Lew Gardner is a poet, an actor, a former North Beach beatnik, the father of nine kids (in order of appearance: Mary, Mike, Joe, Siobhan, Katie, Margaret, Lizzie, Tim and Chris) and a man of many hats—about three dozen. He also describes himself as “a very social butterfly,” “professional nice guy,” “a stationary Jew” and the “house handyman” at his daughters’ East Sixth Street endeavor, Café Flo, named for their mother. He and I have also been pen-pals for over a year, even though we live just across town from one another.
Which of your hats is your favorite?
It’s a clown hat. A brown derby. I’d love to be a clown. I’m a very serious person. That’s why I wear hats—because I’m so serious. What I’d really like to be serious about is laughter.
What’s it like to have nine kids?
Well, it was a blessing. Especially for them. I’ve realized that every one of my children has a friend among their siblings, some are friends to more, one is friends to all of them. Nine children gets easier after six. After six, you’re in the groove.
What is the future of letter writing?
It seems doomed, doesn’t it? First of all the telephone, and now the e-mail. There’s going to be a few die-hards like me and you. I personally think writing letters is a psychic communication. Everyone has a different handwriting, just as everyone has a different voice. It’s not just what they say. The vibration of the person is actually physically in the letter. One of the greatest activities is to feel another human being. And I can feel a person in and through their letter as I read.
Will you ever have a one-man show?
No. I have a one-man show all the time! I’m a show-off. The only time I’m not showing off is when I’m on stage or reading poetry. Then I get to interpret what the playwright or poet wrote. One of the beauties of being on stage is that I get to interact with people. I was just cast as Merlin in Camelot at Chico Theater Company. Jerry Miller is the director. He makes me twice as funny as I am—and I’m funny to begin with!
My favorite beatnik was a man named Hubert Leslie, an experimental drug taker for UC Med Center on Parnassus Avenue. Tattooed on his arm was "Blessed Blessed Oblivion."