little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn’t know where
to find them(and found a secondhand set which click)little
gould used to amputate his appetite with bad brittle
candy but just(nude eel)now little joe lives on air
—from a poem about Gould by E. E. Cummings
Well, Joe Gould may have lost them in Truro during the summer of 1943 when he unexpectedly turned up to visit my parents. His bus ticket had been provided by Gould’s literary and artistic acquaintances in Greenwich Village, who had probably wearied of his panhandling, his drunken binges, and his summer odor. He had only one suit, much too large, and he seldom, if ever, bathed. Still, he was tolerated, enjoyed even, for his humor and encyclopedic mind.
Gould was well known to those who frequented the Minetta Tavern and other Village bars. Now he has been the subject of memoirists and literary historians such as Joseph Mitchell and Jill Lepore, not just as a notable Village character but also as the author of the obscure and somewhat mythical unpublished book An Oral History of the Contemporary World. This manuscript supposedly contained every conversation he heard or overheard and was recorded in hundreds of notebooks that were stored all over New York City. (My father, Slater Brown, and Malcolm Cowley published 64 pages of it in Broom in October 1923.)
Anyway, his friends wired my parents that summer that Joe was on his way. He would occupy my bedroom and I would be moved to the attic.
The bus stopped in front of the only shop in Truro center, located across the road from what is now the Blackfish restaurant and Truro’s Cobb Library. My father met him as he stepped off the bus. Faces dropped, as Joe looked like the disheveled, dirty, homeless person that he was. One wonders with sympathy about his fellow passengers on the bus.
And, to the dismay of my parents, the aforementioned friends provided a one-way ticket only.
Until that moment, I had lived the life of a normal seven-year-old, enjoying idyllic summer days on the Pamet along Castle Road, swimming at high tide at the Sladeville landing, picking wild berries and beach plums, trying to grow a little garden in the sand, cycling around on a small blue bike given to me by a neighbor. Sometimes I would cycle all the way to the other side of the Pamet to the Depot Road railroad bridge, where I could swim with friends, jumping off the trestle when the water was high.
We had no car or telephone. Ice was delivered weekly in blocks for the ice box. Milk came by a milk truck. Groceries from Burch’s Market (now Angel Foods) in Provincetown, also delivered. These were war years, but to me life seemed really great, no matter if money was short.
My father, a published but impoverished writer, bailed fish at John Worthington’s fish plant in Pond Village, North Truro, and sometimes brought home fresh fish, often mackerel. If there were plenty, I could sometimes sell the extras to the Sladeville summer people for 25 cents apiece.
My mother, who had been a member of Martha Graham’s first performing troupe, typed manuscripts for several writers around. As she had a master’s degree in early education, she also served as principal of Truro Central School the year the permanent principal, Joe Peters, was called into military service.
Now, here comes Joe Gould.
My everlasting single memory of Joe Gould was the sight of him descending the stairs one morning, stark naked. It wasn’t until I saw the Cummings poem cited above, in which Gould is described as a “nude eel,” that I fully understood why we need poets.
I don’t know how Joe’s departure ever came about, but eventually my bedroom was scrubbed up and life became (I laugh when I say the word) “normal” again.