Forced Exits

180px-jim_carroll_by_david_shankbone.jpgThe scene: The Brooklyn Book Festival. I’d spent the day with Wingfield, wandering around, checking out the booths set up by various small press publishers and literary magazines, dodging strollers piloted by the hip, literate parents that flocked to the event. We’d seen a discussion celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Kerouac’s On the Road. We killed time with a coffee and got our tickets to the 5PM panel, which was a works-in-progress reading featuring Joe Meno, Jim Carroll, and Gloria Naylor.

I’ve been a huge fan of Carroll, the diarist/poet/punk musician, since I first read The Basketball Diaries in high school. Wingfield and I had a chance encounter with him in the hallway an hour or so before his reading. It took me a second to recognize him, aged and frail as he was. He asked if I this were the second floor, I said no, it was the first. He was looking for some room, I assumed the artist check-in area. He gathered his bag and loped up the stairs to the next floor. I turned to Wingfield and said, sotto voce, “that was Jim Carroll.”
“I know,” she said.

“Should we have helped him?”

She shrugged.

When I’d first seen him read, sometime in early 2001, he still looked like his old self, a charter member of the Heroin Preservation Society. It was in a dingy rock club on the Lower East Side. I was maybe twenty-three years old, and I sat on the cold cement floor, five feet from the stage, enraptured. The figure that approached us in the hallway was gaunt, sunken, stooped. His lanky frame bowed by illness. I wondered if he’d found the room, if he’d make it to the reading.

We waited in the queue to be let into the court room of Brooklyn Borough Hall. By the time we were settled and the obligatory introductions and sponsor thank-yous were made, the program was already fifteen minutes behind schedule. Naylor was running late, and we were told she may not make it. (She didn’t.) Meno and Carroll were seated behind the large Judge’s bench. Meno read first, a short story he was writing as a fund raiser for 826 Chicago. Then it was Carroll’s turn. He took a microphone and apologized. He said he was recovering from an illness. He was funny and self-deprecating. He stood, his leg was bothering him, and began to ramble a bit before from one of his previous books (Living at the Movies, maybe? I’m not sure). The character in that piece, Billy, was also the protagonist of his new novel, The Petting Zoo. Then he began shuffling through the type-written pages he’d brought. He couldn’t seem to find the selection he planned on reading. Time slowed to a crawl as everyone watched, uncomfortably, while Carroll turned over various pieces of paper, alternately apologizing and chastising himself. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I had it all together.” Meno, stuck next to him, watched with both pity and discomfort, mirroring the feelings the rest of us had. We wanted him to succeed, to get it together. People started to slowly trickle out of the room. Time was ticking by. Carroll made a discovery. “There’s typing on both sides of the page.” He held one aloft. “No wonder I can’t find what I’m looking for.” More shuffling.

One of the festival volunteers came up and said we had about ten minutes left. Maybe it was time to do a bit of Q&A. Carroll asked for more time. She said if the crowd wanted Carroll to read more, she’d bend to our will. There was applause. Carroll continued to shuffle his pages, determined to find what he was going to read, to get it right. To present what he’d planned on presenting, this work, this piece from The Petting Zoo, a novel he’d been writing for well over a decade.

More people began to leave, until the trickle became a hemorrhage. A shout from the peanut gallery. “Come on, Jim. Just read something, Jim.”

He started telling us about the portion he’d planned to read. When he spoke about the story, the context, he was lucid, commanding. Hints of the wry, roguish author he’d been shone through. The section of the novel was about a raven, though not just any raven, one who’d been on Noah’s arc. The raven was visiting the character of Billy, who naturally though he was hallucinating, being confronted by a talking bird. By this point he’d found a portion of the text he’d been looking for. He read. Then faltered again. More searching. The volunteer came back again. It was six. We had to go. To clear the room. There would be additional charges the festival couldn’t cover if they didn’t vacate the room on time.

Carroll was still standing, microphone in hand. He asked for more time. Another volunteer took the podium to the left of the bench. She was firm. She told everyone to clear out, thanked us for coming, and said the microphones would be cut off.

Wingfield and I gathered our belongings and started to exit. There was confusion. Grumbling. The event before had run over, we’d started late, why couldn’t they let him finish? I turned back for a final glimpse.

There was Carroll, microphone in hand (though it had been silenced), waving a piece of paper in the air and asking, pleading, to just be allowed to finish the page.

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20 Responses to Forced Exits

  1. bobby says:

    although you captured the moment quite well, I think you omitted some of the funnier moments. such as when he discovered that both sides of the page were printed he called himself a “dumski.” Another hilarious moment was when after the mic was cut he shouted:

    I don’t even know what I’m doing here. I’m from Manhattan man!

    Outside he told a few people who stuck around how he wanted to throw his water bottle at the woman who cut him off and how her name was probably Bobbi with an “I” and she probably dots her I’s with little hearts.
    Overall I saw the event in sync with any of his entries from the downtown diaries: heartbreaking, endearing, and absurdly hilarious.

  2. ephemerist says:

    Hey Bobby thanks for filling in the blanks. I totally forgot about the “dumski” comment.

    I was tempted to stick around after, but Bobbi made it pretty clear she wanted us out, so, yeah, I bolted.

    I do think it was in keeping with his sensibility most of the time, and I think had it been a different venue he would have been allowed to finish reading. It was sort of eye-opening the way he was treated…not just as an author/entertainer but as someone who was, as he said, recovering from an illness and just wanted to finish reading his piece. Also, why was there no one with him? An Assistant? A friend? How’d he manage to get to Brooklyn?

    But overall, he did manage to keep a sense of humor about himself and the proceedings, which was, as you said, endearing.

  3. Jane says:

    That was really touching and sad to read. I wish I’d been there.

  4. ephemerist says:

    It was interesting. And sad. But totally worth it.

  5. That’s the saddest thing, ever. At least Amy made us brownies.

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  7. Andrew says:

    I remember this event too! (Good call on pointing out the immeasurable value of his use of the word “Dumbski” in self-description; he may as well have been standing on a corner in Inwood.) Also I wanted to point out that the first person who read before Jim, was a total fucking jerk-off in my eyes. who read this soft, bed-wetter little anecdote about having a crush on some girl in the next cubical and finding out she was leaving the company and he wanted to give her an apple or some shit, cause he was too scared to say anything sincere to her. And he read it all proud and queer like some fifth grader who won a book report competition, and regailed the parent-teacher conference at an award dinner. In addition, you nailed it with the hipsters, and their strollers, and their intellectual condescending style, and the woman who was forcing him off stage, and the fact that the room was like a court house; my point is that Jim is better (different) than all that shit. I saw him at the Mass MOCA about four months or so before this event where he read alone, on a cool dark stage, in a small informal set-up (he even signed my vinly copy of Dry Dreams and told me a great story about the cover). His reading then, just four-months earlier, was brilliant, poetic, intimate, and raw. He just didn’t belong at a reading in Brooklyn at a book festival with all these other boners. He still is the Jim Carroll of old.

  8. ephemerist says:

    Andrew: Indeed. I think the event last year was a, well, one-off? Glad to hear you saw him in his normal fighting trim. I think he does better in intimate venues and with less, er, stuff going on around.

  9. Schwabe says:

    Let me just say what we’re all thinking as we look at the picture and read your article. Jim Carroll is back on the smack.

    It’s not fair to say it, but I think we should, because it seems quite obvious.

    Here he was – confused, a little empty, and very sick looking. His presence caused discomfort for everyone there. And this ‘illness’ he had…

    At 67, understandably, your going to look old but this is a little much. Look at this picture from about 7 years ago, he looks very normal:

    In my opinion, this is the final chapter in Jim’s biography. A sort of twist at the end, that was foreshadowed in the beginning.

    “heroin … One’s not an idiot or stupid, you do take it because there is something to it at first. It does slow down all the bullshit a lot and let you see the landscape for what it is. But then it slows it down to a point where you feel no compulsion to have to work anymore. At first it gives you energy. People have that stereotype of shooting up and nodding out, but unless you got strong shit and didn’t realize, it’s really more of an upper, then you nod out later. But then it turns so perniciously and imperceptibly from you being in control of it to it being in control of you. It’s not just the physical side; the first habit’s relatively easy to kick. Psychologically, it puts into your brain a place of comfort which you’re always going to want to return to at one time or another in your life. That’s the thing that, even if you get clean, will reside inside of you, even as it does in me to this day.”

  10. Schwabe says:

    A significant correction to a statement I made above – his actual age in this article/photo is 57. He was born in 1950. And we’re supposed to believe this is an ‘illness’. I’m not mad or annoyed, I’m just pointing out the obvious.

  11. bondobbs says:

    I’d say meth IMO. Meth is one drug that can destroy such a person in a short period of time. Plus look at his teeth.

  12. Pingback: What’s wrong with Jim Carroll? | Anything to Stop the Pain - BPD and Non-BPs

  13. Bill says:

    This is the first time I saw that pic. I saw hi many times in the 1980’s. Great performer. Magnetic.

    Has anyone found out if Jim Carroll is OK? What the deal is/was?

    I understand The Petting Zoo is soon to see the light of day.

    Also, thanks (Andrew) for shedding light on that annoying thing that’s going on …Hipsters with strollers….all that style, all that attitude…ALL THAT NOTHING.

    Anyhow, I do hope Jim is OK. I just re-read his books and the man is gifted. He’s a very good writer!

  14. earthpet says:

    This story now reads like an overlooked prophecy.

  15. Pingback: Jim Carroll, author of Basketball Diaries, dies at 60 | David Shankbone

  16. I linked to your story about my photo above, and how controversial it was when it was released:

    Jim Carroll dies – memory of a photo

    • ephemerist says:

      @David. Thanks for the link. It is a disturbing photo, but also that was how he appeared at the time. You were right to capture that moment, I think.

  17. Deborah Lamson says:

    My heart is broken over Jim’s passing – to see his once beautiful face so gaunt and unrecognizable is far too hard for me to look at. If he was in pain (which he was) and knew intuitively that life was slipping away from him and that his days were numbered, albeit far, far too soon, he was certainly entitled to deal with that loss any way he felt comfortable. What saddens me most is how alone he seemed in those last years – such a social creature – his love of conversation, literature, music, humor…..I wonder, if only he had shared that time with another, if only….

  18. kevin couch says:

    The person who posted this article is foolish and naive. THIS WAS THE WRITER OF MY GENERATION. Jim had the single most unique voice in literature and to bag on him cause he lost his notes is just a token of your own capacity for ignorance. Jim you were MY Frank O’Hara who changed it all for me. RIP.

  19. Sherwin says:

    He suffered from Hepatitis-C. Thats enough of an illness combined from the heavy drug history to have him age like that,no doubt.

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