As a young writer I visited New York often to pay my respects to the publishing poohbahs, but I did not live there until 1996, when I lost my San Francisco apartment and about the same time realized that if I grew 43 seconds older, I would never live in New York, and shouldn’t every American writer live for some time in New York, if only to establish that one shouldn’t? And so at 43, thus the magic number, in part as a professional move, in part to flee the ghosts of so many San Francisco friends dead from AIDS, I sublet an apartment in Westbeth, the self-styled artist and writer hangout on the Hudson, for the autumn, figuring that by December I could either bail or find a more permanent address. Thus began a friendship of almost thirty years with the apartment’s owner, the artist David Alexander, and his then-lover, later husband, the poet, translator, critic and MacArthur Fellow Richard Howard, who died March 31.
I met them often at Richard’s Washington Square apartment, a long, skinny closet carved out of some 19th century industrial sweatshop and lined floor-to-ceiling with books. I pointed out to Richard that an occasionally active earthquake fault underlies the Hudson and that I anticipated a Times headline to the effect of Translator, Poet, and Professor Buried by Books.
I went there often for wine or champagne before dinner out. Richard and David were each famously remarkable dressers, and introduced me, at 43 as at 68 a country boy, to the notion that one might select one’s wardrobe so as to enhance the city’s visual theater. In my childhood one of my sisters had forbidden me to walk “into town,” a rural Kentucky village of 800, wearing a plaid shirt with plaid shorts. Richard virtually always mixed patterns, wearing ties with startling designs against yet more startling shirts. He accessorized with owl’s-eye spectacles, of which he owned at least a dozen pairs in colors ranging from lemon yellow to deep red to obsidian. Wittingly or osmotically his husband aided and abetted, since David had grown up in Hawaii and was producing visual graphics rendered in tropical colors.
I admired their splendor but largely stuck with my Castro Street lumberjack look until, as a Harper’s contributor, I was invited to the magazine’s 150th birthday party, for which it rented the Grand Central Station concourse. Somewhere I got the idea that a New York man needed to own a suit so I took a substantial percentage of my latest advance and bought one off Nordstrom’s rack, along with suspenders (I would learn to call them “braces”) and a pair of oxblood wing-tip shoes. I stopped by Richard’s beforehand, where David joined us for a sendoff bottle of champagne. Richard opened the door. “Well, well, well!” he said, throwing his arms wide for an embrace and a kiss. He had not suspected that I of the bluegrass sprouting from my ears could so successfully put on the dog.
Which sartorial pup gives rise to the memory of a more literal dog. For the first fifteen years of our friendship, the saturated specs were accompanied by another essential accessory—Richard’s French bulldog, Gide. He was a nonstop, ankle-level snuffler—that is the precisely correct word, so long as it is auditorily interspersed with grunts. If I crossed my legs, Gide dashed over, leapt on the shank of my crossed leg, and humped away. I had to be vigilant at keeping my feet on the floor or accept that my calf was an erotic obsession of a French bulldog. Our evenings sometimes ended with David taking his leave to return to Westbeth and Richard and I walking Gide around the block. Those may have been our most tender and intimate moments. We sometimes talked literature, sometimes hardly spoke, cocooned in the beating heart of the vast, literate city, soothed by the soft, guttural snuffles and grunts of a bouledogue français.
In his last years he had some combination of dementia and aphasia, where he could mostly understand what was said to him but could not articulate a response—a terrible situation to witness and surely to endure. David visited daily and struck up the tender and brilliant stratagem of reading aloud his prose and poetry. Me, I would have welcomed the opportunity to read aloud the masterful prose of Paper Trails, possibly because I’m a prose writer but more because I know how slow the minutes pass at the bedside of the dying, and prose has the virtue, considerable under such circumstances, of being long. Instead I wrote a letter offering impressions of Paris, where I have been living for the past spring, with the idea that David might read it aloud and thereby pass some of the leaden caregiving hours. The day I dropped it in the box I learned of Richard’s death.
Though maybe the hours were not so leaden. When one loves deeply enough, the caregiving hours take on color and nuance. During those last years I took David out more than once. Each time he struck me, not as borne down, but as finding another way and means of expressing love. And many of Richard’s poems—those in which with incomparable erudition he occupies past personae—are quite long enough. He was a master of the long form, of an ambition and achievement seldom encountered in our timid times.
He was, in fact, intimidating. Was there anything about which he did not know everything? Only once in our many conversations do I recall him at a loss for words. We were to meet for lunch and I suggested Midtown, because I had an exhibition I wanted to see. Oh? Richard asked. What are you going to see? (I could write “archly,” since for Richard “arch” is not a putdown but a description of a way of being.) Put so baldly on the spot, my duplicitous Southern manners failed and I spoke the facts: a quilt show at the American Craft Museum, then located across from MOMA. And why would you go see that? Richard asked (now he was being arch). I responded from a country boy’s autonomic defense of his roots: “Because they’re my people.” In the rich silence that followed, I believe Richard grasped the depth of my shuck and jive, just how much theater I had mastered so as to lend credence to an otherwise bald and unconvincing tale: me in the city, me in New York; me, friends with and talking to Richard Howard.
Richard Howard read at the University of Arizona Poetry Center on Tuesday, September 25th, 1973. You can listen a digitized version of this reading on the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive Voca.