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North Beach, San Francisco: The Beat Goes On

North Beach, in particular, personifies the free thinking spirit of this free thinking city

Many people have truly left their heart in San Francisco. The Baghdad by the Bay has made an indelible imprint on visitors and residents alike. It is many things to many people. It's The Golden Gate Bridge sitting like a stalwart sentry astride the entrance to the Bay. It's Alcatraz Island, formidable and lonely at one time housing infamous ghosts from an infamous past. It's Fisherman's Wharf filled with sea salt, sea lions, spectacular views and gastronomic delights. Above all, San Francisco is a forest of neighborhoods, each one unique in its diversity and culture, strung like a pearl necklace of eclectic enclaves throughout the free spirited city.

North Beach, in particular, personifies the free thinking spirit of this city. The ghosts of Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums roaming freely in the dark fog night. The scent of Italian cooking wafting gently in the morning breeze. And enough pubs and night life to keep Jack London happy. Although Jack Kerouac is long North Beach...The Beat Goes On.

Lombard Street
No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a good asphalt kickin' ride down Lombard Street, and it makes for an excellent starting point for your visit. Billed as The Crookedest Street in the World, it also affords a spectacular Rice-A-Roni view of the bay from the top of the hill. San Francisco is a city proud of its hills and yes, they are challenging to the first timer or uninitiated, but Lombard Street combines that challenge with the addition of landscaped, serpentine curves that will delight the senses as you make your downward trek.

Winding and twisting, its the closest thing to an amusement park ride on asphalt that you'll ever find and is one of the definitive SF experiences (that and riding on a trolley car of course). Route 66 may be the Mother Road and The Main Street of America, but Lombard Street is the most curvaceous street in the world, and because the street is lined with fragrant flora, it's also one of the best smelling ones.

Coit Tower
Many citizens of San Francisco have left their indelible imprint on this fair city, however, one citizen left more than a legend in her wake and today a 180 foot cylindrical tower sits atop Telegraph Hill to firmly anchor her spot in the hearts and memories of San Franciscans...Lillie Coit.

Elizabeth Lillie Hitchcock arrived in SF from West Point, New York in 1851 at the age of 15. Legend has it that she helped aid in putting out a fire when the engine company (Knickerbocker #5) rushed to answer an alarm and was short on personnel. That day began her lifelong love affair with her beloved fire fighters. Eventually, Lillie married Howard Coit and lived into the 20th Century where she died in 1929 at the age of 86. In her will she bequeathed 1/3 of her fortune to the city to use towards a monument of some sort as they saw fit. The monument decided on was to be built atop Telegraph Hill and would bear a resemblance to the nozzle of a fire hose. It was completed in 1933.

Descend Lombard Street continuing until you reach the winding road to Coit Tower -- yes, winding roads are an amusing way of life here. Once you've reached the parking lot you'll be rewarded with a breath taking 360 of the city, and when you go inside the tower, you'll be rewarded with a visual feast of some of the finest Diego Rivera inspired WPA era murals in the country. One of my favorite times of the day to visit for the view is in the wee small hours, just before sunrise. The city sparkles like small lights on a large urban Christmas tree. Coit Tower was and remains one of the most recognizable landmarks in this city of landmarks. Other people may have left their heart in San Francisco but in the case of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, she also left a lasting monument in tribute to the free spirit of San Francisco, and to the free spirit of Lillie Coit in particular.

The Beats' Playground -- Jack Kerouac and 29 Russell Street
In the early 1950's, the Jazz Muse was working her magic on a whole generation. The post-war years brought with them prosperity but it also brought a restlessness of spirit to its youth. This restlessness brought on an era of experimentation...jazz. cheap wines. marijuana and sexual expression. Eventually all these elements would collide and take shape to define the times from coast to coast. One neighborhood in particular pulled like the force of a spiritual gravity and came to personify the era like no other -- North Beach in San Francisco. And no person was more a part of that spirit than Jack Kerouac.

The term The Beat Generation was first used by Kerouac in 1948. In 1952 John Clellon Holmes introduced the phrase to the masses in an article in the New York Times Magazine called This Is The Beat Generation. In 1958, Mr. San Francisco, Herb Caen coined the term Beatnik. Although Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922 and attended college in NYC, he was eventually pulled to the West Coast and settled into (for awhile) the North Beach area.

It was already an enclave of thinkers, poets, winos and spirituality, a neighborhood that was a melting pot of sweet jazz and the smell of marijuana drifting into the fog nights of the city. No stranger to the nightlife of North Beach, Kerouac did find time to write the novel and he did so at 29 Russell. It's not the house that Jack built. but it is the house that Jack wrote in. Jack Kerouac died in Orlando, Florida in 1969 at the age of 47.

TO GET TO 29 RUSSELL STREET: Go up Union Street to Hyde Street. turn left and go to the first right turn only street -- that's Russell Street, turn right and half way down the block on your left will stand 29 Russell Street complete with large brass numerals to mark the location. No plaque or placard, but if you listen carefully on an early San Francisco morning, mixed in with the sounds of the foghorns, you might just hear the frantic pecking of a ghost typewriter coming from inside the building.

City Lights Bookstore
Every Kerouac fan has an old worn out, dog eared copy of On The Road tucked away somewhere in that canvas rucksack, usually right next to the beef jerky, extra flannel shirt and pair of clean socks. But when you need to buy a replacement copy, there's only one place to go City Light Bookstore.

No one stop on your Dharmic Tour of North Beach epitomizes the literati essence of the SF Beat Era more than City Lights Bookstore. Founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, it is the Fort Knox of Beat prose and poetry, and the repository of revolutionary and evolutionary ideas and artistic expression.

In 1955 City Lights began publishing the works on an eclectic range of cutting edge writers, thinkers, sinners and saints...(yes...Alan Ginsberg's Howl was published by this premier vanguard of avant guard publishing houses) One can only imagine this after-hours spot, prose and poetry conversations that were held there lasting long past the night and into the morning. Record players scratching out a jazz beat, voices flowing with a symphony of ideas, drifting out into the ultra cool San Francisco nights. Ghost Voices, now long gone.

Today when you visit City Lights, you'll find shelf after shelf of everything from Camus to Haiku, but when you journey to the second floor you'll find a Beat Literature Garden of Eden (post cards too) including the works of Kerouac, Cassidy, Kesey -- the long gone ghost voices whose words wait patiently on their pages for eyes to give them new life again.

261 COLUMBUS AVE: Located at the corner of Columbus Ave and Jack Kerouac Alley

Vesuvio's Bar
In Italy, the volcano Mt. Vesuvius exploded, rocking the earth, spewing ash and lava for miles. In North Beach a similar eruption occurred in October of 1955 when Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarity of On The Road) stopped by for a shot of liquid liberation at Vesuvio's on his way to a poetry reading at the Six Gallery (now sadly defunct). It was at this moment that Vesuvio's became the official pub of choice for the Beats. The talk and smoke drifting through the bar like a great plume of Beat smoke and ash, the booze pouring forth like a raging flow of lava. Vesuvio's was established in 1948 and also has the distinction of being the place where Jack Kerouac holed up and cancelled a m meeting with author Henry Miller who wanted to meet the young author after reading and being impressed by Dharma Bums. Henry waited it out in Big Sur as Jack whiled away the hours at Vesuvio's. The night got longer, and the meeting never occurred.

Today Vesuvio's has a great collection of art work, articles and Beat memorabilia, as well as a variety of drinks named after some of the famous Beats including....Jack Kerouac. Its a combination of rum, tequila, orange/cranberry juice, and lime served up in a large bucket glass.

255 COLUMBUS AVE: Vesuvio's is located at Columbus Avenue and Jack Kerouac Alley across from City Lights Bookstore. Pick up a copy of Jack Kerouac, The Book, then head on over to Vesuvio's and order Jack Kerouac -- The Drink!

The Hungry i & The Purple Onion
See a photo of the Purple Onion

If the Beats had their writers and their dark poetry, they also had a phalanx of comedians who illuminated the American consciousness with their black humor, held up to the face like a mirror to expose the social hypocrisy of the times. Mort Sahl, sophisticated, cutting edge political satirist slicing through the American political landscape like a Ginsu knife through butter. Woody Allen, who made neurosis cool. And the caustic acid bath humor of Lenny Bruce who taught a whole generation how to talk dirty and influence people. Two venues became the laugh-think temples of these high priests of satire and appropriately both were in North Beach, Enrico Banducci's Hungry i and Bud Steinhoff's Purple Onion

In addition to the comedy workouts, these landmark institutions also hosted a boatload of folkies and mistrals including the legendary Kingston Trio among others. These places have definitely changed but no tour of The Beat North Beach would be complete without visiting.

THE PURPLE ONION: 140 Columbus Avenue. Today is a head bangin' venue for an eclectic mixture of industrial strength music.

THE HUNGRY i: 599 Jackson at Columbus Avenue. At last check, it was a strip joint, sit back and watch the strippers strut their North Beach stuff.

The Condor Club and Carol Doda
No history of North Beach would be complete without the place that made titillating history in the 1960s and launched a young waitress like a sputnik into the topless night skies of San Francisco legend.

Carol Doda gave topless dancing a bouncing start by turning her 34s into an ample pair of 44s. In June of 1964, Carol Doda launched her 44 attack by wearing a topless bathing suit designed by the legendary Rudi Genreich, and danced her way into infamy. A part of Carol's act called for her to gyrate while descending to the dance floor atop a piano that was powered by hydraulics. As the piano began its slow erotic descent, Carol moved suggestively, powered by her own inner hydraulics, perched on the piano like a bouncing candelabra for an invisible Liberace. There never was a show like it.

Carol retired from the Condor in the 1980's and today she is proprietress of Carol Doda's Champaign and Lace Lingerie Boutique located at 1850 Union Street.

But there is another piece of Condor lore that's worth bearing in mind. One night after closing, one of the bouncers of the Condor Club, along with one of the clubs dancers, decided to make beautiful music together while lying atop the hydraulic piano. At some point during this symphony, the switch was hit and the piano began its slow rise to the ceiling. In time, the bouncer and the dancer were pinned to the ceiling, the dancer cushioned protectively by the bouncer who lay atop her, both of them squeezed between the ceiling and the piano like a bartender squeezing a lemon. The dancer was discovered alive in the morning by a janitor. The bouncer wasn't quite as lucky.

THE CONDOR CLUB: 300 Columbus Avenue at Broadway near Big Al's. The club closed for awhile but has since reopened as a sports bar/bistro.

Beach Blanket Babylon
North Beach has, of course, changed over the decades, but there's still fun to be had. Leave your inhibitions at the door and get ready for a good hearted romp of outrageous satire and some of the most extravagant costumes and hats ever to grace the stage! Beach Blanket Babylon is the world's longest running musical review. Premiering in June of 1974 at The Tivoli Theater in San Francisco, Babylon has camped it up and poked good natured fun at pop icons with charm, grace and of course, good old fashioned San Francisco style flair. In addition to the biting humor and flamboyant costumes, the real standouts of the production are the hats, which are to die for. Huge cityscape diorama's perched atop the cast members heads like a city balanced on a fault line. Babylon has also gone on the road to London and Vegas, but to fully appreciate the true experience of theater, Babylon style, its best to enjoy it at its home at the Club Fugazi in North Beach. Makes Elton John's costumes look like three piece suits.

CLUB FUGAZI: 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd (Green Street)

North Beach today is home to early morning practitioners of Tai Chi and most days you can enjoy the symphony of sounds and sights...laughter. picnic running and playing...Frisbee's flying low like Stealth bombers.

In San Francisco, and North Beach, the Beat of the city goes on. Growing, changing, and becoming, even now.

Mike (Roadie) Marino is the publisher of an on line magazine (Road Trippin USA) that deals with Roadside Nostalgia, US Travel and Destinations, and American Car/Pop Culture of the 50s and 60s. Everything from Deadheads to Parrotheads to Roadheads. He's also a freelance writer who lives in Missouri. In addition to writing about travel and history he has a penchant for Hawaiian shirts and Corona.

© 2006