by Christopher Buck
San Francisco’s Urban Forester
(for reference only)
Like many, my first introduction to the Beats came during college. For me, I was a Connecticut Yankee at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, and our small gang watched What Happened to Kerouac? at the Bijou Theater.
I grew up in a town with writing in its blood, in its very history. Missouri can celebrate Samuel Clemens’ birthplace, but where did Mark Twain choose to settle and build a home with modern plumbing? Who wrote the Webster’s Dictionary? Noah Webster! Poetry? Where did Wallace Stevens live and work? And how about Kerouac? When that young man first struck out in the world, everyone forgets that he didn’t just go straight to the cafeteria at Times Square. He went straight to Hartford, CT, got himself a Hartford Public Library Card, and wrote “…Hartford After Work….” atop an Underwood, and to this day I still don’t know why more people don’t point to that brief, direct evidence of what was to come. I was born down the street from where Jack first tried making it on his own. And Thoreau? He lurked each year, throughout our public-school curriculum.
When we left the Bijou Theater that night, we were quiet and humbled. When a poet like Corso exclaims someone’s brilliance, you listen. We started listing off how many of those in that documentary were now dead. Were any still alive? One by one they dropped, as we listed them off circa our internet-less collective memories of the early 1990s, and then we came to the name, to the words Ferlinghetti and City Lights. Friends sensed my deep sympathies with the Beats. One of those with me that night was Josh Ferris. Sensing my gloom, he tried to lift me back up. “Hey Buck, I hear Ferlinghetti is still alive, and City Lights is still doing its thing.” It was a school night, we were serious about our studies, we all departed and dreamed our dreams.
I knew I was not ready to write for real yet. But Josh knew, and ten years later he was named among the “40 under 40” by The New Yorker. The ‘Real Work’ of Gary Snyder appealed to me, as did his poetry, and I had some uncles who dropped breadcrumbs along the way, so I stuffed my English degree in the chipper (figuratively) and chose trees as my guide star.
After living in New York City for a few years with my hometown gal, I came to San Francisco for Ferlinghetti and the redwoods. Neither have disappointed. There were some lonely early years, prowling the Streets of San Francisco, with my young lover, now my wife, as I questioned my path at every step, but I never stopped reading, never stopped dreaming. She’s found me every job I have ever had – “this is you,” “you got this,” “they wrote this job description with you in mind” have been her constant confidences. And the trees, the street trees have been my muse. I now help oversee all the trees and plants within the streets of San Francisco. Trees in parks are kind of bougie, but urban street trees: the proletariats!
Each year as part of Arbor Day, San Francisco honors a local or international figure with the planting of an honorary, signature street tree. We planted a cork oak for Rosa Parks on Van Ness, a native oak for Nelson Mandela in the Western Addition, for Wangari Maathai an African sumac, and a ginkgo for local powerhouse Rose Pak in Chinatown. Every few years I made my case for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but each year with the passing of another local legend I knew I’d have to wait another year.
With Mr. Ferlinghetti well into his late 90s, I didn’t just sense that we’d never get a chance to plant that mythic tree together, I lamented the fact. I felt powerless. The opportunities were slipping away. So I did the only sensible thing the San Francisco Urban Forester (City Arborist) could do: I wrote a poem. I titled it “Open Poem to Lawrence Ferlinghetti” and just writing those words gave me wings. I went soaring into my own origin story and the chorus throughout was “who is the most important person still living, in the mind of America, in the mind of the Urban Forester, in the Coney Island of the Mind, A Far Rockaway of the Heart?” When I reached the end of the poem I knew I needed a hook, something pretty grandiose so I wrote “even if we never get to plant that mythic tree, in my mind, together, I vow to organize an annual literary pilgrimage in your honor, on March 24th.” I wrote this in January 2017, as we approached another Arbor Day.
True to my “Open Poem” on March 24th, 2017, I rose before the sun to kick-off Ferlinghetti Day, the annual literary walkabout honoring Ferlinghetti. You can’t just show up in North Beach, I needed a starting point across the City somewhere. Mr. Ferlinghetti once lived at 706 Wisconsin in Potrero Hill, where he raised his family with his wife Selden Kirby-Smith, for many years. When does the sunrise start in San Francisco every March 24th? Yes: 7:06 A.M.
It’s a 5.5 mile walk to North Beach from Potrero Hill and at the end of a long day taking photos, reading poems, documenting the process, and keeping dry under my large umbrella, the thought occurred to me that if I really wanted to honor Lawrence, I should read his San Francisco Poems (SF Poet Laureate Series) out loud, on the sidewalk, outside City Lights. That’s what I was doing in the rain, for 30 minutes before the UPS driver pulled up and started bringing boxes of books into City Lights. I gave the poor man a head nod and kept reading. It was another 20 minutes when hope exited the bookshop. A man began filming me with his phone. I was reading a sizable, phallic poem “The Great Chinese Dragon” but at least someone was finally interested. It was a rainy, weekday afternoon, just another person reading poetry on the Streets of San Francisco, but this man, whomever he was, knew what I was up to.
When I finished the poem, a good 10 minutes later, I met the stylish man with the fedora, Mauro Aprile Zanetti. He was elated to see what I was doing out there, and his eyes bulged out even further when I declared it Ferlinghetti Day and explained that I had risen with the dawn and started out from the old family house across town. After capturing me making some impromptu off the cuff declarations about being the City’s Urban Forester (for reference only) and declaring it Ferlinghetti Day, he told me where he was off to: on his way to say happy birthday to the honoree! It turns out Mauro was Lawrence’s personal assistant-secretary. I teared up and we exchanged emails.
The next day I received a message from Mauro, and even a photo, of him showing Lawrence the video of me reading the poems and declaring it Ferlinghetti Day, with a note that “Lawrence was smiling ear to ear at your gesture and kindness.” It got even more exciting too, when I forwarded my Open Poem to Mauro, which he had printed out and brought with him to Lawrence’s apartment, and a week later he told me that it was now resting beneath Lawrence’s Merlin magnifier (google that for the visual – !).
Over the next year I gave Mauro plenty of space and when our Mayor passed away unexpectedly in December, I got the honor of trying to help find the location for his signature tree. That year I doubled my attendance on FerlinghettiDay when a friend joined me for lunch at Caffe Trieste. But the rest of the year was quiet, and in January of 2019, Mauro and I literally sent identical emails to each other like gleeful school kids, stating to each other that this was Lawrence’s year: he was turning 100! Mauro had already approached the Mayor’s office, I sent an email after hours, from my personal email, to our Director and others within Public Works, making my respectful pitch. It took a month, but in February, 2019 I got word that I could begin scouting North Beach for potential planting sites, for the Signature tree honoring Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Planting a tree on Columbus Ave. in front of City Lights was out, because the basement of City Lights extends underneath the sidewalk. From downstairs in the kids’ books section, you can hear people walking above you! Outside you can see those faded, opaque circles, to warn people not to excavate or punch through the ceiling to City Lights. That’s why that side of Columbus, on that block, has never had street trees planted. I knew where the former location of the publishing office to City Lights was located, on Grant at Filbert, with that Poets Corner sculpture of a hand cemented into the concrete, but ruled out that site due to utility conflicts.
My original idea was to plant a tree on Evans Ave, the main road leading into the Hunters Point Shipyard where he had his painting studio, which is also near the neighborhood where I live, but we had already honored Espanola Jackson on Evans.
I swung by the alley named for Lawrence, Via Ferlinghetti, off of Union St, in view of Washington Square Park. Across from that little alley, forming a T-intersection, there was plenty of room for a tree in the sidewalk and the storefront business located there: Gelato Classico! I held up my arms like I was greeting the sun – just like the figure in the City Lights logo: this is the space. For extra credit, Libreria Pino was located just up the block.
Before I could exclaim that I had found the site, I needed to keep looking and provide a few other contending sites, but I knew I had found the site. I checked everywhere, but this was the one.
On the Sunday of President’s Day Weekend, in February 2019, my wife was on a business trip back in NYC and I was flying solo with our 7-year-old daughter. For 25 years I had never wanted to know where Lawrence lived in North Beach. Could no mysteries still exist in this world? Now Mauro’s words put me on edge: “just stay away from his apartment.” We had already agreed on planting an olive tree, a native of the Mediterranean.
That day, Sunday, February 17th, 2019 I texted a friend and said I was ready. He texted back, thinking I was bluffing. I texted back that I got the green light to plant the tree. That afternoon my daughter and I walked up the North Beach street and we stood on his front stoop to his apartment building. It was nowhere near the proposed planting site. Now it was time to just take in the moment. I snapped some photos of my daughter sitting on the stoop, as she spaced out. This was good, life had come full circle. I was finally going to plant a tree to honor an icon.
It was while backing up to get more of the building in the shot when I noticed that there was an empty tree basin, towards the curb. Meaning, there was an area cut open in the sidewalk, but there was no tree there. The location suddenly started looking familiar to me. We had recently removed a ficus tree at this location, maybe the year before! I was absolutely horror struck, realizing that we had cut down the tree in front of his place a year ago, visualizing Mr. Ferlinghetti up there in his 2nd floor bay window and having to see his own street tree chopped down. No more wind in the leaves, no bird song in the canopy. I have time-stamped photos of when this moment of realization occurred. My heart was racing and I was already breaking into a sweat when I noticed a red truck for sale, parked right there at the curb. I had been thinking how it was time to get myself a used Ford Ranger, nearly 50 and still never owned a pickup truck. I read on the weekends, I didn’t do “side jobs”. I took a photo of the truck and then I stopped taking photos: Lawrence had a little pickup truck, I thought to myself. My sense of horror evaporated. I started to slowly circle the truck, from the rear towards the front, out in the street. The rear bumper stickers held promise, a Love is Love human rights campaign sticker was certainly on message, but it was a random license plate number, nothing shouted Ferlinghetti or City Lights other than my brain! I had written in my “Open Poem” about a few random times I saw him in public, coming across him “at a four-way stop, you in your well-worn truck, me with my mouth agape”. No doubt this was the same truck. Then I walked to the front of the vehicle, still in the road, and on the lower corner of the windshield were two Hunters Point Shipyard parking passes. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s truck was for sale.
“We have to go honey,” I said as I whisked my daughter off the front steps. I wasn’t about to call the number out front, in case they had already committed to selling it to someone else, but just hadn’t gotten around to removing the two For Sale signs, I didn’t want the police to be called about “a man out front crying on the sidewalk next to an empty tree basin.”
Once we were around the corner and a block away, I didn’t think twice and dialed the number. “It’s already sold” I told myself, to try to adjust expectations. The person who answered sounded just like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and I thought wow he sounds great for being one month shy of his 100th birthday. I held my breath and managed to squeak out “saw the For Sale sign on a red Ford Ranger” and “still for sale?” and the voice on the other end was affirming, encouraging “yeah, it’s my Dad’s and he’s about to turn 100” and that’s how I met Lorenzo, the son. Yes, the truck is still for sale, are you interested? The great classic tradition of throwing a For Sale sign out on a car, a house, a boat, on anything. A universal language. Played out since the beginning of time.
I learned that the signs had only gone up the afternoon before, about 24 hrs before, which is a lifetime in a dense city. But the neighbors probably didn’t want to be “that person” who buys it? And when you’ve written quite a bit about San Francisco’s increasing autogeddon, about auto-first policies that put people 2nd to the machine, you can’t make too big a deal when it comes time to sell your own wheels. Lorenzo was done, tapped-out by having to find a place to park his own car. In North Beach, it can take an hour to find a free parking space. Perhaps even City Lights was starting to drop hints, that it might be time…
Ten minutes later I was shaking hands with Lorenzo back out on the same sidewalk we had just fled, explaining that I was the City’s Urban Forester by day, having learned just a week before, that Lorenzo was also an arborist. So good, are some icons, literary heroes, artists, at making us feel like we’re the center of their universe, never to be shared with others. How many times we’ve heard the stories of people writing to Lawrence when they were in college, or at any point in their lives, and he’d say, “well come visit us at City Lights and say hello!” And the people would come visit, and he would come out and say hello and thank them.
I quickly explained why we happened to be outside his Dad’s apartment, making sure we didn’t plant a tree near his place. That my people were in touch with Mauro. This was now my opportunity to present the proposed location of the tree to be planted as part of arbor week festivities the next month. Lorenzo was quickly on board, “across from the alley on Union, that sounds like a perfect spot.” While we discussed the particulars of his Dad’s truck, I counted three times that Lorenzo invited me to come up to meet his Dad, each time I politely refused the gesture to say hello. “Oh, no. I couldn’t.” As much as I wanted to, I was with my daughter, on my best behavior. I couldn’t even visualize it. Yet, why the hell was I counting? After the 4th invitation during our conversation out on the sidewalk, to come up to meet his Dad, something about Lorenzo’s sincerity finally reached me and I turned to my daughter and said “honey, it would be rude and even impolite, to turn down a 4th heartfelt invitation” for a quick visit with San Francisco’s first family.
I couldn’t believe it, we were now walking back towards the steps where we were just 20 minutes before, but the earth’s mantle had slipped-shifted, like walking through a wall at Station 9-3/4 to catch the Hogwarts Express, now this time we kept going up those steps, through a door and up the stairs that start just beyond the front vestibule. Single flight of old wood stairs. Before entering, I turned to my daughter and smiled “we’re going to meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.” Remember everything, is what I told myself.
Upstairs in the hallway Lorenzo introduced us to his girlfriend Eunice and went into his Dad’s front room to ask him to say a quick hello to the people interested in the truck. Lorenzo quickly rejoined us and I tried to not stare towards the doorway to await his appearance.
A moment later Mr. Ferlinghetti walked out of his room, with no cane, and asked if I wanted to take the truck for a spin. After shaking hands, about the only intelligent thing I could think to say was “what’s the matter, the Bancroft Library doesn’t have room for a truck?!” and that broke the ice and we were off and running. A few minutes later there were feet on the stairs and Mauro was bounding up and we said a round of hellos and I told them all there in the hallway “I feel like Charlie finding the golden ticket in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and it was just five minutes of great vibes all around. I apologized for removing the tree out front and explained that we would never remove a street tree unless there was a very compelling reason to do so (in very poor condition and/or a public safety concern) and said it looked like now we needed to plant two trees.
Eunice asked us if we wanted to join them in the kitchen for some baked goods they were getting out of the oven and at first I thought she was talking to Lawrence, not to me and my daughter. When I realized she was inviting us to join them in the kitchen, at that point, everything was finally starting to catch up to me and it was time to thank everyone and exit this slice of Americana — a Sunday afternoon at the Ferlinghetti apartment, in North Beach USA.
The next five days were the longest of my life. Several times I had to tell myself that if the sale didn’t go through, that stories for a lifetime had already taken place. My wife was in total support of buying a 1995 Ford Ranger. Lorenzo had to bring his Dad to a few appointments that week, one or two had to be rescheduled. We exchanged messages to each other working out times that might work. I reminded myself multiple times, we’d still be planting the tree, the original goal of all this.
That week was also the first week I learned what was happening in Lawrence’s life: he was determined to live out his years at home, Lorenzo and his girlfriend Eunice Mathis had moved in full-time, to quarterback his healthcare needs, which even for a healthy 99-year-old, were still considerable. I also learned that until very recently, Lorenzo even took his Dad to some of those appointments in the truck.
My big brother Rob is the car guy. My Dad, a retired manager of an autobody. I was the hippie tree guy, not too mechanically inclined, beyond working with trees, my hands soft from white collar tree management the last 15 years. Their questions to me that week had to do with mileage and blue book value. “Throw the blue book out the window, this is a collectible,” I implored. But I cherished every minute of our banter. I was proud to be able to talk shop with them.
At the end of a Friday, on February 22, 2019, I met Lorenzo out front again. This time my wife had insisted that I take the car for a short test drive, so that I didn’t look like a chump. The truck is a stick shift, with no power steering. I was practically trembling when I started it up. A few minutes later I was up on Hyde St. in Russian Hill, tailing a cable car and shooting video. Then I realized: take Lombard, the crooked street. Slowly creeping down Lombard St. I realized what no power steering meant. Holy cow it is tough to steer! I guess he has no shoulder issues if he drove that for almost 25 years. I was back in under 10 minutes.
When we were wrapping up our transaction a neighbor from across the street was taking photos. It was a real neighborhood moment. His wife would go on to write a heartfelt article in the Semaphore, the local newsletter of San Francisco’s oldest neighborhood association: The Telegraph Hill Dwellers. I gave Lorenzo my first ever Ferlinghetti Day jacket, white letters painted on the back with white-out, on a sporty blue & white jacket I got for 10 bucks at a Goodwill. I think I even gave him some print-outs of the @Ferlinghetti_Day IG account, just to give him some visuals behind my Ferlinghetti Day efforts. He was gracious, letting me be the fan, and I wanted to let them both know they wouldn’t regret throwing that For Sale sign out on the car – that I would mind my own business and stand clear. Plus I’d likely meet up with Lorenzo and Mauro again for the tree planting in a few weeks.
It wasn’t until I was the proud new owner of the little red truck, driving back up Columbus towards City Lights, that I realized there was no radio. The night before I had imagined taking a photo of the radio dial to see if it was set on KPFA or the jazz channel. But there was a huge, rectangular black cover where a radio should have been located. The void. I’ve never even been in a car before that didn’t at least have a radio. There weren’t even any speakers. And there was no AC, just a fan. Talk about stripped down! It was perfect. When you are Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 75, you listen to your own muse.
The question about the radio I didn’t bother to ask Lorenzo about for another year. Was it because he got tired of break ins or was it simply having heard enough? I parked in the red zone in front of City Lights and ran across the street to take a photo. Earlier when we made the transaction I had noticed that the truck had been under both Lawrence’s name and doing business as (DBA) City Lights. He had to sign it in three places to just my one signature. That I would ever complete a transaction in my life that required him to sign three times was beyond me and remains beyond my comprehension. I made color scans before I surrendered it to the DMV.
When I texted Josh Ferris, who has a pick-up truck, I couldn’t send him a photo because he’s still on a flip phone. “I bought Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s pickup truck.” His reply: “Of course you did.” Josh takes the high road and doesn’t touch social media: “Where does that leave the humanities major?” He makes a great point.
When we planted that mythic tree together during Arbor Week in March, 2019, Lorenzo and Mauro attended on behalf of Lawrence and the family. It was a great sunny weekday morning in North Beach in front of the gelato place and my wife and brother even joined me, to witness my greatest work achievement in 20 years working in San Francisco, honoring an internationally beloved icon, a favorite local, with an olive tree. Not with a key to the city, but with a tree to the city. During their remarks Mauro relayed the story about coming across me reading poetry in the rain outside City Lights (“who is this crazy man, I thought?!”) and Lorenzo thanked me personally, as well. But the real star was Lawrence, and my colleagues at Public Works, top to bottom, were so grateful that we were honoring Mr. Ferlinghetti in this way.
A week later, we planted another olive tree right outside Lawrence’s apartment, to replace the one we had removed the year before. It was two days before he turned 100. He had special visitors coming and going, and I mostly kept my head down but I did notice filmmakers Giada Diano and Elisa Polimeni, waiting to go inside, so I called over and said hello. Twenty minutes later, Lorenzo came outside and said there was somebody who wanted to thank us, personally. I turned back to that now familiar doorway, and Lawrence stood at the helm, nodding his head in appreciation for our efforts. We each took turns shaking his hand (I had two colleagues w/me) and out of the corner of my left eye I saw Elisa snap a photo. They texted it to me a few days later. In the photo I’m wearing my City vest, and my City Lights cap.
March, 2019 was the most magical month I have ever experienced in San Francisco. This is what Hunter S. Thompson was referring to, I thought, more than once, thinking of that passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where he describes something palpable happening in San Francisco at the time he wrote that classic. There was a month-long build up to the big century mark. Events across the City, big and small in scope. Rena Bransten gallery at 1275 Minnesota St. in the Dogpatch had an exhibit of his paintings “Lawrence Ferlinghetti: 100 Years Without a Net”; Giada Diano and Elisa Polimeni premiered their documentary Lawrence: A Lifetime in Poetry at the Canessa Gallery, above the former site of the Black Cat Café; the Italian Cultural Institute hosted an exhibit “Lawrence d’Italia: Ferlinghetti, FLUXUS poetry in Italy”, a photo exhibit by Walter Pescara, curated by Mauro Aprile Zanetti. On the big day The Conspiracy of Beards serenaded Lawrence outside his apartment with “Take me out to the Ball Game” and sang Happy Birthday. Video of him shot by Mauro, walking to the window with Elaine Katzenberger of City Lights, and waving a long red scarf, a gift from Mauro, to match the scarf of fellow poet Jack Hirschman. Dressed in all white, waving from the window, papal overtones, coyote trickster undercurrents. City Lights and the Beat Museum had great line-ups all month and Christopher Felver appeared at the Roxie Theater in the Mission to screen an expanded version of Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder. The earliest event that day though, started at sunrise, at 7:06 A.M. across from 706 Wisconsin St. in Potrero Hill, a committed low-key group of 15 people, and we grew more boisterous as the rest of Sunday sleepers in the City stirred beneath their sheets. We made it to Kerouac Alley and City Lights in time to hear The Conspiracy of Beards sing “Hallelujah”, bringing us all to tears. We taped poems from friends across the country on the walls of the alley, from as far away as Italy.
Later in the afternoon Lorenzo was walking from his Dad’s place to City Lights to thank the folks attending events there all day and saw our group at the entrance to Via Ferlinghetti, across the street from the olive tree. I happened to be up on the step stool, doing my thing. I didn’t see him, but the next day he texted me. “I saw you on the way to CL. You were belting out Dad’s ‘Populist Manifestos’. You were great, sorry we couldn’t stay!”
Not to be overshadowed by all the pomp & circumstance for hitting the century mark, with the help of Mauro Aprile Zanetti and publisher Sterling Lord, Doubleday published Ferlinghetti’s latest novel ‘Little Boy’, released the week he turned 100. “Not his last novel,” Mauro advised, “just his latest.”
A month or so later, with all the excitement behind us, Lorenzo and I settled into a steady, regular exchange of texts. One time he sent me a photo of a collage his Mom had made for the whole family, around the time of the divorce, that showed all these amazing photos that a growing family accumulates over time. We picked that apart visually, all week, like a diagram of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. Another time I sent him some video stills from the 1965 USA Poetry film by poet and filmmaker, Richard O. Moore (WNET television series) of his Dad in the Wisconsin St. house and Lorenzo texted back “that became my bedroom!” and started naming the church in the foreground, talking about the incredible view down to the City’s skyline. My reply was “what us parents give up for our kids!”
My wife and I cared for her mom for years. The month we bought our own home here in Bayview Hunters Point, she took a fall, back in Connecticut. We didn’t hesitate and asked her to “come for a visit” but didn’t ask her to book a return flight. We cared for her in our home, and finally had to get her to a care facility for her final years of life. I had navigated it all with my wife, even managing to get her mom to Lawrence’s rare reading in person at City Lights for “Poetry As Insurgent Art”. We’re captured there together in Christopher Felver’s documentary – her walker got us special treatment, we sat just a few feet away from Lawrence in that blue button-down shirt that still couldn’t match that blue of his eyes.
I recognized what Lorenzo was going through. We went months at a time when the discussions were about anything but caring for a parent. But one day I got a real surprise. A texted photo of Lorenzo and Eunice with Lawrence, on the bench in front of the gelato place, at the olive tree. “Just checking-in on the tree and getting some ice cream.” It was August 7, 2019. Passing tourists had asked them to take their photo, so Lorenzo asked them to take theirs, seated there on the bench. Maybe someday they’ll learn who this power trio was!
I learned way back in college to never refer to Lawrence as a Beat, but looking at this photo now? Let’s just say I’m going to insist on my right to freedom of expression: he’s hella Beat! #lifegoals
During the year leading up to the global pandemic, I was invited to visit the apartment a few times. They still stand out crystal clear in my memory. On my way over one time (not in the truck), I got a bonus text stating that Nancy Peters was also visiting. I almost drove off the road! Such literary history! She couldn’t have been any kinder and funny too: “Lawrence drove that truck like a boat!” imitating him with physical gestures. I tried to keep from running my mouth and she was approachable, relaxed, serene. Lawrence even called out, from the other room, not wanting to miss out on what all the laughter was about. Talk about surreal.
I made a final visit in late February, 2020, as very real concerns about the virus were on every news cycle. There was a sense of huge, impending changes afoot in San Francisco. My wife even cautioned me – please don’t be that guy, and she didn’t need to complete the sentence (that gives Lawrence the virus). But the first wave was still weeks away, no cases yet in SF. I hung out with Lorenzo in the kitchen, then we hung out in his Dad’s room at the window, over the street. They let me sit in the chair of honor kind of near the side of the bed, towards the foot of the bed. Lorenzo re-introduced us, “you remember Chris, the guy who bought your truck and planted the trees, the City’s forester?”
For that visit, sensing the coming pandemic and lockdown, I had finally prepared one question, an apology, and a confession. Part of me felt like an ass, for putting such thought into it, but if my family and friends asked me “what we talked about” and I had no story to tell, that just wouldn’t do. I figured it would be a great day if I got any one of those three out of my mouth.
It’s all fun and games until you’re sitting next to the maestro, in a chair next to his bed. I was content just sitting there with him. No words. I was incredibly aware of my own breathing, not just his. I had read years ago that he would become a bit testy if an interviewer covered ploughed ground. The next time he woke and sat up, I asked if when he purchased 706 Wisconsin St., if he knew that Kenneth Rexroth once lived two doors down at 690 Wisconsin St? That was my big question, because he was likely the only one who could answer that question, and I wanted to ask a question that only he could answer. I was about to repeat the question, even started leaning in to repeat it louder when he shot out a loud, forceful reply: “I had no idea!” he said in total wonder, with even a touch of surprise in his voice.
With such a wide birth I quickly followed that up with my apology.
“I’m sorry we removed your tree” I said, glancing towards his window where the canopy would have been visible, and quickly added “and I’m sorry for taking your wheels.”
He waved his hand, as if in forgiveness, dismissing my sins. In all earnestness, and to put me at ease, he asked “how’s the truck?”
And here I saw the 3rd pitch right over the plate, and the words “sock it to him Tito!” (Lorenzo remembers him working that one out while they were at Candlestick together) came to mind but I kept my eye on the fastball and didn’t blink. “Well, at first, the truck, it felt largely like an intellectual affair,” projecting my voice to make sure he could hear. “But now, well, it’s just a pleasure to drive.” And then, leaning forward on the edge of my chair, furtive, conspiratorial, intimate, I came clean, “It kind of feels like we’re sharing a lover…” And to learn how Mr. Ferlinghetti reacted to this confession, you’ll need to join us one of these years in his honor, on the Annual Literary Walkabout.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away about a year later, at 9:45 P.M. on Monday, February 22nd, 2021, two years to the day that I bought his little red truck. I received a text the next morning from Lorenzo, shortly before the news hit the wires. We shared just a few sentences together. I sent a quick note to my boss that I would be out sick the rest of the day, and sat on the couch, thinking about the real story the last two years, not about a tree or a truck, or even an annual event. I just thought of Lorenzo. About a son, caring for his father.
After some time I texted my wife, whom was working in another part of the house, and I called my own Dad. He had already heard the news. “I heard about your guy” with tenderness in his voice, before I could even try to say the words. We talked for a while together, another son, cherishing time with his own Dad.
I exchanged texts with friends and family throughout the day, just processing this San Francisco moment, this international development. There is no better feeling than having a best friend in town visiting. The City just seems so much more alive with possibility during those times. For me, it’s every time Chip Lyons comes to town with his family. It was like that living in the City with Lawrence Ferlinghetti out there, with City Lights publishing new voices, remaining a beacon. My golden ticket wasn’t the truck, or even the trees, although over time the trees will hold their own, but it was an inside look, a snapshot of a family and a community, caring for its own. Of friendships found in unexpected places.
Mauro deserves the same praise I’m directing at Lorenzo, and it will be put into poem someday. But just like at the close of Ulysses by Joyce, maybe it’s the strong woman at the end who everyone turns to, in this case, to Eunice Mathis, and what she did to keep it about a father and a son. And Elaine Katzenberger, who had the responsibility of helming SS City Lights during a global pandemic, crushing fundraising goals with dignity and respect, and reporting back to its retired Captain, and Nancy Peters, who is legend, and Giada Diano and Elisa Polimeni for their passion from Italy.
For two years we lived with the truck in our basement/garage in our home near the corner of 3rd and Palou in the heart of Bayview Hunters Point. When I took those keys I knew there was one final assignment I would be called upon to perform, although it didn’t occur to me for a few months into my family’s stewardship of Little Red. In the afternoon I heard a rumor about a vigil at 7pm. It was time to act. From my Ferlinghetti section of my bookcase I grabbed about 10 volumes, and two other items, and backed Little Red out of the garage. I arrived in front of City Lights three hours early, and slowly pulled up to Kerouac Alley. I placed the books across the dashboard, pulled out my final two items: a Greek Fisherman’s cap placed on the dashboard, and some old-school, large, WW-II era binoculars and placed them on top of the cap, facing forward. I walked away to stay out of the scene and called in a big order of white flowers. The Chinatown florist walked them over herself, where we met outside of City Lights, at the truck. I placed a bunch of the flowers on the hood and the rest at the foundation of City Lights, and again, faded into the distance.
The annual literary walkabout will not occur again this year due to the pandemic, but you are invited to join Chris and other Ferlinghetti Day participants from across the world from 6am-12:55pm on March 24, 2021 for the Little Boy Relay. Open reading slots still available. More details…
By day, Chris Buck is the Urban Forester for San Francisco Public Works, his employer for the last 15 years. Prior to becoming a civil servant and local urban tree guru, Chris was the Education Coordinator for local tree-planting non-profit Friends of the Urban Forest where he ran their youth employment program for the lowest of low income youth in San Francisco. He also organized their walking Tree Tours. He grew up in Connecticut, received his B.A. in English from the University of Iowa in ’94 and since that time he and his wife, hometown gal Sarah Stangle, have lived in the East Village & Brooklyn, and made the move to San Francisco in 1996. They signed each other’s 8th grade yearbooks. They have a 10 year old-daughter. By night, he remains committed to the written word.