Learning to say ‘Amen!’

 

I’ve spent a total of five weeks in the San Francisco area during the last year, and I’ve managed to visit the city itself only four or five times. Briefly put, I’ve only glimpsed the city; I haven’t really seen it.

I’ve seen — or sensed — some of the problems people have with what venerable journalist Herb Caen called Baghdad-by-the-Bay. Most of all, it’s too expensive to live there — real-estate values are beyond the reach of even the relatively affluent, thanks in large part to the dot-com companies like Google and Apple. What’s more, the San Francisco celebrated in Scott MacKenzie’s song is long-gone — if it ever really existed….George Harrison of The Beatles took one look at the Haight  and got the hell out of there, and after one glorious summer the place became a hellhole filled with homeless, strung-out teens with wilted flowers in their hair.

But, still, there’s something about San Francisco and California. I’ve joined the other tourists and taken a ride on the city’s famed cable cars, all the while humming the Rice-A-Roni theme song. I’ve walked along the waterfront, looking out at Alcatraz or up at the suspension bridge to Oakland. I’ve stood  on the steps where Mario Savio jump-started the Free Speech movement in Berkeley — although I’ve seen Berkeley’s bums, young and old, who are but a sad echo of the old counter-culture. I’ve crossed the Golden Gate and visited John Muir’s redwoods. I’ve sipped coffee at a café in North Beach. I’ve huddled with the ghosts of the Beats in the poetry section upstairs at City Lights. I’ve looked out at the Pacific — and, while I can’t explain the difference, I have no doubt that there’s something very non-Atlantic about the Pacific.

I’ve driven along the coastal highway to Big Sur. I’ve never seen any place so beautiful in my entire life, and I found myself wishing I could travel back forty years and have a fling with beautiful Joni Mitchell, or travel back fifty years and get drunk with Jack Kerouac, or travel back sixty years and talk about Rimbaud and Celine and Anais Nin with Henry Miller, or travel back more than eighty years and spend idle hours sloshing through the tidal flats at Monterey with John Steinbeck — and witnessing the awful oppression of the farm workers at Salinas.

I think what it amounts to is that I’ve seen enough of San Francisco and the California coast to know that at the very least I’d like to see more. And I certainly will. I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco — but I did leave a little piece of it. After all, how could I ever forget — and how could I ever be unchanged after reading it — the quote at the entrance to the Henry Miller Memorial Library in the town of Big Sur: “It was here in Big Sur I first learned to say Amen!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s nearly Spring –“Rip” ends his winter slumber

Set your alarm clocks for Thursday, March 22, at 7 p.m.

After slipping into some sort of slumber since I did a reading and book-signing in January at the public library in Tarrytown, N.Y., hometown of Washington Irving himself, “Rip” and its author will be back in “circulation” this week at the Pollard Memorial Library, 401 Merrimack Street,  in Lowell, Mass.

The free event begins at 7 and should last until about 8 p.m. I’ll talk a bit about my longtime affection for Washington Irving’s writing, I’ll chat a little about how I came to write my modern-day parody of “Rip Van Winkle,” I’ll read sample chapters from the book, I’ll take questions from the audience, and I’ll sign copies of the book, which will be available for purchase at the event. (I might also have something to say about Lowell native Jack Kerouac — his presence still permeates this gritty city, which just spent a couple of weeks celebrating what would have been the great writer’s 90th birthday).

I hope you’ll try to make it — that you’ll bring a friend (or friends) — and that you’ll help spread the word by passing this around to anyone and everyone within range of Lowell who you think might enjoy the book and the reading.

Here’s what the library’s website saying about the event:

The Pollard is excited to welcome local author Nicholas DiGiovanni to read from his novella “Rip”. Imagine Washington Irving sitting down for a friendly drink and spinning yarns with Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, and you’ll get an idea of the flavor of “Rip,” DiGiovanni’s satirical retelling of Irving’s venerable story about ne’er-do-well Rip van Winkle. DiGiovanni brings Rip van Winkle into the Sixties, finds him gainful employment as a toll-taker on the Tappan Zee Bridge, and makes his long suffering wife a charter member in the feminist movement just starting to sweep the country. There’s a lot more packed into this story, but you’ll just have to read it for yourself. Suffice to say that once you’re done, you’ll understand why novelist Christian Bauman (In Hoboken, The Ice Beneath You) calls DiGiovanni “a master storyteller.” So come on down to this free reading and get your copy of Rip signed by the author.

Here are directions to the library:

Take I-95 or Route 3 to the Lowell Connector. Take exit 5B to merge onto 3A N/Thorndike Street. Continue on Thorndike Street as it changes to Dutton Street. Turn left onto Market St. Turn right on Cardinal O’Connell Parkway. Turn left onto Merrimack Street. Library will be on the right—a large granite building with “Memorial Hall” etched in the side. The library is next door to City Hall, another large granite building with a clock tower.

Here’s information about parking (note that if you parked in a metered space outside the library, you don’t have to pay after 6 p.m.):

The library has a free 2-hour parking lot on the corner of Moody and Colburn St. To access this lot, head north up Merrimack Street past the Library, turn right onto Cabot Street. Then turn right onto Moody Street. Follow Moody Street all the way back down to the library. The lot is on the corner as Moody turns onto Colburn Street (across from the Lowell Fire Station). There is handicapped parking on Merrimack Street in front of the library. There is also on-street metered/kiosk parking available around the library. Meter/kiosk parking fees are in effect 8am-6pm Monday-Saturday.

The meeting room where I’ll be reading is on the Moody Street/Coburn Street side of the building, the entrance right across the street from the library parking lot. If you enter through the front door, just head to the main desk and they’ll direct you to where I’m reading.

Thanks! I’ll be hoping to see a lot of friends, old and new, at Lowell’s Pollard Memorial Library on Thursday evening!

At Kerouac’s grave

Jack Kerouac's grave at Edson Cemetery, Lowell, Mass.

“He honored life…”

But have the living given proper honor to Jack Kerouac, America’s one true spokesman, who plumbed the deepest depths of sorrow and climbed to the highest ledge of beauty and joy?

His grave at Edson Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts, is marked with a simple slab with the above inscription, the names of the names of the grave’s two tenants — John L. Kerouac, “Ti Jean,” and his third wife Stella Sampas, and their dates of birth and death. Nearby are the graves of Stella’s mother, father and brother.

Pilgrims to Kerouac’s grave leave tokens and talismans — piles of pebbles, beer bottles, cigarettes, spare change and ballpoint pens.

Lowell does its best to remember its native son — there’s an annual Kerouac festival and even a Kerouac park with stone monuments engraved with quotes from his prose and poems.

And people abound who can point out the Catholic church and Catholic school he attended in the city, who can talk knowingly about his brief stint as a sports reporter for the Lowell Sun, and even folks who can point you to the bars where Jack used to drink — and oldtimers who actually drank with Jack (or at least say they did).

But stand at Kerouac’s grave on a cold day in January as the wind rushes off the Merrimack River and stirs the brown grasses and dry leaves. The winter sun lays low in the sky. It casts a certain slant of light. The light has the heft of cathedral tunes.

Kerouac’s grave is just one of thousands in the sprawling cemetery. They’re all just as dead. Their bones are all just as bleached and brittle. Their names and dates will erode and fade from their stones — and so will Jack Kerouac’s, despite the pebbles and bottles and cigarettes and change.

Standing at this holy tragic place I hear the rattle of bones and the riddles of life. And I hear Jack Kerouac speaking, his words pouring out, his words slurred by dharma and drink:
“Love is all.”
“Happiness consists in realizing it is all a great strange dream.”
“It all ends in tears anyway.”
“Something good will come of all things yet.”

Pilgrims, hear those words, and say them like a prayer, when you stand at Kerouac’s grave.