The train wasn’t particularly crowded. It was a weekday afternoon. People who did real jobs unlike them were already in their office and had no escape from there until evening.
Polo and Ary easily found two empty side-by-side seats next to the window. The train crossed a few stations in Oakland that looked mostly empty, and then entered the tunnel under the bay on its way to downtown San Francisco. It would take a good fifteen to twenty minutes to cross the bay and the entire time it would be pitch black outside the window. As Polo leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes, Ary looked at her face. Romantic partners stared at each other’s faces all the time, but best friends hardly did the same. Instead, they stared at the whole world like it was a giant movie screen and then turned to each other for comments, as was the case with Polo and Ary for the last five years in California. But at the present moment, with the impending separation in the horizon, why did Ary want to stare so badly at Polo’s face and look into her eyes?
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Its loveliness increases, it will never pass into nothingness, but still keep a bower quiet for us and a sleep full of sweet dreams…..”, Ary pulled out the tattered copy of John Keats’ “Selected Poems” from his backpack and started reading the long poem “Endymion” all over again. It was around a year back. Polo was bed-ridden, recovering from a serious injury she sustained in her back from a free fall at the local bouldering club. Ary would often take a break from his work in the laboratory during weekday afternoons, visit Polo at her beautiful house in the prettiest part of Berkeley and spend long hours sitting next to her reading out Keats and Ruskin Bond, while her mom would bring over a plate of crisp rotis and a bowl of steaming dal, with butter melting inside, to them from the kitchen. Sometimes they would have long guitar jam sessions in the calmness of the morning. Polo tried to capture the essence of the passing moment in her solo and Ary tried to meticulously reproduce the Grateful Dead solos that he heard the previous night on his turntable in the solitude of his own apartment.
As she got better, he took her out for afternoon walks. It took her several hours to walk a few blocks around her house, limping on the crutches. They would stop at small wooden chambers outside the picturesque houses in the neighborhood where people kept books for others to read- little roadside libraries housing books that could open the door to a new world for them both. The best things in life happened serendipitously after all.
The bright lights of Embacadero station and the subsequent deceleration of the train broke in on Ary’s thoughts. Polo opened her eyes as if she was completely aware of her surroundings throughout her little nap. They got down at the Powell Street station and took the ascending escalator that seamlessly opened out to the downtown area of San Francisco, with its skyscrapers, billboards, tramlines and a bustling crowd.
Ary remembered he got an update on his Facebook account that morning that there would be a recital of Alen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” at the City Lights bookstore to commemorate sixty years of its publication. “Howl” was an epic poem that defined the Beat generation of the 50-s along with Jack Kerouac’s novel “On The Road”. The Beat generation was widely considered to have ushered in the hippie movement of the 60-s. Ary and Polo, who often considered themselves to have been born in the wrong era and wished they lived in the US in the 60-s, had spent months obsessing over the gems of Beat literature. City Lights bookstore was also a pretty historic site itself since it published a lot of Beat literature, some of the books being highly controversial.
“They are gonna celebrate sixty years of Howl at the City Lights bookstore. Wanna go?”, Ary asked Polo.
“Lofty incantations at night that become gibberish in the morning? Sure!”, Polo replied. Polo talked very little of late. She mostly meditated silently upon what she saw and heard, and when she opened her mouth it was a one-liner, that too often cryptic. As they crossed Chinatown and walked uphill along the busy Grant Avenue to the bookstore, Polo suddenly asked Ary, “Are you trying to implement one of your themed date plans here?” Ary noticed a mischievous smile on Polo’s face. He was almost as comfortable with Polo about everything as he was with himself, but still, he was slightly taken aback by Polo’s joke.
Ary remembered telling Polo about of one his date plans a while ago- “Grab a coffee and go to the City Lights bookstore, sit on the rocking chair in the poetry room and read out poems to her, then some spicy pork for dinner at Chinatown followed by drinks at the Beatnik bar next to City Lights. Dates like these are really the best way to know if the girl is of my type. If it doesn’t work out there are always those strip clubs lined up on Broadway next door.” Polo had laughed her head off when she heard the last part.
The sun had set by the time they reached the bookstore, which was mostly crowded by old couples for the event, just as they had anticipated. Some of them actually had met the Beat generation writers in person when they were young and narrated those stories. They all took turns in reciting different passages from the “Howl”. An old man with a long white beard was beating the drum as everyone chanted “Holy! Holy!”, which was the concluding part of the poem. After the event, there was free wine and cheese at the store. An old lady offered Polo and Ary some wine with motherly affection.
“Are you from India?”, she asked.
“Yes, I am Poulomi.” Polo shook her hand, followed by Ary, who said, “Hi, I am Aranyak”.
“Nice names. Which part of India are you from? Have you come here to study?”
“My parents are from Calcutta but I grew up partly in Delhi and partly in the US. Aranyak is from Calcutta though- he is the pure Bengali here”, Polo said with a smile, “we are doing Ph.D. at Berkeley.”
“Well, it’s always great to have smart people like you come to our country. And it’s even greater that young people like you are taking interest in the Beatniks”, the old lady said endearingly.
Polo and Ary talked to her about a lot of stuff over a glass of wine. They talked about how they got so interested in the literature and music scene of San Francisco from the 50-s and 60-s, how Ginsberg became a good friend of one of the famous writers from Calcutta of that era, how Ary saw no conflict between his research in a very technical field like physics and his interest in literature, and so many other things. At some point, there was no more wine left in their glasses or on the table. They told goodbye to the lady and walked towards their favorite bar next-door, called Vesuvio Café, to have some more wine.