Life After City Lights (1976)




Shig in his cape, 1976.

Photo by Carol Davis.

Shig Murao is drinking a cappuccino at Dianda Bakery on Green Street, where he sometimes goes to escape the scene at the Trieste. Seven years, he muses. His shakuhachi teacher has told him it will be seven years before he is ready to play alone in public.

At that point, he tells himself, he will become a street musician, just to make enough money to pay for a newspaper, coffee, croissant, and a piece of fish from Chinatown for his supper.

Many people view the post–City Lights part of Shig’s life as a Shakespearean tragedy. And toward the end it was difficult to witness his physical and mental decline.

But as one who knew him only during that time, I watched him carrying on in his Zen fashion—finding fulfillment by following his passions and taking pleasure from small things.

To get on with his life, though, he needed to put City Lights behind him. As John Murao remembers it, this occurred early in 1977.

“I arrived at 1367 Grant to accompany Shig on a walk to the Caffe Trieste,” John told me. “His mood was decidedly changed. He was in his mantle [cape] upon my entry to the apartment, cane in hand, hat on his head, ready to walk out the door.”

Shig offered no explanation for the change in his mood until his nephew asked him about it.

“In typical understated Shig-like fashion, he explained that he was done with City Lights. He was going to study the shakuhachi, using his father’s flute, which had been gathering dust in his closet for years. And he was going to open a new store.”

In addition to the shakuhachi, Shig took up shodo, Japanese calligraphy. He would begin his days reading the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times at the Trieste, then head home to practice each of his new passions for an hour or so. He used pages torn from the Chronicle for his shodo practice.

His midday breaks often consisted of buying first editions for the planned bookstore. In the afternoons he kept busy with two more hour-long sessions of music and calligraphy practice.

As Shig settled into his new life he found his shodo practice pleasant, but it was the shakuhachi that really captivated him. His teacher, the Japanese master Masauki Koga, says he was a very serious student and had a nice sound on the instrument—a sound that came from “a far away place.”

Koga remembers that one day after he performed in Boulder, Colorado, an audience member he didn’t know approached him.

“Do you know Shig?” the man asked. “My name’s Allen. Shall we write a greeting card from Boulder to San Francisco?” Shig included a copy of the letter in his zine, Shig’s Review.

Another significant event in Shig’s post–City Lights life was meeting Carol Davis, a nurse who helped with his rehabilitation from the stroke. They entered into a relationship that would last about five years, and John Murao says it was Shig’s happiest relationship.

There were relationships before Davis, including Paula Lillevand, a single mother who later moved in with Ferlinghetti. But I don’t believe there were any after.

Davis was a talented photographer, and the success of the relationship is reflected in her photos of him. Many photographers shot images of Shig, but he was not one to smile for the camera. Davis’ photos show a joyful persona rarely captured by other photographers.

Women were always attracted to Shig, and he had many women friends while I knew him, including artist Mary Boyd Ellis.

Ellis, with her friend Stella, would meet us at the Trieste each Friday at 10 a.m. Shig liked Mary’s woodcuts and featured them several times in Shig’s Review.

Ruth Witt-Diamant, the founder of San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center, was a friend. Writer and political activist Kay Boyle was another close friend, and her activism extended to picketing City Lights after Shig’s split with Ferlinghetti.

(Boyle also collected a festschrift of manuscripts from several prominent writers to provide Shig with something he could sell if he found himself short on cash. Writers who submitted manuscripts ranged from Richard Brautigan, Ken Kesey, and Daniel Ellsberg to Allen Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and James Laughlin.) 

As time passed, Shig began to settle into his new life. His daily visits to the Trieste offered him an opportunity to visit with friends, replacing the social aspect of his life behind the cash register at City Lights.

Though he had lost his base at City Lights, Shig continued to nurture his image in the new setting. One day an attractive woman walked in the Trieste, and Shig’s eyes followed her with rapt attention. When I called him on it, he seemed shocked. “Was I that obvious?” he implored, clearly upset that his cool had been so thoroughly compromised.

Meanwhile, he found that money from his share of City Lights, social security, and veterans benefits  provided enough money to fund his basic lifestyle.

By the late seventies the idea of opening a bookstore began to lose its attraction. Shig came to realize that much of the idea’s appeal had to do with showing “Spaghetti,” as he sometimes called Ferlinghetti, that he could run a store without anyone’s help. But by now, he decided, he had nothing to prove.

Instead of providing inventory for the bookstore, Shig’s collection of first editions supported the occasional luxury. If he needed a new amplifier or a television to indulge his passion for basketball and the San Francisco 49ers, he paid for the purchase by filling a bag or two with books and selling them.

First editions also paid for the new La-Z-Boy chair that appeared in his apartment during this period and the trip that Shig and John made to Japan in 1986.

Despite the painful break with City Lights, Shig’s life was good. He had found a musical voice through the shakuhachi and was exploring his artistic vision through shodo. He no longer had to deal with Gregory Corso and the other City Lights poets who would harass him at the bookstore. It was a simple life, but it suited Shig.

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I always looked forward to [Shig’s] visits [to Seattle]. So did all the kids in the neighborhood. He would come and all the neighbor kids would gather at my house and he would tell us kid stories. I am not sure if they were from a book or were stories he made up. They were always great and he was so expressive. All the neighbor kids including myself thought he was so cool.

—Shig’s niece Joni Morishita

A sample of Shig’s shodo (Japanese calligraphy).

Shig performing with student shakuhachi ensemble. His teacher, Masauki Koga, is in the center dressed in black.

Photographer unknown.

Shig and Ruth Witt-Diamant discuss an issue of Shig’s Review.

Photo by John Murao.








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