Remembering Herbert Huncke today on the anniversary of his passing (August 8 1996).
Today, we’re pleased to present the memory of our good friend Stephen Bornstein:
“I first met Huncke in October 1964 at Debbie Black’s apartment on East 5th street on the Lower East Side [Editorial note – Debbie Black, sister of Erin Black, wife of Clive Matson].
I also met another major influence in my early youth at the same time, Jerry (and Ellen) Jofen, who were also there at Debbie’s California style decorated, first floor, rail road flat. Ellen and I are still friends to this day, 2022. We speak often. Huncke and I hit it off immediately. I was 16 and Huncke almost 50. He loved an attentive audience.
What a serendipitous coincidence!
I discovered that my own most vivid and fondest memory of Huncke was the same one that he chose to tell in a video taped interview given in 1994 shortly before his death.
This is my recollection of the actual events and then Huncke’s version in his own words follows.
The following incident began in December 1964. Huncke’s regular method of living for decades was basically as a “live in guest “ or “couch surfing“ in current vernacular. He would typically stay several days, a couple of weeks, a month, maybe even a month and a half before his welcome would run into what had become a rejecting host. He would move from apartment to apartment offering his hosts easy access to drugs, leaving several with a serious addiction.
After a few months staying away most people would usually feel sorry for him or want the benefits of his companionship for its constant access to heavy drugs. Then the whole cycle would start again.
For the occasion of his upcoming 50th birthday, Allen, who had known Huncke for 20 years, decided to set him up in his own apartment. Hopefully, breaking his ongoing cycle.
Setting him up was more a hands-on procedure then simply writing a check. He found Huncke a nice one bedroom apartment in a walk up tenement on the Lower East Side’s East 9th street. I remember accompanying Allen to set up Huncke’s gas and electric account and Allen then helping Huncke furnish it very rudimentary with some of his own furniture and Goodwill. Not a lot was needed. Huncke was ecstatic, a rare emotional display for the normally nihilistic Huncke..
His 50th birthday was just about to occur in January 1965 and this was his first place he had in decades. He decided to host a get together for himself, a birthday party.
I remember looking forward to attending with Allen. About fifteen of Huncke’s friends showed up and kind of moved in. It was really expected. Huncke himself had been the beneficiary of this ubiquitous 1960’s Lower East Side housing practice.
Among this band of gypsies was a character named George . George was everybody’s worst nightmare. He could’ve just met you, and he shows up at your house a few hours later, barges his way in and ends up staying for a week and a half either destroying your place or setting it on fire. He was everybody’s nemesis.
But there were things about him that were endearing. However, I never actually saw any of them. He was primarily a heavy amphetamine user, meaning he never slept. He was always making pagan totems and incoherent incantations over his amphetamine solution. He carried with him several flutes and recorders and you could hear him coming from a block away. Even just hearing him playing on the street below your window could create a feeling of terror. George was understandably there. Still in relatively good spirits. I made eye contact, that was enough for me. The less George knew me the better.
Allen stayed a few minutes. This wasn’t really his group and he soon bid farewell and unceremoniously left. I figured I would stay for a while and then head back to my own recently acquired apartment.
Huncke, in a particularly good mood, got everybody really high on heroin, he and George particularly. Almost predictably a long-running confrontation resurfaced. George produced a short green 18 inch machete, the kind sold as a survival tool in most army-navy stores. It came to a point and both sides of the blade were sharpened.
George backs Huncke up against the front door and holds the machete just under his chin. They both were so high they started to nod off as is common among heroin users. They would end up sliding down to almost their knees before they realized what they were doing and then pop back up again and nod right down again.
I hadn’t partaken in any drugs other than a little marijuana, so I was observing this whole thing going on for at least 10 to 15 minutes. It finally got ugly when Huncke slumped to the floor unable to get up unattended. I decide the prudent thing would be to take him to my very first, own apartment, as well-meaning friends had done for me several times over the years.
Let me tell you a little bit about my very first apartment. It was on the top floor of a six story walk up, in a practically abandoned tenement on E. 5th St. between Avenues C & D. Avenue D was where the projects were and that was a no man’s land for non-Puerto Ricans.
What made this apartment really exceptional was that it was right behind Allen’s. It had been given to me by a friendly girl who left for Rio de Janeiro. The building was abandoned by the landlord due to multiple violations, and was now owned by the city. My apartment had so many violations that the rent was the minimum the city could charge, one dollar a month. It was in the rear of the building and the only inhabited back apartment on all six floors.
The living room was basically uninhabitable in the winter months, the wind would come right in through spaces in the window frame, which I had stuffed with newspaper trying to prevent it from entering. I heated the apartment with the stove and slept on the floor in a little back bedroom, the farthest from the windows. I had a sleeping mat like those in India and posters of Hindu deities that Allen had brought back from India. I still have one of those posters in my 2022 studio. The kitchen had a bathtub in the middle, and the practically antique water closet (toilet) was actually in the hall by the staircase.
Other than Allen, Peter (Orlovsky) and a young women named Ann, who lived in the other front apartment, nobody had yet visited me. I was kind of excited to be able to be a gracious host. I managed to drag a really high Huncke, at two in the morning, all the way back to my place, stumbling all the way and then getting him up six flights of stairs. I put him on my bed mat and stretched out next to him on the floor and we both quickly fell asleep.
Early the next morning Huncke wakes up moaning, telling me he’s dying. My own father had died in front of me only eight years earlier at the age of 51. Here is Huncke, now 50, telling me he’s dying. You can imagine that I took it very seriously.
I ran down the hall to Allen’s apartment. He was not there, but Peter Orlovsky was. I frantically tried to communicate the urgency to him telling him that Huncke is in my apartment and dying. He laughs and scuffs it off. He tells me Huncke told him the same thing 20 years ago, not to worry and don’t let it get to me. Needless to say, I felt only mildly comforted. What If he was wrong, would I have to go through another traumatic death alone?
I returned to the apartment, hoping he was right. I made some hot tea and Huncke started to feel a little better. It wouldn’t be until late afternoon that he would feel well enough to try to venture back to his apartment.
His lovely, newly acquired home ended up being completely taken over by George so Huncke decided to move somewhere else, rather than risk confrontation with him. Within a few days, George had started a fire and there was nothing left of the apartment but a burnt out hulk.
Huncke and I would cross paths many times in the next 30 years. We actually lived together for a couple of months on Allen Ginsberg’s farm in Cherry Valley upstate New York. It’s very well chronicled in Gordon Ball‘s engrossing book, East Hill Farm
I last visited with Huncke shortly before his death in June of 1996. He was living in a really small room in the Chelsea hotel. He had been living there for a few years. He gave me a printed broadside with one of his stories. He was practically bedridden. He was 81 years old. He didn’t have one gray hair but he was the same person that I knew as a 16 year old.
In 2020, while exploring YouTube, I discovered a video of Huncke. It’s an interview he gave at the Nico Cafe, in March of 1994, (filmed by his friend, videographer Laki Vazakas)
What’s so amazing to me is that of all the amazing stories of a lifetime he chose to tell, it was this one, the one story that was so meaningful to me.
Here’s the same story in Huncke’s words: