Chapter 63

“Feeding one’s neuroses
can end up fueling
another’s psychoses.”

          “OK, people, let’s roll…”

          “And make sure to keep on the yellow line.”

          “Don’t hafta tell me ’bout followin’ no line…”

          Cat-night sweats went, talkin’ out the walk, mornings came on panther feet. But what I couldn’t seem to shake was gnawing, deep-pitted hunger—a craving for anything beyond pretzel samples and pass-around peanut bars, much less whatever Coleman stovetop surprises Sherry might have left over. There always seemed to be enough out-of-pocket change for a snack stand coffee buzz, though precious little for anything of nutritional consequence.

          More broadly, Aquatic Park had settled into a familiar San Francisco summer pattern of nights and morning fog, even in this severe drought year—local tan lizards catching the midday rays, under-dressed tourists freezing all day long. I wasn’t getting very far with the balky Volvo, but Eric maintained he was making mechanical headway with his Porsches, working up a mighty appetite in and under the rear, air-cooled hoods. Before long, we straddled his remaining two Porsches over three parking spots, and left Bruno dozing like a dog possessed in the white 912. I attitudinally downshifted into his red bomb on something of a lunch hunch with caution flags flying, and we ended up in this pit stop down here.

          “Takin’ ten, best have your cards ready, folks.”

          “Allow me. I’m carryin’ Diner’s Club.”

          “Yur carryin’ sumpin’, alright…”

          Better than it looked, Eric said, once we capped a return trip to the Tenderloin with a bumper tight parking spot near Turk Street and Hyde, not far from the Y Hotel. I wasn’t sure whether he meant the wheels, journey or the destination, but it couldn’t have been where a cautionary walk took us in short order. That was to a crabby sidewalk queue on Eddy Street, feeding into the doorway of a converted garage.   St. Zita’s Mission was a poor cousin to the far more crowded St. Anthony’s Dining Hall, and nowhere near the spiritual and gastronomical deliverance of Tinus Thrall’s. Still, this eponymous shrine to the patron saint of servants was a quicker, more facile in and out burger, with fewer sermons administered or questions asked, however greasier its skids.

          The sole price of admission was a free monthly lunchtime card, punched meal by meal, ostensibly non transferable upon registration, allowing for one guest per visit. These serial number stamped passes were calculated to qualify the charity operation for a lifeline of public sector grants and write-off donations, based upon foot and mouth volume. Even though the mimeoed meal tickets were traded and trafficked on the outside like SSI or INS green cards. Some of the mission’s clientele were simply in no mood nor capacity to sign anything, let alone a bare-bones questionnaire for their meal or reload ‘chip’ allotment—particularly some of the more grating unwashed around us. Yet that didn’t seem to cow Eric any; couldn’t say the same for his guest.

          “Listen up, we’ll take ten more,” bellowed a gatekeeper, working his frayed rope line. St. Zita’s staff and volunteers had this routine nailed, having been at their down-and-out serve and salvation business since just after WWII. “Douse your butts. Booze and dope stay outside. That goes for everybody.”

          “Hurry up and wait, worsin’ the damn army…” Spit a dipping, field-jacketed outlier immediately ahead of us, Klamath refugee from the tree hugger-lumber mill wars.

          “Yah, every swingin’ dick on the piss yellow lines,” said his transient sidekick, down from Weed, grizzly as Shasta’s peaks, stuffing a Mendocino roach between his ripped REI wool sock and right Wolverine.

          ‘There’s Nothing Like a Grateful Dead Concert’: That little maxim was silkscreened across the black windbreaker of a head directly behind me, which was likely transformative the first night he wore it to Winterland, especially under purple day-glo lights. But now it just looked slept in, barfed on, dead to the closing number and encore.

          Yet he was still up there, trippin’ in the balcony, sailing roses to Weir and Lesh as they snorted between ‘Cosmic Charlie’ and ‘Casey Jones’—scrounging coins and bottle caps for if and when the band came down from Marin’s mountaintops to replay nuggets from their MotherTruckin’ vault and reline their satin-patched jeans. Took a back slap from the Grim Reaper T-shirted swillpot over his shoulder to move him as the line resumed snailing along. St. Zita line

          Beyond that, the whole cue was pretty, watchamacallit, grimy. Yeah, grime encrusting the sidewalk, transuding from the pores and coarse, stenchy threads of the entire procession.

          Bodily filth leached through stained denim and canvas, raw excretions oozed from frayed wool and nylon like acid rain through a shithouse roof. Even pigeons passed this stretch of Tenderloin by. St. Zita’s drew the infirm, urchins, bent, stooped, hooked, lost and generally desperate when more sanctified sanctuaries drew their blinds. But at least Eric and I had finally wormed our reeking way up toward pole position, a bit more upwind from the seamy pits and breaking wind—save for our own.

          “Hey, keep it close to the wall there, and no shoving,” ordered the doorkeeper, directing the wait line between yellow retaining gate railings and a row of overflowing garbage cans. “There’s enough for yas all.”

           “And make sure you folks double-check the schedule for designated treat times, hear? Adult men, A through H—2:30. I through P—3:25, Q through Z—4:20…”

          “What’s that, dessert?”

          “No, de-lousing…”

          For gritty, harder core, more unappetizing clients, St. Zita’s did offer the proverbial shit/shower/shave, not that their disinfecta was evidenced by the ambience overall. Still, the mission was all about bleeding hearts, Catholics knowing their charities, apostles of lost causes and tortured souls, plus a square-deal soup shed that served one of the fattest no-frills feedbags west of Hell’s Kitchen. To the famished downtrodden, it could be gastritic godsend; to the constitutionally unchristened, a no-strings, judgment-free sacristy. Then there were denial dolts like me, who couldn’t fathom how or why they had gotten themselves so deeply down-market over here.

          “Tighten up that line, people. Gotta keep the fire lane clear, and room for those comin’ out,” the doorkeep shouted, directing foot traffic, then waving our way. “C’mon, let’s move it—you two make ten…”

          “Trust me, it’s a real good deal,” Eric said, as we slipped in toward the former garage’s parking ramp. “If they ask, you’re my guest…”

          “Think I’d come here on my own?” I asked, looking back fore and aft. No Han Loon or Little Lucchio’s line here; I could only think, what would Moon, let alone Syd make of my current game plan and …trajectory, about a dead cat bounce like this?

          “Just stay close,” he nudged me ahead. “I got a system figured out.”

          “Am just casually observing, really,” I hedged, peering into the down ramp shadows. “Along for  curiosity sake, a little field study, might not stay at all…”

          “You come this far, you’ll stay,” Eric insisted, game facing some belching, full-bodied regulars making for the exit. “Once you’re in, you’re in.”

          “Even so, don’t expect to be eating…”

          “You’ll eat.”

          Stomach churning, I held tightly to the yellow railing as we shuffled down St. Zita’s concrete ramp, dank and distasteful as its steel-meshed entranceway was, even on such a clear, sunny day. I stayed a wary step or two behind Eric, who evidently knew his way around this operation. Was a time I’d have driven by, oblivious to a lost-cause asylum so far gone; now I came across as just another head of cattle prodded toward the graze. Kept mumbling that it was your own damn fault, dimwit—for walking such a tortured saturnine line, being so candy-ass comatose in between. Yet just when my thoughts turned darkest, the dim, damp ramp opened to one fluorescent blaze.

          Greeting us at ramp’s end stood two celestial blue-vested monitors checking ZitaCards and dispensing sloppy-seconds ‘chip’ tokens, strictly one per wino, wastre or ward. Along a cinderblock wall behind them was a chain of saintly kernels, framed like Stations of the Cross. The nearest courtesy of St. Francis of Assisi: ‘Grant that I may seek so much to be consoled as console…’.

          “So follow me, act like you know what you’re doing,” he said, having convinced the monitors we were inseparable as they punched his meal card and dealt us two chips.

          “Bit of a stretch, from the looks of it…”

          The room’s drooling chowhounds sat wrapped in their soiled street clothes, oily flammable polyester and layered rags—parcel twine belted, seams bursting for release. Sopping pits, sores draining, butts cracking, gums aching, kidneys failing, ulcers bleeding, suffering scaly scurvy, they sat steaming, boiling up, hunched over their lunch trays, slurping, forking around, spooning through the daily special.

          “Check it out,” Eric gestured, scoping out the serve line. “That’s where we make our move…”

          “On second thought, think I’m going to pass. ” By now, time for a grateful exit, an honorable discharge and Purple Heart, although curiosity did make me wonder what Eric saw in the place besides the tariff. “It’s SRO to the gills down here, and that line’s no end…”

          “C’mon, I know what I’m doing,” he beckoned me toward mid-room aisle. “And I’m working up a monster appetite. Just stay close, and vise grip your chip…”

          “You actually think I’ll want seconds?” I asked, inhaling the beer breath, nicotine residue, running pustules, abscessed bullas, fistula and carbuncles, zoorific bodily odors, row upon row—all rarefied under piercing, hard-white bulbs.

          “Who knows? But I’ll bet you’d go for a quicker route to some firsts,” Eric beckoned me slowly forward in sotto voce, fishing far into his pockets. “See, I heard out about how these little chips are more valuable than they look. Cause if you don’t use them for a second helping, like ten times, there’s this weird city human outreach office that will exchange them for a grocery voucher, to reward you for trying to help yourself positively and not overtaxing a vital public service. Turns out those $10 vouchers can be redeemable at most food stores, even corner package joints, no strings attached. It’s like turning in pop bottles without the heavy lifting…most of these stiffs use them for booze and smokes.”

          “Ten doses of this? Fat chance…and you’re trying to tell me city hall would put up with a scam like that, let alone the mission itself?”

          “You don’t get it—nobody checks, nobody cares, everybody gets paid on head count and repeat traffic. That’s how the system works. Yep, good ol’ Mayor Macaroni—this a great town, or what?”

          “Right, everybody’s favorite,” I said, breathing heavily, holding same.

          “But the beauty of the deal is what I came across over by Civic Center one day. Somebody had made up a bunch of fake St. Zita chips—total ringers, shit, who has the time to do that? Anyhow, found a bag of them in the Doggie Diner parking lot, so watch and learn…”

          Once in, the wait line snaked around St. Zita’s dining hall like an elongated paper dragon at a rainy Chinatown New Year’s parade. It seemed as though the queue was closing in, drawing up in tight guttoral grunts and growls from behind. I could hear them, feel them, brushing up against me as we shuffled forth, wheez-chested heavy breathing down my flannel collar. Sweat-through shirts and sweaters, chronically pissed-through pants—the sour stench seeped deep into my sinuses. Wrapping my palm up over nose and mouth, my breath was compost; a nosedive into my pits tested positively offensive, nearly as gamy as all this.

          These drifters, shoeless vagrants—discarded, some gangrenously dismembered—were largely mendecant to a man, derelict of demeanor, stripped of dignity or pride. Scraggly and tread marked, they were trying to dissemble their delusions under greasy thickets of gnomish brambled hair. Droopy, somnambulistic depth charges brooded beneath grimy ski knit or orange and black baseball caps, their sorry addictive stories betrayed, veiny-cheeked, sun-splotched faces down to toe-curled, heelworn, newspaper-lined oversized shoes. Really, identity crisis: how could the male of my species get this way—then again, how could I? 

          Winding, grinding slowly forward, a flank of famished, busted, seeping loners reeked of stale alcohol, vomit and despair. Mental casehardened varmints conned and schemed in venomous packs as if they had plans, some legit possibilities left between those dirt plugged ears. Stooped, crippled codgers with scabbed-over liver spots grilled themselves through cracked lips and shifting, downcast eyes.

          I could fathom coots like these, their bulb-snoot noses, cleft-stubbled chins and sagging wheelchairs. It was the younger ones, the gaunt, blood-eyed bastards who rattled me—at the volatile peak of their physical powers, still capable of doing damage—yet servile to some saltpeter Catholic charity like this. Ragged, frayed, unglued and tattooed, with textbook facial ticks and nervous disorders, clawing grass, stashes, lice and god-knew-what out of every crevice or cavity, they looked bent on working any angle.

          Then again, it was pretty tough to sympathize and condescend when you’re descending your own self. And why the hell did it seem they were all staring my way, fixin’ to get all up in my face—me here, stomach growling something fierce. That was about when Eric grasped my arm with blindside authority, leading us up past a roomful of lengths and bends, near the front of the food queue. There, he popped out a half-dozen of his bogus chips, offered them up, fore and aft, the lunch line parting, left-behinds too depressingly hollow-hunger weak and insentient to note much or care.

          “Say, where you goin’, boy?” Except one, a big, bearded one, at that. Must have stood six-foot six, his house mover’s upper body stampeding out of a burgundy STP tee shirt, grabbing Eric by the shoulder, jacking him up like an inside linebacker a scatback between the tackles.

          “No, wait, they’ve just been holding our place,” Eric gasped, scrunched at the collar, checking off me and the two stiffs behind us.

          “Pull that again, and you’re eating those chips, got it,” growled the grubby lineforcer, moving in one step ahead of us.

          “Not a problem, just a little misunderstanding, right,” Eric stammered, visibly flustered, straightening his fleeced denim jacket from the neck down, then passing back a last few chips to the waiting palms. “Much obliged guys…”

          “You all right? Working up a powerful appetite, huh,” I squirmed, handing him my valid chip as I kept two cautious steps away from the bruiser straight ahead. In any case, it was unclear to me whether Eric’s chippy little scam rang true, made any sense in the first place, or if it wasn’t the scheme so much as the source. Meaning, I had to wonder even more what the hell he’d gotten me into down here.

          “I need a smoke,” Eric heaved, apparently caught unawares by the backfire.

          “Yo, move it along…” Grateful as he was for the bonus chips, the crackpot once removed poked us to step up toward St. Zita’s serve counter, which was suddenly gathering steam. We made a final turn along a tubular metal tray railing, facing the unsavory reality of the lunch hour fare. I grasped a Formica tray despite myself, eyes burning, nasal passages clogged with bodily decay. My stomach somersaulted with the prospect of wolfing down whatever staffers were ladling out of their stainless steel bins and buckets.

          Yet I kept the chow line shuffling forward, aching instead for past S.O.S. helpings of army shit on a shingle, anything besides what was piling up behind those glass sneeze shields, apparently to Eric’s lip-smacking delight. Not that I could actually make out what everyday factotums and elder volunteers were commixing, but the nearest vats seemed filled with vegetables from food banks or Zita’s Sonoma farm, and a lumpy, bubbling sauce. On a kitchen wall behind the servers were mounted photos of guest helpers, from Mayors Alioto and Moscone to Families Dog and Dead to recent Giants ballplayers like Darrell Evans, Vida and Johnnie LeMaster—all of which faded behind a thickening smoky steam. We inched closer to the main entrée, pans of somewhere between turkey cacciatore and chicken fricassee, something starchy filling and fowl.

          “Come closer, where we can serve you,” said one smock-stained attendant, a name tag IDing him as a retired carpenter for hire. “Want I should sling this stuff, or what?”

          “No, let me,” I slid further along the railing as Eric proceeded to the coffee urns, hoisting my stamped cafeteria style tray for several slapdash dollops of the day’s special, a scoop of veggies and slice of white Wonder bread, delivered via scabbed and nail scarred hands. “Easy on the…meat…”

          “Fine by me, we got half the city to feed here today,” the server coughed, heat lamps above him filling with a steam thickening more and more into smoke. “With this hotdamn ventilation yet and the fans broke down…”

          “It always like this,” I asked him, as I moved toward the water and coffee urns.

          “Don’t know, city inspector was here just yesterday, signed off on the place. Even ate himself up a trayful of our pork and hominy stew…”

          “That ain’t all he filled up on,” cracked the volunteer sauce ladler next to him, waving away more smoke. “Left a whole lot heavier in the wallet…scammin just like the lot em around City Hall.”

          Curiously enough, the mere aroma from my food tray rallied me some, like an organic B-12 shot in the alimentary canal. St. Zita’s ambience seemed boosted, as well, with pastoral Napa-Sonoma watercolors covering the hall’s surgical scrub-blue walls, sprays of plastic flowers between the cheery murals—green hills flush with vineyards and Holsteins—visions of cleaner living for men who cotton to the agrarian life. Even feastly balloons and lowly piped-in choir muzak subtly lent spiritual buoyancy to the dissolute gathered, slender threads of divine redemption that nonetheless were commonly ignored.

          Trailing Eric as we cast about for empty seating, I noted little mealtime banter, few spirited debates or rejoinders, much less sermonizing or rejoicing at all. Row upon row, the hunched over lunch crowd was busy bolting as much of the mystery mush as they could in one sitting. Any hesitation only meant poaching one tray over, even before lining up their chips for more. To a man, they appeared fearful of the prospect that hoarded bread and white cake might crumble out of their every pocket. Mutt bags of everything else slipped and dripped inside twine-knotted shirts and jackets like there was no tomorrow down here.  St. Zita Dining Room

          I could see ennui and/or terror in their pocked, tick-flinching faces and backwoods beards—the faces of old-age desperation and regressive, overgrown striplings, amid cascading belches and synchronous farts. After gorging, slopping and chomping through brown, broken teeth, their momentarily sated stares turned merely vacant, as though each and every codger, mook and manchild were the only person in the room. They were here, but weren’t here—nobody was here—yeah, got it, mind over mendacity, block this place out, bolt this gruel down. Disassociate, disassociate—I know you are, but what am I? Keep a safe, sterile distance and studiously wish it all away. 

          “Hey, Mr. Chips,” said that house mover, closing in over Eric’s shoulder. “You got more a them?”

          “Me? Naw, flat out,” Eric shuddered, staring straight into his lunch, straining to keep it down.

          “Better be talkin’ straight, butthole,” he lightly slapped the back of Eric’s head, grabbed our white bread irrespectively, then turned to prowl over toward his tray, two benches away. “Or next time, you’ll be eating your phony chips.”

          “Gotta have me a cigarette,” Eric exhaled, surrendering corroded flatware to his food tray, reaching into his denim jacket for half a pack.

          “Uh, Eric, I don’t think you can light up in here,” I urged, resigned to spooning down another heap of fricassee—utterly, almost thankfully yielding to the pangs and growls, for it really wasn’t all that bad. “C’mon let’s just eat up and split…”

          Nevertheless, he lit up a Lucky short right on the spot, just when our attention was seized by a pop-up lay preacher one row to our right, apparently a bit too full of carbohydrates, coffee and no doubt himself. Then aarrewww, aaaarrrewwww… What happened moments later was all the harder to swallow, the timing of which left my head spinning, lungs clogging, my stomach crying foul. Before the elderly apostle could sit back down to his sliced angel food, alarms began screeching, smoke detectors beeping, St. Zita monitors ordering everyone to immediately vacate the dining room due to a kitchen grease fire and complete stopping up of the exhaust vents. A resulting cloud threatened to engulf the entire basement facility, with an overhead sprinkler system cocked to flood it at any moment. Aarrewww, aaarreww, aaaarrrewwww…

          Row by row, the lunch crowd was ushered out of St. Zita’s, directed to leave potentially contaminated food trays behind. All these scowling borderline guys, with their sapped, south of the border acuity, ramping up like bulls at the chase. This downtrodden carnavale of killer carnivores—the 5150s, 6160s, Section 8s, the Deep Springs dropouts, runaway felons and clearly certifiable among them, limped and lumbered to higher ground, drooping pear faces lathered with sauce and butter and stringbean marinade, tired eyes ringent with dire hunger unabated and untethered caffeine confusion, with no place else to go—Eric and me no less panicky mid herd.

          Scared shitless, sweating just as grossly, I parted company with Eric at ramp’s end—no telling what was scalding his pot by now. I just wanted separation, up and out, heading half starved along Eddy Street, while he remained to mill about St. Zita’s entrance, now coolly trolling for unused refill chips, settling for another smoke.

          Yet the sweep of more blaring red trucks from S.F.F.D.’s nearby headquarters on Golden Gate Avenue soon drew my frustrated glance above them to a rooftop at Leavenworth Street. Just what I needed to cleanse the palate: A fresh billboard, hot young couple toasting against a Mazatlan sunset, the headline reading, ‘Making Out Like a…’, its slickly graphic logo, Bandito Tequila.

           Hadn’t a clue where Eric was going from here, but I was another story by now…

Care for more?

 Chapter 64. Increasing hunger stirs 
food for manic thought, up to the 
point of mainlining away, with a 
little boost from Uncle Andy…

“Women can be a drag,
draining the brain pan—
setting it all afire.”

          “We gave our power away—placed it on a silver serving tray…”

          “How do you mean that, Corrine, figuratively or…”

          “Oh, no—most literally. First we pass it through our father-daughter bond. Then to our teachers. We juggle it like a hot rock until we can no longer bear the pressure. Then, bingo, we toss it to the men in our lives, for better or worse…too often, the latter.”

          “Fascinating, really fascinating, Corrine. Now…”

          “Frank, what I’m telling the women of America in my new book is this: Hey, we’re closing in on the 80s, and here you are still shackled to your Betty Crocker myths and delusions. That you must remain submissive, that you have no personal identity or worth. That domestic slavery, stifling relationships—yes, even hard physical abuse are better than facing yourselves and your aspirations on your own two feet. Wake up, sisters, that glass slipper is cutting off your circulation. The time to chuck it is now—smash it right against those walls around your soul and potential. Cast off the glass slippers for wings on your beautiful feet!”

          “You know it, Corrine!”  Women in crowd applauded.

          “Power to sheople, sister, right on!!!”

          “Naw, make that a leather boot up your butt, sister!”

         Not so lucky charm-wise: I’d come up frightfully empty once more—amid shadowy figures with mad intentions—hence back here again I was. A few more days had passed, and I was still in some kind of a fog—then there was the long holiday weekend. By default, I had gradually retreated to the Volvo and Aquatic Park for a spell—in and out, ’round and about, late wanderings still in play—fault lines spreading like stress cracks across window glass. Thankfully, re-parking remained tenable, skies had cleared here some, the sun warming me head to toe—at least until late day, July the 4th. Gray-white soup began snaking through the Golden Gate toward sunset, cold cocking the Bay from Raccoon Strait to the Meiggs Wharf breakwaters directly before us. The untimely fog never touched Sausalito, steered clear of The City itself until just past dusk, but slyly blanketed the Bay about a quarter hour before show time. So anti-American, in a micro-climatological sort of way…

          This was when the fireworks began, not that it made much difference to the waterfront’s gathered masses. Because downtown movers and shakers had moved the rocket and pinwheel launchers out by Alcatraz Island in an effort to allay those short-fused switchboards at the Noise Pollution Resistance Task Force. How were they to know that mid-bay fog would squelch everything: the noise, the toxins, the fire—the works? It only happened most July 4th holidays, shivering locals were heard to complain. Nonetheless, easily half the city poured out to Bay’s edge for politico declarations and a pyro-extravaganza.

          It was clearly a brilliant tactical move, this night sky celebration of independence radiating from a prison turned Indian stronghold turned tourist trap out there. The whole day was just sunny enough for the hordes lugging beer coolers without working up a sweat. Eric had even sponge washed his red, white and metallic blue German imports. Then that fog crashed the party, dousing the rocket’s red glare. Booming explosions were buffeted to earmuffled belches; splashy Comet Palms, flashy blue Salutes, tubular Fancakes, Horsetail Waterfalls and split-star Crossettes reduced to smoke screened fizzles of color, the gathered faithful reacting in kind, giving themselves a celebratory listen to the fireworks show. But that only led to the muddled here and now.

          “See folks? That’s exactly…talk about male chauvinist oppression!”

          “Yeah, well sit on this and spin, you dyke slut!”

          “Shhh, hey cool it, will you,” I mumbled. “This is going out live…”

          “Psst, Wes—bring up the band, fast,” said the onstage host, cue cards in one hand, Corrine’s hardcover book in the other, before turning back to the cameras and assembled audience. “So there you are, ladies, and all you modern thinking gents tuning in. We’re going to take a short break for these important messages. But we’ll be right back from trend-setting San Francisco with Ms. Corrine Comstock, and more of her runaway best-seller, ‘Conquering the Cinderella Complex’. Don’t touch that dial… ”

          “Right on, drown that feminag flat out!”

          “So sorry about this, Corrine. Like they always say, beware the hazards of a live remote,” Frank wheedled, trying to calm her, off camera and mike. “Wes, usher that lunatic away from the stage, will you please?!”

          They appeared to have it all covered, this network bunch: The San Francisco remote broadcast, direct from Aquatic Park with Alcatraz as a backdrop, and the most provocative, screen-cool personalities The City had to offer. Local marquee heavies from Patty to Getty to Magnin to Moscone and Milk, Willie Mac to Willie Brown, not to mention Werner Erhard and a videotaped feed by an ascending spirit from Guyana, a sanctimonious, though slurring Reverend Jones. One by one, these Bay Area A-listers toasted show mugs of libations unknown and otherwise kissed up to Frank Monahan—he of NBS-TV’s popular ‘Mugging with Monahan’ afternoon program—who so adroitly put them at on-camera ease over the course of two days, three million celeb-starved housewives tuning in.

          Beachfront rayniacs said this raree show was generating more Aquatic Park hubbub than Goldie Hawn’s ‘Foul Play’ movie shoot or when that Bicentennial Freedom Train rolled in along the old Belt Line tracks two years back.  Aquatic Park, TV time

          Team-jacketed grips and gaffers up from L.A. had beached their porta-stage on the park’s promenade. Frank’s set was something of a makeshift shmoozer bar, facing the Maritime Museum’s concrete bleachers, so that over every padded raglan shoulder was a picture perfect Bay backdrop of heeling sailboats, renovated keel haulers and far-out fancy enclave, Belvedere. Mw/M’s video mages had spent full mornings positioning enough skrim reflectors, wind deflectors and metal detectors to forestall any potential disruption known to televised man.

          They fenced off host Monahan and his studio band, cordoned off camera and sound men, diverted Aquatic Cove swimmers and bought off a goodly portion of the assorted faithful ‘Muggers’ with apple cider samplers and middlin’ finger sandwiches. But when it came to the larger bleachers crowd, well this was tolerant, inclusive San Francisco—and who in Ft. Wayne or White Plains would know that Monahan’s vast studio audience was packed with groupies, shills, comps, plants and trade-outs, much less Aquatic Park’s lowest common denominator?

          Yet everything was jake so long as the swag and provisions held out. Moreover, the production crew had two truckloads of catered spread parked behind the bleachers on Beach Street, tucked between the humming power units and dressing/wardrobe vans. Applause signs and stage monitors kept all the glom-on audience lemmings pacified, along with free autographed copies of ‘Speaking Frankly With Monahan’, the host’s own memoirish monograph, each bearing a standard release form as bookmark, to be signed as needed. Show runners and stage managers even appeared to edit out any early-forming summer fog.

          It appeared that after nearly two days of fusty hacks, New Left headhunters and celebrated cigar-soaked hobnobs, a ballsy, bioenergetic feminist and her Cinderella complexes would level out the genderal waves like Aquatic Park’s curving Municipal Pier.  So why was Frank Monahan excoriating his make-up man, striking up his band; why were his director and stagehands pacing furiously about the set, cueing the audience to begin a ‘Let’s Get Frank’ chant as this live remote sent it to commercial break? The same reason staff security swooped down on the narrow blind crease we had just snuck in through with such idle, star-struck curiosity: edge of the bleachers, stage right—wherein Eric felt it necessary to reveal himself in no understated terms.

          “OK, pal—show’s over, let’s go…”

          No man, not with that ranting dyke still up there on the stage hawking her stupid-ass book,” he shouted, as the security drovers cowpoked us away.

          “For you two mutts, it’s over, get it?”  The larger of two crew herders reached past me, grabbing him more firmly by the shoulder while the other jammed a hardcover copy into his thorax. “Here, take Frank’s autographed book for your trouble…before we take you for a little swim.”

          “Uh, Eric, maybe we’d better…” I reached for his elbow to pull us out of this waxing cameo.

          “What a pile, man,” he shook me off, yet followed along toward the Maritime Museum, still calling out the unmoved security guards. “These stinkin’ fascists can’t…”

          Yet they did—ushered us right out of the picture, 86ed us clear away from the bleachers due west to the foredeck of the senior center. That was when the show band suddenly hit a crescendo and Frank Monahan took his last cigar puffs and fake-bake layer of Sun Glaze Matte #3 before grinning into camera number one. And Corrine resumed liberating the Cinderellas of America with a flourish of her pink-to-red covered book.

          “Hell with it, Eric, we can still catch most of the show from here,” I paused to tune back in my own self.

          “Think I wanna listen to any more of that feminazi crap?!”

          “C’mon, it’s just another half hour or so,” I sensed some of my latent huckster instincts setting in. “What’s with the spinning dyke stuff, anyway?”

          “She’s just another castrating bitch with her horny whore bullshit,” Eric spouted, instead stepping further down the promenade, chucking Frank’s book into a garbage can. “She’s just beggin’ for it, no lie. What she’s really after is the big hose, man—cryin’ out for the ol’ nozzle, up either end. That’s what her jive’s really about.”

          “Yeah, well,” I begged off, creating space, though mindful of his auto mechanical expertise in a pinch. “You go on ahead, okay? Gonna hang a bit, sort of check your theory out…”

          “Suit yourself, I’m truckin’ back to my cars,” he shrugged, then headed across Aquatic Park’s flower beds for his Porsche parade. “Get Bruno to hike a leg all over it…”

          I stayed deckside, marginally within earshot of Frank and Corrine, near enough to catch her loudspeakered railings against submissive domestic bondage and stifled sexuality. Whatever Eric’s misgivings about her Comstock load, they couldn’t have been my sentiments—not by a long shot, right? After all, weren’t these my mother’s laments, didn’t ambitious interruptus plague her until the moment she soared with the angels? And that ‘Fear of Flying’ thing—wasn’t that what kept Moon in her holding pattern all this time, no matter how much lint I picked? But even if so, how would that anti-Cinderella there explain the likes of Sydney Mendel?

          I sure as hell didn’t have any answers, and wasn’t buying Eric’s. It was enough just trying to keep up with Syd, let alone endeavoring to psyche that one out. In any case, Corrine had pretty much shilled her complex to death up there, and Frank Monahan was kissing her off, waving bye-bye to the women and househusbands of America, diaper and deodorant spots hot on his heels. His parting guest was being whisked off stage by her lady guardivas, Frank and his network honchos hustling around the emptying east bleachers to idling limousines.

          Before those black-windowed Lincolns could take leave, show roadies were shooing Aquatic Park rabble away from the leftover spread tables. Roadies were striking the set, packing up floods and rims; keys, dimmers and shiny boards, vanloads of video and sound gear. Gofers hosed the cider-sticky bleachers down with industrial grade Rinso. Through it all, Frank’s house band continued playing ‘San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate’ like tape-looped Muzak to the bitter finale.

sr dingbats

          The Gate itself was opening up to early evening as I finally went the way of Eric and our motorcars. Aquatic Park’s lagoon had turned lotion smooth behind the Municipal Pier breakwater, a hyperkinetic squadron of orange-capped swimmers resuming their laps across the cove with Dolphin Club territorial chips on their shoulders.

          I curved around the promenade past napping, old-man nude sunbathers and backbench romantics, reconvening winos fighting seagulls for their turf. Alcatraz was Midas now, its ‘main street’ cell block blazing like Athens’ acropolis before the golden age of hydrocarbons and particulates. A reddening sky refracted off outer Bay whitecaps, back up here to Fort Mason’s cliffside colonels’ quarters. Below them, Aquatic Park’s snack bar glowed with a checkerberry glaze; shame it has closed up so early, as Corrine’s pitch and Frank’s skimpy whets had stirred up a powerful hunger.

          “I knew it,” Sherry crowed, pulling in behind my Volvo just as I crossed over to unlock its driver door. “I knew by the time we got back to town you’d be crashing here again.”

          “Didn’t plan it exactly,” I opened the Volvo and rolled down its window to air out a staggeringly stale interior—one which had yet to yield a missing Josh in the box, no matter how deep I dove. “But I’m kinda beat…”

           “All leavin’ us in your dust for North Beach,” she grinned her way out of their Econoline. “You look plenty beat, all right, so what happened?”

          “Uh, maybe another time…” Just what I wanted to hear. My stomach was bilious as it was, and my head was revolting even more. How could I talk about it all? Would I even dare?! Inbound fishing boats signaled the onset of another chilblained night in a car that. Then there was Eric over there, sitting side-saddle in the runt of his German litter, Oly in hand, gagging like a maggot over his metallic blue Porsche’s dysfunction.

          “Oh, I get it—nowhere else to go, so you end up watching TV live,” she cracked, as I held my breath and squirmed in the driver’s seat, fishing about in my door pocket. “Daytime TV, no less!”

          “Sorry,” I nodded, reaching for that screwdriver, a quick carburetor tweak in mind. “Captive audience.”

          “Uh-huh, women’s daytime TV, yet.” She badgered, over a cup of Coleman stove heated noodles, poking her fork toward me as I jumped out to pop the Volvo’s hood.

          “Couldn’t beat the price of admission,” I muttered and reached in to tap the twin SU cowlings, jimmy jiggle the throttle linkage, like that would spring the four-banger to sustainable life. “I mean, that Comstock chick was almost…interesting—something about complex Cinderellas.”

          “Oh I get it, Corrine’s cashing in on the enslavement theory,” Sherry sighed, leaning in against my fender. She had a rugged, no-nonsense self-assurance about her; maybe it was the fullness of her frame in that XL Cornell sweatshirt and denim. “Won’t catch me in crystal slippers, who needs the self-help crutch? Except maybe guys like you and Crash Caravan over there.”

          “No, she was saying how women can be afraid to reach out, go for it on their own,” I recalled. “Guess a lot of what she said was pretty heavy on the sisterhood line, but some of it, well…I’ve known women like that, don’t even allow themselves a decent sneeze…”

          “Bought in, huh? Listen, lots of women do have their heads in a sling, and drag their men along for the roller-coaster ride,” Sherry said dismissively in her full sandblasted voice, leaning in against the front fender. She had a rugged, no-nonsense self-assurance about her. Maybe it was the fullness of her frame in that XL Cornell sweatshirt and denim. But not me, that’s not my trip—just ask Clifford.”

          “Wouldn’t want to impinge on his trance time.” I straightened up from the front fender, wiping my screwdriver with a red tool rag reduced to plugging one of the sedan’s firewall holes.

          Glancing over past Eric, I spotted Frank Monahan’s crew packing cameras, light stands, mixing consoles and nautical miles of audio/video cable into massive blue equipment cases. Even the band had folded their instruments and sheet music, roadies were loading up the set and stage, section by pre-fab section, returning Aquatic Park’s trashed bleachers and promenade to the muckers, pigeons and gulls.

          “Anyhow, dunno about Clifford,” I straightened up from the front fender, wiping my screwdriver with a red tool, then door pocketing the tool. “But she sure triggered something in Eric. He wigged out, almost heckled her off the stage, like Mr. Pig Personified.”

          “Eric’s not man enough to be a male chauvinist pig,” Sherry snapped, looking over at his ailing Porsches as though they were carnival bumper cars, trying to shoo Bruno off the sunroof of his white rig, fumbling with a full key ring as he pulled a perimeter sweep of his fleet.

           “Couldn’t say either way…” This, as Eric took to letting Bruno lick his three days’ growth from the roof of the white 912.

          “Hmph, I’ve had him pegged all along,” she twisted and turned her long pony tail. “My father’s a circuit court judge back in upstate New York, so I know a cheap felon when I see one. But the SF cops did too, sniffing around the Porsches earlier this morning, leaving him be…heard them saying they were already too busy looking into a string of park killings, even one the other night.”

          “They said that straight out did they?” I asked warily, having instead pegged her as a farm girl, recalling that even with Seamus, face licking was beyond the pale, especially after the Setter worked over his undercarriage. Yet here Eric came.

          “I just blew it off,” she sized my mind drift up and down. “But Clifford freaked out over all the cops and commotion, so we headed up to Point Reyes for a bit.”

          Screeeeech…“Up yours, Charlie,” Eric yelled, crossing right in front of a brake slamming station wagon. The pier-bound Japanese crab catcher’s eyes lit up like rising suns. Eric just squared off and waved a 24mm open end at him, while his dog hopped up all over the Datsun’s honking front end.

          “That’s exactly how he was at the TV show,” I gasped at the sight of him staring down the stunned driver, as Bruno growled like a rabid coyote. “Screaming at that Corrine person, a million people tuned in.”

          “With a little luck, that fisherman will run him over,” Sherry said, otherwise ignoring Eric’s harangue.

          “So just slow your ass down,” Eric eased off the driver with a wave of his Snap-On wrench, motioning Bruno over to the park shrubbery to take care of some business, steaming our way. “I heard you two talking about me, sure as  shit…”

          “You’d know all about shoveling it, now wouldn’t you,” she delivered a killer stare as Eric rested against my curbside fender. “You and your petty theft autos.”

           “Anytime you want to see my pink slips,” he grinned at her. “Damn sight better than yours.”

          “You’ve got nothing I care to see, believe me.” She looked like she was cocking to throw her noodle bowl upside his sun-peeled forehead.

          “Yeah? Well, up yours, your fat ass bitch…”

           “Uh, guys…” Darkness may have been setting in, but things weren’t getting any cooler. Sherry, I couldn’t quite figure, fem or foe. But damned if she didn’t tear after Eric like Bruno after some ground squirrels over by the Fort Mason wall. And damned even more if I hadn’t gotten myself directly between them, fender to fender.

           “Besides, I have seen you, Eric,” she screamed, arching back, breathing fire across my opened hood. “You and Bruno in your stupid cars—the way you molest that hound of yours.”

           “I’m gonna stuff her dog-ass grill!” But Eric wanted physical, wild-eyed physical.

           “Eric, wait,” I said, trying to stall them off without getting physical. “She’s a chick, for chrissake…”

          “Clifford, get out here and defend my honor before I kick the hell out of you both!”

          “Eric, brother,” Clifford said, from up through the pop-top, before pulling on  his tunic as he vaulted from the van. “Mellow out, okay—let’s work on that tension, relax it right out of your spine.”

          “Come any closer, wimpo, and I’ll break your spine,” Eric spat back, twice pounding my fender.

          “Uh, guys, please, easy on the car—it’s not much, but all I have,” I said. “And gotta go…”

          With that, I dropped hood, locked up, leaving the three of them and Bruno scowling and growling, but ultimately little else. Clifford in fact looked to be making some headway with his neo-Ghandian approach, seeming otherwise harmless. Indeed, from safe distance, namely from across the drive by a pair of public phone booths near the snack stand, their whole showdown smelled of Kabuki guerilla theater. Or that might just have been the odor of heads and entrails from this morning’s gutted longjaw mudsuckers and brown rockfish, rotting away atop a plastic milk crate around the bend.

          In any case, I needed an out from all the sniping, reason enough to make that follow-up call, couldn’t put it off any longer.

sr dingbats

          Hsssssst, pop… This is Sydney. I’m off to L.A. right now on a sudden trip heap big business. At the sound of the tone, leave me a message of any length, I’ll get back to you soon as I can. Oh, and if this is Kenneth Herbert, pick up a long note I left for you in a parcel box below my mail slot, would you please? Didn’t know how to reach you, where are you this time? Get a real place and phone—find my box and get to work on that proposal…” Crackle, beeep… CLICK.

          Actually, calling them phone booths was being generous to a falsehood. Out here, Ma Bell didn’t provide truly respectable wood-clad, pebble-paneled chambers for discreet personal exchanges. No, she offered bogus open-air aluminum listening posts, which left coin poppers like me shouting their intimacies into the wind, fighting to get a word in with the next-phone caller spitting invectives mere inches away. Fortunately, I couldn’t think of anything of consequence to say.

          Hung up: No message, no Josh box recovery, no place, no phone—the neighborhood was turning hostile and my car had gone dead. And this proposal deal was so important she left it in her goddamn postal bin? L.A.?! Here I was stuck again, under a sputtering streetlight, when by all rights I could have been there. Dusted by her, who was down there, when common decency said she shoulda been here. And what was that…person doing up there, anyway? Aquatic Park come nightfall

          I slammed the receiver and panned about a darkened Aquatic Park. Appeared that the antagonists had retreated to their respective vehicles, with no visible signs of bloodshed or further damage, even  though all that likely wasn’t over. Across Van Ness Drive, Fort Mason’s promontory dropped sharply to that khaki tan basewall, to shadowy thickets of shrubbery, ficus and wild, if not poisonous vines.

          Still, I could make out a sagging lean-to eyesore one third of the way up to an officers’ club’s loftier grounds. By day, the hillside’s untended tendril tangle lent a barbed wire DMZ resistance to the entire fortification; come nightfall it was downright forbidding. Things were stirring up there about the abandoned shed; I could hear them as I shambled back to the Volvo. Creatures were skulking about the shadowy greens. What, I didn’t care to explore, despite conjuring up grotesque iguanodons and gila monsters from the discomfort of my front seat.

          But now the whole scurrilous lot was coming to the surface, and the subspecies wasn’t reptilian; it was Carnivora Felidae. I could scarcely make them out: small, low-crawling felines emerging from the leafy underbrush. Timid cats, aggressive cats, scrawny cats, fatted cats—scraggly mongrel Persians and kinky tailed Siamese: feral, feculent, here they were, slinking down the hillside to a missing chainlink or two in Fort Mason’s retaining fence. Abyssinians, Prussian Blues, gray Certosinos, fierce Egyptian Maus, Scottish Folds, longhaired Balinese seemed to clot at the fence holes, pouncing down the park’s low basewall toward the sidewalk.

          There a large wooden platform sat on the hood of a paint-spackled ’73 Ford, cats marching to it in cordons like Treasure Island recruits. It belonged to a jute-shawled harridan who sat inside the Fairlane, spooning out cans of Puss ‘n’ Boots under a dim dome light. Must have been four cardboard cases, BBQ Chicken Parts to Liver ‘n’ Onions, stacked in the back seat. Her car radio spun big-band Artie Shaw, and the jumping cats just ate it all up. Fels Sylvestris, Pallas’ cats, margays, black-footed Sebalas, tiger-striped tabbies and coonies: They swarmed over scores of heaped bakery tins atop the plywood platform, purring something awful under the gauzy glow of a flittering streetlight.

          The old woman must have been some sort of pie-pan piper, dishing out cat food to every nick-eared feline stray in town. Rex, Manx—all kinds of slinking, snarling, half-starving lionines and grimalkin chowing down. Their numbers swelled to where it looked like they were closing in on me with toxic cat piss and spray at the ready. I double-checked my windows and door locks, cramming into my sleeping bag, their caterwauls threading through the Alex DeGrassi guitar tape and sourdine bickering from Sherry’s battened down Econoline van.

          I clicked on my Blaupunkt to drown all that out, catching KYA’s moldy replay of the Eagles’ ‘One of These Nights, one of these crazy ol’ nights’. Enough of that, all the way out here for meager cat scraps, like an answering machine message and plain brown letter. That and all the cats got me to thinking of Pags, of racing back to those payphones to give Moon a dose of where is and why for’s…dream on—too little, too late, lamebrain. Lag time, clocked out—what a hokey joke of a heartland homecoming that would be, the way things were today…

          Instead, I stirred about to peek up over the Volvo’s crack-padded dashboard until its gearshift lever stabbed my scrawnier ribs, chewing over the potential protein and carbohydrate content of those liver ’n’ onions cans, for the cats were eating better than I was. Some dark, smoking figures argued in passing—about what, I didn’t even want to know, instead peering over at the bright lights of Ghirardelli Square shimmering off Aquatic Park’s lagoon, the penetrating mid-bay sweep of that Alcatraz beacon. Dousing KSAN’s new Springsteen cuts with icy fingers, I picked up on harbor seals jumping, tides slapping against the distant breakwaters as the fog and plodding crude-oil tankers rolled in toward East Bay refineries.

          All and any calm was broken by that battered Dodge panel truck backfiring down the drive once again. So I burrowed deep into the Frostline, both bucket seats pushed way back, curling up loosely around the floorshift knob to take the heat off my ribs. My head propped up against the driver’s door armrest, I tried to tune out the sputtering panel van, fighting feline hisses and howls, arguing parkside drunkards, slamming car doors and foghorns reverb echoing from bridge to bridge—mull over when the cat lady might sing and leave her stand—or whether I instead might take myself another little corrective walk.

          A long KSAN airplay of ‘Darkness On the Edge of Town’ finally did me in. I dozed off, however fitfully, wondering whether I’d stay put the whole night through—what with everybody handling their 3 a.m. leak in their own peculiar ways. At least until I heard another engine firing up, real racecar-like, an alarm clock from Acheron. Had to be one of the Porsches there across the drive. Made me wonder between REM waves whether it was Eric, and what he could be up to. Which rusty 912 was he thrashing in and about tonight? And what was he doing with that dog…

Care for more?

 Chapter 63. Hunger for substance 
meets the patients of a Saint, 
while a foray for liquidity finds 
down payment overdue… 

“Stone cold detachment
only goes so far before
freezing a body in place.”

Columbus and Broadway, North Beach

            “Where you been? Had me waiting damn near an hour!”

           “My lead’s broke down. Watch your step, gramps…”

           “Hmph, got a mind to turn you in, fella. What’s your driver number there?”

           “You got eyes. You people, man, same ol’  bigot bullshit…”

           I stood watching Syd’s cab flip a U-turn toward downtown hi-rises, then hoofed it in that general direction, irredeemably in kind. A vaguely familiar Dexter Gordon number, ‘I’m A Fool To Want You’, soon drowned out Tosca’s inner arias. A  sidewalk sax player sat beside an open case full of one-spots and small mounds of change just outside a Moroccan belly dancer deli and revue. I experienced the solo as best I could, worked at being with the melancholy it created, or she created, or I created, whatever. I glanced across Columbus at the enlightened glow of City Lights Bookstore and the colorful stained-glass beatnook called Vesuvio Café.

             North Beach held steadfast by its Bohemian bars and bawdy main drag despite a Chinatown invasion, even so far as having conferred landmark status on Carol Doda’s cornerstone lounge. Her blinking nipples lured me across lusty Broadway, candy-striped barkers promising explicit double exposure, with Carol taking on all comers. But I could or couldn’t have cared less, already hot and bothered enough as it was. Before I knew it, I’d boarded this green torpedo at Market Street, hell bent on riding it to the bitter end.

            Just needed to take a spin, clear my head, rearrange my priorities, see where I was without losing my choice Aquatic Parking spot. Given everything, I wasn’t up to another pretzel-legged crash and thrash in the Volvo, let alone even one more sweaty stint at the Hotel Y. So this once, I’d resigned myself to pulling an escapist all-nighter on San Francisco’s Municipal Railway. Indeed, from the moment I hopped this L Taraval streetcar, I was under MUNI’s sway, with nary a clue as to precisely where this tank was taking me—was just relieved to be along for the ride, unaware that it would bring  me here: to the scene of my snafued felo de se.

           “Whaddya’ mean, you people?”    

          “Half-dead honkies,” said the motorman, heavy on the former fullback side.“Yall looks alike to me…”

          “How dare you…it’s that damn Moscone and his lefty supes, turnin’ MUNI into a goddamn African air force,” spouted a stooped old man leaning heavily on his cane. “Well, I got my pass here, so let me up.  I ain’t afraid of you bumptious…”

          “Get your shit-face away from my car.”  With that, the driver closed the trolley’s scissors front doors in front of the codger and dimmed the power and lights. “End of the line, I’m on break.”

          This wouldn’t do, either… Had I wanted a faceful of this, I could have stayed in Chicago Lawn. As it was, these two race cards had jarred me out of a retrospective place that had become more rather more comforting as the blocks rolled on. For after North Beach, I had some things to walk off, work out, give myself a good talking to, smooth out some differences, right some wrongs, more or less tweak at the margins. I soon resolved to take Syd’s measure, scrub off the snubs, train on separating her pro from her con—plow some new ground, take natural law into my own hands, maybe even wrestle with the prospect of drafting her pie-sky proposal—just a few little days away. Really, fight back the animal urges, wrestle with the demons, squeeze out the middle man, deal with beating around the bushes, be done with the vicious circles, all the high mindedness and lowbrow frivolities. Got yourself here, get yourself out and get the cheese, asshole: throw in about every other dog-tired, god-forsaken cliché with a deliberate, predetermined sweep of the hand      

          That yamayamed out, I’d slid into the lone remaining single right-side seat ahead of several new boarders, its dark green oil-cloth cushion greeting me with a center spring just pointed enough to aggravate without actually pushing through. A drowsy, if not surly scattering of double-seaters and straphangers steadied themselves as the trolley shunted and listed like a seasick troop ship out Taraval, deeper and deeper into the neatly numbered avenues of the Sunset District. Counting the stops, lost in street after street of sherbet carton two-flats that dipped and rose through the avenue numbers with anonymous similarity, I soon found a bit of relief and release within the amber darkness, well into this rolling neutral zone.

           Like so many others in the city’s relatively antiquated public transit fleet, unit 1754 had arrived in San Francisco from Chicago, by way of St. Louis somewhere around 1957, back when these heavy metal missiles were trucked en masse to the only town warped and wired enough to still want them. Flush with Hetch-Hetchy hydroelectric power and intact rail lines, The City promptly refinished them all in creamed corn yellow and asparagus green, letting street grime and sea salt take it steadily from there. This 37,000 lb. dinosaur lumbered out Market, through the long, dank Twin Peaks Tunnel out to West Portal Station, speed fluctuating, lights flickering as its lone contact pole flitted and sparked along seepy, undulating overhead wires.

          The streetcar’s patchy fisheye ceiling lights, its low, narrow ironclad side windows and small tubular stainless steel safety bars delivered me right back unto childhood Sundays on the CTA. How my mother would drag me in from Willow Grove by train to visit our Southside Chicago Irish relatives, rather than spend another day after the bout before with my hungover Scottish dad. Could have been we rode this very same trolley down Halsted Street, me trying to wriggle my skinny little arm out through those window bars for even a whisp of a breeze on sweltering summer afternoons. Never in my fiercest nightmares imagining that we’d actually end up living back by Marquette Park.

           But, suuuure, that was then, long gone before this Saturn shit, way the hell before her and Her, here and there; had to be better out west, nowhere west to go. So I’d actually taken to this Green Hornet womb here more and more, rocking me away from the mind bends, out the rolling drop to the sea, with a quick little turnaround at 46th Avenue, in the sandblown there and now. Might as well just have hung a skinny arm out through 1754’s window bars once more, grabbing a little cool ocean air, returning to the scene of the bloody screw job, see how far I’d come since then. Yeah, time to face this bleary watershed again—so as to reckon with a false start, get me a fresh set of downs.

          “Open this door, boy!”  The wobbly old-timer took to pounding on the streetcar’s front doors with his walking stick. “Mark my words, I will have your job if it kills me!”

          “You can kiss my black ass,” the MUNI driver shouted back at him between take-out burger bites, not giving the mouthy geezer a second glance.

           Not my problem, not my deal—what’s this got to do with me? I fidgeted in my seat as the old man continued pounding on the front doors, nevertheless wondering how San Franciscans could keep ripping the Honorable George Moscone—as if such carping would ever have gone on during Da (late) Mayor Daley’s reign in Chicago. No, enlightened, progressive, home of the United Nations, harmonious family of Man: San Francisco was supposed to be where to avoid this kind of crap. Then again, the Outer Sunset District was about as from that San Francisco as this San Francisco could get.

          “Pretty dense, huh,” I looked about the car to see that it was down to the driver and me.

          “Somebody outta cut the old fart’s pacemaker,” he skimmed through a Sporting Green, ignoring the codger’s fisticuffs and door glass-melting stare.

          “Meant this fog,” I rose in place, as the trolley’s rear floorboard generator cranked up with a jolt of idling power, and the ceiling lights flickered to bright, to where I could read the motorman’s orange safe-driving patches on his brown uniform sleeve.

          “It’s summertime in the city,” he said, glancing out through his small center-posted windshield. “Watcha expect?”

          “Uh, right,” I nodded into his rearview mirror, by now all but inured to the door pounding of a cretin blathering the lord’s name in vain. “Real piece of work, that guy…”

          “Just another drunken ol’ goat crawling out of the Irish Cultural Center there without his walker.” He caught my glance in his wide view mirror. “You stayin’ on or goin?”

          “Yeah, those micks, huh?” I turned toward the rear scissors doors, suddenly recalling that conspiratorial confab at the Abbey Tavern, wondering how Niall and Declan were progressing on their Poppy Day plotting these days, whether they were there in the ICC now, what with Battle of the Boyne Day closing in July 12th. Naw, had to have been the Stout talking, still can’t imagine they’d be bloody serious about pulling that bomb stuff off. “Thanks anyway. Got a Night Owl transfer, think I’ll just slip out the back.”

          Otherwise, who needed any more ethno-racial clashes and slurs hereabouts, the bald-faced bigotry and negritude? I stepped down onto Wawona Street, around the pounding tweedy elder and a pair of young headbangers in black AC/DC T-shirts and Ben Davis pegs, monster combs cunt notched like their leather spiked armbands, long-haired Motley Crue tangled and teased.

          But better to turn a cold shoulder to all that, into the algid ocean winds. A midsummer gray fog bank had piled in and fully blanketed the Outer Sunset tonight, on its way due east to Mt. Diablo. The misty porridge blurred cobwebbed streetcar wires, haloed picket fence light poles, shrouded cramped storefronts, clustered homes and apartment houses that tumbled down in softly rolling steps to the 48th Avenue sand berms.

          Still, so bracing, reinvigorating: I tread pendently through a gang-tagged tunnel under the Great Highway, beneath a double-barreled speedway of streaming traffic, catching a breath at the even more grossly graffitied seawall, barely a moment’s solace before facing the penetrating reality that there was nowhere further to go. In any case, time for a breather, to get back on the horse, face your fears and all that disappearance rot, put a little distance between that screwy me over there in the parking lot and the decidedly re-me of tonight.

          Funny thing, that tunnel seemed more like a Fallopian tube, alien voices on echo, delivering me from the me who ran elliptical circles and the me caught chasing tails. But this rebirth canal looked more and more like tunneling to a miscarriage. For one thing, the sand wasn’t sugar white, it was gritty, grubby and gray, at one with the oatmeal fog cover and dishwater sea. Just as well, for the nearly 1.8 miles of breathtaking shoreline views that San Francisco families had once flocked to Ocean Beach for had been sliding like the Chute-the-Chutes ever since Playland shut down. By now, understaffed cops had written the strip off as an ugly wasteland; federal park police just let the toughs, drunks and crazies squat it at will.

          Over the seawall behind me, souped-up street beaters and primered Gimmy pick-ups drag raced up and down the full six miles of straight Great Highway. Ahead, gassed out road warriors scrapped with bored local punks and fishy migrant combers for prime beachfront turf. Depressed dumping ground for the city’s social debris: That’s what the downtown press called it, painting an eternal, infernal California nether beach scene—loud, fast and purposeless to the third degree. Ocean Beach at night

          Fine by me, I somehow welcomed the badlands, the dense otherworldly solitude about then. At least until I was divebombed by gulls, murres and puffins, wiping away a salt spray that got my dampness to sinking in, while howling gusts set my teeth to chattering, then chilled me to my bones. All the trashy driftwood wildfires, the van squatters cooking kelp and plankton, frying up rotted rockfish, or sea lion and elephant seal carcasses that had washed ashore: none of it warmed me up any as danker darkness took hold.

          “Score some bud,” asked a hooded-up dog walker in passing, as he choke chained a snarling terrier.

          “Here?” Whoa, stuckness—I froze up in place even further against the sea wall.

          “Up by the Beach Chalet. I’ll take ya, got me a righteous stash there…”

          “Sorry, not much of a drinker these days.” I steered my eyes out toward what was left of a narrow, wave battered wooden pier.

          “Naw, man, wrong bud…” He eased leash on the pit bull, which sniffed me real close, up and down, looked to be lifting a leg my way, instead lurching toward a free running cocoa Lab.

          “Gotcha, but either way, no Chalet.” With that, I buckled in the face of more pushback from high pounding waves, another skin ripping gale. So I scurried back through the tunnel—which was now more noticeably stenched with dead fish and garbage—resigning myself to a rebirth aborted before coming to proper term. Get a grip, size it up: still nothing settled, much less gained. Except for the empirical observation that my hypothetical field study was getting way farther afield.

sr dingbats

           “It’s these damn hooligan delinquents and biker gangs…”

          “Then what’re you doin’ out this time of night?”

          “Gotta get outta the house now and then. Else I’ll go nutcase, blow my fuckin’ brains out.”

          “No way, Roscoe. I draw the line at suicide…”

          Reality check: a 50-cent brown mug of steaming coffee. In here, heating up, tired eyes propped wide awake, slumping at a window table looking out over at what remained of Fleishhacker Pool and the padlocked San Francisco Zoo. I had set sights on a burnt-wienie red dachshund sign for the Doggie Diner, but couldn’t get past the streetcorner racket along Sloat Boulevard, much less my draining pocket change and the urgency of nature’s call. Jack’s Ocean Beach was lively as hell at this late hour, beginning with the manic kids pulling wheelies up and down 46th Avenue on their crusted dirt bikes, revving sans mufflers just outside the café’s front doors. Their smoky, moto-cross welcomes were symptomatic of what these grandpa-sweatered, newsboy-capped Sunset District elders were grousing about one table beside me.

          “A .38 slug’s gotta be better than some thugs scarin’ me shitless…”

          “So call up the cops on ’em then.”

          “Shooot, they’ll only come for my mortal remains. You know’s well as I this ain’t Mayor Christopher’s police force any more.”

          JOB’s Albanian-Armenian kitchen crew stood screaming at the Iron Maiden Kawasaki brigade through a take-out serving door. As I’d passed them en route to the men’s room, I couldn’t help but notice a yellowing ‘White for District 8 Supervisor’ poster halfway there. The Outer Sunset may have actually been Ella Hill Hutch’s 4th District, but this was prime White territory nonetheless.

          A piquant air of souvlaki, moussaka and fetta omelettes filled the narrow, Mediterranean-postered hallway as I returned, for Jack himself was said to be Greek. Last-call neighborhood regulars forked spetsofai and pastitsio specials at tables, picking bifteki bell pepper out of their nicotined grins as I passed on my way back over to mine. Yet JOB’s menu ranged wider than that, grilling budget breakfast, gyros, burgers and dogs to the beach crowd dawn to dusk—none of which I could afford at any price.

          So I just nursed a couple of refills and turned away from the gunning motorbikes and off-shore gloom, annotating on a napkin as how people were tough, scraggly out here, windblown like the beach brush and ice plants, saline and shifty as the sea. Take the street toughs in black and brown out there, burning rubber, smoking butts and blunts, waving chains and blades—or the neighborhood old-timers spooked to death by them, drinking their shrinking days away.

          Land’s end seemed to sandblast the thrombotic hearts right out of them, sapped them of their warmer spirit while the salt spray corroded their pastel casas and overparked cars. At least until the fog lifted a bit in here as a waitress in upper-case orange plunge-neck and even tighter Calvins punched away jukebox tunes like ‘Spanish Eyes’ and Tony Bennett’s ‘Rags to Riches’ in favor of a quarter roll of Zorba-zesty Grecian numbers, Marika Ninou’s Rebetiko to Marinella’s Laiko Bouzouki.

          Song by song, stein-by-stein, by ouzo-anise carafes, JOB’s red velveteen-foil walls, blond paneling began throbbing, wagon-wheel light fixtures and balsam trellises rattled, plastic bouquets tipped and bobbed. Emptied center room tables made way for a wood grain linoleum dance floor. Customers hit the tile—feet tapping, hands clapping, couples whistling and trilling to the tunes. Old couples in matching leatherette jackets and brown polyester trotted out their dirlanda and syrtaki. Younger items in angora and doubleknits dipped and spun their free-form Ballos steps, a retired shipping clerk from Millbrae bounced up and down, Nisiotika style, with his silver permed better half.

          My scribbled notes evolved into the makings of a socio-study. That would do the trick—clinical distance and objectivity, methodological observation of this tribal ethnic group, identification with and validation of its customs, mores and norms. Construct a double-blind survey of its demographic segmentation—or was it stratification—whichever, controlling for biases, plus-or-minus margin of error. Had real doctoral material here, get me back on tenure track. Yep, I’d get right on it, that’s precisely what I would do…

          By now people poured in from nearby motels and hi-ball lounges to clap and stomp along. Still wet-suited surfers dripped in from the shoreline with their bitchin’ squeezes in tow, tossing down longneck brewskis near the café doors like they owned the place. Got so Jack himself joined in as house MC, spray tan and coiffed in a white perma-pressed short sleeved shirt and avocado slacks, springing for another round and It’s-It chasers on the house.Ocean Beach Cafe

          With that, the entire all-hours café scene even drowned out the motorbikes, and was starting to jackhammer my already overheated nerves, spatula stirring my animal blood. Couldn’t beat the energy and revelry; still, it was all Greek to me. “Quite a bash you’ve got going here,” I said to Mrs. Jack, as I approached a stress cracked glass cashier’s counter near the front door, shelves filled with jerky, breath mints and assorted candy bars.

          “Gets this way sometimes,” she stiffened, spearmint gum crackling as she counted out the coins I’d given her for the couple of cups, merely a few pennies more than the exact change. “Even crazier when the fog clears out.”

          “Crazy, you mean like with that junior biker gang out there,” I glanced past the dancers through the café’s picture side windows. “Guess you don’t relish having to deal with them…”

          “Those punks aren’t that big of deal. Who you don’t want to be messing with are the surfers, especially around sneaker time…”

sr dingbats 

          With Panos Gavalas blaring on Jack’s jukebox, salt air and ocean winds pressing against JOB’s front doors, I shouldered my way out, past the young motorbikers and even younger skateboard acolytes in tropical shirts and baggies. Rip-tides were slamming against Ocean Beach’s seawall, waves roaring through the Great Highway tunnel as though it were a stadium bullhorn. Coastal fog cover was laying in heavier and damper by the hour, muffling the two-stroke Suzukis and Kawasakis, wicked late-night laughter and any faint clanging of streetcar bells. But I was just weary-wired enough to soak in every rev, whine and wine-fed eruption the Outer Sunset threw my way.

          A fresh paper napkin served to dab the mist from my eyes, so as to survey a flickering street-lit continuum of plainly pastel stucco apartment hideouts and steel-barred shoebox abodes. The cold, gray soup sizzled atop, dripped from overhead trolley wires, seeping through immobilized, if not abandoned vehicles up and down Sunset’s tediously gridded side streets. Would that the beloved bohemian former horse and cable rigged enclave called Carville still enlivened outside land dunes out here as it did nearly a century before. At least so I’d overheard on the outbound.

          Sheepskin collar up, I skulked back over to Wawona, aimless anxiety triggered further by the sound of car tires slipping and sliding along drizzle-slick streetcar rails. A green torpedo had been idling at the MUNI stop, but its door scissored shut, the driver suddenly clanging away up 46th Avenue, back toward the trolley barn. Following his stuttering, bucking red dot taillights, I shuddered at the thought that MUNI was calling it a night, resigned that I now had plenty of time to plop down curbside and think things through—yeah, measure it all up, re-establish a beachmark, an Asian fisherman point of reference. I glanced back through the tunnel at roaring cold, dark Ocean Beach, heinous waves pounding over drifting sand, no cheese in sight.

          So I turned eastward on Wawona to the Irish Cultural Center—wondering if that cane-banging old lush ever stumbled upon a seemlier streetcar, whether those plotting blokes from the Rectory Tavern were in there right now, still sworn to SEMTEXing PM Callaghan this Boyne or Poppy Day, much less if I had the Scotch in me to out their bout. Same time, I wondered whether my Celtic brethren might afford me a good night’s rest—as they once did Scot-free in a hay-baled barn loft outside Skibbereen. Yet again, scootching across my geneal divide…

          Which was about when my gaze rose straight ahead through those webbed overhead wires toward Mount Davidson, the city’s highest peak in the distance, and that big, blocky 103-foot crucifix topping it off. Unreal, even in this thick, smothering marine layer, that white concrete cross lorded some 900 feet over the Outer Sunset with divine lighthouse authority and penetration. Up around it glowed a humongous foggy halo, even through the thicket of eucalyptus trees. Either that, or it was Saturn hanging its rings on the cross like a bucket hat atop a coatrack. 

          Maybe it was gnawing hunger or arrested shuteye, but I couldn’t tell whether that beatified aura was a prophecy or prognosis—only that I was out here beachside once more, facing my fears, hoping not to disappear this time. The brainstorming even had me Dybbuking about trading this foggy shillelagh altogether for a sunny ukelele outside Maui’s Pioneer Inn. At least until I got that I had to go find Dame Thornia’s cheesy amulet if I really hoped to square things.

           Heads up, dude, boards comin’ on your left…”

           Then again, surf’s up, either way…

Chapter 62. A Rendezvous delayed 
makes way for one eventful femme 
remote, then come some catty 
confrontations with a curious feline edge…

“Café, society can surely 
be a rush. Unless it is 
a rush to judgment.”

          “You know, the Purple Onion and Hungry I, only now they’re topless-bottomless live hump, two drink minimum…”

          “Yeah, R.I.P. Smothers and Chad Mitchell Trio…”

          “Make that Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl—those true geniuses…”

          “Sorta thinking Kerouac, Brautigan, ‘Trout Fishing in America’…”

          “Fishing? What in the world would I know about that?”

          Lucchio’s was still digesting its long-suffering weekend crowd, as broader North Beach was coming fully alive. I had dawdled two wary steps behind Sydney across Columbus Avenue, eyeing up Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, down to Broadway’s blazing skin shows and that spiking, ever-striking Transamerica Pyramid—pharaonic ivory against the clear night sky. In between were the Beach’s famed and infamously Beat bar/coffeehouses, Trieste and Mario’s to Roma and Vesuvio—lots of roguish beard growths and rakish berets—luminous City Lights Bookstore progressively presiding over it all.

          Syd dodged the taxicabs; I dodged the reasons I’d been hammerlocked by that mad impulse to face up to her again in the first place, much less accepting her off-hand invitation to dinner. As for the meal itself, there was no sense clinging to hunger on principle, whether the payoff was a combo platter or a la carte. And the ozone of garlic and coffee only dispatched me back to Catania’s stazione ferroviaria, where this whole espresso/caffeine fixation bedeviled a sloth like me to start with. So I drifted into memory mode along the way…at least until the mixed aromas fed us here…

sr dingbats

         Tosca Café was this dusky sort of place back then where day met night all day and night long, where pupils dilated wide as cocktail olives , where eagle-eye met blind, yet with taste tests and a tempo so sublime. This was Syd’s notion of an après dinner cordial, and we were catching the place a smidgen before the full evening rush.

          Once my eyes finally adjusted, I coursed a veiled light scheme that barely accented the prevailing darkness with a low level whisper of green. Small emerald cup shades spoked around tarnished brass overhead fixtures. Soft indirect avocado lighting kissed a mammoth mahogany back bar, reflecting from its broad etched mirrors out past a long line of revolving padded stools. So I sandbagged some, fast scanning the jukebox, preferring to let Syd lead me into one of Tosca’s nearest empty booths, a cozy half crescent beneath an aged mural of Firenze. Its red, tufted vinyl was cool and first-cabin spongy—she pronounced it ‘cushy to the tushie’—as a sulky diva of a barmaid approached. Tosca bar

          “Dunno, Syd, not quite up for hardcore caffeine right now…” But taking note on her serving tray, the waitress was in no mood for any such reticence.

          “Trust me, their capps are totally different, they’ll totally frizzle your undergrowth,” Syd nodded to her with wiggling V-ed fingers, then squeezed my forearm. “Remember, experience, Kenneth, that’s all that really matters.”

          “Naw, don’t see handling that now.” I wasn’t certain where this was heading, but chances were her rap would be no lighter than the ambience hereabouts. I tracked the waitress, who was trolling nearby booths and tables en route to her barstool, where she mumbled their order to a smooth-domed bartender in his crisp white coat.

          That variegating green pervaded Tosca—somber, languid, ranging from novena candle green to creamy shades of leftover pesto. It tinted the Venetian blinds of a cathedral front window, the delicate short stem glasses stacked five-high against the bar’s mirrors. Nippled bottles of Chartreuse, Tuaca, Ouzo, Campari, Pernod and Marie Brizard ganged around the fluted mahogany columns segmenting three smoke-filled panels. It patinaed the two chrome Victoria Arduino cauldrons lording four feet over the elbow pads at either end of the bar. It shone in the long lines of cappuccino goblets extending inward from the espresso machines, beneath two gleaming gooseneck seltzer taps and neatly stacked Cinzano coasters.

          The stocky Italian bartender turned to his ritually polished espresso machine and pulled two proprietary cappuccino glasses toward him. Pre-treated with two fingers of a cocoa powder, the stemmed glasses took three-quarters steamed milk and brandy, if not a dash of bourbon to the rim. He then spun a series of nozzles, and the cauldron began gurgling, hissing, fired up for ever more renowned Tosca capps.

          The master barista retweaked his steam valves until the gauges leveled to his liking. At that instant, he turned the main valve, shooting steam into small stainless steel milk pitchers through a narrow tubular spigot, frothing the house specialty with several boiling kilograms of pressure. Thick steam erupted from the cauldron, billowing heinously upward from the twisted chrome piping, singeing the burn spot on the Sistine muralled ceiling it had been curing since Tosca opened in 1919. Not that it rankled the stony, dark-suited sigñoritos hunched over the bar. They’d been smoking and spouting off here for nearly as long, as had the waitress shuffling back with our drinks.

          “Due cappuccine, five dolla,” she snapped, gesturing for me to remove them from her tray.

          “Five bucks?!” I suppose my question could be translated into modest outrage as I did so.

          “Fear not, moneybags—I’ve got this too,” Syd insisted, handing her a five-spot and single.

          “Grazie,” the spindly, darkly mascaraed waitress smiled thinly, scouting nearby booths before returning empty-handed to her barstool, laced carmine uniform weltering in her wake.

          “A bit rich for my blood,” I muttered, examining the curious non-coffee that came in no cup, but a glass. “Shouldn’t we at least get some whipped cream with this?”

          “Not to worry, it’s not your tab,” she tapped the back of my hand. “Just relish the moment, why don’t you…”

          “Yeah, well, that’s a little harder to do these days,” I said, checking out the place as if it were a reincarnation of Warner’s Cobweb Palace. “I mean, I lived better as a starving student…”

          “So who’s the cause of that,” she stirred, then provocatively licked her swizzle stick. “Look, it’s Francis coming in, and isn’t that Robert Duvall with him?”

          “Cause? I dunno, you tell me,” I sipped hesitantly about my steaming rim, pointedly ignoring the movie star turn passing discreetly by us toward a reserved rear corner booth.

          “You, who else? You’re not the effect of it all, you’re the cause, the source of what you experience. You’re the one responsible for it all. Get that, and your life will begin to work for you. ”

          “So in effect you’re not causal then, huh?”

          Slowly voices, grand choral voices, seeped into my head. I followed them along the parched, jaundiced paintings of fable operas, past a browned portrait of Puccini, down to a magnificent music machine against the bare lower wall opposite the bar itself. The Wurlitzer Cobra was a glowing phantom, a rosy rainbow of a jukebox with 45 r.p.m. opera its pot of gold. Selection title tags were so thoroughly faded, neophytes couldn’t tell Madame Butterfly from the Barber of Seville. But these Tosca devotees from decades past knew exactly where their sentimental favorites resided.

          Take some bruto Arturo with the wavy gray hair and side-mouthed cigarette crackling his knuckles at the Wurlitzer. It was to on his dimes, mio Dio, so he was going to punch its buttons—choosing Corelli, Tobaldi, Enzio Pinza. The old box clicked and flashed its grooved vinyl distress to where the mother country music dear to Tosca’s soul, magisterially muted the base drum pounding of a disco beat in the  dance club one floor directly below.

          “Don’t blame me! Besides, I figure it’s all upstairs with you. Too much book schooling’s got you living in your eggy little head, instead of in the real world like the rest of us…”

          “Hey, those sheepskins are about all I have left,” I lifted my glass slowly, the hot brown liquid scalding my lips. Still, Tosca’s cappuccino had a steadying effect, the booze part canceling any coffee residue and vice versa. Pity it couldn’t blot out the particular spiel at hand.

          “You’re resisting again, Kenneth. Ignore your problems and they only get worse. And if you don’t do the training, you’re headed straight down the crapper.”

          “Look, I don’t know where you’re coming up with that, but I’m not in the mood, all right?”

          “Fine, I get that,” she smiled her astral smile. “Now just be with that feeling…”

          “Be with it? What the hell are you talking about?! If you ask me, everything’s been a disaster area for me ever since I left Boulder and hauled you out here…”

           This wasn’t the direction, no this wasn’t where I was wanting to head at all. I took a breath, stared vacantly toward the long bar. Seemed like Tosca had grown older by the sip—that the place was aging even more than its North Beach regulars about then. Where its mottled ceiling wasn’t singed, it was water stained, yellowed with years of tobacco smoke, peeling at the seams. The greenish light only jaundiced the ulcerations, spreading on and about dingy, fading murals of Pisa, Venezia and lower Toscana—the smoke- filmed Pompeii and Santo Pietro severely tilted over the back bar.

          “I get that, too,” she coaxed, “Just get who’s the source…”

          “Damn—stop with that twisted bullshit, Syd,” I spouted, wringing a cocktail napkin. “All I know is, one little detour and it’s been a non-stop road to hell!”

          “That’s ’cause you’ve been chained to our… afternoon delight. Werner says a shared love experience is one of the few times we’re shocked into aliveness. So we put it on this emotional pedestal, and make it a standard for anything that comes afterward. The trap is, nothing can compare, see? Not with perfection, so one memory is your prison—that head of yours won’t let you really experience anything else.”

          “Aww, you’re sounding like some dial-a-shrink,” I hissed, sipping through my stir straw.

          “Don’t you think I’ve been there, too? I’ve just given up the mind fuck.”

          “Easy for you, maybe—when you’re the one fucking the mind…”

          “Oh, here comes the ‘Sydney done me dirty’,” she sighed, sipping lightly. “That I’ve steered you wrong and abandoned ship on your S.S. Life. Well, nobody ever does anything to you…”

          “Can’t buy that, Syd, not after you hung me out to dry…”

          “Only after you left me hanging out to die to begin with,” Syd caught herself. “But that’s history, right, water under the bridge. Point is, you can spend the rest of your life looking backwards, or take the helm and move on. Really, all I can tell you is accept responsibility, Kenneth—you’ve just got to do the training. However that’s not totally why we’re here, either.”

          Tosca had drawn a full measure of the North Beach café, thespian and cinema crowd, its rear dining salle now choked with such peculiarly dramatic, animated artistical chatter. Oh, the score was exquisite, the second-act choreography so cultured and esthetic. Sotterheim’s costuming was superb…you must hear the chamber orchestra’s new Mendelssohn Octet…how could they even think of seeing ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ or ‘La Cage aux Folles’ with Kramen’s play opening at the Vertigo?

          “Water under which bridge exactly?” I groused, lifting my glass to down a good shot of cappuccino. “ Hmph, if I had $250 now, first thing I’d do is bail out my cameras—at least one of them, anyway…”

          “On another level, I get where you’re coming from, Kenneth. So maybe I can help.”

          “Sorry, but you haven’t helped much thus far…” I tossed back my head in frustration, keying on that Wurlitzer. That Arturo cat had crossed the pitted red and black linoleum to rejoin his cronies at the multi-stooled bar, notably to the tune of ‘Un Bel Di Vedamo’ by the recently departed Greek bel canto, Maria Callas. “Look, I appreciate your charity tonight, but maybe I should be moving on…”

          “I’ll ignore that unhelpful vursht, but no more bailing, hear,” Syd said firmly, signaling the diva waitress for another round, this time White Nuns. “Poor, poor Kenneth—you can pull that all night or we can work through this. Either way, the reality is you took me up on my invitation here, toots, and you aren’t going anywhere yet, capeesh?”

          There I froze, somewhat stunned by her fortitude. On another level, I almost welcomed it, much like the showers that hose down a humid summer day. After all, wasn’t that what turned my head in the first place, what purged Melissa’s tenderness, what dictated our initial bittersweet terms of engagement? I sighed and bounced my melon gently against the booth back, watching the waitress and bartender commiserate over their own double capps. My angst billowed and etherized with the espresso steam, lifting in veiled whisps to Tosca’s ceiling—before wafting up and dissolving into the dark.

          “What-ever…” I pushed deeper into the red vinyl cushions, following another updraft of espresso steam to the burn-spotted ceiling, picking up a new selection on the jukebox—something like Stignani’s ‘Carmen’ or Javier Solis’s ‘Granada’, as if I’d be one to know—at least until the hissing cauldrons drowned it out. Tosca’s old guard were being slowly displaced now, unseated by pawsome young couples and theater folk between acts. The buzzy, boisterous evening rush also spilled into surrounding booths, transforming the dour rear salle ambience to old-world gay cabaret.

          “All right, then,” she fixed on me, after scanning this fresh crowd about us, the room filling with evermore cigarette smoke, much of it mentholated or perfumed. “Now, let’s get down to geshefts…”

sr dingbats

          “Syd, what do you want from me,” I grunted, trying not to jostle my kidneys, as I suddenly had to leak something awful.

          “No, the question is, what do you want for you? See, behind all your bitching and moaning is your avoidance of who you really are. EST lays out how nobody wants to face numero uno, we’ll do anything to dodge that—play any game, live any lie, run any song ’n’ dance routine…”

          “As in your ‘Dance Your Ass Off’ disco routine, huh?” While on the Wurlitzer, ‘Depuis La Jour’ slowly faded under a Licia Albanese aria of ringing bells.

          “Tsk, that was before I did the training,” Syd snapped, voice rising as she finished off her cap, pushing her glass toward the center of their round, green Formica-top table. “Anyway, EST showed us that it could be as simple as one item being so heavy duty that anything is better than facing it, no matter how miserable the alternative may be. So, what’s your item…”

            Compelling as it was, the backroom banter had almost imperceptibly begun to quiet. The flamboyant and finely tuned began turning, craning over their crescent booths, repositioning themselves around their chrome Moderne tables, nodding and whispering to one another as if something gauche were going on. And though the smoke had diffracted Tosca’s green lighting into a bruised avocado spray, I could make out beyond doubt that their hypercritical eyes were focusing our way.  Tosca Cafe salle

           “Christ, tone it down, people are starting to look at us,” I said in exasperation, peering around the outline of her head, up at the long-faded mural of the Piazza della Signoria in Firenze’s Palazzo Vecchio, where I once missed the train back to Basel while haggling over a new leather sportcoat, young giovanes nipping at my pockets for unspent lira. “Well, for starters, how about the meat grinder you and Moon put me through at your apartment door that time? ”

          “Tell you what, don’t fret over Moon, she’ll be fine and dandy. Just be worrying about your own self…”

          “Okay then, about the way you two chewed me over has upended me ever since…”

          “Good, so how do you feel about that?” she countered, craning slightly to see if Coppola, party of two happened to be taking notice.

          “I trusted you, dammit, threw my whole life away for our big plans. You said together we could do anything. I believed you Syd; I took that to the bank, for chrissake!”

          “Fair enough, thank you for sharing,” she replied flatly, turning to stare me steely in the eye. “But it’s time to cut the victim act. Beliefs don’t exist in reality, they’re a useless concept. And stop deluding yourself that others are running your life—it’s not Moon or me, it’s just you.”

          “I know, I know, that whole man-your-ship bullcrap,” I muttered, diverting my own self to check out Tosca’s celebrity booth. “I think they really have brainwashed you something fierce.”

          “No, it’s you who’ve been brainlocked…you’ve got to get out of that mental prison your brain has overthought you into. Werner says our minds are just like tape recorders, with humongous stacks of tapes—sight, sound, smells, feelings, the whole shmeer. All your brain can do is record your experiences and play them back…”

          “Funny, I always thought it was just three pounds of canned Spam.”

          “See? That’s what thinking does to you,” she nodded, apparently too busy accessing a rote answer to find any humor in my feint. “When in fact your mind is just a linear arrangement of those multisensory records of successive moments of now. Trouble is, you can’t always keep it under control. Sometimes your mind plays back what it wants, when it wants—whether the time is right or not.”

          “You mean like now…” I then played dodge-eye with the barmaid as she returned with two Nuns.

          “No, what I mean is the sole purpose of the mind is the survival of its being. So it’ll playback anything, do anything to defend its rightness—even if it takes destroying a physical being in the process. I finally got that the mind wants things the way they were, not the way they are. It is always looking for agreement, and will playback toxic tapes whenever its ‘rightness’ feels threatened. Which is why you went fleeing back to the Midwest with Moon. Your mind kept serving up those old tapes, forcing you into something you really no longer wanted. And the only way out of that tyranny is letting go of the shackles and fully experiencing the here and now.”

          “C’mon, that’s what you got for your $250?” I followed Syd’s methodical stirring of brandy, Kahlua and steaming milk.

           “Worth every penny, because EST shows the way out of that mind trap, to the enlightenment that you’re a reality apart from your mind. That you get what you get, and are on the hook for every single minute you have. It was so liberating, and my life’s gotten so much easier—just relax, accept the simple truth that you’re a machine, like we all are, and do what you do…absolutely amazing, get it?”

         ”Maybe so, but life’s a lot more complicated than that, Syd. I had obligations, believe you me…”

          “No more beliefs, remember? And get that you can flow with what comes,” she glowed, toasting her glass. “Admit it, Kenneth, your little old mind was busy fighting for its life, still is. But there’s nothing you can do about the past. So choose to totally redo your point of view. These are the powers EST provides you. That’s why Werner Erhard is such a genius!”

          “Or a cult fascist—didn’t I read where he used to sell vacuum cleaners?”

           “Encyclopedias, but that was in a former life,” she groaned, impatiently restirring what remained of her White Nun. “Look, I can only take this so far, Kenneth. Werner’s Anatomy of Mind concept gets pretty deep, but you’ve just got to do the training.  In fact I’m planning on signing up for some of EST’s graduate seminars, maybe I can get you in as a guest. Or if it’s the money, I could always lend you some more…

          “Hell no—the last thing I need is to get even deeper in hock…” That said, I excused myself to a men’s room plastered with wallpaper of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe.

sr dingbats

          “Speaking of which, it so happens I’ve since sourced a fantabulous new idea for my next painting,” she beamed, as I slid back into the booth, hand hiding some haphazard dampness about my fly. “It involves a commission for Bay Bank & Trust’s new headquarters—big bucks, something like $30,000…”

          “Whoa, sounds exciting,” I exhaled. “Gonna do it or what?”

          “Well, the competition’s ultra intense,” she pushed back deep into the rolled and pleated booth cushions. “That’s why I was so glad I ran into you. I mean, what are you actually doing these days?”

          “Me? Uh, some field study and, you know, longitudinal…research. Wait a minute, how did this get from my problems to your paintings?”

          “The way it works is artists have to submit written proposals to a selection committee—you know, laying out the concept, medium and all. The best presentation gets the gig.”

          “So what’s that got to do with me?”

          “You can do this. You’ve been through grad school, haven’t you, done some advertising?” she smiled, reaching forward for my hands. “Nobody does that if they can’t write proposals.”

          “Hold on, Syd,” I pulled back sharply. “I don’t know jack about art proposals.”

          “I know the art part, Kenneth. I just don’t know how to write it down right…me and my little crayons.”

          Booths and tables around us had filled to capacity with the evening crowd—lots of leopard skin leotards and feathered boas, accompanied by turtle-necked blazers and half-cocked berets. We could overhear snippets of brandy fed banter as Tosca aficionados picked at connoli, spooned over custardy tiramisu, lamenting how Beach Blanket Babylon had so irreparably sold out. Reviews and verdicts were already in on Sam Shepard’s new play, ‘Buried Child’ that just opened at the Magic Theatre. But their raves and accolades did not extend to Alex Horn’s Theatre of All Possibilities, what with media exposés revealing all the coercion and violence playing out up at his Red Mountain Ranch commune in Sonoma. A pop-culture wag one table away noted how this cult business seemed to be spreading like Sierra wildfires these drought-dry NorCal days.

          “Come on, how about one of your artsy friends here?”

          “They’re all visual artists like me,” she searched my eyes for an opening. “Can’t even write their own grocery lists, not a one…”

          “Syd, I don’t think…my head’s so scrambled right now, I couldn’t string two sentences together to save my life anyhow…”

           She reared sharply, looking disappointed as all get out, commencing to frown and reconsider her position, studying me like one of those handicappers at the bar, old studs chewing the rag over any thought that a mudder nag named Affirmed could actually win the Triple Crown. Then she went straight for my ingratus nerve. “Honestly, Kenneth, you’d think after some great food and après treats, a person would be a bit more cooperative…”

          “No thinking, remember,” I sighed, kneejerking as she pushed my cappuccino glass and small table candle toward me, nearly into my lap. “But I’ll need a day or so to get my head into the whole idea,” What the hell, I hedged, at least I’d be nearer, like in her physical sphere of…influence. Perhaps we could even talk about it more later tonight…

           “Oh, Kenneth, you’re such a dear,” she squealed, kissing her fingertips, then touching them to my cheek. “Two days, max, I’ll get you the proposal particulars. This is super important to me—and you could be working off some of that outstanding debt…”

          “Roger,” I heaved, emptily staring into my glass. “Another drink to toast our…”

          “Sorry, toots, but no can do,” she said sharply, glancing at her pink, jeweled Hermes wristwatch. “In fact, I’d better get cuttin’…I happen to be meeting someone a bit later on, previous commitment and all that…”

          “Hey, sure…I mean I get it, really I do…”

sr dingbats

          We slipped out of our semi-circle booth, headed silently for the front doors, through chatter and tobacco smoke, past packed adjacent booths and dining tables of cultural gaiety and intellectual heft. Sydney tapped my forearm and suddenly broke over toward the waitress, smiling, small talking, getting her to scribble out a slip of paper as Syd settled up again.

          So I waited, buying time at the rainbow red Wurlitzer, skimming its yellowed, hand-written record selections. The dons had reasserted themselves at the jukebox with a Puccini parade, now deep into ‘Manon Lescaut’. Still, I could overhear some of a tiny roundtable forum on the latest rumors that Stephen Jones was challenging his father down in Guyana, calling him loopy for pulling more of those white-night suicide drills from his creaky pavilion throne. Claiming that the Jonestown plantation might actually be fronting a CIA operation for experimental MK-Ultra mind control—the whole thing spiraling who knew where…

          But before I could catch further details, Syd bounded out of the booth and pulled me away with a self-satisfied tickling of the jukebox’s crenulated buttons. We scooted arm in arm along Tosca’s pocked, checkered flooring. The place had come dramatically more alive since when we first entered, though the quaggy verdure was clearer as we neared the front doors and ogee arched front window. Both chrome espresso cauldrons still gleamed emerald, as did the cappuccino glasses lined up and down the bar.

          Tosca’s green shade chandeliers now cast rich cocoa shadows over the back bar and surrounding mahogany trim. The front barista stoked and tuned his machine like a concert calliope, steam curling his goatee on its way to the dappled ceiling. He stiffly topped off his capps with a nod toward two toppered Broadway strippers who’d dropped by between shows.

          “You angling for autographs, or what,” I asked, as she jotted on that slip of paper she had picked up at the bar, neither of us daring to look Coppola’s or Duvall’s way—that derigueur San Francisco celeb denial.

          “No, receipts, silly—for the IRS again. So I can write off our whole meeting as a business expense, like Daddo taught me,” Syd replied. She stuffed the slips into her bucket bag, suddenly pulling out a crumpled envelope through its leather drawstrings. “Oh, and before I forget, this is for you, some Regina Sue person phoned out of the blue. God knows where she got my number, but she said this mail delivery notice had come for you and didn’t know what to do with it. So she forwarded it to me.”

          “For me? Well, uh…thanks,” I said, all business, cramming it into my jacket pocket without a second glance, though recalling that I’d jotted her phone number down in Denise’s room. I instead peered back quickly before pushing open Tosca’s doors. “It’s probably nothing…”

          The green-yellow patina still imbued everything in here, from atavistic murals to shadowy huddlings,  to gleaming sacramental urns and hazy Venetian blinds—this doppio celluloid set-piece, the most Italianate of places I’d seen west of Turin or Tribeca. “So at least time for a little more North Beach?” I asked as we hit the teeming sidewalk.”

          “Sorry, turns out I’m too far behind schedule as it is—have to grab a…taxi!” Naturally, a yellow bomber screeched curbside on Columbus at Vallejo before Syd could fully get the word out. She climbed in, waving adieu through a rolled-down window. “Thanks so much, Kenneth, it was great. Call me in two days—where are you staying anyway?”

          “Uh, I’m not far away,” I stammered, left buttoning up and zoned out at the white loading curb.

          “Just don’t go disappearing again. Remember, two little days,” she said, cranking it back up to direct the hack out Columbus Avenue as the taxi rolled away. “Meantime, retrace your steps Josh box-wise—and promise me you’ll steer clear of that grisly park scene now…ciao!”

          Just like this whole evening, I thought, just like with Sydney herself. I shrugged and shook my head back up Columbus, Little Lucchio’s garlic erupting like Mt. Etna from deep in my gaseous bowels. Damned if Syd didn’t reopen the wound then leave it to puss away. And if I wasn’t one bit closer to her, how could I feel so reeled in? Was she writing me off altogether or simply keeping a boob close, an enemy closer—safely spirited away from family and friends?

          Yah, yamayama that. But I just didn’t feel like going tits-up like this all over again. Can, can’t—crazy cults, calculating cunts: I swore, one way or another, somebody else was going to pay—just had to figure out who

Care for more?

Chapter 61. It’s off to the races, 
all but off his trolley—in 
this year of the wilder cats…

“With a rendezvous per 
due, bounding out of the 
frying pan, into the pyre.”

          “So where is it?”

          “Don’t ask me, I don’t…”

          “It’s got to be in there somewhere.”

          “I’ll look, I promise—I never even noticed it once while you were gone…”

          Proximity. That the Shell service station was so close to my Volvo’s breakdown proved strategically advantageous. Not only did the attendant lend me a safer gas can to carry a buck’s worth of regular, the purple-turbaned Pakistani just asked for my Colorado driver’s license as security. Then he pointed me toward his clean and orderly men’s room around the side, wherein to wash my hands of that mess.

          A surprisingly sparky battery, little priming of the SU carbs, a return of the can and I was off, turning left back onto Van Ness Avenue. This was more a path of least resistance than some sort of slippery slope, or abject slithering slope. In any case, I soon acceded to reality over that Golden Gate release, coasting back down past North Point into the underbelly of gloaming Aquatic Park. The Volvo squeezed back in nicely between Sherry’s Econoline and, curiously, the panel van that nearly ran me over up on Bay Street, Then I tucked in sorely to my sleeping bag. It wasn’t exactly Muir Woods or Mount Tam State Park, but wasn’t Marquette Park either—let alone Lafayette Park.

          “Not try, do, this is serious, flash. I’ve spoken with Josh lately and he says I shouldn’t open it until he gives me the go-ahead, only that it’s really important now.” 

          “Sure, but it is just a little box, right?”

          “Not just any little box, it’s my gift box,” said Sydney, unfolding her linen-thick paper napkin. “And Josh says we’ve got to find it, no matter what.”

          “Okay, so find it, we will, jeesh…”

          “I swear it was there before you housesat. But that’s not totally why we’re here.”

          Proximity talks. Comparatively clean washrooms in the corner Shell station, hot morning coffee at the pillbox snack stand: what the hell, it was only for a day or so, had to be but that. The nights were kind of rough and tumble—twist, wring, rummage and return—but rising sunshine made the new morning all the toastier in green, scenic Aquatic Park. Apparently plumb on the faultline between Feds and city metermaids, the drive still had no overnight or hourly parking enforcement, meaning the stay could be somewhat…open-ended.

          So momentarily settled, with downtime to spare, I even took to freshening up and exploring the area, taking leave of my ever-spatting park neighbors, striking out further by the day, never mind the nights. I soon found these breezy strolls allowed for a free running and refreshing of the mind. Hell, before long I could just about close my eyes and sleepwalk across the bridge, up the Waldo Grade through 101’s Rainbow Tunnel, kicking back on the porch with Tony and Aimee in Villa Mañana, sucking down abalone and Lagunitas, flying off non-stop to Lahaina, mahi-mahi breakfast at the Pioneer Inn—something tasty like that. This way, I could get there any time I damned well pleased—so long as I didn’t have to dodge a Dart or Javelin backing out from any number of flapping garage doors.

          This addled socio-reconnaissance eventually carried me southward on Van Ness—to where I happened upon a fire department ambulance idling out front of one familiar Chestnut Street apartment house, emergency lights flashing, paramedics wheeling their loaded gurney up though its rear lift. A small crowd had gathered thereabouts, and people were talking. Then again, these days, people were conversing all over the place: Frost was sitting down with Nixon, Lennon was chatting up McCartney again, Martin met with Lewis, Rowan with Martin, Gracie rapped with Marty, Cheech toked with Chong, Sadat was powwowing with Begin, White was mixing it up with Milk—not to mention the two of us right there.

          As soon as Syd spotted me rubbernecking over toward her place, she rushed over and said the bitchy crone upstairs had finally suffered a stroke, asked me where in blazes I’d been Dybbuking to and otherwise hiding out, hit me with this gift box business, claimed we had something fantabulous to discuss.

          “Discuss what?” But who was I to deny her, all things being unequal?  So before long, I had MUNI bused over to the Beach, already wondering why I was here like this right now, leery of the answer.

          “Yamayama…”

          “Sorry, I…”

          “Yamayama,” Sydney said. She’d met me here via a Veteran’s taxicab. “It’s what’s cluttering your head, what’s making you batty. Comes from flowing against your river.”

          “Don’t understand…”

          “Give up understanding, Kenneth, give up the big lie. Just give in to your natural river, its waters are irresistible.”

          “How do you figure that?” Think I came here to be called a liar?!

          “No, no—stop playing your phony roles, you know? So you can finally be with who you really are.”

          “What is this? I thought we…”

          “It’s soooo basic. Just take a good look at where you’re coming from, let people see the real Kenneth Herbert.”

          “Wait a minute, this isn’t more of that Universe Theater crap, is…”

          “No, nudnik, I was turned onto this through the JCC,“ she smirked, flapping out her lapkin, motioning for me to do the same. “Point is, everybody knows your can’t take control. Get that you have to de-control…”

          “Uh-huh, so it’s kind of a Jewish thing?”

          “It’s not a Jewish thing, it’s an everybody thing. But there you go thinking too much again, Kenneth…you’ve just got to do the training…”

          “Two more glasses of Amarone Pasqua, or a carafe?”

          Across the waitresses’s lavender T-shirt was ‘Little Lucchio’s’ in bright yellow lettering. The ‘cch’ in fact scripted at an upward slant to what must have been magnifico cleavage, for the logo rollercoasted like peak-to-peak skywriting in the Italian Alps. Not that it had anything to do with yamayama or de-control, but her shirt sure went a long way toward better grounding me—breaking through the clutter, if not clearing the head. My eyes followed its apostrophe to a small black plastic nametag, greeting that with a gratefully myopic grin. From there, I scanned a side-banded black ponytail to Theresa’s sanctified smile. At that point, any diversion would do.

          “Two more’s fine, make it your Valpolicella Pasqua this time,” Syd said curtly, handing her the half-empty glasses with oenothority. “Embrace the training, Kenneth. It’s like the weight of the world is peeled away…”

          “What training?” I tracked Theresa hazily as she slipped between scrunched tables, then behind a packed counter. We resumed breaking bread over our tiny table for two in Lucchio’s annex, one newly added step down from his original 16-stooled counter shiv of a grillroom. Most locals would kill for this front window table; for two at the counter itself, they’d throw in pillage and plunder. Forget first-borns should those stools free up side by side. “Can’t see as how I need any more training…” Little Lucchio's line

          “That’s because you’re an asshole, wallowing in your stuckness,” she zeroed in on me. “Which is why your life doesn’t work…”

          “Asshole? What the hell kind of training is that?”

          “EST, Erhard Seminars Training, get it? An awesome session that will turn you inside out and totally change your feeble little life. Everybody’s getting it—John Denver, Yoko, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman—all kinds of people. It’s amazing, you’re locked in a room with a whole bunch of other assholes—no watches, no sudden bathroom breaks. If you need to throw-up, you get a little bag. Just the master trainer and a few assistants, breaking down dumb asshole ideas and belief systems, teaching you to fully experience your experience…so that your problem doesn’t exist forever.”

          “Sounds like brainwashing to me…”

          “EST is not brainwashing, Kenneth, it’s more about creating spaces, safe places, where you can learn to free you, yourself,” she said, straightening the napkin over her pleated blue chambray blouse, blond hair trimmed back and tightly curled, rounded like a halo around her head, smiling with the wisdom of Maimonides. “But that’s okay, be with your resistance, don’t fight it. Everybody is skeptical in the beginning; by the fourth day—whammo, total clarity and ultimate truth.”

          “What, they tie you up for four days and do this to you?”

          “The training is spread out over two weekends, just down Van Ness at the Jack Tar Hotel.” She spooned the meal around her pastina bowl.

          I nearly choked on my Italian bread for want of more vino. Images of a Messina-bound train ferry reflected in the annex’s plate window, coach compartments filled with overextended Sicilian families and their five-gallon containers of homemade dago red. Earthy senoras would ladle it out like well water into paper cups until language barriers came tumbling down. The stuff virtually ate through the plastic jugs while the gabby Italians toasted us ugly G.I. Americanos. Where in blazes was that grape now? Syd’s trip was hard to swallow as it was.

          “All I know I didn’t grasp half of what you were talking about the last time we got together, and you’re not even that person anymore…”

          “Growth, Kenneth, personal growth and transubstantiation of your space. You could too could grow with the training…it’s the best $250 I’ve ever spent…”

          Theresa finally delivered fresh wine from her spinning tray, then struck a Michaelangelic pose to take our order. Syd pointed to saltinbocca as I muddled over the menu, Puccini’s La Traviata flushing through my ears. I settled on whatever I saw Lucchio frying up through the steamy sidewalk windows. Theresa smiled enigmatically and worked her way back counter to Lucchio’s wide open ranges, stage front in this little two storefront hive with its small, trashed-beyond-recognition neon sign and glass panels lettered ‘Rain or Shine, There’s Always a Line’.

          “Oh, I see, that’s what the scam’s all about. Well no thanks, sounds totally unreasonable to me.” But I was no different, for we had rather earned our primo seating. Long minutes before I had been grumbling about going cold turkey amid brisk Columbus Avenue winds, the chow line detainee in front of us passed back to small glasses of on-the-house Asti Spumanti. By the time that was history, we’d shuffled up within earshot of Rigoletto, and smack into another short round of ruby red. “I gave up mind control after army BCT, and they were paying me for that. You getting a finder’s fee for this?”

          “Of course not, what do you take me for,” she reared. “No, reasonableness is exactly your problem. You can waste your whole life trying to be reasonable, like so ‘right’ about everything…”

          We ourselves had mustered mighty appetites out on the sidewalk wait line. For Little Lucchio’s was everybody’s off-Broadway shrine, smack in the North Beach groin, where after-hours office grunts melded with local bohemes to queue sixty minutes for a twenty-minute meal. On such a clear night, they stretched a full block down Columbus Avenue, where skin show barkers could target their craving palates with far more carnal fare.

          Granted, good gnocchi and linguine alone were hardly enough to pull in so many discerning San Francisco nostrils, although the concentrated garlic wafting through Lucchio’s exhaust fans went a long way toward keeping them in line. It wasn’t just his spicy cuisine, it was Lucchio himself, and what he put his fawning customers through to get to it. The chef flirted, flogged their tastebuds, made patrons stand out there in the fog or rain and pay for the privilege, while plying them with gratis chianti. He fed us crass discomfort and near starvation, and had us eating out of his self-made hands.

          What we kept hearing was the dinnertime mantra, ‘it’s worth the wait, believe me’, from other famished line mates and, ‘ah that was good, pass the fresh air’ from the fatted cats picking oregano and sweet basil out of their sated smiles. A Puccini mini medley later, and I could finally see what the crowing was all about. It was enough to make me unbutton my sheepskin coat and forget trying to remember how the hell I ended up here.

          Once inside, we were transfixed by Lucchio, how he orchestrated his open-face kitchen as though catering to Symphony Hall. One raw paisano chopped a tray of carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. A stocky, bereted fry cook stirred vats of Mafaldine pasta, Sugo alla Genovese, and aglio & origano sauce. A heavy-handed contessa pounded the veal and beef tongue into tender submission.

          “Christ, what’s so damn unreasonable about being reasonable?” I soon smiled at Theresa as she delivered two platters heaped with saltinbocca, rigatoni and fresh vegetables. Before I could conjure anything clever to say, much less in Italian, she was off answering the ready clanging of Lucchio’s order bell.

          “So stop with being reasonable, just accept what really is,” said Sydney. On the wall over her right shoulder was a portrait of the Piazza St. Pietro, with a souvenir inscription by Pope Pius XII. “But nooo, same ol’ Kenneth, won’t take step one to help yourself. Honestly, what would be so wrong if your life began to work for a change?”

          “I’m working on it, okay? Working on it my own way…” I loaded up quickly on rigatoni, hoping to feed an impasse, sneaking an eyeful of Theresa filling her jugs from a rear-counter water cask. A shame Syd wasn’t heavier into jugs, I drifted—like her mother, like Cassie. Then again, sometimes my ex was so prepossessed by the burden of her endowment she couldn’t think about anything else. Still, here we were, here Syd be—lighter on the topside, but pretty much a handful nonetheless.

          Otherwise, behind the counter, that synchronized Napoli trio took a back burner to l’maestro’s grillwork. Lucchio was a stubbly Neapolitan immigrant who’d grown pasta portly from years of 14-hour days at the range. That he managed a free hand with eight burners fully blazing was a delicious sideshow of its own, yet his dagger-tattooed left arm’s main role was to herd all eyes center stage. It led the charge, set the tone—all the while periodically shaping his handlebar moustache and slightly curly pompadour. Spinning, thrusting, clenching: Lucchio’s left seemed the lightning rod for his spicy bravado, his brazen, sautéed sonata form. Little Lucchio's open range

          “Actually, I’m surprised you had the guts to meet me for dinner at all,” Syd replied, buttering up a sesame roll. “Even if I am buying…”

          “I’m not quite that fat and dumb,” I sighed. The gilty wood framed papal lithograph about made me want to genuflect and pass the collection plate right there. “Pass the bread basket, will you…”

          “Well keep on with the way you’re going, you’ll end up dumber than a lab rat, and marking calendars.” She did so, smiling that perfect smile, sandpaper against raw slate. “But at least a rat will experience growth. If it has four tunnels, only one with cheese, it’ll always go there for the payoff. But move the cheese, it’ll find the new tunnel and go there. Not us. People will keep hitting the tunnel where the cheese was, even if it’s not there anymore. Werner says it’s because we think it should still be there. Want my veggies…looks like you could use the nutrition.”

          “Look, I’m perfectly familiar with rodent experiments, under more exacting empirical conditions than some hotel room down Van Ness,” I was not exactly savoring that imagery over dinner. “But no thanks, just the parmesan there…”

          Good thing Lucchio’s right was such a workhorse. That muscular arm sported the same rolled-up sleeve, and a hand that stoked flaming skillets of piccata, paccheri and veal parmigiana with the firing order precision of the patent black Ferrari he always parked directly out front. The galleon-tattooed limb stirred everybody ravenously senseless as he bathed his creations in gallons of Olio di Oliva, bellowing La Traviata as his grill went up in pungent flames. Precisely when the scaloppini seemed doomed to four alarms, Lucchio would turn it deftly, then ring his order bell. His swagger earned him a Bay-wide following and his companion Berlinetta Boxer, not to mention garlic goddesses like Theresa, who clutched his signature entrees to their ample bosoms, and dished them out with devoted, loving care.

          “Empirical, what’s that?” Syd handed over the shaker as if passing along remnants of a Dead Sea Scroll.

          “Observable, measurable experience…” I spread the flakes over a yellow pat of butter across a bread heel, then tossed back the dregs of my Amarone, dripping ever so indiscreetly on my denim workshirt.

          “See? Real experience beats egghead theories every time.”

          Given all this, who could blame a body for cowering patiently in the wait line wind for a cramped, wobbly checker-clothed table? Or better yet, a spot at the counter with elephant elbowed strangers as your next-stool neighbors, having others lined up 2-3 deep, drooling directly down your neck.  The deferred gratification made for unabashed tête-à-têtes and scintillating stranger-on-stranger small talk all around us. Lucchio’s aficionados devoured caciucco and calamari, toasting with Peroni Bier and beakers of Barolo Giacomo Contreno, napkin planning their North Beach evenings from here—be it a Mimi Farina benefit at the Intersection or Cal Tjader jamming at the Keystone Korner.

          “Spumoni?”  Theresa rushed over, anticipating that we might be ones to Bogart a table under such power-hungry turnover pressure. She hastened to gesture toward the counter, nearly nailing a sidewall console and its figurine of Giambologna’s Venus. “Or tartufo, only two left…”

          “Meh, meso-meso,” Syd snapped, pushing her plate assertively toward the waitress. “We’ll pass.”

          “E’ bene,”  Theresa sighed, winking my way, digitally counting the tip change in her black leather apron. She then turned her hip sassily away, leaving the dishes to some greased young soccer striker from Reggio, bussing for scraps and a kiddie portion of the server’s take, quickly clearing a table about to be stormed from several power-hungry directions.

          “Hmph,” Syd picked up her Noe bucket bag and the check, stiffing the waitress for a measly fifty cents. “Mamma Theresa there is definitely missing the cheese.”

          “I know the feeling,” I belched, pulling two dollars from my jeans, slipping them under the fold of my tomato-stained napkin, as if I could actually afford it.

          “But wasn’t that food fantabulous,” she gushed, as we wedged out through Lucchio’s door, around an onrushing duo of banker trainees, breaking for the counter past a party of North Beach poseurs, who themselves rushed our vacated table like so many Naples pickpockets at the stazione ferroviaria. Lucchio welcomed them all with a rousing ‘O Sole Mio’ and a half tin of olive oil over twin skillets of Vitello Sante, flames leaping up into hooded vents, more sizzling, enticing smoke pouring through his storefront fans.

          Pocketing her plastic gold, Syd smiled at all the starved, tongue wagging faces of a wait line at least a half block long. “I think I could just about burst a gut…”

          “Really? You think,” I asked, following her up across Columbus Avenue, trying to locate whether the heavier garlic breath was hers or mine. “What would your trainer say?”

          “He’d say ride with the experience to the fullest,” she said, zipping up her light brown glove leather jacket, eyeing all the pasta and antipasto in Molinari’s deli windows.

          “Right, just don’t forget to pack along a barf bag…” Waiting for the green light up at Vallejo Street, we could overhear several beat cops grousing as how Mayor Moscone was still squeezing the POA on back pay and hiring quotas as consent decree negotiations dragged on. And that it was payback time for their pet Supervisor Danny Boy—whatever that blue uni shoptalk was all about.

          “C’mon, asshole, let’s capp this off,” she said as the light changed and red light runners cleared the crosswalk. “We can go talk tartufo without the doxy distractions.”

Care for more?

Chapter 60. Best ESTimate: a 
perfect pitch of operatic proportions 
makes for getting rather jobbed…

“Harbor your grudges,
park at your peril—
wary of depth charges,
misfires double barrel.”

          “And so, my fellow San Franciscans, we prove once again that we are the City That Knows How…”

          “Surprised he could tear himself away from Willie Brown’s booth at Le Central.”

          “…The fundamental retooling of this vital pumping station demonstrates how my administration thoroughly supports the very best fire department in the nation…”

          “Or that he’s here cutting ribbons, when he’s usually too busy cutting lines in City Hall…”

          “Therefore I, Mayor George Moscone, hereby dedicate this estimable facility to the heroic members of the San Francisco Fire Department, for all and everything they do to save and preserve our great city with their honorable and indispensable service.” SNIP, SNIP…

          “Then stop with your OFJ discrimination bullshit, while you’re at it—no more ’74 court orders, mayor, POA rules…”

          “Yah, and stop sissifyin’ the whole damn police department—just Gainsayin’…

          CLAP, CLAP, CLAP, Clap… I could overhear the scoffing commentary of a couple of firefighters who stood outside my car window, taking in this opening ceremony from vouchsafe distance, arms folded smugly across the chests of their turnout coats. The mayor and his entourage had descended upon Aquatic Park to celebrate the rebirth of SFFD’s venerable two-story, Spanish-style pumping facility, which in fact was originally born as the Spring Valley Water Company, way back when the Black Point it now occupied was barely upwind from belching smelters and woolen mills.S.F.F.D. Pumping Station

          Between the media scrum and Moscone’s microphoned tones, this bright morning’s hoopla couldn’t have been more snooze alarming if it had been amplified through Aquatic Park’s huge, long-silent speaker towers. Eyes opened, yet still half asleep, I wasn’t sure where I was, whether I had kept my stir-crazy promise to Sherry or made it past 3 a.m. without leaking. All I could even vaguely remember were heavy footsteps and devilish laughter, beer cans crashing against concrete, some sort of vehicular ignition and motion up the hill.

          TAP, TAP, TAP… With the mayor’s feted photo-op disbanding and those derisive firemen moving on, I wriggled out of my Frostline and like an ostrich blinked about. News crews packed their gear, Moscone’s team roared past in matching onyx limos up the Van Ness grade toward City Hall, and a stream of hangers on and event junkies passed between my shotgun side windows and the uric relief of Fort Mason’s base wall. I tossed my sleeping bag into the Volvo’s back seat and flipped on the AM dial to a Dr. Don Rose going long on KFRC, whistling and cackling his way into Andrew Gold’s ‘Thank You For Being A Friend’—no, rather thank you in advance for being a car battery on the mend.

          Avoiding the rearview mirror at any cost, I swiveled my head every whichway to work the pain and stiffness out of a cold, crooked neck. That was when I heard the fingernails over my shoulder, rapping against the driver’s door window. They were long, nibbled and dirty to the quick—might have been a plainclothes cop’s, could just as easily have been Clifford’s—in reality, they turned out to be Eric’s.

          “D’ja sleep?” He gestured with a swirl of the index finger to roll my window down.

          “Dunno, guess,” I mumbled, hesitantly doing just that. “Hard to tell…”

          “What? See sumpin’ weird, or…”

          “Who knows? I’m still getting acclimated to my…accommodations, whole night’s a blur,” I yawned, over my shoulder. “What time’s it, anyway?”

          “Goin’ on eleven.” Eric glanced in at what passed for my gear and provisions, assessing front seat to back.

          “Eleven? Feels more like three,” I moaned, contorting in the bucket seats, taking a gearshift knob to the kidneys.

          “Ain’t three,” he snapped, before sipping at a paper cup of black coffee. “I was up at three, man, you didn’t show up at all.”

          Morning after the night before: A pan of the larger scene revealed that those college underclassers had left a dumpster’s worth of throwaways all over Aquatic Park’s gentle knolls, everything from chicken bones to fish wrappings soaking in the morning dew. It was all park service grunions could do to clear the grounds before Moscone arrived, to little avail. And they were still at it as the mayor waved and left, snapping up litter with long-neck pincers, filling black plastic liners as if crowds wouldn’t return to trash the place all over again. Ranger uniforms in Smokey Bear hats surveyed the damage, joggers running circles around them up and down the sidewalks to either side.

          The shrieks and sassing of small children seemed to envelope the Volvo as tract families from Redding to Watsonville invaded the park with Normandy vigor and resolve.

          Air cover was provided by a squadron of tourist helicopters that strafed Aquatic cove, Fisherman’s Wharf, Angel Island and Alcatraz, while an armada of freighters and tankers chased cruise boats past Muni pier and its breakwater, crab baskets be damned. All this while orange-capped swimmers lapped and bobbed like seals across the lagoon, scout base back to their Dolphin Club in fifty-degree waters, South Enders rowing Whitehalls on by. If my windows hadn’t steamed over and my clothes hadn’t gone spongy, I might have holed up in the Volvo until these tour de forces retreated and an all-clear signal went out. Nevertheless, I remembered having places to go and other doors to darken before sundown.

          “What’s up with the coffee,” I asked, “need to drain a kidney and a jolt to get a jumpstart…”

          “Over there,” Eric pointed across the drive. “That little round snack stand. The old wop finally opened up. Head’s around the side of the place…but speakin’ of jumpstarts…”

          “First things first, cranking up the car can wait until after a little clean-up. I’m a soppin’ sweat hog in here.”

          “Whew,” he caught a whiff of the Volvo’s insides. “Yah, man, you might wanna 3s it all right. Got just the place…”

sr dingbats

          “Toss the soap…”

          “Beg your pardon?”

          “I need soap, shoot me your soap.”

          “Whoa, it’s my soap…”

          “I’ll give it right back, soon’s I scrub my assets…what’s your problem?”

          Black Point Cove had long harbored its rickety, stilted boathouses and the massive canners warehouses looming above them, but by the early 1900s, popular Aquatic Park Day regattas and swimfests convinced San Franciscans that this prime beachfront nook could be put to better public use. Took a Depression to fully realize civic dreams, New Deal WPA moilers clearing, dredging commercial clutter from Hyde Street to Muni Pier, fashioning a sweeping new ‘park for the people’. Its prevailing style was 1930s Streamline Moderne, sleek and white, manifested in the pillbox snack stand and piss stop, clear around the lagoon’s stepped seawall to Victorian Park and the historic vessels at the foot of Hyde.

          Anchoring Aquatic Park at its axis was the ship-shaped Maritime Museum, looking like an evenly keeled little excursion liner, matching main decks fore and aft, identical curving steel-framed glasswork stem to stern, flags flying amidships over the bridge turret top. Bracing her to either side were stepped concrete bleachers and those two tall loudspeaker towers. Inside this main building’s portholes and mosaic-tiled veranda were colorful mythical murals of Atlantis and Mu, historical waterfront photos, seafaring displays of whaling guns, nautical charts, brassy rigging, lighthouse beacons and intricate scrimshaw. The lobby boasted a restaurant, an emergency hospital and hot showers.

          Well before this ‘palace for the public’ was designated a museum, however, it was christened in ’39 as a municipal bathhouse in the earlier day Neptune vein, and since had served as a nightspot, infamous private casino, Army anti-aircraft command post and senior citizens’ center. All this Eric explained to me as we followed the park’s promenade, towels and Dopp kits in hand, side by side with some railroad tracks roughly where a redwood Spring Valley Water flume used to be. What he neglected to mention as we approached the faux boat was that its bathhouse facilities had by now been relegated to the ship’s ground-floor hold. Neither did he touch upon the bilge that irregularly gathered down there.

          “No problem, I just don’t think it’s…”

          “Let’s go, before the hot water’s shot!”

          “I need it, I tell you…”

          “Selfish bastard…stuff your silly damn soap.”

          “Get the hell away from me,” I shouted, surprising myself with the territorial outburst.

          Maybe it was the lighting, the ambiance, but something roiled my plumbing the moment I encountered this place. A long mineshaft of a hallway beneath the west bleachers and main ship zigged and zagged past maintenance cribs and dissected boilers until steam shrouded everything in sight. And at first glance, this was so much for the better.

          Deep in the bowels, with all attendant noises and odors passing herein: Today, Aquatic Park’s bathhouse could easily have been mistaken for a smazy catacombs—a bi-directional bat cave with all manner of suggestive stalactites and stalagmites—dark corners and dank corridors nested with dim, hoary creatures of dubious intent. Men leaned and stooped, posed and postured on wooden benches, against concrete pillars, inside rusty dressing cubicles and open-front stalls—wiping, sopping, zipping and unzipping, generally discharging with damp smokes drooping down their stubbly chins.

          “Neville’s just a little prick that way.” The play-by-play boy leaned back against a post nearest the community shower room, right foot poised against chipped plaster and mold, Holiday Inn towel draped loosely about his speed-famished frame. He flashed his low-calcium nicotine grin, driving even the hang-loose habitués away.

          “Right.” I was casting about for Eric—suddenly nowhere to be seen—trying to convince myself that this was just like army basic training, only in the reject detachment: so eyes up, straight ahead.

          “Hey, throw me some asswipe!”

          As I turned away from the bathhouse commentator, I locked on this brown Tarzan swaying squat over an open bowl with the primal authority of a pastured quarter-horse come mating season, trenchcoat and loincloth heaped down over his combat boots, within arm’s reach in a pinch. “Cats never stock it…shit, anybody gots some newspaper?”

          “Hell with this crap,” I flared, clinging to my towel and kit. Got to get me to Marin County…but can’t go without a shower and shave, it’s marvelous Marin up there. But this was the Y Hotel on ’ludes and/or poppers, all these crazy all-night suckers just keep staring around. Any of them come near me and they get it in the gonads, swear to god.

          I edged over to the one decently lit corner not creeping with consenting adults. The glass dome and hatched metal case were dripping with condensation, glazing over a lone 60-watt overhead bulb like custard pie filling. Before me to the left sprawled a fully bundled stiff against his backpack and bedroll as though this was Juneau in January. The drifter tranced on a minor spectacle to our right, along a bleak, cream-tiled hallway approximately first down and distance, end to end. It looked to have once been a walk-through shower for sand-crusted swimmers and rudderless coxswains. But that would have been when normalites frequented the place—harried fathers, squealing, shivering children with plastic buckets and little inflatable rafts.

          Now, the only dinghies down here were swinging to another beat altogether—coked-up queens and cowpokes who blew through the fine line between the morning after and the night before. Some one of them brought along a boombox, pounding out mix-taped Parliament and Village People. The mucked, mildewed corridor had degenerated into a downscaly cruisebah: flush with scrawny thongs and g-strings, if at all—like the ones on the Riviera or Copacabana circa 1973—slick and stretchy, some mere straps that even pre-pubescent eunuchs could fall out of. Here they were as in-your-face as Adidas at the World Cup, as minimalistic as only gravity would allow.

          “Pssst, it’s over here…”

          “What’s that,” I snapped, refusing to look that way.

          “Your virtue, lover…”

          “That’s right, Hopalong, round-up time—bend on over…”

          The voices seemed shrill and tempestuous, oozing from the murky corridor like fluid from a grease trap. The full-blast shower room, overhead trampling across the bleaches, far-corner gasps and screaming: none of it could dampen their penetrating pitches. “Come and get it, Tex, franks on the fire…”

          “Hey, back off, I mean it, serious business,” I checked my flanks as I inched toward the showers. From the corner of my eye emerged a flash revelation of how out-of-hand things were getting in here, even this early in the day: Pole thin silhouettes going down on sweaty, barrel-gut hogs; the hulks bench pressing one another’s bulges, that third-world trio by the backwall in an Oreo embrace.

           “Tsk, promises…all’s I get is promises,” swooned one rover just too damn big to be that way. Aggressive, too—snapping me with a towel smack on the cheeks once I prepared to drop dropped my jeans, modestly shaken and stirred. “Too, too bad, Honey buns—I’m the best thing that’ll ever happen to you…”

          I shed shirt and towel, rushing full bore into the shower, tossing everything by the doorway but my soap rope, then lathered all over, fierce as a doused housecat. Eyes up, ahead all the while, I rinsed and grabbed by pile, racing out of the bagnio and scooped up my goods without pause, reconciled to air-drying, wet combing the grime out of my hair as best I could. Anybody up in Marin asked, I’d say I was working on a brawny California beard.

sr dingbats

         Meantime my skin crawled and goose bumped out of the men’s bathhouse, soapsuds still dripping from my armpits, shirt and Dopp kit dragged closely behind. I stopped to catch a breath as a chilling Bay breeze strained through my thoracic cavity sharper than a fishgig through a sockeye salmon. Galled, rattled to prudish embarrassment, I internalized the whole steamy, seamy encounter—crammed and stored its rampant particulars in my thalamus and parahippocampal cortex, to be episodically qualified, quantified, so to speak, and/or purged at a later, quieter date.

          I shot across the fore deck and gardened knolls, past lean-green retirees handicapping the morning lines, pointing toward the Volvo with flying shoelaces and a runny nose. Lawn lizards had already begun staking out patches amid marble Bufano animal sculptures on the grassy grounds, deep-frying themselves with baby oil and Bain du Soleil, lean and leathery in skimpy reptilian briefs. These elder sundogs rubbed it into sagging lifeless skin, peeling away in deep reddish-brown swatches from yesterday’s exposure and light years of solar abuse.  Maritime Museum

          “How’d I let you talk me into that fairy boat,” I shouted, on approach to Eric and his aft Porsche now temperamentally ranging somewhere between a cold shudder and blinding seethe, at once affronted and confronted—feeling set up once again,  regressing to the mean about it all. “And where the hell do you get off stranding me like that?!”

          “Not bad, huh,” he grinned, meeting me halfway to the bon-bon of a snack stand, for a black-no refill to wash down his glazed doughnut. “I was in there earlier, so…”

          “That place is a sewer hole, I was damned near accosted in there.”

          “Aww, put your shirt on, man,” he said, in full jeans and plaid flannel. “You’re courtin’ pneumonia like that. Coffee?”

          “No thanks, I’m wired enough after a scene like that.” I buttoned up fast as I could, checking over my shoulder for any rank followers.

          “It’s nuthin’, just your imagination running on overdrive,” Eric scoffed from the stainless steel counter, stirring sugar after all into his second styro cup. “But you should see it later at feeding time, a total  swap meet down there.”

          “All I know is this huge son-of-a-bitch nearly grab-ass violated me, hung up like a Budweiser Clydesdale. I liked to take him out right there, but didn’t dare wait around,” I rattled, as if mindful of how a frat party chickie must feel. “You go in there and deal with that shit, for chrissake?!”

          “Don’t bother me none,” Eric licked the rim of his coffee cup. “Guess it’s got to do with knowin’ where you stand.”

          “What’s that supposed to mean,” I tucked into my drawers, elbowed into my sheepskin jacket. “I know damn well where I stand…”

          “So what’s the beef,” he pointed toward the stand’s john, then led me toward the cars. “It’s a simple public convenience. You just man up, head in, go about your business. Do what you gotta do, keep your eyes up, hands to yourself… If you have a problem with that, use the little boy’s toity around there.”

          “Problem, me? No way,” I huffed, second thinking that bon-bon of a snack bar, as white and Deco Moderne as the rest of the park’s places, sweet and salty on a balmy post-Depression dime. “I know where I’m coming from, don’t you worry about that…”

             I looked at him, he looked at me—mutual wariness, M.A.D. as hell. Nevertheless, we proceeded to get to work on my Volvo, Eric pulling a ratchet and socket set from his white Porsche. I piled into the ailing sedan, yanking its choke handle, pumping the gas—a turn of the steering wheel locked ignition, and nada. Dead juice, Eric grinned, hit your damn lid.

           “Lot you know,” Sherry glared, whalebone combing her hair up through her van’s opened sunroof. “You and your rolling junkyard over there.”

          “Yah, like you and your flabby ass,” he said, squeezing the release lever, opening the hood…”

          Clock and tempers ticking, I blurted that it could be loose battery cable clamps. Eric argued that he could have the generator and voltage regulator out in five minutes“

          “No time, I’ve got to get up to Marin…”

          “Suure, like you’ve got a hot date with a hot tub…” Eric reached to apply socket to the nuts and bolts of my generator mounts. “What’re ya, scorin’ some blow?”

          “Christ no, just personal business, strictly personal,” I stayed behind the wheel, futily turning the four-banger over once more, reminding myself that Marin’s where Tony was, where the Chi-bro money was. WWWuurr. Uuuur. Ur…again, nada.

          Sherry broke our impasse by suggesting we push start the Volvo, calling to Clifford for some elbow grease. He emerged positively trancelike from his hammock, spooning a cup of fruity muesli, mumbling something about insatiable emptiness, dark passions and wilder ferment—this spindle of stray mental masturbation in a gabardine vest and black ball cap, with Kierkegaard symbology where the Giants logo should have been.

            Little existential help coming from there, Eric threw up his sockets, annoyance aplenty,  offering to shove the balky Volvo with his red 912, even though it was all uphill from here. We all did manage to muscle the sedan into center drive, wherein he revved his backfiring Porsche, U-yed in a cloud of oily exhaust, nudging his battered front bumper up behind the Volvo until it squarely rear-ended mine, horn signaling me toward my driver’s seat. Whatever, I fretted, ravens the size of butterball turkeys squawking menacingly from atop the light poles overhead, making me hatch my escape with borderline desperation.

          “Just get behind the wheel there,” he shouted out his window. “I’ll tugboat shove you uphill, then back off. When I signal, roll down and pop the clutch in reverse—make sure your key’s on.”

          “You guys really don’t have to do this.” Still I wavered, fearing and trembling out my driver’s window, checking the rearview mirror, picturing both cars careening bumper locked into the bay.

          “No sweat, man,” he plaintively raced his engine, intimidating lesser machinery as only a redlining Porsche could—even one this mangled.

          “So hell with it, go,” I muttered, having noted that nearly an hour had passed on Ghirardelli Square’s distant clock tower.

          Traffic stalled, the tourists and fishermen stopped dead in their tracks to catch this rattletrap sports car pushing an even worse off Volvo sedan, Sherry and Clifford cheerleading the way. First off, Eric nearly rode his bumper over mine, but then eased off and pushed me uphill about 40 feet, gunning his 912 before peeling aside. Beeping my horn faintly on a frantic roll down, I popped the clutch, and damned if the old bucket didn’t catch, kicking and sputtering as I shifted into neutral and revved for dear life. The lookyloos around us loved it, but I was fixing more on a voltage warning light that flared stubbornly red.

          “Didn’t I tell ya,” Eric veered quickly back into the vacated parking spot Bruno had been growling in and guarding like he was pure canine corps. “Now spring your hood again…”

          I did so mid-drive, my spot having already been filled by a pouncing Vega wagon. Eric darted over with his rubber-handled screwdriver, lifting my lid to bang and pry all over the engine compartment. I idled and peered under the hood slit as he jimmied in under the generator mount around fan blades slicing mere millimeters from his fingers. Then he grabbed the generator casing, jammed his flathead into its guts. That done, he nailed the voltage regulator something fierce, sparks flying everywhere—pounding as well on the twin SU carbs. Suddenly, that little round warning light went to black.

          “Whatdja do,” I yelled, cautiously upping the engine rpms.

          “Either I goosed your generator brushes or unfroze your regulator,” Eric grinned crookedly, having closed the hood and swung around driver’s side. “Or maybe just shorted out your warning light. Anyway, bring me back some of that Marin abalone or Lagunitas brew…”

          “Thanks, I do really owe you one big time,” I said in relief. “But I have to tell you, Eric, I don’t plan on coming back like this…”

          “Heard that before, hoodini,” he laughed over his shoulder, tossing his tools into the white Porsche’s rear jump seat. “You’ll be back, ain’t no breakin’ outta here that easy…”

          “Don’t count on it,” I also waved in appreciation to Sherry and Clifford—he who was already back into his hammock, dog-earing ’The Concept of Anxiety’ while Sherry stirred her Morning Thunder and stared Eric down. Horns blaring, fore and aft, I rolled closed my window and accelerated up the drive to Van Ness itself. Yep, no way, pal, not even looking back. Think I’m going through this BS again, you’re all loonier than you look. I’m gone, man—gonna put this nut farm behind me, sure as shit. Yah, decision, Clark and Division—I know where I stand, damn straight. You people are certified socios—you and your sick-ass Aquatic bathhouse, all that whizzing around at 3 a.m.…

          If only the Volvo didn’t nearly die halfway uphill past North Point Street. But clutch in, warning light off, I revved and popped it full pedal toward a right turn to Bay Street, the Golden Gate Bridge shimmering into view beyond Fort Mason. That stunning bracelet full of 24-karat charms: the beautiful answer, the escape route, the fine-print loophole out of this mess. San Francisco Bay sparkled, Marin glowed warm and green, and I was more than geared to head for the hills.

          At least until that goddamn red warning light flashed back on, and the Volvo began sputtering again, just as I reached the corner. But it wasn’t the generator or regulator so much as the needle on my fuel gauge, which had buried itself wide left of E. I coasted over to a walled-off Fort Mason driveway, noting the lengthy wait line into a Shell gas station across Bay Street. About then I realized that even if I’d carried a gas can in the trunk, there was no way I dared tackle Doyle Drive with the Volvo gagging like this—that the glorious Golden Gate looked to be a bridge too far.

          Still, something had to give and push onward. So I locked up and dodged traffic to trudge across Bay Street, teeming Shell station bound. Stepping off the center median with a head full of fumes and foreboding, I almost stumbled in front of an old dented Dodge panel van coasting into the left-turn lane, apparently headed for Van Ness north, probably just more tourists looking for Fisherman’s Wharf, if not a prettier Aquatic Park. Yet its horn heavy, fist-waving driver instantly meant serious business before waving me off—could have been due to all these painful gas lines out of the blue.

          Check and double check: but it did make me wonder whether one person’s bridge too far was another one’s far too near…

Care for more?

Chapter 59. Another day, another Beach. 
More specifically another night: two passing 
ships, trying to get it right…”

∞ STAGE THREE ∞

 

“Mobility-from can send
spirits aloft. But mobility-to
can bring landings neither
happy nor soft.”

          “So drop ship seventy case lots to SFO, ASAP…”

          “Yah, one day I’m booking Elvin Bishop at the Twelve Bar, the next I’m paying cover to catch him at Sweetwater. Working in hotel maintenance yet, but, hey, it’s San Fran and Marin—payin’ the price for paradise…”

          “Right, you just said to meet you here, that’s all,” I said, trying to speak over this traveling salesman one phone down.

          “It’s in the bank, Macy’s bought the entire inventory, 10% over dealer, sliding scale…” 

          “Sorry, had to take a last-minute sick day—sniff, sniff—know what I sayin’? Plus Jennifer’s speedin’ around here, trying to get everything together for a weekend blowout, and got me shakin’ my ass to get things ready. So let’s re-do next week…or cruise up for the bash even, we’ll do some toot out on the deck, you can catch me up on Natorious and all the freaks back there.”

          “Well, that sounds great, Tony, but maybe I can take a raincheck. See, I’m not so sure about getting out of The City, right now…things are kinda sticky.”

          “Purchasing? I need a telex on the L.A. order, TWIX for the turnaround—no, not re-routing, this is priority one.” 

           “Raincheck? Shit, it hasn’t poured here in ages. But give it a shot, sounds like you could stand to kick back, mellow out some, no lie. Anyhow, you’ve got my number…coming Jenn. Gotta split, man, stay in touch…say, you didn’t go askin’ for me by name around there, did you?”

          “No, Tony, no way. So how about we try it here at the hotel again…”

          “Whew, sure, Heebert, what are friends for?” CLICK.

           “Tony? Uh, no, I’m,” I said over my shoulder to a caller in waiting, hanging up after the fact with another harried, tie-pulled salesman cigarette breathing down my neck. Shake his ass? Sounds like All-night Tony’s whipped like Cheez Whiz up there in Marin.

          Ring, rinnnggg… But the operator called back post haste, tallying all due overtime before I could turn away from a bank of stainless steel pay phones, this stainless steel wall of coin-fed conversation, everybody within earshot of everybody else’s business, no matter what they said. I popped in two sandwich quarters, lest the operator reach out and touch me for more, then handed the receiver to the East Bay sales rep, two more cold callers having lined up behind him.

          Whatever its amenities, the San Francisco Hilton was no Conrad, nor Beverly, but more a bobbled, bangled Statler. It looked like just a big, nondescript concrete gray tower flanking the Tenderloin, basically a plusher traveling salesman’s roost built on spun polyester and padded tabs. I had just elevatored down from a personal tour of the upper floors, more specifically any room service carts left unattended in their dead still hallways. Hilton Hotel, San Francisco

          This late morning, however, I wasn’t exactly spending the night, only more or less laying—rather hunching over spent breakfast trays left just outside the room: a castered server half full of cold Eggs Benedict, bacon slabs, nibbled croissants and a peach Danish, flip-top beakers of warm orange juice and tepid coffee. Ritz-Carlton, it wasn’t; but the price was right. I scarfed away like a Sub-Saharan Bedouin in a UN refugee camp, at least until footsteps echoed down the hall.

          Where else was I to go? The plan was to scare up Tony to somehow hit him up. But meal ticket Tony was a no-show after a two-hour wait and I had no expense account to cover the hotel’s Gazebo buffet grill. I’d already burned through much of my meager grubstake on Central Y overnights and buckets of cheap coffee, trying to disentangle the slip knot that my here-or-there, she-or-her conundrum had become. That all landed me the first empty black/gold leatherette throne chair in an intermittent row extending nearly the length of the Hilton lobby. Flumped down among a textile contingent from greater Cedar Rapids, I overheard shop talk on everything from Coit Tower to coitus interruptus under Carol Doda’s guiding hand.

          Simple-minded Midwest strategizing: maybe that was why I soon warmed to the whole chintzy scene, the marble-plated columns, mirror-tiled walls, red-orange low-pile carpeting and ice-crystal, cut-glass chandeliers, glass showcases with double-knit blazers and laser art, souvenir mug shops clear to the doors. The sales reps’ crass predictability enlivened the place, taking me back to no-nonsense, meat and mashers Chicago, somehow putting me at momentary ease. Tony Panescus worked here—not today though—and was Nate Grimaldi’s speed, always sort of a scumbag, yet familiar, fathomable, homegrown. And at this point, that slender thread bordered on a verifiable genetic link.

          “Have business here do you?”  This bull of a house dick in Hilton two-tone blue stood suddenly between me and an overhead TV monitor. A spit-polished star flared across his barrel chest, service revolver weighing heavily on his pelvic protrusions

          “No, just, you know, sorta waiting for a friend…” I sat up straight, barely put together as it was, straining to hear a Channel 4 midday news brief on the U.S. Supreme Court’s handing down of some Bakke decision on reverse discrimination and, more locally, another brutal Pacific Heights attack, this one in Alta Plaza Park—can you believe that shit…

          “Not one of those Moonie types, are you,” he dwarfed me with an up and down stare. “No soliciting or loitering, house rules…”

          “Soliciting? This whole hotel is soliciting,” I blurted, product of cold caffeine and fatigue, itchy in my tan oxford cloth shirtjack. “I’m probably the only one in this place not hawking something or other.”

          “OK, time to move on, fella,” the security guard insisted, tapping my worn denim at the knee with his walkie-talkie antenna. “Let’s go…”

          “Yeah, yeah,” I mumbled, following him to the lobby doors. “Loitering—what the hell do you think I am? Hell, I was puttin’ on the Ritz not that long ago.”

          “Uh-huh,” he handed me off to a doorman and several bellhops like a sack full of used linens and towels. “But you might just want to cozy up to a shower and razor, hear what I’m sayin’?”

 sr dingbats

          “Crank her over…”

          “Dunno, don’t think she’s getting enough…”

          “G’wan, let her rip…no stones, no cigar.”

          After considerable sole searching and auto surveillance, hitting the pavement for a place to shave and shower, I finally did light upon something of a prime situation. I’d run the San Francisco perimeter like a house-hungry realtor before finding it, just about all 49 square miles, plus or minus, mostly minus on the monetary ledger, before tentatively settling in.

          All I knew was I wasn’t gonna be just some palooka going down for the count again.  needed to take some half measures, baby steps, one ingrown toe in the pond—a temporary psycho-emotive furlough from current space and time. Respite was the idea, however fleeting, from the split decisions, the hard truths and consequences, to put a little distance between me and myself—Saturn ringing in my ears, still sorely missing that amulet. So here it was, sunny and breezy, conveniently positioned with breathtaking views of the bay. There were no leases or deposits; references weren’t required. I couldn’t kick about the rent, had no hassles with utilities, and damned if I wasn’t free to come and go as I pleased. It was in The City, but not quite in the city, with choice front yard location, location, location.

          Really, who could beat it, especially since my liquidity had already been substantially pissed away: No big bucks, no metered towaway zones, no Tenderloin congestion closing in. Steaming coffee wouldn’t be a problem, either, although the hot part of the shower might be a trifle touch-and-go. And even if any change of address might be somewhat iffy, the post office didn’t need to know. Nevertheless, laying down roots could be problematic, despite the fact that my Volvo warmed up to it right off. San Francisco called this area Aquatic Park, but my sedan just called it quits. So for the time being, I kicked the old Swedish clunker in the grillwork and called it more or less home, albeit with conscience and cognitive dissonance immediately taking hold. “No dice, must be my damn battery…”

         “Keep pumpin’, I’m bettin’ on a bum generator or the voltage regulator…”

          “Sorry, but I’m not much of a gambling man.”

           Aquatic Park began at the northern foot of Van Ness Avenue, its main drive curving down gently leftward to the Municipal Pier, which then proceeded to fishhook dramatically rightward out into the bay. At first glance, I had paused at the North Point Street crest, with salty bay breezes drilling my sinuses, mentally tape looping the circumstances that drove me here. I’d coasted down past the posh Fontana condo towers, into the park proper, turning around at Black Point—where the pedestrian pier began—finally conking out in an open spot halfway back up the lane.

          A parallel-parked motorcade of high-mileage rattletraps lined both sides of the WPA vintage cul-de-sac, and I saw no red curbing, so settled on in. A key lock of the ignition brought a measure of relief: no meters or towaway signs; fresh, bracing environs, beautiful neighborhood, top of the town. Still, there was something about the neighbors. Aquatic Park, San Francisco

          “So then maybe it’s the jumper cables,” said a rail thin, pencil-neck Rasputin named Clifford, between chomps on a slightly bruised Gravenstein.

          “Naw, they’re good. It’s the generator, I’m telling ya,” Eric Graffney insisted, straightening up from a heavy lean over my right front fender, his voice echoing between the Volvo’s windshield and opened hood. He was a curly dishwater haired wrench jockey with everything south-coast aspirational about himself but a cratered complexion. “Here, you got a screwdriver?”

          “Uh, there’s one in here somewhere,” I said, glancing about the car’s interior from the driver’s seat. “But I’m kinda trying to keep away from sharp objects these days…”

          “How ’bout the warning light? It on?” Clifford Noreaux looked into the car, just after my key turning and throttle pumping paid off, the dual-carb four-banger firing up and revving like a barnyard tractor.

          “No, but it might be burned out,” Eric said, having bounded around to the driver’s side window, looking in over my shoulder at the black padded dashboard.

          “Yeah, I know the feeling,” I said, slumping at the wheel as the Volvo backfired and died all over again, lacking a sustained spark.

           “I say let’s yank the whole damn generator while we’ve still got daylight,” Eric wiped his hands with a Gunky red shop rag. “ I have metric wrenches in my car…”

          “Which one,” asked a hefty young woman who had just climbed out of the van right behind us, stepping up to the breakdown with attitude and a small fruit bowl.

          “Say, I don’t know if…” Before I could dissuade Eric, he had already crossed the narrow drive to the middle of three Porsche coupes parked end-to-end in front of a white scout boathouse with its skiff-packed, wood piling-anchored dock jutting into the Aquatic Park cove.

          “Nectarine?”

          “Um, no…thanks,” I smiled at this earth mother, she with auburn hair to her waist. “That guy drives a Porsche?”

          “Eric? More like driving him bonkers,” she nodded, rather lewdly licking the nectarine she’d been slicing with her Victorinox knife. “I’m Sherry Fleener…”

          “Ken Herbert, pleased to meet you,” I tracked Eric as he finished wiping clean his hands, then pulled a Lucky Strike pack from his olive REI quilted vest. “Which one’s his?”

          “Take your pick,” she winked, shaking loose the bunching in her flowery muu-muu. “He owns ’em all.”

          “All three?” I watched Eric more closely once he lit up, then reached into the white Porsche—between the red Porsche and the silver blue Porsche—the one with the ‘And For This, I Went To College?” bumpersticker slapped over a crumpled left rear fender.

          “He’s got one more in a garage by Pacifica…where’s home, where you from?”

          “Midwest, Colorado…like that. What’s he doing with four Porsches?”

          “Movin’ ’em around mostly—fighting off parking tickets and tow trucks,” she motioned toward the front of the Volvo. “Me, I’m sorta together with Clifford there. The little gnome still futzing under your hood. Even though he’s way more mystical than mechanical…we’re from Schenectady.”

          “No offense, but he does seem a little weird to me,” I snapped, while still drawing a bead on Eric, and the wire-haired mutt with a sawed-off tail that was busting out barking from the dirty white Porsche.

          “No, he just gets a little too stuck in his head sometimes,” she said, still sucking her overripe nectarine, and scraping the hair back out of her eyes. “Now, Eric, he’s weird—not right off, maybe. But you watch…”

          “Well, I don’t figure to be around long enough to find out…”

sr dingbats

          “Alright, let’s do it,” Eric shouted in return, flicking his butt, slamming his toolbox down onto the curb. “I’ll get this sucker running fur shure…”

          “But wait,” I said warily, stepping between him and the Volvo’s engine compartment. “No sense tearing down my generator if I can’t come up with the parts.”

          “So we’ll rig it,” Eric pressed, glancing away from me, searching skyward over a high ridge lined with stately frame military officers’s houses. “C’mon, we’re losin’ the daylight…”

          “No, really, that’s cool,” I said, leaning paternally against my hood. “I’d rather sleep on it, let the battery re-charge itself, try again in the morning…”

          “Damn, suit yourself. Try to help a dude,” Eric grabbed up his toolbox, catching his dog sniffing around a leash-free keeshond over by a brick semicircle of slat park benches. “Bruno, get back here!”

          Not that Eric seemed totally tuned anyway, those asynchronous eyes suggesting that his tappets weren’t all well adjusted. But what turned me more amber were the Porsches across the way—all three of them with sunroofs and slotted, steel-belted rim jobs—in a racy little row. The red job sagged rightward, headlight casings gutted and bumpers dragging nearer to the pavement than any demolition derby queen’s. His silver blue rust bucket sported Ohio license plates, pushed-in fenders and taillights dangling by mere ground wires. The white centerpiece was so ravaged by saltwater cancer that its fender wells chewed their way up past the window frames and rocker panels oxidized down into neat little rust piles with every slam of the door.

          “Hey, I appreciate the effort, really,” I  followed him across the drive toward his cars, sucking up somewhat as a remedial hedge against tomorrow. “Trying to corner the market on Porsches, are you?”

          “How d’ya mean?” Eric asked, shooing his Weimaraner mix toward the fleet.

          “Uh, nothing—just thinking you’ve got your own little Gran Prix pit stop going here.”

          “Don’t get you. These ain’t even formula cars,” he snapped, fighting his white driver’s door, then kicking it open in a cloud of disintegrating metal. “They’re all Porsha 912s. Four cylinders, better mileage.”

          “Yeah, right,” I watched him place his tool kit carefully under a folded down rear jumpseat heap of worldly possessions, then snatching a baggie of sunflower seeds from between the torn maroon naugahyde buckets. “Gas crisis and everything…”

          “Yo, Ken Herbert,” Sherry shouted, head and shoulders shot up through the pop-top skylight of her Econoline van. “Tea time!”

          “Bruno, jump up, you hear me?!”  The dog suddenly sprang from sniffing around a nearby flowering plum tree up the fastback Porsche to its open sunroof, where Eric spat sunflower seeds up like it was watermelon day in Dixie. So he sat, playing mouth-to-mouth seedy foosball with his hovering, drooly dog, tuning in Rastafarian on new-left Berkeley radio, peeling away ripped red upholstery in long, leathery strips. “Piss on her damn tea…”

          “But I’m game,” I said to Sherry, approaching their van after returning to close the hood and lock my four Volvo doors. “What’s his problem?”

          Her two-tone blue camper opened out to a sidewalk lined with poppy top acacia trees. Beyond, a putting green lawn sprinkled with romping children, guzzling louts and dozing lingerers—all tucked neatly in the late-day shadows of a high Fort Mason bluff green and thick with gnarled shrubbery and forward leaning shade trees. I ambled up to the side doors, keeping a watchful eye on Eric and his sunroof-straddling hound.

          “He’s just pouting ’cause I cut him off earlier,” she said, handing me a stoneware cup of chamomile.

          “Thanks—er, cut him off?”

          “No more Morning Thunder for him after he went ballistic on us…”

          “Sherry, give it a rest!” It was not a big voice, but firm nonetheless—coming from sort of a hammock arrangement inside the van. Clifford rocked up there, modified lotus, reading Voltaire. “Watch your temper and blood pressure…”

          “Sorry, but that still boils me…”

          “Jeesh, what is Eric’s story, anyway,” I sipped, having stirred in some brown sugar.

          “Aww, he just spends too much time with his dog…some trail mix?”

          “I’ll pass,” I scanned up along the ridgeline tangle of willows, ficus, cypress and long-needle pine. “He looks like some scorched-out beach bum.”

          “Eric? Gimme a break,” she laughed, breaking off some wads of sourdough, grabbing a marmalade jar from one of her pine-panelled van’s built-in racks. She was a stout, but not too beefy new-ager with deep dimples and smooth, rosy cheeks. “He’s a landlubber from Toledo, need I say more? Just drink your tea, it won’t keep you up all hours like last night. We could hear you tossing and turning, figure it’s time we got to the heart of your problem.”

          “Me? No problems,” I dodged, focusing more on the Marley bounding speaker to tinny speaker inside the van. “Everybody into reggae here or…”

          “It’s this pinko Berkeley station, KMRX,” she said, passing jammed sourdough bread chunks around. “This is the Third World Hour. They broadcast a ‘Best of the SLA’ last weekend, Bill and Emily and Wendy Yoshimira did call-in interviews. Then they replayed some classic rants by Stokeley and H. Rap Brown.”

          “Really,” I swallowed hard, conjuring up Yippie memories of Kunstler, Rubin, all the Chicago Seven riding old Judge Hoffman like a Jerusalem camel. “How long you guys been here, anyway?”

          “Couple of months, in and out,” said Sherry, tossing a banana to Clifford, still swinging in metaphysical concentration, staring up through the pop-top with little more to say. “We get the bug, off we go—north, south, wherever…what about you?”

          “Just until I square some things away,” I downed my herbal tea. “Really, day or two max…”

sr dingbats

          Shadows soon reached deeply into Aquatic Park. Those Monterey pines and snarled bushes towering above us soaked up remaining sunset rays, from this grassy little commons eastward across the glassy bay. Fisherman’s Wharf shoppers and sightseers loaded back into their parked cars on both sides of the drive, chilled by the damp early evening breezes, quickly pulling away. Dwarf trees alive with wrens, sparrows and starlings fell suddenly still, yielding to the gurgling of sedulous pigeons and gulls. Squirrels and vermin unknown sifted down through the bluff side thicket. Bruno appeared to hear them, scrambling off the white Porsche roof to chase various pests up to Fort Mason’s tan steel-posterned concrete base wall, a fortification dating back to well before the WPA, even the Civil War. Aquatic Park

          “Over here, Bruno,” Eric bellowed through his driver’s side window. “I’ll kick your ass ’til it bursts, you hear me?!”

          “At least maybe your car springs won’t be squeaking tonight, keeping us wide awake again,” Sherry told me, scooping up saucers and cups.

          “No more tossing and turning, promise,” I smiled, liking her, headstrong as she was, with a little bit of Moon going on.

          “Sure, two to one you’ll be piling out for a 3 a.m. wizz pass like the rest of us,” she cracked and rolled her eyes across the way, pulling the Econoline camper’s twin side doors closed behind them. “Just keep your distance and aim straight—unlike some people around here.”

          To avoid that shaky prospect altogether, I slipped over toward the base wall to unzip and hose down a dark patch of shrubbery. By the time I re-emerged from the shadows, half the parking spots had been vacated and Sherry had battened their van’s hatches. So I cleaved my way into the Volvo for a second night of this front seat action, coaxing myself into the sedan, arguing its merits, fantasizing about Hilton hotel rooms—generally exercising my nerves, if not my options—another bout of road fever, totally roughing it, no stones, no cigar.

          Yet this was one of those cool, boundless nights—everything was underbrush and anything seemed possible despite the cost. Bridled waves slapped softly behind the Muni Pier breakwater, barely jostling the marker buoys and moored sailboats in Aquatic Park’s lagoon. Nearby nightlife spilled across the inner bay in coruscated pink and yellow lights, transforming the inky water into a rich, creamy broth, chatter and laughter passing me on sidewalks to either side. Dim, rattling hulls snuck in and out of the greater bay from Hong Kong and Hormuz under cover of foghorns, only to be flushed out by the sweeping Alcatraz Island beacon. And silhouetted in the foreground was Eric, still sitting in the middle of his three Porsches, washing down cigarette smoke with half-can slugs of beer. Bruno had coiled up behind the sunroof, low moaning for more sunflower seeds over the crackle of KMRX-FM’s call-in agitprop.

          There were stranger places to do this car trip, I rationalized, wrapping my sleeping bag about me, locking the Volvo’s doors again, sure and hard. I wriggled across the two front bucket seats, between armrests, around the floorshift and hand brake, finally jamming my feet firmly under the dashboard in the knowledge that the best I could manage between now and daybreak was a postural question mark. Giggly, beer guzzling college types scattered on nearby knolls, mixing with Eric’s high-volume radio talk show and muttering Chinese crab trappers into a penetrating audible olio.

          I hit my dashboard Blaupunkt for relief, tuning into ‘One of These Nights’ mid chorus, sending me falsetto reeling back to frigid, desperate high flagging along North Lake Shore Drive. Maybe this was sicko out here, but it sure was better than that. Now just do what you have to do to tamp down the inner fires, get everything back on track. So let your hippocampus sort through, decode those nasty old neurons. But I couldn’t say this retrusive cerebral grip wasn’t infecting my instincts, stirring my emotions all over again—the same fear, anger, rancor and discord, with confusion, oddly twisted pleasure ahead—that whole rackabones survival stew.

          I kicked at door panels and shifted about the front seats to tone down the oldies station, soon startled by the thumping of late-night joggers. A bleary parade of night crawlers then passed between me and the glow of Ghirardelli Square’s block-long sign, almost obscuring the fact that Aquatic Park had one more redeeming attribute, however ill advised—yah, getting in a mite closer to the action…

          She lived just blocks away, the Eagles reminded me of that—here, within walking distance of Syd’s place, how utterly bizarre. I pictured her laughing, cursed her, largely blamed her for it all. She’d make good by it, see it my way when I make my play, or else she’d have to pay. I then saw her groveling, naked and forlorn—feeding me nectarines under dancing California palmsfat chance of that. I so wet dreamed and schemed and plotted until the music fuzzed over and nightlights faded, and I could see no more. Except for spotting Eric, still smoking, swilling and staring out to the bay, tossing beer cans up through his sunroof, hitting the trash can in a reggae trance.

          I just quelled Van Ness Avenue’s ambulance and fire truck sirens by dialing in KMRX myself, if only out of idle, middle of the road curiosity. There I came upon a spirited Berkeley activists’ discussion of aid to the inspiring children of Jonestown, Guyana—of how they were truly destined to transform those jungle wilds into a utopian, perfectly egalitarian paradise on earth—if only Bay Area progressives would keep the faith and continue to support this vital cause in every way.

          I signed off rather uncommitted, just as the FM station’s phone pledges began ringing in, wrestling myself to sleep, hoping for a little mental downtime, some REM resolution of my festering personal issues. Or at least that I might make it past 3 a.m. without hitting the wall again…

 Care for more?

Chapter 58. Coming clean is an eye
opener to the dark, deeper scales
of manhood, making for the fits,
starts and sputters of an easy out…

 

“Coasting into panic mode,
past and present collide—
soon cutting both ways.”

          “Get those hands up…”

          “Left, the left!”

          “Quit your dancin’ around, stick and move…and lead with your right!”

          Like a tomato can’s corner cut man, I couldn’t leave the bruising wound alone. To hell with his Stetson and snakeskins, no way the cowboy Christian gets away with that. Brother Joe got his unjust reward for genuinely serving the Lord, walked God’s picket line for some blessed redemption, only to die on a scummy sidewalk with the final judgment of a blade in the back? And what about if I’d caused Joe’s demise by red-cape waving his tracts in the crazy cowboy’s face?

          That bluesy, punch-drunk old fart was the only friend I had here, for crissake, taken out by some god-less carpet bagging Jesus fraud. In one blinding moment, I wanted to strangle the righteoutinhorn, to knife him in raging earnest, to rush him amid his self-righteous screeds and carve his Beelzebub heart out right there beside that closed-up flower stand. But better judgment and my prefrontal cortex kicked in this time as I turned away and drifted south along Market Street, keeping that particular demon under wraps, at least for then.

          Instead, I fixed on Brother Joe, mourning him, revering him, absorbing him, making of him my saviour, my redeemer. I felt impelled to hold vigil at his altarpiece, retrace his very steps, devour warehouses full of testaments and tabloids on every blessed, lurid detail of his dreary little life. I wanted to hold his candle, carry his torch, lead his crusade up and down Market Street in his very same sandwich signboard and burlap wrappings, conning and converting every creeping glob of street scum as if being the missionary’s heir apparent.

          Most immediately, I visited Brother Joe’s likely haunts, if only to spread the dreadful news, maybe find out more about his nest and kin. First stop was Palace Billiards, climbing the former Graney parlor’s 37 steps as if the smoke-stained 24-hour relic were the Mount of Golgotha, delivering the word of Joe’s passing to a furtive slew of white collar and no-neck eight balls who couldn’t place—or didn’t know—him from Adam 12. This pilgrimage next led me back across Market Street, to where my message figured to carry a bit more immediate impact. Palace Billiards

          “Stop with the pitty-pats, work that hook and your corkscrew, why doncha…”

          “Yah, who do you think you are, Carmen Basilio?”

          “Little shoe skinner thinks he’s Carmen Basilio…”

          “Who’s Carmen Basilio, asked one of the young fighter/hangers on, draped across the ropes.

          “That’s like asking who’s Ray Lunny. Sweet Carmine was only the champ in two different weight classes. He took the middleweight crown from Sugar Ray Robinson, beat his best candy canes in a 15-rounder. Yep, won the Hickok Belt in ’57—athlete of the year, no dancin’ around there…”

          “And he never would have lost that one Johnny Saxton fight if the Chicago mob hadn’t fixed it—goddamn Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo.”

          Who was Ray Lunny, I asked rhetorically, having lightened my footwork up to two grubby, grumbly old trainers in overripe sweats, ringside coaching a couple of sparring, aspiring Kid Gavilans. Bosworth’s Gym was a bright, ruggedly decadent arena over on Jones Street, which opened in the Roaring 20s,  flourished in the 40s and 50s on a rich regimen of raspberries and cauliflower. But today, it sweltered somewhere in the high 70s, afternoon rays broiling the place through an overhead skylight hardly smaller than that stained-glass marvel over the Palace Hotel’s Garden Court. Bosworth’s domed daylight reigned over two training rings dead center in the aging gym, its pigeon-pocked wire glass panels effectively bleaching out an already talcum white, albeit soiled interior.

          Both rings were bordered with identical red, white and blue Everlast ropes and turnbuckles, leftovers from the Bicentennial, with long fluorescent fixtures hanging from the rusty skylight cranking assemblies directly overhead. Each ring also sported a pair of these local lightweights—grunting, bouncing, jabbing with Golden Gloves ferocity and dark, hungry eyes, trash talking the fights of their young lives through rubbery mouthpieces and protective headgear.

          “Who was Ray Lunny? That’s like asking who was Verne Bybee,” snapped the taller of two staff handlers, tossing towels to his baby brawlers in ring number two. “And who’re you anyway? Lookin’ to go a few rounds?”

          “Uh, no, actually I was just asking around about a sidewalk preacher type named Brother Joe, know of him? Short, squat black guy, he was a fighter earlier on in Louisiana, worked his way out here years ago, so I thought he might have hung around here…” Bosworth's Gym

          “I dunno, the ol’ ham ’n’ eggers come and go,” the other groomer said, hobbling over from the first, left-side ring. “Most of  ’em are just purse swingers,,,so what the hell’s the difference…”

          “It’s kind of important,” I said, breathing in the sweat and calamine. “He was murdered a short time ago, over by the Old Mint. I’m just trying to help sort things out by him.”

          “Kissed the canvas, huh? Well, we sure don’t know nuthin’ ’bout that.” The taller trainer rolled a cigar butt corner to corner across his lower lip, turning toward his supply room. “Who keeps track? Been a whole slew of chins workin’ out through here over the years. If they could hack it, they’d be contendas, otherwise just more mule meat on the pile. Gwan, gotta stock some liniment and shower soap…”

          “Sure, I only figured maybe…” My thought tailed off and jaw dropped like cut crystal as my eyes followed him toward Bosworth’s office and supply room. The length of its front wall was lined with fading framed photographs of Ring Lardner vintage: could have Brother Joe been among them?

          I stepped around a three-row set of seat-worn bleachers for a closer look, at Speed Graphic blowups of Archie Moore, Floyd Patterson and Rocky Graziano, Ring Magazine flashbulb snaps of Basilio throttling Gil Turner, against crowd shots of shouting, chomping, stomping stoolies bloodthirsty for a Paret-Griffith kind of beating. Above, sketch portraits of Marciano, The Brown Bomber, John L. and Jack Johnson swung from the gym’s pillar posts and skylight stanchions, looming over the ghosts of shady managers and purse skimmers, of bolo thumpers fresh off the Greyhound, pounding the bags; of local creampuffs just skipping ropes. But beyond a rough-edged wall diorama of Louis-Schmeling at Comiskey came the main Bay Area event.

          DING, Ding, Dinggg: I could almost hear the timekeeper’s bell as all eyes focused on the slick, gray-headed PA announcer, puffing out his red silk cummerbund and velvet-trimmed black tuxedo center ring. “Ladies and gents, headlining tonight’s card, The Brisbane Buzzsaw versus The Pride of the Mission”. A gallery-style photo sequence captured some bow-tied, medicine ball of a referee named Jack Downey overseeing the gloves touch between lightweights Verne Bybee and Ray Lunny.

          The next showed a third-ranked Lunny dodging the iron-chinned Buzzsaw rushes that had already bested world champ Chalky Wright, sharpshooting back on Bybee’s button, even with his brittle little hands. Capping the set was a yellowed Civic Auditorium poster, trumpeting undercards the likes of Jacklick vs. Montes, Sullivan vs. Tarzan, Shiroma vs. Romero—hometown pugilistic heaven on the brink of world war. Lo, the sweetness of that local science…liken to bring out that mean streak in me.

          “Ya know, I do recall this punch-drunk street jake coming around shadowboxing sometimes, an old walkover from Market Street, think he said he lived in a flophouse out by Dogpatch,” said the remaining trainer, having sent his sparring partners off to the showers, now wiping down his ring’s canvas. “Just more mule meat, liniment on the brain. But if I come up with anything else, I’ll letcha know…”

          Working my way out, I could picture the gym on amateur night, Guadalajara cockfights likely more civil than this house between rounds. Fedoras, Panatella stubs, double-breasted vest coats, Wild Turkey half-pints winging from these low bleachers toward the ring, the referee sweeping the blood-stained canvas like a homeplate whisk broom, side bets and bouts breaking out in darker corners.  It appeared that every able body came to train at Bosworth’s in those days, with photos and news clippings as proof positive.

          Still, Billy Bosworth had been gone several long years now, and the gym couldn’t keep pace with his legend. Today, water-stained glass stress cracked in the skylight, plaster peeled like scabby poultices off support pillars. Overweight stiffs were set back on their heels by ragged punching bags, CYO kids pumped some rusty iron on creaking benches, slaphappy palookas bobbed and weaved around one another for $4 per hour—the entire exercise cadenced by a punctual tape loop of three-minute bells. Essentially losing this round, I took leave of what remained of Bosworth’s gym. I wasn’t quite buying its trainer’s jabs, but couldn’t land much of a haymaker in response.

          “Joe was better than that, you know—a genuine contender in his day.” I snapped my mind back more into a Rocky Balboa/Sugar Ray Leonard timeline, sneak sliding Brother’s signboard behind a towel bin. “Anyway, much obliged. Find out what you can, I’ll check in again right soon, okay?”

          “Yah, sure, you and your Brother Joe…meantime, don’t be takin’ no rabbit punches in the clinches out there…”

sr dingbats

          “Denise is gone, up to Tassajara’s Green Gulch Zen Center or Synanon some place—still playing lost and found. What planet are you on?”

          “Uh, I’ve been around, was just stopping by to say hi…but, uh, how do you mean?”

          “I meeeann, we’ve been getting weird phone calls, then this overnight letter came…”

          “For me?”

          “No, for Ram Dass—here, you owe me another one…”

          Came away thinking maybe Bosworth’s trainer was right. Figured, backing another boozer, another loser—sure could pick ‘em, but then I’d long developed an eye for it, what with the ol’ man. One thing, deadbeats like that didn’t seem to ask much from a person on the come, but they sure take a truckload when they go. Surrender to the Lord—Joe did that, all right…off living his white cloud dream, still shoveling the bullshit—bless that wunnerful name of Brother Joe, bastard leaving me behind like this…screw it, had to go liberate the Volvo. Still, I had sunk deeper into that funk with every step toward the Eddy Street Garage, skulking down Jones, looking for the way, an angle, any acute angle out of this—a sign that struck a righteous chord, marshaling whatever remained of my resources, a trumpet that sounded the charge.

          Rather, I caught another billboard. This Foster and Kleiser special grabbed me at about Ellis and O’Farrell, perched diagonally atop a permanently shuttered hot-type printing shop, and what a heart-stopping work of commercial lithography it was. A brilliant Sonoran sunset amid the drunken Tenderloin squalor, cactus shadows dotting the foreground, a lone, sombreroed horseman galloped across the horizon, directly above the poster’s bold headline: ‘A Desperado’s Greatest Getaway’.

          The Bandito Tequila logo stuck in my throat like a wedge of lime by now, past images of Forrester, Blaine Advertising further blurring my present horizon—Michigan Avenue and the InEquity Center, taxis to the Art Institute and Orchestra Hall—Bob Gelvart making a killing, toasting Lacey Abbot-Tanzer and Larry Castalone en route to the corner office. A dash of salt for the walking wounded: that entire cooked-up Chicago scenario was now little more than a haunting peek at someone else’s parade.

          So I plodded over to the Eddy Street police garage, hands in my pockets, clutching my Wig-Wam sock rolled wad, resigned to springing that blasted car—not discover, devise, remember?  See that baby through if it kills you. But it’s tough out there, and don’t you forget it. Lighter by the tally of bail and storage a couple of days on, I drove west along Geary, back in the saddle, tuning into Dusty Street cueing up Boston’s latest, ‘Don’t Look Back’, desperate to get away from the Tenderloin, gnawseous at the prospect of sweating any more nights in and out of the Central Y.

          Hitting a string of timed green lights a couple of parking citation and jimmy-free days on, my mind drifted to great escapes even farther afield: Boulder, yeah…no, can’t go back now! Oregon, Seattle, that might work, someplace green and clean, real friendly—no crime, no foreigners, no fruits and nuts, nobody out for the big palm job. hit, not enough gas money for that. But anyplace, somewhere different, somewhere else. While the motor’s still running, while you still have a chance, ’cause that clock’s still running too. Go for it, Dyb, strap on those waffle soles… Yet reality soon hit me like a Park Presidio red light: fuel tank half empty, oil pan at least one quart low. That’s about when I flipped a right on Fulton Street, wheeling westward with Bill Graham authority on cruise control, opting to pay a little friendly visit, just flow with it, hadn’t one shred of an idea why.

          “Who the hell would,” I looked the envelope over, scribbled on as it was, front and back.

          “Don’t ask me,” huffed Regina Tzu, standing firmly in her doorway, like some after-hours bouncer at Studio 54. There would clearly be no welcome wagon from Denise Kharl here, no ease of re-entry, much less any overnight stays. “All I know is the bizarre crone making those phone calls was from another epoch entirely…”

          “Right, well thanks much and say hi to Thibeaux for me, will…”

          “He split back to St. Louis, stuck me with the rent, too…” SLAAMMMM.

          And like that, she was gone. I broke away from their Richmond District crib with mixed signals and emotions, steering out Fulton Street, turning into Golden Gate Park at 30th Avenue, that Express Mail letter sitting like a claymore on my shotgun seat. Now, Spreckels Lake, with all its swans, geese and remote-controlled model yachts, seemed a perfectly placid place to detonate the envelope, so I pulled over along the lake’s boathouse side, KSAN tracking side two, ‘Wish You Were Here’ on the FM dial, hinting at yet another wall-busting Pink Floyd release, slated for later in the year.

          The letter bore a Prairie Crossing return address, little more legible than that chicken-scratching with my name. A measure of morbid curiosity had me fingernail shearing open the envelope flap, unfolding a two-pager on school-ruled tablet paper, with a short feed store-labeled note attached. Spreckels Lake

          Signed by a Mrs. Ruth Nesmer, she introduced herself as a widow woman neighbor of Dellis Herbert’s, then explained as how she’d been helping my uncle as best she could through the sad ordeal spelled out in this enclosed letter. Crudely hand written by Dellis himself, with her clarifying annotations on the margins, it apologized for telling me this way, but only just found the Fulton Street phone number in his brother’s effects… effects?…didn’t know how else to reach me…for what?!…because so much had to be done…done?

          Deciphering Uncle Dellis’ scrawls as best I could, there was no massaging the message. His brother, my dad, had suffered a busted gut (per Ruth: a ruptured aneurysm on his aorta) all alone in the backyard house while his younger sibling was admittedly serving a little bout in the cooler after his latest weekender blow-up at the Prairie Town Tap.

          By the time Dellis had returned to the Herbert homestead, he found Ed on the kitchen floor, his corpse having exploded like a tire tube in the stuffy, sealed-up bower, blood and innards (Ruth: distended organs, intestines) all over the floor and walls, the stench somethin’ putrefied. After the county coroner left and they deterged, disinfected the mess, Dellis was in no shape nor mood to conjure up any semblance of a funeral, so he had the remains done (Ruth: embalmed), then hearse hustled his big brother off to the family plots. Sorry for the late and lamenteds, but somebody had to do somethin’ fast, Dellis signed off, you want any of his skimpy belongin’s back here? Ruth Nesmer had cosigned with her neighborly prayers and condolences—a wish you were here, underlined, adding a smiley face in good faith.

sr dingbats

          Okay then, what was done was done…and gone. Had to be there to really appreciate the descent effort, folks, but thanks a sonly heap anyway for the kind thoughts back there. Job well done, so have a cigar, boy, shine ‘em on you crazy diamond. Right, just pull away, Scot free—like nothing happened that you could have actually helped anyway—wasn’t your doing, just like with Brother Joe. So why did I shoot out past Rhododendron Island and the Buffalo Paddock on JFK Drive, coast bound in an unchained reactive blur of unfree association—caught in the crossfire of childhood and faraway laughter, if only they all could see me now.

          The fog in the head, dig? There was so much more to assess and reassess, gotta have some air now…stuff comin’ at me from so many different direction, cracks in the cerebral walls. I steered past the equestrian field and golf course, skirting the earlier tri-strangulation of Rainbow Falls altogether, thinking this was just Brother Joe all over again, only hitting much closer to home back there, like a hundred-car trainload of soybeans and corn. What were the last words: It’s awful lonesome here sometimes, God’s honest truth…dratted stomach’s been actin’ up more… Dellis ’bout drivein me to drinkin’ again…I’ll send you a little somethin’, a guy’s gotta eat. Just stay in touch, son…after your momma’s gone, the two of us’s all that’s left…Yeah, only needed a couple of bills to get me back on my feet…just between us sour Scots, understand.

          Those bitter filial pills overshadowed the beauty of Queen Wilhelmina’s Tulip Garden, the splintered, ramshackle majesty of the Dutch Windmills. How did Syd put it, ever see anything so fantabulous? Still, I couldn’t bear to revisit that first glance sunset stretch of the Ocean Beach Esplanade, instead gunning along the Great Highway past a run-down Beach Chalet and the park’s soccer field, side glances fixed on the churning Pacific like a Panavision-mounted camera car. Right, how about back heading back home anyway, smart ass—Moon over miasma, that door still left slightly ajar at Forrester, Blaine—there’s always Chicago if all else fails…that’d be classic, crawling my way to the suffocating place all the bright, daring people leave…back to what? Wellen and Gelvart would be Bandito sniggering all the way to the cantina…big trailblazin’ genius, gonna kill ‘em on the coast…why you’d have nothing more to say until your dying day…

          No blazing sundown today, as frigid, mid-flood gusts overwhelmed all the way down Ocean Beach, fog building in, sand piling over a stony seawall, onto these southbound lanes of the Great Highway. I rolled tight Volvo windows to the pounding wind and grains, as if that were the root cause of my shivering. Never had I felt so at odds with what I saw. At least the due west escape route out of Chitown held such infinite promise; but here I was, with nowhere east to escape to and nowhere west to go. So what about south, Santa Cruz south, Big Sur south, Malibu south, Baja south, what the hell, the Bandito and whales did it…but is that it, the pride? If pride’s the only thing…hell, that’s only openers—it’s what you did and didn’t do here and there. The difference between being a cut-up and a fuck-up, only the joke was on you. Everyone, everything you touched went up in smoke, torched ’em all.

          That went on the length of the coastal highway thus far, these voices pounding me like breakers against that tide-riddled beach. I drown in them, losing my grip on this wily, desolate stretch of shoreline until it dawned that I was damn near blowing town again in a last-legs junker out on bail, with my cameras still doing time. I swerved, skidded into a windblown parking area across from the city zoo and old Fleishhacker Pool—about as far south as the Great Highway dared to go.

          Think about it, Melissa you’ve destroyed, walked her right to the brink of paradise, then hacked her to pieces, nearly sent Syd over the edge. Came riding in out of the west like Gabby Hayes, forcing mom to go under the knife to take her life—killed your own mother you son-of-bitch! Your own dad split open like a hot melon, exploded in his own bile because of you and how you weren’t there to help him instead of hitting him up for a grubby touch. That wasn’t enough, so you did Brother Joe in for grins—might just as well have personally stabbed your only stinkin’ friend in town!Ocean Beach

          I screeched in between two seemingly vacated camper vans, then stalled the engine trying to jam into reverse. Trapped. I looked myself in the rear view mirror, and in the van’s reflective window. Sobbing, trembling, I punched the Volvo’s steering wheel, busting its horn ring and somehow firing up the FM oldies radio, quickly flipping off another Manilow ‘Mandy’ to Dan Fogelberg’s ‘Illinois’. Up the coast, down the coast, in, out—where was a life killer like you got to go? Everybody you touch you kill—everything near you just wilts and dies—you’re rat poison, radioactive agent orange… I fumbled with the Blaupunkt, but the music only got louder. Reaching into the side door map pocket, I pulled out a yellow handled Phillips screwdriver, fixing to stab the blasted radio into silence until it stopped me from shaking. Instead, I kneed it once in the push buttons and it squelched out loud. So what was left, you’ve destroyed everything else in your life, all that’s left is you. Why the hell not, nobody’ll know, nobody’ll care—it’ll be a big load off everybody. ’Cause god’s honest truth, what good are you to anybody?!

          I turned the screwdriver toward me, grabbing it firmly, drawing it to my chest. I poked lightly about my breastbone, to any fading echoes of ‘Mandy’s’ drums. I gripped the grooved plastic handle ever more tightly, fire in the brain, hands drenched and throbbing. Do it push, do it, motherfucker—do it, you selfish bastard and get this bullshit over with. Drive it clean through, no more wimpin’ out—push it, push it, PUSH IT!!! My head raced mercilessly as flailing waves broke over the seawall, against the failing shore, pressing me, cornering me, entreating me to take the final plunge.

          Voices, crescendos of taunting voices demanded I go ahead with it, that I do no less than what I’d done to everyone I’d known. There they were, all of them floating in on driftwood barges over ever quickening rip currents and sneaker waves. And all their brethren, disciples, cohorts and co-conspirators, an a cappella chorale: Do it, you devil, do it! Do it, chickenshit, push it clear through to the seatback and be done with it. Do the dirty deed like everybody says—aren’t you even man enough to get this done?!  There, ready, breath deep, count one, two—swallow your tongue and kill somebody… I felt a prickly pain in my chest, shot-like, a spurt of red dampness warming my skin…

          TAP, tap. “Xin Loi, lòng…’scuse!”  *

          “Get away from me,” I shouted through the window glass, over the resurging radio and some ungodly timed Beach Boys on the FM. Squelch, szzook, ssst, squelch… ‘…My way to sunny Californi-ay. On my way to spend another sunny day…’

          “Không, dùng ląi,” yelled a short, squalid figure, tapping more hotly on the side window, his gaunt, molish face trembling with horror. Layered in patched and overpatched raggins, he balanced a full potato sack on a shoulder pole. “Đó là rât xâu!  Công cų, nó sê giêt ban. Stop!!!

          Dizziness set in, swirling images congealed, then dissolved between me and the vast, empty sea. I could feel the blood trickle, clot in my CU T-shirt, soak and stiffen my chest hairs. Rolling, mushrooming mescaline swirls bobbed behind my eyelids, grotesquely vivid and colorful. Seemed all the more redemptive voices were chiming in: mom, Moon, Aunt Eleanor, Dame Thornia, even dad and Uncles Dellis to Early—but maybe that was just me. Squelch, sst…‘water, water—get yourself in that cool, clear water…the air’s so clean it’ll take your mind away, take your mind awaaayy…’

          TAP, TAp, tap. “Xin vui lòng, vê nhà đi, pleeeze. TAP, TAp, tap. The man looked Asian—Chinese, no smaller, maybe Cambodian or Vietnamese. He’d dropped two fishing poles to his side so as to rap the window bloody to get a rise from me, his round-brimmed straw paddy hat canting back to reveal an aged, salt weathered face.

          Damn radio had come back up, just like that. I finally turned my gaze his way, picking mindlessly at my sweater, winging the screwdriver viciously over my shoulder against the Volvo’s rear seat. I downed the window halfway and nodded. “Thanks, I’m all right, was just…”

          “Tôt, không có gì,” the fisherman snapped obediently, reaching down for his poles, carefully rebalancing his shoulder load. He then started down a low, crumbling cliff to the shoreline—lures, keys jangling, his rubber boots squeaking in the sand. “Cám on ban, tąm biêt, bye…”

          “I’m all right, Jee-sus…” I wailed, mortified, downright scramble-brained, but gratefully heaving nonetheless, nodding to this timely cut man for sparing me the TKO.

          ‘…Cool cascades of that clean, clear water…and the chaparrals flow to the sea, ‘neath waves of golden sunshine…’  Fuckin’ Beach Boys, everlivin’ stereo teenage dream: I cranked up my window and broke down like Mekong Delta rice paddies after the saturation bombings. I double-checked my door lock, pressed my aching forehead against the steering wheel and cried, moaned, trembled worse than a Memorial Day mourner on the National Mall.

sr dingbats

         …Police sources say the murder suspect was apprehended without incident. He was allegedly ID’ed with the assault in progress on the frame margins of security video captured by The Mint’s new external camera system. Speculation on motive centers around a turf conflict between Market Street’s so-called sidewalk evangelists. Further details on Newsradio 840, top of the hour.

          An offshore fog bank had moved in markedly during my personal storefront, accompanying winds rocking the Volvo, whistling through its weatherstrip-worn windows. A diversionary retune of the radio dial brought a hint of welcome developments, yet I still needed some air and a bit of distance between myself and this steamy rig. That I got, a frigid, full frontal blast that dried up my drippy cheeks the moment I opened the car door.

          Yet my skies must have been clearing some, for I could soon see most everything now, and everything was foggy gray. Relentless winds pushed me back as I edged toward a low, crumbling cliff. They braced me, helped crust the blood blot on my Colorado T-shirt, plugged the prick cold, at once settling and agitating me, like the sheets upon sheets of frothy, furiously white-capped sea. ‘The air’s so clean, it will just take your mind awayyy…’

          Yeah, fuckin’-A California dreamin’ Beach Boys—Dick Dale and the Deltones. Righteous waves, transporting, transcending you from your landlocked Midwestern ways, your longing for paroxysms of paradise, an endless, heavenly California of the mind—riding those waves, soaking up that west coast sunshine, not freezing in this cold-cocked, soupy, dreary squall…

          I looked for the fisherman, who by now had vanished, as if he’d never happened by—just another shuffling loner along miles of seaweedy, gray-brown shoreline between ghostly Sutro Heights and Pacifica. Among the scattered, frizzled wind-combers, bundled up couples tossed sticks to their wet Labs and Samoyeds in the tide, as acclimated to the steady coastal battering as the shifting dune grass and sandblasted apartment houses out here, up and down 48th Avenue. Deep sighs drew in salt spray, the aroma of sodden kelp, and stench of beached sea life picked over by monster gulls—all mulled in a thick, penetrating mist like pictures of the Salton Sea.

          I turned back to the Volvo with water and ‘Surf’s Up ‘Til I Die’ on the brain—where to go, already sucked in the undertow, stuck with the goods in a leaky brown paper bag. You wanted it, you got it! I shook my fist defiantly at the reflection in my car window, down here on the ass end of San Francisco, rust-gutted clunkers along dull, nameless Outer Sunset streets, grim fog blankets over Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro. Somewhere, the sun was shining, everybody was blond and bronze. Christ, there were even tree-lined places with porch swings, though I could no longer remember how to get there from here.

          But amid one long, lost-cause pan along The City’s backside, a huge, lording crucifix atop Mt. Davidson caught my eye, bringing to mind mom and Brother Joe, who somehow penetrated my aching axons and dendrites.  Crawling back into the Volvo, I flipped on the end of another radio newscast, a glib, gossipy item about the latest celeb sighting out here at Ocean Beach, of all places: ‘A certain mayor known to get down to business in his Alpha-Romeo with a young thing named Maggie, addressing affirmative action, were they, all in the lines of duty?

           Then came the Doppler prognosis: ‘Coastal fog with patchy low clouds extending inland nights and mornings, partial clearing in the afternoon’. Sounded familiar, too close for comfort, but inevitable, just the same. You got it, I buttoned up, blinked and swallowed, casting up and down the beach for a smoke-filled, hard-rocking Alpha-Romeo. So shake it off, asshole—let’s get it on here…lace em up, naw gloves off…and this time,  get it right. But first things first, there’s a whole other bag to fill…

* (ED Note: Punctuation not precise.)

End of Stage Two.

(Prepare to Rendezvous
with S/R 1978, Stage Three.)


“Loss of worldlies and such,
leaving another life behind—
      nothing much in its place.” 
 

          “So let’s just drop it, why don’t we?”

          “Negative, you’re already on the hook.” 

          “But I’m right here…hey, wait a minute…”

          Wrong on two counts: I had assumed room 718’s door pounder was intent on clearing the Central YMCA Hotel in the face of proximate fire danger—namely, a three-alarmer sparked by some immigrant spit-roast gone ablaze, which I’d spotted on a shifty little late-night…breather. Come morning, S.F.F.D. mop-up crews actually located the source in another Krupp Arms unit, wherein several Civic Center squatters had short-circuited a space heater they’d found scrapped behind Brooks Hall. As for that hallway clarion, I found only a mimeographed notice taped to the door numerals—an invite to a benefit prayer breakfast at Peoples Temple, featuring a blessing phoned in by Rev. Jim Jones himself, directly from Jonestown. On that, I didn’t bite, nevertheless did grab a paper cup of gratis Y lobby coffee and a day-old cruller on the way out, having left my little personals box centered on top of 718’s metal writing desk, which was hardly larger than the bible it held.

          “You need to step back, fella…let the man do his job…”

          “No, look, the door there, it’s ajar!”

          “Whatdya expect? This ain’t valet parking here…”

          But prior to that sub-continental breakfast, I had made a haggard, baggy eyed diversion to the men’s room one story removed, straightening up as best I could, safely beyond the watchful stares of who and whatever might be going down in the head on floor seven, even this ungodly early in the day. All through a quick, bloody shave and brush, I pretty much had this latrine to myself, disused as it was with corroded mirrors and basins, with upended bays and stalls of cracked, piled porcelain and unsprung doors. None of my concern, however, since I was focusing on a more problematic picture: stuck here in the Tenderloin, retracing the tracks of my car. A few fruitless laps around Turk and Leavenworth, and I spun off to Hyde Street. There, under a clearing sun, I at long last spotted my Volvo, though not before others had done the very same.

          “Hold on, just let me check,” I slipped over to the car’s left rear door, taking pains to peer inside, if only because the whole rig was hanging at an acute angle. “Shit, somebody’s busted in!”

          The sagging sedan was caught between two flashing construction signs outside Wally Heider’s recording studio, from inside which it sounded as though Carlos Santana was loudly laying down something new. PG&E workmen standing impatiently nearby explained that the utility would be digging under this exact spot to install a new higher-capacity power line in its vault, and that, one way or another, the old Volvo had to go. My more immediate, internal concern, however, was what appeared to be already gone. Hyde St., Tenderloin

          “So, what’s the damage,” asked a patrolman perched atop an S.F.P.D. three-wheeled motorcycle, while continuing to concentrate on his paperwork.

          “I don’t know, a gold pocket watch—my Uncle Early got it from my grandfather, inscribed and everything. Plus a cable knit sweater from Ireland, the leather jacket I got in Firenze, a whole backpack full of shirts and underwear, hard to tell what else yet,” I fretted, surveying the rear seat and floorboards. “How the hell did they get in here without breaking anything?!”

          “Probably slim-jimmed it,” said the officer, scribbling away without once looking up. He set his citation book atop the cycle’s fuel tank and whipped out his notepad. “Not pricey enough to smash and grab. Anything else?”

          “Slim what? Well, at least they didn’t get my cameras,” I reached around to find that the trunk lid had not been pried open too. “Got to have those, they’re about all I have left…”

          “Yeah, that’s life in the big city,” the cop jotted down the items. “We’ll get this into the system, run a make on the local fences, see what pops…”

          “How about detailed descriptions, how’re you gonna know from anything…” I craned my neck to follow the upward pitch of my car, seeing Syd and the squareback at Ocean Beach all over again as I glanced back at a powder blue tricycle. “We’re talking about my belongings here, my grand dad’s watch, for crissake. What kind of police services is that?!”

          “Look, if your stuff doesn’t surface in about an hour, don’t be keepin’ no vigils, ’cause it’s probably halfway to L.A. already,” snapped the officer, nodding to the PG&E crew, itching to fire up their pneumatic drills. “Nuthin’ much we can do about that.”

          “So, am I at least off the hook?” I watched with faint hope as a City Tow driver winched the Volvo all the way up on his boom and double-checked the bumper chains.

          “Out of my hands,” the cop said, exchanging his notebook for the citation book, ripping me out a fresh one. “You’re way over limit in a towaway zone, and already on the lift. Just like once I’ve started writing you up, there’s no turning back, no exceptions. Here you go…”

          “Oh, great,” I spouted, grabbing the parking ticket. The thought of a remedial offer, Chicago-style, greased my lobes—until I realized I couldn’t afford that, either. “C’mon, I’m new in town and just lost my ass, isn’t there anything we…”

          “Careful, son,” the patrolman stiffened, likely figuring I didn’t have enough scratch to make this all go away anyhow. “But you can plead your case in traffic court. And the nearest city garage is only a couple of blocks from here on Eddy. Walking distance—you can bail her out in about an hour or so. The tow will set you back about $45. But hustle on over and cover, storage goes $20-$30 a day…”

          “Please, officer—that’ll totally clean me out,” I spouted, springing my camera bag from the trunk, before waving the Volvo good-bye, with the Stratocaster riff lowly streaming from Heider’s storefront studio getting drowned out by air compressor-powered drills. “How am I supposed to…”

          “Still got your cameras, dontcha,” he kick started the Harley, snapping his helmet’s chinstrap. After packing the leather-bound books into his black motorcycle jacket pockets, he revved, as if to all-clear signal the pavement-cracking PG&E crew, then pulled away. “Could always hock those…”

 sr dingbats

          “Like the sign says, we make sure you get yours…”

          “So can you take it down a notch, I’ll do four bills…”

          “Sorry, sailor, this is Canon gear, top of the line, can’t go one thin dime under $650. Next…”

          Left in vehicular limbo and cloud of concrete dust by SFPD’s uplifting hospitality, I scrambled about the Tenderloin for anything resembling an out. Problem was, my mind was crossfiring in so many different directions. There was this visceral spinning of wheels around Turk, Jones and Eddy; I couldn’t stand darkening the Y Hotel’s doors again, at least in this bright light of day. On a clinical level, I resorted to rationalizing the degraded humanity at every corner, along each dismal, drug-infested block in between. These lost, wretched souls couldn’t help it, remember—being so socio-economically deprived. Society did it to them, right? Prejudice, learning disorders and curricula devaluation, impaired nature/nurture, negative reinforcement, cultural discrimination, protein deficiencies. But wait a damn minute, some of these suckers ripped me off big time, could have been any one of the screwy buzzards…

          By Turk and Taylor, the bummer druggy deviance, the falling down boozy babble—those poor Vietnamese kids obliviously playing on grimy, glass granulated sidewalks like T-loin streets were paved with golden paddies instead of needles and a urine shellac—all of it was wearing on me, more and more. Through some pinball line of reasoning, thoughts inexplicably turned to my ol’ man, in his Sunday flannel robe, still half slurry asleep after a Saturday night binge, hung over, groaning and belching from shots & beers and tavern chili con carne, from spouting off for hours about his ball-busting boss and back-breaking sale orders—red-eye bitching about morning-after bird noise, lawnmowers and mom’s freezing him out with her after-mass radio. One of his midnight pearls did stick with me however, now hanging as it was around my unshaven scrag like a flaming Nigerian necklace: Never get to where you’re at the mercy of a pawnshop.

          Crossing Market at Sixth Street, I dodged panhandlers and various ragged curveball pitchmen in my circular polemical deliberation. Get on with it, walk it off. Nowhere to park in this town anyway, but it’s California and the meter’s running, gotta pry loose your wheels. I held on tight to my camera bag amid all the preying eyes: all you’ve got left, dodo, like what about your big pipedreams about making it as a photographer? They’re your ticket, not the fare. But lotta good that would do you if you can’t get anywhere to worth shooting? No pawn shops, remember?! Gotta get outta here, numbskull, this is getting seriouser and seriouser… Still, I was beginning to feel the weight of the surplus army canvas bag on my slumping shoulder, passing Chinese luncheonettes with their steam trays of chow fun and pork buns behind steel-cage windows, onward past discount shoe stores with sidewalk racks of left foot-only oxfords and slip-ons to deter light-fingered locals. Then there were more loud, hi-tack electronics outlets—leading to where much of that equipment tended to end up sooner or later anyway.

          “Step up, friend, how can we help you today,” said Dez Drexel, proprietor, puffed up on a couple of seat cushions, framed like a currency exchange kiter in a rear store pay window. He was chewing at a six-inch cigarette holder FDR style, two rows of four video monitors behind him, so as to zero in on every grubby inch of the place. He pointed up to a sign above the slot. “As the sign says, we’ll right your plight.”

          “Uh, something in your front showcase there grabbed my attention,” I gestured in turn over my shoulder toward where the shore leave Navy swabbie, who’d dickered for that Canon camera, marched empty handed out the door. “The Railway Special pocket watch, next to the Benrus Gazelle. When exactly did you get that?”

          “The Hamilton? Been collecting dust goin’ on a month now, if a day. Why, wanna make that little baby yours?”

          “Depends, does it have an inscription or anything,” I asked, through some cotton morning mouth of my own, studiously rubbing my stubbly jaw as best I could.

           Already so ambivalent about venturing into The City’s prime tri-light strip, Id shied away from bars, liquor/groceries and a series of signs bearing the drop shadowed or neon rendering of that four-letter word, ‘Pawn’, let alone ‘broker’. I had just about resolved to abort this tout before taking one more step forward/backward when I spotted Golden Bay Collateral & Loan—most notably, a pocket watch in its front window display that looked suspiciously familiar, down to the gold-leaf numerals and hair-cracked facing. Sneaking a long peek like a Baptist minister by the dirty magazine stand, I could feel the felonious heat from there. That and the GBC&L’s euphemistic veneer were just enough to pull me in the door.

          “Not likely, we only deal in legit provenance here,” Drexel said, rising slightly in lumbago pain and mild indignation, blowing smoke through the grated window, as if taking stock, weighing my valuations. “So what else you got for me there?”

          “Yeah, well, I do have these, and find myself in a bit of a…pinch,” I sighed, hesitantly opening the bag to reveal my photo gear.

          “Hmm, interesting, be right with ya.” With that, he stepped out from behind his security window, quick totting a long glass display case filled with radios, stereos, mini tape recorders, watches, and assorted estate jewelry. On the Old Glory muralled wall behind him were guitars, amplifiers, brass instruments and firearms—.22 and .45 pistols to deer rifles and semi-automatics, to name a sampling of his rotating inventory. By the time he reached me, I had spread my equipment out on the countertop. “All Nikon are they?”

          “F and F2, plus bayonet mount Nikkor wide angle, telephoto and zoom,” I replied, with proudly matter-of-fact crispness. “They’re my bread and butter, so this would just be a short-term arrangement to tide me over…”

          “Not bad merch,” said the broker, lifting and aiming each body, silver then black, snapping the shutters, focusing in and out on the lenses with calculating vision. “But I’m swimming in cameras, can’t go one thin dime over $250 for the whole bag…no wiggle room, don’t even ask.”

          “What? That’s highway robbery,” I spouted, glancing up at that ‘Right Your Plight’ sign. “This is top-of-the-line equipment, like you said, and in perfect shape. I’ve had them since new, with the filters and everything. Besides, you’re asking $650 for that single Canon and two lenses…”

          “No, that’s free enterprise, the all-American way,” Drexel snapped, poised to turn back toward his pay window. “You won’t get any better on this street, and your gear is safer in Golden Bay. But it’s your choice, you’re talking to a busy man here….”

          “Hmph, more like free fall,” I carefully repacked my camera bag, as if sending off a natural born child to foster parents. But I was loath to groveling into any other of these pawn shops, at the same time picturing spiralling car storage bills, which left little wiggle room to…jew him up, as it were. “Let’s get this over with…”

          “Now, there’s a sensible man.” The pawnbroker continued on back to his cash cage. “Just stick your camera bag into one of our client file boxes there, and step back to my window.”

          By the time I’d glumly placed my bag into one of GBC&L’s plastic containers and shuffled over to the pay wall, Dez Drexel was peeling off five crumpled fifties, filling out his serial-numbered claim ticket. “Here, don’t lose this…and you’ve got 30 days to repay and redeem.”

          “Don’t worry,” I yanked the money and pawn slip out of his sliding transaction tray, noting another sign, to the right of the pay window, which read, ‘No Cash, No Carry. No Carry, No Cash’—looking to see if my father was standing, brooding over my shoulder. “I’ll be back long before then…”

          “Where’ve I heard that before,” chuckled Drexel, putting up a lunch sign in his window. “We’re just glad to right your plight today.”

          “You sure there’s no engraving on that pocket watch,” I glanced away toward the front window. Counting, cramming the cash in my wallet, I realized the only way I was going to inspect that casing was to buy the timepiece outright, as in when I returned for my cameras.

          “What’re you insinuating, smart guy…that I’m some kind of Rod Steiger shyster dealing in hot merchandise,” the broker spitting out his cigarette holder, flipping his off-gray toupee. “Go take a shave…we’ll see what you have to say in 30 days…”

sr dingbats

          “Get ’em behind you…”

          “Waddn’t there, didn’t do it!”

          “Shaddup, chico, behind you, I said.”

          Clocks were running, time was fleeting, and my wheels within wheels weren’t turning fast enough to keep up. I sure as hell wasn’t keen on hanging along Sixth and Market Streets. Although I did windowshop the pawn storefronts a bit further for pocket watch sightings, spotting a fobbed Bulova or two, but nothing else even close. Any further toward Mission Street, and I risked sinking into more ground glass and reptilian discharges, if not succumbing outright to the fumes. So I turned up Jessie Street, one of those clogged mid-veins splitting the block between main downtown arteries.Jessie Street

          WWWWWWWWWWRRRR. Two-thirds of the way toward Fifth Street, several young Latinos pushed past me at full gallop, vaulting dumpsters, scattering sun-stroked winos like so many Union Square pigeons. A baby blue SFPD squadrol and two patrol cars had converged on Jessie, directly behind the historic U.S. Mint Museum, effectively sealing off the remainder of the block. Yet they were scarcely in time to shut the street down all the way to Sixth, thereby allowing the youths to flee halfway to their Mission District barrio before I could re-collect myself and feel for my little pocket wad. Save one kid, for an officer managed to bag the weaker, stockier of the Latino litter—who couldn’t keep pace with the pack. This burly cop blocked and tackled him behind the old ‘Granite Lady’ at Mint Street, two other uniforms now standing over them, service revolvers drawn and aimed.

          “Owwwch, didn’t do nuthin’, man…” He was just an overgrown kid in a black knit Raiders pullover and gray Ben Davis pants, riding real low.

          “Shadd it up, I’m tellin’ you, and get them hands behind your back,” shouted the patrolman, knee firmly between the shoulder blades of the prone Latino, snagging his pony tail and hairnet, wrestling to slap cuffs on the suspect, who was squirming and flailing like a crab before the cracking. “You have the right to remain silent…”

          “Yo, dis loco, got the wrong hombre, comprende!”

          “Comprende this, punk. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law…” What likely set the cop off more than usual was the sucker punch the kid threw at him on the way down, where the officer drove his scruffy face into the pavement.

          “Everybody else keep moving,” shouted his partner, pistol still trained on the youth, while scanning about for any more evidence of his colors. “Nothing to see here…”

          The two patrol cars shot off, sirens and lights full tilt, in pursuit of the other bangers, whatever—not my business, it wasn’t going to get me my cameras back to capture all this anyhow. I edged away from a dumpster I’d just ducked behind in the case of gunfire. Headed for Fifth Street, over toward Market, maybe I’d shoot the breeze with Brother Joe on my way north of the slot. Last I looked, the two uniforms were lifting the pudge, twisting his arms back even further, spitting on him, kicking his low-hanging ass into their squadrol, his work pants dragging against the mucky pavement as he thrashed wildly to make a break for it.

          “Looks like another drug burn to me,” said badge number 836, talking shop to his partner as badge 657 thwapped the kid sharply across both knees with a nightstick, before delivering a vengeful right cross to the bridge of his nose—all more Chicago style black and blue than I cared to allow. “Must be fourth this week, already. Either that or it’s gang-making season again.”

          “Umph, get in there, scuzzball,” grunted a carrot-topped 836, losing his cap as he pushed the suspect into the rear of the squadrol, slamming its steel-barred door.

          “Not me, mon,” the Latino kid sobbed through the door windows, blood streaming from his apparently broken beak. “It was that other…”

          “Shaddup in there,” shouted 657, as the wagon’s radio blasted anew. SQUAWK, SQUAWK, “All available units, Fifth and Mission”…SQUAWK… “Homicide still in progress, over…” SQUELCH… “Ten-four, over…” SQUELCH. “Everybody back, that means you, buddy, best to move on…”

          “Who, me,” I pointed to my chest, frozen in place while the small crowd was disbanding like normal looky-loos. “Yah, sure…thank your for your co-peration.”

          WWWWWWWWWWRRRRRRrrrrrrrr. But that didn’t seem to be the end of it, incident-wise. More sirens, police radios reverberated off surrounding buildings, by way of Market Street, off Mission—converging between here and the intersection at Fifth—as though encircling the Mint amid some sort of misplaced coin caper or reserve note haul. I slipped past the landmark building’s 100 year-old sandstone sidewall. Those sirens continued wailing off a nearby Provident Loan Bank, the Chronicle tower rang one bell as I reached Fifth Street and somewhat a larger, buzzy milling of midday sidewalkers. Only this time, the shrillest alarm came from a red and white fire department ambulance.

          “Vicious animal,” one woman shouted at a shadow in motion. “Look at him, a person’s just not safe anymore!”

          “Back, folks,” a baton-ready cop ordered, splitting the crowd to clear a path. “Give us some room here, will you please…”

          “Good for the fuzz,” sneered a retiree who had doddered up next to me, decked out in orange and black, on his way to a Mission Street bus stop, running late for another slaughter at Candlestick Park, what with the dreaded Dodgers in town, even with Vida on the bump. He gestured toward the departing squadrol, large foam finger on hand. “Damn spic hoodlums…”

          “But they nearly killed that kid in the process,” I replied, turning away from Jessie Street to Old Mint’s front side, this crowd tightening in as the ambulance approached

          “So what? Look what he musta done to that coon there,” the Giants’ fan snorted, motioning to the circle gathering about MUNI’s bus stop.

sr dingbats

          “Help him,” that same woman screamed, pulling down on her flowery, wide-brimmed sunbonnet like dear Auntie Mame.“Somebody get that ambulance here before he…

          “Everybody just make way, give him some air,” said another patrolman, having raced over across Mission from the Chronicle building, more fully widening the path.

          “What…coon,” I blurted, still so thoroughly caught up in the Jessie Street police scuffle that the incident before me went unseen. But to this crowd, whether lunchtime workers or seniors waiting to board buses for the Peninsula, another victim was the main event.

          “Coming through—nobody, nobody try to move him,” shouted two paramedics who had just leapt from their ambulance, roof lights still flashing, doors left wide open all around.

          “Back, I said,” the cop ordered, wielding his nightstick. “Who saw anything here?”

          “Saw what,” I asked a retired stevedore on my other side, just belching out of a Cathay Tea Garden lunch, who was craning for a better look. He simply pointed a bit down Fifth Street, roughly out front of the Mint’s classic Greek Revival portico. Old Mint, San Francisco

          The circle drew back like prodded Holsteins as those medics dropped an aluminum stretcher beside a different victim. From what  I could step up and stretch to see, he appeared to be an elderly black man—awash in bloodshed, soaking in his own juices like raw calf’s liver, which oozed out a heinous back wound through a blue-gray raincoat and…green burlap wraps. The victim lay there in a grave, flinching heap, with perhaps two dozen gasping bystanders on deathwatch, no one moving or saying a word.

          “Joe,” I shrieked in recognition, suddenly following a blood spot trail that led from Jessie Street to the Mint front, pushing forward until a nightstick was thrust my way. “Joe, Brother Joe!!!”

          “Stop, you hear me,” another blue uniform pressed the stick firmly into my gut. “Know him, know anything about this?”

          “Uh, no, just talked with him over by the Emporium sometimes,” I cried, holding impulsively against the polished SFPD baton.

          “So get back before I run you in,” badge 743 said, then shouted over me. “Again, who saw what happened here?” The crowd remained stony silent, save for an occasional kibitzing murmur among strangers.

          The paramedics carefully slid a thin fiberboard under the victim’s limp legs and bleeding trunk before wrapping him in blue ICU blankets, lifting him level onto their stretcher. Even from this distance, I could search Joe’s bloodshot, dripping eyes for any signs of hope. They were but mackerel eyes in a Bayview fish fry, and his pained cocoa face beaded with sweat. “All right, all right, make way,” shouted the lead paramedic, as the team rolled the gurney past us toward the ambulance and its loud squawking radio.

          “Joe, Joe, remember me,” I beseeched, the medics wheeling by, barely within earshot. “The other day, Chitown, right? Keep on fighting, champ, you’re gonna make it just fine…”

          “Bless that wunnerful name of Jesus, bless that…” Joe’s frail voice trailed off, his blind stare jolted and fully froze, blood drained through seized lips as though some old fishwife had just yanked the hook. His empty face scrunched like spoiled morning grapefruit into the stretcher pillow as they lifted him to the ambulance’s rear bed. The paramedics closed the doors behind him, one staying in the van, hooking him up to its emergency hoses and hardware, while the other began driving off toward SF General Hospital, albeit with siren and flashers turned down.

          “You, you know something,” I turned to the sun-bonneted woman who, along with many others, was scrambling to a MUNI motorcoach, which was now pulling into the bus stop well behind schedule. I heard you…

          “That true, Lady,” asked badge 743. “What you got?”

          “The hell I do, I saw nuthin,” she said, waddling away, scouring her purse for exact change and transfers.

          “I heard you, dammit,” I raged in her tracks, staring into her veering eyes. “You fingered him, called him an animal! Do what’s right, for godsakes…”

          “Did you or didn’t you, Lady,” the cop shouted her way.

          “Got not one thing, I swear,” she muttered, lowering her voice as she boarded the bus, dragging Macy’s and Liberty House shopping bags behind her. “Just end up getting sued or something over that. Let the Good Lord sort it out… 

          Onlookers scattered—traffic, stalled buses loaded and pulled away. I was one of the last to leave, having pounded the side of that southbound coach at the woman in vain, then watching policemen process the crime scene: blood spatter to footprints or fingerprints to Joe’s last scrappings of life. His ‘Come Back To God’ sandwich sign lay tipped end over, fully closed; his leaflets were scattered about. I wanted to move the sign, to save it, to wear it as some sort of badge of dishonor. To where? His candlelit vigils, his full 21-gun salute, a commemorative museum for sidewalk saviors working that road to salvation, hell bent for higher ground?  San Francisco’s finest shooing me off, I followed the post-lunch traffic toward Market Street as the Chronicle tower clock struck two bells, if only to retrace the preacher’s sanctified steps, maybe give a silent eulogy at his hallowed ground by the Emporium flower stand. Instead, the first thing I spotted upon turning the corner onto Market was that Cowboy Christian, who had taken over Joe’s very sunny-side sweet spot, just beyond a gleaming blue and gold light standard festooned with Gay Pride banners and basketed bouquets.

          “You bastard,” I yelled at him, although keeping safe distance this side of the flower stand. He simply smiled my way, straightening his Stetson, then waving a bible in one hand, while slashing his index finger across his neck with the other, small plains twisters in his eyes. “You phony son-of-a-bitch!”

          Swear I could have killed the god-forsaken devil right then and there. I caught myself fixing to adrenaline rush him like some sort of holy steamroller, but that was about when I spotted a new billboard high over Hallidie Plaza across Market Street. The visual was some boasting, toasting Pancho Villa character in desperado garb and a bandolero. Its introductory campaign headline read, ‘Take It For Nerves Of Steal’, the cantina cursive logo being, Bandito Tequila.

Care for more?

Chapter 56. One sudden blow after another, going 
down for the count, fleeing to a sea of woe, which ends 
up in a pointed panic attack and foreign intervention…


“Getting sidetracked can 

take its toll, depending on 
how afar and steamy the stroll.” 


         “No cash, no bash—don’t be wastin’ my valuable time.”

“Think I’ll pass. But lotsa competition here, huh?”

          “What can I tell you? This is still a wide-open town, I don’t care what they’re sayin’…”

          I’d wandered off from Union Square with the outlines of a stratification study and keen impression that the women grew taller and tougher out here in California. Having vanquished the vermin, St. Francis socialites had repaired to St. Francis, the hotel, to toast their moral victory with tonic and bitters. Leaving behind the bench sunning office clerks, dickering, bickering drifters spread out all over grass and bordering grounds. I myself gravitated through Geary’s theater district, back downhill on Leavenworth in search of the basics, not least my car. I’d even grabbed a few loose luncheon canapés and varietal veggies on the way, but couldn’t shake the pigeons. That fingered food carried me over near the Hilton Hotel tower on O’Farrell Street, where I came across this lady of the early evening, and what she had to offer.  Which had recently been decriminalized by City Hall, until Mayor Moscone was forced to change his everlovin’ mind on that by the political pols and polls.

          “Yeah, way I read it, the gospel according to Margo St. James,” I said, dated Clarion and Chronicle under my arm, side eyeing her sheer peignoir up and down, soft and rounded for a low 30s figure. The unabashed red pasties and G-string under thigh-length gauze, her flaming red hair were no less incendiary. “I read somewhere about the police chief and that Hookers Ball deal last fall.”

          “It’s professional sex workers, honey, we have our pride…and Chief Gain does happen to be into our scene.”

          “Right, like regards that, I thought maybe we could talk about feminism, the whole women’s power phenomenon,” I looked away, clinically speakingfor all intents and purposes anecdotally, if not empirically adding to my socio database. “You know, from your perspective…”

          “Perspective? Move along, Opie, I’m conducting business here.”

           There I left this nigh twisted transaction, with a pounding head and sinking heart, walking through a dimmer intersecting tableau of Tenderloin grit—Leavenworth to Taylor, Ellis to Turk. For several hours of  skirting voices, seeking answers and resolution, I searched in vain for the Volvo in question. Mid-blocks, or on most every corner, stood lots of vinyl hot pants, circulation cut-offs and purple velour mini-skirts, harlots wearing navel-grazing necklines and knee-high platforms, stuck in preening, provocative poses like imperfect Barbie Dolls on a wildcat-idled assembly belt. The Tenderloin was either hookee heaven or hooker hell, one-stop johns from the Hilton and beyond, trolling for more supple supply on demand, critically grading on the curves, looking out for cops on the take for bookable misdemeanor mischief.

          In my case, it was still more or less decision time, but this Socratic method was running me in circles as I shot things up and down the flagpole. Streets slick with oily spittle put the skids on any quick, clean resolution, not to mention downhill traffic from DWI Gremlins to storming graveyard-route tour buses. And the contact high from lids of Mendocino primo being chaffered on every other corner made my already wambly thought process little sharper. I had walked the whole scenario around and through ’Loin sleaze for several sole crushing hours, fondling tighter and tighter the hanky around my modest pocket wad, before resigning to one more night at the Central Y. Was just booking a reservation, whether actually opting to use it or not—clinging to an in, hole carding an outstill regressing to the mean.

          “I’ll sue! I’ll sue, you bastaaad,” ranted a walking wounded Tenderfoot halfway through the crosswalk, waving his plastic grocery bag like the scales of justice at a non-stop turning Bay City cabbie who nearly took him out, before speeding away. “Writin’ down your number right now, yah your crackbrain jig is up, you…you…”

         Damned no-account taxi hacks, can’t trust them, I steadied his course.  Turk and Leavenworth, Leavenworth at Turk: I scanned its four corners with a fisheye sweep, placing the likes of that redhead and her swinging pasties at every turn, but spotting no less treacherous path through the intersection. Across Turk, the Crazy Eights Club dealt a loudspeaker blast of Parliaments and goldy moldy Motown, funky brothers strutting in and out of red glass tiled entrance, catching their Afro reflections off pitted stainless steel doors. Eights’ neon highball goblets cast a rose or gimlet green glow over the entire corner in alternating five-second pulsations, beacons to a shot and beer trio jaywalking across Leavenworth, numb to their peril. Along those lines, I wondered how I could get so brain-drained thirsty at a time and place like this.

          “I dare you to split on me!”

          “I just did, and I’d do it again,” shouted a tight white flared blade. Pompadour caving, Hawaiian print shirt flapping out louvered swinging doors, he paused and turned back, finger waving, toward a voice shrieking from inside a cater-cornered rawhide bar. “With you, it’s Harvey this, Harvey that—I mean, you’re really Milkin’ it, Donald. Well, I’ve got some good ideas too, you know…””

          “But don’t you understand, Timothy, he’s our messiah,” replied that voice from the darkness. “Didn’t you see him at the parade, making that brilliant speech with the Gay Men’s Chorus behind him? Come back here, I tell you, we can talk this out…”

          “Hmph, he was like a movie queen on the back of a convertible,” the outsider huffed, slump shouldering his way back into the bar. “And you know what can come of that!”

          Jacque’s Strap had no front windows, club owners having boarded them over with black plywood. Mandarin orange floodlights modestly illuminating an athletic supporter-shaped logo, the bar resembled that one house in the neighborhood that seldom if ever raised its shades. Still, the swung open doors revealed a dark, low-ceilinged barroom pelted with purple and yellow strobes, generally middle-aged buckaroos bent elbowed, back to the bar, saloon style, eyes on the dance floor, rubbing thigh to thigh.

          Rather looking askance, I hadn’t a clue what that scene was all about, wasn’t at all curious, sociologically or otherwise. So I instead clawed the wind-blown hair out of my face and trudged over the remaining Turk-Leavenworth crosswalk to a far corner liquor/grocery. Get off the street, asshole, before they think you’re one of them. But the Y’s any better? You’re zonked, for chrissake, gotta eat something. So get the room, one more night in that goddamn room—no matter where the night might take you…

          A huge neon sign glowed blue blazes above the Toledo Market, six stories of torn curtained bay windows and laundry-strewn fire escapes loomed dimly atop that. Crowding the market’s doorway, leaning heavily against its steel grilled windows, was a hive of Tenderloin brothers, buzzing about the storefront after cash and carrying their hourly transfusions.

          Menacing as they first looked, the bloods lent an air of vigilante stability to the intersection, seeing as how San Francisco’s finest rarely ventured out of their squadrols to aid the ’Loin’s dizzy stiffs. Hookers even used them for patrol boys, to stare down roughhouse pimps and chase down deadbeat tricks. After a rasher of skank eye, those nearest the doorway allowed me into the no-credit, no exception package pantry. The Toledo was a junkyard market, six cluttered aisles of SpaghettiOs and kippered snacks, with caselots of Campbell’s cans and a whole wall of chilled malt liquor and tawny port. But it was thickest with mirrors—a supermarket, Walmart warehouse of mirrors. Toledo Market

          Two Syrian ex-pats behind the counter had rigged them so they could watch every dusty inch of the Toledo from every conceivable angle: head-ons of their pretzel rack, overheads of the dairy coolers, floor shots of the pain relievers/toiletries, ¾ frontals of the Spam, canned ham and single-serve corned beef hash. The proprietors monitored it all like Houston ground control, leaving the ebb and flow of local commerce gridlocked in mutual suspicion and contempt. Accordingly, I shuffled over to the beverage case, clutching my handkerchief, catching my image from every unflattering angle, pulling out a 16 oz. cola.

          “Plus just one of your sourdough rolls there,” I pointed to a countertop bread case as I approached the Syrians, making clunky conversation to ease the transactional friction. “Big dinner out tonight—spare no expense…”

          “One thirty-five…” No smile, no smirk, little or no service: The taller of Toledo’s proprietors rang me up, barely taking his eyes off the mirrors. Those junkies over by the snack racks didn’t stand a beggar’s chance. “Bag?”

          “Yeah, why not,” I fingered through my pocket wad, feeling the hot, alky-ashed breath of a wino or two over my shoulder. Unrolling two singles off the top, I grabbed a nickel mint and the too small paper bag, rushing toward Toledo’s door. “Much obliged, I’ll be sure to spread the word…”

          The Syrians had already sacked up a jug of T-Bird for the oenophile to my rear as I negotiated the store’s doorway, eye on a departing mirror image, mind on getting away clean. I squeezed between a trio of off-track handicappers and a street sister in tight red velour and black boleros who swayed with authority toward the brothers in arms, one of whom reached down to pick up a handkerchief wrapped roll. “Hey, man, dropped sumthin’ there…”

          “Uh, yeah,” I stopped dead in my tracks, as the Toledo regular handed me my wad with bloodshot, linebacker eyes. Couldn’t believe mine, for that matter: How I could let my measly bankroll squiggle so mindlessly from my damn pocket?  “Thanks, you don’t know…”

          “Good karma, bro,” he nodded coolly, as I relieved him of the wad. “Try dishin’ it back sometime.”

sr dingbats

          Dusk setting in, I calculated that it was back to the Y Hotel or bust, having left a few minor items in 718, already being down to roughly $86 and change. Slipping past the desk clerk to the elevators proved whispery smooth going; the room door, no such breeze.

          “Keyholed, some jerk jammed up my lock,” I spouted to the usual, wide-brimmed night clerk downstairs, cleaving through a packed lobby with a smiley face notice that had been attached to 718’s door handle, reading ‘See the Desk’.

          “Not jammed, blocked,” smiled the Carlinesque clerk, continuing to stamp his ledger. “Checkout time came and you hadn’t renewed. We had no choice…”

          “B-b-but my stuff’s in there…” I stabbed at my pocket anew to secure my bill roll. “What, you thought I’d skipped town or…here, let me…”

          “A person who racks up a $50 phone call is capable of anything,” he caught my eye, as if to forestall any notion I had to begin pounding on the counter, pointing me toward a small office down the lobby hall. “But sorry, 718’s already booked for this evening, and your personals have been boxed up in lost and found. We have a full house as of now, but you’re welcome to hit the waitlist.”

          “Come on, I’ve got to have 718. I’ve grown really attached to 718 and everything, where the hel…” I blinked, creature of habit, signing on—then turning away downcast into a lobby that seemed more like a rubber room with soiled Depends. Few of the gathered were regular tenants; even fewer were regular at all.

          Hunched, slouched, slumped, coiled: it was as though the ceiling were a huge hydraulic wine press, stuffing them down to knee level, squeezing them dry of any reasonable, hopeful life, leaving the pulp for some renderer who never showed. Among the Central Y’s lobbyists were the bent, the broken, older than young men—but too many were still young enough to know better. Most were just marking time, making piddly-ass dope deals over half-chewed candy bars and re-smoked butts. But what was the Y to do about it, pack them off in a West Oakland shipping container? How bloody Christian was that?

          Click, click, click, ding. Click, click, click… I glanced over to one small corner of activity, however, a bank of relic IBM typewriters, steel bracketed to a walnut-panelled wall. Chained to the casehardened frames were one-each orange plastic chairs; chain-smoking in the far seat was an inordinately peculiar little man. He paused only to pump another quarter into a timer box, laundromat style, buying another 15 minutes of drifting margins, chipped characters and unexpected returns. The vintage electric machine hummed like an overloaded cement mixer and aborted at will; but this baggy brown suited dervish was not to be untracked. He looked like he’d been hunting, pecking at the workforce since Owl Drug was perched on Powell Street, and the States Restaurant across Hallidie Plaza offered dancing and a floor show.

          Tanked on vending machine coffee, he pounded out letter after letter, folding and stuffing them neatly into pre-addressed envelopes. His stubby fingers sometimes overran the keyboard, or a type ball would jam with the falling ashes of his gnashed cigarettes. I sidled up to him to relieve some ennui—an encounter, as it happened, fraught with indignation.

          “Job hunting, huh,” I asked, figuring him to be at least comparatively productive hereabouts. “What’s the good word?”

          “Back off,” the typist sent up a Taryton smoke signal of annoyance, cranking his manual return.

          “I hear ya,” I nodded, straining to read what appeared to be a bare bones resume. “Am up against the same…it’s a tough town job-wise.”

          “Get away from me, I’m warning you,” his cantaloupe head swiveled violently, ashes flying, eyes flaring behind bi-lined safety lenses, chomping his cigarette to within a silly millimeter of its fire. Just as he turned back to the keyboard, his time ran out. “Goddamn queer,” he popped in another quarter and pounded away. “You after that crap, go up to the seventh floor!”

          “A Mister Ken Herbert, to the front desk, please,” shouted the night clerk, over the lobby wide murmurs and IBM hum. “We’ve had a last-minute cancellation on your room.”

          When I finally returned to 718, personals box in hand, the room’s door was ajar, and two clean towels had been placed bedside with a sampler bar of Camay. Nothing had changed otherwise, save for the fresh scent of Lysol and layer of Tenderloin street dust. I closed the door and window, but couldn’t bring myself to flick on the room light, nor to shed my jacket or untie my boots. I was here, yet wasn’t here—return disengagement—it’d be another ten hours in limbo, then out to my getaway car. Yeah, I thought, washing the sourdough down with Cherry Coke, really set me up again, another night in this purgatory palace, half the place sizing you up for an end run. What a big-ass go for glory, for the California gold—probably end up next to that horn-rimmed melon head, pounding out resumes to nowhere at a quarter a throw…

          Against all impulses, I lifted the towels like they were asbestos laced and shuffled downhall to the head. Pushing through its louvered door, I heard shushes and scurrying not wholly unlike that of cellar rodents moments before the lights come on, except for two prima donnas too busy wet-comb preening at the sinks to notice more poorly groomed intruders. I skirted that fuss and frizzle, much less the showers, holding my breath enroute to the toilet room, almost wishing I’d relieved myself in 718’s little basin. All four rust pinkish metal stalls appeared to be occupied, the farthest only partway closed. I felt like a ‘Let’s Make A Deal’ contestant.  Then came the audience participation.

          “Ohhhhh…”

          “Hush, giggle face…”

          “Shhhh…”

          “Yah, hush up, bitch!”

          With banter like that, I opted for the half-opened door, figuring that whatever lay behind it was the lesser of four evils. Wrong. Someone had left his mark: two rolls of streamed wet bunwad and a jackpot of screaming trots amid rancid graffiti: graphic bestial positioning and odes to indiscreet rim jobs, replete with numbers and times. Hell on the appetite, but no match for my gaseous insides, so I took to peeking under the remaining stalls. Trouble was, all were evidently occupied, although none of the feet were facing front.

          Beneath door number three, a pair of scuffled cordovan Wee-Juns pointed wall ward, rocking back on worn heels periodically before toeing in tightly to the bowl. The lurches were timed ominously to harsh, rampant wretching, dry heaving that tortured the lavatory with diaphragm rage, needle sleeves scattered about. No relief there, little more hope behind door number two. Those shower clogs weren’t walking anytime soon. They just swung several inches off the floor, trousers drooped down over them to the belt, toes curling, the whole mess swaying to rifled pages and a crescendo of heavy breathing.

          “Stop it, ohhhh, stop!”

          That left door number one. I’d just about pegged the gasping to this nearest, yet darkest of stalls, approaching it with gut-thumping apprehension. Not entirely unfounded, as a shard of light revealed suede Pumas with their drawers down as well, sneakers spread firmly on the floor tiles.

          “Oh, you banshee!” Only there were these buffed Italian boots hot on the Pumas’ heels, crowding up behind, scuffling back and forth relentlessly, with barely a rumple at the cuff. For a moment, I fixed quizzically on the four play. “Ohhh, goddamn it, ohhhh!”

          It registered soon enough that this door, this whole 7th floorshow was some grim little fairy tale. I blew out of the latrine, visions of that three-act Greek tragedy searing my sensibilities, sourdough and Scandia bakery swelling my bowels, vowing to curb squat rather than return therein. Tearrrrr: I tripped over a wear hole in the carpet runner, kicking beer bottles and Fresca cans down the hallway with a 7th floor high-volume medley of everything from Engelbert Humperdinck to new Johnny Mathis to Donny & Marie burrowing into my ears, door to door. After hitting a somewhat tamer latrine one floor removed, I slammed into 718, soaked with sweat and a sense of relief I couldn’t really stomach. But at least the room was paid up until tomorrow noon. Thus I shut the window and chained the door, bouncing off walls that seemed even muddier as the sun went down, with a pick-to-click preview of the Village People’s ‘Y.M.C.A.’ now echoing through the hall.

          At least I didn’t squat curbside, like that little Asian man across the way, smoking in front of the highrise as though it were a thatched hut back in the Mekong Delta. What was with that building, anyway? I’d overheard one of the Y lobby slugs say it was owned by some Nazi weasel holed up in a Hitleresque bunker near Tierra del Fuego. That he slumlorded over property all around the Tenderloin—and that Wiesenthal headhunters were after him for war crimes, the entire Western Hemisphere for back taxes. Y’s nightclerk had called the place Krupp Arms—somebody had even spray-painted same across its front wall in swastika red, matching the signage of a self-storage warehouse next door. Above that rose thirteen floors of sliding door windowalls and curving iron-railed balconies, an appliance store wall of wide-screen tubes, each tuned to a different docudrama, only the color was a trifle too vivid, the reception all too crisp.

          There on four, third from the left, two headbanging mainliners played shooting gallery and Motley Crue, trying their shaky hands at rubber hoses and hypodermic hepatitis, searching for that one elusive uncollapsed vein. Up on nine, second from the right, a slinky, stripped bare queenie pranced in and out of his sliding doors to a Chaka Khan beat, probing hisself between slugs of Cold Duck, tempting fate against a hip-high railing, as though someone would actually coax him down.

          Ducks! Hanging raw and dripping by the neck, soaking into beige carpeting and rice sacks, trickling down into lower balconies—barefoot children dancing under rose-yellow paper lanterns. Four-generation families circling Bhudda-style idols in one-room efficiencies empty save for flickering black and white TVs.

          I started to pull off my jacket and shirt, then decided to sleep in everything but my boots. Slipping between coarse sheets, I killed the light: darkness, except for a window shade slit of reflected flames apparently engulfing a turning spit across the way—Seamus, where was Seamus?! Rolling over, I rationalized it had to be more of a porcine corpus, curling up to scratch myself to sleep when my spirits sank to a newfound Manilow, the sound of ‘Mandy’ from 716, seeping in through 718’s vented door.

          Still, the Mandy lament did get me to thinking. Right, it was all Her fault. Damn, why’d she even come around? Snotty bitch with her foreign ideas, drove a wedge right between me and happiness, nice trick. Yeah, where was she now—make your own decisions, my ass! Shut up that stupid radio over there!!  Scratching, clawing, kicking at the covers here in the darkness, everything was getting coming into focus now,yet fading to blackHer timing was so obvious, how deep did the whole scam go? Sure, first step, get the whitebread chump out of the way. Her brother Lester bleeds his heart that he couldn’t live without Moon, but she was with this jerk in Colorado now. Not to worry, she says, I’ll take care of everything, that’s what sisters are for. So she gets poor, naïve Melissa to toss us together, then waylays me in no-man’s land. Then she nudges Moon to get us back to Chicago, well within her brother’s reaches, get her whole family on the case. Meantime, she’s yanking my chain to come out here again, leaving Moon vulnerable as an Idaho doe. I take the bait, and she stiffs me DOA, hightailing it back to Chicago to seal the deal, getting Melissa back in the Mandel fold, stranding me here in San Fransylum, panning for fool’s gold. Clear as cut crystal…nooo—this was way too sick and crazy for words…

          The mere, demented thought of it all petrified me like that haply roasting dog, right up to my own innards—cramps punching, gas once more swelling my bowels. Ears belfry ringing, my head roaring its reactive outrage by torqueing at the temples and brows. Suddenly, I was swimming in my clothes, with no calming beachhead in sight. Christ, what if Moon knew, was in on it all along? If she just couldn’t bring herself to make the clean break on her own? Now, she’s free and clear, no matter what she said, is probably back with him right this minute. Right, no wonder she could hang up the phone so easily. That Herbert, what a pushover, what a pathetic sap. As if you didn’t let it happen, as if you didn’t make it happen, Saturn and you…

          Man alive, I caught myself digging into the metal headboard, scratching nails over and over into deep, roughened grooves with rodents’ persistence—bucking and kicking to their squeaky, pestilent tune. So everybody got theirs, and you really got yours, sucker—good and long gone—stop it, stop it!!! I sprang forward, punched the wall, tearing at sweaty, crusty clothes and bedding. My head clamped further, steaming like the top pot of a double boiler. This pressure drove me out of the squeaky single bed altogether, over to 718’s small sink and mirror. I flipped on its dim shaving bulb, cowering in the sudden light, face a twisted fist of splotches and popping veins, eyes draggin’ bags. My hair was pressed flat and stringy, though I’d sworn it had fallen out all over the pillow.

          I pounded at the mirror in panic, stress cracking it across its gun metal frame. No, Moon would have no part of something like that, no way! Gotta call her, she’ll tell me, set me straight…she’ll cool it all out in a minute

          Darting over to the wall phone, I screamed into the receiver to Central Y’s lobby. “Hurry, this is 718, I must place an urgent, person-to-person call to…”

          “Sorry, Mister Herbert,” the night clerk replied, “but I’ve been instructed to place no more long-distance calls for you, especially at this time of night.”

          “But I can’t wait until morning, please, I…”

          “Just following orders. Under the circumstances, I’m sure you can understand.”

          “Understand…bullshit!” I hammered the phone repeatedly against its receiver. Desperate rage burst in me like a bladder of ulcerous bile. I could feel my eyes swell and spin in their sockets, red and filmy, so that everything fuzzed over, shrinking and expanding to a constant cerebral throb. I kicked at a nearby writing desk, its chair, ripping at my clothes, then buttoning and belting back up again. Had to be, she must have rigged that, or Moon herself. Yeah, called the desk and told them not to let me call—oh, it’s so fucking obvious! They’re laughing at how that would make me crack, that’ll teach the asshole to dick around. There, was that a rat?! Damn desk clerk must have slipped it in, gray and slimy, squealing through rotten teeth and those stringy goddamn tails! I frantically pulled away at 718’s sheets and blankets, overturned the mattress in vain, cutting my finger on a spring hook, then sucking at the wound.

          Man overboard…I wrapped my right hand in a pillowcase, unable to raise the window shade. Suddenly, I buckled, collapsed in the corner with my jacket about my legs. About then, another round of shrill, Gestapo-like sirens quickened down Golden Gate Avenue, converging outside the Krupp Arms—this time, two S.F.F.D. engines apparently pulling up from their nearby station. For all I knew, it might have been a meaty spit fire jumping balconies.Tenderloin fire

          What in blazes, I sobbed, was I doing here again? Mom, help me please, get me outta here, make these rats go away. They’re bearing down on me, they’re gnawing at Seamus, he’s roasting on a turnspit! Then my forehead wrenched tighter, a bitter smile twisted my face as the red emergency flashers penetrated the pitch-dark room. But wait, she’s gone too, she was in on it with dad, I know. Them telling me Moon wasn’t good enough, too plain, splitting right on cue. Bet they’re all kicking back on their lazy front porch, spooning homemade ice cream under a full moon and breezy, shady maple trees. The gals all swinging away, laughing at you—Saturn orbiting out here in alien nation, livin’ it down at the hotel California, getting just what you deserve. Probably even Cassie joined in, long waiting to take her shot, and that redhead with the spinning tassels, too. Big joke, gotta hand it to ’em—they got all the marbles and you’re left holding the sack. They get real living and you just get life. Everybody’s got everybody, everything is everything is nothing at all

          And you’re here in the isolation ward, a mans world gone totally mad, so goddamn alone…go ahead, tell me that’s so divorced from reality, chump. No, don’t want to go on doin’ this all alone…where the bloody hell did I leave my car already…gotta get on up there and settle the score. But before hand, someone just kiss me and stop me from shaking

          Instead, there came this pounding on the door…

Care for more?

Chapter 55. On the hook with 
abandon, friends at a premium: 
events take a fatal turn, driving a body to 
desperation, and an edgy reckoning or two…

“Whoa, who figured this,
more than one had bargained for—
step back, boy, reel it all on in.”

           “Then we have a nice Prinsess Tarta…”

           “No thanks, had my fill of tart princesses for a while…”

           “Napoleon Bakelse, it is good…marzariners for you?”

           “Uh, little too rich for my tastes…I’ll go with the whatchacallit…Kanelbulle? One of the smaller ones…”

           The whole ecumenical Hallidie Plaza sideshow had nipped from every angle to agitate and annoy me with the cumulative trepanning of a bayou infestation. Meanwhile Market’s boarded up storefronts beyond Fifth Street were degeneratively beyond the pale. So I looked to a banjo picker and some cable car tourists for reason, sound direction, a trail marker or touchstone, resigned to following a full-on, bell-happy Hyde Line trolley up Powell Street in search of whatever downtown reprieve might be had.

          My eyes dropped to the pigeon crusted bricktop sidewalk as onshore gusts turned building-hemmed Powell into a three-block dust-blown canyon. Gazing down to about knee level, I caught the dead hungry stares of a disarmingly nuclear family: mom and pop in their early 30s, one each son and daughter. Only this unit seemed trip wired with fatigue and fearful frustration. Their small scribbled sign read ‘We have no food, no home. Please help us if you can’. Some did in passing, but I admittedly glanced away from the tightly clustered family against all my sociological impulses by hitting a little too close to home for study…or personal comfort.

          Instead, I focused on the major label shoppers, skateboarding punks snorting sliced pizza, bewildered tourists Kodaking each other on idle cable cars, or leering into souvenir cluttered store windows—unable to avoid the winos finger-fucking Ma Bell’s pay phones for lunch money. Yogurt and cookie shops, two-buck fifty steak houses, a mini Hong Kong bazaar of tee-shirt, crud jewelry and camera boutiques: All told, the uphill slog across Ellis Street sapped me of resolve. Which was why the cool, white-tiled Kryler Commercial Building seemed so cleanly inviting, so quiet and unassumingly dignified in a foreign, Hepburn, postwar sort of way. Two blue awninged storefronts up from its open-mezzanined lobby was Scandia Bakery.

          Scandinavian, all right—the bright, humming place was set in four tidy rows, with two-seat place tables the length of its blond paneled walls. Sun bleached photos of Oslo and Goteborg skylines and secluded fjords covered the salmon trimmed sidewalls, each blow-up framed with blue and yellow bunting. Customers looped around past long glass display counters shelved with Ostkaka, klappgrot, tall spettekaka and layered apricot ganache, not to mention all those fruity, frostinged punschrulle. I covered the kanelbulle roll with the friendlier of two full-bodied blond counterettes, who then winked me over toward a six-pot, self-serve coffee bar.

           Scandia’s regular trade had long settled in with a smordegspaj of petites fours and a coffee cup, proceeding to fire up for free refills until natural selection forced them to remove and relieve themselves. Miraculously, nature called at a two-seater midway along the far wall; I aced out a Champagne velour medicine ball of a dowager about four-foot-eight. She was incensed at my rudeness, swinging her fox stole around her shoulders like a bullwhip, cheeks florid as Scandia’s cherry tarts. I ruefully watched her huff away, trying to figure out why she looked so familiar underneath that daffodil detailed millinery. Sure as chandelier earrings, she might well have been Dame Thornia’s spiritual sister.  Damn Thornia, she’s the one who started all this Saturn shit, could just about kill her for that about now. 

          I soon caught myself spooning deep grooves into a white china coffee cup, picking at my cinnamon roll, careful not to meet any leering, disparaging eyes. But then everybody resumed their preoccupation with refills and cardamom. Table upon table gyred with the countervailing centrifugal force of stir-crazy sippers and their glucosed stares. Some patrons sat Stockholm straight, others slouched like louche Parisian boulevardiers. Up and down these bakery rows, the frail and foreign munched and dunked wienerbrod the afternoon away: crusty old San Francisco moneypennies, Norlander glumwarts unfolding and refolding their tourist maps, German fraus exchanging Deutschemarks and pfennigs. The place was a Pan Am terminal during Holy Week.

          Other, tipsy wigged Indo-Europeans clawed flaky havrekaka, dipping into black de-caf, Saks and Macy’s shopping bags tucked neatly underfoot. Back further toward the display cases, spindly Argentine and Venezuelan couples soundly debated the merits of Allende and Peron, not to be outdone by the jabbering old Brooklyn Jews glorifying Golda while bad-rapping Menachem Begin. Bereted Adolphe Menjues with clip-on shades slumped at corner tables, drawing off lavender cigarettes, lofting smoke into Scandia’s stratospheric twenty-foot ceiling. No Norwegians, no Swedes, Fins nor Danes, however—only those two full-bodied, blue-smocked counter waitresses who served up the sugar and kept the lid on any arthritic spillage or refill aggression. Got so I was beginning to feel like I was back on the Hauptstrasse in Heidelberg…

          “The mayor wanting more taxes, payroll yet. Can you believe this clown?”

          “Probably figures to siphon it off to his City Hall cronies…”

          “Or to his little girlfriends, maybe to bankroll more Gay Freedom Parades…”

          “How he got White to buy in, I don’t know,” said the nearer of two old-line San Franciscans, sharing friable drommars the next table over. The starchy, gingham-vested gentlemen looked to be Cable Car Clothiers, circa 1947, this chap of the David Niven variety. “Must be that Sutro Tower frying his brain.”

          “Just wait until downtown interests get Danny Boy to back off on the business tax,” sneered the other, more tweedy Raymond Massey style, gray Alpine hat atop his bird’s nest. They must have been corporate retirees out for their ritualistic afternoon tea. “He’s got to pay off his campaign debt somehow…something, or someone’s got to give…”

          “Well, Prop. 13 will table Moscone’s whole crooked agenda.” His compatriot chuckled right properly, raising his napkin to clear frosted crumbs from his pencil moustache. “You can bet your George Christopher’s medal on that…”

          Scandia’s front windows were immense, constituting the bakery shop’s entire façade, a floor-to-ceiling streetscape on the compellingly odder world immediately crowding Powell, not least those waves of Japanese tourists. Thus grand strategies were conceived and brilliantly executed in the pursuit of a half-dozen forward tables.  Stake out, strike, solidify positions with folded newsprint or pocketbook, and fight to submission anyone who might claim jump whilst a body waited in the serving line—not unlike in snowy Chicago Lawn.

          From where I sat, such flaring territorial skirmishes and the scene outside were more than enough to take my mind off issues at hand. Fat, ill-shapen continentals shouldering Lufthansa and Royal Dutch satchels paraded up and down Powell Street, sucking Orange Julius by the plastic litre. Goateed Hindus and Pakistanis in maroon topees and purple turbans bowed to and sidestepped poor, crippled wretches shaking coin tins, haughty L.A. gays swiveled pink and puff-chested toward Sutter Street salons.

          Dykes in battle fatigues and Central Valley boys in Lavelle and LeMaster Giants jerseys marched entirely the other way. Darkly staring art students lugged poster-size portfolio cases, carefully avoiding the crew-cut hustlers and rustlers who bobbed and nodded outside Walgreen’s across Powell, trying to maintain a grip on their Marlboros and muscatel. Pumping and flexing in upstairs gym windows above them were muscle men of every persuasion. It all was set to a sound track of clanking Scandia dishware and clanging trolley bells.

          But before long, the caffeine and cable cars were my undoing. The latter creaked left and right past this larger-than-life window screen, rocking with tourists who fawned, gushed all over the green, red and yellow trolleys, hanging like zoo baboons from side grips fore and aft, more wild-eyed and waving than high schoolers in a homecoming parade. The riders were all such hayseeds, so out-of-town, so unabashedly Middle America. No, that wasn’t me anymore, this isn’t me…I didn’t belong there, don’t belong here like this for that matter… 

         A glacial chill spread over me, as I nervously gulped down my remaining kanelbulle and coffee. I’d just about had my fill of Scandia’s alder fik bitar as it was, Abba’s slower numbers now piping down from its raspy ceiling hung speakers. I jumped up, head ringing louder than the blue/gold cable cars, legs mushier than Palm Garden’s corned beef hash. I knee jerked my table, tipped a quarter cup of coffee into and over the saucer, in the process splashing some nearby regulars square, as others gasped and gnashed and downed their refills at this scandalicious little faux pas—messier than the spillover at Pearl Street’s McKyle’s.

          “For shame,” screamed the he-man of a fastidious duo who had been pawing over raspberry Napoleans at a neighboring table, dabbing his brow and slicked down hairline with a monogrammed violet hanky. “What are you, some kind of crazy pervert?!”

          “Pervert?!” I dodged a lemon rind his utterly disgusted she-man winged my way. “Don’t look at me, et vous…”

         With that, I beat a retreat out onto Powell Street. Yep, blow this Scandi scene before I stir any more Kaffe uproar, merge with the sidewalk flow. But pervert? Maybe maybe that’s what it takes to bail out on your life, shoot out here like a misspent mortar round, with nothing on the horizon but low coastal fog…no way dammit…stop it, now. 

sr dingbats

          “Pork sausage and pineapple?”  She hit me up the moment I stepped out Scandia Bakery’s sweet shadow, a young woman in turquoise hat, leopard coat, red disco boots and strapped on rollerskates, balancing a tray of chopped-up pizza slices like a car hop at Mel’s Drive-In—a come-on from the takeout pizza place up the block.

          “Sure, why not…” No reason not to ease up, take her up on the offer, grabbing two small squares before she could wheel away. Price was right—not exactly comfort food, but it did lighten my outlook a notch.

          I stepped more lively up Powell Street now, to the whirring clack and clatter of trolley cables and pulleys, fighting off phantom flashbacks of what lay ahead up on the Hyde line—or at least what I remembered from the last time along the Jackson Street turn. I pushed across Ellis nearly 15 seconds into a ‘Don’t Walk’ flasher. This death wish drew bellicose beeps from a tour bus and two taxis, Yellow and Veteran’s Cabs. But hey, from the north corner of Ellis I could see legendary John’s Grill—Bogey and Lorre still chasing after the Maltese Falcon down the Greenstreet. Back down toward Eddy and Market Streets was a standing block load of disengaged cable cars just waiting to climb halfway to the stars.

          So, suck it up, soak it in, right? This isn’t Chi, this is Cali. It isn’t the Tenderloin, this is The City’s classic downtown. You’ve a little walking around change, you’re not a bum, you’re an alum, a social scientist, not some social deviant—act like it, already… 

          There you go, take a breath, and a good, hard look at those crazy old cable cars. Sure, the ringing, abrading little buggers once gripped and rode braided wire all over The City. By the late 1800s, San Franciscans could cable from Rincon up and down fabled hills clear out to Potrero and Golden Gate Park. By now, all that remained of Andrew Hallidie’s crosstown vision were these touristy Hyde and Powell lines, plus the longer, more locally packed trolleys plying California Street.

          At the moment, a constant hum of half-empty cars surround sound mixed with the beat of electronic store loudspeakers and honking of buses and deliver trucks. Traditional Powell Street storefronts once home to prime grottos and haberdashers presently reeked of Seiko watches, Hitachi tape recorders and Casio calculators. Boisterous slickos reeled in tourists from behind glass showcases; scarcely more cordial snippers beckoned from curbside flower stands. Yeah, cultural imposition, all right—rank differentiation applied: I paused at O’ Farrell to picture the tailors, jewelers and seamstresses who probably filled the stately, chalk white Elevated Shops Building, tuning out a newshawk over at Marquard’s Little Cigar Store stand who was loudly pitching an afternoon Clarion headline reading, ‘Patty Hearst’s Wedding Plans’, read all about it!  Then ‘What’s Going On In Lafayette Park?’, below the fold. But none of it was my concern about then, no time for reading into that…better to think like nothing the hell ever happened up there.Powell Street

          Instead, I focused on the ground floor display windows of a mezzanine holdover named Minalli’s Beauty College. The accompanying Theresa Brewer and Rosemary Clooney tunes nearly carried me into an aged Hotel Stratford midway up the next block, then the comparatively gleaming white Villa Florence across Powell, my helium head swiveling at the serried contrasts, getting dizzy with concentric-zone theory, propelled on up to Geary Street—to where I nearly got clipped at the corner by a blaring, fuming 38-Limited MUNI motor coach.

          “Watch it, pally, you’ll be shittin’ bus tokens if’n you don’t watch out,” cracked a churlish little rogue squatted in a nearby emergency exit way down Geary, wrapped with his rat dog in a tattered tartan plaid.

          “Yeah, well, thanks—appreciate your…concern,” I said, startled out of a hypothetical haze. “Lost it there for a second, sorta slipping my mind…”

         “Tell me about it…but it’ll cost you an honest Abe. Gotta gimp,  cap’n, see?” He lifted his tartan to show his shriveled left leg, his napping salt and pepper terrier landing on all fours. “Dance for the man, Scotty, do him your jig.” With that, he whipped a harmonica out of his parka pocket and played a rough ‘Bonny, My Bonny’.

          Priced out, begging off with a quarter, I was more than irritated by his his haunting resemblance to Uncle Early, at least as I remembered from our family scrapbook. So I turned down Geary, passing a retail block scented with perfume, cologne and shoe leather, fuming Scotty?! That’s not my clan tartan, not my goddamn kilt…yer aff yer damn heid there, mate… Each glossy Macy’s and I. Magnin window displayed the stunning to outrageously chic fashions of Razik, Romeo Pomposite, Givenchy and any other design demigod who’d landed by way of the runways of Paris and Milan. But blowing in as well was a feral catwalk aroma likely foreign to the Champs-Élysées. Called street people these days, they’d appropriated doorway after un-trafficked doorway and nearly every spare inch of sidewalk, shaking down passersby at punchy intervals, making Geary more a raree midway than boulevard. It further set my mind adrift in a choppy seas…

           “Smile, friend.” Before I could fully recoil, this cross between a steam pumper fireman and interurban train conductor snapped my photo with a wooden box camera mounted on a single brass-trimmed leg. “Print goes in tonight’s mail. That’ll be two dollars fifty.”

          “No thanks, chief,” I moved on along, toward I Magnin’s Halston store displays. “I take photos my own self.”

          “C’mon, send it to your girl, your loving mother…” The grand popparazzi fixed to address a small corrugated mailer.

          “Christ, are you hitting up the wrong rube,” I huffed, as he followed me in step.

          “Too late, son, shot’s all ready to go in the soup…I’ll even make it a sepia for you…”

          “Don’t bother, she’d just return it to sender…and don’t be bringing my mom into this.” I tore past two Macy’s bag-laden shopping molls, almost tripping over a cigar-chomping, double amputee Kaesong vet selling Bic fine-points from a four-wheel furniture dolly. But that music…just beyond Magnin’s, a medleying from ‘Nature Boy’ to ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ grabbed me as I approached.

          “Say, better tie up that bootlace of yours, sport.” What made this next guy so remarkable was his perfectly tuned ear. He seemed to hear every sound, every note and nuance of his music and everything else around him—including my flapping leather lace.

          “Yeah, sure, thanks,” I propped my leg up on a hydrant, bow tying as he sang, ‘By the time I make Albuquerque…’ “How’d you…” But I stifled any pity patter about the toy piano man’s blindness.

          Lime green was his leisure suit, sweat damp and wrinkled, but hardly as soaked as his salmon shirt and orange-knotted necktie. He sat playing the toy baby grand on a duet of wooden milk cases, facing a tropical beachwear window display. He reveled in his music like Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder, but sang like Nat King Cole, sunlight star crossing his reflective eyeshades and the massive rings on every finger. He told that passing crowd between verses that he been tinkling the miniature keys since he was five, but sounded like he’d been playing it right out of the womb. The melodies he coaxed out of that little spinet were bone chilling in their power and range. How he could still stab that cramped keyboard with his gnarled fingers was a mystery to me, as was how he had venued on this busy streetcorner. Still, he couldn’t have sounded fuller had it been a concert Steinway Pianoforte.

          I was no less taken, yet could swear that honeyman was, in his own virtuoso way, counting the house shoe by shoes. I caught my ragged, swaying image in the store window, a reflection of my looking-glass self, taking stock of the block-long sideshow, segmenting the demography, stratifying the class distinctions, when that hellish voice barged back in: Freaks, all just goddamn bums and freaks. They’ve got nobody, you’ve got nobody. They’ve got no place, you’ve got no place. They’ve no job, you’ve got no job. But at least they’ve got grounds…

          “Aww, excuse me,” I said, almost stumbling over a woman next to me as I turned to move along for uncertain relief.

          “No, pardon me, I shouldn’t have snuck up on you like that,” she smiled, middle-aged platinum, quietly elegant in virgin wool, packing two red on black designer bags out of I Magnin’s corner marble palace.

          “Hope I didn’t damage anything,” I squirmed, having virtually spin blocked her into a motorized quadriplegic who played master level chess with the rubber-tipped pointer strapped to his forehead. “Help you with those?”

          “Oh, I think not,” she straightened her seams and pill box hat, gracious to a fault, the very picture of Mrs. San Francisco, down to her impeccable Pacific Heights posture and veneer. “But thank you for your concern—Prentiss is the name, Dianne to you…”

          “Well, I really appreciate that…maam.” The entire encounter smacked of Tipi Hedren’s entree in ‘The Birds’. “Mine’s Ken Herbert, quite a scene here, huh?” Old City of Paris

          “We make our way through it as best we can these days,” she sighed, with a wistful glance across Stockton Street at what remained of that grande dame of fashionable San Francisco dry goods. On its last silken legs, the City of Paris was creaking with downscale disrepair, from its iconic Eiffel Tower rooftop prow down through its stained-glass domed rotunda. “Gone from Liberty House to perhaps Neiman Marcus Texans, of all things. We can only hope that Beaux Arts masterpiece over there will sail through landmark status. Mother took me to marvel at their magnificent tree every Christmas of my childhood. It is why I dabble in a little retail myself to this day.”

          “You do?” I escorted the lady across Geary Street at the flashing walk sign, stiff arming a honking cabbie right turning off Stockton as if a professional courtesy. “Sure I can’t help you carry those bags?”

          “I’m fine, thank you, can use the exercise. And yes, I happen to own ‘My Sisters’ Keepers’—a lovely little antiques gallery/gift shop up there on Sutter Street,” she pointed ahead with white gloved hand, the smaller of her two bags waving in the open breeze. “Which I must return to directly before my associate suffers an acute panic attack. Nice meeting you though, Mister Herbert. You must stop by the store sometime. It’s quite… edifying…”

          “Oh, edifying, for sure, Mrs. Prentiss,” I nodded. “I’ll certainly keep than in mind…”

          “Until then, good day to you Ken, ” she strode fluidly up Stockton, shoulders straight and finished, bags in perfect balance.

sr dingbats

          There I froze, as if just landing a luminary autograph, not knowing what to make of it, only that she was some somebody, deigning to a nowhere nobody like myself. But what stopped me even more were the two clown-striped characters soundlessly flitting about, toying with shoppers and strollers up and down a sweeping stairway off to my left. Guy and gal mimes they were, young and masterful, so confident and playfully polished. Though Shields and Yarnell might have been working the corners now, they were likely only street workshopping new material between network TV shows in L.A. on far larger stages. Whereas this demonstrative duo had already doffed tux jackets and tails by the time I’d decided to climb those sweeping concrete steps to the main terrace, robotically gesturing me to waltz along upstairs, so as to take in this open-air urban pause free and clear, in a sugar/caffeine glaze.

          Depending on the perspective, Union Square was a lush civic glory to behold, or a tantalizing parcel of commercial real estate going to waste, or a decaying molar amid a shiny gold retail crown. Reputably named for pro-Union rallies on the brink of the Civil War, this precious block of downtown real estate was now center masted by a hugely rising, phallic, composite capitaled column honoring Commodore Dewey’s triumph at Manila Bay. The square actually comprised slightly rising rectangles of manicured turf and paved esplanades, stretching over The City’s first underground parking garage.

          I drew in the resulting fragrance of flora and carbon emissions, before walking between a foursome of fully symmetrical palm trees, epaulets on this monumental parade ground. Sunny Union Square was 360-degree framed with San Francisco’s top-drawer cosmopolitan contenders: Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany, Bally’s joining the Macy’s-Magnin power grid. Giant billboards topped these bordering, largely classical-style buildings, colorful advertisements for TWA, BOAC, Pan Am, Qantas and Philippines Airlines that beckoned upwardly mobile shoppers to exotic reaches the world over. From here, I goggloed, a body could go anywhere. Union Square entrance

         Choice enough spot to sit about, kind of sort everything out, have a little  inverse Conversation, minus the mic and taping. Either-or, forward-back: either come to grips with this mess, or leave all that heavy lifting behind. Could do the decent thing and go back to Moon, or the sicko, selfish thing and try reeling Syd in here again. Hell, I could fly back to get gored again at the Gastof zum Red Ox, or sail ahead to Lahaina on the ghostly Mariposa or Monterey. Yeah, lotsa choices, good and hard choices, but choicer ones than the ones back there before. Still, I got to moving again, as this quasi-Saturnian conversation began getting buggy, statically short-circuited, like somebody in charge was all ears all over again.

          Union Square came that quickly upon me, the lovers, lollers and laggards, activists pushing recall petitions, apocalyptic flyers, marijuana initiatives and nickels of sensimilla and Peruvian red. Every cautious step seemed to clear a path like an Arctic icebreaker, splitting shoals of pigeons and their droppings: black pigeons, gray pigeons, mutant white pigeons with spaniel-like brown spots thriving on the fumes and whatever else might seep through to them. Guhwroog, guhwroog, guhwroog…Union Square

           Yet further along, my shuttle train of thought was derailed altogether by Union Square’s rockier rights of way. Behind trim, trapezoidal hedges congealed a layer of shifty human ballast—lethargic, half-bagged lowlife along park benches, under shrubbery, all rolled up in newspapers or filthy blankets, spent enough to squeeze the last drop of a stone dry Lucky Lager can, The more agitated trolled flowerbeds of crocus, narcissus and impatiens for toke, smoke and chuggables, which inevitably led some aggressive street lifers to that low-fenced lawn social over near the Square’s Post and Powell corner. Colorfully beautiful as this all was at first glance, imposing as was the massive, regal corniced St. Francis Hotel straight ahead, a few steps further led to its seamier seams.

          “Clink, clink…Ladies, may we convene the 74th Yerba Buena Charitable Tea, hear, hear,” gavelled Madame Chairman of the St. Francis Society, with ladle taps against a cut-crystal punchbowl.

          Moments earlier, matrons from Ross to Hillsborough, dowdy debs from Presidio Heights, honored Sisters of the Sierra, Daughters of the Gold Rush and Barbary Coast had emerged arm in arm from the Carnelian Room, filing down the St. Francis Hotel’s canopied marble foyer. They passed undauntedly near where a pistol-packing Sara Jane Moore tried to take out an inflation-whipped Gerry Ford in ’75 (and would have if she could have shot any straighter). Nonetheless, it amounted to a right proper parade of taffeta, pinpoint oxford, cotton chambray, hopsack blazers and pleated chino. The Senior League auxiliary clicked tasseled flat and spectator pumps, stopping Hyde Line cable cars in their tracks across Powell Street, bound for a semi-annual fund-raising luncheon, today’s outdoor gala being held in a picket fenced garden under another swaying quartet of Union Square’s corner palms.

          “Ladies, if you please, we have a full docket,” the gargle throated chairwoman spoon thwacked her water pitcher. “We must attend to those less fortunate about us if we are to bloom ourselves…”

          This cultivated conclave was place seated by white-coated hotel waiters to wicker chairs and banquet tables with red and gold bunting, sterling silverware holding down the white linen cloths. Each name-carded table featured matching red/gold napkins and carafes of Napa chardonnay, to either side of Sierra ’49er goldigger sculptures in multicolored ice. The Japanese lanterns were a delicious, if not ironic touch, but nowhere near as captivating as the off-Julliard string ensemble atop an adjacent open slab stage.

Garnishing everything were brilliant sprays of hibiscus, mums, tulips and flaming camellia. But foremost on the agenda were mammoth trays of canapés, watercress, meaty finger sandwiches and frosted shortbread along the low perimeter fences, along with candle-heated tureens of bisque and consommé. Bounty, beauty and the feast—all in one comely garden party, for the better, more generous of intentions…not to mention for the taking. Guhwroog, guhwroog, guhwroog…

          “Thatta tune, momma,” sidled up a couple of Square pegs, smacking their grizzly lips at this culinary score, one a shirtless biker cast-off in cutoffs and a black leather vest who’d stormed over my way, just beneath an onstage violoncello. “Looky there, cold cuts…heinous spread, ain’t it? Ferget St. Anthony’s…even whole fuckin’ better’n Jimmy Jones…”

          Wasn’t long before it was high tea time in every camp and crevice of Union Square, virtually its entire derelict, marble-loose menagerie rolling toward society’s corner, successive waves of rag-clad depravity whooping and snorting and picking, nibbling at the catered platters, others liberating entire lazy susans, salad tumblers and carafes. These raiding hordes took the matrons by oyster shell-shocked surprise, upsetting tables and dessert carts, making off with hands full of delectable spoils, some scatting back for seconds and thirds.

          “This will simply not do—not do at all. And we’ll have no more of it,” Madame Chairman gasped, wiping wine from her jowls and silk campshirt blouse, straightening her cloche hat while seeking to rally her panicked conclave, these mortified daughters and granddaughters of The City’s founding fathers and others so pedigreed. “Ladies, time has come we must draw strength from our heritage. We shall summon the resolve of our forebearers, take sustenance from our unyielding pioneer stock!”

          “Don’t havta do nuthin’, honey,” shouted a grabby, sleeping bag-wrapped squatter. “Just keep servin’ up the lunchmeat…ain’t ate ina week…”

          With that, the St. Francis Society rose en unison and indignantly stood their ground, tossing fromage plates, hors d’oeuvres, ambrosia and whole ice buckets of wine and ice water at these motley marauders, as if to keep the vermin at bay at least until some of Chief Gain’s powder blue patrol cars might bother to arrive. What followed wasn’t pretty; backlash never was. Union Square deadbeats and marginal denizens gave as good as they’d already gotten, however, chucking as if both sides had just taken in that new Belushi frat movie. I just remained aside, my armpits juiced up at the sociological sight, never having been party to such a spectacle before. Witness the empirical and sector theory potential of such status and role conflict, I reasoned—the Gemeinschaft-to-Gesellschafting regression of it all—while kept at clinical distance, as it were. In that respect, it couldn’t get much better than this.

          “Honest to God, what’s our city coming to,” muttered a seasoned, platter-juggling waiter on his way back over to the hotel, white coat splattered with bisque and wine. “Something must be done…” 

          “And vice versa…” Which was about all I could come up with at the moment without tipping my alien hand—otherwise quantative scoring the canapé trays.

 Care for more?

 Chapter 54. Wandering into the wilds
under the guise of sorting things out: it’s a return to 

 the Y and wherefores as many other things heat up… 

  
“Even help from safe
distance is likely to carry
body and soul just so far.”

          “No, everything’s great out here, really. You all right?”

          “I’m all right, but it’s awful lonesome back here sometimes—even with Dellis around. One day a guy’s got a family, next day everybody’s gone. That’s the god’s honest truth. But you don’t sound so hot yourself…”

          “I’m fine, just getting things together—a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do, right?”

          “Getting a little too old to understand anything—and my dratted stomach’s been actin’ up again, with your mother gone and all. That painter gal cookin’ for you?”

          For a good, long while I had stood blindsided in the phone booth light, wondering what next until a mid-career liquid luncher tapped door glass repeatedly, Rob Roy in hand, gesturing me to make way for a hot sales call. From there, the Palm Garden Grill essentially cashiered me with a Glenn Miller Orchestral sendoff, Tex Beneke joining the one-time CU Buffalo in Miller’s last composition before his wartime plane went down over the Channel, something called, ‘I’m Headin’ For California’. Going out with a salute to the lunch counter, I caught a quick blast of Market Street exhaust, which snapped me back up to date, if not altogether to reality. From there, nowhere to go but up The Slot. So I pocketed my phone dime and swung away from the Grill, angling northward to douse an inner fire by wire.

          “Uh, no, not exactly,” I said haltingly, trying to recall the last time I had even seen or spoken with Uncle Dellis.

          “At least that other one fed you, didn’t she? A guy’s got to eat,” my father asked, between acid reflux pauses. “Found work, have ya?”

          “Um, that’s another reason I called. See, I’m on top of the job thing, alright. But it’s kinda tight short term…”

          “Well, s’pose I could drop you a little something in the mail, son. What’s the address there where you’re stayin’? Still at that phone number from last time?”

          “No, actually I’m kinda camping at a hotel right now—you know, putting down roots,” I hedged, double-checking a clock on a rear counter clock. “But I mean real short term, dad, that’s why I called collect. I’m at a Western Union office downtown. And there’s still some bank time back in the Midwest today.”

          “Son, can’t that gal in San Francisco tide you over in the…”

          “No, dad, you don’t get it,” I sputtered, fixing on the phone dial rather than any of the eyes on me around the wait room. “This is for dinner and a room tonight—strictly a loan until…”

          “Ken, are you really all right? What is going on out there,” he asked with rising alarm, but quickly biting his tongue. “Can feel my blood pressure jumpin’ already, so I’ll go moneygram you fifty. Just stay in touch, okay? We’re all that’s left, son, and a man’s got to know his kid’s safe and sound…”

          “Promise, I promise. I really appreciate it, dad, you don’t know,” I said, drained with relief. “Remember, their Market Street office—and you take good care of yourself, hear?”

          “Yeah, yeah, who for? Your Uncle Dellis and his barnyard? Like to drive me to drinkin’ all over again…bye, son…”

          “Your fritzy stomach, remember? And dad, best make it a hundred, things are a lot more expensive out here. Talk soon for sure.” Click. CLICK.

          Telegram Central was between Fourth and Third Streets, thick with mirrors, offering a single pay phone, from which I made this latest collect call. Not gleaming glass mirrors were they, but shiny sheetmetal panels in angle-braced aluminum frames, wall to wall, as if to reflect the anger, anguish, squirming and scheming of its desperate, last-ditch customers in waiting. So anybody who was nobody avoided them at all cost, staring instead at the floor, one another’s hand calluses, but primarily at Western Union’s bulletproof pay windows.

          A few plucky wastrels seemed oblivious to their circumstances, gyrating in every bit of visual blowback the shatterproof wall panels could provide—preening, posturing in their reflections like overgrown prepubes in some carnival funhouse mirrors—anything to kill this gnawing remittal downtime. Tattoos on their forearms, hearts and shortcomings on their sleeves, others sat huddled in waiting room corners, fetal positioned on hard-ass benches.

          This downtown office looked somewhere between a free clinic lobby and the deplaning area of a grounded fly-by-night charter outfit that had made one last unscheduled stopover. Hard foot pounding, finger snapping, gum popping, teeth grinding, bored sighing and deep groaning, with no insignificant outpouring of adrenal perspiration: The wire room wound tighter with each transmittal call-out. Even from behind the double-paned counter, the incessant clack and clatter of those teletype machines spewing their wee yellow tape penetrated like belt-driven dental drills, made all the more unnerving by a wall timer that kept reminding waitlisters how we were up against the closing bell.

          Got to where I could stomach the wait no longer, the clicking and dinging, the cold counter calls, all the sweat-drenched detainee drama of hanging on every message as if it were a next-of-kin notification. So I guesstimated Prairie Crossing main street to Market Street lag time and bolted for the remote buzzered doors to get some refreshingly foul air, proceeding to scurry about the triangular block a half-dozen times, checking out Western Union windows each lap around. The idea was to kill time and clear my own clacker and ticker, which by now were sending messages even Marconi couldn’t decode. This was it, what you wanted, what you traipsed out here for? You gave up everything for a moneygram waiting line? This is your idea of a sound decision, using your learned head? Making the big move, totally taking charge, you fathead, only on somebody else’s dime…

          Whoa, hold fire—that voice, that breathless, snarling voice crept into my skull again with a vengeance not heard since Marquette Park and Chicago Lawn, vehemence. I wanted to name it, to tame it, befriend it some but couldn’t even begin to pin it down. It steamrolled through me as I fretted along Market Street, up Grant to Geary, then back to Kearny down Market again, never breaking stride, struggling to override this hundred-car coal train of mind.

          Aged, off-rez Indians reached out to me from over their bent-over walkers, peevish Jehovah’s Witnesses whispered from behind laminated copies of Awake!, Chinese school girls giggled my way, bushwhacker brothers offered up small vials of opium oil from incensed card tables. I passed sidewalk shoeshine stands, duty-free shops and screaming discount footwear and electronics stores drowning out the Camaro-trolley collision up Market, outside the Hearst Building at Third Street.

          I shunned everything in knee-deep concentration, though not without noting all the downtown banks, all their funny old money—and that ragged old crow rattling the news boxes for any change that might drop his way. He was seemingly mindless of the two-star editions that front-paged a shot of Supervisor Harvey Milk grinning and gagging, pointing at the dog shit on his shoe, with the caption, ‘Milk’s Really Stepped In It This Time’: something about sponsoring new pooper-scooper ordinances at City Hall.

          That was about when I spotted more movement on the Western Union front; a fresh slew of grubbers played the tickers for whatever juice and whomever they could squeeze.

          “See, I’ve given up on the rock ’n’ roll gigs, really. Just need a couple of bills to get back on my feet, get things straight again. No, I’ve cut down on the boozin’. That whole losin’ streak’s over, I swear, really turnin’ things around. Bless you momma, what? I’ll write every day, you’ll see,” pleaded one rawhide, ragged flared hipster who looked like an underfed John Cipollina, working the payphone with stagy, winky pathos as I slipped into the waiting room. The moment he hung up, he turned to his Muldaur cookie and smacked, “OK, baby, the bag bit like a walleye, tonight we boogie…” And boogie they did, on out the door into the Market Street sun, likely toward the nearest liquor store, but not before checking out their road show in WU’s telegraphic reflective steel, firing up a blunt.

          “Herbert, Mister Ken Herbert,” called out the crew cut, short-sleeved counterman. “Window one, have your identification ready.”

          My turn. I stepped up with due caution to sign off for the moneygram, peripherally scanning the room for filchers or ambushers in wait, those mirror walls increasing their numbers exponentially to an infinite sum of connivance. Get in, get out—this wasn’t my trip, but just a minor, momentary stall. Christ, some of these leeches act like it’s feeding time here everyday at 2. Blood money, that’s what they were after, high-wire cash transactions from parts unknown.

          Well, not this stiff, I’d pay dad back for…sure. I hustled my ass out of the waiting room without a second thought or glance, clutching my greenbacks, discreetly counting the benjamins in the bright light of day. Ninety-eight big smackers total, minus Western Union’s take—all there was between me and…this, or them. Eight ball, side pocket: time for a bank shot into that chain bakery across Market Street for a muffin, coffee and change.

          One look at the display case price tags, and I swore off takeout pastry, settling for a medium coffee and cream. But that was more than enough to stoke me as I kicked myself down Market once more, counting off the blue and gold light poles, sidestepping all species of debris toward the Emporium. Truck horns blared, streetcars rang through my head, street life gaining on me from either flank. Hell, at least dad came through when it counted, when nobody else probably would. He’d give me his last dime—no ifs, musts or buts, no flaming hoops to jump through, no purse or apron strings attached. But then, gotta try calling her again, ring her back up. No. Better think this through. Gotta set things straight, right this ship, make things kosher. all around. Hmph, chicks—who needs ’em—carping, hassles, disappointment, that’s the bottom line. Try to please everybody, end up frying your lobes. Enough of that decision shit— duly refueled now, so theres other bookin’ to do, people to see, people to be, goddamn right. But I knew what she was talking about, damned if I didn’t spot that ruddy face in this downtown crowd…like I’d just seen a face—I  can’t forget the time or place where we first…

          That voice, that indignant, table-pounding voice had tailed me, heartburn fierce as it had when I limped through the sauerkraut and cigarette smokescreen, splitting Palm Garden Grill’s brittle little Canary trees. I attempted to make peace with it, just as I had the past two nights, lying low inside room 718—distancing myself from junk food vendors and the latrine. Still, it kept breaking in, trouncing all over my brainpan well past 3 a.m. Somebody said something about mind control once, or was it biorhythms? I just couldn’t figure out whose voice it was, and how or why it kept getting jackhammer strong, caffeine depth charging my prefrontal lobe.

          “Amen, brotha, turn to Jesus. Bless dat wunnerful name of Jesus.”

          “No thanks, I…”

          “Time’z runnin’ out. Lift Jesus high, brotha. Take mah yoke up in ya and learn of sweet Jesus…”

          “Lay off, pops, I’m sorta concentrating…”

          “Cogitatin’, is ya,” asked, reaching to hand me a wrinkled parchment tan flyer. “Here, cogitate ova this here…”

          I’d barely crossed Fourth Street through a one-block blur, distinguished only by a fading red, white and blue crown atop an otherwise humble old Humboldt Bank Building. Greeting me at the corner hydrant was this rag pile hauling a sandwich board reading, ‘America Come Back to God’ in messianic red. Below that, in lower case black was simply, ‘But as the days of No’e were, so shall also the coming of the Sun of man be…’ What more was there to say to that? But a sudden gust flapped the board up off his stooped shoulders, detonating his raw oyster eyes in alarm. Yet the old coot shook it off, then pulled the sign down, re-cinching bowline straps tightly under his arms. His torn blue-gray raincoat bunched upward at the knees, revealing oil black workpants wrapped with green burlap for warmth.

          “Gwan, take one, read it over,” he regrouped, gray stubble on cocoa skin, grinning three teeth to the wind. “For you own sake, put ya straight…don’t cost no nuthin’.”

          “Uh, I’m really in a hurry,” I pushed away a handful of tracts heralding the Sacred Scriptures, the Great White Throne, the Great Open Air Judgment and Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth.

          “Hold up, lawdy,” he sidled up to me, dragging his worldly sack. “Jus tryin’ to help, that’z all. Ya new here, friend?”

          “Who isn’t?” I averted my eyes to the candy filled display windows of a corner drug store. “Far as I can tell…

          “Not me, no sir. Bin here since ’43,” said the sidewalk savior, puffing along to keep in step past Market Street’s tobacconists, hosiers and dress shops. He had a mighty limp, as though bowl legged on only one side, which caused him to weave and list like the sail trimmer on a stormy sloop. “Come out from Mobile to build troop ships. How ‘bout youself?”

          “Colorado,” I snapped, annoyed that the old bastard could keep pace, glancing instead at another inbound green torpedo streetcar ringing a double-parked UPS delivery van to the curb. “Chicago area originally…”

          “Ah, yah, Chi-town. Sure, Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf…that what I talkin’ ’bout.”

          “J. B. Hutto and His Hawks…”

          “Whatchu know ’bout J. B. Hutto, boy?”

          “I know about ‘20% Alcohol’ and ‘Speak Mah Mind!”, I said, as if to fend him off, firm up my bona fidelities. “With Sunnyland Slim on the ivories…”

          “Den whacha bout Buddy Guy,” he coughed up a mouthful of pasty phlegm and spit toward the curb, another wind gust tilting his blue Cossack hat. He sounded 60, but looked 80 and climbing.

          “Little Walter’s, west Roosevelt Road…” Check, checkmate…

          “Bin dere mahself, bin dat vera place,” the street preacher rasped. “Joe’s the name, Brotha Joe. He extended his scaly hand and more leaflets. “What yourz?”

          “Ken.” Again, I shook him off, and gulped down my cream and sugar, so he passed them over to an onrushing Latina file clerk, late on the lunchtime return.

          “Ken, from Chi and Colorada—mah pleasure to meetcha,” he said, shuffling along to keep a short step ahead. “See, Iwaza boxer in doz dayz—light middle, boxed in Chi-town many’z a time. Yah, boxin’ ’n’ da blues—went 33-0 ‘til Big Benny Williams right crossed me into da thrd row. Havn’t smelt worth a hoot since. Couldn’t face da wife afta dat, so I just lit out dis way for work…iz betta for doz ol’ bones out here anyway.”

          “Really,” I replied, trying to shake him off like my coffee cup into the trashbasket, getting sideswiped by a Guns ’n’ Roses punk skateboarder.

          “But dat was ’fore I gotz da callin’. Ain’t no fighter no more. I’z a lover, lovin’ on Jesus. Yep, n’order to be wise, you first gotta be a fool, good Lord know…”

          I slowed to half steps while the old man caught a breath and re-cinched his signboards. He then leaned against a mid-block trolley wire pole, fine tuning the newspaper soles in his oversize oxfords, scratching his swollen ankles, before wedging into a thicket of afternoon shoppers and sidewalk skulkers eyeing them on for size. I found myself keeping pace, since I was heading south anyway, when it hit me again, this where you’re headed, roaming the streets like this derelict old Delta magpie? What the fuck’s with you? Yet oddly enough, I stayed with middleweight Joe like a ringside cut man, if only for the utter pathology along Market, the mean deviancy of the place. So snap to, keep clinical distance, some semblance of professional calm…

          “Lawdy, one day woke up from this dream,” Joe rambled, “wazon white clouds preachin’ to deez messa sinners. Waz readin’ mah sermon off’n da roll of a gold player piano. Felt lika king, been revelatin’ out here eva since…”

          He broke mid rapture, bracing for the crowds whirlpooling in and out of the Emporium. This behemoth of a half-block beige department store was mid Market Street’s final mercantile link with old San Francisco respectability around then, the last place a Cadillac Brougham or Mercedes saloon would dare venture unless metaflaked purple or pink. A sea of prospective apostles, though Joe could barely bait his line. Still, bulldog stocky, he charged into the swirls of limo matrons, wary strollers and schools of shopping bag slaves, pamphlets flying, sandwich boards waving fore and aft. Momentarily, he’d spin off the pedestrian eddies, then limp over to a trash basket to regain his bearings and just enough breath to bellow his next ‘Turn to Jesus’ appeal.   Emporium

          “Better ease up there,” I said, joining him between the basket and Emporium’s sidewalk flower stand. “Before you keel over or something.”

          “Me? Not wit Jesus by mah side,” Brother Joe wheezed, wiping a blue hanky across his brow. “I serves the Lord, He look afta me. Thas God’s way, praise be. Pray to Jesus…”

          “Hey Joe, watcha know,” yelled the florist, reaching out of his color rich, covered flower stand, handing the preacher a pink carnation for his frayed lapel. “Still shovelin’ out as much holy bullshit as you can, huh?”

          “See, boy,” he winked his cataract eye. “Lord keep lookin’ mah way, protects hizzown, dontcha know…” Then he rallied to shoot over just beyond the store’s entranceway to some of his spiritual cohorts: Sister Blain of the Harbor Light Mission and Emelia, a blind woman who had tooled her zither beneath Emporium show windows since Packards, DeSotos, Kaisers and Crosleys were all the doormen’s rage.

          “Take care of yourself,” I said, drawing up beside him one last time with unexpected concern. “Gotta go…”

          “Amen, brotha,” Joe smiled, as he reached down stiffly to pet Emelia’s pet Shepherd. He fed the guide dog several oyster crackers from his coat pocket, then struggled sorely back straight as he could. “All God’z children look afta dey own.”

          “Good talkin’ to you, my friend,” I grinned tightly, palming the tracts that went with Joe’s aching handshake.

          “Rememba, come to Jesus, join da Kingdom of Heaven, ’n’ you gonna reap his bounty. Hezon your side, Chi, he stay wit you when you own kin’ll turn you away.”

          “Oh, the jury’s still out about that, Joe, but I’ll read your material and keep it in mind.” I turned away toward the crosswalk to Hallidie Plaza.

          “Just stay clear dose devils ova dere,” the old man spittled, pointing across Market Street. “Dey think dey spreadin’ God’s word, but dey really just pruggers, blasphemin’ satans! I bin out here for years, tryin’ to spread the joy of the Lord. Dose kinda devils ruinin’ it all, gettin’ everybody mad at Jesus!”

          “Well, keep the faith, Joe,” I started across the yellow stripes in the diesel wake of a MUNI motor coach. “See ya.”

          “You come back, Chi, you come back ’n’ see me. Yessir, Brotha Joe’s here everaday, all right—servin’ da Lord, praise be—thisz a good town, you know…”

          Clang, claNG, CLANG. An outbound M-Line streetcar cleared the crosswalk, halting pedestrian traffic from both directions, me pulling up the rear toward a center island. Stepping off, tripping over a trolley rail, I glanced back at the still sunny side of Market, where Joe stood singing spirituals with Sister Blaine. Then he fished fistfuls of leaflets from his double-strength shopping bags, hobbling over to hustle up some more silver-haired matrons as they emerged from the Emporium’s majestic, galleried rotunda.

          “Go ahead, go ahead, reject the Lord Jesus. You’re the one’s goin’ to hell,” screamed that gad ten-gallon preacher on approach, menacingly waving his bible at passersby. “You’d better line up with God right now, you vile, sinnin’ heathens…not me, I’m with Jesus, I’m gonna be saved, all right!”

          The cowboy Christian shook and kicked his rattlesnake boots at the tourists, shoppers and gutter mortals, getting in my face some as I drifted toward the plaza’s cable car turnaround. Maybe Joe got it right, over consecrating with department store propers, not bible belting here on the shadowy side with demonic stares. Shade notwithstanding, since Jasper O’Farrell first plotted Market Street on a 54-degree angle in 1847, the high road had risen here north of The Slot, low road loading docks, jobbers and flophouses to the south. Not that the city engineer actually planned this de facto, sociographic downtown Mason-Dixon Line. The mercantile déclassé just gravitated over there, save for the Emporium’s lavish window displays, its atomizer fragrance of orchids, cymbidiums, Arpége and diesel fumes. Hallidie Plaza turnaround

          I dido handed the snaky prophet Joe’s tracts without missing a step. One look, and he manically rolled them into a baseball-size wad, batting them away with his bible. Then he thumped his testament and stared lightning bolts across at Brother Joe. Divine providence had an inbound streetcar shield the old middleweight from further fallout. Pruggery, huh…well, what the hell’s the matter with you—hanging with the losers. The old fart ditched his wife over a first-round knockout, sound familiar?  Better sit yourself down, fool, take stock real fast. Go get some more coffee pansy. You’ve still instant decisions to make…

          But wait a second here, you’re a sociologist—Sydney and Reno belt buckling to mind—you’re supposed to help derelicts like that. Just look at how Market Street is petri dishin’ it out will you? For one thing, what were the statistical probabilities of Brother Joe putting the skids to his losing streak, let alone of my losing mine? If nothing else, do it for Sunnyland Slim…

          I stopped to peer through Woolworth’s windows, in the general direction of the dime store’s long, stool-filled lunch counter, albeit with right hand firmly on my jeans’ front pocket—could have sworn I spotted a vaguely familiar face sitting in there too. Christ, I reflected further yet: for such a supposed ungodly town, this religious stuff was everywhere…

Care for more?

Chapter 53. A much sweeter, mor
continental-style interlude begets 
clashing social circles on the Square…

“Saturn is conflict 
               good and evil, darkness or light— 
             pick at your peril.”         

        “Lord Jesus, wash all my sins away with your precious blood on the cross. Wash away this wicked, rotten old Sodom and Gomorrah city of sin!! Fornicators did not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Y’all can’t hide, God knows all about you!”

         In and of themselves, the rants and roaring might have been spiritually bearable. Reverberating off the Flood Building and BofA fortresses, however, and that solid Emporium wall across Market Street, the din approached sonic, if not seismic overload. This nearly isosceles confluence shaped Hallidie Plaza into an urban amphitheatre to rival Red Rocks after sundown. The acoustics seemed so badass that falsetto and basso profundo buskers abandoned stairwells and shower stalls everywhere to come sing the plaza’s praises.

          Point was, I just ruminated my way in to listen and leer, wrestling with the notion that when someone is there for someone, that someone has got to be there for that someone in return when the tables turn, right? That’s the bargain, the transaction—that’s how the deal goes down. You earned the degrees, she earned the ski-racked Saab and Uni Hill pottery lab. Just like John & Paul, Rogers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe…

          “Jesus Christ died on the cross for you filthy sex perverts, you dogs in heat! You better repent, it’s a fearful thing to fall out the grace of God, praise be—Satan all holdin’ you in darkness and rebellion.”

          Alongside the BART stair railing, where stiffs working and otherwise waited zot-eyed for surface MUNI buses to Noe Valley and Bernal Heights, a single snare drummer in wool vest and droop-brimmed hat set the beat Hallidie Plazafor the entire chaotic ensemble. Beyond some SF souvenir button stands and displays of Hollywood look-alike lithographs camped a Dexter Gordonish sax man and Stratocaster longhair with his baby Pignose amp.

          So it’s that your place is back there, for crissake, not out here. Getting on with it, pulling the life together that you’d sorta planned with her all along—that’s why all the work, right? So what that you’d never actually talked it out, put it into words or anything? It was subtle, low-key, unspoken yet understood—like the whole goddamn relationship was and had been from the start…

          CLang, CLAng, CLANG. An N-Judah streetcar chased a K Ingleside up Market toward the Ferry Building, like it was rush hour in Rosebud’s day, scattering jaywalking shoppers to curbsides and pedestrian islands. Two old-timers rankled and recalled more courteous crewmen on the dearly departed Fillmore and Jackson Street lines: hell, they’d even hit the brakes for a wayward soupbone spaniel.

          “Go ahead, reject the gospel. Reject the word of the Bible. Reject the blood of Christ, reject the hand of God,” bellowed a dog-eared sidewalk preacher. “Be weak with your self-indulgent passion, be sinful in your corruption. You’re the ones goin’ to hell, to suffer in fire and brimstone, not me, praise the Lord!”

          That was it, the clincher. You’re gonna get your shit together this minute and settle this thing. You’re gonna swallow hard, make your damn decision and go with it. What time is it?! Where the hell’s a phone…

           Snap-happy tourists encircled the chilly Hallidie turnaround, waiting interminably for the next Wharf-bound cable car to rattle down Powell Street like a fresh pinball, then erringly boarding the Hyde Line through a haze of MUNI misdirection. The mere prospect of that bellish, groin-tickling procession of overloaded cable cars crawling past Union Square up Nob Hill was enough to thaw their impatience, while ransoming the visiting marks to the turnaround’s highest bidders. In this case, it was a propeller beanied, banjo-picking burnout from the tangled, vermined wilds of Golden Gate Park. Granted, a strung-out Gibson guitar could be murder on Buffalo Springfield, but what the banjo delivered was wholesale slaughter. Were it not for the muting effect it had on his accompanying voice track, that capoed carbine could easily have precipitated a cease-and-desist order from David Bromberg, much less Flat & Scruggs.

          Not that the picker’s painful expressions slowed a gratuitous feed into his water pipe-decaled banjo case: pocket change and better courtesy of the captive cable-ready audience. Nor did the blew-grass impact a Wild Irish trio squat and clapping in the now midday sun passing the brown bag bottle around. Their bruised, drippy lids followed the banjo player through his set, firing into choruses of Jerry Jeff and Country Joe, red sclera filling with flashbacks of Hashbury in the acid reign, then toasting with another tempting toke on the bottleneck.

          “I don’t care if you like my message or not, you’d better line up on the side of Jesus anyhow. God’s not just whistlin’ Dixie!”  Harping, all but preached out, the parson resorted to common carping. Such was the prime-time competition in Hallidie Plaza that its latest religio-ranger was losing market share to offbeat musical vaudeville, however influential his executive producer. But damned if this preacher was taking it sitting down. He couldn’t. Not in his pressed-ham Goodwill slacks with the shredded knees. Sullen, sober as he was, those were righteous muttonchops angling sharply up to his black, gold-sashed Stetson.

          “You might see me proclaimin’ in New York, New Orleens—wherever they’ve heard the gospel,”  he caught a second wind, nodding my way in passing. “God gives me the spirit of wisdom to see through false prophets all over this wicked, wicked world.”

          All that Jesus jive, in Hallidie Plaza? Even if the guy didn’t get crucified out here, he wasn’t long for this particular world. These were touch spiritual times, and tough times demanded tough, full-throated measures. If the leather lungs and embroidered rawhide vest didn’t grab them, or the blazing stars and stripes scarf, God’s new-generation messenger boy wasn’t above a little hype. So the pavement-pounding preacher beat his breast through milling shoppers, prostrate vagrants, chess masterbaiters, tourists in waiting—occasionally waving a coverless Gideon for punctuation. Still, he couldn’t keep pace with the cacophonic music, the glitz/trash merchants, souvenir peddlers, Afro sketchers, velvet Elvis—much less the clanging cable cars or loudspeaker a bit further down Market blaring, ‘T-Shirts, 3 for $1. Designer clothing, $9.99’. Anything to keep those tourista greenbacks in rapid circulation.

          And I couldn’t keep up either. Hallidie Plaza was more piercing than a rockfest portaloo, with the pissy odor of sweat, spilled wine and sliced pizza. MUNI Streetcar I finally spotted a clock in the Diamond Palace window, then sprinted across Market, searching for a quiet phone booth, bucking in my haste for the sting of a squealing cream and green hornet streetcar—the very sort of trolley that delivered me back unto childhood CTA rides down Halsted Street past the putrid, meat-packed stock yards to visit mom’s Southside kin.

           You’ve got a half-hour. Get on the horn. Wait—was that 12 noon her time or California time? Naw, couldn’t be her time, her time’s already history. Gotta be your time. Her time would have been…uh…10, no nine. Was barely up at nine. She’d know that, right? Gotta be 12 here. That would be four there, no three. But, hold it, what would she be doing home waiting for you at three in the afternoon, or two? C’mon, she’s got better things to do. Bullshit, she’s there. Get on the horn, hear?!

          I pressed further down Market across Fifth Street through the crowded cross flow, past a vacant six-story department store, looked to be a heavyweight in its day. Now there were derelicts in the doorways, rolled up in Chronicle Green sheets like stuffed grape leaves over flattened appliance boxes, and strange, infantile freelance window displays: Cardboard buildings with Styrofoam skies. Save for the signs, as each successive window bore captions—a downtown-at-Christmastime approach long past their expiration date—kindergarten creative, recanting their charming little serial fable, chapter and verse.

          But at least the comixy displays bought me some time, as mid-Market decayed into skid Market, scarcely prime for rehabilitation. I explored them, analyzed and decoded them, to no cogent end whatsoever against a meld of warm sun and cool breezes—my mental ping-pong match having frozen momentarily at 12-love.  Then, just as I began catching their lunatic drift, I came upon the Wilson Building—a Polk/Percy design inspired by Ravenna, Italy’s Basilica of San Vitale. The seven-story office structure had been a Byzantine beauty at 973 Market since the turn of the century; its colorful terra-cotta scrolling and tiling accented a roasted umber foundation. Yet Wilson’s luster had dulled some over the years, no more so than on the ground floor, right next to Hardy discount blue men/boys shoes.  Here, the Palm Garden Grill had been lushly planted since at least latter FDR days. Its corroded blue and while Bell Public Telephone sign instantly caught my eye—there would be no more dawdling and waffling, no more let’s see/on the other hands, or any other hyper-hypothesizing, for that matter: definitely time for the dime.

          “What can I getcha?”

          Moody mahogany everywhere I looked, scarred, weathered wood paneling: The time-worn peculiarity of the Palm Garden hit me square on, reeling most any still sentient passerby back to John Foster’s dullest intrigues, Ike’s heart attack, Kennan’s containment, Truman vs. Macarthur, bread-lined Hoovervilles, chicken pots, speakeasy flappers, Woodrow Wilson’s follies and Cal Coolidge’s cool. And the soup-spotted jake behind the counter looked to have lived through it all.

          “Uh, just a coffee, lotsa cream,” I said, sliding down onto a low revolving stool in the recessed, yet al fresco Palm Terrace luncheonette. “How old is this place?”

          “Older than your ol’ man,” cooked the waiter, pouring a brown, java-discolored mug. “That’ll be six bits, pay as you go…”

          Before I could pin him down, the counterman scooped up my dollar, rushing through large, louvered swinging doors, never to return. Two other white-aproned sawbones soon took his station, as if they’d been changing guard ahead of the noon rush for decades on end. I sweetened then hoisted the lukewarm mug that even railroad station cafeterias had retired with the advent of bare bone china. My sips were drown in the echo of slurped chowder special up and down the earlybird lunch line. 

          “Pass the tabasco, will ya?”   

          “Uhh,” I searched about a rusty chrome condiment rack for anything beyond Heinz 57.

          “Naw, that’s Worcestershire. Here, I can reach…”  So did the BLT gorger one stool over, dipping his sleeve into my coffee enroute to the Louisiana hot sauce. It was a blue denim work shirt with a San Francisco Examiner breast patch, guy must have delivered newspaper bundles off the truck since Hearstian days. He also had to be a regular, because his daily side of goulash and coffee were apparently on the cuff.

          So the Palm Terrace luncheonette portion had become something of a workingman’s purlieu over the years—at least here at the ten seat walk-up counter. Except, that was, for the actuarial jokester two stools down, or the contingent lawyer types back slapping behind us through even larger swinging doors into a dark, stube-style Palm Garden restaurant itself. It appeared the counter was initially conceived as just a quick-lick appetizer for the busy mid-Market mercantile trade, however gaseously unappetizing as it had become decades on.

          “It’s like another world here,” I said to the veteran newsboy.

          “Yep, the sugar?”

          “By all means,” I pushed the soda-crackered jar his way with a sweep of the backhand, caffeine ready to talk small while I still could. “Quite a scene, huh?”

          “Just as long as they don’t keep havin’ that fruitcake freedom parade traipsin’ by.”  The trucker sharply tapped the dispenser bottom against Palm Terrace’s Formica counter to shake loose any sticky granules. “Damn fairies like to be overrunnin’ this whole town, takin’ over City Hall ’n’ everything. That Danny White boy is the only hope we got left. But I’ll say they do keep the ol’ ink flowin’.” 

          “Yah, well—couldn’t tell you about that…”

          Ding, dinG, DING, DING. An inbound green MUNI torpedo stalled directly out front of the Palm Terrace, riding some misguided Mazda tying up traffic with an illegal left-hand turn. The streetcar clanged and swayed incessantly as passengers spilled out its accordion doors. Beep, beep, screeetch. A vintage ’53 Plymouth Cranbrook, irreparably dented, but peppy nevertheless zipped between the pedestrian island and curbing, then slammed to a halt in avoidance of an overwrought, overweight señora rushing to the trolley.

          This frame of Market Street thus frozen, I stared off between sickly twin-potted palms at the entranceway to the snarled street scene beyond. Braced by the wobbly, wicker-backed stool, I pictured longshoremen and boilermakers haranguing each other on the L Taraval as it stalled inbound toward the teeming Embarcadero waterfront, from bridge to spectacular new bridge, a China Clipper climbing overhead. Suddenly, mounted policemen would have whistled off the traffic jam to make room for military bands and block after block of marching uniformed sailors and foot soldiers over from the Presidio.

           Crowds would have thronged out there along Market Street for glimpses of these conquering heroes, who formed tightly in perfect squares behind their respective regimental banners. Ebullient San Market Street of OldFranciscans flashed V’s to the passing parade; a brilliant sky radiated off placards, all of which bore the bold armistice letters, VJ. But snap to attention, Kilroy, time was a wastin’…where was this stuff coming from? And why did it make this late-born Kilroy feel so to home?

          I looked about me, transfixed as the torpedo rang on along. The Palm Terrace’s front counter tucked into its brown paneled alcove like card tables in an election day garage. Only its red-framed menu signs seemed to lighten the grease shellacked walls—several blackboards chalked with daily specials, others featured such hand-lettered entrees as tomato tripe or pigs knuckles and sauerkraut—all covering over a cracked, ivy-etched mirror over the cash register, running the length of the counter.

          My mind drifting once more, old ‘Terrace’ regulars sprouted sharkfin lapels, brass clip galluses and cocked pork pie hats. That Emerson radio over the steel flag register squawked some ditty by Teagarden or Artie Shaw, and the hep cat three stools over tapped his cleat-toed Florsheims against a black/white hex-tiled floor. C’mon dumplin’, it’s the Empress Theater’s Gable and Grable double-feature matinee for a cute little dish like you…hey, snap to, wake the hell up…

          “’Nother hit?” asked a white paper-capped griller wielding a glass pot of joe.

          “No, thanks, anyway,” I came to, one cup on an empty stomach being more than enough to re-solder my synapses. “But I could stand to use a phone booth.”

          “In the main restaurant, to your left,” said this oddly cordial new waiter. He seemed comfortably settled in his time capsule, telling a chowder head up the counter that the Palm Garden Grill in its entirety was one of San Francisco’s oldest remaining lunchrooms. It had even survived the 1906 Earthquake, so he said. To which a jaded suitcase jewel peddler was heard to reply, “Aww, bull snot—everything half interesting in this town is ’sposed to have made it through ’06. Next you’ll be sayin’ so did the Pyramid and that radioactive Sutro TV tower up on Twin Peaks.”

          “Thanks much,” I spun off the stool. Transamerica Pyramid, halfway interesting, I pondered, rolling a toothpick around my mouth, George Raft-style, as if in fact feeling right hunkydory here in an earlier life. Then I pushed through the weighty, swinging doors into another tick on the time continuum, somewhere between the League of Nations and Lend-Lease accords.

          Deeply tar and nicotine-cured mahogany prevailed even more so in here—from an arching back bar along the left wall to a glass paneled, inlaid tile steam table fat with pork shoulders, glazed hams and beef shanks sizzling under infrared heat lamps. Waist-aproned attendants in gravy splotched white uniforms ladled navy beans, turnip greens, okra and red cabbage from floating stainless trays—light on enthusiasm, but heavy on the instant spuds.

          This lunch hour line was an odd lot, at that: white collar, blue collar, yellow collar, frayed collar, no collar at all—churlish, demanding, hungry for anything but casual conversation or common courtesy. Flickering cup-shade chandeliers cast a thick pall over the dining room. Those dark wood-grained walls closed in on the Garden’s failing brass railings and marble tabletops like a stop-down aperture. Seemed its temperamentally rainy day habitues preferred it that way.

          I caught sight of a round, illuminated Belfast Beverage clock directly over the right-side cocktail bar, between stuffed bison busts and a yellow mural of the 1904 Knights of Pythias parade, replete with horseless buggies and buffalo bull-headed militiamen. Five to 12: the Palm Garden filled with a dull, smoky clamor, for here it was, countdown to noon. Chills rushing me, I slogged toward the vacant of two wooden phone booths to the far side of the bar, head pelted by tumbling dice cups and cymbal pealing dishware, nostrils and sinuses clogging as if I’d French inhaled a carton of Old Gold regulars.

          God, this place was salty, albeit in an intriguing Dashiell Hammett sort of way. I shuddered, sliding the booth’s door behind me, hoping for relief from some of the tobacco smoke, no such luck. My hands swelled and trembled, head bobbing on stormy seas as I kicked fully closed the accordion door—no overhead light bulb, either. Figured, making this call in abject darkness. Two to 12. I stood peering through narrow glass door panels, tapping my boot against the wooden booth frame, ears whistling like a steam locomotive at a cannonball flag stop. Deal with it, the bargain, compact, true commitment—these more precepts hailstoned my conscience in leaden bulk. Maturity, responsibility, adult expectations—balls, bowels?! Grow the hell up…

          My clear course further frayed and frazzled with each upward tick of that Belfast clock. Hard-earned love, respect, faithful companionship, tar babies! Wait a second here: model couple, emotional fit, umbilical cord—caring, whipped, tenderness, entrapment, fidelity, fear, family, freedom—what the whipped dick hell’s the matter with you?

          Once more, I focused out the door, picking at the booth’s pebbly metal panels, at the tiny, illegible graffiti between the bumps. Through the cigarette/stogie smoke and steam table haze, I could see Koblenz, Hamburg, Casablanca—could see clear back to Northside Chicago. I had my cameras focused on it, I was a camera, my eyes were Nikon F2s with haywire motor drives. Thinking selflessness, self-fulfillment, security, suffocation, challenge, peace of mind, household mire, fast-track career, grind, growth, breadwinner, bondage, study over, understudy, lofty art, grounded existence, existential freedom, Rust Belt, Sun Belt…wait, this was getting a little too crazy…

          There were no more havens, daydream digressions. Chicago: I could visualize the Twelve Bar and Billy Goat as I called out collect numbers to the operator, made all necessary connections. But those images quickly dissolved in the Palm Garden’s smoke and haze, to where I could picture my father bending elbows at the end stool of its amber lit mahogany bar. I could see him seated next to…Uncle Early, like it just yesterday, on some cold Friday evening after work sucking down Blatz draft and White Owls, the joint abuzz with further details about Pearl Harbor and the military draft. Those two were blathering away, buying desperate down time between daily obligations and tribulations, lost momentarily in the colorful Wurlitzer tavern lights, drinking themselves numb in the bitter darkness, dad momentarily blocking out his two-room Southside walk-up, fretting over any prospects of an inconceivably timed come-lately kid on the way. Here, there they were, toasting to Whiteman and the Dorseys, beckoning me to come over like a regular shot-and-beer palsy-walsy: generations twice restooled, as if rejoining for a nip to talk some sense into me. But not so fast…

          “Hello? Tsk, yes, operator—I’ll accept the charges…Kenny?”

          “Uh, yeah, Moon. I’m really glad you’re there…”

          “I said I would be, didn’t I? So I am—now, what do you have to tell me?”

          “Um…” Right, mind rushing through home life, happiness, domestication, pride, newfound freedom, new Saab wagon; emotional rescue, entrapment, enlightenment, firstborn, 50 ways…shape shiftin’, pride goeth, decision, non-decision decision, road forkin’ away…

          “Kenny, where are you? When are you coming? Are you in Boulder yet, or…”

          “Melissa, I…”

          “I’m paying for this call—out with it.”

          “I’m still in San Francisco…”

          “Tsk, oh, Kenny…”

          “Moon, listen, this is really hard for me,” I sputtered, twisting the coiled phone cord in my clenched fist. “I don’t know quite how to say it…but I won’t be coming back right now.”

          “You what?!”

          “I don’t believe I just said that. But I’m thinking it’s true. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve got to stay out here for now, sort some things out…”

          “Oh, my god. What in blazes is this about? What’s wrong with you, Kenny? You wouldn’t even have the guts to do something so haywire if I weren’t here backing you up! Don’t you know what it means?”

          “Yeah, I guess I do—the Saturn either/or decision stuff…still some unfinished business.”

          “Here I’ve been planning such a welcome home, with my father’s blessing and everything. He’s been so edgy lately, what with those bizzare neo-Nazis threatening to march up here to Skokie any day now. You’ve simply got to come back soon as you can…”

          “Please, Moon, don’t…I fully appreciate all the pressure you must be under back there, but no more ultimatum deadlines, OK?”

          Silence, the crackling of some party line conversation somewhere in Des Moines. “Pressure, me?! No, see, what this means is I never want to see nor hear from you with this yo-yo nonsense again,” Melissa said, with sudden, brickwall solid calm.

          “Melissa, please,” again, catching myself mid spill, family-wise. “I just can’t crawl back like a tail-dragging dog again…I’ve got to make this all right here first.”

          “Tsk, goodbye, Kenny.”

          “I’ll write you, I’ll explain everything…I promise!”

          “No, mister yo-yo, I’ve had it, can’t be minding you anymore,” she screamed anew. “I refuse to let you mess up my life this way one minute longer. I mean that with all my heart!”

          “Moon, let’s not cut off things like this, please understand that…”

          “No, you understand. Fully understand that you’ve just lost the best woman you’re ever going to have. But I’ve got to move on with my life.”

          “Melissa, I’m pleading with you to just give me…I mean, I’ll stay in touch and…”

          “Bye, Kenny—I’ll take good care of Seamus, for his sake. You do the same for yours…because I can’t imagine another woman ever actually putting up with you.” CLICK.

          Images of her, of her and Seamus in the mountains, cranking ice cream on front porch swings trammeled me. So quickly they dissolved in the Palm Garden smog. Suddenly all I could see was mahogany desolation, my dad and Uncle Early downing one last Blatz for the cab home, teetering out the swinging doors. I hammered the receiver, instantly re-popping in the dime for a local call. I whirled the dial oblivious to the numeric sequence, yet the number was up, just the same.

          “Hello, Sydney here, recordingly yours. But if you’d like to paint me a message, I’ll be sure to stroke you back…”

          SLAM. Double jeopardy anew. What was wrong with you, what the hell have you done? What kind of a man are you anyway?!  I looked up to see my father pass through his tavern’s doors, arm around Uncle Early’s shoulders, flipping his cigar stub into the wind. I kicked open the phone booth door to a Palm Garden packed to the railings—Ethel Waters seemingly reprising ‘Stormy Weather’ with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in the smoke-gyved air. And here I was, so infinitely, abysmally beside myself.

          Figured—what a fine time for the goddamn booth light to pop on…

Care for more?

Chapter 52. Resources hitting bottom, 
hitting up painfully back home, some 
‘brotherly’ advice prompts a sweet 
respite and Union Square confrontation…

“Bad mood rings Saturn. 
Planet says no pain, no gain— 
fear’s not far behind.”

          R-r-ringgg. “H’lo?”

          “I knew I’d find you there…”

          “Who’s this?”

          “Who do you think, Einstein? Sydney…”

          “Syd, what the…”

          “We need your driver’s license and coverage info, Kenneth—for the insurance claim.”

          “But how’d you find me here?”

          “First place I called…no, second. I’d hoped you’d have sense enough to stay at the Embarcadero Y. At least it has sort of a view.”

          “Embarcadero Y? Where’s that…” I pried open my right eyelid with thumb and forefinger, then craned my head up against the icy metal headboard.

          “Forget it, Kenneth. I sensed you were in for a stumble, but didn’t think you’d sink like a rock. Honestly, how do you think this makes me feel?”

          Morning was no kinder to room 718. It seemed more cell-like, its jaundiced walls and battered, gimpy furnishings made the mud brown door a designer nicety by comparison. And that lone cold-water faucet must have dripped much of Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir since midnight. I switched on the overhead light and immediately denied my surroundings like a social drinker rationalizes the day-after’s roll call of dead and half-dead soldiers. My head hurt just as badly—only it wasn’t so much my head as my hair, from the roots on out. Did it hurt because it was thinning or thinning because it hurt? I resolved to quantify the field on that one, sooner than later.

          “You feel? Maybe I’m missing something here,” I said, still marginally asleep, cross, cloudless sunlight narrowly piercing the stained shade and curtains like crusted marmalade. “But I’m the one looking out a brick wall and god knows what below.”

          “Hmph, if you think you’re going to lay some kind of guilt trip on me, you’ve picked the wrong mark…”

          “Look, Syd, it’s what, 6:30?” I scanned the cracked walls in vain for a timepiece, settling instead on a broken three-bulb ceiling fixture, wires dangling and empty of sockets.

          “Try 7:25, time to get yourself out of that sewer, that’s what. For godsakes, Kenneth, where’s your pride and self respect?!”

          “Went with money supply, and I was just about running out of gas. Figured this was the closest place around, and was more affordable than the St. Francis or Jack Tar Hotel, okay? What d’ya want from me?”

          “Nothing, not one little thing more than the insurance information. It’s just that you’re back and it’s back—and I’m hoping that’s just a bizarre coincidence.”

             “What’re you talking about?”

             “You know what I’m talking about—up there by the park…I’m well aware of your…fixations. Suppose those shmucks are listening in on this over there? I mean, you never know about people, am I right?”

           “Naw, I haven’t a clue,” I said, hope against hope, party line-wise—hmph, lot she really knew. “Dunno what to tell you about that, Syd…”

              “Anyway you’ve got me fretting I might have any responsibility for bringing you back to the scene of the crime, so to speak—you know, just in case. But somebody’s got to talk some sense into you now…”

          “And that be you? Last thing I heard was beat it, scumbag,” I groused, kicking the blankets off, flashing of backstroking in CU’s Rec Center pool. ”So why would you have any reason to…”

          “Okay, maybe I was a little harsh, but you were so lame then. Plus I suppose I was a little concerned, the way you left and all.”

          “Who are you calling lame? Really, I can’t see how…”

          “Because we’re all little ants on this planet, that’s how—just trying to get along and get by. Like Daddo always says, we’re all here for a good time, not for a long time, know what I’m saying? Don’t ask me why, but I just don’t want any hard feelings.”

          “Yeah, well, I’ve got some hard thinking to do, Syd.” I proceeded to fish through my wallet and feed her my Colorado license and liability info. “Now I’d best go before the desk clerk cuts me off again.”

          “Again?”

          “Yep, he flipped out midway through a long-distance call last night. Nearly cut Moon and me off in mid sentence.”

          “You and…Moon?”

          “Right, at least I owed her some explanation for this fiasco.”

          “Hmph, I hate to tell you what I think, Kenneth. One little slap on the kisser and you’re running back to her!”

          “So what concern is it of yours anymore anyway?”

          “You’re so godblamed predictable, it’s maddening. But I guess I figured all along you don’t have the balls to cut clean, and won’t be free until you do. Melissa’s still got you by your baitsim; she’s like a Sephardic herder that way. And you were coming to me, all Mr. Liberation. Why don’t you just leave her be?!  I mean, what a joke—one big, pathetic joke! And you wonder why I came down on you…”

          “What can I say, pot and kettle…to have and to hold, maybe you’re right…” What could I do but stretch out and scratch myself. It felt like little bed buggers were crawling everywhere.

          “There, see? Bucklesville, Kenneth—you two are sticking and clinging to each other like tar babies. Damned if I want any more to do with it, family secrets or not—don’t even care if you spill to Moon about that. And I don’t want to hear one more word from you unless you’ve done what you should have in the beginning!”

          “Syd, you called me, remember? And you’ve already told me we were history…”

          “And we are, in that respect…you can bet your keister on it. But if you want to be friends, you’ve got to set some things right…”

          “Look, like I said, I’ve got some major life decisions to make, and have to bail out of here by 10 a.m., so…” Christ, what was that crawling on the windowsill, looked big as a bullfrog.

          “Saturn decisions, huh? Good luck with that, flash. But if you ever cut the umbilical cord and get back on your feet, get in touch. By the way, drop that schoolboy sociology shtick while you’re at it. Advertising’s where the money is.”

          “I don’t know, everything is so bent out of shape right now…”

          “I mean it, Kenneth, dammit, grow up. And you’d better not vanish or blow town again back east. It’s not like you’re burning with friends these days.”

          “Bye, Syd, sorry I…”

          “Stop calling me that—and move out of that cesspool, will you? I freak out just thinking about knowing somebody who’d end up this way, or that people might hear about it. And you know how I hate freaking out…” CLICK.

          “Syd…” Click, CLICK.

          “She hung up, fella.”

          “Gotcha. So what do I owe for this one…”

          “Zip, local call. Let’s just keep it that way, all right? And don’t go forgettin’ about check-out time…”

          This phone action slapped me like subzero Skin Bracer, cheek to cheek, so I let out for the latrine, Dopp kit in hand. A glum, graggy hallway greeted me, strewn with soda cans, potato chip bags, vending machine sandwich wrappers and the odd contraband Bud can and Gallo jug. Steam billowed out the rightside lavatory doorway, carpet runners leading up to it squished under my Vibram soles.

          “In or out? Just close the doors, will ya?”

          “Got it,” I smiled sheepishly, pulling the swivel doors behind me as I edged into the hazy washroom. They converged on my hesitant fingers like cleaver blades, forcing me fully into an ablutive clot unlike anything I’d seen since army boot camp.  Nevertheless, I about faced toward the nearest washbowl.

          “Hey, take a number, friend,” sniped a foul Pole in a wraparound Best Western towel and shower clogs. Sweat beaded the length of his soaring forehead, down a crooked roadmap nose as he slid menacingly toward basin number one. “Find your own damn sink.”

          “Sorry, it looked clear,” I pivoted toward the pots.

          “You blind, or what? My soap’s right there on the shelf, sheeit.”  That his hotel-size deodorant bar was any different from anyone else’s was clearly beside the point.

          Eight more churlish, sobering faces stared down this bank of discolored sinks and cracked mirrors, hands jerking spring-loaded hot water faucets like the firing order of high-rev overhead camshaft. A last-gasp regular at basin five had rigged a chopstick-and-rubberband bracket to maintain steady flow, but apparently wouldn’t share his ingenuity, unless the price was right. Steam poured from the intermittently scalding faucets as all sinks hot flashed at once, obscuring further conflicts before they got beyond reason.

          I just shrugged and unzipped to a runny urinal. This gloomy morning agenda had already forestalled the day’s momentous decisions, but by now my pipes burned and bladder ballooned to where I couldn’t think straight anyhow. I was barely shy of a sodium starchy yellow quart when the scream froze me mid stream.

          “Yeoww, crabs—muthafuckin’ crabs!”

          One glance over my shoulder, and I stuffed unfinished business into my Jockeys like a shoplifter pocketing a Mister Goodbar. The aggrieved looked to be a hidden away AWOL leatherneck, inked to the elbows, naked as a Rodin, squatting in the toilet stall next door. He was nit-picking about his pubes and scrotum, and leaning full weight on the flush handle. “Bastaads crawlin’ all over me!”

          I didn’t wait for verification, dripping instead toward the shower room, shedding jeans and Buffs shirt, piling them atop my hiking boots. But the sight of two middleweight brothers sparring naked around the pink-tiled common shower was enough to send me redressing to a coldwater shave back in 718. Dudes must have been going the distance, I shivered, the scummy shower water had stopped up nearly to their shinbones. Some guys, I thought, give them a pinch and they’ll take a vial.

          Several sharp scrapes of a disposable razor, and my bleary face was a styptic pencil eyesore, clotted for the moment with tiny wads of toilet tissue I’d rolled off before the men’s room banshees broke loose. Wrestling into yesterday’s denim and flannel, I made off for the elevators, canvas gym bag and cameras in hand, shirking the tell-all mirrors, steadying myself for the main floor lobby.

          “Had a bit of an accident, Mister Herbert?” asked the desk clerk, buzzing open that security door.

          “What’ya working, swing shift,” I shot back, in no mood for nickel-and-dime needling.

          “Hilarious,” he said, scrutinizing his guest register. “Let’s see, no more insane phone marathons. So if you’ll just surrender the room key…”

          “Check out’s 10, it’s not quite nine.” I took note of the wall clock, just making a point. Fallout from the $40 call had yet to settle, and that ragging was tough enough. Yet here this Y’s-ass zookeeper was, on my case at daybreak.

          “Bear with us, won’t you,” the clerk winked, with a tip if his once dapper lid, glancing over to an eyeshaded sidekick—same blue vestment, no hat or hair to speak of, red-penciling his ledger. “Hotel policy under the circumstances, in the event you don’t return in time. We do have other guests here, you see…”

          “Seen enough, for crissake. Appreciate the hospitality.” I tossed 718’s key over the counter and breezed out toward the foyer, feeling the heat of oozing, glaucomatous gazes upon me until I shouldered through Central’s metal-barred double doors.

          Had to think, had to focus—line up the options, set up the score, make my own ledger, get a handle on the scenarios, take a good, long look down the road, figure out if it’s the one, the goin’ rate, numero uno:  My mind was suddenly  racing at Mach 3 the moment I hit Turk Street. I stepped around some brothers on the stoop there, under a ripped awning, out of sun’s harm—setting a little agenda of their own. All that remained of last night’s attempted rob and rape was a splattering of the haply woman-for-hire’s dried blood, not my type at all.  San Francisco Tenderloin

          “Say bro, what’s shakin’? You  be scorin’ some oregano?”

          A stiff gust blew the tissue wads off my face as I trudged over to Leavenworth. I could feel the chill burn on a shot pattern of tiny skin nicks from my cheekbones to my chin. But I ignored them, and the distended voices, just as I blew off the first of many Tenderloin rope-a-dopes dealing their clove-cut weed, circumnavigated the jackals over at Mako’s Market, hoofin’ around the hydrant, paying tribute to the rose Thunderbird in some turgid tribal ritual involving catcalls, hand-to-hand cigarette butts and wine-stained brown paper sacks.

          “Bastuds took whole thing, took it all—left me nuthin’, sheeit,” a hook-backed old broom pusher spit as he rifled through the upper crust of a corner trash can, flinging peels, wrappers and dirtbags into a jam of horn-blaring cabs and delivery vans.

          C’mon, get it together, this is your life you’re talking about here—scene of the crime like maybe she really meant it, fool. You pissing that away, or what? Gonna let her slip away, just grind three years into the pavement like a dead Lucky Strike? Not getting any younger, you know, any hairier, not that many more friends.

          Turk Street closed in, four-story apartment buildings and SRO rat’s nests sponging up any sidewalk sunlight not claimedby boarded over parking garages and front-end and transmission repair shops. Case hardened Vietnamese children huddled in the piss-poor doorways, others scribbled on re-used coloring books behind iron security gates, or milling about bouncing grungy nerf balls, saucer eyeing the street life as though back in Tet and Chu Lai. Upstairs, their anxious immigrant mothers draped rinsed-out peasant garb on scissored fire escapes.

          “Pick it up, Sunburst, pick the damn thing up!”  Maybe eighteen going on 20, a bruised, bun-warming redhead dragged a layette and small TV set across Jones Street, with her runny nosed firstborn tugging a pink overnight case over the curb. “Hotel’s just up the block.”

          I couldn’t help but lift her overstuffed bag up onto the sidewalk, the little girl’s mother glaring at me like I was some kind of pedophile on the prowl. But the reflex gesture only reminded me of Boulder kids petting Seamus at Chautauqua Park, so too all the pumpkin bread abaking in the cabin kitchen, those steak sandwiches Moon would bring home from the Coach Light restaurant after picking wildflowers from the foothills to brighten the table. Then the talks, all night—Christ we could gab ’til sun-up sometimes.. What the hell time was it? Where was a fuckin’ clock?!

          “Hey, watch your step…”

          “Yeah, sorry.” I nearly trashed out the played-out grifter, a slow shuffling question mark in two gray plastic raincoats and a cockled bucket hat, Safeway bags wrapped around his newsprint soled shoes. “Say, you wouldn’t by any chance have the time…”

          “Ggrrr, you wannna hit?”  Eyes to the concrete, the old man wielded his walking cane like a squadrol nightstick.

          I skipped his swing as if jumping rope, and spun off up Turk Street before losing my Vasques from the kneecaps on down. Time, what the hell’s the time? All the fading painted building signs were for Tacoma Beer and Sal Hepatica, just like the music out of that ghetto blaster across the way might as well have been Teresa Brewer or Band of Renown.

          “Not to worry, baby, we’ll score some more at the grocery there.”   Some wiry old Mabel in a frosted wig and tourniquet jeans flashed her white vinyl purse like a MasterCard to her strangely intense matinee studly, who flivvered a stub of a Marlboro through his scraggly Van Dyke and slurred, “We outta smokes—no more smokes, no go!”

          Beyond Greco Grocery, Turk doubled down in spades. Even the airlift and boat people cringed behind barred gates, for the bloods be hangin’ out by dirty-dozen gin mills like the Chez Sands, Tradewinds or Coral Sea, hauntin’ refugee liquor/food marts up and down the block. And they decidedly ruled on the sunny side of Turk, struttin’ to Sylvester and the Funkadelics.Tenderloin streets

          No bullshit, I recoiled, not ounce of bullshit in three-plus years. Not during term-paper weekends, not even when she covered the rent. Totally without  contentions or conditions. So long as you didn’t dump on Moon she would back a guy 200%, topped with brandywine-berry turnovers, pouring some burnt cream and fresh organic cherries over it all, totally unreal…

          The brothers shucked and jived and roistered for position in the mid-morning rays, slipping little baggies and prescription bottles around like pieceworkers at a spasmodic conveyor belt. When a baby blue and white SFPD patrol car turned the corner, they broke away to shadowbox themselves or an after hours streetwalker too drag-ass to fight them off. The cops slowed to spar with them all through half-cracked car windows, picking up a little sugar on the side.

          “Lookie here, man, you stay outta my muthafuckin’ bizness. That coin filchin’s just too damn rude, dig?”  This cornrowed chiseler read down a frenetic semi-tough making for the corner newsboxes. But he picked the squirrel up by his motorcycle leather lapels, depositing him in a stationary trash container. Even the pigeons fluttered off from a greasy burger wrapper like this was a detonation in Londonderry or Belfast. Passing by charily, I happened to notice the lefty SF Lancer’s juicy tabloid headline: ‘White-Milk Affair Sours As City Toasts Gay Freedom Day Paradepoliticos say they’re at each other’s throats’something about lactose intolerance, as if that had anything to do with what was curdling down here.

          Chez Sands’ main beachhead was its cornerstone position on the Tenderloin’s porn row. Behind the video parlor loomed a Chez Sans, a second wave of magazines, pulp and postcard carnage, about as appetizing as nasal oysters up and down the sidewalk. Workingman’s special: ‘small butt’ dildos today only—the ultimate come-on being, ‘See a Flick With a Chick—Buck a Booth’.

          But I just begged that off and moved on, holding tightly to my kit bags, trying for the life of me to remember where I’d parked the Volvo. Instead, Moon orbited back to mind…everything was cool, everyday she kept things wired together without bitching, no psyching it all out—just got it done. No pouting, no alienation of affection—no fuss, no heavy scenes.She made it so easy, like when she steered me clear of Lafayette Park that time…what time was it exactly?

          “You been doin’ me like this for months, Levon. Ain’t buyin’ this crap no more!”  Stretch jeaned and spike heeled, some working girl stood about nine inches taller and outweighed her ponce by at least twenty pounds. She looked right down on him, but the hirsute little pimp in a pink jumpsuit tiptoed back against a parking meter to steady himself. Still, this Amazonian Wanda in shrunken spandex and cashmere tapped him atop his pomade-processed head to press her point. “Y’don’t be takin’ that off the top on me no mo…”

          Hardly receptive to more domestic strife, I stepped it up past more encounter pits and angled toward Market Street. Several blocks of firetrap bookstores and lunched-out grills, and Tenderloin recesses popped open like a photoflash umbrella to the blinding excesses of Hallidie Plaza. The energy and commotion was overwhelming after all that sensory depravation—an appropriate locus in quo to commemorate the cable car system’s founding father. Here, nothing stood still for long, save perhaps for the lengthy MUNI queues. Cable gripmen rotated Hallidie’s cranky little cars on the Market Street turnaround, sending thrill-hungry tourists back up the Powell and Hyde Street lines.

          Blaring autos and motor buses edged along Market, horning around the green and cream colored torpedo trolleys that had swayed and rumbled along these gleaming inlaid rail beds since DiMaggio played pick-up games around San Francisco sandlots. Directly below, streamlined BART trains subwayed silently enroute to Concord or Daly City, the outdoor escalators conveying passengers between the Powell Street Station and Hallidie Plaza chaos. Altogether, the scene was akin to a cutaway of some hobby shop ant farm, more often than not under ultraviolent light.

          Whoa, talk about a bloomin’ getaway… There, up on a colorful billboard atop the Bank of America building to my left was a larger-than-life advert for Qantas Airlines, picturing a golden sunrise tableau of Australia’s yawning, parabolic-shelled Opera House. The poster’s  boldface head was: ‘Escape to Sydney. A Harbour That’s Positively AUsome.’.  Speak of the Tasmanian devil, but what did that mean to me? Was it going to be bookin’ all over again, or playing that Fear card in my pocket? Either/or, god forbid neither/nor—there was no splitting the difference now, splitting headache or no.

          Then again, you wanted sociology, egghead, you’ve got sociology up the wazoo—a longitudinal and/or latitudinal field study—pick your poison. Really, theory or practice; foreign or domestic; lily white or worldly bright; publish or perish; penance or parish; zoom in, pull back?  Still, what a test case to behold and unfold here, empirically out of left field—no control group or demographic stratification, only a lab clock critically running on borrowed time. Not your garden variety walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination. Hell, if I just wasn’t so functionally double-blind, maybe I could even have tracked down my car.

          “Looking for something, son?” asked a grizzled work detail street sweeper, squinting up from clearing a plugged Market Street storm drain. “Always ready to help a fella here in the city that knows how.”

          “Thanks, but right now I just need to know where…”

Care for more?

Chapter 51. Amid praying to the 
heavens, negotiating a circus midway, 
outcomes are debated, a throwback 
milieu sets the dial tone…

“In or out, here or 
there, be wary of any 
malice in asunderland.”

          “This has gotten totally out of hand. I must ask you to finish at once…”

          “I know, I know…just a couple more minutes…”

          “Sir, you’re topping $30. I just can’t hold the line any longer.”

          “Get off my case, will ya? I’ll be through in a few!”

          “Make sure you come down to the front desk when you do…”

          “Yeah, yeah—anyway, it got so bad I didn’t know where I was. Couldn’t stay in the city—the whole place was spinning around and I didn’t want to be in the same town as her, let alone the same species. Night time was a total blur, went back and forth across the damn Bay Bridge three times before finally stopping on Treasure Island to figure what next…”

          “Tsk, poor baby…”

          “I was running out of gas, so I had to cool down somewhere,” I pulled a chocolate Do-Nut out of its cellophane pack. “So I headed to a rest area by Vallejo I’d crashed in once before. Froze my ass off, everything gyrating around the headliner, windows icing up. By morning, it began to hit me what a bind I was in…”

          “And who’s to blame for that?”

          “C’mon, I need that like a liver transplant. So I had no choice but to come back to San Francisco—been here, but not here, ever since. Driving around mostly, trying to dig out, you know, make up my mind—make the big decision.”

          “At this point, I wonder whether you’d even know a big decision if it hit you in the kabanza…”

          “Hey, gimme a break, Moon,” I nibbled at the fudgy frosted edges. “You know how convoluted this situation is. I mean, I’m really hamstrung. Took this room on Rivoli, up near Saturn Street, of all places—a sublet in a Victorian flat above the Haight I found on a UCSF bulletin board. Top floor, I could see the Golden Gate Bridge. The guy was going to Yosemite for the weekend, just said to pay him the rent and partial deposit on Monday. Had the place to myself, free trial, I’d unpacked the car and everything. There were these beautiful hillside houses, and the ocean, but the whole neighborhood had cleared out of town, even the stores in Cole Valley were like totally deserted, no street fairs, nothing. Got lonely as hell…she was the only person I knew around here. You can see why I never made it to Monday…”

          “So you called her first, I suppose…why are you telling me this?!”

          “Doesn’t matter, she wasn’t home anyway,” I sputtered, chocolate crumbs flying. “So I started driving around again, hearing all these blasted voices in my head.”

          What I’d neglected to mention was that mister sublet had turned away four solid prospects with cash in hand—and here he had his eyes on a rear-decked flat in Diamond Heights. He needed the rent split to move up there. Told me he had a soft spot for…Coloradans. Those aforementioned voices chimed in primarily via high-bias CrO2 Dolby stereo, as the guy’s slant-streeted pink Rivoli crib featured a McIntosh vacuum tube-powered audiophile set-up with ‘Voice of the Theater’ speakers. Why I kept wallowing in John Denver under these circumstances was beyond me, a ‘Rocky Mountain High’ tape of everything from ‘Leaving, On A Jet Plane’ and ‘Fly Away’ to ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, and ‘I’m Sorry’…the whole treacly, pining cassette.

          This audible pathology soon had me carving a path around the block, Alma over to Belvedere Street, down to Cole Valley and back again, vowing to change my tunes. Aching images of Syd’s bedroom ménage a tragedy pummeled my head as I slide-stepped the hard city sidewalks like a night watchman coaxing his bunions, commencing to repack the Volvo a little more after every lap.

          The only paper trail I’d left behind were more deadbeat apologies taped to the living room record/bookcase and kitchen table. Slipping the guy’s door keys back into his mail slot, I coasted down Rivoli to clutch start the Volvo and its weakening battery, nevertheless hitting the radio to the untimely dirge of an Eagles’ sad-eyed ‘Desperado’. Speed dialing that away, I caught KSFC between Fleetwood tracks, drawing from its stranger-than-strange file that Peoples Templers had grown so paranoid about CIA infiltration that they were fishing around Russian, Cuban, even North Korean missions for potential asylum.

          CLICK. “Ah-hem, excuse me, but you must clear this line…”

          “Get off my case, dammit! I’ll be down in a minute, just let me finish here…”

          “Kenny, I’ve got to run, anyway…” 

          “Moon, please,” I said, hearing ‘Mandy’ playing softly in her background. “Just a second, it helps so much to talk to you…uh, where was I? Oh, yeah, I crossed the Bay Bridge back and forth so many times, the toll taker waved me through. Then I stayed in this stupid motel about a block from her old place. I needed something to hang this all on, you know? Retrace some steps, get some answers—driving around and around her old block, never hit the pillow before 4 a.m. Then the bucks started running thin, so I hit this dump. You wouldn’t believe it, a real snakepit, I swear…it took all my strength not to call you before this…”

          “Tell me about strength, Kenny. I’ve resorted to re-reading Erica Jong, even Kubler-Ross ‘On Death and Dying because of your spin-out. Tsk, I don’t know, you spend all our precious time earning two sociology degrees, then veer off on that advertising tangent—advertising! How sell-out can you get? Then this…I really worry about you and all the flipping around…”

          CLICK. “Sir, time’s up, you’re approaching $40 now, I’ve got to cut this off…”

          “One more minute, just one more minute, please,” I sputtered, kicking at the camera bag I had brought up from the Volvo. “Honestly, Moon, I’m trying to work through it, sort it all out…I’m wondering if maybe I’ve screwed up royally here. So what if you came out again, or…”

          Maybe? Look, Kenny, if you really want to work it out, you’re going to have to come back to Chicago. I’m not chasing one more mile after you, I mean it! See, I’ve made some decisions while you’ve been wildcatting around. Number one is, I’m here to stay for now.”

          “Aww, you can’t mean that, I…”

          “You betchum. And if you do come back, you best be prepared to make a decision of your own, and sooner rather than later for your own sake. I’m talking about commitment here.”

          CLICK. “Fifteen seconds before disconnect, fifteen seconds…”

          “OK, OK, mister. What other decisions, Moon? What’s going on back there,” I rattled, visions of Lester Mendel winging in as the crow flies from his fallow fantasy farm. “Don’t tell me there’s somebody else hangin’ around…you know, like because of that special rela…”

          “Special what? Tsk, bye-bye, Kenny—safe trip, see you soon.”

          “Aww, nothing, but…” I caught myself—Mendel family, mother of all loose lips-wise. “Moon, wait, gotta straighten some things out first. I’ll call you by noon tomorrow, promise, I…” CLICK, fzzzt, CLIck.

          KNOCK, KNock. “Mister Herbert, open up, please. Come with me.”

          “Yeah, yeah…hold on to your drawers.”

          “Sir, must I resort to my passkey?”

          “Com-ing…” Who belonged to that tinny little voice? It was seeping through the odor vents in this mud brown door, with its Y’s men ten commandments peeling away like Red Guard handbills, above the chain lock with its missing links. Neither had I gotten around to telling Melissa that I’d eventually wound up in the Central San Francisco YMCA Hotel—suiting me to a T at that late moment,meaning T for Tenderloin. Christ, I could hardly remember how and when I got down here.

          “We don’t appreciate such fracases, you know…our guests aren’t …”

          “Are you shittin’ me?” I asked, opening 718’s squeaky metal door to this gaunt, George Carlin-looking staffer in a blue Y-insigniaed sweater vest. “This place isn’t exactly the Fairmont or Hilton—they’ve got better cockroaches than you’ve got guests.”

          “Present company accepted, I’m sure,” said the 50ish swishy desk clerk, straightening his Trinidad stingy brim fedora, stroked his graying goatee as he beckoned me toward the elevator. We were descending in a cable-slipping bucket before I could serve up a decent rejoinder. “But what would you know about  ritzy hotels anyhow?”

          “Seen my share,” I replied, feeling somewhat put upon by the dig. “Seen my share…”

          The Central Y was this huge, blocky brown brick tomb—complete with a monumental arching Doric columned portal—that had belonged to the Tenderloin of better days, if indeed the district had ever seen them. We hit the  main floor like a lunar lander, wherein I followed the clerk through a buzzer-locked steel security door and across a green tile floor, gone Central YMCAyellow with Glo-Coat, to his wire-caged front desk. All manner of aging cane swingers and early Emporium shopping baggers staked out black vinyl couches the full length of the avocado walled lobby. Everyone, everything looked so sickly lima green—it was either jaundice or the fluorescent lighting, these not being subjects in any course catalog I’d ever surveyed before.

          “Let’s see, you owe $42.80 for the phone call, tax included,” the clerk tallied, before turning to hang some vacated room keys onto rows of discolored brassy wall hooks. “Payable as of now.”

          “Traveler’s check?” I sighed, annoyed, fixing on the grosgrain ribbon band and canary side feathers of his raffia straw hat, half denying I was even in this place, let alone that I owed it forty smackers more—and was running way low on funds as it was, Syd’s reimbursement notwithstanding.

          “Cash…”

          “Crap, I can’t believe this is happening,” I squared things up, then turned to storm away, dropping my wallet on the worn tile floor.

          The desk clerk stood me off at his steel and glass security door, waiting a cool half-minute before buzzing the lock to let me out of the cashier’s counter. I stepped aside an arthritic mopper who’d handed the billfold to me as she scrubbed some heel marks with a scouring pad. Cleaning woman in a YM? I was in no inquiring mood here either, but did fix on her thickly calloused hands and gnarled fingers.

          The aproned crone wheezed and thanked me for giving ground, without so much as looking up. For an instant, she reminded me of my mother, became mom at the Rosens’ holiday festivities back in Willow Grove—reassuring that she would never actually desert her only son, would stick by me, even after I’d sentenced her to plot and soil. She’d stand by me, bless her soul, even way the hell out here.

          In an act of righteous cruelty, the Young Christian Men had once installed full-length mirrors directly across from each floor’s elevators—best face forward for rededicated, spit-shined scriveners and salesmen. But now, the mirrors reflected all the warmth and uplifting spirit of Travis Bickle minus the munitions and heat. I caught myself all stubbly and disheveled in the harsh overhead lighting, jabbing to cover my eyes and scurry into an upbound car.

          As soon as the elevator hit floor 7, I caught myself in yet another brutal full-length mirror, Cuisinart hair, itchy jowls, unbuckled at the flannel and denim waistline—damned if I really looked that puffy and pale. I fled down the dim, split-pea hallway back to 718, busting ATF-style into the spare, 8’x10’ room. I flicked on a light switch above its black, no-dial extension phone. A small, white shade covered the flickering 40-watt lamp nailed directly above the bed, a paint speckled, metal-frame single with casters grooved deeply into a secretion stained reseda tile floor.

          One more night, what was one more blurry night? Yeah, one thing at a time, take it a step at a time—totally on the ones. I tossed my keys and depleted billfold onto a tiny laminated wood-grain desk, complete with an obligatory Gideon Bible in the open drawer, and draped my plaid shirt over its hardback metal chair. That pack of Do-Nuts and a pint of chocolate milk would have to hold me over until morning. I devoured the sugary snack pack while reviewing Y commandments framed on the door: No yelling, no loud music, no drugs or liquor, no nude photos, no lascivious behavior, no smoking in bed. OK, anything so long as I didn’t have to hit the goddamn 7th floor head.

          Unfortunately, that was like holding back the Raiders’ Black Hole. My head began seizing, racing in no discernible direction other than away from where I was. I paused to catch my breath, grab my nose, pressure squeeze my groin and dart down the hallway, across a dimpled turquoise carpet runner that clashed violently with split-pea walls and those red fire sprinklers clanking overhead.

          Each mud brown door yielded a life current unto itself: 715 a shortwave radio, 713 a past-prime TV. Electric shavers, blenders, window fans, space heaters and vaporizers hummed through successive door vents between 718 and the head, marginally masking belches, chain coughing, game shows, country singalongs and long lost regulars reduced to arguing with themselves. Sounded as though 711 preferred a one-man dialogue, faithfully recreating the rantings vis-à-vis his cuckolding former wife.

          “Hey, close that sucker behind you, a guy needs a little privacy in here,” a gargantuan old seaman barked as I rushed to push through the swinging bathroom door. His ham-shaped head was in a full mentholated lather, with one disposable razor strip over the top, like a figure-ground mohawk.

          “Uh yeah, sure,” I gulped, wiping the sweat from my forehead with my regulation issue white towel as I made for the nearest urinal. “Whatrya…”

          “Shavin’ my melon,” the sea lion studied me through the sink mirrors as I unzipped toward pisser number two. “Keeps the head clear, thoughts don’t get tangled up in the brush.” With that, he shaved carefully, back to brows, pulling his scalp taut with the other hand, steadying himself by propping his hairy beachball belly over the sink top. Barbasol clumps dropped down onto his beer-swollen abdomen, dripping slowly into the canyon of his navel. “Just like Kojak.”

          “Don’t cut yourself there,” I replied, flushing and shaking, zipping away from the pot, startled by a loud bang, followed by hornish, elongated gas passing. A center stall beyond the urinals opened slowly, some wiry middle-aged dockhand emerging, skivvies down to his steel-toed work boots, waving folds of bun wad as if bon voyaging the QE II. In his wake, I bolted for the door.

          “You’ll get your chance before you know it, Samson,” the shaver growled my way, licking errant lather off his chin with a swipe of the tongue. “Just you wait and see.”

          I made it back to 718 none too soon, skirting over to a tiny mirrorless wash basin on a far corner wall, albeit not far enough. Its single cold-water tap had long leaked into iron erosion of the crystallized porcelain, a rust stain the shape of an organic yellow turnip. Damn, the fat bastard was right, I groaned, picking and pulling at oily hair, catching my reflection in a side window reflection against a brick wall of the next building over. The room’s overhead light shone starkly in this corner, revealing spotty patches of exposed scalp, top and back. It was thinning, like I’d never noticed before.

           So chastened, I fetal curled up beneath a silt brown blanket and bedspread, reaching to kill the overhead light; a brief short circuit sizzle, and 718 went dark. Cold, stiff sheets chafed like a forced-march field pack on a mid-summer Fort Campbell afternoon. A wintergreen disinfectant flexed its industrial strength against pervasive bogs of errant excrement, losing to an olfactory stand-off between stadium troughs and the three aft lavatories of an Avianca DC-8. It was a stubborn, burning male odor up and down the hallway, as structural as the floor and walls, and traces of lingering weed and cigar smoke were freshly fragrant by comparison.

          Still, foul cigar smoke? Streetcorner reefer badness? I traced it all to the door vents, along with some mumbling out in the corridor, which soon turned heated and onerous.

          “Stuff it, cockbite!”

          “You’re gonna eat that stub, mudderfugger, no lie.” Sounded like the seafarer.

          “Yah, you’ll eat me first, bitch…” COUGH, cough…

          I squirmed and kicked in the squeaky springed bed, restlessly grabbing at its metal spoked headboard, unable to place that second voice, but disinclined to sniff it out any further. My clammy, clenching hands soon slipped into the bed board’s paint-chipped grooves, dug by so many frantic fingers before me. It felt as though each dirty nailed digit had dug in firmly, scraping back and forth with bitter grit. And I couldn’t even begin to account for the dark, rumbling, nightmarinating hours.

          “This wasn’t gonna happen,” I muttered out loud, rolling my head around the spongy foam pillow, ear to ear. She’s not gonna force me into this—nope, I’m not gonna blink again. Acidic images of our Golden Gate Park face-off poured over my surface resolve. You’re doing it, jerk. I’m back, so you’re coming back. She tapped that out loud and clear on my forehead. Shit, it couldn’t be her, she wasn’t my mother, right? Maybe wasn’t even her. No, it was them—that was it, them. Let’s see, one could, the other should. If Syd had come through, there’d be no phone call, right? Uh, uh, Moon was the one all along, just like I’d figured in the park…really. All told, it was getting awfully complicated.

          “Put that damn stogie out, I tell ya!”

          “Aww, kiss, kiss. Just come down to 703, girl. I gotsta a big La Palina for y’all…”

          “Kiss off, you suckin’ fag…”

          “You get the plot, honey…lights, camera, ac-tion.”

          The voices seeped now like propane fumes through 718’s door. I wound tightly in the covers and pictured Moon running Seamus in Chautauqua Park. No, Sydney, racing me up to her sunlit studio. No, Moon feeding me lentils and carrot sticks after classes, on Norlin quad. That was it, of course—there she was, would always be. This apparent battle line was just shadows in the dust. Sure, she was just setting up the big, heavyweight homecoming for her California bronco buster cryin’ for home, toolin’ in like some road-burned warrior. And she’d take me in again, forgiving me, feeding me, tossing scraps out to Seamus with the wrens and tree squirrels in our Boulder backyard. It was enough to send me unfurling myself from the bedding, leaping onto the cold linoleum floor. “Shut up out there, assholes. Can’t a guy get some decent sleep around here?!” BAM, Bam…  Central Y Hotel

          Who was that? Somebody slamming on my wall, one room over. I paced furiously, then shot back over to that window mirror. Popping on the light, I took one more quick, cruel look at a faceful of purple-eyed trepidation. But back to bed before my feet froze, before those voices broke through the mud brown door, before some woman screaming down outside that window shattered my sole remaining reality check until check out at 10 a.m. Hell, I’d be out of this hole by seven, at least; had some serious thinking to do before lunchtime. Heh, not to worry, Moon would still be getting me for a song—damaged goods, but maybe too cheap, nonetheless

          “Somebody shoot that cunt if she don’t stop that screamin’ down there!”

          The buzzard bluster voice again, coughing, wheezing right outside my door. Who were these scuzzballs, what were they doing out there? What was I doing in here? This was insane, the whole left coast deal, the way it was closing in—stokin’ a Panatella you fat-ass morons. Aww, forget this shit, get on back to Moon first thing. I propped up against the headboard, cold metal numbing my spine. That woman’s screams continued to rattle the window, while jolts of red and blue neon peppered in from the hotel sign several floors below. I counted the light flashes as they filtered through water-stained gauze curtains—anything to keep from up and looking down there.

          Sirens converged on Golden Gate Avenue, out front of the Y; soon came one final, horrific scream, then silence. I really did want to look out by now, but my frozen toes still said flat no. Heavy morning, heavy decisions, had to bag some z’s—sink into these measly blankets, hell with the smell. Just keep counting the blue-red flashes, I blinked, tune out the police radios, sleep on it, it’ll come clear by sunrise.

          “Bout goddamn time they shut her up…”

          “Musta shoved a big fat dick in her yap.”

          “You’d know better than me ’bout that.”

          “Open invite, gurlll—you knowww whatst I like…”

          These exchanges were soon drowned out by paramedic sirens, fading to bullish hall farting and more distant tuber, emphysemic coughs. Then all units screeched away, leaving just the clicking, flicking hotel sign, a dripping sink faucet, roach and bedbug warfare, and some residual lunatic roaming the hall, pounding door to door. Could have sworn I heard a news bulletin from his fuzzy transistor radio, something about a new beastly attack up in Lafayette Park. Again, now? Wouldn’t you know it—but what the hell, not exactly my bailiwick, not my…leitmotif. Naw, just one more night here, what was one more bloody night?

          I furtively pillowed my ears, before thrashing, grabbing a handout card tucked under an ash-pocked night stand doily. It appeared to be some sort of feel-goodwill message, which I could barely make out with each flash of red-blue neon. Appeared to be double-sided, watermarked platitudes preaching to ‘Face Your Rage And Unlock The Cage’—with a flipside reading, ‘Face Your Fears, And They Will Disappear’.

          Aiming to spindle and mutilate the card into a dented trash basket, I instead stuffed it under the pillow, filing it away for future reference and/or bust-out defiance. Had to be better than pounding the Gideon until ringing, stinging wake-up calls come break of day.

Care for more?

Chapter Fifty. A rude awakening
augurs some quick and dirty clean-up, 
before mind-muddled kickin’ it in the ’Loin…

 

“She may be easy street, but 
can you make it on your own— 
meaning go it alone…”

          SQUEECH, SQUEEEEECH. “The left button, push it harder, I’m loaded with luggage and everything!”

          “Pushing it all the way—wait, I’m coming down…”

          I set aside an Examiner front-page piece on Peoples Temple developments down in Jonestown, how the U.S. Embassy expressed concern over further defections and Guyana hotel firebombings. How State Department officials wanted no part of Jim Jones’ rants, his rumored mass suicide rehearsals, even though the latest cables from Georgetown described a ‘community of armed, primitivized American citizens existing as a self-contained unit in a foreign land’. Sounded sort of like Marquette Park to me.

          So I dismissed the below-the-fold report, setting aside the bulldog edition to give Syd’s front-door buzzer button one more exasperated push before bounding down thickly carpet runnered stairs to greet her in the foyer. An airport van driver had helped her with several matching suitcases and taped cardboard cartons from Marshall Field’s and Crate & Barrel. I managed to lug most of her airfreight and carry-ons upstairs, while she tipped the Lorrie’s van man and checked her mail slot one more time. By the time she had carried a Vuitton overnight bag into 2C, I’d stacked most everything else on her foyer and kitchen floor.

          “Going weak in your old age, Kenneth?” She pointed toward her bed as though we were only halfway there.

          “What is with this stuff? I helped spread it all out atop the comforter-made Murphy.

          “From my parents, they’re so sweet—just some more goodies to keep me moving onward and upward,” Syd glanced about her apartment. “Well, looks like you cleaned up after yourself. Nothing broken, I take it?”

          “Uh, nothing broken…here, whatd’ya expect, Syd…ney.” Damn, I just still couldn’t bring myself to call her that. But this was hardly why my eyes zagged back toward the kitchen. Her galley was kosher clean, not even a water spot, the necklace and wild horse creamer hadn’t moved a speck. “Hey, missed you…”

          “Me too,” she said, following my cue, from avocado enamelware to Endusted breakfast nook, with white glove deliberation, running a finger across her prized Imari pitcher. “Not bad—so, what exactly have you accomplished since I left?”

          “Who, me?” I lingered near the doorway, as if to keep her focused on the alcove, surrounding appliances and countertops.

          “Who else, the trashman? How often have you been watering the plants? My poor hyacinth looks a little pale…”

          “I took care of it, all right. C’mon let’s sit a bit and catch up…”

          Sure, not to worry, she still basically loved me—like she said. Maybe she’s had some time to reconsider and realize what we had going. Why else would she have me stay here, right—just wanted to keep me under wraps while she and her mother sorted everything out…women! She went back like I did, then came to her senses just the same. It was meant to be the two of us taking on San Francisco—an unbeatable combination, just like we’d said from the beginning. She needed me, simple as that—just taking a little time to adjust. Look at what she’s getting, said herself once how none of it meant anything without me by her side. Well, here I was, gift-wrapped and postage paid, even with a couple of clangers to smooth over. I cast a passing glance in at her mother’s cheesecake photo images for moral and immoral support.

          “No, let’s hit the living room, I need to unwind and unpack—the flight was non-stop crunch time all the way out of O’Hare.” Syd pranced past me and the Murphy bed before I could pull out a chair at her kitchen table. She put the latest Karla Bonhoff album on her stereo, then plopped down on her tan sateen sofa, right next to a matching throwcover and crimson pillow. “What’s the matter, Kenneth, you’re sucking on your moustache again.”

          “Uh, watch it there, Syd…”

          “Here, take a seat, listen to me,” she searched, patting the seat cushions with a Poesque pulse. “It was mostly a fantabulous celebration back there, exhausting though, especially when my parents kept trying to fix me up with Bernard Zynich and his father’s Evanston gallery again. Chicago was all right, but not like here. Shoulda been with me downtown—I scored some classic creamers in Bucktown and Lincoln Park.”      Syd's new place

          “Great, maybe I’ll use one as my dashboard Jesus,” I sat guardedly beside her, stretching my arm up around her shoulders, again fretting that Moon had had a place at the Mendel table.

          “Verrry funny,” she tossed that crimson pillow, hitting me upside the head.  “Speaking of cars, how is Foxy? Clean and full, I hope…Kenneth, what is this?”

          “Um, it was late, Syd,” I stammered, pulling back as she stared a hole through a nearly white spot on the seat cushion, where the pillow had just been. “I was exhausted, spilled some soda. The light was dim and I guess I just rubbed too hard with some Fantastik. Didn’t want the stain to set–went too far the other way…”

          “You guess,” she spouted, trying herself to comb the spot away. “You guessed my beautiful new sofa to oblivion!”

          “Yeah, it sucks, I know. But that duvet there would cover it square…”

          “It’s not a duvet. And trouble is, my throwcover will have to mask it square,” she simmered—there went those nostrils. “I mean, it’s a place cover now—I’ve got to make sure it stays here. I hate having to do that, Kenneth, hate not being able to just casually toss it, to make it have to hide something. Do you know how much that freaks me out?!”

          “Easy, Syd…ney, sit back,” I blurted, owning up guest-wise as she readied to pace and fret. “We have to go over something about the Audi…”

          “What about Foxy?” she pulled away, pushing her throwcover into the sofa corner, then kneading it down over the cola spot as if prepping and panning pizza dough.

          “Well, everything was great until I went for your cleaning,” I recounted, in awe of all the baggage she’d carried along from Chicago, yet weighing that it still wasn’t as heavy as mine. “Had to park downhill on Steiner Street, and this brand new Mercedes wedged in front of me, so I had to back uphill. Ever had that happen? All the time I drove cabs, never got pinched in so damned tight.”

          “Hmph, happens all the time here, for godsake. Even handicapped drivers can get out of that kind of fix. So what did you do to my baby?”

          “Whew,” I sighed. If only Moon had been there to there to rub my aching head. “Well, I hit an oily slick spot backing up, and slid down into the Benz…”

          “Oh my god,” she recoiled further, as if I’d Raggedy Ann flailed her first born. “You’ve gone and wrecked two cars?!”

          “Naw, the Mercedes wasn’t even scratched, not even a nick in its rubber pads…”

          “Oh, sure, now the bad news.” Her eyes glowed VDT green, and she heaved deeply, keeping me at arm’s length. “My Foxy’s folded up like a Japanese fan…”

          “Wait, it’s only the grill and bumper—they’re a little dented, the parking light lens, that’s all.”

          “That’s all? I want to see this instant…no, I can’t even bear to look right now. Oy vai, you’ve wounded me, Kenneth, mortally,” she moaned, burying her face in the throwcover. “What were you thinking? How could you be such an ungrateful klutz?!”

          “Burned?! Come on, Syd, I’ll bet your dad’s insurance will cover it…”

          “I pay my own premiums, I’ll have you know. Good thing, ’cause you probably aren’t even insured. But at least you picked up my cleaning, right?”

          “Yeah, well that’s what made the whole deal such a bummer. That hag at the cleaners wouldn’t release your clothes, because I didn’t have a claim ticket. Can you believe that?”

          “What? I left if for you, Kenneth, under your wild horse creamer there,” she re-emerged, pointing toward the kitchen in disbelief. “How could you miss that? Now, what do you suggest I do about my appointment?”

          “I don’t know, you’ve got a closet full of clothes in there…should be plenty enough to meet with your…ecotect.”

          “Hmph, that’s not worthy of a response,” she bristled. “Makes me wonder what other little disasters you have for me…”

          “Nothing else, Syd, swear…”

          “Well, have you been doing anything productive here,” she snapped, as if rolling my show and tell around in her head like a priest confronted with the confessions of a serial abuser. “About your own life, for instance?”

          “Aww, it’s only been a week,” I mumbled. “It’s all so different out here this time. Sort of been lying low, acclimating—you know, checking the want ads, sorting things out…planning my approach.”

          “In other words, basically zippo,” she said, staring across her bachelorette in evident displeasure.

          “No way,” I spurted, rubbing together the calluses on my palms. “I went through your place like crazy —even found some dust you missed…”

          “So handy dandy,” she said, “but what’s your next move?”

          “I’ve just realized that things are up in the air. Still can’t figure out where the advertising deal fits. Was also thinking about doing a photo shoot of that famous horse lady up in Nevada, Mustang Maggie. Guess I’m still most turned-on by what you said that time, about pooling talents, teaming up. Figured I’d wait until you got back, we could hash it out…”

          “Oy, first of all, Wild Horse Annie’s the really famous one, but she died nearly a year ago,” Syd rubbed her temples with a shake of the head. Then she jumped up and turned toward the Murphy bed. She began rearranging her luggage and packages for a moment before pacing between the sofa and her wall of small-framed figure studies. “But you still don’t get it, do you. You’re living in the past, I’m telling you. You’ve got to erase that canvas and stop clinging to that one little moment we had. Look, I’ve told you exactly how I feel now—total truth. I’ve even tried to help set you up, but, zilch…”

          “You set me up, all right,” I blurted, photo spread too thin, silently cursing Studs and the Billy Goat. I just exploded, didn’t know where that came from at all. But there it was, grimy and slithery and ugly—a dogfish on a 60 lb. test deep-sea line, when angling for a postcard Marlin.

          “Just what do you mean by that,” she pounced, turning sharply toward me.

          “Your letter, the ‘wait forever’ stuff, like that,” I said. “I got the distinct impression you really wanted that dream. Christ, I didn’t just come back here for my health!”

          “Look, I dreamed that dream with a Kenneth Herbert who was strong, confident, working—ready to take life by the horns. Sorry, but that’s not the Kenneth I saw cowering behind Melissa Saversohn. That’s not the Kenneth I’m seeing right now.”

          “Whose doing is that? You’ve got some responsibility here. Maybe Moon was right, all you saw in me was her man, and that I was keeping you from making her a Mendel again. I mean, she told me about the family phone calls back there.”

          “What?! That doesn’t even deserve a response. I’m not playing your guilt-trip game. Not when I’ve learned we all do what we have to do, and I’m concluding you have a dodgy agenda of your own.”

          “So, what are you saying?”

          “I’m saying maybe you’d best get on with it.”

          “Syd always comes first, huh,” I shouted, voice crackling with despair. “This really sucks, you know that?”

          “I’ve got a million things to do, Kenneth, and we’re going nowhere. I recommend you go get your act together somewhere else.”

          “And do what, Syd?”

          “Stop calling me that, for one thing,” she said, turning away icily, rearranging her Murphy bed. “Find a place to stay, for starters, a base of operations, whatever…go figure it out.”

          “Sure, how about I just lie low, hang around like one of your little toy boys, for when her highness is getting bored…”

          She suddenly darted back toward me, grabbing my jacket and pointing about the apartment. “I’ve had it with this sorry crap. Here, I’ll help you gather your things, I want you should leave!”

          I pulled loose, then lamely attempted to embrace her. “Tell me about what you want, you spoiled little…”

          SLAPPP. She stiff-armed away and sailed one across my cheek.  “Like Daddo always advised me, I don’t back losers, Kenneth. So get out…now!”

          “Sure, whatever your pleasure, SYDney, whatever your majesty desires,” I gripped, shaken, clenched yet just prefrontal fisting against my thigh, like a demolition ball against a wall, some kitchen cabinet deliberations sorely repeating on me. Instead, I proceeded to cram my clothes and shaving kit into a Carson, Pirie shopping bag, shuffling toward the front door. “Oh, and thanks ever so much for all your help.”

          “I can only do so much for you, Kenneth,” she handed me a bank envelope. “From here on, it’s up to you…”

          “Tell you what, I’ll even take care of these old papers,” I heatedly scooped up that pile of rummaged snack wrappers and newsrags, filling the shopping bag to its whorled twine handles. “At least I can do that much for you.”

          “Fine, appreciate it. So, where will you go,” she asked, with a strange, sudden splash of concern.

          “Who knows? What do you care,” I growled, on my way out the door.

          “Just in case I have to reach you for anything, dammit,” she yelled, behind me as I headed down the hall. “Like for Foxy’s insurance claim, maybe…”

          “Try the Fairmont, the St. Francis—better yet the Ambassador East and West…”

          “Ambassadors, Chicago? Now don’t go doing anything rash, Kenneth. I mean, could you really go back like this, anyway?”

          “I’ll get you a number somewhere. If need be, then you can have your people call.”

          “People? Puleeze. But the way you’re going, the best hope is the Jack Tar Hotel or something, though you’ll probably end up feeling sorry for yourself at the Y,” she huffed, following me several steps into the hallway.

          “Whatever, I’m sure you’ll be too busy—you know, busy winning and all…”

          “I’ll do what I have to, Kenneth. Now I probably shouldn’t tell you this in parting, but what the hell anymore. Remember the little secret I mentioned to you that once? Well, just between us, what I just found out in Winnetka confirmed it, for sure. I’ve always deep down wondered about my mother’s attachment to Melissa Saversohn—beyond Lester, that is, and our recent to-do really got my curiosity up. So I pleaded headache, then rummaged through Faith’s drawers one day when they were all at shul. Lo and behold, I came across an old file folder in her vanity that had a letter from Hal Saversohn back when we all lived near each other in Skokie. Here he was thanking her for surrogate suckling his baby daughter, since Mrs. Saversohn was so frail and infirm postpartum, vowing he would never say a word about it to anyone else.

          “My mother, can you believe it? Talk about midwifing, loose, liberal Faith Mendel cross-feeding—earth mother as birth mother. Who knows how long she wet-nursed Melissa? There was a doctor’s guideline in the folder, the whole shmeer. I mean, I always knew Moon was like, same age as me—but my buxom mother, with so much goodness to go around. No wonder my parents warmly welcomed Moon into the family, and still care so much. The whole thing freaks me out, almost as much as Lester is without her. What can I tell you, it’s like her invisible bond with my mom. See what you stirred up, Kenneth? I’m figuring Faith won’t know what I know now, and bet Lester and Moon don’t know much about it at all. No doubt it could really tear her to shreds at this point. Maybe it’s something you should know, but then I’m sure you would never dare say a word either…”

          “Me? No way,” I said, continuing on my way toward the stairs. Oh great: truth or consequences, fair or foul? But what was I supposed to do with that? Even if it was true, why’d she have to go layin’ it on me? What damn business was it of mine?! Was all I could do to find some way to unhear it. “Thanks for the scoop anyhow—I’ll take it under advisement. But that’s not any of my concern about now anyway, you know, our ‘moment’ being kaput and all.”

          “Advisement—you do just that,” she stepped back in through her doorway. “Ciao, Kenneth. Take care of yourself, I really mean it…and don’t get into any more trouble.”

          “C’mon, you’ve got more important things to worry about,” I sulked in stride, not wanting to turn back around to give her the satisfaction of a trophy glance. Rather, I just listened to the slamming of her door.

          Again, the tightening band around my head as I descended to Chestnut Street, along with the aching eyes and vising jaw. I wandered about in the early evening sun, before recalling where I had parked the Volvo. Damn, if I hadn’t wrecked her car, if only I’d played the dry cleaning card, even listened to Moon’s railing—hell, if I’d turned back at St. Louis, for that matter. Were there no better choices? Had I wagered on a long shot that collapsed at the gate? Call me mister clown car without the benefit of paper cannons and greasepaint.

          Had to get out of here, out of here fast. These people were vipers, this place was a beautiful, creeping swampbitches gonna be ruinin my life. Kill the traffic speeding, stop with the fucking horns. Well, no way, Zay—this pigeon’s packing, this sucker’s making heavy tracks. I clawed into the sagging 122S, tossed the shopping bag toward the rear seat. Then I sealed myself off from the worst, with a carload of worldlies and head full of seeping hoses. My cheek burned, ears rang like St. Peters and wrists redlined at seven grand. Moon, Faith, Syd and the dry cleaning lady all strobed across a field of vision penned in by a wiper jam of parking tickets.

          I caught my breath and finally started the fouled-out Volvo, clutching the wheel with cold, clammy palms, lurching into Chestnut Street traffic like a MUNI bus way behind schedule. A shrill, unforgiving horn ripped my ears, nearly stopped my racing heart. Some gorgeous Marin-type brunette glowered at me from behind the wheel of that same silver Mercedes 240, all but melting the plastic membrane in the safety glass of my door window. She slammed her brakes with a spiteful look in her eye, harboring something of a grudge, as if somehow recognizing me in a bad karmic way.

          Before I could menace a fist in response, my reflexive cabbie move, she roared around me, tapping her siren-like car alarm, revealing fresh plastic cracks in her Corte Madera license plate frame. One of a kind or just one in the same: it was so hard to tell. Coasting warily up behind her toward the Van Ness Avenue red light, I fully expected her to flip me half a peace sign when she glanced back through the sedan’s rear window.  Chestnut Street at Van Ness

          Instead, she smiled and waved, before shooting me a peace sign in full, no accounting for derision or Marin bliss. Never saw that one coming, whatever it was supposed to mean. We crawled forward, fourth and fifth behind a line of cars barely moving through the green light, pedestrian crossings a lag factor in the intersection overall. Gunning into clearing traffic, the Marinite turned her Benz leftward up a split-laned Van Ness with freewheeling authority in the northerly direction of what my throwaway tourist map showed as Bay Street and Aquatic Park.

          A quick Chestnut green went yellow by the time I reached the corner, unsure whether to swing left or right onto a teeming Van Ness Avenue. The hesitation cost me another red light, and the hard, hands-on honking of several vehicles to my rear. I glanced back at them, then Syd’s apartment building, before fixing on a corner liquor/grocery—one of those ubiquitous Bay-style ‘bodegas’—thinking how dry mouth thirsty I had become.

          But slow on the trigger, at a loss for direction and resolve: just one more out-of-town bugger hesitant to turn another corner. I  braced to haul ass into the arterial ups and downs—no time for juicing, had to blow off the Steams. Yessir, fixin’ to go parkin’ it and hash things out, no damn stopping me now—‘Night Moves’ tracking up on the radio. I looked about the intersection with a big cold gulp, mainly for some sign marker that wasn’t pointing directly downhill.

Care for More?

Chapter 49. A circuitous route 
ends in Tender, merciless quarters, 
Y’s and wherefores prompting a 
rasher of sticky, stringy calls…

“Manning the mother load,
swaddled in the female fold—
break a mold, pain untold.”

          CLICK, snap, pop, brrrtt. Brrrrtt, hizzzzz…bbrrrrttt, hizzzzzzz…bbbbrrrrtttt… Hello?”

          “I have a person to person collect call for Ken Herbert, will you accept?” Hssssst…

          “Kenn…oh, um, he’s not here now…”

          “Operator, operator, let me leave a quick message, will you?”

          Hsssst. “We don’t normally do that, sir. But keep it short.”

          “Thanks a bunch, operator. Hi, would you tell Ken Herbert when he returns that, uh, Bill, yeah Bill called from California. And if he’d call me soon as possible at (415) 931-4537. I mean, right away!”

          “Tsk, honestly…” Click. CLICK.

          Rrrring. Rrrrriinnggg. “Yeah?”

          “Kenny? You’re beyond belief, you know that? Expecting me to pay for this call after all you’ve…tsk, what’s going on out there?!”

          “Oh, Moon, you don’t know how great it is to hear your voice…”

          “What’s this all about, Kenny? Where are you? Denises place?”

          “Wheww, not exactly, but I couldn’t pay for a call where I am. At least, it’s just a station-to-station rate…”.”

          “How thoughtful…so then, where are you? And don’t you dare tell me I’m paying for a long-distance to her place.”

          “You don’t know,” I asked, with a modest measure of relief, and not only that the old phone charge ruse worked one more time. “She moved, whole new apartment and phone set-up…”

          “You ass…if I had any sense, I’d hang up right now. You’re gonna repay me for this if I have to sell your record collection!”

          “They’re long gone, Moon, just like everything else I left in Boulder.” I thought I detected ‘You Don’t Have To Be a Star, Baby, To Be In My Show’ playing in her background. “But that’s a whole other story…”

          Over the course of one blurred week, Sydney had earlier sealed her show deal, signed on for an introductory EST guest seminar and leased this stand-alone studio apartment on Chestnut Street, just off Van Ness Avenue. Pivotal moves, she recounted, before departing for Chicago with her folks on this fantabulous gallery day—one that had burst through the upper margin of her biorhythm chart like mercury through a Needles thermometer.

          Scenario was her roommates had all but dug a moat around their household relationships on Coastal Avenue, filled with lavender ’gators and Brandy Alexander Flamme. Syd in turn resented Edie digging our Boulder phone number out of her bedside address book and secretly snitching to Moon that one time. So this sunny walk-up bachelorette came along on a laundromat bulletin board, and the place had a garage accessing a middling Marina backyard. She had figured it was a perfect spot for to set up a ground floor workspace and make her stand. Reflecting upon the whole Edie and Diana show, I couldn’t have agreed with her more—on that count, anyway.  Syd's new apartment

          “What could I do, Moon? I had no place to go, she was splitting to Chicago for that Mendel family thing, you know? I mean, what the hell after what she pulled…”

          “No, I don’t know…and what did she pull now?”

          “Aww, this whole thing is such a mess. I’m, like, totally disoriented,” feeling as I did so discombobulated, thoroughly disillusioned and dismembered… “Gettin’ so I don’t know where the hell I’m at anymore…”

          “Tell me something I don’t know…”

          “No, really, one of the main reasons I took her up on this housesitting gig for her was I decided familiar, even this warped kind of familiar, was better than not…” To be sure, better than in another nearby rip-off Lombard Street motel, what with Regina Tzu having cracked down on Thibeaux Cauler.

          “Warped isn’t the word for it…what am I doing even talking about this on my dime…”

          “Wait, don’t hang up, Moon. I’m cut loose alone like this, sitting here staring out at perfect sunshine. I can’t stand it!”

          “Don’t dump that on me, Kenny. It’s snowing out my window and I’ve got my own problems here.”

          “Hey, I need to share with you how crazy your sorta-sister really is. I swear, she’s becoming a raving megalomaniac, know what I mean?”

          “The dime’s running out, Kenny. From what I can tell, maybe you two actually deserve one another.”

          “Moon, come on!”

          “All I know is I did what I could to keep you in Chicago, but you made your choice. Much as it hurts, I’ll get through, always do. And frankly, I don’t want to hear about any of this anymore. You left me stranded here, so I’ve got to go feed the animules and move on with my life.”

          “Melissa, wait. Can I call you again if it gets real bad here? My head is pounding, I mean if I need you to massage my forehead…it’s always better when we talk…”

          “Only if you’ve run out of priests and shrinks—and where you are, that isn’t likely. Promise me, only in absolute desperation, when you’re on your way back to Chicago…”

          “Oh, you’re Hail Mary. And Moon, you sure you aren’t involved in that Mendel family thing back there?”

          “Tsk, you beat everything. Bye, Kenny, good luck.” CLICK. CLICK.

          Dead cat rebounce: So there I was, propped on Sydney’s Murphy bed after an off-again, on-again, flipping and flopping  night of unrest. My melon swelled against the headboard, feeling like crawling crustaceans had ascended to the mattress, mites and ticks seeming to march in formation up over the curve of the spread. Which of course was ridiculous because her entire pad had looked to be stone, untouchably immaculate. Still, I couldn’t stop scratching, sweating and shivering all at once—even though there was a tremor of the ol’ divine tolerance in Melissa’s voice, despite everything here and there. Was she really not party to the big Mendel reunion?

          I didn’t much know where I was or why, but at least had the presence of mind to tidy up about the brightly sunlit place. I dumped my corner store-bought coffees, salami sandwich wrappers and Dinty Moore cans, jammed them down the kitchen garbage chute, then rolled my dirty laundry up in a pit-stained CU t-shirt, piling it in a corner toward the apartment door. But screw that! I wasn’t going to totally turn housemaid. What the hell was I doing here, anyway? When I bet sure as shit Moon was gettin’ back there the Mendel fold—and I’m lettin’ it happen, stranded out here while they’re probably all back mishpoching around.

          Yet heads up, handled and held: I did make Syd a housekeeping promise. So instead I grabbed a soda and sifted through the daily newspapers before tossing them out, too—yeah, try a little catching up on the local press, gloss over the classifieds, uncertain what ads I’d want, even where to begin. Chronicle and Examiner pages were thick with articles and columns on the recent statewide passage of Proposition 13; how San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors had passed a proclamation of revenue emergency, and Mayor Moscone was pushing hefty payroll tax increases to make up for a looming property tax shortfall. While Chron’s City Hall beat uncovered ongoing permit tussles over the Gay Freedom Day parade.

          A style feature profiled the Dan Whites’ picture-perfect new parenthood, and the couple’s exciting new food venture over at a Pier 39, bankrolled by heavyweight Warren Simmons, if not The City’s ‘Irish Mafia’. Herb Caen quipped about what this Hot Potato could do for the Supervisor’s political fortunes. Yeah, those blamed Irish gangs and their cahootin’.

          Stir crazy, her crazy: When I couldn’t house sit still any longer, I lit out for a little evening constitutional, revisiting a once too-familiar donut shop to feed my habitual craving. Lining up for a chocolate twist, I could overhear two lower Pacific Heights deadeners catching up over some glazed and house blend. Seemed they were slurping over the apparent drop-off in those Lafayette Park attacks these days. Where one rag layered elder thought the crazed killer may simply have changed his MO and blown town, his old cully countered that the bastard may have been locked up on some totally different rap, unable to get bailed. Hell, maybe he’d been made, and was lying low, or somebody had offed him back. But who cared anyway, they shrugged, garbage in, garbage out, right?

           I just grabbed my nutty twist and hit Van Ness full stride. Really, what did those cretins know? Had to be more to it than that. Just so long as they didn’t go asking me about it. All things considered, I took back to the streets posthaste, and then more housesitting…  sr dingbats

           Rrrring, rrrrinngggg. “Hello, Mendel residence.”

          “Kenneth? Sydney. I’ve been trying to get through for the past half-hour.”

          “Sorry, been out, Syd, getting some…air.”

          “I knew it! Leave you my apartment and already you’re roaming off course!”

          “Not to worry, just a little healthy exercise…”

          “Oh, please—anyway, reason I called is I’ll be back in two days, and I’ll need you to do a little something for me. Think you can handle that?”

          “Well, sure, I suppose…”

          “I need you to gas up Foxy, then pick up some dry cleaning at Dreyer’s on Steiner, just off Union. Turns out I’ve got a crucial appointment in Larkspur, and I’ll barely get back in time. You’ll be a dear and take care of that for me? I’ll cover you when I get in.”

          “Why not, nothing much else happening right now…”

          “What have you been doing there, Kenneth? Making any progress—and are you watering my plants? Extra car keys are in the kitchen cabinet. You’d better be watering my Ficus…”

          “Sure, gotcha…” There, she really does need me after all, can’t live without yours truly…

          “Okay, see you when I get back…be sure to be there, I’ll grab the shuttle at SFO.”

          “Which will be…”

          “When I get there, toots, when I get there. In the meantime, don’t break anything, hear. Ciao!” CLICK.

          Suddenly, two days later loomed like final billets inspections, worse than an orals defense of a fruitless sosh MA. I crammed and doted accordingly, Windexing her crib’s ubiquitous bay window, hand buffed her hardwood floor, dry wiped the upholstered furnishings her parents likely provided. I then 409’d the bathroom tiles and polished a mini breakfront filled with barnyard inspired pottery, hospital-cornered her Murphy bed and defrosted the box. Didn’t know where I found the essentials and adrenaline for it all.

          I did take pause that her new ivory dolphin pendant remained on the kitchen table, its chain wrapped around my wild horse creamer, but wanted nowhere nearer that. So I straightened up her butcher’s block, which was where I’d been stacking mail and newspapers. One last frantic sweep of any and all kitchen debris within arm’s reach stuffed down the garbage chute, and I was done and done. Then it was a matter of changing her stereo’s turntable from Blondie’s ‘Plastic Letters’ to some more Midwesterly Bob Seger, before extra dusting around the living room, not least her mounted, loin-busting figure studies. What kept me mopping and straightening about were a series of framed, yellowing half-tone shots of a young couple embracing on a secluded beach, nakedly fit as spicy Photoplay models, giddily in love. Tiny typed captions read, ‘Lovebirds On A Lark’—had to be her parents, and a Faith in her prime was even more than Syd had advertised.

          She’d proudly hung the folks out there for all to see: How oedipally complex was that, I thought, homing in, not knowing what to make of the parental pin-ups. But her mother was built like twice the woman with half the sass—enough to keep driving her daughter back to the drawing board figuratively speaking, if not to relative tears.

          Thus energized, I schlepped my laundry bundle down to the building’s ground floor Speed Queens with dishpan hands, then fired up Syd’s Audi Fox/Avant, ever so carefully negotiating its tightly beamed garage space. From there, it was lining up to top off at the Chevron, then over to the cleaners, where Dreyers’ proprietress refused to release items for which I had no claim check, could not even describe—particularly finery belonging to one of her favorite new young customers.

          Union Street being impossibly crowded, fair or no, I could only find a parking spot on Steiner. Nearly two blocks uphill it was, with a stunning view of the Marina and bay, beyond the plane landfilled District of chalky white and pastel stucco apartment houses—so much so that I missed a residual oil slick beneath the Audi.

          A neighborhood kibitzer clipping his topiary had already schooled me as I parked: chalk front wheels into the curb downhill, out for up. Crashing runaways, bub, you’re 180 degrees the wrong way there. Where you from, anyway, that California license plate doesn’t fool me one bit. But he jumped on me in earnest, clippers aloft, when I returned empty-handed, save for an afternoon four-star Examiner. He pointed out as how this showroom new silver Mercedes 240 with Corte Madera plate frames has squeezed into a vacant space in front of me, within an American Express Gold Card of the Audi’s front bumper, bookending a Brit green BMW R/100 bike with full aerodynamic fairing and touring cases that had wedged on in behind me.  Steiner Street hill

          No biggie, nothing to it for an ex-hack like me. Back and forth, to and fro went the exit drill, one nanoscopic inch at a time—easy up, disc brakes, no clutch riding, two pedals rather than three. Her Audi would lurch slightly forward, engine at low idle, then its driveshaft and differential would wind tightly and body frame twist smoothly as I torqued ever so gently back up to within parking ticket’s width of the BMW cycle’s chrome side pipes.

          Rev, shift, goose forward, brake slam, reverse again—jerk, lurch, gas, brake, brake gas, rock and roll, roll and rock. I plied the steering wheel in eighth and quarter turns back and forth, feeling like being stuck in the first plunging row of a Playland Bobs. Yet even Syd’s auto-tranny and power steering couldn’t save me from hitting that slick on the tire-smoking back-up, sliding down into the Benz.

          No matter my stomping floor pedals and yanking hand brakes, for the Fox lost all traction, and I was running out of legs and dexterity. Its rubber bumper guards spared the platinum sedan any significant damage, other than a triggered siren-like car alarm and cracked license plate frame. Foxy took it a bit harder on the grill and amber parking light, however, to the point where I feared its four logo rings had split roughly in two. The neighbor waved me off like a Speedway flagman, starting in with the I told ya’s and damn out-of-towners as I nursed the Audi back up grade—half brake, easy on the gas.

          He turned to screaming hit and run as I ever so gradually wedged out of the spot, fore and aft, shiftily rolling down Steiner Street and snaking around Union. But Foxy’s rearview mirror revealed the kibitzer didn’t appear to be jotting down any license plates numbers .

          Nevertheless anxiety raced through me like so much cold coffee, visions of cracked lenses, concave grill panels, cleft bumpers damping any scenic delights, be they bayfront sailboats or Union Street’s flowery, colorful storefronts, much less Union’s dramatic rise up Russian Hill beyond Van Ness and Polk. Local taxicabs honked around me, Orange and white Muni trolleys crowded in from either side, their power poles and overhead wires snapping and crackling, cross traffic cutting me off.

          These hills were steeper than Boulder’s, the traffic quicker and tactically craftier than Chicago’s; besides, I didn’t think either town would have claim jumped me like that on a friendly dry cleaning deed. After all the shouting, the horn blaring, the tire squealing—I oddly found some comfort upon returning to an apartment I had no business tending, but at least her place look as good as or better now than she had left it. So I garaged Foxy, electing not to check out her front end any too closely in the shadows.

          I instead grabbed my dried laundry and the evening paper, heading up to kitchen warmovers, and eggshell bachelorette walls full of front-end visuals largely more pleasing to the eye. Shortly after chowing down, then cueing up some folkie named Will Ackerman from Windham Hill, I proceeded to kick back, get tentatively situated, and spill my 16-ounce Coke on one of her plush new sateen sofa cushions.

          Brown cola on vanilla cream—aww, fantabulous. Sheeit, where was some spray Fantastik to sop up this thankless break of promise, this housesitting breach of Faith? But dammit, what were they all doing back there anyway, why was I here? Jacked on up, aced on outset me to Dybukkin alright, pissed me off something fierce…told ya so. Yet for the moment I sat there panic-stricken and clueless, while the stain spread like caramel colored dread on a sundae, bloody sundae—way too close for comfort or cozy homecomings.

Care for more?

 Chapter 48. A homecoming of sorts 
leaves one out of sorts, resulting in 
tattered expectations and a differing 
of means and ways…

“Two becoming one
via sextile union can
still send one packing.”

         

          “Takes real bowling balls for a guy doin’ that…”

          “What about the apple? Look how he’s workin’ in that apple.”

          “Messy business…like, right there on the stage, in front of everybody…”

          Regardless of what I may have been thinking, undisturbed quiet wasn’t what Sydney had in mind. Where we could have paused to regroup and recoup in verdurous little Allyne Park, she insisted we hit the Street. Fair enough, except today, Union happened to be more than enough.

          There was this juggler for starters, surrounded just the other side of the Gough Street barricades by a detachment of unicyclists in raccoon war vests and Navajo headdresses. Jay Rensal commanded the Union Street Fair’s east-end sound stage between bands, a bulked up Viet vet in blue and white leotards who kept the music crowd bobbing in place like a Cheyenne rodeo clown tossing sample Skoal Bandit plugs.

          He did so by tossing three revolving 16-lb. Black Beauty bowling balls and a ripe apple ten feet aloft, rabidly chomping the Red Delicious each time it rotated around. The ooh-and-ahhing hoard encircled and rushed the stage, further pumped up by the roving unicyclists, who whooped with each near miss, getting juiced by Rensal’s spittled debris.

          “Talk about studly balls,” Sydney ushered me ahead, around the stage scene, with a sweep of her arm. “Si vous plais…”

          “Oh, I don’t know,” I bounced off a white picket fence, dodging a morsel of apple pulp like shrapnel from a stun grenade. “Was thinking more along the lines of that park back there.”

          “Kenneth, please,” she looped my arm. “Can we just soak in the moment?”

          “Sure, of course, Syd.” I brushed some juice droplets from my sleeve as we squeezed around the cheering crowd—some of whom were still abuzz over Mayor George Moscone’s earlier walkthrough here in his old neighborhood. I didn’t want to make waves, but also didn’t come all this way for vague and cursory dodges. Numb driving fingers and knotted guts demanded a more appropriate response. “What’s bugging you?”

          “So right away, something’s bugging me? Maybe I’m just a little show stressed and frazzled about now…and feeling kinda overdressed for a scene like this.”

          That juggler was not too shabby an opening act, framed as he was by big bay window Victorians and a restored sky blue Octagon House. The landmark with its small fenced side yard, was what remained of a pasture where daisy-tailed Cow Hollow bovines once grazed. From here, the crowd packed Union Street some six blocks to Steiner, though seeming to stretch clear out to Presidio treelines.

          The street fair was bordered on either side by poppy-top acacias and sycamores, ornate 2-3 story Victorians with an array of baying windows, madeover stuccoed Vicky botch jobs and much plainer box-alikes from the post-war era with wrought-iron balconies—all brightly multi-colored and pasteled.

          Quaint to cutesy to mannequin chic, Union was a sweet fondue of crafts stores, confectioners, cookie nooks, pie places, gelato/ice creameries and wine shops. In all, they carved up storefronts which had formerly housed tailors, milliners, tabacs, pharmacies and hardware stores—save for some grandfathered plumbers and dry cleaners. Little wonder there were so many dentists and periodontists drilling for gold in offices upstairs. On the other hand, it looked like some of these people flooding Union Street this weekend were better off without nail guns and SKIL drills.

          “The question is, what’s with you,” Syd asked, several steps ahead of me, window-shopping natural fiber sweater and stylish pantsuit numbers in side-by-side fashion salons. “Coming back out here like you are…all road rumpled, popping in on people unannounced—on my parents yet. That’s not the Kenneth I thought I knew…”

          “Hey, I figured I was invited,” I self-consciously straightened my Walgreen’s sunglasses and shook back my oily hair, then reached in to pull the pink envelope from my sport jacket’s liner pocket. “Lending moral support, like that…”

          “Spare me,” Syd leaned back, halting my arm. “That was only intended in the token, courtesy sense. I believed you had to be much too busy career-wise by now to actually schlepp back out here…”

          But for the moment, I found the crowd itself vastly more engrossing, my sociology chops training on visual symbology, the group dynamic along here. The flow was bi-directional, bi-coastal and everywhere in between, shuffling up and down Union to a mashed up beat of  jazz fusion, high-hat bluegrass, country honk and disco funk on sound stages, block by block. Variously gamboling along were troupes of tribal and flamenco dancers, then a lone beguiling redhead doing an Irish jig, with Celtic boombox accompaniment by a bloke who looked vaguely familiar from the inner Richmond bars.

          Yet for all the quiche, crab, ribs and mesquite in the air, this gathering looked more partial to feeding off itself. Modesto aggie lightweights oogled the untouchably hip maidens from Marin; football jerseyed Berkeley grads studied the cultivated sneers of the Top-Sidered Farmers from Palo Alto, or Phi Beta movers from the Ivy League.

          Humboldt mountain men stared down Tony Lamas designer cowboys from the Lone Star Café. Hard-wired Orientals in logoed racing jackets and Porsche wraparounds faced off sleek pompadoured lowriders from the Mission. Kicked back met kick-ass: beaucoup cut-offs, halter-tops, sundresses, designer denim and paisley patched dungarees. Bandstand stoners rocked out with curbside shot and brewers. Heavy metal headbangers overdubbed ghetto-blasted Rastafarians. Izod ’gators danced around clubby Oakland gangers. Union Street Fair

          Bay Area natural fibers wove around L.A. Goldilocks and their gilt-chained boytoys. Dobermans snapped at Airedales. NoCal met fauxCal crossed SoCal and LowCal through the pedestrian snarls and bottlenecks, mostly because the main attraction was the traffic jam itself.

          “Never seen one quite this…big,” I gasped. In all, it did look to be a league smarter, faster than my own. “Half of San Francisco must be here…”

          “You think all these people are really from San Francisco?” Syd asked, dismissing a Gold Country Gauguin’s display booth of snowy Yosemite landscapes. “Nobody’s really from San Francisco anymore. Everybody’s from everywhere else around here. That’s what makes it so…magnetic.”

          “You mean this kind of deal goes on all summer?” I took into account the fair itself, trying to fight off any sense that although this festive crowd was squeezing us closer together, I couldn’t help but feel some distance building in.

          “Of course, Kenneth, everybody knows that each neighborhood has its own street fair, even though not are all this squeaky clean. Take North Beach and the Haight—or the Castro, yeow—and you do remember Polk Street, now don’t you?”

          Sandwiched between Union Street’s opposing gingerbread storefronts—with their resident art galleries, styling salons and pricey boutiques—were this weekend’s display stands, stalls, booths, tents, sample trucks, kiddie rides, tasting gardens and smoky grilled food courts. While everyday shops bespoke looks, looks, looks, in showy designer windows, street-wise, it was eclectricity, curb to curb.

          We said little past installations of hungry artisans and kitschmeisters, pitching: candle sculpture, ceramic mug sets, peacock feathered floppy hats, tooled vests, sheepskin slippers, porcelain teapots, earthenware place settings, embroidered bells, tie-dyed tees, tire-tread huaraches. Sprinkled throughout were Big Sur photographs, sandstone seals, soap sculpture, corduroy macaws, ceramic trivets, hand-carved dulcimers, white oak vanities, leaded glass terrariums, India-print serapes, copper kinetic waterwheels and Omar’s custom cuckoo clocks. But what stopped us cold were the pegboards of scrimshaw and cloisonné.

          “Yeah, well, everything seems so vibrant and colorful, so up here,” I fawned, digging deep into my khakis, springing for a carved ivory dolphin pendant Syd couldn’t bear to take off despite herself, once the Mendocino earth mother fixed its slender silver chain around her neck.

          “That’s so sweet of you, but I really can’t accept this,” she smiled awkwardly, blushing, nostrils flaring, rising to peck my cheek. “I mean given that I’m…”

          “It’s nothing, least I can do,” I interrupted, puffing up some dyad dynamics, what with this initial gesture of partial re-payment, taking the affection where I could get it. “Besides, wait’ll you see a wild horse creamer I scored for you at a Round-Up Café up by Tahoe. Speaking of rest stops…all that food is getting to me, and we’re only about halfway through the thing.”

          By this time, I’d aromatically ingested avocado crepes, croissant almandine, dipped chocolates, spicy hot knishes, albacore eggrolls, goat-cheese piroshkis, broiled beetburgers, deep-fried mahi-mahi, Louisiana hot links, rutabaga juice, cheese-dipped pretzels, lemon-flavored lox and smokey grilled ka-bobs. We topped all that off with a luscious sampler of champagne and strawberries, dispensed by a tux-tailed pianist playing a medley of show tunes from the bed of his early-50s Ford pick-up truck. With that, we chasséd toward some respite and repair.sr dingbats

          “Tell me, how was it for you back there in Chicago,” Syd focused more earnestly as we stepped up a mill-detailed wooden stairway into her haven of choice.

          “What can I say,” I muttered, gazing awestruck at the bi-way staircase parade, especially those two dollies in leopard body stocking and pink bridal train respectively. “A ton of sheeit hit the fan all at once…total park and wreck.”

          “Envisioned it would, didn’t I basically tell you that in Sausalito?” She rushed to secure a prime barroom table.

          “You said a lot of things then,” I followed cautiously as she laid territorial claim, somehow flattered by her undivided concern, her furtive brow and searching eyes.

          “So did you, toots, so did you. But that was then, this is now,” she said, primping her currently frizzy, Afro-styled hair.

          Union Street’s Deli Restaurant was a sprawling tawny port maroon and mayonnaise yellow Victorian complex essentially at the street fair’s 50-yard line. It was a delicious spread, all gingerbread and leaded glass—with several side boutiques and a sunny little front veranda facing today’s action like a corporate box at the title bout. Syd had adroitly grabbed a cozy bay window table, all right—front row center, looking out over all that, insisting we needed someplace bright and cheery for some catch-up. She ordered up a Chablis spritzer; I obligingly name-dropped a local Anchor Steam.

          “Now you were saying about Chicago,” she primped over her currently frizzy, Afro-styled hair as we sat in.”

          “It was pretty weird actually,” I continued, watching her straighten the plum velvet top and yellow sash about her shoulders and waist. “Just so grim, from the minute I hit town to the day I left.”

          “You mean the situation with Moon?” She then straightened her new pendant as she cast about the room for couture rips or reassurance, scouting schooner-and-stemware wielding social circles all the way back to a brimming al fresco greenhouse terrace.

          “For one, I suppose,” slumping in my gingham cushioned chair at the thought.

          “Yep, really…so how is Melissa doing, anyway?”

          “Huh? I’m surprised you ask…” I reached for a gratis chip basket.

          “Look, even if she and I don’t exactly relate the same way now, that doesn’t mean I no longer care…or our whole family for that matter”

          “Well, I dunno, we were still going around in circles the day I left,” I sipped my Steam, wondering about her strained sisterly concern. “She warned that I would self-destruct on impact out here…can you believe that?”

          In the main, this Deli Restaurant served up an oak-lined, ferny bar with vividly colorful Tiffany lamps and a sloping glass-panelled ceiling that refracted blinding sunlight into its ficus-filled dining area. The full skylights illuminated its carved oak back bar and wall panels to near radioactive luster. Antique dove cages and marble sconces stood vigil on front bar walls, along with brass-framed prints of vintage Audubon and Currier & Ives.

          A piped-around sound system tracked adult-contemporary numbers like ‘More Than A Woman’ by Tavares, ‘Baby Hold On’ by Eddie Money and Meatloaf’s ‘Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad’. After being rocked, jazzed, funked, salsaed, bluesed, reggaed, fiddled, crooned, banjoed, oboed and synthed out on the streetcorners, I rather welcomed a mellower beat. The groove was infectious, drawing the crowd’s unattached snippets of cross-cultural pollination fully into its hipstream. The tunes themselves had me nervously tapping my feet on the Deli’s hardwood floor, thrumming my fingers on its inlaid oak table and brass side railing, trying to figure out what was up her raglan dolman sleeve.

          “I’m sure dear Melissa still cares for you dearly, too…despite her cross-pressure realities. But she’ll likely make out just fine.”

          “I suppose, but what’s that to us, right,” I probed. “Besides, things only got worse from there. Watching my old friends wasting away, my mom dying—it was all too much.”

          “God, that’s awful,” she gasped, yet dodged some, as she grasped my hand. “I can’t imagine…just couldn’t bear losing my parents…”

          “Heavy duty—she and I were pretty close,” I sighed, traces of creamed herring and beef brisket swirling up my nostrils, calling up mom’s ‘push you’ appraisal. “But that’s back-there family stuff. The important thing is, here we are, right?”

          “That’s exactly what we have to talk about.”

          Slumping into the leather-backed wooden chair, I propped my chin on my right fist and gazed out the window to take in the sights outside. Beyond the fair flow, across Union Street, stood a painstakingly colorful row of Victorian and trowelled over storefronts bearing stylish clothes the likes of KoKo’s, BiBi’s, Lobos’ and NoNo’s—anything less chic having been fashion zoned out of existence by now. Behind them, balconied backsides of pastel apartment buildings stacked uphill to Pacific Heights like cereal boxes in a supermarket display.

           “Talk about?” I asked, turning back again as her eyelids dropped, a perfect seal as she hoisted her face majestically toward the opened skylight sun. “Meaning…”

          “Well, where to begin,” she replied, looking back down toward me, locking in. “Kenneth, I’m seeing you as someone who’s been running—a dybbuk slinking away, way too long for his own good.”

          “Hey, running’s good exercise,” I nodded, picking up on a couple of guys rolling from rawhide  dice cups, tossing back Heineken draughts and mustard pretzels at the bar. “Everybody’s into it, check out all the Nikes out there…”

          “That’s not what I mean,” she muffled, glancing about the bubbly, party-hardy barroom, so as not to draw undue attention our way. “All I’ve been hearing from you is how it was where you were. You had a good thing in Boulder and you left. You had a good thing in Chicago and you left. You had a great thing starting here and you low-tailed it out like an alley rat…”

          “Hmm, which is why I’m back here—not running now, am I?”

          “No, that’s why you left Chicago,” she replied, milky cheeks already reddening in the sun. “I want to know why you came back to San Francisco.”

          “Come on, Syd, what are you driving at? I’m here, ’cause, you know, we’re here…”

          I inhaled deeply of the vigor and exhilaration. How brilliant the scene’s colors and pageantry amid the sparkle of creativity, inside and out—the meaty charbroiled contrails and tanned, shapely celebrants: This was California, this was more like it! The 360-degree gratisfaction, no frostbitten limbed frustration, no grimy brown brick despair. Everybody from virtually everywhere I had even considered somewhere was here. All things considered, it was intoxicating even without the bar tab. I’d cut my losses, beat the rusty Midwest rap and finally, brilliantly arrived.  I resolved it was sunrise, a killer new day, all blue skies, goodie boxes and pony rides—even feelin’ kinda cocky not dorky, and yet…

          “Wait a minute, think I’m missing something.”

          “Our plans, Syd. That talk in your living room and Sausalito that time…combine and conquer, remember?” Either she was coying it, or this whole conversation was passing by like those Golden Gate Park commandos with the roller blades strapped on good and tight.

          “That was light years ago. Let’s focus on the present. Like what do you intend to do with yourself now that you’re here?”

          “One thing at a time, babe,” I urged, turning to prop my brown suede Adidased feet up on the brass railing. “Like you say, let’s just savor the moment—the food, the sunshine, all these outrageous people…”

          “Uh-huh, then what?”

          “Then? I don’t know,” I shrugged, sipping my beer, warm and slightly watery, not unlike my forehead about then. “I figure we’ll settle in and fly—just like we said…being who we really can be together here, whatever we want.”

          “This is your whole life we’re talking about. Not simply fly-by-night…”

          “Whoa, I’ve had it up to here with ‘whole life’ Saturnine crapola. The entire trip back there was one big either/or. No, my decision is made. My decision is you, Syd. You and San Francisco—all the potential, going for the gold together. I’m loaded up, ready to pull the trigger. So let’s roll, huh?

          There my question seemed to drop like an over-larded Munster blintz. I waited, and strummed, and counted the long line at a bank across the street, struggling with some new one-armed bandit-type contraptions called automatic teller machines, tallying the card holders back and forth, head by testy head, before she could muster a reply.

sr dingbats

          “Let me get this straight,” Syd exhaled, at arm’s length. “You’ve blown off everything in Chicago, everything you worked for there, on my account?”

          “Well, it’s more like I did what’s best for us…” We didn’t move a lick otherwise.

          “Nope, sorry,” she said, the Deli’s house music doing a Commodores’ segue from ‘Easy’ to ‘Three Times a Lady’. “No way you’re gonna dump that on me!  We all do what’s best for ourselves in this world. You didn’t do anything for me, for us—you did that for you…100% self interest.”

          “Wait, now I’m confused. I went through hell-and-a-half to get back here. I needed to dig that hole for myself like a need a spinal tap,” I sputtered. “But it had to be done to give us a legitimate chance.”

          “Us, chance—oh, Kenneth,” she sighed, doing finger furlongs around the rim of her goblet. “That’s not how it is out here. That’s not how it is at all…”

          “How what is, for chrissake?!”

          “You know, life. What you’re saying is so Midwest. This is the wide-open Wild West here. People do their own thing, fend for themselves. You’ve got to learn to go it alone, the whole rugged individual trip—get weighted down with us’s and you drown…”

          “What’re you talking about?” I tugged at my blue oxford cloth collar.

          “My parents always tell me I’m responsible for my own self, and that’s a big enough bundle for me to handle. So how can I possibly be responsible for somebody else like you?”

          “Man oh man. All I know is we set a beautiful agenda, taking on San Francisco all the way up Nob Hill, then the world. Once it sunk in, I did all I could to square with the life I was leaving so that we could soar, free and clear. Damn, I could have sworn we were flying a two-seater, and now you’re talking solos. I mean, what the hell is happening here?!”

          “Hold on a sec,” she snarled, stirring her spritzer. “Who left whom right after that? You blindsided me, deserted me at the starting gate. Sniveling back to your mommy fixation, dumping me like I was a leper. How could I ever trust anything you say anymore?!”

          “It wasn’t that way, at all,” I pounded down on my beer mug. “I couldn’t just abandon Melissa in California. She would have freaked out. You know how basically fragile she is. I owed her better than that…”

          “Fragile? Oh, I see. Dumping all over me was kosher, though—you didn’t owe me any better than that.” She proceeded to suck on her spritzer until the stir straw caved in.

          “We’d have been doomed with guilt from the beginning if I’d just stayed,” I pleaded, suddenly aware that we’d become one of the Deli’s featured tidbits. “Besides, how was I to know at that point that we could be so involved. I was flipping out as it was…”

          “How were you to know? I nearly did myself in that very night. You were the most important person in my life then. But just like that, you fed me some wimpy BS about knowing your place, being at peace with your lot in life. You hung me out to dry like some cheap hooker, then called me right up again like everything was roses—you bastard you!”

          “You have no idea what I was going through.” Christ, not again. Out of nowhere, various neuro-psychology texts I used to skim through in Norlin Library shot top of mind. Graphic images hit me of a hundred billion spindle neurons spiked at once, each one making 1,000 or so hook-ups—all this synaptic and post-synaptic density getting totally out of control, taking me back to that crowbar in my head and roundabout fork in the road. “I was on fried auto pilot, a total tailspin when I left your place.”

          “Whatever, like I said, that’s history,” she nodded stiffly, electing not to yield. “But, god, how it’s haunted me what we could have had if you’d stayed.”

          “The climate was just all wrong then, Syd. I needed to straighten stuff out, clear the decks. Good things take time sometimes.”

          “Hmph, another classic Kennethism—I get plowed under and you make like the Farmer’s Almanac…”

          I reflected on whether there was a certain etiquette, a loosely prescribed anthropologic ritual for vignettes such as these. Two oh, so contemporary figures at a round, slightly wobbly café table, ostensibly with the sweet promise of blissful attainment parading before them, glimmering in their duonic minds’ eyes with full flavor and intimacy. Yet therein fell the screen, clean and painfully clear. The wriggler in question draws tightly around the table’s treacherous curve to within a short breath of the intended wrigglee. The laconic tippling of a wineglass, a two-handed grab of the anguished body’s palms, a compensatory display of sincerity and concern. Damn near knew that shifty melodrama line for line, just wasn’t bucking for a west coast engagement.

          I could feel her quick-release stare, so looked elsewhere. Important to her? This was my ocean beachhead, no further westward for to drive. I framed the Union Street dreamscape beyond two small potted pecan trees and a spiked iron fence, froze it there in time to poke, squeeze and savor, to dissect like a biolab horny toad. Meanwhile, couples cruised about my viewfinder: items, flared cord retinues and contingents with designer shopping bags and trendy safari rags—banana repped outfits with deep patch pockets. Union Street Fair crowd

          Then came the blow-dried crews, the sun-blazed and beer blasted cronies in jeans from nowhere and T-shirts from parts and paradises unknown. Everybody here eyeing everybody else’s somebody else, yet nobody otherwise tipping so much as a maxillary muscle, remaining so poised and posed. I tracked them from the Deli’s gaslights to the mum, rose and carnation stand next door, before mustering some sort of a lame defense.

          “That’s not fair at…” Red flag blanching to white…

          “Tell me about fair, Dudley! Oh, now it’s all coming back how you set me up and cut me down…”

          “Set you up? C’mon, I died some back there, too, believe me…”

          “Well, I came this close,” she scowled, raising calibrated fingers to within unbearable tolerance of my nose. “But when my moment of truth came, I did what you lacked the balls to do. I chose me! Me and my art—you weren’t there when I really needed you, but my painting was. I dug down to my core and totally rearranged my priorities. It was right then that I got how important my work was to me. So I poured myself into my studio and toughed it out, getting so good nobody can deny me. That’s how I put myself to sleep at night, dreaming about things I could do next—totally driven, to where I barely made Seder. Plus I started taking care of numero uno, and now I’ve landed myself a show, a big first step, and nobody can take that away from me. I’ve even leased an apartment of my own…”

          “Hey, I think that’s all great, believe me, I…”

          “Listen to me, Kenneth,” she whispered deeply, relenting some. “I get what you’ve been going through, honest I do. But the clock’s been running, time and events just have this way of rolling by. And that started for me the minute you ran out of my door.”

          “Wait, I didn’t exactly run out, you know better…”

          “I’m not going to argue words with you. I just know what I know, how I’ve turned my life around. It’s important to me that you recognize that, too…”

          “I do, Syd, what makes you think I wouldn’t recognize your growth?”

          “Hmm, how can I put this,” she ventured, eyes rolling again up, back through the Deli’s cigarette smoke and cranked open roof. “It’s like you’re where you are now, and I’m where I am, you know?”

          “Uh, can’t say as I do actually,” I drew her eyes back to me, cringing, wondering what was next.

          “See, nothing personal, but how can you possibly keep up to speed with what’s going on with me now, when I’m up here and you’re…down here?” she leveled with her hands, palms up and down. “For one thing, I don’t go by Syd anymore. I much prefer Sydney.”

          “Aww, cut the bullshit Syd…”

          “It’s Sydney. Really, you must do that one thing for me,” she said firmly, squeezing my hand to press the point, leaning in closer to my sagging face with searching, seismographic eyes. “And now that I see you here, this way, the space and time between us comes clearly into focus.”

          “Anything else, you two,” the gum chewing waitress scooped up my beer stein and Syd’s goblet, dollar bills wrapped around her little fingers, making for a quick escape as I simply covered the tip and tab .

          “What…space?” I asked, wringing my cocktail napkin, though not without noting the embroidered falcons fluttering on the barmaid’s rear pockets. That was as she glided, tray aloft, toward the bustling oak-back bar in perfect synch with Springsteen’s new ‘Promised Land’. “We…”

          “Kenneth, please,” she clasped and chain swayed her new pendant. “This is very difficult for me, and you’re not making it any easier. Now I know you’ve come a long way, only that’s on you—a decision for your life. But I can say with as much certainty as I can right now that I just don’t feel there’s a ‘we’ like that anymore.  And I think that with everything so up in the air with you, it’s best if we really give ourselves a lot of room to grow, to evolve, explore our own personal potentials to the max.”

          “You can’t be serious, what…”

          “We’re talking major life transitions, hard decisions, often the best you can make alone,” she continued, beckoning me out the Deli’s crowded, wide open double doors “By the way, you know what’s funny? My mother says maybe I was just in a needy place when we had our little thing, and that’s behind me now. Faith can be so wise that way.”

          “Yeah, a regular Mother Superior,” I muttered, barely over the fading sound of the O’Jays’ ‘Use Ta Be My Girl’. “So what am I supposed to do with a hypothesis like that, pack up and haul my ass back to Chicago, or what?”

          “See? There you go running again, dyb. How typical of you, but we can’t have that, can we? I mean, now that you’re out here,” she led me down back into the street fair lanes. “Anyway, so you don’t come away from this empty-handed, I want you to know you’re welcome to housesit my place for a week or so—just to help you get a little more situated.”

sr dingbats

          Time had rolled on by. The brilliant sun no longer chased back that mounding fog bank, which now penetrated the street fair’s western flank. A cold, damp wind bowled down Union from Presidio Heights, whipping astrologer flyers and sausage wrappers along the makeshift midway, and gutter dust into the eyes of the fair’s beholders, afternoon Westerlies jostling seashell and crystal wind chimes, playing through bamboo flutes.

          Sound stages were being struck; weary vendors folded up their displays for the day with routine economy. That involved hauling away everything fungible, negotiable and/or edible, heaping everything else into the dumpsters and porta-potties around every corner. Skyward floated the last of the balloons; unscooped ice cream leaked from curb gutter containers until the whole mess was swept up by day-labor cleaning crews who stacked tapped-out casks and kegs, stuffed any recyclable cans and bottles down trouser legs and into brown plastic bags. So clean, so freakin’ fast already.

          We walked arm in arm, ward like, back down Union Street. Scattered clusters of lingering fair freaks milled about closing stores and galleries, or filtered into Perry’s, the Bus Stop, or hidden off-street cafés. Some even peeled away the face paint, sent champagne splits shattering against lightpoles and fireplugs. Streetcorner by trash-piled streetcorner, the music just packed up and died.

          Juggler Jay Rensal finished strong with three watermelons and a Gravenstein, apple juice dripping all down his goosebumped leotard, firing back at somehalf-loaded nitwit, “I do my show like you have sex, pal—alone.”

          “Housesit,” I plained. “How the hell’s that supposed to work?” Since I was already trying to figure out how the love of her life had rearranged into her love of her life.

          “Just look after the plants, mail and things, fake out the burglars—everybody does it around here,” Sydney said, stepping around the twisty trunk of a dogged acacia tree outside Laura Ashley Welsh wear. “I won’t be there, of course, because I happen to be flying back to Chicago with my parents—could even have looked you up downtown at that exciting new job you just blew off.”

          “You’re what?!”

          “For their anniversary, and a postponed Shavuot celebration—a big, huge Mendel family bash, I mean everybody, the whole mishpocha—isn’t that fantabulous? Which reminds me, I must be going, since they’re doubling with me and my friend for dinner tonight, he’s a commercial ecotect,” she smiled proudly, beckoning me to shake hands on it. “But you should take me up on the offer. I figure it’s the least I can do, and am even pretty confident you won’t destroy anything. ’Cause I’m kind of concerned about you, Kenneth—your judgment, your…lapses—you know, all that’s gone on. And you don’t look so well. So there, see? You already have at least one friend in San Francisco.”

          Beyond Octavia Street, the wind rustled an otherwise dull, day-ending calm. Oh, wisps of distant laughter and traffic horns, maybe, but little more. Small wonder nearby heads turned, dogs moaned and melons came tumbling down when this apparently normal young couple turned the corner toward that Octagon House and Allyne Park: Some primped up chick patting this slumped over dudly, and all he kept screaming was…

          “No, you can’t do this!!!  No, no, no, no, noooooooooooooo…”

Care for more?

Chapter 47. A homespun gig, a 
hillside gaff, then strained connections 
make for an untimely, uninviting exit… 

 

∞ STAGE THREE ∞

“One mate means succor
the other spells glitz and dash—
place no sucker’s bet.” 

          “You have no idea what I went through.”

          “Well, no, I…”

          “Really, I nearly committed suicide over you.”

          “Sorry, I had no idea…great to see you didn’t though…”

          There wasn’t much getting past Denise’s place at Fulton and 25th Avenue. En route to that ritualistic Ocean Beach revisit, I had spotted Thibeaux Cauler moving some garage furniture into a small Mazda pick-up, his growing dreads piled high under a crocheted Rasta applejack brim, earth brown dashiki open at the black Kung-Fu shorts. Before I could fully stop to say hi, he had me on the heavy end of an old arm-worn sectional, loading it into the dented truck bed.

          As we pushed and lifted, I caught him up on events Midwestern, including my coin-flip cloverleafing through his St. Louis. Cauler updated me in turn on Denise, who had fled Mexican drug tensions, only to spirit herself back to Ann Arbor for an exploratory summit with Warren ‘the porker’. Meanwhile, an OMing Regina Tzu was upstairs for the asking, although I scarcely knew what to say, given all that. By virtue of the helping hand, however, I did haul in Thibeaux’s offer for a night or two’s crashing in Denise’s room until I got situated, etc. It must have been the Moon’s pause/mom’s passing part of my story, along with some Heartland homerism, that sealed such a welcome deal.

          I had proceeded to wolf down a couple of deli-case salads from the Scandinavian place on Geary Boulevard that Moon and I had muddled through, the kidney bean-garbanzo combo going down much more smoothly this time around. A Dinkel Acker to go, and it was back to Denise’s for some rest and retooling, turning on her small Sony to a Friday evening local news review on KQED public TV. A post-headline recap and pledge pitch segued into a journalist panel roundtable focused on the recent tax-cut passage of Proposition 13, and increasingly bizarre developments in the local religio-political realm.

          Their lede centered on how the Peoples Temple congregation was turning more People v. Temple, that ever since SF Examiner and New West Magazine exposés on ‘nightmare’ beatings, child begging, fake healing and coercive, if not violent mind control, had prompted investigations from the D.A.’s office to U.S. Customs and IRS. Rumors were spreading that private dicks had been snooping around for defectors, what with escapee, Leon Broussard hitting town with his Jonestown horror stories.

          One on-air commentator pointed out that the flock’s benevolent nature had been visibly changing since the Peoples hierarchy had strung chainlink fencing around the Geary temple and fled en masse to Guyana—money, munitions, mind-altering drugs and all. Fearful relatives had begun protesting at the temple site, concerned for their loved ones’ well-being down in the jungle. They were pressuring the U.S. Embassy, Rep. Leo Ryan, even the local Guyanese authorities Jim Jones had long been bribing with cash, clothing and contraband galore—to probe the now robotic flock slavishly tending to the dirt poor and barren Jonestown soil.

          Then there was the reverend himself. Reports had apparently surfaced all spring of Jones’ erratic behavior, particularly after his mother’s December death. He’d badgered city politicos he’d helped elect for favors and relief, threatened lawsuits against the press in a manic phone interview. His few remaining loyalists were ordered to move PT’s financial assets to safer harbors, and he ignored court judgments to return Boy John to his rightful parents, the Stoens. Rumors spread of his bomb hoaxes, White Night scare drills, his waving a .357 wildly in paranoid alerts while faking being fatally wounded by lurking enemies. Whispers arose of poison punch sacrifice rehearsals amid mounting outside persecution.

          Who knew how much of this on-dit was true? But all told, it was quite a swirl of turmoil for an oily hick preacher from Indiana. In any case, harmony, People—did I miss something here, thought I’d parked such bile back in Chicago Lawn. So, better to kill the tube, to rest and freshen up as best I could for springing my little cameo on an unsuspecting Sydney Mendel.

          “But that’s beside the point now. I mean I didn’t think you’d actually take me up on the invite. I was just bulk sending out as many as I could, and you somehow got on my mailing list,” said Syd, disconcertingly sizing up my road-marginal appearance, at least one size shy of being situationally suitable. “Mass marketing 101, that’s all. But you know what I mean, since you’re in the big-time ad game now your own self.”

          “R-R-Right, mass mailing…” Beyond reeling, I had to wonder how she got wind of my FBC position. Must have been Moon to Faith, plus or minus Lester’s sideshow riff. “Kinda missed the gist of that from your note…”

          “Just common courtesy. But at least you have landed a good job there,” she pressed, a trifle wobbly on gold patent heels. “So how did you get the days off this soon? Really, when are you heading back?”

          “Actually, sorta took a leave of absence…”

          “You what?! Oh, that’s real choice, Kenneth…”

          “Yeah, was a tough one, all right, I agonized over…”

          “Sorry, you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got cust…er, guests…”

          Skies had cleared considerably as I wheeled downtown, act cleaned up to my FBC level, blue oxford cloth and red striped tie included under the brown cord sport jacket. I even scored an uphill parking spot on Taylor Street, well within walking distance of the Sutter Street gallery where Sydney had installed her one-woman show.     Sydney's gallery

          Weininger Fine Arts was a newer, smaller house toward the outer edge of San Francisco’s gallery row, betting on new, local discoveries to catapult it into the long-established Sutter Street ranks. In this case, Weininger’s track lights were exclusively on Syd, if not its larger dollar commissions, and the second-story gallery had cleared its walls for a selection of her recent and current pieces. She’d titled her show, ‘Mighty Women At Work’, displaying the range of her creative process, conceptual sketches to tighter figure drawings to finished paintings—all hung in sleekly modern frames.

          An impressively large turnout of seasoned smock sniffers and captious aesthetes paraded tissue to canvas, many gilt-edged coupon clippers in cashmere jackets circling a plentiful wine and hors d’ oeuvres spread center hardwood floor. Already feeling awkward as a dowager’s towel boy, I had slowly gravitated toward the rear wall, near Syd’s photo portrait and calligraphed bio, watching her so confidently work the room, mumly grabbing a crystal cup of strawberry punch along the way. Beside a table of parchment guest books and glossy lay catalogues raisonne, I met up with Mendels, mère and père.

          “Why hello there. You’re Kenneth, I take it. I’m Faith Mendel, Sydney’s mother…”

          “Pleased to meet you, ma’am,” I replied tensely, hardly prepared to meet Syd’s mother superior under circumstances like these, not at all knowing what she knew or felt about clashes past.

          “Well, this is quite the surprise. Last I heard, you were back home in Chicago,” she said, her delicately sequined Marshall Field gown barely hiding her rounded middle-age curves. She offset small half-shell earrings with a tightly coiffed perm, a light brush of make-up and mascara being the measure of her successful maturity and motherly assurance. “In any case, I suppose it’s best that you’ve made the ungodly long trip alone this time…”

          “Uh, yeah,” I stammered quizzically. “But how did you…”

          “Motherly intuition, young man, a woman can sense these things,” she said, looking me up and down. “Besides that, you appear somewhat… road weary.”

          Patting down my sleeves and shaggy hair, I glanced away in retreat, toward a portrait of ‘Elisha’, Syd’s caption reading, ‘This wonderful lady I stayed with while I sat in at L’Ecole de Beaux Arts’. The semi-nude was a subtle tonal wash against stark drapings of velvet and blue, all but concealing a single yellow daisy. Beyond that, her show’s imagery, its porous juxtaposition of realism and borderline irrationalism, suggested a dimension, an attitude, she had somewhat closeted heretofore. Wasn’t Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ at the Art Institute, but it all sure made an impression on me.

          Syd’s straighter paintings were like Moon over the cabin mantle, only better crafted, more delicate in contrast and hue. They rendered lithe, aggressive women in aerobic knots, who walked a balance beam between pure athletics and pandering seduction. Nice work, yet Syd maintained the intimate integrity of her divers, dancers and gymnasts with understated props and backdrops that elevated stark nudity to stunning au naturel. My pockets swelling, I immediately felt warped, somewhat a gutter voyeur for turning on instead of paying tribute, like some kind of pervert getting off in the Guggenheim.

          “So this guy’s what the fuss is all about,” said Bryce Mendel, stepping in, probing me with wary sideward glances. “Flying solo now, are you?”

          “Yes sir, sure am…nice to meet you,” I pumped his firm hand. “Incredible show, huh?”

          “No, it’s entirely credible,” her dad said, over the murmuring of the crowd, shaking his head of silver hair. “I can tell by the invoices and accounts payables, on top of what I’ve shelled out for her art school tuition.”

          “Wow, I’ll bet,” I said, looking around at the gallery gathering, not fully understanding how much his checkbook was involved here. I saw a room full of Howard Rosens, kindly putting my mom in her place here, which had me all but reaching for a dust mop.

          “But my little free-spirited girl’s well worth it,” he beamed, real laser-like. The sharp creases of his tailored navy mohair, rope-striped Paul Stuart suit cut me like a cleaver. “She’s quite a talent, wouldn’t you say?”

          “Never seen an artist like her, Mister Sav, er Mendel…” Mom, I could see rubbing canapé trays, stemware and elbows here; as for my dad, I couldn’t picture him here in the least.

          “Sydney’s the pride of our family, all right,” he snipped, grabbing my eye. “And I aim to keep her going and growing that way —all the way around, if you know what I mean…”

          “Sure as shootin’, sir…I…”

          “Of course you do, dear,” Faith inserted, tapping his hand. “We all do, don’t we, Kenneth? We all want the best for everybody concerned, and I mean everybody.”

          “Happy family harmony—that’s Mrs. Mendel’s department,” winked Bryce Mendel, slightly loosening his rolled, starched white collar and silk tossed squares tie. “So what’s your line of work back in Chicago?”

          “Sociology’s my field, but I was just getting into advertising…”

          “Ad game, is it?”

          “Yes sir,” I gulped, rather tightening my wide striper tie. “But I’ve put that on hold for the time being…”

          “On hold? That doesn’t sound like much of a career move to me.”

          “Better than the one before,” Sydney teased, ambling back up to us, delivering goblets of Chardonnay to her admiring parents, winking artfully at her mom. She was a city gal today, all right, in a plum velvet pantsuit with butter yellow sash and scarf, “A mass transit professional…”

          “Come again?”

          “She means I drove a taxi, sir,” I owned up, chagrined that she knew that too. “While hustling up the ad writer position. Checker cabs—LaSalle Street, Michigan Avenue to O’Hare, like that…”

          “Of course, take them all the time,” he chuckled, teeth gleaming against a fit Florida winter tan. “Don’t remember hailing you though. But then you only see the back of a hacker’s head…”

          “Bryce—really,” Faith chided, radiantly tanned as her solid gold necklace and locket. “And you’ll have to excuse my daughter, Kenneth, she still has some bags to fill. Dear, what say we get acquainted with the refreshments?”

          “Smoked lox and cheese trays,” Bryce smiled, as she wrapped his arm, pulling him away. “Twenty-six years together, the woman reads me like a road map…”

          I recalled Moon’s reverential remark once about going a long way to see the likes of a Sydney Mendel. But where was this veneer, this creative sophistication when we were sleeping bagging it in Utah? Who was she, all told?  Melissa, I knew: quilts and pottery and macramé—Earth shoes momma with basic co evolutionary, cohabitational braids. But this, these finished masterful visions in textured mattes and glaring frames: either I was something or she was simply slumming.

          My armpits rained acrid over that one; I felt at once bolstered and betrayed. What was up with her, anyway? I got that fetching invite, then torched bridges for the past 2,000 miles, for chrissake, only to cross the wire underdressed, underfed and underbred. What was I missing here? Did I misread something between the lines? Was this perfumed invite of hers heart to Heartland, or neither here nor there?

          All I could actually make out was every other canvas here seemed to mind fuck her more serious paintings to either side. I could picture her taunting her embryonic following, as in: ‘I’m this damn good, but guess again, peons, you ain’t seen nuthin’ so far’. How else to explain the chameleonic comic strip that played out between the lines of this fresh-faced exhibition? As she escorted her parental pals over the nosh, I set about to take in her artwork, frame by frame, with a measure of creative relief.

          “How utterly coarse…”

          “My sentiments exactly,” I said, as I moved beyond Syd’s figure paintings to a series of better working ‘Women At Work’. “Right on course…”

          “No, young man, coarse, ” remarked a matronly women in I Magnin evening dress and a wraparound shoulder stole, studying one of Sydney’s charcoal sketches like an oncologist a malignant X-ray. The arthritic old pudge folded up her bifocals and made for the nearest hors d’ oeuvres tray. “Unrefined, juvenile, devoid of nuance or discernible composition—a Diebenkorn, she’s definitely not. What is that object supposed to be there, a plumber’s helper?”

          “Hey, what do you know, granny?” I blurted after her. Honestly, it just slipped out, like a tax lawyer through a loophole. I’d just heard the coarse verdict and snapped, turning toward her stumpy little personage with a reflexive flip of my index finger. She spun in kind, appalled, and she wasn’t alone. Seemed as though the entire gallery gasped in chorus, nailing me to the frame-lined wall with wine-and-cheese consternation.

          Maybe my move was a bit outlandish, but no more so than this stretch of Sydney’s art. To be sure, she had delivered on her creative promise, but only the alter ego contrails of her provocateur nature could explain her handling charges. For every other pose of striking beauty, every other sketch and painting was an abstract visual abomination.

          These ‘Women At Work’ weren’t women at all, but trim, shapely bodies with beastly extremities. Plumbers with web feet and hands, oil riggers with serpentine tentacles, grease monkeys with rash red asses and simian sneers: The only things her acrylic menagerie had in common were intense working postures and monstrous jugs.

          Syd’s lady dentist was multi-fanged with gleaming drill-bit fingernails. Her barberess featured hairbrushes for hands and a trimming shears smile. There was Winnie the arch welder, Babs the buns baker, Wench the umbilical wrench. And her doctor even grossed me out with its jackhammer scalpels and open-heart skeletal bosom and stethoscope dangling out of no, not there.

          Sydney had rendered her grotesque subjects in minutely detailed work settings, then hedged with grim spectral backdrops and random overtones of apocalyptic shades. The cumulative result was a series of ghoulish wet dreams on a gullet of garlic bagels and stale goulash.

          “What in heaven are you trying to do, ruin everything,” she screamed, rushing nearly head over heels up to me, like a heat-seeking missile, from a go-between with her parents and some potential deep-pocketed patrons.

          “Sorry, Syd, I didn’t think her…was just sticking up for you, that’s all.”

          “Spare me the chivalry, Kenneth,” she pulled me aside by the lapels, near her painting titled, ‘Fiendish Physician’. “Do you know who that is? Mrs. Vivian Hossberg, of Doctor Abraham Hossberg. She is one of the heavyweight art benefactors in San Francisco. She’s best friends with Tessa Tyman—Tessa Tyman. I wouldn’t care if she called me a scumbag slut in Herb Caen’s column, if I could get her to buy one of my paintings.”

          “Whoa, gotcha, message received…but I still don’t see what right she has to rip your art out loud like that…”

          “Socialite makes right. Because she speaks with her pocketbook, dumkoff. Besides, some people have lower shock thresholds—that’s what I’m trying to tap into here, by confronting latent revulsion.”

          “Shock-rating. That’s a new one on me,” I muttered, shoving a show program into my jacket pocket. “Still and all, doesn’t your talent make right?”

          “What’s the matter with you, anyway?! They’ll think you’ve just come out of the hills, or something,” she fumed, handing me stemware from a passing tray, nostrils flaring, cheeks aflame. “Here, flash, nurse some vino, blend into the woodwork for now…and keep your faux pas’s to yourself, will you please?”

          “Sure, whatever…I’ll just…”

          “Look, I’ve got to link my parents up with Gene Weininger again. Daddo will get him to eat some more of the up-front costs yet. Then I’ll direct them back to their hotel, and make a grand exit. We’ll go somewhere and talk…”

          “Sounds good,” I sipped, beginning to edge toward gallery doors. “But who’s Tessa Tyman?”

sr dingbats

           “Who’s Tessa Tyman?! She’s only one of The City’s heavy-duty philanthropists, in a league with Rhoda Haas Goldman and Cissie Swig. She and Bert Tyman own just about half of Market Street,” Sydney said, paging through one of her programs. “As for Mrs. Goldman, she just lead a Temple Emanu-El pilgrimage to Auschwitz, for godsakes. Believe me, there would be no arts scene here without such benevolence by the likes of the Haas family, Sterns, Cyril Magnin—even Micky Bender, son of a Dublin rabbi, a leading patron who supported Diego Rivera’s murals in the 1920s.

          “Irish rabbi…that, I never would have guessed,” I shifted the Volvo onto Pine Street off Leavenworth, heading nowhere in particular, but away from the downtown crush. “But what’s wrong with right where you are right now, free and clear. Mounting your own show, and everything…”

          “Which Daddo has had to pretty much bankroll; Weininger is just providing the space,” she sighed, removing her high heels, pulling light blue Etonics out of her Adidas daypack. “But it’s called priming the pump, only the opening volley in my San Francisco campaign. There are bigger fish to fry on Sutter’s gallery row—even bigger, fatter commissions to reel in.”

          “Daddy bucks, I see. Well maybe you can paint a stagecoach for Wells Fargo or something…”

          “God, read the arena, Kenneth, that’s not my path to glory, at all. I don’t know if you’re too dense to realize it, but my main turf is the powerhouse Jewish community, the Great Pioneer Families here, rooting back to the Gold Rush and Argonaut or Concordia Clubs. I mean, think about it, Blue Book yiches like the Lazards, Hellmans, Langendorfs, Fleishhackers and Zellerbachs. That’s real civic juice for you, mister sociology.”

          “Sort of a hierarchy of deeds, huh, I nodded like a studied lackey wingman. “So then what’s our master plan here?”

          “First off, I want to be a better artist than Ernest Peixotto, or Toby Rosenthal, the genius who painted ‘Elaine’ in the 1870s,” she reached down to the floorboard, lacing up her jogging shoes. “He stole the show with ‘The Trial of Constance de Beverly’ and wrapped San Francisco around his creative finger. Sure enough, win over my own Community—then the goys will follow before long…”

          Sounded like a plan, alright—time to go somewhere and talk, somewhere secluded, maybe—somewhere quiet and private where we could reconnect, jumpstart our reconciliation, proceed to plot out our…affiliation.  After waving adieu, cautiously, if not cordially, to the Mendels, I followed Sydney out of Weininger’s Fine Arts like a personal security goon. She had paused to leave her parents the keys to her Audi Fox, directing them back to their Nob Hill hotel suite, while I wheeled the Volvo around to the gallery building’s canopied Sutter Street entrance.

          Coastal fog had receded to the outer Richmond by the time we crossed Van Ness and Syd pointed me onto Franklin Street. I suspected she was heading us toward the green Presidio bluffs or beaches, maybe even Marin, as we roller coasted through sequenced green lights and these condo canyons along with imported roadsters and roof-racked Broncos and Cherokees.

          Marquette Park be damned, those were the wide-open spaces out there that I so sorely remembered when on Francisco Avenue, Chicago Lawn. How could that long, whipsaw road trip not have been worth the gas money: sky blue vistas, blonde riding shotgun, California dream coming true, after all. Western imperative, I was a man of choice, of destiny; I suddenly felt so fully alive. I could already feel my rising Oxytocin hormone levels, neuromodulating peptides gushing into my amydala and hypothalamus. Once past this rough patch, all the happiness, contentment, the hugging and orgasmic arousal—pair bonding ad infinitum

          At least until Syd had me cutting out Green Street, where we circled Gough to Octavia and Vallejo, prowling for a precious empty parking spot here in Cow Hollow, finally lucking into a sudden pull-out near tiny Allyne Park. Thereupon I agreed with her the maneuver would Allyne Parkhave been much easier with my battered ol’ Squareback, this roomier though rotting Volvo being a dubious upgrade all around, bigger not being better about now.

          “Wow, so you’ve got it all figured out now, huh?” Enough with the oldies, I turned the FM dial from Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’ over to Mac’s platinum ‘Gold Dust Woman’, while I parallel parked in the shade of a dwarf redwood overhang.

           “You betcha, I’m making it my business…whew, where did you dig up this clunker, and what smells in here?”

           “Loaner from a friend,” I exhaled out my door window. “Business? I thought your were an artist…”

           “Some friend. But my art is my business, as if it’s really any of your business now,” she spouted, sounding as unsure as assured, leading me past multi-colored stick Victorian cash-cow homes, then a neighborhood landmark Octagon House, enroute to the palliative solitude and serenity of the…Union Street Fair. “What made you come back out here like this, anyway?”

 Care for more?

 Chapter 46. Strolling amid the street fair’s 
treats and eats, then pausing in a stylish 
watering hole to wash them all down, it’s
misreads and misdirections on the rocks…  


“Happy is a homebody 

until the open road calls— 
tearing out roots and all.”

          “I’m just saying at least he’ll be safer here…his tail feathering is even growing back.”

          “Safer,” I winced, “with the uni-bomb scare over on Northwestern’s campus?”

          “Tsk, that bomb package had ties to a Circle Campus parking lot, of all places. But it does make you wonder what is going on these days. Like, then there’s the neo-Nazi insanity down in your backyard, marching their hate-fest up here to Skokie, no less.”

          Stepped in it, stepped on it but fast. I had taken Nathan up on Roscoe’s Volvo, stripping my squareback of Blaupunkt, toolbox and Colorado plates, trashing its serials. I scraped the soot and bird shit off his rusty green 122s along Mowhawk street, cold cranking the sedan’s four banger, priming its dual carbs, tuning points and plugs so Nate could jumpstart the junker with his red workhorse Chevy Blazer.

          I’d cleared the beer cans, menthol butts and syringes off of the green vinyl seats, rigged the radio and test headed up Edens Expressway to jailbreak my dog, or at least assess the prospect of taking him along on the ride west. With Melissa doing job interviews and her father business tripping, Seamus was digging around their tiny chainlink-fenced yard. We broke free like Rusty and Rin-Tin-Tin, wheeling through Skokie proper to a nearby Niles open space park.

          “Was my backyard, Moon. Why do you think I’m getting the hell out of there again?!” I sputtered, loading the trunk, slamming the lid on my way into the car, uneasy that she’d finally caught on to that cankerous scene down South.

          “None too soon, if Seamus’s near-death experience here is any indication,” she walked me and some more of my effects from her dad’s garage to the leaky Volvo in her driveway.

          “It just happened. He’s a maniac—you know how he will get into anything,” I pleaded, prudently holding fire. “I mean, you’re saying I can’t take care of my dog?”

          “Track record, Kenny, track record…”

          A good run along the Chicago River’s North Branch, and we were teaming up like old Boulder times, working up a powerful hunger at that. My tastes ran to an Italian Beef shop on Golf Road, Seamus’s to some scraps about its garbage cans. But residual rat poison soon sent the Setter heaving and convulsing across the Volvo’s back seat. Only emergency stomach pumping at the nearest vet clinic could save him.

          Which it did—no worry, no charge, smiled a young, yarmelkahed Dr. Thileman—partial as he was to Irish Setters with such full feathering and high pointed crowns, sabbath and a North Shore tee-time soon upon him. I carted Seamus and his gastric medicine to Melissa’s yard in custodial shock, sweating out her return, much less her immediate reaction.

          “That’s hitting way below the belt, Moon.” I could have brained her right then and there, nevertheless realizing that once again, she probably was right.

          “It’s why you’d be better off staying up North,” Melissa sighed, latching the yard’s chainlink gate behind us. She held her nose and kissed me, seemingly resigned to my road trip.“So go get the Boulder stuff together, say hi for me and hurry on back. We’ve plenty to work on right here.”

          “Don’t I know it…”

          Topping the list was penning thank-you notes, then prying my father loose from his mournful Francisco Avenue flat. With mom buried in a Herbert family plot outside Prairie Crossing, he had taken sad stock of his place and time, deciding that his remaining days would be best spent as near to her as possible.

          One night, after we had the awkward ‘sorry I haven’t been much of a father to you’ reckoning and hopeless gen-gap reconciliation, I commiserated by saying I hadn’t been much of a son, for that matter. Feeling his pain, frightfully so, I suggested the move, seeing as how he was so utterly lost and lonesome here without her.

          Soon enough, he took early retirement, and mom’s token life insurance payout back to Prairie Crossing. With no small measure of relief, I helped him relocate to Uncle Dellis’s place. A small back-house addition afforded him some privacy and brotherly company, even if Dellis was still a feedlot wild and crazy guy.With it came a garage space for his old Merc, all but a mile or so from the cemetery.

          Thereupon we left the Francisco flat behind, Frankie Fuhrery’s cadres still goose-stepping lively in Marquette Park for a Skokie blitzkrieg—their Chicago Lawn otherwise fading to black. Dad had hit his golden years in inconsolable mourning, also bemoaning as how Chitown was so great ‘before the coloreds and all’.  Me, I just hit the road, vowing never to feel that damn abandoned my own self.

sr dingbats

          “She came by, ordered it up. What can I say?”

          “No notice, nothing?”

          “No diceshe said everything goes…”

          Bustin’ loose, beelining down I-55, I had blown off Chicagoland at about Romeoville, feeling the morning buzz of RC Colas and a rush of freewheeling relief, picking up a stale AM set of Paul Simon’s ‘Gone At Last’, cross-fading into Boz man’s ‘Lido Shuffle’. I saluted Honest Abe past Springfield, yet nearly turned back at St. Louis before crossing blind faithfully past the Arch. Such was the realization that the road ahead could be a cranially divided highway, mile upon mile.

          Steer onto I-70 and let the Volvo roll due west with abandon: so much time to think, too much time to think. Yeah, manifest imperative and all that—but what the hell was I doing out here in another beat-out junker? How could I have stiffed FBC and those Michigan Avenue spreads for another sack of White Castle sliders to go? What was so goddamn bad about Chicago, anywaycognitive dissonance no end…

And look how my last-minute flee fall had upended Moon. Or had it, did she really push hard enough to keep me there? And if not, what the hell else was going on with her these days? Is it an east-west thing, or a north-south…thing? Why is she moving things along so fast if she sees us pulling that North Side scenario…together? Aww, cool it, she’s like money—Lester notwithstanding, Mendel family or no. So eyes dead ahead, right on target, two hands on the jiggety wheel, fore not aftstay in the present, look to the future, get the hell out of the past. The way this Goteborg heap was rolling across the straight plains, Kansas would be history before sundown, Rockies on the horizon before dawn.  Boulder Valley

          More precisely, the Front Range shone rhubarb fresh from the turnpike overlook, Boulder Valley yawning and stretching to greet the day, sky clear and cloudless to the Continental Divide. I coasted down US 36 toward Pearl Street and Dot’s Diner for some breakfast and drip, the town and campus looking more peak-to-peak postcard than ever.

          Caffeine juiced, I placed a few friendly phone calls, but everybody kept asking about Melissa as their voices trailed off. Even Lawson Bennaker had left a door note on his old place that he was off to Steamboat Springs to mine those hills. I wandered around CU’s quad, but couldn’t muster the gumption to revisit the Sociology Department, let alone Paul Verniere, so simply milled about Packer, then University Hill a bit, to get reacquainted with the Flatirons tableau.

          Yet in this short time, traffic hadn’t gotten any lighter, the vehicles themselves any less showy and sporty, legacy homes weren’t any less gentrified. Cowboy Boulder was further disappearing in a cloud of poured concrete and trail dust as new developments spread like wildfire across the valley. One-time hippie outposts were being renovated into brickish banking or blue-chip brokerage branches all the more—so many trust funds, wire transfers, buyouts and inheritances to be corralled.

          More young moguls in; quaint counter-cult utopians out. Other-state schoolies and bicoastal coolies in; back country groovies and grubbies out. Champagne powder here, fringy frontier gone: unbridled valley fever at a high granite pitch. Who could keep up with it all now, sociologically or otherwise?

          Against that polished rocky backdrop, I rumbled up to the foothill cabin, silently hoping it would look smaller and trashier than I’d remembered. Instead, the place was homier and more welcoming, seemingly larger than our earlier life—got me to wondering if it would have been so storybook had we stayed. I parked out front, expecting to either pack up or unpack here for good—the latter prospect quickly dampened by the open-door emptiness of that backyard shed under clear, warming skies.

          “Nothing left, landlady just spread it all out through the weekend,” said Kathy, who had 9/10ths squattered the place, after she asked where Moon was and what she’d been doing since so sadly leaving town. “All gone, just like that…people were doling out the bucks left and right…”

          “I’ll bet,” I muttered, still trying to recompose a pretty picture of our move. My shoulders drooped like snowed-over pine branches—images of textbooks, stereo LPs, framed Euro photos, a 10-speed Motobecane, pup tent, camp stove, Army class-A’s, ice skates, fielder’s mitt, et al, dissolving before my eyes. But at least I still had my cameras.

          “A real barn burner, all right…sorry about that, but I never heard from you, so…”

          “More like a shed burner, if you ask me.”

          To her credit, Kathy invited me to catch up on events further over reheated potluck, compensatory, mile-high hospitality not easily kissed off after fuel stop upon rest stop of snack-packaged pumice. She cooked up a chicken-rice dish that was tandori tasty, but no Steak and Kidney Pie. We washed the crockful down with Texas milkshakes, then hashed over things pottery lab before and since Melissa and I left.

          Kathy let out her bibs some and explained how Moon had been so dedicated to the smooth running of the kiln and all, and how she was really missed over at the wheels. Busy, busy, busy: that was how Moon came across to her, so tuned into the Hill, that she was such an enviro-natural here. How busy, I asked, gazing around the kitchen nook as if the current hostess was either our guest or a Melissa stand-in. You know, she smiled thinly, busy, busy…bee.

          The entire situation was somewhat out-of-body, as if we had never handed the cabin over to this kicked-back earthenware pothead. Yet here I was, doing a guest shot with droopy bedroom eyelids, snooze alarms and busy signals going off in my head like civil defense sirens. Not that much had changed in the place, basic furniture-wise, and I remembered how comfortable naps could be on that sagging front room davenport.

          So there I crash landed, bidding Kathy an early good evening as she fleered her way into the bedroom—couching a loyal, good-scout night for myself, being a guest with much less. But not before asking if I could make a strategic collect call on our old yellow rotary phone…

          “Seven pounds, nine ounces…”

          “Wow, congrats…all are healthy, huh?”

          “Yeah, guess I got a halfback on my hands.”

          “Bear down Chicago Bears, Nate,” I said, mind flitting back and forth, between the Front Range darkness and that fireplace spot where ‘Waif and Grain’ used to be. “How’re your folks with it?”

          “Not so great, Heeb, not exactly into the scene. Lots more heartache than high-fives. But let’s just say I don’t think I’m totally out of the will.”

          “Then again, blood’s thicker, right?”

          “Who the fuck knows, I only hope it’s color blind,” Nathan groaned. “And this blows up a few days after I find out Spelsky crashed my ’Vette against a power pole on Plainfield Road. Cops found Chivas bottles all over the site.”

          “Totalled?” Sounded like something death-wish Curt would do, reason enough why we were never that tight a’ buds.

          “I’ll say, killed him. And Gary Rallimore was ridin’ shotgun. He’s in intensive care, hanging by a thread.” He paused audibly to sip and toke. “So you comin’ back with a trunkload of Coors, or…”

          “Holy shit, Rallimore too?” I gasped, then muttered on the down low, impulses gyro slap-shooting through my head, loss leader variety. “Uh, you know what, Nate? My stuff was all gone—sold out from under my ass. Really, I’ve got nothing here in Boulder anymore. So if it’s cool with you, I think I’m gonna ride the wild Volvo to the coast, work off some crosswinds first.” Did I just actually say that?!

          “Man, they’ll eat you alive out there,” Nate sucked in some more hemp. “But if you’re set on makin’ tracks, check this out. Remember how Gary’s ol’ man blew town on him and his mom years ago? Well, he’s a big shot lawyer out in the Bay Area somewhere. If you run across that asshole, hip him to the fact that his kid’s in really bad shape right now. Oh, and look up Tony Panescus, remember him from the Twelve Bar? Think he works at the Hilton downtown there, clue him in on Curt and Gary while you’re at it.”

          “Will do, Nate, time permitting, least I could do,” I stammered, pulling Syd’s invite out of my canvas pack. “Let me give you an address where you can mail me for the time being if need be, okay? And give my best to Gary and your folks.”

          “Artsy-fartsy’s address? That’s cool, keep in touch,” Nathan coughed. “Frisco, huh? Don’t get any on ya…”

sr dingbats

          Early next morning brought a damask sunrise refracting off the Flatiron faces, directly into the cabin’s front room windows, a wake-up call that couldn’t have come soon enough. Road weariness and numbing Chicago-Skokie news shocks did little in the way of fostering a good night’s sleep. There were just too many disjointed, warm and fuzzy apparitions in the cabin.

          I tossed and turned under an Indian quilted comforter, cushions shifting, bobbing like river rapids’ inner tubes: seeing, hearing Moon baking, me studying, Seamus racing window to window, barking at yard squirrels, Pags rolled up in a snoozy ball on the sunny side sills. Still, I could smell the sandalwood, taste her cookies, hear the Setter howling as I played cassette tape-loopy Dusty & the Dusters and Fogelberg on the cinderblock and barnboard-shelved stereo, encored by John Denver crooning his ‘…Colorado rocky mountain high—I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky’.

          Such dreams turned from sweet to sour by 4 a.m. sharp. I was spooked enough to pace between the parlor and my old study room like I used to before final exams. Visions, voices, everyday vignettes in the dark, neither here nor then and there. Parched prospects, torrents of mistreatment, rivers of regret, painful images of crack, black and blue, as if Moon beams still had a hold on our house. It was all I could do to bundle up and sneak my way out of the foothill cabin altogether, leaving behind nothing but a simply scribbled thank-you note to Kathy on the fireplace mantle, shivering at the thought that I would likely never pass through this door and porchway again. Still, catching my eye as I squeezed into the Volvo were the futuristic houses shining further up the range front, those spacey, geometric aeries that Sydney had said reminded her so much of coastal cliffside California, futures unbound.

          Down Uni Hill, Boulder was just too clearly beautiful this morning to miss a Dot’s Diner breakfast redux and picture window view of the Flatiron formation. But I devoured the fried yolks and homefries, grabbing a coffee refill for the road. Tooling back down Broadway, I newly regarded the brick-faced Pearl Street Mall, this cowpoke town now dolled up for the cotillion corral. How those mountains so majestically embraced the entire valley, wondering what would have happened had I never been sidetracked, had we never left, was there any way I could stay here on my own? These days, really? No dice…for what price utter chagrin and compunction? 

          Then again, what would have been the Boulder back-up? Slaving over property or soaring with more potential? Roofing more canyon houses, underachieving through a workaday gig on some 28th Street loading dock, mindless roaming the Front Range, brain-dead moping around the Pearl Street Mall—seething, sweating out another sosh Ph.D. application; much as I loved the place, what was going to come of that?

           Rather a quick spin past CU made me feel more distanced from the sosh department than ever, only leaving an apologetic note for missing their Ph.D. acceptance letter deadline und Dean Cross’s slightly open office door. I was resigned to taking what I’d learned there and better applying it beyond theory, setting aside any further study until the real world stopped spinning as furiously as it was about now.

          So I cut over toward Columbia Cemetery, then down 9th Street through Boulder’s even pricier Lower Chautauqua neighborhood, currently being bid up with outside money by all manner of sport and status climbers, bringing along their costly, rhinestone baggage from parts unknown. Same stimuli, similar response—and then there were the winter-long snow jobs. One last, lingering look at crisply sunny Chautauqua Park from Baseline Road, and there I left Boulder Valley, picking up some orange juice and a big bag of maple nut from the Green Mountain Granary, turning up the FM radio as I headed south toward the Denver Turnpike, Johnny Nash coming on with an oddly ironic ‘I Can See Clearly Now’.

          Trouble was, I saw myself far from grasping the bigger picture, which came no clearer at this Arvada Gas ’n’ Grub, where I’d stopped to refuel and ablut. Yet here I was at another pay phone, reversing the charges, if not any homegrown progress made back Chicago way.

          “Tsk, you there, me here—I can’t believe you, Kenny. Now, taking off again, back to California yet?! I sense nothing but trouble.”

          “Just some unfinished business, Moon. I left some stuff out there, and I’ve got to square it away. So hang in with me a bit longer…this is something I have to do, clear me some clashes, and it’ll be done…”

          “It’s that Saturn thing, I just know,” she hissed into the phone. “And you’re really stretching the rubber band, Kenny, when you already know deep down I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to you. I’m the only one who can save yourself from yourself. I’m serious, there aren’t many women who would put up with you like I do. This is where you belong, but so be it, stay in close touch.” 

          “Will do, like a glove, an Indy 500 driving glove.”

          “Uh-huh, going around in circles, bout to drive me crazy…” Click.

sr dingbats

          “What studs?”

          “Studs Terkel…you know, the writer…”

          “Whattabout him?”

          “He pointed you out to me—in a news clipping…”

          “Did, huh—why me?”

          There was no stopping me out of Denver. Chances, choices: what was done was done. The losses were evident; now where were the gains? I coaxed the Volvo through I-70’s westbound tunnels and range climbs, its Solex carbs balking at the altitude and thinning air. Munching glorified gorp, downing nuts and raisins with swigs of bottled OJ concentrate, I began finding plenty more think time beyond Georgetown, about the CU doctoral misconnect, trading rarified research for the bottom-feeding field study, whether I liked it or not. So why not try a little journalizing down the road?

          Dizzying, head throbbing stuff to carry over the Continental Divide, all right; yet I had put most of that in my rearview mirror beyond the Moab exit. Just look straight ahead, focus on the future, eyes on the prize. I could see nothing but open road up to I-80 and big, blue skies all the way across Utah’s Salt Lake Basin, warmly recalling Syd’s stone wisdom at desert’s end, to the clear-channel radio tune of ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ and ‘One Of These Nights’.

          A dead-of-night stayover in an Oasis, Nevada motel: dark thoughts of her Lovelock power grab still had me by the jewels. But come morning, I was off into a brand new day’s breeze through the Silver State—this Volvo being markedly clippier, not to say roomier, than the VW squareback left behind.

          Forget about the Midwest nightmare, home in on the sunny California Dream—take new-age San Francisco harmony over age-old Chicago discord any day. Never mind about that Wells squareback breakdown, I could feel the promise and energy coming just beyond the Black Rock horizon.

          Got so granola and coffee psyched up that I pulled off I-80 in Reno, wheeling past Virginia City’s Bucket of Blood Saloon, headed down 395 toward Carson City and beyond, intending to follow up Studs Terkel’s lead on Nevada’s champion of BLM cases and causes. Turned out I wasn’t the first to seek out Mustang Maggie, however, and she was neither flattered nor amused.

          “Because you are such a brave voice for free range horses, that’s why,” I smiled, digging into my camera bag at the Ponderosa pine-logged gate of her small refuge/ranch. “I thought it would be great to take some nice photos in your honor…”    Nevada's wild horses

          “You did, did you,” she snapped, dressed in her leathery, pearl-buttoned cow gal finery, tying a slipknot into some old lariat line.“Who you with? Got a big-time press credential?”

          “Uh, no actually, not yet. But I’m heading to San Francisco, and I’ll bet I can get you in the papers there. You know, put your story out more, further help your efforts along with all the horses roaming Nevada…”

          “That’s what you all say. Get a legit credential and pony up, maybe we can talk. I’m not no Annie Oakley statue posing for tourists out here…”

          “R-R-Right, ma’am…I’ll do just that,” I stammered and shook her gnarled, turquoise-ringed hand. “Meantime, keep saving those wild stallions, okay?”

          “Easy for you to say, Huck. But what you got against the mares?”

sr dingbats

          Wannabe writer blocked, brought up short, though undeterred, I filed that story idea in the remainder bin, then low geared for the golden glow of California. Sierra-Tahoe was every bit as beautiful and bountiful as I’d recalled from our first trip in—the blue lake’s algae pollution or no—and this 66 Volvo proved slightly better at keeping up with the freeway flow. Here was Sydney pointing out the snowy caps, crystalline streams, the teeming rivers and wildly treacherous rockslides outside Truckee as though I had never turned tail out of the state—and perhaps I never had in my hemispheres.

          But the long, unwashed road and re-entry head trip had taken their toll by Auburn and Volcanoville. So the steep mountain descent dropped me into a ‘$10/per’ pink motel on a frontage strip outside Citrus Heights, which ended up being relatively reasonable due to its strategic location as surreptitious hooker Hilton for Folsom Prison and a nearby Air Force base. No Lovelock, yet little peace, even less quiet all through the night: however a sink and cold shower did enable me to freshen up for the final, climactic push.

          Sacramento and the Central Valley were bathed in the early morning sun, a little half & half, double sugar this side of Davis carried me to Vacaville’s 50s-era Coffee Tree—navigating Nut Tree’s toy trains, planes, playland animals and candy stands. By all rights, some whipped creamed apple-raisin-walnut pancakes should have jacked me but good for the triumphant return to San Francisco, especially with a couple of SacTown AM countrified banjo moldies like ‘Sweet City Woman’ and ‘Afternoon Delight’.

          Yet each bend in the I-80 lanes from Suisun/Fairfield onward rather filled me with apprehension and not a little bit of anticipatory dread. Go figure, trepidation in paradise upon reaching Vallejo’s vista point, which should have been grounds for celebration. Instead, this vision of bridges came too fast and reached too far, beginning with the suspender over Carquinez Straits. On-shore ocean winds now chilled, dampened the warm California sun, and a marine layer hung over the coast, spreading eastward to the Berkeley Marina.

          This wasn’t the brilliant Bay Area vista I remembered, as when first crossing the Oakland-SF Bridge, emerging from the Goat Island tunnel. No, and it sure wasn’t the dazzling, dynamic downtown waterfront opening for the ‘Streets of San Francisco’.

          Today, this gunmetal span was one creeping Friday afternoon traffic jam, Bay Bridge backed up through the maze, from the toll plaza to who knew how far south. Embarcadero piers fanned around the bayfront like oatmeal ladyfinger wafers about a tarnished tea tray, minus the glittery icing on top.  San Francisco fog and grey

          A thick, leaden fog layer hung over Everybody’s Favorite City, turning its white hot rolling hills into a grayscale pud of a place—a crock of bauxite/wet concrete rather than a pot of gold. The downtown skyline flickered beneath this hovering drop cloth of splotchy porridge like holiday tree lights through crêpe de Chine.

          Usually beaming ivory and pastel buildings now wore a pasty patina, yellow street lamps casting a dull glaze over The City’s narrow, hill-bound arteries. The Ferry Building appeared cut off at its clock tower; Transamerica’s Pyramid could barely be seen at all, forget about the Golden Gate Bridge.

          Beyond San Francisco’s Financial District, Telegraph, Russian, Knob Hills and Twin Peaks were reduced to varying shades of thin, moody slate. Angel Island and Sausalito barely registered around a wind-churned bay, empty, high-water outbound oil tankers crossing paths along the ships’ channels with low, laden cargo vessels slogging in, foghorns blaring, bridge to bridge.

          I finally bucked and backfired around the 101 South bend on threadbare tires—inner lane-locked, grill to trunk lid, until the Central Freeway off ramp. Monitoring a sunken fuel gauge, I turned the Blaupunkt FM dial from LTD’s dancy ‘Back In Love Again‘ to Led Zeppelin’s plaintive, echo-demonic ‘Kashmir’. Its dire intrigues, Zep’s haunting brass and string loops, carried me with the traffic flow out past Fell Street’s carnival colorful Victorians against ashen grey—the Volvo blown aside, tailgated until I was disoriented, could handle the strung-out Haight and Panhandle no more.

          From Stanyan, I cut over to what I recognized as Fulton Street, past groupie sacrifices at the black-gold Airplane house. Rather than getting lost any further amid Golden Gate Park’s white glass Conservatory—its fan palms, fuchsia gardens and Rhododendron Dells—I steered toward the finality and familiarity of Ocean Beach. Yep, just like Syd and I had months before; hmm, surprise, surprise—but should I have let her know I was on my way back to town? Meanwhile, my feet were getting colder by the block.

          Even from the distance of Park Presidio Boulevard, I could get my bearings with this straight-line shot to the sea, already visible from here. So it was balls out through the fog socked Richmond District. Just short of Denise’s place, I jumped at a Fulton green light, nearly coming to fender-to-fender blows with a deep purple Mercedes-Benz saloon wheeling right into my outbound lane.

          I honked in alarm, as Robert Plant doomsday wailed, Jimmy Page power chorded his twin-neck guitar, John Bonham pounded away. A white-sleeved arm quickly menaced me out the sedan’s left front window, flipping me the bird while continuing to cut in ahead of me with all the authority of a Secret Service detail.

          Yet a closer glimpse of the screaming driver revealed an even higher authority, bad mouthing me from under a khaki bushwhacker hat: Bill Graham, likely hustling up another mogul-rock Fillmore or Winterland gig, and here I was a newbie nobody, challenging his primacy, drawing his singular digital wrath.

         Hell of a welcome wagon, or was it some homin’ omen? This, while Plant moaned, ‘OOOOOOOOHHH yeah—let me take you there, let me take you theeerrrrr…’

Care for more?

Chapter 45. Springing on San Francisco, 
making the scene at a show of force, 
an unexpected cool-down awaits as 
The City proper heats up all the more…

∞ End of STAGE TWO ∞ 

“Mother is an angel 
felled by illness and pain— 
homemories remain.”

          “One in a million…”

          “Pure goodness and light…an absolute guardian angel called home.”

          “Yes, that’s for sure.”

          “Patience of a saint, that one. God rest her soul. Dear Muriel’s in a better place now…”

          Novena devotions and well-wishing abounded; still, she never had a prayer. We got the call barely hours before surgery, so dad and I rushed over to the Holy Sacrament waiting room to settle in for the long haul. But not long after mom went under the knife, her vital signs took a critical dive. Her heart succumbed to the anesthesia and thoracic trauma, and she flat lined in no time.

          From the moment a staff surgeon pulled off mask and mirror, loosened green scrubs on his way into the waiting room, life on and about Francisco Avenue was one dark, mournful blur. Wake at 63rd Street and California Avenue, service at nearby St. Helene’s Church, funeral at a plot out in Prairie Crossing: We then decided to gather the adoring family for this remembrance celebration back here at the flat.      St. Helene's Church

          Assembled were many more relatives and friends from mom’s side, although I did catch a fleeting cameo by crazy Uncle Dellis. Parlor back  to the kitchen, Bridgeport to Willow Grove, sisters, aunties, nunks, neighbors, nuns, pew mates and cousins of varying degrees shared love and memories of mother Muriel, over sliced ham sandwiches, macaroni salads, cole slaw and spreads of indescribably delicious potluck dishes, candles burning on every table and counter—as the tears and tributes flowed from every direction.

           I barely knew these people anymore, yet could but marvel at the range of folk she had so humbly touched and/or enriched. Perhaps the only faces missing from this woolen coat, shiny suited ensemble were Kay and Arnold Rosen, tacitly uninvited despite their most generous encomium. While Melissa was quietly excused from duty for her own unassuming sake.

             “I’ll always remember how funny she could be, said Uncle Liam, slapping ham slices to rye.“Like her Fibber McGee and Molly thing—how she’d mock Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve back then.

          “Or that she was just as big a fan of the Goldbergs in those days,”  Auntie Florence added, handing him the mustard.

          Fibber who? These anecdotes from a kitchen klatch reminded me how unusually older my parents were when I came along. Mom had been sickly for so long, a family physician had advised her not to be risking pregnancy. Then came the war, the doctors’ draft, and another, an OB type, had taken over her case. And after some postwar regimen and treatment, he determined that a single childbirth was worth the risk, weaker sperm counts or no.

          So I often felt rooted in a different time and frame; I came along later, so tended to start things…later. Beginning early on, I’d fretted at the sound of every fire siren for Willow Grove’s volunteer force, that their ambulance was coming for my fragile, gray-haired mother. And on one holiday occasion, they actually did, responding to her head-cracking fall on some sidewalk ice—pulled me out of gym class, grade school to emergency room.

          It was a Christmas and New Years my father and I spent alone: woeful tree, eating out, saying very little to one another, save for visits to her hospital bedside. Otherwise, he habitually let her do the talking, except when major decisions arose, or he came home loaded to the gills.

          Thus the highballs he and some of the blokes had started tossing down around the funereal dining room table brought back similar bouts when the dour, reserved Scot in him would deign to drink and mix it up with Mom’s more ‘looby’ Irish kin (yeah, you know, gotta look out for them shifty micks…).  These were the lubed, lugubrious evenings when I begrudged him the most, mom keeping her distance, gesturing me to zip it—steeping tea, chain smoking and rolling her eyes.

          So now, as even the tipsy family laggards had staggered out under the weight of their laments and slobbering recollections, I went about snuffing the scattered candles, commencing the clean-up detail. Between trips to the kitchen and garbage cans, I kept tabs on my dad, still sitting there at the dining room table, sipping at some warm Meister Brau, looking lost as Tornado Alley after a twister had passed through. The night wearing on toward 2400 hours, I paused to ask him if there was anything I could get him, how he was holding up. But apparently my timing couldn’t have been worse.

          “Yah, bring you mother back to help me here, that’s what,” he slurred, tossing down the rest of his beer, slamming his pilsener glass against the snack cluttered table. “But you can’t do that, now, canya…”

          “Uh, no, dad—that I can’t do,” I busily scooped up the few potluck-smeared plates and platters the gathered hadn’t already so mourningly help remove. “But I wish more than anything that I could.”

          “Well, you sure had no trouble taking her away, now did ya, mister know-it-all.”

          “Come on, you know I was only…”

          “Only forcing me into a hair-brained scheme that killed her,” he cried, relighting his pipe. “My wife would still be here today you’d left well enough alone! And that’s the god’s honest truth!”

          “But she wasn’t well enough.” I stormed into the kitchen, arms loaded with a sinkful of dishes and party debris. “You heard what the doctors said, as well as I did. Something had to be done, dammit, that tough decision had to be made around here!”

          “Hmph, around here,” dad said, pouring another round of Brau as I returned to clear the table. “She was everything to me around here…what am I supposed to do around here now? Or around this damn neighborhood at that?!”

          “Why, from what mom told me, you should feel right at home in Chicago Lawn these days, especially in Marquette Park.” There I went, blurting again without forethought. “And maybe you should have figured that out when your were belittling her all these years.”

          “What was that? Is this about her and her blamed religion? I don’t know what she ever told you about me, son, but I’ve never meant anybody any harm by it. Only my way of needling a little, that’s all—spouting off a bit after hearing all the nagging and paying the bills. Just remember, a man makes decisions and takes the heat because he’s the one who has to make them. Maybe now you’re finding that out for yourself…”

          “Nevermind…” I plowed past scattered furniture toward the living room with a turquoise Tupperware dishpan. What the hell, go blaming this on me, for chrissake…

          I rationalized that maybe it was just the booze talking, to quell any further unwise-ass damage on my part. Whatever, the image of my father sitting there so hapless and hopelessly empty frightened me to the quick, although I wasn’t quite sure why at the time. I set aside the pan before tackling a parlorful of used goblets, napkins, dishware and ashtrays, seeking a refreshing blast of cold night air.

          What with everything going on, we hadn’t checked the mail for a day or two, reason enough to head downstairs for the front doors. A turn of the postal key opened a slot jammed with junkmail and several envelopes—condolence cards mostly. But then there was an oversized pink mailer that once again had been forwarded to me by way of Boulder. This one was postmarked from San Francisco, the return address reading, Sydney Mendel.

sr dingbats

          “And you think this is the solution?”

          “Uh, yes—under the circumstances…”

          “I can imagine what you’re going through now, your mother, and all…”

          “I want to thank you for the floral piece, by the way.”

           Sydney’s card was actually an invitation to Destiny. That was the theme for an exhibition of her latest paintings, to be held in downtown San Francisco in the weeks to come—her Sutter Street gallery opening slotted for the end of the month. The mailer itself was a glossy coated white 18-point affair with vivid color reproductions of two recent works, nicely frame bordered and drop shadowed to the right.

          The front cover displayed ‘Rabbits At The Rail’, a dog track motif likely inspired by her Florida days, only with jackrabbits chasing a small mechanical mechanical whippet. Gracing the back panel, rather provocatively so, was her finished portrait of Marin’s Aimee Pellimore.

          Collated inside the invite was a hand-written note brooking my presence in no forgiving terms. Syd breezed on about how long nights by her lonesome in Athren’s studio, what with everybody back east, had yielded this career-boosting one-woman show. She’d said that everything else was going fantabulously for her out there, as though nothing had ever happened otherwise.

          She somehow knew I was working in advertising, wrote that I would drive a Mercedes one day. She wished I could make it to her gala opening—but understood I would be much too busy working on big-time deals. Still, Syd PSed that she had something ‘really juicy family-wise’ to tell me about that would literally blow me away sometime one of these days, whatever that meant.

          Her sign-off included a new return address, with a tiny sketch of the Golden Gate Bridge, the word, ‘Bygones’ passing underneath. Her entire package was scented and clearly sent from a different time zone, if not planet, one I was being welcomed, if not challenged to explore. She mused as how she had once envisioned us growing gracefully old together, no matter how long she’d have to wait. And how long ago that seemed by now.

          I had sort of expected a sweet-smelling invoice, but not an all-in voice like this. How, what—was this some kind of bunny trap? Nawww, why would she even bother? Best ever—wonder if she said that to all the guys. Still, I could not say Sydney’s invitation hadn’t grabbed my attention, turned my head 360 degrees around at dizzying rate, particularly that bodily scent. Off-guard couldn’t begin to describe my gut reaction; disembodied was more the guilt-unforsaken rage.

           “Yes well, we take care of our own here,” said Ralph Desman. “I just want to make clear the ramifications of a decision like this. I have, after all, gone out on a limb to open some doors for you, now haven’t I…”

           “Of course you have, sir,” I said, handing him my typed memo, formalizing things. “And don’t for a moment think I don’t appreciate your faith in me.”   Out FBC office window

          “Then what in Hades is this all about, Herbert?” Desman drew one last puff on his Meerschaum, setting the pipe aside into an Algonquin Hotel ashtray. “As far as I’m concerned, you’ve been coming along swimmingly here on the 16th floor.”

          “I thank for that, really—which is what makes this so difficult. I folded my hands, fighting an anxious urge to take the letter back. I just have some personal things I must take care of, and it’s going to take some time…”

          “Very well, but a man carries his own baggage, wherever it is he goes,”  he rose from behind his desk, shaking his head in disbelief. “Tell you what, we’ll leave the door open a crack for you here. We’re always on the lookout for good long-form copywriters.”

          “Thank you so much, Mr. Desman, you don’t know,” I pumped his soft-form hand.

          “Check in with personnel, and clear out your office,” he seated himself, grabbing some storyboards for a :30 floor wax commercial. “But the desk and typewriter stay here, if you please. We’ll carry on nevertheless…”

“Will do, sir. All best to you and Forrester, Blaine. Hope to work with you again down the road,” I said meekly, closing a door or two behind me, for better or worse.

sr dingbats

          “I’m doing just fine. Why is everybody so concerned about how I’m doing lately?”

          “Everybody?”

          “Yes, everybody. I got another call from Faith Mendel asking about me and catching up on things. Then Lester goes ringing me up again, all the way from his goofy farm like I’m on my deathbed, or something…oops, sorry about…”

          “That’s un-real, Moon…but the Mendels?”

          “Tsk, it’s nothing, past history. Anyway—how are you holding up?”

          “Me? Aww, not too bad, under the circumstances…”

          “Well, at least you’ve got your work to take your mind off your mother situation, and thank you for the dinero, by the way,” Melissa said, acknowledging a money order I had sent her, finally squaring my little debt. “That’s what’s so great about Chicago. What else is there to do here but work hard and build something good and solid?”

          I had skulked down through Pioneer Court, taking one long, departing glance at the Equity Center, office supply filebox in hand. With severance aforethought, I’d driven in, finding to my amazement an on-street parking place on E. Illinois in nearby Streeterville.

           Having packed the box into the back hatch of my ailing Volks, I drifted up to Michigan Avenue once again, with a newfound admiration for the august beauty of the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower, all these other formidable downtown hi-rises—yet all I kept picturing was that fascinating pyramid on the San Francisco skyline. I buttoned up my new fleece jacket over to the Magnificent Mile, a cold, cold Chicago winter, springtime taking the long, hard way around, such a far chant from Aimee Pellimore and her sunny, mellow Marin.

          This friction precipitated an inboard debate along the way up to City front Plaza, voices rattling around my mucous runny melon like honeydew balls in marzipan. Not to overthink it, but what was with the quick decision—snaaap, really, autonomic fight or flight? Settled and settle or good to go? Going swimmingly, or afraid of sinking? Like taking chances, taking on the negative fears? Were you some kind of budding aesthete or just a common choke artist? Would rational reasoning or irrational fantasies rule the day; would it be sociology in practice or salesmanship in print—Skokie or the shock troops—bounty or baggage, can’t or Kant? Abject nihilism or Nietzchean service to the higher man? Nodding to Bob Gelvart or Parker Hodicott or Hal Saversohn?  This was giving me nothing but impassable headaches, as was Cheap Trick’s newest number, ‘You’re All Talk’ on the FM radio. It all but convinced me I had to spring from all this insanity, get far away—even to the Flatirons or the Bay. Gotta blow town, gotta clear me some paths, starting today…

          “Uh, about that, Moon,” I said hesitantly. “There’s been a little change there at Forrester, Blaine. I’ve kinda taken a leave of absence.”

          “A leave? Of your senses?!”

          “No, I’ve thought this through. It wasn’t an easy decision, but there were just some dynamics at the agency that…”

          “So, how do you figure that helps our cause? You’d better get up here so we can talk this out…maybe it’s not too late to take it back, don’t you think?”

          “No, it’s pretty a done deal now, Moon. I’ve cleaned out my office and everything …at least for the time being.”

          “Then how are we supposed to get our place, Kenny? I’ve registered for classes and it looks like maybe I’ve landed a day care job in Evanston. Things are really moving along here, so what are you going to do now? We’ve got to sort this out…”

          “Sort it out, my thinking exactly,” I pressed, already feeling the dark shadow of dubious infidelity cleaving between us. “First thing, I’ve decided to head back to Boulder and get my stuff out of the shed, after all. I can also get back on the road—you know, to clear my head.”

          “That’s crazy talk, Kenny. What could be so urgent in Boulder? Let it be for now, we can pick that all up later, once we’re settled in here.”

          “No, I’ve got to do this first. Christ, we never should have left Boulder in the first place. But now, there are some loose ends and things that need resolving out there, that’s all. Out and back, no biggie.”

          “What things? I know you, Kenny—better than you know you, and I know what you’ll do. This sounds like nothing but trouble,” she plained, ‘Love Is Thicker Than Water’, playing on her bedroom radio. “Tsk, there’s more going on here, I just know.”

          “So you’re saying I can’t handle this myself? I’m not just some cowering little snow-shoveling cash cow. I’ve got lots of abilities, potential—you don’t know…”

           Anyhow, friends and family: mom gone and dad alone. Dagger goddess or kinda plain? Heh, heh, come to think of it—not bad for a Southside cad: surf city, two girls for every boy. Naw, that was crazy high school talk—but what if there was a catfight over me, if they kill one another on my account? Nope, abate, switch—whichever, a guy falls in love with a woman because of how he feels about himself when he’s with her, right? What your mind wants in a grudge match with what your body wants—neither, or both? So would you be more sensitive or stiffen your spine, stoke your anger and frustration here or stifle it in freedom unbound? Aww, these women, always trying to tie down us rambler rover type, right? Peter Pan Principle, undying adolescence all the way, committing to not commit, feet as cold as the Hawk out here. Yeah, way to be, Dudley, take another fuck-up out of pity cash… 

           That thinking was really cold, all right, which had driven me to raise my core temperature over a couple of Hamm’s drafts down in the Billy Goat. There at the bar, I cast about at Royko, Kup, Ebert and the like: what was that about all the good people leaving Chicago—couldn’t tell that by here—so maybe it wasn’t the city, it was my situation, me being so subdivided and parceled out.

           Royko himself was still holding court nearby, grousing on about how his Daily News was shutting down so he had to jump to the Trib or Times. Yet better to stay in the same riverfront ‘roach motel’ newspaper building or storm the Tower than, say, bailing out to ‘the world’s largest loony bin’ in California. A half schooner in, I spun on my barstool as Studs Terkel himself happened by, stopping as if he remembered me somehow.

          I mentioned San Francisco; he spewed, don’t go feeding your neurosis in Sodom & Gomorrah. Irish, aren’t you, he asked. When I nodded, he handed me a small press clipping about this craggy old dame in Nevada who championed wild horses. Here, he’d spit aside some tip from his cigar stub, saying: go tell Mustang Maggie’s story, hack boy, try doing some good with your paper and pen. Then Studs plod deeper into the belly of the Goat.

          His challenge was enough to prompt another quick decision and phone call, but where? I downed my draft and drove north to the  Ambassador Hotels tunnel areaAmbassadors, worming down into the tunnel between Hotels, East and West, a fluorescent ambient lit passageway lined with top drawer notions, millineries and haberdashers, and a bank of discreetly quiet pay phones. If the Ambassadors were swell enough digs for Led Zep or Jagger and the Stones to ruin things, they were plenty good enough for me.

          “Snow…cow…who said you were, Kenny…what are you talking about? Is it my fault, what did I do to…”

          “You haven’t done anything, okay? It’s me—there’s just inner tensions I have to work off, some things I have to face, to own up to if I’m going to be any good to anybody. It’s a guy thing, Moon—you just wouldn’t understand.”

          “Tsk, then come up here, explain it all. I’ve found this neat little coffee shop in downtown Skokie,” she pleaded, ‘You’re In My Heart’ playing on the background stereo. “We can talk stuff out, work through it together like always. We’ve got a good thing going, Kenny—don’t do something stupid, okay? Your problem is whatever you want, sooner or later you want the other. So quit turning corners on me, will you please?”

          “That’s not true, and I don’t need you mothering all over me now. I’m not going wobbly on you, either,” I blurted, loose lips all over again. “Sorry, Moon, I’m a big boy, this is something I’ve got to face on my own terms. I can’t move forward with a part of me left hanging out west, and the last thing I want to do is hurt you…we’ll talk before I leave, okay…”

           “What are you talking about? You can’t leave me here, just like that, Kenny, noooooooo!!!”
 sr dingbats

          “Great, I hit the bull’s eye and you’re shootin’ blanks…”

          “Hey, who says I’m shooting blanks?”

          “You gettin’ away all free bird, and I’m left holding the mixed bag. Fuck, my parents find out, it’ll like to kill them…”

          “So you going to give it up, or…”

          Oops, there I went, blurting again, tongue ahead of mind/brain, minus my prefrontal cortex. But distraction had set in, Melissa’s plaintive ‘nooooo’ still echoing through me like the haunting chord  after ‘A Day In The Life’. I had pulled out of Streeterville with a minor snootful, Stud’s Billy Goat challenge ringing just as achingly in my ears.

          Steering up Michigan Avenue, wringing any heat I could out of the squareback’s vents, I more fully appreciated the magnificence of this mile, all the way past Water Tower Place, the Hancock and Playboy’s Palmolive beacon on this cold, gray day. Besides working up some powerful cognitive dissonance, I hit the Gold Coast hungry as hell for some fat local fare. Hot Dog Stand

          Putting my my taxicab shortcuts to good use, I cranked up Chicago’s brassy ‘Call On Me’ on the scratchy AM —then cut over Clark Street northward toward Wanky Weiners’ corner Vienna red-hots stand. A double chili-cheese dog and fresh-peeled fries: I was in saturated cholesterol nirvana with ‘Rubber Band Man’ on the dial. At least until I hit a brake-breaking patch of rocksalt-eroded potholes on Mohawk Street, where the weary squareback’s entire front end broke from its frame.

          So there I parked and left the Volks just short of Armitage, facing a CTA ‘L’ ride to the South Side or freeze-ass hoofing it over to Cliftwood Avenue.

          “Whoa, I shouldn’t have said that,” I muttered, having moved the conversation from my breakdown to Nathan Grimaldi‘s paternal developments, barely over the blare of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’; he always was partial to Syd Barrett. “Sorry, Nate, that was totally out of line…”

          “Forget it, no chance of that anyway,” moaned Natorious, pounding down a long-neck Carling’s in the hazy discomfort of his patchouli-incensed front room. “She’s gonna squeeze me tighter and tighter.”

          “Then you’re going to be a dad, huh? Who knows, maybe he’ll be all-pro…”

          “Yah, like maybe it’ll grow up to be president,” Nate said, reaching to change the cassette deck to his ripped side one, Alan Parsons Project’s ‘I Robot’.” Sorry about your mom, Heeb, I still remember her chocolate fudge cookies—could do some right about now. But howz other things on the Southside lately?”

          “Uh, you know, still on the march—more or less.”

          “I hear ya—can’t hang with that Nazi shit,” Nate offered me a swig of his Black Label. “Sooo, you’re hittin’ the road again, after all…”

          “Yeah, call it my western imperative, you know, just like when we used to get loaded on the Beach Boys and trunked-in Coors,” I obliged, getting a little lighter in the cranium. “Got some things to iron out…”

          “In Frisco, right? What, you made your decision at Clark and Division?”

          “No way, you’ve got me all wrong,” I huffed, noting his sly reference to Chicago’s main northside intersection of homo and sexual outside Andersonville and its fairy boys. “Closer to Clark and Armitage, that’s about where my clunker squareback just finally bit the dust.”

          “Man, from all that chasin’ around. You and your Jewish chicks…”

          “Just like you and your brown sugar,” I picked up on an out-of-sequence cut jump from the Parson Project’s ‘I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You’ to ‘Day After Day’. “Anyway, I’m just aiming for Boulder, up and back…”

          “And you need some fresh wheels,” Nathan smiled knowingly, sparking the longer of two ashtray roaches. “Well, Roscoe did leave behind his Volvo rustbox, and I’m tired of moving it around. Why don’t you futz with it a little and take that sucker?”

          “You sure?” I hit an obligatory toke. “I mean, it would just be to borrow it—in Roscoe’s eternal honor. I’d be sure to get it back to you as soon as I’ve straightened all this out.”

          “Sounds crazy to me, Heebert. Can’t see what you think’s so bad about Chicago, except that advertising crap’s too crypto-fascist for my tastes. But there’s better money to be made on the northside here, lots of it. Yah, just gimme a Dago Beef with onions, Black Label and dime bag in my crib—I’m all diggin’ it in the Rancho Triangle and Lincoln Park.”

          “What can I say, Nate? I’m a destiny manifestarian—Colorado’s calling, let alone California…”

          “Just make sure they ain’t callin’ collect…”

Care for more?

Chapter 44. Raking over some home fires, 
taking to the road, that Boulder redux proves 
too little, too late. Then after some cautionary 
toll calls, a wanton westward thrust 
meets with mounting resistance…

∞End of ‘Chicago Suite’ ∞  

“A mother complex 
this time raging fore and aft— 
sure to drive one daft.”

          “Still under?”

          “Yes, we are attempting to better stabilize her vital signs. Temperature’s moderating, but we’re specifically desiring to get her blood pressure back up.”

          “It’s sounding like my dad should be here and in on this now…”

          “Might be best, for we are increasingly concerned about both her heart, and the possibility of a stroke.”

          I had arranged to visit my mother at Holy Sacrament Hospital, and meet with a physician or two at her bedside. There she lay, in a third-floor double room, one day removed from the ICU. Sedated as a captured cougar, she was barely recognizable, what with the oxygen tent, breathing tubes and intravenous drips, glucose bags and saline solutions.

          I saw no indication whatsoever that she knew me from the bedpan orderly, but I drew comfort from just being nearby for this short while. I gently tapped her tent frame, squeezed her veiny, liver-spotted hand just below the IV needle. But the beeping monitors, medicinal smells and ever whither hospital odor of excreted bodily fluids drove me to kiss her hand and turn away to follow her doctor out of the room. We paused in the meal cart and gurney filled hallway, where he counseled me on the calculated perils immediately ahead.

          “Stroke,” I asked, glancing back in upon her critical-to-grave clinical scene. “Who said anything about strokes?!”

          “During surgery, while she is hooked up to life support,” said the cardiologist, marking his chart. “Your mother’s circulation is both constricted and distended at certain tenuous points.”

          “So her pipes are as bad off as her pump. Have you told my father about all this?”

          “He was apprised of the situation as of last evening, but not since,” nodded the physician, walking me toward the elevators, evaluating my reaction thus far. “It’s like the old family car, machinery not well maintained tends to wear out in an untimely manner.”

          “You’ll keep us posted,” I asked meekly, barely over the background clatter of intercom directives and alerts.

          “Just as soon as we are prepping to operate…and we’ll do what we can for your mother.”

          “Here’s my office number again, doctor,” I handed him a corner slip of yellow legal paper. “In the event…”

          “Yes,” the doctor tucked the paper scrap onto his clipboard. “In the event.”

          Old cars—I could relate, having nursed my squareback into a German import garage down on 63rd Street, the only metric repair shop within limping distance for some last-gasp patchwork: Any gasket and grease rack job that might enable me to wring a few more kilometers or miles out of the tired Volkswagen. Meanwhile, dad and I had commiserated over mom’s life and death circumstances: me assuring him that she would marshal all her Irish luck and pluck to fight her way back to health; he recounting all her pestering relatives who had rallied to her cause. Then came the insurance forms that needed filling out if his city employee healthcare was to cover this technically elective ordeal.

          Once we had seen tentative eye to eye over the kitchen table, he resigned himself to the back porch for a princely pipeful. He muttered that if he had it to do over again, he’d bring his wife home right now—that he’d never been cut open like this, didn’t want that for his better half no matter what.

          I instead made for the front room, just in time for ‘Mork & Mindy’ on the tube, which reminded me as how I had left so many of my books and other belongings in that Boulder cabin shed, stuff that suddenly seemed more important somehow. Next up was another ‘Streets of San Francisco’ rerun, the one featuring Detectives Stone and Keller combing Pacific Heights, Lafayette Park in particular, for some South Bay serial killer. Rang true to me, anxiously, adrenally so, especially a long shot of the park’s panorama walkway; had me squinting at the zoom-in for a lost Satalisman possibly surfacing alongside. The episodic shoot-out then made me wonder where Sydney might be about now, and whether she’d be taking that stroll with others or going it alone.

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          “So you’ve got to keep this under your hat, professional discretion, strictly hush hush … ”

          “Well, sure, why would I spill anything, much less to whom?”

          “I’m only showing you because you’ve spent some time out there yourself.”

          “That I have, not a whole lot, but…let’s just say I got a taste of the place.”

          For this late in the winter, a brutal cold wave had descended by way of Manitoba and Saskatoon. I had piled off a CTA Michigan Avenue express at the Sheraton stop amid a busload of bundled-up white collar commuters, shivering under road-worn sheepskin in the face of what Chicagoans trepidly referred to as The Hawk. Green river, Pioneer Court and surrounding skyscrapers formed a wind tunnel of sorts, wherein lake-fed blasts gained frigid force and velocity, all but airlifting pedestrians along as it barreled down Michigan Avenue, tightening its icy noose around Streeterville at the ringent shoreline curve along Oak Street Beach. Michigan Avenue Hawk

           I’d thrashed and re-stepped my way into the Iniquity Center, unbuttoning my warmest winter coat  in the elevator up to 16, where Andrea Dudic and most everyone else on the creative floor looked at me like I was there to raff through the trash baskets. Slipping into my office to trade sheepskin for sport coat, I followed Bob Gelvart’s fetching finger into his larger chamber, several closed doors downhall. There, he stood me before a large easel stand, preparing to flip over a charcoal paper cover sheet.

           “Ta da!” Gelvart uncovered the easel with a flourish, beaming like a fresh-faced cigarette sample pusher down on the Mag Mile. “My pièce de résistance…”

          “Whoa…” I was suddenly privy to Pantone colorful workups for a full-page ad, P.O.P. display poster and two-scored, six-panel brochures.

          “Only Lacey and Castalone have seen it—Larry helped me with the art,” Gelvart gloated like a newborn’s dad, stroking back his Vitalised hair. “Haven’t settled on the final killer headline yet. Am only at the rough stage, something like, ‘For Nerves of Steal’—still working on that.”

          “Well, it would just be the cherry on top…” Curiously impressed, I didn’t know what else to say at this point, but that it all was rendered so…handsomely.

          “The concept is Bandito Tequila—as the person, the legend. There’s this entire story built around an outlaw cat who once swept Mexico with his own brand of bootleg hooch. Riches, women, he had it all, until he was gunned down by revenuers near Guadalajara. His recipe died with him, until it was recently unearthed in an archeological dig—get it? Now we’re bringing that legendary rotgut back to life.”

          “Wow, what a tradition,” I scanned the blocked-in brochure copy. “Where’d you discover all this?”

          “Discover’s not the conceit,” Gelvart grinned mischievously. “Devise is more like it —right in here.”

          “How do you mean?”

          “It’s all a crock, that’s how. I dreamed it up on my Barco Lounger, one night when everybody else had cleared out. The idea first came to me on a vacation trip to Mazatlan—have quietly run with it from there.”

          “So, what about the product, the tequila itself?”

          “We’ll have a distiller cook it up,” Gelvart smacked. “Then the client can contract it out south of the border. See, the importer is based in Frisco, and the account side might actually handle it out of there. On paper, we’d do the Midwest launch, but my plan is to blow them away with the pitch, so that maybe we could land the entire national campaign. Think they’d go for it in San Fran? I’d go feel it out myself, but California and I don’t mix—I’d never get any work done out there.”

          “Dunno,” I tried to picture a snow job like this sticking around the Bay, at least as I remembered it. “Wish I could go back out there and see.”

          “So, why don’t you,” Gelvart replied, re-covering his pet project. “Because you really don’t seem totally on board here. And if you’re not cut out to be gunning for Phil Richmond’s office, what’s the point? You’ve got to want that office, speed. Me? I aim to own the place, and I’m going to see this campaign through if it kills me.”

          “Can’t say I haven’t thought about it, believe me,” I glanced out the window at a lake bordering on Zamboni territory. “But that’s water under the bridge.”

          “So why not truck out there and starve for a while,” said the more seasoned ad man. “You’ll catch on somewhere…”

          “Because it’s tough out there, that’s why,” Lacey countered, as she entered his office, today’s pantsuit finished in greener tones. “Take it from personal experience. Chicago tries to keep people here—the city works, then plays. San Francisco tries just as hard to keep people out. The Bay Area is all play, with a little work thrown in.”

          “Maybe that’s what makes it interesting,” Castalone added, joining in from next door with black turtleneck and gray wide-wale cord bells on. “Challenge-wise—kinda like New York on acid…just like Chicago’s the Big Apple on ’ludes.”

          “Sure,” Gelvart grudged, wearing his Second City pride on his double-knit tan raglan sleeve. “Just like New York is Chicago on bad smack. And it’s not Chicahgo, it’s Chicawgo. Isn’t that right, speed?”

          “Don’t ask me. All I know is I got mugged in New Yawk once…”

sr dingbats

          “We didn’t collaborate, we fought for our homeland.”

          “But you sympathized. The Vilnius killing forests, pigs’ heads and bloody swastikas at Kaunas synagogues—admit it, Lithuania and Latvia were both in cahoots with the Nazis. And what about the Ukraine and Babi Yar?”

          “Agh, you’re a bleedin’ Jewess. You think you’re the chosen people, think you’re better than the rest of us!”

          “See you on Holocaust Remembrance Day, you retarded Gestapo goons…”

          There were some things I had to sort through again, items that demanded more furious vetting and assessment. I had hunkered down, caught up significantly on my FBC inbox, and so Archer Expressed south to Chicago Lawn. Head aspinning, vapor locked, all else around Francisco Avenue having failed, I shorted and sweatshirted up for another frosty jog into Marquette Park. I could see and feel my breath like icicle daggers along Mann Drive, largely deserted until I hit the lagoon’s backstretch over on the Kedzie Avenue side.

           Again, Frank Fuhrery’s crusaders had assembled about the Redfield Drive turn, outfitted in Luftwaffe-era parkas, drab green save for the requisite red armbands. The neo’s were apparently drilling for an upcoming procession honoring Hitler’s birthday, if not to push the button on Operation Skokie up Edens Expressway north.

          By this time, they had drawn further attention from some outlier White Alliance supremos, either Michigan militia types or more RAHOWA warriors with a Baader-Meinhof complex. Slowing my pace out of chronic socio-curiosity, I could detect the presence of another small contingent from the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture over on Pulaski, cautiously exploring the nature and dimensions of this increasingly notorious movement roiling the neighborhood anew.

          Facing them off was another cell of activists from the progressive Chicago Freedom camp, mouthpiece for whom being a slight, resolute woman from the Hyde Park ward, in a maroon U of C varsity jacket and pink pedal pushers, not giving one inch to the revolting putsch men before them.

          This entire scenario was getting uglier and old, the cross-group dynamic deadlock cold, to where I wanted to brain the lot of them with a big Iron Cross. But pre-frontally throttled, I sprinted away along Redfield Drive before the squadrols arrived—slowing around the lagoon, Kanst Drive and aviator monument at California Street, back to my parents’ flat. Once again, I couldn’t for the life of me believe I had Saturned back down in Chicago Lawn, and my head was scrambling further at the very notion of somehow belonging here, veritably or vocationally.

          A running mile ventured, but nothing gained in terms of clarity, I avoided everything except Mork and Streets of San Francisco on the front room TV: dad, dinner, even the daily mail. At least until word came down from Holy Sacrament that mom was prepped and in a holding pattern for the knife: Looked like godawful decision time had come once more.

sr dingbats

            “She’s gone…long gone.”

          “But y-you said there was some time to…”

          “Time doesn’t stand still, son—even for you.”

          “Sooo, there’s no way I can…”

          “I gave you your chance, didn’t I? But I couldn’t sit still on a beaut like this. The young woman came along, loved the place, no dilly-dallying—settled the deal on the spot. Put it all down in cash within an hour. Like my dear, departed husband used to joke: ‘Are you good at making decisions? Well, yes and no’,” said Mrs. Tovello, on a snowy phone line. “Sorry, but she made a quick decision, try it some time.”(CLICK).

          One door left slightly ajar, another door slammed. I really didn’t know where I stood with Forrester, Blaine at this point, and maison Eugenie was back in the bottle. Then, another pressure drop and a sudden build-up of fluid in mom’s charred lungs pushed the pause button on her scheduled surgery—which, given everything, prompted me to hit a fast forward button of my own.

          Decisions, yeah, try it sometime. But what was I supposed to do about this now? Can’t live there, sure as hell can’t stay here, especially when I might have been a whole lot better off out there. Skokie, West Rogers Park—how does that square with the jerks circling around Marquette Park’s lagoon? Anyway, what good does a studio walk-up do if Moon’s baking a bun. Mom, dad—motherhood, fatherhood, for chrissake! God forbid, how’s that supposed to work if I can’t hold a job you’re not sure you’re even cut out for, speed? You want that corner office, even if it kills you? But what if you don’t want to be cornered by that office?! Are you writing your own script here, or just following one by or for somebody else? Do you have character, or are you just a pathetic caricature of your sad, sorry self?

          My brain felt like it was slapping back and forth against my cranial hockey boards. Really, time for détente, a little summit of the principals, a meeting of the interested minds—the party or parties involved—right around dinnertime, after a few hours at FBC, pounding out brochure copy, provided she was willing to meet me halfway.

sr dingbats

          “So, then they said I could even register for summer session, isn’t that great?”

          “Wow, you’re really on top of it, huh?”

          “See, things are all coming together so fast for us here.”

          The halfway point was Vercelli’s, a thoroughly Chicago-style postwar-born pizzeria on Dearborn Street, just off Huron. The deep-dish delight was housed in one of the dwindling stand-along brick stick Victorians on the rapidly redeveloping Near North side, red/white/green striped awnings on its vertical windows, dormered attic crown cast in Sicilian flat black. Inside, the décor was rather retro Italian metro: stamped metal ceiling, checkerboard tile trimmed against mahogany-stained panel and exposed brick walls lined with framed prints of the boot heel and Sardinia. Primo Pizzaria

          We caught a table toward the rear, under a display shelf of culinary awards, roundball trophies and various Corsagna and Venetia kitsch from the old country. Among Vercelli’s Eisenhower-era anachronisms were diner-style chrome jukeboxes on every table; we were seated by a harried, white blouse on black-skirted waitress, to the stereo piped-in tune of ‘You Light Up My Life’.

          “All?” I glanced about at upper wall relic signs from Wrigley Field and Chicago Cardinals versus Bears.

          “I got my period, Kenny—end of that story…for now, anyway.”

          “Aww, Moon, are you all right?” Better late than…relief washed over me, like the day I drew an army assignment to Germany instead of The Nam. No honey trap here; time to hold fire—for now, anyhow.

          “Tsk, I’m fine,” Melissa sighed, with something of an empty smile. “But we could still use that extra bedroom, like for a study, or…”

          “Well, for sure, Moon, that makes sense all right…” A tighter fit, closing in, closing in way too close. I took a deep sip of the wine cooler our waitress had just dropped by. Some patron over at the bar had plunked more coinage into one Vercelli’s counter-top jukeboxes, flipping through the play lists, picking of all things a couple of numbers from that aging Paul Simon dirge-a-thon.

          “I mean, with the animules and everything…”

          “Yeah, everything…back,” I blurted, out of left field—that would be the Waveland Avenue side, as ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ began tracking. “Gotta get back…”

          “We will, Kenny, we will get back to normal here real soon…just like we did in Boulder.”

          “No, I’m talking about heading back out west, getting my stuff in that shed. Out, like that…”

          “What? I told you, I’m not putting myself through that again.”

          “I know, I know. It’s mostly my stuff anyway. That’s why I’ll just go by myself…”

          “Tsk, I don’t like the sound of that, at all,” she said, stirring a sugar cube into her iced tea. “I’m thinking we’d better re-think that idea first, take in all the perspectives…”

          What made Vercelli’s pies so addictive was the buttery two inch-thick crust heaped with every imaginable topping, roasted red peppers to kalamata olives, then smothered with a gooey blanket of mozzarella cheese like snowpack on Piz Bernina. We had ordered a Primo Veggie, with the works: full-bore garden, only with feta and Romano on a nine-grain crust—all good and healthy, smiled Melissa.

          She was already spreading out a red linen napkin, so as not to stain her crème muslin tunic with chunky tomato sauce. She wore a burgundy paisley headscarf, Fay Dunaway-like, to match her ankle-length skirt. When she dressed this way, I callously pictured her years along sometimes, a bubbie in a shapeless winter coat and bubushka, not unlike my…mother, which reminded me to ring up Holy Sacrament.

          “Let me ask you something, Moon. Do you follow the news up there in Skokie?”

          “Just the local craft center articles,” she replied, as we split a field green salad with goat cheese and glazed walnuts, heavy on the blueberry-pomegranate vinaigrette. “You know I’m not a newsy kind of person.  Although dad did wrangle me into watching all four parts of the ‘Holocaust’ on his newfangled VCR. Horrifying miniseries, a real eye-opener—I mean, we never talked much about all that growing up. But why do you…”

          “Just wondering…you know, making conversation, changing the subject, so to speak,” I rambled, oblivious being better, ignorance for the best. “Forget about it, eat up—great salad, huh?”

          Still stabbing at the bowl, we were somewhat startled to see that waitress delivering drinks and a sizzling pizza pan much sooner than expected, particularly for a bustling early Saturday night; apparently we had arrived just ahead of the dinner rush. Melissa brushed off her offer to dish out two slices—professional courtesy of a kind. I just wished they hadn’t hit E3, and I didn’t have to try tuning out a ‘50 Ways…’ encore.

          “Who put this crazy idea in your head, anyway,” she asked, taking over the serving knife.

          “About the news?” I then downed some romaine with a splash of cooler, craving some sausage or pepperoni, accompanied by Simon’s blasted staccato chorus.

          “No, about heading back out west.” Moon expertly cut the small pizza into trim quarter slices, feeding me a sample bite across the table.

          “Me, I did—all by my lonesome, who else?” At least the tune changed to spoony Peter Frampton, but that didn’t stop ‘I Did It For Your Love’ from replaying through my memory track.

          “That’s what I’d like to know,” she frowned, placing two sticky quarter wedges methodically on our respective plates like she was back serving her steak and kidney pie in our Boulder cabin—those Coach Light meatier days, how long ago was that? “You’re not going wobbly on us again, are you?”

          “Wobbly? Me? C’mon, you know me, no chance of that…” I took to counting the tulip-bulb shaded overhead lighting fixtures, reflecting off that medallion copper ceiling, shadowing the long, now-packed room, ‘Baby, Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me’ next playing, C6.

          “I never forget that our relationship has been built on no strings or expectations from the start. But I just feel this is an ill-advised venture, all the way around. I mean, we’ve got to keep you up on the balance beam, don’t we?”

          “Aww, it’s just something I’ve been pondering, Moon—purely hypothesizing. No need to get all bent out of shape over it,” I said, watching her tuck all that string cheese neatly around my pizza wedge, as I struggled to close the window on Simon’s ‘You’re Kind, so kind’, now coursing through my basal ganglia. “Besides, I’ve got enough on my mind, with my mom, and all.”

          “Tsk, don’t you think I understand how scary her situation is. I mean, it’s not like I never went through something like this with my own mother when I was a fifth your age. I just want to make sure you don’t go bananas over it,” she did the same with her slice, nicely tidy and…triangular. “So, when’s surgery now?”

          “If I only knew,” I sighed, picking off some eggplant and caramelized onions, mom seeping like low-fat balsamic into my head. “But great ’za, huh? But we don’t have to eat it all here. You’ll be wanting to doggie bag some of it with you?”

          No, you go ahead,” she said, sucking on a plum tomato, her knee rubbing up against mine. ‘Do You Know Where You’re Going To’ began tracking, J7. “I can make even better pies myself, remember?”

         I took her up on that, asking our passing waitress to sack me two remaining slices as Melissa and I finished off our drinks. I moved over to the cashier to cover the check, but Moon insisted on calculating, leaving the tip—sisterly holdover from her Coach Light Inn days. We emerged onto Dearborn Street through what by now had become a half-block wait line around the corner on west Huron.

          Wed found a tight little pre-rush parking space for her Toyota, and she offered to drive me back to where she had picked me up: the taxi zone outside Pioneer Court. I coaxed an extra couple of stops over on State Street, on the verge of becoming a mall, where I could connect with an Archer Owl bus to Chicago Lawn. En route, we caught up on some Seamus and Pags, how well the pets were acclimating under the circumstances, and that her father was genuinely taking to my Setter.

          I didn’t know whether that was good or bad news at the moment, being more preoccupied with how cold and windy it had once again turned here near Lake Michigan. I lingered with her a bit at the corner of Madison Street, across from Louis Sullivan’s tendriled black cast iron and terra cotta façade of Carson, Pirie, Scott, advising her how to swing around again at Dearborn, grabbing Ontario Street to the Kennedy Expy and Edens north back to Skokie. Part of me wanted to ride along with her, yet a slightly more assertive voice had me low tailing it south to Francisco Avenue.

          “You going to be okay?” she asked, turning down the ‘Have You Ever Been Mellow?’ as I leaned over to rub her shoulder. “I miss us…”

          “Me too, but I think it’ll all sort out—one day at a time…”

          “Tsk, this is all so weird and unnecessary, you know.”

          “Weird isn’t the word…” I kissed her softly, then opened the car door, resigned to slip sliding away, Primo sack in hand, to the sidewalk saunter streams, though not entirely sure why—looking for a sign, any sign: CTA bus stop would do.

          “Then tell me, Kenny, what is?”

Care for more?

 Chapter 43. An untimely passing, then the 
taking of an ill-conceived leave. Breaking 
the news of an abrupt change of plans 
hastens a breach with the dearly departed…

 “Blind by petty climb 
ambition can breed contempt— 
on ladders wrung dry.”

           “Opens up easily, does it?”

           “Easy does it, like a charm….”

           “That’s important, with my schedule and responsibilities now. Any other kinks or complications I should know about?”

          “Just routine stuff for one this age. Believe you me, she’s right up your alley…”

          “I-I-I’m not much into alleys anymore.”

          With so many things seemingly heading south of late, I’d decided to explore possible domiciles back up north—Near North, though it was. After six straight days of long FBC nights, I began my Sunday troll in and around Lincoln Park, then fanned out toward the Eugenie Triangle, on the old, homier side of Old Town. I was idea depleted, copywritten off, exhausted from all the traffic particulates, and a mite exasperated with the Ashland Avenue Express. So I slow crawled my ailing squareback eastward on W. Eugenie Street, along bare, tree-lined rows of workingman cottages and bungalows dating back to the rebuilding explosion in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire.

          Most were tidy two-story relics snug to the sidewalk with round pipe railings—no room for even a scouring pad-size front yard, and it looked as though extended families had owned them for generations. Then, beyond Orleans and Sedgwick, a tiny red ‘For Let’ sign popped up just short of Hudson Avenue, in the ground floor window of a strangely incongruous brown two-unit box, fully face front to the walkway, which appeared to be more a chopped up former storefront and upstairs apartment than any sort of single family home.  Eugenie place

          The landlady, Mrs. Olivia Tovello, was a bit cagey about the history/provenance of the place as she led me upstairs through a doorway to the right side of the facade. I could envision it being a carbonic neighborhood pop shop or gin mill turned Bugsy speakeasy with a second story love nest or card room in  the bad old days, as in Dillinger and his Biograph Theater showdown.

          Still, the upstairs digs were plenty promising for a small efficiency: front room looking out on some budding oak and elm trees, kitchenette about the size of a Fridgidaire and crockpot, with a half-ass bath fit for a Fieldcrest or Cannon King. Plus, the Sunday go-to-purgatory church was just down the street, she said in her floral print housecoat, pointing toward the soaring brick steeple of St. Michael’s Church. Taken together with a reasonable rent, it was just the ticket for a freestyle studley about town—much less someone like me—yet a little too tight for two…or more.

           “Well, you better move quick on this little gem,” she said, after explaining that she herself lived in the converted main floor one bedroom—with its smallish front windows where swinging doors or fruit baskets and Sealtest ice boxes used to be—so as to be on top of any sudden repairs. “I got other nibbles.”

          “Uh, I’ve a few things to sort out, have to shuffle some situations around,” I hedged, noticing slight rust stain traces on the crackled porcelain. Nevertheless, the place was prime for internal discussion, surprisingly so. “By tomorrow okay?”

          “Up to you,” shrugged the landlady, straightening her blushing pink hair net as she ushered me back downstairs. “It’s your funeral…”

           There I left things, albeit with mixed emotions, promising a follow-up phone call, widow Tovello saying, ‘yeah, yah’ through her own storm-windowed aluminum door. Driving back through the more poshy pre-Fire Old Town Triangle toward Lincoln Park and North Avenue, I figured that I liked her place and price enough to call it a day search-wise. So what was the point, right? Righhttt…

          But a hospital call from a pay phone near the Historical Society updated me that I had a radioactive family situation to deal with. Mom had undergone a complete battery of tests, and physicians have determined that she had a 55-45 prospect of surviving invasive surgery, that final pre-op decisions had to be made, in a life or death matter of time.

          With that, I pulled off in the squareback, heading for LaSalle Street’s sequenced greenlights and an expressway relay race southward to Chicago Lawn. But somewhere between the Dan Ryan and Adlai Stevenson, my Volks began showing fatal symptoms of its own. Never truly aligned, its front end started shimmying uncontrollably at these higher speeds, while the miles-worn fuel injection faltered worse than in Great Basin days. The bugger got me to Francisco Avenue all right, but who knew where from there?

          “We have to do this, dad,” I said, as we sat on the living room sofa, reading over a pre-surgery schedule I’d just picked up at the hospital. Mom was scheduled to go under the knife by week’s end. “We have to do this for her…”

          “Dang, how’d I let you talk me into…”

          “I’m only looking out for mom, for us, dammit!” I glanced at a Chicago Lawn throwaway, one of its front-page articles noting that the body in Marquette Park’s lagoon had been identified as from Englewood and that the youth’s killers were suspected to have ties to a bloodthirsty new Cobra offshoot of the old Blackstone Rangers…this one being none of my business…

          “She ain’t up to this operation, I’m telling you,” he scooped the bowl of his pipe and reached for some Prince Albert. “I know what she wants, I know what’s best for her. Here, you come back in out of the blue, mister college know-it-all!”

          “That’s got nothing to do with it, dad. This it just common sense…she doesn’t stand a chance any other way, I’m telling you.”

          “Well, we’ll just see what makes sense now, won’t we?” He fired up his pipe with a matchstick, lighting out for the kitchen and adjoining back porch.

          “Dad, c’mon, I…” My voice trailed off in the void, as I felt the weight of the decision I had pressed upon us. Another pointless glance at the local newspaper found a below-the-fold tint box sidebar that Frankie Fuhrery had won Marquette Park clearance for continued Neo-drilling, so long as his gatherings followed agreed-upon limits as to size, timing and provocative displays.

 sr dingbats

           “When in doubt, you dummy…”

           “No, hey, that’s way too rough…”

           “We’ve got the layout, we’ve got the art. But mostly we’ve got a deadline. So let’s dummy the sucker in.”

           Another long week began in Larry Castalone’s office, mustered around his design board, piecing together a workup on the first of Ritz-Carlton’s half-page ads. The junior art director had pasted up a screened halftone, dummied copy blocks and hotel logo, bordered with slim 1.5-point rule lines. All that remained was the headline, which precipitated this qualitative difference of creative opinion. He was thinking visual, ruffling his red curly hair in impatience, arguing for plugging in what we already had on hand. I was thinking verbal, however, and that meant dropping in one of my first-draft headlines on the Ritz café. Admittedly, I was loath to hang the fate of this stylish advertisement on my off-head jottings, but his Big Apple-rebound tenacity overruled the room.

           Outside my next-door partner’s office, the 16th floor was relatively quiet early on, the latest buzz being that ChicagoOne had just bought into a revised bank campaign, full-page ads to counter cards, although details of the winning concept had yet to water-cooler wash over the department.

          “You see the message,” asked Castalone, sticking to his old-school process of press-on typing the LetraSet demo headline wording onto his layout, consonant by vowel.

          “That blue note?” I was a trifle chagrined that he was feathering in that ‘Café Society’ stinker. “What do you know about it?”

          “I’m the one who dropped it in your inbox,” he checked display text alignment with his sliding rule bar. “There’s some craptrap going around the floor about certain personnel, you and me included.”

          “What…craptrap?

          “Was getting some coffee Friday afternoon, you know? Happened to overhear Desman jawing with Phil Richmond before he shuttled back to New York…”

          “Hell, I never even got to meet the big dog before he…”

          “Well, Phil knows all about us,” Castalone said grimly, punctuating the provisional café headline with a burnisher and mallet. “Ralpharoo told him he was concerned about my pacing and production. Richmond told him to start reviewing designer portfolios again—see, what’d I tell you? It’s dog eat hound around here, and I’m about to be eating Rival…”  Pioneer Court

          “Aww, maybe you misheard them or something,” I grumbled, “like, they’re just trying to keep you on your toes.”

          “No chance, Hemingway, and that wasn’t the half of it,” he rubber cemented a tissue overlay atop the hotel workup. “Phil had something to say about you. He said he’d been watching you from a distance. That he was questioning your professional comportment, whether you were cut out for this world, would be a true FBC team player—even wisecracked that grad school had let out, and who was dressing you these days.”

          “Huh, then why didn’t he say that to my face?”

          “That’s not how it works here. But it wasn’t just about dress code. Richmond also hinted that he saw you as an awkward fit right now. That Chicago’s demographics are changing and you’re a little too white-bread to adequately reflect that reality.”

          “He said that?!”

          “Can you believe it? He went on about affirmative action and equal opportunity, that he had a black copy wunderkind over at Leo Burnett he was looking to lure away once he returned from FBC’s New York conference.”

          “Well, that’s beyond my control, that’s for sure,” I muttered, wishing I’d quickly re-written that Ritz café headline. “I guess all I can do is keep my head down and working on what they’ve given me until I hear otherwise.”

          “That’s what I’m doing, but at least they’ve issued you an actual nameplate, mine’s still just in magic marker,” Castalone said sarcastically, removing the hotel ad workup, sheathing it with the tissue overlay, placing the bluelined mechanical board into a large intra-agency envelope. “I’ll pass this along to Parker Hodicott, with a little luck, he’ll sign off and kick it along.

          “I’ll get back to the copy for those other pieces,” I deflated, ready for a visit to the coffee room myself.

          “Whewie, dressed for success again, are you,” asked Lacey Abbott-Tanzer, passing by as Castalone slipped out his door, bound for the other wing of the floor. The account exec snapped down on her diet gum, running her finger under the lapel of my only sport coat. “Early Robert Hall?”

          “Why do you ask?” Already steamed over the art director’s recounting of corner office events, I  wondered whether she was just abreast of this creative department undertow, or actively abetting it. “Can’t wait to boot my Cro-Magnon ass out of here, huh?” Couldn’t believe I just said that to her, here.

          “Not quite yet,” she smiled breezily, gliding Desman’s way. “Then again, a woman’s work is never done.”

          “Well, sorry but I have some ads and a pile of collateral to get back to,” I turned in the opposite direction, toward my closed office door.

          “That would be well advised,” she teased, over her red pantsuit’s padded shoulder. “But at least you might be pleased to learn that our ChicagoOne Bank revamping was a major hit with the client. And they really went for our hooky new tagline…”

          “You mean despite the bonehead blurting from a blabber mouth like me? So, what did you all come up with?”

          “Touché,” she paused, tossing me a copy of the bank’s marketing plan. “In any case, it turned out to be something quite clean and simple: ‘At ChicagoOne, You’re The One’.”

 sr dingbats

          “Yes, I just need another day or two to pull together the deposit, first and last, Mrs. Tovello, I’m hoping you’re willing to extend me a bit more time,” I said, pounding the IBM keys, phone cradled against my shoulder. “Of course, I know this is a gamble, however I want to start out on the right foot with you. Oh, thanks so much…” CLICK.

          The last of the ad copy for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel insertions was rolling through the carriage of my Selectric II, at least as good as I could get it at this stage, and I was fixing to hit Mr. Coffee again when my extension rang. It was late afternoon, and Melissa was on the line with some pointed questions and updates. Not that I had a great deal of spare concentration to draw upon, but proceed we did, the typewriter humming away like a low-grade dental drill. After exchanging wary pleasantries, I mentioned my shadow contribution to the ChicagoOne campaign.

          “But they do have to acknowledge where the slogan came from at some point, don’t they,” Melissa asked, as if attempting to read my facial expression over the transom. “So, where did it come from?”

          “I dunno, Moon. These things, they just pop into your mind. It’s almost mysterious, never know when—hard to explain…”

          “You mean, for an uncreative crafty like me…”

          “No, hey, that’s not what…”

          “Sure it’s not, Kenny. Anyway, good news,” she gushed. “I’ve already enrolled in a pottery lab here in Skokie. That’s not all. I’ve also come across a dreamy two-bedroom apartment in West Rogers Park, near Loyola. That way, we can be right near the lake and not too far from my dad, only a stone’s throw away, and my bubbie is getting on in years. So that’ll make him happy, too…we’ve been catching up a lot lately.”

          “Wow, that is…good news,” I clenched,  turning off the typewriter for better absorption. “Bet it’s real pricey…”

          “No, that’s what’s so amazing. Now that you’re making the big bucks, I’m sure we can handle it between the two of us. So you’ve got to get up here lickety-split so we can take a good look together.”

          “Lickety-split,” accent on the split, I fiddled with some white-out on a couple of sudden typos. “Well, I’m on tight deadline, Moon, but let me see if I can juggle my schedule a little. I’ll call you a bit later, how about that?”

          “Juggle away, Kenny, and let me know as soon as you can,” Moon said firmly, as if we were still in Boulder, and she was dragging me out of the sack for an 8 a.m. seminar. “Then I can set us up an appointment.”

          “Sure, Moon, I’ll get right on that, okay? Hi to the animules…”

          “Sooner than later, Kenny. We’ll be waiting…talk shortly.” CLICK.

          Two bedrooms—what’s with the two bedrooms? Ohhh, shit! I yanked a barely typed sheet for the Symphony ad, tossed it aside, then fed a new blank into the roller. Looked like she was telegraphing me that ‘late’ no longer adequately covered the status report. Making big bucks? Hell, here I was hanging by a thread, on industry minimum wage. We’ve really got to go over this whole situation, she and I; things are moving too quickly here, we have to hashover the scenarios, explore all the possibilities, gain some broader perspective. Make her dad and bubbie happy? All well and good, but Skokie, now? Just as such repercussions were sinking in like ice water in my eyes, came a quick triple-knuckle knock on my door.

            “Hey there, speed, how goes it,” Bob Gelvart opened wide, self-styled dashing in his brushed denim blazer over sleek Champagne sateen vest and slacks.

          “Where’ve you been,” I asked sullenly.

          “Gelevanting up the North Shore, where else,” he tapped my inbox, still piled high. “On location in a Kenilworth mansion for a Hendley Furniture TV spot—you know, the big-time national broadcast stuff—where the models and movie stars are. Play your words right, maybe you’ll get there some day.”

          “Wouldn’t know about that personally. But good news on the ChicagoOne front, right?”

          “The A-team was on the case,” he chortled, moving the box aside so he could plop his broad khaki beam on the corner of my desk. “Would you expect anything less?”

          “Winning tagline for the whole campaign, huh? Wonder where that idea came from,” I ventured, fishing for some sort of kudo or avowal.

          “Ah, ideas—they’re just out there, particles floating in the stratosphere. You just have to pluck them out of the air,” Gelvart said, folding a paper airplane out of my discarded sheet, sending it aloft, targeting my office window. “Anyway, the reason I stopped by was that I received a call from Parker Hodicott at O’Hare. He said his flight out of JFK was super delayed, and that he’s running late. He wants you to meet him down at the Billy Goat to massage some re-writes in an hour. You know, the Goat. As in Belushi, the Olympia Café—Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger…”

          “Dunno…don’t watch much television, to tell you the truth…”

          “Who admits to it anymore, right? Well, I’m off—got a hot new campaign to get back to. Top secret, a real jaw-dropper. But stop by and bear witness to true advertising genius when you get the chance, see how it’s done at the Clio level…this baby’s going to win me a corner office…”

          “Will do, soon as I break…free.”

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          “Just remember, their message is the message,” said Parker Hodicott, senior copywriter, numerous years in grade. “You’ll want to keep it tight, make it punchy, get your USP up front, because that’s the only thing they likely will bother to read.”

          “Tight, punchy,” I nodded, shuffling through my typed sheets like they were overstuffed precinct hit jobs.

          “Now, a little atmospherics can be warranted on these softer, more indirect institutional assignments—to bait the hook, but you must sell the proposition, hit marks consciously and subconsciously, reward them for their interest, rouse them to action, before they turn the page.”

          “That’s not what I’m doing here, or…”

          There was a windy chill in the air at the foot of North Michigan Avenue, but not so much in the weather underground. I had descended riverside esplanade steps to the bowels of Lower Mish. A continuation of Wacker Drive’s winding Emerald City aside the Chicago River, designed in the Roaring 20s for commercial through traffic, delivery vans to tractor trailers serving businesses along the way.

           A scenic route, it wasn’t, but it helped to keep diesel fumes under the showier wraps—the narrow two-way lanes of this dark, ever-clotted aqueduct-style artery were bordered by a series of thick concrete standards supporting the drive’s upper deck, nicked and gouged as they were by rigs backing in and out of tightly crammed loading docks. I’d seen most of it in my race-around cabbing days, although never quite connecting with the blazing neon signage just beyond a dim cavern below the Wrigley Building.

           “No, no,” Hodicott countered, skimming my rough draft for Ritz-Carlton’s weekender suites. “You’re waxing on, far too florid. You’re not conveying the client’s story for their glorification. You’re communicating their story to the prospective customers or patrons—that’s the bull’s-eye.”

           “So you’re saying this copy is all a bust…”

           “What I’m saying is, you need to pay-off an attention-snaring headline straight away. Shorten these sentences, streamline the syntax, try some fragments for pacing, fine-tune the cosmetics and modifiers. Cut out the colons and semi’s—this is paid advertising, not a dissertation. Marry your copy to the visual. Make it sing, but stick to your word counts, and close the deal with a meat cleaver of a pitch.” He ashtrayed his Lucky Strike, then slugged into his happy hour choice: Malort Manhattan, with a twist.

           “Florid, fat,” I wavered, deflating against the stiff green back cushion of my metal-framed chair. “And I thought my music reference stuff was body muscle…”

           Tucked between two blue and white support stanchions, amid the icy stalactites of a lingering Chicago winter, this blustery subterranean haunt’s wood-carved signage read, ‘Billy Goat Tavern, Est. 1934’. Greek immigrant William Sianis actually moved the place down here in 1964, from his Lincoln Tavern out on the west side. He was suitably goateed, all right, but the name change came earlier on, when a goat fell off a passing truck over across from Chicago Stadium and bleated into his bar. The goat became ‘Murphy’, heavy drinker that it was, and this tavern and its cart-pulling mascot burrowed in strategically between Sun-Times boxy riverside headquarters and the Tribune Tower, the latter in all its gothic glory.

           Little wonder that the place got plenty of ink from opening day, and quickly became underground zero for the newspaper crowd, spearheaded by columnist, Mike Royko, and various literary lions. More recently, the Billy Goat had gained backhanded notoriety nationwide, via John Belushi’s ‘Olympia Café’ sketch on a late-January SNL. Another neon window sign read, ‘Butt In Any Time’—so I’d done just that, sheathed copy sheets and red pencils in hand, into a packed, boisterous house going up in convoluted plumes of tobacco smoke.   Billy Goat Tavern

           I had met up with my copywriter superior at a red checker-clothed table midway along the Goat’s wood-panelled Wall of Fame, which served to light up the whole place even florescent brighter. I’d paused to soak in the nearly full-length wall, framed drawings, political cartoons, yellowing news article blow-ups and photos of ink-stained luminaries, from Colonel Bertie McCormick to Theodore Dreiser and Joe Medill, with a higher-brow tribute to Bellow and his Herzog.

           Before we dug into the rewrites, I ordered a per diem triple cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger—no fries, chips, no Pepsi, Coke before setting aside my laminated menu, souvenir material, to be sure. Parker settled on his regular rib-eye steak.

           “Long form is long form, all well and good. But if you want to pontificate, link up with Royko and his Slats Grobniks over there. FBC’s paying you by the boffo idea, not the word.” With that, the senior copywriter snuffed out his Chesterfield butt, finishing with a groan and sneezing/wheezing jag that sent him off to the head. “Never forget the adage, salesmanship in print.”

          Hodicott had pointed over to a table near the bar, where the acerbic political columnist held court, thizzoner now swapping spit heatedly with Sun-Times rival, Irv Kupcinet, as in Kup’s Column. As far as I could hear, the two opinion pols were debating eventual mayoral primary prospects for Daley darling, Jane Byrne—the Consumer Affairs head recently fired by labor union-besieged Michael Bilandic.

          Boss Royko argued that it would take more than a City Hall bombing and gravedigger strike to bury the current mayor in favor of a daffy woman challenger. Kup reminded him that Byrne was a niece of powerhouse Daley crony, Alderman Edward Burke, so there. I sipped at my fountain Coke and glanced about at Wall of Fame photo snaps and portraits of such notable news wretches as Dave Condon, Bill Granger and Edgar Munzel.

           Opposing walls held framed shots of horny Billy Goats on bar stools, cavorting behind bar tops with Sianis family and friends. One showed BG’s founder being ejected from Wrigley Field during the 1945 World Series—his goat deemed too odorus. Sianis supposedly cursed the Cubs, who hadn’t been back to the Fall Classic ever since. Even now, newer posters among the photos hailed Belushi, Murray and Aykroyd, rather than Tinkers, Evers and Chance.

           Everywhere about the barroom, news tips were being gathered, opinions challenged, smoke-filled deal struck, dirt surreptitiously exchanged. The rigor and romance of the journalism game: At once, the Billy Goat was alive with intellectual fervor, while drowning in mind-numbing alcohol and nicotine toxicity, morning edition deadlines be damned.

           “You all right, Mister Hodicott,” I asked, as he sat back down.

           “Parker to you, junior,” he cleared his throat, lighting up. “But it’s this damn stubborn virus, too many airport lounges, too much climate shift.”

           “So, you were back east for a meeting, or…”

           “Naw, I live back there, Connecticut,” he groused, stuffing his Chesterfields back into his gabardine, brown jacket liner label reading, ‘Hart, Schaffner & Marx’. “My whole family’s there, near Darien.”

           “But you work…here….”

           “Tell me about it. They’ve had me on this yo-yo routine for going on a year. Ever since the main office dumped half of the 16th floor here in a Creative Review Committee coup. So I’m Mister Fix-It, and they fixed me up but good, right out of my cozy perch at Madison and 54th—banished me to the midwest boonies here, saying I was better suited to traditional print than major broadcast anyway. As if I went to Yale and mastered in drama to red-eye shuttle a thousand miles back and forth every weekend.”

           “Hell of a crazy commute, you didn’t have a say?” I glanced up at the clock, showing late enough to where I looked to be spending another night on 16th’s reception couch.

           “I’ve got a second mortgage on a clapboard Colonial and three kids in private school—what kind of leverage is that? Plus I have no idea what my libber wife is up to in my absence, besides burning through my paychecks, that is. So I hole up at a small hotel over on Delaware Place during the week and write whatever drek they tell me, knowing I’m disposable at a moment’s notice,” he lamented, as our per diem platters arrived. “You, too, can become a lean, mean writer or a big fat hack—the choice is yours. But if I were you, I’d get your ass out while you still can.”

          “Cleaver of a closing pitch you’ve got there, Parker…but I wouldn’t exactly say you’re overweight.”

 Care for more?

Chapter 42. Under the gun, under 
the knife: Then a new idea is revealed, 
while old ideas still fester, before a 
late meeting is thick with disharmony…

 ED: Scroll/Skim/or Skip (S/S/S)…

“Keen fear of failure 
dogged this climb from the start—
ink pen to the heart.”  

 

          “What are we looking at on the CPMs and CPTs on this?”

          “Hitting budget targets across the saturation buy… significantly beating the SRDS millines.”

          “You’ll get me those figures?”

          “I’ll have Media messenger them over to you by end of day, sir.”

          I fought to keep my eyes from floating over to the wraparound view, like so many ice cubes in the Perrier. My copy outbox was incrementally catching up with the inbox, to the point where FBC’s creative superiors had dragged me along to a key client luncheon with ChicagoOne Bancorp, specifically its marketing arm, amid interagency rumors that the city’s largest financial account might soon be under review. The adworld scuttlebutt had brought CD Phil Richmond scrambling back from New York, directing Ralph Desman’s bank team to beat a path over to ChicagoOne’s headquarters just off LaSalle Street on a progress/fence mending mission. Having picked up new blazer and slacks, I’d become marginally more presentable over the 13-hour days, to where Lacey and Bob Gelvart saw fit to expose me to the accounts presentable side of the business.    Chicago One Bank Bldg.

          What I hadn’t anticipated in a Checker Cab ride through the Loop was that our exercise in client contact would take us up to the 60th floor of ChicagoOne Center, the city’s tallest skyscraper inside CTA’s downtown elevated tracks—more specifically the bank’s penthouse-style conference suite. Before taking a sideline seat at the horseshoe table, I walked the full four-corner window wall tour of the cityscape like a sightseeing Effingham joskin atop Sears Tower. Yet a sunny west suburban view clear out to Willow Grove did give me perspective pause until bank Marketing Director, Theodore Sandley and two subordinates called this lofty meeting to order.

          “We will need to execute on the campaign collateral side, as well.” He shuffled through our status folder.

          “We’re already on that, Mr. Sandley,” Lacey nodded my way. “Including the display cylinders, broadside mailers, countertop cards and teller window P.O.P.”

          “I’ll also need to see your brand/message continuity on the entire creative mix…”

          “We’ll be prepared to present comps by week’s end…”

          “Keep me posted on pilgrim’s progress, Ms. Abbott-Tanzer,” said the Bancorp’s mid-career marketing director, collating his advertising reports and memos as we stood in unison the file out of the conference suite. “Forge ahead, people. Trust the lunch fare was to your liking. Now, better get good and better while the getting’s good, capische?”

          Bank on that, I thought, folding my linen napkin, along with any pretense to really grasping all the undercurrents of this high-power summit. An initial item on the agenda was lunch itself: Grecian salads, sirloin sandwiches au jus, mixed berry compote with gold foil-wrapped mints on the side. Pullman-style waiters plied us with French Roast coffee, silver trays of china creamers and honey pots; by the time Sandley tapped his water glass, the entire horseshoe was primed to herd the agenda along.

          I seconded successive refills, as several weeks of day-night marathons in the office had frayed my connective wiring. Speed reading client and account notes had taken its toll, not to mention brainstorming the hook and head, outlining the subheads and body copy, finding the tone and USP, juggling copy ‘voices’ between consumer durables and non-durables, straddling the line between denotative and connotative meaning, editing and word counting early drafts, revising and rewriting what bounced back in critical carmine red.

          More and more, I found myself wringing my brain like a Checker cab wash sponge, dozing off at the Selectric keys, pumping Joe DiMaggio strong and black, taking spooky mind-clearing riverwalk runs past Marina City and the Merchandise Mart, cat naps on the 16th floor reception area sofa, back at it come the light of day—until my head felt like a porker on a platter, mentally disconnected from all bodily reality.

          At least the role up here was simply to listen and learn, pay close attention, take some valuable notes, pick up on the context and complexities of client service, which suited me just fine. I took my turn firmly handshaking ChicagoOne’s marketing honchos, enthusiastically blurting, ‘you’re the one’, agreeing that this could really be the Cubs’ year. Then I followed FBC’s unnerved team down to a taxi ride back to the Iniquity Center, in cab number 3167, no less. “Some hoedown, huh?”

          “Let that be a lesson to you,” Gelvart said, pointing a finger toward me. “Always be ready with an answer, make sure it’s the right one. And whatever you do, keep your off-the-cuff wisecracks to yourself.”

          “That’s right,” Lacey added, after gaining a read on a Ralph Desman deep in situational thought. “Communicate what’s on their minds, not what’s on yours.”

          Little else was said between Dearborn Street and Michigan Avenue, mutterings about testy cues and murderous deadlines, with a crucial legacy account on the line. It all was beyond my workload and pay grade, so when Desman suggested I return to my other inbox assignments for now while they retreated to his office for a strategy session, I bought in with a smile and post-test measure of relief.

          Closing the door behind me, I leaned back in my chair, propped feet atop the desk and dialed my little radio up to a medley of the Silver Bullet Band. Break in the action, a mindless moment to recharge for another round of sales sheets and brochures.

          Getting a little tedious, I thought, hardly advertising at its most Hollywood groundbreaking and glamorous. But this hacking was better than that hacking, I rolled the chair over to glance down over the Pioneer Court cab zone. I’d turned in my last trip sheet, so what was not to like, right—until Andrea at the reception desk rang through to my office extension, an emergency phone call from my dad and mom’s doctor.

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          “You’re the son? Well, sorry, young man, but the tumors are rapidly metastasizing…”

          “So, what are you saying?”

          “That there’s not a lot more we can do for her that doesn’t carry serious risk.”

          “Well, what can you do?!”

          “We could go in and excise some lung, if her heart can handle it. Or attempt a major chemo or radiation regimen,” said her attending physician.  “Although I’m not sure she has the strength to withstand that, at all. We’d have to conduct full diagnostic testing first.”

          “You…we’ve got to try, don’t we?!”

          “Not according to your father…”

          Wellen’s team granted me emergency leave for the afternoon, and I grabbed a taxi to my parents’ place—Checker 3173, to be exact. Dad was already at the hospital, which thankfully stood but several blocks away. I quick changed into jeans and an Irish cable-knit sweater from the Dingle Peninsula, then cut across Marquette Park to Holy Sacrament. On the way along Mann Drive, I realized that no news updates had surfaced on the lagoon homicide; by Kanst Drive, it appeared that Frankie Fuhrery’s neo-Gestapo were back out drilling, so self-Reichously so, albeit with a smaller bootprint.

          Jaywalking against heavy California Street traffic, I tore into the hospital like a high school hurdler chasing a full-ride scholarship, meeting up with her assigned doctor outside the ICU. So briefed, I met up with my benumbed father in the waiting room. He was took pains to explain how mom had collapsed on the parlor floor into one of her pernicious coughing spells, only this one stealing her breath away, to an unconscious state.

          Paramedics had rushed her here to Emergency, where she’d been under sedation and an oxygen tent ever since, ER doctors gently advising how serious-to-critical her condition had become, that she was in no shape to be visited for time being.

          “Don’t want nobody cuttin’ into her,” my dad mumbled, as we sat hunched over on a vinyl-covered couch.

          “Her lungs are pitch black, dad. They’ve got to do something, or else…”

          “No, I said, not to my wife, they don’t!”

          “You can’t ignore this, dammit—can’t you see? My mother’s not going to make it any other way,” I fretted, squeezing his slumping shoulders, noticing as how he was bonier these days, as if having lost considerable weight.

          “Aghh, college boy,” he bit hard on the stem of his unlit pipe. “Think you know so much…”

          “Believe me, it’s our only hope,” I looked him in the eyes, which were now heavy behind taped-frame glasses. “You just have to sign the papers…”

          “I’ll do it, son, but it ain’t my doin’ no blessed how…”

sr dingbats

           “More French-Vanilla coffee, sir?”

           “No thanks, I’m fine…”

           “Interest you in a canapé?”

           “I’ll pass…”

           “We’ll return shortly with your patisserie du jour.”

           FBC strategies had changed. The ChicagoOne account being as important as it was, VP and executive creative directors decreed that a senior writer from the corporate identity/institutional division descend from the 17th floor to assume the overall bank campaign copy duties.

          That left some of Parker Hodinott’s smaller print advertising assignments flapping in the Michigan Avenue gales, beginning with a series of Chicago magazine and Stagebill program insertions for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. So Ralph Desman pulled me off the collateral slag heap to take up the textual headline and deadline slack, unspokenly on a trial by fire or be fired basis, which had me backseat cabbing like an election day ward boss down the Miracle Mile to Water Tower Place.

           I entered a new, civilized, old worldly lobby with a bronze heroned sculpture and serenely spashing fountain. My creative charge was to draw theatergoers, orchestra patrons, polo chukkars and weekend trysters to the Ritz’s traditionally deluxe, if not dowdy, suites, clubby Greenhouse bar and legendary Epicurean alimentaire, at sky-high tariffs and rates.

          First up, the hotel’s Café, which brought me to this mezzanine lounge for some ambience and research, from a quiet, bone-white table overlooking the darkly crated, cross-braced John Hancock Center and a Chestnut Street abuzz with mid-afternoon traffic. Couldn’t hear a thing, however, other than the clinking of china and crystal, the soft rustle of palms and pastoral tapestries, and a corner tuxedoed piano-string quartet playing Chopin under crystal chandeliers.          Water Tower PLace

           “Your Raspberry Charlotte, sir,”  the white-coated waiter arrived with his sterling pastry tray, being so pleasantly presumptuous as to offer forth his personal choice. “Or you are welcome to try the Buche de Noel, perhaps La Cote Basques Dacquoise.”

          “Don’t mind if I do,” I grinned, setting aside my legal pad, by now filled with bullet points, scratch notes and peripheral impressions. “How about I go for that one there, and I think that’ll do it, no check, please.”

          “By all means, sir…understood,” the cheery waiter served me the small orange dish, then turned away, winking over to the maitre d’. “Hope you’ve found the salad and everything to your liking…”

          “I’ll put in a good word or two,” I dessert forked into the Tarte au Citron, devouring it and the coffee, leaving him something of a guilt tip out of petty cash. With that, I thanked the hotel’s marketing staffer on the way out, pocketing several Frango mints, assuring her we would have a review draft sent over in short order.

          But along with the Cobb salad and patisserie came the pressure. Outbound, I avoided the Center’s mall shops and highrise tower altogether, then shook off the Pearson Street cab line.  I was driven instead to jog lightly up Michigan Avenue, around the enduring, by now endearing Water Tower itself, along glittering storefronts such as Tiffany, Bvlgari, Bonwit Teller, Florsheims and Saks.

          Clutching my notepad like a tailback the rock, I shifted and dodged around clots of strollers, shoppers and the pickpocket scammers shadowing them all between Superior and Erie. Buses, taxis and all other classes of vehicular traffic echoed off Magnificent Mile highrises to either side, as I gasped, reached for an aha brainstorm of hotel ad head and taglines, coming up with nothing more than leg cramps. Look and feel was one thing; however I felt I should look for a little more background material on the Ritz Hotel heritage and historiography.

          Choking on fumes, distracted by stylish shoe salon and art gallery windows, I impulsively darted across Michigan Avenue’s early tulip bedded median, ducking into a disheveled little Brent’s bookstore with as much history as the history section itself.

          “Got anything on the Ritz Hotel in Paris,” I asked, out of breath from slipping through a horny backup around Grand Avenue, even though I discordantly knew from Desman that the original storied Ritz had nothing to do with the Four Seasons chain, which had leased the naming rights for their R-C Chicago.

          “Who’s askin’,” shouted a podgy, white-haired figure in rumpled blue blazer and red checked shirt, from an over piled oak desk in a rear-store den. It turned out to be Studs Terkel, just back from a late whitefish lunch, holding court before Big Shoulders literati at Riccardo’s.

          “I’m just a copywriter over at Forrester, Blaine—looking for a little background to flesh out these Ritz-Carlton ads I’m doing…”

          “Hmph, advertising—what’re you writing that crap for? I know from working, so what kind of work is that,” snapped the local treasure, star eminence of news, letters, theater, classical FM radio and the early Chicago TV days of Garroway and Kukla, Fran & Ollie, chomping on a cigar butt, still sporting his boarding house upbringing and blacklisted political pedigree. Studs always noted as how the U.S. Communists formed in Chicago, although he never quite boasted as having joined the Party. Today, he peered up from a Broadway stage-play adaptation of his 1974 book, ‘Working’, with reading glasses perched on the tip of his rosy nose. “Lying for a living, that damned ad game—an execrable waste of talent, enormous waste of time.”

          “Uh, I’m kinda new at this…was thinking about fleshing out the Ritz tradition thing,” I muttered, scanning up and down the European History shelves. “You know, getting off to a good start, making like I know what I’m talking about…”

          “We don’t carry any of that PR bilge here,” Terkel replied, as if Nelson Algren and Ben Hecht were still standing here with him in Studs’ Place. “And if you had any integrity as a writer, you’d get out of that racket like a bat outta’ hell.”

          “Just aiming to tell a better story…” I stood frozen in awe of the world-renowned author for a moment, then turned to head for the exit.

          “So tell a story, a real story,” Terkel replied, in a sharp, professorial tone he’d liberally honed since his early lawyerly days. “Get yourself straight, why don’t you? There are real, honest tales to tell out there, instead of  yackin’ yur yid over that crooked corporate drivel. There’s plenty of good you could be doing in this world, a young cove like you…”

          “Will do, sir,” I nodded on my way out, tin bell ringing on the front door. “Thanks much for your help.”

          I wanted to write that off as the overhang from too many Riccardo’s martinis, but Stud’s message still stuck like a Post-It note on my prefrontal cortex. Pulling up the sport jacket lapels, wrestling with a flapping necktie, I fought a chilling wind further up Michigan, cutting over the Tribune Tower crosswalk, traffic snarling from either direction, loping through Pioneer Court back up to my office, legal pad full of raw jottings and scribbles, yet without a clue what they would amount to upstairs.

          Andrea handed me a phone message right out of the elevator, with a two-hands choking gesture around her neck, and nod in toward the 16th floor offices. FBC’s hallway was quiet and all but empty, doors closed, everybody busy doing their creative part, up and down the aisle. The first things I noticed upon entering mine were a new nameplate and overloaded inbox. Centered atop my typewriter was yet another new ad assignment redirected from Parker Hadinott, sleeved in a blue interagency folder, with a memo by Desman to arrange a briefing meeting with the client therein.

          A sinking feeling overcame me, the one where a body is slap bobbing in a sea of 50-foot Pacific swells. I tried to shore up with a phone call to Holy Sacrament Hospital, where nurses advised that mom remained in the ICU, that her condition had neither worsened nor improved since I last checked. No great relief there, so I felt compelled to answer the voicemailed call.

          “We really have to talk, Kenny…”

          “So let’s talk…”

          “No, I mean face to face. There are some things happening up here that we need to discuss.”

          “Uh, I’m really getting swamped here, Moon—you don’t know. Let me just get on top of this some before…” My mind was racing like Michigan Avenue traffic after a bridge hoist, staggering thoughts of 4 a.m. diapers and the cycle of life.

          “Before what? Before I have to call and leave you a message again…”

          “No, I’m thinking before I invite you downtown for a well-deserved night out…my treat, for a change…”

          “Just make it sooner than later, okay? See you soon, Kenny…” CLICK.

          Done. I began leafing through my inbox, only to find the top of the pile half stuffed with red-lined rewrites and revisions, clipped with a typed blue note memo reading, ‘Word to the wise, sharpen it up and step it up.’, left unsigned. Not knowing quite what to make of that, I dialed a quick client call, then gathered up the blue folder and my legal pad, leaving my office, such as it was, caffeinated wide awake. Andrea Dudic assured me she would take any messages—particularly parents’ wise—and I expressed down over to the Wrigley Building cabstand to loyally grab a Checker pointed south.

          As a Punjab Indian driver raced down Michigan Avenue, a rush of ad ideas hit me like a Ritz-Carlton Hotel tab: ‘Join Our Café Society’, ‘Come Rest On Our Laurels’—mindless slogans like that, going who knew where, nevertheless anxiously scribbled onto my notepad at a Michigan-Madison Avenue backup, just in time to enter a far more storied local shrine two blocks beyond.

          I’d considered myself lucky to even be delivering fares unto Orchestra Hall in my taxi days, let alone passing through its gilded foyer. Home to a top Five/tier, world-class symphony, the Daniel Burnham-designed brick concert fortress was about to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And as far as I could see, Andrew Carnegie had nothing on Theodore Thomas, the Chicago Orchestra founder whose name was inscribed in its magisterially friezed and filigreed facade. Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven nominally rested over the hall’s overarching ballroom windows; Bernstein had conducted here, as had Ravel, Copland, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff.

          I was here to gain further input for a series of commemorative mezzotint ads featuring classic moments in recent Chicago music history—Sir Georg Solti conducting the Symphony Orchestra through Mahler’s Seventh, Rostropovich captivating Ravinia’s Festival with his cello performance of the Dvorak Concerto, for starters, Wilhelm Furtwangler notwithstanding. An Orchestra Hall promotional aide festooned me with photos, clippings and reviews, to where I hobbled out to South Michigan Avenue, head and hands full of copy possibilities.

          The FBC clock was ticking, and I needed a quiet place to get some of this material down on yellow ruled paper. Visualizing my office as an inbox piled with drudgework and headaches, I instead found refuge between two roaring lions a couple of blocks back up Michigan Avenue—one defiant, the other on the prowl.  The Beaux-Arts temple that was Chicago’s Art Institute seemed at first to be anathema to such solitude and concentration, but I found a secluded mid-afternoon table in its Museum Café where I could fashion some rough drafts of the symphony ads to follow the Ritz-Carlton Hotel notations. Nothing set in concrete, yet enough of a start to hack back to the Iniquity Center with a head of creative, if not redemptive steam.  Art Insititute

          Another day, another time: there was simply too much to absorb in this sprawling aesthetic wonder anyway—graceful wings rich with worldly historic epochal sculpture prints and textiles, otherworldly modern art in all its dazzling protean forms. Still, there was no escaping the Institute’s galleries of fine paintings, and its celebrated Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections stopped me flat as a numbered litho print.

          I turned my Timex wristwatch face down, and began roaming among Monet’s ‘Wheat and Haystacks’, ‘Beach at Ste. Adresse’, Water Lilies and Giverny Poppy Fields, studying Manet’s Seascapes and ‘Philosopher, Beggar With Oysters’. I paused at Renoir By The Water, especially at his Two Sisters; was sent adrift by Cezanne’s Bays, memories unleashed by Caillebotte’s rainy ‘Paris Street’ and Toulouse-Lautrec ‘At the Moulin Rouge’, the pointillist wonder of Seurat’s ‘Sunday Afternoon, La Grande Jatte’.

          Closer to home, I felt the thrilling authenticity of such familiar imagery as ‘American Gothic’ and Nighthawks, no less awe inspiring than Da Vinci at the Louvre. Amid the classical artistic genius, all these profoundly creative masterpieces, my mind wandered to Syd’s studio, flashing on her impressive paintings to date, and all the masterworks she potentially had ahead of her. I wondered whether the sun was shining on her workshop, or if San Francisco’s winter and Athren Guildersol were still keeping her company there at night.

          In any case, time to get back to FBC. The next Checker in line hauled me back across the Michigan Avenue Bridge barely before the afternoon rush hours. The sun had popped out over the verticality of Pioneer Court, Tribune Tower gothically imposing as its ‘World’s Greatest Newspaper’ masthead; the Wrigley Building as naturally radiant as it was when ivory floodlit after dark, our Iniquity Center still soaking up all the riverside daylight between Michigan and the Lake.

          I snatched a message Andrea had left for me upstairs on the corner of her desk and stepped lightly, warily into my office. It appeared that the 16th floor would be slaving well into the night on their ChicagoOne bank account, so I closed the door behind me and sat in for another overnight of my own. That was when I looked more closely at the blue message slip, two phone numbers with exclamation points: one for my father, the other Holy Sacrament Hospital’s ICU.

Care for more?

 Chapter 41. Homeward decisions come no 
easier, intra-agency pressures building by the 
day. Then a harried old goat bucks the trend 
and happens to turn a head…

 

Ed: Storm Warning…

“Loner to joiner
the thought of switching roles—
all but leaving one cold.”

          “Get outta here!”

          “Stay out of there!”

          “You don’t belong here…”

          “And you don’t belong here or there!”

          A skosh taxi downtime was needed to digest my Englewood encounter and chew over some fresh advertising ideas. I’d since placed an exploratory call to that Ralph Desman ad guy, so back it was to jogging along the asphalt paths of Marquette Park, jotting a trickle of lame ideas, pencil to scratch paper against tree trunk and light pole, itching for better and more. I rounded the lagoon near the park’s Kedzie Avenue median, putting that body bag and coroner’s van behind me.

          But there was no getting around this latest turnout, cornered over on the southern, overgrown Redfield Drive side of the grounds. Seemed that bunch I saw drilling the last time I ran here was back at it, only their brown shirts were T-shirt plain now, silk screened ‘White Power’ and swastika in blue, ‘It’s only a matter of time’ on the back side.

          The National Socialist Party of America, some 25 re-enacting storm troopers strong, was goose-stepping with authority, rehearsing for NSPA’s main event, particularly since state and Federal courts had recently begun green lighting their planned march on Skokie. District and Appellate judgments held that the north suburb could not enact ordinances to outlaw NSPA demonstrations within village limits, that these neo-Nazis were constitutionally entitled after all to go the extra mile to spill their bile. So the media were paying closer attention than ever to this fringy Chicago Lawn-seeded movement—lead story, front page, Tribune to TV nationwide—as were the ‘Serve and Protect’ squadrol boys in blue.

          They weren’t the only ones tuning in however. Nearly half of Skokie residents were Jewish, many Holocaust survivors or relatives of death camp victims, and residents were terrified and/or furious at the very notion of Nazis marching in their streets. Village board leaders had sued to block NSPA attempts the year before, passing permit restrictions and gaining injunctions to outlaw any such demonstrations, the ADL adding its own clout and lawsuit to the prohibition efforts of Melissa’s hometown.

          But then the ACLU stepped in, challenging village ordinances and other roadblocks as 1st Amendment violations—that these incitation and present-danger claims amounted to illegal prior restraint—and legal dominoes began to fall.

          That’s when Jewish groups throughout the country expressed their support for and solidarity with Skokie residents, not least the Jewish Defense League. More militant JDL types converged on the village, organizing Hora folk circle dances in downtown Skokie, pledging to engage the neo-Nazis in violent confrontation if need be, and here they were on this mildly sunny day, taking it to the NSPA on its very own turf.

          “Chicago Lawn is our neighborhood, and you Jew landlords are the ones conniving to bring them jigs in here,” said one of the White Power elite through his bullhorn.

          “You’re in America, Adolph, not the Third Reich,” shouted a JDL spokesman, backed by a dozen or so operatives, plus a sprinkling of civil rights and hard-hatted union activists. “Freedom and property rights extend to everybody in this country, not just to you bigot pigs and your white-flight racist redlining.”

          “Go back to Skokie, go the hell back to Israel, you commie Jews, and take your Jew tricks with you!”

          “No, you Nazi assholes stay the hell out of Skokie.”

          So it went, Sunday in the park, this was not. Tempers flared, bullhorns blared, and the man behind the loudest of them proved to be NSPA’s holy herr in chief. A smallish, non-Aryan looking Chicago native, one Frankie Fuhrery, was a cartoon clownish Hitler impersonator with a bad combover, minus the square patch moustache to cover his quivering upper lip.

          He had made his early bones with the George Lincoln Rockwell Brigade, but was eventually jackbooted from the National Socialist White People’s Party over a fumbled power grab. He then led the NSPA in mouse-hole obscurity until setting opportunistic sights on a blitzkrieg march into Skokie last spring in full Nazi uniforms—this after Chicago had shot his city permit application down and out.    Marquette Park rally

          Though cursed, vilified and death targeted ever since, today his scant cadre of followers stood frozen at attention over his shoulder, arms clasped behind their backs, rehearsing for a full-dress rally come long, hot summer. They were mainly a uniformly mutty lot: Young long-haired greaser Jets and stoner park hangers, toolies and Fonzies looking for some reactionary action; older porkers with Meister Brau bellies and aching, achtung knees who should have known better, seething in stretched-out swastikaed undershirts, with nothing left to hide.

          All told, a party of casehardened spiritual cripples, fronted by a Reich Chancellor so stereotypically farcical he could have been a satirical mole planted by The Onion, Mel Brooks or Mossad. Still, they did have a point to make—Chicago lawn was changing, all right—and were sworn over Wolf’s Lair rubble to be seen and heard, to be true unyielding soldiers for ‘the white man under siege’.

          “Oh, we’re goin’ to Skikie. Take it to your shyster, hymie bank. Show you what it’s about.”

          “And we’ll be waiting for you at the city line,” replied a Yippie shaded, muscle shirted JDLer, pointing menacingly toward the closed ranks. “For every Vilnius there’s a Nakam, Litvak, never forget that…”

          “The block-bustin’, niggas comin’ over’s all your fault. Hitler had the right idea, BBQ the Jews!”

          “Gestapo goons like you lost the war, remember? Just like you’re gonna be going down in flames, no matter how much hatred you morons try to spew!”

          “Power, power, power to the white people,” shouted a small phalanx of neighborhood supporters who were tearing away from their little brick bungalows to weigh in on the confrontation—straight-arm salutes, and all. Who knew if any were former camp executioners or forced-labor guards in hiding? Nobody in Chicago Lawn was likely to say so if they were.

          “Death, death, death to the Nazis,” was the JDL megaphoned counter chant, something of a heckler’s veto, with the Stern force of a young battering Rahm. “To the Lithuanian stooges and Latvian death squads!”

          Once Chicago’s finest determined this un-permitted sectarian scrum had reached the boiling point, blue helmets waded in from their paddy wagons lining Redfield Drive, separating the factions, bringing order to the face-off with the tips of their nightsticks. The neo-Nazi unit gave parting salutes, then marched off in close-quarter formation past the tennis courts, along the lagoon’s southern path as CPD riot squads ushered the JDL contingent out of Marquette Park’s Mann Drive northern side.

          Der Frankie’s storm troopers were bound for their headquarters, a blockhouse former storefront with boarded over windows and fortified doors. Thinking in terms of out-group social dynamics and deviant collective behavior, I slowly followed their quasi-triumphal march out along 71st Street with grim, morbid curiosity—couldn’t help myself—all the way to their ersatz little Reichstadt.

          In through the drab white brick façade, the block house’s signage reading war relics and army combat collectibles, came a fluorescent showroom of Third Reich memorabilia and devotional merchandise: Wehrmacht helmets, piped Luftwaffe uniforms, Iron Cross peak caps, Waffen SS collar patches and cuff bands, Totenkopf sleeve diamonds, Gestapo cruller boards, Allemagne field tunics, polished black leather belts, shoulder straps, jackboots and jodhpurs.

          Walls were plastered with Swastika flags, robo-signed photos of Goehring, Hess, Goebels and Mengele, oil portraits of Herr Hitler himself; framed blow-ups of goosestepping legions and Munich torch rallies in Agfa color and/or sepia tones; ‘Hitler is Goodness, the Fuhrer is God’, ‘White is Right’ and ‘Heil Yes’ posters unfurled over the doorways, Messerschmitt reproductions hung from the ceiling, along with Panzer artillery pieces, U-boats and V-2 rocketry.

          Brown-shirted staffers in red and black swastika armbands scurried about with Himmler efficiency, dusting gunnery shells, bayonets and truncheons. Other joyless Jerries refilled card tables with the latest White Power propaganda and racist hate-fliers, fresh off mimeo presses in the windowless back room, next door to their guns and ammo cache.

          The whole musty, glorified bunker was packed with gruff dabblers and disciples, heavy with excretions and tobacco smoke, to where a body couldn’t breath freely in their so-called Rockwell Hall. And I couldn’t help noticing the ironic Goethe quote they had wood burned over the exit door: ‘There is nothing more terrible than ignorance in action’.

          I crossed back over to Marquette Park, beside myself with the overheated hatred and hostility, trying to assess the ramifications of all this shit—which probably never would have happened in Willow Grove, much less out west. And when did this all start going down around here? Why did these backlash losers have to bring their dirty laundry into Chicago Lawn, anyway? What did that say about them? About my parents and their chosen neighborhood? What did this say about me, given I was once stationed in a former Nazi hospital turned Army HHQ outside Mannheim, complete with real swastikas chiseled into its bannisters? Wait, this couldn’t be about me…isnt about Moon neither. It isnt about us, cant be about us! No, null hypothesis, no regression to some extreme mean. Aww, park…violence–pick your poison, pick your park. Make mine Golden Gate peace and love…save for Lafayette, right? Damn straight, don’t you wish…

          So much for sociological empiricism: I flashed upon the entire ugly gathering—the neo-nutsies,  counter-punch demonstrators, the locals trickling out to vent their pickled spleens—suddenly aching for an aseptic shower. Not my area of expertise, I shuddered, thankful Uncle Early and my father didn’t appear to be there among them all.

sr dingbats

          “This yours?”

          “Yes, I came up with that when…”

           “You did this?”

           “Let me explain about how that one…”

           Limping back over to Francisco Avenue, albeit with a cherry cola pit stop at the California Street gas/con, I had rubbed a head spinning with Marquette Park’s conundrum-beats: that lagoonish body of water, opposing goon squads on the march—whether racial bleed-over from Englewood to Chicago Lawn would turn the Western Avenue battle line into a river of blood. The homefront provided little clarity, Mom bed resting again with cold compresses, dad puffing far away on his briar, glued to the kitchen radio news, farm futures and weather reports.

          I was scrambling to scrub down and head for the Checker garage when I noticed a name and phone number on the flap side of a Catholic Charities envelope atop the dining room table: The return call from that Ralph Desman guy, which led me to this quickie late afternoon meeting on the River North threshold to the Magnificent Mile.

          “Won’t be necessary…sociology background?”

          “Yes sir, two degrees worth—abstracts, thesis, even…contemplated a Ph.D., but…” I rattled on, eyes fixed on his turning of my stapled together sketch pages, how he settled on my Boraxo ad rough, with the headline, ‘It Goes Hand In Hand With The Working Man’.

          “Well, classroom sociology is light years away from what we’re doing here.”

          “Of course, I guess it’s light years away from a lot of real world things.” I caught my breath as he paused at a freehand door lock work-up, ‘Schlage. Lock Of Ages’.

          “However, it doesn’t hurt, and you do seem to have something of a way with imagery, and elemental feel for words,” said the assistant creative director of Forrester, Blaine & Carruthers, a top-drawer advertising agency worldwide. FBC dated to the Packard, DuMont and Chesterfield days; only blue-chips sat in at this table, coast to coast, and Ralph Desman had been dispatched from the New York office to beef up FBC/Chicago’s heartland presence, namely devouring the apple polishers over at Leo Burnett.

          Forrester, Blaine occupied four mid-level floors of the Equity Center, a 35-story gray/brown Skidmore, Owings-designed box rising between the Chicago River and buttress-topped, neo-gothic Tribune Tower. I’d parked a comparatively later-model 3199 in the cab loading circle out front of the Meisian modernist building, glancing across Michigan Avenue at the landmark Wrigley Building, white as the wrapper of a Spearmint pack, built on the manducating imperative of gum sticks and tooth decay.

          I spit shined my oxfords, got Windsor knotted, khakied up, then slicked down my hair while crossing the Center’s fountained Pioneer Court, stumbled through revolving doors to sign in at the security desk and ride an express elevator up to the 29th floor. FBC’s creative department receptionist deigned to call back for confirmation, then sent me down a long, quiet, wood-paneled corridor to an office once removed from the corner suite with the fuller, finer Lake Michigan view.  Wrigley Building and Pioneer Court

          My timid tap on the half-opened door brought a curt greeting and gesture to sit across from Desman’s massive oak desk. Propped beside it were several illustration-size portfolios; atop same were stacks of scripts, reels, comps and storyboards.

          His office walls were covered with matted campaign ads, framed commercial screen grabs, shmoozy photos of various industry luminaries and showbiz types at agency retreats, Manhattan openings and L.A. awards presentations—alongside posters from The Met, Whitney and Guggenheim, along with a Hamptons’ sailboat blow-up or two.  B’nai B’rith and Hillel citations were trimmed in gold leaf and velvet relief.

          Behind the cluttered desk stood shelves lined with gleaming Addys, Clios, embossed client accolades, network broadcaster honors and magazine publisher commendations. Seated before them was a somewhat distracted Desman, gray J. Pressed with a custard cashmere turtleneck, gazing out smoked glass windows upon his partial view of the highrises across the Chicago River, that rubber strewn waterway opening out to the blue Lake Michigan beyond. At least until he spun my way, skimming over pleasantries and past particulars, then tearing into what passed for my best spec material.

          “I’ve been working at it, Mr. Desman,” I said, tightening the Windsor I’d knotted in one of my dad’s recent birthday ties, concealed as best I could with the same outfit I’d worn up to J. Walter’s lobby at the Hancock Building. “And I know I can come up with more…”

          “Well, if that priggish bastard Everett sent you over, what the hell,” Desman said, handing back my ‘book’, with a sigh of resignation. “We have a  lot of collateral piling up that will require long-form copywriting. Think you’re up to it…Ken, is it?”

          “You bet, sir, I’ll give it my best…”

          “Then Ken it is, we’ll give you a shot,” he rose to shake my hand, scoot me out his door, so as to dive into some memos and reach down into his desk drawer to lube up for lunch. “Starting 8 a.m. tomorrow, base starting salary, plus per diem and standard benefits—I’ll clear it with the head honcho and boys upstairs. Welcome aboard, and get a good night’s rest…we have a lot of work to do.”

          Total fluke, accident of timing, simple supply and demand: That’s all I could make of this fast-acting development, but I needed the money and sure couldn’t argue with an opportunity to start fresh. I sallied past that preoccupied receptionist with a double tap on her desktop, then floated down the express elevator like cottonweed in a summer breeze.

          Skipping across Pioneer Court, I picked up a loading zone citation from under 3199’s wiper blade, but more importantly, a fat airport run from the curbside underwriter staring a hole through his wristwatch, overcoat flapping anxiously in the wind. A bear of a Cub fan, he fretted over missing a connection to Wichita all the way out to O’Hare’s departure level. I just flew along JFK’s express lanes riding the Checker’s rattling body panels and shimmying wheels, smiling with relief that this hacking hamster wheel might be coming to an off ramp before the next Wrigleyville homestand hit town.

sr dingbats

          “Doesn’t sound like your field, but maybe it is. Anyway, it’ll help make for key money. Maybe now we can scrape together enough to get us a place.”

          “Right…gotta have key money for a…place…”

          “Sure, that way we can get things back to normal. You know, just to get us settled and reorganized around here. I never want to go through a move like that again.”

          “If you say so,” I said haltingly. “But let’s see how it goes first, okay?”

          “You’ll do just fine, Kenny, we’ve got total faith in you. And Seamus barks hi.”

          “Great, Moon. Well, I’d better get off before it gets too late.”

          Pulling a straphanger downtown on CTA’s Archer Express bus the next morning gave me plenty of time to hash things out. Yeah, mass transiting—from wild west rustbucket to rust-belt spoils, pretty soon maybe trade cab runs for cab rides, score me some decent threads…go from left brain to a little more right, visualize the verbal, verbalize the visual—less stuffy sosh, more sophisticated sell. Scrap the terminology and jargon, learn the lingo, can the dog-eared scratch paper and bring on the Selectric IBM. Forget the reeling, build yourself a killer reel. Look, listen, ask intelligent questions, pay rapt attention. Think bigger, picture brighter, cash in the per diems, dump the day by day.

          Really, throw Southside Marquette Park headbanging over for a more Northshore frame of mind. That’s the ticket: pay those bloodsucker meter maids off, turnaround the squareback, once and for all. Help mom get back on her feet; key in on that Moon mission, make sure everything gets rightly squared away. So wake up and smell the bus fumes, noodnik

          Such drowsy phantasms and rainy daydreaming carried me through a couple of bus route transfers and a damp trudge across the Michigan Avenue Bridge, wincing at the tire whine on steel-grilled surfaces, freezing collar up on a plaid-lined trench coat I’d left behind long ago. Lake-whipped winds swirled through Pioneer Court—where Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable built Chicago’s earliest cabin structure in the 1700s—as I revolved through Equity Center’s doors, reporting to the security desk for a first day’s merging into FBC’s indubitably faster lane.   Equity Center

         “We like to call it the Iniquity Center.”

         “Iniquity…that’s a good one,” I gladhanded, as we gathered about what appeared to be my assigned office, or at least the long vacated number into which a facility manager had  led me, clipboard and floor plan in hand. Desk, swivel chair, drawered console and bulletin board—otherwise the room was as blank as clean sheet of typing paper.

          “No, that’s a bad one, sport…as in wickedly bad…”  

          “Well, it sure seems to have its dark side,” I replied, looking out upon the glowing Wrigley Building across Michigan Avenue, and the cab zone I had trafficed in mere hours before. “I mean, window-wise.”

          Having navigated FBC’s personnel shoals upstairs, health plan to stock options, I was ushered into my own mid-floor office with deadpan ceremonial fanfare by that 16th floor receptionist, Andrea Dudic, who’d earlier blown me off. Before I could settle into an upholstered swivel chair, two fresh department colleagues popped in to greet and be known.

          Associate creative director Bob Gelvart—he of Northwestern’s Medill School, sat himself on the corner of my large walnut desk, tossing me an agency handbook of creatives’ workflow and protocols. Then Lacey Abbott-Tanzer, account manager by way of a Stanford MBA, piled client project particulars atop my inbox. Both smiled and probed as to where I’d been and how the hell I got in here.

          “Lock of Ages, huh,” Gelvart asked, tossing back his wavy auburn forelock as he flipped through my loose-leaf excuse for a ‘book’. “Playing off a Christian hymn over 200 years old—that’s your speed?”

          “Well, no—that was just off the top of my head, I’m kinda new at this…”

          “You mean the Rock of Ages, where Toplady sheltered from the storm?” Lacey Abbott-Tanzer added, a dimple-faced former Wolverine cheerleader, bright blond Greek turned quantic geek, in an incarnadine pantsuit. “How… quaint…”

          “Okay, people, that’s enough with the fraternizing,” Ralph Desman peeked into the office door on his way to the steno pool. “Let’s get down to work…”

          “Time to hit the gas pedal, speed,” Gelvart smiled, rebuttoning his brown corduroy jacket, as he escorted Lacey out to the long runnered hallway. “I’ll be looking for some rough drafts by lunchtime.”

          “They’re just testing you, man,” Larry Castalone said in passing. He was a recent art director hire, transplanted from Parsons and Cooper Union, now working up thumbnails, comps and storyboards in the office right next door, ostensibly my partner in organizational line. “I’m seeing it never stops here. Why do you think they stack those next-up portfolios outside my door?”

          I closed my door behind them, then paused to soak in the wicker-walled office, the Wrigley Building perspective out my window, on where I’d in fact come from, looking down on where I had just been. But, to work, sucking down some cold Mr. Coffee and tuning my brittle little radio into some new ‘City to City’ by Jerry Rafferty.

          Slow to start, I seemed to get the hang and style of things: mailers and sales fliers for Jorvan Hair Care, product sheets for Alcor-Smith water heaters, brochure copy for Roadliner bicycles, packaging for Starway Appliances, tech specification folders for Great Lakes Tool & Die. Copy drudge and grunt work, to be sure, but Gelvart seemed to be buying my submissions with only minor corrections and revisions, and the prospect of those per diem bennies were well worth the Archer Avenue commute.

          Shelf tags, display signage, table cards no end on drop-deadlines: Still, before long I was word-count fitting to Castalone’s layouts and designs, writing to his type wraps and overlays, digging into points, picas and justifying; faces, glyphs and fonts, factoring in the leading and kerning on his double-truck magazine inserts.

          So far, so fair enough: I was learning on FBC’s dime, making a bit of payback and folding money—and even spells of lousy weather didn’t rain down on my little parade, for it looked like I no longer had to wheel through it to keep a cab meter spinning, a trip sheet fat and full. Plus prolonged collateral concentration took my mind off everything else.

sr dingbats

          “I’ve hoped and prayed for teaching, but if business is your choice—thank God there’s always good work in Chicago…”

          “Yes, mom, let’s see how it works out. The important thing is you’ve got to keep getting better…we need you more than ever around here.”

          Sad to say, her short-lived rally was headed south. I had returned to Francisco Avenue later than usual, after a week or so of non-stop pounding on my designated Selectric’s Courier typeball. Bob Gelvart seemed essentially content with my content, relieved to no longer being saddled with the peon assignments, free to pull together his surreptitious new campaign. Lacey Abbott-Tanzer continued feeding my inbox with client input, lightly red penciling my efforts on the margins, with notes and comments betraying a slightly sardonic side, proving helpful nonetheless.

          No kibbitz was good kibbitz on the Ralph Desman front, whom Larry Castalone conjectured was pumping down the Gelusil in anticipation of Executive Creative Director, Phillip Richmond’s return from a power pow-wow at the New York/Madison Avenue office. Per diems were as advertised, and I felt I was catching up with FBC’s pace and expectations, back of mind surmising that my mother’s improving vital signs pointed toward a steady recovery.

          “I’ll be just fine, son,” she coughed, lying still on the living room sofa, wrapped in several layers of blankets and comforters, floor model TV going, with the sound turned down. “I only pray this new job of yours will help clear your mind of the muddle you’ve brought back with you from out west.”

          “I don’t know, mom,” I sighed, straightening the face cloth on her forehead. “There’s plenty of loose ends on that front…things I’ve still got to figure out.”

          “Uh-huh, just remember, you need somebody to push you—shove you sometimes…one doting mother like me is enough.”

          “There is no mother like you—that’s why you’ve got to get back on your feet for us, real good and strong, okay?” I glanced over at the old Zenith console, ‘Streets of San Francisco’ starting up again with the aerial swooping over Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, an episode featuring a cop chase through the Marina District, then more expat Troubles brewing in the Irish bars.

          “Like you say, let’s see where it goes. And another thing—if you keep being caught between two  angels, maybe you deep down don’t want to fly with either one.”

          “Aww, mom, don’t even be going there…”

Care for more?

Chapter 40. Ups and downs, meeting 
at the highest level while vital signs 
sink below. Then upper crust exposure 
results in a critical turning of the page…

“Fear is as fear does 
no one knows that better than— 
those who share the buzz.”

          “He said I could drop that stuff off, so when…”

         He’s in L.A., post-production all week, what can I tell you?”

          “Then maybe you can get it to him when he gets back?”

          Mister Everett’s very busy, but I’ll see what I can do…”

          “That would be fantabulous…have a great day…”

          A…fantabulous day to you, too.” CLICK.

          Where did that come from? Did I really drop a goddamn ‘fantabulous’ on her? I could just picture the young Cosmo groomed receptionist eye rolling into her speakerphone. She was already unapproachable enough when I crossed from the 45th floor elevator to the ad agency’s lobby to hand her my sealed manila envelope. Sighing, phone cradled on her bleu lumiere-mohaired shoulder, she’d set it atop an inbound stack of far more professional looking portfolio cases.

           With ample penalty box time between cabbing shifts and fares, I had library studied some bare-bones design aspects such as unity, balance and the 5:3 golden mean. I eased my mind off matters of inner turmoil by scribbling a few meager headlines and slogans, a little tyro copy, working up a number of spec advertisements for products like Pear’s soap, Schlage locks, Caterpillar tractors and Boraxo. Slow time taxi breaks in the nearest stoolie coffee shop found me penciling some display cursives, drop shadows and kerned type wraps—strictly amateur hour, but it was a lot more stimulating than clinical sociology research.

          Before long, a not entirely embarrassing folder of rough sketches and writing samples took shape. So I followed through with a nothing-to-lose phone call to that art director at the J. Walter agency; Dick Everett said to bring them on by. Which I was driven to do, wearing the only decent khakis, button down and V-neck I had packed, delivering the unmarked envelope to the 45th floor creative department in the black, sleekly derrick-like John Hancock Building.

          This receptionist made me out to be an express delivery boy anyway, treated me no better when I mentioned Everett’s invitation, then shooed me out of her awards-filled lobby, back toward the down-bound elevators. Not that I expected anything to come of this effort, but I did feel 3167’s double-parking ticket on Michigan Avenue at Delaware Place might be something of an odds-on bet. Nevertheless, this follow up call two days later left me fidgeting like an acute hemorrhoid case in my parents’ dining room chair.

          Days spent doodling some advertising samples left me hacking more from the afternoon rush into early nightfall. The ideas seemed to flow best when I began jogging again, a half-speed regimen left behind in Boulder—getting that blood flowing, pumping those endorphins, firing up the circuitry, making unforetold cerebral connections. No foothills in these parts, however, no trails tailing off into vivifying backcountry canyons and wilderness: The closest thing to breathing room greenery in Chicago Lawn was Father Jacques Marquette’s Park, 323 acres of open space commissioned by social reformers when the town was still young and keen on fostering, nurturing its immigrants city-wide.

          Formal gardens, playgrounds, sports fields, propagating nursery, an 18-hole golf course and shelter, providing educational and social services to the congested neighborhood: Made sense to me, all right, even dad had long seen it as a decent place to sulk and smoke on its long, thickly shaded benches, merely a block away from home.       Marquette Park

          I’d started short with the running routine, stretching at the park’s California Street entrance, by its imposing Darius and Girenas statue, a soaring marble, Deco-style patinaed tribute to the Lithuanian-American aviators who flew their Bellanca CH-300 plane over 6,400 miles across the Atlantic in 1933, only to crash and perish 650km shy of their Kaunus destination. But that Lituanica monument dated back to 1935, and Marquette Park had come and gone a long, long way since then.

          “Back it off there, fella…”

          “What’s up with…” I stopped flat at the sight of what appeared to be either an accidental drowning or brutal crime scene.

          “Police business, nothing going on here of your concern…”

          “Okay, sure…is that a…” A body was floating like some dead, displaced sturgeon in the murky algaed lagoon water face-down, looked to be an afroed late teenager in red and black DuSable High School threads.

          “It’s nothing, I told you, just routine…so move it on along—now,” snapped the blue-helmeted Chicago cop, a rotund veteran on his countdown to submitting pension papers. “We got enough funny business going on around here without this…”

          “What’s so funny about…” I watched coroner staffers carried a gurney and body bag from their van parked on Mann Drive over to water’s edge, then hook fished the corpse out with a 12 foot pole, tagging and bagging it like a giant black bass. He had apparently been shot in the head, with multiple stab wounds through his jacket’s Panther logo.

          “Not funny, funny,” the patrolman tapped his nightstick impatiently, swinging it outward, as if to move me along. “Funny strange, haven’t seen the park this antsy since the whites slung bricks at King in ’66 on that open housing march, hitting him upside the head. Agh, but it’s just only the beginning of all that gang crap hereabouts, believe me. Neighborhood’s changing, what the hell we supposed to do about it?”

          I was well advised to oblige, leaving the scene that Chicago’s finest described as a gang trash dump from Englewood, likely by way of Ashland Avenue or Halsted Street, recalling the racially overcharged days of SCLC and SNCC. I picked up the pace on a narrow asphalt walking path between Mann Drive and the eastern ring of Marquette Park’s naturalistic lagoons, past bench loads of babushkaed and patchy greatcoated retirees and fenced-in playgrounds.

          Blood flooding my brain, up popped matters of a more personal bent: Was I a winner here, or was I a wuss? A thoughtful, sensitive man on the thorny, horny (crossroads) of a dilemma, or just a lost, mindless cad in a cab? What were you doing farting around with advertising doodles, where was the sociology in that? Such issues preoccupied me nearly all the way to a north-south avenue that basically split Marquette Park in two.

          Just this side of Kedzie I could once again see some sort of drilling on a playing field not far from the park district fieldhouse, the light of day revealing two-tone brown uniforms replete with dress caps, black leather straps and arm bands with insignias the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the engraved banisters in my Mannheim army billets—formerly a Wehrmacht kaserne. Yeah, I remembered reading something about these jokers last year in the Denver Post, but never made the connection to here in Chicago Lawn. Holy shit, didn’t they have some kind of beef with… Skokie?! Chills ran up my Broncos sweatshirt, down my CU shorts—it had never occurred to me to make that link before.

          I wanted to call Melissa, but how could I tell her that I had retreated down here to Anschluss south? Nope, didn’t even want to think about that, much less the resty bunch picketing up on Edens by the Skokie line—and who the hell did in that DuSable kid, for that matter? Instead, I peeled off, turning back on Mann Drive toward Francisco—high time to check on my mother anyway, higher time to hack away from it all.

sr dingbats

          “Sorry, but we have nothing for you…”

          “I’m just grateful you took my call.”

           Point is, it’s a start, but you could demo some more long-form capability—and maybe some broadcast. Like I said, a reel wouldn’t hurt.”

          “A reel…”

          This last part left me reeling, right there in the hotel lobby. After putting that Marquette Park rancor out of earshot, I had scored an Orange Crush at the corner convenience store and gas profiteer on California Street. Back at the home flat, mom was little better healthwise, while dad was tending to his archly Bunker mentality. So, penalty time served, I’d lit out for the Checker garage, landing 3192, a newer, less odorous taxicab that whisked me across town before the Dan Ryan could grind to a drive-time halt.

          North of the Ike, I fell into a healthy fare streak that flared for the next several days, yielding blue chip LaSalle Street parlays, sequential downtown-O’Hare turnarounds, Rush Street lushes who tipped like somebody else’s business. Blackhawks’ fans in full hockey war paint pounded my safety-shield glass with F-bombs to net the Stadium—out amid the ruins of 1960s’ Madison burning—before zebras dropped the opening puck.

          The after-hours scene was especially green, from River North over to Wells and Piper’s Alley. That North State Street to Old Town axis brought back so many Sixties sorties: to old folkie clubs like the Store, Quiet Knight, Mike Bloomfield’s Fickle Pickle, and the Gate of Horn. How we’d graduated to Mother Blues and the Butterfield Band at Big Johns—forget about the dinosaurs at Mister Kelley’s and Chez Paree. And yet I couldn’t help recalling where the even more spirited music action was happening about then, out where North wasn’t a State or Street, but a Beach.

          Snapping to, my meter spun like truck stop pumps, up and down teeming Lake Shore Drive. I was awed by the shimmering harbors and strands, the Playboy Building and Hancock towering skyline, as I delivered formal Lakefront liberals from the Gold Coast down Michigan Avenue to the opera house and symphony hall, noblesse oblige humbly mined.

          In all, I was on a strong winnowing streak despite myself, better able to be choosier when it came to streetcorner hailers, free to ignore the short haulers and shopping baggers, blow-off the bar brawlers and falling over drunks, and still fill some Moon-bound coffers. By tricks and turns, there was much more to like about this side of the Chicago River—not least the venerable Drake Hotel, where I was now placing this off-chance late afternoon call.  Drake Hotel

           Look, I’ll tell you what,” said art director Dick Everett, from his J. Walter office. I hear FBC is looking for some collateral help. Why don’t you work up a little more on the package goods side, stretch it out  a bit. Then give Ralph Desman a ring—he’s an ACD over there. Tell him I sent you his way, and that we’re even for that voice-over gal he handed me two weeks ago.”

          “How can I thank you,” I kowtowed into the payphone, banked between a low-talking systems engineer and Manhattan-wielding VP-Finance in the hotel’s plush, seafarer-themed lobby—which overlooked the snaking lakefront drive and crystalline Oak Street Beach.

         Just keep plugging away, meanwhile good luck in that hack job of yours.” CLICK.

          I skipped out across Walton Street to pull 3192 out of a loading zone, barely ticket-free, then steered into the Drake’s taxi line, aiming for an airport run from either the hotel or Playboy nee Palmolive Building across the way. In line ahead were some of the more enterprising hacks fronting for Hilton-grade hookers, dropping off the marks and johns, taking their tips in fat, perfumed envelopes, with the occasional carnal bonus.

          Instead, a half-hour wait and creep landed me two insulting sales reps slamming through my cab doors, late for the North Shore after a week of cold calls and mighty hot about it. Darkness was falling, with light rain at that, as we wove through slowing Lake Shore Drive, snarling waves to one side of four by four traffic lanes. A wall of soaring condo hi-rose to the other, looking down on a two-way ribbon of vehicle lights, shoreline and vast blanket of indigo water.                  Lake Shore Drive

          The plaintive fares directed me off to Lakeview at Diversey Harbor, cutting through Lincoln Park on Cannon Drive past the Alexander Hamilton and Von Goethe Monuments, unloading them at a pub near Diversey Parkway, greasing me with one buck ten, bickering over the meter and bitching out my curbside door to a windy, heavier rain.

          Then I turned on my little radio to drown them out, hitting of all tunes, ‘Diamonds and Rust’, Joan Baez calling Dylan a pathetic wimp, which haunted me Syd-wise to where it struck me that I was a total whipped-ass failure unless I somehow made good on our San Francisco dream.

          At that downer note, I doused my roof light and gunned over to Clark Street, wipers smearing the windshield like Karo on hotcakes—dodging jaywalkers scrambling against the rainfall. For a moment, I felt like side-tripping up past the old Rainbow Gardens Ballroom at Lawrence Avenue, recalling that magic Sunday night when it had become the Kinetic Playground, and the bill was debut national tours by Santana, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, one after another, for sawbuck or so.

          Rather, a bright little coffee shop on the corner of Arlington Place caught my eye, rain was coming down in sheets by now, and a parking spot opened up three slots away.

          Time was right to shut 3192 down for a stretch, get back to scribbling some ads, but package what? No denying I’d relapsed into an old Vienna beef red-hot habit since returning, and wasn’t that far from Wrigleyville at the moment, so Hamm’s Beer and spicy mustard came to mind: ‘A Bear of a Beer’, ‘Fire-Breathing Dogs’—useless hack drivel like that.

          When I could bladder no more coffee refills, no more nearby table talk about ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’ versus ‘Fernwood 2-Night’, and back of napkin ideas dried up with a jittery counter-top spill, I covered my head with a tabloid Sun-Times and darted for the cab. The plan was to deadhead all the way down Clark Street toward the Checker garage—no drunks, no ski masks, no Dr. H.H. Holmes or gruesome Gacy types, fare-wise—go off duty, but that only lasted as far as the Old Town Triangle. This early spring rainstorm was intensifying, and a power trio of snappily dressed gents had sprinted over from Wells Street in drenched pursuit of a taxi, not so much hailing one as hurling themselves my way.

          “Chicago, driver,” said one of the three, peering in through 3192’s opened rear door, as they all stood shaking off the raindrops, then ducking one by one into the cab.

          “Chicago? Where,” I asked over my shoulder.

          “U.C.,” said the smaller of two tweed figures, shuddering in the cold and damp.

          “See what?” I asked, wiping clear a fogging windshield with a little cab gab, then flipping my flag.

          “The university, Sherlock,” the first added, popping his head through the shield’s small sliding window. “Hyde Park, take the lake side…”

          “Oh, gotcha, I’m kind of used to thinking C.U.,” I managed a smile into my rear view mirror as I left turned onto North Avenue, the fare settling into the Checker’s roomy, wallboard-stiff back seat.

          Nothing more was said through the plexiglass, although the passengers muffled comments to one another—a snicker or so salted in—between the two, that is, since the third man, more in gray, wide peak lapelled three-piece mode, had yet to utter a word. This wasn’t my idea of a fare worth stopping for, but at least we were headed in the right direction for the Checker garage.

          Far as I could see, they appeared to be in their late 20s, self-assured and selectively polyester groomed, in an Ivy League cognate sort of way. From there, I took my cue, piped down, eyes on the North Avenue traffic ahead, back over to Lake Shore Drive, then rounding Streeterville past Lake Point condo towers and Navy Pier.

           I followed a stream of contrailing southbound tail lights, changing lanes here and there, but otherwise steadying the Superba’s gas pedal on manual cruise control past Chicago Harbor. I tapped its dashboard with my fingertips to the clicking of the meter and slapping of windshield wipers, setting my mind free like I was back on Interstate 80.

          How the downtown skyline had grown in two short years; could Buckingham Fountain be that carved granite/marble regal and colorful? The Grant Park of ’68 Democratic Convention disturbances sat largely dark and quiet now, the whole world no longer watching. Blue police helmets and nightsticks, Yippies, Bobby Seale, Kunstler, Weinglass and Hoffman gone the way of Laugh-In and Hair. I floored it toward the floodlit Field Natural History Museum straight on, 1930’s era Shedd Aquarium no less dazzling to its left.

          Further out tree-trimmed Solidarity Drive, extending well into Lake Michigan itself, an accompanying Adler Planetarium and Northerly Island could barely be seen in the driving rain. Barely more visible was the civil aviation battened down along Meigs Field tarmacs and Burnham Harbor. No denying, the Windy City’s downtown lakefront was gorgeous and majestic, even on a dreary, Hizzoner-less night like this. But as the rain pounded, Drive traffic thinned some and my back seat riders more animatedly debated spiraling inflation, graph-busting interest rates and what Milton Friedman would do about them, I drifted off along the ink black Lakefront Trail.

          Oblivious to the festering housing projects eyes right, my mind revisited that morose post-Garfunkel album, ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ Paul Simon moaning on about doing it for her love. Crumbling Prairie District tenements blocks set me to rather reflecting on Melissa, like running lights shimmering over the lake waters, and what we were going to do about the two of us, or three, as the case may have been.

          I could feel the crooner’s ‘Night Game’ dislocation and ennui well past the death-trap cellblocks of Robert Taylor Homes into Drexel and Kenwood, paralleling historic Prairie Avenue, rallying to the still fresh and fleeting freedom of Interstate 70 upon singing ‘Gone at Last’ under my windshield frosting breath. The very notion of stalling and settling here this way sent me shuddering into ‘50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’. No, that was too crazy, given how Moon was so good, so kind, treating me so much better than other humans did. If only I could have figured out what exactly was ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’.

          “Take the 57th Street cut-off, driver,” shouted the passenger directly behind me, interrupting their non-stop geopolitical dissection of GDP deficits and Import-Export Bank trade imbalances through the Straussian Chicago School’s maroon-colored eyes.

          “Cross the park?” I asked, refocusing to survey South Lake Shore exit signs.

          “Affirmative, over to the U of C campus…step on it,” said his colleague, still not a peep out of the obscure figure hugging the right rear door.

          “Gotcha, ditch the scenic route,” I smiled into the mirror, minding the digital spin of my meter.

          Where once stood the vibrant White City of 1893 World Columbian Exposition fame, now sprawled the landscaped but shaggy beauty of Jackson Park. And crowning the south lakefront band of Rainbow City gems was that fair’s Palace of Fine Arts, which became the Museum of Science and Industry during Chicago’s Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933. Tonight, S&I glowed like thermonuclear Versailles despite the rainfall—that marvy tactile playground of trains, planes, coal mines and horseless carriages. We looped around East 57th Drive and Cornell Avenue, across Stony Island Avenue into Hyde Park proper as could be.          Museum of Science and Industry

          Even after all the ensuing  years, the UC campus remained an academic mystery to me, as did the august university itself. Here was no run of the treadmill institution, Chicago wasn’t land grant, it was Rockefeller grant, full of Nobel Laureates and other resident geniuses, quietly, almost mysteriously set apart from the city at large, much less indigenous public school half-wits like me—an academic island renowned and celebrated by intelligentsia worldwide.

          But at least Northwestern had football and DePaul hoops to distinguish them in Sunday sports sections; all the Maroons had going with their gridiron was that fissiony business being reacted under the grandstand. Refuting the postulation that preseason pigskin rankings outclassed Mensa sheepskin benchmarks and key socioeconomic indicators.

          “Keep going, over to 58th and Woodlawn,” the fares directed me. They were now dissecting runaway monetary policy and the profligate IMF.

          “That’s right, drop us at biz…”

          “There we go,” I pulled up to stately old Chicago’s modern steel and glass all-business school, pointing to a double-digit meter. “You fellows all together?”

          “No, this leg’s just the two of us,” they handed me a ten, the third passenger a fiver. “We’re splitting the cab with this gentleman…just keep the difference, friend. Driver, a receipt please, we’re expensing…”

          “Yeah, uh, sure…” I filled out a receipt, handing it back through the sliding plexi window.

          “Right…driver, I’m stayin’ on,” the quiet guy finally spoke, leaning forward into the window.

          “Where…to?” I faltered, noting that he was smooth, light-skinned black man, short-cropped Afro, beard salon trimmed.

          “Just keep going out Woodlawn. Catch Cottage Grove up to 60th Street, then cut over to King Drive, hang a left at Prairie.”

          “O-kayyy,” I re-tripped the meter, studying this rider, anxiety setting in with the prospect of leaving the relative civility of Hyde Park, wombish home to presidents past and Hopeful future, to the meaner Chicago streets beyond the Chicago School. This was exactly the sort of fare I was looking to avoid, what made hacking one of the most stressful, perilous occupations in this workaday world. I couldn’t have felt more vulnerable had I been fare trolling the Robert Taylor Homes. “You all knew each other or…”

          “Let’s just say we were good-time buddies from way back,” the passenger grinned, facing closely forward to the shield window. “All the way back to about two hours ago.”

          “Pretty funny, ” I said flatly, gunning through a yellow light at MLK Drive, drilling through my mind on quick sliding the plexiglass over my shoulder in one slam of my palm. “Say, this is heading into Englewood, isn’t it?”

          “Bingo, friend…any problem…”

          “Uh, no…not that I know of…” Then why did I flash on Bobby Seal and H. Rap Brown, their ‘hate whitey’ Black Liberation—James Cone’s ‘Black Theology & Black Power’,

          “Good day for cabbing, rain and everything?”

          “Uh, not all that hot…” My heart began racing once we reached Prairie Avenue, and I busily wiped the fogging windshield with the sleeve of my old fleece jacket.

          I nearly blurted that all my trip money was in a floorboard safe I couldn’t open, but bit my tongue, figuring he likely was already hip to that whole taxicab deal. It was all I could do to downplay my shift’s take, and cram cigar box tips deeply into my jeans pockets, trying to get a read on whether he was merely penny-ante or acutely pathological.

          Prairie at 60th Street turned out to be as dark and decrepit as a South Side ’hood could be, many of its remaining houses and apartments rotting and boarded up, behind broken picket fences, steel-gated doors, between weedy leveled lots of long stalled redevelopment. The fare poked his long-nailed index finger through the shield window, pointing me over across from a still lived-in two-flat brick tenement mid block, CTA Englewood Line elevated tracks rumbling through was passed for its back yard.

          The stretch was otherwise deserted in this relentless rain, which left me kicking myself for not shutting that partition window and locking up when Hyde Park was still in 3192’s headlights. That’s when I checked my rearview mirror, spotting a shiny chrome pistol the passenger had pulled from his suit vest pocket.

          Was this a cut and run, or even worse, a gun and run? Gang or bang? Colored pride or prejudice, or turf colors flying? Should I stay and pay or slam and scram? Was I gonna jump ship or end up in that Marquette Park lagoon?! Adrenaline was pressure pumping, and I gripped the Superba’s steering wheel like the helm of a sinking schooner, poised to duck and roll my way out the driver’s door.

          “Mind if I smoke?” he asked, cocking his Derringer-shaped cigarette lighter, pulling its trigger to fire up the Benson & Hedges 100 now pressed between his lips. “Been a long day for me, too, bro, was sunny when I left here this morning.”

          “Like they say, smoke ’em if you got ’em,” I sighed in relief, willing to suck up the tar and nicotine, hoping his pistol of a lighter wasn’t a dual purpose device.

          “But it’s been a good one for me, too,” he drew heavily on his cigarette, blowing rings around my shield window, motioning me toward a weathered yellow and black Buick Riviera, parked under the block’s lone working street lamp. “Like the man says, when it rains, it snows…”

          “Who needs that, right?” I pictured the salty plows and Chicago Lawn’s tactical, territorial furniture, making uneasy conversation.

          But those images were quickly eclipsed by recent news accounts on cabbies getting robbed and roughed up repeatedly in ’hoods like this all over the South and West Sides. As in gravely cracked skulls and sliced organs over little more than gratuitous pocket change outside a Cabrini-Green ghetto in the sky, its packin’ public housing thugs and crooked vertical cop patrols banging on their wire-screened balconies like locked-down lifers in a Stateville cellblock. Vinyl topped Riviera: really, had to be a pimp or coke mobile on the skids—I flicker scanned about for any banger accomplices lurking in the shadows.

          “Lotsa folk, yessiree,” he smiled, cancer stick bobbing in the corner of his mouth as he pocketed the lighter, instead pulling a silver money clip and thick roll out of his jacket liner pocket, peeling off a couple more bills. “Me, I’m in redevelopment my own self —this block’s one of my assignment projects. But got a little side action, understand? Couple more nights like this, and I’ll be trading in the Riv there, exploitin’ me a new Lincoln ride—diamond in the back, sunroof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean—can you dig it? Yessir, blow Englewood altogether. Where you live, man?”

          “Who, me? Uh, I’m just…visiting,” I said hesitantly, reaching for the twenty and five he dished through the sliding plexi window, anxious to make change when he gestured for me to keep it with a soul brotherly clasp of hands.

          I clumsily held back a smoky cough, exhale gladhanding like a honky shoeshine boy—weighing the odds that I might be de facto dodging a bullet. “Hey, you sure? I mean, talk about a gentleman and a scholar. Can’t thank you enough…”

          “No sweat, man,” the fare winked, over the clanky roar of a seven-car northbound L train, slipping out the right rear cab door into an easing rain.“That’s mighty white of you…”

Care for more?

Chapter 39. Extremists hold their ground, 
necessitating a meeting of other minds, 
and leap of smarter, secular faith…

 

ED: The following ‘Chicago Seven’ 1978 chapters
portray 
a rejourney to retreat/revisit; reckon/
rewreckon; 
rereap/reweep; restorm/restore; reblame/
reclaim; 
regroup/reconnect and rewrest/rewest, with
pre-sets throughout. 
But should these next seven Chicago
chapters not ring your sphere, 
pls. transit to Chapter 44.
____________________


“Comes end of school days

time to leave it all behind—
or so it might appear.”

          “That’s my chair there. Don’t you go messin’ with my chair!”

          “Got your name on it? I don’t see nobody’s name on it…”

          “Whose dresser’s this…stickin’ a damn dresser out here.”

          “See those brooms? On the garbage cans? You’re lookin’ at Fort Knox there, buddy…that’s mine, all mine!”

          For eye openers, the late winter storm dumped 8-10 inches over Chicagoland before squalling eastward toward Valparaiso and South Bend. But it’s what the blizzard left on Francisco Avenue that raised these territorial imperatives, plus the higher pressure my squareback put on established jurisdictions. Such a sight to wake up to: cars socked in up to their roof racks on either side of the one-way south, rear alleys faring no better, not a well-disposed driveway to be found. Then reality set in: either dig out and move the wet, heavy blanket or get plowed under even more by city salt trucks.

          Dad knew that routine from the inside out, so we shoveled free his old Mercury Montclaire come sun up, driving mom over to Holy Sacrament Hospital for her bi-weekly session, wherein clinicians pumped up her irreparably collapsing black lungs. By the time we returned, neighbors up and down Francisco had dug out their autos, and either re-parked them, or hardware stores’ worth of shovels, milk crates, implements, ladders, upholstered furniture, lawn chairs, shopping carts, and whatever else was handy in their place.

          The intent was to reserve the spots each Franciscan had painstakingly cleared, in essence spraying their intended car lengths of turf, yellow snow and all. God help anyone who dared to shunt aside their respective ‘dibs’ place markers or otherwise interlope in a Chicago Lawn neighborhood already under so much stress and change.

          “Hey, public property, you don’t own this street…”

          “Took me an hour to clear that spot, jack—move that end table and I’m comin’ down there…”

          Our space right out front of the building was long gone, occupied by a stepladder stretched out on a pair of kitchenette chairs. Any extra space my Volks took up hardly helped pave the way for our return—much less my out-of-state license plates—amid tight parallel parking of full-size Detroit cars.           All around us, rights were being challenged, snow shovels stolen; down the street fights were breaking out, heaps of debris scattered about like sticks and gloves at a Blackhawks brawl center ice. That overheated bickering two doors up effectively blocked the one-way street entirely, a rusting Ford Fairlane double-parked in the plowed lane while its driver played curbside chicken with an angry old former warehouseman leaning out his living room window.

           I feverishly cranked up the Merc’s heater fan as mom’s deteriorating lungs coughed up fresh oxygen, as if resisting the hospital treatment. Dad cursed under his breath in irritation, poised to begin leaning on his own car horn to ease the blockage, when a Dodge Dart next to us commenced beeping our way. But, miraculously enough, it was their neighbor from the six-unit brown brick building next door, Mr. Klaipedis, a widower for whom mom had long baked layer cakes and peanut butter cookies. He waved and gestured for us to back up some so he could pull out and give us his spot for her sake—this being the sunnier side of Chicago Lawn..

           Still, the roiling retro turf routine was wearing and weighing on me by the day—no Satalisman, no Sausalito dreamscapes here. Mom continued having her periodical coughing spells, dad on disability leave standing in the background, silently puffing his pipe like Sir Walter Raleigh’s ghost. I’d seal off from the smoke in my old bedroom, trying to sort things out, spinning 45s at maximum volume to drown out her daytime soaps—just like in earlier days, knowing these black R&B numbers would drive my father White City, big-band mad.

          I boogalooed to stax of Albert King, Duchess of Soul Erma Franklin, Lowell Folsom, and Tyrone Davis—flipping over to Gene ‘Rainbow’ Chandler, Wicked Pickett, Curtis and a slew of Dells, Bells and Drells until the portable stereo started skipping and my ears went numb.

          Then there was Mom’s tasty, poly-saturated cooking, ailments or no. A few added pounds around the belt line, and I was ready to hit the snow-cleared streets, work off some more debt. Let alone that CU had pulled me up off of the wait-list and offered a doctoral slot for the fall, explaining that the Sociology Department’s delay in notification owed to pending availability of full-ride assistantships. All I had to do was reply in the affirmative by a red-letter date—a drop-deadline which had passed and defaulted to the next candidate over a week and a half before. Nothing much my parents could relate to, so I took pains to lay this flagstone on Moon by anguished, after-hours phone.

sr dingbats

           “Got a book?”

           “You mean like a how-to, I don’t…”

           “No, more like a have-done…showing your stuff, what you’ve come up with.”

           “Haven’t done one. That what you have there?”

           Given the CU snail-mail forwarding snafu, and that I’d just received my official laminated hack license downtown, the timing couldn’t have been better for discovering the release and remuneration of a Loop-to-airport taxi run. It mainly involved circuiting the hotels, Ambassadors to the Palmer House, Sheraton to the Conrad Hilton and Blackstone, cab lining for distracted or disoriented departees with valises, overnight bags, unwieldy suitcases and steamer trunks. I soon bagged this trip near Water Tower Place, a London Fog Maincoated, trimly bearded junior exec with leather attaché and matching portfolio case in hand.

          O’Hare, he said through the shield window, checking his Accutron wristwatch, United terminal, and step on it. Which I did, gunning the Checker out W. Ontario onto the plowed and salted Kennedy, beating the rush by a good hour or so, cutting over into the express lanes for added breathing room.  Checker Taxi

           Who cared that the Superba’s front end shimmied, wipers smeared, heater died miles ago and frigid headwinds tunneled through every crack and seam in 3173’s cigarette-burned dashboard—for its meter spun on like a one-armed bandit. I could gather from the rearview mirror that my load was flipping through a spiral binder.  So occupied was he that little was said until out well beyond the Edens junction, near Rosemont, where I asked if he was in the ad game, and how someone like me might do the same.

          “Yeah, just proofing storyboards for a spot we’re shooting,” he said, scratching his jowl, turning a page full of small, compted-up TV screens. “That’s why I’m off to L.A.”

          “California, huh? Sounds…great,” I nodded into my mirror, green eyeing his black lamb’s wool turtleneck and herringbone sport coat underneath that unbuckled trench. Lots of bushy hair, shagged out; he looked to be about my age. “Nice work if you can get it. You’re a…”

          “Art director, J. Walter. And you can get it, but not without a killer book…”

          “Of art? I dunno about that…” I wheeled into O’Hare’s departure lanes.

          “Naw, we’re drowning in A.D.s. What shops are looking for these days are good copy types. You a wordsmith? Put together some knockout samples, a reel’s even better, see what flies …”

          “With who…where would I…” What a first impression I made, in my plain plaid flannel and jeans.

          “Here, take my card,” the passenger said, gesturing me over to the unloading zone at United Airlines’ gates, then overpaying through the sliding window. “Give me an expense receipt and keep the difference.”

          “You serious?” I truckled, darting out around the Checker’s passenger side to open his door, helping him with his carry-on’s. “Really…I don’t know how to thank…”

          “Ring me up if you’ve ever got something worth my time…”

          “Sure will, Mister…Everett. Give my regards to California—wish I were tagging along.” I pocketed his card like a lottery winner and goosed 3173 out of the red zone at the insistence of an airport cop whistle, rounding the departure ramp, wishing to stowaway with him. The only downside to O’Hare runs was its taxi pool, a dozen or so lane staging lot on terminals’ edge where unloaded departure cabs lined up to await feeding back down to arrival waiting zones, entering helter-skelter, leaving in orderly waves.

          Between the outbound sop and next inbound hustle lay the wait: could be a quick in and out, could eat up hours of fatback street action, depending upon the come and go of those breezing into Chicagoland and those keen on blowing town. Facing slow lanes, drivers inched up row by row, whiling away downtime playing cards, rolling bones, making book, running numbers, talkin’ point-spread smack, dealing weed and crack, and who knew what other chicane or sinister products of idling minds.

          I rather tuned my transistor radio into Classic Rock 95.7’s Chicago set—The Buckinghams, Cheap Trick and Cryan’ Shames to Illinois Speed Press and Mason Proffit, flashing me back on DJ’s like ‘Madcap’ Ron Britain and Dick Biondi or Chickenman. So creative still, it started me to scribbling addy little headlines onto the ruled pages of my classroom tablet, noodling and doodling as the cabs crept forward. Once pool movement stalled, however, I jogged over to a bank of snack-stand pay phones, placing another overdue call.

          “Where’ve you been, Kenny?”

          “Aww, you know, Moon, the snow…and my mom’s situation,” I shifted foot to foot, shading my eyes under a suddenly beating, melting sun, keeping close tabs on any row progress. “But I’m cabbing out at the airport now, gotta get back to making up more of that money for you…”

          “Tsk, you know that’s not such a big deal,” Melissa replied, quickly softening her tone. “What’s important is that we’re working on this together, right?

          “Uh, yeah, sure…” I surveyed the cab pool for movement, glancing Chicago’s sprawling downtown skyline in the distant background.

          “So I’m still getting re-acclimated, but I’ve already signed up for a pottery program Skokie’s got going, and am even thinking about grad school myself—like, earning a teaching certificate…

          “Right…grad school,” I flagged, noting some drivers shuffling about in the forward cab rows.

          “You’ve got to get over that CU mix-up,” she girded me. “We’re here now, so let’s persevere, Kenny. “Maybe you actually can apply to Circle, Loyola, even the University of Chicago—why not? You know I’m behind you 100%.”

          “Hyde Park? Come on, Moon, that’s Ivy territory…”

          “How about Northwestern then? We could get a place in Evanston, or Lakeview,” she chirped, firming her stance, ‘Have You Ever Been Mellow’ playing in the background. “In the meantime, just settle down, pull yourself together and we can start looking for real jobs…what are you doing down south there, anyway?

          “Well, actually I’m sorta hung up out here at O’Hare right now,” I spotted the first several rows scrambling to their cabs like rallye crews. “Ooof, gotta split, Moon, it’s go time…they’re honking after me already…”

          “Just get up to Skokie soon as you can, okay? We’ve got planning to do, some major decisions to make. Oh, and one more thing Kenny—it looks like I’m running a little bit late…

sr dingbats

          With our wave finally called, I wound around O’Hare’s lower arrival level, pulling into the cab line for Continental and TWA, quickly snatching a fare from the long steel and glass terminal for the city’s near North Side, thankfully avoiding a measly short-haul to Schiller Park. Head clogged with Moon’s little afterthought, I was in no mood for music or tip-sowing patter.

          So I swiftly, quite silently delivered a middle-aged pharmaceutical rep just back from Omaha to her cottage apartment on Blackhawk; much throat clearing betwixt Harwood Heights and Irving Park, tired sighing between Diversey and a Milwaukee Avenue traffic detour—yielding a piqued fare, an off-peak gratuity. Fair enough, what with my brooding incivility, the trip did at least bring me back to my steady cab gravitation from grim South Side estrangement toward Chicago’s regenerating North Side. Namely all the way Uptown, where Chaplin once made movies, the Aragon Ballroom stepped so lively for my parents and Valentines were delivered with tough Tommy love.

          I rebounded in kind, jotting as I went, redistributing fares from River North to Rogers Park, filling my trip sheet with downtowns from Uptown, shopping jags from Lincoln Park to the Loop, skanky pick-ups outside Upper Broadway meat markets, swanky Lake Point Tower shuttles to the tangle of high-octane traffic, the sumptuous showrooms along the Magnificent Mile.

           I wheeled quietly through gentrifying brown brick neighborhoods tree-lined with cozy workingman’s cottages, stick Victorian duplexes and brickface, iron bay-windowed apartment buildings along the Ravenswood L tracks. I charted back past speakeasy, trolley car, horse buggy, Missus O’Leary’s fire to Fort Dearborn days. That left me with a full trip sheet and pockets for the day’s shift, popping in on this old suburban high school mate who had long ago tripped his way onto the North Side scene.

          “Two chicks? Man, I got enough trouble with the one…”

          “Naw, it’s not like that, Nate, but what can I say,” I puffed up with a calcified kernel of male prowess and pride. “Anyhow, now one of them thinks she’s got a bun in the oven—my bun, no less. The other is the creative type.”

          “Mad artist, huh? Shit, Heebert, but I know my bag’s got one goin’, and she’s reelin’ me in like a fuckin’ catfish…”

          “Figure on flushing it, or…”

          A pay call to a changed phone number found Natorious Grimaldi holed up in a ground floor flat of a not yet renovated three-story brick apartment house just off Armitage. He had been sharing the shady Cliftwood Avenue unit with an old college pal who’d brought his reverence for R&B from hometown Philly to the heartland, including compilation albums from WIBG’s Joe Niagara and ‘The Geator With the Heater’. Roscoe Porter had turned Nathan on to John R’s WLAC/Nashville, and the likes of the Bosstones and Duprees, which propelled Nate from Top-40 pop into the fabled Chicago blues world, right under his dripping white-bread suburban nose.

          Yet Porter, barely 30, had recently succumbed to downbeats, emaciation and a concocted overdose in some Lincoln Park hotel room—the Capris and Duprees on his cassette player. Cool as he was, I’d once heard him claim that there were just too many of us baby boomers, plenty of room for discards and throwaways—life was cheap that way. So there he was, apparently with no there there for him here anymore.

          “Hah, fat chance of that easy route,” Grimaldi said, sparking the stub of a blunt. He was still bummed out and disoriented over his business buddy’s demise, searching out another roomie for an apartment, as he was never one to go it alone. “And it ain’t no racial thing with me, either—no matter what the bitch says. Hell, I even took to her little boy like a big brother.”

          “With me neither,” I nodded, passing on the roach, as I nursed a warm can of Schlitz. “I mean, a religious thing…”

          “After all I’ve done for the cause, man—to go stickin’ me with that,” he inhaled deeply, which puffed up his round mongrel face all the more. “How’s she think we got to steppin’ out in the first place?”

          “I can relate, Nathan—on that, I can totally relate…”

          After some college and epiphanal acid, Natorious had bought whole stash into the Chicago Blues scene, supporting his habit as a grain-futures runner at the Mercantile Exchange. He partnered with Roscoe and a couple of Rush Street bouncers and their drug funds to open The Twelve-Bar, a north State Street blues club across from the old Sitz-Mark dive—that rickety jukejoint that once served our fake ID’ed cravings.

          Nate and Porter would scout true black haunts from Pepper’s Hide Out to Howlin’ Wolf’s Hideaway and other bluesy boogie-woogie lounges along south Cottage Grove and Stony Island, bringing the best chops he could to T-B’s low-riser stage with tabs, lines, lids, nickel bags and other greasing of guitar calloused palms. Word spread around the Ripple, chicken and chitlin’ circuits, and ‘Twelve’ took off like a Lightnin’ Hopkins’ solo, drawing Sleepy, Willie, Junior, Hound Dog, Sonny Boy and Freddie King north to the hottest little venue on this side of town.

          Its nightly gate: mainly hipretending white bred with beaucoup Benjamins, learning from the Northern Migration masters over three-drink minimums, under mixed smoky airs. With such true-blues headliners came rock star credibility, Mick and Keith slipping into T-B’s darker corners, wherein they’d sponge inspiration between trashing Ambassador East Hotel suites and sold-out stadium shows.

          Slo-hand might sneak in under false pretenses; Boz Scaggs would join in and late-night jam with Elvin Bishop or Siegel-Schwall; local rooks like Greg Stinson or Norm Wagner would squeeze in through packed houses, mail-order axes in hand, awed by their guitar heroes. I’d sniff around T-B’s heads and frets now and then, but never, not once with Melissa.

          “Bizarre though—you winding up with Jewish chicks,” Natorious  grinned, hot ashes burning down into his rumpled coral disco shirt and slept-in cord bells. “Didn’t I meet that Moony one once?”

          “Yeah, think so, at Wrigley, or Grocery Diana. But bizarre, how’s that?” By now, I was blinking through a contact high.

          “I mean, after us all calling you ‘Heeb’ since way back in high school ’cause you were such a fuckin’ tightwad…”

          “Maybe because there were no real Jewish kids in our high school. But that was just dumb teenybopper stuff a long time ago, Nate, in a universe far, far away…”

          “So then which way you gonna roll, Heebert,” he dragged, smoke curling up his nostrils like cotton swabs into a busted nose, up through his long, greasy black hair. “Either here or out there?”

          The ‘Twelve’ had soon vaulted Natorious to heavier hitter status in the larger music biz. So he and Roscoe moved into posh Gold Coast digs, close to the party-all-night action, yet a short walk to the lakefront and voluptuous Oak Street Beach. Nate bought himself a Stingray ’Vette and began promoting downtown concerts with no less than The Floyd, Rotary Connection and John Mayall—SRO all— set to rivaling Aaron Russo and Josh Gravanek in Chicago booking juice.

          But a string of washout b-side gigs left him in the promotional red, while the city slapped ‘Twelve’ with a liquor-license suspension over under agers and underpayment, under-the-table-wise. Took a while, but it eventually came to Nathan that he might have full-gainered into the blues scene a bit too deeply, which could so easily have cannonballed into Stateville, leaving deep pockets pal, Curt Spelsky to take over payments on the candy-apple Corvette.

          “Dunno, Nate,” I sighed, with a cumulative cough, tuning into that old Allman Brothers album he had spinning, tracking ‘One Way Out’. “Christ, my ol’ man is giving me all kinds of grief as it is. But what will your parents make of your deal?”

          “Don’t ask me, man. All I remember, Buddy Miles was over to our crib for New Year’s, turning us onto memories of his ‘Band of Gypsys’ gig at the Fillmore East—and I met this groupie of his with a ragin’ Afro. Somewhere along the way we started makin’ it, you know, and stayed shackin’—even while Twelve Bar got shut down and I crashed over here with Roscoe.”

          “Well, maybe it had something to do with hitting age 29, Saturn coming back to raise hell,” I gulped the warm, flat beer. “So, you plugging back into the music scene, or…”

          “No, man, been thinkin’ about starting some kind of remodeling business—working with my hands for a change. I mean, with all the renovation goin’ around here, maybe buy me a building or two while anybody still can. Forget about that Saturn shit. How ’bout you stayin’ in town, move in here? We could partner, clean up like bandits…”    Nate's place

          “Not sure about that, Nathan,” I finished off my brew, Nate’s ‘Voice of the Theater’ speakers blaring, ‘Stand Back’. “Still got to work through some stuff…”

          “Like with those heeb chicks? If you’re so hung up between them— maybe you really don’t want to make it with either one…try workin’ through that, why don’t ya…”

          “What’re you talking about,” I rose, defensively edging toward the front door, head gone woozy with the contact high and guy talk. “That’s not even close…besides, you’ve got enough to worry about with your oven situation.”

          “Aww, who knows, maybe he’ll make me a fortune running for da Bulls or Bears,” Grimaldi fired up another roach, kicking back into his burn-marked sofa, gesturing me to hang out. “C’mon, we’ll head over to Park West, get us some burgers, just like in the hay days…I’m buyin’. We can round up the other Willow Grove renegades, Gary Rallimore, Steve Tripler—Chanky Desmond’s over in Bucktown now. I’d get Fat Roddy Rosnick and Marco Liele, but they got busted in Steinhatchee, Florida unloading their Colombian stash from a C-130. Guess they’re still doing time in Tallahassee…I mean everybody but Jackie, that is.”

          “I’ll need to raincheck it,” I said, recalling our breakfast buddies club, how we’d do our chick bitchin’ over burned toast and home fries, soak up undercooked eggs and lay out the day’s attack plans for getting over on the downtown suits—looking out upon Michigan Avenue skyscrapers with our big caffeine dreams, as the mornings ticked away. Then I remembered how Natorious and I got loaded one night long ago, and started leveling with each other. He said my problem was I was always sucking my way up the social ladder; I countered that he was into slumming his way down-rung. But no need for encores on that score. “Anyway, got to turn in my cab…”

          “Suit yourself, man. Just don’t let you tri-plex situation run you in circles.

sr dingbats

          That was the plan, all right, deadhead south back to the Checker garage before nightfall. Let alone the sleet storm being forecasted on my transistor between WLS’s Rolling Stones set of ‘Winter’ and a bootleg pick-to-click ‘Beast of Burden’ off the dinosaur rockers’ upcoming album. Sure been a cold, cold winter, feet been draggin’ cross the ground : I shot down Lincoln Avenue, aiming to make up for the down and downer time, yet found myself meandering around Lincoln Park.

          En route, I caught a frantic, waving stiff who had stumbled out of Café de Melvin’s gated patio, hopping into my cab just as North State traffic ground to a halt. A commodities trader specializing in pork bellies, he’d packed it in for the week, and was off to Midway Airport for a puddle jumper to Council Bluffs. Before I could shake River North tie-ups and hit the Dan Ryan connection to I-55, he’d passed out in an overcoated heap, wing-tips up on the bullet shield.

          I kept my little radio down, thankful for an expressway interlude after the outbound load had slurred through his daily killings, nightly conquests and present misdirections, from the Kennedy to the Eisenhower interchange. Still, the Stevenson did set me to thinking. A lot Nathan knew about it, rolling out that ‘neither one’ crap. Well, the old gang never came across the likes of Melissa Saversohn—except for the one time, when I brought Moon to that dinner party at the Duvornic’s. Hang-loose Jackie had been one of the guys for so long, we could never figure her hitching her wagon to an anal case like Karl. But there he was, several Zinfandels into a three-course fondue, starting in with the Jew client he had at his little design firm who was kvetching over revisions, haggling down the fee like those bastards always did. That was when I reintroduced him to my dear Jewish friend, Melissa on our way out the door. I always loved Jackie like a brother, yet never saw the Duvornics again. It was the only time that kind of background noise ever really came up between Moon and me.

          But that was water over the spillway, this was different now, what were we going to make of our…current situation. In and out of fallback self-consciousness, up and down Edens: freezing my buns off, nickel and dime at a time. What did Moon mean, late? How late? Aww, but she’s there because of me, or them—or is she? She doesn’t really want to be there like this, or does she? Sometimes I feel like a Lothario on the come, then again I feel like a lummox on the run. Aww, what am I doing here, anyhow, dogging through all this retroactive bullshit with two degrees, for what? Is it separation anxiety or capture myopathy going on? What the hell about that?!

          I horn blared the fare awake as we pulled up to what remained of Midway’s propeller-vintage air terminal, and he hit me with a ten-spot tip before tumbling out of the cab—briefcase, overnight bag and all, stooping over to toss his canapés, some to the loading zone pavement, the rest against 3173’s creamy green rear fender. I looked away as if from roadside carrion, nevertheless hauling the windfall to a White Castle at 63rd and Cicero, piling on cheese sliders to sponge up my stewing gastric acid.

          I jumped back on the Adlai 55, racing a smokestacked dusk to the Checker garage, spray booth washing the Superba, cashing out to a former all-city CVS tackle cum dispatcher who ragged me about keeping his trusty 3173 out so goddamn long, docking me one shift, namely tomorrow’s. But he wasn’t shrimpy DeVito, and I was no hair-trigger DeNiro, so it was all I could do to pocket my tip take and skulk out his office and garage’s open bay doors with other worries on my mind.

          Darkness setting in, I coaxed a cold, balky squareback through Archer Avenue’s industrial-strength squalor, fuel gauge sinking like the sooty sunset out beyond Argo-Summit and the Sanitary Ship Canal. I hit a steep discount gas station on Kedzie—pulling away due south. I tuned my Blaupunkt into a WVON set of Main Ingredient and Ohio Players, dialing me back to soulsville all the way to 67th Street.

          There I left turned toward Francisco, noticing the bright quartz lights of Marquette Park sports courts. Too frigid for tennis, but several sweatsuited jocks were out shooting some hoops. The playground itself was packed and buzzing, however, not with kids but a gathering of older guys lining up, standing tall, in what appeared to be uniform rank and file order—must have had something to do with snow shovel brigades or litter patrols. Not that I could tell, what did I know about the damn park, or care? Nada, made me no nevermind—wanted nothing to do with the place, give me Chautauqua or Golden Gate Park any sunny day.

          So I cut down Francisco, only to scare up a parking space four doors this side of my parents’ place, curbside snow plowed aside and territorial hardware or furniture all but gone. Mom had kept some pork chops and mashed spuds, arising from her bed rest to warm them for me while dad was out on his after dinner walk. I carried my plate and an RC Cola into the parlor, set up a TV tray, then turned on the box. Up came the Orkin ending to ‘Mork & Mindy’, postcard green Boulder Valley all over the closing credits. I switched off to another channel, landing on a replay of the opening Bay Bridge sequence for ‘The Streets of San Francisco’…just like it was yesterday. Only the title for this episode was ‘When Irish Eyes Are Spying’—got me to wondering if it was about anybody I happened to know out there…

Care for more?

 Chapter 38. Making a key connection, 
coming across a cold body of water, 
expectations are tripped up, north to south…

“Home is the source for
warmth too cold to touch—
does it matter that much?”

           “Try Lower Drive…”

           “Wacky…just missed it.”

           “No, take the Upper, you bloomin’ idiot! Cut over East Wacker to Wabash, make a straight shot to Michigan, it looks clearer”

            After our sensitive Northside touch ’n’ go, things went south in a major way. I had helped Melissa sort and stack our truckload further, neatly lining a far side of the Saversohn garage. In the process, we hashed out where we stood, where we’d go next, what to do in what context and under what circumstances until my head felt like three pounds of ground round going reasty. Packed to its ripped, black dotted headliner, my squareback trundled along Edens Expressway toward downtown, where I fed into the Dan Ryan. South of Loop’s vast rail yards and massive printing plants paved the way for Archer Avenue, a long, industrial mishmash that diagonaled out to Midway Airport and beyond, toward my old ’burb.  Nearer in, Archer sliced through the late Mayor Daley’s Bridgeport neighborhood, settled by Irish canal workers, root stock precinct for the poll running and ward patronage that had defined Chicago politics since Da Mayor first emerged victorious from his humble bungalow. Archer then angled roughly past the International Amphitheater where he all but cuffed Abe Ribicoff at the ’68 Democratic Convention—Chicago Seven, and all that.

          I could still wince and wretch at the phantom stench of hog butcher stockyard slaughterhouses, past rotting warehouses, rusting ironworks and corroded radiator shops, then around Garfield, down the fender-to-fender aftermarket used car lots along south Western Avenue. The mercury was diving, clouds darkening like oil-stained concrete as I wavered toward the gridded, brown brick humdrum of ‘homey’ Chicago Lawn.

          But first, the Southside retreat triggered a transfer from the uptown taxi garage on North Clark Street to a larger, greasier, rougher barn down near Gage Park. During the first few marathon days, cabbing threw me for a Loop, and deep into it. Clark Street’s car number 3240 may have been a sweetheart, but 3173 out of this garage was a war beaten, tread worn, wobbling dog. Nothing Superba about this Checker, from its four rattling doors to a plain gunmetal gray dashboard full of cigarette burns and knuckle dents. Add in a slipping tranny, a smoke smeared windshield, and I was hacked off something fierce from the moment I flipped my first flag.

          Still, I gradually got the hang of it: delivering commuters from Union Station to the Prudential Building, rushing commodity brokers from their Lincoln Park condos across the LaSalle Street bridge to the Board of Trade, speeding hungover sales managers from near-North hotels to appointments at the Merchandise Mart, diamond studded tourists from the Conrad Hilton to the Magnificent Mile.

          Come nightfall, I’d work the Palmer House to the Playboy Building, Pick-Congress to the Berghoff Restaurant, Gold Coasters to the Symphony, suburban rowdies to the Rush Street watering holes. The measly trick was, run that meter, fake it on the best directions, small-talk them to death so they wouldn’t notice any dodgy roundabouts, slow time the red lights, then floor it and brake screeching hard up to the destination, tipping gratuities in your favor, by and large. Stuff each fare in the floorboard safe, tally your trip sheet envelope, pocket the rest as below-board payback cash: Pretty soon the hustle became routine, which left a little too much time for troubling thoughts like why here, now—much less waking hours for the old folks at home.

          Wacker Drive at Chicago RiverBut now and then I’d pick up a subdued Saul Bellow stranded on the Northside, an economizing Milton Friedman in Hyde Park, land some jokey Aykroyd or Bob Newhart trolling Second City between sitcoms, shuttle a fat and sassy Liza or a Lainie Kazan from the Ambassador East to West. Yet today, here I was, missing the down ramp to Emerald City, racing a daisy chain of draw bridges rising like crocodile jaws, Wells Street to LaSalle, Wabash to State Street toward Michigan Avenue, trying to beat a lake-bound tug and coal barge, en route to the glittery northern side of the green Chicago River.

          Breathing down my neck through the slid-open window of the taxi’s bulletproof safety shield was the commanding voice of Mid-America, syndicated radio’s premier newsragger. He was right of American Gothic, trusted daily on stations coast to coast as a smooth, conservative commentator who stood rock solidly for flag-waving decency and good Godly values. He may not have been a sly anti-Semite like Arthur Godfrey, but he sure was spitting hell-fire like Louis Farrakhan on the Nation of Islam dais, right here in my cab. Hello, America—stand by for that news…

           “Beat that goddamn bridge! I’ve got to get back here to Mather Tower for sound checks. You think I can just rip ’n’ read?!”

          “Doin’ best I can, sir…sorta getting reacquainted, just got back in town from San Francisco,I said, as if that weighed on anything, tip-wise.

          “Frisco, huh? With all those left-wing losers and their crackpot anti-American ways,” the fare muttered, surveying traffic in every direction, penning some items in a reporter’s spiral notebook. “Christ blessed sake, where’s my Cadillac driver when I need him…”

          Instead, more of a tip-off. I couldn’t tell whether it was a Sudafed decongestion of traffic at Heald Square or bulletins on some mad-man jumper diversion on the Wabash Avenue bridge, but a sudden slowdown ensued, an air bubble in the East Wacker Drive bloodstream. It allowed me to slip over the Michigan Avenue span before its turreted operators could drop their crossing gates and crank up its steel-grated decks. I sped between the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower, slamming brakes in front of the Sheraton Hotel with a triumphant toot of the horn for the beefeater uniformed bellman. “There, beat your deadline, didn’t we…who needs Caddies?”

          “How the hell else am I going to get out to my Learjet?” asked the load, exchanging note pad for  money clip from his blue gabardine breast pocket, unrolling a ten-spot and fiver, handing them through the shield window. “Takes the lord’s intervention to beat bridge jams in this goddamn Democrat town.”

          “Something for your Page Two, huh,” I grinned warily, as he palmed off the change. “Sorta like, Hailin’ Harvey’s lament…”

          “That’s clever—you a writer?” he asked, as that bellman opened the cab’s rear door.

          “Me? Not even close…” I waved in gratitude.

          “Maybe you ought to give advertising a try,” he slid out, bundling up his cashmere overcoat in a stiff lake shore wind, turning toward the hotel’s canopied entryway with nary a flicker in his hair-sprayed receding pompadour. “It’s got to be better than this…”

          “Thanks, Mr. Harvey,” I shouted in his wake.

          “Just call me Paul. Good day!”

          And that was the rest of the story…Good god and country. No time for answers, however, as the lead hack in the hotel cab line was honking me out of the loading zone. I shot up Michigan Avenue through log-jammed traffic turning left and right, grabbing a quick round-tripper at Ohio Street bound for the Hancock and back. Nicer up about the Water Tower and chic high-rises, all right, but I soon got flagged down on southbound Mag Mile, which took me to down to a furniture convention at McCormick Place, that flat, smoked glass behemoth on the lake front where I used to take in auto shows as a kid, not to mention a daisy-suited Mick Jagger on the Stones’ maiden U.S. tour. Pocketing a good expensed-out tip, I packed it in early, cheat rush hour bottlenecks and gravitate further southward from there.

          I exited The Dan Ryan Expressway, racial barrier that it was, at 35th Street, passing near Da Mayor’s eternally modest, police guarded shrine in Bridgeport’s 11th Ward, within whiffing distance of the stockyards, where the Outfit mob once ruled and whitey essentially still did.  Soon came the phantoms of Sox-Yankees pennant race heartbreakers at dark, dank Comiskey Park, Commander Bob Elson calling all the games back then—the old green ballyard on the brink of a ‘Disco Inferno’ Demolition night, that couldn’t win for losing against the Wrigleyville Cubbies.

          Tuning into Leonard Chess’s WVON-AM on my old transistor radio, I picked up DJ traces of Herb Kent the Cool Gent, ‘Mad Lad’ E. Rodney Jones, Pervis Spann the all-night bluesman and all the other ‘Voice of the Negro’ Good Guys. I found myself steering past the teeming projects, over toward 47th and South Parkway amid the derogated graystones of ‘Black Metropolis’ Bronzeville.

          I regrooved on Saturday matinee shows at the Regal Theater, ushering dates from my beater ’51 Hudson Hornet, in through the variegated palace’s ornate, Byzantine lobby to what remained of its opulent Moorish-Eastern auditorium, where a starry, proscenium-arched Oriental stage once crowned the likes of Basie, Duke, Ella and Nat King Cole—the organ echoes of Tiny Parham and his ‘Voodoo Band’ next door, or Satchmo at the Sunset Jazz Café and Grand Terrace Lounge.      Old Regal Theater

          But I personally remembered us being blown away by The Iceman, Etta, Bobby Blue Bland, James and the Famous Flames electrically live, full houses going Pentecostal while I schooled the suburban debs on how hip it was that we were the only white faces in the place. Then we’d score some hot Otis; rasping, moaning Syl  Johnson; Eddie Floyd, Archie Bell and Joe Tex hit-with-a-bullet 45s at the Bop Shop.

          But that was then, before the Regal began rotting in corruption and fraud, and this was so…now. Today, the Impressions, Main Ingredient, O-Jays and vintage Chi-Lites were coursing the black radio airwaves—and South Parkway was all about being MLK Drive.

          Checkering past all that and some faint family history set me to saturninely ruminating over current-day circumstances and situations, even jotting some things down on my White Castle napkins. Taking stock, tallying up on my way to back the garage: By now, I was hustling up more, getting lost less, making some progress on the payback front—while fuller trip envelopes made for marginally better working cabs. But that was neither here nor there, accent on the there.

          Really, what was I doing back here? Left-wing losers? C’mon, what’re you doing mucking around in the past, where you’ve been—and where the hell are you goin’ with this and a graduate degree? What am I gonna do now, cab forever? Or retreat to Circle Campus and worship at the Jane Addams Hull House? Go back to Parcel Express or night shift at the factories? Yeah, out helping people or here helping yourself? Really, shouldn’t I be up there helping Moon? At least, dropping off some money, picking up Seamus and some more stuff—yeah, what about the dog?! But what about mom, doesn’t she need me more? And what about Moon—what do you owe her, owe us? What do you plan to do by her and hers? Is it settling down or just plain settling? And where does her father come from? What about her, and what about them—but what about me? Who says what’s wrong anymore? Who says what’s right? Who was I, who am I, who’m I gonna be now? Why ain’t I still in Boulder, or still way out west, having left so much festering out there? So where do you get off, where do you get on? Gonna take the high road or the weasel route? Do what’s easy or do what’s right? Gonna be a winner or gonna be a wuss?  It was all so goddamn confusing.

sr dingbats

“Between motherland and
fatherland lies a no man’s land

of shrifts unplanned.”

          “We met her once, remember?”

          “Kind of plain gal, wasn’t she?”

          “What a thing to say, Ed, she’s not plain at all. Is she staying up there, or…”

          “That’s the plan, mom, at least for now…”

          “What about holidays? What would you do about that?”

          “Let’s not jump the gun here, right Ken?”

          My folks’ place was the main floor of a granulating brick two-flat on the 6600 block of south Francisco, just west of California Avenue past Mozart, a few doors off Marquette Road. Chicago Lawn consisted either of two-to-six unit apartment houses like this or block after row of detached brown brick bungalows. The southwest side neighborhood remained mostly Lithuanian-Latvian—aging rapidly, with just enough vigor and dexterity left to trim scouring pad-size front yards and stunted shrubbery. I still had one of two bedrooms there, same taffeta bed coverings, dusty wall pennants for the Bears, Blackhawks, Pale Hose and Chicago Cardinals of the Charley Trippi, Ollie Matson days.

          Over in the corner, near a lightless side window, sat my Monkey Ward phonograph, pop, rock and R&B 45s stacked like Marina City towers alongside it on a castered metal stand as though I’d never gone and outgrown them—which I’d realized of late I never actually had. Back then I’d play them full blast, to drown out WGN’s Wally Phillips and WIND’s Howard Miller on her kitchen radio. Yet even all this familiar comfort and nostalgia couldn’t quell the crosstown turmoil, wouldn’t spare me the gobs of hair lost in the cold, harsh shower, on the checked tile floor, as I grappled with the anxiety and reality of what I had come to back here.

          After that stint of non-stop cabbing, I’d finally found some time to catch up with my parents. We were presently in the front room, my ailing mother resting under several blankets on the clear covered sofa, dad and me hunched forward on opposing wing-back chairs, squeaking on plastic just the same. Above us on the wall was a large gold-color wood framed mirror, the image on which was of a frilly shaded table lamp in a ceramic Vatican motif, centered before a modest picture window.

          Outside, skies were dismally overcast, what with an Arctic Express storm front bearing down on the Windy City. Good day to can the taxicab grind, to clean out my squareback some, to explain the sketchy circumstances of my return to Chicago—including the ‘sisterhood’ collision and debris—otherwise to catch up with family matters like mom’s precarious condition, never anticipating that we’d be ranging any further into mine.

          “Then what about kids, school,” dad asked, resting patched flannel elbows on his disproportionately lanky knees, Scottish dour was as Dewar’s does. “What about that?”

          “I’m sure they’re thinking about such things, Ed, aren’t you Ken?”

          “Of course, mom,” I said, even though I hadn’t spoken with Melissa in two days—sighing in relief in higher mental moments, missing her not insignificantly in low.

          “And how about work with your hi-falutin diplomas,” dad pressed, as he reached down to the glass top coffee table for his pipe and tobacco pouch. “How you gonna work that out with somebody like her tying you down?”

          “We’re working on that, I’m tellin’ you,” I spouted, wishing he wouldn’t smoke right now, just like I used to wish he didn’t drink the way he did.

          “Aghh, it’s nuts if you ask me. We’ve had enough headaches with your mom and her bead squeezers,” dad threw up his hands, then scooped up his pipe stems and cleaners, as well, turning back toward the kitchen, stuffing his Spiegel work pants pockets. “Messin’ around with them shifty sheenies again…”

          It wasn’t always this way. In a previous, somewhat more expansive time, we’d led a greener suburban life, a younger Edward and Muriel Herbert had moved out of Chicago Lawn, due west to Willow Grove. He’d given up his city job to forge a better family future for the three of us in a side tract fixer-upper, hooking on with wholesale siding jobber amid the post-war housing boom.

          So I had room to grow and roam until the recession hit, everybody went back to basics, and siding went out of style, leaving dad out of a job and us out in the cold. He was getting on in years at 58, and chronic back spasms took on disability dimensions; still, with mom never particularly healthy, we needed his regular paydays. So dad sold our small house at a slight loss, taxes and all, then we retreated to their old neighborhood.

          He was able to jigger his way back onto Chicago’s patronage rolls through a ward boss pay-off by one of mom’s Irish cousins, securing a foreman position on the Streets and Sanitation pot-hole brigade until the back went out altogether, then landed behind a desk. But the requirement was, we had to reside in the city, more specifically in the ward where he would be expected to help turn out precinct’s Daley Machine votes every election day with committeemen’s ring-kissing loyalty.

          So rented, we did: This, even though Ed was really a Republican at heart, the resulting ambivalence only frustrating, grumping him out, wetting his whistle like the bad old days, as he marked time to a dream retirement back on a farm somewhere out near Streator or Earlville. City gal that she was, Muriel nee Fennigan didn’t really mind the return to Chicago Lawn and blocks south—some re-adapting years ago by now—and quietly dreaded the prospect of retiring to mid-state fields of pigs and corn.

          They were rather an unlikely couple to begin with: She a first-gen Irish Catholic with Kerry roots, proper extended family still over there; he an Ulster Prod naturalized. She grew up in Bridgeport, he on the farm outside Prairie Crossing—only in America, only in Chicago. Dad hit the big city in his battered old baby Overland, stepping out after a day’s labor in the stockyards to two-bit dance halls from Marigold Gardens and Moorish Uptown Aragon south to Woodlawn’s opulent Trianon, eventually sweeping mom off her feet at a White City Ballroom. Her brother-in-law was already deep into ward politics, and soon plugged dad into the Machine at Streets and San.

          I only knew about all this because he’d get loaded when I was a pup and yammer on about Chicago’s glory days, at least until he started in how the Toddlin’ Town was turning so dirty and…dark. Which was why I grew to love the suburban life until it was mowed down by occupational hazards like the business cycle, and I was a city kid barely out of middle-class high school USA. I’d come along later, what with mom’s fragile condition and the family doctor’s exhortations, and usually seemed to start things later than sooner ever since. Otherwise, we as a family never much talked about such matters of consequence until reaching some crisis point or bitter end.

          “What did he mean by that crack?” I groused, as I helped tuck her in tighter as temperatures fell and the apartment’s steam heat had yet to rattle on.

          “Oh, don’t pay him no nevermind,” she said, pulling her graying head up slightly, wearily, then plopping back down on her favorite embroidered pillow. “She seemed like a nice girl—Moon, you call her? All I know is my college boy needs somebody good who will push him a little. Not another soft-soap like me.”

          “Soft-soap nuthin, you know better than that,” I said, leaning further forward on my armchair—with a splash of pride as well, given that my parents’ education ended short of high school. “Sooo, how you doin’ mom?”

          “I’m just fine, Ken, getting better all the time. Am so glad you’re here,” she coughed, having been a chain smoker all her born days, sending me out for her cigarettes most of mine. Sometimes the spells got so bad, she’d splay out on the living room carpet, gasping like a beached walleye to catch her breath. I swore she would light up even if she had plastic oxygen tubes rammed up her nostrils.

          “Gotta hang tough, mom, we’ve gotta keep you going strong.” No denying, she was our leading lady, an angel incarnate, devoutly Catholic, with a large and small ‘c’. She was always my salvation, my softer side—never would have sniffed sociology without her—probably would have bordered on patricide here and there without her mediation.

          “Don’t you worry about me,” she rallied softly, clearing her throat. She was always small in size, now getting smaller, though still sharp as a Stock Yards’ cleaver, with a heart big as Burnham Park. All she ever wanted to be was a flapper/hep cat city gal, but dad dragged her out to the suburbs, ending Southside life as she knew it, her side of the family all sticking things out, from Bridgeport to Canaryville to Calumet Park.

          Seeing no escape from Willow Grove, she dedicated herself to holding her marriage and little family together. Still, fate and low-level family connections eventually delivered her back closer to home. “But son, there are some things I must tell you, things that we’ve never really brought up over the years or your dad would ever talk about…I mean, now that you’re getting more serious with…”

          “What things, mom, what kind of things…”

          “Well, for one, I’ve always had a latent epilepsy condition that fortunately hasn’t gone into petite mal seizure stage since I was a little girl. I have no idea if or how this might affect you, but it’s something you need to keep in mind, just in case.”

          “Seizures?” I shuddered. “I’ve never once…”

          “File it away, okay? You never know about seizures. Blood can leak in your brain, swell it up, and if the ICP doesn’t ease—well, God forbid, there’s grand mal or grade 4 Gleoblastoma. I’m only telling you what the doctor told me long ago, son, so you are aware—for your own good,” she whispered, turning on her side toward me, bending my ear. “And, Ken, there are a couple more you should know about your father, now with your new lady friend, and all. But not a word to him that I’m telling you this…”

          “What? That he’s a narrow miser who only comes to life when he’s loaded?”

          “No fair, son, there’s more to your dad than that, he’s provided for us, hasn’t he? But take his side of the family,” she became as stern as she could be, what with the cancer and heartbreaking deterioration. “Grandpa Herbert had actually changed their name from MacDumfery, I recall it was. You know, to Americanize it, right off the boat—I think he took it from the Irish composer, Victor Herbert. And you remember hearing about your Uncle Early?”

          “Sure, dad’s older brother, died in the war…”

          “He was an 8th Armored Division medic gunned down as they fought SS snipers to liberate the Langenstein-Zwieberge concentration camp in April, ’45. He and your father were as tight as two boyhood corn shuckers can be, and it didn’t help that your dad had missed military combat because of his disc problem. I don’t know whether it’s lingering guilt over that, or bitterness over Early’s mop-up battle so late in the war, but my dear Ed still has that blind spot. Yet through it all, we have kept our little family together…and we’ll keep it that way—now, won’t we.”

          “Uh-huh, it was honorable duty though, wasn’t it? Uncle Early sure didn’t die in vain…and over 30 years ago, for criminy…”

          “If you ask me, Early was already broken by the war. His last letters were rambling and raving over what he’d seen and gone through. In one he wrote this strange rhyme about the death camps:

‘Jews in Poland, 
Jews in France, 
everybody goes there,
 wets their pants…’

 I think he would have been a shell-shocked ghost of himself if he had ever made it back home. But it goes deeper than that, son, even deeper than your grandmother’s Edinburgh disapproval of the Irish in me. There’s the case of your Aunt Eleanor…”

           “The one who was institutionalized?” I pictured my dear mother as a Christly child on Bridgeport’s Emerald Street, as a divinely beatified colleen one boat ride away from Killarney. “Don’t remember ever meeting her.”

           “We never took you, although your dad used to visit her every so often. It wasn’t just that she was put away, it was why…”

           But it didn’t take us long to realize that the old neighborhood our little family was returning to was rapidly changing back then. Gone were the Irish; the Ulsterites never were. Even long-time mainstays from the Baltic States were dying off and giving ground. Red lines were drawn sharply this side of Western Avenue, but that didn’t stop southwest-siders from fearing their Chicago Lawn would inevitably ‘fade to black’. Just like as how these days, the city seemed to feel more vulnerable and inferior than ever, having fallen to its knees upon Da Mayor’s sudden death, yet to right itself—with a machine toady named Bilandic in city hall, presiding over Beirut-like ruins.

           Our reverse migration hardly helped. The pearly White City that my parents knew and loved in their youth was now little more than some legacy lakefront museums and monuments amid high-rise slums. Daley’s power to ride herd over the segregated neighborhoods and serve North Shore business interests passed with him. And no amount of vote padding and shady restrictive covenants was about to stanch that Southside white flight and Afro demographic overflow.

          By now, it was all my father could do to walk off his residual angst and resentments between the California Street liquor store and nearby municipal park benches, tethered to our aging, infirm dog, Laddie—at least until that collie mix keeled over for good.                Chicago Lawn

           “Aunt Eleanor flipped out right?” I shook my head. “Died in restraints I overheard you and dad saying at the time.”

           “She was a beautiful young girl, the belle of Prairie Crossing, as your father tells it. He always says she brightened up the farm, even on the cloudiest winter days. But Eleanor had a mind of her own, and took up with the general store owner’s son. When Grandma Herbert found out, she stopped the affair then and there. She didn’t just put her foot down, but grounded her.

          “Then, when her only daughter rebelled and snuck off on dates with the boy anyway and started showing with child, that was the last straw. Your grandmother castigated her and threatened to end it with some chemical solution, Eleanor fought back, she locked her away in her room, padlock, and all. Poor Eleanor broke down under the punishment and strain, went into hysteria and became violently mad until she became a physical threat to herself and the whole clan out there, had the baby anyhow. So they had the poor thing committed, put the newborn up for adoption and signed her over to the state.”

           “Cripesake, she had a little boyfriend, so what?”

           “The Herberts were bible-reciting Presbyterians on the farm, Ken—even after your grandpa dropped dead tilling the fields. And I gather the boy’s name was Norman Browstein, see—his family adopted the baby and raised him. Way I heard it, eventually Norman took over the family grocery chain, and his boy died a hero on Corregidor in World War II.  Eleanor never got over it, and your grandmother always held that it was an affront to the senses of her strict Victorian upbringing to the day she died—which happened just hours after the Army delivered official news about Early. I’ll never forget her casket side by side with her beloved son’s flag-draped coffin. Neither has your father, much less your Uncle Dellis, that crazy younger brother of his who still lives out there in Prairie Crossing. Your dad gave up on religion over the years, but not the grudge over his family’s tragedies.”

           “So it was the Browsteins’ fault?! That’s crazy…”

           “Even when I did some housework for Kay Rosen out in Willow Grove that time,” she added softly, shaking her head with an impish smile. “It was interesting and different, with their high holidays and all. They were such wonderful people, Arnold always letting us buy on credit at his grocery until payday. Apologizing for his sawdust floors—and the lean cuts of meat he’d set aside for me—what a godsend! I almost felt honored to help out with their festive Judaic parties, and it was a relief to get out of the house and see how the other half lived. But you know full well how your father would seethe—saying Early gave his life so I could scrub those peoples’ sinks—bellyaching about how servile Irish I could be, even though we needed the extra money anyhow.”

           “Phone call,” my dad poked back into the living room, pipe waggling as he nodded my way. He was tall and scarecrow slender, but with thick farmer forearms to this day. “It’s for you…”

           I pulled away from mom as she wheezed and lit up a Salem Menthol, and bolted down their flowery carpet runnered hall to the dining room phone, picking up with an odd stab of trepidation, figuring who it must be. “Hello…Moon?”

           “Yes, Kenny, how is the situation going down there?”

           “Fine, we’re just going over some…things…” I coughed, glancing  toward the flat’s front door as my father shuffled out to the vestibule, mailbox key in hand.

           “Things?”

           “You know, family stuff—how about you?”

           “Still getting settled in…heard from Faith Mendel yesterday, even jerky Lester, of all people. When are you coming back up?”

           “What? Real soon, weather permitting,” I jabbered, peeking out the dining room windows, at the cloud cover darkening their hanky size backyard and alley. “Just let me work this end a little more and…”

           “What’s to work on, and how is your mother doing?”

           “Holding her own, Moon,” I said, lowering the volume. “But it’s kinda delicate right now…can I call you back?”

           “Sooner than later, okay?”

           “You bet, just a little later on—I’ll explain,” I whispered, my dad heading toward me with, sifting through bills and couponed junk mail. “Hi to Seamus…Pags, too…bye.” CLICK.

           “Forwarded,” he muttered, furrowing his striated brow, looking askance at the plain black telephone as he handed me a black/gold-on-white envelope. “From Colorado …looks like it’s from your fancy pants college…”

Care for more?

 Chapter 37. Old neighborhood stress and 
strife drive to a fortuitous fare to the air, then 
a return trip to notorious old habits and haunts…

∞ STAGE TWO ∞


Chicago Suite

“Past is prologue, or
antilogue, nowhere to hide—
shove it all aside.”
Thornia high-ku

          DING…DING…DING…DING…

          “Any priors?”

          “Huh? Of course not…”

          “What about diseases? Hooked on any dope?”

          “No…uh, coffee—maybe…”

          “You mental? Get blackouts, seizures—maybe some fits and spasms every once in a while. Ever choke on your tongue or piss yourself?”

          “Hell, no…not that I can…”

          “OK, let’s see here, set you up for pix and prints and prints…”

          DING…DING…DING…DING…DING…

          The retreat hadn’t nearly been complete. Yet, there it was: Napoleon’s army out of Moscow, Lee out of Gettysburg, Bataan and Saigon ’75 all over again, albeit on a smaller scale. Melissa had scooped me and my success trip, cramming the entire mess into my car with a little extra Thibeaux muscle. She’d then left an obligatory thank-you note for Denise and Regina Tzu.

          Over her abject objections, I’d taped my condolences to Sydney’s mail slot, on the back of a Lovelock Arms receipt I’d fitfully found under my floor mat—writing something weasel-word lame to the effect that we’d all be better off for this—a last, silent offering to any bruised egos and busted hearts. Morning fog lifted as we left San Francisco, but a low overcast set in over the bridge, along San Pablo. I blinked into the rearview mirror at Rodeo and Crockett, aching tail between my legs—tethered somehow still, gauging the evacuation on my emerging man-o-meter while Moon stared out the shotgun side window, crocheting away.

          Mental milemarkers like wuss, wimp and pussy-whipped had accumulated along I-80 East, that haunting ‘Shame on You If You Can’t Pass Through’ disco number Syd had sung to, ragging me on the turned-down radio until hourly news headlined another brutal overnight attack in Lafayette Park. Say what? Nooo…had to be a copycat or something—the hell with all that!  My shaken, sotto voce soon crossfire eroded a brooding, unspoken ceasefire by Sacramento, sniping and countermeasures breaking the truce altogether over the Sierra. Finger pointing and recriminations carried us through winter-swept Nevada.

          Spent ammo and road fatigue ended all that by Salt Lake and the snowbound Wasatch Range. Still, the die had been cast, a pattern had been established: Point, counterpoint; pull over for coffee, dish out the cognitive dissonance, pick at the sore spots like an oozing lesion, time and again, onto the next truck stop, as in:

          “How could you be so…ruthless,” I’d ask, milking and stirring as we thawed out our extremities.

          “How could you be such a goon,” she’d sip, face flushed as a kewpie doll. “Going off half-cocked like that.”

          “Don’t treat me like a little kid! And by the way, who the hell was that guy answering our phone?”

          “It was all I could do to keep you from messing yourself up even more.” Melissa would cover the check as I gassed up the Volks. “Anyway, grow up, Kenny. That was only a good friend looking in on our animules and stuff while I worked, okay?”

          “Grow up?! Keep this up, and I’ll be turning right back around.”

          “Back to what? Some fool-headed San Frantasy,” she’d rebundle under her bunny brocade, quilted coat, head to toe. “You’d think you’d know better than that by now…”

          So it went, by fits and misfits, snits and tarts, until our tongues cramped and throats burned over the sudden depth of our macro-relational woes: she seemingly torturing herself over her cocksure miscalculations, me wondering why I-80 was so much more uplifting on the westward leg. But from Little America on through Laramie and Loveland, strategic planning, logistical moves had begun to rule the road, slush and black ice taking a back seat to more reasoned than heated debate.

          By the time we had returned to Boulder, snows had cleared, but it hit us like an avalanche that some glacial changes were now etched in the Flatirons’ sandstone. Obligatory phone calls to the Coach Light Inn and Chicagoland had been made—W-2’s resolved, mom not doing any better. Upon first alert, friends and neighbors debated and dissuaded us over the distress move, until one of Melissa’s pottery pals said she could see me in a bigger city like San Francisco, with Moon staying put here where she belonged. This, even after Melissa declared that where I went, she went—for or against her better judgment—curiously determined to have and hold commitment-wise. Loyal to a fault was she, even though the fault lay elsewhere. I was instantly personal non-gratitude; but they continued to orbit fondly around their Moon.

          With that, a crafty, co-optivating kiln tender eagerly volunteered to take the cabin off our hands—ostensibly tend it for us—fixing as she was to move in before we could even begin to pack and ship. Moon fretted as how her bubbie might be leaving her just enough money to pluck down an earnest payment on the place to its Idaho landlord, but she couldn’t bank on that just yet.

          Besides, pensive chagrin was disintegrating into foreclosed humiliation, and the cabin had now felt haunted by what was before. No Ph.D. news was bad news from the sociology department and Boulder wasn’t getting any cheaper. So we boxed up most things in every dusty nook and cranny that would squeeze into the left rear corner of a consolidated eastbound moving van. The leftovers, mostly mine, were masking tape labeled and stuffed into the backyard storage shed lock, stock and gun barrel—save for ‘Waif and Grain’, which Moon had slashed and burned in the front room fireplace, for warmth and wrath on a cold closing night.

          Morning next, no friends, no phone calls, no confetti rapturous farewells: Dropped like the temperatures, for nobody knew (or cared to know) anybody who in their righteous minds ever left Boulder Valley—for a place like Chicago, no less. So we faced reality overload, doormatted the keys to Rocky Mountain paradise, dropped off forwarding addresses and pulled up stakes, a quick cut and run, in torn, tattered, remorseful silence, with John Denver singing to high heaven on the FM dial.

            “I just feel so uprooted,” Moon had said wistfully, as we loaded our respective cars with essentials and any valuables: Pags into her Toyota, Seamus piled into the back of my Volks. “Honestly, Kenny, what’s going on with us?”

          “Hard tellin’,” I replied before we each closed driver doors on our foothills Elysium and crept off like a funeral procession past Columbia Cemetery and Chautauqua Park. “Major missteps, major changes and chain reactions…”

          Such was the gut wrenching and soul searching that had propelled us out onto the turnpike, flagging downhill to Denver, Melissa stoically leading the way. But she signaled by Broomfield that we couldn’t really hit the road in earnest without a decent breakfast.  So our crestfallen dos-a-dos retreat wheeled into a pancake house just this side of the I-25/70 interchange for a split short stack and pair of over easies, toast on the cinnamon-raison side, bottomless pot.

          “Chains, reactions, what are you thinking,” Moon ruffled out our bronco-busting napkins, busily straightening the utensils and placemats as though we were still in the cabin kitchen on a Sunday morn.

          “Nothing,” I peered out the restaurant’s west-facing windows at the Rockies’ range, peak after snowy peak, shrinking into the corner booth from what lay beyond. “Shoulda left me out of this to begin with, Moon. Shoulda just left it all alone.”

          “But I went out there to save us, Kenny,” she cried, over the jukebox blaring of an immediately awkward R&B number, Maxine warbling, ‘…Love is good, love can be strong, we gotta get right back to where we started from’ like a disco Nightingale. “Give me that much credit, for godsakes.”

          “The best thing we had going was trust,” I sugared up some coffee, tuned out J-7, as the waitress spread around her tray. “Whew, talk about total destruction…”

         “I’ll tell you destruction.” Having knife cut our pancakes, Moon nervously buttered our toast—ever making motherly busy work for her tiny, nail-bitten hands. “Destruction is you staying out there and messing around with that conniving little…”

          “You don’t even know, Moon. It wasn’t that way, at all.” I knifed into the Log Cabin-drenched stack, mixing in the yokes.

          “Then why didn’t you come clean with me to start with?” She delivered her egg unto my plate, nibbling at her cakes. “Why’d you scream for the life raft in Golden Gate Park? Because you knew you’d be chopped liver out there by now, that’s why. Tsk, you had two beautiful sisterly women blowing up over you, haven’t you done enough damage already?!”

          “You finished? Let’s get outta here, okay,” I downed my coffee, hitting the head while she settled up, realizing I hadn’t thought of things quite that way. As we doggy bagged, walked Seamus and Kibbled Pags out in the parking lot, I took one last long breath of mountain air.  “Sure about this, Moon?  I mean, we could turn around and…”

       “We’re going back to Chicago, Kenny. It’s not a pretty picture, but at least we’ll face it together. Maybe sometimes you have to go back before you can go forward again.”

          Then we had quietly slid into our respective cars, and were off, though with very little settled. From there, it was all hand signals to Denver’s Interstate interchange. Seemed her Toyota kept veering east around the cloverleaf, while my squareback kept pulling to the west like a headstrong deerhound on a lapdog leash. Still, I fought the Volks onto I-70, following Melissa’s bumper-to-bumper lead away from Front Range splendor and promise. I dutifully followed her back to I-70 toward the flatlands, dialing as it happened to Josh Gravanek’s latest mid-rock hit-with-a-bullet: ‘Around The Bender’ by the Jilters, on Sky High 105 radio. It got me to wondering what was up with Josh’s box at Syd’s place anyhow.

          At first, the more she drew me eastward, the more I had resolved to passively resist—to where she became less an arrowhead than a target, I less a faithful drover than a looming roadblock. But stuff the defiance and dissonance, this road isolation was a tonic somehow, the eastbound interstate proving reliably straight and true. It gave me a buffer, the squareback a cocoon—time for calmer reflection and gradual pause, timeless suspension, a highway trance broken only by Moon’s periodic honking and Seamus’ bursts of barking after grazing livestock, herds of gophers and prairie dogs.

          AM radio ranged from Abba to Merle to Z.Z. in and out, up and down the dial, with an occasional ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Now That You’ve Gone’ oldie recorded by the big, brassy…Chicago up at Caribou Ranch just above Boulder—or Colorado Transit Authority, for all the tinhorns back home.

          I shook off those parting shots, settling in for the Great infinite Plains, this nine-hundred mile drainage ditch into the Mississippi Valley toward middlin’ Missouri—a declining path of least resistance. So much headroom for ruminating, rationalizing, my guardian angel waving, gesturing as she led the way with a resurgence of homespun confidence.

          The more I had filled my mind with this emotional teeter-totter, the more intriguing it became. Distance, triangular game theory, posing hypotheticals. Had I left my head in San Francisco, about what loose ends tend to portend: lost Satalisman, further threats and throes. Upon further reflection, it had all come down to indelibly clear alternatives—as in either, or propositions. Should have stood ground, did what’s best; should have stayed on, hell outta there: life was like that, right? Should have shrugged off Moon’s trusty drive west suggestion in the first place; should have blown Syd out of the water before I got in so deep—let alone Lafayette Park.

          I dug even deeper amid the long stratocumulated acres of combines, feed silos and towering ingrained elevators. Sociology aside, I harkened back to undergraduate philosophy: the greatest good for the greatest number Utilitarianism, or Free Will and Determinism. Hmmm, interesting. Fade in, fade out: perspectives, conclusions stacking up like hay bales, mile after mile, crystallizing, congealing, sweet as the truck stop custards and other snacks we shared on minimal rest and refuel pauses.

          Guess that was why I always got off on interstates like this—no hassles, no headaches, little indigestion—so ponderous, so empowering, minimal decisions in maximum space and time. Velocitized suspension of asphalt grounded reality: this super highway seemed such an infinitely irresistible loophole. The roadway had been so casual, so independent, so simply clear—four-lane, high-speed, twelve-volt peace of mind, minus the hog reports and top-40 radio. Velocitized suspension of asphalt grounded reality and jerkwater speed traps—no long, heavy promises and payments due: this super highway was such an infinitely irresistible loophole, keeping a lid on, letting things fly. Trouble was, that lofty yellow line groove had served to confound me even more over the miles, and only got me as far as down here.

          DING, DING, DING, DING…

          “It’s not much, Moon, but it’s a start, quick and dirty,” I said, capping the pay phone receiver from roaring, peeling garage traffic and the ringing of counting strips. “Looks like I’ll just have to pick up my permit downtown tomorrow.”

          “Um, sounds…okay, Kenny—but…”

          “A little quick and dirty, maybe—but I can’t be vegging out up there, gotta start payin’ back…”

          “Just get back up here before rush hour, okay? The truck came this morning, and our stuff was totally covered with some kind of blue cleaning powder, industrial strength. The driver said a drum of it burst en route, and they’re claiming it’s not their responsibility. Just what kind of special deal did you work out with…”

          “I’ll be right up…”

          DING, DING, DING, DING, DING…

          My interstate nirvana had degenerated into wheel-gripping tension once we bypassed Thibeaux’s St. Louis and plowed up the virtual length of Illinois’ corn country on I-55. Melissa took command around Romeoville, beckoning me toward the Stevenson and North Shore expressways without the slightest roadside or sidetrack hesitation. By the Sanitary Canal Bridge, Chicago’s industrial sprawl had increasingly sucked us in, truck traffic corralling our little caravan in a squall of soot and fumes.

          The big Broad Shoulders were still as gray and brooding as I remembered, miles of brown brick decay all the way to Lake Michigan’s south shores, downtown skyline excess rising in congested civic ardor and phallic compensation. Sears, Prudential, Hancock, Water Tower PlaceChicago skyline: the taller, premium architectural landmarks remained in place, but someone else’s memories now fetishized their towers. Everything was recognizable here, but nothing was sentimentally familiar. Yet I dutifully followed Melissa’s Toyota like a bugbeared grizzly cub through downtown’s Congress Parkway interchange, all but hanging on her bumper as the Kennedy Expressway clogged with a drizzly, early evening rush.

          JFK’s diagonal slice through Northside revival and outer ethnic neighborhoods slowly fed onto Edens Expressway. Just before the Touhy Avenue cloverleaf, a Cook County Sheriff’s cordon of flashing patrol cars escorted what looked to be an orderly, rather synchronous cortege striding along the northbound emergency lane, beginning to clog traffic again, before long clear back to Wrigleyville.

          It looked to be another Chicago-style labor dispute, maybe involving UPS or something; I couldn’t make out the bobbing placards. But we had eventually maneuvered past police loudspeakers, the clatter of heels, slogans and signage, into block upon block of tidy blond brick bungalows on the southern, Howard Avenue stretch of Skokie. There, was Melissa’s family home—a blond brick, ranch-style bungalow with off-white wood trim—small trim front lawn and parkway trees in line with the neighborhood up and down Howard Street.

          “Out of state license, is it?”

          “Yah, just finished grad school there…”

          “College boy, huh? So whatcha you doing way down here? You got trouble?”

          “No, just some…obligations.”

          “Yeah, yeah—wait, what’s the address? Suburbs? Can’t have that…”

          “Uh, only for the time being. Here, I’ll give you my folks’ here in town…”

          “That’ll do. Go pick up your temporary license,” said the stub Camel dragging dispatcher through his cashier window in a dank upper Clark Street carbarn. “Start tomorrow morning, I’ll give you number 3240 over there. Hit the bricks for the morning push, you move that heap like heinies on fire, hear? This ain’t no bullshit sitcom…”   Cab garage

          I’d whizzed through the express lane for booth photos and fingerprints, been given some sort of priority points for citizenship and language comprehension. The whole idea had come amid the onset of a sleeting rainstorm that caught me with my car battery down, while en route to a northside parts dismantler for a discounted re-core. The first cabbie I could hail advised me that Checker Taxi was hiring any Chi-town moke who could reach the floor pedals.

          All I knew was Melissa had fronted all our moving expenses, and then there was a countless tab run west; needed ready money good and fast. So I scared up a cut-rate battery, installing it under the Volks’ back seat, then throttled down to city hall for a temporary driver permit. Just beating rush hour traffic, I soon rumbled back up Edens to Skokie—wipers slapping in tune with some vintage John Prine—to the Saversohn’s place, where I found our Boulder belongings stacked loosely just inside their garage door, Moon sorting through it all with a beset, mournful expression.

           “Now, what am I supposed to do with all this stuff, Kenny,” she spouted, blowing a whisp of hair out of her eyes, straightening up her coral-colored jersey and bib overalls. “The powder is getting like plaster…”

          “Be right there,” I said, ducking into her garage under Tribune cover, Seams jumping me as far as his dog chain would allow. “Had a little car trouble, though I did take the job.”

          “But cab hacking? You have a master’s degree now and…”

          “Gotta make some quick changes, Moon. Something’s gotta give…”

sr dingbats

Saturning for transitory
re-entry to the Chi side…toward ’the
 Chicago Seven’ Chapters, circa 1978.
(FYI: reader discretion and the like.)

      Liberating as that I-70 road show may have seemed, there was no denying the creature bennies of power showers, balanced meals, Mr. Coffee and cable TV. Truth telling: I found myself cozying up to the place, a bit too much so for comfort. Talk about path of least resistance. As usual, Melissa was doing most of the giving, what with her father off on a business trip to Rockford and Rock Island, machine tool samples in his sales cases.

          He was made painfully aware of his daughter’s situation before leaving, however, directing us to separate bedrooms, pledging to weigh in upon return. In the meantime, Moon cooked, cleaned, unpacked and reordered our bundles and cartons, aiming to make me feel as ‘at home’ in her old home as possible as the week progressed. She pampered me, head to head, and everywhere in between, before stretching things full out on a den room sofabed.

          For my part, I kept close phone touch with my parents without letting on where I actually was yet.  Otherwise, I lounged around kitchen combing, paging through various paper want ads, kitchen raiding and walking Seamus for mutual relief. Sometimes I lost track of where I was, but she would remind me where we were, and better regrouping here than floundering somewhere out there. Yet I couldn’t help fearing we were going nowhere.

          “I suppose,” Melissa said, making for a coffee break in the kitchen nook. “But you’ve a little breathing room here, so why don’t you try for a social services spot, or a little substitute teaching? Then you could check out a Ph.D. program right here—like back at Circle Campus? I can get into daycare, a crafts studio or something…”

          “Get serious, Moon, that takes time,” I replied, taken aback as she poured us two mugs of Joe DiMaggio’s and broke out the CoffeeMate. “I’m talking about right now.”

          “I am serious. Use your head, Kenny, why do you think I came back here with you? Now we’ve got to get another place and everything…”

          “Everything?” My heart started racing with a caffeine push, although apparently not as fast as her mind.

          “Now that we’ve settled things, it’s time to off with the hang loose no defining us, don’t you agree? I mean, after all we’ve been through, here we be…”

          “Well…sure…I can see what you’re saying…” I sank deeper into my counter stool, tapping away at the Formica as the unspoken prospect sunk in.

          Outside the nook window was a backyard roughly the size of a badminton court, but well tended with dormant plants and flowers budding for an early spring thaw. Inside here, a bookshelf and china cabinet were neatly lined, yet appeared to lack a feminine touch. I couldn’t help but note framed photos of Melissa as an infant, one on her father’s lap, with a bit blurry image of a woman standing behind them with folded arms. Next to the fading shots of sundry relatives was a small brass menorah, the only sign of religious symbolism I’d noticed anywhere in the Saversohn household thus far.

          Not that I hadn’t been up here before, but that initial hospitality was pretty much limited to the living room. Moon and I had initially met in the student union, sharing a sunny outdoor table overlooking the cold concrete Circle Campus. We started right up debating folky singer/songwriters and American Lit.  I was talking James Taylor and Richard Thompson; she turned me onto Paul Seibel, Steve Goodman and Randy Newman.  I liked Tom Wolfe and Brautigan; she was into Sontag and Jong.  I commuted north, she came south—we’d meet after class at various spots, Old Town to Greektown, occasionally spreading our wings uptown on Lincoln and Broadway. Totally secular, nothing denominational—I’d come back from the army stint, she’d come off an overcooked marriage.

          When we completed undergrad, I applied to Boulder on a whim and a dare. Dream of hairbrained dreams, we were soon fleeing big, grimy Second City for some clean, clear Rocky Mountain air like so many heady Midwest refugees, with nary a second thought of theology beyond Ram Dass or Kahlil Gibran. But before taking flight, she had introduced me to her father, who greeted me warily at the Saversohn door, then sent us off to Colorado with daggers in his eyes. Now he was pulling his fleet car Buick Special into the driveway, home from the machine shop wars, apparently bracing to grill and drill me as to long-term intentions.   Saversohn house, Skokie

          “She’s my only child, you know, and I’m grateful she will be closer to home,” said Hal Saversohn, setting aside his brief case, dispatching his daughter, sitting down across from me with a piping double mug. “Little angel, she has had tough sledding from the start, basically took care of us from the very moment her dear mother passed away, rest her soul.”

          “I know, sir,” I replied weakly, watching Moon retreat in a mortified huff to the garage for more sorting. “She told me about being the lady of the house, starting in junior high school. I guess that’s what makes her so special, huh?”

          “Yes, preciously special,” he took my measure like a lathe master with his micrometer. “So, man-to-man, what’s going on with you two?”

          “Intentions…well, we’re working that all out as we speak. This move has been a little…awkward…”

          “Tell me about awkward, son,” he sighed, yanking loose his necktie and rubbing his fully receded hairline. “I had to learn about this from Faith Mendel, of all people. She phoned me right after hearing from that spoiled wildcat daughter of hers. Apologized for the unforeseen turn of events between our little girls.”

          “Really…” Our? That kind of connection came as headline news to me, subdividing my perspective even further. In some respects, I recognized I was in the driver’s seat situation-wise, yet was ready and more than willing to relinquish the wheel. At once I felt wanted and wounded, roguish and repentant, free rein and responsible—virile, full of vigor, yet vanquished—sweating and hollow to the core. “Well, it’s not quite what you hear, believe me.”

          “I hope not, son, for your sake, as well as Melissa’s, read me? She’s been through enough already in her young life. And that’s not how a man treats such a fine young woman where I come from,” he tapped my forearm. “So I’m sure you’ll do what’s right by her.”

          “I’m getting right on the case to square all this away, Mr. Saversohn, right as rain. You needn’t worry one bit.” Hadn’t a clue what to make of that, but I couldn’t help but respect and like the guy. Still, taken together, these exchanges prompted my retreat to his den, then an extension phone call and speed dial decision, slamming down the receiver once Melissa softly knocked her way into the room.

          “It’s my folks, Moon,” I sputtered, “mom’s taken a turn for the worse…”

          “Sorry to hear that, Kenny,” she said cautiously. “I hope you passed along my best wishes.”

          “Yeah, actually it was my dad on the line again. And I’m going to head down and see her for myself…”

          “Good idea, just get back here so we can get to work on our plans and stuff.”

          “Right, well…this may take me a while…”

Care for more?

 Chapter 36. Back in the driver’s 
seat, hitting the streets, a return trip 
to the old family turf finds skeletons 
ultimately playing the tune…

  “A hunger for resolution
may result in further
upset and dyspepsia.”

           “Be my guest, the more the harrier …”

          “Hi, I’m Melissa Saversohn, Denise’s friend…”

          “Sure, fine—mi casa, su casa. Bring on the tour buses, there’s plenty of room in the Hotel San Francisco.”

          “Uh, Denise’s room is back and to the right,” I motioned to Moon, bypassing Regina Tzu’s spirited hospitality.

______________________________________________________

VaporBonus: Chapter 34 prequel

Down time—cooling off period. A little situational shut-eye,
strategic 
turn about. But a bloomin’ sectarian twist of faith
has him all but scurrying 
for provisions and relative refuge,
trying to unknow the hearsay unknown. 

(If) you must: Chapter 33.5, otherwise… minus key details…
______________________________________________________

          I had circled back to Denise’s place after my errand run, noggin as sodden as a Sligo peet bog. I’d blown off Dutch salads in favor of the conciliatory bagels and lemon-lime Calistogas, preoccupied with notions of what those Rectory blokes were actually cooking up, roots and all—and how I might swallow it or spill. Aww, probably was the booze talking, right? Just like it always was by my ol’ man.

           Conspiralling with that whole explosive mick trip was what I should otherwise say or do to reconcile with Moon, who had arguably transited from Mimas to Titan over the course of our heads-on collision. So well played, how she gained the upper hand with a full-blown diamond flush: Seemed I couldn’t break away, couldn’t stay away, either.

          Melissa had greeted me at the door moments before Regina Tzu returned from some of her Vedic vespers. A catnapped Moon quickly smoothed the waters with her organic, neighborly smile. She then said over our takeout bagelry snack that there was little she saw in Denise’s room that she hadn’t already painfully surmised—that Ms. Keiner didn’t belong here, either.  Moon knew her brainy grade school pal was on a recessive reel—that no assistantships, no further scholarships, no fellowships on earth could keep her from her duly appointed downs. 

          Denise had apparently chased her Wolverine gymnastic Vedonis out here to oblivion.  Naturally, he’d left her packing sand castles on some state beach north of Asilomar, before vaulting his way to Stanford’s fieldhouse.  So she was working through that, from a foam pad in the Richmond District to the retreatful shores and hillsides of Bahia, Mexico.  No big thing—even Regina Tzu, her ever-burdened and bothered silversmith roomie, aligned with Denise’s southern gravitational pull—razor sharp and sardonic as she presently was in her devotional black maxi-vest and flapping bell bottoms.  But this Thibeaux character…

          “Then what’s goin’ on here. I mean, like, where’s the scenario?” Thibeaux Cauler was clearly the oblique angle in Denise’s household triumvirate. How had she put it to Moon, the resident Rastafarian fuzzball on their woolliest of flings. “No sense gettin’ all stoked out about it, right? Han Loon’s got too much primo pork fried rice waitin’ for that…”

         Thus at Thibeaux’s invitation, we secured Moon bags in Denise’s room and piled into the squareback, bound for Chinatown, or wherever, leaving Regina Tzu to her own devices. I drew comfort from the diversion, although not nearly enough to quell the brain rage that seemed to be riding back in on that fog bank far down Fulton Street.

          “Yo, yeah—there’s somethin’ I’m supposed to be tellin’ you,” Thibeaux mused from center seat rear, elbows straddling atop both bucket seats. He was a spare, somewhat beguiling minstrel in hand-embroidered brown cords, a gold V-neck pullover and unraveling blue blazer. Slapping dramatically at his forehead, he nudged back his knit Afro scull cap, scrunching its rasty red, yellow, green and gold-layered bands to reveal a receding, close-cropped hairline. “Damn, it’ll come to me before we hit Russian Hill…”

          “Russian Hill,” Melissa balked, though not daring to look over her shoulder—hunger pangs having set in, fore and aft. “I thought we decided on Chinese.”

          “That’s where Han Loon’s is,” he replied, tugging at his tangled beard, then laying several long-fingered taps on my shoulder. “Just cut across Park Presidio toward the bridge, dig? So we can shoot up Lombard Street.” Park Presidio

          “I heard the Russians and Chinese don’t get along, keep seeing red,” she cracked, as she jabbed my knee for some jerky response to her homespun stab at comedic relief. “Yuh, uh, ahh…” This time, I glared silently, checking my rearviews, lying low on the accelerator, skimming the traffic lights, as well.

          “Just do it, mah man,” Cauler urged, “before that fog snakes in here and freezes our sorry asses.”

          “Can’t have that,” Moon smirked, glancing over to me, as if gauging my vital signs, studying my shifts. She counted one-thousand-one to one-thousand-ten under her breath, then peered off again into the streaming Park Presidio traffic, at the overcrowded bus stops on most every block. “Now, can we…”

          Those vital signs were as obscure and constrained as the MacArthur Tunnel, as convoluted as the exit ramps curving off 19th Avenue to Doyle Drive. I rode hard and heavy along Crissy Field’s bayside perimeter through the Marina, across Van Ness to the Russian Hill climb—peripherally eyeing Syd’s place, not to mention the wiles of Lafayette Park. I twitched, fretted, muttered and flushed—seemingly all at once—reactions radically out-of-synch with the overwrought trickle of conversation, not to mention the blur of beauty and bull run traffic passing by.

Presidio, Doyle Drive          “There, cut over to Union, then right on Hyde,” Thibeaux spouted, with palpable reprieve, breaking between his sing along with the second and third stanzas of ‘That’s the way of the World’ on KYA radio. He was a gritty little tenor, somewhere betwixt Richie Havens and Lionel Ritchie, but with an amphetamine timbre to his voice that paced the boomy tabula riffing on my seatbacks. “Gotta get me one of them penthouses up there on Leavenworth.”

          I throttled rashly through converging cable cars, Melissa holding fast to her seat until we rolled to relative safety down Jackson Street. “Tsk, really, Kenny—you…”

          “Like, with one of them wraparound sundecks lookin’ out over Alcatraz…hey, that’s it—on the corner—where they’re lined up out the door. Man, there’s even a spot…there’s never a spot up here,” Thibeaux shouted, nearly crawling over the seatbacks. “You folks must be real karmic…”

          “Ask her about it,” I grumbled, as I backed lamely into the parallel space along Hyde Street. I rocked six times before leveling out, nailing an orange Morris Minor behind us, then crunching the purple Ghia up ahead. “Too damn tight…”

          “Tight?! Kenny you knocked off that guy’s bumper guard,” Moon swiveled for and aft. “What’s with you?”

          “No problem,” I shut the Volks down.

          “But it’s just dangling there,” she insisted, after springing out of the wagon.

          “I said, no sweat, alright?!” Before I could lock off the ignition key, a radio news brief led with reports that beyond an IRS investigation into Peoples Temple finances, Jonestown defector accounts had recently alleged an increase in Jim Jones’ White Night’ paranoia scrambles—complete with faked deaths, punch bowl truth tests and firearmed formations—along with more toxic ‘sexual servicing’ marathons and ‘Revolutionary Suicide’ exercises. None of this had been verified, however, by either the U.S. Embassy or Guyana authorities. Details at the top of the hour…

          “Strange trippins’, ain’t that right,” Thibeaux echoed, crawling out Melissa’s door. “But everybody crunches everybody in this town. “Just sceeve’ em and leave ’em be…”

          Moon riveted me, but I stood gazing away vacantly across Hyde. Then I dawdled well behind as Thibeaux obligingly escorted her to line’s end. Han Loon was a simple won-ton and guy pan parlor of brimming local legend. A one-time corner grocery anchoring a squash yellow three-story Victorian spin off, this shoeshine stand of a storefront had sprouted into THAT secret little soy palace, which newly ordained natives suffered unbearably to hip their way into.

          “How long’s the wait,” Moon buttoned up her wool car coat, not nearly so euphoric as those now gaining on the door.

          “Hey, who knows,” Cauler grinned, tugging in on his lapels as a westerly gust tore up Jackson. “Ten, half-hour, maybe…”

          “Come on,” she groaned, “there must be a zillion Chinese restaurants here…”

          “Not this good, or this cheap,” he countered, “or stone uncomfortable.”

          CLANG, CLANG, squeesh, clang,clang… An indisputable perk to this streetcorner vigil was the clattering, whirring Hyde Street line—an irrepressible procession of tourist-thick cable cars that turned Wharfward at Jackson. Raving, arm-waving ninnies dripping off each succeeding car were enough to stem one’s gluttonous urges in short order. But the kicker was they were doomed to tourist greaseries as sure as if they had been crammed into paddy wagons, however close their brush with this neighborhood Mandarin mecca.       Russian Hill

          “Brown rice, after my bagel, that’s all I want,” Melissa muttered, a full party of three squeezing out the front doors and two self-styled New Age Asians slipping in. “Bet they don’t even have that. Honestly, it can’t be worth all the hassle. I’d never make customers wait like this at my Coach Light Inn back in Boulder.”

          But she seemed more hassled by me, and the way I’d shuffled aimlessly across the street. She spotted me circling the squareback like a smog inspector, picking up that bumper guard, setting it carefully on the Minor’s hood. I then wandered toward the third storefront up from the corner—was that a laundromat, or what…but spun back around.

          “Awww, where’s your sense of adventure, missy,” Thibeaux hooted.

          “I’ve had my adventure for today, thank you…”

          I finally legged alongside a creaking, turning cable car as if poised to jump aboard, but instead paused and tailed over to them as they matriculated to the head of Loon’s long, famished wait line.

          “What was that all about, Kenny,” she snapped as I returned. “You were sniffing around there like Seamus for a tree.”

          “Just checking out the bumpers…and stuff,” I answered, distant as that cable car climbing way up Hyde Street to the final Russian Hill ridge, then slipping otter-like down the far side toward Aquatic Park.

          “You’re the absolute limit, you know that?” Moon scowled, until Thibeaux split the different difference before him.

          “The fog,” he grinned, yanking down his cap in the breeze.

          “Beg your pardon,” she poked me in the ribs for some sort of rise.

          “It’s the fog…”

          “But there’s no fog over here! Kenny…”

          “No, man,” Thibeaux replied slyly. “The fog in the head, dig?”

          “Quick,” I said, “we’re next…”

          Han Loon’s corner table opened abruptly, a couple who’d choked on their fortune cookies finally caught the waiter’s pushy sneer. They looked to be art school émigrés with a severe tea fetish, and possibly the only reason they left at all was that Number Two Loon had sealed off the water closet with a solid stack of rice sacks.

          “Please,” the young, white-coated waiter beckoned.

          “Excellent, table one,” Thibeaux grinned. “I caught The Juice spellin’ here once.”

          “What’s excellent about spilling Juice?” Moon said, hesitating before Cauler could smoothly take her coat and seat her.

          “Not juice, Moon,” I sighed, slumping into the corner windowsill bench. “O.J. Simpson, the football player…”

          “So what’s football got to do with fog, already?” She could play that maddeningly obtuse card whenever she well pleased.

          We bellied up to a front table that looked directly out to the cable car turn, as well as that laundromat across Hyde. Once the waiter covered us with menus and tea, the cause of that lengthy wait became abundantly clear. For Han Loon’s consisted of no more than eleven bridge-size tables with red/gold vinyl chairs jigsawed into an impossibly narrow dining configuration. The only breathing room was directly overhead—rotating fans and fluorescent fixtured, smoke inverted dead space that capped off at approximately 18 feet.

          “Wrong fog again, baby,” Thibeaux clucked, while pouring Cameroon into their creamer-like china cups. “This fog settles in over the mind, affects the thinkin’. Stomps in on elephants’ feet, messes up the enephrins and receptors, if you catch my drift.”

          “Tell me about it,” Melissa scoffed, again fishing me for leers, nods, anything but brain-dead receptors.

          Nevertheless, my eyes wafted off into the cellish backroom kitchen, where three generations of Loons prepped about the hot, smoky cubicle like fire ants having at a sticky caramel bun. Then, another bell-beating cable car drew me once more to the squareback and laundromat—those Speed Queens and that battered, coin-filching pay phone. Wait a second here

          “It’s a fatal affliction,” Cauler continued, tapping his index finger against his right temple. “Hits damn near every newcomer to San Francisco—clogs up the ol’ chimney—makes you lose your balance and perspective…even self respect, if you ain’t watchful.”

          “As in Denise,” Moon muttered. She followed my eyes across Jackson, spotting the Morris Minor’s driver as he soured and tossed his mangled bumper guard, kicked the squareback, then pulled away. “Or…”

          This wasn’t right, I stewed silently, glancing one table over to a nurse leafing through the day’s Clarion. The newsrag heralded a front page City Hall probe on how, barely weeks after their swearing-in ceremony, newly elected Board Supervisors were already busy drawing divisive lines—beginning with Districts 8 and 5. Christ, gimme some news I could use

          “Denise, for sure! S’like regular normal people fall into this killer funk—just float on ’round with foghorns blarin’ in their ears. Hey, I know—happened to me soon as I got here from St. Loo. Ya’ ozone out and the days just truck on and you be hangin’ out with just you and your foghorns. Some folks never gets past it…”

          “St. Louis,” she warmed, finger ringing her tea cup.

          “Sure, that be Tara, baby,” Thibeaux grinned, between cooling sips. “The arch, Leclede’s Landing, West End Gaslight…”

          “We’re from Chicago originally, like Denise…”

          Hell with Chicago, I brooded.

          “Midwest, what it is,” he gushed, “Chi be cool, too…”

          “That’s not what Kenny thinks.” In truth, she appeared to be becoming too fretful to wonder what was tumbling through my mind. “He thinks it’s slow death.”

          It’s suffocation compared to here…

          “Well, at least there, not everybody’s shuckin’, coppin’ poses,” Cauler replied, drawing down his tea. “Either doin’ or getting’ done to. Why you think these chicks got me around? ’Cause they love my coily hairs in their bathroom sink?! Naw, I be just the handy man, unnerstand? Best to have one around. Denise got wasted one night and said I was like their liaison. Man, it’s more like three cc’s of Swine Flu vaccine or a humongous damn rubber. Me—I sees it more like their beacon in the fog bank. Those two chicks is so into chasin’ their tails, they don’t know what the hell really be goin’ down.”

          “So, what is going down?” Moon probed, however warily, as if thinking Denise couldn’t be…

          “No panic, sister. It be nothin’ like that,” Thibeaux shrugged. “They be way too flaked for my action. I just feels for ’em, that’s all, school ’em some on the R&B. And the crib’s basically copasetic, so sometimes I just crash on the couch.”

          Screw Regina Tzu, screw Denise! Gotta get out of thislessee, Heider’s Balance— if  A mugs B and B cuffs A, then C is impelled to…aww, screw that, too…

          The junior Loon soon scooted over, sieving between nearby tables, teapot and pad in hand. “Ah, you order, yes?”

          “Now, Chin,” Thibeaux winked, closing his red vinyl menu cover, passing it over to Melissa. “In the now…”

          Now, for sure…so San Fran’s not my speed? I dont belong, huh?  Then what about reaching my damn potential here?!

          “Ewww, I don’t know,” she wriggled, picking at her front teeth with her half-chewed fingernail. “Just a little sliced chicken with the rice. Kenny?”

          “Kenny, KENny,” Cauler mocked, poking my menu.

          “No matter, really…” Christsake, I couldn’t help but stare at the laundromat. Especially given Han Loon’s red-tasseled décor, the mythical Mandarin gardens framed and plastered like Maograms all over the back wall. Those gardens…get out of these gardens…I can do anything outside here—skys the limit, dildo, anything less is just settling…

          “Wow, then allow me,” Thibeaux smacked, through his bramble beard, pulling my menu away at will. “Chin, let’s do the Cauler mix, what say? Start with the Sub Gum Yee Foo Won-ton, all around. Then, how ’bout some sides of Yang Chow Fried Rice, Sam See Chow Fun, Curry Beef with bean cake, Lychee Chicken and Mushroom Chow-Yuk—all right? Oh, and some crispy fried oysters with the won-ton.”

          “Yes,” Chin Loon beamed, scribbling furiously.

          “Is that as much as it sounds,” Melissa gasped, “we…”

          “Hey, baby, no panic,” he eased, flinging the menu back toward me. “I got some col-lat-er-alll…”

          Stop calling her baby, you…aww, what the fuwait—things were all settled; now they’re not..I can do this, why else would I come back…yeah, over there

          A quick, precision kitchen drill, and the won-ton was in the now, replete with wrapped chopsticks and those stubby, flat-bottom plastic spoons. As Thibeaux ladled the steamy soup and Moon hand wrestled her sticks, I cut one last glance at the laundromat, sprang from my bench, and suddenly was the wind. “Just whatever she’s having,” I muttered, darting out the door. “Back in a sec…” Moral dilemma, moral hazard, moral failing—dissonance run wild. No choice…got to do this… got to do this now…be the best I can be, gotta make this right before it’s too late

          “Kenny?” Melissa dropped both chopsticks onto her plate in disbelief. She focused on me—as if to stop me in my tracks, remote control. She looked like a mother losing her first-born to pre-school, fearful and abandoned. “Must be feeding the meter,” she smiled awkwardly, fiddling with her sticks amid the noodles and water chestnuts.

          “What meter,” Thibeaux asked, watching her wrestle her sticks from the chicken fried rice. “Not in this ’hood, not here on lower Russian Hill  today anyway.”

          I raced broken field across the intersection, dodging the inbound cable car that lurched along Hyde Street, not to mention the Renault squeezing past its blind side. Moon watched me bereftly as I stood off the honking LeCar, kicking its front bumper before storming into the coin laundry. I watched her watch me, our eyes clashing defiantly across Hyde as Thibeaux motored on over his Chow Yuk. Then, contact lost—distance building between us as if through an extending zoom lens. It all played out before me as I reached for that pay phone. The vision became even clearer while I fumbled for nickels and dimes in my pockets. Make that call…you gotta make the call, asshole…dial the damn phone

          They seemed to shout it a cappella in my ear: the old Vietnamese woman from her second story window overlooking Jackson Street; the Chinese kids chasing one another down the block, the Turk watching his Doberman hike leg all over that scrawny curbside tree. Operator, operator…push those buttons…reach out…make that call. Palms drenched, finger trembling, I popped the coins and played my tune. The phone call of my life rang repeatedly with no audible relief. Be there, be there for me, goddammit…be there for me one more time!!!

          “Hello?”

          “Finally! Thank God…”

          “What? Who is…”

          “Sydney—oh, Christ, Syd…it’s me!”

          “Kenneth,” she replied flatly.

          “Syd, listen. That wasn’t me talking before, you know that! I just did the spiel for Moon’s sake. You know, ease her down. I mean, I owe her that before…”

          “Before what, Kenneth, before what? There is no what.”

          “Syd, honey…we’ve gotta talk this out…”

          “God, you’re really sick, you know that?!”

          “Sydney, come on!”

          “Come on, nothing,” she raged. “That wasnt how this was supposed to go, flash. You blew it royally, sold me out because you weren’t man enough to do the right thing when everything went down. And here I was, thinking you’re the one, a real tzadik, when you’re really just a little worm like Martin Kavalla. Who knows what the devil else you are capable of? Hmph, come on…if nothing else, you owe me—you owe me big time! And I’ve half a mind to bill you at the first of the month.”

          “What? Our plans, our future, we…I’ll do anything for our everlovin’ cause…”

          “Otherwise, just do me this. Get out of my life, okay?! And Kenneth? This time make it stick.”

          “Sydney,” I cried. CLICK. Bzzzzzzzz. The washers and tumble dryers rumbled in my head as I dropped the receiver. I inhaled a lint clot of clean clothes and stale detergent on my way out the door, to a cable car of laughing, waving tourists turning toward me off Jackson Street.

          “Look out, fool,” the grip man shouted, levering his car onto Hyde. The whirring and clacking cables chewed through my mind like tandem chainsaws, drowning even the steel-on-steel gnashing of the outbound car’s antiquated wheels. My gut wrenched tightly at the hot, thick odor of Chow Fun and Ginger Beef from Han Loon’s kitchen vents. How I avoided being nailed by the passing Pinto, I didn’t know.

          I glanced back past the laundromat to my Volkswagen. Might as well run, might just as well hop into that heap and split altogether. But another inbound cable car rattled around the Jackson Street curve, drawing me once again toward Han Loon’s, to the window where Melissa stared me down.

          “Kenny, what is it,” she asked anxiously, the moment I shuffled dead weight into the restaurant. “Sit here by me…”

          “Hey, man,” Thibeaux glanced up from his Chow-Yuk. “What’s shakin’?”

          “Nothing,” I grumbled, taking my place back on the window bench. “Had to call the VW dealer, make a service appointment, that’s all. But they were already closed…”

          “Tsk, here,” Moon sighed, knowing better, filling my plate with bean cake and Curry Beef. “You look like you could use some service yourself.”

          “Phone call, that’s it,” Thibeaux snapped to, as if coming out of a ganja fog, mushrooms dropping like flies into his Cameroon. “You had a phone call from your father. Regina Tzu gave me the message…”

          “Yeah, well,” I asked, watching him fingerpick them out of a much too tiny cup. Dad…calling? My dad never calls anybody

          “Uh, let’s see,” Cauler frowned, before stabbing at my beef for inspiration. “Oh, right…it’s your ol’ lady, man. Something about she’s suddenly not hittin’ on all eight, understand? I think he wants you to call him, like right away…”

          “Really,” I melted, Melissa grasping my knee. Why the hell didn’t mom tell me about this when I called the other night?!

          “Would I lie ’bout somethin’ like that,” he replied. “Say, you gonna eat those fried oysters?”

Care for more?

Chapter 35. Another dubious decampment 
beats a path laden with past remorse 
and painfully present remonstrations…

∞ End of STAGE ONE ∞

 

 

“A pause that refreshes
could serve to re-stir some
moldering green stew.”

  “Cos no foul deeds go bleedin’ unpunished, ’tis why…

  “O’ Jaysus, here’s t’ poor Dan’l McCooey—waz inn’cent as the dayz long, alrigh…

   “T’was like kin—butta mere chil’, an’ the limey eegits beat ’im to a pulp in iz own hometown. Itz bin goin’ on abou’ a year now, don’tcha know—cheeses me off  like the way the treatin’ who the’ callin’ our Irish prisoners o war.

   Shaken and stirred, I needed a break in the action/reaction, a moment’s breathing room to calm my neural commotion; if not a measure of intrapersonal conflict resolution amongst an outside deliberative body. Jet lagged and sandbagged, Melissa herself longed for some catnapping—a little emotional space and separation. It was me-time to regroup, to pause and reflect—to reconnect, and retrace tribal roots—couldn’t hurt to get more core religion, if only for a momentary spell.

  So I had quietly eased Moon into Denise’s place, hanging on to her old friend’s keys, offering to go back out and hunts us up something to nosh on. Not daring to test Regina Tzu’s hospitality with the meaty aroma of piroshkis or Macs, I fully intended to scarf up some Van Hermann’s salads on Geary Boulevard, or a couple of conciliatory cinnamon-raison smears and Calistogas from that bagel house. Instead, I diverted and reverted, fighting off more Saturn amulet research up in Lafayette Park, steering toward a little post-St. Patrick’s cheer in here.

If the inner Richmond was essentially what remained of a Mission-style Irish ghetto, the Rectory Tavern represented its sacrarium, the best blessed altar of Celtic spirits this side of Clement Street, and I couldn’t get past its hellish titian facade. For better or worse, convened along this padded railing was a low mass of devoted worshippers from the single digits of San Francisco’s numbered avenues, though the fold on hand most resembled a regular friary—playing the lottery, scribbling Racing Forms, paging through the Irish Herald, rolling the bones.

Parked along Geary, I had basically genuflected and shoehorned onto a black backed stool around the mahogany bar’s rearward bend, aside these two ruddy, shaggy, rugby-shirted hardnecks. Niall and Declan sounded as if being recently off an Aer Lingus red-eye, acclimating and commiserating over the jet lag, pint by cream heady pint. Bygone rucksack Vasques on the Ol’ Sod told me from their northern brogue that they were Ulsterites fleeing to the States, bitter Republicans backpacking their Troubles along with them. Could have been Provos, splintered OIRAs or IRSPs, over to plumb the U.S. shamrock pipeline for the Old Country cause. Although that was beginning to sound best case, at best.

Ay, speet on ’em, Niall—an suure, lik’n th’ say, revenge tis a dish served sweet an’ cold,said Declan, as they partook of their virgin mother’s milk, coming via Harp Lager and Guinness Stout. “But howayeh ’spectin’ t’ evin’em back, mate—wha’ yer plan?

 “Shi’e, tis too late t’ manky the Queen’s jubilee, alrigh’,Niall replied, with a tip of the mug. “Mebbe can’t do annythin’bout makin’ tha’ feckin’ gowl Paisley disappear from way ove’ here, either…

“So how’d yeh figure t’…

 “Not t’ fear, gobdaw. I’ve heard that oul’ baldy Callaghan himself migh be comin’ across on official blame holliers some time this year. Saw o’ the telly the stupih spanner’s aimin’ for some commem’rtive fald’ral on Battl o’ th’ Boyne Day this summer, o’ somewheb’tween tha’ an’ Poppy Day later in November. Boyne Day, boil o’ me bleedin’ arse—we’ll gi’ im somethin’ t’ r’member.

  Nunnamybizness—not me, couldnt be—eyes dead ahead: I swallowed hard on the down draft, soaking in Rectorys raging ambience. The pub remained awash in aprés St. Patricks Day revelry, Guinness pennants and Bushmills bunting all about the place, harboring a snifter of overcooked CB&C. Its backbar was a high, hatched wall of Irish whiskey, rye and Heather Wine: Wild Geese to Glendalough Malt to Midleton Rare and Jameson Gold, Baileys, Irish Mist and a wee dram of Drambuie sweetening the arch-faced, beveled shelves.

Gracing the broader barroom were large, huge Tricolor flags, a coast-to-coast team of squadron of rally towels, from USF to Notre Dame and Bostons Celtics framing centered tabernacle—from which flowed chalices of hopped-up holy water like Smithwicks Ale and Beamish Stout with a Feinian touch, and patens of mini pretzels and crisps.

My eyes skirted about mounted photos of a Cork-Kerry football showdown, hurling in Dublin’s Croke Park. Lining the walls like Stations of the Cross were landscapes of Hags Head at sunset, the Rock of Cashel, rainy Lough Leane, sun-spotty skies over MacGillycuddy’s Reeks and the Gap of Dunloe. War lording over us stood framed sepiatone portraits of Colbert, Connolly, O’Hanrahan and even Michael Collins, freedom fighting guerillas ‘Punisher’ Dan Breen and Tom Barry, with a wretched, ink-stained wink to Joyce and Padraig Pearce.

The Prime Min’ster? Comin’ t’ where?”  They sucked down their sacraments in unison.

Ay, the very same lib-lab queerhawk wha’ just ordered more Britz troops into the North, t’ help gang up the RUC and UDR agin’ us,Niall said, aiming to wash down a pretzel with another deep draw of lager. “Comin’ t’ San Francisco here, yet. So coul’ be we can whack his crook’d Cardiff arse whe’ the bollock’s bloody live.

Ou’ an’ em revoltin’ UFFer fuckers,Declan lifted for a chug of the black stuff. “Y’ mean like a’ the University of Ulster hit?

Only bigga’ an’ bett’, mate—spot on target. Wha’ say we plant in ’nothe’ garden, this time the Britz pat’et’c Counsel General’s place. Itza posh gaff i’ the P’cific H’ites, no less…” 

 “Jaysus, up there? How i’ blazes yeh fancyin’ t’ pull tha’ twister off?”  Declan whipped out and tapping firm a crumpled back of filterless smokes.

No’ me exactly, Dek, more like me an’ Ronan Corrigan, who jus’ happen’ t’ know Finnerty, who works w’ a bloke frum down Kerry way, runnin’ a storge barn here in town. Finn tis a hungry, undergrown’ chum by way o’ Armaugh, h’ is—who lost a cousin t’ the cause. Britz foot patrol plugged ’im in Derry. Yah, Ronan knows him personal…so ther’ y’are.

  “God bless ’is seethin’ soul,Declan finger scraped Stout head from his upper lip. “So I s’pose you be plannin’ t’ storm the spread or…

  “No, stupih, oney a one off, nice an deadly clean—make the Poppy Day go bloody pop, crash the garden party, thas wha.

“O’ yis smashin’im when i’ counts, eh? Wha’ a masta’ plan…

  Oh, Christ, not Armaughdon’t go dragging Armaugh into this, nothing wrong with Armaugh, ’cause dad’s kin’s from County Armaugh, bloody Scots-Irish, Jacgot that right…wait, that wasnt to say I actually cottoned to the Prods for godsakes. So where the hell did that leave me?  High corner loudspeakers blared Thin Lizzy over the Rectory’s smoky pool and foosball tables behind us, Boomtown’s ‘Rat Trap’, some upstart numbers from no-names calling themselves U2.

It all had me reliving that Crosshaven folk festival full of Mickey McConnell and Christy Moore, scoops of local poteen, waking up in a dairy barn loft outside Skibereen—hitching and hoofing it over the Gap to pastelorful Killarney, meeting up with gladsome Kerry folk, mom’s people, sure and begorrah. Yet this brogual blarney here was presently steering me back more toward the drab bombed-out, boarded-up storefronts of Newry,  RUC gunpointers chasing me out of the Europa Hotel lobby 20 minutes before Bloody Friday rocked Belfast’s City Centre. Nasty business, that; nastier still right here: these guys had me re-waking to those furtive young IRA gun runners vanning me into their Bray hidey-hole all over again.

Def’ny fair play an’ square, presheh ’em t’ smithereens,Niall grinned, toasting his Harp, side-eyeing me with a suspicious warning glance—tossing some change into a bartop NORAID offertory bucket. “Who knows, mebbe oul’  Jimmy Carter’ll be ther—tha’ banjaxed wanker preachin’bout don’ givin’ no money t’ us Northern Irish. Well, God bless Dan’l McCooey, here’s to the Cause!!” 

 “Wha’ever, ’cept tha’ sound like jus’ y’ be spoutin’ off, Niall,Declan gestured to the barkeep for two more jars, as they fired up a couple of Sweet Afton fags. “Yis talken ou yer bloody hat, alrigh…

  “Oh, ya? Try me—done already scoped ’er ou’, learnt the ropes, mate. Tis a statl’y oul’ Tudor Revival job on a big gardened lot—prime for snookerin’ an’ sabotage. Meantime, Ronan an’ his rollin’ pin manage some movin’ lorries, we ca’ hook on w’ em. So shut y cake-hole an pull yer socks up, mate, lets git o th yokes. Suure as Bloody Sunday, as God’s me witness, God save Ireland, God save all o’ it!”   

Whoa, incendiary sabotagethey couldn’t have been serious could they? Pray tell, I didn’t actually hear that, did I? Wasn’t really a party to all this? Aww, it must have been just the brew talking, or the brew taking it in. Anyhow, I wasn’t one of those blokes myself, right? Maybe I did bleed Tricolor on occasion, but rifles and bushwacking and things that go boom—no bloody way.

I for sure wasn’t running any rifles, wasn’t loading gelignite into baby buggies and blowing up bank branches or postal stations. Didnt have that in me, did I, or did I? Could have been their way of talking about Gaelic football scrums at McLaren Park and the like, with something getting lost in the transliteration. Or maybe I was just hearing things, hearing voices, disembodied voices—yeasty voices, Yeats gone terribly mad. Had to have been the pints talking, if not just the bloody North. In any case, nothing brewing, nothing tapped: I couldn’t do anything about any of it anyway; had my own wrongs to right in the sour here and now, as in wondering what else Moon and Sydney had sorted and/or shouted out loud.

Still, the grudgy guff and gee-eyed pipedreams left me sipping my Courage in silence for the moment, down for the cause in theory, but scared increasingly shitless, bious and jaundiced—proud and petrified, tugged and torn, inherently borderline—feeling so halved and quartered, game skin mottled somewhere between green and orange.

Couldn’t quite tune them out, wasn’t about to turn them in— particularly for mere beeranting about some sketchy munitions planting. Guess I could grasp their passion, just couldn’t handle their playbook. Really didn’t need this pissing match now anyhow; but I sure as hell did need to hit the throne and bricks—reconfigure an aborted lunar landing, not to mention any personal cratering that ensued…

Care for more?

Chapter 34. This reframing and nod
toward reconciliation prompts an
awkward place setting, then a
heartburning turn of the tables…

         

 

 


“When caught between converging 
forces, it is seldom easy or thinkable 
to split the difference.” 

             “Sydney’s roost…speak or be spoken upon .”

          “Uh, Syd?”

          Kenneth, fantabulous,” she cooed, “I’ve been waiting all alone here for you to call…”

          “Syd, we’ve got to talk…”

          “I know, I know, sweets. How did it go? I blew my parents away, but after some megahassle, I think Faith is behind us. That means Daddo will fall in line by tomorrow at the latest. After 20 some years, she can still work her overnight miracles. So, what about Moon?”

          “That’s what we’ve got to talk about…”

          “And I want to hear all about it, love…say, over dinner?”

          “No, uh—let’s make it soon as possible, okay? Like, right now…”

          “What’s wrong, Kenneth,” she asked edgily. “Where are you calling from? Sounds like there’s a blade at your throat.”

          “Please, Syd,” I gasped, “could we do this right away?!”

          “Hmph, I guess,” she said, reading what she could into my persistence, though not nearly enough. “It’s just that I was about to do my stretching. Oh, what’s the harm, can’t stay away from me, huh?”

          “Be there in a…flash.”

           I slid back into the squareback as if it were rigged with C-4 explosives. The closest pay phone we could find was beside Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory, and Melissa had a splendid view of the baiting. She looked bewildered there in the car, a basically gentle, caring creature suddenly driven to a two-bit ambush. I at once pitied, hated and needed her desperately. Christ, at least maybe my head would soon clear, like this afternoon’s unseemly skies.                           Conservatory of Flowers

          “Was she there?”

          “Yes,” I sighed, nearly flooding a fouled, very cranky engine, pulling away sharply from the stunning white Victorian Conservatory of Flowers, fairly tousling its colorful beds and full, lofty palms in a cloud of fuelly dust.

          I begged for every red light in sight, for a blow-out, a molten generator, disengaging differential—anything seriously disabling—something on which AAA could run a major tab. I’d have circled the park and Presidio until Labor Day if I could have coped with the glacial silence, if my attention span wasn’t shorter than a Van Ness Avenue yellow light. My mindless click of the radio brought up some new Paul Davis single, ‘I Go Crazy’. Potting that down, my only immediate salvation was the inevitable dearth of parking around Sydney’s apartment building. “Hopeless, as usual. We’d probably been better off taking MUNI…maybe we should just forget this whole thing… ”

          “There, Kenny,” Melissa pointed down Franklin. “That van’s pulling out at the corner. Well, is that close enough or…”

          Oh, right. I was looking to wear tire grooves into the pavement three blocks in every direction, and this Econoline camper gets generous four doors from Verdun. “Shall we,” I muttered, helping her out in a rush of downhill traffic. She apparently felt no urge to reply.          Franklin Street

          “Here’s her place,” I nodded, as we approached Sydney’s Victorian. “Pretty nice, huh? That amazing goldish gingerbread trim…”

          Again, silence. Melissa fussed with a creamy garlic smudge on her muslin peasant blouse, then fluffed her full-length whortleberry print skirt. She was facing off with her spiritual sister, her femme ideal; the place might as well have been all but ablaze.

          “This is wrong, Moon. You know that deep down,” I moaned as we crossed Coastal Avenue and angled beneath the sidewalk awning.

          “Which floor,” she countered, approaching the brass-trimmed front door.

          “We’d better take the elevator…” I waved and smiled weakly at Ivar, who opened the door for us, then quizzically eyed Melissa all the way up to floor number three. We were otherwise dead still, stepping out onto deep pile green carpeting. I led the way over to 316, like two battlefield casualties at a VA Medical Center, the brown jumpsuited manager rheo-levering his birdcage back down to the lobby.

          “Who is it,” Sydney sang, soon after I banged her polished door knocker.

          “Syd, it’s me, Ken,” I blurted, inserting myself between Melissa and the off-white door. Moon slipped stiffly to the right, several steps down the hall.

          “Kenneth,” Sydney flipped the deadbolts and opened with a flourish, peekhole covered with Edie’s sunset poster of Mt. Hood. “I didn’t know who was knocking! How did you get in here soooo…”

          Before she could move nearer me, Melissa cut between us, quicker than a point guard, hair and hemline flying with caped rage. I was stunned by her lightning aggression—so totally unlike her—as instinctive and territorial as a litter-protecting cat.

          “Moon, what,” Sydney gasped, pushing at her door reflexively, as though holding back some serial rapist. “What’s going on here?! Kenneth…” she snugged her white robe sash at the collar.

          “How could you, Sydney,” Melissa cried, peddler-wedging into the closing portal. “You knew where things stood…”

          “Wait a minute here, Moon,” she searched, gathering herself. “Pardon me, but the trip out here was your idea in the first place, and I thought I was bringing us all closer together… Kenneth?”

          I stood there, alright, two steps from the crash site, but nowhere to be found. What else could I do but hand her the belated gift of Josh’s box, having recalled it being under the VW’s rear seat?

          “I sent you off with trust, you spoiled little witch,” Melissa screamed, in a voice six times her size. “Just had to do it, didn’t you…couldn’t let it be, wouldn’t just leave me be!”

          “Witch,” Sydney countered, snatching the package, otherwise yielding slightly her press against the gold-colored door moulding. “May I remind you where you are? I think you’d best leave my home this instant!”

          Huh? What did Moon mean, leave her be? What was with this deal jumping so many steps? They now met toe-to-toe in the doorway. I could do little but plaster myself back to the foyer, bracing for a blindfold and cadre fire.

          “Don’t I mean anything to you anymore,” Moon shrieked, tears streaking the rouge traces on her chipmunk cheeks. “Haven’t you the slightest shred of decency, for godsakes? You’re worse than your brother. Just let me move on with my life, will you please? I’m only trying to move on!”

          “Decency, to you? What about me,” Sydney shouted coldly. “And what about Kenneth. It’s got to do with us now, not you…”

          “No, wait a,” I sputtered.

          “Shut up, Kenny,” Melissa snapped. “This is between Sydney and me! I can’t believe you said that, you miserable bit…”

          “Oh, kiss off, Moon,” Syd recoiled. “If you were 100% there for him, this wouldn’t have happened—just like with Lester. Shit, sneaking out here, little Miss Gumdrop. Well, grow up. I know better and so does he!” She shot a venomous glance at me, nostrils flaring—sizing me up, probing my frozen face frantically for support. “Tell her, Kenneth. Tell her you can do so much better than the likes of…”

          “Oh, and that would be you, I suppose,” Melissa replied, shaken to the spine by the depth of Sydney’s vitriol. “Yyyou…the princess who couldn’t change a panty shield without Faith’s help!!”

          “Leave my mother—that’s right, my mother—out of this,” Syd volleyed. “Hmph, wouldn’t you love to know she’s behind our decision all the way. That’s how much you mean to her, toots. Blood’s thicker than charity, even with Faith—no matter the milk of human kindness BS, no matter who all’s involved. So you’d better stop with the bad-mouthing my heartsick brother, and haul your dumpy tush out of here before I brain you one.”

          “Oh, Sydney, dear God,” Melissa wept madly, somewhat bedazed by what she had just heard. “And you make it sound like Kenny was really a willing part of this…”

          “I beg your pardon…” Sydney explored Moon’s draining face, then glanced once more my way. I was still standing there, speechless, mummified, overbite puckering, the last man standing along the Maginot line.

          “That’s right. Kenny, tell her how ‘together’ you two really are,” Melissa sobbed. “Go ahead, tell her what you just told me. You tell her, you…you…”

          “Kenneth?”

          They both turned to me—two spent shells begging sustenance from the sole surviving source. But that source was far more depleted than either of them could have imagined. “I-I-I just don’t know what to tell you, really,” I despaired, shaking my head as though a cutting, distant coma had muscled in—I didn’t want this, dammit, did I really make way for this? “I mean, what do you want me to say?”

          “Kenneth, come on,” Sydney urged, snapping her fingers thrice. “Our plans, our common goals…how the little clinger here is holding you back. Our future together, dammit! Kenneth…Ken…”

          “By all means, Kenny, let’s talk about the future,” Melissa rallied. A quiver borne of restirred panic pierced the firmness of her intent. It was as if, for the first time, she couldn’t read my mind before I spoke it. And what did Sydney mean, ‘human kindness, no matter who all’s involved’?

          “Hold it now, just hold it,” I exploded, flailing my arms like a traffic bobby in Trafalgar Square. A lightening throb split my cranium, fore to aft, wider than the rift between Beijing and Taipei. For the first time, I couldn’t read my own mind before I spoke it. Best to say nothing; but at the moment, my best wasn’t good enough. With a henchman’s misgivings, I set my tongue free for all to witness, however terrified that the three of us would swing from every word.

          “Sydney,” I sighed, “whew, Sydney—I’ve never met anybody like you. Anyone so strong and determined, so totally gifted. Several months ago, somebody like you could only be a dream goddess with golden wings and brushes, that I could only read about in magazines. Christ on a crutch, how could I not respond…”

          “You said I was the best thing that ever happened to you,” Syd cried, somewhat gilding the lily. “You told me that, Kenneth, in the park…”

          “Kenny? What park?!”

          “No, uh, maybe that’s what you inferred, but,” I groped, both beautiful faces fixed on me, fawns in the headlamps. “Figuratively…I don’t remem…did I actually say that?! No, I—what I’m trying to say is…well…you’re way up here…”

          I motioned above my head, then below my waist, with leavened palms. My face contorted slowly as I spoke, from reasoned control to turgid apostasy to dark, wrenching resignation—a sinking barometer indicative of the low pressure deep within. “And I’m like, down here, you know? Face it, you’re outta my league, so stop rattling my cage, alright? You can’t just descend and flash all your damn freedom and resources at me, pumping me up with hot air. It’s not fair. I’ll accept that I’m some regular slob who’s gotta get out there and scrape. I know my place, for Christsake! And all your potential and possibilities aren’t gonna change that one iota.”

          “Kenneth,” Syd gasped, slipping a bit more behind her door. “I’ve not once wanted anything but the best for you, believe me.”

          “Well, just don’t. Don’t want anything for me, okay? I’m just lucky to have a great woman like Moon willing to take it with me—as it comes—all the crap and any good that slips through. You’re not real; she’s real! She’s been there, keeping me glued together, not twisting me all outta shape like you!”

          I gazed fearfully upon them, burning to hold both, incapable of touching either. Their images blurred together, then poles apart—in and out—transposing like fluid cells under a molecular microscope to the tabour pounding of my brain. Sleek and earthy, blonde and henna brunie, blue eyes and brown—mystifyingly exotic, if not Ashki and Seph.

          “Leave me be, I’m telling you! Just leave me the hell alone!!” The more I released, the more the throbbing took hold: a quickening heartbeat in a loudspeaker stethoscope. Suddenly, SNAPPPPPPP…like a lightning strike to the noggin.

          “I didn’t want this,” I wailed, eyes sinking to the floral hall runner, “I never…you think I wanted any of this?!” Think I’m getting some kind of buzz here? You’ve no right to rip me apart this way—divvying me up like found spoils. What do you two want from me?! No, stop it—stop it right now. I want out, outta here where you can’t tear at me. Swear I didnt want this, did so…Mother of God get me outta here…they’re vicious, hurting me real bad…don’t wanna stay no more…do too…wanna rest, a little nap…maybe some tea and toast, like before, mom, put on some of that singer you love—Vaughn Monroe, that Mario Lanza guy…crooning on our Silvertone radio…gotta, what’s that song they…that song…switch on ol’ Redhead Arthur Godfrey and Julius LaRosa…yah I Remember McNeil’s Breakfast Club, Hello America Paul Harveys ‘Page Two!…no, bullshit, turn that godblasted old radio down!!!

          “Kenny,” Melissa shook me, “Kenny, listen, settle down. It’s all right, everything’s going to be all right now.” She hugged me and shot a menacing glance at Sydney. “Look, just look what you’ve done to him!”

          Sydney reeled, thoroughly shocked by the cave-in. She clutched her own terror-stricken face at what came of this game, turned and fled crying into her room.

          “Hey, what’s all the racket,” Ivar shouted, his elevator meeting floor three. “My other tenants—I won’t have this! You quiet down or I’ll call the police…”

          “Begging your pardon,” Melissa said firmly, doors flapping up and down the hall. “But I think it’s all over here.” Ivar stood firm nonetheless, his loudly colored macaw stunned squawkless on his shoulder, ball bat at his patch-pocketed side. “Come on, Kenny.”

          “Air…cool out,” I mumbled, “can’t breathe…gotta get some air now…”

          “That’s it, why don’t you go on down to the car,” she soothed, easing me warily into the elevator.

          “He okay?” Ivar asked, quickly giving ground.

          “Of course he is,” Moon replied firmly. “I’ll meet you out front, Kenny.”

          “Now, downstairs, out front,” I rambled, clawing the black birdcage metalwork.

          “Yes, Kenny…in a minute. I’ll be there soon as I take care of some things with her.”

          She waited until the barred door scissored closed, and marched into Sydney’s, leaving me with a warm, encouraging smile, albeit marginally contrived. Ivar stared through me until the elevator began its descent—a gruff, contemptuous look that seemed one finger removed from 911. If Sydney hadn’t banked all her charm and…chutzpah, the SWAT teams might have already arrived.

          Instead, once past the lobby’s crystalline chandeliers, its full gold-framed mirror and cornices, I was greeted by a brisk late-day gale, the kind that carried rain squalls in from the Farallons on afternoons less brilliant than today. It braced me like cold creekwater across morning growth—those wonderfully clear, tranquil mornings along the Continental Divide that now seemed so many meridians away.

          I tugged my plaid Woolrich collar up at the ears, then headed along Coastal Avenue on miscalibrated instruments. Pausing before a storybook next door Victorian, I inhaled the red fuchsia, the scarlet begonias vining through its wrought iron picket gate and fencing. An elegant blue/white-on-gray Italianate style townhouse, it was one of the few 1860s-era homes on this block that survived the 1906 earthquake, as well as the resulting firestorm that was stopped cold at Van Ness. Today, the Tolbert-Dolan House’s tiny front yard was lush with ferns and dwarf trees; still its enduring street corner splendor did little to stem my inner flare-up right about now.

           By the time I reached Franklin Street, ecdemic, screaming voices crossfired my skull so intensely as to physically rock me backward and cauterize the slingshot throbbing, left and right. Tell me, Kenneth…yes, tell her, Kenny…the truth, Kenny, lay it on the line…which is it going to be, Kenneth…decision time, Kenny…stand up, stay here, come home…you can do it all here…what in blue blazes are you doing here…you’ve got what it takes, Kenneth…you dont belong here, Kenny…our plans, our future, Kenneth—I want…I need…you…no, I…you—focus, fool , if you’re chosen by the chosen people, choose wisely as you do…just don’t blow it again like you always do…gotta look out for number one for once, asshole… “Stop!!!!”

          Everybody kept pulling, prying, cracking open my cranium yanking at my whirling hemispheres with a gear greasy crowbar, splitting them like a stone chisel through modeling clay, a jackhammer blow from the inside out. Trauma, triage, Callosum compromised, drowning in cortisol, self-inflicted wound. Static synapses seared my pre-frontal cortex, crackled through my parietal lobes and limpic system like a plague of august fireflies and cicadas. Keep walking, go back, leave town, settle down—take Melissa, leave Sydney…dump Moon, hate…hug Syd, escape…go for…look out, that car…hell with that car…think, feel, flow with…drop it all for good…

          “Our Father, who art in heaven…Hail Mary, full of grace…”

          Those voices, where are those damn voices?! Kids, school prayer, church—that’s it, the courtyard, those blue Catholic uniforms…the nuns—black robes, the scapularies, catechism, CCD—ugly…chains, free, get free!! Honk, hoooonnnkkk…  Pacific Heights block

         “Hey, dildo, get off the damn street!”

          Honk you, car…kick your ass. Outta my way, man! Wanta get out but the skin wouldn’t give. Fight or flight, rewire into emergency mode. Nail that Plymouth grill…knock it to the water down there, to the hills. What’re those kids… basketball! In the gym…Center School gym, Coach Tyner, hoops, passing drills…homework to do…son theres been a mishap…yeah, ma, I heard them…out walkin’ Laddie? Get…double dribble…this block…stuff the goddamn trucks, smokin’ down Broadway…funky neon Great White Way…garbage scows, filthy goddamn buses. Walking Seamus in the mountains, over the Divide…church organ, Sunday mass, communion, blue suit confirmation—no, ma…toothache, stomachache, eyes rollin’ back in my optical chiasmas to the s