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Zachary Ehren Headshot

On the Road to North Beach

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I first read Jack Kerouac not long after my first year of college. Only slightly having my feet wet into my post-high school education, his book "On the Road" hit me with the force of a mushroom cloud and I wanted to see the countryside from Kerouac's perspective. Not only did his style of writing change my outlook on the possibilities of the narrative process -- a perfect blend of stream of consciousness with an overall story arc, in tune to a tangible manifestation of the jazz music that influenced his every move -- I wanted to walk in his shoes and witness every gritty inch of both coasts, and everything in between, creating an antagonist out of the road who constantly challenges me to go one mile further. After reading his career-making novel, my fascination with the American writer grew through each passing year.

I patiently twiddled my thumbs as I finished out my undergrad and soon enough I was able start a pseudo-Kerouac American tour by migrating out to San Francisco with Dale, my closest friend and confidant. It was here that we took in the history of the Bay area and all the folks who had walked the same paths we would now step.

The ghosts of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and countless other literary legends of their generation could be found along the streets our heels now struck. San Francisco had significant impacts on the careers of these fine men and women. Naturally, Dale and I wanted to share a drink with each one of them so we spent the day in North Beach, a part of the city that still holds the spirit of the post-WWII counterculture known as the Beats.

Our voyage began on Jack Kerouac Alley -- a small pathway (in similar fashion to 12 other streets in the city) named after famous local writers and artists. Aligning the alley was Vesuvio Café where people came from all over the world for a taste of the beatnik lifestyle. Neal Cassady and Kerouac himself became regular frequents of this watering hole and after the publication of Dharma Bums, On the Road and "Howl," all the disenchanted youth of the late '50s wanted to see first-hand where the challengers of conventional norms were taking seat.

Taking advantage of the influx of outsiders coming to visit, tours were set up and beatnik kits consisting of sunglasses, fake mustaches, berets, sandals, and the Paddy Sullivan poem, "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Peninsula after They've Seen North Beach" were sold to the patrons by Vesuvio's staff.

"Is it too early for whiskey?" Dale asked.

"Never," I replied.

We walked in and the smell of stale barley appropriate for a bar that had been serving drinks for decades instantly hit my nose.

Our table was under the watchful eye of a picture of Mr. Kerouac in his merchant marine uniform. An Old-Fashioned -- bitters and Maker's Mark -- seemed suitable enough and we drank our cocktails in the very spot where Kerouac had once procrastinated his journey to Big Sur -- a fact detailed in his novel Big Sur.

Starting to feel tight, our faces now warm, Dale and I moved next door to City Lights Bookstore. This historical gem housed all the Beat titans for readings and social gatherings. The poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened the bookstore in 1953 and became an intricate part in the rise of the Beat writers. He personally published Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems with his company City Lights Publishers and became the center of attention when law enforcement tried to ban the writing and arrest Ferlinghetti because they deemed the writing obscene. A judge later decided otherwise and declared it protected under the First Amendment, an act which sealed the fame of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and City Lights Bookstore itself.

Dale began looking in the classic literature section and I wondered if I should ever dive into Tolstoy's War and Peace.

"There's shorter Russian literature out there," Dale reminded me as tourists and local natives walked around the store's basement and the two stories that rose above it just as they had for over 50 years. I envisioned the gatherings of the Beat writers -- reading, smoking and rapping about the day's events that had taken place -- within the four walls I now stood.

Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe came next. Just across the street, we arrived at the bar said to be the perfect place to write a poem or finish the great American novel. Outside, we were greeted by a friendly Russian woman selling photographs of the exotic dancers inhabiting the surrounding clubs. Striking a familiar conversation with street artists, it was not long before Dale and I set up shop at a barstool and two glasses of scotch were making their way into our system. A nice old-timer named Roy sat next to us and we began talking about the bar as I admired the random decorations covering the walls that appeared to have come out of a 19th century longshoreman's acid trip. Many newcomers that walk through the doors have trouble keeping their jaws shut which I suspect is due to the carved scrimshaws, flags of lands foreign to most, shark jaws and Asian and Egyptian artifacts that may or may not be authentic.

The three of us talked of socializing in bars and admired Specs' absence of a television, computer operated jukebox or anything remotely resembling the 21st century in their establishment (don't look for an official website, they do not have one). Roy was proud of this fact. The bartender knew him by name and I assumed he sat at the same spot several days a week. You see, the only bars for Roy are the easy ones, the ones that are easy to socialize, easy to talk, easy to be entertained, desirous of more than one cocktail at the same time, the ones who never do karaoke or say a commonplace thing, but serve, serve, serve drinks like fabulous Roman servants handing out drinks across the bars and in the middle you sit and see the beverage handed to you and everyone goes "Aww!"

On the way to the bathroom, there was a display of a stuffed cobra battling a mongoose and I couldn't help but wish I owned this marvel of taxidermy prowess.

When I came back, I wished Roy a good evening and Dale and I went next door to Tosca. Fifty years ago it was an after-theater bar that attracted clientele for their brandy, cappuccino and chocolate cocktail along with the opera-stocked jukebox. It appeared that the interior had not changed much since the mid-20th century. As we walked in, a large, faded portrait of a scene in Venice, Italy was waiting in front of us -- colors run down after decades of exposure to tobacco smoke. The bartender, who may as well have been serving cocktails to mobsters before their ticket to Alcatraz, wore a classy white coat and greeted us with a smile. The whole ambiance was straight out of a time capsule and I didn't know if I was sitting in a bar that respected the integrity of its essence of when it first opened or had randomly walked onto the set of a David Lynch movie.

Dale and I continued our whiskey tasting at Tosca with Bulleit rye whiskey and enjoyed the jazz flowing from the jukebox. We talked of life and I glanced at the ladies bathroom door, knowing that actor and poet, Peter Orlovsky's mentally challenged brother had accidentally walked in there resulting in the whole gang he had come there with -- Bob Dylan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and a few others -- being thrown out. We figured it was time to move on just as they did that night several decades ago.

We walked hell for leather down Columbus Street, made a left and headed to the Broadway Tunnel while digging the tunes of the city streets around us. Dale led the way pulling fresh grapes and cantaloupe out of his bag. We sparked some tea and spit seeds onto the street, pulsing to the rhythm of the passing cars while feeling the ghosts of North Beach falling further away. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady, and the rest of our long-gone friends that have kept us company during good times and bad were returning to their phantom origins from the pages which they originated. The tunnel served as a segue back to the present day of Rowling, Palahniuk, King and Franzen.

Polk Street awaited us on the other side. Bopping our heads into a couple other drinking establishments, we ended the night at Soda Popinskis on California Street. As the big-screen televisions and west-coast hip-hop greeted us, I snapped back into the reality of the 21st century. This was now the scene and I was just as happy to be part of it. Shots of Fernet ensued and the night continued.

So in San Francisco when the sun goes down and I sit on the old Embarcadero watching the long, long skies over the Bay Bridge and sense all the history that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over the entire peninsula, and all the stories, and all the people reminiscing in the immensity of it, and in North Beach I know by now the dancers must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the fog'll be out, and you don't know that God is living somewhere in the Castro? The Sutro Tower must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on Twin Peaks, which is just before coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all of Golden Gate Park, cups and peaks and folds each pier in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the donning of forlorn rags of Tenderloin vagrants. I think of Jack Kerouac. I even think of old Allen Ginsberg, the poet that obscenity never found. I think of Jack Kerouac.