The Times Square Hustler
Who Inspired The Beat Movement
A Life of Herbert Huncke
by Hilary Holladay
review by Mick Mykola Dementiuk
There is a photograph of Herbert Huncke in New York’s 42nd Street, his eyes somewhat shut, a unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, his facial cheeks all puffed as if from pummeling he may received from another's fists or else simply just the hazards of falling down in the big city streets. The picture was taken by Allen Ginsberg in the 1940s, when Ginsberg was himself an unknown poet and straggling through Columbia University while hanging out with the seedy shapers of life in Times Square. It shows the drug addicted user-friend Huncke, who would eventually come to be known as the originator and drive behind the Beat movement of the 40s and the 50s, influencing such writers as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, along with Ginsburg who he knew first hand, even at times going to jail for Huncke’s crimes and compulsive shenanigans. These three would come to be known as the Fathers of the Beat Movement, while the originator, the real soul, Herbert Huncke was left behind in the dirt and debris of 42nd Street.
This wonderfully written biography, American Hipster by Hilary Holladay beautifully and patiently examines Huncke’s life in the dregs of society, though I focus mainly on 42nd Street, but it does not pass judgment of whether that life was well worth it or not. After all, it was a chaotic time in America after the war, the complacent 1950s exploding into the experimental 1960s when drug use was very carefully prevalent and society was cast into turmoil with the Civil Rights movement, demands for Women’s Rights, Gay Rights coming out and all forcing their way to the top which had been repressed and held back for so long. Huncke himself was notoriously queer but Gay Rights wasn’t his bag yet he didn’t suddenly appear on the street scene, that scene, 42nd Street was always there, which the wasted drug addict Huncke was always trying for one more fix. But this time Huncke came upon the scene with a coterie of young potential writers just hanging on to every word that he uttered to them. What they were looking for was to be like just him, to be a beatnik, mouthing things like, “Cool, heavy, beat…” with Huncke nonchalantly muttering the words they were hungry for, “Cool daddio…” They must have been charmed and fascinated by the somewhat illiterate drug addict, with a new hip language and giving them a different look upon post-WW2 life in America, which had shown itself as nothing but boring complacency and middle class deadness. No wonder they went on the road looking for adventure and very quickly found it too.
Much as the movie character Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy who gives a very good idea of what Huncke was like and could’ve been a direct mimeograph of his Times Square existence yet Huncke was no mere movie character/hustler he was for very real, so much that he would steal you blind and even take the clothes off your back while blinding you as you’re looking right at him. A low down thief is what he was.
Much as I experienced the seediness of 42nd Street and Times Square in the 1960s and 70s, when the sexual revolution was upon it, I don’t know if I ever met or saw Herbert Huncke in those shady movie houses, every slimy Times Square denizen looking just like him, and there were lots of them around. Going into a sex movie in those years was going into a standing room only venue; every seat was taken by men hungry for motion picture sex and intently watching close-ups of vaginal muscles, the lubrication released by female flesh heightened by the erotic scent smelling to high heaven, or it least it did to me. I’d sit and watch as sooner or later someone would change seats in the auditorium. After a while, as I moved aside to let them pass, I realized my wallet was missing, had I dropped it unknowingly while being so aroused just staring at the flesh on the screen? Wait a minute, what about the disheveled guy who sat next to me, of course, who else but him, he ripped me off!
Who knows if I ever came across Herbert Hunckey or not? Had no idea who he was at the time or would I care?
The phantom of Hubert Huncke still slithers down the balcony stairs of ghostly 42nd Street movie houses… Just let the chimera go past. Wait a minute, why’s it stopping and slithering closer? Oh no, time to get out of here!
Herbert Hunckey lived 1915 to 1996, pretty much stoned and wasted all through his years.