“Bad mood rings Saturn.
Planet says no pain, no gain—
fear’s not far behind.”
“Oy, I knew I’d find you there…”
“Who do you think, Einstein? Sydney…”
“Syd, what the…”
“We need your driver’s license and coverage info, Kenneth—for the insurance claim. Plus I suppose I was a little concerned, the way you left, and all…”
“But how’d you find me here?”
“First place I called…no, second. I’d hoped you’d have sense enough to stay at the Embarcadero Y. At least it has sort of a view.”
“Embarcadero Y? Where’s that…” I pried open my right eyelid with thumb and forefinger, then craned my head up against the icy metal headboard.
“Forget it, Kenneth. I sensed you were in for a stumble, but didn’t think you’d sink like a rock. Honestly, how do you think this makes me feel?”
Morning was no kinder to room 718. It seemed more cell-like, its pea-green walls and battered, gimpy furnishings made the mud brown door a designer masterpiece by comparison. And that lone cold-water faucet must have dripped much of Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir since midnight. I switched on the overhead light and immediately denied my surroundings like a social drinker rationalizes the day-after’s roll call of dead and half-dead soldiers. My head hurt just as badly—only it wasn’t so much my head as my hair, from the roots on out. Did it hurt because it was thinning or thinning because it hurt? I resolved to ask around on that one.
“You feel? Maybe I’m missing something here,” I said, still marginally asleep, Cross, cloudless sunlight narrowly piercing the stained shade and curtains like crusted marmalade. “But I’m the one looking out a brick wall and god knows what below.”
“Hmph, if you think you’re going to lay some kind of guilt trip on me, you’ve picked the wrong mark…”
“Look, Syd, it’s what, 6:30?” I scanned the cracked walls in vain for a timepiece, settling instead on a broken three-bulb ceiling fixture, wires dangling and empty of sockets.
“Try 7:25, time to get yourself out of that sewer, that’s what. God, Kenneth, where’s your pride and self respect?!”
“Went with money supply, and I was just about running out of gas. Figured this was the closest place around, and was more affordable than the St. Francis or Jack Tar Hotel, okay? What d’ya want from me?”
“Nothing, not one little thing more than the insurance information. It’s just that somebody’s got to talk some sense into you…”
“And that be you? Last thing I heard was beat it, scumbag,” I groused, kicking the blankets off like backstroking at noontime in CU’s Rec Center pool. ”So why would you have any reason to…”
“Okay, maybe I was a little harsh, but you were so lame then.”
“Who are you calling lame? Really, I can’t see how…”
“Because we’re all little ants on this planet, that’s how—just trying to get along and get by. Like Daddo always says, we’re all here for a good time, not for a long time, know what I’m saying? Don’t ask me why, but I just don’t want any hard feelings.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got some hard thinking to do, Syd.” I proceeded to fish through my wallet and feed her my Colorado license and liability info. “Now I’d best go before the desk clerk cuts me off again.”
“Yep, he flipped out midway through a long-distance call last night. Nearly cut Moon and me off in mid sentence.”
“Right, what d’ya think? At least I owed her some explanation for this fiasco.”
“Hmph, I hate to tell you what I think, Kenneth. One little slap on the kisser and you’re running back to her!”
“So what concern is it of yours anymore anyway?”
“You’re so blamed predictable, it’s maddening, you know that? Oh, I guess I figured all along you don’t have the bowels to cut clean, and won’t be free until you do. Melissa’s still got you by your baitsim; she’s like a Sephardic herder that way. And you were coming to me, all Mr. Liberation. What a joke—a big, pathetic joke! And you wonder why I came down on you…”
“What can I say, maybe you’re right…” What could I do but stretch out and scratch myself. It felt like little bed buggers were crawling everywhere.
“There, see? Bucklesville, Kenneth—you two are sticking and clinging to each other like tar babies. It’s almost a syndrome, you know? Damned if I want any more to do with it, family or not. I don’t want to hear one more word from you unless you’ve done what you should have in the beginning!”
“Syd, you called me, remember? And you’ve already told me we were history…”
“And we are, in that respect…you can bet your keister on it. But even if you want to be, you know, friends, you’ve got to make things right…”
“Look, like I said, I’ve got some major life decisions to make, and have to bail out of here by 10 a.m., so…” Christ, what was that crawling on the windowsill, looked big as a bullfrog.
“Saturn decisions, huh? Good luck with that, flash. But if you ever cut the umbilical cord and get back on your feet, get in touch. By the way, drop that schoolboy sociology shtick, why don’t you? And the schmaltzy slice-of-Life photo thing, while you’re at it. Advertising’s where the money is.”
“I don’t know, everything is so bent out of shape right now…”
“I mean it, Kenneth, dammit, grow up. And you’d better not vanish or blow town again back east. It’s not like you’re burning with friends these days, you know.”
“Bye, Syd, sorry I…”
“Stop calling me that—and move out of that cesspool, will you? I freak out just thinking about knowing somebody who’d end up this way, or that people might hear about it. And you know how I hate freaking out…” CLICK.
“Syd…” Click, CLICK.
“She hung up, fella.”
“Gotcha. So what do I owe for this one…”
“Zip, local call. Let’s just keep it that way, all right? And don’t go forgettin’ about check-out time…”
This phone action slapped me like subzero Skin Bracer, cheek to cheek, so I let out for the latrine, Dopp kit in hand. A glum, graggy hallway greeted me, strewn with soda cans, potato chip bags, vending machine sandwich wrappers and the odd contraband Bud can and Gallo jug. Steam billowed out the rightside lavatory doorway, carpet runners leading up to it squished under my Vibram soles.
“In or out? Just close the doors, will ya?”
“Got it,” I smiled sheepishly, pulling the swivel doors behind me as I edged into the hazy washroom. They converged on my hesitant fingers like cleaver blades, forcing me fully into an ablutive clot unlike anything I’d seen since boot camp. Only this john was way beyond fresh and wide-eyed, with all the Army spit, but none of the polish. Nevertheless, I about faced toward the nearest washbowl.
“Hey, take a number, friend,” sniped a foul Pole in a wraparound Best Western towel and shower clogs. Sweat beaded the length of his soaring forehead, down a crooked roadmap nose as he slid menacingly toward basin number one. “Find your own damn sink.”
“Sorry, it looked clear,” I pivoted toward the pots.
“You blind, or what? My soap’s right there on the shelf, sheeit.” That his hotel-size deodorant bar was any different from anyone else’s was clearly beside the point.
Six more churlish, sobering faces stared down this bank of discolored sinks and cracked mirrors, hands jerking spring-loaded hot water faucets like the firing order of high-rev overhead camshaft. A last-gasp regular at basin five had rigged a chopstick-and-rubberband bracket to maintain steady flow, but apparently wouldn’t share his ingenuity, unless the price was right. Steam poured from the intermittently scalding faucets as all sinks hot flashed at once, obscuring further conflicts before they got beyond reason.
I just shrugged and unzipped to a runny urinal. This untoward morning agenda had already forestalled the day’s momentous decisions, but by now my pipes burned and bladder ballooned to where I couldn’t think straight anyhow. I was barely shy of a sodium starchy yellow quart when the scream froze me mid stream.
“Yeoww, crabs—crabs, I’m tellin’ ya!”
One glance over my shoulder, and I stuffed unfinished business into my Jockeys like a shoplifter pocketing a cotto salami. The aggrieved looked to be a hidden away AWOL leatherneck, inked to the elbows, naked as a Rodin, squatting in the toilet stall next door. He was nit-picking about his pubes and scrotum, and leaning full weight on the flush handle. “Bastaads crawlin’ all over me!”
I didn’t wait for verification, dripping instead toward the shower room, shedding jeans and Buffs shirt, piling them atop my hiking boots. But the sight of two middleweight brothers sparring naked around the pink-tiled common shower was enough to send me redressing to a coldwater shave back in 718. Dudes must have been going the distance, I shivered, the scummy shower water had stopped up nearly to their shinbones. Some guys, I thought, give them a pinch and they’ll take a vial.
Several sharp scrapes of a disposable razor, and my bleary face was a styptic pencil eyesore, clotted for the moment with tiny wads of toilet tissue I’d rolled off before the men’s room banshee broke loose. Wrestling into yesterday’s denim and flannel, I made off for the elevators, canvas gym bag in hand, shirking the tell-all mirrors, steadying myself for the main floor lobby.
“Had a bit of an accident, Mister Herbert,” asked the desk clerk, buzzing open that security door.
“What’ya working, swing shift,” I shot back toward him, in no mood for nickel-and-dime needling.
“Swing shift, that’s funny,” he said, scrutinizing his guest register. “Let’s see, no more bizarre phone marathons. So if you’ll just surrender the room key…”
“It’s not quite 9, check out’s 10,” I took note of the wall clock, just making a point. Fallout from the $40 call had yet to settle, and that ragging was tough enough. Yet here this Y’s-ass zookeeper was, on my case at daybreak, laying some outcast rap on mister clean-cut Colorado in a lobby full of crispy critters.
“Bear with us, won’t you,” the clerk winked, with a tip if his once dapper lid, glancing over to an eyeshaded sidekick—same blue vestment, no hat or hair to speak of, red-penciling his ledger. “Hotel policy under the circumstances, in the event you don’t return in time. We do have other guests here, you see…”
“Seen enough, for crissake. Appreciate the hospitality.” I tossed 718’s key over the counter and breezed out toward the foyer, feeling the heat of glaucomatous gazes upon me until I shouldered through Central’s metal-barred double doors.
Had to think, had to focus—line up the options, set up the score, make my own ledger, get a handle on the scenarios, take a good, long look down the road, figure out if it’s the one, the max, the goin’ rate, numero uno: My mind was suddenly running like Rach Three, began racing at Mach 3, the moment I hit Turk Street. I stepped around some brothers on the stoop there, under a ripped awning, out of sun’s harm—setting a little agenda of their own. All that remained of last night’s attempted rob and rape was a splattering of the haply woman-for-hire’s dried blood.
“Say bro, what’s shakin’? You be scorin’ some oregano?”
A stiff gust blew the tissue wads off my face as I trudged over to Leavenworth. I could feel the chill burn on a shot pattern of tiny skin nicks from my cheekbones to my chin. But I ignored them, just as I blew off the first of many Tenderloin rope-a-dopes dealing their clove-cut weed, circumnavigated the jackals over at Mako’s Market, hoofin’ around the hydrant, paying tribute to the rose Thunderbird in some turgid tribal ritual involving catcalls, hand-to-hand cigarette butts and bulbous brown paper sacks.
“Bastuds took whole thing, took it all—left me nuthin’, sheeit,” a hook-backed old broom pusher spit as he rifled through the upper crust of a corner trash can, flinging peels, wrappers and dirtbags into a jam of horn-blaring cabs and delivery vans.
C’mon, get it together, this is your life you’re talking about here—like maybe she really meant it, fool. You pissing that away, or what? Gonna let her slip away, just grind three years into the pavement like a dead Virginia Slims? Not getting any younger, you know, any hairier, that many more friends.
Turk Street closed in, four-story apartment buildings and SRO rat’s nests sponging up any sidewalk sunlight not claimedby boarded over parking garages and front-end and transmission repair shops. Case hardened Vietnamese children huddled in the piss-poor doorways, others scribbled on re-used coloring books behind iron security gates, or milling about bouncing grungy nerf balls, saucer eyeing the street life as though back in Chu Lai during Tet. Upstairs, their anxious immigrant mothers draped rinsed-out peasant garb on scissored fire escapes.
“Pick it up, Sunburst, pick the damn thing up!” Maybe eighteen going on 20, a bruised, bun-warming redhead dragged a layette and small TV set across Jones Street, with her runny nosed firstborn tugging a pink overnight case over the curb. “Hotel’s just up the block.”
I couldn’t help but lift her overstuffed bag up onto the sidewalk, the little girl’s mother glaring at me like I was some kind of pedophile on the prowl. But the reflex gesture only reminded me of Boulder kids running over to pet Seamus at Chautauqua Park, so too all the pumpkin bread abaking in the cabin kitchen, the steak sandwiches Moon would bring home from the Coach Light restaurant. Then the talks, all night—Christ we could gab ‘til sun-up sometimes, when she would make granola breakfast and head out to tune up her Datsun. How the hell she always knew where Seamus had wandered off, or tilled a seven-crop garden like it was a marigold bed, picking wildflowers from the foothills to brighten the tables. What the hell time was it? Where was a fuckin’ clock?!
“Hey, watch your step…”
“Yeah, sorry.” I nearly trashed out the played-out grifter, a slow shuffling question mark in two gray plastic raincoats and a cockled bucket hat, Safeway bags wrapped around his newsprint soled shoes. “Say, you wouldn’t by any chance have the time…”
“Ggrrr, you wannna hit?” Eyes to the concrete, the old man wielded his walking cane like a riot squad nightstick.
I skipped his swing as if jumping rope, and spun off up Turk Street before losing my Vasques at the kneecaps. Time, what the hell’s the time? All the fading painted building signs were for Tacoma Beer and Sal Hepatica, just like the music out of that ghetto blaster across the way might as well have been Teresa Brewer or Band of Renown. Or that boaty Buick up on cinderblocks there, its cylinder head propped against the parking meter—wouldn’t you really rather have a Roadmaster Hydromatic in-line eight? Where was a clock that hadn’t stopped when McCarthy still held the senate floor?
“Not to worry, baby, we’ll buy some more at the Greco Grocery.” Some wiry old Mabel in a frosted wig and tourniquet jeans flashed her white vinyl purse like a MasterCard at her strangely intense matinee studly, who flivvered a stub of a Marlboro through his scraggly Van Dyke and slurred, “We’re outta smokes, no more smokes—no smokes, no way!”
Beyond Greco Grocery, Turk doubled down in spades. Even the airlift and boat people cringed behind barred gates, for this was the bloods’ T-Loin turf. They be hangin’ on out by dirty-dozen gin mills, say the Tradewinds or Coral Sea, hauntin’ refugee liquor/food marts up the block. And they decidedly ruled on the sunny side of Turk, struttin’ to Sylvester and the Funkadelics—stakin’ their claims while the smoke and Richard’s sizzled their brains.
No bullshit, not ounce of bullshit in three-plus years. Not during term-paper weekends, not when she covered the rent—not even after eight ball marathons at Walt & Hank’s, pitchers to the winners with schnapps for a table run. Totally without conditions, it was unreal. So long as you didn’t dump on Moon she would back a guy 200%, topped with brandywine-berry turnovers, pouring some burnt cream and fresh organic cherries over it all, totally unreal…
The brothers shucked and jived and roistered for position in the mid-morning rays, slipping little baggies and prescription bottles around like pieceworkers at a spasmodic conveyor belt. When a blue and white SFPD patrol car turned the corner, they broke away to shadowbox themselves or an after hours streetwalker too drag-ass to fight them off. The cops slowed to spar with them all through half-cracked car windows, picking up a little sugar on the side.
Pop—pop, pop, pop. Wheezle—ding, ding, ding…wheeezzlllee—ding, ding, ding. At Taylor Street, a Chez Sands video arcade rocked with the simultaneous eruptions of three Meteor Men and two banks of Cosmos Invaders. “Lookie here, man, you stay outta my muthafuckin’ bizness. That coin filchin’s just too damn rude, dig?” This cornrowed chiseler read down a frenetic semi-tough by the corner newsboy. Then he picked the squirrel up by his motorcycle leather lapels, depositing him in a stationary trash container. Even the pigeons fluttered off from a greasy burger wrapper like this was a detonation in Londonderry or Belfast. Passing by, I happened to notice the lefty SF Lancer’s juicy tabloid headline: ‘White-Milk Affair Sours As City Toasts Gay Freedom Day Parade’—something about lactose intolerance.
Chez Sands main beachhead was its cornerstone position on the Tenderloin’s porn row. Behind the video parlor loomed a Chez Sans, a second wave of magazines, pulp and postcard carnage, about as appetizing as nasal oysters up and down the sidewalk. Workingman’s special: ‘small but’ dildos today only—the ultimate come-on being, ‘See a Flick With a Chick—Buck a Booth’. No Title Four sex discrimination here; it took in neighborhood draggies and transvesties bi storm.
But I just moved on, holding tightly to my kit bag, trying for the life of me to remember where I’d parked the Volvo. Even mom ragged me more than Moon did. Everything was cool, everyday she kept things wired together without bitching, no psyching it all out—just got it done. No pouting, no alienation of affection—no fuss, no heavy scenes.She made it so easy, could be better than mom that way…
“You been doin’ me like this for months, Levon. Ain’t buyin’ this crap no more!” Stretch jeaned and spike heeled, she stood about nine inches taller and outweighed him by twenty pounds. She looked right down on him, like she was on the curb with him in the gutter. But the hirsute little pimp in a pink jumpsuit tiptoed against a parking meter to steady himself. Still, this Amazonian Wanda in shrunken spandex and cashmere tapped him atop his pomade-processed head to press her point. “Y’don’t be takin’ that off the top no mo…”
Hardly receptive to more domestic distress, I stepped it up past more encounter pits and angled toward Market Street. Hell, she even looked like mom sometimes. Like those crinkled photographs in that Goldblatt’s Christmas box—the ones mom broke out on frigid Saturday nights when the ol’ man didn’t come home from the bars. The flapper portraits she had had taken at White City, by the carousel, with all the Oriental vases and draped velvet. Moon could even look some like those pictures now and then. Curly and cuddly, with everything going for her and no particular place to go. Because with all my studying and writing—so she’d fresh squeeze OJ, maybe help type, looking ready for the Rialto while re-inking the Royal ribbon. Then she’d start glassy-eyed dreaming of hipper, county-culty comforts like twin bentwood rockers, a new Saab wagon, her own potter’s wheel, maybe season tickets to the Boulder Rep. What time was it exactly?!
Several blocks of firetrap bookstores and lunched-out grills, and Tenderloin recesses popped open like a photoflash umbrella to the blinding excesses of Hallidie Plaza. The energy and commotion was overwhelming after all that sensory depravation—an appropriate locus in quo to commemorate the cable car system’s founding father. Here, nothing stood still for long, save perhaps for the lengthy MUNI queues. Cable gripmen rotated Hallidie’s cranky little cars on the Market Street turnaround, sending thrill-hungry tourists back up the Powell and Hyde Street lines.
Blaring autos and motor buses edged along Market, horning around the green and cream colored torpedo trolleys that had swayed and rumbled along these gleaming inlaid rail beds since DiMaggio played pick-up games around San Francisco sandlots. Directly below, streamlined BART trains subwayed silently enroute to Concord or Daly City, the outdoor escalators conveying passengers between the Powell Street Station and Hallidie Plaza chaos. Altogether, the scene was akin to a cutaway of some hobby shop ant farm, more often than not under ultraviolent light.
Well, what a sell-out slap in the face that is… There, up on a colorful billboard atop the Bank of America building to my left was a larger-than-life advert for Qantas Airlines, picturing a golden sunrise tableau of Australia’s yawning, parabolic-shelled Opera House. The poster’s boldface head was: ‘Escape to Sydney. A Harbour That’s Positively AUsome.’.
Speak of the FBC devil, all right. But what did that say about me? Was it going to be Dybbuking the tide all over again, or playing that Fear card in my pocket? Either/or, god forbid neither/nor—there was no splitting the difference now, splitting headache or no.
Then again, you wanted sociology, egghead, you’ve got sociology—a longitudinal and/or latitudinal field study—pick your poison. Really, theory or practice; foreign or domestic; lily white or worldly bright; publish or perish; penance or parish; zoom in, pull back? Still, what a test case to behold and unfold here, empirically out of left field, no control group or demographic stratification—only a lab clock critically running on borrowed time. If only I wasn’t so functionally double-blind, maybe I could have tracked down my car.
“Looking for something, son,” asked a grizzled work detail street sweeper, looking up from clearing a Market Street storm drain. “Always pleased to help a fella here in the city that knows how.”
“Thanks, but right now I just need to know where…”
Care for more?
Chapter 51. Amid praying to the
heavens, negotiating a circus midway,
outcomes are debated, a throwback
milieu sets the dial tone…