Lawrence Ferlinghetti is sitting in the back of one of the old hangouts, Caffe Trieste, when he is cornered by a waifish young man with a British accent who cannot believe his luck.
The tourist has spotted the famous founder of City Lights Books, one of the biggest attractions in North Beach, just a block away from the store. Best of all, Ferlinghetti, looking very Beat-cool with his dapper white beard and a small silver hoop in his right ear, proves as welcoming as your favorite high school teacher. Several sputtering, honor-to-meet-you moments later, the young man practically skips away.
"A passing fan," Ferlinghetti says, with smiling, clear blue eyes. "Though usually," he adds after a moment, "tourists don't come here."
If tourists hadn't swamped the cafe -- hard to believe, seeing as how they have pretty much taken over North Beach -- they will now. Seeing Ferlinghetti in North Beach is a treasured experience, even if it is not entirely rare. At 84, the poet, painter and publisher is still a big presence in the neighborhood, usually with his bike and beret.
Fifty years after co-founding City Lights as the first paperback bookstore in the country, only to revolutionize poetry in 1956 by publishing Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," Ferlinghetti remains a leading light in San Francisco's cultural community. He is still organizing and giving readings, still painting and holding art exhibits, still publishing his work and still putting in time in the cramped offices of the City Lights press, on the bookstore's second floor. That leaves precious little time for reminiscences about the days when the Beats ruled the literary world.
But this month, Ferlinghetti is making an exception.
The bookstore, a local landmark and one of the first -- and last -- of the Beat havens in San Francisco, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with poetry readings, literary tours and other events. (Happenings are listed on the store's Web site, citylights.com). The festivities, which promise to turn already crowded North Beach streets into a wall of Beat buffs, have brought Ferlinghetti dozens of interview requests. Almost everyone, he says with the hint of a sigh, wants to know what it was like to be a Beat. Hip and bohemian, the Beats were notable for consciously rejecting academic verse and forging new concepts in prose and poetry.
"But I was never part of the Beat group," he says, sipping a Heineken. (We are now in Cafe Grecco, another Ferlinghetti favorite place, having left the more crowded and humid Caffe Trieste immediately after he was sidetracked by the fan.) "I've been telling people for decades that my poetry comes from a different sensibility," he says. A PhD (from the Sorbonne, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the city as symbol in modern poetry), he says he was heavily influenced by Marcel Proust. "Yet inevitably," he adds, "a story will run with a headline that says, 'The Beat goes on.' "
He laughs. Ferlinghetti, who looks healthy and handsome in a red shirt and blue jeans, wears his fame loosely and comfortably, like an old flannel shirt. He is so treasured in San Francisco that the city keeps thinking of new ways to honor him. In 1994, it named a street, right by Caffe Trieste, "via Ferlinghetti," the first time it bestowed such a privilege on a living person. In 1998, it named him San Francisco's first poet laureate. In 2001, it named the bookstore a city landmark.
But Ferlinghetti chafes at the word "icon," preferring to think of himself as a working artist. "I've got a lot of projects underway," he says. He has kept a studio for more than 30 years in San Francisco's forlorn Bayview-Hunter's Point neighborhood, which is dominated by a naval shipyard. He says his soon-to-be-released book, "Americus" (from New Directions, his publisher for half a century), is a massive poem in the tradition of Ezra Pound's "Cantos" or William Carlos Williams's "Paterson." His art is represented by the George Krevsky Gallery.
Quick to point out that the heavy lifting at City Lights publishing is done by Nancy Peters, co-owner of all City Light enterprises, and Elaine Katzenberger, associate director of City Lights publishing, Ferlinghetti is nevertheless a protector of City Lights' legacy. A few years ago, he started the nonprofit City Lights Foundation to promote the literary arts among young people. And although he calls himself City Lights' figurehead, his radical politics and iconoclastic literary tastes were what set the tone for the kind of material that City Lights continues to stock and publish today.
"There aren't many of us left," he says, referring to the independent bookstores that traditionally provided the forum for poets and writers such as the Beats. "The books the chains sell at 30 percent off are the hardcover bestsellers that we don't even carry."
City Lights, still at its original location at the mouth of North Beach, is a kind of anti-chain store. Its old linoleum-tile floors seem to slant left (like most everything else in San Francisco), and it feels more like the well-stocked library of an eclectic bibliophile than a regular bookstore.
It makes some concessions to the bestseller list -- like stocking Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" or Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed." But its emphasis on social and political issues tends to showcase obscure tomes from independent presses much like its own. In its magazine section, the most mainstream titles are the Nation, Mother Jones and In These Times. They share shelf space with Dissent, Anarchy and Colorlines.
The best-told and most famous City Lights story is that when Ferlinghetti published "Howl," as the fourth book in his fledgling "pocket poets" press, he and his almost-as-famous store manager, Shigeyoshi Murao, were arrested on obscenity charges. They won at trial and made history when Judge Clayton Horn said "Howl" could not be called smut because it had redeeming social importance, a standard that paved the way for American publishers to print banned books by the likes of Henry Miller and William Burroughs.
Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Philip Lamantia and just about every other big name in the poetry movement of the 1950s and '60s hung out at City Lights at some point. The store still holds weekly events and attracts fledgling writers who spend hours sitting in the little wooden chairs strewn about the floor. Ferlinghetti likes to boast that City Lights has trouble trying to close every night at midnight.
Of course, North Beach isn't what it used to be. But then, what is? "I don't see a lot of the bookstores that used to exist in Manhattan, either," Ferlinghetti says. He sees a vibrant literary tradition being carried on in San Francisco, mentioning Francis Ford Coppola, who runs a literary magazine and holds readings at his own cafe, down the street from City Lights, and writer Dave Eggers, who runs a center in the city's Mission District, 826 Valencia, that promotes reading and writing by young people.
Neither Ferlinghetti nor City Lights has ever shied away from radical political positions. "I was a Fidelista in the '50s, a Sandinista in the '80s and a Zapatista in the '90s," he says. The store routinely hangs political banners above its windows, most recently against the war in Iraq. Ferlinghetti also published a protest poem on the City Lights Web site that was reprinted on the op-ed page of the San Francisco Chronicle. Titled "Speak Out!" it begins:
And a vast paranoia sweeps across the land
And America turns the attack on its Twin Towers
Into the beginning of the Third World War
The war with the Third World . . .
He makes no apologies for his positions, or the antiwar posters and books in the store's windows. The people who come to City Lights expect nothing less, in any case.
"We didn't know what we'd be creating, at first," says Ferlinghetti, unaware that the patrons at Cafe Grecco are shamelessly, breathlessly eavesdropping.