Poems by Christopher Scott Buck
Photo by Stacey Lewis
Photo by Elisa Polimeni
Christopher Scott Buck, Founder of
I first saw Urban Forester Chris Buck banging a large Celtic drum on the corner of Broadway and Columbus while a white-bearded friend in a black beret declaimed from a book of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry. It didn’t seem unusual at the time. It was March 24, 2019 — the 100th birthday of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights Bookstore and San Francisco’s first poet laureate, and his poetry was being read throughout North Beach: outside Caffe Trieste, inside City Lights, and on this particularly vibrant street corner, beneath the sculpture of flying books, atop the swirl of words they dropped on the pavement.
I stopped to listen, enthralled, caught up in the excitement of the moment, having stumbled onto the events without knowing of their existence, and learned that Buck wasn’t merely a member of the multitude out to celebrate Ferlinghetti’s centennial, but a third-time celebrant on a personal mission to establish a new holiday in San Francisco and beyond: Ferlinghetti Day. The first one, begun at 7:06am in front of 706 Wisconsin Street in 2017, was attended by precisely one person: Chris Buck. “I had invited others and when I turned the corner and looked up Wisconsin Street, I was expecting to see about 50 people. But when I saw I was the only one, I was greatly relieved,” he said.
Buck made the 5-mile trek alone that first day, walking from the home where Ferlinghetti and his wife raised their two children on Potrero Hill to the iconic bookstore in North Beach, stopping at various sites along the way to read a poem he thought fit the setting: “The Changing Light” at the outset of his literary walkabout, as the sun rose outside the Ferlinghetti family home; “Baseball Canto” at the diamond on Arkansas and 17th Street; “How to Paint Sunlight” outside the Audiffred Building where Ferlinghetti had a painting studio in the 1950s, and “San Francisco Poet Laureate Inaugural Address and The Poetic City That Was” outside the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street.
When he got to City Lights, Buck stood beneath a big black umbrella and loudly declaimed. “I read Ferlinghetti’s entire collection of poems outside City Lights that first year, shouting them out like a manifesto, and after a very slow 45 minutes of this, who should exit City Lights but Mauro Aprile Zanetti [Ferlinghetti’s assistant]. I didn’t know who he was but he was dressed like a character out of a Bogart movie & he started filming me right away because he saw what book I was holding and he knew I was up to something.”
The next year he doubled his number of participants, meaning a friend met him for lunch at Caffe Trieste after he walked down Potrero Hill, through the flatlands of the financial district, and up into North Beach, reciting poetry at every stop along the way. He started a Facebook Group and an Instagram account, hoping enthusiasm for the project would spread.
Like Bloomsday in Dublin, which celebrates James Joyce on June 16 every year, commemorating the day his character Leopold Bloom wanders the streets of that city in his classic novel Ulysses, Buck wants to see a citywide celebration of Lawrence Ferlinghetti every March 24, with multiple events at multiple venues. And last year, the third of his once-lonely mission, was everything he ever dreamed. Fifteen people joined him on his literary walkabout. His childhood friend Charles Lyons flew out with his family from Salt Lake City to attend. Hoards of people came out to dozens of events honoring Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday throughout North Beach: the Conspiracy of Beards sang happy birthday; Supervisor Aaron Peskin officially proclaimed it Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day; a lineup of literary luminaries read at City Lights. “North Beach was completely vibrating,” Buck remembered. “When we rounded the corner from Kearny to Columbus and saw the overflow crowd in Kerouac Ally, we felt like they were waiting for us.”
Melissa Balin joined virtually from Los Angeles last year. The filmmaker and artist has matched Buck’s enthusiasm ever since, working with him since September to plan this year’s celebration, coming up with a 101 logo (since Ferlinghetti will be 101 years old this year) and the idea for a “virtual jam” on Ferlinghetti Eve which allows people from all over the world to participate. She even got the Stanford Court Hotel on board to host the virtual event.
“She has done the work of many, and has helped us forge great strategic partnerships to expand the annual event,” Buck said. “We have yet to meet in person. She is a true friend of Ferlinghetti Day, perhaps because she received a written response from Mr. Ferlinghetti when she was in high school.” Another partner that planned to host an event this year was Specs, the iconic neighborhood bar across the street from City Lights at 12 Saroyan Place. But that was before the Coronavirus shut down the city on March 17.
Now, with a lockdown order in place for six Bay Area counties, ALL events will be online for Ferlinghetti Eve and Day. But Buck is undeterred. “I’m brokenhearted not to be doing the walk this year, but it’s a great opportunity to expand our reach and really let it fly. We’re all stuck in our homes. We’re all online. We all can contribute something to Ferlinghetti Day.”
One idea is to recite Ferlinghetti’s “Poem #15” from his book Coney Island of the Mind, also called “Acrobat,” and post it online, as I’ve done here. Then Balin will string the various voices and visages together to create an audio/visual love letter to Ferlinghetti and his family. The 101-year-old poet is onboard with the project, and even recorded the first few lines as inspiration to us all.
So why Chris Buck? Who is this rabid Ferlinghetti fan and why is he the prime promoter of Ferlinghetti Day? Much like Ferlinghetti, he’s a man who’d like to make a mark on this town. “When I moved to San Francisco 25 years ago, I looked around and wondered, ‘what’s left to be done?’” he said. Buck loves poetry, citing Henry David Thoreau and Gary Snyder as his biggest influences. He considers City Lights the most important building in SF. He admires the literary spirit that created Bloomsday in Dublin, Ireland, and thought something similar could be engendered here. He also enjoys making Ferlinghetti Day jackets.
Then, when he got his job as San Francisco’s urban forester, he knew the time to take action had come. “I knew people would think ‘he can’t be too crazy if he takes care of all the trees in the city.’” And so it began. It started with a poem he wrote, “Open Poem to Lawrence Ferlinghetti from the Urban Forester,” in which he proposed that a tree honoring the poet be planted on Arbor Day in North Beach, and promised to make a walking homage every year. See a snippet below.
Even if we never get a chance to plant that mythic tree
(in my mind) together
In joyful gratitude Mr. Ferlinghetti,
I promise to organize an annual pilgrimage:
Bloomsday Day-like celebration on March 24th
The day of your birth
From the Potrero Hill house to North Beach
His poem was written early in 2017. The first literary walkabout happened on March 24 of that year. And on Arbor Day in 2019, an olive tree was planted on Union Street in North Beach, directly across from Via Ferlinghetti. Now Buck is hoping that his Ferlinghetti Day project will also take root.
Article written by Patsy Fergusson, Fourth Wave (March 18)