“I was conceived on the 3rd floor of this building,” she says, her crinkly finger pointing to the North Beach apartment above what is now a hipster coffee shop.
P. Segal is the closest thing to a living, breathing bohemian Beatnik I have ever met – a stout San Franciscan writer of Sicilian descent who heard Howl performed by Allen Ginsberg, met Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Bookstore, and lived a wild-child artist’s life in the heart of the 60’s Beat Generation.
P., as she goes by, is also my literary tour guide for the next two and a half hours on this un-Beat like sunny Tuesday afternoon, a chance for my square, X-generation self to take a psychedelic trip down the rabbit hole of the Beat writers movement.
Our journey starts on Columbus Avenue where we take in the legendary Vesuvio Café, a spindly two-story bar jam packed with bric-a-brac wall art, newspaper photographs, and inebriated ghosts of writers past. As I cross the mosaic entryway and time travel to 1957, smelling the cigarette smoke of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, hearing the moody minds and slurred words of Bob Dylan and William S. Burrows. Phrases like “Sexual Liberation” and “Artistic Revolution” linger from chunky black glasses and bearded turtlenecks.
Suddenly I feel dizzy. Am I disoriented from the disorganized stimulation overload? Is the contact high of the Beats’ discordant and disorderly spirit too out of my love of minimalist and harmonious comfort zone? P. stands outside keeping watch like Dante’s Virgil, ready to pull me out of the Inferno before there’s no going back.
I spill out onto the street and take a big gulp of fresh air, steadying my gaze now on Jack Kerouac Alley, a small pedestrian-only street dedicated to the author of On the Road.
P. says, “This used to be the alley drunkards would urinate or get sick in, but since1988 it has been romanticized into a poetic walkway of murals and writerly quotes.”
She points to a circular stone in the center where a Jack Kerouac quote is engraved. “The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great….” Right next to these words of refined beauty a homeless man is passed out on a camping chair, hood over his head, duffle bags strewn all around, reeking of body odor. While he seems an out-of-place interruption, perhaps he is more Beat than this gentrified commemorative version. On the Road glorifies a free spirited following of one’s impulses moment by moment, but we forget that much of the road-less-traveled is filled with gritty filth and harsh realities. The Beats were trying to break out of the 1950’s conservative prison that dictated a narrow Post World War II lifestyle. Psychedelic drugs, free sexuality, absolute creative expression busted open the traditional forms of poetry and fiction. But this clash is never that pretty as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” the poetic battle cry of the Beats, attests. He says, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…” Messy. Raw. Real.
P. sees my need for some comfort, so takes me to City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1953 iconic bookstore and publishing company that galvanized the Beats in a central location. City Lights also won international notoriety for publishing Howl and Other Poems, attracting a scandalous obscenity lawsuit. They were acquitted but they secured their place as a bastion of free speech and liberal ideas.
I walk through the paperback stacks, creaking every floorboard with each step, feeling like I’ve just entered someone’s apartment. A shelf of out-of-print books houses a copy of Literary San Francisco, which I want to buy desperately but realize is not for sale as I open the inside cover and see a library card holder. Did one of the Beats steal it from the San Francisco library, I wonder? Could I ever be Beat enough to steal it myself? As my newly emerging anarchist mind plots, P. calls me up to the second floor, a beautiful homage to Beat literature and a space used for poetry readings. It has the same musty smell and cramped feel of my other favorite bookstore on the planet, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, a place also known for shaking the literary establishment by publishing Ulysses and hosting a haven of the great Lost Generation writers.
I channel my inner instigator and ask P., “Why were the Beats so influential? On the Road is not that good. I just don’t get it!”
“They were daring! They broke the rules!” P.’s calm demeanor fires up.
She continues to recount what life was like in the 50’s, how intolerant the government and the institutions were. “Burroughs and Ginsberg were gay, and many were beaten, their lives threatened for being outside the mainstream,” she says.
As I listen to P. passionately speak, I notice she too feels like an outsider. Her black soldiers coat, fire engine red lipstick and lazy eye reveal an eccentric artist. She doesn’t want her picture taken, perhaps the still square frame making her feel too boxed in.
She leads me to the Beat Museum on the corner of Broadway and Columbus, right next to the Hungry Lion strip club, ironically to learn about the women of the Beats. On the second floor, glass displays house withered photos of Joyce Johnson, a threadbare coat of Edie Parker, and an original copy of Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady.
“I had never heard much about the women of the Beat Generation,” I say, leaning closer to see the photos up close.
“Yeah, well, sexism was still strong even in the boundary-pushing Beats. The women were often muses, but never equals in the male dominated world.”
I squint to read a quote from Joyce Johnson, the girlfriend of Jack Kerouac, who claims, “The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers… You kept your mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.”
And yet, here I am, being led around North Beach by a woman. A woman who champions the Beats. A woman who celebrates their writing and their San Francisco experience. A woman who now has the voice and power to tell their tale.
At our last stop, Café Trieste, she pulls out pictures of the poets and writers she has known, and I get to ask her more about her life in San Francisco. A café Americano and a few questions and she is off.
“I had a mad crush on the writer Gregory Corso until I found out what a scoundrel he was….I owned a literary café called Caffe Proust where writers and artists would come….Have you heard of the Cacophony Society? We thought up the idea for Burning Man in my living room. I helped come up with the ten principles. Radical Inclusion. Communal Effort. Radical Self Expression. Oh, I can’t remember the rest…. You can find them online. Now I’m trying to create housing for artists to live affordably called Bohemia Redux.”
Listening to her story, I realize I am looking for the spirit of the Beats in these dead writers of the past when all along, it is living and breathing in P. She is creative, generous, innovative, free-spirited, daring, and quintessentially San Franciscan.
Too soon, our time is up and she shakes my hand and wanders out into the street like an apparition you are not sure really existed. I scribble some notes, finish my coffee, and walk out into the now fog-filled air. Thinking I might catch a glimpse of P. in the distance, instead, up high, I see flying, white angelic books suspended in the sky, an art installation called “Language of the Birds.”
“Yes,” the books seem to say. “This is the spirit of the Beat generation. This is the ephemeral, free-floating, soaring language of limitlessness.”
I start to walk home. It is time to write.
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