matt gonzalez | the elusive jack micheline

JACK MICHELINE DIED ON FEBRUARY 27, 1998, on a train somewhere between San Francisco and Orinda, where he was discovered by transit police at 11:10 in the morning. Many noted the enigmatic nature of his passing: he was on a train to unknown whereabouts rather than in a lonely 8’ x 12’ hotel room. Almost jealously, people spoke of his death as fitting the romantic image of the Beat writer—on the road, moving, traveling.

But diabetes, poverty and a heart attack are not terribly romantic. What made Jack Micheline romantic was not the way he died but the way he lived. Despite illness, he managed at times to be robust; he epitomized the carefree style of the bohemian. And although he had none of the luxuries one imagines a successful writer has, he was in touch with poets around the country who were encouraged by his resilience. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about him was that despite having very little money in his pocket, he always managed to have a good time. And although the New York Times obituary was technically correct in saying Micheline lived on the edge of poverty, it failed to note that he behaved like a rich man. And he was a rich man: in spirit. Near the end of his life, he still whistled at pretty girls who passed on the street; could remember a horse race from years earlier that had won him money; wrote erotic letters to women in prison; painted colorful naïve gouache paintings that he taped to the walls of his hotel room; wrote poetry on racing forms and paper bags; played the harmonica and tambourine and sang and danced at his poetry readings; even proposed marriage to a young woman who worked at a bagel shop in the neighborhood whose smile he liked, though she was 40 years his junior. Jack Micheline inspired people because he was not confined by social conventions. He was never embarrassed by the man he once had been.

I saw Jack two days before his death. We had run into one another on Valencia Street, and he later stopped by my house on Sycamore. He was in good spirits and gave no hint of his impending death. If anything, he seemed healthier than usual. We reviewed some poems that were being added to the second edition of Sixty-seven Poems for Downtrodden Saints, one of which he reworked extensively; parts of it had been taken from an old notebook, and he read the finished product aloud several times until he got it just right.

Deputy Lawrence of the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department phoned and told me of Jack’s death. I began calling his friends to let them know and looked for his son’s number that Jack had left me in case of an emergency. I stopped by his room at the Curtis Hotel on Valencia Street, paid what he owed on the room (something less than $100), and told the manager not to let anyone in until his son could make arrangements.

The following day I entered Jack’s room, #22, with his son Vince. I had been there countless times, usually with my evening cup of coffee in hand. The heater was still on and also a hot plate to warm food. One window was propped open a few inches. Next to the bed, on the second window sill, was a Modern Library hardbound edition of Don Quixote. At first I thought of the irony that this would be the book Jack was reading at the time of his death, but then I realized he probably used the large volume to prop open the window. Inside his closet were four bowler hats, his tambourine and his harmonica. On the wall, hanging by a string, was a large wooden spoon inscribed in Spanish: “No existen ayers, ni mananas, solo hoyes.” (There do not exists yesterdays, nor tomorrows, only todays.)

I first met Jack at the Albion Bar on 16th Street in late 1991, in the Mission District of San Francisco. He was there with a friend of mine, Brian Ping. And Ping had come to my apartment on Albion Street and invited me over to the bar. I ordered a beer and asked Jack where he was from.

“Where was Rimbaud from?” he said. “Where was Apollinaire from? Where was Garcia Lorca from? Where was Mayakovsky from?” As he spoke, he turned away from me, but the list continued. “Oh, great,” I thought, took a drink from my beer, said goodbye and left.

I occasionally ran into Jack in the neighborhood after that, and one day at the Adobe Bookshop, I heard him complaining that he didn’t have a place to put some suitcases. I told him he could bring them over to my place. I had just moved into a house on Sycamore Street with Whitney Leigh and had an empty shed in the back. Jack made a date for Saturday at noon.

It was the only time I ever knew Jack to be on time. Someone drove him to my place in a truck loaded down with approximately 50 suitcases. Before I could object, he was carrying them through the house to the backyard and piling them in the shed. Thus began a venture that would lead, roughly six years later, to the publication of Sixty-seven Poems for Downtrodden Saints.

At first Jack spent many hours in the back shed, constantly rearranging suitcases and cursing anyone he believed had done him wrong along the way. He had to pass through my room to get to the backyard, and so I saw him nearly every day. Sometimes he would arrive as early as 5 a.m. or as late as 2 a.m., waking or disturbing me and my girlfriend at the time. Sometimes I would have to ask him to leave. Which he did without too much protests.

First published in Ragged Lion: A Tribute to Jack Micheline (Ellenburg, WA: Vagabond Press/The Smith, 1999), ed. John Bennett