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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 drummer, 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 advancesWhen 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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