A Beat poet struggles to find meaning in 1970s San Francisco; by Barry Garelick.
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A row of houses marked Jack’s descent. Like the beginning of a poem, he thought. “A row of houses marks my descent, not into madness or depression, but into North Beach,” he said aloud. “A descent into the hordes of the invisible, the unseen in a changing world.”
It was late November, 1979. The few trees that changed color in San Francisco were changing, and the weather was getting colder. Jack was in his late fifties; he smoked unfiltered cigarettes, drank heavily on some days, and less on others. He made enough money to get by, some from odd jobs, and some from betting on horses.
His thoughts were often conversations in his head with people he knew, or made up. What he remembered from those conversations he wrote down on scraps of paper, some of which he would lose, and others find years later. Some of the fragments became poems and some of the poems were published in books by unknown publishing houses that went out of business. His poems often focused on prostitutes, drug addicts, people living on the street, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden – part of a universe that he called “the invisible.”
He was from New York but had now lived in California longer than he had lived in New York. He was a poet influenced by the Beat generation. He was friends with many of the San Francisco poets who had gone on to success, like Gregory Corso, Harold Norse, and Bob Kaufmann. In his earlier days he got drunk with Jack Kerouac. The poets he knew were a dying breed, thriving in ever smaller publications. He viewed San Francisco as a city that had lost its innocence – too expensive, too many people, too many poets would-be and otherwise.
His route to North Beach varied depending on where he spent the night. Sometimes it was on a couch at a friend’s apartment, or in the residence hotel where he lived in San Francisco’s South of Market area. Last night was spent at Judy’s apartment on a hill.
He knew Judy from seeing her at his poetry readings and running into her around town. She was in her thirties, pretty, with a thin body. He would sometimes have coffee with her and expound in his usual loud manner about a changing world; how the Beat movement evolved into the hippy movement and then into the punk movement; how he was ignored by the literati in power, and other topics. To friends curious about her he would say, “she’s a social worker who’s trying to save the world. Asking me questions like what am I going to do in ten years when all the residence hotels disappear?”
She made dinner for him that night at her apartment. She talked about her boyfriend, an aspiring writer who she had been seeing for two months now, and it looked like it was getting serious, she said.
“Are you listening to me?” she said at one point.
Jack was half listening, thinking about his upcoming poetry reading. “Someone from Black Sparrow Press might be there,” he told her several times. After dinner he read some of his poems; new ones that he carried with him in a shirt pocket. By then it was too late to go back to his hotel.
“You can sleep on the couch,” she said.
At three in the morning she woke Jack up, crying. “I have to talk,” she said.
“What’s wrong? What’s the matter?”
“I’m really upset. I can’t sleep. I didn’t tell you everything.”
“Everything about what?”
“About my boyfriend,” she said.
“What about him?”
“We had a fight.”
“I said we were seeing a lot of each other and maybe we shouldn’t see each other so often. He got mad and walked out.”
“Have you talked to him since?”
“No,” she said. “I went to his apartment at two that morning. He didn’t answer. I left a note. I told him I was sad and wanted to talk. He hasn’t answered.”
Jack lit a cigarette and looked up at the ceiling. “Why would you want to see less of him?”
She started crying again. “I thought if we saw each other too much that it would end it. I know it doesn’t make sense.”
“It was going too fast?”
“I suppose,” she said. “I think. I don’t know.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Jack said. “If you had told me this earlier, rather than at three in the morning, I’d probably have more to say. But OK. What I’ll tell you is something Kerouac once said. He said be in love with your life. Every minute of it.” She laughed at this, wiping her eyes.
She said nothing.
“Things happen because they’re supposed to. Whether you believe in god or not.” He put his cigarette out. “I’m going back to sleep,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“For waking you up. I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah, well; so am I, I guess. I was dreaming about pussy.”
“That’s OK, Jack,” she said with a half-smile. “I’m pretty sure it’s a recurring dream.”
He laughed loudly, and lay on the couch, suddenly feeling wide awake. She went in her bedroom and after a minute he laughed out loud again.
“Go to sleep, Jack,” she said from her bedroom. And after a minute he did. The next thing he knew was the sun starting to stream through the window. Judy was busy getting ready for work. He left without saying goodbye and began his descent marked by a row of houses, on his way to North Beach.
He passed a Catholic church where a priest watered the flowers in wooden beds outside the entrance. The priest said “God bless you,” as Jack walked by.
“God so loved the world He gave His only begotten son to it,” Jack said in response.
“Always nice to start your day with John’s Gospel,” the priest said.
“Actually, I was quoting Kerouac,” Jack said. The priest laughed, though Jack was fairly certain the priest didn’t know the reference: ‘Because I am Beat, I believe in Beatitude,’ Kerouac had written, followed by the quote from John. It didn’t matter to Jack what the priest knew or didn’t know. It didn’t matter what anyone knew, he thought.
His descent ended at the Caffe Trieste where he took his usual seat at one of the small circular tables covered in mosaic tiles by one of the front windows. The sounds of the espresso machine, the grinding of coffee beans, the shouting of orders at the counter, and the sounds of the street outside created in Jack’s mind a mélange of sound, a hum, a rhythm, music, a poem. He sat smoking a cigarette and picked up a newspaper someone left behind. After scanning the lead story about the American hostages in Tehran he read the first sentence aloud: “The American hostages in the embassy in Tehran have to sleep with their hands tied.”
He scribbled the bits and pieces of conversations that followed on napkins that he kept in a pile on the table:
“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” “Why were they there in the first place?” “That’s like blaming soldiers for the war.” “The other day I heard someone say that we need to kick Iran’s ass.” “The world is changing.” “The world is always at a turning point.” “We have protests but the world always ends up the same and someone makes money off it.”
This last was said by Jack. He was answered by a man wearing a suit, sneakers, and a baseball cap and carrying a backpack. “Who’s making money off of it, Jack?”
“It isn’t me,” Jack said.
“Not me either,” the man said and disappeared out the door, soon indistinguishable from the people outside on their way to work.
A voice near him that he had heard during the mix of conversations erupting around him sounded again. “Jack!”
Jack looked around and saw a man, slightly bald and stooped, coming toward him.
“Sergio!” Jack said as if his name were the chorus to a song.
A song that sung its own praises, Jack thought.
“Look at that face!” he said to the café at large, and hugged his old friend. “Is that a New York face or what? Sergio!” There was scattered applause in the café among people who knew Jack and his impromptu shouts. Jack loved Sergio like a brother, other times like a son. A fellow poet who insisted he wasn’t a poet. He wrote stories. “But your stories are like poems,” Jack would tell him.
“I was looking for you,” Sergio said.
“I’m writing a story. It’s almost done. I wanted you to read it.”
“You have it with you?”
“Yes. But I have to make a copy. Where are you going to be? Should I leave it at your hotel?”
“Bring it with you to my reading tomorrow. I’m giving a reading at Coffee Gallery. Give it to me there.”
“I heard something about that.”
“Where did you hear it?”
“From somebody. I don’t remember his name.”
“Yeah, I’m giving a reading. A guy from Black Sparrow Press will be there. So this might be interesting if he likes it.”
“Your readings are always good, Jack. He’ll like it.”
“We’ll see,” he said. He wrote something down on a napkin and put it in his shirt pocket.
“I almost didn’t come here,” Sergio said. “I tried to call you at the hotel. But there was no answer.”
“I wasn’t there; I spent the night at Judy’s.”
“She’s a friend. A social worker who thinks she’s taking care of me. I had dinner there and slept on her couch. She woke me up at three this morning about her breaking up with her boyfriend.”
“You lead an exciting life.”
“It’s a long story.”
“I want to hear it,” Sergio said.
“No. I want to hear yours. Tell me about your story. What’s it about?”
“It’s about me, and Sherry; about when I hitchhiked across the country in nineteen sixty.”
He told Jack about the story, the trip, how Sherry was in his head the whole time, how he had conversations with her in his head telling her about the trip and the people he met. How he was picked up by someone who he thought looked exactly like Marlon Brando, and it turned out to be Marlon Brando.
“He was real quiet,” he said. “I tell Sherry this and she says that it sounds just like him.”
“You met Brando?” Jack asked.
“I made that part up,” he said. “But it felt like it really happened.” He went on about the places he’d been and how he longed to get back. Back to New York. Back to her.
“Back to Sherry,” Jack said.
“Yes. Back to Sherry.”
Now Jack was thinking about Sherry.
Sergio introduced her to Jack at a café on MacDougal Street in New York. A few months later she married Sergio. She was majoring in sociology and journalism at Colombia.
She told Jack how she wanted to write about society in terms of modernity, and other terms that confused Jack until he said “I don’t know what any of this means. But write it, definitely write it.” Sergio had to go somewhere; where it was Jack didn’t remember now. He remembered that he had sex with her that night.
“Are you listening, Jack?” Sergio asked.
“Yeah, every word.”
“You weren’t. What were you thinking about?”
“I was thinking about Sherry,” he said. “How you introduced me to her.”
“I remember,” Sergio said.
“I was thinking about what we talked about. She was interested in Kerouac and heard I knew him. I said I hung out with him, and she wanted to know what we talked about. I told her I would walk the Bowery with Kerouac and talk with the bums and listen to what they had to say. I told her what Kerouac told me: ‘Be in love with your life. Every minute of it.’ I told her to write about that in her dissertation.”
“Was that before or after you had sex with her?” Sergio asked.
“How did you know I had sex with her?”
“She told me.”
“When did she tell you?”
“The next day. I think. I think it was the next day. Now I can’t remember. She always told me everything. And when she wasn’t telling me everything and I wasn’t with her, I imagined her telling me everything.”
“Did you imagine her telling you that we had sex?”
“No. That was for real,” he said and the two were silent for a moment. “I wasn’t angry, Jack.”
“I know,” Jack said.
“Not at you; not at Sherry. We were all so young.”
“We were going to change the world,” Jack said.
“She never did write that dissertation,” Sergio said.
Jack nodded and lit a cigarette. “What else happens in the story?”
“A bunch of things. Things that I end up telling her about. She’s always with me in my head.”
“In the story? Or now?”
“Yes. In the story. And now. She’s always in my head.”
“How long has it been?”
“How long has what been?”
“Since she died,” Jack said.
“Does she talk to you?”
“Sometimes. And sometimes she just listens.”
“You riff with her,” Jack said.
“It’s how I write a poem,” Jack said. “First come the conversations. Then I write the rhythms, and then the words.”
“Yes.” Sergio rubbed his eyes.
“Is she talking to you now, Sergio?”
“Is she talking to you now?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“She’s talking to you. She’s saying ‘Be in love with your life. Every minute of it.'”
“Let me have that pencil, Jack,” Sergio said, and started writing on a napkin.
“What are you writing?”
“Something I want in the story,” he said. “She talks to me at the end.”
“What is she saying?” Sergio wrote some more on the napkin and stopped and looked sad.
“Let me see what you wrote,” Jack said, taking the napkin. He read aloud:
I knew she would be talking to me soon and asking what I did that day. I knew that she would ask me if I loved her. I would answer “Yes. Every minute of you.”
Jack stood up, put his hands on Sergio’s shoulders. Sergio wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
“I have to go,” Sergio said.
“I don’t know. I just need to walk a bit.”
“Well, come to the reading tomorrow. I allow time at the end for a young poet, whose work I like, to read something they wrote. But this time it’s you. Read your story, a part of it, or the whole thing whatever you want. Think about it.”
“Will Ruth Weiss be there?”
“Of course Ruthie will be there. So will Corso. And Kaufman,” he said, stubbing his cigarette out in an ashtray. “And the guy from Black Sparrow press.”
“Do you think they’ll like it?”
“Of course they’ll like it, Sergio,” he said and the two fell silent.
Jack knew that Sergio could tell what he was thinking. That nothing really matters. The big publishers are never going to touch us. The man from Black Sparrow Press wasn’t going to do a fucking thing. What mattered was believing in what you write. That was faith.
The café was now very quiet.
“We’re invisible,” Jack said.
“Yes,” Sergio said, though whether in answer to what Jack said, or something else, Jack didn’t know.
“I’ll try to make it,” Sergio said.
“I’ll make it,” Sergio said. They hugged each other and Sergio left, walking up Grant and disappearing from sight.
A few minutes later, Jack left and also walked up Grant Street. He walked past an Italian bakery where a woman behind the counter was arguing with a customer. It started to rain, and a fire engine went by, and to Jack it seemed to perfectly belong in the setting of the rain-soaked streets that Jack had walked many times. He saw a young man whom he had seen in various cafés and at one of his poetry readings, one time with Judy. He might have been Judy’s boyfriend for all he knew. Jack smiled and said, “How’re you doing?” and the young man nodded his head in return. He lived in a different world than Jack, he thought. And a different world than Judy.
He passed a barbershop that was empty except for the owner who was playing an Italian tarantella on the clarinet. Jack stopped under the awning of the barber shop and listened to the music knowing that the barber was unaware he was part of a sound track to the world outside.
He continued walking. The shops and streets that had become familiar guideposts to his memories and his life marked his walk. He had no idea of the destination. He thought about how many of his poems were hidden away in various places, poems given away, and poems thrown away. There would be no collected works; only the collective memory of people who had heard him read. Some of his listeners were alive, some were dead; some were people he hated, some were people he loved; some he knew, some he didn’t know; and some were invisible. In the end he loved them all.