While Ginsberg was reading his poetry to appreciative audiences, Kaufman chose another path, becoming the undisputed street poet, who frequented the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, located on the corner of Grant and Green, writing and reciting his poetry there. He also liked to frequent Aquatic Park during the early morning hours, after the bars had closed down. I frequently saw him in the company of two black male friends; Kaufman and one of the other two scribbling their thoughts down on paper, while the third member played the conga drums, passing around a bottle of red wine, or lighting up a stick of weed. They would still be there when I left for home in the wee hours of the morning.
It wasn’t that poets had not been in the area long before the Beat poets arrived. It was just that for the most part they were largely invisible, while the jazz scene, on the other hand, flourished. Then along came Lenny Bruce, whose comedy routine, at the time, was considered outrageous and obscene. Bruce, no doubt, inspired others to come out and say what was on their minds, even if it meant being arrested, as Bruce frequently was. Not that Bruce didn’t encourage the police, seemingly taking delight in baiting them, waiting for the right moment to drop the word cocksucker on them, which would bring a quick close to the show. In this, he and Kaufman had something in common, when it came to taunting the police.
Kaufman’s nights at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop are the stuff legends are made of. North Beach regulars remember Kaufman for his frequent bouts with police officer William Bigarani, which took place at the Bagel Shop. Bigarani had a vendetta for Kaufman, and having gone to high school with Bigarani, I know there was more than a little racism behind his harassment of Kaufman. It had to gall him to witness Kaufman in the company of white women. Never one to back down from a confrontation, it didn’t take long for Kaufman to become a marked man, and he frequently found himself hauled downtown to the old Hall of Justice, where he was introduced to a cop’s alter ego, the nightstick.
To be fair to the San Francisco Police, they were generally permissive in their attitude toward the Beats, at least up until the time tourists and college student thrill seekers began taking over the neighborhood. The truth is that Kaufman often encouraged the wrath of the police, goading them onto a predictable confrontation. He considered the Bagel Shop his private domain and reigned over it like a king.
I frequently hung out at the Bagel Shop and can vividly recall Kaufman entering the establishment, climbing up on top of one of the tables, and reciting a newly written poem. Indeed some people hung out at the Coexistence Bagel Shop in the hope of seeing him come in and read his work. When he read, there was near silence. The people hung on his every word. But his fate was sealed the day he wrote on the walls of the Coexistence Bagel Shop, “Adolph Hitler, growing tired of fooling around with Eve Braun, and burning Jews, moved to San Francisco and became a cop”. This was the beginning of Kaufman regularly being hauled down to City Prison, to spend the night, before facing a stern faced judge in the morning.
In 1978 Kaufman abruptly renounced writing and again withdrew into solitude, not emerging again until l982, to read one of his poems on the PBS television show Images. From l980 up until the time of his death, he would occasionally read his poems in public, but by then he had been reduced to a ghost of his former self, walking the streets of North Beach; twitching, blinking, mostly an un-speaking victim of a failing liver, and a brain diminished by drugs and forced shock treatments undergone at Bellevue Hospital.
The last five years of his life saw him banned from every bar in North Beach, except the old Hawaiian Bar, located directly across the street from the old Co-Existence Bagel Shop. It was only here and in Chinatown where he could go to enjoy a drink and cigarette. But the Kaufman of the 80s was a tired Kaufman. As early as l965, he wrote, “My body is a torn mattress/disheveled throbbing place/for the comings and goings/of loveless transients/before completely objective mirrors/I have shot my self with my eyes/but death refused my advances.”
There wasn’t a lot of conversation between us, but there didn’t have to be. His eyes said it all. Many times we would pass each other on the street, looking each other directly in the eye, and exchange a knowing smile. That look was more than any words could describe. He also had a magical way of appearing from out of nowhere. I would be sitting at a bar enjoying a drink, and suddenly I’d see him standing there beside me, having seemingly appeared from out of nowhere. Sometimes he would ask me for a cigarette; sometimes he would take a seat next to me and mumble to himself, or recite poems from the masters like Pound, Eliot, and Blake. He had memorized their work by heart.
Kaufman had a great influence on me. I recall an occasion in the early Seventies. I was standing at the back of the Coffee Gallery, listening to a poet read his work at the weekly reading series, when suddenly from behind, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Kaufman.
“Are you going to read your work tonight? ” He asked. I hadn’t planned on reading that night, and said that I had not brought any poems with me. He looked me in the eye and said, “I came to hear you read.”
I left the bar and drove several miles across town, in a driving rain storm, to my apartment, to pick up some poems, convinced that he would be gone by the time I returned, only to find him sitting alone at the back of the room, seemingly caught up in a private conversation with himself. I read several poems that evening, very much aware of his eyes on me, and finished the reading by dedicating the last poem to him. When I finished the poem, I looked over at the table, and saw that he had left the bar as quietly as he had appeared.
Until that evening I had been reluctant to read in public, and I think he must have sensed my insecurity. From that night on, I became a regular reader at The Coffee Gallery, and had Kaufman to thank for helping me overcome my fear of reading in public, a phobia that had followed me from grammar school into adulthood.
Kaufman’s humor showed not only in his poetry, but in his life as well. I recall the time he walked into the old Coffee Gallery where Gregory Corso was holding court and enjoying the admiration of a group of young admirers. A young woman asked Corso to name the major poets of his era, and he began rattling off several names, which not surprisingly included his own, while identifying Kaufman and Micheline as minor poets. He was unaware that Kaufman had entered the bar, and was standing near the doorway. I turned in Kaufman’s direction and asked him where he would rate Corso. Without hesitation, he smiled and said, “Major Minor,” exciting the bar to loud applause.
I recall yet another time at the Vesuvio Bar, located next to City Lights Book Store, when a tour bus filled with tourists double-parked outside the bar in order to allow the passengers to debark and use the establishment’s restroom. As the small group of middle-aged tourists departed the bus and made their way into the bar, the tour guide began his rehearsed speech:
“This is where the Beat Generation began.”
Suddenly Kaufman leaped up on one of the tables, and shouted in a loud voice:
“No. No. Alice Toklas was commissioned by the Pope to do a book, and Gertrude Stein jumped out of the looking glass, and declared it the Beat age.”
The tourists quickly left the bar, probably thinking Kaufman a mad man.
(to be continued)
(first appearance at emptymirrorbooks.com)