As a teenager in rural Northern California, I stumbled onto the Beat writers. My friends and I went wild for them; they had bad attitudes, cool fast cars, crazy independence, and a deep love of language. We threw Beatnik theme parties -- without realizing that "-nik" was a pejorative stuck on by super-square Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Charlie Parker's jazz, Allen Ginsberg's poetry, and Jack Kerouac's novels were nothing short of magical -- they offered hope for the future and described places we knew actually existed. North Beach! The promised land! Nothing was cooler or more sophisticated than sitting in Caffe Trieste drinking "espresso," which at the time was a word cheerleaders did not know. We felt invincible and creative and smart, just like the Beats themselves. We went to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's own bookstore, City Lights, and bought the cheapest book there: Howl. We already had copies of the famous poem, but they were in dorky anthologies, and we wanted the easy-to-carry paperbacks, which were, in our minds, "so much more Beat."
Later, in college, I continued to dig around in Beat literature, although by this time a lot of people had begun to think of Kerouac and Neal Cassady as evil macho oppressors. Only one writer from that group was still cool: Diane di Prima, who was starting to be recognized as a proto-feminist, with a voice that was as rigorous, hungry, and critical as the rest of them. Unlike the rest of them, though, she didn't put women down, not even herself. Di Prima's mix of integrity, intellect, and adventure were and are a high-water mark for writers and poets.
Even now, those crazy North Beach hipsters continue to teach us things: It's really hard to read and booze at the same time, for example. Even better, the literary communities here watch each other's backs, stay outspoken, and raise up new voices. The lack of fear shown in the political arena by di Prima, Ferlinghetti, and their cohorts has buoyed the entire city's sometimes faltering political activism and community spirit.
Now as then, City Lights Bookstore is perpetually surrounded by a furor that is sexy and scruffy, intellectual and unpretentious, intoxicated and stone-cold serious -- it and the Beat writers remain role models and inspirations.
This year, City Lights celebrates its 50th anniversary with a star-spangled series of events. The "Poetry Dance" on Friday night is sold out, but on Sunday, Ferlinghetti, devorah major, Andrei Codrescu, Dave Eggers, James Kass, and many others help celebrate at 2 p.m. with readings. During the week of the 9th, author Bill Morgan leads walking tours of North Beach, and on June 12 he reads from The Beat Generation in San Francisco: A Literary Tour. On June 19, Diane di Prima presents the first career-spanning reading she has ever given, and on June 25 "Coming Back Home to Manila Town" is an evening of "talkstory" with Emil De Guzman, Nancy Hom, and others. All events take place in or near City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus (at Broadway), S.F. Admission is free; call 362-8193 or visit www.citylights.com.