“Café, society can surely
be a rush. Unless it is
a rush to judgment.”
“You know, the Purple Onion and Hungry I, only now they’re topless-bottomless live hump, two drink minimum…”
“Yeah, R.I.P. Smothers and Chad Mitchell Trio…”
“Make that Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl—those true geniuses…”
“Sorta thinking Kerouac, Brautigan, ‘Trout Fishing in America’…”
“Fishing? What in the world would I know about that?”
Lucchio’s was still digesting its long-suffering weekend crowd, as broader North Beach was coming fully alive. I had dawdled two wary steps behind Sydney across Columbus Avenue, eyeing up Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, down to Broadway’s blazing skin shows and that spiking, ever-striking Transamerica Pyramid—pharaonic ivory against the clear night sky. In between were the Beach’s famed and infamously Beat bar/coffeehouses, Trieste and Mario’s to Roma and Vesuvio—lots of roguish beard growths and rakish berets—luminous City Lights Bookstore progressively presiding over it all.
Syd dodged the taxicabs; I dodged the reasons I’d been hammerlocked by that mad impulse to face up to her again in the first place, much less accepting her off-hand invitation to dinner. As for the meal itself, there was no sense clinging to hunger on principle, whether the payoff was a combo platter or a la carte. And the ozone of garlic and coffee only dispatched me back to Catania’s stazione ferroviaria, where this whole espresso/caffeine fixation bedeviled a sloth like me to start with. So I drifted into memory mode along the way…at least until the mixed aromas fed us here…
Tosca Café was this dusky sort of place back then where day met night all day and night long, where pupils dilated wide as cocktail olives , where eagle-eye met blind, yet with taste tests and a tempo so sublime. This was Syd’s notion of an après dinner cordial, and we were catching the place a smidgen before the full evening rush.
Once my eyes finally adjusted, I coursed a veiled light scheme that barely accented the prevailing darkness with a low level whisper of green. Small emerald cup shades spoked around tarnished brass overhead fixtures. Soft indirect avocado lighting kissed a mammoth mahogany back bar, reflecting from its broad etched mirrors out past a long line of revolving padded stools. So I sandbagged some, fast scanning the jukebox, preferring to let Syd lead me into one of Tosca’s nearest empty booths, a cozy half crescent beneath an aged mural of Firenze. Its red, tufted vinyl was cool and first-cabin spongy—she pronounced it ‘cushy to the tushie’—as a sulky diva of a barmaid approached.
“Dunno, Syd, not quite up for hardcore caffeine right now…” But taking note on her serving tray, the waitress was in no mood for any such reticence.
“Trust me, their capps are totally different, they’ll totally frizzle your undergrowth,” Syd nodded to her with wiggling V-ed fingers, then squeezed my forearm. “Remember, experience, Kenneth, that’s all that really matters.”
“Naw, don’t see handling that now.” I wasn’t certain where this was heading, but chances were her rap would be no lighter than the ambience hereabouts. I tracked the waitress, who was trolling nearby booths and tables en route to her barstool, where she mumbled their order to a smooth-domed bartender in his crisp white coat.
That variegating green pervaded Tosca—somber, languid, ranging from novena candle green to creamy shades of leftover pesto. It tinted the Venetian blinds of a cathedral front window, the delicate short stem glasses stacked five-high against the bar’s mirrors. Nippled bottles of Chartreuse, Tuaca, Ouzo, Campari, Pernod and Marie Brizard ganged around the fluted mahogany columns segmenting three smoke-filled panels. It patinaed the two chrome Victoria Arduino cauldrons lording four feet over the elbow pads at either end of the bar. It shone in the long lines of cappuccino goblets extending inward from the espresso machines, beneath two gleaming gooseneck seltzer taps and neatly stacked Cinzano coasters.
The stocky Italian bartender turned to his ritually polished espresso machine and pulled two proprietary cappuccino glasses toward him. Pre-treated with two fingers of a cocoa powder, the stemmed glasses took three-quarters steamed milk and brandy, if not a dash of bourbon to the rim. He then spun a series of nozzles, and the cauldron began gurgling, hissing, fired up for ever more renowned Tosca capps.
The master barista retweaked his steam valves until the gauges leveled to his liking. At that instant, he turned the main valve, shooting steam into small stainless steel milk pitchers through a narrow tubular spigot, frothing the house specialty with several boiling kilograms of pressure. Thick steam erupted from the cauldron, billowing heinously upward from the twisted chrome piping, singeing the burn spot on the Sistine muralled ceiling it had been curing since Tosca opened in 1919. Not that it rankled the stony, dark-suited sigñoritos hunched over the bar. They’d been smoking and spouting off here for nearly as long, as had the waitress shuffling back with our drinks.
“Due cappuccine, five dolla,” she snapped, gesturing for me to remove them from her tray.
“Five bucks?!” I suppose my question could be translated into modest outrage as I did so.
“Fear not, moneybags—I’ve got this too,” Syd insisted, handing her a five-spot and single.
“Grazie,” the spindly, darkly mascaraed waitress smiled thinly, scouting nearby booths before returning empty-handed to her barstool, laced carmine uniform weltering in her wake.
“A bit rich for my blood,” I muttered, examining the curious non-coffee that came in no cup, but a glass. “Shouldn’t we at least get some whipped cream with this?”
“Not to worry, it’s not your tab,” she tapped the back of my hand. “Just relish the moment, why don’t you…”
“Yeah, well, that’s a little harder to do these days,” I said, checking out the place as if it were a reincarnation of Warner’s Cobweb Palace. “I mean, I lived better as a starving student…”
“So who’s the cause of that,” she stirred, then provocatively licked her swizzle stick. “Look, it’s Francis coming in, and isn’t that Robert Duvall with him?”
“Cause? I dunno, you tell me,” I sipped hesitantly about my steaming rim, pointedly ignoring the movie star turn passing discreetly by us toward a reserved rear corner booth.
“You, who else? You’re not the effect of it all, you’re the cause, the source of what you experience. You’re the one responsible for it all. Get that, and your life will begin to work for you. ”
“So in effect you’re not causal then, huh?”
Slowly voices, grand choral voices, seeped into my head. I followed them along the parched, jaundiced paintings of fable operas, past a browned portrait of Puccini, down to a magnificent music machine against the bare lower wall opposite the bar itself. The Wurlitzer Cobra was a glowing phantom, a rosy rainbow of a jukebox with 45 r.p.m. opera its pot of gold. Selection title tags were so thoroughly faded, neophytes couldn’t tell Madame Butterfly from the Barber of Seville. But these Tosca devotees from decades past knew exactly where their sentimental favorites resided.
Take some bruto Arturo with the wavy gray hair and side-mouthed cigarette crackling his knuckles at the Wurlitzer. It was to on his dimes, mio Dio, so he was going to punch its buttons—choosing Corelli, Tobaldi, Enzio Pinza. The old box clicked and flashed its grooved vinyl distress to where the mother country music dear to Tosca’s soul, magisterially muted the base drum pounding of a disco beat in the dance club one floor directly below.
“Don’t blame me! Besides, I figure it’s all upstairs with you. Too much book schooling’s got you living in your eggy little head, instead of in the real world like the rest of us…”
“Hey, those sheepskins are about all I have left,” I lifted my glass slowly, the hot brown liquid scalding my lips. Still, Tosca’s cappuccino had a steadying effect, the booze part canceling any coffee residue and vice versa. Pity it couldn’t blot out the particular spiel at hand.
“You’re resisting again, Kenneth. Ignore your problems and they only get worse. And if you don’t do the training, you’re headed straight down the crapper.”
“Look, I don’t know where you’re coming up with that, but I’m not in the mood, all right?”
“Fine, I get that,” she smiled her astral smile. “Now just be with that feeling…”
“Be with it? What the hell are you talking about?! If you ask me, everything’s been a disaster area for me ever since I left Boulder and hauled you out here…”
This wasn’t the direction, no this wasn’t where I was wanting to head at all. I took a breath, stared vacantly toward the long bar. Seemed like Tosca had grown older by the sip—that the place was aging even more than its North Beach regulars about then. Where its mottled ceiling wasn’t singed, it was water stained, yellowed with years of tobacco smoke, peeling at the seams. The greenish light only jaundiced the ulcerations, spreading on and about dingy, fading murals of Pisa, Venezia and lower Toscana—the smoke- filmed Pompeii and Santo Pietro severely tilted over the back bar.
“I get that, too,” she coaxed, “Just get who’s the source…”
“Damn—stop with that twisted bullshit, Syd,” I spouted, wringing a cocktail napkin. “All I know is, one little detour and it’s been a non-stop road to hell!”
“That’s ’cause you’ve been chained to our… afternoon delight. Werner says a shared love experience is one of the few times we’re shocked into aliveness. So we put it on this emotional pedestal, and make it a standard for anything that comes afterward. The trap is, nothing can compare, see? Not with perfection, so one memory is your prison—that head of yours won’t let you really experience anything else.”
“Aww, you’re sounding like some dial-a-shrink,” I hissed, sipping through my stir straw.
“Don’t you think I’ve been there, too? I’ve just given up the mind fuck.”
“Easy for you, maybe—when you’re the one fucking the mind…”
“Oh, here comes the ‘Sydney done me dirty’,” she sighed, sipping lightly. “That I’ve steered you wrong and abandoned ship on your S.S. Life. Well, nobody ever does anything to you…”
“Can’t buy that, Syd, not after you hung me out to dry…”
“Only after you left me hanging out to die to begin with,” Syd caught herself. “But that’s history, right, water under the bridge. Point is, you can spend the rest of your life looking backwards, or take the helm and move on. Really, all I can tell you is accept responsibility, Kenneth—you’ve just got to do the training. However that’s not totally why we’re here, either.”
Tosca had drawn a full measure of the North Beach café, thespian and cinema crowd, its rear dining salle now choked with such peculiarly dramatic, animated artistical chatter. Oh, the score was exquisite, the second-act choreography so cultured and esthetic. Sotterheim’s costuming was superb…you must hear the chamber orchestra’s new Mendelssohn Octet…how could they even think of seeing ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ or ‘La Cage aux Folles’ with Kramen’s play opening at the Vertigo?
“Water under which bridge exactly?” I groused, lifting my glass to down a good shot of cappuccino. “ Hmph, if I had $250 now, first thing I’d do is bail out my cameras—at least one of them, anyway…”
“On another level, I get where you’re coming from, Kenneth. So maybe I can help.”
“Sorry, but you haven’t helped much thus far…” I tossed back my head in frustration, keying on that Wurlitzer. That Arturo cat had crossed the pitted red and black linoleum to rejoin his cronies at the multi-stooled bar, notably to the tune of ‘Un Bel Di Vedamo’ by the recently departed Greek bel canto, Maria Callas. “Look, I appreciate your charity tonight, but maybe I should be moving on…”
“I’ll ignore that unhelpful vursht, but no more bailing, hear,” Syd said firmly, signaling the diva waitress for another round, this time White Nuns. “Poor, poor Kenneth—you can pull that all night or we can work through this. Either way, the reality is you took me up on my invitation here, toots, and you aren’t going anywhere yet, capeesh?”
There I froze, somewhat stunned by her fortitude. On another level, I almost welcomed it, much like the showers that hose down a humid summer day. After all, wasn’t that what turned my head in the first place, what purged Melissa’s tenderness, what dictated our initial bittersweet terms of engagement? I sighed and bounced my melon gently against the booth back, watching the waitress and bartender commiserate over their own double capps. My angst billowed and etherized with the espresso steam, lifting in veiled whisps to Tosca’s ceiling—before wafting up and dissolving into the dark.
“What-ever…” I pushed deeper into the red vinyl cushions, following another updraft of espresso steam to the burn-spotted ceiling, picking up a new selection on the jukebox—something like Stignani’s ‘Carmen’ or Javier Solis’s ‘Granada’, as if I’d be one to know—at least until the hissing cauldrons drowned it out. Tosca’s old guard were being slowly displaced now, unseated by pawsome young couples and theater folk between acts. The buzzy, boisterous evening rush also spilled into surrounding booths, transforming the dour rear salle ambience to old-world gay cabaret.
“All right, then,” she fixed on me, after scanning this fresh crowd about us, the room filling with evermore cigarette smoke, much of it mentholated or perfumed. “Now, let’s get down to geshefts…”
“Syd, what do you want from me,” I grunted, trying not to jostle my kidneys, as I suddenly had to leak something awful.
“No, the question is, what do you want for you? See, behind all your bitching and moaning is your avoidance of who you really are. EST lays out how nobody wants to face numero uno, we’ll do anything to dodge that—play any game, live any lie, run any song ’n’ dance routine…”
“As in your ‘Dance Your Ass Off’ disco routine, huh?” While on the Wurlitzer, ‘Depuis La Jour’ slowly faded under a Licia Albanese aria of ringing bells.
“Tsk, that was before I did the training,” Syd snapped, voice rising as she finished off her cap, pushing her glass toward the center of their round, green Formica-top table. “Anyway, EST showed us that it could be as simple as one item being so heavy duty that anything is better than facing it, no matter how miserable the alternative may be. So, what’s your item…”
Compelling as it was, the backroom banter had almost imperceptibly begun to quiet. The flamboyant and finely tuned began turning, craning over their crescent booths, repositioning themselves around their chrome Moderne tables, nodding and whispering to one another as if something gauche were going on. And though the smoke had diffracted Tosca’s green lighting into a bruised avocado spray, I could make out beyond doubt that their hypercritical eyes were focusing our way.
“Christ, tone it down, people are starting to look at us,” I said in exasperation, peering around the outline of her head, up at the long-faded mural of the Piazza della Signoria in Firenze’s Palazzo Vecchio, where I once missed the train back to Basel while haggling over a new leather sportcoat, young giovanes nipping at my pockets for unspent lira. “Well, for starters, how about the meat grinder you and Moon put me through at your apartment door that time? ”
“Tell you what, don’t fret over Moon, she’ll be fine and dandy. Just be worrying about your own self…”
“Okay then, about the way you two chewed me over has upended me ever since…”
“Good, so how do you feel about that?” she countered, craning slightly to see if Coppola, party of two happened to be taking notice.
“I trusted you, dammit, threw my whole life away for our big plans. You said together we could do anything. I believed you Syd; I took that to the bank, for chrissake!”
“Fair enough, thank you for sharing,” she replied flatly, turning to stare me steely in the eye. “But it’s time to cut the victim act. Beliefs don’t exist in reality, they’re a useless concept. And stop deluding yourself that others are running your life—it’s not Moon or me, it’s just you.”
“I know, I know, that whole man-your-ship bullcrap,” I muttered, diverting my own self to check out Tosca’s celebrity booth. “I think they really have brainwashed you something fierce.”
“No, it’s you who’ve been brainlocked…you’ve got to get out of that mental prison your brain has overthought you into. Werner says our minds are just like tape recorders, with humongous stacks of tapes—sight, sound, smells, feelings, the whole shmeer. All your brain can do is record your experiences and play them back…”
“Funny, I always thought it was just three pounds of canned Spam.”
“See? That’s what thinking does to you,” she nodded, apparently too busy accessing a rote answer to find any humor in my feint. “When in fact your mind is just a linear arrangement of those multisensory records of successive moments of now. Trouble is, you can’t always keep it under control. Sometimes your mind plays back what it wants, when it wants—whether the time is right or not.”
“You mean like now…” I then played dodge-eye with the barmaid as she returned with two Nuns.
“No, what I mean is the sole purpose of the mind is the survival of its being. So it’ll playback anything, do anything to defend its rightness—even if it takes destroying a physical being in the process. I finally got that the mind wants things the way they were, not the way they are. It is always looking for agreement, and will playback toxic tapes whenever its ‘rightness’ feels threatened. Which is why you went fleeing back to the Midwest with Moon. Your mind kept serving up those old tapes, forcing you into something you really no longer wanted. And the only way out of that tyranny is letting go of the shackles and fully experiencing the here and now.”
“C’mon, that’s what you got for your $250?” I followed Syd’s methodical stirring of brandy, Kahlua and steaming milk.
“Worth every penny, because EST shows the way out of that mind trap, to the enlightenment that you’re a reality apart from your mind. That you get what you get, and are on the hook for every single minute you have. It was so liberating, and my life’s gotten so much easier—just relax, accept the simple truth that you’re a machine, like we all are, and do what you do…absolutely amazing, get it?”
”Maybe so, but life’s a lot more complicated than that, Syd. I had obligations, believe you me…”
“No more beliefs, remember? And get that you can flow with what comes,” she glowed, toasting her glass. “Admit it, Kenneth, your little old mind was busy fighting for its life, still is. But there’s nothing you can do about the past. So choose to totally redo your point of view. These are the powers EST provides you. That’s why Werner Erhard is such a genius!”
“Or a cult fascist—didn’t I read where he used to sell vacuum cleaners?”
“Encyclopedias, but that was in a former life,” she groaned, impatiently restirring what remained of her White Nun. “Look, I can only take this so far, Kenneth. Werner’s Anatomy of Mind concept gets pretty deep, but you’ve just got to do the training. In fact I’m planning on signing up for some of EST’s graduate seminars, maybe I can get you in as a guest. Or if it’s the money, I could always lend you some more…
“Hell no—the last thing I need is to get even deeper in hock…” That said, I excused myself to a men’s room plastered with wallpaper of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe.
“Speaking of which, it so happens I’ve since sourced a fantabulous new idea for my next painting,” she beamed, as I slid back into the booth, hand hiding some haphazard dampness about my fly. “It involves a commission for Bay Bank & Trust’s new headquarters—big bucks, something like $30,000…”
“Whoa, sounds exciting,” I exhaled. “Gonna do it or what?”
“Well, the competition’s ultra intense,” she pushed back deep into the rolled and pleated booth cushions. “That’s why I was so glad I ran into you. I mean, what are you actually doing these days?”
“Me? Uh, some field study and, you know, longitudinal…research. Wait a minute, how did this get from my problems to your paintings?”
“The way it works is artists have to submit written proposals to a selection committee—you know, laying out the concept, medium and all. The best presentation gets the gig.”
“So what’s that got to do with me?”
“You can do this. You’ve been through grad school, haven’t you, done some advertising?” she smiled, reaching forward for my hands. “Nobody does that if they can’t write proposals.”
“Hold on, Syd,” I pulled back sharply. “I don’t know jack about art proposals.”
“I know the art part, Kenneth. I just don’t know how to write it down right…me and my little crayons.”
Booths and tables around us had filled to capacity with the evening crowd—lots of leopard skin leotards and feathered boas, accompanied by turtle-necked blazers and half-cocked berets. We could overhear snippets of brandy fed banter as Tosca aficionados picked at connoli, spooned over custardy tiramisu, lamenting how Beach Blanket Babylon had so irreparably sold out. Reviews and verdicts were already in on Sam Shepard’s new play, ‘Buried Child’ that just opened at the Magic Theatre. But their raves and accolades did not extend to Alex Horn’s Theatre of All Possibilities, what with media exposés revealing all the coercion and violence playing out up at his Red Mountain Ranch commune in Sonoma. A pop-culture wag one table away noted how this cult business seemed to be spreading like Sierra wildfires these drought-dry NorCal days.
“Come on, how about one of your artsy friends here?”
“They’re all visual artists like me,” she searched my eyes for an opening. “Can’t even write their own grocery lists, not a one…”
“Syd, I don’t think…my head’s so scrambled right now, I couldn’t string two sentences together to save my life anyhow…”
She reared sharply, looking disappointed as all get out, commencing to frown and reconsider her position, studying me like one of those handicappers at the bar, old studs chewing the rag over any thought that a mudder nag named Affirmed could actually win the Triple Crown. Then she went straight for my ingratus nerve. “Honestly, Kenneth, you’d think after some great food and après treats, a person would be a bit more cooperative…”
“No thinking, remember,” I sighed, kneejerking as she pushed my cappuccino glass and small table candle toward me, nearly into my lap. “But I’ll need a day or so to get my head into the whole idea,” What the hell, I hedged, at least I’d be nearer, like in her physical sphere of…influence. Perhaps we could even talk about it more later tonight…
“Oh, Kenneth, you’re such a dear,” she squealed, kissing her fingertips, then touching them to my cheek. “Two days, max, I’ll get you the proposal particulars. This is super important to me—and you could be working off some of that outstanding debt…”
“Roger,” I heaved, emptily staring into my glass. “Another drink to toast our…”
“Sorry, toots, but no can do,” she said sharply, glancing at her pink, jeweled Hermes wristwatch. “In fact, I’d better get cuttin’…I happen to be meeting someone a bit later on, previous commitment and all that…”
“Hey, sure…I mean I get it, really I do…”
We slipped out of our semi-circle booth, headed silently for the front doors, through chatter and tobacco smoke, past packed adjacent booths and dining tables of cultural gaiety and intellectual heft. Sydney tapped my forearm and suddenly broke over toward the waitress, smiling, small talking, getting her to scribble out a slip of paper as Syd settled up again.
So I waited, buying time at the rainbow red Wurlitzer, skimming its yellowed, hand-written record selections. The dons had reasserted themselves at the jukebox with a Puccini parade, now deep into ‘Manon Lescaut’. Still, I could overhear some of a tiny roundtable forum on the latest rumors that Stephen Jones was challenging his father down in Guyana, calling him loopy for pulling more of those white-night suicide drills from his creaky pavilion throne. Claiming that the Jonestown plantation might actually be fronting a CIA operation for experimental MK-Ultra mind control—the whole thing spiraling who knew where…
But before I could catch further details, Syd bounded out of the booth and pulled me away with a self-satisfied tickling of the jukebox’s crenulated buttons. We scooted arm in arm along Tosca’s pocked, checkered flooring. The place had come dramatically more alive since when we first entered, though the quaggy verdure was clearer as we neared the front doors and ogee arched front window. Both chrome espresso cauldrons still gleamed emerald, as did the cappuccino glasses lined up and down the bar.
Tosca’s green shade chandeliers now cast rich cocoa shadows over the back bar and surrounding mahogany trim. The front barista stoked and tuned his machine like a concert calliope, steam curling his goatee on its way to the dappled ceiling. He stiffly topped off his capps with a nod toward two toppered Broadway strippers who’d dropped by between shows.
“You angling for autographs, or what,” I asked, as she jotted on that slip of paper she had picked up at the bar, neither of us daring to look Coppola’s or Duvall’s way—that derigueur San Francisco celeb denial.
“No, receipts, silly—for the IRS again. So I can write off our whole meeting as a business expense, like Daddo taught me,” Syd replied. She stuffed the slips into her bucket bag, suddenly pulling out a crumpled envelope through its leather drawstrings. “Oh, and before I forget, this is for you, some Regina Sue person phoned out of the blue. God knows where she got my number, but she said this mail delivery notice had come for you and didn’t know what to do with it. So she forwarded it to me.”
“For me? Well, uh…thanks,” I said, all business, cramming it into my jacket pocket without a second glance, though recalling that I’d jotted her phone number down in Denise’s room. I instead peered back quickly before pushing open Tosca’s doors. “It’s probably nothing…”
The green-yellow patina still imbued everything in here, from atavistic murals to shadowy huddlings, to gleaming sacramental urns and hazy Venetian blinds—this doppio celluloid set-piece, the most Italianate of places I’d seen west of Turin or Tribeca. “So at least time for a little more North Beach?” I asked as we hit the teeming sidewalk.”
“Sorry, turns out I’m too far behind schedule as it is—have to grab a…taxi!” Naturally, a yellow bomber screeched curbside on Columbus at Vallejo before Syd could fully get the word out. She climbed in, waving adieu through a rolled-down window. “Thanks so much, Kenneth, it was great. Call me in two days—where are you staying anyway?”
“Uh, I’m not far away,” I stammered, left buttoning up and zoned out at the white loading curb.
“Just don’t go disappearing again. Remember, two little days,” she said, cranking it back up to direct the hack out Columbus Avenue as the taxi rolled away. “Meantime, retrace your steps Josh box-wise—and promise me you’ll steer clear of that grisly park scene now…ciao!”
Just like this whole evening, I thought, just like with Sydney herself. I shrugged and shook my head back up Columbus, Little Lucchio’s garlic erupting like Mt. Etna from deep in my gaseous bowels. Damned if Syd didn’t reopen the wound then leave it to puss away. And if I wasn’t one bit closer to her, how could I feel so reeled in? Was she writing me off altogether or simply keeping a boob close, an enemy closer—safely spirited away from family and friends?
Yah, yamayama that. But I just didn’t feel like going tits-up like this all over again. Can, can’t—crazy cults, calculating cunts: I swore, one way or another, somebody else was going to pay—just had to figure out who…
Care for more?
Chapter 61. It’s off to the races,
all but off his trolley—in
this year of the wilder cats…