Jim Carroll was best known for his 1978 book The Basketball Diaries, an amazing memoir of '60s New York, heroin addiction, and, most of all, basketball. Despite its prominence in the book's title, many critics and readers ignored the 'basketball' and focused on the drugs and the streets and the stirring descriptions of Manhattan. Sure, stories of hanging with Warhol, growing up as the son of an Irish bartender, lapsed Catholicism, and hustling to support a heroin habit were fascinating enough. But basketball served as the book's reason for being (he began writing it to chronicle his formal youth basketball "career") and the author's reason for surviving a truly difficult - if fascinating - life of addiction, abandonment, and absurdity. I have the belief that basketball has certain redemptive and life-affirming qualities.
(For a thorough analysis of the book and its locations, history, and legacy, go here. I'd rather not discuss the movie based on the book, which starred a young Leonardo DiCaprio and seems to result in extremely divisive opinions; anyway, I haven't seen it.)
In the years immediately after Diaries came out in '78, I was aware of Carroll. My childhood subscription to Rolling Stone and my scouring of suburban Philadelphia mall bookstore's sports and music sections ensured this. I specifically remember the book being displayed in the sports section of the Montgomery Mall's Waldenbooks and the music section of the same mall's B. Dalton. Yes, it should have been in memoir. And no this is not a convenient memory, one where the book locations could easily be reversed. It happened.
(Interestingly, as I noticed recently, the book appears in the poetry section of the Union Square Borders in San Francisco, despite it not being a poetry book. Carroll, however, is a poet.)
Anyway, despite being an innocent suburban adolescent, I knew what heroin was and I knew that "hustling" meant prostitution and that both of these things were bad. So, I would not be buying and taking home The Basketball Diaries with the five or ten dollars my mother would invariably hand me when we (along with my sister) would arrive at the mall. My mother and sister would shop together while I would be allowed to browse on my own. I was always given instructions: meet at the fountain by Bamberger's in one hour.... or meet on the benches by Chick-Fil-A in 90 minutes. (Eerily similar to my mother's 2009 order of "meet at Corner Bakery in Pasadena by 11:30; don't be late because I vant to order breakfast and they stop serving it at noon.")
No, my mall allowance would more likely be spent on two slices of pizza and an LP record (something like Warren Zevon's Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, to commemorate another of this century's September deaths). The Basketball Diaries would be read inside the store, 10 to 20 pages at a time, just like the other "secret" books I consumed entirely in bookstores during my adolescence.... books that taught me all I needed to know about pop culture, history, and sex.
I hung on every word of that book. It instilled in me a feverish love of basketball, a sensible fear of drugs (and New York), and, most importantly, a desire to write. Although it was a memoir and not a book of poetry, it had enough poetic imagery to make me start thinking like the basketball-loving east coast poet I would become (for a short time, before the family took me to the Midwest in '84). Also, Carroll had other poetry books. I was first delivered to the poetry sections of bookstores by virtue of reading the Diaries, finding some of Carroll's other amazing work. For example, from the poem that's the source of this entry's title, The Narrows (for Carol Kane):
you were thinking about a red curtainWow. First of all, I thought I was the only one who wrote poems for Carol Kane. Second of all - "...and the air we were breathing seemed our own" is about as perfect a line as one could write, if one could write about not exactly feeling a part of this world while at the same time acknowledging that there must be something real about me (us).
that we might hide behind. I was
thinking about the freedom of your shadow,
last night, when this livid sky unfolded
its vault of a thousand swords and the air
we were breathing seemed our own.
So thanks Jim Carroll. You lived a great life and you'll be missed.
One more thing. Jim was also a singer, a key member of the late '70s punk scene. And if I'm unfamiliar with everything but his song People Who Died, then it still shouldn't keep me from giving you People Who Died: