Chapter 63

“Feeding one’s neuroses
can end up fueling
another’s psychoses.”

          “OK, people, let’s roll…”

          “And make sure to keep on the yellow line.”

          “Don’t hafta tell me ’bout followin’ no line…”

          Cat-night sweats went, talkin’ out the walk, mornings came on panther feet. But what I couldn’t seem to shake was gnawing, deep-pitted hunger—a craving for anything beyond pretzel samples and pass-around peanut bars, much less whatever Coleman stovetop surprises Sherry might have left over. There always seemed to be enough out-of-pocket change for a snack stand coffee buzz, though precious little for anything of nutritional consequence.

          More broadly, Aquatic Park had settled into a familiar San Francisco summer pattern of nights and morning fog, even in this severe drought year—local tan lizards catching the midday rays, under-dressed tourists freezing all day long. I wasn’t getting very far with the balky Volvo, but Eric maintained he was making mechanical headway with his Porsches, working up a mighty appetite in and under the rear, air-cooled hoods. Before long, we straddled his remaining two Porsches over three parking spots, and left Bruno dozing like a dog possessed in the white 912. I attitudinally downshifted into his red bomb on something of a lunch hunch with caution flags flying, and we ended up in this pit stop down here.

          “Takin’ ten, best have your cards ready, folks.”

          “Allow me. I’m carryin’ Diner’s Club.”

          “Yur carryin’ sumpin’, alright…”

          Better than it looked, Eric said, once we capped a return trip to the Tenderloin with a bumper tight parking spot near Turk Street and Hyde, not far from the Y Hotel. I wasn’t sure whether he meant the wheels, journey or the destination, but it couldn’t have been where a cautionary walk took us in short order. That was to a crabby sidewalk queue on Eddy Street, feeding into the doorway of a converted garage.   St. Zita’s Mission was a poor cousin to the far more crowded St. Anthony’s Dining Hall, and nowhere near the spiritual and gastronomical deliverance of Tinus Thrall’s. Still, this eponymous shrine to the patron saint of servants was a quicker, more facile in and out burger, with fewer sermons administered or questions asked, however greasier its skids.

          The sole price of admission was a free monthly lunchtime card, punched meal by meal, ostensibly non transferable upon registration, allowing for one guest per visit. These serial number stamped passes were calculated to qualify the charity operation for a lifeline of public sector grants and write-off donations, based upon foot and mouth volume. Even though the mimeoed meal tickets were traded and trafficked on the outside like SSI or INS green cards. Some of the mission’s clientele were simply in no mood nor capacity to sign anything, let alone a bare-bones questionnaire for their meal or reload ‘chip’ allotment—particularly some of the more grating unwashed around us. Yet that didn’t seem to cow Eric any; couldn’t say the same for his guest.

          “Listen up, we’ll take ten more,” bellowed a gatekeeper, working his frayed rope line. St. Zita’s staff and volunteers had this routine nailed, having been at their down-and-out serve and salvation business since just after WWII. “Douse your butts. Booze and dope stay outside. That goes for everybody.”

          “Hurry up and wait, worsin’ the damn army…” Spit a dipping, field-jacketed outlier immediately ahead of us, Klamath refugee from the tree hugger-lumber mill wars.

          “Yah, every swingin’ dick on the piss yellow lines,” said his transient sidekick, down from Weed, grizzly as Shasta’s peaks, stuffing a Mendocino roach between his ripped REI wool sock and right Wolverine.

          ‘There’s Nothing Like a Grateful Dead Concert’: That little maxim was silkscreened across the black windbreaker of a head directly behind me, which was likely transformative the first night he wore it to Winterland, especially under purple day-glo lights. But now it just looked slept in, barfed on, dead to the closing number and encore.

          Yet he was still up there, trippin’ in the balcony, sailing roses to Weir and Lesh as they snorted between ‘Cosmic Charlie’ and ‘Casey Jones’—scrounging coins and bottle caps for if and when the band came down from Marin’s mountaintops to replay nuggets from their MotherTruckin’ vault and reline their satin-patched jeans. Took a back slap from the Grim Reaper T-shirted swillpot over his shoulder to move him as the line resumed snailing along. St. Zita line

          Beyond that, the whole cue was pretty, watchamacallit, grimy. Yeah, grime encrusting the sidewalk, transuding from the pores and coarse, stenchy threads of the entire procession.

          Bodily filth leached through stained denim and canvas, raw excretions oozed from frayed wool and nylon like acid rain through a shithouse roof. Even pigeons passed this stretch of Tenderloin by. St. Zita’s drew the infirm, urchins, bent, stooped, hooked, lost and generally desperate when more sanctified sanctuaries drew their blinds. But at least Eric and I had finally wormed our reeking way up toward pole position, a bit more upwind from the seamy pits and breaking wind—save for our own.

          “Hey, keep it close to the wall there, and no shoving,” ordered the doorkeeper, directing the wait line between yellow retaining gate railings and a row of overflowing garbage cans. “There’s enough for yas all.”

           “And make sure you folks double-check the schedule for designated treat times, hear? Adult men, A through H—2:30. I through P—3:25, Q through Z—4:20…”

          “What’s that, dessert?”

          “No, de-lousing…”

          For gritty, harder core, more unappetizing clients, St. Zita’s did offer the proverbial shit/shower/shave, not that their disinfecta was evidenced by the ambience overall. Still, the mission was all about bleeding hearts, Catholics knowing their charities, apostles of lost causes and tortured souls, plus a square-deal soup shed that served one of the fattest no-frills feedbags west of Hell’s Kitchen. To the famished downtrodden, it could be gastritic godsend; to the constitutionally unchristened, a no-strings, judgment-free sacristy. Then there were denial dolts like me, who couldn’t fathom how or why they had gotten themselves so deeply down-market over here.

          “Tighten up that line, people. Gotta keep the fire lane clear, and room for those comin’ out,” the doorkeep shouted, directing foot traffic, then waving our way. “C’mon, let’s move it—you two make ten…”

          “Trust me, it’s a real good deal,” Eric said, as we slipped in toward the former garage’s parking ramp. “If they ask, you’re my guest…”

          “Think I’d come here on my own?” I asked, looking back fore and aft. No Han Loon or Little Lucchio’s line here; I could only think, what would Moon, let alone Syd make of my current game plan and …trajectory, about a dead cat bounce like this?

          “Just stay close,” he nudged me ahead. “I got a system figured out.”

          “Am just casually observing, really,” I hedged, peering into the down ramp shadows. “Along for  curiosity sake, a little field study, might not stay at all…”

          “You come this far, you’ll stay,” Eric insisted, game facing some belching, full-bodied regulars making for the exit. “Once you’re in, you’re in.”

          “Even so, don’t expect to be eating…”

          “You’ll eat.”

          Stomach churning, I held tightly to the yellow railing as we shuffled down St. Zita’s concrete ramp, dank and distasteful as its steel-meshed entranceway was, even on such a clear, sunny day. I stayed a wary step or two behind Eric, who evidently knew his way around this operation. Was a time I’d have driven by, oblivious to a lost-cause asylum so far gone; now I came across as just another head of cattle prodded toward the graze. Kept mumbling that it was your own damn fault, dimwit—for walking such a tortured saturnine line, being so candy-ass comatose in between. Yet just when my thoughts turned darkest, the dim, damp ramp opened to one fluorescent blaze.

          Greeting us at ramp’s end stood two celestial blue-vested monitors checking ZitaCards and dispensing sloppy-seconds ‘chip’ tokens, strictly one per wino, wastre or ward. Along a cinderblock wall behind them was a chain of saintly kernels, framed like Stations of the Cross. The nearest courtesy of St. Francis of Assisi: ‘Grant that I may seek so much to be consoled as console…’.

          “So follow me, act like you know what you’re doing,” he said, having convinced the monitors we were inseparable as they punched his meal card and dealt us two chips.

          “Bit of a stretch, from the looks of it…”

          The room’s drooling chowhounds sat wrapped in their soiled street clothes, oily flammable polyester and layered rags—parcel twine belted, seams bursting for release. Sopping pits, sores draining, butts cracking, gums aching, kidneys failing, ulcers bleeding, suffering scaly scurvy, they sat steaming, boiling up, hunched over their lunch trays, slurping, forking around, spooning through the daily special.

          “Check it out,” Eric gestured, scoping out the serve line. “That’s where we make our move…”

          “On second thought, think I’m going to pass. ” By now, time for a grateful exit, an honorable discharge and Purple Heart, although curiosity did make me wonder what Eric saw in the place besides the tariff. “It’s SRO to the gills down here, and that line’s no end…”

          “C’mon, I know what I’m doing,” he beckoned me toward mid-room aisle. “And I’m working up a monster appetite. Just stay close, and vise grip your chip…”

          “You actually think I’ll want seconds?” I asked, inhaling the beer breath, nicotine residue, running pustules, abscessed bullas, fistula and carbuncles, zoorific bodily odors, row upon row—all rarefied under piercing, hard-white bulbs.

          “Who knows? But I’ll bet you’d go for a quicker route to some firsts,” Eric beckoned me slowly forward in sotto voce, fishing far into his pockets. “See, I heard out about how these little chips are more valuable than they look. Cause if you don’t use them for a second helping, like ten times, there’s this weird city human outreach office that will exchange them for a grocery voucher, to reward you for trying to help yourself positively and not overtaxing a vital public service. Turns out those $10 vouchers can be redeemable at most food stores, even corner package joints, no strings attached. It’s like turning in pop bottles without the heavy lifting…most of these stiffs use them for booze and smokes.”

          “Ten doses of this? Fat chance…and you’re trying to tell me city hall would put up with a scam like that, let alone the mission itself?”

          “You don’t get it—nobody checks, nobody cares, everybody gets paid on head count and repeat traffic. That’s how the system works. Yep, good ol’ Mayor Macaroni—this a great town, or what?”

          “Right, everybody’s favorite,” I said, breathing heavily, holding same.

          “But the beauty of the deal is what I came across over by Civic Center one day. Somebody had made up a bunch of fake St. Zita chips—total ringers, shit, who has the time to do that? Anyhow, found a bag of them in the Doggie Diner parking lot, so watch and learn…”

          Once in, the wait line snaked around St. Zita’s dining hall like an elongated paper dragon at a rainy Chinatown New Year’s parade. It seemed as though the queue was closing in, drawing up in tight guttoral grunts and growls from behind. I could hear them, feel them, brushing up against me as we shuffled forth, wheez-chested heavy breathing down my flannel collar. Sweat-through shirts and sweaters, chronically pissed-through pants—the sour stench seeped deep into my sinuses. Wrapping my palm up over nose and mouth, my breath was compost; a nosedive into my pits tested positively offensive, nearly as gamy as all this.

          These drifters, shoeless vagrants—discarded, some gangrenously dismembered—were largely mendecant to a man, derelict of demeanor, stripped of dignity or pride. Scraggly and tread marked, they were trying to dissemble their delusions under greasy thickets of gnomish brambled hair. Droopy, somnambulistic depth charges brooded beneath grimy ski knit or orange and black baseball caps, their sorry addictive stories betrayed, veiny-cheeked, sun-splotched faces down to toe-curled, heelworn, newspaper-lined oversized shoes. Really, identity crisis: how could the male of my species get this way—then again, how could I? 

          Winding, grinding slowly forward, a flank of famished, busted, seeping loners reeked of stale alcohol, vomit and despair. Mental casehardened varmints conned and schemed in venomous packs as if they had plans, some legit possibilities left between those dirt plugged ears. Stooped, crippled codgers with scabbed-over liver spots grilled themselves through cracked lips and shifting, downcast eyes.

          I could fathom coots like these, their bulb-snoot noses, cleft-stubbled chins and sagging wheelchairs. It was the younger ones, the gaunt, blood-eyed bastards who rattled me—at the volatile peak of their physical powers, still capable of doing damage—yet servile to some saltpeter Catholic charity like this. Ragged, frayed, unglued and tattooed, with textbook facial ticks and nervous disorders, clawing grass, stashes, lice and god-knew-what out of every crevice or cavity, they looked bent on working any angle.

          Then again, it was pretty tough to sympathize and condescend when you’re descending your own self. And why the hell did it seem they were all staring my way, fixin’ to get all up in my face—me here, stomach growling something fierce. That was about when Eric grasped my arm with blindside authority, leading us up past a roomful of lengths and bends, near the front of the food queue. There, he popped out a half-dozen of his bogus chips, offered them up, fore and aft, the lunch line parting, left-behinds too depressingly hollow-hunger weak and insentient to note much or care.

          “Say, where you goin’, boy?” Except one, a big, bearded one, at that. Must have stood six-foot six, his house mover’s upper body stampeding out of a burgundy STP tee shirt, grabbing Eric by the shoulder, jacking him up like an inside linebacker a scatback between the tackles.

          “No, wait, they’ve just been holding our place,” Eric gasped, scrunched at the collar, checking off me and the two stiffs behind us.

          “Pull that again, and you’re eating those chips, got it,” growled the grubby lineforcer, moving in one step ahead of us.

          “Not a problem, just a little misunderstanding, right,” Eric stammered, visibly flustered, straightening his fleeced denim jacket from the neck down, then passing back a last few chips to the waiting palms. “Much obliged guys…”

          “You all right? Working up a powerful appetite, huh,” I squirmed, handing him my valid chip as I kept two cautious steps away from the bruiser straight ahead. In any case, it was unclear to me whether Eric’s chippy little scam rang true, made any sense in the first place, or if it wasn’t the scheme so much as the source. Meaning, I had to wonder even more what the hell he’d gotten me into down here.

          “I need a smoke,” Eric heaved, apparently caught unawares by the backfire.

          “Yo, move it along…” Grateful as he was for the bonus chips, the crackpot once removed poked us to step up toward St. Zita’s serve counter, which was suddenly gathering steam. We made a final turn along a tubular metal tray railing, facing the unsavory reality of the lunch hour fare. I grasped a Formica tray despite myself, eyes burning, nasal passages clogged with bodily decay. My stomach somersaulted with the prospect of wolfing down whatever staffers were ladling out of their stainless steel bins and buckets.

          Yet I kept the chow line shuffling forward, aching instead for past S.O.S. helpings of army shit on a shingle, anything besides what was piling up behind those glass sneeze shields, apparently to Eric’s lip-smacking delight. Not that I could actually make out what everyday factotums and elder volunteers were commixing, but the nearest vats seemed filled with vegetables from food banks or Zita’s Sonoma farm, and a lumpy, bubbling sauce. On a kitchen wall behind the servers were mounted photos of guest helpers, from Mayors Alioto and Moscone to Families Dog and Dead to recent Giants ballplayers like Darrell Evans, Vida and Johnnie LeMaster—all of which faded behind a thickening smoky steam. We inched closer to the main entrée, pans of somewhere between turkey cacciatore and chicken fricassee, something starchy filling and fowl.

          “Come closer, where we can serve you,” said one smock-stained attendant, a name tag IDing him as a retired carpenter for hire. “Want I should sling this stuff, or what?”

          “No, let me,” I slid further along the railing as Eric proceeded to the coffee urns, hoisting my stamped cafeteria style tray for several slapdash dollops of the day’s special, a scoop of veggies and slice of white Wonder bread, delivered via scabbed and nail scarred hands. “Easy on the…meat…”

          “Fine by me, we got half the city to feed here today,” the server coughed, heat lamps above him filling with a steam thickening more and more into smoke. “With this hotdamn ventilation yet and the fans broke down…”

          “It always like this,” I asked him, as I moved toward the water and coffee urns.

          “Don’t know, city inspector was here just yesterday, signed off on the place. Even ate himself up a trayful of our pork and hominy stew…”

          “That ain’t all he filled up on,” cracked the volunteer sauce ladler next to him, waving away more smoke. “Left a whole lot heavier in the wallet…scammin just like the lot em around City Hall.”

          Curiously enough, the mere aroma from my food tray rallied me some, like an organic B-12 shot in the alimentary canal. St. Zita’s ambience seemed boosted, as well, with pastoral Napa-Sonoma watercolors covering the hall’s surgical scrub-blue walls, sprays of plastic flowers between the cheery murals—green hills flush with vineyards and Holsteins—visions of cleaner living for men who cotton to the agrarian life. Even feastly balloons and lowly piped-in choir muzak subtly lent spiritual buoyancy to the dissolute gathered, slender threads of divine redemption that nonetheless were commonly ignored.

          Trailing Eric as we cast about for empty seating, I noted little mealtime banter, few spirited debates or rejoinders, much less sermonizing or rejoicing at all. Row upon row, the hunched over lunch crowd was busy bolting as much of the mystery mush as they could in one sitting. Any hesitation only meant poaching one tray over, even before lining up their chips for more. To a man, they appeared fearful of the prospect that hoarded bread and white cake might crumble out of their every pocket. Mutt bags of everything else slipped and dripped inside twine-knotted shirts and jackets like there was no tomorrow down here.  St. Zita Dining Room

          I could see ennui and/or terror in their pocked, tick-flinching faces and backwoods beards—the faces of old-age desperation and regressive, overgrown striplings, amid cascading belches and synchronous farts. After gorging, slopping and chomping through brown, broken teeth, their momentarily sated stares turned merely vacant, as though each and every codger, mook and manchild were the only person in the room. They were here, but weren’t here—nobody was here—yeah, got it, mind over mendacity, block this place out, bolt this gruel down. Disassociate, disassociate—I know you are, but what am I? Keep a safe, sterile distance and studiously wish it all away. 

          “Hey, Mr. Chips,” said that house mover, closing in over Eric’s shoulder. “You got more a them?”

          “Me? Naw, flat out,” Eric shuddered, staring straight into his lunch, straining to keep it down.

          “Better be talkin’ straight, butthole,” he lightly slapped the back of Eric’s head, grabbed our white bread irrespectively, then turned to prowl over toward his tray, two benches away. “Or next time, you’ll be eating your phony chips.”

          “Gotta have me a cigarette,” Eric exhaled, surrendering corroded flatware to his food tray, reaching into his denim jacket for half a pack.

          “Uh, Eric, I don’t think you can light up in here,” I urged, resigned to spooning down another heap of fricassee—utterly, almost thankfully yielding to the pangs and growls, for it really wasn’t all that bad. “C’mon let’s just eat up and split…”

          Nevertheless, he lit up a Lucky short right on the spot, just when our attention was seized by a pop-up lay preacher one row to our right, apparently a bit too full of carbohydrates, coffee and no doubt himself. Then aarrewww, aaaarrrewwww… What happened moments later was all the harder to swallow, the timing of which left my head spinning, lungs clogging, my stomach crying foul. Before the elderly apostle could sit back down to his sliced angel food, alarms began screeching, smoke detectors beeping, St. Zita monitors ordering everyone to immediately vacate the dining room due to a kitchen grease fire and complete stopping up of the exhaust vents. A resulting cloud threatened to engulf the entire basement facility, with an overhead sprinkler system cocked to flood it at any moment. Aarrewww, aaarreww, aaaarrrewwww…

          Row by row, the lunch crowd was ushered out of St. Zita’s, directed to leave potentially contaminated food trays behind. All these scowling borderline guys, with their sapped, south of the border acuity, ramping up like bulls at the chase. This downtrodden carnavale of killer carnivores—the 5150s, 6160s, Section 8s, the Deep Springs dropouts, runaway felons and clearly certifiable among them, limped and lumbered to higher ground, drooping pear faces lathered with sauce and butter and stringbean marinade, tired eyes ringent with dire hunger unabated and untethered caffeine confusion, with no place else to go—Eric and me no less panicky mid herd.

          Scared shitless, sweating just as grossly, I parted company with Eric at ramp’s end—no telling what was scalding his pot by now. I just wanted separation, up and out, heading half starved along Eddy Street, while he remained to mill about St. Zita’s entrance, now coolly trolling for unused refill chips, settling for another smoke.

          Yet the sweep of more blaring red trucks from S.F.F.D.’s nearby headquarters on Golden Gate Avenue soon drew my frustrated glance above them to a rooftop at Leavenworth Street. Just what I needed to cleanse the palate: A fresh billboard, hot young couple toasting against a Mazatlan sunset, the headline reading, ‘Making Out Like a…’, its slickly graphic logo, Bandito Tequila.

           Hadn’t a clue where Eric was going from here, but I was another story by now…

Care for more?

 Chapter 64. Increasing hunger stirs 
food for manic thought, up to the 
point of mainlining away, with a 
little boost from Uncle Andy…