Chapter Five

 “Saturn can transit ambition,
a slow climb to power, yet quick,
subsequent fall—take Napoleon and Hitler.
Though most never attempt to rule the world.”
                                                    Dame Thornia

             “Who asked her, and where’s that coming from anyway?”

             “You mean the Kerry Swiftboat crack?”

             “I mean the Ashky crack…”

            “Ashky? Not exactly familiar with the term—but seems people are always spoutin’ off about something around this place,” I replied with a wary eye, though no less flummoxed by the cyclist’s name calling. “It’s just political hot air, doc. All politics is loco, far as I can see.”

             But feign dispassion, that was the ticket, register as an independent—totally  noncommittal, back to playing it both ends toward the middle. Yet the Obama ’08 petition stand had otherwise set me to reflecting on how his insurgent presidential campaign had trained a bright, Wright light on the South side of Chicago. And how, in the late 1970s, a city park little more than one mile west of all that could have been such a cold, cruel world away.

             Nevertheless, course correction,  back to the present: Part soap box, part newspaper chase, part overage sandbox, Big Beenz Coffee and Tea typically brimmed with such hypermentalation, free-form association damned near operatic in audible tenor and range. Here was a daily corner kaffee klatsch of regular crack caffeine junkies like me long hooked on Beenz’ infamous dark-roasted rocket fuel, along with bookish health services grinds from the nearby dental school. Beenz blends could be as exotic as Sierra Dorada or Arabian Mocca Sanani, seductive new samplings ever in the pipeline.

Further JazzStreet fair scene.

             Today, I peered though steamed glass panes at narrow, cramped window counters of Chronicle and  New York Times browsers living cup to cup, buzz to buzz, a post-grad biochem A.D.Debating the likes of stem cells to string theory with a research chemist from the hospital complex just uphill.  Everything was an off-point postulation, every up or down tick extrapolated into an ensuing trend—other college sweatshirted didacts between lab sessions gathered around, making it all political, in a neocom versus neocon-job sort of way, clutching their triple Kona latte cups with self-righteous authority.

          Children of the ideo-intellect planned their next demonstration, boycott, and plug-in protest over ballot propositions, grassroots insurgencies, occupation mobilizations or municipal garbage and sanitation strikes. Urban bioplasy blowhards spilled full side and rear denim airbags out over their counter stools, so many squirrely, somewhat girly men with their own poultry pink skin: Or so it must have seemed to the canny, manly work-out starlets just in from the gym, sipping their Au Lait Swirls and Caffé con Pannas, picking at  fat-free oatmeal muffins and cherry peach scones while fawning over the SF firemen muscling in on shift break. Beside them, unemployed young techno Turks noodled over their online portfolios. Next table, Lapsang Souchong teetotalers poured over their new poetry volumes from that bookstore next door—all of this set to a surround sound Verdi/Sevillian score.

            “Ashkenazi, Herbert—the hiding Jewish crack,” Paulen said, having stopped cold. “But even if the EuroJewry part is true, what’s that got to do with anything? Kerry’s nothing to hide, nothing at all.”

            “Exactly,” I nodded to his lead. “Although I do believe I heard somewhere that his brother is some kind of rabbi.”

            “Hearsay at best. In any case, I didn’t expect to hear that sort of bigoted crack, particularly not here.”

            “Who would?  I mean, I don’t know where that came from.” I found myself really not wanting to go there anyway. “It’s probably just the caffeine talking. Hell, I don’t even know if she’s from here, or if I’ve ever really seen her before.”

             “Yes, well, I liked this store better when it was a Japanese burger stand. And why am I gaining the impression that my beloved hometown has been overtaken by newbies for whom San Francisco’s storied history holds no sway?”

            Outside, shaded metal tables stretched around the corner, retired teachers and grizzled city pensioners nursed their small French Roasts and caramel-whipped Blasts: mostly elbow-grabbing neighborhood motor-mouths, obsessive-compulsive newspaper clippers and hoarders comparing radiation and chemotherapies.  Wrangling for good seats and movie sections was a contingent of out-to-pasture veterans of Fire Island and Provincetown—part-time docents and dog walkers, with long, wistful eyes and sighs, reading Times remains as some red badge of relevance.

            Among them were hot-talk radio earbudders tuned faithfully into another show of ignorance with attitude. The rest of Big Beenz’s outliers were a leftover bunch of lefty nobodies like me trying to be somebodies again—brain-fried time spongers who didn’t know anything, but were content to just know of people who knew things, and never stopped letting anyone within earshot know about it, over the growling snarls of squabbling parking meter leashed dogs.  From amid all the jostling and jabbering, this shower of babble, sprouted the Kerry jibe in question.

            “Besides, I can hear such imputations anywhere these days,” Paulen continued, “even in Boulder.”

            “Imputations, Boulder?” I closed in for clarification, lamely leading him away.  More irritating than my back itch was the rash I’d developed lately, courtesy of low-hanging jeans, product of some stress-related and budgetary weight loss not entirely confined to my billfold.  More recently, this rash had abscessed into a chafing sore, aggravated by my bothersome habit of yanking these saggy straight-leg 501 Levi’s back up over my hip bone.

            Across Sacramento Street, Fillmore’s jazz party scene began to change for the noticeably better bred.  First inkling was a marquee on the venerable corner liquor store.  Specials of the day included a deep, rich-nose Pichon Lalande, a non micro-oxygenated Cheval Blanc and ’97 Verget Meursault les Charmes.  There were no screwgies here, no bulk Pinot Grigio by the box.  After all, this was not your typical San Francisco ubergay freak street fair: No Hashbury smoke-out, no Castro dragathon, no North Beach neo-Bohemia nor Polk Street man-boy parades—no more batik dashikis and Etouffee gumbo stands.

            For we were no longer on the down lower Fillmore. Beyond a cross-laced thicket of overhead trolley wires and rent-a-copped barricades, this next silken leg of JazzStreet was on the upswing. Here was a trendoid, trust fundster, très gourmandian San Francisco.  Alas, StreetJazz food here wasn’t as smoky or spicy, the scene not so freely radical, the music nowhere near as good and real.

             “You know, crackpot theories about plotting world domination, that sort of anti-Semitic rot,” Paulen continued, as we inhaled the sticky sweet of aroma of ice-blended pomegranate-blueberry coolers and lavender mint tea from the corner Santa Monica-style coffee shop doing battle with hi-caf Beenz there back across Sacramento. “See what I’m saying?”

             “Me? God no…how would I know?” Christ, don’t be dragging me back into that mortar field.  On the other hand, I was on the hook to see this assignment through no matter what. Besides, there was no way I wasn’t proving I could still hang with him after all these years debate-wise—whatever, wherever the conversation might lead. But whoa, that third-rail term again… “Anyway, if you mean anti-Semitism, I believe I’ve read where it’s actually on the wane in this country.  I mean, in most circles, it’s over, way past history—long gone, no problemo, far as I hear around here…”

             We slipped past a small crowd gathering around the cramped little Sacramento Street bandstand, upon which Melodync, a mild-mannered, methodical MJQ knockoff in black slacks and turtlenecks dutifully distillated the basic Brubeck catalog.  This group soon took five and more before a small picket-fenced wine garden straddling Fillmore’s center yellow line, wherein the liquor store poured decanters of Sonoma Merlots and Fume Blancs. Paulen did have one point, though; even on this sunny day, basic black remained a sobering fashion rebellion against the brightness and light.  Leather to eel skin to denim and fleece, the mini garden was awash in Dolce & Gabbana and Kenneth Cole.

             Youngish—blond to Banderas swarthy—post-grad/pre-nuptial, skosh left of center sophisticates sipped Rutherford pinot noirs, dipping fresh chabatta and pain rustique strips into petri dish samples of Rafteli and tre Colli from the neighboring Italo-American olive oil emporium as Melodync re-staged and ran through some scales.

            “Are you mad, Herbert? ” Paulen asked, going donnish on me after the fact. “Have data to support that postulation, do you?” 

            “Uh, no just grokking the whole zeitgeist thing…” Really, let’s get off this, shall we…

            “Look, I don’t know where you get your information, but you honestly don’t believe that, do you? For that’s not how I see that sort of bigotry at all,” he sighed. “Anyhow, intriguing how those tent tops remind me of Denver International Airport.”

             “Yeah, DIA’s way better than ol’ Stapleton Airport during a snow storm…I mean as a means of quick escape,” I leapt for the opening; then came visions of spinning out along the Denver-Boulder Turnpike… whoa, be still my head…there, better… Hmm, come to think of it, JazzStreet’s fair booths, lined smack up the middle of Fillmore, did somewhat resemble the flagship terminals at Denver International, at least from the news photos I had seen.  Like inverted sno-cones with alternating red and white flying pennants, the tent tops pitched one after the other, chock-a-block all the way up to Jackson Street.

            Whilst south of Sacramento the display roofs were a hodgepodge of exotic colors, from here up, they were almost uniformly icing white. Each booth housed its own unique brand of artisanry, a main drag of quirky, craftsy clutter, tended mostly by blissful counter-culture mavens from Santa Cruz to the Sierra foothills to Humboldt and points north. Stained glass, cut glass, tulip-leaded glass, and flower planter pottery—many on pegboards, adding up to arts and crafts no end.

            “Escape? In a metaphorical sense, I suppose.”  Paulen winced, abruptly offering to spring for nosh from a bagel chain shop, something for the walk ahead.  I confessed a certain queasiness from all the cuisinal and olfactory crosscurrents, studiously avoiding any semblance of a man date.  As he grabbed a quick spinach-Swiss and cream cheese, I tossed back some samples from the juice bar next door.  A little Citrus Blast smoothie chased with wheat grass, and things seemed to pick up considerably from there.

            “Cinammon-raison,” Paulen asked, remerging from Abe’s, pulling another fat, doughy bagel from a small recyclable brown bag.

            “Uh, no thanks—maybe later,” I said, as we lateraled through the crowd stream toward Fillmore’s center display stands.

            “Suit yourself,” he bit into his neatly quartered BCC.  “Yes, there’s nothing like a good shmear.”

            “I’m trying to lean more toward electrolytes and antioxidants myself.” Yeah, hypothetically…

             “Well, I daresay this is much better than the moldy cheese and tea shop that used to be in there.” Paulen motioned back into the blue and maroon Victorian storefront, then across Fillmore toward the sliver of a Mediterranean café, next to the Olive Oil Company, now serving prix-fixe sidewalk platters of Meza, Fillos and Levant. “Let alone the ol’ Big Belly Deli that was over there.”

             So went the upward flow, doc munching his transfats as we compared notes over the Fillmore Street that once was, plus all that we marveled at, and maneuvered through, in real time.  The sno-cone tent booths displayed an array of matte framed photography: upstate stuff mostly, foggy bridges, north coast abalone beds, El Capitan at sunrise.  Cleaving between a stand of Photoshopped cable cars, martini glass mirrors and several racks of vibrant silk sarapes and sarongs, Paulen noted how relatively little this east side of Fillmore had actually changed.

          Sure, there was the obligatory Starbucks, but at least that plebeian Baskin-Robbins had melted away.  Otherwise, colorfully trimmed second and third story bay window cases, their enviro-foundations and psychotherapy offices basically remained the same—loft-office shrinks still stroking their pet patients on storefront benches—as did the trickle-down thrift shops and mild, unassuming Latin grills catering to the hospital trade.

            Lining the sidewalks, browsing scented soap and decoupage stands, was a primarily older-monied, younger-trending demographic, save for the prostate-plagued, menopausal scavengers with their ragged Saks and Gumps bags, queuing for position outside Junior League and Catholic school resale shops posting 50%-off sales. Melodync’s measured diminuendos tastfully rubato sound-tracked a digital scene now seemingly more attuned to Cold Play and Black-Eyed Peas.

           While I checked out center street displays of Mayan jewelry and pressed-glass butterfly art, Paulen picked at his nosh and appeared to be a bit more mindful of the women on the fringes just waiting to be discovered across Fillmore: Insolence was the attitude, casual, studied beauty the standard to bare—along with tummy skirt midriffs and backsmalls, whereupon narrow, monarch-winged tattoos drew double takes in their wake. These were trim-cut California girls from everywhere, in low-riding yoga pants, fine-mesh camisoles—with combed back pony tails—sipping their hot, half-caf Mistos, caressing their sweet-talking cels, playing dodge eye with sly passersby.

           Still I couldn’t help noticing how intently Paulen seemed to follow their white flared pants clear down to their feet, the clip-clop of their beaded flip-flops, wiggling toenails ablaze, so calculated as to steer just the right misters their way.  Such pedicures could have come from any number of late-model salons along this stretch of Fillmore. Makeover Row comprised a hipacious zone of workouts and wellness, from full-sweat aerobics wear to day spas for full-body renewal and restoration, interspersed with the fashion nooks designed to accessorize it all. Anyway, doc continued taking aim—duly noted, although I wasn’t about to call him out on that quite this soon.

          We soon meandered through fair booths chock with stained-glass sunburst panels and framed mezzotint whales, between a stand of macramé hangings, laminated blossom acetates and a burly klatsch of microbrew testers encircling a gnarly acacia tree. Pausing at a tent wall of vintage Fillmore West and Winterland posters, we both dwelled upon reproductions of the psychedelic relics first printed so colorfully by Tea Lautrec Lithography.

          “Takes me back to my Cal days,” Paulen said wistfully, pointing up to a refurbished double storefront, black tile motif with purple window trim and mossy green patina-arched doorways. “Used to be that rambling bookstore, as I recall. Above it was a rooftop space that was outfitted as a couple of acoustic rooms. Back then, you’d hear this amazing Latino rock music at all hours. It was a makeshift practice studio where Carlos Santana originally honed his sound—hoping Bill Graham would happen by. My Sixties San Francisco, begone…”

          “Speaking of which,” I nodded ahead, stealing a peek at serious cleavage.  A slump shouldered, buttoned up Boz Scaggs had rounded the corner at Clay Street—emerging from a silver-blue Bentley that had whooshed by at the Sacramento Street crosswalk. Now he Lido Shuffled before us into Heroes and Shearoes, a white-hot hairstyling salon that reputedly clipped everybody from the Mayor to pre-split Sean Spicoli and Robin Wright Penn. “There’s Mr. SF blues himself…at least until he turned Mr. disco.”

            “Money sings, all right…”

            The other patinaed portal led to RelaxCentric, a blindingly neon day spa dispensing glycolic facials, mudpie body wraps, hot sharin stone massages, peeling exfoliation and macro-dermabrasion—all manner of yummy treatments and procedures to ward off everything from toxic stress and hangnails to overage acne and Botox drool—reputedly even for the likes of Bacon and Johnny Hairspray. Contact sigh: even the two of us began to look past the crowds and chill a bit, Paulen actually going so far as to pause and reflect upon the refreshing midday breezes, the clear blue sky, the no-ozone and low-particulate-matter levels compared to Front Range Colorado today, that big red Saturn blimp still lordly hovering overhead.

           RelaxCentric’s power of suggestion seemed to knead Reese Paulen into low-grade contentment. That is, until he caught a glimpse beyond the metal shade awning, an acacia overhang and shadowed tree limb painted dark green on an olive façade leading to the Clay Theater marquee.

            “God forbid, they’re showing that bilge here?” he erupted, tossing his bagel bag into a trash can near the box office.

             “You mean ‘Riviere Crimea’?” I noted the fading single-screen theater’s headline feature, a new French romp on underage sex traffickers, four stars straight from Cannes, tripling up with ‘The Toxic Avenger’, and counting ‘The Big Lebowski’s’ 278+F-bombs. The usual art house fare…”

              “No, I mean that,” he pointed to the late-show title, among coming attraction signs for a hellish little documentary exposé called ‘Jesus Camp’, and ‘Jonestown: The Movie’—Jonestown, for godsakes, just like it was yesterday. Between them was a poster of Bruno Ganz in Gestapo drag, for ‘Downfall’, a rerun of the latest Hitler revisionism. By now, that flick’s undertow had spawned a YouTube meme of so many parody riffs on Herr Commandant’s last bathetic bunker rant it wasn’t funny, having turned the sappy German biopic into a mein campy comic midnight romp coast to coast.

“Oh, der Fuhrer did build the Autobahns. Poor, frail Adolph was manic depressed.  Tell that to the skin and bones corpses piled in his death pits.”

 “Aww, it’s just a stupid goof, I mean like ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, or ‘The Reichy Horror Picture Show’…I heard they’re even remaking ‘Inglorious Bastards’ that 1978 Gestapo-bashing Castellari film.”

“That your zeitgeist, too, Herbert? Puleeze, ‘Downfall’ is utter heresy, Holocaust trivialization…and there’s nothing funny about it. What’s next, Birkenau farce musicales?!”

“Whoa, I should hope not.”  Whoa, steady...leave me out of it this time. “But you’re pretty testy about it, aren’t you…”

 “Pardon moi, but I can’t abide such evil.  I mean Nazi this, neo-Nazi that—Nazi, Nazi, Nazi!  They’re neo-marching all over Europe, denying everything.  There’s a Nazi pope, a Nazi sympathizing prince in the UK, they’re targeting Jewish judges—we even had a neo-nutcase on Boulder community TV calling the mayor a big bad Jew. Really, all the antisemitism drek has got to stop!” The professor vented as we passed the theater altogether, toward another women’s fashion salon on the corner—career-track silky chiffon ensembles draped over black wire-frames, more New York style. “Anyway I digress, didn’t there used to be a pigeonhole of a café in here somewhere?”

               “Yep, it was the Hob Nob, but Millard’s-on-Fillmore ruled when the bistro took it over in the ’70s. Sadly, that sliver of a space got squeezed out long ago.”  Then I noticed Boz Scagg’s driver swiftly backing his Bentley saloon down Clay Street, Melodync fading into an entirely different retro sound. Blink, blink—anything to get off topic, change the conversational threads, invoking Godwin’s Law, if need be. At any rate, I had to keep us talking, no matter what—sociobjectively or no. Besides, testy is as testy does… “You know, for a minute there, I almost got to thinking you were Jewish your own self…”

               “Really?  Whatever possesses you to say a thing like that?”

Care for more?

Chapter Six. The JazzStreet scene
turns hotter, pricier; the conversation
runs more heated and revelatory…