Personal Scrapbook: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

My quest to meet the famous poet 30 years ago.

lawrence ferlinghetti, city lights bookstore, via ferlinghetti
Getty Images

In the spring of 1994, I attended a celebration for Lawrence Ferlinghetti in North Beach. The City of San Francisco was renaming an alley, Price Row, as Via Ferlinghetti. The gathering featured politicians, numerous poets, including Michael McClure, and of course the guest of honor himself. After the readings and proclamations were over, I found myself standing next to poet Alan Kaufman, who had read with Ferlinghetti. Such was my fanboy worship of anyone in Ferlinghetti’s orbit that I asked someone to take a picture of me with Kaufman. And when that person handed me back my camera, there he was. In front of me. The Greek fisherman’s cap. A blue down jacket to match his blue eyes. Ferlinghetti in the flesh.

I remember introducing myself, gushing, stuttering, and reciting lines of his about Christ climbing down from a tree. Kaufman and another poet—I think it may have been Neeli Cherkovski—grinned at each other. I didn’t care. I could see that I had the scrittore’s attention.

“Zer-eh-ga,” he said. “That Italian?”

“Yes! Like Zerega Avenue in the Bronx! You know, the 6 train!”

He nodded like he knew what I was jabbering about. “Nice to meet you, Zerega.”

lawrence ferlinghetti
Alta

Three years earlier, I had moved to San Francisco from the East Coast because of Ferlinghetti. A friend of mine who had killed himself had urged me to come here and write as if my life depended on it. I was 26 years old, dreaming up stories, poems, a novel. My friend was a painter and an author who had met Ferlinghetti while hanging out in San Francisco during the 1960s. A couple of weeks before my friend intentionally overdosed, he told me that if I connected with Ferlinghetti, everything would work out.

I visited City Lights the same day I arrived. I spied Ferlinghetti near the cash register talking to a clerk, they finished, and he made his way to the exit. I nearly fell to my knees as he left the store. Above me was a hand-lettered sign, “Abandon All Despair Ye Who Enter Here.” City Lights was my Saint Peter’s, San Francisco my Vatican City, Ferlinghetti my saint at the center of it all.

I had come west with my father’s 1958 copy of A Coney Island of the Mind, a gift from him when I was in high school. The poems inside were no longer just inspiration and breathtaking brilliance. I quickly forgot the references to Brooklyn, Broadway, and Herald Square and instead clung to the lines that served as a street map to my new city, as I imagined Ferlinghetti saw it. Golden Gate Park, the church of Saint Francis, Chinatown, Coit Tower.

Shy and unsure of myself, I positively stalked him: in the bookstore, at Caffe Trieste, and at readings. On more than one occasion, I peeked into his office at City Lights. One afternoon, I watched him at his desk by a window, head down in concentration, reading something that I fantasized was a great manuscript by a young unknown writer.

Another time, if I remember correctly, I came upon him in the store’s basement, maybe by the giant wheel of a letterpress. He was reading something—a book, a pamphlet, a broadside—when I reached the bottom of the stairs.

Ferlinghetti looked up and smiled. “Yes?”

“So sorry!” I turned and scampered upstairs, fleeing the store for the safety of Columbus Avenue.

lawrence ferlinghetti
Alta

After the street-naming ceremony, we communicated just a few times, in person and in writing, over the next year or so. Ferlinghetti addressed me as Zerega, never Blaise. I took his preference for my surname as a sign of respect, reasoning that it was how he had probably addressed his shipmates in the navy. I had dropped out of West Point, and technically I was a vet, just like him.

Or maybe he called me Zerega because he had a thing for last names, having restored his from Ferling, which his father had shortened, and I was contemplating something similarly glorious, the full-blown version of mine being Zerega de Zerega. I remember telling him about my father’s cousin Rocco Mazzioti changing his name to Rockwell Massey. “A damn shame,” he muttered.

Or if calling me Zerega was a sign of respect, maybe it was because he was born in Yonkers, and I had grown up in Mamaroneck, two towns a dozen miles apart in Westchester County, New York. I told him where I was from during an open studio weekend at the old Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, where he had a space. I think he was painting the dark profile of a man wearing a brimmed hat, a silhouette set against a field of fiery red. The canvas was large, maybe four feet by six feet.

Ferlinghetti wanted to know why I had moved to San Francisco. I related how my friend William McInenly, an artist and the author of the Korean War novel A Sense of Dark, had been a hanger-on of his some 30 years earlier, how it was William who had told me that Ferlinghetti was also a painter, and how they had talked about art. Ferlinghetti couldn’t place the name but invited me to come by his office with a photo of William.

We were interrupted by people admiring Ferlinghetti’s canvases, and so I waited to tell him the rest. Two groups of admirers later, I explained that before William took his life, he had said that I should move here. Ferlinghetti closed his blue eyes for a moment. “That’s quite a story,” he said. “You should write it.”

lawrence ferlinghetti, a coney island of the mind
GETTY IMAGES

Upon learning of Ferlinghetti’s passing, I opened the copy of A Coney Island of the Mind that my father had given me. Numb, I turned to “I Am Waiting” and found myself wishing, praying, believing that a rebirth of wonder was near. I had not yet written my story of William, but I had met Ferlinghetti, and things had worked out. I read again Ferlinghetti’s mind-blowing “Christ Climbed Down,” and instead of sad, I felt expectant and hopeful. Here’s the poem’s final stanza:

Christ Climbed Down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings
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