Sunday, July 7, 2013



The pretty girl clutching a clipboard approached as I sat in late afternoon sun on Pier 39.
Was I willing to take part in a survey?

What was my main purpose in visiting San Francisco?

 She was about twenty, had attended High School in Berkley and she had never heard of City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg. Jack Kerouac, the Beat poets. Perhaps education is being dumbed down after all.

Next day I rode a number 30 bus up Columbus Avenue from Fishermen’s wharf to Stockton, walked two blocks and there it was - City Lights Bookstore celebrating its sixtieth birthday. People at the traffic lights waited while a Green Street Mortuary Marching Band jazzed by and cafe sitters at sidewalk tables applauded. A jazz ensemble played under a marquee in Jack Kerouac Alley as the world converged on City Lights, which is not a multi storied emporium with sliding doors and regiments of checkout stands. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a champion of people sized communities and City Lights is in the same three level building it started in. Over sixty years it has become one of the most famous bookstores in the world, but there are no branches anywhere else. If anyone wants to shop in a City Lights bookstore they have to come to San Francisco, although I buy books on line from their newsletter and read about events taking place when City Lights authors go on the road to publicise their books.

I walked up the two front steps through the narrow door, past the check out desk where two pretty girls wearing City Lights T shirts and flowers in their hair were busy zapping bar codes, popping books into paper bags and smiling. The windows beside the entrance held photographs of City Lights and staff over the years.  I slithered through the line of waiting book buyers, was careful not to stumble on the two steps up into the main room which is a maze of shelves full of books I am unlikely to find in Barnes and Noble or Waterstones, certainly not at Paper Plus or Whitcoulls. City Lights encourages dissidence and real talent.

This is the store which was charged with indecency for publishing Howl by Allen Ginsberg. It still stocks it. This is the store that nurtured the Beat poets, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs et al. Up the narrow stairs on the third floor is the area dedicated to the Beats. It has a performance area and aging friends who were students in the fifties tell me of sitting on the floor there, in air hazy with ‘California Green’, listening to young Kerouac, and Ginsberg and others. It is one of the famous places of the Literary world, ranking with Dove Cottage and those daffodils, or Westminster Bridge.

But downstairs the aisles are narrow and on this Sunday it was crowded. Every chair, there were not many, was occupied by somebody reading. Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself strolled through the store, greeting and being greeted. A couple of Ferlinghetti lookalikes sauntered about outside.
 I saw several Ginsberg lookalikes from his bushy beard days, and one William S Burroughs.  At least two people were leading ‘The Dog That Trots Down the Street and Sees Reality, ‘one was a small poodle, the other a mutt whose mother was probably courted by several Labradors, airdales, a spaniel and uncounted collies.

 Ferlinghetti’s gifts to us were on a table at the foot of the stairs, beautiful wall charts of poems from City Lights publications of the past sixty years, not just his own. I chose his “Buddha in the Woodpile”.

Outside on Columbus Avenue people strolled about and I heard just about every language on earth, except Maori. Two French girls exclaimed as they identified poets in the early photos. “Voila! C├ęst Ginsberg! Vraiment!”  An Islamic man, head-scarfed wife two steps behind, made his way through the throng. I heard French, German, Chinese, American. Irish, Queen’s English.
 Suddenly a fire engine, siren hooting, followed by a paddy wagon pulled up outside the store. Two firemen sauntered inside, moments later they came out leading a scruffy type who climbed into the back of the paddy wagon. Street Theatre?  I could not recall a poem about an incident like this. Maybe it was a recreation of Allen Ginsberg charged with indecency because he wrote ‘Howl!’ and set the poetry world alight.

It was a lovely afternoon. I decided to walk back to my hotel. Columbus Avenue led straight to Fishermen’s Wharf. What could go wrong?

 My stupid sense of direction could. Two hours later I was outside the Bank of America on Montgomery, it was raining, my feet hurt, the light was fading and I could barely decipher the street names on my map.

“You lost?”asked a concerned voice, and there stood one of those angels I keep meeting; tall, tanned, immaculate, he could feature in my next romantic novel, but meantime my next blog should be about the kind teacher of English who had lived in Christchurch for three years, who organised a taxi when there were none around, fed me chocolate and waved goodbye as my taxi sped off. 

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