Readers of these sketches columns may remember I’m bullish on San Francisco — optimistic about its future. And, while I acknowledge the city has problems, I believe they are solvable and we will solve them.
I sparkle when I hear or read “only in San Francisco — good stuff.” And I bristle when I’m faced with “only in San Francisco — bad stuff.” I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I believe frequently we tend to overlook the good stuff and dwell on the bad stuff.
In this column, I’m putting forth some good stuff — not just about San Francisco, but especially about North Beach, my neighborhood, one of the city’s oldest and most unusual.
THE LITTLE FREE ROCK BOX
I suppose any San Francisco neighborhood can have a Little Free Library tied to a tree or a telephone pole. But only in North Beach are you apt to find a Little Free Rock Box. There’s one on Grant Avenue between Greenwich and Filbert. A few wooden shelves display some interesting rock specimens. At the top is printed “Take a Rock, Leave a Rock.” Beneath is this: “The closer you get to real matter, rock, air, fire, wood, the more spiritual the world is.” It’s signed Jack Kerouac. I took a rock and left a rock and communed with the spirit of the great Beat in the sky.
PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL
There’s a fleet of green parrots (red-headed conures) that have been hanging around Telegraph Hill since 1995 when a few birds escaped their cages, or were let loose. Now there are more than 200 of them. They’ve been spotted elsewhere in the city, but they prefer the North Beach area, just as I do.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, soon to be 99-years-old (March 24), is still writing poetry and fighting the ills of his city and his neighborhood. Publisher New Directions just came out with his latest book — Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems. You can still spot him stalking around North Beach as though he owns it. He does. He’s written about it so much I deem it his turf. In the iconic “A Coney Island of the Mind” he writes, “I am perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder.” So are we all.
CITY LIGHTS BOOKSELLERS AND PUBLISHERS
Founded in 1953, City Lights is probably the best-known bookstore in the United States. It is known worldwide for publishing the Beats. It was the publisher that brought out Allen Ginsberg’s Beat anthem, “Howl.” It’s open from 10 a.m. to midnight. Isn’t that sensible?
GREEN STREET MORTUARY MARCHING BAND
San Francisco’s tourism gurus may not realize it, but here in North Beach, the Green Street Mortuary Marching Band ranks right up there with the most colorful attractions in the city. It is certainly one of the strangest — a profoundly religious and symbolic piece of street theater.
The band’s brisk marches along the streets of North Beach and Chinatown at the head of a Chinese funeral cortege not only stop traffic but turn the heads of locals and tourists alike. The effect is awesome, a dramatic epiphany, evocative of the mysterious passage to the next world.
While other cities with large Chinese-American communities have on occasion organized funeral bands on a one-off basis, the custom has largely died out. But here in San Francisco it’s become a colorful and meaningful fixture keeping this cultural high note alive.
THE BEAT MUSEUM
An intrepid student of Beat culture, Jerry Cimino operates the Beat Museum on Broadway. Visiting is a trip down nostalgia alley. Jerry’s museum also sells books, photographs, and curios with Beat Generation connections.
Sotto Mare is the funky North Beach seafood restaurant where Tony Bennett likes to have his birthday parties. These days when he leaves his heart in San Francisco it’s usually on Green Street between Stockton and Grant at the restaurant with the great Italian name that means “under the sea.”
This classic coffeehouse has been a part of the unique fabric of North Beach for more than 50 years. It was the first espresso house on the West Coast. Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of The Godfather while sitting at a back table. Lawrence Ferlinghetti still drops by occasionally. Jack Hirschman, former San Francisco Poet Laureate, is a regular. Paul Kantner, rhythm guitarist-vocalist for the counterculture rock ’n’ roll group Jefferson Airplane, hung out there. So did most of the Beats who made North Beach famous.
This Chinese restaurant called Eight Tables is so exclusive you enter through a locked alley behind a North Beach Italian delicatessen. And, yes, it has only eight tables.
North Beach has the strongest saloon culture in San Francisco, where the idea is to get out of your studio apartment and into one of these intellectual social clubs. Joints like Gino and Carlo, La Rocca’s Corner, Tony Niks, Original Joe’s, Bar Nua, Chief Sullivan’s, The Saloon, Grant & Green Saloon, Maggie McGarry’s Irish Pub, Rogue Ale, Specs, and Tupelo, give North Beach its impressive saloon credentials.
These are just a few “only in North Beach” assets that come to mind as I write this. Sometimes I think I’m living in a time warp in this old neighborhood.