An almost imperceptible shift of sound in the streets below stirred me from sleep in the unfamiliar San Isidro apartment. I squinted through a crack in the blinds, where yellowish lanterns like fireflies pierced encroaching mist under a dense, black sky.
I smiled, then drifted back to sleep.
When I woke again the fireflies were gone, the city outside covered in thick, heavy fog, indistinguishable from the white cotton wall above.
Winter had arrived in Lima.
This same week in 1960 Allen Ginsberg completed a three-month stint in Peru, where he scoured dingy Lima streets and beat Amazonian villages for the face of God, resplendent in a haze of ether, benzadrine and ayahuasca.
Now 55 years later, I’d come to retrace his steps, following Ginsberg’s ghost in search of some Beat inspiration of my own.
Just past 9 AM, a jolly cab driver dropped me on a downtown street corner.
Cheerful palm trees swayed in the breeze of the Plaza de Armas, surrounded by lemon drop buildings with white icing trim. Heeding the fountain goddess trumpeting the arrival of a new day, I started at the beginning.
The rustic wooden doors of the Bar Cordano hurtled me back in time. A dozen or so small round tables with low wooden chairs filled the diminutive salon, surrounded with polished wooden cabinets, filled with ruby red wine and crystal white pisco.
Ginsberg had stayed at the now defunct Hotel Comercio just a few feet away, and often entertained poets and journalists in this classic tavern. It was here that Ginsberg and Peruvian poet Martín Adán’s first came into acquaintance.
An old man pumped oranges through a hand-crank juicer with leathery, sinewy arms. A teenage boy deftly assembled sandwich after sandwich with thick slices of mountain ham and peasant cheese.
I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich and coffee and hunkered down, hoping for a message from the ghost of Ginsberg.
Yet for all its old-timey charm, there were no traces of Allen in this place. A handful of grainy photos and placards decorated the walls, celebrating visits from Peruvian luminaries. The former Minister of Culture, the former mayor of Lima, a handful of local writers. No curly brown beard. No horn-rimmed glasses. No wild eyes and tender lips spouting poetic visions.
I wondered why.
Had the owners forgotten Ginsberg? Maybe they never knew who he was? More likely they despised him, begrudgingly serving anisetto while he scribbled and babbled away in a yagé haze.
Even the avant-garde Adán hadn’t hesitated to ask over a drink:
Why do you write such filth?
Yet Adán, who in his melancholic indigence was the epitome of a wizened beat poet, eventually formed a strong bond with Ginsberg, who eventually dedicated a poem to him in the book Reality Sandwiches.
To An Old Poet in Peru
Because we met at dusk
Under the shadow of the railroad station
While my shade was visiting Lima
And your ghost was dying in Lima
old face needing a shave
And my young beard sprouted
magnificent as the dead hair
in the sands of Chancay
Because I mistakenly thought you were
Saluting your 60 year old feet
which smell of the death
of spiders on the pavement
And you saluted my eyes
with your anisetto voice
Mistakenly thinking I was genial
for a youth
(my rock and roll is the motion of an
angel flying in a modern city)
(your obscure shuffle is the motion
of a seraphim that has lost
I kiss you on your fat cheek (once more tomorrow
Under the stupendous Desamparados clock)
Before I go to my death in an airplane crash
in North America (long ago)
And you go to your heart-attack on an indifferent
street in South America
(Both surrounded by screaming
communists with flowers
in their ass)
—you much sooner than I—
or on a long night alone in a room
in the old hotel of the world
watching a black door
. . . surrounded by scraps of paper
Yet there were no signs of Ginsberg, nor Adán, anywhere.
I took a bite of my own reality sandwich, contemplating Allen’s absence. The timeless place, the tasty simple food, the evocative wooden bar, all were too dense, too impervious to Allen’s quantum spirit.
Then suddenly I saw it.
Barely visible on a high shelf between bottles of red wine and champagne, an ebony stone figure of an Inca god cradled an enormous phallus between both arms.
Not nearly as elegant as an electrifying poem, but it was something.
I stepped outside into the cool, moist air, looked up at the weathered clock above the old Desamparados Station, where Ginsberg had stumbled upon Adán so many years ago.
Today the station was home to the House of Peruvian Literature museum.
Perhaps here I would find a trace, if not of Ginsberg, at least of Adán?
The attractive building was rather bare, elegant columns and smooth tile floors announcing no particular content. I walked past rows of shuttered auditoriums and down a flight of stairs, where a marvelous stained glass sunroof bathed a small exhibition on Mario Vargas Llosa in soft light.
I browsed a few panels on the Nobel Laureate’s literary career, skipped the children’s exhibit in the side rooms and headed to a humble patio outside. There a nominal collection of books was available to peruse, under the watchful eye of a beat old woman selling soft drinks and bread rolls.
No Allen, no Martín.
I returned to the main plaza to cure my gloom.
One autumn afternoon, after downing a whisky bottle filled with bootleg Ayahuasca, Ginsberg watched as the decorations of the Government Palace of Peru morphed into gargoyles, peering and jeering into his hotel balcony. Now, out of nowhere, a massive crowd of modern-day gargoyles—Peruvians and tourists alike—was assembled around the very same palace. But why?
I craned my neck for a better look.
Half a dozen shiny helmeted guards rode elegant, river stone and cappuccino horses to and fro, trotting to the rhythm of a gloomy brass band. The crowd applauded the theatric and imposing spectacle, as the dirge suddenly shifted to a jazzed-up version of Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor. The ominous Fugue rearranged to a carefree jazz beat hit me like a whiff of the bennies.
The Bar Cordano may have forgotten the Beats that graced its hallowed halls, but who among them could have imagined the spirit of their generation lived on in the swirling and twirling rhythms of jazz.
Even here at this Peruvian palatial parade!
An icy chill crawled up my spine, and I found myself in the immense shadow of the Lima Cathedral. Looking up, a giant stone carving of Jesus greeted me, arms outstretched over the entrance.
I thought of what Allen said to an enthusiastic Limeño journalist as they crossed this same plaza so many years ago.
“How old are you,” the journalist asked.
“33. I have the beard and the age of Christ.”
Waves of realization washed over me.
Here I was, 33 years old—standing in the same spot where Ginsberg electrified Lima with his madcap poetic genius—same exact age, same exact season, so many years ago. Standing in front of a monument to the man who’d reportedly come to save our filthy, beat-down souls—same exact age, who knows what date, so many centuries ago.
I stepped inside to a solemn Sunday mass, admiring niches dedicated to virgins and saints, then slipped out as quietly as I came, hands in my pockets while dexterous brown hands crossed crinkled Incan faces.
More Ginsbergian beatitudes floated across my mind:
Since society is not able to touch my soul with its dirty hands, there is no danger of its annihilation.
Like firefly lanterns that fade and disappear into the misty dawn, Allen’s time in Lima was brief. But the ghost of Ginsberg, madcap muse, lived on, echoing off the walls of this ancient cathedral.
July 8, 2015.
Have you ever found inspiration in the most unexpected of places? Tell us about it in the comments below!
This jaunt and post would not have been possible without the excellent article and pioneering research of Pedro Casusol, which can be read in Spanish and English here.