Alert: Touchier territory. ed
“Drill down deeper for
extra measure, and you might
pull some meaner triggers instead.”
“Nope, this’n…I’m good, real good…”
“Thassit, pay’n for it…get’n payin’ for it…”
“How dare you provoke me, I’m a healer…”
These underlying symptoms were nothing new. Time and again, she could be seen on the edges of a Shell service station apron, like digital clockwork, at about the same time every late afternoon. There, she mostly paced beside one of Lombard Street’s few remaining pay phones, as if waiting for a call that never came. Other times, I’d spot her on my way up from the Marina Safeway; she’d be eyeing my grocery sacks—sitting phoneside, all balled up between her overloaded backpack and sagging roller Hauls-All duffel, sniffing gas fumes from self-serve top-off after fill-up, as if they were life-saving liquid methane from Titan or the Red Planet.
Gladys had to have been about thirty or so, traces of past halcyon and hellish days evidenced in her fuzzy, beaded pink crocheted Mad Hatter bonnet and butterfly back charcoal overcoat. Now, she wore the same old loden corduroy slacks and layered sweaters, as if laying in for another frigid winter night—never warm enough for a wardrobe change, even on sunnier weekends such as this.
She had migrated with her material world over this way for the day, deep into Marina proper. Planting herself on the corner of Divisadero and a side street named Bay, Gladys was holding up a 30-Stockton trolley, hassling with a driver who denied her boarding with a bus transfer seven hours expired—riders either swearing her off or cheering her on. Sitting lotus, rocking back and forth aside her luggage, between a high-voltage power box and scraggly lemon tree, she appeared to have happened upon some freebies set out by tenants from the adjacent four-story apartment building.
Piled neatly curbside by the MUNI bus stop were Teflon skillets, a scorched toaster oven, cassette deck and set-top cable box. But she had zeroed in on a pile of hardcover books, spines of which read: ‘The Vampire Chronicles’, ‘Angels and Demons’, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem—topped off with a recent blockbuster by Philip Roth. Her volume of choice was a heavily highlighted ‘Mars/Venus’, from which she liberally misread and misquoted as though it were the second coming of Friedan or Jong—albeit to the flapping of garage doors and incessant accompaniment of that tremor-tripped car alarm. The little mobile library reminded me some of Dame Thornia’s once-valuminous shelves and stacks.
“Alls you’re sayin’ is the transfer was torn wrong?”
“But they time on it’s way gone…hah, me know’n the score…”
B-BEEP…B-BEEP…B-BEEP-BEep, b-beep…b-beep…went the trolley’s caution signal.
“Hasta stand up, lady, bust outta that…”
Engaging, if not baldly hitting on her was a rotund neighborhood tennis bum in Connors-Laver era V-neck and shorts—everyday soiled and pizza stained—who had strutted out of the cocoa-and-khaki colored house next door. On good days, he spent most of his minimal waking hours angrily knocking a tennis ball against the Moscone practice wall, grunting, moving nary a step; otherwise, he’d be wailing & moaning mid court alone in the rain or fog. Word was he’d then creep home to watch ‘Rosie’ with his mommy, when not bickering with her over allowances, or pulling his hair out back and forth to the supermarket.
She must have recently gone to the meta soap opera in the sky, however, and he was left sitting on her two-flat nest egg, biding his time upstairs, channel surfing in ranked-out white tennis wear and scraggly graying beard—hauling in downstairs rent, keen on selling out to the realty vultures, idly maximizing his capital gains. Call it no-sweat equity…what an inequitable racket, that.
“Them go cuffin’, arrestin’ me…Scam Francisco MUNI,” Gladys said, suddenly swaying side to side. “Take ‘n’ give, take ‘n’ take… talk, talk, talk…diffn’t planets, big ass acts talkin’ problems, ridin’ my wave. Nope, I’m good, I’m awesome!”
“Damn straight, sister,” said the tennis buff, looking our way. Call it kismet, if you please. “Say, you sirs gotta dollar?”
“Sorry, no can help,” I shook him off, while doc managed to ignore him altogether.
“C’mon, or just halfa rock.” He stomped his beat-up Adidas green stripers and waved a conspicuously unstrung Wilson stick at us like a truncheon at the plebes. “Bus fare…I’m good for it…”
That black and white SF police cruiser from the Chestnut mishap soon caught our attention again, turning a corner on screeching tires back at Francisco Street, apparently headed in the direction of the Golden Gate. Between here and Jefferson Street, Divisadero was lined with white, beige, pastel stucco abodes, wall to wall, more often than not linked by Spanish tile corniced rooflines. Ubiquitous bay windows were privatized with white plantation shutters or Levelor blinds, except for the scattered fire escape balconies two and three stories up.
Many of those were smoking with woks/hibachis and domesticated young couples afternoon sunning, essence of Teriyaki chicken, and Norah Jones or Macy Gray tunes, filtering down upon us. I took to noting the ornate variety of iron doorway grilles, securing, locking, tenants and homeowners in their comfortable domicells. Even on Saturday, garbage and workmen spun the combinations on keyboxes attached to slatted and louvered utility doors, scurrying in and out of breezeways like they owned the places, eyeing us as though to say, stay away. Still, amid this bleached, civilized sameness, space and time were granted Reese Paulen and me to talk further, save for this belching interruption.
“I said, no can do,” I wasn’t in any position or disposition to help crowd fund his post-temblor brewski run, prying loose as this was so many manic MUNIsodes I myself had way back when.
“Hey, I’m notta fuckin’ beggar. I got property here, own me that house next door! It’s quaky shaky, but no breaky…”
“So tell it to the little lady there,” Paulen said, leading me away from the chiseling little streetcorner come on. “Homebody, wouldn’t know it to look at him. Quaky, breaky…bloody imbecile.”
“That Roth book,” I instead pointed to the sidewalk heap, noticing that while the squatter woman seemed oblivious to that staccato alarm, damned if the infernal beeping wasn’t getting to me. Truth be told, her whole ragged routine was hitting a bit too close to home…lessness. “His 9/11 tale, or what?”
“Not on your life,” doc said, as annoyed with being hit up for cold, hard cash as by the car alarm itself. Or else he was still a bit rattled by the temblor—perhaps harking back to childhood tremors in this ’hood. “‘The Plot Against America’ is set largely in the period around WW II.”
“War stories? Philip Roth,” I asked, as we strained to identify the triggered vehicle several parking spaces up Divisadero, looking for further separation from the conversing double faults. It proved to be a metallic red Honda Civic with a nervous streak, and an alarm system better suited to ad Infiniti, drowning out the gut-tugging strings as Aghassi led Gladys to his love nest with a tender backhand to her backside.
“Wrong again, Herbert.” Paulen keyed less on the Honda than the Nissan SUV one space before it. “Philip Roth rather imagines an alternative history, wherein Lucky Lindy defeats FDR in the 1940 election.”
“So, more about 12/7/41 then,” I followed his iffy read on that Pathfinder.
“Actually, ‘Plot’ is concerned with people who didn’t take kindly to Jewish people…painful story that that was.”
“With what people?” I diverted to another glimpse of that tubular red airship, now over the Marina Green. All I knew was she shouldn’t be spouting on about Venus and Mars. Those planets weren’t the answer, not when Saturn was the answer…or at least the ringing question. Thornia would have it no other way.
“Americans as a matter of fact, 1940s on, and the inhuman stain of anti-Semitism,” doc said. “Much like those hating on Israel today. Some things never change, hey?”
“Yah, well maybe if they eased up on their policies some, Israelis wouldn’t be coming to such a world of grief.” Ooops, did I really say that? Slip of the script, to be damn sure….
“Good grief, man—what planet are you living on?”
In turn, we both gravitated toward a black Pathfinder parked haphazardly this side of the honking Civic, right rear tire riding high on a white-zone curb. The late-model SUV was caked with interstate road grime, running lights on snooze, roof rack loaded with matching kayaks, muddy trail bikes and red reserve tanks hooked on the back.
A half-dozing Malamute hung his massive head out the Nissan’s rear door window, drooling down over decals for just about every cool ski, surf and trek outfit from the Polynesians to Vermont. Most prominent, however, were the CU-Boulder placards and ‘Go Buffs’ stickers, grill to tailgate, punctuated with alumni license frames around University of Colorado vanity plates.
“Alright then, what about the Gaza Strip?” I couldn’t help but link this rig to that CU visored bakery gal—sensing another opening—once again antsy to raise that dough. Like, what was she repelled by, him or… “Loosen the noose a bit on the Gazans over there, live and let live…”
“You mean live and let lob—or tunnel and launch.” Again, deflection: Paulen couldn’t look away from the Nissan quickly enough, instead taking the measure of a Chinese codger who was dragging his full black garbage bag over to a curbside trash bin, fishing for pennies-per-pound recyclables. “You’re talking about Israel’s security.”
“I’m talking about three little words,” I replied, over the aluminum crunch of beer cans under rag-wrapped workboot heel. “Checkpoints, barriers, roadblocks…”
“To me, the three words should be: Nexus of Evil,” doc also ignored that ruckus, as if just wanting to get on with our ambulant…tutorial give and take. “Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran.”
A butterscotch brown and white Cavalier King Charles Spaniel hiked his stubby leg against typically stunted Marina front walk shrubbery. Such a normally frenetic little breed seemed almost like a leash aggressive dog on Benadryl, his master this statuesque brunette in a UCSB tee shirt, punching at her iPhone, wiping screens so facily, tossing her pet ornament a biscuit treat as he dutifully marked his turf.
Not nearly so serene was a somewhat older couple shuffling our way, bound for Chestnut Street: Stiff cotton top in burgundy ascot, blue oxford cloth and country club blazer, his coarsely aged spinster companion kept pace in long embroidered silk tunic, burnt orange with violette wrap-around scarves and big bubble-lens Gloria Swansong shades—perhaps hiding cellulite, wrinkles, turkey neck and ropey veins from the more vibrant younger neighborhood ladies, iterations old and new.
“Now let us delve deeper into the weeds, shall we? Negotiate the shoals of more recent events, if you will,” Paulen continued, as we took tentative steps up Diviz, aiming ambivalently for the bayfront and Marin hills beyond. “The Gaza Strip has been thoroughly untenable—constant car and firebombings, Israeli settlers getting attacked—this after years of Israel affording Palestinians with good livelihoods. So Ariel Sharon finally washed his hands of it all.”
“Okay, but not before dismantling many of the houses and buildings there, right,” I remained engaged as best I could—mock, not mock in mind. “The ones they hadn’t already destroyed with air strikes, anyway. Weren’t even a lot of the Jewish settlers pissed off about that?”
“Targeted airstrikes, Herbert. Specific terrorist targets. Not randomly bombing unarmed Jewish civilians with Qassam rockets in Ashkalon.”
“C’mon, I’ve seen pictures of Mohammed al-Dura, of the rubble in Rafah and Gaza City, all the hysterical funeral processions,” I said nervously, recognizing the Spanish detailing of that beige and blue Lilienthal elementary school a block or so up at North Point, igniting my memories of flames rising just across Beach Street, through the liquefying blackdrop on a hot October night. “So many innocent Palestinian kids and women were casualties there, too.”
“Martyr widows, complicit collateral, in the main,” doc said, seemingly no less unnerved as we gained on the CU-trimmed Pathfinder and beeping Honda to its rear. “The IDF knows safe houses when it sees them—and spares them accordingly, despite Hamas’s indiscriminate aggression. Even though ‘Salafi heroes’ hide among and behind all their women and children. Israel keeps its retaliation ruthfully measured, under control.”
“You mean like it keeps all of Gaza under hermetic control…” Catching my eye was the swift passing of Sy Eisenhoff’s black and gold sedan—him tooting, nodding at me, nudge-wise on his way toward the bridge.
“In what respect, Herbert? Israelis have evacuated the entire Strip.”
“Except for Gaza’s water, power, food, medicine,” I noted uneasily. “Israel still mans the main spigots and dials, doesn’t it, carries on aerial surveillance?”
“Somebody with a sense of responsibility has to, if the Palestinians are to have any essentials at all,” Paulen said firmly. And what do Israelis get for their efforts? More and more violence at their doorsteps…”
“Along with shelling Gaza’s lakes into debris bogged cesspools,” I asked, feeling Eisenhoff’s heater on my back.
“Hmm, sounds as though you’ve been watching too much Al Jazeera up there at MeccaJava. And may I remind you, they had already been defiled by Hamas, and Gaza’s beaches were pristine before Israelis left.”
Affixed to the next utility pole up, just above a lasered garage sale poster, was an off-white photocopied rant taped round and round with transparent packing roll, as though meant to be leak and tamper proof well into the millennium. Headlined, ‘Illegal Surveillance of Americans Using Insidious Electronic Devices’, the single-spaced screed warned of spooky video-cam surveillance. Clear as the tape that sealed its place in Marina lit and lore, the rambling manifesto was a stroll stopper, at least until one of the local pole strippers came along with a trusty penknife to peel it off into sticky, shredded oblivion.
Peppered with accusations of telepathic microwave implants and clandestine electromagnetic emissions, this was an exercise in high-wire paranoia—and Paulen couldn’t seem to pry his eyes away from its unhinged message, like it was some treatise handed down from a sociology dean. But I couldn’t read a word without thinking back to Gary over by the Marina Green, sitting there stewing over propane flames in his residential pie wagon—making one last bitter, single-handed stand with his world going to hell in a spit bucket.
“No, the BBC maybe, but…hey, you’ve got to admit that Israeli pioneers were grabbing the best water and shore areas from day one, piling in until there was nothing much left worth holding onto.”
“That’s your BBC’s slant on history,” Paulen huffed, voice cranked up a few dBs. “Nevertheless, today’s reality is Hamas’ rockets and cross-border raids have never stopped, even after Sharon’s withdrawal. It’s only gotten worse since they ousted Fatah from power last summer.”
“So Israel declared Gaza ‘hostile territory’ and has been bombing, blockading and embargoing ever since, right?” Stir baby stir. “No wonder those human rights activist boats are bent on freeing Gaza’s port for medical supplies and stuff…”
“Bloody ships of fooligans that must be stopped. The security perimeter is strictly of necessity—aimed at breaking the back of terrorist resistance,” doc countered. “Just as airstrikes have to target militant Hamas ministers in their junky little cars around Nuseirat and Gaza City—taking out Islamic Jihad staging areas and rocket launchers.”
“Capturing and cuffing by the truckload…a lot of them just protesting peaceably.”
“It’s either that or more Katyushas raining down on Israeli schools, Herbert—more sniping at the border posts.”
“Or helicopter gunships, huh,” I offered, pressing another button, up against the clock, spinning entirely out of my comfort zone. Talk about your stress, this breezy conversation here was bringing on some old, all too familiar splits, the cross-sphere tugs and tensions, spreading from my prefrontal to post-parietal lobes. Cognitive inhibition, all right—holding two opposing views at once. Thanks much for that…don’t mention it. “The whole situation borders on insanity, if you ask me—no wonder they’re all popping Tramadol.”
“No, the problem is that insanity is bordering on Israel. Something must be done about that, too.”
Otherwise, it seemed bicycles in varying condition were chained and clamped to every MUNI power pole along the 30 Line—some missing seats or chainguards, others devoid of quick-release wheels altogether. I then scanned these ever-appreciating homes, flats and condos, up to the occasional sunny roof-top patios and dormers, early garden parties getting underway behind low-profile balcony railings–side doors cracked narrowly open to tiny rear in-law apartments, garden level hideaways passed along in whispers by neighborly word of mouth.
“But there’s already a million and a half people penned in Gaza like in a cage over there,” I said, still steady as she goes. Yet all this stimulation was ricocheting off my occipital side to side, crashing in and out through my globus pillidi, super colliding with the superior colliculus at my subthalamic nuclear core. “Powerless and starved out, no less—most not even tied to Hamas…”
“Who can tell from whom? Meanwhile, you’ve got refugee Islamic fanatics storming the border crossings at Al Qarara and Nahil Oz, crashing down walls at Rafah, pouring into Egypt. Smuggler tunnels large enough to run moving vans through. That’s what you’ve got, my friend.”
“So how can food and fuel shortages, blocking exports solve anything,” I said, notching up the dial, trying to fend off any seismic imagery, dutifully keying on the hand being dealt my way. “I mean, taken along with Israel’s commando raids—always droning on, rattling nerves all around.”
“Need I remind you, Hamas’s charter calls for the abject destruction of the Jewish state as an offense against God. They don’t want a separate Palestinian state, they just want Israel gone.”
“B-b-but the U.N. doesn’t consider those actions self-defense these days,” I sputtered, beside myself, under the crackling of overhead MUNI wires, the humming whirr of the next inbound trolley bus turning around the Jefferson Loop. “They call it illegal collective punishment, disproportional response, crimes against humanity, Gaza’s economic collapse. They’re saying it’s almost like Israel is hell bent on treating the Palestinians like Jews were once treated by Europeans.” Easy there, one button far too hot…
“Sure, that Zionophobic body on the East River—what in blazes do you expect,” Paulen asked sardonically, almost affirmingly so. “And please, all the Palestinians have to do is recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State and let it be in peace. Much as Egypt agreed to do at Camp David in 1978.”
“Well, I suppose Israel could always go back—reoccupy, clean up that mess, make the beaches Riviera again, if all else fails. But it doesn’t seem PM Olmert is crazy or desperate enough to do so.”
“Believe me, Israelis don’t want that hellhole, as it’s not part of Israel’s Biblical narrative, at all. They just want a truce to hold, the rockets to stop,” he glanced over his shoulder. “Although if it means taking out Hamas, so be it. You best believe the IDF will shoot back in there—even for more close-quarter warfare—to trash Hamas altogether, once and for all.”
Our eyes were suddenly drawn to the commotion coming our way, down from the Bay. Good thing Divisadero was comparatively broad for a Marina thoroughfare, as it was being progressively flooded with road Hogs. That is, a fleet of black leather Harleys rumbled toward us, some two and a half blocks long. Their jacket emblature suggested they were in town from Fairfield and Vallejo via the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge—gray bearded, mouth-breathing bikers with Nazi-SS helmets straddling fat tanks artfully emblazoned with fire, lightning bolts, bestial illusions, pulchritude fantasies, demonic visions and gothic script—pseudo-suburban Mongols and Angels.
Clinging to their advanced middle-age beer spreads were long-suffering saddle mates and idle-worshipping biker bitches, teased hair flying out from under their matching black helmets, hanging on with the grimmest of grins. This deafening parade of unmuffled horsepower reverberated off house fronts, shook the District’s inherently unstable ground, a blur of rolling thunder and chrome.
“Whatever—the bulldozing and blockades do seem to backfire some,” I said, staying on message as best I could, alarms sounding, tinnitus settling back in. “Like, in world opinion. Besides, Israel’s clampdowns only seem to gain Hamas more support…and what if Arabs ganged together to starve Israel out? How about that?”
“Come now, Herbert…they’ve tried and tried that in the past,” he slapped at a cube-sculpted acacia tree, as if to muzzle the Hunnish blitz. “Now, all they’re gaining is more weaponry and suicide fodder. Islamic Brotherhood, my pitut.”
“Well, if everything’s so damn murky with Gaza and Hamas,” I said, thinking Christ, this is hairy business with this guy—where and what’s his beef?! “What about the West Bank, huh? All those hard facts on the ground Mahmoud Abbas is always harping on, what about that?”
That deafening motorcycle squadron drew my gaze with them back toward Chestnut Street, then on up the long, steep Divisadero hill climb, from the landfill flats of the Marina to the telescoped bay windows and crest line of outer Pacific/Presidio Heights. We could still hear the turn-throttle roar, feel the percussive friction of whitewall rubber to pavement as though a five-point aftershock, as the Harleys pressed around topiary tree-framed traffic crawling up the 20%-plus grade like salmon up the Klamath River.
The more aggressive Hogs swarmed around lumbering subcompacts and mail trucks, past compressed blocks of bedecked apartments and condos stepped like millinery boxes in a storage loft, up to the air-castle manors and mansions of upper Broadway, cast palatially against a rich blue-sky horizon line.
Up there in Pac Heights—amid nitid descending windshields, those majestic Georgian and French Normandy spreads with Golden Gate views that had been Euro-renovated down to the lath and studs—from whence we’d come seemingly hours ago now. Little sign of easing in the smoke stream up there, much less those searing sirens. My eyes could cast back down toward Bay Street, amid opposing tan and baby blue four-story apartment buildings at this very corner, still shaking as I was in the wake of such raw, piston-pounding hogpower, catching sight of that red Saturn blimp once more, wondering for Her sake what the hell I was doing down here like this.
“Ah, Abu Mazen, Arafat’s unregenerate co-conspirator…”
“Abu, Mahmoud—what’s with his two names, anyway?” Once again, I checked out the glistening Harleys and motorcars, still clawing, taunting their way to the upscale, skylight dormered ridgetop rooflines. Enough, already: The Richter was scaling up regardless, disastrous imagery purled forth, and I just deep-down wanted to turn back and get this gig over with. “Partner in peace though, right?”
“Mph, more like partner in crime.” doc appeared to have had his fill of this Divisadero commotion, too—not least the neo-waffen biker brigade.
“I suppose you mean PA corruption…”
“Bank on it,” Paulen motioned me to turn around, retreat toward Bay Street. Back there, the streetcorner racketeer appeared to be netting his squatter, leading her in the general direction of his newly liberated lair next door, helping her like a skycap with her bags, likely bound for a French opening and 30-love. “West Bank on it—grade A, as in Arafat, or an Erekat.”
“Or as in archipelago…by the way, isn’t Olmert under investigation for some shady dealings himself?”
“Tell me, Herbert, what is it with you and the Jewish people?”
Care for more?
Chapter Thirty-Six. Regional hot buttons are
further pushed, heat turned up sharply as the
milieu drifts back into earthquake mode
(pointed ’89 Loma Prieta drama to follow,
in starkly unsettling detail)…