On a Thanksgiving cross-country road trip from Baltimore to the Golden State and back last year, I met the poet Alan Kaufman—a boy of the Bronx, former Israeli soldier, editor of the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry—through a mutual friend in the big, bad world of letters.
Kaufman met me and my daughter Amelia in the lobby of the Handlery Hotel in Union Square, where we were staying to celebrate her birthday.
He then took me on a long walk to Chinatown, commenting along the way on subjects as disparate as happy marriages and Philip Roth; noting with glee that we could easily be in China, so saturated with Sino-culture has this part of San Francisco been for more than 160 years.
After passing through Chinatown—the largest Chinese neighborhood in the world outside of China—we arrived at City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, once ground-zero for the Beat Generation of Kerouac and Ginsberg and now ground-zero for tourists chasing the ghosts of Kerouac and Ginsberg.
[Two generations prior to the Beats in the authentically desperate 1930s, the now-obscure writer William Saroyan invented himself in this neighborhood, rising to fame on a single short story: "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze."
A side street is now named for Saroyan, as is one for Kerouac.]
On the shelves of City Lights was Kaufman's new memoir—"Drunken Angel," published this year by Viva Editions. It is a long and somewhat sordid story—beatings, chronic intoxication, homelessness and violence—sprinkled with what some say is the true definition of a miracle: unexpected grace given to an unlikely prospect.
I bought one copy for myself and one for a friend. Kaufman signed both of them—along with a half-dozen or so for the store—and off we went for coffee and eggs at Caffe Greco on Columbus Avenue.
"When the Beats hung out here it was Italian working class, very Italian," said Kaufman, whose papers—including detailed notes on the emergence of the Spoken Word poetry movement in New York and San Francisco—are collected in the Morris Library at the University of Delaware.
"It was a place for sailors looking for fun and a safe haven for poets and artists because it was working class and cheap."
Kaufman will be reading in Baltimore Thursday at the Acropolis Restaurant, 4718 Eastern Avenue at Oldham Street in Greektown. I will be reading with him—a story called "Just Another Band from L.A."—and the guy who introduced us—Dean Bartoli Smith—will serve as master of ceremonies.
The event also features local fiction writer Betsy Boyd along with free Greek appetizers and live accordion music.
The inaugural event of the 2012 Greektown Reading Series, the Kaufman Spectacular is free and open to the public.
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