COVIDosage: …Witness this strange, stony stillness along such a normally vibrant thoroughfare. Echoes of emptiness bounce off plywooded store windows—the sporadic whoosh of passing emergency vehicles. I walk along curbside this morning, having Fillmore Street largely to myself, recognizing that I could actually hear birds out here again. But JBD RESET, Go NOW…
“I’m kinda like, getting into it, you know? I mean, it’s sooo awesome, the best thing ever! Like, who’s commenting, not just the comments…the group comments or, like, real personal ones…”
“Sorry, could you tone it down a skosh…”
“You got no pushback? WTF,” she added in reply, way uptalking vocal fry, basically ignoring and turning her back to me. A slim-fit nineteener from Moraga or so, early Chabot College coed type, chestnut with a banded mare’s tail, sweats and shredded denim, twizzling about on beaded strap sandals to maintain her bars. She then maintained safe distance in an indented browsing space just outside Bookworthy’s aluminum-framed display windows. “X amount of time, and, like, you’re getting zip, haven’t even bothered to wall up. That’s sooo basic…”
“You see, I’m in the middle of…” Clash of inputs…
“Because I woulda replied in, like, a millisecond! I totally hate you—I mean, like you really suck,” she cried, balancing her rose gold iPhone X atop a Starbucks Vente to go, in full FOMO mode. “I wish I liked you so much I didn’t have to like, defriend you…”
“No, seriously, I’m trying to process a…” Couldn’t hear myself think…
“Wha? Wait, Snapchat or Instagram?! They’re blowing up? 150 likes within ten minutes, fifty comments? And face time on Periscope? They liked it? How many?! VI-ral? Ohmygod, you’re soooo perfect!!! HAK…”
These kids today, with the selfies and TXTSPK—if they’re always on their phones, how could they possibly have minds of their own? Just more tasking/exploiting high-technical marvels for trivial means. Honestly, gotta get your scene out of that screen, girl—off those blamed de-vices, stress on the latter syllable.
But hey, new media, maybe that was the equalizer, the fast path to Publisher’s Weekly instead of Publisher’s Clearinghouse. I could have gone digital already, posted on Scribd; ebook, Kindled the hell out of it, thrown the whole mess up on Amazon or a selfie website: yah, apps, streams and downloads, no paper ventured, no migraines gained—boiling the whole publishing crucible down to simple likes and dislikes, clear-cut thumbs up or down.
Then again, I’d always been a step off and behind, hopelessly analogue, in a dead tree, hard copy kind of way. Paleo old school stubborn, and look where it got me, to the Hassett eyeful I just caught today, bone tired of paying it all so far forward. Still, too little now, too late for line edits or rewrites, when the plot and premise have already been packaged and shipped en masse.
I scanned inside the windows, to displays of crossword paperbacks, art piece puzzles of Cezanne, Edward Gorey and Diego Rivera. Nothing of diversional interest there, so I scouted out the hand-drawn freebie book signing notices and ‘Meet the Author’ sessions, mainly local self-help, minor Bay Area exaltation scribes. That’s when it hit me head on: a glossy four-color poster announcing Hassett’s personal appearance for a Danielle Steele fete, framed with a snippet collage of his past blockbuster book covers. But I could see no further than ‘Verdict Street’. Portrayed in that same bomber jacket and a Green Beret, he and his fellow mega-writer were to be lauded with a reading/Q&A at the Commonwealth Club downtown in but two weeks time, tickets limited and going fast.
“You okay, mister,” the caller turned back to ask, packing away her earbuds on her way across Chestnut Street to another BFF at Tacolicious. She looked at me as if I were south of SSI and Section 8, the breezy eucalyptus nose and sprays of shoreline salt and algae no longer able to mask my sweatful airs. “So weird, ’cause it looks like you just seen a ghost…”
“Uh, more like a ghosted writer, if you see what I mean…”
She couldn’t see it at all. The iPhone coed didn’t know or care less that I was blowing up over purloined words. So there we left it outside Bookworthy’s, with her TXTing over to a Tex-Mex tête-a-tête. Speaking of fitful bars, two watering holes lined up conveniently, if not suggestively right next door. Still, face time was fleeting as my runner’s high, and I had no stomach for further feeding an ulcer.
Parched, famished all right, but I’d already been shaken and stirred enough as it was. So I drifted further up fly Chestnut Street, late-day onshores blustering me along, past the darker recesses of the sleek Campus Club, then the Tipsy Pig and its long-buried phantoms of a one-time ferny CSB&G. Both were already rowdy and raftered with a happy hour crowd, the two pubs bookending a precious old 24-karat goldsmithery, strategically located for any boozy, knee bender proposals to either side.
Not my speed, no such luck there, either: reason enough to drag along by facial ID-rigueur therma-skin cell stores and eye, lash & lipstick salons. I negotiated a mannerly sidewalk obstacle course of baby strollers and roller walkers—of retrievers, bulldogs and feisty Labradoodles as if fresh from a Mudpuppy makeover—their leash masters having finally shed some slavish black on black for more brilliantly colorful North Face and Patagonia. Nevertheless, I kept coming out on the dark, losing side of all that as well.
Still, this cultivated slow-lane congestion did fortify the commingled aromas of Chestnut’s gourmet ghetto. I inhaled not particulates, but the tantalizing essence of taqueria y rottiseria, of the Panotiq bakery across the way, of Hunan Mu Shu, Kung Pao Squid, Curry Mi Fun and Mushroom Vi Mein. Bank branch quietude cater-cornered at Pierce Street was broken by an aging sax player wailing solo under Citi’s foyer cover for pennies on the dollar. Trusty millennials stiffly passed him by, lots of downed, fleecy Un-Tuck-It twents robotically snot-nosed through their smart phones, stoplighting their runaway rug rats, heeling sniffy, leaking kennel-bred dogs.
By this time, my flabby abbs were growling for a Juice Project Maca Chia Seed Protein Cacao smoothie, or maybe some garlic parmesan take-out from Lucca Deli. I fought off the urge to dine and dash from the sidewalk tables of a saucy Italian garlic pasteria; Blackwood’s American Thai Fusion Mieng Kum Kung and Pad Kee; Dragon Well’s Ma Po Tofu and Tea-Smoked Duck, Stanford cliques queuing across the way. But all I could actually dig out of my key pocket was enough for a caffeine fix and momentary breather, barista discourtesy of Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
There I had sipped and steamed, trying to sort out my latest disharmony, absorb and duly process it—to recall where I screwed up in the process that led to James Marion Hassett’s storied crib job. Swallow and wallow: Peet’s cozy sidewalk bench had provided a long, streaming view of Chestnut Street’s early evening traffic, along with variegated whiffs of strong, exotic coffees masking my aerobic odors, and piscine makings from Naked Fish Sushi next door. A striking roseate dusk had soon set in, igniting pastel facades, creating neon glister from the former All-Star Donuts sign, to the grand double-bill marquee of the renewly Deco Marina Theater.
“Got a touch bar, Thunderbolt slots?”
“Not this one, sorry…”
“i9 quad core, 3.5 GHz?”
By now, Marina District restaurants were bursting, bars earnestly firing up. The dinner crowd sauntered up and down Chestnut—smart, gold swipe or (Four) Square pairings lighted from Ubers and Lyfts in designer casuals and sleek, spectral color apres-sports, faces aglow in their little LED screens, if not N95 viral masked. When I wasn’t caffeine mesmerized by pinging, blinking parking meters, I glommed onto the theatrics of the dogs leashed to them: Yappy Shiatzus and Griffons went at it with reticent Corgis and Pugs, with chillin’ Bernese and Aussies. Passersby paused to fawn over snoozing cocoa Labs and English Cremes like they were family firstborn.
But eventually Sumatra shakes, high-end code hackers with their zero-day exploits, the mouthy newsbitchers and dog whistles, those Facebook or Tinder scrollers all got to me. So I cut out between an edgy Vizla and Ridgeback, catching a scent of spicy Ahi, a bouquet of lotions and bath soaps—a mug full of breeze blown smoky alcoholic brine from the cave men in the primeval Marina Lounge. Shapeshifting through hopelessly knotted main-drag traffic, I dodged abandoned e-scooters, a petition wielder and sign spinner, everybody else sporting their obligatory New York/L.A. scowls. I then crossed back over toward the more fruitful side, in through a motherboard of minimalist long blond tables perfectly arrayed with everything iThis and That.
Handy touch Pads, small screen and large; Retina phones, R, S and X—Bluetooth, Siri, laptops galore: Sidewall counters were lined with multi-core desktops and HD monitors, all the way back to the store’s pricey accessories and Genius Bar. Buyers and browsers, iZombies and screen slaves alike crowded around each hard wired display like so many Oxy addicts—caressing, toying with the digital iWare, everything so bright and shiny, vividly backlit wall panels smiling brilliantly down. For my part, it was high time to engage in a little MacSpeak, angling to sneak a free online e-peek.
“This one’s dual—are you…” asked a smiley, red shirted young Apple polisher who had joined me at this laptop table.
“Interested? Definitely,” I replied touch-feeling the new MacBook Pro 16-inch laptop. Yah, interested in freebie checking my email… “Right now I was just hoping to beta check my site’s PHP and SQL real quick…”
“Uh-huh,” he sniffed, eyeing my sweat wear, up and down. “BRB…”
Soon as the sales tech was drawn over to an iWatch table, I tapped into my Gmail, wherein I found a message from the Eisenhoff Agency. The head dick wanted me to check in with him ASAP, about a ‘white-hot client and ballistic new case’. No sleeping on this gig, which still rolled in and out despite my Reese Paulen/JonBenet tape snafu in aught-eight. So there was nothing else to do but log off, peel out of the Apple Store, head back uphill to S³ for the after-hours meeting.
Gritty darkness had descended before I turned a corner on Steiner Street, weaving betwixt some early bird louts on a drunken barfari and accompanying hotties struttin’ their young butts and tossing loose cleavage my way. Here, the gourmet ghetto fanned out with a savory flourish: organic teriyaki to Vietnamese street food, Blue Barn’s Kale Caesar and Detox Burratas—Ace Wasabi’s Sushi to Izzy’s grilled steaks and chops—with wine and probiotic tea bars to wash it all down.
Then again, restaurant row went nowhere fast compared to that greasy feast across Lombard Street. This mis en scène was like a mini 1916 Exposition, only set circa 1956. Cinematic searchlights and gobs of neon flooded this leg of Lombard’s motel strip, Mel’s Diner packed with ‘American Graffiti’ buffs who longed for or never left the Eisenhower era. I cut through the fabled drive-in’s retro street rods, amid the latest rallye redux of post-war Detroit glory. Multicolor illumined palm trees shimmered over the pearl luster and metalflake of diagonally stationed, hand-rubbed lacquered classy chassis.
I speed-shifted around a sweet sixteen of cherryed out vintage Chevys and Fords: past a chopped & channelled ’32 Deuce, two-tone ’56 Chevy ragtop, souped up ’55 Nomad, red ’56 fuelly Corvette and turquoise T-Bird for two. Check it out: a ’40 Ford coupe with those tiny chevron tailights, ’57 Bel Air finback, remade el Camino and Ranchero beds. Pedal to the metal, four on the floor—other aging lookyloos popped wheelies around Iskys, Edelbrocks, Duntovs, AFBs, line-bored small blocks, heads ported & polished; blue dots, teardrops and necker knobs—chrome-reversed wide whites and 4:56 Posi like they couldn’t re-believe. Tonight anyway, Mel’s Drive-In was haul-ass, hot rod heaven—just like the bad old days.
En route, I soaked in all the Gunk and naugahyde, tuned into the loudspeakered ‘Drag City’ and ‘Shutdown Volume 2’. Inside, a restaurant full of aging daddy-O duck butts and bobbysoxer dollies gorged on cheddar burgers and meaty fries, dug meatloaf platters and chicken pot pies, sucking giant double-malts. They bopped under the framed photo stills and memorabilia from George Lucas’s souped up 50’s teener flick, to the jukebox soundtrack of Spector and Wolfman Jack.
I’d grown hungry as hell by now, caught up in Mel’s nostalgia as the star-struck tourists strolling by. Was just as awash in the movie beams, search lights foiling and parrying through the gearhead glitter, polychromatic palm trees and tomato soupy skies—all the way to Mel’s end. But then came the skid marks. Turning the corner around his dumpsters into the mid-block alley between Lombard and Greenwich, I met up with a dimmer backstreet scene. Here, flashing red and blue lights signaled something far more cautionary and grim.
“Just keep moving here, folks, nothing of your concern,” ordered the woman SFPD officer, waving off me and a couple of other shortcutting figures with a lightsaber of Luke Skywalker force.
Easily the darkest, most curious address on this one block length of Moulton Street was this shabby, misplaced Victorian, and the scraggly birch-like tree it was hiding behind. The place rotted across from some Lombard storefronts’ backsides and a couple of rear offices, none of which ever showed any signs of life. A grimy single-story house better suited to west Petaluma sat brown-white and fading between a boxy new apartment building and nondescript over garage flat.
Torn, water-stained drapes fully covered the Vicky’s front windows, with several odd little tribal figurines left tipsy on one’s inner sill. Its solid windowless front door, a few rotting steps up, bore three deadbolt locks, which raised the question of whether nefarious drugs or worse were going down in there, or the place was simply tied up in some drawn-out probate litigation, while its tasseled gingerbread trim and sagging festoons wore further away. Still, it was a house with which I was a bit too familiar.
Tonight, however, the issue was more felonious than that, at least as far as I could see in hasty passing. Down on a short concrete apron leading to the house’s useless garage door, in a dip strewn with doggy bags, crushed cigarette packs, shattered beer bottles and dried hurl, beside a large rotted flower box, appeared to lay the splayed body of a lifeless young woman, face down and away. Squad car flashers and spotlights revealed a shadowy figure wrapped in splashy aquamarine.
I couldn’t much make those contours out any better, and the police were already sheathing the entire apron. But a quick second glance, and I shivered that what if she had once been a fresh, smiling face up at the house, a tenant in beset, tenuous standing. Somehow this figured, though that was just idle projection. All I really knew was the evening was still young; but hereabouts, fields of gray begat tiny streams of red.
That was one way of putting it, but I didn’t want to go there now. For it left such a nasty taste in my mouth…
Care for More?
CHAPTER THREE. An appointment
with a private eye opens one up to
several local scenarios, wherein he is
pressed to keep his peeled…