Chapter Twenty-Four

“Looking over your shoulder
will likely provide much
food for thought…

I dunno—people seek people search for answers…”

What people? Who has the time for such foolishness?”

Think she sees most of her clients after the bars close…”

That I will never understand, huffed Reese Paulen. Doesn’t it just make you want to take her whole scam out? And I dont mean to dinner.”

Who, me? No…why would…

The irony was not lost on me that this Debrina person had opened her storefront psychic parlor virtually around the corner on Chestnut from where Dame Thornia had mortally transited from her Fillmore Street sanctorum. Lots of baroque blond upholstery with cheap guilded trim, minus the astrology books and a tubby, fusty minion like Richard Muntz—passing of the augory, and all that.

Yet I had basically moved on from that whole star-crossed enterprise, save for the latest contrails and afterburnings of this second Saturn spin. And Reese Paulen was having none of it, at all. Charts, reading, the same zodiacal flim-flam, still, the similarities stopped there. It was like comparing bog apples and oranges, which so far was getting me nowhere but here.

I know this dude, he’s like bald, pudgy, about five foot-two…”    

 “Real dog catcher, huh? Total loser…”

 “Naw, he’s always with these epic chicks, man. I asked him—whaddup with that? He says, every great chick has one night she regrets—and that’s my niche…”

 “Yeah, niche, that’s happening. I wanna be every one of these hot chicks’ bad call…hey there, mama, show me your C-section and slip up! That’s what I’m talkin’ about…”

“Not nonchalant, dude…waaay chalant…”

  Two salt puckered, bay winded sailboarders were kickin’ back, buttholes at ease, sun drying on a hair salon’s waiting bench in their Speedo baggies and O’Neill tanks. But their gazes kept glazing over to the display window next door, its logo reading, London’s Britches. Featured therein was an eyeful of frilly, frothy ladies’ lingerie—more for boogie nights and the boudoir than business hours or body bars. Sultry and playfully sexy: the paisley panties, black silky slips and chemises, lacy chiffon camisoles, peek-a-boo peignoirs and leopard-spotted bustiers were making well focused groupies of these usually wander-eyed guys, turbo charging the gal fixation around these parts, this slipstream of gorgeous Marina women.

  Nevertheless, Britches was British classy and whimsical about its retail peep show—no NorCal Frederick’s of Hollywood they—sort of Victoria’s Secret, cast in more blushingly Victorian tones. So the nice ‘n’ naughty little shop in turn had women slyly window shopping to reload their drawers, and me wondering why I’d barely noticed the place before. As for the windsurfers, they were manning up in their bleach-bum shag cartoon hair, licking Citrus Squeeze smoothies, sharing a Strawberry Surf Rider, mentally dragging and dropping pink-violet brassieres and tangerine thongs onto all the hot young chicks and baby dolls passing by, itchin’ to snatch for the junk in their trunks…as, however furtively, were Paulen and I.

  What some guys won’t do, huh?”

 Wouldn’t know, won’t catch me doing that,” doc replied, no longer speak that primal language, what about you?”

  “Yeah, better the more casual approach, can totally relate to that. Least best is usually best,” I reflected, as we churned past the two waterlogged niche players still riding the styling salon’s wobbly pine, moving further along down Chestnut Street, bangered crumpets in our britches, and strumpets on our minds. “It’s like with your motherland thing with the blood feud over there. Maybe your not speaking the Arab language is part of the problem.”

  “That being,” Paulen asked, closely alongside.

 “The ‘not understanding’ part…either way…”

  “What’s to understand? Strap on a suicide belt, blow Israel into oblivion—the Palestinians are dying to take that country out any way they can,” he said, in lockstep, eyes adance. “And Israel’s got to stop them, anyway it can.”

 “Ri,ri,ri,right…think I understand. How does that truism go? You can’t unring a bell. Evidently, and in the Mideast, you can’t unsnarl ancient hatreds, can’t uncall a wall.” I really didn’t mean to keep poking this hornet’s nest; then again, I supposed I did. I mean, here we were, and there it be.

  The hair salon itself was Oleg’s Unisex Design, a gold Genovese crest on its bright red, white and green awning peeling away after decades in the sun. Now, however, its styling was mostly unosex—that is, older Marina padronas still clinging to their 1970s chic. Nothing fancy, thank you, surely nothing too nouveau: Oleg’s seemed permed in the boldness of another era—roller sets, cellophanes, bang trims and root touch-ups, with period Formica counters and consoles, Senior Citizen Specials stenciled onto the window glass behind that waiting bench in sclerotic perpetuity.

   Been here since the Me Decade, stuck there ever since. Could have been this salon was one of those Bay Area businesses that long ago sold out to immigrant interests, disoriented émigrés from the four corners with more investment cash than language skills. Dedicated, but lost in the translation, they took over established local concerns, then ran them strictly as is, worked them to death without changing anything but the price lists, usually downward, until founding owners swooped back in for the distress sale, or long-familiar doors closed unceremoniously in the dead of night. Then again, it might have been that Oleg himself and his signorinas were just gel set in their 70s Genovese ways.

  “Hmph, understand, do you? Great, it’s only been going on just about 60 years now,” Paulen said, stepping aside for a late-lunching reference librarian who had just emerged with frosted tips. “In any case, what I was referring to before was Israel turning away provocateurs of any stripe at its borders. We’ve ventured into freighted territory here, and there simply is no turning back.”

  “That a fact,” I wandered. “Hmm, can’t remember if the salon was here when I first came to town…” So who knew, maybe She did pencil in there for a highlight rinse back then. All I knew was we were closing in on thorny, volatile territory, stretching back to way back then, sweeping from Aquatic Park’s steamy bathhouse bleachers to the windy, rotting runways of Crissy Field—that whole first-round Saturnine meshugass.

  “Not this territory, but terror and violence in the Levant. How the Arabs have been attacking Israel all along.”

  “Well, I do know a little bit, doc…enough to where I’m thinking I can hang with it…” Sure enough, even with these sideswiping distractions, I could multitask, could walk and spit up with the best of them

  Oleg’s aside, we circumnavigated a jerking circle of energized young runners outside the FootFactor store next door, there stretching their calves, Achilles and quads, jogging in place to the beat of their bicep-strapped I-Pods, oblivious to the generational divide within the side walls of the flat-faced double storefront façade. Running their mouths as much as their on-road Mizuno trainers, this was more a social than balls-out competitive crew, frustrated cubicle slaves working off a 60-hour week mining data at the corporate keyboard.

Their material reward? Sleek, aerodynamic compression singlets and race-day gear shorts, sweat release mesh distance tops and Coolmax side-vented motion skorts: We cautiously rounded this bouncing post-grad scrum in their stretchy red sleeveless mock turtles, black nylon splice knickers, silver Madison track pants and yellow cross-back jog bras.

Honestly, how could these friction-free tonic crops be so near to London Britches’s frilly bustiers, yet have morphed so aerobically far? Suddenly, a blur of water bottles, swooshed visors and overpronating Asics and Sauconys took our breaths away as these weekend half-marathoners heel-struck en masse up Chestnut, herding toward a breast cancer 10k on the Marina Green. Feeling so old and in the way, we paused for second wind by FootFactor’s running calendar kiosk—full of ads for upcoming fun runs, from Eugene to Big Sur, to San Luis, Laguna and Cabo—all that stretching, so much tensil strength and endurance before us.

“Hmph, you may think you know what is going on over there, Herbert,” Paulen said cryptically, “but you don’t, can’t begin to fathom what you don’t know. Clearly you could stand to be schooled on a few things about the Middle East today.”

“OK, I know,what the hell do I know?” Then I averted to a sudden ruckus on the fringes of Steiner Street’s open market, beyond the dissonant intersection of organic fiber/fructose and the sugar fatty cholesterol of All-Star donuts and coffee.

“So let’s keep that in mind before we go waving any watermelon colored flags, shall we?”

“Hey, I’m not taking sides…” Either that, or I just still couldn’t make up my mind on anything this…freighted.

Forget the banner headlines blaring Supervisor Jew’s city hall troubles. More local throwaway papers’ main front-page spreads lately had been on what was shaping up to be this particular farmer’s market’s last stand. Picketing at the event’s edges were a cordon of neighborhood activists for hire: busybodies with far too much time on their hands, reputedly under the direction of a leading Marina provocateur with an ambitious agenda all her own.

Their placards read, ‘Not Fresh!’, ‘Not Fair Trade!’, ‘Not Preservative and Pesticide-Free!’, claiming there was something rotten along Steiner Street. But how could anyone sniff out anything tainted or toxic amid that one-block stretch of canopied fruit and vegetable stands, collectively bringing wholesome farm produce from all over California to the Marina’s concrete urban climes?

Even from this far side of Chestnut, doc and I could savor the collective aroma: baskets of sweet strawberries from Watsonville, leafy lettuce and spinach from Salinas and San Joaquin, tree-ripened cherries from Brentwood—peaches, plums and apricots from orchards north; Castroville artichokes, heirloom tomatoes and citrus from the southland, table grapes from Madera or Bakersfield.

Corner to corner, curb to curb, Steiner’s instantly successful Saturday market was garnished with samplings of north coast salmon, farmstead cheeses from Sonoma, hot, doughy breadstuffs from mid-Peninsula bakeries. Toss in trellis racks of luscious fresh-cut flowers, some banjo-picking folk singers—and city-bound shoppers could easily get carried away to Sebastopol and Kelseyville for the day.

“Very well then, if you are interested, my study of Middle East history affirms that Israel was already well under siege on May 14, 1948, its glorious Day of Independence.”

Interested, me? Of course…I’d have to be…” Yeah, history, lots of it, going way back. Really, what was I supposed to say? No thanks, enough already, for chrissake, could care less. Come on, how could I not be interested? “After all, Israel is the swizzler that stirs the Mideast cocktail, right?”

“Hmph, you seem to act as though Jews have no right to their land,” Paulen continued with nary a blink, coursing us through a bag line of nibbling shoppers and over-exercised seniors. “You can trace Jewish claim to Israeli land as far back as the Old Testament Days of Prophecy. Take the Book of Genesis: God promised all of Israel as a homeland for the Jews, from the Euphrates to the sea. This is all preordained, the stuff of antiquity—it didn’t just start yesterday.”

“Amen to that…as a matter of fact, I have long been wondering about the Energizer Bunny nature of the whole Mideast thing.” Sure, I didn’t want to come across as inhospitable, or god forbid, anti…history. Yeah, listen up, this guy needs to talk for some reason, and there’s a part of me that says, be my guest, go ahead—just like they said. “I don’t think I get why that’s so…I mean c’mon, why can’t they just sit down and settle that mess like sensible people, already?”

Problem was, Marina throngs in organic thrall: the prospect no longer smelled so sweet to immediate commercial concerns. Already tense over a rash of thuggish street crime, certain district quarters voiced alarm over the added market trash, the increased traffic congestion, but most of all the congestive conflict of interest. Whispered word over our shoulders contended that a cabal of Marina merchants had put the contra demonstrators up to it, sick of the cluttered street fair ambience, of street shoppers loading up on fresh produce, then shunning surrounding brick and mortar stores on their way home—the whole nutty notion of indie growers siphoning off foot traffic from established supermarket agribrands, pushing recycled paper over retail plastic like nobody’s business.

But inciting this food feud even further was a neighborhood agitprop who was said to be sabotaging the Steiner farmer’s market to pave the way for her rival operation over by Fillmore Street’s middle school, along with the aid and comfort of a certain dress shopkeeper directly behind us. According to the local newsrags, any such conspiracy was bruited to be working, as the market organization running this certifiably successful affair had grown weary of the protests, entangled concessions, tired of greasing city hall palms—was finally running out of permits and patience.

So the farmers were now beginning to fold up their demo stalls amid the picketers’ shoutdowns and catcalls, already packing away their veggie baskets and fruit boxes, resigned to hosing down perfectly wholesome supply, even in the face of still-healthy community demand. Seemed like nobody really won here except the usual neighborhood nabobs of negativism, leaving a bitter taste in a good many other Marina mouths. Then again, it took money to move mountains in Everybody’s Favorite City.

“Pu-lease…just research Middle East history for yourself, Herbert. This struggle is Homeric,” Paulen stressed. “It has taken overcoming desecrations, world wars, a hellacious Shoah and that fanatical terrorism to actually begin fulfilling the prophecy of the Promised Land.”

“Ri,ri,ri,right—but two promised, one land, huh,” I said. There you go, bring a little good Mideast knowledge to the table, keep the ball rolling. Yessir, we’ve gotten this far, so if the professor here aims to continue with his bullet points, let’s see where else they land… “And haven’t I read where early Jewish gangs did their share of tormenting Palestinians from the get-go?”

“A necessary bit of freedom fighting, Herbert—insurgent Israeli pioneers struggling against British occupation and Arab hatred, whatever it took,” he acknowledged. “Especially when you take into account Jewish vulnerability and desperation at the time. What were poor, displaced Jews supposed to do, float their way to Greenland?”

“North Africa, the white highlands, I’ve heard Uruguay’s nice,” I said, pretty much off the top of my head, maybe too far off—top of my splitting headache, at that. “But seriously, sometimes it is hard to figure why they ended up smack in the middle of such hostile territory.”

“Very funny—but is Uruguay the Jews’ ancient biblical homeland? The ITO’s  Galveston, Cyrenaica? Was it the land where the Kingdom of Israel flourished in 1000 B.C.? I think not—that’s like trying to deny the Irish their island,” he insisted, pressing his point over the electric rumble of a hard charging MUNI bus. “Any wonder refugees piled onto rust buckets home bound for Haifa and Nablus in 1947, struggling to overcome their European nightmare…”

“Well if you ask me, it’s like the postwar U.N. plan was giving a land of no totally defined people to the people of no land at all.” The Stockton bus having trollyed along, I picked up on some banjo riffs over on Steiner, not bad, somewhere between David Bromberg and early Ry Cooder. “Pushing out a whole slew of Palestinians in the process…”

You could call such messy boycotts and demonstrations the price of doing small business in hyper territorial San Francisco; witness the eternal strife of opposing peoples laying claim to one precious parcel of ground. Even so, what were they thinking? Farmer’s markets on a Steiner Street already lined with restaurants, wall to wall? Bordering one side alone were Parma Italian, Hibachi Korean, Spanish tapas and French-inspired Montequilla, gourmet burgers, grilled skewers, Bouillabaise with Seabass, Orecchiette with Pancetta, and saffron paella with nectar wine.

The west sidewalk of restaurant row fronted thin-crust east coast pizza, contemporary Vietnamese, country Chinese, rock ‘n’ roll Wasabi and greaser, wet-aged steaks & chops—never mind the nearby donut and gourmet sweet chocolate shops. For that matter, neither did organic farmer produce quite square with the Nudie Sushiria: What did granny apples and free-range rutabagas have to do with Edamame, Unagi, Hamachi Kama, Gyoza, Miso Walu-tini or Moriawase Plate? Doc and I chewed over that dislocation as we turned past the Bonzai grill and wine bar to shuffle once again up Chestnut.

“Your terms, not mine—but the sad truth is Palestinians never had constituted a recognized nation. Make no mistake, Israel is real, unlike some mythical land called Palestine. Moreover, Arabs generally rejected that eminently fair U.N. partition plan in 1948 that Israel’s founder embraced, I might add.. And Israelis have been fighting off their threats and attacks ever since.”

“Do you mean real, as in with facts on the ground? Juuusst asking…” And yet, this impudence didn’t quite square with the incipient shaking and rattling as we rolled on along. I could feel it down to my fingertips, deep into the side pockets of my neurological genes, whilst I was getting a bit wobbly in the walking shoes.

“Defensible borders, my friend,” Paulen said quizzically, seeming to re-size me up and down—qualitatively and quantitatively, as the case may be. “Secure, defined borders for their homeland—we’re looking at survival, pure and simple—you do see that, don’t you Herbert? After all, it isn’t 1917 in the Middle East anymore.”

“Yeah, but simple survival only gets you so far…this much, I know.” Personal knowledge—hard earned, to be sure. Still, this knot on my noggin was growing like a hybrid organic radish, along with a near migraine of Nietzschian proportions.

Back to Chestnut Street, I did happen to recall the safe harbor refuge a roomy, skylit book/café was back then—the one that formerly occupied this retail space in those personal survival days. Now home to Rue Seine, how a funky/flannel farmer’s market might be soiling this haute designer dress shop’s business was anybody’s guess.

We passed that salmon pink and green double storefront, toward another Art Deco-style duplex. A more offbrand women’s fashion retailer anchored its street level space, with an old green eyeshade CPA-steno-notary outfit still cooking the books one flight upstairs, as though there were long black Packards and Kaiser-Frasers full of bagmen parked curbside below, ill-suited myrmidons puffing stogies and flasking down for the count.

A much larger former bank branch served next door as a reminder that even on Chestnut Street, Pottery Barn rules applied: to wit, the crockery chain broke the place down, and were gutting, renovating the cavernous space like they owned it. Transition, downmarket to relentlessly upstyle, in the rub of a dust-styed eye. On second thought, maybe my bitter taste was product of the smoky tar wagon some roofers had planted between two sickly, misplaced sycamore trees overhanging the sidewalk, directly out front of the stone-glazed Barn.

Defensive point made, Paulen glanced up at an array of massive rooftop billboards for assorted import beer and cognac, then digressed with a trace of consternation to reflect on how Boulder also had its share of food fights, only on a supermarket scale—e-mail attacks, stock manipulation, greenbelts, if not green lines, before he sighed: “Scuttling a harmless little farmer’s market for godsakes. So much for San Francisco’s peace, harmony and the Summer of Love…”

We dodged a crew of orange coveralled workers outbound from the Pottery Barn. I peeked inside to a workplace of speckled drop-cloths and plastering scaffold planks and support pipes, drywall dust reflecting up through a battery of floodlights, then settling back down over painter poles, power drills, scissors lifts, rolling job boxes and red-hosed compressors, humming seven days a week to meet a tight grand reopening deadline. Huge preview window posters already showcased florid draperies and mohair ottomans, white wicker patio tables and red leather easy chairs—though with not a whole lot of Pottery in the picture.

“Hey, that all was San Francisco decades ago,” I said, after noting how Wild Oats couldn’t carve out much of a niche on Chestnut Street either. Momentarily catching my gaze again, that had to be bad smoke rising up there on the Heights, sure as the Divisadero inferno once rose down this way. “It’s not 1967 here anymore…” Let alone some eleven years hence

 Care for more?

Chapter Twenty-Five. With the
discussion homing in on ever-more-relevant issues
Middle East, identities blur some, past altercations
closing in—albeit amid scaled-up surroundings…