Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Reprint Heaven: Sail On

 An Anecdotal
(A Birthday Post From March, 2019.  Now He Knows What We Do Not)

City Of Paris Sign In The Conversation (1974)

Almost half my life ago, a friend took me to an event in support of saving the Eiffel Tower-shaped sign which had graced the roof of the old City of Paris department store on Union Square. CofP had been there for generations -- since the Gold Rush; before and after The 1906 Earthquake and fire -- but business setbacks forced it to close.

The property had been purchased by Neiman-Marcus; they intended to build what still looks like a featureless beige box around the old CofP's oval, central core, topped by a stained glass skylight (you can see the old City of Paris building, and its trademark sign, in Coppola's film, The Conversation).

Replacing City of Paris with Texas-based Neiman's struck many San Franciscans as a cultural loss (dear god; Texas???) . Trying to save a landmark sign from a landmark local business was a way of saying No, we don't agree with that Yah-Hoo shit. A meeting was held to raise funds to purchase the sign, before finding a suitable location for it: and there would be poetry! Gary Snyder would read. So would Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I went, I listened.  Snyder had been a particular lodestone favorite of mine for a long time; I'd only heard him read once before in Berkeley; and Ferlinghetti, not in person at all.

When he did, he set "In Fascist America " in front of us like a dish, well-cooked but spicy enough to be a challenge to eat, like reading The Fire Next Time all in one sitting -- dig in if you've got the spittle for it, baby. And he read it in the Beat cadence you can see, fortunately, in film and video clips.

The applause at the end was genuine. Everyone knew Ferlinghetti as a national treasure, a cultural icon, someone who had gravitas and knew it and used it. He was on the side of Right and it appeared in his work like a sword on fire. We applauded for all that as much as the reading.

They never were able to buy the City of Paris sign. I went on to dinners over the years with friends and occasionally did (or was asked to do) my impression of Ferlinghetti, reading -- I'm gifted as a mimic; people laughed, which was the point (particularly about the repeating line in that poem, with a specific pause in his cadence when he would say, "In Fascist / America"). One person I knew in particular, who loved Ferlinghetti's poetry and had heard him read multiple times, always dissolved in laughter when she heard me do that.

Fast-forward a number of years: My acquaintance was taking lessons in a foreign language in the City, through a cultural exchange group; Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in the class. The last, penultimate assignment for each student was to take a short piece of literature or poetry, translate it into the Language Other Than English, then read it to the rest of the class. Ferlinghetti chose, "In Fascist America". He did it in the same cadence I'd used in my homage.

My acquaintance said later she was able to hold it in "almost until the end", before exploding with laughter. Apparently she slipped and fell trying to exit the room but made it outside, leaving Ferlinghetti and the rest of the class somewhat mystified.

I lived in North Beach for over a decade. In (for me) the old days, before heading to Vesuvio's or Spec's or Tosca's [Still with us in 2021]-- the real Bermuda Triangle (and if you understand that reference, you are my brother or sister) -- I might stop off in City Lights Books; occasionally, you might see Ferlinghetti on the ground floor, talking with someone at a table in one of the alcoves. More rarely at night, when you were coming out of Pearl's jazz club across the street [No idea if it's survived Covid], you might catch a glimpse of him, working late, through a window in City Lights' second-floor offices.

Most long-time residents in North Beach knew his house; it was roughly a block from my flat, and we passed each other at least twice a week for years, he walking up Stockton street towards Columbus, me walking down: two guys who wore fedoras. We made eye contact; I smiled, and sometimes said hello (it would have been odd if, after years of occurrence, I hadn't) but it was only a short time before I left the neighborhood that he began responding back.

The last time I saw Ferlinghetti was during a sentimental walk back, over ten years after leaving North Beach: walking across the grass of Washington Square on a warm, sunny afternoon; there he was, wearing one of the trademark hats, lying on the grass with his head propped up by a day pack, a faint smile on his face as he tilted it up toward the sun. I believe he'd been hospitalized for a heart problem not long before, and that knowledge struck me -- mortality; a memory of my Sixties in The City, the place I landed after Southeast Asia and never really left, and Ferlinghetti's connections to all of that.

Ferlinghetti once wrote, "All I ever wanted to do was paint light on the walls of life." The City changed, and not for the better.  In a 2015 PBS News Hour segment, he noted that int San Francisco, "A new brand of dot-com millionaires and generally Silicon Valley money have moved into San Francisco, with bags full of cash and no manners." 

In response, one person responded, "What a crank. The city is still as vibrant and creative as it ever was, except, now, young ambitious people are in tech."  Another wrote, "...Fogeys gonna foge." 

Well. Kiddies.

At some point today I'll walk over to the old neighborhood and past his house, and put a good thought out for him. A century is a long time for a person, but it's not even a blink in the universe. 

Very few of us get to impact the Geist of the culture, live in people's hearts, and so sail on into time. But he will.

1 comment:

  1. Well done.

    Our centuries would be better marked by fewer Gettys and more Ferlinghettis.