Chapter 91

“No towering I.Q. rival
yet one smart and clever fox
trapping you in a box.”

“Because you have to, that’s why.”

“I mean, great and all, but what’s the point, what difference does it make?”

“Trust me, it just does.”

“Trust you? How’s that go?”

“Don’t ask so many questions, just do it, would you please?” CLICK.

Was turning into a telephonic kind of day. I had every intention of revisiting UCSF’s Millbury Union bulletin board, but stopped off in Cole Valley beforehand for a little work and synaptic firewater. I’d already covered several last-minute Prism: California gift and antique shops out Sacramento Street, and wanted to commit my notes to readable copy while still fresh, planning to take a full roll of Tri-X downtown for processing come morning next. So Tassajara Bakery it was, a corner window seat in this antiseptic Zen co-op devoutly serving weak coffee and herbal teas, bland organic pastry with benign muslin smiles. Between deciphering raw scribbles and picking over a stoneground-raisin scone, I’d steal glances up Parnassus to the UC Med Center campus, poised to run for each outbound 43 Masonic bus that rounded the Cole Street corner, homing in on that Millbury housing resource.

But a wiz pause soon led me to the blessedly peaceful bakery’s bi-gen restroom, past a neighborhood bulletin board with this unusual new offer on a Pfizer prescription slip. Seemed this oncology patient in Fairbanks had reserved a room in a guest house up there on Hill Point, but wouldn’t be down to begin radiation treatment until after Thanksgiving weekend. The fellow needed a trustworthy ‘placeholder’ to stay there gratis and make certain the unit wasn’t taken out from under him in the meantime. Not only did the pipeline worker accept my collect phone call, he took to the sound of my Midwestern voice, telling me he’d leave Cliffside’s keys in my name for his ‘sitter’ of choice at Millbury’s office.

“Smarten up, m’boy, it’s the price your pay for living in paradise. Now, I implore you that we pull together on this.”

“Paradise? It’s getting more like Hades around here lately…”

“Nothing I could hear about San Francisco would surprise me, but I wasn’t able to get back up there. So just send the rest of that copy and photos, we’ve got deadlines here, do you read me?”

“And if I do, what guarantee…” I was thinking the same about L.A., whether part of Anderle’s mission down there was trolling the Valley to stock up on inventory for his Priapismic division.

“You’ll get your money, soon as we get your package, overnight mail.”

Eric had then proceeded to help me stash some of my Volvo hoardings in the third floor rear guest room. Settling in over the weekend, I blurred between there and Tassajara, yellow padding store and gallery copy until my eyes imploded and fingers cramped over final drafts. Break time: one of the first things I did midweek next was return some calls Valerie had noted on Prism’s voicemail from a pay phone at hallway’s end. Beginning with Syd Mendel—followed up by another collect job, this urgent one to Nolan Anderle, who had returned to New York after signing half of West L.A., from La Cienega to Rodeo Drive and Brentwood, then hooking another hungry hack like me.

“I dunno, the more I think about this, the more I’m thinking it should be the other way around,” I said, hearing Valerie’s balloons popping in my head, but no more bumbling, no more taking the rap.

“Come now, m’boy, you know the choice is scarcely yours,” Anderle scoffed.“Need I remind you we already are in possession of the bulk of your drafts, even if Jason was so thick as to surrender your camera gear?”

“Of that, I’m aware.” I’d wanted coast to coast, and got coast to coast—just had no idea it would make me this edgy. It did appear I had beaten Valerie to Prism’s kill switch, but Anderle was another matter, needingly so. Thus here I was, alone beside this public phone stand, shuffling idly through some dead letters and generally unforwarded mail as doors opened and closed up and down the hall. Flip, flip, collection notices, parking tickets, jury summons, Scientology solicitations…and a days-old Clarion.

“Then you just send me the rest of those write-ups and store photographs, or you’ll pay dearly, and not just for that broken vase! What do you think that temp agency of yours would make of this?!”

“I hate to do this, Mr. Anderle,” I squirmed, spreading the paper and another mess of stale mail over my proof sheets and negs. “But I’m afraid I must ask you to wire what you owe me first, then I can express mail the shots and everything in a flash. Believe me, these expenses have tapped me out…why do you think I’m calling you collect?”

“Gad, this is no way to conduct business. Not when I’ve already substantially staked you. So I demand you send that material now if you want to see your—what is it?”

“Eight seventy-five fifty…” Conducting business? I recalled how he had stiffed Able Agency in the first place, wondering if this cagey New Yorker could somehow snatch drafts and photos through the long-distance phone lines during the course of this transcontinental tug-of-wills. Let’s see, leather underwear catalogs, thrice-forwarded hospital bills, Publishers’ Clearing House—positions hardening, my stomach knotting up like Midtown traffic. But it wasn’t just the money, it was the money. “That includes film expenses and stuff…”

“$875.50? Positively inflationary, m’boy! I’ll tell you what, precisely what. You’ll not see another red cent doing it this way. Production has been scheduled, contracts have been signed…contracts, do you understand me?”

“Begging your pardon, Mr. Anderle, but I haven’t signed a thing. And the way I see it, Valerie has gotten more than your advance’s worth out of me already.” Did I really just say that?! Front page, center on last Saturday’s Clarion was Supervisor Dan White claiming family and financial pressures forced him to tender his Board resignation to the Mayor’s office, and concentrate on his Hot Potato stand and other, more remunerative pursuits. The straits looked painfully familiar to me

“Oral contracts, m’boy—every bit as binding in a court of law. So shape up, or I’ll litigate and garnish you from here to…why, I’ll enslave you, boy!”

“You don’t even know where to find me,” I replied, sorting down to the occupant coupon packets and voter registration forms, glancing behind me to spot who exactly was popping in and out of those hallway doors. “Hell, I don’t know either, for that matter…”

“Listen to reason, son. I don’t want to be forced to,” Nolan pleaded, his vexation sizzling across four time zones. “Think about it—I mean, I’ve got your money and…”

“Aww, keep it, sir,” I sighed, skimming a Clarion ‘Weekender’ background article that spelled out how a newly independent, English-Speaking Guyana, seeking post-colonial development and a unique brand of socialism, had all but given 25,000 acres of god-forsaken jungle land to Peoples Temple on a long-term lease. The Georgetown government had blessed their grand agricultural experiment in late 1974, and the mixed-race Jones gang had slaved and scythed and cutlassed a growing utopian compound out of thick brush and clinging vines ever since, fighting off carnivorous insects and deadly bushmaster snakes under a punishing equatorial sun.

“What? Hah, you can’t mean that…”

“I said keep it,” I said sinkingly, leafing through to the article’s jump page, where it claimed that Jim Jones’ itinerant prayers and fake chicken-guts faith healing had turned into maniacal bad faith beatings, rants and forced servitude—manual, possibly sexual—with no means nor avenue of escape. “Who needs this crap?”

“Oh, come on, m’boy, people are waiting back here, presses are gearing up, we must be professional about this! I even have another plum assignment for you there—that is, if you’ll just still send the…oh, hell, let us take a different tack. Just finish up what write-ups remain, I mean ASAP, then call me again. We’ll pick this up from there…” CLICK.

Terrific, now what? Did I really just do that?! Encumbrances, oral contracts, litigation—eight fifty, eight seventy-fever five fifty! Aw, shit, probably’d never see the bucks either way, soon as he spits out Jason, especially after he hears the whole hotellish story from Valerie Prentiss-Brown.

“Have your finished with the phone there,” asked an approaching middle-aged Cliffside lodger, white hospital bathrobe and gray sock slippers.Wiry hair, wire-rimmed, prominent forehead, lots of wrinkled browed concentration, this guesthouse seemed full of them.

“All yours,” I gave him the handset, wishing better luck to the wane Zappaholic figure who had been flapping at least one of those doors.

Some Cliffside guests were research biochemists on loan from Mass General and Johns-Hopkins, post-grad math whizzes from Kaohsiung or Karachi. Odd fellows, all, and they’d presumably gathered here because it was so proximate to UC Med Center, but mostly because it was by the week and dirt cheaper by affiliation than inner Sunset motels per any diem. Cliffside guesthouse teetered on a stepped precipice several landings down form the UC complex itself. The shingle shedding two-story bungalow was but one of a half dozen such hospitality houses encircling a cramped little cul-de-sac in the usually damp shadow of sprawling teaching hospital wings and that orange Sutro Tower transmitter atop Twin Peaks. Though the hospitality was suspect, there was no question about the dirt. Still, I found a certain natal comfort in nuzzling up to both a university environment and healthcare facility for infinitely less than a crusty cubicle at the Tenderloin Y. 

But time to hunker back down. So much for Nolan and all that static for now, let him eat Jason for breakfast, my treat. Breakfast? Lunch and dinner! But what, where—think mercy, Hippocratic missions—if it’s Wednesday, this must be seminar day. Salute to health, healing and learning, the most modern clinical advances, the foremost medical minds, right up on the hill there, Parnassus on high. Grecian mount, sacred promontory to Apollo and the Muses; le Parnasse Contemporain: pinnacle of bodily knowledge and restorative aspiration. Free association, free indomitable spirit—had to be some free food up there somewhere, drink of the nectars, heal thyself with wholesome nutrient rich canapes and succulent vegetables on all those catered trays.

Business concluded, conflicts momentarily resolved: a body could summon one powerful appetite, what with all that bicoastal negotiation. I returned to rear room #8 for my notepad and camera bag, locking up, ready to soft pedal downstairs to address the most pressing of my hungers, the nearest and least tasteful way I knew how. That was when Cliffside’s idled payphone rang like hell on wheels. Why I chose to answer it, I’ll never know.

“Good thing I took down that number the other day. Whatchu doin’?”

“Nothing much, just going through some old papers…”

“Today’s? Maybe you should, but that’s not why I called.”

“Reason being…”

“Got a bit of a situation goin’, and could use your help on it.”

“Uh, I dunno, I’m kinda in the middle of…”

“So’m I, man, and you owe me!”

“I know, I know, it’s just that I’m getting squeezed on the other end and…”

“Hey, shit happens, right? But not like what’s goin’ down with me.”

“I can appreciate that, believe me. I only wish I could cover you right this second. It just hasn’t been a very good week so far, must be the cusp coming, and everything…”

“Cuppa what?”

To say the least. Cusp, crock: one precipitous phenomenon obtained around here—day in, day out, in came the gray. This drought year of toilet bricks, tinder brush and matchstick madmen hinted at being so much water under the bridge any time now by the look of the Sunset skies. Not exactly flood gates or dam breaks, however, more like the cooler beading on a bottle of Bud. And equally chilling, particularly after hours. Under normal conditions, day upon brilliant autumn day, the air would turn cider heavy, western skies clogged with soggy low pressure and cumulonimbus cold fronts, storming in for months on end. 

But these days, any semblance of a rainy season would be sneaking in piecemeal, if at all. Even this close to the coastline, the most that might be hoped for to green up the prevailing brown hills was an early and late vaporous mist that airbrushed cheeks and dappled lenses, but never quite touched the ground. This virgae effect took on an almost mystical presence out here, dampness metered and suspended, bringing hopeful density and dimension to a sky so long laden with strident, sun-baked aridity. Yet before long, these atmospherics either dissipated or blew inland with the campaign flyers and pizza wrappers, as 40 m.p.h. gusts carried them with any last, anxious gasps of a summer without end. Pine cones chattered, eucalyptus creaked and swayed as a distracted city collected itself in the face of this misfiring seasonal swing. If only stubborn midday sunshine could have relieved the wraparound gloom.

“Cusp, just something I recently heard.”

“Well listen to this,” Eric said, his urgency crackling through the phone lines like a Pentecostal telethon through wet speaker wire. “I ain’t got no time for any jive, man. And if I’m outta time, you’re outta time.”

“Whoa, whoa—slow down a sec, will you,” I replied defensively. “Suddenly I’m drawing fire from every direction.”

“You wanna talk about all directions? Let me tell you all about directions—take them down to North Beach in the morning, to Columbus Tower, you know, Coppola’s place? I’ll meet you there at Wim’s around ten…”

sr dingbats

“So why here?”

“Perfecto homefries. Besides, I had an earlier thing at the International Hotel down there. Had to see a man about a dog…”

“Not…”

“No, man, different man, whole different dog—a blue one.”

In any event, there was no arguing in which direction Hillpoint weather was headed come morning. That fine, magical mist had somewhat aquified to what pop smearers of Caen and Rosenbaum’s ilk drolly passed off as frizzle, then thickened even further to a penetrating spritz.

Still, those cheeky, well-weathered euphemisms were no match for nimbus an early hours drizzle outside Cliffside’s windows, with stratum upon stratum of battleship gray shuffling in from the southwest like navy blankets over the barren bleached stucco outer Sunset.

Once the layers of overcast had socked in tight as bundled bank notes, had become so sodden and compressed downward they strafed Golden Gate Park treetops, the cloud cover commenced cold sweating from Ocean Beach eastward past the Oakland hills. That was when I had scraped razor and brush in Cliffside’s common top floor bathroom, wherein I overhead a news radio report from the City Hall beat that Mayor Moscone had accepted Dan White’s resignation letter, and it was passed on to the Board of Supervisors, where it was officially time stamped in for agenda action. Yeah, so good for him, or them. Tuning out a ‘Hi Kids!’ spot for the Diamond Center while downing an overripe banana, I had ever so reluctantly given up the Volvo’s choice cul-de-sac parking spot and circled the Kearny-Columbus trapezoid endlessly for a space within sprinting distance of the flat angular Sentinel Building, and its ground floor hashery.

“Okay, so what’s up,” I sat in next to him at the horseshoe counter, red leatherette stool spinning and wobbling like a Duncan top toy, settling for a basic cup of coffee.

“The sharks, man,” Eric munched a strip of bacon. “They’re closin’ in for the kill.”

“What’re you talking about,” I stirred in some creamer and sweetener. “What sharks? You’re beginning to sound like Crabber Don, for crissake.”

“That’s where the dog comes in,” he washed down the bacon with black, no sugar. “Anyhow, d’ya check out the paper like I told you?”

“Yesterday’s? Haven’t had the chance…”

“Pigs stopped Clifford in his Corvair up by the Oregon border for a busted tail light or somethin’. Then they detained him on an outstanding parking ticket warrant from down here. Clarion says the S.F. fuzz have headed to Crescent City to question him as a person of interest in this park killings deal. Ain’t that weird?”

“Yeah…weird, all right,” I said hesitantly, trying to wrap my drowsy head around an unlikely mind bender like that. “Sooo…what about Sherry, was she…”

“Naw, funny thing,” Eric jammed his cinnamon toast by the spoonful. “L.T. cruised through the lot again, and when I mentioned the story he said he knew all about it. Then he told me he’d heard she’d split with Clifford around Jenner somewhere, because he stopped taking his meds. And that she has a second cousin who lives in Sea Ranch, so she’s camped her van in his driveway. Turns out she’s no fool, that chick, just needs to shed some more ballast.”

“Yeah, weird…in a funny way,” I groped to change the subject, wringing my coffee cup in the process. “You were saying about the dog coming in…”

More significantly, that was where Francis Ford came in. Columbus Tower, the Sentinel or Flatiron Building: by whatever name, this landmark Beaux-Arts structure in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid was a cornerstone of the Barbary-Beach divide. Shaped like a flat clothes iron to fit in a triangular lot, its Victorian steel-framing survived the 1906 earthquake and was soon clad in reinforced concrete, white tile and copious copper window bays and boxes, which were eventually, rightfully patinated in pastel green All of eight stories, the Sentinel had a penthouse tucked beneath a copper dome now gleaming under clearer skies. That private floor was once the roost of California’s puissant political boss, Abe Ruef, at least until the real estate/ kingmaker abdicated to San Quentin Prison on a graft and bribery charge. 

Those roving just-plain folkies known as the Kingston Trio bought a renamed Columbus Tower for their world corporate headquarters in 1960, converting its vast basement, formerly home to the original Hungry I, into a sound studio where they recorded many of their gold records. That was between pocket change hootenanny cameos at Enrico’s, the Purple Onion and college campuses everywhere else. Official city landmark status prompted a name change back to the Sentinal Building, Francis picking the place up in the early 70’s with Godfather money, and his American Zoetrope HQ was pretty much known as Coppola’s Cupola from there.

Right on schedule, the bearded bear director of Apocalyptic fame had descended from his copper tower with a team of Zoetroopers to break from the creative action seven stories up, down here in the massively round rear corner booth that was his exclusive, roped-lined domain. Nobody looked, no one said a word as the don and his disciples entered the coffee shop from a tiny private elevator. What had once been an easy speaking grill where Caesar’s Salads were reputedly born was now Wim’s, a triangular Zim’s knockoff in name only, serving blue-collar lunches and homefry breakfasts that just wouldn’t quit. Maybe they were working on yet another Godfather sequel, joeing up to review some rushes in the basement studio cum screening room, in which Martin Sheen had once laid down voiceovers for Coppola’s explosive rice-paddy epic. Eyes down—mind your meals, people, ketchup your fried spuds, soak up those yokes—nothing to see, nothing happening here…

“It’s a long story, I’ll fill you in later,” Eric said dismissively, doing just that. “Like on the ride.”

“Ride? No, I’ve got my car over on Montgomery Street…” I scanned around Wim’s counter and small front booths to see if any of the hungover bartenders and scriptwriter cabbies were as furtively agog as myself.

“I’m talking about our trip down coast…”

“What? I’m not going anywhere these days…”

“Oh, yah you are,” Eric replied, picking up the check, my coffee included. “I’ve got some stuff to deal with and move around in my storage garage, gonna need your help.”

“Where’s that?” I spoke over the next two stools over, a news camera crew between shoots and shooings, joking how Jim Jones’ cadre were now petitioning to disinvite Congressman Leo Ryan’s delegation from visiting their Guyana compound, and who’d want to go to that rathole anyway?

“Pacifica, down Route 1, this side of Devil’s Slide…”

“Dunno, Eric, I’m on the hook to finish some writing work for this New York outfit, that’s how I figure to pay you back.”

“So do that over the weekend, we’ll head down first thing next…”

“Pacifica,” I sighed, sucking up some sludgy Sweet ‘n’ Low. “What the hell’s down there…”

“Exactly.”

Sounded like yet another minefield I couldn’t defuse.

Care for more?

Chapter 92. Further news of the
jungle massacre and an auto-adverse
response brings surf and dander up…