I wound up in San Francisco with just enough money for one week at the Golden Eagle Hotel on Broadway, above Bennie the Bum’s bar and across the street from the Jazz Workshop. Seven dollars a week for a small room with a sink in the corner I could piss into. All week long the lady in the next room screamed at her husband who, evidently, was a no good bum who ruined her life. She liked to rattle off the names of all the guys she could have married, most of whom owned banks or breweries by now. He had no job, I guess, because he was always there to get yelled at but he must have been a saint for he never said a word. I pictured him at the table in his pee-stained underwear patiently reading the paper and loving his wife in spite of everything. Meanwhile the thumping stripper music from the bar downstairs rattled the windows. One night, on my way out, I passed their open door and saw their room was as small as mine and the old dame was in there yelling as usual and she was in that room alone. “Oh, well,” I thought. Better to blame a ghost than no one.
Mornings I’d have my coffee and pie breakfast at the cafe across the street. Once Carol Doda sat beside me at the counter. I recognized her breasts, if nothing else, but of course I’d seen her on TV and also knew her from the posters on Broadway. If you don’t know, Carol Doda was the topless go-go dancer, world famous for her for gargantuan silicone filled tits.
“They really are something,” I clucked. This was the conversation I imagined. She smiled good-naturedly and said nothing. Ordered coffee from the counterman.
“I wouldn’t mind having a look, sometime.”
“Come to my show.”
There was an immense neon image of her hanging outside the Condor, where she performed nightly, just down the street.
“I think I’m too young to get in. Besides I’m broke.”
“Where you from?” She began a friendly conversation over our coffees and the whole time I’m hoping she’ll invite me somewhere to look at her tits. She could tell I had no motive but scientific curiosity. I’d seen the Golden Gate Bridge. Why not Carol Doda’s tits? I imagined they were quite uncomfortable but people have done worse things to their bodies to make a living and, also, I could see she was kind of proud of them. I found them not the least bit sexual. And I thought to myself, I came here to find Jack Kerouac and found Carol Doda. When she’d downed her coffee she ordered two more to go and got up to leave. She smiled at me on her way out and I knew she’d overheard our imaginary conversation and had enjoyed it as much as I had.
Evenings I’d cross Broadway to stand in front of the Jazz Workshop and listen to the great music pouring through the open doors. There was always a gang of us too cheap or too broke to go inside but the sound out on the pavement was good enough to infuse our bloodstreams with glorious jazz. When John Coltrane played there I had to see him with my own eyes. The doorman knew me as one of the regular sidewalk aficionados but this night I walked past him saying, “I’m meeting some friends inside.” He knew I was not good for the door charge but let me pass. Inside I approached the bandstand as Trane’s tenor sound filled me and filled the room and filled the entire ecstatic universe. There they were. McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and up front, at the edge of the stage, as though he were about to leap forth and fly heavenward, with closed eyes, sweat soaked face, and his golden tenor raised to New Jerusalem, wailing, John Coltrane. I swear to god I rose a foot off the floor. I stood there no more than five or ten minutes before the doorman’s hand touched my shoulder, finally. “You gonna have to go back outside.” He said it gentle, knowing why I was there, and slowly I backed out of the joint.
But the movies. I was talking about the movies. When my week at the Golden Eagle was up I’d go sleep days in the Market Street movie houses. I always got there early, having been up all night at the Hot Dog Palace, mostly, and then I’d walk down Columbus to Market Street. I found the Hot Dog Palace one night when I met two college guys with backpacks roaming Broadway. We got into a conversation and decided to go for coffee. The Hot Dog Palace at the triangle of Columbus, Grant, and Broadway was convenient and seemed harmless enough, and cheap. After a while they wandered back out into the night in search of accommodation while I nursed another coffee. For a fast food joint the place seemed unusually agreeable. The jukebox played two tunes again and again, endlessly. For All We Know by Aretha Franklin, who was still a pop singer at that time, and Ramsey Lewis’s Wade in the Water. There was a raised counter on one side behind which a tall black man, whose name turned out to be Edgar Jones, doled out coffee, sandwiches and, of course, the occasional hot dog. In the corner by the Grant Street entrance stood a pinball machine and on the opposite side was the Columbus entrance. Plate glass ran around the remaining walls through which you could see the North Beach night and all its characters, beats, hipsters, tourists, showgirls, and the regular working stiffs who actually lived in the neighbourhood’s hotels and rooming houses.
As the night rolled on the action picked up in The Hot Dog Palace. I was perfectly happy to sit and watch the comings and goings of the various characters. “What time does this place close?” I asked Mr Jones while picking up another refill. “We never close.” Perfect! Though I’d have been content, for the time, to remain an innocent bystander, the easy sociability of the place soon included me. There were just so many tables so anyone sat anywhere and soon I was startled to find myself witness to an exchange of dope for money at my table. No one seemed concerned that I might be a narc or worse. After the seller split I got into a conversation with the buyer, a guy in his twenties with shaggy hair and nervous demeanour. We became friends, in a way, because I was to see him many times there and he made no bones about warning me to avoid the junk he was addicted to. I took his advice.
I spent many all-nighters at The Hot Dog Palace, drinking coffee, playing pinball to which I became addicted, and getting to know some of the regulars. Aretha’s For All We Know and Ramsey’s Wade in the Water played non-stop on the juke box, a kind of soundtrack that was to make it all seem like I was living in a movie. One night a man came in, an older man, maybe in his fifties, that carried himself like some kind of hipster sage. The thing that drew me to him more than anything was his walking stick. I have a thing about walking sticks. All my life I’ve had an eye for a good walking stick. I’d spot them on beaches, in the woods, trash heaps, etc., and never passed a good one by. I’d pick it up and use it for a few days, lose it, and then find another one. Crazy. Sometimes I even faked a limp so I wouldn’t just look like some damn fool kid with a stick. This cat’s stick was unlike any I’d ever seen. Solid, heavy, and stained the rich colour of ancient mysteries. I was very impressed. I sat at the man’s table and listened to him speak in a gnarled, junky voice, keeping my eye on his staff the whole time, willing him to give it to me. Whether his words were really deep or merely inane I have no way of now judging but at the time I might have been ready to become a devotee. He said, “Everything is nothing and nothing is everything and everything is everything and nothing is nothing but pain is pain.” This floored me, obviously, because I never forgot it. He was either a mystic or his feet hurt, I don’t know. Then he held out his walking stick to me and said, “Here, hold this for me.” I couldn’t believe it. An hour later he got up to go and I prayed he’d forget the stick. It was crazy. Why would he? He must have needed it. He would surely have felt its absence as he walked out. He walked out and I had the stick in my hands. At dawn I went to Washington Square to sleep in the sun. Later I got a few more hours sleep in a Market Street movie house. Then I walked all over the city with that stick. It’s impossible to describe the sense it gave me. I felt I could walk forever and see things more deeply than ever before. I could go anywhere and do anything. I was buoyed by a confidence and strength entirely new to me. I was ready to walk over the whole world. I don’t believe now, nor did I believe then that there was anything magical about that piece of wood but for some reason it had this effect on me. I suppose it was because I believed that it did.
Later in the day I realized I had to return the thing and that became a quest for the man who’s name I didn’t even know. Back in North Beach I started asking around by describing the guy and showing people the stick till, finally, someone recognized who I looking for. I followed various clues till I wound up at a rooming house on Columbus where I was told a girlfriend of his, Suzanne, lived. I knocked on the door and she yelled to come in. I walked into a medium-sized room where a guy was cooking up some beans on a hotplate in the corner and Suzanne was walking towards the door in perfectly naked beauty. She might have been about twenty or so, long-haired , slim, perfect in every way that I could tell. I must admit that my nineteen-year-old virgin brain was set on fire. I told my story as best I could, sitting the only place to sit, on the bed,. I tried not to wear out her body with my eyes while at the same time memorizing every single one of its features, as I spoke. Yeah, she knew the guy and would get his stick back to him. Did I want something to eat? I didn’t know what to do. Of course, I always want something to eat and I wanted, even more than food, to stay in that room and study Suzanne. The guy at the frypan silently stirred at something. I knew, though, that I’d be hard-put to bite, chew, and swallow in the correct order while pretending not to be boring holes through her skin with my horny eyes. The cook in the corner said, “Hey, why don’t I take off for a while while you fuck Suzanne,” but only in my wistful imagination. When I couldn’t stand it any more I left the stick leaning against Suzanne’s bed and thanked them. Down the spiral stairway that seemed to never end, down and down and down – out the main door and back down Columbus to the Hot Dog Palace.
My mind aflame with the sights and sounds of my San Francisco walking-stick day, I could not yet know that sexual melodrama, futile longing, and the crazy play of desire and disappointment were not over yet. Edgar, the counterman, tall, black, and beautiful, is ending his shift and invites me back to his place, just a couple of blocks away. We’d had some conversations during long night hours and I saw nothing more than friendship in his offer. How the hell was I supposed to know the man was queer? Back at his place he made us coffee while I wandered around admiring his collection of artworks. It was the most beautiful apartment I’d ever seen. He put on a Jimmy Smith album and asked me a million questions. He seemed to be so sincerely interested in my saga yet he grew increasingly agitated as he talked to me from his kitchen while I snooped around. I thought I sounded so hip, so sincere, so smart, and yet the feeling that my answers to his questions were somehow out of whack puzzled me. I had my coffee and left. I was halfway down the street before the pathetic realization dawned that the man was probably hoping for sex .
Meanwhile, I was getting my sleep in Market Street movie joints. Back then the door charge changed through the day, cheapest in the morning. I’d get there when admissions were lowest and for a quarter I’d get a seat up front in the near-empty theatre where triple, and even quadruple features were order of the day. I’d watch a bit then fall asleep. I’d wake up and see a bit of something else then sleep some more. I’d be in there most of the day and more or less see all the movies but in broken up, haphazard pieces, in random order, mixed in with bits of dreams, fantasies, memories. This kind of crazy sleeping affected my waking hours, too. Through all that time, maybe a month, my mind was a confusion of various realities, movie scenes, strange nights and days peopled with the odd characters at the Hot Dog Palace, Kirk Douglas, Maureen O’Hara, Suzanne, me…. There were strange moments when I woke up in the dark theatre, the giant screen alive with people and light, not knowing who or where, or what, I was. Seconds of desperate groping for comprehension. I think I came to understand the amnesiac’s view of things. I’ve wondered more than once how all this affected my consciousness in the long run. Whatever, I still find my clearest thoughts in the dark theatre. Though, lately, this hasn’t worked so well. I’m probably going to the wrong theatres. No perverts. Now it’s just a place people go to when they’ve got things to talk over with their friends. And eat food that comes in crinkly wrappers. I get too distracted not only from the world depicted onscreen but my own thoughts. It’s just no good.
I first arrived in San Francisco summer 1963. Got off the bus, bought a map at the bus depot newsstand, found Columbus Avenue, and walked all the way to the City Lights Bookstore. The electrifying feel and smell of San Francisco hit me immediately and were sensations that endured through all that time and all future times that I was there. Cities have their unique aromas, for good or bad. This was the bouquet of a garden of beatific spirits. The air itself seemed charged with poetry and light. I looked up and saw a California sky like blue glass. And some kind of reflection of myself therein. City Lights was my San Francisco centre. Other homeless poets got their mail there I saw, shoved in a slot on the bulletin board. So it became my S.F. address, too. I went there every day. Checked for mail and talked to Robert Scheer who worked the cash in those days. Or I went down to the cellar and read books seated at one of the tables. All those books, poems and stories by names I’d learned to love – the beat daddies. Scheer had not only been to Cuba, as had I the year before, he wrote a book about it and gave me a copy, paperback, Grove Press, publisher of so many of the authors I persued in those days. One day I was hanging out talking to Bob when a truck pulled up out front filled with cartons of Ginsberg’s Reality Sandwiches, hot off the press from England, where it had been printed. I gave Bob a hand with the cartons, opened one of the boxes, and removed a copy. I asked him if he’d autograph and inscribe it as the first copy sold but not only did he refuse to do it, he refused to let me buy it and gave it to me. (Later that year Ferlinghetti himself donated a copy of Kerouac’s Book of Dreams to my personal library of beat masterworks.)
Poet Tom Jackrell got busted in Sacramento. His hope of raising bail was his friend, S, who lived in Nob Hill, San Francisco, but had no phone. Tom called City Lights to see if someone there could get a message to S. I’d been standing there talking to Scheer when he took the call and so I volunteered to make the trip to Nob Hill. I found S living in an abandoned mansion. He took off for Sacramento, leaving me to stay at his place, a marvellous home empty but for a couple of mattresses, some kitchen stuff for cooking up brown rice and seaweed, and several marijuana plants in the sun room out behind the kitchen. Before heading off, S introduced me to the pleasures of the divine herb. Later that day or the next I ran into Dale somewhere in North Beach. Probably at City Lights. My life in those years was a seemingly unending series of incredibly lucky episodes. I was always in the right place at the right time. I was always finding places to stay. Meeting the right people. I believe it was simply a matter of always being on the go, out there where people and events were happening. A lesson I too easily kept forgetting in the years that came later. Anyway, there I was running into Dale, once again, with a place to stay. I took him back to Nob Hill and got him high. He’d been a dope virgin, too, it turned out, and he was nervous and immediately threw up. Other than that neither of us felt very different, in fact. By then I’d smoked three or four times and didn’t think much was happening but kept at it, if for nothing else, for the idea of it. Later on I figured out that unlike the genuinely dangerous drugs, like alcohol, which get crudely to the point straightaway, Maria Juanita’s a gentle mentor with whom you leisurely learn the ins and outs of highness. Well something happened because later Dale and I bebopped through most of nighttime San Francisco winding up gorging ourselves on Chinese food in North Beach. A lone cablecar sped past us, the black conductor clanging out a boppish rhythm. I looked at Dale. “See, man? Blacks have got more soul.” “Yes, I can see now you are right.” Dale, son of Black bourgeois Chicago and stepson now of famous Ellington sideman, had argued this point with me on an all day walk between Banff, Alberta and Hope, BC. (We got a ride part of the way after about fifteen hours of non-stop walking.) Now he knew better. Still, when we both ran out of money after a couple of days he wanted to go home to Teaneck, New Jersey. He hit the Traveller’s Aid up for bus fare and as the Greyhound pulled out of the station I yelled after him that I’d be at his place in a few months. “Great, man, great. C’mon, we’ll have a ball.” For weeks he’d been telling me about his parent’s place. He’d been painting a gorgeous picture of hanging out there, where neighbours like J.J.Johnson and other jazz legends came by and partied and played. I couldn’t wait to get there. (When I did finally arrive in New York and called Dale from the bus station, suddenly he was too busy or his parents were too uptight or some bullshit. He said he’d meet me in the Village and I waited there for hours but he never showed up. It was years before I ran into him again and it seemed as though he either had turned into an asshole or had been one all along.)
Meanwhile I was trying to get information on the poetry convention up in Vancouver that Al Neil had told me about. I wasn’t going to miss that. The day after my trip to Nob Hill I was once again loitering in City Lights, shooting the breeze with Bob.
“Y’ever smoke marijuana?” I asked.
His eyes about bugged out but he said nothing.
“That guy, S., gave me some grass.”
“Jesus, keep it down. That shit’s illegal, you know. People go to jail.”
I felt like a kid scolded for crayoning on the Magna Carta. The only other person within earshot was holding a copy of New American Poetry in his hand. Changing the the subject, I said,
“Ahh, er… say, that’s a great book. Really great.” (My own tattered copy had been a kind of bible to me in my pursuit of poetness.)
“I know. I edited it.”
Donald Allen! Well I’ll be ding-donged! As it turned out Allen knew all about the Vancouver Poetry conference, starting in August, about a month away. I decided on the spot to catch the Vancouver bus, register for the conference, and return to stay in San Francisco till it began. I remember nothing specific about the bus trip. I’d spent so many days and nights riding various buses that, with few exceptions, all those trips are a blur of endless sleeping, smoking, and meal stops. Though near the end of bus trips I’d be desperately looking for highway signs counting down the last desperate miles to my destination, for the most part I enjoy the bus. Lean back with my head against the window, watch the country roll by. Sleep. Once in a rare while a fellow traveler to talk to. Smoke. But those days are over. For one thing now you can’t smoke on the bus. For another the thought of a solid day, twenty-four hours, on the bus is beyond even imagining in these, my years of impatience and sore assbones. Somehow the driver failed to take my ticket. I tried to stay invisible all the way to Vancouver and must have succeeded for I got there with a ticket still valid for my next trip up. This was good because even at only twenty dollars a pop all these bus trips were eating into my poverty. I got off the bus and walked to the Espresso Coffee House for a meal in exchange for some dish-washing. I hitchhiked out to UBC, registered for the conference, hitchhiked back out, found a place to stay and party for the night, and bussed back to San Francisco the next morning.