Shig’s Inner Circle (1953)

HOME PAGE       ABOUT       IMAGE GALLERY        SHIG’S REVIEW SAMPLER       OTHER  VIEWS     AUDIO      UPDATES       SOURCES       CONTACT

                                                                              

 

One night after closing, Shig Murao, Allen Ginsberg, and Gordon Ball visit Woey Loy Goey for a late-night Chinese meal. A large German shepherd follows them into the restaurant and sits next to them. The hostess, not pleased to find the animal in her restaurant, demands of the group, “Is this your dog?”


Shig pauses for a moment. “You may take it to the kitchen,” he announces.



“This large, thick, imposing person of the small feet, the spiky black beard like a fence around his aloofness, he of the aplomb, this is Shigeyoshi Murao,” wrote the late painter Janet Richards in her memoir, Common Soldiers. She and her jazz trombonist husband, Charles Richards, invested a great deal of effort in “getting behind the curtains of the beard and the aplomb to the inner Shig,” she observed, and they came to be close friends.


Charles Richards—who turned ninety in 2010 and still plays his trombone every day—remembers how he and Janet headed over to City Lights on many nights. He says you never knew who you might encounter. Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, or Michael McClure might appear, or poet and WPA Writers Project head Vincent McHugh with his wife, Patricia. But it wasn’t only poets who flocked to City Lights.  Lenny Bruce showed up when he was performing at the hungry i. Robert Oppenheimer was a frequent visitor.


Another was Victor Weiskopf, who walked away from his life as a University of Chicago genetics grad student to become a self-described “professional card and chess player” in San Francisco. Weiskopf, who is said to have been wickedly funny, became Shig’s closest friend, and they would spend hours baiting each other over the City Lights counter. John the Garbage Man, a North Beach character who worked for Golden Gate Scavengers, and John the Tree Trimmer, a bibliophile gardener, were other regulars.


Ginsberg was a key figure in Shig’s life, though Shig would quip that they were “buddies, not butthole buddies.” Shig’s nephew, John Murao, says their topics of discussion would range from Ginsberg’s travels to literature, poetry, photography, music, opera, current events, and politics.


“They frequently engaged in an amusing repartee which was both fun to listen to and quite challenging to keep up with,” remembers John. “They would be debating a topic, tossing verbal volleys back and forth, but each would respond in a way to counter or outsmart the other. Often, prolonged pauses occurred before a response.


“They would be arguing specifics of an issue when one, typically Shig, would respond speaking in generalities that would confuse Ginsberg, if only momentarily, and he would then retort accordingly.


“While I was totally confused, the two would be laughing aloud. And the conversation would continue, each enjoying the content and exchange of ideas as much as the cleverness of the exchange.”


Those who gathered at City Lights on any given night shoehorned themselves into the tiny space, some sitting on a steeply pitched staircase that leads to a second-floor office, others leaning against the counter. The scene at the bookstore was a “bonding procedure,” remembers Richards, “strange conversations, a lot of philosophizing, social criticism, bohemian politics.”


The Chinese poet C. H. Kwock was a night clerk at the Columbus Hotel around the corner. After City Lights closed (at midnight during the week; 2 a.m. on weekends), the assembled group walked to the hotel with Shig for security, and Kwock put the bookstore proceeds in the hotel safe.


City Lights is on the north end of San Francisco’s Chinatown. After the walk to the hotel, the group conversation sometimes continued into the night at Woey Loy Goey, Sun Hung Heung, Sam Wo’s, or another of the nearby Chinese restaurants that stayed open late. (At the time, Sam Wo’s was famous for an abusive waiter named Edsel Fong Ford, who has his own Wikipedia entry.)


Chinatown restaurants also came into play when it was time to inventory the stock. At those times Shig would invite a dozen or so local poets and artists to help count books and treat the group to a late-night dinner as their payment. John Murao remembers a quiet Bob Dylan accompanying the group on one post-inventory dinner in the early seventies. Dylan, he says, did not count books.


Previous Chapter                    Next Chapter



Copyright information here.


 

Charles Richards with Janet Richards’ portrait of Shig. Note the ring on his upper lip from his trombone, which he practices every day.

Photo by Richard Reynolds, 2010.

He would have this very self-contained and reserved impassive look on his face, and he would say these completely outrageous things. . . . He did have a great sense of humor, and I think he liked it more than anything else when someone would tease him or play with him or give as good as he gave.

—Poet and screenwriter Francis McCarthy, who worked at City Lights in the seventies.

Woey Loy Guey today.

Photo by Richard Reynolds, 2011.

Michael McClure and Allen Ginsberg.

Photo by John Murao.

SHIG’S STORY



SHIG’S
 DREAM   
JOB
(1953)Dream_Job_2.html

AT THE
COUNTER:
THE EARLY
YEARS
(1953)At_the_Counter.html

SHIG’S
INNER
CIRCLE
(1953)


THE
HOWL
TRIAL
(1957)The_Howl_Trial_2.html


SHIG’S HEYDAY AT
CITY LIGHTS
(1960)CL_a_la_Shig_2.html


THE END
OF AN
ERA
(1975)End_of_a_Era_2.html


10:00 A.M.
AT THE
TRIESTE
(1975)10_00_A.M._%40Trieste_2.html


LIFE AFTER
CITY LIGHTS
(1976)Life_After_CL_2.html


A SAMURAI
FAMILY
(1920)Samura_family_2.html



SHIG’S
PLACE
(1976)Shigs_Place.html



SHIG’S
REVIEW
(1983)Shigs_Review_2.html


THE
FINAL
CHAPTER
(1984)Final_Chapter_2.html