Chapter Twenty

“A rash escape, to lift
the spirits, can hit you
like a ton of brickbats.”

“Having a little flare-up, are we?

“No, maam, we’re good…”

 “In denial, huh?  Been here, done this…that’s why I’m doing this now.”

 “Look, lady, our table’s already under mission control, all right?”

“See?  Moody, restless, irritable…why don’t you kiddies come on down to the Dri Dock before it gets any worse?  Recovery is but twelve short steps away. Coffee’s on the house.

Flare up: knew the feeling—namely, the inner buzzsaw triggered when one gets down, but has no easy option or opportunity to get a good buzz back on. Madame outreach was an aging Janis Joplinesque flower child, these days patrolling the Marina neighborhood in roomy tropical print shorts and top, above drugstore shower clogs. Her card read Phyllis, Phyl to you, and she was a rosy nosed chain smoker who perpetually camel-brushed her waist-length graying strawberry hair. 

          Phyl knew her potential recruits like pelicans know their schools, seldom failing to troll San Francisco’s Bermuda Triangle for new business, particularly on parched, sunny weekends such as this. By title, she was head resident de-nabler for the Dri Dock, an alky rehab/support group based in an avocado green two-floor storefront several doors down from the Triangle—hugging close to the heat of battle, the belly of the beast, the battle of the bottle—tapping into the heavy action right here on Main Street USA/A.  Good, sober planning: Willie Sutton would have toasted and banked on it.

“We’re down, we got it down.  So howz ‘bout we buy you a brew?”

 “Sorry, but the only answer is total abstinence. I’ll leave you some of our literature. We’re non-profit and accept donations. Or you can even donate your car.”

  “Check, granny—I’ll drop off the keys to my Ferrari over there, just as soon as we kill this pitcher.

“Hmm, well, better do so before you end up wrapping that baby around a utility pole…catch y’all down the road.” 

So near, and yet so hard—the Dri Dock itself was a step not taken lightly, and it had the four puked-out medial doorways each morning-after to prove it. Out front, clutches of dry drunks commiserated over cigarettes and black coffee, struggling to fend off their own flare-up periods, stiffly fighting themselves to a stand-off draw amid oddly timed bursts of forced laughter. Inside, ostensibly clean, hang-dog Dockers lounged around in silent, self-intervening headlocks, staring holes through their recovery magazines and bored games, bracing for the intensity of their relapsive urges, if not the regular weekly cameo appearance, er session, by Robin Himself.

          The A/Adage: Once addicted, always addicted—thus age, creed or color did not appear to be at issue Dockside. Still, all presently on deck were somewhat older than the six pack of pick-up hoopsters pounding down mugs of draft Corona at the table from which Phyl had just spun away. And all six were clearly younger than Reese Paulen and me, headed for a future detox boot camp, nevertheless.

          “Anybody here 28, or turning 29,” I asked one of the partiers, striking up some diversive conversation, not knowing why. Passing us was a tattoo-armed gym banger, chain choking two bloodthirsty Staffordshire mixes. Top heavy in a sleeveless stretch tank, he used much of his upper body strength to restrain the rowdy black and brown dogs, yanking to keep them away from a smiley, puffy sheepdog bounding ahead of us at the leash hands of a sundressed kind of gal.  It was all the rag-headed bruiser could do to hold his snarling animals at bay—that is, without dropping a modest bouquet of make-up flowers, conceivably bound for his bitch back at the shack. Oh, how the canine mismatch took me arrears…

         “In your dreams, mister,” sneered the power forward, as he toasted us with his salt-rimmed mug. “Ain’t even close tuz old as you.” 

“You know, a lot of this bingeing nonsense starts in college,” Paulen noted, turning disdainfully toward the intersection.

              “Like the frat brats at Boulder,” I asked, then holding my breath past a semicircle of nicotine fiends milling around a cast-iron smoker’s post. Still didn’t get the concept of those things.

          “Precisely. If you ask me, it feeds a good deal of the campus unrest and other shenanigans. Just a bunch of rutting little agitators…”

          “Whoa, you mean in the athletic department,” I said, following several steps behind as we reapproached Fillmore Street. “What I’ve read about the Buffalo football program and sexual harassment…”

          “No, actually, I’m referring to the demonstrations against Israel.”

          Could easily have called it lusher’s lane, this tipsy row of surplus plastic wood chairs and tables lining Town Tavern’s Greenwich side. Town was the Triangle’s shallowest corner—quick, easy hook-ups over the hiccups of wholesale, value-priced hooch. Where Northside and The Buoy Cafe were at least outwardly atmospheric, Town Tavern stood functionally formulaic. A stark, plain bar front under a nondescript second story of office suites, the Tavern seemed a bit more rough and tumble, a better fit for the younger, budget-boozer crowd, as well as slightly older lechers at the margins who fantasized about all these hang-out party girls going wild, just like in the porn mags and DVDs.

          Such potential action chicks were sprinkled liberally about Town’s breakaway outdoor tables, tossing their long-tressed heads back in shrieking laughter, smiling up at the clipped, peeling Tavern signage above. They were more pastel racerback tank types, cut-loose alumna of UC Davis, San Mateo, Sonoma and Chico State—filling out their T-shirts with distinction, nonetheless.

          Eyeing these and other hotties strutting the corner sidewalks, caressing, sweet talking their cel phones, were the horn toady guys getting hungrier and thirstier by the round, in various colors of patchy pocket shorts, toe tapping their flip-flops to the speaker-fed sound of techno and some ludacrisly loud rap-hop. Feisty, tip-pinching waitresses skirted in and out of the Tavern, eager beaver primed to slake them all—with discount promo days such as TankedOut Tuesdays, Wasted Wednesdays, SuperSuds Sundays and Sotto Saturdays like today.

          Guzzling Dos Equis by the pitcher, sloshing boxed Cabs and Pinot Grigios, not to mention splitting Patron Shooters and Jell-O Shots while bagging afternoon rays, could turn any of these Townies a bit too frisky and raucous. Which is why we abruptly decided to cross over to Fillmore’s winier side, Paulen wanting to case the place where FatJack uncorked its empire.

          “Against Israel,” I said warily, stank eyeing a crosswalk-crowding Toyota 4-Runner. Remember, listen more than talk…

          “Yes, against Israel—more than once, I might add,” Paulen stuffed a wind-tossed Carnaval parade flyer into the trashbin, looking this corner store over, setting course. “Right in the middle of Norlin Quad. The latest one swelled all the way over to the Dalton Trumbo Fountain by UMC.  Nearly big as the 4/20 marijuana smoke-ins…”

          “Wow, by UMC…” I instantly recollected graduate study lunches in the CU Memorial Center’s faculty cafeteria, feeling so intellectually industrious over spinach salads and Buffalo Burgers, readying for the twice-weekly transition from bookish pupil to servile teaching assistant for Professor Tennent—had to have been academic epochs ago.

          “Times change, even in Boulder,” he said, as we approached the Bermuda Triangle’s scalene, quieter side. “And this whole Middle East situation has everything turned upside down.”

          “God, right within sniffing distance of Packer Grill yet,” I groaned, waving on a long-snout Excalibur that was already accelerating midway through the crosswalk.

          The familiar vermilion roadster was manned by a stogie-chomping, self-styled former rock idol living through a Texas-sized trust fund, cruising the Triangle on a lone-star booty call—as he had been for way too many time-warped years. Still teasing out a wild, bushy mane, he was yet another transplanted Texas mess: that is, either a gaudy lunatic ranger reactionary, or ranting high tower escapee, desperate to disown W. and LBJ without DeLay—to demonstrate bona fides as reborn Anti-Christianistas, secular to the Austinist extreme. “I just remember noontime acoustic folkies six-string strumming out in the sun.”

          No whisky brown storefront on this corner; here, FatJack’s was a wine shop, through and through. While not equaling the foot traffic of a tourist pilgrimage to the first McDonalds or the original Starbucks at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, FatJack Central did have its curiously vintage oenological attributes and Gavin cache, just the same.

          Anchor to a light gray apartment building, the flagship store bore a large, freehand FatJack crest and matching logoed vine brown awnings identical to those on its companion bar and cafes downstreet. Casually disheveled, quality nonpareil—with a sanguine sophistication about it all: The wine shop was having none of the sophomoric hi-jinx and drunken excess across the way, not that it could do anything to dial down the scene over there.

          “It’s been so sensitive in Boulder, even the esteemed Jewish Studies program has been loath to touch it,” Paulen added, peering around the shop’s Greenwich side. “Not part of the curriculum, JSC maintains—as though it hadn’t been happening at all.”

          “Wasn’t that trick patented by the Holocaust deniers?”

          “Careful there, Herbert,” he snapped, studying a side window displaying an Art Moderne-style poster for a champagne charity reception at the Four Seasons Hotel, garnished with curvilinearly arranged bottles of Tessas Cuvee Chardonnay. “In any event, it is not properly informed. Which is partly why I began researching all this Middle East business on my own.”

          “What’s to research?  You’ve got one holy land, and two lords, right?  Ah, the combustible art of conversation, buckling my inferior frontal, igniting my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex

          “Is that how you see things,” he snapped, rounding the corner down Fillmore. “Would that it were so irreducibly binary.”

          “No, hey,” I stammered, straightening my back up, following closely in his wake. “I’m just sayin’…” Only now he’s caviling my auditory canals again, with my amygdala scrambling to decode his every accusatory word

          “Point is, those people were claiming that Israel is the bad actor over there,” Paulen said. “For the life of me, I can’t get past that, can you?”

          Around the Fillmore side, storefront windows overflowed with photo blow-ups of hillside vineyards and grape presses, of a FatJack retreat in the heart of Napa Valley. Its spread of luxury cottages, hilltop dining and an award-winning spa comprised a companion photo collage, with open gift cases of Chandon Blanc de Noirs and Coppola Diamond Claret resting below it on tufts of equestrian-grade hay.

          We daydreamt on, past a flower box of rose petunias, to a middle window uplifting us away to FatJack’s ski resort in Squaw Valley—lofty shots of champagne powder and chalet hearth dining over the top of Sierra Tahoe. Paulen might have reflected momentarily on horseback riding near Alpine Meadows with his wealthier University High School chums for two heady weeks once summer vacations ruled the day.

          “Me?  No…no way…”  Then again, I could lay it on the earaches I was cultivating, his assertions howling through my outré auditory canals once more, vibrating the ossicles, thumping the tympanums, banging the malleus, hammering the incus as they galed toward my cochlear ducts and eustachian tubes until I could almost taste my superior olives’ decibel rush. There, they thankfully got damped down like potted psalms—so once again, pal, listen up

          “I mean, after all that poor country has been through already.”

          “Poor…I don’t exactly think of Israel as poor…”

          “I’m referring to the long years of suffering and strife. I just believe those bashers need to understand what’s ultimately at stake in the Levant overall.”

          Paulen drifted over to another, far window layout of posters touting a range of wine clubs, backdropping a miniature semi-formal linen, stemware and silver table setting, along with British green painted wine cases, their gold typography suggesting custom corkage and cellarage services—Traina, Haas and Getty, to a fault.

          Between the place setting display and another window—the latter with a wine country picnic motif overlooking Rutherford: red checkered cloth, wicker basket and an array of tumblers, goblets, corkscrews and sterling gourmet utensils. The shop’s entranceway was framed by burgundy-stained wine casks topped with premium price lists, ‘Spectator’ review reprints and brochures illustrating the breadth of FatJack’s northern California empire.

          We peeked inside to rack upon rack of A-list wines: Zinfandels, Cotes du Rhone, Pinot Grigios, Cabernets and Beaujolais to name but a few.  All bore colorfully graphic labels, various vintages, cultish products of exclusive small-lot boutique vineyards from Mendocino to Sonoma, down to Monterey and Montecito.

          Rustic wooden tasting tables were scattered about the store, suggestive of open-air markets outside Oakville and Yountville. Staff oenophiles graciously answered the most arcane of client questions, suggesting just the right-proper selection for any occasion Heights and Hollow party planners might contrive. Logoed wine wear and gear covered vined and lattice-wooded walls, further selling the total FatJack culture along with the viniculture.

          “OK then, so what’s at stake there exactly,” I rallied some, scoping out a purple price sheet, quickly placing it back on the barrel head, under a sandstone paperweight, with a hopeless sigh of disbelief. “I mean, why the student union protests?

          “Why do you think?”  Paulen looked me up and down.

          “Christ, how should I know?” The Levant? “But I’ll bet it had nothing to do with wining.”

          “Actually, in one small way, it did,” Paulen digressed. “A shame Merlot is sooo 2005, hey? Lead me to the hearty Pinot Noir.”

          “Sorry, not much of a wino these days…” R-r-right, I’ve sort of de-toxed, rehabbed the progress not perfection route a hush-hush time or two. So then how come my ears are now rattling my temporal bones, playing my tympanum like trap drums all over again?

          Before long, FatJack’s bouquet became overwhelming, the wine shop’s structure too fleshy and supple, its texture too complex and smooth, the overall nose trifle plummy, the tannins a bit too velvety as they transitioned from mid-palate to finish. Fruity and fragrant an experience though the store was, we were soon drawn away, back to immediate reality by the whirr of an speeding Muni trolley bus, if not the scratchy French language tape of a tourist Go-Car passing by.

          Then there was that hydronaut power spray washing the sidewalk of womens’ wear and Kinkos storefronts ahead. So we turned back from the serene wine-country window display, Paulen voicing impulsive curiosity vis-à-vis the Intensive Pilates back across Fillmore.

          I just hankered to catch some ball scores on Town Tavern’s wide-screen overhead television sets. Once a full-dress Visit Mejico-decaled MUNI bus passed by us southbound, we crossed back over to Town’s broader front side—more plastic tables, sprawling from its main doors northward along the Fillmore sidewalk, well toward mid block. We paused at roughly the second sliding window; there I peered inside, to a bare bones U-shaped bar and even dimmer back booths.

          Several weighty, Darwinally selected mancave types were tossing dice cups, others were glued to ESPN SportsCenter on Town’s larger-than-life projection TV—crunching the over/unders, breaking it all down over schooners of Hefeweizen and baskets of salty corn nachos. Meanwhile, the real action rather suddenly focused in living color right outside here.

          “Moving on, nothing to see here, either,” Paulen moved toward the Springboard Pilates studio next door. “I’ll meet up with you down the street.”

          “Be right with you,” I pulled back for momentary relief, wedging in between tables, my head stuck into the open window frame to better view ESPN’s sports ticker. “Giants are getting lit up by San Diego.”

          “Sorry, baseball’s not exactly my game,” he replied, glancing rather wistfully back over at FatJack’s Wines, as if laying out a spread of Camembert, baguettes and cherry noted Bordeaux for two somewhere along the Silverado Trail, his and her horses grazing lazily in a nearby pasture.

          “So what exactly is…your game?”

          As I inched back away from the windows to rejoin him, a situation dusted up two tables down. This half-baked, fully loaded foursome were chillin’ like villains, verbally emasculating one another, otherwise savoring the lush life.  They were in various stages of softball undress, visibly attitudinal after a D-League tournament elimination loss over at Moscone Playground, laying down markers for the ol’ binge and purge.

          The infield dirtier two of them seemed like coke and Strawberry Quick kinda guys with a Billy Martin/Ty Cobb demeanor, not above dropping jock sniffer hardball pro names and a roofie or two on unsuspecting suburban flirts—that is, before angling them out of the clubs. Totally cool, dudes, rock on—at least until the Dri Dock duo began confronting them over precovery, prehab and their destinies, wet or clean. Overheated as it was getting, Paulen stayed safely away from them all, other passersby following suit.

          But before I knew it, one of the buzz-cut sluggers lunged at the Docker team; apparently the foursome had had their fill of Phyl. That’s when her wing man intervened: a burly part-time Chronicle delivery driver who regularly clogged zombie stiff about the neighborhood, his pot belly spilling out of a hang-loose short-sleeve Hawaiian shirt and cut-off jeans—whether 40 or 80 degrees.

          He proceeded to plow between his erstwhile AA sponsor and the young ringers, slamming them back down into their cracking plastic chairs, scowling and grunting at them through thick orange sunglass lenses. Beer glasses and Pete’s Wicked pitchers tipping, smashing to the concrete, the trucker recoiled, soon catching me in his peripheral vision. Simply trying to sidestep the ruckus, I yelled my concern. No matter, he turned to cold cock me with a preemptive elbow to the forehead.

          The blow sent me stumbling into mind-altering shock and awe, even as I tilted at, quickly steadied myself against a gnarly acacia tree. The softballers yelled and taunted; Town Tavern’s inside tablers gasped at the spectacle, cowering behind the sliding glass panels. Phyllis stepped back, lit a stubbed cigarette with a seen-it-all smile, the news trucker ushering her off toward the Dry Dock. Shooting me a vacant glare, he grunted nary a word as I crumpled to the sidewalk like a wet sack of those Irish spuds.

          “You all right, Herbert,” Paulen shouted, aiming the white-hot light beam of his camera phone my wobbly way.

          “H-Hey, no problem,” I settled back down for a moment, head already throbbing from concrete contact, flat on my ass—ducking as two red and gold balloons tethered to a nearby parking meter popped in the sun like Saturday night specials out a low-rider car window. “Didn’t feel a thing…” Except for the contrecoup concussive snap-back in my brainpan…I could but feel the  TBI pressure mounting against my cerebral cortex, swelling the wrinkled cortical quadrant lobes, bulging each groovy gyrus and sulcus—laterally frontal to occipital, steaming down the double yellow corpus callosum medial strip. Just like when I tumbled back headfirst to the pavement out the side door of dad’s clunky old green DeSoto sedan—pe-thunk, meloncolliding with tarred concrete. Still so vivid today, although I couldn’t have been a day over four. Bouts here and there with splitsville ever since. “For real, I’m good to go…totally…” Yet it was all I could do to collect myself and start clicking again—yep, so far, so goooo…

          “Well, I’m game myself, that’s for darn sure,” he replied, speed dialing into his black Razr cell, anxious to uplink the call, already stepping lively toward the Lombard corridor. “This must have become the nastier part of the nicer part of town.”

           “Sorta like what’s been happening up around Boulder’s University Hill, huh” I rambled, haze setting in.

“Can’t say, Herbert,” he said with a double-take. “I don’t even know what you mean by that…”

Care for more?

Chapter Twenty-One.  A familiar figure
 summons haunting reminders,
as the talk turns gauzier, summarily
to Gazan missile strikes and bomb slingers…