In 1946, when Herbert Huncke introduced the word "beat" to his friends, he couldn't have imagined that it would become a portentous, historical term. Nothing about his unprepossessing appearance suggested immortality in any sense of the word; his oversized head dominated by sympathetic, liquid hazel eyes perched above his bird-like frame. His puppyish manner seemed ill-fitting in the niche he made for himself in a world ruled by pimps, prostitutes, thieves and dealers. The cops knew him as "the creep" and his fellow hustlers and addicts referred to him as "the mayor".
Born to hard-working, middle-class parents, he recalled his never-satisfied father as "a miserable bastard" and his mother as beautiful, hysterical and resentful of the adolescent joys she had missed. Neither could offer the emotional support their only son needed. Many years later, introducing Huncke's autobiography Burroughs wrote: "The protagonist is thrown into the water to sink or swim. So he learns something about the water."
With a dime in his pocket and a map in his hand, Huncke ran away from home at twelve. He rode the Chicago trolleys and streetcars to the end of the line and began hitchhiking. He was introduced to oral sex by a stranger who thrust a $10. bill in his pocket and sped off, falling into hustling without even knowing what it was. Standing by the side of the road in Geneva, New York one summer day, the pungent smell of onions from the nearby fields in his nostrils, he came to associate the smell with freedom - he never knew it could smell so penetrating, so physical - was his recollection years later.
At sixteen, he met a freak show "hermaphrodite" named Elsie John. Huncke worked as her shill for her midway act and delivered pot for her. (seven high-quality joints for a quarter) Elsie was a heroin addict, and while she did not involve Huncke in dealing it, she did offer him the small quantities of heroin which led to his first habit. Huncke last saw her in the South State Street Jail. Years later, she became the subject of Huncke's first accomplished story.
For the next six years Huncke drifted around the country. He ran errands, hustled, bellhopped; befriending the marginal figures who supplied him with jobs and drugs. He used amphetamines, heroin and marijuana when he could afford it, but he avoided addiction because his drug use was sufficiently irregular and varied. In 1940, Times Square became his headquarters. He was a natural for it.
Excerpted from The Birth of the Beat Generation
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