Introduction

Letters to Zerky - Book Cover

The sixties came early to San Francisco. Beatniks were in flower and Italians too when I landed there in 1957. Alan Ginsburg’s Howl had just been published, Kerouac’s On the Road was about to be. Disquietude was in the air as America was being undermined by racial murders in the South and atrocities in a little-known far-off country known as Vietnam: that brand new enemy most of us didn’t even know was our enemy. This was the war in which we lost our innocence, the post-World War II era was over.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that part of San Francisco where Chinatown and the old Italian neighborhood collided at the corner of Grant, Columbus and Broadway Avenues, in a place called North Beach where there was no beach at all, only unruly outcroppings of Italians, poets, artists and a new species of weirdo soon to become known as “beatniks.” Somehow, the bunch of us had been attracted to this new vision of America. Here in North Beach were people who ate garlic, people who yelled at each other, people who stayed up late, late, late, talking, talking, talking, forever talking about everything on earth and under the sun. Having been raised in the cold Scandinavian reticence of North Dakota’s Great Plains, this was music to my ears.

I soon found a cheap room in the Montgomery Block Building which by then had become known as the “Monkey Block.” It had once been San Francisco’s finest office building, having survived the 1906 earthquake, but by 1957 had declined to the point where it was being rented out as sub-standard housing to monkeys, poor people, drunks, eccentrics, beatniks, and disconsolate ne’er-do-wells such as me. I remember the disembodied arm that used to live there. It had once belonged to someone no one had ever seen. Clad in a lacy white glove, it projected itself daily out into the corridor from a barely cracked door, snaking around blindly in search of the morning’s newspaper. Nobody knew the arm’s owner, who was reputed to be long dead and even more famous than Jack London, George Sterling, Frank Norris, Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, Dashiell Hammett, Mark Twain, Mary Austin, Diego Rivera, Frieda Kahlo, Sun Yat-Sen, and all the other Monkey Block luminaries reputed to have once lived or worked in the hallowed Montgomery Block Building. Even today, you can still find many of their names on a plaque in the lobby of the Transamerica Pyramid that now stands on the site of the once grand Monkey Block. Somehow, my name got overlooked.

Not far from the Monkey Block was Miss Smith’s Tearoom, a really cool place because it was always full of girls. I started hanging out there until late one night when the proprietress, Connie Smith, tore into some poor bastard whose transgression I know not. At the top of her lungs she cursed him out in a stream of foul invective that made this poor North Dakota boy cringe. When it was finally over, the guy on the next barstool explained to me that Miss Smith really was not a lady at all because her tearoom wasn’t really a tearoom at all but rather a lesbian bar.

I moved on to the Black Cat, a legendary North Beach bar where I felt more at home. I liked the place because it was always full of guys. But it turned out to be a gay bar so I just kept on going from bar to bar, looking for the right one. When I finally found it I discovered that someone had thoughtfully named it “The Place.”

My biggest step down the road to fame was the time I got my name and pictures splashed all over the front pages of the San Francisco newspapers after having been busted for being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the middle of a vice squad middle-of-the-night pot-bust operation. Down in the basement of the Hall of Justice, where I was booked by the fuzz, I told the cop I was a musician but the next day’s newspapers had me listed as “unemployed.”

San Francisco Press, January 1960

That’s me with the circles around my head. Or maybe they’re halos

One night in La Bodega, a Spanish bar across the street from Vesuvio’s bar, I was brushed by an angel on the way to her seat at the end of the bar. I’d seen her before, she came in late at night before closing time. Someone told me her name was JoAnne and that she ran The Movie, a North Beach movie theatre around the corner on the other side of the block. Well now, I could talk movies! So with a glass full of self-confidence named Louis Martini Mountain Red, I ambled on down to the end of the bar, looking cool. The angel explained that she came in late because that was when she got off work. “Movie theatres are open seven nights a week,” she told me, as if I were a total idiot. It wasn’t getting off to a good start. But then she told me she’d liked my guitar playing when I’d been fooling around a few nights earlier, and that did it. She knew who I was.

I soon discovered that she had been to Spain too, as had I in order to further my budding career as the world’s greatest flamenco guitarist, and to investigate the possibility of becoming a world famous bullfighter as well. It soon turned out that she had done more traveling than I had, and that Yugoslavia was her favorite country, even though she had once gone to Pamplona for the running of the bulls. And she had even lived in Paris on the Left Bank. Now how was a poor beatnik supposed to compete with this would-be member of the Lost Generation? But talk came easily that night and before long I found myself talking with an attractive, interesting, smart and good-hearted woman, who loved music, foreign films, and traveling. Not to mention my guitar again. A few nights later, I was the one who came in late and there she was once again at the end of the bar, waiting for me no doubt. So I bought her a drink and we talked until closing time, at which point I invited her to an upcoming party at my pad up on Greenwich Street. And wouldn’t you just know it? She showed up!

Toward the end of the party, I realized I’d been ignoring my other guests most of the night; I’d been too busy listening to JoAnne’s stories about Paris and Belgrade, and about the Hungarian Uprising and that time she went to Pamplona for the running of the bulls. Things were fast spiraling out of control. It was about time!

Jack Harvey was one of JoAnne’s many projectionists. His main job was as the head projectionist for one of San Francisco’s premiere South-of-Market porno theatres. Jack was a prince of a man who thrived on helping people. When he heard that JoAnne was thinking about getting married, he offered to drive us to Reno late one night after the theatre had closed. Besides being JoAnne’s projectionist, Jack became our chauffeur that night, and JoAnne’s maid of honor and my best man and our witness, too, when we were married in Carson City, Nevada at 4:00 AM in a cute little neon Chapel of the Bells right across the street from the Carson City Courthouse which just happened to be open twenty-four hours a day for precisely such emergencies as ours.

Sunset Wedding Chapel

At the conclusion of our five-minute ceremony, Jack stuffed us back in his car again and drove us to the nearest casino, where he treated us to a champagne breakfast, before stuffing us back into his car again for the long ride back to San Francisco. “Movie theatres are open seven nights a week,” JoAnne had to remind her newly-wedded husband. We had our honeymoon in Jack’s back seat. He swore he never once looked in the rearview mirror. The next day I came in late at the insurance company, with a grin on my face and an excuse nobody argued with me about.

When we were first married, we screwed around with rubbers for a while on the theory that it would be best to get our lives together first and then have kids in a couple of years. This half-baked theory lasted about a week, at which point we decided to screw the rubbers and figure it all out later. But as time went on and JoAnne didn’t get pregnant, her doctor told her about a newborn baby soon to be available for adoption. And then in June of 1966 we came home with the poster child for this book.

Zerky

So I plodded on at my job in the insurance company, which began looking less and less promising, probably because I was the one looking less and less promising. I got my big break when JoAnne’s janitor left and I quit my insurance job and started swamping out her movie theatre. Now I really was in show biz!

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky


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