A Coney Island Of The Mind

Lawrence Ferlinghetti died.

Does anybody know who that is now?

Back in the sixties they did not teach to the test. You still could not go to public school in the metropolis, but if you lived in the suburbs, there were fewer than thirty kids per class and there was enough paper for the mimeo machine and plenty of money for school supplies.

Not that we loved school. Does anybody really love school?

And by time I got to high school they had the track system. Actually, it started in junior high, but they were more devious about it. There were ten classes per grade but the numbers were out of order, so it wasn’t clear who was smart and who was dumb. Supposedly. If you cared, you could figure it out. But in high school the classes were ranked 1-4. 1 was the top. 2 was smart but not super-smart. 3 was…really bad, either you were intellectually challenged or a delinquent. And 4…meant you were truly mentally retarded. That’s the term they used back then anyway, before the advent of euphemisms, before we started giving people false hope and still taught that the world was a vast and ugly place and you’d better prepare for it. 1’s & 2’s went to college. There was enough money to place the 4’s in training programs. But if you were a 3…you fell through the cracks, good luck.

Anyway, unlike in junior high, you weren’t with the same people for every class. And you weren’t necessarily the same number for every subject. But if you were a Jewish suburbanite chances are you were in all 1’s, because if you didn’t do well in school you could not come home, or when you did you’d be beaten to a pulp. Believe me, it happened. There was no “time out.” Our parents were not our best friends, they truly had no idea what was going on with us. And optimism reigned.

So it all came down to which teacher you had. And believe me, I had a lot of bad teachers in high school, but I found even worse ones in college. At least in high school they focused on teaching. In college, where everyone had a Ph.D., many professors thought they were too good to teach, and were lousy at conveying the subject to boot. That’s how I ended up becoming an art history major, the teachers in that department were alive, they’d talk about ice cream shops around the corner from museums, they allowed questioning, irreverence, but…

Most of what I learned I learned in high school, because the teachers were better, more stimulating. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot outside the classroom in college, but inside? To a great degree a giant waste of time.

But anything went in high school. Once again, no one was teaching to the test. In New York they had the Regents, and we had have annual achievement tests but the results were never released to us, they were for internal purposes only.

And if the teacher was great, it was amazing what you could learn. When I was a freshman I was failing algebra, it was so boring, the teacher sent a note home to my parents and you can imagine what happened after that. But as a sophomore I had a different teacher and got an A+. You can jump through the hoops all kinds of places, but whether you learn anything is something different.

Anyway, my sophomore English teacher, Mrs. Hurley, was hip.

First and foremost she was in her twenties. Now that was much older when you were a sophomore, but Mrs. Hurley had a fashionable short haircut and wore au courant clothing and she was a culture vulture. She’d tell us what plays she went to over the weekend, movies. And we’d go on field trips too. Not that there were no limits. If you tested them, Mrs. Hurley would discipline you. But if you did the work, it was a wild adventure, that was probably my most stimulating class in high school.

And we studied Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Most people hate poetry. Because they can’t understand it. But you can understand Ferlinghetti. And Ferlinghetti was unfettered, he didn’t write with the audience in mind, he wasn’t worried about who he offended, he just needed to speak his truth.

He’s associated with the Beats, he was the first to publish Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” but in reality he came from the generation before.

Ferlinghetti was highly-educated. Back when education was about expanding your mind as opposed to preparing you for a job at McKinsey or the bank. No one gave a rat’s ass what would happen after college. You were gonna enter the world and figure it out. And if you had a stupid job, well your mind could drift while you were doing it and you could pay the bills and explore and test limits when you were off the clock.

So, Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco and opened a bookshop with a buddy, they each laid down $500. That’s how City Lights was born.

Do people still make a pilgrimage there?

Used to be San Francisco was exotic. Three hours away. Not only was California not denigrated, most people didn’t even think about it, it was another land, it might as well have been a different country. Except for the fact that’s where the entertainment came from. We were aware of that.

So, at first City Lights was a paperback bookstore. And then it became a salon and a publisher. You’d hang out there. Not just scanning the titles, there were chairs, you could have a meeting. It was an epicenter of modern culture.

Have you read Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”? You need to. It’s the story of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and…the amazing thing is it happened only a few years before, but it’s like it all happened on another planet. Today it’s about conforming. Or making money. Or both. Intellectual development is tertiary at best. And too many people who profess to live the life of the mind have just checked off boxes, they cannot think, and it all comes down to thinking. You don’t need a college degree to know how to think. Then again, many people need help. But with the right background, the right surroundings, you too can learn how to test limits, to push the envelope.

Not like today. Today rebellion is based on falsehoods. The San Franciscans of yore would laugh at this, shake their heads. Because facts were accepted, they were well known, it was what you did with those facts that mattered. And every convention was up for grabs, if you did something because someone told you to…you were still in school, you certainly weren’t living on the west coast.

We don’t have these provocateurs today. There’s no money in it. But these people didn’t care about money. As long as they had enough to live.

So that’s why all that great art came out of the sixties. It wasn’t a vacuum, art led the public, business was for old men in suits. If you wanted to know what was going on you listened to a record, or went to a movie, or read poetry. That’s where truth was. Life truths.

Now I’m sure there are schools that teach Jay Z’s lyrics today. And Jay has had some great things to say. But like in so many other avenues of life, the past has been forgotten. Today’s sports heroes have no sense of history, it’s well-documented, now it’s all about the present. And we must march forward, but we cannot forget the past.

What if today’s students still studied Ferlinghetti? They wouldn’t be so willing to be on reality television, to be used and abused as fodder for the brain dead. No, if you see the possibilities, you can expand your own mind.

You can go online and read some of Ferlinghetti’s poems.

But you probably don’t have the time.

But we had nothing but time. We were bored. We came up with things out of thin air to entertain us…

“but then right in the middle of it

comes the smiling


These were famous lines in Mrs. Hurley’s class. I know them as well as I know Beatle lyrics. They’re at the end of the poem “Pictures of the gone world”: https://bit.ly/37GvpRK

And that world is truly gone. But it has informed me. And so many others.

If you read Ferlinghetti, you know where Bob Dylan came from. Read “I Am Waiting,” it’s a very short step to Dylan’s sixties work: https://bit.ly/37KoYwY

Is Dylan sui generis or just a man of his time, an exponent.

Study history…the great discoveries were in the air. If someone didn’t invent it, another person would have nearly simultaneously.

That’s what it was like in the sixties. It was a cauldron of creativity.

“A Coney Island of the Mind” was published in 1958.

You can make a strong argument that it all started there. 

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