Chasing ghosts down Cannery Row

Cannery Row (all photographs my own)

I decided to take a walk today, a different route to the pier. Reading that the late, great Ferlinghetti had passed away, I took myself on a pilgrimage to City Lights bookshop. The Beat Museum is closed because the world closed up to try and stop us all dying in the meantime, but seeing the large printed blown up photo outside of Kerouac and Cassady, and the curlicue script naming the City Lights Bookstore and Publishers made my heart skip a beat.

Ginsburg, Kerouac, Cassady, Huncke, Burroughs and Ferlinghetti. I say their names quietly intoning the names of the archangels of Beat. Without these people there would have been no sixties, there would have been no cultural awakening, no rock and roll, no acid tests, no hope at all. Ferlinghetti and his partner Murano took a huge personal risk publishing Ginsburg’s Howl, and the subsequent trial put the beats literally and literature-ally on the map. The west coast became ground zero for the hip, the hep-cats, artists, poets and freaks. Long Live the City Lights Bookstore!

To walk to Broadway from where I live I have quite the trek. I’m used to covering vast distances of nothingness in the Beastie, but still not yet used to the condensed intense treks on foot in the city. Far apart from the thousands of miles of flat repetitive Dakota, or the endless passes and plains of Montana, the streets of the city change rapidly tumbling underfoot. The traffic and boarded up stores, the shit and the detritus, the dirty blankets and needles, the maskless coughers and snoring roughsleepers seem to go on for an eternity. This part of town is one long slog of deprivation and violence. A man kneels in front of a mail box, head cocked towards the metal, listening intently to himself drum on the echoing box, his knees on the street, his eyes to the heavens and his mind God only knows where. Eternity, I suspect. He is lost in the beat. DumdedumdeDUM. DumdedumdeDum. I smile to myself as I remember Cassady described by Kerouac in his jazz bars in Denver, just digging it all, digging the beat and the dissonance and the spirit. I was not digging the beat. I was a Jack in a rolling stones 75 tour shirt, and skinny jeans looking at this otherworldly being, who had clearly done too much, or maybe just enough, speed and acid, to reach a kind of San Franciscan revelation on his knees near the hubbub of a cross street of Van Ness. As I passed by this insectoid humanoid drummer, he flinched, shut his eyes and intensified the beat. Its not often I find much to smile about nowadays, but the drummer and his private moment lost in the rhythm of a high and thoughts of Burroughs and the boys and their letters and friendship buoyed my mood. There is still magic in this world if you look hard enough.

My road is cut off, my travels curtailed, my freedom clipped short. But it seemed as if the universe had heard my feminine screech of deprivation and was going to throw me a bone. Looking over at Jamie, who was truckin’ in his black boots he wears to guard against any possibility of stepping in human excrement or discarded things of various shapes and colors that you do not wish to step in, I smiled. He didn’t even baulk at the mail box drummers or the streetlife. Considering the kid had basically grown up in the wilderness of campgrounds, he was adjusting pretty well to the city and the life it held within it. You have to turn right onto Broadway. We hadn’t been down here before. You pass a Bevmo wonderland for the terminally drunk and destitute, a guitar center where I ran in to purchase strings, you keep going past the roadworks which seem like they have set up shop forever more in an eternal installation of the art of purgatory, and the various smells wafting out of the steak joints and Japanese food vendors, the hipster coffee shacks and the reek of gasoline coming alarmingly from the station on the corner. I do not enjoy this part of the walk. This is freeway walking, getting from point A to B, looking for a turn off, the right one, preferably, the correct one (never say the right turn instead of the correct turn again, Paltry, the memory of my own driver and raconteur nagged at me in my head, that kinda confusion can get a man turned around so far he might never get back on the correct road). I pulled out my phone, laughing at how I navigated across the country with nothing but a KOA yearly directory of campsites, but cant get to Broadway without a small supercomputer in my pocket. Two more blocks. We find Broadway. It clearly hasn’t moved from where it should be in quite some time. It is there, immoveable, inviolate, Billionaires Row. Crossing over the road, everything quiets down. It gets safer, prettier, richer, quieter. Steeper. I noticed a tall strange tower off the street to the left, and thought to myself it looked haunted, or at least cursed in some way. It did not seem to fit into its surroundings. I always feel self conscious taking photographs, but stopped to snap it before anyone saw me looking and wondering and dragged me off into a different movie. A horror story involving nuns and abandoned towers, perhaps.

The steps creep up on you all of a sudden. You are climbing, climbing climbing, mask suffocating in the early spring warmth, so steep you can only just see the horizon break ahead. Children’s drawings in chalk splatter the sidewalk in garish slashes of rainbows waiting for the rain to wash them away. I am not fit anymore. I’m not even young anymore. My knees ache and my legs burn. In Japan if you want to visit temples there is generally some climbing involved. Proving your devotion perhaps, through suffering or maybe simply trying to get closer to the Kami in the skies. Mount Shosha-Engyoji involved a cable car and some degree of bravery to get up to the top to visit the jinja. It had stood for over a thousand years, this temple. People came and went. People returned with one face or another, time and time again, apparently. My profane pilgrimage to the City Lights amused me for a second, until I saw the steep descent of the steps that led down into Chinatown. One wrong move and an pilgrim could break their neck or something worse. I tiptoed my way down, holding onto Jamie, in a weird reversal of roles. Not so long ago, I would have helped him down, now there he was taking my hand, making concerned noises about my foot placement, and telling me to be careful.

Jack Kerouac Street

Working on the sidewalk, two guys chattered contentedly as we walked past. The road evens out into a level section that takes you through Chinatown. It gets scuzzier and busier again. Hello Kitty dolls with twisted thin faces peer out of windows in some grotesque copyright violation. You can get your hair designed, your feet massaged, your checks cashed and your stomach filled. Chinatown smells of cigarette smoke and chow mein, boiling seafood and sweat. A woman stopped, pulled down her mask and coughed lustily, gobbing out a thick wobbling wad of mucus onto the floor. Ordinarily I would be disgusted, but instead was fascinated by her apparent refusal to accept there was a pandemic on and a certain set of rules followed so as not to spread disease. I felt sorry for her. She looked too sick to care.


The magic of gps told me I had a few more blocks to go to reach the bookstore. We overshot it, as we passed the closed up beat museum, taking photos from the other side of the road, by a Chinese restaurant where the sweet, salty spicy scent of mappudofu called people to sit at tables in the street and inhale bowls of gooey deliciousness. Cassady’s dark eyes peered out of the photograph, his square handsome masculine face, next to the more serious Jack. I had an audio book of on the road, on fuzzy cassette tape, I used to plug in headphones and let them play out their miles for my amusement before I went to sleep in the back of beastie. When they asked Dylan what he had been doing before he came to NYC to be a folk singer, he said he was a Carnie, he was riding railroad cars, he was hopping trains and he had run away with the circus. He had been doing no such thing, but he clearly had read about it, heard about the life of a hobo. There is a certain dignity to not knowing where you next meal is coming from and sleeping in the back of your vehicle, wondering if you will be rousted by the cops or the parking lot security guards, or if they will let you sleep until morning so you can move on out of there to where ever you might be going. I remembered Salinas and the rising tide of fear and tiredness as we tried to catch a few hours rest in a grocery store lot, while Cassady told me it was going to be alright-a-rooney-rooney in jumbled dreams of places I had never been, hot Mexico nights and someone else’s journey. I swear he was haunting me some of those nights as we hauled ass for the mountain pass, or gunned it for the county line.

GPS told us to turn around, so we did, past the good-smelling Chinese place, and back to the crossroad, the City Lights and its treasures and signs, the sometimes profane destination, and sat there quietly regarding us as we regarded it.

Of course I couldn’t find the door. Inside it is somewhat unremarkable. A few postcards and a beat section pander to the tourist or wanna be beat-acolyte, there is a cool selection of books for the musician, the would be iconoclast, a copy of Greer’s The Female Eunuch caught my eye. I just wanted to get out of there. I felt nauseous and burnt out, sickened and exhausted. Stumbling up the stairs, past the postcards and tote bags, past the smart young man in the brown oxfords with the haughty unwelcoming attitude, past the small books of Ferlinghettis’ poetry that I so coveted, past the gorgeous little collection of Kerouac’s sketches, me and my money and my son tipped out into the clean air of the street. I felt cheated. First Big Sur, now this.

If Cassady and Keroac had been alive today they would have been carousing in the TL, drinking in some pop up bar by the Pier. They would be where I had just walked so far from. It was too rich, too clean, too bright, too expensive here. Beat had become big business.

And it made me feel sick.

What I needed was sugar. My last vice. We headed down towards the water to buy a treat to eat back at home. It was busy, and hot. Nothing felt right at all. Walking into the tourist trap of the pier, seeing all the maskless faces opening wide to gnaw on donuts and burgers, gulp sodas and beers, we swung back onto the street and high tailed it towards Cannery Row. As we did, two young men stood arguing on a street corner. “We have run out of time”, the tall one with the short hair and skateboard, said to the shorter one wearing an open leopard skin shirt, a sharks tooth necklace and at least two weeks worth of grime. “No, man,” he replied “don’t say that, we have time, we still have time.” I slowed my walk down, their movie jibing with my own for a moment. “I’m telling you, we are out of time its too late,” the tall one moaned. I looked back at the pair, their too-late-ness inscribed in the fear on their faces. I was glad that our movies had not collided, just coincided a moment or two. Then I smiled. Here they were, here were Jack and Neal, on the streets of San Francisco, weeks of grime, another scheme gone awry, at least one of them looking like they needed a drink or a smoke, and both of them wearily aware that nothing was likely to be ok today. They both knew how this kind of car wreck went. It was too late, but it might not be. Would it be the small guy in the garish shirt that dragged his buddy through whatever disaster was unfolding on Cannery Row, or was it all lost. Whatever bag, whichever deal, whoever was coming for them or at them or with them.

Cannery Row

I couldn’t help it, I raised a hand a few inches in recognition. “Hello, boys.” But they didn’t hear me. They were still too busy fighting about whether or not it was indeed too late.

I was getting late in the day for me too. My injured leg hurts if I walk too much on it, I push through the pain but it hurts nevertheless. We needed water, as the water in the room is not for drinking. A woman who usually sells cards or trinkets on the street, was just packing up her table, she had a weary look on her face. Cannery Row has always done that to people, I reasoned to Jamie. It tires them out. I wished I had picked up a copy at City Lights, so I could give it to him. So he could love it as I did. I looked up at the nooks and crannies and low doors of Cannery Row, of the eerie silence of Jacks Bar, and the empty tables in the plaza, climbed the steps, and was gone.

Back in the land of the living, we made our way towards Polk. I still felt empty and sickened. It did not feel like a successful day. Still I had guitar strings in my bag, and a gluten free cake. I guess it was a very San Franciscan kinda trip.

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