THE IDEA WAS TO LOOK FOR A JOB, and I did, for a little while. I put on my good jacket, stuffed some resumes in my bag and hit a couple of the bookstores in the city, the few that were still around. I didn't know how to do anything other than work in a bookstore, and I barely knew how to do that. No one was hiring, of course, and no one gave me any reason to hope that they would be anytime soon.
I quickly grew tired of it and paused at a taqueria on Polk Street. I bought a beer and sat at one of the plastic sidewalk tables and watched the people walk up and down. I pulled my notebook from my pocket and jotted down some phrases and halfheartedly worked at a few poems. After a second beer I decided to move on. I was walking on Bush Street and realized I was heading in the direction of Ellen's place. I looked at my watch and wondered if she'd be home. I bought a cheap bottle of red wine at a corner store and walked across the street to her building.
I wasn't sure of Ellen's apartment number. I looked at the directory but didn't see her name. Most of the names were missing or outdated. I tried 307 and a man's voice told me to fuck off. I tried 309 next and eventually heard Ellen's voice asking, what? I told her it was me and she buzzed me in. I was scared of the elevator in the old building and walked up the three flights of stairs to Ellen's apartment. Her door was slightly ajar, the sounds of an old Johnny Cash record drifting out into the hallway. I knocked on the door and then pushed it open enough to get inside.
Ellen was in the middle of her studio apartment working on a large painting. The canvas was on the floor and she was crouched above it. Her apartment was small and messy, strewn with art supplies, clothes, empty bottles, filled ashtrays, records, and cassette tapes. The ragged mattress that she slept on took up about a third of the room. Ellen spread some yellow paint on the canvas and looked over at me.
"Hey," she said.
"Am I bugging you?"
"Naw. What are you doing?"
"Looking for a job."
"Ah. Have a seat."
I sat down on a wobbly red chair in the corner and opened my wine with the little corkscrew on my keychain. "Do you have a glass?" I asked.
"Wine's for poets and pussies," Ellen said.
"I am both of those," I said.
"Right." Ellen went to the little kitchen area and opened some cabinets. She came out with a glass for me and a pint of Bushmills for herself. I poured myself a glass of the wine and she went back to her painting. Ellen was a painter as well as a poet. A lot of poets I knew liked to say they were painters, but Ellen actually had talent and sold her stuff from time to time.
"You working tonight?" I asked.
Ellen worked three nights a week at the Lusty Lady, a North Beach nudie club, one of the better ones. "Did you hear about David Schiller?"
"No, what?" David Schiller was also a poet. He'd been part of the North Beach scene for years and ran a weekly open mic reading at a cafe on Pacific St. when he wasn't in jail or just simply lost somewhere.
"A couple of days ago he exposed himself to some girls on a bus."
"Yeah, he said it was a part of the poem he was reciting. But they arrested him anyway."
"No reading this week, then?"
"I guess not."
I sat in the ragged chair, drank my wine and watched Ellen paint. Her stuff was pretty good, at least I guessed it was. I was never sure exactly what it was all about, but it usually gave me a good feeling. I sometimes thought about pursuing the visual arts myself, but then I thought about buying the supplies and the brushes and all and it seemed too much work and trouble.
"Put on some more music," Ellen said after the room had been quiet for a few minutes. I got up and went over to her turntable, removed the Johnny Cash record and returned it to its sleeve. I browsed through the randomly arranged records on her bookshelf and put on a Tom Waits album. I looked through some of her books and then stood by the large window that looked down on Bush St. A man and a woman stood on the sidewalk arguing. I guessed it to be a whore and her pimp. The man had a cane and the woman was drinking something from a bottle inside a paper bag. The man slapped the bottle from her hands into the gutter and I watched the contents spill out. The woman cried.
"Do you ever think about how you're just one of billions of people upon the earth, and how almost no one will ever be aware of your existence?" Ellen asked.
"Sometimes, I guess," I answered.
"I can't stand it," Ellen said.
Eventually Ellen grew tired of painting and suggested we go to Vesuvio in North Beach. She put what was left of her whiskey in the pocket of her jacket and I poured the remnants of my wine into a large plastic cup and we headed out. We walked up Grant St. through Chinatown and into North Beach.
Vesuvio was the bar across the alley from City Lights Book store. It was famous for being a hangout of the beat poets back in the day. These days the place was frequented more by tourists than poets, but the Bloody Marys were still good. We ordered a few of those. As we waited for the drinks I looked about the room and wondered which stool Jack Kerouac sat on the night he drank himself mad instead of going to Big Sur to meet Henry Miller, and if it was the same stool where Richard Brautigan sat babbling in a drunken stupor a few days before he took his life in Bolinas. And where had Dylan Thomas sat after his San Francisco reading? And what did he drink? I wondered about such things. They seemed important, somehow.
We got our drinks and took them upstairs. Greg Isaac was at his usual table in the back corner. We headed over there. Greg was the Editor of Fog City Review, a respected San Francisco poetry magazine. A few years ago Greg had somehow convinced Lawrence Ferlinghetti to give him a few poems for the magazine, so all the local poets were hot for their stuff to appear there. Greg was very aware of this fact and took full advantage of it. He had submissions spread all about the table and he was reading through them with the help of a young hipster girl I'd never seen before. Pretty much every time I saw Greg he was with a new young hipster girl. Never the same one twice. It was truly impressive. Greg greeted us as we sat down at the table, and introduced us to his new hipster girl, Patti.
"You wanna help me with this?" Greg asked, motioning to the piles of envelopes and papers scattered about the table.
"Sure," I said.
"Just grab some and lemme know if you find anything that doesn't suck." Ellen and I both took some envelopes and began reading through their contents. Most of it sucked, and badly so.
"What do we do with the stuff that sucks?" Ellen asked.
"Just toss it in here," Greg said. He pointed to a large paper grocery bag that sat next to the table. It was half filled with crumpled up envelopes and poems.
"Don't you want to look at it first?"
"Nope. But if you see anything by anyone famous give it to me."
"Does Lyn Lifshin count as being famous?" Ellen asked.
We did that for a while, almost all of the stuff we looked at ending up in the rejection bag. As a poet, there was a certain joy in rejecting rather than being rejected, which is perhaps why so many poets start magazines.
Greg's cell phone rang. He answered and talked a few minutes before returning the phone to his pocket. "Guess who that was?" he asked. Nobody guessed. "David Schiller!" Greg said.
"No shit?" Ellen asked.
"He got out of jail this morning. He's over at Meltzer's place."
"Is he gonna come out?"
"He says he's on the floor drinking gin and reading David Lerner. He tried to get up a half hour ago but couldn't do it. He said he'll try to make it by later."
We continued to read through the submissions until we heard a familiar voice downstairs. Ellen leaned over the railing and looked down. "O shit," she said, "It's Melinda." Ellen grabbed my hand and we ran down the stairs to the bar where Melinda Maynard was arguing with the bartender about whether or not she was currently 86'd. We gave Melinda our support and agreed to take complete responsibility for her. The bartender grudgingly acquiesced and we got another round and headed back upstairs. Alan Harper had followed Melinda in and he followed us up. We stole some chairs from other tables and all managed to gather around where Greg sat.
Alan and Melinda were poets. Melinda had been a part of the North Beach scene for many years. Over the years she had been a girlfriend of Jack Micheline, Gregory Corso and Charles Bukowski. She was currently writing a book about Bob Kaufman. She'd been writing it for as long as I can remember. I'm not sure if I'd ever seen her sober. But she was lucid more often than not, and still looked pretty good despite decades of drink.
Alan Harper was also a North Beach poet. He published a magazine in the '70s and '80s called Flog The Horse. He published a lot of big names over the years. He published his own work as well, many volumes of poetry, none of which City Lights Books would sell. For this reason Alan harbored a bitter hatred for Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his store.
Melinda started digging through the big bag of rejected poems. "If any of my stuff is in here I'm gonna kick your ass, Greg. You haven't published me for 3 issues."
"I've been getting a lot of good submissions," Greg said.
"Bullshit. You've been getting a lot of submissions from stupid little girls," Melinda replied, eyeing the hipster girl at Greg's side.
Greg shifted in his chair a bit but made no reply. Beside him Patti sipped her drink through a straw, oblivious.
Melinda scooped up a pile of the submissions. She paused just long enough to look at the names on the envelopes before tossing them in the rejection bag unopened.
"You gonna use any of my stuff for the new issue?" Alan asked.
"Yeah, I think so, a few," Greg replied.
"See? I've been in 5 issues straight! I've written 10 books of poetry and published all the big names, and Ferlinghetti still won't stock my stuff. He's still trying to get back at me for not publishing him in Flog The Horse!"
"I thought you asked him to give you some poems and he refused," said Melinda.
"He's a talentless hack," Alan replied.
Eventually we were done with the submissions. All but a few of them ended up in the overflowing rejection bag. Melinda downed the last of her gin and tonic. She leaned out over the balcony and sneered at the people below. "Look at all these fucking tourists," she said. "This place used to be a haven, a commune of the spirit, now it's just full of dumbshits. It makes my soul sick!" Melina grabbed a handful of the rejected poems from the bag, wadded them up in little paper balls and chucked them at the patrons below. She was a pretty good shot, and soon the entire room of faces below were gazing upwards. Cameras started clicking. "That's right, fuckers! Take your pictures, this is what you came for, right? You want poetry? I got your goddamned poetry!" Melinda lifted up her shirt, the cameras all going crazy.
"That's it, Melinda," The bartender barked. You're 86'd for life, and I mean it this time!"
Melinda had been 86'd for life from most of the bars in North Beach many times over, but they always let her return. She had managed to become a minor legend over the years, and was actually good for business. Tourists and locals alike stopped in at any given hour hoping to see her in action. Melinda knew this and knew the bartenders knew it as well.
"Don't make me come up there!" said the bartender. Our group gathered up our belongings and guided Melinda down the stairs. "I don't wanna see you in here for the rest of the week!" He shouted.
"Suck it, baby! " Melinda replied as we ushered her out the door.
We stood in Jack Kerouac alley smoking and drinking in the North Beach afternoon.
"What now?" Ellen asked.
"Let's go see if Edward's home," Melinda suggested, which meant that she was out of drink money and knew that Edward's place was almost always well stocked with booze. Nobody had any better ideas so we went with that. Greg stuffed the grocery bag of rejected poems into the nearest trash receptacle.
We headed over to Edward Roman's apartment on Grant Avenue. Edward Roman was a poet as well. He was one of the few writers I knew that actually mad money at his trade. One day he decided he actually wanted to make some money and started writing less and less poetry. He published a novel and a memoir about his days as a street punk in Los Angeles in the 1980's. The book was a minor cult classic in certain circles and sold fairly well. Roman's writing wasn't particularly good , but he had a way with people. He knew how to schmooze, and had the fortitude to do it. Most of the rest of us just didn't have that kind of stamina. At readings Edward would point out to me the editors and writers that were worth talking to. Usually I looked at their faces and their manner of dress and just couldn't do it.
We buzzed Edward's apartment. He answered the intercom. "Hello?"
"Let us in, fucker," Melinda said.
"Yeah, right. Let us in."
Edward buzzed us in. We walked up the stairs to his apartment on the second floor. Ellen pushed the door open. Sam Rosario was sitting on the couch in the middle of the room, a big bottle of cheap red wine in his lap. Sam Rosario was a fairly well known poet and a high school English teacher. At least he was a high school English teacher until he was suspended a few weeks before for being intoxicated on the job. Since then he'd been staying at Edward's drinking bad wine and writing poems. "Ah, the poets!" He said in greeting, raising his bottle of wine.
Sam and Edward had worked out an arrangement. Sam could stay at Edward's as long as he wrote poems, signed them and dedicated them to Edward. Edward in turn would file the poems away in boxes he would eventually send to the special collections department at some university library on the east coast. The library bought a big portion of his notebooks and memorabilia, and continued to pay him for items related to his literary endeavors. Edward filled boxes and boxes with his notebooks, letters, works by friends and random household items. When they were full he would tape them up and send them off to the library and wait for a check.
Melinda walked into the kitchen and came out with a six pack of beer. She set it on the coffee table and we all had one.
"What's new, Sam?" Ellen asked.
"Ah, not much, babe," Sam drawled. "I just saw a drunk clown over at the HA-RA."
"A drunk clown?"
"Yeah, he was beautiful," Sam said, his eyes shining. "I'm writing a poem about him now."
Edward shuffled out of his room and greeted us warily. "Whatcha writing, Sam?"
"A poem about a drunk clown."
"Sign it over to me and put it in the box."
"Do you want to read it first?"
"No, no, I'm sure it's wonderful. Just put it in the box. Hey. Do you have the receipt from the liquor store?"
Sam rifled through the pockets of his jacket. "Yeah, I think so. Why?"
"Lemme see it."
Sam found the receipt and handed it over to Edward, who quickly scanned it. "Yeah, yeah, this is great. This is important." Edward scribbled something on the back of the receipt and put it in one of the boxes waiting to be sent to the library.
"The library is going to buy one of your liquor store receipts?" Melinda asked.
"Damn right, they are. These are important documents. Students of the future will be pouring over this stuff like it was gold."
A couple of libraries expressed some interest in my stuff, but the deals fell through," Alan said glumly into his beer. They must've talked to Ferlinghetti."
"Fuck Ferlinghetti," Sam said, starting on a new poem.
"Exactly," said Alan.
Edward brought out a few joints and passed them around. I had a few hits and looked out the window. Half a block away a woman was lying face down on the sidewalk, either passed out or dead. Groups of tourists and hipsters stepped over her on their way to somewhere. I took a snapshot in my mind so I could write a poem about it later. I turned away from the window.
Sam was really high and in-between lines of his poem he would rise from the couch and sway a bit, sloshing his wine bottle in the air in a toast to some invisible muse. "Ah," he said, "the lives of the poets!"
Greg was making out with his hipster girlfriend on the corner of the couch. His cellphone rang and he answered it. He spoke to someone for a few minutes. When he was done he addressed the room. "Hey, guess who that was?" he asked.
Nobody guessed. "It was Meltzer," Greg exclaimed. "He says Schiller was reciting a poem to the moon and then jumped off the balcony. He was trying for the pool but missed.
"Is he okay?" Ellen asked.
"He's in the emergency room now. He's got a broken arm and two cracked ribs. He brought along some of his books and he's trying to sell them to the nurses."
"Ah, here's to Schiller!" Sam cried, leaping from the couch and raising his wine bottle to the gods, "the only true poet I've ever known!" We all raised our bottles in unison. Sam tried to do a little dance of sorts to the Charlie Parker record that was playing and lost his balance. He fell onto the little glass coffee table in front of the couch, shattering it. Sam sat the on the floor, stupefied, surrounded by the remnants of the table.
"Ah, Edward, I'm sorry..." Sam said, taking a swig from his bottle that he still managed to hold onto through it all.
"It's cool, man, it's cool," Edward said. He grabbed his camera from where it hung on the wall and took a handful of pictures of Sam and the broken coffee table. He then swept up the pieces of glass and put them in a large manila envelope and filed them away in his box of important documents for the library. Sam remained where he fell and continued to drink his wine.
"Fuck Ferlinghetti," said Alan.
How's Your Sister?:
by Anne Goodwin