Many of my Italian relatives lived in North Beach when they first immigrated to America over a hundred years ago. I’ve been going there ever since I was born. And each time I’ve gone— including my most recent trip a few months ago— that hollow muscle inside my chest gives me that first-love feeling. And then I start to get really excited about life and all of its possibilities. And then I have this fantasy that I may even be able to afford to live there.
I have the place all picked out, too— it’s that white, stuccoed, Spanish-style building with the red tiled roof; the one with the wrought iron balconies with the terra-cotta pots overflowing with geraniums. It’s right around the corner from the old Liguria Bakery where the Soracco family still knows how to make focaccia.
During the day, I hangout in Washington Square Park playing Briscola and smoking Toscanis with mio fratelli di altre madri. At night, Caryn and I drink red wine and eat big bowls of pasta e fagioli at the Bohemian Cigar Store, where the waiters call me by my pen name: Italo Scrittore. And before going back to our apartment, we stop at The Purple Onion and catch a poet or two, have a couple of grappas, and then an hour of heady conversation with our favorite bartender, Gelsomina Calabrese.
And then it dawns on me— the North Beach with the Beat Poets, and the Purple Onion, and the old Italians playing Briscola in the Park, and the affordable apartments in the charming Mediterranean style buildings…no longer exists. Heck, Beach Blanket Babylon isn’t even there anymore.
Thankfully, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still there. And so are his poems, paintings, books, films, activism, and thanks to many lovers of Ferlinghetti (like me) who donated a few bucks at the beginning of the shelter-in-place to help them keep their “doors open” (pandemic-ally speaking), so is his City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, at 261 Columbus Avenue in North Beach.
Happy 101st birthday, Mr. Ferlinghetti. Grazie per il lavoro della tua vita!
Go to the link to hear me read (from quarantine) the poem, The Old Italians Dying, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from his book, San Francisco Poems.