One boomer’s memory of a Beat Poet

When you meet an icon, let alone an idol, it’s something special. Not everyone gets the chance. But writer/poet Bill Cushing of Glendale, California, met one of his— a poet who started a movement and died only last month— and he’ll never forget how it happened.

Most Boomers know the Beats.

I learned of one of the most famous, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, after reading some of the Beatnik writers. Once an English major focused on poetry, I really learned about Ferlinghetti, his work, and his influence on the Beat movement. Besides publishing and selling books, he wrote some of the most insightful poems of his, and our, time.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Books in San Francisco.

Yet the road to meeting Ferlinghetti came from a strange place, a former community college history professor I admired. What made his introduction odd was that my professor was also one of the most conservative Catholics I’ve ever met. Cite this example: when Vatican II liberalized the church in the 1960s, he got so upset he began an Anglican church where he lived.

When news later broke that the Church of England planned to ordain women ministers, I couldn’t resist busting chops a bit. I had his home number and called him.

“So,” I had to ask, “you taking communion from a woman next week?”

He laughed, saying he saw it coming, so we caught up, talking informally. At some point he asked, “Ever hear of this guy Ferlinghetti?”

“Know him?” I said. “I love his stuff. I hear his daughter lives near you. She may even be your neighbor.”

“More than that,” he replied. “She’s marrying my son.”

Bill Cushing

Talk about a shocker.

“That should make family gatherings interesting,” I joked. “You know how radical he is?”
My former instructor acknowledged that he did, and our conversation moved into other kinds of catching up.

Then, a devious plan formed in my mind, so I asked if there was any chance of sneaking my name on the guest list.

There was.

Ferlinghetti proved more than I anticipated, and I monopolized his time as much as I could, an easy task since he was the outsider at this gathering. Most of the crowd was fairly conservative, apparently including Ferlinghetti’s own daughter. He told me how she had chastised him “for trying to wear sandals to this soiree.”

Although in his seventies at the time, his eyes looked as clear and sharp as his mind proved to be. We had a grand conversation, and he was gracious enough to sign the books I’d brought with me.

Crashing that wedding has turned out to be a treasured memory, and I still have to smile that the man who introduced me to Lawrence Ferlinghetti was one who once joked, “I even pee to the right.”

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Bill’s book of poems, which last year won an honorable mention in the Kops-Featherling International Book Awards is, “A Former Life.”

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