I was eighteen or nineteen years old, stoned and displaced college drop-out living from one couch to the next and had no idea who Gregory Corso even was, just that he had the self-possession of a king and otherwise looked like a cartoon hobo. Lower teeth missing, Beethoven hair, a donated white linen suit hanging off him like a filthy tent. He wore reading glasses around his neck on one of those strings librarians use and he was always talking, you could hear him through the plate-glass windows of the shop. He'd walk into the place walking, leave the place talking, all in a very specific and rapidly fading New York street whine. His purchases were completely unpredictable. So were his hours, and there was no recognizable correlation between the two. Some expensive Burgundy at ten o'clock in the morning, a pint of cheap behind-the-counter vodka just as we were closing for the night. Vermouth at noon, Navy Rum for dinner. Didn't matter.
He used to get into the muttered fights with the owner's girlfriend Carole, who lived in the apartment upstairs from the shop with her crazy son Shane (a kid we had no sympathy for at the time, but who probably deserved more, a kid who collected military knives from his mysterious Times Square excursions which he was always eager to show us and who always claimed to see the ghost of his father where the rest of us just saw a deeply fucked-up future Army drop-out) Carole kept watch over the shop, its employees, and most of its customers from behind her well-worn spot behind the old National Cash Register with an explicit contemptuous suspicion that made us all - probably the owner himself more than any of us - tread especially careful around her. She hated the black customers who bought half-pints of Bacardi on their way home. She hated the red-faced Hudson Street Irish who drank Four Roses from mid-morning on. She was an angry and permanently short-changed snob who knew where she was supposed to have ended up and didn't, and she carried her resentment around herself like a cloud.
The only customers she really seemed to like were the older and deeply closeted gay men who lived in the apartments around Jackson Square, trim and timid and suited men in their 60's and 70's and whose tastes ran towards dry white wine that they paid for with crisp twenty dollar bills. She considered them gentlemen, and she would address them as "Mr." Mr. Haversham. Mr. Bennett. Mr. Jones. She had once been a San Diego beauty queen, at least that was the story, but even if that was true it was a long time before now. She was angry about where she was but she didn't have any way of getting out of it. She hated the store, hated all but those most reserved and wealthy customers, and the shop itself reminded her that she was just the fading-beauty queen middle-aged girlfriend of a liquor store owner, whose own interests ran towards his own Queens-Irish background of Cadillac fins, Sterling Hayden movies, and the novelty Jim Beam bottles that crowned the register area. He went to High School with James Caan, best looking guy he'd ever met. He was on Varsity wrestling at St. Ingatius. He loved Dion, and women were a permanent mystery. He loved Reagan and JFK. The shop had originally been his father's, a retired cop with two pensions, a couple of decades left to burn, and a cousin in Manhattan. Carole and her son were dependent on the place they had nowhere else to go, and so every evening she's shuffle down in her slippers and her mossy grey cardigan to check the register tape with an angry appetite that always ended in disappointment.
Corso, whenever he came into the shop, would needle her incessantly. He'd give her shit about the gaudy new display for this year's Beaujolais Nouveau. He'd give her shit about the screw-top difficulties of the Alexi Vodka pints. He'd walk in telling loud stories to no one in particular about taxis and high heels and French foreign pussy while some Wall Street guy was selecting a hundred dollar bottle of wine for his sleek French bride. Stories designed to throw Carole off the delicate balance she was trying to create. He'd thrown his money on the counter and demand service as was entitled to him. Carole hated him all the more for that kind of money coming out of those kinds of clothes, Carole who'd borrowed rides all the way from California, who'd made promises she had to keep with her eyes closed. She didn't know who he was any more than we did, but she knew that he was somebody, and that he shouldn't have been, and the Wall Street guy and his sleek French bride would just have to wait.
He came into the shop steaming drunk one mid-afternoon while Carole was selling an especially rare bottle of poully fuisse to one of her gentlemen callers. We could hear him before he even came up, ranting on the sidewalk on the other side of 8th Avenue. Apparently he'd been thrown out of some boutique coffee shop just down the street for insulting that shop's wide selection of pies. Fucking Fancy Pies, he was shrieking. Fucking Cocksuckers with their Fancy Pies! Cowards! Chickenshits! Bring me the Greeks! You want pies, bring me to the Greeks. Where the fuck were the Greeks?
I wasn't there when Corso got kicked out of the shop for good after calling Carole a cunt just as her boyfriend - the owner - was passing through the shop on the way out to waxing his car. The owner threw a punch which brought the poet down through a rack of merlot. Corso left, blood running down his nose and fanned out across the front of his white linen suit, ass of his white linen suit stained purple, screaming his outraged indignity up and down 8th Avenue. The string of his reading glasses had snapped somewhere along the way, and the glasses - themselves broken - hung lopsided around his neck like some kind of injured bird. He never came back, and I never saw him again.
I stood next to Kenny and Carole two months ago in Terminal Five at JFK, Aer Lingus to Jet Blue. They were flying someplace warm and I was flying down to Georgia for reasons of my own. It had been thirty years gone but I knew them immediately. She was riding on one of those volunteer wheelchairs, pushed by a huge black guy who looked like he really wasn't expecting a tip. Kenny was standing over a selection box of donuts, a pyramid of selection boxes. He brought her one, and after she shook her head he brought it back to its place in the pile. She was stabbing with spastic fingers at the display menu of sandwiches, her lower jaw seeming to twitch in exactly the direction the opposite direction of her words.
They didn't recognize me. I followed them for a little while. Then it was time to get back to my gate, and I had to let them go.