Friday, February 9, 2024

Allen and Phil's last conversation

I can’t say that I had a front row seat, but I got as close as he allowed, even to his friends. I was present at all their meetings when Allen came to Hartford Street during the years that I lived with Phil. Perhaps a few others acted as his amanuensis, but I picked up the task whenever I could, knowing that it was a rare privilege. I answered the door and made the tea. It happened in what were our public room so it was appropriate to be there, but I was polite, kept my mouth shut and listened carefully. 

They were giants and yet in some ways they acted like kids on a sandlot. Of course they were older so the shouting was replaced with lots of pauses, keywords that brought a chuckle, “do you remember…” followed by the briefest notation said more than enough. They were old friends who never had enough time together, old friends at the end of their lives who realized that there was never enough time but what did remain was precious and had to be enough. They always seemed to pick up exactly where they left off. I sat trying to hear where there was perhaps new insight, but their love for one another, the appreciation and respect between them was so thick it didn’t matter.

Their meetings were like clockwork. Phil was always getting ready to go to the zendo as he did twice every day, and that took at least an hour. Allen would arrive at 3:30, 4 at the latest. It never went much past 5:30. Allen would always politely excuse himself saying that other friends were waiting. Allen was a creature of the night, and Phil only operated in daylight where he had a fighting chance of avoiding the sharp edges of furniture and the unexpected drop of steps. Dinner or lunch for some reason were never included. Perhaps it was the noise of a restaurant, or that they wanted to get to the part that mattered, being with one another.

Allen had become what he always wanted, a public figure whose opinion was sought after, a poet whose work was respected, a firebrand who fought for things he really believed in, even if it was Nambla. I cannot say if Phil was happy being a Zen monk with the same certainty. I never got the sense that he had really found a true vocation, but it was a job he relished, and he did it so thoroughly and thoughtfully that he appeared happy though there was always some dogged anger that would appear when you least expected it. There were other rewards for him, like really discovering his true nature which is not an insignificant prize. 

Phil had a small circle of devoted friends, and they were faithful. He was a great raconteur and lively companion. They would come and visit, Lou Hartman, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure,

but I only saw Phil cry twice. By the time that Issan took his last breath, it was the end of such a long difficult process that there were not many tears. Our breathing, all of us had been as hard as his as we sat by his bed. We were too worn out to cry. No tears.

But when Phil  told me the story of the search party for Lew; how Gary had organized a posse looking and hoping that he was not lost, his eyes filled with tears. He loved the guy. 

He loved the way he used words, and they had the same mistress, all words in the English dictionary. Phil is the only man I know who actually read the whole thing, page after page, line after line. 

There was no trace of Lew”s body. Maybe he’d jumped into a hidden car and escaped to Mexico. No, that was just wishful thinking  He had killed himself or fallen into a deep ravine. He and Gary had both known he was depressed. No words could help.

Tears. Just the memory and tears. It was still raw.

I was with Phil when Allen phoned to say that he was going to die. My memory says that we were sitting in the living room at Hartford Street, but I actually think we were in Phil’s small apartment in the basement of the hospice, in the small room that opened onto the garden. That is where Phil’s phone was, and I am certain that Allen used that number. Phil had been expecting a call. Allen was due to visit and Phil would have known the exact dates. Allen would have also known when was the best time to reach Phil whose schedule was almost set in stone. He smiled broadly when he said hello and then fell silent. His face lost all expression.

There were very few words, “”I’m so sorry. Yes I understand that you won’t be able to travel to the West Coast again. Give my love to Gregory. I love you. Good bye.” There are times when even words fail. They were both poets and both Buddhists so they’d pushed words’ limits. 

He put the receiver down and told me that Allen was going to die, that he had cancer and there was no hope. Then he started to cry and asked to be left alone. I knew that there were tears on both ends of the call. I told him that I was available to get anything he needed and shifted into the Maitri’s office which was in the adjacent room. At 5:30 he emerged from his bedroom in his robes and silently began up the stairs towards the zendo. Sitting was at 6.    

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