(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)


(From the back cover of his book, EPISODES)


[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.”]

In 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:

"The church is baloney!  The church is baloney!

"I 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.

"The 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!

"The institutionalized church has become a reflection of this hypocrisy with its big business methods to get converts!"

In 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.

Beneath 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.

Toward 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.

“I hate Elaine,” says one of the girls, not dressed in black, walking toward the place.  “She has multiple orgasms.”

“Doesn’t every girl have multiple orgasms?” asks one of two young men walking with her.

“Hey!” exclaims a second young man, turning toward the first.  “You’re advertising!”

This 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.

"You see," said poet Robert Duncan, “North Beach is so uncivilized that the Congregationalist Church has decided we need a mission, just like the Africans."

But 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?”

As 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.

“Whenever 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 along."

Someone 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:

“Nobody has a watch on the Beach because, like, time doesn't mean anything."

The Rev. Pierre Delattre breaks into laughter.

"A 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

'I want
to become
a beatnik'

instead 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.’

“As 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 disappeared immediately.

“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 tend to mingle together.”

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 committed, 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.”

The 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 have 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.

“I 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

“And 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.

“I 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 highly ecstatic.

“Kerouac 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 about anything.’

"There's 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 parties 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 Gary Snyder 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 drifting.

“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 night recitals.

“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 North Beach.

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.”

When 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,

"Hmmph," 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

Delattre says in North Beach
it's the artists
versus the beaten

Mission 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.

"I thought we were going to have spaghetti," said another youth, this one with a beard.

A boy, four years old and with long, black hair, looked at a children’s book, pointed to a Zebra and asked, “What’s that?"

His 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.

"It's 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 second course.

"Ah," said another poet, "think of all the poetry in a plateful of beans."

“The 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.

“I 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 laughs---"become sick.”

He 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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