I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…
SIXTY YEARS LATER, Allen Ginsberg is dead, and the best minds of his generation are dead, dying, or converted, selling the headlines they scribbled on protest signs. The city that Jack Kerouac dreamed of, the drippy-sunset-hills and the tilted cobbled slopes, has been converted into overpriced housing for techies and gentrified coffee shops with Edison bulbs and exposed-brick walls. San Francisco is no longer the lived-up hippie haven it was in the 50s, where veterans chased their typewriter dreams, living mattress to woman to mattress, hauling cheap groceries and picking cotton and not thinking about tomorrows. The bitter, disenchanted romance of the Beat Generation has withered in the rapid consumerism brought about by the 21st century into a gross apathy.
And yet, City Lights Bookstore remains nearly the same as it was in the 50s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s defiant, subversive literary haven. The skyline of San Francisco has changed, but there is a new generation to inherit the antiwar sentiment, the restless depression, the polarized pacifism. 2016 was a year of sociopolitical tidal waves, exacerbated by the divisive presidential election. There are new wars, new enemies, and new unrest, but the same disaffection in the youth who learned from their grandparents’ stories and the black and white photographs about protests and anger. The literature looks different and sounds different, from rap lyrics about race politics to dystopian fiction with overtly allegorical themes, but the sentiment remains.
Millennials have recreated the counterculture tradition of impoverished art-wishing in the image of their own time. University students are as vocal about relevant, controversial issues as ever, and San Francisco remains one of the most progressive and loudly progressive cities in the nation. Mission District clings onto velvet blazers, denim everything, chunky heels, and Jackie O-style prom dresses, and the brutally unapologetic sexuality of Ginsberg’s most risqué poetry litters the streets in colorful strip club signs and sex shops. He and his friends were the handsome young men who smoked a lot and had a lot of sex, and that hasn’t changed, except the handsome young men now prefer weed to Benzedrine and like their coffee artisanal. This generation may never have read Ginsberg’s works in full, but it has learned to Howl.
San Francisco is a city of the modern age in the most metropolitan, materialistic sense. The red-brick Google building that overlooks the Bay Bridge is just one of many examples of how the city has embraced the new face of industrialism. But San Francisco is also a city that loves its strays too much to ever exclude their voices, and there are always places, from Dog-Eared Books on Valencia to the grungy restaurant Naked Lunch that pays homage to the brilliantly insane junkie William Burroughs, that strive to maintain the disillusioned, sepia-toned nostalgia of the Beat movement. Places like these, like Tartine Bakery in the Mission and Vesuvio Cafe on Columbus, preserve an echo of the Beat pulse. But the Beat spirit doesn’t exist only in spray-painted posters of Jack and Neal on walls; its effect is also in the intangible, in the feeling of hearing scratched vinyls and a modern nostalgia for the gritty ‘50s.
The aesthetic is still there, in the corners and the corner shops green with patina, if you just look for it. San Francisco is a place that doesn’t forget, that will always wait, for the artists and the painters and the poets, the smokers and the hookers, the soldiers and the students, the Dean Moriartys and the lovers of Dean Moriartys. San Francisco loves its lost.
...in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.
By: Lisa Liu