∞ STAGE THREE ∞
“Mobility-from can send
spirits aloft. But mobility-to
can bring landings neither
happy nor soft.”
“So drop ship seventy case lots to SFO, ASAP…”
“Yah, one day I’m booking Elvin Bishop at the Twelve Bar, the next I’m paying cover to catch him at Sweetwater. Working in hotel maintenance yet, but, hey, it’s San Fran and Marin—payin’ the price for paradise…”
“Right, you just said to meet you here, that’s all,” I said, trying to speak over this traveling salesman one phone down.
“It’s in the bank, Macy’s bought the entire inventory, 10% over dealer, sliding scale…”
“Sorry, had to take a last-minute sick day—sniff, sniff—know what I sayin’? Plus Jennifer’s speedin’ around here, trying to get everything together for a weekend blowout, and got me shakin’ my ass to get things ready. So let’s re-do next week…or cruise up for the bash even, we’ll do some toot out on the deck, you can catch me up on Natorious and all the freaks back there.”
“Well, that sounds great, Tony, but maybe I can take a raincheck. See, I’m not so sure about getting out of The City, right now…things are kinda sticky.”
“Purchasing? I need a telex on the L.A. order, TWIX for the turnaround—no, not re-routing, this is priority one.”
“Raincheck? Shit, it hasn’t poured here in ages. But give it a shot, sounds like you could stand to kick back, mellow out some, no lie. Anyhow, you’ve got my number…coming Jenn. Gotta split, man, stay in touch…say, you didn’t go askin’ for me by name around there, did you?”
“No, Tony, no way. So how about we try it here at the hotel again…”
“Whew, sure, Heebert, what are friends for?” CLICK.
“Tony? Uh, no, I’m,” I said over my shoulder to a caller in waiting, hanging up after the fact with another harried, tie-pulled salesman cigarette breathing down my neck. Shake his ass? Sounds like All-night Tony’s whipped like Cheez Whiz up there in Marin.
Ring, rinnnggg… But the operator called back post haste, tallying all due overtime before I could turn away from a bank of stainless steel pay phones, this stainless steel wall of coin-fed conversation, everybody within earshot of everybody else’s business, no matter what they said. I popped in two sandwich quarters, lest the operator reach out and touch me for more, then handed the receiver to the East Bay sales rep, two more cold callers having lined up behind him.
Whatever its amenities, the San Francisco Hilton was no Conrad, nor Beverly, but more a bobbled, bangled Statler. It looked like just a big, nondescript concrete gray tower flanking the Tenderloin, basically a plusher traveling salesman’s roost built on spun polyester and padded tabs. I had just elevatored down from a personal tour of the upper floors, more specifically any room service carts left unattended in their dead still hallways.
This late morning, however, I wasn’t exactly spending the night, only more or less laying—rather hunching over spent breakfast trays left just outside the room: a castered server half full of cold Eggs Benedict, bacon slabs, nibbled croissants and a peach Danish, flip-top beakers of warm orange juice and tepid coffee. Ritz-Carlton, it wasn’t; but the price was right. I scarfed away like a Sub-Saharan Bedouin in a UN refugee camp, at least until footsteps echoed down the hall.
Where else was I to go? The plan was to scare up Tony to somehow hit him up. But meal ticket Tony was a no-show after a two-hour wait and I had no expense account to cover the hotel’s Gazebo buffet grill. I’d already burned through much of my meager grubstake on Central Y overnights and buckets of cheap coffee, trying to disentangle the slip knot that my here-or-there, she-or-her conundrum had become. That all landed me the first empty black/gold leatherette throne chair in an intermittent row extending nearly the length of the Hilton lobby. Flumped down among a textile contingent from greater Cedar Rapids, I overheard shop talk on everything from Coit Tower to coitus interruptus under Carol Doda’s guiding hand.
Simple-minded Midwest strategizing: maybe that was why I soon warmed to the whole chintzy scene, the marble-plated columns, mirror-tiled walls, red-orange low-pile carpeting and ice-crystal, cut-glass chandeliers, glass showcases with double-knit blazers and laser art, souvenir mug shops clear to the doors. The sales reps’ crass predictability enlivened the place, taking me back to no-nonsense, meat and mashers Chicago, somehow putting me at momentary ease. Tony Panescus worked here—not today though—and was Nate Grimaldi’s speed, always sort of a scumbag, yet familiar, fathomable, homegrown. And at this point, that slender thread bordered on a verifiable genetic link.
“Have business here do you?” This bull of a house dick in Hilton two-tone blue stood suddenly between me and an overhead TV monitor. A spit-polished star flared across his barrel chest, service revolver weighing heavily on his pelvic protrusions
“No, just, you know, sorta waiting for a friend…” I sat up straight, barely put together as it was, straining to hear a Channel 4 midday news brief on the U.S. Supreme Court’s handing down of some Bakke decision on reverse discrimination and, more locally, another brutal Pacific Heights attack, this one in Alta Plaza Park—can you believe that shit…
“Not one of those Moonie types, are you,” he dwarfed me with an up and down stare. “No soliciting or loitering, house rules…”
“Soliciting? This whole hotel is soliciting,” I blurted, product of cold caffeine and fatigue, itchy in my tan oxford cloth shirtjack. “I’m probably the only one in this place not hawking something or other.”
“OK, time to move on, fella,” the security guard insisted, tapping my worn denim at the knee with his walkie-talkie antenna. “Let’s go…”
“Yeah, yeah,” I mumbled, following him to the lobby doors. “Loitering—what the hell do you think I am? Hell, I was puttin’ on the Ritz not that long ago.”
“Uh-huh,” he handed me off to a doorman and several bellhops like a sack full of used linens and towels. “But you might just want to cozy up to a shower and razor, hear what I’m sayin’?”
“Crank her over…”
“Dunno, don’t think she’s getting enough…”
“G’wan, let her rip…no stones, no cigar.”
After considerable sole searching and auto surveillance, hitting the pavement for a place to shave and shower, I finally did light upon something of a prime situation. I’d run the San Francisco perimeter like a house-hungry realtor before finding it, just about all 49 square miles, plus or minus, mostly minus on the monetary ledger, before tentatively settling in.
All I knew was I wasn’t gonna be just some palooka going down for the count again. needed to take some half measures, baby steps, one ingrown toe in the pond—a temporary psycho-emotive furlough from current space and time. Respite was the idea, however fleeting, from the split decisions, the hard truths and consequences, to put a little distance between me and myself—Saturn ringing in my ears, still sorely missing that amulet. So here it was, sunny and breezy, conveniently positioned with breathtaking views of the bay. There were no leases or deposits; references weren’t required. I couldn’t kick about the rent, had no hassles with utilities, and damned if I wasn’t free to come and go as I pleased. It was in The City, but not quite in the city, with choice front yard location, location, location.
Really, who could beat it, especially since my liquidity had already been substantially pissed away: No big bucks, no metered towaway zones, no Tenderloin congestion closing in. Steaming coffee wouldn’t be a problem, either, although the hot part of the shower might be a trifle touch-and-go. And even if any change of address might be somewhat iffy, the post office didn’t need to know. Nevertheless, laying down roots could be problematic, despite the fact that my Volvo warmed up to it right off. San Francisco called this area Aquatic Park, but my sedan just called it quits. So for the time being, I kicked the old Swedish clunker in the grillwork and called it more or less home, albeit with conscience and cognitive dissonance immediately taking hold. “No dice, must be my damn battery…”
“Keep pumpin’, I’m bettin’ on a bum generator or the voltage regulator…”
“Sorry, but I’m not much of a gambling man.”
Aquatic Park began at the northern foot of Van Ness Avenue, its main drive curving down gently leftward to the Municipal Pier, which then proceeded to fishhook dramatically rightward out into the bay. At first glance, I had paused at the North Point Street crest, with salty bay breezes drilling my sinuses, mentally tape looping the circumstances that drove me here. I’d coasted down past the posh Fontana condo towers, into the park proper, turning around at Black Point—where the pedestrian pier began—finally conking out in an open spot halfway back up the lane.
A parallel-parked motorcade of high-mileage rattletraps lined both sides of the WPA vintage cul-de-sac, and I saw no red curbing, so settled on in. A key lock of the ignition brought a measure of relief: no meters or towaway signs; fresh, bracing environs, beautiful neighborhood, top of the town. Still, there was something about the neighbors.
“So then maybe it’s the jumper cables,” said a rail thin, pencil-neck Rasputin named Clifford, between chomps on a slightly bruised Gravenstein.
“Naw, they’re good. It’s the generator, I’m telling ya,” Eric Graffney insisted, straightening up from a heavy lean over my right front fender, his voice echoing between the Volvo’s windshield and opened hood. He was a curly dishwater haired wrench jockey with everything south-coast aspirational about himself but a cratered complexion. “Here, you got a screwdriver?”
“Uh, there’s one in here somewhere,” I said, glancing about the car’s interior from the driver’s seat. “But I’m kinda trying to keep away from sharp objects these days…”
“How ’bout the warning light? It on?” Clifford Noreaux looked into the car, just after my key turning and throttle pumping paid off, the dual-carb four-banger firing up and revving like a barnyard tractor.
“No, but it might be burned out,” Eric said, having bounded around to the driver’s side window, looking in over my shoulder at the black padded dashboard.
“Yeah, I know the feeling,” I said, slumping at the wheel as the Volvo backfired and died all over again, lacking a sustained spark.
“I say let’s yank the whole damn generator while we’ve still got daylight,” Eric wiped his hands with a Gunky red shop rag. “ I have metric wrenches in my car…”
“Which one,” asked a hefty young woman who had just climbed out of the van right behind us, stepping up to the breakdown with attitude and a small fruit bowl.
“Say, I don’t know if…” Before I could dissuade Eric, he had already crossed the narrow drive to the middle of three Porsche coupes parked end-to-end in front of a white scout boathouse with its skiff-packed, wood piling-anchored dock jutting into the Aquatic Park cove.
“Um, no…thanks,” I smiled at this earth mother, she with auburn hair to her waist. “That guy drives a Porsche?”
“Eric? More like driving him bonkers,” she nodded, rather lewdly licking the nectarine she’d been slicing with her Victorinox knife. “I’m Sherry Fleener…”
“Ken Herbert, pleased to meet you,” I tracked Eric as he finished wiping clean his hands, then pulled a Lucky Strike pack from his olive REI quilted vest. “Which one’s his?”
“Take your pick,” she winked, shaking loose the bunching in her flowery muu-muu. “He owns ’em all.”
“All three?” I watched Eric more closely once he lit up, then reached into the white Porsche—between the red Porsche and the silver blue Porsche—the one with the ‘And For This, I Went To College?” bumpersticker slapped over a crumpled left rear fender.
“He’s got one more in a garage by Pacifica…where’s home, where you from?”
“Midwest, Colorado…like that. What’s he doing with four Porsches?”
“Movin’ ’em around mostly—fighting off parking tickets and tow trucks,” she motioned toward the front of the Volvo. “Me, I’m sorta together with Clifford there. The little gnome still futzing under your hood. Even though he’s way more mystical than mechanical…we’re from Schenectady.”
“No offense, but he does seem a little weird to me,” I snapped, while still drawing a bead on Eric, and the wire-haired mutt with a sawed-off tail that was busting out barking from the dirty white Porsche.
“No, he just gets a little too stuck in his head sometimes,” she said, still sucking her overripe nectarine, and scraping the hair back out of her eyes. “Now, Eric, he’s weird—not right off, maybe. But you watch…”
“Well, I don’t figure to be around long enough to find out…”
“Alright, let’s do it,” Eric shouted in return, flicking his butt, slamming his toolbox down onto the curb. “I’ll get this sucker running fur shure…”
“But wait,” I said warily, stepping between him and the Volvo’s engine compartment. “No sense tearing down my generator if I can’t come up with the parts.”
“So we’ll rig it,” Eric pressed, glancing away from me, searching skyward over a high ridge lined with stately frame military officers’s houses. “C’mon, we’re losin’ the daylight…”
“No, really, that’s cool,” I said, leaning paternally against my hood. “I’d rather sleep on it, let the battery re-charge itself, try again in the morning…”
“Damn, suit yourself. Try to help a dude,” Eric grabbed up his toolbox, catching his dog sniffing around a leash-free keeshond over by a brick semicircle of slat park benches. “Bruno, get back here!”
Not that Eric seemed totally tuned anyway, those asynchronous eyes suggesting that his tappets weren’t all well adjusted. But what turned me more amber were the Porsches across the way—all three of them with sunroofs and slotted, steel-belted rim jobs—in a racy little row. The red job sagged rightward, headlight casings gutted and bumpers dragging nearer to the pavement than any demolition derby queen’s. His silver blue rust bucket sported Ohio license plates, pushed-in fenders and taillights dangling by mere ground wires. The white centerpiece was so ravaged by saltwater cancer that its fender wells chewed their way up past the window frames and rocker panels oxidized down into neat little rust piles with every slam of the door.
“Hey, I appreciate the effort, really,” I followed him across the drive toward his cars, sucking up somewhat as a remedial hedge against tomorrow. “Trying to corner the market on Porsches, are you?”
“How d’ya mean?” Eric asked, shooing his Weimaraner mix toward the fleet.
“Uh, nothing—just thinking you’ve got your own little Gran Prix pit stop going here.”
“Don’t get you. These ain’t even formula cars,” he snapped, fighting his white driver’s door, then kicking it open in a cloud of disintegrating metal. “They’re all Porsha 912s. Four cylinders, better mileage.”
“Yeah, right,” I watched him place his tool kit carefully under a folded down rear jumpseat heap of worldly possessions, then snatching a baggie of sunflower seeds from between the torn maroon naugahyde buckets. “Gas crisis and everything…”
“Yo, Ken Herbert,” Sherry shouted, head and shoulders shot up through the pop-top skylight of her Econoline van. “Tea time!”
“Bruno, jump up, you hear me?!” The dog suddenly sprang from sniffing around a nearby flowering plum tree up the fastback Porsche to its open sunroof, where Eric spat sunflower seeds up like it was watermelon day in Dixie. So he sat, playing mouth-to-mouth seedy foosball with his hovering, drooly dog, tuning in Rastafarian on new-left Berkeley radio, peeling away ripped red upholstery in long, leathery strips. “Piss on her damn tea…”
“But I’m game,” I said to Sherry, approaching their van after returning to close the hood and lock my four Volvo doors. “What’s his problem?”
Her two-tone blue camper opened out to a sidewalk lined with poppy top acacia trees. Beyond, a putting green lawn sprinkled with romping children, guzzling louts and dozing lingerers—all tucked neatly in the late-day shadows of a high Fort Mason bluff green and thick with gnarled shrubbery and forward leaning shade trees. I ambled up to the side doors, keeping a watchful eye on Eric and his sunroof-straddling hound.
“He’s just pouting ’cause I cut him off earlier,” she said, handing me a stoneware cup of chamomile.
“Thanks—er, cut him off?”
“No more Morning Thunder for him after he went ballistic on us…”
“Sherry, give it a rest!” It was not a big voice, but firm nonetheless—coming from sort of a hammock arrangement inside the van. Clifford rocked up there, modified lotus, reading Voltaire. “Watch your temper and blood pressure…”
“Sorry, but that still boils me…”
“Jeesh, what is Eric’s story, anyway,” I sipped, having stirred in some brown sugar.
“Aww, he just spends too much time with his dog…some trail mix?”
“I’ll pass,” I scanned up along the ridgeline tangle of willows, ficus, cypress and long-needle pine. “He looks like some scorched-out beach bum.”
“Eric? Gimme a break,” she laughed, breaking off some wads of sourdough, grabbing a marmalade jar from one of her pine-panelled van’s built-in racks. She was a stout, but not too beefy new-ager with deep dimples and smooth, rosy cheeks. “He’s a landlubber from Toledo, need I say more? Just drink your tea, it won’t keep you up all hours like last night. We could hear you tossing and turning, figure it’s time we got to the heart of your problem.”
“Me? No problems,” I dodged, focusing more on the Marley bounding speaker to tinny speaker inside the van. “Everybody into reggae here or…”
“It’s this pinko Berkeley station, KMRX,” she said, passing jammed sourdough bread chunks around. “This is the Third World Hour. They broadcast a ‘Best of the SLA’ last weekend, Bill and Emily and Wendy Yoshimira did call-in interviews. Then they replayed some classic rants by Stokeley and H. Rap Brown.”
“Really,” I swallowed hard, conjuring up Yippie memories of Kunstler, Rubin, all the Chicago Seven riding old Judge Hoffman like a Jerusalem camel. “How long you guys been here, anyway?”
“Couple of months, in and out,” said Sherry, tossing a banana to Clifford, still swinging in metaphysical concentration, staring up through the pop-top with little more to say. “We get the bug, off we go—north, south, wherever…what about you?”
“Just until I square some things away,” I downed my herbal tea. “Really, day or two max…”
Shadows soon reached deeply into Aquatic Park. Those Monterey pines and snarled bushes towering above us soaked up remaining sunset rays, from this grassy little commons eastward across the glassy bay. Fisherman’s Wharf shoppers and sightseers loaded back into their parked cars on both sides of the drive, chilled by the damp early evening breezes, quickly pulling away. Dwarf trees alive with wrens, sparrows and starlings fell suddenly still, yielding to the gurgling of sedulous pigeons and gulls. Squirrels and vermin unknown sifted down through the bluff side thicket. Bruno appeared to hear them, scrambling off the white Porsche roof to chase various pests up to Fort Mason’s tan steel-posterned concrete base wall, a fortification dating back to well before the WPA, even the Civil War.
“Over here, Bruno,” Eric bellowed through his driver’s side window. “I’ll kick your ass ’til it bursts, you hear me?!”
“At least maybe your car springs won’t be squeaking tonight, keeping us wide awake again,” Sherry told me, scooping up saucers and cups.
“No more tossing and turning, promise,” I smiled, liking her, headstrong as she was, with a little bit of Moon going on.
“Sure, two to one you’ll be piling out for a 3 a.m. wizz pass like the rest of us,” she cracked and rolled her eyes across the way, pulling the Econoline camper’s twin side doors closed behind them. “Just keep your distance and aim straight—unlike some people around here.”
To avoid that shaky prospect altogether, I slipped over toward the base wall to unzip and hose down a dark patch of shrubbery. By the time I re-emerged from the shadows, half the parking spots had been vacated and Sherry had battened their van’s hatches. So I cleaved my way into the Volvo for a second night of this front seat action, coaxing myself into the sedan, arguing its merits, fantasizing about Hilton hotel rooms—generally exercising my nerves, if not my options—another bout of road fever, totally roughing it, no stones, no cigar.
Yet this was one of those cool, boundless nights—everything was underbrush and anything seemed possible despite the cost. Bridled waves slapped softly behind the Muni Pier breakwater, barely jostling the marker buoys and moored sailboats in Aquatic Park’s lagoon. Nearby nightlife spilled across the inner bay in coruscated pink and yellow lights, transforming the inky water into a rich, creamy broth, chatter and laughter passing me on sidewalks to either side. Dim, rattling hulls snuck in and out of the greater bay from Hong Kong and Hormuz under cover of foghorns, only to be flushed out by the sweeping Alcatraz Island beacon. And silhouetted in the foreground was Eric, still sitting in the middle of his three Porsches, washing down cigarette smoke with half-can slugs of beer. Bruno had coiled up behind the sunroof, low moaning for more sunflower seeds over the crackle of KMRX-FM’s call-in agitprop.
There were stranger places to do this car trip, I rationalized, wrapping my sleeping bag about me, locking the Volvo’s doors again, sure and hard. I wriggled across the two front bucket seats, between armrests, around the floorshift and hand brake, finally jamming my feet firmly under the dashboard in the knowledge that the best I could manage between now and daybreak was a postural question mark. Giggly, beer guzzling college types scattered on nearby knolls, mixing with Eric’s high-volume radio talk show and muttering Chinese crab trappers into a penetrating audible olio.
I hit my dashboard Blaupunkt for relief, tuning into ‘One of These Nights’ mid chorus, sending me falsetto reeling back to frigid, desperate high flagging along North Lake Shore Drive. Maybe this was sicko out here, but it sure was better than that. Now just do what you have to do to tamp down the inner fires, get everything back on track. So let your hippocampus sort through, decode those nasty old neurons. But I couldn’t say this retrusive cerebral grip wasn’t infecting my instincts, stirring my emotions all over again—the same fear, anger, rancor and discord, with confusion, oddly twisted pleasure ahead—that whole rackabones survival stew.
I kicked at door panels and shifted about the front seats to tone down the oldies station, soon startled by the thumping of late-night joggers. A bleary parade of night crawlers then passed between me and the glow of Ghirardelli Square’s block-long sign, almost obscuring the fact that Aquatic Park had one more redeeming attribute, however ill advised—yah, getting in a mite closer to the action…
She lived just blocks away, the Eagles reminded me of that—here, within walking distance of Syd’s place, how utterly bizarre. I pictured her laughing, cursed her, largely blamed her for it all. She’d make good by it, see it my way when I make my play, or else she’d have to pay. I then saw her groveling, naked and forlorn—feeding me nectarines under dancing California palms—fat chance of that. I so wet dreamed and schemed and plotted until the music fuzzed over and nightlights faded, and I could see no more. Except for spotting Eric, still smoking, swilling and staring out to the bay, tossing beer cans up through his sunroof, hitting the trash can in a reggae trance.
I just quelled Van Ness Avenue’s ambulance and fire truck sirens by dialing in KMRX myself, if only out of idle, middle of the road curiosity. There I came upon a spirited Berkeley activists’ discussion of aid to the inspiring children of Jonestown, Guyana—of how they were truly destined to transform those jungle wilds into a utopian, perfectly egalitarian paradise on earth—if only Bay Area progressives would keep the faith and continue to support this vital cause in every way.
I signed off rather uncommitted, just as the FM station’s phone pledges began ringing in, wrestling myself to sleep, hoping for a little mental downtime, some REM resolution of my festering personal issues. Or at least that I might make it past 3 a.m. without hitting the wall again…
Care for more?
Chapter 58. Coming clean is an eye
opener to the dark, deeper scales
of manhood, making for the fits,
starts and sputters of an easy out…