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Herbert Huncke's America: Youth - Edited by Jerome Poynton, Literary Executor

Herbert Huncke’s America

Edited by Jerome Poynton


By Herbert Huncke

When I was a schoolboy—age fifteen—living in what was considered a respectable middle-class neighborhood in Chicago—I had my first encounter with love.

In the apartment building in which I lived with my mother, brother, and grandmother (my mother and father had been divorced two years previously), there were several women who owned Chow dogs and they would pay me to take the dogs out for walks. This afforded me opportunity to make something of a show of myself—since Chows were quite fashionable—and as I considered myself at least personable in appearance, it rather pleased me to imagine that people seeing me walking along Lake Shore Drive must surely think me the owner and certainly attractive with my pet straining at the leash. Frequently I would walk one of the dogs late in the evening and it was on such an occasion I first met Dick.

I had decided before returning home to stop by the neighborhood drug store and as I was leaving someone spoke my name. I looked into the most piercing brown—almost black brown eyes—I had ever seen. They belonged to a man who at the time was in his late twenties—fairly well built—not too tall—with somewhat aquiline features and exceedingly black hair which he wore combed flat to his head. I learned later he was of Russian Jewish parentage.

I was very much impressed by his appearance and felt a strange sensation upon first seeing him which was to be repeated each time we met for as long as I knew him. I never quite got over a certain physical response to his personality and even now in retrospect I find myself conscious of an inner warmth.

As I was leaving the drugstore and after he had spoken my name and I had smiled and flushed, he commented that I didn’t know him but that a friend of his had spoken with me one evening about my dog and that I had given him my name, and he in turn had given it to him when they had seen me walking and he had asked if his friend noticed me. He then asked me if I would object to his accompanying me home so that we might become better acquainted. He gave me to understand that he wanted to know me. I was no end pleased by his attention and became animated and flirtatious.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable walk and from that point on I began seeing him fairly regularly. He was in the recording business and second in charge of a floor of recording studios in one of the large well-known building off Lake Shore Drive a short distance north of the Loop. He knew innumerable people in show business and I spent as much time hanging around the studio as could be arranged. Sometimes we would lunch together or stay downtown for diner or go to a movie or he would take me along while he interviewed some possible recording star, and it was after some such instance at the old Sherman Hotel that he suggested since it was late I call home and ask permission to spend the night downtown. This I was anxious to do as I had long had the desire to sleep with him.

I was still rather green as to what was expected in a homosexual relationship, but I did know I was exceedingly desirous of feeling his body near mine and was sure I could be ingenious enough sexually to make him happy with me.

Actually I had but little experience other than mutual masturbation with others of my own age, and although I knew the word homosexual I wasn’t exactly aware of the connotations.

We spent the night together and I discovered that in fact he was nearly as ignorant as I and besides was filled with all sorts of guilt. We kissed and explored each other’s bodies with our hands and after both ejaculating fell asleep in each other’s arms.

This began a long period in which he professed deep love for me and on one occasion threatened to throw acid in my face should he ever discover me with someone else.

The affair followed the usual pattern such affairs follow and after the novelty wore off I became somewhat bored, although it appeased my vanity to feel I had someone so completely in my control. Had anyone threatened my supremacy I would have gone to great lengths to eliminate them from the situation.

About this time it was necessary for him to make a business trip to New York, and when he returned he was wearing a Persian sapphire ring which, he explained, he would give to me if I would promise to stay away from some of the people and places I had lately been visiting. I promised to do this and considered the ring mine.

One evening we had dinner in a little French restaurant we frequented, and, while eating, a very handsome young man joined us whom Dick introduced as Richard, who was attending classes at The University of Chicago and was someone he had met recently thru some mutual acquaintance. We sat talking and suddenly I was startled to see the ring on Richard’s finger.

Richard was considerably younger than Dick and really very beautiful. He was blond, with icy blue eyes—innocent and clear. He was very interested in life and people and kept bombarding us with questions— about our interests, the theater, music, art or whatever happened to pop into his head. He laughed a good deal and one could feel a sense of goodness about him. He was obviously attracted to me and asked permission to call me on the phone so that we might make arrangements to see each other. I complied and began making plans about how to get the ring away from him —after all I felt the ring was mine—and I wanted it.

And so it happened that I succeeded in twisting one of the few really wonderful things that occurred when I was young into a sordid, almost tragic experience which even now fills me with shame.

As I have already said—Richard was good. There was no guile in his makeup and he offered his love and friendship unstintingly. It was he who first introduced me to poetry—to great music—to the beauty of the world— and who was concerned with my wants and happiness. Who spent hours making love to me, caressing and kissing me on every part of my body until I would collapse in a great explosion of beauty and sensation which I have never attained in exactly the same way with anyone since. He truly loved me and asked nothing in return but that I accept him—instead of which I delighted in hurting him and making him suffer in all manner of petty ways. I would tease him or refuse him sex or call him a fool or say that I didn’t want to see him. Sometimes I would tell him we were finished, thru, and not to call me or try and see me, and it was after one such episode on a beautiful warm summer night—when I had agreed to see him again if he would grant me a favor—I asked for the ring and he gave it to me.

The next day I visited Dick at the studios and—with many gestures and words of denunciation—flung the ring at him, telling him that we were finished and that anyway he wasn’t nearly as amusing as Richard—and that maybe or maybe not I’d continue seeing Richard—and that in fact he bored me and I only felt sorry for him—and that I would never be as big a fool over anyone as he was over me—and besides my only reason for knowing him at all was so that I could get the ring.

Dick became enraged and began calling me foul names which he sort of spit at me and pulled from his desk drawer a pistol. He was waving it in front of my face and at the same time telling me how cruel and heartless I was and that he could forgive the stupidity of my actions in regard to himself but that the harm I was inflicting on Richard was more than he could stomach and that I would be better dead. Suddenly he started shouting —“Get out—get out—I never want to see you again.” By this time I was shaking and almost unable to stand and stumbled out of his presence.

The following day in the mail I received a letter from Richard containing a poem—that read almost like this—

A perfect fool you called me. Perchance not as 
happy in my 
outlook on life and people
as you— 
Yet in like manner—playing the
role of a perfect fool— Gave me a sort of bliss— 
You in all your wisdom—will 
never know.

Shortly after receiving the letter I called Richard and asked to see him. He refused to see me and at that time I would not plead. A strange thing had happened to me—I had become aware—almost overnight—of the enormity of my cruelty –and I was filled with a sudden sense of loneliness—which I have never lost—and I wanted Richard’s forgiveness.

Richard never forgave me and I have only seen him once since the time he gave me the ring—and that was only long enough for him to tell me —he was trying to forget he had known me.

It was a cold winter day.

Nor did I ever speak with Dick again. Not so many years ago—I read in the paper—he is dead.


Editor’s Historical Notes and Audio Tracks of Brunswick’s Race Records:

Chicago’s Sherman Hotel, long gone, was located on Randolph Street between Clark & La Salle.) Brunswick Recording studios, undoubtedly the building where Dick worked, is still there but the address was legally changed in 1988 from 666 N. Lake Shore Drive to 680 N. Lake Shore Drive.

The Sherman was known for its jazz club with a white orchestra while Brunswick Recording studios was known for its African American recording artists.

Huncke at 15 in 1929 was in the midst of the Chicago jazz scene, on both sides of the color line, which he carried with him all his life – into New York City – associating with black jazz musicians Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday and Dexter Gordon who he was busted with on 42nd Street for breaking and entering a parked car – and the primarily white beat poets, also interested in jazz and Huncke’s street style.

Then based in Chicago(although they maintained an office and studio in New York), many of the city's best orchestras and performers recorded for Brunswick. The label's jazz roster included Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington (usually as the Jungle Band), King Oliver, Johnny Dodds, and Andy Kirk, . Brunswick initiated a 7000 race series (with the distinctive 'lightning bolt' label design, also used for their popular 100 hillbilly series) as well as the Vocalion 1000 race series. These race records series recorded hot jazz, urban and rural blues, and gospel.”

In the May and June 1929 issues of Talking Machine Worldthere are reports concerning the relocation of the studios from the Brunswick Building to the 21st floor of the Furniture Mart at 666 Lake Shore Drive. Eventually there were two studios in operation—Studio A and Studio 8—but is not known exactly when the second studio was established. The recording ledgers do not make any reference to a specific studio before October 1929—so the second studio was probably established around that time.”

Race records link with audio tracks of Brunswick’s output:

Photo suggestion: 1920s Sherman Hotel, Chicago

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