This story originally published in November, 2009 and is being reposted in honor of National Coffee Day.
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For the Beat Generation, there were only two places to live: New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach.
North Beach has been an old stomping ground of mine since my early twenties. I recently paid a visit to the neighborhood after years of exile in Los Angeles.
Broadway is home to San Francisco’s famous strip clubs, such as The Condor Club, where Carol Doda first danced topless in 1964. It’s also where you’ll find famous Beat gathering places like Cafe Vesuvio and City Lights Bookstore.
City Lights, founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953, was where I’d go for obscure books in the days before Amazon and Bookfinder.
As for Vesuvio, I’d been planning on nursing an espresso there while reading Kerouac’s “Big Sur.” But by the time I got around to my afternoon in North Beach, I’d already abandoned the book. It was, like, hip for a bit, then I got bored and decided to just read “The Red and the Black” again. Whenever I get bored with books, I just read “The Red and the Black” again.
Kerouac is one of the founding members of the Beat movement in literature and hygiene, whose origins go back to Columbia University in 1944. During the Beat heyday, many of its proponents were natural-shouldered; above is poet Michael McClure in 1957, wearing a patch-pocketed 4/3 herringbone similar to the J. Press version we posted about previously.
While I was away in LA, The Beat Museum opened a few years ago. It has a solid collection of memorabilia and cool trinkets for sale. As I was wearing a sportcoat and tassel loafers, the curator/sales clerk asked where I was from.
The museum opens onto the street, where strippers stroll by on their way to work:
I’d already emptied my pocketbook at Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren, so my sole souvenir from North Beach was a postcard from City Lights. It’s a shot of Gerry Mulligan and a Beat chick from the 1960 Beatsploitation flick “The Subterraneans,” starring George Peppard. Been meaning to watch the film and take any applicable screenshots, but it hasn’t been released on DVD, though there are unofficial copies available for sale. If anyone’s seen it, let us know what it’s like (pretty schlocky, according to the Beat Museum’s curator/sales clerk).
Further rambling (very Beat): My father told me that when he was courting my mother in San Francisco in 1965, they went to a Halloween party in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood where Allen Ginsberg showed up naked. Sometimes your parents surprise you.
“But we left before he arrived,” Dad added. Now that’s more like it.
Here’s Ginsberg later in life, looking radically conservative:
The LIFE archives did a photo shoot on San Francisco poets in 1957, which you can find here. It has some great atmospheric shots of that hip combination of poetry, jazz, sportcoats and glasses:
The headline for this post, incidentally, comes from Andre Previn’s song “Like Young,” which captures the pop spirit of the era (lyric by Paul Francis Webster):
I’m out doin’ the usual places,
And I’m livin’ it, like young.
Then I dig me this face of all faces,
She’s the craziest, like young.
She drinks coffee at Cafe Espresso,
She reads Kerouac, like young.
She goes where all the angry young men go,
Recites poetry, like young.
We start blowin’ the pad around ‘leven,
And we’re homin’ it, like now.
We spin records on cloud number seven,
And she’s reaching me, like wow!
I’m all unstrung
‘Cuz man she’s got him feelin’ like young.
If she were to brush me and go,
I’d startin’ to wear my hair again,
Just like a square again.
I keep a getting’ the kookiest notion.
I think maybe it’s like love.
I’ve been feelin’ a crazy emotion,
I think baby, it’s like love.
Now we’re ridin’ a rainbow to Cloudsville,
And we’re makin’ it, like young.
Love, soft as April snow.
Love, warm as candle glow.
Love, love is easy go.
In the late ’90s, several versions of “Like Young,” including ones by Dave Pell and Linda Lawson, appeared on the many reissues of Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music. You might also want to check out versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Buddy Greco. Here’s Previn playing the tune with David Rose and his Orchestra, from 1959:
Finally, on my way back to the North Bay I visited Russell Street.
At number 29 there’s a little A-frame house where Jack Kerouac lived for a time. In fact, “lived for a time” is good way to describe his years on Earth: Kerouac died of acute bohemianism in 1969 at the age of 47. — CC
Like Young was a great song, and a hit in it’s day. Hope Lady Gaga doesn’t do a remake ;-p
Ginsberg’s choice of a Brigade of Gaurds Tie was rather naff if you ask me.
Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. Good Call. For future entries regarding the
sound, perhaps you may highlight the Ultra Lounge collection by Capitol
Records back in ’97. For those with a thorough collection to begin with not
necessary, but for an introductory primer, fantastic!
I almost guarantee you Christian after reading the liner notes that come
with the collection it will give you great commentary to quote from for any
further articles on the subject.
The best recordings , I feel from the ol’ days were Jackie Gleason’s albums.
With Bobby Hackett and his horn, you’re on the road to dreamsville.
Yeah, I had all those albums back then. Some cool music and great packaging, which I think they won a Grammy for.
There’ll be a post coming up soon about a guy I thought I didn’t know, then realized he was on one of those albums I used to listen to so long ago. Stay tuned.
The young men who weren’t angry went to Roos-Atkins, The Emporium, and if they could afford it, Cable Car Clothiers.
When I go to SF (rarely I admit) I stay near the corner of Broadway and Columbus. Chinese food on one side, Italian on the right, now tell me that’s not close to Heaven
Spent many hours – all hours of the day and night – at Vesuvio circa 1972-74 when more than a few Beat Generation writers, poets, etc. were still in the vicinity, e.g., iconic “street port” Bob Kaufman standing in the doorway, eyes closed, reciting his work until someone bought him a drink. Watched Alfred “Sean” O’Shaunasy – who painted the original murals on the outside walls – make the decorated table tops – still there? – in the basement to work off his tab with then owner Ron Fine. Six or seven years ago one of the barkeeps from that era – William? – was still on duty looking ridden hard.
Lots of late night browsing at City Lights – Chang (?) usually on duty at the cash register – and great meals at the original small neighborhood Italian spots such as Columbus Cafe, Little Joe’s (tiny spot on Columbus not the awful place on Broadway that had the name a few years back), New Pisa (where you could close the curtains around your booth), Green Valley, Gold Spike. The bakeries and coffee houses up the hill on upper Grant Ave; the Camels…
After hours show girls hung out at the Wild Side West up Broadway, almost to the tunnel, across for the Basque Hotel; good little Mexican Restaurant next door. Jazz , no cover, at the original Pier 23. I recall the leader of the house band always wore totally Trad attire with perfect BB button downs and rep tie, playing Satin Doll while salt air wafted up through the floor; a moonlighting MD, as I recall, who was killed in a place wreck.
Thanksgiving and Christmas was on the invite list for complimentary turkey and trimmings dinner at Spec’s Adler Street Museum, presided over by Spec’s himself. Not as depressing as it may sound and certainly not as depressing as Spec’s was a few years ago. Barkeeps who were young then – Liam and Kent – died young, I was told. Swallowed by a North Beach lifestyle that was as unhealthy as it was colorful. Some escaped; others not.
Cafe Malvina was the real deal; sharing space with long passed older Italian men before work on Saturdays. Now closed, but it was already only a memory as the place of that name, in a different spot on Washington Square instead of Upper Grant where is belonged, was owned and operated my Mexicans 6-7 years back.
Only place I enjoyed on my last visit was the Cafe Trieste. The original place on Columbus, across the alley from Spec’s and across the street from Vesuvio and City Lights. One night pranksters painted a white crosswalk directly across Columbus from Vesuvio to Cafe Trieste. It was the place where the bar tenders from all the other places, City Lights staff, etc. took their breaks. It seemed totally unchanged my last visit. Now I see there’s an unrelated place up on Vallejo and the “original” is apparently closed and moved to – all places – San Jose?
North Beach is like the marquee at “thetrad” blog puts it: Not as good as it was. Better than it will be.
Triva: I first ventured into North Beach in 1968 looking for the original North Face outdoor supply store. It turned out to located – this is absolutely true – in a basement off Columbus Avenue adjacent to the Condor, where Carol Doda was performing.
Kerouac also lived in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
I lived there briefly after college and while I didn’t know it at the time, I found out years later that my favorite local bar, The Rustic Cabins, was one of Kerouac’s favorite hangouts as well.
Thanks for sharing those memories, Mazama.
Tweed sport coat? Check.
Penny loafers? Check.
Grey flannels? Check.
Thinking about Kerouac, interesting to read him talking about Carmel, Monterey and Big Sur as “beat”, cheap destinations. I can afford lunch and two hours parking in Carmel.
Forgive my ignorance, but what brand/model of sunglasses are you wearing? I’ve seen these (or similar) popping up all over, and wonder what they are.
Thanks, and great post.
A really excellent post from my home turf. Mazama: Thanks for your memories. They really added to my enjoyment of this piece. Ace: Don’t be a douche.
What translation of The Red and the Black do you recommend?
The new, 2003 translation by Burton Raffel for Modern Library.
Mazama, are you getting Caffe Trieste and Tosca Caffe confused? Or was Trieste once occupying that space at 242 Columbus (directly across the street from Vesuvio)? I have been a regular visitor to North Beach ever since moving to SF in 1989 (I lived in the neighborhood for 7 years or so, my wife currently works over there). While MANY of the classics have changed/gone away, there is still a decent roll call of great places to visit: Specs, Caffe Trieste, Tosca Caffe, Mario’s, Tommaso’s, Tony Nik’s, etc. Even some of the newer places are alright – on a warm night there is still something pretty special about having a cocktail on the patio at Enrico’s for example (despite new ownership and a lousy redo of the interior). It remains one of my favorite neighborhoods in my adopted home City.
Nick Rossi: “Mazama, are you getting Caffe Trieste and Tosca Caffe confused? ”
Nick, you are totally correct and thanks for pointing this out. I was totally wrong. And I’m relieved to have been wrong. Yes, of course it’s the Tosca Caffe that’s across the street from Vesuvio. My memory failed to dredge up the right name and when I found Caffe Trieste on the internet it seemed to be the right name.
So relieved to learn Caffe Tosca seems to be thriving as always. Online photos look the same as 35-40 years back. Good for them. Will make a point to patronize the place if ever I’m again in the vicinity.
I was at the Halloween party in 1965, attended by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others. The Fugs were the band that played and it was held at the Rape and Strangle Art Gallery in San Francisco. Memorable!
And five days after I originally wrote this post I moved to New York!
Jack Kerouac was the most famous native of Lowell Mass, of course. Others from that armpit of the northeast were Ed McMahon and Sen. Paul Tsongas. The last two were anything but beat.
Kerouac also played football at Columbia.
Speaking of New York …. when I first pulled up Ivy Style this afternoon, there was a random link to a former post called “Shot in the Dark”; I read it, and the pic of you was taken at the “Campbell Apartment”; curious, I googled it and found the following tragic (I use the word un-ironically) story about it, and am wondering if you were aware: http://nypost.com/2016/06/30/all-the-history-thats-going-to-die-with-the-campbell-apartment/
@Paul yes I think most of us have already heard about the death of the Campbell Apartment. Tragic but far from surprising.
Paul and GS — It is indeed sad about the Campbell Apartment. It was a great place: comfortable, beautiful and that rarest of qualities, elegant. The same owner also has the Carnegie Club, where I sometimes enjoy having a drink and listening to music when in the Metrop. but it does not have the same lovely space (and is a smoking bar, which is fine with me, but those with more delicate noses have been warned). I enjoy 21, Bemelmans, and the King Cole, all of which have that sense of history as well as attractive and comfortable surroundings, although the last is fairly small and can get crowded. The Four Seasons was also a special place, but alas it too is gone. The Polo Bar, while fairly new, has a good feel, but it is only accessible to those with dinner reservations, and I am not as big a fan of the restaurant as I am of the bar. Minetta Tavern is great, but the bar is always jammed, so its better if you are dining, and not simply having a drink. Are there other classic watering holes that commenters like, aside from private clubs? The Temple Bar near Bleecker Street perhaps? I haven’t been there is a number of years, but remember it as a good, cozy place. As an out-of-towner, I am certain to be missing some great places. The Round Robin at the Willard Hotel in Washington also comes to mind. What about choice spots in NY or other cities?
The Campbell Apartment was one of the first places I went when I moved here, but I can’t remember whom I met for drinks.
The day before closing Kamakura did a video interview with me at the bar, which I suggested. It should be posting online any day now.
Looking forward to the video, Christian. Now that the Campbell Apartment is no longer an option, what bars spring to mind if you were planning a future video interview? I noted a few above that appeal to me, all of which are comfortable and have interesting (mostly whimsical) artwork of one sort or another on display, but I’d like to hear your take on the subject of classic, or at least scenic, bars. Is the Oak Room at the Plaza any good these days? The last time I was there, before the conversion a few years back, it had gotten pretty touristy, if that word can be used by by an occasional visitor from the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. Very few places seem to attract a well-dressed crowd these days, but the Campbell Apartment was a welcome exception.
Reading Charlottesville’s favorites brought back fond memories, because I enjoyed all those places in much earlier days. And I wonder whether the Algonquin’s Blue Bar, another of my favorites, is still an agreeable place or is it always crowded (there were evenings when it wasn’t)? I don’t travel easily or well these days, and mostly avoid it, but in better times the haunts of Charlottesville also called to me and put an elegant relief to the end of what was often a long and grinding trip. I hope at least some of them, and their class, have survived.
John T — Glad my list struck a pleasant chord in you. Manhattan always triggers nice memories for me too, some dating back to childhood visits with my parents (like the old puffing Camel sign on Times Square), but mostly from the mid 80s on. Although my sojourns are only once a year or so these days, it is enjoyable to recall special haunts. Thanks for mentioning the Blue Bar, which is still there (or was a year or so ago). It is not the old, smaller version from before my time, which is fondly remembered by others I have talked to, but the current iteration is still quite nice. I have not had much difficulty getting a seat there as far as I recall, but the location means it fills up a bit before and after the theater hours. The Algonquin used to be my favorite NY hotel, steeped in literary history and just a couple of blocks west of Brooks and Press. Because of a hotel program that rewards me with upgrades and free nights, I now usually stay at the Omni, which is also conveniently located, but does not have quite the charm of the Gonk. Very best wishes to you.
I love SF and North Beach. I always make a trip to City LIghts when I’m in SF. When I was there this summer, I was shocked to discover that you can’t get a latte or cappuccino at Vesuvio anymore. What the hell, we drank beer instead.