I've never really been drawn to the Beats, never really had a Bukowski period, never really liked the feel of a turtleneck on my throat. Don't even get me started on bongos. But I do love the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the character Maynard G. Krebs, and of all the people who drank themselves to death, Jack Kerouac has to be right up there with Bon Scott.
Whenever I go to Vesuvio in North Beach I feel like I am on the Beat Generation ride at Disneyland. Inside, you are met with walls covered in sepia-toned news clips, photos, drawings, tile works, and paintings punctuated with stained glass and a splash of neon in the window. "Yo ho ho, daddy-O!" The neon sign is of the Vesuvio "mascot," a naked person with a big butt, seemingly taking a dump into a cask of beer.
The joint gets mixed reviews from locals, but it's worth a dip in every year or so, just to see if they have polished the brass beer taps.
I showed up alone with a book, which is pretty much the price of admission in this place unless you are visiting from Iowa for the week, in which case this is a guidebook stop on your way to Coit Tower. "It's a great place to people-watch!" is the mantra, and it's actually pretty true. There really are grizzled regulars who drive over from Marin every weekend, and people working on novels, and gobsmacked Marina types who cannot believe how rude the waitress is being. I have also found that you can get a drink and sip it over a span of three hours without anyone complaining that you are taking up space, unlike at home.
The strange thing was, I actually felt like reading and not just holding the book open. So I dug in, which of course made me irresistible to strangers. "Whatcha readin'?" asked a disheveled-looking guy. He had dirt under his nails and a homemade cardboard sign on the chair next to him. He was drinking coffee. I held my book up. "Beat ... the ... Reaper," he read aloud slowly. "Sounds morbid."
"Yup," I replied, "And gory, too. It's great."
From there he talked about violence and gore, and how movies used to leave stuff up to the imagination, yadda yadda. It really was a leg of a Disneyland ride, and this was the animatronic anachronism segment. I sat still while the stage rotated in front me. He began talking about old movies, and I saw close-ups of dirt-stained soldiers in trenches, struggling to light their cigarettes in the wind and rain.
Then he told me that he was a veteran, and that he had had enough gore during The War (I assume Vietnam). Cue napalmed palm trees behind him with choppers overhead. From there he talked about heath care for veterans, and then I saw a long Edwardian military hospital, with rows of beds and nurses dressed like nuns, only instead of wimples they had bandannas with red crosses on the forehead. Doses were handed out in tinctures. Wounds were lopped off at the knee.
"It's a shame that you guys get such crap health care," I interjected. I have always held that if you serve our country, you should be taken care of for the rest of your life. As a matter of fact, a man who was a veteran of a war should not have to be begging on the street.
"Eh," he said, with a wave of his hand, "It's not crap at all. It's actually pretty good."
"Yeah! There's a lot of stuff out there for you if you are a vet. Folks just don't want to do what they ask you to. Go here. Fill out this form. Meet me at this time." It was unclear if he included himself in this mishmash of insubordinates. Still, I was struck by his optimism.
"Where you from?" he asked me. We discussed Illinois, and the stage behind him rotated to the Capitol Building in Springfield, with Abe Lincoln giving a stump speech. He said he was from the South Side of Chicago, which confirmed for me that everyone is from Illinois in some way, either directly or through relatives.
The waitress scooted by and gave us a cursory glance. "They ignore you if you have coffee," he told me. "So, Illinois!" I had a new nickname. "Illinois! Tell me how you came to be sitting here today." I gave him my life story, and the stage behind me showed a long railway journey through Indian territory, then a brief vignette trading beaver pelts with Lewis and Clark, and finally landing on the Barbary Coast and setting up shop at a brothel.
"Nice." He said, chuckling. "I had you pegged for a oilman, but I guess beaver pelts are just as lucrative." Then he smiled and nodded his head and took a sip of coffee, and there was an understanding that we were done talking. We were like an old married couple that way. I opened my book again and got right back into the plot.
Eventually he finished his coffee, got up, and tipped his invisible hat to me. I curtsied in my seat, then went back to my book.