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Maple Trees Just a Little Bit Duller

April 25, 2015

“If the summer kept a secret
It was heaven’s lack of rain
Golden days and amber sunsets
Let the scientists complain
Came the autumn, drained of color
Ghosts in the water beg for more
Maple trees just a little bit duller
Than the memory of the year before”

– Paul Simon, from Love and Blessings

The past three weeks, I’ve had some fun with blogging buddy, Virginia Antonelli, writing about Patti Smith and a San Francisco bookstore. It’s one of those small world connections that are always a story or question away from discovery. All we have to do is to pay attention.

Virginia and I stumbled upon this amusing juncture on April Fool’s Day. Years ago when I was a student, I worked at a bookstore in San Francisco’s Financial District. It was a very popular place for office workers looking for a book or just a diversion to their workdays. A year earlier, Virginia finagled her way into Patti Smith’s book signing event held at the store and received an invitation to join the rock star in San Diego.

The bookstore is long gone, but I wanted to post a photo of the building with one of our Patti Posts. I went into San Francisco a couple weeks ago to get some photos, but made mistakes with the exposure on the digital camera. I didn’t realize until I left the City that every photo was overexposed. All I had to offer were ghostly images to go with my memories of my work shifts in the store’s dark basement.

I should have checked the photos before I left the storefront, but didn’t. Instead, I hoofed it up to North Beach to check on Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore, City Lights. It’s been there since 1953. I first went there in my first visit to San Francisco in 1978, the same year of Virginia’s encounter with Patti. It’s a touchstone of sorts for me, as it carries on year after year, decade after decade.

Ferlinghetti is now in his mid-nineties, but I’ve never seen any sign that the store is at risk of closing. That’s a good thing for a city that was once coined “Baghdad by the Bay” for its exotic culture. The place is rapidly changing into a  start-up lab for the tech companies and a playground for the people who work at them.

There are fewer San Francisco experiences to catch my attention these days. Staggering land and property values are squeezing out many of the City’s charms. Why even some of San Francisco’s flagship large companies, such as Chevron and Charles Schwab, have had enough of the crazy rents and no longer want to commit so much money for their office space.

I’m happy to report that City Lights appears alive and well.

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Here is a 1955 photo Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of City Lights and the sign for the small North Beach street named for Ferlinghetti.

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Another of the posters on the wall to welcome and encourage people to read books.

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City Lights publishes books also. Here is an alphabet frieze displayed in the store window on Columbus Street for one of their books for school children, “Rad American Women A-Z.” Just left of the center black window bar, you can see a card that reads “P for Patti.” There is a section of the book titled, “P is for Patti Smith, who put the poetry in punk.” That she did. Other sections were written for Carol Burnett, Odetta, Billie Jean King, Rachel Carson and Ursula K. LeGuin, among others.

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An alley on the southeast side of City Lights is named after Jack Kerouac, who was Ferlinghetti’s contemporary and another key figure in Beat literature.

I wasn’t satisfied that our Patti Posts weren’t accompanied by any current photos of the site. So I set out after work yesterday to try again.

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Here’s the building that once housed the bookstore that brought us the Patti Posts. The freight elevator and the place where Patti invited Virginia to San Diego was on the Sutter Street sidewalk, which is on the right side of the building.

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The fire escape that stood above the freight elevator in the sidewalk that lead to the basement where we unpacked books. The elevator isn’t there anymore. Safety concerns had to be behind that change, as it was an accident waiting to happen.

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I found an opening to the plastic wrap around the storefront windows. This is what I found inside. No more books. No more bookstore workers. However, there appears to be offices or other occupied work space on the second and third floors.

My friend K walked over from her Financial District office to meet me on Sutter Street. After an errand and the photo shoot, we went over to an old-style San Francisco restaurant. There’s lots of wood and no light from large screen TVs cutting through the room. They generally serve classic Italian recipes and seafood without too much fluff. K and I had a good time catching up with each after our busy weeks, We ordered well. We split a pizzetta to start and then split a pork chop. I learned that sunny side up eggs in the middle of anything is now very hip with the San Francisco eateries. K ate the egg. I asked the young waiter how long they’ve put fried eggs on their cheese and asparagus plate-sized pizza. He told me one week. I think that means that I am current with one new fad.

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The Patti Posts collection:

  1. Even on April Fool’s Day. Here is where our small world connected. See Virginia’s comments to the post for that revelation.
  2. Lame Adventure 463: Way Back Machine Encounter with a Rock Legend. This is Virginia’s fun blog post about her day at the Patti Smith book signing. She won a WordPress award for this post. Deservedly so.
  3. Scalloped Outlines. I wrote about my memories in the bookstore basement and the people I worked with there. Vanessa-Jane Chapman, who has also received WordPress awards, had the idea that a TV series could be developed surrounding the basement and the co-workers who came down the freight elevator to retrieve books. I think she is right. There are many opportunities for character development episodes. That’s her ticket to Hollywood.
44 Comments
  1. How funny to see the egg on the pizza, because we recently went to London and then Paris for a few days where my husband had a pizza that had an egg in the middle of it. We’d never seen that before, so it’s interesting to see it’s made its way to San Francisco as well. I love San Francisco though it’s been a while since I’ve been there. It’s the site of many medical conferences, so I always like to catch the ones there if I can.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vesuvio is across the way…great bar. I have many memories of arguing with my ex there….whew….good riddance!

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    • I think I was in there once 7 or 8 years ago. It was pouring rain. Pouring buckets and I ducked in there with a couple friends to wait it out. We would have had to huddle all night to avoid more blustery weather. We had a good time and there was nobody among us who wanted to argue.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The question is: did you hear anyone else in there arguing? This could be another blogger friend connection from the past….

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        • Ha! Wouldn’t that be a kick! I can’t say that I remember hearing anybody arguing. Between the steady beat of the heavy rain and usual bar noise, there wasn’t any room for more noise.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Memories of a 2010 mom/daughter trip to SF with this post about City Lights. The daughter was in heaven and very into Kerouac and anything Beat at the time. City navigation wasn’t fun though as we were staying in Haight Ashbury and truly aren’t city people to begin with.

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  4. It is the epicenter of Beat. Anyone drawn to that time and those people need go anywhere else. Staying in the Haight gave you another opportunity for SF history. City navigation is no fun these days. It’s still a great town for walking, however. If possible, that’s a good way to go.

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  5. Just returned from a quick visit to San Fran. I’ve visited many times over the years and each time I return I think nothing has changed, but everything’s changed. Great story about the bookstore connection with your blogging friend, and I liked how you pulled the story together with an egg, a topping trend which my tastebuds enjoy.

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    • We are all capable of exaggerating the significance of changes we don’t like personally. I’m no exception. But whether people like the changes of not, I think most could agree that there are many and that some have erased forever pockets that did make SF unique.

      The Patti Posts were fun and came out of nowhere.

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  6. Baghdad by the Bay… Herb Caen, I read his columns for years and years Bruce. My first pilgrimage to the City of Lights bookstore would have been in 1964. Did you ever make it to Cody’s on Telegraph in Berkeley. Another great classic. –Curt

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  7. Baghdad by the Bay… Herb Caen, I read his columns forever. As for the City of Lights bookstore, I made my first pilgrimage there around 1964. Did you ever make it to Cody’s on Telegraph in Berkeley, Bruce. Another classic. I spent many a happy hour there. –Curt

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  8. I have never been to San Francisco Bruce, although I hope to visit some day. It is sad how many of the businesses that have been around for years & years, are being squeezed out. I think it is similar in many of our large Canadian cities. Beautiful old buildings torn down to make room for yet another slick condo.

    Hadn’t heard that an egg on top is the latest fad. And you proclaimed on my site not to be hip! Perhaps not in acronyms but clearly in food!

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    • Lynn, the only reasons I know anything about food at all is that I live in the Bay Area and some of the people I know enjoy keeping up on the trends. So I suppose I pick up a little here and there as a result.

      Cities are supposed to change, but that doesn’t always mean all changes are easy to watch or even good in the long run.

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      • I agree Bruce. It seems sometimes we are too quick to wipe history with a wrecking ball. Sigh…..

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  9. My husband and I decided we would get married on the other coast (your other coast), in Mendocino. But, really, it was just an excuse to go to San Francisco and visit City Lights … every time I go in there, I buy an Allen Ginsburg book along with anything else that catches my eye and that I can carry in my arms in one trip to the counter. (True fact: I can carry a lot of books in my arms.)

    As for Patti Smith … she’s my #1 … ever since I was young and needed a goddess to look up to. (“Piss Factory” got me through some very dark adolescent days.) A good friend of mine recently had the opportunity to work with her, and was delighted to report back to me that she was kind and sweet and a wonderful person. It’s not often that you get good reports back about “yer idols” …

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    • P is for Patti, who put poetry in punk and helped Jackie when she needed it.

      It’s easier to carry a lot of books to the counter than say, garbage to the cans or dishes to the sink. Nice image of you at City Lights. It’s a nice place to stop. Any book store with an open dictionary for readers and shoppers is a pretty good start.

      It’s good to hear that Patti Smith was kind to your friend. I am not surprised. That’s the way she seems to me from a far distance.

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  10. you know, Bruce, I’ve never been to SF, but I do hope to get there someday. I’ll want someone like you to show me the SF that you know and love.
    Love the sign that encourages folks to sit down and read.

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  11. I love San Francisco, and I think the three of you should make that TV series happen! Or maybe a play! Those connections are just amazing. I’ve also seen fried eggs on many dishes lately – think it’s definitely a trend. Loved your photos as well – I’m always drawn to bookstores.

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    • I agree. There is a good TV series in there. I’ll have to recruit Vanessa and Virginia to help out, as they would be instrumental to a success. Maybe we can get to Patti Smith herself through Jackie’s friend. We could certainly create an episode plot which includes Patti.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely Bruce! It’s at least worth checking into – there’s so much to work with and you all have the chops to do it. Go for it 🙂

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  12. Great post, Bruce! This brings back even more memories of SF! When I visit the Bay Area (usually two times a year, but last year was a record number of visits because of my dear old dad dying), I never get much time to visit the city proper. My sister, who is great, wants to play tourist with me when I’m there and I hate that. I wonder how old is that building that once housed Dalton’s? Figure it had to have been built after the 1903 earthquake. I also wonder what’s been housed in that space through the decades. It’s such a valuable piece of real estate. I find it hard to believe that it will be vacant for long. I was wondering about Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Glad to know that he’s still kicking.

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    • I had a lot of fun. Thanks for going through it with me. Kelly is nudging us to keep on going. We get Vanessa to join us in her idea about writing a TV series that takes place in the basement. Then, we get to Patti through Baseball Blogess’ friend and ask her to take the elevator down to the basement as well.

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      • It was a lot of fun, but slip Kelly and Vanessa the memo that my ADD has reached the statute of limitations with this topic.

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  13. I love the Beats. I enjoy their writing and their culture.

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  14. I really enjoyed this. In the 1980’s I was working for A&E in Los Angeles and made weekly trips to SF. You have brought back some good memories. Thanks, Bruce.

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  15. If you haven’t read any of Ferlinghetti’s poetry, I highly recommend it. I remember him reading his own works in the 50s, and enjoying it very much.

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    • I was first aware of him when he read one of his poems at SF’s Winterland as part of the Band’s “Last Waltz” concert. I didn’t care much for the poem at the time, but was amused with the theater of it all. You may recall the 1960s photos of Dylan and members of the Band with Ginsberg and the others at Ferlinghetti’s store. I guess there was a history there. I have read some of his poems, but must say most of it hasn’t grabbed my by the shoulders and kept with me. Nonetheless, I absolutely appreciate his commitments to free speech, literature, San Francisco, art and the independent bookstores, galleries, artists, writers and readers who all have something to offer. Our town is much better off because of Ferlinghetti.

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  16. I always feel like I’m coming home when I get here to your blog. Twists of homesickness occur as I look at your photos. I first moved to SF bay area in 1983, just a few years after you. I used to drive into the city to work with a printer (I was the editor of a medical journal) and discovered neat little hidden alcoves of the city. The printer (perhaps about half a dozen employees) worked in a loft and it was airy and light and oh-so-unique. Of course they’re now long gone, because the ‘little’ people and businesses can no longer afford to work/live in S.F. Sad.
    But thanks for the great post. I was in the bay area last week – glorious! (but didn’t get over to the city – so am still missing the ‘Baghdad by the Bay.’) I have friends who try a new restaurant there every week. They can afford it – I can not! 🙂 Thus, they have probably had egg on their pizza lately…

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  17. Hm. The egg reminds me of Japan. In 2012, many Japanese dishes came with a sunnyside egg on top – including a Japanese version of spaghetti. All I have to say about the egg is: eeew. I would have given mine to K to eat, too.

    San Francisco always feels familiar to me, though I do not know the city at all. Maybe it’s just a side effect of being a West Coast Girl. I would love to know the city the way you do: to be able to look out and pick out the things that have been there since you were a kid, and to know stories behind them. I do enjoy your perspective on the city.

    Like

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