San Francisco Blues, 101

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was one of the Beats, but not quite one of the Beats.  I walked into his store in San Francisco one day in 1976, and he spotted me, peered at me over a low expanse of shelving.  I could feel his eyes tracking me as I slowed.  I paused at a table and looked at a stack of books.

I think Ferlinghetti thought I might be a thief.  I wasn’t, but as a businessman, he had to be sure.  You don’t survive in the bookstore business for nearly sixty-years without paying attention to who walks through the door.  That said, it is quite likely he was merely curious about everything—even me.

I looked up from the table of books and he was still watching me.  I nodded, smiled.  He nodded back.  He realized I was okay.  He returned to shelving books and I continued to browse.

I’ve always liked Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  Of the San Francisco Renaissance poets, including the Beats, of which his was and wasn’t, he had always been one of my favorites.  Certain of his works still stun me by their translucent simplicity and perfectly structured imagery.

I didn’t speak to Ferlinghetti that day.  As I was screwing up my nerve to approach him, a few of his neighborhood friends drifted into the store and they huddled together to talk.  I browsed some more and finally left.  I walked across the street to Vesuvio Cafe and ordered a beer.  I sat down at a window table in this sacred place and watched Columbus Avenue go by.

I was right in the middle of it all.  North Beach was the heart of the greatest literary movement in my lifetime, but the movement consisted of stragglers now.  I’d see Bob Kaufman on the street, a few others, but most were either hiding or gone.  I was only twenty years too late to see the movement close up.   Kerouac was dead, which is all I needed to know about how literary movements flash through the sky and burn out of flame.

I’d met Lyn in Waterville, Maine.  She lived in San Francisco, but she was in Maine visiting her father when she called my office.  Her father was an alcoholic, and she was staying with him.  Neither of them had rent money.  Would I help them and talk to the city manager?  I met Lyn at city hall and we talked to the man in charge about a rent voucher.  He relented under my persuasive assault and—presto—Lyn’s father had another month to stay at home and drink.

Naturally grateful, Lyn invited me to spend Thanksgiving with her and her dad.  The old man said hello and slinked into his room.  He drank in his room alone, rarely coming out.  While he busied himself by drinking himself to death, Lyn and I made out on the sofa.

Then, in early December, she returned to San Francisco.  I’d known her a total of three weeks.  From San Francisco, she wrote me long love letters.  “When you are finished there, come here,” she said.

When summer arrived, with Lyn on my mind, I was ready to go to San Francisco.  So I left Maine and never returned.  That wasn’t the plan at the time; that is simply what happened.  I liked Maine, but now I had something else to chase—another dream.  A woman.

Arriving in San Francisco, I moved in with Lyn, her nine year-old daughter Trina, her hardware-salesman roommate, Richard, and his dog Cosa, a friendly Doberman. The Richmond neighborhood flat where they lived, a mere block from Golden Gate Park, was long and narrow with a back porch that looked out toward the ocean and a beautiful view of the city.  I felt instantly at home in the roomy flat, but the feeling wouldn’t last long at all.

Lyn was bartending at a place on Clement Street when I arrived.  She seemed happy to see me, but already I’d noticed something different about her.  The letters had dropped off weeks before.  A lot of their romantic appeal had vanished.  What the hell, I thought; she’s just busy with work and her daughter.  I would learn soon enough that she had more going on in her life than I imagined.  Well, I did imagine it, but I was in denial.

Lyn took after her dad a bit, and drank heavily.  She drank as she worked when her customers bought her drinks all night.  She was popular, attractive, smart and adept with a line of bullshit.  She had a big following at the bar; much bigger than I imagined.

She got angry with me one night when I came into the bar.  “Don’t come in here so much,” she told me.  “I’m working and you’re a distraction.”  Later I got into an argument with one of her regulars and stormed out of the bar before the incident escalated into violence.  She closed the bar and came home very late as usual, smelling of something with licorice in it.  We argued about my near fight with her regular and then she told me about Bob the mailman, a friend who was helping her out.  He gave her a hundred dollars every time he helped her out.  All she had to do was sleep with him.

I moved out the next day, finding a furnished room in a big boarding house in Haight-Ashbury, at Cole and Haight.  The house was at the end of the park, down from Stanyan, the street the poet Rod McKuen rhapsodized over in his popular book, Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows.  It wasn’t a book I cared for, but it was a rare poetry book inasmuch as it became a bestseller.  That doesn’t happen often in the U.S., so perhaps I should find a copy, reread it, and figure out why it sold so damn well, but I think I may already know the irrational answer.

I was working as a sub-sandwich shop manager for a small chain operation.  I’d walked in cold and asked for a job and within weeks I was a sub-sandwich shop manager on Geary Boulevard at Arquello.  Running the show, I was free every day by lunch hour, assigning work to my crew and leaving to go to Candlestick to watch the Giants, or drifting through the barroom scene in the Richmond District.  The neighborhood had many Irish bars in it, so I usually drank a Guinness to start off around noon every day.  Then I’d switch to a lighter lager, or an Anchor Steam bottle.  I had to be careful not to get too blistered before heading back to the shop around 2 p.m. to see how lunch sales went.  I’d make sure everyone did their little cleanup and stocking chores, count and deposit the receipts, double check everything and then call it a day.  Managing that place, I grew sort of lazy.  Sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever recovered from the experience.

So I’d finish the day and head over to Vesuvio’s, sit around there for awhile and have a little more beer right in the middle of the long-gone poetic Renaissance.  It was then that I walked into the City Lights Bookstore and saw Ferlinghetti.    I wasn’t just any damned tourist.  I had a job and lived in the Haight for God’s sake!

I was living in Portland a few years later when Ferlinghetti came up to the Northwest to participate in the Portland Poetry Festival.  He sat on a panel with a group of writers.  William Stafford and a few others gave brief lectures on poetics, and when it was Larry’s turn he got up, a tall, wiry man, and said “Light!”  Then he said it again and again.  “Light!  Light!  Light!  Light!”  He said it many times, his voice growing louder and louder.  He began to dance with the word.  “Light!  Light!  Light!”  Then he sat down without saying anything else.

That was all, a minimalist poem and a non-lecture.

Terry Simons is the founder of Round Bend Press Books in Portland, Oregon.  This story is excerpted from his memoir of growing up in Oregon, A Marvelous Paranoia.