“From the teach you learn
lots can change, positions shift,
from the leach you turn…”
“And how did that make you feel?”
“Feel? I don’t know…all of a sudden, there were these faces—some real familiar, one right after another…”
“So, what did they say to you?”
“They didn’t say anything. They just yammered and stared through me, wouldn’t stop…”
I suppose what had set me off was the window rapper. I’d waved him off for several fitful hours, but he kept returning like a mal centavo. Said his name was Herschel Blane—didn’t I know who he was? C’mon blood, wasn’t I hip to the mean trumpet case he was packin’? Sun peeking over the Berkeley hills, I finally shed the Frostline and cranked down my driver’s door window, if only to shoo this joker away. He slurred on about how he had sat in sideman with the Chivaro Hunter group last night at Jezzbo’s, a small stucco soul and blues club shoehorned between a Fountain Motel and the Ali Baba Vegetarian Cafe, along a tackier stretch of Tam Junction’s Shoreline Highway, amid the salt-box condos, on the outskirts of Marvelous Marin.
Blane, a baggy dungaree brother in an Equadorian floppy brim, rambled on as how their bayou jams ran long past closing time. How he shuttled between Jezzbo’s and Jack Daniel’s breaks at the nearby Fireside Bar all night, and between that and the mellow bud, he’d lost track of space and time.
Seemed the sandstone, red tile-roofed HoJo’s had cut him off at four coffee refills about half past three AM—allegedly for bugging the burnt-out hipsters, for spoutin’ and stinkin’ the place up like Redd Fox off his rocker. Digging the beef jerky out of his upper bridgework with a plastic toothpick from his purple-gold paisley hat band, Herschel had talked me into shuttling him down to his sister’s place in the city.
All along 101 south, I heard about Blane playing with Taj Mahal, riffing with Clarence Clemons, shugging with Johnny Otis hisself—that it was Buddy Miles who ultimately shafted him, saying he was too ripped and wigged out to follow the arrangements, left him hanging like Otis Redding’s death left Arthur Conley—and that he’d never recovered since, while they be draggin’ Buddy into the studio on a forklift. So instead of layin’ down session tracks at the Record Plant and Wally Heider’s, these bushwacked Jezzbo’s gigs; saying the blues were tapped out anyway. “Whitey bled that stone dry—gotsta bring it back to the Delta and ghetto where it belonged.”
R-r-right, tough business, all around, Josh Gravenek’s barn fire and everything. Which had prompted me to mention the Twelve Bar blues and Tony Panescus as I scanned rear mirrors for CHP squads. Wherein Herschel then flapped his Satchmo lips: “Chitown Tony? Sheeit, transactions, baby—that cat be haulin’ heavy freight.” Didn’t want to hear that, gave me the chilblains just thinking about it, guilt by association-wise. So I wheeled into an Arco for some cheaper gas and service station coffee. Blane had stayed put, tapping his trumpet case to a Tower of Power beat, pulling a warm PBR can from his sport coat pocket. Then he directed me toward the city, soon as we approached a Sausalito exit.
“So…you…” asked the white-uniformed clinical attendant, now jotting at her satellite office desk.
“My head was on fire, it just flipped me out…seeing all these party animals, getting it on with everybody else…I wanted to push them all away from me…”
“They kept vanishing before…before…”
“These people in your life, tell me about them.”
“Right, like I was saying, then there was this horn player, and a scowling troubadour, and a cab rider and preacher type, and this long-hair holding a kinda dark-skinned kid…but I’m not a racist bigot about it, I swear on a stack of bibles!”
No, not The City, Marin City, where Herschel’s sister apparently had a crib, because she got Uncle’s monthly checks, and her ever-crashing brother to boot. He cranked down his door window, pointed me up a winding exit road and boulevard toward a pink and beige barracks-like compound, then pulled a roachy number from his vest pocket, chiming, right on, brother. We’d passed a massive encampment of vans, pick-ups, buses and RVs—tents, tables, racks, booths and blankets cluttered with sprawling acres of antiques, art, crafts, collectibles, furniture, furnishings, trinkets, gimcracks, nick-nacks and general counter-culture chaos billed as Marin City’s flea market, a primary source of its taxable income.
For this wasn’t a city, per se, but an unincorporated community of mid-century public housing, a lower profile, much greener Cabrini-Green that had grown out of swampland and wartime shipworker shacks. The county’s original plan called for integrated occupancy and commercial development, but white flight and fright rendered all but some upper Headlands hillside townhouses a splintered, minority proposition, splashing plenty of notorious ink over Marin police blotters and front-page news holes.
Blane had pointed me to parking for a lowland wing, within which his sister’s two-bedroom featured a sunny ground level view of the ‘the flea’. About then, he invited me in, saying she had been out of the Bay Area for quite some time, having followed the Reverend Jim Jones down to Guyana for some spiritual farming. But whatever sedative qualities hot weed and warm brew might have afforded him suddenly dam burst away as he gushed his fear and loathing over her recent letters from Jonestown. He didn’t know when she was coming back, and there was so little he could do to spring her from down there.
Gotst some snow on ice and wine in the box, he said, so let’s hash it out over some of your Howlin’, Muddy and Lightin’—much obliged for the lift. Once I said I’d an appointment in The other City, he pounded his trumpet case, shouting I was an uncool fool for not cottoning to projects’ hospitality, had something against his people—detonating about how I must have been a Chicago racist bigot like Daley and that Nazi Park. “Ain’t you seen Roots, man,” Herschel suddenly slammed off, beer cocked high, horn in hand, and I was gunning away like a fingered, disarmed bandit just the same.
“No, of course not—no one said you were,” smiled a soothing advisor name tagged Connie.
“The horn player, he did…all the rest were women…”
“These women in your life, you feel strongly about them, do you?”
“Strongly? At that point, I could have brained them after the fact.”
By the time Marin City’s Donahue Street had re-joined Hwy. 101 South, I could somehow relate to Herschel’s blow up, as I was rattled, too—to where the long, dark Waldo Tunnel offered scant psychic relief. I shied away from any thought of a Sausalito or vista point scenic escape at the Alexander Avenue exit, but was nowhere near ready to cross the bridge and feed its ravenous toll baskets. Instead, I cut onto West Bunker Road, into an even longer, danker one-way tunnel, rumbling car horns echoing for and aft through the endless former military tube.
Actually, I never did get around to seeing ‘Roots’, studies and all, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t have, given the time and tube. Some of my best friends—blah, blah, blah, mighty white of you, bro. So then why did the picturesque Headlands get me to picturing the bullhorn marching on Marquette Park? Chitown Tony, huh—hauling baggie freight clinging to a leggy ass moll. So spare me the lectures, Tony, no more doing what you got to do, Lone Ranger…forget the thinking positive and leaving the negative apron strings behind. That’s not what I’ve been doing, you bunko hypocritter. I’m way better off without your dopey rent-a-life—the white powder freakos and a lustbucket hot tub out back. No lie, just piecing it all together…only it’s taking a little time… That’s about when the aforementioned brain seiche, with all its electro-magnetic cranial radiation, really hit shore.
Then the long, dimly lit tunnel finally opened to historic Fort Barry, deep in the gut of Tennessee Valley, past its abandoned rifle range and largely vacated WWII billets, the HQ and quartermaster core . I dazedly looped around the oceanside Rodeo Lagoon, paused to suck in some fresh marine breezes near Fort Cronkhite. I soon crawled half-throttle up through crumbling coastal artillery batteries left over from post-Pearl Harbor days, and still active Nike missile sites. I steered clear out to the brink of Point Bonita’s lighthouse, yet was unable to stray far enough away from the issues of the day.
The Headlands spree ended with ablutions at a pine-begirded BOQ turned hostel, where I had to look good and hard at my scruffy self in a reflective metal shaving mirror. Incoming fog then spanked me back screaming through the Bunker Road Tunnel, burrowing under Slacker Ridge, out to a side blast of windblown chowder that was quickly enveloping everything Headlands from Hawk Hill and Kirby Cove to Point Cavallo—was that dock over in a Sausalito clearing near the rotted Charles Van Damme ferry boat there where Otis Redding sat and wrote? With all due Respect, concentrate, Meathead…
I slowly merged back onto 101 south, peering out over San Francisco Bay, barely able to make out Angel Island and Raccoon Strait, much less the city skyline. What remained to be seen of the Golden Gate Bridge towers filled my windshield with telephoto zoom impact, as a stream of impatient import jobs, even some pesky Pintos and Chevettes zipped around and past me with icy glares, then slowed toward the shrouded toll booths, fast-lane jockeying like lab mice in a feeding maze. If it wasn’t their rampant horning, it was the harping bridge cables and flashing amber lights. Add in Doyle Drive’s undivided oncoming traffic, and I had felt like a hopeless housefly facing nothing but no-pest strips—more ready to take another stab at this mental health clinic up in Pacific Heights, come a chilly Aquatic Park morning next.
“Hmm, have you thought about help for this…ongoing professional, that is?”
“No, hey, I’m just a poor walk-in,” I sputtered, crossing and recrossing my legs, checking out diplomas thumbtacked to the wall. “The front desk said I needed a Blue Cross gold card, or something—no coverage, no shrinkage, simple as that.”
It actually wasn’t quite that simple. More specifically, I was minus the health plan cards I’d surrendered upon leaving CU-Boulder and FBC. Having probed me for any semblance of health plan plastic, unable to slot me into some Medi-Cal or S.S.I. coverage, the clinic turned me away. They cited staff shortages, budgetary restrictions, in-patient ward hemorrhaging and my lack of any local mailing address. Finally, the admissions nurse assured me she empathized with my ‘condition’, then pawned me off to this affiliated outpatient counselor type, upstairs of a re-zoned Victorian downhill from the hospital complex. Connie proceeded to hand me several referral cards and two of her own Valiums, then brushed me aside in favor of a distraught young mother with screaming tots in tow.
On my way out, I downed the Diazepam tablets sans water, since the clinic’s sole drinking fountain had dried up, what with these ongoing drought conditions; a sign above it read, ‘Swallow hard and pray for rain’. I finally chased them with a vending machine Pepsi—had to kick in those wayworn neurotransmitters and receptors—floating back to the Volvo on a dizzy, buzzing cloud. After a woozy manswoon afternoon and one hell of a cola wakeful night, I was seated at this picnic bench with Eric and company, hemmed in by feeding pigeons.
“See, we know better, that’s why we bypass Marin whenever we go north, head straight up to Mendocino, camp outside Russian Gulch,” Sherry said, stirring a pot of Coleman stoved oatmeal.
“Steering way clear of Bohemian Grove, fer suure…next stop, God’s Country, as far away from this God-forsaken warpedtivity as we can…” Clifford passed around some Han Choy-scored black and red Bento bowls.
“We even tow along our trusty little Corvair there sometimes,” she added, pointing back two parked cars to a turquoise 1961 Lakewood station wagon, four dinged doors, tow bar strapped up on its rusty front bumper. “Still runs like a top…”
“God’s country? Sheeit, I’m more into headin’ south any day,” Eric sniffed, spitting away a lipper of Skoal, banging his bowl with a wooden spoon.
This lesson in comparison geography came on the heels of my double-yellow lament. Best intentions by the wayside, bumps and forks in the road: I pretty much vented over my whole rutty trip. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why I’d bother with such hassles, so they proceeded to hit me with the blankest of stares and shrewdest of tales. Inevitably, the cool, calm Aquatic Park show-and-tell travelogues turned more telling as the day wore on.
“Yah, I can just picture you and your fleabag pooch in L.A.,” Sherry chided, ladling the cereal around.
“Not L.A., I’m talkin’ about Skyline,” Eric said, milking his meal. “Campin’, lookin’ out over San Gregorio and Pescadero beaches, on the other side of Crystal Springs. Bendin’ elbows with Neil Young in Alex’s Bar—like, wakin’ up in the misty redwoods, can’t see your front fenders in all the ferns and fog. Doin’ breakfast down in Boulder Creek or Ben Lomond, cruisin’ to Santa Cruz. I know that whole damn peninsula, I’m tellin’ ya, got a storage garage in Pacifica and everything…”
“What, you’ve got more of your junkers down there,” she handed him something salty with a Denny’s sugar jar.
“Better than that deathtrap you guys are draggin’ around,” he grabbed at the shaker, piling it on, with an eye toward the line of vehicles parallel parked down toward Muni Pier. “Or that fat junk you’re carryin’ around in your trunk.”
“How would you know,” she snapped back, as she added some of that canned milk to her meal. “You couldn’t handle it anyway, and haven’t even sniffed anything since you got dumped in Aspen—except maybe your dog.”
“Hey, rip me all you want, but don’t go doggin’ Bruno!”
Little question why we’d regathered in this shady little corner of Aquatic Park. The cat lady had packed up and carted off her cases of Puss and kaBootle, and the felines had slunk away into the tangled Fort Mason underbrush and that old, dark railway tunnel over there. A midsummer tourist crush had begun to ease a bit, with it the incessant marine layer rotation/cycle that nightly chilled us to the bedroll and bone. What we didn’t account for, however, was this devout bag man who soon rolled in with four plastic sacks of bread scraps in a Safeway shopping cart, set them atop an adjacent picnic table, then commenced feeding his flock. Local scavenging fowl gobbled up his offertory, wad by enriched white crumb, fighting over each dropping like news crews hounding an indicted co-conspirator. The aged bird man’s breaded spray pattern was broadly precise, but within it, guggling, squawking chaos ruled.
“North, south…c’mon, it’s not like I meant to start a ruckus by comparing Herschel Blane to Neil Young for god sakes,” I tried to mediate some. Separately, these people weren’t anything to me; together at the moment they were about all I had.
“Herschel who,” Eric asked, before momentarily leveling out, real neighborly like. “Young’s spread is down that way. He sits at Alex’s bar in his ripped plaid Pendleton, tossin’ bones just like one of the regular guys.”
“What would you know about regular guys,” Sherry pounced.
“Hell of a lot more than your faggy little boyfriend there,” Eric said, voice cracking with as much embarrassment as anger. He grabbed Bruno by his choke collar, starting for his cars and lagoon’s walkway edge, momentarily turning back. “I ain’t takin’ no more of your feminazi crap.”
“It’s all about meeting expectations, Eric,” Sherry smiled devilishly, with a nod toward Clifford. “Maybe that’s why your Colorado ski queen ran you out of Aspen.”
The sad, sour-eyed bird man in a day-glo hunting cap waved off a cove-soaked sheepdog that threatened to shake out the gulls and pigeons on approach. But they’d have no part of it, instead chasing and clawing one another in quickening swarms, diving beak first into the shredded bread. Soot gray wings and tailfeathers flapped furiously as they wedged in and under each other, pecking backsides and sniping away at rival necks, while bolting down one toss before the old man could pitch the next. Scores of filthy, feather-shedding scroungers flitted and bobbed, steadily being scattered by landing seagulls. These were the second wave; those already breadstuffed ganged up along overhead power wires, about surrounding lollipop ficus and acacia trees.
The pigeons’ concerted gorgling rattled benches and lightpoles; twitchy, nodding crowns shone purple-aquamarine sickly in the tree-strained sun. Yet the huge grey-white seagulls, those territorial, turkey-size buzzards, kept clearing feeding room from that seamy pigeon shoal, pecking and shitting all over them, gull squadrons divebombing from all over Fort Mason and below, hitting a bit too close to a nearby dry, mosaic-tiled water fountain, not to mention the picnic table around which we’d ritually convened. It got me to pondering whether that was all it took to cultivate a loyal following these days—as in, take me to your precharismatic leader. And if so, what sort of itinerant tribe were we sowing right here—not that I really wanted to wait and fate around to find out.
“Screw your lezbo bullshit,” Eric snarled, as he pulled a growling Bruno further away from the picnic table by his steel-chain collar. “Thing about dykes is they tend to burst sometimes. And your fruity little Dutch boy there ain’t gonna be pluggin’ your holes!”
“Tolerance, all—peace and harmony,” Clifford intoned over Serene Moments herbal tea, as he buried his nose in the morning Clarion, to a page-one article about yet another brutal Lafayette Park killing the night before. “It’s all in our hands, the script’s already written. All we’ve got to do it play it out—just set the scene and play it to the hilt…”
“Really, Sherry, why all the raggin’ on Eric here,” I searched for an ice breaker as the Aquatic Park atmosphere continued freezing over. Whatever I needed now, it wasn’t this. So I searched up Van Ness hill past Kodak’s sprawling office building and those two soaring, blockbuster Fontana apartment towers for a quick escape route—even though my Volvo was all tired and cranky again. But wait, of course, Kodachrome, Ektachrome—the film, Plus-X and Pan-X, dirty, grainy Tri-x, push that Rodinal and Acufine—photography, right, had to bail out those cameras, zoom in on my only way out of here…
“Because somebody’s got to keep an eye on him and his mutt and junk parade, that’s why,” she began cleaning up the oatmeal bowls, busy and bothered, shooting glancers around the picnic table. “Otherwise, let him go stew and pop his pimples, for all I care.”
“Hey, come on, Eric,” I urged him and his upraised fist over the drive toward the snack stand, noticing for once that he didn’t exactly have the complexion to make many intimate connections. Catching my attention beyond that was a heated argument up beneath the park’s cantilever-covered bocci ball courts. There a gaggle of elderly gumbas bickered over displaced pallinos and punto shots, crossing over the volo line. “I’ll pop, er spring for a couple of cheapo coffees…”
That rowdy sheepdog had galloped back in from a blind side shrub, flushing out the old man’s pigeon and sea gull clientele. Suddenly, the flock filled the sky in flapping, squawking retreat, wings thundering hundred-fold over us, propelling their diaspora out toward the open cove. The birds punctured Aquatic Park’s afternoon coma like a bullhorn through the BART underground, to where we could barely hear the shrieking children, ghetto blasters and grandstanded bongo bands. The old man spun on his heels, bracing against the shopping cart, cursing that sheepdog, seeming to head count the fleeing flock, as though worried they wouldn’t come back his way.
“Oh, this one, now,” Eric said snidely, as we turned away from the stand’s stainless steel counter, stirring and sipping from our small styro cups, which I’d hastened to cover with a five spot.
“Who, him?” I spotted this slender figure emerging from his panel van, a young woman following closely behind. Its radio continued blaring, from the Pointer Sisters’ ‘Another Chick’ to ‘Easy’ and ‘Brick House’ by the Commodores. “I’ve scoped him out several times…what’s he done?”
“Time, that’s what,” he shooed Bruno away from lifting his leg against an overstuffed refuse can. “Let alone what he’s doing to her…”
“Time? What’s his deal?” I zeroed in on the pair as they approached Sherry’s Econoline van. “He some kind of artist…”
“What isn’t his deal? I’m figurin’ weed, dust, the whole shootin’ match, gotta be,” Eric opened his white Porsche’s sun roof for Bruno to jump inside. “And he’s a torture artist, not pro but con.”
Before long, those squadrons of grubbing gulls and pigeons reconned with the birdman, wingtip to wingtip. Just before touch down, they cross filed themselves with Blue Angels’ precision to the fountain and bread spread, peeling off over him, as if enabling him to call the roll. That lone, chain-smoking old buzzard kept tossing chunks and crumbs. He caught a second gagging wind upon his flock’s second coming; but it still made me wish his lonely dead-end plight away. What in blazes was I doing back here, anyway? Deliver me the hell back to Inverness, for chrissake, render me unto the wilds of Drakes Estero and Limantour with the blacktail deer. Hang me loose with the countrified Cotati honkers, surfin’ up with the gnarly dudes out at Stinson Beach. Damn straight, if only I wasn’t bound to stay within sniffing distance of Ms. Near and Dear…
Overfed birds were now pecking away at rye clumps behind the hedges, getting fat on the old man’s bread without so much as lifting a wingflap. Gulls fed up with the whole spread began lighting over on the Sea Scout shed across the drive. Slowly, one by one, they clotheslined the long, low-slung roof peak, beads on an abacus, adding up to nothing but stained tiles, strained rafters and the lingering threat of a messy airborne attack.
Which kept remaining tourists on ready alert, eyeing that roof squadron as they packed their all consuming cherubic offspring in racked-up station wagons and rental sedans. Bermuda shorts and ball caps, grousing leotards who had bought up every overpriced gimmick and gimrack or trinket on Fisherman’s Wharf—so long as they were logoed San Francisco—and they looked us over as though we were the ones who were strange. Packing everything in, pulling briskly away—they left behind the deathtraps, the pop-top pick-ups and camper vans lining this grizzlier foot of Van Ness Drive, returning Aquatic Park to the testy gulls and whoever else prowled this peculiar place after dark.
“How do you know this,” I asked with measured skepticism, Herschel Blane and BroJoe jumping back to mind, conclusion-wise.
“Because I’m around here a lot, keep my eyes open, am not just blowin’ in and out. And that chick with him, you see her stitchin’ jeans and knittin’ her brains out with scarves to keep them afloat. If you ask me, the sucker’s livin’ off her, flat out.”
“So what if he is, what’s the difference, they…”
“I say he’s pickin’ on a weako white chick because a black woman would kick his lazy ass to the gutter,” Eric licked the rim of his take-out cup, tossing the lid to the sidewalk. “Those two cancel each other out though. I mean if she can’t cut it in his world, he sure as hell ain’t gonna cut it in hers—so it depends on whether he wants to be whitey more than she wants to be a sister. But once she goes black, how can ever come back? Can you imagine what she’d be carryin’ with Stokely there?”
The gulls had fairly lined the scout sheds as early dusk set in—sassy, stuffed to their red spotted beaks with thrift shop throwaway breads. A sinking sun henna rinsed their snowy breasts, and glowed red-gold against the relic schooners and steamers moored at Hyde Street’s pier. Late afternoon took the edge off Aquatic Park—calmed the fringes some, sedated the day’s wildlife momentarily between dosage, before nightfall sucked everything in, set everything else free to poach and prowl.
But there was little dusk could do about the scrawnier gulls crowded out of the old man’s spread. Eric and I could hear several of them going at it at the base of a low stone seawall. Bruno in fact nearly vaulted the thing to get at them, but at ebb tide, a seawall could drop off something fierce. The dog just froze on the ledge, barking, growling at two grey gulls cockfighting over some unspeakable entrails on the jagged, mossy rocks twenty feet below.
The pealing of some wind chimes across at the Scout shed led me to tracking that old rail line curving around the cove, between the beachfront and Maritime Museum, headed this way. Which sent me back to sepia visions of State Belt’s little engine that could no more, chugging past olden day industrial San Francisco’s Selby Smelter and Pioneer Woolen Mill, on a rickety wooden trestle slicing across Black Point lagoon like the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. That clanging shuttle steamed along a workingman’s Embarcadero pier to pier, pulling boxcar and gondola loads of coffee, glass, ice and grocery/produce up and down the waterfront to collect and distribute city commerce. ‘Engine, Engine No. 9’ kicked and shunted rail cars parlously past the cove’s social swimmer boat houses and rowing clubs, extra switching rolling stock all the way out to the Presidio and back—through boom times, a deep Depression downturn and World or undeclared wars.
All that remained of this particular leg of the little State Belt Line were its rerouted, recessed rail bed and the massive, arched concrete-block facade over my shoulder, fronting a long, dark right-of-way tunnel that bore under Fort Mason bluffs like a mouse hole in a garrison baseboard, spooky as it was strangely inviting, like a scale-model railroad set in Steven King’s cellar. I just wondered when the train might steam along on a whistle stop to manifest me away from all this.
“C’mon, that’s crazy talk. She doesn’t even look knocked up to me,” I wavered, now bringing Nathan and his son to mind, while growing increasingly confused as to the demography. “Even if she is, that’s their business, right?”
“Whatever turns you on,” Eric sneered, as we edged past a family of four from Fresburg passing around shaved ice and Ghirardelli chocolate bars, leading us toward his 912 caravan. “Makes me no nevermind, just don’t come near me with it—far as I’m concerned, she ain’t even white anymore. Yep, wouldn’t touch that skank with a cattle prod. And you sure wouldn’t catch me beatin’ on her like that, either.”
“Which would probably come as a relief to her,” I muttered, thinking this was not something I needed to hear about now either, Nate’s babe in arms rocking my easy chair. “But what do you mean, beating?”
“Check it out for yourself, man,” Eric opened his blue Porsche’s trunk lid to rummage through a Craftsman tool chest. “I’ve got dual jugs to tweak…”
“Uh, yours or mine?”
“If’n I get around to poppin’ your hood.”
Care for more?
Chapter 71. A short walk on a
long pier finds one ahead of the curve
or woefully behind it—depending
on the personal perspective…