My father first visited Berkeley when he was a yeoman in the Navy. Less than a year after my brother was born in Chicago, the three of them took a train to Berkeley to begin their California life. I was born in Berkeley, but that city was too small for my father. That was when he found North Beach, San Francisco. Sometime in 1954 we moved there. A year or so later we moved out of North Beach to San Francisco’s Richmond district.
How did you get to North Beach?
Berkeley was getting to be a bore and North Beach fit me just fine. At the time, they had poetry and this, that and the other. Anyway, what happened was there was a party in Berkeley and in comes this Black dude with this fine woman. The Black dude was Bob Kaufman. I talked to him. He just struck me. He had so much style, he just tripped me out.
Not only did I start hanging out in the Beach, where there was a minority of Black folk, Bob and I started hanging together. We hung at the Black Cat. The biggest representation of Black folks was at the Black Cat.
Who was the biggest representation? You, Charlie…
Charlie Dawkins, Maya (Angelou) came through, but Maya was not a part of this. Pretty much Charlie Dawkins, who was a great sculptor. That was a period when your mother and I went to a place that was also a gay place on Grant Street. What happened was that 12 Adler (a North Beach bar that is still host to North Beach writers and artists) was downstairs and upstairs was something, I think they called it the Teahouse. Frank Gadera (Not sure if I got name correctly) would come through occasionally.
But mostly we saw Kaufman on Grant Street. Grant Street was where the poetry thing was going on. He spoke all kinds of ways. He was a very, very complex person. He was tremendously well read. He was a seaman. He spoke in metaphors at times, but only when he was juiced. He was absolutely insane. I watched him, and this is absolutely true, he sat down and said to this woman, “Why don’t you buy me a drink?” And she asks, “Why should I buy you a drink?” And he says, “The guy you’re gonna sleep with tonight, you should buy him a drink.” And the woman would be outdone but they ended up in bed that night. That was Bob.
Who was Black on the scene? You mentioned Charlie Dawkins, Bob Kaufman and you.
Does that mean there were no (Black) women as an ongoing part of the scene?
No Black females at all. None. Afterwards Alex was a part of it.
So it was mostly white with a few Black men.
Yes, and women were in the minority and (most of) the men were racists. The truth was that Black folks were not in the game. Also at that time I worked at the early Hungry I.
You know how people have personas? Were you the writer and Mom the painter?
No, we were the integrated couple. She wasn’t a painter. There were a couple of people who knew I was into writing, but by and large we were just the partyers. She started to paint when we moved into 5th Avenue (between Anza and Cabrillo) I was always trying to write. We decided that I had to square up. I just had to square up because I was working part-time and it wasn’t enough. Trucks would come in from the farms and we stood on the corner and a man said I want so many of you men today.
Was it like the day workers today standing around waiting for somebody to pick them up for a day’s work?
Yeah, I did that. I did one job that was also a shit job when your toilets have shit coming out the side I cleaned it up. I also worked as a longshoreman. I dropped the longshoreman work when I carried bananas. I looked up and there was a tarantula and that did it for that. I am a spider lover but I don’t want none of them to bite me. I’m sorry tarantulas are too damned big. When you look at a spider the size of a mouse, I mean goddamn. Suppose he loses his temper?
Let me get back on point. You went through North Beach more partying then writing, along the way you meet Jamie, Beverly… (Jamie Jamison, the printer and Beverly Axelrod, the attorney who became part of his writer’s life.)
First of all, we are partying and what not. We had a bad time. We lived Berkeley, then in Marin City and we moved from Marin to North Beach. I had not had a regular job in all this period of time. So the real decision was to square up. I squared up. I used to get mad at bosses and hit them.
How many of them really deserved to get hit? 51%? 75%?
Well, I tell you, I think now all of them, 100%. But in terms of a better way of handing it about 20% really should have been hit. The rest of them, I hit them when it was clear they were assholes. But when it was clear to me, it wasn’t clear to everybody, particularly the guy(s) I hit. I could have at least said, “You know, you an asshole.”
I mean if they said nigger or something wasn’t that evident?
I never gave them a chance to say nigger. I ended up baling paper for an asshole who I really didn’t want to work for.
So you were baling papers, scrubbing shit and shagging vegetables with your college degree. Am I right?
Yeah, but you know that (a college degree) don’t mean shit.
what happened was that… baling paper was a regular job and that was one of the biggest disappointments in my life. I’d been baling paper for about a year and this guy was messing with me.
The break with North Beach came because we got hassled both racially and we got ripped off from a real estate thing. So we moved to 5th avenue. We didn’t have much furniture. We had a set of bunk beds. We had a bed for us. We had a mattress on the (living room) floor, a kitchen table and that was it. In that situation, I bought this HiFi set. I bought it with the promise that I would stop going to jazz clubs. I had some exceptions but I pretty much did stop. Everything went on. I was baling for a while and your mom wasn’t working, then she went to work for the United Crusade. We were almost prosperous. (laughter)
My parents continued to meet friends in North Beach and often brought us with them. I remember many a backroom or back of the bar Shirley Temple drink, usually with two or three maraschino cherries, and several North Beach San Francisco flats smelling of oil paints and full of jazz recordings. But my father did, superficially, square up.
Any North Beach elders who may read this I would appreciate help with any names I got wrong. Please comment with any corrections or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.