Thursday, June 22, 2023

“The Old Order Changeth”

As young as Milford was, and as naive and obtuse as he was, one thing he had learned was that it was impossible to have anything even resembling a conversation with more than one person at a time. And yet here he was, at this round table at the San Remo Café, surrounded by jukebox music and by shouting and laughing people, sitting with six other men, all of them apparently drunk, all of them speaking at once.

Oh, why had he ever quit drinking?

He had never worried about social awkwardness when he was drunk. He had blathered with the best and the worst of them, argued as passionately and as meaninglessly as he had full-heartedly agreed, paid as little attention to what anyone else said as anyone else paid to what he said, and had forgotten it all almost as soon as it happened…

“Hey, Beowulf, I ‘dig’ your friends,” said T.S. Eliot.

“What?” said Milford.

“Your chums. Reminds me of my own young days, banging the tables with our fists at the Café de Flore, swilling vin ordinaire and marc like it was water, smoking Gauloises like chimneys, churning out manifestos on a nightly basis, ah, those were the days!”

“Oh?” said Milford.

“To be young. It’s a blessing, Halford. Someday you’ll be like me. Old and in the way. And I only hope that when that time comes you’ll be willing to step aside for the newer generation of café table-pounders.”

Mr. Eliot was holding a half-drunk martini in his hand, he had generously bought a round of drinks for the table – a pitcher of beer and various accompanying shots of liquor, and, yes, a pathetic ginger ale (with ice) for Milford. Mr. Eliot may have been a tiresome old drunk, but at least he wasn’t cheap.

“But,” said Milford, shouted actually, because of the ambient clamor, “is this all really that great? Sitting in bars and cafés, shouting and pontificating?”

“Wow, ain’t you just a little ray of sunshine?” said Mr. Eliot. His voice had assumed a cockney intonation. “Next thing you’ll be telling me that those great times we had forty years ago weren’t so great after all!”

“But –”

“Get the poker out of your arse, Elfreth!”


“I said get the poker out of your –”

“Yes, but what did you call me this time?”

“Eldridge. That’s your ‘andle, innit?”

“No, Mr. Eliot, it’s not Eldridge, or Elfreth, or Beowulf. My name is Milford. Why can’t you remember that?”

“Call me Tom.”

“Okay, ‘Tom’. My name is Milford, okay?”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. I know my own name!”

“Are you sure you know your own name?”


“On accounta I’m pretty sure you told me your name was Argyle.”

“Oh, my God, listen, Mr. Eliot –”


“Listen, Mr. Eliot, I mean Tom, I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but you’re drunk.”

“I know I’m drunk.”

“And you’re making no sense. I know my name and it’s Milford.”

“Lighten up, kid.”

“Well, it just gets annoying when people keep calling you some other name all the time.”

“If you had a normal name like Tom maybe they would call you by your right name.”

“Oh, Christ –”

“Don’t bring Christ into this. The big fella has plenty of other concerns without worrying about your nonexistent problems.”

“Okay, you’re right, Mister –”


“You’re right, Tom. Call me whatever you like, I don’t care.”

“So your real name is – Melville?”

“Yeah, sure, Melville.”

“Bet your parents named you after Herman, am I right?”

“You guessed it, ‘Tom’.”

“Just be glad they didn’t name you Herman.”

“I am glad.”

“So, Melville,” said the guy with glasses sitting on the other side of Milford, “you will join our movement?”


“Our movement!”

“Oh, yeah,” said Milford. “Okay, sure.”

“Attaboy,” said T.S. Eliot, clapping Milford on his narrow shoulder, the only kind of shoulder he had. “You gotta join a movement if you want to get anywhere in the literary game!”

Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly, Mr. Eliot had slipped into a midwestern sort of American accent now.

“But, listen, Albert is it?” said Mr. Eliot to the young guy with glasses.

“Allen, actually, Tom,” said the guy with glasses.

“Listen, Allen, you gotta think up a good name for your movement. In my day we had the Modernists, and the Surrealists, and the Dadaists, and before that there was the Symbolists, the Naturalists, the Aesthetes and whatnot, so first thing you gotta do is think up a catchy name.”

“We were thinking of the Greenwich Village People,” said Allen.

“Well, that, and you should pardon my language,” said Mr. Eliot, “sucks donkey dick.”

Everybody at the table was listening for a change and now they all laughed.

“Yes,” said Allen, “I suppose it is a little lame –”

“Oh, I thought of a name,” said Milford. “The Beaten Generation.”

“Wow,” said Allen. “The Beaten Generation. I like that.”

“Yeah,” said the square-jawed guy, Jack his name was. “Beaten before we even start.”

“Beaten from the word go,” said the thin blond guy, the only one besides Mr. Eliot who was wearing a suit, Milford thought his name was Bill something.

“Beaten from the womb to the grave,” said the little curly-haired guy, Gregory was it?

“I been beaten from pillar to post,” said Lucas Z. Billingsworth, “from boxcar to breadline to hobo jungle, from Bangor, Maine to Baton Rouge to Frisco Bay, yes, sir, from Salt Chunk Mary’s stolen-goods house in Pocatello, Idaho to the rugged logging camps of Escanaba, Michigan, I been run out of towns from one end of this land o’ so-called liberty to the other! Say, I think I feel another extemporaneous poem coming on–”

“The Beaten Generation,” said Mr. Eliot, blatantly interrupting Lucas, to no one’s regret, including possibly even Lucas. “It’s good. It’s catchy. Like that name my good friend Gertie Stein gave those young fellers back in the 20s: ‘The Lost Generation’. But may I make just one small editorial suggestion?”

“Please do, Tom,” said Allen.

Pace my good friend Melville here, might I suggest losing the e-n, and just make it ‘The Beat Generation’.”

“Oh, that is better, I think,” said Allen.

“Punchier,” said Mr. Eliot.

“Catchier,” said Bill.

“Shorter,” said Gregory.

“Beat. I like it,” said Jack.

“Yep, it’s a good one,” said Lucas. “Like, boom. Beat. Boom. Bam. Beat.”

Milford had to admit it was an improvement. And so, on that historic night, with some help from one of the foremost leaders of the old guard, a new literary movement was born.

“Can I recite my new extemporaneous poem now?” asked Lucas Z. Billingsworth.

No one demurred, and Lucas launched forth, although, as was always the case when people recited extemporaneous poems in bars, no one listened beyond the first few lines, not that Lucas cared, swept up as he was in the ecstasy of creation.

{Please go here to read the unexpurgated “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, profusely illustrated by the illustrious Rhoda Penmarq…}

No comments: