“Stone cold detachment
only goes so far before
freezing a body in place.”
“Where you been? Had me waiting damn near an hour!”
“My lead’s broke down. Watch your step, gramps…”
“Hmph, got a mind to turn you in, fella. What’s your driver number there?”
“You got eyes. You people, man, same ol’ bigot bullshit…”
I stood watching Syd’s cab flip a U-turn toward downtown hi-rises, then hoofed it in that general direction, irredeemably in kind. A vaguely familiar Dexter Gordon number, ‘I’m A Fool To Want You’, soon drowned out Tosca’s inner arias. A sidewalk sax player sat beside an open case full of one-spots and small mounds of change just outside a Moroccan belly dancer deli and revue. I experienced the solo as best I could, worked at being with the melancholy it created, or she created, or I created, whatever. I glanced across Columbus at the enlightened glow of City Lights Bookstore and the colorful stained-glass beatnook called Vesuvio Café.
North Beach held steadfast by its Bohemian bars and bawdy main drag despite a Chinatown invasion, even so far as having conferred landmark status on Carol Doda’s cornerstone lounge. Her blinking nipples lured me across lusty Broadway, candy-striped barkers promising explicit double exposure, with Carol taking on all comers. But I could or couldn’t have cared less, already hot and bothered enough as it was. Before I knew it, I’d boarded this green torpedo at Market Street, hell bent on riding it to the bitter end.
Just needed to take a spin, 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 pretzel-legged crash and thrash in the Volvo, let alone 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, I was under MUNI’s sway, with nary a clue as to precisely where this tank was taking me—was just relieved to be along for the ride, unaware that it would bring me here: to the scene of my snafued felo de se.
“Whaddya’ mean, you people?”
“Half-dead honkies,” said the motorman, heavy on the former fullback side.“Y’all looks alike to me…”
“How dare you…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 got my pass here, so let me up. I ain’t afraid of you bumptious…”
“Get your shit-face away from my car.” With that, the driver closed the trolley’s scissors front doors in front of the codger and dimmed the power and lights. “End of the line, I’m on break.”
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. For after North Beach, I had some things to walk off, work out, give myself a good talking to, smooth out some differences, right some wrongs, more or less tweak at the margins. I soon resolved to take Syd’s measure, scrub off the snubs, train on separating her pro from her con—plow some new ground, take natural law into my own hands, maybe even wrestle with the prospect of drafting her pie-sky proposal—just a few little days away. 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. Got yourself here, get yourself out and get the cheese, asshole: throw in about every other dog-tired, god-forsaken cliché with a deliberate, predetermined sweep of the hand.
That yamayamed out, I’d slid into the lone remaining single right-side seat ahead of several new boarders, its dark green oil-cloth 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 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 soon found a bit of relief and release within the amber darkness, well into this rolling neutral zone.
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.
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 hungover Scottish 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. Never in my fiercest nightmares imagining that we’d actually end up living back by Marquette Park.
But, suuuure, that was then, long gone before this Saturn shit, way the hell before her and Her, here and there; had to be better out west, nowhere west to go. So I’d actually taken to this Green Hornet womb here more and more, rocking me away from the mind bends, out the rolling drop to the sea, with a quick little turnaround at 46th Avenue, in the sandblown there and now. Might as well just have hung a skinny arm out through 1754’s window bars once more, grabbing a little cool ocean air, returning to the scene of the bloody screw job, see how far I’d come since then. Yeah, time to face this bleary watershed again—so as to reckon with a false start, get me a fresh set of downs.
“Open this door, boy!” The wobbly old-timer 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 take-out burger bites, not giving the mouthy geezer a second glance.
Not my problem, not my deal—what’s this got to do with me? I fidgeted in my seat as the old man continued pounding on the front doors, nevertheless wondering how 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 avoid this kind of crap. Then again, the Outer Sunset District was about as from that San Francisco as this 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 in the city,” 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 ol’ goat crawling out of the Irish Cultural Center there without his walker.” He caught my glance in his wide view mirror. “You stayin’ on or goin?”
“Yeah, those micks, huh?” 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 there in the ICC now, what with Battle of the Boyne Day closing in July 12th. Naw, had to have been the Stout talking, still can’t imagine they’d be bloody serious about pulling that bomb stuff off. “Thanks anyway. Got a Night Owl transfer, think I’ll just slip out the back.”
Otherwise, who needed any more ethno-racial clashes and slurs hereabouts, the bald-faced 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-haired Motley Crue tangled and teased.
But better to turn a cold shoulder to all that, into the algid ocean winds. 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 gang-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 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. 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 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. 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: none of it warmed me up any 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…”
“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 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 buckled 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 empirical observation that my hypothetical field study was getting way farther afield.
“It’s these damn hooligan delinquents and biker gangs…”
“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 fuckin’ brains out.”
“No way, Roscoe. I draw the line at suicide…”
Reality check: a 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 and the urgency of nature’s call. Jack’s Ocean Beach was lively as hell at this late hour, beginning with the manic 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 about one table beside me.
“A .38 slug’s gotta be better than some thugs scarin’ me shitless…”
“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.”
JOB’s Albanian-Armenian kitchen crew stood screaming at the Iron Maiden Kawasaki brigade through a take-out serving door. As I’d passed them en route to the men’s room, I 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, for Jack himself was said to be Greek. Last-call neighborhood regulars forked 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 JOB’s menu 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.
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—or the neighborhood old-timers spooked to death by them, drinking their shrinking days away.
Land’s end seemed to sandblast the thrombotic hearts right out of them, sapped them of their warmer spirit while the salt spray corroded their pastel casas and overparked cars. At least until the fog lifted a bit in here as a waitress in upper-case orange plunge-neck and even tighter Calvins punched away jukebox tunes like ‘Spanish Eyes’ and Tony Bennett’s ‘Rags to Riches’ in favor of a quarter roll of Zorba-zesty Grecian numbers, Marika Ninou’s Rebetiko to Marinella’s Laiko Bouzouki.
Song by song, stein-by-stein, by ouzo-anise carafes, JOB’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, 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 surfers dripped in from the shoreline with their bitchin’ 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 energy and revelry; still, it was all Greek to me. “Quite a bash you’ve got going here,” I said to Mrs. Jack, as I approached a stress cracked glass cashier’s 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. “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 deal with them…”
“Those punks aren’t that big of deal. Who you don’t want to be messing with are the surfers, especially around sneaker time…”
With Panos Gavalas blaring on Jack’s jukebox, salt air and ocean winds pressing against JOB’s front doors, I shouldered my way out, past the young motorbikers and even younger skateboard acolytes in tropical shirts and baggies. Rip-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.
A fresh 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 side streets. Would that the beloved bohemian former horse and cable rigged enclave called Carville still enlivened outside land 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. A green torpedo had been idling at the MUNI stop, but its door scissored shut, the driver suddenly clanging away up 46th Avenue, back toward the trolley barn. Following his stuttering, bucking red dot taillights, I shuddered at the thought that MUNI was calling it a night, resigned that I now had plenty of time to plop down curbside and think things through—yeah, measure it all up, re-establish a beachmark, an Asian fisherman point of reference. I glanced back through the tunnel at roaring cold, dark Ocean Beach, heinous waves pounding over drifting sand, no cheese in sight.
So I turned eastward on Wawona to the Irish Cultural Center—wondering if that cane-banging old lush ever stumbled upon a seemlier streetcar, whether those plotting blokes from the Rectory Tavern were in there right now, still sworn to SEMTEXing PM Callaghan this Boyne or Poppy Day, much less if I had the Scotch in me to out their bout. Same time, I wondered whether my Celtic brethren might afford me a good night’s rest—as they once did Scot-free in a hay-baled barn loft outside Skibbereen. Yet again, scootching across my geneal divide…
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, even through the thicket of eucalyptus trees. Either that, or it was Saturn hanging its rings on the cross like a bucket hat atop a coatrack.
Maybe it was gnawing hunger or arrested shuteye, but I couldn’t tell whether that beatified aura was a prophecy or prognosis—only that I was out here beachside once more, facing my fears, hoping not to disappear this time. The brainstorming even had me Dybbuking about trading this foggy shillelagh altogether for a sunny ukelele outside Maui’s Pioneer Inn. At least until I got that I had to go find Dame Thornia’s cheesy amulet if I really hoped to square things.
“Heads up, dude, boards comin’ on your left…”
Then again, surf’s up, either way…
Chapter 62. A Rendezvous delayed
makes way for one eventful femme
remote, then come some catty
confrontations with a curious feline edge…