North Beach is an odd mix of topless clubs and the revered haunts of some of literature’s greats, the poet Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti who launched City Lights books. Gary Snyder, who Ferlinghetti called the Thoreau of the Beat authors. Allan Ginsberg, whose poem “Howl” was banned, the resulting court victory marking a shift in American publishing and censorship. And the iconic Jack Kerouac, author of “On the Road,” which became the how to book for a generation brimming with wanderlust.
It’s a picturesque neighborhood perched on a hill where taco joints and cafes rub shoulders with giant neon signs of women’s legs kicking into the neon night. Distinguished, neatly dressed italian men gingerly stride past the Hustler Club to sip espresso over the newspaper at Caffe Trieste. Vesuvio’s remains unapologetically funky and unchanged since Kerouac got drunk here. And the Marconi Hotel is just just as seedy and unapproachable as it was when Ginsberg rented a room. Say what you will about this particular chapter in American literature but one thing is certain, this neighborhood sums up much of what the beat poets and writers captured in their writing.
Samantha and I embrace the vibe entirely. After settling in at the vibrant Green Tortoise Hostel we hot shoe it down to the cafe to squeeze in amongst well hatted italians. Then we skip down to Washington Square Park to lay on the grass and soak up the last of the days sun. The ghosts of Kerouac and Ginsberg are all around us. We know they traveled this same path, lay in this same grass. But we are not after them like celebrity awed fans, we are after the writing. The energy and surroundings that somehow inspired a break from tradition and entirely new, non- traditional ways of writing. As we sit at Vesuvio’s I suspect that their inspiration was partly San Francisco but mostly from their own small group of literati. Ecstatic nights of bouncing ideas, readings, running through the city with notebooks of talk and wine. It was the post war time period, and it was the influence of the San Francisco Rennaisance. We are in the right place but the wrong time.
As we crawl into our bunk beds, the city lights falling away below us and the strippers and bouncers chatting in the night street, I search out the window, not for the beats, but for the next wave of audacious writers. The next group of brave fools who will haphazardly ignore the rules of America, do their own thing and then write about it.