Chapter Sixteen

“Between The Lip and
the gloss, therein lies
Saturn’s Shadow.”

          “Here, gimme dat…”

          “No, whaa, bro…”

          “In youra pocket there,”shouted the corner liquor storeowner, sort of a middle-aged Mr. Clean, minus the aura and earring. This sudden dust-up unfolded right before us as we started across Union Street, white walk sign flashing in our favor. “Outa with it!” 

“Naw, bro,” screeched a would-be shoplifter, trying in vain to pull closed his patched over field jacket as he tried a quick, front door getaway. “Jussa lil’ missundastandin’…” 

“Don’t you be comin’ arounda my store thievin’…”  A serene-to-way serious Syrian, depending on his daily intake, the proprietor reached deep into the local streetcomber’s coat.

          “Wasn’t, bro,”pleaded the younger, shorter vagrant, shaking his shaggy, matted dishwater hair. “No lie…”

          “Now, getta yur filty butt hell outta here,” the XXXL storekeep stuffed a ten-spot into the drifter’s breast pocket, waving him off with a generous grip on the long-neck litre of Roaring Thunder Malt, waving it like a virago’s rolling pin.

          “Much bless…mah bad, bro,”smiled the grubby scarfer, who scurried a few steps away, then dropped his dirt-caked gray drawers, mooning the owner with some hula-hula shakes of his hairy can. “Musta slipped mah mind…”

          “Vel d’ who,” I asked Paulen, chagrined that we were forced to endure this rude, crude spectacle up close and personal as we proceeded across Union Street, curb to curb—hitting me too close to homelessness.  Yet I couldn’t help scouting him like a water hound.

          “Vel d’Hiv,” he warily eyed the testy string of VW Cabrios, Mini SCoopers and boxy Scion Scs, antsy to zip through the crosswalk on their way up Union. “The infamous Parisian velodrome…”

          “Velo…” I asked, as we reached the sunnier side of the street, where I attempted to avoid this whole petty distraction—crushing memories sorely jogged—instead returning to our topic, as if following some old, oversubscribed syllabus.

          “Vel’ d’Hiv—the bicycle racing stadium where French police herded nearly 14,000 Jews in July, 1942—over 4,000 children,” said Paulen, who like me had turned quickly away from that bare-ass display. “Kept them in there for days with no beds, food or water, utterly inhuman conditions, before deporting them to death camps like Auschwitz. You know, a person like you really needs to be informed on such history.”

          “Like me? Hell, how is it you know all this stuff?” Although I couldn’t help but notice the liquor storeowner still trying to kick that bought-off shoplifter down the block.

          “Not a problem, my friend,” Paulen instead noted the two young women giggling and pointing from a sunlit bench outside Union Liquors, licking away on their cups of the store’s extra-creamy frozen yogurt, fresh from its neighborhood’s-best soft machine. “I know more than you know.”

          “What does that mean,” I followed him closely along Fillmore Street.

          As we squeezed around a mini transit shelter, there was this grume of random bus talkers. Huddled masses of bus-waiters crowded the Union-Fillmore corner, milling about the cognac-postered shelter and rickety news boxes. Elderly by and large, most were likely aiming for doctors’ appointments or garage sales, tortuously late on the draw. For no 22-Fillmore looked to be shooting down the firing line, with the clacking and snapping of overhead wires, from up around the Broadway turn any time soon.

          Disrupted by JazzStreet re-routing, nary a motorcoach or trolley was in sight. Besides the rank acidic grumbling, more pointed bus stop sarcasm centered on the irony that when one was not looking for MUNI’s finest, they were was always right there, blocking traffic, cutting cars off left and right. But the minute a body needed one—nothing, no MUNI show-up for what seemed like hours on end.

          Uncanny, some stalled riders cracked, sort of like deja-vu, or MUNI-vu, at that: All this bus-bound grief, for what would often amount to a four-block ride to the Marina. Yet at least these minions were getting a breezy contact high from the roasting Celebes Kalossi coffee beans, if not the cherry draw and burn of full-bodied Dominican Fuentes from that cigar store over across Fillmore.

          For the moment, their milling grouse-fest spilled over like spoiled custard into our own personal space. Still, no more empathetic could I have been, even as we scooted further down Fillmore Street at the first sign of pedestrian daylight.  After all, I myself had once stood there, sworn at that, having been so sleep-deprived and hopelessly stranded in bus zones so many inopportune times.

          Slow, frustrating decay by driver abandonment, demise by noxious fuming, death by paper transfer expiration: Thank god, my MUNItive scuffles were mostly a rabid dog’s life ago. Yet here and now the strandees grumbled in cold, sheltered shade. Better the poor, madding crowd could have caught that motorized cable car when it passed by on Union Street long minutes ago—bell clanging, Tony Bennett blaring, riders waving and cheering like champions on post-game parade—save for the bundled up figure in the rearmost row.

          “It means I’ve done my homework, Herbert,” Paulen said, having edged away from the plaintive chatter as if he had never boarded a public bus in his life. “Simple as that…”

          “C’mon, this isn’t just common everyday knowledge your layin’ on me here…”  But I felt conflicted no end. Really, all this, getting to be too much—too, too much. Too much varied input, too much stimulation, too much aggravation. Way too much deception, too much dissention, too much dissolution, too·much deprivation, too damn much depravation. Gotta re-focus—get back on, stay on the beam here. “Where’s all this stuff coming from?”

          “From a university campus, where else,” Paulen gestured. “Look, one learns these things in such an environment, remember?”

          “Not those kind of things—not in any sosh courses I can recall…”

          “That could be because the wellspring for most of my learning hasn’t been the sociology department at all, but CU’s Jewish Studies Program.”

          “Jewish studies…when did…”

          “Oh, it’s been part of the curricula for quite some time now,” he said, soaking in the lingering, liqueur sweet aroma of Union Liquor’s creamy yogurt from a sidewall ventilation fan. “I involved myself about the time of mother’s ‘awakening’.”

          “Involved, or obsessed,” I recalled some pledges to my own mom toward the end of her line. Now I couldn’t shake the ancient 7-tesla imagery of a Union Street gone Fairly bad, my fears and anguished reckoning amid the festive stands and counter-culture displays. One more cross-country escapade that had gone bust back in the day, with but another party making for the exits.

          “Oh, I see. You still clearly are blind to the flame of enlightenment, my friend, even after all these years,” Paulen bristled. “Fortunately, you have met your match. Indeed, I’ve found the JS Certificate program to be quite helpful and inspirational in that regard…at least to a point.”

          “Hey, no offense, I’m sure it is,” I said, somewhat relieved to put Union Street conflict and commotion behind us, much like the many fashion mega-boutiques ramping off to greener suburban outlets in the face of plunging business and choker commercial rents around here. It was now so much easier to sidestep a Mexican gardening crew crouched along the wall, busy splitting a six-pack of Tecate Gold, and just move on along. “But what does a program like that study exactly? I mean, Jewish-wise?”

          “First of all, JSC is multi-discipline, administered within Arts and Sciences,” Paulen explained, appearing to note a couple of familiar storefronts across Fillmore, the incorrigible Mauna Loa cocktail lounge and Fredericks of Hardware’s turn-of-two-centuries houseware emporium —that nuts and bolts icon of the more practical Cow Hollow of his youth. “Although this can’t really be of that much interest to you, now can it, however much it should be?”

          “Who, to me?  I…why wouldn’t I be…” I too eyed that Victorian general store, still full of wares handy and domestic. “Frederickson’s is kind of like Boulder’s McGuckin’s, right? Cluttered aisles, soap to hex heads, machine tools to fine twine…”

          “Sorry, don’t happen to frequent that establishment myself.”

          “No, no—not apricot. Make them more citrusy…”  This wasn’t about booze or frozen yogurt any longer, for we were well beyond the corner liquor store. From what we could see beyond the MUNI stop, a young hottie’s nails shone like cubic zirconium in the westward sun. Seemed the twenty-something escrow administrator was on lunchbreak from her Saturday stint at a nearby real estate office, fitfully prepping for an after-hours cruise of The City’s dance club scene—call it a gender imbalance resulting in competitive desperation.

          A stacked, island-toned pistol possibly commuting in from lower Marin, she was hyper-critiquing her wet-gloss polish—a slight, smiling Korean manicurist ever so patiently nodding at the sudden turnabout in hue. Such were the wrenching machinations here along silicone alley, where gorgeous, self-styled local sirens and starlets could swipe themselves a glam makeover at body shops up and down Fillmore Street until their brows arched haughty approval or credit cards maxed out altogether.

          “Guess she’s going for the exotic baby doll look,” I said, nudging Paulen’s elbow. “Drawn to that, are you doc?”

          “Nice try, Herbert, but beware the Chiquita Lolitas—heroine chic, quite intoxicating that,” he leered, then caught himself. “In any case, JSC is a much-heralded program, so I began nibbling around it—even some classical Hebrew. “Before long, I was devouring it whole.”

          “Beside your full teaching load,” I asked, soft stroking my nascent lumbago. “How did you find the time?”

          “Let’s just say I’ve…adjusted my hours,” Paulsen said, in a somewhat dodgeball tone, “auditing JSC courses and culling reading lists primarily on my own time, and online.”

          “Wow, sounds like real dedication,” I wanted to know more, but no more than I needed to know about his downtime and other passions—recalling where that kind of curiosity once got me, out there on the Irish avenues.

          “Indeed, I’ve had some serious catching up to do.”

          “This polish has to be more like nectarine!”  Stop by pit stop, the shapely Latin nail-biter and other dollies among us methodically sized up the pumps, slings, spikes, espadrilles, ballet flats and ankle boots in open boxes that Roma Shoes, there across Fillmore Street, had stacked in and outside its store. Over here, along Vanity Row, working gals and idle goddesses alike could hit the sleek white-walled hair salon with its tell-all front windows for an art perm, a soft brush relaxer, some highlight streaking, a quick tint and trim.

          Next door, it was up on the nail rack for paraffin manicures and gel fills or satin-padded toe clips and a full set pedicure with white tips—soy milk baths, Ayurvedic Oil or Udvartana Herbal, and hot Brazilian Bikini Waxing available more discreetly in bamboo-curtained backroom tubs, and vice squads knew what else.

          Across Fillmore, the full skin treatment was in order, a medical-grade spa advancing beyond, micro-current, Kamalaspa Dosha and deep-pore facials; ear candling, Shiro Basti scalp massages or biological peels to full laser vein oblation and photodynamic restoration. For the harder core cases, there were always Silskin and Botox injections, higher-quality face time—with the rumored second coming of Hymenoplasty referrals.

          Then back over Fillmore here to the designer studio for a clingy little black party dress and jacket set. Venus on the platinum Visa—soooo lush, so positively luxe: Whatever it took, anything to get fabulous, naughty as J-Lo and Lindsay Lohan, outrageous like Kim, Britney and the Hiltons. Then they’d post that hanky spanky thong action up on MySpace or Facebook from the picturephone, for all the world’s players to leer and love—San Francisco’s club circuit be aware, be very aware. No lie, the eye candy was to die for, even through tired and fuzzy edged retinas like ours.

          “Tell me about it, doc,” I sighed.  “So…what kind of courses, what’s the catch?”

          “Hmph, catch nothing. Your impertinence aside, perhaps what you need is a bit of an impromptu lesson,” Paulen slid his readers up the bridge of his nose, eyes nailed to the delicious hand job. “Well, I primarily perused the courses as inspiration, then lit out on my own, sort of an independent inquiry. For example, I looked into Jewish Antiquity. Here we have this extraordinary roll of historical events and figures.  Just think of it!  Shiloh, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Sinai, Kings Saul and David, Solomon, the Pharisees and Sadducees—Esther and Uncle Mordechai, Cyrus, the Essenes, not to mention Yetwah and the Maccabees, who beat back Antiochus and the Seleucid Empire!”

          “Whoa, dunno know about all that, but I do recall having a bit of exposure to that history myself,” I nodded, his name drops already glazing me over. Still, something clicked in again. By all means, keep him spilling, see what soaks through, like it or not. Proceed with your lecture, professor—on with the core lesson plan, let’s see where it leads, if we’re on the right path. We paused briefly beside a mid-couture boutique’s blooming flowerboxes to carry this tutorial forward, overhearing some overachieving China girls sounding so deliberately like underachieving Encino girls.

          “Very well, did your history lesson extend from…”

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Jewish history, or just skip ahead…

          …Canaan to New Canaan, Abraham and Aramaic to the Zealots and Zion?” He proceeded to relate, in synoptic classroom manner, the underlying Judaic plotline: Descendants of Jacob, Divine Binding Covenant, sacrificial son of lamb, Exodus from enslavement to Genesis and the Promised Land, twelve lost tribes, ten Egyptian plagues; conquering the Philistines, storming the walls of Jericho, fostering the First Temple of Jerusalem per the Book of Kings. Alas, he also recounted the strife of Samaria, chronic warfare with the Assyrians and Babylonians—Harod’s corrupt Hellenizing influence, so Greek to the poorest Judeans, which led to Jobe’s sackcloth and ashes, to the theologic stirrings of Torah versus Oral Law. Then there was David’s ungodly royal fling with Bathsheba, cuckolding Uriah the Hittite warrior, augering the Israelites’ untold sorrows to come. So go ahead, let Judah the Hammer break the shackles of exile; see him ordain and purify Jerusalem’s Second Temple. God’s Chosen, ancient residents of the Levant, the people of Maimonides, were doomed to find Romans choosing to knock down their sacred doors.”      

           “Torah, that rings a bell, I gasped, “and wasn’t Exodus a flick once?

           “To say the least. Nevertheless, I should hope you discovered  how the Evil Roman Empire pitted rich Temple Jews against the common beggars— even routing rebel Jews from their caves,” he continued, refocusing his ponderous gaze from female anatomy to the cluttered architecture above.

          “Eventually, Jesus came to clean out the money changers, but Judas Iscariot took care of that matter, said to betray him basically for pocket change. Zealots later revolted to challenge Roman authority, but legionnaires sacked the Second Temple for that in 70 A.D., banishing Jewish life from Jerusalem altogether, for god’s sake—the Pharisees fleeing with their Talmud and Mishna toward Dead Sea hiding and martyrdom. Then Bar Kokhba leads a messianic rebellion against Hadrian, and over a half-million Jews perish, getting plowed over like the Temple Mount—meager survivors diasporing to the Sephardic and Ashkenazic winds…” 

          “Uh, not in so many words, maybe…” 

          “But point of personal privilege…European Jews were first expelled  from my father’s France as far back as 1306,” Paulen continued, with lecturnal certainty. “And even though they introduced Haskala enlightenment in 18th century Europe, who can forget what happened to the ‘Juden’ a hundred and some years later. Beginning to detect a pattern here?”

          “Who me?” How was I supposed to know about historical minutia like these? Way, way over my head: At once numbed and dumbfounded, I sure couldn’t tell the proverbial fact from fiction, yet I had to keep on keeping onI mean when does a spill beget a stain?   All I knew was this was already more than I needed to know. But how could I even think of saying so in such a situation, without coming off like some…kind of…

“Don’t you see? The infernal yin-yang nature of it all,” Paulen said, resetting us in motion down Fillmore Street’s comparatively modest decline. “Triumph begetting tragedy, greatness inviting fatal grudges…it’s utterly Shakespearean.”

          “I guess, I dunno…” By now, I felt I might at least have posed a cogent question or two, at least maybe should have been taking more notes. “Interesting stuff, though…must be quite some courses…better taken MOOC or at least pass-fail.

          “Interesting?  You could say that in spades. After all, look at how this paradox has haunted Jewish civilization—indeed, the entire Jewish experience over the centuries—surviving hatred, persecution, diaspora, even genocide, in spite of it all.”

Maybe there seemed to be so much cosmetic energy along this stretch because Fillmore Street hereabouts exhibited a higher level of vibrancy overall.  Even through another maze of trolley wires and power poles, we noticed that the Victorians were more vividly color-schemed—brightly commercial plotted with four-five tones, gold leaf detailing here and there. Olives, wines, tans and browns stood side by side with mixed-use Vicky mutants in aqua, okra, baby blue, purple sashes and green-on-oatmeal.

          Beaucoup gingerbread and bay window dressings—the tidy, trendy storefronts anchored them, street level to mezzanine; solar panels and skylights sprouting from pitched roofs three and four floors above that. Once past a digicamera and cellmania outlet that was struggling to wean itself off one-hour photo processing, we hit upon a endive-green corner auto repair garage-cum-healthfood center, where logo-shirted marketing nut-bars were handing out samples of MegaMint vitamin water and granola energy sticks.

          “Civilization?  Aha, there, a question—concise, if not exactly cogent—which had to have earned me the right to tear into the foil wrapper of a Nine-Grain HoneyBooster, noting a pair of underpaid, aproned healthfood clerks outside the center’s rearside loading doors, cigarette smoking their work breaks away. “I’ve been led to believe that Judaism had to do more with, like, religion.”

          “Have you really? Paulen twisted the cap off a silver-sleeved water bottle, that scruffy shoplifter running past us, pants on fire. “Led by who?”

          “Ah, it really doesn’t matter.”  I eluded him and the professor’s stare by glancing over at a goose-down comforter store, on the ground floor of a tall grey and pudding yellow Victorian, its windows full of cushy pillow piles, of matching quilted vests and bedroom slippers. Then came those two girlz in pink NYC hoodies and pummeled jeans toting recycled shopping bags of strictly organic, preservative-free fruits and veggies out of Real Pure Foods.

          “So…what, then?  You mean like your Northern Ireland is just about religion?”

          “Well, when you put it that way…” I continued lagging as we gained on the Filbert Street crosswalk, self-consciously avoiding a cater-corner glance at the heavily blinded windows of a shifty second-story office, instead trolling by force of habit for another round or two of marketing samples. But now it was go time, no turning back. Yeah, I’d checked my notes, boned on up some, time to home in all the more.  Still light of head, wobbly of knee, I could have used all the energy I could get.

          “Tell me,” Paulen asked, voice rising as a fully loaded, double-deuce diesel MUNI bus lumbered on by. “What other way might you suggest I put it?”

          “How should I know…” Christ, guess I should have snuck in the back door of that thing, crammed onboard with the straphangers. Then again, that would only have delivered me unto even deeper leagues.

          I began to wonder who was in the driver’s seat here, and who was being taken for a ride. That was when I first spotted the warning sign…

Care for more?

Chapter Seventeen. Coming face to face with
 matters at hand, verging on the spiritual,
the metaphysical, the borderline
maniacal–laying a foundation,
or just plain digging a hole…·