Chapter Two

“Saturn is determined to
revolve. So are you destined
to evolve, or doomed
to devolve?

“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 thing, 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 must have spun over from North Beach for a hit of StreetJazz, stonily 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.  With that hustle, I could still relate to this day. “Naw, we’re in development, Chaz—pre-development, Nick Cage’s nibblin’…”

“Oh, I dig…”

“Naw, man—it’s legit 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…”

“Yah, slow option death, Jules. But the time’s running out..”

Interesting conversation there,” Reese Paulen noted, the whole verbal to visual process….”

Uh-huh—but what’s that about ethnographically,” I ventured warily. My eyes wandered past the wifi screen hacks, toward a lavender SF ball capped duo two tables over, paging through the latest Bay Times—likely not caring about or knowing Nick Cage from Nick Cave. “You mean the whole gay thing?”

 It hadn’t always been so edgy in Mecca J, but of course 9/11 changed everything. For 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, despite rumblings of a major mortgage-botched macro sinkhole.

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, picking dazedly at sliced crumb and poppy seed cake.

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, whereby Everybody’s Favorite City once again seemed to be an 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.

“No,” said Paulen, watching Mork over at the counter, now awaiting his depth charge chaser, pulling out his wallet again, flashing varied plastic to little avail–everybody still waiting for him to riff away.  “More like the whole goy thing…”

Mecca Java Cafe Exterior
MeccaJava Cafe

“Don’t follow…” I then took to tracking the bouncing dramanista directly behind Williams in the long, plodding Java line, a neo-Mindy shadowing the legendary Morkin man. A slight young disciple in butter yellow yoga pants stretching and alternating leg to leg as she inched up the line. A purple rolled mat was slung quiver-like over her right shoulder, shrouding a pink-black Lycra jog bra.

Zip, Robin, nada, whatever: he self-consciously fixated instead 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 stirring punishingly before their eyes.

“You know, sleeper cell,” Paulen replied, “I mean, simply 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 ponchoed dramanista, 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 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, had no personal problem with it; was just here for the good coffee and stuff, and it wasn’t helping my appetite much at all.

But then the images had come so vividly and ferociously: bombed-out mosques, blind clerics in wheelchairs, Imams whipping up wailing, grieving turquoise crowds passing instant caskets 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.  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 Salafist prislam actors, the  chickenhawks who played PNACle with the Cradle of Civilization. While Arab states largely sat on their oily hands, The Street fermented and fomented 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.

Still, there they sat, listening to Arab Talk radio—against a background music track of Mekaal Hasan, Latifa, of Sami Yusuf’s ‘Al-Mu’allim’, of Kazem al-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.

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.

“Sleeper cell, here?  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.  “It isn’t exactly a Mideast Peacemakers camp, but hang around MeccaJava long enough, and you learn that everybody just tries to go along, get along.

“I take it you like this place,” Paulen scanned about. “So you say.  Intolerance for intolerance, hey?  I for an I…”

“Something like that, though more like a ground level social science field project to me. 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 multi-kulti slurs—much less Homeland Security call-tracking and behavioral pattern recognition.  For that matter, no pigs’ heads rolled through Mecca’s doorway.

“I grew up hereabouts, you know,” Paulen replied tersely, the tiny green pilot light once again pulsing on his metallic brown earpiece.  He pressed the blinking button, apparently sending a call to voicemail. “And given what Hamas and Hezbollah are pulling these days, a little morbid humor may be in order…”

“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. Probably fundamentalist types, prefer their women draped all over in basic black niqabs and burqas,” Paulen said, leaning in, as if to read my reaction.

“Whoa, am I sensing animosity 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? I commenced rolling up my newspaper like a throwaway tire sale flyeron another level, sensing entry more than exit.

“Animosity, moi? What’s not to like about a nice kaffiyeh. But you don’t see much of this in Boulder,Paulen said, distracted by the action outside Mecca’s front windows, growing visibly more uncomfortable.

“Well, not really—but yeah, it did 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 lumped in with the terrorism stuff. But whatever, it’s just a little local coffeehouse that lets a guy run a tab..”

“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.

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 had taken note of my letter and 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 anyway…”

“Huh…yeah, your call…” I stood up slowly to join him, dutifully letting him lead the way,  averting the gazes of that Maximally ripped duo over there.  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—take a little walk down memory lane, in a manner of speaking. For I can’t help but feel tension in this air.”

“Umm, I really don’t think you’re reading this room right, doc. Hell, it’s just about the 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. “Sounds like you’ve been away from San Francisco far too long…”

“If you recall, Boulder isn’t exactly backwater reactionary.”  He scooped up his Chai tea and my coffee cup, then shouldered his shrunk-grained leather brief case. “In any event, I’m afraid it would be this fraught even if we settled our differences tomorrow.”

“We?” I perked up like a ground hog at the reference.

“In the secular as well as 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-Pfiel bag.  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. Maybe he was just 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 on our way out.  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.

“Sooo,” I winced in the blinding, rump-summer sunlight, all but shouting over the clamor.  Damned if I got how this came down this way. Still I had to roll with it, had to make this deal work right. Peel at the seal, scratch the surface—let him hang on every word…

Speaking of scratching, there was my achin’ lower back again, as if rubbing at it would really ease such a chronic holdover from some cold, foggy nights spent coiled up and thrashing behind the wheel—a mild case of pervature, if not deservature of the spine. But have an itch, you scratch it, right?  Still, thisI mean this isn’t my normal S.O.P., my real M.O. at all.  “What brings you back to San Francisco, I mean right about now?”

“Ah, yes, catch-up time…particularly in the diagnostic sense, if you will…

 Care for more?


Chapter Three. Hereupon, inner divergences
meet the bright light of day, opening
aperture-wide to the sounds of the street
and all that jazz. A feast for the senses, though
not going far
enough to bridge the emerging divide.