excerpt from an interview with Gregory Corso
by Gavin Selerie
Ladbroke, London, 1982
GS: I'd like you to tell me about your background in New York--the East Side.
GC: My background did not start with the East Side; it started with Greenwich Village, which is West Side. I was born on Bleeker/MacDougal Street which is the heart of Greenwich Village, which has a combination of Italian immigrants mixed with some of the sharpest heads all over the planet, who live there. Meaning the Bohemian types, the writers. Edna St. Vincent Millay lived thereor you name 'emthe writers who were part of that scene. And then, of course, the tourists which came down on the weekend, and they never see any of the people who live there, the residents; they only see each other and they point out to each other and say, "There's one." But all they do is come down with masquerade, try to act like they're Bohemian. This is as a kid that I saw it; remember now, this is before the Beatniks and all that. Anyway, it was the hippest place in town and I thought, "A big city like New York oh yeah, Tops." And as I grew up in it and the years changed there was movings around. I moved up over Lower East Side and I was adopted by eight foster parents; I lived all over New York City with these parents, man, till I was about ten years old. My father took me back home, back to Greenwich Village, and he thought by taking me out of the orphanage he'd be out of the World War too. But no waythey got him anyway. He went in the Navy and then I lived on the streets.
GS: You lived on the streets?
GC: I had no father and no mother. My father went into the armed service and I never saw my motherI don't know what happened to her. Nobody knows. Yeah, I have a bellybutton! Anyway, I lived on the streets and did pretty good until I got caught stealing, what was it? I kicked in a restaurant window, went in and took all the food that I wanted, and while coming out I was grabbed.
GS: You were really hungry?
GC: Oh yeah. They put me in the Tombs. Now the Tombs, like the name says, are so horrible that they had to close it down. Today it doesn't exist and people go in the electric chair and all that. I was what?--twelve years old--and I was thrown in the cells with these people, so I learned fast.
GS: Did other people in the cells teach you stuff?
GC: Not those, not that time. All they wanted to do was fuck and of course I saved my virginity by fighting back. The lucky thing was that I was Italian; when the other Italians saw me fight back, they came to my defence. If you don't fight back then they call you a 'free-hole'--that was the expression. So I fought back; I saved my virginity. They let me out when I was thirteen. These were big war years, right? '43, 1943, and I'm out on the streets again. But this time I didn't have a place to sleep. So again I kick in a window and I go to sleep in this place, which was called the Educational Alliance; it was a place where the kids in the neighbourhood go, like an alternative place. In those early days it was that--boy scouts, all kinds of things. And I fell asleep there. Police come in with the night watchman; they see me on the floor and they bring me right back to the Tombs thing again. I spent four months there in the hottest summer time--it was hell, man alive, and I really couldn't take it any more and I got very sick in my body and they sent me to the hospital. Now the hospital was called Bellevue Hospital; it was where they put runaway boys but because it was 1943 they had no room for the boys and it was crowded, so all the mad people were there. I was put with those who were least mad but one day I rolled up a piece of white bread and I pooped it in the air--a little ball--and it hit somebody's eye, who started screaming and pointing at me. And everybody started pointing at me. They grabbed me and put me in a straightjacket and threw me up to a room on the fourth floor where old women were screaming, where men were peeing in each other's mouths. The ballgame was over, the whole thing was over already, and I was thirteen years old when I caught that shit. Didn't even know about jerking off yet--total innocent--so I got the heavy thing fast. Get out of that one now. How old am I?--about fifteen-and-a-half; I'm out on the streets and I'm tough now. I make sure I'm gonna go after whatever the fuck is on that planet. So all I saw was just that.
GS: Appetite, violence?
GC: No, to be smart. I used to go to the library all of the time and read the books as best I couldbooks on rhetoric, for instance. How do you get smart, Gregory? You see, I went to the sixth grade and that was the highest I ever went. How do you get smart?you got to read books, but what books? I had no friends or anything to tell me this shit; I had to check it out myself. RhetoricI don't know where the fuck I heard that word but I thought that's what made you smart. Do you know how many books they have on rhetoric that were done about 1895 or the late nineteenth century? Thousands!of this fucker on rhetoric. Then I thought, "What do I need with rhetoric?" I met this kid in the library when the war was over, and he had this great idea. He said, "Hey, you know these ArmyNavy stores that are selling walkietalkies? If we buy four of these things we can get a lot of money." I said, He said, "We gotta get two more guys; one drives a car and speaks through the walkietalkie to the guy on the stairway, who relays to the guys breaking the safe that no cops are coming." That's putting crime on a scientific basis and that I ate up. I said, "Great, about time. Now if I'm going to that fucking jail again with all that horror, at least it's for somethingnot that shit of going up because I fell asleep or needed something to eat." This is a big one. O.K. so he has some money, this kid. His name is John but he never gave his last name. Dig the game. Picked up two other guys. What happens is we get twentysix thousand dollars. Now this is 1945/6, 50 that's a lot of money. We shared the money and broke up. John goes off, I go off to Florida. I leave big tips, I buy zoot suits, like a real asshole, you know. The two Irish kids open up a bar mitzvah hall where people get married and all that kind of thing. and buy hams, turkeys, bushels of whiskey and all this crapinvite the whole neighbourhood in. After a while the police get suspicious because here are these guys, fifteen/sixteen years old, supplying everyone with drinks and food. Where'd they get all this money? They questioned the kids, who were drunk as hell, and they gave my name to the cops. The kids know my name, you see, though I don't know the other guy's namethank god I never knew. When the police came and got me down in Florida they beat the shit out of me, saying, "What's John's last name?" I said, "I don't know,?" and that's why I was given the most time in prisonthree years in Dannemora, Clinton Prison. The judge said I was a menace to society because I had put crime on a scientific basis. I did three years therefrom the beginning of seventeen years old to the end of nineteen; that's 19471950. I am so happy I never knew that guy's name cause once you mention the name of a partner in crime, mister your life is over. If you squeal you blow it I was lucky. I never got the fuckers who squealed on me but I didn't care; they were just kids anyway. So the first thing I learned was: "Never give your name to strangers while you're doing a crime." I took the lickings, went to prison, and that's where I learned, I think, the rest of that smell. Three shots were laid on me in prison. First of all: "Don't take your shoes off"which meant you're walking right out. Because three years was a cinch compared to the thirtysix years or a lifetime given to others. People go to the electric chair but I'd been given a different path. The next thing they said was: "Don't you serve time; let time serve you." That's when I got off rhetoric and ate up all the books. That's when I got into Stendhal, into Hugo, into Shelley, into all the goody-gumdrops. I ate up the 1905 Standard Dictionary, every word; it was about this thick [gestures] . All the archaic and obsolete wordsate it up. So I didn't serve time, I let time serve me. I was fed well and because I was young I had a kind of mascot status. The last shot was given to me as I'm walking out of the prison. Big Mafioso man, who never spoke to me, gives me this hit: "When you're talking to two people when you're out there, make sure you see three." I thought, "What does this mean?" and I said, "oh yeah, of course, dig yourself." That's where you get the control. If I'm talking to two people, make sure that I'm there too, and then everything's gonna be in harmony and fine. But if you're talking to two people and you don't know that you're there, you're out of control, man. It's a dangerous game in life. So the only thing I'm left with on that one was what about participation? What about getting happydrunk sometimes and just let things abandon for a while. Well, that's happened to me in life and I've been in good fortune; I never got hurt when I was in abandon. I'm in my weakest moment when I'm in that state. Any fuckers want to get me, they can get me then, but you see I'm a very smart man, a happy one. I don't hurt nobodynothing like that. When I let myself go in abandon, well yeah, if they want to get my arse they can do it.
GS: What do you mean exactly by the phrase "in abandon"?
GC: When I let it all go, I don't give a fuck what happens. I just trust people and they sense everything's gonna be alright. They know who the fuck I am already, take it easy 'cause I don't hurt anybody. I don't expect to be hurt, so I'm not. That was the last shot they laid on me in prisonbeing when you talk to two, make sure you see three, same as if you talk to one, make sure you see two, and so on. So that's the upbringing. Now, twenty years old, I come out and I go back to Greenwich Village. Now, of course, I'm a wealthy man.
GS: With the stuff you got from the safe?
GC: It's all in my head. Not the money from the safe. No, that's not wealth; that I spent dumb, leaving big tips and buying zoot suits. Are you kidding? The money was not the game; it was what I learned and that's why I came out rich. Now, who did I meet right away with the richness is Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Kerouac, all those fuckers. Because I was one of the rare people around that had the head.
GS: Were they famous then or not?
GC: No, they only had good heads. They were smart.
GS: Who struck you as having most artistic impulse in that group?
GC: I would say Kerouac for his sweetness, his gentility; there was no mean streak in him like I would find maybe sometimes in Ginsberg. That's why he [Ginsberg] has got to kill his ego all the time in these Buddhist schools; he's got something to kill, right? I used to joke with him and say, "Catch that man, he's killing his ego!" or run after a guru and say, "That guru's killing my friend's ego." Whereas Kerouac was out of that shit already; he knew who he was and all that and he put his ego to good work. You know when it's energy, spiritus, you don't kill that shit if it's good; it's not hurting anybody. But Ginsiehe knew that in himself he had this hurt, pain with his mother when he was a kid or some shit, I don't know what it waspain of all Jews maybe, who knows.
GS: Cain's curse.
GC: Whatever it is, that's what he's stuck with. So I didn't take up on him as much as I did with Kerouac. The other guy I dug a lot was Burroughs because he was a smart man already; he learned it through the druggie poolthe street scene of an old aristocratic kind of man.
CS: Was he on heroin then?
CC: Yeah, at the time I met him. Butdighe was like the people I knew in prison. I remember the people I knew in prison; I was very fortunate to know themthey came from 1910, 1920, 1930. I did not know the fuckers from 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970.! I didn't know these dumb arses who are in jail today; I knew the smart babies who were.... They're not that smart because they were in, but nonetheless it was a different kind of social rebellion in those days.
GS: How was it different?
GC: First of all, they were not in there for drugs. They weren't in there for any kind of cornball thing that they would put people in jail for today. Burroughs was a sharp man. Remember these were friends; these are guys who were not known at that time. They were not the Burroughs, Ginsberg Kerouac that you talk about.
Gavin Selerie, "The Interview," in The Riverside Interviews: 3 Gregory Corso. Gavin Selerie, ed., Ladbroke Grove: Binnacle Press, 1982, pp. 2125.