So yesterday I recorded my pilgrammage to City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Street in San Francisco, walking from the Embarcadero BART to North Beach with my Handycam, occasionally pointing it at myself like some not-so-handsome, not-so-Byronic Anderson Cooper. I'd put the video up but I got all the way out here before I realized I'd never installed the Sony software on this laptop.
Anyway, City Lights isn't where the Beats got started, but it is, in a sense, the physical location where the Beats became the Beats. It was their ground, a safe haven carved out on the "other" edge of the continent by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
But if what I expected to find was communion with the spirit of Jack Kerouac, what I found instead was a new rapport with Ginsberg.
Here's my story: I was raised hippie, spent my teenage years on a commune, grew up around people who had been inspired by the Beats. But I didn't come to Beat lit through them -- I discovered it at 16, while waiting in a library for a bus, in an anthology of short stories: "A Mexican Girl," which isn't even a short story, but an excerpt from On The Road. And that was that.
So when I tell you that my Beat generation was straight and romantic and macho, you will perhaps understand why. Because I was a hetero jock kid growing up in rural North Carolina dreaming of the road and sex and all-night conversations. The fact that Kerouac played halfback for Columbia was a big part of the draw. By action and word and image, Kerouac was a post-WWII update of the post-WWI Hemmingway, a handsome artist who was "safe" for guys who worried about artistic impulses degrading their manliness.
The fact that Kerouac had good friends who were gay didn't bother me, but gay characters made me uneasy. I skimmed them. The spirit of Allen Ginsberg haunted On The Road for me, a central character but never the focus of my interest. His mystical, doe-eyed queerness was beyond my abilities of teenage comprehension.
Eventually I figured out that practically everybody along that New York-Denver-San Francisco axis was fucking everybody else. Neal Cassady, the Adonis of Denver, was Ginsberg's lover. This is in the novel, rather obliquely, but if you wondered about Cassady's sexual identity, Kerouac's butchness seemed to redeem it.
Yet Kerouac was no simple hetereosexual, and it clearly shamed him. Here was a guy who wrote about practically everything else in his life, but kept his own bisexuality quiet. It turned out that the only guy who was really telling it true was Ginsberg.
Only I didn't want Ginsberg to be the hero. I wanted the adventureous straight guy to win. Such is the calculus of the adolescent.
But yesterday, reading HOWL: Fifty Years Later as I rode the BART back to Berkeley, I finally made my peace with Allen Ginsberg.
I had not read the poem in at least 20 years, and in my Beat fanatic days I read everything with hyped-up scholarly intent, trying to extract every meaning. This I blame on the fact that I was an English major at one time, and English as a discipline is all about destroying the village in order to save it. Anyway, when I was young and everything meant something, HOWL didn't make that big of an impression on me. But I'm not a kid anymore.
And to just read HOWL -- to remove your ego and your insecurities and your moralizing NO-NO-NO voice -- ah, now that is a joy. I laughed out loud. I found myself nodding to his silent cadences. I got his jokes. I felt his joy and his freedom and his fierociousness. I didn't worry whether liking Ginsberg would make other people question my macho manliness.
It was like shrugging off the last of my childish fears.
Where would I be if I'd only done that sooner?