“A confluence of influences
can distort the music
to your ears.”
“Agh, Polk Street—they’ ve got every little spot marked off—can’t stand here, that doorway’ s mine…”
“What about Market Street?”
“Store pigs—put up no trespassing signs, hatin’ on the homeless, call the pigs on you. I’m, like, don’t go tasin’ me, bro .”
“Then what about Union Square?”
“Nawww, soon as you get up some dead presidents, the muggers rip you off.”
“With all them hardcore stinkin’ homeless down there?! ”
“OK, Chestnut Street…”
“And get rund over by all the goddamn jog-gers? I’m tellin’ you, it’s murder out here…”
It felt like the traffic lights had been stuck on red for hours. Reese Paulen and I had fled the Town Tavern to-do without further incident, bypassing the empty Intensive Pilates’ hardwood floor and modern-day wundas and pedipoles, and totally deserted sham Irish pub, for the nothing ventured, nothing gained touch-and-go tourists who scuffled around this stretch increasingly as the day wore on. Which delivered us unto Lombard Street—its straight and narrow, not famous corkscrew stretch—however crooked this touro-ghetto may have been as well. Here, a dozen or so short blocks of tasteless restaurants, charmless shack-up motels and pseudo-San Francisco nightlife bilked captive out-of-towners with slimmer budgets and even skimpier imaginations or appetites for adventure.
We soon stalled along with a herd of Middle Americans at a yellow, waffled handicap cut-out for the Fillmore Street crosswalk, just outside a greasy KFC/Taco Bell on the brink of demolition in favor of a new, improved, transfat-free facade. Waiting out the pedestrian timer, our slumping little bunch quailed at the two-way roar of Highway 101’s traffic—the parade of weekend-packed SUVs—inhaling diesel smoke spewing from decapitated open-air busloads of tourists bound back and forth from the Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods, not to mention the artery clogging aroma of fried chicken and spuds.
Tailgating the northern flow, a black bar windowed hard-time express up from the LA Department of Corrections, fumed toward for the Big House at San Quentin. I could only flash on a jaundiced, joint-liberated JT, reigning over there in Aquatic Park. Then there was this mouthy panhandler squatting stoutly between The Colonel and a MUNI shelter, jobbing a mocha-clutching visitor in a teal Sharks hockey jersey—the same chucklehead we’d seen tangling with the liquor storeowner up on Union Street, a street person I recognized I had spotted many times, in way too many places before.
“So, you stay at the shelters, or…”
“Naww, man—them places is snakepits.” Hap Hazzerd, a prematurely toothless beggar now bundled in oversized Goodwill winter layers covering his tracks and a flat-billed BevMo ballcap, cradling an ‘I Am A Diabetic Depressive’ sign, dragging heavily on a scavenged butt, talking shop with a stroll by Frappucino-lathered sightseer, stupid calling out stupidity. “Me and my brutha has a system…”
“Brother?” These latter inquiries came from a wheelchair and crutch case respectively, waiting to board the next 22 Fillmore, to demand their rights, hold up the jam-packed bus and be raised on the front door’s handicap lift, grinding traffic to a bitter halt—if need be, even fixing to make a Federal case out of it.
“My older bro, Hop—he got the corner across Lombard there, playing the jew’s harp,” said Hap. No musician he, but Hap did sport a tiny transistor radio in his coat’s vest pocket, nothing but the hits. “We split an SRO on our combined SSIs…”
“Mouth harp,” Paulen corrected, as we waited out the wail of an emergency siren rapidly gaining decibels up Lombard Street, nudging bumpers along the speedway lanes of this teeming armrest-tourism berth canal, creeping frantically through traffic hell bent on the Golden Gate, if not the redwood paradise beyond.
Hap’s tinny AM radio signaled a newsbreak bulletin, on the latest devastating car wreck beginning to block traffic up on Doyle Drive’s approach, further details squelched by the blood red and white blur of an SFFD Heavy Rescue Van. The very thought of another bridge ramp crash-and-burn took me groggily back to my first San Francisco visit, longer ago than I dared recall. That time, a Sausalito-bound Porsche Targa compacted into three grisly pieces against the curving toll plaza guardrail on a foggy Friday morning, its driver’s bodily whereabouts up in pre-dawn smoke and flames. Upon reflection, the sight of that sheer vehicular disintegration may well have been something of a personal omen: doomed projectile Porsches and the Marina, all over again.
“You know, I’m sorta getting a kinda headache here,” I said, dome feeling as if it were a honeydew melon in the Jaws of Life—occupational hazard, freelance assignment notwithstanding. In a residual TBI haze, I felt my ears ringing, or was it all the rubbed-raw meat in between them, the whole bell chiming in? So I was doing a personal concussion protocol: How many fingers? Where are you? What day is it? What are you doing here?! “Think I might peel off and head back up the hill…”
“Nonsense, isn’t there a drug store somewhere near here?”
“I guess, around the corner on Chestnut there…” Yeah, hmm, that gruelling climb back to whatever remained of a roily old house…maybe, maybe not…
Lombard traffic slowly re-merging up to a red light, we prepared to cross, though not before ingesting one last snootful of pre-heated Extreme Quesadillas and Burritos bel Grande, and a breaking newsradio report on Israel’s latest rocket strike at Gaza’s Hamas targets. Giving ground to the passing ambulance, then a silver Chevy Tahoe wheeling out of a cookie cutter motel across Fillmore into the Lombard back-up, we nervously traversed six wide yellow-striped lanes of agitated motorists and a center divider of sooty, exhausted shrubs.
“So then we’ll go get you some Tylenol,” Paulen said, looking both ways, gauging the braking distance of an oncoming Golden Gate Transit coach. “Honestly, you can’t strand me here in tourist hell. Besides, you were going to show me to that other jazz venue, were you not?”
“Oh, right—the ’Trane Tribute,” I rallied, feeling the squeeze from another angle, ducking in behind him, just ahead of a whale-painted San Anselmo bus, with its two trail bikes racked on front like the cow catcher of a old steam locomotive. Odd, this jazz riff, when the tune actually rocking my head at the moment was Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab I said no no no’. “It’s over at the Palace of Fine Arts.”
“Fine, Saint Coltrane, it is,” he said, as we safely reached the opposing curb. “In the meantime, you ask what’s to know. Well, for one thing, there’s Gaza, with Hamas acting out over there again. Seems we can’t get away from the Mideast business, now can we…”
“Can’t get away from the harp over there, either,” I snapped, glancing across Fillmore to brother Hop, twanging away, stomping his toe-scraped, heel-worn combat boot to a bluegrass beat in the doorway of a weekdays-only Honda service center, harping for pennies on the dollar tourists dropped into his floppy Yahoo beret. Like his brother, Hop had long ago progressed from feeding the pigeons to getting these pigeons to feed him. But Mideast business? Can’t get away? “Mideast? How ’bout let’s not, and be glad we didn’t…”
Truth was, I did feel a bit shaky, concussive woozy about then—possibly further from the diesel smoke fumes from a transplanted red double-decker London bus, waving with ‘jump on-jump off’ tourists up top. Maybe I would be better to stay the course here, rather than trudging back uphill on my own—path of least resistance, and all.
Anyway, it couldn’t hurt to see where he might be going with this Mideast stuff, where Saturn might be steering him—whether his second Rendezvous had rung true, much less mine. Dame Thornia wouldn’t have it any other way. What, for instance, did this fascination with Jewishness say about him? What did such a fixation say about him and Boulder? What did it say about him, Boulder and here? Or about me: this had nothing to do with me, per se—right? But how could I blow off the issue of Israel and the Arabs without coming off like some kind of nazi symp? On the other hand, what did my curiosity say about me?
“Easier said than unsaid, my friend…especially depending on your perspective.”
“My perspective? No thanks, I’ll pass,” I noticed how the elder Hazzerd brother was drawing a small crowd between him and the outbound MUNI stop, locals apparently waiting on the bus up to the Marin Headlands and Tennessee Valley, paying for the musical privilege with their nickels and dimes. “That Hop Hazzard’s not bad over there, huh?”
“How can he go wrong with a jew’s harp,” Paulen said drolly, now that we had passed traffic-snarled motel row comparatively bedbug free. Although he did seem to take note of the roving, mini-skirted whorology. Today, these usually solo streetwalkers were being herded, escorted by a legion of protesting slutwalkers, all virally aroused by rumors of a pole tax on city strip clubs, chanting the likes of, ‘Don’t assess our asses’ or ‘No tax on our racks’. “And what exactly does that imply…pass?”
“Nothing,” I wished I knew why the hell he would pick me to lay this on. Anyway, remember, let him do most of the talking—seemed like he was wont to do that anyhow. But he was going to be springing for the pain relievers, that was for damn sure. All right then, here goes nothing… “Just on the way Israelis and the Palestinians keep pounding at one another, that’s all…”
“Well, shouldn’t you care to know that for Israel’s part, it has been getting Qassam rocket shelled every day for months now, and they’re finally firing back,” he said, pausing to windowshop at yet another cell phone outlet. “Palestinians incinerate buses in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv cafes with their suicide girls and rabbi masquerades. Arabs turn everyday life into grotesque, twisted ruins, and drive Jewish citizens into bomb shelters and safe rooms. So Israel has no choice but to target the terrorist cowards. It’s retaliation, plain and simple, biblical eye for an eye…”
“But you’re a trained sociologist, doc,” I joined him in scanning the corner store’s display, full of cellular coverage maps, new Blackberry Curves, MP-4 Pod knockoffs, flimsy keyboards and wireless Jawbone hand/ear attachments, not unlike his own. “How are negative reinforcement and zero-sum annihilation getting anybody anywhere over there?”
“Look, I don’t care for the cross-border raids and air strikes any more than the next person, but what else are Israelis supposed to do,” he plained, as we moved on past an office front of a tech-savvy neighborhood dentist who pulled out all the gadget stops with video screens, poster perfect cosmetic smiles, sidewalk gag chopper implants and animated funhouse mirrors. “This transcends sociology. Israel is a little Jewish lifeboat in a welling sea of Arab hatred, which is precisely where their neighbors repeatedly vow to push them.”
“Into the sea, you mean,” I said, my poor teeth ached just thinking about the place, air-abrasion painless treatment, or no—while the air outside was now thick with the deep-dish aroma from a fresh Chicago-bred pizza parlor right there across Fillmore Street. “Haven’t Muslim militants tried that before?”
“When have they stopped trying? And this, after Israel agreed to give back Gaza—unilaterally, yet. Whatever happened to land for peace, for godsakes?!”
“You tell me, you’re the expert,” I recoiled. Here we were, the two of us trading takes, body language and facial tells—Paulen’s will-you-tell overture. And who knew what he or I actually thought about the subsoil they might reveal? “I only go by what’s in the news…”
We stepped around two lithe, flexing young women sweeping into an IsoBar Method yoga/exercise studio with pink and purple mat rolls slung over their shoulders. Frame straightening, core muscle toning, hip slimming, orthopedic isometrics for the younger, exclusively distaff side. I could recall when this place was a freeweight, no-holds-barred body bar, the district’s most notorious pick-up scene outside of the Marina Safeway. Paulen leered in as though he had never seen the likes of this before, unlikely though that was.
Drifting to how I used to circle this block in my clunky Volvo sedan, compelled to catch a glimpse of Her coming out of the hot and sweaty Nautilus Workout Center, whether and with whom she’d be toweling down with next. I remembered there was a laundromat across Fillmore Street there, where I would frantically wait out that heavy damn load.
Speeding up, heating up…like my white-matter brain was Schizoaffective Bipolar on a nitro-methane overdose, my aching cranium gripping atop its brainstem like a shrunken skull knob on a Viper shift control. Running myself through the ringer, spin cycling around the tumble dryer in my mind. Her, Chicago, hot and sweaty, just friends: It was all such dirty laundry—still is, swirling and twirling around…
“Besides, that Gaza gesture wasn’t easy, I’ll have you know,” Paulen added, dwelling upon studio photos of the firm female buns, tight abs and Speedo thighs IsoBar’s Method promotionally promised. “Even for an Ariel Sharon—there’s been a heavy political price to pay at home.”
“Seems like he’s paid a heavier price than that,” I said, as we encountered the fishy smell of a sleek, minimalist sushi bar, saki bombs away, which had just finished windowdressing its Yellowtail, Hamachi Poke, Red Dragon, Tonkatsu, Grated Wasabi and Sea Urchin Roe—so real, and colorfully raw, a glassy display that all but took my appetite by storm. “I mean, you know, stroke-wise…”
Yes, stroke-wise, round and round the block back then to a loopy Bob Seger beat, timing her high-toned escapade, catching a glimpse: The amalgamated aromas hereabouts were now making me dizzier, queasier—the mainline artery up my neck throbbing, suddenly starving for the salutary oxygen a passing 43 MUNI bus was snuffing out as it accelerated toward Lombard Street, ‘Justice for Palestine’ billboard on its side panel. Smoky diesel fumes clouded my view up Fillmore, prompting my imagination to run cloudy wild with submerged imagery.
“There see,” Paulen pointed, “the unmitigated gall.”
Not helping a bit were the young hipsters smoking up and down three floors of fire escapes in the slapped-together pastel apartment buildings across the street—wired, rent-stressed tenants puffing away like there was no pulmonary tomorrow. Sudden sirens… beyond Chestnut Street, there emerged anew an abject collapse of the lady’s stucco frame digs out into Fillmore’s southbound lanes, dire, precious minutes after Loma Prieta. Days later, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio himself was standing stoop-shouldered on line outside that massive white and aquamarine middle school, the Yankee Clipper waiting humbly for post-quake relief just like everybody else down here.
Then there was that magic night more than eight years before, when the long-suffering 49er Faithful roared back, exploding through this very intersection in anarchic Super Bowl celebration, torching furniture mid block, ripping down trolley wires and parading along Chestnut Street in ‘Niner colored convertibles and full football souvenir regalia. Endlessly honking airhorns…so much going on…
The lingering essence of Maui Wowie, a boozy cheer and smear of 49er banners… Caught up in such Super victorious mayhem, we had ducked into fabled Marina Joe’s, there at the corner, that crazy January night, joining all the delirious neighborhood Dagos for dinner after working up a powerful post-game hunger. But by now, Joe’s joynt had ventured over to the darker side—evolving through the years and Chapter 11 eateries that followed into a slick young dinner club painted boulevard black, serving up Caprese Skewers, Bearnaise Benedict and bottomless Mimosa—this, in an old school Marina dive where we’d once gorged on Anchor Steam drafts and Hangtown Fries, toasting the nascent ‘Niner Dynasty amid a euphoric, chaotic sea of the new NFL Champion’s red and gold.
Diesel plumes slowly dissipating, about all I could spot beyond Chestnut Street at the moment, however, were more tangled trolley wires and the return of that Saturn airship—well above block upon Fillmore block of retrofit Spanish-style apartment houses and median strip light poles—the blimp gliding like a frigate bird or Italian sausage over to the Marina Green, as though it were mugging for giddy, awestruck promenade throngs at the 1916 Pan-Pacific Exposition. The Marin hills provided backdrop to this day, beyond the free-floating, sailboating Bay.
“Losing Sharon was a tragedy of timing,” Paulen slid around a stalled shopping cart woman, recycle can bag bulging off one side, bottle bag off the other. “Since then, Israel has been desperate for genuine leadership… for any real sense of safety and security.”
“Aren’t they working around that,” I coughed. So let’s see if I can earn my keep, hang with doc here, better than back in the olden days. Like a balloon releasing pressure, mind elsewhere altogether, I just blurted that one out without a moment’s thought. Where was my inner spam filter when I needed one? “Board by boardfoot?”
“Hmph. Look, all you need to understand is that shelling nonsense and suicide tunneling had better stop soon,” he suddenly tapped his earphone, stabbing into his jacket pocket for his cell phone, quick on the draw. “Israel can only afford to put up with it for so long.”
“Whatever…sounds like you would know better about that…” I could now hear a bit more from ‘Back to Black’, the soulful beat of ‘You Know I’m No Good’ crying out from the brown-on-black side door of the Cynque Lounge, reverbing off those same boxy apartment buildings across Fillmore Street. High time for an OBAMA ’08 billboard/megaphone campaign truck to be rolling on by: ‘Yes we can, damn straight, sure as hell can’…
“You know, his Kenyan father and Muslim ties,” Paulen said with a jaundiced eye. “Chances are he’s got some bias in him by birth. That can’t be good for Israel and the Jews…”
Heady days, pounding headache, I was hopefully disentangled, then hopelessly engaged all over again. Homeless in the Marina—looking for any angle or escape route, spinning between my sideburns like an IsoBar Method aerobic hamster. Cynque’s stereo system was tracking into ‘Some Unholy War’; and due respect to Joel, Siebel and Bromberg, I was thinking how much I really dug Amy Winehouse.
How she could be Lady Day reincarnate under all that juicy ink when—snaaaping back: I instead picked up a twang of jew’s harp accompaniment Hopping our way up Fillmore. Which only proceeded to summon forth the rework of a late-70s Pinko anthem, a taunting little ditty I’d heard that troubled Berkeley troubadour-provocateur play outside Mecca Java up there a couple of months before. Scat, out of my head with that, get the whole twisted lyrical cover the hell out of my skull—those cold, cold running Waters—before I start going off in some kind of echo-karaoke seizure, right here on the spot. Losing game—no, shake it off, I said, stop it—Roger that…
Care for more?
Chapter Twenty-Two. A sudden turn of
corner yields fuzziness and bluster,
bringing this Middle East exchange