“Wandering far afield, striving
to reach your goal, can rock your
world, that’s the way things roll.”
“I think it’s unmarried.”
“No, I’m positive, unmanned…”
“I’m pretty sure it’s unmarried…”
Days peeled away in a sun-screened, fogged in monotony that blinded me to time’s relentless press. So little changed, so much needed changing, still Aquatic Park sucked me into a languid rhythm, while the Volvo vegetated, its coil springs settling like a no-tell motel Serta, weeds sprouting through cracked concrete about its dryrotting tires. Clifford and Sherry wheeled in and out with the tides, Eric retooled his Porsches in the afternoon rays, laid backward on reclining buckets, curled up with Bruno and sixers of Mickey’s wide-mouth come nightfall—who knew what after that? As for that Dodge panel van, it had moved to within one parking stall of the Muni Pier, its quiet, self-contained twosome commiserating with some crab-happy Koreans out the truck’s faux wood paneled rear doors.
Wasn’t buying this L.T.’s lovelorn pitch; lovetorn, maybe nothing more, nothing less. Besides, what I really needed wasn’t around-the-block advice, but some good, long nights in the sack. Didn’t pan out, couldn’t easily shake off the cold leg stiffness and cramps. And since my 122s was still so cranky, I resumed the no-frills walking, the street roaming to work off stression headaches, no matter the odd places and times. Head down, hands digging deep into my jacket pockets, I soon fished out that crumpled post office notice like it was the last over-the-counter purgative in a goof-proof bottle. What the hell, mize well: That orange misdelivery slip soon set me on course to the designated postal station, onwards to which I’d wandered here into the Korner.
“It’s unmarried, says so, Marv,” claimed a regular neighborhood stoolie, venturing over to peer out a large front display window upon the Vogue Theater next door.
“Who cares? It’s just a bunch of lonely dames who don’t buy nothin’, don’t tip worth nuthin’,” griped Marvin Kendall, as he wiped down the counter space directly before me. “All they do is suck up coffee refills and yak about how brave this Jill broad is, and go bonkers over some guy named Bates. Askin’ for that Italian crapola…as if my brew wasn’t good enough for them…so what’ll it be for you?”
“Uh, I’ll just have a…coffee, your house’s fine,” I said, pushing what remained of my pocket change over the counter toward a pitted chrome menu rack, with the satisfaction of knowing at least I’d gotten the movie title right.
“Sure, figures—lordy, I can retire me to Half Moon now…”
Break time: Kendall’s Korner clung tenaciously to the intersection of Presidio Avenue and Sacramento Street, where Pacific Heights had rested even more comfortably on its Laurels. Still, times were shifting ever upward, and this long-standing luncheonette, once so conveniently chummy and Riverdale malt shop, was being shaken to its dated soda fountain and Sealtest signs by invading forces measuring square footage for pricier commercial purpose.
Met my present needs, however, even though a first glance about the stale, spacious hash house dished out flat-black walls and a mansard-roofed ceiling basted with breadcrumb dust and griddle grease. Flapjack and waffle glazes coated half-dead hanging planters scattered about the place, thick as ground anthracite to a coal miner’s inferior lobes. Four yellowed vinyl booths stood abandoned along the sidewall, number five in the rear corner buzzing with several grumpy pensioners crumbling a basketful of oyster crackers into their canned chicken gumbo.
“They been runnin’ that damn flick for over a month now,” Marv plained, wiping his brow with a chopboard sponge, then drawing a cupful from his hissing steel urn. “I can’t even stand to look at the marquee anymore.”
“Maybe a little cream,” I shook a nearly empty dispenser, shaped like a miniature Coit Tower, wondering if Syd had ever come across one of these. “That would be good…”
“Yeah, sure—comin’ right up,” Marv sneered, slamming down a steamy coffee mug, then sliding an identical, fuller creamer to me from two stools over. “They keep tellin’ me the neighborhood’s goin’ upscale. Never used to get stiffs like you, but that was when this here was still a real neighborhood.”
“Thanks, been having a little…stomach trouble,” I muttered as I repeatedly stirred what looked like half and non-dairy, tarnished teaspooning in pure cane from a saltined shaker. I took a cursory look at that chalkboard, scribbled meager entries such as meat loaf, macaroni ’n’ cheese casserole, chile con carne, egg salad, apple ala mode. “Looks like a pretty nice neighborhood to me…”
“You shoulda seen it when the streetcar line still ran out here, regulars would pile in here from the artsy movies and Gilt Edge Market,” groused the proprietor, fretfully wiping down the largely deserted counter with a saturated fatty rag. Marv Kendall was this irascible hulk of hypertension wrapped in a gravy-spotted butcher’s apron, folded down to the belt roll around his waist. What remained of his hair plaster curled against his beading crown as though taped in position nightly before his fat head hit the pillow, one of those noggins that left oily deposits all over the insides of MUNI bus windows. “Yessir, those people used to clean me out, and tip like respectable folk.”
“Say, mind if I grab one of your booths, got a little work to…”
“Help yourself, see anybody standin’ in your way?” Not hardly, for Marv had canned his cooks and singing waitresses long ago, if they hadn’t already abandoned him. So the only music to anybody’s ears in here came from an outdated jukebox back by the restrooms, not that anyone was listening or could still hear it anyhow. “Yah, can’t just make it on joe these days. Had a shot at unloadin’ this place, couldn’ta been more than three years come October. Yep, shoulda’ jumped on it right then.”
“Think I’ll kinda need a refill though…” I handed forth the heavy brown mug, so reminding me of those my parents sipped from at our feedbag splurges to Fred Harvey cafeterias in downtown Chicago.
“Here, take the rest of this, for all I care,” Marv handed me a Pyrex pot of Farmer Brothersdregs and clipboard with a long, folded form. “But I’ll be damned if them real estate shysters are cannin’ me that easy. I’ve still got a business to run. So, here, sign one of my petitions while you’re at it…”
There appeared to be a paucity of most everything from the Korner’s salad days, whether toasted BLT double-deckers, hamburger baskets or fruit-filled malted milks—except for the signage and petitions. Kendall’s felt-tipped railings draped the Korner’s portal, wallpapered the kitchen area and back counter, covered plaster pocks along every dark wall. Beneath each placard were sheaves of legal-size petitions—several paragraphs of bold-faced bemoaning, followed by columns of un-signed lines.
Alternately, the common threads were, ‘Pitch in for Kendall’s Korner and Save Our Neighborhood’ and ‘Stop the Crooks Before They Sell Us Into Slumdum’, depending upon one’s seating. Marv had peppered his front windows with Xeroxed screeds attacking his landlord, Mayor Moscone and his whole crooked liberal mafia, the Board of Supes, planning commissioners and real estate lobbies from City Hall to Sacramento. Kendall appeared to be cornered and was making one desperate, ferocious last stand.
“So, what d’ya say,” he said, coming out from behind his counter, clipboard in hand. “The vultures are swoopin’ down, tryin’ to raise my rent 400%, destroy the whole blessed neighborhood. T’hell with the people who’ve lived here all these years! C’mon, sign, help me beat ’em at the ballot box, got to get ten thousand supporters. Your name and address right here…”
“Uh, not much into petition signing,” I moved toward the frontmost of Korner’s booths. “And the address thing poses a problem right now…could use that creamer, though…”
“Gimme your John Hancock, I’ll get you a creamer,” he followed, further pushing the petition my way. “Just fake the address, son. Somebody’s gotta stop ’em or I’m a goner.”
“Only this once, okay?” I slid into the squeaky vinyl booth, set aside my mug and envelope to grab the clipboard. Jotting in Sydney’s address, her old one, I handed a heavy breathing Marvin the least larded of his petitions, my black coffee not getting any warmer.
“Well, a man with principles and conviction, after all,” Marv beamed, offering up a creamer and teaspoon from behind his back. “That’s even earned you a clean stirrer…”
I was at a loss for words as he lumbered back behind his counter, attending to my mug, setting down Syd’s envelope before me on the fissured, ring-stained tabletop. But before I could begin to open the manila jacket, something had to be done about the Korner’s deadened buzz, from those grousing pensioners to the last-leg cooler units about Marv’s kitchen area.
Several sugary slugs, and I edged nervously over to his jukebox, in search of a little audible inspiration and relief. Buttons, so many soda- sticky mono buttons: Could have been some Vic Damone and Patti Page for the old-timers, a little Burt Bacharach to calm Marvin down. Then I spotted a few comparatively less needle-worn Pleistocene releases. Three for a quarter, that was workable—D6 Leon Russell, ‘Back to the Island’ for Melissa’s sake, N3 Billy Joel vaunting ‘She’s Always a Woman to Me’, J9 Earth, Wind & Fire harmonizing ‘That’s the Way of the World’.
Just enough to get me back to the booth, opening Syd’s envelope. Her sketched out parameters envisioned a massive mural-sized painting that captured Pacific Bank’s dedication and service to San Francisco and the Bay Area at large. The medium of choice would be vividly colorful oils to electrify PBT’s lobby, and communicate the bank’s history and lore. I was overloading on her conceptual notes, with King Leon’s Will of the Wisping me back to the gentler reality of a Midwestern Moon shot I’d left behind.
The ambition and audacity of Syd’s ideas, the games she played, soon wilted me into inadequacy as Billy the Stranger bragged as how she ‘will promise you more than the Garden of Eden, then carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleedin’; that ‘she takes care of herself, she’s ahead of her time, and she’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be’.
Thankfully, EWF’s Way of the World kept me from shrinking and sinking out of her league any further, counseling, ‘plant your flower and it will grow’—whatever that meant. Newfound challenges, lost at sea—but it did get me to thinking, there was plenty of dirt in the Volvo, and the line, ‘Your Bridge to Everywhere Good’ popped to mind. It was a slogan that might pay off images of the Golden Gate leading to a montage of Bay Area sites and icons—something like that. I jotted down the rough headline, thinking maybe I actually could help write her vision into proposal form—at least until these local kids piled in through Korner’s doors.
“Hey, Kendall, whatchu playin’ those dud numbers for the ol’ farts,” asked the lead dog, dressed in torn khakis and garage sale sport coat, long hair streaked green and yellow, bouncing in on Converse hi-tops.
“Yeah, Kendall, que past ” said another, denim all over, Johnny Rotten and Joey Ramone patches on the patch pockets. The two of them and a tagalong girl spun around on the stools as that sole counter regular took hasty leave. “How’s ‘bout some dee-luxe service here?”
“But haven’t you guys heard,” the young woman offered, with her Rickie Lee Jones look, crushed gray fedora, three earrings each side. “The ol’ man doesn’t like ‘ese’ people, he only serves ‘ish’ types…”
“G’wan, get,” Marv roared, plowing out from behind his counter, dragging silverware and water glasses in his apron’s wake. “I fed your parents when you all were still crappin’ you drawers…”
“That’s why my dad says you’re just a burned-out bigot anymore,” said the leader, fast-track Brown or Farm hand, barely out of Stuart Hall and University High, same age as the three.
“So where’s the cokes and shakes, garcon,” asked the Sacred Heart schoolgirl, possibly off to Cal. “Else we’ll have to start rippin’ on your petitions…”
“You little…punks,” Marv fumed, facing them squarely, as they snickered and taunted him. His forehead furled with sweat and fury, the pensioners watching stunned and silent from the corner, as if witnessing a coronary case on the sidewalk. “What do you know…they aren’t stealin’ your place right out from under your folks!”
“Writing’s on the wall, Kendall,” laughed the denimed teen idle. “Clock’s tickin’ on you, dude…just a matter of time.”
“Hey, lay off, dammit, have some respect,” I erupted from across the room. That was enough for me, got so I couldn’t think straight with this going on. I suddenly felt twenty years older—parental or something, something real uncomfortable, shooing them off my lawn. The kids stared at me curiously, sizing me up, like I looked just old and beat-up enough to be out of it, but not so ancient as to be this draggy. But I did feel this…draggy, and figured from their stares that it showed. So I toned it down, sort of back into a groove they could somehow abide. “Really, how about leaving the man alone, he’s got enough trouble…”
“Let’s split,” the mouthier leader grumbled. The trio slid off their stools in unison, leaving a trail of shredded paper napkins on their way out Korner’s doors. The young woman blew sour kisses at me, while the guys continued staring Marv down. “See you tomorrow, ol’ man—like if you and your geezer friends are still hangin’ on here.”
“Thanks…goddamn rich, spoiled brats,” Kendall yelled my way. He policed the napkin shreds, returning stiffly to double check his front counter cash register.
“No big thing,” I approached him, Syd’s gathered-up envelope in hand. “What do I owe you for the coffee?”
“On the house, catch you next time,” he wiped his brow, looking plainly ill at ease. “When you come back to sign more of my petitions, right?”
“R-r-right,” I smiled, glad I’d decided not to pocket one of Korner’s creamers, rationalizing that she’d likely scored one of these already, anyhow. “Guess I know something about padding signatures and ballots, being from Chicago, and all.”
From Kendall’s Korner, the neighborhood was headed downhill all right, if only in terms of topography. This length of Sacramento Street essentially peaked at Presidio Avenue, then swept back down gracefully toward Fillmore before steeply rising to Pacific Medical Center and…Lafayette Park. Here to there, Sacto was a semi-residental satin sash embroidered with showcase Victorians and barrel windowed stucco apartment buildings.
Beyond the Vogue Theater and Gilt Edge Market, a descending Sacramento Street was inexorably headed upscale, comfortably above shopping for plebian household essentials. Three-chair clip joints were becoming unisex styling salons, repair garages no longer repaired cars, but simply parked them; hardware stores stopped sullying themselves with stovebolts and two-penny nails, instead stocking Cuisinarts, gift baskets and Cephalon. The neighborhood cashed in its small groceries for fine and folk art galleries, artisan flower shops and a near glut of curio/antique stores—even the one so priggish as to specialize in vintage Christmas ornaments year-round. Fitness, aerobics and yoga centers bid up and postured into any storefronts or backrooms that remained, all politely and properly so.
The operative words on this street were no longer day-to-day life but gentrified transcendence, what with interior design studios, indoor tanneries, handcrafted frame shops, stationery consultants, chrome-trimmed nail and complexion salons. Stores became mercantile companies, shoemakers cobblers, shopkeepers expert purveyors of goods galore—which made everybody a tad status stuffier and everything pricier to boot.
But I turned away from all that costly plenitude, down Steiner Street into the betwixt ravine that buffered haughty Pacific Heights from the depths of the Western Addition. Victorians stood here, too, only these were blistered, if not boarded over, and were party to borderline liquor delis and Chinese laundries. Not that I noticed the declining standards, the accelerating traffic so much. Because I was preoccupied with fist pounding and hand wringing—swearing and sermonizing, generally badgering and cross-examining myself into didactic gridlock over momentary whys and wherefores, particularly vis-à-vis the abstract complexities of Syd’s proposal here, and what was in it for me…
Come to think of it, though, things were getting louder—wicked louder. Once I crossed California Street, over Pine, past St. Dominic’s (and Van the Man’s) greystone Gothic cathedral, there came this even heavier pounding, cheering catcall whistling through my skull. It quickened the further I trudged into the Geary Expressway gully toward Steiner Station’s post office, past rotting, low-rent Victorians and the reclaimed lots from which select seared and paint-scarred Vickies were liberated to better addresses by creeping overnight drayage.
“More, more,” some crowd seemed to thunder. “One more encore, one more righteous jam…” Feet were rocking, heads were rolling, the damn fool roof must have been fixing to cave in—but where the hell… Up beyond Sutter Street, that humongous building with the plain gray walls, its side ribs exposed by the razing of its next-door neighbor, looked like some kind of antiwar-torn armory or arena. I could almost make out crowds milling around out the sucker, sliding in and out of rainbow junkers, cartoony converted school buses and cruiser vans that paused before the…marquee. But what did it say? And what the fuck was up with the poster on this lightpole way over here: a fading ‘Dan White For Supervisor’ campaign poster with a swastika smeared across his choirboy face?
There just appeared to be too much smoke and agitation, my eyes were burning, the scene was much too thick. Could have been fringed buckskin warriors, tie-dyed birds with flowing purple capes and hair ironed down to their slender, cut-offed hips. Stringbean hipsters with stringy, streaky manes; swiveling bell-bottomed, full-blossom flower children huddled in queue along Steiner Street, having camped out overnight for crammed standing room. They passed peace pipes and mind-adulterated Pepsi among their tight anti-social circles as they waited out the box office for a midnight show.
Then again, I swore I heard music under that rusted iron main door canopy and rampant sidewalk roar. Superamplified music, screaming guitars, a sudden multitrack of keyboards and drums, hemorrhaging out a front façade of cranking, slit-eyed windows, and I could just picture freako longhairs shouting through them down, waving triumphantly to their stoner conspirators, dropping re-tickets and bags of contraband to scam them inside, too—BGP’s stormgoons taking the bait. But what was that? The tall red and white marquee: Bill Graham counting down to a New Years finale, how long it had been since ‘Dark Star’ had darkened these doors—being the only ones who do what they do.
Suddenly the signboard read like K-12 flip cards—Cream, Tuna, John Mayall, Rachel Faro, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. Or was it Spooky Tooth, Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity? Some real heavyweights, Allmans, Beck-ola, Byrds, Deep Purple, Moby Grape, Moodys, Zep, Zappa. Some kind of scene like that, everybody bookin’ up to the balcony, makin’ the Rock Shop for Mouse and Kelly posters that nobody could decipher, loadin’ up on Raisenettes, brownies and candy apples—had to shoot up that dextrose, nod and stomp into King Crimson madness or the Big Brotherhood. All those flashing, dueling light beams, red and yellow and weird blueish-orange beacons gone totally psychedelic day-glo zonkers, cosmic ray-gunning the mezzanine, into the primo floor seats tucked underneath—blew those minds totally away.
Then the freaks packed to the rafters in the swaying balcony, spots strobing off the humongous mirror balls spinning down from the starry ceiling, refracting white hot, firing up the face paint, home-tooled jewelry and leather banding so many waving, mainlined arms. A smoke-filled house, wall to kaleidoscopic wall—dancing, clapping, stomping, all kinds of turning on. Passing roach clips, splitting tabs, sharing stash pouches, roaching through dime bags like penny candy, washing down fistfuls of buttons and sunflower seeds with kinetic kool-aid. With their rethread Edwardian jackets, paisley scarves and outrageous rawhide vests, frizzled and ratted hair everywhere, still reeking of patchouli and opiated black. Jimi torching upside-down fuzztone guitars onstage, Janis doing Southern Comfort and Morrison in the back. Boss doin’ it all night; come daybreak, It’s another Beautiful Day.
Wait a sec, didn’t Scorsese and the Band just come out and tell everybody the party was over, that this Dreamland dance and boxing hall from the Roaring 20’s turned Winterland Ice Rink turned legendary Rockitorium had played its Last Waltz? That it was celebrating the end of a gloriously heady era with Champagne, velvet draperies, yellow bunting and crystal chandeliers: apparently not quite yet. Once I could actually hear some raw live tuning and music streaming through cracked-open side doors, I pegged the source, Dead on. Winterland was still cleaning up roses, lightning skulls and scarlet begonias from the Grateful Dead’s New Year’s Eve celebration, ‘Friend of the Devil’ and ‘Fire on the Mountain’ echoed on about the auditorium as if the ‘Music Never Stopped’ and Bill Graham continued flying in on his motorcycle.
It was rough, all right, but I could make out a familiar wail and wah-wah, the screeching feedback of Garcia playing ‘Sugaree’ straight into his amp. Yeah, Weir and Lesh were working through ‘Uncle John’s Band’, tokin’ beaucoup hemp. I wanted to sneak a peek into the hall, the brown double doors nearest a vacant blue and burgundy box office window…like, let me in, will ya, just so I can say I’ve been to the mountaintop, been to the Sistine, mecca. Don’t you see, I missed out on this trip when it was happening, always running late…you know, frickin’ Quicksilver Messenger, Captain Beefheart, Commander Cody and the Charlatans, c’mon, way like that…
“Sorry, man,” said a Deadhead roadie, closing the doors in my face. “Private early rehearsal—workin’ up some new material for this New Year’s Eve show.”
“Guess I’ll have to get me a ticket to that, huh,” I asked, all humbled pie, trying to keep a foot in, little chance of that.
“Besta luck, it’s gonna be Winterland’s swan song,” he said, before sealing and locking the doors. “Ain’t you hip? Show’s been sold out for months, man…everybody’s comin’, mayor, Moonbeam, Willie Brown on down.”
I waltzed away empty headed, other than Dreamland’s pipe organ haunting me like Follies on Ice or Waters’ ‘Brain Damage’. I scuffled above the Geary corridor on a caged pedestrian overpass, vehicles roaring toward and back from the Presidio-Masonic Avenue rise. Winterland’s prismatic magic and brilliant jamming were deadened beyond earshot, fading to an earthier Western Addition—The City’s well-contained little ghetto of pink projects, leveled lots and scattered, rotting Victorians chopped into molehole quickie rooms. Halfway over, I glanced back to see if the Winterland crowd had refound the San Francisco Sound, searching pole to pole for those groovy day-glo posters hyping the next acid rockstravaganza, spotting nothing but some ‘Post no Bills’ stencils and a tattered, misplaced bumper sticker touting, ‘Dan White—Supervisor for a Change’.
Here, atop the overpass, through six lanes of expressway monoxide, the perspective came painfully together. On the one hand, Winterland’s blank signage, save for some small letters about Sex and Pistols. Down right on Geary, the ghost of the Fillmore West had devolved into an after-hours disco. I could take in both in one sweep, flashing on how flower powerful this two-block turf must have been. Creedence, Country Joe and The Joker upstairs at the fabled Fillmore, then roll over to an NRPS and CSNY weekend at Winterland, maybe bucket up at that all-night Chicken Shack on the way. The whole scene fit so tightly, two rock-hard palaces bookending that close, that tuned-in, like left and right channels of a monumental stereo headset, megawatt amplifiers blasting the sound stages for a restless, revolting counter culture that curdled after Woodstock and Altamont.
But sure as the prevailing westerlies, that damn Airplane had booked, that Starship had sailed. Yeesh, missed again, I winced, gripping the overpass restraining rails with felonious intent. Where was the party, where’d everybody go? Where were Pig Pen, the Vagrants, for godsakes, Family Dog?! ‘If you’re Goin’ to San Francisco’—yeah right, I mumbled, until Traffic fumes sent me down toward the Geary underpass’s surface lanes, ‘there’ll be a love-in there…’ East of Steiner Street, tucked between here and the Fillmore, stood those two massive churches, side by side, like cold, drab ossuaries or mausoleums, soaking up all the daylight in sight.
The larger one, a former synagogue, was locked tighter than Winterland. The other, still fenced with more chainlink, was bursting through its crucified roof with that joyous gospel song, as if altogether forming degage mind-bending territory hereabouts, a regular peyote place—somewhere between delirium tremens and the Quaalude Triangle. But there were no mother truckin’ Grateful Deadheads around the Temple, didn’t appear to be a black light or mirror ball in the place. Only shaky spotlights that keyed on Reverend Jones at the pulpit—stirring his people with sermon and song—albeit before lightnin’ bolting to the jungles of a god-forsaken place called Guyana. Had to be some missionary work, guess the Peoples were branching out.
So forget the flashbacks, the last slashing wah-wah guitar, electric vocal and wailing tenor sax. Grow up, man, Kiss off these Graham central stations, once and for all. Best to just hit the Steiner Street postal station—better yet, make it double time, and pick-up that goddamn piece of mail…
Care for more?
Chapter 67. Checks and imbalances: A departing
shot sends him off to try homing in the clover,
before cross-pollination and poison set him
off in a peculiarly Elite fashion…