Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, activist, painter and publisher, died on February 22 in his home in San Francisco holding the hand of his son. He was 101 years old, 30 days shy of his 102nd birthday.
Ferlinghetti wrote that he became an “instant pacifist” in 1945 when he visited Nagasaki and saw the carnage of war shortly after the U.S. dropped an atom bomb on the city. The memory of that visit would stay with him forever.
“Generally, people seem to get more conservative as they age, but in my case, I seem to have gotten more radical,” the poet told Interview magazine in 2013. “Poetry must be capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic.”
Ferlinghetti co-founded City Lights bookstore with a friend in 1953, then became sole owner in 1955. The bookstore became the central nerve of the emerging Beat Generation as, well as the publisher for Beat poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
Younger people today may not realize just how important City Lights Bookstore was to aspiring writers and poets as well as to those interested in reading their works. City Lights was both an idea and a destination, a place of pilgrimage.
The bookstore acquired a magical quality, as if just by visiting the place one could be transformed or instantly illuminated.
“Have you been to City Lights?” became a litmus test for the serious-minded lover of contemporary literature.
I was a high school student when I visited City Lights Bookstore in the late 1960s. The offer to visit San Francisco and City Lights was extended to me by an older male friend, Master, who had published a series of detective stories in his youth and who was a close friend of the famed Idaho writer, Vardis Fisher.
The offer to go to San Francisco occurred while I was visiting Master and his family in Colorado. Master told me that he had bought me a one-way ticket to San Francisco so that I could go and make some contacts at City Lights Bookstore.
Excited about traveling to the mythic city, I was also terrified at the prospect of introducing myself to strangers. Master wanted me to go to City Lights and make magic happen.
Master saw me off the following day at Denver’s Stapleton International Airport. While we were waiting for my flight he didn’t say much although he made me promise to really try and “extend myself” at City Lights. “Be on the lookout for Lawrence Ferlinghetti,” he said. “If you’re lucky, you might catch Allen Ginsberg.”
While the possibility of meeting a famous poet was exciting, I knew that unless Ferlinghetti came up to me (I could never bring myself to go up to him), I would probably let the opportunity pass. But I was happy that I was going to see San Francisco and imagined myself walking around the city and having as many experiences as possible.
The plan was to spend one day in San Francisco and then to take a Greyhound back to Philadelphia. That one day in the city could be extended if I showed true verve and found contacts in the city who would help me prolong my visit.
“You might even run into William Burroughs,” Master said.
I boarded the flight to Oakland then transferred to a helicopter that took me into the city. There were only a few passengers in the copter and we were all squeezed in together like military paratroopers. I made no attempt to speak to the passengers despite a constant inner urge to practice reaching out to people via small talk. Small talk, after all, often leads to greater talk, and greater talk sometimes leads to opportunities.
My silence in the copter did not bode well for City Lights. In my mind, I was already giving myself a failing grade. I longed to reach out to others but I just didn’t know how to do it.
“Talk to the people, talk to the people!” that inner voice kept saying, but I did not listen.
In San Francisco, I felt a rush of exhilaration as I boarded a cable car and rode it until I got up close to the Golden Gate Bridge. I disembarked near the wharves where I had planned on walking and maybe even running into Eric Hoffer, America’s famed moral and social philosopher. The wharves were nearly empty but I did run into a hippie in a headband who asked me for a dollar. That inner voice told me to make contact with him but I remained silent. I recall thinking, “If you can’t bring yourself to talk to a panhandling hippie, who can I talk to? “
I found a cafeteria and got an ample lunch, hoping somebody—anybody—would talk to me. By now my “I want to be alone” vibes had probably encased me within a psychic wall that worked like an electronic insect repellent.
After agonizing for a time, I found the nerve to ask somebody where City Lights was located. When I came to the familiar storefront, fear overtook me. I walked towards the door. Would Ferlinghetti be sitting in a chair in the hallway? Would Allen Ginsberg be in a side room combing Peter Orlovsky’s hair, or maybe humming mantras while playing a harmonica?
As I entered the bookstore, I saw a hallway of books and one or two clerks off to the side ringing up purchases. My entry seemed to go unnoticed. The bookstore was not crowded, and it was also smaller than I imagined. I went to the stacks where the City Lights Pocket Book editions were arranged in neatly processed rows and began taking out different volumes and skimming through them. There were chairs for people who wanted to read but I didn’t want to sit down.
I read Howl for the hundredth time.
I also kept waiting for something to happen. A tap on the shoulder, anything, but it soon became obvious that Ferlinghetti and the Beat poets were not there. Nobody was there except the clerks.
I kept waiting to feel the magic. Then I came to the awful realization that I had built the bookstore up in my mind--- the mind of illusion, as Ginsberg would say. In many ways the bookstore could have been any generic bookstore in New York or Boston.
I debated talking to one of the clerks and asking the whereabouts of Ferlinghetti and the Beats. Yet even if I found them, what was I supposed to say?
What would Master do in a situation like this? No doubt he would schmooze with the clerks. Small talk, after all, sometimes leads to greater talk and greater talk can lead to opportunities.
I left the bookstore, my hopes dashed. The only thing I had managed to say all day was “Yes, let me see if I have some money” to the hippie asking for change, and then asking for directions.
I spent the rest of the afternoon riding cable cars and sightseeing.
On a whim I stopped into a small bookstore on Geary Blvd. The sign simply said Orthodox Bookstore, as it was next to the Russian cathedral, reminding me of my visit to the New York World’s Fair with my family as a boyin 1964 where I saw wooden replica of the Russian Orthodox chapel modeled after the one at Fort Hood, California, in the 1800s. Although the World’s Fair chapel was locked, I was able to peer through a window and view the large 16th century icon of Our Lady of Kazan, known as the protector of Europe.
The second I stepped inside the bookstore the clerk asked if I needed help.
“Perhaps you have questions?” he said.
My ability to speak returned in a great rush when I told him about the log cabin chapel I saw at the World’s Fair in New York where there was an icon, but not just any icon.
He handed me a miniature icon. “Take this,” he said. “It will help you.” His beard and piercing eyes made me think of Allen Ginsberg, but this was a different kind of Allen Ginsberg.
Nobody had come up to me in City Lights but here in this religious bookstore, where I wanted to remain anonymous, I had attracted attention right away.
I did not know how I was going to explain this to Master, my teacher and mentor who was generally against religion, that the only real contact I had made in the City by the Bay was with a Russian Orthodox monk in a cassock who had a Beat looking beard.