“Give and take, no strings
but attachments bog things down,
may free markets ring.”
“Where you been?”
“Somewhere north of the 38th parallel, that’s all I can tell. You?”
“Sittin’ right here, takin’ care of some business.”
Scribbling, denoting and annotating away, I had wandered back over from Reyland Gallery to a dusky Union Square, then down Maiden Lane, collecting any last Prismatic thoughts and views for the day. I passed stores of English country collections of rare 17th and 18th century Oriental porcelain, painted wallpapers and lacquerware. Oriental themes carried me up Grant Avenue, curated troves of Koryo age celadon vases, Tang Dynasty bronzes, of Shan Dynasty jade, Chou Dynasty chart bells, even a life-size Ming gilt bronze of some lotus Buddhist heavy named Kwan Yin. Such an odd place to ponder the distance that had so quickly built between Syd and me, how adroitly she had jettisoned me from the Moonscape as she saw it, then still seemed to remote control my earthy descent.
Nevertheless, here each gift shop seemed ruled by stolid Asian elders in off-rack gray suits, all business, hard bargaining at the ready. Show windows were crammed with rosewood buffets and altar tables, intricate brass handwarmers, Siamese silk scrolls. Serpentine embroidered obi in stores such as the Far East Trading Company delivered me like the Marco Polo trail unto Bush Street and Chinatown’s dragon-crested, step-roofed gateway, past its sentinel stone foo dogs, fully into a world away.
Grant Avenue closed in tighter, pearl parlors and jade emporia clamored to either side of the country’s oldest Chinatown, to where I once again avoided my rumpled reflection in shop window displays for Canton and Cathay bazaars, their sun-splashed chokin platters, mother of pearl condiment sets and burnished jade eggs. I edged up and down curbsides to avoid tourist clusters window shopping Manchurian tapestries, intricate lace tablecloths and those massive purple and gold porcelain bowls. Asian visitors oogled soapstone jewelry boxes and carved mah-jongg sets as though they couldn’t find this stuff a bit closer to home. I’d have asked them, but didn’t come close to speaking the language, was just thankful I didn’t have to shoot or write about this stuff. Putting Syd’s paintings into words promised to be far tough enough.
North of California Street, Chinatown locals pressed into markets and curio/spice shops, tourists be damned. It was as if the cable car line, whirring like a hellish dental drill, and Old St. Mary’s Cathedral were a DMZ between obliging show and workaday greased elbows. I stepped aside for old Confucians with scraggly goatees, faces like age rings on the trunk of a venerated Banyan tree, nearly shinnied up one of DuPont Gai’s red and green Chinese lantern streetlights to avoid a stout young mother lugging a half-dozen orange plastic grocery sacks with a mop-headed little gang of four in tow. Which somehow got me to wondering how Mister Vanro Market had fared, curious that it mattered so much, when I still didn’t even know the man’s name, and have studiously avoided the Chestnut-Van Ness street corner ever since. Yet maybe that entire turn of events is helping me right the ol’ fathership, even proving to be a healing breeze through the family tree…
As trade and traffic intensified, main street PRC seemed to narrow schlerotically under blaring, inscrutable white-on-red signage, double-parked delivery trucks, a Cantonese alphabet wonton of fish markets, vegetable stands and low-rate savings and loans. I paused in a Far East Bakery to score several spring rolls and black bean-noodle puffs for the walk, then pressed onward through delegations of elders in Mao happy coats, dollar store black silk trousers, wisdom caps and kung-fu shoes, some women with umbrellas up, not a cloud in the sky. They were picking through bins of rice candy and odorous greens, trying out feather fans and bamboo backscratchers, busily fingering petite-point silk purses, black lacquered abacuses and hand-carved ivory from Lokapala and Hunan.
“TCB, me too, at least I think so,” I said, heavy of breath. “Just got a little disoriented out there..”
“I’ll bet, one of your spells, huh? Like how you flake out at night sometimes.”
“Dunno about that, but it did feel like I was tying one on in Taiwan for a while…”
A smoke-windowed black Mercedes had shot up Washington Street to Waverly Place, an alley by any other name, essentially two blocks of recondite alliances, associations and accountancies. The limo had apparently left an Empress of Shanghai gathering—that renowned red and gold restaurant atop the majestic China Association Building, which overlooked Portsmouth Square. Perhaps the sleek S-class was speeding to a policy meeting of the Ning Yung, Ying Fat or Oong Family, if not Hop Wo Sam Tuck: Benevolent groups dating back to Chinatown’s original Six Companies, governing powerhouses established to assist and defend, to buffer the culture shock of Gold Rush and railroad coolie labor, of cops delivering sex slaves to the brothels.
Waverly and other hilly side streets were cramped warrens of acupuncture clinics, herbalists, tour agencies, Reishi dispensaries, dark curtained sweatshops and hookah dens—a crush of Oriental architecture running into one another in impenetrable right angles. It was as though a giant Godzilla vacuum had sucked all the easements and air out of Chinatown, leaving straited, teeming blocks of appliqued eave roof styles, corrugated steel canopies and narrow, iron-railed balconies. Brightest of colors in the tightest of spaces: everywhere were radiantly tiled cornices, parapets and polished silver anchor plates, intricately carved, recessed and fenestrated window moldings. Sinocized storefront facades bore rice white, red and green coffered soffits and black-on-yellow columns framing sun faded orange awnings, entire blocks latticed with multi-colored, laundry draped upstairs fire escapes, or brilliant ironwork flagged with Year-of-the-Horse bunting.
Mandarin red cornices, gilt-trimmed dentils, scroll columned porticos—occasional globe lights illuminated gold lettering engraved into friezes, marbled door frames and pagoda rooflines —loggias lined with flower boxes, incense pots and lotus-shaped lanterns. Along side streets like Spofford and Ross Alley, Hong Kongers prowled for properties with suitcases full of cash, largely protected by armed, black-suited entourages, for things were still tense in Chinatown over last year’s Golden Dragon Restaurant massacre. There stocking-masked Joe Boys ganged up on Wah Ching and Hop Sing rivals with assault weapons, mowing down innocent tourists and Sunday diners instead. Cops said it was a tong war turf rivalry over running Golden Triangle slam for the triads. Who could or dared tell even now, for the tagger kids looked meaner than the last 20 minutes of a Bruce Lee flick, shrimp boys cupped their smokes in doorway after doorway, all gelled and leathered up.
Nevertheless by Jackson Street, I was lost in the trancelike chants piping out of meat and produce markets, the thick aroma of dim sum and pot stickers; of Mu-Shu, Subgum Suey and shark fin from packed Canton and Hunan restaurants. Yet that was where I took leave of the gai lon, lobok and bok choy bins, the drippy, hanging ducks, the stacked metal cages of live pullets and roasters. I’d had my fill of striped mullet split open snout to tailfin, slabs of shad and boiled cuttle, the black fish gills gasping and fins flapping in bloody tentacle and entrail clogged gutters before curb-squatted smokers. I instead turned down toward Columbus Avenue, to one more dynasty and a pre-arranged appointment—one predicated less on nicety than necessity…
“So, what kind of business?” I asked, having picked him out through the smoke and laconic, confessional Sinatra.
“What business is it of yours,” Eric grinned, between guzzle and drag. “A joke, get it? But you’ll find out about it soon enough.”
This particular venue wasn’t my idea; it was his idea on my idea, somewhat common ground. Donny’s Dynasty reigned on Kearny, just off Columbus between Jackson and Pacific, on the edges of Chinatown proper and the Barbary Coast, in the shadow of that soaring Transamerica Pyramid. Donny’s was a forbidding little cocktail lounge with a plaster of Paris pagoda front and beet red Mandarin tiles behind its snarling sea serpent doorway. Smaller overhead Chinese lanterns flashed the Dynasty name in green neon characters—Donny’s being one of the very few gin huts in and around a Chinatown apparently predisposed to pouring rice wine in the privacy of its benevolent clubs and pai gow parlors. That left a dive like his to marginal Asians too sheared from their community moorings to care much about appearances or associations; tourist drunks looking for a glow-on in exotic surroundings, the slithery Far East gay crowd, much less adrifters like us.
“Okay, then why here?”
“’Cause it’s good neutral ground,” Eric said, holding down a vinyl swivel stool nearest the door. “Nobody nosin’ around, no questions asked—you know, like in ‘Chinatown’.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t see Jake and Mrs. Mulray confabbing in here anytime soon…”
“Hey, you’re the one who called for a meet-up.”
Inside, Donny tended from behind a red leatherette and formica bar, pacing and puffing away, from this front end and two rear corner denizens in a blaze of chest hair and rattling gold chains. Twinkling green and red Christmas tree lights vined all around the Dynasty, along with dim little Chinese lanterns keeping that kept filagree-flocked wallpaper, dark Masonite panelling, nicotine-filmed mirror tiles and a black/gold ceiling on the morbid down low. All the better for obscuring Donny’s plumpy, erotic figure study framed over his back bar, and Chinese cherub nudie paintings scattered between plastic hanging planters and shoots of bamboo.
But singularly illuminated was a faux gold plaster Buddha enshrined center lounge. Fat bellied, floppy eared, his scale model temple was emblazoned with gold inscribed scrollwork, red sashes and tassles festooned about him, tiny lions and serpents at his feet. Silkscreened tapestries bearing cranes, junks and lilypads encased this barroom Buddha, brass incense burners and small Chinese lanterns enhanced his spiritual presence. Only closer scrutiny revealed a brassier plate on the shrine’s base: ‘Happy New Year from Tsingtao Beer’.
That had me nixing a draught altogether, as did some shadowy confab at a rear metal table, having to do with a black silk kimonoed comfort gal named Heidi and an AWOL sailor still drydocked from Fleet Week, who were dickering over the jukey melodies of Julie London and Nina Simone. Then flip-flopped Indonesian gay boys in Waikiki shirts pumped Donny’s three-for-a-quarter box full of Don Ho, Shawn Cassidy and Jerry Vale, swooning onto the linoleum dance floor with an off-Broadway bi-way bombshell who detonated twice-nightly before clammy Chi-Chi Club crowds. That was when I coaxed Eric into jumping ship from the Dynasty—no drink, no minimum, no more busybody questions asked.
“Okay, then let’s hit the Beach,” Eric belched, before mopping up his draught Yanjing wheat, cool and heavy to the tongue. “Or what’s left of it…”
“Left of what?”
“Left of everything.”
Right. From Donny’s,we needed someplace a little less neutralized, a bit more caffriendly and culturally…occidental. We upped our game along Columbus Avenue straightaway, until our tastes and differences came to the fore once more, sowing another round of mutual heed and misgivings.
Eric had mentioned the Greek Taverna as we crossed Pacific; I said no belly dancers. When I suggested the historic Albatross Saloon, with its flame mahogany, elegant stained glass and revolving punkah wallah overhead fans, Eric groused that the former Andromeda—once hangout of Jack Dempsey and Baby Face Nelson—was now way too pretentious. Where he opted for Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe’s bohemian bent, its impious, seafaring depth, I saw smoky, waterlogged claptrap and anarchic Rabelaisian rabble secreted in a dark quarter alley.
“Pretty in your face territory here, huh,” I asked off topic, all eyes on Carol Doda’s blinking silicone peaks and valley as we crossed a throbbing Broadway.
“Just watch,” Eric pointed out, instead taking in the efforts of a sidewalk silhouette artist just beyond the Condor Club’s red-draped doorway, otherwise oblivious to the floorshow inside. “Before you know it, this Broadway strip’s gonna disappear.”
“You mean the skin shows?” I myself did peek through a side entrance, trying to catch a glimpse of Doda’s endowment and the fatal piano she’d writhe up and down on thrice nightly. “The Mob wouldn’t allow it…”
“Naw, man, Chinatown’s gonna swallow it all up like pasta fried rice,” Eric eyed the inevitable line outside Little Lucchio’s across Columbus. “Soon as the old guard dagos croak, their kids will sell their properties to the heaviest suitcase.”
“I dunno, still looks mighty Italian…” I winced and rather glanced up the dogleg to Grant Avenue.
“Yah, the ciao, ciaos will turn into chao, chows—Columbus Day parades will fade into Chinese New Years dragon dances all year ’round.”
I gestured back over Columbus to Vesuvio, Henri Lenoir’s other immutable plebian boheme creation—that muraled, cluttered, leaded glass-lamped den of literati and artistes, of Kerouac and Cassady, Dreiser and Kaufman, Dylan and Dylan—ghosting its gaslit back gallery and mezzanine of brainy, brooding turpitude. But Eric said making that degenerated scene had been beaten to death. I then wanted no part of Tosca, what with Sydney and all. He in turn said spelunking City Lights Bookstore’s radical recesses and creaky bowels in search of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Bukowski and subchaser-turned-stavechaser Ferlinghetti himself would bring on howling existential angst.
Still, I wanted nowhere near a rowdy biker brawl suddenly breaking out through the swinging doors of the 120 year-old, spittooned Saloon up on Grant. Which pretty much left the operatic excesses of Caffes Puccini and Roma beyond Vallejo, but Eric claimed he couldn’t stomach straight espresso and Verdi. So we turned off Columbus, cleaved past the long Green Street wait line for calamari platters at Caffe Sport, decided against the shot and beer, swinging pool cue belligerence of Gino and Carlo. Or the slightly less pugilistic, old-school USF baseball shrine that was Dante Benedetti’s New Pisa restaurant.
Heads besotted with garlic and Graffeo,we rounded the corner on upper Grant, reckoning with that Beat Generation beacon once known as the Coffee Gallery, a 50s folksinging and poetry slammer where so many legendary beats broke through. Its seminal spacehad long been recast as the Lost and Found Saloon,neighbored byItalian deli’s and remnants of aged shoemaker and hardware stores.But the prospect of serious conversation in a dusty, decrepit bar crammed with stoplights, railroad crossing signs, a barber’s chair, dredged boat hull and full-dress ’52 Harley hog, was quickly lost on both Eric and me. So we headed across Grant, in the Telegraph Hill shadow of Coit Tower, to our last, best hope for productive chinwag.
“So, how is it you ended up tooling by Chinatown?”
“Aww, had a Chinese guy do some engine work on my Porsche, that’s all.”
“Which one?” I couldn’t make the Asian-German connection.
“The blue one…
“So that’s why you were meeting him at Donny’s?”
“Naw, with the body and fender beaner from L.A. who was drumming up business in the Marina lot, remember?” Eric re-checked a paid receipt. “Had to cover him for some touch-up he did on the heap in an abandoned Mission garage. Needed to get that baby all ready for the prom.”
“What, another show date with the Iranian gas station?”
“Nope, with another Porsche joneser, think I’ve really sold that sucker this time,” he gloated, kissing his written receipt, pocketing the fold over. “Cash gonna be my ticket out of the Triangle for good.”
Exceptionally mild as this early November was, we snagged a freed-up corner table ‘on the veranda’, settling into wire-back chairs under some palms, half brown-dead or tinfoil though they were. For the Savoy Tivoli was an in and outdoor cafloon, had been since 1907—some three generations of social deviance and unrequited rebellion. Its al fresco porch afforded an eye and beakful of storied North Beach along car clogged Grant Avenue. Bay windows spilled down toward the Transamerica Pyramid, thru a deli rush of hanging salamis and antipasti insalata, of tortas, canestrelli, cantuccini alla mandorla. Rightward, sourdough wafted our way from an Italian bakery just across Union Street.
Tivoli blended a boot-heel bohemian and Moroccan décor, lots of serpentine sculpture and rickrack, with degassed marquee signage that had evolved into a conceptual word artpiece of chianti red and pasta yellow lettering to match its entire three-story Victorian motif. We scanned its ragged, drink-stained menus under cantina lighting, dimmed by the scored mosaic shades of a black wrought-iron fixture twisting like some snared squid overhead.
A ponytailed bar waiter in water-stained white coat and black pointed ankle boots took our meager Peroni and Perrier order, which earned us the unveiled contempt of Savoy’s cappuccino/tiramisu crowd. Those fulminating veranda regulars openly mainlined dopple and four-shot espressos, insidiously infiltrating with their Gauloises and Marengo Legato fumes: All around us, they labored intensely over their brainchildren until their ears steamed over, life oeuvres and thunderstrikes of creative insight—significant postulates, substantive prose, or crosswords, cyphers and cryptographic conspiracies over Toscanello Grappas from Mario’s Cigar Store. Most copped a pose and leer like resident boulevardiers.
“Speaking of the Marina, that was some nightmare in Gashouse Cove, huh?” I finally albeit reluctantly brought it up. “I really haven’t wanted anywhere near the lot since then—see no evil, hear no…but here we are…”
“Well, you knew Gary was IDed, right? Coroner could tell from the fingerprint shortage. But F.D. Rescue found his body floating like a rubber ducky, slit ear to ear, stump stuffed in his piehole.”
“No lie,” I asked uneasily, picking at a crusty Camus paperback left on the small brown marble-top table. “So who do you figure, the pitbull guy, or…”
Behind us all, a blackboard menu wall bore the bill of fare in multicolored chalk, such as Veal Toscana and calzone turnovers, Garden Salad Nicoise, anise-flavored Buccelato pastries, Espresso Liegeoise on the side. But we were having none of it, Eric soon slugging his Peroni by the bottle—he could do that, he was buying—me wedging lime into my water. Still, the accelerated dosages of caffeine, of the Cointreau and absinthe around us had me contact high on the dead Beat days gone by. Visions of the Coffee Gallery’s searing free ‘Speak Nights’ over there, of redigging bongo players outside the Place and Bagel Shop, firing up at the Tea Room, with low-rent Italian landladies plodding down Grant for fresh pasta and millefoglia. Goateed, Panama hatted cats bopped to Rexroth’s poetry set to Pony Poindexter’s alto sax; citing Corso chapter and verse down in the Jazz Cellar. Coolio, daddy-o, retro-groovin’ on Ochs and Odetta, Doc Watson, the Weavers, Ian & Sylvia and Kweskin’s jugs—vin rose rotgut, Mary Jane in hand—gone, man, real gone…
“Naw—had to be Crabber Don, somehow got the drop on Gary, likely pistol-whipped the hell out of him with Jezebel II—you know how crazy wasted that asshole got. Probably drove the bread truck over to the cove, figuring on sinking it in the fairway to make the deed look like just another drunken accident.”
“And you think he got away with that? To Placerville or someplace? I mean, I haven’t seen him around there…”
“Where you been, man? You haven’t heard about that either?” Eric studied me, chin to puckered brow. “Park cops eventually found his ass, too—strung up in the middle of the train tunnel, by a grapnel and bowline.”
“What?! Suicide or…” I took delivery of our drinks, not actually wanting to hear any more.
“C’mon, Crabber was too brain-dead to pull that off. Ask me, it musta been General Ripcord—you know, avenging a fellow Vietnam vet. Scumbags got what they got ’cause they got what they got, that’s all there is to it.”
Yet all that beret banjo jive soon dissolved in a Gitane cloud of tonight’s cafe society. Theirs was less verbal than visual, trending more theatrical and artifice than earnestly cerebral ban-the-bomb concern; life being oh, so casual cabaret—just too hip for words. Essentially, a faceless crowd of striking faces, deadly expressive, seriously devoted to lighting and angle. They posed and postured in jewelled scarves and embroidered vests, flowing capes over Capezios over Danskins and scads of Lyle Tuttle tattoos —with tossing of heads, clawing at hair, stroking of beards as they picked at Valencia Orange Cake and Orlean Filbert Torte. Making the scene, yawning through Rolling Stone and the latest Guardian, their eyes rolled as they blew perfumed smoke rings into outer Savoy’s yellow air, jellies and dude buckskin boots propped breezily atop the low front wall, which was of course what made it all so neo-cool. Although it wasn’t until Lost and Found’s blues band came off break across the street and cranked up some godawfully loud John Lee Hooker that we decided we could no longer even think straight out here.
“Guess that’s as good an explanation as any,” I said guardedly, nursing my spring water and lime. “At least it likely wasn’t somebody like L.T. or Mrs. Coupe de Ville.”
“Tell you something about L.T.,” Eric replied, guzzling his water with no such circumspection. “I swear I overheard him and a couple of plainclothes dicks when I was kickin’ it down low, baggin’ z’s in my car. That con’s gotta be in their pocket to stay off probation, man. Feedin’ ’em dope on those park killings and shit. And that ain’t the only dope he’s dealin’ in. Yah gotta watch that dude.”
“Whoa, I thought he was just living off Kathy’s threads,” I said, over the clanging of cups and silverware, and flowing of karafes—let alone a strained fusion of music hanging in three-part disharmony about the piazza.
“That what you really think about it?” He nodded to the waiter, who scooped up a check tray containing several crumpled bills with a noticeable frown.
“What do you mean? I just wonder what the police make of it…”
“What do the cops care? Just a couple more scumbags outta their hair.”
Thereupon, we grabbed our drinks and skulked past our sharp staring waiter into Savoy Tivoli’s alter ego, a space where that old-guard beat generation could still pipe up at the barricades, and not that many current hipsters would notice. Beyond the outer bar, in through sliding glass doors, around more foil palm trees, we passed a gurgling marble fountain and spoke-wheeled pastry cart. Smudged wall portraits of Napoli and Palermo framed ST’s inner casbah, between pedestaled faience nymphettes dancing lewdly between filigree wall lamps with confectional orange bulbs. No largos, malaguenas or fjiri and andalusi nubah rocked the music track, more a mishmash of New Riders, Eagles, and Silk Degrees, with a smattering of British and New York progrock on the Seeburg throughout. Not to mention the live balalaika-sampled music and poetry performances of Marina LaPalma.
Further along, if outer Savoy had a pilsen glow about it, the inner Tivoli’s Spanish brick and tile side was Moretti malt. Beneath the nymphettes was a row of deep, sequestered booths, their doorways draped in India print and Turkish tassels. Dim, private stalls actually, framed by Moorish crown archways trimmed with gold-lacquered minaret spires. Inside each were onetime suit vested, pork-pied pipers in tar black sunglasses, and their bejewelled, saraped and discreetly tattooed lemans—who indiscreetly shuttled ivory-tipped Dinos and foul little brass pipes around cigarette-scarred tables. Their world-beaten beaus cavalierly splashed Vov or Punt e Mes against the maroon and okra paisley booth walls, off dusty Moroccan murals and Raphaelite busts, blowing smoke through overhanging peacock plumes. Coarse billows of sinister, contraband smoke rose rife with pungent hashish and homegrown Mendocino ganja, copious little hookah nests that they were.
“You come here a lot, do you,” I asked, eager to get off topic, this melanged casbah proving to be a bit too murky and conspiratorial for my tastes.
“Naw, I more hang out at the Saloon. Straight up blues, you know—live, no cover. Get down, funky as you wanna be. Why’d we come up here again?”
“Uh, well, we have gathered here today to…you remember, that little loan…”
“Oh, yeah,” he chugged down his Peroni, slamming the bottle on a table center room. “Let’s blow this place. I’m parked down at Pacific and Montgomery, near Ernie’s.”
“Anything you say, Eric, you’re the man…”
We stomped out of Savoy’s ogee arched side door to the blare of a granular ‘Dead at Giza’ cover from Lost and Found’s houseband. Yet I couldn’t help looking back at Tivoli’s brimming piazza, then the L&F barflies hooting and rocking barely a butt’s throw across the way. How lively other upper Grant cafes, shops and watering holes had become, such concentrated street-wise raucousness and revelry pouring out from bay-windowed floors up and down either side. Dumbstruck by all the smoke, sauce, dark roasteries and musical din, the shlock shops, Afghan rug and Tibetan doll and drum galleries, we stopped in at Caffe Trieste for a pull con panna and latte with the caffeine sotted, glassy eyed bards and balladeers—the center of Bohemian culture, where Coppola had penned ‘The Godfather’, for godsakes. Then we proceeded to down them at a wobbly tiled table just outside.
“So how much we talkin’?”
“I dunno, Eric, maybe fifty would do it,” I nervously stirred my caffe, going about this against my better judgment, ‘Aida’ sounding through Trieste’s storefront speakers, echoing off a St. Francis of Assisi church, there across Vallejo.
“Fifty large?” he choked on an espresso he’d ordered up despite himself. “What’n the hell…”
“Just until I get paid,” I handed him one of Prism’s business cards from my sport jacket pocket. “I’m good for it—here…”
“Park Avenue,” Eric scoffed, licking the hazel foam from his upper lip. Oh, I get it, you’re wantin’ me to bankroll your bail-out to New York.”
“No, that’s just where they’re headquartered, this is all going on here and down in L.A.,” I realized how iffy that sounded, even as I spoke. “See, it’s a big new coast-to-coast operation, ground floor, the real deal.”
“Real steal’s more like it,” he sighed, drawing a tooled wallet from his Ben Davis blacks, tucked inside it a star-shaped object, like a toy sheriff’s badge or something. “This really sucks, you know that? First my dog gives out on me, now you’re hittin’ me up for a getaway stake…what’s your story, anyway?”
“Totally temporary, believe me, to get me over the hump for film, processing, stuff like that…”
“Sheeit, here,” Eric peeled off three 20s, apparently from another deposit on his blue 912. “I’d take your Volvo as collateral if it was worth anything, probably should be tackin’ on points.”
“Thanks a heap, Eric…I mean if there was any other way, I’d…”
“So you owe me again,” he looked at me sternly, as we rose to move on. “Just stay around where I can keep tabs on you, or I’ll put out a contract…”
“C’mon, I’m parked right next to you again, aren’t I? Where’m I gonna go,” I grinned, poking on his shoulder. “Wanna head down to your car, or…”
“No, man—I’m bookin’ over that way,” he lit up a Lucky, then gestured past the La Pantera family cafe to the boisterous Saloon at Fresno Street. “Dig me some freebie Naftalin and Gravenites first—then maybe grab a sourdough burger at the U.S. Restaurant.”
“Cap it off with some good ol’ American cuisine, huh?”
“Naw, dufus, the U.S. stands for Unione Sportiva, their old hometown football club in Palermo. Catch you back at the lot…”
“You got it,” I shook his hand like a pump handle, vest pocketing the bucks. “Right back there at the Marina lot.”
There I left him, looking like he’d had enough of me for the evening, feeling I’d had enough of this money thing clouding everything up. Across Grant Avenue, I begged off the natural blues, in favor of the jazzier riffs of Cedar Walton and Kenny Elmore, Flip Nunez and Eddie Duran sitting in, around the corner at Ray’s Lounge. When a bartender closed the curtains on Ray’s front windows, I shuffled past a sliced pizza shop and Taj Mahal belly dancers’ floorshow, dodging two hot-blooded Italian bombshells in lean leather slacks.
The Condor seemed to second that, some upright honky-tonker playing a speed-up of Randy Newman’s ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ in there behind the curtains as Carol Doda unveiled another of her ample evening performances. I begged off, albeit with an eye toward her blinking knobs, turning down Broadway, bound for a Kearny bus stop, noticing the Clarion rack in front of a next door news stand and cigar store, skin deep in pawed over hardcore porn rags and asundry after-hours apparatuses and paraphernalia. The early bird edition boldly claimed that Dan White was indeed resigning from the Board of Supervisors, citing personal monetary pressures or something. Enough with that City Hall soap opera, already; I had my own shortfalls to cover.
But from there on, Broadway was a blinding, unabashed blur. How the clean-cut cardigan folkiness of the Kingston and Chad Mitchell Trios had bitter ended this way without protest was beyond my flat-top and fenders recollection. Collegial, bare brick chantries like the Purple Onion and Hungry i had sold out like the trios themselves to a hootenanny of nudie shows. The bright, bawdy lights of Broadway marqueed the revolving, great white bulbs of Big Al’s, Roaring 20’s, the Garden of Eden and now sad, Hungrier i. Coked up barkers and their bareback bimbos pushed the latest topless, bottomless, limbless and mindless stage shows in behind those passionate red curtains. Exotic, sexsational live love acts fleshed out by men-women, women-men, women-women, men-men, human-animal, vegetable and plenty of polyunsaturated minerals on stage, under stage, on pianos, under the influence, on cue, under duress—all workin’ hard for the money, well below the going rate at that, even throwing in the whips and chains.
Lusty stripper starlets and budding porn queens beckoned flat daddies, sailors and loners like me in for the touchy-feelie best of the Broadway encounters. Filmier fetishers were ushered into tacky floored theaters that ran ‘Deep Throat’ and ‘The Devil In Miss Jones’ continuously on the come. Even shadier acts were playing out in the upstairs windows of Broadway’s floppy hotels, like above a huge midblock used bookstore packed with pulpy yellowed paperbacks and Desolation roadies. Theme music blared from each club, into an inferno of disco and ballsy stadium rock from wrinkled mastodons like Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant. Further along, Enrico’s open-miked a parade of unknown stand-up comics where Mort Sahl, Shelly, Woody, Cosby and Lenny once killed. The entire scene was getting pretty tired by now, all right—at least until that eruption across Broadway.
“Gag on your Stoner Liverpudly Fabmania, cretins! Your funky Eagle-shittin’ Journey is over. Step aside, gramps, our new mutant strain of pure bulldog rock blows away your corporate crock rock right here and now, so stop shovelin’ that treacly AOR of yours and go croak on your cocaine and caviar, ’cause we’re here now!”
On the other side, beyond a horning stream of darkened tour buses and hot rodding suburban thrill seekers, they had lined up long and petulantly outside a relative newcomer to the strip. Wearing disaffection and paranoia like honor badges, deeply into counter search and destroy: Everything was black and white with this crowd, chained and bound black denim and leather jackets, misfiring Pistols drawn with Rotten and Vicious patches flaming out everywhere, even on their ripped stovepipe jeans, down to their scuffled engineer boots and stiletto shoes. Heroin dead eyes, studded lids and chains from nostril to lobe, bitchin’ black streaks and razor cuts up through bleached or neon-dyed, Lady Liberty spikey hair—Ecstasy lost, MDA modulated or ‘ludes and Percodan bored to dehydrated tears.
These raw, affectively miserable punks were a downer scenario of pre-Wave rockers who couldn’t but reject all the mellow arena glitter. It was the end of the 70s, the end of the century, and change was needed—real fast. They were withdrawn Iggy Pop underlings light on talent and direction, but heavy on energy and attitude. They’d blown past the misfiring Sex Pistols and grouped themselves into Voids, Vomits, Vktms, Punts, Strokes, Dickheads, Contractions, Living Corpses and Dead Kennedys, Stiff Little Fingers and been bouncing off the walls of this insurgent former Philippine supper club called Mabuhay Gardens, ruled by ‘Pope of Punk’ Dirk Dirksen. The fab Mab had been a slow, one-chord primitivist build until Britain’s Clashing Cars hit town and the incredible Ramones powered out loud and fast from already legendary CBGB, storming the Beachheads, rocking the Gardens. Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee pissed everybody off to OMFUG greatness, in a black and blue Bleecker Bowery way, and the Fab Mab had been packed and punch drunk ever since, Gothniks dancing like dervishes to revo-Devo noise and a stripped-down neo-beat.
I could easily hear the screeching of Boogie amps and breakaway bladerunner guitars from over here, feeling old and out of it enough to be cranking up the hearing aids. Their sheer numbers were seriously to speed, black tar and opiated coke—shooting up in Main Street in North Beach’s cozy little alleys and short-blocks—then zombifying around four-per-night trash bands until their brains fizzed out of multi-ringed and zircon posted ears. Still, I would have joined them in a New York minute if I’d had the requisite energy, alienation and outrage, because their ‘Psycho Therapy’ and ‘Hateful’/’Death Or Glory’ sounded so kick-ass fresh and alive. And they were the future—however dystopian that vision might have seemed. KALX to KUSF, the times, they were a-changin’ all over again.
So instead, I crossed Broadway like I should have been wheeling a walker, catching the gourmet pasta aromas from Vanessi’s; otherwise avoiding an orange Moonie girl peddling red roses and purple dogma on the opposite corner. Here was the very same block the Kingston Trio climbed on that album cover from way long ago, but it didn’t look as New Frontierland Panglossian this turn of the table.
Reality check, back to basics: Feeling all flushed and florid, I scrambled over to catch the 83 local, pounding on the bus’s window glass as it was closing doors and pulling away toward Van Ness and at that. Safely aboard via a long expired transfer, I tightly clutched my little wad and peered up and down Columbus Avenue while we crossed, Transamerica Pyramid to the North Beach nightlights, noting I was the only hoser on the motorcoach at the time.
Approaching Hyde Street and a rambunctious cable carload of sing-along tourists bound for Buena Vista Irish Coffees and Fisherman’s Wharf, I glanced up to Jackson, and that laundromat phone call outside Han Loon’s. Make a decision? Take a turn for the better? Where was that gettin’ you now, flash..and what were you about to do about it from here…
Care for more?
Chapter 89. A hotel hoedown
leaves a sinking sensation
where it hurts the most…