Hipsters, the few “angelheaded” kind remaining in EssEff, spontaneously converged February 23 in North Beach along Jack Kerouac Alley. They were drawn by the sorrowful, yet inevitable, news that Lawrence Ferlinghetti — our beloved 101-year-old Homeric poet, painter, publisher and activist — had shuffled off this mortal coil.
That colorful pedestrian passageway links cultures — Chinatown and the Italian North Beach — and conjoins Vesuvio Cafe with City Lights Bookstore, the renowned temple (replete with well-trodden, squeaky wood floorboards) of the written word co-founded in 1953 by Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin.
Amid the crowd of devotees: Ferlinghetti’s friend and fellow literary lion, poet Jack Hirschman, seated in a folding chair appreciating the extemporaneous poetry readings echoing off City Lights’ mural-adorned wall. Hirschman’s lap was draped in his signature fringe-trimmed scarf, the same hue as Ferlinghetti’s once-treasured fire-engine red Ford Courier pickup — parked that evening by its current owner in front of Vesuvio, its windshield wipers embracing a row of flowers.
Bouquets also piled up along the store’s Columbus Avenue entrance. Acolytes hung out, absorbing the Ferlinghetti vibe, while tenderly clutching dog-eared copies of the author’s prolific canon, most especially, A Coney Island of the Mind. The sidewalk was decorated with colorful chalk-art homages — joyful, yet ultimately temporal, a status embraced by Ferlinghetti and his Buddhist-curious cohorts, who burned brightly, sometimes briefly, amid their poetic quests. Hand-scrawled poems were taped to City Lights’ picture windows.
For decades, the store’s second-floor row of clerestory windows bore hand-painted butcher paper signs by Ferlinghetti, reflecting his political state of mind. It was a practice he enjoyed calling his “blog.” The poet also hired artists to create large banners with his words. On the day of his death, blue fabric swags between each window spelled out “Democracy / Is Not a / Spectator / Sport / Justice!”
“I stopped Lawrence and introduced him to Willie. I said, ‘Mr. Mayor, meet your first poet laureate.’” Jeannette Etheredge
This heartfelt memorial hodge-podge felt as if beatific giants once again roamed the earth: seekers such as Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima and Bob Dylan. In 1955, Ferlinghetti joined forces with Allen Ginsberg — to fight obscenity charges resulting from City Lights’ publishing of Ginsberg’s epic beatnik ode Howl.
For more than half a century, Ferlinghetti was globally revered, and thousands faithfully trekked to his famous bookstore in the hopes of meeting their pope of poetry.
But Ferlinghetti never sought fame. He preferred the simple joys of San Francisco — coffee at Caffe Trieste, riding his bike to the ballpark and hanging out with friends at the farmers market.
Former Tosca Cafe owner Jeannette Etheredge remembers one North Beach night when she and Willie Brown were exiting Moose’s — a high society clubhouse.
Brown, then mayor, had just created the City’s inaugural poet laureate post — and he and Etheredge stood on Stockton Street discussing candidates. Just then, Ferlinghetti passed by dressed in paint-stained clothes, en route to his rent-controlled apartment.
“I stopped Lawrence and introduced him to Willie,” recalls Etheredge. “I said, ‘Mr. Mayor, meet your first poet laureate.’”
Ferlinghetti was devoted to the well-being of his ’hood. In 2001, director Francis Ford Coppola established the North Beach Citizens, an organization that assists locals in need of jobs, food and shelter. Ferlinghetti immediately signed on as a trustee. This year, Ferlinghetti agreed to co-host, along with Etheredge, NBC’s 20th anniversary spring event on April 21. Though he hadn’t attended in person in the last few years, his heart remained close to the cause.
“I’ll always treasure the memory of Lawrence in his red truck with a Bolinas Fire Department bumper sticker, driving to our offices to donate clothes for our citizens,” says Kristie Fairchild, NBC executive director. She also recalled the nonprofit’s first dinner, which was hand-cooked by Coppola and promoted with a Ferlinghetti-designed invitation that read, “The way to a community’s heart is through its stomach. Coppola’s pasta and his homeless project go straight to the heart of North Beach.”
On March 24, Ferlinghetti would have been 102. Vesuvio co-owner Janet Clyde had planned a simple celebration honoring him at her reopened bar — with outdoor service in the alley and Columbus Avenue parklet. Honoring the poet’s birthday was a long-standing tradition for Clyde, who counted Ferlinghetti as a comrade in business and art.
At Ferlinghetti’s 90th birthday, she was amazed by his stamina: “He was still going strong, with a vital, charismatic life force. And his blue eyes! Lawrence was 50 years older than me, but he still had it going on at 90. I was wowed.”
Clyde notes that Ferlinghetti’s many North Beach friends and fans treasure the memory of simply sharing time with him.
“Lawrence was a wonderful San Franciscan, embodying what we love about our city: its quirkiness, dynamic neighborhoods and characters,” says Clyde. “He possessed rare skills, especially his love and support of our poets. That will be carried forward by all those he inspired. But missing Lawrence’s presence on the planet will be hard.”