“Getting sidetracked can
take its toll, depending on
how afar and steamy the stroll.”
“No cash, no bash—don’t you be wastin’ my valuable time.”
“Think I’ll pass. But lotsa competition here, huh?”
“What can I tell you? This is still a wide-open town, I don’t care what they’re sayin’…”
I’d wandered off from Union Square with the outlines of a stratification study and keen impression that the women grew taller and tougher out here in California. Having vanquished the vermin, St. Francis socialites had repaired to St. Francis, the hotel, to toast their moral victory with tonic and bitters. Leaving behind the bench sunning store and office clerks, dickering, bickering drifters spread out all over grass and bordering grounds. I myself gravitated through Geary’s theater district, back downhill on Leavenworth in search of the basics, not least my car. I’d even grabbed a few loose luncheon canapés and varietal veggies on the way, but couldn’t shake the pigeons, no matter what. That fingered food carried me over near the Hilton Hotel tower on O’Farrell Street, where I came across this lady of the early evening, and what she had to offer. Which had recently been decriminalized by City Hall, until Mayor Moscone was forced to change his mind on that by the political pols and polls.
“Yeah, way I read it, the gospel according to Margo St. James,” I said, dated Clarion and Chronicle under my arm, side eyeing her sheer peignoir up and down, soft and rounded for a low 30s figure. The unabashed red pasties and G-string under thigh-length gauze, her flaming red hair were no less incendiary. “I read somewhere about the police chief and that Hookers Ball deal last fall.”
“It’s professional sex workers to you, honey, we have our pride…”
“Right, like regards that, I thought maybe we could talk about feminism, the whole women’s power phenomenon,” I looked away, clinically speaking—for all intents and purposes anecdotally, if not empirically adding to my socio database. “You know, from your perspective…”
“Perspective? Move along, Opie, I’m conducting business here.”
There I left this nigh twisted transaction, with a pounding head and sinking heart, walking through a dimmer intersecting tableau of Tenderloin grit—Leavenworth to Taylor, Ellis to Turk. For several hours of skirting voices, seeking answers and resolution, I searched in vain for the Volvo in question. Mid-blocks, or on most every corner, stood lots of vinyl hot pants, circulation cut-offs and purple velour mini-skirts, harlots wearing navel-grazing necklines and knee-high platforms, stuck in preening, provocative poses like imperfect Barbie Dolls on a wildcat-idled assembly belt. The Tenderloin was either hookee heaven or hooker hell, one-stop johns from the Hilton and beyond, trolling for more supple supply on demand, critically grading on the curves, looking out for cops on the take for bookable misdemeanor mischief.
In my case, it was still more or less decision time, but this Socratic method was running me in circles as I shot things up and down the flagpole. Streets slick with oily spittle put the skids on any quick, clean resolution, not to mention downhill traffic from DWI Gremlins to storming graveyard-route tour buses. And the contact high from lids of Mendocino primo being chaffered on every other corner made my already wambly thought process little sharper. I had walked the whole scenario around and through ’Loin sleaze for several sole crushing hours, fondling tighter and tighter the hanky around my modest pocket wad, before resigning to one more night at the Central Y. Was just booking a reservation, whether actually opting to use it or not—clinging to an in, hole carding an out—still regressing to the mean.
“I’ll sue! I’ll sue, you bastaaad,” ranted a walking wounded Tenderfoot halfway through the crosswalk, waving his plastic grocery bag like the scales of justice at a non-stop turning Bay City cabbie who nearly took him out, before speeding away. “Takin’ down your number right now, yah your crackbrain jig is up, you…you…”
“Damned no-account taxi hacks, can’t trust them,” I steadied his course. Turk and Leavenworth, Leavenworth at Turk: I scanned its four corners with a fisheye sweep, placing the likes of that redhead and her swinging pasties at every turn, but spotting no less treacherous path through the intersection. Across Turk, the Crazy Eights Club dealt a loudspeaker blast of Parliaments and goldy moldy Motown, funky brothers strutting in and out of red glass tiled entrance, catching their Afro reflections off pitted stainless steel doors. Eights’ neon highball goblets cast a rose or gimlet green glow over the entire corner in alternating five-second pulsations, beacons to a shot and beer trio jaywalking across Leavenworth, numb to their peril. Along those lines, I wondered how I could get so brain-drained thirsty at a time and place like this.
“I dare you to split on me!”
“I just did, and I’d do it again,” shouted a tight white flared blade. Pompadour caving, Hawaiian print shirt flapping out louvered swinging doors, he paused and turned back, finger waving, toward a voice shrieking from inside a cater-cornered rawhide bar. “With you, it’s Harvey this, Harvey that—I mean, you’re really Milkin’ it, Donald. Well, I’ve got some good ideas, too…””
“But don’t you understand, Timothy, he’s our savior, our messiah,” replied that voice from the darkness. “Didn’t you see him at the parade, making that brilliant speech with the Gay Men’s Chorus behind him? Come back here, I tell you, we can talk this out…”
“Hmph, he was like a movie queen on the back of a convertible,” the outsider huffed, slump shouldering his way back into the bar. “And you know what can come of that!”
Jacque’s Strap had no front windows, club owners having boarded them over with black plywood. Mandarin orange floodlights modestly illuminating an athletic supporter-shaped logo, the bar resembled that one house in the neighborhood that seldom if ever raised its shades. Still, the swung open doors revealed a dark, low-ceilinged barroom pelted with purple and yellow strobes, generally middle-aged buckaroos bent elbowed, back to the bar, saloon style, eyes on the dance floor, rubbing thigh to thigh.
Rather looking askance, I hadn’t a clue what that scene was all about, wasn’t at all curious, sociologically or otherwise. So I instead clawed the wind-blown hair out of my face and trudged over the remaining Turk-Leavenworth crosswalk to a far corner liquor/grocery. Get off the street, asshole, before they think you’re one of them. But the Y’s any better? You’re zonked, for chrissake, gotta eat something. So get the room, one more night in that goddamn room…
A huge neon sign glowed blue blazes above the Toledo Market, six stories of torn curtained bay windows and laundry-strewn fire escapes loomed dimly atop that. Crowding the market’s doorway, leaning heavily against its steel grilled windows, was a hive of Tenderloin brothers, buzzing about the storefront after cash and carrying their hourly transfusions.
Menacing as they first looked, the bloods lent an air of vigilante stability to the intersection, seeing as how San Francisco’s finest rarely ventured out of their squadrols to aid the ’Loin’s dizzy stiffs. Hookers even used them for patrol boys, to stare down roughhouse pimps and chase down deadbeat tricks. After a rasher of skank eye, those nearest the doorway allowed me into the no-credit, no exception package pantry. The Toledo was a junkyard market, six cluttered aisles of SpaghettiOs and kippered snacks, with caselots of Campbell’s cans and a whole wall of chilled malt liquor and tawny port. But it was thickest with mirrors—a supermarket, K-Mart, Walmart warehouse of mirrors.
Two Syrian ex-pats behind the counter had rigged them so they could watch every dusty inch of the Toledo from every conceivable angle: head-ons of their pretzel rack, overheads of the dairy coolers, floor shots of the pain relievers/toiletries, ¾ frontals of the Spam, canned ham and single-serve corned beef hash. The proprietors monitored it all like Houston ground control, leaving the ebb and flow of local commerce gridlocked in mutual suspicion and contempt. Accordingly, I shuffled over to the beverage case, clutching my handkerchief, catching my image from every unflattering angle, pulling out a 16 oz. cola.
“Plus just one of your sourdough rolls there,” I pointed to a countertop bread case as I approached the Syrians, making clunky conversation to ease the transactional friction. “Big dinner out tonight—spare no expense…”
“One thirty-five…” No smile, no smirk, little or no service: The taller of Toledo’s proprietors rang me up, barely taking his eyes off the mirrors. Those junkies over by the snack racks didn’t stand a chance. “Bag?”
“Yeah, why not,” I fingered through my pocket wad, feeling the hot, alky-ashed breath of a wino or two over my shoulder. Unrolling two singles off the top, I grabbed a nickel mint and the too small paper bag, rushing toward Toledo’s door. “Much obliged, I’ll be sure to spread the word…”
The Syrians had already sacked up a jug of T-Bird for the oenophile to my rear as I negotiated the store’s doorway, eye on a departing mirror image, mind on getting away clean. I squeezed between a trio of off-track handicappers and a street sister in tight red velour and black boleros who swayed with authority toward the brothers in arms, one of whom reached down to pick up a handkerchief wrapped roll. “Hey, man, dropped sumthin’ there…”
“Uh, yeah,” I stopped dead in my tracks, as the Toledo regular handed me my wad with bloodshot, linebacker eyes. Couldn’t believe mine, for that matter: How I could let my measly bankroll squiggle so mindlessly from my damn pocket? “Thanks, you don’t know…”
“Good karma, bro,” he nodded coolly, as I relieved him of the wad. “Try dishin’ it back sometime, dig?”
Dusk setting in, I calculated that it was back to the Y Hotel or bust, having left a few minor items in 718, already being down to roughly $86 and change. Slipping past the desk clerk to the elevators proved whispery smooth going; the room door, no such breeze.
“Keyholed, some jerk jammed up my lock,” I spouted to the usual, wide-brimmed night clerk downstairs, cleaving through a packed lobby with a smiley face notice that had been attached to 718’s door handle, reading ‘See the Desk’.
“Not jammed, blocked,” smiled the Carlinesque clerk, continuing to stamp his ledger. “Checkout time came and you hadn’t renewed. We had no choice…”
“B-b-but my stuff’s in there…” I stabbed at my pocket anew to secure my bill roll. “What, you thought I’d skipped town or…here, let me…”
“A person who racks up a $50 phone call is capable of anything,” he caught my eye, as if to forestall any notion I had to begin pounding on the counter, pointing me toward a small office down the lobby hall. “But sorry, 718’s already booked for this evening, and your personals have been boxed up in lost and found. We have a full house as of now, but you’re welcome to hit the waitlist.”
“Come on, I’ve got to have 718. I’ve grown really attached to 718 and everything, where the hel…” I blinked, creature of habit, signing on—then turning away downcast into a lobby that seemed more like a rubber room with soiled Depends. Few of the gathered were regular tenants; even fewer were regular at all.
Hunched, slouched, slumped, coiled: it was as though the ceiling were a huge hydraulic wine press, stuffing them down to knee level, squeezing them dry of any reasonable, hopeful life, leaving the pulp for some renderer who never showed. Among the Central Y’s lobbyists were the bent, the broken, older than young men—but too many were still young enough to know better. Most were just marking time, making piddly-ass dope deals over half-chewed candy bars and re-smoked butts. But what was the Y to do about it, pack them off to a West Oakland shipping container? How bloody Christian was that?
Click, click, click, ding. Click, click, click… I glanced over to one small corner of activity, however, a bank of relic IBM typewriters, steel bracketed to a walnut-panelled wall. Chained to the casehardened frames were one-each orange plastic chairs; chain-smoking in the far seat was an inordinately peculiar little man. He paused only to pump another quarter into a timer box, laundromat style, buying another 15 minutes of drifting margins, chipped characters and unexpected returns. The vintage electric machine hummed like an overloaded cement mixer and aborted at will; but this baggy brown suited dervish was not to be untracked. He looked like he’d been hunting, pecking at the workforce since Owl Drug was perched on Powell Street, and the States Restaurant across Hallidie Plaza offered dancing and a floor show.
Tanked on vending machine coffee, he pounded out letter after letter, folding and stuffing them neatly into pre-addressed envelopes. His stubby fingers sometimes overran the keyboard, or a type ball would jam with the falling ashes of his gnashed cigarettes. I sidled up to him to relieve some ennui—an encounter, as it happened, fraught with indignation.
“Job hunting, huh,” I asked, figuring him to be at least comparatively productive hereabouts. “What’s the good word?”
“Back off,” the typist sent up a Taryton smoke signal of annoyance, cranking his manual return.
“I hear ya,” I nodded, straining to read what appeared to be a bare bones resume. “Am up against the same…”
“Get away from me, I’m warning you,” his cantaloupe head swiveled violently, ashes flying, eyes flaring behind bi-lined safety lenses, chomping his cigarette to within a silly millimeter of its fire. Just as he turned back to the keyboard, his time ran out. “Or I’ll punch you in the nuts.”
“Hey, no sweat,” I did in fact backpedal, sliding my brown paper bag defensively over my fly. “I know it’s got to be a tough town job-wise, but…”
“Goddamn queer,” he popped in another quarter and pounded away. “You after that crap, go up to the seventh floor!”
“A Mister Ken Herbert, to the front desk, please,” shouted the night clerk, over the lobby wide murmurs and IBM hum. “We’ve had a last-minute cancellation on your room.”
When I finally returned to 718, personals box in hand, the room’s door was ajar, and two clean towels had been placed bedside with a sampler bar of Camay. Nothing had changed otherwise, save for the fresh scent of Lysol and layer of Tenderloin street dust. I closed the door and window, but couldn’t bring myself to flick on the room light, nor to doff my jacket or untie my boots. I was here, yet wasn’t here—return disengagement—it’d be another ten hours in limbo, then out to my getaway car. Yeah, I thought, washing the sourdough down with Cherry Coke, really set me up again, another night in this purgatory palace, half the place sizing you up for an end run. What a big-ass go for glory, for the California gold—probably end up next to that horn-rimmed melon head, pounding out resumes to nowhere at a quarter a throw…
Against all impulses, I lifted the towels like they were asbestos contaminated and shuffled downhall to the head. Pushing through its louvered door, I heard shushes and scurrying not wholly unlike that of cellar rodents moments before the lights come on, except for two prima donnas too busy wet-comb preening at the sinks to notice more poorly groomed intruders. I skirted that fuss and frizzle, much less the showers, holding my breath enroute to the toilet room, almost wishing I’d relieved myself in 718’s little basin. All four rust pinkish metal stalls appeared to be occupied, the farthest only partway closed. I felt like a ‘Let’s Make A Deal’ contestant. Then came the audience participation.
“Hush, giggle face…”
“Yah, hush up, bitch!”
With banter like that, I opted for the half-opened door, figuring that whatever lay behind it was the lesser of four evils. Wrong. Someone had left his mark: two rolls of streamed wet bunwad and a jackpot of screaming trots amid rancid graffiti: graphic bestial positioning and odes to indiscreet rim jobs, replete with numbers and times. Hell on the appetite, but no match for my gaseous insides, so I took to peeking under the remaining stalls. Trouble was, all were evidently occupied, although none of the feet were facing front.
Beneath door number three, a pair of scuffled cordovan Wee-Juns pointed wall ward, rocking back on worn heels periodically before toeing in tightly to the bowl. The lurches were timed ominously to harsh, rampant wretching, dry heaving that tortured the lavatory with diaphragm rage, needle sleeves scattered about. No relief there, little more hope behind door number two. Those shower clogs weren’t walking anytime soon. They just swung several inches off the floor, trousers drooped down over them to the belt, toes curling, the whole mess swaying to rifled pages and a crescendo of heavy breathing.
“Stop it, ohhhh, stop!”
That left door number one. I’d just about pegged the gasping to this nearest, yet darkest of stalls, approaching it with gut-thumping apprehension. Not entirely unfounded, as a shard of light revealed suede Pumas with their drawers down as well, sneakers spread firmly on the floor tiles.
“Oh, you banshee!” Only there were these buffed Italian boots hot on the Pumas’ heels, crowding up behind, scuffling back and forth relentlessly, with barely a rumple at the cuff. For a moment, I fixed quizzically on the four play. “Ohhh, goddamn it, ohhhh!”
So much for idle curiosity; it registered soon enough that this door, this whole 7th floorshow was some grim little fairy tale. I blew out of the latrine, visions of that three-act Greek tragedy searing my sensibilities, sourdough and Scandia bakery swelling my bowels, vowing to curb squat rather than return therein. Tearrrrr: I tripped over a wear hole in the carpet runner, kicking beer bottles and Fresca cans down the hallway with a 7th floor high-volume medley of everything from Engelbert Humperdinck to new Johnny Mathis to Donny & Marie burrowing in my ears, door to door. After hitting a somewhat tamer latrine one floor removed, I slammed into 718, soaked with sweat and a sense of relief I couldn’t really stomach. But at least the room was paid up until tomorrow noon. Thus I shut the window and chained the door, bouncing off walls that seemed even muddier as the sun went down, with a pick-to-click preview of the Village People’s ‘Y.M.C.A.’ now echoing through the hall.
At least I didn’t just squat curbside, like that little Asian man across the way, smoking in front of the highrise as though it were a thatched hut back in the Mekong Delta, as if he were fishing for dinner instead of a gutter for dimes and smokes. What was with that building, anyway? I’d overheard one of the Y lobby slugs say it was owned by some Nazi weasel holed up in a Hitleresque bunker near Tierra del Fuego. That he slumlorded over property all around the Tenderloin—and that Wiesenthal headhunters were after him for war crimes, the entire Western Hemisphere for back taxes. Y’s nightclerk had called the place Krupp Arms—somebody had even spray-painted same across its front wall in swastika red, matching the signage of a self-storage warehouse next door. Above that rose thirteen floors of sliding door windowalls and curving iron-railed balconies, an appliance store wall of wide-screen tubes, each tuned to a different docudrama, only the color was a trifle too vivid, the reception all too crisp.
There on four, third from the left, two headbanging mainliners played shooting gallery and Motley Crue, trying their shaky hands at rubber hoses and hypodermic hepatitis, searching for that one elusive uncollapsed vein. Up on nine, second from the right, a slinky, stripped bare queenie pranced in and out of his sliding doors to a Chaka Khan beat, probing hisself between slugs of Cold Duck, tempting fate against a hip-high railing, as though someone would actually coax him down.
Ducks! Hanging raw and dripping by the neck, soaking into beige carpeting and rice sacks, trickling down into lower balconies—barefoot children dancing under rose-yellow paper lanterns. Four-generation families circling Bhudda-style idols in one-room efficiencies empty save for flickering black and white TVs. What was that on six? A stripped down shepherd mix, sizzling on a spit, pole straight through its mouth and asshole, eyes plucked out like Rocky Mountain oysters, still wearing its choke collar—vestiges of Hue and Da Nang.
I started to pull off my jacket and shirt, then decided to sleep in everything but my boots. Slipping between coarse sheets, I killed the light: darkness, except for a window shade slit of reflected flames apparently engulfing that turning spit across the way—Seamus, where was Seamus?! Rolling over, I rationalized it had to be more of a porcine corpus, curling up to scratch myself to sleep when my spirits sank to a newfound Manilow, the sound of ‘Mandy’ from 716, seeping in through 718’s vented door. Better if that sorry tune had been drowned out by Liberace, Como or Ray Conniff.
Still, the Mandy lament did get me to thinking. Right, it was all Her fault. Damn, why’d she even come around? Snotty bitch with her foreign ideas, drove a wedge right between me and happiness, nice trick. Yeah, where was she now—make your own decisions, my ass! Shut up that stupid radio over there!! Scratching, clawing, kicking at the covers here in the darkness, everything was getting coming into focus now…Her timing was so obvious, how deep did the whole scam go? Sure, first step, get the whitebread chump out of the way. Her brother Lester bleeds his heart that he couldn’t live without Moon, but she was with this jerk in Colorado now. Not to worry, she says, I’ll take care of everything, that’s what sisters are for. So she gets poor, naïve Melissa to toss us together, then waylays me in no-man’s land. Then she nudges Moon to get us back to Chicago, well within her brother’s reaches, get her whole family on the case. Meantime, she’s yanking my chain to come out here again, leaving Moon vulnerable as an Idaho doe. I take the bait, and she stiffs me dead upon arrival, hightailing it back to Chicago to seal the deal, getting Melissa back in the Mandel fold, stranding me here in San Fransylum, panning for fool’s gold. Clear as cut crystal…nooo, this was way too crazy for words…
The mere, demented thought of it all petrified me like that haply roasting dog, right up to my own innards—cramps punching, gas once more swelling my bowels. Ears belfry ringing, my head roaring its reactive outrage by torqueing at the temples and brows. Suddenly, I was swimming in my clothes, with no calming beachhead in sight. Christ, what if Moon knew, was in on it all along? If she just couldn’t bring herself to make the clean break on her own? Now, she’s free and clear, no matter what she said, it probably back with him right this minute. Right, no wonder she could hang up the phone so easily…they could be on the horn—all three of them—getting off on the whole thing. That Herbert, what a pushover, what a pathetic sap. As if you didn’t let it happen, as if you didn’t make it happen, Saturn and you…
Man alive, I caught myself digging into the metal headboard, scratching nails over and over into deep, roughened grooves with rodents’ persistence—bucking and kicking to their squeaky, pestilent tune. So everybody got theirs, and you really got yours, sucker—good and long gone—stop it, stop it!!! I sprang forward, punched the wall, tearing at sweaty, crusty clothes and bedding. My head clamped further, steaming like the top pot of a double boiler. This pressure drove me out of the squeaky single bed altogether, over to 718’s small sink and mirror. I flipped on its dim shaving bulb, cowering in the sudden light, face a twisted fist of splotches and popping veins. My hair was pressed flat and stringy, though I’d sworn it had fallen out all over the pillow.
I pounded at the mirror in panic, stress cracking it across its gun metal frame. No, Moon would have no part of something like that, no way! Gotta call her, she’ll tell me, set me straight…she’ll cool it all out in a minute…
Darting over to the wall phone, I screamed into the receiver to Central Y’s lobby. “Hurry, this is 718, I must place an urgent, person-to-person call to…”
“Sorry, Mister Herbert,” the night clerk replied, “but I’ve been instructed to place no more long-distance calls for you, especially at this time of night.”
“But I can’t wait until morning, please, I…”
“Just following orders. Under the circumstances, I’m sure you can understand.”
“Understand…bullshit!” I hammered the phone repeatedly against its receiver. Desperate rage burst in me like a bladder of ulcerous bile. I could feel my eyes swell and spin in their sockets, red and filmy, so that everything fuzzed over, shrinking and expanding to a constant cerebral throb. I kicked at a nearby writing desk, its chair, ripping at my clothes, then buttoning and belting back up again. Had to be, she must have rigged that, or Moon herself. Yeah, called the desk and told them not to let me call—oh, it’s so fucking obvious! They’re laughing at how that would make me crack, that’ll teach the asshole to dick around. There, was that a rat?! Damn desk clerk must have slipped it in, gray and slimy, squealing through rotten teeth and those stringy goddamn tails! I frantically pulled away at 718’s sheets and blankets, overturned the mattress in vain, cutting my finger on a spring hook, then sucking at the wound. Communicable diseases, now rabies, yet—all those shots, vile rat shots, but where? And where were they?!
Man overboard…I wrapped my right hand in a pillowcase, unable to raise the window shade. Suddenly, I buckled, collapsed in the corner with my jacket about my legs. About then, another round of shrill, Gestapo-like sirens quickened down Golden Gate Avenue, converging outside the Krupp Arms—this time, two S.F.F.D. engines apparently pulling up from their nearby station. For all I knew, it might have been a meaty canine spit fire jumping balconies.
What in blazes, I sobbed, was I doing here again? Mom, help me please, get me outta here, make these rats go away. They’re bearing down on me, they’re gnawing at Seamus, he’s roasting on a turnspit! Then my forehead wrenched tighter, a bitter smile twisted my face as the red emergency flashers penetrated the pitch-dark room. But wait, she’s gone too, she was in on it with dad, I know. Them telling me Moon wasn’t good enough, splitting right on cue. Bet they’re all kicking back on their lazy front porch, spooning homemade ice cream under a full moon and breezy, shady maple trees, Lester tossing Seamus Milk-Bones. The gals all swinging away, laughing at you—Saturn orbiting out here in alien nation, livin’ it down at the hotel California, getting just what you deserve. Probably even Cassie joined in, long waiting to take her shot, and that redhead with the spinning tassels, too. Big joke, gotta hand it to ’em—they got all the marbles and you’re left holding the sack. They get real living and you just get life. Everybody’s got everybody, everything is everything is nothing…
And you’re here in the isolation ward, a man’s world gone totally mad, so goddamn alone…go ahead, tell me that’s so divorced from reality, chump. No, don’t want to go on doin’ this all alone…where the bloody hell did I leave my car already…someone kiss me and stop me from shaking…
Instead, there came this pounding on the door…
Care for more?
Chapter 55. On the hook with
abandon, friends at a premium:
events take a fatal turn, driving a body to
desperation, and an edgy reckoning or two…