By Luc Sante September 21, 2020
When I was a teenager I was, like most teenagers, preoccupied with the idea that somewhere on the horizon there was a Now. The present moment came to a peak out there; it achieved a continuous apotheosis of nowness, a wave endlessly breaking on an invisible shore. I wasn’t quite sure what specific form this climax took, but it had to involve some concatenation of records, poems, pictures, parties, and behavior. Out there all of those items would be somehow made manifest: the pictures walking along in the middle of the street, the right song broadcast in the air every minute, the parties behaving like the poems and vice versa. Since it was 1967 when I became a teenager, I suspected that the Now would stir together rock ’n’ roll bands and mod girls and cigarettes and bearded poets and sunglasses and Italian movie stars and pointy shoes and spies. But there had to be much more than that, things I could barely guess. The present would be occurring in New York and Paris and London and California while I lay in my narrow bed in New Jersey, which was a swamplike clot of the dead recent past.
At the time I had been in the United States less than half my life and much about it was still strange. I constantly found myself making basic errors about social practices and taboos. My parents certainly couldn’t help me—they understood even less. There wasn’t really anyone I could ask who would answer my questions and not make fun of me. Through force of necessity I had become adept at amateur anthropology, deducing the ways and habits of the Americans from the semiotic clues they threw off in their relentless charge through the twentieth century. I read every piece of paper I could get my hands on. I became a big fan of mimeographed bulletins, local advertising circulars, political campaign literature, obsolete reference books, collections of antediluvian Broadway wit, hobbyist newsletters, charity solicitations, boys’ activity books from the thirties, travel magazines entirely cooked up in three-room office suites on Park Avenue South, and the Legion of Decency ratings in the weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Newark.
Every month I devoured Reader’s Digest, paying particular attention to the rubrics devoted to humorous anecdotes submitted by readers, because I was intent on figuring out how humor worked. I also pricked up my ears every time I heard Americans laughing, because it meant I might be able to glean a story that would earn me five bucks. (I never did, which in itself taught me an enormous amount about humor.) While I hated Catholic school, I treasured the reading matter the nuns threw at us: Dick and Jane books, missionary propaganda, gruesome martyrologies, slim collections of poetry edited and published by the Sisters of Charity. They were gold mines of data. Some of our textbooks were thirty or forty years old, with pictures that showed boys wearing plus fours and girls with oversize bows in their hair, and they were interestingly territorial. I particularly relished the story of Johnny, who had Protestant friends who goaded him constantly about his faith and were determined to get him to eat a meat sandwich on a Friday. Johnny finally succumbed, and on the way home he was run over by a streetcar.
Gradually I built up my store of knowledge. I was beginning to get a feel for the way people used language as a tool to pound nails with, and I dimly began to comprehend power relations and kinship patterns and the yawning gaps between ideal and actuality in the American project. Not that I could have accounted for those things in so many words, of course. It would be decades before I understood power relations as they affect just two people sitting at a breakfast table—and actually I’m not sure how much I understand them even now—but at least I could begin to arrange large color-coded bins in my head into which I could toss sundry items from the surrounding culture as they crawled across my purview.
Then, all of a sudden, came the Now. I discovered the Now at a specific time, in seventh grade, but it didn’t come from anywhere in particular. It arose from the ground. It was maybe hormonal. It was exciting and a little frustrating, because a whole new continent had lain under my nose for years without my getting wise, while sundry doofuses were all over it—anybody who had an older sibling was hep from on back. Before I had even begun to think about it they already had the clothes, the moves, the music. In order to catch up I went so far as to ride the chartered bus to Asbury Park in the snow for an away basketball game just to observe them in the field. But the scene was depressing and the gleanings scant. I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Henceforth I would stick to primary sources.
And for me that meant printed matter. I had to locate the parish bulletins of the Now, and the very first item I found seemed to answer to that description. In the local musical-instrument store lay a stack of Go magazine, free take one. Go was a grimy newsprint tabloid with color covers underwritten by record companies. It was strictly a booster sheet, very likely much of it cut-and-pasted from Billboard and Cashbox. It recorded, for example, the professional excitement aroused by the signing of four high school graduates from Marquette, Wisconsin, doing business under a name that made them sound vaguely British, to a record company in Pittsburgh with a name that made it sound vaguely familiar. That happened to be nearly the last point when the market was sufficiently porous to allow a chance at the big show to such collections of hopeful nonentities from nowhere, some of whom occasionally did make good, if briefly, and then their picture might appear in an advertisement that covered some portion of a page in Go. With its antenna turned at least in part toward the small-time, Go was in a position to educate me in certain detailed ways, chiefly concerning nomenclature and image. Of course, some of the information I derived from Go I could have gotten from Tiger Beat, but didn’t because that was for girls. I became familiar with photographic conventions that required teenage hoodlums and seasoned lounge lizards alike to pose as if in a perp lineup, sandwiched uncomfortably between grinning rack jobbers and promo men, while the caption alleged that they were in fact taking a break from their busy schedule. Go, founded and edited by Robin Leach, later of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, was as resolutely chipper as it was fundamentally cold, but even though it might as well have been chronicling supermarket openings or innovations in the automatic garage-door industry, it managed to convey some particle of the Now.
I had no money to speak of in that period—my weekly allowance had been frozen some years earlier at fifty cents—so my sources had to be gratis, via promotional handouts, shoplifting, the public library, or else Center Stationers, with its heavily laden magazine rack partly concealed from the cash register by a display of pipes, so that I could stand there and read things cover to cover as long as I kept an eye in the back of my head. I hadn’t yet encountered George Orwell’s observation that the contents of a small newsagent’s shop provide the best available indication of what the mass of people really feels and thinks, but I sensed something of the sort. The display contained magazines for every conceivable interest, it seemed, every hobby, every political affiliation, every affinity group. But there were no magazines targeting forward-looking young people who lived in or at least aspired to the Now.
There weren’t, that is, until a day early in 1968 when I spotted the first issue of Eye. This was no skimpy, low-budget rag with murky pictures, but rather a glossy, brilliantly colored coffee-table object nearly the size of Life. It was put out by Hearst, which knew a thing or two about marketing. They knew, for example, to include a poster in each issue, as well as plenty of send-in-the-coupon offers to obtain delightfully Now items absolutely free. I surreptitiously tore out a few of those coupons from the issues at Center Stationers, and thus was able to receive in the mail, after a four- to six-week interval, a 45-rpm flexidisc on which the Yardbirds touted the merits of an instant-milkshake powder, for instance. In this way Eye commanded my loyalty, so that I was barely disconcerted by the rest of the magazine. What Hearst knew about magazines had been gleaned from years of laboratory experiments at its Cosmopolitan franchise, which meant that Eye involved much lifestyle advice, many photographs of lissome young models of both sexes engaged in groovy leisure-time activities—flying kites, say—and covers studded with numerals: “10 Student Rebels Explain Their Cause”; “Test Your Mind’s 9 Electric Dimensions”; “Add 5 Sexy Years to Your Face With a Mustache.”
In September 1968 I began commuting to New York City every day, since I’d gotten a scholarship to a boys’ high school run by the Jesuits on the Upper East Side. Suddenly I was on the threshold of the infinite. It did not take long before I started wandering though the city, after school at first and then, increasingly, during times when I should have been in class. I once got off the train at Bleecker Street because I had heard its name in a song, but nothing much seemed to be happening. Then I walked along Eighth Street, MacDougal Street, St. Mark’s Place, Second Avenue, looking into the numerous poster shops and head shops and record shops and bookstores. There were leatherware shops and health-food restaurants and people’s clinics and a place that served ice cream flavors named after types of marijuana, and featured a long row of Hell’s Angels bikes parked outside. In between all those places were pork stores and bakeries and haberdasheries and shoe repairs where the normal business of the neighborhood went on as usual, involving people who were not young and assumed it would all go away eventually. I passed the Electric Circus and the Fillmore East, and people stopped to try and sell me drugs that I was pretty sure were fake. I wore a jacket and tie and carried a briefcase.
I had a million questions I couldn’t even frame as questions, which resolved into a single glowing orb of curiosity. My only recourse, as ever, was printed matter. In New York, this presented a challenge of its own. I was familiar with compiling information from scraps; here I was faced with a glut, a mountain of newsprint in a bewildering variety of forms. The newsstand huts that stood on seemingly every other corner, more or less identical at first glance, turned out to display sometimes wildly varying stock. Some sold academic journals; a number dealt in porn; you had specialists in foreign languages or hobby publications, in dream books or the rags of sundry left factions; a string of them sold underground newspapers. Those papers looked different even from a distance, often gaudy, often chaotic, often amateurish, and they made the newsstands jump with carnival colors. They only cost a quarter or thirty-five cents, so I began checking out the titles from all over the country that appeared irregularly, one month the Chicago Seed, the next month the LA Free Press, another the Berkeley Barb, this in addition to the local papers, the East Village Other and Rat.
When I actually started leafing through them I was nonplussed. It wasn’t that I had any problem with the ham-fisted layouts, the rough-and-ready typesetting, the photographs that invariably looked nine generations removed from the original image, the contrast between the thirties-infused comix and the aspirationally psychedelic illustrations, the nudity that I knew would cause me to have to abandon the paper on the train since my mother regularly searched my room, or even the occasional random use of color, such as printing whole patches of text in yellow, making it unreadable against a white background. The trouble was that I couldn’t read them anyway. The papers were written in a foreign language as far as I was concerned. I understood politics only in a visceral way—I was firmly against the war and in favor of the revolution, but I couldn’t have told you why beyond the fact that the first was odious and the second sounded like fun, although perhaps I had already absorbed the phrase “historically inevitable.” I could read the underground papers insofar as I could scan a page and herd the items under headings: over here was Vietnam, across the page was police brutality, down at the bottom was pot, or “dope” as it was called then. Beyond that, my vaunted text-mining skills abandoned me.
Yet I had seemingly arrived at the very gates of the Now. You could not possibly get more Now than those papers, published by rebel youths who had cut all ties to the mainstream, who ate and drank and slept revolution, who were the harbingers of that new world that would be coming around as soon as the entire demographic wave turned twenty-one. But the contents of the papers bore little resemblance to what I was led to expect by my preliminary investigations into the Now. The world they depicted was nothing at all like the psychedelic pleasure garden I had nebulously imagined. There were no glamorous personalities and no girls in floral minidresses; there was no music in the air and no spontaneous poetry on street corners. But I had started commuting to New York City a mere week after the Chicago Democratic convention, and whatever the mood may have been a few months earlier, by the middle of September it was very dark. “Resistance” was beginning to outpace “revolution” as a key word. A few correspondents were signing off with the phrase “armed love.” It was a run-up to the apocalyptic phase that began a year or so later, and it appeared that already there were people acquiring weapons, preparing for stand-offs. Were the pigs poised to make blanket raids on communities? Had internment camps been secretly built in the Mojave desert? People were starting to flee the cities in little groups, moving to abandoned farms, aiming for self-sufficiency. The ones who remained would soon be getting ready for war.
I was able to take the temperature of the papers I looked at, but my reading skills lagged principally because there was so little that matched up with my experience of life. What I most readily understood were the windiest bursts of rhetoric, which gave an unfortunate impression. But the hard news with its figures and acronyms might as well have been algebra, and approaches to practical matters appeared before my eyes as impenetrable blocks of gray text. What could a fourteen-year-old make of legal counsel, however sound and clearly articulated? And what about the medical advice? References to crabs and yeast infections just sounded vaguely culinary and not at all serious. But then even the food columns were beyond my ken. The very helpful section in the Seed that listed all the food options you could get for a dime, and the addresses of the markets where they could be procured, held no more meaning for me than if it had been written in Polish. My parents, who were grooming me as best they could for an adulthood they hoped would be very different from theirs, had taken care to shield me from knowledge of life’s exigencies.
I was repelled by the underground papers, even though I could not have admitted this to myself. I kept buying them because I kept hoping for a key to understanding those aspects that appeared as so many locked rooms, also maybe because I kept hoping to find one in which the world depicted at last corresponded to my imagined hippie utopia. Similarly, I continued to travel down to the Lower East Side, where I’d root through bookstores and record stores and trinket shops and occasionally see a show at the Fillmore, but the neighborhood made me uneasy. It was gray and squat and everything looked shabby, just like the factory town where we’d lived when I was a tot, or the factory towns where my parents despairingly looked at grim apartments during our first years in the United States, before they found a place in a leafy suburb. Who would want to live in such a place, I wondered, although if I had thought hard enough I would have realized that I knew, since I had a classmate, an emancipated minor, who paid $35 monthly rent for his own place in the neighborhood. But poverty, which my family was still engaged in escaping, was not something I could easily reconcile with my dream of the Now.
All would be different if I were older, I finally decided, if I were free from my parents and free from school. I needed emancipation from church and discipline and pointless unpaid labor in order to enter the enlightened state of mind required by my vocation as a poet. But I resolved that I wouldn’t make the choice to go live in some cold-water tenement or flea-infested hard-labor commune. Renouncing the world and its lures was all very well for ascetics, but that sort of purity held no appeal. I knew that Allen Ginsberg, for example, lived in such circumstances when he could have done much better for himself, but assumed that he was doing so to make a point. Was that point really so necessary to make? “If I can’t dance, you can keep your revolution,” I heard somewhere, and that seemed to settle it. I was an artist, wasn’t I, and as an artist I could hobnob and go to parties and travel to Europe and befriend the glamorous and the great. Since I then believed that anyone who published a book was paid a great deal of money, and knew that I would soon begin writing books, I thought my future was assured. I could see myself in the not-too-distant future, at last inhabiting the Now. The image was as vague as ever.
Years later, when I was at least chronologically an adult and free from family, school, and church, I lived on my own, with few responsibilities, and went out every night, often to see groups of people my age making amplified noise in bars. I considered myself some sort of artist, although I would have been hard pressed to provide material proof. I also had no money, and I lived on the Lower East Side in a dark apartment on the second floor rear of a badly maintained building that had its share of vermin and was often unheated for entire weeks in the winter, but nevertheless was inhabited by a few dozen artists of various descriptions, some of whom were quite well-known. By then nobody talked about revolution anymore. If there were any communes left they were well-hidden. There were a few objects on the stands that at least superficially resembled underground newspapers, but they failed to provide information on where to buy cheap groceries or how to confront landlords in court, and in general ignored the daily world. Instead they were all about bands and bars and clothing. I knew about most of those things without having to read the stories. At last I was living at the center of the Now.
Luc Sante was born in Verviers, Belgium. His books include Low Life, Evidence, The Factory of Facts, Kill All Your Darlings, Folk Photography, and The Other Paris. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award, Guggenheim and Cullman fellowships, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Grammy (for album notes), and an Infinity Award for Writing from the International Center of Photography. He has contributed to The New York Review of Books since 1981 and has written for many other publications. He is a visiting professor of writing and the history of photography at Bard College and lives in Ulster County, New York.
Excerpted from Maybe the People Would Be the Times, by Luc Sante, published this week by Verse Chorus Press. Copyright © 2020 by Luc Sante.