Chapter 59

“With a rendezvous per 
due, bounding out of the 
frying pan, into the pyre.”

          “So where is it?”

          “Don’t ask me, I don’t…”

          “It’s got to be in there somewhere.”

          “I’ll look, I promise—I’ll try to turn it inside out…”

          Proximity. That the Shell service station was so close to my Volvo’s breakdown proved strategically advantageous. Not only did the attendant lend me a gas can to carry a buck’s worth of regular, the purple turbaned Pakistani just asked for my Colorado driver’s license as security. Then he pointed me toward his  clean and orderly men’s room around the side, wherein to wash my hands of this mess.

          A surprisingly sparky battery, little priming of the SU carbs, a return of the can and I was off, turning left off down Van Ness, revving and recharging like Andretti at Monza. This was more a path of least resistance, an aeronautical descent, than some sort of slippery slope. Well, maybe it was a slivery slope, a sundown shivering slope, but no abject slithering slope this time. In any case, I acceded to reality over my Golden Gate release, coasting back down past North Point into the underbelly of gloaming Aquatic Park. The Volvo squeezed back in nicely between Sherry’s Econoline and, curiously, the panel van that nearly ran me over up on Bay Street—then I tucked in sorely to my sleeping bag. It wasn’t exactly Muir Woods or Mount Tam State Park, but wasn’t Marquette Park either.

          “Not try, do, this is serious, flash.”

          “Sure, but it is just a little box, right?”

          “Not just any little box, it’s my gift box,” said Sydney, unfolding her linen thick paper napkin. “And Josh says we’ve got to find it, no matter what.”

          “Josh says? Okay, so find it, we will, jeesh…”

          “But that’s not totally why we’re here.”

          Proximity talks. Comparatively clean washrooms in the corner Shell station, hot morning coffee at the pillbox snack stand: what the hell, it was only for a day or so, had to be but that. The nights were kind of rough and tumble—twist, wring, turn and return—but rising sunshine made the new morning all the toastier in green, scenic Aquatic Park. Apparently plumb on the faultline between Feds and city metermaids, the drive still had no overnight or hourly parking enforcement, meaning the stay could be somewhat…open-ended.

          So momentarily settled, with downtime to spare, I even took to freshening up and exploring the area, taking leave of my ever-spatting park neighbors, striking out further by the day. I soon found these breezy strolls allowed for a free running and refreshing of the mind. Hell, before long I could just about close my eyes and sleepwalk across the bridge, up through 101’s rainbow tunnel, kicking back on the porch with Tony and Aimee in Villa Manana, sucking down abalone and Lagunitas, listening to Illinois Speed Press and vintage Buckinghams, or flying non-stop with the Eagles to Lahaina, mahi-mahi breakfast at the Pioneer Inn—something tasty like that anyway. This way, I could get there any time I damned well pleased—so long as I didn’t have to dodge a Dart backing out from any number of flapping garage doors.

          This addled socio-reconnaissance eventually carried me southward on Van Ness—to where I happened upon a fire department ambulance idling out front of a Chestnut Street apartment house, emergency lights flashing, paramedics wheeling a loaded gurney up though its rear lift. Well, a small crowd had gathered thereabouts, and people were talking. Then again, these days, people were conversing all over the place: Frost was sitting down with Nixon, Lennon was chatting up McCartney again, Steinbrenner was jawing with Martin, Martin met with Lewis, Rowan with Martin, Gracie rapped with Marty, Cheech Marin toked with Chong, Sadat was powwowing with Begin, White was mixing it up with Milk—not to mention the two of us right here.

          As soon as Syd spotted me rubbernecking over toward her place, she said the bitchy crone upstairs had finally suffered a stroke, asked me where in blazes I’d been hiding out, hit me with this gift box business, claimed we had something fantabulous to discuss.

          “What then?” Having MUNI bused over later that evening, I was already wondering why I was here, leery of the answer.

          “Yamayama…”

          “Sorry, I…”

          “Yamayama,” Sydney said. She’d met me here via a Veteran’s taxicab. “It’s what’s cluttering your head, what’s making you batty. Comes from flowing against your river.”

          “Don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

          “Give up understanding, Kenneth, give up the big lie. Just experience, give in to your natural river, its waters are irresistible.”

          “Liar? How do you figure that? Think I came here to be called a liar?!”

          “No, no—I’m talking about roles. Stop playing your phony roles, you know? So you can finally be with who you really are.”

          “What is this? I thought we…”

          “It’s soooo basic. Just take a good look at where you’re coming from, let people see the real Kenneth Herbert.”

          “Wait a minute, this isn’t more of that Universe Theater, take-control-of-your-life crap, is…”

          “No, nudnik, I was turned onto this through the JCC,“ she smirked, flapping out her lapkin, motioning for me to do the same. “Point is, everybody knows your can’t take control, Kenneth. Get that you have to de-control…”

          “Uh-huh, so it’s kind of a Jewish thing?”

          “It’s not a Jewish thing, it’s an everybody thing. But there you go thinking too much again, Kenneth…you’ve just got to do the training. Hmph, a Jewish thing…”

          “Two more glasses of Amarone Pasqua, or a carafe?”

          Across the waitresses’s purple T-shirt was ‘Little Lucchio’s’ in bright yellow lettering. The ‘cch’ in fact scripted at an upward slant to what must have been magnifico cleavage, for the logo rollercoasted like peak-to-peak skywriting in the Italian Alps. Not that it had anything to do with yamayama or de-control, but her shirt sure went a long way toward better grounding me, breaking through the clutter, if not clearing the head. My eyes followed its apostrophe to a small black plastic nametag, greeting that with a gratefully myopic grin. From there, I scanned a side-banded black ponytail to Theresa’s sanctified smile. At that point, any diversion would do.

          “Two more’s fine, make it your Valpolicella Pasqua this time,” Syd said curtly, handing her the half-empty glasses with oenothority. “Experience the training, Kenneth, like I finally did. It’s like the weight of the world is peeled away…”

          “What training,” I tracked Theresa hazily as she slipped between scrunched tables, then behind a packed counter. We resumed breaking bread over our tiny table for two in Lucchio’s annex, one newly added step down from his original 16-stooled counter shiv of a grillroom. Most locals would kill for this front window table; for two at the counter itself, they’d throw in pillage and plunder. Forget first-borns should those stools free up side by side. “Can’t see as how I need any more training…” Little Lucchio's line

          “That’s because you’re an asshole, wallowing in your stuckness,” she zeroed in on me. “Which is why your life doesn’t work…”

          “Asshole? What the hell kind of training is that?”

          “EST, Erhard Seminars Training, get it? An awesome session that will turn you inside out and totally change your peaked little life. Everybody’s getting it—John Denver, Yoko, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman—all kinds of people. It’s amazing, you’re locked in a room with a whole bunch of other assholes—no watches, no sudden bathroom breaks, if you need to throw-up, you get a little bag. Just the master trainer and a few assistants, breaking down dumb asshole ideas and belief systems, teaching you to fully experience your experience…so that your problem doesn’t exist forever.”

          “Whatever that means. Sounds like boot camp…or brainwashing to me…”

          “EST is not brainwashing, Kenneth, it’s more about creating spaces, safe places, where you can learn to free you, yourself,” she said, straightening the napkin over her pleated blue chambray blouse, blond hair trimmed back and tightly curled, rounded like a halo around her head, smiling with the wisdom of Maimonides. “But that’s okay, be with your skepticism, don’t fight it. Fully experience the resistance. Everybody does in the beginning; by the fourth day—whammo, total clarity and ultimate truth.”

          “What, they tie you up for four days and do this to you?”

          “The training is spread out over two weekends, just down Van Ness at the Jack Tar Hotel.” She spooned the meal around her pastina bowl.

          I nearly choked on my Italian bread for want of more vino. Images of a Messina-bound train ferry reflected in the annex’s plate window, coach compartments filled with overextended Sicilian families and their five-gallon containers of homemade dago red. Earthy senoras would ladle it out like well water into paper cups until language barriers came tumbling down. The stuff virtually ate through the plastic jugs while the gabby Italians toasted us ugly G.I. Americans. Where in blazes was that grape now; Syd’s trip was hard to swallow as it was.

          “All I know I didn’t grasp half of what you were talking about the last time we got together, and you’re not even that person anymore…”

          “Growth, Kenneth, personal growth and transubstantiation of your space. You could too with the training…it’s the best $250 I’ve ever spent…”

          Theresa finally delivered fresh wine from her spinning tray, then struck a Michaelangelic pose to take our order. Syd pointed to saltinbocca as I muddled over the menu, Puccini’s La Traviata flushing through my ears. I settled on whatever I saw Lucchio frying up through the steamy sidewalk windows. Theresa smiled enigmatically and worked her way back counter to Lucchio’s wide open ranges, stage front in this little two storefront hive with its small, trashed-beyond-recognition neon sign and glass panels lettered ‘Rain or Shine, There’s Always a Line’.

          “Oh, I see, that’s what the scam’s all about. Well no thanks, sounds totally unreasonable to me.” But I was no different. Just when I’d begun grumbling about going cold turkey amid brisk Columbus Avenue winds, the chow line detainee in front of us passed back to small glasses of on-the-house Asti Spumanti. By the time that was history, we’d shuffled up within earshot of Rigoletto, and smack into another short round of ruby red. “I gave up mind control after army BCT, and they were paying me for the warping.”

          “No, reasonableness is exactly your problem. You can waste your whole life trying to be reasonable, like so right about everything…”

          We ourselves had mustered mighty appetites out on the sidewalk wait line. For Little Lucchio’s was everybody’s off-Broadway shrine, smack in the North Beach groin, where after-hours office grunts melded with local bohemes to queue sixty minutes for a twenty-minute meal. On such a clear night, they stretched a full block down Columbus Avenue, where skin show barkers could target their craving palates with far more carnal fare.

          Granted, good gnocchi and linguine alone were hardly enough to pull in so many discerning, if not pretentious San Francisco noses, although the concentrated garlic wafting through Lucchio’s exhaust fans went a long way toward keeping them in line. No, it wasn’t just his Genovese cuisine, it was Lucchio himself, and what he put customers through to get to it. This behind-the-counter Caruso worked them like they were game show rejects on a studio tour. The chef flirted, flogged their tastebuds, made patrons stand out there in the fog or rain and pay for the privilege, while plying them with gratis chianti. He fed them crass discomfort and near starvation, and had them eating out of his self-made hands.

          What we kept hearing was the dinnertime mantra, ‘it’s worth the wait, believe me’, from other famished line mates and, ‘ah that was good, pass the fresh air’ from the fatted cats picking oregano and sweet basil out of their sated smiles. A Puccini mini medley later, and I could finally see what the crowing was all about. It was enough to make me unbutton my sheepskin coat and forget trying to remember how the hell I ended up in here.

          Once inside, we were transfixed by Lucchio, how he orchestrated his open-face kitchen as though catering to Carnegie Hall. One raw paisano chopped a tray of carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. A stocky, bereted fry cook stirred vats of Mafaldine pasta, Sugo alla Genovese, and aglio & origano sauce. A heavy-handed contessa pounded the veal and beef tongue into tender submission.

          “Christ, what’s so damn unreasonable about being reasonable?” I soon smiled at Theresa as she delivered two platters heaped with saltinbocca, rigatoni and fresh vegetables. Before I could conjure anything clever to say, much less in Italian, she was off answering the ready clanging of Lucchio’s order bell.

          “Stop with the being reasonable, just accept what is, get with being the real you,” said Sydney. On the wall over her right shoulder was a portrait of the Piazza St. Pietro, with a souvenir inscription by Pope Pius XII. “But nooo, same ol’ Kenneth, won’t take step one to help yourself. Honestly, what would be so wrong if your life began to work for a change?”

          “I’m working on it, okay? Working on it my own way…” I loaded up quickly on rigatoni, hoping to feed an impasse, sneaking an eyeful of Theresa filling her jugs from a rear-counter water cask. Pity, Syd wasn’t heavier into jugs, I drifted—like her mother, like Cassie. Then again, sometimes my ex was so prepossessed by the burden of her endowment she couldn’t think about anything else. Still, here we were, here Syd be—lighter on the topside, but pretty much a handful nonetheless.

          Otherwise, behind the counter, that synchronized Napoli trio took a back burner to l’maestro’s grillwork. Lucchio was a stubbly Neapolitan immigrant who’d grown pasta portly from years of 14-hour days at the range. That he managed a free hand with eight burners fully blazing was a delicious sideshow of its own, yet his dagger-tattooed left arm’s main role was to herd all eyes center stage. His was the arm of Solti, Toscanini, the vigile del traffico in Roma’s Piazza Di Spagna. It led the charge, set the tone—all the while shaping his handlebar moustache and slightly curly pompadour. Spinning, thrusting, clenching: Lucchio’s left seemed the lightning rod for his verve, his spicy bravado, his brazen, sautéed symphony. Little Lucchio's open range

          “Actually, I’m surprised you had the guts to meet me for dinner at all,” Syd replied, buttering up a sesame roll. “Even if I am buying…”

          “I’m not quite that fat and dumb,” I sighed. The gilty wood framed papal lithograph about made me want to genuflect and pass the collection plate right there. “Pass the bread basket, will you…”

          “No excuses, keep on with the way you’re going, you’ll end up dumber than a lab rat.” She did so, smiling that perfect smile, sandpaper against raw slate. “But at least a rat will experience growth. If it has four tunnels, only one with cheese, it’ll always go there for the payoff. But move the cheese, it’ll adjust, find the new tunnel and go there. Not us. People will keep hitting the tunnel where the cheese was, even if it’s not there anymore. Know why? Werner says it’s because we think it should still be there. Want my veggies…looks like you could use the nutrition.”

          “Look, I’m well familiar with rodent experiments, under more exacting empirical conditions than some hotel room down Van Ness,” I was not exactly savoring that imagery over dinner. “But no thanks, just the parmesan there…”

          Good thing Lucchio’s right was such a workhorse. That arm sported the same rolled-up sleeve, and a hand that stoked flaming skillets of piccata, paccheri and veal parmigiana with the firing order precision of the patent black Ferrari he always parked directly out front. The galleon-tattooed limb stirred everybody ravenously senseless as he bathed his creations in gallons of Olio di Oliva, bellowing La Traviata as his grill went up in pungent flames. Precisely when the scaloppini seemed doomed to four alarms, Lucchio would turn it deftly, then ring his order bell as if flashing an applause sign. His swagger earned him a Bay-wide following and his companion Berlinetta Boxer, not to mention garlic goddesses like Theresa, who clutched his signature entrees to their ample bosoms, and dished them out with devoted, loving care.

          “Empirical, what’s that?” Syd handed over the shaker as if passing along remnants of a Dead Sea Scroll.

          “Has to do with observable, measurable experience…” I spread the flakes over a yellow pat of butter across a bread heel, then tossed back the dregs of my Amarone, dripping ever so indiscreetly on my denim workshirt.

          “See? Real experience beats egghead theories and weasel words every time.”

          Given all this, who could blame a body for cowering patiently in the wait line wind for a cramped, wobbly checker-clothed table? Or better yet, a spot at the counter with elephant elbowed strangers as your next-stool neighbors, having others lined up 2-3 deep, drooling directly down your neck before the menu even arrives?  The deferred gratification made for unabashed tete-a-tetes and scintillating stranger-on-stranger small talk all around us. Lucchio’s aficionados devoured caciucco and calamari, toasting with Peroni Bier and beakers of Barolo Giacomo Contreno, napkin planning their North Beach evenings from here—be it a Mimi Farina benefit at the Intersection or Cal Tjader jamming at the Keystone Korner.

          “Spumoni?”  Theresa rushed over, anticipating that we might be ones to Bogart a table under such power-hungry turnover pressure. She hastened to gesture toward the counter, nearly nailing a sidewall console and its figurine of Giambologna’s Venus. “Or tartufo, only two left…”

          “Meh, meso-meso,” Syd snapped, pushing her plate assertively toward the waitress. “We’ll pass.”

          “E’ bene,”  Theresa sighed, winking my way, digitally counting the tip change in her black leather apron. She then turned her hip sassily away, leaving the dishes to some greased young soccer striker from Reggio, bussing for scraps and a kiddie portion of the server’s take, quickly clearing a table about to be stormed from several power-hungry directions.

          “Hmph,” Syd picked up her Noe bucket bag and the check, stiffing the waitress for a measly fifty cents. “Theresa there is definitely missing the cheese.”

          “I know the feeling,” I belched, pulling two dollars from my jeans, slipping them under the fold of my tomato-stained napkin, as if I could actually afford it.

          “But wasn’t that food fantabulous,” she gushed, as we wedged out through Lucchio’s door, around an onrushing duo of banker trainees, breaking for the counter past a party of North Beach poseurs, who themselves rushed our vacated table like so many Naples pickpockets at the stazione ferroviaria. Lucchio welcomed them all with a rousing ‘O Sole Mio’ and a half tin of olive oil over twin skillets of Vitello Sante with linguine, flames leaping up into hooded vents, more sizzling, enticing smoke pouring through his storefront fans.

          Syd smiled at all the starved, tongue wagging faces of a wait line at least a half block long. “I think I could just about burst a gut…”

          “Really? You think,” I asked, following her up across Columbus Avenue, trying to locate whether the garlic breath was hers or mine. “What would your trainer say?”

          “He’d say ride with the experience to the fullest,” she said, zipping up her light brown glove leather jacket, eyeing all the pasta and antipasto in Molinari’s deli windows.

          “Right, just don’t forget to pack along your barf bags…” Waiting for the green light up at Vallejo Street, we could overhear several beat cops grousing as how Mayor Moscone was still squeezing the POA on back pay and hiring quotas as consent decree negotiations dragged on. And that it was payback time for their pet Supervisor Danny Boy—whatever that blue uni shoptalk was all about.

          “C’mon, asshole, let’s capp this off,” she said as the light changed and red light runners cleared the crosswalk. “We can go talk tartufo…and you can get what you did with that box…”

Care for more?

Chapter 60. Best ESTimate: a 
perfect pitch of operatic proportions 
makes for getting rather jobbed…