From the Embarcadero to The City Lights Bookstore. A Beat(en) Prayer.

I didn’t intend to go to The City Lights Bookstore today, I guess the road had other plans. The road has other plans even when you are on foot, especially when you are on foot, I guess, no solid walls of the vehicle to shield you, no wheels to out run Fate and her furies… things just carry you along, like a piece of flotsam on the tide, it just happens that way. I was about ready to head back home, when the Boy decided he had found a better route, and it would take us through Chinatown. He pulled out his phone at a crossroads, a true crossroads in the heart of the city of the Beats, announcing that we could walk past the City Lights, if I thought I might like to go and browse – my son knows me well, he knows this would please me, and he seems to want me to be happy – us both to be happy – after all this time spent struggling so hard just to make it through. The day was cold and grey and a swift breeze howled through our jackets. He is less child now, more sidekick, less needy than accomplice, and though I mourn those baby-days passing, he is great company and comfort as the days move on. The city was buzzing quietly, but still so empty, still bereft of people. We followed the arrow on the screen, making it safely to the right road. I can say that now…the right road…the right road. I never did enjoy making myself say “correct” so Billy driving would not have to check and see if I wanted a right hand turn or not…we were on the right road. Sometimes I think the freedom to talk as I please, to say what I like, and not say what I want not to is the biggest luxury of all. No sorries, no apologies, no adjustments. Fuck a room of my own, I just want words I can own.

The street throws up characters to admire and avoid, a boy in tangerine clothes eating an orange on the sidewalk with no shoes on their feet scattering peels at mine…I knew this boy, or boys like him, the blonde curls of a distressed and slightly used Michelangelo’s David and a sad story behind the foundations for their situations, a man shouting to the person at the other end of the line that getting stoned was all well and good but what were they gonna DO. What are any of us going to do…there is no point shouting about it, might as well get on with it. Ernest young women with brightly colored hair zig zagged their way across roads ahead of me, and I envied their energy and pep and vitality. They looked as if they had something to do and they needed to get there right now, hurtling towards conclusions of their own, towards paths and dead ends and forks and crossroads of their own, I wanted to hold onto their coattails crying “Wait for me!” but it was no use, they were gone on the wind, leaving nothing but the dark wood and the bold signage of the City Lights Bookstore looming ahead of me. It always intimidated me so. I baulked at going in, telling the Boy inscrutably that I was not in the mood to look at books, he regarded me with exasperation. “Ma, come on now, is this really the end, to be stuck out here on whatever street this is, with the hipness blues again?” I laughed at his goofiness. I had taught him well, raised him on Ginsburg and Dylan, on Sun Tzu and the Haga Kure. I had fed him on my dreams, and he was starting to blossom. He grabbed my hand and hauled me in, squirting a little sanitizer on our hands, and pulling me up the stairs to the beat and poetry section. The litany of my hero(ines) laid out on tables and shelves, earnt their place at the altar of Beat, and moved onto the next plane to make a table for us pilgrims and acolytes who hold onto their words and comforts, their experience and their rhythm like a lifeboat or a parachute. William Burroughs, though I lay my junkie head to rest, with the beat angels at my foot and head, would you please wake me from my opiate dreams if I go too far. Amen. William died for no one’s sins, not even his own.

I still feel overwhelmed going in there. I don’t want to be no tourist gawping at where these faces played and worshipped and worked. My accent marks me out as foreign, and that is, for the good and bad of it, how I’m seen. I’m seen as other, not ‘home’, travelling, outside. I used to revel in it, now I just long for my tribe, for acceptance, to land a while and be somewhere. I think Ginsburg would have understood and been kind. I think he would have clink clink clinked his bells, and rounded his shoulders in that humble earnest way you see on film, and I think he would have dug, man. He would have felt an accord, or at least accepted me as I am or was. I walked up those stairs to the Beat and poetry section and wanted so much to be home, but I felt like so much a phoney, a pose, a fraud, a mistake. I felt like I should get back out there and let the road take me and my words and be damned. I felt like I should be in a Klamath feedlot store, or a Minnesotan Lake bathroom, or a squat in some squalid towerblock digging around in my feet for a new vein. Anywhere but in the place where people come to pay respects to those I feel comradeship with, unfit to kiss the ground on which they walked, to step up the stairs they once skirted, and not to sit in the gorgeous rocking chair marked “Poet’s Chair.” This, this small task of writing, of chronicling of talking, of laying myself open as a wound felt faintly ridiculous. I was bereft.

A man pushed past me with a camera, sticking into rooms and round corners, dislodging me from the shelf I was browsing, intending to buy myself something beautiful, something real, something worth something. A book on Burroughs, a copy perhaps of Naked Lunch, a perfect little book of Kerouac’s sketches, little fragments and poems in gorgeous rough paper and a solid cover, maybe some Lorca or or or

Neal Cassady’s Collected Letters. Interrupted, already feeling out of place, unworthy and unwelcome, the City Lights imposing and silent, a clipper ship, crowned and anchored and me just a pirate looking in from a hotel in the ‘Loin, shouting at the street lights and the fading afternoon.

The large confident man quite broke my dreams, my internal recitation: Ferlinghetti. Cassady. Kerouac. Ginsburg. Dylan. Huncke, Corso. Burroughs.

Di Prima. Synder. Kaufman. Welch. Creeley. Kesey.

Townes Van Zandt. Blaze Foley, Jim Morrison and Patti Smith..and the boys and girls on the trains and the buses and the dogs and the horses, the cars and the trucks and Beastie on the 101. Amun… Ra. . .

I grabbed the book of Cassady’s Letters, and made for the stairs, not pausing. Not breathing. Not thinking. Not stopping. Not considering, just get out of there. This building always has the same effect on me; Just get out of there and get back onto the street where I belong with the tangerine boy and the crack-roosters and the Hell’s Angel’s and the junkies I deserted in favor of sobriety and a throwaway attempt at motherhood, the Cheap Seats shouting at me that I failed I failed and Ill fail again. I’ll keep on failing until the day I die, and then everything I ever loved will wither and go.

Because one day we die. That’s why we do this, mortality nipping at our heels, pulling at our hair, telling day one day and you won’t know when, all this.

All this.

All this.

All this.

Will be gone.

And so will you.


  1. leendadll

    It just occurred to me that it’s extremely odd that I once took a 5hr walking tour of SF, which included City Lights, but I don’t recall going inside.

    Are you living over in the tenderloin?

    One of my more interesting adventures was running around Union Sq, around 6pm on NYE, to find a street vendor and the snowflake earrings I HAD to have (1990s, $25 and I may still have them). It was COLD. I later learned an artic front had dropped temps to 28F!!!

    That night, we walked from our hotel to a club somewhere South of Market with NO idea of the area’s reputation till we were navigating ‘dangerous type’ peeps. All went fine but we definitely learned not to make that walk at night again!

    1. The Paltry Sum

      I would rather, for safety’s sake not say where we are…but in a rough part of town. That is mighty cold for SF! Im glad you enjoyed your visit here. It is a beautiful place..

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