“Beware churning waters,
lest they make you twist and turn—
learn before you burn.”
“You’re from Kenilworth?
“Fraid so…my parents, anyway…”
“Northshore Chicago Kenilworth, posh megabucks Kenilworth?”
“What of it?”
Eric aside, the ranks had closed on Sherry’s Econoline, gathering around its wide-opened doors like Coliseum tailgaters at Monday night Raiders-Oilers. Upon closer review, I noticed that she and Clifford had outfitted the interior of their camper van with bonsai-stained plywood panelling, built in brass handled cabinets and drawers—crowding a folding bed, counters and crannies, with chestnut trim. That flip-top skylight brightened their inner rig, illuminating her red gingham-framed block prints and Hindu batik, as well as sidewall and bulkhead racks of cook spices and condiments, shelving for Clifford’s expansive sophistic volumes. Clothes and roving household clutter were packed, crammed into most remaining cargo space, save for an Igloo cooler and two-burner Coleman stove, foodstuffs never far from Sherry’s purview.
Today, she’d rolled both units out onto server boards swinging down from opposing side doors, chopping away at an array of raw, food-stamped cucs, carrots, meaty mushrooms and cauliflower with a hopsack chef’s apron cinching her orange-brown frock. This could have been a campground in the Adirondacks or Yellowstone, only the present surroundings evidenced that it wasn’t in the least.
“Uh, nothing, I was just,” I glanced away toward Aquatic Park’s Art Deco mojo and lazy, lapping lagoon, wondering how the hell she wound up being here like this. “A guy told me about shooting up there once…”
“You’re talking about Percy’s kid…”
“No, just some…furniture, an old ad deal.” With FBC’s Bob Gelvart crowding my mind, I hadn’t come anywhere close to summoning morgue images of Senator Chuck Percy’s lakeside estate, how the gruesome mid-Sixties murder of one of his twin daughters in her very own bedroom remained unsolved to this day—so morbidly midwest dispiriting, in its own provincial way.
Eric had carb tuned and started in with Bondo appliques on his blue 912 by the time these two wandered over, from a narrow buffer zone between their Dodge panel truck and a flagging 1976 Bicentennial Edition Buick Le Sabre. Kathy Howitt was a waif of a thing—frail, if not gaunt, just the emaciated side of wholesome—banged reddish brown hair down to the small of her back. Landlubber bell bottoms hung low on her slim hip bones, frayed just above her rawhide Earth Shoes. She wrapped the arm of her colorfully needlepoint-breasted blue camisa tightly around the bare, tattooed forearm of her steely companion.
“Kathy here’s into handicrafts,” Sherry blurted, separating onion peelings from the bell peppers. “She whips out incredible crochet and macrame stuff. The touristas snap it up over at Beach Street and the Cannery, enough to float their whole boat even without her checks from home, right, Kath? She sets up a display stand there and everything!”
“That’s amazing,” I said, avoiding Kathy’s blank stare while looking her up and down, eventually gravitating toward her head. “Um, you okay?”
“O-kayyy, why do you ask?” With that, she flatlined a once-retainered smile, then resumed chewing on her fingernails.
“No, just wondering, I…” Couldn’t help noticing the fresh plum purple bruise on her translucent white skin, swollen right above her left eye.
“She fine, fine as wine,” said her consort, reeling her in more tightly at the waist. “Just bumped her melon, that all…”
“This is Kathy’s…beau,” Clifford said, creasing and refolding his newspaper. “L.T. Emerson, he’s a…”
“Facilitator,” said L.T., kissing her puffy forehead. “I make things happen.”
He certainly had the build for it, free-weight chiseled on a 5’10” frame. Still, L.T. carried himself more like a wise man than a wiseguy—wire-rimmed eyeglasses and middling afro framing his prominent, angular face—with a radiant though tight, faintly crooked smile. A starburst medallion with a large bloodstone inlay swayed across his bulky, pecced up chest, tangling in the coiled, curly hairs beneath an open-front dungaree workshirt. He seemed to be no disco dandy, however, as if having much heavier tunes to play. Although his laced-crotch navy ‘Super Fly’ flares didn’t exactly fly with Kathy’s country commune mode. Reeling back aways, I saw their pairing along the lines of Richard Roundtree with a Sandy Dennis type, minus the editing consoles and chromatic filters.
“Kathy gave us this fantastic tapestry,” Sherry beamed aside, pointing to the van’s inner wall hanging. “So I’m going to cook us all up some of my famous Rhode Island gumbo.”
“Whoa, great, I’m famished,” I checked out the derivative O’Keeffe southwestern motif, even though still a bit het up that Eric hadn’t yet gotten around to tweaking my Solexes.
“You look it, Slim,” she winked and took to slicing two overripe beefsteak tomatoes and some celery stalks
“It’s going to take a while,” Clifford said, gathering six sun-dried stoneware bowls to set around the picnic table. “Ah, but it’s worth the wait in gold.”
“What it is, like when they get to jawin’,” L.T. said, over the revving of Eric’s blue Porsche 912 across the drive. “Yo, so let’s us be takin’ a li’l walk, leave them to their pots and crafts.”
“Who, me?” I in turn noticed how Eric had just slid an old bake pan beneath the crankcase of his rearmost four-banger engine.
Thereupon, Kathy spun away from her live-in squeeze, twisting the long, oily strands of her hair, twirling them tightly between her fingers. She then curled the ruddy locks up over her head, where they shone even redder in the latter afternoon sun. In this light, she reminded me of a slimmer Moon Saversohn some, like on an MDA day trip we took up to Nederland and the Continental Divide over spring break, let alone that snowbound New Years Eve. Except for the tiny blood blot on Kathy’s left pupil, below her abraded brow.
She appeared to be light years from Kenilworth. I tried to place her back there, in front of a vast Tudor mansion overlooking Lake Michigan, or lounging the sultry summer away by the solarium pool, running with her Airedales across capacious, fountained lawns. Only now she might do well just to be toiling over them with rakes and clippers, reflecting on what got her from there to here this way.
“Right on, whilst the fog’s out, soak us up some scenery.” L.T. pulled me away toward the traffic-clogged drive, what with Eric once again revving his blue 912, Bruno howling to the unmuffled exhaust. “That honky moronic backfiring’s about to drive me to drastics…”
“Yeah, but why me? Maybe Cliff…”
“You stay right put, Clifford,” Sherry piped up, pointing into the Econoline. Her fellow traveler was rounding off the bill of his Nietzsche ball cap, contemplating a celestial ceiling map, with all its phosphorescent constellation locator pins and arrows. He had been poring over a fresh Chronicle piece on the Lafayette Park murders, how the police still didn’t appear to be in any rush to flush it all out. She then ordered him toward the picnic table. “You’ve got settings to place!”
“Lesgo,” L.T. yanked me harder across the drive, between a parking spot-trolling Datsun pick-up and Karmann Ghia, yet safely around Eric’s fleet. “I think you know why…”
We cut over to the sidewall’s walkway, passing the shuttered scout shack and dock, gaining on the crowded drive’s end turnaround and traffic barriers just beyond. For all the surrounding splendor, Muni Pier was a squalid, atrophying bayfront appendage that then bore little of the sunny white nautical cheer of Aquatic Park itself. It extended out like a beetle’s feeler, deteriorating remains of the gem of a jetty built by WPA coolies in FDR days. Surely the salt and tides took a grave, rusting toll on the artfully arcing concrete pier. Biting winds alone effectively sandblasted this landmark down to a coarse, dismal gray that made even a cement mixer’s inner tumbler seem luminous by comparison. Its fishhook sweep likely as not being held together with seagull guano anymore.
Yet it hung right out there, Marin hills, Sausalito, Tiburon’s yacht clubs and Tony’s hot tub, palm-job lifestyle in fetchingly nigh distance across the bay, Angel Island all the nearer.
“Couldn’t tell you,” I said, seeing this entire foray as one big question mark. “But if you don’t mind my asking—you and Kathy, how…”
“Pen pals, started when she was still at Northwestern,” L.T. replied, while we slipped between two traffic bollards.
“In the service, were you?”
“No, the pen.”
Jutting out there as it was into the cross-current bay, little wonder the pier was so godawful pitted and plundered. Then there were those seaweed moldy support pillars, which only a high tide drubbing could enhance. But the real scourge, Muni Pier’s plague of plagues, were the birds—and not pigeons this time so much as these gulls: here was the seagulls’ empyrean.
Ocean going gulls, big, nasty birds hitting the Barbary Coast on liberty. They squealed and squawked, bopped and dropped from one end of the crumbling pier to the other, seemingly densifying their way around the bend, not to mention each overflowing trashcan, mostly because the gulls themselves were doing the trashing.
Then came the fishermen, Chinese and Korean mostly, but could just as well have been Salvadoran or Taiwanese. Muni Pier was precisely that sort of polyglot; but the one thing they all shared was a commitment to long, gusty days at the waiting end of the pole. Quite often, it was a family outing—the folks all huddled together to parka and blanket against the constant wind. Tending up to six lines at a crack, they weren’t angling for trophy rainbows out here; they were rustling up some dinner. In their wake were crushed crab pots, gutted fish entrails and scattered trashcan fires where the birds had yet to light.
If these pier mongers weren’t fishing, they were pre-season crabbing—and more than a few were doing plenty of both. Trying as I could to digest L.T.’s revelations, I began guessing as to the languages along either side of the pier. Whatever, they made more sense than what L.T. was laying on me thus far, and damned if I could figure out why.
“Was some kinda innocence project thing, don’t remember exactly—before long, the letters got more…personal,” said L.T., rubbing his cheek, a scraggly beard barely masking some sort of Pseudofolliculitis Barbae skin condition. “But about your thing…”
“What about me, I…” We proceeded past decapitated lamp posts, each crowned with wing-flexing crows and gulls, around bag people rolled up in shredded news rags behind decaying concrete benches to break the wind as best they could. From there on out, either the gusts and Dungeness guts were getting to me, or L.T. was effectively rattling my cage.
“You and your woman problem,” he pressed. “Word gets around, heard Sherry and Kathy dishin’ about it on the down low.”
“Hmph, what would they know about it,” I muttered, still processing L.T.’s revelation, as in what was he in the clink for, and where.
“Chickie talk—they sure have they ways, don’t they,” L.T. smiled at a couple of honeys passing by along the groin-high pier wall. “Dig, real strutter butts, Jennifer Lowbottom and Cynthia Highbottom with the legs up to here…”
“Yeah, well, Boulder’s got some great women, too,” didn’t know what that had to do with anything, but what else was there to say, ogle/undressing-wise.
“Maybe so, but all ’em’s prom queens, everyville’s Miss America—they all flockin’ like the gulls to this mother of a town,” L.T. smacked, casting out about the park and promenade. “Everyone of ’em’s a temptress, they all think they starlets and goddesses, lookin’ for their fairytale adventures and romantic spins. You like ’em women, don’t you? ”
“Sure, I mean, who wouldn’t, but what’s it to me?”
Before I could run his hypothesis through my image bank, the dramatic viewpoint from Muni Pier’s parabola slapped me like an on-shore gale. The Rock glowed like Golden Athena, late afternoon rays transforming one tired excuse for a prison into a tourist monument for the ages, despite the incessant deterioration wrought by time and recent Indian battles. Alcatraz Island appeared escapably close—hell, some orange headed swimmers were seen breast stroking out there about every morning. Only a narrow channel of white caps separated the pier from the casa de Capone.
“Everybody got his own thing, but it depends on what kinda man you be,” L.T. said pointedly, punching my arm. “You plastic or you money? A causer or a a’fector?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” While from this angle, those sailboats dropping their spinnakers and broad-reach jibing could have tour de graced the cover of Yachts Illustrated magazine.
“About a guy stepping up, standing tall—bein’ a causer not a causee, a plugger not a pluggee. It’s physics, see? A hole can’t really be no aggressor, it’s just gotta sit there and wait to be filled. So you need to plug in just, be a man about it…”
“Hey, that’s not my situation, believe you me…” Wherever river he’d been up, this brother apparently had never come across the likes of Sydney Mendel.
“Not how I hear it, mah man. Sound like you hung up real bad on somebody,” L.T. offered me a wintergreen Lifesaver from his workshirt pocket. “Ask me, a guy’s hassles don’t be about a skirt at all maybe don’t be about the dame at all, but about the guy his own self. What he be puttin’ himself through inside his head.”
“No way, I’ve seen where that kind of wringer can lead—as in the separation anxiety with my dad,” I digressed, rather wistfully, at that. I cupped my mouth, which smelled like so much fish bait, taking the hint and a breath mint or two. “He went through the nine circles of guilt-ridden hell for all he put my mom through for thirty-five years. Once she was dead and gone, he was lost.”
“Put her through? Ever think he wasn’t the whole problem all along? Like what she put him through. Maybe you momma just turned you on him for her own revenge—womens pull that shit, you know…”
HRRRONK, HRRrrronnkkkkk… Nothing like a foghorn to plow gnatty pleasure boats toward channels’ margins. An inbound foreign rustbucket also damn near blew me over the pier’s outer sidewall. That tramp freighter steamed so closely, I could just about count the rivets and barnacles. Its flag of convenience markings were Liberian—weren’t they all—and Arab looking crewmen gawked and waved from its broken taffrail as though they were Algerians reaching Marseilles.
Muni Pier crested at roughly the 110-degree point, its stunted arc rounding off to the lowest common denominator, ruffian-wise, the curly cusp of which could best be described as a round concrete snack bar that had folded long ago, a pillbox now distinguished only by gang loads of codified graffiti scrawl in citrus day-glo or blood brother red.
“Well, you’ve got it all wrong on that, I tell you.” That wasn’t me or mine, not like that by a long shot, right? “None of those hang-ups here…”
“Uh-huh—then what’d your daddy do that was so bad?”
“You mean apart from his moodiness and silent stewing, the missed holidays, broken promises and endless neglect,” I unloaded unexpectedly in lightening rounds. “How he’d come home plastered, then start throwing things, take out his work woes on mom and me? He even admitted he’d never been much of a father. Like that…”
“But at least the cat was workin’, right,” L.T. shot back. “How ’bout your momma?”
“He never let her…”
“So he was all bankrollin’, huh? And you don’t think he felt under the gun for that? Maybe that was why he’d be blowin’ off some steam now ‘n’ then? And there you be, so what he be comin’ home to?”
“Uh, I dunno, guess we’d just suffer through his rants,” I muttered, gazing across the bay to the distant solace of Angel Island. “Otherwise kinda tune him out…”
“You mean, freeze him out, right? That’s what he’d come home to after a long day’s slavin’ to pay for it all? Much obliged, y’all—and now you be fearin’ you’d end up the same way as your ol’ man, that what hangin’ you up?”
“Christ, never told that to anybody,” I blurted. “How did we even go down this road? It’s got nothing to do with anything now, so let’s just…”
“Alright…alright then, good to cough it up. And forget about the sister what got you so knotted up. then shed your eye scales, look at ’em all, will you,” L.T. cooed, toward two coed tourists in USC shirts, dallying around the bend. “That’s it sweetheart, get your fems up, tighten them nips…”
“Sooo, then what about Kathy over there?”
“Like I say, they’s a difference between bitchin’ and bitching,” he grinned, glancing back toward his Dodge panel truck. “She got no problems with me. Listen, if women’s gonna start bossin’ guys around, it’s only because the guy’s gonna let ’em do it, okay? We talkin’ about permission here, revokable at any time, like a driver’s license. But you gotta have more than a learner’s permit to drive the bus…”
“Look, if you’re suggesting I’m getting bossed around, that’s not even close…”
“All I know is if some women don’t have guys to rag on, then what they got to complain about except not having guys around to complain about? And you know that type woman’s gotta have something to rag about. But you don’t see real men putting up with that shit. Not like these Frisco wimps fetalin’ around with they girly friends. Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t preachin’ priesthood nor nuthin’—and Superman just done hanged his horny self. I’m only talkin’ personal druthers…”
“Christ, all I know is, genuine relationships are a lot more complex than that…”
“Relationships? I’m all about action, jackson—men like the means, but most women like the end—to the bitter end. Better to get in and get out clean, before they can go breakin’ out the sexual and emotional weapons of theirs.”
This was dramatic, picture postcard, registered mail dramatic. For the view from pier’s end was tantamount to a VIP suite at the Fairmount. San Francisco unfurled on a magic roll from bridge to sparkling bridge. Telegraph Hill’s towering pastel condo boxes and cottages to burgeoning Financial District highrises to lofty Russian Hill penthouses to the stately wood-frame officers’ manors lining lush green Black Point Ridge: the iconic lay of this gilded land played like a greatest hits compilation from Tony, Duke and Ella, Streisand at Carnegie, Mister Lucky at the Sands.
Take Columbus Avenue, how it cleaved Russian and Telegraph Hills, lifting and separating better than a Frederick’s bra, all the way down to the Transamerica Pyramid. How Ghirardelli Square’s red brick Mustard Building turned cocoa in the late-day shadows. Or how Aquatic Park’s promenade swept so elegantly from the Dolphin Club compound around to the old Fire Department pumping station over by our clunkers, then how this Muni Pier breakwater smoothed outer bay whitecaps into the lagoon’s glassine calm.
“Yeah, check it out, man—they bein’ everywhere around here,” L.T. added, swivel headed on the cove side. “All the righteous chickies—you think they ain’t out lookin’ for it? Why else they come here? They cruisin’, scoping and chasing you just like you be scoping and chasing them—they got needs and hormones, too. So how they keep getting away with making theyselves out to be such a grand prize? Fairer sex, my black ass—you just gotta see through their sneaky games, that’s all. I sure ain’t no woman hater nor nuthin’, just know what they up to…”
“Uh, no offense, but that’s about the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard.” I was beginning to feel like a job site masher or cat-caller with a mean two-finger whistle.
“You’ll see, once you get your big boy license,” he replied, scratching at a patch of his thin, uneven beard. “Trick is, you gotta keep ’em young—like, when did their biological clocks become our problem, right? And you gotta be picky, too. Way I see it, when you got a surplus of so many cherries, some a them’s bound to end up in the chocolate dip.”
“Speaking of which, your deal with Kathy,” I said tentatively, anxious to fill in that particular coloring book, let alone what L.T. stood for.
“I mean, how long have you been…together? And do her parents…you know…know?”
“We been back there once, about six months after she dropped out of school to meet me here. Bodacious spread, like Curtis Mayfield’s or something…”
“Wow, how did that go?”
“Her ol’ man was down at some CBOT; mother and granny flipped out over daiquiris by the pool, and Kathy blew up, threw her family scrapbook into Lake Michigan. Figured they didn’t see Kathy’s bright, shining future, they only saw my darkie black. Whole thing went down in about twenty minutes. We hit Due’s downtown for deep-dish and were out of Chicago, back on I-80 before sunset.”
“Getaway pizza on the Near Northside—that, I can relate to,” I flashed on parting Moon shots over a sausage and anchovy combo thick as Funkadelics’ platform soles.
“In, in, in!!! Aqui!” This commotion suddenly drew my attention to a huddled young Mexican family that had been pre-season crabbing off the pier wall just to our left. “Tomes el sedal!” The padre ordered his boys to reel in a yellow nylon line and netted basket as he flung another out there with Frisbee finesse. Finally, son numero uno wrestled a jackpot net up over the bay-side wall, screaming for his madre to bring the family meal bucket. They could have cracked crab for themselves and half the Mission District.
Still, their joy over the borderline illegal bounty did little to ease any pier pressure, so my eyes drifted off heavily into our backdrop, where a scow and sailing schooners clustered around Hyde Street’s Pier, that Eureka paddle boat ferry boat berthed perfectly between us and Fisherman’s Wharf. As I panned away, there was no denying San Francisco’s compact cityscape crooned perfection at every turn.
“Get me a lot of that dissin’, especially since I sprang from the joint,” L.T. ventured, staring a hole through the pillbox wall.
“No, man, Folsom…”
“For political stuff, Berkeley or something, huh?”
“Fifteen-to-twenty for armed robbery, assault with intent—just crazy kid stuff growin’ up in West Oakland, tryin’ to earn stripes for my ol’ lady in those days. See, I didn’t have no daddy around. So I did five for good behavior and time served…got me three more years of probation.”
“Whoa, and Kathy knew this going in?”
“’Course, what you think, man, I’d be lyin’ to her about something like that,” L.T. was indignant, warning flags shot up like roadblock flares. “We always straight with each other, her and me. I look out for her, rub out her abandonment fears, and she make me feel to home.”
“Hey, I’m sure,” I blurted, thinking I didn’t want to hear his explanation, who needed it? I rolled the entire prospect around in my head, all hunkered down inside—hell, stranded way out here with a hardened felon trolling for more jailbait. Chills set in once again, I feared complicity, fought alarm, guilt by association and all that rot. What the hell did this con really want from me, anyway?!
“That’s how we work it, alright, take care of each other, straight and true…”
“Vamos, vamonos!” This time, fisherman pere apparently bore down on mother Mejicana, who had just returned to some cod cleaning on a nearby bench. But he was actually after a gang of four seagulls that were chasing the entrails she kept flinging over her shoulder, as though they were links of bad British bangers. The way those bloody gulls danced and pecked around the innards—screeching, flapping off one another to the point where maybe this garbage was some sore of delicacy: Famished as I was, could have fooled me either way.
Bonding lovers and lonely strollers, people who needed people alike braved the blustery isolation of Muni Pier, couples bundled up and tightly embraced, sulky loners and skulkers bent over their coat pockets, staring down into the entrails and gull crap for spiritual recompense or simply loose change. What the various pier groups found instead was a bennie becalming view of The City’s more flattering sides, and a wind stream that was dying slowly on the cove side, mercifully with the sun. Fading with them was that strain of daylight seeping in and out of Aquatic Park and virtually everything between Fort Mason and Russian Hill.
Dusk’s shadows crept eastward now, block by block, like firestorms after the ought-six earthquake. Across Columbus, the dipping sunset fairly caramel coated Telegraph Hill’s white stucco and clapboard clutter with the sticky richness of a deluxe Haagen-Dazs sundae.
“Sure, don’t take it personally or anything,” I said hesitantly, as we elbowed back up to the cove-side wall. “But it’s just, how can I buy what you’re saying when…”
“When what? Out with it, bro, don’t go dancin’ around the dog.”
“When you beat up on Kathy like that…”
“Just heard, like you said, word gets around.”
“Heard? Whatchu think’s goin’ on with me and her,” he fumed. “Listen here, I don’t lay no rough hands on that lil’ girl!”
“But her bruises, like on her forehead there, what about…”
“That? What it is—Kathy’s hypermetropic, damn farsighted without her contacts,” L.T. shook his head with dismay. “So she bangs her noggin against the truck’s doorjamb now an’ then. Just ask her, fool.”
“Hey, enough said, it’s not my place to…”
“Girl’s got her problems, dig? She can be a head banger, cutter even, razor scarification—you should check out her wrists,” L.T. continued, tugging down defiantly on his blue leather Marley cap, tapping on its chrome-studded bill. “I tries to keep a lid on that shit, am the only one can save her from herself sometimes—her parents sure’s hell can’t. But she’s always there for me, helping me keep my nose clean. And it ain’t easy on the outside, p’ticularly when you be carryin’ paper. She says it gives her connectedness, purpose.”
Soon the shadows even overtook Telegraph Hill. San Francisco’s evening lights began flickering before us, against a clear sky nearly purple as Kathy’s forehead. Coit Tower, the TransAm, a shouldering downtown skyline, Fontanas East and West: from Bay Bridge spans to Fort Mason’s officers’ club, late afternoon serenity gave way to the promise of yet another frightful night of nights on the town.
Hale, maniac swimmers still slapped laps around the inky lagoon, Aquatic Park bleachers continued to throb to a Latin drumbeat freshened with brushes of Mariachi brass. Which still fought for aural air space against the guitar buskers who serenaded insufferable cable car wait lines. For that matter, the Hyde Street cars clanged and stutter started up through Russian Hill’s plusher peaks as if time were stalled between the Wharf and Hallidie Plaza, particularly at the fateful Jackson Street swing around Han Loon’s corner.
Yet I’d grown impatient with the fish heads, the gull shit and oblivious Mexicans who kept shamelessly butchering their catch for all to see—not to mention the scripture according to Brother L.T. here. I up and slouched around the shuttered snack stand with all the other mindburners, smack into Muni Pier’s last-gasp windward face. Bayside, the currents remained stormy, the gales stubbornly strong. Harder time: I guessed that was what L.T. liked about the pier. Why else would he have dragged me out here?
“Well, sure, I never really thought,” I scrambled to follow in his wake.
“Mighty white a ya, but it’s always the nigga’s fault,” he scowled, re-cocking the Exuman crown of his hat. “Hey, did my time, didn’t I? Been turnin’ things around—figurin’ theys more to life than bein’ outrageous or no outlaw…”
“No, I didn’t…awww, can’t ask more of a man these days, I mean under the circumstances…”
“Still ‘n’all, if’n you white, you alright. If’n you black, get back, if’n you brown, don’t stick around,” he stared me down, agitated and demonstrative about it. “Well, I wasn’t up for no rape nor nuthin’, I ain’t no pervert monster like some a them dudes, and I ain’t gonna be Anglo-sassinated for sumthin’ I didn’t do. No, I be goin’ my own way, perfectin’ my facilitatin’, turnin’ negatives into positives, damn straight.”
“Hey, I hear you, really—hundred and ten percent,” I cringed and shivered at his fiery burst, reverting as it was to assault and intent, picking up on some pillbox graffiti, salt-worn doggerel about ‘Face your fears, and they’ll disappear’. “But maybe it’s time we started heading back in…”
Alcatraz Island pocked the panorama like a lesion on pink-bikinied Cheryl Tiegs—a played-out prison in paradise bay. On this hem ribbon of beautiful coastline, The Rock bared acned, salt-scored cliffs that served only to discourage anyone desperate enough to escape or bored and demented enough to invade. A handful of the former and compound millions of the latter had done just that. Ultimately, all those public enemies beat the Alcatraz rap—not least, its caged Birdman and Machine Gun Kelly—a final few inmates transferring to terror firma prisons in 1963. Then came the Native American occupation. Once they’d gutted and plundered the island, the real invasion began, turning the decrepit joint into a national amusement park—a slow death sentence with no diabolical means of escape.
“Wait, see that place out there? That’s where your head’s goin’ if you keep those skirts eatin’ atcha way you do, letting them make you hang dog around these parts—locked down, throw the key away. Like I say, better off looking around whilst you here, man, playin’ the Frisco odds.”
“Me? Sorry, figure I’ve strayed enough already—twice burned by my count. Anyway, isn’t your metaphor is a little rough?”
“Rough? Wanna know about rough,” L.T. asked, motioning out toward Alcatraz Island again. “Try you a prison monkey suit on for size…bein’ fresh meat in there awhile. Talk about forcible rape, fight youself off some Aryan Brotherhood gangbangers day in, day out without snitching to crooked guards who don’t give a goddamn nohow. Yah, code of silence or cellblock justice, rotting away in solitary, coughing up mess privileges, forget pumpin’ iron in the yard. Little by little, taking you damn manhood away…that what mufuckin’ for…”
“Unreal, couldn’t begin to…” I squirmed, easing a step or two away. “Did do a term paper on Stateville Penitentiary once, that’s all I know about it…”
“The joint either flips you out or gives you beaucoup time to figure things out,” L.T. continued, painting a picture with sweeping arms. “Wouldn’t believe what goes through a brother’s mind on the inside, like about a dude and chicks, what got me there in the first place. You feel like dying in those places, nuthin’ to do but watch the clock wear you down, ticking your hope away, and you ain’t ever gonna get that time back. So you sweat and hate, and worry about what sucker’s out for your ass next. Wanna talk about male bondage, hard time keeps eating atcha, and all you can do is mark your days off, keep your yap shut and make your plans ‘case if and when you get the hell out…”
“Jeesh, I…” Didn’t know what was true anymore. I shuddered all the more in a prolonged wind gust that set two sailboats keeling so sharply I could peg their deck cleats and fairleads.
“And don’t you go repeating that, man. Never told that to nobody, either…” Point made, L.T.’s voice tailed off in the sudden blast of ships’ horns, the shouting of some brothers down pier who had reeled in a good-sized bass, toxic polluted as it may have been.
Before long, a brilliantly prismatic spinnaker showboated by, currents and onshore winds still august enough to propel a full-sheeted sloop to upwards of twenty knots. Collapsing the colorful balloon sail, its deck crew scrambled to repack it, tease out the halyard and firm up their cuntlines. The 40-foot big boat was coming about past Alcatraz, two smaller, first reefed racing craft port tacking in its wake.
Even I was roughly able to chart that running course, and it was all those gulls out front of us could do to tread air in place without getting blown back halfway to Alameda. The horns blared from an outbound container ship whose shipping lane had clogged with several leeching and luffing cocktail captains, daring close-haul windjammers, and a looping Red and White tour boat.
That sightseeing craft now ducked behind Alcatraz, delivering a final wave of cheap thrill-seeking tourists to the island’s landing dock. Day after day, they stormed The Rock on the hour and half-hour, under the charge of park rangers who recited the same scrubbed history of the same hardened incorrigibles, and draconian methods of Big House containment therein. Yet in this light, even Alcatraz seemed compelling and redeemable. The bleached facing of its main cell block had turned priceless bullion gold, three floors of barred windows sun blazing as though Indian activists were still setting fires. Ill-bred thickets of lavender-flowered rock cress and century plants radiated in the early evening glow; even the dingy laundry building and industrial shops went platinum. The brightly colored containers aboard that Asia bound freighter shone as it slipped between The Rock and Angel Island, those pesky sailboats having renitently cleared the way. Due west, the sun set squarely between the Golden Gate towers as if the bridge had been laid out just so.
“For godsakes, don’t worry, wouldn’t spill a word,” I passed behind L.T., heading impulsively off Muni Pier, sore that he was pulling, tugging at me like Cannery taffy. Wondering what he in fact was facilitating—in his words, making happen: misogynistic counseling or scores of illicit drugs? Couldn’t be he was just keeping clean, going straight, could it? What it is…or was…
“Then why the rush, Horatio,” he shouted ahead. “Got a home to go to?”
“Well, no, not right now but…”
“Then you home-less just like us, ain’t you?”
“Dunno, just temporarily—never even heard that term before.”
“Dammm, man, slow it on down,”he caught up halfway around Muni’s bend—wrapping me, shoulder to shoulder. “Just tryin’ to help you right your ship, that’s all.”
‘Nuff said. Thereupon we paused to fix on festivities over across the lagoon, along the museum of a Hyde Street Pier. I overheard a strolling couple of fishwives mention that it was another political fundraising rally for Supervisor Dan White, to help him pay off incumbent campaign debt, fat conservative wallets and purses waltzing all over the tri-masted, square-rigged Balclutha, a braw cavetto anchoring other historic ferries and schooners. Not that the gala meant anything to us, as we weren’t exactly political that way. So with darkness setting in and little more to say, we shuffled quietly back to Aquatic Park proper—me trying to balance L.T.’s racier slants with whatever remained of my Chicago Lawn jockey racial biases, albeit without tipping my hand.
By then our caravan crew had gathered around their favorite picnic table, slopping down Sherry’s gumbo. Kathy was wrapped up in her teddy bear crocheted afghan; Clifford leafed through more Heidegger’s ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, Sherry and Eric still going at it from one end of the wooden table to the other, the latter doling Bruno on the side. L.T. took a pass on the soupy potluck in favor of something more medicinal in his panel truck, beckoning Kathy to join him there. I was not so fortunate, having flopped down to a serving of the stew under a brightening streetlight, not daring to look it over too closely. Trouble was, I saw and tasted just enough to stir up images of all those fishy entrails.
After all, who knew what Sherry had lumped into her gumbo—likely what she dug up and damn well pleased. Still, hunger and her ‘clean your bowl’ edicts got the better of me, to where I eventually crapped out on the more fractious gathering, farting and refluxing into the Volvo, heavy on the garlic and gumbo brine. This bloated indigestion made for bouts of furious tossing and turning in the Frostline bag, banging my flighty head on one front door panel, while nearly kicking through the passenger side far into the night.
I couldn’t fathom what time it might be, but all I could hear were gwarping pigeons, sceeving gulls and loud screams echoing from the bowels of that Belt Railway tunnel—as if the next express was bearing down, barreling through like the California Cannonball, colliding with a troop train to the Leavenworth slammer. Thickening fog soon horned in, right on overnight schedule, muffling one hellacious scream. Then came the tire screeches over my shoulder, and car-rocking sideswipe by some vehicle or another gunning, streaking lights-out darkly up Van Ness Drive…at least I could have sworn that’s how it went down at the time, best as I could remember—as dad would have put it, god’s honest truth…
End of Stage Three.
Care for more?
Chapter 72. Party of the third
part, a celebratory gathering unrevels
as some grousing gathers steam…