“Loss of worldlies and such,
leaving another life behind—
nothing much in its place.”
“So let’s just drop it, why don’t we?”
“Negative you’re already on the hook.”
“But I’m right here…hey, wait a minute…”
Wrong on two counts: I had assumed room 718’s door pounder was intent on clearing the Central YMCA Hotel in the face of proximate fire danger—namely, a three-alarmer sparked by some immigrant spit-roast gone ablaze. Come morning, S.F.F.D. mop-up crews actually located the source in another Krupp Arms unit, wherein several Civic Center squatters had short-circuited a space heater they’d found scrapped behind Brooks Hall. As for that hallway clarion, I found only a mimeographed notice taped to the door numerals—an invite to a benefit prayer breakfast at Peoples Temple, featuring a blessing phoned in by Rev. Jim Jones himself, directly from Jonestown, no less. On that, I didn’t bite, nevertheless did grab a paper cup of gratis Y lobby coffee and a day-old cruller on the way out, having left my little personals box centered on top of 718’s metal writing desk, which was hardly larger than the bible it held.
“You need to step back, fella…let the man do his job…”
“No, look, the door there, it’s ajar!”
“Whatdya expect? This ain’t valet parking here…”
But prior to that sub-continental breakfast, I had made a haggard, baggy eyed diversion to the men’s room one story removed, straightening up as best I could, safely beyond the watchful stares of who and whatever might be going down in the head on floor seven, even this ungodly early in the day. All through a quick, bloody shave and brush, I pretty much had this latrine to myself, disused as it was with corroded mirrors and basins, with upended bays and stalls of cracked, piled porcelain and unsprung doors. None of my concern, however, since I was focusing on a more problematic picture: stuck here in the Tenderloin, retracing the tracks of my car. A few fruitless laps around Turk and Leavenworth, and I spun off to Hyde Street. There, under a clearing sun, I at long last spotted my Volvo, though not before others had done the very same.
“Hold on, just let me check,” I slipped over to the car’s left rear door, taking pains to peer inside, if only because the whole rig was hanging at an acute angle. “Shit, somebody’s busted in!”
The sagging sedan was caught between two flashing construction signs outside Wally Heider’s recording studio, from inside which it sounded as though Carlos Santana was loudly laying down something new. PG&E workmen standing impatiently nearby explained that the utility would be digging under this exact spot to install a new higher-capacity power line, and that, one way or another, the old Volvo had to go. My more immediate, internal concern, however, was what appeared to be already gone.
“So, what’s the damage,” asked a patrolman perched atop an S.F.P.D. three-wheeled motorcycle, while continuing to concentrate on his paperwork.
“I don’t know, a gold pocket watch—my Uncle Early got it from my grandfather, inscribed and everything. Plus a cable knit sweater from Ireland, the leather jacket I got in Firenze, some record albums, a whole backpack full of shirts and underwear, hard to tell what else yet,” I fretted, surveying the rear seat and floorboards. “How the hell did they get in here without breaking anything?!”
“Probably slim-jimmed it,” said the officer, scribbling away without once looking up. He set his citation book atop the cycle’s fuel tank and whipped out his notepad. “Anything else?”
“Slim what? Well, at least they didn’t get my cameras,” I reached around to find that the trunk lid had not been pried open too. “Got to have those, they’re about all I have left…”
“Yeah, that’s life in the big city,” the cop jotted down the items. “We’ll get this int the system, run a make on the local fences, see what pops…”
“How about detailed descriptions, how’re you gonna know from anything…” I craned my neck to follow the upward pitch of my car, seeing Syd and the squareback at Ocean Beach all over again as I glanced back at a powder blue tricycle. “We’re talking about my belongings here, my grand dad’s watch, for crissake. What kind of police services is that?!”
“Look, if your stuff doesn’t surface in about an hour, don’t be keepin’ no vigils, ’cause it’s probably halfway to L.A. already,” snapped the officer, nodding to the PG&E crew, itching to fire up their pneumatic drills. “Nuthin’ much we can do about that.”
“So, am I at least off the hook?” I watched with faint hope as a City Tow driver winched the Volvo all the way up on his boom and double-checked the bumper chains.
“Out of my hands,” the cop said, exchanging his notebook for the citation book, ripping me out a fresh one. “You’re way over limit in a towaway zone, and already on the lift. Just like once I’ve started writing you up, there’s no turning back, no exceptions. Here you go…”
“Oh, great,” I spouted, grabbing the parking ticket. The thought of a remedial offer, Chicago-style, greased my lobes—until I realized I couldn’t afford that, either. “C’mon, I’m new in town and just lost my ass, isn’t there anything we…”
“Careful, son,” the patrolman stiffened, likely figuring I didn’t have enough scratch to make this all go away anyhow. “But look at it this way, you can plead your case in traffic court. And the nearest city garage is only a couple of blocks from here on Eddy. Walking distance—you can bail her out in about an hour or so. The tow will set you back about $45. But hustle on over and cover, storage goes $20-$30 a day…”
“Please, officer, you don’t understand—that’ll totally clean me out,” I spouted, springing my camera bag from the trunk, before waving the Volvo good-bye, with the Stratocaster riff lowly streaming from Heider’s storefront studio getting drowned out by air compressor-powered drills. “How am I supposed to…”
“Still got your cameras, dontcha,” he kick started the Harley, snapping his helmet’s chinstrap. After packing the leather-bound books into his black motorcycle jacket pockets, he revved, as if to all-clear signal the pavement-cracking PG&E crew, then pulled away. “Could always hock ’em off…”
“Like the sign says, we make sure you get yours…”
“So can you take it down a notch, I’ll do four bills…”
“Sorry, sailor, this is Canon gear, top of the line, can’t go one thin dime under $650. Next…”
Left in vehicular limbo and cloud of concrete dust by SFPD’s uplifting hospitality, I scrambled about the Tenderloin for anything resembling an out. Problem was, my mind was crossfiring in so many different directions. There was this visceral spinning of wheels around Turk, Jones and Eddy; I couldn’t stand darkening the Y Hotel’s doors again, at least in this bright light of day. On a clinical level, I resorted to rationalizing the degraded humanity at every corner, along each dismal, drug-infested block in between. These lost, wretched souls couldn’t help it, remember—being so socio-economically deprived. Society did it to them, right? Prejudice, learning disorders and curricula devaluation, impaired nature/nurture, negative reinforcement, cultural discrimination, protein deficiencies—all that seminar argot and S.S.I. rot gut. But wait a damn minute, some of these suckers ripped me off big time, could have been any one of the screwy buzzards…
By Turk and Taylor, the bummer druggy deviance, the falling down boozy babble—those poor Vietnamese kids obliviously playing on grimy, glass granulated sidewalks like T-loin streets were paved with golden paddies instead of needles and a urine shellac—all of it was wearing on me, more and more. Through some pinball line of reasoning, thoughts inexplicably turned to my ol’ man, in his Sunday flannel robe, still half slurry asleep after a Saturday night binge, hung over, groaning and belching from shots & beers and tavern chili con carne, from spouting off for hours about his ball-busting boss and back-breaking sale orders—red-eye bitching about morning-after bird noise, lawnmowers and mom’s freezing him out with her after-mass radio. One of his midnight pearls did stick with me however, now hanging as it was around my unshaven scrag like a flaming Nigerian necklace: Never get to where you’re at the mercy of a pawnshop.
Crossing Market at Sixth Street, I dodged panhandlers and various ragged curveball pitchmen in my circular polemical deliberation. Get on with it, walk it off. Nowhere to park in this town anyway, but it’s California and the meter’s running, gotta pry loose your wheels. I held on tight to my camera bag amid all the preying eyes: all you’ve got left, dodo, like what about your big pipedreams about making it as a photographer? They’re your ticket, not the fare. But lotta good that would do you if you can’t get anywhere to worth shooting? Bucks without wheels? Wheels without bucks? No pawn shops, remember?! Go sell some blood, why don’t ya?! Gotta get outta here, numbskull, this is getting seriouser and seriouser… Still, I was beginning to feel the weight of the army canvas bag on my slumping shoulder, passing Chinese luncheonettes with their steam trays of chow fun and pork buns behind steel-cage windows, onward past discount shoe stores with sidewalk racks of left foot-only oxfords and slip-ons to deter light-fingered locals. Then there were more loud, hi-tack electronics outlets—leading to where much of that equipment tended to end up sooner or later.
“Step up, friend, how can we help you today,” said Dez Drexel, proprietor, puffed up on a couple of seat cushions, framed like a currency exchange kiter in a rear store pay window. He was chewing at a six-inch cigarette holder FDR style, two rows of four video monitors behind him, so as to zero in on every grubby inch of the place. He pointed up to a sign above the slot. “As the sign says, we’ll right your plight.”
“Uh, something in your front showcase there grabbed my attention,” I gestured in turn over my shoulder toward where the shore leave Navy swabbie, who’d dickered for that Canon camera, marched empty handed out the door. “The Railway Special pocket watch, next to the Benrus Gazelle. When exactly did you get that?”
“The Hamilton? Been collecting dust goin’ on a month now, if a day. Why, wanna make that little baby yours?”
“Depends, does it have an inscription or anything,” I asked, through some cotton morning mouth of my own, rubbing my stubbly jaw—Robert Mitchum-like as best I could.
To little effect, as this entire foray was another exercise in confutility. Already so ambivalent about venturing into The City’s prime tri-light strip, I shied away from bars, liquor/groceries and a series of signs bearing the drop shadowed or neon rendering of that four-letter word, ‘Pawn’, let alone ‘broker’. I had just about resolved to abort this tout before taking one more step forward/backward when I spotted Golden Bay Collateral & Loan—most notably, a pocket watch in its front window display that looked suspiciously familiar, down to the gold-leaf numerals and hair-cracked facing. Sneaking a long peek like a Baptist minister by the dirty magazine stand, I could feel the felonious heat from there. That and the GBC&L’s euphemistic veneer were just enough to pull me in the door.
“Not likely, we only deal in legit provenance here,” Drexel said, rising slightly in lumbago pain and mild indignation, blowing smoke through the grated window, as if taking stock, weighing my valuations. “So what else you got for me there?”
“Yeah, well, I do have these, and find myself in a bit of a…pinch,” I sighed, hesitantly opening the bag to reveal my photo gear.
“Hmm, interesting, be right with ya.” With that, he stepped out from behind his security window, out to a long glass display case filled with radios, stereos, mini tape recorders, watches, and assorted estate jewelry. On the Old Glory muralled wall behind him were the guitars, amplifiers, brass instruments and firearms—.22 and .45 pistols to deer rifles and semi-automatics, to name a sampling of his rotating inventory. By the time he reached me, I had spread my equipment out on the countertop. “All Nikon are they?”
“F and F2, plus bayonet mount Nikkor wide angle, telephoto and zoom,” I replied, with proudly matter-of-fact crispness. “They’re my bread and butter, so this would just be a short-term arrangement to tide me over…”
“Not bad merch,” said the broker, lifting and aiming each body, silver then black, snapping the shutters, focusing in and out on the lenses with calculating vision. “But I’m swimming in cameras, can’t go one thin dime over $250 for the whole bag…no wiggle room, don’t even ask.”
“What? That’s highway robbery,” I spouted, glancing up at that ‘Right Your Plight’ sign. “This is top-of-the-line equipment, like you said, and in perfect shape. I’ve had them since new, with the filters and everything. Besides, you’re asking $650 for that single Canon and two lenses…”
“No, that’s free enterprise, cost of doing business, the all-American way,” Drexel snapped, poised to turn back toward his pay window. “You won’t get any better on this street, and your gear is safer in Golden Bay. But it’s your choice, you’re talking to a busy man here….”
“Hmph, more like my funeral,” I carefully repacked my camera bag, as if sending off a natural born child to foster parents. But I was loath to groveling into any other of these pawn shops, at the same time picturing spiralling car storage bills, which left little wiggle room to jew him up, as it were. “Let’s get this over with…”
“Now, there’s a sensible man.” The pawnbroker continued on back to his cash cage. “Just stick your camera bag into one of our client file boxes there, and step back to my window.”
By the time I’d glumly placed my bag into one of GBC&L’s plastic containers and shuffled over to the pay wall, Dez Drexel was peeling off five crumpled fifties, filling out his serial-numbered claim ticket. “Here, don’t lose this…and you’ve got 30 days to repay and redeem.”
“Don’t worry,” I yanked the money and pawn slip out of his sliding transaction tray, noting another sign, to the right of the pay window, which read, ‘No Cash, No Carry. No Carry, No Cash’—looking to see if my father was standing, brooding over my shoulder. “I’ll be back long before that…”
“Where’ve I heard that before,” chuckled Drexel, putting up a lunch sign in his window. “We’re just glad to right your plight today.”
“You sure there’s no engraving on that pocket watch,” I glanced away toward the front window. Counting, cramming the cash in my wallet, I realized the only way I was going to inspect that casing was to buy the timepiece outright, as in when I returned for my cameras.
“What’re you insinuating, smart guy…that I’m some kind of crooked shyster dealing in hot merchandise or something,” the broker spitting out his cigarette holder, flipping his off-gray toupee. “Go take a shave…we’ll see what you have to say in 30 days…”
“Get ’em behind you…”
“Waddn’t there, didn’t do it!”
“Shaddup, chico, behind you, I said.”
Clocks were running, time was fleeting, and my wheels within wheels weren’t turning fast enough to keep up. I sure as hell wasn’t keen on hanging along Sixth and Market Streets. Although I did windowshop the pawn storefronts a bit further for pocket watch sightings, spotting a fobbed Bulova or two, but nothing else even close. Any further toward Mission Street, and I risked sinking into more ground glass and reptilian discharges, if not succumbing outright to the fumes. So I turned up Jessie Street, one of those clogged mid-veins splitting the block between main downtown arteries. Chicago called them alleys; San Francisco dressed up building backs, painted fire escapes and loading docks, then named them full-blown streets.
WWWWWWWWWWRRRR. Not that this meant they couldn’t still be mean. Case in point: Two-thirds of the way toward Fifth Street, several young Latinos pushed past me at full gallop, vaulting dumpsters, scattering sun-stroked winos like so many Union Square pigeons. A baby blue SFPD squadrol and two patrol cars had converged on Jessie, directly behind the historic U.S. Mint Museum, effectively sealing off the remainder of the block. Yet they were scarcely in time to shut the street down all the way to Sixth, thereby allowing the youths to flee halfway to their Mission District barrio before I could re-collect myself and feel for my little pocket wad. Save one kid, as it turned out, for an officer managed to bag the weaker, stockier of the Latino litter—who couldn’t keep pace with the pack. This burly cop blocked and tackled him behind the old ‘Granite Lady’ at Mint Street, two other uniforms now standing over them, service revolvers drawn and aimed.
“Owwwch, didn’t do nuthin’, man…” He was just an overgrown kid in a black knit Raiders pullover and gray Ben Davis pants, hanging low.
“Shadd it up, I’m tellin’ you, and get them hands behind your back,” shouted the patrolman, knee firmly between the shoulder blades of the prone Latino, snagging his pony tail and hairnet, wrestling to slap cuffs on the suspect, who was squirming and flailing like a crab before the cracking. “You have the right to remain silent…”
“Yo, dis loco, got the wrong hombre, comprende!”
“Comprende this, punk. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law…” What likely set the cop off more than usual was the sucker punch the kid threw at him on the way down, where the officer drove his scruffy face into the pavement.
“Everybody else keep moving,” shouted his partner, pistol still trained on the youth, while scanning about for any more evidence of his colors. “Nothing to see here…”
The two patrol cars shot off, sirens and lights full tilt, in pursuit of the bangers, whatever—not my business, it wasn’t going to get me my cameras back to capture all this anyway, so none of my concern. I edged away from a dumpster I’d just ducked behind in the case of gunfire. Headed for Fifth Street, over toward Market, maybe I’d shoot the breeze with Brother Joe on my way north of the slot. Last I looked, the two uniforms were lifting the pudge, twisting his arms back even further, spitting on him, kicking his low-hanging ass into their squadrol, his work pants dragging against the mucky pavement as he thrashed wildly to make a break for it.
“Looks like another drug burn to me,” said badge number 836, talking shop to his partner as badge 657 thwapped the kid sharply across both knees with a nightstick, before delivering a vengeful right cross to the bridge of his nose—all more Chicago style than I cared to allow. “Must be fourth this week, already. Either that or it’s gang-making season again.”
“Umph, get in there, scuzzball,” grunted a carrot-topped 836, losing his cap as he pushed the suspect into the rear of the squadrol, slamming its steel-barred door.
“Not me, mon,” the Latino kid sobbed through the door windows, blood streaming from his apparently broken beak. “It was that other…”
“Shaddup in there,” shouted 657, as the wagon’s radio blasted anew. SQUAWK, SQUAWK, “All available units, Fifth and Mission”…SQUAWK… “Homicide still in progress, over…” SQUELCH… “Ten-four, over…” SQUELCH. “Everybody back, that means you, buddy, best to move on…”
“Who, me,” I pointed to my chest, frozen in place. Guess the cop thought me lingering too close, as in witness-wise, particularly when the small crowd was disbanding like normal looky-loos. “Yah, sure, I’m out of here…thank your for your co-peration.”
WWWWWWWWWWRRRRRRrrrrrrrr. But that didn’t seem to be the end of it, incident-wise. More sirens, police radios reverberated off surrounding buildings, by way of Market Street, off Mission—converging between here and the intersection at Fifth—as though encircling the Mint amid some sort of misplaced coin caper or reserve note haul. I slipped past the landmark building’s 100 year-old sandstone sidewall, with a head full of narrow escapist relief, double-checking my slim pocket roll of getaway greenbacks once again. Those sirens continued wailing off a nearby Provident Loan Bank, the Chronicle tower rang one bell as I reached Fifth Street and somewhat a larger, buzzy milling of midday sidewalkers. Only this time, the shrillest alarm came from a red and white fire department ambulance.
“Vicious animal,” one woman shouted at a shadow in motion. “Look at him, a person’s just not safe anymore!”
“Back, folks,” a baton-ready cop ordered, splitting the crowd to clear a path. “Give us some room here, will you please…”
“Good for the fuzz,” sneered a retiree who had doddered up next to me, decked out in orange and black, on his way to a Mission Street bus stop, running late for another slaughter at Candlestick Park, what with the dreaded Dodgers in town. He gestured toward the departing squadrol, large foam finger on hand. “Damn spic hoodlums…”
“But they nearly killed that kid in the process,” I replied, turning away from Jessie Street to Old Mint’s front side, this crowd tightening in as the ambulance approached
“So what? Look what he musta done to that coon there,” the Giants’ fan snorted, motioning to the circle gathering about MUNI’s bus stop.
“Help him,” that same woman screamed, pulling down on her flowery, wide-brimmed sunbonnet. “Where’s the ambulance? Somebody get that ambulance here before he…”
“Everybody just make way, give him some air,” said another patrolman, having raced over across Mission from the Chronicle building, more fully widening the path.
“What…coon,” I blurted, still so thoroughly caught up in the Jessie Street police scuffle that the incident before me went unseen. But to this crowd, whether lunchtime workers or seniors waiting to board buses for the Peninsula, another victim was the main event.
“Coming through—nobody touch him, nobody try to move him,” shouted two paramedics who had just leapt from their ambulance, roof lights still flashing, doors left wide open all around.
“Back, I said,” the cop ordered, wielding his nightstick. “Who saw anything here?”
“Saw what,” I asked a retired stevedore on my other side, just belching out of a Cathay Tea Garden lunch, who was craning for a better look. He simply pointed a bit down Fifth Street, roughly out front of the Mint’s classic Greek Revival portico.
The circle drew back like prodded Holsteins as those medics dropped an aluminum stretcher beside a different victim. From what I could step up and stretch to see, he appeared to be an elderly black man—awash in bloodshed, soaking in his own juices like raw calf’s liver, which oozed out a heinous back wound through a blue-gray raincoat and…green burlap wraps. The victim lay there in a grave, flinching heap, with perhaps two dozen gasping bystanders on deathwatch, no one moving or saying a word.
“Joe,” I shrieked in recognition, suddenly following a blood spot trail that led from Jessie Street to the Mint front, pushing forward until a nightstick was thrust my way. “Joe, Brother Joe!!!”
“Stop, you hear me,” another blue uniform pressed the stick firmly into my gut. “Know him, know anything about this?”
“Uh, no, just talked with him over by the Emporium sometimes,” I cried, holding impulsively against the polished SFPD baton.
“So get back before I run you in,” badge 743 said, then shouted over me. “Again, who saw what happened here?” The crowd remained stony silent, save for an occasional kibitzing murmur among strangers.
The paramedics carefully slid a thin fiberboard under the victim’s limp legs and bleeding trunk before wrapping him in blue ICU blankets, lifting him level onto their stretcher. Even from this distance, I could search Joe’s bloodshot, dripping eyes for any signs of hope. They were but mackerel eyes in a Bayview fish market, and his pained cocoa face beaded with sweat. “All right, all right, make way,” shouted the lead paramedic, as the team rolled the gurney past us toward the ambulance and its loud squawking radio.
“Joe, Joe, remember me,” I beseeched, the medics wheeling by, barely within earshot. “The other day, Chitown, right? Florence’s and Little Walter, Club Zanzibar and Elmore James? Keep on fighting, champ, you’re gonna make it just fine…”
“Bless that wunnerful name of Jesus, bless that…” Joe’s frail voice trailed off, his blind stare jolted and fully froze, blood drained through seized lips as though some old fishwife had just yanked the hook. His empty face scrunched like spoiled morning grapefruit into the stretcher pillow as they lifted him to the ambulance’s rear bed. The paramedics closed the doors behind him, one staying in the van, hooking him up to its emergency hoses and hardware, while the other began driving off toward SF General Hospital, albeit with siren and flashers turned down.
“You, you know something,” I turned to the sun-bonneted woman who, along with many others, was scrambling to a MUNI motorcoach, which was now pulling into the bus stop well behind schedule. “I heard you…”
“That true, Lady,” asked badge 743. “What you got?”
“The hell I do, I saw nuthin,” she said, waddling away, scouring her purse for exact change and transfers.
“I heard you, dammit,” I raged in her tracks, staring into her veering eyes. “You fingered him, called him an animal! Do what’s right, for godsakes…”
“Did you or didn’t you, Lady,” the cop shouted her way.
“Got not one thing, I swear,” she muttered, lowering her voice as she boarded the bus, dragging Macy’s and Liberty House shopping bags behind her. “Just end up getting sued or something over that. Let God sort it out… ”
Onlookers scattered—traffic, stalled buses loaded and pulled away. I was one of the last to leave, having pounded the side of that southbound coach at the woman in vain, then watching policemen process the crime scene: blood spatter to footprints or fingerprints to Joe’s last scrappings of life. His ‘Come Back To God’ sandwich sign lay tipped end over, fully closed; his leaflets were scattered about. I wanted to move the sign, to save it, to wear it as some sort of badge of dishonor. To where? His candlelit vigils, his full 21-gun salute, a commemorative museum for sidewalk saviors working that road to salvation, hell bent for higher ground? San Francisco’s finest shooing me off, I followed the post-lunch traffic toward Market Street as the Chronicle tower clock rang two bells, if only to retrace the preacher’s sanctified steps, maybe give a silent eulogy at his hallowed ground by the Emporium flower stand. Instead, the first thing I spotted upon turning the corner onto Market was that Cowboy Christian, who had taken over Joe’s very sunny-side sweet spot, just beyond a gleaming blue and gold light standard festooned with Gay Pride banners and basketed bouquets.
“You bastard,” I yelled at him, although keeping safe distance this side of the flower stand. He simply smiled my way, straightening his Stetson, then waving a bible in one hand, while slashing his index finger across his neck with the other, small plains twisters in his eyes. “You phony son-of-a-bitch!”
Swear I could have killed the god-forsaken devil right then and there. I caught myself fixing to adrenaline rush him like some sort of holy steamroller, but that was about when I spotted a new billboard high over Hallidie Plaza across Market Street. The visual was some boasting, toasting Pancho Villa character in desperado garb and a bandolero. Its introductory campaign headline read, ‘Take It For Nerves Of Steal’, the cantina cursive logo being, Bandito Tequila.
Care for more?
Chapter 56. One sudden blow after another, going
down for the count, fleeing to a sea of woe, which ends
up in a pointed panic attack and foreign intervention…