The basement of City Lights in the early 60s; photo taken by Shigeyoshi Murao, the manager at the time:
At the back of the store one day, Lawrence Ferlinghetti discovered a loose plywood sheet. When he pounded on it, it fell down and revealed a dark cellar that a Chinese electrician used as storage space. This was also the lair of Chinatown’s ceremonial dragon, brought out every year for the Chinese New Year Parade. Ferlinghetti’s poem “The Great Chinese Dragon” tells the tale of the dragon “creeping out of an Adler Alley cellar like a worm out of a hole sometime during the second week in February every year when it sorties out of hibernation in its Chinese storeroom pushed from behind by a band of forty-three Chinese electricians and technicians who stuff its peristaltic accordion-body up thru a sidewalk delivery entrance.”
Ferlinghetti also discovered signs painted on the walls by a Christian sect that had used the basement for prayer meetings, and on the walls today you can still see fragments of them: “Remember Lot’s Wife,” “Born in Sin and Shapen in Niquity,” “I and My Father Are One,” and “I Am the Door.” Ferlinghetti made a deal with the landlord, put in a staircase, persuaded the Chinese Dragon to leave, and expanded the store into the basement.
Along the stairway to the basement, City Lights installed a letter rack where itinerants could get their mail, as in some French literary cafés. A large bulletin board served as the literary communications center for all of North Beach, with many offers to share rides, apartments, and romance. The basement of the store is what old-timers remember best. They could sit and read without being hassled to buy anything. Here, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and other writers read, rapped, and hung out. Neal was often seen roaring up to the store in his jalopy and rushing down here to pick up the latest Edgar Cayce title. Ferlinghetti’s “office” was a small room under the stairway (now a storeroom). It was there that Ferlinghetti told Kerouac that his favorite cat had died back home. Not exactly a historic occasion, but Jack recorded his sadness in his most introspective book, Big Sur.
The basement today:
More information can be found in The Beat Generation in San Francisco by Bill Morgan.
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