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History's Headlines: The beatniks are coming!

“He was selling plumbing fixtures around Pennsylvania. I devoured the bread and butter sandwich. Suddenly I began to laugh. I was all alone in the car as he made business calls in Allentown and I laughed and laughed.” - Sal Paradise aka Jack Kerouac from “On the Road” (1957)

To judge from his picture in the October 18, 1962 issue of the Morning Call, Robert McArthur hardly looks like he could be a threat to anyone. Heavyset, wearing a plaid shirt and blue jeans with dark rimmed glasses and a stubble of a goatee, he looks more like a guy who could use a good night’s sleep than a criminal type. But on four fall days in 1962, as Allentown celebrated its 200th anniversary and with the Cuban Missile Crisis just days away, he was perceived as almost as much of a threat as Cuba’s Fidel Castro. The fact that both man had facial hair may have had something to do with it.

But as soon as the citizens of the city discovered him looking for a place to open a coffee house for poetry readings, they knew he was a “beatnik” and, by definition, was up to no good. And when they were told that he came to the Queen City of the Lehigh Valley from Greenwich Village, that den of short haired woman and long-haired men who were probably all Communists, they knew it.

Exactly where did the image that the vast majority of Americans had of beatniks come from? Well, it was rooted in a group of young American writers who emerged in the late 1940s and 50s and called themselves the Beat Generation. Among them were writer Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsburg. Although Kerouac later become an arch conservative and Ginsburg a radical leftist, they and their counterparts of that era were largely apolitical. “I am not a beatnik, I am a Catholic,” Kerouac once proclaimed from the depths of his French-Canadian soul.

They were in search of an artistic truth in life in music, mostly jazz, and in literature, rebelling against American materialism and rejecting the conformist values of the Eisenhower era. The Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Suit with his expense account and three martini lunches was the target of their scorn. And eventually the one thing they hated more than anything else was to be called beatniks.

It was the mass media that created the beatnik. In April of 1958 Herb Caen, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, came up with the word. The beat he stole from the Beat Generation and the nik came from the Sputnik satellite that Russia had launched. Caen wanted to suggest in part with the Russian suffix “nik” that they were probably leftists. Not true, of course, but in the 1950s anybody who didn’t have a crew-cut, a house in the suburbs (or wanted one, at least) and voted for Ike was lumped with the Reds.

To the horror of the Beat artists and writers, Madison Avenue’s Mad Men got ahold of the beatnik concept, turning it into a marketing tool and saturated the media with it. Movies, television, books the beatniks were everywhere. They could be spotted, according to the popular lore of the day, by their dress. The women wore black: black berets, black sweaters, black toreador pants and black ballet slippers. They tended to wear their hair in a pony-tail.

The men all had beards, usually goatees, wore tee shirts, jeans and played bongo drums while reciting non-rhyming poetry with an occasionally “dirty” word thrown in. The goatee was required, the bongo drums were optional.

Many people in the Lehigh Valley probably got the image of beatniks from the popular TV show the “The Many Loves of Dobie Gills.”  From 1959 until 1963 its cast included a character named “Maynard G. Krebs.” Played by a little-known actor named Bob Denver, he summed up every stereotype. Every time “Maynard” fled in horror when someone said “work,” it reinforced the image of the beatnik as a lazy-lay-about-do-nothing.

With this set of stereotypes trailing in his wake, Robert McArthur of Greenwich Village arrived in Allentown on a fall day in 1962. He claimed he and his girlfriend Marguerite Paris had won $500 on a TV quiz show and they decided they wanted to create a coffee house. Apparently because Greenwich Village had more than its share, they decided on Allentown. Shortly thereafter he spotted a likely spot at 122 Chew Street. He would later tell the Call that two Village notables, editor Seymour Krim and poet Lester Blackiston, would be arriving.

Today Krim, who died in 1987, is known as a founder of the Iowa Writers Work Shop and a professor at Columbia University. Blackiston was more Bohemian but when he died in 2007 he left behind an art collection worth hundreds of thousands of dollars given to him by poor artists who later became famous.

When word got out in the city’s 1st Ward there was panic. A strong working-class neighborhood, then full of humming knitting mills, and a strong work ethic, the residents were not about to put up with non-working “bums” who would corrupt their children away from good factory jobs to drink espresso, recite free verse and probably make Communists out of them.

On October 17th a delegation of 1st Warders arrived at an Allentown City Council meeting with a petition carrying 212 signatures opposing the coffee house. “We”ll have no part of beatniks hanging out in our community,” said one.

McArthur did not help his situation by hanging a sign in the window, he said later as a joke, that it would be staffed by “cop-hatting beatniks.” It did not take long for members of Allentown’s finest to show up and request he take the sign down, which he promptly did. McArthur later told the Morning Call that the police were respectful and that he had no trouble. It was not long before the city health department showed up, claiming his site was not suitable for serving food. So McArthur found 232 Hamilton Street. He had been talking to local college students and they had expressed an interest in his proposed poetry reading.

But McArthur’s trouble got worse the next day when police got a report from Washington D.C. that he had been convicted of selling what the Morning Call called “narcotics.” Since he had not registered with the police on coming to town, he had 24 hours to leave.

McArthur admitted he had attempted to sell diet pills and spent six weeks in the workhouse but had no idea that they could be considered dangerous drugs. “The result watered down McArthur’s cup of coffee to the point where it looks like the coffee house may go down the drain,” the Morning Call said. “Yesterday the police pulled the plug.”

On October 19, McArthur was said to have been seen by reporters hitching his way back to New York. The Morning Call’s editorial writer Gordon Fister leveled a farewell blast.

“We’re happy to hear the slovenly Greenwich Village beatniks think they are having a tough time with the Pennsylvania Dutch and other generally fastidious folks who are proud of our community… It’s tough enough these days with some exhibitionists still roaming the streets to set proper standards. These imports give no indication of helping matters… It is not the privilege of the beatniks or anyone else, however, to degrade the standards of this community by spouting filth in establishments open for impressionable juveniles to frequent at will.”

This spirit did not die. In 1964 when plans to transfer control of the old Lehigh County Courthouse to Lehigh County Community College was proposed, a howl went up from attorneys and judges that they would be overwhelmed by beatniks and the idea quickly died.

So in your visit to your coffee house of choice be kind and a raise a cup to Robert McArthur, the thwarted “beatnik,” pioneer of Lehigh Valley coffeehouses.

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