Chapter Four

“Saturn can Return on
a term or a dime, send you
off spinnin’ in unreal time…”

            “No, seriously, seriously…why San Francisco, why now?”  Paulen’s rainbow wedding crack had set me to wondering, looking for a third finger ring, any signs of domestic wear and tear or alienation of affection—nothing doing—just as digitally barren as mine. On the other hand, there was that stone, which had an oddly familiar pewter ring to it.  “I mean, what would possess you to leave Bouldervana after all this time?”  Now, that’s more like it, press the issue, motivation-wise.

            “You want serious, Herbert?  I came for a Concerned Social Scientists conference over at the Hilton, what else?  And then to tie up some loose ends—mainly family matters, that’s why here, why now.”

            “Conference…right,” I muttered, now gazing beyond the S.F.P.D. community outreach and souvenir sweatshirt stand, southward past steel drums and tabula, the jazzy R&B combos working every street corner between here and Post Street, the aural pleasures of which ranged from a little Pico Rivera or baby Chick Webb to a pledge drive Ken Burns snippet on NPR.  In the bargain, I gained a snootful of aromatic Crawfish Etouffee, Thai sticks, barbequed oysters and Uhuro falafel with chicken apple sausage from a global village of StreetJazz’s tight procession of foods tents. “Hilton, huh?”

            “Sure, you remember how those conferences go from the old Dean Cross days, don’t you,” Professor Paulen said, somewhat impatiently, looking the other way.  “Vitae, group dynamics, exhausting papers, networking among the non-affiliated, and nametag roulette…we must stay current in our respective fields, now don’t we.  My topic du jour: ‘Is sociology too far left of mainstream to promote purposeful debate and discussion beyond the academy?’  With accompanying deterministic discourse, I might add.”

            “I guess, like vaguely…”  After the pungent transmelding of deep-fried clams, garlic and blackeyed beancakes had invaded my sinuses, a raucous Elite Café scene and Loma Prieta memories jellyrolled me at the knees. I found myself going wobbly altogether with another upward gaze at that red hovering airship. Its digital newscrawl trumpeted Huygen’s imminent moonshot approach toward Titan.  I just kept wondering if the blimp’s block lettering didn’t actually read, ‘Saturn Replay’.

            “Then again, the Hilton spreads were suite generis.  But enough already with all that stuffy pomp and jargon.  Let us dispense with the socio-formalities, shall we?  Keep it street casual for purposes of our little catch-up chat.”

            “You mean dumbing it down for the lay brains, huh?”  Still, I couldn’t help noticing his alligator-banded timepiece glistening in the sunlight, appearing to be a vintage Girard-Perregaux, Grand Date model, circa 1945. The heirloom watch was clearly from a generation once removed, conceivably handed down from someone with a goodly measure of time on his hands.

             “As you please. In any case, mother recently passed away here, and I’ve some of her affairs to finalize,” Paulen said, beckoning me to California Street as two glow-vested rent-a-cops blew tandem whistles, signaling backed-up foot traffic and assorted look-a-loos to a pedestrian bridge across the intersection as they did block to block.  Keg beer drained over the convex crowned asphalt, outbound taxis and delivery trucks stopped cold, snarling, revving in wait.

             “Oh, sorry. Losing your mother and all,” I shuffled through the crosswalk in sheep step, with mom’s pained face flashing before me on deathbed sheets.  “Gone through that myself…”  I tripped over the long steel leg of a police barricade, as everything was clotting this side of California.

            “Thank you, but it wasn’t quite like that,” he steadied me some.  “We really hadn’t been that close until toward the end…you know what I’m talking about…”

            “Huh, me?  Mother, not close?  Can’t say as I do…but it must have a difficult trip for you in any event. That much I can…”

            “Yes, well, let’s just say we all have our setbacks, our little turning points in difficult years.  We all have our little chores and obligations. Alas, for better or worse, to my friends and loved ones, I tend to remain loyal no end.“

           Already drowning out any stray decibels from a Machete Ensemble down on the Sutter Street stage, or the Moroccan Trance Trio at Pine, was the gaseous hum of a hedgerow of orange Honda generators. Suddenly, StreetJazz’s main bandstand erupted just in front of us in a harangue of tuning instruments, this baby Hammond keyboarding to life as we snailed helplessly by.  Rattling shop windows already suggested that whatever the trinkets down in lower Fillmore, up here the wear and ware were decidedly upper market.

JazzStreet scene

 Cleaving through the crowd around the jazz bandstand’s blindside proved a tighter squeeze than the Italian sausage casings in Pemmora Pizza, still solidly anchoring that corner brickface Albright Apartments building some 15 years post-1989 earthquake.  But we hit a dash of daylight, and the flip side of the canopied main stage yielded Jazzbone—a brass, mid-rangery cover group known for drawing upon the standards playbook, from ‘Begin the Beguine to ‘Closin’ Time—all with a wrinkle or two of their own.

Casually tuning, flexing scales and teasing out chord progressions in the cool white-tent shade, this sextet’s opening fanfare set the tone for their headline songstress/chanteuse, an outsized blur of cape and feathery boa soon bounding to the center mic from stage right. “When you’re dead, you’re dead, people,” she screamed, “so let’s be livin’ it up whilst we can!”

              “Still, mother’s wake and funeral were interesting enough,” Paulen added.  “Old family and friends turning out…some erstwhile neighbors and schoolmates, too.”

              “Huh, bet that was…interesting.”

              “More than you know, Herbert.  More than you know…”

             “Want to stop and check this out a sec, or…”  My mind paused and reset momentarily on this Fillmore stretch—back to minutes after Loma Prieta struck, all these stores dark and deadly silent, panicked shopkeepers wambling about outside, gasping and cracking gallows wise, Muni drivers chocking their bus wheels, pulling power poles down from shorted wires in the stifling October heat as I scrambled past milling crowd clots toward my home TV and the disrupted Earthquake World Series of ’89.

            “Have we any choice,” Paulen snapped me back, as immediate foot traffic stalled.

            That’s when everybody similarly froze in place here, nearly twenty years after the seismic fact.  Breaking into applause on cue, the sun-drenched crowd stretched out, kicked back on a green faux-grassy carpet spread out over Fillmore Street.  Rays and vibes: This from an eclectic gathering of lethargic techies, in-town neighborhoodies, urban bohemes and over-extended exurban exiles.  There was an abundance of free-floating sun soakers, plenty clinging doggedly to their fashionable black on black—still mourning past elections, random dot-com dislocations and the San Francisco middle-class diaspora overall.

          The ‘Oughts’ so far had not exactly been salad years for The City; it had gone from the place to be to the place to flee.  Indeed, hoards used to bring things here, if only nasty habits and flowers in their hair.  By now, many had just U-Hauled things away—to Vacaville, to the valley, to Vegas and beyond—land grabbing tract houses and no-down ARMs, in lieu of first-and-last Victorian flats, with deep-breath abandon, setting themselves up big-time for the subprime underwater trap.

          Flow and ebb, between the bubbles, a town played out after its untrue boom: The lackluster end of a putatively boundless cycle, with a redounding in-trickle rather than a flow—yielding fitful stirrings of the next big virtual tech rush.  For those who remained, it was high time to step back, soak up some suds and straight-ahead jazz, rhythmic relief before laboring anew to cover rising rents, soaring appraisals, exit strategies—turning everything, all the bad karma right around, patiently waiting for those good ol’ San Francisco Values to kick back in, knowing it was just a matter of timing and time before the good times returned, seed capital, secondary rounds, IPOs flowing in the streets.

          Tread water a while, then surf’s up—catch the next wave 2.0, and you’re boogyin’ on top of the world again…just keep on paddling, eyes wide open for the promising swells. No denying, this viscous cycle had kept me hangin’, ten times over.

            A suddenly inspired Jazzbone, having plied the crowd with a little uptempo ‘Summertime’, fanfared Zeldarina Gaige as she seized the mic stand, leading the combo’s notched-up segue into ‘A Fine Romance’. ‘Bone’s Tenafly  Landis drove his Hammond like Jimmy Smith incarnate; Slats Byron stroked his upright bass with the softest, tenderest of hands, with the low power contours and progressive intonation of a bereted Ron Carter himself.  Before long, trumpeter Benny Moulton commenced overblowing a skosh—playing sharply above the pitch.

          But Quincy Porter modulated the chord voicings with a little tenor make-up sax, so to speak, harmonizing vocal tracks like Saint Coltrane himself—nasal, throat and mind in its melodic detail.  He may not have been Pharoah Sanders nor Ornette Coleman or even Sun Ra (who claimed, incidentally, to be from Saturn), but his bluesy undercurrents, and lightening quick articulation, his penchant for punctuating furbelows and sneaking notes between octaves, played into Zeldarina’s meaty style like Pres himself squiring Lady Day.

           Ultimately, there was Ms. Gaige stickin’ each number, staple gunning everybody in place with her chiseled phrasing and audacious pipes—a little early Ella, some street hardened Eartha and Pearl—but mostly Zeldarina channeled the William in her, hitting her marks, determinedly licking her chops with that small-club, cigarette smoky voice.  Prowling the stagefront, she twirled her peacock feather boa, re-cocked a soul cap, spun her hoopy earrings, mugged to her keyboardist like he was Teddy Wilson, coaxing his craggy, quirky dissonances, taking the full measure of a quietly Buddy Rich drummer boy as he foot pumped his top-hat, brushed over his snare.

  Mail sorter-cum-headliner for a day, she by turns caressed her lyrics, coaxed and scatting choruses, deftly intoning bridges and interludes—even intertwining some lip trills to palpably thrill the crowd, kicking it with her long, tied-back corn rows, gold llame and gilt-edged patent heels.

             “Believe I see some daylight,” Paulen pointed to a sliver of a break in the sporadically dancing crowd.  “Nothing like a little lively, free-form music to pave the way, hey?”

            “Let’s do it,” I nodded, following close.  “Can’t beat the price, all right, considering the highway robbery of regular concert tickets these days.”   And we all knew who those mogul culprits were, I reflected, the greedy ticketmasters behind that fast-lane turnstile larceny, no Joshing—Gravanek, to be exact.

As if the gathering wasn’t already jacked to the ‘Bone, it began staccato clapping once Zeldarina slid into her next solo riff, scattin’ away like Cab Calloway, Casio keyboards lacing in contrapuntally behind, Tenafly laying a flat five on his chord.  The mid-street spongy green plastic carpet, full of color fading tanktops and old software start-up T-shirts, was bordered by the strutters, outgliders and windowshoppers jamming Fillmore sidewalks—ever the rainbow gathering, albeit with sharp, intensified edges.  Beyond the weekend aesthetes, the melony zooting up hipsters, the gay men, ex-gay men and ex-ex-gay men with their whistles, were diesel exhausted hi-top bike messengentsia in cut-off Dickies lugging document-filled Timbuk2s.

Fringe elements included mohawked, droopy jeans low-riders; burly, bearded Oaktown-Chapter Angels from hell; Mission creeps in all their MS-placed body and skull tatts, just out of lock-up, inked to the shot-caller max—fist bumpin’ knuckle to knuckle with king cobra forearms, having just rolled crosstown from the Amnesia Lounge.  Intergrooving were South City chavs in wife beaters, colors-coded ballcaps and performance-enhancing jewelry, outkicking their coverage, fixin’ to tune up any sucka trying to short-cut their shapely ho’s.

I pulled the professor curbside as several full-dress Raider Nationals gained yardage shoulder to shoulder, rockin’ pirate beards and black-eyed squeezes. In their wake, some San Bruno gym rats plugging warm dirt escorted boozy, bosomy retro-hippie chicks.

              Watching their backs were the wingmen and cockswains sucking on vodka bombs—ripped, acne-backed, moon-faced ragers packing blown-up biceps and shrinking ‘nads into silver scaley cutoff sweatsuits—pure, unallayed contempt-a-cop menace in their staredowns.  And were those actually liquored-up bangers over there, sporting blood red flashed tattooed teardrop glares, eyes peeled for gangers bangin’ blue?  Overall, a rough and tumble crowd for this normally higher ground, all these variegated San Francisco tribes: Yet Zeldarina had catnipped them into nodding, hip-swaying submission, had them all in the pocket, in syncopated thrall.

             Snuggly, look-at-us couples waved with rhythmic accompaniment out the upstairs bay windows lining Fillmore to either side, Jazzbone welling in between.  Full-on party animals and assorted crashers prowled and danced, dangling off along fire escape balconies, bowing to Zeldarina’s awesometimity as her stack-amped voice ricocheted building to four-story building.  Just beyond the green carpet, de-married domestic partners in pastel Polo wear toasted goblets of frosty Maggies to a table of more leathery homo-machismo seated amid the mixed breeds of hetero diaper changers doting under citrus-yellow sunbrellas.

             “Blue Note still on the Pearl Street Mall?”  I angled over, as we merged into the elbow-tight flow up the modest incline toward Sacramento Street.  It was the only modest thing in sight.

            “Heavens, no—that went under aeons ago.”  Paulen cleaved us past the throng grooving in front of a sealed-off designer drapery and one-hour photo, particularly a hip-hopping velvet goddess in ruffled green PJs and turquoise brocade flip-flops.  Her smoky leather studly just gansta leaned against the corner building’s post-quake retrofit support beam, laying odds on the soonest breakout of sidewalk stroll rage.

            “Too bad…it was a good little jazz joint in its day.”  But the thicker bottleneck, just past a consignment jewelry shop and hands-on cosmetics bar, was this parade of black on black on black fashion slaves steaming across the grassy carpet to a months-long uomo liquidation, pawing sidewalk racks of tailor Zegna, Zileri, Hugo Boss and Ferragamo—all two-thirds off retail and security guarded, with a hook ‘em and book ‘em look in the ex-cops’ eyes.

             “Yes, well, Boulder’s changed considerably since then, believe me…”

             Zeldarina had departed the stage, leaving them all wanting more, blowing kisses left and right to a cornet coda.  Jazzbone was finishing strong now as a pair of Lacroix rainbow-saraped damsels skipped past us, over toward the tequeno, bocadillo and churrasco samplings outside a three-star Peruvian restaurant.  Slipping by two chisel-cut fly guys in LA side brims and 50 Cent bling, there was no mistaking their brotherly take on things.  “That’s so damn gay—don’t like no city wimmin with no chicken-white skin,” said one.  The other countered with “Naw, that’s so forghetto. But betta than them holla-back girls—I ain’t takin’ no crap ’bout that…”

            “Think this place hasn’t changed,” I asked.  Beyond such hard-core handicapping, the rosticceria and salumeria essence of an Etruscan deli conflated with the tart sweetness of Gallic pastry—both shops bordered by even more skinique cosmetology and casual chic. “Anyway, how is Boulder so different?”

   “It just keeps getting greener all the time,” Paulen said, head aswirl.  “Mind telling me why in such a colorful city is everybody here so obsessed with wearing black?”

   From this point to Sacramento Street, mid-Fillmore food stands served up everything from Efo-Doda and suya chicken to moi-moi combo plates.  Amid the modest climb, we choked on the deliciously smoky grills full of pork sticks and kabobs.  Surrounding storefront architecture and the thronged fire escapes dropped down a story or two, housing sleek Euro-dermal skin salons and designer furniture studios, that oddly placed walking shoe store full of cushy Ecco, Rockport and Mephisto clodders.

Hmph, obsessed with black, he says…then what about those old Chinese women in flowery quilted vests and fat straw hats getting into the colorful JazzStreet groove, picking as they were through garbage cans, cleaning up on a trove of empty containers, crushing the 12-oz. aluminums, stuffing them with the throwaway bottles into brown plastic trash bags.

              Everybody seemed to be getting it on, getting along just fine.  So how on earth could I myself bash, naysay, lend clinical words to this Saturnian spectacle before us, this moving musical feast, this quintessentially San Francisco cocktail of delirium and dread?  Particularly when, truth be told, things hadn’t always gone down so smoothly for me around here.

             “Guess it’s kinda considered creative expression, and still a mourning statement left over from 9/11 and the dot-com bust.”  Breathing deeply, my voice rose over the jazz-techno fusion blaring over the stadium size loudspeakers of a free-form radio station’s booth anchoring block’s end.  “But Boulder’s greener?  Thought I heard there’s been some kind of drought going on in Colorado…”

            “Not that kind of green, Herbert.  And as for the Pearl Street Mall?  These days, it’s  devolving into chain stores, wall to wall…”

           “That where you live these days, near the mall, or…”  Smoother move, nailing down his location, location, location.

           “Umm, a trifle uphill from there, as it were…”

           “Made it up University Hill, huh?”   Whoa, that was even better.

            But all those San Francisco treats were on the other, sunnier side of Jazz Street by now.  Before us, high style met a more stubbornly intellectual corner of the world.  Here, we force marched through a largely downcast crowd past a cozy, pre-glam neighborhood bookstore dating back to the 1970s.  Straddling two storefronts, tidily carving out a tree-shaded patch of sidewalk between some free lefty newsboxes, SF State students manned an activist ironing board—on the front side of which unfurled a hand-markered sign reading, ‘Had Enough?  U.S. Out of Iraq.  Bush Keeps Lyin’, Americans Keep Dyin’.  Save the country, Support Barack Obama for change.’.

          The taller, more animated of the two was imploring several cup-clutching coffee regulars to sign up with pride, already piling on the specter of piping tea baggage and the RNC“Wake up, people,” he reiterated loudly, scaring up affirmative petition action at a buck-a-signature clip.  “Save our country.  Give Democrats back their balls and Americans our nation.”

 “Yeah, like remember Kerry, OK?  He flat-out got his big, hairy head handed to him by the Swift Boaters in ‘04,” said one of the beseeched, a stocky, balding tech start-up drop-out, gripping his double mocha as though it were a launch party goblet of sauvignon blanc.  “Just like he lost because he couldn’t defend his old Vietnam protest thing…”

“Naw, man—Kerry lost because of the whole Iraq-terrorism thing,” offered another, as the trio huddled closer to the petition board, the passing crowd clotting and annoyed by this little streetcorner Obamarama.  Not that we were going anywhere fast, anyway.  “You know, hard ass on our troops, soft as hell on al Queda.”

“He lost because of the charisma thing. And poor judgment—look at his slicko running mate,” added the third.  They were all decked out in Green Day, Che or Napster T-shirts, with mismatched cargo pants in varying colors and lengths, scuffling their Teva strapped sandals.  Everybody here was brilliant; everybody else just plain weird.  “Plus he was a stiff, couldn’t take a joke, couldn’t tell one, was slow on his feet.  He didn’t answer Republican attacks back quickly or strongly enough.  And why didn’t he challenge the election results?  Anyway, he’s Skull and Bones, just like Bush—another rich elitist—blah, blah, blah.  You don’t have to be in the tank for Obama to see that.”

  “No, it was another JFK-style assassination,” said the other petition peddler. “Total character assassination, taking down another good Irish bloke, Texas-style. Don’t mess with Texas—hell-O.”

   “Want to know why Kerry really lost,” puffed a sleek, cheeky brunette in a cobalt blue workout suit, red racing stripes abluras she jogged impatiently in place from around the corner, her wet-combed ponytail waving like a metronome, a little y chromosome going on as she waited out the stoplight.  “Because he’s no JFK, after all—because he’s Jewish and keeps trying to hide it.” Red to green, and she was off…

   “Say what?!”

   “So maybe he could run into some Middle East peace…”

 Care for more? 

Chapter Five. Herein, that passing
caustic remark gains traction amid
the melodic fair and fare…