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Random Thoughts on San Francisco, March–June 1956

There are lovely moments in the world when persons and place "burn with a like heat," as Olson would say. Who knows why, finally, except that some intuition or habit or simply coincidence has arranged that this shall be the case—and all those to be blessed, truly, will be present.

I felt that way, arriving in San Francisco in March of 1956. The city was humanly so beautiful, but that fact would not have changed my mind in itself. I'd left Black Mountain just at the turn of the year, in real despair, with a marriage finally ended, separated from my three children, very confused as to how to support myself—and so I had headed west, for the first time, thinking to be rid of all the 'easternisms' of my New England upbringing and habit. I had friends living in New Mexico—a phenomenal place in its own right—and thought to settle there, but after a month or so I found myself restless, dependent, and in no sense clearer as to what might be my next move. An old friend and student from Black Mountain, Ed Dorn, was living in San Francisco, so that's where I headed—to see the Pacific Ocean, if nothing else.

I got there mid-afternoon, if I remember correctly. Ed and Helene gave me a whirlwind tour of the city, in their tiny Morris Minor, and we drank a lot in celebration. Ed told me that Rexroth had generously invited us to dinner but that he had to go to work at the Greyhound Bus Terminal at six. I in the meantime was getting

First published in French as "Hier Soir: Au Hasard de Mes Souvenirs de San Francisco (mars—juin 1956)," Entretiens 34 (1975). Translated from English by Etienne de Planchard.


drunker and drunker, and recall vomiting heavily in the street before going up to Rexroth's apartment. People had already eaten, but tactfully made no point of my late arrival. Later that same night, returning to the Dorns' apartment, I was charmed by the arrival of Allen Ginsberg at midnight (he got off work at the Greyhound Terminal at that hour), and we talked much of the night about writing and "Projective Verse" and his own interest in Kerouac and Burroughs. My information of the former was meager, but fascinating, i.e., Robert Duncan had told me that Kerouac was the man who had written a thousand pages in which the only apparent physical action was a neon sign, over a storefront, flashing off and on. Burroughs, in a story that had him confused with Jack, was said to have been asked at a party to demonstrate his expertise with revolvers by shooting an apple off the head of his wife. A gun was given him, he took aim and fired—and sadly killed her. His apocryphal remark was: I should never have used a 45. They always undershoot . . .

Rexroth's weekly evenings proved an intensive meeting ground. The Place, a great bar with genial host Leo and sometime bartender John Ryan, was another. One night Allen asked the Dorns and myself to meet him there after he got off work, so he could introduce us to Jack Kerouac, now back in the city. We got there early, and sat at a small table in the front of that small space—and waited, peering about to try to figure out which one of the others might be Jack. I was particularly drawn to a man who was sitting up against the back wall, on the way to the toilet, seemingly alone, sort of musing, with extraordinary eyes and a head that had somehow larger than 'life size' intensity. When Allen came in, he asked us if we'd seen Jack, and we said, no—and then he pointed to this man I'd been watching, and said, there he is. But we had little conversation that night, unhappily. Jack was pretty comatose from drinking, and when we all got back to the apartment he was sharing with Al Sublette to eat—the large steak, I remember, kept getting dropped on the floor in the process of being cooked—Jack passed out on a bed, and when I was delegated to wake him up, he regarded me with those extraordinary eyes and I felt like a didactic idiot.

Remembering now, it all tends to swirl. Great parties at Locke McCorkle's house out in Mill Valley—Allen and Peter charmingly dancing naked among a dense pack of clothed bodies, flowers at the prom! Jack and I sitting on the sidelines, shy, banging on up-ended pots and pans, 'keeping the beat.' Gary Snyder's wise old-young eyes, his centeredness and shyness also. Phil Whalen's, "Well,


Creeley, I hope you know what you're doing . . ." Visits to Mike McClure's with Ed—Ronnie Bladen upstairs in their undesignated commune. Mike practicing the trumpet (in the cellar?)—anyhow, blasts of sound, and talk of Pollock, energy . Lawrence Ferlinghetti, standing outside his great and initial City Lights Bookstore, asking me what living was like in Mallorca—cheap? He'd had the care to review The Gold Diggers for the San Francisco Chronicle , and that was surely a first. Walking around the city with Allen and Phil, Allen reading us Howl , which he had in a big black binder notebook, each time we'd stop at a curb or in a cafe (Mike's—great Italian food) or just on a bench in a park. Later I typed the stencils for a small 'edition' of that transforming poem—I was trying to get work and Marthe Rexroth gave me the job, as I remember, Allen had given her—prior to the City Lights publication.

There were other dear friends of that time, James Broughton (an old friend of Duncan's), Kermit Sheets, Madeline Gleason. (Duncan himself was in Black Mountain, but his care that I should be at home in the city was so kind.) I'd go to them when I was exhausted, and that was frequently. I finally managed to get an apartment on Montgomery Street, though I never succeeded in living there. I did write some poems, though—on a huge typewriter Marthe had got me: "Please," "The Bed," "Just Friends" (old Charlie Parker favorite), "She Went to Stay," "A Folk Song," and "Jack's Blues" among them. One night I invited the gang over, like they say, and one of the company was a particularly ominous heavy , whose pleasure was turning school girls on (there were two with him) to heroin, and finally I got freaked. Peter Orlovsky, true angel, somehow managed to clear the whole room of people, then paused himself at the door before leaving, to say, would you like me to turn off the light?

We talked endlessly, day and night. We rehearsed our senses of writing, possible publication, shop talk. Jack was not going to let the editors cut up On the Road the way they had The Town and the City —he was getting himself ready for Malcolm Cowley's impending visit, 'to talk it over,' which Jack rightly feared might be heavy-handed 'advice.' Both Ed and I were asked a lot of questions about Olson and his "Projective Verse"—was it just more razzle-dazzle intellectualism? McClure and Whalen were particularly intrigued, and were at this time already in correspondence with him. Allen, as always, was alert to any information of process that might be of use.

So time went by—and it was so packed with things happening , it seems now strange to me it was such a short time—only three


months. Came June, and I was restless again, and so headed back to New Mexico, with huge rucksack (I managed to get all my stuff and Marthe's typewriter into somehow) and sleeping bag Jack had helped me locate in an army surplus store on Market Street. I still have them. The sleeping bag, in fact, is presently on the bed in the next room.

Why does that matter. At times it seems all we have of the human possibility, to keep the faith —though why an old sleeping bag and a primordial army issue rucksack now looking like a faded grey ghost should be the tokens, one must figure for oneself. Each time I drive cross country, in the underpowered battered VW I likewise hold on to, hitting those Kansas spaces (where Burroughs rightly remarked, one gets the fear ), I think of Neal Cassady and that Pontiac he could wheel round corners as if on a turntable. Pure burning energy. Listening to fantastic "Bombay Express" Indian record of Locke's, Neal flagging the train on through . . .

People give you life in that way. Things you didn't think you knew or could do. Suddenly it's possible. Answers you never expected to come out of your own mouth. One time—after a nightlong party at Locke's—people had variously come to rest either in the house at the bottom of the hill, great sloping ground of musky eucalyptus and grass, or else in the small cabin toward the top, kids and big people all together in one heap—Jack proposed he and I sleep outside just to dig that wild soft air and tender darkness. I woke in bright dazzling morning light, with Jack's face inches from mine, asking in mock sternness: Are you pure? To which I replied, as if for that moment in his mind, that's like asking water to be wet .

Buffalo, N.Y.
September 13, 1974


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