You might be surprised when you walk into the Caffé Trieste, which is at the corner of Vallejo Street and Grant Avenue in San Francisco, to find that it is included in this survey of great cafés. It is sloppy, for one. There is no table service. You stand in line at the counter to place your order, and then you wait for it and carry it yourself to a table. Newspapers reside on many of the tables on any given day . . . much-read newspapers, tossed about, from which individual articles have been torn out, ads for available apartments, sports page revelations. As well, the café breaks one of the cardinal rules of being a great café, in that food is served here only on paper plates. This is simply not acceptable.
But I have sentimental reasons for thinking that the Trieste is a great café. The first cup of espresso I ever had came to me at the Trieste, in 1957, when I was fourteen years old. It riveted my consciousness, to say the least. Every follicle of hair on my head felt etched by that first sip from a dark brown, tiny ceramic cup, and I spooned at least three cubes of sugar into the moil. My cheeks continued tightening as I took the second sip and, immediately, I could feel the start-up of whole new kinds of emotions and intensities, the likes of which continue to this day after many hundreds of espressos. One's first will do that and, so, should be cherished.
My brother Mike was at the time a student at the University of California School of Dentistry, and fancied himself something of a beatnik. Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" had been read in public for the first time by the poet himself on October 7, 1955 at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street. At the time, few people knew who Ginsberg was. As a student in the sixth grade, I certainly hadn't known. The book Howl and Other Poems had subsequently been published by City Lights Books on November 1, 1956 and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher, was arrested for obscenity. In the history of American poetry, there are few public events as famous as Ferlinghetti's obscenity trial.
That day at the Trieste, the trial was on the front page and everyone knew who Ginsberg was. The atmosphere in the café (which had been founded by Gianni Giotta just a year earlier) was fervently noisy with talk. Over the din, the jukebox's opera arias bellowed, as they still do. The telephone booth (the very old kind, of dark wood, about eight feet high with a pay phone in its interior and a small, semi-circular wooden seat that is so small and tightly-placed that it is virtually impossible to sit down on it) was very busy. The folding door, the sound of which opening and shutting has for years disturbed conversations, opened and shut all morning as the marvel of the trial was being discussed long-distance by a line of patrons.
It was the first event I ever saw of such literary intensity. Most interesting to me was the way everyone looked. By the standards of the Oakland suburbs in the 1950's, this place was on another planet. My brother and I had been taught to dress very presentably, in khaki pants, white shirts tucked in, the popular Eisenhower jackets of the era, with combed hair and scrubbed faces. The patrons at the Trieste were dressed mostly in black, with a preponderance of turtleneck sweaters. Some of the men wore berets, a kind of cap that I had seen only in the pages of Life magazine in occasional photo-articles about the faraway charms of Paris. My brother told me that wearing a beret meant that you were a poet, and I believed him until I went to Paris in 1971 to live for a couple of years, and discovered that bakers wear berets there, fruit-sellers, coal delivery men . . . all sorts of people. Poets, too, I imagine.
In any case, the men at the Trieste were not scrubbed. Some had beards. Most had just a few days of growth, and didn't seem to care at all that they looked so scruffy. Indeed, as I looked around, I saw that scruffy was the standard. My recently bathed appearance was the anomaly. Our father, who would never appear in public without having shaved and combed his hair, would not have been able to tolerate the place. And I, still struggling against my first espresso, wondered whether it was even legal to look the way so many of the patrons there looked. Did the now famous black and white cover of Howl and Other Poems, peeking out of shirt and jacket pockets through the café, make those pockets profane? Was I to be badly thought of because I'd visited such an iniquitous chamber? Should I go to Confession?
The end result of the trial a few weeks later -- as in all such governmental idiocies -- was that Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti had become world famous and the book itself a best seller. It still is, with one million copies of it in print, and luckily "Howl" is also a great poem:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
A lot of very bad writing has come from conversations in the Trieste since then, writing that has now been forgotten entirely. The lurching shouts of second-rate wannabe poets. The self-important ruminations of men and women who, believing themselves great, were really thoughtless. The recitations from books of essays, fiction or poetry that were consigned to oblivion by the audience on that very afternoon in 1959, 1968, 1983 or last week. Unreadable foolishness, published in books with press runs of fifty copies.
But now and then . . . sometimes . . . someone has come into this café for a cup of coffee who has written something very important. The most important was Ginsberg himself, many times. But in the case of the Caffé Trieste you can simply rely on the fact that all of the best writers of the San Francisco Beat Generation enjoyed conversations in this place. And there were others. Francis Coppola wrote a good part of the first Godfather film here, on a yellow Olivetti. Luciano Pavarotti sung here. Joe Rosenthal, who shot the famous picture of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, was a regular. Jack Hirschman, the current poet laureate of San Francisco, can be seen here frequently. I myself introduced my son Brennan, when he was three, to Allen Ginsberg at the Trieste. Ginsberg offered him a cube of sugar. Later, I placed a few chapters of my novel My Father In The Night in the Trieste.
That afternoon in 1957, my brother Mike knew who Allen Ginsberg was, a fact which surely made him unique in the dental community. He's a writer himself now, and I'm sure that he took me to the Trieste because he was on some sort of literary pilgrimage. It may have been on that day that I decided to become a writer myself.
Causes Terence Clarke Supports