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The dinner with Allen Ginsberg I wish I'd never had


The last ride
Peter Mayer Publisher
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So, I worked at night, and - nearly always at night - and I was working one New Year's Eve, or Christmas Eve, I don't remember, and on the Lower East Side, where I also lived, you know, there's a mirror for the driver, and you can see [who] you picked up.

So, it was snowy.  And three guys got into the cab, one of whom I recognised in the mirror was Allen Ginsberg.  The other two were, I think, Gregory Corso and Philip Lamantia, two friends of Allen's.  And the only reason I recognised Allen was because he was a very famous figure around Columbia University.  He had been at Columbia some years before me, but even after he left Columbia, he still hung around Morningside Heights and he was a very famous figure.  I don't know any longer - I would have to look it up, but one could - whether Howl had been published at that time or not.  I'm not sure it had been.

But, anyway, I recognised him and I asked them where they were going, and they gave me an address and we drove along, and I said, Mr Ginsberg, something or other.  They were very startled in the back of the car - a cab driver who  recognised them.  They were not really famous.  So, I said, well, I'd read some of his poems, and I knew who he was, and I'd seen him around the… what was the name of that bar?  There was a bar around 112th Street and Broadway.  The West End Bar, I think.  And so, they said, well you're a cab driver.  I said, yes.  Earn some money and so on.

They said, well, we're going to a party.  You want to come?  So, I thought this was terrific.  I was a literature student, and these three characters invited me to a party.  Nobody invited me to anything those days.  So, I parked the car right outside, somewhere on the Lower East Side and locked it and went upstairs, a walk-up, to a party at which everybody was doing a lot of drinking, in spite of the fact that Allen, and I think his friends, were all gay - this was a very mixed party - there were a lot of gays there.  There was a lot of marijuana being smoked.  And I was having a good time there.

And somebody said, I don't know, at two in the morning, let's go to San Francisco.  And somebody said, "Who's got a short?"  'A short' was the word in that year, I believe, for a car.  And I, like a fool, raised my arm and said, "I got one!"  Where is it? they said. "It's downstairs".  And four people, including Allen, went downstairs and I drove them to San Francisco.

I got fired somewhere around Kansas City.  The… either the cab company put out to the police, they're looking for a yellow cab, license plate such and such and such and such.  But I was on… or maybe I called George's Garage in Harlem, which was the garage I took the cab from or worked for, on 125th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, George's Garage.  And I may have called them and say, listen, I've got your cab, and I'm taking some people to San Francisco.

And the cab driver, who liked me… the, not the cab driver, the owner of… the cab owner, who liked me, because I was very, I was… I brought in a lot of money.  I was a good cab driver.  He said, look, we know how much this cab is supposed to produce every day, and every day that cab is not back here, you owe us $200 or, I don't know.  And you're going to pay it.

Well, I remember, somewhere around Denver, we all got out of the car and pissed collectively and we put our money together for gas, because we didn't have that much for gasoline and Yankee Doodles.  We ate a lot of Yankee Doodles.  It's a sort of brown cake with cheap icing inside it.  We ate that all the way across America.  Yankee Doodles and pissed collectively.

And we got to San Francisco.  We had about the last $16 worth of gas.  They got some money together from someone and gave me enough money to get gas and go back to New York.  I did, and I paid them, I don't know, $1,200 or something like that, which was what the cab would have earned if it had continued to be plying the streets.

Peter Mayer (1936-2018) was an American independent publisher who was president of The Overlook Press/Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc, a New York-based publishing company he founded with his father in 1971. At the time of Overlook's founding, Mayer was head of Avon Books, a large New York-based paperback publisher. There, he successfully launched the trade paperback as a viable alternative to mass market and hardcover formats. From 1978 to 1996 he was CEO of Penguin Books, where he introduced a flexible style in editorial, marketing, and production. More recently, Mayer had financially revived both Ardis, a publisher of Russian literature in English, and Duckworth, an independent publishing house in the UK.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: New York, San Francisco, Yankee Doodles, Allen Ginsberg

Duration: 6 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: September 2014-January 2015

Date story went live: 12 November 2015