It was September 1992. I was meeting my wife,
Janet, in San Francisco to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.We
came from different directions; me from Denver, she from Nashville.
I had been teaching in New
Mexico for several weeks; she had been keeping our home in Tennessee
and working. Our lives had become a hodge podge of meetings, travels,
and digressions in different directions. After a quarter of a century
together, we found it difficult to find four special days together.
As the 747 crawled northward over the bay, I was briefly
reminded of the San Francisco of my dreams: Candlestick Park, the Golden
Gate Bridge, Nob Hill, cable cars, beatniks, Fisherman's Wharf and Joe
DiMaggio, tons of hills, chase scenes from movies, Eric Hoffer's longshoreman
loading and unloading heavy barges, the television show The Streets
of San Francisco, the Birdman of Alcatrez, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey,
Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the 1989 earthquake--doomed
I was anxious to meet San Francisco. Until one has been in a city
and felt its many moods, it is impossible to understand it. Like life,
a city has a mysterious presence that prevails, pieces of a puzzle that
don't fit until it is mended together into a form of an understanding
THE BLUE NOODLE
In the early 1970s, my life's desire was to be a poet.
I lived in Louisville, Kentucky: wrote poems, book reviews, and short
stories. Rejection slips were plentiful. Occasionally, a poem was accepted
by a literary magazine.
During that period I was heavily influenced by Richard Metzers' book,
The San Francisco Poets, and an itinerant poet known as "The
Blue Noodle," who passed through Louisville and spent a month
teaching poetry to anyone who would pay him $50.
William Howard Cohen -- the Blue Noodle's real name
-- was, according to his biographical sketch, "The Offical United
States Poet to the 1968 Olympics." The Louisville Times reported
that Cohen had been dismissed as professor of poetry at Alice Lloyd
College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, for laying down in front of a dump
truck; blocking the truck from strip mining coal from a beautiful hillside
During the summer of 1972, I became a "Blue Noodler," a student of
Wild Bill, as we affectionately called him. For a month, five of us
met 3 times a week in the backyard of the Thor Garden Art Gallery. Three
of us were students in our 20s, the other two were women in their 50s.
We shared poems we had written, criticized them as necessary, spent
hours searching for proper images to describe our feelings, and listened
to "Wild Bill" describe his Jewish heritage in Baltimore, Maryland.
For hours we would sit under trees behind the art museum searching
for images. The image was the message, according to "Wild Bill." In
my autographed copy of Cohen's The New World of Man, Cohen wrote: "For
Dan Phillips -- Keep grabbing for those precise images of the world.
With warm regards, To be is free -- WHC (6/20/72) at Thor Gallery Garden."
My favorite quote of Cohen's was in his poem "Eyes," written as he
watched the famous virtuoso Toscanini conducting a Beethoven symphony
on television. "Every once in a while there are born two eyes
to which all things are ever christened with light," he wrote.
The most exciting event for the "blue noodlers" was
a "haiku party," a trip to Bernheim State Forest near Bardstown
(what a place for poets to gather), Kentucky, to write haiku's.
The youngest member of the group, Robyn -- a teenager at the time
-- wore overalls so big they dragged on the ground.
Remembering this day years later, Mary Bee Rogers -- another blue
noodler -- described this event in a letter. "Robyn brought heavenly
banana bread, and Delores, Bill's wife, made chicken salad as we sat
on the ground around a white tablecloth. She had a boiled chicken in
a pan. She tore if from the bones into small pieces, threw some mayo
on it and placed it proudly in the center of the table. We spent the
day writing haikus. Bill was eccentric, but brilliant. Did you know
that he could memorize an entire book of his own poems. Photographic
memory!" And she added, "He never explained why he gave himself such
a weird moniker. Do you suppose it could mean sad brain?"
I don't know how good of a poet Cohen was. I have never seen his name
in any anthology; and the last I heard of him he was working for a museum,
or was it a circus, in Florida. But this I know, he loved poetry more
than any person I have ever met and was by far the most enthusiastic
poet who ever passed through Louisville, Kentucky.
Dan Kenneth Phillips
SAN FRANCISCO POETS
When "Wild Bill" left, I continued my study of the San Francisco poets.
I was particularly drawn to Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson (Brother
Antonious), and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. While I attempted copying each
of them, I did a better job of imitating Ferlinghetti. The following
poem, titled LIFE SKETCH, is one I wrote, directly
copying his At Mike's Place.
San Francisco is 743 miles west of Four Corners. It has a population
of 678,974 and is famous for a large homosexual community and earthquakes.
We arrived late on Saturday
night and stayed at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, 450 Powell Street.
Before going to bed, I made a short, almost inaudiable comment to my
wife. "Sometime, I would like to go
to the City Lights Bookstore."
On Sunday morning, we walked from the Sir Francis Drake Hotel up Powell
Avenue to the top of Nob Hill. We rested in Huntingdon Park and watched
nannies push babies in strollers around the park. One guidebook said
these babies were "the future millionaires" of San Francisco.
In the park, a rotund oriental man
was doing what I assumed to be religious exercises. He pounded his belly
with the palm of his hand, flopped his hands high in the air, and concluded
several minutes of unusual gyrations by rubbing his tummy. It looked
like he was attempting to fly. We stayed several minutes longer,
looked at the fancy hotels surrounding the park, and several of the
unique bird feeders filled with fluttering and chirping birds, then
we walked to the bottom of Powell Avenue to catch the cable cars.
I bought cable car tickets and a couple of 3 day passes on the local
bus. Because of the lengthy crowd of tourists, we had to wait almost
an hour until we could get on the cable car to Fisherman's Wharf.
While we were in line, I found a street person with
an unusual dog riding in a grocery cart. I talked him
into letting me take his picture for a dollar. The expression on his
face was unique. It was almost as if he were Richard Burton, and I was
the greatest audience he had ever had. He combed his hair and calmed
his dog by rubbing him and encouraging him to be a good doggie for the
picture. It was quite a remarkable picture. The large-white dog is riding
in a grocery cart, is wearing dark colored sunglasses, and is smoking
a cigarette. This helped pass the time while we waited to catch the
At Fisherman's Wharf, we ate on Pier 39, watched
sea lions frolic and sleep, looked with hardened eyes at Alcatrez and,
when we asked for directions to the Golden Gate Bridge,
were given these instructions by the operator of the parking lot:
DIRECTIONS FOR CROSSING THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE TO GO TO SAUSALITO
the Propark Parking Lot, near Pier 43 at Fisherman's Wharf, we received
these instructions for going to the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito:
From booth turn right and then left at Alioto's #8 Restaurant. Before
you leave, wave good-bye to the terrific guy back at the booth.
Go to the fourth stoplight, which is Bay and turn right. Stay on the
righthand side. You'll be on Bay for a little while. This would be
the perfect time to prepare yourself for the fact that people in California
consider it very chic to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, attached
by a bungie cord. California isn't just a state, it's a state of mind.
Turn right at Laguna, which will quickly become Marina- except for
every other Thursday, when it quickly becomes Lombard. Just kidding.
Keep going on Marina. You're headed for the entrance to the Golden
Gate Bridge. Traffic merges here and you lose a lane, so be careful.
You will pass the Palace of Fine Arts on your left. If the only culture
in your life is in your refrigerator back home, stop on in.
You are now on the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. It is free
in this direction (and $3 the other way). You will soon be in Marin
County, where the natives are notoriously mellow. Be sure to keep
your hands in the car, and don't feed the vibes. Try to look relaxed;
if you're from New York, at least slouch down in the seat a little.
They wear a lot of Italian clothes and eat funny kinds of pasta in
- To Jump Off The Bridge With A Bungie Cord: You have to be crazy.
Don't try this.
These fine instructions are then followed by the following important
are the best free instructions you will find anywhere. We carefully
researched each location and hired a top government agency to organize
these instructions. Oops. If you truly are lost, there is only one
thing you can do. Retrace each step and return to PROPARK at Pier
43 1/2 in Fisherman's Wharf and place your car in the exact same stall
you were in and forget the whole thing. Go to the Franciscan Restaurant
and have a big bowl of chowder.
do not recommend you drive the car and read these instructions at
the same time. You really should be keeping your eyes on the road;
and besides, you don't want to look like a tourist who's lost.
We waited for 45 minutes to catch the return cable car; returned to
our hotel and took a 2 hour nap. That evening, we walked to Chinatown.
Chinatown was a pleasure. Prices were reasonable. Bags, radios, coffee
cups, scenic postcards, key chains, cameras, and calendars were everywhere.
Everyone was smiling. There was a bargain on every corner. Soon I
had a bag of knicknacks: a new over-the-shoulder bag to carry a Mac
Powerbook, a key chain to add to our collection of cities we have
visited, a coffee cup for another collection of ours, a calendar with
beautiful pictures of San Francisco, and a small Chinese cloth for
mounting. I lustfully sized up the latest electronic gadgets and dreamed
that this is what heaven looked life for a techno-creepie like me.
Dan Kenneth Phillips
CITY LIGHTS BOOK STORE
We ate at a Chinese Restaurant on Jackson
Street, walked down a small rise to Columbus Avenue, and north a couple
of blocks to the City Lights Book Store. On the outside
of the bookstore was a large picture of Rimbaud. It was 15 to 20 feet
high and weird looking; like a fixture of a poet from another world. It
was next to the Jack Kerouac Street sign located on the
south side of the store. There was a pro-life sign stuck on the window
facing Columbus Avenue. High above the entrance was the picture of a large
black cat. Welcome to City Lights!
THE BEAT GENERATION
One of the travel books I read before traveling to San Francisco read,
"The Beat movement of the 1950s and 1960s has its roots in the North
Beach area. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's CITY LIGHTS, the first paperback
bookstore in the country and publisher of Allen Ginsberg's work, was
considered the movement's center in the 1950s. Today, you'll find the
store an exceptional resource for books, periodicals, and poetry. It
is located at 261 Columbus Ave at Kerouac Alley."
For almost an hour I was mesmerized by the books. Janet hid in a corner
and read a book. I wandered from shelf to shelf. One whole wall was
dedicated to Jack Kerouac. It was Kerouac who was credited with defining
the Beat Generation.
Kerouac courtesy Literary Kicks
After studying Desolate Angel, Dennis McNally's autographical
study of Kerouac, I wrote this summary of his life:
Jack Kerouac (Jean Louis Kerouac) was born on March 12, 1922 in
at the age of 13 hitchhiked alone to Boston;
was a connoisseur of jazz and blues music;
loved Whitman's Leaves of Grass;
went to Columbia University on a football scholarship;
was friends with writers Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William
rode across America with a New Mexico State Reformatory inmate named
Neal Cassady and wrote a book about it;
committed adultery with Cassady's wife, Carolyn;
often went to Birdland in New York City to listen to Charlie Parker;
was often broke;
coined the words Beat Generation;
worked as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railraod;
was an alcoholic;
had a daughter;
was a Mama's boy;
was saddened by Charlie Parker's death on his (Kerouac's) 33rd birthday;
was one of the beat generation of writers that hung around the City
Lights Book Store in San Francisco;
studied Zen Buddism and hiked over Mount Tamalpais with Gary Synder;
was married 3 times;
was mentioned in Richard Everhart's article in the New York TImes
Book Review, September 2, 1956, entitled "West Coast Rhythms;"
had Ginsberg's book Howl dedicated to him;
wrote the book On The Road;
lived in Orlando, Florida, part of the time in the late 1950s;
was interviewed by Mike Wallace on CBS television;
lived for lengthy periods of time in skid row hotels in San Francisco;
made an enemy of Kenneth Rexroth;
saw many of his dreams die;
died on October 21, 1969 in St. Petersburg, Florida;
was buried in Edson Cemetary in Lowell, Mass.;
and written on his tombstone was,
"He Honored Life."
I have ambivalent feelings toward Jack Kerouac. His way of life draws
little respect from me. But, as I stand by the street named after him,
I can't help but realize I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.
On The Road was the first book of its kind. That book has remained a
source of direction for journeys I have taken. If he had not written
of his journeys, would I be writing of my own journeys?
Would I be standing at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Kerouac Alley
celebrating his life?
McNally closed his book by saying, "The myths and dreams and the art
remain to disturb or inspire. Above all else the road endures." Yes,
the road endures!
A MEMORABLE MEAL
Reading of Richard Eberhard's article on The Beats, the first
tacit approval by anyone from the official poetry establishment, reminded
me of an experience I had during February of 1973 while living in Talladega,
Richard Eberhard spent several days at Talladega
College as a visiting guest lecturer. At the time he was 68 years old,
had already won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, had served as consultant
in Poetry at the Library of Congress, and was the elder statesman of
an older generation of internationally known poets. During those days,
I had little money, knew only a half-a-dozen unknown poets, and needed
For three days I joined a nun, a junior college professor from a neighboring
town, and two Talladega College students, as Eberhard shared his own
poems with us and evaluated ours. His evaluations were not of a critical
nature. They were more of a hint, a dwelling on an obscure word with
new possibilities, or simple words of encouragement; "You need to write
more like this," he would say.
He often used his own poems to point out difficulties in our poems.
In particular, he was concerned with the use of objects that fifty years
later would be unknown to newer generations. He once referred to his
poem I Walked Over the Grave of Henry James and the sentence "I thought,
and took a street-car back to Harvard Square," as an example of a dated
expression." "Some people today do not know what a street car is," he
On the last night he was with us, he took me to the college cafeteria
and bought my supper. It was one of the most memorable meals of my life.
After Eberhard left, Sister Mildred McDevitt and I met for several
months with two or three others and read poetry. In the spring of 1973,
I was invited to a junior college near Ashland, Alabama, given another
free lunch, and recognized by some local unknown dignitaries as one
of a number of influencial poets who met regularly to read poetry. The
featured speaker was Alabama Senator Jim Allen. From him I received
an autographed picture, a paper weight, and a letter of commendation.
Over twenty years later, I realize that the sensitivity Richard Eberhard
had toward the beat poets in the late 1950s was the same sensitivity
he showed toward a small band of wordsmiths in Alabama in 1972.
On the flyleaf of Richard Eberhart: Selected Poems 1930-1965, he wrote
"Dan Kenneth Phillips, Warmest Regards, Richard Eberhard, Talladega,
I bought three books in the City Lights bookstore: Morning Run by
Jonathan Galassi, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and Lew
Welch's How I Work As A Poet. The only disappointment was I could
not find any poetry by William Everson (Brother Antonius). The young
girl at the checkout counter, with a pearl stuck through her chin, had
never heard of him. The computer did not list any books by Everson or
It was a slow walk climbing the hills back to Powell Street. But I
was happy. With all the Chinese paraphernalia and a collection of books
from the City Lights Bookstore, what could be more heavenly?
Dan Kenneth Phillips
On Monday morning we caught the #7 bus to Haight-Asbury.
We arrived shortly after 9 am and walked slowly down Haight-Asbury.
All the stores were closed. Windows beckoned with cheap linguerie and
The colors in the windows were mostly purple, or rainbow colors. Haight-Asbury
best defines the changes that have occurred in San Francisco. The hippie
movement has died, only to be remembered by the presence of unseen voices
that echo across two decades of decadent living. The promise of drugs,
group sex, and immorality has led to a dead end. San Francisco, the
mecca for homosexuals, has become a death trap. "The homosexuals are
seeing their friends die daily," someone told us. "There is little joy
in promoting their life style when death surrounds them so closely,"
I had hoped to buy some cheap books at second-hand bookstores. Instead,
I felt like I had discovered a dead city, where cheapness had become
the symbol of its death. We felt no desire to wait for the stores to
We walked quickly through Golden Gate Park, and caught the next bus
On my "to visit list" was John's Grill,
63 Ellis Street. Supposedly the Maltese Falcon was housed there and
a museum to honor Dashiell Hammett,
the author who wrote The Maltese Falcon.
We entered John's Grill shortly after it opened at 11 a.m. I felt
like I was entering a scene from a Humphrey Bogart movie. The tables
were small, the aisleways narrow, the menu almost unreadable in the
thin light. A lady with her back to me looked like Lauren Bacall. The
waiter spoke Italianian. The menu was covered with Italian favorites.
I wasn't sure of my order; I believed it was something like a lasagna
When the waiter left, I went to the second floor to the restroom.
Across the hall from the restroom was the hallowed Maltese Falcon.
I stared through the darkness at it, trying to conjure up its power.
Focusing my camera, I snapped a picture. When developed, the photo was
a mere reflection of light, without context, housing a mysterious spirit.
In the adjacent room were the Hammett momentos. Pictures of Dashiell
Hammett were on every wall: pictures of him and his wives; rich
movie-star friends; banquets and awards; and Hammett getting in and
out of an assortment of limousines.
The room was silent and dark, a scene from another
generation: of G-men, and cops, and dashing ladies with cigarettes hanging
from their mouths. I didn't stay long. It was depressing. I returned
to the small table downstairs. By now, the crowds were arriving. Men
sat in pairs at the tiny tables. One man wearing a baseball hat was
laughing. The other customers wrestled with hushed undertones that seemed
to have a symbolic touch about them.
As I ate, I thought for a moment I was Hammett reincarnated. In a
burst of writing fever I wrote in my journal:
"Every man he met has their story of trips taken, unforgettable scenes,
food eaten. As an afterthought, in parting they mention that this is
the day when a major decision is to be made, a decision that changes
the rest of their life. A marriage to be dissolved, a job to quit, a
dream with little hope of fulfillment. The crisis in waiting. Is it
an opportunity, or the road to failure? A time of hope, or a time to
be consumed by fear of failure?
Everyone complains of their status. The world has become an uncomfortable
place to live. Disillusionment has become the key word of a generation.
People have difficulty facing the day. There is little joy. Unwritten
rules become binding. And there are always the sleepless nights in cheap
hotel rooms with full ashtrays. Everyone is looking for a good opportunity,
or the next drink, or at least one good meal before the end comes."
Dan Kenneth Phillips
Dashiell Hammett was born in Maryland on May 27, 1894.
He was a heavy smoker, caught tuberculosis, and had a continual series
of health problems throughout his life. He began writing short stories,
then novels. He was a womanizer and a drunkard. In late 1929 he moved
to New York, leaving his family behind in Los Angeles. There he met
and had a long running love affair with Lillian Kober Hellman, the playwright.
In 1930, sick from TB, clap, and too much drinking, he considered
suicide. In 1934, he quit writing. He lived another 27 years. In 1942,
he joined the army and declared it "the happiest day of his life." Later,
he made a fool of himself at his daughter's wedding and spent time in
jail because he would not give testimony before a House Un-American
Activities Committee. He died in 1961.
His most famous story was The Maltese Falcon. His writing consisted
of streams of thought, showing everything as it is found, giving detectives
conclusions as they are reached, letting solution break on both together.
He then returned to third person narative and used dialogue effectively.
To him the hunter and the hunted were two aspects of the same personality.
The policeman and their prey understand each other and are, in a strange
way, comfortable with each other. Many of his detective stories centered
around the St. Francis Hotel, near Union Square. In the 1920s he worked
there as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
When I finished eating, I made sure the tip was appropriate. I didn't
want to be tracked down and killed for being an inappropriate tipper.
As I started out the door, I turned for one last look. The darkened
room had become hazy with smoke. I felt as if a decade was receding
into the past.
next few days passed quickly. We went to Muir Woods, the most peaceful
place on earth I had ever been. The hum of eternity greets one standing
in the presence of 1,000-year-old redwood trees 250 feet high. And there
were other trips: to Mount Talamaphis in memory of Kenneth Rexroth and
several poems he wrote there; to Stinson Beach; to the Napa Valley;
to the Circle Gallery made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright; and finally
Sears' Restaurant, a restaurant across the street from
our hotel, placed on the map in 1938 by Ben Sears, a retired clown famous
for making pancakes from an old Swedish family recipe. In the 1940s,
two pink cadillacs sat in front of the restaurant with their heaters
and radios on, giving waiting customers needed shelter. I ate 18 tiny
Swedish pancakes with warm maple syrup as a toast to San Francisco.
The heavy topic while we were in San Francisco was baseball. According
to reliable sources this would be the last year for the Giants in San
Francisco. They had received a better offer from St. Petersburg, Florida.
But the big shock was not of the Giants, but the bombshell dropped
by the Oakland A's, who were leading the American League West and were
in a good position to be in the World Series again.
"JOSE CANSECO TRADED," said the large, bold printed, 1-1/4 inch
headline, across the top of front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Canseco, a former American League Most Valuable Player, Home Run and
Runs Batted In leader, American League Rookie of the Year, World Series
hero, a francise player, was traded to the lowly Texas Rangers one month
prior to the American League playoffs, of which the Oakland Athletics
were sure to be a part.
To some, he was Bart Simpson with
biceps. He loved animals and once showed up at the ballpark with his
pet cockatoo, and another time he got caught attempting to tote a pistol
through the metal detector at an airport.
In his rookie year, after striking out 175 times, he said, "Hey, if
I was a pitcher, I'd be having a great year." In his last year with
the A's he batted .246, had 22 home runs, 72 runs batted in, and had
five stolen bases.
The press was less than generous with him. Joe Eszterhas, screenwriter
of Basic Instinct and Jagged Edge, in defending him, said his
"problems" came down to three things: Hot cars, a hotter temper, and
a diamond earring. And for those capital offenses, after years
of ninth-inning heroics and a ticket to the Hall of Fame, the A's have
said "get lost" and banished him to Texas.
Bill Mandel, San Francisco Examiner writer, summed up his anger saying,
"Kids who emulate Canseco become schmucks."
The last night in San Francisco, we ate in Chinatown and walked slowly
back to our hotel in the darkness. We passed two men. One was drunk,
and he kept saying to a younger man who had stopped to speak to him,
"You are coming back, aren't you?"
"Yes, I'll be back," said the passing stranger.
It was a poignant scene. Like dozens of broken promises, it was the
proper word spoken to a man staggering in the darkness.
But what about us? The images of the Coit Tower, of
Chinatown's Main Street, of the Sir Francis Drake Starlite Room, of
Grace Cathedral and Golden Gate Seminary, of the Golden Gate Bridge,
and City Lights Bookstore, ask their questions too. "You are coming
back, aren't you?" "Sure, I'll be back," I say to these passing strangers,
as I walk into the pleasurable darkness of a million broken dreams.
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