What is an Arcade?

What is an arcade? In its classic sense, the term denotes a pedestrian passage or gallery, open at both ends and roofed in glass and iron, typically linking two parallel streets and consisting of two facing rows of shops and other commercial establishments – restaurants, cafés, hairdressers, etc. “Arcade” is the English name: in French the arcades are known as “passages”, and in German as “Passagen”.

The modern arcade was invented in Paris, and, while the concept was imitated in other cities – there are particularly fine mid-nineteenth century examples in Brussels – the Parisian arcades remain the type of the phenomenon. Benjamin quotes a passage from the Illustrated Guide to Paris, a German publication of 1852, which sums up the arcades’ essence:

“These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble- panelled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need”.

Christopher Rollason, The Passageways of Paris: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Contemporary Cultural Debate in the West as found at: http://www.yatrarollason.info/files/BenjaminPassagesYatraversion.pdf  as accessed on 22 September 2017.




Placid small thought no 2

The passage of time (my History) leaves behind a residue that accumulates: photographs, drawings, the corpses of long since dried up felt pens, shirts, non-returnable glasses and returnable glasses, cigar wrappers, tins, erasers, postcards, books, dust and knickknacks: this is what I call my fortune.

–Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces





Who, or what, is a flâneur?

The flâneur – or the notion of the flâneur – is a creation of the nineteenth century Parisian streets. The flâneur is, by definition, an ‘exemplary stroller’ who strolls though the streets at a pace at which observation becomes the centrepoint of his or her experience.

As Edmund White suggests in his stunningly observant account of the flâneur and the ‘paradoxes of Paris’ *, Walter Benjamin was probably one of the most acute observers of the idea of the flâneur and one of literature’s most important writers in documenting the activities of this unique Parisian creature.

For Benjamin, the flâneur ultimately, is –

“… In search of experience, not knowledge…’ [Edmund White, p47]

The flâneur is also by definition not a tourist or pedestrian eager to rapidly ‘consume’ the landscape, but one who is almost overwhelmed by the delectable possibilities of the urban landscape; so much so that he or she is not really sure where to start or where the journey will take them.

Marcus D. Niski (2011)

 * Edmund White, The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, Bloomsbury, London, 2001.






Ruin — Liminal Narratives

Ruins pose a constant negotiation between glory and dissolution; success and failure; substance and nothingness. They ’embody a set of temporal and historical paradoxes’ (Dillon, p.11). The abandoned warehouse or the tumbledown barn reveal a memory of the past and simultaneously a projection of our own futures. In the medieval motif of The four living […]

via Ruin — Liminal Narratives

Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare.

Georges Perec ‘Approaches to What?’ in Species of Space and Other Pieces

Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if that seems grotesque, or pointless, or stupid. You still haven’t looked at anything, you’ve merely picked out what you’ve long ago picked out. Force yourself to see more flatly.

George Perec in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces

To write: to try to meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it goes, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.

George Perec in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces

Huncke’s New York City

Huncke began to rap.  Huncke raps beautifully, the sound of his magnificent voice—all that seems intact in his devastated body—as tantalizing as the content.  He has so much to rap about, the days with Burroughs, the trials and woes of Ginsberg, the gilded gossip about the beats a decade ago and last week.  It is all that he has, his memories and a talent for recalling them.  It is not quite enough, but he gets by.
– Don McNeill, Huncke The Junkie  (from Moving Through Here) cited at: www.huncketeacompany.com


Herbert Edwin Huncke undoubtedly ranks amongst one of the most fascinating yet underestimated figures of the ‘Beat’ world.

Street urchin, raconteur, hustler, and chronicler of New York’s street life, Huncke was a unique figure in New York’s literary scene whose presence was reluctantly – but ultimately – acknowledged as a testament to the power and simplicity of his storytelling. Huncke’s notebooks also serve as a testimony to his attempts to document his many encounters at street level and are indeed fascinating original chronicles that capture elements of his often turbulent but always colourful life.

Born into a middle class family in Greenfield, Massachusetts, Huncke’s colorful life was shaped early on. A restless child and “chronic runaway,” Huncke hit New York City permanently in 1939 at the age of 24, immediately gravitating to Forty-Second Street where he began hustling for sex.

Widely immortalized in the literature of his confrères — William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and John Clellon Holmes — Huncke served as a model for literary characters such as Elmo Hassel in Kerouac’s On The Road and Herman in Burroughs’ Junky (amongst many other literary characterizations).

As a “Virgilian guide” to New York’s underworld, Huncke would skilfully guide Burroughs into the subterranean world of narcotics, as well as provide a great degree of source material for his literary adventures. Yet Huncke’s own creative endeavors have often taken a back seat to those of his contemporaries.

Throughout his long and often tumultuous life, Huncke wrote his observations, reflections, and vignettes in a series of notebooks [1]. This stock of tales undoubtedly underpinned the Huncke mythology. As long time friend and confidant Raymond Foye recollects:

There remains an indelible image of Herbert Huncke the writer, frozen forever in time: homeless and alone, couched in a Times Square pay toilet with notebook on knees, furtively composing his latest tale from the underground.

– Raymond Foye in The Herbert Huncke Reader, William Morrow & Co, New York.

Huncke’s notebooks also form an evocative record of his trials and tribulations as a sage and survivor on New York’s often brutal and unforgiving streets. Huncke’s notebook revelations also provide an insight into “a way of life, a vocabulary, references, a whole symbol system” (as Burroughs put it in Junky) that has now largely disappeared. The world of “crash pads, speakeasies, [and] all-night jam sessions with Charlie Parker or Dexter Gordon” were part of the “carnie” world that informed Huncke’s reflections on an often chaotic, always kaleidoscopic culture. Indeed, the frustrations of Huncke’s itinerant existence are eloquently expressed in this entry in his notebooks:

lost to the streets — lost completely to a life I once knew — stealing — junk– all night wandering– thru the streets — lost completely to a life I once knew – — stealing — junk all night wandering thru the city — no pads– no friends — no way of life – almost convinced prison is a solution — shriveling within at the mere thought — wishing for death — willing death… [Untitled MS Page, Notebook and Diary excerpts, 1959-1960] [2]

A master storyteller, raconteur and polished performer, Huncke would often use his considerable verbal skills to cadge money, drinks and other necessities from his often wary and weary friends. In this vivid passage from Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, McCourt describes a typical encounter with Huncke on one of his visiting rounds cadging whatever spare change he could towards his version of what he saw as ‘the necessities of life’:

I stepped into the hallway for one of our brief occasional conferences where he explained he happened to be in this neighborhood and he was thinking about me and wondered how is was doing. Also, he happened to be caught short for necessities and wondered if I might have any spare change about me. He appreciated past kindnesses and even though he saw little possibility of repayment he would always remember me warmly. It was such a pleasure to visit me here and to see the youth of America, these beautiful children, in such capable and generous hands. He said thanks and he might see me soon at Montero’s Bar in Brooklyn, a few blocks from his apartment. In a few minutes the ten dollars I slipped him would be passed to a Stuyvesant Square drug dealer.

That’s Huncke, I told them. Pick up any history of recent American writing or the Beat Generation and in the index you’ll find Huncke, Herbert.

Alcohol is not his habit but he’ll kindly allow you to buy him a drink at Montero’s. His voice is deep, gentle and musical. He never forgets his manners and you’d rarely think of him as Huncke the Junkie. He respects law and obeys none of it.

He’s done jail time for pickpocketing, robbery, possession of drugs, selling drugs. He’s a hustler, a con man, a male prostitute, a charmer, a writer. He is given credit for coining the term Beat Generation. He uses people until he exhausts their patience and money and they tell him, Enough Huncke. Out, out already. He understands and never carries grudges. It’s all the same to him. I know he’s using me, but he knew everyone in the Beat movement and I listen to him talk about Burroughs, Corso, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg. R’lene Dahlberg told me that Ginsberg once compared Huncke to St. Francis of Assisi. Yes, he’s a criminal, an outlaw, but he steals only to sustain his drug habit and makes no profit out of his activities.

– Frank Mc Court’s portrait of Herbert Huncke in Teacher Man, Scribner, New York, 2005 (p 250-251).

Huncke’s literary legacy lives on in a number of works that were published in his lifetime [3] as well as a definitive collection of writings – The Herbert Huncke Reader – collected together by Benjamin G. Schafer with an Introduction by Raymond Foye as well as a superb Biographical Sketch of Huncke written by Huncke’s Literary Executor Jerome Poynton. [4]

William S. Burroughs acknowledged the “extraordinary” nature of Huncke’s experiences that were “quite genuine” in his Forward to The Herbert Huncke Reader in the following brief remarks –

In ‘The Thief’s Journal’, Genet says there are very few people who have earned the right to think.  Huncke had adventures and misadventures that were not available to middle-class, comparatively wealthy college people like Kerouac and me:  “Some write home to the old folks for coin.  That’s their ace in the hole.”  Huncke had extraordinary experiences that were quite genuine.  He isn’t a type you find anymore.

– William S. Burroughs in The Herbert Huncke Reader, William Morrow & Co, New York.

Huncke was undoubtedly a unique character in the history of Times Square lore [5]: a “genuine” character of the streets who wielded far more influence over the imaginations of the founding fathers of the American Beat movement than he is often given credit for.

Marcus D. Niski, August 2017


[1] In 2010, I had the privilege of visiting the Columbia University’s Butler Library in New York to view their deposit of Huncke’s papers and notebooks. My analysis of Huncke’s notebooks, as well as selected images of them can found in my realitystudio.org article –  ‘The Writer’s Notebooks of Herbert Huncke’ by Marcus D. Niski at: ‘http://realitystudio.org/criticism/the-writers-notebooks-of-herbert-huncke/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Huncke’s Writings: A Select Bibliography

Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Huncke (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1990), Edited by Don Kennison, foreword by William S. Burroughs. ISBN 1-55778-044-7

The Evening Sun Turned Crimson (Cherry Valley, NY: Cherry Valley Editions, 1980), ISBN 0-916156-43-5.

Huncke’s Journal (Poets Press, 1965). Edited by Diane Di Prima. Foreword by Allen Ginsberg.

The Herbert Huncke Reader Edited by Benjamin Schafer (New York: Morrow, 1997), ISBN 0-688-15266-X

Again–The Hospital (White Fields Press, Louisville, 1995). 1/50 copies. (Broadside; single sheet, measuring 12 by 22 inches, illustrated with a photograph of Huncke.)

Herbert E. Huncke 1915-1996 (New York: Jerry Poynton 1996). (Limited edition of 100 copies of the program for the Herbert Huncke memorial at Friends Meetinghouse, New York City. Includes original texts.)

From Dream to Dream (Dig It! 567912-2, Music & Words, Netherlands, 1994, CD)

Herbert Huncke – Guilty of Everything. Double-CD of Huncke’s 1987 live reading at Ins & Outs Press, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Co-production released by Unrequited Records, San Francisco (2012).

[4] The full text of Jerome V. Poynton’s biographical sketch of Hunkce can be found at http://huncketeacompany.com/about/ which celebrates Huncke’s life and Centennial Year (1915–2015).

[5] Huncke’s Obituary in The New York Times by Robert McG. Thomas Jr. (Aug. 9, 1996) can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/09/arts/herbert-huncke-the-hipster-who-defined-beat-dies-at-81.html

Huncke’s Dirty Seedy New York

In the meantime we agreed to forget our cares for the night. We took a little money from our savings and walked to Forty-second Street. We stopped at a photo booth in Playland to take our pictures, a strip shot of four shots for a quarter. We go a hot dog and papaya drink at Benedict’s, then merged with the action. Boys on shore leave, prostitutes, runaways, abused tourists, and assorted victims of alien abduction. It was an urban boardwalk with Kino parlors, souvenir stands, Cuban diners, strip clubs, and late-night pawnshops. For fifty cents, one could slip inside a theatre draped in stained velvet and watch foreign films paired with soft porn.

– ‘Patti Smith’s “Forty Second Street Urban Boardwalk” in: Patti Smith,  Just Kids, Bloomsbury, London, 2010, P 107.



The Automat (Defined)

An Automat, Mr. [Neil] Simon wrote in New York magazine, was “a large, rectangular hall, filled with shiny, lacquered tables surrounding a glass booth, where the nimblest fingers on earth dispensed change for a quarter or a dollar in nickels . . . endless nickels, shiny nickels, magical nickels that were slipped into slots on the wall, and before your very eyes, an Open Sesame roll came around the bend of a glass cubicle.”

Playwright Neil Simon describing an Automat in James Barron’s New York Times article, Last Automat Closes, Its Era Long Gone, April 11, 1991, as found at: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/11/nyregion/last-automat-closes-its-era-long-gone.html