North Beach is a destination. It’s mentioned in memoirs. People arrive, guide books in hand, to sit in a few special cafes, to dream about those who have sat there before, mostly about bohemian writers who became famous. They come with the hope that the place might key their own genius. They come because Alan Watts is still on the radio, because City Lights Bookstore is a landmark, and because of The Dharma Bums, On the Road, Howl, Golden Sardine, A Coney Island of the Mind, Trout Fishing in America, and The Dancing Wu Li Masters.
By 1956 when Johnny Giotta opened the Caffe Trieste in North Beach, civil rights issues were prompting white flight to the suburbs. This, in turn, created cheap rent in San Francisco. Not that everyone left, but the downturn was so severe that Johnny had to wash windows all night to keep his cafe going. The cafe was a family affair that stayed in business because the Giotta family, singers and musicians themselves, embraced the bohemians they attracted. Black Mountain College closed in 1956, and North Beach became the place outside New York City for artists to gather, in part because of the cheap rent but also because of the nearby Hungry I nightclub where Lenny Bruce offered his obscenities as an art form. The San Franciscans who had stayed in town enjoyed having morning coffee with this bantering crowd. All that was needed was the right place.
The Caffe Trieste did not have the first espresso machine around, that honor went to Enrico’s on Broadway. It was the morning crowd that made the Trieste so special. Sooner or later, everyone had to be up early and they came in for coffee. I was told that Lenny Bruce had frequented the Trieste but he died the year that I discovered the place one morning when I was out walking off a hang-over.
I arrived at the Caffe Trieste in 1966, on foot at first as I explored San Francisco, and later via motorcycle as the Caffe Trieste became one leg of my regular cafe race. I even nicknamed my own custom Harley Davidson the Cafe Racer because of these test rides which brought me across the Bay Bridge from Mother’s Motors, my notorious custom motorcycle shop in Berkeley. Like myself, people came from all over the Bay Area to start their day at the Trieste. I talked with many of them over the years.
When I sat down at his table at the Trieste, Alan Watts didn’t say much. Then again, I doubt he considered my stylized biker demeanor as a likely indication of sentience much less anything very zen. I met photographer Bob Seideman there about the time he took the most famous shots of Janis Joplin. Seideman came in with Jann Wener who founded Rolling Stone Magazine or with Bruce Conner whose art was then considered cutting edge. Paul Krassner of The Realist fame came in on his own. They all loved the customized bikes I parked out front.
I can talk to anyone, but it took me longer to open the door with some. Certain people had to be given a whiff of money. Allen Ginsberg came to the Trieste frequently, forever conniving with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Bob Kaufman who by then was permanently dingy from being beaten half to death by the SFPD. Jack Keroauc was reported occasionally, but I never met him. Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Harold Norse, Jerry Kamstra, and later, Neeli Cherkovski, came with religious regularity, however, they were always kept at an arms length by the City Lights crowd, as was portrait artist Peter LeBlanc although everyone enjoyed his charming wife Minette. Jack Micheline was particularly disdained, save for the fact that Charles Mingus was his friend and that Jack Keroauc had written the intro for his River of Red Wine. Neither were Richard Brautigan nor Herb Gold part of Ferlinghetti’s City Lights poetry cabal, but they came in and they were acknowledged, grudgingly, especially after Trout Fishing in America hit the big time. These polarities engendered the magnetism.
The bohemians at the Caffe Trieste would never have made the annuals had not many others made their way into the cafe searching for something. Personally, my own strongest North Beach image is being there when Miles Davis performed Bitches Brew live at Keystone Corner on Vallejo Street, a block from the Trieste. Still, it was only at the Caffe Trieste where people gathered to hammer out ideas. Gary Zukov came looking for The Dancing Wu Li Masters, while soon to be art world machter Raymond Foye was there watching. He would later play a key role in Ginsberg’s emergence as a photographer. Margo Saint James, founder of the prostitutes union Coyote, came in for a latte and to chat with Carol Doda whose nipples blinked red over Broadway. Werner Erhard, just then concocting EST, his seminar-based self improvement scheme, liked them in particular. On most mornings there would be an entrance by angelic Amy Gossage, nymphette daughter of Howard Gossage who invented the paper airplane contests and Beethoven T-shirts. She came and went like the wind, a siren who bent men’s wills to her own until she was murdered with a hammer by her brother over cocaine. Marshall Naify, who owned the United Artists theaters and played the horses, came to see her, often clutching a Bible. Francis Coppola and his retinue came for the coffee, while hoping to interest Naify in financing their Hollywood ambitions. Director Philip Kaufman materialized occasionally, but you never saw Enrico Banducci there. To enjoy Enrico’s outrageous stories about his famous club The Hungry I you had to go to Enrico’s on Broadway. I had many a fine lunch there, Enrico playing his violin, Marshall eating bacon, Bill Cosby eulogizing the good old days. Peter Lawford appeared one day, the murder of Marilyn Monroe becoming the immediate topic, Enrico coming unglued about the murderous Kennedys...and the other enigmas of North Beach.