Coffee and Bob Kaufman, Poet of the People

By Kerry Lee

When I step through the door and catch that first, redolent wisp, that rich, provocative bouquet that doesn’t taste like it smells, I wonder if anyone else digs a coffee house as much as I do. With the rush of that fragrance—closing my eyes it doesn’t matter what city or country I am in—I am home. I hit the road once a year on a coffeehouse road trip, or what my friends and family have come to call ‘Kerry’s jitter trip’. I’ve already decided my trip this year is going to be to San Francisco—North Beach, specifically, the home of the Beat scene. It’s not necessary to leave my hometown to find excellent coffee, tête-à-tête, and that singular scene, however.

I love living in Milwaukee, where a ten-minute drive brings you to an independent coffeehouse, each eclectic, charming, and accommodating. Even though this metropolitan area bulges out at a million people, no matter where you go or which coffeehouse you frequent, you know someone, and that person invariably has a compelling tale to tell. It’s one of the reasons I am smitten with coffeehouses; the people who work or hang out there are always involved in something intriguing. I can talk with the barista, the person in front of me in the line, or someone at a table next to me.  Coffeehouse people are friendly.

I indulge my love of coffee, the people who grind the beans, and the people who drink it, by planning my jitter trip each year. The excitement of summer is over. In the hot, downward slope into fall,  with cicadas screeching in the trees and grass starting to brown, I start searching the internet for independent coffeehouses along a particular route, and make sure I hit at least one, sometimes two a day. Every coffeehouse trip has a different theme. Last year it was “Up North” Wisconsin—Lake Country coffeehouses. What better way to combine the things I adore: enquiry, conversation and caffeine?

As I wait for my espresso at the counter this morning, a different era slips into my mind. I envision a time before my time, when coffeehouses were in the basement. Bob Dylan croons and Bob Kaufman utters on the small, smoke-fogged stage while heads in the audience tip together in debate about important things.

With thoughts of that Beat Generation of coffeehouse poets and musicians, I begin planning my road trip for this year. Kaufman is the writer who intrigues me the most: the only African American in the group, and possibly the most eccentric. Like me, he was a Buddhist. He didn’t put himself out there like many other Beat writers did, and I find that non-ego stroking style very attractive. He accepted a life of poverty, spurning materialism, and felt that as a poet he had a call to a higher order.  Sometimes you come across his name in articles about Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, but there are no books dedicated to his life story. With no definitive biography, I actually found a lot of contradictory information that I had to winnow through and confirm from a variety of sources, before I was comfortable with it.

I learned that Kaufman was born the tenth of thirteen children. His mother was an African American-Catholic-schoolteacher and his father was an African American-German-Orthodox Jew. As a child, Kaufman attended both Catholic mass and the synagogue on the Sabbath. His maternal grandmother, who came to Martinque on a slave ship, also exposed him to voodoo beliefs and rituals.

Kaufman senior was a Pullman porter and part of one of the most historic labor efforts in American history—the organization of the Black Pullman Porter Union. His father’s labor affiliations certainly influenced Kaufman’s lifestyle.  He left home at eighteen and joined the Merchant Marines, circling the globe at least nine times in the next twenty years. In addition to the introduction by his mother to Proust, Melville and Henry James, Kaufman educated himself as he sailed, reading Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, and Langston Hughes.  During his time as a Merchant Marine he was also a strong proponent for labor and became, among other roles, an orator for the Seaman’s International Union, which was known at that time for its militantly leftist leanings. Obviously by his families influence, Kaufman began his opposition to the mainstream, anti-communist, pro-capitalist American dream-way of looking at the world.

At the end of his service, he moved to New York to study literature at The New School, where he fell in company with William S. Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg.  Kaufman dropped out of school, and together the three moved across the country to create the epicenter of the Beat Scene in San Francisco’s North Beach.  It was at this time, like many of his fellow artists, Kaufman embraced Buddhism. This undoubtedly gave him a very new and different way of looking at the world, compared to his Judeo Christian upbringing.

The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (1999) describes him thus:

“Bob Kaufman was a street poet, a people’s poet, a poet’s poet. He was a multi-ethnic poet, an African American poet, a Beat poet, a surrealist poet, a jazz poet, a poete maudit, a New Orleans poet, a San Francisco poet. One of the founding architects and ‘living examples’ of the Beat generation as a literary, historical, and existential phenomenon…[but] he has been overshadowed by white Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs….”

Kaufman spent the majority of his life and writing career in San Francisco, and died there of cirrhosis and emphysema in January, 1986. For his memorial, a New Orleans band led a large following of poets, family, and friends along a route of Kaufman’s hangouts—bars, bookstores, street corners, and cafés. His ashes were scattered over San Francisco Bay. Kaufman told his editor, Raymond Foye, “I want to be anonymous…my ambition is to be completely forgotten.”  He comes pretty close to realizing that, at least to the general public. An oral poet, he truly did embrace his anonymity. As far as he was concerned, it was the poem, not the poet, which mattered.  He walked down the street, through traffic, and into various establishments, reciting poetry that might never be recorded.

Kaufman addressed the politics and prejudices of the era in his own way.  I think of him as a true guru in the Sanskrit definition of “heavy with spiritual weight.” He was anti war, anti violence, pro peace and love. Like many artists, life seemed to torture him.  He wasn’t looking for fame; he just wanted to share his ideas and outlook on the world. His poems are not full of mysterious allusions and unintelligible plays on words, but fall naturally on the ear without effort.

Kaufman’s second wife, Eileen said, “…each time Bob speaks it is a gem in the crown of oratory,” and Bob’s entire monologue is like a long line of poetry which constantly erupts into flowers.

Unfortunately for us, and to his wife’s dismay, she didn’t have a tape recorder to catch Kaufman’s “speeding thoughts.”  When he did write things down, it might have been on scraps of paper, napkins, and even toilet paper.  Surely, much of what he created has been lost.  Eileen did, however, often take notes of his poetry as he spoke.

I’ve never been to San Francisco and I’m excited about my North Beach itinerary. The center of all Beat activity was Grant Avenue—a six-block section from lower to upper Grant, and extending from Broadway and Columbus to the produce district. The artists, jazz musicians, and poets visited the coffee houses, bars and cafés as well as a large warehouse in the produce district where the self proclaimed King of the Beat, Eric Big Daddy Nord, held court.

First on my list of stops is the location of the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, which since 1960 has housed a variety of entities including a video store and a dress shop. Though not a surprise, it’s disappointing that the Bagel Shop isn’t here anymore. Located on the corner of Grant and Green, Co-Existence was a deli/bar/news hangout, which apparently never served a bagel.  Kaufman was inspired to write Bagel Shop Jazz describing the venue and his compatriots, one of my favorite Kaufman pieces.

Shadow people, projected on coffee-shop walls
Memory formed echoes of a generation past
Beating into now.
Nightfall creatures, eating each other
Over a noisy cup of coffee.
Mulberry-eyed girls in black stockings,
Smelling vaguely of mint jelly and last night’s bongo
Making profound remarks on the shapes of navels,
Wondering how the short Sunset week
Became the long Grant Avenue night,
Love tinted, beat angels,
Doomed to see their coffee dreams
Crushed on the floors of time,
As they fling their arrow legs
To the heavens,
Losing their doubts in the beat.
Turtle-neck angel guys, black-haired dungaree guys,
Caesar-jawed, with synagogue eyes,
World travelers on the forty-one bus,
Mixing jazz with paint talk,
High rent, Bartok, classical murders,
The pot shortage and last night’s bust.
Lost in a dream world,
Where time is told with a beat.
Coffee-faced Ivy Leaguers, in Cambridge jackets,
Whose personal Harvard was a Fillmore district step,
Weighted down with conga drums,
The ancestral cross, the Othello-laid curse,
Talking of Bird and Diz and Miles,
The secret terrible hurts,
Wrapped in cool hipster smiles,
Telling themselves, under the talk,
This shot must be the end,
Hoping the beat is really the truth.
The guilty police arrive.
Brief, beautiful shadows, burned on walls of night.

It so perfectly describes how I visualize the Bagel Shop and the players in this Beat dance.  It was here as well that he wrote the following, which was not, unfortunately, one of his “spoken only” pieces: “Adolph Hitler, growing tired of fooling around with Eva Braun and burning Jews, moved to San Francisco and became a cop.” From that point on he was habitually harassed by the police, arrested, and ill-treated in custody.  He was even a victim of forced shock treatments, in the hopes of curbing his outlandish, “antisocial” behavior.

After the Bagel Shop the next stop on my list is 601 Vallejo Street, the Café Trieste, which remains unchanged since Kaufman’s time. Artists, writers and poets still hang out here over endless cups of coffee doing the same thing they did back then: reading, writing, discussing their work and last night’s pleasures. The café was one of the first to bring espresso to the West Coast, though I doubt that you could order a skim/caramel/mocha/ ½ caff cappuccino! At least here I will be able to sit down and order my usual cappuccino. I can imagine being there, back in the day: Kaufman will stride in, apparently talking to himself and the room will go quiet.  His voice will become more and more emphatic and then I will catch the words:

Drummer, hummer, on the floor,
Dreaming of wild beats, softer still,
Yet free of violent city noise,
Please, sweet morning,
Stay here forever.

There’s nothing like a splendid poem and satisfying caffeine to start the day.

Then my journey takes me to the northwest corner of Bob Kaufman Alley (originally Harwood Alley) where stands a former residence of Kaufman. While he lived there in the early 60’s, Kaufman played a small role in the art film “The Flower Thief”, which was shot in North Beach. I add the film to my ‘must watch’ this flick list.

During this period Kaufman was a popular poet in Europe, particularly in France. He was known as The Black Rimbaud—his outré sensibilities were an obvious attraction to the French. I think Kaufman was one of the more original Beat voices to come out of the fifties, and was probably the most influential black poet of this era. His poetry does, however, transcend racial identification. He wrote in Standard English with obvious references to Picasso, Miro and his favorite authors, but he also used African American vernacular that included rapping, as well as street language and jazz influences. His style was unarguably unique. His friend A.D. Winans, a San Francisco poet, describes Kaufman’s work as the “poetic art of dissent.” Those four words portray the perfect distillation of Kaufman and his work for me.

New Directions published his first book of poems, Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness, in 1965. City Lights published The Golden Sardine in 1967, as well as Ancient Rain in 1981. Kaufman’s editor, Foye, said Kaufman took no interest or part in publishing his work. He kept no diary, published no literary essays, wrote no reviews, and maintained no correspondence.

During the last five years of his life, Kaufman was banned from most of his old haunts. He had exhausted himself through alcohol and drugs, and in 1965 wrote:

My body is a torn mattress

disheveled throbbing place

for the comings and goings

of loveless transients

before completely objective mirrors

I have shot my self with my eyes

But death refused my advances

When the drink is ready, I pull myself back from the 1950’s to my reality, and sit at a table next to the window. The coffee shop has moved upstairs and there’s no smoking, but that seductive cup and even more seductive parlay, punctuated by entertainment, still reign. I am excited about my first shot of espresso in North Beach this fall.


Slideshow cover photo by Billy Gast of BG³Photo

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  1. A really great read that makes me wanna hit the road for a coffee fueled roadtrip. I hope you make it to San Fran sometime this fall Kerry.

  2. A search for a cup of cappuccino becomes a search for a little known beat poet. Your writing makes the journey interesting, fun and informative. Including the poems helped bring him to life. And yes, there is that smell.

  3. Nice to read something and learn a piece of history not usually reported. Very interesting background–African American Catholic & Orthodox Jew? No wonder he was an eclectic and interesting individual. Thanks for the poems–it’s my first opportunity to experience them.