Lawrence Ferhlinghetti died today. He was 101. As a radical college student, publishing an underground newspaper, he was one of my great heroes. He was a poet and a bookstore owner, a defender of free speech, a San Francisco institution and City Lights was his bookstore.

For nearly 20 years during our annual visit to San Francisco, I would make my pilgrimage to two places in the City by the Bay. One was the shrine to St. Francis and the other was City Lights. They are perhaps the two horns of my personality dilemma.

When you come into City Lights it looks like a pretty normal bookstore. But when you walk to the very back of the store there is a stairway. Up the stairs there are bookshelves filled with poetry. There are two small tables with some chairs, some at the tables and some scattered around. When I get to the top of the stairs, I always take a few moments and stand still and look around and listen. I sense maybe they are still there riding the radio waves into my consciousness. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferhlinghetti, Langston Hughes, Sandberg, Whitman, those poets and those poet voices telling their stories and shedding their words.

One of my dearest Door County friends, a friend for over twenty-years told me to go to City Lights the first time. After that I couldn’t keep away. When my friend died and I went to City Lights I wrote this poem, or perhaps it was whispered to me. The title is “Broadway and Columbus” and it goes like this:

 

Broadway and Columbus

A location destination,

Broadway and Columbus.

“City Lights, have you been to City Lights,” he said.

“It’s a great bookstore.”

 

Three floors of words.

The third floor where ghosts walk and talk and reach out

From volumes past, present and future.

It’s a place of poetry.

 

Ginsberg, Kerouac,

Ferhlinghetti,

Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen,

Sandberg,

Whitman,

And there in a corner reading,

His hat on the small table next to a chair,

He sits,

His mustache drooping and moving when something he reads,

Lifts him to another time, another poet.

A wry smile crosses over his lips,

He raises his eyes and they scan the shelves

There is a faint chuckle.

 

A location destination,

Broadway and Columbus.

“City Lights, have you been to City Lights,” he said.

“It’s a great bookstore.”

 

And now he sits, one of the ghosts, seen only fleetingly,

His mustache drooping and moving when something he reads,

Lifts him to another time, another poet.

He raises his head just slightly, our eyes meet, he nods and disappears.

It was Norb, I know it was, he was there.

City Lights, Broadway and Columbus

“It’s a great bookstore!”

 

My friend Norb Blei had joined the other poets in the ghost filled room at City Lights and today, February 23, 2021, Lawrence Ferhlnghetti has joined that cast of characters who played with words and let words play with them. They fought so hard for the right to think and write what they wanted. There are so many people who think we shouldn’t think and write with the freedom to let the words take us where they will.

So, Ferhlinghetti died today. If you haven’t read one of his books of poetry, read one today. Taste the words as they course through the air and into who you are. If you can visit City Lights, his bookstore, go to the third floor, stand quietly in the corner and listen to the voices. Ride wave after wave of words, let them carry you to places you’ve never been, to think things you never thought you could think. Then when you think the waves can carry you no higher, open your heart and write your own words. And when you do maybe you’ll see all those faces from all those past years and hear those voices tell their story, shedding their words as they join with yours.

 

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