North Beach Journal

In Banksy’s words: Writing the life of a neighborhood

As I scribble this column, I sift through memories, North Beach memories of course. Let’s consider the majesty of the written word. The old neighborhood has seen both flood and ebb tides as a haven for writers, from the bawdy to the Beat to Banksy. These days the coffeehouses of North Beach are still attracting those with literary inclinations. Herb Gold, himself a North Beach writer — though he lives on Russian Hill — told me a while back, “In searching for North Beach writers today, you must approach the task like an archeologist sifting through memories. There are only a few of us left.” So let’s sift through a few.


Gold calls North Beach “my village,” and he still hangs out in Caffe Puccini and other welcoming joints. In 1941 he ran away from home as a teenager and headed west to San Francisco, where he lived for a time in North Beach. He realized that San Francisco and his hometown, Cleveland, were dissimilar, and he filed away the San Francisco experience for the future. Then in 1957 he visited, staying for a while with his Columbia University friend Allen Ginsberg. Gold moved here permanently in 1960. When I asked him how many novels he has written he replied, “Fewer than Danielle Steel and more than Somerset Maugham.” He has written more than 20 novels, and is working on another with the intriguing title, “His First Murder.” And when I asked how old he is now he answered, “Eight-eight — that sounds younger than eighty-eight.”


A British graffiti artist, who calls himself Banksy, is a different kind of writer. When he was in North Beach a while back, he scrawled an impertinent but pertinent message high on the side of a building at Broadway and Columbus: “If at first you don’t succeed, call in an air strike.”


Recent news of Dave Brubeck’s death set me off in a blur of reminiscence. I first heard the jazz piano giant many years ago at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and met him through festival founder Jimmy Lyons. Occasionally I’d run into Brubeck in North Beach, then a hangout for jazz artists regardless of whether they were performing in the neighborhood. That doesn’t happen much these days. Though you can still hear some fine jazz in the North Beach area at Café Divine, the Comstock Saloon, 12 Houston’s, Pier 23, and the Saloon, I do wish North Beach had more jazz joints. In the good old days we had the Jazz Workshop, El Matador, Basin Street West, Sugar Hill and a bit later, Keystone Corner. Dave Brubeck’s alto saxophonist Paul Desmond — he was Paul Breitenfeld when he attended San Francisco State — loved to hang out in North Beach. Vanessi’s was his favorite joint for steaks and martinis straight up. Desmond died at 52 in 1977. And therein lies a North Beach sketch:

Desmond had two Telegraph Hill buddies — Jimmy Lyons and Peter Breinig, San Francisco Chronicle photographer, pilot and jazz nut. When Desmond died, Breinig flew Lyons, a pitcher of martinis, two glasses, and Paul’s ashes down to Big Sur to distribute the famed saxophonist-composer over that rough coast. Just north of Nepenthe, Breinig banked the Piper Cub; Lyons poured two martinis and opened the Plexiglas window. The pair clinked glasses and drank to Paul’s memory. Then Lyons emptied Paul’s ashes into the wind. Yes, into the wind. Paul was hesitant about being left in Big Sur and wanted to go back to North Beach.

Paul Desmond was a North Beach writer, too. He was still working on his memoir when he died. It was called “How Many of You are There in the Quartet Mister Desmond?” That’s what he said a flight attendant asked him once when he was flying to a gig with Brubeck.


Dianne Feinstein held a bash at Original Joe’s on Election Day. Three former S.F. mayors attended — Feinstein, Newsom and Willie, of course. Yes, Ed Lee was there too, making it a mayoral quartet.

Our esteemed Governor Jerry Brown missed the annual St. Ignatius reunion at Capp’s Corner recently, but turned up later that day as an altar boy at the S.I. Mass for departed classmates. We don’t call him Governor Moonbeam anymore. That’s reserved now for the Guvernator.

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Ernest Beyl says Danielle Steel has written more than 80 novels and Somerset Maugham, 20. [email protected]