I was sitting at Spec’s Bar in North Beach the night that Kaufman is said to have officially broken his vow of silence, appearing from out of nowhere. I watched him eye the crowd, many of whom were waiting to go to a party being hosted by Miriam Patchen, Patchen’s widow. Within moments of his entrance, Kaufman launched into a spontaneous recitation from the works of T.S. Eliot, William Blake, and Ezra Pound. Despite the drugs and past forced shock treatments, he was still able to recite the old Masters from memory. I sat there watching the veins on his neck stand out with each poem he read.
This was to be Kaufman’s last hurrah, although there would be benefit readings, like the 1978 Street poets reading, which I organized at the University of California Extension Center. The reading featured Kaufman, Jack Micheline and myself. The day of the reading Kaufman was a twitching ball of nervous energy. In order to make sure he would show up for the reading, it was necessary for me to pick him up in North Beach and keep him company until the time of the reading.
We were having a cup of coffee at a nearby coffee shop when he began mumbling something about La Guna Honda. La Guna Honda is a County hospital and old age home. I had a cousin who had been forced to spend her last days there, and knew what a depressing institution it was. I was aware a friend of Kaufman’s had recently been hospitalized there. With hours to spare before the reading and tiring of the coffee shop, I on the spur of the moment decided to drive to La Guna Honda Hospital. The grounds themselves are quite beautiful, unlike the inside of the institution.
I parked the car at the lower end of the grounds, and turned the engine off, when suddenly Kaufman started reciting The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock . In my mind I believe he was paying a final tribute to his friend. Afterwards we drove back to the coffee shop, and found ourselves joined at the table by Eileen Kaufman. Kaufman hadn’t said a word since spontaneously reciting Eliot’s poem. Eileen was excited about the reading, and had brought a tape recorder with her, to record the reading. Kaufman several times looked anxiously from Eileen to me.
Don’t give Eileen the money. “You pay me,” he blurted out. He repeated this sentiment several times until I assured him I would pay him and not Eileen. In fairness to Eileen, she was only looking after his interest, knowing that after the reading he would return to North Beach and spend the money on his drinking friends, but I felt it was his money to spend as he wished.
Back then North Beach regulars were a funny lot, seldom leaving the safety of their neighborhood, but for this special occasion, they came in great numbers to hear his magic one more time. He didn’t disappoint them.
He stepped up on stage to loud applause, and almost instantly I realized he was revising his poems on stage. This is a remarkable feat, especially for someone in his condition.
The one thing I was able to accomplish for Kaufman was to assist him in obtaining an NEA writing grant. In the Seventies, at the height of my publishing success, I was on good terms with Leonard Randolph, the Director of the NEA Literature Program, who wielded considerable power. It didn’t matter what the grant’s panel decided, if Randolph wanted you to receive a grant, you would receive it. I knew this when I approached Randolph, and informed him that Kaufman deserved a writing grant, and considered it a done deal when Randolph turned to me and said, “Have someone fill out and submit the grant application.” I have since heard others claim credit for Kaufman receiving the grant, and that’s fine with me. The truth is that Kaufman deserved the grant, strictly on the merits of his work and not the influence of others.
The late Lynne Wildey provided Kaufman shelter and companionship in the last years of his life. I never saw him much the last two years of his life, after he moved out of North Beach. Being the warrior he was, he fought off the advances of Lady Death, until January l2, 1986. I was in North Beach celebrating my fiftieth birthday, walking down Grant Avenue, when Shig (the former manager of City Lights) stopped me on the street, and informed me that Kaufman had died, at the age of sixty, a victim of emphysema.
My first reaction was one of shock, then rage. Again the heavy hand of death had come to claim another victim. I found myself walking from bar to bar, informing first one and then another person of Kaufman’s death. The reaction was the inevitable “shit” or “God Damn.” The truth is that death is not a good conversationalist.
As I walked down the street to the Vesuvio Bar, I recalled the last time Kaufman and I had drunk together at North Beach. We were sitting at a bar in Chinatown, when he asked me if I owned a radio. When I replied that I did, he looked at me, and said, “You can listen to jazz.”
Not a surprising statement, for jazz was a big part of Kaufman’s life. He knew many of the great jazz musicians and his poetry was literally filled with jazz.
Kaufman will be duly recorded by Beat historians (and honored as he was in the Whitney Museum Beat Art Exhibit), and rightfully so. The shame is that his Beat peers, caught up in their own egomania, made little effort to see that he gained the full recognition he deserved.
Kaufman once said, “Why turn a perfectly good frog into a princess” and privately confided to me years earlier, “Death is hunting me down.” On Sunday, January 12, 1986, the hunt ended.
On Friday, January 17, 1986, they came from all over—250 poets and friends—to pay their last respects too perhaps the most prominent black Beat poet of our time. The predominately white background faced a black priest and jazz group at San Francisco’s Sacred Heart Church, near the black Fillmore district. Ferlinghetti read a letter from Allen Ginsberg, who was in New York, and unable to attend the memorial, and Michael McClure read a poem of Kaufman’s. Bob’s son, Parker, a part-time model, told me that simultaneous ceremonies were being held in France, New York, Belgium and Germany, designed to coincide with the San Francisco memorial services.
I thought it odd seeing him eulogized inside a church, since he had been a self-proclaimed atheist, and the lines from one of his poems came to my mind: “God, you’re just an empty refrigerator/with a dead child inside, incognito/in the debris of modern junk pile.”
Jack Micheline read a poem for Kaufman, outside the church, to a large crowd, while a Municipal bus drove by with confused passengers peering out from behind the windows. I don’t think Kaufman would have been upset about the eulogy being held in a Catholic church. He may even have been amused.
At noon, perhaps one hundred of the mourners gathered at the Mirage Bar at 22nd and Guerrero Streets, for a sharing of camaraderie that lasted well into the evening. At 10:00 p.m., Parker’s son and I, and a mutual friend, went for a quiet neighborhood dinner and the sharing of fond memories.
Kaufman’s ashes were scattered at sea on Thursday, January 23, 1986, according to his wishes. Earlier a jazz procession made their way up Grant Avenue, stopping to play music at each of the bars Kaufman had once drank at.
Kaufman maintained his sense of humor right up until the end. Lynne Wildey told how she had visited him shortly before his death. She said as she was preparing to leave, Kaufman looked up at her, smiled, and said, “Stop by the next time you’re in the neighborhood.”
The Beats had lost one of its proudest warriors. If Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco, Kaufman left his in the streets of North Beach.
POEM FOR BOB KAUFMAN
he walked the streets of North Beach
an ancient warrior with hollow eye sockets
that seared the dazzling lights of the city
of Saint Francis
his eyes boring into you like a silk worm
carrying decades of heavy sorrow on his back
like a bent over hunchback
overcome with the rust of time
flesh stripped to the marrow
the mirror of his eyes doing a slow dance
up and down Grant and Green
a dark shadow riding clouds of
his life measured in hot jazz and verse
a surreal mirage where hips cats
wailed in perfect rhythm
as he walked an imaginary zoo
looking for tigers to talk to
runaway poems blaring in his ears
like a stuck car horn
the Ancient Rain falling
washing away his wounds
About A.D. Winans
A. D. Winans is a native San Francisco poet, writer and photographer. He was friends with Bob Kaufman, Jack Micheline, Charles Bukowski and other poets and writers of the 50’s and 60’s. The author of 45 books and chapbooks of prose and poetry, his work has appeared internationally and been translated into nine languages.
A poem of his was set to music and performed at Tully Hall, NYC. His book, The Other Side Of Broadway: Selected Poems: 1965-2005, was published in January 2007 by Presa Press.
He was a winner of a 2006 PEN National Josephine Miles award for literary excellence.