Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, publisher, painter, social activist and bookstore owner, has been San Francisco’s de facto poet laureate and literary Pied Piper for seven decades. He turns 100 this month, and the city is making preparations to celebrate him in style. The mayor’s office has proclaimed March 24, his birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day. Readings and performances and an open house will take place at City Lights, the venerable bookstore he co-founded in 1953. Parties and happenings and the screening of documentaries are planned at many other locations as well.
The most unlikely celebration will be the release party this month for “Little Boy,” Mr. Ferlinghetti’s slim new autobiographical novel, which is also a love song to his adopted hometown, a place with “endless street movies passing in cars and trams of desire.”
City Lights pilgrimage
Any reader’s trip to San Francisco should start with a visit to City Lights. On a cool, damp late morning in February, my wife and I walked the mile from the downtown Union Square area to the store, which sits near the border of Chinatown and its raffish North Beach neighborhood, and is within a stone’s throw of more than one faded, gloomy topless joint.
Pound for pound, City Lights is almost certainly the best bookstore in the United States. It’s not as sprawling as the Strand, in Manhattan, or Moe’s Books, in Berkeley. But it’s so dense with serious world literature of every stripe, and so absent trinkets and elaborate bookmarks and candles and other foofaraw, that it’s a Platonic ideal. It can inspire, even in jaded bookstore-goers, something close to religious awe.
Mr. Ferlinghetti opened City Lights in 1953 when he was in his early 30s, with a business partner who soon departed. The store survived an obscenity trial in 1957 after its publishing arm issued Allen Ginsberg’s revolutionary “Howl and Other Poems.” The trial made Ginsberg and Mr. Ferlinghetti internationally famous almost overnight.
City Lights became a nerve center for the Beats and other writers. Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl” while living in an apartment at 1010 Montgomery Street, a few blocks from the bookstore. Jack Kerouac often blew in. In the original scroll of “On the Road,” he wrote: “once again I wanted to get to San Francisco, everybody wants to get to San Francisco and what for? In God’s name and under the stars what for? For joy, for kicks, for something burning in the night.”
Not everyone loved the Beats, even in wide-open San Francisco. The columnist Herb Caen, nonplused, invented the term “Beatnik” in 1958, which made the Beats sound like something you’d want to flick off, like fleas.
Ginsberg, Kerouac and other writers from that era were Easterners who dropped into San Francisco for a spell. But San Francisco’s mid-20th-century literary reputation extends far beyond the Beats. Richard Brautigan, the author of “Trout Fishing in America,” arrived in 1956 and stayed nearly 20 years. Among the more intensely local writers were the poet Kenneth Rexroth, a father figure to some of the Beats, as well as the poets Gary Snyder, who was born in the city, Michael McClure and Diane di Prima, who moved to San Francisco in 1968 after leaving Timothy Leary’s intentional community in upstate New York. Today, writers like R.O. Kwon, the author of “The Incendiaries,” the poet D.A. Powell, and Dave Eggers make San Francisco their home.
In the 1950s and until recently, with the slow demise of snail mail, City Lights was the post office that kept writers’ mail while they traveled. The store carried early gay and lesbian publications. Its bulletin boards were the unruly alternative press of their time. They were where you’d announce a political rally or seek a ride, a roommate, a job, a scene or a sex partner.
For many years the store was open until 2 a.m. It remains open until midnight seven days a week, a fact that should humble New York’s bookshops, which tuck in much earlier. City Lights was known, back in the day, as the place to go if you wanted to stick a book down your pants and walk out with it. (Security has improved.) Over the years, it has become an institution, so much so that in 2001 it was made an official historic landmark.
Mr. Ferlinghetti, himself
If City Lights is a San Francisco institution, Mr. Ferlinghetti himself is as much of one. Tall, shy, mischievous, blue-eyed, gray-bearded and balding (he’s looked old since he was young), sometimes seen in Nehru jackets or on tatami mats during the 1960s and 70s, he has loomed over the city’s literary life.
As a poet, he has rarely been a critical favorite. But his flexible and plain-spoken and often lusty work — he has published more than 50 volumes — has found a wide audience. His collection “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1958) has sold more than a million copies, making it one of the best-selling American poetry books ever published.
Mr. Ferlinghetti has become part of San Francisco’s civic furniture, speaking out when something needs to be saved — for example the Gold Dust Lounge, where Janis Joplin and Tony Bennett hung out, and which once upon a time was a burlesque bar owned in part by Bing Crosby. In 2013 the bar moved into the heavily touristed Fisherman’s Wharf area, where its gritty dive-bar ambience makes it a welcome morsel of authenticity.
Mr. Ferlinghetti’s gadfly goal has often been, simply, to keep the city weird. At other moments he has spoken up in moments of crisis. In 1978, after the assassinations of George Moscone, the city’s mayor, and Harvey Milk, the city supervisor who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States, Mr. Ferlinghetti wrote a poem that was published two days later in The San Francisco Examiner. It was titled “An Elegy to Dispel Gloom,” and it began: “Let us not sit upon the ground / and tell sad stories / of the death of sanity.” It ended: “such men as these do rise above / our worst imaginings.”
According to Barry Silesky, in his biography of Mr. Ferlinghetti, the city thanked him personally for the poem, which “helped maintain calm in the city in the face of tragedy.”
A few weeks ago, I reached out to Mr. Ferlinghetti, explaining that I was coming out to the city to write about him and about his San Francisco — that is, about the places that have meant something to him. I hoped to pay him a visit, I said, and to glean some thoughts about my itinerary.
At 99, Mr. Ferlinghetti is largely blind. He was not, I was told, quite up to receiving visitors. But we had two lively telephone conversations. In advance, I’d told both his publisher and his assistant that I planned to ask about his favorite places in the “cool, grey city of love,” as the poet George Sterling called it.
Yet when I rang, Mr. Ferlinghetti barked at me. “This is just the kind of interview I don’t like to do,” he said. “These sort of questions just leave me blank.” He condemned “travel section stuff.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was writing this article for the Travel section. I changed the subject to books and culture. Soon we were getting along like great old friends.
William S. Burroughs, the author of “Naked Lunch,” is the most undervalued Beat-era writer, Mr. Ferlinghetti told me. (Burroughs did not visit the city until the 1970s, and after that only passed through on occasion.) “His vision of the future was as profound as any writer of his generation, and that includes George Orwell.” He was cheered that Bob Dylan received the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. “Dylan was first of all a poet,” Mr. Ferlinghetti said. “His early songs were all long surrealist poems.”
I asked him how he managed to score a performance in “The Last Waltz,” Martin Scorsese’s documentary about The Band’s “farewell concert appearance.” It was filmed in San Francisco at the Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. Less than a decade later, the Winterland was demolished to make room for apartment buildings. Other poets also read poems onstage before the concert began, but he was one of the few to appear in the film, he told me, because he spoke into the correct microphone.
Exploring the city
With no advice from Mr. Ferlinghetti to guide us, we decided to simply walk a great deal, paying attention to Beat and other literary sites, restaurants from the era, San Francisco’s many bookstores, and just the vibe of this most beautiful of major American cities.
Walking the city was what Mr. Ferlinghetti, who was born in Yonkers, did when he arrived here on January 5, 1951. He’d crossed the country by train and taken a ferry from Oakland. “I had a seabag, I got off the ferry,” he once said in an interview. “I put the seabag on my shoulder and started walking up Market Street.”
He never stopped walking, in those early days. “San Francisco had a Mediterranean feeling about it,” he said. “I felt it was a little like Dublin when Joyce was there. You could walk down Sackville Street and see everyone of any importance in one walk.”
I am not the world’s most enthusiastic long-distance walker, believing with Christopher Hitchens that “this walking business is overrated: I mastered the art of doing it when I was quite small, and in any case, what are taxis for?” But San Francisco coaxed out my inner perambulator.
We stayed in the Hotel Nikko (clean, hip, teeny-tiny rooms) in Union Square, not far from the Hotel Union Square, where Dashiell Hammett wrote many of his hard-boiled detective novels. On our first day in the city, we walked the mile or so to City Lights, moving past, in the light rain, the stately mansions of Nob Hill.
From City Lights we hit The Beat Museum a block or so away. It’s a bit rundown and seedy. But it’s a place to marinate for a while in 50s-era literary nostalgia. For an $8 admission fee, you can ogle things like Jack Kerouac’s tweed jacket and Ginsberg’s typewriter.
Nearby is Jack Kerouac Alley, which connects Grant Avenue in Chinatown with Columbus Avenue, North Beach’s main drag. Kerouac liked to hang out at City Lights and at Vesuvio Cafe, a famous bar across the street. The Alley is packed with murals and stone-and-metal plaques inscribed with poetry by Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, John Steinbeck and others.
San Francisco is proud of its long literary history, and it’s impossible to ramble for long here without coming upon bookish landmarks: Mark Twain Plaza, Alice B. Toklas Place, Frank Norris Street, Jack London’s birthplace, Robert Frost Plaza, Bob Kaufman Alley, the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial.
We popped into Caffe Trieste, the oldest coffee house in San Francisco, a block away from City Lights. This one-time Beat hangout has maintained its old vibe and is still going strong. Mr. Ferlinghetti often wrote here. So did others, including Francis Ford Coppola. There’s a photograph of Mr. Coppola, on the memorabilia-cluttered walls, working here on the script for “The Godfather.”
In his new book, Mr. Ferlinghetti writes about Caffe Trieste: “nothing ever changes decade after decade, the faces change but it’s the same characters drawn from the population of the world, and where I am with my constant companion my lonely self and the only plot of this book of my life being my constant aging.”
Amy Tan’s 1989 novel “The Joy Luck Club” was largely set in our next stop: Chinatown. We made a beeline for the venerable bar Li Po Cocktail Lounge, named after a hard-living Chinese poet. Li Po was a popular Beat after-hours joint and Anthony Bourdain popped in when he was in town
Inside, Li Po has battered red leather booths and a wraparound bar. We drank our Chinese mai tais (which, like the hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans, will lay you out) in near darkness. I was reminded of one of The New Yorker editor Harold Ross’s story ideas. He asked, “How dark is it legally permissible for a bar to be?”
Outside, the bar has an intricate, six-sided, 70-year-old neon Chinese lantern, one that appears in Orson Welles’s 1947 film “Lady from Shanghai.” San Francisco has more beautiful and expansive neon signs than any other city in the United States, some of them in front of bars that seem to have emerged from an Edward Hopper painting. These signs, happily, have their own preservation society. It’s possible to book walking tours to see the best of them. For me, that’s a must for next time.
For a late lunch we went to Tadich Grill (another long walk) in the Financial District. Like Mr. Ferlinghetti, it’s a survivor, the oldest continuously run restaurant in San Francisco. (It opened as a coffee stand in 1849.) It is believed to be the third-oldest continuously run restaurant in the United States, after the Union Oyster House in Boston (1826) and Antoine’s in New Orleans (1840). We ate oysters and the Petrale sole, a Pacific coast fish, both first-rate. Also first-rate is the décor, dark wood with brass accents and a long, long wooden bar. It feels a bit like you’ve walked into a great old steakhouse, or the Saloon at the Grand Central Oyster Bar.
City Lights is far from the only bookstore in town. In the Mission District, we picked off several, including Dog Eared Books and Borderlands Books, both on Valencia. Dog Eared Books is perfectly cluttered, with a mix of new, used and remaindered books. Borderlands is a geek paradise — it specializes in new, used and rare science fiction, horror and fantasy. Then we sidled into the 826 Pirate Supply Store, which is part of 826 Valencia, the educational nonprofit founded in 2002 by Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari. We’d have loved the pirate supply store if we’d been 7 years old again.
Taking a break from book shopping, we got in line at Swan Oyster Depot, which has been around for more than 100 years. This small joint has 18 seats at its counter. We arrived a half-hour before opening, but the line was already long. (Bourdain has sung Swan’s praises; it’s now a serious tourist destination.) We waited an hour and a half for our seats, wondering if we were lemmings. We weren’t. The oysters, the crab backs in butter and their version of crudo, washed down with an Anchor Steam, were good beyond measure. All restaurants should keep their white wine selection so unpretentiously on display, with cluttered bottles placed on ice in a stainless steel pan.
That evening we took BART to Berkeley, because we had to visit two bookstores there. First Moe’s, a revered indie which opened in 1959. You can get lost for an entire day in Moe’s, where some 150,000 new and used books are spread over four floors. Pegasus Books is smaller, but expertly curated. The night we were there, the cashier was spinning old jazz records on a turntable. We flew home with heavy luggage.
What would Ferlinghetti do now?
On our final day, we woke late and had an early lunch, at Sam Wo, perhaps the oldest restaurant in Chinatown. Its first iteration was built shortly after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. This, too, was an unpretentious Beat-era hangout; Charles Bukowski, Ginsberg and many others dined here. The restaurant, now on Clay Street, is still unpretentious, but the food (eggs with shrimp and duck jook, which is a kind of porridge) was fresh and very good.
My favorite San Francisco poet these days is August Kleinzahler, who often writes about bellying up to a bar. But, we asked ourselves, what would Mr. Ferlinghetti do now? We took a Lyft to the Presidio and walked the mile or two to the entrance of the Golden Gate Bridge. Then we walked across. In “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” (1962), Steinbeck recounts driving across the bridge as “the afternoon sun painted her white and gold.” The span seemed to him like an “acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky,” a “stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed.”
I would like to report that walking across was a Zen activity, one that brought me closer to why so many gifted writers have been drawn to this city. But with traffic roaring past nearby and the cold wind whipping and my latent vertigo threatening to kick in, I was glad to get to the other side.
We had no idea how to get from the far side of the bridge back to our hotel, so we climbed on a tour bus that was idling in a parking lot. This was a bad call. The guide, who was driving, was as blustering and half-baked as a used car commercial. We were his captive audience and, though we’d only been in the city a handful of times, knew more about its landmarks than he did. We debouched from the bus feeling shaken but freshly energized, like we’d busted out of a hostage situation.
“San Francisco has only one drawback,” Rudyard Kipling once wrote. “’Tis hard to leave.” And so it was for us. Even though more than a few essential Beat-era locations may have vanished — including The Six Gallery on Fillmore Street, where Ginsberg read a full-length version of “Howl” on October 7, 1955 (all that remains is a plaque) — enough remains that it doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up their world during a visit.
Late that night, I dipped into a new book, called “Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems.” In “I Am Waiting,” he writes, in words that speak to San Francisco’s ever-changing moods:
I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder.
A Ferlinghetti Reading List
“Little Boy: A Novel,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Doubleday). Out this month, this loosely autobiographical novel is a summing-up near the end of a big, wide, productive life. It’s the story of how, Ferlinghetti writes in the book, he “came into his own voice and let loose his word-hoard pent up within him.”
“Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New Directions). This is a chronological and sprightly overview of Ferlinghetti’s six-decade-long career, filled with poems about everything from lust and politics to baseball and the author’s love for San Francisco and its vicissitudes. Another possible title might have been: “Just Enough Ferlinghetti.”
“I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997 (City Lights Publishers). One was the publisher of “Howl,” the other its writer. Their fond early correspondence shows them negotiating fame, scandal and friendship.
“Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Liveright). Ferlinghetti was a committed travel, and these selections of his journals, selected from his handwritten, mostly unpublished notebooks, step with grace and good humor across many worlds.
“Ferlinghetti: The Artist in his Time,” by Barry Silesky (Warner). This 1990 biography of Ferlinghetti is out of print, but not hard to find online. It’s a well-researched and fundamentally sympathetic account of Mr. Ferlinghetti’s yea-saying life and times.
Follow NY Times Travel on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Get weekly updates from our Travel Dispatch newsletter, with tips on traveling smarter, destination coverage and photos from all over the world.