san francisco joseph kenny
Beach Blanket Babylon Is Gone, Ferlinghetti Too
by Howard Richard Debs

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco—apocryphal Twainism

July 1990
I remember
my first time
in San Francisco
not wanting to
miss a thing:
the Golden Gate
Bridge, that majestic
span, symbol of
American ingenuity,
Chinatown, sampling
much too much dim sum,
the best they said this side
of Shanghai, block after
block of Asian wonders
engage the ear and eye
down an alleyway
I peered into
a fortune cookie
factory where I
found the secret
of how those little
slips of paper get inside.
I ride the Powell/Hyde
cable car arriving
at Fisherman’s Wharf,
Ghirardelli Square,
to indulge in chocolates,
considered there to be
important, rivaling
halibut and sole.
I took the boat tour out
to Alcatraz, the place
they call The Rock,
the churning waves of
San Francisco Bay
ominous and cold
matching with the edifice
it harbors. I explored the
neighborhoods, Japantown,
Little Russia, the Castro,
Nob Hill and ventured
to North Beach to
pay homage at
Ferlinghetti’s City Lights
echoing the cadence
of the Beat Generation.
Mere steps away
I discovered Beach
Blanket Babylon, a
unique San Francisco
treat, the revues at
Club Fugazi turned
spoofing into an artform,
the exaggerated costumes
and caustic humor pointed
a finger at any who dared
to place themselves above
the rest. I saw an article
the other day noting
that the troupe no longer plays,
a casualty of the changing times.
So Beach Blanket Babylon
is gone now, Ferlinghetti too
yet—I am still waiting for
another show, another Howl.

PHOTO: Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, California, with City Lights Bookstore in right foreground and the Transamerica Pyramid in center background (September 2015). Photo by Joseph Kenny, used by permission.

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NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Herb Caen, the San Francisco humorist and journalist whose column appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle for almost 60 years, dubbed the city Baghdad by the Bay in recognition of the cosmopolitan cultural diversity it shares with the Middle Eastern city. Another humorist and journalist who for a time called San Francisco home was Mark Twain, but the words of the quote attributed to him about the city’s weather most likely are not his. He enjoyed living there, writing in Roughing It, “I fell in love with the most cordial and sociable city in the Union.” During Twain’s time in San Francisco, a literary movement was imperceptibly taking place against the propriety that perpetuated Victorian tastes. The constrictive standards of the day started giving way to a new way of writing, an American way. So in its history the City by the Bay became a prime example of how an environment of cultural diversity spawns both vibrancy and stimulates creative endeavor. It is no coincidence that during the 1950s San Francisco became the hub of the avant-garde in the visual and performing arts, and of course poetry. My own journey as a poet led me to the Black Mountain poets including Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley, both closely associated with the so-called San Francisco Renaissance—an interest that was an impetus to undertake my first pilgrimage to the Bay Area. Who knows where and when there will be further evolution in the arts? We are waiting.

PHOTO: The author at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco (1990).

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PHOTO:  The author’s treasured keepsake, the program from Beach Blanket Babylon and the ticket from the performance he attended.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Howard Richard Debs is a recipient of the 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards. His essays, fiction, and poetry appear internationally in numerous publications. His photography is featured in select publications, including in Rattle online as “Ekphrastic Challenge” artist and guest editor. His book Gallery: A Collection of Pictures and Words (Scarlet Leaf Publishing), is the recipient of a 2017 Best Book Award and 2018 Book Excellence Award. His latest work is the chapbook Political (Cyberwit). He is co-editor of New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust, forthcoming in later 2021 from Vallentine Mitchell of London, publisher of the first English language edition of the diary of Anne Frank. He is listed in the Poets & Writers Directory.