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Herbert Huncke's America - Edited By Jerome Poynton Literary Executor - Sea Voyage - October 2019


Phil awakened me early in the morning—apparently Bozo let him in—pulling the bedclothes off and exposing me to a cold draft from the open window. Bob and I had shared the studio couch in the front room and we had drawn together during the night to keep warm and I had wrapped my arms around him—something that I secretly wanted to do—and it was with added reluctance that I greeted Phil who stood hovering over the couch sort of clucking with a widespread leer on his face. It was from a pleasant drowsiness and peaceful dream I was awakened into the nightmare morning.

A cold chilling wind whined outside the windows and the sky was overladen with grey clouds. Cold city sounds carried up from the streets and there was nothing I wanted quite so much as to remain in bed.

Kay and Phil had been quarrelling—Kay complaining about Phil’s habit and pleading with him to try and kick—and finally suggesting that he and I get a job aboard a ship together so that we both might kick. Phil, in order to restore peace and partly through feelings of guilt and frustration, was won around and had spent the preceding day convincing me the idea was sensible. It wasn’t that either of us was anxious to kick but rather that the conditions we were surrounded by had forced us to seek a means of escape.

We both had obtained our seaman’s papers at about the same time but had never made a trip together and in some respects the plan was appealing.

At any rate he was now standing over me, insisting I get up so we could go down to the ship companies for jobs.

Bozo was wandering around the kitchen preparing coffee while making snide remarks about my general indifference to the more practical aspects of life.
Bob had promptly rolled over, pulling the blankets up around his ears and mumbling to the effect he’d wished we’d get the hell out so he could go back to sleep.

And so I got up.

I had saved a little fix and after getting straight I dressed while Phil and Bozo sat gossiping about what a dear, fine female Kay was and how understanding. After all, there were really few respectable women willing to put up with a junky and, at least in Bozo’s opinion, Phil should be grateful.

Kay was actually a vampire and eventually drained Phil.

We finally got started and went directly down to a company sending out tankers and were assigned to a ship bound for Honolulu. Phil was signed on as a ship’s mess-man and I took utility man in the galley. The man out of the corner of his mouth had told us, “This ship is a hot ship”—meaning that it was scheduled to sail almost immediately—which was good since by this time both of us were anxious to get away as quickly as possible.

We sailed from New Jersey early the following morning. We had rushed around New York all the preceding day, first making a connection—this was to be a slow withdrawal cure—then saying good-bye to acquaintances and friends—making arrangements to have our few possessions taken care of while gone—and a special farewell with Kay. We sailed in a blinding snowstorm.

We had been the last to sign aboard and received what was left of the sleeping quarters. Our fo’c’sle was large enough to accommodate two more—for some reason I never discovered we remained alone—and was situated in the aft end of the ship. It was comfortable and we succeeded in unconsciously turning it into what the captain later suggested looked like an opium den.

Phil immediately climbed into his bunk—staying there for two days, causing the steward to become almost sick with anxiety and to bombard me—though I provided myself with a good supply of Benzedrine and was busy performing my required tasks with what was to the steward amazing vigor—with all sorts of questions. He found it difficult to understand what could possibly be ailing Phil and was somewhat hesitant in accepting my explanation to the effect that he had been drinking—heavily—for the past few weeks. “Don’t worry, man, he’ll come around. Give him time.” To which the steward replied, “I know—but the same can be said for most of the crew—and they’re up and working.”

The ship was an old ship—having hit the sea about 1915—and in the rough seas creaked and groaned. It had been making the same run for many years and it wasn’t until we entered the Caribbean that it settled down. The trip down the Atlantic Coast was uneventful except that en route we gathered several hundred birds. We would awaken in the morning and there they were—roosting all over the ship—and when we began reaching the area off the Florida coast they began departing. By the time we passed through Windward Passage most of them were gone. I don’t know what kind of birds they were—although I did recognise an owl which was almost the last to leave—but I was much impressed by them and they were the first of a series of natural phenomena to fill me with awe and wonder during the voyage.

The crew was an interesting group of old-time seamen—the kind that one sees hanging around the bars on south Street along the waterfront passing a bottle of wine among themselves and looking like typical bums. Not one of them had even been to Maritime School and Kings Point was only a name as far as they were concerned. One old deck hand had been around the world eighteen times and could tell stories about every port he had been in. They were a rugged lo—filled with a sense of joy of living I have never encountered in any similar number. They were all friends and many had sailed together for a long period of time.

Phil and I were rather outsiders and it took awhile before they accepted us into their confidence.  Phil was more successful than I in making friends with them, and when he finally came out of his two-day sleep it was no time until he knew practically everybody.

The captain was an old Dutchman, burly and gruff, who stayed much to himself in his own quarters. The only time I heard him speak was after he received a report from the steward—this happened outside Aruba as we were leaving on our way toward Panama—that I had refused to sort out some old rotten potatoes—suggesting that if the steward wanted it done he do it himself—and besides it wasn’t my job—and that he didn’t know what to do about Phil and me—we were good workers but inclined to do as we pleased. The captain had come to our fo’c’sle and after looking around said, “Goddamn—this looks like and opium den. You guys hopheads?” This was said in a heavy guttural accent. We both assured him such was not the case and he left telling us, “Try and get along with the steward—who is a damn fool.”

We had an exceptionally fine time in Aruba. As a matter of fact the captain was closer to the than he knew—since while in Aruba we had picked up yen-pox and had stayed knocked out the whole time we were there.
Aruba is a small island and very tropical as to climate. We had not been there an hour when out of the clear blue sky a sudden cloud appeared and unleashed a deluge of rain which lasted a short time and then disappeared, leaving once again the blue and gold day. The rain evaporated quickly and everything was left dry.
The people of Aruba are a mixture of light and dark and all very beautiful. There are several nationalities and it was from a Chinese we had obtained the yen-pox.
Phil became involved with a little dark-skinned girl who after they had balled kept trailing him around begging him to stay. We stayed three days.
It was while sailing through the Caribbean Sea I first became aware of how insignificant I am in comparison to the vastness of the universe.

The sea all day remains a magnificent sparkling surface of blue—deep indigo—undulating in long rolling swells. Schools of spangle-blue flying fish skim the top. Porpoises race and leap in constant play. And at night the sky overhead is either a vast expanse of stars—some of which streak across space in splendid motion which when beheld quickens the heart—or is blanketed with great heavy clouds—black and rolling—lit from above with ceaseless flashing lightening while the sea glitters with balls of tossing phosphorus light. The air is warm and scented with the odor from the distant jungles. One has a sense of concentration of energy and sizzling, crackling electrical force, which seems to be waiting to tear the universe asunder.

It was on one such night we were steaming steadily toward Colon when Phil and myself, along with two others—one a fellow who shortly after we were acquainted had produced a cigar box full of pot, so that we had been smoking pot for the entire trip so far—and the other who had eyes for Phil and had been wooing him by stealing morphine Syrettes from the lifeboats—presenting them to him and beseeching him to have a ball—were sitting and lying on the aft end of the ship, watching the wake and exclaiming about the night and laughing and sometimes singing. The gay boy had been pressing Phil to go below with him and making various remarks full of suggestive sexual connotation—finally capping himself when he suddenly exclaimed, while observing a large, almost perfectly round puff of black smoke which had been emitted from the ship’s funnel and was hanging nearly motionless overhead, “Oh look—it’s just like a big dinge nut.”

We arrived in Colon and were given immediate shore leave. Phil and I lost no time in searching out the native section and were successful in obtaining cocaine and undoubtedly the finest pot I have ever smoked. The man who helped us make the connection was really a cat. He was tall and very dark-skinned, dressed in a delicate pink shirt, light—almost white color—slacks, and a large brimmed Panama hat with a brilliant red band—and sandals. He moved with truly feline grace and spoke softly through shiny white teeth. Phil had left me standing in front of a farmacia—the whole storefront open to the street—while he was inside with the proprietor wildly searching the shelves looking for anything remotely resembling junk—and I had become interested in two children who were playing some kind of game when he appeared at my side and said, “Hi man—my name is Victor—you want to get straight?”

He led me down a street—unpaved and with the houses all sitting back from the walk and wide open so that I could see into them—their occupants and what they were doing. It was a still, hot, tropical night and pervading the whole street was the aroma of burning pot. Several young girls with high breasts and tight dresses passed us, giggling and swinging their hips and flashing big smiles at Victor, who pretended not to notice. Kerosene lamps and candles shed the only light except that of the night overhead. The scent of lilies blended with and perfumed the pot smoke. Suddenly Victor halted and said, “Wait here, man”—and disappeared. I stood there in wonder and delight. He returned soon and laid a long package—a sheet torn from The Saturday Evening Post, and big around as a half dollar—of pot in my hands and then said, “You want cocaine—I get.”  I said yes and once again I was alone. As before, he returned quickly. I gave him the money—something like ten or twelve dollars—and returned to where Phil, who had settled for a hypodermic needle and a pocket full of Nembutal, Seconal and Ambutal was waiting. We said good-bye to Victor and started back to the docks to catch the launch to the ship, which lay anchored out in the bay. En route we bought a small white-faced monkey from a boy who had him on a long chain and was teasing him with a stick, causing him to screech and jump. 
We kept him in our fo’c’sle where he occupied the section set aside for two other men. I took one of the bunk springs and set it on end facing the bulkhead, and he slept on top and climb up and down the springs. He was comparatively clean, in that he pissed pretty much in one spot, and most of the time I had newspapers which I spread over his section. He had the run of the fo’c’sle—and took over. When he was pleased or content of after having been fed something he liked—grapes were his favorite dish—he would chitter and show his teeth, but when annoyed or angry—especially if scolded—would set up a din of screeching which could chill one to the bone.
The trip through the locks was interesting. We stopped in Balboa for a short time but not long enough for shore leave—and then out to the Pacific Ocean.

Life aboard ship had settled down to a more or less even routine. We were making it on Benzedrine—Nembutal—Seconal—Ambutal—a fairly steady supply of morphine Syrettes and pot.
Jacko—the monkey—took to pot like the proverbial duck to water, and as soon as I would light up would jump up on my shoulder and I would exhale the smoke into his little grinning face. He and I would get high and he would balance himself on the rail while I leaned up against it and looked at the sea. He would talk to me in little chittering sounds and I would tell him about how cute and how great I thought he was. One day we saw a huge fish leap out of the sea and plunge back in again. The sea was a molten gray mass with a veil of shimmering vapor hanging just above the surface—reflecting the burning sun—when suddenly it seemed almost to shatter. This huge fish—glistening in the light—exploded in the air for a moment amidst a spray of crystal drops of water—arched—and slid back into the sea. We were both surprised. Jacko actually screeched and I almost yelled to him, “Did you dig that?”

Phil had decided to augment his finances by playing poker—and at this time spent much of his free time practicing how to stack the deck. I don’t remember him being very competent at it but at any rate he didn’t lose. The games would occasionally last all night and continued until we reached Honolulu.
We didn’t spend enough time in Honolulu for me to absorb much of an impression of it. I recall several bars of nondescript nature where we drank rum—a small amusement park—Dole’s Pineapple—palm trees—hundreds of soldiers and sailors—the YMCA where I mailed a postcard to somebody—clean sheets—high prices—tapa cloth, which I like—and of course the beach and the glass-clear water and its turquoise-blue color. Also, we were completely unsuccessful as to pot or junk, although we did make a drugstore for a fresh supply of Benzedrine. I must admit that what little I saw of the islands from the ship was beautiful—and I might like going back sometime. Unfortunately—everything is too Americanized and concerned with the tourists.

We returned by the same route, and just before getting back to Balboa it was time for the full moon and for several nights I lay up on deck moonstruck. We sailed in a long silver lane. Everything lay revealed in the light of the moon and wore a glowing aura—mysterious to the night—and became new—retaining but little relationship to what it was in the brightness of the sun. Everything was bathed in opalescence. The night became a sort of day—strange and weird as if of another world or planet.

Once again we anchored in Balboa. We picked up supplies—bananas, oranges, green stuff, grapes and some staples—and then on back thru the Canal to Colon, where we sailed past while I stood on deck with Jocko sending telepathic messages to Victor—telling him I would never forget him and I would try and make the scene again sometime and to please remember me. We continued on through the Caribbean, celebrating, the New Year with beer and ice cream, and back up past the Florida coast after catching a glimpse of Haiti and the Atlantic Coast—minus birds—into Chesapeake Bay to Newport News and the end of the voyage.
I left Jocko aboard the ship with one of the crew members who was signing back on and who promised me he would try and set him free—or at least see he got a good home, maybe in Aruba or even Colon. I would have liked keeping him, but it would have been cruel of me to bring him here to New York. The weather was exceedingly cold as well, and Jocko belonged in the tropics. I could have smuggled him ashore without any trouble.
Phil and I, after we were paid off, took the train for New York and could hardly wait to make our first connection. Junkwise, the trip had been great. Habit-kicking was a complete failure, but neither one of us—as I said before—really wanted to kick.
Bozo was still wandering back and forth between Creedmore—where he had a job as an attendant—and the apartment—bickering and fretting. Bob had gotten himself involved in some big vague scheme and was rushing around in a Benzedrine whirl. Kay could hardly wait to sink her teeth into Phil.  
Phil left me in front of the apartment after we made arrangements for a meet the following day, and I went upstairs—rolled up the last of the fine Panamanian pot, flopped down, and got stoned thinking about Jocko, Victor, the Caribbean Sea and the whole trip.

Jerome Poynton is giving a talk on Herbert Huncke at the European Beat Studies Network (EBSN) on October 12 in Nicosia, Cyprus. The talk is titled “Herbert Huncke: Writing in Neutral” and a special edition of MMR October story, Sea Voyage, is being published for academics to read Huncke’s writing, “as if for the first time.”

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