“It’s often harder to take a pounding when you’re in stranger surroundings.”
“Could have been worse, they might have grabbed my overnight bag with the spare keys in it.”
“And at least they didn’t get my passport and traveler’s cheques.”
“Yeah, well—that’s for sure…”
“Or god forbid, my new portrait brushes…or pill wheel…”
“Your pill whe…”
“Oy, what if those creeps had gotten the little package Josh Gravanek gave me to hold?! Don’t want to blow that connection up again…”
Our crosstown retreat was conversationally spare, save for Sydney’s animated directions. She pushed on the squareback’s meagerly padded dashboard through San Francisco’s outer Sunset, directed me up Highway 1 to the dimly lit Crossover, around the dark shadowed curves of Golden Gate Park, which left us blinking in the face of oncoming headlights on By-Pass Drive all the way out past the Redwood Memorial Grove to Fulton Street’s residential congestion. That was where she pointed us not toward the downtown skyline, but straight ahead up Park Presidio Boulevard into a Gen. Douglas MacArthur tunnel, through the olive drab thicket of the Presidio Army base.
I muttered concerns about getting trapped in the Golden Gate Bridge lanes as Syd guided us around the ramp on to the amber glow of Doyle Drive, the northernmost rim of San Francisco reflecting across an indigo Bay. What we were doing way up here was beyond me, but she insisted that going this extra mile or so saved us the ‘oodles’ of further time we’d lose in Civic Center traffic jams. Hence I soldiered on down Route 101, following the Richardson Avenue diagonal, scanning mirrors, red light after yellow traffic light, along Lombard Street’s neon-soaked motel row.
There Syd paused amid her hyperactive nocturnal sightseeing narrative long enough to motion us into a right turn, back southward down Van Ness Avenue, as if to square the long, scenic circle. I was busy nudging through car jams, coaxing the gas gauge, cramming my Blaupunkt radio back into its dashboard bracket, when she spotted a parking place opening up just a quick left turn away on Clay Street, directly under a bright utility light—little more than a block from…here.
“But the shlubs did make off with my wallet and plastic…”
“That stinks out loud, all right…”
“Oh they filched my new mooie creamer, too.”
“The creamer I lifted in that Bucket’s Truck Stop, after I gave you a dime for the pay toity,” Sydney said, tapping my hand with her swizzle stick. “Damn, it was going to be the latest addition to my kitschen collection…”
Come to think of it, I did recall tapping that kidney before leaving Nevada, my road-wracked bladder soggier than a carwash chamois. Syd must have scarfed the bovine-headed creamer as soon as I passed Bucket’s slot machines on the way to the head. She had to have slipped it into her Pony Express-size purse while I waited out a couple of over-the-road Peterbilt warriors in the men’s room, counting off wall shelves flush with rusty horseshoes, long-line insulators, Indian print artifacts, years old Silver State license plates, oatmeal canisters and jelly bean jars—all trimmed with chintzy orange, red and blueberry bead strips.
Finally coming out dripping and re-zipping, I could see her still sitting there in the red metalflaked vinyl booth, all smiley and stirring her coffee something dizzy, daydreaming out tinted jalousie windows over I-80 and the snow-capped Virginia Range. Amazing as hell that our chubby, plaster-haired cowgirl waitress didn’t notice the missing creamer as she slapped her coffee bill down on our plastic gingham covered tabletop. Instead she snapped her bubble gum at me for not ordering a chicken-in-a-basket lunch special, then waddled back over to nibbling at Bucket’s wilting salad bar. Anyway, since Sydney paid, I just played pliantly along, filling the Volks’ tank with off-brand regular for the summit climb and coast down to the coast. But that was then, and this was…now.
“I suppose I can live without Elsie the cow,” she sighed, sagging in her deck chair. “What I can’t bear is carrying on without my favorite purse.”
“So just get another one, right?”
“Don’t you see? There isn’t another purse like that one—anywhere, anyhow…”
“Gotcha,” I stared into my frosted mug, centering it on a ring-stained Kahlua coaster. “Guess I didn’t study it that closely.”
We had left the squareback locked and luggage loaded, bucking the odds, hoping for the best against any further break-ins. Having fished some of those remaining valuables out of her overnight bag, Syd claimed that this was a somewhat safer side of town—that she actually lived but a few blocks away, and often strolled Pacific Heights arteries like Clay Street on nights like this without particular fear or disfavor. Clearly, it was a beautiful Friday evening over this way, ocean winds having subsided, late-January thermometers rising, stars shimmering in vivid constellations all across the city skies.
She’d led me along by the elbow, stressing how much she had missed the bustle of Van Ness Avenue’s theaters and showrooms, the towering skyline of Russian Hill co-ops and penthouse condos up ahead. My mind even drifted away momentarily from the quick turnaround drive back home to Boulder, from chugging through the winter wilds between spring-like California and the lee foothill side of the Continental Divide. At least until we turned a street corner, head on into the likes of all…this.
“And there’s only one person who could craft me such a gorgeous masterpurse,” Syd continued, peeling off her down jacket, scanning about for familiar faces.
“Who might that be?” I sat there rather more disoriented and circumspect.
“James Winslow Holcomb—a dear, dearest friend of mine. He hand tooled the whole sunray ensemble. James is incredibly talented, I met him at a gallery opening when I first came to San Francisco.”
“So get him to make you another set, why don’t you,” I asked, somehow relieved that she was relating about relating to some other guy.
“Oh, he’s evolved out of his leather phase. He’s down in Big Sur now, rolphing Esalen workshops or something. See, James Holcomb is light years ahead of everybody, a real psychic adventurer—a tall, blond Adonis built like Grand Coulee Dam—from Carmel Valley, at that…”
“He your ol’ man?”
“Don’t I wish,” she said wistfully, casting her eyes over to a corner spot. “We came here on my birthday. He gave me the purse and wallet, all gift wrapped in Chronicle pink section pages and ski-waxed twine. Then he took me to his parent’s chalet at North Lake Tahoe for the weekend…safari-rigged Land Rover, no less.”
“Sounds pretty storybook to me…” I bumped knees with her under our tiny cocktail table as I opened my sheepskin coat.
“Hardly,” she sipped unfazed, though in thinly veiled regret. “Haven’t seen or heard from him since…guess I must have been his ethnic fling.”
First thing I had noticed upon turning that corner was the curbing, not the designated zone markings evident so far, but ones painted with an indigo overcoat, stenciled SFPD emblems in lavender and amethyst. Unfathomable fluids rivered down the gutters beneath them, ground glass glistened in the sidewalk, along a block-long run of hair salons, shoe studios, resale clothing boutiques, heady smoke shops, fleshy bookstores, flower and hummus/gyros stands. But mostly came the disco throbbing clubs and bars.
Flitting in and out, dancing about us were streams of young studs, primetime players, preening older cats, Megadeath runaways on decaled skateboards—popping, snorting, passing around the clips and buds—reefer and patchoulie in the air. Sydney had bounced back admirably by then, recommending a hard-earned cordial at the hot spot of her choice. I suspected her preference was some sort of twisted joke, but decided not to give her the satisfaction, biting my tongue when she said it would do me well to check out life ‘down on the farm’.
Point being, we had matters to settle, acknowledgments to make, damages to assess, belongings to disgorge, accommodations and routing to ascertain. After days of close, cold steerage, it admittedly was time to find a neutral, if not simpatico corner in which to break the ice. Turned out the PolkStrasse haunt was down near Sacramento Street, its bamboo-framed neon signage reading, ‘The Balmy Palm’.
“Come and gone—that’s San Francisco for you. There just aren’t that many good men around here.”
“But this joint is full of guys…” I was still trying to figure out how she could even consider retracing her first steps back here of all places after months away from the Bay.
“I’m talking about eligible he-men, flash,” she said, sipping her banana daiquiri through a long green plastic straw. “I love ’em to death, they’re my kind of people. But they don’t exactly do it for me, if you catch my drift…”
“Uhhh, can’t say that I do…” With that, I drew deeply from my Heinekens draft, a brew a body could find about as maltly tasteful as Colorado’s Banquet Beer.
“Either that or there are too many women around this part of town…”
“Too many? I can’t see any women in here at all…”
Speaking of action, the Palms—for short—was by this hour leaning toward fully potted. It was a period café languishing between two eras: an exclamation point of time when escapism and eccentricity still prevailed—albeit with a big, bushy question mark of a future, limp with lasting changes in the wind. On balance, Palm seemed to roll with those ch-ch-changes, maintaining a classic Casablanca cure-all for terminal anxiety: pure, unadulterated resignation and abandon.
Decadence peeled off the olive green/wicker trimmed walls; ennui flickered in the cracked claret light columns at either end of a three-arch mahogany bar back. It seeped from the bottle-scarred wet bar, and dusty decanters that were jiggered vigorously into Pina Coladas, Sloe Gin Fizzes and potent Jamaican Coffees. But most of all this seamy decay rose in thick waterspouts from these tightly clustered rattan tables, sucked up into an ill-starred ceiling by eight four-blade overhead fans that sparked and shuddered in hazy asynchronous discord. A first take from the swinging plantation doorway was no less cautionary than looking into a hurricane’s bloodshot eye. No fraternal Pearl Street tavern in here, clearly more Rick’s than Rocky’s.
Sydney had led me over to this dark corner table on a fabricated terrace railed in like the aft deck of the S.S. Paradise. She figured on escaping the turgid squall of booze-laced cigarette smoke. I looked to avoid the two gaudy blades who winked and brayed at me as we passed before a drafty open window on the way further into this sirens den of…divergency. Damned if I wanted to take the table right next to them.
What kind of signal was that? But I settled for a fixed stare in precisely the opposite direction, bent on maintaining that this was her idea, that this Palm would not be swaying my way. Funny, army troop ships, Grafenwohr-scale target ranges shot to mind, obscure targets in the darkness with some Godzilla drill sergeant shouting, ‘wanna get your swingin’ dicks outta’ basic, hit them targets!’ Then again, what a potent socio treatise could come of …this.
To wit, ever so slowly, liltingly, two olive-skinned panthers captured another nearby table, hunched over a hand-rolled Bugler, French inhaling its flaring smoke, the clingy duet commenced to fondling one another under the candlelight. Christ, were they actually…he roamed her black stretch jeans like everybody’s business right there, while the she of them popped the buttons on his baggy safari pants—only to grab suddenly at his rumpled madras lapel. She pulled him so sharply toward her that the flame singed his scar and bramble mustache. Though he gagged on his Amaretto, there was no denting her playful, drop-forged smile.
Beyond them, edgy, coked-up hitters manned and spooned in far corners, mirror-eyed port of callboys gnawed swizzle sticks at the bar: a full house at the Palm was a rendezvous with deviancy at any moment’s flirty notice. The darker the table, the murkier the prospects: Blame it on the foreign beers and tropical aperitifs. In some campier cases, blame it on the Bossa Nova, as with the pair of elder studsmen prancing and grinning away on the parquet dance floor like Martha Rays at a Polident convention. House tracks ranging from the Velvet Underground to Pearl Harbor and the Explosions to KC and the Sunshine Band: Not for the sociological faint of heart, this…not even in the abstract.
“Bridges crossed, bridges burned—it’s been a long trip. But I’m back in town, and ready for action,” she shifted, boring in on her Daiquiri. “I mean, it could be a lot worse, I could be stuck in Chicago, fending off Bernard Zynich.”
“He your ol’ man?”
“Hah, doesn’t he wish,” she said, tapping her blueprint straight teeth with her swizzle straw. “I grew up with Bernie, he’s the son of my parents’ cribbage partners. They own Hirsch-Zynich Galleries in Evanston, and have been displaying my work since I was in junior high. Everybody’s been trying to get us together even longer than that…figuring we were a perfect match, dowry and all that.”
“Sounds serious to me…”
“Serious? Bernard is slow death by suffocation. He’s short and stocky, and I am like, his object d’art. Really, he’s never been anywhere. The only thing he’s sure of is that he’ll take over the family gallery some day. He’s the perfect boitshik. His every waking hour is geared to just that, and it still scares the hell out of him. Bet he’s waiting for me in Chicago right now, ready to propose.”
I didn’t dare ask, instead going, “So he’s the one you’re leaving in ruins, huh—like, after the Adonis tooler?”
“My parents thought I was on my way there from Florida,” she smiled mischievously. “Thank god Lorraine’s and Josh’s invites came in the mail my roommate here forwarded to me. So as soon as I got to the Tampa airport, I started running back and forth between the ticket counters—agents must have thought I was Goldie Hawn or somebody. Finally changed my mind and itinerary, from Chicago to Denver, connecting flights at O’Hare.”
“Wow, drama…on the lamb and everything…” Hell, why’d she have to be laying all this on me, particularly given what little was left of my dime?
“Bernard’s probably calling Florida and San Francisco every fifteen minutes right now—I’m his life’s goal, his Venus d’ Milo and Guggenheim grant, all rolled into one—and he’s nothing if not persistent. But if there’s one thing I have more trouble with than death and boredom it’s suffocation. Don’t get me wrong, he means well, but he smothers me with his worship trip. I used to put up with him because he’s really kinda funny. But I can’t marry the shlemiel, he gets to driving me up the wall back there.”
“Totally…understandable…” Mighty full of herself, I thought, as she siphoned off my relational reserve tank. Guess she figured me for a safe harbor. Poor little artist, suffers so…can’t hang onto the man she wanted, can’t shake those who won’t let go.
“Sooo, you might say I’m in between horndogs at the moment…there, that’s what you get for poking around.”
“Didn’t know that I was…” Seemed I was learning more than I wanted here, sooner than reasonably expected. Melissa once said that Sydney feinted and jabbed at anyone who started getting too close. Yet here she was, on the ropes and singing like yesterday’s contender. It was flattering, unnerving—I reflected on Moon telling me many cheeky anecdotes involving her former sister-in-law as we explored ‘Waif and Grain’ before the cabin’s fireplace one blizzard night. She was always so self-effacing about her portrait. Gotta call her, first thing before I hit the road back to Boulder.
With little immediate hope of conversational detente, my smoky eyes again drifted off, trolling the undertow of this baldly queerest of cabarets. Distant, earthy—exotic looks, erotic moves, subtropical, faraway places, escapist sailing away—that I could not deny, nor that I’d ever been any place so appalling, at the same time so clinically appealing. The Balmy Palm had a tropical air that even the night’s re-stiffening, grassy breezes couldn’t shake from its limbs. Clothes horse latitudes comprised aloha shirts, safari shorts, festive draw-string beach pants and tire-soled huaraches—all brazenly loose on skin taut and tanned, hot flashes of zirconium buckles, ear gear, copious layered chains.
Cheek to cheek, pockets swelling, fused at the hips, grunt, grope and grind: close-cropped items stretched the parameters, rustled The Palm with typhoon force, clutching buns, rubbing thighs, reading the next guy’s partner with long, naked leers, lots of flying flaps and flares. Loner idols just danced with themselves, thoroughly lost in the moment, as if the music itself didn’t matter by now, could have been Mantovani or Don Ho, Zappa or Manilow, so long as it moved them at a deafening pitch. They were stopping only by the munchie bar to hose down with Dos Equis and Mai Tais. Close those front windows, and you had St. Lucia in the spring, the Keys, Fire Island over Labor Day, Papeete all year round.
The sweep of a waitress’s floral sarong soon carried me off across the bar’s sand-padded main floor as she filled an order for two Blue Moons. Syd’s first thought was Planter’s Punch, until she recalled Curacao being James Holcomb’s favorite. The stacked blonde waitress was a sight for smoke-strained eyes, all right—from most angles a real woman, any woman other than the Palm’s fauxmale clientele, and this suddenly moony-eyed cargo here testing what little remained of my composure. But I lost the waitress mid room, in the thick cigarette contrails rising to the club’s dark, starry ceiling.
Whether The Palm itself was coconut, date, Royal or Canary seemed beside the point; how any tree could survive in here was anybody’s miasmic guess. What mattered were the length of its gushing trunk and fanlike leaves, the dead-on fullness of its talipot skirts. Hot on the tail of their sultry blonde token waitress, so bossy and genderally bearded, my eyes quickly jumped to a faded South Seas mural that projected an entire side wall into 1920s New Guinea. I panned to the veranda, a pink pastel sky backlighting beach huts and palmyra palms that danced like dandelions in early May.
Stratocumulus mounds tufted the sunset, soaking up vapid contrails of an incoming steamer. The air was warm and heavy, mangoes sweetening on scattered trees. This clinking, tinkling—was it wind chimes, ships bells, coins pitched on a broiling sidewalk? No, it was nearer than that, no farther than that…no, both. This sassier of Palm’s two waitresses shoved a pair of stainless steel sherbet cups before us, gavelling one with a spoon—mine strawberry, hers tangerine.—making us pay dearly—more precisely, for the moment, already flat walleted me.
“Doesn’t this place just grab you,” Syd boasted, with a quick payback wink. “I mean, did you ever…”
“Not hardly, not even in my wildest…” I searched for a rejoinder, but there was so little I could muster to say. Instead, I fixed on a far side wall, above a festering shipwreck of a foredeck bordered with interlaced bamboo shoots. Off center, out of kilter, hung a sepia-tone blow-up of the gold rush steamship Central America, a sidewheeler that sank in a hurricane in 1857. Not only did it carry scores of San Franciscans, but a multi-million dollar payload of gold bricks and double eagles—the stuff of vast fortunes and those who made them, buried 8,000 feet deep off the coast of South Carolina. Beside that was a photo composite of a mushroom cloud over Bikini’s Atolls, the Enola Gay superimposed, leaning the other way.
“I can’t decide whether its the ambience or the habitué. The overall vibe is almost therapeutic, medicinal in here, don’t you think?”
“Not exactly that easy to swallow,” I muttered into my sherbet cup, anxiously avoiding any possible stares. The only medicine needed here was a Dramamine tab or two, what with some sea queasiness setting in. “Guess I’m not quite ready for a scene like this.”
“C’mon, get with it and take your medicine.”
“Yah, well, just a little stuffy in here, that’s all, ” I coughed, “maybe we should be moving on…”
“Stuffy? I call it real. The midwest, WASPy Colorado, now that’s what’s stuffy. Wait, stay put, it’s showtime!”
A hawkish bartender in yellow sweat pants and Kona Hawaiian shirtwaist suddenly offed the jukebox switch, clipping Bowie’s ‘Hang On To Yourself’ number faster than P.G.&E. unplugged overdue accounts. He then completely doused Palm’s house lights, so that a foil-wrapped spot haloed the club’s small stage, framed in bamboo slats and thatched, seashell-laced palmetto fronds. Dead center stood a flat black Boesendorfer upright; into that milky circle skulked Darna Karl.
Even the alabaster-cheeked knockout and his grabby escort snapped to rapt attention from their têt-a-table next to us. Darna was a lanky clothes pole redhead with closet hanger shoulders propping up a bone-tight orchid gown, which dusted the tops of her size 13 pumps. That lone spot kindled the silverflake in her awkwardly large shoes, blowing them even further out of proportion—snowshoes on Kareem awkward—as she lurched toward her stool.
She one-handed a cognac bottle from the bartender, never once pulling her other fingers from the alto piano keys. Her personal drumroll persisted as she spun down on the matching black stool, wedging the Courvoisier bottle between last night’s snifters. She scratched her right calf, running loose, frost-white nylons up to the kneecap, then planted those gleaming shoes on her bass pedals.
Already in place above the keyboard were a half-carton of Reidsville-grade Pall Malls, a Kaiser-Fraser hubcap ashtray and several disposable lighters. Atop the piano were a karafe of pink carnations and five specimen bottles designated for the nickel, dime, quarter-on-up donations that kept her in smokes and cognac. Darna nodded and mumbled incoherently to the room, her Mary Kay red-tipped butt dropping another hot ash into her charred lap as it bobbed between full, cold-sore lips. But the sign above her said everything: ‘Can’t you saps read? My name is Darna. I play anything but requests’. And so there was no overlooking the notice, she’d nailed it between the melon breasts of a Gauginesque maiden muralled along the back wall: the girl with the fruit basket on her head—to match the waxed bananas, pineapples and papaya collecting dust in a piano top basket. So handsome, wholesome, and then some.
Darna Karl had no cleavage to speak of; many of the beater gym rats seated at stage-side tables had more. But the chanteuse bared beaucoup eyeliner, rouge and mascara troweled on cheekbone deep, and could still do a scratch-throaty number on the full popular songbook. She blew three smoke rings into the spotlight haze, transforming it into a huge conical umbrella. A lusty belt of cognac, and she rasped into ‘Stormy Weather’. Ashes flickering, cognac dripping—Darna flowed like a Wurlitzer once she got rolling, from ‘Misty’ to ‘Summertime’ to ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’.
Before long, dewey-eyed stiffs stumbled up to fill her snifters, light her smokes, line her jars—not that she’d acknowledge them with so much as a nod. If this cross between Johnny Ray and Anita O’Day had little time for requests, she had even less for lip service, whatever the pleasure or proposition, instead sneering to the room’s delight as she jammed that Courvoisier bottle between her legs.
“Isn’t she amazing,” Syd beamed, with parts awe and halting admiration. “James told me she’s been here for like, a dozen years.”
“Looks like she’s been everywhere a little too long,” I said, waving more smoke away. “Ready to hit it?”
“What’s the hurry, Farmer John, itchin’ to plow the back 40?”
“Hilarious,” I bristled, “about as funny as a hemorrhoid.”
“Word is she used to play the Fairmont, the Top of the Mark,” Syd sat pat. “She’s a lot younger than she looks…was a Julliard prodigy or something.”
“Must have been many cognacs ago…”
“Guess it’s all downhill from Nob Hill,” she cracked, through a wry yet slightly nervous smile. “I’ve painted this tableau in my head so many times. Just cringe at the thought of actually going through it.”
“Because she sorta freaks me out. ’Cause here’s this super talented person and she’s down the chutes, and I don’t know why…”
“You mean why it couldn’t happen to you?”
“Why it couldn’t happen to anybody,” she said, leaning forward.
“Maybe it can, but only if you let it, right?” I asked dismissively, eyeing the bouncer-I.D. clamor at Palm’s swinging doors.
“Whew, I can feel her voice right down to my clit,” she blurted, at a fleeting moment between numbers. Once Darna gained a head of steam, there were no breaks—nothing was going to Shanghai her standards songbook hit parade. “Can’t you?”
“Me? Not quite. Question is, can…she…”
The marvelous Ms. Karl was a quart low on Courvoisier, two butts shy of a full hubcap, and specimen jars ahead when Sydney claimed she could no longer be held accountable for her own erogenous zones; so we decamped, and pounded sand toward the shore. That parting shot of Darna, nose to the ivories, moaning ‘All Of Me’ through a half-lit Pall Mall, smoke snaking over her flaming hair, torched singer that she was, burned like a branding iron into my memory, down to my marrow, as Syd led us through a maze of tables and the Palm’s latecomer-jammed doorway. Curiously, I found myself picturing the photographic aspects once she medleyed into ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, thinking oh, to have my cameras and some Tri-X film for the ASA pushing and printing…
“So, gunned up your tail pretty good, now didn’t it,” Sydney poked my shoulder as we hit the doors.
“Pretty strong stuff, alright,” I wheezed, checking my pockets, catching a snootful of Maui Wowie just outside.