Chapter Four

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

           “No, seriously, seriously…what brings you back to San Francisco, and 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? Everything all right on campus and everything?”  Now, that’s more like it, press the issue, motivation-wise.

            “Right as right there, but I came for a Concerned Social Scientists conference over at the Hilton.  And then to tie up some loose ends—mainly family matters, that’s why here, why now.”

            “Conference…of course,” 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 worked 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 from 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  indigenous food tents. “Hilton, huh?”

            “Sure, you remember how those conferences go, 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.  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 lettering didn’t actually read, ‘Saturn Replay’. How far, how near it does ring…

            “But enough already with all that stuffy pomp and façon de parler.  Let’s dispense with the socio-formalities, shall we?  Keep it street casual for purposes of our little catch-up.”

            “You mean dumbing it down for the lay brains?”  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 toward 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…long time ago.”  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 all that close until toward the end…you likely know what I’m talking about…”

            “Mother, not close, not hardly?  But it has to be a difficult trip for you. That much I can…”

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

           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 before us in a harangue of tuning instruments, this baby Hammond keyboarding to life as we snailed helplessly by. Rattling shop windows already suggested that upper Fillmore wear and ware were upper market by comparison.

JazzStreet scene

Cleaving through the crowd around the jazz bandstand’s blindside proved a tighter squeeze than the Italian sausage casings in Pemmora Pizza, which still solidly anchored that corner brickface ‘Albright Apartments’ building—a haven 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-range cover group known for drawing upon the standards playbook, ‘Begin the Beguine to ‘Closin’ Time—all with a wrinkle or two of their own.

Cooly tuning, flexing scales and teasing out chord progressions in the white-tent shade, this sextet’s opening fanfare set the tone for their headline 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 might know…”

             “Yeah, well, want to stop and check this out a sec…”  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.

            “I say Bay or bust,” Paulen snapped me back, as immediate foot traffic stalled. “Unearthing truth or falsehoods along the way.”

           “Actually was thinking more along the lines of multiple choice….”

            That’s when everybody froze in place here too, 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 latent techies, in-town neighborhoodies, urban bohemes and over-extended exurban exiles. There was an abundance of free-floating sun soakers—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 back then.  Indeed, hoards used to bring things here, if only with 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.

          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 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 bubble days returned, seed capital, secondary rounds, IPOs flowing in the streets. Tread water a while, then catch the next wave, and you’re boogyin’ on top of the world all over again. 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 low power contours. But Quincy Porter modulated the chord voicings with a little tenor make-up sax, 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, but his bluesy undercurrents, his penchant for punctuating furbelows, 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 marks, licking her chops with that 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, 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 and intertwining some lip trills to thrill the crowd, kicking it with long, tied-back corn rows, gold lamé 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, wouldn’t you say?”

            “Let’s do it,” I nodded, following close.  “Can’t beat the price, considering the highway robbery of regular concert tickets these days.”  And we all knew who those music mogul culprits were, greedy ticketmasters like Josh Gravanek (circa 1978), to name names. “Fortunately, there’s still talent to burn around here.”

As if the crowd 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.  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 and their whistles, were hi-top bike messengers in cut-off Dickies lugging document-filled Timbuk2s.

Fringier elements included mohawked, droopy jeans low-riders; burly, bearded Oaktown-Chapter Angels from hell; Mission creeptins rockin’ MS-placed body and skull tatts—recently 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 among them were South City chavs in wife beaters, colors-coded ballcaps and performance-enhancing jewelry, fixin’ to tune up any sucka trying to short-cut their killer 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 escorted boozy, bosomy retro-hippie chicks plucked from the Haight.

              Watching their backs were the wingmen and cockswains chugging vodka bombs—ripped, acne-backed, moon-faced ragers packing blown-up biceps and shrinking ’nads into silver scaly cutoff sweatsuits—pure, unallayed menace in their staredowns.  Overall, some rough and tumble tribes for this normally higher San Francisco ground: Yet Zeldarina had catnipped them into nodding, hip-swaying submission, had them all in her pocket, in syncopated thrall—everybody groovin’ and gettin’ along.

             Snuggly, look-at-us couples waved with rhythmic accompaniment out the upstairs bay windows lining Fillmore to either side  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, domestic partners in pastel Polo wear toasted goblets of frosty Maggies to a table of more leathery homo-machismos seated amid the mixed- breed hetero diaper changers doting under citrus-yellow sunbrellas.

            “Blue Note still on the Pearl Street Mall, huh?”  I angled over, as we merged into the elbow-tight flow up the modest incline toward Sacramento Street.  Yeah, that’s it, shift the focus back to Boulder.

            “Heavens, no—that place 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.

            “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 tailored Zegna, Zileri, Hugo Boss and Ferragamo—all two-thirds off retail and security guarded, with a hook ’em/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.

              “I’ll bet, but 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 you figure Boulder is so different, especially nowadays?”

“It just keeps getting greener and squeaky cleaner all the time. McKyle’s is long gone too,” Paulen countered, head aswirl. “Mind telling me why in such a colorful city is everybody so obsessed with wearing black around here?”

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…just check out 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 and throwaway bottles into brown plastic trash bags. Besides, everybody seemed to be getting it on, getting along just fine the way they were.  So how on earth could I myself bash this Saturnian spectacle, this moving musical feast, this quintessentially San Francisco cocktail of delirium and dread? Particularly when things hadn’t always gone down so smoothly for me hereabouts.

             “Guess it’s kinda considered creative expression, kind of a New York thing.”  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 back there…”

            “Not that kind of green, Herbert, greenbacks green. Take the Pearl Street Mall—it’s devolving into chain stores, wall to wall…”

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

           “Umm, a trifle uphill from there…”

           “Did make it up University Hill, huh?” Whoa, that sounded 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 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 beside them—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 a 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 said loudly, scaring up affirmative petition action at a buck-a-signature clip. “Save our country. Give them Democrats back their balls and Americans our nation. Truly Believe in Barack Obama.” 

               “Yeah, not like with John Kerry, huh?” said one of the beseeched, a stocky, balding tech start-up drop-out, gripping his double mocha as though it were a launch party tumbler of sauvignon blanc. “He flat-out got his hairy head handed to him by the Swift Boaters in ’04. How 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 as it was. “Barack will straighten out that Mideast mess, work hand in hand with Israel’s Ehud Olmert—just you see.”

“That is if the PM is even still around by then. But Kerry lost because of the charisma thing, stiff as a sail board,” 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. “Anyway, he’s Skull and Bones, just like Bush—more elitist blah, blah, blah. You don’t have to be in the tank for Obama to see that.”

  “No way, it was another JFK-style assassination,” said the other petition peddler. “Total character assassination, taking down another good Irish bloke, Texas-style.”

   “Kerry lost because he’s no JFK after all,” puffed a sleek, cheeky brunette in a cobalt blue workout suit, red racing stripes ablurr as 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 half Ashky and keeps trying to hide it.” Red to green, and she was off…

Care for more?

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