North Beach Follies: Chapter 1.1

December 9, 2014

“Shit,” he thought as he awoke suddenly from a wine induced sleep, “ I’ll be late for my fucking first class.” Looking around and then beside him, saw that he was in a strange bed and with a even stranger woman. “Where in the bloody hell am I?” as he continued his somewhat foggy thinking. He jumped out of bed and started looking around the floor for his clothes. The room was not half bad as rooms go at least by the standards that he had as a slightly overage first year art student. “Just my luck,” he pondered, “The first time I’ve been laid in weeks and I don’t remember a thing. Jesus my head, I’ve got to stop drinking that cheap Dago red.” Throwing on his clothes as he found them, he groped his way to the door. Just then, the woman woke up, “Where are you going, Dante?” she asked still half asleep. “Got to go. We’ll be in touch,” he replied. Although he didn’t know how as he didn’t know her name.

His name was, however, Dante, Dante Hamilton and he had been living in San Francisco’s North Beach for the past four months. Why, he thought, did his parents give him that stupid Italian first name? While his parents were cool, the closest they had ever gotten to Italy was Mario’s pizza which was San Carlos’ only pizzeria and for that matter the owner of Mario’s was Sam Wineburger. Sam and his family were rather a rarity in San Carlos being Jewish. You could hardly get any more Wasp than San Carlos in the early fifties of Dante’s youth. It was a commuter town some thirty miles south of San Francisco where Dante had grown up. Each weekday morning the town emptied itself of nearly the entire able-bodied male population most of whom took the Southern Pacific train to work in the city each and returned each evening tired, but glad to be back there in the safe haven of the ‛Peninsula’. The only thing Dante knew about San Carlos was that he wanted to get out and get out he did.

Less than a week after he graduated high school Dante was in the army. His idea was to beat the draft, but enlisting seemed like a stupid way to do it. The army offered him the option of either where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do if he joined. Dante took the later as he figured, correctly as it turned out, that whatever happened, he would not be serving his term in San Carlos. He liked the idea of being a photographer and the army promised him a place in its photography school in New Jersey after basic training. While to make a long story short, Dante did complete photo school and they did not post him back to San Carlos. Instead he ended up in Korea.

Those lost three years were spent in the army where Dante discovered that he really didn’t want to be a soldier. He spend most of his time counting the days that he had left until his discharge. It was in Korea that Dante got the bright idea to go to the California School of Fine Arts. A friend in his outfit he greatly admired, Carlos Villa, who had visions of becoming a painter, told him about the place. Carlos’s friend, Leo Valledor, was already enrolled and wrote glowing letters about the place and the great scene that surrounded the school. Dante did discover, however, during his time in the army that there was something called the Beat Generation and it had been happening right under his nose, in San Francisco, and he had missed it. Sex, booze, drugs—the whole ball of wax—and he had been a mere thirty miles away the whole time.

“What a bummer!” Dante would often say out loud to anyone who would listen to him in the barracks or the Quonset huts that served as barracks, “I’m stuck in this shit hole while a whole bloody generation gets lost without me.” Shit hole was likely an apt description of the Korea that Dante found himself in the late fifties, but at least nobody was shooting at him. He didn’t have a clue about either the art school or the Beat movement, but it sounded a whole lot better than the army. Actually most things sounded better than the army, especially the army that he found himself in during the late fifties in Korea. Dante had wanted out of San Carlos and now he wanted out of the army.

So May 1959 found Dante out of the army and in San Francisco eager to enlist in the Beat movement. Only how to pay for such an adventure? His timing in the army had been perfect—he joined six months after the Korean War G.I. Bill had lapsed and before, although he didn’t know it then, the Viet Nam G.I. Bill kicked in. Mind you, he was lucky enough to be in the army during a brief period when the country was not at war, but it was pure luck and nothing more as he would have been stupid enough to join if there had been a war in 1956.

Finding a place to live, or as it was called a pad, was a first task. It had to be in the right area. The Beach, North Beach. This was where it was happening. This is where the bars, the clubs, the bookstores were and at that time a cheap enough place to live in the city. The idea was to hang out until you found a place to crash—either by yourself or with other like minded individuals. After all, the great beat line from Larry Ferlingetti’s poem was about hanging about at Mike’s Place where according to that other great Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, you would find the ‘best minds of my generation.’ Mike’s Place on Columbus Avenue was a neat place. Great sandwiches, cheap beer, pool, not to mention the best minds which certainly included Dante, but it took three years from the time he graduated high school until he found himself hanging out in the center of the Beat Generation trying his best to look cool.

Even in high school Dante had pictured himself as a self-styled bohemian. He had, after all spent the first two years of high school living in England where is father was working as an electrical engineer for Bechtel International on a contract from his usual job for them in San Francisco. His parents had taken him to Paris twice during that time and this had given him a taste of high culture that was very different than San Carlos. By the time he returned to San Carlos to finish high school, he was reading romantic poets and going so far as to carry pocket editions of Byron and Keats in public. This in an early fifties California public high school was not considered cool and Dante, more often than not, found himself an outsider cast with the nerds who were outcast because they wore the wrong clothes, or they were bookish, or unattractive, or any combination of these traits. It really didn’t matter much to Dante what his cooler classmates thought as he knew that he was destined for great things while his classmates would end up as high school teachers or gas station attendants whose greatest moment would be the senior prom before they settled down to boring middle class lives. Dante always had a high opinion of himself which was usually not shared by those around him.

The army had been a way out of the bind of his middle class environment. Dante figured that the draft would get him sooner or later and typically, for him, he reasoned, “You can’t draft me, I’ll join.” He had not realized that the results were the same—you were still in the army, only  you had joined for three years rather than the two if you were drafted. Well, all of that was behind him now. Once more a civilian and ready to take the unsuspecting world by storm.

Dante had decided that his talent lay as a photographer and artist rather than a poet. This realization came upon him when he figured that he could not spell. Dante had seen the major retrospective of Jackson Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in December of 1956 while on a short leave before being shipped overseas. This, he concluded, was for him. Pollack, hero painter, famous in his own time, overt womanizer, early tragic death, what more could one ask from life? No more of this T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound stuff , he reasoned, “Give me my camera, a couple rolls of film and I’ll change the world. I’ll be to photography what Pollack was to painting.” It didn’t matter that Dante didn’t have a clue about being an artist. He could learn.

San Franciso

San Francisco

San Francisco was not only the home to the Beat Generation, it was also the location of the California School of Fine Arts. This was where Ansel Adams had taught photography as a fine art. This is where a new art of painting, the California School, was coming to light. The California school combined Abstract Expressionism with the figure–the result was big sloppy figurative paintings. The big names: Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bishoff, and Nathan Oliviera were all teaching at the School. What a great opportunity. Dante could have it all. The Beat movement, a new important art movement—surely San Francisco was the centre of the universe, and in 1959, it was.

Dante looked down the bar, where he was seated. A young bearded man was talking to the bartender. Dante could overhear what he was saying: “This place is sure different from Bozeman,” he continued, “ I need to find a place to live. Have you heard of anything?” The bartender, whose name was Ned, said: “Can’t say as I have. Plan to be in the city long?” “Yeah,” the young man answered,” I just enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts. I reckon I’ll be here for at least four years.”

Dante’s ears picked up at the mention of the school. “Hey,” he more or less shouted down the bar, “ Me too. I’m starting at the school and I’m looking for a place to crash. I’m Dante, Dante Hamilton. Who are you?” “Name’s Jake Storm and I’ve just been here three days. I am staying at a fleabag hotel, around the corner on Columbus. I’m from Montana, Bozeman, Montana. How about you.” “Me? I’m from around here, but I just got out of the army and I’m looking for a place to live in the Beach near the school. Right now I’m crashing across town with a friend of mine who was with me in the army, but I’d rather be living around here. Can I buy you a beer?” “Sure,” replied Jake, “So you’re going to the school too. Why?” Dante gave him a short version of his life and conversion to the arts via the United States Army. When he finished he asked Jake what brought him from Montana to North Beach. (To be continued.)

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Tuesday, December 9, 2014.

One comment

  1. The more I read the more hilarious it gets! I can really see these two guys clearly. Talk about antediluvian chauvinism! It really WAS a truly weird time, wasn’t it!!!

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