In May of 2013, I lived for three weeks in San Francisco, and the first thing I did after I got settled was go to the City Lights bookstore. The visit had been a goal of mine for many years, ever since I discovered the cultural cloud of writers, poets, subversives, troublemakers and creative anarchists that got labeled as the Beats. I crafted that goal without deeply understanding why. Years later, I had figured out it had something to do with something I was still looking for.
The San Francisco I used to dream of was Kerouac’s. Of course it was. That’s what lonely, landlocked literary kids of the Midwest have always dreamed of as long as they knew they could. The jewel at the end of the road. A haven for the artistically disaffected, a home for the misfits who thought too much, which made them want too much. They belonged in the Beats’ San Francisco. And so I wanted to find it.
I found City Lights easily enough. It’s still a gem of a bookstore. It was very quiet, which is generally a positive quality for a bookstore, but the lack of community that emerged in the years between my adolescent hopes and my adult reality echoed back to me there. Down the block, even more thematically fitting, was the Beat Museum, an appropriately ragtag collection of forgotten artifacts and ideas. Jack’s typewriter and flannel shirt. A handwritten sign on the emergency exit door warning that if the door were opened, the alarm would howl. Photos of Ferlinghetti with his bookstore. The building was not new, and damp. I was the only visitor that day.
Learning that a place you once thought was a destination is just another place, full of history, is an interesting experience. You have to juggle your expectations, sort out what formed them in the first place and decide where to go next. I realized that what I had always searched for was just a group of people who were also searching. What else were the Beats really about, if not the complete, exhilarating confusion about what you were supposed to do and where you were supposed to go? They all were searching. They all were honestly lost. Maybe being honestly lost was the only holy road there was.
I’m not the same person I was when I first set my sights on City Lights, and San Francisco isn’t the same city as it was when the bookstore first opened its doors. The group of people I tried to belong to as an adult, those in the tech industry, have contributed to shaping the city into something far different than the one Dean and Sal discovered. Something probably goes here about the greatest minds of my generation, but it’s hardly worth writing it out. Maybe it isn’t that different after all. Maybe that earlier rebellion wasn’t for me any more than this one is. Maybe I’m still on the journey to find my place. Maybe knowing where we no longer belong is the best progress we can hope for. And, maybe, the only place some of us have is among those who are also always searching for something else.