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Herbert Huncke’s America - Elsie-John - Edited By Jerome Poynton

Herbert Huncke’s America continues into its 3rd month after last month’s “You Too!” moment.
It seems publishing American history is inflammatory.  

It did get me to thinking about Huncke’s stories, from his childhood – all of them fairly complex – hold an essence of abated fear.  

Elsie-John is about a side-show hermaphrodite Huncke lived with in his early teens. There is nothing inflammatory or sensationalistic about his reportage.

Huncke’s writing is content with honesty.

Google: Elsie-John Leslie Winer
Google: Elsie-John Duke University

Sometimes I remember Chicago and my experiences while growing up and as a youth.  I remember in particular the people I knew and—as frequently happens—I associate whole periods of time as indicative of certain changes within myself.  Mostly I think about the people and I recall one person rather vividly, not only because he was out of the ordinary, but because I recognise now what a truly beautiful creature he was.

He was a giant—well over six and one half feet tall with a large egg-shaped head.  His eyes were enormous and a very deep sea-blue with a hidden expression of sadness and though contemplating the tragedy of his life as irrevocable.  Also, there were times when they appeared gay and sparkling and full of great understanding.  They were alive eye always—and had seen much and were ever questing.  His hair was an exquisite shade of henna-red, which he wore quite long like a woman’s.  He gave it special care and I can see it reflecting the light from an overhead bulb in the center of his room while he sat cross-legged in the center of a big brass bed fondling his three Toy Pekinese who were his constant companions and received greatly from his love.  His body was huge with long arms which ended with thin hands and long tapering fingers whose nails were sometimes silver or green or scarlet.  His mouth was large and held at all times a slightly idiot smile and was always painted bright red.  He shaded his eyelids green or blue and beaded the lashes with mascara until they were a good three quarter of an inch long.  He exhibited himself among freaks in sideshows as the only true hermaphrodite in human life and called himself Elsie John.  When I met him he was in his early thirties.

He came originally from somewhere in Germany and before coming to this country had traveled—travailed if you prefer—much of Europe and could talk for hours of strange experiences he’d had.  He was a user of drugs, and although he liked cocaine best he would shoot up huge amounts of heroin, afterward sitting still like a big brooding idol.

When I first knew him he was living in a little theatrical hotel on North State Street.  It was an old hotel and in all probability is no longer in existence.  Apparently at one time it had been a sort of hangout for vaudeville actors.  It was shabby and run down and the rooms were small and in need of fresh paint.  He lived in one of these rooms with his three dogs and a big wardrobe trunk.  One of the things I remember distinctly was his standing in front of a long thin mirror which hung on the wall opposite his bed—applying makeup—carefully working in the powder bases and various cosmetics creating the mask which he was seldom without.

When I met him he was coming out of a lesbian joint with a couple of friends and upon seeing him for the first time I was sort of struck dumb.  He was so big and strange.  It happened that one of the girls knew him and he invited us all up to his room to smoke pot—tea, it was called in those days.  His voice was rather low and pleasant with a slight accent, which gave everything he said a meaning of its own.  When we were leaving he suggested I come back, and it was not much time until I became a constant visitor and something of a friend.

He liked being called Elsie and later when I introduced him it was always as Elsie.

We began using junk together and sometimes I would lie around his place of two or three days.  A friend of mine called John who was later shot to death by narcotics bulls while making a junk delivery—they grabbed him as he was handing the stuff over and he broke free and ran down the hall and they shot him—joined us we became a sort of threesome.

Elsie was working an arcade show on West Madison Street, and through junk was much cheaper then than now he wasn’t really making enough to support his habit as he wanted to and decided to begin pushing.  As a pusher he wasn’t much of a success.  Everybody soon got wise he wouldn’t let you go sick and per result much more was going out than coming in.  Eventually one of the cats he’d befriended got caught shooting up and when asked where he scored turned in Elsie’s name.  I will never forget the shock and the terror of the moment the door was thrust open and a big red-faced cop kind of shouting “Police” shoved into the room followed by two more—one who sort of gasped upon seeing Elsie and then turned to one of the others saying, “Get a load of this degenerate bastard—we sure hit the jackpot this time.  This is a queer son of a bitch if I ever saw one.  What the hell are these?”—as he became aware of the dogs who had gathered around Elsie and were barking and yipping.  “Goddamned lap dogs—what do they lap on you?” he said as he sort of thrust himself toward Elsie.

Elsie had drawn himself up to his full height and then suddenly began saying, “I’m a hermaphrodite and I’ve got papers to prove it”—and he tried to shove a couple of pamphlets which he used in his sideshow gimmick toward the cop.  Meanwhile one of the others had already found our works and the stash of junk—about half and ounce—and was busy tearing Elsie’s trunk apart, pulling out the drawers and dumping their contents in the center of the bed.  It was when one of the cops stepped on a dog that Elsie began crying.

They took us al down to the city jail on South State Street and since Johnnie and I were minors they let us go the next morning.

The last time I saw Elsie was in the bullpen—sort of cowering in the corner surrounded by a group of young Westside hoods who has been picked up the same night we were—who were exposing themselves to him and yelling all sorts of obscenities.

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