Chapter 16

COVIDose: …On the outs again, another good, gray morning dulling any residual gloss and glitter from Fillmore Street stores. Can’t see in to window-shop anyway, for all the blanket boardover coverage—a riot of 2×4’s, ‘Gator and plywood in all shapes and sizes—store upon store, block after block—and spreading by the day. So RESET, go NOW…


“Just gimme my $19…and I be gone.”

“Sorry, I’m not authorized to do that.”

“Gimme my $19, you stole my money so gimme my fuckin’ $19!”

Figured to be a simple case of no fill, no refill. Although this was complicated by the fact that she had lifted the finished cup from a vacated table upon stealing in the door—which prompted a watchful cashier to resist the forceful tapping of the empty cup on the counter, and deny her fevered pitch with a thin, twitching smile. That sent a soiled gray hoodied woman in brown knit pants, ranting up and down the wait line, hurling larcenous accusations, merit immediately under review. While a harried Starbucks barista stood her grounds at the cash register, beckoning a stone silent wait line to move forward regardless of the foofaraw.

A compact ‘Bucks it was, very Pacific Heights clean, quiet, and stiffly polite, upper Fillmore scale—a perfect place to pause and catch a second homebound wind. Mainly cheery, bubbly young women otherwise scurried behind the counter—one looking hauntingly like a filial cross between Moon Saversohn and Sydney Mendel. Dallying over au Laits and tidy little tables were hushed elders, early retirees, mental health professionals from various second story offices and staffers from the hospital just uphill. Next table over could be the occasional fat cats, angel investing, stacking decks, sifting pitches, signing offer/term sheets, seeding rounds, switching partners with a quick swipe and send.

Everybody sat stirring their caffeine fixes of choice, squeezing in honey packets they’d pocketed from prep station dispensers, none too comforted by the soft pop Muzak overhead. Between the outbursts, I could hear a fussy, fidgety cough from a long rearward community table, primarily held down by wi-fi sucking regulars obliviously fixated on laptop, tablet or smartphone screens under a black-framed melange of coffee beans, growers and roasters.

But suddenly, everybody in here turned even more guarded, on edge. Among them, Arnold remained steadfastly analog, anally so. He was a snippy little middle-aged guy in flight jacket, teenage tight Levi’s, fat chrome keychain, laced-up Red Wing shitkickers and a rainbow variety of Cal caps. Arnold routinely spread out his morning NY Times, newsbitching to his bearded lady friend page by page, about everything in here or around the neighborhood. And he was visibly in a snit over this commotion, to where he marched to the counter, demanding that the flummoxed barista make a quick call to the authorities. This, I could see from my perch on a small circular stand and stool nearest the store’s front doors, where I’d had enough cortisol jitters as it was.

“Like that fucker over there stole my phone—gimme my $19—somebody call the police!”

“Can’t help you, sorry. Next guest…”

“Ain’t got my phone no more—will somebody call the po-lice,” the woman paced and shouted. “And gimme my $19 motherfuckers!!

She bolted from the counter line toward a pensioned school teacher at the front bay window table TXTing in full REI day-hiking wear. He suddenly clutched his iPhone 7 tighter as she approached and pointed him out of the line-up.“Gimme back my phone, motherfucker, that my phone you stole there. Look, I can give you passwords, fingerprints, appshit—fuckin’ prove that phone be mine!”

The mad woman pounded his table, Grande Latte teetering precariously on edge. She just as abruptly spun back in the direction of Starbucks’ counter, past glass and dark wood counters chock with pastries, croissants, sandwiches, chips, sweet candies and colorful fruit smoothies—irate all the more because the petrified cashier still wouldn’t reload her lifted cup. “See? Told ya the fucker stole my phone—call the police, will somebody please call the police?!” Again, nothing, nobody looked up from their small white slab tables; nobody at the long commons bench tore away from their screens.

Then she started in with “Gimme my $19, gimme my fuckin’ $19” over and over, “Will you gimme my $19 so I can get out of here and start my life!” She paced back and forth along the wait line, stomping her heel worn shoes.“Gimme my $19…gimme my fuckin’ $19…gimme my $19, gimme back my phone!!!! But she suddenly muscled out by me through slamming doors, mere minutes before the SFPD blues responded to that backroom 911 call. In all, just one more shake up and shakedown scheme…getting a way by getting in the way—the price of doing Upper Fillmore business with Lower Fillmore habitually scaling the Heights, just basically looking for some up and out.

“Well, here at Starbucks, I suppose,” Storm passed, my phone calypso ringtoned to life—Alison Paige-Warner touching base to gauge my wi-fi connectivity. “There’s always the library…”

“A regular Mr. Stone Age, you are. Still, I’ll be sending it to the G-Mail account you listed in your contact information…”

“I’ll be on the lookout, Ms. Warner. I’m on the lookout for everything these days.”

                   “Just be sure to read the letter very carefully before hitting send, Mr. Herbert. And by the way, don’t be expecting any overnight miracles. We’ll address further matters in due course, okay? Take good care and keep writing…I’ll be in touch.”

“No overnight miracles, gotcha—thanks again…” Click, Click.

Store filling, line lengthening, tables overflowing, I grabbed a refill, scarfed some more honey packets and let out for the house. “How ya doin’, champion, spare change?” This time, the rote hit-up by a scruffy street regular pried loose the last of my pocket change. He sat planted on his pillowed milk crate, rattling his coin cup at every passerby, following virtually every Pavlovian deposit with a quick coordinating TXT on his cell phone. Hard to miss him, even harder to pass him by, squeezing between a homeless, red parka clad SSI fixture standing with his tall coffee like a cigar store Amerind, laughing balefully, stuffed backpacks by his side.

Then there was the east coast transplant, already dark roasted, motor-mouthing estranged family gibberish going back three generations to his audience of one. In his twitching shadow squatted a tiny news clipper who compulsively snipped and yellow highlighted articles from any papers he could still find. The foursomewas misplaced from harsher city climes, residue from Starbucks’ wide open-door policy in the wake of a distastefully public lawsuit. Store management stood fearing that the lot of them were being planted by hungry PI/discrimination lawyers. Yet I couldn’t help picturing them shedding their street shtick, eyeing a weekend confab to compare their respective sidewalk charades up at their Napa/Sonoma hideaways.

Cynical me, somewhere between a saint and a sucker, maybe because of suddenly feeling so close to being in their sole worn shoes again. I nevertheless fist-bumped the coin cadger and trod past the Junior League brickfront building, Athleta’s sanitary white womannequins sporting all sets and scraps of stylish workout/yoga wear in ground floor windows. Pricey didn’t do this neighborhood justice: What used to be creamy stores and shops were now all fashionable shoppes and salons; former bank branches and nook-and-cranny stores had scaled up to InterMix, Cielo designer boutiques, to where the block’s show windows enticed all tony women all the time.

I sidestepped several smartphonies snapping their fresh Instagram content under Athleta’s retro depot lights, past a HairFairies salon and legacy Via Veneto restaurant—brimming like so many other cafes along here. An exclusive Stuart Hall/Convent School resale shop only widened the have/not divide. Across the way, a mushrooming acacia tree shaded a swank nail studio, further darkening the once sleek black-on-black Koopers mercery one door down—modish bookend to the sassy white Alice and Olivia rag trader, New York to the bone. Morning fog gave way to a patchy afternoon sun as Debs to matrons casually window shopped them all, one trendy display after another.

Still, it was what stood between them that flipped my switch, a temporal stitch in time, then and now. The venerable yet vulnerable Clay Theater’s filmy marquee as always touted the latest in foreign cinema, with de rigueur Rocky Horror and Big Lebowski midnight screenings, even though Carlos Santana’s adjoing rooftop practice shed and Millard’s next-door cafe were so long gone. Rewinds of its limited Hitler movie showing and the aroma of Via Veneto’s antipasti set me to thinking about Reese Paulen and our street fair chinwag way back in 2008, let alone how his Anti-Buddies movement was faring these right-wing, ‘deal of the century’ days.

Just about took a quick belt from Palmer’s brassy bistro here at corner’s edge to pull me out of another deep Mideast dive, nearly colliding with a lunching ICU team down from the hospital in blue operating scrubs. I panned up to the rising Pacific Heights horizon lorded over by 2500 Steiner Street, a prominent white 1920s co-op tower crowned with a Spanish red tile roof. Its more recent guest register included Bill and Hillary, Nancy and Chuck, with an occasional Barack and Michelle popping by on their way to Hawaii. I recalled once seeing the Queen and Prince Phillip rounding the Jackson Street corner up there in their armored Rolls, enroute to a British Consulate reception minus the splinter IRA intrigues. Or when Gorbachev’s Zil-41047 entourage roared through in the dark of night to that Soviet spynest down on Green Street—which was shuttered tighter than a lien-seizure these days. All told, it did make me wonder what the hell I was still doing in this A-list neighborhood after so many Z-list years.

“Hi, nice to see you again…how goes it?” I asked, upon bypass nodding to a second-story shrink in his ’70s uniform denim, deep into yellow highlighting a softcover psychosocial abstract.

“Doing quite well, thank you, and yourself?”

“Been worse, but hey, watch out for yourself, okay? See you soon…”

“Not if I see you first…”

The Clay Street crosswalk occasioned a little routine I’d worked out with an Upper Fillmore regular, a beaming fellow who walked slowly and wagged a good, long stick. Carl was a dedicated researcher at the Eye Institute up ahead, and appeared to be tapping off to Starbuck’s for a coffee break—no easy feat given that he was blind from birth. But his was a path well worn over the years, to where he likely could have negotiated the sidewalk and intersection without his orange folding cane. Either way, he would sweep along with a ready smile and knowing riposte, as if he recognized every peril or person before him. Hell, if he could maintain his optic nerve, put on a happy, sunny face day after darkened day, so could I—at least until the suspected cat lady appeared to spring forth a bit further up Fillmore.

Nevertheless, I padded past a corner curio shoppe, Super Cuts chop shop, bank and Carl’s Smith-Kettlewell Eye Institute along now shaded Fillmore, with a nervous peep toward the flaming old Alta Plaza turned Snug Bar—tamed as was so much of the neighborhood these days. Convent girls skipped and uniform cliqued down from Broadway for ice cream, crested jacket Stuart Hall boys giggling, pranking in their wake. I’d cleared lanes for them and clambered beyond the 1960s relique Cottage Industry pottery/craft center that had survived by virtue of inherited building ownership, where visions of Noelle Buxton came clearer. Just the other side of a set of rehabbing mid-block Victorians stood a former auto repair garage that with generous Getty lubrications had become the SPCA veterinary hospital and feline wellness center. Out its lobby doors she came, cagey pet carrier in hand, which further bolstered Delphoria rumors that she was secreting a rescue tabby in her room, against all lease prohibitions and standing house rules.

Resulting anger, anxiety and a cupful of bladder pressure sent me scurrying further up Fillmore Street, squeezing between a tandem of double-wide strollers, frantic, poly-lingual au pairs cosseting their wailing toddlers. Nature called, duty too, although the matter of whether this in fact was my responsibility or business any longer dragged on my pacing like a tire and chain. I dodged a Bentley poptop turning through the Washington Street intersection, with a glance toward that ever grassy mounded prominence of Alta Plaza Park over at Steiner—thick with sun baskers and the tangled leashes of multi-strain dog walkers. Here where we once gathered for news by the dozens, around the cigarette lighter-powered TV atop a corner pickup truck hungry, totally in the dark as to what a 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake had just wrought.

From there, it now was a blur of establishments that were way above my pay grade, high- fashion salons where drug and notions stores used to be. Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ piped out of a chic collections boutique, Fillmore steeply rising to beauty spas, Freda Salvador designer shoes, vaunted antique gallery and goldsmithery. Then came SF Symphony’s thrift shop, personal care lotions, Posh hair—a shoebox start-up of LED glowingly colorful distaff flats, loafers and sneakers brilliantly designed from recycled plastic—all stores fronted by planter boxes and espaliers. Images from a Tudor walk-up across the street reflected in the windows of Mayflower’s near corner market: young Blue Bottle gourmet coffee snobs milling about with artisanal brews in hand, ever scrolling through their datamassing smartphones. Christ, get me back to a basic cobbler or hardware store, especially now that all this haute could be coming to a personal halt. Then, over the racket of a MUNI trolley dropping poles, came another vibe of my calypso ringtone, and the blurtings of a panic attack.

“Hello, Ken, Peter Tallian here, just following up, checking in to see how you are doing…”

Doing? I’m cooked…” Speaking of phones, I took to stabbing at mine’s volume button under the rumble of various delivery vehicles.

“Listen to me, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve read about your situation, and suspect you’re blowing this whole thing out of proportion.”

“Naw, Thursday’s rolling in and I’ll be booted out, I can just feel it…”

“Not so fast, Ken—you have options here, believe me.”

Glancing across Jackson Street to the monumental Calvary Church, a come-to-Jesus moment arrived as how I really had no business being up in the Heights, no matter how blessed long I’d actually lived here. With that, I turned the corner past a creamy cartooned Clover Stornetta truck, back toward a somewhat soiled nesting ground AKA/ the Delphoria. Gino’s earthquake heroic Market again caught my admiring eye, how it somehow remained open through the Loma Prieta night, serving dazed, distraught neighborhood customers at a steep discount when everything else had gone black.

Then the massive Pacific Heights School, currently a Montessori learning complex with a playground full of romping youngsters, draped Jackson Street up to Webster in four stories of pacific tan on beige— not that it actually calmed me any. For the task at hand was to hold tight, stem the flow block by block, when I felt the urge to let loose, hike a leg, spray the territory like a retractable leashed dog. Still, the trick was to beat Noelle Buxton back to Delphoria, snapping some little iPhone shots of her cat crate, looking to catch her pussyfooting around.

So I scuttered by beautifully renovated stick Victorian, Queen Anne, Italianate mansions and primly pastel apartment buildings, side by side, too many now propped up soft-story jobs being retrofitted to meet stringent city earthquake codes—feeling no less wobbly myself. Came this close to stopping at the corner imported Ale House for a cold, crafty brewski, but settled instead on grabbing a few flattened beer cartons for good moving measure. I pushed further up Jackson, past enfeebled elders and pramming young mothers in tight running trim, then Danielle Steele’s white fenced Tuckerville Vicky House, sole one-story survivor of an 1870s neighborhood tract, with the only real front yard around these parts.

But another corner, mainly pre-and post-war khaki or pastel highrises, sort of a West Coast

Upper East Side, was graced with a long view north to the bay and Marin beyond. A block or two further got me panting back to the Delphoria, my one home away from homeless, now hanging on this call from Peter Tallian, desperate for some bodily relief.

“Proportion? Hell, get me a minivan or U-Haul…” I paced my place, noting through my peephole that the cat lady still hadn’t shown, as if it was any of my business now anyway. “The clock is counting down here, the axe is fixing to fall…”

“Trust me,” he said, “I believe I can help you with this.”

“With what, another place for me to stay?”

“You’re not going anywhere, I’m telling you. First off, I am prepared to draft a letter to the landlord’s lawyer, demanding that they hold fire on any eviction notices for now, until the particulars of their termination action can be further examined. For the moment, just stay put in your place until you hear back from me, will you do that Ken?”

“I guess, got no place to go now anyhow,” I sighed, peering about the half-packed clutter of my rooms. “I only hope you do know where you’d want to be going with this, Peter, you don’t know…”

“Just hang tough Herbert, you’ll be in good hands all around.” CLICK.

“Uh-huh, all around,” I muttered aloud, tapping the phone to black—unsure whether I was longing to stay inside this place, or sorely looking for an out. “Lawyer this, lawyer that… putting myself on more terra infirma with mouthpieces unknown, flat out of overnight miracles.

Wherein a folded missive slid in under my door… 

Care for more?

CHAPTER 17. Amid frantic packing and
stacking, some legal opinions press a new
wrinkle and set off a crisp black-letter response…