“Saturn is determined to
revolve. So are you destined
to evolve, or doomed
“This’s just the treatment, understand…”
“Looks like not a whole lot more than an elevator pitch to me.”
“Gotta full-out script—my agent’s all over it—best believe.”
“They optioning this slob story, or…”
One Mecca Java table to our left, a pair of would-be cinemauteurs shuffled several sheets of photocopied paper back and forth—fringe screen scribes well past their primetime windows of opportunity. Sharkskin suit vests over Aqua and Dreamworks t-shirts respectively: They reeked of cigarette smoke and secreted schnapps, even from here. Perhaps denizens of some tired North Beach haunt, they must have spun over through the Broadway tunnel for a hit of StreetJazz, marginally reliving their Keystone Corner nights.
The phlegmish, craggier of the two looked like he had hitchhiked down the yellow brick road to West Hollywood far too often, coming back north empty promised every time. His longhaired, acne-pocked fellow gaffer bore the medallion of a late-shift cabbie, with a scratched-out screen treatment of his own, based primarily on long hours trolling The Beach and SOMA clubs for ditzy, overloaded fares. An admonition from back in the day shot to mind: Beware of bereted gadflies sporting beards.
“Naw, we’re in development, Chaz—pre-development…”
“Getting picked up?”
“Not quite yet, but Nick Cage’s nibblin’…”
“Oh, I dig…”
“Naw, man—it’s stone happening this time,” coughed the bereted bit screenplayer, now recollating his loose white pages into a stained chipboard folio. “Green light, done deal—just a matter of time—know what I’m sayin’ ?”
“Yah, slow option death. But the clock’s running again, Jules …running out.”
More broadly, Mecca Java had an unmistakable Middle Eastern flavor. Not necessarily at first glance: With poster-plastered walls, unevenly stained paneling and sticky slate floors, there was little to distinguish it from every other neighborhood café around town. But the coffee was predominantly fair trade, and the price was just about right—keeping it local, all that.
On this late summer Saturday, an unseasonably warm spell ruled the Bay, not the usual windy fog pattern, but true football and earthquake weather in the air. Still, the bright sun washing through Mecca’s storefront windows couldn’t burn off a nagging ennui hereabouts, despite glass-half-full city hall forecasts that San Francisco was slowly turning the digitized fiscal corner, back toward a bright dot-com 2.0 dawn, totally 1990s style.
Conversationally stalled, the professor and I scanned Java’s airy front room, surveying rows of paired-off mainstays hunching over their cramped, metal-top tables: Unscrubbed nurses aides, undeclared students with dueling laptops, wirelessly downloading their mid-term papers, silently crunching keyboards, frying hard drives, spraining thumb drives, burning through li-ion batteries and tangled power cords. Sullen headphoned senior citizens channeled tape-delayed Limbaugh and O’Reilly, growing more hotheaded by the cup. Distant, dissociative loners spilled out over creaking wooden chairs, picking dazedly at sliced crumb and poppy seed cake, or wringing their sticky-fingered hospital cafeteria mugs.
Conflicted, long-estranged souls with more brains than bread nosed through pass-around Chronicles, still out of joint over the hopelessly misguided war and anti-war efforts, over lingering dot-bomb solicitude, a Golden State ablaze. These everyday ranks were bolstered today by mulling window watchers from out of town. At any rate, that seemed to be the view from in here, a chronic election cycle downer vibe, whereby Everybody’s Favorite City once again seemed to be an unregenerate ultralib island in a red state tsunami, with a lingering case of the blue state blues, hoping against hope for overdue electoral change. Arguably, the only upside news hole these days featured enhanced photos of Saturn and its icy Titanic moons, in vivid NASA Cassini Space Probe color.
“Ethnographically, you say,” I ventured, unable to endure our impasse any longer. It hadn’t always been this way in Mecca J, but of course 9/11 changed everything —except, that is, for this damnable coffee jones of mine. My eyes wandered past the wifi screen hacks, toward a lavender SF ball capped duo two tables over, paging through the latest Bay Times, stroking their goatees in dislocated glee—likely not knowing Nick Cage from Nick Cave. “You mean the whole gay thing?”
“No,” said Paulen, watching Mork over at the counter, now awaiting his depth charge chaser, pulling out his wallet again, flashing varied charge cards to little avail—everybody still waiting for him to riff away. “More like the whole goy thing…”
“Don’t follow…” Attention deficient, I then took to tracking the bouncy dramanista dolly directly behind Williams in the long, plodding Java line, a neo-Mindy mocking the legendary Morkin man. There in her red leg warmers, worn black tights and a purple spider web-knit poncho, she cheekily violated his celebrated space, while posturing that herself really couldn’t be bothered.
Far more serious to her immediate rear, a slight young disciple in butter yellow yoga pants stretched and alternated leg to leg as she inched up the line. She had made her café entrance slowly, hesitantly—as though this were the most important turning point decision in her hypersensitive life. A purple rolled mat was slung quiver-like over her right shoulder, shrouding a pink-black Lycra jog bra. Zip, Robin, nada, whatever: She seemed distracted more by the beeping ATM and boinking Internet games than a slumming celebrity self-consciously fixated on the back counter Torani bottles. Then again, she sure didn’t escape the attention of those Osama-bearded taxi drivers idly parked in the far corner, with abaya visions sand-stirring punishingly before their eyes.
“You know, clashing tribes,” Paulen replied, “just cast your eyes upon the Jihadi sleeper cell over there. I mean, come on, connect the dots…”
The Mecca Java crew had gotten a lot of that in recent times, making them and their cohorts a little more sleepless than anything else—looking a tad like the enemy combatant mugshot of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—perhaps taken for a band of dangerous operatives, affinity groups with missing links to Lodi and al Qaeda, as if being Muslim was some ravaging malignancy. Suspicious glances, checkpoint strip searches and detention, rumors of undercover infiltration—everybody hating on Islam—this was no Hajj, no hook-up hookah lounge, even around here.
Accordingly, the café had practiced a measure of defensive patriotism since September, 2001: stars and stripes support banners, troop ribbons, plenty of window bunting, deferential glory, signing on to American pledge ads, lower profiles if not loyalty oaths to counter any political radioactivity or creeping Islamophobia. Still, this Saturday’s packed noontime house was scarcely business as usual.
Most days, enough of these metal-top tables stood empty that several of the principals had been ganging tidily in that corner, beneath the large-screen satellite TV. Behind stacked take-out cups and a rack of pre-wrapped cheese croissants, Ahmed pulled a skinny double-capp for the purple ponchoeddramanista, while shouting at his boy, Ramzin to quit channel surfing and play it safe with sound-down Tour de France updates or something, for customers’ sake. Mr. Williams nodded at the racing screen as he spoon cranked his depth charge at the prep table, no doubt in a shiny new custom Kestrel frame of mind.
These corner cellmates were actually Mecca’s key Shariah-lite investors and leadership council. Early middle-aged émigrés—they could have been Egyptian, Tunisian, Palestinian or Yemeni, non-state actors working either the Shiia or Sunni side of the street. Who knew? Who dared ask any more? They could well have preferred a steady slow-day dosage of Al Jazeera, Al Aribya, even Al Manar to charting recent business shortfalls—torn and openly irate over the latest footage from Tyre, Nablus, Ramallah and the Iraqi Triangle of Death; those sickening close-ups of burned, dismembered children, and creepy civilian body counts crawling bass ackwards across the lower screen.
The café’s brain trust regularly tangled over the remote, endlessly denouncing INS profiling and visa reregistration; still cursing GITMO stress and deprivation drills, with Muslim pride and ego down—grudges dating back at least to Torquemada and Reynald of Chatillon. These elders were cumulatively bitter about feds data mining their hummus and qat consumption, about mourning tents and media stereotyping, about feckless infiltrating counterrorism moles, jihadi watchers and false-flag operatives. About the Koran burnings, and a divine Prophet Muhammad being blasphemously cartooned Europe-wide.
All too often, I myself had seen them fight for the clicker, conflicted in heated debate, hunched over to-go trays of steaming kifta and kosa—Ramadan moonfighting, arguing Hamas and the Caliphate over dolna and beef tamaya. Still, it wasn’t my struggle, was just here for the coffee and stuff, and it wasn’t helping my appetite much at all.
But then the images had come so vividly and ferociously: Step on, step off—charred corpses, cowering children, bombed-out mosques and soft-target sadism, bagged and tagged. Blind clerics in wheelchairs, Imams whipping up wailing, grieving turquoise crowds passing instant caskets around the Gaza Strip like so many phish in a moshpit. Screaming video of Purile martyrs praising Allah enroute to their second life and seventy virgins, while I.E.D.s and rocket launchers further scarred Falluja’s and Mosul’s murder alleys.
What, went their debates, was more the abomination against God: dog leashes, naked pile-ups, waterboarding and electric fingernails at Abu Ghraib? Or black-hooded cowards video recording insurgent drivel and stroking their AK-47s before beheading bruised infidels pleading blindfolded for their lives?
Blame it all on Osama and Sadam, on Odai and Qusai, on bad Salafistprislam actors, the neoconchickenhawks who played PNACle with the Cradle of Civilization, the enemies of God fucking up an ancient world in full missionary position. While Arab states largely sat on their oily hands, less interested in Palestinian people than their land, The Street fermenting and fomenting coups and contra-coups around them—torches being passed to a new generation of Arabians, in the springtime of their lives.
The whole bloody mess of it was so horrifying and mutually destructive, not to mention disastrous for foot traffic here in Mecca Java—bad for business, verrry bad for business—this weekend’s jazz swarm notwithstanding. And lord knows, that’s what really mattered in the blessed here and now. But it was more like a declasse social science project to me.
Still, there they sat, listening to Arab Talk on KPOO radio—about aid ships running through Israel’s Gaza blockade—against a background music track of MekaalHasan, Latifa, of Sami Yusuf’s‘Al-Mu’allim’, of Kazemal-Sahir, Mohammed Abdu, and Hakim with his Lion of Egypt Orchestra—sipping on Nectarina while Hashim served them day-old muffins and their Modest Prophet house-blend coffee for dessert—marking time while the whole Middle East region was powder-kegging in the process. Guess I couldn’t help but pick up on, marginally gather in some of their more scrutable shout-outs over time, if only like lint on a camel’s hair sweater.
Anyway, by now, Paulen had silently tracked Mork as he redonned his field jacket, then appeared to osmosey out the door on eggshells, wielding one last double Macchiato with a blast…better that than mouthing some old smack about Robin and the supposed booze monkey on his back.
“Sleeper cell? No, it’s nothing like that,” I wiped my nostrils with a white paper napkin, 120 milligrams of caffeine always giving my old broken nose a run for its money. “I kinda feel like I know these people in here. It isn’t exactly a Mideast Peacemakers camp, but hang around MeccaJava long enough, and you learn that everybody just tries to go along, to get along. There’s not much tolerance for intolerance.”
“I take it you like this place,” Paulen scanned about. “So you say. Intolerance for intolerance, hey? I for an I…”
“Something like that. But it’s why I think if everybody lived here in San Francisco for a year or so, the world would be a lot better off…”
True enough, San Francisco had remained relatively tolerant in the wake of 9/11, ergo the end of America’s homeland holiday from terrorism. Everybody was careful not to reveal too much of anything, take-wise—that way, no harm, no foul. There had been the occasional gallery trashing and drive-by defacing, but nothing like, say, Europe’s terror sweeps, asylum firebombings and institutionalized multi-kulti slurs—much less Homeland Security call-tracking and behavioral pattern recognition. No pigs’ heads rolled through Mecca’s doorway. For that matter, major mainstream media had even begun uplinking puff pieces on prayer-mat equality from the gender progressive Jones Street Mosque downtown.
“I grew up hereabouts, you know,” Paulen replied tersely, the tiny green pilot light once again pulsing on his metallic brown headset. He pressed the blinking button, apparently sending a call to voicemail. “And given what has gone on with Hamas, Hezbollah and everything, a little tribal humor can’t hurt…”
“Well, maybe The City was different back in your day. But it’s been pretty normal around here lately, as far as I can tell.” I wadded up the napkin and stuffed it into my now empty cup, dancing around any more ear gear issues at the moment.“Although I guess it did seem the off-duty cabbies over there were just about bonkers over that yoga chick.”
“Hmph, forget it. You know those fundamentalist types, how they prefer their women at home, dutifully uvulating and ovulating, draped all over in basic black niqabs and burqas to cover the beatings and bruises,” Paulen said, leaning in, as if to be reading my reaction. “Bring on the virginity tests, honor killings and love I.E.D.s, no zagroutas allowed. Yes, real gentlemen, they…”
“Whoa, am I sensing hostility here?” This entire alien scenario was making me ever edgier, feeling agitation once removed. All I knew was, that wasn’t the sort of Cafe M-J I’d come to know. Where was he coming from, anyway? Why was he pushing on such volatile, dangerous territory in such a subdued, non-threatening place? I commenced rolling up my newspaper like a stick of T.N.T.—still, on another level, sensing entry more than exit. I noticed some slacker a table or so over on his decaledPowerBook, downloading the latest episode of that sinking sci-fi TV show—about a wayback journeyman in San Francisco, coping with a couple of women and a beat-up vintage Volvo sedan: could have been ripped right from my own personal headlines.
“Hostility, moi? I happen to adore Fatah and Hezbollah, and what’s not to like about a nice kaffiyeh. But you don’t see much of this in Boulder,” Paulen sneered, distracted by the action outside Mecca’s front windows, growing visibly more uncomfortable in a joint where he had apparently concluded that Robin would be comped without question, but Billy Crystal stiffed out of hand. “Seriously, you just don’t go treating women that way. Besides, this place is a bit too…fraught, and there’s this air of imminent detonation in here, don’t you think?”
“Well, not really—but yeah, it seem busy today,” I meandered. “Overall though, I guess I don’t see how these Mecca guys can still make it around here the way things are going, getting the skank eye for every little thing, like they were plotting to take down the Golden Gate Bridge for the cause. Ain’t no way…”
“Reasons abound, my friend, you’d be surprised at what atrocities are just a trigger pull away..”
“Whatever, it’s just a little local coffee house that lets a guy run a tab, and they’re getting all typecast and lumped in with the terrorist stuff. But maybe today’s crowd may help them turn the corner…”
“Hmm, the address says Mr. Ken Herbert. Yuy-yo, looks like you be droppin’ this,” said the stouter of two roughly familiar Latino hardware clerks inbound on lunch break, handing me that enveloped letter, which had slipped out of my business section to the Saccharin sticky, cracked tile café floor below. He moved on with his red-smocked partner, who remained fixed on a Chronicle think piece comparing Mayor Gavin Newsom’s recent dust-ups with the S.F.P.D., about stalking and a TRO, to the Dan White-George Moscone nightmare some 30 years ago.
A sidebar below the fold touted yet another Milky biopic shooting around the Castro and City Hall—all about shooting of a different kind—echoes of an earlier, reductive proposition, sort of a last chance for Harvey and his personally initialed gray-red megaphone, giving way to a snidely eponymous rock band deep in redneck Dixie.
If only Gus Hollywood had known what was going down at that very late-November moment on a whole other side of town, had Van slanted beyond the Castro with his camera crew. Meanwhile, I scanned a Times article on survivor blood feuds over Rev. Jim Reaper’s name on a Jonestown memorial gravesite, how Guyana was planning to turn the jungle site into a ‘dark tourism’ theme park, and there was even a Jonestown Institute at a university downstate.
It all got me to thinking about everybody shorthand slangin’ about ‘drinkin’ the Kool-aid’, trying to gauge how far I’d come from those days, since having gulped down the Bay Area cool-ade myself. Anyway, the clerks proceeded on to commandeer a table next to a markedly unfamiliar duo—one in a black leather jacket and brown turtleneck, his partner in an extra-large striped rugby shirt—jawing over black-no-sugars and a coffee-stained ‘Maxim’ magazine.
“Thanks much…” I crammed Nathan’s letter back into my newspaper. This and Mecca’s sporadic flare-ups were already grating upon these latest two café arrivals, not to mention on the more fanatical all-day acolytes around them, comfortably reconciled to their peculiar caffeine fixations.
“Well, reading the New York Times these days, are we,” Paulen took notice of my haste, capping and recapping his Chai tea, pushing slowly back from the table as the hardware clerks squeezed in toward a table once removed.
“No, uh…it was just left here, actually…” I motioned to him to watch out for the blind music man bumping into racks of chips and snacks, cup dripping as he tapped his stick toward the doorway. “Found it when I sat down…part of my routine…”
“What say we move on?” Paulen’s voice lifted over the cross-culture clash of music, particularly the fevered choruses of Hakim’s Sha’bi, which overrode the alternating Urdu, Pashto, whatever, and broken English bursting forth from that animated corner conclave. He rose, straightened his jacket and chinos, then finger combed his curly salt-and-pepper hair. “Sounds infinitely more interesting outside there…”
“Huh…yeah, your call…” I stood up slowly to join him, dutifully letting him lead the way. Our table was grabbed summarily by a young bearded, bald-headed Muslim apostate, most likely a local corner bodegadeur, in red scarves and a silver jogging suit, along with his top-heavy Arabesque companion in her secular pink fishnet sweater and orange Capri pants, boldly scanning the room past him for some guys named Mamoud and Mohammed Abu.
“Indeed—I can’t help but feeling that those mullah Jihadi operatives back there are plotting to lop my head off. Don’t you feel the death blow in your bones, Herbert? That’s all I’m saying…”
“Blow, bones?! Umm, I really don’t think you’re reading this room right at all, doc. Hell, it’s just about coffee.” I ruefully pointed him toward the open doorway with my newspaper, then exchanged smiling waves with Hashim, now behind the counter, who was intoning peace be upon you as he dipped a falafel ball into some sesame sauce, making me slow to the draw on my table-top debris, sensing more Tai Chi in the air than Chai Tea. It was as though the owner could have welcomed some sort of course correction, a contravening occurrence or auspicious happenstance to stem the fiscal pressure. With that, I could marginally relate. “Sounds like you’ve been away from San Francisco far too long…”
“Boulder isn’t exactly backwater reactionary like Colorado Springs is, I’ll have you know.” He scooped up his Chai and my coffee cup, then shouldered his shrunk-grained leather brief case. “Besides, these schlemiels don’t strike me as being in the mood for Kumbaya. Alas, I’m afraid it would be this way even if we settled our differences tomorrow.”
“We?” I perked up like a ground hog at the reference.
“In the secular, biblical sense, Herbert…”
“Biblical? What’s that supposed to mean?”
If we hadn’t been so immediately distracted by the sidewalk music, I might have wondered why he appeared to be souveniring my empty Java cup into his flap-over Gold-Pfielbag. The trash some people just can’t part with; after all, it wasn’t like that styrofoam had been touched by Mork or Mrs. Doubtfire, much less Mr. Saturday Night. Or maybe he was simply a textbook neat freak. No matter—the cup was now his to handle as far as I was concerned, caffeine always giving me a bad case of heedlessness and something of the shakes.
He must have quickly discerned the styro’s minimal souvenir value as well, however, because he then seemed to think the better of stuffing it into his single gusset briefcase, instead depositing the covered white cup atop a heaped waste basket just inside Mecca’s doorway. Let it be, no longer my problem. One last glance inside, and my eyes rather locked momentarily with that black-no-sugar duo, setting aside their Maxim, seemingly reading me for involuntary body language and facial tells, if not coffee cup conservancy after the fact.
In any event, several sidewalk tables down from the doorway, a backwoods solo guitarist over from the grungier side of Telegraph Avenue, doubtlessly looking to raise a stink, strummed this provocative number —one that stopped us cold, something of a minuteman minuet—he called, ‘Ode d’ Taliban’—an oddball movement in 3/4 time.
Praise be, his incendiary little ditty was pretty much drowned out by everything else going on along Fillmore Street, and likely remained safely beyond the sensitivities of any transplants from Kabul and Kandahar. But that didn’t stop Hashim from rushing out Mecca’s double doors, green apron aflying, to shoo the daft troubacateur away. No, this trouble, Mecca Java wasn’t into brewing at all.
“Sooo,” I winced in the blinding, rump-summer sunlight, all but shouting over the clamor. Peel at the seal, scratch the surface—scratching, my curiass—let him have his say, hang himself with every word…
Speaking of scratching, there was my achin’ lower back again, as if rubbing at it would really ease such a condition. Just a chronic holdover from some cold, foggy nights spent coiled up and thrashing behind the wheel, or from all those years running about—a mild case of pervature, arguably deservature of the spine. But have an itch, you scratch it, right? I mean this is not my normal S.O.P., not my real M.O. at all. “What is it that brings you back to San Francisco?” Whoa, lame question—not very good at this song-and-dance yet, was I? “You know, right about now.”
“Ah, catch-up time…very well, have to start somewhere, now don’t we…”