Beat It at Vesuvio Cafe

I don't spend enough time in North Beach. Part of the reason is geographical. It seems to be in the Bermuda Triangle of my ramblings, and I usually get sidetracked in Chinatown or the Tenderloin. But I think that I also avoid the neighborhood because of the Beat Generation lore. That movement is so synonymous with San Francisco that it just seems too obvious to steep myself in it. And that, gentle reader, is a direct effect of the Beats themselves. They eschewed the normal, the trendy, the conventional. Since being countercultural is the norm in San Francisco, why would I want to be like everyone else and read Jack Kerouac? A guy I went to high school with called this phenomenon “conforming to nonconformity.”

But sometimes you have to set aside your prejudices and take something at face value. Take Vesuvio Cafe. It is rightly one of the best-known bars in S.F., attracting regulars and tourists with equal pull. It is charming, historical, cozy, and heavily decorated with all sorts of stained glass and knickknacks. Because of its proximity to City Lights Bookstore, it is the sort of space, I suppose, where you should sit and create on-the-spot poetry in the tradition of the Romantics, where true art can come only from a spontaneous overflowing of feeling translated into words.

The Beats had the same idea — the creative process shouldn't be tinkered with too much. Just connect the pen in your hand with the words in your head as they come. But that's another thing about the Beats that bugs me: I'm not sure I buy all that. Sure, you can write an okay draft the first time, just off the top of your head, but if you really want something to be good, you have to tweak it a bit. I just don't believe that all their stream-of-consciousness writing resulted in great art. That's not to say that your surroundings, mood, and talent can't contribute to the creative process. Sitting at the bar, I thought about Ray Bradbury, who once said that he had a room full of stuff that he'd collected over the years. When he was feeling stuck, he would look at an object and develop a story around it. I always thought this was a cool idea.

When it comes down to it, art is a mirror of real experience. But nothing trumps real experience itself. I get so much more from actually interacting with the world than I do from writing about it.

Which brings me to my purpose at Vesuvio. I was meeting a friend there for a debriefing, after she wrapped up a day of showing her visiting family around the local sights. I just prayed that they took my suggestion and rode on the Quackers thingie, the half-tank, half-boat whatsit that goes from turf to surf. I've never met anyone who has taken the tour, and I fear that soon I shall have to try it myself unless I can find a surrogate. I've seen the best minds of my generation atop duck-billed battalions, storming the beaches of Alcatraz with guilt-ridden smiles. Okay, maybe it's not as hard as I thought.

I ordered a coffee, since Vesuvio is also a cafe. Finally my friend showed up. She had that careworn look of someone who had wandered around Fisherman's Wharf trying to keep grandpa away from the three-card monte scams all day. Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Dudes painted silver pretending to be statues! I bought her a beer and then cut to the chase. Did she go on the Quackers?

“No …” she said, a smile starting to cross her face, “but my dad wanted to know what the Quakers were doing being tour guides.” We laughed and mused that a silence-imposed tour might actually be something we could market, especially for tourists getting sick of their traveling companions.

She admitted that she had never actually set foot in Vesuvio before, preferring Tosca across the street, on her eternal quest to be in the same room with Sean Penn. “He's short,” I said of Penn, “just like all famous people.” I hadn't actually ever seen him at Tosca, but I have seen him a few times in Marin.

“That would be a letdown,” my friend admitted. She and I have talked about why you should never meet your idols, because they will only disappoint you. It is my dream to meet two people: David Bowie and Barry Gibb. But I hold no illusions about how each meeting might go. David Bowie would probably be an asshole. Barry Gibb would look like a plasticine Wolfman Jack with a facelift and a spray-on tan.

When there was a lull in the conversation, the two of us looked around the room at all the gewgaws and gimcrackery. I told her about Ray Bradbury's creative process. The only thing she had read by him was Fahrenheit 451, since most of us had to read it in high school.

“Do you like poetry?” I asked.

She thought for a bit. “Some of it,” she said. “But mostly it's like jazz. I like the idea of it, but I don't want to have to actually sit through it.”

“Hear, hear,” I said. This is why I like this friend so much. We think alike. I can have a conversation with her and feel connected to something. And isn't art about making a connection? This was the only spontaneous art I needed. There's nothing like a drink with one of the greatest minds of my generation.

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