What We Were Like Then


poetry room bookstore

We agonize over breakfast choices in the towering Ferry Building food market, then walk the piers eating flaky empanadas. But it’s cold and too windy, February, so we turn inland toward North Beach. Our cousin, a local, will meet us there for lunch. He’s suggested a tour of the neighborhood’s old Beat Generation haunts.

My twin sister and I are visiting San Francisco, ostensibly to see a concert but also just to see each other, since a year ago she moved away to the suburbs of Philadelphia. For the few short days we’re here, the West Coast experiences torrential rain. LA is flooding and the Bay Area is even drizzlier than usual. Becky and I are strategic—Saturday is going to be the driest day, and we want to see everything.

But there’s time to kill before lunch, and the route to North Beach is uphill, so we set a slow pace. As we walk our conversation is quick, without pauses. Becky and I, born only four minutes apart, are always on the same train of thought, in sync no matter the topic. I’ve forgotten how reassuring it is; even our tones and cadences are perfectly matched. It’s the result of a lifetime of shared experiences, almost exactly alike up until our sophomore year, when she transferred to a different college.

Since then, hair dye and tattoos have made us less alike at first glance, and I’m rarely mistaken for her these days. But in childhood photos we’re almost indistinguishable; even I find myself flipping to the back where my mother has scrawled our names, left to right. Some sets of twins hate sharing a face, but Becky and I have always liked being identical. Maybe because it’s a physical reflection of how well matched we are, similar in personality and disposition. I don’t mind seeing many of my own qualities reflected back at me; they seem a little better on her.

The long trek up to North Beach takes us past side streets that look too steep and angular to drive. Broadway then leads through a stretch of strip clubs with classic names like Centerfolds and Penthouse. A sandwich shop called Naked Lunch is positioned here like an impeccable pun, nodding to Burroughs and winking at the red-light district. By the time we reach the intersection with Columbus, we’re tired and it’s still too early for lunch.

Our feet ache. The day before we walked seven miles in drizzle through the Mission and the Castro to Haight-Ashbury, where we sheltered from the rain in a Victorian punch bar. We are happy to wait for lunch today, but that wait needs to be in a seat. Over a lifetime of short trips together in bad weather—Edinburgh stands out as truly the wettest—we’ve perfected the art of killing time in a warm, dry café. But here ahead of us, across the street, is a small bookshop. The marquee says City Lights, and the windows below are full of Beat poetry.

The ground floor is busy and there are no chairs, so we head upstairs. Inset into the staircase wall is a display case of poetry books, and my eyes land on Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, the original lipsticky-orange and blue City Lights Pocket Poets edition. It’s a thing I could never walk past without pausing: poems he wrote on his lunch break from work at the Museum of Modern Art, strolling Midtown with a malted in hand. A book I first read when I was 19 and still writing poems myself. I take it upstairs with us.

A sign says we’re in The Poetry Room, but we only have eyes for the table and two chairs, bathed in sunlight at a window that stretches nearly from floor to ceiling. We grab a few more books from the shelves, and stretch tired feet under the table, crowded with our nearly random selections—William Carlos Williams, Sharon Olds. I can’t find the Auden I’m looking for. I know O’Hara’s Lunch Poems won’t be enough, so I pull down his hefty Collected Poems.

When I initially encountered O’Hara, it was the raw, breathless energy of his work that grabbed me. After all, I was a college sophomore—young and eager, starved for life and in love for the first time. There was much to relate to in his work, and so much to admire, and very little I could capture in my own drab verses. Now that I’ve aged a decade, with his poems in my bookshelves and suitcases, I see more of myself in his bare insecurity, that self-doubt and shy sorrow. I am not so brazen, anymore; now I write only prose. Surprised, almost doubtful, that I could be the same person who first read “Mayakovsky” in a poetry writing class: “Now I am quietly waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern.”

His poetry means so much to me, feels so intimate, that I find it difficult to talk about. Just mentioning a line makes my voice thicken with emotion; I could never read it aloud. Since I can’t say anything, I slide the heavy book to my sister again and again across the little table, open to my favorite ones: the breathiest, the funniest, the saddest. She passes me the books she’s picked from the shelves: a little-known poetry collection by Kingsley Amis (we decide no one’s missing much here), and then Maya Angelou—a favorite from when we were still in the same high school English classes.

frank o'hara poems

Having once been unruly teenagers together, we stifle our laughter at “Ave Maria,” when O’Hara begs the Mothers of America to let their teens go to the cinema for harmless sexual experiences (“oh mothers you will have made the little tykes / so happy because if nobody does pick them up in the movies / they won’t know the difference / and if somebody does it’ll be sheer gravy”). We pass the time this way—warming in the bright sun, whispering, shoppers browsing around us. I show her “Animals,” 12 short lines heavy with nostalgia but still so playful.

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

Since we’ve always been so connected, it seems strange and impossible that Becky hasn’t read and loved the lines already, or internalized them somehow from my own reading and re-reading. Here’s a part of me that developed in her absence. As kids we used to read poetry from a book of my mother’s, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, because we liked the unicorn on the cover. It’s from that, I think, that we learned to write simple, rhythmic, rhyming poems, which we did often to please our teachers. We shared an adolescent poetic reawakening, awed by our youth group leader who had once slammed at the Nuyorican. She would perform for us, a circle of ninth-graders in the church basement, framed in Sunday afternoon light slanting in from the street-level windows. My sister and I both have lines of poetry tattooed on us now, marks from our early twenties—Maya Angelou on the inside of her arm, T.S. Eliot on the top of my foot.

Our elementary school teachers recommended separate classes, maybe so Becky and I could develop differently, or more distinctly, or just so they wouldn’t get us mixed up. Every single high school boyfriend, and then the college ones too, tried to wedge us apart—some instinct for jealousy or control I never quite understood. But we’ve never drifted apart. Even when I lived across the Atlantic for years, it didn’t feel distant; geography wears on us only a little. And then when we reunite for a few days, I feel a bit more myself, or perhaps like a more external, extroverted version of myself. The catastrophe of my personality temporarily enough for the world.

It took only one year of liberal arts college to bring out the practical side of Becky’s personality, a quality that has always been the main difference between us. She transferred to study journalism, her future career, and I stayed to bury myself in books and student debt with no clear aim. In fact, it was only a few months after she left that I first read O’Hara for a class.

When it’s time to meet for lunch, we shelve our books. But I buy the sleek, palm-sized edition of Lunch Poems because I can’t resist the novelty of it—exactly the way it was first printed in 1964, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who I will later realize founded the bookstore we’re sitting in, and published many of the books around this Poetry Room. The fourth of the City Lights Pocket Poets Series was Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems. Number 19 was Lunch Poems; 28 was Kerouac.

I’m struck by how odd and amusing it feels to find O’Hara here, in North Beach, because he wasn’t a Beat poet at all. He was of the rival New York School, maybe a little too neat and arty for the Beats, too bougie with his job at the MOMA and his painter friends in the Village. Burroughs despised him. In a letter he celebrated O’Hara’s premature death, just two years after Lunch Poems, calling it a thing to put “on the credit side of the ledger.” Kerouac once drunkenly heckled O’Hara at a reading, “You’re ruining American poetry, O’Hara.” A witty response from the reader onstage: “That’s more than you ever did for it.”

We meet up with our cousin at an Italian deli just two blocks from the bookstore. Over tricolored caprese sandwiches, Becky and I learn that we’ve accidentally gutted the Beats tour by resting our feet in City Lights. No matter; the three of us wander around the area a little before settling in a dark bar, Vesuvio, where the Beats used to drink and argue.

First we take a group photo to send to our family back in Massachusetts. Then we talk about Trump and politics, Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald, and discover that none of us really reads the Beat poets anyway, or not as much as we should or think we should. Many of them didn’t even live here, in San Francisco. Ginsberg was a New Yorker, and Kerouac only slept on friends’ couches in North Beach. But they are memorialized on the walls here, in black and white photos and old newspaper articles photocopied and framed, hanging as if they were seated with us at our table on the mezzanine.

Over the second round of drinks we talk about our childish attempts at poetry and our slightly faded verse tattoos, about writing as adults—more grind, less glamor. Becky and I aren’t poets any longer, but still trade in words: a journalist and an editor. O’Hara’s freedom, his decadent, ecstatic, furious romanticism, is exactly what our work now is not. She and I are the job; O’Hara is a lunch break stroll.

The next day we go to our concert, and the day after that we trudge to the airport in the rain, catch different red-eyes back to the East Coast. When I unpack and shake out the brown paper sleeve holding my new Lunch Poems, I find it’s a special 50th anniversary reprinting with correspondence between O’Hara and Ferlinghetti at the back.

O’Hara’s hesitant letters reflect the many years it took him to send the requested poems, certain they’re not very good, slowed by his “various doubt-seasons.” When at last the manuscript was on its way, he wrote a short postcard: “Dear Lawrence, thank you for the card, I am very happy that you have stayed hungry—lunch is in the toaster and I hope you like it when it gets there very soon.” Ferlinghetti’s replies were mainly on City Lights postcards. They are very like the one slipped into the bag when I bought this edition with my sister, on that one sunny day fat with an apple in its mouth. The postcard is slightly damp, like everything in my suitcase, with California rain.


Emily Everett is managing editor of The Common. Her stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, Tin House Online, Mississippi Review, and other journals. After studying literature, language, and music at Smith College and University College London, she received her MA in British literature from Queen Mary University of London.


Top photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Scott Schiller; second photo by author.

What We Were Like Then

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