Huncke the Junkie: Godfather to Naked Lunch

My phone rang on a hot morning in July a year ago and it as Allen Ginsberg.

“Do you know Herbert Huncke?” Ginsberg asked. “Have you ever met Huncke?” I said that I hadn’t.

“He’s the oldest living junkie in New York,” Ginsberg said, “and an old sidekick of Burroughs and Kerouac. He turned Burroughs on to junk and he’s waiting in line at Manhattan General to get in so he can cut down on his habit. He’s been waiting for four days and he thinks he can get in in about 20 minutes, and he needs his suitcase which is in his hotel room, so can you go up to the hospital and get his key, and go to the hotel and get his suitcase and take it to him? He’s wearing a white sweater. Hurry!”

I threw on some clothes and rushed to the subway, and in maybe 19 minutes was running down 21st Street to the back door of Manhattan General where the junkies wait in line to save their lives. Huncke met me in the middle of the block. His white cardigan sweater was unmistakable, but so was his face, which was fragile testimony to 30 years on heroin.

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Huncke had decided to save Manhattan General for another day, but he insisted on showing me the junkie’s lobby. The floor behind the door was strewn with cigarette butts, and the air was a dense fog. They leaned against the wall — men, women, white, Puerto Rican, black — and sat on the benches. All the openings, the sign-in windows and such, were caged. It was as hard to get in as it was to get out.

And then as we walked over to Ginsberg’s, Huncke began to rap. Huncke raps beautifully, the sound of his magnificent voice — all that seems intact in his devastated body — as tantalizing as the content. He has so much to rap about, the days with Burroughs, the trials and woes of Ginsberg, the gilded gossip about the beats a decade ago and last week. It is all that he has, his memories and a talent for recalling them. It is not quite enough, but he gets by.

When he arrived, Ginsberg took me aside. “Whatever you do,” he said sternly, “don’t give him money! I’m not kidding. Be careful. He’s very persuasive.”

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And then he took Huncke aside, and asked him to spare me his touch. “He’s just a kid,” he said, “and he doesn’t have very much money.” And then Huncke hit Ginsberg for ten bucks.

Huncke is a master of the touch. It’s his livelihood, and as I walked with him back to the West Side I braced myself to follow Ginsberg’s orders and resist the inevitable climax of the conversation. It never came. Huncke spared me the first time — it would be the last — waved good-bye, and promised to stop by and visit.

And he did stop by, roughly once a week at a punctual nine o’clock in the morning, at an old loft I had on Prince Street that summer. I would try to wake up and make some coffee and we would sit and talk for three hours or so, the same glorious rap, and then he would hit me for $5 or so, always, he said, for a hotel or some other non-narcotic necessity of life. And I would give it to him, because he had earned it.

Toward the end of summer he passed a bad check on me and disappeared. I was sad that he never came back, and, in lieu of an autograph, pasted the check, which he had endorsed in various styles of script, on the title page of his “Journals,” a rambling collection of recollections that had been published by the Poet’s Press. A little while later I heard he was in jail.

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After he had finished six months in jail, he drove to San Francisco with a friend. I suspected that he was intrigued by the talk about a “Love Community” in Haight-Ashbury and the Diggers’ free money.

He liked the city, but was disappointed by the people, and a few weeks ago he was back in New York, but he didn’t get much of a homecoming. Ginsberg was in Italy and Panna Grady, a long-time patron, was in London and Peter Orlovsky was in a surly mood. He had spent the money Ginsberg had left to get him to London, and again, the line at Manhattan General proved to be too long for his patience. He stooped to selling salt pills as Owsley acid. And all the people he supposedly burned were rumored to be waiting for his upcoming reading at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie. It seemed that, for once, the audience would be taking the collection. But, deft as ever, Huncke survived the reading and went off to rap with Neal Cassady.

The other day he came by to visit again, and we sat in a bar on Seventh Avenue and talked. Huncke had a coke — he is repulsed by liquor — and I asked him to recall again how he came to meet William Burroughs.

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“I met Bill in 1944,” he said. “I had just come back from a trip to South America. Bill had met a friend of mine from Cleveland, a guy like something from a Humphrey Bogart movie, with padded shoulders, a felt hat and a flashy tie. He had a job as a soda jerk around Columbia. I think his intention was to case the neighborhood. And Burroughs approached him and asked if he could get rid of a sawed-off shotgun. Burroughs always had a sort of interest in the underworld. So this friend brought Burroughs down to my apartment, with the gun and several gross of morphine Syrettes. When I first saw Burroughs I thought he was a Treasury agent.

“He thought he’d like to try the morphine just once. We turned him on. He was a natural. The next thing we knew he joined forces with us.”

Burroughs was then at Columbia where he had, Huncke recalled, “a coterie which included Kerouac and Allen, who idolized him, and myself. I was sort of introduced as an oddity that should be observed.

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“At this same time, the Kinsey report was taking shape. I had met Dr. Kinsey in Times Square, and I introduced him to Allen and others. We used to get together in the Angler Bar, which was off 42nd Street. We’d sit there and talk and eat and drink. Bill was interested in karate. One of the most interesting things I ever witnessed was Bill trying to give a knockout blow with three fingers to break up a fight. He had gathered his coat around him elegantly, with all the dignity and reserved demeanor he had, and he was trying to reach over the heads in the brawl to hit the guy.”

In 1947, Huncke and Burroughs went to Texas. “It was a beautiful year,” Huncke said. “Just Bill, myself, his wife, and young Bill was born in July. We lived in a little weatherbeaten cabin on the edge of the bayou, and we raised a crop of pot. We were going to try to raise oriental poppies in a hothouse.

“Bill had his pistols and did target practice. He used to stand out there and draw with his pistols strapped to his side and shoot at the barn. Then Neal Cassady and Allen drove down from San Francisco. Neal and Bill and I drove back to New York in a jeep with the pot, and Allen took the train.

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“I didn’t see too much of Burroughs after that. Then Bill went to Tangiers, and I just hung around, hooked all the time, using junk, junk, junk. I’ve been using junk for more than 30 years. I can’t write without it. I can’t live without it.”

He can’t live without it. Herbert Huncke, apostle of junk, immortalized in more than one Kerouac novel, eulogized in Ginsberg’s ravings, godfather to “Naked Lunch.” As he fumbled for a match in the bar on Seventh Avenue, I could see that it was time for him to go again in search of that small bag that holds his bones together.

I gave him the money to buy it, and I hoped that he would find it. ❖

1967 Village Voice article by Don McNeill about the writer and New York Times denizen Huncke the Junkie

1967 Village Voice article by Don McNeill about the writer and New York Times denizen Huncke the Junkie


The Grand Central Riot: Yippies Meet the Man

Inside A Yip-In

All the brass was watching. Chief Inspector Sanford Garelik, shielded by a cluster of Tactical Patrol Force heavies, leaned against the wall in the 42nd Street entrance to Grand Central Station, intently watching the churning sea of demonstrators. Sid Davidoff and Barry Gottehrer, Lindsay’s roving sensory apparatus, roamed around the terminal for hours. And a dozen privileged persons of some sort lined the balcony above the escalators leading to the Pan Am Building, observing the melee below like Romans digging the arena. 

All the brass were watching, and the cops were having a ball. “It was the most extraordinary display of unprovoked police brutality I’ve seen outside of Mississippi,” Alan Levine, staff counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said at a press conference on Saturday. “The police reacted enthusiastically to the prospect of being un­leashed.” Levine reported seeing several people forced to run a gauntlet of club-wielding cops while trying to flee from what has been characterized as a “police riot.” Spitting invective through clenched teeth, cops hit women and kicked demonstrators who had fallen while trying to escape the flailing nightsticks. It was like a fire in a theater. 

It was a Yip-In. “Its a spring mating service celebrating the equinox,” read a Yippie handbill, “a back-scratching party, a roller­-skating rink, a theater, with you, performer and audience.” The Yip-In was held for Yippies to get acquainted, and to promote the Yippies’ “Festival of Life,” which will coincide with the Democratic National Convention in Chicago this summer. 

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The promotion was as heavy as the planning was weak. The Yip-In was announced at a press conference at the Americana Hotel, and several thousand handbills were distributed urging Yippies to come to Grand Central Station at midnight on Friday. Why Grand Central Station? “It’s central, man,” said one Yippie. How many Yippies would come? Well, it was a good way to test the pull of the media. 

The media pulls, and a lot of people came. Most came by subway, coming up out of the bowels of the 42nd Street station to fill the mammoth terminal like a diverted river might fill a dry lake. Soon it was a sea of heads, and it was hard to move. Balloons bounced above the crowd, as an estimated 6,000 people were jammed together under the vaulted ceiling.

The crowd stirred and the balloons bounced for almost an hour, while the terminal continued to fill. Occasionally clusters of people took up chants, ranging from “Yippie!” to “Long Hot Summer!” to “Burn, Baby, Burn!” Shortly before one, kids began to climb to the roof of the information booth in the center of the terminal, where they began to lead the chants, and one militant climbed to the pinnacle of the information booth, striking a “Workers, Arise!” pose, his fist raised in the air, and unfurled a banner which read, vertically, “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!” Two cherry bombs exploded, and the sound was greatly amplified in the huge room. Now the balconies were packed, and the cops were quivering in formation in the 42nd Street entrance. 

There are four clocks on top of the information booth, and as the roof became more crowded the temptation to rape time apparently became irresistible. First kids turned the hands around, and then the hands suddenly disappeared. 

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I was standing close to the cops when they started to clear the entrance, shoving people into the terminal or out in the street, where more cops were waiting in formation. I ran around the corner to the Vanderbilt Avenue entrance, and came to the balcony that overlooked the terminal in time to see a wedge of blue slice into the crowd, nightsticks swinging, until they came to the information booth, where they paused. The kids slid off the roof and the crowd recoiled. The police surrounded the information booth and, in seconds, now rein­forced, charged the crowd again, forcing the demonstrators back into the huge corridor which led to the subway. The crowd simply made a U-turn in a connecting corridor and flowed back into the terminal, and the cops went wild. 

Now another formation of cops charged toward the stairs where I was standing, and I made for the street again, rounded the corner, and returned to the 42nd Street entrance, which was now entirely filled with police. I pinned on my press credentials and began to move through the police line. My credentials were checked twice, and I was allowed to pass. At that point, I was stopped a third time by two uniformed cops. They looked at my credentials, cursed the Voice, grabbed my arms behind my back, and, joined by two others, rushed me back toward the street, deliberately ramming my head into the closed glass doors, which cracked with the impact. They dropped me in the street and disappeared. My face, and my press card, were covered with blood. I went to the hospital to get five stitches in my forehead. 

So I missed the climax of the Yip-In, but I can pass on various accounts of witnesses. The police, it seems, continued to charge the crowd at random, first charging, always swinging the nightsticks, then pulling back, then charging again. Sometimes several formations of police charged simultaneously in different directions. The exits were jammed and the crowd was in a panic, desperately trying to avoid the nightsticks. The police kept charging.

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During all this time, arrests were being made. Within two hours, 57 persons were arrested, on charges ranging from felonious assault and criminal mischief to resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. At least 20 persons were taken to hospitals for treatment. 

The arrest procedure followed a brutal pattern. Most of the people arrested were automatically beaten with nightsticks. (The cops didn’t seem to want anyone to walk out after having been arrested.) “If you protected yourself, you were resisting arrest,” a witness said. “If you didn’t, you were knocked out.” A youth was arrested near the escalator leading into the Pan Am Building, and was dragged across the terminal, screaming with pain, while police kicked him in the groin. He finally collapsed, and police grabbed him by the back of the belt, and carried him out to the waiting paddy wagons. 

At another point, Voice columnist Howard Smith relates, the police made a charge toward the west side of the terminal, and a soda bottle came flying out of the crowd, striking a cop. Five cops grabbed a kid — ­the wrong one, Smith said — and shoved him into the door of Track 32, where they began beating him with nightsticks. While the kid, later identified as Jon Moore, 17, screamed “I didn’t do it” and “It wasn’t me,” the crowd shouted “Sieg Heil!” Still the beating continued. Some other cops approached and tried to stop the beating, Smith said, and then a police captain approached and made the guise of breaking it up. Moore, who was now hunched over protecting his head and groin, looked up, and the captain grabbed his head and cracked it against the iron grating of the door, cursing “you son of a bitch.” The captain then turned away, brushing his hands, and Moore was taken out of the station. He was later charged with felonious assault. 

These incidents were not exceptional. Ronald Shea, 22, was shoved by police through a plate-glass door. He raised his hands to protect his face, and the broken glass severed every essential tendon and nerve in his left hand. In six months, doctors at Roosevelt Hospital say, he may regain partial use of his hand. Shea was not arrested. 

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Witnesses charged that several plainclothesmen, who had infiltrated the crowd before the police charged, were even more brutal than the uniformed cops when the swinging started. They add that the plainclothesmen, who wore no badges, refused to identify themselves when questioned by accredited newsmen. Several instances were reported when cops struck or intimidated people seen writing down badge numbers. Witnesses emphasize that no warning or order to disperse was given at any time before or after the police charged the demonstrators, although a public address system was presumably available in the station. Ed Sanders of the Fugs contends that the people would have responded to a warning. “People who come to Yippie demonstrations are very reasonable,” he said. “There was no reason to rush in and crunch.” 

After the police first charged, Abbie Hoffman, YIP leader, report­edly approached Barry Gottehrer, assistant to the mayor, and asked to use the terminal’s public address system. Gottehrer replied that he thought Hoffman was “an hour and a half late,” and refused. Hoffman then asked that the police be pulled out, and Gottehrer presumably refused again. 

After an hour and a half, the cops calmed down, and the remaining demonstrators were allowed to remain in the terminal. Others went to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, also staked out with police, where the organizers of the Yip-In had planned to meet to “yip up the sun.” By 4:15 A.M., Grand Central Station was empty. 

Saturday morning, the key leaders of the YIP, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner, and Bob Fass, left New York to fly to Chicago for a conference regarding the planning of activities during the Democratic National Convention. Later that morning, the 57 people arrested were arraigned in court. Most of the people were represented by Legal Aid. YIP had made no arrangements for lawyers or bail.

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There was a lot of garbage and buck-passing flying around during the following days. Gottehrer, at a YIP press conference Sunday night, placed considerable emphasis on the crowd on top of the information booth, the cherry bombs, and the damage to the clocks. He refused to concede any misconduct on the part of the police. YIP spokesmen complained about a breakdown of communications, insisting that they had never considered the possibility or violence. On Monday, the scuttlebutt at City Hall included rumors that some of the demonstrators were carrying dynamite Friday night, and privately city officials alleged that the police received two bomb threats at Grand Central Station. Now the rumors have gone even further, with representatives of both sides darkly referring to “provocateurs” who incited the police to riot. 

As I see it, the central issue — besides the astonishing brutality of the police — was a failure in planning on the part of both YIP and the city that borders on gross incompetence and irresponsibility. Although YIP had been in contact with the mayor’s office before the demonstra­tion, the city gave no indication as to what their response would be. The city urged YIP to consult with the New York Central Railroad, which owns Grand Central Station, which YIP did not do. The demonstration was allowed to form without interference or objection and, an hour later, without warning, the police viciously attacked the crowd. There was little direction or coordination evident in the cops’ attack; they seemed to be improvising. YIP did not even bring a megaphone so that they could address their own people; in the situation that developed, the leaders found themselves impotent. The cardinal insanity was the selection of Grand Central Station for an enormously publici­zed demonstration of totally indeterminate size. The Yip-In was the fourth and by far the largest demonstration to be held at the terminal. The first three all ran into cops. It was a pointless con­frontation in a box canyon, and somehow it seemed to be a pro­phecy of Chicago. ❖

From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Merging of Messages, Proliferation of Protest

Saturday in New York: Merging of Messages, Proliferation of Protest
May 2, 1968

I remember a year ago, when the march began in the Sheep Meadow, and the people walked through the midtown streets until they came to the plaza of the United Nations to hear the man they now mourn repeat as a litany, “Stop the Bombing!” Last Saturday, half a world away, the bombs still fell on the rutted earth of Vietnam, and the people came back to the Sheep Meadow, now to hear the widow of Martin Luther King speak of the road ahead.

“My husband always saw the problem of racism and poverty at home and militarism abroad as two sides of the same coin,” she said. “The inter-relatedness of domestic and foreign affairs is no longer questioned. The bombs we drop on the people of Vietnam continue to explode at home with all the devastating potential.”

The mood of the demonstration this April was confident yet cautious. There was not the same exhilaration in finding many thousands of people of like minds together, for it was no surprise. In 12 months peace had become popular. Lyndon Johnson had an­nounced his retirement, and pow­erful candidates were campaign­ing for peace. Now the Mayor greeted the march, and reiterat­ed his call for an end to the war. Finally there seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel.

So encouraged, 90,000 people came to the Sheep Meadow last Saturday to press for final resolution.

“You who have worked with and loved my husband so much,” Mrs. King said to the people, “you who have kept alive the burning issue of war in the American conscience, you who will not be deluded by talk of peace, but who will press on in the knowledge that the work of peacemaking must continue until the last gun is silent… I come to you in my grief only because you keep alive the work and dreams for which my husband gave his life.”

Helicopters circled noisily overhead as the two massive feeder marches poured into Central Park and filled the 12-acre Sheep Meadow as a diverted river might create a lake. More than 120 groups were represented at the march: veterans, draft resisters, religious groups, the black community, the Puerto Rican community, women’s groups, labor groups, professional groups, and a mammoth contingent of high school and college students, primed for the occasion by a national student strike against the war on Friday. The marchers remained in the Sheep Meadow for more than three hours, to hear more than 20 speakers and en­tertainers from the platform built on the hill on the south side of the Meadow.

Although a separate group, the Coalition for an Anti-Imperialist March, which split with the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee in protest over Mayor Lindsay’s appearance at the demonstration, encountered police violence at Washington Square, the Sheep Meadow rally was not marred by serious violence. There were, however, several incidents involving a group of pro-war youths who infiltrated the march.

Shortly before the main groups of peace marchers arrived, a group of 150 youths, many waving American flags, charged up a hill on the southwest corner of the meadow toward a large ban­ner reading “Revolutionary Lit­erature” which had been set up by the Socialist Workers Party. They crashed through the banner and scattered the literature.

Purely by coincidence, coming up the other side of the hill were the survivors of the Coalition for an Anti-Imperialist March, which had lost 80 members to the police at Washington Square. The Coali­tion, which includes Youth Against War and Fascism and the U.S. Committee to Aid the NLF, marched behind a banner which read “The Streets Belong to the People,” and carried several NLF flags and placards of Che Guevara. The attacking youths seemed astonished, but charged ahead, and the two groups clashed, fists swinging. It was a melee, as police rushed in to break up the fight. The pro-war youths pulled back to the top of the hill, where they burned an NLF flag, and the Coalition pushed across the now crowded meadow, their flags and placards bobbing above the heads of the demonstrators.

The Coalition rallied among the trees at the east side of the Sheep Meadow and told demonstrators about the police action at Washington Square. Meanwhile, the pro-war group circled around the south side of the meadow and a few minutes later attacked again. Several fistfights were broken up by police, and the attackers, some still carrying American flags, pulled back. While people from the main rally urged the Coalition to return to the Sheep Meadow, the two groups hurled sticks, cans, and handfuls of sod at each other. The Coalition chanted, “Remember Washington Square!” and “Up Against the Wall,” and the pro-war group yell­ed, “Why don’t you go to Viet­nam?” and “Support Our Boys in Vietnam.” The police finally persuaded the pro-war group to leave the park.

Meanwhile, Mayor Lindsay had arrived at the rally, where he was greeted by loud applause and scattered booing. He spoke briefly, reaffirming his opposition to the war and his support for the men who are fighting in Vietnam.

Other speakers included the comedian Dick Gregory, the Reverend William Sloan Coffin, Jr., Franz Schurmann, Professor of East Asian Studies at Berkeley, who described his recent trip to Hanoi, actress Viveca Lindfors, who spoke of a recent meeting with North Vietnamese and NLF women in Paris, Linda Morse of the Student Mobilization Committee, and Michael Ferber of the Resistance.

Near the end of the rally, a group of students from Columbia urged demonstrators to join them in a march to the site of the controversial gym construction in Morningside Park. They led a group of about 1500 demonstrators out of the west side of the meadow, and began to march up the West Drive of Central Park. Soon several mounted policemen began to follow the group. A student with a bullhorn said that they would follow the West Drive up to 108th Street, unless the were stopped by police, in which case the demonstrators should disperse and reassemble outside Columbia. Several blocks later, they were stopped by police who ordered them to disperse, and the demonstrators left the West Drive and walked over the grass to the west wall of the park which they helped each other climb. The student with the bullhorn gave subway instructions, and the group slowly began to disperse, most of them walking slowly up the sidewalk on Central Park West.

But the police began to arrive in force, in many patrol cars and with several paddy wagons. Police were pushing the march­ers on from behind, and at 84th Street their path was blocked by more police. A paddy wagon pulled up and plainclothesmen began to arrest the marchers. I counted 20 who were led or shoved into the wagon. The re­maining marchers rushed over the park wall and climbed up a steep rocky hill on the edge of the park, and dispersed among the trees on the top of the hill, they chanted “Sieg Heil!” at the plainclothes police, who were still catching marchers. Suddenly, the police leaped over the wall and began to scramble up the steep hill in pursuit of the marchers, who fled into the woods. The plainclothesmen caught a few and dragged them, half sliding themselves, down the hill to the waiting wagons.

An hour later, about 500 of the marchers assembled on 116th Street between Amsterdam and Morningside Avenues. The demonstration at the gym site — a handbill, printed by the United Black Front, said they were going to fill in the hole — had been called off because of the number of police in the area, and students from the “liberated areas” on campus came out to address the marchers from a mall on the third story of the building overlooking 116th Street.

A student spoke to the march­ers through a bullhorn and said that the Strike Committee asked that they not attempt to enter the campus. The marchers applauded. Then he introduced former SDS National Chairman Tom Hayden who, the student said, was also chairman of Mathematics Liberated Area.

“The morale inside the five liberated areas is fine,” Hayden told the marchers. “There is plenty of food. The barricades are built firmly and strongly. We are prepared to resist until the end.”

Hayden said that the back windows of the Math Area were open overlooking Broadway, and there was a dialogue going on with people in the street. “You can go over to Broadway if you want to talk to people inside the building,” he said. “The discus­sions are good. That’s the way to get in.

“There has been no political break in the situation, so the students have no alternative but to hold on. Their existence and re­sistance is on the line.

“This situation is one in which Vietnam is coming home to America. This situation is one in which those people who claim to be the administrators in this society call in the police to pro­tect them from their own people.

“This should be an example to you. The best way you can express your solidarity is to spread this through the city and country, to spread this so there won’t be enough police to deal with the situation.

“If we go down,” Hayden con­cluded, “we want the rest of the city to go down with us.” It was a weekend in which the issues seemed to merge. The rally in Sheep Meadow was a demonstration against the war, but at the same time it was used to enlist support for projects ranging from the Poor People’s Campaign to nuclear disarmament to the student occupation of Columbia. Mrs. King not only called for an end to the war, but called upon Congress to restore the recent cuts in the welfare section to the Social Security amendments, and asked that Congress establish a guaranteed annual income.

“Never in the history of this nation,” she said, “have the people been so forceful in reversing the policy of our government in regard to war. We are indeed on the threshold of a new day for the peacemakers.

“But just as conscientious ac­tion has reversed the tide of public opinion and government policy, we must now turn our attention and the soul force of this movement of people of good will to the problems of the poor here at home.…

“With this determination,” she concluded, “with this faith, we will be able to create new homes, new communities, new cities, a new nation — yes, a new world which we desperately need.”

From The Archives From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES show-old-images THE FRONT ARCHIVES VOICE OF THE AGES

A Young Reporter’s Dazzling (and Tragically Short) Career at the Village Voice

I got a hot tip when I read an Esquire magazine interview with the accomplished writer Ron Rosenbaum, known for his insightful and compulsively readable long-form pieces. In 1971 he had published “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” about a group of kids known as “phone phreaks” who were hacking the long-distance telephone system. The article was so exhilarating that a 21-year-old Steve Wozniak called his 16-year-old friend Steve Jobs to rave about all the revelations he was finding on Esquire’s pages. Rosenbaum’s prescient investigation has been cited as a “‘foundation event’ for the creation of Apple Computer.”

But what really caught my attention in the 2017 Rosenbaum interview were these lines, where he talks about applying for a job at the Village Voice after working at the Fire Island News, in the summer of 1968: “At the end of the summer I went in for an interview and to my surprise got hired on the spot because they had a slot for counterculture reporting. I don’t know if the name Don McNeill means anything to you but he was the early era of counterculture reporting. He was very talented, famous for having his bloody visage blown up on the front page of the Voice. Anyway, McNeill was involved with a bunch of people in a commune in Massachusetts and that summer he walked into a pond and didn’t come out. And there’s still controversy whether it was a suicide or an accident. There was a replacement for him that didn’t work out so there was an opening.”

From the Village Voice card catalog.

The name Don McNeill didn’t ring any bells with me, but the picture Rosenbaum mentioned did. I knew I had seen it at some point during my years of flipping through the yellowed pages of the Voice’s archive volumes.

First I checked the card catalog we keep in the archive room, an incomplete but invaluable resource of Voice — and, therefore, postwar American — history. Among maybe two dozen entries I found the ones above, which give a clear indication of McNeill’s counterculture beat. One article we will definitely have to resurface one of these days is the piece on LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), in which the poet-playwright-thinker was being tried for “possession of weapons and poetry.”

But I wanted to find the photo and story Rosenbaum remembered, and I had to go a little further into that year of 1968. I found it in March.

McNeill had gone to cover a “Yip-In” at Grand Central: “All the brass was watching and the cops were having a ball. ‘It was the most extraordinary display of unprovoked police brutality I’ve seen outside of Mississippi,’ Alan Levine, staff counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said at a press conference on Saturday. ‘The police reacted enthusiastically to the prospect of being unleashed.’” The piece goes on to describe a police riot: “Cops hit women and kicked demonstrators who had fallen while trying to escape the flailing nightsticks. It was like a fire in a theatre.” Obviously, from the picture — which both Rosenbaum and I remembered — McNeill had been in the middle of the mêlée. But when I turned to the jump page, it was gone. Aaarrrgghh. An occasional occurrence — some cretin tears pages out sometime over the past half-century.

But then, a few months further on, I found the bad news. In the August 15, 1968, issue, film critic Leticia Kent writes a heartfelt remembrance of McNeill, who had drowned in a pond in Monroe, New York. (Rosenbaum remembered it as Massachusetts, but the distinction doesn’t really matter. McNeill was 23. Rosenbaum has other memories — possible suicide, for example — that I couldn’t find anything about.)

In her article, Kent notes that both of McNeill’s parents were reporters and that he “vowed not to become a newsman. But he joined The Voice as a staff writer in the summer of 1966. No contradictions. The Village Voice, he insisted, was not a newspaper.” Kent adds, “As a writer, he was older than himself at 23. He was an illuminator, humble before his own illuminations…” Indeed, McNeill wrote about police brutality partly because he experienced it firsthand. But Kent also quotes passages that, from the brief encounters with McNeill in the archives, ring as true as we can know someone from newsprint.

Here’s one example, from a piece about a “Be-In” in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow: “People climbed into trees and made animal calls, and were answered by calls from other trees. Two men stripped naked and were gently persuaded to re-clothe as the police appeared. Herds of people rushed together from encampments on the hills to converge en masse on the great mud of the meadow. They joined hands to form great circles, hundreds of yards in diameter, and broke to hurtle to the center in a joyous, crushing, multi-embracing pigpile. Chains of people careened through the crowds at full run. Their energy seemed inexhaustible.

“The password was ‘LOVE’ and it was sung, chanted, painted across foreheads…”

In a 1970 archive volume, I discover that a collection of McNeill’s writing was published that year. A New York Times review from that summer reports that “the book hangs together, which it does better than most any collection of short pieces I have read, [and] is a tribute to the pure line of McNeill’s preoccupations. His preoccupations were those of his friends; often, in fact, he wrote about his friends, and it seemed almost accidental that in chronicling the lives of this collection of Buddhists, Diggers, street‐people, runaways, speedfreaks and acid‐heads, he was also chronicling one of the most radical cultures to have emerged in 20th-century America.”

Plus, we get the missing jump page about that police beating. But it seems beside the point now, in the larger scheme of what McNeill — a reluctant reporter who found a home with a paper that understood — accomplished in two very brief years. His book may be out of print, but over time his stories will be back in print, such as it is, here at From the Archives.