Chapter 51

“Saturn is conflict 
               good and evil, darkness or light— 
             pick at your peril.”         

        “Lord Jesus, wash all my sins away with your precious blood on the cross. Wash away this wicked, rotten old Sodom and Gomorrah city of sin!! Fornicators did not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Y’all can’t hide, God knows all about you!”

         In and of themselves, the rants and roaring might have been spiritually bearable. Reverberating off the Flood Building and BofA fortresses, however, and that solid Emporium wall across Market Street, the din approached sonic, if not seismic overload. This nearly isosceles confluence shaped Hallidie Plaza into an urban amphitheatre to rival Red Rocks after sundown. The acoustics seemed so badass that falsetto and basso profundo buskers abandoned stairwells and shower stalls everywhere to come sing the plaza’s praises.

          Point was, I just ruminated my way in to listen and leer, wrestling with the notion that when someone is there for someone, that someone has got to be there for that someone in return when the tables turn, right? That’s the bargain, the transaction—that’s how the deal goes down. You earned the degrees, she earned the ski-racked Saab and Uni Hill pottery lab. Just like John & Paul, Rogers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe…

          “Jesus Christ died on the cross for you filthy sex perverts, you dogs in heat! You better repent, it’s a fearful thing to fall out the grace of God, praise be—Satan all holdin’ you in darkness and rebellion.”

          Alongside the BART stair railing, where stiffs working and otherwise waited zot-eyed for surface MUNI buses to Noe Valley and Bernal Heights, a single snare drummer in wool vest and droop-brimmed hat set the beat Hallidie Plazafor the entire chaotic ensemble. Beyond some SF souvenir button stands and displays of Hollywood look-alike lithographs camped a Dexter Gordonish sax man and Stratocaster longhair with his baby Pignose amp.

          So it’s that your place is back there, for crissake, not out here. Getting on with it, pulling the life together that you’d sorta planned with her all along—that’s why all the work, right? So what that you’d never actually talked it out, put it into words or anything? It was subtle, low-key, unspoken yet understood—like the whole goddamn relationship was and had been from the start…

          CLang, CLAng, CLANG. An N-Judah streetcar chased a K Ingleside up Market toward the Ferry Building, like it was rush hour in Rosebud’s day, scattering jaywalking shoppers to curbsides and pedestrian islands. Two old-timers rankled and recalled more courteous crewmen on the dearly departed Fillmore and Jackson Street lines: hell, they’d even hit the brakes for a wayward soupbone spaniel.

          “Go ahead, reject the gospel. Reject the word of the Bible. Reject the blood of Christ, reject the hand of God,” bellowed a dog-eared sidewalk preacher. “Be weak with your self-indulgent passion, be sinful in your corruption. You’re the ones goin’ to hell, to suffer in fire and brimstone, not me, praise the Lord!”

          That was it, the clincher. You’re gonna get your shit together this minute and settle this thing. You’re gonna swallow hard, make your damn decision and go with it. What time is it?! Where the hell’s a phone…

           Snap-happy tourists encircled the chilly Hallidie turnaround, waiting interminably for the next Wharf-bound cable car to rattle down Powell Street like a fresh pinball, then erringly boarding the Hyde Line through a haze of MUNI misdirection. The mere prospect of that bellish, groin-tickling procession of overloaded cable cars crawling past Union Square up Nob Hill was enough to thaw their impatience, while ransoming the visiting marks to the turnaround’s highest bidders. In this case, it was a propeller beanied, banjo-picking burnout from the tangled, vermined wilds of Golden Gate Park. Granted, a strung-out Gibson guitar could be murder on Buffalo Springfield, but what the banjo delivered was wholesale slaughter. Were it not for the muting effect it had on his accompanying voice track, that capoed carbine could easily have precipitated a cease-and-desist order from David Bromberg, much less Flat & Scruggs.

          Not that the picker’s painful expressions slowed a gratuitous feed into his water pipe-decaled banjo case: pocket change and better courtesy of the captive cable-ready audience. Nor did the blew-grass impact a Wild Irish trio squat and clapping in the now midday sun passing the brown bag bottle around. Their bruised, drippy lids followed the banjo player through his set, firing into choruses of Jerry Jeff and Country Joe, red sclera filling with flashbacks of Hashbury in the acid reign, then toasting with another tempting toke on the bottleneck.

          “I don’t care if you like my message or not, you’d better line up on the side of Jesus anyhow. God’s not just whistlin’ Dixie!”  Harping, all but preached out, the parson resorted to common carping. Such was the prime-time competition in Hallidie Plaza that its latest religio-ranger was losing market share to offbeat musical vaudeville, however influential his executive producer. But damned if this preacher was taking it sitting down. He couldn’t. Not in his pressed-ham Goodwill slacks with the shredded knees. Sullen, sober as he was, those were righteous muttonchops angling sharply up to his black, gold-sashed Stetson.

          “You might see me proclaimin’ in New York, New Orleens—wherever they’ve heard the gospel,”  he caught a second wind, nodding my way in passing. “God gives me the spirit of wisdom to see through false prophets all over this wicked, wicked world.”

          All that Jesus jive, in Hallidie Plaza? Even if the guy didn’t get crucified out here, he wasn’t long for this particular world. These were touch spiritual times, and tough times demanded tough, full-throated measures. If the leather lungs and embroidered rawhide vest didn’t grab them, or the blazing stars and stripes scarf, God’s new-generation messenger boy wasn’t above a little hype. So the pavement-pounding preacher beat his breast through milling shoppers, prostrate vagrants, chess masterbaiters, tourists in waiting—occasionally waving a coverless Gideon for punctuation. Still, he couldn’t keep pace with the cacophonic music, the glitz/trash merchants, souvenir peddlers, Afro sketchers, velvet Elvis—much less the clanging cable cars or loudspeaker a bit further down Market blaring, ‘T-Shirts, 3 for $1. Designer clothing, $9.99’. Anything to keep those tourista greenbacks in rapid circulation.

          And I couldn’t keep up either. Hallidie Plaza was more piercing than a rockfest portaloo, with the pissy odor of sweat, spilled wine and sliced pizza. MUNI Streetcar I finally spotted a clock in the Diamond Palace window, then sprinted across Market, searching for a quiet phone booth, bucking in my haste for the sting of a squealing cream and green hornet streetcar—the very sort of trolley that delivered me back unto childhood CTA rides down Halsted Street past the putrid, meat-packed stock yards to visit mom’s Southside kin.

           You’ve got a half-hour. Get on the horn. Wait—was that 12 noon her time or California time? Naw, couldn’t be her time, her time’s already history. Gotta be your time. Her time would have been…uh…10, no nine. Was barely up at nine. She’d know that, right? Gotta be 12 here. That would be four there, no three. But, hold it, what would she be doing home waiting for you at three in the afternoon, or two? C’mon, she’s got better things to do. Bullshit, she’s there. Get on the horn, hear?!

          I pressed further down Market across Fifth Street through the crowded cross flow, past a vacant six-story department store, looked to be a heavyweight in its day. Now there were derelicts in the doorways, rolled up in Chronicle Green sheets like stuffed grape leaves over flattened appliance boxes, and strange, infantile freelance window displays: Cardboard buildings with Styrofoam skies. Save for the signs, as each successive window bore captions—a downtown-at-Christmastime approach long past their expiration date—kindergarten creative, recanting their charming little serial fable, chapter and verse.

          But at least the comixy displays bought me some time, as mid-Market decayed into skid Market, scarcely prime for rehabilitation. I explored them, analyzed and decoded them, to no cogent end whatsoever against a meld of warm sun and cool breezes—my mental ping-pong match having frozen momentarily at 12-love.  Then, just as I began catching their lunatic drift, I came upon the Wilson Building—a Polk/Percy design inspired by Ravenna, Italy’s Basilica of San Vitale. The seven-story office structure had been a Byzantine beauty at 973 Market since the turn of the century; its colorful terra-cotta scrolling and tiling accented a roasted umber foundation. Yet Wilson’s luster had dulled some over the years, no more so than on the ground floor, right next to Hardy discount blue men/boys shoes.  Here, the Palm Garden Grill had been lushly planted since at least latter FDR days. Its corroded blue and while Bell Public Telephone sign instantly caught my eye—there would be no more dawdling and waffling, no more let’s see/on the other hands, or any other hyper-hypothesizing, for that matter: definitely time for the dime.

          “What can I getcha?”

          Moody mahogany everywhere I looked, scarred, weathered wood paneling: The time-worn peculiarity of the Palm Garden hit me square on, reeling most any still sentient passerby back to John Foster’s dullest intrigues, Ike’s heart attack, Kennan’s containment, Truman vs. Macarthur, bread-lined Hoovervilles, chicken pots, speakeasy flappers, Woodrow Wilson’s follies and Cal Coolidge’s cool. And the soup-spotted jake behind the counter looked to have lived through it all.

          “Uh, just a coffee, lotsa cream,” I said, sliding down onto a low revolving stool in the recessed, yet al fresco Palm Terrace luncheonette. “How old is this place?”

          “Older than your ol’ man,” cooked the waiter, pouring a brown, java-discolored mug. “That’ll be six bits, pay as you go…”

          Before I could pin him down, the counterman scooped up my dollar, rushing through large, louvered swinging doors, never to return. Two other white-aproned sawbones soon took his station, as if they’d been changing guard ahead of the noon rush for decades on end. I sweetened then hoisted the lukewarm mug that even railroad station cafeterias had retired with the advent of bare bone china. My sips were drown in the echo of slurped chowder special up and down the earlybird lunch line. 

          “Pass the tabasco, will ya?”   

          “Uhh,” I searched about a rusty chrome condiment rack for anything beyond Heinz 57.

          “Naw, that’s Worcestershire. Here, I can reach…”  So did the BLT gorger one stool over, dipping his sleeve into my coffee enroute to the Louisiana hot sauce. It was a blue denim work shirt with a San Francisco Examiner breast patch, guy must have delivered newspaper bundles off the truck since Hearstian days. He also had to be a regular, because his daily side of goulash and coffee were apparently on the cuff.

          So the Palm Terrace luncheonette portion had become something of a workingman’s purlieu over the years—at least here at the ten seat walk-up counter. Except, that was, for the actuarial jokester two stools down, or the contingent lawyer types back slapping behind us through even larger swinging doors into a dark, stube-style Palm Garden restaurant itself. It appeared the counter was initially conceived as just a quick-lick appetizer for the busy mid-Market mercantile trade, however gaseously unappetizing as it had become decades on.

          “It’s like another world here,” I said to the veteran newsboy.

          “Yep, the sugar?”

          “By all means,” I pushed the soda-crackered jar his way with a sweep of the backhand, caffeine ready to talk small while I still could. “Quite a scene, huh?”

          “Just as long as they don’t keep havin’ that fruitcake freedom parade traipsin’ by.”  The trucker sharply tapped the dispenser bottom against Palm Terrace’s Formica counter to shake loose any sticky granules. “Damn fairies like to be overrunnin’ this whole town, takin’ over City Hall ’n’ everything. That Danny White boy is the only hope we got left. But I’ll say they do keep the ol’ ink flowin’.” 

          “Yah, well—couldn’t tell you about that…”

          Ding, dinG, DING, DING. An inbound green MUNI torpedo stalled directly out front of the Palm Terrace, riding some misguided Mazda tying up traffic with an illegal left-hand turn. The streetcar clanged and swayed incessantly as passengers spilled out its accordion doors. Beep, beep, screeetch. A vintage ’53 Plymouth Cranbrook, irreparably dented, but peppy nevertheless zipped between the pedestrian island and curbing, then slammed to a halt in avoidance of an overwrought, overweight señora rushing to the trolley.

          This frame of Market Street thus frozen, I stared off between sickly twin-potted palms at the entranceway to the snarled street scene beyond. Braced by the wobbly, wicker-backed stool, I pictured longshoremen and boilermakers haranguing each other on the L Taraval as it stalled inbound toward the teeming Embarcadero waterfront, from bridge to spectacular new bridge, a China Clipper climbing overhead. Suddenly, mounted policemen would have whistled off the traffic jam to make room for military bands and block after block of marching uniformed sailors and foot soldiers over from the Presidio.

           Crowds would have thronged out there along Market Street for glimpses of these conquering heroes, who formed tightly in perfect squares behind their respective regimental banners. Ebullient San Market Street of OldFranciscans flashed V’s to the passing parade; a brilliant sky radiated off placards, all of which bore the bold armistice letters, VJ. But snap to attention, Kilroy, time was a wastin’…where was this stuff coming from? And why did it make this late-born Kilroy feel so to home?

          I looked about me, transfixed as the torpedo rang on along. The Palm Terrace’s front counter tucked into its brown paneled alcove like card tables in an election day garage. Only its red-framed menu signs seemed to lighten the grease shellacked walls—several blackboards chalked with daily specials, others featured such hand-lettered entrees as tomato tripe or pigs knuckles and sauerkraut—all covering over a cracked, ivy-etched mirror over the cash register, running the length of the counter.

          My mind drifting once more, old ‘Terrace’ regulars sprouted sharkfin lapels, brass clip galluses and cocked pork pie hats. That Emerson radio over the steel flag register squawked some ditty by Teagarden or Artie Shaw, and the hep cat three stools over tapped his cleat-toed Florsheims against a black/white hex-tiled floor. C’mon dumplin’, it’s the Empress Theater’s Gable and Grable double-feature matinee for a cute little dish like you…hey, snap to, wake the hell up…

          “’Nother hit?” asked a white paper-capped griller wielding a glass pot of joe.

          “No, thanks, anyway,” I came to, one cup on an empty stomach being more than enough to re-solder my synapses. “But I could stand to use a phone booth.”

          “In the main restaurant, to your left,” said this oddly cordial new waiter. He seemed comfortably settled in his time capsule, telling a chowder head up the counter that the Palm Garden Grill in its entirety was one of San Francisco’s oldest remaining lunchrooms. It had even survived the 1906 Earthquake, so he said. To which a jaded suitcase jewel peddler was heard to reply, “Aww, bull snot—everything half interesting in this town is ’sposed to have made it through ’06. Next you’ll be sayin’ so did the Pyramid and that radioactive Sutro TV tower up on Twin Peaks.”

          “Thanks much,” I spun off the stool. Transamerica Pyramid, halfway interesting, I pondered, rolling a toothpick around my mouth, George Raft-style, as if in fact feeling right hunkydory here in an earlier life. Then I pushed through the weighty, swinging doors into another tick on the time continuum, somewhere between the League of Nations and Lend-Lease accords.

          Deeply tar and nicotine-cured mahogany prevailed even more so in here—from an arching back bar along the left wall to a glass paneled, inlaid tile steam table fat with pork shoulders, glazed hams and beef shanks sizzling under infrared heat lamps. Waist-aproned attendants in gravy splotched white uniforms ladled navy beans, turnip greens, okra and red cabbage from floating stainless trays—light on enthusiasm, but heavy on the instant spuds.

          This lunch hour line was an odd lot, at that: white collar, blue collar, yellow collar, frayed collar, no collar at all—churlish, demanding, hungry for anything but casual conversation or common courtesy. Flickering cup-shade chandeliers cast a thick pall over the dining room. Those dark wood-grained walls closed in on the Garden’s failing brass railings and marble tabletops like a stop-down aperture. Seemed its temperamentally rainy day habitues preferred it that way.

          I caught sight of a round, illuminated Belfast Beverage clock directly over the right-side cocktail bar, between stuffed bison busts and a yellow mural of the 1904 Knights of Pythias parade, replete with horseless buggies and buffalo bull-headed militiamen. Five to 12: the Palm Garden filled with a dull, smoky clamor, for here it was, countdown to noon. Chills rushing me, I slogged toward the vacant of two wooden phone booths to the far side of the bar, head pelted by tumbling dice cups and cymbal pealing dishware, nostrils and sinuses clogging as if I’d French inhaled a carton of Old Gold regulars.

          God, this place was salty, albeit in an intriguing Dashiell Hammett sort of way. I shuddered, sliding the booth’s door behind me, hoping for relief from some of the tobacco smoke, no such luck. My hands swelled and trembled, head bobbing on stormy seas as I kicked fully closed the accordion door—no overhead light bulb, either. Figured, making this call in abject darkness. Two to 12. I stood peering through narrow glass door panels, tapping my boot against the wooden booth frame, ears whistling like a steam locomotive at a cannonball flag stop. Deal with it, the bargain, compact, true commitment—these more precepts hailstoned my conscience in leaden bulk. Maturity, responsibility, adult expectations—balls, bowels?! Grow the hell up…

          My clear course further frayed and frazzled with each upward tick of that Belfast clock. Hard-earned love, respect, faithful companionship, tar babies! Wait a second here: model couple, emotional fit, umbilical cord—caring, whipped, tenderness, entrapment, fidelity, fear, family, freedom—what the whipped dick hell’s the matter with you?

          Once more, I focused out the door, picking at the booth’s pebbly metal panels, at the tiny, illegible graffiti between the bumps. Through the cigarette/stogie smoke and steam table haze, I could see Koblenz, Hamburg, Casablanca—could see clear back to Northside Chicago. I had my cameras focused on it, I was a camera, my eyes were Nikon F2s with haywire motor drives. Thinking selflessness, self-fulfillment, security, suffocation, challenge, peace of mind, household mire, fast-track career, grind, growth, breadwinner, bondage, study over, understudy, lofty art, grounded existence, existential freedom, Rust Belt, Sun Belt…wait, this was getting a little too crazy…

          There were no more havens, daydream digressions. Chicago: I could visualize the Twelve Bar and Billy Goat as I called out collect numbers to the operator, made all necessary connections. But those images quickly dissolved in the Palm Garden’s smoke and haze, to where I could picture my father bending elbows at the end stool of its amber lit mahogany bar. I could see him seated next to…Uncle Early, like it just yesterday, on some cold Friday evening after work sucking down Blatz draft and White Owls, the joint abuzz with further details about Pearl Harbor and the military draft. Those two were blathering away, buying desperate down time between daily obligations and tribulations, lost momentarily in the colorful Wurlitzer tavern lights, drinking themselves numb in the bitter darkness, dad momentarily blocking out his two-room Southside walk-up, fretting over any prospects of an inconceivably timed come-lately kid on the way. Here, there they were, toasting to Whiteman and the Dorseys, beckoning me to come over like a regular shot-and-beer palsy-walsy: generations twice restooled, as if rejoining for a nip to talk some sense into me. But not so fast…

          “Hello? Tsk, yes, operator—I’ll accept the charges…Kenny?”

          “Uh, yeah, Moon. I’m really glad you’re there…”

          “I said I would be, didn’t I? So I am—now, what do you have to tell me?”

          “Um…” Right, mind rushing through home life, happiness, domestication, pride, newfound freedom, new Saab wagon; emotional rescue, entrapment, enlightenment, firstborn, 50 ways…shape shiftin’, pride goeth, decision, non-decision decision, road forkin’ away…

          “Kenny, where are you? When are you coming? Are you in Boulder yet, or…”

          “Melissa, I…”

          “I’m paying for this call—out with it.”

          “I’m still in San Francisco…”

          “Tsk, oh, Kenny…”

          “Moon, listen, this is really hard for me,” I sputtered, twisting the coiled phone cord in my clenched fist. “I don’t know quite how to say it…but I won’t be coming back right now.”

          “You what?!”

          “I don’t believe I just said that. But I’m thinking it’s true. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve got to stay out here for now, sort some things out…”

          “Oh, my god. What in blazes is this about? What’s wrong with you, Kenny? You wouldn’t even have the guts to do something so haywire if I weren’t here backing you up! Don’t you know what it means?”

          “Yeah, I guess I do—the Saturn either/or decision stuff…still some unfinished business.”

          “Here I’ve been planning such a welcome home, with my father’s blessing and everything. He’s been so edgy lately, what with those bizzare neo-Nazis threatening to march up here to Skokie any day now. You’ve simply got to come back soon as you can…”

          “Please, Moon, don’t…I fully appreciate all the pressure you must be under back there, but no more ultimatum deadlines, OK?”

          Silence, the crackling of some party line conversation somewhere in Des Moines. “Pressure, me?! No, see, what this means is I never want to see nor hear from you with this yo-yo nonsense again,” Melissa said, with sudden, brickwall solid calm.

          “Melissa, please,” again, catching myself mid spill, family-wise. “I just can’t crawl back like a tail-dragging dog again…I’ve got to make this all right here first.”

          “Tsk, goodbye, Kenny.”

          “I’ll write you, I’ll explain everything…I promise!”

          “No, mister yo-yo, I’ve had it, can’t be minding you anymore,” she screamed anew. “I refuse to let you mess up my life this way one minute longer. I mean that with all my heart!”

          “Moon, let’s not cut off things like this, please understand that…”

          “No, you understand. Fully understand that you’ve just lost the best woman you’re ever going to have. But I’ve got to move on with my life.”

          “Melissa, I’m pleading with you to just give me…I mean, I’ll stay in touch and…”

          “Bye, Kenny—I’ll take good care of Seamus, for his sake. You do the same for yours…because I can’t imagine another woman ever actually putting up with you.” CLICK.

          Images of her, of her and Seamus in the mountains, cranking ice cream on front porch swings trammeled me. So quickly they dissolved in the Palm Garden smog. Suddenly all I could see was mahogany desolation, my dad and Uncle Early downing one last Blatz for the cab home, teetering out the swinging doors. I hammered the receiver, instantly re-popping in the dime for a local call. I whirled the dial oblivious to the numeric sequence, yet the number was up, just the same.

          “Hello, Sydney here, recordingly yours. But if you’d like to paint me a message, I’ll be sure to stroke you back…”

          SLAM. Double jeopardy anew. What was wrong with you, what the hell have you done? What kind of a man are you anyway?!  I looked up to see my father pass through his tavern’s doors, arm around Uncle Early’s shoulders, flipping his cigar stub into the wind. I kicked open the phone booth door to a Palm Garden packed to the railings—Ethel Waters seemingly reprising ‘Stormy Weather’ with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in the smoke-gyved air. And here I was, so infinitely, abysmally beside myself.

          Figured—what a fine time for the goddamn booth light to pop on…

Care for more?

Chapter 52. Resources hitting bottom, 
hitting up painfully back home, some 
‘brotherly’ advice prompts a sweet 
respite and Union Square confrontation…