Though I'm supposed to be a barfly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I hang out at the Beat Museum in North Beach once a week — and with all the characters that go into that place it might as well be a bar. So please indulge me.
I go there with my friend who loves books. He heads for the back and checks out the alcoholics: Bukowski and Kerouac. See? It's just like a saloon. I'm pretty sure he also likes to look at the shop's collection of vintage Playboy issues, too. At any rate, I sit in the big armchair at the front and tootle on my phone or thumb through whatever coffee table book they have out. But what I am really doing, of course, is listening.
The guy who works there is very nice and exceedingly patient with whoever comes in, from the person who has no idea what the Beat Generation was to people who think they are clever for making Maynard G. Krebs jokes (he admitted to me that this was the singularly most annoying aspect of his job). He's always playing the Beatles.
I was sitting in the big chair, trying to figure out which bar to hit for this column, and decided that the Columbus Café sounded good. I had gone on a date there several years ago and remembered it fondly. Plus it was around the corner. The shortest distance between a girl and her drink is a straight line.
Permit me to jump around a bit, in the tradition of the Beats. For we are now in the Columbus Café, and I am sitting at the bar. You've seen this before. I size up the bartenders and figure out the entire history of everyone around me. Sometimes I can even horn in on other people's conversations and spin them into an entire narrative. I don't really feel like doing that this time, because this is just another bar like so many others — long counter, locals, possible iPod mix.
This time, though, I am thinking about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is my favorite Beat poet. He was born in 1919 and goddamn it hallelujah, he's still fucking alive at 93. I had never been drawn to that whole scene because I felt like it gave way to the hippies, which I hate (as a punk rocker, they are my natural-born enemy). Plus all that talk of "cock" and naked lunches and kooky road-tripping just seemed so obviously counterculture 40 years later. Everyone "alternative" goes through their Bukowski period. Except me.
But Ferlinghetti was different. It came down to one line from one of his poems about Golden Gate Park: "His wife had a bunch of grapes which she kept handing out individually to various squirrels as if each were a little joke." God, I loved that. Then he went on to describe this couple who were lunching in a beautiful part of the park together, ending with, "But finally she too lay down flat, and just lay there looking up at nothing, yet fingering the old flute which nobody played, and finally looking over at him without any particular expression except a certain awful look of terrible depression." This is an O. Henry ending. A Roald Dahl twist. This I could get with.
The bartender put my beer in front of me, but only after flourishing a damp towel to clean up my place. Like a little joke.
Let's jump back to the Beat Museum. My friend, whom I will call Fred, has a problem where he stays at bookstores until they close, which means he misses dinner and everything else. So we set a time limit for him to do his browsing, and I leave him to it.
Two European chicks came in and asked for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Actually, they asked for "that one Tom Wolfe book" and our hero knew which one they meant. "Didn't think you wanted Bonfire of the Vanities," he quipped. These girls were cute and they had a lot of questions. I was happy for him, because he was able to share his impressive knowledge with people who seemed to have a clue and were really pretty. I want good things for him. Many other times I have sat in the same spot and heard cheapskates trying to bargain down prices, or curmudgeons complaining about the crease in some book, or didacts who simply like to hear the sound of their own voice. He sits through all of it and doesn't even indulge me with an eye-roll.
Time was up for Fred, so I texted him and heard the cursory grunt of displeasure from across the room. He doesn't like to be interrupted. "Time to go, buddy," I said. He pulled on his backpack and we walked out the door and he headed home.
Which brings us back to the Columbus Café. Some sort of sporting event was getting ready to happen, and we know what that means for me: exit, stage left. Folks were already getting sloshed. That's the main thing about Beat stuff that I can't take, the romanticizing of drinking — though Lord knows I'm guilty of that, too. Ferlinghetti writes about eating grapes. About dogs, fish, and ants. He writes lines like, "And he a little charleychaplin man, who may or may not catch her fair eternal form spreadeagled in the empty air of existence."
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in 1919 and goddamn it hallelujah, he's still fucking alive at 93.