“Wax spiritual, wane
political, you’ll still be
whistling back over your shoulder.”
“Look the hell out, fuckface!”
“Hey, fuck you…”
“Move it, asshole…I’ll rip your throat out!”
“Come and get it, mutherfucker…”
Honnkk…honnnnkkkkk… And then they were gone. Horns blaring, engines revving, rubber burning in a cloud of gutter dust. Having had their little intersection interections, the two carnivor drivers backed off their disrespective throttles, withdrew their dueling horns and swords, falling into snailish traffic with adrenaline accelerating, urban manhood frayed but intact.
The pizza delivery guy in an azure Nissan Sentra with a suction cup sign on top had blown through Pixley Street’s crosswalk behind the Audi TT, nearly taking us out, looking to cut ahead of a seemingly mild-mannered clown in a white Isuzu Rodeo SUV, cutting it way too close. Now, there were deductibles to calculate, chickies to impress, but most of all male honor to uphold. So began the screaming: down cranked the side windows, open popped driver doors—that Sentra nearly wedging under the Rodeo’s high-riding front bumper.
“Whew, you all right?”
“Hmph, like to have killed us,” Reese Paulen said, brushing off his lapels, no more favorably impressed than were the put upon womenfolk. “Right there is a prescription for a serious anger management seminar, all right.”
“You know from anger, huh, doc,” I nodded as we regrouped, standing our ground on this side of Pixley, carefully scanning the atmosphere and traffic flow—hmm…anger…now the kind of ‘losing it’ I’ve gotta see here. “That’s why I don’t drive much any more. Yep, hoofing it is my way lately, not the highway…”
Such streetwise cockfights were all the rage these days. Flash: they flared up in a rush-hour minute, then were over, like so many chance encounters around here, just so long as they didn’t involve automatic weapons. Couldn’t really tell who’d blinked in this latest bout of chickenshit brinkmanship, but the dented, primered Sentra had cut hell-bent on through. Then each vehicle proceeded to screech brakes, idling impatiently in opposite directions along Fillmore Street.
Still, the taunting, the territorial pissing fits, the showboat showdown between a part-time delivery boy and telecom cold caller didn’t seem to register much with their female companions—each now re-cinching shotgun shoulder harnesses and repinning back their hair. Chalk it up to drive-by dysfunction, blacktop pavement primacy, or to clinical premature ejerkulation. And where was Eric’s ingenious ‘FingerFugger’ at a time like this, when his rear-window brainchild was needed the most?
“Nor do I. Adapt or perish, hey?” Visibly shaken, Paulen slowly followed me across Pixley’s pedestrian walk, toward the yawning front door of a low-profile espresso café with discount coffee, microwaved munchies and a silent, fixated, laptop-crunching free WIFI clientele. “And you were saying before we were so rudely interrupted…”
“But it really does make a body want to get religion, huh?”
There we paused at one of Cafe Med’s tottlish sidewalk tables, under the shade line of a wind-ripped striped canvas awning. That way, a flustered Paulen could check his extremities and catch his breath. Meanwhile I ducked in to hit the head, longing to pause and unload some, however hidebound and hard pressed to rejoin the professor. He who had eased down on a wobbley wrought-iron chair, plopped his attache on a cramped table top, apparently sharpening his points.
“Religion, yes indeed,” Paulen said, catching a remedial whiff through open cafe windows of re-heated spinach-mushroom couscous. “Just not the way Mick Jagger, Demi Moore and Winona Ryder presume to do—tiptoeing at the shallow end of the pool.”
“As in pop goes the sacriligious culture?”
“Or uncultured, as the case may be…”
Where MeccaJava was heatedly swimming against the survival tide, Cafe Med here was stolidly drowning in imminent demise. Barely hanging on in this Cimmerian single-story khan in a frothy multi-story block, Med was sub rosa bookish with Middle Eastern spice and seasoning. The cafe could have been in Berkeley or Bernal, yet here it was, out of step, nearly out of time—black flagging, prime for a dirt-level teardown on location, location, location alone.
Thus its bearded counter-baristas had logged their undue share of idle time. After pulling capps, prepping broiled chicken sandwiches and olive-sesame salads, steam washing chipped dishes—snubbing and shorting customers, they’d gather out a Pixley Street side door, smoking their sore, scornful heads off. Suspicion fanned like Med’s ceiling blades over who was bankrolling, if not money scrubbing through this Starbucking money pit, and what this bushy, sullen crew might be hatching out the there on Pixley, not least the second-story private dick who had recently hired me.
“You see, in a JS survey course I’ve audited, this honest to goodness Kaballah business is something of a study in metaphysics. We’re looking at 2,000 year-old texts, beginning with Moses receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, no less than the divine truth Word of God. By the Middle Ages, Judaic scholars cited secret scriptural knowledge, rabbinic writings from Ezekiel and Genesis. These medieval Kabbalists espoused sefirot—ten divine emanations—the theosophy of Zohar held that every word and number in the Bible has a hidden meaning. That is genuine history for you.”
“Which is where the notion of cabal comes from,” I asked, taking in the immediate street scene, particularly a pair of early retired merchant leathernecks two tables down, penciling in Cryptoquip newspaper puzzles and chomping the stubs of their stinking cigars. And yet, all this tedium didn’t quite square with, account for, my incipient shaking and rattling as we rolled on along. I could feel it down to my fingertips, deep into the side pockets of my neurological genes. Steady there… “The whole secret cult thing?”
“Heavens no,” Paulen stooped to re-tie his mocha off-road walking shoes. “Because in fact the operating Kabbalistic principle is ultimately redemption, that a person’s individual actions influence the divine order and Structure of Being.”
“So, no fluff or conspiracies then…” I noticed for once how so many of the buildings in this half-block had turned varying shades of tan and brown: Cappuccino tan, tobacco brown, bourbon and Compari brown with a definite twist. Call it the FatJack Effect. “But still radical stuff, huh…”
“Serious stuff, my friend—pure theoretical esoterica. It was an elite science then, pursued only by mature men who had already mastered the Talmud. Kabbalah also goes to explain why Jews are People of Words, studying the deeper mind, unlocking the puzzle of that which is before them. It is not some sort of mystical faddism or spiritual tummy tuck.”
“You mean, like, with Madonna?”
Better yet, this cluster of mudville hues could have been called the Gavin Compound Effect. In a previous life to his political one, the current mayor had poured Getty money into a micro empire fairly drunk with Demostablishment power. Seeding with a pricey wine shop on a choice Greenwich Street corner, he leveraged his ‘FatJack’ brand image into bars and grills up and down this block, then painted their buildings unifying, light-sapping shades of brown, raking in the big-play dough nonetheless.
“Precisely,” Paulen said, taking a faceful of cocoa-colored curtain, which was flapping out of sliding front windows. Through them, we could hear how the café was soberly Jonesing for Rickie Lee and Norah, crooning along to the tapping of keyboards by the pharma reps, BarBri preps and freelance MarCom consultants grinding away inside. “These phony showbiz types think they can meditate on a chosen letter and wear a red string bracelet to ward off the evil eye, presto…they’re long devoted Kabbalists.”
“Instant gratification—gotta have it, gotta have it all now,” I offered, while remembering Gavin Newsom stumping at this very Pixley corner, white sleeves rolled up George Moscone style, on a platform of new-generation thinking, squeaky clean government and a plan to solve the indomitable ‘homeless situation’—dismissing the irony that his kind of businesses might be sip-to-binge feeding the problem.
“Yes, if not sooner: expecting God-like symptoms, inner peace, less stress, better sex and posture,” Paulen brushed the curtain aside, then rose to his feet, clutching his attaché. “What snake oil and hogwash. And that shiksa Madonna character has to stop with the seductively donning teffilin in her music videos. It’s nothing short of blasphemy and desecration.”
“Good luck and god’s speed with that…”
“Then again, people have always been appropriating Jewish ideas and culture, from bibles to lox and bagels,” Paulen said,as nearby panatella squalls finally smoked us out. “Shall we go…”
“Really, who has?” I followed him up along Fillmore, as the café’s music track segued eclectically to the Doors through the next half-ajar sliding windows, accompanied by the mixed aroma of toasting Prosciutto & Mozzarella Melts and Espresso con Panna.
An inbound 22 MUNI bus whizzed by, on a behind-schedule tear until Filbert Street traffic stopped it cold. I tracked the trolley past FatJack’s brown Bistro across Fillmore, past that stealth residential hotel above a generations-old dry cleaner at Pixley corner, remembering the meaty steam-table Edwardian Restaurant that so saved my starving ass once or twice those days—now yet another juicy sushi and sashimi bar. But back to this side, Ray Manzarek’s honky-tonk ivories on ‘Love Street’ jarred loose memories that ran a whole lot more dormant.
“Who hasn’t,” Paulen countered, watching an Australian Shepherd hike its leg against a top-down Beemer. An overage skateboarder howling by to the tune of his own Podcast, was nearly mashed up by a burnt orange Kia wagon pulling out of its parking space as if making its getaway from a heisted B of A. The resulting trash talk brought us to the very brink of another culture altogether.
“Got me,” I said, as we reached 3138 Fillmore, a big, brown barn of a place adjoining the espresso café. “But what I do know is that they used to serve some mean hot dogs in there. We used to come here after softball games for brewskies and free bar food…I mean, when it was the Pierce Street Annex.”
“Well, I happen to remember it quite differently,” he replied, peeking in smoky dark front windows to a gas fireplace roaring in the center of the spacious room. “Long before that, it was simply The Matrix.”
The Doors’ tune lingered when we paused at this pathmark to the Marina’s rockier past. We recalled as how Marty Balin opened San Francisco’s first folk-rock nightclub here way back in 1965, with the Jefferson Airplane soon performing live before spare, stoner crowds. In time, The dingy Matrix marqueed Janis Joplin, Quicksilver, the Dead’s Jerry Garcia—even debuted Springsteen’s ‘Steel Mill’ band, before truckin’ away in the early 1970s.
Beside drawing spillover from a venue much further down Fillmore, the original Matrix catered to a bridge-and-tunnel crowd not keen on hassling with the primetime Avalon scene. Take when they meandered into Balin’s cramped, echo chamber of a club on a damp late-winter evening in ’67—W-O-M happening on through Matrix’s doors to sit-in amid its shipboard nautical trappings. There they tippled from the whiskey bar, toking deeply away, chomping grub from the soul kitchen while checking out a callow Jim Morrison and company, just up here from L.A.
This, while the Doors swung onto a tiny platform stage in the low-ceilinged venue to light fires with ‘Back Door Man’, ‘Crawling King Snake’ and ‘Twentieth Century Fox’—poised as they were to break on through to the other, legendary side—to the bitter end and beyond. Jamming and rejamming, playing for keeps, the music never over: whether that Tuesday night’s slim, benumbed gate could dig their raw, poetically mind-bending trip or not. Maybe San Francisco hipsters three sheets to the din weren’t quite ready for the Morrison Hotel’s oblique ramblings and Manzarek’s manic keyboards right then. Then again, people are strange.
Anyhow, the Pierce Street Annex took over the joynt in 1978—that’s what I remembered of it—becoming a sports and singles magnet as the 80s buttoned down, turning guacamole sour in the 90’s once dot-com techies flooded into this end of town. Gavin Newsom then rode that wave to Matrix 2.0—that is, Matrix/Fillmore, this Stanlee Gatti-designed lounge, slicker than anything Gracie could have surrealized.
Smoked glass, dark wood and sexy mauve sectionals and ottomans, huge black floor pillows mounded about the wood-pilinged hearth, a back wall plasma video screen and sleek, stainless steel-trimmed bar: This Matrix iteration piped in world jazz, fusion and techno rather than living, breathing rock ‘n’ roll. It served not beer and doobies, rather Mojitos and Sugar Magnolias on DJ party nights, Sweet Cherry Pie and Chocolate Purple Haze drinks as the evenings wore on. Still, Pearl and Garcia would scarcely recognize or take Southern Comfort in the place.
“Well, I remember going when the Annex was dealin’ one-buck pitchers,” I said, noting White Mocha Martini specials in the menu case. “And their potato salad wasn’t bad either—like, after seven innings of fogball out at Crocker Amazon and Sunset Playgrounds.”
“Yes, but was it kosher,” Paulen chided, two wet-combed, spread collar waiters and a black bow-tied, white oxford bloused barmaid slipping past us to open up the shadowy depths, likely for a Mat/Fill matinee. “They probably purloined that recipe, too.”
“It wasn’t that good,” I said, catching a more full-bodied snootful of vastly Orgasmic pizza and garlic emanating from over there on the shadier side of Fillmore Street. “Anyway, how do you figure Jewish culture has been so ripped off?”
“Why does it not surprise me that you are so curiously unawares,” he sighed, as we peeled off from Matrix/Fillmore toward the comparative bacchanalia one brown building down. “Let me recount the ways…”
“OK then, recount—but this better be good…”
“Good and plenty, my friend, just like dipping into the cultural candy jar—too blame good to resist…”
All told, I did suddenly feel a bit more bounce in my step, had him singin’ like a jay bird, right? And we were now venturing further along Love Street, penetrating deeper and deeper into the testosterzone, one Doors closing as another opened wide. BAAammm…If only there hadn’t been this abrupt, power-packed burst of backfire or buckshot dead ahead…
“I see you live on Love Street
There’s this store where the creatures meet
I wonder what they do in there…
La, la, la, la, la, la, la…
La, la, la, la, la, la, la.” *
Care for more?
Chapter Nineteen. Boom–a deeper
exchange on accomplishments and
accolades turns sharply plaintive
upon a brighter light of day…
* ‘Love Street’ lyrics, courtesy of The Doors.