Tony Ryan, devotee of North Beach poets and die-hard Bay Area radical, dies at 73


Tony Ryan never wrote a line of poetry, but he never failed to hear someone else read one in North Beach, the San Francisco neighborhood that brought the Beat scene to life.

Ryan saved his lyrics for the after-parties, where he recounted his experiences as a Berkeley radical, People’s Park protester, communist party member and veteran of the Venceremos First Brigade, which defied the travel embargo to cut Cuban sugar cane for Fidel Castro. in 1969.

This job did not pay, nor did his paid job as an online bookseller, working from his personal collection of thousands of volumes.

Most nights, Ryan could be found sitting at the end of the bar at the Twelve Adler Museum Cafe de Specs, the famous hole-in-the-wall hangout in an alley off Columbus Avenue. If new customers arrived, he got up from his stool and walked around the photographs and artifacts hanging on the wall. It also had bus tables when it was busy.

Ryan didn’t own the place or even work there, but he lived in an upstairs room in his later years. On December 21, he was found dead on his bed surrounded by books piled up to the ceiling. The cause of death was heart disease, brought on by a lifetime of constant smoking and alcoholism, his brother Ben Ryan said. He was 73 years old.

“Tony’s life was very social. He lived in cafes, bookstores and watering holes,” his brother said. “He was an intellectual and passionate about all progressive movements. He was unwavering in his principles and was an activist all his life. A deep, deep activist.

Although Ryan was a North Beach figure, for most of his life he couldn’t afford to live there. He moved between cheap apartments in Berkeley and Oakland, but every day he went to town by BART, having never obtained a driver’s license or owned a car. It climbed from Montgomery Street Station and began what was called the Tony Triangle of Agneta Falk, widow of San Francisco Poet Laureate Jack Hirschman and close friend of Ryan. Specs didn’t open until late afternoon, so the triangle would start at Caffe Trieste and then move to Vesuvio Cafe.

“He walked from place to place, occasionally stopping to buy cigarettes,” Falk said. “I hope he also went somewhere to eat.” She couldn’t be sure because no one had ever seen Ryan eat on the way to the last stop in the triangle – Specs’.

After a long night of intellectual discussions fueled by vodka and soda, with rum and brandy for variety, he was somehow making it back to BART for the last train home. He made this trip until three years ago when a fire destroyed the building where he lived. Ryan escaped with only his passport, filled with stamps for Havana, which he visited almost every year. He lost around 10,000 collectible books, pamphlets and posters dating back to the 1960s.

“Everything he lived and worked for was gone,” said his brother, an artist and musician living in Santa Barbara. “He was devastated.”

After that loss, Ryan practically moved into Specs, taking a 10ft by 10ft single room with access to a downstairs kitchen that he never used, despite having an impressive collection of cookbooks on exotic cuisines from around the world. ‘Latin America.

“Tony was always interested in my life, and he was like that with everyone,” said Maralisa Simmons-Cook, owner of Specs’ with her mother, Elly Simmons.

“He wasn’t a poet, but he was one of the key players in keeping the spirit of North Beach alive. People come to places like Specs’ and Vesuvio to witness or soak up the art, politics and city history, and Tony was their tour guide.”

Anthony Bourke Ryan was born on May 25, 1948 in Phoenix. His father, Bill Ryan, was a salesman for Sears Roebuck who transferred to Caracas, Venezuela, which had a profound impact on Tony, who was fluent in Spanish by the time the family moved back to Fresno at first. of the 1950s.

From there they moved to a ranch in Clovis, a farming and rodeo town where Tony was bullied in school because of his glasses and skinny physique. This gave him great sympathy for the underclass and the underdog, a perspective that was solidified when the family attended a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. at Fresno State in 1964.

“Tony was committed to social justice early on and asked my mom to take him to an NAACP meeting,” said his other brother, Jordan Ryan, a retired UN official.

Ryan attended three high schools, including Woodside Priory, a notoriously rigid boarding school run by Hungarian monks in the Portola Valley. One day he hitchhiked to Kepler’s books in Menlo Park to meet famed anti-war activist Ira Sandperl, who worked there.

Ryan returned to his dorm with an armful of communist literature and began proselytizing, which was a major factor in getting him kicked out of the Priory after less than a year, according to his brother Jordan. From there he was sent to live with an aunt in Cambridge, Mass., so he could attend the famous Cambridge Rindge and Latin School near Harvard Square.

By the time he graduated and returned to California to attend Sonoma State University, he was completely radicalized. He received his bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and completed it with a degree in library technology at City College of San Francisco. He moved to Berkeley when he took a job as a clerk at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. He also hung around the information card tables set up in Sproul Plaza to recruit UC Berkeley undergraduates to the radical cause.

It was there that he met Steve Wasserman, then a Berkeley teenager and now editor of Heyday, Berkeley’s nonprofit independent book publisher. Together, Ryan and Wasserman walked down Telegraph Avenue and participated in the People’s Park Riots in the late 1960s.

“Tony was deeply political and also aware of the vanguard current of politicized poetry that was sweeping the Bay Area, forming an archipelago of progressivism and bohemianism,” Wasserman said. “Tony almost perfectly straddled the divide between politicians and hippies.”

Ryan built up his inventory of books by shopping among street vendors in Berkeley and San Francisco. If he saw something he liked, he would buy whatever the seller had. He never had a physical store, other than his apartment.

In November 1969, Ryan traveled to Cuba with about 200 idealistic Westerners who formed the Venceremos Brigade, traveling via Canada to circumvent the embargo.

From this first trip, Ryan promoted the Cuban revolution and became one of the main importers of Cuban literature. After the travel ban was lifted, Ryan began bringing Cuban poets to San Francisco. He was a great champion of Nancy Morejón, whom he brought to an Emerald Tablet reading on Fresno Street in 2014, with a reception afterwards at Specs.

Ryan landed his only secure job in the late 1980s when he moved to Washington, DC, to work at the Inter-American Development Bank, which works to reduce poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean. He lasted nearly a decade, Jordan Ryan said, before he tangled with management and quit.

“It was Tony until the end,” Jordan said. “He was committed, intense, relentless and principled.”

But not without humor. Among the things he liked to laugh at was himself. For his 70th birthday at Specs, he asked his old friend Jessica Loos to roast him. He even volunteered to provide her with notes if she ran out of material. She declined his offer, already having too much work with it.

“Tony was more of a caricature of a caricature of himself than anyone I’ve ever met,” said Loos, who has been on the scene for more than 20 years. “It was a pain in the ass, but memorable.”

A memorial service is planned for Ryan’s birthday in May, to be held at Specs. Survivors include her brothers, Jordan of Atlanta and Ben of Santa Barbara, and her sister, Sally of Atlanta.

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter:@samwhitingsf


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