After he died, the friends of Richard Brautigan gathered at Enrico’s, Richard’s favorite San Francisco bar, to drink his spirit to rest. Some famous people were there, movie people, poets and writers, some old hippies from times gone by, one of Richard’s ex-wives, several girlfriends and a double handful of the alcoholic idealists whom Richard collected like spare change. The bartender wore an electric tie. They talked about why Richard died, and what killed him. Some blamed Ernest Hemingway, but most of them spoke of alcohol, women — and ghosts.
Now Richard was his own ghost, and he walked through Enrico’s with a glass in his hand, a little drunk already, collecting memories of himself. He was always vain that way: he could never pass a mirror or even a shop window without casting a glance at his reflection. And he was morbid as well. How could he miss his own wake? It was a party he had planned for himself, a bon voyage for a man who had never fit comfortably into life. But it was also, Richard’s ghost remembered sourly, a party five weeks late in starting. When his body lay rotting on the floor of his house in Bolinas, where were his friends then?
Richard’s ghost eavesdropped on the obligatory anecdotes, the little tales his friends traded of Richard’s fame, and his fall from fame. They talked about his generosity but also about his legendary stinginess. Some knew him as a wealthy man, others as a near beggar. Some spoke of his love of life, others remembered his longing for death. They were trying to piece his life together, yet their stories were like the shards of two different pots: How could they have contained a single man? Why did he fail? Why did he kill himself? What was his problem with love? Questions floated about, unasked and unanswered. Richard’s ghost turned away and went looking for himself at the bar.
One of the tricks of death is holding on to time. Richard slipped across the room and found himself at his usual spot beside the cigarette machine, though he was not the red-faced, middle-aged drunk with the dirty mustache that he had grown used to seeing in the mirror, but a tall, blond, clean-shaven young man, abjectly shy and full of secrets. Richard must have dropped several decades, for it was himself at twenty-one, wearing jeans and a torn T-shirt and cheap, large eyeglasses. He stuck his hands in his pockets. Not a dime.
Oh, yes, he remembered what it was like to be broke and alone. But he had forgotten, somehow, what it was like to be young, unknown, uncorrupted and full of promise. This was a moment of life he would like to relive. He walked past the crowd of mourners, through the open glass doors of Enrico’s.
Outside it was 1956.
It was a historic moment in America, but the country was not yet aware of it. Every Friday evening, at the poet Kenneth Rexroth’s, you could find Robert Creeley, Michael McClure, Philip Whelan, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan — a fleet of ambitions awaiting the tide of fame. Lenny Bruce was appearing at the hungry i. Jack Kerouac had hopped a Southern Pacific freight to San Francisco, with the unpublished manuscript for On the Road in his rucksack. Allen Ginsberg was a baggage handler at the Greyhound bus station, but he had already read Howl in public. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was running a bookstore at Broadway and Columbus called City Lights, a mecca for young writers and poets. Literature had found an angry, new American voice — a wild, jazzy sound of sex and neurosis — but it had not yet been heard beyond the coffeehouses of North Beach. They called themselves the Beat Generation.
Richard Brautigan lurked in the background, a little star struck, too shy to read his own poetry. He had a queer sense of humor and a benign feeling toward humanity that was quite out of fashion with the indignant Beats. Ginsberg called him Bunthorne, the winsome poet of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience, who believed that
You must lie upon the daisies and
discourse in novel phrases of your
complicated state of mind, The meaning doesn’t matter if
it’s only idle chatter of a
Richard had a job delivering telegrams in the financial district. Sometimes he passed a girl with long brown hair, dressed in black — the emblem of the Beats — named Ginny Alder. She would say hello as he whizzed past on his Western Union bicycle, but he never responded. Because he was so intensely blond, she decided he was Austrian and couldn’t speak English.
One day, as he walked down Broadway, Richard passed another poet named Ron Loewinsohn. Ron was eighteen then, Richard twenty-one. Richard had seen Loewinsohn around and wanted to meet him, so he handed him a poem. It read:
Cats walk on little cat feet
and fogs walk on little fog feet,
Because Ron laughed, they became friends. They were both broke. They slept in parked cars, and on cold days they met in a laundromat to talk.
They were sitting in the laundromat when Ginny walked in. That night she took Richard home with her. She didn’t know he was a virgin.