Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Co-Existence Bagel Shop

On the corner of Grant Avenue and Green Street in San Francisco stood an unimposing storefront deli called the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. This is my alma mater. I learned more from endless conversations in that place than I ever learned in college. My usual seat was up front by the window, against the wall. I survived on hot pastrami on Russian rye, generous helpings of potato salad and gallons of black coffee, mostly donated by the generous counterman. I was 19 years old and discovering life.

My "professor" was a wonderful old white-bearded guy named Ernest Alexander who knew everything. He was a wellspring of philosophy, politics, literature and human nature. He was the wisest man I had ever met. Every day, my roommate Nancy and I made our way down Russian Hill to "Mecca," as we called North Beach, to sit with Ernest and talk for hours while the juke box played Dizzy Gillespie and Horace Silver and Bird in the background. (I still call Nights in Tunisia "the Bagel Shop Song.") It was heaven. I could be in the picture above, but it's hard to tell. Do you see a young blonde in jeans and a navy surplus sweater up there? The sunlight is pouring in so, the people are obscured by the light. Funny, because I remember the bagel shop as always being a little dark.

One thing they never served there was bagels. It was a delicious irony. The only bagel in the place hung from the cord of the ceiling fixture -- at least it did until Pope Pius XII died. The night of the pope's death, the irrepressible poet, Bob Kaufman, jumped up on a table and took the thing down. He declared himself the first Jewish pope and proceeded to do a communion service using the bagel (staler than Jay Leno's jokes) as the bread. It was an event for the ages. We laughed and shouted and cheered.

If you have not read Kaufman's poetry, you have missed something. After the evening of papish fun at the Bagel Shop, we went to a party at the apartment he shared with his wife, Eileen. He showed me a poem he had written. I was awestruck -- I had not seen his work before and had thought of him as a sort of clownish North Beach character. He was clearly a master. I have read that in France, he is known as the American Rimbaud. In my opinion, he is the best poet of the entire "Beat" era, including a lot of better known names -- Ginzburg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Patchen... Re-reading some of his stuff today I had the same amazed response I did when I read the first one.

A notorious San Francisco psychiatrist named Francis Rigney decided to "study the beatniks." He came to the Bagel Shop every night for a while to pursue this. His findings sounded as if he had been studying a new species of insects. I particularly loved his comment, "The women were found to be grossly dissocial or subtly hostile. " He neglected to mention he was making overt passes at them and was more than twice their age. I clearly remember being interviewed by him and feeling distinctly hostile and "dissocial." Creeped-out fits, too. First, I was underage and he insisted on buying me a beer. The police were forever looking for a pretext to arrest any and all of us, and I had no desire to ever be arrested for any reason (so far, so good...), but least of all for drinking beer, which I didn't even like. Since my parents had been in the bar business, I also knew the Bagel Shop could lose their liquor license for serving alcohol to a minor. I hid the stupid thing under the table. I wonder what he made of that? He made me so uncomfortable, I couldn't get away from him fast enough. I think I had a lot of company, from his "findings."

The Co-existence Bagel Shop closed forever in 1960. Long live the Bagel Shop. To get the full effect, dim the lights and have Dizzy Gillespie's Night in Tunisia playing quietly in the background. That's my school song.

Photo credit: Jerry Stoll, who chronicled it all.

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