Diane di Prima Remembers Her Friend Freddie Herko
“So it was the summer of ‘54 I met you. Or the spring. Ten years ago. Sat down on a park bench beside you, in the rain.”
Born in 1934, Diane di Prima was 30 years old when she began writing Spring and Autumn Annals: A Celebration of the Seasons in 1964. Written after the death of her dear friend, the dancer, choreographer, and musician Fred Herko, an important figure in the burgeoning downtown New York scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s, it served as a way for di Prima to not just mourn her loss but “hold still.” The narrative of Spring and Autumn Annals ranges from 1954 to 1965, with several forays into di Prima’s childhood memories of growing up in Brooklyn, 1954 being the year Herko and di Prima met, on a park bench.
Let us now call up the slow pace of those evenings. Fall. The Fall of the Year. The Fall of Mankind. Out of what energy, what anger, what high windows now? The persistent voice at the door “DiPrima, open the door. Hey, dipreeee!!!” And the cold hallway, unfolding the double doors, letting in Freddie and who? Whoever trailed with him thru the frostmarked airs. The letting in Freddie, and the hundred cups of coffee. The voice of complaint: I have another cold. I have another cough. My toe won’t point. My back. My hair too long, too short. The Alan shaving. The Mini just to her feet, the Alex not yet turning over. The slow grey of the sky, wind over rooftops. The magic & evil fumes of our large gas heater. Huddled over it, one spot on my ass always burning. Finally tearing the cloth on my old bluejeans. The hundred thousand coffees in that stainless steel pot. Of which glass top now broken. One of the last things Freddie made, holes in that top. Hard now to replace it, glittering reproach. The winter soups full of garlic. Sometimes a fire. The silence stiffens now in our high white halls. This fall had been filled with bongo drums and castanets. As the summer had been.
I think now with something like remorse of a dirty grey platform, some kind of dolly, loading platform dragged from construction site, dragged into that same hall, that now freezing silence, and left by that mad fey creature. How angry I was! How I dragged it out again, cursing, saying I had just gotten the hallway clear. It sat in front of the house for a day or two. The creature returned, looked sad, and wanted to take it in again. He said he wanted to put it on the roof. He wanted to sit on it when he played his drums. And we said no, most vehemently, how we were clearing the roof, had cleared the hall. We cleared the hail all right. We cleared the roof, too.
What I really can’t take are the mornings without the sun. To rise in the bleak wind, as if we were rising on the edge of the North Sea. Iron in the sky and in my chest. Iron in the coffee. Taste of gnashing teeth. The clouds not even signaling to each other. Strong wind, and the tree not stirring, layer on layer of me meeting silence on silence. Creak of the washing machine, noises of Alex. Stands in for one Freddie hundreds of Bowery people. Visions of Kirby float over Ninth Avenue. So much won clear. But to have no sun, no yellow light at all. Only the greys, greyblues, at most the white, the underside of pigeons. Or the white ruff of the cat.
The grey velveteen lives again on the top of our trunk. Our trunk of theatre cloths, in the living room. Whence it had been snatched by Freddie, carried off. To be bartered for amphetamine or cocaine. Here in what he called the navel of the earth. Hub o’ the universe, the lower east side. One more love he wanted, he told me, before he died. Told me it was Billy Gray, poor foolish Billy. Dragged to the roof a sofa, made a tent, the gypsy king, for loving Billy in. Who floated in, and floated out again. Hardly aware what hopes were pinned on him. Never aware at all.
Oh, Freddie, this is the first thing I could weep for. That your third love didn’t come to you on Ridge Street. Didn’t come, so far as we know, but do we know? Did no third love come to you, no trundling burst? Did the sugar cubes bring you at last no such secrets? Did you finally find all things reaching out and loving you, and you, did you not settle into this love, at peace, nestling, as Jeanne says “in the arms of Kali”? So that Billy and his secrets floated off painlessly, out of reach, so that Arione, Debbie, Kirby, George, the panorama of your three ring circus, slipped further than arms-length from you, supporting and singing. I pray now that your third love came, in silver shoes, and veiled, that she glittered and danced for you, a boy-girl, a child with the secrets. That you followed her out the window.The cold hallway, unfolding the double doors, letting in Freddie and who? Whoever trailed with him thru the frostmarked airs. The letting in Freddie, and the hundred cups of coffee.
And then the leaves fell. None would fall before. They all came down, they filled up Washington Square. They crunch in Tompkins Square under all our feet. When we dare to walk there, without you, at your side. Debbie in tears because she is still a novice. The old men sunning, and the children skating. Well, they will tear it up, thank god, and one more echo/ will spread like ripples/ out of reach at last.
So hard to sing hymns of joy in this iron air. And yet we know the age of gold returns. That you have bought it back for us. The king. Another gypsy king, that’s all. Bartering blood for gold, to kill this grey. Blanketing. Crépuscule du matin. Crépuscule de l’après-midi. Interlocking shadows. The alchemy that turned this black to gold.
Fall to me used to mean new notebooks, crisp, unused erasers, box upon box of pencils. Bottles of ink. Plans, things to study, schedules for the evenings. Chrysanthemums, a flower I’d always hated. I’ve finally learned to love them. Will I learn to love trees now too?
Taking on characteristics not my own. After a while, fall came to mean winter was coming. That was later, when clothes weren’t warm enough, or there weren’t enough of them to keep out wind. The ballet slippers letting in the snow. Walking on subway grates where the warm winds blow. Winter on winter coming, all too long. All making colds, and fevers, and numb hands. That hurt when you got to a house, or to a bar. This kind of fall stood for apartment hunting, or going home if there was already a home. The digging in, books, wood, food, all kinds of work. Provisioning the house for the time ahead.
I remember the fall you came to live on Amsterdam Avenue. The long tunnel of a house we had acquired. Your slow process of leaving music, for the dance. Long process of leaving Ossining, for the city. Ambitious unrealized theatre, a piece called “The Project”; a magazine, still undone, then titled “Riff.” Longley’s, where coffee after the first cup was free. The Whitney Museum, with its small dumpy reading room. Green rug, soft chairs, HOW WARM IT WAS. How warm the library, across the street. Though the glass windows looking at the street made it not half so snug. The holy air in the Brancusi room, where I would go to pray. How often we met there. Later, but that was spring, we were betrothed there. All the lovely, luxurious bathrooms of those places. Warm they were, and clean, with toilet paper. Hot water to wash our hands. Our few, brave baths, at home. The slow tub in the kitchen, long hours spent filling it up. The green & greasy yellow of kitchen walls. The rickety stove, an early twenties model, with high oven heating the room. Beans always on it, or lentils, bag after bag of garbage. Which we had been instructed to throw thru the window. Into the house next door. “What’sa matter” the super would say, “you don’t have a window? You put it in pails, then I gotta put the pails out.” House next door had been empty for 28 years. The bar on the ground floor still going. All kinds of people & rats still living upstairs.
I remember now the building you found this summer. On Attorney Street, how you took me to look at it. Abandoned; you thought you might just move in. But wanted to see if maybe, on the off-chance, I’d like it enough to try to make Alan buy it. (You always thought me & Alan were magic people, that we could do anything we wanted.) You tried to make Arione buy it, but she wanted another. It was a lovely building, very old. We tried to break into it, but couldn’t make it. Stood across the street a long time, looking at it. Red brick it was, with blue-green around the windows. Blue-green doors, on a street that shouldn’t have been there.
I think it was winter on Amsterdam Avenue by the time they broke the window. Not fall at all. Was that the first fall I knew you? The one before that had been so desolate. My girl, the woman I loved, had gone back to college. To the same school we’d both left. Leaving me desolate in our old apartment. Piano, and ballet bar, there on East 5th Street. No, I had known you then. Because, that fall, on East 5th Street, I took you home. And took a creature home who thought she loved you. A runaway skeleton, just 16 years old. Who slept in our bed.
Linda Brown was her name. A tiny, ferret-creature, who whined a lot.
So it was the summer of ‘54 I met you. Or the spring. Ten years ago. Sat down on a park bench beside you, in the rain. Took you from there to Rienzi’s, for some coffee. You were fat-ish. Terribly pleased with yourself, you played the piano. Lived in Ossining. Where we went for a visit. Watched you swim, plump and narcissistic, in a pool. From there to your parent’s sad, ranch-style Westchester house. Where you played the piano for us, as I had never heard the piano played. You were not brilliant, you were not there at all. The music was there, not you, not you at all. NO ONE WAS PLAYING, the music was simply coming into being. And this among wall-to-wall carpeting, silly green plants, silly sofas. That later, even sillier, got covered with white satin. So that no one could sit there at all, and the end tables were painted white and gilded on the moldings. Antiqued.
That fall you must have started at Juilliard. That fall started you dancing. Learning to fly. In the slow grey light I rose, took class, played the piano. Worked for a few months in a physics lab. Found there only pigeons free, who had flown in. Everything, everyone else was “Classified.” That fall, ten years ago, I almost died Miss- ing my woman and my long, blonde, friend. Who had hitched to the other coast with a dyke named Brandy. I remember there was a bar called the Montmartre. Folk- singing, and bongo drums. A hodge-podge. Serving its purpose by being dark & cool. So that you could hide, could drink, could sing or weep. The richness, the unendurable thickness of my life. Why I do not want to put that into the world. Why I keep claiming movies should be only movies. No sound. And all shows should be one-man shows. The thickness of things, cutting my way thru that.So it was the summer of ‘54 I met you. Or the spring. Ten years ago. Sat down on a park bench beside you, in the rain.
You lost your fat, and began to be a dancer. Joan moved away, seeking always Madison Avenue. The second Fall I typed on a large poem. My Greek improved, we acquired a double bed. Which I moved underneath those great front windows. By then the floor was fixed. Moon shone right in. I shared the double bed with Bret, and others. We waited for the first snow to start screwing. A kind of ritual, unversed as we were. Six men with keys came and went, I was more skilled than I had been at making fires. I had a diaphragm. Whoever came now brought wood, ate soup. A fair exchange. The bed in the inner room was practically yours. Then you moved out, to Prince Street, with Eddie Johnson
That second Fall found me trying to hold still. I asked you if you wanted to have a baby. You hooted. Marcia Dale visited us a lot. With her long flat hair, theosophy, and wheatgerm. Enlightened Marcia. One of her cookies fed ten men for a week. Raisins & soy & whatnot. Young Mike, Mike Wieners, not to be confused with Dirty Mike. Or Little Mike, who had been O’Meara’s lover. Terrible paintings, but he was 16 years old. Everyone swore Mike was a terrible genius. And Big Mike. And another one, went finally to bed with a wet oil painting. At which point we all gave up on him.
How fastidious you were in the midst of all this. You and Joan like two children still afraid to get dirty. Sat and looked on together, weeping a little. How could we tell you that it was really OK? We tried, sometimes. You’ve often reminded me since of one afternoon. It was November, the sun was streaming in, the house felt so clean tho it was not, the kind of clean, that a place gets with soot, and being swept often and never washed. I was sitting in front of the fire, in my jeans and white sweatshirt, the costume I wore all winter, and still do. I sat with my back to the door, the kitchen entrance. I had a block of old white plaster of Paris. Long wet and dried and hard, and I was carving it. With a screwdriver and a hammer was carving it. White dust in the air, white light, clean coldness & fire. You told me often of the light of that moment. You swung your key round, you walked in, there was music.
Fall is nesting time always, a giant separate anger. Based on the will to survive, to stay warm and moving. In ’55 moved to Amsterdam Avenue. In ’56 bedded down for another year. Our friendship with Frenchie, large, doleful & European. “What” he enquired on meeting “is your philosophy?” I grunted at him, I was making up your bed. “Mine” he said “is the philosophy of resigned desperation.” Nicest existentialist I ever met. Like having a psychotic St. Bernard.
Ben Carruthers was more like a catatonic poodle. Intelligent, shy, and given to quivering lithely. Beating out on the wall of the fireplace drumroll on drumroll. Sleeping with Joan O’Meara reluctantly. The studio couch of that first year, drawn up to the fire, served us all when the weather broke, as it finally did. Four or five of us piled into it, and slept in a heap. The two on the ends were coldest, and got up early.
Where were your questions, those small clouds on our ceiling? I hardly noticed them, I was so robust. I chased you around, demanding you eat “green and leafys.” Telling you no one fastidious ever survived.
It finally got too cold for walks in the park. A brisk trot to the library was best. We heard that they were preparing to tear down Longley’s. I wrote to Ezra Pound sometime that fall.
The light uptown and down are not alike. Fall air up there, always seemed to be at twilight. Always red and distant, as it had been in my childhood behind the steeple of St. Stephen’s church in Brooklyn. There, and in Brooklyn, the sense of the water nearby. Perhaps it was the water made that air. Dull red sunsets like they used to be so fond of on Christmas cards. The kind of card my father sent all his clients, five hundred cards went out engraved with our names. Never a written word on any of them.
Downtown fall air is high, it rings of crystal. The Chrysler building stands up in it. There are towers. It is, as Alan says, City of the Sun. Not so uptown. Up there till the wind got too cold they fished in the river. Caught eels, and they ate pigeons, I’m sure of it. Would often see a man walk home, one pigeon held carefully in his hand, a surreptitious swing to his cracking boots. Nevertheless it was hard to come down again.
Up there I was on an island, island air/ surrounded me. I dreamed at night of boats, as I did in Brooklyn. COULD HEAR FOG HORNS, often. Wharves were not far away, smokestacks faced outward, the river flowed to the sea.
Next Fall I found myself well launched on my life. As you were launched on yours. My belly big. My things piled up again, in dozens of boxes. Another downtown pad to clean, to paint. I dreamed of the walls uptown, the welldrawn faces. Graffiti. The Unicorns Shall Inherit The Earth.
The day you died, I drove thru Central Park with Audre who had come to pick me up, to take me out of that house where your women were crying, so that I could come to terms somehow with the deed. We entered the park, there had been a fire, it had been so dry this fall, this summer too. The smell of the burning leaves, and of the dry leaves rotting on damp earth. A sharp, sharp smell, acrid high in the nostrils. The smell of the leaves on the path at Swarthmore, the first fall that I ever lived in the country. What college was to me, was merely country. I had seen country summer before, but never its fall or spring. And found it astonishing, chiefly for its smell. That smell in the park that night somehow closed the circle, cut me loose.
A cycle was finished, a whole Odyssey. We drove to the parking lot and sat there a little. So pointless, aimless like deadend streets in San Francisco. Or the parking lot at the Cloisters in the spring, when Stefan picked me up and we drove there with Jeanne. He sat there, meeting his daughter, and I nursed her. The leaves, I come back to them, and the smell of wood fires. One circle after another closes around me. Concentric, some smaller, some larger, from one parking lot to another, from leaves to leaves, and the rain in the fireplace, wet woodsmoke and ashes. The catsmell too when the ashes cool off and she shits there.
It has all drawn gracefully to its natural conclusions. Like major chords at the end of a Mozart piece. I must set out, this cycle has come to its end. We sat last night in the movies looking at faces on the screen. Tartars, Mongolians, the peoples of Russia, taking our tent, or our bus-and-truck tour across Asia. We are being metamorphosed into you. Are becoming wanderers. I long for one more child before we go. Wonder if I’ll have time. Figure it out. To travel all day, and be at home at night, requires that while you travel you take your rest. Letting the other one drive, he rests while you set up a house. Tent, or station wagon, or even in a motel. Set out the home things, eat and write, write letters. It will all be possible, I shall not look back. We buried you under the wind, the seeds were blowing.
The circus wagon creaks, we cross the plains.
Excerpted from Spring and Autumn Annals by Diane Di Prima. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, City Lights. Copyright © 2021 by Diane Di Prima.