When the doorbell rang one August evening in 1968, my inclination was not to answer. The Democratic National Convention was raging, and I had a window seat. My then-wife and I lived across from Lincoln Park, the peaceniks' campground. Previously, a bunch of cops had burst into our front hall and slugged a freelance photographer who was bunking in with a neighbor before he could out get the door.
But this seemed different. For one thing, the cops were hardly in a knock-first mode. So ringing back, neighbors and I saw a mixed group hurry through the vestibule door, seeking refuge from the tear gas that had driven the hippies from the park. First up the stairs were two young women, who said that they were from Esquire magazine, which had commissioned pieces by their male companions. "They're authors," one of the women explained.
Jean Genet. Introductions having been made, we did what young couples do when company unexpectedly comes by. We popped open a can of bean dip. A neighbor fetched a bag of chips, and our living room hosted a soiree high above the chaos below.
Of Southern, a comedic author and screenwriter, I don't recall much; but Burroughs, a noted beatnik novelist, definitely made an impression. Tall and skinny, he looked like an El Greco painting. Saying nary a word, he continuously turned his head from side to side, giving me an irrational sense he could have swung it in a 360 degree arc. Years later, I met a student who had asked Burroughs to autograph his novel, "Naked Lunch." Going one better, Burroughs shot a hole in it.
Genet was a French charmer. Short and plump, he reminded me of Peter Lorre, the bug-eyed movie star. When I said how much I admired his play, "The Balcony," he beamed like a child whose mother posted a school paper on the fridge. His gentle manner belied his literary standing and rap sheet. He'd come to writing via a previous career as a petty thief.
Would that the evening had never ended! But when the tear gas dissipated, the Esquire women announced it was time to go. No monument remains of my Camelot moment, the building having been razed. There's not even a historical maker to recall: "On this spot, a famed beatnik author and a French playwright enjoyed Middle American hospitality and bean dip."