North Beach Evening

Last night I was in the mood for a Chinese romance, and it was just my luck that Genny Lim was reading from her work in progress at the City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. Francis Wong and Jimmy Biala put some jazz behind the readings. Lawrence Ferlinghetti even showed up. Well, it is his bookstore, but he's not working the counter or anything these days. It was a good night for beatnik bonding.

I was meeting my friends, Jim Patton and Louise Nayer, at the reading. I try to spend some time with them whenever I'm in the city because Jim is one of my old and true friends. He might not miss Monday night football to squire his wife to a reading, but otherwise he's a mensch.

I parked along the border between North Beach and Chinatown and walked along Broadway from Powell to Columbus, just to see if anybody has put in Cafe Glockenspiel while I wasn't looking. Nope. There were Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai cafes, and even a cake shop, but no Glockenspiel. It wasn't six yet, but it was dark, and there was a nice flow of people on the streets. I arrived early with the idea of having some Italian food before going to the reading.

You can spend as much money as you want to spend in North Beach, because there are plenty of white table cloths and pricey wines. I passed The Stinking Rose and a new Trattoria and, as usual, went into Cafe Puccini. It's my favorite place in the entire city, for reasons I can't pin down. The jukebox is a cocktail party where Puccini and other opera composers hobnob with Sinatra and Bobby Darin and an eclectic selection of other performers. The Italian couple who own the place are classics, also. They are aging gracefully, she still tall and blonde and he stout and dark-haired.

There's no table service, not officially anyway, but a couple of dollars in the tip jar gets attention. I ordered linguini with clams and a pinot grigio, with coffee and tiramisu for dessert. I had a little time left so I went down to Coit Liquors and bought a bottle of Grappa. I got the good stuff (Nardini) that's been aged in oak. I had a taste for it because I'd dropped in to see some friends the night before and we had Raki, which is similar to Grappa but hard to find in drinkable incarnation. I was introduced to it years ago, on Crete, where the men claimed it has wonderful medicinal qualities.

When I wandered into City Lights it was like a touch stone. When I was eighteen, and in the Navy, I used to go into this bookstore, and I carried Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island of the Mind" around in my seabag, along with a Playboy interview with Bob Dylan, who was my hero. In the mid sixties a sailor made such a pittance that it was gone in a few days, and he was broke most of the month. CIty Lights was a gift from heaven, because they would let you sit in there and read books without even mentioning that they were for sale. And that was what Genny Lim remembered about City Lights.

She remembered finding this place that was a bookstore with tables where you could read as long as you wanted to. She said she was an Asian girl who imagined herself to be a Southern Belle. She was a woman who had unusual thoughts. Now, I didn't record her reading and so there is nothing I can quote from Genny, but I can hook you up to one of her poems, and I can give you an impression of our evening together.

She didn't read poems on this night, she read prose that flowed like poetry, and inside it she gave us a window into her soul, the grief and loss when her daughter died, the perception of a generation of Chinese women and men bridging the culture gap between an old, structured society of arranged marriage and bound feet, and a new society of individual freedom, rock bands and bars with leather boys, fright dykes, oriental cool cats and Genny on stage, rock star diva. She was a local rock star, but when the big break came she and the band were stoned and didn't really care. "That's how I became a poet," she said. "It was when I blew off being a rock star."

Genny Lim

Her pieces were fiction, and like all good fiction they mixed in real events in imagined context, so that her daughter died in the next room, while she slept, in one, though I know that her daughter actually drowned on a rafting trip. Behind her reading Francis and Jimmy wove a tapestry of jazz, and in the modest-sized room, a mix of San Francisco witnessed her performance. It was like her prayer, and we were allowed to stay there, in that private place, while she prayed it.

After the reading I took the Grappa to Jim and Louise's house, and we shared a drink of wine made from the skins of the grapes, and we talked the way old friends talk ...

Posted: Fri - December 9, 2005 at 02:40 PM