Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, dead at 101. I remember meeting him in 1987, at Le Grand Derangement, the international Quebec City Conference on Jack Kerouac. I drew on that phantasmagoria in my novel Kerouac’s Ghost. I got to hang out with Ferlinghetti because he and I were the only anglophone visitors who could speak French. The second time I met him was early 1988, when Ferlinghetti visited Calgary for the literary festival attached to the Winter Olympics. We chatted briefly, reminisced and laughed about Quebec City. But my favorite meeting came in 1995 in San Francisco, where I had gone to promote the second of four versions of Kerouac’s Ghost. Back home in Calgary, still feeling the Beat, I wrote a short feature in second person. It ran under the headline Kerouac: His spirit is alive and well in San Francisco. . . .

You arrive in San Francisco knowing that, here, Jack Kerouac lives. Never mind that the legendary King of the Beats, best-known as the author of On the Road, died in 1969. In spirit, Kerouac lives forever in the City by the Bay. You’re not here to prove it, but simply to revel in it, and to meet some of the people who are keeping his legacy alive. 

Front and centre is biographer Gerald Nicosia, who’s embroiled in a legal battle to keep Kerouac’s archive intact and accessible. Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac — demonstrably the best of a raft of biographies — lives with his wife and baby daughter just north of San Francisco in a comfortable old house that’s loaded with character. He’s finishing up a massive book about Vietnam veterans . . . but he’s more emotionally engaged in trying to save Kerouac’s books and papers from being sold off in profitable pieces . . . . 

Back in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, the heart of Beat country, you and Nicosia join Neeli Chernovski in the Cafe Greco. He’s best-known as the biographer of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the legendary American poet who founded — and still owns — the nearby City Lights Bookstore. Chernovski is going through page proofs — a revised version of his biography of the late Charles Bukowski called Bukowski: A Life. . . .

You’re enjoying your second double latte when who should wander into the cafe but Ferlinghetti himself, easily the most respected living writer who knew Kerouac personally. Ferlinghetti joins the table and reminisces about visiting Calgary during the 1988 Olympic Writers’ Festival: “They took us out to a lovely little town in the mountains — Banff!” 

Ferlinghetti also brings tidings that the on-again, off-again movie version of On the Road, which Francis Ford Coppola is bent on making, is most recently off-again: “He hasn’t been able to get a good script.” If and when he does, the betting is on Sean Penn to play the madman Dean Moriarity, and either Keanu Reeves or Johnny Depp to play the Kerouac figure, Sal Paradise. How can it miss?  

You head out to Golden Gate Park, where the De Young Museum is holding an exhibition called Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965. . . So The Beat (movement) goes on and on, yes, but what about the young? The next generation? One evening you fall in with Ken Kaplan, late 20s, who leads you from Vesuvio, Kerouac’s old favorite watering hole, to one down-and-dirty blues club after another. Kerouac would have loved it. Another night, Jim Camp, an early-30s ex-teacher, ex-stockbroker, excitedly describes his novel-in-progress and trots out several chapbooks he’s published as Synaethesia Press. One glance and you see the signs: they’re Beat.  

Another day, back in North Beach, you spend an hour in City Lights bookstore, then cross Jack Kerouac Alley — so-named after a long campaign, led by Ferlinghetti, involving many streets — and return to Vesuvio, that crowded and colorful bar. Nicosia has described the corner where, habitually, Jack Kerouac sat. When it comes vacant, you get Jim Camp to take your picture there. Look out the window: Kerouac lives!  

Ferlinghetti photo: Clay Mclachlan/AP

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