Two “Gangs” of San Francisco — Comrades Who’ve Met Weekly for 30 Years
by Nadya Connolly Williams, December 8, 2010
Certainly there are many circles of friends and colleagues who meet regularly to socialize and network. What distinguishes San Francisco’s “Fort Point Gang” and “Specs Gang” is: their politics — firmly on The Left; their lifelong activism and commitment to many struggles: labor, artistic freedom, peace, civil rights, Cuba solidarity, and anti-fascism, among many others; and their longevity — each group has met every week in The City for nearly 30 years. Both gangs welcome ‘outsiders’ to their ranks and both now also happen to have a husband and wife couple as de facto leaders.
Former San Francisco Poet Laureate Jack Hirschman can be credited with the informal creation in the mid-1980s of “The Specs Gang” — a group of mostly writers and artists who congregate regularly on the same weeknight at a large back table of a venerable North Beach watering hole. Actually, two started the gathering, as Hirschman is the associate editor of an annual political literary magazine called Left Curve, whose founding editor, Csaba Polony, began to meet weekly with Hirschman in the bar to review submissions and select material for the journal. Friends would drift in to discuss poems and articles, and to enjoy their company, thus the weekly social circle grew to the present number of anywhere from 15 to 30 or more. Agneta Falk, a Swedish-British feminist writer who married Hirschman a decade ago now completes the couple.
Nate and Corine Thornton are the current center around which “The Fort Point Gang” crystallizes each week for the past 30 years. The brick Civil War-era Fort Point at the southern foot of the Golden Gate Bridge is where the group congregates on the same weekday morning on commemorative benches they installed long ago. Each bench has metal plates engraved with the names of past members who have died and left impressive legacies of union organizing, combat in the international brigades of the Spanish Civil War and/or World War II, and life-long dedication to civil rights, socialism and democracy. At 95, Nate Thornton is one of only 12 remaining American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who fought along with 3,000 other Americans in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) against the fascist Generissimo Francisco Franco. The total number of volunteers in the International Brigades was an amazing 45,000 — many of whom lie in the Spanish earth. Nate’s wife Corine, who just turned 88, is Mother Courage personified and a stand-alone activist in her own right. They were married in 1988 at the Fort’s benches, and together have joined Freedom to Travel flights to Cuba, demonstrated at the School of the America’s Watch, picketed with Grandmothers for Peace, and participated in many other movements.
Stalwarts of The Specs Gang include painters who wait tables, aging poets of the Beat Era, professional writers who have “made it,” others who hold down semi-professional jobs to fund their art, music and writing, as well as filmmakers, spiritualists, and radicals of all stripes — plus their younger friends and aspirants. Many of the Gang’s poets have joined the Revolutionary Poet’s Brigade, which Hirschman and three others founded in the Spring of 2009 — their first anthology has just seen print. There are now more than 40 members in the Bay Area alone, and brigades have been formed in Los Angeles and Albuquerque. The very terms Brigade and Brigadista were taken directly from Spanish Civil War veterans like Nathan Thornton.
The denizens of The Fort Point Gang are much older and, unlike the Specs Gang, definitely working class — union members all. Whereas the intellectuals of North Beach tend to lean toward an anarchist philosophy and to live from hand to mouth, many of the unionized seniors of Fort Point were active in the Communist and Socialist Parties, especially in their youth, and are mostly all retired now on good pensions with full healthcare — for which they fought tooth and nail. However, the ravages of time and hard work have taken their physical toll on many of the Ft. Pointers: a former fireman must now carry a small oxygen tank where ever he goes — the cumulative effects of on-the-job smoke inhalation; a former waitress has chronic back and foot pain; and a retired longshoreman and carpenter has asbestos in his lungs from the shipyards. On the other hand, some in the Specs Gang grapple with the debilitating consequences of life-long infusions of booze and other substances. Not all the Fort Pointers are working class, and they proudly counted among their ranks Doris Brin Walker, a pioneering labor and human rights lawyer and former president of the National Lawyers Guild, whose death in 2009 elicited a lengthy obituary in the New York Times. However, before attending law school in the 1940s, ‘Doby’ was a member of the Young Communist League and thus opted for a stint as a cannery worker, which set her firmly on the path of the labor movement, and the legal fight for justice and fairness for working people.
Every year, on the Pointer’s weekly meeting day closest to May Day, the Gang’s members hold a special ceremony under the Golden Gate Bridge — reading the names of Comrades who have passed on, while tossing red carnations into the waves lapping at the rocks at the foot of the Fort. Many names are read in addition to the nine that grace the metal plates on the benches. One comrade’s plaque reads: “Bill Bailey 1910 — 1995 Labor and Human Rights Activist, Seaman, Soldier, Author, Actor.” Quite a legacy. Besides writing his life’s story and appearing in several films, Bill Bailey was one of “The Lincolns,” the American contingent of the International Brigades who fought and died in Spain to defend the democratic Republic. Their efforts and those of the Spanish people failed, but after Dictator Franco’s death in 1975, trips back to Spain and reunions of Las Brigadistas were organized. Apparently Bailey’s life-long desire “to piss on Franco’s grave” was realized on one such visit. His son, also a seaman, now retired, is a part of the Fort Pointers today.
The Specs Gang’s writers are tirelessly active, and are an important militant voice in local and global literary scenes Jack Hirschman, San Francisco’s 2006 Poet Laureate and Poet-in-Residence at The City’s Public Library, organizes the bi-annual San Francisco International Poetry Festival. He and his partner Agneta Falk are regularly invited to read at poetry festivals in Europe and Latin America — and most recently in China. But in April of this year, they were invited to the long-standing annual Festival of Poetry in Basra, Iraq — the first festival to be held since the US invasion. Hirschman and editor Polony launch the annual Left Curve magazine every May Day with a reading on April 30th at the venerable City Lights Book Store, directly across Columbus Avenue from Specs Bar. At a recent poetry workshop in Boulder, Colorado’s Naropa University, Hirschman made “The Communist Manifesto” required reading of his students. The first anthology of the Revolutionary Poet’s Brigade is now in print, and contains the works of many who have read at past SF International Poetry Festivals — “75 Poets, 26 Countries, One Voice,” reads the cover. More than a dozen poems are printed in their original languages and alphabets (Arabic, Bangladeshi, Hebrew, etc.), along side their English translations.
Whereas the Specs Gang meets in the evening and tends to drink copiously, the Fort Point Gang gathers in the morning, then drives to lunch at a local café. The two groups rarely intersect, but since this writer frequents both gangs, the Specs group’s leader, Hirschman, was invited last January to Nate Thornton’s 95th birthday, starting at, where else, Fort Point. Under a brilliant sun, with the orange bridge and blue sea as backdrops, Hirschman read a poem written especially for Nate.
Brigadistas of justice and light,
who cherish the vision of a world trans-
formed into ever blossoming tomorrows,
are part of the birthday acclamations for
you, Nate Thornton, who knows more
than most that that vision will never die.
“Beaten, chained, slandered — look, it’s
reaching for your voice. Lift it! Let it
rise in its place. The Internationale
shall be the human race.”
—from “The Great Legacy” by Jack Hirschman
* * *
After lunch and birthday cake at the café last January, Hirschman suggested singing “The International.” With his deep baritone booming across the restaurant, he led the group, clenched fists in the air, in Nate’s “favorite song” — much to the bewilderment of the other patrons.
A comprehensive and richly illustrated 36-page booklet on Nate and Corine Thornton, “I am an International,” was published this summer by Sylvia E. Bartley of Noyo Hill House, Fort Bragg, CA. Modestly-priced copies can be ordered by e-mailing: email@example.com or phoning (707) 964-6485.
The first anthology of the “Revolutionary Poets Brigade — 76 Poets, 25 Countries, One Voice” has just been published and is available to the public at an affordable price. The 375-page anthology can be purchased by e-mailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.