“Never know what Saturn has in store. Only that it keeps coming back for more.”
“Believe me, Sammy—I believe what I say. I may not always believe exactly in the way I punch and phrase it, but you best believe what I say is what I’m reallysayin’, no matter what…”
We slipped fully out of Mecca Java into the aromatic light of day, pausing on clogged Fillmore Street long enough to get bogged down in this blustery caffeinated chatter percolating from the other of the sidewalk tables just outside the café’s glass window wall. Sunny seating, smoker central: basking in the brutal midday rays, a churlish row of indigenous deadenders, high-maintenance lushes, physical illiterates milled about in various stages of Sedentary Death Syndrome, sullen guys all clutched up in their smoldering pathologies, shrinking java men sucking on their crusty mustaches with hands stuffed deep in their empty pockets, eyes downcast for loose change and salvageable, smoldering filter-tip butts.
“Yah, bud, I believe in the power of words, alright, and how I use ‘em to say what I really truly believe…in my mind, that is. I just start rantin’…I mean, there may be times when it sounds like I don’t know, but you better know that I know, deep down. And that’s all I need to know. You know, you never know, right?”
The tautological sniping and rancor seemed as out of place today as this dead poets society’s heavily layered clothes. Two idle housepainters hunched over the table nearest Mecca’s doors: a paintball in latex-flecked coveralls continued beseeching his colleague in the primer-coated hooded sweatshirt. While Paulen seemed momentarily distracted by the bull session, not to mention Mork’s manic riffing with some S.F.P.D. uniforms over at the cop stand, I was getting dizzy, somewhat retroactively so, what with all the recidivist bombast and invective. Or maybe it was doc’s contentious attitude in Mecca’s, or the peripheral sight of the old Elite Café over across Fillmore.
“Plenty of disturbed street people around here too, I see,” said Paulen.
“Never can tell,” I dodged. “Lotta these guys are just a payday away…”
“Well, then don’t believe me, asshole,” snapped the coveralled painter, “maybe I am a little crazy. But on my meds, I’m A-OK.”
“Must be a little hitch in their getalong,” Paulen slid back over, as if to nudge me away, toward the streetcorner, Mecca Java’s Mideast music soundtrack quickly fading in the face of live tuning and jamming, overdubbed by some Will Downing and Kenny G blaring from a KBLX radio booth straight ahead.
“Yeah,” I muttered, that sort of crowd still giving me the shivers to this day. I reached in through a dark-blue fleece vest—my favorite to be sure: straight-up collar, plenty of pockets in the original Banana Republic style, not least this little lower-back number they had sewn into the lining, sorta like a shoplifter’s coat, through which I could pick at personal stashes of breath mints and all. “Something like that…”
“Well, I see that at least the ol’ Elite hasn’t changed much over there,” Paulen peered past the crowd, catching sight of Dennis Quaid’s private party being ushered into a bustling wood-paneled bistro, frozen in Hammett/Bogart time. “Although I remember it better as the Asia Grill.”
“Right…sorry to say, so do I…”
As we merged into foot traffic, a trim, unspeakably bespoke tailored former mayor flying-wedged between us, linebacker posse clearing the way. Willie Brown had just emerged from Mrs. Dewson’s Hats sporting her latest gun-gray Borsalino, daiquiri feather in its brandy sash. He’d had much to do with jumpstarting this weekend’s proceedings, so much political capital invested in a Fillmore District reborn, and was determined to glide and preside over the length and breadth of this scene—all twelve blocks of it—legacy driven, term limits be damned. That’s why I yielded to da Mayor emeritus and his entourage, still cutting a wide, glad-handing swath, Paulen nimbly deferring to him just the same.
“Now all we need is Governor Moonbeam to show up—talk about Celebrity City,” he watched Robin bound away from the cop stand out California Street, Macchiato in hand, his jacket’s U.S.O. sleeve patch reflecting the sun rays, memento from holidays spent bringing hopped-up Hope to a raw redeployment of overseas troops, good morning, Bagram and Baghdad—open-hearted tiger that he was. “The only action I’ve been seeing in Boulder of late are stringer tabloid news crews and the occasional ailing Dan Fogelberg sighting when he can manage to get out. Hear he’s not well. these days.
“Well, there’s always Ralphie the mascot…” Ex-mayor aside, I found myself averting from the crowds and Elite Café, over to a rock-solid brick face apartment building across the California-Fillmore intersection, a brown and white fortress that shook and swayed like the devil during Loma Prieta, that copy shop I swore was coming down on top of us, women shrieking, guys ducking as reams and cartons of colored papers tumbled from throbbing store shelves, Xerox machines seizing up in power failure.
There I was, crawling on all fours, clutching my egg-shell business card stock out CopyLand’s door—onto California Street, where opposing store fronts waggled, pavement rolled, sightlines shifting, sewers spewing forth into dusty traffic stalls while utility lines crackled and whipsawed out past the Presidio Heights horizon to the sea. Would the shaking and rumbling ever end? Would one more earth wave bring all these buildings down in smoky heaps of brick and board?
But of course that was another tale entirely. Presently, there was this further diversion, up there through a crosshatching tangle of overhead trolley wires and junction switches, to that bright red airship hovering against a clear cyan sky. Block letter stenciled along its near side in white was the word, RELAY…or was it REPLAY? No matter, for as the blimp droned into a 180-degree turn, the flip side read, of all things, SATURN.
“You try engaging a charging buffalo,” Paulen replied, still drawing a bead on Robin, now climbing into the shotgun side of a pitch-black Range Rover waiting near Steiner Street. Mork quickly vanished, slamming behind smoked windows, beaming off to his Sea Cliff birdcage, an au pair Mindy whisking him away. Whispers were he was enroute to St. Helena for a rehab holiday, if not irreconcilable marital trouble in a Wine Country hideaway. A comic’s lament, perhaps, for even a clown gets down before coming back around—as if he’d ever learn.
“Oh, Christ—Ralphie…CU mascot and a half.” On the queasy side, I could but flash on that thick foggy night out on Clement Street, fleeing from mickNORAIDers and South Dublin gunrunners forcibly fundraising in the Mossy Bog Public House. Then there was Robin Williams, improvising at the Holy City Zoo several blocks away, riffing on a late Sunday night, filching jokes, thoroughly upstaging John Cantu. How he ever got away with it still escaped me to this day: climbing on that squad car’s hood at closing time, taunting both cops through their windshield, pounding glass in what the shotgun side cracked had to be a cocaine rage. They just laughed and nodded as he Mork flew away into the gray, soupy dark toward 6th Avenue. Oh, what a night: Saviors though they were, the uniforms couldn’t begin to grokk him then, either.
“Loveable ol’Mork—immensely talented. He’s a Jew by choice, you know, like Liz Taylor,” Paulen said in passing, leading us on our little walk-talk. “Ah, yes, gorgeous Elisheva Rachel herself. Want to head up Fillmore? I’ve already been down that way…”
“Pro choice, huh,” I muttered, as we drifted into line with the next pedestrian bridge crossing California to the forced whistles of pseudo-cop security guards—here, at the virtual epicenter of JazzStreet I. “And, sad to say, I’ve been down there too.”
Sure, this may not have been the full-blown midsummer Fillmore Street Jazz Festival, but JazzStreet was the next best gig. A dozen or so barricaded blocks of worldly music, native arts, gluttony and simmering mayhem, da Mayor Emeritus’s pet jazz festival was designed to pick up the tempo of the Fillmore’s cultural rebirth of the cool. ‘Down there’ of course meant The District itself—more specifically, the Jazz Preservation District, a storied City neighborhood rebounding after being torn asunder by 1960s redevelopment. Live jazz stretched all the way to Ellis, gettin’ down there past shabby, scissor-barred storefronts, rickety Carpenter’s Gothic apartment houses and boxy bland, tall mall/condo towers.
Lower Fillmore once bore shades of tonal greatness, eminently Harlem West: Duke, Dizzy, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins slipping into ‘the Mo’ on the down-low, sleek black Roadmaster coupes delivering these giants to the Blue Mirror, Club Flamingo, Jack’s Tavern, Juneteenth at the Texas Playhouse, or New Orleans Swing Club for a little rainy late-night jamming after hotel headlining atop Nob Hill. On lucky nights, Lady Day would be sitting in with John Handy, Pony Poindexter, Stanley Willis and Vernon Alley over at Jimbo’s Bop City—Teddy Edwards’s tenor sax blowing everybody out of that cozy cigar box of a place, over to the Bal Masque Ballroom or Blackshear’sCafé Society.
Hard-earned chops, old school dedication—Fillmore’s timeless jazz masters blanched at what was to come of their brassy jams, the whole straight-ahead 4/4 syncopated milieu. White rabbits, white noise, white grave crosses: Ghosts of Reverends Jones and Bill Graham, the Beatified Triangle of Winterland, the People’s Temple and Fillmore West, were by now mostly bulldozed into yesteryears’ infamy and lore. God knew, the Charlatans and snake charmers had long given the entire district a bad case of the twelve-bar blues. But the Fillmore was finally getting its groove back, after, lo, these many years.
Hence right about now, the Preservation Big Band was anchoring a distant Ellis Street sound stage, getting Basie down for the Count. Sonny Foster’s Trio was wringing mileage out of “Round About Midnight at the Blackhawk” in that smooth new District club serving up Ethiopian cuisine across from the old Chicago Barber Shop. The Swing Sisters mugged early Ella on that windblown turf over Geary Street, in the imposing shadow of Big Brother, of the Dead, Quicksilver Messenger and the Old Fillmore’s other dearly departed. Some Motley McGuires Band would be blowin’ the Doors off the upstairs auditorium on this Saturday evening, or so its jumbotron marquee would have us believe.
I continued peering down mid-Fillmore to the District, where the legit action was—so telephoto close yet perspectively far—everything scrunched together amid all that jazz. Street merch, that is—certifiable credwear, the real Afro-cultural deal. Smoke billowed up from the general vicinity of O’Farrell Street, from deep vats of Cajun red beans and Baweri Jambalaya, pool-sized open grills of corncobs and fatback ribs.
Seriously cut, pumped-up homies in full black-striped sweats inhaled hubcap platefuls of gumbo, kabobs and deep-fried snapper, gangsta leaning against rap or cognac-posteredlightpoles, dagger-eyeing the colors and pit bulls on parade. Turned-out full figure squeezes tended street stands flush with tribal print dashikis, feather boas, Rastafarian leather and Zulu ceremonial head dresses—red, green and yellow-trimmed—alongside onyx toe rings and suede-braided hookahs on stacked CDs ranging from Master Mamou to the Machete Ensemble to bootlegged Sugar Pie de Santo
“Yes, I noticed on this flyer that the jazz fest is spread out in venues all over town,” Paulen pulled a neon green leaflet out of his jacket’s breast pocket. “I was discussing it with this chap who recommended I begin at the beginning—made sense, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I suppose that when you’re not sure what you’re looking for, that’s always the best place to start. Anyway, it’s been quite a while since I’d been down that way myself before today.”
“Incidentally, do you know what the Fillmore was before it became jazz central?”
“Before? No, I don’t go back quite that far…” I gave space to a noted San Francisco dandy, fresh from lower Fillmore in spiffy graphite corduroy jacket, violet linen high-collar shirt and cabernet bow tie, splendid grey bowler lid matching his straight, pleated slacks—smiling like a greeter at some Big-Four hotel symposium, rabbit’s foot swinging from a lapel chain.
“The Jewish Fillmore, that’s what. Enterprising Jews like Flamm, Goldstein, Koblick and Goldenrath veritably built the district, mostly migrating over from south of the slot. Shops like Shenson’s, Waxman’s Eagle Market, Diller’s Strictly Kosher Restaurant; Temple Beth on Geary and the Webster Street Shul. Prominent Yekkas and the like had been there since Gold Rush days, then Zionists and socialists teemed in, with an orthodox pocket on McAllister. Yes, it’s a proud history, all right. Don’t ask me how I know all this, but not bad for an expat, hey?”
“So I’ve heard—really, pretty…interesting,” I replied, not exactly catching the connection. Interesting, for sure—that neutral, non-committal nether word, sort of a manicured, better mannered whatever. It was like saying you were dismissing something as baseless, or ‘it is what it is’. On the other hand, this little factoid was good to know, to file away, even though I could have sworn I’d heard it somewhere before. We parted like the Red Sea for a pair of black denim clad headbangers, heavy on the chrome studs and chains, full up with heinous tattooed body art. “But I guess World War II changed that, huh?”
“Suburbanization, interfaith assimilation,” Paulen asserted, as we closed ranks again. “Alas, I remember my mother always saying, nothing good lasts long in San Francisco for long.”
It was during my earlier sweep down fair that gangs of this gritty, edgier crowd had peeled off behind the NawlinsZydeco Band marching across Fillmore’s overpass, hog Harleys and Munibuses roaring along the Geary tunnel below. I mentioned stopping by the Boom-Boom Room, for a late-morning retroblast of some dark and dirty Chicago-laced blues, long-lost visions of Willie Dixon, Muddy and Buddy Guy–seeing if John Lee might still be Hookin‘ in his private red leather booth. Paulen countered that from Geary on, the tempo eased, lyrics got cleaner, the Sangria sweeter, everything seemed to lighten up, block by city block. Still, down there was not where we were headed anyway, at least for now.
“Sooo, you left Boulder for the Bay,” I still wondered why here, why now, as we turned our backs on it all, ready to explore the counterpoints not yet taken. “What is it that brings you back to San Francisco?”
“Why, I came for the rainbow weddings at City Hall,” Paulen mused. “What else?”
“No, seriously…” He couldn’t be serious. For a fleeting moment, it was almost like back in the day, the two of us comparing footnotes and citings, contrasting annotations—petty caviling and plagiarism never far from the margins—somewhere between clashociates and frenemies. I mean, what was he taking me for now, some kind of lost and found moron? Well, I’d show him I could hang with him, wherever the hell this went. Still, his crack did set me to wondering.
“Or was it the waters? After all, you know dry Colorado can be. Moreover, I felt I had to take a little break from the heat.”
“Yeah, beating the heat—I can remember Colorado…” I should have remembered, after all the time spent deconstructing and reconstructing the whole damn wipeout. How do you forget such an open-and-shut, prima facie case of intrapersonal manslaughter? Sure enough, I could remember like it was last doomsday.