Owen Hill


In the Meltzer Library

The Art/The Veil
The Art / The Veil
by David Meltzer
Membrane Press, 1981

In the early seventies I worked nights at LAX, baggage service. Movie people were often on a particular flight, a red-eye from NYC that landed around 2 a m. I "met" all the stars, or at least enough so that to this day I have a backlog of stories to tell at parties. At nineteen, I wasn't too impressed. I decided then that I was immune to being starstruck.

Fast-forward a few years: I'm in the Trieste, completely tongue-tied in the presence of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Hirschman, Lamantia, fill-in-the-blank. I am in awe of great poets. How do they do it? And survive? Difficult art form, difficult life. You know the drill: no pay, no respect. I suppose the one consolation is that the average poet gets laid more frequently than Mick Jagger, at least until the teeth give out.

Fast-forward a few more years. I'm a book buyer in Berkeley. It's a good solid job: interesting, and it pays the rent, pretty much. Not quite Dr. Schweitzer, not quite Nelson Mandela, but not Dick Cheney either. I do play one important role in the social scheme of things: I provide supplemental income to the Bay Area's great (and come to think of it, near-great) poets.

I've issued trade slips to a MacArthur fellow, turned down books from a Nobel laureate (he took it well), paid Jack Micheline a ten-spot a few days before his last BART ride (should have been more generous, but who was to know?). I sent a runner out to get Diane di Prima a bagel (why do business on an empty stomach?). I spent days on end holed up in Nanos Valaoritis's house, helping him through the painful process of halving his library. I was starstruck every time, could barely speak beyond "Do you want cash for these, or trade?"

And then, about ten years into my book buying career, The Meltzer Library.

I had first read David's work in a little pamphlet, a gift from another book nut. It was called Bark: A Polemic. Great little book. From there I hunted down everything I could get. Funny, jazzy, spirited, spiritual (for lack of a better word). In 1981 I saw him stop the show at a rowdy Beatitude reading. I'm a complete fan.

Driving up the Alameda to his place. Teenage shivers. Can't stop thinking about Wallace Berman, always my standard for the coolest cat ever. Will there be a Berman there?

There were some Bermans around the place, but I tried to keep my mind on the task at hand. Narrow paths through book towers, vaguely arranged by subject. I'd been through this before. I stacked and restacked, boxed, went home, woke up the next morning and drove back up the Alameda. Seemed it would never end. David kept some nice music on, but mostly he stayed out of the way. I could buy about a vanload a day. Then back to the store, home, back to David's.

The house had no windows. I commented on this. "They're right there," and he pointed to a wall-to-ceiling case. "If you buy those books, we'll break out the cigars and look at the view. I haven't seen it since before Rexroth died." He took out an armload of books and had me take a gander. A picture window!

Some art books, a few nice Patchen items, that multivolume Paul Metcalf from Coffee House, a little Japanese porn, Terry Southern, a signed copy of Champagne and Baloney. I bought a nice big hole in the book wall.

"I'll get the cigars!" And he did, along with a couple of stools, just right for enjoying the view, and a bottle of sake.

That view of the bay that we get to take for granted. Late afternoon, cigars and sake. I lost my great-poet jitters and we spoke of many things. He told me about his recent stint as Madonna's spiritual adviser. "She's nuts for the kabbalah, but her brain is only so big," he said, squinting and illustrating with his hand, indicating a pea-brain.

The sake flowed and he explained his famous feud with Clark Coolidge. "Coolidge was wrong, but I'm oaky with it. He's young, he'll live and learn. He stopped by the house with his drums recently and we sang a few songs. We'll perform again, someday. But he shouldn't have done that thing with Mimi Fariña. Oh well, ancient history." I wanted, badly, to ask him about the Micah Ballard incident. Lost my nerve.

The sun went down and we headed down the hill to our favorite Thai place. Thank you, David, for spending that afternoon with me. And, see, I kept it vague. Didn't I?


Back     Contents     Next