Chapter 13

COVIDose: Curse this crummy outbreak. Going stir-crazy basically under house arrest, crabbin’ fever up and down the floors. But back along Fillmore Street, where is everybody out here? Why are so few people out braving chilly, overcast elements to thwart the “invisible enemy”? Like, barely one or two sullen COVIDites per block, veering widely in passing, gumby shouldered, eyes fixed down to the side—as if we’re all lepers who can’t contain our pox. Nah, side stepping, plodding forward, time to…REJOIN, NOW...

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“So tell me, what are you after here?”

“After? Well, justice, for one…”

“And how prepared are you to go forward?”

“Dunno, haven’t quite gotten that far with it…”

I’d been feeling a bit queasy as it was, bipolaring somewhere between protected status and bracing to pack up the place—that housing deadline not drifting off into the blue. Her call came suddenly, although not out of nowhere. She had gotten back in touch very shortly, apparently having done her research and due diligence, and was prepared to talk things through. Sure, where, how, I asked, unclear as to what this could mean in the larger picture, which kept looming larger by the day.

Again, her office space was out, but she couldn’t venture very far away. CitiCenter was too breezy, Bianco too busy; Sutter Station Tavern was too dive-randy for such a material conversation, and the House of Shields too distant in the other direction. So we settled on the Jackson Square area, which turned out to be an easy MUNI ride down Broadway,where I met Alison at the Battery Street stop. Though already pale green at the gills, I was admittedly grateful to get a little break in the Delphoria transactions about then.

“Okay, let’s say you choose to respond.”

“Depends, how do you mean exactly?”

“For instance, approaching them straight on.”

“Them being Team Hassett…”

“Team Hassett, as you put it,” she nodded, smart as could be in a ribbed white linen V-neck under a stone gray cashmere shawl. “Say, this Prescott person.”

So here we were, just off Jackson Square, face to face with a stout, sandblasted red brick anachronism in a district where precious art and antique galleries were washing away in a seiche of digital start-ups and pop-up brokerage boutiques. The three-story artifact housed a Barbary Coast watering hole dating back to Gold Rush days—stated as much in gold leaf lettering across a front window that now reflected nearby engineering firms, advertising agencies, ergonomic office furniture showrooms—all backdropped by the TransAmerica Pyramid.

We had stepped heedfully around a large white spar deck cleat out front, pausing at this patinated wall plaque that told the historical tale. Seemed the bar stemmed from the 1849 grounding of a three-master entering San Francisco Bay, already beset by a 178-day voyage from New York via Cape Horn. The Arkansas crashed against Alcatraz Island in stormy waters—amid a rash of shipwrecks, abandoned by fevered panners rushing off to the Sierra goldfields. Before long, its anchored carcass was towed from Bird Island here into a Yerba Buena Cove then festering with shacks and fascined masts by the hundreds along the Barbary Coast.

“He’s a good place to start, right?”

“You’re a writer, so allow me to lay out a little narrative for you…” She re-crossed the legs of her sleek black slacks.

“Uh, all right, I’m game…”

“Then suppose you decide to contact him again, by email, or better yet, along with a first class letter,” she said, sweeping back her smooth blonde tresses. “Assert that the idea and goodly portion of ‘Verdict Street’ had been drawn from the material you had sent him in good faith. That Team Hassett had essentially misappropriated your story.”

“You think?”

“And what if he responds with a flat-out denial? Then come the fun and games…”

Remnants of the Arkansas and Niantic helped along with other rotting ship ballast and rubble to form the spreading shoreline. Some limey hustler soon sawed a hole into the Arkansas’s bow, rigged up a gangplank entrance and turned the hull into prototypical pop-up bar. It instantly served ‘Gud, Bad and Indif’rent Spirits’ at 25 cents a jar to sailors, gamblers, grifters and bootleggers. But by 1859, the landlocked sailing ship was buried in groundfill, foundation for the seaman’s bar, its boarding house—even a bordello to come. What remained of it all today was the bar we had entered, under iconic spar and mini hull signage reading, ‘Old Ship Saloon—Est. 1851’ and a windblown red shipboard signal lantern. However muted by the clicking heels of her black ankle boots, she had vaguely hinted that she clung to the tiller of the place because it had been one of Gunner’s inkhorn haunts.

“So you follow up by pointing out the particular instances.”

“And what, threaten legal action?” I noodled. “Why not, right?”

We had crossed the forecastle of this landmark ale house well after the heavy lunchtime crush, passing a thinned out center bar of lingering ad types and Financial District pros, some regular old coxswains and ol’ salts sprinkled in. She conned me to this small sidewall table towards the Old Ship’s stern, not far from a galley still astir. That wall was exposed brick, as were those all around us, the saloon feeling about as original bawdy boomtown San Francisco as could be. So many years, and I had never once boarded this Ship before—how could I have missed the boat on it? For here was possibly the best repository of Barbary Coast lore this side of the Maritime Museum, docked over by Aquatic Park. Then again, I’d never been to Yosemite either.

Settling into a sturdy black round-back chair, I could take in a sunlit vessel awash in thematic nautical archaisms, memorabilia and bibelots: polished Helms, rigging—framed historical photos aside period illustrations, gold-sealed certificates and commendations—various Barbary Coast maps or antiquated tidal charts. I could just picture Bird Island back in the day, smell the briny bay and distempered seas beyond.

“Because ‘Team Hassett’ deals with this sort of thing all the time. Not to mention his house, Granite Publishing. Look, Mister Herbert, I’ve more thoroughly researched this IP area…”

“Well, that does sound encouraging… I appreciate your…”

“And here’s what is likely to happen,” she said, our order arriving, along with an Old Ship emblazoned bakelite check tray. “As you can imagine, they have very deep pockets back there. Add to that the fact that Hassett happens to be an attorney himself.”

“Which makes me think they should know better than to be ripping off poor, lowly writers like he probably once was himself.”

No breastaurant here, a scrappy bos’n shirted and waist aproned waitress took our order: brew, wine and a plate of cheddar-bacon potato skins. I tracked her course across hardwood deck flooring toward a dog-eared rectangular center room bar with bottled spirits shelved in opposing u-shaped overhead racks. There a red-bearded tender in a ‘The City’ throwback Warriors jersey pulled taps of Blue Paddle Pilsener and Poppy Jasper Ale beneath tulip lamps and churning electric fans that hung from a varnished wood ceiling trimmed with refinished black beams.

Downing pitchers of Acme California Pale Ale, toasting Gunny Bags and Pisco Punch, the saloon’s rank and file stayed glued to their matching black barstools—mostly to flat screen CNN and ESPN—the only nod to modernity in the room. And as evidenced from the dishes passing us from galley to neighboring tables, Old Ship’s was no swabby pubgrub mess, either. I inhaled heaped platters of Grilled Portabella, Coit Tower, Joseph Anthony and Henry Klee Specials passing by, all this coming on the ‘tween hours, no less. Mouthwatering as this convoy was, the last thing I feared coming on at the moment was seasickness—the first, legal collywobbles.

“Be that as it may, they will all dig as deeply into those pockets as the situation requires, which will only be a rounding figure to them.”

“You mean to make it go away?”

“No, more likely to squash you like a stink bug,” she replied, before nibbling on a cheddar potato skin. “They can swamp you with further denials, bleed you out with a thousand filings, cut by cut, should it come to that. Is this something you can afford to pursue?”

“B-b-but, I’ve got the damn proof on my side!” Just as I was getting my sea legs, she began to cut me off at the knees.

“So they’ll just drag you out in discovery, demand your documentation and purported evidence, then sit on it as the clock runs wild.”

“How on earth can…”

Christ, I began getting queasy again, as though the Arkansas reared up and listed beneath our feet. Jinking the skins dish, my eyes rather pinballed about the place, searching the brick walls for answers, hatching an escape. I picked up on framed, sepia crenulated prints of Gold Rush schooners sailing in through the Golden Gate; to a parchy 1856 Evening Bulletin newsclip on the Arkansas’s landlocked fate titled, ‘A Great Curiosity’; onto a water stained Giants pennant from the team’s maiden San Francisco voyage. Then there was that elegantly oval matted photograph of an Old Ship’s family friend playing his squeeze box on the building’s rooftop back in 1907, amid vintage OS building shots and clientele collages, with the model WWI biplane dive bombing toward some kitchen wall chalkboard menus.

“Moreover, if it were to get to court, they could seek dismissals, file counter motions, get extensions and continuances—create false, dubious deadlines—bring in their resident experts, payoff witnesses and court judges, if need be…because they tend to take cribbing accusations very seriously.”

“But the letters, the voicemails…” I fidgeted, rimming the mug of 805 Firestone with my index finger.

“Keep it up, and they will gaslight and oppo-research you to death, compromise you six ways to Sunday. Have you the stomach for personal scrutiny like that?”

“Uh, haven’t thought of it that way…” All my stomach was doing by now was gnawing itself away. “Don’t know about that, but what about the outright injustice of it all?”

“It’s the big leagues, Mister Herbert. You’d be stoking heavyweight moneybags with a lot at stake in the marketplace, believe me.”

“But still, I…” Was drawing deeply on my draught by now.

“That’s bad-case scenario, and corrective justice doesn’t come cheap,” she said, sloshing her goblet of Ironstone Merlot. “So bottom line, how much value and importance do you place on your ink-stained sweat and tears?”

It was getting to where I could no longer even stomach the side wash from nearby tables, circle and square: All these chatty ‘MidShippers’ devouring Aldo & Ardine’s Brickburgers, O.S.S. Specials over Allagash Draft and Bird Island Gimlets; striking deals over Curly (brunch) Burgers, Tombo Tuna Tacos—piled high Nachos and salad bowls, washed down with Babe’s Montecarlos and Laterre Cab. Instead, I gandered out a side window view of the upper stories and tower of the TransAm Pyramid with my acidic gut agrowl—wondering how Gunner factored into all this, much less me anymore.

“Well, dammit, it is that important to me!” Enough! I quickly snapped to, pounding the table, cushioned by the sleeve of my frayed tan-cord sport jacket.

“Then you’re going to have to decide whether you’re still up to a dogfight like this, after all, Mister Herbert,” she pounded the table back at me. “Because it just so happens I am…”

“You are? Why in heaven would…” I took to OCD rearranging the clear lacquered table top’s condiment dispensers.

“Call me crazy, but it became clear upon further reading that some of the similarities and cherry picks are glaring.”

“Tell me about it, let alone Hassett’s back-of-the-book acknowledgement that he’d never even thought about homelessness,” I fumed, bile now rising free rein as I tugged at my open blue oxford collar. “Bastards even named their protagonist after me—total thumbing me in the eye…”

“Besides, I’m not exactly unsympathetic to the plight of broken-down writers. But frankly, what finally nailed it for me was the Clover reference,” she drank lightly of her merlot, albeit with a faraway gaze, almost as if toasting Gunner’s way. “Like characters set in Washington D.C. would have any knowledge of or access to Clover milk in their bubble. How dare Hassett pilfer that from your story? And I take it pretty personally, because I was weaned on Clover Stornetta. We used to stop at their dairy up in Petaluma on our way to Mendocino. Best milk and punny truck slogans on earth…”

“Amen to that,” I said, stunned and humbly—sensing that she was just hungry enough, already calculating the rule of thumb, if on the off chance they were to blink. Or that we were simply crossing over from here to Saturnity. “But how can I begin to thank you?”

“By getting back to work on the book of yours. With what we might be up against, we’ll need all the documentation we can get. So just keep your head down for now. And you just have to finish that story, and finish it ASAP.”

“Right…ASAP…”

“Anything else I should know?”

“Uh, no—not really,” I hedged, as I feigned reaching into my blue jeans for a bankroll.

“Then we’re done here, Mister Herbert,” she smiled tightly, pulling out her iPhone 11 for a quick scan of her Apple Pay, as if flashing a Federal badge, deftly laying down the law. “I will be in touch.”

“Me too, Ms. Warner,” I resorted to knocking back some more Firestone, adrift in miscalculation, but already plotting to mutt bag the cheddar skins for calmer seas later on—not knowing what the hell I was actually going to do about this now. Still, hmm, even more protection, what a racket. “Me too.” 

Care for More?

CHAPTER 14. A further combing through
The City’s fair housing infrastructure yields
a dense range of tripwires and warning flares…