06 May 2015

The Return of the Beat Writer -or- The Old Man on the Bus

He sat toward the front swirling and twirling around looking out the window from this angle and that. Head twisting here then there. A solemn faced old gent on the other side of 80. His skin darkened by decades in the sun, hands weathered hard and cruel. His face a mass of heavily lined wrinkles. What was once likely a thick shock of handsome hair is but a few strands, white, sparse and laden with hair cream. The old man had kept his shape, no bulging belly, shoulders still broad and strong.

This was the occasion of his return to San Francisco after a 55-year absence. The changes. Such changes. He couldn't believe it. It shouldn't have been a surprise what with all that'd gone on in the world. Hell the hippies and all that craziness didn't come along until after he left town in ’60. He was 30 then and went by the name of Malik Larson. Yeah the beat writer and poet long thought dead. That's the old man on the bus, although I didn't know it when I first laid eyes on him sitting next to me on the number 30 bus.

He up and left in 1960 just when his writing had been recognized and hailed and celebrated. He went to work on ranches in Montana having changed his name to Ron Golding. No one in Montana seemed to pay much mind to who he might have been before or even if there was a before. He just sort of appeared. Proved to be a hard worker. Quiet, steady and pleasant. He told no stories, they asked no questions.

Malik was born as Melvin Larson in Iowa City, Iowa in February 1930. He came out to California after finishing college in the early Fifties and decided that he was going to be the next great American novelist and poet. He changed his first name to Malik, the name of a sailor from Africa he met in a bar one night. Malik started working odd jobs, mostly tending bar or waiting tables and used most every minute of his spare time to write. Eventually Malik had some short stories and non fiction pieces published in magazines and got a job at the San Francisco Examiner as a reporter at the city desk.

He settled in the North Beach section of San Francisco and before long became acquainted with other aspiring writers. Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were among his friends. And yes he was at the famous Ginsberg reading of Howl at the Six Gallery in October of ’55. He even read some of his poems that night. Kerouac and Malik were frequent drinking buddies. Him and Ginsberg talked about poetry and philosophy for hours on end.

All the beats knew Malik Larson. Of course they did, he was one of them. Before Kerouac made it big with On the Road, most people assumed that Malik would be the one in their circle who would become famous. Everyone was sharing their writing back then and most people felt that Malik’s voice was as unique and powerful as anyone else's, hell maybe more unique and powerful.

Malik also had a reputation as a swinger. He could and would drink and smoke grass all night and seemingly bed a different person every night — of either gender. In his own words Malik was 100 per cent bi sexual. In ’58 he finally settled down with one person, a recent Japanese emigre named Sayaka. Sayaka was a tall beautiful young woman who all the men were crazy about. No one was surprised that Malik was the one to win her. He was charismatic, handsome and brilliant.  By the time Malik and Sayaka married he’d had his first book of poetry, “Lending Ears” published and his first novel, “Dawn of Lovers” was just weeks away from publication. Malik was also busy on another novel, as yet untitled, that his editor — a veteran of book publishing, Adam Newhouse — thought was the best writing he’d ever read.

Malik was happy, successful, and looking at a very bright future. Two years later he disappeared. It was a shockingly sudden descent.

First there was Sayaka. She had cured Malik of his nocturnal ramblings. He barely even looked at other women and would never have dreamed of cheating on her. But Sayaka had fallen out of love with Malik about as quickly as she fell in love with him. She realized within weeks of the wedding that she had given in to an infatuation with the first American she’d gone to bed with. It was understandable, Malik was charming, viral and exciting. Sayaka also missed Japan. San Francisco had been fun but it wasn’t home. She was only 20 and not ready to settle in a new country.

Three months after they married Sayaka flew back to Japan. She left without telling Malik, only leaving behind a note and some of her possessions. Malik was crushed. In the coming weeks he rarely left his apartment and when he did it was to sit in a bar, usually alone, and drink bourbon. He avoided all his old friends, they reminded him of Sayaka. “Dawn of Lovers” had been released and received complimentary reviews but not the raves everyone expected. Sales of the book never took off.

Somehow Malik pulled himself together enough to finish his second novel. It’s brilliant beginnings faded, Newhouse was disappointed at how ordinary and cliched the second half of it was. By the end of the year Malik had managed to get over his unsuccessful first marriage and was dating again. He was back to his old self. But when pressed to do re-writes on his novel he couldn’t improve on it. A fire had gone out. None of his new poetry was interesting anyone either. Friends were stunned at how, age 29, his writing had deteriorated. Malik was the first to admit that he his writing had lost its spark. Malik was at a loss to fix the problem. He tried everything to reinvigorate but to no avail. The light was out.

The failure of Malik’s writing hit his soul hard. He became impotent with women and uninterested in sleeping with men. His health suffered and his drinking increased. He was maudlin. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Burroughs were all great success and Malik Larson was languishing. They were traveling the world, he was stuck in San Francisco, pissing away his money.

 By 1960 Malik had had enough. Morbidly depressed he left without a goodbye to anyone and hitch hiked to Montana. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do there but when he saw an ad on telephone pole for a job as a ranch hand, well that was all he needed. He spent the next 35 years working on ranches. His only recreation was fishing trips and reading and occasional assignations with whores.

When he turned 65, long since living as Ron Golding, he quit ranching and bought a small house —  just a shack, really — outside of Bozeman. For company he had some chickens in the backyard. He bought his first ever TV and watched movies all night. During the day he fished or went for long walks. He never tried to write another word.

No one knew who he had been and no one in Ron Golding’s previous life knew where the hell he was. It was assumed he’d died. The second novel wasn’t published and has long since been lost. Ron kept nothing of his writing. Not even his old notebooks.

It was on the occasion of Melvin/Malik/Ron's 85th birthday that he finally got the notion that he'd like to take a trip. Other than some fishing trips that took him into Wyoming or Idaho, he hadn't left Montana since he arrived. He hadn't thought a lot about his past in San Francisco, usually when he looked back at all it was to his childhood or college days in Iowa. But some mysterious force was calling him back to San Francisco. Ron reckoned that he had ignored those San Francisco days for too long too hard. He'd gone overboard in trying to forget it all. Ron was filled with regret for just up an abandoning Frisco so completely. Maybe it was time, he thought, to see Malik's old stomping grounds again.

Like I said I was sitting next to him on the bus. It was the number 30 and it was heading towards Chinatown and then North Beach, the area where Malik Larson had enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame.
"Scuse me sir," he said to me. "Can you tell me where I get off this bus to go to City Lights Bookstore?" Of course City Lights is famous as a regular haunt of many of the Beats and its owner and founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was the man who published Howl and many other Beat poets.

"I sure can, because I'm getting off at the stop and in fact going to City Lights."

"Is that a fact? Mind showing me the way?"

"Be my pleasure."

"Name's Ron Golding." And he offered his hand and with it gave me a firm handshake.

"Carl Hardel, pleasure to meet you. You visiting our fair city for the first time?"

And with that Ron Golding opened up. Very much to his own surprise -- as he later admitted -- Ron revealed that he was really Melvin although he'd spent some time under another name and that time was spent right here in San Fran many decades ago.

When we got off the bus Melvin asked if I cared for a cup of coffee. I was, for some reason I couldn't put a finger on, intrigued and told him I'd like that very much. It was over coffee that Melvin/Malik/Ron admitted that he had a story he needed to tell and would I mind listening. I said that would be fine. The story he told was what I just recounted.

It's perhaps a coincidence that I am a longtime Beat aficionado and have not only read Kerouac, Ginsberg et al but am familiar with the only published novel and one book of poetry by Malik Larson. I've read accounts of him during the Fifties in Beat Anthologies and non fiction books and even read a novel called "Whatever Became of Malik Larson?" by an obscure writer named Lance Frigate. The book was a work of historical fiction up to the time of Larson's disappearance at which point it becomes pure fiction. Frigate had Larson moving to Japan, finding Sayaka and living a strict buddhist existence with her in the Japanese countryside.

Melvin Larson was totally unaware of this novel. He also had no clue as to what he must be owed in royalties for his two published books. "And I don't care, neither," he said bluntly.

I took Melvin to City Lights books. The location was familiar to him but the inside of the store was "completely different, hardly recognize it, disappointing." Still it clearly brought back memories because I noted a wetness forming at the bottom of his eyes. Both his books were there. I offered to buy him a copy of each. To my surprise Melvin said, "that's okay buddy, I'll buy 'em myself." From the way he'd talked about his past I fully expected that he wouldn't be interested in so much as looking at them. "I haven't read any of my writing since I left in '60."

From there we went down the street to The Beat Museum. Melvin took so long to study the memorabilia and photos that I had to go take a seat. I noted how long he stared a photo of him, Kerouac and Neal Cassady standing in front of a coffee shop. I asked Melvin if he'd like me to introduce him the proprietor. "No, that would raise too many questions. I don't feel like talkin'' about it. It's just been too long. I enjoyed talkin' to you, I needed to. But I let too much time go. It's just not worth it to stir things up."

It was nearly 6:00 and I had a dinner engagement so it was time to part company with the former Malik Larson. "What are your plans?" I asked him.

"Maybe I'll go visit a few other old haunts. Then I guess I'll go back to Montana. But do me a favor if you think you can. Wait until I'm dead before you tell anyone my story." I promised I would.

We exchanged addresses and he promised to write. Before we parted Melvin took my hand and shook it firmly and repeatedly thanked me for listening to his story. I, in turn, thanked him for sharing it.

A few weeks later I got a letter from Melvin who was back in Montana. He told me that he had in fact visited some of the places in San Francisco that he used to frequent. "I'm sure glad I visited but I'm sorry as hell it took me 55 years to do it."

I got another letter a month after that from Montana. This was from a man who identified himself as Tom Dorsett, Ron Golding's best buddy in Bozeman. He said that Ron had died peacefully in his sleep. He'd left a letter with Dorsett a week before to be opened at the time of his death. Among his instructions was that Dorsett should send notification of Ron's death to me.

What I'll remember most about Melvin/Malik/Ron was when I asked him why. Why had he just up and left and changed his name and never contacted anyone from his past, not even family back in Iowa. We were in the coffee shop at the time. He just stared into his cup for the longest time and said in a whisper: "I'd been so damn up in the clouds and ready to conquer the world, then when I got a taste of defeat, when the wife left and my writing fell off, I just....I just wanted to be someone else. I couldn't take it, the sense of defeat. I wasn't strong enough or brave enough to carry on. I gave the hell up is what I did."

I'd told my wife about Malik and when I shared Dorsett's letter she pointed out that the 85 year old man I described meeting had been in good health. "What happened that he should die less than two months later?" This was an excellent point and one I considered for quite awhile. Maybe he was just ready. The return to San Francisco had allowed him some sort of closure. I shared this with the wife and she asked if I thought Melvin died happy. Well I don't think he did. He realized he gave up on his life at one point. He wore that and accepted it. Melvin Larson died satisfied that he knew himself but not happy about who he was or had been. Seems a tragedy to me.

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