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Pillar of Salt


Jack Spicer

Pillar of Salt

Friday night is the night that custom reserves to Hollywood
High School on the Boulevard. The usual crowds of course pursue
their usual ways, but interspersed among them are blobs of young
faces, nervously noisy and searching vaguely for a key to this more
adult world. If you were to walk with them, as you did once, you
would remember the not distant days of your adolescence and you
would perhaps laugh or perhaps regret.

Lee asks you in his half-deepened voice if we hadn’t better give
up and go to a show and you insist that we walk down the other side
of the Boulevard and say that there aren’t any decent shows anyway.
You both know that you’re looking for something more than a show,
more even than getting into Bradley’s Bar past that woman who is
posted there specially to keep minors out. You have a better idea
than Lee what that something is, but you couldn’t explain it to him in
words. Anyway, he partly understands.

“Well,” Lee says, “there’s no use trying to get into Bradley’s
again.”

“No,” you say, and you both walk in silence for a while. You
pass the Bowling Alley and the other landmarks again. You pause to
look at a group of girls rolling toilet paper down the pavement for a
sorority initiation. You begin to walk more slowly as you come near
to Highland which is the end of the boulevard.

Suddenly (although you’ve been phrasing the words for the last
block) you say, “You know, we’d have a lot better chance of getting
into a bar if we went out to the Strip. That’s county territory and I
hear that’s lots less strict.”

“How would we get there?” he asks. “It’s ten thirty now.”

“The Red Bus,” you tell him and you both cross the Boulevard
to wait on the opposite corner for the bus. There is only one line of
red Pacific Electric buses in Hollywood and taking one seems a vastly
different experience from taking one of the yellow buses that you
travel in all the time. But you wouldn’t tell Lee that. Instead you say,
“I’ll bet none come along now for an hour now that we want it.”

You take a package of Lord Salisbury cigarettes out of your coat
pocket and offer Lee one. He looks a little amused and says, “You
pick the damnedest brands, don’t you. No thanks, I’ll stick to
Camels.” He started smoking six months before you did and is more
secure about it.

The bus comes sooner than either of you expected and as you
settle down into the plush seats you steal a glance at Lee. The glance
is literally stolen as you know Lee doesn’t like you looking at him.
Lee looks a little bit happy too and you’re glad of that. As the bus
passes the Sunset Towers you begin to look at the passengers that
will be getting off somewhere on the Strip. Lee asks you where we
should get off and you decide to follow the crowd of people that are
getting off at the next stop.

When you and Lee are on the sidewalk you stand there and
watch the people that got off the bus with you disappear into the
various bars that are scattered over the blocks. You ask, “Which one
shall we try?”

Lee pauses and answers, “Let’s walk down the block and see
what they look like.” You both are grateful for this postponement.
As you walk down the street, two men walking arm in arm come up
from the other direction. One of them detaches himself and comes
up to Lee and asks him in a funny high-pitched voice, “Do you have
a match?”

Lee gives him a light and the man offers you both a cigarette.
Lee takes the bull by the horns and asks, “Do you happen to know of
a bar around here that won’t bother us about being underage?”

The man smiles and says, “Come with us to Tessie’s. Tess
never bothers about that, does she, Bob?” The other man grunts
assent.

You walk with them for about a half a block and come to
Tessie’s. Trying your best not to appear nervous you both walk
through the door with them. The man at the door stares hard at you
but lets you pass. The men you came in with suddenly see someone
that they know and rush to his table with soft screams. You and Lee
are left stranded but Lee sees an empty table and you walk to it, both
trying to look casual.

A waitress comes almost immediately and asks you what you’ll
have. You fidget and say, “Brandy and soda,” which is the only
thing you can think of, and Lee asks for a Cuba Libre.

You begin to look around and you see that on the small
wooden dance-floor men are dancing with men and women are
dancing with women. On the stage above a woman with bobbed hair
wearing a tuxedo is singing a torch song. You begin to realize this
this night-club is for homosexuals and this knowledge is trangely
exhilarating. You had read about them but were never certain that
you had seen one before. You almost want to go over to the next
table and talk to the youths there (they really don’t look any older
than you do) in the same twittering voice that they talk in.

Quite suddenly you wonder what Lee thinks of this place. You
look at him and he wrinkles his nose and says, “Let’s get out of here.”
You get up and slowly follow him to the door. When you get to it
you can’t resist turning around for one last look. Unlike Lot’s wife
you finally turn around and go through the door with Lee.

When you are out on the sidewalk in the cold, clean air again,
Lee says, “God, aren’t queers disgusting!” And you feel lost and
alone.




Afterword by Kevin Killian

When Lew Ellingham and I wrote a biography of Jack Spicer, we sort
of glossed over his high school years, but since our book appeared in 1998 more
information has emerged, and a coherent picture begins to develop. Peter Gizzi
met with James Roberts, a retired professor at UNLV, who had gone to school
with Spicer (high school and college, too), and had kept Spicer’s letters to him.
This correspondence was a veritable fountain of information, and of leads too.
Who knew that Spicer was friendly with the folksinger-comedian Allan Sherman
or with Warren Christopher, who later became Clinton’s Secretary of State, or
with future “Screenplay” theorist Syd Field? And we began to hear more and
more about Lee Hough, who must have been the boy who broke Spicer’s heart.

I followed up some of the names in the Spicer-Roberts correspondence
and wound up interviewing Herb Selwyn, another one of the boys in Spicer’s
high school crowd. (The interview was published in SMALL TOWN #4 in 2004.)
Selwyn spoke of what seemed to me an extraordinarily sophisticated nightlife for
high school boys to be pursuing. “Before the war, we saw the King Cole Trio—
Nat “King” Cole had a jazz trio then, they were excellent. Another time we saw
Art Tatum—do you know who I mean? And once at the “International,” which
was a gay club, I remember we saw a gal called herself “Tommie,” and wouldn’t
you know it, years later I wound up representing her on a legal matter.

“Tommie,” a wonderful chanteuse I guess you’d call her.” “And this is when
you were in high school?” I asked. “We were seventeen, Jack might have been
18, but we used fake IDs—everyone had them. You were supposed to be 21, but
they looked the other way. Everyone paid off the cops. The clubs on the Strip
were County, so they paid off the sheriff. Later there was a big crack down, and
an internal investigation of the vice squad and the bars became much stricter
about letting in teens..”

Most of these boys were straight; there was one “musical” fellow called
Ken Austin, who might have been gay. (Tragically Austin died young, not in the
War but from rheumatic fever, and at his funeral Spicer sang, “The Streets of
Laredo.”) And then there was Lee Hough, about whom Spicer wrote—in a later
poem—“I will name imaginary lovers/ [….] / Lee Hough whose almost
unremembered basketball court is filled with heros/ (Victims) of the Dada days
when I was a citizen of Hollywood High School/ And the Japanese were busy
bombing Pearl Harbor/ [….] / Walruses/ In a sea of bad remembering.”
Reading “Pillar of Salt,” one of a series of autobiographical stories Spicer began
to write in the late 1940s, one is struck by the unusual tone of the piece. It’s not
that the narrator is in love with Lee, or not openly so—for maybe he doesn’t even
know his oen heart—but certainly he wants a sign from Lee, some sort of
admission that another world exists at the end of the Red Bus line. The
nightclub, “Tessie’s,” its dancefloor packed with lesbians and gay men, exists at
the limits of the imagination. The Biblical allusions to Lot’s wife, the pillar of
salt, turning around for one more last look, underscore the link of Tessie’s to the
gay capital of Sodom. In Spicer’s later poetry he switches up the “final look”
tragedy and, over and over, uses the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to explore
the implications of that gaze.

Re-reading the story it seems clear that Jack has been directing the whole
scenario to happen, using all of his agency to force Lee first onto the Strip, then
into a palace of radical instability. Maybe he, our hero, will no longer be alone.
You can tell Spicer was aping Hemingway’s “Nick Adams” stories, and beyond
those the contemporary work of Saroyan, Steinbeck, and Dorothy Parker. When
asked to introduce something unpublished by Jack Spicer for this issue of
“EOAGH,” I thought first of all of “Pillar of Salt.” Nowadays we come out of the
closet in different ways than Jack Spicer did, but in our decision to live our lives
as openly gay or lesbian, and our equally mad decision to give them up to the life
of poetry, there’s an uneven symmetry, like the old-fashioned ribbon candy, that
seals the one to the other. “Pillar of Salt,” though it ends unhappily, isn’t at any
rate untruthful to this particular dream.

Published now for the first time, “Pillar of Salt” is part of a large collection
of Spicer papers recently bequeathed to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, by
the poet’s surviving brother Holt Spicer, and by his literary executor, the poet
Robin Blaser. It is printed here with the kind permission of the Literary Estate of
Jack Spicer and courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California,
Berkeley.




Bio of Jack Spicer

Jack Spicer was born in Hollywood in 1925 and died in San Francisco,
California, in the summer of 1965. During his lifetime he published a number of
important texts—After Lorca, Billy the Kid, Homage to Creeley, “Imaginary Elegies
I-VI,” Lament for the Makers, The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, The Holy Grail,
and Language—and left an equivalent amount of work to be published after his
death. He was a key player in a number of scenes the so-called Berkeley
Renaissance of the late 1940s, the “Boston Renaissance” of 1955-56, and the “San
Francisco Renaissance” of the 1950s and early 1960s. Other important
accomplishments include his mentoring of young San Francisco artists and the
founding of the “6 Gallery”; his “Poetry as Magic” Workshop at the San
Francisco Public Library in 1957,; his editorial and other particpation in two
influential mimeo journals of the 1950s and 1960s, J and Open Space; and his
development of theories of dictation and the serial poem—for which see Peter
Gizzi’s edition of Spicer’s “Vancouver Lectures” and other critical material, The
House That Jack Built (Wesleyan University Press, 1998).