The Basketball Diaries: Writing as a Weapon
Into Gold: Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries
I may get my ass beat occasionally,
but I always get the last word
In 1980, after having published two volumes of poetry, and
just before the release of his first rock 'n' roll album, Catholic
Boy, and the second publication of his Basketball Diaries,
ex-heroin addict, ex-male prostitute, ex-art-scene initiate, poet, and
rock star Jim Carroll told Lynn Hirschberg, "It's really insane that most
people don't live exactly the same life as me" (25).
Carroll was 12 years old when he realized he was immersed
in a world rife with corruption, where respectability was synonymous with
hypocrisy, where proper appearances merely concealed depravity, where
authority figures used their power to oppress others, and where it seemed
someone was always trying to "steal the light from [his] eyes." 
It was 1962, and a war was raging in Vietnam. On the
home front, air raid sirens wailed as Khrushchev warned, "We will bury
you," and "your children will live under Communism" (Morris 19); racism
ran rampant, and Jim Carroll, a street punk and a star basketball player
from the lower east side of Manhattan, sought some way to rise above the
desolation and insanity of his circumstances.
Carroll was essentially a natural-born athlete, and
basketball was his ticket out of his everyday life and out of himself.
Unlike the rest of his world, basketball made sense. It had logical rules,
its values were absolute, and he could display and hone his natural agility
and grace on the court. As a way of authenticating this talent, he entered
a basketball league. Yet, ironically, his victorious acceptance into the
Biddy League turned sour as he discovered that membership tainted the
purity of basketball. It turned out this "authentic" league was populated
with racist, "dick snatch[ing]" coaches feigning righteousness (36), and
he found that every time he tried to do something the "honorable" way,
he was victimized.
Because of this, Carroll had to find a way to be part
of this society and shine in spite of its hypocrisy; to persevere and
transcend its corruption by virtue of his own integrity and talent. As
with Harold Jaffe, Carroll had to "swallow the poison in order to become
immune to it or reconstitute it." The poison became more toxic, however,
as his initiation continued and his world enlarged. He entered Catholic
grammar schools and an elite Catholic high school, finding that the priests
there were no different from his basketball coaches. Meanwhile, racial
tensions exploded into riots, superpowers threatened to drop the atomic
bomb at any moment, and narcotics raids induced paranoia on every street
His entire world was rotten to the core, with its facade
of order and righteousness concealing an empty morality, like "all them
executive creeps in uniform with their little fedoras and them dumb little
cases they carry that usually got nothing but a pencil in them every time
I see a dude open one" (119). Being a basketball star couldn't save him:
he had to find a new way to transcend the emptiness and hypocrisy of his
world. So, in the midst of this, at the age of 12, Carroll began to write.
"After reading Kerouac's On the Road and seeing how life could
be shaped into art" (Milward 142), Carroll began keeping what he called
Jamie James calls The Basketball Diaries
a literary miracle; a description of the formation
of an artistic sensibility written by the artist, not in retrospect,
but in the process. It is a portrait of the artist not just as
a young man but as a child, written by the child, and thus free
of the mature artist's complicated love of himself in pain.
In the dedication of The Basketball Diaries, Carroll
offers "Special thanks to Ann Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Patti Smith and Bill
Berkson," writers whose faith in his "artistic sensibility" helped him
emerge victorious from his circumstances through writing. But the book
is also dedicated: "IN MEMORY OF PHIL OCHS." Ochs was a politically active
folk singer during the 1960s who, apparently out of despair that the peace/protest
movement wasn't working and that he was unable to make a difference, wound
up committing suicide by hanging himself in 1976.
Marc Eliot notes that, "To many on the East Coast, Phil
was a victim of the American system, sucker-punched in the great chase
for fame and fortune, beaten down and left for dead" (292). Likewise,
Carroll describes Ochs in Forced Entries, circa 1973, as looking
like "someone who's been hit and run by time." This disturbs Carroll because,
"Around my fourteenth year of life, this dude forever changed it
all for me" (73-74). Likewise, in the first stanza of his poem
"Heroes (for Phil Ochs)," he writes:
Fallen one, your private ghosts are
stepping on you from the heights
where you left them off. Their necks are
tiered like a noose . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You changed my life. I sat in the rain
with The New York Times to get your act down. (BN 131)
In many ways, The Basketball Diaries exalts all victims
of the American system who, like Ochs, have been left battling "private
ghosts." But the beauty of the book is its optimism: more than anything
it is about the potential an individual has to transcend the victimization
of a corrupt system. Carroll shows it is possible to make a difference
both in the way he lives his life and by creating a better world
Hence, in action and in word, Carroll transforms his
chaotic life into a work of art. As James puts it, "The Basketball
Diaries is a blow-by-blow account of a season in hell. By the age
of fifteen, [Carroll] had experienced more in the way of existential vicissitudes
and worldly observations than several middle class lives combined." In
The Basketball Diaries, instead of allowing himself to be socialized
into a world of empty briefcases, Carroll "swallows the poison," then
displays his own corruption, via his diaries, using it as a weapon against
the corrupt establishment. He becomes "the fire's reflection" (as he sings
in Catholic Boy's "City Drops Into the Night"), mirroring the depravity
of his world in his own decadence. In doing this, he explores and exposes
the disenfranchised underside of 1960s America, using his autobiography,
the streets and institutions of New York City, and his body, as weapons
to attack not just the hypocrisy of the "establishment," but also the
lack of absolute values and morals in society as a whole.
Hence, for Carroll, his diaries serve two interconnected
purposes. As he imposes order upon the chaos of his life and transforms
its ugliness into beauty, he is also assaulting the corrupt social order
which made his life chaotic and ugly in the first place. Where the "establishment"
refuses to acknowledge its own depravity, Carroll sees corruption spreading
like a cancer throughout society. And with New York City as "the greatest
hero a writer needs," he highlights the cancer, laying bare "what's really
going down" in the streets and throughout his world. In disclosing this
reality, he attempts to "get even for your dumb hatreds and all them war
baby dreams you left in my scarred bed with dreams of bombs falling above
that cliff I'm hanging steady to" (160).
Carroll reveals that, beneath the orderly veneer of
morality and justice his world displays, "Pedro's mom is really over there
hustling, leaning one foot up on the building and the whole bit" (10).
While the world makes up excuses, Bobby Blake dies of leukemia at 16 (67-68),
and Teddy Rayhill falls from a roof while sniffing glue (27).
While the Catholic Church "push[es] into a bunch of stiff noodle-sized
brains that 'Who made us? . . .,' 'God made us . . .'," the "'fine' Christian
Brothers" are getting their kicks "running around with their rubber straps
beating asses red for the least little goofing" (35, 18).
While narcotics forces claim to be out saving the nation,
dauntlessly battling the drug epidemic, they're "rapping right out loud
to each other how much they ought to give in for evidence and what they
ought to keep to sell for themselves back onto the street" (128). While
riot squads take to the streets taming rebellious ghetto dwellers, Carroll
buys codeine cough syrup "right in the shadows of where Malcolm X was
gunned down not too long ago" (81). In the wake of the Harlem Riots, Carroll
says, "I'm glad to see all the smashed in boarded-up windows of all those
white crook storeowners down here all cleared out of their TVs and radios
by the people who should have them for once anyway" (161).
If society's villains are "them commies," "longhairs,"
"niggers" and "spics," "junkies," and "perverts," Carroll becomes
all of the evil things society fears. He grows his hair long, becomes
a "minority" within minority culture, steals, attends Communist Party
meetings and protest marches, gets hooked on heroin, and hustles gay men
to support his habit. Most importantly, Carroll does all of this within
"respectable" society, playing his "star basketball player" identity against
his illegitimate "street punk" one, and turns the discrepancy into a weapon
against the "system." As he puts it:
Like just what is guilty or who is guilty for fuck
sake? Big business dudes make billions come out of their ass and
they ain't shelling out a reefer's worth of tax. Kids walk through
some jungle I don't know how far away and shoot people, and white
haired old men in smoking jacket armchairs make laws to keep it
all going smoothly. I swim in the river and have to duck huge
amounts of shit and grease and "newly discovered miracle fibers"
every five feet I move because those smokestack companies don't
give a flying fuck . . . Shit my man, it's so all there
that no one's seeing it anymore. (199)
Because Carroll can see it, and because he is able to write
about it, he inverts the established "reality" of heroes and villains,
exposing the hypocrisy inherent in a "respectable" world unwilling to
It is not enough for Carroll to sit back and observe
the corruption and hypocrisy that surrounds him like the "shit and grease"
in the river. As Platenga notes, "To see clearly one has to DO. The only
way to DO is to SEE clearly"; hence, Carroll jumps into the shit and holds
it under our noses. "Maybe then someone'll see," says Platenga.
Like most of Carroll's critics, Jamie James observes
that "Rimbaud is the name that pops up. . . . One especially thinks of
Rimbaud's remark that 'The soul has to be made monstrous.' If one word
descries what happens in the Diaries, it is monstrous." Rimbaud
said, "the problem is to make the soul into a monster, like the comprachicos,
you know? Think of a man grafting warts onto his face and growing them
there" (102). Rimbaud believed that becoming a visionary requires one
"to attain the unknown by disorganizing all the senses," and to
become as depraved as possible. As he explained, "The suffering is immense,
but you have to be strong, and to have been born a poet" (100).
While Carroll didn't read Rimbaud until well into the
1970s (Irving 4A), Carroll does follow a program similar to Rimbaud's.
However, Rimbaud's was a planned-out, "systematized disorganization
of the senses" (102). By comparison, as James notes: "There is nothing
so calculated about Jim Carroll's excursion into the inferno; if there
is an organizing principle here, it is not, refreshingly, the design of
an artist preparing himself for writing poetry. He is only obliquely aware
that he is a writer, which is exactly the genius of it."
Nevertheless, in The Basketball Diaries, he is
making himself a visionary in the way he lives his life, transforming
his life and his vision of his world into a life-long poem. Carroll is
a visionary in the sense that, as Rimbaud writes, a poet "searches himself,
he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences."
He is Rimbaud's "great criminal" (102) against the so-called traditional
values of society because he dares to swallow all the poisons his world
has to offer, transforming and keeping only what is useful to him, and
spitting the rest out. Rather than passively allowing himself to become
polluted, he seeks out corruption, then filters it through actions and
words. His vision of his world is entirely his own, and he paints a portrait
of this world in his own language--in slang and street rap. Finally, through
his actions, his clarity of vision, and his street lingo, he uncovers
the emptiness of his world's values, challenges them, and forges his own,
new values through a relentless exploration of himself.
Hence, Carroll descends into the abyss, into the darkest
depths of heroin abuse, prostitution, and theft; into the bowels of a
corrupt society. But because he adheres to his own code of value, honor,
and integrity, and because he is able to write about his experience, he
is able to purge himself of this corruption. As he said in 1979:
Purity means that you always have something up
your sleeve, that you have something you've earned, that you have
something to move toward, that your vision is intact. Purity,
to me, exists within states of what would be thought of as impure.
You can live within a state of total decay. You can live in that
state and still be totally pure if your vision remains intact,
if you know that you've go to keep moving ahead because you haven't
reached that light yet, the light at the end of the tunnel. (Hirschberg
In The Basketball Diaries, within a "state of total
decay," Carroll seeks to purify himself through the integrity of his own
vision. His awareness of the corruption surrounding him on all sides heightens
his urgent sense that there must be a "light at the end of the tunnel,"
and it is up to him alone to reach it.
The Basketball Diaries begins with Carroll's
acceptance into an "authentic" basketball league, which for him is the
first time he plays basketball "for real": "Today was my first Biddy League
game and my first day in any organized basketball league. I'm enthused
about life due to this exciting event. The Biddy League is a league for
anyone 12 yrs. or under. I'm actually 13 but my coach Lefty gave me a
fake birth certificate" (3). Admission into the Biddy League legitimizes
and formally recognizes his outstanding ball playing (which later gains
him admittance to a highly respected private Catholic high school), and
it gives him a chance to display his grace and finesse on the court.
However, his admittance into this "authentic" league
is illegitimate: he is accepted into this organization only by means of
a forged document, the fake birth certificate. This poses two problems:
first, Carroll himself is not "legitimate" in the eyes of the league;
second, the "respectability" of the Biddy League is undermined by its
hypocritical flouting of its own rules.
This first entry introduces many of the key motifs Carroll
explores throughout The Basketball Diaries. First, where Carroll
is considered "illegitimate" in society because of his lower-class status,
age, drug use, the length of his hair, and so on, it is the establishment
in general which is truly unauthentic. For example, coach Lefty, who provides
the fake birth certificate, is using his position as a representative
of the Biddy League, authority figure, role model, and leader to take
advantage not just of other teams (by placing "ringers" on his team) but
of his own as well. His wholesome appearance merely conceals his underlying
Lefty is a great guy; he picks us up for games in
his station wagon and always buys us tons of food. I'm too young
to understand about homosexuals but I think Lefty is one. Although
he's a great ballplayer and a strong guy, he likes to do funny
things to you like put his hand between your legs and pick you
up. When he did this I got keenly suspicious. I guess I better
not tell my mother about it. (3)
If Lefty is representative of this "authentic" league Carroll
has been accepted into, and of society in general, Carroll must find a
way to rise above its corruption and hypocrisy.
Because of this, Carroll's initiation into "respectable"
society is a leap into corruption, much like his highly allegorical free
fall into the polluted Harlem River:
Every crowd of young guys has its little games
to prove if you're punk or not. . . . Here in upper Manhattan,
guys jump off cliffs into the Harlem River, where the water is
literally shitty because right nearby are the giant sewer deposits
where about half a million toilets empty their goods daily. You
had to time each jump, in fact, with the "shit lines" as they
flowed by. That is, there were these lines of water crammed with
shit along the surface about five feet long that would come by
once every forty seconds. So you had to time your jump in between
the lines just like those jitterbugs down in Acapulco got to time
their jumps so they hit the water just as the wave is beginning
to break. (47)
Like the Harlem River, Carroll's world is "literally shitty,"
and throughout the Diaries Carroll takes similar leaps into organized
societies, including basketball leagues, a "posh" Catholic school, and
the drug culture (Later, in Forced Entries, he leaps into the New
York art scene).
All of these social orders offer a sense of community,
all boast an elite status Carroll finds desirable (though each offers
a different kind of status), and all give him an opportunity to communicate
in one form or another--be it with his body (basketball, sex), with his
mind (drugs), or with his pen. The catch is that he must find a way to
exploit his opportunities to communicate and enjoy elite status without
being incorporated into the society which bestows these things.
For this reason, Carroll must prove himself "punk" in
everything he does. Like Hemingway's code heroes, Carroll finds himself
in a world devoid of traditional principles of order, value, and honor
(Wagner 877). Hence, forced to define a new code for himself, he arrives
at "punk," a form of "hipsterism" like that of William Burroughs, which
rejects the traditional social order. As Jennie Skerl explains, the primary
aim of the hipster (like the punk) is to extricate himself from the hypocrisy
and corruption impinging on him. And while the hipster's is a spiritual
quest, it is unlike that of other "spiritual seekers." He "conducts his
life as a quest for alternative values and forms of self," and "his quest
proceeds through action, not contemplation" (7). Most importantly, "the
hipster is amoral by conventional standards, although he adheres to an
exquisite standard of perception, honesty, and courage" (8).
Carroll lives out his "punk" code by consciously molding
his life into a work of art, playing a dual role as both author and real
character of his biography. As Carroll defines it, "punk" is a matter
If you never do anything to make yourself seen
. . . like really seen, the type that makes people point, then
you don't deserve to be seen at all. That's my theory, and not
only on a basketball court, to look good while you're doing it
is just as important as doing it good, and combine both and you've
got it made. Presence is where it's at, but not the going out
of your way to be noticed presence, but sneaky, shy presence (though
it's all a part, you're still always aware). Presence like a cheetah
rather than a chimp. They've both got it, but chimpy gotta jump
his nuts around all day to get it, shy cheetah just sits in total
nonchalance or moves a sec or two in his sexy strut.
The key is not to go out of your way to display your presence.
On the court it's easy: "you dunk a ball, dribble or pass behind the back
. . . make a super layup out of an easy one (but not obvious you had to
do it) then get fouled on it, say, and just walk to the line like you
don't hear no 'ohhs' and 'ahhs' . . ." (BBD 89-90). But the rest of the
time it isn't so easy. Both in living out his life and in writing about
it, Carroll always risks falling on his face.
Because Carroll's punk presence depends upon acceptance
by an audience/society which oppresses and victimizes him, he exploits
his illegitimate "street punk" identity, turning it against his audience's/society's
inability to see beyond its own expectations and prejudices. In writing
the Diaries, even, he introduces himself as a street punk not even
worthy of joining the Biddy League. Yet he captures his readers' attention
with lurid stories and exciting prose, and pulls us into the system with
him; then, from the inside, he dismantles the social structures we hold
dear. Because of this, the "punk" aesthetic Carroll puts forward in his
writing is, in many ways, like "the 'punk' aesthetic that evolved in music
during the 1970s." That is, he forces "a confrontation between readers
and all conventions . . . to shock them out of complacent acceptance
of heirarchies, received traditions, meanings, stable identities" (McCaffery
Hence, as with his leap into the Harlem River, Carroll's
process of proving himself "punk" is comprised of three parts. First is
the moment before the leap, when he is outside of the society and concerned
with getting in. Second is the leap itself--the moment when he has displayed
his talents and has been accepted into the society, and has proven he
is punk. The third stage is most important: once he is "in," he
must reject, dismantle, and rise above the "society" he has just penetrated.
When Carroll jumps into the polluted river, he must
prove himself not only to his companions, who have already taken the leap
and have proven themselves "punk," but, more importantly, to an audience
of sightseers: "all the lame couples like old tourists from Ohio, and
nuns, and Japanese executives, and other odd N.Y.C. visitors who got fished
into paying five beans to sail around the island" on a Circle Line tour
boat. Likewise, Carroll's audiences also include his Catholic school teachers,
coaches, basketball scouts, neighbors, and even the Pentagon.
All of these people and organizations supposedly are
on his side, cheering him on; yet there they sit, watching him "go down
into the stinking water," thinking they're above him and knowing
he won't be "legitimate" until he passes their test. Actually, their lofty
evaluation of him is the sickest sort of voyeurism: rather than jumping
passionately into the "stinking water" along with him, they merely watch,
getting cheap thrills off of Carroll's self-destruction.
Audiences in general have to do with social acceptance
and legitimacy: they observe and pass judgment. When Carroll is before
an audience, he is attempting to pass a test. But if he passes the test,
displays his grace and presence, and proves himself "punk," he can rise
above the audience by virtue of his performance. Once this happens, the
scenario reverses: Carroll is watching the audience as it observes rather
than participates, like a bunch of voyeurs. After all, "If you never do
anything to make yourself seen . . . then you don't deserve to be seen
Because of this, along with the leap itself, it is the
audience which is most important at first; it is to them Carroll
must prove/legitimate himself, and "That was what really made the jump
worthwhile." Hence, as Carroll makes his leap into the polluted river,
he is acutely aware of "all the people yelling for me to do it, the sadistic
bastards." And with this awareness, he jumps, displaying his presence
without appearing to go out of his way to do so: "I hit water hard, but
I didn't go too deep, coming up to see all the sightseers applauding."
Because his leap is successful, Carroll has proven himself "punk," he
has confirmed his membership in the "in group" of "punks," and he has
the audience on his side.
But the last part of this process is most important:
"Then I swam to shore to meet the others and we turned, pulled down our
shorts, and flashed our moons to the old sightseeing buggers as the boat
pulled away and headed for the Hudson" (50). Once Carroll has proven himself,
the audience becomes a bunch of inferior outsiders awaiting judgment from
the "in" group. The ruling is three moons, straight across the board.
Proving himself "punk" is Carroll's driving force, and
he must continually prove himself "punk" in everything he does. Being
"punk" is not a static identity but a way of doing things, a code of honor,
a kind of style and "presence," and a way of communicating. Because he
is entering a world that's as "literally shitty" as the Harlem River,
his "punk" code is all he has. So long as he maintains his own integrity
and continually sharpens his own performance, his is able to rise above
everyone and everything else. While a poor performance would not necessarily
mean exclusion from the "punk" group, belonging to this society
is not Carroll's main concern. The important thing is to perform well
individually and win over the audience; the worst possibility would
be to perform badly and give the audience the advantage of laughing at
Basketball places Carroll in close contact with the
supposedly "respectable" world, and enables him to display his "punk presence"
in its most uninhibited form before an audience. In the hypothetical basketball
game Carroll describes in his "presence" entry, the audience members are
saying "ooh" and "ahh" because they're impressed with him and they
are accepting him. At the same time, though, Carroll is rising
above the audience. He's pulling one over on the crowd and on the "dude"
who was guarding him (who underestimated him and is now running around
Likewise, one basketball tournament takes him to "a
ritzy neighborhood called Riverdale . . . giant stone private houses .
. . lots of ivy and swimming pools, that whole bit." In this entry, Carroll
plays up his team's seedy appearance in order to knock Riverdale off its
So we go onto the court and here are these guys
we're playing all duded up in blue and gold uniforms with little
stars all over them, and going through these perfect warm-up drills.
We were pretty raggy next to those guys but we went over o.k.
with the crowd because we're these tough ragamuffins from the
lower east side, all poor and shaggy, and all these nice parents
who have a few cars and smoke pipes and shit, well, they were
gonna cheer the underdogs from the ghetto right along, whippie,
that was so nice of them. (15)
Because Carroll's team comes from a poor neighborhood, the
Riverdale crowd sees it as a charity case and, assuming that appearance
equals ability, is "gonna cheer for the underdogs."
Of course the tables quickly turn, with Carroll's "ragamuffin"
team proving itself "punk" and soaring to victory. Conversely, the Riverdale
team's "ritzy" veneer peels away to reveal what's really underneath: "the
pretty boys from Lake Peekskill, or wherever the fuck they were from,
didn't know what to do. They called a timeout. We stopped the press out
of sheer pity. . . . They seemed to all have lead in their asses and never
heard of the word 'drive' . . ." (16). But strangely enough, the Riverdale
people are good sports and take the defeat in stride: "After the game
they gave us free sodas and shit and all the local people stood in the
lobby as we left and patted us on the back and said, 'Nice game, son,'
For Carroll, this is perhaps the worst response of all:
"the whole scene [was] strictly out of 'Leave It To Beaver,' all the old
men Fred MacMurray types in tweed suits and the women, a pack of poodle
walkers, standing around with a lot of make-up and sort of thinking how
cute we were." For Carroll, the fake appearances of these people merely
disguise the corrupt reality of the world he sees around him, much in
the way Leave It to Beaver denies reality. Hence, for his grand
finale, Carroll recontextualizes this "Leave it to Beaver" situation,
showing what the phoney facade conceals: "They had these teased up bleached
hair-dos that reminded me exactly of the higher priced 14th St. whores.
I wanted to ask one if she wanted to suck it off. . . " (16-17).
At this point it seems appropriate to ask why Carroll
is so eager to bring people down, considering the Riverdale crowd was
not exactly comprised of "bad guys." In this case, because the audience
is made up of judges and critics, it's a matter "us versus them." One
of the advantages in belonging to any organized society is its exclusive
group identity, and the Riverdale crowd's group identity excludes Carroll's
team according to socioeconomic status. Carroll nullifies this by showing
they're no "better" than us no matter how pretty their uniforms
are; in fact they're no better than "the higher priced 14th St.
Ironically, the Riverdale entry prefaces his move to
Inwood, a neighborhood in upper Manhattan, and Carroll finds himself immersed
in a phony reality just like Riverdale's. Before the move, Carroll plans
an excursion to his new neighborhood, anticipating the situation: "Actually
I hate that scene 'cause the place is filled with all these Irish Catholic
old biddies who gave me a lot of stares one time when I brought a bunch
of black guys up there to play ball in the park against my cousin's friends,
a bunch of black haters too . . ." (11-12).
Again, the first order of business for Carroll is to
be accepted; not only does he have to go to school and live with these
people, but he must also enter their "system" before he can rise above
it. However, it's not as simple as he hopes: the rules have changed. In
his old neighborhood, proving oneself "punk" was a matter of accepting
pain and disfigurement stoically: "On the lower east side they'd make
you press a lit cigarette onto your arm and have it burn all the way up
to the filter without the slightest flinch" (47). But being accepted into
Inwood's social order requires that he reject his entire punk code, and
that he adopt an attitude of bigotry and social conformity.
The prospect of being accepted in the respectable circles
of Inwood is about as appetizing to him as gaining Riverdale's seal of
approval. His adult neighbors are boring, compulsive gossips obsessed
with "their operations, ball scores, or the Commie threat," and the "Guys
my age [are] strictly All-American, though most of the various crowds
do the beer-drinking scene on weekends." For Carroll, "All American" is
also "strictly out of 'Leave It to Beaver,'" and he wants no part of it.
At the same time, Carroll dreads the thought of entering yet another "respectable,"
even more oppressive society:
the worst bullshit about this move is having to
go back to a fucking Catholic school just in the middle of a goof
year in a Public joint. That scene is simple, Catholic schools
are sheer shit, madmen in fucking collars who in their pious minds
can never be wrong, running around with their rubber straps beating
asses red for the least little goofing, and pushing into a bunch
of stiff noodle-sized brains that "Who made us? . . .," "God made
us . . .," horse drip. The old biddy penguins they call nuns are
even worse. I'm cracking back the first cat who tries that "bend
over" shit, hoping they give me the boot quick.
As Carroll recognizes, Catholic school hypocritically institutionalizes
S&M without acknowledging it.
Carroll's solution to these disagreeable situations
divides his identity in two. First, he has "already got a scholarship
set for that plush Private School next year, so I'm going to breeze easy
for the rest of this grammar school bit" (18). Second, "My cousin Kevin
did introduce me to a few weed-heads up here once, and today I ran into
them and goofed with some ball playing. Most likely they'll be my scene.
Nice basketball courts around here at least" (17-18).
From the beginning of the Diaries, basketball
has been paramount, with drugs and petty crime as sidelines of sorts;
but up until he moves to Inwood, Carroll has mostly been experimenting.
He sniffs Carbona cleaning fluid on the Staten Island ferry (4-5), drinks
"red wine and puke[s] all over the new rug in the hallway," and goes with
his friends "to the East River Park and get drunk, do reefer and sniff
glue" (17). However, when Carroll offhandedly decides that "Most likely
[the weed-heads will] be my scene," he has chosen to stick to his punk
code and extend it, opting to leap into the underground rather than the
more "respectable," hypocritical society of "All-American" guys. Once
he makes this choice, drugs begin to take on a significance rivaling that
of basketball, and eventually overshadow basketball entirely.
Basketball and the drug culture are actually quite similar
in many respects. Both have established rules and rituals, positions,
and goals; also, both have their own unique lingoes, and both offer a
set of friends. Of course, both provide a kind of "high." Additionally,
the social hierarchy of basketball is analogous to that of the drug culture.
In basketball, the most important player is the one who gets the ball
and distributes it to the other players. In Carroll's case, he is always
a guard, and his game plan is always: "If I get the fucking ball, I'm
shooting it, no matter if they play six thousand varieties of defense"
The "dealer" has it all, controlling who gets the ball,
and thus controls who scores; he can also score for himself. Likewise,
the most important players in the drug scene are the dealers--the guys
with ability to get all the good drugs and distribute them to others.
Finally, the goal for the drug user is get as high as possible for as
long as possible. The goal for the individual basketball player is not
just to make points for his team, but also to make the crowd say "ooh"
and "ahh" and achieve the "high" that comes with both an outstanding performance
(e.g. by making a "super layup out of an easy one") and the self knowledge
that one has performed well.
On the other hand, drugs and basketball are parts of
two different worlds, and Carroll is at the bottom of the social hierarchy
in the drug culture. Nevertheless, the decadent "underground" culture
allows him to live out his punk code with others who share this code,
and to explore new realms of consciousness. At the same time, however,
Carroll is looking forward to attending Trinity, that "plush Private High
School," on a basketball scholarship. At this point both worlds have claims
on him, and Carroll hasn't fully committed himself to either. For the
moment Carroll is caught in between the two, and his first concern is
to get by, maintaining this balance, and "breeze easy for the rest of
this grammar school bit."
As soon as he starts attending the Catholic grammar
school, however, he finds that it's not going to be such a breeze after
Once a month as an eighth grader in this screwy
Catholic school we got to march over to church after school's
out to got to confession. . . . So we're in the giant church and
[the Brother] sticks me in line and I say, "But, I never, I swear
. . ." No good, the dumb bastard don't even listen and at that
moment let me tell you I hated that fucking school and that whole
religion worse than anything before with their tiny dark boxes
you enter like they were phone booths to God. They should gun
off the whole bunch, they're fucking up minds they do not own.
But no matter how much he fights it, this system wields
a great deal of authority over Carroll, and for him forced confession
is just another form of rape. However, because confession is legitimately
built into the system, it's far worse than the "funny things" Lefty did
to him. That is, Carroll is not required to submit to Lefty's pedophilia,
but confession is compulsory.
Furthermore, the basic assumption behind confession
is that the confessor has sinned, whether he or she knows it or not.
Hence, the Church institutionalizes the fact that something is "wrong"
with Carroll, and forces him to admit it. This also carries over into
the classroom, as he receives a "god damm 99" on his weekly report card,
and "in the 'effort' column the smart ass Brother gave me a 'D,' for what
reason I can't figure." Because of this, the principal "tells me to take
a stand over on the side with a bunch of other chumps, mostly guys who
failed the whole bit and I get three raps across the hand with this thick
rubber strap, it fucking hurt too, and this with a 99 grade, what these
mothers expect is beyond me."
But here is the crucial paradox of The Basketball
Diaries. As Carroll says, "I know I should just belt back the next
prick who hits me, but something holds me back. I guess deep down I think
they have the right to boss me around. I've got to break loose" (27-28).
The fact is, even though he knows the system is phoney, that it is being
unfair, and that he has in fact done nothing wrong, Carroll somehow believes
"they have the right to boss me around." What is scary about authority
is that, even though it is itself corrupt, it has the power to portray
itself as righteous, then condemn and oppress those in its care.
Furthermore, perhaps the worst aspect of Carroll's situation
is that he is on foreign turf: Catholic school has nothing to do with
his reality, and its standards are alien to him. By comparison, the rules
of the basketball court are familiar, and he can deal with the oppression
imposed by Lefty or snobbish opposing teams and audiences on his own terms,
using his basketball playing and his "punk presence" as weapons. Against
Catholicism he has no ammunition. Furthermore, in the Biddy League he
has his basketball team to back him up before a critical audience, and
in his jump into the Harlem River he has two fellow "punks" to back him
up. In Catholic school he has no one but himself.
Because he hasn't the power or the means to fight back,
Carroll's only defense is to rebel in word, and to express the incongruity
of Catholic dogma with his own. Hence, in between the "confession" and
"report card" entries, Carroll inserts a slice of his own reality:
Today is our last
Biddy League game of the year, but before it all the members of
the Boys' Club have to meet in front of the place to have some
kind of memorial service for little Teddy Rayhill. 
He's a member of the club that fell off the roof the other day
while he was sniffing glue. The priest was making a speech about
Teddy and tried to pawn off some story about him fixing a TV antenna
when he fell off but no one swallowed that shit. Herbie Hemslie
and his gang started flinging bricks down from the roof across
the street. Everybody had to clear out into the club while the
cops chased after Herbie and friends. After it was safe to go
out again, everybody filed past Teddy's closed casket and if you
wanted to you said a prayer. If you didn't want to I guess you
just stood and felt shitty about everything. (27)
Carroll's stark, violent world is much more real--more authentic--than
that of the Catholic school. As Carroll demonstrates in his song "People
Who Died," on Catholic Boy, death is a reality glossed over in
the everyday world, but like Huck Finn, he experiences it in a way that
most teenagers never have to face.
In the midst of an otherwise ordinary day for basketball,
Carroll's team meets for the memorial service of a 12 year old boy. Likewise,
events such as Herbie's gang throwing bricks off rooftops are everyday
occurrences for Carroll, and the mourners take it in stride. Finally,
the mourners are not forced to pray or anything else; they simply do whatever
they find appropriate. The only incongruity in the scene is the priest,
who attempts to conceal the ugly truth about Teddy's death; the priest
is yet another authority offering up hypocrisy and lies. But here it doesn't
matter what the priest says; death is death no matter how many lies he
offers up in explanation.
Carroll finds that the more direct, no-nonsense methods
of his world can sometimes pay off even in Catholic school. When "One
of the 'fine' Christian Brothers who [teach] in this barb-wire grade school
of mine. . . . snagged little Mikey Benavisti cheating on some religious
quiz," the Brother "went through his usual 'M.O.'" As Carroll explains,
This routine, all too familiar to us all by now,
consists of having Mike go behind closed doors in the coat closet,
pull down his trousers and his undies even, and bend over for
a solid ten or so whacks of a rubber fan belt in the ass. The
process always seems to take an unusually long time . . . Could
it be that the good brother is deriving some pleasure out of these
dutiful tasks thrust upon him? (35)
The next day, "Right during class, in the middle of a tense
spelling bee, as a matter of fact, the door bolts open and in storms Mike's
big brother Vinnie, a highly reputed neighborhood tough." Vinnie "proceeds
to whip off feeble Bro. G's specks, rips off his holy collar and flings
the dude to shit all over the room." Then Vinnie says to Brother G: "I
went to this same school and took beatings, you queer prick, but you didn't
do that jive to Mikey out of any 'punishment' . . . so I'm hauling your
ass down to the head man and get things straight, now move ass!"
As with Teddy's memorial service, Carroll sees his own
"punk" reality --the reality of the streets--in direct confrontation with
the reality of Catholic school, and he makes the connection: he sees the
truth that's been concealed beneath the illusion, that discipline and
respectability are mere fronts for something far less honorable. As with
Lefty, the Brother's authority and virtue are pretexts allowing him to
molest adolescent boys. While Carroll "certainly had been keyed into that
scene already by our coach at the Boy's Club, Lefty, and various other
dick snatchers," he hadn't recognized it in the Brother. As Carroll puts
it, "The funny thing about this scene was that until Vinnie called the
pecker a queer, I had never really thought about it in that light. . .
. Now that I thought about it, Brother G. never did pull that closet bit
with any ugly guys" (35-36).
As he sees the Brother's hypocrisy in concrete form,
Carroll's gradual awakening to the corruption hiding beneath authority's
fake righteousness expands again. His only option is to "break loose"
and reject the society the Brother represents. He needs to find a reality
that doesn't lie to him, and which comes to him directly, without mediation
It is at this point Carroll finds one particular event
in his life significant enough to record in his diary:
I never did write about the time I too my first
shot of heroin. It was about two months back. The funny part is
that I thought heroin was the NON-addictive stuff and marijuana
was addictive. I only found out later what a dumb ass move it
was. Funny, I can remember what vows I'd made never to touch any
of that shit when I was five or six. Now with all my friends doing
it, all kinds of vows drop out from under me every day. . . .
I was just gonna sniff a bag but Tony said I might as well skin
pop it. I said OK. Then Pudgy says, "Well, if you're gonna put
a needle in, you might as well mainline it," I was scared to main,
but I gave in, Pudgy hit it in for me. I did half a fiver and,
shit, what a rush . . . just one long heat wave all through my
body, any ache I had flushed out. You can never top that first
rush, it's like ten orgasms. . . . So, as simple as a walk into
that cellar, I lost my virgin veins. (30)
While Carroll rationalizes this extreme act as a result
of peer pressure, the fact is that he sacrifices his innocence, his "virgin
veins," to become part of this underground world. As Bart Platenga puts
it, "Even in the framework of Basketball and Catholic School he goes way
beyond the rules, beyond winning." Carroll's first shot of heroin is no
symbolic gesture, and his descent into the drug culture is somewhat haphazard,
embarked upon without much foresight. Its effect, however, eclipses every
"super layup" he has made on the basketball court and even the grand finale
of his leap into the Harlem River. Carroll effectively moons not just
Catholic school but all of "respectable" society by plunging headlong
into the underground.
Through drugs, Carroll feels he has discovered the honest,
direct reality he has been seeking, but which "respectable" society denied
him. For Carroll, heroin intensifies reality, and "any ache I had [was]
flushed out. . . . it's like ten orgasms." The "rush" Carroll describes
is one of pure physical and mental pleasure; however, it is not drugs
alone which produce this experience. Only in the underground does Carroll
have the freedom to experience pure pleasure; outside he is constrained
by rules and rituals, and he must always prove himself to his critics.
Once he has tasted the freedom of the underground in its deepest sense,
he can't turn back--at least until he discovers that the freedom he is
experiencing is yet another prison in disguise.
Once he has entered the underground, Carroll begins
exploring his independence from the corrupt "system." In the first "Spring
64" entry, he is completely disillusioned with the "respectable" world
and wants only to escape it. As he says, "I just want to be high and live
in these woods. Screw all the rest like Saint Bill down at the caves"
(42). At this point he realizes that only by distancing himself from the
corrupt forces surrounding him can he be at peace with himself, yet he
However, he finds nature is a source of comfort and,
as he frees himself from the constraints of the system, he is able to
enjoy the beauty of his world for the first time. He becomes part of his
city landscape, communing with the universe, and discovering that he too
is beautiful: standing naked on the tar roof of his building, "a totally
naked young boy, [I] stare out into the star machine and jerk myself off."
In one of the most poetic passages of the Diaries, Carroll writes:
I love it this way. My feet bare against the tar
which is soft from the summer heat, the slight breeze that runs
across your entire body . . . the breezes always seem to hit strongest
against my crotch, and you feel an incredible power being naked
under a dome of stars while a giant city is dressed and dodging
cars all around you five flights down. . . .
. . . . it's just better under the big ceiling
. . . and it's much more than sex. In fact, I don't really think
about anything while I'm in the process of the actual tugging,
least of all going into the heavy sex fantasies I have to resort
to indoors. It's just me and my own naked self and the stars breathing
down. And it's beautiful. (42-43)
So long as he is free from corrupting forces, he can experience
the untainted beauty of himself and his world.
He immerses himself in the physical beauty of his world,
spending more time in the park with his friends, enjoying the pleasures
of smoking pot, and "getting into digging the arc of an airplane crossing
the sky and how it made the sky seem so flat" (44). At the same time,
however, he must still live within society and must, therefore, continue
to battle its corruption and hypocrisy. He lands a job at Yankee Stadium,
a job about as wholesome as they come, finding that, as usual, he is victimized:
"Like on Friday night, with the whole joint filled with Catholics, I get
franks! On the coldest night of the season, overcoat weather, I swear
I got ice cream. On the scorching hot days it's a bet I get salty popcorn
in the bleachers, never fails" (46). However, he uses his marginality
to rebel, getting "canned from [his] shitty job at Yankee Stadium" for
sitting down on the job and "busting about ten regulations" (53).
As Carroll distances himself from the traditional social
order, he becomes increasingly amoral by society's standards; however,
at the same time, his "punk" code of honesty and integrity becomes increasingly
important. He describes his sexual adventures with Winkie and Blinkie
so explicitly it could be considered pornographic, yet he calls it "a
simple All-Midwestern Conference lay in truth, but worth laying down here
nonetheless . . ." (61). Here is where the diary itself becomes paramount
to Carroll: he uses it to tell the truth about his experience, without
guilt. As far as he is concerned, the scenario is, in fact, perfectly
normal. He hasn't done anything wrong, and it was fun, besides.
On the other hand, while Carroll has few qualms about
sex, he nonetheless draws the line at the Celia sisters:
I had gotten a blow job once from Alice Celia and
her little sister had quite a reputation herself, so Willie and
I headed after them. . . . they were both stone drunk. When we
passed by we saw them making out with each other all over the
concrete. "Boy, that really turns me on," Willie said to me, then
he called for Alice and she came over and said to me, "I remember
you, you came in my mouth and it tasted like strawberries." This
girl is really fucked up, I thought. She was only fourteen too;
her sister was thirteen. "Want to go to the beach with us?" I
On the way to the beach Alice pissed right in the
street. But I don't want to soil my diary with a description of
Again, the diary is of foremost importance: he doesn't "want
to soil my diary with a description of that." In this case, he is disgusted
with both the Celia sisters' sexual corruption as well as his own participation
in it. As he continues, it is clear he has sexual standards of his own
which he will not violate:
. . . I swear before long the whole fucking town
was on the beach waiting for blow jobs. One guy came up to me
and asked what was going on. "These two girls I think are about
to give an awful lot of blow jobs," I said. "Get in line," someone
else told him. Willie and I left that fucking scene, got a ball,
and went down to the courts in the dark to practice foul shots
for the game tomorrow. (55-56)
Furthermore, at the same time Carroll's moral code begins
to crystalize, and as he becomes increasingly conscious of his diary as
an integral part of his experience, he is also starting to write poetry,
although he doesn't mention this fact in the diaries. Specifically, the
"Winkie and Blinkie" entry is the first clue as to when Carroll started
writing Organic Trains. In "3rd Train (for THE SUMMERS)," he writes:
A woman comes up to me
and questions the aesthetic
value of a red tee shirt
this was the same woman
who yesterday warned
me about clocks
I'm convinced she was a communist. (9)
The experience Carroll describes in this poem appears immediately
preceding the detailed "Winkie and Blinkie" scene, and variations of it
evolve in two other poems.
In the diary, Carroll is on a bus to Long Beach, Long
Island, having just swallowed two bottles of codeine cough syrup: "I was
trying to cop a short nod again on the bus ride but this crazy old lady
keeps giving me shit about being a commie because I got a red tee-shirt
on . . . but she goes on insisting that she has this vision that I'm gonna
die within a month because a giant clock was gonna fall on my head" (58).
In Organic Trains, he offers two different perspectives on this
experience in "2nd Train (for Frank O'Hara)" and "3rd Train (for THE SUMMERS)";
a third, uncollected poem, "Red Rabbit Running Backwards (for A. W.)"
is yet another variation on the same scenario.
As Carroll's early poems indicate, the effect of his
descent into the underground and his experimentation with drugs was a
new way of seeing his world. This new vision he applied directly to his
writing: now he was more selective about what he put into his diaries
and how he portrayed his experience. His vision was based on the
solidity, the integrity, of his existence and of the world he saw around
him. Through writing, he found that he could take possession of this reality
and transform it. If his world was chaotic and illogical, he could forge
coherence in his diaries and poems. Now he wasn't just writing about his
life--he was recreating it and making it beautiful.
Where drugs and basketball earlier were Carroll's only
means to transcendence, and both competed on equal terms, now writing
vies strongly for his attention. So long as he remains in the underground,
separate from the corrupting influences of the "system," combining these
things is not a problem. Yet, no sooner does he begin to enjoy his ability
to see and transform the beauty of his world, he enters yet another oppressive
society: Trinity High School.
Carroll's situation at Trinity is somewhat ironic. Because
of the basketball-academic scholarship he earned, he has been legitimately
accepted into a "respectable" society for perhaps the first time in his
life. However, between the time he got the scholarship and entered the
Catholic high school, he rejected the society this school represents,
opting to join the underground culture and "break loose" from the tyranny
of Catholic school. Conversely, his original motive for joining the underground
scene was to "breeze easy" until he got to Trinity, where he could really
do something. Now he finds himself caught between two separate worlds
and two separate goals: will he be a basketball star or an underground
The fact is, by the time he gets to Trinity he is firmly
identified with the "underground" scene, which is also connected to his
writing. Furthermore, because he recognizes Trinity as just another extension
of the hypocritical society he has rejected in favor of the underground,
he's not sure he wants to be at Trinity after all:
It's my first day at the ultra-rich private school
that I got a scholarship to come to. I had a hard time trying
to figure out what I was doing there, and I got funny looks from
everyone and thought how funny it was all those Jewish kids singing
away those old Christian tunes like that at the chapel service
in the morning. Some teacher in back of me kept poking on my shoulder
to get me to sing but I just sat there with a bored look on my
face. . . . (60)
Even worse than his uncertainty about Trinity is that,
in spite of his "legitimate" status, he doesn't fit in, whether
he wants to or not; this "elite" school marginalizes him due to his socioeconomic
status. Mr. Brothers, for example, "keeps me after class and explains
how he understands, with mounds of sympathy, how my family are lowly slobs
and all but to discipline myself to proper replies and other classroom
etiquette." Of course Carroll's reaction to all of these attempts to train
him in proper etiquette is: "I feel like farting and blowing up the 257
years of fine tradition of this place" (66). He immediately realizes that
Trinity's "fine tradition" is an elitist front for prejudice, as well
as an excuse for tyranny.
Carroll's rebelliousness quickly rears its head in the
face of social snobbery. As with the Riverdale game, Carroll must prove
himself "punk" to an elite crowd of hypocrites who can't see beyond their
own prejudices. After observing the school football team at practice,
and after holding the ball while a senior "kicked the thing like it was
a bag of shit or something," Carroll asks if he can try it: "I stepped
back, took two strides forward, and breezed one over from 32 yards (this
is in loafers, don't forget) and the guy just knelt there with his mouth
hung open. I thought his jock would fall off and roll right down the leg
of his clean little uniform" (66-67). Hence, in his most cheetah-esque,
punk manner, Carroll quickly establishes himself within the hierarchy
of Trinity's elite social order by playing up his tough, "street punk"
identity, then surprising his snobbish audience with his athletic abilities.
However, in entering Trinity's social order, Carroll's
intent is not to "fit in." His guiding principle is that, once he is acceptable
within the society, he can exploit it to further himself as well as transform
the system into a weapon against itself. And this he does, almost immediately,
by clashing his marginal, "street punk" status against the conformity
of his classmates to the school's dress code. Where his peers wear "corny
ass little gym shorts and white tee-shirts," Carroll says, "lately I've
been wearing blue jeans over instead of that other shit and lagging behind
all the other kids, so everything is cool, as long as the headmaster don't
catch an eye of me and give me another lecture on the "rules" of the school.
Fuck dumb rules, let me wear what I want . . ."
Even more importantly, Carroll reveals the hypocrisy
of this dress code: "No trouble from Mr. Doolittle, the cat that runs
the phys. ed. here because he's the basketball coach too and he never
gives me any hassles" (68-69). Contrary to the values Trinity claims to
promote, because he is valuable to the basketball team, Carroll enjoys
privileges which actually reinforce his ties to the "underground" scene.
Paradoxically, the more valuable he is to Trinity's social order, the
more he can separate himself from it.
Meanwhile, he is now "hanging around . . . with all
the other heads in this dreary neighborhood, at this place called 'Headquarters'";
as he puts it, "I've lived here from time to time when my parents gave
me the toss" (80). Headquarters is essentially a drug den and, as Carroll
spends more and more time there, he descends further into the underground.
Yet he does this while still being Trinity's star basketball player; as
a result, he becomes the corrupt reality Trinity works so hard
at concealing. As he descends into the drug culture, Carroll reveals a
side of New York City neither Trinity nor the rest of "respectable" society
wants to see. For example, when he and Brian Browning go "up to 168th
St. to get ourselves a little codeine," Carroll realizes the pharmacy
is "right in the shadows of the ballroom where Malcolm X was gunned down
not too long ago."
Furthermore, Carroll's shifting allegiances become evident
when the two "wait outside and discuss the fake names we're gonna use
in the book you've got to sign when you buy" the codeine. Brian signs
"James Bond" on the first run, then "George Washington" on the second.
Carroll initially signs "Abe Lincoln," but the pharmacist tells him, "No
good, I'm afraid Abe already got a bottle this morning;" hence, Carroll
says, "Oops," and "scribble[s] in 'Wilt Chamberlain.'" Here, Carroll is
providing evidence for his fidelity to basketball, yet hints that it,
like the "official" society represented in George Washington and Abe Lincoln,
has become corrupt. Hence, on his second score, Carroll signs "'Al Swinburne'
hoping there's no literary customers about and I get my second bottle"
Carroll's "literary reference" doesn't just show his
growing knowledge of literature (he previously made reference to "that
wise-ass dwarf Alexander Pope" , and later refers to Walt Whitman
). More specifically, Carroll's reference to Swinburne is a sort
of intertextual in joke typical of the range of allusion and control of
reference found in the Diaries. Like Carroll, Swinburne led a debauched,
self-destructive, wild life; "his predilection for flagellation is infamous."
His poetry shocked his readers: in Poems and Ballads, he rebels
against the "moral repressiveness of dominant middle-class attitudes to
sex." Also, "Against the against prejudices of his time, which declared
that poets should be morally serviceable, he asserted the right to pursue
poetic vocation to express beauty" (Wynne-Davies 939). Swinburne was "punk."
Also, while Carroll has yet to mention his interest
in poetry, his descent into the underground, his marginalization, his
decadence, and his desire to be free from social constraints and "express
beauty" are the driving forces in his writing. The ties between drugs
and his expanding poetic vision especially begin to emerge in his diary
descriptions of his "nods," or drug-induced experiences. For example,
after drinking codeine cough syrup, he writes: "I was so zonked that I'd
let whole cigarettes burn down to the filter and burn my fingers without
taking one drag. We had about six hours more of good solid nods and then
sat around and rapped slowly about all our little visual dreams that passed
in our heads clear as movies" (82-83). Likewise, in 1974, Carroll duplicated
this imagery in his poetic statement for Rolling Stone: "I find
that my poems have all turned into sheer verbal movie, image over image
into kind of dream machines in every form, so that the reader depends
a lot on the intensity of the final rush. The more capable one is of just
plain nodding off and feeling from each line . . . the better" (Margolis
These passages give some notion of where the title of
his second book of poems, Living at the Movies, comes from: Carroll
attempts to create poems which produce the same "rush" as drugs, which
to him is like the fleeting, though concrete, images of a film. For him,
writing should be as intense as a heroin "rush": the reader and writer
alike should experience poetry much as a drug user feels a high--as a
physical, mental, and spiritual rush. Perhaps most importantly within
the context of the Diaries, this implies that drug use for Carroll
is not an escape into oblivion, but (at least initally) an active, disciplined
In a later interview with John Milward, Carroll explained
that: "I wanted to see what oblivion was like without staying in that
pit. I wanted to see everything that was in me, and junk slowed things
down so I could take it all in. . . . it was like sliding into a tunnel
of my own design" (170). In the Diaries, Carroll is not being decadent
solely for the sake of decadence, nor is he attempting to self-destruct.
In the tradition of Coleridge, Rimbaud, Genet, and Burroughs, Carroll
uses his "nods," as well as his own corruption, to broaden his vision
and see new things, about which he can write afterward.
As Carroll observed: "Junk made me alert. . . . for
me the nods were magic--when the cigarette butt would burn your fingers,
you'd jump back in total surprise that you weren't actually on that beach
with the sun kissing the horizon. But the nods weren't like dreaming--there
was no surrealism. Just an intensified reality" (Milward 142, 170). For
Carroll, his experiences on heroin (as well as codeine and LSD) not only
inspire his poems and diaries, but his poems and diaries duplicate and
produce the same effects as his nods. For Carroll, there is a one-to-one
relationship between his drug-induced states and the reality he seeks
to portray in his writing. His "nods" clarify reality for him and heighten
his awareness, enabling him to see more precisely what is happening around
One result of this heightened awareness is his growing
obsession with his own oppression, which manifests itself most clearly
in various fantasies of victimization. One such fantasy has him warding
off a German attack; in another, he gets "this complete urge to suddenly
take a machine gun and start firing" in his English class (83). Later,
this preoccupation intensifies and focuses on the atomic bomb. It is not
that Carroll becomes paranoid; rather, he begins to recognize the real
danger produced by the hypocrisy and corruption extending throughout his
world, right on up to the top dogs in the government. The scary reality
Carroll now sees is that his world is out of control.
On a more concrete level, however, Carroll's awareness
of the exploitation happening all around him also results in his accelerating
clash with authority figures. His father, for example, is an authority
figure of the most traditional sort; he first appears after Carroll attends
a Communist Party meeting. Says Carroll, "I went home and told my old
man how the government suppresses the proletariat from his due. 'I am
the proletariat, you dumb bastard,' he said, 'and I think those motherfuckers
are off their rockers. Now get the hell inside and do your homework'"
(84). Furthermore, as if to reinforce his emerging awareness of his own
victimization, Carroll notes that, at Trinity, "I can't even lay down
my pants in the locker room to take a shower without one of these cats
rifling my pockets. . . . I mean, man, I'm the poorest son of a bitch
in this institution and I'm getting cleaned out."
Part of the problem here is that exploitation is inherent
within the "system," and everyone seems ready to accept this. However,
Carroll is not part of the system, and he's not willing to be exploited.
In the same entry he goes on to say that "Just yesterday I got clipped
for a five and last week some prick lifted me for a lid of dynamite grass
I was about to deal" (84-85). Importantly, it is within the context of
victimization that Carroll's humor comes most strongly into play. While
he is being victimized by "respectable" society, he pokes fun at the ridiculous
irony of it: the grass he was about to deal, illegally, has been stolen
by his supposedly respectable classmates.
However, Carroll also shows that, while he has moved
further away from "respectable" society, he has risen in the hierarchy
of the drug culture to the status of dealer: he can now take up his philosophy
that, "If I get the fucking ball, I'm shooting it, no matter if they play
six thousand varieties of defense" (88). As an accomplished thief and
member of the subculture, Carroll has the means to get "all evened out"
which are not allowable in "respectable" society. He is no longer adhering
to the rules of this society, instead defending his personal code of rules,
honor, and integrity--the code which the "official" order suppresses.
He refuses to let anyone pull one over on him, so he raids "all these
lockers . . . all chock full of goodies."
As far as Carroll is concerned, sticking to the rules
is not conducive toward preventing nor retaliating against his victimization.
Hence, to emphasize this, he exaggerates his victimization. In the German
attack fantasy he seeks out weapons to protect himself: "I usually take
a hairbrush or comb and hold it like it was a gun. Then I check about
to see what real weapons I would have if it really happened, like
the wooden stick on the plunger, the drainpipe . . . bottles . . ." (83).
Against thieving classmates and German attack, his street-smarts are his
defense; he cannot rely upon abstract notions of "goodness" or "honesty"
in a world in which these notions are, in fact, nonexistent.
However, he discovers his street-smarts aren't infallible.
Before a basketball game, Carroll misjudges in a gamble with drugs and
loses, mistaking "downers" for "uppers," and his performance in the game
suffers terribly: "No doubt about it, we took the downest downers I may
have ever downed. My legs began to get the feeling someone slit a nice
little hole at the top of my thighs and poured in a few gallons of liquid
lead, I had a head on that felt like the rock of Gibraltar" (87-88). If
anything is not "cheetah-ish," it is this, and if Carroll ever lost his
"presence," he does so here. With this entry, Carroll begins a steady
departure from his "punk" code, as he becomes more enmeshed in the underground
scene and, ironically, less aware of the corruption surrounding him. Where
his entrance into the underground initially clarified his vision, now
the scene itself leaves him blind to the dangers around him. Only his
recognition of this will save him.
Yet another miscalculation takes him even lower when
he meets "this great chick about thirty years old or so, but really foxy."
The two "find a movie, of all things, Born Free," and "Everything
is humming nice when I reach on up her leg and work my way to her thing
when, holy shit, I feel it and realize this freak HAS A COCK" (94). His
blind leaps have previously been rewarding; now they lead to his worst
nightmares coming true. He gambles with ups and downs, which leads to
a humbling performance at basketball for himself and his teammates; when
he doesn't notice that the "foxy chick" is a man, he humiliates himself
again. It is becoming increasingly difficult for him to see clearly.
Finally, Carroll's behind-the-scenes life is overtaking
his public life: in much the way Freddy C. exposes himself earlier in
the Diaries (32), Carroll's decadence is now beginning to show
in public. His mother receives a note from Mr. Bluster, the principal
at Trinity, which reads: "Jim has become a constant enigma around here
as you might well detect from the report you received last week. . . ."
When his mother asks, "What the hell does enigma mean?" Carroll tries
to save face: "I grab the big book and blurt out in dictionary language,
'Enigma: a model of perfection, an example used to have others strive
toward. E.g., He was a constant enigma among his math classmates'." It
doesn't work: "My old lady heads over to the bookcase . . . this diary
fades out with a bad ending" (96-97).
Carroll is losing control; he is losing his "punk presence,"
now becoming a "chimp" (or "chump") rather than a "cheetah." Earlier,
Carroll hinted at this possibility in two adjoining entries, in which
he and his friend Kevin Dolon accidentally expose themselves in public.
In the first entry, Carroll and a few friends are riding a local when
Carroll notices "all eyes on Kevin, jokers down the other end even pointing
at him. We look up and see why. He's swinging like an ape [or a chimp]
with his zipper full down and his entire cock hanging like a clock." Kevin
is totally unaware of this, but then he "looks down and turns nine shades
of lobster. . . . Dolon just sat with his head down the whole way uptown"
In the next entry Carroll's team is playing against
"a very lame squad from St. Hilda's," and Carroll is making his "presence"
known in a rather chimp-like fashion:
every time I'd dunk a ball in the warmups or made
an impressive play the chicks in the stands let out a bunch of
'oohs' and 'ahhs' and seemed to throw a leg spread that increased
to a wider and wider position in direct proportion to each "ooh"
that by the time I dunked one backwards I could almost distinguish
what color panties each chick sitting there was wearing as I peeked
over coming down the court.
As the game goes on, Carroll "came back out to pull some
fancy-ass passes and dribbling to show off in the second half but instead
ended up embarrassing the shit out of myself," essentially replaying Kevin
Dolon's humiliating moment:
Everything is cool until . . . I hear a giant rippp
. . . between my legs, I look down but don't notice a thing until
I start dribbling downcourt.. The entire gym is in stitches. I'm
dribbling fast and peek down to discover the entire crotch of
my pants is ripped apart and they were like a skirt . . . nothing
holding them from beneath! The shorts are bobbing up and down
and my total ass (since all I've got under 'em is a jock) is totally
exposed on each bob up. (79)
Unlike Kevin, though, Carroll does not hang his head in
shame. Instead, he turns ugliness and disgrace into triumph: "I trot to
the exit blushing face and blushing ass. Everyone pointing and goofing,
I stop near the exit, bend over, and throw a giant moon . . . I left,
a slight pink, through the exit with the whole gym giving me a mock standing
However, with the ill-fated venture with the "ups" and
"downs," the letter from the principal, and the drag queen episode, Carroll
seems to be losing the edge which got him a standing ovation; he is still
getting by, but he is no longer "punk." His recognition of this is revealed
in the "Spring 65" entries, in which Carroll again juxtaposes descriptions
of flop performances against his own. The first of these entries is the
unnerving "drag queen" episode, which Carroll deals with in his usual
manner. Next is Carroll's first mention of Bobby Blake, "a kleptomaniac,
speed-freak friend," who is out on bail after having been arrested for
breaking into Gussie's Soda Fountain. Bobby "Tactlessly . . . threw the
door of an old refrigerator . . . through the glass window," attempted
to raid the cash register, then proceeded to fix himself an ice cream
soda and grilled cheese sandwich. When the police arrived, "not believing
for sure anything they see," Bobby "rapped the cop for ten minutes about
how he worked there and just happened to be passing when he saw what happened
and was wishing for an ice cream soda besides" (94-96).
When Bobby Blake appears again, after the "enigma" entry,
he is handing out free clothes from Jack's Clothing Shop. The police accost
Bobby, who "in his usual manner, stood his ground and offered the man
a free pair of work pants as they dragged him off to the station" (97-98).
Clearly, Bobby Blake is flaunting rules left and right and not getting
away with it. Except for the fact that he doesn't get caught, Carroll's
blatant defiance of rules is no different.
In the fifth entry Carroll breaks school rules by leaving
campus to get stoned; this time, not only does he nearly overdose, but
he also almost gets caught when "a cop car stops and pulls us over. We
got our school blazers on so he asks us what we're doing coming out of
that basement and I tell him, glassy-eyed . . . that we are on a social
work project and are taking a survey in that building. They swallow, we
split" (98-99). For Carroll, this is a close call; easily he could have
ended up in jail like Bobby Blake, yet his flair for a good story prevailed.
In fact, the diary is itself a terrific example of the ability which saved
him: in his street lingo he displays the seediness of the scene, but inserts
humor and his own ridiculous lie to the cop so that his "innocence" is
Since his descent into the underground, Carroll's confrontations
with authority so far haven't come to much, in that he has never had to
face either his own corruption or the law. However, he is walking a thin
line, knowing his double life will catch up to him somehow. In fact, the
attack issues from his own disillusionment with the victimization he has
imposed upon himself rather than confrontations with the law: he is now
blatantly defying his own moral code.
His heroin habit forces him to the "Rack," where he
hustles gay men for money; in essence, he has made himself into an anonymous
piece of meat--food for sexually depraved businessmen. The first time
Carroll mentions he has been hustling gay men, it is with pure disgust:
The fag hustling scene gets hairier and hairier
all the time. I mean what happened to the old fashioned homo who
just wanted to take you home and suck your dick? . . . You just
don't know what the next trick you pick up is gonna whip out of
his attache case these days . . . . I'd rather go back to ripping
off old ladies or something sensible. (104)
Carroll is essentially collaborating in the same con game
he rejected upon entering the underground. His "customers" are more extreme
versions of his coaches and Catholic school teachers: they appear proper
and respectable, yet beneath their uniforms of office they are sexually
and morally perverse.
For example, one of the hustling scenarios Carroll cites
involves "some CPA [who] gets me up in his hotel room and leads me into
the bathroom." Says Carroll:
He's got a cat tied to the seat of the toilet and
a bubble bath all set for someone to jump in. I excused myself
for a second and went over to the kitchenette and popped a couple
of Valiums . . . I was already loaded on junk but I could see
this was going to be strictly from fruit. When I got back in the
john he was already naked and in the tub frosted in bubbles .
. . the poor cat was still chained to the john seat, yelping away.
The guy laid his plan on me. He wants me to whip the cat dead
after I first piss on him in his bubble bath, then when the cat
has had it I'm to jerk off into his mouth while he's still in
the tub. Out from under the bubbles he hands me a whip, a tiny
cat size whip with leather fringes laced with broken ends of razors.
Carroll must draw the line somewhere, and the CPA has crossed
Carroll's limit of decency. Just as the Celia sisters did earlier, this
CPA has violated Carroll's private moral code, and Carroll wants nothing
to do with this plan.
For the first time, he physically lashes out against
his victimizer and refuses to collaborate in this horrendous "game." Appropriately,
he reinterprets the CPA's instructions in more suitable terms, now becoming
the aggressor and punishing the CPA for his crimes:
I untied the cat, he tried to get up and stop me,
I punched his chump face, he landed back on his ass in the tub
and I gave him the whip across the chest . . . a nasty wound.
. . . I grabbed his hair, opened his mouth and pissed in it .
. . he spit it out, the piss mixing with the blood oozing from
his lip from the punch and he let out a slow motion yell at the
sting of urine dripping into the cuts on his chest. He sank under
water to cool the burn, I rifled his wallet for sixty bucks, picked
up the kitty and split. (105-6)
Up to this point he has been somewhat acquiescent, and
therefore defenseless against his oppressors. Earlier he says regarding
Catholic school, "I know I should just belt back the next prick who hits
me, but something holds me back. . . . . I've got to break loose" (28).
Here again Carroll faces the same challenge. He is fed up with being used
like a piece of meat, and it's time to do something about it. In the next
entry he is riding the "A" train:
There's this chick that gets on at 175th St., a
real secretary-stewardess type with big tits and the beehive hair
job. She's right across the way from me, hardly any people in
the car, and she's tossing this spread toward me so wide I can
see her powder blue panties. What do these faces want out of me,
an athletic youth trying to enjoy a nice heroin head and harmless
magazine? Finally I got up and went over to her and asked her
if she could please close her legs, I'm barely fifteen years old
and it's distracting and, frankly, lewd. (106-7)
Again, Carroll deals with his victimization by joking about
it. Nevertheless, he is discovering that brazen sexuality is pervasive
in his world, extending from "secretary-stewardess type[s]" to Sharron
and Lou-Lou, who are actually little boys dressed in drag (110-12). However,
it is not so much the sexuality that bothers Carroll as the brazenness
of it; as he asks, "What do these faces want out of me . . . ?" These
"faces" are trying to rape him, but he now refuses to submit and takes
action against his oppressor by saying something.
Writing becomes Carroll's means to transcendence, and
he uses it to regain and display his "punk presence." In one of the funniest
passages in the Diaries, Carroll suggests that, "If there were,
say, a book like 'The Pervert's Guide To New York City,' the bathroom
at Grand Central Terminal should, without any doubts, figure in it." Again,
the rape theme is evident, yet by describing what he sees, stripping away
the respectable veneer of New York City businessmen and revealing their
hypocricy and corruption, he transcends his victimization:
Man, all those business cats just lined up along
the piss machines . . . and all these eyes peeking down at the
guy next to me who's peeking down at me along with the guy on
my other side and jacking off like madmen, forty arms like pistons
pumping back and forth at incredible rates. Not a bit of class
in the entire place. . . .
As he reveals here, the businessmen haven't "a bit of class";
they have no sense of morality, integrity, or value. As he continues,
their depravity becomes even more overt, while his own moral code prevails:
But the peeky-boo scene is old hat and that goes
on in any john, it's just that here you suddenly feel a hand moving
across your leg and grabbing your fucking cock. No raised eyebrows
about it from anyone, fuck, I'm beginning to think I'm the only
person in the place that just came down for normal body functions.
I jumped back in the middle of pissing while this stately chap
grabbed me and I wound up spraying all over the Brooks Brothers
number the guy was wearing. . . .
In his observation, Carroll establishes his refusal to be
victimized, but he also discloses the sleazy underbelly of New York City.
Perhaps on the surface his world is as well-pressed and squeaky clean
as a Brooks Brothers suit, but behind the scenes, "vice-presidents of
toothpaste firms are fighting over the piss machine" closest to a 14 year
old boy, and that 14 year old boy is "spraying all over the Brooks Brothers
Carroll's clear-sightedness reveals that the "Brooks
Brothers" appearance of "respectable" society not only camouflages its
innate corruption, it also nurtures its anonymity and relieves it of responsibility,
empathy, and guilt. With such a sense of detachment, "respectable" society
has an amazing ability which Carroll has no desire to master: it glosses
over the most horrible of realities with the greatest of ease. For example,
one morning Carroll greets the day only to find "blood splashed all over
the pavement" from "dry dive" case. Stoned as he is, and anonymous as
the "dry dive" case is, Carroll nevertheless feels for the victim:
She must have been about twenty-five and a pretty
face under the red and tangled hair all knotted by blood. I can't
do anything but hold her hand and look around at everyone else.
. . . this chick had taken a dry dive. Joey nodded as I looked
at the window . . . I was the last one to figure it out. And she's
still clutching me and I keep letting these soft gestures out
. . . What the fuck am I supposed to say?
Like Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn, he feels empathy,
where the general public feels nothing. When the police arrive, "They
want to know why Deborah and Ned keep fainting on each other if we don't
know who she is" (107-108).
Businessmen, secretary-stewardess types, cops, coaches,
and priests--all of these "respectable" characters are indifferent, uncaring,
and numb, and consider human beings nothing more than slabs of meat. Furthermore,
their sexual exploitation of Carroll is representative of the impersonal
tyranny extending throughout his world. This indifference takes on its
most terrifying proportions in the form of the Atomic bomb, which indiscriminately
transforms everyone into anonymous slabs of well-cooked meat. The bomb
terrifies Carroll, mostly because society refuses to take responsibility
for it. Here again, his "punk poetry" becomes a powerful weapon with which
he lays bare the fact that "respectable" society's denial is dangerous,
and that its accusing finger is pointed in the wrong direction. As he
sees it, blaming the "commies" is "some dream you dreamed up to take the
rap for you." The fact is, "I don't give a royal screw what a commie is.
. . . The Russians are drags too, you're all old men drags, scheming governments
of death and blinding white hair" (126-27).
Appropriately, in some of his best "punk poetry" in
the Diaries, Carroll associates the bomb with hustling and kinky
sex. The bomb becomes the ultimate rapist, anonymous sex partner, and
It's always been the same, growing up in Manhattan,
especially when I was a little younger, the idea of living within
a giant archer's target . . . for use by the bad Russia bowman
with the atomic arrows. Today I was hustling around Times Sq.
and thought about it and got a strange rush of unknown sex giddiness
off the idea of leaning here and now against a wall in leather
pants throwing pouting eyes at customers strolling by dead in
the center of the target . . . ground zero in one big fireball
Island. I thought of the explosion's eye as one giant plutonium
red cunt that would suck me up and in and just totally devour
and melt me into its raw wet walls of white heat in pure orgasm.
. . . After all these years of worry and nightmares over it .
. . I think by now I'd feel very left out if they dropped the
bomb and it didn't get me. (114)
Rather than letting the unfeeling force victimize him, he
has to make it see him, and make himself seen. In writing about this,
he displays his "presence like a cheetah," placing himself in the center
After this entry, Carroll returns again to the basketball
court to explore yet another sort of victimization; specifically, this
entry addresses racism. Throughout the diaries, Carroll has shown bigotry
to be pervasive in his world, but because he is white, he has never been
personally affected by it. In this entry, however, rather than his brilliant
playing standing out, "each move . . . I make sticks out like a hardon
because I'm the only whiteman on the court and looking around, in the
entire fucking place, in fact; my bright blond-red hair making me the
whitest whitey this league has ever seen. . . ."
Because he is white, Carroll finds himself marginalized
even on the basketball court, the one place he has always been able to
shine. Here, the only thing that shines is his "bright blond-red hair"
and his white skin. His status as an outsider is reinforced when he not
only is denied a trophy, but also his place in the team picture. Carroll
supposes, "I guess I would have messed up the texture of the shot or something.
Or maybe they didn't want to let the readers get to see that the high
scorer was a fucking white boy" (115-16). Ironically, in Harlem, racism
works in reverse and Carroll is the shunned minority. As Carroll is aware,
no amount of talent or "presence" is enough to overcome that stigma.
Literally, Carroll has become a "nigger" in every sense
of the word, and he doesn't like it. With disgust he underscores his exile
as he picks "up the clap over the weekend." But most importantly, his
infection--as well as his marginality--springs directly from so-called
"respectable" society: he catches the affliction "from some debutante
little beaver in 'posh' Rye, N.Y. Never know where the fuck it's gonna
get yer" (120). While this is yet another example of the corruption hidden
beneath respectability, at this point Carroll is mainly disgusted with
himself. He emphasizes his revulsion by describing the affliction in gruesome
it's quite a bringdown waking up with your underwear
a mass of red-brown blotches, all stiff as cardboard except where
the gooey fresh blobs are. I got up and pissed. It felt like I
was shooting boiling water out of me. I noticed when I changed
my undies that the drip was changing colors on me now. It was
becoming puss green.
Carroll has become the mirror image of his world by taking
on its disease and ugliness.
As Rimbaud put it, "Think of a man grafting warts onto
his face and growing them there" (102). Carroll's ailment and his exile
are the reflection of a diseased, alienated society as a whole; as such,
his own corruption and his explicit description of his disease illuminate
the corruption of "respectable" society. The main problem here is that
Carroll doesn't want to bear society's diseases, and he doesn't want to
be a monster: he must reconstitute the poison he has swallowed. The "clap"
was imposed upon him without his permission, and is just another example
of the victimization he must overcome.
Perhaps even worse is the fact that all of the things
which previously liberated him from such victimization and offered sanctuary
from oppression are now becoming prisons. Basketball turned against him
through racism, and sex led to hustling and the "clap." Now he realizes
I'm gonna be fifteen soon and the summer's "Pepsi-Cola"
heroin habit is tightening more and more around me. I'm getting
that feeling for the first time since I lost my virgin veins at
thirteen that I gotta start getting my ass together 'cause school's
coming mighty quick and no way of doing that scene with a habit.
. . . So now I look in the mirror and realize I better cut loose,
no jiving myself any longer.
For the first time, Carroll admits he has been deluding
himself, and is therefore no better than the corrupt society he despises.
He has lost control of his heroin use and is now an addict, yet all along
he kept telling himself, "First just one last one, you can start quitting
tomorrow." But now, with school coming up, he realizes he expects more
from himself; he wants to do well in school. As he concludes the entry:
"I used to laugh at the corny monkey phrase too, I had it under "control"
all the way to sitting and sneezing a lot on this fucking lice sofa wanting
to scream my balls off" (121-122).
Once Carroll realizes that heroin is yet another tyrant
in disguise, apparently he stays away from it for a while. Most importantly,
however, he has to transcend the sexual decadence, disease, and racism
into which he has been immersed not by attacking it (as in his Harlem
River leap, after which he moons the sightseers) but rather by seeking
beauty. This time, when he returns to Headquarters, his motive is not
escapism or rebellion; instead, he seeks a sense of harmony with his friends,
his surroundings, and within himself. Headquarters is filthy by most standars,
with "wet floors from spilt beer and flaked with bottles, cans, cigarette
butts, etc. covering the deck inch to inch. Not to mention dirty socks
and underwear, ripped up and come-upon playmates of the month and all
the other junk shit items." But Carroll puts it in perspective:
We're all used to it though. Messy house don't
matter, dirt don't matter (if it does we might as well all stop
breathing). Keeping your head in order is what counts, tidiness
never saved anyone the good times we have, and all that means
freedom. Like to sit in this awful mess and maybe smoke some dope
and watch some innocuous shit on a dumb glass tube and feel fine
about it and know there's really nothing you have to do, ever,
but feel your warm friend's silent content is what this place
Most importantly, this "life of doing nothing" allows
Carroll to experience a form of beauty that comes with belonging. As with
his rooftop experience earlier in the book, when he separates himself
from the corrupting forces of society, his vision expands. As he says,
"You don't feel guilty about not fighting a war or carrying signs to protest
it either. We've just mastered the life of doing nothing, which when you
think about it, may be the hardest thing of all to do" (127-28). Freed
from guilt, he can see beauty even in the most ordinary or ugly circumstances.
Furthermore, with his new lifestyle, a new consciousness-expanding
drug of choice comes into play:
Up in the country for the weekend and took some
L.S.D. again with a friend at midnight. All night we walked on
dirt roads and fields lit only by moon and star glow and I watched
the trees to see which were friendly and which were evil. We could
tell easily, and sat finally near a beautiful willow and watched
its sad sway and its special glow until morning. At dawn light
came in shafts and led me to some fields nearby to watch the tall
reeds wave and then become fingers calling me over. I rolled in
the dew drenched things as though they were lifting me across
and through them with the fingers and my body did no work at all,
in fact, I forgot all about any body I had and left it behind
finally, thinking I was just a spirit flashing incredibly fast
all through, wiping up the dew invisibly. . . . (128-29)
Likewise, he watches a lunar eclipse "in slow motion and
understood it" (134). On L.S.D. Carroll is beautiful, he is part of his
world, and everything makes sense. There is no craziness; the atomic bomb,
homosexual coaches and priests, kinky businessmen, racists, hypocrites--all
of them fade into oblivion. And where heroin increased his awareness of
his physical body, L.S.D. allows him to forget "about any body I hand
and left it behind." Freed from his physical circumstances, Carroll is
finally able to commune with his world without corrupting influences tainting
Finally, the culmination of Carroll's drug experiences
and his mastery of "the life of doing nothing" is a poem:
A note found on one of those homework pads you
cop for ten cents at Gussie's . . . I wrote on an experience with
L.S.D. a while ago:
"Little kids shoot marbles
where the branches break the sun
into graceful shafts of light . . .
I just want to be pure."
I found it all crumpled up in these old pants in history class
this morning. (140-41)
Carroll seems surprised at himself, almost in awe that he
should produce such a thing. But the fact is, given a chance, he can create
beauty for himself, and he can be beautiful. And given refuge from his
world's corrupting influence, he does see beauty, hope, and the possibility
of discovering a coherent world. Finally, so long as he can see clearly,
he can purify himself. Once he discovers the beauty lying latent within
his world, he knows there is something beyond the decay of his existence
that he can shoot for; and so long as he continues to reach for that "light
at the end of the tunnel," he can deflect the horrors imposed upon him
and become pure.
The insight Carroll cultivates during this brief period
gives him hope for a brighter future, and with this hope he is able to
analyze the conflict with his father optimistically. He realizes that
"The real culprits in the nonending rift between my old man and me" are
the empty but tyrannical moral beliefs which rule society as a whole.
However, his rationalization for his father succumbing to these redneck
"values" is that, "No doubt in my mind it's the assorted big-mouthed bergs
of shit that float in and out of that joint that he sweats his ass off
tending bar in all day." These "All American" citizens, "For all their
jobs as cops and construction workers, for all their crewcuts and their
'Bomb Hanoi Now' buttons," have brainwashed his father:
They constantly lean over the bar in giggly whispers
. . . "Hey, what the hell is with your son with all that hair
down to his shoulders and those funny clothes he wears, I thought
he was a big star ballplayer . . . he ain't one of them an-ti-war
creeps, huh? What the hell they telling him in that fancy pinko
school he goes to, huh? huh? I mean, Christ, you oughta have a
talk with him, huh? yer know? I mean, Jesus . . ." (139-40)
In other words, Carroll wants to believe that his father
does not willfully oppress him; so long as he believes this he can laugh
However, Carroll's humor and optimism soon turn to disillusionment.
Heroin makes its comeback, Carroll again says it's "time I better get
my ass together" (144), and the ugly reality of everyday life comes roaring
Lately my scene at home has dissolved to total
bullshit. What to say? My old man . . . . bitches about how my
hair's too long, that the protesters suck, about nigger this and
spic that, the same old shit and I don't answer 'cause he don't
listen anyway. It's all so simple it's the most complicated shit
I ever had to put up with. . . . And I don't bother anymore. I
just refuse to give the slightest fuck anymore and o.k. if I'm
all fucked up and, yes, every other race, creed & color sucks
and the war in Nam is sanctioned by the Pope who is flawless of
course and if I could just bend in half I could suck myself off
all day and load up on some good scag and live in a closet because
you can't beat them but you can ignore and induce ulcers and heart
pangs and give them grey hair so to drive them stone bust on beauty
parlor tint-up jobs and then you begin to cry in the closet because
your veins are sore and you can't get over the fact that you love
them somehow more or at least always. (144-45)
While Carroll was earlier able to joke about and blame the
"peckers" who probably "dress up in the old lady's underwear," he realizes
his father is part of the society these men represent: his father is a
redneck, too. The problem is that Carroll's earlier remark, "I guess deep
down I think they have the right to boss me around" (28), is nowhere more
true than in the case of his father.
Against the weapons of traditional society--racism,
narrow-mindedness, religious sanction--Carroll has no defense and no escape;
these barbs are built into the system which surrounds him on all sides
and flourishes even in his own family. Furthermore, Carroll cannot "ignore"
either; he can't forsake this world entirely, nor can he become independent
from it. Because he cares about the state of his world, and he
loves his parents as representatives of this world, his dilemma is that
he must find a way to face this heartless world, whose deeply-ingrained
hypocrisy not only is self-defeating and self-destructive, but which also
directly affects his body and his mind. He must find a way to fight the
system without being swallowed by it, and without succumbing to its indifference
However, Carroll's options are becoming increasingly
limited. Like Phil Ochs, Carroll realizes that even the peace movement,
which offered the hope of changing the system through nonviolent means,
has become institutionalized, thus displaying the hypocrisy and corruption
of the system it sought to change:
I think today was about the last peace march I'm
gonna make. . . . Like they got these "Marshalls" telling you
how you gotta keep in straight lines and all and that's the shit
that we're marching against in the first place. . . . Most of
the cats marching are only there to get laid anyway, and nobody
in the fucking Pentagon is getting the hint, so maybe it's time
to fling a few bricks around instead of boring speeches, we need
more street people kicking and biting instead of a bunch of walking
As with hustling, it seems physical violence is Carroll's
only recourse, and again his fantasies turn violent as he imagines making
"swiss cheese out of" his English class with a tommy gun (149).
While violence would lower Carroll to "their" level
and would defeat his purpose, his "punk poetry" has come into play: writing
about this fantasy, and writing about it beautifully, is more effective
than acting on it. The fact is, he wants to create, not destroy; he wants
to find and create beauty and unity, not leave a trail of debris filled
with the fragments of his world. He wants to transform his world and himself
into beautiful things, and fuse the two together into a powerful weapon
against the ugliness and tyranny social mores force upon him.
With this in mind, he looks again to the bomb, his ultimate
I was thinking about how I can divide my past into
lumps of time in which I had myriad, "important" reasons to wish
(and earlier, say from seven to nine or so, to pray) that the
end of the world, that the pushing of the button would wait just
a little while longer until each of these particular "reasons
to hang on a bit longer" had seen itself through. . . . [but]
anything that was worth looking ahead to, well, that's when it
always seemed the sirens were gonna start the death chant.
Like his coaches and teachers, cops and businessmen, the
bomb is yet another passionless victimizer; it is almost a living (though
unfeeling) force Carroll is pushing against, trying to overcome through
his own integrity and "presence."
Furthermore, like Catholicism and the other "systems"
which wield power over him, the bomb and the "system" in general are manipulating
Carroll through fear. In much the same way as Phil Ochs's despair defeated
him, the terror the bomb provokes could potentially overshadow any sense
of hope Carroll has and blind him to all beauty; his fear of the bomb
could easily paralyze him: "I can see it a little clearer now, that fear
is their tool . . . and it works very well . . . and they use it very
well. And I am still using it to measure my time, only I don't give a
screw about trips to camp anymore, or basketball games two weeks from
Carroll will not let himself be crushed by tyranny,
and he now knows he has a weapon with which he can fight back: "It's just
gotten bigger now . . . will I have time to finish the poems breaking
loose in my head? Time to find out if I'm the writer I know I can be?
How about these diaries? Or will Vietnam beat me to the button? Because
it's poetry now . . . and the button is still there, waiting . . ." (150-51).
The stakes are higher now, and the battle is now between the bomb and
Carroll's writing. Also, the issue itself has expanded: not only is he
contending against time in his race to "beat the button," but his writing--both
in his diaries and his poetry--has now become antitheses to that which
oppresses him. The question is whether the beauty, honesty, creativity,
and clear-sightedness of Carroll's writing can prevail over the ugliness,
hypocrisy, destructiveness, and indifference of the bomb and the "system"
as a whole.
With this challege ahead of him, Carroll also begins
to flaunt his marginality within the realm of basketball. In Washington,
D.C., "for the very spectacular National High School All Star Basketball
Game," Carroll gets "stuck [rooming] with shithead Bobby Bellum, a real
jockstrap," whose "father won't let him sleep with a spade." By comparison,
Carroll ends up getting "a great lay" from "this very fine spade chick,"
and playfully connects his trans-racial affair with his long hair and
writing: "She said she liked my long hair so I told her I was a sensitive
young artist, as well, who wrote spirited poems of varying length. She
asked me if I knew Allen Ginsberg. I told her everybody in N.Y. knew Allen
Ginsberg. . . ."
Finally, when he gets caught coming in late, the coach
tells him he and Bax Porter can't "even get dressed for the game two nights
from now." Carroll knows he'll start in the game, but his concerns are
elsewhere: "who gave a shit about the game anyway? I had plenty of dope
and that great little black ass downtown. . . . I read 'Music' by Frank
O'Hara and began thinking about the Plaza Hotel. That poem always reminds
me of the Plaza Hotel" (153-54). He has essentially decided that it is
poetry and his underground life that are important, not basketball.
While Carroll still loves basketball, his disillusionment
grows as he sees the game becoming more and more corrupt. Again, Carroll
is on a team whose coach, Benny Greenbaum, "plays with my ear" and who
demonstrates proper guarding techniques first by rubbing "his knee against
my balls, " then demonstrating "on every player on the team" (155); later
Benny tries "to deal some blowjobs to us" (156). Furthermore, Carroll
himself flaunts the integrity of the game, as when "someone discovers
that Sammy Fulton, a center from Clinton, has incredible amounts of very
up pills. We all go to practice stoned." Finally, Carroll's double life
is now public knowledge: "I read in the Washington newspapers a story
about me entitled 'Beatnik Basketball Player' telling all about my shoulder
length hair and my strange hobbies off the court" (155).
Most of this is somewhat innocuous, but the final clincher
comes as these sidelines overtake the game. While Carroll's status in
the drug culture grows, with "Carroll, Clutcher, and Neutron Inc." being
"the main dealing outfit in the school" (164), Carroll realizes that:
It is common knowledge around the entire school
that Marc Clutcher, Anton Neutron and myself are fucking up our
basketball team by taking every drug we can get our hands on before
games. It's common knowledge to the rest of the teams in the league
too, mainly because we wear our hair ten times the normal length,
and drop games to lame teams by fucking around on the court and
not giving a shit. Now our coach is getting wise and today, after
we lost to Riverdale by two points last night, the headmaster
called me into his office and told me he had a report about me
taking ups before the game. (163)
Carroll is no longer playing by his own rules;
he is violating his own punk code. The fact is, Carroll, Clutcher, and
Neutron's highly visible "fucking around on the court" causes the team
to lose to Riverdale--the team with the "blue and gold uniforms
with little stars all over them" and the audience of "Fred MacMurray types"
and "poodle walkers" (17).
Finally, the last time Carroll mentions basketball in
his diaries is when Benny Greenbaum's thinly veiled perversity explodes
into blatant molestation (157-59). He "calls me on the phone and tells
me that he wants me to play on his team, The Flyers, and that I
should come over to his big beautiful apartment to get fitted for one
of those famous Flyer uniforms and get a free pair of expensive
sneakers to boot" (159). Of course it turns out these treasures are merely
bait for Benny's trap, as he has lured Carroll to his apartment only for
sex. With this entry, not only is Carroll's objectification and victimization
total, but Benny expects Carroll to prostitute himself in exchange for
nothing less than a basketball uniform. That is, Benny has attempted to
rape both Carroll and the game the boy loves, using basketball as currency
to buy Carroll's body. Again, as with the CPA and the cat (106), Carroll
resorts to violence, "picks up the kitty" (the uniform), and splits.
With this entry, Carroll abandons basketball for writing,
composing one of the most powerful diaries of the book:
The more I read the more I know it now, heavier
each day, that I need to write. I think of poetry and how I see
it as just a raw block of stone ready to be shaped, that way words
are never a horrible limit to me, just tools to shape. I just
get the images from the upstairs vault (it all comes in images)
and fling 'em around like bricks, sometimes clean and smooth and
then sloppy and ready to fall on top of you later. Like this house
where I got to sometimes tear out a room and make it another size
or shape so the rest make sense . . . or no sense at all. And
when I'm done I'm stoned as on whatever you got in your pockets
right now, dig?
With this entry, Carroll concentrates his entire arsenal
of weapons into his writing. When he became disillusioned with protest
marches, he suggested that "maybe it's time to fling a few bricks around"
(146); now the bricks he flings are words and images. Where drugs previously
offered his only vehicle toward finding a coherent reality, writing enables
him to create a reality of any "size or shape," and leaves him "stoned
as on whatever you got in your pockets right now."
As the diary continues, the explosive relationship between
Carroll's writing and his world comes into focus:
Now I got these diaries that have the greatest
hero a writer needs, this crazy fucking New York. Soon I'm gonna
wake a lot of dudes off their asses and let them know what's really
going down in the blind alley out there in the pretty streets
with double garages. I got a tap on all your wires, folks. I'm
just really a wise ass kid getting wiser, and I'm going to get
even for your dumb hatreds and all them war baby dreams you left
in my scarred bed with dreams of bombs falling above that cliff
I'm hanging steady to. Maybe someday just an eight-page book,
that's all, and each time a page gets turned a section of the
Pentagon goes blast up in smoke. Solid. (159-60)
Now that Carroll has "swallowed the poison," he can transform
it through writing. And where he may not have realized it
earlier, his diaries are the weapon he has been seeking. Through
writing, he transcends the chaos, ugliness, corruption, and hypocrisy
of his world by telling the truth about it. And as he reveals the truth,
he becomes the "fire's reflection," displaying his own corruption as the
mirror image of his world. New York City is likewise a microcosm of a
corrupt world as a whole: he strips away its veneer of "pretty streets
with double garages" and paints its true portrait, forcing the established
order to deconstruct itself. He can make a difference, and his street-level
vision of his world has given him the power to do it.
However, even with such a powerful weapon at his disposal,
there is yet a more powerful force. Whatever victories he has won are
quickly eclipsed by his growing heroin addiction, as his desire to stay
high becomes his prime concern: "Just such a pleasure to tie up above
that mainline with a woman's silk stocking. . . . It's been hard, the
writing, lately. Just all comes in beautiful fragments, like nods now
. . . so high . . . guess I'd rather sleep forever this sleep and forget.
. . ." (162). Heroin rules him, body and mind. Describing his affair with
an "older woman," Carroll says, "Though she is without doubt at her peak
of horn growth (actually she is out and out insatiable), I am, on the
other hand, ready for all she wants in my head but my body is sometimes
so pumped with junk when I see her that I'm only good for a couple of
rounds a night" (167-68).
It also turns out that Carroll's "old lady lover" is
"always good for plenty of junk money." When Carroll uses "up the weekday
allowance she lays on me a little early this week," he drops in on her
and asks for more. She complies, but Carroll quickly discovers that she
has been exploiting his addiction. In spite of the fact that he is going
through withdrawals and is in no condition for sex, "the bitch was all
over me. I told her she had no idea how I felt and to just let me lie
down and sweat out the wait. Her slightest touch set little stinging grenades
off in my head. . . . But she didn't seem to comprehend my condition and
continued to paw me" (171-72). Since she has paid for his drugs, she demands
sex in return, regardless of Carroll's physical condition. The fact is,
Carroll was not this woman's lover; he was her whore.
Carroll is beginning to feel his exile very deeply.
While he renounced so-called "respectable" society because of its hypocrisy
and indifference, he now finds himself utterly isolated, trapped in sick,
empty "relationships" built entirely upon lust and exploitation. Whether
the relationships have to do with basketball, sex, or drugs, their sickness
is perpetuated through manipulation of Carroll's physical and emotional
needs. Carroll knows that somewhere there must be something better:
I woke up screaming early this morning. It was
a dream, not a nightmare, a beautiful dream I could never imagine
in a thousand nods. . . . I saw this girl next to me who wasn't
beautiful really until she smiled. And I felt the smile come at
me and heat waves following, soaking through my body out my fingertips
in shafts of color. . . . and I held her for a minute and she
cried and left. . . . And all day I knew there was an incredible
love somewhere in my world . . . and I felt sad, needing to explain
it but I can't because it belonged to me, to anyone else it was
just wet images. And I got this incredible warm beautiful pain
in my veins now trying to sort it all out. . . . (176-77)
Part of Carroll's task as a writer is to show that there
is "an incredible love somewhere in [his] world," and if he can't find
it, he must create it. But this is a difficult task: while he knows and
feels that beauty exists, sharing that knowledge through writing is another
matter. He must, somehow, "sort it all out" enough that he can release
and convey the feelings presently trapped inside of him.
Furthermore, both the corruption of the outside world
and his drug use make it increasingly difficult to see love and beauty,
or to believe that either exists. His heroin addiction lands him in "Riker's
Island Juvenile Reformatory doing three months for possession of three
bags of heroin and a syringe," and the "system" almost succeeds in crushing
him: at Riker's, he is "not interested in keeping this diary going. .
. . Maybe later. Right now I'm not interested in anything." Yet Carroll
is not broken; he still has hope, and the possibility of finding love,
and someone who loves him, keeps him going. "Huddled in a broom closet
for hours each day" at Riker's, Carroll wonders who his godparents are;
he thinks about "what a nice concept" it would be to have someone out
there who is there for him, whom he can depend upon. And even though his
"mother refuses to visit me here," he looks forward to seeing her just
to find out who his godparents are (178-79).
When Carroll is released from Riker's after one month,
he is ecstatic with a sense of new-found freedom: "I walked out the gates
of Riker's Island yesterday, a 'free man,' feeling like a cartoon about
to run off its reel. So this morning I woke up in a place where, for the
first time in thirty-one days I could walk out into the pleasures of concrete
and sun at my own will. . . . " However, the desperate hope he felt in
prison has transformed into outright contempt of his experience; he is
outraged and disgusted at the horrors he has been forced to see and endure:
I'm putting this past month behind me for now and
for later, and we won't have any more about it. Suffice to say
I am finished with the asshole bandits of shower room rape; suffice
to say that those swine for guards won't draw blood from my ankles
again; suffice to say nobody will hang himself one night on the
other side of a wall six inches thick from where I sleep; suffice
to say I won't have to watch anymore fourteen-year-old Puerto
Ricans carving their initials in forearms with filthy dull forks
they stashed, taken off to the infirmary a week later for blossoming
gangrene; suffice to say no black cell-block kings will stab fat
little Jews here . . . suffice to say that I found a broom closet
at the end of my cell-block where I could hide from the ugly screws
and filthy cock and sad-eyed forms and learn to love silence and
suffice to say that, though I spent four hours a day in that closet,
I didn't become pure on Riker's Island. (183-84)
This is the second time he has mentioned his desire to be
"pure," yet he still has not purged himself of the poisons his world has
force-fed him. He is still unable to transform the ugliness of his experience,
as represented in the conditions of Riker's, nor is he able to rise above
However, with all of this behind him and freedom before
him, Carroll is at a turning point, and he has the potential of transcending
the horrors of Riker's and the world in general. But he doesn't:
Mancole did me the honor of preparing me a syringe
filled with "the finest junk in upper Manhattan." I almost refused
. . . it was a moment I had both dreamt of passionately and cursed
even more . . . but with the dream in front of me again I found
that it was quite easy to curse . . . but so much harder to refuse.
Even if Carroll is free from the literal prison at Riker's,
he is quite aware of the prison his heroin addiction has become. Initially,
heroin seemed like a way to escape the corruption and hypocrisy Carroll
saw closing in on him from all sides. However, the escape has now become
Furthermore, Carroll's other drug of choice, L.S.D.,
which has opened up the broadest vistas of perception, offered the most
complete sense of freedom, and which launched Carroll's most beautiful
mind adventures and inspired his poetry, now turns against him as well:
End of L.S.D. era last night . . . very bad scene,
like getting gulped up in a dream. Gulped by the big city. . .
. Reach the Museum of Modern Art and I began to feel my oats.
Those flowers they leap right off that canvas at me. Those flowers,
they choke. And it is right then that I realize something is happening
that has never happened before: I AM ALONE . . . and not just
me doctor, WE'RE alone. Alone forever and who's at the end of
that forever tunnel I run through up Fifth with wallpaper of skyscrapers?
And I'm thinking, after all those beautiful trips, that this is
one of those bad ones . . . and, shit, they are bad indeed.
Alone. . . . Alone is white. (185)
His drug dream has transformed into a nightmare. Where L.S.D.
once opened his vistas of perception, gave him the greatest sense of belonging
in the world, and once enabled him to commune with the universe, it now
leaves him utterly isolated.
His vision has become so clear that he discovers a terrifying
truth: he is "ALONE." Carroll's exile is now total; even worse, he has
nothing but a heroin habit, and "not a soul in the neighborhood is holding":
Yep, I'm good and sick without that fix now and
my rap of being the one who can keep it all under control is in
that breeze cluttered with the same raps a million times run down
by a million other genius wise ass cats walking like each other's
ghosts around these same sick streets in my same sick shoes.
Hence, not only is he completely alone, but he hasn't even
his code of honor to sustain him: he has flaunted his own punk code, allowing
a drug to determine his existence, and now has nothing but his own corruption.
However, as he says earlier, "I may get my ass beat
occasionally, but I always get the last word" (170). Even in the state
he is in, Carroll does pull off the final triumph by turning his unreal,
sick reality upside down. His body has been corrupted and prostituted;
if he didn't want to be Rimbaud's "man grafting warts onto his face and
growing them there," Carroll is that man now. All he need do is transform
his decadence into a weapon. He must show that his "warts" are the reality
of the world he lives in, and that in his corruption and prostitution,
he is the mirror image, the "fire's reflection," of the "respectable"
society which produced him.
Carroll achieves this victory both in action and in
writing. He finds himself in the restroom of a porno theater where he
could again be the victim of sexual exploitation. But this time, as "a
quick shuffle breaks out" for the urinal beside Carroll, he takes control
and becomes a victimizer himself. While his horny neighbor "starts wacking
his doodle, . . . I work mine up hard, stick out my hand flashing three
fingers, he takes out thirty bills slow and somber . . . and shoves it
into my pocket, climbs down the fingers to his blood-throbbing purchase
and gives a few nimble yanks on it. . . ."
This relatively simple hustling scenario metamorphoses
into an act of vengeance as Carroll tears "from my soul's depths, out
of faithfulness to the muse of truth, and admit the strange pleasure cast
on me by this naughty act of perversion for profit . . ." Essentially,
Carroll rounds up all of the forces which have oppressed him throughout
the Diaries, corrals them in a porno theater and, through the magic
of his "punk poetry," transmutes the porno theater into an "archer's target"
with himself at the center, and transforms his body into a weapon. As
he scans his audience,
some weird sensation did shoot a blood rocket
up my zone as an incredible rush of power shook me with all those
faces staring at my body fucking a mouth on its knees . . .
. . . I've seen then all & I see them now,
slobbering fat heroes . . . some jacking off right open, others
just clutching it inside, sometimes swapping feels off each other.
I begin to fantasize on each as I start getting hotter and hotter:
I see all the teachers I've ever had, fat principals, basketball
coaches, an old superintendent from 6th Street age seven, famous
poets from all times down . . . a giggling drag queen unshaven
in the corner, he's all the girls I've ever fucked; I see cops
who busted me, judges, oh yes, all the judges, drooling.
. . (188-89)
With these "slobbering fat heroes" in their proper place,
Carroll continues to upend the established "reality" of heroes and villains,
exposing the hypocrisy inherent in a "respectable" world unwilling to
face itself. Says Carroll: "People are always branding junkies the slob
wastes of society. Not so, chumps. The real junkies should be raised up
for saying fuck you to all this shit city jive, for going on with all
the risks and hassles and con, willing to face the rap" (189). He goes
on to describe the various sorts of junkies. First there are the "rich
dilettante square ass" types who merely dabble, but always have the means
to cut out when necessary. Next are the "weekend dope heads" and "preppies,"
who have brought the "social virus" of drug abuse to public eye.
Finally, while Carroll may be a junkie and a "slob waste"
in the eyes of respectable society, his mind still transcends the austere
prosaism of the establishment. Not only does he see through "respectable"
society's hypocrisy and lies, but his imagination (with a little help
from peyote buttons, in this case) takes him "somewhere all you bald headed
generals and wheelchair senators could never imagine" (197).
However, there is still the last category of junkies
to contend with, and since this is the category in which Carroll finds
himself, this is where the problem lies. He has finally admitted the trap
he has laid for himself, almost too late:
Then there's us street kids that start fucking around
very young, thirteen or so, and think we can control it ourselves
and not get strung out. It rarely works. I'm proof. So after two
or three years of control, I wind up in the last scene: strung
out and nothing to do but spend all day chasing dope. Any way
counts, folks. No way to any Riviera and no rich momma to run
to. Like you just know when you're in the real junkie thing when
you wake up in the morning and say to yourself and know it and
go through with it, "Today I either get my fix or get my ass busted
into the Tombs, fuck it all." (189-91)
He finds himself "sitting on the john seat in Headquarters,
been up sick for three days trying to kick cold, but the habit has really
caught up with me this time and got me licked real nasty." Suffering "horrible
flashes of heat. . . and the rushes of cold . . . And then the cramps
in the guts and the horrible shitting. . . ," Carroll realizes that, like
it or not, "I have to kick this now because I got to get back to fucking
HIGH SCHOOL in two weeks! What a fucking joke, I mean I just can't believe
how unslick I feel" (197-98).
As he recognized earlier, he expects more from himself
than this, and he does want to do well in school. This time, however,
Carroll's attempt to quit "cold turk" fails. As he puts it:
To tell the truth my "withdrawal" only lasted one
more day before I shot up a bag of smokin' stuff I snuck out of
Mancole's coat pocket. Now I'm back as good or bad as ever, hustling
around . . . three of us just took off some dog walker in the
park today for his watch and wallet, which means I'm back to the
old knife and gun holding scene too. I don't dig that shit really
but I'm so disgusted with hustling queers that it's my only way
out now. . . .
For Carroll, "Resorting to sticking knives up to people's
necks for junk money is always an indication to me that things are pretty
bad off . . ." (199). After all he has been through trying to denude the
hypocrisy of "executive creeps in uniform with their little fedoras and
them dumb little cases they carry that usually got nothing but a pencil
in them every time I see a dude open one" (119), Carroll discovers he,
too, is part of the immoral world he thought he was above. "You just got
to see that junk is just another nine to five gig in the end, only the
hours are a bit more inclined toward shadows" (198-99).
Perhaps two entries best sum up Carroll's situation
at the end of the Diaries. He meets Ju-Ju Johnson, the "fattest
junkie I know," and they "rapped about our old con trick we used to pull
every couple of months for a pile." This "con trick" involved visiting
a welfare office; Carroll plays JuJu's son, and together the two spin
a sob story worth "a fat emergency relief check with extra for me, the
dutiful son." The day following these fond recollections, Carroll visits
JuJu to see if they could pull this scam off again; instead, JuJu points
out the truth Carroll does not want to hear: "'No chance,' he lays it
down, 'that long hair of yours, your features filling in, naw, like you
got the junk halo now all over. No more innocence, man. And frankly you
look totally seedy'" (205-6).
Not only does Carroll have "the junk halo now all over,"
but he also sees his friend and fellow junkie Jimmy Mancole "in complete
sickness and hugging his last nerves." The two "must have knocked on every
door and checked out every street corner among all these possibilities
and not one dealer was holding a single bag." Jimmy "had considered suicide
close to fourteen times and must have stopped on every third corner to
puke," and by the time they "made it down to my old neighborhood on 29th,"
"Mancole was reeling in total madness" (206-8). On the road Carroll is
travelling, and he is just behind Jimmy Mancole, it's "No more innocence"
and no more sanity.
The final entry of The Basketball Diaries finds
Carroll at the bottom of the pit, in the darkest depths of excess, stoned
for four days straight. However, as he comes out of his drug-induced stupor,
he looks around, realizing for perhaps the first time the depths he has
reached. Yet, while he has physically lost all control and dignity, and
while his environment is filthy and disgusting, his writing prevails.
He details what he sees so poetically, and with such striking precision,
that the scene becomes beautiful:
In ten minutes it will make four days that I've
been nodding on this ratty mattress up here in headquarters. Haven't
eaten except for three carrots and two Nestle's fruit and nut
bars and both my forearms sore as shit with all the little specks
of caked blood covering them. My two sets of gimmicks right along
side me in the slightly bloody water in the plastic cup on the
crusty linoleum, probably used by every case of hepatitis in upper
Manhattan by now. Totally zonked, and all the dope scraped or
sniffed clean from the tiny cellophane bags. For days of temporary
death gone by, no more bread, with its hundreds of casual theories,
soaky nostalgia (I could have got that for free walking along
Fifth Avenue at noon), at any rate, a thousand goofs, some still
hazy in my noodle. . . . (209)
As he says in "City Drops Into The Night," "When the
body at the bottom / That body is my own reflection / It ain't hip to
sink that low / unless you're gonna make a resurrection." As Carroll's
clarity of vision returns, he takes "A wasted peek into the mirror," finding
that "I'm all thin as a wafer of concentrated rye." He is ready to make
that resurrection; he is ready to purge himself of the poison and become
I can feel the window light hurting my eyes: it's
like shooting pickle juice. What does that mean? Nice June day
out today, lots of people probably graduating. I can see the Cloisters
with its million in medieval art out the bedroom window. I got
to go in and puke. I just want to be pure . . . (210)
©1990 Cassie Carter. This material may not be reprinted except by permission from the author.