Jack was in his early fifties but looked neither young nor old. His hair was white and he had a light stubble, was overweight and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. His face alternated between boyish to tough guy, dictated mostly by a grin or a scowl.
He lived in San Francisco since the early 60’s. His formative years were in the 1950’s in New York when he started writing poetry. Some of his poems were published in books by small publishing houses some of which had gone out of business. Other poems remained unpublished, typewritten on yellowing paper with frayed edges and bound by twine, travelling with him to New Orleans, Mexico, London, Los Angeles, and now San Francisco.
He was influenced by poets of the beat generation, including Jack Kerouac. When asked, he thought the beat movement was a product of media hype and that the title “beat poet” did not apply to him. He described himself as a poet of the streets. His poems often focused on prostitutes, drug addicts and the disenfranchised. He referred to the people who populated his poems as “the invisible”.
In San Francisco he was friends with some of the beat poets who remained there including Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, and Harold Norse. Although he was admired and respected by these and other poets, he had not achieved their level of fame and success. His fans and following were limited to San Francisco where his poetry readings were always well-attended. It was not unusual to see some of the more notable poets there.
He made enough money to get by, but often lived on the edge of poverty. He drank heavily on some days, and none on others. Like many who drink, his view of life varied from day to day depending on his degree of inebriation or sobriety. When sober, he loved the world; when drunk the people and things he loved often became targets of anger. On sober days, he was known to be transformed into a state of perpetual forgiveness.
Jack made a daily passage into North Beach. His route varied depending on where he spent the night—on a couch or on the floor at a friend’s apartment, or in one of the rapidly disappearing residence hotels in San Francisco.
It was late November, 1979. On his way to North Beach, he passed a Catholic church where a priest watering the flowers outside the church said “God bless you”, as Jack walked by.
Jack said in response: “God so loved the world He gave His only begotten son to it.”
“Always nice to start your day with John’s Gospel,” the priest said.
“Actually, I was quoting Kerouac,” Jack said. The priest laughed, though Jack was fairly certain the priest didn’t know the reference: “Because I am Beat, I believe in Beatitude”, Kerouac had written, followed by the quote from John. It didn’t matter to Jack what the priest knew or didn’t know. It was his laugh that mattered; speaking to Jack about the priest’s love of the world.
His journey into North beach ended at the Caffe Trieste where he sat smoking a cigarette at his usual table by one of the front windows, his clothes a vestige of an undisclosed time in his life when whatever he was wearing or doing looked good. Today he wore a dark sport jacket, a tattered denim vest, a bright floral shirt, and baggy pants that sagged under the belt in front.
He scribbled notes with the stub of a pencil on napkins that he kept in a pile on the table. He scanned the lead story in a newspaper left behind, about the American hostages in Teheran.
“The American hostages in the embassy in Teheran have to sleep with their hands tied. During the day, they are mostly tied to chairs, except for meals, and they are kept isolated from one another. They must ask their captors for permission to go to a bathroom or for a glass of water, according to some women and black hostages.”
He noticed someone standing by his table and looked up from the paper to see a slender man in his mid-fifties, with thinning hair and drawn face.
What follows is a conversation with the man, Sergio. Interruptions of short asides that Jack has with people he knows have been omitted from the conversation.
Jack: Sergio! (They hug. Jack addresses the people in the café): Look at the face on this beautiful guy. A timeless face, is that a New York face or what? This man is a poet; a true poet. We go back. Back to our New York/Greenwich Village days.
(The people in the café who know Jack laugh and applaud. The two sit down.)
Sergio: Somebody told me I might find you here.
Jack: Who? Never mind. How long are you here?
Sergio: Maybe a week. I’m staying with a friend. I’ve been thinking about moving here.
Jack: Definitely; you should do that! Please move here! What have you been up to?
Sergio: Not much; I was in New Mexico. I moved to Gilroy a year ago. I wanted to be in California.
Jack: What’s in Gilroy? Besides garlic.
Sergio: Doing construction work. Mostly. But I’m thinking of moving like I say. I like San Francisco but it’s expensive. And more crowded than I remember.
Jack: Yeah, tell me about it. It isn’t like it used to be in the 60’s, that’s for sure. It’s losing some of its innocence. It’s in transition. Fewer poets, more buildings, more crowded. It’s changing. But there’s still something about it that’s pretty much the same. How long has it been since we’ve seen each other?
Sergio: Three years ago. In New York.
Jack: Yeah. At Sherry’s funeral. I said I would hitch-hike there when you called me. You paid my air fare.
Sergio: You said you would write a poem.
Jack: I remember reading a poem.
Sergio: It was about boundlessness.
Jack: I remember it.
Sergio: It was beautiful.
Jack: So was she.
Sergio: She loved you.
Jack: (Lights a cigarette; Sergio looks around the room.) I want to sketch you. Let me sketch you.
(He grabs a napkin from his pile of napkins, and starts to sketch.
I’m doing painting and drawings these days. Even portraits.
Sergio: How long have you been painting?
Jack: I started in earnest about a year ago. I’ve sold a few.
Sergio: That’s great! Where?
Jack: There’s a bookstore in the Mission. The owner likes my work.
Jack: He’s crazy but he pays me. That’s the kind of crazy I like. Turn your head to the left. Hold it. You’re beautiful; this will be a beautiful sketch.
(Holds up a partial sketch of Sergio) What do you think so far?
Sergio: Nice. I’m almost handsome.
Jack: You’re beautiful.
Sergio: You following the hostage situation?
Jack: Who isn’t? I feel sorry for them. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sergio: The other day I heard someone say “We need to kick Iran’s ass!”
Jack: I hear similar things. Some people are saying “Fuck the Ayatollah”, I think people finally feel OK with saying things like that. We have something that justifies an aggressive attitude without someone calling you an asshole war monger.
Sergio: I wonder how many people who were against Viet Nam are becoming hawks.
Jack: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Some people will stay loyal to whatever politics defined them then as if it’s all black and white. So they’ll say “Don’t make Iran the villain, we’re responsible for hostages being taken because we put the Shah in power.” And they would be correct. Others are apolitical. And others simply don’t know the facts. And most of us won’t ever know all the facts.
Sergio: And where are you in all this?
Jack: I’m for the hostages, it isn’t their fault. I don’t think the government gets off free. But for now, it’s the Pearl Harbor of the day—something that unites us. Maybe later things will change again. The pendulum is always swinging one way or the other.
Sergio: Yeah, people change. But I think people are mostly focused on the hostages. Leave them out of the political battle.
Jack: People are always changing; for different reasons. Sometimes the change is invisible to the person who’s changing. They don’t notice it until they wake up one day and wonder how they’ve become what they are. Someone was a Marxist when you knew them years ago and now they’re a stock broker. And sometimes they’re aware of it while the change is happening; something is changing in them, but they can’t put their finger on it.
Sergio: So you mean there’s two times when people notice the invisible change? It’s a long period of sleep marked by two points of realization?
Jack: It’s continuous. I mean the stock broker who was a Marxist still thinks he’s a Marxist. With some differences. He thinks that whatever he’s doing is for the right reasons and then he notices the differences. But goes on believing what he wants to believe. Like “doublethink”.
Sergio: So there’s more than two points. It’s like at any point he can compare and he wakes up one day and notices he’s different?
Jack: Yeah, maybe, who knows? It’s whenever you notice it, I guess. I knew a guy who if you reminded him of something he said maybe ten years ago, he’d say, “Yeah, I was a jerk then.” The thing is, he would probably say the same thing about himself ten years from now.
Sergio: Then he isn’t changing.
Jack: He is, he’s just a different kind of jerk. Maybe more, maybe less. People think I’m an asshole, but I change over the years.
Sergio: Are you less or more?
Jack: I don’t know. What do you think?
Sergio: Hard to tell.
Jack: People who love me accept me for what I am. We become more of who we are, I think. More of our essence. It’s the same with America; the same with the world. Always changing and it never goes back to the way it was, but underneath all that, crazy as it is, some things are always the same.
Sergio: The more things change and all that?
Jack: Yeah, well what the hell do I know? I’m a poet. I make this shit up as I go along. Today I love the world. Tomorrow I might hate it.
Sergio: That sounds about right.
Jack: Yeah. It’s crazy.
Jack: Still writing?
Sergio: Still writing, yes. I had a book of poems published last year.
Jack: Fantastic! Is the publisher still in business?
Sergio: Last I heard. What are you doing these days?
Jack: Still writing poems, still delighting and pissing off people. Speaking of which, I’m giving a reading tomorrow night. You should come. It’s at Coffee Gallery.
Sergio: I might do that.
Jack: You working on anything?
Sergio: Yeah, I guess. It’s something that’s a story and sometimes a poem. I have no idea where it’s going.
Jack: Is it more story or more poem at this point?
Sergio: More story. I think.
Jack: What’s it about?
Sergio: It’s about me.
Jack: When does it take place?
Sergio: 1959. When I was young. Hitch-hiking.
Jack: Doing the “On the Road” thing?
Sergio: Yeah. Pretty cliché and autobiographical, I know.
Jack: Who cares? If it’s telling a story, it doesn’t matter. The big publishers are never going to touch us. We’re invisible. Ferlinghetti doesn’t give me time of day. You think I care? You have to not care. Just write it. Don’t care about who hates it.
Sergio: That all makes sense. I suppose. I’m always second-guessing myself.
Jack: So what happens?
Sergio: I’m hitchhiking across the U.S.; always thinking about returning to Sherry telling her what happened, people I met, what I did. It was just before we got married. A lot of people were doing it then: finding themselves, finding America, finding themselves in America. She didn’t mind. I think. If she did, she didn’t say. But she’s with me all the time in the story—in my head. We have conversations. Sometimes she comments on what happens, other times what I should be saying or doing or not doing. At one point in the story, I get picked up by Marlon Brando.
Jack: I want to hear about this.
Sergio: This guy in his twenties, picks me up and asks me a lot of questions about what I’m doing and I tell him I was in the PhD English program at NYU. He was impressed until he found out I dropped out. He kept after me about why I would drop out. I didn’t want a PhD in it, I tell him; I just wanted to write. In my head Sherry tells me “Tell him Kerouac dropped out of Columbia”. But I tell her “I don’t see the point of doing that.” He goes on about if it were him he would have continued and what he would do and keeps asking me why would I do something so dumb?, and so on. We were on our way to LA, but I can’t take any more of him so I tell him to let me out. He gets offended, like I’m supposed to be grateful for a ride where he insults me the whole time. He slams on the brakes and says “Get the hell out.” I was in a little town called Perris.
Jack: Where the hell is that?
Sergio: It was in the middle of nowhere. It still is, except now there’s more highways around it that take you to LA. So I start hitching again, and someone who looks like Marlon Brando, driving a Rolls Royce picks me up.
Sergio: He’s on his way to Los Angeles and he asks if that’s good. “That’s where I’m going,” I tell him. He’s real quiet, doesn’t ask any questions. I tell him he looks like Marlon Brando and he says that’s who he is. He talks to me about how everything’s connected and there’s a reason for everything that happens to us. That there’s a reason why he picked me up. I asked him what it was. He says sometimes we never know the reasons. I told him that eventually when I get back to New York I’m going to marry Sherry and that I knew she wasn’t going to cheat on me. He doesn’t say anything. The Sherry in my head says: “He’s just like he is in the movies.”
Sergio: He doesn’t say anything for a long time and then he says “I wish you well. Give Sherry a kiss for me.” That’s the last thing he says to me, as we drive into LA.
Jack: I never knew you met Brando.
Sergio: Well, actually… (He pauses) Actually, I didn’t. I made that part up.
Jack: (Laughs) I thought you said it was autobiographical.
Sergio: (Shrugs) It felt autobiographical.
Jack: Fantastic. It felt autobiographical. That’s absolutely right. It felt like it really happened. That’s real writing. It’s like what James Dean said about acting. If the character you’re playing is smoking a cigarette, you have to smoke the cigarette, not act like you’re smoking a cigarette. The hard part about writing is trying to not make it sound like you’re writing.
Sergio: Like Kerouac.
Jack: Or me. (Lights a cigarette). And what about the guy who was giving you a hard time about dropping out? Did you make that up?
Sergio: No. That really happened.
Sergio: Someone said they saw you working at North Beach Pizza.
Jack: Where the fuck did you hear that?
Sergio: Diane DiPrima.
Jack: When the hell were you talking with Diane DiPrima?
Sergio: I was at an art opening for a friend of mine a few days ago and Diane was there.
Jack: She told you she saw me working at North Beach Pizza?
Sergio: Not me, she was talking to someone about you; that’s what she said.
Jack: Probably someone who looked like me.
Sergio: I don’t know.
Jack: So DiPrima was talking about me? Who was the guy she was talking to?
Sergio: A musician. He liked Thelonius Monk. The way he would sometimes stop playing piano and dance to the music his band was playing.
Jack: Yeah, I like Monk too. She say anything else about me besides the pizzeria bullshit?
Sergio: She said that your poems are like music. And that you have to hear them to know that, because reading them you don’t always hear the rhythms.
Jack: I think I’ve only talked to her once. I didn’t know she was that into me. Anything else?
Sergio: Her friend started asking her about Kerouac.
Jack: Nice to know I’m in good company. What about him?
Sergio: She kind of knew Kerouac and this and that and they started talking about pornography. She disagreed with the musician about what constituted pornography, but I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation.
Jack. People sometimes ask me if I knew Kerouac.
Sergio: What do you say?
Jack: I talked with him, a few times. And the only times I talked with him we were both drunk. I can’t say I really knew the guy. He liked my poetry so I guess that’s a good thing. But I don’t remember what we talked about in any detail. The only conversations I remember with Kerouac are imaginary ones.
Jack: I have to level with you. Just between us.
Sergio: Of course.
Jack: It’s true about the pizzeria; I’ve been working there for about two weeks, three days a week. I’m working there as a favor to this girl I know. Judy. She’s a social worker. Pretty nice; she’s in her thirties.
Sergio: How did you meet her?
Jack: She heard me read at a poetry reading and started talking to me if she saw me around town. So she’s kind of a friend. She and a friend of hers got me the gig at the pizzeria. Her friend is also a social worker. I told Judy once I was having some problems paying rent at the hotel. She was worried about me, so she and her friend got me this gig. She said just do it for a few weeks. She normally doesn’t help people get jobs. She works with pregnant women who are addicts.
Sergio: Sounds like a nice person.
Jack: She’s nice but very naïve. I’ll do alright. I’m getting by with money. I’m making more with my paintings than my poetry and the bookstore that wants my art is going to help. I’m going to quit the pizzeria job tonight. They’re nice people and I like Mike who runs it, but it isn’t for me.
Sergio: Might be a good way to make some extra money, though. What do you think she’ll say?
Jack: She’ll be disappointed. She wants to save the world, so I’m part of her effort. Don’t get me wrong. I like her. She keeps talking about how the residence hotels are starting to disappear and what am I going to do when there’s no cheap places to live.
Sergio: Something to think about.
Jack: I suppose. She asked me what I think I’ll be doing in ten years. I said I felt like I was being interviewed for a job, but she insisted. So I said maybe we’ll still be friends and I’ll be babysitting her kids. Maybe I’ll no longer be invisible and I’ll be going to cocktail parties with Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg. What I won’t be doing is working in a fucking pizzeria. So then I asked her where did she think she would be in ten years.
Sergio: What did she say?
Jack: She got real quiet and looked kind of sad. She said she didn’t know. I said I didn’t mean to upset her. She’s still hung up on her divorce which wasn’t too long ago. She asked me if I believed in God. I said I had my own way of thinking about God. Whether that’s belief or not, I don’t know. I asked if she believed. She said she was Catholic. So was Kerouac, and I’m Jewish, I told her, but you didn’t answer the question. She said sometimes she did, and sometimes not. It depended on her mood.
Sergio: I’m that way.
Jack: A lot of people are. She wanted to know what my belief was. So I told her. I’ve told you. Or somebody.
Sergio: It wasn’t me.
Jack: It doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you. I think of God as this invisible thing. Many people are invisible; I write about them all the time. But God is a different invisible; he’s the “great invisible”. And he’s talking to us. All the time. Sometimes we hear what he’s telling us. Most of the time we don’t. It takes some effort.
Sergio: How is he talking to us?
Jack: He makes you see yourself. Whenever we see ourselves, we hear him. And he’s always saying the same thing: “Be in love with your life. Every minute of it.”
Sergio: That’s Kerouac.
Jack: Yeah. It’s Kerouac. That’s probably who I told, come to think of it.
Sergio: So your belief in God is belief in Kerouac.
Jack: Maybe. I don’t know. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, there was this junkie I would see at a donut shop I used to go to. I think it was on Fillmore.
Sergio: Go on.
Jack: I saw him talking to this girl who would come in there. She didn’t look like she was enjoying talking to him. Then she stopped coming in for a week or so. He was still there every day though. So then she shows up again, grabbing some coffee to go and he says “How come you don’t come by here anymore?” In that moment, I saw myself. I knew I would write about him, and I also knew that God talking to me.
Jack: He was showing me how people survive by hanging on to slim hopes. This guy had hopes of getting together with this girl. I saw myself in that moment, how I hope for things—things that are going to turn my life around. But I decided then that maybe my life doesn’t need turning around; I wasn’t going to get caught up in that. “Be in love with your life. Every minute of it.”
Sergio: So he’s talking to us about ourselves.
Jack: He talks about us and our relationship to the world.
Sergio: Was he talking to Judy when you told her your belief?
Jack: He’s talking to everybody. I don’t know if she made anything out of what I told her.
Sergio: Maybe working in the pizzeria is God talking to you.
Jack: Funny guy! Remind me not to tell you anything again.
The two have been quiet for a few minutes. Jack is writing on his napkin. Sergio is staring into space.
Jack: What are you thinking about?
Sergio: About Sherry. I think about her a lot. Every day. Several times a day.
Jack: Yeah. I think about certain people more than others.
Sergio: Is that a bad thing?
Jack: It depends. What do you think about when you think of Sherry?
Sergio: Various things. Like now, I’m imagining she’s here listening to us.
Jack: Tell her I said hello.
Sergio: It’s not like a séance. It’s sort of like a story. Or a dream.
Jack: Or a poem?
Sergio: More like a story. She watches me as I make dinner. I imagine what I might say to her, and her to me—about the day, about what I’m making for dinner, about what I was thinking about, or a dream I had. Maybe later I’ll imagine talking to her about our conversation, and about God always talking to us.
Jack: You riff with her. An improvisation. Like jazz. What do you think she’ll say about our conversation?
Sergio: I’ll know later. Sometimes a conversation changes. I might imagine it one way early in the day, and another way later. What I see or read or hear can affect my mood and how I imagine things.
Jack: What do you think she’d say to you right now?
Sergio: Right now? She’s telling me that God is talking to me.
Jack: And what is he saying?
Sergio: He’s telling me I love her. Every minute of her.
Jack puts his hands on Sergio’s shoulders. Sergio wipes his eyes with a napkin and stands up.
Jack: You should think about moving here.
Sergio: I have to go.
Jack: Where are you going?
Sergio: I don’t know. I just need to walk a bit and think about things.
Jack: What things, Sergio?
Sergio: I don’t know yet.
Jack: Well at least think about coming to the reading tomorrow. It’s at seven. Coffee Gallery. At the very end, I want you to read your story—what you’ve got so far. Do you have the story with you?
Sergio: Yes, but I don’t know.
Jack: Only if you want to. I usually allow time at the end for a young poet whose work I like. But this time it’s for you. Think about it. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces.
Sergio: Will Ruth Weiss be there?
Jack: Of course Ruthie will be there. So will Corso. And Kaufman. Judy will be there too. I’ll introduce you.
Sergio: Do you think Corso will like it?
Jack: Of course he’ll like it.
Sergio: I’ll try to make it.
Sergio: I’ll make it.
Jack: I’ll see you tomorrow.
(They hug each other)
Jack: I love you.
Sergio left, and Jack read some more about the hostages in the paper someone left behind. He thought of his conversation with Sergio about the change they were seeing in the wake of the hostage crisis. He was wary and optimistic about it at the same time. Seeing and feeling the change excited him.
In a few hours it would be time for his shift at the pizzeria. He got along well with everyone there. The owner Mike was gruff but had a big heart, and sung opera badly but with great feeling. Jack loved him, and he would tell him so before telling him he was leaving. He thought tonight would be his last night but now he wasn’t sure. He would have to see how he felt. Mike probably knew Jack would quit at some point and for all he knew, Judy probably told Mike the same thing. He also knew Sergio was right; God was talking to him.
He went outside. He thought of the things he and Sergio had talked about. The conversation had filled him with light. He knew himself well enough to know that today’s light could be tomorrow’s darkness and decided to focus on the light.
He walked up Grant Street, past an Italian bakery where a woman behind the counter was arguing with a customer. It was obvious the two knew each other and in Jack’s eyes their argument was full of love. It started to rain, and a fire engine went by and seemed to perfectly belong in the setting of rain-soaked streets that were now speaking a history that Jack felt a part of. He saw a young man who he had seen in various cafes and at one of his poetry readings. He waved to him and the young man waved back. He felt a warmth inside him when he waved, so much so that it felt like the sun had come out.
He passed a barbershop that was empty except for the owner who was playing an Italian tarantella on the clarinet. Jack stopped under the awning of the barber shop, lit a cigarette, and listened to the music knowing that the barber was unaware he was part of a sound track to the world outside. We’re all part of somebody’s experience in this crazy world, he thought; this crazy changing world. Jack started walking again and began to sing, loud, out of tune and in that moment totally in love with the world.
Barry Garelick has written non-fiction pieces that have been published in Atlantic, Education Next, and American Mathematical Society Notices. His fiction has appeared in Paragraph Magazine. He won a Hopwood award at University of Michigan in 1971 in the short story category. He lives in California and lived in San Francisco during the 70’s where he witnessed the change of a small town into a thriving metropolis, and the death of the beat literary community, which he writes about here.