"It is a sad affair what modern America does to its poets," Jack Micheline wrote in 1968, still with decades of disenfranchisement
awaiting him. A few months ago in San Francisco, when Pardee Alley
became Jack Micheline Place, poetry gained some cultural ground.
But not much.
"It's about the most non-street
you can find in all of San Francisco," says Scott Harrison,
who owns the Abandoned Planet Bookstore, in which Micheline was
a fixture. "I think he would be annoyed. He'd say, 'What?
This is not a street!'"
Harrison's store is in the Mission
District, and he believes that anything called Jack Micheline Place
belongs there too. But North Beach has been a good neighborhood
for street poets over the years, and now it is a good neighborhood
for poet streets. In 1988, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who lives and
works there, persuaded the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to
honor a dozen local writers and artists by renaming North Beach
streets after them. The Board then likewise honored Ferlinghetti,
making him the only poet in San Francisco--and in the United States--to
have a street named for him without dying first.
As for Jack Micheline Place, it is,
as Harrison suggests, variously diminutive. It is bare and clean
and about thirty paces deep. Its only features are two boxed tree
stumps and a single lamppost, which recently bore a flyer advertising
"Fantastic House Cleaning for busy people like you." It is usually empty. One end faces the mouth of a garage, and the
other opens onto Grant Avenue, not far from the corner of Green
Street, where Micheline was once arrested for urinating on a police
The dedication day was raw and damp
from the previous evening's rain. A crowd--it wasn't
quite an audience, nor, yet, a mob--had gathered to commemorate the
poet, in ways that suited him.
"This is bullshit!" said
Reg Theriault, who lives in one of the two houses that border the
alley. Theriault, a longtime North Beacher and an author himself,
is square-shouldered and solid, with the proverbial shock of white
hair. He had a full arsenal of complaints, and swung them wildly:
"He was an unknown! He's out of New York! He's
not 'Frisco! He was a bad poet! They never consulted anybody!"
The owner of the other abutting house, Al McElroy, a trim, mustachioed
man in his mid-fifties, stood nearby. He wore a bemused look and
a baseball cap. "I came out at seven this morning and saw
people painting my house," McElroy said. "Three women,
all covered up. I said, 'Hey, what are you doing?'"
The women fled, leaving an impromptu mural on McElroy's wall.
"I opened up my heart so I could
breathe/to be alive/like comets, shooting stars," it read,
quoting Micheline and streaking from rainwater into a blue-green
"We all chip in here to keep
graffiti off," McElroy continued. "Not that I call it
graffiti;." He shrugged, looked around. "I don't
object to renaming the street. But;" Bohemians of various
ages comprised the swelling crowd. They milled and mumbled. "Anybody
want to read a poem?" someone was shouting. A dog howled.
The poet-of-the-street racket is a
tough but honorable one, as it has been since the earliest days
of poets and streets. Success is relative. Money is scarce. Canonization,
if it comes at all, is customarily posthumous, and mortality is
Micheline, who was born Harvey Silver
in 1929, had demonstrably mixed feelings about name recognition.
He used to joke, and complain, that no one would recognize him until
he was dead. His 1960 "Poet of the Streets" was composed,
he wrote, "in an alley of great souls," in New York,
and "turned the tide of my death." But when death finally
did take him, on a Bay Area subway train in 1998, he and San Francisco
belonged to each other.
"It's an insult to Pardee!"
Theriault persisted, invoking the honor of California's Republican
governor from 1903 to 1907, George C. Pardee, who had nursed San
Francisco through the devastating earthquake of 1906 and for whom
the alley had been named before. Theriault was adamant, and his
fury brought Micheline's young granddaughter to tears. Aaron
Peskin, the district's supervisor, tried to calm him. "We
can't accept this apology," Theriault snapped. "It's
already done. Fait accompli." He folded his arms and huffed.
"How come nobody's passing out little glasses of white
"Maybe we should name it after
Bush!" someone said.
"Or Schwarzenegger!" This
was pronounced with an exaggerated Austrian accent.
"Can you imagine Arnold coming
out this morning?" After a round of chortles meant to affirm
that Schwarzenegger was hardly a man of the people--let alone of
the poets--enough to attend such an event, Supervisor Matt Gonzalez
arrived, a book of poems in hand, one finger holding a chosen page.
Applause erupted and the group seemed to coalesce. Someone loudly
chastised him for being late.
Gonzalez knew the poet well. For a
time Micheline had slept on his floor. Gonzalez, formerly a legal
review editor, would see Micheline's work improperly reprinted
on flyers around town and feel inclined to make corrections. Eventually
he published "Sixty-Seven Poems for Downtrodden Saints,"
a Micheline collection (and not without a fight: Micheline had testily
complained that he hadn't written some of them, but Gonzalez
had persuaded him otherwise), one of which he read aloud to rapt
Eventually Theriault, the dissenter,
was posing for pictures, in which he would point at the new street
sign and scowl, or smile tightly. When asked for his name, he said,
"Give a plug to my book, 'How to Tell When You're
"We've done this before
in North Beach," Gonzalez later said. "Someone's
always upset about it. Jack would have loved that." Gonzalez's
people hovered tensely, reminding him about the day's other
obligations--he was running for mayor at the time--but he seemed to
want to hang around for a while. Eventually he was stuffed into
a white BMW and shuttled away. The group lingered. Later, at Café
Trieste, a venerable North Beach hangout, Supervisor Peskin was
left to ruminate on the controversy. He remembered the not-quite
graffiti. "So that's, uh, acrylic, huh?" he said.
His assistant nodded ruefully. Peskin sighed. "Maybe it's
time for me to go home and change my clothes and do something about
it," he said, not unaware that a reporter was nearby.
These days, the stains and shouting
are gone and stillness reigns in Jack Micheline Place. If you look
up the concrete steps that spill into the alley from Grant Avenue,
your eye zigzags up the outdoor staircase of another building, a
few blocks away, and on to Coit Tower, which, on clear evenings,
glows like a torch in the setting sunlight.
An open-ended, torch-lit alley seems
like a fitting memorial for Micheline, a verifiably restless soul
who even died in transit. Were any street bearing his name to exude
the grave permanence of a resting place, it would dishonor him.
"What's kind of nice about
a Jack Micheline street is that he was sort of an unknown guy,"
says Harrison. "I think all the streets around here are named
for long-dead conquerors, governors, or mistreseses." He thinks
it over. "When we get to the point of putting writers and
artists on money, THEN we'll have reached civilization!"
For the North Beach promenaders who
would notice it, Pardee in parentheses is Micheline's newest
epitaph. One can't help but think that surpassing the eminence
of a long-dead governor, even if only for a few yards, would please
him. Yet the equation Micheline was most dedicated to working out,
and which rules so many creative lives, is the one between authenticity
and obscurity. In 1990's "Sainthood is for the Birds," he wrote:
"Most people are boring/Most
poets and painters/Are not real people/Have no originality/Have
no sense of wonder/Most people kiss ass/Most people are not mad