A small whiskey, the Zoetrope Cafe and Francis Ford Coppola

As one travels towards the end of North Beach in San Francisco, just before entering the financial district, there is a distinctive building on the corner of Columbus and Kearney. Its iron sheathing has been oxidized a gentle green color and, in a way, it resembles an ornate version of the Flat Iron Building in New York.

The building houses the offices of Francis Ford Coppola. Aside from the production duties, the writing, and script doctoring, it is here that Coppola does all his film editing–where all the Godfather movies, Apocalypse Now, Dracula and so many others were edited.

It is also where the literary journal Zoetrope: All Story is produced.  The journal presents some of the finest in contemporary fiction and one-act plays and has featured such established writers as David Mamet, Don DeLillo, Andrew Sean Greer,  Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Woody Allen,  Neil Jordan, and Haruki Murakami. (Full disclosure: I had submitted once when the magazine first started up, not realizing I was so far out of my depth.)

And on the bottom floor is the Zoetrope Cafe, an Italian bistro, featuring an Old World menu and, not surprisingly, a large selection of Coppola wines.

So last night, we stopped in for a nightcap. 

I noticed what I wanted on the shelf immediately. The whiskey was poured into the most unusual bar glass I’ve ever seen. It was more like a “petri-dish” than a drink glass, about an inch and a half-tall and 4 inches wide.  We asked if the barkeep had ever met Coppola, and she said she did for the first time that day. He told her to call him “Francis” which she said she was still a bit uncomfortable yet to do.

There were copies of Zoetrope in a corner so we brought a couple to the bar and began leafing through them when the bartender came back and with a jerk of her head whispered, “There he is.”  Coppola was chatting with the hostess, looking as if he was going over the wine stock.  About fifteen minutes later, he called to his wife who had been sitting in the corner next to us and they left the cafe, getting into an ordinary SUV.

I had seen the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti the day before and now Francis Ford Coppola this night, and there was so much I would have liked to ask them both.  But their celebrity is mostly in our minds only–their audience.  They, themselves, must go through their days and nights much like you and I, and the intrusion of strangers certainly must be tiresome. At the same time, it is also good to see these literary/cultural lions in their daily routine–to see them simply as working men, no different than the rest of us.

Still, I would have loved to have bought another whiskey, offered each a drink, and listened to what they had to say.

Francis Ford Coppola, July 12,2012, Zoetrope Cafe

City Lights, Vesuvio Bar and sighting Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I had the chance to be across the country and in San Francisco for a few days this week, and I immediately went to City Lights Books in the North Beach section of the city.  If not the most famous bookstore in America, it is certainly one of them.

City Lights was founded by Peter D. Martin and named after the politico/literary magazine he had founded named City Lights in 1953. It was the very first paperback book store in the United States. As he was hanging the sign on the store at 291 Columbus Avenue, Larry Ferlinghetti walked past and asked to be a partner. Both Martin and Ferlinghetti invested $500. Martin sold his share to Ferlinghetti in 1955.

But the financial/founding history isn’t what is important. It is the store’s place in America literary  history that stands out.

In December, 1955, Ferlinghetti and City Lights published Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. Ferlinghetti had seen Ginsberg read at Six Galleries. It was an extraordinary evening. The reading was delayed until Jack Kerouac, who after collecting donations for wine, returned with several gallon jugs. Also performing and/or in attendance were Mike McLure, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Phillip Lamantia and Phillip Whalen–all bright lights in the Beat movement. The next morning, Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram stating that he would like to publish the poem, the fourth book in City Lights’ Pocket-Rocket Series. Ferlinghetti’s telegram began: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?

Robbie Robertson, Mike McLure, Bob Dylan, and Alan Ginsberg. City Lights Books, San Francisco 1965.

Four months after publication, the cashier at the store and Ferlinghetti were arrested for selling obscene material–Howl. The case riveted the nation–and made Howl one of the most notorious/famous books of its time. The judge’s decision–that Howl was fully protected by the First Amendment–became an important precedent in the future cases against Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

And so…after browsing  the three floors of the book-store, filled with memorabilia, photos, and more than just books, I went across the alley–Jack Kerouac Square–to  the Vesuvio bar. This wonderful bar –mismatched furniture, decals, art work, cheap drinks, two floors, old posters–is a step back into time, or at least in my head. Pictures of Jack London vie with pictures of Jack Kerouac vie with pictures of David Crosby and Grace Slick. A giant portrait of James Joyce hangs next to a photo of Joyce reading the paper in Paris on Bloomsday, June 16th.

Ienjoyed myself. Spent most of the time walking around and reading the walls–the vintage posters advertising readings by a who’s who of San Francisco poets and concerts from the early days, the photos of legendary writers, poets, activists and actors, and original art both bad and worse.

And then it was time to leave.  Outside, we took a few pictures and turned to leave.  And then, as I turned to look back, there coming out of the bar was Ferlinghetti himself.  He stopped, looked around, and placed a cap on his head. My first inclination was to go up to him and shake his hand, thanking him for his long battle against censorship, imperialism, and philistinism, for his support of art, poetry and the avant-garde.  But then I decided against it.  Let a man walk out of a bar, look into the sunshine and set on his way without being bothered by an admirer.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti. photo via Flickr by Steve Rhodes