It was a cold early Summer night in 1963, when I first set foot in City Lights, the now legendary bookstore. Much has been made since of how unusual City Lights, then ten yers old, was. A bookstore not set up to emphasize sales. A bookstore that, at first, sold only paperback books. A bookstore where one could find space to sit and read. A bookstore with a wide range of leftist/progressive/radical weeklies and monthlies. A bookstore where no one came up to you and offered help. A bookstore whose sales clerks did not ask to look in your bags, backpacks, and pockets as you exited.
In San Francisco 60 years ago, the City Lights North Beach neighborhood already seemed anachronistic. The Gold Rush, the Roaring Twenties, and the Second World War had assured that this transpacific and transcontinental hub had kept a lot of rough edges. Booze, Broads and Bullshit was a well known shorthand for what The City (as it was already then called) offered.
Tall, gaunt Lawrence Ferlinghetti, himself a recent post-war emigrant to San Francisco, was recognizable to all but the most recent arrivals. He had become a cultural hero because of his successful battle to publish and sell Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which San Francisco’s self-righteous Catholic establishment condemned as obscene.
The moment was propitious for a paperback bookstore. G.I.’s had gotten used to paperback books during WW II, when 124 million were distributed by Armed Services Editions. They were ready to continue consumption of the new format. So a bookstore – thought to be the first to have “Paperback” as part of its name – was on fertile ground.
City Lights chosen neighborhood had a lot going for it. Italian and Chinese eateries, cafes on almost every corner. There were food stores beginning to be called “specialty” groceries, although to the largely Italian and Chinese residents of Chinatown and North Beach there was nothing “special” about providers of their traditional cuisine.
When I came to San Francisco in 1969, after five years in Paris and New York, where I worked in publishing and literary journalism, I came with a list of folks I had was told I should look up. One of them was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who Allen Ginsberg, a New York acquaintance, told me I had to see. He’d take care of me.
His first care-giving was to take me to an old Italian Café, around the corner from City Lights. “Have the minestrone,” he more or less commanded. I did. Along with some very recently baked bread. And a glass of strong red wine. All for about two bucks, tip included.
We had business to discuss. I was managing editor, for what turned out to be less than a year, of Ramparts Magazine, a widely read more or less monthly periodical. Ferlinghetti told me it was very popular, selling as many copies as he could get from the local distributor. I said I’d do what I could to increase his allocation. Which, in the chaos of our operation, wasn’t much. So whenever the magazine did appear I trundled down Broadway from our office at the corner of Sanso with a couple of stuffed backpacks. My reward was usually another bowl of soup.
But not just soup. I got to spend unhurried time with one of the most learned, smart, reflective, wry people I’ve ever known. And with an extensive collection of City Lights publications.
I also became a regular for the poets reading at City Lights. When my Ramparts job evaporated, I spent time in City Lights dank, dark basement, in the poetry section. Reading, sometimes for hours, on the uncomfortable wooden church pew that had somehow made it down the narrow stairway. There were row after row of poetry, most of it unavailable nowhere in The City but there. After just about every reading, a few dozen folks migrated across what is now Jack Kerouac Way to the Vesuvio Café. Or across the street to Tosca or Spec’s.
City Lights outreach was international, in large part because of Ferlinghetti. He had been raised in and often returned to France, where he eventually got a graduate degree; he published translations of major French poets (many of the translations he did himself). He knew Rome and the creative scene there. It wasn’t just about poetry and journalism, either. Ferlinghetti was a skilled painter, some of whose works now sell for upwards of $10,000.
He had poetry and painting in common with another internationally recognized artist, the Nicaraguan revolutionary priest, Ernesto Cardenal. I had become friendly with Nicaraguan families in the Mission District, and developed an idea for a documentary about Cardenal. Before I went to Nicaragua in 1979 with a small (3 person) crew to interview Cardenal, I went to see Ferlinghetti.
More soup, more stories. An important letter of introduction. On my return after six difficult weeks I brought Ferlinghetti some presents from Cardenal, who had become Minister of Culture in the (then) revolutionary Sandinista government. Small paintings and drawings done by poor peasants on the island of Solentiname, where we had filmed Cardenal's interactions with families who had been his parishioners when he spent two years there. His former church had been destroyed, many of his faithful had been tortured and killed because of their opposition to the US supported Somoza dictatorship. They were rebuilding the church, and continuing to try to be self-sufficient, a few hundred people without electricity or indoor plumbing.
Coming home to San Francisco was a shock. Being able to take shelter in City Lights was a blessing.
In retrospect, people often conflate the sixties and seventies in San Francisco.
The poetry scene in and around Ferlinghetti has become one such historical nexus. Another is the so-called hippie culture with its “be-ins” and “drop-outs” as its centers. But in reality the two barely intersected. The poets were mostly too busy to drop out. Even if poetic lyricists like Paul Siebel tried to weave them into a net, as in his “Then Came the Children” (1970):
In my dizzy stupor I was trying
Hard to forfeit all I'd known
And listen to this music that could
Swirl me in a magic all their own
Somewhere in the distance you and I
Had fought the monster to a draw
In those days of books and wine
With Ferlinghetti grasping for a straw
Out along the highways we had
Journeyed far to find the mystic smile
With chasing down identities, my God
We must have run a million miles
How much time (and money!) I wound up spending in City Lights, “chasing down” my identity I have no idea. But how much my decades of experiencing City Lights are a part of me was brought out by a first wonderful, then awful, series of days in May 2019.
The wonderful part was a gathering in the street in front City Lights, where hundreds of people came to celebrate Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday. A beautifully designed broadsheet with one of his final poems was snapped up – there were only 500 printed. Word circulated that Ferlinghetti himself, was in his upstairs office, receiving visitors, as birthday cake was handed out. Someone waved around an autographed copy of the poem. I dutifully braved the mob scene trying to get up the stairs. I could see people massed around him, at his desk. Some were trying to get through to him, shouting into his limited hearing. He looked tired and uncomfortable. And had stopped signing posters, “Gee, if he’d sign it I could easily get a hundred bucks on e-bay,” was one disappointed woman’s reaction.
I shook his hand, which was trembling but firm. He sort of knew who I was. I whispered in his ear, in French a few words I remembered from Alfred de Vigny’s “Eloa.” That all the poets in the world were angels today, gliding around us, on feathery wings. He nodded slightly, and I left, stopping at a favorite Chinese place down the block (the Italian café he and I used to go to had long since become an overpriced ice cream shop) to write in my journal, and then take MUNI and BART home.
That was the wonderful part. The awful part came a week later, when I was going to a French culture and politics study group near Union Square. My MUNI bus missed its stop, lurched to a halt further down the block, opened its doors as a packed crowd of almost entirely elderly Chinese people carrying stuffed plastic bags. They pushed and shoved to get off. I was deposited in the gutter, smashing my hip as I fell. In fifteen seconds I was transformed from a healthy, vigorous elderly man into the halting, haunted disabled person I am today.
I haven’t been able to go to City Lights, or anywhere in San Francisco, since. Unable to read more than a line or two for several months, unable to sleep or eat, in constant, sometimes intolerable pain, haunted by fragments of all I’ve lived and now lost, I sometimes have picked up a poetry book for my line or two. One of the poems I re-encountered came to mind when I read of Ferlinghetti’s passing. It’s from his first book, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” written in 1955, the title alluding to the Brooklyn amusement park at the beach, a few miles from my childhood home.