Follow Harriet on Twitter
Journal, Day Two
I moved to San Francisco 50 years ago. It wasn’t for the poetry.
In 1957, I had a degree in journalism from New York University and two years’ experience as a copy boy and editorial assistant with the New York Herald Tribune. I was ready to take my place in the dashing, hard-drinking world of reporters. All that Hildy Johnson/The Front Page stuff had been conscientiously debunked at NYU, but at the Trib, the financial copy desk always had a bottle of Scotch on the table and Al Laney, the old hockey writer, always wore his fedora in the office. That did it for me.
I wanted to write news, race deadlines, get scoops, hang out in bars. I lived at home, in Queens, while I was in school—it’s hard to believe that NYU, the monster that has swallowed lower Manhattan, had no dorms in those days—and I was eager to get as far away from New York as I could.
Tom Eagan, schoolmate and fellow copy boy—copy boys on major metropolitan dailies are not boys; they often have master’s degrees—had moved to San Francisco a year before and kept writing me letters about the wonder of it all. I didn’t need a lot of convincing. I flew out there in September, 1957, thinking I’d stay a few months maybe (but that turned into five years, which is very Californian.) I arrived on the opening day of the “Howl” obscenity trial. Of course, it didn’t mean a thing to me. My total lifetime poetry experience at that point centered on having to memorize “Miniver Cheevy” and a part of “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” in high school where my English teachers otherwise did a very effective job of passing on their own terror and hatred of poetry. I imagine there must have been a few others, but . . .
Eagan’s small apartment happened to be on Filbert Street and Grant Avenue, right in the middle of North Beach. I thought I’d sleep on his sofa for a week or so, but that turned into six months. Tom was working as a reporter for the Examiner, in their Oakland office, and didn’t like it. I had $500. So he quit his job and we had a good time until the money ran out and we were living on mayonnaise sandwiches. Tom was one of those people who never adjust to the cool, damp San Francisco weather. There was a built-in gas heater in the apartment and he kept it on high. Every night, as the gas ate up the air, I’d conk out at 10 o’clock, thinking, What an early town San Francisco is.
Tom had ended up in North Beach by accident and wasn’t much interested in the neighborhood, but once I figured out that it was the gas heat not the city, I began venturing forth. The neighborhood seemed just right to me; every other storefront was a bar—The Place, The Black Cat, the Anxious Asp, Frank’s, Gino & Carlo’s, The Cellar, XII Adler Place, the Vesuvio Café, Mister Otis, the Coffee Gallery, the Bagel Shop, the Green Valley. I’m telescoping a few years together here, but there were always a lot more bars than grocery stores. And in North Beach, everything happened in bars. If you were getting married in the evening or being awarded the Nobel Prize or having your gall bladder removed, first you would meet up with all your friends in a bar.
At this time, the Chronicle seemed full of Beat this and Beat that. I didn’t hear this as literary, just the popular press’s tag for the current mode of bohemianism. Soon Herb Caen, the columnist everyone read every morning although everyone denied it, invented the much-hated word “Beatnik”—Beat plus Sputnik. That kind of lurid publicity brought more and more tourists to Grant Avenue, but it also built up a defensive solidarity among the North Beachers. The neighborhood, at the foot of Telegraph Hill, was quite small, but some people never left it.
Jack Goodwin, North Beach’s resident composer, wrote an opera with an aria entitled “He has a full-time, daytime job,” which was sung in tones of awe. I finally got one of those, reporting for a chain of commercial newspapers. My office was on Market Street, but as soon as I left work, I headed right back to the Beach. It rarely occurred to me to do otherwise. I lived a block up Telegraph Hill, three good-sized, unheated rooms for $75 a month. That sounds ludicrously cheap, but as a reporter I made $75 a week.
in 1959 my apartment in north beach
had split-rattan blinds and kandisky
posters scotch-taped to the walls
and a table made from a door
and a bricks-and-boards bookcase
and a mattress on the foor
and almost everything was painted
flat black except for the little yellow
desk I bought from good will
and I wrote my first poems sitting there
watching headlights curve down
the lombard street hill
(excerpt from “Poster,” How to Ride on the Woodlawn Express, SUN, 1986)
(That’s how it still looked in 1961, when I started writing poems, although I had not yet discovered upper case.)