“Even help from safe
distance is likely to carry
body and soul just so far.”
“No, everything’s great out here, really. You all right?”
“I’m all right, but it’s awful lonesome back here sometimes—even with Dellis around. One day a guy’s got a family, next day everybody’s gone. That’s the god’s honest truth. But you don’t sound so hot yourself…”
“I’m fine, just getting things together—a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do, right?”
“Getting a little too old to understand anything—and my dratted stomach’s been actin’ up again, with your mother gone and all. That painter gal cookin’ for you?”
For a good, long while I had stood blindsided in the phone booth light, wondering what next until a mid-career liquid luncher tapped door glass repeatedly, Rob Roy in hand, gesturing me to make way for a hot sales call. From there, the Palm Garden Grill essentially cashiered me with a Glenn Miller Orchestral sendoff, Tex Beneke joining the one-time CU Buffalo in Miller’s last composition before his wartime plane went down over the Channel, something called, ‘I’m Headin’ For California’. Going out with a salute to the lunch counter, I caught a quick blast of Market Street exhaust, which snapped me back up to date, if not altogether to reality. From there, nowhere to go but up The Slot. So I pocketed my phone dime and swung away from the Grill, angling northward to douse an inner fire by wire.
“Uh, no, not exactly,” I said haltingly, trying to recall the last time I had even seen or spoken with Uncle Dellis.
“At least that other one fed you, didn’t she? A guy’s got to eat,” my father asked, between acid reflux pauses. “Found work, have ya?”
“Um, that’s another reason I called. See, I’m on top of the job thing, alright. But it’s kinda tight short term…”
“Well, s’pose I could drop you a little something in the mail, son. What’s the address there where you’re stayin’? Still at that phone number from last time?”
“No, actually I’m kinda camping at a hotel right now—you know, putting down roots,” I hedged, double-checking a clock on a rear counter clock. “But I mean real short term, dad, that’s why I called collect. I’m at a Western Union office downtown. And there’s still some bank time back in the Midwest today.”
“Son, can’t that gal in San Francisco tide you over in the…”
“No, dad, you don’t get it,” I sputtered, fixing on the phone dial rather than any of the eyes on me around the wait room. “This is for dinner and a room tonight—strictly a loan until…”
“Ken, are you really all right? What is going on out there,” he asked with rising alarm, but quickly biting his tongue. “Can feel my blood pressure jumpin’ already, so I’ll go moneygram you fifty. Just stay in touch, okay? We’re all that’s left, son, and a man’s got to know his kid’s safe and sound…”
“Promise, I promise. I really appreciate it, dad, you don’t know,” I said, drained with relief. “Remember, their Market Street office—and you take good care of yourself, hear?”
“Yeah, yeah, who for? Your Uncle Dellis and his barnyard? Like to drive me to drinkin’ all over again…bye, son…”
“Your fritzy stomach, remember? And dad, best make it a hundred, things are a lot more expensive out here. Talk soon for sure.” Click. CLICK.
Telegram Central was between Fourth and Third Streets, thick with mirrors, offering a single pay phone, from which I made this latest collect call. Not gleaming glass mirrors were they, but shiny sheetmetal panels in angle-braced aluminum frames, wall to wall, as if to reflect the anger, anguish, squirming and scheming of its desperate, last-ditch customers in waiting. So anybody who was nobody avoided them at all cost, staring instead at the floor, one another’s hand calluses, but primarily at Western Union’s bulletproof pay windows.
A few plucky wastrels seemed oblivious to their circumstances, gyrating in every bit of visual blowback the shatterproof wall panels could provide—preening, posturing in their reflections like overgrown prepubes in some carnival funhouse mirrors—anything to kill this gnawing remittal downtime. Tattoos on their forearms, hearts and shortcomings on their sleeves, others sat huddled in waiting room corners, fetal positioned on hard-ass benches.
This downtown office looked somewhere between a free clinic lobby and the deplaning area of a grounded fly-by-night charter outfit that had made one last unscheduled stopover. Hard foot pounding, finger snapping, gum popping, teeth grinding, bored sighing and deep groaning, with no insignificant outpouring of adrenal perspiration: The wire room wound tighter with each transmittal call-out. Even from behind the double-paned counter, the incessant clack and clatter of those teletype machines spewing their wee yellow tape penetrated like belt-driven dental drills, made all the more unnerving by a wall timer that kept reminding waitlisters how we were up against the closing bell.
Got to where I could stomach the wait no longer, the clicking and dinging, the cold counter calls, all the sweat-drenched detainee drama of hanging on every message as if it were a next-of-kin notification. So I guesstimated Prairie Crossing main street to Market Street lag time and bolted for the remote buzzered doors to get some refreshingly foul air, proceeding to scurry about the triangular block a half-dozen times, checking out Western Union windows each lap around. The idea was to kill time and clear my own clacker and ticker, which by now were sending messages even Marconi couldn’t decode. This was it, what you wanted, what you traipsed out here for? You gave up everything for a moneygram waiting line? This is your idea of a sound decision, using your learned head? Making the big move, totally taking charge, you fathead, only on somebody else’s dime…
Whoa, hold fire—that voice, that breathless, snarling voice crept into my skull again with a vengeance not heard since Marquette Park and Chicago Lawn, vehemence. I wanted to name it, to tame it, befriend it some but couldn’t even begin to pin it down. It steamrolled through me as I fretted along Market Street, up Grant to Geary, then back to Kearny down Market again, never breaking stride, struggling to override this hundred-car coal train of mind.
Aged, off-rez Indians reached out to me from over their bent-over walkers, peevish Jehovah’s Witnesses whispered from behind laminated copies of Awake!, Chinese school girls giggled my way, bushwhacker brothers offered up small vials of opium oil from incensed card tables. I passed sidewalk shoeshine stands, duty-free shops and screaming discount footwear and electronics stores drowning out the Camaro-trolley collision up Market, outside the Hearst Building at Third Street.
I shunned everything in knee-deep concentration, though not without noting all the downtown banks, all their funny old money—and that ragged old crow rattling the news boxes for any change that might drop his way. He was seemingly mindless of the two-star editions that front-paged a shot of Supervisor Harvey Milk grinning and gagging, pointing at the dog shit on his shoe, with the caption, ‘Milk’s Really Stepped In It This Time’: something about sponsoring new pooper-scooper ordinances at City Hall.
That was about when I spotted more movement on the Western Union front; a fresh slew of grubbers played the tickers for whatever juice and whomever they could squeeze.
“See, I’ve given up on the rock ’n’ roll gigs, really. Just need a couple of bills to get back on my feet, get things straight again. No, I’ve cut down on the boozin’. That whole losin’ streak’s over, I swear, really turnin’ things around. Bless you momma, what? I’ll write every day, you’ll see,” pleaded one rawhide, ragged flared hipster who looked like an underfed John Cipollina, working the payphone with stagy, winky pathos as I slipped into the waiting room. The moment he hung up, he turned to his Muldaur cookie and smacked, “OK, baby, the bag bit like a walleye, tonight we boogie…” And boogie they did, on out the door into the Market Street sun, likely toward the nearest liquor store, but not before checking out their road show in WU’s telegraphic reflective steel, firing up a blunt.
“Herbert, Mister Ken Herbert,” called out the crew cut, short-sleeved counterman. “Window one, have your identification ready.”
My turn. I stepped up with due caution to sign off for the moneygram, peripherally scanning the room for filchers or ambushers in wait, those mirror walls increasing their numbers exponentially to an infinite sum of connivance. Get in, get out—this wasn’t my trip, but just a minor, momentary stall. Christ, some of these leeches act like it’s feeding time here everyday at 2. Blood money, that’s what they were after, high-wire cash transactions from parts unknown.
Well, not this stiff, I’d pay dad back for…sure. I hustled my ass out of the waiting room without a second thought or glance, clutching my greenbacks, discreetly counting the benjamins in the bright light of day. Ninety-eight big smackers total, minus Western Union’s take—all there was between me and…this, or them. Eight ball, side pocket: time for a bank shot into that chain bakery across Market Street for a muffin, coffee and change.
One look at the display case price tags, and I swore off takeout pastry, settling for a medium coffee and cream. But that was more than enough to stoke me as I kicked myself down Market once more, counting off the blue and gold light poles, sidestepping all species of debris toward the Emporium. Truck horns blared, streetcars rang through my head, street life gaining on me from either flank. Hell, at least dad came through when it counted, when nobody else probably would. He’d give me his last dime—no ifs, musts or buts, no flaming hoops to jump through, no purse or apron strings attached. But then, gotta try calling her again, ring her back up. No. Better think this through. Gotta set things straight, right this ship, make things kosher. all around. Hmph, chicks—who needs ’em—carping, hassles, disappointment, that’s the bottom line. Try to please everybody, end up frying your lobes. Enough of that decision shit— duly refueled now, so there’s other bookin’ to do, people to see, people to be, goddamn right. But I knew what she was talking about, damned if I didn’t spot that ruddy face in this downtown crowd…like I’d just seen a face—I can’t forget the time or place where we first…
That voice, that indignant, table-pounding voice had tailed me, heartburn fierce as it had when I limped through the sauerkraut and cigarette smokescreen, splitting Palm Garden Grill’s brittle little Canary trees. I attempted to make peace with it, just as I had the past two nights, lying low inside room 718—distancing myself from junk food vendors and the latrine. Still, it kept breaking in, trouncing all over my brainpan well past 3 a.m. Somebody said something about mind control once, or was it biorhythms? I just couldn’t figure out whose voice it was, and how or why it kept getting jackhammer strong, caffeine depth charging my prefrontal lobe.
“Amen, brotha, turn to Jesus. Bless dat wunnerful name of Jesus.”
“No thanks, I…”
“Time’z runnin’ out. Lift Jesus high, brotha. Take mah yoke up in ya and learn of sweet Jesus…”
“Lay off, pops, I’m sorta concentrating…”
“Cogitatin’, is ya,” asked, reaching to hand me a wrinkled parchment tan flyer. “Here, cogitate ova this here…”
I’d barely crossed Fourth Street through a one-block blur, distinguished only by a fading red, white and blue crown atop an otherwise humble old Humboldt Bank Building. Greeting me at the corner hydrant was this rag pile hauling a sandwich board reading, ‘America Come Back to God’ in messianic red. Below that, in lower case black was simply, ‘But as the days of No’e were, so shall also the coming of the Sun of man be…’ What more was there to say to that? But a sudden gust flapped the board up off his stooped shoulders, detonating his raw oyster eyes in alarm. Yet the old coot shook it off, then pulled the sign down, re-cinching bowline straps tightly under his arms. His torn blue-gray raincoat bunched upward at the knees, revealing oil black workpants wrapped with green burlap for warmth.
“Gwan, take one, read it over,” he regrouped, gray stubble on cocoa skin, grinning three teeth to the wind. “For you own sake, put ya straight…don’t cost no nuthin’.”
“Uh, I’m really in a hurry,” I pushed away a handful of tracts heralding the Sacred Scriptures, the Great White Throne, the Great Open Air Judgment and Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth.
“Hold up, lawdy,” he sidled up to me, dragging his worldly sack. “Jus tryin’ to help, that’z all. Ya new here, friend?”
“Who isn’t?” I averted my eyes to the candy filled display windows of a corner drug store. “Far as I can tell…
“Not me, no sir. Bin here since ’43,” said the sidewalk savior, puffing along to keep in step past Market Street’s tobacconists, hosiers and dress shops. He had a mighty limp, as though bowl legged on only one side, which caused him to weave and list like the sail trimmer on a stormy sloop. “Come out from Mobile to build troop ships. How ‘bout youself?”
“Colorado,” I snapped, annoyed that the old bastard could keep pace, glancing instead at another inbound green torpedo streetcar ringing a double-parked UPS delivery van to the curb. “Chicago area originally…”
“Ah, yah, Chi-town. Sure, Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf…that what I talkin’ ’bout.”
“J. B. Hutto and His Hawks…”
“Whatchu know ’bout J. B. Hutto, boy?”
“I know about ‘20% Alcohol’ and ‘Speak Mah Mind!”, I said, as if to fend him off, firm up my bona fidelities. “With Sunnyland Slim on the ivories…”
“Den whacha bout Buddy Guy,” he coughed up a mouthful of pasty phlegm and spit toward the curb, another wind gust tilting his blue Cossack hat. He sounded 60, but looked 80 and climbing.
“Little Walter’s, west Roosevelt Road…” Check, checkmate…
“Bin dere mahself, bin dat vera place,” the street preacher rasped. “Joe’s the name, Brotha Joe. He extended his scaly hand and more leaflets. “What yourz?”
“Ken.” Again, I shook him off, and gulped down my cream and sugar, so he passed them over to an onrushing Latina file clerk, late on the lunchtime return.
“Ken, from Chi and Colorada—mah pleasure to meetcha,” he said, shuffling along to keep a short step ahead. “See, Iwaza boxer in doz dayz—light middle, boxed in Chi-town many’z a time. Yah, boxin’ ’n’ da blues—went 33-0 ‘til Big Benny Williams right crossed me into da thrd row. Havn’t smelt worth a hoot since. Couldn’t face da wife afta dat, so I just lit out dis way for work…iz betta for doz ol’ bones out here anyway.”
“Really,” I replied, trying to shake him off like my coffee cup into the trashbasket, getting sideswiped by a Guns ’n’ Roses punk skateboarder.
“But dat was ’fore I gotz da callin’. Ain’t no fighter no more. I’z a lover, lovin’ on Jesus. Yep, n’order to be wise, you first gotta be a fool, good Lord know…”
I slowed to half steps while the old man caught a breath and re-cinched his signboards. He then leaned against a mid-block trolley wire pole, fine tuning the newspaper soles in his oversize oxfords, scratching his swollen ankles, before wedging into a thicket of afternoon shoppers and sidewalk skulkers eyeing them on for size. I found myself keeping pace, since I was heading south anyway, when it hit me again, this where you’re headed, roaming the streets like this derelict old Delta magpie? What the fuck’s with you? Yet oddly enough, I stayed with middleweight Joe like a ringside cut man, if only for the utter pathology along Market, the mean deviancy of the place. So snap to, keep clinical distance, some semblance of professional calm…
“Lawdy, one day woke up from this dream,” Joe rambled, “wazon white clouds preachin’ to deez messa sinners. Waz readin’ mah sermon off’n da roll of a gold player piano. Felt lika king, been revelatin’ out here eva since…”
He broke mid rapture, bracing for the crowds whirlpooling in and out of the Emporium. This behemoth of a half-block beige department store was mid Market Street’s final mercantile link with old San Francisco respectability around then, the last place a Cadillac Brougham or Mercedes saloon would dare venture unless metaflaked purple or pink. A sea of prospective apostles, though Joe could barely bait his line. Still, bulldog stocky, he charged into the swirls of limo matrons, wary strollers and schools of shopping bag slaves, pamphlets flying, sandwich boards waving fore and aft. Momentarily, he’d spin off the pedestrian eddies, then limp over to a trash basket to regain his bearings and just enough breath to bellow his next ‘Turn to Jesus’ appeal.
“Better ease up there,” I said, joining him between the basket and Emporium’s sidewalk flower stand. “Before you keel over or something.”
“Me? Not wit Jesus by mah side,” Brother Joe wheezed, wiping a blue hanky across his brow. “I serves the Lord, He look afta me. Thas God’s way, praise be. Pray to Jesus…”
“Hey Joe, watcha know,” yelled the florist, reaching out of his color rich, covered flower stand, handing the preacher a pink carnation for his frayed lapel. “Still shovelin’ out as much holy bullshit as you can, huh?”
“See, boy,” he winked his cataract eye. “Lord keep lookin’ mah way, protects hizzown, dontcha know…” Then he rallied to shoot over just beyond the store’s entranceway to some of his spiritual cohorts: Sister Blain of the Harbor Light Mission and Emelia, a blind woman who had tooled her zither beneath Emporium show windows since Packards, DeSotos, Kaisers and Crosleys were all the doormen’s rage.
“Take care of yourself,” I said, drawing up beside him one last time with unexpected concern. “Gotta go…”
“Amen, brotha,” Joe smiled, as he reached down stiffly to pet Emelia’s pet Shepherd. He fed the guide dog several oyster crackers from his coat pocket, then struggled sorely back straight as he could. “All God’z children look afta dey own.”
“Good talkin’ to you, my friend,” I grinned tightly, palming the tracts that went with Joe’s aching handshake.
“Rememba, come to Jesus, join da Kingdom of Heaven, ’n’ you gonna reap his bounty. Hezon your side, Chi, he stay wit you when you own kin’ll turn you away.”
“Oh, the jury’s still out about that, Joe, but I’ll read your material and keep it in mind.” I turned away toward the crosswalk to Hallidie Plaza.
“Just stay clear dose devils ova dere,” the old man spittled, pointing across Market Street. “Dey think dey spreadin’ God’s word, but dey really just pruggers, blasphemin’ satans! I bin out here for years, tryin’ to spread the joy of the Lord. Dose kinda devils ruinin’ it all, gettin’ everybody mad at Jesus!”
“Well, keep the faith, Joe,” I started across the yellow stripes in the diesel wake of a MUNI motor coach. “See ya.”
“You come back, Chi, you come back ’n’ see me. Yessir, Brotha Joe’s here everaday, all right—servin’ da Lord, praise be—thisz a good town, you know…”
Clang, claNG, CLANG. An outbound M-Line streetcar cleared the crosswalk, halting pedestrian traffic from both directions, me pulling up the rear toward a center island. Stepping off, tripping over a trolley rail, I glanced back at the still sunny side of Market, where Joe stood singing spirituals with Sister Blaine. Then he fished fistfuls of leaflets from his double-strength shopping bags, hobbling over to hustle up some more silver-haired matrons as they emerged from the Emporium’s majestic, galleried rotunda.
“Go ahead, go ahead, reject the Lord Jesus. You’re the one’s goin’ to hell,” screamed that gad ten-gallon preacher on approach, menacingly waving his bible at passersby. “You’d better line up with God right now, you vile, sinnin’ heathens…not me, I’m with Jesus, I’m gonna be saved, all right!”
The cowboy Christian shook and kicked his rattlesnake boots at the tourists, shoppers and gutter mortals, getting in my face some as I drifted toward the plaza’s cable car turnaround. Maybe Joe got it right, over consecrating with department store propers, not bible belting here on the shadowy side with demonic stares. Shade notwithstanding, since Jasper O’Farrell first plotted Market Street on a 54-degree angle in 1847, the high road had risen here north of The Slot, low road loading docks, jobbers and flophouses to the south. Not that the city engineer actually planned this de facto, sociographic downtown Mason-Dixon Line. The mercantile déclassé just gravitated over there, save for the Emporium’s lavish window displays, its atomizer fragrance of orchids, cymbidiums, Arpége and diesel fumes.
I dido handed the snaky prophet Joe’s tracts without missing a step. One look, and he manically rolled them into a baseball-size wad, batting them away with his bible. Then he thumped his testament and stared lightning bolts across at Brother Joe. Divine providence had an inbound streetcar shield the old middleweight from further fallout. Pruggery, huh…well, what the hell’s the matter with you—hanging with the losers. The old fart ditched his wife over a first-round knockout, sound familiar? Better sit yourself down, fool, take stock real fast. Go get some more coffee pansy. You’ve still instant decisions to make…
But wait a second here, you’re a sociologist—Sydney and Reno belt buckling to mind—you’re supposed to help derelicts like that. Just look at how Market Street is petri dishin’ it out will you? For one thing, what were the statistical probabilities of Brother Joe putting the skids to his losing streak, let alone of my losing mine? If nothing else, do it for Sunnyland Slim…
I stopped to peer through Woolworth’s windows, in the general direction of the dime store’s long, stool-filled lunch counter, albeit with right hand firmly on my jeans’ front pocket—could have sworn I spotted a vaguely familiar face sitting in there too. Christ, I reflected further yet: for such a supposed ungodly town, this religious stuff was everywhere…
Care for more?
Chapter 53. A much sweeter, more
continental-style interlude begets
clashing social circles on the Square…