My Poet Friend

by William Taylor Jr.

It was a Wednesday night when I answered the phone and it was Linda. “Hey,” she said, “come on down to the bar! Your poet friend is here and he wants to see you!” I asked her what poet friend she was talking about and she told me a name that I couldn’t put a face to. But I was restless and had nothing else going on, so I got up from the couch, put my pants on, and headed out. I walked from my place in the Tenderloin through Chinatown and into North Beach.

I made it there in half an hour and Linda was sitting at the bar with a glass of wine. Linda was eternally sitting at the bar with a glass of wine. I wondered how she got by, where her money came from. I wondered that about most of the regulars at the bar. I wondered that about half the people in San Francisco and I wondered it about myself.

Linda greeted me with a boozy hug and then nudged the fellow sitting next to her, a small balding man hunched over a beer. “Look, I told you he’d show up,” she said to him. He looked up at me with glazed and slitted eyes.

“Hey, man,” he said, “good to see ya.”

“Likewise,” I said, having no recollection of having ever encountered him before.

“So, like how do you two know each other?” Linda asked.

“We met at the 21 Club a while back,” my poet friend said.

“That’s right,” I agreed, not remembering.

“Get yourself a drink, poet guy,” Linda said.

I ordered a whiskey ginger and sat down between Linda and my poet friend. “How’s things?” I asked him.

“I dunno, man,” he said, not looking up from his beer. “I’m confused, I guess.”

“About what?”

He sighed and shook his head. “Shit man, I dunno. Life and everything. It’s like I just don’t know where I am anymore, what I’m supposed to do. Everything made some kind of sense, up to a point, you know, and then suddenly I open my eyes and it’s not my world anymore. You know what I mean?”

“I think so,” I said.

“I mean,” he continued, still staring down into his glass, “you get taken in, you believe in the romance of everything, you think you can make some kind of home of beauty or poetry or whatever, and you imagine that if you give yourself to it sincerely enough it will ultimately carry you through. But at some point, it falls apart like everything else, and you wake up one day some middle-aged loser, drinking and babbling with a bunch of other drunken middle-aged losers, just as deluded as you are, right?”

“I guess so,” I said.

“I mean, how old are you, man?”

“Forty-five,” I said.

“Shit, man, you’re older than me. How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Don’t play stupid, man. I’ve read your poems, you’re as fucked up as I am. What keeps you going?”

“I dunno,” I said. “The act of creation?”

He sighed again. “Yeah, sure. That’s fine, up to a point. But what happens when you wake up and you just can’t find it in you to write the same goddamn poem one more time? What happens when you wake up empty with all those days behind you and all those days in front of you and you’re just some wounded animal frightened and trapped in the middle of it?”

“I guess I try not to think about it,” I said.

“But eventually you have to, don’t you?”

“I suppose.”

“Everything’s run dry,” he said. “These days I just don’t know who to read, who to listen to. Everyone’s dead or just plain spent, there’s nobody who can help me anymore. The kids, you know, the kids with their slams and their alt lit, they’re pretty and all, but their stuff barely exists. All it says is: ‘pay attention to me, I’m beautiful.’ Hey, man, you got any pills?”


“Pills, man. You got any?”

“Sorry, no,” I said.

My poet friend’s face sunk a bit. “Well, good for you, man. Stay off the pills. Shit, I gotta pee.” He downed the remainder of his beer and headed for the bathroom. I stared after him and then Linda elbowed my ribs.

“You’re friend’s a bit much,” she said.

“He’s alright,” I said.

“He’s kinda funny in the head.”

“Well sure,” I said. Linda was a poet too, and a decent one, though I hadn’t seen any new work from her in years. These days it seemed she didn’t do much other than sit at the bar and drink on any tab that wasn’t her own.

“Hey, Joe!” Linda shouted at the bartender. “One more. On Henry’s tab!”

“Is Henry cool with that?” Joe asked.

“Fuck yeah he’s cool with that. You wanna give him a call?”

“No, I don’t wanna give him a call.” Joe the bartender took Linda’s glass and refilled it with the cheap white wine. It was around then that the Revolutionary Poets of the World started to shuffle in, as they did every Wednesday night. The Revolutionary Poets were what remained of the old guard of the North Beach poetry scene. Jack Hurtzman was the most famous of the crew. He’d published countless books with City Lights over the years and was one of the few living remnants from the heyday of the North Beach poetry scene. Back in the day, he palled around with Kerouac, Ginsberg, the whole gang. Now he sat at a big round table in the middle of the bar every Wednesday night with a few others of his generation, along with a handful of younger acolytes, who were almost without exception attractive girls. The Revolutionary Poets believed the power of poetry could change the world, or at least they professed to. They pounded the table and talked about it deep into the night. Usually, they were planning some reading or event to support the cause of some political prisoner or oppressed minority. Pompous do-nothings is what Linda called them. I didn’t have strong feelings about them one way or another. They were there every Wednesday, just like the chairs and the tables and the pictures on the walls.

Linda took her wine and headed over to the Revolutionary Poets table while there was still a seat to be had. There was always someone buying a round of drinks at the Revolutionary Poets table, so it was a strategic location. Linda shouted about poetry, revolution, anarchy, and the common man with the rest of the old boys, staring down the young girls seated about her.

My poet friend returned to the bar and we drank in silence, looking at the girls and wrestling with our existential dread. The Revolutionary Poets got louder and drunker as the night went on, their table crowded with half-empty pitchers of beer as they argued about poetry and politics. Linda was standing now, swaying a bit as she drove her points home, wine sloshing out of her glass. My poet friend eventually made his way to the table as well, stealing Linda’s seat when she stood to orate. He poured himself a beer from one of the half-full pitchers that littered the table, sitting there in the midst of it all with a dazed and faraway gaze. At some point, Linda knocked over a mostly full pint of beer. It spilled across the tabletop, soaking everything upon it, trickling into the laps of the Revolutionary Poets who were too engaged in their conversations to notice.

The free drinks at The Revolutionary Poets table eventually dried up as the old poets nodded off, and my poet friend rejoined me at the bar. I asked him if he wanted anything. “Sure man,” he said, “something in a can.”

“A can?”

“Yeah, just some cheap beer in a can. Something Mexican.”

“I don’t think they have cans.”

“Well, fuck,” he sighed. “I guess the cheapest thing they got, then.” I bought him a Budweiser and we drank at the bar as Linda and whatever was left of the Revolutionary Poets went on with their business.

“What’s with those guys?” my poet friend asked.

“The poets?”

“Yeah, man, the fucking poets. They sit there and they talk and they argue about what, politics? Are they gonna save the world with their poems? Do they even write poems? I was talking to the old mustache guy, and I asked him what his deal was, and he told me they were harbingers of the revolution. With a straight face! I asked him what revolution, and he gave me some spiel about the oppressed and the poor and the hungry and stuff. I told him the poor ain’t gonna read his poems, the poor are too busy being poor. The president ain’t gonna read his poems, Hitler ain’t gonna read his poems, Kim Jong Whateverthefuck ain’t gonna read his poems, and even if the people in charge of everything read his goddamn poems, they wouldn’t stop oppressing and killing everybody. I mean, that would have to be some fucking poem, right? And their poems aren’t even any good! They write anti-war poems, like nobody ever thought about the fact that war is a shitty thing. Like war gives a fuck about their poems. If the powers that be thought poets could have any effect on anything, they’d fucking have them disappeared in the middle of the night! They’d take ’em out like Lorca or Malcolm X or Kennedy. These guys sit here in a fucking bar in the most liberal town in America and talk about poetry and revolution because they know it’s safe because they know nobody gives a shit. Let ’em read their little poems in fucking North Korea and then see what happens!”

He paused and finished his beer. “Look man,” he said, “this whole scene is depressing me. Let’s go somewhere else. Away from the poets. They’re putting me in a bad place.”

I nodded and we wandered out into the night. “Where to?” I asked.

“Hell, I dunno. Somewhere outta North Beach. That little Irish place, maybe. On Larkin Street.” We flagged a cab and headed to the little Irish place on Larkin Street. It was a gentle, quiet dive of a bar. Inside, three old men were hunched over their beers. The pretty young bartender leaned and chatted with one of them.

We sat at the other end of the bar and waited for her to notice us. She furtively glanced our way but made no acknowledgment of our presence. “Bitch,” my poet friend said, “she doesn’t like me. I don’t know why. She’s from London, I think.”

He waved his arms to get her attention but the bartender offered no response. I was beginning to get the feeling that she just would rather us go away. “Hey,” my poet friend eventually called out, still waving his arms, “hey!” The bartender sighed extravagantly and glared in our direction.

“Hey,” my poet friend said, “I just need a beer, you know? Can I just get a beer?” The bartender stared but didn’t move from where she stood. “I just want a fucking beer, in a can! Something light. You know, Mexican. Can I just get a Mexican beer in a fucking can, for chrissake?”

“Out,” she said, pointing to the door.

“What? Hey,” my poet friend said, “C’mon. I’m not being high maintenance, here. I just want a beer in a fucking can.”

The bartender met my eyes and I shrugged my shoulders to suggest that my friend just wanted a beer in a can and he meant no malice by it. “Out,” she repeated.

“Shit,” my poet friend sighed. “Okay, okay. Fuck.” He got up and headed for the door. I shrugged apologetically once more in the bartender’s direction and followed him out. We stood out on the sidewalk beneath the streetlamps. “Fuck,” he said, “I don’t understand. I was here just the other night. I don’t know why she doesn’t like me. She’s from London, I think. Hey man, do you got any pills?”

“No,” I said, “sorry.”

“Well, shit. I guess I’ll go home, then. I’ll see ya.” He turned and started off into the night.

“You wanna get a cab?” I asked.

“Naw, I need the exercise.”

“Okay,” I said, “see ya.” He raised a silent arm over his head in parting. I stood and watched him until he disappeared around a corner a few blocks away. I thought about going back to the little Irish place to see if the pretty bartender would serve me, but decided on heading back to North Beach instead. Now that my poet friend was gone, I was struck with a sudden loneliness, and didn’t feel like going home. It was Wednesday, and so Kitty was probably working at the Condor Club. Maybe I’d try and have a drink with her.

I stood on a corner and waited for a cab. A woman who had been eyeing me from across the street walked over and stood to my left. She had the body of a twenty year old and the face of something else entirely. She said hello and I gave her a nod. She called me “baby,” and asked what it was I was looking for. I pondered it a moment and told her that I didn’t know, but it was unlikely I could afford it if I did.


William Taylor Jr. lives and writes in San Francisco.He is the author of numerous books of poetry, and a volume of fiction. His work has been published widely in literary journals, including Rattle, The New York Quarterly, and The Chiron Review. He was a recipient of the 2013 Kathy Acker Award, and edited Cocky Moon: Selected Poems of Jack Micheline (Zeitgeist Press, 2014). Pretty Things to Say, (Six Ft. Swells Press, 2020) is his latest collection of poetry. A new collection is forthcoming from Roadside Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s