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The Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
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The New Economics of Late Capitalism

The Street of the Poet
by Jonathan Kiefer

"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 car.
     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 abstraction.
      "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 emphatic.
     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 wine?"
     "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 attention.
      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 Tired.'"
      "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 enough"     




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