Caffe Trieste, Chinatown in San Francisco, City Lights Bookstore, Eastern Bakery, Finnegans Wake, Golden Gate Bridge, James Joyce, John Cage, Peter Drucker, Rick Wartzman, Russell Freedman, San Francisco, Shakespeare & Company, Ulysses, Vesuvio Bar
I believe in mystery. Describing cultural magic is tricky. But like you, I know it when I see it or learn of its presence.
As in my mom telling me about the wedding reception in Hollywood she served at Chasen’s for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (yes, missing her I now cry a little inside every time I see them on TCM…). Street food in Hanoi. Sigmund Freud’s house in Vienna. Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Tanglewood. Cherry blossoms in Kyoto. Schoenberg’s living room in Los Angeles. Everything in Paris. Tea in Taipei. Visiting Elliott Carter at his apartment on W. 12th St. in the Village. Big Sur. The Star Ferry in Hong Kong. Diego Rivera murals in Mexico City.
And the energy of a bookstore and its neighborhood in Chinatown and North Beach in San Francisco. City Lights. Vesuvio Bar and Caffe Trieste. Eastern Bakery. The Buddha Bar.
My friend Rick Wartzman, executive director of the Peter Drucker Institute, tells me we are all hard-wired for stories. So I hope you enjoy mine with San Francisco.
With my posts read by over 3,300 followers in 75 countries, most of you will probably recognize the woman in the picture above as my wife Jan. But it’s time for some little known Fun Facts. Because San Francisco plays a huge role in her family and our marriage.
Jan and I met at Tanglewood in 1979. We had both broken up with relationships before the summer started. Neither of us were in a comic book mood. For summer reading she’d brought War and Peace by Tolstoy and I had Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. We eventually finished the books, just not that summer…
Enter the city of San Francisco and her great uncle, Louis Freedman.
We highly recommend long distance relationships. It helped us know that we were right for each other. Before social media snail mail letters and phone calls still got the job done. But the first trip Jan made to see if a move from Boston to Los Angeles would really take was motivated by her desire that I meet Uncle Lou.
Spoiler alert. Jan’s cousin Russell Freedman is one of the most respected authors in the country and is particularly known for his children’s books. And Uncle Lou, Russell’s father, worked for MacMillan Publishing, played cards with Charlie Chaplin in Los Angeles, was instrumental in bringing Oxford University Press in England to the United States, and was great friends with Jacob Zeitlin, the literary agent for Aldous Huxley and D.H Lawrence and a legendary rare book dealer in West Hollywood. There is an oral history of Uncle Lou at UC Berkeley. He had quite a library and every book was autographed by its author. And thank God his pal Jacob Zeitlin’s red barn shop was one block from where I grew up…
So we travel up the coast to Big Sur.
And come to San Francisco to meet Uncle Lou.
“So young man,” began Uncle Lou’s interrogation. “When I asked my niece about you, she said you are well travelled and well educated. You’ve lived in Vienna and grew up in West Hollywood. Do you know where the oldest church in Vienna is?”
I realized I wasn’t meeting her uncle. I needed first to answer the questions of a sphinx. And I knew this was a trick question. After all, the man was protecting his grandniece’s long term happiness. His question had nothing to do with site seeing landmarks. But it was a sure fire way to see if I knew where the Jewish ghetto of Vienna had been located.
“It’s St. Rupert’s Church in Vienna’s 2nd District, in the old Jewish quarter by the Danube Canal,” I answered.
“That’s wonderful,” he replied. “Now, do you know where Jacob Zeitlin’s Red Barn book shop is in Los Angeles?”
“Zeitlin’s shop is right around the corner on La Cienega Blvd. where I grew up.”
I was sweating bullets. I’d grasped that these two questions might define the rest of my life. With this question he was testing if I knew what was in my own backyard.
But Uncle Lou grinned, he seemed to always grin at Jan with a lot of love in his eye for his special niece. I sensed I’d passed with flying colors. My fingers were crossed sweaty tight as he delivered his verdict.
“He’s all right, Jan. I’m so happy for you!”
And so with all of this book history in her family, we naturally make pilgrimages to bookstores whenever we travel. Jacob Zeitlin told us towards the end of his life that after a world spent with books and ideas, he knew he would die an uneducated man. We’ve taken that sage advice to heart ourselves.
It DOES take a village to create a cultural community. Without Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, James Joyce has no publisher for Ulysses. That’s like Stravinsky not having Diaghilev. You’ll find Stravinsky buried next to Diaghilev in Venice if you need proof of the importance of real world support.
But look underneath the word Shakespeare on the left. Go ahead enlarge the photo on your computer. Stop rubbing your eyes, San Francisco and America. “City Lights Bookstore” is right there on this iconic storefront in Paris.
It takes one to know one….
The Beat Generation’s home turf is still here. Like Paris is a time capsule of its past, Vienna still echoes with Beethoven and Brahms, Kyoto teems with temples, San Francisco remains true to its vagabond, independent, protesting ways. Sure, things have changed. The Lion in Winter, Lawrence Ferlinghetti warns, rightly, that San Francisco is, like many cities, close to losing its soul and had better be careful.
But I’ll bet the collective energy of this town wins out in the end.
I spent St. Patrick’s Day reading Pt. III of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in Caffe Trieste. I’ve been reading Joyce since I was a senior in high school, introduced to him by a Jesuit priest named Deasy. To prepare for the West Coast premiere of Muoyce II: A Reading Through Ulysses by John Cage at my last LA International New Music Festival, I read both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake back to back to prepare for John’s even denser text inspired by Joyce. My mom always made me do my homework.
So after revisiting the long and hysterically funny chapter in Part III where the symbolic four evangelists (Mamalujo) interview HCE’s son Shaun (Yawn) while Jan was reading Kerouac’s Big Sur, we headed over to the Vesuvio Bar for an Irish Coffee.
Located next to City Lights, we recommend you go upstairs for the view of the adjacent bookstore.
And remember the books Jan and I were reading at Tanglewood? She was devoted to Tolstoy and I, eventually, did finish Finnegans Wake. All’s well that ends well. 35 years later, we are still in love and still in love with San Francisco. Whenever we miss Uncle Lou, this town, its bookshops, its one of a one Gold Rush inspired mystery, is still here. The Golden Gate that ends the Western world and opens to Asia.
I don’t know of another bar with a picture of James Joyce in it so prominently. He dominates the upstairs balcony at Vesuvio. And wear some green!
So I’ll be returning soon to North Beach and Chinatown. As Joyce would often portmanteau Columbus and Confucius in Finnegans Wake, he could hardly have known the confluence of cultures that would bring about another bookstore that would save the shirts of some challenging minds, one that would earn a place in Paris on the storefront of Sylvia Beach’s shop. On Columbus in Confucius’ Chinatown.
If you don’t love San Francisco, you might not love life.
So keep following my blog as I keep gathering the thoughts and plots of the next Los Angeles International New Music Festival. There’s more to come from the Golden Gate!
Aren’t we all on the road?
Best, best, best,