“In or out, here or
there, be wary of any
malice in asunderland.”
“This has gotten totally out of hand. I must ask you to finish at once…”
“I know, I know…just a couple more minutes…”
“Sir, you’re topping $30. I just can’t hold the line any longer.”
“Get off my case, will ya? I’ll be through in a few!”
“Make sure you come down to the front desk when you do…”
“Yeah, yeah—anyway, it got so bad I didn’t know where I was. Couldn’t stay in the city—the whole place was spinning around and I didn’t want to be in the same town as her, let alone the same species. Night time was a total blur, went back and forth across the damn Bay Bridge three times before finally stopping on Treasure Island to figure what next…”
“Tsk, poor baby…”
“I was running out of gas, so I had to cool down somewhere,” I pulled a chocolate Do-Nut out of its cellophane pack. “So I headed to a rest area by Vallejo I’d crashed in once before. Froze my ass off, everything gyrating around the headliner, windows icing up. By morning, it began to hit me what a bind I was in…”
“And who’s to blame for that?”
“C’mon, I need that like a liver transplant. So I had no choice but to come back to San Francisco—been here, but not here, ever since. Driving around mostly, trying to dig out, you know, make up my mind—make the big decision.”
“At this point, I wonder whether you’d even know a big decision if it hit you in the kabanza…”
“Hey, gimme a break, Moon,” I nibbled at the fudgy frosted edges. “You know how convoluted this situation is. I mean, I’m really hamstrung. Took this room on Rivoli, up near Saturn Street, of all places—a sublet in a Victorian flat above the Haight I found on a UCSF bulletin board. Top floor, I could see the Golden Gate Bridge. The guy was going to Yosemite for the weekend, just said to pay him the rent and partial deposit on Monday. Had the place to myself, free trial, I’d unpacked the car and everything. There were these beautiful hillside houses, and the ocean, but the whole neighborhood had cleared out of town, even the stores in Cole Valley were like totally deserted, no street fairs, nothing. Got lonely as hell…she was the only person I knew around here. You can see why I never made it to Monday…”
“So you called her first, I suppose…why are you telling me this?!”
“Doesn’t matter, she wasn’t home anyway,” I sputtered, chocolate crumbs flying. “So I started driving around again, hearing all these blasted voices in my head.”
What I’d neglected to mention was that mister sublet had turned away four solid prospects with cash in hand—and here he had his eyes on a rear-decked flat in Diamond Heights. He needed the rent split to move up there. Told me he had a soft spot for…Coloradans. Those aforementioned voices chimed in primarily via high-bias CrO2 Dolby stereo, as the guy’s slant-streeted pink Rivoli crib featured a McIntosh vacuum tube-powered audiophile set-up with ‘Voice of the Theater’ speakers. Why I kept wallowing in John Denver under these circumstances was beyond me, a ‘Rocky Mountain High’ tape of everything from ‘Leaving, On A Jet Plane’ and ‘Fly Away’ to ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, and ‘I’m Sorry’…the whole treacly, pining cassette.
This audible pathology soon had me carving a path around the block, Alma over to Belvedere Street, down to Cole Valley and back again, vowing to change my tunes. Aching images of Syd’s bedroom ménage a tragedy pummeled my head as I slide-stepped the hard city sidewalks like a night watchman coaxing his bunions, commencing to repack the Volvo a little more after every lap.
The only paper trail I’d left behind were more deadbeat apologies taped to the living room record/bookcase and kitchen table. Slipping the guy’s door keys back into his mail slot, I coasted down Rivoli to clutch start the Volvo and its weakening battery, nevertheless hitting the radio to the untimely dirge of an Eagles’ sad-eyed ‘Desperado’. Speed dialing that away, I caught KSFC between Fleetwood tracks, drawing from its stranger-than-strange file that Peoples Templers had grown so paranoid about CIA infiltration that they were fishing around Russian, Cuban, even North Korean missions for potential asylum.
CLICK. “Ah-hem, excuse me, but you must clear this line…”
“Get off my case, dammit! I’ll be down in a minute, just let me finish here…”
“Kenny, I’ve got to run, anyway…”
“Moon, please,” I said, hearing ‘Mandy’ playing softly in her background. “Just a second, it helps so much to talk to you…uh, where was I? Oh, yeah, I crossed the Bay Bridge back and forth so many times, the toll taker waved me through. Then I stayed in this stupid motel about a block from her old place. I needed something to hang this all on, you know? Retrace some steps, get some answers—driving around and around her old block, never hit the pillow before 4 a.m. Then the bucks started running thin, so I hit this dump. You wouldn’t believe it, a real snakepit, I swear…it took all my strength not to call you before this…”
“Tell me about strength, Kenny. I’ve resorted to re-reading Erica Jong, even Kubler-Ross ‘On Death and Dying because of your spin-out. Tsk, I don’t know, you spend all our precious time earning two sociology degrees, then veer off on that advertising tangent—advertising! How sell-out can you get? Then this…I really worry about you and all the flipping around…”
CLICK. “Sir, time’s up, you’re approaching $40 now, I’ve got to cut this off…”
“One more minute, just one more minute, please,” I sputtered, kicking at the camera bag I had brought up from the Volvo. “Honestly, Moon, I’m trying to work through it, sort it all out…I’m wondering if maybe I’ve screwed up royally here. So what if you came out again, or…”
“Maybe? Look, Kenny, if you really want to work it out, you’re going to have to come back to Chicago. I’m not chasing one more mile after you, I mean it! See, I’ve made some decisions while you’ve been wildcatting around. Number one is, I’m here to stay for now.”
“Aww, you can’t mean that, I…”
“You betchum. And if you do come back, you best be prepared to make a decision of your own, and sooner rather than later for your own sake. I’m talking about commitment here.”
CLICK. “Fifteen seconds before disconnect, fifteen seconds…”
“OK, OK, mister. What other decisions, Moon? What’s going on back there,” I rattled, visions of Lester Mendel winging in as the crow flies from his fallow fantasy farm. “Don’t tell me there’s somebody else hangin’ around…you know, like because of that special rela…”
“Special what? Tsk, bye-bye, Kenny—safe trip, see you soon.”
“Aww, nothing, but…” I caught myself—Mendel family, mother of all loose lips-wise. “Moon, wait, gotta straighten some things out first. I’ll call you by noon tomorrow, promise, I…” CLICK, fzzzt, CLIck.
KNOCK, KNock. “Mister Herbert, open up, please. Come with me.”
“Yeah, yeah…hold on to your drawers.”
“Sir, must I resort to my passkey?”
“Com-ing…” Who belonged to that tinny little voice? It was seeping through the odor vents in this mud brown door, with its Y’s men ten commandments peeling away like Red Guard handbills, above the chain lock with its missing links. Neither had I gotten around to telling Melissa that I’d eventually wound up in the Central San Francisco YMCA Hotel—suiting me to a T at that late moment,meaning T for Tenderloin. Christ, I could hardly remember how and when I got down here.
“We don’t appreciate such fracases, you know…our guests aren’t …”
“Are you shittin’ me?” I asked, opening 718’s squeaky metal door to this gaunt, George Carlin-looking staffer in a blue Y-insigniaed sweater vest. “This place isn’t exactly the Fairmont or Hilton—they’ve got better cockroaches than you’ve got guests.”
“Present company accepted, I’m sure,” said the 50ish swishy desk clerk, straightening his Trinidad stingy brim fedora, stroked his graying goatee as he beckoned me toward the elevator. We were descending in a cable-slipping bucket before I could serve up a decent rejoinder. “But what would you know about ritzy hotels anyhow?”
“Seen my share,” I replied, feeling somewhat put upon by the dig. “Seen my share…”
The Central Y was this huge, blocky brown brick tomb—complete with a monumental arching Doric columned portal—that had belonged to the Tenderloin of better days, if indeed the district had ever seen them. We hit the main floor like a lunar lander, wherein I followed the clerk through a buzzer-locked steel security door and across a green tile floor, gone yellow with Glo-Coat, to his wire-caged front desk. All manner of aging cane swingers and early Emporium shopping baggers staked out black vinyl couches the full length of the avocado walled lobby. Everyone, everything looked so sickly lima green—it was either jaundice or the fluorescent lighting, these not being subjects in any course catalog I’d ever surveyed before.
“Let’s see, you owe $42.80 for the phone call, tax included,” the clerk tallied, before turning to hang some vacated room keys onto rows of discolored brassy wall hooks. “Payable as of now.”
“Traveler’s check?” I sighed, annoyed, fixing on the grosgrain ribbon band and canary side feathers of his raffia straw hat, half denying I was even in this place, let alone that I owed it forty smackers more—and was running way low on funds as it was, Syd’s reimbursement notwithstanding.
“Crap, I can’t believe this is happening,” I squared things up, then turned to storm away, dropping my wallet on the worn tile floor.
The desk clerk stood me off at his steel and glass security door, waiting a cool half-minute before buzzing the lock to let me out of the cashier’s counter. I stepped aside an arthritic mopper who’d handed the billfold to me as she scrubbed some heel marks with a scouring pad. Cleaning woman in a YM? I was in no inquiring mood here either, but did fix on her thickly calloused hands and gnarled fingers.
The aproned crone wheezed and thanked me for giving ground, without so much as looking up. For an instant, she reminded me of my mother, became mom at the Rosens’ holiday festivities back in Willow Grove—reassuring that she would never actually desert her only son, would stick by me, even after I’d sentenced her to plot and soil. She’d stand by me, bless her soul, even way the hell out here.
In an act of righteous cruelty, the Young Christian Men had once installed full-length mirrors directly across from each floor’s elevators—best face forward for rededicated, spit-shined scriveners and salesmen. But now, the mirrors reflected all the warmth and uplifting spirit of Travis Bickle minus the munitions and heat. I caught myself all stubbly and disheveled in the harsh overhead lighting, jabbing to cover my eyes and scurry into an upbound car.
As soon as the elevator hit floor 7, I caught myself in yet another brutal full-length mirror, Cuisinart hair, itchy jowls, unbuckled at the flannel and denim waistline—damned if I really looked that puffy and pale. I fled down the dim, split-pea hallway back to 718, busting ATF-style into the spare, 8’x10’ room. I flicked on a light switch above its black, no-dial extension phone. A small, white shade covered the flickering 40-watt lamp nailed directly above the bed, a paint speckled, metal-frame single with casters grooved deeply into a secretion stained reseda tile floor.
One more night, what was one more blurry night? Yeah, one thing at a time, take it a step at a time—totally on the ones. I tossed my keys and depleted billfold onto a tiny laminated wood-grain desk, complete with an obligatory Gideon Bible in the open drawer, and draped my plaid shirt over its hardback metal chair. That pack of Do-Nuts and a pint of chocolate milk would have to hold me over until morning. I devoured the sugary snack pack while reviewing Y commandments framed on the door: No yelling, no loud music, no drugs or liquor, no nude photos, no lascivious behavior, no smoking in bed. OK, anything so long as I didn’t have to hit the goddamn 7th floor head.
Unfortunately, that was like holding back the Raiders’ Black Hole. My head began seizing, racing in no discernible direction other than away from where I was. I paused to catch my breath, grab my nose, pressure squeeze my groin and dart down the hallway, across a dimpled turquoise carpet runner that clashed violently with split-pea walls and those red fire sprinklers clanking overhead.
Each mud brown door yielded a life current unto itself: 715 a shortwave radio, 713 a past-prime TV. Electric shavers, blenders, window fans, space heaters and vaporizers hummed through successive door vents between 718 and the head, marginally masking belches, chain coughing, game shows, country singalongs and long lost regulars reduced to arguing with themselves. Sounded as though 711 preferred a one-man dialogue, faithfully recreating the rantings vis-à-vis his cuckolding former wife.
“Hey, close that sucker behind you, a guy needs a little privacy in here,” a gargantuan old seaman barked as I rushed to push through the swinging bathroom door. His ham-shaped head was in a full mentholated lather, with one disposable razor strip over the top, like a figure-ground mohawk.
“Uh yeah, sure,” I gulped, wiping the sweat from my forehead with my regulation issue white towel as I made for the nearest urinal. “Whatrya…”
“Shavin’ my melon,” the sea lion studied me through the sink mirrors as I unzipped toward pisser number two. “Keeps the head clear, thoughts don’t get tangled up in the brush.” With that, he shaved carefully, back to brows, pulling his scalp taut with the other hand, steadying himself by propping his hairy beachball belly over the sink top. Barbasol clumps dropped down onto his beer-swollen abdomen, dripping slowly into the canyon of his navel. “Just like Kojak.”
“Don’t cut yourself there,” I replied, flushing and shaking, zipping away from the pot, startled by a loud bang, followed by hornish, elongated gas passing. A center stall beyond the urinals opened slowly, some wiry middle-aged dockhand emerging, skivvies down to his steel-toed work boots, waving folds of bun wad as if bon voyaging the QE II. In his wake, I bolted for the door.
“You’ll get your chance before you know it, Samson,” the shaver growled my way, licking errant lather off his chin with a swipe of the tongue. “Just you wait and see.”
I made it back to 718 none too soon, skirting over to a tiny mirrorless wash basin on a far corner wall, albeit not far enough. Its single cold-water tap had long leaked into iron erosion of the crystallized porcelain, a rust stain the shape of an organic yellow turnip. Damn, the fat bastard was right, I groaned, picking and pulling at oily hair, catching my reflection in a side window reflection against a brick wall of the next building over. The room’s overhead light shone starkly in this corner, revealing spotty patches of exposed scalp, top and back. It was thinning, like I’d never noticed before.
So chastened, I fetal curled up beneath a silt brown blanket and bedspread, reaching to kill the overhead light; a brief short circuit sizzle, and 718 went dark. Cold, stiff sheets chafed like a forced-march field pack on a mid-summer Fort Campbell afternoon. A wintergreen disinfectant flexed its industrial strength against pervasive bogs of errant excrement, losing to an olfactory stand-off between stadium troughs and the three aft lavatories of an Avianca DC-8. It was a stubborn, burning male odor up and down the hallway, as structural as the floor and walls, and traces of lingering weed and cigar smoke were freshly fragrant by comparison.
Still, foul cigar smoke? Streetcorner reefer badness? I traced it all to the door vents, along with some mumbling out in the corridor, which soon turned heated and onerous.
“Stuff it, cockbite!”
“You’re gonna eat that stub, mudderfugger, no lie.” Sounded like the seafarer.
“Yah, you’ll eat me first, bitch…” COUGH, cough…
I squirmed and kicked in the squeaky springed bed, restlessly grabbing at its metal spoked headboard, unable to place that second voice, but disinclined to sniff it out any further. My clammy, clenching hands soon slipped into the bed board’s paint-chipped grooves, dug by so many frantic fingers before me. It felt as though each dirty nailed digit had dug in firmly, scraping back and forth with bitter grit. And I couldn’t even begin to account for the dark, rumbling, nightmarinating hours.
“This wasn’t gonna happen,” I muttered out loud, rolling my head around the spongy foam pillow, ear to ear. She’s not gonna force me into this—nope, I’m not gonna blink again. Acidic images of our Golden Gate Park face-off poured over my surface resolve. You’re doing it, jerk. I’m back, so you’re coming back. She tapped that out loud and clear on my forehead. Shit, it couldn’t be her, she wasn’t my mother, right? Maybe wasn’t even her. No, it was them—that was it, them. Let’s see, one could, the other should. If Syd had come through, there’d be no phone call, right? Uh, uh, Moon was the one all along, just like I’d figured in the park…really. All told, it was getting awfully complicated.
“Put that damn stogie out, I tell ya!”
“Aww, kiss, kiss. Just come down to 703, girl. I gotsta a big La Palina for y’all…”
“Kiss off, you suckin’ fag…”
“You get the plot, honey…lights, camera, ac-tion.”
The voices seeped now like propane fumes through 718’s door. I wound tightly in the covers and pictured Moon running Seamus in Chautauqua Park. No, Sydney, racing me up to her sunlit studio. No, Moon feeding me lentils and carrot sticks after classes, on Norlin quad. That was it, of course—there she was, would always be. This apparent battle line was just shadows in the dust. Sure, she was just setting up the big, heavyweight homecoming for her California bronco buster cryin’ for home, toolin’ in like some road-burned warrior. And she’d take me in again, forgiving me, feeding me, tossing scraps out to Seamus with the wrens and tree squirrels in our Boulder backyard. It was enough to send me unfurling myself from the bedding, leaping onto the cold linoleum floor. “Shut up out there, assholes. Can’t a guy get some decent sleep around here?!” BAM, Bam…
Who was that? Somebody slamming on my wall, one room over. I paced furiously, then shot back over to that window mirror. Popping on the light, I took one more quick, cruel look at a faceful of purple-eyed trepidation. But back to bed before my feet froze, before those voices broke through the mud brown door, before some woman screaming down outside that window shattered my sole remaining reality check until check out at 10 a.m. Hell, I’d be out of this hole by seven, at least; had some serious thinking to do before lunchtime. Heh, not to worry, Moon would still be getting me for a song—damaged goods, but maybe too cheap, nonetheless…
“Somebody shoot that cunt if she don’t stop that screamin’ down there!”
The buzzard bluster voice again, coughing, wheezing right outside my door. Who were these scuzzballs, what were they doing out there? What was I doing in here? This was insane, the whole left coast deal, the way it was closing in—stokin’ a Panatella you fat-ass morons. Aww, forget this shit, get on back to Moon first thing. I propped up against the headboard, cold metal numbing my spine. That woman’s screams continued to rattle the window, while jolts of red and blue neon peppered in from the hotel sign several floors below. I counted the light flashes as they filtered through water-stained gauze curtains—anything to keep from up and looking down there.
Sirens converged on Golden Gate Avenue, out front of the Y; soon came one final, horrific scream, then silence. I really did want to look out by now, but my frozen toes still said flat no. Heavy morning, heavy decisions, had to bag some z’s—sink into these measly blankets, hell with the smell. Just keep counting the blue-red flashes, I blinked, tune out the police radios, sleep on it, it’ll come clear by sunrise.
“Bout goddamn time they shut her up…”
“Musta shoved a big fat dick in her yap.”
“You’d know better than me ’bout that.”
“Open invite, gurlll—you knowww whatst I like…”
These exchanges were soon drowned out by paramedic sirens, fading to bullish hall farting and more distant tuber, emphysemic coughs. Then all units screeched away, leaving just the clicking, flicking hotel sign, a dripping sink faucet, roach and bedbug warfare, and some residual lunatic roaming the hall, pounding door to door. Could have sworn I heard a news bulletin from his fuzzy transistor radio, something about a new beastly attack up in Lafayette Park. Again, now? Wouldn’t you know it—but what the hell, not exactly my bailiwick, not my…leitmotif. Naw, just one more night here, what was one more bloody night?
I furtively pillowed my ears, before thrashing, grabbing a handout card tucked under an ash-pocked night stand doily. It appeared to be some sort of feel-goodwill message, which I could barely make out with each flash of red-blue neon. Appeared to be double-sided, watermarked platitudes preaching to ‘Face Your Rage And Unlock The Cage’—with a flipside reading, ‘Face Your Fears, And They Will Disappear’.
Aiming to spindle and mutilate the card into a dented trash basket, I instead stuffed it under the pillow, filing it away for future reference and/or bust-out defiance. Had to be better than pounding the Gideon until ringing, stinging wake-up calls come break of day.
Care for more?
Chapter Fifty. A rude awakening
augurs some quick and dirty clean-up,
before mind-muddled kickin’ it in the ’Loin…