Buckle up. We’re going back to the San Francisco Beat Generation again. We’ve walked through City Lights Books and learned how to be a great Beat novelist. Now it’s time to revisit “cool.”
This post is for the visually inclined. You know what they say about pictures.
Back then, only two kinds of folk lived in the City. You were either a “square,” parked lifelessly and mindlessly in the remnants of the 1950s, or you were “cool” and ready to re-shape the Universe. There was no third choice. The squares were vast in number, the cools were the future. We were Beat. We had our secret places.
My friend had this jewel for our transportation needs. Nope, it’s not your Mama’s Bradley Fighting Machine. It’s a 1963 Vespa. It was created in Pontedera, Italy, and somehow found its way across the pond. The thing was not a speedy beast but it was cheap to run. It could get us across town, over to North Beach, so long as we avoided the City’s steeper hills.
Parking was not a problem. We never got a single speeding ticket. The Vespa was too slow for that kind of inconvenience.
This thing was crotchety but it seemed very cool at the time, probably because it was Italian. Looking back, we must have presented a bizarre sight to the squares: two guys with guitars strapped across their backs, hunched over against the cold, putting across the asphalt town.
My friend went on to do films, I went with the word. I have no idea what happened to the Vespa. It could be a museum piece by now, or junk, probably worth more than back in the day. We should have given it a name but we never thought that far ahead.
Anyway, we looked really good on the Vespa, very Beat. That was critical.
Take a peek at this old photo. It’s one of the last Beat gatherings at City Lights Books, taken by Larry Keenan. Check out those cool, very Beat clothing styles.
Jean jackets were popular. So were pull-over sweaters and pea coats for those cold San Francisco nights. My coat was navy blue with big buttons up the front and a huge collar. I added a flashy neck scarf for pure style.
Sure, there were still a few ties around. They were very skinny and weird looking, dangly things. If you were Beat you could dress up just about anyway you chose, so long as it wasn’t like anyone else. It was vital to never become confused with a square. See any squares in this scene? I don’t.
The umbrella in the photo was optional gear. Not many of us had one. After all, everyone knows it never rains water in San Francisco. The umbrella was mostly to keep square doo-doo off your head. Long hair was not yet the style. That came later. We were shaggy because we were always broke. Broke was cool back then.
OK, off to a major stop for the night, at the heart of Beat G.
This is the back corner of the Caffe Trieste. It was the epicenter of cool in the City, if you were of the Beat inclination. Trieste was opened in 1956 by Papa Gianni Giotta. The sanctum was basically across the street from City Lights, so it made a natural gathering place after serious poetry readings. What made it so special was Papa Gianni himself. Papa loved music, the arts, his customers, us Beats, and everyone else he met. He was one of those rare people you instantly liked and never forgot.
Here’s a picture of Papa Gianni pulling a shot back in the day. He also had an endless zoo of interesting Italian sweet treats. All fresh, all good, all very cool.
Like City Lights Books, Caffe Trieste went on to be a huge success. The original location on Vallejo Street is still open and going strong. Papa and his family have added several other locations and even sell coffee online. You may never catch up with the Beat Generation again but you’ll find its soul at the Caffe Trieste. Lots of lasting words were given birth at the back of Papa’s place.
Did I mention that Papa was fond of music? He would let us sit in the back corner and entertain his endless flow of customers. Very cool. Very Beat. Take a look.
Guitars, bongos, flutes, horns and, yes, even the occasional squeeze box. If it made music, it was Beat. Folk and free-form jazz came first. Blues was a close second. No need for sheet music. That was for squares.
We would park the Vespa in front of Trieste. From there, we could easily haunt the three vital stops for the night, City Lights, Caffe Trieste and this place — Coffee (a)N(d) Confusion:
There just aren’t any decent photos of CNC floating around. That’s too bad. But I remember it well.
The place was narrow, dark, and always over-populated. Small, round tables for two or four, mostly. Standing room only was common. The stage was at the far end, stuck in a corner. Three people on the stage sent it creaking and groaning for relief. This was an essential stopover.
It started out as the Fox and Hound, then changed up to CNC. This was ground central for Beat music, public readings and all kinds of interesting entertainment. There was some major talent passing through those old doors.
If you were a regular, you would have seen Janis Joplin as a headliner in 1963, well before her Big Brother days.
Yep, that’s Pearl herself, right around the time she was bluesing her way through North Beach. Man, I sure miss her.
Steve Martin is said to have launched his career at CNC, although I don’t remember him. Lots of great musicians came and went. CNC had an open mic night that usually surprised everyone. We would play from time to time, for tips. Since we weren’t very good, we didn’t get very good tips. It was usually just enough to pay for more coffee.
Mostly, we would hang-out, listen, get in the beat and the Beat.
There were a few other haunts, a couple of non-papal conclaves that mattered. These two were always at the top of our schedule, though. But we’re gonna pull the plug for tonight, man. You’ve got to take Beat in small doses. If you don’t, you can’t ever be cool.
Here’s something to keep in mind.
If you have a bucket list and a fondness for the Beat G, you might want to put these places near the top. Sadly, Coffee N Confusion is long gone. City Lights Books and Caffe Trieste are still going strong, still holding on to those ghosts. Here are the links to the real deal:
City Lights Books
Thanks to PBS, Papa Gianni and family, City Lights Books and the Beat Museum for the photos and memories. You guys are cool.