“Harbor your grudges,
park at your peril—
wary of depth charges,
misfires double barrel.”
“And so, my fellow San Franciscans, we prove once again that we are the City That Knows How…”
“Surprised he could tear himself away from Willie Brown’s booth at Le Central.”
“…The fundamental retooling of this vital pumping station demonstrates how my administration thoroughly supports the very best fire department in the nation…”
“Or that he’s here cutting ribbons, when he’s usually too busy cutting lines in City Hall…”
“Therefore I, Mayor George Moscone, hereby dedicate this estimable facility to the heroic members of the San Francisco Fire Department, for all and everything they do to save and preserve our great city with their honorable and indispensable service.” SNIP, SNIP…
“Then stop with your OFJ discrimination bullshit, while you’re at it—no more ’74 court orders, mayor, POA rules…”
CLAP, CLAP, CLAP, Clap… I could overhear the scoffing commentary of a couple of firefighters who stood outside my car window, taking in this opening ceremony from vouchsafe distance, arms folded smugly across the chests of their turnout coats. The mayor and his entourage had descended upon Aquatic Park to celebrate the rebirth of SFFD’s venerable two-story, Spanish-style pumping facility, which in fact was originally born as the Spring Valley Water Company, way back when the Black Point it now occupied was barely upwind from belching smelters and woolen mills.
Between the media scrum and Moscone’s microphoned tones, this bright morning’s hoopla couldn’t have been more snooze alarming if it had been amplified through Aquatic Park’s huge, long-silent speaker towers. Eyes opened, yet still half asleep, I wasn’t sure where I was, whether I had kept my stir-crazy promise to Sherry or made it past 3 a.m. without leaking. All I could even vaguely remember were heavy footsteps and devilish laughter, beer cans crashing against concrete, some sort of vehicular ignition and motion up the hill.
TAP, TAP, TAP… With the mayor’s feted photo-op disbanding and those derisive firemen moving on, I wriggled out of my Frostline and like an ostrich blinked about. News crews packed their gear, Moscone’s team roared past in matching onyx limos up the Van Ness grade toward City Hall, and a stream of hangers on and event junkies passed between my shotgun side windows and the uric relief of Fort Mason’s base wall. I tossed my sleeping bag into the Volvo’s back seat and flipped on the AM dial to a Dr. Don Rose going long on KFRC, whistling and cackling his way into Andrew Gold’s ‘Thank You For Being A Friend’—no, rather thank you in advance for being a car battery on the mend.
Avoiding the rearview mirror at any cost, I swiveled my head every whichway to work the pain and stiffness out of a cold, crooked neck. That was when I heard the fingernails over my shoulder, rapping against the driver’s door window. They were long, nibbled and dirty to the quick—might have been a plainclothes cop’s, could just as easily have been Clifford’s—in reality, they turned out to be Eric’s.
“D’ja sleep?” He gestured with a swirl of the index finger to roll my window down.
“Dunno, guess,” I mumbled, hesitantly doing just that. “Hard to tell…”
“What? See sumpin’ weird, or…”
“Who knows? I’m still getting acclimated to my…accommodations, whole night’s a blur,” I yawned, over my shoulder. “What time’s it, anyway?”
“Goin’ on eleven.” Eric glanced in at what passed for my gear and provisions, assessing front seat to back.
“Eleven? Feels more like three,” I moaned, contorting in the bucket seats, taking a gearshift knob to the kidneys.
“Ain’t three,” he snapped, before sipping at a paper cup of black coffee. “I was up at three, man, you didn’t show up at all.”
Morning after the night before: A pan of the larger scene revealed that those college underclassers had left a dumpster’s worth of throwaways all over Aquatic Park’s gentle knolls, everything from chicken bones to fish wrappings soaking in the morning dew. It was all park service grunions could do to clear the grounds before Moscone arrived, to little avail. And they were still at it as the mayor waved and left, snapping up litter with long-neck pincers, filling black plastic liners as if crowds wouldn’t return to trash the place all over again. Ranger uniforms in Smokey Bear hats surveyed the damage, joggers running circles around them up and down the sidewalks to either side.
The shrieks and sassing of small children seemed to envelope the Volvo as tract families from Redding to Watsonville invaded the park with Normandy vigor and resolve.
Air cover was provided by a squadron of tourist helicopters that strafed Aquatic cove, Fisherman’s Wharf, Angel Island and Alcatraz, while an armada of freighters and tankers chased cruise boats past Muni pier and its breakwater, crab baskets be damned. All this while orange-capped swimmers lapped and bobbed like seals across the lagoon, scout base back to their Dolphin Club in fifty-degree waters, South Enders rowing Whitehalls on by. If my windows hadn’t steamed over and my clothes hadn’t gone spongy, I might have holed up in the Volvo until these tour de forces retreated and an all-clear signal went out. Nevertheless, I remembered having places to go and other doors to darken before sundown.
“What’s up with the coffee,” I asked, “need to drain a kidney and a jolt to get a jumpstart…”
“Over there,” Eric pointed across the drive. “That little round snack stand. The old wop finally opened up. Head’s around the side of the place…but speakin’ of jumpstarts…”
“First things first, cranking up the car can wait until after a little clean-up. I’m a soppin’ sweat hog in here.”
“Whew,” he caught a whiff of the Volvo’s insides. “Yah, man, you might wanna 3s it all right. Got just the place…”
“Toss the soap…”
“Beg your pardon?”
“I need soap, shoot me your soap.”
“Whoa, it’s my soap…”
“I’ll give it right back, soon’s I scrub my assets…what’s your problem?”
Black Point Cove had long harbored its rickety, stilted boathouses and the massive canners warehouses looming above them, but by the early 1900s, popular Aquatic Park Day regattas and swimfests convinced San Franciscans that this prime beachfront nook could be put to better public use. Took a Depression to fully realize civic dreams, New Deal WPA moilers clearing, dredging commercial clutter from Hyde Street to Muni Pier, fashioning a sweeping new ‘park for the people’. Its prevailing style was 1930s Streamline Moderne, sleek and white, manifested in the pillbox snack stand and piss stop, clear around the lagoon’s stepped seawall to Victorian Park and the historic vessels at the foot of Hyde.
Anchoring Aquatic Park at its axis was the ship-shaped Maritime Museum, looking like an evenly keeled little excursion liner, matching main decks fore and aft, identical curving steel-framed glasswork stem to stern, flags flying amidships over the bridge turret top. Bracing her to either side were stepped concrete bleachers and those two tall loudspeaker towers. Inside this main building’s portholes and mosaic-tiled veranda were colorful mythical murals of Atlantis and Mu, historical waterfront photos, seafaring displays of whaling guns, nautical charts, brassy rigging, lighthouse beacons and intricate scrimshaw. The lobby boasted a restaurant, an emergency hospital and hot showers.
Well before this ‘palace for the public’ was designated a museum, however, it was christened in ’39 as a municipal bathhouse in the earlier day Neptune vein, and since had served as a nightspot, infamous private casino, Army anti-aircraft command post and senior citizens’ center. All this Eric explained to me as we followed the park’s promenade, towels and Dopp kits in hand, side by side with some railroad tracks roughly where a redwood Spring Valley Water flume used to be. What he neglected to mention as we approached the faux boat was that its bathhouse facilities had by now been relegated to the ship’s ground-floor hold. Neither did he touch upon the bilge that irregularly gathered down there.
“No problem, I just don’t think it’s…”
“Let’s go, before the hot water’s shot!”
“I need it, I tell you…”
“Selfish bastard…stuff your silly damn soap.”
“Get the hell away from me,” I shouted, surprising myself with the territorial outburst.
Maybe it was the lighting, the ambiance, but something roiled my plumbing the moment I encountered this place. A long mineshaft of a hallway beneath the west bleachers and main ship zigged and zagged past maintenance cribs and dissected boilers until steam shrouded everything in sight. And at first glance, this was so much for the better.
Deep in the bowels, with all attendant noises and odors passing herein: Today, Aquatic Park’s bathhouse could easily have been mistaken for a smazy catacombs—a bi-directional bat cave with all manner of suggestive stalactites and stalagmites—dark corners and dank corridors nested with dim, hoary creatures of dubious intent. Men leaned and stooped, posed and postured on wooden benches, against concrete pillars, inside rusty dressing cubicles and open-front stalls—wiping, sopping, zipping and unzipping, generally discharging with damp smokes drooping down their stubbly chins.
“Neville’s just a little prick that way.” The play-by-play boy leaned back against a post nearest the community shower room, right foot poised against chipped plaster and mold, Holiday Inn towel draped loosely about his speed-famished frame. He flashed his low-calcium nicotine grin, driving even the hang-loose habitués away.
“Right.” I was casting about for Eric—suddenly nowhere to be seen—trying to convince myself that this was just like army basic training, only in the reject detachment: so eyes up, straight ahead.
“Hey, throw me some asswipe!”
As I turned away from the bathhouse commentator, I locked on this brown Tarzan swaying squat over an open bowl with the primal authority of a pastured quarter-horse come mating season, trenchcoat and loincloth heaped down over his combat boots, within arm’s reach in a pinch. “Cats never stock it…shit, anybody gots some newspaper?”
“Hell with this crap,” I flared, clinging to my towel and kit. Got to get me to Marin County…but can’t go without a shower and shave, it’s marvelous Marin up there. But this was the Y Hotel on ’ludes and/or poppers, all these crazy all-night suckers just keep staring around. Any of them come near me and they get it in the gonads, swear to god.
I edged over to the one decently lit corner not creeping with consenting adults. The glass dome and hatched metal case were dripping with condensation, glazing over a lone 60-watt overhead bulb like custard pie filling. Before me to the left sprawled a fully bundled stiff against his backpack and bedroll as though this was Juneau in January. The drifter tranced on a minor spectacle to our right, along a bleak, cream-tiled hallway approximately first down and distance, end to end. It looked to have once been a walk-through shower for sand-crusted swimmers and rudderless coxswains. But that would have been when normalites frequented the place—harried fathers, squealing, shivering children with plastic buckets and little inflatable rafts.
Now, the only dinghies down here were swinging to another beat altogether—coked-up queens and cowpokes who blew through the fine line between the morning after and the night before. Some one of them brought along a boombox, pounding out mix-taped Parliament and Village People. The mucked, mildewed corridor had degenerated into a downscaly cruisebah: flush with scrawny thongs and g-strings, if at all—like the ones on the Riviera or Copacabana circa 1973—slick and stretchy, some mere straps that even pre-pubescent eunuchs could fall out of. Here they were as in-your-face as Adidas at the World Cup, as minimalistic as only gravity would allow.
“Pssst, it’s over here…”
“What’s that,” I snapped, refusing to look that way.
“Your virtue, lover…”
“That’s right, Hopalong, round-up time—bend on over…”
The voices seemed shrill and tempestuous, oozing from the murky corridor like fluid from a grease trap. The full-blast shower room, overhead trampling across the bleaches, far-corner gasps and screaming: none of it could dampen their penetrating pitches. “Come and get it, Tex, franks on the fire…”
“Hey, back off, I mean it, serious business,” I checked my flanks as I inched toward the showers. From the corner of my eye emerged a flash revelation of how out-of-hand things were getting in here, even this early in the day: Pole thin silhouettes going down on sweaty, barrel-gut hogs; the hulks bench pressing one another’s bulges, that third-world trio by the backwall in an Oreo embrace.
“Tsk, promises…all’s I get is promises,” swooned one rover just too damn big to be that way. Aggressive, too—snapping me with a towel smack on the cheeks once I prepared to drop dropped my jeans, modestly shaken and stirred. “Too, too bad, Honey buns—I’m the best thing that’ll ever happen to you…”
I shed shirt and towel, rushing full bore into the shower, tossing everything by the doorway but my soap rope, then lathered all over, fierce as a doused housecat. Eyes up, ahead all the while, I rinsed and grabbed by pile, racing out of the bagnio and scooped up my goods without pause, reconciled to air-drying, wet combing the grime out of my hair as best I could. Anybody up in Marin asked, I’d say I was working on a brawny California beard.
Meantime my skin crawled and goose bumped out of the men’s bathhouse, soapsuds still dripping from my armpits, shirt and Dopp kit dragged closely behind. I stopped to catch a breath as a chilling Bay breeze strained through my thoracic cavity sharper than a fishgig through a sockeye salmon. Galled, rattled to prudish embarrassment, I internalized the whole steamy, seamy encounter—crammed and stored its rampant particulars in my thalamus and parahippocampal cortex, to be episodically qualified, quantified, so to speak, and/or purged at a later, quieter date.
I shot across the fore deck and gardened knolls, past lean-green retirees handicapping the morning lines, pointing toward the Volvo with flying shoelaces and a runny nose. Lawn lizards had already begun staking out patches amid marble Bufano animal sculptures on the grassy grounds, deep-frying themselves with baby oil and Bain du Soleil, lean and leathery in skimpy reptilian briefs. These elder sundogs rubbed it into sagging lifeless skin, peeling away in deep reddish-brown swatches from yesterday’s exposure and light years of solar abuse.
“How’d I let you talk me into that fairy boat,” I shouted, on approach to Eric and his aft Porsche now temperamentally ranging somewhere between a cold shudder and blinding seethe, at once affronted and confronted—feeling set up once again, regressing to the mean about it all. “And where the hell do you get off stranding me like that?!”
“Not bad, huh,” he grinned, meeting me halfway to the bon-bon of a snack stand, for a black-no refill to wash down his glazed doughnut. “I was in there earlier, so…”
“That place is a sewer hole, I was damned near accosted in there.”
“Aww, put your shirt on, man,” he said, in full jeans and plaid flannel. “You’re courtin’ pneumonia like that. Coffee?”
“No thanks, I’m wired enough after a scene like that.” I buttoned up fast as I could, checking over my shoulder for any rank followers.
“It’s nuthin’, just your imagination running on overdrive,” Eric scoffed from the stainless steel counter, stirring sugar after all into his second styro cup. “But you should see it later at feeding time, a total swap meet down there.”
“All I know is this huge son-of-a-bitch nearly grab-ass violated me, hung up like a Budweiser Clydesdale. I liked to take him out right there, but didn’t dare wait around,” I rattled, as if mindful of how a frat party chickie must feel. “You go in there and deal with that shit, for chrissake?!”
“Don’t bother me none,” Eric licked the rim of his coffee cup. “Guess it’s got to do with knowin’ where you stand.”
“What’s that supposed to mean,” I tucked into my drawers, elbowed into my sheepskin jacket. “I know damn well where I stand…”
“So what’s the beef,” he pointed toward the stand’s john, then led me toward the cars. “It’s a simple public convenience. You just man up, head in, go about your business. Do what you gotta do, keep your eyes up, hands to yourself… If you have a problem with that, use the little boy’s toity around there.”
“Problem, me? No way,” I huffed, second thinking that bon-bon of a snack bar, as white and Deco Moderne as the rest of the park’s places, sweet and salty on a balmy post-Depression dime. “I know where I’m coming from, don’t you worry about that…”
I looked at him, he looked at me—mutual wariness, M.A.D. as hell. Nevertheless, we proceeded to get to work on my Volvo, Eric pulling a ratchet and socket set from his white Porsche. I piled into the ailing sedan, yanking its choke handle, pumping the gas—a turn of the steering wheel locked ignition, and nada. Dead juice, Eric grinned, hit your damn lid.
“Lot you know,” Sherry glared, whalebone combing her hair up through her van’s opened sunroof. “You and your rolling junkyard over there.”
“Yah, like you and your flabby ass,” he said, squeezing the release lever, opening the hood…”
Clock and tempers ticking, I blurted that it could be loose battery cable clamps. Eric argued that he could have the generator and voltage regulator out in five minutes“
“No time, I’ve got to get up to Marin…”
“Suure, like you’ve got a hot date with a hot tub…” Eric reached to apply socket to the nuts and bolts of my generator mounts. “What’re ya, scorin’ some blow?”
“Christ no, just personal business, strictly personal,” I stayed behind the wheel, futily turning the four-banger over once more, reminding myself that Marin’s where Tony was, where the Chi-bro money was. WWWuurr. Uuuur. Ur…again, nada.
Sherry broke our impasse by suggesting we push start the Volvo, calling to Clifford for some elbow grease. He emerged positively trancelike from his hammock, spooning a cup of fruity muesli, mumbling something about insatiable emptiness, dark passions and wilder ferment—this spindle of stray mental masturbation in a gabardine vest and black ball cap, with Kierkegaard symbology where the Giants logo should have been.
Little existential help coming from there, Eric threw up his sockets, annoyance aplenty, offering to shove the balky Volvo with his red 912, even though it was all uphill from here. We all did manage to muscle the sedan into center drive, wherein he revved his backfiring Porsche, U-yed in a cloud of oily exhaust, nudging his battered front bumper up behind the Volvo until it squarely rear-ended mine, horn signaling me toward my driver’s seat. Whatever, I fretted, ravens the size of butterball turkeys squawking menacingly from atop the light poles overhead, making me hatch my escape with borderline desperation.
“Just get behind the wheel there,” he shouted out his window. “I’ll tugboat shove you uphill, then back off. When I signal, roll down and pop the clutch in reverse—make sure your key’s on.”
“You guys really don’t have to do this.” Still I wavered, fearing and trembling out my driver’s window, checking the rearview mirror, picturing both cars careening bumper locked into the bay.
“No sweat, man,” he plaintively raced his engine, intimidating lesser machinery as only a redlining Porsche could—even one this mangled.
“So hell with it, go,” I muttered, having noted that nearly an hour had passed on Ghirardelli Square’s distant clock tower.
Traffic stalled, the tourists and fishermen stopped dead in their tracks to catch this rattletrap sports car pushing an even worse off Volvo sedan, Sherry and Clifford cheerleading the way. First off, Eric nearly rode his bumper over mine, but then eased off and pushed me uphill about 40 feet, gunning his 912 before peeling aside. Beeping my horn faintly on a frantic roll down, I popped the clutch, and damned if the old bucket didn’t catch, kicking and sputtering as I shifted into neutral and revved for dear life. The lookyloos around us loved it, but I was fixing more on a voltage warning light that flared stubbornly red.
“Didn’t I tell ya,” Eric veered quickly back into the vacated parking spot Bruno had been growling in and guarding like he was pure canine corps. “Now spring your hood again…”
I did so mid-drive, my spot having already been filled by a pouncing Vega wagon. Eric darted over with his rubber-handled screwdriver, lifting my lid to bang and pry all over the engine compartment. I idled and peered under the hood slit as he jimmied in under the generator mount around fan blades slicing mere millimeters from his fingers. Then he grabbed the generator casing, jammed his flathead into its guts. That done, he nailed the voltage regulator something fierce, sparks flying everywhere—pounding as well on the twin SU carbs. Suddenly, that little round warning light went to black.
“Whatdja do,” I yelled, cautiously upping the engine rpms.
“Either I goosed your generator brushes or unfroze your regulator,” Eric grinned crookedly, having closed the hood and swung around driver’s side. “Or maybe just shorted out your warning light. Anyway, bring me back some of that Marin abalone or Lagunitas brew…”
“Thanks, I do really owe you one big time,” I said in relief. “But I have to tell you, Eric, I don’t plan on coming back like this…”
“Heard that before, hoodini,” he laughed over his shoulder, tossing his tools into the white Porsche’s rear jump seat. “You’ll be back, ain’t no breakin’ outta here that easy…”
“Don’t count on it,” I also waved in appreciation to Sherry and Clifford—he who was already back into his hammock, dog-earing ’The Concept of Anxiety’ while Sherry stirred her Morning Thunder and stared Eric down. Horns blaring, fore and aft, I rolled closed my window and accelerated up the drive to Van Ness itself. Yep, no way, pal, not even looking back. Think I’m going through this BS again, you’re all loonier than you look. I’m gone, man—gonna put this nut farm behind me, sure as shit. Yah, decision, Clark and Division—I know where I stand, damn straight. You people are certified socios—you and your sick-ass Aquatic bathhouse, all that whizzing around at 3 a.m.…
If only the Volvo didn’t nearly die halfway uphill past North Point Street. But clutch in, warning light off, I revved and popped it full pedal toward a right turn to Bay Street, the Golden Gate Bridge shimmering into view beyond Fort Mason. That stunning bracelet full of 24-karat charms: the beautiful answer, the escape route, the fine-print loophole out of this mess. San Francisco Bay sparkled, Marin glowed warm and green, and I was more than geared to head for the hills.
At least until that goddamn red warning light flashed back on, and the Volvo began sputtering again, just as I reached the corner. But it wasn’t the generator or regulator so much as the needle on my fuel gauge, which had buried itself wide left of E. I coasted over to a walled-off Fort Mason driveway, noting the lengthy wait line into a Shell gas station across Bay Street. About then I realized that even if I’d carried a gas can in the trunk, there was no way I dared tackle Doyle Drive with the Volvo gagging like this—that the glorious Golden Gate looked to be a bridge too far.
Still, something had to give and push onward. So I locked up and dodged traffic to trudge across Bay Street, teeming Shell station bound. Stepping off the center median with a head full of fumes and foreboding, I almost stumbled in front of an old dented Dodge panel van coasting into the left-turn lane, apparently headed for Van Ness north, probably just more tourists looking for Fisherman’s Wharf, if not a prettier Aquatic Park. Yet its horn heavy, fist-waving driver instantly meant serious business before waving me off—could have been due to all these painful gas lines out of the blue.
Check and double check: but it did make me wonder whether one person’s bridge too far was another one’s far too near…
Care for more?
Chapter 59. Another day, another Beach.
More specifically another night: two passing
ships, trying to get it right…”