilton, just off campus, when Ginsberg walked in, alone, in the early evening. Some preppie English major had the temerity to invite him over to his apartment. In hindsight, I realize that Ginsberg thought he might be coming on to him, and he agreed, but the kid, I’m sure, just wanted to talk poetry with him. I tagged along to what was an incredibly awkward meeting. I remember Ginsberg asking, “Why am I here?” He also talked about the Maharishi, the Beatles’ guru, saying that, whatever his silliness, he at least was “getting people meditating,” and we students nodded in agreement as if we were committed meditators.
Years later, hearing Ginsberg lecture on the history of poetry (“John Lennon’s I am the Walrus is a step forward in the evolution of poetry that will soon lead us to naked dancing boys reciting poetry and making prognostications like oracles”), and listening to his recording of Kaddish in the 1960s and 70s, inspired me to live my life on a tangent, apart from my family’s expectations.
The last time I saw Ginsberg was at an opening at the de Young Museum; he was old, ill and tired, diminished. I was middle-aged myself, and no longer in need of heroes.
Many thousands of people attended the opening ceremony for the new Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens in 1993. I had been appointed at the age of 45 to be the Visual Arts Director 18 months earlier and was on the outdoor dais, along with the dignitaries, for brief opening statements. When it was over and they opened the doors for people to enter, I was swept along by the crowd in that cinematic kind of scene I’d never experienced before, or since, surrounded by well-wishers. Suddenly the face of Harvey Kaufman—I hadn’t seen him in decades—was right up in mine, and he whispered, “Nice to see one of my kids make it big,” and before I could react, he was gone. I never saw him again.
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Renny Pritikin retired in December 2018 after almost five years as the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Prior to that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner.