Memories of Jack
I lived in Boston for around two years in the late seventies, sometimes in dreary rented rooms, some of the time homeless. I worked and frequently slept at the Stone Soup gallery on Cambridge Street for about the latter half of that time. I was 22, down and out, betwixt and between, and full of hope and fear. I was trying to be a serious painter and writer, eating intermittently and drinking in the experience of penurious city living along with a great deal of cheap beer. I was making what would turn out to be some of the best paintings of my spotty output, and assisting Jack Powers as best I could with the many activities that took place in or around Stone Soup.
I first encountered Stone Soup some six or seven years earlier when my friend Rob Sweet and I would take the bus from Long Island to Boston, or stop in on our way while hitchhiking to Maine, to visit our friend, artist JoEllen Trilling, who was living at the pinnacle of South Russell Street on Beacon Hill. At that time she held the day job watching over (the then fairly new) Stone Soup, the job that I would inherit much later. JoEllen would sit in the gallery and paint all day and as she recently put it, “sell the occasional Commie pamphlet”. At that time (I believe) Jack’s paying gig was staging a series of pop concerts for the city on the Commons. I remember him talking about the many famous and eccentric performers whom he had been required to host and mollycoddle, and how few traits most of them demonstrated that would recommend them as human beings; with the outstanding exception of Smokey Robinson, a warm and decent gentleman who Jack admired ever-after to the point of adoration.
My stint at Stone Soup seemed heady, charming, and sometimes alarming. Stone Soup was among many other things, a magnet for strange, demented and damaged souls who found their way to the door by some mysterious process I never was able to discern. And there seemed so much going on in those days, most of it revolving around Jack and all of it competing for his over-promised time and divided attention. In the mornings I would open the door and drag a trestle table out onto the sidewalk in front of the gallery, loaded with coverless remaindered mass-market paperback books, donated by some bookstore that hadn’t been able to move them. I was always hoping to sell a few ten cent bodice-rippers or romance novels to the nurses trudging from the “T” station at the junction of Charles and Cambridge to begin their morning shifts. around the corner at Mass General. I was paid a dollar an hour for my presence (an inflationary improvement from JoEllen’s time – she had gotten fifty cents), but usually I would have to take in the dollar if I wanted it right away, which I always desperately did; for a cup of morning coffee, a 99 cent sandwich from the Yellow Submarine shop next door, smokes, or a six-pack.
Jack seemed to have many jobs at that time, and he would be constantly in motion throughout the day, bicycling across the Longfellow Bridge and up through Cambridge to do something at the Herter Center, running off to manage the Boston Urban Gardens program – and always showing-up late for rushed meetings with poets, painters, musicians, actors, supporters, detractors, bureaucrats, press people - or to hook-up at home with his girlfriend at the time, Chrissy - before running-off again to arrive late somewhere else for something else.
One of my responsibilities was to answer the phone, which rang constantly. For one thing, to take the endless messages for Jack, but also those for the “Stone Soup Movers”, a small hippie-sort of enterprise run by a nice bearded fellow with a truck whose name escapes me now. In exchange for this answering service and the use of the gallery’s name he gave Jack some percentage of the take to be put towards the storefront rent. The mover would stop in at some point to pick up his messages, make callbacks and give estimates on the pay phone. And sometimes, if he had a piano or other particularly large and unwieldy object to carefully urge up the steep, narrow, antique staircases of Boston walk-ups, he would press me and whoever else happened to be hanging around (and needed a few quick bucks) into temporary grunt service.
Since Jack and Chrissy lived in the apartment directly above the gallery, Jack would usually pop in whenever he stopped home for something between his various jobs and errands, just to check on what was going on and who had called, glance at the mail, and often to cadge a beer (if I had a six-pack going), or, as was more often the case, to share one from his upstairs inventory if I didn’t. Jack’s life then was measured out in hours of manic motion and harried activity between quiet moments stolen to suck down a quick beer.
“Hallelujah! Thank the Lawd Almighty for beer. Amen, Brother!” he might declaim, as he pulled the tab and took a long swallow. Sometimes he would also share an insight of the moment during these brief interludes, often a barely scrutable passing notion that had occurred to him en route from the last over-stay to the next late-arrival – “Dude! Every newsstand I see has a picture of that freakin Farrah Fawcett-Majors, with that nimbus of blonde perm curls... It just came to me, man, putting “Fawcett” in the middle of her name is intentional, y’ dig? Y’know, it’s like playin a fockin subliminal seduction trip on the dude subconscious – like a ‘faucet’, y’ know? Running like a faucet!” Or, “That fockin Jimmy Carter – he’s like a bright balloon with a slow leak, y’ dig?”
Beer finished, he’d be charging off, hustling like a man with something gaining on him. Jack and I would be friends for many years before we discovered that we shared more than an affinity for the flavor of beer. Both of us had been lifelong sufferers of chronic anxiety attacks – in my case somewhat milder, apparently, though mixed with bouts of depression. In Jack’s it was just unmitigated balls-to-the-wall panic, not the mild discomfort of social anxiety – but a crippling unrelenting horror that would follow him through all the days of his life like a hated shadow, making him fear for his own survival and question his fitness to live. But he had discovered at some point early on (as had I) that this cursed demon could be briefly nursed back to fitful sleep with a can of beer every so often.
Like JoEllen those many years before, I would sit there at the big desk all day, working on my paintings and waiting to see who or what might come through the front door. Sometimes my friend Rob Martin (Beauguerre to his family and friends) would stop in as he walked home to his Newbury Street digs from his long day at the piano tuning and repair school in the North End, to save himself the train fare. He had had thrust upon him during this time the care and maintenance of the battered Stone Soup upright piano, and often he would check its vital signs while shooting the breeze with me and fending-off the annoying lunatics and buttinskis in attendance. Beauguerre had spent an unsought tour of duty fighting strangers in Viet Nam ten years prior, and still carried the spiritual scarring of the jungle war within him. He was older than I, and far more serious and edgy and easily provoked in those days; far more likely to take offense at the ridiculous and confrontational hi-jinks of some of the Stone Soup denizens, while I was generally more easy going, or at least indifferent.
Jack and Beauguerre became good friends but always at a slight remove. With his knowledge and experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Beauguerre concluded that the dark furies assailing Jack were a distinct form of PTSD. Jack feared for Beau, sensed a dangerous storm roiling within him, and encouraged him to hold his internal war horrors up to the light by writing his way through them, and reading his poems aloud on Monday nights, setting him on a useful path towards greater catharsis.
Poet Paul McGee had held my post before me, and for a while we split the days, but he became weary of being tied down and eventually flaked-off entirely, though he would often stop by to talk and drink a beer. I still have a portrait I painted of him in those days, titled “Angel-Headed Hipster”. At poetry readings and while carousing the streets he and I would often end up in fist-fights for no good reason that I can recall. Paul was a more genuine street-person than I would ever be, and though smaller in stature probably could have kicked my ass with ease had he felt any real need or desire to.
A frequent visitor to Stone Soup then was “Bob The Bagman”, an itinerant street preacher and a fixture of Beacon Hill . Jack had a special empathy for Bob, and permitted him to flop in the building’s basement when his paranoia was in overdrive or the weather was too cold for sleeping in doorways or garbage alleys. Bob would come in during the day to criticize my painting and work on updating the loopy headlines displayed on his oft-repaired shopping bag. He would borrow from the sheets of oaktag and the magic markers Jack had gotten me to make signs and posters announcing various upcoming Stone Soup events and opportunities. Sometimes he would also make off with them, and other small items, but Jack never hassled him for doing so. While Bob re-taped his bag and drank sweet wine from the bottle he generally carried, he would explain to me the fine points of his doctrine, that “Cooking Food Was The Downfall Of Civilization” and “Inter-racial Marriage Causes Loss Of Sex Drive”.
Another common visitor was the squirrelly and impoverished Beat poet John Wieners, a gentle, timid soul and a veritable hermit at the time, who eschewed most human contact but would shuffle down the hill from his apartment on Joy Street to bum cigarette money from Jack. “I need some Ciggies, Jack”, or just “Ciggies, Jack?”, he would sheepishly warble. Jack had instructed me that if there was any money in the cash box when he came a-looking (there sometimes was a pittance), I should let him have what he needed. When Wieners got used to me, he began to hang around a bit, talking little in his hesitant, quavering voice, but apparently enjoying a few moments of unthreatening and undemanding society. I was unaware at the time of Wieners’ place of importance in the Beat pantheon, and just accepted him as another one the fallen angels in Jack’s protectorate.
When Jack’s troubles began I often considered his patience and unbounded solicitude to these two broken characters, and so many others, and wondered if they triggered a premonition of the trials he would later face.
Jack had initiated and was overseeing for the city a summer program that year (Poetry-Mobile? –something like that.) which consisted of sending a vanload of promising young poets into poor communities to read aloud and teach the rudiments of writing poems to urban kids. He also lent the gallery one night a week to a tortured self-help group called the “Mental Patients Liberation Front”, a rag-tag group of ex-mental hospital internees, trying to make a go of things in the real world without benefit of doctors or drugs. I would wait to let them in, and if I was in the middle of something, sometimes sit through part of their meetings. I can say with certainty that nobody but Jack would have extended them that courtesy nor trusted them with the gallery and to lock up after themselves.
Jack hosted jazz bands and one act plays (I particularly recall a spell-binding presentation of a Pirandello piece, starring Billy Barnum as “The Man With A Flower In His Mouth”) and even a few fine performances by an itinerant, seat-of-the-pants opera company. Then there was the raucous Monday night open-reading, which I usually attended, though I never participated beyond listening and making pertinent and impertinent wise-cracks, and fighting with McGee.
The Monday night readings were always interesting and sometimes a lot of fun. There was a fair amount of drinking, lots of zany behavior of the sort that years later would be termed “performance-art”. Jack was sort of the laissez-faire emcee/referee, and usually read a few of his own shorter pieces, spoken quietly in his impassioned and throaty baritone. There would be a mix of regulars and wide-eyed newcomers, weird “artistic” cliques, and poets representing every recognized and a few out-of-this-world genres of written word. Bill Kemmet was usually there, who I thought of then as the adult of the group. He had a regular day job and a family, I believe, and going to Stone Soup to read his poems was apparently his weekly pressure-valve night-out. I thought him a serious and accomplished poet, more conservative in appearance and behavior than many of the other less composed folks, but friendly and generous. After the reading, a few stalwarts would usually repair across Cambridge Street to the Harvard Gardens bar for a few nightcaps. This was apparently an important part of Bill’s night-out, and, since some of us rarely had any money in our pockets, Bill would sometimes insist in fellowship that we come along, and he would pick up the tab. Jack would always want to come, too, and would sometimes sneak across with us unless he was already in trouble with Chrissy for the usual scheduling infractions and terminal tardiness.
Another Stone Soup poet and friend of Jack’s was Robbie XII, a kind and civilized gentleman poet who lived up on Beacon Hill . He would sometimes host a spaghetti dinner at his apartment for a handful of friends in need or want of a good meal, before the reading, and sated with one of the many dishes he had learned to prepare during his travels in Italy, “Pasta with Fungi and Legumi”, or “Pasta Carbonara”, and red jug wine, we would all walk down the hill together to the reading.
A regular at the readings in those days was the arrogant and haughty Rando, who made little secret of his contempt for most everyone present, especially Jack. He was as tall as Jack, with pale white skin and long hair apparently dyed bright orange. He wore blue eye-shadow and other light make-up, and dressed in denim and leather, and jack-boots, (as did other members of his coterie). I had heard he was a professional baby-sitter, a fact which confounded me. He seemed to want to be considered Jack’s nemesis, and at the readings, rather than share his own writing, he would presume to annoyingly read from works by his favorite poets (notably Kenward Elmslie, “A girl machine – woo-woo...”) by way of instructing and enlightening (what he considered to be) the cretins around him.
There was a popular British TV show airing on PBS around that time called “Upstairs, Downstairs”, that focused on the vastly differing experiences of the British nobility (Upstairs) and their servants (Downstairs). Rando’s circle of black-leather dress-up boys, offended that only some of the participants at the Stone Soup readings (those who Jack liked and trusted) were ever invited upstairs to socialize in Jack and Chrissy’s apartment, took it upon themselves to use this presumed favoritism to drive a wedge between the attendees at the open reading, demanding a general boycott, characterizing it “Upstairs, Downstairs, at Stone Soup”. But nobody besides them liked them much, or gave a crap about this artificial schism, so it eventually fizzled and was forgotten.
One thing I tried to do at Stone Soup, and which I knew Jack appreciated and approved, was to straighten it up, and reduce somewhat the burden of clutter, dust and dirt. A friend of Jack’s from up the hill, a writer named Pat Harrison used to stop in occasionally to chat, alone or with her friend, the poet Anna Warrock, who had published her work in Stone Soup chapbooks. Finding that a broom made little headway, other than to cloud the gallery with a dense haze of disturbed dust, I borrowed a trusty old gray cylinder and snake-type vacuum cleaner from Pat, and vacuumed an unbelievable amount of vintage ground-in filth from the layers of well-worn Oriental carpets on the floors.
I asked Jack if I could gradually paint the dingy ceiling and walls to help pass the time, but Jack decided that, although I had the requisite experience and willingness to do it alone, the painting would better be done as a group effort, reflective of the supposed collective nature of the operation. A general call was put out for painting-party volunteers. Jack scratched-up the money for paint and brushes, and got some ladders together. Four or five of us showed up – me, Beauguerre, Paul McGee and I forget who else – maybe Jack’s cousin, Jim(?). It was truly a case of too many cooks, and particularly too many drinking cooks, a bit like a Three Stooges routine writ large. There was not much professionalism on display that night. Jack’s painting technique was more energetic than sublime. Paul had arrived well into his cups, and in short order fell off a ladder, taking a gallon of white paint with him which oozed across the newly burnished surface of the carpets. Jack contained himself, but a mournful overcast of infinite disappointment with mankind and profound disgust with subversive fate darkened his countenance.
Sometimes the Boogie-Woogie pianist Preacher Jack Lincoln Coughlin would stop by, and occasionally Jack would sponsor concerts for him, but a few times a group of us would ride the Blue Line out to Revere Beach to watch him perform in Eddie Ford’s “Shipwreck Inn”. The Preacher loved Jack Powers, and would perform Hank Williams tunes in his honor. As he played the waitresses would keep him supplied with bottles of Budweiser to replace his vital fluids; bottles which when drained, he would line up on the lid of the upright piano, as he sweated copiously and became more and more possessed by the spirit, and highly agitated as the evening wore on - launching into rapid-fire improvised sermons filled with hellfire and damnation, playing a running bass pattern with his left hand while performing (I believe they are called) arpeggios with his right, and he would bear witness to the angelic and saintly nature of Jack Powers”, gesture to the heavens and declare, “Lord, I’m reaching for you with my right hand, but I’m doing the devil’s work with my left!” At which point he might suddenly thrust up the piano lid for emphasis, and scatter the collected beer bottles in a tremendous glassy crash.
A dear friend of Jack’s who would stop by when he was in the city was artist and children’s book author David McPhail. If memory serves, David had as little knack for holding on to money as Jack did. One day he showed up and made a series of phone calls to a publisher demanding a hefty advance, and asking that it be messengered over to Stone Soup before the banks closed. The messenger eventually arrived, David went off to cash the check, and when he returned he immediately began distributing the money, by buying works off the walls (more, I suspect, out of generosity to the artists and to subsidize the gallery than anything else) including a pen and ink drawing I had done for the cover of a never-to-be-published Stone Soup collection of Paul McGee’s poems (Paul refused to do anything to move it forward. Paul would also be scheduled by Jack to give featured readings, and when the night arrived and an audience assembled, he would refuse to participate beyond repeatedly snarling, “Fuck Poetry!”).
I was truly enamored of the Stone Soup ideal, and was influenced by Jack’s singular concepts and his quixotic charitable impulses. At times when Stone Soup was briefly flush, every dunning piece of junk mail that arrived which included a self-addressed stamped reply envelope – from legitimate charitable fundraisers, to political party pan-handler’s, to various crackpot concern’s – each and every one of them got their envelope returned with a single buck in it. I questioned Jack about the wisdom and meaningfulness of this gesture, sending out these rather random and arbitrary drops in so many contradictory buckets. His explanation ran along a scribbly line somewhere between “Cast thy bread upon the waters” and Mao’s “Let one hundred flowers bloom”. I didn’t really get it, but thought it an amusing practice anyway.
Like with everything else he was doing, Jack was usually trying to recruit help with his monthly Senior Citizen’s dinner, which was held at one of the local churches on Beacon Hill . He would persuade local performers into doing a free show for the old folks and street people in attendance, but he usually did all or most of the shopping and cooking himself. He would carry on this tradition for decades despite growing resistance and disinterest later on from the changed church hierarchy. Jack and his dedication would outlive many of his contacts and confederates, those people who knew and respected his history and legacy, those who appreciated his long service to his down-on-their-luck fellow humans.
Many people got briefly caught up in Jack’s endeavors in the short time I was around. Two of them were my friends Antonia Bellanca and Sandy McArdle, who assisted with the arrangements for and publicizing of many events. In time, though, like most people assisting Jack, they burnt out, or became frustrated with Jack’s one-man-band style and his ever-on-the-run, short-shrift lick-and-a-promise participation in planning meetings. Ownership of Jack’s time and attention was always in dispute, and nobody who ever got some ever felt they’d got enough.
The metaphor of the Stone Soup story - that the stranger’s supposed magic stone in a kettle of boiling water would make a fine soup for all, but a soup that would be improved as each of the participants was induced to contribute an ingredient themselves - was initially extremely attractive and satisfying to me, though less so as my year passed and I became more jaded. Many people did put regularly put things into Jack’s pot, but as time went by I concluded that many more only reached into the pot when they wanted to take something out.
After I left Stone Soup and Boston, Jack and I stayed in touch over the years and decades, mostly by telephone, but occasionally in person - when he occasionally made a pilgrimage to New York I would go into the city and we would lift a few to Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern; or the few times I passed through his radically changing Boston – once to attend a fundraiser in his honor at a church on Newbury Street.
My time in Boston , while an important and illuminating phase of my life, proved to me that I had neither the stamina nor the mettle to be a city person. Jack was not only a city person, but specifically, and tragically, I think, a Boston man - even long after the Boston he’d loved had become distorted beyond recognition and appropriated by moneyed interests. As the economic demands upon him grew, and his connections declined by attrition, and as Boston underwent a massive gentrification – “Economic cleansing”, as Jack called it – it became ever harder for him to earn the kind of meaningful money his life and new family required. The stress of making a living and living a life in hard times and with his options and opportunities blinking-out like guttering candles seemed to ever more deplete, though not defeat him.
When I was in Boston and even before I began working at Stone Soup, Jack had put my paintings on the walls. He would always remain generous with his praise and encouragement about both my paintings and writings, and while I was at Stone Soup I basked in this recognition and support. It would be the only true approbation my art would ever enjoy. Even as the other revolving and temporary shows came and went – by some dynamite artists, including one featuring the huge swirling Armegeddonistic cityscapes of Magnus Johnston (which would leap to my mind many years later as I watched on television as the twin towers fell), and the eclectic and copious output of the peculiar local genius Robert Bliss, as well as many others whose names I’ve forgotten – for all that time I always had a wall to myself. Three weeks after I had first put two paintings up at Stone Soup, somebody stole one of them, a small self-portrait in oil. Jack thought this event was worthy of celebration, clearly demonstrating that I had already attracted at least one devoted fan, albeit not a patron. We drank a beer in recognition of this back-handed compliment.
One of the last days I spent a day with Jack was in the late nineties, after his fortunes had already begun to plummet. He asked me to meet him at the bus station in Manhattan , to go along with him to visit the terminally ill Allen Ginsberg (who I’d met once or twice before with Jack). Though by then Jack had scarcely a pot left to piss in himself, he had made this difficult pilgrimage – five hours in on a Greyhound bus – he couldn’t afford to ride Amtrak - on behalf of John Wieners. Ginsberg had some sort of fund set up, to help out poets and writers on the skids, I believe, and Jack had been invited, or summoned, to come to Ginsberg’s loft in person to make the case for Wieners. Jack told me that John was at last coming out of his cocoon, had begun to do some readings and with just a little short-term support could perhaps once more become a viable poet, and person. With Ginsberg at the end stage of cancer, and lingering at death’s door, it was truly a last-ditch effort.
It was great walking through NYC with Jack, me (as ever) trying to keep up with his rapid, long-legged stride. We jumped a bus heading downtown, walked through the East Village streets, and finally got to Ginsberg’s home. Only to find that Allen had been taken to the hospital, and his assistant didn’t know when or if he might return. Jack had precious little time to waste, as he had to get back on the bus to be back in Boston that evening for his children, so after all he sadly made his pitch to Ginsberg’s patronizing and indifferent assistant. As far as I could tell the man was not terribly sympathetic to Jack and seemed bored and preoccupied during the presentation. When we left Jack was disappointed and crest-fallen. He had hoped to say a proper goodbye to Ginsberg, whom he’d known for twenty five or thirty years. He had hoped to secure a definite answer about financial aid for Wiener’s comeback. He had traveled all morning to extend two small kindnesses on behalf of two old friends, two men he respected and whose friendship had meant a great deal to him. We nipped into a tavern for a hasty parting beer, and split up near Penn Station.
Shortly after that day I was hit by a car, and was left disabled. My getting around would be severely constrained for a long time, and I never saw Jack again, though we continued to talk on the phone intermittently until he lost his capacity for speech. As Jack tried to stop drinking beer to ease the pressure being placed on him to do so, and gave himself over to the medical profession, hoping to find pharmaceutical relief from the pitched anxiety, his voice lost its deep timbre and took on ever more of the desperate pleading quality I remembered in Wieners’ voice those decades before. It became harder to have a meaningful conversation with Jack, impossible to make any personal connection through his consuming nervousness, and eventually harder to even conjure the old Jack in my mind as we spoke. I could feel his spirit waning and his personality receding further into the abyss with each call.
A mutual friend visited Boston a few years back, and called afterward to report having witnessed a wraith scrabbling hurriedly down Mass Avenue, like a grizzled gray ghost of Jack Powers, bent over, huddled and withdrawn – his eyes locked on the pavement, a wretched caricature of what had been a singular and outgoing man.
I wished then that I was in a position to free Jack from his economic free-fall and buy him all the beer he needed to shun further interference from the medical profession, and of well-meaning temperance twits. But I wasn’t there so I can’t know what was really going on. Maybe the beer alone stopped doing the trick for Jack, stopped working its passing magic: or maybe the constant stress added on top of outrunning the demons that pursued him for so long undermined his confidence, made his physical and mental prowess disintegrate. All I can say for sure is that Jack Powers was a highly functional, elaborately useful and charming human being when he was self-medicating with Tuborg Gold and Carling’s Black Label and Pabst Blue Ribbon. And I thought frequent beer breaks were little enough to ask in return for the mighty good he did with his life, for his many generous acts and altruistic gestures, for his encouragement and promotion of so many other artists, and for his own neglected body of work. I wished then there was some young Jack to look out for old Jack. But Jacks like Jack are rarer than unicorns; beings that exist only in myth and hard to come by in this crass age.
The saying goes, “It takes one to know one”, and having known many, I think I can say that Jack Powers was one of the loneliest people I’ve ever known, and loved. He was also one of the best, and most courageous. Jack was lonely in an unearthly private way that no amount of company can ever fully remedy, but which shared celebration and exchanged kindness and good fellowship can temporarily alleviate. And maybe get one safely to the next absolving can of beer.