“One mate means succor
the other spells glitz and dash—
place no sucker’s bet.”
“You have no idea what I went through.”
“Well, no, I…”
“Really, I nearly committed suicide over you.”
“Sorry, I had no idea…great to see you didn’t though…”
There wasn’t much getting past Denise’s place at Fulton and 25th Avenue. Enroute to that ritualistic Ocean Beach revisit, I had spotted Thibeaux Cauler moving some garage furniture into a small Mazda pick-up, his growing dreads piled high under a crocheted Rasta applejack brim/hat, earth brown dashiki open at the black Kung-Fu shorts. Before I could fully stop to say hi, he had me on the heavy end of an old arm-worn sectional, loading it into the dented truck bed.
As we pushed and lifted, I caught him up on events Midwestern, including my coin-flip cloverleafing through his St. Louis. Cauler updated me in turn on Denise, who had fled Mexican drug tensions, only to spirit herself back to Ann Arbor for an exploratory summit with Warren ‘the porker’. Meanwhile, Regina Tzu was upstairs for the asking, although I scarcely knew what to say that way. Out of the helping hand, however, I did haul in Thibeaux’s offer for a night or two’s crashing in Denise’s room until I got situated, etc. It must have been the mom’s death part of my story, along with some Heartland homerism, that sealed such a welcome deal.
I had proceeded to wolf down a couple of deli-case salads from the Scandinavian place on Geary Boulevard that Moon and I had muddled through, the kidney bean-garbanzo combo going down much more smoothly this time around. A Dinkel Acker to go, and it was back to Denise’s for some rest and retooling, turning on her small Sony to a Friday evening local news review on KQED public TV. A post-headline recap and pledge pitch segued into a journalist panel roundtable focused on the recent tax-cut passage of Proposition 13, and increasingly bizarre developments in the local religio-political realm.
Their lede centered on how the Peoples Temple congregation was turning more People v. Temple, that ever since SF Examiner and New West Magazine exposes on ‘nightmare’ beatings, child begging, fake healing and coercive, if not violent mind control, had prompted investigations from the D.A.’s office to U.S. Customs and IRS. Rumors were spreading that private dicks had been snooping around for defectors, what with escapee, Leon Broussard hitting town with his Jonestown horror stories.
One on-air commentator pointed out that the flock’s benevolent nature had been visibly changing since the Peoples hierarchy had strung chainlink fencing around the Geary temple and fled en masse to Guyana—money, munitions, mind-altering drugs and all. Fearful relatives had begun protesting at the temple site, concerned their loved ones’ well-being down in the jungle—pressuring the U.S. Embassy, Rep. Leo Ryan, even the local Guyanese authorities Jim Jones had long been bribing with cash, clothing and contraband galore—to probe the now robotic flock slavishly tending to the dirt poor and barren Jonestown soil.
Then there was the reverend himself: Reports had apparently surfaced all spring of Jones’ erratic behavior, particularly after his mother’s December death. He’d badgered city politicos he’d helped elect for favors and relief, threatened lawsuits against the press in a manic phone interview. His few remaining loyalists were ordered to move financial assets to safer harbors, and he ignored court judgments to return Boy John to his rightful parents, the Stoens. Rumors of his bomb hoaxes, White Night scare drills, waving a .357 wildly in paranoid alerts while faking being fatally wounded by lurking enemies. Whispers of poison punch sacrifice rehearsals amid mounting outside persecution.
Who knew how much of this on-dit was true? But all told, it was quite a swirl of turmoil for an oily hick preacher from Indiana. In any case, harmony, People—did I miss something here, thought I’d left all that hassle behind in Chicago Lawn. So, better to kill the tube, to rest and freshen up as best I could for springing my little cameo on an unsuspecting Sydney Mendel.
“But that’s beside the point now. I mean I didn’t think you’d actually take me up on the invite…I was just bulk sending out as many as I could, and you somehow got on my mailing list,” said Syd, disconcertingly sizing up my road-marginal appearance, at least one size shy of suitable. “Mass marketing 101, that’s all. But you know what I mean, since you’re in the big-time ad game now yourself.”
“R-R-Right, mass mailing…” Beyond reeling, I had to wonder how she got wind of my FBC position. “Kinda caught the gist of that from your note…”
“Oh, that—just common courtesy. But at least you have landed a good job there,” she pressed, a trifle wobbly on gold patent heels. “So how did you get the days off this soon? Really, when are you heading back?”
“Actually, sorta took a leave of absence…”
“You what?! Oh, that’s real choice, Kenneth…”
“Yeah, was a tough one, all right, I agonized over…”
“Sorry, you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got cust…er, guests…”
Skies had cleared considerably as I wheeled downtown, act cleaned up to my FBC level, blue oxford cloth and red striped tie included under the brown cord sport jacket. I even scored an uphill parking spot on Taylor Street, well within walking distance of the Sutter Street gallery where Sydney had installed her one-woman show.
Weininger Fine Arts was a newer, smaller house toward the outer edge of San Francisco’s gallery row, betting on new, local discoveries to catapult it into the long-established ranks. In this case, Weininger’s track lights were exclusively on Syd, if not its larger dollar commissions, and the second-story gallery had cleared its walls for a selection of her recent and current pieces. She’d titled her show, ‘Women At Work’, displaying the range of her creative process, conceptual sketches to tighter figure drawings to finished paintings—all hung in sleekly modern frames.
An impressively large turnout of seasoned smock sniffers and captious aesthetes paraded tissue to canvas, many gilt-edged coupon clippers in cashmere jackets circling a plentiful wine and canapé spread center hardwood floor. Already feeling awkward as a dowager towel boy, I had slowly gravitated toward the rear wall, near Syd’s photo portrait and calligraphed bio, watching her so confidently work the room, grabbing a crystal cup of strawberry punch along the way. Beside a table of parchment guest books and glossy lay catalogues raisonne, I met up with Mendels, mere and pere.
“Why hello there. You’re Kenneth, I take it. I’m Faith Mendel, Sydney’s mother…”
“Pleased to meet you,” I replied tensely, hardly prepared to meet Syd’s mother superior under circumstances like these, not at all knowing what she knew or felt about clashes past.
“Well, this is quite the surprise, Kenneth. Last I heard, you were back home in Chicago,” she said, her delicately sequined Marshall Field gown barely hiding her rounded middle-age curves. She offset small half-shell earrings with a tightly coiffed perm, a light brush of make-up and mascara being the measure of her successful maturity and motherly assurance. “In any case, I suppose it’s best that you’ve made this ungodly long trip alone…”
“Uh, yeah,” I stammered quizzically. “But how did you…”
“Motherly intuition, young man, a woman can sense these things,” she said, looking me up and down. “Besides that, you appear somewhat… unattended.”
Patting down my sleeves and shaggy hair, I glanced away in retreat, toward a portrait of ‘Elisha’, Syd’s caption reading, ‘This wonderful lady I stayed with while I sat in at L’Ecole de Beaux Arts’. The semi-nude was a subtle tonal wash against stark drapings of velvet and blue, all but concealing a single yellow daisy. Beyond that, her show’s imagery, its porous juxtaposition of realism and borderline irrationalism, suggested a dimension, an attitude, she had somewhat closeted heretofore. At least it was page one to me. But what did I know?
Her straighter paintings were like Moon over the mantle, only better crafted, more delicate in contrast and hue. They rendered lithe, aggressive women in aerobic knots, who walked a balance beam between pure athletics and pandering seduction. Nice work, yet Syd maintained the intimate integrity of her divers, dancers and gymnasts with understated props and backdrops that elevated stark nudity to stunning au naturel. My pockets swelling, I immediately felt warped, somewhat a gutter voyeur for turning on instead of paying tribute, like some kind of prevert getting off in the Guggenheim.
“So this guy’s what the fuss is all about,” said Bryce Mendel, stepping in, probing me with wary sideward glances. “Flying solo now, are you?”
“Yes sir, sure am…nice to meet you,” I pumped his firm hand. “Incredible show, huh?”
“No, it’s entirely credible,” her dad said, over the murmuring of the crowd, shaking his head of silver hair. “I can tell by the invoices and accounts payables, on top of what I’ve shelled out for her art school tuition.”
“Wow, I’ll bet,” I said, looking around at the gallery gathering, not fully understanding how much his checkbook was involved here. I saw a room full of Rosens, putting my mom in her place here, which had me all but reaching for a dust mop.
“But my little free-spirited girl’s well worth it,” he beamed, real laser-like. The sharp creases of his tailored navy mohair, rope-striped Paul Stuart suit cut me like a cleaver. “She’s quite a talent, wouldn’t you say?”
“Never seen an artist like her, Mister Sav, er Mendel…” Mom, I could see here maybe; as for my dad, I couldn’t picture him here in the least.
“Sydney’s the pride of our family, all right,” he snipped, grabbing my eye. “And I aim to keep her going and growing that way —all the way around, if you know what I mean…”
“Sure as shootin’, sir…I…”
“Of course you do, dear,” Faith inserted, tapping his hand. “We all do, don’t we, Kenneth? We all want the best for everybody concerned, and I mean everybody.”
“Happy family harmony—that’s Mrs. Mendel’s department,” smirked Bryce Mendel, slightly loosening his rolled, starched white collar and silk tossed squares tie. “So what’s your line of work back in Chicago?”
“Sociology’s my field, but I was just getting into advertising…”
“Ad game, is it?”
“Yes sir,” I gulped, rather tightening my wide striper tie. “But I’ve put that on hold for the time being…”
“On hold? That doesn’t sound like much of a career move to me.”
“Better than the one before,” Sydney teased, ambling back up to us, delivering goblets of Chardonnay to her admiring parents, winking artfully at her mom. She was a city gal today, all right, in a plum velvet pantsuit with butter yellow sash and scarf, “A mass transit professional…”
“She means I drove a taxi, sir,” I owned up, chagrined that she knew that too. “While hustling up the ad writer position. Checker cabs—LaSalle Street, Michigan Avenue to O’Hare, like that…”
“Of course, take them all the time,” he chuckled, teeth gleaming against a fit Florida winter tan. “Don’t remember hailing you though. But then you only see the back of a hacker’s head…”
“Bryce—really,” Faith chided, radiantly tanned as her solid gold necklace and locket. “And you’ll have to excuse my daughter, Kenneth, she still has some bags to fill. Dear, what say we get acquainted with the refreshments?”
“Smoked lox and cheese trays,” Bryce smiled, as she wrapped his arm, pulling him away. “Twenty-six years together, the woman reads me like a road map…”
I recalled Moon’s reverential remark once about going a long way to see the likes of a Sydney Mendel. But where was this veneer, this creative sophistication when we were sleeping bagging it in Utah. Who was she, all told? Melissa, I knew: quilts and pottery and macramé—Earth shoes momma with basic co evolutionary, cohabitational braids. But this, these masterful visions in textured mattes and glaring frames: either I was something or she was simply slumming.
My armpits rained acrid over that one; I felt at once bolstered and betrayed. What was up with her, anyway? I got that fetching invite, then torched bridges for the past 2,000 miles, for chrissake, only to cross the wire underdressed, underfed and underbred.
For without fail, every other canvas here seemed to mind fuck her more serious treasures to either side. I could picture her taunting her embryonic following, as in: ‘I’m this damn good, but guess again, peons, you ain’t seen nuthin’ so far’. How else to explain the chameleonic comic strip that played out between the lines of this fresh-faced exhibition? As Syd escorted her parental pals over the nosh, I set about to take in her artwork, frame by frame, with a measure of creative relief.
“Of course, my sentiments exactly,” I said, as I moved beyond Syd’s figure paintings to a series of workier ‘Women At Work’. “Right on course…”
“No, young man, coarse, ” remarked a matronly women in I Magnin evening dress and a wraparound shoulder stole, studying one of Sydney’s charcoal sketches like an oncologist a malignant X-ray. The arthritic old pudge folded up her bifocals and made for the nearest hors d’ oeuvres tray. “Unrefined, juvenile, devoid of nuance or discernible composition—a Diebenkorn, she’s definitely not. What is that object supposed to be there, a plumber’s helper?”
“Hey, what do you know, you…crone,” I blurted after her. Honestly, it just slipped out, like a tax lawyer through a loophole. I’d just heard the coarse verdict and snapped, turning toward her stumpy little personage with a reflexive flip of my index finger. She spun in kind, appalled, and she wasn’t alone. Seemed as though the entire gallery gasped in chorus, nailing me to the frame-lined wall with wine-and-cheese consternation.
Maybe my move was a bit outrageous, but no more so than this length of Sydney’s art. To be sure, she had delivered on her creative promise, but only the alter ego contrails of her provocateur nature could explain her handling charges. For every other pose of striking beauty, every other sketch and painting was an abstract visual abomination.
These ‘Women At Work’ weren’t women at all, but trim, shapely bodies with beastly extremities. Plumbers with web feet and hands, oil riggers with serpentine tentacles, grease monkeys with rash red asses and simian sneers: The only things her acrylic menagerie had in common were intense working postures and monstrous jugs.
Syd’s lady dentist was multi-fanged with gleaming drill-bit fingernails. Her barberess featured hairbrushes for hands and a trimming shears smile. There was Winnie the arch welder, Babs the buns baker, Wench the umbilical wrench. And her doctor even grossed me out with its jackhammer scalpels and open-heart skeletal bosom and stethoscope dangling out of no, not there.
Sydney had rendered her grotesque subjects in minutely detailed work settings, then hedged with grim spectral backdrops and random overtones of apocalyptic shades. The cumulative result was a series of ghoulish wet dreams on a stomach of goulash and stale garlic.
“What in heaven are you trying to do, ruin everything,” she screamed, rushing nearly head over heels up to me, like a heat-seeking missile, from a go-between with her parents and some potential patrons.
“Sorry, Syd, I didn’t think her…was just sticking up for you, that’s all.”
“Spare me the chivalry, Kenneth,” she pulled me aside by the lapels, near her painting titled, ‘Fiendish Physician’. “Do you know who that is? Mrs. Vivian Hossberg, of Doctor Abraham Hossberg. She is one of the heavyweight art benefactors in San Francisco. She’s best friends with Tessa Tyman—Tessa Tyman. I wouldn’t care if she called me a scumbag slut in Herb Caen’s column, if I could get her to buy one of my paintings.”
“Whoa, gotcha, message received…but I still don’t see what right she has to rip your art out loud like that…”
“Socialite makes right. Because she speaks with her pocketbook, dumkoff. Besides, some people have lower shock thresholds—that’s what I’m trying to tap into here, by confronting latent revulsion.”
“Shock-raking. That’s a new one on me,” I muttered, shoving a show program into my jacket pocket. “Still and all, doesn’t your talent make right?”
“What’s the matter with you, anyway?! They’ll think you’ve just come out of the hills, or something,” she fumed, handing me stemware from a passing tray, nostrils flaring, cheeks aflame. “Here, flash, nurse some vino, blend into the woodwork for now…and keep your faux pas’s to yourself, will you please?”
“Sure, whatever…I’ll just…”
“Look, I’ve got to link my parents up with Gene Weininger again. Daddo will get him to eat some more of the up-front costs yet. Then I’ll direct them back to their hotel, and make a grand exit. We’ll go somewhere and talk…”
“Sounds good,” I sipped, beginning to edge toward gallery doors. “But who’s Tessa Tyman?”
“Who’s Tessa Tyman?! She’s only one of The City’s heavy-duty philanthropists, in a league with Rhoda Haas Goldman and Cissie Swig. She and Bert Tyman own just about half of Market Street,” Sydney said, paging through one of her programs. “As for Mrs. Goldman, she heads Temple Emanu-El—just led a pilgrimage to Auschwitz, for godsakes. These are the people I’m setting my sights on—the Great Families, the yekkas level I’m seeking to reach here, come hell or high water. There would be no arts scene without such Jewish philanthropy.”
“So what’s wrong with right where you are right now, free and clear,” I replied, shifting the Volvo onto Pine Street off Leavenworth, heading nowhere in particular, but away from the downtown crush. “Your show, and everything…”
“Which Daddo has had to pretty much bankroll; Weininger is just providing the space,” she sighed, removing her high heels, pulling light blue Etonics out of her Adidas daypack. “But it’s called priming the pump, only the opening volley in my San Francisco campaign. There are bigger fish to fry on Sutter’s gallery row—even bigger, fatter commissions to reel in.”
“Daddy bucks, I see. Well maybe you can paint a stagecoach for Wells Fargo or something…”
“God, read the arena, Kenneth, that’s not my path to glory, at all. I don’t know if you’re too dense to realize it, but my main turf is the powerhouse Jewish community, which has roots here back to Yerba Buena and the Gold Rush. Think about it, the Lazards, Langendorfs, Fleishhackers, Sterns, Zellerbachs, much less Adolph Sutro and Levi Strauss. That’s real civic juice, mister sociology. Ever read the novel, ‘Islandia’? ”
“Yeah, Austin Tappan Wright—slogged through it while on duty call in Mannheim—all 900 pages worth, so…”
“Me too, in college, that is. Well, you’re entering, like, Israelandia here,” she said, reaching down to the floorboard, lacing up her jogging shoes. “First off, I want to be better than Toby Edward Rosenthal, the genius artist who painted ‘Elaine’ in the 1870s. He stole the show and wrapped San Francisco around his finger. Sure enough, win over my own Community—then goys and WASPs will follow before long…”
I had actually read Irelandia into Wright’s novel, but that was neither here nor there. Anyway, right, go somewhere and talk, somewhere secluded, maybe—somewhere quiet and private where we could reconnect, jumpstart our reconciliation, proceed to plot out our…affiliation.
After waving adieu, cautiously, if not cordially, to the Mendels, I followed Sydney out of Weininger’s Fine Arts like a personal security stiff. She had paused to leave her parents the keys to her Audi Fox, directing them back to their Nob Hill hotel suite, while I wheeled the Volvo around to the gallery building’s canopied Sutter Street entrance.
Coastal fog had receded to the outer Richmond by the time we crossed Van Ness and Syd pointed me onto Franklin Street. I suspected she was heading us toward the green Presidio bluffs or beaches, maybe even Marin, as we roller coasted through sequenced green lights and these condo canyons along with the imported roadsters and roof-racked Broncos and Cherokees. Marquette Park be damned, those were the wide-open spaces out there that I so sorely remembered when on Francisco Avenue, Chicago Lawn.
How could that long, whipsaw road trip not have been worth the gas money: wild blue vistas, blonde riding shotgun, California dream coming true, after all. Western imperative, I was a man of choice, of destiny; I suddenly felt so fully alive. I could already feel my rising Oxytocin hormone levels, neuromodulating peptides, from my pituitary gland into the amydala and, hypothalamus. Suicide? Over me? Once past this rough patch, all the happiness, contentment, the hugging and orgasmic arousal— pair bonding no end…
At least until Syd had me cutting out Green Street, where we circled Gough to Octavia and back on Vallejo, prowling for a precious empty parking spot here in Cow Hollow, finally lucking into an sudden pull-out near tiny Allyne Park. Thereupon I agreed with her the maneuver would have been much easier with my battered ol’ Squareback, this roomier though rotting Volvo being a dubious upgrade all the way around.
“Wow, you’ve got it all figured out now, huh?” Enough with the oldies, I turned the FM dial from Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’ over to Mac’s fresher ‘Gold Dust Woman’, while I parallel parked in the shade of a dwarf redwood overhang.
“You bet, I’m making it my business…whew, where did you dig up this clunker, and what smells in here?”
“Loaner from a friend,” I exhaled out my door window. “Business? I thought your were an artist…”
“Well you definitely need better friends. But my art is my business, as if it’s any of your business,” she spouted, sounding as unsure as assured, leading me past multi-colored stick Victorian cash-cow homes, then a neighborhood landmark Octagon House, enroute to the palliative solitude and serenity of the…Union Street Fair. “What made you come back out here now, anyway?”
Care for more?
Chapter 46. Strolling amid the street fair’s
treats and eats, then pausing in a stylish
watering hole to wash them all down, it’s
misreads and misdirections on the rocks…