Even as college students and dirty, rotten stay-outs, we poked fun at every artsy person’s need for the right hip place to be on the weekend (or any other night). We drove my father’s two-toned Oldsmobile ironically and on five dollars worth of mostly gas fumes to Hoboken. For a brief, sparkling time we were small city celebrities as publishers of a literary/art/whatever-we-wanted magazine.
Our watering-hole reviews were most appreciated by the many young engineers studying at Steven’s Tech and the artsy crowd living in the still rundown lofts on the edge of town rubbing against Jersey City. Bar owners (who also bought advertising in our magazine) were not always equally impressed.
The true hipster crowd hung at Maxwell’s. We thought them too pretentious, well-dressed and rich for our tastes (except on New Years when we went in search of cute bartenders). Like any true rebels we preferred slumming it at the other end of town where a pitcher of beer was about $7 if memory serves and pretzels were on the house.
Here we sat for hours being served by a bleach-blonde, 25-year-old lady (as 19 and 20-year-olds we considered her past her sell-by date). Only a few years later she’d have to quit with a lung ailment from too much second-hand smoke each night at the bar. By then we’d been banned from most bars and bored of the ones we still were allowed to frequent.
No one died in our circle of “rebels”–though with that big car and pitchers of drinks we were damned lucky not to have killed anyone (a vague memory of racing another crazed drunk on the road home and avoiding the police pops into my head now and I shudder).
Our magazine wasn’t all that good in the grand scheme of things and because we were lazy our advertisers dwindled when we didn’t bother to keep them happy. As a friends group and editorial staff our egos clashed and our interests pulled us in different directions, none of us quite reaching celebrity status again–and probably that’s for the best.
And so it was for Walt Whitman and his friends group at Pfaff’s Saloon under Broadway in NYC before the Civil War. “America’s First Bohemians” were not very different from the legions of young people who still style themselves as unique rebels, somehow above the ordinary Joes. Maybe artists are slightly off kilter in some way, but how funny that from generation to next generation the artsy crowd keeps in line with their own stereotypes.
The seedy bars, the wasted moments, the brief brushes with greatness (or delusions of grandeur) and the inevitable maturity or quick tragic death. Walt Whitman lingered on waiting for his Leaves of Grass to catch fire in a slow, slow burn. He nursed soldiers, kept ordinary jobs and quiet romances at Pfaff’s and beyond. Not so his artsy acquaintances (for they never really were close friends).
Most of the rebel souls died of too much life. One died at war after the best of his drinking days were over, one suffered the calamity of youthful stardom and brilliance–always chasing but never catching a new success and always sinking deeper into his opium addiction. One thought she could write well, but when the first terrible reviews came in she retreated into acting only to be bitten by a theater owner’s terrier. She died a few weeks later raving mad from rabies.
Are rebels rebels if they keep the same rules and hours as the trailblazers before them? Is wearing black as cool as when Johnny Cash first did it? Walt Whitman hung at Pfaff’s but he hung back, too. He retreated to his mother’s apartment. He wore strange boots, roguishly tilting his hat and keeping his shirt open at the neck, but in his day the stars at Pfaff’s burned quick and bright, most dying in their early thirties like ancient echoes of Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse.
No one ever knows sitting round the sticky tables in a dark bar when their star will rise and fall. No one knows if maturity or death is better for artists and their work until everyone is dead and gone–and even then when cool people search for cool places tastes change in art.
The names of the famous 19th century actors, poets and comics are mostly forgotten. Walt Whitman’s one masterpiece hangs on. No one knows why.