Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.
New York City, 1971: The bed, rarely made, floats in a room painted orange with big violet stars.
She spends most of her days and nights in the bed, sleeping and writing. Her hair is cut short. Twice, unable to do anything with it, she shaves it all off.
The inside of the closet is violet, matching the stars. The room could be anywhere, really, although in actual fact it’s on the sixth floor of a building in Washington Heights, upper Manhattan, straddling the corner of Broadway and 163rd. There are gates on the two skinny windows, which face north to 163rd Street. Even in 1971, the old prewar building, with its large corniced lobby, has seen better days.
The bedroom is spacious and shabby. When they arrived in New York, they scavenged for furniture in a friend’s basement. There’s a black, red and white Navajo rug, a commode and two nightstands, a wood breakfast table and two matching chairs.
Mornings, the sound of the boiler kicking on wakes them up early, and they go back to sleep. Steam heat moves through the pipes, but it never fully warms up the room. The apartment is on the top floor of the building. Down the hallway, a staircase leads up to the roof, and sometimes she goes up to look at the view. There’s a second, back bedroom in the apartment with a desk and a typewriter, two sleeping bags, some spare clothes and a piano that belongs to the man’s estranged wife but still hasn’t been moved. That winter, the US invades Laos, Charles Manson is sentenced to death, and New York is rainy and cold. Two rival factions of the Black Panther Party engage in retaliatory assassinations. Four people are killed. No one will ever know if the shootings were carried out or provoked by FBI infiltrators.
The woman who lives here is 23, soon to turn 24. Kathy Acker, nee Alexander, grew up in New York, but returning after six years away, she feels alone and estranged. Her family’s apartment on E. 57th Street is just a few miles away, but she never goes home. Her parents still live there, and she does not want to see them. When she thinks of her childhood at all, she remembers the green walls and red flowered curtains of her hated bedroom in “the 57th Street prison.”
I’m ugly, I’m not ugly, she writes, if I dress eccentrically enough. I’m hideous with my short hair and draggy breasts.
Her boyfriend, Len Neufeld, is 28, but he seems a lot older, in a seductive way. Sitting up under the covers one night, she records how he lies beside me reading The Presentation of Self waiting for me so he can get some sleep he works tomorrow his hair’s pushed back into a ponytail and wrinkles are lining the top of his face.
His plan, when they moved here together from San Diego in May, was to finish his dissertation but each day the plan moves a little further away. He owes $100 a month child support to his soon-to-be former wife, and another $20 a month to the lawyer. He studied linguistics with Noam Chomsky, but like Acker, he sees himself as a writer. In the bedroom together, they write down their dreams.
On weekdays, Len Neufeld works in midtown at Burt Lasky’s editorial agency, but he makes almost as much every Sunday, when he and his girlfriend perform in the “live sex show” at the Fun City, a Times Square emporium owned by Marty “King of the Peeps” Hodas. They take the subway to and from work, where they earn $120 for performing six shows, 20 or 30 minutes each time.
Bob Wolfe, a hippy porn entrepreneur, got them the gig in December when he was hired by Hodas to manage the club. Arriving back in New York in the early summer, they’d scoured the classified ads in the Voice for nude modeling and sex loops, anything really that would buy them some time.
Wolfe’s 14th Street basement studio would soon become the ground zero of New York’s adult film industry, but the audition Polaroids of nude hippies taken in 1971 offer a baffling clue to the mores of that era. Clothed in their nakedness, affect-less girls with flat features and long stringy hair stand in front of Wolfe’s camera, presenting themselves matter-of-factly, without guile, without shame. The women are either refusing to sexualize their bodies, or they don’t have a clue how to do it. Just one year later, Linda Lovelace’s Deep Throat would revolutionize the porn industry and take it mainstream, but until then, any white girl with breasts who was more or less height-weight proportionate would do.
Neufeld and Acker had already performed in perhaps a dozen film loops and photo shoots at Bob Wolfe’s studio. As an attractive straight couple without drug habits who showed up on time, they found themselves highly employable. When Wolfe offered them the Fun City job, it seemed like a good situation: with the Sunday night money, Acker could stay home and write without taking a 9-5 job. The two months she’d spent as a file clerk for Texaco Oil between her freshman and sophomore years at Brandeis convinced her she wasn’t well suited to “robot” employment.
Besides, unlike the film loops, no one was required to have actual sex in the “sex show.” The performers wore costumes, feathers and furs: the more clothes, the longer it takes to remove them. The performers were charged with inventing their own semi-improvised scripts. These scripts could veer off in almost any direction, so long as they reached the conclusion that their heterosexual male audiences all waited for: full beaver spreads, the display and massaging of breasts, faux-masturbation. Acker and Neufeld were more audaciously digressive than most of their colleagues: in one of their routines, she plays a patient confessing her sexual Santa Claus fantasies to her aroused psychoanalyst. They work her shaved head into the act: she’s become Joan of Arc, she’s completely delusional.
The young woman who writes in these notebooks likes the sex show because it takes her as far as imaginable from her upper East Side, private school childhood; she hates the show because it’s degrading. She banters with customers, but then they jerk off under their raincoats. Sometimes she thinks she’s reached a dead end in her life. Should she go back to school, become a fashion designer? Neufeld seems to encourage this. He wants her to be self-supporting, which, she
assumes, means he doesn’t want to be responsible for her. During the four months that they work at Fun City, she keeps several notebooks, in tandem. One notebook records her actions and thoughts; another her dreams. She writes all the time, willing herself to break down the boundaries between waking and dreaming. You have to
become a criminal or a pervert … she writes. I find I can only talk to those people who are loose in the ways they live to the extent of perversity a strange addiction to 42nd Street … At readings, when people ask what she’s doing, she never says writing. Instead, she tells them the sex show and they say wonderful, great. Later, she hates herself for it, but still loves the attention. There’s no escaping the fact that the Fun City room smells of ammonia, piss, semen. Her dreams about childhood are scenes of escape: a river, a park, a small bit of earth in the cold, damp late autumn. Outdoors and alone, she feels strong … the beginning of a great joy, she writes in her diary.
Often, she describes herself, Neufeld and their friends as “angels.” There are good angels, bad angels,
angels who live just as spirits. The angels are making me into a distortion pulling out my eyes destroying my brains. Meanwhile, The show is like the lowest way to make the basic bread completely without responsibility except for the twenty minutes after I get onstage … Backstage between shows, she writes in the notebooks. She writes in the restaurant next door during breaks. She writes sitting in bed under the covers while Neufeld’s awake, and she writes in the apartment’s back room when he’s asleep. The neighbor downstairs complains about typewriter noise. [O]ur writing is a religious act and has no other uses.
2 to 4 SENTENCES
she writes in her notebook that March, although most days she writes a lot more. Apart from the few hours each week she spends at Fun City, Acker’s
two jobs in New York are sleeping and writing: I can sleep 16 hours a day after a while the distinction between waking and sleeping consciousness disappeared a semi-controllable continuum in which animals and men resembled each other, she writes in January.
And, two weeks later: … this writing is getting to be like junk I’m going crazy doing it want more I decided to write so much a day have to write so that I keep in touch with my feelings not to over-write.
Acker isn’t alone in these experiments. She reads Brion Gysin and
William S. Burroughs, the instructions for reaching simultaneous wraparound consciousness that will eventually be published in The Third Mind. She reads Bernadette Mayer, who is already writing durational texts, graphing the process of emotive thinking. As Acker notes in a diary written several months after quitting the sex show, B. Mayer’s work list of daily events facts (whatever “facts” means) collage from Emma Goldmann’s autobiography I feel her work touches reality I distrust my own “USE only words which directly correspond to images” (Burroughs) what the fuck is going on here?
Still, in a literal way, she feels completely alone. She doesn’t know other writers. Neufeld’s friends are much older. His mentor and friend Jerome Rothenberg lives with his wife Diane in an apartment on the fifth floor. At work with George Quasha on America A Prophecy, an enormous anthology of American poetry from Pre-Columbian to present times, Rothenberg is then forty years old and at the height of his fame as a great man of world poetry. He knows all the writers: his address book includes entries for Paul Celan, Julio Cortazar, Henri Michaux, Leroi Jones, Daphne Marlatt, George
Oppen, Paul Blackburn. Acker has a huge crush on Rothenberg—to the extent that she shows him her uncensored diaries, complete with her romantic and sexual fantasies about him—but he leaves for a Visiting Regent’s Professorship in San Diego that January. Almost 50 years later, George Quasha recalls Acker’s strategic naiveté. Despite what she wrote in her diaries, “I’ve never known KA to act shy, even if maybe she was. She was intentionally sexy, and I felt her coming on. But I didn’t bite.”