“Venturing into alien
lands can land you in a
heap of troubling sideshows.”
“You’re here, you’ve made it…isn’t that miraculous? Folks, give Mr. Herbert a roaring round of applause…bravo!”
“Well, I don’t think that’s necessary or…”
One of the other crooked things Sydney had in mind was negotiating what she called the Vulvata Triangle—everything flowing through it—for a little fill-up and wipe down. Problem was, the service station/car wash basically sat arrow point in a slanted, angular then curvy convergence of several major lower downtown arteries, and a labyrinth of stunted side streets embrangling the resulting wedge. So we muddled about the one ways and dead ends of Chase, Colton, Colusa Streets, the narrow, little more than alleyways of Jessie and Plum—Syd grousing that she still hadn’t gotten the hang of Vulvata’s labia, even after all this time, but here we be.
Heatedly humming along with some dreamy Peter Frampton on the deck, she pointed out the towering U.S. Mint, and where Mel’s drive-in used to roll in American Graffiti days, wheeling into a gas station/car wash. Eventually, the power sprays, vacuum hoses and spinning brushes of a good auto scrubbing seemed to calm her some, the chamois toweling of a half-dozen wash slaves even more so. Topped off and turned out, her sparkling red Fox was equal to the task of navigating the bends of South Van Ness and Mission, the parallel march of Valencia and Guerrero. Syd aimed for Mission Street, the longest, perhaps most variegated thoroughfare within The City limits—Embarcadero down to Daly City, an ethnical world away. We caught a well-lit spot just off Sixteenth and Capp, deep into the Mission District itself, within guarded walking distance of…this.
“But of course you’re not really here, now are you?”
“Huh? I…” The onstage interrogator caught me off guard.
“No, the real Mr. Herbert is nowhere to be found, now is he? Nosiree—folks, let’s hear it. HISS, BOO, BAH!!! ”
“Hey, wait a minute…” Whatever calm and good cheer I had brought to this encounter was dissipating, blow by blow.
“Invisible, non-existent—how do you feel about that, Mr. Herbert?”
“Whatdya’ mean? I’m right here,” I said, squeezing about my chest and shoulders.
The 16th and Mission bank branch had closed long before—victim of too many armed withdrawals. A chainlink of custodial office spaces had cubicled off the nondescript four-story building’s main floor, Universe Theatre occupying a former mezzanine-level parking garage. To get there, we hiked up a long entrance ramp that smelled of residual exhaust fumes though the interior lot had been de-carmissioned for a year or more. At the landing, yellow lines still marked the broad concrete floor, oil drips staining the center of each empty slot. But a bumper swath of spaces nearest the ramp turn-in was an orb of repurposed fervor. Universe’s stage proved to be little more than a dozen loading dock risers framed by a bolide crowned, planetary-themed proscenium and dark star-studded tormentor wings that more than lived up to their name.
“So you say, but how are you feeling about yourself?”
“Just fine, thanks very much, so…” Actually, I felt more like Billy Carter at an AA orientation.
“Face up, Mr. Herbert, you’re being evasive.”
Curvilinear about the platform was a gallery of gymnasium bleachers numbering some fifteen rows, filled to the steel-girded rafters with a cheering, clapping crowd. Hosting the theater’s audience, a strike team of three Universe Players prompted and prodded like floor managers on the Tonight Show. Two cadmium orange and blue jumpsuited proctors flanked a mic-wielding woman in a full-bodied, cosmographic gown—Texas varsity cheerleader of a team down four TDs and a field goal in a driving panhandle rain.
She commanded the spotlight in this outwardly emypreal theater; that was a given. Not so apparent at first blush was that the Universe performance would become this confrontational or combative—the first of many blushes, as it happened. I ended up top of the evening’s docket courtesy of Sydney’s eager wheedling, pointing my way during the show’s introduction, with a poke in the ribs at the call for participants, to an involuntary push of the shoulder.
“No, really—if you’re looking for heavy problems or something,” I fidgeted at a center-gallery podium, shading against the spotlight, yet unable to take my eyes off the Saturnal sphere, center tormentor left. “You’re tapping a dry keg…”
“We’ll be the judge of that. So you’re saying you are at peace with yourself…”
“Peace? I suppose…peace, love and all that…”
“Whistling in the dark, Mister Herbert—what right have you to be at peace with yourself, might we ask?”
Whistling, darkness: that was precisely the problem. The houselights had dimmed and a hot key light caught me tripping up to a shifty little rostrum, as Ms. Universe’s greetings turned to a grilling out of sorts. By this time, I could barely see her, much less her on-stage confederates; the gallery crowd around me was little more than a murmury, tittering penumbra.
“Right? How do you mean…” I was trying to pinpoint which voice was coming from where, as if they were toying with the balance slider on a quadraphonic P.A..
“For instance, what do you do for a living, Mr. Herbert. What are you contributing to society?”
“Uh, student, just graduated masters…sociology…”
“Master’s degree, sociology…really…shall we grovel, professor?” Shall we bow before your brilliance, before the grandeur of your title so bestowed?!”
“Whoa, hold it a sec…” I could only tell that this one came from the bleacher row above and to my left—not that I dared turn around and faced him off.
“No, you hold it, Mr. Herbert! Would you mind telling us exactly how the world will benefit from your mighty master’s? Or how any of us might gain from your knowledge when, rather than putting it to work, you’re flitting about San Francisco, neither here nor there?”
“Where are you coming from, Mr. Herbert?”
“Colorado, I’m from Boulder actually…” This next volley could have sprung from any which way, this side of the stage—in the Manchurian Candidate sense of the word.
“You mean you were born in Colorado, your parents live in Colorado?”
“No, they’re in the Midwest. My girlf…housemate’s in Boulder, with my dog.”
“Let’s get this straight, Mr. Herbert. You’ve got family back east—and a…housemate in Colorado.”
“You could put it that way, I guess…” At this point, I was chewing on my answers like a hostile witness before a grand jury leaning toward an indictment.
“Well then what in Hades are you doing here in San Francisco, Mr. Herbert? How are you helping anybody in San Francisco? How are helping yourself?”
“No, hey, it’s not what you think, I’m just, you know, discovering your beautiful city …” That’s it, back fill, try meeting them halfway on their own terms and turf.
But truth to tell, I didn’t know what was hitting me, still couldn’t even see from who or where. The questions and barbs were coming so quickly now I lost all sense of direction. Beyond Universe’s onstage team, the gallery was sprinkled with Theater plants, hence this surround sound of rapid-fire inquisition. Blindsided, on my heels, I swabbed sweat beads from my forehead with an Urnie’s paper napkin, the heat of that spotlight eased only by chill breezes crisscrossing through the parking mezzanine’s largely vented sidewalls. Otherwise, no relief was forthcoming from a smiling, yet stonily silent Sydney, one row up, not even close to having my back.
“What we think is not the issue, Mr. Herbert, but what you think…and it can’t be that good for you back there if you’re shacking up out here.”
“Yes, you’re the person you ultimately have to live with, however much you may scramble and scheme to avoid that nasty little reality.”
“Shacking up? No, I’m just passing through, doing a favor, OK? Just between gigs…”
“That’s not how it looks, Mr. Herbert. What it looks like is you’re running away, hiding from something.”
“What are you running and hiding from, Mr. Herbert?”
“From yourself, Mr. Herbert? Because you sure look that way to us.”
“You look lost, Mr. Herbert. Lost to the world around you, lost to yourself.”
“I’m not lost,” I huffed, anticipating more verbal onslaughts, the scattered, phantom voices pressing further from beyond and around the searing spotlight. “I’m right here, but I’ll be damned if I know why…”
“You’re a mole, Mr. Herbert, burrowing head first into your grim little hole. Making a little mole hill when you could be making mountains.”
“Really, burrowing all the way to oblivion, never again to see the light of day, never again to face the truth.”
“Mole hole, mole hole, MOLE HOLE!”
“The hell,” I growled, trying to identify the surrounding random voices forming one shrieking schoolyard razz, fixing to throw down with the shadows, gloves or no.
“S-s-say what?” I stammered, fielding another woman’s riddle from the port side, at the very moment I’d turned starboard.
“Who are you, Mr. Herbert, who knows what you are? Who is the real Mr. Herbert? What are you doing with your learning and credentials? What have you really accomplished in your life?”
“Doesn’t he look lost, folks? Let’s hear it—hiss, boo, bah—HISS, BOO, BAH!!”
“HISS, BOO, BAH! HISS, BOO, BAH!!! HISS, BOO, BAH…” The entire crowd chanted a cappella, laughing on cue.
“I’m getting outta here,” I sputtered. It was my first notion of just how many subjects inhabited this Universe, if not how well they had me pegged.
I pushed my way off the bleachers, down the ramp toward a spare, half-lit lobby before realizing I’d left Syd behind. So back up ramp I clambered, hearing more orchestrated laughter and applause. The Universe crowd had already served up a slender, sheepish young brunette for the spot-lit slaughter. Seemed she’d recently divorced, moved to The City by way of Texas, psychosnipers wasting no time tearing her down, haranguing her for running out on life, for choking under the simple strain of her simpleton destiny. They charged that she was the flighty, self-serving arachnid upon whom no one could ultimately depend. I could see her standing there, shuddering under the same heat and light, emotionally soldered to the podium, then rumpling into a heap of sobbing taffeta, the mental mortar fire continuing, drowning out her frail, frantic shrieks. But Syd met up with me at the ramp top, chidingly shaking her head.
“What the hell was that,” I spouted.
“Wasn’t it great…”
“Great? And where the hell were you?!”
“Relax, it’s just theater, an immersive, participatory theater piece they do…totally harmless,” she said, pulling me back down ramp toward the lockbox chamber-turned-lobby. “The idea is to test if you can deal with it, flash, to see if you can stick it out and overcome the challenge. And since here we are, fleeing down the off ramp, it looks like you can’t…”
“Hey, I held my own, OK? Those people are certifiable…” I pulled open the heavy old bank doors.
“This one’s pass-fail, professor, no grading on a curve around here.”
“Damned if you didn’t set me up again…”
Long as it was, Mission Street constituted a dipstick for San Francisco’s multi-grade crankcase. From roughly 12th Street south, it shifted from barren light industry, small family-run factories and sundry warehouses, to the giraffe palm-laced heart of ciudad Latino, to Army Street on down. The one-time Woodward’s Gardens, Mission Miracle Mile, blue collar Mickville had turned rarified barrio, Los Estados Unidos Mejicanos-North, where taco/burrito shops unseated more and more corner taverns as Irish migrated to the south bay and East Bay counties. Where agencies became agenzias and Guiness Stout thinned to cervezas fria such as Tecate and Carta Blanca. Espanol was lenguaje de la fuerza, Chicano the flavor of culture, dinero the engine of neighborhood commerce. And tonight, the Mission District’s dipstick notches read full and borderline overheated.
Hermanos in leathers, equal parts pachuco polyester, in work-out Adidas in all stripes and colors, perfectly trimmed Latino lovers lined up for El Capitan Theater’s early evening screening of subtitled ‘Zoot Suit’. Others strolled ramrod straight in their retailored sharkskin, defying the chill breeze to jostle one hair of their razor cuts, much less their senoritas’ Spanish Sassoons, moving to the tune of canned salsa and brassy banda loudspeakered from unending produce markets and discount stores.
Only the parade of revving low-riders could sway their killer stares—metalflaked ’53 Buick, ’62 Olds and ’73 Monte Carlo loaded to their chopped rooflines with fuzzy mirror dice and tuck ’n’ rolled naugahyde or velour. Scraping Mission Street pavement in low crawl, they leaped and bobbed on the strength of hydraulic air suspensions, of surplus Pesco pumps and valves—strutting their shocks, cut coils, dropped spindles lighting up their wheel wells. Primo rides bounced up and down, fore and aft to the in-dash stereo throb of War’s ‘Don’t Let No One Get You Down’, ‘Verao Vermelho’ by Santana, some uptempo cumbias. Sydney stiff-armed a pearl flaked ’56 Rocket 88 to get us across Mission; I myself could have watched this dual-quad, cruiser skirted, chrome-plated, pin-striped, pimpmobile parade all night.
Having coaxed me to her car, we were soon entangled in 16th Street traffic. Syd stewed behind another gaudy procession of Bajito y Suavecito bombs hopping side to side, feeding onto southbound Mission. She pounded the Fox’s steering wheel in frustration, I pressed my nose against her windshield, still in awe of these rolled and pleated stallions, their hand-rubbed metal oxide and gold spoke wheels. This was Saturday night showtime and no amount of honking and headlight flashes from some shrimpy little Audi was about to unmake their muscle carnaval scene, goose them unduly past the bodegas and macho taquerias of their adopted turf. Not tonight, not after forty hours plus straightening late-model bodies and fenders for the collision insurance man. I nearly headered the dashboard as Syd swerved around a boss ’48 Chevy Fleetline, then a ’62 Impala 120 VDC pancaking all four corners for an audacious left-hand turn with ceremonial blasts of its glass pack. Taken altogether, I was back to my cherry ’56 Bel-Air, another whole lifetime ago.
Bound for Valencia, she cranked up her own stereo, Joan Armatrading style, showin’ some emotion, soon cutting and sliding into a green parking zone, pointing to a narrow, dimly cast restaurant between a credit jewelers and rent-to-own furniture store. It in fact shared wrought-iron security grillwork—draped like black Catalan lace—with the Heart of Hearts Joyeria, far more than ambience in mind. Dos Equis banners framed the restaurant’s façade, a fluttery, rojo and verde neon sign simply glowed, El Menudo. Still, I was more concerned with looking out for the flashing lights of any baby blue and white patrol cars in hot pursuit.
“Getting a little late for the holiday decorations,” I said, as we entered the packed restaurant through a dark carved, Spanish Colonial-style front door. A bullish anfitrion in broad black chinos and 7-10 pin embroidered bowling shirt directed us to a rear corner booth.
“It’s always like this, all year round,” Syd glanced about gleefully, handing me one of two laminated menus once we reached Booth Ocho’s curved red vinyl cushions trimmed with brass-plated centavo buttons, her cadet blue and crème varsity jacket squeaking on the slide in. “That’s what makes the place so great, best Mexican food in town…gracias.”
“De nada, honey,” said a gold brocade-bloused camarera in stiletto bootlets, dropping off a basket of nachos. “Pollo Adobo Yucateco’s es especial. Coctels? Vino Rioja?”
Syd opted for a penafiel; I played it safe with a Coke. El Menudo’s cantina pall stirred with the steady, low-watt blinking of mini Christmas tree lights—these red, blue, yellow and green sparks were reflected in long, swirling strands of silver brush tinsel, which snaked about the full parameters of the restaurant’s pink and black flocked walls. It clung like bayou moss to cerveza signs, laquered tortoise shells, chrome bowling trophies and musty, bronze foil pinadas. The lights coiled around menu stands and tequila decanters and day-glo crushed velvet paintings of toreadors and Aztec goddesses.
But it stuck most tenaciously to the antlers—prized five-point racks and mounted heads of Mendocino County bucks that fed upon the environmental sensibilities of uptown patrons from every conceivable angle. Not that it bothered management: They knew San Francisco’s best little Mexican restaurant had those bleeding hearts by the venison burritos.
After all, liberal morality was no match for El Menudo’s Chile Relleno either. Thus assured, the owner brandished his 12-guage exploits on every square inch of remaining ceiling and walls. So the flashing tinsel threaded around framed glossies of Jaime and his Roadmaster, Jaime and his Wagoneer, Jaime and his ¾ ton Ranchero—all dripping in freshly peppered carcasses, Mister Menudo and his companeros grinning against the grillwork, with Dos Equis and doe tails in hand. And he couldn’t have made the graphics more riveting with floodlamps or neon arrows.
“You let them beat you at Universe,” Syd asserted, after taking the liberty of ordering for us both upon the waitress’s return with jalapeno salsa and drinks. “You know that, don’t you?”
“Hell, anybody would have snapped,” I dug in, accepting her ‘trust me’ on the food, if not her review. “That was a twenty-on-one ambush up there.”
“I didn’t,” she said, coyly chomping on a loaded-up nacho. “I wouldn’t let them take me down with something like that.”
This and Jaime’s carnage chronicles easily sapped the pep from my palate. Even strolling neighborhood mariachis and a steady juke box blare of Iglesias, Hermanos Huerta and Edie y Los Panchos failed to reset my appetite. Sydney appeared oblivious to Jaime’s blood lust, however, having eagerly ordered us Chuletas De Puerco and Flautas, some Tostadas de Chorizo for two. Before I could translate my Boulder-cultivated indignation into conversational espanol, la camarera brought an icy round of Noche Buena Indio, courtesy of Jaime himself, with a wink toward Sydney, whom he’d evidently served before.
“Aww, muchos gracias, señor,” she toasted the pompadored propietario, now tallying a greenback wad at his front counter register, tapping his Tony Lama’s to the tambora and tarola of a favorite Yucatanic jarana. “So what’s a few deer when you can feast like this amid non-stop Feliz Navidad, right flash?”
“Yeah, well…” One of the booth’s centavo buttons began jabbing me in the clavicle, in effect prodding me into some major tostadas. “Anyway, when was it you didn’t snap there?”
“Oh, about ten months ago now. James Holcomb suckered me into it, but I prevailed.”
“So, what does that make you? Queen of the Universe?” I shifted enough so that the button now pressed in on my seven cervical vertebrae.
“No, just somebody better adjusted than a certain sociology professor I know.” The centavos didn’t seem to be bothering her one little bit.
I chewed on that rib and the copious platters we were splitting through three hefty, savorous courses, some bunuelos and half a cerveza before finally questioning her methodology. “OK, how did you get through the grilling?”
“Simple, I used a little passive resistance—just agreed with everything the crowd threw at me,” she scoffed, wiping cream puff from my chin with her red and gold napkin. “Kept saying, ‘yep, you’re right’ and ‘can’t deny it’, ‘you really have me pegged’—stuff like that.”
“What? They must have jumped all over you…”
“No way, I kept absorbing the hits, neutralizing their attack—sucked the impact right out of it to where they just started agreeing with my agreeing, falling in line, trying to usher me away from the podium.”
“Come on, you expect me to believe that would have worked with those maniacs?”
“You don’t get it, do you,” she countered, preparing to wash down some flautas with a touch of the Noche Buena. “Wise up, that all’s a big goof up there. Universe Theater’s just a shtik, like gestaltic tea leaves or reading your palm. So I shtiked them right back.”
“Well, if you ask me, one of these days, somebody’s gonna come along and not take that crap so well,” I sputtered, strikingly annoyed that she was bringing the likes of Dame Thornia into this. “They’ll get humiliated and rankled enough to burn the damn place down. You know what follows gestalt in the dictionary, don’t you? Gestapo…”
“Takes one to know one, flash,” She smacked, taking up with more bunuelos. “But good luck, there are nasty little cells like Uni all over town, just itching to ply your mind. It’s how affairs are conducted in San Francisco…”
“Affairs? What affairs?”
“Matters, interactions—in some ways, it’s like backgammon…no, more like chess. Either you’re a knight or a pawn. Whiz at chess, are you?”
“I’m not even much at checkers,” I took a bit deeper swig of the cerveza, to douse down some heartburning salsa. “Played my share of poker though…”
“Trouble is, I’ve already seen you at cards.”
Really, what more could I say to that? We finished up and Syd signaled for the check. With it came some kind of handbill, which she folded over and handed me to hold for later, as if it were some sort of promotional discount offer or something. After settling up and sharing flirty pleasantries with a bolero-vested Jaime at the front counter, she beckoned me out on to Valencia Street, through the negra Knotty Alder and iron doors.
A cool, heavy mist had congealed over the Mission by now, haloing crime-stopper street lamps that betrayed dopers and hustlers and gang bangers of very prescribed colors who sought the territorial safety and anonymity of darkened doorways. Before we could reach the Audi, a small candlelight procession surfaced up the block, their frail flames flickering in the amber-gray film. Most marchers appeared to be barely older than adolescentes, yet were neatly, almost uniformly dressed. Chanting ‘Take back the streets’ and ‘God save the Mission’, they also recited Spanish gospels. As best I could read their placards, the message was, ‘Jovenzuelos Para Jesus’, so I thought it best to move on.
“Yeesh, such a fuss over a prost Jewish carpenter. Here’s the keys, flash,” Syd tossed them my way as we reached her car. “I’m beat, why don’t you drive…”
“You sure?” I opened the doors, letting her saw man aside ride, and gave her El Menudo’s handbill as we buckled in. “Where we off to? I still have to get hold of Moon…”
“Fire Foxy up, we’ll take it as we go,” she unfolded the flier. “That is, if you don’t get us lost in the process. Just stay away from that circus on Mission Street.”
“What’s it say,” I revved the Audi gently, adjusting its rear-view mirrors, then pulled out into traffic before the marchers reached us mid-block.
“Lucky us, some kind of political propaganda about property taxes,” she jibed, balling up the sheet, tossing it over her shoulder into the back seat. “Some silly Proposition 13…”
“Doesn’t sound like a lucky number to me…”
Care for more?
Chapter 21. A day trip into God’s
county proves to bring an eye-opening
encounter with idyllic, unbridled destiny,
then the dockside stuff of golden dreams…