Chapter 94

“Man up, man down
when ride gets rocky, take
a hands-off approach.”

“No problemo.”

“It’s just that I thought the idea was to get you fixed up.”

“Not to worry, I’m good.”

“So then what’s with the scenic route? Especially since we can’t see much of anything here.”

“This way’s quicker. I know what I’m doin’, man. It’s just those damn surfers, man, bet they hired them wetbacks to do their hatchet work. Probably still back there somewhere. I swear, I’ll nail their asses but good.”

What Eric’s wipers couldn’t sweep away, the upper peninsula’s mucous tendencies handled with blanket authority. On the back side of Daly City, where tract housing sprawl had thickened worse than the overcast, his already smeared windshield began sweating. Beading, rather—a steady ocean spray pasted the crystallizing surface, his worn wiper blades proceeding to make a total peach sorbet of everything in their tracks. Oncoming headlights north of Daly Boulevard only added a caramel aspic to the whole unappetizing shmeer, and it was all I could do to keep tabs on the itinerary. This, while further exploring territory already trodden up the coast.

“Whoa, that’s too bizarre even to joke about,” I cased Eric’s face in the passing road lights: trickles of clotted blood laced with splatter of orange-red latex, streaking and setting in place like the strip cheese on a half-baked Domino’s combo. “Just like with the Marina Green thing…”

“What Marina Green thing?  I’m gettin’ to think you think I know something you don’t know—like about how that Gary stiff ended up face down in the harbor with those little puncture holes all over his body.”

“Puncture holes,” I huffed, my stale breath fogging the door window, as I realized I might be closing in on something better kept at strong arm’s length. “What puncture holes?”

“Shit, even if it is any of your goddamn business who offed Gary, why should I be…”

“W-w-wait a second,” I interrupted,, underlining my concern with a two-finger swash across the Porsche’s now steaming the windshield. “How do you know holes were all over Gary’s body? I’ve not seen anything in the news about that.”

If it wasn‘t the turnoffs and traffic, it was Daly City itself, terraced hillsides of uniform pastel stucco boxes with their parched pillbox yards. DC’s housing tracts heaped upon one another with unneighborly suspicion and scorn. Window dressings flapped behind doorway burglar bars, pent-up Dobermans pissed and paced all over sickly, stubby palm trees. What guard dogs and crime watch conspiracies couldn’t mitigate, sidearms and shotgun nests behind blocked-up car bunkers more decidedly, territorially could. Even with Maganos y Marias painting those pink driveways and pastel shutters, there wasn’t enough Sherwin-Williams covering the earth to spruce up that stucco madness.

Cramped, rolling sinewaves of shuttered isolation had ganged up on scenic Route 35 so as to render it a chronically congestive artery about the intersection bearing pioneer John Daly’s name. Eric’s accelerating notions only compressed things further. Highway signage became virtually indistinguishable, a tracer blur of reflective white and green. Reason enough why Skyline Boulevard’s passage into Olympic Country appeared to afford us a measure of urban relief. If only the wooded open space hadn’t been that troweled with grout gray overcast and a hardening, wind-driven frizzle.

“Somebody who?” I pressed, my olfactory senses filling with paint can airs as I burrowed deeper into the shotgun door panel, glancing back at 280-bound exits not taken.

“Take your pick,” Eric pounced, turning his radio up to some retrograde Todd Rundgren, to where I could hardly hear that bumper guard banging against the undercarriage and pavement. “That Clifford wimp, we talked about it later. I remember tellin’ him he musta did it—you know, with those goofy cowboy spurs he had for Halloween.”

“Little existential Clifford? Clifford the Zen guru? Come on, Eric,” I replied, although the little bugger being detained up there was a convenient diversion. “He’d probably just gone north to pick wild porcini and chanterelles—get away from it all.”

“Hah, get away, all right, to more like peyote and death caps, considerin’ how that freak bastard could get without his meds,” Eric scoffed, drawing feverishly on his Marlboro. “L.T. made him with his probation minders. Ask me, it’s because Clifford hit on Kathy and ripped some of her needlework one night. Then the geeky little fucker tried to lay it on Crabber Don.”

I dunno, Eric, that’s a little too out there,” I hastened a little touchy-feely around the console, a narrow crevice between it and the seat frame bracket, if nothing else fishing for spare change. My chewed fingernails ran freely along a buried nylon seat belt before catching up on something lodged underneath it, then pricking my finger on an item spiky sharp. “Next you’ll be telling me Gary was done in with a pizza cutter…ouch…”

“Naw man, maybe it was more like a star.”

“A what?” I sucked a bit of blood from my left index finger, trying to figure out how he would know this, much less what had burrowed into that seat channel—carpet tacks, maybe a leftover sheet metal screw. My knees then reflexed up to the dashboard as Eric eased off the gas and fully inside city limits again, downshifting fourth to third.

“Throwing star,” Eric exhaled, setting aside his bloody rag, reaching deep into the crevice. “Martial arts, it’s like a sheriff’s badge without the round tips. I know for a fact that pit bull nut had one on him. Here, this what pricked ya…lotsa people got ’em.”

“They wear them, or,” I asked, as I lightly gripped the star Eric handed me, six needle sharp points and v-angle valleys with a 1.5 inch, center-holed core, all of it polished and super smooth.

“Throw’em,” Eric sucked his Marlboro. “Fling ’em like frisbees, only these babies stick… THHWWAPP.”

The Porsche’s Solex carbs inhaled just as deeply, Eric compulsively hammering his gas pedal, powering into fourth gear once again. Fir trees whizzed by, snarled median strip succulents flapped loose as tobacco leaves in our wake, ground fog low balling, snuffing out the greenery, not least the myrtle and Ramonas Rose, blurring any semblance of tonal variation. I could barely make out dwelling lights to either side as we curved gently coastward along wide open Route 35. Here, Skyline had little to offer but intensifying drizzle and cold, broadside winds, shearing between the Lakeside and Ocean Courses of Olympic Country Club, which purportedly could be seen on clearer nights and days.

Dense shrubbery and cypress trees mounded in, turning our right side even darker as we approached the merge lane of Olympic Country Club’s private road. Emerging to our driver’s side was the faintly glowing cluster of environmental classrooms and a native plant nursery amid scruffy coastal dunes. Then came the beginnings of Fort Funston, a low line horse stables compound, an access road stretching deeper into a what was said to be hang glide territory and an overgrown Nike missile site, not that I could see anywhere near it from my sliding shotgun seat, particularly with much smaller weaponry at hand. Otherwise, the fort afforded neither relief nor reinforcements; it only brought more sand. Blowing, drifting from the endless dunes and deserted gun batteries that buttressed the coast and provided a fertile dumping ground for beached scuppers and whales. Heavier onshore winds were turning frizzle into a granular basting of jet stream proportions as the coastal dunes of Fort Funston leveled to desolate beaches and horse trails.

“THHWWAPP… yah these shurikens can be really heinous, man—pure Ninja stuff,” Eric rattled on, tightly grabbing his gearshift lever after handing me the star for a looksee. “Then what about L.T.? He’s a con, ain’t he, and moles for the cops? Plus he beats up on his white girlfriend, too. Cat like that, nothing would surprise me…like maybe he just fingered Clifford for the reward. Really, the more I think about it, the more I figure it had to be L.T. done all that Gashouse crap.”

“Oh, I dunno,” I shook my head, seat rocking back and forth like the top center carriage of a crank Ferris wheel. Why would he carry one of these stars, probation and all. And Gary was laying into everybody—me, even you…

Me? Get with the program,” Eric continued to tap dance the throttle to the slosh of his gas tank and flickering of loosely wired instrument cluster lights. “What the hell’s the difference with a waste like that anyway? L.T.’s already got a rap sheet a mile long, and who knows what kind of shit he packin’ or was up to in the joint?”

“Can’t see it, Eric—we both know better than that.”

“Okay then I will cop that Gary was jumpin’ on my case, too. I told him lay off, that I was torn up as it was about Bruno. But there he was, still ridin’ me up and down about fag shit, callin’ me a pussy, wavin’ that stump hand in my face. He knew I was hurtin’, yet he’s suckin’ his brewskis, shootin’ off his yap, tellin’ me I should cruise over to the Marina john with all the other pervert fatherfuggers. Then he threatened to tell everybody I hit on him. Well, no way I was puttin’ up with that, had to be a man about it, right? Gimp bastard had a way of gettin’ under your fingernails, know what I’m sayin’?”

“Well, sure anybody could see that. Who’d believe a loose cannon like him anyway,” I said, falling all over myself to help him fill in the blanks. More of a slump, actually, toward the door panel, needing a little body english, to get a better handle on things, including the contoured valleys between each prickly…point.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Eric snorted, goosing his gas pedal, clenching his filter tip tightly between his teeth, smoke cycling mouth to nostrils, nostrils to mouth. “Ain’t like I ain’t got what it takes to take it…shit. Yah, I got my other toys too, man—you best believe.”

“Toys,” I replied tersely, feeling a hexagonal common core, sort of a hub, much like derailleur gear sprockets, only razor sharper, deeper, more attenuated. “As in fun and games?”

“As in a piece of the action—get the picture?”

“I suppose, but where’d you get this throwing star thing?”

“Scarfed it at the wreckage yard in Oakland where I get my Porsche parts,” Eric said, reaching beneath his bucket seat, lifting the cover of a cigar tin. “Picked up another toy around the same time—some coincidence, huh?”

“Same time as…” Just when I was swearing off any more stargazing.

“As this little baby,” he pulled out a chipped handle Beretta. “Turns out Gary…like, bequeathed it to me, ain’t that somethin’?”

Embankments rose, as did Route 35 itself. Given the hairline soup and drizzle, the windshield was fundamentally unsafe at any speed, much less with Eric summarily slamming his accelerator. Whether due to the densified atmosphere or sinking coastal elevation, the 912 caught and took off like a tomcat after a canary cage up Skyline, the medianed boulevard narrowing to merely a low retaining barrier as we angled up through a windswept cypress and pine lined curve. Quickened condensation shrouded the greenery to either side, enveloping the entire landscape, even where the ice plant-lined median strip resumed.

Throbbing windshields were one thing, a relatively wraparound job pulsating like subwoofers during a Phil Collins drum solo something frightfully else altogether. Over 40 m.p.h. onshore gusts pushed the splattered, weakened safety glass inward to its plastic membrane limits, Eric’s 70 m.p.h. clip pushing right back. He almost seemed entranced by this handgun, setting it up against the glass shield’s aerodynamic resistance and possibilities, as if graphically plotting breaking points, Russian roulette wagering on collapse times along intersecting stress cracks—like dipping into a Keith Richards deathwatch pool, with a Beretta kicker.

“Really…something, all right,” I leaned further right, looking fretfully about, dodging the incipient drip from the Porsche’s ragged weatherstripped sunroof. “When was it he did the…bequeathing?”

“Funny enough, that very same night, kind of a parting gift,” he took to fondling the small pistol, leaning forward into his steering wheel. “But damned if I really know what became of him afterwards, one way or the other. Hmph, go figure…generosity like that from an asshole like that.

“No, of course not, thought never entered my mind,” I heaved, as Eric briskly returned the gun to its cigar tin, placing it back under his bucket.

“Not that I would use it, or anything, just a best-defense-an-offense thing,” he said, nose to the glass, as if still sniffing out the stormy isobar cracks across his latex smeared windshield. “Or that I’ve ever used either one…in anger, or anything. But even if I did, for argument sake, and you happened to find out about it, way I figure, a guy like you couldn’t do shit, right?”

“Uh, how do you mean?”

“I mean, what would you do, go to the cops? You think San Francisco pigs would believe you, that they give a good goddamn about scum like us? It’s just street losers, nobody cares. Probably figure I’d be doin’ ’em a favor.” He hit the windshield wipers for a fresh smear or two, with a sly wink of the eye. “Then again, maybe the fuzz have it right up in Crescent City there. Maybe weird little Clifford did the whole freakin’ enchilada, right?”

“R-r-right,” I muttered, enough already with his null hypotheses. “Whole enchilada…”

That sand injection further refracted the glimpse of a claret haloed skyscape of city lights in the far distance as we approached a moderate crest. But more immediately, trees and high bushes darkened an intersection where John Muir Drive fed past a pricey apartment complex into Route 35—even though occasionally strafed by the gellish headlights of oncoming traffic. Once those opposing beams passed, we could barely spot a wood-paneled park sign on the right shoulder, since his rigged-in driving lights were  dim and fluttering like mattress store beacons. The board pointed toward a rod and gun club and police pistol range located on the banks of Lake Merced, which was converging toward Skyline Boulevard, just beyond a roof-high concrete retaining wall to the right.

On the gentle downgrade, I could roughly make out that immense body of water, San Francisco’s longest lake by far, prized as The City’s principal non-saline solution locked in by briny sea. Yet this was no night for either paddleboats or shorecasting—indeed, seeing anything past the lake’s marshy banks proved hopelessly beyond me. Under clearer skies, Merced could be divided into two distinct bodies, upper and lower, the west side approach to another, Harding Park Municipal Golf Course, splitting them like a long nightmare dogleg to our right. Just beyond the Great Highway seaside turnoff, Harding Road delivered itself unto Skyline near Lake Merced Park’s boathouse and rowing club. The entire sweep of this all was rendered more harrowing by the crippling lack of vision, made plain when a fleeing carload of student drunks and dopers roared in just ahead of us from the blind side.

Lake Merced’s upper body seemed socked-in more severely, darkened by croppings of cypress and eucalyptus trees that also overran coastal cliffs and campgrounds on our ocean side, to where the T-intersection was darker and damper yet. Startled, Eric swerved to avoid the rowdy Ford station wagon when it barged through a stop sign into our path. He hit the brakes full leg, his 912 broadsliding to a halt on the intersection’s far Harding Road side shoulder.

“Whew, that was close,” I coughed, as Eric killed his ignition. “Anyway, truth is that whole Marina Triangle still gives me the willies. Kind of like this does right here.”

“No biggie, still got my race car reflexes,” Eric snarled, lighting a smoke. “But yah, that scene was cold blooded, man, I ain’t shittin’… gone shredded like dogmeat.”

“Dogmeat? Are we talking about the same thing—you know, Bruno…”

“No, Gary and Crabber…” Eric sniped, pushing open his driver’s door. “But that, too. Aww, fuck it, might as well go check out that bumper guard.”

Log rolls of fog spun down over Skyline Boulevard, through the dense cypress and Monterey pine perimeter between it and Lake Merced. Eric had planted the car under two spindlier specimens, overhead boughs of which only diverted and refunneled the steady drizzle like rice field irrigation flipped over directly above us, while dune-fed winds kept the Porsche rocking side to side. Under the circumstances, I was content to press my knees more firmly up against the glove box, no longer so tuned into Eric’s wavelength, for that signal seemed increasingly scrambled.

“Tell you what, though, seems like a lotta bad shit’s been happenin’ ever since Bruno…” He climbed back into driver’s seat, tossing the detached bumper guard back into the general vicinity of his rear jump seats.

“Sure, Bruno,” I blurted, trying to refloat a fast and furiously sinking scow. “How exactly did…”

“Mutt never rallied from the attack, that pit just tore his ass up,” Eric lamented, leaning back into his bucket, firing up his last Marlboro. “It’s a fuckin’ sin, man—me and Bruno had our hassles, but truth is, nuthin’s been the same since…”

“Aww, come on,” I said, rattled by this reasonably normal looking galoot mourning his pet like it was losing his mother. “The world’s full of great dogs…”

“Hey, I don’t wanna hear about no other hounds, alright,” Eric shouted, slamming his bow tie- spoked steering wheel. “There ain’t no other hounds! Not like Bruno…”

“I see what you’re saying, it’s rough enough as…”

“Yah? Well try cuttin’ it without your best friend.”

“Been through it myself, believe me. But you’ve got other friends, don’t you?”

“Oh sure, like those maggots livin’ off the Marina Green garbage. Don’t go lumpin’ me in with ’em,” Eric blustered, wiping pointlessly at his windshield. “Hell, I don’t mean you, man…aww, it’s just you ain’t got clue one how lonely it can get without that dog! Fuckin’ mutt always listened, stuck by me every time, no matter what I did…”

Spill through from the overhanging boughs began penetrating the 912’s sunroof, wet blowing sand the door molding and window cracks; pine needles and full cones pelted down on the car all around. The intensifying mist rained down on the Porsche, hood to fastback, in random staccato passages. Still, it was the better of strained silence, hence I finally reached to click on the FM, only to catch up with KPOO Radio’s Jonestown Watch, replete with updated body counts and running dog commentary on poison punch test runs and sleep deprivation suicide drills. How Father’s goons seized everybody’s passports and stripped them of any cash and valuables. That the community FM station had set up a hotline and bulletin board to connect possible surviving compound captives with their blood and loved ones here in the Bay Area, any way they could…

At least until Eric said enough of that with a twist of the dial. More bloodletting, globule by globule, even though his carpet was already saturated and stained by the puss drain and light rain. Onshore gales pitched the car like a raided cradle, seeping through to stoke his smoke all the more, not to mention his demeanor. And Jive 95’s bootleg taste of Pink Floyd’s upcoming double album, tracks titled ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’, did little to stem the tempestuous tide.

“No, hey, I wasn’t lumping you—I-I-I, here.” Placation city: I pressed the cigarette lighter without pause. “Have another smoke, then we’ll get rolling again, huh?”

“Plumb out,” he coughed up some sputum out his narrowly opened door. “Like I said, dames, I can do without, it’s Bruno!”

“S-s-so get you a new Chessie,” I pulled away reflexively, poising to counter, unsure where to start, except that apparently Sherry was a shrewd judge of character—must have gotten it from her father.

“Wouldn’t be the same,” Eric pressed, the Porsche’s glass now further steaming over on the inside. “Not even the same.”

“Let’s not do anything crazy here,” I urged, “this will all work itself out, you’ll see.”

“Until then, you’ll do,” Eric grunted, David Gilmour sliding into his guitar coda to ‘Comfortably Numb’.

“What? Ouch, lay off, dammit,” I cried, beside myself, momentarily frozen between fear and flight. “That way, no harm, no foul—like you said, the cops don’t care anyhow…”

“Sure, sure,” Eric groaned, kicking back, reaching over my way. “Just lighten up…”

“Really, I swear, nobody’ll know from anything here. I mean, because you’ve been real helpful to me and everything…”What the hell was going down here? Was he putting on or hitting on? Was this theory or execution? Was that piece loaded and was it cocked? What should be the play call, roll over, or roll hard right?! “So no rat-outs, I promise!”

“I got your promise, fifty bucks worth,” Eric panted, apparently sensing resistance, clamping, squeezing my inner thigh with bruising force, Roger Waters spieling a ‘Hey You’ preview into ‘Comfortably Numb’ on the FM radio. “C’mon, man, let me for grins—you just make like Brunnooo…”

“No, stop, will you!!! Look, I happen to like dames, Eric, even got two of them, as a matter of fact—two real-life dames, I tell you…”

“Ohhwww,” he moaned, clenching harder, commencing a pincer grip into my slack, tender skin. “C’mon, ain’t you man enough?!”

“Ouch! Ease off, goddammit,” I cried, his grimy fingernails digging deeper, creeping higher into flaccid fleshstuck for the moment in neutral, engine gunning like the blazes. Searing pain shot up and down my leg, and only worsened as Eric leaned over further with heavy nicotine breathing, and I squirmed to pull away. I reached back for the door handle, yanking on it just as tightly, the shotgun door springing open even as that handle came free in my hand.

“Happy birthday, bitch!!” He shook his free hand violently as I pushed him off like Sweetness would The Assassin, wedging my aching right leg against the console hump, poised to eject from this death spiral, with no clue where I’d go. “Want my pound of the flesh—take it like Bruno, take it like a…”

“Back off, Eric, this is insane—I’m outta here!” But before I could fly the coupe, he fisted down savagely, scoring a ringer on my vitals, hadn’t taken it that hard since catching a suicide squeeze foul bunt squarely on ball two, taking one for the team in Pony League. So much for Lovelock, as well… “Oh-oh-h-h-h!!!” I doubled over in swelling pelvic agony, shouldering out the passenger door.

As Eric reached menacingly under his bucket seat, I stumbled over the door hump, rolling out, gaging and groaning, into the wind driven spray. Man enough?! No telling exactly what he was grabbing for now, but it didn’t figure to be a first aid kit or road flare. I peeled my face up from the slimy concrete apron coat of pine needles and eucalyptus leaves, crab crawling in mere centimeters until my knees gave out on a slick patch of sliding mud. My groin burned and drum throbbed to attention, dwarfing my chin and kneecap pain, as if the last, worst feeling of my erogenous zone: Eric might just as well set off an M-80 in my BVDs.

Still, there was no future in grovelling here, so I rose and struggled to catch my breath against a green wooden retaining wall, under more seeping cypress branches and a knocked out amber street light, pulling brown needles out of my breathless, gap-toothed grill. I straightened up as best I could with a bowling bag scrotum and dragged my swelling Brunswicks to a narrowing, pine and shrub spongy shoulder. Skyline Boulevard’s home stretch curved northward around Lake Merced’s upper cavity, and this narrow roadside lane was the only avenue of escape spotty traffic would bear. Yet there was Eric, cranking and cranking a 912 four-banger, which seemed in no mood to catch and rapid fire.

Oncoming headlights to the front, haloing high beams horning up from behind: intermittent lamps alternately blinded me and silhouetted a plunging lake bank thick with gnarled, ferned alvesia and marshy cattails in the wind. Through some creaking, swaying eucalyptus, I spotted a green freeway  junction sign for Lake Merced Boulevard up ahead; but less encouraging were the shaky, fluttering headlights shedding the necessary illumination. BEEP, BEEEPP. Had to be Eric’s Porsche high beams come to life after all, slashing, cross-eyed dueling over me, through the tall, leaning eucalyptus, across Lake Merced’s murky waters like a Coast Guard cutter run aground. Only Eric could chicken-wire rig headlights like that.

Really, two dames, flesh and bloody two of them, goddammit, gotta be a man about it! Straighten this bullshit out… My feet slipped and side-planed fitfully over a coat of twigs and leavings, hard conish seeds shifting like acorns under foot, as I glanced up to get a faceful of drizzle from these oatmeal gray and ghostly skies, and the darkly banked, tree-lined distant side.

“Hey, man, where you goin’,” Eric shouted through his half-opened shotgun side window.

Breathless, I just kept silently slipping and sliding up the lakeside path, which had now widened slightly where the retaining wall ended, to something of a bike lane. I tuned instead into the creaking and crackling of wind-twisted branches, howling tree squirrels, the confounded rattling of the Porsche’s body parts.

“C’mon, man, was just jerkin’ you around,” Eric persisted, cruising slowly alongside, a little soulful ‘I Wanna Get Next To You’ blaring from his in-dash radio. “Get your ass back in here before…”

Again, nothing said, my right leg giving out from under me as I tripped over a muddy, meandering acacia tree root. Heavier rain soaked me like a sprinkler system; still, I struggled to right myself, hell bent on gaining yardage—trying to fathom how deep went his killer instincts, feeling violated as hell…

“Aw right, aw right,” Eric screamed, “fuck you then!” He downshifted and gunned the 912, popping the clutch, fishtailing toward Route 35’s inner lane, then back wildly over the slender shoulder and median into my path, braking broadside into the loose, slickened leaves.

I vaulted lamely over the coupe’s left rear fender, righting myself against its hot, vented hood, fearfully contorting to regain my stride along the arching bike path. No promises, no guarantee whatsoever that it would get me anywhere; but there was no sense spinning wheels until these arrangements turned into arraignments. That didn’t stop Eric from laying wet rubber, however. I could hear the Porsche’s bald Pirellis slip-sliding through the goopy ground cover, eventually hitting pavement. Engine racing, wheels whining, headlamps winking and bobbing worse than hurricane lamps on the Redneck Riviera. Fatal visions of star-struck scenarios and Saturday night specials creased my adrenalized, cortisoled cortex, piercing images of martial star grazing, Beretta slugs tattooing my temples, drilling permanent little holes into the backroads of my mind.

I shuddered at the revelation that even my most tortured imagination had seldom rivaled the wilder realities San Francisco had in store, and I had barely tapped the door. Such replayed outcomes would at the very least take my attention away from groinal agony. Still, I walked briskly toward what appeared to be a traffic turnout, albeit barely within view, what with the thickening fog and sea-whipped spackle pouring over the western embankment by way of an Armory Road bunker. But between here and there came those wavering headlights once more, shining off toward Twin Peaks somewhere east of here.

“You ain’t nuthin’, nowhere, understand,” Eric shouted, as he gunned back up alongside me on the shoulder in fits and starts. I could hear him coughing uncontrollably between engine revs, AC/DC and death metal on the FM, the mad slapping of his windshield wipers. “Hear me, man? I ain’t even forgettin’ about my fifty big ones—and I know where you’re crashin’ these days!”

Thereupon, his rusty, latex splotched Porsche tailed me along Skyline, while he tuned into more headbanger radio, Alice and Motorhead, menace waving his weapon my way up through his sunroof, that throwing star now chain hanging from his center rearview mirror. But I guessed he really couldn’t see me that clearly through the fog and bushes, so I dashed toward a turnout aside Lake Merced’s northernmost tip, hyperventilating through the sopping headwinds like an asthma case, then inhaling several cubic buckets of rainwater and salt spray. Playing two dames, flesh and blood, two dames, man, make a damn decision at Clark and Division, two… over and over in my migrained head. To little avail, as it happened, because Eric bird dogged me, ride for stride. All else having failed, I began to flail my arms like newbie crossing guard on the first day of grammar school.

A clog of inbound cars gained on the amber hazy turnout, Eric’s shaky headlights perhaps catching their eye. In any event, his honking and revving seemed to scare them off enough to keep on keeping on toward Lake Merced Boulevard—all, as it turned out, save one. This midnight blue Buick Skylark pull over into the turnout, several car lengths ahead of the Porsche. In-city traffic building back around the bend must have spooked Eric some, for he sank back into his driver’s seat with a baleful shake of the fist, honked twice firmly and sped away, cutting off a Subaru or two.

Once the Buick driver opened his passenger door, I apologized for being so drenched and disheveled, explaining that I’d suffered a breakdown of sorts. As stylishly lean and clean-cut as he looked, I was surprised when he pointed out his vinyl seat covers, gesturing me inside. I told him my ultimate destination was UC on Parnassus, and that anywhere near MUNI was plenty good enough. He said he was headed for Diamond Heights himself, hoped West Portal would do, and introduced himself as Walter.

“So, if I might ask, what was the nature of your breakdown,” he downed the volume on his Bartok cassette. “Your vehicle is at the Merced boathouse or…”

“Don’t I wish,” I spouted. His Skylark heater and calm J. Crew demeanor proved to be haven enough for a little letting fly. “No, truth is I just got ambushed by this pervert sonofabitch who I thought was my friend. Plays it straight up all along and turns out to be a mutt fuckin’ predator who’ll take it any way, anywhere he can get it.”

“Really…” Walter didn’t bat an eye, staring straight ahead to Skyline Boulevard’s gentle final curve.

No problem with his wipers, I peered through the clearly swept windshield to the overhang of dripping eucalyptus trees to either side of Route 35 as we curved right of the San Francisco Zoo, well within earshot of its braying and barking: a chainlinked barnyard of caterwauling and quaking under foul atmospheric conditions such as these. Beyond a thicket of cypress trees to our right, we came upon an exit lane for Lake Merced Boulevard, the entire co-convergent Herbst Road intersection haloed by fuzzy amber overhead streetlights. Then we approached a eucalyptus-clumped triangular traffic island, behind which loomed a semblance of civilization once again. Behind it, Lake Shore Drive ringed a self-contained pocket of tidy, over-garage bungalows with a few winding streets like Country Club Drive.

Namely, here was Sunset as could be: a barren clutch of stucco and pastels, with sparsely scattered stunted palms. Heavy, half-drawn, champagne colored window dressings with humongously ornate table lamps were centered in the burglar barred parlor windows, glowing between the bulletproof drapes. Traffic merged with the Skylark on the scalene side of the triangle, Walter dutifully allowing two muskrat subcompacts in ahead with a click of his hi-beams and gracious wave of his hand, then a dubious glance my way.

“Yah, a real woman-hating head case, that bastard,” I groused, wiping my face, pasting down my soggy hair, still plenty pissed that I’d been hornswaggled by a sleazy shakedown like that. “Struts around like some badass he-man, when he’s just been a goddamned butt farmer all along, trying to hit on regular guys like me. You know the type, right? You’ve heard how those sex-crazed fruitloop faggots are…”

“As it happens, I suppose I’m one of those fruitloopers,” said Walter, suddenly braking to pull over and show me the door at Sloat Boulevard’s Y turnoff.  “And from what I gather, I wouldn’t touch either one of you with a 12-inch…pole.”

“Uh, oops, jeesh—sorry, no offense, really,” I muttered, gnashing, pounding my knee, chagrin instantly setting in. “Well anyway, Happy Thanksgiving! And thanks for the favor…”

“No thank you for the fear.”

Not quite sure how to take that, I zipped my lip, sat on my fisted hands until piling out of the Skylark at Sloat’s pedestrian island, Walter accelerating indignantly away. Christ, not Sloat again, so many bummer trips here already, like a boomerang of bad karma on auto-reverse, spinning wheels here, scared straight, wet cat nasty, chilled and dampened to the bone. I scoped out serrated cordons of those wall-to-wall up either side of the eastbound boulevard through the updraft and sidedraft drizzle, just more bungalows and concrete front yards, but then spotted the ridiculous wiener brown Dachshund head out front Doggie Diner, with that little surfer cafe just shoreward from there.

I waited out a walk light with a head full of developments to digest, decisions to make with a lot at stake, having to get it right as rain this time. I was already rationalizing that if it weren’t for Eric’s star and sidearm, he would never have gotten the drop on me like that—I could have just as easily grabbed and wrung his skeevy neck. How karmic that would have been all right—how justifiable, how copycat consistent, how appropriately saturnine…

Yeah, blindside hindsight, whatever: at least now I could catch an L Taraval torpedo down there by the Irish Cultural Center, maybe even run into the Asian fisherman on Ocean Beach. A modest measure of relief and redemption, to be sure. In a squall like this, with no sign of that blessed cross over above Mount Davidson, I’d have to take it any way, anywhere I could get it. Hell of a day overall; hell of a birthday, or Thanksgiving weekend for that matter.

As for sweet redemption, that would come in due time. Until then, it would have to take a number—so long as the digits weren’t 9-1-2. Right now, I needed backup, I needed an out…

Care for more?

Chapter 95… 

(The dramatically concluding
              chapters are right around the bend. ED)

sr dingbats

“Out goes the ego
on the road to hitting bottom
looking up through the gloom.”

“Reports out of Guyana now have the death toll from cyanide-laced fruit juice rising to the hundreds and hundreds, while the bodies of Representative Leo Ryan and others are being returned to the Bay Area. Closer to home, Police Chief Charles Gain states that rumors of local Peoples Temple-related violence, so-called hit squads, are unfounded so far. But after the U.S. State Department looking the other way so far, the FBI has finally joined the investigation…”

“That’s plumb crazy…”

“And what we just went through wasn’t?”

“In other news, District Eight supporters of former Supervisor Dan White have delivered more than a thousand letters and petition signatures in favor of his reappointment. But City Hall is not tipping its hand, and columnists such as Herb Caen are having a field day with what they term White’s too-little, too-late efforts. Details on these and other stories at the top of the hour, plus your Thanksgiving weekend weather. So keep your dial on KGO…”

“Nuffa that,” Eric said, pushing a pre-set button to KFAT’s FM signal from Gilroy, which was deep into a Little Feat marathon, Lowell George belting ‘Trouble’ off the ‘Sailin’ Shoes’ LP. “I got enough on my plate as it is…I mean, those fuckin’ surfers been giving me shit ever since I moved into that garage.”

“Uh, you’ve still got some blood running down your cheek there…”

We must have been damn near Mussel Rock Park before I even dared to look back through his Porsche coupe’s rear window, preferring to dance up and down his radio dial and co-plot our course due north. We had beat a retreat out the San Pedro access road, past clustered veterinary clinics and realty offices, by local shanty grottos, fresh catch joints laced with starfish, hand-whittled pelicans and barnacles the size of beachballs, kitchen additions sagging out back as if built on quicksand pilings the night before. Pacifica’s fish houses were sprinkled through an otherwise uncharted landing of boatyards and makeshift drydocks—a choppy, sea-sickening gumbo of rotting hulls, rusting scuppers and teetering abandoned dreams.

The stretch north of Pacifica had started out hospitably enough, a gently arching thread through roadside gas marts and seaside cottage cafes. Parceled in among coarse sprigs of scrub pine and spindrift eucalyptus were half-shelled craft shops and buccaneer shanties behind bunkers of overturned jeeps and boat haulers, as if to shore up these cliff dwelling condos and clustered enclaves against rising tides and hostile torrents. Only the fortifications all seemed to be positioned toward the highway—an indication, perhaps, of where the real threat was perceived to be.

Just man and the sea, that swirling tide pool symbiosis, and civilization east of Route 1 was no life worth tying a tow line to, and those landlubbers be damned. Maybe it was the salt spray, the constant concussive pounding of the waves, but these shore dwellers were so thoroughly off the deep end that most eastsiders were more than delighted keep their distance. Rather, they gazed safely down upon the coastniks from skylit homes upwards of Sweeney Ridge or the relatively shaky roofed condo complexes halfway downhill. Either way, their real payoff was a daily dose of migrating gray whales and flaming ocean sunsets beyond the seaside rubble. We weren’t so fortunate: had no Pacific panorama, couldn’t so safely distance ourselves from the coastal precipice. There would be no sunset of consequence, anyway—just cold, raw hemorrhages of pink, peppering a dense pewter fog, and that narrow horizontal continuum of sea and sky.

“Throw me that rag behind you there,” Eric screamed, goosing the Porsche up through its gears, nodding his swelling head over his right shoulder.

“That thing is plain greasy,” I said nervously. It just wasn’t surviving Eric’s bloodbath, better not to press my ticket out of here any further. Besides, I could have sworn I heard something banging to the rear of the car. “You’ve got to get to a doctor or something…”

“Get me the damn rag,” he peered dejectedly into his rearview mirror, as if noticing only now how that rock had shattered and spider webbed his back window glass. That’s when he caught a glimpse of the van. “That truck, man, they’re after me in their van. I shoulda ran all them bastards down at the garage.”

Once we had cleared out of Pacifica, stemmed its tide of peaking bows and plummeting sterns, nearly offing an old salt in a Cabrillo crosswalk, we gunned up Cabrillo Highway north for some labored breathing room. It was a monster of a climb out of Pacifica’s coastal trench, a full gun, second-to-third gear struggle, even with all four cylinders timed and tuned, the 912’s transaxle wound tighter that a dentist’s drill into old molars, its Solexes belching up the flood of petrol they could no longer meter and float. Gradually, the beleaguered Porsche scaled Cabrillo Hill’s most severe resistance—shoreline cliffs to one side, modest ranch style housing to the east—even began to gather steam as we arced right toward the ridgetop. Eric’s coupe spurted up to the crest, which was now bordered by craggy embankments of coyote brush and coastal sage steering us further above and away from the shoreline. It honked like a greased goose, bleated like a post-frijoles bout on the stool.

The 912 lurched and drifted into a spine of rocky, stratified banks, barren save for spare sprigs of scrub brush and chaparral, with hilltop housing tracts that had suffered a relentless salt wind barrage, left and right. The downside was a wholesale burial of any ocean views below and behind tentacled skylines of tissue box housing tracts whose pastel variations belied the utter drabness of their physical and spiritual condition—a bare walled existence crammed into this peninsula of plenty, starter homes that finished off too many a California dream.

Cabrillo Highway itself soon snaked up left and became hostage to whatever the traffic could bear. Both two-lane strips were bounded by rusty chainlink fences, bent and battered grotesquely by errant big rigs and self-destructive DUIs. A two-foot median barrier weathered an unending assault of diesel emissions, dusty debris and chill, gusting mist. The only color remaining along this stretch were the ice plants, scattered brush and fir trees, with stunted lupine twisting out pale violet from rocky outcroppings up and down the ridges. Plus the black van filling Eric’s mirrors with all the purpose and authority of a heated CHP pursuit.

“Wait, where are you headed,” I asked, as he veered off Cabrillo into an exit ramp.

“Takin’ a shortcut…”

“Shortcut to what?

“You’ll see, we’ll shed those assholes like rattler skin.”

Sweeping right beyond the overpass, Eric turned inexplicably into the Route 35 coverleaf, into the comparative straightaway of Skyline Drive, a roadside clump of cypress trees blocking a rolling sprawl of San Bruno and Daly City beyond. He dropped his rag and lit up a Marlboro this time, casting a glance at a snippet of the open sea far below us, wavy like spilt dishwater, seeming to take stock of the situation overall. Thus distracted, he almost wiped out two Motobecane Mirages and a Gitane as he side drifted/swayed through a Caltrans mandated bicycle lane along the eastern edge of Skyline north.

The tour geared bikes had shifted all sixteen speeds up the broadened shoulder, which had long served as a People’s pipeline for hippies and worse thumbing up and down the coast, from Mendocino to Baja without a hitch. Such innocent times then: before DEA snitches, the Zebra killer, and Manson’s poppy power harem began infiltrating the stone friendly Volksies and happy campers, before door locks clicked tight as mandated shoulder harnesses and everybody froze up like Atlantic City bound tourists on the Garden State Parkway. And before pile drivers of Eric’s stripe began riding the white line like the center crosshairs of a Grand Prix video game.

“Jeesus, you could have just run those bikers down,” I didn’t bother to look back, what with the 912’s window glass cobwebbing all around, but that slight banging was still going on.

“Agh, tough shit,” he re-centered into the passing lane, apparently unawares. “Looked like a bunch of smug-ass environmentalists, anyway. Back from some ‘nuke the whales’ protest.”

“What’s that got to do with three counts of manslaughter?” I fretted, rubbernecking over my shoulder despite myself to spot the cyclists gathering their quick release wheels and taking down our license number with unchained passion, namely Eric’s rusting Ohio plate, stickers two years in arrears.

“What they have to do with that damn van?”

The van had followed us through the cloverleaf, teetering centrifugally onto the highway shoulder, right wheels aeroplaning in excessive speed. But the driver, Zak or whoever, steered sternly into the slide, at the moment it could have gone either way. He nearly took out the regrouping cyclists as well, then merged off a swerving Pinto like positive and negative poles, which only appeared to make him even more determined to climb all over Eric’s case.

“How do you even know it’s those surfers,” I grabbed for the useless little door rest as Eric gunned his fluky coupe, but it all but came off in my hand. “How many black vans must there be…”

“Just leave it hangin’ there.” Eric hit fourth gear with his tachometer needle stuttering up to a good six grand. “It’s them. With their goddamn ‘Welcome to California, Now Go Home’ bumperstickers, front and back.”

“Well, there’s something plastered on that bumper, all right,” I allowed, trying to focus around that window damage to indeed spot a black van following through the interchange. “But even if it is, what are they going to do, ram your car with a longboard?”

“Naw, more like runnin’ us off the nearest cliff…” He scanned off to the bushy, fog-shrouded embankment to our left.

“Say, where is…” With a V-8 muscle Mustang blowing past us on the blind, slow lane, I reached for a seat belt or shoulder harness, my bucket seat ratcheting back against the jumpseat—nothing there, no such restraint. Here was an oddly secluded stretch, dark seascape to the left side, cluttered urban continuum down the peninsula to our right.

“Took ’em out when I was sheetmetaling the floorboard,” Eric exhaled, accelerating into a left leaning upgrade. “Had to, brackets had already pulled up through the rust.”

“Yeah, well, the way we’re going, those surfers won’t have to force us over the edge,” I cringed, knees up against the brush metal glove box, fearful that any rapid deceleration could send my seat rocketing through the dashboard. “We’ll save them the trouble…”

Gray fog was thickening over Skyline Drive, enveloping its narrow shoulders and tract packed hillsides in a windy, desolate funk that engendered those wild swings in mood and behavior so peculiar to the coast. Here, Route 35 ran a slight downgrade, to where my knees made distinct impressions in the glove box door. The wind bent cypress and bushes covered bank to our port side tapered down to reveal sea facing homes cropping up to the west. Modest curves and sparse patches of traffic soon served to even out the level our roadrunner playing field. Still, it was clear enough to see who enjoyed home field advantage.

“Just remember, we’re in this together now,” Eric growled, downshifting around a mound of ragged shrubbery, heaped stonage and poison oak that neither rainstorms nor Caltrans roadblasters could dislodge. He goosed into the next soft right curve, drifting a bit heavily toward the high side of Route 35’s center median. Close cutting the low, blind side was a screaming yellow 2002tii Beemer, fog lights firing, startling the hell out of us both. “It’s just you and me, man—I mean, if those jerks do catch up…”

“Huh? I swear, that wound’s messing with your head,” I counted the spreading stress cracks roadmapping in the windshield before me. “Just keep your eyes on the road, will you please.”

“They’re gonna bird dog us all the way, I swear. But they ain’t nailin’ my skin to the wall,” he carped. “Tell you what, I’m all ready—even got this idea for a middle-finger salute that springs up in the car’s rear window when assholes like that start ridin’ my ass end. It’ll pop up from either an electric or pneumatic button on the dashboard here. Yeah, gonna get right on that sucker, call it a ‘Fuckin’ Finger of Fate’…”

“Really? Whoa, hold a sec,” I heaved in relief, even though my floor-loose bucket seat began tracking forward on the slight downslope, then aft again as Eric pushed it around a clot of cars in the slow lane, back and forth, like an electric paint mixer at Kelly-Moore. Coming out of left, coastward curve, we approached a slight stiffening of traffic, yet a rearward glance yielded no sign of the black van emerging from behind an occlusion of cypress and Monterey pine. Beyond Skyline’s grassy, lupined median strip, a row of split-level rooflines teetered to our port side, as peninsula clutter tottered to our east. “Poof, no need. No van, just like magic—so they must have turned back, huh?”

“Oh, they’re there somewhere.” Eric puffed away, the cab now clouded over in Marlboro Country, as were my throat and lungs. Maybe it was his head wound, or the test-pattern car windows closing in on him, but he wasn’t buying into any half-full glasses. “All I know for sure is I’m getting a humongous headache, and my ears are ringing something fierce.”

“Think I’ll crack my window a bit,” I coughed, ducking my head out, then pulling back in— such the better to move things along. As Route 35 descended further, the rear walls of white and pastel tract housing tightened up toward its guardrails on my side, while dim home lights clustered along on his. “You know, that overheating engine? Didn’t really rig it, did you?”

“Rig nuthin’. I rehab cars, that’s what I do,” Eric spouted, Bogarting his smoke, eyes darting between the mirrors and teeming six-lane road ahead. “Some guys are firemen, some guys build houses…”

“Some guys are surfers…” Got me to wondering how I’d gotten myself on the downside of dudes like those.

“The righteous ones, maybe—any case, I don’t go gettin’ down on their thing. Me, I rebuild these heaps, ain’t like dealin’ dope or nuthin’. This here’s my calling, you know? Long as I can remember, when other things got screwed up, all I had to do was buy another car to work on—zammo, just like that, everything was cool again. When I was doin’ Vee Dubs and Jappers, it was buy ’em, rehab ’em and sell ’em on the spot—everybody was happy. So maybe these sports jobs are a little hairier to deal with, but this here’s still my gig.”

The deepening, darkening fog, further obscured those peninsula housing tracts down there, and likely as not, their suburbanite dwellers wouldn’t be able to make us out at all. By now, the sprawl was little more than fuzzy beads of street lights beneath San Bruno Mountain, incandescent hedgerows punctuated by the commercial signage along El Camino Real and I-280’s amber stream. Landing beams of low-gliding airliners barely cut through the soup overhead on instrument approach to SFO, the jets otherwise invisible, wingtip to red blinking wingtip. Nearer in, ranch-style rooflines rose to either side, indistinguishable from one another by and large. But reappearing to our rear, that black van, clearly darted through traffic, headlights flashing low to high.

“Hey, I can dig that, sort of like bachelor’s choice,” I nodded, trying to relate to his sudden guy-talk grudges and sincerity, if not the incessant metallic banging to our rear. “You know, as opposed to women’s prerogative…”

“Don’t go bringin’ up no women, OK? Just sayin’, fresh wheels always work for me—new smells, new challenges and thrills.” He gunned the backfiring Porsche rightward toward the outside lane, snuffing his butt. “I mean, what do chicks do? They jump in my shit about it, that’s what!”

“Aww, guess there’s no pleasing some people, huh?” Under the circumstances, damned if I was going to be one of them. I reached into my jacket pocket for a multi-vitamin I’d picked up at that health food store up Parnassus from Tassajara Bakery—it was either that or a Darvon, and I rolled it around my fingers, thinking it was the only thing between me and whatever loomed out there along Skyline, not to mention whoever was riding those flashers.

“Well, up theirs, all of ’em,” he lit another, his mind seeming to race under pressure. “They don’t like my car, don’t appreciate my life’s work…same thing happened to me in Akron—Colorado too. If nuthin’ else, I got my pride!”

“Same problem?” I gagged, throat and lungs burning like a fireplace flue, Eric blowing heavy enough smoke to counter any carbon monoxide fumes lost through the rear side window wings.

“Same car…”

“Eric, no offense, but this isn’t exactly a frame-off restoration here, either,” I gasped for breath, pressing back steadily deeper into the sprung seat, pocketing the capsule for future reference. “And it sounds like we’re talking about a car with scrap iron for an engine…”

“Not to you maybe,” Eric recoiled, as he motioned rearward with his thumb. “But that Porsche was a product of my own two hands…cost me a hundred bucks’ worth of body tools just to free up the damn wheel wells. I’m a professional, I tell ya!”

“This one, too?” I looked about the cabin, black van again gaining size and ground.

“Damned straight…brought ’em out here one at a time—where the money is—you know, to get a fatter haul.”

Whatever the visceral attachment to these Porsches of his, whatever the resulting aesthetic insensibilities, Eric could not avoid the rude awakening that, at these heights, his pliers and wire fine tuning had reduced the sports cars’ legendary prowess to pedestrian smoke and rings. At any rate, brutally steep inclines like Cabrillo Hill were history, even though there was little doubt that black van and company were rapidly climbing the charts.

“Yah, I bust my ass workin’ all day on my vehicles, and those guys are out surfin’,” Eric stress test tapped his cracking door window. “And they’re gettin’ on my case about it?!”

“This, from a guy who once told me he was on vacation from a vacation,” I replied, grasping the dangling arm rest as my seat rocked forward. “Anyway, they’re locals, Eric, probably were born there on the boards…”

“So, what’s your point,” he gruffly fist cuffed his stubbing cigarette, reinhaling his exhaled smoke in one cyclical flow, as if recycling this toxic cloud was going to spare the environment.

“My point is, they got here first, you know? Maybe that’s why they can do what the hell they please. Besides, it looks like they’re all busy enough, surfing and pumping iron at the same time…”

There was no disputing that the van was pumping extra unleaded, head and amber lights flashing to a quickening pace. The truck had maneuvered to the inner, passing lane, crowding a Mercedes turbo diesel over to the right. Cleared for approach, the black box accelerated up toward

Eric’s rear end, then lurked to our blind side, keeping calculated distance while keeping pace.

“Know what I think? I think they’re the ones who fucked that engine up…” Eric stiff armed the spoked steering wheel, spitting his smoked down butt to a vinyl matted floorboard.

“Come on, why would they do that?” I studied Eric as he played hit and run with his rearview mirrors, cranking up the Tubes’ ‘What Do You Want From Life’, via the static of KSJO.

“Just to bust my balls, that’s why,” he snapped, single fingering around his flip-top box for one of his few remaining smokes. “They set me up, sure as shit…”

“The guy paid you big bucks for the thing, and you’ve got the cash. What kind of set-up is that?” I coughed as Eric fired up another Marlboro.

“That’s what I’m sayin’. The buy was a set up,” Eric fumed, his mind racing faster than his getaway car. “Why didn’t I see it, man. Send a stooge over to fake the deal, then overheat the engine or something so they can come back and hump my ass for a bigger refund…”

That’s plumb crazy,” I waved the smoke out of my face, with another glance over my left shoulder, again hearing that banging at the Porsche’s rear end. “You sure your head’s holding up okay?”

“They probably had wires, too. Bet they taped the whole goddamn thing at the Iranian gas station. Well, it ain’t gonna work, I tell ya.”

“C’mon, Eric—nobody destroys a presumably good automobile like that…”

“Bullshit, whose side are you on, anyway?!”

“Your shotgun side at the moment,” I fudged, beginning to feel the surfer’s pain, like a stitch in the abdomen, while feeling squeezed by some traffic barging in on an entrance way from Westmoor Avenue. “But I’m only trying to make sense of this mess, no need to get bent out of shape about it. Just do me a favor and keep an eye on your blind side there, will you please?”

“I’ve done you enough favors already, all right,” Eric seethed, glancing to his right. “Like fifty smackers and meal money.”

“Wim’s, gotcha. Uh, that guy you had business with up that way—any chance he was a welder?”

“Does some brazing. Him and his son are real handy, so what about it?”

“Gotcha, chip off the ol’ block…”

BEEP, BEEP. BEEP, BEEP, BEEEEP! The eastern sky ahead had assumed a yellow pasty blow, as the crowded lights of Daly City began to eat through its thinnest lower strata with Krylon diffusion. Skyline Drive had lowered noticeably, reduced hereabouts to a meandering of gentle curves and the oscillating topographic wave form of the coastal ridge line. Whereas a bushy embankment rose to block out dim house lights west of us, the backsides of Daly City tract homes pressed up close to the right shoulder coastal sage and shrubbery. Still, that didn’t keep us on the straight and narrow, rather prompted a preoccupied drift toward the bougainvillea flecked median, which netted Eric this inordinately horny response.

“Damn, I knew I should have kept the blue 912 and pawned off the red one, stuck the asshole with that heap,” he muttered, course correcting as he squelched the radio as War declared, ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends’?

That dark truck held its stalking position, its engine roaring, as in third gear, then shifting in and out of fourth, creeping closer, then falling back, like a tomcat teasing out his crocheted ball. Every few minutes, its right turn signal would flash once more—winking and revving—marking the van’s presence, calling its roll, reminder notices from the bagmen, bills of sale seriously overdue. Seemed matters could have stayed this way for miles and miles, except Eric couldn’t see his way clear for that.

“Shakedown’s what it is, with all their cease and desists, complete and immediate recompensation,” Eric rattled, goosing his Porsche with a backfire of protest.

“Sooo, what are you going to do?” I was thinking he’d probably have been better off starving in Santa Cruz, instead of scamming Marina Green.

“I dunno, they’re talkin’ malicious criminal intent, with asset seizures and punitive damages—all in capital letters and underlined, signed by every goddamn lawyer in the firm. Last notice demanded payment by overnight mail. Shit, I ain’t got no mouthpiece, am lucky if I’ve still got half the bucks… have to freeze up all the cash I have left—yanked it out of Wells Fargo and buried it away, can’t risk spending another dime, understand?”

BEEP, BEEP. BEEP, BEEEEP, BEEEEEPPP!!  That horn again, increasing in pitch and volume, shriller than a riot squad bullhorn, as the gainly stoked van rared it pug nose into full mirror view. I caught a quick corner eyeful of that agitated truck, the fire in its large round headlights, the menace in its black boxy silhouette—from oversized wheelwells and roof-racked surfboards to the rumble of glasspacked exhaust. Even over the continued banging from the 912’s rear end, I could make out a number from that musical—uh, yeah ‘West Side Story’… ‘Maria, I just met a girl named Ma-ri-a’. Now, why the hell would gnarly surfers be playing that? The Ventures, Dick Dale, maybe, I pondered, a means of avoiding Eric’s fevered jockying, all the better to steer away from the clash at hand. “Buried it, like you did with your Chesapeake? At the Presidio’s pet cemetery, or…”

“Bruno? I didn’t bury my dog,” his voice crackled and tailed off, as he drew a backward bead on the van, flooring sharply into the center lane, leaving the truck behind a cruise-controlled Lincoln town car. “He was a goner, man. That’s why I heaved him into the bay there off Marina Green—like them Neptuners do…hold on tight!”

“Only with cremated remains, Eric, not…”

“Ashes, carcasses, what’s the difference? Saved a step, that’s all, mourning’s just the same…”

“Guess only the sharks would know,” I said, plastered against a back tracking seat. “Then what about your stash, whereabouts did you bury that, in your garage there or…”

“Cost you $50 to find out.”

sr dingbats

What with Eric’s resurgent move, the van had nowhere to go but nose down and brakes to the floor as the Lincoln before it had done in response. It might have slid into the Porsche altogether had Eric not floored his pedal to the metal himself, a dual-carb spurt of red-line acceleration spared us, if only for some tough, tire-screeching lengths. Just when he needed another power surge, when he’d spotted another opening to spread the distance between us and the black van, his coupe bogged in a passing move around some Ford Torino, choking worse than bad gas in a Bugatti.

“I told you I don’t have than kind of money right yet,” I muttered, hearing tire tracks and the recurring racket to our rear.

“C’mon,” Eric raged, grabbing his lighter, firing up once more. “I’m gonna need my bucks, man! I’m tellin’ you, people sue people in this state.”

“So sue away,” I winced, turning away from Eric and some oncoming headlights across the median. “I wouldn’t bullshit you about that.”

BEEP, BEEP. BEEP, BEEEP, BEEEEEPPPP. Whatever the van was running, it had no motivational qualms about catching up. It edged around the Torino into the slow lane, then slid back in behind us on the inside, revving—no gas sipping six banger there—lights flashing again in defiance. Eric retreated to the right lane, whereupon the van moved up nearer his left rear side, its shotgun window cranking down slightly. Sounded as if words were forthcoming, but weren’t discernible thus far.

Indiscernible to Eric, at least—who could not muster acknowledgement nor a suitable response, other than to flip the bird into his juddering rear window. Aiming to cut the coupe leftward once again, he quickly discovered that the black van was up to here with his crowding, up to his door frame, to be exact, inching slightly forward yet. Seemed they knew that by hemming the 912 in from the drivers’ side, and enabling the following Torino to do the same up ahead, this lane-jumping German junker peddler had nowhere to go but exit right, and there wasn’t one of those in sight.

“OK, I’ll grant you a little extension out the goodness of my heart,” Eric grinned, ignoring the challenge completely, the picture of denial, almost delusionally so. “Now what do you expect for your money? That I’m gonna cop to chicken wiring that heap’s front fenders and patched up the engine’s cracks? Fat chance of that, never happened.”

BEEP, BEEP. BEEP, BEEP. BEEP, BEEP, BEEEEEPPP! The van closed near enough to where we could read some writing on the door, even through his crinkled driver’s side window. I did so as the freeway light stanchions shed some light, that ‘Maria’ music track rising with proximity. “Guess I just hope you stay in your lane here, that’s all—and what’s that damn banging back there?”

“Sounds like a bumper guard popped loose,” he regathered, locked in suddenly, nevertheless nudging back over toward the passing lane, a skosh into the van’s indigo aura. “Shit, these bastards picked their spot, I’m pickin’ mine. No goddamn rich surfer retards gonna take me out, man—that’s exactly where I’m at!”

“R-r-right, but I’m more worried about where they’re at, Eric,” I gasped, palms flush against the dashboard, up to kneecaps in negative energy. “I mean, like two inches from that side mirror of yours.”

“Yeah, sure, just watch me,” Eric scoffed, punching the Porsche, eyes dead ahead as he rubbed the rag against a head full of ache and bravado dread. “That horn shit is gettin’ real old.”

“You know, there’s some writing on the side of that van,” I leaned over behind his seat for closer scrutiny. The lettering was garish and peeling gold leaf, arching above and below a smaller free-form slogan that could have been etched in with a lacquer-tipped can opener. “Maria, it says, Mageno Y Maria…Painting Company…”

“Say what,” Eric inhaled a fresh smoke, gazing ever so slightly rightward, as to avoid the very notion, accelerating toward the breakdown lane, now in the shadow of a tight, windblown copse of cypress and Montereys.

“Yeah, and then it says, ‘We Paint By Numbers’ in quote marks. Wait, those aren’t quotation marks, they’re little tiny joynts,” I squinted, the van pouncing forward to stay narrowly up on the Porsche. “With little puffs of smoke and everything, rising to the rooftop surfboards—how weird…”

“No way, Jose,” Eric replied stiffly, “ain’t nuthin’ written on the surfers’ truck—that much I know, and ain’t no damn surfboards on their roof either.”

“What, you think I’m making up, ‘Magano Y Maria’,” I found myself begging for an exit sign, even if it meant Daly City or that garden spot of graveyards in Colma. All I got was an interchange sign for access to I-280, several miles up. “Christ, I don’t even know about those figures inside that thing. Far as I can see, they don’t look like surfers at all.”

BEEP, BEEP. BEEP, BEEEEP. BEEEEEPPPPPP!!”  The horn went beyond rude awakening, beyond mere cannon fire across the bow, even drowning out the clatter from the 912’s rear. It was becoming a measure of containment, a concrete forming bar with Eric’s name carve in, dropped like a gauntlet to his bleary, bloodied rite of passage.

“Ain’t never been no damn writing on that truck, I tell you,” he mumbled, slanting the coupe, myopically charging the dashed white lines. “Just let me ease in front of it here…”

“Dammit, Eric, open your eyes, will you,” my head snapped back against the side window as the Porsche bolted ahead. “It’s all over the van’s side doors, for crissake!”

But it was much too late for more positive IDs. The van pulled even with bug zapper intensity, its side window dropping, a huge foam rubber 49er finger wagging forth. BEEP, BEEP. BEEP, BEEEEEPP! “Ay, amigos,” shrieked a giggly young woman, dim facial outline and painter’s cap peeking out from behind the finger. “Como esta?”

“Uh, Eric, wait,” I gently blocked his arm as he prepared to shoot her a finger of his own. “Must be Maria…”

“Up hers,” he yelled, trying to crank down his all but granulated window for a better look, sliding ever closer to the van’s gold leafed doors. “Spics, they’re even worse than surfers!”

“Mira alli,” she screamed, piercing through the roar of two overwinding engines, pointing her big finger back toward the Porsche’s rear end. “Tengo algo para ti. Su guardia de parachoques esta colando y chispas! Si, bumper drag…”

“Yah, sure,” Eric snorted, chewing on his Marlboro filter, drawing within spitting distance of the slightly weaving van. “And I got something for you, consuela.” With that, he shot her and her driving companion the middle digit, without even pressing a button.

BEEP, BEEP. BEEP, BEEEEPPPP! Tu muy loco en la cabeza!” SSSPPLLAAAAATTT. In payback for Eric’s unbrotherhood, she scowled and dumped a half-gallon of peachstone interior latex across the 912’s hood and windshield—streaking the side window and door, seeping into his cracked glass—as the souped-up van gunned away down Skyline like a fuelly funny car off the Pomona line. “Adio, buenos noches!” BEEP, BEEP, BEEEEEPPPPP…

“Uh, you all right,” I asked him with all due caution, trying to placate the fucker, peachy liquid forming Rorschach tests across his windshield. “Funny, closer up, those surf boards were actually extension ladders…”

The wind diffusion allowed for select vision, a little peep and straining here and there, until Eric’s worn windshield wipers smeared it further around. Indeed, without major contortions, I could make out the van’s rear bumper sticker as it accelerated ahead: ‘No Quiero Habla AmeriKKKa’.

“Beaner bastards, I’ll kill ’em,” Eric fumed, impulsively hitting the cigarette lighter and gas pedal in tandem. Problem was, ol’ paint could do nothing but bog.

“But first, we’d have to catch them…” I finger traced the peach glaze as if to spread it thinner through the windshield glass, gradually taking the paint bath more personal myself.. Nearly same age, same rage: this mook was rubbing off, bringing out the worst in me—looking like he had his Saturn deal coming around. In any case, he was triggering a visceral response I’d not harbored for quite a while now, much less the Me I any longer cared to be. Yet all I could see were two round tail lights rocking past a Ford Torino, disappearing into the goop gray distance.

“I ain’t shittin’, man,” Eric screamed, as if his face were now streaking with Glidden latex, still tossing and torching one butt after another, though the entire cabin began reeking like an Earl Sheib spray booth. “Gonna look ’em up in the Yellow Pages—track ’em down and off them spics right quick!”

“Aw, let it be, Eric, write it off as karma or something. Important thing is to stop the bleeding.” I picked up on a misty green exit sign, wondering why he was steering westward in the face of an upcoming exit to the east, which was the one Magano Y Maria took. Instead, we blew through the expansive, amber-lit Daly City sprawl closing in our starboard side, houses tapering off from the cascading bluffs to the left. “You know, it just occurred to me that the surfers likely wouldn’t have wasted their time chasing us anyway. Because they know you’ll eventually have to return to your storage garage or what’s left of it. Bet they’re gonna loot and trash it, for sure…”

“Smart ass, takin’ sides again, are ya? ” Then he blew a smoke ring, and shot me the bird. We’ll see about that.”

Care for more?

Chapter 94. Deeper into accusations
and acrimony, comes an unforeseen grabber
amid grim darkness at the edge of town…

“Plumbing the sheer depths
of your emotional seas can
bring breadth and balance.”

“If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t.”

“If I could haven’t, wouldn’t…”

“But it is, so we are, OK?”

“Well I shouldn’t, but it looks like I will…”

Make that hell on wire wheels, or at least spoked wheel hubcaps. Cliffside’s overcast had thickened through this mid-November weekend, upper level activity lighting up Doppler radar screens, to where the fog and gloomy gray morning skies shrouded UC Med Center out above #8’s west-facing corner windows, Polytechnic High School and Kezar Stadium’s light standards below, obliterating Golden Gate Park and Sutro Tower altogether. That and the onset of guest room fever were reasons enough to flee in search of coffee and spatial comfort—room to spread out remaining Prism: California particulars, and rough up a half-dozen new copy drafts for Valerie’s Sacramento Street clients, just in case.

This I found in a little post-hippie cafe on 9thAvenue called the Owl & Monkey. Lots of barn wood, hanging planters and bedspread wrapped, rickety knot-holed furniture; Loggins & Messina, Jackson Browne, Joni, weak soup and awfully cheap coffee. But plenty of window and elbow room and time to commit these scribbled notes to minimally legible yellow ruled pad. The only other word slave working longer and harder in here was some starving regular living on free peanuts, showing such an obsession with the Zodiac case that I began conjecturing that he was the mysterious serial killer himself.

“Tell you one thing, this wasn’t my fuck-up.”

“Hey, what do I know about it?”

“No shit, caviar emperor, right?”

“Something like that…” What the devil is he talking about?

“They don’t have a leg to stand on, I tell you. I didn’t put no knife to his throat.”

Odd choice of words; then again, multiple deaths had been on the whole city’s radar of late, as breaking news bulletins from Guyana began peppering in. I’d hung at the O&M well into the storefront cafe’s Saturday night open-mike musicale—namely a Windham Hilly dishwater balladeer up from Ben Lomond, 12-string acoustically strumming ‘America’ style, then relinquishing the tiny riser stage to an itinerant bearded jugband down by way of Eugene. All along, UC pre-med students and inner Sunset longhairs shy of the Haight-Ashbury buzzed about low-volume house radio reports confirming earlier rumors that something even more peculiar was playing out in Jonestown, apparently involving gunfire.

For petitions notwithstanding, Leo Ryan’s Congressional crew had headed down to Jim Jones’ exalted Agricultural Experiment with an eye toward sniffing out any foul deeds and/or funny money—to wit, tax-exempt status and mishandling of Social Security checks. Though encountering Guyanan resistance in Georgetown, and outright stonewalling by Peoples Temple staffers in Lamaha Gardens and Port Kaituma, Ryan’s delegation had finally struck a deal with Jones’ lawyers Mark Lane and Charles Garry to visit the jungle cleared compound. A bleary, sunshaded Jim Jones had grudgingly agreed to allow select members of the Ryan party access to his Jonestown paradise for a Friday night reception/inspection. Only Friday’s faux festivities, stewy dinner and a staged soulful show, had disintegrated into today’s steamy chaos and showdown: amid chilling revelations, tortured explanations, plantation/slave labor conditions, sexual abuse, desperate defections, enforced thuggery and ‘Dad’s’ increasingly incoherent harangues.

Utopia had apparently gone dystopian come sunny Saturday, the reverend having gone from devout peacenik to deluded paranoiac with a death wish, conspiracies and CIA plots closing in and crossfiring in the corroded aluminum pavilion and around the steamy compound. Ryan crew’s panicked getaway flight had reportedly been grounded by a rusty tractor and dump truck, from which Jones’s loyalist goons had evidently taken out the delegation and select ‘traitorous’ defectors in a hailstorm of bullets, kicking up dirt and gravel amid the screams and groans. Further reports, battling a 5-hour time lag, confirmed that Congressman Ryan himself, who’d had a knife pressed to his throat earlier in the visit, was among the victims whose bodies were scattered about a twin-prop DeHavilland Otter on the rainy, mud-red runway. Among the other fatalities were accompanying newsmen, with Ryan staffer, Jackie Spier in critical condition: five dead so far, injury count continuing to rise.

That jugband played bluegrass sets through this update barrage, keeping the Owl & Monkey crowd afloat over these unfathomable developments, in a caffeinated sea of stomping feet and clapping hands. But I’d had my bottomless fill for the night, drifting off to more…efficacious climes—to do once again what I periodically did in these wee hours, under cover of darkness, if not the cover of Clifford…

“So, how’s the Marina Green lot these days,” I felt the need to digress some, subject wise, once the small talk had turned to blades.

“I’m gettin’ out of there, man,” Eric nibbled at his donut with his shifting hand. “Gettin’ too hot, cops rollin’ in and out, don’t know what to make of L.T. anymore…”

“Sooo, what’s the plan?”

“Got a line on this gig in the Mission, kinda like your deals, guy needing somebody to look after his crib for a month while he’s in Cabo. It’s down off 24th Street, above a chicken taqueria and a Mexican nick-knack shop—kinda frilly, but the price is right. No good place to park my cars though, that’s why I might have to store the red Porsche in my garage…the Iranian gas station guys are lookin’ after it right now.”

By Sunday morning, a fuller if not clear picture of the Jonestown massacre had been emerging, particularly via that Cliffside bathroom radio. I’d slept in some after another densely foggy night, and an aimless drive over to more familiar ground. Fortunately, a late start and some fervent Prism rewriting at Tassajara Bakery helped keep my mind off the hellacious details and staggering body counts emanating from Guyana.

Meanwhile, the vats and cadavers kept piling up in Jonestown, according to updates throughout the evening, by the hundreds and hundreds at this point, rainbow people drinking themselves to ‘sleep’ and death in zombie droves, too many at gunpoint. These absurdly grotesque body counts made most everyone wonder how this cultish annihilation could physically, much less spiritually occur, especially when it came out that Reverend Jones himself was history via a repeater gunshot wound to that crazy cabanza of his, clean through the temple, right there on his majestic pavilion throne. That was about when the cyanide Flavor Aid punch rumors were confirmed, and shocked disbelief was suspended all around. Guyanans who had welcomed Jonestown as a revenue source were now tripping over three-layered stacks of corpses that had faithfully stepped over to the ‘other side’.

This Peoples Temple demise had proven even more horrific than initially feared, and it was all San Francisco could do to pull covers over its head in revulsion and chagrin—which was precisely what I did back at Cliffside, hoping this whole suicidal weekend would blow over.

“Really, where’d you find this place, Millbury, or…”

“Bulletin board, at the Rainbow Cattle bar.”

“Rainbow, huh,” Was thinking I’d heard that was one of those…

“Down near DuBoce, real boss,” he sped around and between some lane hugging Subarus and and Celica sedans. “They got Lone Star on tap there, good honky tonk and pool. Place used to be called Saturnalia, Janis Joplin’d sing there for her Southern Comfort. Yeah, outta check it out, just for grins.”

Unfortunately, the fog hadn’t lifted come Monday morning; in fact a smattering of hard drizzle had actually set in. Who knew what to make of the rain-slick streets, I sure didn’t, instead hiking over to a Parnassus copy shop in search of a usable typewriter, barely able to read my rough drafts as it was. Being Thanksgiving week, UC’s med students were long gone, so I had Expert Copy to myself, the counter clerk availing me of a freebie Selectric, so long as I made any resulting copies therein. Took me the day and early evening to bang out more than a dozen clean sheets, Xeroxing the stack come closing time. All along, I was radio serenaded by further casualty counts and the sheer poisonous madness of the Guyana scene, broken only by fearful speculation on rampaging Temple death squads striking closer to home, across The City, all around the Bay.

Sprinkled in were updates that Dan White had caved to conservatives’ pressure to withdraw his resignation letter, notifying the Mayor that, never mind, he wanted his Supervisor’s seat back—and Moscone was currently taking it up with his cabinet and the Board. Over the weekend, however, counter pressure had erupted as White muscled into a ‘Dump Dan’ rally in his Visitacion Valley district, while the Mayor was catching major veto heat, from Supervisor Milk on down. Prism copies safely returned to Cliffside, I munched the damp evening away in #8 with a sack of organic food store granola, perplexed as to why these developments were so unnerving when they really had little or nothing to do with me.

So when Eric had honked into the Hill Point cul-de-sac Tuesday morning, I was almost relieved. I sank down into his white 912’s shotgun bucket, but before we even wheeled out onto Parnassus, the subject of breakfast came up, as did my vanilla-macaroon granola. He was thinking the Haight’s ‘I and Though’ Coffeehouse; I suggested the Drugstore Cafe on his dime, birthday nod to me: we settled on a couple of Superior maple nut donuts and styro joe, then were off like LeMans onto 19thAvenue south. Eric quickly nosed into the traffic flow, his Porsche of choice demonstrating a four-pot acceleration that gainsaid its road salt corroded externals and plastered me against the seatback, nearly blowing the lid off my double sugar and cream. No concern to him, as he had steadied his cup in a handy molded console installed around and in front of the floorshift, complete with little dividers for his smokes, stash and a brewski or two. I kept mine between my legs, plenty warm to the crotch on a frizzly gray morning like this.

“What’s with all these envelopes here,” I asked, noticing there was nowhere to put my cup anyway, as his console slots were stuffed with engraved letterhead mail.

“Found ’em piling up in my P.O. box, guess they just kept on comin’,” Eric shrugged, avoiding them like draft notices back in the day.

“They look pretty official, that a law firm?”

“I guess, shysters for the joker who bought my blue Porsche…”

Getaway day: Eric dodged and darted around more workaday wheels as we flew past San Francisco State’s compact campus and the more sprawling, remarkably green golf courses surrounding Lake Merced. He dialed on his radio through the 280 interchange at John Daly Boulevard, KCBS still stacking up the Jonestown body count, now inflating like Susan B. Anthony coinage—somewhere between and 800 and 900 largely black men, women and force-fed children. Just then the update turned to politics, and the city attorney’s determination that Supervisor White could not legally rescind his resignation, and that only the Mayor could fill the seat. Unmoved, Eric punched up KOME and a blast of Doobies’ ‘Steamer Lane Breakdown’ into a vault two-play of ‘Listen to the Music’ and ‘China Grove’.

That carried us through the crowded, tick-tacky little boxes of Daly City, carpet bombing the hills of South City and San Bruno into tract submission amid the post-war boom—little boxes on the hillsides, little boxes all the same—at least as Pete Seeger would have it. I finished off my donut and drifted away from Colma’s boneyards, rather upwards of Skyline Drive. I envisioned how it climbed so beautifully towards Crystal Springs and Castle Rock—through those magnificently misty redwood groves above Woodside, Neil Young in country-funky Alex’s B&G, the panoramic glimpses of the vast ocean below and beyond. While who could begin to imagine what was technologically brewing in that valley on the other, eastern side of Route 35’s spine?

All that washed away however, once Highway 1 dipped past pre-holiday packed Serramonte Center, sweeping breathtakingly down toward the coast like a hang glider landing at Sharp Park Beach. The 912 coasted, shotgun backfired—approaching as we were a socked-in Pacifica and Gray Whale Cove.

“Buyer’s remorse, or…”

“Got all hostile over the deal, claiming misrepresentation and fraud.”

“But his check cleared already?”

“Naw, cash on the trunk lid,” he said, scouting Cabrillo Highway for his turnoff. “They’re saying the engine started overheating right off. That he got some mechanic to magnaflux the block and spotted some hairline cracks. Hey, I don’t know from nuthin’ about magnafluxin’, ran fine for me. I just figure they’re tryin’ to scam me—startin’ to do it by registered mail, got the yellow slips there in my glove box.”

Eric’s storage garage was the right bay of a three door metal shed amid some modest, security fenced houses tucked in the lee shadow of coastal hills off Shoreside Drive, barely between the long, L-shaped Pacifica Pier and Point San Pedro. Past anuncharted landing of boatyards and makeshift drydocks, a choppy, sea-sickening gumbo of rotting hulls, rusting scuppers and teetering abandoned dreams, wepulled up close to the triple padlocked, corrugated door. Inside was a toxic waste dump, a flamin’ dumpster load of shop tools, car parts and cardboard boxes piled to the roofline, magic marked in crabbed code. But as foreboding and/or forbidding as this mess may have been, what soon appeared over our shoulders made it positively navigable by comparison.

“That you, Torskie?” The deep, churlish voice barked suddenly into the garage slot, the first of several locals who had rolled out of a nearby black Chevy van.

“What about it,” Eric snapped back, picking up a torque wrench from his stand-up red Craftsman case.

“Torskie,” I stood aside, between full U-Haul boxes of clothes and housewares that must have dated back to his Aspen days. “That’s your last name?”

“Yeah, so?”

“How do these guys know it,” I asked, to the dusty shuffle of driveway gravel, the gradual milling of mumbling voices.

Eric said he had rented the garage when he was still unable to choose between vegetating in Santa Cruz and grazing the greener pastures of the Marina Triangle. His was two over from the closest-to-seaside slot, with a bit of space between the triptych of garages and a trailered motorboat, where he could tinker with his Porsches’s timing light and cross-manifold carburetors. Barely larger than the stacked containers on cargo ships that steamed past our Marina Triangle beachhead, the space ran him $30 per month—supposedly the going rate hereabouts for buying time to recalibrate his personal gestalt. At the moment, Eric needed his money’s worth.

“Because Raley Fletcher’s our bud,” said a lead man, squaring up in doorway, a backlit shadow of himself, his crew filing up wet and sandy beside, all dripping with consternation. “And this scumbag here’s ripped him off…”

“We heard all about you, dude,”another closed in beside him, amid a swell of damp squeaking and sliding zippers.

“Yah, you’re the dork dealin’ bogus wheels,” said a third, kicking a flurry of ground stones toward us across the garage stall’s concrete slab floor.

“Uh, I’m not the…Eric?” I moved out behind the Porsche’s half-opened passenger door, looking his way for direction.

“Yep, that’s it,” the initial figure said, now looming like a middle linebacker in the doorway. “Eric—Eric who should be selling Jags—Eric the jag-off…”

“There it is—jag-off,” howled yet another silhouette, punctuating with a high five. “Totally bitchin’, Zak.”

“What’re you talkin’ about,” Eric shouted anxiously, from the darker recesses, by all the mildewed blanket, spoiled trail food, rusting camping gear and a crumpled right front fender, on his slow, uncertain way nearer the doorframe.

“We’re talkin’ about you anglin’ our partner, dude,” said the rather massive inverted pyramid, dripping and glistening against a slightly clearing sky. “See, Raley has a little chemical problem and you took advantage of him. We’re totally chapped by that.”

“So where’s Fletcher and the car,” Eric asked, exchanging his torque wrench for a body straightening tool. “And who are you guys, anyway?”

“Just consider us your neighbors, Torskie. And like a good neighbor, we’re there.”

By neighbor, these dudes meant that they maintained their cliffside clubhouse in a secluded surfer colony up around a gravel road near Shelter Cove, sea-battered beach shacks with a craggy but basically unobstructed drop to the shore.

Visions of laid back, bleached blond Malibu beach boys on fancy pants ‘Hawk’ Velzy glossed boards in Hobie baggies, washed away in the umbra of these wave rakers. This no-BS NORCAL breed was way beyond the Chantays or Dick Dale & the Del-Tones bangin’ spring reverb Fender Stratocasters; came even way stronger than the Bel-Airs and Eddie & the Showmen. The more vocal of these particular surfers could have passed for real Wise guys, straight from that fabled Sunset District board shop—brawny, tape-measure chests pumping ironlike beneath rugged zippers drawn halfway to their navels.

“Well I didn’t do shit, man,” Eric protested, standing his ground against the garage stall’s sheet metal side wall, about where his white Porsche’s low, tapered front fender met his driver’s side door. “That you, Fletcher? C’mon, show your damn face…”

“Raley’s at work, Torskie, honest work, up at Haole’s Surf Shop,” said Mongo, at Zak’s right hand, one eye fixed on Eric’s body tool. “But we’re here on his behalf, and we want your ass out here, squid lips, like now.”

“If you ain’t Fletcher, ain’t none of your goddamn business,” Eric spouted, casting about for something heavier, more pointed.

“By the way, Eric,” I muttered, as I dug in deeper behind the shotgun side door, feeling the need to fill in some blanks. “Who’s this Fletcher, the first deposit you got or number two?”

“What the diff…?! Was the second guy who bought my blue one…”

Lean, mean in neoprene: poured into onyx steamer full suits like stand-up Mako sharks, the crew were a meld of old nose walkers, squaring up to the breaking lip on on their longboards, crouch riding inside bars and troughs all the way into the thrashing, drubbing beach breaks. These speed-pumping atavists long caught, rode the chops and wave trains, trimmed the monster sets and swells. Their brethren were younger shortboard artists, who pulled their 7′ V-bottom single finners in closer to the breaking wave face, pulling deeper into the hollow tubes and barrels—cutback carving peeling lefts and rights, from the outer bars in, to gymnastically toppling, juking the water bombs come shallower troughs. Together, they were so bound and dedicated to the waves, it was like they were a missing link between sea and land species. Indeed, no mere abalone divers on a dare, they were serious North Coast surfers, big wave hangers, hard-core ruling from Stinson and Kelly’s Cove well down Pillar Point, and Ghost Trees in Monterey.

“Oh, Christ,” I wilted, as Eric seemed to plant and stiffen against a hellacious windsock gust that could easily have moved his garage stall several meters eastward, if not pressure load it with sand and gravel. “Maybe you shouldn’t have…”

“Fuck it, man,” he replied, in the long, lethal shadow of what might as well have been called Zuma Zak and his Zodiacs.“Their bluffin, ain’t darin’ to come any closer.”

These dedicated surf riders braved frigid, ferocious Pacific waters all year long—nasty Northwest swells, immense 20′ wave face sets and the shifty riptides of Ocean Beach—ever ready for the big wave call, sunshine or winter squalls. Summer never ended for these curl junkies because summer never actually began. They thrived on hanging tough, not just hanging ten, eschewed chrome-reversed metalflake woodies for wiped-out, padlocked vans; worshipped fog banks rather than beach blankets in these gnarlier latitudes of the California Dream. The rogue wave cravers felt cheated by even one day of glassy stillness. They’d gut shark heads for kicks, whittle fins and dorsals to knifeblade sharpness, offer geeky intruders up in beach fire rituals, ward off surfer moons with all-night hooters until the Steam or Pacifico kegs ran dry and pre-dawn swells turned tubular and bodacious. Here were their waters, these were their breaks, Neptune help any lamoids crashing in, making waves. And this time, that label apparently applied to inlander hodads like us.

“You’re really stokin’ me, Torskie,” Zak exploded, pounding down hard on the Porsche’s vented trunk lid. “And I’m really disliking you, personally…”

“Yeah, c’mon, dude,” sneered another, younger surfer in a dark blue XXX-large Rip Curl long sleeve rashguard. “Let’s talk damaged merch.”

“Hey, godammit, where’s the proof,” Eric grimaced as if suffering the blow himself. He stared sorely at the surface dent, white paint around it chipping and peeling away like heat stressed cellophane. “And ease up on my wheels while you’re at it!”

“Proof’s in safe keeping, Torskie,” Zak raised his hand, threatening to come down on the trunk lid again. “More than I can say for this piece of shit.”

“Yeah, sealed and tagged like state’s evidence,” Mongo snarled. “Till the trial, dude…till the trial…”

“That is, if you make it to the trial,” Zak added, firmly tapping the trunk lid.

So much the better; no telling where the scar tissue might lead. The only thing these sea horses were showing was beaucoup brut force, looking as they did like a recombinant gene slice between Iron Man and Creatures From the Black Lagoon. Thermal wetsuited from walker booties to hood caps and beanies, these were surfers over the edge, tubed out from hot-dogging too many killer lines, teasin’ too many monster swells, couching out on their sex-waxed sticks and gun boards, going one-on-one with Big Mama’s whitewash until the next bone crusher bonzai expressed on in. Seasons ebbed and flowed, reality froze over in eternally, mercilessly pounding waves. Still they had adrenalin and their O’Neills and Quicksilvers to keep them warm, not to mention the heat generated by some inlander geeks dealing ratty wheels.

“Hey, you wanna stop messin’ with my car?!”

“Just as soon as you cough up Raley’s cash,” Zak grinned, flashing chipped, discolored teeth hardly more ingratiating than the shark’s incisor he had chained around his neck.

“Shit, no way in hell,” Eric raised his own arm, now with a breaker bar in hand. “It was a legit deal, man, up and up. If Fletcher’s got a problem with that, let him tell me, man to man, not call in goons like you.”

“Uh, Eric,” I cautioned, with an ill-contrived clearing of my throat. “There’s four of them out there, at least…”

“Hey, what are we, chopped seaweed?”

“More like chopped dog meat,” said Zak. God only knew what they were feeding on back in that surfing colony of theirs, but they each had an ‘each shit and die’ look in their eyes.

“I got your dog meat right here, Fido,” Eric pointed to his fly.

“C’mon, Zak, let’s just waste these fuckers right here and now!”

“Yeah, well, count me out,” I cried, now recounting this fearsome foursome, as they closed in tighter to the door frame. “I don’t know anything about this!”

“Then nuthin’ against you, dude,” Zak quickly bought it. “Just that dirtbag you’re hangin’ with.”

“Get in,” Eric said, sidestepping suddenly to his Porsche’s driver door. It appeared he had glanced out toward the street, spotting a Pacifica squad car rolling slowly toward the garages.

He then reached into his open window, tripping a switch on his door panel’s armrest, and his car alarm went off like a Dresden alert. Startled as much as I, the surfers pulled back, while that policeman pulled over streetside, then approached us all.

“Boys,” he nodded toward the surfers, turning toward Eric with a pained expression. “So, what’s the problem here? And kill that blasted alarm, would you…”

“Suspected there was some tampering with my garage,” Eric reached in his car to do just that. “Just taking stock…”

“Anything amiss?” The cop did the same, from the #3 garage interior to the crew who had slid over toward door #1.

“So far, so good, officer,” Eric smiled, as he hastened to yank down the door and reset his three padlocks. “Thanks much for your help…”

“No problem,” said the patrolman, standing aside as Eric slipped in behind the wheel. “Anything else?”

“Not that I can see, sir,” Eric waved him off and looked my way. “C’mon, get your ass in.”

“But what about…” I stood stunned, frozen to the passenger side door handle.

“Get in, I said,” he turned over the 912 engine. “Or stay for the noose party…it’ll be your funeral, not mine.”

“This is totally nuts,” I shuddered, crawling back into the shotgun seat, hitting the doorlock, just in case, actually beginning to wonder who were the bad guys here.

He cranked and cranked the balky flat four, having nearly as much trouble with his misaligned driver door; it screamed metal against metal, howling like a gouged sea lion when he finally forced it closed—rubber against safety glass against body filler. Something to do with the timing, Eric muttered, bending his ignition key and burying the accelerator, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. The Porsche rocked leftward violently for every rightward torque thrust of the overgrinding starter, and as the Pacifica cop ebbed, the surfers flowed closer once more.

“Cumon, goddammit,” Eric grimaced, at the stubborn bump and grind. “Start!”

“Slow down there, sleazeball,” Zak growled, his posse arcing past door #2, what with the patrol cop back in manning his radio, easing away. “We’ll crack you open like that engine block you sold Raley!”

“There, go!” At last the Porsche backfired and caught. Eric revved like a fueler rail job, jamming, trying to grind it into reverse. “We’re getting’ the fuck outta here!!”

“Mongo, get his door,” Zak shouted, “Bones, flank the shithooks on the other side. Muscle those suckers, hang on tight as your leash.”

Just as Mongo reached Eric’s door, the Porsche slammed into reverse, the surfer leaving a fat stacked glove print on the driver’s side window, not to mention a stream of hairline cracks, stress testing its safety glass membrane.

“Give it up, Torskie,” Zak growled, himself squaring up on the coupe in a blur of 4/3 mm synthetic rubber. “It’s payday, dude, and you’re the window!”

“Christ, they’re damned near yanking off the doors,” I ducked, peering panic-stricken over my shoulder, feeling like so much bull shark bait.

“Val weasel fuckers,” Mongo shouted, prying the fluky door open with sheer upper body strength from hauling longboards and outpaddling killer Northwest swells. He shot the curl and reached in to nail Eric with a skull crusher to the temple, the snap seam in his glove drawing blood.

“Way bogus, mutherfucker,” Bones yelled over the sunroom top, my door holding strong. “So shut it down, we’re warning you…”

“Hold tight, will ya?!” Eric told me. He yanked back on his flapping door as best he could, then gunned rearward, wiping out the surfers off either sidelike anchors away. His side mirror caught Mongo’s wetsuit at the opened zipper, ripping the 2/3 mm neoprene, clean as gutting a striper. With the surfer waving his fist, searching for any projectiles, he found a beach rock, which smashed his fastback window just below center pane. Eric flipped him off, and nearly took him out, power shifting into first gear and popping the clutch. Meanwhile, Zak and his board mate, Loogie appeared to scramble for their black van.

The Porsche’s twin Solex carbs spit and coughed, then metered out a sufficient fuel-air mixture to propel us the hell out of the garage area, white smoke flooding out behind like a mosquito spray truck on a stinging summer night back…home.

Overcast had soldered back in along the southern end of Pacifica, as well it should have over a town that promotionally basked in such gloom. Denizens of the fog belt’s most heavily blanketed bedroom community crawled out of the sheetrock and masonite starter tracts and bungalows, now that the glaring twenty minutes of partial midday clearing had been shoved back over the 280 freeway, where it belonged.

Pacifica proper was about as civilized as 25-cent car washes and 24-hour superettes could get, which began in narrow frontage strips to either side of the Cabrillo Highway. Eric stormed two successive flashing yellows past starboard side Ram Tough truck dealers and drive-in liquors, a fragmented shopping mall of discount foodaramas and off-label rag shops, the donut chains, RV lots and five-bay service stations. All were east of Cabrillo, not to mention glazed over with feisty little bleached hair gum snappers and flowered baggy, scabby-kneed skateboarders getting wrecked against bus stop shelters and grassy traffic islands. Their sulky eyes fixed across the highway on splotchy Pacifica Beach, the surf anglers and seal skin longboarders—an ocean vista that if nothing else separated these wasted kids from those in nowherevilles like Manteca and Madera. But even the fresh-catch grottos and mousaka tavernas off Linda Mar Boulevard weren’t on our itinerary at the moment.

Fucker got me, man,” Eric screamed, wiping sweaty blood out of his hair and eyes as we shot up San Pedro Avenue, for better or worse headed in the other direction.

“Jesus, Eric, what was that,” I asked, alarmed at the blood splatter across the driver side window, its cracks now spreading like a Pan Am route map. “What the hell just happened there?!”

“That’s their problem, just look at my car,” he kept tracking his inside rearview mirror.

The look was one of mayhem, he throttled his 912, the Solex carbs lagging in response, the four-banger sagging overall, as if it were off top dead center by a quarter turn of the distributor. Then it caught up with the petrol rush and threw shoulder gravel like some big-wave tanker the turquoise foam, righting itself only when its rear tires hit an asphalt patch of resurfaced potholes.

“Listen to yourself, Eric,” I gazed back through the coupe’s fastback window, somewhat thumbing and tipping the villainous scales. “You make it sound like you couldn’t care less if you ran that surfer guy over!”

“Damn straight,” he replied, roaring through a yellow light, north of Linda Mar Shopping Center, catching up with Cabrillo Highway to Route 1 North. Blood still trickled down his left cheek. “With a little more luck, it might have been that asshole, Raley Fletcher. Then I wouldn’t have to see him in court.”

“Like you’re saying you might have to?” It was about at that bummer of a pointbreak that I surmised this bad boy wasn’t over…”

Care for more?

Chapter 93. The hasty scramble out
of
 
town triggers a chase that
severely tests some metal…

“No towering I.Q. rival
yet one smart and clever fox
trapping you in a box.”

“Because you have to, that’s why.”

“I mean, great and all, but what’s the point, what difference does it make?”

“Trust me, it just does.”

“Trust you? How’s that go?”

“Don’t ask so many questions, just do it, would you please?” CLICK.

Was turning into a telephonic kind of day. I had every intention of revisiting UCSF’s Millbury Union bulletin board, but stopped off in Cole Valley beforehand for a little work and synaptic firewater. I’d already covered several last-minute Prism: California gift and antique shops out Sacramento Street, and wanted to commit my notes to readable copy while still fresh, planning to take a full roll of Tri-X downtown for processing come morning next. So Tassajara Bakery it was, a corner window seat in this antiseptic Zen co-op devoutly serving weak coffee and herbal teas, bland organic pastry with benign muslin smiles. Between deciphering raw scribbles and picking over a stoneground-raisin scone, I’d steal glances up Parnassus to the UC Med Center campus, poised to run for each outbound 43 Masonic bus that rounded the Cole Street corner, homing in on that Millbury housing resource.

But a wiz pause soon led me to the blessedly peaceful bakery’s bi-gen restroom, past a neighborhood bulletin board with this unusual new offer on a Pfizer prescription slip. Seemed this oncology patient in Fairbanks had reserved a room in a guest house up there on Hill Point, but wouldn’t be down to begin radiation treatment until after Thanksgiving weekend. The fellow needed a trustworthy ‘placeholder’ to stay there gratis and make certain the unit wasn’t taken out from under him in the meantime. Not only did the pipeline worker accept my collect phone call, he took to the sound of my Midwestern voice, telling me he’d leave Cliffside’s keys in my name for his ‘sitter’ of choice at Millbury’s office.

“Smarten up, m’boy, it’s the price your pay for living in paradise. Now, I implore you that we pull together on this.”

“Paradise? It’s getting more like Hades around here lately…”

“Nothing I could hear about San Francisco would surprise me, but I wasn’t able to get back up there. So just send the rest of that copy and photos, we’ve got deadlines here, do you read me?”

“And if I do, what guarantee…” I was thinking the same about L.A., whether part of Anderle’s mission down there was trolling the Valley to stock up on inventory for his Priapismic division.

“You’ll get your money, soon as we get your package, overnight mail.”

Eric had then proceeded to help me stash some of my Volvo hoardings in the third floor rear guest room. Settling in over the weekend, I blurred between there and Tassajara, yellow padding store and gallery copy until my eyes imploded and fingers cramped over final drafts. Break time: one of the first things I did midweek next was return some calls Valerie had noted on Prism’s voicemail from a pay phone at hallway’s end. Beginning with Syd Mendel—followed up by another collect job, this urgent one to Nolan Anderle, who had returned to New York after signing half of West L.A., from La Cienega to Rodeo Drive and Brentwood, then hooking another hungry hack like me.

“I dunno, the more I think about this, the more I’m thinking it should be the other way around,” I said, hearing Valerie’s balloons popping in my head, but no more bumbling, no more taking the rap.

“Come now, m’boy, you know the choice is scarcely yours,” Anderle scoffed.“Need I remind you we already are in possession of the bulk of your drafts, even if Jason was so thick as to surrender your camera gear?”

“Of that, I’m aware.” I’d wanted coast to coast, and got coast to coast—just had no idea it would make me this edgy. It did appear I had beaten Valerie to Prism’s kill switch, but Anderle was another matter, needingly so. Thus here I was, alone beside this public phone stand, shuffling idly through some dead letters and generally unforwarded mail as doors opened and closed up and down the hall. Flip, flip, collection notices, parking tickets, jury summons, Scientology solicitations…and a days-old Clarion.

“Then you just send me the rest of those write-ups and store photographs, or you’ll pay dearly, and not just for that broken vase! What do you think that temp agency of yours would make of this?!”

“I hate to do this, Mr. Anderle,” I squirmed, spreading the paper and another mess of stale mail over my proof sheets and negs. “But I’m afraid I must ask you to wire what you owe me first, then I can express mail the shots and everything in a flash. Believe me, these expenses have tapped me out…why do you think I’m calling you collect?”

“Gad, this is no way to conduct business. Not when I’ve already substantially staked you. So I demand you send that material now if you want to see your—what is it?”

“Eight seventy-five fifty…” Conducting business? I recalled how he had stiffed Able Agency in the first place, wondering if this cagey New Yorker could somehow snatch drafts and photos through the long-distance phone lines during the course of this transcontinental tug-of-wills. Let’s see, leather underwear catalogs, thrice-forwarded hospital bills, Publishers’ Clearing House—positions hardening, my stomach knotting up like Midtown traffic. But it wasn’t just the money, it was the money. “That includes film expenses and stuff…”

“$875.50? Positively inflationary, m’boy! I’ll tell you what, precisely what. You’ll not see another red cent doing it this way. Production has been scheduled, contracts have been signed…contracts, do you understand me?”

“Begging your pardon, Mr. Anderle, but I haven’t signed a thing. And the way I see it, Valerie has gotten more than your advance’s worth out of me already.” Did I really just say that?! Front page, center on last Saturday’s Clarion was Supervisor Dan White claiming family and financial pressures forced him to tender his Board resignation to the Mayor’s office, and concentrate on his Hot Potato stand and other, more remunerative pursuits. The straits looked painfully familiar to me

“Oral contracts, m’boy—every bit as binding in a court of law. So shape up, or I’ll litigate and garnish you from here to…why, I’ll enslave you, boy!”

“You don’t even know where to find me,” I replied, sorting down to the occupant coupon packets and voter registration forms, glancing behind me to spot who exactly was popping in and out of those hallway doors. “Hell, I don’t know either, for that matter…”

“Listen to reason, son. I don’t want to be forced to,” Nolan pleaded, his vexation sizzling across four time zones. “Think about it—I mean, I’ve got your money and…”

“Aww, keep it, sir,” I sighed, skimming a Clarion ‘Weekender’ background article that spelled out how a newly independent, English-Speaking Guyana, seeking post-colonial development and a unique brand of socialism, had all but given 25,000 acres of god-forsaken jungle land to Peoples Temple on a long-term lease. The Georgetown government had blessed their grand agricultural experiment in late 1974, and the mixed-race Jones gang had slaved and scythed and cutlassed a growing utopian compound out of thick brush and clinging vines ever since, fighting off carnivorous insects and deadly bushmaster snakes under a punishing equatorial sun.

“What? Hah, you can’t mean that…”

“I said keep it,” I said sinkingly, leafing through to the article’s jump page, where it claimed that Jim Jones’ itinerant prayers and fake chicken-guts faith healing had turned into maniacal bad faith beatings, rants and forced servitude—manual, possibly sexual—with no means nor avenue of escape. “Who needs this crap?”

“Oh, come on, m’boy, people are waiting back here, presses are gearing up, we must be professional about this! I even have another plum assignment for you there—that is, if you’ll just still send the…oh, hell, let us take a different tack. Just finish up what write-ups remain, I mean ASAP, then call me again. We’ll pick this up from there…” CLICK.

Terrific, now what? Did I really just do that?! Encumbrances, oral contracts, litigation—eight fifty, eight seventy-fever five fifty! Aw, shit, probably’d never see the bucks either way, soon as he spits out Jason, especially after he hears the whole hotellish story from Valerie Prentiss-Brown.

“Have your finished with the phone there,” asked an approaching middle-aged Cliffside lodger, white hospital bathrobe and gray sock slippers.Wiry hair, wire-rimmed, prominent forehead, lots of wrinkled browed concentration, this guesthouse seemed full of them.

“All yours,” I gave him the handset, wishing better luck to the wane Zappaholic figure who had been flapping at least one of those doors.

Some Cliffside guests were research biochemists on loan from Mass General and Johns-Hopkins, post-grad math whizzes from Kaohsiung or Karachi. Odd fellows, all, and they’d presumably gathered here because it was so proximate to UC Med Center, but mostly because it was by the week and dirt cheaper by affiliation than inner Sunset motels per any diem. Cliffside guesthouse teetered on a stepped precipice several landings down form the UC complex itself. The shingle shedding two-story bungalow was but one of a half dozen such hospitality houses encircling a cramped little cul-de-sac in the usually damp shadow of sprawling teaching hospital wings and that orange Sutro Tower transmitter atop Twin Peaks. Though the hospitality was suspect, there was no question about the dirt. Still, I found a certain natal comfort in nuzzling up to both a university environment and healthcare facility for infinitely less than a crusty cubicle at the Tenderloin Y. 

But time to hunker back down. So much for Nolan and all that static for now, let him eat Jason for breakfast, my treat. Breakfast? Lunch and dinner! But what, where—think mercy, Hippocratic missions—if it’s Wednesday, this must be seminar day. Salute to health, healing and learning, the most modern clinical advances, the foremost medical minds, right up on the hill there, Parnassus on high. Grecian mount, sacred promontory to Apollo and the Muses; le Parnasse Contemporain: pinnacle of bodily knowledge and restorative aspiration. Free association, free indomitable spirit—had to be some free food up there somewhere, drink of the nectars, heal thyself with wholesome nutrient rich canapes and succulent vegetables on all those catered trays.

Business concluded, conflicts momentarily resolved: a body could summon one powerful appetite, what with all that bicoastal negotiation. I returned to rear room #8 for my notepad and camera bag, locking up, ready to soft pedal downstairs to address the most pressing of my hungers, the nearest and least tasteful way I knew how. That was when Cliffside’s idled payphone rang like hell on wheels. Why I chose to answer it, I’ll never know.

“Good thing I took down that number the other day. Whatchu doin’?”

“Nothing much, just going through some old papers…”

“Today’s? Maybe you should, but that’s not why I called.”

“Reason being…”

“Got a bit of a situation goin’, and could use your help on it.”

“Uh, I dunno, I’m kinda in the middle of…”

“So’m I, man, and you owe me!”

“I know, I know, it’s just that I’m getting squeezed on the other end and…”

“Hey, shit happens, right? But not like what’s goin’ down with me.”

“I can appreciate that, believe me. I only wish I could cover you right this second. It just hasn’t been a very good week so far, must be the cusp coming, and everything…”

“Cuppa what?”

To say the least. Cusp, crock: one precipitous phenomenon obtained around here—day in, day out, in came the gray. This drought year of toilet bricks, tinder brush and matchstick madmen hinted at being so much water under the bridge any time now by the look of the Sunset skies. Not exactly flood gates or dam breaks, however, more like the cooler beading on a bottle of Bud. And equally chilling, particularly after hours. Under normal conditions, day upon brilliant autumn day, the air would turn cider heavy, western skies clogged with soggy low pressure and cumulonimbus cold fronts, storming in for months on end. 

But these days, any semblance of a rainy season would be sneaking in piecemeal, if at all. Even this close to the coastline, the most that might be hoped for to green up the prevailing brown hills was an early and late vaporous mist that airbrushed cheeks and dappled lenses, but never quite touched the ground. This virgae effect took on an almost mystical presence out here, dampness metered and suspended, bringing hopeful density and dimension to a sky so long laden with strident, sun-baked aridity. Yet before long, these atmospherics either dissipated or blew inland with the campaign flyers and pizza wrappers, as 40 m.p.h. gusts carried them with any last, anxious gasps of a summer without end. Pine cones chattered, eucalyptus creaked and swayed as a distracted city collected itself in the face of this misfiring seasonal swing. If only stubborn midday sunshine could have relieved the wraparound gloom.

“Cusp, just something I recently heard.”

“Well listen to this,” Eric said, his urgency crackling through the phone lines like a Pentecostal telethon through wet speaker wire. “I ain’t got no time for any jive, man. And if I’m outta time, you’re outta time.”

“Whoa, whoa—slow down a sec, will you,” I replied defensively. “Suddenly I’m drawing fire from every direction.”

“You wanna talk about all directions? Let me tell you all about directions—take them down to North Beach in the morning, to Columbus Tower, you know, Coppola’s place? I’ll meet you there at Wim’s around ten…”

sr dingbats

“So why here?”

“Perfecto homefries. Besides, I had an earlier thing at the International Hotel down there. Had to see a man about a dog…”

“Not…”

“No, man, different man, whole different dog—a blue one.”

In any event, there was no arguing in which direction Hillpoint weather was headed come morning. That fine, magical mist had somewhat aquified to what pop smearers of Caen and Rosenbaum’s ilk drolly passed off as frizzle, then thickened even further to a penetrating spritz.

Still, those cheeky, well-weathered euphemisms were no match for nimbus an early hours drizzle outside Cliffside’s windows, with stratum upon stratum of battleship gray shuffling in from the southwest like navy blankets over the barren bleached stucco outer Sunset.

Once the layers of overcast had socked in tight as bundled bank notes, had become so sodden and compressed downward they strafed Golden Gate Park treetops, the cloud cover commenced cold sweating from Ocean Beach eastward past the Oakland hills. That was when I had scraped razor and brush in Cliffside’s common top floor bathroom, wherein I overhead a news radio report from the City Hall beat that Mayor Moscone had accepted Dan White’s resignation letter, and it was passed on to the Board of Supervisors, where it was officially time stamped in for agenda action. Yeah, so good for him, or them. Tuning out a ‘Hi Kids!’ spot for the Diamond Center while downing an overripe banana, I had ever so reluctantly given up the Volvo’s choice cul-de-sac parking spot and circled the Kearny-Columbus trapezoid endlessly for a space within sprinting distance of the flat angular Sentinel Building, and its ground floor hashery.

“Okay, so what’s up,” I sat in next to him at the horseshoe counter, red leatherette stool spinning and wobbling like a Duncan top toy, settling for a basic cup of coffee.

“The sharks, man,” Eric munched a strip of bacon. “They’re closin’ in for the kill.”

“What’re you talking about,” I stirred in some creamer and sweetener. “What sharks? You’re beginning to sound like Crabber Don, for crissake.”

“That’s where the dog comes in,” he washed down the bacon with black, no sugar. “Anyhow, d’ya check out the paper like I told you?”

“Yesterday’s? Haven’t had the chance…”

“Pigs stopped Clifford in his Corvair up by the Oregon border for a busted tail light or somethin’. Then they detained him on an outstanding parking ticket warrant from down here. Clarion says the S.F. fuzz have headed to Crescent City to question him as a person of interest in this park killings deal. Ain’t that weird?”

“Yeah…weird, all right,” I said hesitantly, trying to wrap my drowsy head around an unlikely mind bender like that. “Sooo…what about Sherry, was she…”

“Naw, funny thing,” Eric jammed his cinnamon toast by the spoonful. “L.T. cruised through the lot again, and when I mentioned the story he said he knew all about it. Then he told me he’d heard she’d split with Clifford around Jenner somewhere, because he stopped taking his meds. And that she has a second cousin who lives in Sea Ranch, so she’s camped her van in his driveway. Turns out she’s no fool, that chick, just needs to shed some more ballast.”

“Yeah, weird…in a funny way,” I groped to change the subject, wringing my coffee cup in the process. “You were saying about the dog coming in…”

More significantly, that was where Francis Ford came in. Columbus Tower, the Sentinel or Flatiron Building: by whatever name, this landmark Beaux-Arts structure in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid was a cornerstone of the Barbary-Beach divide. Shaped like a flat clothes iron to fit in a triangular lot, its Victorian steel-framing survived the 1906 earthquake and was soon clad in reinforced concrete, white tile and copious copper window bays and boxes, which were eventually, rightfully patinated in pastel green All of eight stories, the Sentinel had a penthouse tucked beneath a copper dome now gleaming under clearer skies. That private floor was once the roost of California’s puissant political boss, Abe Ruef, at least until the real estate/ kingmaker abdicated to San Quentin Prison on a graft and bribery charge. 

Those roving just-plain folkies known as the Kingston Trio bought a renamed Columbus Tower for their world corporate headquarters in 1960, converting its vast basement, formerly home to the original Hungry I, into a sound studio where they recorded many of their gold records. That was between pocket change hootenanny cameos at Enrico’s, the Purple Onion and college campuses everywhere else. Official city landmark status prompted a name change back to the Sentinal Building, Francis picking the place up in the early 70’s with Godfather money, and his American Zoetrope HQ was pretty much known as Coppola’s Cupola from there.

Right on schedule, the bearded bear director of Apocalyptic fame had descended from his copper tower with a team of Zoetroopers to break from the creative action seven stories up, down here in the massively round rear corner booth that was his exclusive, roped-lined domain. Nobody looked, no one said a word as the don and his disciples entered the coffee shop from a tiny private elevator. What had once been an easy speaking grill where Caesar’s Salads were reputedly born was now Wim’s, a triangular Zim’s knockoff in name only, serving blue-collar lunches and homefry breakfasts that just wouldn’t quit. Maybe they were working on yet another Godfather sequel, joeing up to review some rushes in the basement studio cum screening room, in which Martin Sheen had once laid down voiceovers for Coppola’s explosive rice-paddy epic. Eyes down—mind your meals, people, ketchup your fried spuds, soak up those yokes—nothing to see, nothing happening here…

“It’s a long story, I’ll fill you in later,” Eric said dismissively, doing just that. “Like on the ride.”

“Ride? No, I’ve got my car over on Montgomery Street…” I scanned around Wim’s counter and small front booths to see if any of the hungover bartenders and scriptwriter cabbies were as furtively agog as myself.

“I’m talking about our trip down coast…”

“What? I’m not going anywhere these days…”

“Oh, yah you are,” Eric replied, picking up the check, my coffee included. “I’ve got some stuff to deal with and move around in my storage garage, gonna need your help.”

“Where’s that?” I spoke over the next two stools over, a news camera crew between shoots and shooings, joking how Jim Jones’ cadre were now petitioning to disinvite Congressman Leo Ryan’s delegation from visiting their Guyana compound, and who’d want to go to that rathole anyway?

“Pacifica, down Route 1, this side of Devil’s Slide…”

“Dunno, Eric, I’m on the hook to finish some writing work for this New York outfit, that’s how I figure to pay you back.”

“So do that over the weekend, we’ll head down first thing next…”

“Pacifica,” I sighed, sucking up some sludgy Sweet ‘n’ Low. “What the hell’s down there…”

“Exactly.”

Sounded like yet another minefield I couldn’t defuse.

Care for more?

Chapter 92. Further news of the
jungle massacre and an auto-adverse
response brings surf and dander up…

“Minds gone wild collide 
head on with the darker side
before light can shine.”

“It’s over, time’s up.”

“Uh, ran a little late…”

“Exact coin, no paper. Otherwise, no go…”

This was where the two-bits would have gotten me, if I’d had a quarter dollar—aboard an N Judah torpedo, free and clear. I’d legged over from the Hyatt Embarcadero, catching up with the outbound trolley at a First Street red light, determined to grab a quick coach out of downtown, trying to beat the rush hour clock, what with night falling in fast. Sliding aboard, nearly losing my camera bag to the closing accordion forward doors, I unwadded an inbound bus transfer, holding a finger strategically over its expiration time, trying to squeeze one last ride out of the thing. But while the stone-faced motorman looked straight ahead through his split-panel windshield, he still eagle-eyed my wangle, pulling his lanky power-forward legs up from his accelerator foot pedal. And there we sat, green light or no, streetcar swaying in place.

“Anybody got change?” I pulled out a dollar bill, waving it back toward the full cabin like a white flag, casting about for cooperative eyes.

“No, so haul your cheatin’ ass off the car,” came a shrill voice from the last of a row of single dark green pebbly seats. “Quit holdin’ us up!”

“Here you go,” a young woman in a Cal Berkeley sweatshirt, reached out from the other, two-seater side of the aisle to hand me a twenty-five cent piece from her macramed handbag.

“Thanks much,” I stepped over outstretched legs to accept her gesture, however reluctant I was to fork over my dollar in exchange. On the other hand, McDonald’s Bookstore aside, I felt fortunate just to be aboard. “Let me…”

“Not necessary,” she demurred, staring impatiently ahead toward the motorman, now unfolding his front doors once more. “Let’s just get moving again, I’ve got an appointment up at UCSF…”

I stuffed her quarter into the fare box, pulling a fresh transfer from the driver’s long, slender fingers; then we were off on the endless crosstown N Line, half speed ahead. Still, the load looked crabby, on edge, which made me all the more uneasy as I slipped into a suddenly vacated single front seat, wondering if it was just me. So Valerie only likes the humble and harmless, huh? Castrates her way to contentment and peace of mind. Comes on ’til you come back at her, and then she’s little Ms. Outraged. Twit, huh? Betch she doesn’t rag that way at Nolan…Nolan! Christ, what if she spills that whole scene to Nolan Anderle? What if she’s calling his Frickin’ ass right now?!

Then again, the whole downtown seemed to be jumpier than TGIFed at least from what I could see in this ancient, lumbering beast. Worker drones poured from PBT, Chevron, Hobart and Humboldt towers in evacuation mode. Stop by stop, the trolley wound up to speed and down again, alonga Market Street jammed with trucks, taxicabs and manifold traffic. This joyless ride down Market was like that fuzzy moviola film strip of a horse and buggy Slot pre-earthquake, a creaky streetcar passing the Monadnock Building and Lotta’s Fountain. Only it wasn’t buckboards and tin Lizzies cutting in front of the N Judah, but a Vega wagon and sneaky little Borgward Isabella.

“Change your buck, change your luck…”

“Huh?” I glanced across the aisle to the source of this oddly familiar voice.

“Do it soon or you’d better duck…” On this two seater one row back, that lyrical baritone chimed in under his black felt hat. At that instant, his gloved hand thrust upward, shaking a fistful of coins like bones at the crap table. “You gonna pay? I’ll make your day…”

“Yah, right,” I looked away, hoping he would do the same. About then, I recognized the broadly grinning face under that wide brim fedora: Beach Street’s Trinidad Troubadour and his island stickered guitar case, packing it in for the day. “No need now, thanks…”

I peered out the green torpedo’s pillbox side window, which offered little more glass area than a Brinks armored car. But it was enough to restoke images of the Western Union Moneygram stakeout, how that hellish Texas preacher did Brother Joe in, and was still there out front of the Emporium, bible thumping his bile. Wincing at the turntable chaos of Hallidie Plaza, I held tight on my camera bag as Fifth Street center islands swelled with les MUNI Miserables, many of them piling onto the streetcar, crawling all over earlier riders for any empty seats, lining up along overhead hand rails, squeezing in beside me, thigh to thigh, waist to eye.

“Whew, on my feet for hours,” an aging cosmetician sagged against a hand bar just ahead of me, leaning heavily against my shoulder with her day pack as the standing crowd pushed further down the center aisle. “Like to be killin’ lil’ ol’ me…”

“Yeah, pretty crowded,” I muttered, as she breathed down nicotine heavily, while noticing that there was no room left to move in the cabin, nowhere even left to stand.

“This MUNI, same ol’ lousy service,” she coughed, pressing tighter. “How ’bout more buses, a place to sit down already? I’m a hard working girl, I pay my taxes.”

“Sorry, I really don’t know enough to talk MUNI,” I stared straight ahead, lap holding firmly to my camera bag, determined to keep my seat.

“Really know how to sweep a gal off her feet, don’t you…” She leaned more sharply into my shoulder as the streetcar jerked forward again. “Mister Chivalry here…”

“New ERA, maam,” I had nothing better to say. “Don’t want to do anything insultingly sexist, Equal Rights Amendment, and all.”

A diverting glance through the crush once the trolley whirred off had me banking off Palace Billiards, back to the Palm Garden Grill’s rotting recesses, conjuring smokey images of that phone booth, spitting defiance across two time zones, haranguing Moon as though San Francisco actually had something promising in store. Where would I be without that phone booth? Christ, where would I be this ghastly minute without that call? By mid Market’s squalor, I was looking about the crammed cabin again, picturing those sweltering Chicago summer rides on Halsted Street, cranking and down-clicking slit windows, cranking vents, fanning away sweat transfer, perhaps in this very same retooled car. But the incessant lurches and slams, the cord hanking and buzzer bleating soon brought me back from that.

Seventh Street, Eighth, Tenth: The green and tan N Judah torpedoed past an inbound L Taraval trolley, pussy cat theaters, porn shops, surplus shoe outlets and seedy sterno bars: Jammed riders pissed and moaned in and out the folding doors, laying it all on the stone-faced motorman, who kept pushing control pedals and toggling dashboard switches, barely bothering to dispense transfers from his farebox pad. One joe did slip in through the rear exit at Fell Street, however, with a triumphant fist pump and grin, puffing up his Oilers’ windbreaker. Whipping out a day-old transfer he pocketed just as quickly, cleaving into a seat several rows ahead of the Trinidad Troubadour.

From Van Ness Avenue on, the jammed car began to thin some, downtown riders feeding off to Twin Peaks, Diamond or Pacific Heights routes. Filling their seats and straps was a demonstrable demographic shift to Mission commachos, then the Castro Street cotillion, on to hook-eared pirates and buckskinned Davy Alamos hankering to storm the Haight. Then boarded stumpy tambourine players, orange-haired, three nostril ringed bike messenger and a bejangled tribe of bayou creoles who called N’awlins too buttoned down. My gaze drifted off to a string of upper Market galleries and furniture stores, not that I could tell a Galle or Majorelle from a genuine Rohde. Although better those flashy Moderne-style designer show windows than the flickering gumdrop round ceiling lights inside this cabin, as the power pole bounced along the overhead wire. Much as I did on my stiff cheesecloth seat, springs popping and snapping like an economy mattress at the Desperation Inn as the torpedo swayed along, circular mid ceiling ventilator fan grinding in time.

“What’s with this Jonesville thing, anyway,”asked the shorter of two straphangers just ahead of us, in a sandy polyester suit and rug brown wide collar dress shirt, briefcase trapped between his knees.

“Jonestown, Hugh,” said the taller exec in buttoned down blue and pinstriped flannel, reading from a neatly twice-folded evening Examiner. “Says here that a Congressional party’s on their way down to Guyana to investigate the whole scene. Sounds like some kind of junket to me…”

“Investigating? Peoples Temple’s a religion, isn’t it? What about separating church and state?”

“Suuure, like Synanon’s a non-profit charity.”

“Anybody could see this coming.” The broader of two tote-bagged hardbodies headed for a Castro gym kibitzed, over his shoulder from the opposing said of the aisle. “It’s that Jim Jones snake. All he’s separating is poor folks from their valuables.”

“But he’s damn near bulletproof in City Hall, Jeffrey, all the votes he delivers. And that ain’t the half of it,” his muscle buff partner snickered, open pitted in a strapped violet body shirt. “Harvey was telling everybody at the baths how our beloved mayor’s diggin’ Reverend Jim’s sweetest sisters, that he’s really into the rough stuff.”

“Hm-mmm, lovin’ him that steamin’ hot cocoa,” Jeffrey replied, flexing his pecs and biceps against the hand rails.“Talk about political give ‘n’ take between strange bedfellows. Get me Herb Caen on the horn.”

The N Judah’s interior lights fluttered to a fare-thee-well when the streetcar turned tight right around a rock fortress topped by the current U.S. Mint, catching straphangers off guard, leaving them to swing like steer slabs on the hook as the car screeched and scraped onto Duboce Avenue. There, the trolley unloaded some at the Church Street stop, sparking another altered mood within the cabin. Downtown propriety gave way to hairy hashburners, Upper Terrace professionals to fuzzy-thinking inner Sunset activists and foggy-headed outer Sunset reactivists. The snickering gym rats strutted their Soloflex framesout the streetcar’s unfolding rear doors at Church Street, replaced by a couple of Peterbilt young flannel dykers from a windowless Duboce Triangle Toklas bar, taking forever to load/unload. Then boarded a neighborhood senior, step by slow, aching step, who had cane walked over breathless and cranky from Duboce Park. He demanded a front seat with a tap of his walking stick on an Everett Middle schoolgirl’s knee.

“Darned MUNI, been waiting out here for a coon’s age,” the pensioner griped, banging his cane tip on the metal floor.“Wasn’t like this when George Christopher was mayor…”

“Pipe down, you old coot,” said the Tex-ex freeloader in that powder blue Oiler’s jacket, one seat up from him. “Or you’ll be eatin’ shit on that stick.”

I was hardly more patient, wondering why the hell I’d decided to take another room out this way, mind going manic myself. Let’s go, for crissake, move it, I’ve got a phone call to make! Panic attack—I could hear it all now, Valerie yanking a pearl earring from her perfectly luscious lobe, wrapping that Vougish voice around Nolan’s libido, telling him I hit on her out of the blue, without probable cause or due process or slightest provocation, imploring him to nail my despicable pig hide to Prism’s wall of shame. That she’d suffered duress and mental anguish, and here his darlin’ was getting physically accosted and psychologically scarred by his own hand-picked hack. So what in the name of gallantry and fair, flowering maidenhood did he propose to do about? Hell, Nolan Anderle was probably cutting me off cold and filing briefs already, pressing charges before she could shake that cascading mane of hers over her mounding cheekbones. So let’s get rolling, this is emotional warfare—got to prepare my defense, plead my case!

The Duboce tunnel dog-legged slightly southward, burrowing its way beneath Buena Vista Park and Upper Ashbury Terrace. Some three-quarters of a mile long, the mole hole was showing its 52-plus years early on—damp, seepy, with cold and offshore gales boring through like Tijuana burritos through a Great Plains gringo. Still, it was the quickest, most direct track to Sunset District oblivion.

“East Portal,” the driver shouted, zagging his trolley rightward off Duboce at Noe Street, the cabin thickened with its fresh flood of haggard faces, pushing, shuffling rearward, irritating one another like their blisters and canker sores. “Cole Street next…”

So much for idle conversation across the aisle. Yet even such overloaded exchanges lost their impact as the aged streetcar gained speed. Floorboards bucked, windows rattled, its iron-clad sides thrummed worse than jumbo jet wingflaps on a short runway landing. The N Judah’s power motor wound banshee tight on the straight, steady incline, its stressful pitch howling off Sunset Tunnel’s dark, narrowly arching conduit. Straphangers listed like mid-bay channel markers as the torpedo bobbed and shifted along an oversettling, untrue roadbed. Bearing-worn trucks grumbled, spring-worn suspensions failed to hold steady: 30 mph felt upwards of 95. Ceiling bulbs flickered fiercely amid the vicious vibrations, synched eerily to the yellow jello smears of passing tunnel lights, the thunderous steel-on-steel scraping and clatter of wheel against rail. This heavy metal echo seemed to quicken beyond relief, until the slow, grinding gear wail ceased to be felt or heard.

“Hey, what goin’ down here,” Oiler spouted, standing up, looking the cabin fore and aft, what with the streetcar lights dying down, his pinball eyes opening wider and wider.

Pole’s down, contact shoes are worn, that’s all,” the driver shouted, heading out from the farebox, grabbing his transfers—an anti-theft measure, to be sure; given the circumstances, he carried along his coin tray like—headed out the front doors, which he closed from the outside. Picture of sole authority, he was, commendations pinned to his brown beret, down to the hashmarks on his orange and brown Eisenhower MUNI jacket and his gleaming Italian boots. “Hang tight a minute, we straight.”

“Oh, we’re goners for sure,” the old man bleated, rubbing his polished dome, preparing to parry with his cane once something banged harshly above us against the car’s sheet metal ceiling. “Godsakes alive, never saw this when Joe Alioto was running things.”

The entire carload grimaced as ceiling lights flickered to flat-out darkness. The Judah’s motor bearings stopped whining, its windows rattled even less—a lone vital sign of electro-mechanical life was a degenerating moan its motor made as the trolley coasted to a halt. The aroma of uncut Persian drifted through the cabin before it could even do so.

“Hey, I said, what it is?!” Oiler was growing more visibly agitated by the minute, snatching glimpses of the motorman out there behind the streetcar, sparks flying as he struggled to retrack his pole on the overhead wire.

“Fool drops his pole, we’s stuck in this hole,” the Trinidad Troubadour chortled, barrel chesting his white turtleneck with calm, collected wit at this calamity, selling it with a wink and smile, though pulling his guitar case closer for safe keeping.

No wonder the motorman clawed his way out of this deathtrap: just look at this crew, present company excepted, on second thought, better to not. Anxiety hounded me, in here with these vicious hippies and drug-running gypsies, two-bit babblers and three-piece embezzlers, these leather scrotum sacrificing, testicle cannibalizing cult worshippers, multi-racial mariachi freedom marchers after a long day storming the Federal building to catch themselves on the evening news. With no clue what any of them thought of me…

Dark as it had become, I could still spot the motorman through the trolley’s rear window. The only ticket out of this fix was chasing his beret well beyond the torpedo’s tail, winds having dispatched it like a pastry wrapper through the blotches of eclair light from dim, distantly spaced bulbs encased in metal-cased glass globes, strung along sidewalls at telephone pole intervals. Fogged with endless condensation, these running lights barely dented Sunset Tunnel’s darkness, exposing dull gray patches of failing concrete, reflecting slightly off bumpy twin railbeds, the subterranean drain pipe seepage from Buena Vista Hill’s gardens and more dubious excretions overhead.

Before long, persons unknown were bitching openly at MUNI in general, in particular this driver who had just lit up a cigarette in contemplation of a balky pole contact—and eventually at one another. No light for parlor games, no time for casual rejoinders: voices were rising over rustled newsprint, garrulous Panhandle bushmen, claustrophobic inner Sunset biddies, and the affected nasal lilt of lispy boyfriends. Disquiet setting in even more, I heard them all in these dank, creeping minutes, not least some not so totally unfamiliar voices of my own.

Still, no getting off here. Jesus, where does this tunnel begin, where does it end? Wait, that looks like something up there, half mile maybe, maybe more. Can’t make it out exactly, but—yeah, there’s a light flashing, from the other end? Hell, you could run that far. That is, if only you could pry open those doors…

A signal light blinked just brightly enough to outline Sunset Tunnel’s west portal archway. Green must have meant all clear outbound—no cattle, no Godzilla, no civil disruptions—no dice. Not when I was trapped with thesetragdolytes in this streetcar named misfire. Faceless shapes and forms skulked about the cabin like kodiaks past feeding timeup and down the aisle, over window to window, teetering the weak-springed torpedo into gyroscopic bobs and sways. This was no windfall for the motorman, again struggling to retrack his power pole in the face of a now relentless gale. All the creaking, the plaintive muttering, the suspended desperation seized me, provoking me toward that damp, gloomy between the streetcar and tunnel’s end. Suddenly ceiling lights flickered, wires sparked and sizzled as the motorman seemed to re-seat his pole’s corroded contact,light flashes reflecting off the car’s windshield panels, into my dilated eyes; on again, off again, then they doused once more.

S’cuse mecomin’ out, y’all,” Oiler pushed his way down the aisle.“Comin’ out, I said.”

“Beg pardon?” asked the Berkeley blonde, amid some shrouded commotion beside her.

“Oh my god,” the Russian woman cried, “dat man, he got blade!”

“No, excuse me,” I blurted, unexpectedly bowling over into the aisle, not knowing what the hell came over me at a time like this, except maybe I owed her one. SLLLIIICE…In any case, I rolled over into Oiler, who aimed to separate the Cal coed from her shouldered macrame handbag by slashing its strings.

“Hey, fool,” Oiler shouted, as her cut purse fell to the center aisle. “Get the fuck off me…else you be pushin’ up weeds!”

“Let it go,” I grunted, real adrenaline like, as we tumbled backward into the aisle, rolling over on one another like two fledgling frosh-soph wrestlers. “That bag is hers!”

That light at tunnel’s end proved to be an inbound streetcar, which now edged past us on the opposing track, its high center beam gradually brightening the cabin, key lighting a heinous seven-inch shiv as it swung down into the seat Oiler had just vacated, shearing the green covering, cotton padding and wood frame before striking the metal seatback and floorboard. There he froze momentarily, as if leveraging himself to twist out from under me.

“OH NNoooooooo,” the mortified blonde screamed, curling up against the torpedo’s sidepanel, Oiler’s knife still mere inches away from her, singularly shining here against the returning darkness. One piercing, horrific shriek: she reflexively pulled strands of her purse up close to her breast, eyes spot welded to the reality of that exposed blade. Meanwhile, riders were ducking and diving under and behind trolley seats up and down the aisle.

There we froze, oh so momentarily…though time enough for the Troubadour to hoist his decal pasted guitar case like a stand-up bass. He then pivoted rearward, so that its fret head end caught Oiler perfectly behind his neck. Troubadour instantly pressed his tramp steamer upper body into the heavy end of the leatherette case, ramming Oiler’s head forward as I rolled off him with the force, clamping his pimpled mug down tighter than a guillotine brace, against the steel hand-rail post and trolley floor. “Spade be he, what that make me? An ornery ol’ salt who’s battled the sea.”

“Hey, sucka, get this horseshit thing off’n my neck, damn,” Oiler sputtered, the floorboard’s diamond plate imprinting his jowl.

“Hold it a second there, you’re tangling up in my camera bag,” I wheezed, hurriedly tugging at its strap, the inbound trolley’s cast-off illumination fading to black, leaving our car to sway like an empty kayak in its wake. Could have kill the fucker myself, wrung his slimy faggin’ neck right then and there…

“Don’tchu be tellin’ me nuthin’, chump,” Oiler coughed and spit, trying to kick, crab-crawl his way free, everybody near us giving plenty of shadowy ground. The fidgeting only tightened Troubadour’s vise against his worm-veined neck, turkey rolled between the chrome tubing and guitar case.

Which only made Trinidad lean down harder yet to press his case. Oiler was barely half the jongleur’s size, and for an instant felt almost resigned to facing the music. But then his dusty energy level rose like angels to the great beyond, seconds later he was flying nearly that high. His fist clenched fitfully firmer around his shiv handle, flexing to pull it free of the seat cushion. The Berkeley blonde gasped and shrieked again as Oiler grimaced and head butted against the guitar case in fierce, motor-maniacal Phencyclidine thrusts. So violent were his purges, so irrational his bilious rantings, the Troubadour seemed to straddle atop the case for added force, as if to tie and brand him. Instead, he reached deep into his blue cardigan pocket, never once denting his smile, as I held on at the ankles as best I could.

“Sonavabitch nigga bastad!” Oiler kicked and convulsed, nearly lifting the man and his music with sheer psychotic spasms. “Dirty Tom slave muthasucka!”

The Troubadour silently blocked his full chest and shoulder down on the bucking guitar case, casually sliding something from his pocket onto his fret-strong fingers. Oiler moaned and howled, suddenly slumping his head and shoulders, releasing his grip, the shiv still stuck solidly in the seatback. Trinidad eased up a trifle, freeing his left hand to slip an elastic band over his fingers.

ZZZZZZZZZNAP…WHHIRRRRR. Just as suddenly, those spattering overhead sparks ended, the green torpedo’s generators resumed charging. Within seconds, the oleo interior lights flickered to life, which was when the murky grimness of the situation began to reveal itself.

“Hey, what’s goin’ down in here,” the motorman roared, leaping through his switched open accordian doors.“Damn, what the hell’s with…”

“Face…murda me,” Oiler cried chillingly, his nose gushing blood like pressurized hoses. Apparently, Trinidad had slit his nose, nearly as deep as Oiler had run through the upholstery. When that PCP rally had all but enabled Oiler to neck push away the guitar case, Trinidad reacted fast and hard as nails. Full power ceiling lights revealed two gleaming steel finger picks, sharpened and attached to a whale bone capo elastic strapped around his middle digits.

“Damn, man,” the driver wailed, unwinding his scarf, then sidestepping us altogether to toss it down to Oiler. “Here, wrap up that butt-ugly beak of yours…you messin’ all over my ve-hicle. And say, brother man, whatchu go doin’ him for?”

“Knucklehead was snatchin’ her purse with his knife,” Trinidad nodded, letting up only enough for a little breathing room. “Till I we caused him some serious strife…”

“Hell I was,” Oiler shouted, catching a second wind of his own. “I was just coolin’ it and tripped. Damn fools attacked me, man—tangled me all up.”

“That true lady,” asked the motorman as he jockeyed around my fanny to check out the still buried shiv.

“Tsk, I wouldn’t know,” the blonde winced, herself fixated on that knife handle. She uncoiled and remained oddly composed, given the strange blood splattered across her sweatshirt and bag. Either that, or she was acutely in shock. “Who am I to ascertain another person’s actions?”

Say what? Okay, fair enough, still got your purse, ain’t you,” the driver replied. “Now, why don’t you two let up on…”

“Yah, get your fat gorilla ass off…aghh!” Oiler surged to, his wild bug eyes spinning around onto the Troubadour, his face already swelling, lids closing like clam shells. “Rotten nigga scum… aaaghhh!!!”

“Oh, man, hell wichyu,” the motorman scowled, looking past our splayed tag team to his number one scarf, see red. He turned toward his farebox, the next outbound Judah’s headlight having just beamed through the east portal archway. He sat in behind his pedals and switches, grabbing for his interline phone. “Gotta get us outta this tunnel, your sorry redneck ass outta my car.”

We all stayed put as the torpedo lurched forward with increasing force, tossing me rearward while Trinidad held Oiler down tight. I righted myself, repositioning myself atop his legs, looking up with the expectation of renewed wrangling with him. Rather, I found that regathered Berkeley blonde, staring out the window to passing stream of colorful tunnel graffiti in comix form. “Uh, you okay?”

“Of course, why wouldn’t I be,” she replied sharply, holding firmly onto her bloodied purse.

“I don’t know,” I boosted myself up slightly to the ripped seat cushion with a little Steve Keller-Harry Callahan pose going, eyeing that shiv twisted into the seatback. “I mean, this is pretty bizarre and you’re being so silent, and all…” I pulled off some, Trinidad pinning Oiler to the rubber aisle runner for a ten-count all by himself, barely tipping the red and yellow plume in his leather-banded black fedora. “Important thing is, you’re okay and your purse is still basically in one piece, huh?”

“Look, I didn’t need any interference from you and your…accomplice there,” she glowered.

“Whoa, I was just trying to help, you know, in return for…”

“Just maybe that man would still have a decent nose,” she snapped, nodding toward Oiler, partially with sympathy, if not some lefthanded solidarity.

“Right on, sister,” Oiler muttered, face still down, blood drying over the diamond plate pattern engraved in his cheek.

“B-b-but this guy was ripping off your purse,” I gestured to his now reddish-brown powder blue windbreaker.

“How do you know that for sure,” she asked, with a nod toward Oiler. “Really, maybe he simply tripped, like he said…”

“Wait, I don’t get it,” I said afluster. “You’re blaming the ones who tried to aid you here?!”

“Enough with your John Wayne chauvinism,” she said, looking away to Oiler once again. His straggly beard was turning plasma red from tangling in the scarf and pulpy mashed nasal cartilage where his nose had been. “Somebody’s got to get this poor man to the U.C. Med Center, super fast…”

“Somebody who?” I winced at the very thought, not that again. “I…”

“Then somebody responsible,” she replied firmly. “Someone humane and caring, like…me…”

“Your motives are pure, missy—of that, there’s no doubt,” Trinidad looked up, still holding firmly to his guitar case, contorting the capo picks off his fingers, then pointing toward the Oiler. “But they come from your heart, and he’d sooner cut it on out.”

“Doctors aren’t the answer here, what we really need is the police,” the pensioner spouted.

“Think the cops be sweatin’ this small stuff?” the motorman asked, eyes fixed ahead on the rails, cigarette aburn. “And I got a schedule to make up.”

Whatever they were taking a match to, this N Judah’s ridership didn’t light up to that idea. But at least the streetcar had made some progress, the torpedo laboring upgrade to Sunset Tunnel’s west portal. Its headlight beamed through the molehole shadows in stutters and flutters, revealing the alien and graphically seditious tagging along the now curving tunnel side walls: sentiments not unlike those I was muttering under my breath. Christ, that’s a good one! How’d she put it? Maybe if I hadn’t bumbled into it, none of this would have happened. Please, not that rap again—it just can’t always be my bungle. I just can’t keep taking the rap for this crazy crap…

“Pay her no mind,” the cosmetician offered me, now seated three rows back. “I seen it all, had that scumbag pegged from the get-go. See, I’m a jacket and shoes person, first thing. Saw the Texas rag and his cowboy boots, figured that monkey for trouble right from the start. Somebody had to step up…”

The green torpedo bucked and shuttered up, out of Sunset Tunnel like a roller coaster gondola through its last, raking sidewalled curve. To the left, its headlight fired up a unicorn mural on a gay bar wall across Carl Street; the right jog lit up a billboard for desktop computer classes—whatever the hell that was—then stopping in front of a tidy cedar and calla lilied green parklette and Tibetan Orthodox vegetarian restaurant. The trolley’s lumbering trucks scraped and squealed as though the wheels were greased with rubbing compound. Only a barrage of buzzing stop cords was harder on the nerves.

The driver folded open his front doors, then scowled back at this face plant situation in his center aisle. “Now get your sorry asses out my car!”

“Hey, don’t pin this all on me,” I balked, rolling off in full defensive mode. I then dusted myself off to shuffle for the doors, away from those involved altogether, camera bag in tow, save for Trinidad. “Thanks for the hand, mister, maybe I’ll see you again by Aquatic Park, huh? Now take care of your guitar case there…”

“Sure, don’t worry, I’ll be back,” grinned the Troubadour, as he arm wrestled, raised Oiler up like a bag of penal ward laundry. “After I give this garbage the sack.”

“B-b-but UC emergency’s two more stops,” the coed cried, by now in denial about that seatback blade. “Who’s…”

“Aww, leave it be, honey, good riddance,” the pensioner groused with a sweep of his cane. “Still got your purse, don’t you? I’m telling you, Barbagelata shoulda won that damn Moscone recall vote going away!”

I jumped the streetcar’s two entrance steps down to Carl Street, to a post-revolutionary selling out his record collection from a sidewalk melon crate, Quicksilver to Country Joethen a faded flower hawking her summer wardrobe from coathangers hooked to a brown parklette wall, sign reading, ‘Keep Calm & Carry On’. Meantime that Cal Blonde deboarded the streetcar, coaxing the bloodied Oiler over to a 43 Masonic bus up to Parnassus and UC Med emergency, little mothersuccor that she apparently was.

At Cole Street, mad ironing board petitioners hustled signatures in front of the Other Cafe, on everything from gay rights to animal husbandry to forced reproduction to Palestinian rights—open ended issues no end. I negotiated them charily, rather nursing whatever bruises and lessons learned from that pretzelogical streetcar affair, deciding a hike up Parnassus to Millbury Union would be a good way to walk it off. Which was when I crossed paths with a couple of topical comedians, trolling for material from the Final Markets Examiner edition out the cafe doors. We all paused for the passing N-Judah streetcar, ringing and whirring away toward the Great Highway.

“That’s funny, this Peoples Temple bit? It’s just like with JFK,” said one, slapping the front page. Remember Kennedy?”

“Yeah, so what’s your punch line?” asked the other as he finished a take-out au lait, pulling a half-gone doob from his chamois patch pocket.

“We’re into November, aren’t we? Scorpio transiting into Sagittarius, all that rot…”

“ Another freakin’ November—don’t make me laugh.”

Care for more?

Chapter 91. Interests collide coast
to coast. Nearer connections are also made.
Then comes a ground floor heads-up
in Godfatherly company…

“Hot to herd her in to
get her dancing to your tune
yields a road to ruin.”

“Have something for me, do you?”

“Depends on what you have for me.”

“A load and a half, I’d say…”

“Cough it up, I’ll be the judge of that.”

Didn’t stay put for long. Had too much work piling up for a hack who couldn’t write a lick, photo film to pick up and deliver. So I pored over notes in a Chestnut Street Coffee Roastery, pumped out assorted drivel at 125 words each, then typed it all up on Marina branch library public Underwoods, clickety-clack, xeroxing the onion skin sheets into a sizable little pile. Kept everything within walking distance of the Triangle lot and daily overhead down, saving on pricier and pricier petrol, otherwise holding Eric at bay. My spirits hung in with this regimen, but my spine curved all the more toward question mark stature by the day. This, after a couple more chill nights cold sweating out the Volvo’s front seats, not to mention spooky visions of Gary’s ghost, marching arm in arm to his long-gone bread truck, in lockstep with Crabber and Eric’s dog, Bruno. Which was why I decided to look up that other UC Med Center housing postcard after all, and was doubly anxious to meet and re-greet down here.

“So, what do you think?”

“Well, I have to admit it’s more than I expected.”

“Better than Jason’s?”

“That wouldn’t wouldn’t be saying much…”

This place, this time was entirely her idea. She had said it would work best for an exchange of copy written for a short list of new clients she’d enlisted, mostly cranky, fussbudget shopkeepers in Embarcadero Center who were desperate for more late morning and mid afternoon foot traffic, given the prime square footage they were locked into at soaring market rates. In a pinch, sticking it to Prism tourists looked to be the path of least retail resistance. So near and neutral was the goal, the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero her answer. Foot of Market Street, The City’s then largest waterfront accommodations: this spacey hotel looked like a concrete NASA landing craft with a satellite saucer up top, freakily futuristic enough to have been a real setting in films from ‘Towering Inferno’ to ‘High Anxiety’. Catching up with her in its lobby. I instantly knew the feeling.

Before we had even considered swapping paper, Valerie Prentiss-Brown insisted we take an elevating ride up to that circular observation lounge to clear our heads—for old time’s sake—clearly hers, not mine. Soon enough, I’d reached my limit of 360-degree roulette waterfront views, snaking Embarcadero Freeway, downtown skyline, Telegraph Hill out to the Golden Gate. But then I faced free-falling 17 stories in this glass bubble gazebo capsule of an elevator, refluxing a gratis crab pate and mollusk lunch at a Financial District watering hole that had signed on to Prism’s restaurant section, something about Tadich—all I knew was I skittishly begged off the shark fin entree. She gazed placidly upon HRE’s cavernous innards through our descent, while I clutched the elevator’s brown cushioned armrest like a seasick lubber a cruise ship railing until the inner space capsule plunged into some frightfully narrow black shaft, then delivered us unto the hotel’s soaring lobby, where we had proceeded to settle down for a little business.

“Don’t cotton much to Jason, do you,” I said, holding back my chipboard stiff envelope of Prism photoprints: let there be one batch of critiquing at a time.

Cotton? Never cain tell,” Valerie mocked, over the ear-popping whoosh of an express elevator in mid fall. “But I guess he’s all right, for a twit.”

“Yeah, he does seem to rag on things a bit,” I followed her around the elevator concourse out to the hotel’s skylit lobby. “Like the day before he left town, he was really coming down on his hometown, saying The City was going soft-core…”

“A lot he knows—San Francisco’s not going soft-core at all,” she said, as we spread out on a plush brown leather sectional bordering a long, brilliantly colorful planter—essentially between the concierge desk and Sweet Sisters’ Cafe. “It’s just going gay.”

The Hyatt’s soaring atrium seemed somewhat more like a Bradbury concocted cellblock, actually—17 levels of banded geometric tiers, a protractor’s puzzle palace. Exposed bays, guestrooms faced one another across an airy, impassable expanse, couples creeping indiscreetly out of single-suite afternoon delights, petroleum arbiters in from Galveston gawking over from the opposing tier, wondering where they might find that kind of mileage. Recessed doors flapped up and down the open, airy lobby like Dating Game windows, putting an entirely different spin on the concept of open relationships, but reducing hotel security to picking off gratuitously tough lovers like ducks at a carnival gallery. Planter boxes of flowing ivy draped over the length of each angled balcony, combining with suspended cylindrical lights to create a hanging gardens of Orbitron.

“All of it?”

“Enough, even up in my neighborhood.”

“Where’s that?” I pressed back into the squishy leather, squeaking like moistened Playtex, keeping a full cushion between me and this woman of discernible ways and means.

“Cow Hollow, out by St. Vincent de Paul…” She moved more smoothly, in a more lubricous way.

“Really,” I said. Whoa, laity and laity, parish the thought…

 “Yeah, well, Nolan seems to think he’s the best pen in the west.”

Nautilus tentacles of red and black helium balloons floated up into the atrium, glancing off black drum lanterns, snaking into the ivy as high as the 11th floor. This greenery surrounded the lobby’s ‘al fresco’ cocktail lounge, and clusters of tête-à-tête indiscretions amid the potted palms and ficus, the cushy leather and red velour. These weren’t everyday, run of the mill balloons, illuminated as they were by shafts of late sunlight from above and aside like Grand Central Station. They were launched especially on Friday afternoons, Tea Dance Day—hence the red and pekoe black. In any case, the entire cavernous mood drifted toward Venetian mescita, with strolling violinists softly bowing their adagios and spiccatos.

An odd swing, indeed, for a hotel whose turn-of-the-century motif turned boldly ahead to 2000 and 2001. HRE chronological focal point was a massive spherical metal sculpture cosmically titled Eclipse, so tea dancing here seemed odder than a cultural curator at Graceland.

“Nolan? Listen, he’s got Jason’s ego pumped sky high for now, but you just wait. Soon as he’s wrung every word he can out of that little weasel, he’ll pop him like a birthday balloon.”

“What? Naw, not after what he said, like at breakfast…”

“Words, words, honestly, anybody can string a hundred of them together. And Nolan knows how to sling words, too,” Valerie laughed knowingly, her hazel eyes sparkling as they rolled. “Fact of the matter is, he thrives on reasonably bright and rudderless chumps like Jason.”

“But why would…” I waffled, my foundation shaken, feeling about as adequate as Stills once did with Judy Blue Eyes.

“Because that’s the way Nolan is, what do you think,” she tousled her full, wavy auburn hair, longer and more luminous than any natural woman had a right to, then rewrapped the mane of it all in her shell-blushish sash. “He’s a predator, a shamelessly greedy operator. I know what he’s all about, I was married to one.”

“How reassuring,” I sighed, glancing over at the pile I’d handed her. “But where do you suppose that leaves me?”

Nevertheless, tea dance, it was. Something on the order of Les Brown and His Cover Band of Renown, soon sounded more redolently flaccid than Montavani on Demurol. An iffy ‘I’m In the Mood For Love’ fanned through the lobby like clogged kitchen exhaust, wafting up into the cavern tier by tier, lofting those braided balloon strands with the savoir froth of Lawrence Welk’s bubble machines. In reality, the effervescent Regency Orchestra segued into ‘Sentimental Journey’ without so much as missing a string appoggiatura, as if they didn’t keep pouring out the standards, arteriosclerosis might set in throughout the lobby. This early in the proceedings, only the bandleader was stepping out—a penguin-tailed Paul Whiteman sort with a mean Sidney Greenstreak in his sideward glances and asides, particularly toward the blue-haired retirees requesting their parlor songs.

“You? Oh, you’re harmless enough,” she said crisply, filing the papers in her Coach velise. “See, Nolan is a bit on-guard with Jason, worries that the little dingbat might get just neurotic enough to screw things up back east. In your case, he figures somebody in from the flyover cornfields…”

“Colorado and Chicago,” I balked, at both the figurative and regional emasculation. “Chicago isn’t exactly the cornfields.”

“Close enough,” she said, position unmoved. “No matter what kind of scam you conjure up, everybody here or in New York is already six speeds ahead of you. Nolan gets peace of mind from that, you know, and the fact that you’re flat on your duff, moneywise.”

“Come on, give me some…”

“Don’t knock it, Steinbeck,” she smiled, tapping my hand. “Being a lightweight has its advantages. Honesty and predictability can be real assets in a town like this. San Francisco’s got a lot of everything going for it, but blind devotion isn’t one of them.”

“So you think all Midwesterners are just a bunch of plodding hayseeds, is that it?” My back and shoulders stiffened like hybrid cornstalks in the flat prairie breezes of springtime.

“That’s your hang-up,” she dismissed, snapping closed her case. “All I’m saying is you best stay poor and slavish. Just don’t go overestimating yourself. Really, this town needs more dupes like you.”

Now Pops wasn’t all tea dance, of course. His tuxom, 24-piece ensemble didn’t simply breeze through ‘Tea For Two’, ‘You Made Me Love You’ and Teagarden favorites—that was clear as the gin and tonics flowing around them. No, for all their wunnerful muzak, the soppy late-life appeal, his ever-popular Regents seemed to draw the line at one irrefutable musical law: Even union scale didn’t mean a thing if it didn’t have that swing. A bit more of the bubbly, some happy hour hep cats gliding across the dance floor, and Pops was leading his band onto the A-Train and Glenn Miller’s Choo-Choo, then off again, into a ‘One o’ Clock Jump’ that would have sent shivers up Woody Herman’s back beat and baritone sax—fancy that, mom ‘n’ dad’s rock ‘n’ roll…

“Well if you’ve got Nolan Anderle so pegged, what does that make you?”

“Me? Nolan is the least of my problems.”

“If he’s the lech you say he is, how can you be so damn sure?” Really, here’s this reasonably classy chick who looks California right, from pure white flats on her slender, curling feet to the melony peaks swaying gently beneath her dipping linen neckline, and that holy righteous cleavage, tan beachy goddess from there up. A high-brow priestess gone slumming, perhaps: I could see her in creamy, ruffled taffeta down to her perfect aquatic ankles, springing barefoot into La Fontaine Des Innocents, tossing that wedding bouquet to les gamines, streaming the chill water through her long, luscious hair. Then settling down serenely to a lawyerly life up in the Berkeley Hills with her sevres patterns and Bay-facing rear deck views. So what in blazes happened from there, what scattered that to the downdraft winds?

“Because it’s different with me,” she cooed, retying the sash in her hair. “All he wants is to get into my lavender panties, so he pours me a little extra sugar. He’s just another one of those hard-driving New Yorkers who come to California to live out their desperate midlife fantasies. The old perv won’t dare cross me until he scores.”

“Yeah,” I blurted, provoked even further by the whole ungodly prospect. I could even envision those panties. What I couldn’t see was her leaving all that for a 280Z Datsun and three-panel spread.

“And when exactly will that be?”

“Like, just between you, me and the plowboys, huh?”

That the Regents’ bandstand itself was clear over in the shadow of Mrs. Candy’s open-face cafe had little on their volume. The Big Beat medley steadily muted most everything, short of the conversation at hand—hardly a typical rising moonlight serenade. Akin to a steam locomotive in the Munich Bahnhoff, Pops overwhelmed the three glowing elevators, which were rising and falling like swiss clock counterweights, much less the clinking of Mrs. Candy’s china. The orchestra echoed through HRE’s obtusely converging atrium balconies, muffling all nearby intimacy, pitches and small talk, not to mention that peculiar clicking of three-inch heels along a test-patterned stone tile floor.

But no matter how brassy the Berigan, how shrill and thundering the Artie Shaw, there was no eclipsing the four-story spheric sculpture that dominated the atrium. At its base poured forth this low, slate flat fountain that produced a dull, slapping roar only Truckee River rafters could abide for very long. And flow, Eclipse did, perpetually juddering the sphere’s hyperbolic tubular brass circles like a gathering of the vibes. Which rattled ‘Minnie the Moocher’ and ‘You, You Darling’ all right, but really began unnerving me in the worst way, since the squishy leather sofa Valerie had selected was barely a ‘Variety Stomp’ away.

“You know what I mean.” On the other hand, I could see her pledging Stanford, maybe a year’s sabbatical at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. But a one-shot deal at the Playboy mansion? It sure didn’t stack up, but she sure did.

“Can’t say that I do,” she snapped, straightening the fine blue vertical stripes along her linen sheath. “But you sure make it sound like a matter of crude inevitability.”

“No, wait, no,” I retreated, following those pinstripes, tight and true, wrapping her freshly from her strong, shapely shoulders to halfway down her calves, fixing on how curvilinear those lines became around her margins. Not Valerie Prentiss-Brown, no way she’d do it—but maybe Rachel le Pointe would. “I’m sure you wouldn’t stoop to…”

“That’s another story, now isn’t it.”

“Jesus, Rach—er, I mean Valerie. I was only making…”

“See?” She was eager to make her point. “It’s all over your slavering little face…”

As the afternoon wore thin, Pops and his Regents flowed into the inevitable Dorsey Brothers tribute, taking off on Tommy and Jimmy renditions of ‘Sweetcakes’, ‘Stardust’ and ‘Solitaire’. Swing fever: the smooth slab dance floor had now filled with middle-aged, middle road PG&E middle managers and mid-level executive secretaries from Chevron, the latter swirling about about, crepe skirted down to mid knee.

“All right then,” I said, flustered and flushed. “Why would somebody like you…”

“What? Lay it all out there for every pervert with two dollars in his hot pocket? Why do you think? The money, genius,” she said forcefully, tucking her tanned right calf directly beneath her, as though so casually at home. “Or, like Everest maybe—because it was there.”

“Fair enough,” I sighed. Everest, twice over, to say the least—mounds too firm and bountiful for one man’s possessive urges. “But what was it like to…”

“You’ll have to ask Rachel.”

Even the blue rinsed, mid menopausal bank tellers and account supervisors swooned out there with their man-friendly escorts once Pop’s nightingale strode to the bandstand mike. A sequin ball- gowned hybrid somewhere between Kitty Kallen and Blossom Dearie, his silver-haired songstress in champagne and black snapped and swayed her way through ‘Goody-Goody’ then ‘Snug As a Bug in a Rug’. But things turned manic the moment she turned to the string section and commenced torching into ‘Love For Sale’ and ‘You Made Me Love You’.

“Okay, hell with it then,” I pulled back, strategically crossing legs to cover my lap.

“You mean,” she teased, several passing pharmaceutical reps checking out her vitals as they strutted between the elevators and Mrs. Candy’s, name tags ablaze in the spotty overhead lighting. “Did Hef ply me with MDA and personally ice down my nipples, salacious stuff like that?”

“Look you’re the one who brought this up,” I fidgeted. “A guy’s just got to be curious about what’s going on in a gal’s head when…”

“It was an interesting experience, that’s all,” she shrugged, as if exposing something heretofore untold. “A lot of attention and strobe lights–and buckets of Champagne. Hef’s a woman-hating egomaniac who’s aging horridly, so I held my nose and signed a release. The whole lark bought me a new Z and cost me a marriage, what more can I say?”

“Well, uh, that’s good, huh,” I nodded awkwardly. I could see her baring those breasts in boudoir defiance, standing tall and taut before her full-length dressing mirror, fondling and caressing those babies and tabulating her assets before committing herself to paper. “I mean, I’m sorry to hear you lost your…”

“Tsk, I didn’t lose anything, I shed a dead-end relationship. Rachel le Pointe was my ticket out of five years’ going through the household motions, overnight. I just grabbed the brass ring at the time.”

Eclipse’s fountain flowed and slapped harder than ever; upstairs ivy drooped down an extra tier, tea-ed off dancers commenced groping and hanging on one another, vodka tonics spilling over gabardine shoulders, Rob Roys trickling down the backs of perfumed lace and chiffon. HRE’s atrium went positively glassy eyed by the time Regency’s songbird broke into ‘Two Sleepy People’, though slobberying tea and sympathy wasn’t what I had in mind at the moment—drooling, maybe but…

“Real loser, or what,” I probed, sensing some sort of opening.

“Arthur’s a very successful personal injury lawyer, we used to come here sometimes, for a weekend rendezvous,” she said wistfully. “Our split-level’s on Grizzly Peak in the Berkeley Hills—or should I say, his split level.”

“Hmph, I thought the wife usually got the property,” I pictured her thumbing her narrow Anglo-Saxon nose at Mr. Esteemed Counsel and stormily signing her consent decree down beside Mansion West’s bunny-shaped pool and diving in altogether. Hef probably went ape over Rachel, too, that strong, aristocratic demeanor of hers—the whole erotic concept of her hyphenated fall from grace. Probably set her against oversize satin pillows and wall-to-wall Persians, crimson comforters and queen-size brass—an Edwardian armoire flowing with velvet and sultry plumes. Had to dig up that back issue. “Any kids, or…”

“Get serious, airbrushing is one thing, but Hef has this thing about stretch marks. “No, I just walked away. It wasn’t the property I was after, it was the freedom…”

“Sure, what else,” I nodded. As if retouchers could find a single stretch mark on that statuesque frame of hers to save their bleepin’ jobs. Just pancake that chiseled chin, arch those noble brows. Then crank up the reflectors and strobe umbrellas and probe those light meters and camera lenses over her over her at will, down that sculpted bronze torso, those pool slendered hips, between those long, aerobically toned thighs. Me too, I’m a photographer, I could do that…“So, here you be, free, white and San Franciscan…”

“Yes, indeedy,” she allowed, as though slightly chagrined by her candor. “Maxed out on my credit cars and burned out on straight San Francisco men, wherever they are hiding, if not in therapy—tsk, why am I telling you this?”

“Who knows, could be ’cause I’m such a hayseed.” Harmless, hell, I could just as easily be ramming my Nikon up her…through those…on the beach, between the silky sheets. Spread out on a fishnet hammock, back curved over a leather hassock, black as this couch here. A passionately remote up in Banff, down on the Bayou, pose her straddling fences, climbing the walls—baby in the bathwater, momma in the mood. Sure, art direct her too, those tight little buns, total creative control: tweak those garters and niplets, fluff that magnificent auburn crescent. If creepy Hef could do it, damn straight so could…smooth as silk…

“My, we do learn fast, don’t we,” she replied, brow arched, pursing her naked, glossy pouting lips.

“Really…” Ahem, treading lightly here, in plain ol’ oxford cloth and cords. Just wait’ll you get a gander at my telephoto lens—really, check it out, babycakes… “So exactly what kind of man are you, you know, longing for?”

“Sorry?” she arched, rising from the squishy leather sofa, staring me straight on down. “Oh, oh—puleeze…”

“What? I…” Oops, oh shit, wrong F-stop, shutter slamming shut. Don’t say silky, you don’t really mean silk…

“You…twerp! Taking advantage of a professional relationship. I can’t believe this, and if you want any more from me, scrounge up a back issue of Playboy, like all the other little hand jobs out there.”

With that, the atrium seemed to erupt, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen racing about to douse an inferno of electrical fires up and down the hotel’s tiers, Holden and Wagner chasing after Faye Dunaway, towering fire department choppers air lifting full elevator capsules out of harm’s way, O.J. Simpson hurdling after a getaway rent-a-car. And that had to be Mel Brooks and Harvey Korman up there, the good doctors high on anxiety, pursuing Nurse Diesel tier to tier, blessed Victoria no far behind. Hitchcock must have been turning vertiginously in his grave by then. For that matter, my head was spinning just the same.

“Valerie, please…wait,” I beseeched, as she rose, turned on her heels and clicked off toward Eclipse. “Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t…”

“It’s Rachel, to you,” she scowled, spinning sharply back around, that auburn hair flaming across her reddening flawless face.

“Come on, hold up a second, will you,” I sprang to attention, beckoning after her vapor trail, the Regency songstress crooning ‘Can’t We Talk It Over?’. “Didn’t mean anything like that, I was just playing, you know, devil’s advocate…”

“But of course you didn’t,” she smiled sardonically, “just a figment of your teeny-weeny imagination…”

“Sure—what? Let me help you with that,” I motioned toward her briefcase, catching two convening insurance brokers squarely between their portfolios.

“Don’t trouble yourself, farmhand, just do me one little favor…”

“Whatever you say,” I stammered. “Maybe we can meet again in the morning and go over more clients and sort through this Prism stuff.”

“Try not to prick your stubby little fingers on the staples.”

“Yeah, hilarious,” I wiped my forehead and clutched my photo lab envelope as she impatiently tapped her espadrilled toe, thinking what a thing to say, particularly so soon after Veterans Day. “Uh, about my payment for the store write-ups…”

“Take it up with Nolan from here on,” she again turned away, but not before handing me a slip of paper. “But I do have one thing for you. Some woman named Sydney left a message. Something about an unveiling, she wants you to contact her about it. Here, I jotted down her number. Incidentally, that phone service is strictly for Prism business, you know…”

There she left me sucking someone else’s cigarette smoke. Tough dame, tall, too—whew, they grow them tall out here, tough, too. I froze helplessly as she parted a sea of forgathered commodity brokers and habitual tea dalliers more than halfway in their cups, vanishing somewhere past Eclipse, apparently headed for the ladies’ convenience. The sculpture’s fountain flowed on, its soft, soothing rivulets strengthening against an orchestra waning toward set break, sounding more and more like torrents over the precipice, cascades over the falls.

Suddenly the Regents’ rollicking segue into ‘Goody-Goody’ went beyond sweet remembrance to syrupy revulsion, regardless of how Pops had reverently dedicated the damn ditty to Wingy Manone. Before I could sit down and more or less collect myself, a school of consulting geologists buried themselves in the squishy brown leather and began excavating side orders of guacamole and Margaritas. Once the concierges’ desk took to paging a tour group from Osaka, and Mrs. Candy’s emptied quicker than a box of Fudge Royale, HRE’s atrium became a bit too cosmopolitan for me. I fled for the escalators, two gazebo elevator capsules dropping heinously toward me as I raced past some networking systems analysts down the drum-rolling mechanical stairs to Hyatt’s valet doors, stuffing the photoprints into my camera bag like a Fed Reserve courier gilt-edge bonds, fearful of what Nolan Anderle would make of this one.

“Taxi! Double for SFO!!”

“Move that limo, will ya? We got three busloads of Japanese tourists ready to divebomb here any minute!”

The bellhops’ wailing and pipe whistles so distracted me that I nearly lost it to one of those arriving tourbuses the moment I stepped out HRE’s sliding doors into a teeming two-lane vehicle reception port. The hotel traffic stopped me cold; however it was the four-star Examiner headline that froze me on the Hyatt’s circular sidewalk. A two-deck head, black Franklin Gothic characters that hit the streets with an almost spurious Hearstian tabloid improbability: that the U.S. Embassy had completed its inspection of Jonestown, found it ‘primitive’ to say the least, ‘Father’ Jones wobbly and wearing shades and a gauze mask to protect against government invasion and jungle dangers untold—claiming nobody appreciated the great revolutionary agricultural experiment he was leading down there.

That was too weird to even think about, so I didn’t, instead lighting out between clanging in and outbound California Street cable cars that nearly rang my bell for good. I cut over to Market Street, running full stride past P.G.&E. Headquarters, camera bag slamming against my rib cage like a wrecking ball against a wall. The sweating and pounding were enough to give me pleurisy, the week’s hot spell giving way to a damp, chilling wind through downtown highrises that was turning on me as I raced across Beale.

Stiffing me like that, what was her problem?! Don’t cut your fingers on the staples—uuu-up hers. Sure, she can lay it out there for a skin rag, but all of a sudden she’s Ms. Social Propriety. Right, she only did it for the freedom, only let those cameras crawl all over her to break free from the bondage of Berkeley’s hills! So what does that make me, some porno pervert in a trench coat? Scrounge up the magazine—where the hell did she get off? Look, honey, just ’cause you’re ravishing doesn’t mean you can be so rude, or was that whole deal simply a ruse to receive without delivering in pay trade? Naw, stooge, don’t think about that one, either…

Then again, wow—I did just get blown off by a Playmate of the Month, for crissake. Yeah, that and two-bits will get you on the MUNI… Now where was that McDonald’s Bookshop again?

Care for more?

Chapter 90. Promising a quick
downtown getaway, a ride out to the
heights of Parnassus becomes a
streetcar named return fire…

“Give and take, no strings
but attachments bog things down,
may free markets ring.”

“Where you been?”

“Somewhere north of the 38th parallel, that’s all I can tell. You?”

“Sittin’ right here, takin’ care of some business.”

Scribbling, denoting and annotating away, I had wandered back over from Reyland Gallery to a dusky Union Square, then down Maiden Lane, collecting any last Prismatic thoughts and views for the day. I passed stores of English country collections of rare 17th and 18th century Oriental porcelain, painted wallpapers and lacquerware. Oriental themes carried me up Grant Avenue, curated troves of Koryo age celadon vases, Tang Dynasty bronzes, of Shan Dynasty jade, Chou Dynasty chart bells, even a life-size Ming gilt bronze of some lotus Buddhist heavy named Kwan Yin. Such an odd place to ponder the distance that had so quickly built between Syd and me, how adroitly she had jettisoned me from the Moonscape as she saw it, then still seemed to remote control my earthy descent.

Nevertheless, here each gift shop seemed ruled by stolid Asian elders in off-rack gray suits, all business, hard bargaining at the ready. Show windows were crammed with rosewood buffets and altar tables, intricate brass handwarmers, Siamese silk scrolls. Serpentine embroidered obi in stores such as the Far East Trading Company delivered me like the Marco Polo trail unto Bush Street and Chinatown’s dragon-crested, step-roofed gateway, past its sentinel stone foo dogs, fully into a world away.

Grant Avenue closed in tighter, pearl parlors and jade emporia clamored to either side of the country’s oldest Chinatown, to where I once again avoided my rumpled reflection in shop window displays for Canton and Cathay bazaars, their sun-splashed chokin platters, mother of pearl condiment sets and burnished jade eggs. I edged up and down curbsides to avoid tourist clusters window shopping Manchurian tapestries, intricate lace tablecloths and those massive purple and gold porcelain bowls. Asian visitors oogled soapstone jewelry boxes and carved mah-jongg sets as though they couldn’t find this stuff a bit closer to home. I’d have asked them, but didn’t come close to speaking the language, was just thankful I didn’t have to shoot or write about this stuff. Putting Syd’s paintings into words promised to be far tough enough.

North of California Street, Chinatown locals pressed into markets and curio/spice shops, tourists be damned. It was as if the cable car line, whirring like a hellish dental drill, and Old St. Mary’s Cathedral were a DMZ between obliging show and workaday greased elbows. I stepped aside for old Confucians with scraggly goatees, faces like age rings on the trunk of a venerated Banyan tree, nearly shinnied up one of DuPont Gai’s red and green Chinese lantern streetlights to avoid a stout young mother lugging a half-dozen orange plastic grocery sacks with a mop-headed little gang of four in tow. Which somehow got me to wondering how Mister Vanro Market had fared, curious that it mattered so much, when I still didn’t even know the man’s name, and have studiously avoided the Chestnut-Van Ness street corner ever since. Yet maybe that entire turn of events is helping me right the ol’ fathership, even proving to be a healing breeze through the family tree…

As trade and traffic intensified, main street PRC seemed to narrow schlerotically under blaring, inscrutable white-on-red signage, double-parked delivery trucks, a Cantonese alphabet wonton of fish markets, vegetable stands and low-rate savings and loans. I paused in a Far East Bakery to score several spring rolls and black bean-noodle puffs for the walk, then pressed onward through delegations of elders in Mao happy coats, dollar store black silk trousers, wisdom caps and kung-fu shoes, some women with umbrellas up, not a cloud in the sky. They were picking through bins of rice candy and odorous greens, trying out feather fans and bamboo backscratchers, busily fingering petite-point silk purses, black lacquered abacuses and hand-carved ivory from Lokapala and Hunan.

“TCB, me too, at least I think so,” I said, heavy of breath. “Just got a little disoriented out there..”

“I’ll bet, one of your spells, huh? Like how you flake out at night sometimes.”

“Dunno about that, but it did feel like I was tying one on in Taiwan for a while…”

A smoke-windowed black Mercedes had shot up Washington Street to Waverly Place, an alley by any other name, essentially two blocks of recondite alliances, associations and accountancies. The limo had apparently left an Empress of Shanghai gathering—that renowned red and gold restaurant atop the majestic China Association Building, which overlooked Portsmouth Square. Perhaps the sleek S-class was speeding to a policy meeting of the Ning Yung, Ying Fat or Oong Family, if not Hop Wo Sam Tuck: Benevolent groups dating back to Chinatown’s original Six Companies, governing powerhouses established to assist and defend, to buffer the culture shock of Gold Rush and railroad coolie labor, of cops delivering sex slaves to the brothels.

Waverly and other hilly side streets were cramped warrens of acupuncture clinics, herbalists, tour agencies, Reishi dispensaries, dark curtained sweatshops and hookah dens—a crush of Oriental architecture running into one another in impenetrable right angles. It was as though a giant Godzilla vacuum had sucked all the easements and air out of Chinatown, leaving straited, teeming blocks of appliqued eave roof styles, corrugated steel canopies and narrow, iron-railed balconies. Brightest of colors in the tightest of spaces: everywhere were radiantly tiled cornices, parapets and polished silver anchor plates, intricately carved, recessed and fenestrated window moldings. Sinocized storefront facades bore rice white, red and green coffered soffits and black-on-yellow columns framing sun faded orange awnings, entire blocks latticed with multi-colored, laundry draped upstairs fire escapes, or brilliant ironwork flagged with Year-of-the-Horse bunting.

Mandarin red cornices, gilt-trimmed dentils, scroll columned porticos—occasional globe lights illuminated gold lettering engraved into friezes, marbled door frames and pagoda rooflines —loggias lined with flower boxes, incense pots and lotus-shaped lanterns. Along side streets like Spofford and Ross Alley, Hong Kongers prowled for properties with suitcases full of cash, largely protected by armed, black-suited entourages, for things were still tense in Chinatown over last year’s Golden Dragon Restaurant massacre. There stocking-masked Joe Boys ganged up on Wah Ching and Hop Sing rivals with assault weapons, mowing down innocent tourists and Sunday diners instead. Cops said it was a tong war turf rivalry over running Golden Triangle slam for the triads. Who could or dared tell even now, for the tagger kids looked meaner than the last 20 minutes of a Bruce Lee flick, shrimp boys cupped their smokes in doorway after doorway, all gelled and leathered up.

Nevertheless by Jackson Street, I was lost in the trancelike chants piping out of meat and produce markets, the thick aroma of dim sum and pot stickers; of Mu-Shu, Subgum Suey and shark fin from packed Canton and Hunan restaurants. Yet that was where I took leave of the gai lon, lobok and bok choy bins, the drippy, hanging ducks, the stacked metal cages of live pullets and roasters. I’d had my fill of striped mullet split open snout to tailfin, slabs of shad and boiled cuttle, the black fish gills gasping and fins flapping in bloody tentacle and entrail clogged gutters before curb-squatted smokers. I instead turned down toward Columbus Avenue, to one more dynasty and a pre-arranged appointment—one predicated less on nicety than necessity…

“So, what kind of business?” I asked, having picked him out through the smoke and laconic, confessional Sinatra.

“What business is it of yours,” Eric grinned, between guzzle and drag. “A joke, get it? But you’ll find out about it soon enough.”

This particular venue wasn’t my idea; it was his idea on my idea, somewhat common ground. Donny’s Dynasty reigned on Kearny, just off Columbus between Jackson and Pacific, on the edges of Chinatown proper and the Barbary Coast, in the shadow of that soaring Transamerica Pyramid. Donny’s was a forbidding little cocktail lounge with a plaster of Paris pagoda front and beet red Mandarin tiles behind its snarling sea serpent doorway. Smaller overhead Chinese lanterns flashed the Dynasty name in green neon characters—Donny’s being one of the very few gin huts in and around a Chinatown apparently predisposed to pouring rice wine in the privacy of its benevolent clubs and pai gow parlors. That left a dive like his to marginal Asians too sheared from their community moorings to care much about appearances or associations; tourist drunks looking for a glow-on in exotic surroundings, the slithery Far East gay crowd, much less adrifters like us.

“Okay, then why here?”

“’Cause it’s good neutral ground,” Eric said, holding down a vinyl swivel stool nearest the door. “Nobody nosin’ around, no questions asked—you know, like in ‘Chinatown’.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t see Jake and Mrs. Mulray confabbing in here anytime soon…”

“Hey, you’re the one who called for a meet-up.”

Inside, Donny tended from behind a red leatherette and formica bar, pacing and puffing away, from this front end and two rear corner denizens in a blaze of chest hair and rattling gold chains. Twinkling green and red Christmas tree lights vined all around the Dynasty, along with dim little Chinese lanterns keeping that kept filagree-flocked wallpaper, dark Masonite panelling, nicotine-filmed mirror tiles and a black/gold ceiling on the morbid down low. All the better for obscuring Donny’s plumpy, erotic figure study framed over his back bar, and Chinese cherub nudie paintings scattered between plastic hanging planters and shoots of bamboo.

But singularly illuminated was a faux gold plaster Buddha enshrined center lounge. Fat bellied, floppy eared, his scale model temple was emblazoned with gold inscribed scrollwork, red sashes and tassles festooned about him, tiny lions and serpents at his feet. Silkscreened tapestries bearing cranes, junks and lilypads encased this barroom Buddha, brass incense burners and small Chinese lanterns enhanced his spiritual presence. Only closer scrutiny revealed a brassier plate on the shrine’s base: ‘Happy New Year from Tsingtao Beer’.

That had me nixing a draught altogether, as did some shadowy confab at a rear metal table, having to do with a black silk kimonoed comfort gal named Heidi and an AWOL sailor still drydocked from Fleet Week, who were dickering over the jukey melodies of Julie London and Nina Simone. Then flip-flopped Indonesian gay boys in Waikiki shirts pumped Donny’s three-for-a-quarter box full of Don Ho, Shawn Cassidy and Jerry Vale, swooning onto the linoleum dance floor with an off-Broadway bi-way bombshell who detonated twice-nightly before clammy Chi-Chi Club crowds. That was when I coaxed Eric into jumping ship from the Dynasty—no drink, no minimum, no more busybody questions asked.

“Okay, then let’s hit the Beach,” Eric belched, before mopping up his draught Yanjing wheat, cool and heavy to the tongue. “Or what’s left of it…”

“Left of what?”

“Left of everything.”

Right. From Donny’s,we needed someplace a little less neutralized, a bit more caffriendly and culturally…occidental. We upped our game along Columbus Avenue straightaway, until our tastes and differences came to the fore once more, sowing another round of mutual heed and misgivings.

Eric had mentioned the Greek Taverna as we crossed Pacific; I said no belly dancers. When I suggested the historic Albatross Saloon, with its flame mahogany, elegant stained glass and revolving punkah wallah overhead fans, Eric groused that the former Andromeda—once hangout of Jack Dempsey and Baby Face Nelson—was now way too pretentious. Where he opted for Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe’s bohemian bent, its impious, seafaring depth, I saw smoky, waterlogged claptrap and anarchic Rabelaisian rabble secreted in a dark quarter alley.

“Pretty in your face territory here, huh,” I asked off topic, all eyes on Carol Doda’s blinking silicone peaks and valley as we crossed a throbbing Broadway.

“Just watch,” Eric pointed out, instead taking in the efforts of a sidewalk silhouette artist just beyond the Condor Club’s red-draped doorway, otherwise oblivious to the floorshow inside. “Before you know it, this Broadway strip’s gonna disappear.”

“You mean the skin shows?” I myself did peek through a side entrance, trying to catch a glimpse of Doda’s endowment and the fatal piano she’d writhe up and down on thrice nightly. “The Mob wouldn’t allow it…”

“Naw, man, Chinatown’s gonna swallow it all up like pasta fried rice,” Eric eyed the inevitable line outside Little Lucchio’s across Columbus. “Soon as the old guard dagos croak, their kids will sell their properties to the heaviest suitcase.”

“I dunno, still looks mighty Italian…” I winced and rather glanced up the dogleg to Grant Avenue.

“Yah, the ciao, ciaos will turn into chao, chows—Columbus Day parades will fade into Chinese New Years dragon dances all year ’round.”

I gestured back over Columbus to Vesuvio, Henri Lenoir’s other immutable plebian boheme creation—that muraled, cluttered, leaded glass-lamped den of literati and artistes, of Kerouac and Cassady, Dreiser and Kaufman, Dylan and Dylan—ghosting its gaslit back gallery and mezzanine of brainy, brooding turpitude. But Eric said making that degenerated scene had been beaten to death. I then wanted no part of Tosca, what with Sydney and all. He in turn said spelunking City Lights Bookstore’s radical recesses and creaky bowels in search of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Bukowski and subchaser-turned-stavechaser Ferlinghetti himself would bring on howling existential angst.

Still, I wanted nowhere near a rowdy biker brawl suddenly breaking out through the swinging doors of the 120 year-old, spittooned Saloon up on Grant. Which pretty much left the operatic excesses of Caffes Puccini and Roma beyond Vallejo, but Eric claimed he couldn’t stomach straight espresso and Verdi. So we turned off Columbus, cleaved past the long Green Street wait line for calamari platters at Caffe Sport, decided against the shot and beer, swinging pool cue belligerence of Gino and Carlo. Or the slightly less pugilistic, old-school USF baseball shrine that was Dante Benedetti’s New Pisa restaurant.

Heads besotted with garlic and Graffeo,we rounded the corner on upper Grant, reckoning with that Beat Generation beacon once known as the Coffee Gallery, a 50s folksinging and poetry slammer where so many legendary beats broke through. Its seminal spacehad long been recast as the Lost and Found Saloon,neighbored byItalian deli’s and remnants of aged shoemaker and hardware stores.But the prospect of serious conversation in a dusty, decrepit bar crammed with stoplights, railroad crossing signs, a barber’s chair, dredged boat hull and full-dress ’52 Harley hog, was quickly lost on both Eric and me. So we headed across Grant, in the Telegraph Hill shadow of Coit Tower, to our last, best hope for productive chinwag.

“So, how is it you ended up tooling by Chinatown?”

“Aww, had a Chinese guy do some engine work on my Porsche, that’s all.”

“Which one?” I couldn’t make the Asian-German connection.

“The blue one…

“So that’s why you were meeting him at Donny’s?”

“Naw, with the body and fender beaner from L.A. who was drumming up business in the Marina lot, remember?” Eric re-checked a paid receipt. “Had to cover him for some touch-up he did on the heap in an abandoned Mission garage. Needed to get that baby all ready for the prom.”

“What, another show date with the Iranian gas station?”

“Nope, with another Porsche joneser, think I’ve really sold that sucker this time,” he gloated, kissing his written receipt, pocketing the fold over. “Cash gonna be my ticket out of the Triangle for good.”

Exceptionally mild as this early November was, we snagged a freed-up corner table ‘on the veranda’, settling into wire-back chairs under some palms, half brown-dead or tinfoil though they were. For the Savoy Tivoli was an in and outdoor cafloon, had been since 1907—some three generations of social deviance and unrequited rebellion. Its al fresco porch afforded an eye and beakful of storied North Beach along car clogged Grant Avenue. Bay windows spilled down toward the Transamerica Pyramid, thru a deli rush of hanging salamis and antipasti insalata, of tortas, canestrelli, cantuccini alla mandorla. Rightward, sourdough wafted our way from an Italian bakery just across Union Street.

Tivoli blended a boot-heel bohemian and Moroccan décor, lots of serpentine sculpture and rickrack, with degassed marquee signage that had evolved into a conceptual word artpiece of chianti red and pasta yellow lettering to match its entire three-story Victorian motif. We scanned its ragged, drink-stained menus under cantina lighting, dimmed by the scored mosaic shades of a black wrought-iron fixture twisting like some snared squid overhead.

A ponytailed bar waiter in water-stained white coat and black pointed ankle boots took our meager Peroni and Perrier order, which earned us the unveiled contempt of Savoy’s cappuccino/tiramisu crowd. Those fulminating veranda regulars openly mainlined dopple and four-shot espressos, insidiously infiltrating with their Gauloises and Marengo Legato fumes: All around us, they labored intensely over their brainchildren until their ears steamed over, life oeuvres and thunderstrikes of creative insight—significant postulates, substantive prose, or crosswords, cyphers and cryptographic conspiracies over Toscanello Grappas from Mario’s Cigar Store. Most copped a pose and leer like resident boulevardiers.

“Speaking of the Marina, that was some nightmare in Gashouse Cove, huh?” I finally albeit reluctantly brought it up. “I really haven’t wanted anywhere near the lot since then—see no evil, hear no…but here we are…”

“Well, you knew Gary was IDed, right? Coroner could tell from the fingerprint shortage. But F.D. Rescue found his body floating like a rubber ducky, slit ear to ear, stump stuffed in his piehole.”

“No lie,” I asked uneasily, picking at a crusty Camus paperback left on the small brown marble-top table. “So who do you figure, the pitbull guy, or…”

Behind us all, a blackboard menu wall bore the bill of fare in multicolored chalk, such as Veal Toscana and calzone turnovers, Garden Salad Nicoise, anise-flavored Buccelato pastries, Espresso Liegeoise on the side. But we were having none of it, Eric soon slugging his Peroni by the bottle—he could do that, he was buying—me wedging lime into my water. Still, the accelerated dosages of caffeine, of the Cointreau and absinthe around us had me contact high on the dead Beat days gone by. Visions of the Coffee Gallery’s searing free ‘Speak Nights’ over there, of redigging bongo players outside the Place and Bagel Shop, firing up at the Tea Room, with low-rent Italian landladies plodding down Grant for fresh pasta and millefoglia. Goateed, Panama hatted cats bopped to Rexroth’s poetry set to Pony Poindexter’s alto sax; citing Corso chapter and verse down in the Jazz Cellar. Coolio, daddy-o, retro-groovin’ on Ochs and Odetta, Doc Watson, the Weavers, Ian & Sylvia and Kweskin’s jugs—vin rose rotgut, Mary Jane in hand—gone, man, real gone…

“Naw—had to be Crabber Don, somehow got the drop on Gary, likely pistol-whipped the hell out of him with Jezebel II—you know how crazy wasted that asshole got. Probably drove the bread truck over to the cove, figuring on sinking it in the fairway to make the deed look like just another drunken accident.”

“And you think he got away with that? To Placerville or someplace? I mean, I haven’t seen him around there…”

“Where you been, man? You haven’t heard about that either?” Eric studied me, chin to puckered brow. “Park cops eventually found his ass, too—strung up in the middle of the train tunnel, by a grapnel and bowline.”

“What?! Suicide or…” I took delivery of our drinks, not actually wanting to hear any more.

“C’mon, Crabber was too brain-dead to pull that off. Ask me, it musta been General Ripcord—you know, avenging a fellow Vietnam vet. Scumbags got what they got ’cause they got what they got, that’s all there is to it.”

Yet all that beret banjo jive soon dissolved in a Gitane cloud of tonight’s cafe society. Theirs was less verbal than visual, trending more theatrical and artifice than earnestly cerebral ban-the-bomb concern; life being oh, so casual cabaret—just too hip for words. Essentially, a faceless crowd of striking faces, deadly expressive, seriously devoted to lighting and angle. They posed and postured in jewelled scarves and embroidered vests, flowing capes over Capezios over Danskins and scads of Lyle Tuttle tattoos —with tossing of heads, clawing at hair, stroking of beards as they picked at Valencia Orange Cake and Orlean Filbert Torte. Making the scene, yawning through Rolling Stone and the latest Guardian, their eyes rolled as they blew perfumed smoke rings into outer Savoy’s yellow air, jellies and dude buckskin boots propped breezily atop the low front wall, which was of course what made it all so neo-cool. Although it wasn’t until Lost and Found’s blues band came off break across the street and cranked up some godawfully loud John Lee Hooker that we decided we could no longer even think straight out here.

“Guess that’s as good an explanation as any,” I said guardedly, nursing my spring water and lime. “At least it likely wasn’t somebody like L.T. or Mrs. Coupe de Ville.”

“Tell you something about L.T.,” Eric replied, guzzling his water with no such circumspection. “I swear I overheard him and a couple of plainclothes dicks when I was kickin’ it down low, baggin’ z’s in my car. That con’s gotta be in their pocket to stay off probation, man. Feedin’ ’em dope on those park killings and shit. And that ain’t the only dope he’s dealin’ in. Yah gotta watch that dude.”

“Whoa, I thought he was just living off Kathy’s threads,” I said, over the clanging of cups and silverware, and flowing of karafes—let alone a strained fusion of music hanging in three-part disharmony about the piazza.

“That what you really think about it?” He nodded to the waiter, who scooped up a check tray containing several crumpled bills with a noticeable frown.

“What do you mean? I just wonder what the police make of it…”

“What do the cops care? Just a couple more scumbags outta their hair.”

Thereupon, we grabbed our drinks and skulked past our sharp staring waiter into Savoy Tivoli’s alter ego, a space where that old-guard beat generation could still pipe up at the barricades, and not that many current hipsters would notice. Beyond the outer bar, in through sliding glass doors, around more foil palm trees, we passed a gurgling marble fountain and spoke-wheeled pastry cart. Smudged wall portraits of Napoli and Palermo framed ST’s inner casbah, between pedestaled faience nymphettes dancing lewdly between filigree wall lamps with confectional orange bulbs. No largos, malaguenas or fjiri and andalusi nubah rocked the music track, more a mishmash of New Riders, Eagles, and Silk Degrees, with a smattering of British and New York progrock on the Seeburg throughout. Not to mention the live balalaika-sampled music and poetry performances of Marina LaPalma.

Further along, if outer Savoy had a pilsen glow about it, the inner Tivoli’s Spanish brick and tile side was Moretti malt. Beneath the nymphettes was a row of deep, sequestered booths, their doorways draped in India print and Turkish tassels. Dim, private stalls actually, framed by Moorish crown archways trimmed with gold-lacquered minaret spires. Inside each were onetime suit vested, pork-pied pipers in tar black sunglasses, and their bejewelled, saraped and discreetly tattooed lemans—who indiscreetly shuttled ivory-tipped Dinos and foul little brass pipes around cigarette-scarred tables. Their world-beaten beaus cavalierly splashed Vov or Punt e Mes against the maroon and okra paisley booth walls, off dusty Moroccan murals and Raphaelite busts, blowing smoke through overhanging peacock plumes. Coarse billows of sinister, contraband smoke rose rife with pungent hashish and homegrown Mendocino ganja, copious little hookah nests that they were.

“You come here a lot, do you,” I asked, eager to get off topic, this melanged casbah proving to be a bit too murky and conspiratorial for my tastes.

“Naw, I more hang out at the Saloon. Straight up blues, you know—live, no cover. Get down, funky as you wanna be. Why’d we come up here again?”

“Uh, well, we have gathered here today to…you remember, that little loan…”

“Oh, yeah,” he chugged down his Peroni, slamming the bottle on a table center room. “Let’s blow this place. I’m parked down at Pacific and Montgomery, near Ernie’s.”

“Anything you say, Eric, you’re the man…”

sr dingbats

We stomped out of Savoy’s ogee arched side door to the blare of a granular ‘Dead at Giza’ cover from Lost and Found’s houseband. Yet I couldn’t help looking back at Tivoli’s brimming piazza, then the L&F barflies hooting and rocking barely a butt’s throw across the way. How lively other upper Grant cafes, shops and watering holes had become, such concentrated street-wise raucousness and revelry pouring out from bay-windowed floors up and down either side. Dumbstruck by all the smoke, sauce, dark roasteries and musical din, the shlock shops, Afghan rug and Tibetan doll and drum galleries, we stopped in at Caffe Trieste for a pull con panna and latte with the caffeine sotted, glassy eyed bards and balladeers—the center of Bohemian culture, where Coppola had penned ‘The Godfather’, for godsakes. Then we proceeded to down them at a wobbly tiled table just outside.

“So how much we talkin’?”

“I dunno, Eric, maybe fifty would do it,” I nervously stirred my caffe, going about this against my better judgment, ‘Aida’ sounding through Trieste’s storefront speakers, echoing off a St. Francis of Assisi church, there across Vallejo.

“Fifty large?” he choked on an espresso he’d ordered up despite himself. “What’n the hell…”

“Just until I get paid,” I handed him one of Prism’s business cards from my sport jacket pocket. “I’m good for it—here…”

“Park Avenue,” Eric scoffed, licking the hazel foam from his upper lip. Oh, I get it, you’re wantin’ me to bankroll your bail-out to New York.”

“No, that’s just where they’re headquartered, this is all going on here and down in L.A.,” I realized how iffy that sounded, even as I spoke. “See, it’s a big new coast-to-coast operation, ground floor, the real deal.”

“Real steal’s more like it,” he sighed, drawing a tooled wallet from his Ben Davis blacks, tucked inside it a star-shaped object, like a toy sheriff’s badge or something. “This really sucks, you know that? First my dog gives out on me, now you’re hittin’ me up for a getaway stake…what’s your story, anyway?”

“Totally temporary, believe me, to get me over the hump for film, processing, stuff like that…”

“Sheeit, here,” Eric peeled off three 20s, apparently from another deposit on his blue 912. “I’d take your Volvo as collateral if it was worth anything, probably should be tackin’ on points.”

“Thanks a heap, Eric…I mean if there was any other way, I’d…”

“So you owe me again,” he looked at me sternly, as we rose to move on. “Just stay around where I can keep tabs on you, or I’ll put out a contract…”

“C’mon, I’m parked right next to you again, aren’t I? Where’m I gonna go,” I grinned, poking on his shoulder. “Wanna head down to your car, or…”

“No, man—I’m bookin’ over that way,” he lit up a Lucky, then gestured past the La Pantera family cafe to the boisterous Saloon at Fresno Street. “Dig me some freebie Naftalin and Gravenites first—then maybe grab a sourdough burger at the U.S. Restaurant.”

“Cap it off with some good ol’ American cuisine, huh?”

“Naw, dufus, the U.S. stands for Unione Sportiva, their old hometown football club in Palermo. Catch you back at the lot…”

“You got it,” I shook his hand like a pump handle, vest pocketing the bucks. “Right back there at the Marina lot.”

There I left him, looking like he’d had enough of me for the evening, feeling I’d had enough of this money thing clouding everything up. Across Grant Avenue, I begged off the natural blues, in favor of the jazzier riffs of Cedar Walton and Kenny Elmore, Flip Nunez and Eddie Duran sitting in, around the corner at Ray’s Lounge. When a bartender closed the curtains on Ray’s front windows, I shuffled past a sliced pizza shop and Taj Mahal belly dancers’ floorshow, dodging two hot-blooded Italian bombshells in lean leather slacks.

The Condor seemed to second that, some upright honky-tonker playing a speed-up of Randy Newman’s ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ in there behind the curtains as Carol Doda unveiled another of her ample evening performances. I begged off, albeit with an eye toward her blinking knobs, turning down Broadway, bound for a Kearny bus stop, noticing the Clarion rack in front of a next door news stand and cigar store, skin deep in pawed over hardcore porn rags and asundry after-hours apparatuses and paraphernalia. The early bird edition boldly claimed that Dan White was indeed resigning from the Board of Supervisors, citing personal monetary pressures or something. Enough with that City Hall soap opera, already; I had my own shortfalls to cover.

But from there on, Broadway was a blinding, unabashed blur. How the clean-cut cardigan folkiness of the Kingston and Chad Mitchell Trios had bitter ended this way without protest was beyond my flat-top and fenders recollection. Collegial, bare brick chantries like the Purple Onion and Hungry i had sold out like the trios themselves to a hootenanny of nudie shows. The bright, bawdy lights of Broadway marqueed the revolving, great white bulbs of Big Al’s, Roaring 20’s, the Garden of Eden and now sad, Hungrier i. Coked up barkers and their bareback bimbos pushed the latest topless, bottomless, limbless and mindless stage shows in behind those passionate red curtains. Exotic, sexsational live love acts fleshed out by men-women, women-men, women-women, men-men, human-animal, vegetable and plenty of polyunsaturated minerals on stage, under stage, on pianos, under the influence, on cue, under duress—all workin’ hard for the money, well below the going rate at that, even throwing in the whips and chains.

Lusty stripper starlets and budding porn queens beckoned flat daddies, sailors and loners like me in for the touchy-feelie best of the Broadway encounters. Filmier fetishers were ushered into tacky floored theaters that ran ‘Deep Throat’ and ‘The Devil In Miss Jones’ continuously on the come. Even shadier acts were playing out in the upstairs windows of Broadway’s floppy hotels, like above a huge midblock used bookstore packed with pulpy yellowed paperbacks and Desolation roadies. Theme music blared from each club, into an inferno of disco and ballsy stadium rock from wrinkled mastodons like Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant. Further along, Enrico’s open-miked a parade of unknown stand-up comics where Mort Sahl, Shelly, Woody, Cosby and Lenny once killed. The entire scene was getting pretty tired by now, all right—at least until that eruption across Broadway.

“Gag on your Stoner Liverpudly Fabmania, cretins! Your funky Eagle-shittin’ Journey is over. Step aside, gramps, our new mutant strain of pure bulldog rock blows away your corporate crock rock right here and now, so stop shovelin’ that treacly AOR of yours and go croak on your cocaine and caviar, ’cause we’re here now!”

On the other side, beyond a horning stream of darkened tour buses and hot rodding suburban thrill seekers, they had lined up long and petulantly outside a relative newcomer to the strip. Wearing disaffection and paranoia like honor badges, deeply into counter search and destroy: Everything was black and white with this crowd, chained and bound black denim and leather jackets, misfiring Pistols drawn with Rotten and Vicious patches flaming out everywhere, even on their ripped stovepipe jeans, down to their scuffled engineer boots and stiletto shoes. Heroin dead eyes, studded lids and chains from nostril to lobe, bitchin’ black streaks and razor cuts up through bleached or neon-dyed, Lady Liberty spikey hair—Ecstasy lost, MDA modulated or ‘ludes and Percodan bored to dehydrated tears.

These raw, affectively miserable punks were a downer scenario of pre-Wave rockers who couldn’t but reject all the mellow  arena glitter. It was the end of the 70s, the end of the century, and change was needed—real fast. They were withdrawn Iggy Pop underlings light on talent and direction, but heavy on energy and attitude. They’d blown past the misfiring Sex Pistols and grouped themselves into Voids, Vomits, Vktms, Punts, Strokes, Dickheads, Contractions, Living Corpses and Dead Kennedys, Stiff Little Fingers and been bouncing off the walls of this insurgent former Philippine supper club called Mabuhay Gardens, ruled by ‘Pope of Punk’ Dirk Dirksen. The fab Mab had been a slow, one-chord primitivist build until Britain’s Clashing Cars hit town and the incredible Ramones powered out loud and fast from already legendary CBGB, storming the Beachheads, rocking the Gardens. Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee pissed everybody off to OMFUG greatness, in a black and blue Bleecker Bowery way, and the Fab Mab had been packed and punch drunk ever since, Gothniks dancing like dervishes to revo-Devo noise and a stripped-down neo-beat.

I could easily hear the screeching of Boogie amps and breakaway bladerunner guitars from over here, feeling old and out of it enough to be cranking up the hearing aids. Their sheer numbers were seriously to speed, black tar and opiated coke—shooting up in Main Street in North Beach’s cozy little alleys and short-blocks—then zombifying around four-per-night trash bands until their brains fizzed out of multi-ringed and zircon posted ears. Still, I would have joined them in a New York minute if I’d had the requisite energy, alienation and outrage, because their ‘Psycho Therapy’ and ‘Hateful’/’Death Or Glory’ sounded so kick-ass fresh and alive. And they were the future—however dystopian that vision might have seemed. KALX to KUSF, the times, they were a-changin’ all over again.

So instead, I crossed Broadway like I should have been wheeling a walker, catching the gourmet pasta aromas from Vanessi’s; otherwise avoiding an orange Moonie girl peddling red roses and purple dogma on the opposite corner. Here was the very same block the Kingston Trio climbed on that album cover from way long ago, but it didn’t look as New Frontierland Panglossian this turn of the table.

Reality check, back to basics: Feeling all flushed and florid, I scrambled over to catch the 83 local, pounding on the bus’s window glass as it was closing doors and pulling away toward Van Ness and at that. Safely aboard via a long expired transfer, I tightly clutched my little wad and peered up and down Columbus Avenue while we crossed, Transamerica Pyramid to the North Beach nightlights, noting I was the only hoser on the motorcoach at the time.

Approaching Hyde Street and a rambunctious cable carload of sing-along tourists bound for Buena Vista Irish Coffees and Fisherman’s Wharf, I glanced up to Jackson, and that laundromat phone call outside Han Loon’s. Make a decision? Take a turn for the better? Where was that gettin’ you now, flash..and what were you about to do about it from here…

Care for more?

Chapter 89. A hotel hoedown 
             leaves a sinking sensation
            where it hurts the most…

“Pain is in the plans 
mainly brought on by oneself
the only way to go.”

“There, that’s one now…”

“One, where?”

“Coming around the corner, lugging that carton.”

“What? He looks about thirteen.”

“But a big thirteen. Must be from shlepping all his loot.”

The pinch was in tighter still. No sooner had Jason Guthrie and I forged somewhat of a system, shop-to-shop synergy, a measure of retail efficiency, than our nucleus up and split. Pen to paper at 125 words or less, no more than two frames per Prism: Californian client—got to where we read and picture each other’s minds as we soaked in the respective goods, wares and wherefores on Valerie’s updated rosters.

Then Nolan Anderle phoned up from Beverly Hills in crisis mode. Pre-press work on his latest Prism: New York edition was not progressing as planned, not at all up to Priapismatic standards—mechanicals out of signature, blue lines off register, ruby lith peeling away until the Miehle webmen were blue in the face. Anderle’s New York editor was tugging at her frizzy roots between her East Village studio and the Goshen printing plant. Time for Guthrie to red-eye back east to trouble shoot, as Nolan was driving Rodeo space sales like a steer roper possessed. So Jason left me in a bicoastal huff, with a list of remaining San Francisco clients, a modest expense advance, some warning words to write by, and my camera bag fully free and clear, to digest and disgorge further editorial makings of their rich, rococo confection called Prism: California.

“Wait, there’s another one…”

“What, where?”

“Coming around, toting a TV or something in that box.”

“Sheeit, he’s marchin’ right in like he owns the place.”

That was about where Eric came back in. Taking stock of my work/downtime yo-yo, he’d noted a move might be in order, Volvo accommodations duly noted and excepted. His city recon had yielded a valuable housing resource: namely the UC Medical Center’s bulletin board. Between Prism sorties, I drove up Parnassus to browse through Millbury Union’s wall of rentals, shares, lease takeovers, short terms and sublets, neighborhood by neighborhood, the length and breadth of San Francisco. The laissez-faire board served students and all comers, courtesy of the university campus. Combing through the Marina, Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow—anywhere within scouting and/or shouting distance of where I’d been thus far, I instead hit upon a curious index card for an offering much closer by.

In pinkish ink with sketchy daffodil borders, the 3×5 presented a Bay Area arrangement wholly new to me: housesitting. Seemed a teacher on semi-sabbatical needed someone to live in and look after her apartment for a month while she traveled to South America on a field trip: namely the main floor of a cheery and colorful Victorian near Buena Vista Park, on the eastern edge of Haight-Ashbury—a freebie for the right responsible person, just a phone call away. Ostensibly, the gig had much to recommend it, and the price sounded godsent, so I pounced on a nearby payphone, and here I be, a common social science background smoothing over any referential apprehensions. Eric offered to help me complete the logistical relocation over here. Lost and elliptical as he had seemed without Bruno lately, how could I refuse?

“Those dudes ain’t Robin Hoods, I’ll tell you that,” Eric replied, wiping the inside of my windshield for a better view.

“Just can’t figure it,” I shrugged, as I pressed my knees up against the Volvo’s dashboard. I clicked off a top-of-the-hour newsradio update “that Supervisor Milk had already claimed ballot box victory over the Briggs’ Amendment, while the POA and other Dan White supporters were rallying to keep ‘their boy’ from quitting on City Hall. This, while Proposition 13 was settled more firmly than ever as the law of California’s residential land”. “If they’re the ones, why the hell would they return to the scene of the…”

“Look, that first sucker’s knockin’ on the door.”

“I dunno Eric, it’s hard seeing through those trees…”

“He’s goin’ in, I’m tellin’ you. Sheeit, how’d you end up in this joint anyhow?”

Turned out the sitting involved an entire first floor in one of Baker Street’s very few gentrified two flats—all stripped and stained, refloored and otherwise restored by a couple of gentlemen upstairs, or gentlemen couple, as the case may have been. Margaret said she got on nicely with them because the were so quiet and considerate; they liked her because she always paid on the first and didn’t go nosing around. Besides, with new rent control restrictions on the horizon, they couldn’t evict her unless she leveled the place. Probably a good thing she was the unassuming sort, an aberrant behavior psychologist with a healthy disinterest in other people off the clock. On the other hand, could have been why she had so much time on her hands.

She avowed from the outset that her professional and personal search extended deep into the interior, mainly her interior reaches, and the flat fairly evidenced that much of her material plane was stacked up somewhere over SFO, or at least in a storage locker south of the Slot. Spare of furnishings, short on creature comforts, her space’s charm lay in legacy fixtures too fixed to spirit away. Tiled fireplaces, filagreed millwork, marble-top bedroom basins—otherwise the place was an ascetic wonderland, if not Regina Tzu’s all over again—albeit with a rehabbed flair.

Still, she arrayed lots of frayed Persians, and dead flowers decomposing in oxidized brass urns, which propped up the dozen or so volumes of Bhagavad-Gita. Not that Margaret limited her reflections to an Indian or Hindu mirror. For beyond the selected Fables of Bidpai, thick transliterations of Moksa and Para Bhakti, she appeared to have devoutly crusaded through the Tora, Tantra and 81 Taoist chapters of Lao Tsu. Well-tacked above suspect incense burners were full-color howling dervishes and assorted Tantric Yantras of Ten Mahavidyas, Kali clear through Kamla. To either side of her rear bedroom futon were divine scrolls of Allah, framed with calligraphed verses from the Quran—along with scattered volumes on Freud, Jung, Horney, Asch—and tattered, annotated DSMs.

Even someone so spiritually dense as I was could eventually pick up on her craving for Sufi. The little things betrayed her, like etched circles of the Tasawwuf, plotted with Shari ‘a on the circumference and haqiqa. Then there was the matted poster of the Ka’ba at Mecca, over the dining room mantel in 16thcentury tiles, or that Indication of the Brotherhoods chart down the hall. Scattered flow charts of Prakriti Tattuas and the Seven Chakras, with naughty little arrows on the Muladhara and Svadhishthana; riveting duotone photos of a Darqawi Rosary, not to mention her Tomb of Muhyi ‘d-Din ibn ‘Arabi near Damascus print in the foyer. Otherwise, about the only temporal pleasures Margaret appeared to allow herself were a stereo-tape clock radio and 17” color TV—reasons enough why Eric and I were running a shaky stake-out from an abandoned gas station across the way, here at the corner of Baker and Haight.

“I hit Millbury Union, just like you told me, Eric, only this set-up was cheaper than any of the postings.”

“That right,” he sneered, watching Hood number one scamper down Page Street toward Divisadero, cramming a sizable wad deep into his tube sock. “Don’t look so cheap to me.”

“Yeah, well, lucky me,” I fretted, focusing on the Victorian’s front doors for any plausible alibis, or at least reasonable doubt. “But I sure do appreciate your help…”

That had puzzled me from the get-go. Margaret’s Baker Street Victorian was anything but divey, however marginal the neighborhood overall. And it certainly wasn’t for lack of respondents: she said she was besieged by phone inquiries while we spoke. Harried, actually, to the point where she suddenly denounced decision making as an affront to her spiritual consciousness and slim little yoga flexed frame. Unshackling her spatial awareness, she simply flowed with the karmic configuration before her. In essence, I felt right to her, metier and metaphysically speaking; most of all, I was physically there.

In the bargain, my only obligation was two plastic bowls of kitty kale and kitty lentil, out on her back porch every third day, with a side dish of lactose-reduced acidophilus milk. This, for a cat unseen, damn thing probably had run off to join the catman’s cult in Aquatic Park for some feline vittles of the carnivorous kind. The rest of the gig was just gravy, make that miso humous, so I set up on a cot in the front room, closing a sliding parlor door for mutual privacy, and diverting me from any ethereal temptations in her flat from there back.

For Margaret’s kitchen was an undeniable feast for the senses. Scattered haphazardly among her Vedanta and Tassajara Zen posters, calendars for the Ten Karmas of the Mantras, were glass cannisters of millet, jicama, wehani, wakame, hijiki, Burdock root and dulce. Her basic brown Kenmore ice box was austerely adorned with 27-bead Sumirni Mala—the heavyweight model made of rudraksha seeds and fine-strand sumeru. Inside the fridge, all manner of cultures and microbes were propagating and carrying on.

So as downtown wore me and my wallet down, I nibbled further and further into her Saran-wrapped sacrificial offerings. Through the feta and falafel, the tahini and tamari and timbale au gratin tofu. After one particularly restive day of Prism words and pictures around Union Square, salons and galleries, I finally drooled into her kitchen for some back-shelf biopsies of kheema, kafta curry, fada-no pulau, nibbling at some Palak-Papdi Massala on an empty stomach, with a hit of kanki and jasmine tea. That’s about when my holistic heartburn set in; the next day, I came home to this.

“Oh, you do, huh,” Eric replied sarcastically, staring ahead across Baker Street for further signs of movement.

“Come on, you think I enjoy dragging you into it? After what you went through with Bruno and all that? If I had any other way, believe me…”

“That’s what I’m sayin’, why me?”

“What can I tell you, Eric? When I saw this break-in, you were the first person who came to mind, don’t ask me why.” A mind that was already preoccupied with concerns over my fractured relationship with Syd Mendel, a crystal shattered gentleman’s agreement with Nolan Anderle, and what to do about that iffy specter of Poppy Day with the splintered IRA.

Pure process of elimination, truth be told: Gary was gone, Crabber too—L.T. was way beyond approach, and who knew what had become of Sherry and Clifford, let alone Laine Blakely? Then we’d chased over here to Baker Street like my 122s rust box was a Porsche Targa, or at least one of Eric’s 912s. By now I’d nosed up to the windshield, resuming patrol, although neither of us could see the felons for those trees. It seemed easier to glimpse the manicured security of Pacific Heights parks and manors in the distance than this Victorian’s balustrade,and they were a world away. Sandwiched between the Haight and the Heights was this raw, leaner slice of paradise lost called the Western Addition, even though the course of human events here was far more subtractive.

Setting aside what Jerry Rafferty was presently singing on KYA radio, it wasn’t like this Baker was a bucolic tree-lined street, with rows of overhanging Elms. The truth was closer to isolated, mushrooming clumps along blanched arteries of rolling concrete. Naturally, there stood one hell of a pair of top-heavy acacia directly in front of the Victorian in question, the two largest trees between Haight Street and the Panhandle. For neighborhood dogs, they were the Kharga oasis; for neighborhood thugs they apparently represented Calcutta cover after dark.

“Christ, that can’t be the same kid,” I watched a gangly, Golden State-jerseyed street warrior disappear between the dual acacias, presumably up the Victorian’s front stairs. “He wouldn’t dare come back, and for what?”

Eric pulled a warm Coors from behind my front seats, popping a top. “He’s carryin’ another cardboard box yet—in broad daylight. They just keep springin’ up like fuckin’ cockroaches.”

“Well, he’s the same one, I’m sure of it,” I fumed, steaming my windshield, smearing its growing nicotine glaze. “The one I think I spotted tearing out our front door, same red and blue tube socks, same cardboard box, for crissake!”

Earlier on, my idea had been to finish up two lower Sutter Street galleries, then knock off for the day. And it was proceeding rather nicely, as I’d caught a 7-Haight bus before the rush hour snarls. Unfortunately, I could smell trouble the moment I lighted at Baker Street; for those little roaches were knocking poor Margaret off early, too. While other kids went out for football, or watched Donahue and cartoons, these after-schoolers opted to jimmy their way into her flat, crack her maya, yank her yin to the tune of a stereo and color TV. They also went so far as to lift her brass incense burners, and Vangelis tapes. The juvies didn’t even have the decency to close the refinished oak door behind them, an irritating detail that continued to eat at me as we sat stewing over this…this…gross violation of a personal space. There, I’d said it, Margaret couldn’t have stated any better, wherever she happened to be at the time.

“Cool it, will ya,” Eric lit a sawed-off Lucky Strike. “I mean, what the hell you gonna do about it?”

“Check it out, that’s what,” I grappled with my door handle, the cigarette smoke already secondarily gagging me to death.

“Are you for real? What if they’re junkies? With your luck, you’ll run into nose end of a shiv or Saturday night special, then what? You need an operative, you know? Incognito, like that—so how’s about I go?” He fully slugged the lukewarm Coors, belching like a bullhorn.

“Hey, I’m not laying this on you…” Another dial up of the radio brought a top of the hour newsbrief quoting Jim Jones to the effect that, “They don’t appreciate what we’ve done here, this new west, this paradise, this loving new city upon a hill. Over 280 million people are looking at us—got the eyes of the world upon us’. Vowing allegiance to the Soviet Union as Jonestown’s spiritual motherland, he claims they face a new Leningrad, holding off the American fascists. Nevertheless, the U.S. Embassy has announced its intent to inspect his Guyana compound”. But enough of that jungle temple crap, I had my own territorial infringement with which to contend.

How did I end up with me here in this Shelled out service station, anyway—spying on this shady Victorian in search of misappropriated property that I couldn’t call mine? Either I was boxing myself in tighter and tighter, or those little delinquents were parcelling my exculpatory proof out all over town. For all I knew, in on the deal could have been those Love Summer warlocks on the front stoop of that purple and gold Victorian down across from Margaret’s. The same bearded diggers who’d waved at me that they’d seen no evil, heard none either. The very same post-psychedelic charlatans who were now passing smoldering illicit sacraments around his carpeted front stair steps. Mainly to his velour-robed heifer harem, the lot of the grinning and waving toward us with smokin’ THC wisdom and guile. Looked like the whole goddamn block of shabbier Victorians was on the make, if not the take, but maybe that was just me…all I knew was if Eric was crossing Baker Street, he wasn’t going in alone.

“Weird, man, see that dude there,” Eric pointed toward a squat Huey in black Ben Davis and Converse, lumbering up by a magnificent blue-gray Queen Anne mansion at Haight Street—turreted, palm trees, hardwood everything, steel security bars all around. “Came out of your tan Vicky smackin’ his chops, looks like nobody knows how to close doors behind ’em, you know?”

“Listen, I’ve been thinking about that,” I tracked the delinquent from across Baker, bracketed between an uphill Pinto and downhill beater Volks. “I could be on the hook for that stuff. Hell, Margaret could say I left the door open or something. I swear I made a habit of locking that front door.”

“Well it was wide open, but somebody just slammed it now,” we watched that heavy figure cross Haight Street, disappearing into Buena Vista Park, then Eric panned downhill again. “I could see clear up the staircase, got one of those crazy olden type remote door handles, huh?”

“Wait a minute, which door are you talking about?” I followed his gaze.

“That real thick-ass oak one,” Eric gestured forward to the exquisitely carved portals. “On the right there.”

“Whoa, my door’s the thick-ass one on the left!”

“Check, that one’s closed tight now.”

“Did you hear what I said? Now those bastards are hitting the landlord’s upstairs flat. Christ, this is really getting out of hand…”

“Yah, except this time they ain’t takin’, they’re bringin’...

“What the hell’s up with that?” I stormed over smack between the acacias, eyeing Margaret’s front door and bay window, shades drawn, just as I’d left them. Muffled shouting seeped through the right door, separated only by a 10” column of millwork, which mercifully drowned out Eric’s incessant ‘Baker Street’ whistling.

I slalomed two megadump dog deposits to the tidy Victorian townhouse’s rubber runnered front steps. Before Eric could catch up, stampeding footsteps led to the exploding open of the right side door, a younger, green A’s shirted figure vaulting the stairs entirely, then sprinting up toward Haight Street. Startled, spun fully around, I found myself facing off two pair of chipmunk eyes landing one-two at the base of the second floor staircase. I instinctively feinted them; they responded viscerally by slamming their thick oak door in my face, squealing sharply at one another in utter alarm, double and triple deadbolting behind them.

“C’mon, man,” Eric ragged and cigaret dragged behind. “We’re talking teenybopper hopheads here. Runaway teenybopper junkies—these kids are wasted and deranged.”

“Hey, I’m vulnerable here, maybe even legally exposed,” I shouted, rapping at the right door’s frosted, cut glass window. “I gotta know what’s going on around here!” No response, save for the upstairs semaphore slapping of small white plantation shutters.

“Ain’t likin’ this,” Eric copped a casual smoke against the Victorian’s short, Doric column-framed banister. “Where this is goin’ at all…”

“Who is that?”

“Your temporary tenant, that’s who,” I replied to hushed voices on the other side of the door, who sounded somewhere between the Smothers Brothers on helium and Martin and Ackroyd’s wild and crazy guys. “I’m housesitting for Margaret.”

“Oh, that so,” said the huskier of two voices—husky being relative here, the lighter remaining shuddering silent.

“Look, I’ve got a damn good idea what you’re up to, ” I renewed door rapping, Eric’s smoke going right through me. “So I’m not going anywhere until you open the door and start explaining!”

“I beg your pardon…”

“It looks like you’re receiving stolen goods, and I’ll get the police over here if I have to.” I nodded to Eric for reassurance, even though he looked about ready to blow.

“Oh, you will, will you? Well, just…really…” The center of three white shutters cracked open ever so slightly.“Now you were saying…”

“You heard me,” I scowled into the batting slats like the door window was a Space Invaders video screen, digging my fingernails into the door’s stained oak grain. “Moving hot goods is one thing, fencing your own tenants’ stuff is something else.”

“What on earth are you talking about?!”

“I’m talking felony, trafficking in stolen property and god knows what else, that’s what,” I raged, pounding repeatedly at the right side door.

“Hey, c’mon man,” Eric cautioned, holding unsteady at the lower steps. “Or you’ll get the pigs here for sure. Maybe you’re jumping to conclusions anyway…making a humongous leap.”

“Better listen to that voice of reason, you…you nutcase. All those poor boys bring me is my medicine. ”

“Medicine? More like rope-a-dope with a kickback…”

“I’ll have you know we’re just seeing to some of Margaret’s valuables while the poor thing’s gone away,” said the owner apparent, his quavering voice arising. “So I’ll thank you to desist hammering at my door. And clear out of our premises altogether, while you’re at it.”

“Desist, my ass,” I now kicked at the door’s brass mail slot. Then it occurred to me that what if Margaret actually was setting me up for this burglary rap? Or that they were in cahoots, for insurance or something? And here I didn’t even know how to reach her…

“Besides, who says you’re our tenant at all?” The landlord measurably widened his shutter slat.

Or that you’re not in on what you say I’m in on? Though mind you, I’m not in on anything of the sort.”

“Come off it, you’ve been doing ‘Let’s Make A Deal’ in and out of here all afternoon—my friend and I can attest to that.”

“Hey, leave me out of this,” Eric hissed, turning to smile peaceably at a tribe of hippie cum headbangers passing by. “We’d best get the hell outta here…”

“Well I surely didn’t approve you coming in here. Your situation could just as easily be taken for criminal trespass, and you best believe I will press char-ges! So just who do you think the police will believe, us responsible homeowners or some miserable vagrant such as yourself?”

“Bullshit, Margaret personally gave me the keys,” I shouted. “Look, pal, soon as she learns you’ve fenced stuff right out of her apartment, your ass is grass.”

“Ah, yes, dear sweet Margaret, my resident scofflaw…” He pushed the toe of my boot out of his mail slot with what remained of a pooper scooper. “Indeed, fully two months rent in arrears.”

“Hmph, that’s not what she said…”

“I’m tellin’ you, man, I don’t like where this is headed,” Eric exhaled a full-throated inhale, smoke rings and all. “Who knows, could be a mind game goin’ on. Maybe the bitch really is trying to stick you with the back rent or some kind of insurance scam.”

“Hah, so summon the authorities, be my guest.” The shutter slats closed down tighter than BofA tellers’ windows at counting time. “For all you know, we may have already called the police. Just make certain you are completely off our premises before they arrive. That is, if and when they do…”

“Let’s book,” Eric said uneasily from below. “Who knows, maybe this is just his way of collecting what’s owed him…”

“What?” I gasped, their heckles and the patter of slippered feet taunting me up Acrilan runnered stairs. “We can’t just let..he’s a flamin’ two-bit crook, we’ve caught him dead to rights.”

“Forget it, man, it’s their business,” Eric flicked his cigarette butt into the acacia’s overhang. “Truth is, we don’t want the heat sniffin’ around any more than they do. At least until the smoke clears on the Marina deal…””

“What smoke? What deal?! What’s that got to do with anything?” I turned down toward him, kicking their oak door once more, with toe-jammed feeling.

“Just leave it be for now, will ya?” He headed down the staircase.

“Your telling me you had something to do with…” What’s this all about?! I followed, mind racing. At this point, project, project: I had him pegged anywhere from Gary’s bread truck to Lafayette Park.

“I said leave it alone, goddammit!” Eric chained another Lucky, French inhaled deeply, then looked up toward Margaret’s main floor bay window. “Point is, you gonna move outta here, or…”

“What do you think?”I asked indignantly, distancing myself from Eric’s smokescreen, resizing him thoroughly, picturing him in a one-column mugshot on the Chronicle’s police beat—wondering what I’d gotten myself into, either way. Then I panned up and over to my listing Volvo—visualizing it as that orange P1800ES dissolving, like a whole lot of regressive, cheap and dirty options I no longer seemed to have.

“Nuthin’, man, that’s your business,” he grumbled, spinning around toward the old Shell station. “Just take me on back to my cars, I’ve got some of my own business to do.”

“What choice do I have now?” I relented, as I noticed a baby blue and white Police Services patrol car crossing Haight Street from Buena Vista East, rolling slowly down Baker. “Sooo, you gonna help me, or…”

Eric froze harder in place, in the face of a searching heat wave. “Aww, why not, what choice do have?”

“Well, there is this other housing deal up by the Med Center,” I gratefully replied, fumbling for Margaret’s left door key to gather up and take leave. I still had no idea what was actually going down around here. All I knew I was basically on Prism’s varied deadlines downtown. “We can make it out of here in one trip, two loads max…”

“Sure, don’t matter, man,” Eric winced, as we stepped warily up the Baker Street sidewalk to my clunker, the patrol car coasting on by. “I’ll just be adding it to your tab, one way or another…”

sr dingbats

“Be certain to shoot Valtat, and T.E. Butler while you’re at it…”

“Shoot the Butler, got it…”

“And don’t forget the Fromentin and L’Hermitte…”

“Don’t think we can run all…”

“So we’ll just highlight the best of them.”

Lag time. It took me a restless, defensive day to fully separate from Baker Street, between there and back to the Marina Triangle parking lot for a little final moping around and mopping up. Having no idea how to reach someone on a south of the border field trip—to plug into her Sphere of the Divine Pedestal, intersect with her Arc of Descent—I’d just left Margaret’s phantom cat an overload of kitty vittles, cleared out of her front room. I jotted her a phone number for the SFPD bunco squad, then locked and left the keys and thank you note in her mail slot, letting her and the landlord deal with the rest of it, whatever that might involve. As for the other housing deal, turned out it was going to take a little procedural time.

Yet I still had my cameras, so back to all things Prism I went, along with Valerie’s list of Sutter Street’s galleries, more heavily leaning on the written word than half-apertured, soft focus photographs. Yet the available-light slight of hand seemed to work well enough for most of the initial clients along arthouse row, a relief since my strobe cable no longer connected so cleanly to this F’n body. But track lamps, sunny windows and Tri-X brought out the texture and highlights of most tourist-targeted illustrations, oils, watercolors and sculpture, with dealers happy just to get my ragged, scribbling ass in and out of their distinguished showrooms. That was until I hit Reyland Gallery, just this side of Mason Street.

“What about these paintings?”

“The Mendel’s? Of course, last but not least. Sydney is the future, no doubt about that—she even has a prominent bank commission being unveiled in the fortnight. We are proud as can be to represent her brilliant work.”

“Yes, I’m pretty familiar with that, happen to be a…friend of hers.”

“You? Then you must be some sort of coattail friend, you and that Daryll Loupon fellow.”

“So I’ve heard…”

Owner Walter Shenson briefed me personally—very briefly, to say the least. Reyland was perhaps the foremost gallery along Sutter Street, and he made no bones about the fact that he had his pick of oeuvres, appraised artist vitaes and portfolios out the door everyday. Which was why I stopped shorthanding for a moment to catch the gleam in Shenson’s eye when he singled out Syd’s paintings, four of her most polychromatically vivid mounted on Reyland’s street-facing cloisons. Sky’s the limit, world’s her oyster, best of her generation: These were among the accolades Shenson laid on me as I jotted page upon spiral page of notes regarding Sydney and his other artists on display.

This gallery owner was intent on getting his money’s worth in Prism: California, a four-color, double truck center spread if he could manage it. I suggested he take that up with Nolan Anderle, mover to shaker, on my way out Reyland’s doors. Pad full of copy notes, spool full of gallery shots, I packed up for the day, with a mess of writing and processing ahead of me, and a head dizzy squaring the Sydney he so effusively profiled with the Syd Mendel I once thought I knew. Who knew where she and we stood about now? All I knew was it wasn’t on the corner of Chestnut and Van Ness.

sr dingbats

Nevertheless, I had a last stop for the day, back over on Post Street, unsure exactly what would be most genteelly in store there. I paraded into Caddington’s Clothiers once again with an optically open mind, eager to drop off Guthrie’s Prism copy and shoot up some British goods, wherever its retail manservants’ may choose to position me.

But when approaching them to assess what composite of the store’s product line would be quintessentially Caddington, I detected the visible relief of those same two buttoned-down sales blokes. Mainly, their banter revealed that a plot to bomb the GB Consulate-General’s upcoming Poppy Day reception for visiting Foreign Secretary, David Owen, had just been foiled in the nick. A device was apparently unearthed in the residence’s rear garden, deemed to be defective by a bomb squad, and that a list of suspected perpetrators was already being narrowed down.

“It’s those filthy micks, you know,” said one purveyor, arms folded over his butterscotch cardigan.

“Righto, Trevor, the IRA bastards, or some of their spinoff rubbish—damn all of them to hell,” replied his blue blazered colleague, tightening his red silk double Windsor. “But mark my word, they’ll be getting theirs, all right…”

Beyond that, I focused tightly on the photos at hand, then was bound for a rendezvous with Dynasty…

Care for more?

Chapter 88. A meeting by Chinatown
          soon crosses the Broadway divide,
           to a North Beach tide-over 
          against future prospects…

“Up in the world
toiling at the top, shooting slop,
and shops ’til you drop.”

“This place looks like someplace…”

“Could be because it is someplace—it’s a baby Guggenheim. You know, the museum.”

“Sure, I knew that…in Washington D.C., near the Smithsonian…”

“Close, try nearer the Metropolitan. You really do have a problem keeping up with stuff, don’t you.”

The pinch was in. After Jason Guthrie had sprung my camera gear, these things became all but routine. Day after day was one fashionable, if not opulent upscale blur: shop upon shoppe upon store of elegant, exquisite and exclusive. Salon upon gallery squeezed and bled for hiked-up square footage, hawking particularly world class furs, fine art and furnishings to some of the world’s classiest jet-in clientele. At least Guthrie and I were thinking along those lines once either Nolan or Valerie had finished with them. Then it was up to us to stroke their haughty retail egos all the way back out their security guarded doors—as if shoplifters were more bottom-line threatening than their leeching commercial landlords.

Which came across to me in our early lap of discovery. Even the fabrics and silk flower establishments had a story, a curiosity quotient going for them. After all, when had somebody of my cut tugged the sleeves of Brioni, Bill Blass or Nicolas Blasi of Abla? Where else could I run my greasy fingers over the silk French cuffs of Brindisi, A. Sulka and Daniel Shagan, fill the styling shoes of Artioli and Martegani?

Yet the terra cotta and marble menswear palaces up and down Post or Sutter Streets were but windowdressing when it came to the galleries. Museum stature Rodins and Renoirs, visions of Verite, of Jean Art to Jasper Johns floored me with available light to film acuity, producing no less an altered, hair-trigger perspective and chemical reaction between my viewfinder and visual cortex. Jackson Square antique stores buried me brick by Barbary brick in Meissens, Sevres, faience and heirloom cloisonne. Product shots, storefronts, stylized situationals: each resulting proof sheet framed a rapid procession of bombe commodes, Louis XV dessertes and Vernis Martin vitrines—of Chippendale consoles, Staffordshire cupboards and Hepplewhite chest-on-chests.

By then I was having trouble enough separating the Deco from the Nouveau, the Galle from the Heywood-Wakefield. Rare Ecole de Nancy art glass began to to double expose into fruitwood inlaid Majorelle Armoires into tube-and-laquered Moderne vanities, as though the major 20th Century design movements newsreeled period by period before I could so much as advance my film. Still, slowly,as if my low-lit attempt and fashion and papparazzi photography weren’t declasse enough, Prism’s client roster also led me through sable, Fila fever, deerskin loungewear, pearl stud inlays, strappy platforms, monogrammed angora, double-flounced and pleated chemise, then to an early morning session at that lacy Sutter Street lingerie boutique notorious for its celebration of full figure frill and tial most imperceptibly, I began to see the larger picture, cull late Georgian from the Givenchy, Turkish tapestries from the treacle pots and creamware tureens, even feel on a first name basis with Gilbert Rohde, Georgio Armani and Jean-Paul Germain.

But where Prism ad-sell ultimately rose to the retail occasion was in women’s wear; apparently rotund Nolan really did his way with the ladies. He or Valerie must have snookered every rouge and rag shop, every svelte signature salon within a five-mile reach of Union Square. I focused on skin and cheekbone ensembles of formal gowns, parachute pants and multi-tiered silk chiffon. On superstar collections by Halston, de la Renta and Geoffrey Beene—not to mention entire walk-in closets lined with Dior, with designers named Bruno, Julio, Philippe and Georgio.

As if my low-lit attempt and fashion and papparazzi photography weren’t declasse enough, Prism’s client roster also led me through sable, Fila fever, deerskin loungewear, pearl stud inlays, strappy platforms, monogrammed angora, double-flounced and pleated chemise, then to an early morning session at that lacy Sutter Street lingerie boutique notorious for its celebration of full figure frill and titillation. Almost imperceptibly, I began to see the larger picture, cull late Georgian from the Givenchy, Turkish tapestries from the treacle pots and creamware tureens, even feel on a first name basis with Gilbert Rohde, Georgio Armani and Jean-Paul Germain.In all, here was a page-space hit list that ultimately delivered us unto the baby Guggenheim on chic, festive little Maiden Lane, to this fashion institution called Helga Hazare.

“In those immortal words, it ain’t over ’til it’s over,” Guthrie said, as we regrouped near a clutch of cafe tables mid lane, just outside Helga’s designer couture gem. “And believe me, it’s far from over.”

Not that this 48-hour store-to-store hyper marathon seemed to drain him any. Jason simply kept asking questions, picking at the merch, shorthand scribbling on his yellow ruled pad. How he managed a quick 125 words for each of these hypersensitive establishments was beyond me. I just kept snapping away, if for nothing else to coffer up and take my fractious mind off other splintered things—albeit with one little hitch in our getalong, which surfaced at the close of each workday.

“Wonder what possessed Frank Lloyd Wright to put this gem here, anyway?” I glanced at its historical landmark plaque, having reloaded a fresh roll of Panatomic X into my silver Nikon F—film being another advance on account, “Most of his good stuff is in the Midwest and Arizona.”

“Consider it warm up for the real Guggenheim on the Upper East Side,” Jason replied, leading me through Hazare’s tinted glass entry. “But if you ask me, it’s penance for what he did to Marin.”

“Don’t follow,” I stepped aside as two ferocious shopping birddogs from Dallas or Gross Pointe pounced down upon Helga’s arched, recessed portal, Saks and Coureges bags blazing.

“Apparently you haven’t seen the Civic Center—that aquaduct-looking place with the turquoise roof. Kinda like an overweight Howard Johnson’s…”

Helga Hazare’s stunning spiral ramp way gave me immediate haute vertigo. Renee Helga herself had stage managed the Prism photo op, directing her fashion slaves from the salon’s mezzanine around down to the Baby G’s foyer in ten-foot intervals, as though she were choreographing a center spread for ‘W’ or ‘WWD’. Lean, voguish vamps all, thoroughbred prancing in Hazare’s softly couture wool jerseys and slinky drop-dead knits, dispensing the inexpressive equivalent in distant gazes, pivoting so perfectly pouty on the heels of their Maud Frizon shoes. I had neither the clusters nor inclination to mention that my final roll of Tri-X in the black body F was a goner four shots into the show. I just kept cranking empty sprockets, clicking a blank shutter curtain, as Helga kept cracking her velvet whip.

“Got it all, right?” Guthrie asked as we departed, scribbling some final notes—mavenous quotes from Madame Hazare on our way out the door.

“In the can, in the can,” I said, rewinding film spools, then folding all the camera gear into my shoulder bag. We headed up Maiden Lane toward Union Square, Blackjack Pershing’s stature centered straight ahead across Stockton Street. Beyond that, the St. Francis Hotel was a solid wall of luxury suites and staterooms, its entryway flags heralding the visiting Saudi delegation. “But you know, real photographers say it all with one shot…”

“Just so you got the goods,” Guthrie replied tersely.

Nearing Stockton, we approached the bright yellow parasols of an outdoor cafe. Only one table was taken now, late day shadows casting long and chill over Maiden Lane’s white barrier gates. Even that was occupied by two lunched-out Filipino busboys, their boombox Bee Gee’s disco faded into the afternoon wrap-up. As I followed Guthrie into the open glare of Union Square, some passing newstalk junkie turned up his transistor volume to: ‘Blood Sacrifice: Supervisor’s family responsibilities are thicker than City Hall’s—rumors have it Supervisor Dan White may resign his 8th District seat. Will the boy wonder’s political career be water under the bridge?’

sr dingbats

Unfortunately, that’s where my culture fatigue and contempt came in. For I’d soon had my fill of mousy little boutiques, European designer cloths and custom doll houses with miniature four-posters, breakfronts and working bidets. Of sticky candy stores full of Myers’s-soaked truffles and kumquats dipped 140 times in a secret hypoglycemic glaze. Wearied of kite emporia overlorded by Bombay butterflies and gape-mouthed Mylar dragons; eclectic curio shops flush with every frivolous thing from Limoges eggs and lacquered boxes to lovelorn lavalieres. Deco obelisk merchants, antiquarian scriptoria and 18k Gold Montblanc atelier prives: whatever fascination I held with these quirky enterprises was quickly giving ground to the strain of photo capturing it all. Still, we had one more deal to seal…

“What kept you,” Jason asked, the moment I hyperventilated into into the Gran Galleria. Grand wasn’t exactly the word for this semi-precious antique gift shop just off Sutter and Grant Streets. But words were more his business, after all.

“Needed more film,” I wheezed, instantly dumbstruck by this little shop of extravagantly fragile horrors, not mentioning that I had grabbed an Orange Julius along the way. A daytime routine of snapping downtown and nearly snapping in the Marina Triangle by night was taking a bicameral toll.

“Mrs. Corbette, this is our photographer,” Jason sighed, “Kenneth…”

“Herbert, Ken Herbert. S-s-sorry I’m late.”

“Yes, well,” smiled the proprietor as I offered my sweaty hand. “Delighted, I’m sure.” She was a smoothly attractive woman of middle age, almost Stanford sorority-like to this day, with athletic handshake and shoulders, and a graying blonde bun combed back tightly as tuned strings, cinched with a hand-carved ivory comb. And she looked strikingly familiar to my viewfinder strained eyes.

“Well then, why don’t you familiarize yourself with the Galleria here while I get Mrs. Corbette’s ideas down,” Guthrie poised to follow her rearward. “You know, get the feel of the place.”

“You mean pick out items, or…”

“Just scout your locations, check your lighting—do what photographers do, I don’t know.”

“Hmm, one would think that might involve cameras somehow,” she smiled coyly, rather studying me as if having seen me before, as well.

Escorting her to a backroom office, Guthrie motioned back to either get on with it, which left me alone with a galleria full of pricey perishables, palms still sweaty and shaky via the residual caffeine from an earlier doppio espresso con panna break or sugar boost from Mr. Orange. So I tore into the place with all feigned insouciance of a blue-nosed oenophile. Imari, Celadon, 18th Century chinoiserie: but in reality, I couldn’t begin to approach this stuff so casually; just looking at the Oriental porcelains gave me stress cracks, much less her folksy Russian porcelain and woodcarvings, spiced with colorful majolica ceramics.

Camera bag over my shoulder, I slipped gingerly through narrow aisles of Tonsu, Japanese baskets and Korean chests, around 19thCentury bamboo lamps and Philippine screens. Past maroon velvet tables displaying antique bronze, silver and pewter, with price tags and ‘You drop, you pop’ notices to die for.

“That Kutani platter might make a good shot,” said Mrs. Corbette, upon their return.

“Terrific choice, maam,” Guthrie chicken scratched some further notes. “That platter would be perfect…”

“Or those ming jade unicorns…”

“My thinking exactly…Herbert…”

“No, better yet, that Kuan Yin gilt bronze decanter. It’s museum quality, I’ll have you know.”

“Museum quality, perfect. That’s what we need, Mrs. Corbette, real impact. The decanter, it is.”

“On second thought, we can’t be portrayed as too hauteur…”

“Hmmm, no, I see what you’re saying,” Guthrie winced, chasing after the store owner, notepad in hand.

“So, what about all three,” I said, as we converged on an imposing brass-trimmed rosewood chest.

“All three, a triptych—I like that.“Let’s just be careful with the treasures, shall we?””

Discretion the better part of dexterity, I tweaked and metered and otherwise focused my Nikons, keeping all this booty out of arm’s way. Mrs. Corbette composited her jade figures, Kutani platter and Kuan Yin decanter left to right atop the rosewood chest. Guthrie continued scribbling marginally in the dog-eared corners of his pad.

“Now then, about your lighting,” she asked smartly, fingers to jaw line, sliding her pantsuited right leg toward my camera bag, nudging it lightly. “Have you any?”

“A small strobe, nothing exotic,” I fiddled down into my bag for a coiled photoflash cord and cable release, watching a black high-heeled pump and well-turned ankle enter my periphery.

“Yep, maybe a little flash wouldn’t hurt…” 

“Ready then,” Guthrie finished jotting from some captioned product descriptions.

“Just a sec,” I said, mildly flustered, connecting the flash attachment to an x-marked camera jack. “Think I’m going to bounce it, to avoid any glare…”

Soon as the strobe unit blinked ready red, I advanced some Plus-X several frames and commenced shooting. I caught the Kutani head on, then 45-degrees left, right—bracketing F-stops, bouncing the strobe off Galleria’s floor, sidewalls, ceiling chandeliers.I fully synched with the black-body Nikon, tightening in on the decanter, soft focusing the Ming Jade unicorns. Extending the strobe, keying the set-up from above—I rotated around the composed set in inspired swashes to the full length of my stretch cord. Which suddenly extended me to the tune of a wrought crystal sculpture one table overexposed. The spread-winged Scandinavian peregrine sang like a nightingale as it shattered into jagged shards against the display tables brass-trimmed base.

“Oh, that’s just marvy,” Guthrie dove to the carpet to grovel for the pieces.

“Dear, me, it would appear we have a situation here,” Mrs. Corbette tapped her crow’s feet with her gold-banded fingers.

“Hope it wasn’t from a museum, or something,” I cringed, stooping to help Guthrie re-fit the glass bird, as though that would actually work.

“No, but it was a Claude Lhoste original…”

“Ouch,” Guthrie screamed, slicing his thumb on a wicked wingtip, spurting like a spring lamb. “Mrs. Corbette, I can assure you Prism: California will make good on this.”

“What’s done is done,” she replied with unnerving poise and calm. “I suggest we reserve judgment until you complete your little article. If it proves to be of the quality Mr. Anderle promised, the Gran Galleria should be fairly inundated with new clientele. If not, well…”

“Oh, it will be ,” Guthrie blurted, hanky to his seeping thumb, casting a threatening eye my way. “You can bank on that…”

“One way or the other, I suppose,” she observed, scanning me up and down. “That includes the photography, of course.”

“Uh, of course,” I nodded, still wondering where I had seen this woman before.

“Until then,” she smiled, as we handed her what we could of the shattered peregrine. “I’ll expect to see you again shortly, with draft and photo prints in hand.”

“Not standard Prism practice, but especially for you, Mrs. Corbette, in appreciation of your patience and magnanimity,” Guthrie gushed, as I quietly repacked my camera bag. He then ushered me out of the Gran Galleria, tighter than a state’s witness on government protection. “Good Day, maam. And I’m certain Nolan Anderle passes along his highest regards.”

There we left it, peering back through the Galleria’s front windows at her Tansu chests and Japanese screens. I was trying to grasp who purchased all that stuff, how the place could make a go of it with such inflated prices. But mostly, what was Mrs. Corbette driving at? And why did she seem so visibly unruffled by my crash course in product photography? Adrift in all that, I began to entangle myself with the steady flow of shoppers dragging Magnin and Gumps bags, with impeccably layered Indian summer tans.

“Aww, let’s head back over toward Union Square,” Guthrie grumbled, thumb stabilized, directing me down Grant toward Post Street. “Sort this thing out.”

“How do you think Nolan will take it?”

“Out of our hides, that’s how,” he tapped Tiffany’s thick little vaultish windows with his college ring, pausing to check out a 24k star sapphire lapel pin tucking like an arctic glacier of frosted cashmere.

“Heavy hitter hardass, is he?”

“The hardest,” Guthrie snapped a pink flower from a pelargonium nearest the sidewalk in Podesta Baldocchi’s open-front floral display stand, drawing the ire of a red-frocked attendant.

“Y’know, it’s weird,” I said warily, as we scurried up to Post. “But somehow, I think Corbette won’t be such a bitch about it—that it’s not that big a deal. She just seemed more interested in the photography part, don’t ask me why…”

“Could be because she’s just another Pacific Heights matron with a senile banker husband who prefers spending his vacation time with the boys at Bohemian Grove. She’s probably bored stiff and boring into menopause. Anything new that wanders into her Gran write-off is bound to turn her head on—otherwise, I’m sure everything’s insured.”

“Well you seemed to play her right,” I noted, stunned, torn asunder by case upon glass case of sterling and platinum in Shreve’s hallowed showroom—home of a 720k Yonkers diamond and the jewelry of Catherine the Great. “And if she’s got big bucks, what’s one glass bird…”

“What? If we don’t deliver, that lady will have our gonads on the half shell—just because she can afford to,” Guthrie snapped. “Or she’ll sic her husband’s lawyers on Nolan, and he’ll add ours to his personal collection when he gets back to town.”

Another press of shoppers suddenly engulfed us. I was still boggled by Shreve’s silver lode when we hit upon Gumps. Squeezing between the idiosyncratic department store’s flower stand and black-framed display windows, I reflected on my wavering, still rumpled image. Christ, fantasy windows under wine red awnings, late autumnal harvests of Steuben pumpkins and Baccarat cranes—Cerelene china, jade warblers and enameled copper gnatcatchers: I was hardly in a position to take this all in stride. Wasn’t as though I‘d ever known fire-breathing California lawyers, bankers’ wives who intentionally set up pet businesses to write off. Damned if I’d ever come across somebody who could afford to sue my ass off just for the hell of it. Guess things were most definitely looking up…

A strong wind gusted along Post Street, to where I momentarily dodged the peregrine issue on approach to Stockton, and some Gucci Arab throwing up a smoke screen, contrailing out of Dunhill’s doors, taking me back to my father’s corn cobs. Premium pipe tobaccos filtered through its display windows of smooth leather luggage and attaches, aside fine velvet robes and silk smoking jackets. Inside, Alfred’s finest lacquered root briers and Block Meerschaums, walnut-copper humidors chock with fat Montecruz, Lonsdale Grande and Ramon Allone stogies. A display window nearest the corner featured an onyx ashtray and mahogany pipe stand, between them, a brass-framed travel clock dutifully ticked off ten of five.

“Okay, that ought to do it for today,” Guthrie said, as we crossed Stockton back over to Union Square. “I’ve got another engagement, so you’d better gather up the film for processing. I’ll take your bag.”

“Uh, again?” Hence the hitch, deal being that he took possession of my camera gear each afternoon. We paused at a park bench, where I pocketed my tiny film cans, rewinding one last roll. “Haven’t I proven myself by now—you know, jib and all?”

“Trust me, it’s only per Nolan’s instructions. He always says, in for a dime, in for a dollar.”

“What, he thinks I’m going to abscond with cameras I still own?” Allowing for that to sink in, I scanned about a still relatively placid Union Square, that always breathtaking expanse of trim, mazy hedges and tall, lazy palms. “I mean I’ll go bonkers without my cameras again.”

“It’s out of my hands, Herbert,” Guthrie waited impatiently while I pulled the Kodak spool and pressed closed the camera back. “It’s his pawn ticket, that’s the deal…”

“So how does he know you won’t run off with my camera gear?” Regretting I’d unloaded all this film from the Nikon bodies, I was quickly distracted by Macy’s 5 o’clock bell tower.

“Because he still holds pawn tickets on my tape recorder, Trinitron and Selectric II in New York,” Guthrie grumbled, callously shouldering my camera bag.

“Christ, for how long?”

“Just get those shots developed, will you? I’ll meet you here again tomorrow morning at 9:30. “We’ll pick up the proof sheets and some more film. Meanwhile, I’ve got a ton of writing to do…”

“Gotcha, only we have to stop meeting like this,” I cribbed, resolved to spending yet another chilling, disarmed night in the Marina lot, cramping my newfound style.

“Tell me about it…”

Rush hour was now swelling Union Square, Macy’s chimes drowning in a clamor of motor coaches and honking taxicabs. I zagged between stalled Civics and Caprices, running head on into a newspaper box to avoid a right-turning double-decker tour bus emblazoned with day-glo sunsets on a field of limeade green, its reflective windows obscuring a full load of tourists gaping and panning like orangutans in a circus cage.

The news box itself had much less to hide, its final-markets edition screaming, ‘Late Polls reveal Prop 6 Doomed to Defeat’, for all the Union squares and tourists to see. But where the Examiner saw doom, I saw potential deliverance: that solid gray fortress so anchoring the plaza, international flags afurl, starlit glass capsules bobbing up and down its rear tower like commodity futures. This imposing tomb of St. Francis stood as blessed testament to divine intervention and ascension. In the meantime, five after five, I was fashionably late for another date with an antidiluvian Volvo.

sr dingbats

“Actually, I think the contrast is pretty good on this one. I asked them specifically to burn in the detail on that platter and everything.”

“Still, the pizazz just isn’t quite there…”

“Then what are your thoughts on the vase?” No pop? Hell, I’d just popped to the tune of twenty bucks for these ruddy prints, coaxing every dodge and burn he could out of those suckers, the crash of Scandinavian crystal ringing in my ears every time ProLab ran a wet 8×10 by me.

“Wellllll, not too terribly bad, I suppose,” Mrs. Corbette replied, tapping her chin in qualified contemplation.

Come morning next, I had stumbled through another Marina Triangle awakening, Jason Guthrie greeting me by the Union Square Hyatt Hotel as I pushed through the exit doors of a 30 Stockton trolley bus. He’d handed me my camera bags with a groan of shoulder blade relief, then bankrolled a stack of ProLab processing and a resupply of 35mm panchromatic film. He’d also sprung for Maiden Lane lattes, then assigned me to win Mrs. Corbette over with his copy draft and my batch of exposure- bracketed glossies. Guthrie then begged off to deliver similar work-ups about various downtown clients for approval and/or revisions, while I trepidly darkened Gran Galleria’s doors.

“Tsk, copy,” she slighted, spindling the typed sheet he’d left me. “Mere words on paper. What customers first see is paramount, and young man, these photos simply fail to grab me.”

“Hmm,” I fidgeted, shuffling through the shots as if thermal friction would punch up the contrast. What the hell did she know about it? Shattered crystal, slattern prospects—aww, what could she do, confiscate my cameras, place a lien on all my equipment, and where the hell was Guthrie now, anyway?! “ So, uh…”

“But of course there are other ways to…how shall I put it, create impact,” she said, turning smartly toward her counter, then spinning back again, like the quiet Galleria’s center aisle was a ramp at the Carrousel du Louvre, somewhere between Ann Taylor and Anne Klein, with a dash of Annie Hall for dramatic effect.

“Beg pardon?” I stole glances of her, over the upper margins of my photo prints.

“Grab, impact. Come now, need I paint you a picture?” Hands at her waist, the store owner pushed back her burgundy cleric jacket, revealing the easy straight cut of her saddle tan flared trousers, her true blue sweater and its hourglass hug about her waist. She leaned against her glass displaycounter, smiling, yet a tad skittish somehow. At once marshaling her courage and maneuvering for her mirrors, as though longing for sorority row, for her daughter’s flawless beauty, and a man who hadn’t cashed in his virility ages ago for a Stanford MBA.

“Well, I’m afraid I’m flat out of more film right now,” I hedged, flushed with the prospect that I was just green enough to fill her bill, and that she was still ripe enough to pull it off.

“I’ll just bet you are,”she said, caressing the large onyx beads of her necklace.

Painting pictures…it dredged up Syd’s low-budget passion play in Nevada, her studio maneuvering, that provocatively unfinished portrait of Monica on her hoary bedroom wall—four alarm images of aborted infidelity, not to mention erective statutory rape. “My apology, Mrs. Corbette,” I blurted, dropping the Prism photos like so many shards of crystal. “But I have to say I’m beginning to feel…”

“I beg your pardon,” she interrupted, straightening up suddenly, officiously raising her chain-linked tortoise shell reading glasses to the bridge of her noble, sun freckled nose.

“I mean, I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable with the implications here,” I huffed, looking around for Guthrie, some customers, her bald, boring husband, a few shoplifters would do.

“Implications of what, I might ask?”

“Of, of…you know,” I sputtered, trying to read the room here, buy a few moments to tease things out. “What you said…about impact…”

“What are you implying, young man? What in God’s name are you inferring from what you imply was implying?”

“I wasn’t inferring anything, Mrs. Corbette, I just heard what I heard…”

“My dear boy, if I was implying anything, it was in reference to color intensity…”

“Say again?” I suddenly recalled where I had seen her before, in that crosswalk over Geary Street, when I had little better handle on things than I did at the moment.

“That what you failed to engender with black and white could perhaps better be achieved with color film. Honestly, what were you inferring?”

“Dunno, I just recall impact, grab…” Wrong. Not the choicest way to get out form under a peregrine or vase. She did say grab, didn’t she? That was how she put it, wasn’t it?

“Oh, come now,” she smiled coyly, stepping toward me slowly, as if her on her final pose along judge’s row. “You don’t for one minute imply that…”

“I don’t mean to imply anything you did or didn’t imply,” I rattled, waving my arms in befuddled frustration, nearly tacking a Kutani bowl and chinoiserie platter to my running tab. “Please, don’t go inferring something I didn’t even begin to imply…or infer…whatever!”

“Wouldn’t think of it, perish the thought.” That outburst seemed to freeze her in her deep-pile tracks. She ventured no nearer than the display table of Japanese baskets, almost as though calculating that such circumstances might conceivably be factored in at some future date. Either that, or she was taking me for the dithering twit I’d admittedly been offering forth.

“Okay? Okay, no problem,” I sighed and bent down to retrieve the photo, hoping someone would wander in and turn the heat down in here.

“Very well, in any event, I suspect color photography is out of the question this late in the process,” she said, in a matronizing, come back if/when you ever grow up kind of way.

“Look, why don’t I leave these prints with you,” I offered. “Maybe overnight…with some more time to go over them, I mean…”

“Very well,” she nodded graciously. “But of course we still have that nasty little matter of the Claude Lhoste crystal.”

“Uh, that you might take up with Mister Anderle…”

“Take what up with Nolan Anderle,” Jason Guthrie asked, pushing through Gran Galleria’s front doors, opening this disquieting little scene to the rush and roar of Post Street traffic.

“Uh, Mrs. Corbette isn’t totally happy with our stuff,” I said, in curious relief.

“But maam, I thought we had agreed upon the copy,” he grimaced.

“It’s the art,” I muttered, handing him the glossies.

“Oh, well, then we’ll just reshoot, Mrs. Corbette. Herbert here will blow off ten more rolls if need be to get this right. We’ll shoot all night, whatever it takes! You have no idea how sorry I am these don’t perfectly represent the excellence of your Galleria. We should never have even exposed you to this trash.” He looked them over one more time, then tossed them at me.

“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Guthrie,”she smiled, pulling the top shot away smoothly, handing it to Guthrie.“This one will do just fine, impact it some in the printing.”

“Are you certain?” he gasped. “Oh, thank you, Mrs. Corbette, Nolan will be so delighted. In fact, I will see to it he calls you personally.”

“Please do,” she demurred, nodding my way. “Now if you gentlemen don’t mind, I’ve much to deal with.”

“Whatever you say, maam,” Guthrie wagged. “Again, thank for your support of Prism: California.”

“Uh, yeah, sorry about the misunderstanding,” I said awkwardly, sheathing the extra glossies in ProLab’s manila envelope.

“Mere misinterpretation,”she sighed, turning toward her rear counter, wiping a smudge from a scroll-handled Imari decanter. “You know how I feel about words.”

“Thank you again, maam,” said Guthrie, poking me toward the Post Street doors.

“Likewise, gentlemen,” she warbled over her shoulder. “And as they say, see you in court.”

What misunderstanding?” he asked on our way out. “The woman said court!”

“Not sure, Jason,” I said, with a skosh of gray area swagger. “I still don’t exactly understand it, and I was there…”

“Well, I can tell you one person who will,” Guthrie, leaned against one of the blue and gold crown lamp poles, again gesturing for my camera bag again. “If anybody knows about court, it’s Nolan Anderle.”

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Out the door, I parted ways with Guthrie for the day, deciding to make one last stop en route to the 30 Stockton—if only for a little pre-shoot scouting. Caddington Clothiers on Post Street was said to be The City’s premier British goods men’s store, furnished in oxford, poplin and hopsack everything, under the loyal, royal aegis of the ever triumphant Union Jack. I plotted out angles and perspectives on racks of dress and casual lambskin, cashmere, herringbone, Shetland woolens; checked ambient lighting on monogrammed blazers and tattersall trousers. I framed up camel hair and Chesterfield topcoats, buffer, G-9 and bush jackets, Burberrys up the loo. Then came all the regal trimmings: wing-tip bluchers and English rib Argylls, seersucker nightshirts, foulard ascots, button-style braces, crook-neck bumbershoots and grosgrain belts, with a right proper nose of Royall Lyme lotions.

In the process, I could overhear a pair of observant wet-combed sales manservants reveling that Foreign Secretary, Dr. David Owen was flying in for a Poppy Day celebration this weekend up at the British Consulate-General’s Pacific Heights mansion.

There I scouted, then decamped until the morrow—tattered and torn, in the bloody blink of an eye…

Care for more?

Chapter 87. The stake-out on some
housing hi-jinx gets testy, and a downtown
show precipitates an even testier tell…

“Deal with your devils,
sell out all those filmy dreams
for iffy income streams.”

“August, ’76, wasn’t it?”

“Nolan, stop that…”

“Come now—August, am I right? I can still picture it.”

“September, actually, but that’s not why we’re here.”

As paramedics had applied tourniquets, stanching the grocer’s wound along with some emergency CPR, I angled to take all due leave of Vanro Market. Meanwhile the police were jotting names, asking questions—already processing the crime scene. Going the strong, silent route, I only allowed as how I’d seen nothing of the actual robbery, could not positively I.D. potential suspects beyond the ass-end of some disco suits, then left the bluecoats to their scribbled notepads. I was gone moments after the store owner’s family arrived to lock the market down, not knowing whatever came of the paramedics’ efforts, how the victim had fared on his flash-dash evacuation to SF General’s ER—was only heartened that he’d thanked me to the heavens. Wobbling back to the Marina parking lot in a state of toxic shock, I caught news of another Lafayette Park murder in that discarded Clarion. By then I’d vowed to finally 86 the all-nighters, crashing with a head case of Saturday night fever, this time minus the AM/FM soundtrackeven tuning out the foghorns and gulls, not to mention the overnight whereabouts of Sydney Mendel.

Bright new day, however, high time for a coarse correction, to purge my baser urges, shake off the dad-blamin’ Semi-crossfire resentment; psycho/philo reconcile with Syd as best I could, in a drowsy manner of speaking. Otherwise, stanch, suppress: I really couldn’t begin to sort through the nightmare before. But early bird and all that: I saluted a beset General Ripcord first passing glance, then the mechanic and a somewhat oddly preoccupied Mister Gladhand. Waving good morning to East Harbor’s unfurling sailboats and outboards, I popped on some of KSAN’s ‘Although the Sun Is Shining’ and ‘Rattlesnake Shake’ from Peter Green-Era Fleetwood Mac.

Otherwise, it was a matter of trundling over in cut-off fatigued jammiesto the public john, clutching my Dopp kit and motel towel, hearing a top-of-the-hour radio blast from one of the motorbike-racked Winnebagos, which signaled there was just enough time to meet this hit-or-miss commitment. But not without a quick towel pressing of rumpled attire on the overheated hood of my car, having turned the Volvo’s interior into a mobile steam bath in the process. Hand ironed out at the margins, I even felt comfortable shaping up on a breezy Hyde Street cable car downtown, having to do something to get away from the Marina Triangle and all that.

Well, that’s a measure of sartorial improvement, I must say,” Nolan Anderle greeted me with up and down scrutiny, and a flourishing re-spread of his napkin. “Welcome to our world.”

“Thank you, sir,” I approached his rear corner for-four in a brimming, open-tabled dining room, stopped in my tracks on a checker tiled floor. “Hope I’m not too late or…”

“Too late, indeed—and we can’t have late, now can we,”he said, gesturing toward the last of four functional black chairs. “We’ve already been at it for hours.”

“Hours? You said eleven…” I seated myself, facing forward through the long, narrow restaurant, back to its mirrored, photo-framed rear wall, a side cherry wood pendulum clock reading, five after the hour. But what really stopped me cold were the two other people gauging me over a mid-table jam and marmalade lazy susan like I was a stack of buckwheats coming up two bucks short.

“We’re on New York time, m’boy, no time for dawdling, nosirree,” said Anderle, leaning forward in a navy silk and linen Paul Stuart blazer with a burgundy windowpane and equestrian ascot, tailored white shirt opened two buttons down. “Time is money, coast to coast. We’ve already ordered, so what will it be?”

“Uh, whatever you’re having is…” I did my best to avoid further eye contact all around, especially those disarming blue-gray burners across the black, inlaid Spanish-style table.

“Then 18 Swedes it is, specialty of the house. Good thing, as we’ve taken the liberty of ordering that, too…” He waved majestically over to a stout, brunette waitress by the bussing table retying her red hair ribbon, then repositioned his lap napkin over tan cotton and linen trousers.

A world famous specialty, at that. Sterling’s was in fact Sears Fine Food, a peculiar San Francisco institution since 1938, when a former circus clown opened on Powell Street with an 18 little Swedish pancake platter smothered in whipped butter and maple syrup. The breakfast treat instantly drew long wait lines out the door, and Sears greeted them with storefront heaters and music, not to mention two pink Cadillacs parked right in front.

“Some scene, some treat,” I glanced about the dining room, intimately spaced square tables filled with local and tourist breakfasters, many of the latter from nearby hotels, Nob Hill to Geary Street’s theater district, with ‘burbers gathered for Sunday in The City—patrons of all shades, threads and stripes.

The sweet aroma of hotcakes and bacon, of MJB coffee permeated the place, cast around by swirling overhead fans, syrupy vapors clinging like bee pollen to Sears’ tan shotgun gallery walls. Meaning they were filled thicker than bay shrimp omelettes with commemorative and Scandinavian-themed mounted plates, ovalled family-style portraits, plus framed caricatures and glossy VIP photos, peppered between tall carved wood casements housing brass light sconces matching its white globed, center aisle chandeliers.

As our black-clad waitress delivered pitchers of coffee and fresh-squeezed OJ, I scanned the framed stills and head shots, grinning poses scribbled with celebrated scrawl. Current and yesternames such as Henny Youngman, George Burns, George Goebel, Bing Crosby and the Velvet Fog; Vic Damone, Nina Simone, Diller and Rickles, George Jessel, George Lucas, Carol Channing, Dagmar, Auntie Mame, Uncle Milty, Jacks Benny and Paar, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Hitch and Tippi, Malden and Douglas—on and on, a once vogue gallery of notables and quotables from the world over, Hollywood on down. Everybody hand pumping and shoulder grabbing with a veneer of San Francisco brio and bonhomie, faces fat full of Smoked Salmon Benedict and lingonberry waffles, if not the famed Swedish specialty itself.

“Well, that’s very…thoughtful of you,” I faltered, panning quickly around the table, to blank expressions over stirred, steaming coffee.

“This is how we do things in Le Gran Pomme, m’boy,”said Anderle, toasting a Soju Bloody Mary from Sears’ adjacent mahogany bar. “Yes indeed, this is how we work at Prism Publishing.”

“We, being…” I seated myself beside him, leaning back into a red-vinyled, slat-back chair.

“Ah yes, may I introduce my associates. Mister Ken Herbert, here we have Jason Guthrie, the bang-up copywriter I mentioned to you, hot off the red-eye.

“Pleased…” To a nod and thin, manufactured smile—an owlish Ivy sort in round horned rims, brown melange J. Pressed, at that, chasing his coffee with a pre-meal mimosa.

“And last but certainly not least, my West Coast account executive, Valerie Prentiss-Brown,” Anderle slyly winked her way. “But then she hardly needs any introduction, now does she…”

“Nice to make your…” I reached out to the stunning I. Magninimous strawberry blonde in across the table, who simply shook her flowing hair out with an impassive cock of the head.

“Dear Valerie is quite simply the finest sales representative this side of Park Avenue…”

“That’s only because I choose not to reside in New York City,” she sighed, twining through the wispy ringlets of her perfectly cascading California tresses.

Matter of time, my dear, matter of time,” Anderle winked, reaching for his coffee cup. “We’ll pry you out of this city that knows how—how to laze and graze, that is. Indeed, I can see you in my future back there. I’ll whisk you off to the big stage for some serious business.”

“Tsk, dream on, Nolan…”

Which was about what I found myself doing until the waitress arrived with our platters. After centering Anderle’s New York steak and eggs before him, she handed me the special, those 18 silver dollar pancakes in a neat little circle, dolloped with mounds of melted butter, topped with sliced strawberries and strawberry jam. The dish was like Swedish roulette, coming up a winner with every round; I didn’t know whether to hand frame a photo shoot or dig into the spread and dare to ruin such a delectable picture. So I poured slowly, deliberately clockwise from a tiny stainless steel pitcher, a dicey enough exercise as it was without Valerie’s glaring consternation, shifting there, sipping her blueberry Belini.

“Yes, Jason’s flight was late, so we hit the streets as soon as he landed,” Anderle liberally peppered his poached eggs. “That’s how to get things done out here, not a moment to waste.”

“Gotcha, not a moment,” I picked at the edges of number three, reluctant to blemish this breakfast creation, or even determine where to begin: which fork, hold that knife. Rather, I diverted to sniffing another waitress, passing by with a tray full of Southern Corned Beef Hash and eggs, with sides of broiled grapefruit.

“You should try those pancakes sometime,” Jason cracked, gesturing with his fork before taking on his Smoked Chicken Apple Sausage and eggs. “I hear they’re great when still warm…”

“Uh, yeah, heh, heh,” I winced, staring straight into a lava flow of buttery maple. “A writer’s gift of observation, huh?”

“Photographer, is it,” Valerie asked suddenly, looking up from her Eggs Florentine, having melded her hashed browns and Hollandaise to helical perfection.

“So to speak,” I had settled on carving curvy semicircles with my dinner fork, mouth full of half dollars, a dribble of butter syrup streaming down my jowl. Her timing was impeccably brutal; still, better that than meeting her eye to eye. It wasn’t that she was so toned and lithe, so utterly striking, it was that she was so casebook cool and casual, purely emblematic of starlets from Sommer to Somers, so quintessentially California beach chic that all those screen queens seemed mere generic bimbos and clones by comparison.

“Caution, m’boy,” Anderle chortled, as he drained the coffee decanter and summoned the waitress for one more. Dear Valerie knows her photography.”

“You, uh, shoot?”

“Are you asking me or your pancakes,” she fired back without pause or genuine cause.

“Hooo,”Anderle gloated, patting down his pattern bald gray pompadour. “Absolutely precious. It so happens that Ms. Prentiss-Brown knows her photography from the other side of the camera.”

“Nolan, verboten, we agreed,” she blushed, flapping out her napkin with chagrin.

“There she is, Playmate of the Month, September of the Bicentennial Year,” Anderle beamed, reaching over to wrap his crawfish little arm about her elbow. “In the flesh, only not quite so as then…”

“Uh, sorry,” I flushed, “I don’t…” And I hadn’t, sad to say, nor did I know whether to seek her autograph, or rise and salute her. So I dared not even look her way. “Grad students can’t afford luxuries like…”

No-lan—I thought we had an agreement about the touchy-feely, too,” she pulled away, eyes harlot ablaze.

“Oh, now I’m the dirty old man again, am I,” he needled, before waxing rhetorical to his assembled. “God in heaven, when did it become so…hip not to look at and appreciate gorgeous womenhood? Ever stop to think how sick that is? It’s getting to where it’s more insulting to set eyes upon an attractive female than to ignore her anymore. And just when you happen to treat a woman like a real lady, you get set upon by feminist attack dogs like Sontag or Adrienne Barbeau— piranhas devoted to eating men alive. What is this world coming to?”

“Apparently not to you, love,” Valerie smiled, smugly folding her arms across an accentuated bustline.

“Perhaps this is why I hired you, my dear. What was your nom de playmate again?”

“Tsk, Rachel,” she replied tartly. “Rachel le Pointe…”

“Ah, yes, I remember her well, in terms of endowment, that is. Although I barely recognized you with that dreadful airbrushing and red-rinsed hair. Et tu, m’boy?”

Me? Like I said, never had the pleasure,” I muttered, poking further around my Swedish silver dollars, fighting an urge to flake out to that McDonald’s hoarder bookstore I passed in the Tenderloin, combing its musty stacks for a back copy and rattlesnake shake—or simply leer at the real deal right here. “Great alias, huh?”

“Should have been—came up with the whole bio myself, in about 15 minutes.” A slight frown creased her tan freckled brow while she finger twirled her curls.

Must have really been some…experience.” I fussed with some hardening syrup on the clear plastic tablecloth, nearly rubbing through to the yellowed lace underneath.

“Cost me my marriage, hubby dared me, then couldn’t handle the overexposure,” she said matter of factly, her composure sensors returning her to calculated calm on the dial. “But I say let’s dispense with the cheap thrills, shall we? That whole Playboy bag is way past history…”

“Must have read like Erica Jong,” Jason erupted, as if energized by his caffeine and mimosa pileup, emerging from his transcontinental trance, albeit with a voice jet lagging several time zones behind his mind. “Well, I say beware of women in baggy clothing, especially here in San Francisco. Never seen a place where men masculate women so much and women emasculate men.”

“What would you know about that,” I asked, just making conversation while catching a syrup drip down the corner of my mouth with my breakfast fork—for what did know? “I mean, you just landed here right?”

“Actually I’m from here, born and bred—Lowell High School to The Farm, then on to a Columbia MFA,” Jason said wistfully, smoothing back his wavy auburn hair. “But every time I come back, I see my city changing, although I’m not sure for the better. Seems to be turning into a sissy girl town in my absence.”

“It’s called leveling the playing field, gentlemen, setting things right,” Valerie said, dabbing at a Hepburn chin with her napkin, as though exposing me to some table manners. “Get used to it.”

“Ahem, be that as it may, it is getting to be too much trouble trying to bed today’s lovelies, getting sucked into all their Ms. Cosmo expectations. As if a night of carnal pulchritude is worth a lifetime of fattened aggravation,” Anderle dismissed, calling the meeting to order with a spoon tap at Bloody Mary glass. “This is why my new M.O. is regarding the fairer sex merely as fertile shopping machines. Thus let us get down to work, shall we?”

“At long last,” Valerie sighed, pushing away her barely dented Eggs Florentine with Eileen Ford discipline and determination.“I was almost working up an appetite here…”

Just when the table appeared to lean forward in concentration, I felt like falling back to a more neutral standing, seriously of a mind to quit while I was only marginally behind. That Fleetwood Mac tune did have me in over my head again, cocked and ready for the starting gun: flight, not fight to my Volvo in Marina Triangle, what with pained tightening at the crown. On the other hand, back there might result in more fight than flight, trouble and time served, with so little left to lose. Still, this Anderle character was popping for breakfast, springing my cameras, calling his meeting to order, and I had for better or worse come this far—a bargain under most any circumstances I could surmise.

“All right then, we have before us a tour de force to produce,” Nolan bellowed, in a flurry of napkins and newsprint. “I have deduced from our efforts thus far that Union Square proper must be the focal point for the San Francisco section of Prism: California. For there are many establishments to spotlight, tourists galore to enlighten and explore.”

“You mean exploit, don’t you,” Jason cracked, as we watched Anderle map things out with his silver Cross fountain pen on a Macy’s double truck in the Chronicle.

“Edit yourself, son, listen and learn. Valerie will continue to sell the blue blazes out of downtown. I will cover men’s clothiers and the Sutter Street galleries. Darling, you will then fan out to Union and Sacramento Street boutiques, as I will call on the antique stores of Jackson Square.”

“What about restaurants, Nolan,” she nudged, arched forward, yoga stretching right there in her chair. “Even must fuel some of those placements…”

“Fuel,”I asked, finally mustering the courage to look upon her, a beauty that just wouldn’t quit, so how could I? Still, that ‘Angel in the Centerfold’ hit by the J. Geils Band, kept making my blood run hot and cold.

“Elementary, my dear. We will simply split them and work some trade-outs with the four-star rooms,” Anderle shrugged. “Same with the hotels themselves.”

“So, uh, where do I come in?” I puzzled, as though I couldn’t decide whether to fold, spindle or mutilate any visions of her Playboy pages, replaying all the issues I had peeked through in newstands over the years, trying to picture a Rachel LePointe here as some September’s three panel center spread, arched back on a featherbed with pursed, frosty lips, nipples up, and staples in her firm, flat tummy. Strictly fantasyland, since the best I could offer was a quickie trip back to the Volvo. So I focused on other issues, namely the hows and wheres of my position in Anderle’s Prism.

“You, m’boy will join Jason in the second wave, as Valerie and I feed you the client rosters,” he rifled through the Sunday Chronicle’s front section, a below-fold headline standing out that M/M. “Contemporaneously, I prefer, taking your cue from Jason, who will ferret out each establishment’s salient sales hook as only he can…”

“Won’t work, Nolan,” said Jason, although taking pleasure in his bubbly mimosa.“Flattery will get you nowhere near any more discount rates from yours truly.”

“Hah, don’t be pulling my legacy, son. What I mean is you will capture the unique essence of the store, etc. in 125 words or less. From that, you and the client will determine the most compelling visual approach. Then of course Avedon here will set up his equipment and take masterful shots with the appropriate grace and panache.”

“Right, panache…I’ll do what I can with what I haven’t at the moment…

“I’m way ahead of you, have briefed Jason on this pawn ticket business. The two of you will resolve it on the morrow,” Anderle surveyed the table, then pumped down his carafe of coffee, casting aside remaining sections of the Sunday paper. “Well then, are we in accord? Splendid! I sense monumental synergy here. So I’m off to Los Angeles for several days to set up the southland operation

“Uh, are you sure I should, you know, hit the streets cold?”

“Of course, m’boy, aren’t you? Simply think upon it as a grand learning experience, no less than the opportunity of your lifetime! Today, San Francisco—tomorrow Hollywood, Manhattan, for heaven’s sake. Who’s to say how far you’ll go.”

“Monsieur Motivation here,” said Valerie, neatly folding her napkin, depositing her alligator datebook into a tropical Hermes bag.

“Agreed then,” Anderle gavelled the table with his pudgy fist, china and silverware rattling the sugar rushed nearby waitress back our way with her check tray. “Now let’s settle up this little tab, shall we?”

“Here, allow me,” Jason mocked, as if reaching for a Coach wallet full of premium plastic from his plaid wool sports coat, coming up empty. “Or maybe Valerie would like to level the paying field…”

“In your dreams, hackboy,” she purred, with a finishing nip of her Belini.

“Now, now, I’ll handle this,” Anderle said, drawing a Cartier bifold from the liner of his gold heralded blazer, pulling out AmEx Platinum. “I’ll itemize and expense it to your respective accounts on the plane, and we can settle it come payment time, if we are tous a bord.”

“Bored isn’t the word for it, love,” Valerie blew him a kiss. “And how on earth can we thank you?”

“By turning Prism: California into the New Yorker of hotel guides, of course,” Anderle gestured us to rise en unison, pocketing the breakfast receipt stub. “But for now, I must repair to the Platinum Throne, then hail a limo to SFO. I have a flight to catch. Valerie, you will man the helm while I’m off to the land of the Bel-Air and Polo Lounge, with a Demitasse brown sun-roofed Biarritz waiting for me at LAX.”

“Beware of all those palm trees and nudie sculptures, Nolan—don’t get any ideas,” Jason smirked.

Not to worry, son, I’ll be too busy selling ad space everywhere from Rodeo Drive to the La Cienega Art Walk,”he offered us a handful of Prism: California business cards from his Gucci attache. “Should the need arise, Valerie can reach me, I’ll be staying at a dear friend’s on Rodeo south of Wiltshire.”

“Uh, Mister Anderle, that advance you mentioned,” I asked feebly, pocketing several business cards. But he had already pivoted toward the men’s room.

“Jason is prepared to handle all that pledge business, m’boy,” he smiled over his shoulder, checking his gold Audemars Piguet. “Just take it up with him. Valerie dear, I shall meet you at the door for some pre-sells and parting thoughts on our way out. Ciao, gentlemen, and remember, Prism: California demands nothing short of sheer brilliance, cover to cover!”

“Wait…pledge?” she zeroed in on me, then toward Anderle’s impish backside, as he tight-ass pronated on the insides of Magli slip-on heels. “You, now? Tsk, Nolan, not him, too—you are something else…”

“Huh? What was that?” I swivelled between them.

“Follow me, Kapra,” Guthrie grabbed me by the forearm.“Let’s get out of here before Nolan cooks up more of his Prismania…”

We passed signed photographs of Tony Bennett, of Joe and Norma Jean, squeezing our way through Sears’ next customers out the door, pausing under its maroon and gold awning to Powell Street. In and outbound Hyde cable cars crossed paths before us, tourist hoots and revelers hanging and gangling out their backs and sides, high-fiving one another on by. Beyond them, red-suited Beefeater doormen and greeters whistled up snarling taxicabs to the majestic Sir Francis Drake Hotel’s loading zone for Scala’s Bistro departees to the gills with Lillet, Fernet-Branca or Ricard Pernod, if not lagging hair of the doggers from up in the Starlight Room. Hard to imagine gorging on 18 little pancakes over there—about as likely as the Drake’s Beefeaters being tea-sipping vegetarians.

“So, where you off to,” I asked, over the click and clang, the truculent horns and power brake screeching.

“My parent’s place, over in St. Francis Wood,” he replied, fixing the clasp on his battered briefcase, to the whirr of underground cables, dueling bells and rumbling of Hyde car wheels.“You?”

“Uh, over toward Cow Hollow, the Marina. But I think I’ll hang down here a while, kinda get the lay of the land, store-wise. You know, being you’re a writer. How do you like that life, anyway?”

“As they say, a good day writing is better than a bad day shoveling horse dung, or about the same…”

“Guess you weren’t shoveling that up in Sir Francis Wood,” I said, as we walked slowly down Powell Street toward Union Square. “Why’d you leave the Bay Area for back east, anyway?”

“I didn’t want to join the long list of loser San Francisco writers. Even Mark Twain nearly committed suicide here, remember? Look at what it’s gotten Brautigan and Gonzo. No, it’s easy to bet on wrong horses here, since there are so few right horses. Too many deadbeats treading water, up to no good. So I opted for better choices, broader horizons in the Big Apple.”

“Well, I’ll cop to being unclear on that concept. I mean, bigger is not necessarily better, especially when it comes to a city like this.”

“It’s called ambition, as in if you can make it there, et cetera, et cetera. Here, you don’t do what you want to do to succeed in this field, you do what you have to do to merely survive, however much sludge sucking that might entail. I just decided to shine in a larger, more opportune pond, that’s all.”

“So why come back for this Prism thing then?”

“A chance to visit the family, take the current pulse around here,” Guthrie shrugged, reviewing Sears’ light-boxed facade menu, as if noting what entrees he might have chosen instead, cognitive dissonance eating at him already. “Besides, Nolan Anderle’s from high in the Vaishya Indian caste, and can be very persuasive. I’ve worked with him on the Prism: New York edition. Was between freelance gigs, and the Upper West Side’s not cheap. He may be eccentric, but his co-op overlooks the Frick Museum’s formal garden, his foyer is virtually across from Central Park. He knows I’m well familiar with San Francisco, and offered to pay my way, so here I am.”

“Maybe you missed it some, too, huh? A little homesick?”

“Not really. After New York, San Francisco seems a bit too thin-skinned parochial for my tastes anymore,” Guthrie looked down Powell Street toward the St. Francis Hotel and Union Square, clear to the Emporium storefront wall across Market. “To me, it’s like smugly putting every other place down, but if you criticize something here, you’re a narrow-minded rube. Getting to be there are so many people from so many different places crammed onto the tip of one little peninsula, everybody’s touchy, spending too much valuable time trying to reconcile so many irreconcilable differences. So everything’s lowest common denominator multi-lingual—devoid of subtle wordplay.”

“And Manhattan’s not?”

“But at least everybody’s so real there. A ‘fuck you’ is a ‘fuck you’ in New York City, here it’s ‘have a nice day’ with a ‘fuck you’ underbelly. People are afraid to rock anybody’s boat directly, or they’re too busy feigning beautiful, playing rich. In New York, nobody’s reluctant to push others around and out of their way, set people straight on things. There’s a refreshing honesty to that kind of belligerence. Relationships and transactions are purposeful, meaty—not like the sourdough filler around here.”

“C’mon, you’re making me wish I’d ordered a side of bacon with those Swedish cakes,” I said, Chicago and Michigan Avenue crossing my piddling mind. “But it sounds like maybe you’ve been away too long, bashing your own hometown like this.”

“Native’s prerogative, just a little tough, truthful love, with the perspective of some critical distance,” he reflected. “Product of a writer’s eye, wouldn’t you say?”

“Sorry, can’t really speak to that,” I replied, conflicted, flummoxed with mixed messages, for I didn’t find myself feeling that way. Instead, I was beginning to see it differently, maybe an avenue out of my current lot, a ticket out of the Marina lot, a sneak peek at the other side of the divide. Moreover, it was such another beautiful day. “Gonna grab MUNI there, or…”

“Rule number one: Smart New Yorkers don’t grab buses, they hail taxis. I’ll summon one over there on the St. Francis line. Who knows, perhaps I can split it with Fatty Arbuckle…”

“Taxicab humor, funny…”

“You have something against taxis, do you,” Guthrie asked, as we passed the comparatively compact Churchill Hotel mid block.

“No, but I know all about cabs, believe me.”

“Fine, then I’ll meet you here in Union Square tomorrow morning, nine sharp, all right? Bring your pawn tickets, then we’ll hit the client stores.”

“Yeah, what’s even funnier—New York writer, Playmate of the Month, and I don’t even have my cameras, let alone a portfolio. So why do you figure Anderle chose me?”

“Hunger, desperation, the right equipment in the right places,” Guthrie led me across teeming Post Street, between the MUNI and tour buses roaring by. “Maybe that’s the best thing you have going for you in his eyes. So gut feeling plus simple expedience, he needed somebody in a New York minute.”

“Wonderful.” I couldn’t decide whether to focus on the formidable St. Francis Hotel or yawning expanse of Union Square on the other side of Powell Street. “Anyhow, at least you’re suggesting Anderle and his Prism Publishing is an up and up operation with some New York prestige behind it…”

“That is, if you overlook the fact that Nolan underwrites it with his Priapismic porn division… Taxi!!!”

sr dingbats

The lay of this land fulcrumed directly across Powell Street. Left to forfend for myself, what with a St. Francis bellhop having ushered Guthrie’s cab away, I decided not to revisit the idle strife or addled conversations of palmy Union Square, but to scout its perimeter. Point being, the task before me was to take the measure of surrounding stores and businesses, bone up on these top drawer products and services, with an eye toward capturing their elegant display windows and bejewelled, gilded facades. Cutting over to Geary Street, I kicked off with a quick pop into Lefty O’Doul’s Bar for a taste of Anchor and whiff of hofbrau steam table corned beef, an inspirational sepia photo tour of PCL and Seals Stadium greatness and baseball lore.

Corner news stand headlines included the confirmation of Rep. Leo Ryan’s fact-finding trip to Guyana, to address rumors of holding people against their will and threats of mass suicide. In reply, Peoples Templers demanded no press coverage of, or concerned relatives in the Congressional delegation. The cigar chawing newsbarker in a Bataan bomber jacket wisecracked from a Herb Caen column that if Henry Ford couldn’t make Fordlandia, South America work, how could Rev. Jim in Jonestown? But that was little more than added background noise to me.

So hitting the streets, I then assumed a pro photographer’s pose, freeze framing I. Magnin’s and Macy’s sumptuous, fashionable elevations, gauging sightlines, gaining perspective on this gleaming commercial circus—however overheaded and empty handed my aesthetic approach may have been. Still, business was business, so I trained my virtual viewfinder on Magnin’s white marbled colored strongbox, across Stockton Street to the eviscerated carcass of that venerable City of Paris, now subdivided into the likes of Liberty House, with demolition on the drawing boards. While Newsradio 74 beamed from the corner flowerstand that ‘the body found floating in the Marina’s Gashouse Cove had been positively identified, pending notification…’

I wondered if it was by fingerprints, or possibly lack thereof.  Recrossing Geary in minor dismay, I blinked twice to envision reading an exposure meter, stopping down my aperture to f/16 star kiss the sun glare on such haute Stockton Street store windows as Bulgari, Chanel, Gucci, Dior, Yves, stalwarts like Bally and Johnston & Murphy. Then 1/500 sec. panned up to soaring overhead billboards for Chivas nights, touting Japan and Philippine Airline non-stops to the Pacific Rim, with a from-the-hip snap or two down boutique cute, quaint Maiden Lane, Gershwin and Ellington loudspeakering out. That back stretch along Post Street was wide-angle lensworthy, over to the vaults of Tiffany & Co., the Powell corner flagship of Saks Fifth Avenue—the massive St. Francis anchoring it all. Then it was a telephoto zoom shot down Post, depth-of-field compressing the Gumps’ furnishings, Shreve’s precious metals, Dunhill tabac, the traditional pin-striped, button-down tailoring of Cable Car and Brooks Brothers’ Clothiers into an old-money, blue-chip montage. Yeah, that would work…

Got so I was genuinely getting caught up in all this international luxe and finery, to where I could even visualize the ghost of Raphael Weill’s Beaux-Arts White House over toward Sutter Street, stage textured available light 200 ASA portraiture of his exclusive French-Style dry goods, tripod and cable release compositions of the grande dames from Pacific Heights to the Peninsula frequenting his Parisian Tea Room and in-house art alcoves galore. Before long, it occurred to me that nothing less than a fisheye lens could capture the ever-expanding Wilkes-Bashford haberdashery empire. Then it was further up Sutter to scope out the fine-art houses full of trend and market setting painting and sculpture. Headier stuff here, exquisite Nikon and Canon fodder in display windows and along track-lit gallery walls.

I was actually beginning to anticipate, to breathe and feel the big-time glamour, increasingly rising to Prism: California’s challenge, screw its alleged provenance. At least until coming upon Reyland Gallery, one heavy hitter between Powell and Mason, renowned for its fine L’Hermitte and Fromentin oils, the impressionist T.E. Butler—along with alder carved and sensual bronze sculpture. However, Reyland’s latest showing was of a half-dozen brilliant paintings from San Francisco’s promising new artist, Sydney Mendel.

Her up there, me down here: picturing it was rough enough—but hopefully I wouldn’t have to put any of that into words.

Care for more?

Chapter 86. A blur of San Francisco’s
finest shops and galleries brings
personal shortcomings into sharper focus…

 

 

“Go, think for yourself
for once in your meager life—
mind cuts like a knife.”

“Montpelier, or Montmartre.”

“Uh, I don’t think that’s quite…”

“Or Monte Moore…”

“That sounds more like…”

“No, Monte Mar, that’s it, by God. His manse looks out over Sausalito and everything—the whole megillah. I’ll be basing up there while I’m in town.”

One other sun-up role call came in. A bell rang through the Marina Triangle parking lot like Easter Morning services, not that long after I had packed it in from the long night. Apparently a persistent ring, an authoritative tolling of stellar consequence that caught the ear of a passing Monsignor, who took the call from that public phone booth, then levitated over to the Volvo, tapping my door glass with a sanctified smile. His beatified summons shook me out of a troubled sleep, sent me scrambling to the phone booth, cotton mouth sweating through a harried call from Ready Temps. Something about the new client in town, needing a crack photographer for a series of commercial color shots, chance of a lifetime for us all. Ready staffers combed their roster files and mine was the only profile that came anywhere close, and that I’d better hop to it because they had pitched my ass full bore to this megabucks new mover and shaker from back east. Feeling so jarringly obliged, so thoroughly pre-bought and sold, I was halfway out the phone booth, tripping over my tongue and untied bootlaces before catching the specific wheres, wears and when.

“And all this,” said Nolan Anderle, a slightly Greenstreet sort of cherub, gratuitously vain and self-possessed in light of his true physical presence. “Yes, indeed, it pays to have hail-fellow well met friends in high places the likes of Benjamin Jay Booker. Then again, Jay can say the same thing when he decamps to my Manhattan pied-a-terre.”

“I’ll bet,” I replied, wincing as he assessed me, head to toe.

“Now as to you, however, the Ready agency vouches for your integrity, and I myself detect something in the cut of your jib.”

“Just a little wrinkled, actually,” I tugged at the sleeves and lapels, some quick and self-conscious hand pressing. “I’m sorry about the jacket—been traveling, was going to get it dry cleaned and everything…”

“Not to worry, m’boy. We’ll take care of all that,” Anderle flipped through a clear plastic sleeve of Ektachrome Euro slides I’d packed away in my trunk-banished rucksack. “The important thing is you are able to shoot a brilliant snap that tells a compelling story in the realm of a hotel narrative.”

“Yes, well, have a little problem with that, too.”

I stumbled back and forth from my Volvo to the public john to transmogrify into presentable zoom and groom. Still half asleep, I barely noticed that our little motor pool had rather cleared out from the red curbed parking lanes. Gone were Sherry’s Econoline and Clifford’s Corvair; Eric’s Porsches remained in place, but neither he nor Bruno’s remains were anywhere to be seen. I did spot a swirl of flashing amber tow rig over by Gashouse Cove’s boat lift, and what looked to be…whoa, Gary’s bread truck? It appeared to have rolled diagonally halfway down that rocky embankment beside the cove’s inner channel, his crates and shoe boxes tumbled out of the driver’s door like CARE packages out of a C-47 cargo plane, into the oily water—who knew the why’s and wherefores?

Gary himself was nowhere to be seen hereabouts, but then neither was Crabber Don, unless he was holed up in his boat sitting gig with a bottle of yesterday’s sauce. Yet after the way last night went down, I wanted nowhere near any patrol cars or emergency vehicles, especially on an achingly bright morning such as this. So I slicked down, buckled up and stole out the Fillmore side exit, hoofing it to Chestnut Street for a circumspect MUNI ride downtown.

“So you’re not exactly Cartier-Bresson or Avedon, son. Nevertheless, time is of the essence here.”

“Let alone Robert Frank,” I smiled nervously, wondering where the hell that came from. “On the other hand, I’ve had some hotel experience, Ritz-Carlton actually. Maybe I can do a little writing for you, in a pinch.”

Precisely! The point is your pictures show me you can read an exposure meter, at the very least frame and focus,” he held the pocketed sheet up the the window light. “And…hmmm, a not altogether blind eye for line.”

“I appreciate that, sir,” I said, mildly flattered, to say the least, which was what Anderle just offered forth.

And be aware that you will be working with the best in the business, the tops in their field,” he continued, as he brushed straight-edge talc from his smooth black linen lapels. “I foresee some very big things for you, indeed.”

“Uh, well the biggest thing right now is my gear…”

“It must be up to standard—of that, I’m sure…”

“No, quite frankly, the problem is it’s up to here in…pledge,” I raised my hand to my off-center Windsor knot.

On a left-side bus seat, facing safely away from Syd’s place—let alone the wiles of Lafayette Park—I unspindled a rush-hour Clarion left behind. Its page-one piece detailed the latest complaints of maltreatment, even some suspicious deaths, looming over Peoples Temple, from Geary Street down to Jonestown. Such that Congressman Leo Ryan had vowed to personally lead a Guyana inquiry into defector horror stories soon after the upcoming election. His fellow International Operations Subcommittee members have already called it a ‘crazy trip’, while Jim Jones labelled Ryan a right-wing conspiracy nut. The page-four jump and 47 Van Ness bus carried me to California Street, where I jumped on an inbound cable car, grip hanging onto the trolley’s backside all the way up here.

“Hmmm, I see, beholden to a poor man’s banker, the vipers who traffic in human setbacks, hey? Well, we can’t have that now, can we,” he slid his hand back and forth expressively between us. “Tell you what, we shall simply march in there and reclaim your rightful equipment, that’s what. Free your creative tools from such pecuniary encumbrance.”

“What? I can’t ask you to…”

“M’boy, you’re not asking for anything. I simply wish for you to unshackle those divine tools and skills, to soar with the creative eagles!”

“Really, Mr. Anderle, that’s the most considerate…”

“Considerate, nothing. Consider it an advance.”

“Advance…”

“Why, against future payment, son. Of course you could just leave your photographic equipment there and let the scoundrels peddle it out from under you. There is a time limit on such arrangements, is there not? I’m sure a bright young man like yourself has been keeping track.”

Up here being atop Nob Hill, magnate and mogul row, lofty home to some of San Francisco’s earliest tycoons, to the Big Four: Fairmont, Mark Hopkins, Stanford Court and Huntington Hotels, more or less surrounding a massive Willis Polk brownstone mansion, the only structure up in this neighborhood to have survived the 1906 Earthquake. Originally the home of silver baron James Claire Flood, the mansion had become a private social club as early as the mid-1800s—legacy front lawns and all—a mens-only clubhouse by charter, members being the captains and capstones of Northern California industry and society. Ready Temps had directed me here, to meet their new client at this Pacific-Union Club, and I couldn’t have felt less presentable on my way off the cable car running boards, much less upon running up steep stair steps toward P.U.C.’s uniformed doormen. Good thing this client so assuredly answered their verifying call, albeit on Ben Jay Booker’s dime.

“Uh, sure I have,” I muttered, leaning in on the leading edge of a tawny leather settee as if it were eggshells Baroque. “What do you think…”

“Well, then, are we on board,” Anderle pressed, sipping from a stemmed crystal goblet, brandy perhaps, cognac more likely. He hadn’t offered me the opportunity to find out, but then neither had he actually offered up a drawing room seat.

“Can’t see why not,” I nodded curtly, wiggling and wriggling against a crested doilied arm. Hell, I couldn’t even remember where I’d left the pawn tickets.

“Splendid, m’boy,” Nolan stared triumphantly through me, turning his goblet ponderously across his lips.“Yes, splendid, indeed.”

“I mean, once we iron out the details and everything,” I said in passing, as I pivoted away from any eye contact, toward the view outside that arching cut-glass window, panning from the stodgy, bordering-on-fusty Georgian brick Huntington Hotel across California Street.

A cable car pulled my eye around to the exalted Beaux Arts fortress on Mason Street, built for mining magnate and U. S. Senator James Graham Fair in 1907, with a Vanderbilt money ponied in. A world of flags flew high above the Fairmont Hotel’s grand porte-cochere, limos converging as though statesmen were still drafting the United Nations Charter in its Garden Room; Sammy, Ella and the Toastmaster General were working the Tonga’s Tiki Bar, Tony Bennett was leaving his heart in the Venetian. “Some neighborhood, huh? Must cost a fortune to be a member here.”

“Top of the Mark, m’boy, nothing but the top of the mark—Jay and I would settle for nothing less,” Anderle leaned back in his satin upholstered wing chair, checking his Vacheron Constantin, still on East Coast time. “Indeed, for my money, Nob Hill is San Francisco. It’s much like home, so very Upper East Side.”

“Your home is like this?” I fixed on the wiry thin gray strands of his pasty combover, ears perked to zip code and decor.

“Would you expect to find anything less on East 70th just off Fifth Avenue? Son, I count among my closest neighbors Niven and the Frick Museum. Yes, in town from my Somerset County farm, I pour a snifter from my Hepplewhite, then settle my silk robe into a Louis XIV to admire my original, exquisitely framed baby Monets and Magrittes—my favorite being ‘Une Pomme’ –or look out upon the horse carriages of Central Park. Where my dear friends are always welcome to do the same. Play your cards properly and one day you may find yourself ensconced there for a sumptuous spell, as well.”

“Wow, New York, I…”

“Nevertheless, it appears you are situated quite well here,” he said, with an eye to the Club’s sculpted iron and etched glass light stands, muralled and tapestry paneled walls. “San Francisco is a little big city unlike Los Angeles, which is simply a big little town. That I know, as I happen to be departing for the southland tomorrow evening. Therefore, we must firm up our positions tout de suite.”

“L.A., too. Incredible…”

“In certain circles, that is,” Anderle zeroed in on me, tight jawed and four-square, monogrammed hanky to his high, polished brow. “I have a similar accommodations awaiting me in Beverly Hills, on Rodeo Drive, as a matter of fact, two gorgeous queen palm trees or so south of Wiltshire. Which is precisely why we must move on this arrangement, young man. I am prepared to seed you enough to retrieve your photographic equipment, and remunerate you at a rate of $25 per acceptable shot. You work off the initial seed redemption, then will receive this more than generous payment from there on.”

“Wait, that could take,” I reeled, struggling to guesstimate the pawn ticket bottom line. “And what about Ready Temps?”

“Fear not,” he dealt, rolling hand over wrist, like flipping an omelette over easy, yet with a firm, flourishing pat of the spatula. “Between you and me, there will be ample work. We fully intend to sell all of San Francisco’s finest establishments on my marvelous publishing venture. As for the agency, they can fee me, and we’ll simply work around the rest.”

“We…but how do I know who…”

“Tut, tut—a presume we are all gentlemen and women here, dealing from a position of eminent trust,” he said sonorously, as if sensing a close. “Better you should lose the tools of your trade to some shyster loan shark?”

“Well, no,” I muttered, calculations hitting bottom and frittered away. “But you’re saying shoot my way out…”

“Precisely! See, I knew you’d be decisive,” Anderle grinned anew. “Soon as my operative arrives, I will have him escort you down to that little Waterloo of yours and redeem your wares.”

“Operative, what…” I winced at the very idea, drifting off into the drawing room’s soaring inlaid ceiling, its capital crowned marble columns, largely lush potted palms.

“Jason, my crack copywriter. Best in Gotham, I must say, which means best, period—a hybrid between Maugham and Vidal. I’m flying him out, sparing no expense, of course. For we all know there are no real writers out this way. Should be here first thing in the morning.”

“Yeah, well, what say I sleep on this, call you in the morning, first thing?”

“Au contraire, m’boy. You will join us tomorrow, elevenish at that delightful breakfast spot across from the Sir Francis Drake. Sterling’s is it? A full staff meeting before I depart for SFO to sell out the best of Los Angeles. We’ll reserve a rear corner booth, just like at Elaine’s. Valerie will be there, as well. You’ll not miss her, of that I’m certain.”

“I’ll mull it over, see what I come up with,” I sighed, tuning into the Mahler and Hyden piping prudently through. “Will bring you a final answer then, okay?”

“All you need bring are those pawn tickets,” he insisted, admiring his fresh manicure, then reaching into his jacket for a small leather holder. “Now, allowing as how I have a theatre engagement, I must request you take leave. Until tomorrow, my card…”

“Tomorrow,” I nodded warily, rising to shake his flaccid hand. “Pleasure meeting you…”

“Rest well, m’boy. Come morning, we mobilize our top drawer enterprise, conquering California, north and south. That’s right, as God is my witness, there surely will be work for us in the City of Angels, as well.” He then lightly grasped my elbow, leading me out of the drawing room back to PUC’s parqueted foyer, along a velvet cushioned banquette, handing me over to its cloakroom attendants and valet de pieds. “So welcome aboard, and incidentally, run a quick press over your shirt and slacks, for heaven’s sake. Remember, from here on, it’s first class all the way!”

“First class…so agreed,” I scanned a business card reading, Prism Publications, as uniformed doormen ushered me out the club’s gaseliered, pillared portico to the sheerly declensive front staircase, then the clang and clatter of crossing cable cars. “I’ll take it up with my…gentleman’s gentleman.” Guess Mister Anderle couldn’t prismatize the creases and wrinkles in my jib But who knew if he was legit, anyway; then again, he didn’t know what I was up to, what I was all about. I really had to think this all through…

sr dingbats

“Looks like they’re road tripping again, can’t keep those two off the highway for long…”

“But, so sudden…”

“Who knows, maybe they were spooked by last night’s fireworks, or all those park killings? What say you, bro? Where you think they off to, and why?”

Me? How would I…”

“I mean, you been hangin’ around this crew long enough now, ain’t you?”

“Well, in and out…”

“That’s what I’m sayin’…”

“Frankly, I don’t have a clue what you’re saying.”

“Just remember, ain’t nobody can hold you captive like your own self.”

So what was he implying, what the hell was he accusing me of?! That was the thing about L.T., I couldn’t quite figure out where a con like him was coming from. All I was asking was where Sherry and Clifford had disappeared to, and he started gaming me this way. The last thing she said to me was, “even if you win the rat race with these downtown jobs, you’re just going to be another rat.” Nevermind getting into what Gary’s truck and the morning’s Gashouse Cove gumball brigade was all about—wasn’t going anywhere nearer that than I’d already been, namely this side of outright avoidance. The only thing I’d returned to the Marina Triangle for was my car, and with Nolan Zanderle still blowing in one ear, I wasn’t about to let some rasty jailbird blow out the other. Everything seemed upended in the parking lot we’d called home, with L.T. lingering like a pusher at People’s Park.

Well, no dice. I gave him a neighborly stiff arm, so to speak, strategically re-positioned some traffic cones and coaxed the Volvo over to the Iranian gas station for a two-dollar fix. Then it was off on an early evening mission up Bay Street, time to take my back back, start spreading the news. A photo gig, could be branching out to the Frickin’ Big Apple and L.A., jet set coast to coast. Damn straight, we’ll even the playing field—water reaches its own level, right here and now, Syd, just in the nick of time. Let me just turn the corner here, sniffing your turf like a pimply freshman the homecoming queen—flip from ‘Baby Come Back’ by Player on the AM to Patti Smith’s ‘Because the Night’ Belongs to Lovers on the FM side and…whoa, wait, what’s that?! Can’t be a cobalt 450SL , not there in here puny little driveway—that’s not how this is supposed to go. Okay, just seeing things, blink of an eye—gotta take a spin around the block, change my perspective, not fixin’ on some fixation or anything, just adjusting my aperture and shutter speed to a new horizon.

I proceeded to drive myself dizzy with poor sleep, bad food groups over it—much less a rapid fire succession of eroto-misfiring imagery. wheeled up to a Lombard Motel Row deli, scoring stale sourdough and sour milk, then acted upon a gyrotransponder compulsion to cruise through the inner Marina’s silent, lifeless streets. Across Octavia, up Gough, block after tree-free block of chalky bungalows, two-flats and apartment buildings offering sunny, saltwater breezes and concrete vistas, from Pacific Heights down and out to the Golden Gate. But by the time I’d doubled back around Van Ness and Lombard to Syd’s on Chestnut, that Laine dude was helping her into his Benz, the both of them decked out for some serious date night action, some Greasy Saturday Night Fever after that, by the looks of it, anyhow.

All the more sour to the gullet: No way, she wouldn’t, must be my mind playing tricks, not her doing them. But popcorn brain again, M-80s going off, a seiche of burning images. This wasn’t my idea of action, didn’t factor this into my plan. I fumed as they pulled away with a cross-console buss and sped down Van Ness Avenue. Here I be, gearing to spring a Hail Mary pass and ending up with an act of constriction—gripping the gearshift and steering wheel like they were Silly Putty in my hands. I punched up and down the radio dial, landing on a KMEL set of new Doobies at a red light, getting honked along and headlight winked through a right hand turn. Round and round,Van Ness out Lombard Row to Fillmore Street and back up Chestnut again, horning traffic like a dirt track cracker through ‘Here to Love You’, but I couldn’t spot that goddamn SL valeted anywhere. Then it hit me, must be some bank deal, a PBT corporate affairat least until the FM tracked to ‘What a Fool Believes’.

Yeah, no fuckin’ way, this wasn’t about about me anymore, or me and her, this was about her or me, goddamn beyond me, as the case may be, with or without my consent or regard. ‘Minute by Minute”, the storm rained in—double cross, no triple cross, leaving me to carrion as before, tire tracks on the forehead, cloud of road tar over the carnage..leaving me here in the dust, angel dust, gold dust, Nixy ‘Gold Dust Woman’ dust, damn bent…in all, a theoretical construct I had no power to reason away…

Nothing to do but kill the radio and crawl back to the Marina lot before…uh-oh, too late, the Volvo began sputtering and coughing at Gough Street, where I coasted over to a white curb loading zone, fuel gauge buried to the left in the now dead of night. Head cracking open like a petrified walnut, I could have packed it in right then and there. Instead, I locked up, figuring to walk this all off, think things through, pick up the pieces down by the shoreline—naw, better to air it out with a hike uphill to park my achin’ ass where we had been and gone before…

sr dingbats

ED: Trigger Warning…

Ask me, they’re lookin’ to make Moscone look bad, tryin’ to cost Chief Gain his job, that’s why.”

“Figure they’re getting all kinds of heat from up the hill, too?”

“You got it. Pacific Heights don’t cotton none to the pink invasion, ‘specially anywhere near this part of town, understand? Not like they’d ever own up to it, but…”

“So you’re sayin’ the badges will keep draggin’ their feet on this park spree, no matter what they’re fed…”

“Just another loser whacked in the park, boss—pass the coffee and donuts…”

“Meanwhile somebody’s gettin’ away with murder. Shit, may the force beat with you. Man, I’m outta here.”

Not only couldn’t I recall how I’d wandered from point A to Point B and back again, but how the corner Bay/Van Ness Shell station let me pump a gallon of regular leaded into a plastic milk carton salvaged from its backlot dumpster. That and some frantic gas pedal priming bought a one-way trip back to the Marina Triangle and a little sun-up downtime. Maybe it was the caffeine comedown, the mind cleaver that was Anderle’s greet and meet, then another long overnight wringer, but I had packed into my Volvo like a bloody laundry bag. Sliding under the Frostline in holey Looms, I buried my throbbing melon in an arm-rested throw pillow from the Boulder days, picking up a wispy scent of Moon’s Dr. Bronner’s soapy shampoo again—pillow from the trunk, but still no blasted Josh box. From there on, I blew off the entire afternoon in a bucket seat coma, draining the 122s’s battery with a low-volume lullaby of KSFC Hit Radio, marginally oblivious to the squabbling seagulls and cross-cackling crows. Even to that smiling gladhander and screaming woman’s Coupe de Ville carryings on—which by then involved sitting on her trunk lid in sweater and underpanties, flailing her fists and rolling her bleached blond head like an asylum seeker just outside the garden gates.

So another beautiful autumn day in the Marina Triangle had worn on without me until the onset of a waxing moon eventide. Whereupon neither the AM hit parade nor rev and rumble of the parking lot’s motor pool could entirely drown out a door-to-door exchange between some plain looking black Caprice sedan and what looked and sounded similar to L.T. in his van. But a sneak peek up and out my driver’s window only got me a rubbery squeal and fog of ring worn exhaust from a dark truck blowing off the lot. I’d all but forgotten that the worm had turned 180 degrees, worm gear, at least, so I soon pried my eyes wide open to a full-on windshield view of the Small Craft Harbor, looking away from the boulevard mansions, steering clear of any further parking lot intrigues.

What I could make out of that clandestine conversation was nothing I wanted to hear about then anyway. Lying low until the Caprice pulled away, I then abluted the hell out of there in what could best be described as subdued street clothes, leaving the Volvo to its own restorative devices. More than ever, I had to break away from here with no evidential chains or gas pains, had to change my tune. Safeway afforded the takeaway coffee, Fort Mason the clear path to what Van Ness Avenue had to offer in the way of POV and breathing room. At least until I dodged slamming traffic across Bay Street right out of the globe-lit iron gate, following a scruffy cart pusher who stopped cars left and right against the light, with drop dead attitude, if not coinage to spare. Come curbside, he turned to hit me up for that, as though some sort of self-decreed toll taker for having blazed an easier trail. “Thanks, anyway…”

Would that it had ended there, but from the corner Shell station on, a small, though gathering gas- queue shed headlights on another nettlesome line down Van Ness, peopled by crepuscular figures who likely preferred living large outdoors, among the sunny daytimers in Aquatic Park and shadowed tree cover and shrubbery under Fort Mason stars. Too soon to tell whether The City was on the verge of becoming a homeless magnet or homeless magnate, but tonight this realm cried out for lucre of any kind, even with a screaming high school football game across Van Ness at Galileo’s OJ Memorial Field.

“Hey, brother, make my day,” yelled a corner panhandler on the prowl, bed blankets wrapped around his shoulders like a reptilian boa, scored cordovan oxfords ripped out at the counters.

“Aww, sorry, but don’t go ruining my day, okay,” I snapped, bypassing his encampment between hydrant and scrawny acacia tree—hey, you’re supposed to be helping derelicts like that…

Your day? What the hell about my day?”

And so on—between Bay and Francisco alone, I negotiated a gauntlet of ragged street types in transition, coming to the very end of things, guys nicknamed the Necktie Strangler and Stinky the Rapist, up all night after regenerating like crocodiles in the afternoon warmth. They had brought all their anxieties, phobias and animosities to the grand avenue, commingling and blathering in indeterminable tongues, bringing a new wrinkle to mere survival of the fittest, some destined for either the Bryant Street lock-up or the morgue. Sitting or lying all over the dog tagged sidewalk, many were toxically loaded, blowing stubbed Bugle smoke, rocking or rolling over to scratch their pet bugs and sores. Others preened, took detached stock of their rebel selves, or shadowboxed like Muhammad Ali pounding Leon Spinks into submission in New Orleans’ Superdome. Behind a trashbasket, some Uneasy Rider took a bare-ass curbside crapola, yanking his jeans back up with a defiant bird to all, his Captain America chilblains shivering nearby him, rolled up in an army blanket, eyes fluttering, lips flapping, shaking out of his oversized laceless boots, blissful grin for his wingman.

So I moved on along a block of four-story brickface and stucco apartment buildings, as if to wish away a vomit sighting. Greeting me across Francisco Street was a soaked dude cloaked in a plastic dry cleaning bag and wet, baggy pants; then a hairy-faced hulk in soiled movers’ threads turning to shout into a metal-gated apartment building door window reflection, “Hate that you’re fag, man,” over and over again.

The aroma of minute steaks and Mongolian BBQ may have been wafting from boxy upstairs bay windows, but down here at street level, it was all caked urine and boozy heave. The wages and rages of chronic starvation, pre-famine indicators: hunger pangs turned to tongue swelling, stomach perturbation, saliva became thick and foul-tasting, throat feeling like barnwooden tubing. Soon the appetite went from nothing to anything but food, with a fixation on water, sugary at that. Until heads commenced spinning, muscles lost strength and mass, hallucination and lethargy setting in. Then body fat turned to liquid, bodies began feeding on themselves. Luckier buggers survived on a strict diet of take-out discards and shredded cheese in a baggy, like eating and coughing up long hair. Chez Panisse, it wasn’t, nor St. Zita’s for that matter.

“Yah, you only steal from a store you can afford to get booted out of.”

“It’s been real, bro…”

“Real what?! Wake up and smell the concrete, will ya? What don’t kill you’ll drive you crazy.”

“I’m just wakin’ up smelling you.”

These younger bucks would be the gutter swipes and skateboard sages, hitting up fast and strong, in and out of garage door recesses, dispensing such crack-wise morsels—in other, more lucid words a school of street sharks diverting marks from the pick and con between flickering street lights exhausted ficus and crackling trolley poles, suddenly sucking mooks like me into their distended day-to-day dramas. But on approach to Chestnut Street on a steel-grated sidewalk, sidestepping splice box covers and a hefty leopard-jacketed bottle blonde walking a bone-thin Afghan hound, I decided I’d have none of it, opting instead for a jumbo carry-out black, no sugar from this Vanro Market. Yeah, nyet my problem, no more sweating the small stuff, not when I had some real displeasure to work through…

“Four-star Clarion, latest on East Timor and Angkor Wat, read all about it!”  This, over the roar of passing buses and downtown traffic, a news hawk dealing from his cubbyhole tarpaper stand next to the MUNI stop. Vanro Groceries/Liquor was the all-hours cornerstone of a six-story Arabesque deco apartment building with an ornate mezzanined foyer behind iron gating, and crested detail throughout. Typical fluorescent convenience store: postered, boarded over front windows, lots of quick, packaged junk food inside, household essentials, door upon door of beer and cheap wine in the dairy case, and even more security mirrors angled for a rear-facing counter, just inside the skin and movie rag racked entrance. I’d bagged a mini-donut pack along with the coffee for dinner, a craggy, eagle-eyed proprietor monitoring my every curious step back out to Van Ness, past a block-letter sign: ‘Thank Your For Shopping Here’.

“Carter lauds further progress on new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David, final Clarion Edition!”

A revving yellow Barracuda pulled up to grab a weekend edition from the aged, overgrown paperboy in his full Giants garb, then peeled out before a blaring tour bus. Enough with that noise, I tracked the Grayline Coach riding that Plymouth’s bumper through a green light, picking up on the bright orange neon lights of the motel cater-cornered across Van Ness—sleep, sweet clean-sheeted sleep—but instead turned around the corner onto Chestnut, staying tucked under Vanro’s brightly lit metal awning next to of all karmic things, a billboard reading, ‘Shot From the Hip’, with a shooter and lime image for…Bandito Tequila.

“Supervisor White blasts cop quotas again, breaks with the Mayor on police funding. Is he stepping in it like Supervisor Pooper Scooper? Or is a political hot potato eating him up? Exclusive in the Clarion…”

Man carries his own baggage, burrowing headfirst into your own grim little mole hole, blah, blah, blah, more of those voices sneaking up on me, as if speaking truth to powerless. I place set the top of a traffic light switching box, wolfed down three chocolate donuts and half a cup as a 30 Stockton trolley bus rounded, sparked blue-red as its power poles clattered through the overhead wire junction down Chestnut toward Jefferson Loop, which I tracked past Syd’s place, all the way out to the Presidio ridge line. Yeah, so much work to do, got a gig, babe—work on me, work on …her, work on me and her, work on her and me, work on me and her and here. Work over her but good, her and him. Might as well go all the way with it, no measly snooping, no pervo window-peeking, just kick that bank wimp out of the pix, airbrush him right out, straight up, where else you got to go?  Caffeine and glucose hitting the synapses, the neurons and norpinephrine, Neil Sedaka’s ‘Bad Blood’ boiling over from my subconscious courtesy of afternoon radio. That sent me to walking sorely down Van Ness toward Lombard Street to mull things around the block.

Turning at the Black Magic Voodoo Lounge, I tromped along Motel Row again, past tourist trap bars and motor inns, traffic swinging off Van Ness by me, gunning out Highway 101 North to the Golden Gate Bridge and Casa Manana, tossing dust like a Badlands coal train. Think about it, fool, quit turning corners, read between the lines. If you don’t want to stay here and don’t want to go there you won’t be getting out of this here that you don’t want to be, unless you go there where you don’t want to be. But the only way you’re gonna get anything together enough to get your ass out of here to where you don’t even want to be, so you can finally go where you want to be the way you want to go there. Simple as that and how many times are you going to have to run through this before it sinks in, and it best sink in fast…whoa, not going wobbly again are you?!

I lapped around Franklin and back up Chestnut, each street lined with pastel stucco and brickface apartment houses. After numbly jotting my name on a Prism card and slipping it into Syd’s mail slot, I crossed the street from her place under cross-cawing light pole crows, landing back at my coffee and cookies outside Vanro Market. HSPs off the chart, more intercranial pressure, electrochemical spillover—cortisol all over the amygdalae, left and right— uncontrollable, swelling across the hemispheres in my lesioned brain: I brooded safely distant from any red Foxes and 450SLs—crazy love sick or just sick of love—de Clerambault’s Syndrome in auto reverse, reason being slave to the passions. Yah, but what if that little schemer is one step ahead of you again? Pushing the buttons, pulling the strings, conniving to keep running things…Maybe she and her family have really worked Moon over back there, so Sister Golden Hair has run filial interference for sure, actually did sandbag me out here just long enough to get Melissa back into Lester’s fold, and now can move on to Sir Moneybags. That Billy Joel’s got it down, all right: ‘She’ll promise you more than the Garden of Eden, then she will cut you and laugh while you’re bleedin’…blame it all on yourself, because she’s always a woman to…’ he!

Meantime, she’s getting away with your whole trip, asshole, squeezin’ you by the gonads whether she’s here or not. Whoop, look out, there she…nope—how perfect, how typically perfect—just the way people like that operate, huh? Damn straight—you know, like dad said, that’s how it is with those sheenies, pure confirmation bias, straight outta Marquette Park. But what do you expect from chasing a chosen rich girl? That’s what you get for skinnydipping in the Jewess pool. Really, what made you get messing around with those connivers anyhow?! Letting them job you up and down this way—see, it’s not you, it’s them, whether Moon buys it or not. No manic, no panic, that’s the work you’ve got to do now, making it right, for Moon and for Uncle Early…need somebody to push you, not eat you alive…never meant to lay a hand on her—jaw clenching, swallow my tongue kill somebody! Just wait until she shows her two chiselin’ faces out that door—you just wait…Hold on, there she...can’t be, all dolled up again, how could she—if she’s with him again, I swear…

“Unnamed body found floating in Marina’s Gashouse Cove, read it in today’s Clarion!”

“There, that full-up bus, jumpin’ the back!”

“Wha ’bout dat…”

“Jus’ go, get on it! Who care? He jus’a dirty ol’ Jew…”

Goddamn commotion, all of a sudden—hey, a little quiet, I’m busy thinking here…Around the corner there—over by the newstand—two corduroy disco-suited punks piled up through the rear exit door of a 47 trolley. It looked to be cram packed from the rescheduled Galileo-Mission High football game, pulling out southbound through an amber caution light. That shrieking, chanting busload even drowned out the startled news hawk, who was loading his remaindered editions onto an arriving Examiner delivery truck, packing it in for the night. Tossing a torn edition over toward Vanro’s doors. He then climbed aboard to take leave. The ruckus had thoroughly scared off a District Two activist handing out flyers for his earlybird mayoral challenge, as though he sensed some political daylight, or was just taking names and contact info for later stalking ground.

“Aaaaggggghhh, help! Somebody help me, oh please!!!”

“Huh? What the…” I glanced around, against my better judgment.

“I’ve been robbed, (cough, cough)…they stabbed me bad…”

“Oh, Christ, whattam I…” I turned the corner to see Vanro’s owner slumping out his storefront doors. From what I could gather, he had spotted the duo milling about the Mumms and Freixenet, then shoplifting Granny Goose Garlic or something—all on his security mirrors. So he came out from behind his counter to confront them, to a payoff of flashing blades, with the pair smashing and grabbing at his cash register on their way out.

“I beg of you, call the…phone, counter…anything (cough)…please, I’ll do anything…”

In any case, the man’s white shirt and apron were awash in spreading red. He laid out there under his store awning and bright facade lights, nobody else now anywhere near. No panic, no manic: I mindlessly raced into his store and rang 911 on his counter phone, grabbing some deli towels on my way back out. Where the hell was anybody else around here?!  Wailing and moaning, the proprietor gasped and gurgled fluids, as if on the verge of passing out cold. “Please help, before I…”

“Here, let me just…” Not that I had clue one what do do, but I knelt down and raised his balding head onto my knee, sopping his bloody chest with the towels, loosening his shirt collar and sleeves between his wheezing breaths. That was when I noticed the fading 59304 tattooed on his forearm. There, stay with the man, son—do it for our grocer, Mister Rosen and his family for helping us so much in Willow Grove, and all their holiday gifts. Mom? That you, mom? Moon, Aunt Eleanor, Uncle Early? Where in heaven are…what’m I supposed to do here with…

But her voice was soon at the mercy of racing sirens and flashers. I pushed a strand of gray hair out of the storekeep’s rolling eyes, then pulled the shirt sleeve back down over his left forearm. There I waited with him until a fire department ambulance screeched up Van Ness here to Chestnut Street.

It was all I could do to release the injured man into paramedics’ hands and watch his store until the patrolmen double-parked their powder blues, then riot stormed the armed robbery scene. I stood heaving relief and disbelief over it all, grabbing that loose Clarion newspaper, fixing to hatch my anti-heroic getaway like a true Bandito in the night…

 Yet not without thinking: Wait, so maybe everybody does have a little Jewish in them, right?

Care for more?

Chapter 85. Food for thought, feast
for the eyes, guide rules are laid down in a
New York minute, with orders to go…


“Plumbing the depths
of some emotional seas can
bring breath and balance.”

“Catharsis, he calls it.”

“Like some sort of transition or transformation?”

“More like some kind of ritual…”

“A cleansing then…”

“Says here they clean their clocks, alright.”

Nothing more to see there, concentric circles of halo light and spreading, saturating blood, Eric crouched over Bruno in the middle of them like the bulls-eye of a target by Jasper Johns. Clifford and I had slogged back to our little motor pool, Crabber Don emerging from behind the metrocedros trees to rag us from the shadows, as if he’d actually manned up to draw near the carnage. Gary had retreated into his bread truck to stew over his Tokarev 51 and salve his embittered war horse pride. The aroma of warmed over Mulligan led us to the open doors of Sherry’s Econoline, where she happened to be reading from this rolled-up magazine she’d lifted from a Quick Wash the other side of Funston Playground. Its story cited accounts that had been dribbling out in baity media drabs, but this lurid thread of it all was news to me.

“You mean in the metaphorical sense, right,” I asked, having rejoined the compound, still in stunned denial over the dog maiming.

“No, not according to this,” Sherry replied, leafing through the newsmag. “They’re just about running a concentration camp down there…”

“Where the hell is that place, anyway?” Basically feigning attention, I had nothing more of any consequence to add.

“Says here it’s the other side of hell…”

She went on about how Guyana escapees described Reverend Jim Jones’ drinking and sedating himself to the point of hypochondria, hallucinations and paranoid delusions. That he was ordering spy patrols and member censorship, not to mention genital/body cavity searches—his druggy mood swings leading to sexual coercion, blackmail frame-ups and gun-waving rants. Worse were humiliating all- night encounter sessions called ‘Catharsis’, in which Temple members harshly criticized and castigated one another, wooden paddling those who resisted surrendering their money and personal property to the Church. The article claimed even Jones’ kin were beginning to turn against him.

Sherry seemed thoroughly caught up in the Jonestown expose, as though nothing of consequence had occurred virtually outside her van doors, that dogmania never happened, that Eric wasn’t melting down over by the seawall in a pool of blood, sweat and tears, or that Clifford hadn’t returned to the Econoline in a state of half-shelled shock. He’d once described upon returning to Aquatic Park how she always triggered their road trips, how whenever things got hairy, she could wrap herself in a cloak of denial, her mind wandering in the flightiest of directions. Here, she zoned out, took highlighter to magazine page like a law student, year two—only pausing to hand Clifford his daily dosage of Lithium, which he furtively palmed and pocketed before addling off across the lot without saying a word, kicking at random car tires as he went.

“Still and all, he skunked your ass good,” Crabber Don wobbled up between our wheels to break an eerie compound silent spell only pecked at by fat, territorial gulls and crows.

“Back off,” Gary grumbled, from the door of his bread truck. “You don’t know shit about it.”

“I know you let that spic kick your commie gun into the drink…”

“Drink’s the only thing you know anything about, so shut your damn mug,” Gary shouted, over the sudden low, lone winding of a Ferrari 308 GTB around Marina Boulevard, as if Laguna Street was Laguna Seca.“Want some more? Just try me!”

“If it was me, I’d have pulled some forearm slide, snap crack the elbow action on him,” Sherry fist pounded her magazine. “This girl’s got some moves…”

“Sheeit, that lame kick-ass move’s why the dog’s bleedin’ to death over there…”

“Listen up, asshole, I was just trying to help. And you have no idea what Jezebel meant to me,” Gary detonated, rubbing his flat-top like clipping a hedgerow, face full of hypertension. Then he thrust his stump arm forward. “This, see it? Take a good look, morons—that’s the pay-off, while you were having your little Hanoi pep rallies. That Tokarev cost me this!”

“Hey, come on,” I muttered, wondering why he had me in his sights, too. “I did my hitch, maybe not in the ‘Nam, but…”

“At ease, troop, was I talking to you?” Gary slammed his steering wheel with his better hand. “I’m talking about dickhead here, and that squirrelly little cowboy ms. fat-ass is wet nursing around.”

Tough and feverish as Halloween Week had been, Marina Green since turned Diamondhead docile. The residue of Polk Street’s mayhem seemed but muffled sirens in the distance. San Francisco Bay was now a dark, freshly drawn bath, so perfectly still, Marin’s jeweled lights glistening like a long orange-onyx bracelet, threading Alcatraz to Angel Island. Against this moony backdrop, Marina lot irregulars had begun regrouping to call it a night and/or morning, or simply to air things out. In the blink of an eye, my 122was a P1800ES sport wagon, and I was riding just as high. Yet I wasn’t prepared to entirely bail out on Eric over there, or appear to be running out on Bruno’s collective vigil.

A lipstick red Ferrari must have been a pace car for a pack of fiercely Marin-bound speedsters negotiated Marina Boulevard’s corners, powershifting past the parking lot through flashing yellow traffic lights toward Ross, San Anselmo, perhaps over the Tamalpais hump to Stinson Beach. Straggler party boats drifted aimlessly into Gashouse Cove, listing heavily with shameless giggles and raucous sounds. They gave me something else to fix on besides Gary taunting Crabber Don by field stripping his half-smoked Chesterfield, then proceeding to compare battle scars.

“But that’s life in the combat arms, grab ’em where it hurts,” Gary added, puffing his hardware and olive drab chest. “The military got me a silver star, two bronzes and a Purple Heart. They say at the VA I’ve got some sort of aggressive problem. They even took X-rays, came up negative. Hell, X-rays are always negative, that’s what they are, negatives. But at least I ain’t got no bad paper…”

“Just don’t go messin’ with me,” Crabber Don spouted, chain smoking between slipping plates.

I’ll be on you like shit on a Huggie—yah, this cat’s stone dangerous. Went to this clinic once? Doc told me I got a psych’logical d’sturbance. What I got is these ear rings. Got ’em from some bastards one morning in Manteca. Was good and wasted, and they jumped me, blasted an airhorn in my ears, ’bouttwenty times, goin’ half deeef.”

“Shit, some people are livin’ to live, some smokers dyin’ to die.” Gary fatalistically flicked his next short butt past Crabber’s ear. “They say if you can’t see yourself at a certain age, you won’t get there. I don’t know where I’ll be in five years, don’t even know where I’ll be in one, so you best back off.”

“Whoa, at ease,” I found it increasingly difficult to remain cool and clinical here, while trying to avoid catching some shadowy figure bent over between walkway lights on the harbor slope, amid the ice plants and purple Echium Vulgare. He was shit marking his territory like a timber wolf—a little something for the flies to feast on besides the Pride of Madeira.

“Huh? I’m just thankful God’s givin’ me this day,” Crabber scooped the smoke and lit up, coughing on the exhale.“Been a muntha Sunday’s since they cut my ‘Done dosage. Been tough, but I ain’t no fuckin’ maniac ’bout it. Just these damn carbunkles crawlin’ all over my neck, rubbin’ it raw, gotta pour warm coffee on ’em sometimes, that helps. Whatever works, right?”

Better to look away than to explore this more closely, but I was soon going cross-eyed with the convergence of shimmering lights on and above the bay. An outbound freighter and Chevron tanker formed a skimming trail of amber deck lights between Angel Island and the north shore seemingly above sea level, while a Alitalia-tailed stratoliner soared eastward over the Golden Gate, vaporizing into the starry night sky. Nearer in, parking lot dwellers futzed with vehicle racks and nozzles, a mash-up of disco and country honk, Skynyrd to Dickie Betts, narrowcasting lane to lane, dubbed with the high-frequency timbre of boat rigging and chimes.

Couldn’t spot the monsignor or General Ripcord anywhere along the walkway, although I did make out a laid-back, soul-patched sail lubber who had long kept a berth for his 27-foot work in progress, living aboard in the process. Tailing him was this mixed Asian breed he heralded as the ‘world’s smartest dog’, but keeping safe distance, for the mellow swabby was suddenly screaming to the heavens that the harbormaster had booted his boat for rent overdue, intending to tow it to the open bay by morning. He nearly bowled over a slow-shuffling crippled pensioner out for some fresh marine air, got so I couldn’t bear to gaze at that any longer, particularly once he turned the corner along the reverse P-shaped harbor, stomping Eric’s way—mister neighborhood smiley face not far behind.

“That rag you’re wearin’, it’s a women’s coat,” Gary dressed Crabber Don down, as though this were a close quarters inspection. “It buttons to the left, dickhead. Men’s button to the right, like Ike’s.”

“Naw, goes either way,” Crabber looked it over, unbuttoning to double check. “What say, advance me a cleaner smoke…”

“Hah, that’s because you probably go either way.”

“Hey funstermucker, that’s your scene, I ain’t no homesesual,” Crabber spouted, jumpy as a lounge lizard in early withdrawal. “You the one be rockin’ out with your cock out,. But if’n I had a boiler like yours, I’d be wearin’ sweats, real baggy ones.”

“And If I looked like you,, I’d be wearin’ a coffin suit…”

“Not fuckin’ yet. I’m still hangin’ in here, mindin’ the dude’s boat, hittin’ the john real regular, checkin’ my butt crack, cleanin’ my damn crevices, man. Yah, already shat twice, took a screamin’ reamer. Even that nut, squattin’ like a Chinaman, pissing all over his crusty britches, couldn’t wait no more. Well, not me, I can still hold my own…”

“Bet that ain’t all your holdin’,” Gary smirked, toasting with half-tanked Old Style.“Swingin’ your shanks and shivs, cruisin’ for an SBC.”

“Hey, I had my 5150s, done my 72 hours,” Crabber said forcibly, hackles up, back against the small parking island’s bushy cypress tree. “But I ain’t doin’ no Gen’l Sistance ’cause it comes with strings, man, then the city starts trackin’ you. Like they ask what you do for spendin’ money—hey, I don’t spend me no money, I just be…”

“From the looks of you, three hots and a cot could be a real step up.”

“Hey, I told ya, don’t be talkin’ that shit to me,” Crabber fumed, all but tossing his bottle at Gary’s windshield, instead staggering toward the cinderblock john. “But I’ll be back, sucka—first gotta check back in at the dude’s boat. He justa a twit with money, but got some righteous stash in the hold there somewhere. Yah, I been an underdog ’round here too long, wanna be an overdog for a change. Comes down to who’s jukin’ who, you know? Shave a squirrel’s tail, and you got a sewer rat…”

“Uh, don’t you think you should be careful,” I said to Gary, although I had other things on my mind, most having to do with saner distance from the nicotine, the liquor, but mainly the prospect of mixing all that over water, marooned with these mallet heads, setting sail for nowhere. “That guy is certifiable…”

For I felt no safe buffer my own self, feeling jammed in the middle of a downtown subway car, heading the wrong way when the blackout hit. These two were mugging, bad-mouthing one another like wrung out warlords. The wet rubber against rubber squeaking of East Harbor floats began drowning out their mindless muttering some, but it also ripped through me worse than gritty dental floss. Something had to give, had to go—instead, it was Lionel Thomlinson, aka L.T., homing back in, riding solo in his paint van, having dismounted in the dim Marina lot light like Fred ‘the Hammer’ Williamson in that new Italian flick, ‘Inglorious Bastards’. But not before clicking off some Herbie Hancock fusion funk on auto-reverse.

Yah, c’mon, man,” L.T. smiled toward Gary. “Ease up on the brother…”

“Spin on it. That dickhead ain’t my brother,” Gary spit, siege mentality apparently setting in, along with another smoke, which he ignited with a single hand flip of a matchbook. “You neither—you and your makin’ with the white meat…”

“Hey, what it is—everything’s copacetic, all the way around,” L.T. chided, fixing to dip a little Skoal. “You’re the one with the problem.”

“Shit, you don’t care about her,” Gary said, as if loath to mention Kathy by name.“You just care about how we react to you and her.”

“If you got it…if not, you can take it away from somebody else. That’s what’s great about the whole women’s lib thing,” goaded L.T., red cape to a bullock. “Dig, can’t beat the free and easy sex. And if they really want my job, I say let ’em do all the work.”

Even in this dimness, I could see that L.T.’s tightly curled beard had picked up a little gray, all the better to camouflage his PFB, along with his pulled-down purple rasta cap. He’d knotted an orange-brown bandanna around his neck, overhanging a high-collar charcoal disco shirt, V-necked to frame a slender gold chain, all covered with his embroidered denim jacket. Kathy had done a similar filigree needle job on his hip-hugger bells, flopping over those black leather boots with belted, brass looped ankle bands when he boogied foot to foot, his collar heating up word by word.

“Well, if you ask me, the clock is runnin’ on you Jody parasites,” Gary sniped, as though still a Mekong marksman.“Yep, Bakke, baby. The window’s closin’ on all that civil rights crap, just you watch.”

“Your ship has sailed, red neck,” L.T. volleyed, with a mitigating au de sensimilla. “And we’re manning the destroyer—starting with Jethros like you.”

“Better than being a bleedin’ heart chump like most of ’em around here,” Gary slugged, somewhat off-kilter by now. “Ain’t no payoff to bein’ nice to youse, only in bein’ a bastard.”

“Don’t ask me,” L.T. backed off, hands to the sky where we could see them. “That’s white folks’ business.”

“Whoa, it’s none of my business…” Sosh, objective observation, vigil, the hell: I’d about had my fill of this bilge, fishing about in the darkness for any redemptive rays of light, noting the low-watt glow of Alcatraz, projecting a degenerate prison here of our own making.

“Like look at them a-holes ridin’ their fancy-shmancy bikes on the sidewalk there,” Gary rattled in flag-waving mode. “This is America, fools, I fought for this country, we got rules here! It’s a sidewalk, not a side ride. Trouble here is there are too too many idiots with too much moola. Or you got these bums scummin’ around—filthy, stinkin’ turds like dickhead here, getting’ wasted, smokin’ the ol’ roparoma. Well, I ain’t givin’ ’em no handouts, ‘specially the ones dressed better’n I am…”

“Whew, on that note, time to go pick up my meal ticket over on Beach Street before she sells me down the river,” L.T. grinned.

“Uh, maybe you could take me with you,” I said, more earnest request than jest, a kid waving out to big brother through the screen door.

“Sorry, Charlie, we got some serious business to conduct, we’s planning on starting a custom jeans line,” L.T. winked. “But cool it, man, keep a grip on yourself. And don’t forget—the women, they be wearin’ their horns and wet dreamin’ just like we do. Only guys want the process, they want the end product, no matter what they say. Why you think they pull that little squeeze-your-dick snatch? Simple reminder that they got your ass now. It’s like with those young newlywed couples, posing for their wedding pix with Alcatraz as a backdrop. So pay attention out therecatch you later…”

With that, L.T. spun Teddy Pendergrass style on his cleated boot heels. He climbed back into his double-parked paint van, cranking up some Peter Tosh and ‘Bush Doctor’ on his eight-track stereo. He smiled, popped some raisons into his mouth and shot us a solidarity peace sign like Richie Havens at Yasgur’s farm. He wheeled up one lane, around down the other toward Gashouse Cove, but not before pit stopping at the head, then that phone booth to dial up a what looked to be a heated spade-a-spade call. But that was black man’s business…

“Know what he meant by ‘be cool out there’, don’t you?” Gary asked me, tossing a dead soldier back into the truck, pulling another beer can from the plastic sixer.

“Oh, that was for something he and I got into over on Muni Pier,” I replied, edging away nearer my car.

“No, he meant he’s on to you—he’s on to all of you…”

“Don’t follow…”

“Just that he knows things,” Gary lit up, leaned back in his driver’s stool. “S’all over it, gets around for himself…”

“So he’s on to what?”

“To Operation Virgin Mary, for one thing…you know, the offings Halloween night…”

“At Polk Street?” Where else, I deflected, right?

“Naw, the dolled-up Mary Magdalene fruit wasted up in Lafayette Park.”

“How’m I supposed to know? Better yet, how do you know…”

“Oh, I see things, too—still do have my eyes,” Gary smiled, blowing a smoke ring. “Plus I have my sources, you’d be surprised.”

“Yeah, well, I’m out of here,” I glanced over toward the seawall as I locked up the Volvo. “Got to see a man about a dog…”

“’Fraid it’s too late for that, troop…”

“In any case, watch out for yourself,” I said, noting Crabber teetering over to Berth 35A.

“You too, us vets gotta stick together,” Gary reached to slide closed his driver’s door. “But no sweat here, got my moves, too. Yah, two quick knuckles to the Adam’s apple—singlehanded, gets ’em every time.”

sr dingbats

“Don’t go doin’ it, Marlene, don’t go desertin’ me like this!”

BEEP, BEEEEEEP…

“I’m tellin’ you, baby, that jerk-off’s poison!”

ROAAARRR…BEEP, BEEEEEEEEEEEEP…

Was preparing to skirt over and console a shattered Eric and what remained of his Chesapeake Bay Retriever, but Sherry and Clifford beat me to it. So my move was to pivot 180 degrees toward the head for a face splash at its rusty wash basins, then its stained steel pots for some bodily relief. But I got nearly blindsided by twin camper-shell pick-ups and a contrail of beer cans and bottles. Truth be told, I was up to here with the Marina Triangle about then, this parking lot in particular. Here, where everybody who’s rejected everything everyplace else seemed to end up landing in dumping ground piles of toxic debris, painted into the personal little corners of their disintegrating lives. Where for every beautiful background scene and vista there’d be some joker in the foreground leaking against a twisted tree.

Forget case studying these migratory mongrel people, the scaley, dingy tinged transients, their mounds of scattered feces from multifarious species, where feral cats and coyotes hereabouts at least cleaned themselves by comparison. This was hitting too close to no home. I was beginning to feel like an overexposed Dorthea Lange, mind snapping depressing frames of day snoozers and nightshifters, fat inscrutable Indo-European globetrotting vanners, fat reptile retirees with twiggy-legged little dogs, metal detector dicks scanning for loose change. The dumpster divers in torn tank tops and droopy Dickies, fading tattoos and butt cracks galore, pausing to admire their puffy, fading images in road-tarred vehicle windows and mirrors. The everyday overclad outsiders trying to shake the shivvers in the afternoon sun, gap-toothed talking like Wavy Gravy under crooked, sweat-rent ballcaps, hacking up phlegm at 6 a.m. Clinging to their alienation, their God-given right to mind-rotting self incarceration—they were willing to fight to the death for their physical liberty and pursuit of higher happiness, no matter how it dragged them down.

More and more, these walking wounded lived under shrubs and stuffing their material worlds into ripped-off strollers and food store carts or dragging big black plastic bags around here. Late-Sixties ideals and liberation had decayed into chronic pathologies and disorders all over the lot—bordering on tribal encampments, shopping cart armies, panhandling and pilfering to keep their scruffy delusions afloat. This festering growth was watched over with derision and disdain by the mansioners across Marina Boulevard with the million dollar views. While I was waking up every morning to a windshield full of those dawning pastel digs looking down their landscaped noses, staring me smack in the face.

I scuttered along Gashouse Cove, past lovers and lechers hunched over scattered walkway benches, with scant idea what might come of all this, couldn’t home in on what to call it, much less where it would lead. But sosh or no sosh, I wanted no part of it any longer, time to yank the anchor, boost the roost, starting tonight—got to get out of this funk, got to get the hell out alive, with no clue as to how. More clanging sail rigging and creaking hulls, louder squeaking, scraping downramps, floating docks and piers, lent a haunting quality to the Small Craft Harbor, as did a braying Alcatraz foghorn. Flickering onboard lanterns lit up oily slicks between the crowded berths, as did the sweep of headlights from the Laguna Street turn—the entire waterfront phantom fetoring of gas plant factories that once dominated the Marina hereabouts.

A particularly piercing odor of seeping fuel and raw fish drew scores more of bickering seagulls, the feistier of which perched atop mildly cadenced boat masts—fishing boats to pleasure inboards to status sailers and futzin’ chum buckets. The bossy gulls perched on  humming walkway lights for pole position on any crew discards around the Cove’s rocky inner channel bank. All these birds, dive bombing, flapping past my face, what is it keeping them from flying right into me, what do they see of me that keeps them from doing so? Away! An agitated, acidic appetite drove me instead across Marina Boulevard, through the motordrome hum of weekend warriors, behind some swilling stiff who pulled a crosswalk power play on brake slamming traffic, left and right. His show of pedestrian force greased my skids into Safeway’s parking lot, and a close call with this accelerating little drive-by drama.

“Stop, you rotten bitch!” POUND, POUND.“I really mean it, I swear!”

BEEEP….SCREEEETCH…BEEEEEEEEP…

“I’ll kill you, I tell you!” POUND, POUND, POUND… “I ‘ll kill the both of you!!!”

Stopped near dead in my tracks, I bore witness to a crew of octopus-armed shoplifters making their getaway ahead of a yawning security guard. Only the trio was being pared to a duo, leaving the long-haired mastermind behind, having been pushed out of the front seat of a silver Chevy Blazer by a younger thug sliding over shotgun in this hefty hippie chick’s ride, doors locked, pedal to the floorboard. The middle-aged, David Crosby double mudderfuggered this, faggoted that furiously, hanging onto the doorhandle, pounding right-side windows as the Blazer sped out of the supermarket lot, turning onto Buchanan Street with peeling tires.

When they caught a green light and geared out to Marina Boulevard, he fell away like a dropped roll of carpeting, nearly run over by a swerving Land Rover and F-150 as the Chevy Blazer roared past Gashouse Cove toward the bridge, likely bound for a road rage shoot-’em-up between here and the Lombard merge. I was simply after a banana and pint of 2% milkfat. Yet by the time I emerged from the Safeway’s glowing glass facade, a squad car had already joined forces with the security guard, cornering the dazed, abandoned time bomb wielding a fifth of filched Wild Turkey on the Iranians’ self-serve apron, dangerously close to Eric’s blue 912. It was proving to be that kind of night.

I begged off and passed a Vedic chanter handing out Hindu tracts, making for whatever more corporeal succor Fort Mason could muster. Heading along the boulevard, I crossed against Laguna’s walk light, dodging downshifters and up revvers winding motorcycles and sports cars out Marina Boulevard, almost veering with morbid curiosity into that train tunnel to Aquatic Park. At least until hearing haunting screams in there, picturing assault and battery in the shadows, smack and crack, totally out of whack, deep and dark as it was, snuffing out any light at the other end.

Rather, I plowed uphill toward some wide-open mind space in the fort itself. But a Coast Guard helicopter chopping in over the bay sent me marching to a different horn and drummer. So there I paused halfway uphill between two peeling eucalyptus trees in huffing, woozy indecision, as if to just catch a breath…

“Sound off.”

“One, two…”

“Sound off.”

“Three, four…”

“Sound off.”

“One, two, three four—one, two, three, four!”

Down they came, in closed-rank company formation; suddenly the flashback vision before me brightened to duotone sepia daylight. Fresh-faced from the Overseas Processing Depot on a ‘call to port’, they’d been herded into rank platoons mobilized from parts and provinces unknown. Bewildered, lost in military space and time, they were olive drab dogfaces, drafted or recruited to shape up in double time and ship out overnight. Small town teens and barely twenties, they were now G.I. jokers mugging as though they actually knew what they were in for. Christ, wasn’t that Uncle Early third row, fifth from the left ? No, wrong theatre, different peril altogether…

“…You’re not behind the plow…”

“You’ll never get rich by digging a ditch…”

“You’re in the army now.”

Dress right dress: Helmets chalked with number orders, they were drilled by buck sergeants to the Laguna Street switchback, departing this scenic coil through the sentry gate into lower Fort Mason’s Military Sea Transportation Service staging area, where State Belt Line tunnel trains Chattanooga Choo-Choo shunted bulging boxcars into corridors between two pair of three-story interconnected storehouses and a gridiron-size center supply depot right down there, left eyes left. That khaki tan and Mission red-roofed Port of Embarkation teemed with WW II cannon fodder and essential materiel stacked to the riveted steel rafters for the Pacific Campaign, from the Waipio Peninsula to Corregidor and Guadalcanal.

Hard striper NCOs filed their raw troops through the cargo and readiness area by the thousands, medics checking their vitals, malaria/dengue shots and dentals, chaplains prayed for them, SJA’s finalized their will and testaments. Piped over warehouse awning loudspeakers between call orders were ‘In The Mood’ and ‘Begin The Beguine’, plus a little Fletcher and Cab, setting the entire Fort Mason port to stomping and swinging in place with keyed-up anticipation, some happy and go lucky enough to buss and jitterbug the Nursing Corps one last time.

At least until the boys reached those three massive concrete-stilted pier sheds, each to the gills with wartime pallets and packing crates, boom winches and local stevedores frantically loading MSTS steamships with combat gear, provisions, medicinals and armaments. Those long dock fingers of logistical fate bore the eagle, sword, key and spoked-wheel Quartermaster Corps symbology, and over 20 million tons of supplies fed through them into the cargo holds of vessels anchored in wide slips between them.

Yet the principal payload trudged up their narrow gangplanks onto the transport ships: Hirohito- pissed poor sons of bitches weighted down with M-1 carbines or Garands, canvas field packs and fully stuffed A-bag duffels, to the brassy send off of uniformed marching bands. Having grabbed a final night’s sleep in Fort Mason’s MSTS billets, the giddy to grim-faced grunts were then crammed into stacked ‘troop quarters’ bunks like crewcut boat people for the weeks-long ocean voyage to Valhalla, armed with their mouth organs and Armed Services Editions.

Those by the grace-of-God fortunate to see this initial mainland port of call again were greeted by the same marching bands at sheds’ ends, along with the USO, waving welcome homers and readily worshipping womenfolk in satin and lace. Some VJ heroes disembarked with war brides and babies in tow, others minus extremities of more personal kind, crutches and wheelchairs laboring off hospital ships. Then there were the flag-draped coffins and enemy P.O.W.s. Still, the SFPE piers had never seen such star-spangled cheering and joy—where ‘…there’s going to be a certain party at the station. Track 29! Won’t you choo-choo me home, to my gal back in Kalamazoo…’

Tonight, however, they seemed just as dead and buried as my dear, departed Uncle Early. I imagined Lower Fort Mason must have been so big, vital and important back then; now it seemed so silent and inconsequentially small, the entire vista dimming back to dark. The whole replay reminded me of boot camp, KP grease traps, TDY and mustering out—particularly coming so close to Veteran’s Day, or Poppy Day, as the Brits called it…yeah, bloomin’ Poppy Day…what was there to do about that?

sr dingbats

Come hilltop, huffs had degenerated into dry mouth heaves, to where I paused at a signpost to pan back down over the Green and beyond. Headlights of a two-way ‘S’ stream of Boulevard traffic drew my eye to the Palace of Fine Arts dome glowing out over the Safeway lot and compact, wending Marina side streets. A glittery Royal Pacific cruise ship passed an inbound frigate under the Golden Gate, the bridge’s broad span adorned with an elegant strand of amber pearls, its towers and harp strings atwinkle with red clearance lights, with a blazing flow of north-south traffic, Doyle Drive to the Waldo Grade, against the pitch ocean sky. KLM’s soaring Amsterdam-bound red-eye pulled me back in to the Marina Triangle below, where I still heard parking lot music and loaded laughter, the xylophonic refrain of boat bells and rigging, from way up here.

Scanning the bay and small craft harbor, I could still make out Eric and Sherry commiserating over Bruno’s carcass in that halo light—soon noticed two meandering figures staggering around Gashouse Cove near Gate Two, the pier nearest that oily inner channel. They somehow jimmied through the steel security door, staggering along a floating walk past waving nautical flags and flapping sail covers, pointing extant fingers in fractious fits and starts. Wait, I could make out Gary and Crabber Don, heading for a berth toward pier’s end, as though after something or other. What the hell were they doing, the two of them—and what the hell was doing even knowing about it?! No way I could go back down there tonight…

The most immediate alternative lay before me: Alcatraz Island’s beacon sliced through MacDowell Road’s coastal cypress and Monterey pine, over remnants of Black Point gunnery fortifications, grand opening searchlights cross beamed over Fontana Towers and the glam hi-rises of Russian Hill against a moony, star-studded sky—there was no turning back now. I cut a trail across the fort’s darkened Great Meadow, yet another improbable green expanse up here on San Francisco’s pricey northern crown. Clumps of arching eucalyptus trees gave forth to more scattered formations of gnarled cypress and pine.

Approaching a shadowy row of five rustling palm trees in parade rest formation, I spotted dim figures wrapped in rags, muttering and moaning to me beneath their umbrella fronds, as though I’d a better plan for the night. What plan? The Volvo plan, plan B on the phone? Go ahead, ring her up, ring the other her up, piece of cake? Can’t you just see them when they answer the call. A sorry little melodrama, some penitent kissing up—ah, yes, sweet surrender, either one of them would be eating out of your grubbing hands. Now just figure out who’s going to board the Lucky Lady Limited to the prim and promised land…they’re likely waiting by the phone right this minute. Uh-huh, keep jukin‘ yourself…meanwhile, pass the Lithium…

When in reality, I could but picture brighter, busier days, wherein this ghostly reclaimed ground comprised main street, USArmy, a bustling MacArthur Avenue trolley line shuttling through Fort Mason’s quick-fab military post—and felt the starchy prickle of bloused fatigues. To either side stood wartime supply, processing depots, purser and procurement centers; barracks, library, gym, mess, mail and pre-screened motion pics—a self-contained Army-Air city on a hill, most all dilapidated and gone by now to make way for frisbee slingers and kite flyer peace freaks like nothing of consequence ever happened here.

I fled wheezing up a dark, grassy berm, past that frightfully larger-than-life new statue of the Burton Machine patriarch who filiblustered all this open-space business through Congress, onto what remained of the WWII era main MacArthur drag. Another renewal survivor, the Colonial Revival style hospital turned headquarters building gleamed in restoration, guiding me toward old fort regimen and solidity, not least its eminently illuminated, Betsy waving flagpole. I pulled madly at the HQ doors, plenty of light, but nothing doing. Just beyond that, and a tall Canary palm tree at Pope Street, I spotted a tidy white measure of salvation, that being the heavenly flood-lit post chapel.

So this was the actual plan, huh? Listen up, dust off those strack class-A’s and cunt cap for Sunday-go-to-meetin’, bible-hugging redemption. I skirted two resident raccoons raiding a corner trash can—their furious yellow eyes wide as mortar shells—darting across the Y intersection, up the tiny Spanish-tiled chapel’s modest stairs, ready to storm its oaken front doors, willing to lean in, kneel down and beg for divine deliverance. But their cast-iron handles were locked down just as tight—yanking as I might, with a snootful of burnt wax and fragrant waters. Until a patrolling park ranger shone his squad’s spotlight upon me, sweeping it back and forth, up and down the chapel’s modest, silent steeple. No problem, officer, movin’ right along—first morning service at 9 a.m., got it. Until then, a full-dress epiphany, a spiritual reawakening? Taps to that…

So as it happened, I broke ranks, digressed, or regressed, spun around, but back toward the Marina Triangle? What if those numbskulls had gone off the deep end; that blasted Viet vet said he packed more than a Tokarev 51 in his bread truck arsenal. And Eric, with his mangled dog, what about getting tangled up with any more of that? What the hell was going on down there by now, for crissake?! How did I get mixed up with those burn-outs in the first place? Syd would have a field day with that one, raking me about running off again; Moon wouldn’t ever begin to understand.

But my car, my stuff, couldn’t just leave…no, got to keep my distance somehow, maybe take a long walk, just not off one of those dead, dingy piers. Wait, Franklin Street, there’s another Fort Mason gate in the general direction of Bay and…Chestnut, sure, time to handle some business over that way and beyond—takin’ it to the limit, life in the fast lane of last resort, while this crazy ol’ night was still young. Yep, the ol’ lock and load—didn’t want to be late for one piparoo of a double date with my dear late Uncle Early…

Care for more?

Chapter 84. Come morning, an awakening
to opportunity. But nightfall triggers a
painful, rather ugly reckoning…

“Searching for an out
finds disaster at your door,
real world bites even more.”

 

“Handle it? Sounds right up my…alley…”

“He’ll likely be pretty demanding.”

“I know the territory, believe me…”

“All right then, check back in by week’s end, and we’ll see. Nobody else here has the time to take this on.”

“First thing, and I won’t futz it up, trust me…”

“So far, so good…and remember our core motto, ‘Find a need and fill it’.” CLICK.

Hell of a way to be ending the week; hell of a week to end. It had taken several days just to get over the haze and horrors of Halloween and its heinous aftermath. And here I was suffering hackneyed adages, monetarily powerless to wend off any client-side wrinkles in supply and demand. The late fog was a fluke, dissolved and history by mid-morning next, skies having cleared, the onshores no longer ripping like a linear accelerator, temperatures climbing ever since. That gray blanket having lifted, Marina Triangle grass was greener, the bay deeper blue, Fort Mason piers creamier, Spanish tile roofs fiery red—even as the shorter autumn day wound down.

Parking lot regulars were out once more, flags flying—General Ripcord marching to his own tune, likely something Sousa, while the Monsignor continued blessing the East Harbor fleet. I nodded to the mechanic on my way out the phone booth door, steering well shy of his tool chest; mentioned to the retired Renoir that I knew a serious young painter on the rise, let alone that grinning Giant hand job, that little Johnny LeMaster come lately, he with a good word for everybody around the lot—although his congeniality didn’t seem to extend our way. But by this late getaway afternoon, enough time had passed to where the entire long Halloweek could be placed in proper perspective, and that was precisely what the crew happened to be doing when I returned, all gathered around their wheels.

“Call this fall? It’s November, for godsakes,” said Sherry, peeling a banana. “Me, I miss the clouds, real big fluffy clouds, pile ’em on. The sky is such a non-factor here. I don’t know, it’s almost like we’re cheating winter.”

“Think about it, everything’s ass backwards. It’s warm and green here when everyplace else is winter brown,” Clifford closed the book on ‘La Henraide’. “Then the hills and everything go scorched brown when everyplace else is green. Totally disorienting, throws off your biorhythms…makes it hard to feel like you fit in the groove here.”

“That’s the whole damn point, noodnik,” Eric replied, as he twisted the u-jie on his ratchet wrench, then attached an extension and spark plug socket. “Think we’d be out here this late in the year back east? Hell, we’d be freezing our asses off already.”

Earthquake weather, red flag days: the mild, windless Indian summer made for a lazy, cabin fever mindset, though we were this far along in the year. Chevrons of Pelican squadrons glided effortlessly toward the Golden Gate, touch-and-go swooping for clear surface fish. Wispy entrails from inbound freighters and tankers hung like a stage curtain headers over a gently rippling bay, fewer than summer- blown sailboats tacking by. All that was missing was a rainbow over Angel and Alcatraz. Marina Green’s sound track mix-mashed scratchy music from a worldly array of dweller vehicles with the accelerating roar of Marin traffic along the angling boulevard—Mahler, Waylon and Motley Crue meet Mercedes, Jag and Maserati. I went light-headed with the tight-cheeked reflection, thinking god forbid this place should ever become normal.

“Back east, back east,” Eric growled, picking up a handbill softly floating by like it was a five-dollar bill. “Then why don’t you and Einstein get your asses back there to the snow and ice? I’ve got better things to do. And it’s rough enough goin’ here without hearin’ your homesick shit.”

“On that, we can agree,” Clifford said, pointing toward Marina Boulevard mansions. “It’s not the place that makes it rough, but the people making the place here more important than the people here…like, the property over there. Have a lot, have not—the place comes first, so everybody’s doing what they can to hang on and survive. Coarse, chiseling, backbiting, careening off each other, everybody squeezing everybody dry. Ugly behavior in such a beautiful environment. Easy on the eyes, murder on the mind.”

“Hey, I happen to dig this neighborhood, okay? But nobody’s gettin’ into my wallet,” Eric scoffed and packed away his wrenches into a dented toolbox. “I’m stayin’ out here where me and Bruno got our breathin’ room.”

“Well you can keep the damn sunshine and palm trees,” Gary shouted from his bread truck. “California’s cold as ice but people keep comin’, dirt cheap as the pigeons there. That’s why I’ll be headin’ back up top to Reno before long.”

“Speak for yourself, weirdo,” Crabber Don shuffled up from the harbor basin. “You gets what you give out, and you give out nuthin’ but bum vibes…”

“Keep it up, dickhead,” Gary snapped, chain lighting a Chesterfield. “You’ll get yourself a boatload…”

A duet of East Harbor berth squeaking and sail rigging seemed to tantara the twilight, one nowhere as ruby brilliant as Halloween’s, yet unnerving nonetheless, lighting up Marina masts like so many white crosses in the Presidio Cemetery. A container ship broke through corraline reflections between Angel Island and Marin, riding high out the Gate, loaded to the locator lights atop its red belching stacks. The cargo carrier seemed to sweep up the Marina’s calm in its wake, dragging that almost eerie afternoon calm with it under the bridge. Marin aeries came aglow in the sinking sun; Alcatraz cellblock windows altogether fired up like stadium lights. A chill restlessness wended through the spinning and ringing rigging in the wind, seagulls squealed their discontent so stridently as to silence the starlings and crows. Everybody, everything getting a bit edgier as nightfall muscled in.

“Speaking of weird, what about that little skin show the other night,” Sherry asked, bagging her peel.

“How do you mean?” I wedged between my left front fender and Eric’s white 912, for easy retreat into the Volvo should loggerheads shake loose.

“Oh, missed it, huh? Had better things to do late Halloween night, did you?” She gestured toward a long, guard railed catwalk atop the East Harbor seawall, lined primarily by parka wrapped fishermen during daytime hours. “When we got back here, Crabber was prancing around on the catwalk over there. Don’t know how he got around that security gate, but he was totally bagged, dancing all along the thing. Next second, he stripped off his leisure suit, and was down to Kojak bikini briefs—you know, with his lolly pop, mesh yet.”

“Ain’t it the truth,” affirmed Gary. “I seen the whole regusting thing with my own eyes, seen all kinds of strange movin’ around the lot that night…”

“Then he started in with running a goofy maroon sash up and over his scrawny shoulders, wrapping it around like a stripper’s halter top routine,” Clifford said, with a grain of disdain. “He has this ugly lizard tattoo on his back, looks partially grafted out…”

“Just about spit his choppers out lip singing, and bouncing around like Pinky Lee,” she said. “I got to thinking he was about to go over the deep side, so I yelled and talked him down before the fog could eat him up. Shush, here he comes…”

Crabber Don’s shelter had recently been Berth 36A, where he had finagled a boat-sitting gig from some sail trimmer crewed out on a schooner to Kaanapali. The 31-foot Beneteau sloop actually belonged to a broker who regularly jogged along the Green when he wasn’t structuring deals in Hong Kong. Hard to believe they would entrust the boat to the likes of Crabber for a fortnight, but apparently he was the wrong person in the right place at the right time—a slap-happy third hand short of a full deck and too hungry to abandon ship. Guess they figured him loyal and obedient as an old mutt; little did they know. Still, here he was, fully re-suited in his leisurely lime, having worked up a powerful thirst sunning like a sea lion on the broker’s mahogany runnered bow, looking like he’d already dropped something beyond an anchor.

“Yo, save me summa that hooch, only drunks drink alone,” Crabber said, as he drifted over near Gary’s truck, preparing to lean against it, a field mouse siding up to a calico cat. “Watchatalkin’…”

“Just doing some Halloween show and tell,” she chimed, passing him what remained of a half -86ed crock of Lancers, with a glance toward the catwalk. “About what we did to celebrate…you know, like on the big stage.”

“What stage,” he slugged from the ceramic brown bottle with red, swollen hands. “That Polk Street crap? ”

“Far from it,” Clifford sniffed. “We took the high road to a civilized masque soiree.”

“What’s the difference,” Eric slammed the trunk lid on his red 912. “Same old dopin’ and gropin’, ain’t it? Everybody pawin’ at everybody else either way.”

“Depends on what they’re pawing at,” Sherry smacked on a jar of papaya juice. “We just happened to prefer the straight and true.”

“Right on, trick is to get ’em young,” Crabber rambled, with a cigarette rasp. “Yep, young enough so you can still tweak ’em on the ass, and they’ll think it’s real cute. Before they’re prick-teasin’, man-hatin’ bitches.”

“With perverts like you, who can blame us? Walking around getting gaped and aped, if not actually raped,” she shook her head.

“Want us to stop saying those things? Stop swaying those things,” he hoisted the bottle her way, smelling more and more of nicotine and cheap sampler aftershave, unshaven as he was—no one having schooled him on the difference between growing a beard and just being too damn hopeless to lift a razor. “Sheeit, it’s just penis envy, plain and simple…”

“If I had yours, I’d have gotten an orchiectomy a long time ago…”

Out the corner of my eye, a vision of stately escape: This Princess liner had emerged from behind Fort Mason piers, sliding slowly past Marina Green, eight decks lighted dazzlingly bright as pier windows set ablaze by the sinking sun. The entire cruise ship was a gleaming white whale of sea-bound pleasure, soon steaming past Sausalito’s hillside cottages and chateaus, then under the amber-lit strands of the Golden Gate Bridge to ports unknown. The Polynesian Princess left San Francisco Bay in deepening darkness, but little tranquility in its wake. More solitary silhouettes prowled Marina shadows for indeterminable cause. I counted them off like so many mountain ticks on Seamus’s belly as I replayed how Moon would take over to ease my frustration. Where that came from had me scratching my head in dismay.

“Get your sorry ass off from my truck, dickhead,” Gary poked his head out from his driver’s door, glaring back at Crabber.“You got a death wish, or what?!”

“Yeah? Why the hell don’t you go back up top right now,” Crabber pulled away, loping the edges off his words more and more. “Ain’t us locals causin’ the hassles here, it’s Oakie carpetbaggers like you bringin’ all your hang-ups and loser ‘tudes!”

“On second thought, this calls for vasectomies all around,” Sherry intervened, handing Clifford a tablet and cup of cold camomile. “Still, you swine will all end up blaming your lousy karma on some poor, defenseless woman.”

“Hey, we can’t help it in this catty whoretown,” Gary shot back, over the renewed shrieking of that nearby woman in the battered Coupe de Ville. A nasty, furious mouth had she, rumors around the lot being that she’d been booted out and abandoned by her Sea Cliff husband. So she wrapped her head in scarves, taped newspaper to her car windows, then drove around Pacific Heights in her Cadillac tank, ready to aim and blow men away in zebra crosswalks. “Not my fault that Frisco makes it on its back and thinks with its crotch…”

“You’re just bitter because you’re not likely to get in on any of it,” she replied, rearranging whatever she had contrived underneath her frou-frou.

“Not with that mangled handle he’s got goin’, the fuckin’ freak,” Crabber guffawed like a sea lion on the skids. “But with his luck, he’d probably feel up a fistful of padding, anyhow.”

“Keep it up, you’ll see what a vet can do with a war wound,” Gary flipped his half-toked Chesterfield past Crabber’s nose into the adjacent twisted cypress. “Just wait, jag-off.”

“Thanks for the ciggie, mudderfugger.” Crabber fumbled for a rejoinder, but retreated to police the cigarette butt out of the tiny parking island’s brush. “Gotsta have me another hit on that chickenfrickafrickachickenchickafrickinchicassee…” 

“Shit, smoke ’em if you scrounge ’em,” Gary looked down on him. “Dogs piss down there, you disease.”

His contempt was palpable, if not fully plumbed, especially so against the receding Marina calm, the ringing of skippers’ bells, clinking and clanging of masts, squeaking of harbor pilings, the low buzzing of metal-halide walkway lamps. From further out came the horns of a Crowley tug-pushing a heaped garbage scow, the electromagnetic zapping of the degaussing station, more than half the Marina Green away.

A last Red and White ferry slipped silently back to Pier 45 from Larkspur, it and returning salmon trawlers barely stirring that slurping sash of black along the seawall, what with the bay tiding higher than ol’ man river come spring. Still, East Harbor berths seemed to sway more widely in quickening bayfront breezes, as if the onshores were drawn in by the butter yellow gibbous moon unit rising over Fort Mason and Russian Hill. It clearly brought out the worst and worse in parking lot dwellers, evidenced by hoots and undomesticated squabbling. No estimating how deeply it was affecting Bruno, however, Eric’s Chessie now growling all the more at the shopping cart Family Dogs now trudging by us on the harbor walk in stony, self-contained silence.

“Come now, people, let us mellow out here, shall we,” Clifford said, pointing to the stars. “Redirect that negative energy…consider the beautiful mystery of that night sky, the constellations and transcendent translucence. What if Man in his anger and violence has already inhabited and ruined all the other planets in our solar system? And this one is all that’s left, and we’ve nowhere else to go? What then? So let’s just relish this mystical confluence of water, hills and sky, all the ships, planes and wheels—and be eternally joyful. I mean we all derive from the lungfish and coelacanth and tetrapads. I say let the happiness flow in and out of you like those ships there on the bay, else things get backed up, turn sour to toxins and poison.”

“Sure strap on a happy face like all the airheads around here, leave your persona at the door,” Eric said snidely, bringing matters back down to earth. “Long as little ol’ Cliffy’s on his meds. Or else he wigs out like a cornered wolverine.”

“Well, I can see what you’re saying, the whole metaphorical concept. Incidentally, how was your hooker soiree,” I asked Clifford, making small conversation with a head full of mixed signals. Nowhere else to go? What the hell was he talking about?! The whole exchange made me feel vaguely uncomfortable, trying to piece this philosopher prince altogether. All I knew was, it was getting to the point where I’d likely be hesitant to say anything to any strange chick for fear she’d be in drag, a beef-up guy or a bad-bod gal screaming rape if she didn’t like my look…

“Actually, they couldn’t get past our costumes, so we couldn’t quite get in,” he replied, returning to his Voltaire text. “They thought we were celebrating violence, can you believe it? But we voyeured a lot of the action just hanging out front. The whole scene was pretty bizarre, in a decadent sort of way. What did you think of Polk Street?”

“Let’s just say it was decadent in a nauseating sort of way,” I was quickly distracted by Bruno’s barking growls from atop the white Porsche. “There is something fundamentally wrong with behavior like that. It’s like putting water in a crankcase, or at least a rusted dipstick…”

“Tell me about it…on second thought, you needn’t bother,” Clifford dithered, catching himself mid thought. “But I do find it curious that a body would go there in the first place. What about Eric?”

“What about him, who can figure it? When I left Polk, we were in the middle of these deviants, and he couldn’t get enough of the whole scene, just kept saying there was a big difference between homophobes and homofoes, whatever he meant by that…”

“He’s either loving his hound or beating the hell out of him, that’s what,” Sherry finished Clifford’s sentence. “If you ask me, Eric treats that dog like a mail-order wife, you can tell it by its low-slung tail and ears. He’s probably still a bed wetter, too. Whatever, at least women don’t raise nasty dogs, only guys have crazy, mean ones. There are no bad dogs, only…”

“So true, and how welcoming they are of each other,” Clifford beamed contrapuntally, anticipating Eric’s approach. “None of the snooty judgmental stuff, just happy to go about their business…”

“Ain’t it that ugly types gets them pretty mutts,” Crabber Don slurred, draining the Lancers. “And the real lookers gets themselves the butt uggos. See, you can tell how women handle their men by how they treat their dogs…”

sr dingbats

Before anyone could counter that, Bruno rose on his haunches, barking loudly, then growling fiercer yet, pouncing from atop the white Porsche to a lane divider bed of mauguete, medea, beach ruse and red fescue. Alcatraz Island’s beacon sliced right over the sightseeing ferry as it churned before the Rock, which appeared almost cell blocked through the barren harbor masts. The revolving beacon then lit up a ravenous couple in that distant phone booth, catching them probing one another for coinage and whatever on its way around the bay. Behind it, darkness once again filled the cypress and metrocedros, which made keeping track of Bruno worse than pointless as he darted through them, over cabbage palms, around the Bay Trail sidewalk’s bend, riling the crows and ravens branched out at lot’s end, even if Eric had returned soon enough to settle him down. In any event, his Chesapeake Retriever bolted along harbor’s edge, baring teeth in sharp, rattled panting, apparently toward the bay and Family Dogs.

“What’s with him,” I asked, as Eric came running up, Cutty in hand.

“Can’t say for sure,” Eric swallowed hard, moving between the cars for a closer view through the island trees. “Bruno, Bruno, get your sorry ass back here!”

“Don’t like the looks of this,” Clifford said, half standing on his Corvair’s rear bumper. “Don’t like the looks of this, at all.”

Around the reverse S-shaped walk, nearest the seawall, a slim shadow in waist-length hair pushed a shopping cart loaded full as a lit-up passing container ship, and almost as high. The cart seemingly resisted, its right front caster binding on its roll, as if off kilter from banging up too many curbs. Heavier yet was his family, still tethered like tugboats about the QEII, dragging behind the cart, if not guarding it as though the palace jewels were aboard, not with a hair trigger or Shepherd’s vigilance so much as a stout, steadfast calm that translated into ‘cross us if you dare’.

“Damn pits,” Eric snapped, as he worked his way across the lane onto the harbor walk.

“Say what,” I asked, following him out of curiosity more than concern, recalling how Seamus always tore after Chautauqua dogs for a friendly sniff see. Clifford left Sherry in the Econoline, she saying she wanted nowhere near a pissing match like that. “He just being neighborly or…”

“Pit bulls,” he muttered, “Bruno, get over here, I said!”

All five of them, brown to slate gray to marble in color under the sidewalk light, the Family were broad headed and barrel chested, nicked up from fighting on compact, muscular bow legs. The stud covered the cart’s right side, his bitch flanked it on the left, with their litter tailing behind the ringmaster—quietly yapping, nipping playfully at his jungle-booted heels. The longhair pushed ahead, unfazed by the pups, despite their flitting in and under his feet every third step. That caster must have caused him worse headaches, to where he paused under the walkway light to pull back on the shopping cart to yank free the jam. Then he brushed his pony tail over his shoulder again, shouting indecipherable orders to the elder dogs, plowing ahead as though he had somewhere to go. At this distance, his entire bearing appeared surplus paramilitary. He cinched his survivalist khakis at the waist with a leopard-spotted field belt, from which swung a leather-sheathed machete. Capping that streaked stallion mane was a guerilla beret. From the look in his eyes, it was the only bearing he had left.

“I seen him ’round too, wearin’ that Che beret,” Crabber Don hustled up to us, a little more than halfway to the bay. “Joes over there say he stays behind the Funston grandstand. He’s been raising them dogs over there, breeds ’em in the park bushes.”

“He can fricassee, open spit them for all I care,” Eric shouted, as we tread slowly nearer the seawall, Bruno strutting up to the cart. “Bruno, heel, I’m warning you!!”

Once the shopping cart scraped more fully under the cone of light, its entire cell came into better focus. Che Purina looked to be a mixed breed himself: part Central American, with some Polynesian thrown in, as if a mongrel from an occupation. In any case, he was Hap Ki Do taut and steely tense, muscling his cart full of Dog Chow and the barest of personal necessities. Through all the bumping, hoisting and crashing, the parent bulls marched stoically in step. Their unflinching discipline, their in-bred self confidence and solid, low-center development under oily leather hides: odds on only the barbed wire choke collars effectively kept them at the ends of their ropes.

For several throbbing moments, Bruno sniffed back and forth between the terriers, scooting around the Family like a roulette wheel off its hub. It apparently boiled down to heredity versus environment, and the Chessie went with his territorial instincts. Eric screamed, threw beer cans, threatened his hound’s Milk-Bone supply—anything to herd the retriever off. Still, Bruno did what dogs do, nosing about the shopping cart’s perimeter, then up to the bull pups quicker than a Peterbilt 16-wheeler up the ass end of a Volkswagen squareback, intent on the pick of the litter. The entourage didn’t seem to pick up on him until he sniffed his way under the light cone. Che Purina had tied his pups to the cart with separate clothes lines, controlling them with a loop harnessed draw line that haltered them together with one sharp pull.

“Hey mon, whachu doin’?” Which was precisely what the herder did the moment Bruno nuzzled up to the toddler bitch. He yanked the litter together all right; unfortunately Bruno got himself caught up in the noose. All three pups began yapping and snapping, Eric’s curly haired cur stumbled over them, falling onto the female runt. She squealed, her brothers yipped, a startled Bruno began growling, big mistake, then everybody freaked. “No, detente ahi! Agarra a tu perro! No quiero problemas…”

“Bruno, off, get over here,” Eric bellowed, to little avail.

“Easy,” I whispered, standing transfixed beside him, one street light away from the commotion. “He just has to disentangle himself, that’s all…”

“Hmmm, raises the question whether English bull terrier types can actually take commands in Spanglish,” Clifford pondered, remaining three yards and a cloud of dust behind us.

Momentarily, far more entered into it than that. Papa bull held fast on the starboard side of the shopping cart, presumably with some gentle, but persuasive barbs from Che Purina. Yet it proved to be the mama that turned hostile ugly, and was she a bitch and a half. Initially, she stared rigidly ahead, as if her burred collar were a plaster cast: no blinking, no twitching, no signal whatsoever as to any visible maternal alarm, even when a stumbling Bruno threatened to crush her smallest number, her one and only baby bitch to be. She exhibited no barking, snarling, none of the standard jumping and sparring, pawing and humping fur raised mongrels normally engaged in to avoid a rabid, raucous fight.

Instead, she went for the Chessie’s jugular in one startling, terrifying tactical turn, a lioness protecting her cubs. Soon as Bruno growled back, her four squat paws left the streetlit asphalt, and she was brown marble, muscle-bound blur of swollen udders and inflamed eyes. The pit bull tore into Bruno’s thick neck as a swamp gator grips a wayward beaver—seized it, bonded to it with her vise-like mouth, spun on it with her full sixty pounds, swung from it with the life defying intensity of a net-less trapeze artist doing the lockjaw hang. 

“Bruno! Oh, shit,” Eric shrieked, amid the gasps and screams of us bushy-tailed, thrill-seeking weekend adventurers frightfully out of our league. “Gotta get him…”

“No, wait,” I grabbed his forearm. “That guy will stop it…”

“Wait, nuthin’,” Eric pulled away, pressing up to a brown wooden storage box for harbor supplies, pausing against its flat top to catch his breath. “Does it look like he’ll stop it?!”

No such luck. Che Purina stood rigid as his papa bull while the bitch tore into Bruno even deeper. She revolved, then clamped furiously onto his neck—revolve and clamp, revolve and clamp again, ever tighter, like one of Eric’s torque wrenches. The bull terrier snarled low and controlled with each re-grip of pressure. Her red nose ignited, her small vicious eyes fired up like the jeweled lights of Marin across the bay, as Bruno howled out loud.

“C’mon, we’ll go get Jezebel,” Gary snorted, as he limped up behind us, with a discernible air of disdain.

“Who’s she,” I asked, without taking my eyes off the tangle.

“Jezebel, my Tokarev 51,” he postured toward his step truck, pulling out a leather belt. “Got her in the ‘Nam.”

“A gun? What, are you crazy,” I yelled. It was all academic at this point anyway, for Eric had lifted a wine bottle from one of the walkway benches, and was heading forward with a mouthful of its dregs. Still, Gary rushed over to his truck as best he could, possibly in search of Jezebel.

The shock had dissipated to where Bruno was struggling to right himself, to gain any measure of leverage against this sixty-pound wildflower of motherhood bear clamped to his neck. Grimly, the harder he clawed and wriggled, the harder she clamped. So thoroughly game was the bull terrier, she seemed oblivious to her litter’s squeals, even to the barbed wire collar digging deeper into her own neck, and egged on by Bruno’s pained, choking moans.

“Get that fucker off him, man,” Eric cried, smashing his wine bottle against the box top, waving it jagged edges desperately at Che Purina. “I’ll kill the mutt, goddamn it!”

“Retrocede, retrocede!!” The ringmaster stared Eric down over the rocking, teetering supermarket cart, struggling to hold an even more menacing papa bull in sway, eyes menacing as his brood. “Sin armas! No disparar!”

“What is that shit,” Eric screamed over his shoulder, there trembling at the edge of the light cone, confounded by the momentum of this attack.

“Methinks he’s warning you to keep your distance,” Clifford stepped up beside me under our walkway light once removed, clearly shaken as well.

Distance, my ass,he lunged forward, waving like a sideline referee.

“Really, Eric,” I gasped, having never seen canines like this on Chautauqua. “Those dogs will tear your arm off…”

“Goddamn gook, that’s what,” Gary limped back with his handgun, big as a .45, eight rounds per clip, that he’d drawn from a tanned leather holster—a black beauty from the the 1950’s with red and yellow Chinese stars on either grip.“I’ll handle it…”

“C’mon, this isn’t Viet Nam,” I spouted, over Bruno’s heavier moans, Ocean Beach’s lifesaver fisherman popping to mind like a stun grenade. “And he’s not even Asian…”

“Watchu know about ‘Nam? I been there, troop…gook’s a gook, them Charlie bastards all the same to me, wherever they’re from.. They all got 1001 ways to wok a dog.”

“Hey, brother, be cool, why don’tcha,” Crabber drifted over, wobbly as a Fleet Week sailor.

“Outta my way, dickhead,” Gary pushed forward, cocked and loaded, Crabber standing off, ‘as you were’.

Straining for breath, Bruno wailed in short, sickening bursts. The sustained, horrific racket sent many Marina irregulars scattering to their motor dwellings, or behind dumpsters and shrubbery out of morbid curiosity. Van lights flickered, the de Ville went silent, retirees in a Travco Traveler closed their side curtains, then slid open a screened rear window in mortified haste. Steel security gates rattled all along the harbor, between rubbery scrapes of the berth pilings. Crows chattered to one another in two bushy Metrocedros trees above the fracas, sea gulls flapped and gawled around as if they were trailing a fishing trawler.

“Mantente alejado,” Che shouted, as Eric moved once again toward the dogs. The master then instinctively reached down his patch-pocketed pants leg for his blade. “Tengo mi espada!

“Tango your ass,” Eric cried, seized up in fearful frustration, bottle aloft. “Stop this shit, or I’ll…”

“Paso atras,” the guerilla replied, holding his shopping cart and straining to keep papa bull, likely even heavier duty, in check with martial resolve. “Lo digo en serio!!”

“At ease,” Gary ordered, pistol at his side, moving ahead with battle worn abandon. “This is my territory, I owe them one. Sit here pickin’ your asses, and you’ll be hauling that mutt of yours away in a doggie bag.”

Bruno’s struggling moans degenerated into groans of crippling despair, the grotesque howls of an animal stricken to raw survival. I likened it lamely to the screeching of truck tires, crushing thump of bone against bumper, Seamus rag heaped onto that sooty, yellow snow drift, turning blood red in a widening circle before I could get him to a life-saving vet on the Longmont Diagonal—mere days after we’d arrived in Boulder. But this was something else, Bruno losing his battle of wills, mama bull dragooning her weakened prey, jerking his limp neck and head violently, like a sock full of rawhide teething toys, growling manically, blood streaming from her jowls, spraying off in rivulets, melding with her own blood, now pouring through her barb-wired collar.

The retriever wailed all the louder in choking agony as the bull terrier planted her stump legs like a backhoe. With one violent snap of her bloody neck, she flipped a dog nearly twice her size over easier than a minute steak, tightening a grip that tore deeper around his neck, pipe-cutter clean. I might have been terrified, Clifford to the point of backing toward his Corvair, however Eric looked to be shock frozen in place, fixed on his trusted Chessie, as if bearing hostile witness to his demise. But not Gary, he shuffled slowly, deliberately toward the Bay Trail turn, inching his prize pistol up to his beltline—just another battle ground in need of a fragging or firefight. His movement was not lost on Sulu, who tracked him from behind chrome reflector shades, not missing a millisecond of his bitch’s protective squeeze play, nor the handle of his blade.

“Hey, c’mon,” I pleaded, though two benches away from the bloodbath, Eric barely three steps ahead. East Harbor boat rigging rattled louder than a Financial District car alarm. “That’s not going to…”

“Goddamn gook, I’ll take ’em all out,” Gary angled his Tokarev up the length of Sulu’s thorax, wagging his aim between the young cart pusher and his dogs, the bitch still clamped down on Bruno like a shark-toothed tourniquet.

“Te lo adverti!Che shouted. He scattered his litter with a lightning pivot, then hop kicked Gary’s pistol away, Hwa Rang Kwan-style, in one fluid, terrifying move, shocking everybody but his dogs.

The handgun discharged as it hit Bay Trail pavement, banishing seagulls and strangers alike. The slug ricocheted off an adjacent steel dumpster into the ice plant mound beneath those two juniper trees, Gary’s handgun itself bouncing over the seawall, into San Francisco Bay. Che regrouped and stared back sternly at us all through his reflective chrome lenses—papa bull beginning to growl, his bitch still crazed yet unfazed, holding and tearing tight.

“Please,” Clifford beseeched from a distance.“Por favor.”

“Loco chico rudo,” Che taunted Gary, who was now quietly on his back foot. “Vamos a verte ser un heroe ahora.”

“Up yours, gook,” he spit, turning to force march to his truck empty handed. “And you’ll get yours, hang your bullshit beret on that…”

“Pare ahora, es suficiente,” Che yelled to his bitch with a triumphant, wicked-ass grin, resheathing his bayonet. “La paz sea contigo…”

Wherewith, mama bull growled, snarled defiantly, but eased her death grip and scooted obediently to the shopping cart, licking her pups on the way. Bruno dropped like the sinking Tokarev 51, a bloodied, whimpering heap of canine debris, while Sulu fed Family Dogs super Milk Bonz from his black plastic trash bag. Tail wagging, the bitch calmly resumed her cart position guarding the starboard blank, barking lightly at papa bull, as if to signal him that she could more than handle the small stuff, and nobody messes with the family. Sulu then kicked his balky caster into position and pushed his shopping cart forward into the shoreline darkness of the Bay Trail walk, that overhead light cone kissing star-like off his chrome reflective shades.

sr dingbats

“Bruno!!” Eric rushed in to kneel beside his wailing Chessie, screaming over the grind and squeaking of East Harbor docks, the vulture squealing of seagulls that smelled a feast.

“Don’t move him,” I shouted, closing in with Clifford, seeing Seamus in the retriever’s semi-comatose eyes. “You’d better get him to a vet…”

“No vet, no way,” Eric cried. He ripped his corduroy shirt off, the raised Bruno’s head slightly to jam it underneath it.

“You’ve got to, real fast,” Clifford watched the tan shirt saturate blood crimson, looking rattled as a rookie corpsman EVAC’d in. “Or he’ll, you know…”

“No damn vets, needlin’ him all up like a Thanksgiving turkey, wantin’ to keep him in some kennel at fifty bucks a day.”

“But he will bleed like a pig here,” I said, sickened with the sight of it.

“No, I said. He’s my dog, I can take care of him, I know first aid. Just give me a hand lifting him back to my cars.”

We joined in to raise Bruno’s hind quarters, as Eric gripped his front legs. The dog growled and snarled wildly in delirium, which got me to reflecting on Halloween Week’s rasher of perverts, pit bulls and pistols, on my weak stomach when it came to actual bloodshed, or any bodily fluids, for that matter—on what in blazes I was doing out here. This, while Eric decided to mend his best friend where he lay, motioning to us accordingly, then raced over to his Porsches for Motel 8 face towels and shop rags yet ungreased or Gunked as we stood guard and warded off the gulls, here on the starlit northern edge of San Francisco. Within minutes, he was back, wrapping Bruno’s mangled neck, as if that would stanch the bleeding.

Che Purina had already muscled his family out toward Marina Green’s degaussing station, his bull pups still yapping and snipping at one another in the distance, just as ornery as barnacles on so many demagnatized hulls. A restless calm was returning harborside, gulls clearing immediate airspace, boat rigging muffling down, shadowy figures slipping out from behind shrubbery like shrinking violets between showers. The monsignor himself paused to give his blessing, if not last rites. Even Bruno had lapsed from pierced howling to low, spent moans, Eric having cradled the retriever’s soaked, trembling carcass in his lap, mopping, stroking him, sobbing over matted, blood-crusted fur.

“Some house pets, huh? You knew what that maniac was saying, did you?” I asked Clifford, otherwise speechless at this twist and turn of events, unable to bear witness to the carnage any longer.

“Picked it up here and there,” Clifford replied as we detached stunned and helpless toward the parking lot. “I mean, really—doesn’t everybody know the difference between Spanish and Vietnamese?”

“Who cares,” Gary asked, “they’s all the same gooks to me…”

I couldn’t but wonder what a certain Vietnamese fisherman out at Ocean Beach would have to say about that…

Care for more?

Chapter 83. Stirrings of more
Marina mania order up a ghostly
holding of the fort… 

 


“Nothing voodoo or

crazy here, see, just the dark
side of the moon.”

“He’s for the unions, that’s why…”

“You think that’s a good thing?”

“Plus he’s always been for jacking up the minimum wage.”

“And taxes along with it. Just ask the Downtown Association how that’s going over down there.”

Built in the Sixties, the place looked like a glassy airplane hangar, and hosted more lift-offs and happy landings than the Mile-High Club. I was in for an orange juice and more cereal, expecting to blow through the express line then chow down back at the Volvo. Glued to the Safeway’s massive window front and a Marina Green panorama, I was planning a swift exit and moves across the teeming boulevard back to the parking lot before the dinnertime grocery rush. Only two ahead of me, the first woman breezing through on her way back to Corte Madera, was already grabbing her change and Trader Joe’s tote bag, tanned and hidebound for the bridge. Which brought me to the on-deck hole, already guesstimating my tab and fingering open a Cocoa Krispies box, when came this difference of political opinion dead ahead.

“No, the mayor’s still a man of the people,” said a store clerk, methodically packing a plastic shopping bag. “In fact, he grew up right around this neighborhood…”

Left it behind for the limo lib crowd. He’s just another one of the party boys, kissing Phil Burton’s statue up there like Milk and the rest of them.”

A retired contractor, he apparently collected rents and clipped coupons over in his orgeat two-story casa on Mallorca Way. Giants and drought-related small talk promised to keep things moving, from Jack ‘Dude’ Clark’s 27-game hit streak to Candlestick Park finally stripping out the artificial turf. At least until the red and gold Puma suited Marina landlord scanned his receipt for overcharges, grousing about assessments and dunnage emanating from City Hall. On the other side of the conveyor stood a bookish, robotic checker who apparently went way back with this particular customer, and a cheery roving bag man who packed cans, cartons and produce from line to line. Sweaty, heavy breathing singles just in from the jogging trail pressed tightly behind me, carving out their roller belt territory with rubber divider sticks, impatiently pushing my box and bottle forward as though I had no say in this matter. What widened the political divide before me was the reality that grown folks in matching uniforms were still working supermarket jobs that I’d left behind in high school. On the other hand, their union scale and package had to be a whole lot better than my bennies about now.

“C’mon, where would we be with a Mayor Barbegelata?” drolled the checker, clearing his register and replacing his receipt tape roll.

“Where would be without Prop. 13,” countered the portly Paisano, hoisting his doubled shopping bags on his way out the door. Wouldn’t trust Moscone with a voting machine.

“Thank you for shopping at Safeway, Mister Giacomo,” the bagger smiled, before shifting over to a full-cart order two lines over. “Happy Halloween weekend to you!”

“Don’t go reminding me…”

I departed The City’s ‘largest singles scene’ with a small sack of cheap, easy munchies and no versed position on its political machinations. Weeks had passed, but nothing much had changed besides the weather, Indian summerly so. Telemarketing assignments came and went, including several survey forays up to Marin and Sonoma, Petaluma mainly, where I stuck to ringing doorbells and staying well away from the Rallimores’ law offices downtown. But the eagle dump every Friday helped, as did Ready Temps’ mileage allowance, even though it never totaled enough to get me off the streets.

Nevertheless, holiday clear-outs did ease the daily crush, leaving the Marina and Cow Hollow to minority minions, the shadow and paste people and the relatively immobile such as us. Ostensibly First World, sun people evacuations of Labor and Columbus Days did afford me more idle time—still lazy sunny days, with darker hours spent on the patrol or prowl. Not even Mister October crushing the Dodgers again in the World Series finale could significantly lift my gloom. Nor could that raucous Blues Festival up in Fort Mason’s Great Meadow headlining everybody from Mark Naftalin to Johnny Otis to Buddy Guy and Jules Broussard. Yet it did get me to where I was today, crossing Marina Boulevard on the brink of All Hallows, noticing as how Eric had moved his blue Porsche over here to the Iranians’ service station apron.

“It’s the fuckin’ end of October—and it’s hotter than hell…”

“It’s California, fool, what do you expect?”

“Not summer in The City this late in the year, that’s for goddamn sure.”

“So you’d rather have snow and ice?”

“Hell, no—but a little rain wouldn’t hurt…it’s cold enough at night as it is.”

I had rejoined them over at our fractured compound, hearing speedy briefcase hornswagglers, speed shifting through Marina Boulevard’s snake turns toward the bridge and their pipedreams up in Marin, as well as echoes of old-timers proclaiming it ‘earthquake weather’ up and down Safeway’s beverage aisles. Still another brilliantly clear sky was easing into a deeper blue on this shorter autumn day, touched with the rose hints of a dramatic Pacific sunset. The crew had gathered around our steadfastly clustered vehicles, ostensibly primed all Halloween weekend for the big night itself. Those stiff afternoon winds had dropped along with the inland temperatures, coastal-Central Valley Fahrenheit back in balance, becalming a summer-long choppy San Francisco Bay. Not that it made for any smoother going in this corner of Marina Green’s parking lot, where nobody seemed to be giving up the footloose scene, going anywhere constructively for very long.

“So go into some kinda shelter, or something,” Gary cracked, going at it with Crabber again, the latter staying safe distance between Gary’s Futura and bread truck.

“I ain’t goin’ into no goddamn place like that!” Crabber toasted and taunted with the starter fluid can, as if cocking to lob a grenade, screwing and unscrewing the cap with insurgent provocation. Rather than that, he just snorted himself a whiff. “I need my freedom…”

“Freedom to what?” Gary ducked in battle scarred reaction, righting himself against a stack of file boxes to keep from tumbling off his driver’s stool.

“Freedom to go, freedom to do, to be me, on my own fuckin’ terms…”

“Lotta good that’s doin’ you, fool.”

A little nap/snack in the Volvo’s front seat, and I was braced for whatever this quintessential holiday evening might bring in such a costume dramatic town. Blue skies had deepened, the rose pink turning redder, casting more assertively against scattered, streaky cloud puffs about the late-day cityscape. Mt. Tamalpais and nearer, nestled Marin hills, shadowed gradually in the sidelight of a sinking sun. Between those darkening, open-arm layers sliced a slender band of madder orange, retreating top to bottom minute by minute, starkly silhouetting the bridge’s south tower into opposing orchestral harps. The dusky sun brushed the glassine bay in broad strokes of tangerine and raspberry red, searing the lawns, radiating Fort Mason’s sagging piers, firing up Alcatraz Island’s cell blocks like a Greek acropolis. Beyond them, white and beige Russian Hill buildings were going Sierra gold. Made me feel vitamin and fibre starved just soaking in the vesper display.

“Think I’m throwin’ all this away? For what—a flea-bitten cot and cold fuckin’ shower with a buncha fags? Fugetbboutittt…”

“Better than sleepin’ under a pet rock, ain’t it?”

“Hell, I got my yacht over there, don’t you fret your ass,” Crabber Don peeled off and stormed toward the East Harbor berths in his sooty lime leisure suit and flip-flops, tossing the aerosol fluid can he’d lifted from my trunk into a colorful island garden of rosettes, spiked statice/agave, red hot pokers and lilac aeonium. “And don’t you be callin’ me no fool, fool!”

The sun had dropped halfway to Gardner Pinnacles by now, wedged itself out of local existence, so that sky and bay melded into an unrelenting sea of black. I turned painfully to watch a jumbo Toyota car carrier slip out high tide between Alcatraz and Angel Islands past Marin’s lower hills, Tiburon to Belvedere to hillside Sausalito’s lights behind it like the slow-speed time-exposure sweep of a camera shutter. The momentary lull snapped more sharply with the drone of an ocean-bound seaplane splitting the shadowy bridge towers. Passing high above the Piper was an SFO-London 747 with a well-lit red TWA tail, as though the Golden Gate was the nexus for the world writ large.

“All right, boys, break it up already,” Sherry bellowed, as she and Clifford emerged from their Econoline van, wrapped in Mission thrift store Halloween finery, aligning buttons, tying up loose, dangling laces. “Don’t you go messin’ with my mellow on!”

“Really, just check out that moon, it’s almost full,” Clifford pointed eastward beyond Fort Masonwaxing his mustache into a handlebar as best he could. “Thus tonight, we imbibe and indulge…”

“So who the hell are you?” Gary was not exactly taken with the coronaed lunar orb. He pulled at the collar of his everyday Class A’s khaki shirt shifted his piles in shiny black suit pants.

“The Bandita Queen to you, sucker,” Sherry asserted, in a brocaded black vest, colorful Pampas tirada sarape and bright Mexican falda Ranchera skirt bearing tiny vaqueros and vaqueras, hot branding irons and lassoed steers. She slid along my sedan’s fender, saucily kicking her porker left leg back, revealing a red fluffer and pintafore, which swept across the tops of her black and red Annie Oakley boots. “We’ve been working on our get-ups all week.”

“Just like I’m Juan Wesley Hardin,” Clifford looked more like a cross with Pancho Villa. He snapped up the pearly buttons of a muslin cowboy shirt with denim collar and cuffs, down to a turquoise beaded belt and brown canvas dungarees, beat-up gray suede wrangler boots. A maroon bandana wrapped around his neck and beard, a dented eight-gallon atop his crown-parted mop, he strapped on a surplus bandolero, plugged with Tootsie Pops instead of slugs. “One learned and lethal caballero—killed me 42 desperadoes ‘fore they cut me down El Paso way.”

“You’re headed south, all right,” Gary jeered, “and they’ll cut your asses down in the Gulch.”

“Not on your life,” said Sherry, donning a leather strapped vaquera lid, assuming more of a hefty brush with Frida Kahlo imagery.“We’re off to crash an All Saints-Satanic Social in Hayes Valley, supposed to be the best bash since Coyote’s Hookers Ball. Saw a flyer for it at the laundromat, had a pentangle on it and everything.”

“Yep, pardner, we don’t cotton to them buckaroo bunch nohow,” Clifford mugged and cinched up his britches, albeit a lick defensively, before popping another one of her pills. “We’s straight shooters, ride ’em no cowboys.”

That huge, full enough harvest moon now spiked atop the gilded tip of the Transamerica Pyramid like a beachball on a sea lion’s snout, centered exquisitely over Russian Hill’s bejeweled, bay view lofts and penthouses. I watched the two squeeze into their ‘Vair Monza, then crank over that sad excuse for an Volksy air-cooled rear engine. Clifford ground gears into reverse and Sherry waved a wicked adios as Eric strode over from dusting off his blue Porsche at the gas station, then feeding Bruno a bowl of canned Steakhouse Alpo. He was in no way inclined to wave back amid an oil cloud the Corvair left behind.

“Whatdya expect from a tinhorn like that,” Gary offered up, shouting out of his bread van, leafing through a fresh copy of William Pierce’s ‘Turner Diaries’. “Clifford and his crybaby lib bumperstickers.”

“Tinhorn like what,” I swiped away the Monza’s worn ring and valve squall, me in my slept-in rags.

“A candy-ass tinhorn, that’s what,” Gary snapped, blowing heap more smoke.

“Fuck those two then, they’re just freakin’ fagophobes,” Eric said, filling his Chessie’s bowl with can two. He’d cleaned up his grease monkey act, and slid into a stone washed denim work shirt and brown Dickie canvas pants. “Not me, gay guys don’t scare me none, how about you?”

“Me? No, of course not,” I turned toward the Volvo for some digesting time, or indigesting time of Gary’s baloney.“I know where I…”

“Good, let me dish Bruno another course, then we can mosey over to the main event on Polk…”

“Actually, I think I’ll pass,” I keyed my door lock. “Maybe just go check out Mr. Magic and the jugglers at the Cannery, something saner like that.”

“So you are goin’ phobie yourself, are you,” Eric taunted, as his dog jumped up on him, pawing and begging for a second course. “Feelin’ threatened, ‘fraid it’ll rub off?”

“No, I tell you. It’s just that I’ve been there once already, seen the whole bizarre scene. Besides I wouldn’t even have a decent costume…”

“So come as you are, ’cause you haven’t seen a scene like this,” Eric shifted into overgoad as he set the dog food bowl between his two remaining 912s.“Be a man about it, just for grins, you can study up, get off on the depravity. I hear Polk Street’s balls-out tonight. Wide open, plus its free of charge. Cheap thrills, man, and like Harvey Milk’s sayin’, everybody must get out there…”

“Shit, all right, if only for purely sociological purposes,” I rose above the gauntlet, though barely able to raise my voice.Passing us by was that recent harbor arrival, a fast-walking, fast-talking gladhander in baggy shorts and old Olympic Club sweatshirt, waving to all the other parking lot oddballs, still bearing that shit-eating grin under his beaten Giants ball cap—a regular Mr. Congeniality. “Guess I do owe you one…”

“Two, but who’s countin’? Think of it as AAA road insurance for when your junker breaks down again,” Eric added, as he polished the Porsche emblem on his white trunk lid, like that made the road-spent sports coupe into Pebble Beach d’ Concours material. “We can just hoof it over, stop by to check my blue rig on the way. Bruno will be fed and sassy, so he can guard our wheels—he can handle anything that comes along.”

“What’s the story with that bomb, anyway,” I relented—damned if I would otherwise know how to massage the Volvo’s SU jugs. Really, if I declined, what did that make me?  “Like, with the deposit sucker?”

“Aww, turns out he’s a toot head, pack mule for some big-ass dealer up in the Marin hills named Tony Shy. Anyway, guess he spaced out on the deposit, musta clean forgot about it, never heard from him again. So I moved Mr. Blue over closer to here—the Iranians are cool with it, a corner spot, dirt cheap, as long as I keep a drip pan under the thing.”

“Still and all, what a hassle for you…”

“What hassle? Poof, no deposit, no return,” Eric glanced across Marina Boulevard for reassurance. “Plus I’ve got a new fish on the line, says he’ll pay cash on the barrelhead—double barrel. Loves him some Porsches, all right, loves mine to death…”

sr dingbats

“Dan White tried to put the kibosh on it…”

“Wanted to block Polk Street’s Halloween permits, can you believe that?”

“What kind of person would do that to people?”

Having locked up the Volvo, changed into flannel-denim mountain man and a blue Buffaloes windbreaker in the Marina Green john. I had waited out Eric as he clamped down his other two Porsches with hook-rod steering wheel contraptions, padlocked their trunk lids with stunted bicycle chains. He fed Bruno another course of sirloin Alpo and left his retriever to guard the fleet from atop the white 912, catching up with me past a full parking lot of last-lap highway nags and already rockin’ camper vans. I’d met him halfway, slipping between a household-loaded Winnebago Chieftain and map-muralled Dusseldorf motor home. I couldn’t get past that Pace-Arrow rig with the full hook-ups, the chrome mega-horns and wraparound ladders—the tan and brown job from Arizona with air conditioners on top and twin Kawasakis bikes in tow, everything but a motorized satellite dish.

Appeared that Gary was looking after our compound as well, chain smoking and sorting file boxes in his truck, and I could still hear him ragging us from here, mainly about our sortie to this sordid affair. Nevertheless, Eric and I rounded the Marina promenade past the downramps of Gashouse Cove. Each pier had a flanged iron security gate, effectively sealing off four rows of tightly berthed sailboats and inboard craft. Gashouse wasn’t a cove in the pastoral sense, not some pine-shaded inlet near Bar Harbor, sprigged with summer cottages and buoyed with weathered canoes and rowboats. This was just a man-made marina tucked between the triangle and Fort Mason’s westernmost pier, a simple dredged-out basin with petrol shellac and a used yacht lot. But then what was legit around there anyway; I’d yet to ferret that out, and a stunning nightfall hadn’t brought any greater clarity.

“He oughta take his fat potato head and go home, that’s what…” .

“Oh, his day will come, you just watch. Total bad karma—he’s white, all right, to the pig fascist bone. But think he’d dare show his ugly face here tonight? Don’t bet your spuds on it.”

“You best believe, honey, I’ll drink to that!”

Eric’s blue Porsche secured across Marina Boulevard, we had grabbed a couple of Coronas at the Safeway and legged it across Funston Playground. From there, I fought negative galvanic resistance all the way up Chestnut Street, particularly upon spotting the 450SL out front of Sydney’s, then a Penzance-costumed figure leading her Moulin Rouge character out, arm in arm. So I nudged Eric down Franklin to avoid any mortifying encounters, strangling the neck of my beer bottle, dragging ass up Union, past fern bars from Henry Africa’s to Polk Street’s Royal Oak, window checking every velvet sofa for Syd and her swashbuckling corsair. Was that the storybook couple under that stained glass lampshade on the overstuffed love seat? Whew, no…too much of a strumpet outfit, even for her…she was probably partying up in Pacific Heights by now anyhow…

But beyond Lord Jim’s swinging meatmarket at Broadway, Polk Street singles scene turned more singular…unitary in nature. Before I could back off, we were swept up in a flow of quickening bodies, thickening toward Pacific Avenue, so that motor traffic could barely pass. Radiators overheated, clutch disks scranched through the curb to curb foot stream up Polk Street’s grade. We worked up a powerful enough thirst to kill off our Coronas, Eric hitting a corner Armenian grocery for a sixer of High Life and pint of Cutty on the side, before cutting between these two marginal revelers who stood bad mouthing about the right Honorable Supervisor from District 8.

“Here, for the trip,” Eric re-emerged, digging around his brown bag for a bag of beer nuts. “Stiffen your…resolve…”

“No, later maybe,” I replied, blinders on, yet loath to look straight ahead. “When we head back to Marina Green.”

“This hooch’ll be history by then.”

“Hopefully, so will I…”

sr dingbats

South of Pacific, vehicles froze harder than Doyle Drive traffic on a holiday getaway, lodged like 30-30 caliber dum-dums in the flesh and bone skullduggery of a hell-bent Halloween. Sub compacts stalled, import engines revved, horns wailing, taking merciless hood pounding, bumper thumping abuse from bi-directional schools of bisexual thoughts on a mid-Polk collision course.

Before long, Lower Russian Hill galleries, flea markets and quirky knick-knack shops gave way to even more floral design, hair salons and leatheries than I remembered from my earlier tour of duty here with Syd. From Jackson Street on, this drag was anything but reasonable, and the resulting libidinal prioritizing winnowed out civil eccentricity from growing uncivil disobedience. Step by step, a fully mooned Polk Street seemed bound and determined to separate the men from the boys.

“Trick and treeeeeet!”

“Sorry, have to take a rain check on that…”

“Rain check? What rain? You see any rain?”

This greeting, from a bearded Nureyev in nighty and negligee, pirouetting my way, reaching in to hand me a glowing hash pipe—being heavy on the eye shadow and aboriginal lip gloss, buns and thick rolls bulging at every level. Such distinctions were blurring, the further we got across Broadway: Between doers and be-doers, movers and shakers, gawkers and gawkees, fact finders and freak finders, underdeveloped and overdeveloped frames. Somehow, they had merged their way into express lanes, over by the facial spas, vitamin exchanges and carry-out vegetarian buffets. No logic here, this was no place for decision-making, not here on the fast track to libido liberation.

 I had rationalized drifting up this way to seek out an indy Volvo repair shop near Mario’s Monza Garage on Pacific Avenue, between Van Ness and Polk. I was scouting for aftermarket replacement Solex carb parts. But though VolvoDrome had already closed for the day, Polkstrasse was wide open for business, Eric buying in. By now main drag Halloween flashed by too quickly for even him to absorb. If the Gay Freedom Day parade was over the top, this scene already came in under the bottom: Polk Street just being Poke Street, rainbow and Society of Janus flags flying at full mast from fire escapes and lamp poles, pink balloons floating helium high.

Camellianic Izod couples in tassled Weejuns and tight-seam chinos floated blissfully by, lavender sweaters wrapped so dashingly about their shoulders, cat grinning as if the cameras were rolling on a direct feed back to their horrified hometown evening news. Sergio, sleeveless T-shirt Brads and Bruces pawed one another’s pecs and biceps; Troy Donahue-Freddie Mercury couples paused to preen their corpus perfecti in nail salon mirrors, or feather their dream nests through shop window spreads of bareskin afghans, Tibetan carpets and Tiffany overhead fans. These were the close-cropped Pacific Heights level homebodies in powder blue blazers and cashmere, every thread and follicle in place, out for some cheap and dirty provocation before fondling themselves back up Russian Hill for some mondo condo—maybe glazed ham and pearly little onions and consenting Presto Log fireside encounters in leopardy bikini briefs, as if Polk Street were this real time, X-rated passion play out of the closet and under the stars. A little public sector foreplay courtesy of the San Francisco event permit department.

“Man, what you so ascared of,” Eric asked, handing me the six pack. “This shit don’t rattle me none, I’m sure of myself. Ain’t no scabs on my arse hole, no holes in my lobes. It’s just swingin’ dicks, no chicks—what do I need that for? I got that already…”

“Who’s scared, I…”

“It’s like with that painter bag of yours,” he said, leaning into the crowd, egging me on to fall in line. “Either you’re just plain chickenshit, or you’re beggin’ and crawlin’ after that artist…”

“Oh, I don’t know about that, ” I instead edged toward those preferring to turn away back down to Broadway, in the direction of some guys hooting derisively out their revving Corvette doors. “Or the way you’re barging in on it…”

“C’mon, more field research, doc,” he beckoned me forward, likely confident that our misfit ensembles were costumes enough. “Just think of the raw sosh material you got goin’ here.”

Make that Streets and Sanitation. Up past Pacific Avenue, things were getting so cumulatively trashy even the A-gays were turning in early: clips and pieces of grainy, over-exposed deviance better left in Diane Arbus’s developing trays. Hissing pussy cats, polka dot clown princesses, bouncing turnips, skinny rubber-beaked chickens—all manner of gay abandon and sexual inyourendo paraded up and down Polk Street, climbing about storefronts, shooting between parked cars—like that Lincoln Continental drop-top packed with pot-bellied baldies in Speedos and thongs—pretty boys and butt-ugly gay babes posturing in doorways like mongrels at the pound. Fawns and swans, cuddly little bald-headed birdies and butterflies, just too adorable for words. Orphan Annies and Raggedy Annes, purring Talullah Bankheads with platinum pompadours, menopausal Shirley Temples, arthritic curtsies, liver-spotted dimples: here was virtually anything a gambling man could ask for if he had no interested in dealing straight stud.

Toxic emissions would have been a breath of fresh air from Polk Street’s eau de bouquet. It came with the gardenias and assorted blossoming nosegays. Brut aftershave and Obsession cologne wisped about from sample aerosols from a corner parfumerie—the choking fragrance of free expression, of a Halloween fairyland turning bestially absurd…

VAPORBLOCKED (A truly vivid depiction,  
for imminent VAPORBONUS release)…

…Eventually there were more sirens, wailing in the distance, careening across town like Bullit’s stunt cars to fortify the riot detail. All available police ‘servants’ lined Polk Street’s curb gutters, fixed and stolid as palace guards while Halloween’s booze, blood, urine and semen spilled over their spit-shined boots. Standing there copping as hard asses, dodging and ducking this soft-core civil disturbance, getting played for Gestapo stooges and chump change by every fruit loop in the Gulch. Resigned to keeping everything flowing smoothly, fondling their holstered nightsticks, cursing under their helmet visors at everything they’d seen, seething that they were San Francisco’s finest, hamstrung by the mayor’s office and every other town’s worst, here in the virtual shadow of rainbow flag-waving city hall.

sr dingbats

“We’ll Chowchilla the fucker…”

“Yah, we’ll Chowchill it to hell, if’n you don’t get them out of there!”

“And we mean now, or we’ll bury this sucka in the bay!”

I’d had my fill of it, all of it, the Halloween horrors, the fullish moon freak show—the Polker faces and plumbers’ helpers, manic degeneracy and moral hazards, sybaritism and salaciousness, the intemperance and turpitude, those lewd hangers-on hanging all the way out; the blowhards, hand jobs, assenders and panty wastes, that bizarre parade of strange fruits and fairy tails, the cops in their riot gear, itching to wade in and shut the whole Saturnian bacchanalia down.

There I left Eric again, he still being into the garb and grins. I scooped up a sourdough roll and honey packets at Cala Foods, but not before picking away at its produce bins, broccoli to strawberries, before creeping over to Van Ness Avenue like a milquetoast claims adjuster out of a Market Street stripper matinee. First northbound MUNI bus to come along was a smokey holdover maroon and cream diesel running the 42 Loop. I snuck in the back door at Eddy Street, took a rear seat, figured I was home free toward Fort Mason, bread roll and chocolate milk in hand. Then came Geary Street.

The half capacity, heavily graffitied coach showed little indication this was Halloween, riders no more out of the ordinary than any other evening on this owlish route, wherein asylum status seemed abnormally commonplace, and All Hallows excess was by comparison amateur night. But here across from Tommy’s Joynt, a lumpy Br’er Rabbit and rag-tag Uncle Remus stormed aboard, plopping down on the senior/disabled seating without so much as acknowledging the brother motorman, much less his fare box. Their impasse got us to about Jackson Street, where the costumed pair raised their voices and the ante, everybody else remaining stonily silent or nodding off even deeper, as though they were hip to this gag and not terribly impressed, given what loopy vignettes take stage on the 42’s center aisle night after night. Still, the motorman followed procedure and shut the coach down in the bus stop, phoning in his ‘situation’ to MUNI security, while passengers stayed stonily silent rather than giving these clowns the satisfaction of disrupting their routines: just the 42 being a little Loopier than usual.

“We ain’t diddly shittin’ around, hear,” shouted the bunny, drawing what appeared to be either a cap pistol or full-on .38.

“Yah, you all betta help let our folks go,” Uncle Remus added, foaming desperately at that, standing tall to wave an unsheathed foraging knife.

“We just came from Peoples Temple, they wun’t tell us nuthin’…”

“They got our blood kin down in that goddamn jungle and won’t let ’em get the hell out,” said Uncle Remus, as he wiped the blade on his tattered trousers. “So y’all betta start doin’ somethin’ about it, before somebody starts gettin’ hurt!”

“Or els’n we take over and sink this here bus in that bay…”

The cartoon duo then claimed they were staying put until the 42 delivered them unto their housing projects at Fisherman’s Wharf, but I was in no condition for a stand-off this hopelessly locked and loaded. Sirens converging on the latest MUNItionary dust-up, I scrambled out the coach’s rear doors up Jackson Street, if only to catch a breath before any lead or busloads began flying into San Francisco Bay. Yet by Franklin Street, I fought off a nasty urge toward re-enactments at Lafayette Park, turning instead golemly downhill toward Syd’s place.

Anyway, none of that was my Halloween scene. Besides, at least I hadn’t spotted Syd and her fartsy playmate, Eugene anywhere along Polk Street this time around. She’d no doubt grown totally out of that art school sandbox by now; was just toying with me back then, anyhow. Wait, yeah, of course, that‘s it. Just like she’s toying with me these days. This mini epiphany filled my head like Barbasol out an aerosol can as I drafted down Franklin, past the Lilienthal House and St. Brenda’s School, alongside the light sequenced traffic flow in the general direction of Van Ness Avenue. Onwards of Union Street and Cow Hollow corner groceries, it was, sure, she was only egging me on, drawing me out with the old jealousy ploy all along. I get it, alright—that little sneak, playing her bogus boyfriend game to pull me off the schnide. POOF, just friends…who does she think she’s fooling? Well, how about just neighbors—howdy, neighbor! What if I told you I’m not giving up or in that easily…

Wheels turnin’, round and round: the nearer I came to Lombard Street’s motel row, the more a cavalcade of late-night radio tunes streamed through, ear to ear. Got that right, against the light, no torture, persecution complexes for yours truly, not into solitaire, not me. Yessiree, don’t give up on us, baby, ’cause I’m back from the wars, and back in love again…acknowledge it: a love supreme, a love supreme. Love is like oxygen, alright, feelin’ all shiny and new, and it will be forever, damn straight. Rounding Chestnut, bearing down on her place, I was humming everything from ‘So Into You’ to ‘Just Want to Be Your Everything’, always and forever, for crissake, ’cause we were a real team in there, essentially gliding on a bus-fumed air supply, getting real Greasy physical with your gym-firmed abs and thighs, thinking Love to Love You, Baby’, feeling it, ‘woman, take me in your arms, rock me baby,’to kiss you all over till the night closes in, sister golden hair, ‘the night feels right.  Amen, that was the key, if only I could locate Josh’s cassette box, then it’d be mamma come to pappa, easy like Sunday morningBut scarcity tunneling past her building once again, I wondered if those were her studio lights on and she was earnestly working in there—chance against fat chance, hope against little or none. Reality check: I instead braced for another gauzy nightfall, its auto-reverse replay of more neighborly ups and downs…

sr dingbats

Yet just when I thought that latest brain storm had subsided, in came this unseasonably thick, all-enveloping coastal fog. Must have been last call, coda to the summer machine, one blast and blanket by way of the Farallones and Potato Patch; the ocean reclaiming this peninsula as its beachhead domain, carrying along the aquamarine stench of fish kill and plankton on the float.

Baccarat clear mere hours before, Marina Green’s parking lot was now damn near indiscernible, and with the late marine layer came onshores like a typhoon tsunami—San Francisco Bay and Fort Mason piers nowhere to be seen. From what I could make out, our fleet seemingly present and accounted for—wasn’t that their Corvair there? The only hint of insomnia being Gary in his bread truck, paging through something under light of a Coleman lantern, nevertheless checking me out. A final pit stop and I was wriggling into my Frostline bag fully clothed, the Volvo all but rocking me to sleep in the cradle of the westerlies, to little avail. Nor was my radio in lullaby mode: I punched FM and dialed AM through ‘One Way or Another’ and ‘When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman, It’s Hard’, before flipping the thing off altogether, going it alone, feeling voodoo in the vibe until the night closed in once and for all. Which left me at the mercy of Marina Triangle’s undertones, a twisted, scraggly tree trunk outside my windshield shaped like a wind bent cypress crucifix.

Fine mizzle coated my car windows, yet I could see lime-amber halos around the harbor walkway lights, nearly make out fuzzy figures shuffling and lurking in the coal grey on gray shadows between them, appearing to be far more nefarious than the Monsignor or toolie mechanic, too slipshod to be General Ripcord on patrol. East Harbor masts swayed like VU meter pointers, deck tarps and sail boots flapping like carnival tents or backyard laundry on the line. Floating docks and berths creaked in the wavy tide, tire rubber bumpers squeaking to the raw, wrenching stretch of wet mainsails, spinnakers and mooring cables in the screaming wind. Adding to the low-grade clamor was the clang of guys and roller furling, the rub and moan of metal cleats against tie lines, rigging chiming like a carnival calliope. Anchoring the bass were the quadraphonic foghorns, echoing gate to Alcatraz gangplanks through the overcast: oboe to baritone sax to bassoon, essentially overdubbing an ‘Into the Mystic’ mix.

Yet the muted, sea-keyed symphony only left me tossing and squirming, hearing it, fearing it, cold sweating out the blurred, ghostly contours in costumes unknown, passing by to port and starboard, even more fore and aft. Raucous eight-track country rock and animal noises soon poured in with cheap beer from nearby vehicular dwellers only tightened my cranium, hangover already vising in.

So I eventually managed to pull the sleeping bag over my head, as if to bury my het-up imagination, trying to get a handle on things for a bit, at least until I could have sworn I heard a faint brushing, no tapping at my driver’s door window by a fleeting figure in the heavy poi. I swore all the more upon dead reckoning that it was might have been Sydney Mendel…

Care for more?

Chapter 82. Loggerheads of a 
canine variety come head to head 
with harsh animal inclinations…

∞ STAGE FOUR ∞

             “Midday, flying high
               late day, into the tank,
                           each day poles apart.”             

              

“Are you some kind of pervert, or what?”

“Damn, it was a total accident, I…

“I could have you up on a molestation charge, you know that,” the runner raged, having herded me off to the side of an old quartermaster building, as though this were a freeway fender bender. “How about assault and battery, or statutory rape, how does that sound? Or a civil suit, punitive damages, I’ll own your heinie in perpetuity!”

“Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m just trying to get my legs and lungs going here…” I coughed, entirely flat-footed by comparison, amazed she could stand there, jogging in place in her royal blue Etonics without missing a single breath.

“Tell it to your lawyer,  friend,”the runner said, a gust flapping her blue sleeveless Boalt Hall T-shirt, overhanging slick black tights. “I want your name and address, like right now…”

What lawyer, what address?” I was beginning to feel guilty as charged, though with my recent diet and regimen, I had the testosterone and sex drive of a neutered basset hound.

“I hate yokel shmucks like you, coming out here just to gawk and hit on women in shorts,” she sneered, reaching into her slim black fanny pack, bouncing up and down like a thinking girl’s Barbie Doll on overcharged batteries. She CAT scanned me until my fetid T-shirt and shorts felt ionized, pumping her knees up to her aerobic waistline. So you’re lucky I’m in such an elevated mood—do yourself a favor, and take that bumpkin Halloween costume back down to the Tenderloin…”

Time had fleeted, days washed, nights wrung away—well through a Fleet Week of gun metal gray battleships, destroyers, and carriers rank and filing into the Bay under cover of fog—which had most recently lifted into a clementine Indian summer. Oh, how the seasonal disjunction threw off my calenderial body clock. Just when I was gearing to post-Labor Day buckle down and work through a blustery autumn and winter, summertime finally hit town.

Off balance, disoriented inside and out of my preoccupied mind: I couldn’t seem to integrate things thrown and gale forced my way. It was such a day-to-day jumble, so cumulatively confusing. One minute things would all seem to come together; the next minute it would all fall apart. While the rest of Marina Green’s parking lot tinkered with or swore at their vehicles, slung Frisbees, strung box kites or just soaked up midday rays, I waited out meager paydays, whittled away at idle hours and a junkfed waistline with some physical and kinetic dysfunction. Got to where I just had to escape, run away from it all, so I eventually started jogging again to quell my conscious or conscientious strain.

Nevertheless I hadn’t progressed to stretching and preening machinations the real runners grunted through before trailing off in mesh tanktops, swoosh trainers and split-seamed shorts. Rather, I made do with a grimy Flatirons tee, unwashed cut-offs, some discarded sneakers and mismatched thermal socks. Instant scorn, immediate derision—from sweatbanded, racing-flat marathoners to the silken running suit set turning two fashionable laps around the Green. 

I didn’t know my ass from Adidas about then, and was having trouble enough bucking an inevitable 20 m.p.h. headwind along Marina Boulevard. Yet a comparatively calm Tuesday lured me into tackling the Bay Trail, right lung nearly collapsing approximately where the real runners Jim Fixxed to catch a second wind. From there, it was past the West Green’s ‘bikini junction’, and a public men’s john full of cruisers, trollers and funny business unstalled.

Once I had squeezed about the corner, windward side of the St. Francis Yacht Club, there was no turning back. Knees aching, heart stressing, I pushed out by the shoreline to wide-open flats and former airstrips along Crissy Field. Press, press, I gasped, try to keep pace with the elevated endorphine junkies, the outgoing sloops and cruise ships. Going for the limit, army barracks, Coast Guard station, hell, maybe clear out to the bridge itself, Fort Point tucked like a gold ring beneath its graceful southern arch. Yah, bust through the stitches, catch another wind, like in Marquette Park, run until the land ran out and there was nothing between the Gate and Hilo except seasick freighters and a few scruffy islands. Until there’s no mainland left to run from; short of that, run until you drop…

Instead, I hit major walls long before reaching runners’ exhaltation—sucking wind, inhaling salt and sand through fits and starts, every wobbly step of the way. I’d lose my breath, then my stride and poise, and with every new pain threshold, cramp and side pain, came waves of fresh glidiators legging aerodynamically past. Spacious as the trail was along bay’s edge just beyond the Coast Guard station, runners and hikers from both directions had to squeeze through a virtual choke point: an opening between a cluster of army supply and storage buildings, commonly known as ‘the slit’. Foot traffic thickened and clogged there like the Bay Bridge toll plaza come Monday morning, bottlenecking six-minute milers cold in the middle of their cadenced breathing. By now, I was breathing heavier than them all, high-kicking, windmill flailing my arms for momentum, anything to push wind, coax my flabby shape the rest of the way out to that bridge. But I thrashed my arms a little too hard, once too often, and caught this curvy Mary Decker type closing up behind me squarely in her jogging bracouldn’t have cuffed her any better had I tried.

Before I could catch a breath and respond, she had re-merged into outbound traffic with the effortless energy of a Turbo Carerra, basically cutting me loose. With her, went any desire to hit another wall. So I hobbled back toward Marina Green with aching arches and muscle cramps. Some 1.8 miles of runners’ dust and water torture had done me in for the afternoon, tailwind or no. I grabbed a Motel Six memorial towel from the Volvo, and sweated out the dustup over to Funston Park’s fieldhouse shower room—irked in retrospect that I didn’t really cop a decent feel for all her fury and dressing down. Then again, the odds were stacked against me all along.

“She called me a pervert, a yokel bumpkin…”

“Told you…”

“Was an accidental brush, that’s all…” Returning to the parking lot, I was even more flustered over it, if only for lamely pleading nolo contendere. But what else was there to do, belt her one?  Just a slight skim, minor incidental contact, barely more than a near miss…”

“Running’s bad for your legs, bad for your back—bad for your whole digestive tract,” Sherry stirred some potluck hummus. “Skimmed her where?”

“Aww, just kinda caught her in the, you know…jog bra…”

“Uh-huh, figures,” she said. So I take it she gave you a pity pass, huh? Lucky you, ’cause if it’d been me, I’d have wrung your little neck right there.”

               “I say let’s jump her,” Eric said, looking up from my engine department, around which the whole sullied parking lot crew had huddled to blow the remainder of my off-day.

“Whoa, get real,” I paced about the Volvo’s front end, trying to keep a bead on Eric’s wrench work, let alone a few steps further away from Sherry. “She’d run us in for life…”

“No, I mean your heap here. Still and all, you wouldn’t catch me getting near a bitch like that. Try to be neighborly and they’ll just call you a goddamn pervert.”

“I say it’s all in your hands,” Clifford paged through my riddled owner’s manual, oblivious to the double-wides speed walking by, the larger woman sporting a pink sweatshirt that read, ‘Running Sucks Wind…And Passes Gas’, front to back. “And how you finesse it…”

“Finesse what? She was a goddamn lawyer,” I twisted a metric deepwell, U-joint and extension like a Magic Cube over more lawsuits in Lycra legging past, while Eric re-synched the linkage on my HS6 carbs. “If anything, It felt more like getting manhandled…”

I gazed plaintively out toward the East Basin’s fully loaded docks. Long rows of bare matchstick masts waved like Eric’s amp meter, the bay beyond its breakwater still churning, ketches and Lasers bobbing on leavened whitecaps in the wake of tanker and freighter traffic plying through the Gate. Graduality, summer pattern, those foggy, dead-still mornings and hellishly windy afternoons seemed to be easing by the day. I first noticed what passed for a seasonal shift come sunrise. My car windows were a bit less steamed up, the dash radio crackled less loudly as its transistors warmed to local drive-time happy talker, Dr. Don Rose. It was easier to kick out the overnight curvature of my seat cramped spine.

Spackles of sun light broke through the marble sky somewhat earlier in the midday; warm, high sky clearing lasted longer before marine layer freezer burn and shredder winds revisited the Golden Gate on raw panther paws. Afternoons wore on longer before the fog bank mounded over the bridge and coastal hills, before subsuming bay islands, Alcatraz and Marin County altogether, blowing flotsam and jetsam over to Oakland until settling down for the night. We outliers welcomed the subtly calmer winds of incremental change with open windows and doors. In this case, modest income and front seat fever had me taking up Eric’s earlier offer to crack my hood and make the Volvo roadworthy, dead battery and all.

“I still say we jump her,” Eric tapped the Volvo’s voltage regulator with his flathead screwdriver.

              “No, let’s push it, then he can pop her one,”said Clifford, closing the manual, glancing toward Sherry and his camper side Corvair.

“Who’s got jumpers anyway,” I surveyed the engine compartment for stray ratchets and sockets once Eric had pulled away, handing me the dented regulator like a dentist would pulled wisdom teeth. “Mine are trashed…”

“Well, mine are up in the blue Porsche” Eric said, pointing toward the Van Ness service station, closing cash balance due apparently still in the mail. “None of my front bumpers hardly have knockers anyway.”

“Forget it,” Sherry nodded. “Some elbow grease and a good shove will do the trick. We’ll even help do the pushing…”

“Whoa, I vote we go with the Corvair,” Clifford weighed in, jealous of his reading and rendering hands.

Hell of an afternoon for fits and starts. The Marina neighborhood looked marvelous at the moment, a brilliant sky having deepened toward day’s end, keeping the off-shore fog bank at bay—a sterling, airbrushed blue worthy of Beach Street posters and cards. Boulevard mansions glowed with inflated ROI, their clear picture window views of the bay and Marin adding equity by the hour, District off-whites and pastels unfurling with Spanish tile rooflines behind them, all the way to Cow Hollow and Pacific Heights rising beyond. Even the pigeons made way under foot, seagulls squawked a cappella to the rhythm of the runners’ gate, sunlight firing up their white feather undercarriages. Whole squadrons of V-lined pelicans swept west toward the bridge, dive bombing for shallow fish stocks, then rising back into their glide path, smoother than any ‘Blue Angels’ formation.

“By the way, who’s that weirdo guy walking around the lot lately with a shit-eating grin,” I asked, desperate to change the subject, dismayed that my genderal relations had come to this.

“Yah, nice duds, huh? Heard him say he works for the city, or something,” said Clifford. “Think he lives somewhere around here…”

“Then he must be on the night shift,” Sherry added, “because he’s veggin’ around here fat and happy about every afternoon these days…”

We all hands-on backed the 122s out of its parking space, squaring up as Clifford swung around in his Monza to line up its upright tow bar with my rear bumper. Crabber Don came over and tossed in a can of Instant Starter. Atop Eric’s red 912, Bruno growled at General Ripcord in passing, then that Guatemalan and his family dogs. Clifford beeped, I waved out my driver’s window, slipped the floorshift into first gear. On we rolled, 10-15 m.p.h. onto the Green’s wider main drive, he gave me one accelerated shove, then let me fly. I popped the clutch, the Volvo bucking and backfiring, grinding as pressure plate hit flywheel, driveshaft whiplashing like its u-joints were worn rubber bands.

Yet catch, she did before clutch-in coasting to a stop: voltage regulating, points and plugs sparking—internal combustion that was bent on blazing new NorCal trails. I pumped and revved, waving Clifford off, U-turning to an Iranians Dealing Gas station over there at Marina Boulevard and Buchanan for a gallon or two. Blessed re-mobility, far as it went; though it appeared I’d first have to idle awhile in a lengthening gas line, what with a crisis going on.

sr dingbats

“Don’t know.”

“Okay, then. Would you say, A, B, C, D, or…”

“None of the above.”

“Fine, now moving forward…how would you answer this final question on brand usage? Do you consume Little Critters cookies 1) Regularly, 2) Often, 3) Occasionally, 4) Seldom or 5) Never?”

“I’d say somewhere between 2 and 4. And when do I get my prize?”

“They’ll mail it to you in a month or so, maam.” I said, straight from the script. We appreciate your time and cooperation. You be sure to have a nice day…”

Vince and the PBT mailroom, had had their fill of me, as had Able Temps. So I’d drifted over to Ready, a rival agency that happened to be swamped with temp demand from a couple of marketing research firms that specialized in telesurveys. They chucked me into the line of phonic fire at a hot boiler room just down from MacArthur Park. Scripts in hand, I turned out to be a surprisingly quick study, just smooth enough on the horn, hitting shift quotas like Mister October a fastball, to where Ready Temps put me on call. These part-time gigs left more than enough free, fretful time to mobilize into perpetual motion—with just enough money to keep me in gas and junk food, if not enough to wheel me out of this Marina ditch.

Whence California wanderlust soon made perfect intercranial and Dybbukian sense. The more I roamed, the less my varied hassles seemed to dog me. Couldn’t pin anything on a rolling rockhead, right? Tunnel vision, freeform dissociation: what better way to keep trouble on the run than fresh, ever-changing scenery, a steady rasher of wanton abandon? Forget creature comforts and square mealtime, the highway to happiness was paved with plain old asphalt. Mind on my money and money on my mind: and to hell with another trail run-inI felt more driven to pour my depreciating assets into oil and gas exploration.

Routine being, I’d more often than not sleep in the Frostline bag until any remaining fog had cleared, waking up to the cawing of blackbirds, a windshield full of Marina Boulevard mansions, the racy roadsters and luxury chariots passing by, to and from Doyle Drive. Hitting time, weather and ‘Gold Dust Woman’ on the AM dial, I quickly offed the Blaupunkt to spare my battery, then brushed up over rust stained steel pots and basins in the lot’s de fresco john, shying away from that haggard face in its corroded metal mirror. Soon I was transient and fully tanked, with a stash of sourdough, overripe Chiquitas and Skippy Crunch from the Marina Safeway ‘meatmarket’ nearby.

Then it was a quick shank over to Chestnut Street,dialing up Doobies ‘Open Your Eyes’ on KYA for a breezy cruise to a corner Italian deli’s styro coffee. I couldn’t help eyeing a Marina parade of sunshine starlets already strolling and strutting by the increasingly chichi shops displacing everyday practical businesses that had served District dagos for decades. Young, fresh and flawless ex-coeds with longboard blond hair and beach sandy voices, strutted, strategically strolled in Nike, Adidas, Puma and New Balance. Self-absorbed, insolent babes named Kristen, Kirsten, Kathleen, Katie, Christine tossed their cheeks and cleavage around like catnip, unapproachably leerworthy at every turn.

Which was what most of the wet-combed lunks in workout suits were doing,the number crunchers in hard-pressed designer jeans, to the District’s overgrown, self-detonating mammas’ boys fingering coin returns for their allowance. All but collided with passbook bearing landlords of pioneer stock, kamikaze baby strollers and a nodding army of blathering curb and doorway crazies, mental and medicated, who had spent the night who knew where.

Little better and double parked in a red zone, I quickly picked up a paper and candy mints at Jack’s smoke stand, the Clarion leading with another Lafayette Park strangling—familiar psychosexual brutality, similar MO—name withheld pending notification, no suspects yet positively IDed. Not my bag, man, and I was off, catching Joltin’ Joe climbing out of his Fleetwood, gracefully Clipping over to the Chestnut Super for steak s, spuds and produce by the bin. Sure, just ahead of that hungover old goombah humping down from the Marina Lounge with a hair of the dog shine on, like a marionette without strings.

I honked and waved to a scowling DiMaggio, then drove down past Funston ball fields and Syd’s place, checking for Foxy and any signs of open studio time. No Audi, no chance encounter, so I wheeled onto Van Ness, intent on airing out my Solex carbs and some aggravating personal circumstances, Michael McDonald belting ‘Here To Love You’ on the radio. From there, I was all over the map, hopped up on weak coffee and Little Critters, cutting through the Broadway Tunnel, oogling North Beach skin showgirl barkers, George Benson riffing real jazzy on the box. I ramped up to the Embarcadero Freeway, gunning triumphantly around the Ferry Building and Justin Herman Plaza, past that ungodly waterfront YMCA, pumping ‘On Broadway’ full blast, feeling that sun-powered high-noon energy that fueled The City That Knows How. That music groove took me around 101 onto the Central Freeway, KSAN laying on the latest Starship Earth, tracking ‘Runaway’ and ‘Crazy Feelin’ back to back, interjecting some dish about Marty Balin screwin’ the pooch over returning to the band, since Kantner had canned Gracie after her slurring onstage fiasco in Germany wherein she blamed all of Deutschland for Hitler’s atrocities.

In any case, before I knew it, I’d spun up Fell Street to Fillmore, back to stirrings and soul of it all. Creeping up on Geary Boulevard, I could about hear the choir in Bill Graham’s house of worship. Chet Helms leading the Family Dog into ‘Hello, Hello’ greetings from the Sopwith ‘Camel’; The Charlatans joining in to stage a smokin’ neo-vaudevillian revival; Sons of Champlin serving as altar boys, lighting candles for the Flamin’ Groovies and LaFlammes. Such A Beautiful Day for it, if only I didn’t have to pass that Peoples Temple turmoil, namely Reverend Jim’s recent Psychotic Reactions, to get there from here. Mox nix, everybody knew how Santana got here: practice, practice, practice in a makeshift studio up Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights, before Carlos could catch Bill’s ear.

“Right next door,” said a flip-floppy ex-Texas waitress, twanging and hanging loose, in the Janis Joplin fetish mode. “What’ll it be, the Leek Soup and baguette, or…”

“Just coffee, thanks, room for cream,” I had settled into a tiny window case table for two, amazed that it had opened up, just as I hit the door. “You said Santana’s studio was…”

“On the other side of the Clay, up above Browser Books,” she said, visibly annoyed that I’d grabbed premier seating, albeit in a down-home sort of way. “All that’s left is a two-room shell up on the roof with acoustic tiles, windows all stripped out. That’s where he used to rehearse all day, then go hound Fillmore stagehands, trying to audition for Bill Graham himself. Sure as shootin’ worked, didn’t it?”

Steering clear of the gamy Your Asia Grill, I grabbed a full-meter parking spot between California and Sacramento Streets, across from a long vacated variety store that suggested this stretch of Upper Fillmore was betwixt better days. Difficult as it was to pass the frosted twists at the all-hours Donut Hole, much less the burger baskets at Sugar’s Broiler, I crossed Sacramento, past the sultry, black-tiled Hillcrest Lounge. Here, upper Fillmore Street had a delicious post-grad campustown flavor: Cheshire Cheese and Tea Victorian, Ten-Ichi sushi and a mouse hole of a Fully Belly Deli across the way—lots of liquor and flower shops, church and Junior League resale stores. Wasn’t until I closed in on the bookstore and Clay Theater that echos of Carlos’s capo and fretwork began to ring and pound through my ears. The movie house marquee still read ‘Manhattan’ with a midnight ‘Rocky Horror’ chaser. However I was more taken with the scene next door.

“Guess what hooked me was Abraxas,” I said, as she returned with a cup and china creamer, definitely Sydney grade.

“I’ll bet,” said the waitress, low-cut sweater, more back than bust. “Those big bare knockers on the album cover, huh?” 

“Uh, not…I just was into Samba Pa Ti,” I winced in the bright light of the front window case, the name Millard’s angled and gold leafed stylishly across the glass—not long for this upscaling block, if hovering real-estate vultures kept swooping their way into the Heights.

“Right, well you should check out our shot puller, Tori,” Noreen sniped, swaying back to the six-stool bar. “She’s built like a broodmare…”

Queen Victoria once said she thought the 13thAmerican president was the handsomest man she had ever met. So it followed that, trimmed in red and blue, Millard’s facade now cut a smart little sliver between the art house and a corner Owl Cleaners. Formerly the hobbling Hob-Nob luncheonette, this deep, narrow space had been transformed into a trend-setting crêperie/cafe, where a tout petit kitchen steeped and sizzled with saucy repast. Young Pac Heights food faddies, nearby hospital and dental school staffers, Jacques-en-le-Box refugees joined neighborhood artists, movie mavens and Santana spurred musicians to fill the counter and six tiny rear tables, often lining up out the door.

KJAZ radio and Rumours of Fleetwood Mac alternated on speakers among the homey plants and nicknacks; talk turned to cinema reviews and weekend bashes up on Tomales Bay, whispers of skinny dicking at China and Muir Beaches. Hawaiian shirts, baggies and an occasional ‘Full Sail’ or Marley ‘Exodus’ track lent a sandal-tapping ‘Here Today, Gone To Maui’ vibe to it all. Then again, there was Tori, drawing double capps on the espresso machine right above me with a minxish smile, Springsteen’s ‘Darkness’ plastered across her tight, brooding T-shirt. But hinted in her wink my way was that Bogarting this prized table over a lone cup of house-brewed wasn’t très cool at all. I inferred, deferred, settled up with Noreen, who said use more counter intelligence next time. So I sailed away, edging past a waiting couple of nurses onto Fillmore Street, as steamy caffeine pumped as Tori’s handles.

Feeling the Pacific Heights groove, I buzzed the Volvo further up Fillmore, flipping off that drag-ass bank branch, past the former horse stables and carriage garages. I blew through crosswalks and stop signs up here, waving off styling salons, estate jewelry and apothecaries like I really was somebody, the second coming of Fee Waybill, or Boz. Cruising the Heights like all the rich kids in their Mercedes and Beemers, matching them decibel for screeching decibel—the Dead Kennedys blowing ‘Mondo Bondage’, White Punks On Dope mainlining what they wanted from life besides more trust busting, putting more of their Tubular monkey business out on the streets for all to see.

Riding the manic rush, I punched in Eddie Bucks’ ‘Two Tickets To Paradise’ on the AM, dialing over to ‘I Go To Rio’. But such speedway projections only got me so far. Up to Broadway in fact, with Syd’s Casa Cossala meltdown right around the corner. That’s when I drank in the makings of a foggy sunset out beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, a churning eventide that would bring me back to another gauzy nightfall.

sr dingbats

“Loyal Republican, are you?”

“Me? No, not—guess I’m more of an independent…”

“No such thing around here, lad. Just so long as you’re not bleedin’ orange.”

After watching a cruise ship steam seaward into the sunset at Broadway, I turned things around and shot back down Fillmore to California Street, past the fabled Old Waldorf and fortified JCC. Needing a change of tune, I then angled over by Silk Degrees to Clement Street, where the pastel avenues took on numbers, rolling out straight and unwaveringly true. Wasn’t long before I attacked my dry rot at the roots, namely a green, driftwood trimmed pub mid block just this side of 5th, parking the overheated Volvo out front a spicy Chinese produce market, bins overflowing with leafage and collards untold—the neighborhood’s Euro underpinnings washing away in a tenacious Asian tide. Nonetheless, here was a prime scenario for a little more genealogy, soon as I tuned out ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’—reverting to more tricolor tribal familiarity amid all the cumulative alienation—drawn in like a peat bog grouse. Ahh, here was to the verdant beauty and tranquillity of the Auld Sod…

“Huh? Not that I’m aware of,” I squirmed on my bar stool. 

“Then you don’t object to contributing to the campaign, now do you,” said a carrot-topped bartender with a graying handlebar, pouring me a black and tan pint just so, spatula planing its head like a fried egg off a griddle.

“I’m really not into politics, you know?”

“We’re not talking ballots, mate,” said another, younger bartender, making his bullet point about gunboat diplomacy by sliding a large beef jerky jar reading ‘Moral Support’ over beside my mug. “We’re talking about The Cause.”

Eire Rising was another inner Richmond Irish bar, albeit more militantly so. A cavernously dark place, barely illuminated by yellow house lights and neon beer or whisky signs, the ER was a smokehouse of unfiltered cigarette plumes, to where I could hardly make out paintings and posters of Yeats and Pearse, Connolly and Michael Collins—alongside tricolor flags, murals of Killiney Bay, Muckross Abbey and the Gap of Dunloe.

San Francisco’s Irish strong, native and fresh-faced newcomers, tipped pints of Guinness and Harp, toasted Bailey’s and Bushmill’s between dances. Strumming and fiddling away on a small backroom stage was a Wolfe Tones cover band that reeled off renditions of ‘Uncle Nobby’s Steamboat’ and ‘Skibereen’, rousing blasts of ‘Big Strong Man’ and ‘God Save Ireland’ further firing up the more febrile of this Celtic crowd. But the migrating whispers of IRA recruitment for NORAID fundraising efforts and gun runs soon had me tossing back what remained of my Stout, shying away from the money jar altogether. My blood ran colder than greener upon realizing the ER’s roots went deeper than shamrocks and shillelaghs. Much as I could relate to the 32 County cause, my ire was already rising, and I wasn’t up for further foreign entanglements.

All the same, I reflexively flashed back on negotiating RUC checkpoints, sitting curbside along Belfast’s Oxford Street, shooting close-ups of the city center when a British soldier tapped my telephoto lens with his gun barrel, ordering me to put my black-body camera away lest it be mistaken for hostile weaponry. Tensions had been building all morning, lunch hour crowds thickening—with security forces moving everybody along like nobody’s damn business. I was packing up shortly after 1 p.m., feeling uneasy enough to take leave when the first of 24 explosions hit Ulster Bank, then the Brookvale Hotel.

From there explosions went off like a string of crown jewels, Great Victoria Street station, to Liverpool ferry terminus to the M2 Motorway and Queen Elizabeth Bridges. The attacks seemed to come bomb-a-minute in Belfast’s worst day of violence, city center and environs blitzed with smoke and scattered fire. Workers, shoppers all around me fled with hysterical screams, but nowhere else felt any safer. I was beside myself with disorientation and regret for hanging here so long, now playing deadly dodgeball with no visible means of retreat. Detonations concussed in my ears, as if in some kind of uncivil war zone. Soon downtown streets were strewn with flaming storefronts, crumpled vehicles and mangled body parts. Six people died at the Oxford Street bus station, three more at a shopping center out on Cavehill Road that July 21, 1972, with some 130 injured during a grisly 80-minute fusillade.

The IRA was blamed for the bombings, allegedly triggered by the breakdown of Storemont peace talks with Unionists and British Home Secretary William Whitelaw the month before. Provos insisted they had given advanced warning of the strikes, that Ulster security forces had irresponsibly ignored them. The Brits responded with an ‘Operation Motorman’ military clampdown in Belfast’s ‘no-go’ Catholic areas, the sectarian strife that began in October, 1968 continuing to this very day.

I had barely scraped my way out of town in one piece that Bloody Friday afternoon, ears ringing drum to drum, hitching a ride amid panic-driven traffic up to the Larne ferry for Scotland. Yet here the Troubles were, getting in my face again, if only for face value donations to the cause. Even more unsettling was chatter overheard at this pub, that while British PM James Callaghan had already visited Washington D.C. without venturing to San Francisco, the doof’s foreign secretary was due in town around Poppy Day. Couldn’t help but wonder whether Niall and Corrigan were at the smokey other end of the bar. Or if the switch to some bootlick named David Owen would somehow impact their plan.

Either way, it still wasn’t for me to say; time to pack the Tricolor in until St. Paddy’s Day next. So I scraped out of Eire Rising, rattled enough as I already was. Nevertheless, this latest tribal reckoning did get me to thinking about Sydney’s embrace of her Hebrew heritage, which made a lot more sense through this prism, albeit in the dim, distant light. Hell, at least they were over there making Mideast peace and shaking on it, instead of just blowing things sky high…

sr dingbats

“Newsradio’s City Bureau reports that the Reverend Jim Jones has launched a full-on response to recent charges of Jonestown irregularities. He has enlisted attorney Mark Lane to refute ‘bogus rumors’ regarding his behavior and conditions in his Guyana compound, claiming a ‘massive conspiracy’ by U.S. intelligence agencies. They threaten an array of media organizations with libel actions for spreading ‘lies and innuendos’ in the guise of ‘fabricated’ exposes.

Besides reaching out to the Soviet embassy for possible political asylum, Rev. Jones has reportedly written President Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance for protection from the many enemies whom he claims are destroying his Godly work. Allegedly included in Jones’ letter to the president is his offering up of his wife for sexual favors at a time and place of Mr. Carter’s choosing. We are following this story closely, and will update at 11 PM …”

How ironic—make that paradoxical—no, it was merely coincidental that I found myself passing Peoples Temple while flipping to the latest AM newsbreak. Could have made another kamikaze sortie out to the O’Shaughnessy Seawall at Ocean Beach, but rather I had turned around over to Geary Boulevard as a quick escape from mickville and the encroaching marine layer. Not before witnessing Robin Williams, however, as he bounded out of the Holy City Zoo, monkey climbing all over a pair of idling powder blue squad cars, Morking into the 6thAvenue fog, nanu, nanu. Instead, I headed toward downtown, past Russkieville piroshki bakeries, Chinese chow mein parlors and the dratted Scandinavian deli that got me into this fix earlier on, again picturing Moon picking away disquietly at her kidney bean-cucumber salad before that head-on collision at Syd’s.

Chugging through the Fillmore once more, I couldn’t miss the vigil and demonstration gatherings outside Peoples Temple, all but set to music by the guitars blasting from the fabled corner auditorium, Bill Graham apparently having snared Petty and the ‘Breakers for a two-night taste of Damn new material. Thus distracted, I missed Fillmore Street altogether, thinking of backtracking to Divisadero until recalling that it was shut down for the dead of night, allowing house movers to haul whole dilapidated Victorians out of the Western Addition on curb to curb blocked-up trailers—in the name of urban renewal—bound for renovation and better addresses in the greater beyond.

So I plowed ahead on Geary by Japantown to Civic Center, missing Franklin Street entirely in the shuffle, punching up KYA and ‘Over My Head’, just in time to re-examine my priorities. Tracing that Van Ness near-death march through Auto Row proved painful enough, but by the time I reached the edges of Lafayette Park and Sydney’s former flat, the crime scenes began piling up like crates of Cordite, even today. Sequenced green lights drove me past Henry Africa’s down Chestnut Street to a Sylvester disco beat, doing glancing recon on Syd’s new apartment. I wanted to see if garage lights signaled she was creating away in her studio on our commission like a good little painter, searching for any sign of her car, or his. Not as I could notice, and I dared not approach any closer since I’d yet to come up with Josh’s parcel.

I then accelerated further along Chestnut to Fillmore Street, dialing through ‘Don’t Give Up On Us Baby’ via soft-rock radio, left turning to scope out whether she had parked her red Fox hereabouts, say to hit a work-out session at Marina Fitness, keeping so slim and tight.  I guessed maybe she had swung down to the ferned wood and brassy Chestnut Street Bar and Grill for nicknamed sandwiches on the patio with the gals. Except she seemed to have no gals nowadays, mostly guys, helpful, happening guys—at least more so than I could ever hope to be, scarcity trapped as I was.

That burned me even more as I circled the Fillmore to Scott Street circuit over and over, hawkin’, gawkin’funny words there, but had nothing to do with me. Winging it ‘With A Little Luck, we can make this whole damn thing work out’ and ‘Can’t you feel the town exploding?’ I looked to the sensitive synth pop for any hopeful nod. Trying to grasp and identify with who she was becoming, get closer to the heart of it all, yet drifting further and further afield, getting no kick whatsoever from munching stale, dry Kix as ‘Sister Golden Hair’ played on the AM dial. I vowed to find a role, an angle, some sort of inroad—that’s right, be Mr. Indispensable Lifesaver Mentsch like before, make myself relevant again—if only to make this all bloody worth it. Meantime, I tuned into KYA again, Donald Fagan singing, ‘Goin’ back Jack, do it again, wheels turning round and round… you’ll be on your knees tomorrow.’

Then again, that was at least a long, tempestuous night away…

Care for more?

Chapter 81. A lot of bitching and 
breast-beating carries over to one 
hell of a Halloween brew…

“Shadow of a man
between the darkness and light
fight it, though he might.”

“Whoa, SRO…”

“Always is.”

“Guess they’re working on the stools, huh? Like in Chicago taverns…”

“What stools?”

Vince and I had signed out of PBT, pushed down Market Street into this clear, almost balmy late TGIF. Both sides of San Francisco’s main drag glowed reddish yellow in the prismal street-lit reflections of the Cal Oil complex off the Zellerbach Building, the Shell Building off the Tishman, the Russ and Ritchie Chancery off the Hobart, the Flatiron off them all. But down New Montgomery, just south of the Slot, Financial District luster turned a bit darker. Happy-hour strollers seemed to vanish with all the brick walks, monoxide modified trees and corporate landscaped fountains. This now lifeless city artery was lined with low-rise mercantile blockbusters full of backlist book stores, custom tailors and gem dealers. We tread through the rose-green neon blaze of a valet parking garage at Stevenson Street—as fare-starved cabbies honked and hollered for position across the way, outside the venerable Sheraton Hotel.

He led me pasta cigar store that looked to have been cornerstoning a half-block office building at least since Enrico Caruso played the Palace. Its stumpy old shopkeep wheeled in his news racks for the night, afternoon editions front paging how a conspiracy minded mouthpiece named Mark Lane had been added to Jim Jones’ payroll to defend Peoples Temple in a Georgetown news conference from ‘bogus charges’ floated by the CIA. But Max’s store was far from a mere news stand. Its aged oakwood framed debit de tabac featured gold-leaf accordion glass doors festooned with Optima, La Palina, Santa Fe High Grade and Garcia y Vega Blue cigar decalcomania. The cigar man swept the bands and butts from his checkered tile floor, snap latched copper-lined wooden humidor drawers, then padlocked those cut-glass doors. Switching on his overhead Chesterfield sign, he flicked away a chewed over stub, then elbowed into the spot next door. We followed closely in his Panatella path.

“Uh, this isn’t a…

“Huh, here?” Vince said, once inside.“No way, José.”

“It’s just because they’re all…”

“Not to worry. Just follow me straight down to Coffin Corner.”

‘Coat of Arms’ was scripted in chipping gilded letters across the door glass, matching red and black heraldic neon signage above and in mural-size main front windows. I’d read and reread the gold leaf when the revolving door slapped me across the keister. Ah but, Friday night, after work: the Coat was smokin’. No, blazing—it was as though bartenders had fired up the old man’s entire inventory on cue about a half-hour before, then recycled in the prior evening’s smokefest through the overhead air vents for turbid effect. The resulting haze was so insidiously thick, popcorn tumbling out of the near corner popper seemed slo-mo suspended in mid air.

“We’re lucky to land this spot so late,” Vince said, as we squeezed between two Martell-snifting pinstripers to the long, boisterous bar. “Name your poison…”

“Uh, beer, tap,” I replied, teary eyed squinting as best I could to spot the cigar man down the far end. No luck, in fact I could barely make out the popcorn machine. But what he could see seemed odd enough to mention. “Not a whole lot of ladies, huh?”

“Only for the lunch buffet now and then, if they’re lucky,” he snapped, beckoning center bar for two Anchor Steams. “See, this isn’t one of your Chicago taverns. The Coat here’s a real saloon.”

Enough said: saloon. One of The City’s last-gasp horse troughs. A mahogany panelled, brass railed, spittoon rigged, open-and-shut kind of joint—pure standing room only save for a six-pack of leather cushioned boothlets along the Venetian blinded front windows. Not that such blinds were necessary, for tar so imbued each ply, so thoroughly stained each panel, smoked glass took on an entirely different dimension. Three quarter-century deep nicotine lacquered the wood grain, tainted the brass, black plaqued the tawny walls, effectively cut off the Coat of Arms from any chlorophyllose outside light. It browned out the saloon’s four pinada-shaped bronze chandeliers, bonded decades of bar dust and cobwebs to the nude nymphic iron maidens exalting the proceedings in compromising repose from high podia mounted liberally about the room.

“So what’s that got to do with no women,” I asked, inclined to talk about anything besides the Mendelberg file. My eyes wandered mindlessly around the waffled, parqueted ceiling, its copper inlays smoke clogged fast as wood putty, its center skylight a neutralized black hole. “Or stools, for that matter…”

“Poof, no stools, no dames,” Vince waved through the Havana squall. He yanked loose his oversized Roos drip-dry salmon collar and fudge brown tie. “See what I’m sayin’?”

That just about said it: stag, a last-stand men’s drinking club. Coat’s smoke also choked the stuffing out of deer and moose heads hung damn near anywhere the iron maidens dared not tread. Further, from Coffin Corner unclear down to Dead Man’s Curve, all I could see were suits, rumpled to razor sharp. Insurance broker double-knits tossing down Wild Turkey, commodity broker worsteds tossing the ivories for rounds. Stockbroker flannels cutting deals and splitting commissions over Cutty and water. Contingency lawyer woolens pounding out their settlements right there on the battle-scarred mahogany bar. 

“Couple of mugs for a couple of mugs,” heaved a beamish, black-tied barkeep, heavy laboring up to us along a deep, time-warped groove that proceeded straight as a barrel track, corner to curve.

“Run it, will ya, Darcy?” Vince stacked his thin roll and some coin shrewdly between an Old Style beer coaster and overflowing Prima Del Rey ashtray. “And an Early Times while you’re at it. You?”

“Shots and beers? No thanks,” I replied.

“Hey, suit yourself…” Which is what Vince appeared to be doing of late—one brown double knit of his own—an everyday workhorse he stood in his corner closet every night. “But you can’t hold your liquor, huh? Got to manhandle it around here…”

In that respect, the Coat of Arms was a boilermaker of a place. Elbows up to the bar, lean into a round, padded rests and put away that Johnny Red, the occasional Boothby Cocktail and Pisco Punch. Patrons were throwing ’em back the entire length of the brass rail, chasing everything from Chivas to well fire with imports and Steams—or just plain Oly draft. French cuffs were doing it, blue blazers were doing it until they dropped, in a blur of Rolex Chronos, knock-offs and black sapphire pinkie rings. Everybody and his limited partner puffed and rolled and washed their after hours away. Some had never gotten past the liver and corned beef luncheon balcony buffet. But there was no tube, no piped-in radio, a broken-down juke—and the Belfast Soda clock had handlocked in a nicotine seizure the day Seals Stadium struck out for good. Herein, time had a way of going up in…smoke.

sr dingbats

“How’s the ol’ man, Vince?” the bartender grumbled, wiping a sticky bar, then his forehead with a dampened towel. “Ain’t seen him in here for a coon’s age.”

“Dad? He bussed his ulcer up to the Lake with Dominic for a week of Keno and quiet.” Vince’s charted, rubicund face lighting up like a wingtip flasher. He pulled the bowlish sheepdog hair out of his eyes. “Say, this guy here’s claiming Chicago taverns are better because they’ve got stools.”

“Oh, he is, is he,” Darcy huffed through a significant underbite. He was surely carrying weight beyond his years. It showed in his red, beading face as he slicked back his comb-tracked gray hair. Looked to be the kind who might hit a Fox Theater matinee before his shift started. “Chicago, huh… what’re ya, son, a damn fool?”

“Uh, no, part Irish, actually,” I replied cautiously. “Other part, Scottish…”

“Well, I’ll drink partly to that,” the bartender’s bridged smile wrapped tightly under a veiny hawk nose.“But you can forget the stool hooey’til my dying day, anyway.”

“Who needs them, right,” I hedged, watching Vince chug that Steam chaser like some carrot concoction at a juice bar.

“Makes you forget all about ’em, all right.” Vince prompted Darcy for another round. “Ready?”

“No, this one’s fine,” I cleared throat of some ticklish coughing. “Stools, you mean…”

“Nope, redheads.”

“Times and tonic,” Darcy snapped, returning to lean heavily against the wet bar, so as to be heard over the discussional din. “Yeah, lotsa micks in this town. Out by the Sunset, mostly—Inner Richmond around Geary. Used to be all over the Mission, that’s a fact.”

“Thought the Mission was Latino,” I said, parting a neighborly exhale like the mane of a collie.” Murals, all that…”

“Sure—now,” Darcy muttered, wringing his bar rag, then pulling Vince’s empties. “Everybody’s sellin’. Whole neighborhoods, just like that. Well, not me, mister—no sirree. Got a nice little stucco job in West Portal. They’re gonna wheel me outta here or there. I ain’t goin’ noplace.”

My eyes strayed over toward the old cigar man, because I didn’t dare look at Vince. That last Early Times seemed to dim his lights to a dull amber tantamount to the prevailing air. I couldn’t see much through all this steamy, unfiltered soup, but there was no mistaking that Vince was fogging over fast.

“Yeah, foreigners comin’ in from everywhere,” Darcy added, straining a Martini for the blue serge suited smoothie one brass fitting away. “Think they give a rat’s behind about San Francisco, its traditions? Real estate piranhas are circling like crazy. Look at what they’re already doin’ to the Embarcadero. Whole city’s just waiting to explode.”

“Darcy, another Steam…for Mr. Chitown here, too,” Vince squeezed his drink, gesturing toward mine. “My dad used to bring me down there on weekends for fresh fruit.”

“Really, I’m good,” I said, a nod too late.

“Now look at it,” Darcy flapped his protruding chin, setting us up another round, pouring a Jameson’s straight for himself. “Damn Rockefeller Center West. Bastards wanna turn our whole classy skyline into another smoggy Manhattan. I hear them shyster developers schemin’ right here all the time with their bloomin’ highrises…”

“See, Darcy here still wants to hop a dinky over to the Music Box,” said the White Owl next slot up. It was a monster, full stoke—a foot-long smokestack crammed into the face of a dapper little underwriter in tattersall vest and tweeds. “Or take in the Chinese bubble dancers at Forbidden City.”

“Yeah, well at least then people knew their place,” Darcy said unblinking, even in the face of an Owlish coughing jag. “Whole town’s goin’ to hell in a moving van. Only people who’ll be left are the rich who don’t give a damn about anybody, and poor folks who don’t have a say about anything.”

“Come on, you make it sound like San Francisco’s fading into the sunset,” I couldn’t so easily dodge the discharge. Through all the pall, I began to pick out some of the Coat’s curious detail. Framed snapshots of old, departed mainstays, a bloke’s gallery of past fish peddlers and fire chiefs, leatherhead 49er warriors, from McElhenny to Nomellini thrilling the Kezar faithful. Cloying Call-Bulletin and Chronicle columns penned by Delaplane and McCabe, some right around here at Coffin Corner.

“Tis, tis,” Darcy said, pouring the last of Steam number three into a suddenly sullen Vince’s glass. “Spot by spot, gone—how was it Gavin Elster put it? Things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.”

“Who’s he with,” I asked, standing pat with mug number one.

“Jimmy Stewart, in Vertigo, stupe,” he wipe around my rounds. “But I’ll tell you one thing, thank god for Mayor Moscone—he at least still cares about the neighborhoods.”

“Aghh, that mush head’s the one destroying everything,” the vested White Owl sneered, his high-vein, bumpy beak bright as a ’58 Buick tail light. “Drawing in all these weirdos with his welcome wagon—turning it into homoville USA…”

“Don’t make me no never mind,” Darcy firmly pounded his bar. “George’s the only one can hold back them crooks and their skyscrapers. Board of Supervisors? Forget it, friend. Take that Feinstein dame—she’d sell the whole town out from under us. She’s in their hip pocket, that one.”

“T’hell with Moscone, Danny White’s gonna be our salvation. His head’s screwed on straight, all right.”

“Aww, don’t get me started on that flunky,” Darcy countered, paternally pulling Vince’s dead soldiers off the bar. “I’m not sayin’ ol’ George ain’t a little crackers, God knows. But we need all the home-grown characters we can keep. They’re droppin’ like barflies.”

“Come off it,” the Owl smoker replied, stirring his Rob Roy. “Town’s one bit outpatient psycho ward as it is.”

“So you say,” Darcy mopped his brow. “Well, it’s them very same kooks and eccentrics that keeps drawing everybody out here. Trouble is, all the looky-loos are forcin’ out who they came to look at. Vince, you take it easy there, don’t want your dad comin’ in givin’ me grief.” With that, he scooted toward a center bar cloud bank to rethread the tape of Coat’s creaky cash register, bar towel draped around his sweat-stained white collar.

Vince just mumbled into his mug, something about fresh mangoes and papaya, right off the boat. I watched curiously as the cigar man wove through a confluence of head hunters and ledger benders, erringly following an arrow down ‘To the Trenches’. Saloon facilities were said to consist of one spacious, marble-walled men’s room, replete with four large porcelain urinals, a couple of mahogany doored stalls—even the Chronicle and Clarion front and sports pages framed above pissers two and three. The ladies room, tighter than a mop closet, atrophied one door down. I simply stood my ground, working the clock and bladder as best I could.

“Every Saturday morning,” Vince burst, “Dad’d bring me down to the docks. Dinky clanging along California Street—damn, there’d be tons of iced fish and produce, freighters from everywhere, smell of coffee roasting over at MJB…”

“What’s dinkies,” I asked, sipping to the two-thirds point of my second Steam.

“Come on, dinkies…cable cars. But you wouldn’t know that, now would you?!”

“Little before my time, I guess…”

“Sure,” Vince snarled, “being from the Midwest, and all.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That you’re the one Darcy’s talking about, you and Tina, the ones crowding us natives out. Coming here for 60s’ kicks, running away from your goddamn flat corn fields like San Francisco’s the answer to all your dreams. I just wish everybody discovering this place would undiscover it, real fast.”

“Ever spent a winter back there,” I replied, images of blizzard-locked, stoolie Chicago taverns like my Dad’s haunted gripping my imagination. Or was it simply overexposure to the cigars?

“Been there myself, okay?! Enough to know you don’t have anything to bring out here, only to come empty handed, hanging out in your flatland ways, turning The City into Omaha with hills.”

“Nobody’s forcing San Francisco to sell out, Vince,” I muttered. How I’d gotten lumped into co-defending Alabamans was beyond me. “Look, I’d better head out…” Just negotiating the Coat’s cracked, liquor-slick tile floor could consume the better part of a La Palina Long.

“Hey, nothing personal,” Vince sputtered, lifting his mug. “What say to another brew, for the bricks…”

“Rain check, okay? I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“What rain? Here, we’ll split one.” With Darcy setting up some Manhattans center bar, his co-tender slid a fresh Steam down around Coffin Corner. “It’s just that she’s from the Midwest…

sr dingbats

“You mean Tina,” I asked, stopping cold. Felt like we had been here for hours, damned if I’d yet to see a she, except maybe those Michelangelic sweeties on the cigar boxes or the musty mounted, iron-clad maidens. “But she told me she was from the south…”

“Not that bimbo, the other redhead.”

“Oh, oh—another redhead, last thing I wanted to hear about was another redhead, especially at this late hour. Trouble was, I was second-hand toxic by now, and Vince had already poured on half the Steam.

“Janie, my ex. Janie’s from Minneapolis, by way of Duluth. She came here out of college,” Vince did grip isometrics on the mug handle. “Was an Art History major, met her in the Haight.”

“Gotcha, Summer of Love,” I fidgeted, straining to peer down along the parqueted mahogany backbar, framing a long hairline cracked mirror. “You know, it’s really getting smoky in here.”

“Was ’73, in fact, middle of the rainy season. We lived together for a year, flat on the Avenues, off Clement. She got pregnant, we made it legal.”

“Ewph, a kid, huh?” Who needed it, I thought, who is this guy unloading on a lowly temp like me?

“Two—Sanya and Isaac. Wanna see their pix?” Vince reached forlornly for his wallet. He flashed his Fotomat glossy like a badge of valor. It was a set up shot of infants on an antiquated carousel. A sinewy, straight haired…redhead…braced them on a hand carved palomino. “I took it two summers ago, in Golden Gate Park.”

“Been there, that’s for sure,” I nodded, shuffling several steps back from the bar rail. On the plus side, the White Owl hadn’t found his way back from the trenches; downside, he had been succeeded by two chain-smoking actuaries doing a number on Old Grand Dad.

“Yah, around that time, I was too shallow.” Vince stared away, up at the stag’s head over the Coat’s oxidized chrome register. “Before that, I was insensitive. No, wait—first, spoiled…then came self-centered, then insensitive.”

“Wait, what…” I looked at him suddenly, long and lean. How much of an aggregate bozo was this guy, and by whose calculation? “Which…”

“Went in streaks,” Vince continued, still dazed by it all; either that or the Early and Steams. “One period followed another—couldn’t keep up with her. Right when I figured I had ‘selfish’ under control, Janie started laying ‘spineless’ on me.”

“So maybe that was just her way of motivating you—uh, but who was I…” I eased off, stunned somewhat that Syd’s cattle prod tough love had stuck like a yellow Post-It to one of my catabating memory cells. With that, I vacated my stare to the civilized wooden phone booth, down beyond Dead Man’s Curve. A tall, D.A. looking sharpie stood midway through the booth’s folding door, screaming closing arguments into the spittled receiver.

Motivate me? She’d drive me bananas,” Vince looked at me suspiciously, spilling the Steam he was tipping up at the corner of his mouth. “Set the kids up around the breakfast nook, then hit me with my latest flaw. Always a morning or two after her damn magazines came. Didn’t really begin losing sleep over it until she started in with the ‘spineless’ stuff…”

I bit my tongue soon as I recognized this was where the topic turned, um, sensitive. Sex life, Ms Magazine, married and two kids: I didn’t want to touch Vince’s domestic life with an all-day cigar.

“Next came ‘small minded’, that I didn’t have the ambition to be somebody. How’d she put it? I lacked the vision to integrate my work with our home life—make it totally my own. I was a credit analyst at the bank, for chrissake—bringing down a regular paycheck, that’s all. Who says you’re supposed to love your goddamn job?!”

“Hey, I’m just a temp, remember,” I replied. That lawyer at the far end had just slammed his way out of the phone booth, the whole place was steaming up.

“Before I know it, she’s into some femitivity group, meeting two nights a week. Took the kids with her lots of times. I’d be working late, you know? But at least I started bringing some of it home. I’d have my printouts spread all over the nook. Still, they’d come in and just stare at me—like I was the Great Santini in that Pat Conroy book.”

“Value judgments, spitting everything in two,” I gazed the length of the man-to-man mahogany. Syd and Moon kept appearing and dissolving in the coriolic smoke, k’vetching at me between every last liquefying soul. “Your wife’s maiden name, it’s…”

“DeSturtevant, Janie Marie DeSturtevant,” Vince answered quizzically. “What’s that…”

“Nothing. Just comparing…roots.” Then again, Syd couldn’t me k’vetching at me anymore. At least this Janie and her attitude adjustment took me fleetingly from all that.

“Those were the good times. Before she brought in the heavy artillery. Suddenly, I wasn’t challenging her enough. Then wasn’t supportive enough, giving her room to grow.”

The phone-mad prosecutor had pushed through a fat circle of football poolers to one of the leathery front wall boothlets. Take your pick; they were all small, all full. His happened to be the one nearest the popcorn machine. A sorely crocked associate tossed him their basket for refilling. The D.A. topped it off, then pitched a kernal back at him, slider down and in. He sat down and lit a 100mm cigarette before the popcorn reached its mark.

“So, grow, I told her. She said I was in no position to tell her what she could or couldn’t do. That this was just another example of my male dominance trip. How I was smothering her, stifling her personal development. Like, the first word out of Sanya’s mouth was, ‘oink’, I swear to God.”

“Kids, Vince,” I said, as the White Owl ferreted back in between me and the actuaries to a fresh Rob Roy and the same old stale cigar. “What do kids know, right?” What did know? Guess they just say what…”

“What their mommy says, that’s what! I was playing working stiff and she was lecturing to me about roles. Did I say anything? Hell no…”

“Sounds like lots of hostility, huh? Boiling over, I bet…” Christ, thought I had left this stuff back in the Marina—that it wouldn’t actually follow me downtown.

“Hostility? Terror…I didn’t know what was coming next,” Vince groaned, mug wrung with both hands. “Just about froze up inside. I mean, I was scared to death I’d brain her, or something.”

Better no hostility, because there was already plenty of that in the air. The Coat of Arms was either getting too stifling or just too stiff. Conversations had melted with the ice cubes into disagreements and worse. Dice and gin games had rolled into straight-up threats and intimidations. The entire bar was reverting, going testosteronal primitive on a mental, polemical level.

“I figured she kept sizing me up, cold and calculating,” he continued. “I come home one Friday night—like this, only about five months ago. She announces she can’t take it anymore, she needs change, freedom, a more supportive space to evolve in. I say, Janie, it’s not that easy—the kids—she says they need space, too. That California was no place to raise children, anyway, let alone The City. I tell her we can’t just up and leave. San Francisco’s my home, where my job is, all I know. Where the hell would we go?”

“Know the feeling. Ever try leaving everything you’ve got in somebody else’s tool shed?”

“Huh? Well, that’s when she tells me we’re not going anywhere. I say, that’s better. She says, no way—because this was something she had to do on her own. But not so alone that she wouldn’t be taking Sanya and Isaac along…”

“Where were they while all this was going down,” I gasped, not wanting to hear it, not wanting to miss a word. Odd, I thought, how the Coat seemed to quicken with Vince’s angst—in a filmy, transymbiotic sort of way. Or else I myself was now feeding off the mano-a-mano veneer.

“Clinging to her mom’s goddamn jogging suit with Orphan Annie eyes. Sanya, I suspected, but Isaac?! Over the weekend, she packs them up in her Saab, just like that. Says she was taking a breather back to Minnesota to see her parents, sort things through. I say, how long? She says a couple to three weeks. I say, done…”

“Well, what did she take? I mean, furniture, or what? You can’t just get up and…uh, well, sometimes you…under certain circumstances…”

“Naw, just some clothes, kids’ toys. How much can you stuff in one of those old three-banger wagons, right? I figured I was sitting here with everything we own, soooo…a week later, I called her for going on a tenth time. Hell, the phone bill alone…”

“Wait, I’ve got to have the world indoor record on long-distance calls,” I replied, comparing…lengths.

“Awww, we’d go on for hours. Finally, she announced they’re not coming back in three weeks. She didn’t know when, but that she’d begun looking for a job, and was thinking seriously about law school. I said, hold on, Janie—you’ve got a life to deal with here, not to mention my kids. She said, keep everything, and that her family would help care for them. I said, no way, baby. That I’d be on the next plane to Minnesota. She said some single-mother support group lawyer advised her she had grounds and could make me pay dearly if I caused trouble. Can you believe that shit?!”

“Uh, Vince…no offense, but is there anything you’re leaving out here…”

sr dingbats

“Hey, I never laid a hand on them, I swear. I love those kids, I tell you! Although you can bet she’ll try to say I did. I mean, maybe I have a few pops after work sometimes. So, what’s that? And if you figure me for a cheat, forget it. Like when that scumbag Tina said she’d sic her black studs on me if I didn’t stop making moves. Then threatened to file harassment…and I wasn’t even making any moves! Getting so every woman is a lawsuit in the making these days—talk about sextortion.”

“Sure, I was just thinking, you know. Being two places at once, in your head, I mean…”

“Give me a break, Tina was over four months later,” Vince scowled, “after the slut’s comin’ on like gangbusters while I’m teaching her how to sort. She baited me! My hand was on the file cabinet door. She pressed her leg against me, then tells me to prove it yet.”

“Tina did that? Come on, how could she think…” She misled, he misread: I really wasn’t in any position to explore such ways and means.

“Because she’s ditzy little PT, nothin’ but show. I think she’s tryin’ to goad me into a sexual harassment suit. Try to do something for a chick anymore, they start accusing you of coming on, or else crying rape. I mean, when did chivalry become chauvinism, anyway? Meanwhile, they keep sticking their business in your face. Plus she claims that I’ve got a problem with redheads—even though I’ve never harassed anybody in my life! No, women have been the kiss of death for me, except Janie—hah, that’s a good one! She turned out to be the make-out champ. When I was up to here with the long-distance crap, I flew to Minnesota. They met me at the airport; we got as far as the terminal coffee shop. It was real emotional with Isaac and Sanya, especially Isaac.”

Christ, that must have been a bitch,” I sighed, Dammit, Vince, you’re already outgunning me as it is. It was like swapping my razor nick story for a fatal car wreck.

“But it wasn’t so emotional for Janie. She just laid out how determined she was to raise herchildren where it was best for them. By that, she meant there, of course, in Duluth, and that’s just what’s going to happen to my kids back there! I still can’t figure that one. You grew up in the Midwest, right? What’s that all about?”

“I dunno, could be she just undiscovered San Francisco.”

“Hmphh,” Vince replied, with one of those ‘San Francisco’s hillier than thou’ shrugs. “So I cut right to the bone and said they’re my kids, too. She came back with, I know, which is why we’ve to talk seriously about child support.”

“Child support—they left you, why would…”

“My words exactly. But she said the damn lawyer told her that didn’t mean a thing given what they had to work with—something about Per Quod Consortium Amisit, what the hell? At that point, I went…whoa, from here on, you can tell it to my lawyer, like that. I kissed Sanya and Isaac, then caught the red-eye on back.”

A brushfire broke out around Dead Man’s Curve, apparently over the high cost of Johnny Walker Black and the low roll of the bones. A leather dice cup pounded mahogany, the unappealing gavel of a contemptible judge. Yellow taxis honked testily outside, forsaking SFO runs, cabbies storming through the swinging doors in search of radio calls long since squelched or simply forgotten. Still, Coat’s pay phone rang in stubborn rebuke. 

“By then, I was a total basket case. Couldn’t keep my job together, couldn’t keep anything down. Eventually my dad had to call in some old markers just to keep me at PBT at all. That’s how I landed in the mailroom, lucky if I can handle that…”

“But working your way back up, right?” Sure, just like me parachuting in at FBC.

“Hell, no. At PBT, you’re either a comer or a goer—it’s not a two-way street. Just trying to hang in there until I’m vested. Meanwhile, I keep hearing from Janie, little reminders that it’s better to give voluntarily than get nailed for court costs, too. But with what I’m making now, after inflation, I really can’t even afford the lawyer. The whole thing eats me up, anyway. A guy makes decisions and takes the heat for it, just because he’s the who had to make them. So he has a family, then poof, it’s suddenly pulled away from him for some weird reason. Nothing he did—the ol’ lady just flips out, dragging the kids along. While she’s out finding herself, he’s got to foot the bill. Makes no damn sense, kind of like monthly payments on a stolen car.”

The varnish in here was getting undeniably darker, ashtray amber as the Anchor Steam itself. Raspy regulars choked on their popcorn, if not their final week-long tabs. Darcy began ragging aloud about all the home phone calls he had to deflect. Not that he minded gabbing with the wives so much; it was all the bar bilge stories he’d had to come up with this far into the evening. And how well they had to jibe with what he’d told them two hours before.

“Latest scoop is she wants to make this deal permanent,” Vince added, “irreconcilable differences or some crap. She’s ready to file the papers and everything, wants total custody. I asked her if there’s somebody else. She said no, she just wants to raise Sanya and Isaac on her own, offering me supervised visitation. That it’s a better learning environment for children back there. I said, no way, that’s crazy. Last thing she said was, sorry, see you in court, treating me like I was a deadbeat dad—like I was just some measly sperm donor, or something. And I don’t know where the hell she gets this BS about messing around and abuse. Should have grabbed the kids at the airport when I had the chance—I’ve got a right to care for and protect my damned offspring, don’t I?”

“Jeeesh, how should I know? Got no dog in that fight.” Weary and congested as I was from this saga, I felt compelled to hear it through, much like a crisis hotline volunteer answering an O.D. call sixteen hours into the shift, late for a little counseling session of his own. “Uh, soooo, what’re you going to do?”

“Damn, how the hell did it ever get this far? I sit home and ask that over and over and over. A whole flat full of what we had, what we all were together—and I’ll be goddamned if I can understand what I did wrong.”

“Sounds as though you maybe just got in the way of her, you know, progress,” I tread ever so lightly. What was a guy to tell a guy in a case like this?! Ask Janie’s support group, maybe? Bet those chicks would know precisely what to say.

“Tell you one thing, it’s tearing me up. I don’t know whether to feel guilty or abused my own self. No way I can live without them, that’s for sure. What did she think I was doing all that for? Putting up with the goddamn bank—I still can’t figure out how she turned that against me…”

“All along, she wasn’t working or anything?” As in bringing home the filets and prime rib the way Melissa was? Yet my dad came to mind, what L.T. said, about making the hard calls, about why he was getting loaded any downtime he could.

“Aww, a little freelance editing, illustrating, stuff she could squeeze in at home. She kept the kids up like catalog models. And the flat—but you should see it now, rib sauce all over the fridge, hurricane season, wall to wall. Makes this place look like the Garden Court over at the Palace.”

“Yeah, well you should see my…place. Hurricane season, door to door.”

“Bad as it is without the kids, Janie’s the one I can’t make it without. Hey, I’m not ashamed to say it.”

“You tell her that?”

“Hell, no. Think I’d give her the satisfaction? She’d just turn that on me, too. Besides, she knows—knew all along—that was her leverage, how she knew I’d let her take Sanya and Isaac back east. Oh, it’s real subtle, but there’s this dip in her voice, even now. That underlying sweetness saying, ‘I know I could cash this in any second, Vince, and you’d crawl to Minnesota to get us back’. It used to carry me through day after day of bullshit credit reports, that dip. Just the thought that she’d be nibbling at my ear lobe and whispering something outrageous after the 3 a.m. feeding. Half a year it’s been—still, I wake up at 3, can still hear her at 3:25, for cryin’ out loud.”

“Uh, it’s really getting late here, I’d better…” Got my own 3 o’clock demons, without the ice box full of ribs.

“All this worry and loneliness, paying through the nose for yesterday’s dream—I mean, we’re both looking 30 in the face, we’re not kids ourselves. But I swear I’ll never get married again.”

“That’s it, Vince, get yourself free,” Darcy huffed, wiping his way back over to the Coffin Corner, cruising for rounds. “If the ol’ lady don’t chew up your paycheck, Uncle Sam will.”

sr dingbats

“Hey, no dice over there,” the bartender soon yelled down across the Coat’s long bar to the revolving doors, where a most irregular party of two attempted to swing in with a sandy blonde legal secretary type, all her angles perfectly brief and rounded. Darcy said the two blokes had tried that once before, dressed her all up in army class A’s, hair stuffed up under her cunt cap. “No way, can’t let the dames in, would have to unstop the women’s toity, clogged up since the cease-fire.”

“Which one,” I asked him, distancing myself from Vince’s languor, for what was to keep him from crying in his Anchor Steam, or passing out in it altogether?

“The one to end all ones,” Darcy cracked, snapping Vince with his bar towel. “Before you know it, somebody’s cleaning the spittoons out, then comes the stools. Won’t stand for it, nosiree…”

Got so I could no longer stand for it, either. Vince’s darkest hours, the nascent rumble of rival conversation, punctuated with over-lubed outbursts and the crackling of fractious bones. The decomposing drunks in trenchcoats chinning deeper and deeper into their palms. The two packs-an-hour secondary smoke habit I was picking up here in Coffin Corner. And the muscle tone that must come from boilermakers, because all these stiffs were still upright, while my legs were two rum-soaked Coronas in a tropical depression.

“Goddamn redheads in their green jogging suits.” Vince muttered, suddenly pounding his fist on the scarred mahogany bar, as if all but cocking to throw his mug. “All they see is green…hey, where…”

“Really, gotta go, Vince, thanks for the beers,” I tapped his now slumping shoulder, snatching a handful of over salted bar-top popcorn for the trip. “Got a hot date with a gearshift knob. Catch you Monday night at the salt mine.” If this weekend didn’t kill me first…

“Yah, sure, we’ll see about that, Chi.” Vince then chugged the dregs of his Steam, slamming it down squarely on a Seagram’s coaster. “One more, Darcy, and a Marlboro box.”

I pressed flaccid flesh along mahogany row, feeling a mixicology of sheer relief and the nettling prospect that I’d just washed out of male forwarding 101, if not PBT. I stewed instantly over why I felt so culpable, so uneasy, why I had so little more to say. Suffused smoke and that acrid stench of stale alcohol rent my sinuses; even the stag and moose heads were bleary and migrained from it all.

Two spittoons and several dice rolls down, I finally cleared out of Vince’s signal path, the thumb of leather bones cups, clatter of box cars, tip change and booze-dulled aggression pushing me past Dead Man’s Curve on a glide approach to the revolving door. Inscrutably, the cigar man chose that precise moment to cut between a full, ash-pocked coat rack and the popcorn machine to beat me to the street, kicking the carnival-style popper in the process.

“Helluva spot,” I trailed him out into the Palace Hotel shadows, gasping for comparatively fresh breath. We shuffled toward Market Street in step with the alcoholics, workaholics, infidels and worse racing to BART’s Montgomery Street station for Friday’s final trains through the Transbay Tube.

“Used to be,” Max grumbled, over that buzzing neon crest and the catcalls of some hotel cab whistles across New Montgomery, coughing over hissing manholes and the rail thumping approach of an inbound torpedo trolley on Market Street. “Before they started dollin’ it up.”

“Yeah, hear there’s a lot of that going around…”

Care for more?

Chapter 80. Run-in with a
power player sparks a spin of
the wheels, with intersections
up and down…

“Deep fear of failure
can freeze you in neitherland,
settling for far less.”

 

“This is what you’ve called me for? This is what you’ve got for me?”

“Uh, you said to get back to you when I had any news. I just felt it important to let you know I’m still coming up dry on this…”

“Listen to me, I’ve heard from Josh again. It isn’t just holiday goodies in that package, all right? He discovered that New Years fire up at Das Kapital destroyed everything in his recording studio, including master tapes for The Tracers’ new album. He calls it double platinum material, and was mentsch enough to gift me with a Dolby cassette of the tracks and some outtakes, like—for old time’s sake or high school vindication, one or the other, I don’t know. But it turns out that cassette is all that’s left after months of their studio work, and his label is hammering him on the release date. They need those tracks for mixing reference. This is serious business, where is that cassette?! We’ve got to have that package!!!”

“Yeesh, I can’t find it for anything…”

“Where’d you sort that branch packet to?”

Well past Labor Day, skies began regularly clearing, thankfully so, change of seasons, such as it was. When the fog pattern initially started breaking down, it was all I could do to wipe out what felt like a lifetime of unseasonably lousy summer weather in one long bumathon of Midwestern body clock-bending proportions. Non-stop midday sessions on the old army blanket to warm up, dry out from the nightly whine press my head had been going through. But just when it felt like time to sweater up and head back to campus, the Central Valley cooled down, that marine layer teeter-totter leveled off, and coastal temperatures began to rise. A placid autumn and Indian summer appeared to be descending on the Bay Area, minus flyover country cold snaps or nimbo-stratus reservations.

“Where are you now, Kenneth? Good god…”

“Just downtown,” I said, pushing around a table top of papers. “But I’ll keep looking…so, how’re you doing these days?”

“You do that,” Syd fumed, rattling some acrylics jars and sable brushes in the background, Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ on her deck. “Otherwise, I’m fantastic, where to begin? My painting’s going gangbusters, the commission’s right on schedule. Oh, and Daryll Loupan? Absolutely amazing—he’s been lining me up gallery dates, a one-woman show in Langwell’s on Sutter Street. Then he’s getting me installed down on La Cienega in L.A., even on Broome Street in the Village—Big Apple City, can you believe it?!”

“Where’d you say it was?”

“L-N, it’s in the bin marked G-K,” I said, palm over the receiver. “Really, that sounds great, Syd, full speed ahead, huh? Cream rises to the top…”

                “Exactly…where did you say you were?”

“Financial District, picked up a little work, that’s all…”

“Can’t be in G-K, they checked.”

“Try L-N Abstracts, then, Jesus.

“But the L-N branch packet doesn’t belong in L-N Abstracts…”

“Sorry—uh, do you mind? I’m still on break, this is kind of a personal call here…”

“Hey, we’ve only got another hour until pick-up…thought I explained about company time.”

I’d blow off afternoon hours moping on my stomach about Marina Green lawns, just as many on my back, cranking up a fuller body tan to charcoal broil—thawing out in cut-offs, counting masts and seagulls and racy Marin-bound imports, watching ships of the world on parade. At that rate, mass dermal peeling had set in by day ten. My upper torso became so tender and inflammed, the scorched Green hardened to Astroturf or painted concrete against the skin. Gone with the recurrent fog were delusions that Marin’s hills remained any greener than the Marina lawns, particularly in a drought year like this. The Headlands were as burned and parched, sharp-set as I was, with San Francisco Bay flat dead in the water. Meaning it was time to get away from the parking lot anyway, even if that involved joining the ranks of the underemployed.

“What kind of work, Kenneth?”

“At a bank,” I hushed, sifting through piled envelopes and folders. “Just temporary, no big thing…”

“Really? Wouldn’t be at Pacific Bank and Trust, would it?”

“Yeah, but only in their…”

“Wow, what a coincidence! I’m working for PBT, you’re working for PBT—we’re all working for PBT!”

“It’s not the same, believe me…all?”

It never was. From that first day I answered the call, I had been hooked on a cheap slave labor lotto euphemistically called temporary placement, a game whose rules favored the dealers, odds the house, where execution was tedious and stakes niggardly low. Yet one seldom shy on players, because for a certain peonic caste of thousands, this was the only game in town. But at least it promised to be an escape hatch out of all that Battle of the Sexes bickering in Marina Green’s parking lot.

As advertised, most of Able’s assignments were in the steno pool—one humongous steno pool, which seemed to cover San Francisco’s entire downtown commercial sector. But now and again, something came up that someone with my tenuous capabilities could undertake, sink my rotting teeth into—something simple and obscure, preferably of modest duration. I’d call in to Mrs. Hingman, or the pay phone would ring like a two-bell Westclox all over the parking lot. I’d spring from the Volvo’s sleeping bag wrapped in an 82ndAirborne blanket to scribble the client company address and supervisor’s name on any scrap of trash I’d stooped for along the way to the booth.

That set in motion a frantic, stupefying sequence of ablutions, making the Y Hotel the Downtown Hilton by comparison. This involved re-grouping the Dopp kit that had spilled all underneath front seats when I’d semi-consciously kicked about the dash and floorboards on the darker side of 4 a.m. Then momentarily airing and Arriding out a last surviving blue oxford button down that stank like a corpse flower; although it could hardly get much ranker that it was the morning before. Said ritual consisted of flying the rag like an ensign off a topmast for however long it took to slog over to Marina Green’s cinderblock shithouse and reclaim myself to within one evolutionary stage of civilization. Which might have been for less a compelling/significant biological breakthrough had it not been for the…complications.

“Of course, he’s with PBT too,” Sydney said, rather gleefully. “Which is the best news of all.”

“He, who?”

“The new man in my life…”

“Whoa,” I mouthed closer to the pay receiver, as a crush of clerical workers trudged toward the snack room. “What new man?!”

“Tsk, it has been a while since we’ve talked, hasn’t it,” she chortled, as if feeling my cheeks pucker all the way to her end of the phone lines. “Laine Blakely, who do you think?”

“Not that guy at the reception.” Syd was right, about the pucker and about which cheeks. I clenched so tight I kept stepping all over my toes. “The jerk who stiffed you in front of all the bank honchos—the one you said was so anti-Semitic, for crissake!”

“Oh, that all went down the chute ages ago,” she replied. “Blaine cleared it up, told me he couldn’t afford the bank brass thinking some fix was in on the commission, so he had to play it real cool.”

“Like I said,” taking satisfaction wherever I could, hearing the Dan’s ‘Peg’ skip to ‘I Got The News’ in Syd’s studio background

“We reconnected the following weekend, at Henry Africa’s. He swept up out from behind one of those big motorcycles—you know, above the palm trees along the windows? I was there with Daryll, and Laine tapped me on the shoulder, just like that.We talked it all out on one of those cushy sofas surrounded by ferns and Tiffany lamps…until the piano player shut down, seemed like for hours…”

“So where’s it stand,” I grumbled, fully cupping the mouthpiece when a middle-aged clerk/housewife set up with a Fresca and Cheese Doodles one pay phone over.

“Well, we’ve been full-time ever since…you sure you really want to hear all the little details?”

“Out with it.” This was the next best thing to picking an elbow scab, which was also going on as we spoke.

Complications such as how I’d have cranked in and out of the semi-outdoor john if the sombreroed, cigar stub of a groundskeeper had not neglected to unlock the outhouse gates. If I hadn’t spazzed out, climbing over the gate, nearly leaving my re-evolutionary tools kabobbed on its restraining spikes, causing me to overlook the fact that I’d left shaving soap in the Volvo. Or that it hardly mattered since the aloe-vera Barbasol had exploded in therm-mentholated mushrooms under my driver’s seat in the previous afternoon’s heat.

That I had to sneak up on the sinks, anyway, wary of what the local night life had left caked, freeze drying on the stainless steel before closing time. And how even if I could stomach the basin for X amount of time, it took X2+ 4 to scrape what passed for sleep off my stubbled mug because the push-button faucet refused to offer forth for more than X minus 58 seconds at a crack. So that by the time I vaulted over the stiffs in and around the stalls, towel dried back to the car, a detachment of sea gulls had rained terror over my dress shirt, most notable around the collar and cuffs. Which detracted from the hefty whisker patch I’d missed just behind my right jowl, having had no mirror image to speak of or to, but that was better left unsaid.

Put together, as it were, I’d strap hang on the 41 Union MUNI bus with all the dour Barron’s and Wall Street Journal readers down to the Financial District, or simply dangle off the rear platform of an inbound cable car, which was a breath of fresh, more hang-loose air by comparison. For at least I knew the sweat I’d broken sprinting over Fort Mason’s ridge and Funston playground could only be offending the gripman—who had generated a ripe air of his own, between wrestling with the hand brake up and down California Street hills, whirring cables and clanging bells juking our ears like pile drivers.

“He happens to be a wonderful man, I mean underneath the polish and refinement. Blaine’s so considerate, and totally supportive of my work…” In her background, the Dan jumped from ‘Aja’ to ‘Deacon Blues’.

“Like, I haven’t been,” I groused, ready to pounce on the junk food machines myself. “He holds your brushes for you, or what?”

“No, silly—it’s hard to explain, but he, you know, brings me things while I’m working in my studio. Beautiful things, sometimes even kinky things, expensive things. God, he must rake in the bucks…but I deserve deserve nice, don’t I?”

“So you’re sleeping with him then, huh?”

“God, Kenneth, what do you want from me?! I mean, I don’t know what you’re into these days, but I’m not into solitaire, that’s for sure.”

“R-r-right, gotta have those kinky couplings…”

“Well, at least I’m not into torture, not like you.”

Thermopaned, hermetically sealed downtown office towers were not nearly so forgiving. Which was invariably to where Mrs. Hingman would dispatch me. Once I’d futzed bleary eyed through another battery of pre-placement attitudinals, she was soon eager to spread me thin as the cream cheese on a convenience store bagel, particularly once performance reviews began came back to Able in the affirmative. New drones kept filing in, she would remind me , always plenty of fresh competition, so keep calling and she’d do what she could to keep Mr. Reliable in her ‘front five’ pages of her scratch sheet. Otherwise, it would be fade phase for me—meaning backlisting to the inner depths of her database, roughly the equivalent of residential banishment to a housing project somewhere between Milpitas and San Leandro. Fortunately, she knew a haunted, hard-up feebag when she saw one.

Early on, it was your basic fill and file. Fill in for the well-meaning housewives who’d finally had their fill by morning break, and migrained themselves back home to the soaps. The pill and pot heads whose concentration failed them irretrievably between lunch and afternoon break. Or the angry young duds who’d filed out collectively with the insurgent slave labor agitators promising justice to the temporarily oppressed, complete with picket-line placards for the six o’ clock news.

“What…torture,” I wasn’t fully grasping or copping to that concept, but my imagination did start running while. “That’s a total…”

“You’re torturing yourself right this very minute, Kenneth,” she spouted. “It’s like you’ve got this persecution complex or something. Look, Laine happens to be this incredibly tender man who’s in charge of his life—totally together. He knows what he wants and goes for it, like my daddo—even has one of those newfangled 401k retirement plans. If you must know, I find that awfully refreshing.”

“So you love him, and everything?”

“Please, Kenneth, sometimes your naiveness amazes me. Really, what does that mean anymore? So don’t go trying to paint me into one of your corners.”

“Just answer me that, at least do me that,” I pleaded, Moon’s voice deep-dish rising in my ears.

“Lets just say Laine and I are extremely…close right now, especially with the commission and everything. Our lives are pretty well…how does he put it? Synergized, no innerfaced—I’ve even made gourmet meals for him, me, and go with him when he buys his suits and stuff.”

“Interfaced, interfaced…” The woman next door glanced up from her Fresca over that one.

“You get my drift, Kenneth,” she chafed. It sounded as though she was stirring a pigmentation mixture, maybe approximating a sundown sky or International Orange. “I just hope you can accept this, for your sake.”

“Accept what? That one minute you’re raving about independence, next you’re selling out to the first fat-cat flashing plastic!”

“Total distortion, totally unfair. I have complete freedom in this relationship,” she said. “It’s not just my work, Laine brings a whole fantabulous new dimension to my life—we go places, share things…”

“What, coke lines or credit lines?!”

“No, damn you—experiences. Like the PBT banquets, or drives in his 450SL—god, what a car. One time we ride along Seventeen Mile, Del Monte Forest—stopped for cabernet in Carmel. We even went to Yosemite—it’s so very Jewish-welcoming, you know, Yo Semite, come on in! Plus Laine’s so hip to everything, world-wise. We talked all about Israel and the peace process, what that oily Iran is up to.”

“Spoken like true Hallmark or McKuen…”

“I thought we were going to be friends…”

Soon enough, I moved from utility grub to special assignment: Building out storage shelves for a basement textile sweatshop south of Market, glowing in the terminal cathode rays of a credit bureau’s VDTs. Re-labeling disclosure mailings by the thousands which a savings and loan had misprinted by a factor of three zeroes. Reinventing the reference library at some Valley Farmer newspaper with a long adulterated Dewey decimal system.

I wanted career changes? They were staggering. One day, I’d be setting up executive luncheons at a Montgomery Street securities house. Next day, I’d be helping cook the books at a California Street oil and gas outfit just in time for the quarterly reports. Trouble was, the aroma of fat city was about as close as I got. Scuttlebutt among the temp grunts was Mrs. Hingman’s pay periods seemed fiscally linked to the diminishing returns of her menstrual cycle, with no friendly discharges in between—but she sure seemed to trust me to come through by now. So I monkishly recorded my hours, scrounging MUNI transfers for the daily commutes and feasting on what I could on the job, which ranged essentially from famine to worse. Hiding out behind the cubicles and modular work stations at that ailing cargo company, for instance, feeding on the hypoglycemic/cyclamate buzz off instant Swiss cocoa, just logging time, enabling the office manager to protect his manpower allocation, if not his own skin, from further budget cuts.

Powdered coffee, powdered milk, powdered sweet rolls—even powdered chicken soup: got to the point where I’d work it among the assignments based on the quality of the pre-mix comestibles. Inevitably, my stomach bloated with liquidity, and all the granules re-congealed along my stomach lining like a semi-sweet vermiculating sand bar.

“Right, just friends,” I sulked, biting hard, taking it out on a Cheese Doodle.

“Then get behind me on this, will you please? Like you did with the proposal. For some reason, it’s really important to me that you approve, almost as important as Josh’s package. I’ve entered into this new phase of my life wanting everything clean, resolved. I want you should be okay with this.”

“Sure, Syd,” I sighed, “must tie up all those shabby little ends…it’s just too bad we got off on the wrong foot.”

Prior to this, I had settled into a comparatively long-term temp stint at Cal-Oil. That meant badges, security checks by red-blazered lobby guards still shaky from the urban guerrilla bomb blast that took out a third of the 23rd floor. Everybody blamed the Weathermen, but the oil conglomerate’s security knew better: they were fingering mercenary temps, counter-insurgent temps, enviro-Symbionese temps waging war on the Aramco-American Way in two-to-three hour quasi-clerical sorties.

No matter that the bathroom bomber had struck some five years earlier, there was still temporary hell to pay. On the other hand, Cal-Oil plaza was now deemed bomb as well as earthquake proof, and its corporate cafeteria actually trafficked in solid food again. It was much of the petro giant’s other traffic that seemed from my fly-on-the-file cabinet perspective so miasmic.

“Well, I’m afraid there is no right foot anymore. Really, I worry about you, Kenneth. I mean, I can always find happiness and security, maybe I have right now. But you—what’s going to come of you? I think you had it going for a brief minute there in Chicago, but then, poof, gone—I still can’t figure that one. But you’re here now, so you might as well…stay put.”

“Try using differential division,” I caught the department supervisor approaching through some orange swinging doors. “Although I can’t believe it’s keeping you awake at nights.”

“Hey, temp—break’s over, let’s do it to it.”

“Uh—gotta go, Syd…I wish you well…” I pulled away from the pay phone as far as its coaxial steel cord would allow.

“Take care of yourself, Kenneth—oops, doorbell, must be Laine now,” she hurried. “Busy lives, busy lives—stay in touch on Josh’s package, will you please do that for me? Happy new year, by the way!” CLICK.

From the first day, I I.D. decoded my way through Cal-Oil’s data processed detector, I was befuddled by the place, sleep deprived, addle headed. Not that the tasks were substantially different: refiling tax statements, cross-indexing disbursements, de-voweling words for seven-digit computer entry, bursting and decollating continuous forms in some airless, sanitized mainframe center. Just the standard numbing rote, dehumanizing, disk-driven tasks everybody temps were slave to down here in Manhattan West.

Maybe it was the clenching silence, the hum and whirr of hardened information, but something…  calculating was going on. I grew especially curious upon running into inner-office correspondence through the engineering department in a corporate shopping basket fitted with conveniently squeaky wheels. Petro engineers and their petro secretaries hushed their petro conversations soon as my cart came squeaking by. Inside Cal-Oil’s bunker-like command center, trackers plotted tanker movements on a global scale wall, moving and shaking them by WATs lines, fax and telex as though positioning the Pacific Fleet for Wake and Midway Islands. Their plot pins made nosense to me, and even less sense by the day. So wasn’t long before I started asking questions, like, why were supertankers treading and retreading, circling the Bering Straights and Prudhomme Bay, or hitting the Straights of Hormuz empty and leaving the same way? Queries crude enough to force a call to Mrs. Hingman, who summarily redeployed me to Pacific Bank & Trust’s basement mailroom of all placements, evening shift, at that. 

The 4 a.m. grappling with my gearshift knob, the rude awakenings in the Marina toilets and ruder confrontations with MUNI drivers over recycled transfers, or deboarding an outbound 55 Sacramento to help push the old overheated red and cream GM diesel bus up Nob Hill. Feeling my game face of relentless sunny optimism wearily teeter-totter into darkly cloudy moods again. Once the all work and low pay, sub paranoid mindset of my fellow drones; the time-burning, mindless tasks, the thoughtless, number-crunching, microprocessed anonymity of this cold steel, smoked glass corporate conglomerated carrousel leveled me, I’d callowly caved in, punched up Syd’s number and rang her chimes.

“C’mon, we’ve got tons more branch packets to sort.”

“Ready—just had some personal business, that’s all…”

“Yah, we’ve all got problems,” the supervisor said drolly, flipping through a misrouted spread sheet. “Whole world’s got problems, doesn’t mean it stops.”

I shook my head and fell in behind him, down the Employee Relations bulletin boarded over, brown-tiled hall, left through double swinging doors marked Inter-Office Postal Services. “Why don’t they just call this place like it is, mail room?” Yet another stab at corporatemp small talk.

“Why doesn’t anybody call anything like it is anymore? Why can’t San Francisco cops just be cops anymore? No, now the cop cars have to say Police Services. Everything’s smoke-screened right? Mailroom’s the same thing, mail persons…you get my point.”

“Uh, right—sorry I asked…”

“No problem, just get that branch packet the hell out of L-N Abstracts.”

“Why not,” I sighed, watching the opened necktie middle manager mutter off. “We’ve got all night…”

Well, not all night, but we did have until 9 p.m. That was when Friday temps turned our bins and brown manila mailers over to the graveyard zombies—genuine old-line bank employees legendary for nickel-a-point pinochle and crazy eights marathons known to have played on through Monday’s first airmail drops. Thus the Friday Night Follies were charged with clearing the decks for the workweek, which involved moving two tons of recirculated bank correspondence around the room with the same deliberate process a balding oil futures trader used in strategically positioning his combover of what hair was still there.

Roll in the mail carts, reroute all those bilious brown envelopes by the thousands, from one bin to another, then load up them up again and roll out baskets, floor by floor. After a while, there was a rhythm to it, two channels in fact: Channel A ranged from the Ohio Players to Commodores; Channel B, Andele Con Dios Disco live from Ceasar’s South of the Border Salsatorium, down deep in the outer Mission. Temps picked their pleasure by majority vote, faves blasted across three rows of steel-bin counters like rival PA systems at a Warriors-Lakers game. The concept was fusion, camaraderie; the reality was confusion, confunktion, the result being static ear drum perforation.

For the Friday Night Follies was just that kind of scene. Meaning Vince, the supervisor, had a few studly temp peacocks, heavy into bleached locks and chains, just macho enough to keep him and his mailroom on edge. But mostly women—some young, some not so—umbilical hooked on Mrs. Hingman’s pay periods, with few hot prospects beyond this particular evening. One clear advantage to the boomboxes was they effectively muffled the muddle of languages that settled over the mailroom like polyglops of sour cream. Early into the shift, I could overhear the different huddles of Korean, Canton, Spanish, Portuguese, Upper Jersey street and southern drawl, not for what they were exactly, more for what they weren’t: discernible. But by the time a second wave of canvas sacks hit the countertops, I was hard pressed to discern even that.

“Hey girl, what you be wantin’ with Rosita’s eyeliner?”

“The Palladium, Denise, for after we bust outta this place,” Tina smirked, pulling her long, curly red hair back off her face, rebanding the split-ended bun tightly against her head. “Gonna go dancin’, ain’t got no clubs like that back in ’Bama.”

“Alabama where,” I asked, catching the acne patches on her chalk white freckled cheeks. Just then a flat-topped flunky with one short arm tossed another dolly full of canvas mailbags up onto the counter.

“ ’Bama’s ’Bama—Roll Tide,” Tina drawled as she handed the bag draw strings my way. “But Mobile, if you gotta know…point is, this little lady beat that rap.”

“Can’t blame you, spent a little time in Dixie myself.” I simply left the bags to Dante and Marcello, who were sorting as if their family lives depended on it, because it probably did. I finally located the missing L-N Branch packet, pulling it gratefully, as though it were Josh’s package, then re-binned the L-N Abstracts. “Kentucky, North Carolina, courtesy of Uncle Sam.”

“Well, ain’t you the cracker,” she said, in a Sissy Spacek sort of way, tapping my forearm. “Say, darlin’—you care to do me a big one, real big? You’re almost done there, right?”

“Yeah—uh—I guess, until…”

“Then how ’bout you finish these watcha callem, fund statements for little ol’ me ,” she smiled, moving and grooving to some Stylistics on channel A, as if caught somewhere between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Muscle Shoals.

“Well, what if Vince has…I mean, we’ve only got about a half-hour to go…”

“C’mon, be a sweetie, me and Annette and them got a hot ticket goin’ at the club,” she looked me over, chewing an index finger cuticle on her thickly freckled hand. “Just take a whiz brain like you a couple of minutes…”

“Ah, why not,” I leafed through the small remaining interline stack rather than dogging her swaying, sugar-bunned, sun-dressed behind crossing the mailroom to the ladies’ head.

Annuity outlays for AL through AN, retirement credits for GE, capital gains non-managed, no-load long-term rollover receipts and disbursement for PE to PI: I was getting compound P.O.ed just thinking about everybody else’s capital accumulation. That’s when I turned up an open-access trust statement earmarked for MA through ME.

“Find it yet,” Vince snuck up over my shoulder.

“Huh,” I muttered. The folder read, new transfer account number 591-210-35909-7421, balance as of September 1, inclusive of interest accrued: $516,489 and change, address for Syndey Mendel, trustee for the estate of Sophie Mendelberg. Had to be her bubbie, hit me like a sack of gold bars across the knees.

“The missing branch packet, L-N,” Vince shouted, fixing on the statements. “Hey, what’re you doing with…that’s not your assigned stack…”

“R-r-right, I, uh, Tina,” I sputtered dazedly.

“Where the hell…she pulled that one on you too, huh?”

“I was just about caught up, anyway,” I closed the Mendelberg folder, tight as a Mint vault door.

“I swear, I’m gonna call Able, fire that smart-ass skank first thing Monday,” Vince seethed, kicking at the bins with his scuffed cordovan wing tip.

“It’s all right by me,” I handed him the long lost L-N Branch packet. “There’s no point busting her for…”

“Have her canned once and for all,” he ranted, stuffing the packet tightly under his arm, then turning toward his office. “She’s been pullin’ that crap for two weeks now.”

“Wow, you’ve really got it in for her,” I said, noticing Tina and Annette choreographing a trifle early exit, slipping out the mailroom’s double doors, mega purses slung over their shoulders, bound for the elevators and Palladium.

“Useless temp tramp—redheads are nuts,” Vince turned back, getting in another word. “Her whole act, sliding through work, shaving the clock, southern grits tryin’ to sound so black and everything. But she’ll be out with a snap of my fingers—just like that.”

“Sooo, what about this mail, it’s getting pretty late…” Who was I to say anything about that? I guess I sort of knew people down here after a few nights, yet didn’t really know them. Who knew anybody down here?

“Aww, hell with it, give graveyard something to do besides pinochle,” he seemed to relent some and ease his reins as the clock closed in on shift’s end. “It’s Ken, isn’t it? What say we punch the hell out of here, go get a couple of belts?”

“Oh, I don’t know, I’ve some things to…”

“I insist, just down the block. You seem like a straight-up guy and have been working pretty hard, so I’ll pop for some firewater. Let me flag this jacket in the office, and I’ll set up the shift change.”

“Maybe just one round,” I said, factoring punch out and snapped fingers just like that, into the equation, sorely needing another week minimum to pull down more remedial cash for the Volvo, and the bank’s cafeteria to pick up some long-lost poundage.

“That’s the PBT spirit, go sign out on your timesheet, I’ll meet you at the elevators…”

“Right,” I muttered. Couldn’t rightly say I wasn’t in the mood for a pop, here in the shank of the evening, with so much more to sort through, rank and file…

Care for more?

Chapter 79. Retreating to darker
places, some deeper dives are
right around the corner…

“Shy away from strife
stuff temper down deep inside
no way to live life.”

“This is where I work, understand. I really don’t have time…”

“I know, I know, just wanted to touch base, that’s all…”

“Look, it’s the middle of the day and I’m swamped here. And I’m expecting a very important call, okay?”

“Who from, a gallery, or…”

“What does that matter? Don’t you have anything better to do?!”

In that respect, I was a tad out of sorts, spiritually, mechanically, not to mention environmentally. From here in the phone booth, I could narrowly spot the length of that oil slick. At the moment, my Volvo was a hood’s-up disaster, a Warshawsky or J.C. Whitney’s catalogue of metric debris scattered under and around the sedan’s wheelbase, and line to yellow line across the parking slots to either side. There was no mistaking or escaping it; neither the magic buses nor camper vans hid my embarrassment and dismay. When that disemboweled specter first hit me squarely in the crankcase, I had decided to drop everything and dial up Sydney, if, for nothing else, a mea culpa and status report on a work in progress—checking in for a timely update, apparently one time too often.

“Well, sure I do, but…”

“And if you must know, it will be from Laine Blakely,” said Sydney, ‘Jive Talkin’ on the radio behind her. “We’ve ironed things out, and everything’s real tight with us now. It was all just a big misunderstanding. Besides, I’m slaving away on my painting and following major Middle East peace talk developments at Camp David on cable. How about you?”

“Uh, great,” I said, muffling the receiver in a sudden, isolated gust. “Things are moving right along, and…”

“I can imagine, Kenneth, but some of us have important work to do, and you’re tying up my line.”

“No, I understand totally, just thought I owed you an explanation why I cut out that last time,”

I jabbered, twisting the receiver line as I panned about the East Harbor and parking lot, wondering how the remerging sunshine could so conspire to dampen my spirits. “Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mean to blow it or…”

“I know, just Kenneth being Kenneth, never there when you’re needed the most,” she sighed, tapping brush to palette. “But promise you won’t call me again while I’m in my studio, okay? This is getting out of hand.”

Out of hand? I only wanted to see how you were…”

  “Fine. In fact, don’t bother calling at all until you have Josh’s package for me—and sooner than later on that, if you please. He called me, you know, it’s become even more important, recording-wise. So I do hope you haven’t lost it.”

“Oh, yeah, the package—well I…”

“Ciao, Kenneth, best luck,” she said, Bee Gees breaking into ‘More Than A Woman’ in the background. “Find that blessed package. Otherwise, I’m preparing for Rosh Hashanah—you know, atonement, penitence? And need I remind you, I don’t back losers.” CLICK.

This was real down time, down and dirty. No rush back to the Volvo now: Thirty-weight cans on the apron, seeping through the drop cloth, gumming up the sockets and gaskets—thoroughly mucking up bolts and washers like dark cocoa fondue. But then the odds weren’t much better for my filthy oil filter and Solex carbs getting back into the operational scheme of things. As for Josh’s package, another bumper-to-bumper search of the rust heap left me dumbfounded and doubling down.

“Land one yet,” Eric asked, wiping clean his timing light, evading the fact that it was his pit stop goading that drove me under the Volvo’s oil pan in the first place.

“Job? Naw, that was more of a personal call…” I couldn’t help glancing over to Gary’s bread truck again, the Post-’Nam head case having hawkeyed me all the way across the parking lot.

“No wonder you look so bummed,” he smirked, glancing at my oil slick, getting his own taste of schadenfreude. “She must have you whipped something fierce by now.”

Aww, don’t start in with…”

“Why else would you be getting so defensive?”

“I’m not getting defensive, dammit. Don’t say I’m defensive,” I spouted, on hands and knees, mopping up the lube spillage as best I could with a CU gym towel and several pre-oiled blue shop rags. “I can’t help it, it’s just that she makes me feel so damn…defensive.”

sr dingbats

On the other hand, it was a great day for exploratory surgery, late summer weather cooperating, at least through the noontide hours. Temp gigs were still a no-go, and frankly, I was tiring of the headhunter put-offs and qualified placement putdowns. I’d pinched just enough dinero to stay Kix malnourished and mired in the Marina, within earshot of all intensifying crosstalk.

Yet however stormy my personal affairs of late, the weather never caught me unawares or otherwise let me down. This was no overnight sensation, the timely tidal pattern of June-August gray wouldn’t yield without considerable upper level pressure. San Francisco’s damp, chilly, recycling fog machine provide the rhythm with its impossibly dense advection brume: warm, damp surface air meeting that upwelling cold bay water roughly at the dew point.

This brooding gray bumbershoot hovered over the bay through Labor Day. Marina mornings were blanketed down to the waterline, distant East Bay sunlight breaking through only well beyond Treasure Island—and then only at the fog’s racier bottom fringes, making me want to toss and turn in the bucket seats until this poy pulled back. Overall, the marine layer draped the bay and coastal hills like a shawl over those broad, rolling shoulders, fingering seductively through the peninsula gaps, over the Waldo Tunnel, between the Headlands and Mt. Tam, sunny Marin County slipping in behind, erasing all in its path. Fort Mason, its piers and train tunnel: all vanished, or were ghostly outlines at best.

The drizzly gruel muffled fog zone sounds like acoustic tiles, a mute button on morning clamor, save for the moaning of Gate and Alcatraz foghorns, a reveille serenade. So contained, so cyclical, so on-time predicable a daily factor, like those increasingly disconcerting Jonestown revelations. By 11 or so, a high-beam sun would burn that grey-on-gray-on grey fog bank away on its ascent, straight-edge shaving with steamy barber’s cream, leaving a brilliantly clear afternoon. Fore and aft, Northern California’s coastal fog machine sandwiched goodly parts of the day, virtually every summer day, air conditioning The City morning and night as if on a thermostatic teeter-totter—this midday, our front row vantage being no exception.

“What’d I tell you? They’re the ones turnin’ it into one big game,” Eric remarked, bent over into his red Posche’s rear end. He raised his line of sight as a day shifty hooker type walked off a long Marina Inn rencountre, shimmying by in miniskirt and kinky patent go-go boots, cleavage down to midnight and beyond. “Dollin’ all up, tight-ass garb. What they’re really into is trappin’ some horny doofus with half a wallet.”

“Maybe the women you’ve known,” Clifford offered forth, stepping aside the spreading residue of my DIY dump-it-yourself oil change. “Frankly, sounds like a personal problem.”

“Hey, if that’s an Aspen crack, I blew her off because she blew me off because I blew her off because she started blowin’ me off, OK?! End of story…” His wail reverberated well in our end lot caravan cluster: his two decomposing Porsches, Sherry’s Econoline and this clunker of mine, L.T.’s van presently nowhere to be seen.

“Okay, could we clear the air on this relationship stuff,” I pleaded. But by now the air couldn’t get much clearer, this morning’s fog having dissipated, any lingering smog banished Oakland’s way by slowly building tidal breezes. That left blue crystalline clear sky past an inbound red-orange frigate, sandwiching between Marina Green and Marin hills. Plenty clear enough to watch a Toyota freighter coasting in with the tide, to the gills with Celicas and Corollas, an Army helicopter thwapping above it, on a daily courier run to Crissy Field’s landing pad and the Presidio.

“Hey, mon, that your Volvo,” beeped a Latino grande who had just pulled up to us in an orange low-rider Ford Ranchero with some mean pinstriping and flaming fenders. “Lookin’ to take care that bodywork?”

“Uh, no thanks,” I muttered, blotting and mopping, over the constant clang of harbor rigging, trying to process what Eric had said.

“I fix up those quarter panels for you, right here, real fast. Pound out dents, match paint, max primo…”

“Meaning, max Bondo, ,” Eric countered, loud and clear. “Anyway, you won’t catch me ponying up for some chick’s white picket fence fantasy. Ain’t givin’ up my seat on no bus.”

“Half price for you, on the premises, dig,” said the Ranchero driver, toning down his in-dash War/’Smile Happy’ cassette. “Just ’cause I like your ride, mon—tomorrow, I go back to L.A.”

“Naw, I’ve got bigger problems with it than dents and dings,” I rose, turning again to Eric. “Bus?”

“Problemos over that rust heap?” With that, the body/fender man fishtailed his pin-striped black 396ci pickup away. “Tu loco…” 

“I mean what the hell you doin’ callin’ up that artist of yours again,” Eric asked sternly. He tracked a retiree Gauguinist dragging an easel and palette over to the promenade, much too closely to the white Porsche for comfort, Bruno scratching and growling on its sunroof.

“Just wanted to straighten some things out,” I sniffed dual exhaust and burned rubber, the Ranchero winding out around Marina Green like a South Central McQueen. “But she said I was getting out of hand…”

“Well, were you,” Clifford asked, who had nosed out of his book on Western vs. Eastern Idiom, what with the accelerating volume.

“Me? No way.”

“Maybe what you’re not gettin’ is that she’s done with your ass,” said Eric.

“Who knows anymore? Really, caring deeply about somebody. How is that out of hand?”

“Depends,” Clifford said, with curious, barely concealed amusement. “On if she feels you’re crossing a line.”

What line? And even if that’s so, who decides where it’s drawn…”

“She does, who do you think—it’s called a woman’s prerogative,” entered Sherry. “Sometimes love is a lesion, has to be cut right out.”

A thicket of East Harbor sail masts gave us a cell door view over to Alcatraz Island, intervening marina slips and full floating berths awash with the rituals of casual nautical navigation—port to starboard, bow to stern. Yellow booted sea swabs in varying layers of foul-weather wear scrubbed boat decks, scraped hulls, mended fraying gybe lines and re-cleated halyards, as though fitting out for the Farallons or Potato Patch, if not some Trans-Pacific Cup Challenge.

Mylar jibs and vibrant spinnakers hung across mainstays and mizzenmasts like bedding on a backyard clothesline, sun drying or simply status flagging before crewmen carefully repacked them for storage in the below-deck compartments of clear-coated fiberglass hulls. The forestay and topsail patterns were eye-catching, if not mystifying—especially to Marina regulars like the Monsignor and grizzly, landlocked dock rat pushing a Safeway cart with burlap sacks of recycled pickings. Both stood before them all with the idyl reverence accorded some Madonna apparition on a well house wall.

“Naw, love is a loogie, just pick and roll,” Eric chided, spraying WD-40 at his Porsche’s heat exchangers, then slamming its rear hood. “So, push the wrong buttons, misfire on the G-Spot did ya?”

“No, I didn’t, then maybe I did—don’t know which was which…or when…”

“Who says you’re supposed to,” Sherry’s voice sounded like razor wire by now. “Ever think it just goes with the territory?”

“Territory? Whose territory,” I gasped, engaging in some topgallant envy my own self. “Are you saying that if I don’t come on just right, at just the right time and circumstances, that’s reason enough to 86 the whole deal?”

“Ever heard of mutual gratification,” she grinned, not nearly so nautically absorbed. But it’s what she’s saying that matters.”

“Well, what she’s saying is I’m not decisive enough, not assertive enough—not man enough to know what I want and go after it, full speed. Meanwhile, she’s coming on like gangbusters, Ms. Free Spirit, No Boundaries. I’m just trying to keep up on her…progress, you know, without getting in her way over it.”

“Uh huh, and how are you going about that,” asked Sherry, ruffling about her mu-mu pockets, pulling out a small plastic pillbox. “On her terms or yours?”

“All right, wait a minute,” I said, having mopped up the oil slick as best I could. “You’re implying that some level of behavior can be good or gauche, and taken with affection or rejection, depending on…”

“Dependin’ on the chick’s mood, Horatio, like whether maybe she’s on the rag,” Eric laughed, calming Bruno’s haunches, the painter have passed cleanly between Porsches one and two. “See, that’s the rub, it can be seventh heaven or a third rail, depending on how she feeeeels, at any given moment— she decides.”

“In other words, it’s the price you pay for preying her way,” Clifford said, with that smartass wink of his.

sr dingbats

The shade of an adjacent cypress tree beginning to chill our discussion, we all moved over to a pair of benches between beds of succulent ice plants overlooking East Basin. The promenade walk crossed before us, then there was a sharp drop off of closely clumped Echium to the rock rimmed harbor water. We sprawled over the side-by-side seating for a little sun and sea, talking over the interior monologues of nearby camper vans and the shrieking Coupe de Ville. Ravens and starlings continued their noisy feeding through the copse of Metrocedros trees to our immediate west. But even more annoying were the gray-white gulls scrumming on the lot lane behind us, big as holiday dressed turkeys, flapping and squawking like car alarms as they pecked over discarded hot dog wrappers and soiled strands of bait string. Still, there would be no throttling us now.

“That’s nuts, not how it’s been happening, at all,” I spouted, wiping hands, wringing several rags. “Besides, how is a body expected to know when pursuing a relationship is being hopeful and when…when…”

“When it’s hopeless obsession, or worse,” Clifford asked, quickly swallowing the tab she gave him, washing it down with a shot of carrot juice. “There’s just some threshold of acceptable civility.”

“Civility? How are you supposed to know when…” Flustered enough, I gazed off to a straight-on view of an unspoiled, gently sloping Angel Island, and the hillside condos of Belvedere on its rear westward flank.

“With Sherry, she just lets me know,” Clifford now idly paged through his text. “’Cause she’s bigger than I am.”

“So you’re saying there is a line,” I asked, distracted this time by a shouting match between Gary and that Crabber Don person. I couldn’t make it out, but they were carrying on like two flea-bitten mutts over a hambone. “All right, let’s take it to the extreme. That guy Gary over there, you know his story. How does it get from courting to court orders? Because she’s turned off that a guy doesn’t behave civilly and perform on cue?”

“Why not,” Sherry replied, re-capping the juice. “What a woman does with her needs and emotions is entirely her business.”

“Meaning she can flick the switch of fate anytime she pleases? What about the guy’s needs and emotions? What about alienation of affection, and all that?”

“Depends on how alien the guy’s being,” said Clifford.

“Jeesh, where do you really come down on this? I can’t tell if you’re just being arbitrary, or Sherry’s got you by the jewels with vise-grips.”

“I’ve just made peace with what women are doing these days,” Clifford looked up from his personal philosophical codex: a little Descartes, a dose of ‘Ethics’ by Spinosa. “They’re due, it’s their time, we’ve been dumping on them way too long. So go along and get along, that’s what I say.”

“Well, sorry, I can’t turn my emotions off that easily,” I caught Crabber Don out the corner of my eye. It appeared he and Gary had not parted amicably, and he was headed full steam our way.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Sherry stretched out on a nearby slat bench, pointing at me with her juice bottle.“But you must have done so with that other woman back in the Midwest. How did you turn off the faucet on that one?”

“No, wait, wasn’t like that,” I shook my head sorely upon reflection. “If it was, I’d have cut clean and clear. Anyway, I’m trying to work through all…”

“Providing that’s what you actually wanted,” she replied, “instead of crawling back and forth there on your hands and knees…”

“It’s way more complex, trust me,” I panned away to a goateed hipster in frayed tan cords and chinos, bound for his boat in progress, a dry-rotted 25-foot caulk job down on berth number four.

“Screw that, lets make it plain and simple,” Eric blurted in a moment of ball peen lucidity, turning his red rear hood into something of a podium. “Way I see it, the deck is stacked. If a guy hits on a chick like he thinks she thinks he’s supposed to, four things can come of it, three of them not so hot. She’s in the mood, digs it, he’s adorin’ and adorable, a Mr. Right romantic hero—the whole trip. If not, and he comes up short, he’s Mr. Wrong and she blows him off, says, ‘I need my space, let’s be friends’. But if he sucks it up on good behavior, or takes another shot, she lays in with the humiliation, laughs and lies to his face, tears his pride and sorry ass down. And if he’s really hooked, he keeps comin’ back for more abuse. She avoids or ignores him altogether, until he crosses that line of yours, pursues her to where she gets uneasy or freakin’ out fearin’ him—so she brings in the badges.”

“How over-simply Neanderthal of you,” Sherry scoffed at Eric, while glancing askance at a young mother walking her son along on a leash and harness, like the little scamp was a Llaso Apso or water spaniel. “And you’re speaking from vast personal experience, I’m sure…”

“Naw, just’ve had time to think about it,” he replied, cleaning, caressing a liberated Snap-On torque wrench. “When is a guy a wooer with his heart on his sleeve? And when’s he an obsessed rapist needin’ prior restraint? Is he a lovesick gawker or a sicko stalker? It’s totally her call, right? No mystery why guys like us are confused, clammin’ up, and man-cavin’ away from the femotional warfare. Or just cavin’ in to gaymania like the fruitcakes around Frisco. Well if the damn man-haters want somebody to hate, I got their man right here.”

“Talk about easy pickin’sso why don’t you bring back the Salem witch hunts while you’re at it?”

“Really, what’re you smoking, Eric,” I asked, fishing more earnestly than ever for an out. “Just don’t get any idea I’m like that, believe me…”

sr dingbats

“Not like wha,” asked Crabber Don, on wobbly approach. No telling what he’d been up to in the public bathroom. But whatever, it was all over the front of his rag tail shirt. His button down oxford cloth and wide lapel sport jacket were Purple Heart thrifty to begin with—print on plaid, in marblelite grays and salmons peculiar to mid 1950s Robert Hall. Once dried the wine and rotgut splotches had woven themselves into his haphazard fibrous mosaic.

“Nuthin’,” Eric said, as yet another jogger strode by, body painted in red Adidas sweats—aerobically tight, C-cup chest erect, as only a Runner’s World marathon model could be. “What’s up with you and Gary over there?”

“I’m Ken, pleased to actually make your…acquaintance,” I spread further out on the wooden bench, for distance sake, Sherry and Clifford shying away altogether. Unlatch, detach—curious case study in social isolation. Wonder if they would submit to individual socio-profiles, or would I…

“Yah, just tryin’ to hit the dude up for a smoke, mudderfugger jumps all over me. He’s psycho, talkin’ that shit,” Crabber coughed, as if his lungs were post-picnic briquets. He steadied himself against the bench’s end, finishing off a waxed cup of gin and root beer. Then he roared once more “Not like who?”

“We were just debating the vicissitudes of the female of the species,” Clifford sallied. “So please do enlighten us, avail us of your worldly wisdom.”

“Fems? Right up my alley, bro,” Crabber lit up a butt from his shirt pocket, as a bionic duo followed by, the nearest to us wearing a sheer sleeveless jersey reading, ‘The World’s a Bitch, and So Am I’. “Hey, mommas, from the neck down, you’re a goddamn Commie plot. Yoo hoo, darlins’, I’d eat a mile of your everlovin’…”

“Not even on your birthday, perv,” the runners chimed in passing, with their best ‘Have A Nice Day’ smiles—effortlessly in stride, triggering earth tremors with their toned, barely hundred pound frames, hoofing it out toward the Bay Trail.

Mid afternoon flooding in, the bay continued to swell like a K-Mart wading pool, fashioning a peculiar vector from where we sat, as though the waterline were actually higher than dry shore, about to spill over East Basin’s seawall just beyond the harbor, all but driving the fisherman off a catwalk atop the concrete barrier. Their seaward flight led me to a V squadron of fifteen pelicans above them, with a Golden Gate heading until they dove in formation toward the water, apparently spotting their catch of the day among the tides of the bay, dive bombing between a skiff regatta and a long, floating parade of colorful spinnakers.

“Wanna know wisdom?” Crabber grumbled, albeit with degenerated swagger. “Them titties’s like bouncin’ beach balls, nice to play with now’n again, only too much trouble to be bringin’ home.”

“What home,” laughed Sherry, as he stood drooling in front of us, his crooked, downturned grin under the strain of sliding dentures. “Don’t think you’ll need worry about that…”

“Yeesh, don’t encourage him,” I sat chagrined, poised to bolt right there—gotta split this shit before people begin to think I’m actually with these clowns…we of the fluffy muscles and washrag abs.

“Way I see it, don’t go hangin’ ’em out there, honey, if they don’t want ’em looked at. But then they’re P.O.ed if you don’t,” Crabber replied, looking horny as a day laborer just in from the Alaska Pipeline. “Then they go lookin’ at me like I’m gonna chain ’em up in a wood shed. Nope, if I’m goin’ down on a rape rap, it’s gotta be for somebody a whole lot finer than that.”

When in fact, Crabber Don claimed he hailed from down around Manteca, not Fairbanks, his sagging jowls having resulted from too many winters working along Oregon’s gloomy rain coast, a little ways north of Coos Bay. But word about the parking lot linked his facial linage to that mad passion for sun poisoning peculiar to pale California immigrants from the Pacific Northwest. Oregon’s incessant tell-tale gray could explain that bold technicolor sash around his cocked and crushed white canvas sailor’s cap, which he doffed periodically to press his point. Wrinkled skinny and pigeon toed, he said he was bowlegged from riding too many kegs, straddling too many seatless toilets, aboard fishing boats and in outhouses behind the sawmill. That’s what landed him on comp and SSI.

“It’s because they know from experience that there’s nothing grosser than an unwanted come-on from most of the swishy sleazeballs in this town,” she said.

Yah? Well, when they’re young and beautyful, can’t live without ’em,” Crabber shook his melon, gazing up several young beauties stretching and yoga posturing over on the Green. But when they turn tubbie up, ain’t no damn livin’ with ’em, and their cottage cheese gams.” 

Yet more woman joggers pass by, more hard gluts with Beamers, buzzed on the espresso of exercise, if not the heroin of dehydration/rehydration—pronating and supinating in tandem, breasts heaving, little sweat half-circles forming about their short shorts’ crotches, great stems, none of those citified pipe cleaners for legs—no curdling there. This parade got me to wondering what it would take for me to catch up with them, whether I was man enough cut it anymore.

“You mean retinas burned by the reflection off your bald spot?” Sherry snapped, who appeared to be carrying more body bulk by the day, as if to keep the pigs and wolves away.

“Least that comes from hard, honest work,” Crabber said, winking through dervish, milky eyes. “Not porkin’ out on the couch with a bag of bon-bons.”

“You should be so lucky. she shaded her eyes for a better view of a skywriting biplane sweeping cursively over the bay, dotting the ‘i’ on a message reading, ‘Molly Will You Marry Me? Ronald’. “Now, what kind of woman would marry a bozo who’d airmail his proposal for the whole world to see? Hmph, the smaller the wienie, the thicker the wad.”

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Eric packed his gleaming torque wrench into a long brown velour pouch, welcoming a sniff-and-spray roaming Bruno with open arms, glancing at Clifford. “But takes one to…”

“No, you’re just into the canine variety,” Sherry cut in, skank eyeing his dog. “Speaking of wads, what’s the story with that blue clunker you’ve had on the block?”

“Not to worry, money’s comin’ any day now,” Eric pulled Bruno away by the choke collar, now glowering my way. “Hey Horatio, while you’re spillin’ over that artist chick, don’t forget about her JAP attack…”

sr dingbats

“Your lady friend is Hawaiian?” Clifford asked, perking up from his speed read.

“No, that’s just Eric’s idea of a joke,” I said hesitantly. “Actually, he was referring to, you know, Jewish American Princesses…”

“I don’t find that so funny personally,” he replied. “See, my stepfather’s Jewish, and he told me a family story after my freshman year at Amherst. His parents lived in a small German village between Cologne and Dusseldorf before World War II, Opladen, as I recall.”

“Your stepfather, Germany, really?” Uh-oh, stop sign, end of discussion…even though Clifford looked more like a Lutheran apostate. I averted right there, casting out about the harbor, spotting a blue and crimson striped mainsail that looked more like a huge corporate necktie, draped as it was over the martingale of a 40′ sloop. Then there was that third-berth spinnaker with Sri Chimnoy emblazoned in red, gold and silver on a field of purple passion, drying across a brass trimmed jib boom, squarely between white cone-topped wooden pilings.

“Yes, his family ran a respected dry goods store—community leaders, Lloyd’s mother helped found a nearby orphanage. But slowly the townspeople started freezing them out in the late 1930s. Not because of business, or anything else in particular, or even that they had anything against Jews themselves. Just because Nazi pressure moved from Bavaria to Westphalia.”

“Wow, heavy duty,” I said flatly, almost annoyed that he would lay a Shoah trip on us at a time and place like this. “Like in that recent TV series?”

“Only much grimmer in reality. Lloyd told me before long, the family was out of business, and had to barter their merchandise for food to support his mother and Uncle Jacob. Finally, things got so bad with the Nuremberg Codes, his father decided they had to leave town. Two of his cousins were already in camps somewhere east of Augsburg.”

“Christ, were they…”

“In fact, the Meisingers never heard from them again,” Clifford sighed, his voice slowing, unburdening, measuring every word, as though they were scripture. “The family packed up bolts of whole cloth, strapped Leicas around everybody’s necks, left everything else behind and fled for Bremerhaven.”

“Why…cameras,” I asked, finding this scenario all the more interesting as it unspooled.

“Their best means of liquidity, along with exchanging leftover marks and pfennigs with a few sympathetic American tourists on the docks. Guess they figured there was always a market for good quality German equipment—so long as they were willing to take it in the shorts.”

“Tell me about it, my cameras are still hocked up down on Sixth Street…” I squirmed on the bench at both prospects, focusing on an outbound Maersk container ship surrounded by flitting yachts, then the waves crashing against the East Basin seawall in its wake.

“Took just about everything the Meisingers had to get on a ship out. At that point, Jews could travel on German luxury liners as long as they spent some big bucks onboard. Lloyd remembers the little cans of orangeade, he was but a kid.”

“That’s when they came to the U.S.?”

“Couldn’t get through the quotas, Britain was even worse,” Clifford sneered, pounding a philosophy book. “His father said he never trusted the French, but honestly hated the English from then on…”

“Just ask the Irish about that…” Although no news was still good news on that front, on a bomb plot likely too overbrewed to be true.

“Instead, they went through the Suez Canal onto Manila. There they sold the remainder of their Leicas, traded the bolts of fabric for food, begged up menial jobs. That only lasted until the Japanese came. Then they had no choice but to cash in everything left for steerage here to the West Coast. They finally scraped their way cross country to New York City.”

“Know what?” I gasped. “You’re the first person I’ve ever met who talked about people directly affected by all that…”

“Don’t kid yourself,” Clifford replied sharply, clearly not eyeing the parade of jiggling T&A. “Lloyd says every Jew’s got a tattoo, one way or another—even your princess ladyfriend. Some, it humbles; others, it sets a fire under. Point is, Germans made them their scapegoats, and the world chose to turn its back until it was too late. Hence, my atheism, since I’ve actually got German in my on my birth-father’s side…”

“Yeah? Where’s he?” Trouble was, I did like my Germany tour, so what did that make me?

“Bastard left us years ago, and my mother divorced him,” Clifford grew a bit more agitated in the telling. “Last I heard, he was co-habiting somewhere in Provincetown…”

sr dingbats

Lufthansa’s 747 made its graceful, clockwork climb over the bridge, turning out of a west-northwest SFO take-off, steeply gaining altitude, Rhine-Main Frankfurt bound, jettisoning a cargo load of USAEUR memories on the ascent. Afternoon onshore winds were picking up, to where headgear and lunch bags came blowing by, knocking over the retiree’s easel altogether, paint tubes and brushes flying down the promenade.  

A long view out the Golden Gate evidenced that the inevitable later day fog bank was not far behind. The sudden chill and this testy chinfest left me having to tap both kidneys, so I troubled Clifford further for a whizz pass, then cut through the bus and camper van dwellers, between a broken Tioga Arrow and the hulk of an American Clipper, holding my own toward the parking lot’s johns. Yet even with the wind at my back, the seagulls flapping sideways at best, I couldn’t make it past Gary’s little motor pool without getting stalled.

“Best stay away from that psycho,” he shouted from his driver’s seat, shuffling and restuffing his shoeboxes, like so much gunpowder into field artillery. The milk wagon’s PBJ colored, high-disruption camo was fading in the high sky sun, with side panel bullet holes and fisted bumps keyed out as though grease pencilled into a crime scene photo. “He’s crazier than a shithouse rat, and don’t even know it…”

“Who, Crabber?” I asked, glancing back over to the benches, where Don stood hooting, flirting with more jogettes, large and small, wielding a bottle of Ricardo’s Rose after coughing phlegm into his bandana. “He seems harmless…”

“Comin’ around, bummin’ smokes,” Gary droned on like a DC-3, apparently proofreading a complaint letter laying out his setbacks and obligations for whom it may concern this late in the game. “All I can say is the dickhead best steer clear of yours truly.”

I couldn’t miss the small crosses tattooed on each of his remaining fingers as he sorted and snorted, yet looked away anyway, aiming for a quick release to the public toilets. Beautiful though this setting, the Marina Harbor’s parking lot became more and more an auto graveyard as the day wore on. Most slots were dripping with dismembered trannies and oil pans—crusted with flaked rust and road dust. It had devolved into a towaway zone of gas hog Fairlanes, Bonnevilles and Torinos, a truckulent fleet of God-mobile timebombs preaching ‘Get With God’ and ‘Jesus Died For You’ on bumperstickers plastered like ‘Been There, Done That’ decals over every dent and salt-eaten hole a body could bear.

The stronger among these road burners clicked and clanked, popped and hissed in spring-worn sequence as they settled in further between the yellow lines, if only for the time it took for their vehicular dwellers to drain crankcase goop into the bathroom heads. Weaker rigs were jacked up, propped up, blocked up and cranked up, everything short of fired up—Gunked gears, gaskets, belts,pumps and bearings strewn beneath and about them in oily, metal-fatigued clusters, with scant millimeters of hope of pulling their load ever again.

“Yeah, well got to take a leak,” I shook lose. A Chronicle, page-one blew by, and I grabbed it like the last swatch of bun wad in a Greyhound terminal to take my mind off this mess. City Hall gossip led with the tidbit that Mayor Moscone was still seething over the Board of Supes’ 6-5 shoot down of his P.D. consent decree, how Dan White had crossed him on the deciding vote, and he’d rub the backstabber’s dick in the dirt over it. Then there was that little item about another brutal killing the night before, this one off Polk Street, in Sergeant J. Macaulay Park, just shy of Larkin and O’Farrell, but fitting a pattern. I rolled up the news page like a relay baton and turned toward the johns, all but busting a bladderthinking gotta get my ass out of here, gotta make things right, gotta leave all this bushwa behind…

“Hittin’ the head, huh,” Gary shouted behind me. “You plan on roamin’ out again tonight like the rest of your posse? I seen you wander off last night—yep, make it my business to watch all what’s goin’ on…”

“Me? No dice…what do you take me for?” Couldn’t break away fast enough, so I pivoted toward Gashouse Cove, Fort Mason piers and the Russian Hill high-rises well beyond. I clenched past doper Datsunites and delightful afternoon trysters, a couple of Jeeps and VW 181 ‘Things’, greasy bodies under sagging chassis and engine hoods.

Just outside the men’s latrine, I crossed paths with a dirt poor young Guatemalan pushing a shopping cart filled with black garbage bags. Trailing him, tethered with clothesline to the rolling basket, was a family of stout, silent dogs—black on tan, gray on brown—they looked to be male, female, a pair of growing pups—might have been Staffordshire mixes, their condition no less the pits. I froze, almost pissed my pants right there on the spot.

“Su perros, esta bien,” I asked, with ungodly concern.

“Si, senor, muy bueno…”

Care for more?

Chapter 78. Taking it downtown,
 with its downtown ways, leads him to
 filing in a dead letter box.


“Over, underestimate one’s
self and those around you,
best to take the points.”

“Sorry, just can’t help you at this point in time…”

“When then?” Was that a chartreuse leisure suit going by?

“Things have simply been a bit slow…I’ve nothing for…”

“But you’ve been telling me that for over a week now, Mrs. Hingman. What is it, the aptitude test—it’s the test, isn’t it?” With a pink shirt and tangerine tie yet…

We have no problem with your scores, Mr. Herbert, is it? Sad to say, the test doesn’t translate immediately into placement.”

Next mornings came and went, but nothing satisfactory had yet come of it. I may have been working out of a phone booth, but Superman, I wasn’t. As for the present, and immediate future, reality was staring me down in a side-window reflection, over the soggy, swivel-up directory that nobody could ever quite open. I could see it clearly enough while straining to straighten out one last Fruit of the Loom T-shirt that had not yet over-ripened around the pits, hoping this was the morning I could commence my corporate San Francisco climb, however shaky the ladder. I’d already MUNIed downtown to undergo a preliminary evaluation and everything, hence came these more vertiginous rungs while the temp agency double checked for viability, flexibility, proximity, chemistry, let alone rap sheets and writs—nobody really trusting anybody in these parts.

Not that I hadn’t cobbled together some sort of a system, routine in the process, beginning with my incarceration, Volvo-wise. Lessee, reveille, condensated windows: wriggle out of my feather-shedding sleeping bag, stuff the Frostline on the floor behind the driver’s seat, the tattered back of which often collapsed doing so. On the shotgun side went a clipboard and jacket; on the front floorboard, a Dopp kit, toolbox, change of shoes—bread, honey, peanut butter, juice, bananas and plastic utensils. A map tray below the dash held more wrenches, matches, screws and bolts, tissues, toiletries and bunwad, with washed out business cards there and in the sun visors. Rear seat: rolled up pants, underwear, shirts folded mercer neat, aside boxes of books and warping LPs, dirty rags on the floor—concealing anything left of value after the Volvo had been looted in the ’Loin. Fading in the package tray were road atlases, hi-litered sosh texts and water-stained paperbacks, along with rinsed out towels and Jockeys drying in the afternoon sun.

Everything else was crammed in the trunk, everything within reach, everything within reason: the car creaking and spring weary with the sum total of my belongings, its dashboard vinyl cracked, headliner dented courtesy of my more frustrated moments. How at once I felt so trapped in there, even while it became a security blanket, sole remaining escape valve to the open road, the only bumper guard between free onward mobility and downward degradation of some Hotel Y. To be sure, the softer and mushier my prospects, the harder and harder it was getting to give that freedom sucker up to where I could see why these jokers stayed out here, harboring their travails with a no-strings view.

“B-b-but I’ve a graduate degree,” I pressed my case nevertheless, personal funds draining as they were. “I should hope they’d be satisfactory…” That dude discoed by with a pocket radio grafted to his ear.

“I feel your pain, I really do,”she said, other phones ringing in the office’s background.“But we have so many degree types coming in lately, and you don’t exactly fit our current placement profile. Now, if only you could type eight-five words a minute…”

“You about done?”

“In a second, I…” And a wooden bead necklace with a voodoo doll hanger?

“Expectin’ a hot call here…”

“Please, anything, Mrs. Hingman, it’s tough out here…” The dude had bleached half his hair, tinted the rest. He was like Travolta, only spasmodic, swinging his arms to Chic’s ‘Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah’. And that drooping lid, christ, poor bastard only had one eye.

“It would be easier if you had a phone number where I might reach you when things pop up,”she counseled in passing, shuffling applications like casino Keno slips. “But check back in first of weekish. Thank you for considering Able Temps, where your future is but a phone call away.” CLICK.

First cut the paycheck, then would come a phone number—yep, eye on the ball, natural progression: job to place to player—Tinker to Evers to last Chance… Able was the first agency up in the Yellow Pages. I had scarfed the idea from Kathy, who said she could type ninety WPM when need be, and played the temp shops even more adroitly than she did her jenny wheel. Lacking that magic touch, I wrestled with the corroded folding door, if only to flee the booth’s urinary tracks, fumes fanned by a 40 mph headwind out of the west. Still, there were all these…oddball persons to watch, orwatch out for, and how this abused car lotstood between me and the sagging solace of a 122S. Then the pay phone rang and I picked up on my way out the door—thinking, hoping Mrs. Hingman had second thoughts.

“Del?”

“Who?”

“Lou Kasten here,” coughed a low, gruff voice. “We still on for Bay Meadows? That new three year-old in the fifth—line feels right, Del…Del?”

“Uh, no, it’s…” I had watched this heavy duty fisherman approach from a long concrete seawall angling out into the bay, hovering outside the phone booth, untangling some hi-test line. “There’s no Del here…”

“This ain’t Del?”

“I’ll take that,” said the yellow bibbed fisherman, fully setting down his buckets and gear.

“Must be for you,” I handed him the receiver, struggling out the half-jammed door as he pushed his way in without saying a word. Damn rusty, sea-salt encrusted thing, nearly had to push through the booth’s riddled glass panels, although the fisherman slid effortlessly in and out the door, no problem for Del.

Nevertheless, I shuffled back to the Volvo, muttering nothing of positive consequence to myself. Delbert having vacated and moved on, that pay phone began ringing again, but I dared not answer the call, not sure whether it was just the rattle of boat tackle, or the noise between my ears. Instead, I beelined toward my car, staring out to the sailboat berths, and some Mylar-gybbed yachts tacking the bay beyond, just this side of a sleek ocean liner steaming out through the Golden Gate, likely bound for Fiji or Tierra Del Fuego. The parking lot’s shifty globetrotter rigs, this circus of over-the-rainbow buses, abandoned rust boxes and tar-covered wagons lent another worldly quality to the entire tableau, save for this scruffy, camo-smeared GMC truck parked nose to nose with a Falcon opposing us, halfway down the row.

“What’re you red ass’n about,” came a parade ground voice from behind the wheel, and a split windshield cauked with roofing tar and duct tape. “You think you got problems? You got nuthin’.”

“What? I’ve got no prob…” I took stock of the battered Jimmy stepvan, a palette of primer and Rustoleum, looked to be a one-time bread wagon.

“Bullshit, I been watching you, draggin’ to the phone booth and back.” Out from the sliding door came a cloud of cigarette smoke. “Gotta be women or work…”

“Got no idea what you’re talking about,” I groused and spun away to keep moving on down the line toward the refuge of my doorlocked sedan. “Gary, is it?”

“Damn straight, and I’m bettin’ it’s the skirts. Guy doesn’t get so crapped up over a five buck-an- hour job.”

“Sorry, not much on the betting front,” I took note of his buckshot peppered Nevada license plate.

“From what I can see, you already gambled and bellied up…”

Or more precisely, bellied under. What began as a simple balancing of the Volvo’s twin carbs had, over the course of the morning, degenerated into a manifold jets and filter bonnet mastectomy and oil pandrain. That, without actually having diagnosed the sedan’s false starts as a circulation problem, as opposed to, say, lube and gas depletion, or the spread of pitted distributor points. So there was that mess to mop up down the row, upon reflection making me not that anxious to re-engage the 122after all.

“Lot you know,” I mumbled. Further study revealed a step van loaded to the rotting roofline with Magic Markered liquor cartons and cases of unlabeled woe. I dogged myself for neglecting to put safer distance between my heap and Gary’s olive drab, two-stall fortification.

The pressing in of the present; the closing in of the past. Lost underpinnings in Colorado, missed possibilities ever since. Late out of life’s starting gate, pulling up lame at the first curve thrown, and hobbling in place out here, with no trainer or cobbler in sight. Go for the doctorate, get a real job—the womb or grown-up world. Take more classes, take some big-boy chances, don’t just be normal, be somebody, find comfort in finding yourself, once and for all. I mean, who in the hell’s got a hold over whom here? Moon, no it was Sydney—maybe a duet dancing dagger-heeled over my carcass. Other times, no it was Syd doing a solo number all night long. When in truth it was simply one of my recurring inner-personal bitches kicking one another door to door around the car—the dark, foreboding flashes of impaired insight that seeped into my semi-conscious like wind through the weather stripping at 3 to 4 a.m. This damn Saturn fallout was ringing around my head like Cassini clockwork, a spin cycle of cosmic debris that had locked in tighter than the high-pressure dome currently wringing California drought dry.

“Listen up, I know how they can mortar your bunker, alright,” Gary coughed, tossing his butt. “I know how one’s fraggin’ mine. They’re lethal, all of ’em—I’m just tryin’ to grease your skid some, troop…”

“Read you, loud and clear, vet to vet,” I neared his open truck door, morbidly curious and clueless as I was. “Still and all, how come you stay so holed up in there?”

“Army, ain’t it? Well, ask her,” he snapped, popping an Oly, offering me one. “She can tell you all about it, her side, anyway.”

“Ask whom,” I nodded impatiently, declining the pop-top brew, turning away.

“Who d’ya think? Hey, what’s your rush, got someplace to go?” he smirked, turning down some George Jones’s ‘White Lightenin’ on his coat wire rigged radio. “Try that new ‘Deer Hunter’ flick, seen it three times already my own self…”

“Look, I’ve got to get my car together, so if you’ll excuse me I’ll be…” Suddenly mopping up oil and tuning my carburetors came to mind again: throttle arm to pivot shaft, needle valve to threaded joint—all stripped down and nowhere to go. Even Alcatraz, that mad, brooding mausoleum out there seemed more inviting than getting stuck right here, right now.

“Then go ask my ex, Lori Ann, that’s who. She’s the one chewed me up, spit me out,” Gary lit another filter-tip Tareyton. “Schemin’ whore’s why I’m out here blowin’ smoke. Vultures damn picked me apart.”

“So, who’s they, and where,” I asked, against whatever judgment I had left.

“Her and her homo lawyer, up top in Reno.”

“Married, in Reno? What are the chances of…”

“Moved there after I retired a hard striper E-6, 20 years RA,” he recalled, fingering some service medals he had pinned to his sun visor. “Met her in Circus-Circus, she was a barmaid, looker too. We got hitched in about five months, I took out a VA loan on a house near Sun Valley, even fostered her little Angela. Here, got snapshots…”

“Uh, you don’t need to go to all that…” I watched as Gary sifted through some shoeboxes on the floorboard, kept handy for his episodic stewovers and just such occasions as this. That’s when I recognized he was clasping the boxes like a bread man delivering the day’s pastries—between his left hand and what was left of his right.

“Three years, box for every one. I’ve preserved the full conspiracy, totally cataloged for the world to see. Got enough here to blow the lid off the whole damn town.”

Preserved? Try documented, chronicled, verified, duly notarized. Three Corfam shoe boxes chock with letters, newclippings, reprints, affidavits and registered mail receipts—stapled, clipped and rubber banded by date and degree of frustration. Official manila envelopes, genuine legal letterhead, cross fastened with enough jackeyed jailhouse briefs and ill-willed depositions to keep any self-disrespecting sulker occupied well into aneurism season.

“Looks like you really filed everything away—conspiracy?” From this close distance, I couldn’t tell if Gary had it all or not, but it was pretty clear he had it bad. I wanted to keep a head gasket or two between me and this slow burning fuse, thinking why the hell I wasn’t over re-threading the Volvo’s Solex choke cable.

“Here, this is where she got me barred from the house,” he pointed to a Xeroxed decree, flicking away a half-smoked cigarette. “My own goddamn house yet…”

“Christ, what did you do to deserve that,” I edged slightly closer, enough to see the screwdriver slashes through the plaintiff’s name, summoning balmy visions of Villa Manana’s Mister Wiggs.

“Nuthin’, that’s what,” Gary snarled, rifling through shoebox number two. “It’s enough to make me punch dents into this buggy when I think about it too much. Then I pound ’em out again.”

“What’s that other form, Cease and Desist…” A lot this jarhead might know about bodywork, what with his meager G.I. flat-top and ragged 50s fenders.

“Bitch just all of a sudden wanted rid of me, keep me away from her and the kid. I wasn’t gonna give in to that without a fight…she’s the one who started up with the lawyers!”

“You didn’t hit her or anything,” I asked warily, yearning for those carburetors to be close enough to get my hands on, not anywhere near touching past images of physicality in the Boulder kitchen between Moon and me. My knees nearly buckled at the thought.

“Never, I sure as hell would remember if I did,” Gary bristled, left handing me the Xerox of what appeared to be a notarized affidavit. “Here’s the one from a hotel orderly that swears she was humpin’ the judge up in Bally’s.”

“What’s this,” I spotted another copy as Gary leaned back against his driver’s stool and fired up another Tareyton. He had an immobilized beer gut, yet was not without the upper body strength of a deputy BCT drill instructor.

“Testimony from Clay Felkey, my neighbor. He tracked her right to Bally’s several times, while I did late shift with the city parks department. He worked in that casino himself.”

“Met three times a week,” I gasped, speed reading what I could into the chili-smudged document. “For the entire summer?”

“Until Clay went on vacation to Vegas, then I took over, got pictures even.” Gary double inhaled, jammed the filtered tip into the corner of his mouth, then pulled a Fotomat envelope out of box number three. “Here, see for yourself…”

“She’s uh,” I bit my tongue while glancing at several overexposed color photos. Lori Ann appeared to be a floozed up, but relatively attractive housewife with Solexes out to here—more than enough for a grunt like Gary to take on singlehandedly. “Tooling right into the hotel, all right. The silver-haired guy trailing her is…”

“His damn honor! Crooked bastard was footin’ everything, even a sitter for Angela. Got copies of the receipts and everything. Where I come from, a man doesn’t go after another man’s ol’ lady no matter what she’s puttin’ out there. Not when it’s a guy’s one decent stab at doin’ things right—nossir, can’t go dishonorin’ that.”

“But how come hizzoner’s only in one picture? In the other shots, she’s going in alone.”

“It’s the only time we actually caught him, that’s why. He was always there, I know he was always there.

“Well, guess you had him, open and shut, huh?” I handed the time-tainted evidence back up to him.

“Except her fag lawyer got it all tossed, inadmissible or something like that. They were in cahoots, I got proof of that, too..”

“Sooo, what did your lawyer…”

“Smarten up, will ya? That shyster didn’t do mucha nuthin’. Felkey figured he got his, just the same. That’s Reno for you,” Gary drew up a yellowed clip from box two, his lengthy ash tumbling into the section marked, ‘Social Scum’. “Here, the paper even printed my letter to the editor where I laid it all out. Next day, the city canned me outright. Yah, I was a park gardener ever since I got out of the VA hospital after ’Nam, for a Claymore mine that went bang near Da Nang, leavin’ me with this…”

“Yeah, wow,” I cringed, suddenly faced with that over-grafted stub of a left hand—ring finger down to the bottom knuckle, the only digit extant. Godsakes, how could he wrap that wedding band around it, especially after all…

I returned the court order, looking away, as if drawing a fresh breath at first step out of that public convenience. Marina boat masts bobbed oh so freely in the afternoon breeze, the chiming of mast pulleys and turnbuckles, and caterwauling of the seagulls. Maximum ebb left the bay a chill lotion blue, churning slowly between them and Belvedere’s toasted brown hills. This conversation was going none so stunningly, but then at the moment, neither were my career or car.

“That’s about when I started campin’ down the street, watching her come and go—just like I been watching you, ka-pow,” he grinned, steely aiming his gun hand my way, pulling his trigger finger.

Pretty soon, she had some part-time cop she was probably screwin’ serve me this.”

“TRO?” I flattened out yet another crumpled and recrumpled Xerox he’d in turn handed my way, avoiding at all costs messing it any further, for Gary seemed to be piquing out. “Says to stay away from her and the house…”

“Think that stopped me? Hell, no! Nobody was keepin’ me out my house, particularly a bitch who just needed to hook some sucker for a free ride. So I stormed the place one night. But they musta been layin’ for me, ’cause the cops were there pronto. Ended up in the brig, they impounded my truck and everythin’…”

Crammed and crazed as Gary’s files seemed, they were Library of Congress compared to the rest of his step van. For at least the shoe boxes full of dog-eared documentation and manic, mostly convoluted pleadings could be contained, rubber banded together, wedged neatly against the engine housing for further curation. His worldly goods appeared to have suffered the extraterrestrial wrath of a comet or meteorite spun wildly out of mission control.

“By the time I got sprung, they hit me with this,” Gary snarled, his brain stem issuing forth like ground fog through his flat-top and fenders. “Another restraining order, keeping me away from Angela too, without what they call court supervision. But I figure what they were really doin’ was set me up for child support. Hey, I got pretty fond of the kid over time, but not that much. Naw, I never once touched her, and they ain’t touchin’ my VA disability if I can help it. Hell with that shit, so I just went to the house to pick up a few things…”

“God, was she there,” I asked. That sounded about as convivial an engagement as meeting two former best friends at an apartment house door. “What did you say to her?”

“Aghh, the scag didn’t have the decency to show her face. She left it to the sheriff’s department, watching over me like I was that Travis Bickle freak..in my own house!”

“At gun point or…”

“Not aimed and cocked, but they was carryin’,” he said, gesturing toward the ratty metallic aqua Ford compact, the color equivalent of an abalone shell’s inner core, parked right across from him, grill to grill, again with the front bumper tow hitch. “D.A. bastards said they’d drop the charges if I blew Reno and never looked back. So I packed up my Futura there, and bailed out my truck—loaded up and made for the California line.”

From what I could catch in fast-framed glances, the guy had not exactly packed things in the traditional sense. There were no shelves nor labeled Bekins crates to signify smooth, deliberate transition ordeployment. This wasn’t his end of an era, mere midlife crisis—orthe fork in life’s road, fresh avenues pursued. Rather, the bulk of Gary’s step van appeared loaded by pitchfork, and only got messier over the miles. Strewn clothing, cardboard suitcases and B-4 duffled valises; heaped utensils and what once passed for furniture: the shards of a fractured home.

It was the truck’s violent shredding, the splintering, the piles of savage destroyment formed by mad ass acceleration and frantic braking. Even Gary’s two-door Falcon proved to be a compacted shambles, from its tow bar to a tied-down luggage rack on its trunklid. And where amid all this clutter and rubble could he possibly have rested his stubbled head…

“But I am lookin’ back? You can bet the house on that,” Gary reached into his field jacket for another Tareyton like he’d just slept with the devil. Maybe it was about the only Zs someone in his state could bag. “Yep, I tried it their way, single-space begging to the governor on down. Way I see it, they stole my home, my family life, everything. So alls I got left is in these two rigs—that’s why I watch ’em like a point man.”

“So what’re you going to do,” I instead blinked and looked away, toward the pier sheds, while he nursed his many grievances, having retreated here to his regimented ranks and UCMJ in the shadow of a Fort Mason that was no more.

“Just regroupin’, before long I’m goin’ up top again, get what’s mine. Lori Ann and the kid, they can keep—I just want back my house and gardener job.”

“Can’t argue with that,” I focused on the small, scattered dents in the step van’s side panels, all pushed and peppered from the inside out. “But you’ve got to keep the faith, right?”

“Faith? Who’s got faith in anybody or anything anymore,” he seethed, reaching down and patting a heavy metal ammo box behind his seat—the one with a chrome titanium padlock and buck sergeant Army stripes on top. “Railroadin’ bastards, I got their due process right here. So a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, ain’t it? You’d be amazed what I can do, even with my stump here…and it saves me half the sticky fingerprints by shavin’ the odds in half.”

“Uh, oh, sure. Yeah, know the feeling, under the circumstances, maybe I’d…” Whoa, step back, really? Crosshairs were emerging between those high-beam eyes, Gary staring right down the barrel.

“So let that be a lesson to you, troop.”

“You bet, sergeant…”

sr dingbats

“He went on and on about Reno and his ex,” I said, back with the crowd down row around our clustered wheels, after being momentarily mesmerized by how Angel Island appeared to merge with Tiburon’s glowing hills from this angle, gentle shoulders wrapping us around the bright blue bay to the Golden Gate. “Maybe he’s shellshocked or something from Vietnam…”

“Well, we’ve been scoping this place out,” Sherry said, having just helped Clifford arm wrestle their inflatable raft. “That’s Gary’s story, and he’s stuck with it. He’ll lay it on anybody who’ll listen…”

“Goin’ on about the minefield in ’Nam,” Eric added, from underneath the red Porsche’s rear transaxle this time, his voice muffled by several thousand pounds of immobilized sports car. “Total gross out—like when he waves his stump in your face.”

“Plus his rap always changes,” said Clifford, flattening the raft into the Econoline’s roof rack. “He told me it was a rocket launcher up Hue way. Probably did it on a church key.”

“He needs to get out for a walk once and a while in the light of day,” she reached into their van for a compensatory snack. “Instead of smoldering in that stupid truck, plotting to blow up half of Nevada.”

“But he does get out. Marches right over to his other driver’s seat in that Falcon—back and forth, like he’s on guard duty,” Eric rolled back out on the four steel wheels of a shop dolly, face splattered with 10w40, clutching a handful of Craftsman sockets and a U-jointed breaker bar. He smeared a blob of grease over his right brow, down his whiskered chin. “He’s a walkin’ hand grenade…”

“Just like General Ripcord when he flashes back, mistaking the masts there for bungi sticks. Last time, he ducked under one of the schoolbuses, screamed, ‘cover, cover’, aimed a crushed beer can at the sailboats, making like he was yanking the pin,” Clifford added, having secured the raft’s cinch line to the roof rack, snatching up the morning’s Clarion from his van’s front seat, headlining more Lafayette Park violence, suggesting there was traceable evidence. “Surprising he and Gary haven’t joined forces yet, must be pulling rank.”

“Well, there’s another nutcase Gary isn’t exactly chummy with,” said Sherry, all but kicking Eric’s greasy jeaned legs, still protruding from the ass end of a red Porsche in disarray.

“Which one’s that,” I asked, craning my neck over the Volvo’s rooftop, kicking away an empty Coke can that had rolled my way on the lot’s now desiccated drainage slope.

“Mister Goodwrench there…” She pointed down the row, over to a sidewalk bench planted between two shrubbery ice plants, looking out over the harbor, the bay all so brilliantly a-sail directly before us. “He’s the one who really should be fixing Eric’s bombs.”

There, a graying mechanic in crisp garage gray coveralls was setting up shop, and Sherry proceeded to divulge what she had heard about his routine. Every morning, 7 a.m.: he’d emerge from a green Chrysler station wagon permanently planted next to a dumpster over by the public johns. He dragged two red tool chests and a yellow Pennzoil fender mat from its tailgate, carrying them one by one over to the fourth wood and metal bench down, virtually across from us. Same bench every day—his tool bench, so to speak, whereupon he’d get to work on this particularly handy form of obsessive compulsion, transistor tuning in to sports radio, which was still gloating over a Giant Mike Ivie grand slam that sank the Dodgers before a record Candlestick Park crowd.

Namely, the mechanic smoothed out his mat on the brown pine slats, laying out his ratchets, breakers and various extensions in neat little rows. Then came his screwdrivers, Phillips and flatheads; then his sockets, metric and standard, and assorted universals, according to size. Snap-On, they were, professional as an Indy crew’s, displayed like a Road & Track magazine ad. Except the mechanic never had any jobs out here, and his own station wagon hadn’t started in months. He just kept grinning and polishing his tools until lunchtime, then packed up, only to return and spread it all out once again for more afternoon rub and buffing of his deep-wells until some whistle went off in his head and he packed it in back to his fatherly old Chrysler after another day well done.

“Claims he got bumped from the Smothers racing team at Sears Point,” Sherry added, between munches of macademia nuts. “They left him in the pits with his tool chests and two tabs of acid cut with Permatex, or something. About then his eyes rolled up like window shades…”

“How do you know all this,” I asked, watching the mechanic toothbrush his torque wrench, nettled at the mere notion that this crowd was becoming my relative measure of madness, if not psychological control.

“Crabber told us,” she replied, next motioning toward a noodley figure crawling up from the rocky East Harbor basin through tangles of beach ruse and Eichium Pride of Madera. Basket in hand, he emerged like an extra from a reshoot of the ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. “Far as I can believe him. That is, when he manages to sober up.”

“Yet we think he’s even weirder than that,” Clifford said, glancing at a below-the-fold, page one article on how Jonestown was shaken by new accusations that the CIA was backing Peoples Temple detractors and making hi-rez overflights of the compound—that there were rumors of a hit-flick expose in the works. “And not up to a whole lot of good, if you ask me…”

“That’s for damn sure,” Sherry looked over his shoulder, as if monitoring his news sense and topical intake like a GRE test proctor. “No telling where he goes in the middle of the night.”

“Middle of the night,” I asked, averting my stare out toward the bobbing small sailing and power craft moored in the harbor’s nearest berths, the monsignor floating by to bless the fleet. What would they know about the middle of the night? Right, so tell me something I don’t already know about that…

Between the crabber and Mr. Goodwrench, an entirely different Marina Greenie had sprung from behind a cabover fiberglass camper van. More of a hybrid juba-habanera, actually, the mummer being dizened in full ceremonial colors. Along the sidewalk he danced, this tribal figure of the warrior caste, long feathers aflutter on his peacock headdress, red/blue scalloped breastplate and loincloth saltant in synch, deerskin arm and calf shields flapping over Zulu battle tattoos. A little chanting, sporadic bursts of hoots and whoops, the barefoot spearman rattled his seashell anklets past us with a savage scowl, occasionally blowing his tusk horn, apparently to the tune of some aboriginal rain offering, his daily ritual down here under unending dry skies. I couldn’t even get past his lavender and lemon chest hair, let alone the pavonine nose ring and hoodoo lobes.

“Comes over from Folsom Street,” Eric said, chin still dripping multigrade into a half full oil pan. “He pumps gas night shift, up on Van Ness. He’s lookin’ after my Porsche—real normal like. Told me he practices his act for this Polk Street Halloween. He also said get ready for some serious gas lines and price jumps all over town because of Iran…”

“Make a habit of cruising Folsum Street after dark, do you?” Sherry sneered at him, then handed Clifford a small white tablet and Dixie cup of cider.

“Naw, but I hear you do—you and your little lapdog,” Eric shot a glance at Clifford, then shushed Bruno, now pouncing off the white 912’s sunroof growling and barking at several noisome ravens cross squawking in clump of large, red needled green trees at row’s west end.

“Hey, I resemble that,” Clifford half scoffed, swallowing hard. He then rolled up his newspaper, tapping it like a like a bill of particulars, job well done.

“Heads up—here comes Crabber Don,” Sherry pivoted, having watched that basket case yammer at the Mechanic and Zulu warrior out both sides of his mouth, before turning toward our cars. “He knows everything about this parking lot, day or night. But Gary doesn’t cotton to him much either.”

“Anybody he does,” I asked, retreating to the Volvo, crazed enough already, looking inside my stalled sedan for an out, any way out, seeking asylum from this sociopathic lot. “Need me for anything, I’ll be in my office, sorting through some things.”

“Just stay put tonight, roameo…and keep your hands above the dashboard, if you know what I mean…”

Care for more?

Chapter 77. Into the nuts and bolts
of some nuts and dolts, sailing
into gender/territorial waters…



Loathe to open up
             last to crack the flood gates,
            first one out the door.”

“Killer.”

“Absolutely, you got that right.”

Lots of people would kill for this.”

“Yeah, who wouldn’t?”

“Guess that’s what they’d like to know…”

The fog had come on Danner engineer motorcycle boots and steel-toed service shoes. Not that long after Eric and I split our differences on Fisherman’s Wharf, the authorities came in for the sweep. Meantime, I had sunk deeper and deeper into the Frostline sleeping bag, scrunching my legs, straddling the Volvo’s gearshift knob again, propping a rolled-up jacket between my shoulder blades and the passenger side door. If only I could have pulled that arm rest out the back of my irritated neck. I reached down to the floor mat for a kiddie carton of warm milk and some stale Cheese-It crackers, but still couldn’t come up with Josh’s box.

Thinking, what the hell happened here? Not just with Syd up there, but with Melissa back there? Yeah, Moon, none of that flashy jive playing mind games, filling those ‘me’ bags, tossing out gripes and criticism, keeping mean score. Back there was some trust and respect. None of this using people—we didn’t use each other, did we, Moon? Yeah, we knew where we stood, so damn solid, then whammo: We didn’t have a leg to stand on. Things were so nice and easy, no ego shit, no making it, no getting it—don’t even want to hear that word again. Yeah, common ground, just don’t meet me halfway there, meet me halfway here. For godsakes, Moon, send me a sign, give me a cookie hug, shoot me a goddamn sign!  Zipped up to my anguished chin, I shuddered at these reptilian brain thoughts, the anger dwelling and welling deep down, or was it just the cold, drizzly fog…

“Wouldn’t you?” Sherry asked, flapping out a bed quilt from the back of her Econoline. Clifford squeezed in beside it with his battered Corvair, valves and lifters clacking loudly under its rear engine lid.

“Me? Dunno if I’d go that far…” I just stood wedged between the Volvo’s open driver door and its lube stickered jamb.

Really, maybe it just was this place, where it wasn’t even summer when it’s summer everywhere else. Starting with the late afternoon wind: Onshores had slammed through Aquatic Park like the season’s first hurricane through Galveston and Port Arthur, drove cove swimmers and their all-weather bravado back under the bleachers, hard-up shore leave sailors back to their ship, all but ripping masts off heeling bay sailboats, blowing a full day’s park trash into the lagoon. This steady gale raged through the Gate without compromise, pushing Eric and me backward, stinging our faces like ice cream gobbled way too fast.

The fog had lock-stepped in with a corrosive incoming current, making the park feel ten miles farther out to sea. Crabbers double secured their nets on the breakwater pier, fishing trawlers raced reeling displeasure boats back to port. Sheeted whitecaps spilled over into the lagoon itself, weltering Hyde Street Pier’s Thayer schooner and Eureka side-wheeler like bentwood rockers, sending tank-topped Sacto tourists fleeing to their station wagons from Ghirardelli’s chocolate-covered curios, Fisherman’s Wharf sourdough safaris, from sandblown beaches and bleachers alike. Seasons changed, moods turned—but never so quickly as here. Cramming every last plastic bucket and sun mat into tailgates, coolers and roof racks, the out-of-townies mounted a cold-sweat run not evidenced since Godzilla bore down on Tokyo and Yokohama. Lawn lizards and bocce dons just bundled up tight. 

Dense Fogust gray had swept overhead, steadily blotting out all but scattered inflammations of a dimming sky, obliterating San Francisco like an art gum eraser off charcoal paper. Tour boats and helicopters pushed full throttle through the coalescing patches, but by this time it was curtains for the bay at large, from Land’s End and Fort Point to the East Bay hills. We could barely make out The City skyline, much less Alcatraz and Angel Islands. Save, that was, for down at the water line, where a ribbon of dying daylight hinted that the sun still shone over most of mellow Marin, while that Alcatraz beacon cut broad, circular slices through the thickening wrack.

So with this impenetrable oatmeal had come the invasive fuzz. Having folded up the Beach Street fabrics display, Kathy dragged her wears back over to L.T.’s truck. She complained about competitive crafties slicing one another’s van tires in territorial squabbles, a redwood ashtrays peddler sabotaging the dragon kite master and peacock/pheasant-feathered milliner for prime sidewalk turf. Maybe it was time to try Sausalito or Tiburon, she waned, what with business slumping along Beach, the shaved ice tourist season melting away.

“I overheard talk that something was up, cops and park rangers planned to clear all the overnight vehicles out of Aquatic Park before sunrise,” she’d laid it on us, while helping L.T. reload their Dodge van. “They’re saying we’re a nuisance, vagrants taking up primo space down here.”

“That tunnel hit sure didn’t help,” L.T. added, as he peeked out from inside the truck, reading us all up and down. “But we haven’t heard the end of that deal, you can take it to the bank…”

“Maybe this is a situational omen,” Clifford entered in, wanding a granola bar.

“Or a Gestapo state. What I heard is they’re putting in a four-hour parking limit along here, no more overnights,” Kathy said, with her smokey, softly granular voice, refolding a crocheted coverlet. “Maybe we better hit the road before our tires get slit.”

“Yeah, but where?” Eric spouted, glancing away, over toward his now two-Porsche caravan, with Bruno rolled up and snoozing outside the white 912. Everyone else stood about, stunned and mum, starting with me. “Wait, I know a place…”

“Dig it, we could join you at Zita’s or Jones’ Temple for a freebie luncheon,” L.T. mocked, as he rolled up his truck’s window and prepared to pull away. “Later, people…”

Sure enough, squad loads had descended upon Aquatic Park in the amber dark of night, and we were ousted before dawn. Could have gone either way from there. I might have hightailed it out to Ocean Beach again, or lowtailed it back onto I-80 East in another fit of yellow line fever. Instead, I followed up on presumably more middlin’ ground, thankful enough that the rested Volvo had actually sprung back to life on a carburetor or two.

So the crew paraded en masse over here to the Marina Green, in some cases tunneling back and forth like an old Belt Line train. We schlepped up over Fort Mason, through Black Point Bluff’s dense laurel trees, around pre-Civil War Italianate Style manses and prim Victorian frame cottages. Else we hauled and humped it all where rosy garden paths wended about a one-time Point San Jose promontory that strategically overlooked the beauty of the Bay. But there turned out to be nothing middlin’ about any of it.

“No way, can’t see this working,” I muttered, surveying the harbor rimmed parking lot.

C’mon, look around you—it’s millionaire’s row here,” said Eric, who had quickly bought and settled in, two Porsches side by side, with Bruno free roving between them.

“With a postcard view of the bridge yet…” Sherry pointed toward the Golden Gate.

“Which is why we’ll probably get booted again before morning…”

“Not to worry, just soak in the history, the topography, the anthropology of it,” said Clifford, gesturing like de Mille. “The sailboats, Sausalito glimmering over there, hills near enough to touch, the bay flowing to the ocean—not just any ocean, mind you, the Pacific Ocean, traversed by the man-made grace of that bridge.”

Right, a bit more breathing room, with a view. The idea was to keep options open, needing wider open spaces in which to spread out, work on, all the vans and cars. Some place near, not too far from the essentials, the action, from any wishy-washy or emotional attachments. And what was not to like: the bay, the boats, the bridges. So here we resettled, at the very spear tip of the peninsula, San Francisco on cartographic high. Marina Green’s eastern parking lot looked out over the Golden Gate, Mt. Tam and Angel Island, with Alcatraz lurking off to the right, embraced by coastal headlands on over past Belvedere and Tiburon glistening across Marin County hills. Across a bay that perpetually ebbed and flowed into the vast blue sea—a spectacular confluence of natural force and beauty damned near mystical, equalled in only several special places on earth. Above all, it was so damn kinetic, with airliners soaring out to the world, cruise ships steaming in.

That being so, the Green and its bordering Marina Boulevard mansions were the penultimate in low-lying upward San Francisco mobility, a cause ferme of monied enviroconservatives since the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition. It was at once the precious protective foreskin on this great pud of a peninsula, and a front row seat at the drive-in. On screen: one long Panavision Cinerama sweep, pretty as a 3-D postcard, that could give a guy a hard-on just taking it all in through hazy glass. Trouble was, this adjacent public parking lot had devolved into a dead-end dumping ground for hopeless strays, haywires and over-the-hillers who had already blown their wads elsewhere.

“See? I scoped this spot out once before,” Eric continued, Bruno curling up on the roof of the white 912. “Safeway over there, johns right here, and public showers over at Funston Playground’s fieldhouse. Just check out the view, Horatio. Take your mind off your chick problems…”

“What chick problems,”  Sherry asked, eyes up from her muesli.

“Uh, nothing, he’s just been snorting too much Valvoline.” Again, with his public showers, so I instead sought to tamp out any oily fires right here.

“Some artist’s got him all hung up in her cause celebrity,” Eric wiped Gunk from his hands with a shop rag. “I been tryin’ to straighten him out…”

“Hey, why don’t you just mind your own…Porsches,” I said, “starting with the blue one there uphill…”

“No problemo, it’s up to you and the dames,” Eric sorted through his boxed and open end metric wrenches, in full mechanic mode. “Just waitin’ to hear back from the dude with the rest of my cash. Then I’m done with that heap.”

Beautifully open as it was: spacious, spongy lawns, a boulevard of pastel mansions, litters of colorfully cupped spinnakers on a white-capped bay, the Green’s eastern lot then bore an odious resemblance to an Oakland salvage yard, minus the riot fences and grease-fed German Shepherds. But that didn’t mean it didn’t have its share of dogs. An L-shaped stretch of down-slanting asphalt, one broad lane angling Golden Gateward into two, the parking area was designated for short-stopping bay gazers and permitted all-day sailors moored in the harbor wrapped around it. Orderly on paper; on pavement, however, it was the end of the line for an odd lot of wounded road warriors only the westernmost coast of a manifest-destined nation could abide.

“Dames, as in plural?” Sherry perked up even more.

“Naw, nothing like that…he meant in general…”

“Come clean, Horatio, I want to hear all about the dames…”

Setting aside the everyday strollers, joggers, strummers and scrummers who passed around us on the winding harborside walkway, far more curious were these relatively static figures planted like wildflowers and crabgrass on the Green’s scattered benches and berms. Some were more obvious than others, clinging to the Marina’s shoreline as stubbornly as ship barnacles through degaussing. Bumped Napa asylum cases wrapped in their sad rags, possessions all about them in discount supermarket bags. Motley, droop-shouldered little mongrels with dirt-caked, swollen faces, scratching at the back door, scrambling for scraps—for any momentary home and hearth where they might find it, if only in their long pickled minds. Many were living minute to minute, burning all of their meager energy simply to stay alive. But at the moment, they were looking down on us with ‘there goes the neighborhood’ through red, swollen eyes.

In a netherworld not so blatantly ravaged were some Marina Green irregulars—true only to their compulsions and their own rigidly obsessive routines. The defrocked monsignor, for one, who strutted his rostrum with brogue and shillelagh intact, anointing with a spray bottle every blessed creature who managed to cross his path. A frayed Roman collar and patched black robe flowed out from beneath his Moses graybeard, riding the lost soles of his sandals, that cardinal’s cap over his veined cheeks and blistered brow. On the hour, he recited from the Gospels, sermonizing to the pigeons as though he still had a flock.

Then there was the Green’s poet laureate, that femmy little devil in the plaid topcoat who counter cruised the monsignor from west to east, a blathering bundle of rabid McKuen and Thoreau with a hand-wringing fetish that had claimed the fleshy manpads of his palms. Or the dishonored sergeant at arms who patrolled the lot’s perimeter in full combat fatigues, marching to his own fife and drummer, four-star general’s ranking on his collar, missing pieces 12 and 13 of his M-16 and certain shell fragments of his mess hall mind. Upon further review, I saw any hold on reality bleeding through their skin-boney fingers, actually began to fear General Airborne’s ripcord and cranial minefield by the second or third day. Yet it was the moles holed-up in their vehicles all day who defied detection, if not diagnosis, or any clinical description whatsoever.

“Jeezus, Eric,” I scowled, shooting daggers in the general vicinity of the Porsche insignia on the 912’s right rear hubcap. This while Eric back crawled under the red bomb with an oil pan, further and further beneath the tangle of exhaust manifolds and heat exchangers that gave these forced-air German engines an internal monoxic bouquet. “Forget it, there’s nothing to tell, that was just a little guy talk…”

“I see,” she rounded out her sunburst smock, tossing the remains of her muesli bowl over the small parking island’s coarse santilina and weed grass. “As in little boys sittin’ around yankin’ their wienies?”

“Careful, luv,” Clifford said, unfolding the morning Clarion in washed out L.L. Bean Navy chamois and frayed tan Bedford cords, Gore-Tex duck boots worn thin at the heels. “Sensitive territory…”

“Don’t I know it, speedo,” she lobbed me a half-jar of beer nuts from her van door’s inner pocket. “Here, you can’t just live on Jif and Kix,”

“There’s no there there, I’m telling you,” I huffed, an old sea dog in a split pea coat and billowed khaki pants catching my eye, piss stains raining down his inseams. He was casually brunching out of a Dempster, while tearing through the classifieds, likely for a bin or doorway in which to survive the night—or feather his bedroll. That was unnerving enough to make me pocket those nuts for later reference. “Besides, they’re not dames…”

“Who’s they…what, are we talking triangle or something?”

“No, c’mon, figure of speech, there’s no angularity about it…”

“Wow, sounds like something you don’t want to get into, or out of,” Clifford said, cinching a top line over the Econoline’s overpacked roof rack, then commencing to futz with his Corvair.

Weird thing was, this inner patch of Marina Green did form something of an obtuse triangle, the parking lot itself its base, vehicles herein working all sorts of bizarre, scalene angles of their own. In slot after diagonal slot, sagging, corroded Chevys, dead Plymouths with mangled fenders, flat tires and expired out-of-state plates leaked gear grease, tranny fluid and motor oil in thick round pools onto the drain-graded asphalt. Rusted hulk Microbuses, cab-overs from West Covina held together with Mexico tourista stickers, wayward Broncos with pop-out windows and pop-up tops crowded shiftless school buses from Oregon busting out all over with rainbow electric Kool-Aid warpaint, knotty pine bay windows and dormers, plastic Kesey dashboard figurines lording over their tribal wanderings. Not to mention bastardized RVs and Winnebagos up the wazoo.

Even more adventurous were the Aussie Land Rovers, seemingly off-road modified for the Deniliquin Autocross, windows screened up and dirt caked like the rigs had just de-safaried from Lake Disappointment. Or the bubble-topped German vans, plastered with decals from Saarbruken to Swaziland and Saskatchewan—their continental drift charted on dotted side panel maps that ran from rear propane tanks forward to the mosquito meshing and grill-mounted mud tires. Somehow, our measly little caravan had shoehorned into a just-vacated spate of side-by-side spaces under the cover of foggy after-hours darkness, employing a little backpack and cooler blocking action learned in snowstorms back flyover way.

“Eww, now it’s getting juicy,” she grinned, reading me like a prosecutor a hostile witness, a skill she likely picked up from her father. “So where is this…chick?”

“Just somebody I know here in San Francisco,” I responded, an Asian wanderer passing by, playing air bagpipes in emperors‘ clothes.

“Where in San Francisco?”

“Uh, nearby…not so far…” I gazed over beyond the Great Meadow toward Chestnut Street.

“So what’s her story, meet her here?”

“In Boulder, actually…”

“But she’s here, right,” Sherry asked, over the screams of a woman from the back seat of an all but abandoned, Delaware plated Cadillac de Ville. “What was she doing in Boulder?”

“Just visiting…family…”

“Really, what family?”

“Sister-ly, sort of,” I fudged, trying to ignore the middle-aged shrieking, steadily being modulated by the woman’s loudspeakered radio airplay of Janis’s Pearly strains. “But I’d prefer not going down this road, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh, but I do. Like, what’s ‘sort of’ supposed to mean,” Sherry’s voice sounded increasingly caustic, just this sandy side of Drano. “And where do you fit in?”

As what had become habitual, we gathered around our mangy fleet, midway between the third and fourth red-curbed tree islands dotting the parking lot’s center lane. Having taken leave to whizz pass over to a low cinderblock public john, I’d squeezed around a step-van and prickly California cypress tree, wind twisted and big as a Roadmaster, much like the two-tone yellow job parked on its opposite side. The Buick’s expired plates read Idaho, but it might as well have been Indochina for all its chances of traveling any further. Over my shoulder, the monsignor and General Ripcord crossed paths in opposite directions on the sidewalk stretch near Gashouse Cove, holey vestments meeting fatigued olive drabs in broad daylight, on the harbor’s edge of last-chance gulch.

Between there and here, I’d skipped past a busted Bronco from Carlsbad, then an ungodly little turtle shell NSU that had crawled and clawed its way from Hamburg before spinning its main bearings toward this end of Doyle Drive. Amid a bumper crop of baby Bagos—pounded out, patched up, sheet metaled, stove piped, off-color jokes of dreamwagons—had settled two all-too-familiar 912s, Sherry’s van and my sorry 122S. Still crowding her right flank was that tow-barred Corvair, held together with stickers proclaiming ‘Curb Your Dogma’ and ‘Nietzsche is Pietzsche’ respectively: on second glance, it could only have belonged to Clifford. Taken together, wasn’t long before I suspected I might have been better off hanging with the strolling cloth and brass.

“Look, it’s kind of a complex situation to be going into here, alright?”

“Complex, with the sort-of sisters, I don’t get the connection.” Sherry spread out some stale bread crumbs for a swarm of gaggling pigeons.

“Just that I knew the one before I got to know the other, okay?”

“So which came first, the nearby chick or…” Clifford waded in casually from the trunk lid of his Monza.

“The other one…” I couldn’t ignore General Ripcord happening by again on the baywalk, his fisted face a fevered, hypertensive red. He was spitting toothpick bits on this lap, forced marching through his flashbacks, as if his whole army tour were passing before him, amounting to a clean DD 214, couple of minimal service medals and a giant enough disability to keep him in picks and Chinatown dives, ducking from enemy fire.

“The one in Boulder,” asked Sherry.

“No, in Chicago, she’s back there now…”

“The first one or the second one…” She side-eyed the hulk of a purple Coupe de Ville, as though watching over the screaming, wretched excesses of her collective sisterhood.

“Nope, the second one just got back here.”

“So, who’s in Boulder?”

“Neither one anymore…”

Laguna Pequena, Crabville, Shrimp Camps, Harbor View, Washerwoman’s Lagoon: By whatever name, these former sand dunes and salt marshes once became an industrial zone of shipbuilders, iron works and heavy forging through the turn of the century, sooting up the north shore with belching smokestacks, at least until the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition cleared that all away. More immediately, this tiny inlet served as an unloading dock for Australian coal, which was converted into vaporous fuel by the San Francisco Gas Light Company. Its drum-like gasometer storage facility, long dominant on the Marina shoreline, was the largest tank west of Chicago, prompting the moniker, Gashouse Cove. Today, it was stem to stern, slip to berth with sailboats that had hardly ever caught wind of hydrocarbons, much less a lick of honest labor. 

“But if one sister’s back east, and you’re out here closer to the other one, how does that work?” Sherry continued feeding a helter-skelter swarm of pigeons, and the pesky black starlings that pecked away at the margins, seagulls swooping in.

“Not so well at the moment,” I hedged, instead, shooing them all away. “Let’s just say the picture gets…foggy…and blurry.”

“Okay then, back to basics,” Sherry pressed, the entire scrum scattered to nearby Leyland cypress and Catalina Ironwood trees. “You’re in Colorado with two sort-of sisters from the Midwest…”

“Actually, she was from here then…”

“The first person,” Clifford followed up.

“The second one. She was passing through Colorado, from back there to here.”

“And you happened to hit on her en route?” For some reason, Sherry shot a glance at my slept in, button-fly jeans.

“Jeesh, no—the person I was with invited her…” I watched Bruno spring from the white Porsche’s sun roof, barking and flushing out the regathering birds altogether.

“The person you’re no longer together with invited her sorta-sister in to blur the picture…”

Like those heavy heaving joggers petering out over on the Marina Promenade, there where more normalized people roamed, I appeared to be hitting a wall. But it wasn’t Sherry’s cross examination so much as that solid row of storehouse piers just beyond Gashouse Cove, extending perpendicularly well out into the bay. The massive Mission Revival style pier sheds were mostly vacant now, standing down between assignments on stilted concrete pilings, their creamy stuccoed concrete weatherworn and water stained, red clay-tile roofs fading in the afternoon sun, peaks lined with dress-right-dress seagull formations.

Phil Burton’s machine had recently steered the GGNRA through Congress, and Fort Mason overall was awaiting duty call as the first urban national park, those three historic waterfront sheds included. Rumors had it the surplus military piers and four three-story dockside warehouses were slated for a peacenik campus of artsy/craftsy studios, classrooms, museums and workshops—community culture on the cheap and free, egalitarian and non-violent as could placidly be. For the moment, I flashed on government issue dogfaces and poor Uncle Early—an entirely different theater of the kind.

“Actually, that happened a bit later,” I offered, after recalling how that was what Melissa did, whether she wanted to or not. “But they weren’t sisters, more like in-laws—kinda ex…”

“So the second person was married to your first person’s brother,” Sherry said grittily, commencing to thrum her fingers on the hood of my car.

“Uh, not exactly…” Why the hell did Moon do that, anyway?“ It was more the other way around…”

“Your first person’s sister was married to her brother-in-law,” Clifford asked, between bites of a browning banana.

“No, the person I’d been together with was married to this other person’s older brother. But they’d split up, though staying real close,” I rambled. She says she didn’t intend that in a million years, but she knew Syd better than anybody, for chrissake! The sort-of sister, that is…”

“So you’re saying this person of yours invites her pseudo sister to come into the picture on your way here from the Midwest,” Sherry recounted, thrumming away. “The second person does so and everything went blurry in Colorado…”

“No, I wasn’t on my way at all. She talked me into driving her out here. It got blurry on the road, that’s where. By the time we got to San Francisco, things were getting…”

“Super blurry? These persons of yours, have names do they?”

“Let’s not go into that,” I rattled, pausing to take in the scene, blue bay, bridges and hills up to here, the schizophobiacs lucubrating and lubricating the day away in their trances and cars. “Anyway, the Colorado person got wind of it and flew out here. That’s when the shit hit the fan…”

“And she went back to Colorado, the first one,” Sherry groaned. “Yeesh, enjoying this, are you?”

“No, uh yeah, I went with her—see, I owed her that,” I tracked a 40-foot sloop reentering Gashouse Cove, before that long wall of sagging, wind-scarred piers—a decayed pumping station and green, tree-lined escarpment backdropping them, atop which army barracks used to stand. “But then we retreated to the Midwest, kind of a Saturn Return thing. It blew up back there, so I came back out here…”

“To the second person,” Clifford, produce bagged his banana’s remains.

“Not really, only sort of. But that blew up too…” Whew, this was getting a little easier, but did it come across as bizarre as it sounded?

“So the second person went back to the Midwest?”

“No, she lives here, I told you…that one’s still pretty blurry. Both are, come to think of it…really blurry, about to be driving me to distraction sometimes.”

“Yah, and the one out here’s jobbin’ him—a JAP yet,” Eric jeered, from underneath his red one. “Way I hear it, she’s screwin’ him royal…”

“Stuff it, Eric, that all went out with the war,” she stood up ramrod straight, like a justice on the bench, gaveling for order. “But this all seems pretty clear to me.”

To the pier sheds add those warehouses and a long foreground bank of former machine shops and desk jockey procurement offices: there was no avoiding at-ease Fort Mason Center’s wartime history from where we stood today. Sherry’s off-target jab could but transport me to the Port of Embarkation, that personnel and logistical hub for deployment to the Pacific Theater during World War II—over a million and a half recruits and some 24 million ship tons of provisions passing through. Pier sheds packed to the gills with goods, guns, tanks and artillery, boom loaded into waiting cargo vessels; belt line trains emerging from that tunnel, switchback supplying distribution depot buildings, grunts filing out of Fort Mason barracks in formation to board cattle-cramped troop ships for Far East jungles and mosquito-infested Micronesian atolls. 

All this was administered from a sprawling upper Fort Mason post of an HQ, BOQs, noncom billets, quartermaster magazines, utility shops, mess halls, medical dispensary, movie house, library, post office and non-denominational chapel—a post-Pearl Harbor pop-up city on a hill. Most of these decommissioned military structures were being leveled by now—enlisted processing, overseas supply, PX, WAC Detachment, NCO canteen—cleared away for a calm, palmy green expanse to be christened the Great Meadow, a lazy, largely sunny open space there above Fort Mason Center, presided over by the huge bronze statue of a disheveled Congressman Burton. Swords, munitions and malaria screens to Frisbees, volleyballs and sunscreen, in the pacifistic blink of an eye.

“How clear?” I looked to refocus on the skirmish at hand, thinking maybe this talking it all out wasn’t such a bad idea, after all. “Any friendlier feedback would help about now.”

“Okay then, I’d say that it’s the most regusting pile of bushwa I’ve ever heard,” she seethed, slamming her fist solidly, rusty chips flying off my front fender. “Eric there, I could expect that from—no, on second thought, he couldn’t get two women to care for him in a lifetime. But I had you pegged for better than…”

“Better than what,” I blurted, as knee-jerk hooked on her reaction as a Catholic confessee, seeing myself in a dark St. Michael’s church booth, searching the waffle grill for due penance from a devout, dissenting voice.

“Than some typical gigolo swine masquerading as Mister Sensitive Modern Man,” she raged. “You bastards are all alike. Say anything to get us to spread our legs. Then split and go gloat about it with your sexist pig pals. Just more proof why we sisters have to stick together.”

“No, hey, it’s not like that—didn’t happen that way.” Oops, I suddenly took a defensive posture, turning crankier than my car. “God’s honest, I wish it never happened at all…”

“Oh, poor baby—spare me the hard luck story. Who do you think you’re connin’ here? Deep down, you’re eatin’ up every minute of this blur. First person, second person, not word one about their pain, their feelings! You make them sound like painted dollies on the side of your fighter plane—just keep tallying those bimbos, score, score, score!!!”

“Whoa, never once—I’m not that kind of…” I coughed, stopped breathing through my mouth altogether, bending elbows against the fender to keep my knuckles from dragging on the pavement. “You’re totally blowing it out of context…”

“Hardly. In fact I’m beginning to think you’re the sort of squishy jerk who’ll milk this soap opera for all it’s worth. Goin’ around, sad sacking on the outside, inside wearing it like a badge of honor…”

“C’mon, do you know what it’s like to be yanked between two people—two totally different women expecting totally different things?” I spouted, getting more hacked off by the critical minute. I knew I shouldn’t have opened up about this. It’s what I get for sharing… “And I’m not squishy, okay? I’m not one of those, those limp…”

“So, now you’ve got a problem with gays,” she asked, glaring at us all. “Like some other jokers around here?”

“No way, no problem…could we just get off this, please?! Jesus, cut me some slack…”

“Figures, but if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got. Just ask that Gary guy over there.”

“Who,” I asked, squinting across the lot. All I could make out was a beat out Rainbo bakery truck parked one row away. “Uh, I’ll have to take your word on it…”

Well beyond upper Fort Mason’s headquarters building—one-time military hospital that it was—a sinking sun radiated pure gold off linen-white Russian Hill highrises. Waving in that direction were the masts of all the moored sailboats flooding Gashouse Cove, its full berths floating like Andes footbridges, gulls riding their cone-topped pilings, tackle and rigging all arattle, deck to deck. Nearer yet, a red bearded stringbean self talker wandered past us, colorful foil streamers dangling from his horned rim glasses, grimy oversize britches and sweatshirt, ‘Masturbate & Be Free’ silkscreened across his concave chest, ‘Happiness Is Being Single’ on the back. What or whether Gary was worth asking about any of this stuff remained up in the fog grumed marine air.

“Okay, this is getting strange,” Clifford bobbed up from his morning Clarion,otherwise turning the page. “Says here the Jonestown drug scene is a jungle time bomb, that Jim Jones has hired some hacks to write a puff book on the whole Peoples Temple scene. But now these Freed and Mark Lane guys are linking up with a private investigator to make a sham movie exposé on the cult deal based on dissenter tales. This Joe Mazor dick claims Jones is nothing but a phony religious huckster control freak.”

“Oh, that’s just great,” Sherry relented, peering over Clifford’s shoulder in read-along mode. “Hasn’t the mayor, even Supervisor Milk called Jones a reverend of high moral character?”

“Takes one to know one,” Eric laughed, from under his crankcase. “But you’d think that cat would be more preoccupied with all the gay dudes getting offed in his parks…”

You mean like the cops who’ve been nosing around Aquatic Park,” she asked, looking toward Clifford rather guardedly. “Hope they don’t start snooping around over here.”

“Not to worry, they’re just going through the motions,” Clifford dove skittishly back into his newspaper. “They can’t be bothered clogging up their casebooks with a slew of throwaway gays”.

“Hey, where you off to,” Sherry asked, as I eased my way back to the Volvo’s driver side door.

“Not into talking current events right now,” I noticed a converted van we hadn’t much seen since fleeing Aquatic Park, as L.T. and Kathy had been way down row, busy repacking her goods and wares. Go figure, little Ms. Sweetness and Light throwing in with ex-con gang-bang survivor who either was beating her senseless or saving her life.  “Got some stuff to straighten up, mull over…”

“Try dumping your tunnel vision while you’re at it,” she replied, watching L.T.’s Dodge van wave and power pump past us, then pull out toward downtown on Marina Boulevard instead of westward to the bridge.

“Yah, gotta watch out for those tunnels,” Eric slid out from under his 912, smearing grease around his temples with harsh wipes of his shop rag. He was fixing to dump a pan of dirty oil and metal shavings into the slips channel, some 25 feet from the nearest moored sailboats,fending off Clifford’s alarm with “…who cares? No tellin’ what else endsup in there.”

“Will do my best,” I muttered, glancing over past Fort Mason’s gatehouse to the darkened belt line rail tunnel.

“Nice ball-busting there, butch,” Eric turned away from me, then sneered toward Sherry, wiping his hands of the pan.

“Go flick your Bic, Eric,” she dipped into the Econoline for a baggy of trail mix. “And your dumb dog’s, too…”

Yeah, tunnels—you bet, enough, already. First thing tomorrow, swear I’m gonna get this mess all ironed out. Should have done it long ago. Gotta know where to draw the line with this kid stuff, looks like some guys never do. Gonna get some work, bail my gear out of hock—then I’m out of this nut hole, once and for all. That’s right, think it through, tune it up, tone it down, torque it tight, stop the insanity, get these urges under control…then figure where the hell you’re going to go…come morning, very first thing…

Care for more?

Chapter 76. Reaching out, still
            hemmed in, another S.O.B. story
           brings more idle discord…

“Loner one’s best friend
separate, unequal still, 
such a bitter pill.”

“Troffo lungo!”

“Troffo corto!”

“L’hai maucato, a sinistra!”

“Via di qui!”

Dark hours had passed, days even, yet I was still thinking things through. On the other hand, I eventually did notice something was missing. It was a bleary line of thinking that netted me back to Aquatic Park, searching like the devil for Josh’s box, and pounding out the sideswipe dent that had in fact misaligned and jammed my left rear car door. Climbing over the Volvo’s front seats, I was hell bound to find that package somewhere in there, to set things righter by Syd.

It took ensuing daylight stretches to dig, ferret, sort some stockpiled belongings out the right side doors. Debris, really: crusty clothing, filthy blankets and towels, lost traces of mutating edibles; I sifted through everything that had accumulated between Nathan’s Northside crib and the here and now. Nights were a frenetic, ham-handed smear of neural activity, only to leave me shuddering in the morning chill at the prospect that I’d somehow overlooked and left the sucker in my abandoned VW wagon back in Chicago.

Naww, couldn’t have, I alibided my time, moving aft cabin heaps forward, front floorboards’ dross and clutter halfway aft, my mitts already stiff and sore from wringing them the night before. Books stacked and teetering on the sidewalk, particularly rancid underwear were likely to dissuade any poachers eyeing my heavily yellow highlighted texts while I combed under bucket seats, overturned the rear bench cushion and reached behind its backrest, clawing in like a Bobcat at a demolition site.

Moreover, the trunk offered little beyond rusty metric wrenches, old spark plugs, a seeping oil filter, cartons of useless kitchenware, ice skates, and a bustedbumper jackbehind a punctured spare tire. Came up empty again Josh box-wise, so I proceeded to do a bit of overheated delousecleaning, inventory assessment, resource consolidation as I re-jammed what remained of my worldlys into the sedan. Just when I’d all but packed it in, the crew goaded me over to a shady spot nearer the bocci ball courts, and a lunchpail brunch of Sherry’s leftover goulash-gumbo—if, for nothing else, to give the authorities wider swath.

“Sei pazzo!”

“Dammi quelle palle! Ti mostrero!!”

“Rompi le palle…”

“Va all’ inferno!”

The courts themselves were fully in session, side by side under that winged awning, now thick with pigeons pecking and crapping all over its corrugated fiberglass roof panels. Below those flying rats, pigeonus pensionus lined the court sides with stooped shoulders, pinched scowls and sharp staccato growls. There they be, snorting, spitting, chomping on their tiny Optimos and Toscanelli cigars in a semi-sonnambulistic stupor, squatting along shaded wooden slab benches like they were waiting for Heaven’s Elysian Express. All bundled up in bulge-pocket cardigans, rib-knit pullovers and Sunday pew-worn slacks, water-stained felt Borsalinos and quail-plumed fedoras yanked down over their tired, baggy eyes. A gathering of gumbas, along with oversoaked Dolphin Club cove swimmers weary from dodging aggressive sea lions and sewage-spewing squatter yachts. Commonality of purpose, molto benne: They were old and Italian, what better way to spend the day?

“Fuzz sure keep dickin’ around here, don’t they,” Eric noted, eyes peeled on the caravan over across Aquatic Park’s main drive, ostensibly checking on his dog.

“Tell me something I don’t already know,” said Sherry, as she dished out her re-course in separate small sauce bowls. “I mean, they’ve probably got the bocci mob over there spyin’ and rattin’ us out…”

“Mafiosos on the case, man—on-the-case,” L.T. mused, looking over the lot of us, all in our most crumpled casual rags, then grabbing for bowl one. “Why’m I not surprised, way y’all act like you do?”

“Which case,” asked Clifford, disquietly reading of the very latest overnight slaying up in Lafayette Park, front page of the morning’s Clarion—yet another brutal pounding and strangulation.

“Try that fruit gettin’ offed in the tunnel,” Eric blurted, reaching for his portion like a raw recruit in an overcooked chow line as he deflected L.T.’s jibe. “Hittin’ way too close to home…”

Yet the dons didn’t miss a shot, drifting in and out of their Federazione Italiane Bocce clubhouse with waxed cups of Lambrusco and fists full of caramel iced panettone. Huddled under the T-shaped awning, these backbench consigliere comprised the self-appointed judges and arbiters of all rules and issues bocci ball across the full six courts, eagle eyeing for any tipsy toeing over the volo line, tracking those small composition balls from board to board, living and dying with every roll and giro round—odds, T-bills and Social Security checks in the balance.

So bicker and bargain they did, arguing over every little silvery steel pallino, wagering on a backspun power play to blow a shot pattern wide open, dicker over the chances of a 50-foot point caroming off the waist-high carpeted backboard, aiming to erase a three-point deficit by finessing the reds. They’d feud over whether a line shot kissed off the left sideboard halfway down court, flick their thumbnails off their two front teeth at hedge bets the ball would bank slowly toward the cluster to pick off green #1. All but come to blows when that jack nudged the green bocce, snuggled up against red ball #1 like it was cradled in deep cotton, smoother than billiards in buttermilk.At least that was how things sounded: back and forth, roll by roll, players rightly planted to look out over our shoulders.

“Fruit? How do you know that,” Sherry asked, soundly tapping the ladle clean in the face of Eric’s stolid feedback.

“Had to be, right? With that bath house and everything,” Eric backed off, pushing aside his bowl on the park bench, leaving it halfway full. “Figure they’re…connected?”

“Who knows? It can be all for one, one for all glommed together,” Clifford ventured. Either he’d already chowed down, or had no appetite for sloppy seconds, what with the current seating arrangements, only taking a small white tablet Sherry had handed him with some green tea. “Just so they don’t think we have something to do with it…”

“Yep, better get our stories straight,” she joked, putting a finishing lid on her brunch bucket, then turning my way. “That what you think?”

“Me? I dunno, got other fish to fry right now,” I scooped the dregs of my stew bowl, having worked up a powerful hunger, easy on the Cossala comparisons and review

“What fish?” Eric belched, setting his bowl aside.

“Lox, gefilte fish—take your pick…” I stared off blankly to the park’s sun-brazed promenade and Black Point cove, belching up some gumbo brine.

Wasn’t long before ourcrew began peeling away. The police and forensics team had disbanded and shot up Van Ness Avenue like they were Mustang Frank Bullitt after some hard Charger hitmen. But lounge-chair lizards still sprawled over Aquatic Park lawns in sagging Speedos and bikinis, bagging those high sky rays. Tourists pressed in from Beach Street, from behind the ficus retusa and cypress trees, trampled out of the gladiolas and hedges with their Instamatics and fanny packs. While fat, wurbling pigeons lined up along the chain-link fence behind us like vultures on a roadside wire; and the bocci kept getting more and more bellicose. Sherry and Clifford gathered themselves to head back over to their Econoline van. L.T. watched them for a spell, then turned toward the S.S. Maritime Museum, likely preparing to lug more of Kathy’s textile crafts display boards up to her Beach Street stand.

“Just can’t keep eatin’ that slop,” Eric drew a monitory bead on his caravan once more, spotting Bruno leaping out the white 912’s sunroof to take care of business. “C’mon, I’ll pop for a real lunch…”

“St. Zita’s again,” I asked, with reflux of the worst kind. “Thanks, think I’ll pass…”

“Naw, this place’s legit, trust me…”

“That’s what she said…”Thing was, this invite sounded marginally better than car sitting through any more police sweeps, not to mention fresher eats. So we turned onadime, roughly following in L.T.’s wake along the promenade, until he suddenly ducked into the bathhouse—whether for spins or for grins—no telling from here.

“What who said?”

“Nevermind…”

sr dingbats

“Number six.”

“Six? Take your neo-crypto-poly fascist proclivities and ram ’em up your imperialist, ultra Ku Klux Klan conservative orifices. And pick a damn number that’s at least marginally more tasteful and playable than that death dirge you’re asking for, or buzz off, Benito! I said, I don’t do Wagner, hear?”

“All right, then—number nine.”

“Number nine…number nine? Whatdya take me for, John ‘n’ Yoko? It’s tzaro-sado- masocapitalistic huns like you that’re conspiring us into this power trippin’ the whole world!”

Above and beyond the Maritime Museum, Beach Street was a clamor of sidewalk-level arts, crafts, hoodwinking and pedestrian sophistry—all geared to and aimed at dissembling lines of lost, bored, distracted and disoriented tourists. Those dawdling, unsuspecting, prime-pluckin’ sightseers converged along here from more parochial cities and hinterlands, with nothing but time and money on their hands. Truth told, San Franciscans loathed them, berated them, bemoaned their summer infestation like the tourists themselves hated mosquito season back home. If only Everybody’s Favorite City didn’t need these visitors so much: their wastrel spending, how they replenished hotel tax coffers to carry this tourism whore of a town through to pest season next.

So artless paintings, loopy sculpture, coarse sketches, laminated icons and unlimited edition prints: everything with San Francisco, Bay and bridges emblazoned or crudely plastered all over them.

Here was nothing not being peddled elsewhere about town, of course—Kathy’s intricate textile artisanry excepted. Then came less this wobbly, cartoon striped cardboard Wurlitzer before us. Capping an endless block of souvenir T-shirt shops and commercial art galleries, Mister Jukebox stood strong in the shadow of the Irish coffee-fabled Buena Vista, amid a tight crescent of tourist riders, captively queued for the next Hyde Line cable car downtown. Perdue in a rigged up refrigerator carton, he was a manic, vitriolic musical voice in the murmuring street corner crowd—a discordant, distempered Oz behind a pullied canvas window, who stopped us and a clutch of touristas stone cold.

“Ah, number eleven the man says! Sir, it’s attitudes like yours that ravaged Europe, defiled the exotic splendor of Indochina, now threatens the damn sovereignty of Central America,” raged that voice from behind the curtain. “Your CIA concocted paranoiac expansionist catatonomies which stifle The Peoples’ aspirations throughout the hemispheres—from the Bay of Pigs to the Ivory Coast!”

“Forget it, Meg—this jerk’s on dope,” muttered a Wyoming hay roper in a creased John Deere cap, his wife and other tourists cheering him on.

“Hey, don’t go away mad. That doesn’t mean I won’t play John Denver drek if you so choose. By all means, press the tab again and feed the machine. I accept all denominations, but keep your corrupt corporate plastic to yourselves.”

The routine was to push a proper cut-out tune tab on one side panel, and stuff a coin slot on the other, whence Mister Jukebox cranked up the puppet show-size window. Wrong play, wrong pay, and he skipped the beat with an emphatic rimshot, dispensing more socio-political commentary. His carton front was an out-of-control panel of painted-on knobs and selector buttons, sprinkled with celebrity snapshots. Signed photos of Herb Caen and Mayor Moscone swayed and shifted like a metronome when the number was harmonic and the price was right. Up rolled that test-patterned curtain, the music man showed his face, and it wasn’t as pretty as the requested tune. There he was, fully goggled, in camouflaged jumpsuit glory, military stars & stripes and battle patches from long-hair collar to cuffs, a cigar-butted bandoleer slung over his bony shoulder. Photo tax,yelled Mr. Jukebox, with a Rasputin stare, pointing to a designated coin slot as the rubes hooped and cameras began to click and snap en masse.

Still, the laughter froze as he broke into ‘Rocky Mountain High’, flawlessly orchestrating piccolo, trumpet and kazoo. Watching Maestro JB work in all those chimes and whistles dangling around his scrawny neck was well worth the extra quarter—how he’d fixed that turntable platter atop his Spitfire aviator skullcap, spinning a Toscanini LP around it without missing a note, then giving his Dylan harmonica a timely blow. But RMH by any other measure still evoked blissful Boulder to me, and a strap happy cable carload clanged past us up Hyde Street, so we swiftly left Victoria Park behind. Plowing past an equally light headed bunch fresh from the Buena Vista Irish Coffee bar—yeah, Irish, I could still hear those blokes at the Abbey, hashing out their booming Poppy plans. Anyway, we crossed over toward the Cannery, dodging another corner recruiting team from that blasted Universe Theatre.

“Yah, gotta watch yourself in this town, never know who’s packin’ what,” Eric said, as we passed beyond earshot of cable car bells and Mr. Jukebox’s next picky harangues. “So, what you fryin’?”

“Aww, nothing,” I said, curling around three generations of Nebraska tourist gothic, a pack of 4-H cadets in Jayhawks basketball shorts, colored Keds and striped tube socks—then two Salvadoran refugees hawking what appeared to be waxed, short-stemmed roses in clear plastic tubes. “Shouldn’t even have brought it up…”

“But you did, so spill,” he replied, buttoning the breast pocket of his green mechanic’s shirt, over what looked to be a bank slip. “That chick, right?”

“She drives me crazy,” I blurted, no more prior restraintneeded to talkforgetting just whom I was laying this on, wary of what good could possibly come of it. “She drains me, every time I’m with her. Never fails, I’m just tapped out for days afterwards.” Yet I immediately regretted the outburst, feeling outflanked, exposed, but less like at the mental health clinic than in those public showers under the bleachers. Good thing she wasn’t here, because I sure as hell must have been whining again…

We ramped down Beach Street, sidewalk vendors, arts farts and enterprising card hustlers staking out their three-to-five foot patches, roughly two scams per concrete square. This stretch was one of The City’s last bastions of cut-throat Barbary Coast capitalism, and the competition on both sides of Beach was wearing everybody a bit thin to where some form of regulation was setting in. These hucksters were barely off the truck as it was, barely out of the Sixties, many living off-hours in the shadows of Dolores Park and Potrero Hill. The lot of them setting up stands along this no-rent Rodeo Drive for their slice of the Golden Gate goose.

Into the old Del Monte Cannery we ducked, short cutting through its center courtyard, a red-brick menagerie of local street art characters. Prowling its low, octagonal redwood stages, springing from behind old grove magnolia and olive trees were a deadpan juggler named A. Whitney Brown, this Lord Fauntleroy magician in everything but a full redingote, calling himself Hokum Jeebs, bound for network TV. Beyond that pear tree clowned a painted face Bozo in a scarecrow shirt and red-on-white checked pantaloons, blowing up cable car balloons for the munchkins. We were further entertained by bluegrass banjos and stand-up piano on our way through the flower colorfully bustling courtyard. Giddy shoppers and browsing tourists from the Cannery’s galleries and kitscheries filled scattered benches and small bleachers, ice cream in hand. All so far removed from the fruit and vegetable conveyor belt lines that once packed tin containers in here. 

“Down the drain, huh? She got you snaking her pipes, or…”

“Naww, she’s an artist type, a painter. It’s like every minute I spend trying to do for her—taking her crap and carrying it. Answering her questions, solving her problems, zeroing in on her needs. Seems none of it’s ever enough, because what she’s doing at any given moment is the only thing going on in the world.”

“Your standard give-and-take. You give, give, give, she takes, takes, takes…”

“Whatever, nothing I say’s going to change anything,” I muttered, avoiding the literary airs and dark-roast aromas from that Cannery Coffee House, much less the hours spent scribbling down that damn PBT proposal. “She’s all she knows—Syd and her art, her career.”

“So why she figure she can be doin’ you that way?”

“Aww, she’s like that with everybody.” Instead, I picked up on the fresh-catch marine stench of Fish Alley, over along nearby working docks. “All these minions she’s got running around for her.”

“But why you?”

“Guess I kinda owe her—for some past history…”

Goose them, con them, play them, ream them, trick and scheme them: From the Cannery on, Jefferson Street’s tourists were ripe for the basting. Lost in their maps, seeking directions and local faves, they were being serenaded with fiddles and soft-shoe shuffles, teased and tickled by cocky mimes, seduced by fleshy bellydancers, buttonholed by fringed soothsayers and fortune tellers like Dame Thornia to beautify the everyday, walk on the wilder side, free as a seagull. But not before tipping the guitar case or Mason jar, contributing to the cause.

Grayline lemmings ate it all up: the flavored yogurt, ices, gelato, chippy cookies, caramel corn, licorice, cheese pretzels, cotton candy and saltwater taffy they could get their down-time mitts on, block by block. Underdressed bellies in T-shirts from every other stateside tourist trap, Bar Harbor to Knott’s Berry Farm, or sweats and windbreakers from every team, college and agricultural extension south of Stanford and east of the Berkeley Hills—let alone the misshapen overseas crowd. Tourists bagging tourism swag, being tourists with other tourists, easy pickings that they were.

“History? Damn,” Eric sputtered, casting about the Leavenworth Street corner and Anchorage Square. “All these fresh fish swimmin’ around, and you’re letting this piranha suck you dry…”

“She’s not a piranha,” I growled, tugging at my blue ribbed pullover—as if making up for my recent stand-down, dutifully taking up her cause. “If she weren’t so special, I’d have kissed her off long ago.”

“Special, huh? Let’s see here. Pushy, demanding, center of the universe, non-stop lackeys—not a JAP, is she?”

“No, see, Syd’s not Asian, she’s…”

“We’re talkin’ the Jewish-American variety, Horatio, plain as the nose on your face.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I injected a little plausible deniability.

“Means she’s a pampered little princess.”

“Sorry, never really heard that term before,” I wanted nowhere near this territory, particularly in the here and now. “Anyway, what would it have to do with anything?”

“Accounts for the whole deal, man,” Eric shook his head. “Believe me, I know what I’m talkin’ about…”

Fisherman’s Wharf wasn’t hurting for mug and shell shoppers either. Window after souvenir shoppe window displayed San Francisco-labeled bobbles and trinkets, pewter porpoises and porcelain whales, Limoges Golden Gate platters, Muir Woods ashtrays, redwood framed wall plaques with lacquered Rod McKuen verse, which linked lyrically with the stuffed sea birds and overstuffed Jonathan Livingston Seagull. From here on, Jefferson Street was a gaudy glut for the eyes, which explained all the sidewalk sunglass displays, Tony Bennett’s heart bleeding out of virtually every postcard-racked door between the Cannery and Taylor Street.

“As in your Aspen snow queen,” I asked warily, sensing a slight fissure in his Rocky stonewall.

“We’re talking about you,” said Eric, with a cold-eyed stare. “Just leave it that I’m hip to the terrain. Ain’t Catholic, are you?”

“Well, yeah, on my mother’s side…”

“There you go, so she’s got you all tied up in guilt and shame.”

“Hey, do you mind? We just buried her a few months ago…”

“Not your mother, man,” he snorted. “Your harpy artist.”

Beyond the Wharf’s most panderous excesses came what remained of its original mission: the few old family marine supply and cordage outfits that still actually serviced Bay fishing crews, instead of sugar tilting toward the tourists. Shell fish companies that fed nearby grottos daily, tucked between and down Pier 47’s narrow alleys, along which cleaners stacked smelly crab crates packed with bass heads and entrails for shipment to rendering houses—so many McFishwiches in the making.

The Wharf itself further afforded no-nonsense views of the genuine working flotilla: two slender docks packed beam to rubber bumpered beam with dipping, bobbing and basket loaded commercial craft. Most were cupolaed little crawlers held together with tar, wood putty, 50 lb. test wire and soggy visions of the catches got away. But given their dry rotting nets, the cracks in their prows and rudders, much less a pernicious rock cod and salmon slump, touristy photo-ops and chartered sport fishing fantasies kept the fleet and their salty crews ever so haphazardly afloat.

“Stop it, will you?! You’ve got it all wrong.” I firmed up a defensive position, this being Syd we were talking about, me still thinking things through on that score. “And she’s not a…princess, okay? She’s just smart and ambitious and going for her full potential. But if anything, she’s the one all tied up, in EST and…”

“No shit, into cult crap, too? Like with that Jimmy Jones cat.”

“I’m talking intensity,” I grumbled, “the intensity of our relationship. Hell, I’ll admit she’s yanked me all over the map. Made me feel like everybody from Nick Nolte to Alvy Singer, but…”

“Question is, why are you putting yourself through it?” Eric nodded at two passing buckskinned coeds from Humboldt State. “Hoistin’ her royal ass up on some kinda pedestal. What’s in it for you?”

In it for me? This isn’t some kind of business transaction…” Yeah, just more tough love…for a stand-up guy like you…

With that, he led me away from the fishing industry processors of Pier 45, if not even further astray. We instead directed our attention to sourdough row, along the wall-to-wall grottos with old family dynastys like Tadsino’s, Balduso’s, Pompei’s and Castagnola’s. Lippy, street slick baritone fishmongers served up shrimp cocktails, crab and prawn walkaway delights with lemon wedges in red checker paper baskets. Gleaming glass and stainless steel cases and steam counters stood flush with fresh scallops, calamari, half-shell oysters—abalone and whole lobsters iced for the packing, along with all those loaves and starter kits of famous San Francisco bread. Three generations of grottoteurs delivered blocks of ice, crab crates, hosed down counters and walk skids, cracked Dungeness with crusty mallets. All the while they fisheye tracked the tourists—unblinking as the stacked striper heads in their refrigerated cases—as they’d clearly seen it all before, actually had it in their blood.

“Then what is it with you? Listen to me, fool,” Eric said, sneaking a couple of cellophaned oyster cracker packets from a shrimp basket as consolation prize, the split second a steamy chowder meister went stir crazy answering inane visitor questions. “Ask yourself, what do you want from her?”

“Sorry, I just don’t think of a relationship that way…”

“Bullshit, man, then what keeps drivin’ you back,” he needled, as we crossed bustling Al Scoma Way. “Less’n what’s really important is between the sheets.”

“Look, let’s just drop it, okay?!” Syd’s bedside entreaty re-struck where it hurt the most.

“Yeah, and those sheets better be silk and satin, am I right?”

“Christ, that’s the last thing…”

“Hell it is. Probably what’s got you down here in your car,” Eric winked. “So don’t tell me you’re just in love with all us and the view from Aquatic Park.”

The crackers would have to hold us past pricey Scoma’s and Alioto’s grottos, their delicious Bay view dining, let alone Carrazone’s and Joltin’ Joe’s. Rather, we fled the garlic essence of filleted mackerel and halibut or batter-fried prawns, past a hokey Ripley’s andwax museum midway, the latter featuring brand new tributes to John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Tourists scrambled by us, bound for Bay cruises at Pier 43.5, for Alcatraz ferry and tour helicopter tickets under the Ferry Arch. Those choppers and a fleet of tugboats ushered in the S.S. Oriana ocean liner toward Pier 35, white smoke swirling from corn-colored stacks, fireboats spray welcoming her to San Francisco. But all we got were catcalls from a motorized cable carload of conventioneering ophthalmologists.

“Yah, well, your whole silken scenario stinks, if you ask me.”

“No man, what reeks is that chicks like this come across like some kind of priceless commodity a guy can’t live without,” Eric countered, pushing through a cross stream of visitors over from the Powell-Mason cable car turnaround. “Well screw their feminism, ’cause they’re really just after our bucks, our jobs. They want to castrate us, pickle our balls in a bottle, that’s what…”

“Wow, talk about paranoia,” I said, taken aback by his acridity. “One snow bunny dumps on you, and you’re ready to write off half the human race…”

“Hey, man, that don’t mean shit. Around here, we’re the big prize, okay? Well, I’m sittin’ tight with my trophy as their bio clocks tick away—yep, me and Senor Wences…”

“Or you and your dog…”

Nevertheless, all those Fisherman’s Wharf distractions delivered us unto the Embarcadero and a shiny new tourist shopping playground about ready for the ribbon-cutting, a gaudy geegaw theme park and faux driftwood experience billed as Pier 39. Basically more shirt shops and a cookie/candy arcade—souvenir and gift traps stretching like a fabricated peninsula out into the bay. One of its more notable tenants was a Hot Potato stand, if only because it was being operated by financially strapped City Supervisor Dan White and his missus. Apparently that Balclutha fundraiser was paying off, all right—they likely owned his toady butt outright by now. In any case, we passed on Pier 39’s chicanery row, shuffling a bit past Grant Street to the real San Francisco deal.

sr dingbats

“I’m only sayin’, a guy spends his best years tryin’ to please women, suckin’ up all over town to jump in their jeans. Before he knows it, he’s hittin’ on one regular, she’s his main squeeze, understand? Got him all bound and gagged with a crib full of rug rats before he’s hip to the fact that he’s in for a life sentence. Just about then she’s raggin’ and saggin’ no end. So one night, he’s up chain smokin’ at 4 a.m., huffin’ and coughin’ on the back stoop when it creeps into his mind like a bathroom cockroach that she wanted it just as bad all along, cat fought other twats for it, needed to tie some sap down, any sap, or at least fleece him in court. I mean, who the hell needs that shit?!”

“Sorry I asked…guess that’s just not how I feel about it,” Enough said, better left unsaid. I gratefully begged off, changing the subject, to any other subject, toe tapping on a wavy, dented hardwood floor. “Sooo, how’re you swinging this lunch deal, anyway?”

“Hey, no problemo, Horatio.”

Eric’s tout was that this was the best spread north of The Pantry in downtown L.A. I had no basis for comparison beyond Dot’s Diner in Boulder, and didn’t want to ask him how did he. Not when we were seated at the counter to a meat loaf platter and petrale special respectively, washed down with two cold Anchor Steams. That would be the Original Eagle’s daily special, in a genuinely heaping hash house that had been serving waterfront dockworkers, sea dogs and stevedores since well before Prohibition days, along with a multi-collar clientele of every station and pinstripe ever since. Once a steamship ticket/waiting room,the Eagle’s aging wooden structure stood stubbornly around the curve from Fisherman’s Wharf exploitation, yet uncomfortably close to the sham-flammery of Pier 39.

Tar paper barn roof, brown tongue-and-groove slat siding, the wino-fronted haunt squinted straight out on Alcatraz and Angel Islands through breezy venetian blinds, not to mention the harbor slips and covered piers at this western edge of the Embarcadero, down here in the shadow of Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill. Smack across from the diner stood a three-masted, steel-hulled merchant clipper ship that once carried European wool, whiskey and window glass around Cape Horn to San Francisco, grain and gold rush losers back. Today the moored museum piece was but a tourist photo prop, nowhere near so lively as the Pier 35 cruise ship terminal, now fanfaring that huge, stately S.S. Oriana.

“Look, I just know I’m in no position to cover this,” I nibbled at a blue platter full of ground beef slabs, mashed spuds, green beans and butter rolls, undergirded by a chipped bakelite tray.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” Eric smacked, lemon wedging his sole. “So happens I’m in the process of unloading one of my Porsches…”

“No lie, which one?” I rubbed elbows with a pedicab rider on break after a Union Square to Buena Vista run, trip and tip wheeled in.

“The blue 912, took a partial deposit on it yesterday.”

“I knew something was missing over there…”

“Got the bite on a windshield note, dude came right over with cash in hand,” Eric grinned, fingering a French fry. “Said he dug my renovation. Yah, moved the heap up to the Shell Station on Bay Street until I cash out and turn the keys over.”

No renovation here, the Eagle stuck with this four stool lunch counter and elbow-to-elbow gorging on two long mess hall-style center tables, surrounded by separate linoleum-top tables along open-windowed outer walls. Along those smoke tinged walls were driftwood framed blow-ups of feluccas, tugboats and tall ships, brass bells, rusted rigging and grapnels, tattered fishnets and maritime standards, tarnished helms wheels, waterlogged life buoys, splintered tillers and rudders. A framed series of yellowed newspaper page-one accounts of past dock strikes and lockouts dating back to FDR’s first term, along with every Embarcadero parade from Panama Canal Day to Panmunjom.

What caught my eye between gravy-soaked helpings was that stuffed mountain lion over the nearside wall bar, between photos of the U.S.S Haleakala and U.S.S. Henry B. Wilson, bookending a scorched mahogany backbar with autographed Seal team portraits of Joe Brovia, Ferris Fain, Dino Restalli and Dairo Lodigiani. We stared through them and aerials of a packed Seals Stadium—before Charley Harney sacked it by conning The City into ‘Sticking its new ballpark where the sun don’t shine. Longshore regulars puffed Roi-Tans, nursed Bloody Marys out of paper Dixie cups, listening to a Giants road game from Chavez Ravine. Altogether, here was an Eagle chloroformed in San Francisco time, dripping in lore and legend like the liver and onion platters being fed through its kitchen’s short order window, and bosun’s mulligan stewing at its steam table.

“Mucho thanks, Eric—what an epic place,” I said, hoisting my long-neck Anchor Steam. “Even though I still can’t believe you’re unloading that heap so quickly…”

“Expert salesmanship, man, that a Fairfax doper couldn’t refuse,” Eric chortled, toasting me in kind. “But I wouldn’t get too attached to this joint. I hear they’re either gonna bulldoze it for a parking garage. Or even worse, trig it up, haul the shack over there to Pier 39. Whole town’s movin’ and shakin’ that way…”

“Anyway, really much obliged. Been a while since I’ve chowed down so…”

“Let’s just say you owe me one…more…”

Care for more?

Chapter 75. Flushed out of their comfort
zone, viewpoints come from different angles,
turning the gang Green and mean…

“Inner strength drawn from
other persons and sources
crumbles inside out.”

“Careful, careful…”

“Will do…”

“Nice and slow…”

“Yep, easy does it…”

“Steer right in there, straight and true.”

Nothing spilled, little more gained. We had blown out of Casa Cossala faster than Luke and Leia off the Death Star, though not before I’d suggested we double back for another hand grab of Chocolate Decadence, addictive as it was. That gooey cocoa mud, are you daft, Sydney spouted, tightly cinching the belt of her black velvet safari jacket. A red blush filled her cheeks as she blew another curly strand out of her eye. In all, she was a portrait of decomposure in the foyer’s stained glass light. “I can’t let my friends see me like this!” Like what, I’d assuaged, you look perfectly… presentable. To you maybe, but I’ve never felt so mortified in all my life, was her reply. So off we went, Syd finding little solace in the prospect that her prized ‘Bridge to Goodness’ painting commission was now all but hermetically sealed, payed forward, etched in proverbial stone.

“That’s it, take it deeper, then nudge a little to the right.”

“Enough?”

“Bit more, squeeze right in there, shoot for chute, close as you can get.”

“Can’t get much closer…”

A fierce ocean gale had powered over the Divisadero ridge, down through Steiner gulch, then back up Broadway like Playland’s Big Dipper ride. I had wondered about the windbreaker panel outside Casa Cossala’s front door, whether Alberto had taken the cut glass motif too far. But it quickly proved another directorial masterstroke, what with these staccato, fog-laced gusts hammering its rose-petaled panes and leading like mallets against chromatic xylophone bars. Not that it made our half-block walk to Syd’s Audi any less blustery, slacking valet parkers be damned. As for the ride back to her apartment, we steered away from Fillmore’s 24-percent grade as though the Hill were still clogged with its clunky counterbalance cable cars. So down off Broadway, Franklin Street’s sequenced green lights couldn’t change quickly enough to hit home, her glorified halo and hair coils having come all unsprung.

Which was why I had ended up behind the wheel of her cosmetically repaired Audi Fox, dodging and weaving through threads of molten conversation between traffic snarls with the evening’s guest of honor. I only wanted to ferret out what had actually happened up there on Cossala’s stage, what was said or left unspoken, why her joyful basking had so suddenly turned to quaking earshot eruptions of smoke and ash. Don’t even want to talk about it, Syd bristled, as we coasted over the Green Street hump through Union Street’s intersection. She scraped tearful hydrocarbons and street grime off her contacts, dipping them in a tiny plastic lens bath atop her opened glovebox door, cursing at the mirror image on the shotgun side sun visor. Come Lombard Street, she slammed both to an A.M. tune, namely ‘Gold Dust Woman’s Make you break down, shatter your illusions of love—pick up the pieces and go home’ –before steaming, “get me back to my place fast as you can.”

So we couldn’t hit Chestnut Street soon enough, at least without banging into her building’s Genied, Roll-A-Door garage, the Jilters’s ‘Around the Bender’ now blaring from the dashboard tape player/radio. From there in, I did all the tight turning, the gas tapping and brake pumping, the angling and straightening required to maneuver between and around all the wooden pillars and posts supporting these stucco soft-story, Marina bandboxes.

“And watch out! Whatever you do, don’t sideswipe Roz Dorfman’s car,” Syd pointed at an orange AMC Pacer tucked between the garbage chute and a 4×4 load-bearing redwood beam. “She’s my best new neighbor, stenos in the Board of Supervisors’ chambers, right outside Harvey Milk’s office, for criminy…”

“Gotcha, I’m easing on in with some room to spare,” I toed the accelerator ever so slightly as ‘Around the Bender’ faded on her Audi’s radio, the KYA jock back announcing/I.D.ing a set of Nick Lowe’s ‘Cruel to Be Kind and this last, oddly timed rocker hit. “What’s supervisors?”

“City Hall, noodnik…wait, the Jilters, isn’t that one of Josh’s bands,” she asked, car alarm set, new Coach bag and car keys grabbed, forcefully guiding me upwards of the lobby stairs. “Speaking of which, where’s that package of his?”

“Still working on it. I’ll have it for you any time now…” I followed dutifully, for I’d just anal retentively added her extra key to my rawhide band, ostensibly for safe keeping.

“He called me from L.A., you know,” she said over her shoulder at the first landing. “Told me it’s gotten important that I dig it up, super important, and let him know ASAP.”

“Well, it has to be in my car somewhere…”

Was fortunate to barely miss a bend in the garbage chute, given that Syd so spontaneously erupted into a synopsis of how she had recently moved her studio after the Art Institute had reclaimed Athren Guildersol’s space, then convinced her current landlord to let her remake an overhoarded rear garage storeroom at nominal monthly cost. Live/work—that was current thinking in The City’s realty circles, and as usual she was brushstrokes ahead of the curve. Two stiff flights of thick, floral-runnered stairs, along with a pitch-by-pitch recounting of her negotiating tactics, and we were keying double tumblers into her apartment: she rebounding, me frazzled and still thoroughly confused.

“That raunchy old Volvo,” she snickered, not without a degree of careworn concern. “Where is your clunker, anyway?”

“Oh, not so far from here,” I said, dodging among other things a clawfoot coat rack crammed with red and yellow slickers, rain hats and long, hook-neck bumbershoots, gathering nothing but dust these relentlessly dry days. “That’s why I was able to walk on over to meet you here.”

“You’re not sleeping in that wreck, are you?”

“I’m not sleeping in it,” I huffed. Tossing and thrashing, maybe, but certainly not sleeping.

“Wherever, I can just picture what kind of neighbors you must have these days. You really must upgrade the sort of…people you associate with could be that park killer, for all I know. You’re smarter than that, aren’t you? So just find me that box from Josh.”

“Yeah, well, then think I’d better split,” I glanced about, out Foxed—realizing she’d taken possession of my keys in the car. “It’s getting late and I’m about ready to crash…”     Syd's new apartment

“Which parking lot tonight, Kenneth?”

“No, hey, I…damn, screw you,”

“What do you have in mind,” she asked coyly, digging through her ample, gold buckled bucket bag. “Just stay a while, I don’t want to be alone right now…”

Sydney’s place now looked even fresher than before, with a new overstuffed sofa and coffee table—basic Ethan Allen with a designer flair and scattered Crate & Barrel embellishments—fitting even more nicely with her latest stage of creative evolution than when I’d been booted out the time before. Overall, the composition seemed right, the tone and texture—it just read well: Dolled up walk-up studio, retro-mode Murphy bed with a salmon shaded comforter, wicker nightlamp hanging overhead, casting a soft ivory canopy glow over her nearly queen-size throne.

And woodwork—lots of re-stained redwood grain—the Murphy headboard, her closet doors, all the way around her baseboards, framing the right bathroom door through to the kitchen nook, even that cute little hutch now positively overrun with her colorful menagerie of oogly ceramic creatures and creamers. Two-and-a-half rooms, mucho sunlight, brightly repainted kitchen cabinetry with built-in ironing board and that convenient garbage chute: Not bad for an ambitious single gal nursing her neurotic mood swings and feeding her creative urges. Then again, there were all the added family photographs.

“If you don’t mind, I’ve had my fill of what you want or don’t want for one evening,” I muttered, looking away at those walnut framed glossies as best I could.

“Honestly, Kenneth, just make yourself comfy a second,” she smiled, pointing toward a deep seated wingback armchair over near the foot of her unfolded Murph, beside a small, cluttered writing desk. “Like what I’ve done with the place lately? Just move those sweaters, I’ve got to check my answering machine.”

“Nuke that damn machine,” I muttered, as she ducked into a large walk-in closet behind her bedframe casing.

“Say again?” she shouted out, clicking through some Code-A-Phone messages.

“Uh, nothing, lots more closet space now, huh?” I dropped half the multi-hued cashmere stack. “I mean, for your humongous wardrobe—not hanging from the rafters like in your old place…”

“That from a guy whose closet is probably the back seat of his car,” she cracked, having pushed forward on one of her Dolby CrO2metal cassette mix-tapes. “But ah, yes, good ol’ Edie’s place aeons ago… how about I make us some coffee?”

“No, really, I best mosey on along,” I said, particularly avoiding the full frontal family portraiture prints, while admittedly sneaking Faithful glances at her au naturel young mom.

“Relax, toots, what’s the big rush,” Syd re-emerged from the kitchen with a stoneware plate of wheat crackers and cheese, mainly Gouda and Gruyere, placing it beside me at the end of the bed. Drowning out the gurgle of her coffeemaker was the bouncy stereo sound of Karla Bonoff’s ‘I Can’t Hold On’.

I could but stare at her for several seconds, her sphinxish move, the green satin pillow she placed beneath her platter, then wonder where she had secreted my keys. “I dunno, what am I supposed to make of this, Syd? Just clue me in on what the hell’s going on?”

“Hmmm, that’s up to you, now isn’t it,” she said in passing. “Here, dig in, antidote to the Chocolate Decadence. I’ll fix us the coffee…creamer?”

“Which one, the Truckee cow or Salt Lake City’s,” I asked into her kitchen. Panning after her, my eye was tripped up by a newly mounted photograph on the opposing family wall. It looked to be a Mendel table gathering at a Seder or something, Moon and then hubby Lester smiling widely in the frame.

“Your call, my latest faves are from the Bel-Air in La-La Land and Chicago’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel,” she said, meeting me in the kitchen doorway with a small Tosca tray and two earthenware critter cups from some crafts barn sale up by Dogwood.

“Nix on the latter, already been that route,” I grabbed mine by the curlicued tail handle, flashing on Studs, Michigan Avenue and FBC. The worrisome spectre snapped to mind again that Syd was still intent on keeping me hornswoggled out here while her family effectively worked their wayward daughter-in-law back into the Midwest fold…maybe getting to be time to be making that call… “Sugar, too…”

“Sugar, sure enough, tell me about it…” She maneuvered her way dead center onto the Murph, setting aside the coffee tray to don a tassle-trimmed pink afghan.

“No, you tell me all about it, Syd,” I rather took safe place in that armchair at the foot of her bed, gripping tightly on the mug. “I mean, one minute your chin’s dragging down to your kneecaps, next minute you’re making like Wonderwoman, flying around the room…”

“Haven’t the vaguest what you’re talking about,” she sipped, the overhanging ivory light glowing aura-like about her afghaned head and yoga toned shoulders, that sappy Bonoff cut, ‘If He’s Ever Near’ tracking in, real piano spooky like.

“And then there was that yo-yo act at your party,” I stirred away. “Melting down at the podium with that pompous Laine guy, what was that up there?”

“No big thing, Kenneth, she nibbled at a Wheat Thin. “Just let it be…”

“What am I doing here, talking to the walls?!” At first gulp, I singed the hell out of my upper lip.

Otherwise, her walls said quite a lot now. About Sydney, the new Sydney and her work—which at this point was essentially her life. She’d matted and framed an array of her Art Institute studio efforts on each remaining surface, straight and true to her priorities. There hung her paintings, and the sketches leading to her paintings, and thumbnail paintings of the sketches themselves; tracing paper sketches of her doing the sketches and paintings, and photographs of her rough sketching the sketches and her paintings. Then there were exploratory montages of Mondrian, Rastadada, Cubist, Picasso-esque stylings, impressionistic collages of Matisse, Manet and Duchamp—all neatly counterpoised with the sketches and paintings themselves, contrapositioned with that familial wall of fame, young Faith there still pretty as a Petty girl.

“I said, I don’t want to talk about that,” Syd bristled, back sternly against the Murphy’s headboard. She set aside her bovine cup and folded her legs underneath her, resipping amid a more personal collection of little ceramic bulls and heifers on a consoled walnut shelf directly above and beside the bed casing.

“C’mon, what did he say to you? You totally wilted up on that stage…” I myself was heating up under the button-down collar, noticing a hardcover copy of Belva Plain’s ‘Evergreen’ littered with page markers.

“Back off, Kenneth,” she warned, then caught herself mid scream, breaking into a soothing little smile, the ivory bulb undershadowed her smoothly angled cheekbones, highlighting her spheral hair as if Avedon had constructed the pose. “Why not let’s forget about that—it’s really not your problem.”

“Hell it’s not,” I felt the makings of a caffeine rebound. “I busted hump to help you land that damn commission—then no mention, nada. But Laine baby, he’s your salvation, your divine inspiration!”

“Oh, grow up,” she stiffened again, as if concerned this wasn’t sticking to the script, either. “It was the bank’s ceremony, what did you expect me to say?”

“Don’t ask me,” I averted, her life’s work staring me down from every angle. “It was ultimately your gig. I just thought we were, you know, pulling together on this thing, like we talked about at Little Lucchio’s…”

“What? Like you wanted joint credit or something?  You going to help me paint ‘Bridge to Everywhere’ too?  That what you’re fixing to do?!”

“Christ, no, but you can’t tell me Daryll Loupon had any more to do with it than I did. Not even word one. I just thought we had an…understanding.

“It’s the game, Kenneth, the game!  Oy, you’re so godawful dense sometimes. Laine Blakely made the winning decision, Daryll linked me with him in the first place—simple as that.”

“So you were gaming me all along, too? Using is one thing, Syd, abusing something else altogether…” Cuing into the background was ‘Songs in the Key of Life’, namely Little Stevie’s ‘Wishing’ back to an earlier, more innocent time.

“Yeesh, you’re so sensitive, I can’t believe it,” she huffed, rolling several cheese cubes around in her palm. “That proposal thing was business, art is business, get with the program, will you? Not that I don’t see your help as a personal favor, of course.”

“Sure, but strictly business at heart, and maybe that’s the problem—your whole life’s turned into one big board game.”

“Oh, please. Even if it has, and it hasn’t, it’s my life. So what’s it to you, I mean really?”

“Hey, good for you. I just think I’m coming down in the loser’s column, here…” Wonderful, great time for ‘Knocks Me Off My Feet’ to be tracking in.

“You’re whining again, Kenneth. I hate it when you whine…”

“Bullshit, maybe it’s this city, making you cold and conniving.”