Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 14 April, 1997



A Brief Memoir of the Fifties

by Leo Skir


I was working in the Welfare office.
Someone called me to the phone. I can't remember who.
"Hello Leo?" the voice on the telephone said.
"Yes," I said, "What is it Sheila?"
"Have you heard about Elise?" she said.
"You mean that she's not going to Florida?"
"No," said Sheila, "she jumped out the window from her parents' apartment. The seventh story."
"Is she dead?" I said.
She was killed instantly," said Sheila.
There was more talk. Then the conversation ended. I hung up and tried to go back to work.

Elise was dead.

Allen was in Bombay.

I wrote him that night, getting a reply about a week later. He wrote:

Dear Leo: Thanks for your letter, I received it and Irving's the same day, & was a little emptied for a few days to hear about Elise, I just answered Irving and reread yours, & think, if it's all right with Irving, & you want to make book, use the letter I wrote Irving, of which I don't have a copy. There's not much about Elise in it but there are some remedies for nightmares, I don't think I could write well intentionally for an occasion, no matter how strange the occasion, as this, except by accident such as letter. Hope you are well, you sound cheerful your letter did find me both happy and in good head. Peter says Hello. How are Elise's parents? They must have been---god knows what. If you are in touch with them give them my respect & best wishes. I hope everybody is not scared or plunged further into painful dreams by Elise's hints. None of the dream systems is real, not even death's. The Self that sees all the plots is worth attention, not the plots. That's as far as I know. Good luck--Allen.

I had met her in 1949 at Hechalutz Hatzair's Zionist training farm in Poughkeepsie. It was Thanksgiving and already very cold in upstate New York. I was seventeen and a Columbia Freshman. Being seventeen was pretty old in our Youth Movement whose members usually went to Israel not to college. I was Movement leader. I had hung behind in America out of fear and asthma.

I was asthmatic that day, wheezing in the cold downstairs room at the farmhouse. The cold was seeping in through the windows. Almost everyone but me was out picking corn or throwing fertilizer on the earth.

I looked out the window at the workers. I was eating a piece of bread spread with colorless margarine.

Then she was there. Elise. Looking like so many of our Jewish girls, the sallow complexion, black lusterless hair bound with a rubber band, a diffident sulky air.

I introduced myself. She was not a Movement member.

"Why not?" I asked.

"I don't want to go to Israel," she said.

"Is there a place for you in America?" I said.

"No," she said.

"Is there some other country you are planning to go to?"

She smiled, embarrassed, the smile half-dissolving behind the thick lenses of her glasses. She pushed her finger nervously against the bridge of the glasses.

"Not yet," she said.

I didn't see her again at any Movement meetings or when I came back to the city.

I didn't see her again until my Senior year at college. I was a member of the Players and we were producing Henry IV: Part I. I was Peto. I had only one good line, "No No. They were not bound."

There was a girl who assisted in the dressing room. She told me she knew someone who knew me.

"Who?" I said.

"Elise Cowen," she said.

"I don't remember her," I said.

"She's a friend of a friend of yours," she said.

"I have no friends," I said. "There are no friends." (A quote from Aristotle.)

Later that evening I visited my friend Pittsburgh John, a rich gentile son of a Pittsburgh manufacturer. John was in deep analysis. He was not at home, but a girl was there.

It was Elise.

She was very nice, very shy, soft spoken. She didn't ask me why I wasn't in Israel, or if I would be going. I was no longer a Zionist. I was a neurotic Columbian student. So was Pittsburgh John. So was Elise. Being neurotic together.

She had brought over her Woodie Guthrie records, 78 shellacs. She had brought them from her parents' home in Washington Heights, to her little furnished room across the street from Pittsburgh John's. Her room had no phonograph but Pittsburgh John's did.

Pittsburgh John and Elise and I had many pleasant evenings together. When I was with Pittsburgh John he would talk about his relationship with Elise, and Elise would talk about her relationship with Pittsburgh John. Apparently it wasn't much of a relationship. They would talk about what they dreamt and what they said to their analyst and what the analyst said to them. Then they would go out to eat. They smoked a lot. Pall Mall. They didn't drink much. We all went to the movies a lot and classes very little.

Pittsburgh John got A's and B pluses. Elise and I got C's and D's and F's and WD (withdrawn) and NC (no credit).

One day, toward evening, I saw Elise wandering through the street.

She didn't seem to see me.

I called to her.

She was carrying the Woodie Guthrie record albums, 10 inch shellac 78's.

She told me Pittsburgh John had asked her to take the records and not visit for the next few weeks. His girlfriend from Pittsburgh would be in the city. She wouldn't understand.

Elise was broken. She talked to me about their relationship, how she wasn't really heartbroken since it wasn't a full adult love-relationship but only a dependency relationship.

She talked on and on.

"Am I boring you?" she asked.

"It's OK," I said.

"Please stay with me tonight," she said, "I don't want to be alone."

I went with her to her room. It was a small furnished room on the top story of a private house, one of those rooms that in "better days" had been the maid's.

"The janitor hasn't given me clean sheets for two weeks," she said. "I haven't paid the rent, so I can't talk to him."

We sat around and talked. I looked at her books. "The Oxford Anthology of Greek Poetry."

"I stole it from the library," she said.

"The Poems of Dylan Thomas."

"I bought it once when I was almost broke," she said. "Whenever I'm almost broke I buy an expensive book."

"The Pisan Cantos" of Pound.

"I stole that," she said, "I think that's the only moral way to get books."

She talked about her friends. I had thought she knew only Sheila and Pittsburgh John. She was part of a circle of poets and psychology students around Columbia. They were all having breakdowns.

She had tried to commit suicide the night before. There were scratches on her wrists. She had also turned on the gas ring for a while.

It was very late.

"Lets get to sleep," I said.

She covered the window with a blanket (she had no shades) and undressed, getting into little-girl pajamas. She washed out her underwear and gargled with an oxygenating rinse. She had trench mouth.

"I'll sleep in the chair," she said, "You can have the bed."

"Shit," I said, "Come on in."

She turned out the light, took the blankets off the window and came to bed.

The next day she got a statement from her analyst that she had to leave Barnard for a while and go back to her parents' home in Washington Heights.

I didn't see her again that term or that summer.

Before the term's end I had had my nervous breakdown and my analyst, a Horneyian on Park Avenue, had give me a note to Columbia telling them I needed a second Senior year. By the time my second Senior year had begun I'd split with my friend Clay and was onto a second nervous breakdown.

This, while working at the juicer-pouring and fried egg counter of the Lion's Den in John Jay basement at Columbia.

I was having a nervous breakdown, reading Shakespeare, frying eggs.

One morning (I worked from 8 am to 10 am) I looked up. There was only one person sitting at the Lion's Den tables.

It was Elise.

I went over to her.

She was reading Freud (the red-covered Perma-Book edition of the "Introductory Lectures") and drinking black coffee. She had returned to school. She was studying French. She wanted to read Rimbaud in the original.

She had met, slept with, was in love with a poet. She had worn a red dress the night she met him, had been speechless. He had thought her very deep. Slept with her.

Now she was afraid he would think she was deep.

Where was he now? He was in California with his friend, Peter.

I told her about Clay's defection.

"I'll be getting a room around Columbia," she said, "If things get too bad you can stay with me."

I can only remember one night at her room. It was a furnished room in the private apartment of a Russian woman. The room next to Elise was occupied by a Czech actress called Vera Fusek.

That evening I was terribly depressed over Clay.

"I think I'm going to commit suicide," I said.

"What's stopping you," said Elise. She was reading Rimbaud.

"If I wasn't a Catholic I'd have committed suicide long ago," said Vera.

The next morning we woke up late and the Russian landlady was already up. Before I left the room Elise made me wear a babushka. I had been wearing blue jeans, a leather jacket, and moccasins. Elise put on her blue jeans (rivets on her fly), her leather jacket, and combat boots. We nodded at the landlady as we left. I, a little conscious of my morning beard.

We got out of Columbia. We all managed somehow. Or we dropped out and went to another school. But we got through. We weren't the type to attend graduation ceremonies and shake hands and pick up diplomas. I can remember finding mine one afternoon while on my way to the psychiatrist. It was rolled up and in my mailbox at the student dorm. It was dated October 15th. I thought that no one else graduated October 15th. It didn't make me feel boo hoo or ha ha.

Then we were out and drifting in the world.

We began trying to make homes for ourselves. I had the top floor of the house of the sculptor Chaim Gross. It was on West 105th Street. I was moving downtown from Columbia.

Elise had an apartment with Sheila. One night I went to visit them.

A tall James Dean-looking boy was there. His name was Peter. Elise, bare chested was ironing clothes. Sheila was reading "Candide" in the bedroom. Peter was telling us of his first sexual experience with a Spanish whore.

"Excuse me," he said to me, "I hope you don't mind my slang, but are you homosexual?"

"I don't know yet," I said, "I'm in the middle of my analysis."

"Would you like to sleep with me?" he said.

"Of course," I said, "But it makes me a little nervous to sleep with strangers. I have to go now."

"I hope I haven't offended you," said Peter.

"I'm complemented," I said, "But I have to get up early to go to work."

I left.

I didn't visit Sheila and Elise's apartment for a long time after that but I would call, speaking sometimes to Sheila, sometimes to Elise, once to Allen who had moved in with them.

"Howl," had come out. Allen was famous. New York was closing in on him. For a while he and Peter stayed with Sheila and Elise. He was getting ready to go to Europe.

I went out with them all one night. We were going to a movie theater on 42nd Street to see Vitelloni. It was the first time I met Allen.

"I went to Columbia," I told him. "After you."

He looked at me. "Columbia ruined a lot of people," he said.

In the movie theater I was seated beside Peter's half-brother, Lafcadeo.

"Vitaloni" was on. I saw the city wasn't Rome.

"What city is that?" I asked Laf.

"New York," he said confidently.

Sheila and Elise split up right after Allen left for Europe.

I went over to stay with Sheila.

She fed me chicken cacciatore. She bought chicken used in the cancer experiments at the Payne Whitney Clinic. They cost only 14 cents each.

She was looking for a new job. She had no job. Her father was in the hospital dying.

"I lost all respect for her," said Sheila.

"Why?" I said.

"When Allen came in she changed completely," said Sheila.

"How?" I said.

"Everything she read, said, did, changed." said Sheila. "Everything was Allen."

"Don't you like him?" I said.

"He's a slob," she said. "Peter is worth ten of him. Peter is wonderful, so clean, so considerate."

"OK," I said, "I get the picture. Lets get to sleep."

"I'm so happy that she's gone," said Sheila.

"OK," I said, "Let's sleep."

In the morning the telephone woke us. Its was Sheila's stepmother. Sheila's father had died.

Sheila and I got dressed. We went downstairs.

"Are you going home?" I said.

"I'm going to look for a job," she said.

"But your father just died," I said.

"I still don't have a job," she said.

Her bus came.

Elise had moved to the lower East Side, she and her cat. She suspected the cat of insanity. Elise had been hanging out in a tough lesbian bar. She had an all-night job typing up scripts in a special projection machine for ABC. I had somehow gotten in touch with her. We made a date to meet one evening at the Mariner's Gate, on Central Park West in the Eighties. The Mariner's Gate is one of the entrances to the Park.

She was there and on time. One of the few times she was on time.

She had been kicked out of her job at ABC, literally kicked out. On Friday when she was paid there was a note saying she was suspended. There had been no other notice.

"It's true," she told me, "I was a bad worker. I came in late and often drunk and made many mistakes. But they shouldn't dismiss me with a note. They should come to me personally and say, "Miss Cowen. You stink. Get your ass out of here." That I would have taken."

"What did you do?" I asked.

"I came back Monday and sat at the typing machine. Everyone stared at me. Finally the boss came over. He looked very frightened. He said, 'Miss Cowen, will you leave?' Until then he had always said Elise. If he had even spoken to me in a human way, or called me Elise I would have left. I said, 'I was fired without explanation or discussion. I think I have a right to that. I want to speak to Mr. Lomax, or someone in charge.' He went away. A few minutes later the police came. They grabbed me by the arms and began to pull me away. They didn't even give me a chance to walk normally. When they got me in the door one of the policemen hit me in the stomach while the others held me. When I got to the police station I called my father. He got in touch with my uncle. They both came down. My father said to me, 'If your mother ever hears of this it will kill her.' "

"Did they lock you up?" I said.

"No," she said, "They let me go. No charges pressed."

"What are you going to do now?"

"I was planning on going to San Francisco," she said. "I'm going to go Wednesday."

We made a date to meet for lunch Tuesday afternoon at the Italian restaurant near my Welfare Training Station on Avenue B and East 3rd Street.

I had gotten a job as Social Investigator for the Welfare Department. I was in training.

But she didn't show up. By Tuesday she had left for California.

There was a real Beat scene out on the West Coast; I got letters from Elise. She was living with a drunk Irish artist in a cheap rooming house.

One night, lonely for her, I called her. The rooming house said she might be in a bar called The Place. I called the Place. She was there.

"I'm pregnant," she said.

"Can you afford an abortion?"

"They're easier to get out here," she said, "I'll write you from the hospital."

Early in January she wrote me from the hospital. By the time she had qualified for a psychiatric abortion the doctors were all away on Christmas vacation. By the time they returned, after New Years (she had looked out the window, seen their skis strapped to the auto tops) the fetus had grown too large for a simple D&C. She had to have a hysterectomy.

I sent her a copy of Stendal's "De'lamour" (in French) to read in the hospital.

"I hope she can get hold of a dictionary," I thought.

Meanwhile time passed. I was working in Welfare, getting a little extra money.

I had made up with Clay when Columbia ended. He had been in the Navy, now he was out, up in Harvard, getting his Masters.

One weekend I packed to go visit him. As I was about to leave the phone rang.

It was Elise, calling from San Francisco.

"I want back," she said, "Can you send me the money by telegraph?"

"Sure," I said.

I telegraphed the money from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When she came back to New York City she came to live with me. I was still living in Chaim Gross' house.

We didn't get along.

We had different ideas about what life should be.

I didn't push her to go back to work and Elise was more than a little inhibited about going back, so three months passed. She felt guilty about not getting a job and she made me feel guilty about making her feel guilty. It was very sad.

The whole Beat thing seemed sad to me. I didn't mind being poor. But I couldn't stand her idleness, sleeping all day and being so grumpy and saying, "and like, and like, and like" all the time and using Negro slang when she was, after all, no Negro at all but a Jewish girl graduated from Barnard .

Peter was back from Europe. He came for dinner one evening with Lafcadio.

I put curry and fried onions into some chopped meat and served it over rice.

We talked about Welfare.

"The Welfare Department wants me to support my mother," said Peter. "Isn't it more important that I save money to go to Japan to worship the Buddha at the Nara Shrine?"

"That's a difficult question," I said.

One evening I told Elise that Clay would be coming in from Cambridge for the next weekend.

"I'll go to Joyce's, "she said.

"You can stay."

"No," she said. "Three's a crowd."

She packed and left.

She called the next Tuesday. She was going to California with Keith Gibbs. She would be by to pick up her belongings and return my hula hoop.

She came by that evening. Keith was waiting downstairs. I helped her take her things down. She gave me a Marianne Moore record she had stolen from the public library.

We kissed.

"Don't get caught stealing from foreign libraries," I said, "They might send you to the Foreign Legion with all those Germans."

She went down the stairs.

I heard the car go, made circles with my hoola hoops.

I phoned Joyce, talked to her. Joyce said she felt the thing with Keith was real, that her love for/with Allen was a dream.

"I don't know," I said.

There were letters from Elise, letters also from Sheila. Sheila had left for France after her father died. She had a small income. In Paris she had met an Algerian. She was working for Berlitz and the FLN.

I was still working for Welfare. I saved money. I went to Mexico on vacation. I wrote a book, "Leo in Mexico".

Then Elise was back.

One day the doorbell rang and there she was, holding a bag, just like the movies. "Don't worry," she said, "I'm not staying. I just wanted to wash up before going to my parents' house."

Sheila had come back from France. The three of us had a party together. I read sections of "Leo in Mexico". Sheila said there would have to be another French Revolution. "Blood has to flow in the streets," she said. She was very pretty. She was wearing a basic black. "What this country needs is a lot of good cheap heroin," said Elise.

Allen had come back. He had moved into 170 East Second Street. He got an apartment for Elise a floor above him. I gave her some of my furniture, furniture my parents had given me, the last of my childhood: cherry maple furniture. For her housewarming she served peyote buttons and Cosanyl. She wouldn't take the peyote. She had gone too far out the last time. Allen had come in with Peter, talked, left. The man who had helped us move, a young paranoid from California, took one peyote and was AWAY. I ate two. Didn't feel anything.

Elise and I went out walking.

"I'm hungry," I said.

She bought me a plate of spaghetti at Bruno's.

"You're not supposed to be hungry after peyote,"she said.

But I was hungry.

From then until the time she died, her world was Allen. When he was interested in Zen, so was she. When he became interested in Chassidism, so did she. Did he drink mocha coffee? So drank she. When he went down to Peru there was Peter, left behind downstairs, still there to be with. Peter loved a girl from New Jersey. Elise loved the New Jersey girl. When Allen came back, the New Jersey girl moved in with Elise.

New Jersey! New Jersey! I can understand all human passions but how can one love someone from New Jersey?

Then Allen was going to leave again. He was going to India. With Peter. Without Elise.

She came to see me, bringing a salami. Could she stay for a week?

"What happened to your apartment?" I said.

She had given it up.

She was no longer able to do things. She wouldn't/couldn't keep a job, pay rent, electricity. It was too much.

She had been staying at the apartment of Irving Rosenthal but she wanted out.

I lent her $50.

That night she stayed at Sheila's new apartment.

She came back the next day, very depressed. Sheila had gone rich girl, was waiting for the Revolution at Sutton Place, sharing an apartment with her aunt. Carpets. Overstuffed furniture. Chinese porcelain.

"I feel she's dead," said Elise.

The next morning she packed her bags to go look for a job. She was wearing toreador pants.

"I don't think you should wear toreador pants for a job interview, "I said.

"I'll change in the ladies room in the subway, "she said.

A few days later I got a post card from her. She had gotten a post office box instead of a room. She didn't say where she was living.

I was hospitalized.

The day I got out I went to my post office box. There was my last letter to Elise marked: "Moved. Address unknown."

I called her parents' house.

Elise was in Bellvue. She had gone in with hepatitis (serum), then become psychotic.

"Leo," her mother said, "I want you to be truthful with me. Did Elise ever take drugs?"

"Not to my knowledge," I said.

"Her father looked through her writings while she was in the hospital," she said. "He says they're filthy. She seems to have been mixed up with a lot of homosexuals. Did you notice any among her friends?

"None," I said. Can I visit her?"

"She doesn't want any visitors now," Mrs. Cowen said, "Maybe when she gets home."

Sheila and I went to see her at her parents' home. Her parents had had her transferred out of Bellvue to a private sanitarium, then signed her out against doctor's orders.

She looked fine, better than we had ever seen her, neat, clean. But she was mad, quite mad. Paranoid. She felt the City (New York City) had machines trained on her, could hear all her thoughts and also that she could hear them, the New York City workers, foolish, bored, boring, mean-souled people. She described to me in detail the four people, two men, two women, assigned to her.

"Elise," I said, "You're paranoid."

"No," she said, "I'm not."

She had become a complete phobic. Always fearful, she couldn't go out any longer without one of her parents.

A child again, and at home.

She had read Joyce's novel "Come and Join the Dance," in which she is given the name of Kay.

"It's "The Group" laid in Barnard," she joked.

She had a review of "The Group" in front of her. I glanced through it. There was a Kay in "The Group". She became paranoid, had been interned in Bellvue, finally fallen out the window, looking for enemy planes.

"Where are your machines?" I said, "The ones that rap your brain?"

"They plant them outside the window," she said.

Mrs. Cowen had prepared us a supper of slices of tongue heated in the roto boiler. On the side, green peppers and tomatoes she had pickled herself.

We left after supper. I walked with Sheila along Overlook Terrace to the subway.

"What do you think?" I said.

Sheila sat beside me in the subway. She was distracted. She looked away. I noticed that she wore gloves. Of course. A lady always wears gloves in the street.

Sheila sighed in exasperation.

"Leo," she said, "that life seems so far beyond me now. It's unreal. It doesn't make me feel anything."

When we came to her subway stop she got off. "I'll call you," she said.

I wondered if she would call, our worlds now so far apart....

I was working in the Welfare office. Someone called me to then phone.....

A SKIN by Elise Cowen

A skin full of screams
I think
"Roselle under the bludgeon."
Red Queen of back-of-the-office
Who stares at space into me
Roselle de Bono

For Roselle?
For me?
A confusion of rears over the Royal typewriter
Nutritious Roselle.


SITTING by Elise Cowen

Sitting with you in the kitchen
Talking of anything
Drinking tea
I love you
"The" is a beautiful, regal, perfect word
Oh I wish you body here
With or without bearded poems.

__________________________________________________________________ (c) Leo Skir. Used with the permission of Grove/Atlantic. This article first appeared in the Evergreen Review, October, 1970. __________________________________________________________________

1998 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
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