Although I didn’t start college until the age of 37, I still knew of Ferlinghetti after reading On the Road and then getting turned on to the Beat writers of my youth. Once an English major and one focused on poetry, I learned about him, his work, and his influence on his contemporaries in depth.
Later I got involved with a local arts and entertainment magazine. We decided to name it GO, which most people assumed was rooted in that word’s denotation of moving and its connotation for forward movement. Actually, the name came from the chant that Jack Kerouac shouted as Allen Ginsberg introduced his landmark poem “Howl” at a public reading in a San Francisco bookstore. The bookstore was City Lights; the proprietor was Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The story goes that after the reading, Ferlinghetti asked Ginsberg, “When do I get to publish this?” The question replicated a similar scenario after Ralph Waldo Emerson read Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and this cemented the latter pair’s relationship from then on.
Of course, besides publishing and selling books, Ferlinghetti was an exemplary writer himself and produced some of the most insightful and sympathetic poems of his time.
However—and this is important, I didn’t begin as an English major when I finally started my degree. Instead, I intended to major in history. One of my first instructors within that major was a community college professor named Joe Sasser.
To put it simply, Sasser was brilliant. He possessed one of the sharpest academic minds I’ve ever encountered. The only ability he had that might exceed his intellectual acuity was his delivery system. The man was—pound for pound—the best lecturer I ever heard. He had the lowest drop rate of any faculty member, and this was a community college district that had four separate campuses.
Even after switching to English as my major, I conducted an independent study with him just so I could work under his guidance on a one-to-one basis. He was a true mentor in all aspects of scholarship, and if during my 20-plus years of teaching I ever came close to his style, I’d feel like I’d mastered the profession.
In addition, the more I learned about him, the more impressive he became. He had developed his interest in history and anthropology when he served as a translator for Army intelligence in Burma.
On top of that, he was a naturalist who actually has an orchard named in his honor after discovering it in Central America during one of his digs.
He was also one of the most conservative people I met. Cite this example: when the Vatican liberalized the church in the 1960’s, Sasser got so upset with the move that he actually began an Anglican church where he lived.
After I’d transferred to university to pursue my BA, the news broke that the Church of England was to ordain women as ministers. Naturally, I couldn’t resist the temptation of busting his chops a bit. I had his home number and called him.
“So,” I asked him right off the bat, “you gonna’ take communion from a woman next week?”
He laughed it off, saying anyone paying attention saw it coming, and we started talking informally. At some point, he asked me, “You ever hear of this writer named Ferlinghetti?”
“Know him?” I said. “I love his stuff. In fact, I understand his daughter lives in your area. She may even be a neighbor of yours.”
“More than that,” he replied. “She’s marrying my son.”
“That should make future family gatherings interesting,” I joked. “You know how radically left he is?”
Sasser acknowledged that, and our conversation moved into other areas of catching up with each other. Then, a devious plan formed in my mind. Before hanging up, I asked if there was any chance of sneaking my name on the wedding’s guest list. He said it’d be no problem and got my mailing address to make it official.
Six weeks later, I took the drive, and Ferlinghetti proved to be more than I expected. I monopolized his time as much as I could, which turned out to be an easy task since he was definitely the outsider at this gathering. Most of the rest of the crowd was fairly conservative, apparently including his daughter. He told me how she had chastised him “for trying to wear sandals to this soiree.”
Although in his seventies, Ferlinghetti’s eyes looked as clear and sharp as his mind proved to be. We had a fascinating conversation, and he was gracious enough to sign copies of his books that I’d brought with me. I learned about his world view in those few hours we sat at the reception after he escaped the dais. One of the things he said that has stayed with me—word for word—since his declaration that the United States had “developed into an eagle with two right wings.”
Crashing that wedding, albeit with approval, has turned out to be one of my favorite memories, and I still have to smile that the man who arranged it was one who once joked, “I’m so conservative, I pee to the right.”