Printer Friendly

Beat San Francisco; bookstores, coffee houses, and other reminders of the 1950s scene.

On October 13, 1955, nearly a hundred people packed into the Six Gallery in San Francisco to hear six new poets read. Bottles of wine were passed. At about 11 that evening, the last reader, "a hornrimmed intellectual hepcat with wild black hair," stepped up to the front, and the crowd yelled "Go! Go! Go!" as he began chanting, his arms outstretched:

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."

With his poem "Howl," Allen Ginsberg had just given voice to the Beat Generation-a movement associated with bearded, bereted, and sandaled Bohemians who fueled their literary fires in the bars and coffee houses of North Beach.

Why were they drawn to this then very Italian part of San Francisco? North Beach held the promise of a Mediterranean climate, a vivid presence of Old World culture, cheap and roomy living quarters (remember "pads"?), and, according to beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, it was the "only place in the country you could get decent wine cheap." There was an assortment of congenial places to sit, sip, scribble, and hang out most of them an easy stroll from City Lights, Ferlinghetti's bookstore publishing house.

Today, North Beach's influence is as Asian as it is Italian, and rents are no longer low. But you can browse at City Lights, which still attracts poets and their fans. And any time you like, you can still prowl many of the places that helped shape the movement unleashed that night in the Six Gallery.

If you want to take in the scene with a guide, you can join a free 2-hour tour led by City Guides; it starts every Saturday at 10, meeting at the steps of St. Peter and St. Paul Church, at 666 Filbert Street.

It began with the poets ...

Published by Ferlinghetti's Pocket Press and the subject of an obscenity trial, Howl and Other Poems sold 50,000 copies its first year in print. More than any other single work, it focused national and international attention on the North Beach haunts where writers like Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gary Snyder represented what Kerouac called "the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance."

Two years later, Kerouac's tale of cross-country wanderings, On the Road, captured the public imagination and swept best-seller lists to become the bible of the beats-those who were "mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved."

Though the wild life style of the beats represented a protest against the values of the American bourgeoisie, it soon attracted the curiosity of middle-class tourists. Buses were rerouted through North Beach so they could view the beatniks," as a local columnist dubbed them. Some coffee shops and bars even hired "house" beats to chant crude verse and insult the squares. By the early 60s, the original beats had moved across town to the Haight, where they would help usher in a new decade-and another story.

Many of the old hangouts are gone or changed. The Coexistence Bagel is now a video store; the hungry i (for id) is a topless bar. But when you visit the places we list here, if you keep your eyes open and your imagination ready you'll soon find that you can almost picture the black berets and the grizzled, intense faces. And you may begin to hear echoes of the distant voices of those who wanted to "Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors from their jambs!"

Another change in this part of the city that out-of-towners should bear in mind is that street parking has become very difficult; consult our map for garage locations.

1. City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Avenue; (415) 362-8193. Take time to soak up the atmosphere in the nation's first all-paperback bookstore, which Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin opened to support the same-titled magazine they published upstairs. Beyond collections of surrealism and Third World fiction stands the Poetry Room. Posters of Walt Whitman and Kerouac look down on Ginsberg's original Pocket Press editions. In the basement, an old black-and-white poster advertises a beat reading; the quote "Remember Lot's Wife" is from a previous tenant. Open 10 A.M. to midnight daily.

2. Vesuvio, 255 Columbus; 362-3370. You can't miss it. On Kerouac Alley (next to the bookstore), a mural with erupting volcanoes and earth-toned peace symbols announces this bar. Look for the list of North Beach figures "all 86'd" Corso, Bob Kaufman etched on the sidewalk outside. Where Dylan Thomas, Kerouac, and Ginsberg once tipped a few, you'll see a few items of beat nostalgia: a painting depicting "Homo Beatnikus" and an ad for a beatnik kit that includes a black beret, sunglasses, and a poem called "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Peninsula After They've Seen North Beach?" For $2.75, you can even buy a Jack Kerouac cocktail (rum, tequila, and orange and cranberry juices) or a Bohemian coffee (with brandy, amaretto, and a twist of lemon). Open 6 A.M. to 2 A.M. daily.

3. Spec's, 12 William Saroyan Place (previously Adler Street); 421-4112. in this dark bar, crowded with things like carved wooden sailors' faces and ships' flags, you might see a roomful of poets, writers, philosophers," for Spec's has seen the likes of Ginsberg and Corso as well as 22 years of seafarers. Open 4:30 Pm. to 2 A.M. weeknights, 5 to 2 weekends.

4. Tosca Cafe, 242 Columbus Avenue; 986-9651. A long mirror, shiny silver coffee urns, and a well-polished bar line the walls of this 87-year-old cafe. Tosca's made literary history by throwing out Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg for unruliness. Writers still frequent the place "in tuxedos or without shoes," and playwright Sam Shepard has been known to shoot pool in the back. Check the aria selection on the original Wurlitzer. Open 7 Pm. to 2 A.M. daily.

5. 1010 Montgomery Street. Residence of Allen Ginsberg for part of 1955, this light blue aluminum-sided apartment house was once filled with the sounds of

furious, stop-and-start typing, as the bearded young poet alternately stared out the window and worked on "Howl."

6. Caffe Trieste, 601 Vallejo Street; 392-6739. Open since 1954, this little-changed coffee house served espresso to the poets of the 50s, many of whom (Corso, Ginsberg, Jack Hirschman) still drop by. On one wall is a mural of fishermen mending their nets; on another are photographs of famous and not-so-famous customers. Ferlinghetti wrote a book of one-act "happenings" here; Francis Ford Coppola supposedly worked on The Godfather at a back table. From 1 to 4 Saturdays, you can hear free musical offerings, ranging from "Let's Forget About Tomorrow" to bel canto. Open 7 A.M. to 1 1:30 Pm. daily till 12:30 Friday and Saturday).

7. Lost and Found Saloon, 1353 Grant Avenue; 397-3751. Formerly the popular Coffee Gallery, this bar featured "Beat Music," a combination of poetry and jazz popular in North Beach in the late 50s; readings were frequent occurrences into the `80s. You almost expect to see Kerouac amid all the Southern Pacific Railroad signs: maybe you can find his name in the Poet's Gallery sign at the rear. Poets, artists, and street visionaries can still be seen at the boat-like bar, open 6 A.M. to 2 A.M. daily.

8. The Cellar, now closed, once flourished next door to Caffe Sport, at 576 Green Street. Poetry met jazz in semi-spontaneous, semi-wild performances that were seminal happenings in the 1950s and one source of the 1960s rock sound. The famous 50s "cellar sound" is captured on recordings made by Rexroth and Ferlinghetti, now available at City Lights.

9. Club Fugazi, 678 Green; 421-4222. These days, people climb the stone steps to see the long-running musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon. But in the mid-`50s, this was the site of the Poet's Follies, with music performed by luminaries such as Waldon Kees, Michael Grieg, and Lily "Stripteasdale" Ayres. The last performance, on May 11, 1958, was billed as a "Bohemian revel" "another session of San Francisco's unique Institution of Lower Learning."

You can view (free), check out, or purchase video $15 to $25) or audio ($8) recordings of the beat poets from The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University; write to the center, 1600 Holloway Ave., San Francisco 94132, or call 338-1056 or 338-2227.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:Sunset
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Words:1420
Previous Article:You can't rush hash ... but you sure can vary it.
Next Article:Reading up on the West? Try the state university presses.
Topics:


Related Articles
Starting in Sausalito, an easy bayfront ride.
West Coast Trade stepping out as coffee futures/Nestle beverage move in.
Update on San Francisco's exchange point designation.
The city of Paris meets San Francisco-style gourmet.
Triangulated Desire and Tactical Silences in the Beat Hipscape: Bob Kaufman and Others.
UCSF Mission Bay Genentech Hall Now Open; SmithGroup's Design Encourages Collaboration Between Researchers.
Penn State Taps Cityscape Designs for Silk Ties, Scarves.
See Jane eat: retro West Portal is San Francisco's top spot for dinner and a movie.
Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters