City Lights Bookstore shone through the fog and darkness of the San Francisco night, a beacon that made me think I was dreaming.
That was my first of several visits to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's fabled bookstore in the city's North Beach neighborhood. Each time, I felt a special sense of reverence and grandeur, as if at a World Heritage site.
Ferlinghetti, who co-founded the bookstore in 1953 as a mecca of free expression, died Monday at 101 at his home in San Francisco. His City Lights Publishing Co. gave the world "Howl" and other revolutionary literary works.
The cause of Ferlinghetti's death was interstitial lung disease, a scarring of the lungs, rather than Covid. But Ferlinghetti's the latest exemplar of American freedom and creative spirit lost during the pandemic. The covid era has brought a devastating toll on American culture.
Associated with the Beat generation, although Ferlinghetti called himself the last of the generation of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," after Ginsberg's electric reading of the poem at San Francisco's Six Gallery in October 1955.
Ferlinghetti's City Lights Publishing won a court case upholding "Howl's" literary value, a landmark for freedom of expression.
An acclaimed poet, novelist, travel writer and painter, Ferlinghetti was a major culture figure whose death deserved front-page recognition in The New York Times rather than display at the back of the Business section.
Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island of the Mind" is one of the few poetry books to achieve best-seller status. Last spring, he published a charming memoir, "Little Boy," capping a multitude of works written during his career. He also was a tireless activist for progressive causes.
The Times' obituary, while noting his Navy service during World War II, shamefully neglected to mention that he was a veteran of D-Day. It also failed to note that he visited Nagasaki after the United States' nuclear bombing of the Japanese city at the end of World War II. Seeing Nagasaki's destruction inspired Ferlinghetti's lifelong pacifism.
When the pandemic threatened City Lights' survival last spring, supporters rallied with contributions to keep the bookstore and publishing company going.
In his later years, Ferlinghetti lamented the high-tech industry's corporate forces ravaging his beloved San Francisco. Soaring housing prices, income disparities and gentrification sapped the social freedom and economic diversity that first drew him to the city.
Ferlinghetti's gone but the soul of San Francisco will keep beating at long as City Lights shines on Columbus Avenue.