“Stone cold detachment
only goes so far before
freezing a body in place.”
“Where you been?”
“Watch your step, gramps…”
“Waitin’ damn near an hour…I’m turnin’ you in, fella, what’s your driver number there?”
“You got eyes. Sheeit, you people all just jealous about the money I make. Hate to see the colored boys gettin’ some.”
This wouldn’t do, either… Had I wanted a faceful of this, I could have stayed in Chicago Lawn. As it was, these two race cards had jarred me out of a retrospective place that had become more rather more comforting as the blocks rolled on. Lord knew the night didn’t start out that way. After North Beach, I had some things to walk off, give myself a good talking to, smooth out some differences, more or less tweak at the margins. I soon resolved to take Syd’s measure, get it good, separate her pro from her con—work out the kinks, plow some new ground, take natural law into my own hands—really, fight back the animal urges, wrestle with the demons, squeeze out the middle man, deal with beating around the bushes, be done with the vicious circles, all the high mindedness and lowbrow frivolities—throw in about every other dog-tired, god-forsaken cliché I could muster with a deliberate, predetermined sweep of the hand.
“Whaddya’ mean, you people?”
“Half-dead honkies—y’all looks alike to me…”
“How dare…it’s that damn Moscone and his lefty supes, turnin’ MUNI into a goddamn African air force,” spouted a stooped old man leaning heavily on his cane. “Well, I ain’t afraid of you just ’cause you’re a big, bullyin’…Negro!”
“Get your shit-face away from my car. I don’t have to listen to your alky jive…” With that, the driver closed the trolley’s scissors front doors and dimmed the power, lights. “End of the line, I’m on break.”
Just needed to take a ride, clear my head, rearrange my priorities, see where I was without losing my choice Aquatic Parking spot. Given everything, I wasn’t up to another bent-legged crash and thrash in the Volvo, much less even one more sweaty stint at the Hotel Y. So this once, I’d resigned myself to pulling an escapist all-nighter on San Francisco’s Municipal Railway. Indeed, from the moment I hopped this L Taraval streetcar on or about Third and Market Streets, I was under MUNI’s sway, with nary a clue as to where precisely this tank, my after-hours getaway car, was taking me, just relieved to be along for the ride.
Like so many others in the city’s relatively antiquated public transit fleet, unit 1754 had arrived in San Francisco from Chicago, by way of St. Louis somewhere around 1957, back when these heavy metal missiles were trucked en masse to the only town warped and wired enough to still want them. Flush with Hetch-Hetchy hydroelectric power and intact rail lines, The City promptly refinished them all in creamed corn yellow and asparagus green, letting street grime and sea salt take it steadily from there. This 37,000 lb. dinosaur lumbered out Market, through the long, dank Twin Peaks Tunnel out to West Portal Station, speed fluctuating, lights flickering as its lone contact pole flitted and sparked along seepy, undulating overhead wires.
I’d slid into the lone remaining single right-side seat ahead of several new boarders, its dark green vinyl cushion greeting me with a center spring just pointed enough to aggravate without actually pushing through. A drowsy, if not surly scattering of double-seaters and straphangers steadied themselves as the trolley shunted and listed like a seasick troop ship past Laguna Honda, out Taraval, deeper and deeper into the neatly numbered avenues of the Sunset District. Counting the stops, lost in street after street of sherbet carton two-flats that dipped and rose through the avenue numbers with anonymous similarity, I found a bit of release within the amber darkness, well into this rolling neutral zone.
The streetcar’s patchy fisheye ceiling lights, its low, narrow ironclad side windows and small tubular stainless steel safety bars delivered me right back unto childhood Sundays on the CTA. How my mother would drag me in from Willow Grove by train to visit our Southside Chicago Irish relatives, rather than spend another day after the bout before with my Scottish hungover dad. Could have been we rode this very same trolley down Halsted Street, me trying to wriggle my skinny little arm out through those window bars for even a whisp of a breeze on sweltering summer afternoons. Still loved the lovin’ it, love it to death: this Green Hornet womb here more and more, taking me away from the bloody gloom block by block, out the rolling drop to the sea, with a quick little turnaround at 46th Avenue, in the sandblown there and now.
Sweet deal and dreams, all right. But, suuuure, that was then, long gone before this Saturn shit, way the hell before her and Her, here and there; gotta be better out west, nowhere west to go. Might as well just have pressed on these window clips, pulled the sucker down, hang a skinny arm out through 1754’s window bars, grab in a little cool ocean air, off to revisit old haunts, return to the scene of the screw job, see how far I’d come since then, maybe catch up with that Asian fisherman again.
“Open this door, boy!” The wobbly old codger took to pounding on the streetcar’s front doors with his walking stick. “Mark my words, I will have your job if it kills me!”
“You can kiss my black ass,” the MUNI driver shouted back at him between burger bites, not giving the mouthy geezer so much as a glance.
Not my problem, not my deal—what’s this go to do with me? I fidgeted in my seat as the old man continued pounding on the front doors, nevertheless wondering how all these San Franciscans could keep ripping the Honorable George Moscone—as if such carping would ever have gone on during Da (late) Mayor Daley’s reign in Chicago. No, enlightened, progressive, home of the United Nations, harmonious family of Man: San Francisco was supposed to be where to go to avoid this kind of crap. Then again, the Outer Sunset District was about as from San Francisco as that San Francisco could get.
“Pretty dense, huh,” I looked about the car to see that it was down to the driver and me.
“Somebody outta cut the old fart’s pacemaker,” he skimmed through a Sporting Green, ignoring the codger’s fisticuffs and door glass-melting stare.
“Meant this fog,” I rose in place, as the trolley’s rear floorboard generator cranked up with a jolt of idling power, and the ceiling lights flickered to bright, to where I could read the motorman’s orange safe-driving patches on his brown uniform sleeve.
“It’s summertime,” he said, glancing out through his small center-posted windshield. “Watcha expect?”
“Uh, right,” I nodded into his rearview mirror, by now all but inured to the door pounding of a cretin blathering the lord’s name in vain. “Real piece of work, that guy…”
“Just another drunken mick crawling out of the Irish Cultural Center there without his walker.” He caught my glance in the band slim, wide view mirror. “You stayin’ on or goin?”
“Yeah, those micks,” I turned toward the rear scissors doors, suddenly recalling that conspiratorial confab at the Abbey Tavern, wondering how Niall and Declan were progressing on their Poppy Day plotting these days, whether they were right there in the ICC. Naw, had to have been the Stout talking, still can’t imagine they’d be bloody serious about pulling that bomb thing off. Really, Callaghan had recently visited Washington, and no blow-up there, so… “Thanks anyway. Got a Night Owl transfer, think I’ll just slip out the back.”
Who needed any more ethno-racial bombast and slurs, the blatant bigotry and negritude? I stepped down onto Wawona Street, around the pounding tweedy elder and a pair of young headbangers in black AC/DC T-shirts and Ben Davis pegs, monster combs cunt notched like their leather spiked armbands, long hair Motley Crue tangled and teased.
But better to turn a cold shoulder to all that, into the algid ocean winds. On the best of days—wait, this clearly wasn’t one of them, as a midsummer gray fog bank had piled in and fully blanketed the Outer Sunset tonight, on its way due east to Mt. Diablo. The misty porridge blurred cobwebbed streetcar wires, haloed picket fence light poles, shrouded cramped storefronts, clustered homes and apartment houses that tumbled down in softly rolling steps to the 48th Avenue sand berms.
Still, so bracing, reinvigorating: I tread pendently through a saturation-tagged tunnel under the Great Highway, beneath a double-barreled speedway of streaming traffic, catching a breath at the even more grossly graffitied seawall, barely a moment’s solace before facing the penetrating reality that there was nowhere further west to go. In any case, time for a breather, to get back on the horse, face your fears and all that disappearance rot, put a little distance between that screwy me over there in the parking lot and the decidedly re-me of tonight.
Funny thing, that tunnel seemed more like a Fallopian tube, alien voices on echo, delivering me from the me who ran elliptical circles and the me caught chasing tails. The getting all torqued me and the me wrenching it down. But this rebirth canal looked more and more like tunneling to a miscarriage. For one thing, the sand wasn’t sugar white, it was gritty, grubby and gray, at one with the oatmeal fog cover and dishwater sea. Just as well, for the nearly 1.8 miles of breathtaking shoreline views that San Francisco families had once flocked to Ocean Beach for had basically been sliding like the Chute-the-Chutes ever since Playland shut down. By now, understaffed cops had written the strip off as an ugly wasteland; federal park police just let the toughs, drunks and crazies squat it at will.
Over the seawall behind me, souped-up street beaters and primered Gimmy pick-ups drag raced up and down the full six miles of straight Great Highway. Ahead, gassed out road warriors scrapped with bored local punks and fishy migrant combers for prime beachfront turf. Depressed dumping ground for the city’s social debris: That’s what the downtown press called it, painting an eternal, infernal California nether beach scene—loud, fast and purposeless to the third degree.
Fine by me, I somehow welcomed the badlands, the dense otherworldly solitude about then. At least until I was divebombed by gulls, murres and puffins, wiping away a salt spray that got my dampness to sinking in, while howling gusts set my teeth to chattering, then chilled me to my bones. And all the trashy driftwood wildfires, the van squatters cooking kelp and plankton, frying up rotted rockfish, or sea lion and elephant seal carcasses that had washed ashore, didn’t warm me up none as danker darkness took hold.
“Score some bud,” asked a hooded-up dog walker in passing, as he choke chained a snarling terrier.
“Here?” Whoa, stuckness—I froze up in place even further against the sea wall.
“Up by the Beach Chalet. I’ll take ya, got me a righteous stash there…”
“No, sorry, not much of a drinker these days.” I steered my eyes out toward what was left of a narrow, wave battered wooden pier.
“Naw, man, wrong kinda bud…” He eased leash on the pit bull, which sniffed me real close, up and down, looked to be lifting a leg my way, instead lurching toward a free running cocoa Lab.
“Gotcha, but either way, no Chalet.” With that, I caved in the face of more pushback from high pounding waves, another skin ripping gale. So I scurried back through the tunnel—which was now more noticeably stenched with dead fish and garbage—resigning myself to a rebirth aborted before coming to proper term. Get a grip, size it up: still nothing settled, much less gained. Except for the anecdotal, if not empirical observation that my hypothetical field study was definitely getting out there beyond the parameters.
“It’s these hooligan delinquents and biker gangs…gettin’ so this is far as I go.”
“Then what’re you doin’ out this time of night?”
“Gotta get outta the house now and then. Else I’ll go nutcase, blow my bloody brains out.”
“No way, Roscoe. I draw the line at suicide…”
Reality check: 50-cent brown mug of steaming coffee. In here, heating up, tired eyes propped wide awake, slumping at a window table looking out over at what remained of Fleishhacker Pool and the padlocked San Francisco Zoo. I had set sights on a burnt-wienie red dachshund sign for the Doggie Diner, but couldn’t get past the streetcorner racket along Sloat Boulevard, much less my draining pocket change, or the urgency of nature’s call. Jack’s Ocean Beach was lively as hell at this late hour, beginning with the maniac kids pulling wheelies up and down 46th Avenue on their crusted dirt bikes, revving sans mufflers just outside the café’s front doors. Their smoky, moto-cross welcomes were symptomatic of what these grandpa-sweatered, newsboy-capped Sunset District elders were grousing over one table beside me.
“A .38 slug’s gotta be better than some gang thugs scarin’ me to death…”
“So call up the cops on ’em then.”
“Shooot, they’ll only come for my mortal remains. You know’s well as I this ain’t Mayor Christopher’s police force any more.”
Jack’s Albanian-Armenian kitchen crew stood screaming at the Iron Maiden Kawasaki brigade through a take-out serving door, as I’d passed them enroute to the men’s room. Couldn’t help but notice a yellowing ‘White for District 8 Supervisor’ poster halfway there: The Outer Sunset may have actually been Ella Hill Hutch’s 4th District, but this was prime White territory nonetheless.
A piquant air of souvlaki, moussaka and fetta omelettes filled the narrow, Mediterranean-postered hallway as I returned. Last-call neighborhood regulars forked down spetsofai and pastitsio specials at tables, picking bifteki bell pepper out of their nicotined grins as I passed on my way back over to mine. Yet Jack’s ranged wider than that, grilling budget breakfast, gyros, burgers and dogs to the beach crowd dawn to dusk—none of which I could afford at any price. For Jack himself was said to be Greek.
So I just nursed a couple of refills and turned away from the gunning motorbikes and off-shore gloom, annotating on a napkin as how people were tough, scraggly out here, windblown like the beach brush and ice plants, saline and shifty as the sea. Take the street toughs in black and brown out there, burning rubber, smoking butts and blunts, waving chains and blades, inking their loyalties, blood brothers to the death—or the old-timers spooked to death by them, drinking their shrinking days away.
Land’s end seemed to sandblast the heart right out of them all, sapped them of their warmer spirit while the salt spray corroded their pastel casas and overparked cars. At least until the fog lifted some in here as one knock-out waitress in upper-case orange plunge-neck and even tighter Calvins punched out jukebox tunes like ‘Spanish Eyes’ and Tony Bennett’s ‘Rags to Riches’ in favor of a quarter roll of Zorba-zesty Greek numbers, Marika Ninou’s Rebetiko to Marinella’s Laiko Bouzouki.
Song by song, stein-by-stein, carafe by ouzo with anise, OBC’s red velveteen-foil walls, blond paneling began throbbing, wagon-wheel light fixtures and balsam trellises rattled, plastic bouquets tipped and bobbed. Emptied center room tables made way for a wood grain linoleum dance floor. Customers hit the tile—feet tapping, hands clapping, couples whistling and trilling to the tunes. Old couples in matching leatherette jackets and brown polyester trotted out their dirlanda and syrtaki, younger items in angora and doubleknits dipped and spun their free-form Ballos steps, a retired shipping clerk from Millbrae bounced up and down, Nisiotika style, with his silver permed better half.
My scribbled notes evolved into the makings of a socio-study. That would do the trick—clinical distance and objectivity, methodological observation of this tribal ethnic group, identification with and validation of its customs, mores and norms. Construct a double-blind survey of its demographic segmentation—or was it stratification—whichever, controlling for biases, plus-or-minus margin of error. Had real doctoral material here, all right, get me back on tenure track. Yep, I’d get right on it, that’s precisely what I would do…
By now, people poured in from nearby motels and hi-ball lounges to clap and stomp along. Still wet-suited surf bums dripped in from the shoreline with their main surfer squeezes in tow, tossing down longneck brewskis near the café doors like they owned the place. Got so Jack himself joined in as house MC, spray tan and coiffed in a white perma-pressed short sleeved shirt and avocado slacks, springing for another round and It’s-It chasers on the house.
With that, the entire all-hours café scene even drowned out the motorbikes, and was starting to jackhammer my already overheated nerves, spatula stirring my animal blood. Couldn’t beat the esprit and revelry; but really, if I’d wanted this, I could have stayed put in Greektown, Chicago—say the back room at Grocery Diana. Yet streetcars or no, Sloat Boulevard was a far cry forward from Halsted Street, Northside or South.
“Quite a bash you’ve got going here,” I said to Mrs. Jack, the cashier as I approached a stress cracked glass counter near the front door, shelves filled with jerky, breath mints and assorted candy bars.
“Gets this way sometimes,” she stiffened, spearmint gum crackling as she counted out the coins I’d given her for the couple of cups, merely a few pennies more than the exact change. “Sometimes even crazier when the fog clears out.”
“Crazy, you mean like with that junior biker gang out there,” I glanced past the dancers through the café’s picture side windows. “Guess you don’t relish having to mess around with them…”
“Them? Those punks aren’t that big of deal. Who you don’t want to be messing with are the NorCal surfers, especially when the waves break down…”
Panos Gavalas blaring on Jack’s jukebox, salt air and ocean winds pressing against OBC’s front doors, I shouldered my way out of Jack’s, past the young motorbikers and even younger skateboard acolytes in tropical shirts and baggies. I then gave ground to several tricked-out Mustang and Camaro cruisers, lining up along Sloat for a top-off at the Chevron gas station across 46th Avenue.
Higher tides were slamming against Ocean Beach’s seawall, waves roaring through the Great Highway tunnel as though it were a stadium bullhorn. Coastal fog cover was laying in heavier and damper by the hour, muffling the two-stroke Suzukis and Kawasakis, wicked late-night laughter and any faint clanging of streetcar bells. But I was just weary-wired enough to soak in every rev, whine and wine-fed eruption the Outer Sunset threw my way.
Another Jack’s paper napkin served to dab the mist from my eyes, so as to survey a flickering street-lit continuum of plainly pastel stucco apartment hideouts and steel-barred shoebox abodes. The cold, gray soup sizzled atop, dripped from overhead trolley wires, seeping through immobilized, if not abandoned vehicles up and down Sunset’s tediously gridded sidestreets. Would that the beloved bohemian former horse and cable rig enclave called Carville still enlivened District dunes out here as it did nearly a century before. At least so I’d overheard on the outbound.
Sheepskin collar up, I skulked back over to Wawona, aimless anxiety triggered further by the sound of car tires slipping and sliding along drizzle-slick streetcar rails. Two green torpedoes idled at the MUNI stop, 1754 still there, lights out, pole down.
“Armature problem,” said a fleet mechanic, pointing me toward 1738, which had switched tracks in just ahead of it, rear running lights fluttering on and off in synch with the fisheye bulbs inside. “These dinosaurs are fading out fast…”
“Tell me about it,” I shuffled ahead one streetcar.
“Goin’ or stayin’,” asked the thermos-slugging motorman, cocked to fire closed his scissors trolley doors, no time for my wavering, being one trip away from shift’s end.
“Tell you what,” I fumbled about my pockets for that all-night transfer, glancing at 1754—but where to go? “Think I’ll take my chances on the next…”
The driver had already shut the doors and begun clanging away up 46th Avenue, back toward the MUNI barn. Following his stuttering, bucking red dot taillights, I shuddered at the thought that 1754 wasn’t going anywhere, resigned that I had plenty of time to plop down curbside and think things through—yeah, measure it all up, iron it out, press smooth the cuffs and creases. I glanced back at roaring cold, dark Ocean Beach, heinous waves pounding over drifting sand, eastward on Wawona to the Irish Cultural Center—wondering if that shillelagh-banging old lush ever stumbled upon a different streetcar, pondering far too late whether my Celtic brethren might afford a good night’s rest.
So even with surf’s up, fog down, I couldn’t begin to picture a scenario for passing this way again. Which was about when my gaze rose straight ahead through those webbed overhead wires toward Mount Davidson, the city’s highest peak, in the distance, and that big, blocky 103-foot crucifix topping it off. Unreal, even in this thick, smothering marine layer, that white concrete cross lorded some 900 feet over the Outer Sunset with divine lighthouse authority and penetration. Up around it glowed a humongous foggy halo through the thicket of eucalyptus trees—even larger and more dramatic than the one hovering above Syd’s head against Little Lucchio’s wall.
Maybe it was gnawing hunger or lack of shuteye, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell whether that holy aura was a prophecy or prognosis—yeah, well, we’ll see about that, all right for Her….
In any event, I had little desire to spin more wheels out here. Time for a ride back to more familiar ground—sure, go parkin’ it up again to where I don’t belong. Oh, for another becalming, clarifying dose of anonymity…
Care for more?
Chapter 62. A Rendezvous delayed
makes way for one eventful femme
remote, then come some catty
confrontations with a curious feline edge…