One night in December 1961, Leslie Hipshman and I were driving across the city at the rainbow’s end in my beat-up Studebaker Lark. We weren’t on a date of course. Dates were uncool. It was just an ordinary Wednesday night in San Francisco and for some reason lost in the mist we were hanging together.
The night was cold and crisp – not crisp like eastern autumn nights when the leaves are falling, but crisp in clarity, the light exact, deep-focus, like it gets in San Francisco after a December rain and a windy afternoon. There was nothing left in the sky but clear sea air flowing over the downtown stockbroker’s offices, the Fillmore conk salons, and the desolate streetcar tracks of the Sunset district.
We weren’t supposed to be together. Leslie was going with Don Auclair, the leader of our peacenik brotherhood. Against my will, I was ending a painful love affair with a seventeen year old beauty from Riverside, Carmen O’Shaugnessy. But neither of them were in the car. There was just Leslie and me cruising through the clear eternal night at the rainbow’s end listening to somebody singing how he didn’t like his mother-in-law and wondering what to do with ourselves.
I knew what I wanted to do, of course. I wanted to park somewhere and hold Leslie tight. Leslie waves beat against me like radio signals. They came in clear as the air: “I’m young, I’m beautiful, my skin is like satin and my hair is shiny black. I’m very, very delicious. And I like you too.”
But…you had to let these things take their course. Forcing yourself on someone was uncool and could lead to an unfortunate outcome. Besides, I didn’t have designs on Leslie. We were just together, that’s all. She couldn’t help owning a powerful radio transmitter any more than I could help having a receiver that worked really well.
Leslie and I had never spent time alone with each other before. Once we’d walked to the corner store together to buy Bugler cigarette tobacco. So we did what self-respecting young freaks did in the winter of 1961 when they weren’t on a date – we headed for the wasted remains of North Beach. The era of the beatniks was over and the era of the hippies hadn’t begun, yet we knew we were as happening as the beats had been. We just hadn’t had a chance to show it yet. We were drawn like moths to the flame. But the flame had burned out.
Upper Grant Avenue, scene of epic cultural battles when Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books stood trial for publishing a dirty poem called Howl, where Officer Bigarini had arrested beatnik chicks for wearing sandals in public, where poets like Bob Kaufman and Gregory Corso and of course Ginsberg had broken free from writing airy martini-driven university puzzles like professors required me to study in English 101 and instead shouted visions of backyard greentree cemetery dawns on street corners or riding the Muni or standing in the smoke filled Coffee Gallery declaiming while Jack Kerouac ran to the deli for more dago red. Upper Grant Avenue in its quiet desolation was our link to the mighty heroes of old, whom we would never admit we sought to emulate. We were just going to get something to eat and look for our friend George The Beast.
George was the biggest beatnik we knew. Of course, since I was nineteen and Leslie was seventeen, we didn’t know too many. I was pretending to go to college at San Francisco State and Leslie was still at Lowell High School, but George – George was living the full-bore life. With his army fatigue jacket and single gold earring, his hypothetical parrot on his shoulder, and his magic to make everybody laugh with joy at anything, George was the dog who trotted freely in the streets. Maybe he wasn’t up there with Ginsberg and Corso yet, but hey, those guys were in their thirties already and George hadn’t hit twenty. Meanwhile, he slept where he could and cultivated acquaintance with the rotters, pimps, poets and crystal merchants who congregated in the Hot Dog Palace after midnight.
We found a place to park on Commercial Street jammed between a vegetable truck and a red zone. Out the door lay the land of tong wars and Fu Man Chu, of sweat shop lights glimmering behind curtains in the night, of dripping dried chickens and squirming fish in the butcher shop windows – Chinatown, the penultimate scene for San Francisco romance and I was walking though it with a beautiful unknown continent beside me. Before us lay the tiled stairs that lead to the coolest of Chinatown’s cheapest restaurants, Huey Gooey Looey, where the beat elite meet to eat.
Ah, where are the cheap Chinese restaurants of yesteryear? While you’re looking it up, I’ll tell you where Hooey Gooey Looie is. It’s buried under the weight of Chinatown international credit. It’s a bank. Even the steps leading to its florescent lit, subterranean depths are gone. Like George Bailey had never been born. Like Mister Potter had won. Like I imagined the whole thing. (Don’t worry too much about it – there are plenty of new ones.)
But in the winter of 1961 and for many years thereafter, Huey Gooey Louie’s was the restaurant of choice. Nowhere were the waiters as surly and the chances of meeting someone you knew as likely as at Huey Dewey Louie.
We slid into a red vinyl booth, ordered fried wontons with sweet and sour sauce, and leaned back, maybe wondering who that person was sitting across the table. I’d moved into the peacenik flat at 311 Judah Street a month before to live at the nerve center of our scene, and Leslie had come with the territory. Leslie was involved in some minor way with Don Auclair, the big dog of our little scene. Don was a couple years older than me, he was tall, he was brave and bold, he rode a Triumph Bonneville, he’d walked from LA to San Francisco on a famous peace march and been arrested along the way. He knew all kind of ways to get high using legal substances like lighter fluid. He was a player and I was a beginner. It didn’t matter that he had a gentle spirit and a sweet smile, he still intimidated me. But I would never let it show, of course. To see Leslie and her pals Riley and Teresa ensconced on Don’s mattress playing guitar, listening to Joan Baez or Ray Charles, was as normal as looking to see if anyone had done the dishes yet.
One other thing I should mention about Leslie. She happened to have IT, as they used to say about twenties movie star Clara Bow. She wasn’t exceptionally beautiful. She didn’t attempt to be sexy or provocative. But something about her made young guys like me turn their heads to see her walk by. Perfume emanated from her that you couldn’t smell, but it smelled good anyway.
Now here we were at Huey Louie Gooey’s, leaning back, waiting for the wontons, waiting for the world to end, waiting for our lives to begin, and talking about the inconsequentialities of the day. Some friends in the peace movement were going to drive across the country over Christmas break. We were going to march in front of the White House waving placards and chanting and not eating anything for twenty-four hours and being non-violent about it but still making a little mark against death from the skies. We knew it was hopeless. But we couldn’t just sit there.
Leslie couldn’t go but I thought I would. Then we moved on to Joanie Baez, whom we loved, and Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Her father collected jazz records; she’d grown up listening to the greats. She even knew about the Dixieland guys from long ago. That was cool. I liked a girl who stood up for something, even if it only Dixieland jazz.
I don’t think I had noticed before how intelligent she was, how full of brimming life, eager to experience the full range of human possibility. Restless, reckless, a little crazy. I just took it for granted — we were all like that. We didn’t talk about it. And of course I noticed her shining black hair cut in a dutch boy bob. Of course I noticed how she filled her bulky-knit blue sweater against the booth’s red vinyl. Her easy laugh. Even her slightly crooked teeth were cute. Why couldn’t I be in love with her instead of the braided, insane wild child who teased and tortured me, driving me insane too, but my craziness was to want her more and more. Leslie was reckless, but in a different way – I felt easy and comfortable with her.
Like every other restaurant in Chinatown in 1961, Huey specialized in Cantonese delicacies. Besides fried wontons they offered pork fried rice, cashew chicken, seaweed soup with little pink shrimps swimming through kelp beds in the bowl. I’m sure they had more authentic food over on the Chinese side of the menu, but for for Leslie and me, fried wontons were still pretty exotic. After the meal, I splurged and treated her to Hooey Dewey Gooie’s signature culinary delight: shivering, quivering, glistening almond pudding with a nut in the center and a canned mandarin orange slice and a fortune cookie on the side. We took bites from the gelatinous substance in our bowls as Leslie told me about her life as a hip high school kid. It wasn’t a lot different than my own life as a high school hippie in San Mateo, the suburb where I’d learned to hate suburbs.
On weekend nights, Leslie told me she’d get home by curfew, make a show of going to bed early, brush her teeth, flush the toilet, yawn, then make a body shape from pillows under the blankets and quietly sneak out to meet her beat wannabe friends. No one had a car – so they walked through the city, down to Market Street, or over Russian Hill to North Beach. There they patrolled its back allies to see if any big beat parties were still going on. Maybe one day they’d catch Jack Kerouac running out to the late night deli on Broadway for even more dago red. But they never saw him. Maybe they saw his shadow once.
We were all under his shadow.
Next we headed for Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s great information station for the underground world – City Lights Books. By now we were comfortable with each other and enjoying the night. Finding George the Beast became a handy reason for wandering around the best neighborhood in the best city on the best coast.
Shig was at the counter as usual, leafing doubtfully through some baggy poet’s self-published tome. We checked for George upstairs and down, and poked around the poetry section. I leafed through the new issue of Sing Out! to see if it had the plastic record to hear how the songs sounded if you couldn’t read music. Two months before, high on peyote, I had listened to Joanie Baez sing The Great Silkie on one of those acetate pull-outs, listened to her over and over until it was inscribed in my consciousness. I wanted another one of those little records if I could find it.
George wasn’t anywhere around, so we browsed until we were bored, then crossed Broadway to check the Hot Dog Palace.
The Hog Dog Palace, fabled hangout for meth freaks, junkies, beat wannabes, angel-headed hipsters, posers and hosers, also known as the Ant Palace or the Meth Palace – maybe it was grim, cold, florescent, unsanitary, but it was really really cheap. From its fly-specked windows you could see everything and everybody making it down Columbus Avenue or even Upper Grant if you snuck up the back stairs and peered through the glass door. The Hot Dog Palace stood on the site of Pandora’s Box, which in its day had been a genuine pseudo-beatnik sandwich shop where they served Zen Soup to sip while wearing zen slippers and pretending to read Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen. It was kicks, man, kicks! And they kept getting harder to find.
George wasn’t there either, but I saw Pat Lofthouse scribbling cartoons in his sketchbook with a Rapidograph like he always did. And I saw Gypsy Boots, a street hustler who made his living doing things with other men I didn’t want to imagine. Gypsy was shoveling quarters into the jukebox like they were slugs. Maybe they were. I guess he was in the mood for Bright Lights, Big City, because we heard it three times in the ten minutes we strolled from table to table.
Looking for George was getting boring. We decided to walk on up Grant Avenue. There were no more hangouts up that way unless you were over twenty-one. I wondered if Bria was in the Anxious Asp. She was the first Lesbian kid I knew I knew, and she could pass for twenty-one. She was usually drinking in the gay Asp or somewhere nearby.
The question in my mind was – should I take Leslie’s hand? Were we at that point? I wanted to. I liked her. But…well…I didn’t want to look uncool in her eyes. Cool people didn’t hold hands while they walked along. That was it. Unfair, but true. The rules were the rules.
The moon rose, silvery and full, its mysterious light rolling past us as we hiked towards Greenwich Street. At the corner we passed the laundromat that had been Pierre DeLattre’s Bread and Wine Mission, where poetry and bongos and Jesus and hipsters, made for each other really, had touched and kissed and sadly parted. The moonlight glimmered on the laundromat’s red neon sign 15 CENTS WASH. 10 CENTS DRY. We kept going. Pierre didn’t live there any more.
Such a beautiful night. Why not walk on up the hill, all the way to Coit Tower, the floodlit phallus that pierces the skyline for fifty miles on a night like this. None of the city’s Manhattan style high-rises had been built yet and the City still looked Renaissance, magical, from up there. Let’s go look again.
We turned right up Greenwich. The street was lined with pastel colored narrow flats climbing in the moonlight like in some Italian hilltown, Verona maybe, where Mercutio was stabbed by the Jets while Romeo screamed. Maybe Mardou Fox had lived in one of those flats when Kerouac mourned for her in The Subterraneans. Years later I learned Jack moved his story from Greenwich Village to North Beach because his publisher said it would sell better. Oh, protect yourself, angel of no harm, you who’ve never and could never harm and crack another innocent in its shell and thin veiled pain…the inventor of spontaneous bop prosody had shifted locales at the advice of his marketing director. He’d done it so smoothly I never even wondered.
At the top of Greenwich a narrow staircase leads into the trees. We climbed on through the spooky city park darkness. Did I touch her? Our spirits were beginning to touch, just a little. Spidery tendrils of…what? Friendship? Understanding? Whatever it was, we were wrapped in it, and it was nice. The tendril webs were going to prove strong enough to link us across the continent as we tossed through squalling marriages, and stayed strong enough to urge me to to keep her letters for nearly fifty years. I’m not sure those spiderweb tendrils have a name, but they wrapped round us like ectoplasm. They weren’t named romantic love, and surely not just friendship — you don’t want to hold a friend tight in the moonlight. But whatever it was it felt good. I had enough problems with passion at the moment. Who needed more?
We eventually emerged into a clearing beneath the great illuminated tower, its white stone turned golden by the floodlights. A half dozen couples like us and several melancholy gents perhaps looking for same wandered hither and thither in the moonlight. Leslie and I sat on the damp grass and looked out over the city at the rainbow’s end sparkling crystalline in the December night.
The ramparts of the Shell Building lit in blue-green shimmers, the parapets of the Russ Building flooded with gold shimmers, they beaconed over the Renaissance city like Doge’s towers, papal towers, Aztec towers, Inca towers – over the great city that sprang from the sand dunes on the far Pacific shore. And we were sprung too. Aw, Frisco – how’d you get to be so blessed?
You probably didn’t know native-born San Francisco kids can be just as manic about the town as any fresh arrival from Dubuque. On a crystal December night from the top of Telegraph hill we could feel somehow we’d been accidentally born in the perfect place.
Leslie said, “City’s sure beautiful tonight.”
I said, “Yeah…”
I didn’t mention the other nights I’d sat here, usually with Ricky and Parm, my high school pals, occasionally with a girl. Leslie didn’t go into her past either. The light descended upon us and into us. I had no plans beyond loving this night, this city, this sweet girl beside me – all in pretty much the same way. Generalized and without any particular future.
We thought we knew what we wanted. Leslie wanted to be free from sitting in rows waiting for the bell to ring, free from her mother’s plans for some wrong future, free to go where she wanted, to find out who she was, who she could be.
I was already free to be blown wherever the wind blew me, if not free from the chains of the skyway. What I wanted was someone to love forever with the freedom of complete equals. Someone who would want to go see where Mercutio got stabbed that starlit night. An adventurer comrade who would also be beautiful and very very hot.
It was eight years before I got her. And she came with kids and responsibilities. I had a lot of growing to do.
We sat there a long time, talking quietly and then not talking at all. Maybe this moment was what we really wanted.
Eventually though, the damp seeped its way through our jeans. It was a week night, anyway. Leslie needed to be home by ten-thirty.
When we hit Greenwich Street again, Les decided to run. She wasn’t really in that much of a hurry. Screw curfew. But the hill was so steep and we were so full of moonlight that when she took off I peeled out after her, catching up and grabbing her hand like we were kids or young lovers in a New Wave movie, running and laughing and trying to go yet faster but stay in step. Cats looked up from their garbage can in surprise. The old man walking his poodle turned to see more of this beautiful girl and the freak with the Buddy Holly glasses trying to beat each other to Grant Avenue. We careened around the corner onto Grant laughing breathless and didn’t stop until we passed the Coffee Gallery where we hugged each other as drunks shouted encouragement out the door and tossed quarters.
We kept going now just walking past The Fox and Hound where we could hear Jorma Kaukonen playing Delta blues inside on his slide guitar. Back past the Hot Dog Palace — through the window we saw George the Beast standing at the counter jawing with Fast Walker. But the night was coming to an end.
Aw, there’d be other nights. Hundreds and thousands of other nights in the city of our hearts where the fog never lifts and the moonlight never ends and the wind blows always bright and clean. George wasn’t going anywhere and we’d be young forever.
We drove across the City again over Russian Hill down past Van Ness and out through the Fillmore to Leslie’s mother’s flat on Baker Street. Miles was blowing Freddie the Freeloader on the radio and the night was sacred.
I double parked of in front of Mom’s place so Leslie could jump out but she didn’t jump out. I didn’t want her to jump out. We were illuminated, bright and I took her in my arms and we kissed. We took a long time. We could have kissed forever as far as I was concerned. But then it was over and she did jump out and in though the door and she did look back at me before diving through, Hi Mom! I drove back to 311 Judah levitated one foot off the front seat.
Did we fall in love and live happily ever after?
Did we save up together to go find where Mercutio was stabbed?
Or did the wild child Carmen O’Shaugnessy finally break up with me forever and
then did I finally completely disintegrate and catch mononucleosis and go home to recuperate in the suburbs and
there did I meet a girl at a party in Burlingame and
didn’t we split for Pacific Grove three days later and
didn’t she get pregnant that summer and
didn’t we marry and live together in love and misery and
didn’t Leslie run off to New York with Peter Van Gelder when she turned eighteen and
didn’t she get pregnant too and
didn’t she give up her son for adoption but find him again years later as
I found Leslie’s letters again in a dusty box and put them on the blog and
didn’t we meet each other again one time more when we’re old?
Would it have been better if we had found George the Beast and gone off to his hotel room and smoked pot all night? Or if Leslie had caught a cold and stayed home?
What does this scanty story mean, anyway? Why go sit under the moon observing a city with no clouds when you could be making money, lots of money? For that matter,
What is the meaning of life? I have no idea of course, but it might have something to do with the little tendrils that might creep out in the moonlight. Sometimes they grow into strong cables like the ones between Patrushka and me. Tested and true, no matter what. And sometimes they never grow beyond a tentative little spiderweb. But either way – they’re the best things God gave us poor humans.
Photo credits:Coit Tower Moon: Dan Heller Photography; Chinatown restaurant: Dizzy Atmosphere’s Photostream; North Beach Hangout: Jerry Stoll from I Am A Lover copyright 1961