COLUMN FIFTY-EIGHT, APRIL 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)
PART 17: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ
(From the back cover of his book, EPISODES)
CHAPTER NINETEEN: THE MISSION
[Pierre Delattre, now living in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains between Taos and Santa Fe, is described on the back cover of the paperback edition of his Graywolf Press memoir, Episodes, as a writer, painter and teacher. I don’t know if he is still a reverend. He has consistently refused to respond to my telephone calls and letters. Perhaps he didn’t like what I wrote about him and his Bread and Wine Mission in San Francisco’s North Beach some 40 years ago, In addition to Episodes, he has written two novels, Walking on Air and Tales of a Dalai Lama, as well as many stories and poems. In one of his Episodes, a reminiscence entitled The Last Beatnik Casualty Is Brought to My Door, he tells how the police came to him saying they had a corpse in whose pocket was found Delattre’s name and address. The corpse was that of the late Neal Cassady, whose death Delattre blamed on speed.
“We had all tried to achieve enlightenment too fast,” he wrote, “just as we were burning up fuel while driving too fast, wasting our resources too quickly, and ourselves getting wasted in hopes of coming face to face with the ultimate before the bomb ended it all for everyone. . . One of his girlfriends told me that he fucked like a piston for hours at a time without ever coming, then he collapsed.”
In another reminiscence in Episodes, entitled Ginsberg’s Blessing Keeps Me Grounded, Delattre visits the poet’s messy pad to tell him about how the police had knocked on his door with news of Neal’s corpse. Delattre had taken a long and arduous bus trip to get to Ginsberg, who said he was writing a book about Neal’s death and wanted to know what details Delattre could report. Unwilling to return home by bus, Delattre had booked a flight and Ginsberg walked him down the stairs.
“. . . I knew I'd have to run if I wanted to catch my plane,” Delattre wrote. “But Allen was now belly-to-belly with me on the sidewalk, hands pressed together while he intoned the Diamond Sutra. This sutra is very long and it smelled of Ginsberg’s lunch. Twenty minutes passed while I struggled between the desire to be entirely attentive to what seemed an interminable blessing, and the desire to sprint away in hopes of still catching that very important and expensive flight to a job interview. By the time Ginsberg bowed, I knew the plane had been missed.”]
a San Francisco store that once sold groceries and now gives away religion,
the Rev. Pierre Delattre, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and everlasting blue
jeans and distinguished from his clientele only by the large pectoral cross hanging
from his neck, stands at the doorway and says:
church is baloney! The church is
mean the over-institutionalized church---the socalled high-potential,
over-institutionalized church that has nothing to do with religion but supports
a lot of secular crap.
Billy Graham crusade set me back in my work five years.
These religious hucksters with their highpressure salesmanship and
their Madison Avenue success story! All
this togetherness, all this conformity, all this pressure to put on a mask is a
lot of crap!
institutionalized church has become a reflection of this hypocrisy with its big
business methods to get converts!"
the largeness of the room behind him, a youth wearing the start of a beard and
the remains of a sweater taps on a bongo drum in a corner.
At a piano near the entrance, another youth, fully bearded but with his
sweater just as incomplete, taps a contradictory soliloquy.
the far wall, covered with bookshelves and books, a girl, dressed in the total
blackness that has become the caricature of femininity on San Francisco's North
Beach, sits next to a young man, who is reading.
In a side room, visible through an open door, another young man lies on a
bedful of snores.
the front, in the dimming glare from the plate-glass window, more young men and
women, two of them with occupied baby carriages, relax in conversation on
benches and chairs. And, on the
street outside, more young men and young women can be seen approaching.
hate Elaine,” says one of the girls, not dressed in black, walking toward the
place. “She has multiple
every girl have multiple orgasms?” asks one of two young men walking
exclaims a second young man, turning toward the first.
is a house of worship that isn't a house of worship.
This is a church that isn't baloney.
This is what all of North Beach calls, with some derision, and yet with
fondness, too, The Mission.
see," said poet Robert Duncan, “North Beach is so uncivilized that the
Congregationalist Church has decided we need a mission, just like the
poet Duncan, on most Saturday nights, can be found among the bongo drums,
squatting on the floor, listening, with some 200 others, to the poetry readings,
shouting, "BEATNIK GO HOME!" to tourists and denouncing whisperers
with: "WHY DOESN'T THIS CREEP GO BACK TO NEW YORK?”
for the Rev. Pierre Delattre, he, obviously, doesn't mince words either.
Twenty-nine, tall and blond and with a handsome, granite face, he can be
at ease with a railroad brakeman, which he once was, or with a poet, which he
still is, and he certainly is at home with the people who come to his house of
God. They call him the Beat
Preacher of North Beach, and from his outpost atop the hill on Grant Avenue he
can walk down the street amid acceptance, respect and even love. But then, love
is often fleeting on North Beach.
I go down there---and even here in my place---there is often a feeling of great
sadness,” he says. "People
seem to be staring at the walls, waiting. They aren't very articulate---some of
them---and they don't seem to have much to say, but they're waiting---waiting
for something to give meaning to their lives. But of course nothing comes
asks, "What time is it?" and in the big room, decorated with
improvisation. The young men and
the young women lift their head s and look at one another.
Each one waits for someone else to answer.
But no one knows the answer. Finally, a young, dark-haired woman, dressed
in black and speaking with a heavy French accent, says:
has a watch on the Beach because, like, time doesn't mean anything."
Rev. Pierre Delattre breaks into laughter.
French girl who says 'like,"' he chuckles. "That's wonderful.
“You see," he adds, "people come here from all over. It's like going to Hollywood. But
of coming here to be movie stars, they come to be beatniks.
I remember one night, a
15-year-old kid arrived here on
his bicycle and stopped in front of The Mission and sat down.
He looked like he was about ready to burst into tears, and I went out and
asked him if he’d like to come in and he asked where could he find the Beat
Generation. So I told him to go
down the hill and talk to some people there and he started to look very
dejected. Then I asked him to come
in and have some coffee and it turned out that he hadn’t eaten in a couple of
days. He had started out by
hitchhiking and then he had bought a bicycle and he had come here all the way
from Los Angeles. We asked him what
he wanted and he said, ‘I want to become a beatnik.’
I said, it's just like somebody going to Hollywood and wanting to be a movie
star. He had some idea that you come here and become a beatnik by signing up or
taking on the clothes or doing whatever you’re supposed to do. Well, he
“The younger kids who come here, they don't tend to
last very long. But then most of them tend to be mentally disturbed. They come
here with no center of authority and they immediately get dragged down because
North Beach is full of people waiting for somebody they can use, either sexually
or in terms of dope.
"You see, San Francisco is a permissive area
with a strong anarchist tradition and it also tends to attract two groups.
It tends to attract people who have a strong internal center of
authority, so that they like to be where they don't have any external pressures
and they can be what they want to be. A
good artist or writer comes here and likes the area because of that.
But North Beach also tends to attract people who have no strong center of
authority, and it is these people who immediately get dragged down. So there you have two extremes, the person who just gets
completely carried away in the stream and gets hooked on one thing or
another---the girl, she gets laid, or the boy, he gets something done to
him---and they leave very disillusioned or end up in mental hospitals or get
taken back by their parents. Then
there are the other kind at the other extreme, who really work out a way of life
here that they couldn't anywhere else. And these two extremes
On the store-front window are
painted some figures and, in small letters, "BREAD AND WINE."
But from the first, The Mission has been called simply The Mission.
Its methods, of course, are hardly big business.
"My heaviest load,"
Delattre says, "is counseling. This
week, for example, some people told me of a girl of 16 and a boy of 24---both of
them from my place---who had been caught in a cottage in Santa Cruz.
They had run off together and had broken into the cottage.
"So I went down to see them in
jail and try to get them a good lawyer and talk to them---just to let them know
that somebody cared. The boy was
just starting in business. A shirt
shop; he was a designer. And the
girl, she was completely off her rocker. She's
very, very bright but she's one of these typical far-out people.
She wears a 17th Century costume and she has everybody at the juvenile
home completely befuddled---she won't take off her black, flowing robe and put
on a uniform.
"Then I went up to the
psychiatric hospital to see another one of our guys up there. He went to the hospital because he needed help---he was going
through periods of deep melancholy and thinking about suicide.
Well, it seems that one of his problems was that he thought his bath
water was electrified---he was suffering from delusions.
"So I went to see him and
there he was, black and blue and scratched from a tremendous fight he had put up
with the guards, because there in the ward in full view of all the inmates were
three huge tubs, old tubs for hydrotherapy or something, with all sorts of
electric dials and wires on them. Even
my first reaction was that the water was electrified!
"But the psychiatrist told me
that wasn't his only difficulty. The
psychiatrist told me that the guy had the typical intellectual rationalization
for his own impotence problems. He
keeps complaining that his wife is a nymphomaniac.
Well, it so happens that I know the guy's wife and it so happens that she
is a nymphomaniac, which never occurred to the psychiatrist. . . .
“But the counseling that I do is
never explicitly religious. I mean
we talk about the question of forgiveness and of love and of hate---there are so
many people who are full of hate. There’s
a guy here now, staying at my house, who has a long history of crime and
violence. He’s been raised in
reformatories, where he’s gotten a tremendous crime education.
But he’s very intelligent. And
during the month that he’s stayed with me, He’s really become transformed.
“Now, he wants to go into the
ministry. He does a lot of model
building and sculpting. And he also
writes poetry, although it’s bad poetry. . . But he was more or less a
wanderer when he came here, a very tough guy.
One night he came in with two teeth sticking in his knuckles. It seems that when he first arrived here, the drug addicts
suspected him of being a cop. Here’s
a guy whose big problem is whether or not he should turn himself into the cops,
and they suspect him of being one.
“So, finally, they put three
goons on him---they jumped him in an alley and one guy hit him or started to.
They told him he was fuzz and they were going to get him, but he just
slaughtered those three guys. You
see, his big problem was hostility. Just
once a week, he had to smash somebody. . .”
Wednesday nights at The Mission are
set aside for what Delattre has entitled: "Discussions in the Area of
Non-Violence." It is not the best attended of Mission attractions.
"Those who come," says
Delattre, "represent the few remaining persons in North Beach who have any
political orientation. They're
what's left of San Francisco's radicals."
The orthodox Ghandian,” says a
black youth, rising from his chair at one of these sessions, “feels that civil
disobedience is a last ditched thing. . .”
“The more radical or pacifist
tendency," interposes another youth would be to say, ‘this is ridiculous
because we do not live in a democratic country---we live in a power state that is
to violence. . .”
A dark-haired young man with a
thin face and a green earring hanging from a pierced ear sits at the edge of the
group next to a baby carriage. On a
sketchpad he makes charcoal drawings of the speakers.
On another night there are group
therapy sessions, conducted at The Mission by Dr. Francis Rigney of the
Veterans Administration clinic.
"Dr. Rigney,” says Delattre,
"has discovered that the personality profile of the men around here very
closely parallels that of the female social worker.
In testing about 50 or 60 of these people on the Beach he’s found that
subconsciously many of them aspire toward the most bourgeois of things.
In other words, they all aspire toward the bourgeois goods without
wanting to pay the price of personal self-denial which they feel is necessary in
order to have them.
“Although they pretend they rebel against society because they don’t believe in it, Rigney
Delattre says the most impressive thing about the rebellion in North Beach is that it is largely a failure
suspects they rebel because they
can’t make the grade. They would
at once like to have all the material goods that the bourgeois life represents
without paying the price of sacrificing their own identity, which they feel they
would have to do. And they resent
the tourists who come here because the tourists remind them of their own
failure. This to me is the most
impressive thing about their rebellion---that it is largely a failure.”
Rev. Delattre draws a line between the people whom Jack Kerouac wrote about and
the people who have descended upon North Beach to imitate them---between
the people who created the San Francisco Renaissance and the people who
rushed to San Francisco to be a part of it. And the line he draws leads to his
door. They’re not even beat themselves.
would say that the beat thing is not an artistic movement at all,” he
says. “I think there are two things taking place. There is a Bohemianism which has always been centered in the
arts and has always been centered in North Beach, and the Bohemians here are
much the same as Bohemians always have been
then there are the Beat who are an entirely different crowd, and they
very often despise the arts. There
are these two groups that mingle with each other but they don’t have an awful
lot in common except
that they go to the same cafeterias and they go to the same coffee houses and
bars. But their philosophy and their way of life is different in other respects.
would say that actually the artistic movement is more like an ecstatic movement,
in the sense that these are people who want to get out. Their poetry is read
poetry. They want to dig things,
you know, dig experience. That’s
and Snyder and, I guess, Ginsberg to some extent represent this, but I don't
think that's what the beatnik or the real beat thing is at all.
Because these people now in North Beach aren't digging anything.
They’re defeating. They’re very defeating. They're just completely
defeated. They have no interest any more. . .They don’t care. I think the
artist is always esteemed and looked up to as a sort of symbol by those who
can’t imagine really what it is to engage in serious artistic work. These people may dabble around a little bit but they actually
have nothing in common with the real artist, The real artist just by sitting
down and working has already made an act of affirmation, while the person who is
really beat doesn’t feel that anything is meaningful enough to act
upon. He’s paralyzed. This is my
most frequent counseling case. People
say, ‘ I don’t feel anything. I
don’t care. I can’t get excited
very little sense of joy around The Beach because joy, I think, is an act of
engagement, where you participate actively---you make a decision.
And this sort of decisiveness, taking
action, is not very popular around here. The
aren't exactly rejoicing parties. I‘ve
been trying to get them to celebrate their individuality and their
giftedness and their community, but the aspect of celebration is not prevalent
here. You see, I think there are the beat people and then there are the
types. I think those other people
are living in limbo. And this, to
me, is purely a sociological, psychological problem. The problem of the child
who has never known authority and who has never been taught how to decide how to
take action. And now he’s
“All he can do is drift and roam
and get carried like a leaf in the wind. These
people are beat because they have no inner center of strength, no courage.
They just lack guts. They’re
absolutely irresponsible. There are
a lot of people down at the Bagel Shop or in the Coffee Gallery who just don’t
know how to work. They can’t dig it.
Maybe they can work for two weeks at a stretch, but that's all.
Oh, they feel the romance of the artist because the artist symbolizes freedom
but they have no idea of the discipline to undertake it. . .”
It costs the Congregational Church upwards of $150 a
month to operate this little North Beach store, but then upwards is the
direction of any church. The
utility companies demand their non-sectarian share along with the landlord, and
in addition there is food to buy as well as other odds and ends, which include,
incidentally, payments to the poets who read their works at the regular Saturday
“We only give then a little bit,” says the Rev.
Delattre, but whatever it is, they need it.”
Delattre himself sometimes reads. He has been writing poetry since his childhood and his devotion to literature quite obviously approaches his devotion to the Almighty. It was his interest in the correlation of the two, in fact, which brought him to his Mission and to his upstairs flat, where he lives with his wife, their two children and his house guest. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and of the University of Chicago Divinity School, Delattre moved to California five years ago, was ordained a minister in the
Delattre was attracted to North Beach by the same creativity that attracts others
Northern Presbyterian Church of
America, and obtained a job at the University of California YMCA at Berkeley,
where he helped develop a program in religion and contemporary culture.
From the beginning, he was
attracted to the same creativity that makes North Beach so attractive to others
and soon he evolved the idea that the church should open its own coffee house
there. When he learned
that the Rev. Dr. Spike of the Congregational Board of Home Missions had evolved
the same idea, he was, as he says, “really kind of surprised,” but not too
surprised to leave the Presbyterian Church, join the Congregational, accept the
Rev. Dr. Spike’s offer to head the project and become the Beat Preacher of
Except that the Rev. Delattre,
despite his clear, tenor, sermon-like voice, does not preach at The Mission.
It is his parishioners who preach.
“Theirs,” he says of the
people at The Mission, “is a profoundly religious movement, but I would say that they
turn to religion in desperation. These
people are looking, as Jack Kerouac says, for God to reveal Himself.
They’re trying to find a ground of existence that gives them a sense of
intensity, of reality, of meaningfulness. But they do this with a sense of
failure, I think, because they don’t find it.
I think the reason they don’t find it is because the direction of their
quest is not really rebellious.
"For instance, most of the
people here will say that they rebel against materialism and acquisitiveness and
yet they keep talking about getting their kicks---and it’s always getting.
So, they’re hoarding emotions instead of material things, but it's still
ingoing, instead of outgoing. And to me here, the job that we're trying to do is to try to
get them to take their rebellion seriously, and because they
haven't, I think they’ve failed
to find what they’re looking for. As for the poets, the big thing with them
is all tied up with Zen Buddhism. I mean the main trend in poetry now is toward
the sudden flashes of insight---kind of spontaneous or intuitive insight into
reality as against the more academic and rationalistic poetry, or poetry that is
more indirect and symbolic. These
people are running. They’re continually on the road. There’s very little responsibility in the so-called Beats.
They condemn conventional society without acknowledging that they share
any guilt in the evils that it has created. And their religious kicks are
usually involved with some far-off religion, where none of the ethical
applications of it has failed.
“You know, Christianity and Judaism
have experienced many set-backs in Western culture and so they have proven their
finitude, or they’ve proven the finitude of their believers. But Zen Buddhism
is having its appeal now because it stands out all so clearly---it stands apart
from culture, so it's much easy to understand, while Christianity is all messed
up with the church and history and everything else and becomes much harder to
see in its purity. As for my work here, it's never been a matter of converting
people---I’ve never tried---but it’s been a matter of trying to provide a
relationship to myself and to bring one another, where they can speak not only
of what they mutually detest, but of what
they mutually are committed to.”
Delattre first opened The Mission, the religious fervor, on the surface at least
didn’t seem very profound. His first visitors included a stream of Grant
Avenue habitués who entered The Mission for no other purpose than to insult Delattre, his church or his God.
Sometimes Delattre would answer, "Yes, go on.” Sometimes he would say,
"You have a point there." Soon, of course, North Beach found that
Delattre had more to offer than just religion.
There was the bread and wine of The Mission’s title, there was coffee
at five cents a cup and then on Sunday nights, there was a meal prepared by Mrs.
Delattre, a psychologist and an actress, and appropriately beautiful,
said a youth, without a beard, but with all the other newspaper accoutrements of
beatness, "Beans tonight! It's a bad night!”
He stood in one of two waiting queues that led from a table in the candlelit center of The
says in North Beach
it's the artists
versus the beaten
and snaked about chairs, metal couches and -metal columns almost to the door,
There were perhaps 150 persons waiting, hungry, for the beans.
At the table, filling paper plates with a huge ladle from a huge tureen,
were Delattre and his wife.
thought we were going to have spaghetti," said another youth, this one
with a beard.
boy, four years old and with long, black hair, looked at a children’s book,
pointed to a Zebra and asked, “What’s that?"
mother, slim and gorgeous like the model she once was, walked to the table and
brought him back two pieces of Italian bread.
He ate them with bites quick and large for a boy of four.
not good," one bearded poet, eating, said to another bearded poet.
"But one must fill the stomach."
"Hold on your plates," shouted
Delattre as if sermonizing in his tenor from the pulpit. “We have salad for a
said another poet, "think of all the poetry in a plateful of beans."
Mission," says Delattre, standing in his doorway again, “has come to be
important to the community. “Now there is a real battle line between the beaten,
the put-downers, those who are essentially withdrawn, and the community of
artists, the Creative community, which is primarily committed, engaged and
active in the world. Instead of
putting things down, these artists are enthused.
They are attaining domination over the beaten, even though the beaten
have definitely influenced the creative act.
You see, for the artists, San Francisco is the center of poetry read
aloud. These are people who want to
get out, who want to relate to their audience.
This is the center of creative excitement. The other day we made a list
and we had about 150 posts before we stopped, and despite the fact that most of
them are very bad, it is encouraging to realize that they're coming together and
that they’re trying to find new forms of art.
think that out of this, eventually, some very good people, some very fine
voices, will emerge. I haven’t
seen these people yet, Kerouac and Ginsberg, for instance, although I think both
of them are very, bad, reflect, I think, a social situation. Theirs is not art, or it's not good art, but it's a good
reflection of the way a lot of people are feeling. And Kerouac and Ginsberg are valuable because they both
represent this whole beat idea and this Zen kick. And I think that somehow the
rebel down here, the Beat, who is just rebelling against social conventions
which he can't bear and which he doesn’t want to assume responsibility for and
the mentally disturbed person who comes here because it’s a permissive area
and because the sick genius tends to be romanticized as kind of a myth of the
greatness of sick people and the artist---all three of these people, the rebel,
the sick person and the artist, are mingling together and in some way they react
upon one another because the rebels are really the audience for the artist and
the artist gains a lot his ideas from the rebel.
And both of them together”---and the Rev. Delattre
leaves the doorway and begins walking up the steepness to Telegraph Hill, two
blocks above, with its lights stately in the nightfall.
As for the women,” he says, “
well, some of the women around here aren't real women, you know, they're sort of
a middle sex. You see, most of the
people here are rebels against the conventions of bourgeois society. Do I, as a
churchman, mind obscenity in their poetry? Well, if you cut out vulgarity you
might as well forget about dealing with a person on an honest and human level.
I think the church with its preoccupation with petty morality has lost
touch with the fact that the divine is in the ordinary and that within the
vulgar and within the common are the most honest and human expressions of
thought. It's within all this
obscenity and all this vulgarity that some of the most serious religious
expressions take place . . ."
From the undergrowth of the park on
Telegraph Hill, hidden bongo drums pronounce a sudden message.
"Somebody probably having an
ecstatic experience," Delattre remarks.
He sighs and continues: "You know, this is where I'd live if I
weren't a minister because although I don't agree with what some of the people
here are doing about all this conformity, all this togetherness, all this
pressure to put a mask on, I do agree with their refusal to go along with it.
“You see, despite all the
sickness of this area, I feel a much stronger sense of community and love among
these people than I've ever felt anywhere else.
Sometimes I feel just absolutely sick here, but basically there's a sense
of community that I feel very strongly about. It's all so contradictory.
Some nights there's a spirit of real joy that hits this place and then
there's scarcely a night when I don't feel thankful for something that's
happened here. And some nights I
feel so depressed and I think it’s just a pile of crap."
He reaches the point where the
sidewalk, with all the improbability of San Francisco, suddenly becomes steps,
and he turns to look at the scope of the city, with its lights strung along
roller-coaster streets and pinpointing the symmetry of the bridges.
"But when those nights do happen," he says, "I come up here and I look and I remind myself how beautiful San Francisco really is." ##
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