Alan Catlin: An Essay
Poets are misfits by definition. And a small press poet, what can you say about a small press poet? Total misfit? Even that doesn’t quite define the person, especially when this person is larger than life, as this poet was in many ways. I guess, then, it is good place as any to start when to speak of the life of the late, lamented, Paul “White Boy” Weinman.
I first met Paul, in person, (I had been part of a series of poets who read in the State Museum of New York called the Muse in the Museum, where poets read among the permanent exhibits. I had communicated with Paul, the organizer of the event, but I had not actually met him) in 1986. At that time, he was one of the editors of an anthology that was to be published in conjunction with a celebration of Albany’s Tri-Centennial called Gates of the City, and they had taken one of my poems for the book. He invited me to lunch to talk about the book and poetry and whatever, so I took the #55 bus into Albany to meet him.
At the time I was working part time nights (Saturdays and Mondays) in the Washington Tavern, also in the city, so, generally, by mid-week, my sleep patterns were returning to somewhat normal, and I felt almost human. Working nights, I should add, meant 7pm to 5am plus the bus ride home, so it would take me a couple of days to get back on something like a “normal” schedule. Most guys who work that kind of shift don’t have “lives, families, responsibilities, that day people do, but I did. I was still drinking then and Paul was not, so it was strange to me that he suggested we go to a nearby bar to eat. He later confessed to me, that he thought I was kind of strange because, when he suggested we do lunch, I actually planned to eat lunch. I never asked for an explanation. Now, I wish I had.
Paul’s reputation preceded meeting him. I recalled an incident in the early 70’s, after I had first moved to Albany, about this wild man who had stolen a Greyhound bus and drove it into Albany’s Washington Park manmade lake. I didn’t connect that with him immediately, but it stood out as the single most audacious public prank I had ever heard of. That he was drunk at the time, added to the myth that grew up around the man and the act. But a man is not a sum of his pranks. I have heard several explanations as to why he did it: as a protest against the war in Vietnam, to which he was totally opposed, to an aggressive act of anti-social behavior, to just being drunk, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I am inclined to go with the latter explanation.
He would be incarcerated in a mental institution, after the incident, and subjected to both shock and chemical therapies, both of which left emotional and physical scars. At that lunch, in the local watering hole, most notable for offering quarts of beer for the many suits who needed a liquid lunch on Madison Avenue. I recognized more than few of faces from previous employment in more upscale lounges around town. It was a convenient place for many, including Paul, as it was near the State Office complex and the State Museum of New York in Albany where he worked as an educator, conducting tours of the exhibits for students of all ages. No doubt Paul added unexpected character to what might seem like a place of infinite boredom to reluctant school aged visitors. Paul was a fascinating spinner of tales no matter what the subject was.
He added details to the newspaper accounts of the Greyhound escapade, and I paraphrase, “Those things are hard to drive. They have all these levers and switches. I couldn’t figure out what did what which is why I didn’t get too far and ended up in the lake (roughly a half dozen blocks). He added that it wasn’t the only time I was arrested for my driving. I was picked up once for driving drunk in the State Book Mobile at like 10 in the morning. I had a jug, a big jug, of red swill in the back, open, of course, and man, was I smashed. They hauled me in. Towed the bookmobile. That was quite the sight! You know what the most amazing thing about all this? I never lost my job even when I was picked up on State time.”
We started having lunch on a fairly regular basis for a couple of years. He claimed to be into the AA take on The 12 Steps, and God is my savior, but the way he relished his drunkenness, as all reformed drunks seem to, and savored the tales of his misbehavior, one wondered if it would last. Life on the juice was so much more than a dull existence of a sober drunk. Sobriety was destined not to last.
Some of his stories seemed so outrageous, and others, well, too ridiculous to believe, at first. I suspected he was either, making them up, or was an extremely creative, practiced lair. He was a writer after all, and that’s what writers do is, lie (Every single writer, myself included. That’s why they call it creative writing.). Anyway, I’m a skeptic about storytellers, due to years of listening to people lie their asses off to me in bars. But Paul, as I should have known, was different. Way different. Of course, the more outrageous his stories were, the more likely they were to be true.
At some point I asked him about The Queen of the Small Presses, (who shall remain nameless, though we all know who she is) who he knew well, before I did, and much better. Probably intimately. After all they were older than I was, had been publishing longer, and more widely than I was. At the time, I was being accepted regularly in the small presses and was being recognized as an up and coming poet but I wasn’t in Their League yet. The Queen’s “ripping me off” (borrowing, as she euphemistically called it) was still fresh in my mind as we talked. I confessed to holding a grudge, as no matter what you call it, stealing someone else’s work, is still stealing. I asked him how old she was, as I thought she was one of those vain, self-involved people, who was essentially facile, and would not age well. Also, in this pre-internet time, she was telling people that she was five years younger than I was, despite having been five years ahead of me in graduate school. I don’t care how many grades she claimed to have skipped in grade school, that still made her older than me. I had been wondering why The Queen never published a photo of herself that wasn’t at least 20 years old, as well.
Paul assured me she was his age, at least, (Paul was nine years older than me) and had a wonderful story to tell about their brief stay at Yaddo. He insisted that one night, both of them were smashed, I had seen her drink, so I knew it took about a glass and half of wine to wipe her out totally, making her giggly, and even more voluble than usual. She might be slow getting started talking, but once she got going, look out, there was no stopping her.
Paul said The Queen wanted to dance and neither of them had a vehicle or the inclination to drive (or walk/hitch) into Saratoga nearby. Especially not with a snoot full, so Paul began banging away, honky tonk style, on a piano in the Yaddo common room. The Queen kicked off her shoes and began dancing on the instrument. They were unceremoniously asked to leave, immediately. I am not sure if this story is true, but it sure is nice to think it might be. Not to mention, it gave a whole new perspective to the poetry workshop I had attended at her home and her constant, sober, superior air, telling us how cool she was to be asked to Yaddo for a residency.
Our lunch meetings ended when I switched to days. Paul had begun drinking again and was adding to his already impressive record as a dynamic reader and advocate for human rights especially for the homeless. His White Boy poems were widely accepted and Paul was making hundreds of small, hand stapled pamphlets, of his pronouncements, on a weekly basis, and sending them to magazines across the country. His stunts became more political: he made the front page of the Albany Times Union, being roughed up by beefy, redneck patriots, after he attempted a burning of miniature American Flag in public. He later confessed that he did not actually burn the flag in public, and had no intention of doing so. He meant, simply, to make a demonstration of free speech that he felt the increasingly right wing politicians in this country were trying to suppress. A fear that was entirely justified. He did say that he burned the small flag in the privacy of his office where no one would see him.
I don’t recall exactly when he began coming to the bar for Friday happy hours. It must have been in the early 90’s, as he figures prominently in a picture that graces the back of a series of books I did of bar recipe poems. Also in that picture is the late Tom Smith, then director of the Writer’s Institute at Albany State, Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy’s elbow, and a small piece of renowned Irish poet, John Montague’s head and shoulder, from the time when he was writer in residence at the Institute.
Paul wanted to do some poetic collaborations with me, beginning with Barred on Both Sides, alternating poems of perspective by a bartender and an unruly customer. Later this collection would be mentioned by legendary small press editor of The Wormwood Review, Marvin Malone, as the neglected poetry book of the year. A second book followed called Bus, where Paul was the driver and I was the passenger. There would be others, as well, but these two were the most memorable. I imagine Paul xeroxing the poems and stapling them into small chapbooks for whole weekends. No wonder he would say later on, that between the White Boy pamphlets, and the chapbooks, he must have done, literally, dozens of these with other small press poets, as well, were exhausting. They also left him no time for anything else, like the developing relationship with the women who become his third wife and life partner.
Paul, to me, was much more than a wild man who would wrap himself in an American Flag on stage at the first open mike in Albany area at the QEII. He could be absolutely brilliant, batshit crazy, and downright hilarious but always without pretense. You knew, when you saw him wearing sweat pants to a public reading, you were in for a special show. His nude readings became the stuff of legend. He alternately read with just a catcher’s mask or nothing at all, as another expression of free speech. Reaction to these readings, as with most of Paul’s public acts, were mixed, to say the least.
The catcher’s mask was significant in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a man so passionately committed to human rights, free expression, and anti- war causes: he was totally devoted to baseball. His obituary cites: he was a lifelong Yankee fan and that was not an insignificant detail. I often teased him about rooting for the rich man’s team but he was obdurate. “Once a Yankee fan, always a Yankee fan,” he said. (Except, in my case, when you switch to The Mets). He pitched softball into his mid 60’s and was noted for his unhittable knuckle curve. He showed me his pitching hand and said, “See those fingers? They are permanently bent that way. It’s called tardive dyskinesia and is a result (side effect) of the drug therapy they gave me in the hospital.” (The lightning bolts he had tattooed on the side of his scalp signified a remembrance of the electroshock treatments.)
When Paul wasn’t making headlines for public acts of civil disobedience, he was being interviewed about his extensive collection of baseball books and memorabilia. When he told me he gave all that stuff away and, later, that he was donating all his poetry stuff to the State University of New York at Buffalo’s Special Collection, I knew there was something more going on than a man moving on with the end time of his life. You don’t give up writing, writing gives you up.
I have been constructing this portrait in the manner in which I came to know Paul. I have said nothing about his work as an educator at the State Museum, as I never saw him work. By all accounts he was beloved by all who saw him spin tales of the wigwams, the Indians, the wild life, often dressed in costumes ranging from a brown bear to a Native American. He particularly impressed the so called, “at risk” students, who saw the outing as another boring afternoon in hell but once they got a glimpse of the man dressed in a costume, they knew he was someone they could relate to: here was a man who shaved his head, displayed his scalp tattoos, and wore his remaining hair in a long pony tail dressed up as a raccoon. Right away, even the dimmest bulb knew, they were in for a different afternoon in Albany.
His colleagues at the museum spoke lovingly of the man and his exploits and, if my encounter with an older lady in the gift shop where I was purchasing Paul chapbook on a baseball player, was typical, he was a fan favorite. And I paraphrase, “I am so glad you bought one of his Paul’s books. He works here. He’s a wonderful man. He’s just so good with the children.”
The picture I referred to of Paul on the back of my books is of a smiling, in-shape, middle aged man, with a “reasonable” hair cut. But he was equally capable of being the both guys. As the wild man, he was quite the anomaly among the regulars at happy hour, especially to the more red neck members of the crew. Some were openly hostile, other simply never came back, and were not missed. He must have been quite the sight pedaling down Washington Avenue of his rescue (from the trash) girl’s bike, with the basket in front, long ratty streamers, and two American flags on the handlebars.
Not that Paul didn’t have detractors. More than one female poet spoke of his forward attitude of sexually propositioning them, and his crude reactions upon being rejected. They felt both threatened, and insulted, by his manner and sought to avoid him whenever possible, a virtual impossibility in the small, insular world of poetry circuit, in an area where everyone knows each other. These unwanted overtures stopped, to my knowledge, when Paul met Vicki. The sexual outlaw became capable of extravagant Romantic gestures such as wedding ceremony on a moonlit night, you had to paddle a canoe to an island to get to. Former girl friends spoke of a man who was brilliant, funny, and had this enormous personal charisma that added to his sexiness. I don’t know about the latter, but I can speak of the former, and there is no doubt he had those qualities for better, or, for worse.
Some found his antics repulsive, over-the-top, and attention getting. More than one former acquaintance spoke of finding him, ridiculous and annoying, especially when he was drinking. In his later incarnations, I saw none of the kind of over the top craziness which had made him the subject of interest to authorities. In fact, I found him more moderate than many of the White Collar Drunks types that Lenny Bruce spoke of so meaningfully in his monologues and are regulars at happy hours everywhere to this day. Let’s be honest: all serious drinkers has stuff to apologize for when he, or, she, was on the sauce.
One last act of social disobedience symbolizes the life and times of White Boy. He was taken to task by the power company for including his pamphlets, one in particular that featured full frontal nudity, along with his payment for his utilities. The company objected and asked him to stop adding enclosures with his remittances. The women who opened his envelopes found them offensive. They threatened to take him to court if he did not cease and desist. His reply was, I find your bills, for an essential service, obscene and offensive, and continued to send his pamphlets along with his remittance. They took him to court. He won.
If anyone had suspected there was something wrong with Paul, beyond the ordinary signs of aging, it was confirmed by the last public reading I saw him give. The reading was an outdoor one at the statue of Robert Burns, a few bus lengths from the lake he had driven the Hound into. His reading was atypical, even, curiously low key, and when he read the same poem twice, back to back, everyone kind of said to themselves, “I wonder what that was all about.” Paul’s daughter, Erika, yelled out, “Dad, you just read that one.” He seemed a bit confused said, “Oh” and finished the reading shortly thereafter . A couple of years after, Vicki’s Christmas card note said that Paul was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s.
As I write this, I look at picture of Paul taken by local photographer and poet, Dan Wilcox, of Paul draped in an American flag at a QEII reading. Dan would play a tape of Paul reading at The Q, the night after his wake, at an open mike at the Social Justice Center in Albany. A vibrant, distinctive voice came back to life for many of us in the room, if only briefly.
His final hobby was making Adirondack chairs from twigs, he would leave as gifts for people to find. He gave us unforgettable acts of civil disobedience, memorable poetry and wild humor. He gave us friendship. He gave us a life to remember.
Hall of Famer
When I as a kid I loved sports.
Especially baseball. Still do, but I sucked.
As I grew older, I started playing softball.
Eventually got on a work team with
the State but I was mostly playing left
out. I could sure party up a storm, though,
and was a generally perceived as the craziest
son of a bitch that came down the highway.
Needless to say, I felt honor bound to live
up to my reputation. That wasn’t the only
reason, of course, but it was a contributing
factor. Man the shit I did when I was whacked.
Makes me wonder how I survived.
Not that I was unscathed, hell no, far from it.
Did a couple of stretches in the nuthouse,
good references from Albany City lockup will
get you there believe me. Don’t know how
many times they pulled me down and took
me away. More than a few. Funniest thing is
they always held my job. Got to retire with
39 years in, full pension, benefits and all.
I need those. I guess if you don’t kill your
supervisor your job is good. Was in those days.
I hear it’s not so tight now. Anyway, somewhere
along the line I developed this crazy nerve
problem in my right hand: pinky finger froze
straight out and my next finger was permanently
bent too, but not as bad. I couldn’t throw from
the outfield anymore, but I discovered I could
make a softball do crazy stuff with my new grip.
Looks like a knuckle curve coming in.
Who sees that kind of pitch in softball?
So now I’m a star pitcher. Barely lose a game.
I sort of kept track over the years and I figure
I passed Cy Young in the win column five season ago.
Greatest pitcher of all time, Old Cyrus was.
And I’m better than him. I should be in
the Hall of Fame for that. I’m well into my 60’s
now and they still can’t hit me. If I died in
the windup on the mound tomorrow, I would die
a happy man knowing I had made my mark.