“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.”
“Where’s that coming from?”
“You mean the Kerry Swiftboat crack?”
“I mean the hiding Jewish crack…”
“Aww, people are always spoutin’ off about something around this place,” I replied with a wary eye. “It’s nothing but political hot air—all politics is loco, if you ask me.”
Feign apathy, that was the ticket, register in his mind as an independent—totally noncommittal, back to playing it both ends toward the middle. Still, 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, let alone putting on Ayers. How Barry was rising up by his book jackets from politics so peculiarly 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.
But back to the present: Part soap box, part newspaper chase, part overage sandbox, Big Beenz Coffee and Tea typically brimmed with hypermentalation, free-form association damned near operatic in audible range and tenor. Here was a daily corner kaffee klatsch of regular crack caffeine junkies 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, as mundane as Mainline 101, seductive new samplings ever in the pipeline.
Today, I peered though steamed glass panes at narrow, cramped window counters of Chronicle and L.A. 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 with time on their hands gathering around, making it all political, in a neocom versus neocon-job sort of way, similarly clutching their triple Kona latte cups.
One particular subgroup of thrice-a-day mugslingers were strictly out of left field, cynical Robert Scheer-and-Cindy Sheehanites ranting off random headlines above the fold—children of the ideological intellect planning their next demonstration, boycott, and plug-in protest over ballot propositions, grassroots insurgencies, occupation mobilizations or municipal garbage and sanitation strikes.
Urban bioplasy blowhards spilling 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 might have seemed to the canny, manly work-out starlets just in from the gym, sipping their Au Lait Swirls and Caffe con Pannas, picking at fat-free oatmeal muffins and cherry peach scones, dissecting lipo and collagen while fawning over the SF firemen muscling in on hourly break.
Beside them, employable young techno Turks noodled over their online portfolios; to the other side, some self-fixated cutters and blades compared discount dentists. 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.
“Honestly, even if were so, what’s that got to do with anything,” Paulen asked. “As with the quality of Kerry’s mind, the content of his character, and the like.”
“Exactly,” I nodded. “Yet I do believe I heard somewhere it was so…and that his brother is even some kind of Israeli rabbi or something.”
“Neither here nor there. And if she was suggesting some sort of credibility issue, I rather see it as a key credential someday. Nevertheless, that sort of bigoted crack, I didn’t expect to hear, particularly not here.”
“Who would? I mean, I don’t know where that came from.” I found myself really not wanting to go there, so as to hedge any cozy familiarity. “Anyway, it’s just the local public eggheads—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 hamburger stand. And why am I gaining the impression that my beloved hometown has been taken over by newbies for whom the storied history of San Francisco has little or no currency?”
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 New York Times scraps, like yours truly, as some red badge of relevance.
Among them were hot-talk radio earbudders tuned faithfully into another show of ignorance with attitude. There was nothing like listening raptly to some vile little bigot from the East Bay, hand firmly in his underpants, spewing paranoid venom on speakerphone across 50,000 watts; then again, down the FM dial, there were always NPR’s newsmoaners, at the top and bottom of the hour.
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 this jostling and jabbering, this veritable shower of babble, sprouted the Kerry slam in question.
“Besides, such crackpot Jewish conspiracy innuendo? I can overhear that anywhere these days,” Paulen continued, “even in Boulder.”
“Conspiracies? 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 my 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 boot-cut Levi’s back up over my hip bone. “What’s that about, some yogurt and granola collusion or…”
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. Here were no screwgies, no bulk Pinot Grigioby the box; better to lose the ice cups and the straws. 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 or Polk Street man-boy parades. North of Sacramento, there were no punky cell blocked posers with their doughy little halter-top chippies and intimidogs. Leave behind the batik dashikis, Etouffee gumbo stands and chicken liver sausage—the bulging force multiplier badasses and color-coded gang war thugs. Forget the Folsum leatherette full-body tattoos or sternum-length Fu Manchus along this next silken leg of JazzStreet.
For we were no longer on the down lower Fillmore. Beyond a cross-laced thicket of overhead trolley wires and rent-a-copped barricades was Fillmore Street on the upswing. Here was a trendoid, trust fundster, tre 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 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. “But you know well what I’m talking about, right?”
“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 thing through no matter what, so might as well advocate for the devil, right? Besides, there was no way I wasn’t proving I could still hang with him, polemics-wise, after all these years; keep thinking Oxford-style debate—whatever, wherever the conversation might lead. “Anyway, if you mean anti-Semitism, I believe I’ve read where it’s actually on the wane in this country, right? I mean, in most circles, it’s over, way past history—assimilation city—poof, problem solved, far as I can tell.” Really, long gone, no problemo, totally, I skirted. “So, what’s that got to do with U.S. politics and elections today, anyway?”
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 a 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.
“Look, don’t kid yourself, Herbert…that’s not how I see such bigotry, at all,” Paulen said. Then he elected to switch course, rather implying that Boulder Valley was no less big-time cutting-edge than Silicon Valley out here. “You know the Internet bust took its toll in Boulder, as well. But at least the town hasn’t faded to black.”
“Naw, I guess Boulder just fades to white, lily white,” I recalled Her smug, dismissive dig, delivered while I was digging out down to the dandelions. “Like still getting hit with those patented sudden early spring snow blitzes?”
“Yes, in fact, it seems we…er, I got out of Denver International just in time.” We slipped between a clam-packed bus shelter and a marigold-bold French fragrance store exuding Shea Butter and Verbena aromatherapy. “But better that than no snow, what with Colorado’s drought conditions, and all.”
“I just remember how it got when Stapleton used to shut down.” In a strange way, I was somehow heartened to connect with someone, anyone from back in the day. Oh great, now we’re starting in with the cold withdrawals from the ol‘ memory bank–delinquent overdrafts, negatively amortized, positively splitsville, can feel it back there between my precuneus and posterior cingulate cortex…oops…
“Hmph, had it been Stapleton, I might still be stranded there. I say, intriguing how those tent tops remind me of DIA…”
“Yeah, good ol’ Stapleton during a storm…” I braced, then came visions of spinning out along the Denver-Boulder Turnpike, with the interstates snowed over through the Moffat Tunnel and beyond…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. Whereas south of Sacramento the 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 hucksters from Santa Cruz to the Sierra foothills to Humboldt and points north. Stained glass, cut glass, tulip-leaded glass, and flower planter pottery—like that.
Paulen abruptly offered to spring for nosh from a bagel chain shop, something for the walk ahead. I demurred, confessing a certain queasiness from all the cuisinal and olfactory crosscurrents hereabouts, not entirely averse to avoiding any semblance of a man date. While 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.
“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, I’ve found there’s nothing like a good shmear now and then.”
“I’m trying to lean more toward electrolytes and antioxidants myself.” Yeah, right…
“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 in there.”
So went the upward flow, the professor 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—NorCal never being able to get enough of itself. 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 god-awful 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 ragged 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 rubato sound-tracked a digital scene now seemingly a bit 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. Sorority sister types, pre-bar law students, dentists in training, underemployed administrative assistants 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.
Yet 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, suitably glam by half.
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 baggy 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,” 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. In any event, 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 Santana originally honed their sound—hoping Bill Graham would happen by. Oh, San Francisco in the 60s…”
“Speaking of which,” I nodded ahead, stealing a peek at serious cleavage. A slump shouldered, buttoned up Boz Scaggs had apparently rounded the corner at Clay Street—as it happened, 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.”
“Until he turned Mr. Disco, anyway. Must be prepping for his big star turn at a geezer retrofest up at Reno-Tahoe. Hmph, at least Carlos Santana no longer has need of those pricey conditioners and gels.”
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 Denver-Boulder today, that big red Saturn blimp still hovering overhead.
RelaxCentric’s power of suggestion seemed to pamper, 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 Crest Theater marquee.
“Egad, man, how can they be showing that bilge here too,” he said, tossing his bagel bag into a trash can near the box office.
“Oh, you mean ‘Riviere Crimea’, huh,” 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.
“No, I mean that,” he pointed to the late show title, among coming attraction signs for a hellish little documentary expose called ‘Jesus Camp’, and ‘Jonestown: The Movie’—Jonestown, for godsakes, just like it was the day after yesterday. Between them was a poster of Bruno Ganz in Gestapo drag, for ‘Downfall’, a rerun of the latest Hitler revisionis
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—with Valkyrie long rumored to be next in line.
“Oh, der Fuhrer did build the Autobahns. Poor, frail Adolph was manic depressed. Tell that to the corpses piled skin and bones in his death pits.”
“Aww, maybe it’s just a goof, I mean like ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, or ‘The Reichy Horror Picture Show’…plus I heard they’re doing a remake of ‘Inglorious Bastards’ that Gestapo-bashing Castellari film that came out in ’78. You know, the usual art house scene…”
“No, not even close, Herbert. ‘Downfall’ borders on utter heresy… what’s next, Holocaust farce musicales?!”
“Wow, you’re really touchy about it, aren’t you…” Whoa, steady…
“Look, you’ll have to pardon me if I do seem a bit preoccupied with this, but I can’t help it. I simply can’t abide idolatry of 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 in Chicago—we even have a neo nutcase on Boulder TV calling the mayor a big bad Jew, for god’s sake. Oh, don’t get me started.” 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. “Say, didn’t there used to be a pigeonhole of a café in here somewhere, the Hob Nob, was it?”
I’ll say there was, good ol’ Millard’s-on-Fillmore.” I noticed Boz’s driver swiftly backing his Bentley saloon down Clay Street, Melodync fading into an entirely different retro sound. Anything to get off topic, change the conversational threads, invoking Godwin’s Law, if need be—yet something told me this discussion was only beginning, no matter what. “You know, for a minute there, I almost got to thinking you were Jewish, or…”
“Now what makes you say a thing like that?”
Care for more?
Chapter Six. The JazzStreet scene
turns hotter, pricier; the conversation
runs more heated and revelatory…