Reflections on North Beach Then and Now While Drinking a Beer at Vesuvio

By William Taylor, Jr.

I’m sitting upstairs at Vesuvio Cafe, across from City Lights Books at the intersection of Columbus and Broadway in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Years ago this was the heart of the West Coast era of the phenomenon known as The Beat Generation. Today I sip beer and look down upon Jack Kerouac Alley as the latest batch of tourists are dumped out of a double decker bus just long enough to madly snap pictures at whatever the tour guide tells them is of interest, before being whisked away to the next attraction.

Though these days it caters mostly to tourists and a few neighborhood locals, a strong sense of history still hangs about the place; faces of long gone poets gaze at you from yellowed photographs on the walls, some still famous, some now all but forgotten. But over the years all those magic personalities that formed the core of the Beats shared drinks and conversation here: Everyone from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas. Richard Brautigan used to rent a little room above the bar. I like to imagine his ghost still up there, stomping about as he drinks his wine and writes his poems.

From my window seat upstairs I look across Broadway to the Hungry I Club. It’s just another North Beach strip joint now, but there was a time when the stage was graced with the likes of Lenny Bruce, Vince Guaraldi and an up-and-coming Barbara Streisand. What’s now a rather generic bar at the corner of Grant and Green used to be the Co-Existence Bagel Shop (which, reportedly, didn’t actually sell bagels). It was a legendary meeting place for poets, philosophers and general misfits. When he was in top form, Bob Kaufman, arguably the one true heart of the North Beach scene, could be found standing atop a rickety table mesmerizing the crowd with dramatic recitations of his own verse, or, if the mood struck him, some classic stuff by Eliot or Pound.

Even now the neighborhood retains a strong sense of its bohemian history, and despite the ever rising rents it’s still a haven for oddball artists. The cutting edge poetry scene in San Francisco may have since shifted to the Mission neighborhood, but literary readings in North Beach are still common. And while Vesuvio may not be the epicenter of creativity it once was, Cafe Trieste is still there, and you can still spot Jack Hirschman at his usual seat drinking coffee and talking about the need for revolution. And if you head across the street from Vesuvio to Specs Bar you’ll get the feeling that it hasn’t changed much since the 50’s. It’s still dimly lit and full of poets and other ne’er do wells drinking late into the night. Every Wednesday evening Jack Hirschman still sits at the big round table in the middle of the bar and holds court with his Revolutionary Poets Brigade. Neeli Cherkovski will be there too. He’ll swear to you he’s tired of talking about his friendship with Charles Bukowski, but sit with him a few minutes and he’ll be animatedly telling you about those warm Los Angeles nights when he and Buk drank beer and joyfully tossed poems submitted to the literary magazine they jointly edited into the waiting fireplace.

North Beach is a neighborhood rich and alive with literary and social history, and still has a strong sense of magic and possibility about it. City Lights is still going strong and currently celebrating its 60th anniversary. Even ‘ol Ferlinghetti still makes an appearance now and then. And Vesuvio is still my favorite place to write and relax on a Sunday afternoon. Just as I am finishing my beer, Jack Hirschman shuffles in, approaches my table, mumbles something unintelligible and shoves a flier for an upcoming poetry reading in my hand. I nod and thank him.

Maybe I’ll go. Right now I’m gonna stroll over to Gino and Carlo’s for another beer. Richard Brautigan and Janis Joplin played a game of pool there once.