COVIDose: …Missed a beat, catching up…Whew, this is getting seriouser and seriouser in places way outside of Pac Heights. Just tuned into Governor Gavin’s ‘Nooner with Newsom’, a now daily status update on Covid California. His sober and data driven presser detailed the statewide spread of this coronavirus outbreak—hard numbers on symptoms, infections and grim mortality rates. How can that guv stay on top of and relate all those facts, figures and trendlines, down to the damn decimal point? Got so I couldn’t go there any longer, having as I did to come here. So JBD RESET, go NOW…
“No, I want you should still hang with that, but…”
“There’s this goddamn missing persons thing keeps popping up.”
“You mean about that dead chick…”
Drop it, he said, drop everything—this is important. So I did, figuring that anything slipped under my door wouldn’t be bringing welcome news these days, and I was weary of watching the clock. Back it was to his second-story office, hunkering over printouts, sipping warm bottled water, half-drained coffee on the side. Between furtive phone calls, he kept riffling through pages, pointing at Sharpie highlighted particulars, gauging my attention span and inquisitive response. Given that I’d likely need whatever fee I could squeeze out of Sedge Eisenhoff—what with everything else hitting the fan of late—I couldn’t have feigned it any better had I tried.
“Naw, forget about that, I tell you,” he said, propping his right Frye boot on his upper desk drawer, leaning back in his swivel chair. “It’s about that Russkie what disappeared—turns out he’s in real de-mand. They’re all looking for him one way or the other. They want his ass back.”
“They think he’s still around here?” I sat circumspect on a chair across from him, trapping a messenger bag between my knees, wary of asking they who. “But where?”
“That’s for you to help me find out, numbnuts.”
Personally, this terrain all dated back to September 2, 2017. I was coming out of the LucasPlex in San Francisco’s Presidio, already working up a powerful sweat hiking along the former fort’s low stone wall from the Lombard Gate up to Green Street. Earthquake weather ne plus ultra, must have been over 90 degrees. I was estimating the bastioned mansions piled chockablock up to Presidio Heights like layers of a stately ceremonial cake—on a steep mountain of power and prestige, old money and acceptably new—with priceless Bay-wide views. Green Street digs were no less imposing, tidy rows of trim two-to-three story single-family pastel manses, manicured like grand geometric gardens all the way out to the soaring Presidio eucalyptus tree line. Then came the biscuit-brown brick fortress at Baker Street.
A big, boxy Comrade Hilton of a place, it was subversively outsized to the surrounding neighborhood—six stories of foiled, reflective windows shielding the secrets and stratagem therein. The Consulate General of the Russian Federation: San Francisco’s cinnamon square consulate was a red scare just standing there. Reputatively six stories plus of offices and residences—of geo-plotting, phone taps, computer network hacking, third-degree grilling and probes—all sorts of strangely nefarious activities: the place propagated rumors by the Gaz load.
This brick C.G. strongbox was the Russian sentinel to nation-state secrecy and surveillance—its oldest, most established U.S. diplomatic mission—more so even than its Washington D.C. embassy. Location ruled from the start: owing to its proximity to Bay Area research and industry, not least the Energy Department’s affiliated nuclear weapons lab. Some observers claimed the outpost has been a hub for Russia’s technology interests and collection efforts over the entire Western Hemisphere.
“So you know about that situation over there, right?”
“R-r-right, first hand…”
“I was an early spotter of the smokestack…”
But first, a little historical backstory I happened to dig up shortly thereafter: pure idle curiousity. The Russian consulate presence in San Francisco actually began in 1852, the Soviet Union having moved from downtown out here to this former apartment building on Green Street in 1973, part of a Detente deal between Nixon and Brezhnev. It had been operated by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs since Gorbachev ushered in Glasnost and Yeltsin toasted Perestroika. Back then, economic intel was the focal point, namely industrial development to play cold war catchup with the U.S. by intercepting and recording phone calls.
“Smoke, fire—see, that’s what I’m sayin’,” said Eisenhoff, shuffling aside some note papers and news clippings Geldora Reno had handed him. “I mean, who really knows what’s gone on in that place all these years?”
“Sure seemed a bit too hot for fireplaces that morning,” I recalled first noting the smoke from between two gnarly, knuckled corner sycamore trees.
“No shit, Sherlock—how they managed to throw that monstrosity up there in Pacific Heights to begin with, I’ll never know…”
“No, the McCreery crowd. My partner Tracer used to tell me about how they sold it to the Soviets for chump change. City welcomed the commies into their new haunts with a caviar and Moskovskaya Vodka housewarming—Alioto’s minions, Cyril Magnin, Harry Bridges, Shirley Temple Black—the whole red carpet routine.”
By the early 1980s, high technology was centered in Russian surveillance crosshairs with greater range and frequency. During 1986, for instance, 13 Soviet diplomats were expelled from the country for alleged tech espionage; soon, 50 or more spies were reportedly operating out of the consulate. Reagan era turncoats flipped in an out of the joint, selling Soviet agents all sorts of American defense secrets. One quisling even slept with a sultry Russian operative, apparently on a tits for tat basis. And this was all before KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennov Bezopasnosti) strongman Vladimir Putin slammed the door on any pretense of post-wall perestroika.
Since then, hardline eastern realpolitik had towered over cushy soft western power: but really, why here exactly in the first place? Pure and simple L.O.S. advantage. Safely perched up in the Heights, Sovio-Russo agents had a direct line of sight out to the Pacific Ocean, which enabled them to clearly, securely communicate with their trawlers, submarines and listening posts located in international waters off the northern California coast. Moreover, they monitored nuclear-armed U.S. subs that routinely patrol the Pacific from a base in Bremerton, Washington. Lest there be doubt, the strategic might and range of their encrypted shortwave radio transmission, the magnitude of their data-gathering heft and deftness, was brazenly evidenced above the consulate’s commanding corniced roofline, all protected by diplomatic immunity.
“But you are aware of the scuttlebutt…”
“Which one, there’s…” No matter, attention drifting out the bay window down Fillmore Street to Moulton alley, I still couldn’t get past the dead girl image in Moulton alley.
“That it was a controlled burn. Red-handed, file records—pilfered data and docs,” Eisenhoff sputtered, grabbing for his Sierra Springs water bottle, handing me one as well. “I can just picture those pinkos frantically stuffing all their spycrap into the flames, sweatin’ their skeevin’ brains out.”
“Couldn’t have been for hot toddies by the hearth, that’s for sure. Hell, I was sweating buckets just standing outside,” I twisted off the cap, slugged long and hard.
“But you know what they’ve long been up to, don’t ya? I mean with all that dirty laundry they got rigged up on the roof?”
My half-block climb up Bakers Street to Filbert had revealed the scope of C.G.’s intel/ communication arsenal. Instead of a rooftop pool or garden, this Comrade Hilton was loaded for bear with directional microwave gear, satellite dishes, and various other transmitters/receivers inside makeshift shacks and sheds to conceal whatever else Russian techies had going on up there. In any case, it was clear the San Francisco facility was a speartip of Sovio-Russo espionage. Evidently they had moved the goalpost from playing cold war catchup with the U.S. to leaving their torpid rival in the superpower dust.
As the KGB turned FSB, with some GRU thrown in, weirder, seemingly random incidents began occurring about the Bay Area. Mysterious ‘chance’ meetings were spotted in the oddest of places.
‘Legal travelers’ under diplomatic cover or ostensibly in for scholarly presentations were touring the Wine Country down through Silicon Valley. Dark suited Russian intel officers were seen up at Stinson Beach, small devices in hand, aimed out to sea. Then Putin’s regime signed on to a global “Open Skies” arms control treaty with the U.S. and 32 other signatories—designating a limited number of unarmed surveillance and reconnaissance flights over one another’s territory, all highly regulated and circumscribed, at that. Only the Russians proceeded to link their U.S. overflight paths with shortwave data locations and transmission.
“Sounds like some real Boris and Natasha stuff…” Had to say something, as time was wasting and I had a hamper full of my own communiques as it was, beginning with that new folded missive back under my apartment door.
“Smarten up, Herbert. They want to mess up our connections, be able to pull the plug, power wise—leverage, bargaining chips when the time comes…”
U.S. intelligence had soon suspected that Russian ops were appearing before and after these overflight missions, utilizing fresh data to locate GPS coordinates and places/objects of strategic interest. Intercepts signaled Russian spies were positioning directly beneath these flyover routes, either communicating with the passing aircraft of using them as roving cell towers for uploading cribbed data, in violation of the 2002 treaty. All this was being managed out of this very San Francisco consulate: fascinating place, however misplaced it may be.
Over the years, Russia was accused of engaging in a massive, continuous data collection operation out of Green Street, mainly to pinpoint and map out U.S. underground communication nodes, catalog the intersections in its fiber-optic network where data was being transferred. That meant attempting to penetrate its communications infrastructure, like where underseas cables came ashore on the Pacific coast; cultivating certain Bay Area heavies (from oil companies to scientific research) for further information. To what end? Vis. to cut communications, paralyze military command-and-control systems in the event of a two powers confrontation—to freeze the U.S. telecom grid and render it blind, thereby leveling the playing field, if not everything else of consequence.
“Time comes? What time…”
“Yeesh, what good are you? Showtime, baby, high noon—gung-ho or go home.”
“Home to what, for chrissake?”
“Massive dystopia, Herbert—bombs away, open your blinkin’ eyes.”
Talk about neighborhood gossip. Such nefarious C.G. activities had become far more of U.S. concern than the mere fritzing of local TV reception, so let the NSA (National Security Agency) eavesdropping begin. Therein commenced a more concentrated American approach to counterintelligence—as in quid pro quo, spy v. spy—with undercover FBI agents moving into apartments right across the street. As U.S. intelligence sniffed deeper around Green Street, Russian officials commenced snooping more widely and further down south. But not before they charged that American counter intel was illegally bugging their encrypted transmissions, even boring a secret tunnel beneath the consulate building. In response, they tried confounding U.S. counter-surveillance with overwhelming ‘burst transmissions’.
All the while, other Russian agents were busy honing their tradecraft to conduct hybrid digital warfare utilizing cybertools. As far back as 1983, the State Department had prohibited Soviet diplomats and journalists from visiting Silicon Valley. Yet Russian science-tech savvy intel officers continued courting valley techsperts and VC firms. Engineers and data scientists—legal travelers under non-diplomatic cover—sidled up to SV leaders and developers to glean the latest in cryptology and next-gen internet applications. Silicon Valley was just too target-rich for them to avoid—some of whom were already planting backdoor malware on critical websites, hacking utility or military scada servers and ‘jump boxes’. Essentially cocking their cyber warfare armaments without squeezing the trigger.
“But I thought Trump and Putin were bosom buddies.”
“Suure, as in Putin’s hand puppet.”
“Uh, right, kompromat, all that…”
Then came 2016, and the Trump-Putin bromance. Decades of mutual deceit, denials and diplomatic dekes were suddenly kissed off as the world leaders hugged and huddled, for reasons as yet fully uncovered. But with revelations that Russian troll farms’ spearfishing expeditions, and stone WikiLeaks e-mail dumps may have proven pivotal in the U.S. presidential election, their collegial mulligan stew boiled over. Tensions around sanctions and territorial encroachment finally cleaved the White House-Kremlin closeness, to where Putin ceremoniously ordered a 755 person cut among U.S. diplomatic mission staffers—many not American diplomats and intel officials, but Russian nationals.
“Well, looks like the two fearless leaders got too footsie for comfort,” Sedge replied. “They had to break into an expeller two-step before the co-conspiracy crowd waltzed in…”
“But Trump’s really overstepped, closing the whole place down on such short notice?” I replied.
“Just a nod to the Mueller investigation, serving up a bus token to save his radiated skin.”
Collusion, collision and/or miscalculated overreaction: Nevertheless, Trump felt politically obliged to retaliate by shuttering Russia’s Green Street outpost with a 48-hour notice to vacate their very own consulate building, amid claims that half its staffers were full or part-time spies. Hence, moving day, which brought me back downhill past clustered mansions and condos looking askance at this unneighborly behemoth. I bounded back down Baker Street to Green, watching those smoke signals waft up from C.G.’s shanty cluttered roof, sooting a hot blue sky and the Marina District and bay unfurling below and beyond. Come the northeast corner, neighbors were already milling about, pointing to the ill-seasoned smokestack. Fire trucks and media vans were converging; police yellow taped the entire intersection, with Bekins trucks already moving in.
“So how do you think Vlad’s going to respond?”
“Aww, he’ll cool his heels awhile. He wants back into that building again. Just watch, he’ll start doing Trump a favor or two to smooth things out.”
“Yeah, maybe more WikiLeaks drops…”
“If nothing else, Putin’s always got the golden shower tape and Trump Tower-Moscow IOUs.”
Scooting along the Comrade Hilton’s stone cold, light gray granite base that September morning, I had been mindful of the barred windows, arrow-point steel picket fencing and all those panning security cameras. A pair of scowling Russian guards manned the sealed oaken front doors, muttering in broken English about the unlawful, flagrant diplomatic violation of this action. By then, all Consulate General staff and residents were long gone, media and moving trucks angled in for curb space. I was undiplomatically shooed away toward a row of proper Green Street Victorians—not giving any of it a second thought until now.
“That’s not to say that his Russkie operatives won’t continue their spyin’ ways—the Bay Area’s too juicy a source of tech booty,” Eisenhoff leaned forward, with a slam to his desktop. “They might even Cozy Bear up to sabotaging campaigns, or even share the malware and intel with enemy rats like Iran.”
“How so without all their roof hardware?” I in turn was taken aback.
“They’ll lone wolf it, that’s what my client tells me. Adjust their networks with young engineer and programmer agents under non-diplomatic protection. Deep-cover illegals mole into the Valley armed with portable spy devices, hoovering up the latest tech from the best, working unicorn to start-up to trade show or firm. And who knows where, because the Bay Area’s thick with Russkies and their rubles these days.”
“Guess it doesn’t hurt that high-tech companies happened to covet Russian hackers…”
“Yah, love them some black-hat cyberactors. But I hear they all prize cryptographers and translators, too—which gets us to our marching orders.”
“Our? Why so? I sure as hell don’t speak Russian.”
“Let me spell this out for you,” Sedge leaned back again, arms clasped behind his head. “We’ve got two parties wanting to find this missing cryptographer guy. Looks like the Russians worry he may be playing hide and flip, but they don’t want to be going public tracking him down, especially with all the Skripals and Novichok hit stuff still in the news. They’d never get their building back going that down that road.”
“Yeah, so…what’s that got to do with your agency, let alone somebody like me?”
“Connect the dots, skippy. The FBI would like to see this bird for reasons of their own. But they don’t want to make a federal case out of it, turn it into an international confrontation that embarrasses President Putin. At least his buddy, Trump doesn’t. I guess the feds aren’t into bagging and tagging this guy, stoking ‘fake news’ coverage and all. Could be Justice and the State Department just want to locate him, coddle and cultivate him some before the Russians do. Find out what he knows about 2016, more importantly about what the trolls are cooking up for 2020. But the ‘Deep State’s’ probably decided to keep this local, on the down low for now, too, understand?”
“Not exactly, but…” I took another gulp of water.
“All I know is somebody likes the cut of my neighborhood gybe around here. Authorized my client to ask me to quietly track the sucker down, flush him out without any splashy headlines. You know, GPS the way…authorities will sort it all out from there.”
“Whoa, that’s way beyond my pay grade…”
“Trust me, we’ll work that out once you’re onboard, set you up nice and fat,” he said, toasting with his water bottle. “But there is a complication. My client says they told him the crypto is a nervy late-thirtyish nerd who’s always wearing rumpled suits. He’s been known to drag this raggy old babushka around by the hand, real mumsy like, only she happens to be a long-time expert translator goin’ back to Khrushchev days—seems they work as a covert intel/counter intel team. So they’re after the both of them. We’ll work out the juicy details in short order. So you with me? Because this one’s the big leagues.”
“Aww, I don’t know, Mister Eisenhoff…” I glanced out his windows south to a mustering Fillmore Street bus stop. “This all sounds pretty damn…spooky…”
“Eyes and ears, Herbert…I’ll be back in touch before you know it. Meantime sniff around the Green Street place now and then. But pay attention wherever you go, keep track of your time,” he extended his hand for the shaking. “Remember, hush-hush, and just call me Sedge…”
Care for more?
COVIDose: …Whew, this is starting to get to me—feeling a bit dizzy, breathin’ heavy, tumbling in the gut—like that…Maybe best to…RESOLVE, go NOW…
“In my view, you will be far better off in the long run.”
“Of course, you wouldn’t want to take the hit on your personal record, credit rating, etc. that would ensue from a U.D..”
“I totally see what you’re saying…”
Better judgment, points graciously given, gratefully accepted, except for the fact that wasn’t the exactly the route I was presently taking. Even more surprising about this unsolicited callback was that I could hear it at all over the dull hum and roar. For having barely managed to snail and e-mail those letters to Craig Prescott in New York, the former return addressed to Alison’s P.O. Box, I had just grabbed a last-gasp 19 MUNI bus growling and rattling down Polk Street. True to form, it was a fuming rear-engined diesel with air brakes hissing at every stop through the still rawhide Gulch. ‘Doors are opening…Please hold on’ chirped the GPS-synched audio track as entry/exit wings snapped open and shut to the radio squawking and crinkle folding of newspapers, the muffled beats of scattered digital devices.
Stop requests had pinged across flashing yellow ceiling crawls, the articulated coach flexing like accordion bellows over intersection humps, to where I began plowing through a center aisle lined with Monday mopers, straphangers sagging and shifting like hooked slaughterhouse beef against bright yellow hand loops and poles. Despite all the disconnected chatter of other cell phoners, the Sutter Street attorney’s counsel had come in loud and clear. But whether it came a stop too late was a closer call entirely.
“So again, I advise you to get out of your unit in time to meet their deadline. Then consider going the Wrongful Eviction route…it could result in a considerable payout, I’ll have you know.”
“Really…well, I appreciate your calling back like this.” I waffled between wanting to keep his white- shoe, brassy oak door open and not cranking his hourly meter just yet. “Because I certainly value your learned opinion…”
“Yes, well, best of luck on this, Mister Herbert,” said Daniel Kalford, Esq., seemingly reading the room. “I will be curious to hear how it all works out.” CLICK.
I’d jumped off at Larkin Street, feeling I’d be little more than a casual case to Kalford anyway, cleaving deep into the Tenderloin yet again, a butchered block away from Tallian’s scribbled address for Homeward Angels. Uptown Tenderloin, Satan’s Circus gone westward ho: Back again with all the blight, destitution and despair, the ruinous joneses and oneway dead ends. More gutter trash, excrement and discharges; more sidewalk rags and refuse—garbage, wrappers and take-out containers; more crushed cans, broken bottles, spent syringes and streaming fluids along Eddy Street—only more of this dingy district was now laced with Fentanyl. Still, I was running perilously low on pre-vacation days, fearing that I could never fully clear my place out by deadline—counting down like a detonating New Year’s Eve ball, with nowhere else to go.
But look at this curious stretch come Hyde Street, beginning with that corner beige number sporting the plaster lionet cornice medallions. Thereupon a cordon of brightly distinctive two-story buildings stood shoulder to shoulder nearly over to Turk Street. Pastel coloring, in-line gridded second floor windows, the trim, rock solid structures were in curious contrast to the sprawling flat black-brown apartment building facing directly on Hyde’s eastern side. Wait, wrong street, misjotted address?
This couldn’t be right… never really noticed these streamlined jobs before; they did seem so stylistically miscast. Lentil green to powder blue to khaki to blue-gray, lavender and horseradish tan: The tidy row were of the Art Deco or Moderne school, detailed in geometric flourishes, zig-zags and swirls, with pre-cast molds of mythic icons and opposing masks of comedy and tragedy—theatrical in drama and bas relief. One building center-block featured a brass landmark plaque implanted in the sidewalk before it, under the shade of a lone straggly tree. Apparently my destination was the wane pink job sandwiched in beside it, flush with plaster silver swirl panels and bookending molded squares atop Hellanistic globes. It roughly faced across from the Tenderloin Peace Memorial, just down from another landmark plaque—honoring the storied Blackhawk Jazz Club, postwar mecca for Duke, Dizzy, Monk, Miles and Lady back in the Day.
But the 239 Hyde I’d just encountered was now graced by Homeward Angels, besieged with distressed, do-or-die clients on walkers, in wheelchairs, under blankets of cardboard and Chronicles, waiting outside its solid steel doors like Deadheads for a Warfield gig, if not Depression Era Oakie breadline after a panhandle twister. Queued up out front was an encampment of rainbowed tents, tarps and other lean-tos, blankets and dropclothes propped up with broom and mop handles for some shade. Sleeping or just lounging beneath them were a ragged yet still feisty lot, patiently waiting to speak their mind and plight before HA staffers come morning.
Strewn about them about the sidewalk were soiled bedding, caked dishes, hand tools, broken appliances, foiled junkfood, Tupper containers of yesterday’s spoils, rinsed-out clothing drying in the afternoon sun. Some wizened souls even surrounded themselves with chests and drawers full of their stashes, keepsakes and other worldlies: everything placed and misplaced in its place. Lots of boombox music and Mary Jane—they were in no hurry, weren’t going anywhere in particular. Nevertheless, compound fractured people, lives on the line: I could see it in their faces, feel it in my own.
“How? Here?” I asked, Peter Tallian answering the intercom.
“Simple, Hollywood came calling.”
“You mean with their studio fundraisers?”
“No, with their film exchanges.”
“What—like needle exchanges?”
“Ahem, not quite,” Tallian frowned, welcoming me in through Homeward Angels’ double steel doors. He went on to explain as how nearly a century ago, motion pictures were shot on volatile nitrate-based film, which required safe storage when awaiting distribution to San Francisco theaters. So major L.A. studios like MGM, Paramount, Columbia and 20thCentury Fox set up these fireproof, reinforced concrete structures with elaborate sprinkler and ventilation systems, in which to secure their precious new film reels. “I was told this very building was utilized by Majestic Studios, hence their trademark globe plasters out on its facade. That’s what prompted a little research on my part.”
“I see, same with the MGM lions and Fox sheik masks, huh? But why here in the Tenderloin, of all places,” I dusted off my plainly usual khaki and corduroy.
“This is nearest to where the Market Street movie houses were back then,” he led me to his rear floor office. “These distribution centers were like lending libraries to them all, while safeguarding finished reels from nitrate fires and explosions. Lots of cinema history in these places, all right, stretching back almost to Zoopraxiscope times. At least until the 1950s and 60s, when less explosive acetate-based film stocks arrived, and they became obsolete. Now come along.”
“History, got that right—let alone what went on next door…”
“You mean Wally World…also a little before my time here.”
Off-hours face time: Fortunately, Tallian was seeing me on a Monday, when Homeward Angels’ intake clinic was normally closed for debugging and repair. He directed me past an assembling of stiff wooden chairs that looked akin to a prayer breakfast gathering or confessional for A.A.. Unlike HA’s pink facade, its staging area was flat whitewash bright, festooned with inspirational banners, honored donor portraiture, testimonial photos of gushingly grateful clients, a small Raphaelite mural of descending angels and opposing wall solid with self-help bulletin boards and floor-to-ceiling bookcaseloads of legal volumes.
I signed into a procedural log at the unattended reception window, then followed him through a security door toward his rear office space. En route, we passed a series of matching white chambers, deep and narrow, with reinforced concrete walls thick as air-raid bunkers, ceilings webbed with red fire sprinklers, shelving stacked with legal texts and documents. Altogether, they looked like defrosted meat lockers with the cold turned down, except for their open, case-hardened iron doors.
“Film vaults,” He pointed in passing. “Where the studio stored all their movie reels. Not anymore, of course, so we use them as super-size file cabinets.”
“God, maybe Bette and Bogey were once stored in there,” I gasped at the ghostly prospect, with a reminder tug at my age-old cable knit sweater, dating back to poking around the County Kerry location set remains from ‘Ryan’s Daughter’.
“Unlikely, but just so long as it wasn’t Bette and Tallulah,” he winked, ushering me into his cubicle.
“Guess that’s what the fire sprinklers were for…”
“Clever…now why don’t you have a seat…”
A cursory pan about yielded white walls flush with fat clipboards, tacked print-outs and court calendars. Clustered desks were piled high with case logs, copies of filed motions, clasp-bound bulletins, housing regulatory circulars and myriad legal minutiae. Scarred tile flooring was stacked with box upon box of dated documents and discovery. H.A.’s bullpen fairly reeked of bare-bones jurisprudent expertise and activity—buzzing phone lines to trenchant negotiations to copy machines churning away—the righteous romance of justice sought and served. And this was on a comparatively quiet, restorative off-day. In some respects, I felt fortunate to be here under these circumstances; in others, fretful that I was here under any circumstances at all.
“This your alter office?”
“I’ve helped out here as best I can since law school.” He doffed his blue suit jacket to a companion vest and embroidered, open collar butter yellow shirt.
“Not exactly the commercial realty game though…”
“I didn’t entirely trade my social conscience for a credential, okay? Which is probably why I’ve left the corporate REIT racket to strike out on my own in the Hobart office. Here we work to get people off the streets and keep people off. It’s a good counterweight, a worthwhile effort, all in all. Because there are a lot of troubled, homeless souls out there.”
Then came the sudden thrashing and trashing out front, where the infirm and wheelchair ridden made way for a rather familiar gray hoodied woman in sweaty brown pants, pounding on Homeward Angels’ front doors. Apparently still without a phone, she desperately screamed over and over again that she needed to get inside. It was an emergency, she was starving and had nowhere else to turn. Some of the camped out clients-in-waiting soon joined in, chanting her cause with a rhythmic rapping on the barred windows and doors, as if to will the clinic’s opening—that Tuesday walk-in hours could not come soon enough. We could hear the pleas loud and clear in here, but Peter said this happened every Monday and there was nothing he could do about it short of calling 911 in extreme cases, what with trained H.A. staffers off for the day.
“Poor Cynthia out there knows the score, does this every Monday,” Tallian sighed, looking away, toward the floor. “Truth is, she won’t accept shelter or treatment for very long, and is no immediate danger to herself or others. Let’s just say she’s a work in progress.”
“Lotsa troubled folks, seems that way, that’s for sure,” I glanced back at those repurposed film vaults. “Though kind of a comedown for the place from its major studio days, wouldn’t you say?”
“Just like this scenario is for you, Mister Herbert,” he lifted a file folder from his weathered briefcase. “In any case, here’s how it’s going to go down from here on…”
“Affirmative, if you don’t address these notices properly. To review, your drop-dead date is…”
“They want me totally out by this coming Thursday. Plus I got their hard-copy offer of #2 for $1200 slipped under my door.”
“And your chances of meeting that deadline are…”
“Dunno, little to none,” I muttered, as I watched him re-read the termination notices. “I mean, there’s decades of stuff in there, and I’m barely halfway through packing it up.”
“With no alternatives, much less the financial resources to do so?”
“Sad but…true, at this moment anyway…” The less I heard of that front door commotion, the more I heard my scenario laid out so succinctly, the less I want to hear about any of it anymore. That was when my mind began drifting off, and over to Wally World. “Let’s just say the timing is brutal, knocks me totally off my game.”
Even through these double-thick concrete walls, I thought I could tune into the magic once made/created next door. The Lost Landmarks plaque had imparted that it all began with some Miles Davis sessions across at the Blackhawk. Having a hot Hollywood studio already in the can, eccentric producer/engineer Wally Heider flew up from L.A. to record a Friday night gig for Columbia, soon patching together an independent NorCal studio facility in the blue/gray 245 Hyde—a sound stage, screening room and film storage building that had been abandoned by 20th Century Fox. It was April, 1969, and the San Francisco Sound exploded out of stacked Marshall amps all over town. Hollywood’s Heider caught the wave and instantly had bands lining up with a bullet to roll tape through his custom built 24-channel Neve console gear, in a two-story suite of audio studios.
Jefferson Airplane recorded ‘Volunteers’ in there, Gracie Slick laying down her hauntingly surreal vocals in studio C, whisky and smokes in hand. Other Monterey Pop veterans such as Quicksilver and the Grateful Dead swiftly moved their grooves into studios A and D, blowing out Altec 604-ES monitors and Fender 40/80 RMS power amps. A platinum roster of rock and jazz artists proceeded to mint 10-inch reels of half-track Scotch #111 mag tape, pressing on to instant long-play glory. Jeesh, the Dead all but moved into the place when cutting ‘American Beauty’, with CSNY and CCR jockeying for booking dates themselves. So many legendary songs, riffs and jams: I could just about pick up Jerry Garcia overdubbing his steel guitar for ‘Teach Your Children’, while ‘Deja-Vu’ was mixing into the new Quad Eight console in Studio C. Then came Slow Hand sitting in with Carlos on Santana’s ‘Abraxas’ sessions—then the Pointer Sisters steppin’ in. Anything to keep from hearing what this hard charging yet socially conscious lawyer was dropping on me now.
“So the way I see it, if you don’t vacate by Thursday, they can post a Three-Day Notice to Pay or Quit to your door…”
“But pay what exactly?”
“Therein lies one of your case’s curious complications,” Tallian said, making some space on his overtaxed desktop, double checking his phone. “But absent your paying up or emptying out, they’re likely follow with a 30 or 60 Day Notice to Terminate Tenancy… that’s looking on the bright side.”
“Terminate what tenancy? I…”
“Complication number two. Look, either way your housing situation is in dire jeopardy here. And you have no plan B.”
“So what are you telling me?” Not even replaying the brilliance of Herbie Hancock and Van the Man in my head could mute this white noise static reverbing ear to ear.
Wally World was long gone anyway, eventually to become less monumental Hyde Street Studios. Although Heider had lorded over so much tracks-to-wax creativity, by the late 1970s he had decided to pull the plugs. Sure, Wally Heider Recording had engineered the monumental music of the Byrds, Pointer Sisters, James Brown, Journey, Paul Simon, Merle Haggard and Moby Grape. But by the Tubes, Hot Tuna, T.Rex and Dead Kennedys sessions, Heider wizardry had apparently run its course here on Hyde Street. And the San Francisco Sound itself was heading south…not unlike my current tenure at Delphoria.
“That you may need some legal representation about now, and Homeward Angels has decided to take your case,” Tallian pulled out several more documents from his briefcase.
“Mine? I mean, I dunno, with all the needier folks out there, why?”
“Because there is just too much of this landlord power-play business going on in San Francisco, and these termination tactics against you are too uniquely odious to go uncontested. We’ve got to draw the line, and an SRO in of all neighborhoods, Pacific Heights is a perfect place to lay it down.”
“I see, but there’s only, like, 72 hours. I…”
“Trust me, we can deal with that,” he handed me two forms. “Point is you’re not going anywhere if we can help it. Just sign on these bottom lines, Ken. We’ll take if from there…”
Analog or digital? Pro or con? Sutter Street or Hyde? Friend or faux? Stay or go? Pay or no? Beginning or end? C’mon, I really couldn’t as desperate as all those homeless scruffs, could I? So what the hell was I doing here, so deep in the Tenderloin instead of heeding white-shoe Daniel Kalford? Besides, given all the certifiable sob stories out front, why would this guy take up my sorry cause? Really, and who’s the ‘we’, who were these Angels anyway? Pro or forma, sign in or sign away, SOS or abandon ship—it was all I could do to blink at the fine legal print.
Christ, what a time for Wally World to Dead-on Ripple back through these reinforced concrete walls: ‘If you should stand then who’s to guide you? If I knew the way I would take you home’. Then again, ‘Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime, if you don’t lay ’em down…’
End of Stage One.
Care for more?
CHAPTER 19. A Russian closure
hastens a local rush of intrigue…
COVIDose: …Stay home, mask-up, social distance—what’s so damn social about this? Hel-lo, really, where the hell is everybody? Oh, I know, they’ve all abandoned ship, decamping to Tahoe or someplace in Idaho—blown town like an offshore windstorm until the Coronavirus washes out. Everybody else is locked down in isolated fear and hypochondria—bingewatching cable’s high crimes and dystopia, stressin’ over who Zoomin’ who. Well, not this Luddie…So REVANCHE , go NOW…
“You still there?”
“Uh, not at the moment, no…”
“What? Haven’t blown, have you?!”
“Not yet, but I’m still packing like a mad man…”
It had been a weekend lost in space thus far. Tight, tormenting spaces—making room for all the moving cartons, trying despite myself to figure and measure what would fit and where, let alone why. The task at hand was cramming years and years of personal worldlies, of accumulated clutter and domestic detritus worthy of a hoarder extraordinaire into some sort of orderly payload that was about to cost me a royal ransom to relocate/remove. Clock running, calendar pages turning quickly toward V/E-day: I sorted, folded, bundled and boxed everything in sight, wall to wall, with nary a clue as to where I would possibly take it all beyond the curb out front of the Delphoria. That was, if I could have even begun to work out where plan B might be.
Disorientation and dissonance surged through me as a hard homeless likelihood sank in: uprooted, untethered, yet saddled just the same. Running scared, walking scared, shuffling scared—hell, crawling scared—shitless and shirtless, pissing in pants, still packing away. Got so I had to get out of the place for a spell—this aeonic homebase that was quickly turning into a nowherehouse staging area, day by night by day. Late Sunday afternoon, I’d come up for air and some free WiFi, was sucking on a coffee shop dark roast when I opened an email full of exclamation points, soon followed by this iPhone vibration.
“Well, chill—don’t you budge an inch from your place, hear me?”
“And what, wait to get booted out by the sheriff? I don’t know about…”
“Listen to me, Ken,” Peter Tallian stressed. “If you vacate voluntarily, you lose any and all legal leverage you might have.”
“Leverage? Here?” I asked futilely. “Hey, no offense—by why are you telling me this, anyway?”
“Because they can’t do this, understand? And I’m willing to see to it they don’t,” he said. “So stay put, and don’t even think of signing their whackjob acknowledgment notice. Nothing good will come from it, believe me.”
“Hey, I really appreciate it, but I’m just about to be kicked to the curb with a pile of bursting boxes. How could I ever afford someone like you?”
“Don’t worry about that. Just let me help you—listen to your attorney on this…”
Wow, my attorney…look at me, so lawyered up. From first impression, Tallian appeared to be a toilsome, well-rounded downtown attorney type, but apparently had another, more egalitarian side—a flip side, at that. He went on explain that although commercial real estate law was his bailiwick, empty storefront lease issues near Mint Hill and a lumbering REIT in Dogpatch were really grinding him down—to where he was beginning to hate himself for it. Yet turned out he had long maintained a discreet, off-the-clock practice in the depths of the Tenderloin, genesis of which was a third-year internship partially facilitated by Golden Gate Law School.
He confided that his alter legal ego led him periodically to Leavenworth, the street, on over to Hyde—and a housing/homeless support clinic that ministered to needy folks and families, from the suddenly dislodged to chronic street denizens and the habitual cuff ‘n’ stuff. Added to that was Alison Paige-Warner hitting her budding partner’s sweet spot by enjoining him to balance the real estate shark suit with big-boy savior pants. Something to do with establishing full client service, contingency and/or pro bono though it may be —and looked like I may have been fittingly hanging in the balance.
“Reality accepted. What choice do I have, right,” I asked, iPhone and coffee cup quivering in my hands.
“All right then,” Tallian said. “Meet me down by Turk and Hyde tomorrow afternoon. We’ll get to work on this straight off. And bring any paperwork you have on the whole termination deal.”
“If I can find it all…”
“Just stand your ground there. You absolutely have to find it all.” CLICK.
“Got a hex head?”
“Yah, I guess—in here somewhere. What for?”
“Damn knob needs tightening up there again.”
“Tell me about it…”
Advice equivocally taken, I’d wheezed back uphill to the old Delphoria, French roast grande in hand, dreading yet another doorframed notification. Nothing new on the mullion or transom, nothing under the threshold sweeper—I just keyed into more irresolute coming and going, staying in or piling out—everything still heaped about the place like a storage locker on a fractious faultline. Vossarian’s admonishment or no, I was resigned to filling and duct taping more boxes, stacking them about the searingly sunny apartment in a random access order—heaps and piles strewn across the hardwood floor like a bungled, burgled hit job—facing the prospect that they could end up anywhere from a nanoscale Bernal cohab to Tenderloin deathtrap to a ReCology trash compactor. Bouncing off walls, enmeshed in corrugated cardboard and cellophane, I wabbly separated the need from the not to the amplified tune of KPOO-FM’s Monday morning blues, soon hearing an authoritative knuckle tap at the door.
Christ, had to be Foster Norguard, or his lawyers, or for godsakes the sheriff: Instead, It was Doyle from upstairs outside the peephole—neighborly knocking to check out my ruckus, music-wise, if not the latest on a his rumored manager pro tem. I finally opened the door a narrow crack, as I just kept assuring him tightly that everything was great with me and I was fine…no problem, no big thing…let me just crank the stereo down a notch and I’d get right back to him—slam. When I finally did, damned if he wasn’t darkening my door all the more.
“Sure you’re all right in there?”
“Everything cool—like with the Rent Board and everything?”
“Uh, so far…sorry, I’ll dig around for that driver…”
“Mucho bizarro in river city—got me to thinking, ever hear whatever happened with that intense chick who lived in #2 here,” Doyle asked, sneaking an exploratory peek through the cracked door. He explained that there was talk around the bar down at the Mauna Loa, about rumors of a dead gal found on Moulton Street—speculating on who she was and where was she from. “Know anymore about her?”
“Which one exactly?” I hedged, not sure how or what he knew about my current straits, wondering if he could see I was already halfway out the door.
“That drama queen with the strange rich dago greaseball sniffiin’ around for her…”
“Oh, right—hard to say, you know how they come and go,” I said, closing the door ever so gradually.
“Just hopin’ we don’t have another Evelyn on our hands.”
“Hey, not to worry about that.” Evelyn? Where was he coming from with that Delphoria lore? Thinking about Tomarrah was harrowing enough. Which set me to reliving the whole #2 bugaboo—that dark, cursed little room during the rainy season, me huddling close to its balky old fireplace, with nary a ray of sunshine in sight. I shuddered just rethinking that they wanted me in there again at any price. “I’ll take care of that faucet knob for you right off.”
“Uh-huh, got a handle on it, do you?”
“Totally—like I said, I’m all over it…”
“By the way, I got a notice from the post office, they’ve got some letter for me,” he said, turning toward the stairs to his fourth floor room. “So I’m headed over. Need anything between here and Steiner Street?”
“You did?” I replied, head swiveled his way, second thinking through a sliver of daylight. “Uh…no, Doyle—I’m good, thanks…”
Good? Not even close. Hex? Tools? Are you shitting me?! Like I was going to find those about now. With Granger shrugging, climbing up the stairwell on bone-on-bone knees, I deadbolted the door and turned back to the panic and pillage within. Busywork sorting, cramming and taping away—sole belongings stacked and bagged, heaped, bundled and piled ceiling high with no discernible reason nor order. Dizzy with the odor of Magic Marker ink, I eventually drifted into memories of the room next door—cramming all that down real fast. Though disoriented no end by now, I did manage to move boxes around for some breathing room, like puzzling out a Rubik’s Cube of cubic inches. Coordinate, compress it all: this is your life in cardboard—and dug my way over to the bay window and my spool round writing table to take further stock.
I pushed through stacks of notes, clips and discarded drafts, firing up the MacBook, clawing away at a nail worn keyboard with no particular row to hoe. Finish your story, Alison reverberated like acute tinnitus, you’ve got to finish that book—which sent me to gazing out the bay’s three stick vertical windows, to a bank of post-1906 apartment buildings across the street, floor upon floor, year after year of detached affairs and dramas on indiscreet display in and of themselves. But I needed to snap-to and focus, jot down some hippocampal withdrawals, get my story together before it termed out. Maybe best to build some distance in there, even go third person on some of this intra-house business—yah, neutralize the ambient noise—so as to lube those lobes along. Lessee, it went something like…
Sure, I remember leaving Hawaii’s swaying Banyans and beachy rainbows, landing in the middle of a torrential San Francisco winter storm, the 1980s bearing down. Streets were slick and glistening, rain blowing horizontally, parallel to the pavement. On the front gate of this ancient Pacific Heights Victorian was a For Rent sign reading: Private Room, Pleasant Price. Soaked and blue cold in my long-stored Volvo, I called the number and this Nigel bloke invited me over for a walk through of the house.
I’d never seen anything like this place, four floors of what the chipper live-in manager called mixed usage. More specifically, the Aussie explained that this Queen Anne was built in 1891, one of three buildings on the block that survived the 1906 Earthquake, and had changed little over the years. Its bottom two floors were three-bedroom flats, but three and four were this anachronistic single room-occupancy hotel. Been that way since day one; Pacific Heights had traditionally hosted a variety of these set-ups, called them guesthouses for newbie young post-war professionals laying roots in The City, especially for downtown employ. Part pensione, part social club—but mainly glorified rooming houses in chopped up old mansions—their days were increasingly numbered, be they Baker Acres or an old sailors’ home.
Yet here Delphoria still stood, certified cozy, convenient and quake-proven, month-to-month with dirt cheap rent in a snooty, sky-high neighborhood. It was owned by now retired grocer, Marvin Rosenor, yet, who small world remembered me from way back in 1978 and gratefully approved my moving in. So I jumped on its lone available room to wait out the rainy season—strictly short term at the most. Nigel said Chico State party boys shared the basement flat with the law student brother of an L.A. Lakers NBA star back then. The main-floor flagship flat was flush with those Grateful nuclear family Deadizens, and everybody in the eight upstairs rooms seemed basically copasetic. Eager as I was to get out of the Volvo and Pacific storm fronts, first and security, no questions ask, this was a key deal I couldn’t refuse, even if only for a few rainy months.
If only room number two wasn’t so small, dark and hemmed-in from the get-go, closing in on me by the day. Cursed room #2 there just beyond my still Lahaina-postered white wall, sandwiched between two noiseboxes like surround-sound wireless boardinghouse earbuds—BeeGees and Air Supply to one side back then, Colon/Blades’ ‘Siembra’ salsa on the other. Or the parade of progressive, transgressive chicks who freely based in there ever after—most recently the one who’d been hiding out from her loathsome lothario. And that was just the beginning of this peculiarly outre housewarming tenure…but wait…later…
Ringtone…gone to voicemail… My phone was iCharging, and how I wished I was doing the same. End of story for now; shutting down the laptop, I hurdled a mound of moving boxes to pull up the message. It was from Alison, who updated me that she had finalized the exploratory letter to Hassett’s agent, Craig Prescott, and was sending it to me as a PDF attachment. She instructed me to DocuSign off on it and prepare to email the document directly to Prescott, then print out the letter and snail mail it to his New York address ASAP, as well.
Nothing was said about Peter Tallian’s involvement on the termination front, but it was clear from the firmness of her voice that somehow, somewhere the twain shall meet.
I only hoped I wasn’t going to get mincemeated halfway. Meanwhile, back to that hexhead, whether I was still managerial material or not…christ, what was that whumping down hall…
Care for more?
CHAPTER 18. Conflicting views create
a cognitive dissonance that carries through
grimmer reapings to a ghostly glimmer
of flicks and rock for the ages…
COVIDose: …On the outs again, another good, gray morning dulling any residual gloss and glitter from Fillmore Street stores. Can’t see in to window-shop anyway, for all the blanket boardover coverage—a riot of 2×4’s, ‘Gator and plywood in all shapes and sizes—store upon store, block after block—and spreading by the day. So RESET, go NOW…
“Just gimme my $19…and I be gone.”
“Sorry, I’m not authorized to do that.”
“Gimme my $19, you stole my money so gimme my fuckin’ $19!”
Figured to be a simple case of no fill, no refill. Although this was complicated by the fact that she had lifted the finished cup from a vacated table upon stealing in the door—which prompted a watchful cashier to resist the forceful tapping of the empty cup on the counter, and deny her fevered pitch with a thin, twitching smile. That sent a soiled gray hoodied woman in brown knit pants, ranting up and down the wait line, hurling larcenous accusations, merit immediately under review. While a harried Starbucks barista stood her grounds at the cash register, beckoning a stone silent wait line to move forward regardless of the foofaraw.
A compact ‘Bucks it was, very Pacific Heights clean, quiet, and stiffly polite, upper Fillmore scale—a perfect place to pause and catch a second homebound wind. Mainly cheery, bubbly young women otherwise scurried behind the counter—one looking hauntingly like a filial cross between Moon Saversohn and Sydney Mendel. Dallying over au Laits and tidy little tables were hushed elders, early retirees, mental health professionals from various second story offices and staffers from the hospital just uphill. Next table over could be the occasional fat cats, angel investing, stacking decks, sifting pitches, signing offer/term sheets, seeding rounds, switching partners with a quick swipe and send.
Everybody sat stirring their caffeine fixes of choice, squeezing in honey packets they’d pocketed from prep station dispensers, none too comforted by the soft pop Muzak overhead. Between the outbursts, I could hear a fussy, fidgety cough from a long rearward community table, primarily held down by wi-fi sucking regulars obliviously fixated on laptop, tablet or smartphone screens under a black-framed melange of coffee beans, growers and roasters.
But suddenly, everybody in here turned even more guarded, on edge. Among them, Arnold remained steadfastly analog, anally so. He was a snippy little middle-aged guy in flight jacket, teenage tight Levi’s, fat chrome keychain, laced-up Red Wing shitkickers and a rainbow variety of Cal caps. Arnold routinely spread out his morning NY Times, newsbitching to his bearded lady friend page by page, about everything in here or around the neighborhood. And he was visibly in a snit over this commotion, to where he marched to the counter, demanding that the flummoxed barista make a quick call to the authorities. This, I could see from my perch on a small circular stand and stool nearest the store’s front doors, where I’d had enough cortisol jitters as it was.
“Like that fucker over there stole my phone—gimme my $19—somebody call the police!”
“Can’t help you, sorry. Next guest…”
“Ain’t got my phone no more—will somebody call the po-lice,” the woman paced and shouted. “And gimme my $19 motherfuckers!!
She bolted from the counter line toward a pensioned school teacher at the front bay window table TXTing in full REI day-hiking wear. He suddenly clutched his iPhone 7 tighter as she approached and pointed him out of the line-up.“Gimme back my phone, motherfucker, that my phone you stole there. Look, I can give you passwords, fingerprints, appshit—fuckin’ prove that phone be mine!”
The mad woman pounded his table, Grande Latte teetering precariously on edge. She just as abruptly spun back in the direction of Starbucks’ counter, past glass and dark wood counters chock with pastries, croissants, sandwiches, chips, sweet candies and colorful fruit smoothies—irate all the more because the petrified cashier still wouldn’t reload her lifted cup. “See? Told ya the fucker stole my phone—call the police, will somebody please call the police?!” Again, nothing, nobody looked up from their small white slab tables; nobody at the long commons bench tore away from their screens.
Then she started in with “Gimme my $19, gimme my fuckin’ $19” over and over, “Will you gimme my $19 so I can get out of here and start my life!” She paced back and forth along the wait line, stomping her heel worn shoes.“Gimme my $19…gimme my fuckin’ $19…gimme my $19, gimme back my phone!!!! But she suddenly muscled out by me through slamming doors, mere minutes before the SFPD blues responded to that backroom 911 call. In all, just one more shake up and shakedown scheme…getting a way by getting in the way—the price of doing Upper Fillmore business with Lower Fillmore habitually scaling the Heights, just basically looking for some up and out.
“Well, here at Starbucks, I suppose,” Storm passed, my phone calypso ringtoned to life—Alison Paige-Warner touching base to gauge my wi-fi connectivity. “There’s always the library…”
“A regular Mr. Stone Age, you are. Still, I’ll be sending it to the G-Mail account you listed in your contact information…”
“I’ll be on the lookout, Ms. Warner. I’m on the lookout for everything these days.”
“Just be sure to read the letter very carefully before hitting send, Mr. Herbert. And by the way, don’t be expecting any overnight miracles. We’ll address further matters in due course, okay? Take good care and keep writing…I’ll be in touch.”
“No overnight miracles, gotcha—thanks again…” Click, Click.
Store filling, line lengthening, tables overflowing, I grabbed a refill, scarfed some more honey packets and let out for the house. “How ya doin’, champion, spare change?” This time, the rote hit-up by a scruffy street regular pried loose the last of my pocket change. He sat planted on his pillowed milk crate, rattling his coin cup at every passerby, following virtually every Pavlovian deposit with a quick coordinating TXT on his cell phone. Hard to miss him, even harder to pass him by, squeezing between a homeless, red parka clad SSI fixture standing with his tall coffee like a cigar store Amerind, laughing balefully, stuffed backpacks by his side.
Then there was the east coast transplant, already dark roasted, motor-mouthing estranged family gibberish going back three generations to his audience of one. In his twitching shadow squatted a tiny news clipper who compulsively snipped and yellow highlighted articles from any papers he could still find. The foursomewas misplaced from harsher city climes, residue from Starbucks’ wide open-door policy in the wake of a distastefully public lawsuit. Store management stood fearing that the lot of them were being planted by hungry PI/discrimination lawyers. Yet I couldn’t help picturing them shedding their street shtick, eyeing a weekend confab to compare their respective sidewalk charades up at their Napa/Sonoma hideaways.
Cynical me, somewhere between a saint and a sucker, maybe because of suddenly feeling so close to being in their sole worn shoes again. I nevertheless fist-bumped the coin cadger and trod past the Junior League brickfront building, Athleta’s sanitary white womannequins sporting all sets and scraps of stylish workout/yoga wear in ground floor windows. Pricey didn’t do this neighborhood justice: What used to be creamy stores and shops were now all fashionable shoppes and salons; former bank branches and nook-and-cranny stores had scaled up to InterMix, Cielo designer boutiques, to where the block’s show windows enticed all tony women all the time.
I sidestepped several smartphonies snapping their fresh Instagram content under Athleta’s retro depot lights, past a HairFairies salon and legacy Via Veneto restaurant—brimming like so many other cafes along here. An exclusive Stuart Hall/Convent School resale shop only widened the have/not divide. Across the way, a mushrooming acacia tree shaded a swank nail studio, further darkening the once sleek black-on-black Koopers mercery one door down—modish bookend to the sassy white Alice and Olivia rag trader, New York to the bone. Morning fog gave way to a patchy afternoon sun as Debs to matrons casually window shopped them all, one trendy display after another.
Still, it was what stood between them that flipped my switch, a temporal stitch in time, then and now. The venerable yet vulnerable Clay Theater’s filmy marquee as always touted the latest in foreign cinema, with de rigueur Rocky Horror and Big Lebowski midnight screenings, even though Carlos Santana’s adjoing rooftop practice shed and Millard’s next-door cafe were so long gone. Rewinds of its limited Hitler movie showing and the aroma of Via Veneto’s antipasti set me to thinking about Reese Paulen and our street fair chinwag way back in 2008, let alone how his Anti-Buddies movement was faring these right-wing, ‘deal of the century’ days.
Just about took a quick belt from Palmer’s brassy bistro here at corner’s edge to pull me out of another deep Mideast dive, nearly colliding with a lunching ICU team down from the hospital in blue operating scrubs. I panned up to the rising Pacific Heights horizon lorded over by 2500 Steiner Street, a prominent white 1920s co-op tower crowned with a Spanish red tile roof. Its more recent guest register included Bill and Hillary, Nancy and Chuck, with an occasional Barack and Michelle popping by on their way to Hawaii. I recalled once seeing the Queen and Prince Phillip rounding the Jackson Street corner up there in their armored Rolls, enroute to a British Consulate reception minus the splinter IRA intrigues. Or when Gorbachev’s Zil-41047 entourage roared through in the dark of night to that Soviet spynest down on Green Street—which was shuttered tighter than a lien-seizure these days. All told, it did make me wonder what the hell I was still doing in this A-list neighborhood after so many Z-list years.
“Hi, nice to see you again…how goes it?” I asked, upon bypass nodding to a second-story shrink in his ’70s uniform denim, deep into yellow highlighting a softcover psychosocial abstract.
“Doing quite well, thank you, and yourself?”
“Been worse, but hey, watch out for yourself, okay? See you soon…”
“Not if I see you first…”
The Clay Street crosswalk occasioned a little routine I’d worked out with an Upper Fillmore regular, a beaming fellow who walked slowly and wagged a good, long stick. Carl was a dedicated researcher at the Eye Institute up ahead, and appeared to be tapping off to Starbuck’s for a coffee break—no easy feat given that he was blind from birth. But his was a path well worn over the years, to where he likely could have negotiated the sidewalk and intersection without his orange folding cane. Either way, he would sweep along with a ready smile and knowing riposte, as if he recognized every peril or person before him. Hell, if he could maintain his optic nerve, put on a happy, sunny face day after darkened day, so could I—at least until the suspected cat lady appeared to spring forth a bit further up Fillmore.
Nevertheless, I padded past a corner curio shoppe, Super Cuts chop shop, bank and Carl’s Smith-Kettlewell Eye Institute along now shaded Fillmore, with a nervous peep toward the flaming old Alta Plaza turned Snug Bar—tamed as was so much of the neighborhood these days. Convent girls skipped and uniform cliqued down from Broadway for ice cream, crested jacket Stuart Hall boys giggling, pranking in their wake. I’d cleared lanes for them and clambered beyond the 1960s relique Cottage Industry pottery/craft center that had survived by virtue of inherited building ownership, where visions of Noelle Buxton came clearer. Just the other side of a set of rehabbing mid-block Victorians stood a former auto repair garage that with generous Getty lubrications had become the SPCA veterinary hospital and feline wellness center. Out its lobby doors she came, cagey pet carrier in hand, which further bolstered Delphoria rumors that she was secreting a rescue tabby in her room, against all lease prohibitions and standing house rules.
Resulting anger, anxiety and a cupful of bladder pressure sent me scurrying further up Fillmore Street, squeezing between a tandem of double-wide strollers, frantic, poly-lingual au pairs cosseting their wailing toddlers. Nature called, duty too, although the matter of whether this in fact was my responsibility or business any longer dragged on my pacing like a tire and chain. I dodged a Bentley poptop turning through the Washington Street intersection, with a glance toward that ever grassy mounded prominence of Alta Plaza Park over at Steiner—thick with sun baskers and the tangled leashes of multi-strain dog walkers. Here where we once gathered for news by the dozens, around the cigarette lighter-powered TV atop a corner pickup truck hungry, totally in the dark as to what a 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake had just wrought.
From there, it now was a blur of establishments that were way above my pay grade, high- fashion salons where drug and notions stores used to be. Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ piped out of a chic collections boutique, Fillmore steeply rising to beauty spas, Freda Salvador designer shoes, vaunted antique gallery and goldsmithery. Then came SF Symphony’s thrift shop, personal care lotions, Posh hair—a shoebox start-up of LED glowingly colorful distaff flats, loafers and sneakers brilliantly designed from recycled plastic—all stores fronted by planter boxes and espaliers. Images from a Tudor walk-up across the street reflected in the windows of Mayflower’s near corner market: young Blue Bottle gourmet coffee snobs milling about with artisanal brews in hand, ever scrolling through their datamassing smartphones. Christ, get me back to a basic cobbler or hardware store, especially now that all this haute could be coming to a personal halt. Then, over the racket of a MUNI trolley dropping poles, came another vibe of my calypso ringtone, and the blurtings of a panic attack.
“Hello, Ken, Peter Tallian here, just following up, checking in to see how you are doing…”
“Doing? I’m cooked…” Speaking of phones, I took to stabbing at mine’s volume button under the rumble of various delivery vehicles.
“Listen to me, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve read about your situation, and suspect you’re blowing this whole thing out of proportion.”
“Naw, Thursday’s rolling in and I’ll be booted out, I can just feel it…”
“Not so fast, Ken—you have options here, believe me.”
Glancing across Jackson Street to the monumental Calvary Church, a come-to-Jesus moment arrived as how I really had no business being up in the Heights, no matter how blessed long I’d actually lived here. With that, I turned the corner past a creamy cartooned Clover Stornetta truck, back toward a somewhat soiled nesting ground AKA/ the Delphoria. Gino’s earthquake heroic Market again caught my admiring eye, how it somehow remained open through the Loma Prieta night, serving dazed, distraught neighborhood customers at a steep discount when everything else had gone black.
Then the massive Pacific Heights School, currently a Montessori learning complex with a playground full of romping youngsters, draped Jackson Street up to Webster in four stories of pacific tan on beige— not that it actually calmed me any. For the task at hand was to hold tight, stem the flow block by block, when I felt the urge to let loose, hike a leg, spray the territory like a retractable leashed dog. Still, the trick was to beat Noelle Buxton back to Delphoria, snapping some little iPhone shots of her cat crate, looking to catch her pussyfooting around.
So I scuttered by beautifully renovated stick Victorian, Queen Anne, Italianate mansions and primly pastel apartment buildings, side by side, too many now propped up soft-story jobs being retrofitted to meet stringent city earthquake codes—feeling no less wobbly myself. Came this close to stopping at the corner imported Ale House for a cold, crafty brewski, but settled instead on grabbing a few flattened beer cartons for good moving measure. I pushed further up Jackson, past enfeebled elders and pramming young mothers in tight running trim, then Danielle Steele’s white fenced Tuckerville Vicky House, sole one-story survivor of an 1870s neighborhood tract, with the only real front yard around these parts.
But another corner, mainly pre-and post-war khaki or pastel highrises, sort of a West Coast
Upper East Side, was graced with a long view north to the bay and Marin beyond. A block or two further got me panting back to the Delphoria, my one home away from homeless, now hanging on this call from Peter Tallian, desperate for some bodily relief.
“Proportion? Hell, get me a minivan or U-Haul…” I paced my place, noting through my peephole that the cat lady still hadn’t shown, as if it was any of my business now anyway. “The clock is counting down here, the axe is fixing to fall…”
“Trust me,” he said, “I believe I can help you with this.”
“With what, another place for me to stay?”
“You’re not going anywhere, I’m telling you. First off, I am prepared to draft a letter to the landlord’s lawyer, demanding that they hold fire on any eviction notices for now, until the particulars of their termination action can be further examined. For the moment, just stay put in your place until you hear back from me, will you do that Ken?”
“I guess, got no place to go now anyhow,” I sighed, peering about the half-packed clutter of my rooms. “I only hope you do know where you’d want to be going with this, Peter, you don’t know…”
“Just hang tough Herbert, you’ll be in good hands all around.” CLICK.
“Uh-huh, all around,” I muttered aloud, tapping the phone to black—unsure whether I was longing to stay inside this place, or sorely looking for an out. “Lawyer this, lawyer that… putting myself on more terra infirma with mouthpieces unknown, flat out of overnight miracles.
Wherein a folded missive slid in under my door…
Care for more?
CHAPTER 17. Amid frantic packing and
stacking, some legal opinions press a new
wrinkle and set off a crisp black-letter response…
COVIDose: …Whoa, steady as she goes here. Really, I’m all right, so REGATHER, go NOW…
“Bottom line: I say yes, they say no…
“I say stay, they say go, go, go.”
“How amusing, but spare me the blessed droning, will you please!”
Not to make a joke of the situation, but a little gallows humor, some insouciant lyrical levity did crank down anxiety pressure valve a mite—ease the tension, break some ice—clearly at my expense, as the case may be. For this ultimately was as serious as a thrombosis. Truth be told, my spirits had been sinking rapidly, as reality began setting in. No longer firmly anchored in Delphoria’s harbor, I took to drifting about and upending the place, assessing possessions and furnishings, at a loss as to how I could possibly pack up and remove it all, let alone where it would go.
Still, the termination clock continued running. So I frantically scoured the neighborhood for moving cartons of all shapes and sizes—U-Haulers to Pliny the Elder and Ronrico Rum—shaky on orientation, heavy of heart and misgivings, tape measure and packing tape in unsteady hands. Sorting and culling, bundling and boxing, sealing and trashing—I was essentially jettisoning, unmooring, weighing anchor with no new port to be found. That was about when the call came from Alison, summoning me back to her downtown office, whereby I jumped at the chance to slip the tightening household knot. This was about when two parallel undercurrents began to converge and whirlpool about.
“Listen to me, Mister Herbert,” she said, glancing through the termination notices I’d handed her so meekly. “You should have told me about these earlier on.”
“Sorry, I just didn’t think it was proper to drag you into this…” My eyes wandered up to the office’s common ceiling light boxes and acoustic tiles, then out its windows to a detail of 44 Montgomery’s middle floors—anything but her way.
“Well, you in essence have dragged me into it,” she admonished. Just when she had readied to discuss my working manuscript, and asked why I hadn’t made authorial progress, I’d hit her with the Delphoria…distraction. “This isn’t the sort of thing you keep from your lawyer.”
“Uh, you’re my lawyer?”
“At least on your book matter, yes I am.”
I had once again passed through the Hobart Building’s ornate gilded lobby, express elevating up to the 14th floor. No gold-leaf door name yet, but her white fluorescent office had added a new sawhorse braced conference table, stacked with bound legal documents, real estate journals, unfurled floor plans and a black bookcase half filled with more banker’s boxes and those U.S. Reports and California Code volumes. Workflow charted whiteboards and framed sheepskins lined the walls, along with a roll-down city street map and dark flatscreen TV. Adjoining the main room was a more private cubbyhole office space, the walnut door to which was slightly ajar. Seated midway along the conference table, I took note that somebody’s practice was picking up here, concerned as to how the hourlies to pay for all this could possibly jibe with redressing my compound interests.
“Hey there! This the writer?”
“Peter Tallian, meet Mister Kenneth Herbert,” she rose, her black pin-striped pantsuit fully on display as her associate barreled into the office.
As did I, to a bone bruising shake of the hand. “Ken’s more like it…”
“Ken, then,” he motioned us to reseat. “Please…don’t let me interrupt.”
“Peter, would you mind taking a quick look at these,” she handed him the termination notices as he pivoted toward that side room. “See what you make of them…”
“As you wish, counselor,” he winked, tapping her freshly manicured fingertips.
By all appearances, Tallian was a hard charger, a Golden Gate University evening class lawyer in a hurry to make waves and level the field. Ripped and buff in an off-the-rack gray suit, his carmine and zinc striped tie waved against white oxford cloth, tasseled black loafers with supinate worn heels. Pushing back his mound of flecked auburn hair, he rimmed a broad, ruddy face with owlish butterscotch eyeglasses, smiling through the stubble of some speculative chin music. He pulled at his Windsor knot and surveyed what Alison was laying out in front of us on a small patch of conference table free space. The young commercial/investment property lawyer shrugged at our I.P. particulars, then slapped at the termination notices and trod into his chamber with an expressive slam of the pebble glass windowed door.
“In any case, Mister Herbert, back to the business at hand,” she flipped through her yellow legal pad. “I’ve had some time to go over your materials, and have a couple of questions.”
“It’s just Ken to you too, okay,” I nodded, trying to get an inverted read on her notes. “Shoot…”
“To refresh, you initiated contact with these Hassett people via an exploratory letter upon Jenson Brookhouse’s passing, is that right?”
“Yeah, I sent a note and obit clip to his designated editor and new representative,” I replied, guardedly amazed that she had so taken up interest in this. “Along with a copy of Brookhouse’s letter to me.”
“Wherein this Craig Prescott fellow quickly answered with a note to send him a query on your story…” She scribbled a side note on the legal pad, then picked up my stack of correspondence.
“His letter’s right there in your stack. He said that if Jenson Brookhouse had shown such interest, he would welcome the opportunity to see the essence of the novel.”
“So you sent him this, did you,” she leafed through the two-page query.
“Which was when he phoned me at six in the morning and left that message to send him a synopsis of the entire story and three sample chapters,” I pointed to the mini cassette.
“Yes, I’ve listened to that voicemail, and copied it onto my phone. He sounded fairly cordial, enthusiastic, all right.”
“That’s what I thought—here, this big-time publishing player, calling me,” I said, the rush of it all surging through my wizened ego cells once more.
“Understandable, but what did you point of fact do in response,” she shuffled deeper into the letter pile, which apparently had now become a file.
“Spent a whole holiday period fleshing out that four-page synopsis, and shaping up the sample chapters as best I could—you’ve got the thumbnail cover letter there that I enclosed. Packaged it all with an SASE and sent it to New York with book-deal advances and tours in my eyes.”
“Then…nothing?” She grabbed and swung back her blonde hair over her shoulder, with a bob of the head.
“Not a word, for months,” I said, eyes watering over slightly at the mere recounting of the mailbox misery. “Got to where I sent him that little reminder note you have there—about what was up, real casual like.”
“That prompted, what,” she again cooly jotted onto her yellow pad.
“Took several weeks, but I finally received his return package, with only that memo there stating the story ‘wasn’t for them’—what the hell did that mean?” The anger and frustration rebuilt as I spilled. “So I sent him that next letter you have there…”
I could almost recall it, word for word. How I asked him to toss me a bone, give me some input and insight into his editorial door slam. Whether ‘Herd On The Streets’ was a story not worth telling, or a worthwhile story not told well enough; was it a problem of style, plot line or subject matter overall? I copped that it delved into some sensitive topics, but could think of no other way to address such hot-button issues as homelessness and male/female violence, male anger and resentment with lapel-grabbing impact. That there was no ‘safe’ path to progress there, and that counseling centers and shelters here who had sourced much of my material were counting on getting their efforts dramatically portrayed. How I knew he was busy with bigger books and all, but that any comments and guidance from a pro of his stature would help me immeasurably.
“Hmmm. Sorry, I don’t seem to see Craig Prescott’s reply to that,” she paged deeper.
“That’s because there was none—nothing at all, as if ‘Herd’ and I never existed,” I said bitterly, slapping at my manila file folder. “Then Hassetts’s ‘Verdict Street’ hit me like a kick to the groin…no offense.”
“None taken, I’m used to much worse, believe me,” she smiled slightly, as she set aside the pile and opened her Mactop. “It sounds like I’ve hewed very closely to this chain of events, all right. And I’m pulling up a roughed out a reply letter for you to send to this Prescott fellow, only I believe it best we go the email and snail-mail route from here.”
“Well, he has provided contact information in his letterhead, hasn’t he…”
“Yes, and here is what you are going to say to him…” Alison then directed my attention to her laptop screen, and a Google Docs draft of what she termed a pre-demand letter, projected in my words, as best she could:
Its gist was that I had just finished ‘Herd On The Streets’, finding it a most topical story in timing and social relevance—its homeless theme hitting surprisingly close to home. Now, since it is apparent you and your client are open to outside material, I have another interesting idea for you—this one even better tailored to Mr. Hassett’s brand-name formula (e.g., championing the little guy over the tyranny and injustice of the rich and powerful, with ironic twists galore). Should you be inclined to explore my fresh thematic territory, unmistakably the makings of Mr. Hassett’s next blockbuster, I would be delighted to be of service by hand-serving it to you, as I had with my ‘Herd on the Streets’. This one is based on my odd experiences struggling to market a first novel in the perilous publishing environment of today.
Maybe this time Mr. Hassett might even credit me in his author’s acknowledgements, as in the section where he presently confides he ‘had not worried too much about the homeless’ before writing ‘Verdict Street’. Then again, if no reply is forthcoming, I’ll have to conclude that you are no longer interested in soliciting (and purloining) my ideas on behalf of the Hassett Machine. Or that his well-honed message of uncovered truth and justice for all is only a plot device, product of your collective imaginations. In any event, for purposes of reassurance and clarification, I hope to hear from you sometime soon. Thank you for your valuable time and consideration, Sincerely, Kenneth Herbert…
“Whoa, this is good,” I said, pulling away from her Retina screen. “But what do you think will come of it?”
“Oh, I suspect you will hear back on this letter,” she said, a kaleidoscopic saver taking over her screen. “Depending on how they reply, we will plan and react accordingly. Let me revise and edit this draft so that you can hit send on your personal e-mail account—if that works for you.”
“Works? Are you kidding, send this just the way it is,” I gasped, wishing I could write that keenly and sardonically, wondering why she would be grasping at a straw man like me. “But how can I ever afford your valuable time and consideration?”
“Look, I’ll handle your case on ‘contingency’, which we can hash out later. Let’s see where this goes, Clover-wise,” she said in reflection. “Suffice to say, I had a dear friend who was a frustrated writer—one who burned with ambition—and my father is a weekend Hemingway-type with more blocks than bluster. Besides, most lawyers begrudge that arrogant Hassett his publishing success. Now stay put and get back to finishing your novel.”
“Uh, r-r-right, gotcha…” Enough said. I was still shaking my head in the affirmative when the side chamber door swept open and a jacketless Peter Tallian sprang forth, tie flying.
Slamming the termination notices down onto the conference table like a gavel atop the court bench, he bellowed, “What the hell’s the story with all this?”
Care for more?
CHAPTER 16. Back up in the “hood”,
commotion sparks luxe locomotion
as the phone calls start ringing in…
COVIDose: …Fillmore Street? Try Phantom Street, like a dystopian movie set two days after a shoot. I’m picturing lively street fair throngs, but seeing a Gatorboard jungle or desolation row. I mean where’s the action, Jackson Street on down?…So RELENT, go NOW…
“They’re coming hard, are they?”
“That’s for sure.”
“Way too fast, I’m afraid…”
Protection-plus in the ether didn’t square fully with facts on the ground. Hence, a second opinion was in order. I’d genuinely intended on ASAPing the manuscript in question, reacquainting with its loose-leaf pages, pulling together the raw materials, long buried notes and clippings that would set me to turning out whole chapters once again. But planted back in Delphoria—shuffling papers, pounding out keystrokes dead against the countdown clock and those termination notices sapped my bandwidth, choking off mind flow like secondhand cigar smoke. With even the remotest prospect of losing house keys and time of possession altogether, I felt an urgent need for some protective reaffirmation and procedural spellchecking. Hence it was back to the housing resource listings, which bought me to another advocacy group’s intake counter, to its volunteer counselor pro tem.
“Well, then we’d better take a closer look…”
“That’d be great…”
“But first, sir, several means questions.”
“About your demos, your personal status and resources, like that,” said the counseling director. “Standard stuff, to determine if you qualify for our services.”
“As in ways and means…” Here, the thinking went: when in doubt or desperation, go for a little obtuse resistance, wear him down, duck around his barrier, easy as line jumping at Starbucks or the Panhandle DMV. I thought I’d be shrewdly trolling for some third-party validation and confirmation, sure-handed rubber stamping of my domestic status as I knew it at the time.
Once again, it was down to the Mission District, just this side of 16th Street, into a cold concrete gray City office building, buzzed to the fifth floor via a scratchy call-up security phone. Figured I was playing with house money anyway, thus I saw this as something of a victory lap, my posture being rather cavalier going in. But then I spotted a stark black logo of shadows pushing back against a cityscape of housing injustices, was greeted by this stern gateway screener in a firebrand red T-shirt and cocked newsboy cap. Oops, my bad, wise-ass shame on me. So I instantly listened up in earnest, rear footed with a soft-story slackening of the spine.
“Says here you were provided unit #1 rent-free in exchange for your services as a resident manager—is this correct?”Damon Samarco noted, elbowing further onto the counter top, guns strategically tatted—eco-resistance wrists, forearms, on up to a hemp necklace inked red and green.
“Well, yes, far as that goes…”
“Terminated for cause, effective immediately, at-will employment, deal over,” he continued, paging through both notices. “You haven’t signed their acknowledgement/understanding clause, have you?”
“Not yet, I…”
“Good, don’t,” the counselor said firmly. “Now, you claim you lived in that unit as a legal paying tenant prior to this property manager arrangement. This is accurate?”
“Uh, not exactly…”
The Housing Rights Center was fervently left-of-lib in principle, while serious business in pavement practice. Hardcore affordable-housing hawks since the late 1970s, HRC was a bulwark against tenant mistreatment and landlord abuses city-wide. These street-smart staffers and volunteer activists offered free call/drop-in counseling on issues like rent increases, habitability, pass-throughs, lock-outs, HUD/Section 8s, security deposits, buyouts—not least looming displacement/evictions and the arcana of SROs. The screener and I went back and forth over demographic particulars—red flags and qualifiers, hedging and stalling. When I failed to furnish pay stubs, SSI cards, food stamps, or a current lease, we reached a sighing stare-down over the counter impasse, what with this tight triage reception area filling fast.
“Not exactly—what does that mean?”
“Actually, I had lived in a room down the hall when the previous landlord asked me to start taking care of the place. I’ve got rent receipts to prove it.”
“And that was when you moved into #1?”
“Pretty much, about the same time…” Nice momentary diversion: couldn’t help but pick up on the alternating KPFA and KRZZ La Raza salsa on the surround sound office FM.
“Uh-huh, well I’m not a lawyer myself, but it does look like that could be a problem,” Samarco said, reading further.
Thankfully, advanced age and VA ID had ultimately tipped the HRC eligibility scale, and I handed my termination notices to the harried screener. As he speed read the paperwork, I peered about pamphlet tables and thumbpacked bulletin boards of housing updates, workshops, conventions, community meetings and Tenant Together networking. The teeming, fluorescent office was fresh off anti-Ellis Act mobilization and Repeal Costa Hawkins demonstrations, rolled-up solidarity and tenant empowerment banners lining protest postered walls. A hive of peer counselors tapped and phone conferenced away beyond the counter, beneath photo blow-ups of tenants rights, Fair Housing protest marches, litigation sessions, rent parties, bullhorn outrage and sit-in chants. Seemed like if anyplace could afford me some righteous status validation, HRC be it. Then came this…
“Problem, how so?”
“Because they can say you never were a legal paying tenant in unit #1, that’s how. And you weren’t, were you?”
“Well, not precisely in those terms…”
“Okay, look, this is why they contend you are not protected by the San Francisco Rent Control law,” he rendered plainly.
“So what are you saying?” I tuned in keenly, trying to tune out the uptempo Beyonce and Selena.
“That this is an unusual case. You are sort of a gray area ‘tweener. Tenant or management—it could go either way.”
“You’re serious?” Foundation shaking, walls stress cracking, threatening to cave in, protection wearing thin.
“As a blown aneurism,” he handed me back the notices.“Meanwhile, you’re facing this hard eviction deadline. Got a plan B, another place to crash?”
“Not really, not at the…moment.” I was already watermarking them with the steam room sweating of my palms, even while I was shivering to the core.
“Then you’ll be homeless, am I right? You know, it can happen to anybody these days.”
“I guess you could look at it that way,” I muttered, panning all about the room.
“What other way is there?”
Other way? Had to be another way didn’t there? Yah, but wasn’t this just one man’s opinion—a radical one, at that. I couldn’t tell whether it was the aroma of reheated enchiladas or the Afro-Latin beat, but things were getting me real wobbly at the knees. Happen to anybody? I didn’t see myself as just anybody. And this was not a road I was at all prepared to travel, not at this time—hell, not at any time in recent memory.
How could I be reduced to being here, doing this, fishing for affirmation, reassurance that home stayed home, only to be anybody forced into anything less? Was that protective foundation actually crumbling; were my firewalls truly closing and caving in? Suddenly in such personal upheaval, would I be out at the curb with a mind drained of peace and prosperity, my worldly stuff in a heap? Feeling homewrecked and homesick at the very same time, I further fretted that this wasn’t part of the Master Plan, that the timing couldn’t have been worse. But naw, this had to be some sort of misreading, must be one man’s opinion, however straight-shooter street-wise that it was.
“You tell me,” I said, folding the notices into my Timbuk2.
“Point is, we can only help you so far at this stage,” replied Samarco, handing me the HRC reference sheet, along with several topical brochures and his business card. “If they do trigger the eviction process, you should meet with the Eviction Defense Collaborative. In any case, you may want to consult one of these attorneys on this ASAP, because your landlord has already got his lawyer’s meter running.”
“Just remember not to sign that bizarre acknowledgement…and make sure to fully understand your rights. Also let us know if we can help you any further.”
“My rights…right on…” I replied dazedly.
“Come again?” Counselor Samarco was already deep diving into the next case up.
“Thanks, I might just take you up on that…”
“You been served?”
“No, don’t think I…”
“We can’t really help you ’til you’ve been served.”
“But wouldn’t that be a bit too late?”
“Just come back to us as soon as you’ve been served.”
Cling to the initial opinion, question the second: maybe a rubber match was the best bet, seek out a tie-breaker third. That was my frantic, free-fall rethinking on the way back down to Mission Street. But from on out HRC’s door, the thought process was more of a blur. I noted this SRO Collective on the resource sheet, so called from the vestibule, getting a phone tree, leaving a rambling message on my plight for an unlikely callback. From there, I hit the street up Mission for yet another nondescript gray modern office building, the elevator of which opened to a fourth floor aclamor, albeit in an orderly way.
For over 20 years, the Eviction Defense Collaborative had been the go-to source for low-income San Franciscans facing eviction lawsuits and notices to vacate. Its mission was to prevent homelessness and preserve affordable housing—not to mention the city’s diversity in an ever-tightening housing squeeze—empowering the desperate poor through equal access to the law. The wall banner read, ‘Healthy, Affordable Housing is a Human Right’, so EDC even provided monetary assistance for back rent and displacement costs, while spearheading ‘Coming to Agreement’ settlement negotiations to bypass court actions altogether and keep people housed. But apparently I wasn’t desperate enough quite yet.
I’d lined up amid a roiling mass of more likely drop-in clients, who were clutching notices, frantically waving vacate orders in the air, making themselves heard in a multitude of tongues. Young mothers, old connivers, wheelchair-bound panhandlers, worked-over streetwalkers, whole nuclear families, brutally crippled bangers, brothers in needle pointed arms; they passed along their hard-luck and sob stories in Spanish, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog and Vietnamese. Many were more Latino and African-American than not, plenty of colors, salsa and dreadlocked rasta, wrapped in layered rummage, robes and rags. Some were busted in deteriorating physical and mental health, others victimized by pitiless or petty crime—shrieking infants and weeping elders in straits grievously more dire than mine—painfully, humiliatingly so. The EDC waiting room was ministering to an epidemic of searing need, and I felt like a hangnail whiner in an intensive care ward.
My name was eventually called, however, and I was led into one of EDC’s counseling cubicles by a volunteer third-year paper chaser on the legal treadmill, CVing up to the bar. It was on the leading edge of a battery of young lawyers, intake coordinators and shelter client advocates busy advising needful clients and preparing answers, conducting research and discovery, hammering out pleadings, demurrers, fee waivers, stays, motions to quash or strike. Distressed, overanxious clients riveted on their assigned paperwork sherpas, folded documents in lap. Legal formatted computer screens fluttered, copy machines scanned and hummed away, all the way back through long rows of hard-copy file cases. I was greeted by a plainly cheerful staff attorney with flipped brunette hair and big eyeglasses, poring over a fat, double fastenered manila file folder of case proceedings with a Sharpie highlighter. She was Hastings with honors, a sharp, hard grinding veteran of San Francisco housing wars who quickly assessed my deteriorating status, finding I was a bit ahead of the legal scenario.
“Yeah, served up—like on a poison platter.”
“Call it what you will. Sorry we are unable to resolve your particular manager/tenant termination issues, but can certainly help should you receive a summons or complaint for Unlawful Detainer. Although of course we do hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“B-b-but if it does?”
“Just be sure to properly prepare your answer—you will have only five days to file it with the courts, or will lose your case by default,” she smiled, patient as a surgical nurse, before returning to her two-inch, thickly overturned file folder.“In that case, you’re encouraged to come back ASAP. We can guide you through the process. Oh, and you may want to consult with a recommended tenant/landlord attorney on your manager termination issue. Best of luck to you, Mister…Herbert, is it?”
“So it’s just that we haven’t come across a case like yours before, not being able to tell if you aim for remaining a manager or becoming a tenant. Once you flesh that out, maybe we can be of more help. In the meantime, thank you for calling and all best to you…”
“R-r-right, thanks…” CLICK.
The SRO Collective callback came mid-stride. I had ducked into a nearby Peet’s for a Major Dickason’s and some wi-fi, combing the tenant/landlord attorney referral list and making some lubed-up calls to any housing activists, insurgents, revolutionists and socio-agitators that would listen. Still, responses to my downer elevator pitch were varied but primarily unavailing: With clients, In court, On vacation, Not taking new clients now, Swamped, jammed, Call back next week, Sliding scale, Hourly fees. I was draining the bottom of my coffee cup and timing out on my window table when I got a nibble from this firm north of the slot, over on right proper Montgomery Street, and grabbed a tourist-packed former CTA torpedo trolley up Market for yet one more assessment.
A furtively put-off receptionist ushered me into an eighth floor conference room, where Daniel Kalford, Esq. soon sat in. After laying out my situation yet again—it was getting stale as my breath and stifled acidic belches—I glanced about walls of colorful framed fabrics and modern art prints. A large, voluble man in middle-age baggy Brooks Brothers, long specialized in habitability, discrimination, landlord harassment, Rent Board hearings and wrongful evictions. This initial consultation was a freebie, and after studying my documents and evidence, he rendered judgment.
“This manager/tenant thing,” he pulled off and tissue cleaned his chained readers. “You did in fact change units upon taking the manager position. So, frankly, it’s a 50-50 deal if you ask me…”
“Fifty-fifty,” I nodded, fidgeting in my well-cushioned, middle back tilter chair, backing away some from the long walnut conference table. “Even with the rent receipts…”
“The issue is, did you relinquish your rent control rights when you moved. They will fight you on those at-will/compensation grounds, although I will have to look further into this Chan case. But if you go after them and lose, you could be on the hook for their court costs and whatever damages are determined.”
“Don’t ask, but hefty four figures on up,” Kalford advised, stacking my paperwork, sliding it back my way. “Now, I can’t counsel on any employment issues. I believe, however, that your best bet is going the wrongful eviction route…”
“But I haven’t been evicted yet…”
“And you don’t want to be. Unlawful Detainers are nasty business, for employment prospects, credit scores—all the way around. No, you have to meet their deadline and vacate the property on their terms. Then we can sue for wrongful eviction—your chances are better there, and the winnings or settlement could be substantial, indeed.”
“You mean move out completely?” I began sweating bullet points. “The deadline’s next Tuesday…”
“Well then you’d better get packing, Mister Herbert, every last thread, keep me posted on pilgrim’s progress,” said the attorney, rising to shake on it and hand me his card. “And I caution don’t sign anything, just get the hell out ASAP. We can discuss our case and terms from there.”
“Will do, Mister Kalford, thanks so much for your time.” Terms, he says, I’ll just bet. I leapt to my aching feet and re-packed the papers. ASAP, ASAP, ASAP, I thought, as he lead me out of the conference room, handing my off with a nod to his now smiling receptionist. I was a sap alright, for getting myself into this goddamn protected-less mess in the first place, no matter what…but that was just one man’s opinion…
Care for more?
CHAPTER 15. Intertwining cases threaten to
make a basket case of a certain person, but then
another may come to help disentangle them…
COVIDose: …Curse this crummy outbreak. Going stir-crazy basically under house arrest, crabbin’ fever up and down the floors. But back along Fillmore Street, where is everybody out here? Why are so few people out braving chilly, overcast elements to thwart the “invisible enemy”? Like, barely one or two sullen COVIDites per block, veering widely in passing, gumby shouldered, eyes fixed down to the side—as if we’re all lepers who can’t contain our pox. Nah, side stepping, plodding forward, time to…REJOIN, NOW...
“So tell me, what are you after here?”
“After? Well, justice, for one…”
“And how prepared are you to go forward?”
“Dunno, haven’t quite gotten that far with it…”
I’d been feeling a bit queasy as it was, bipolaring somewhere between protected status and bracing to pack up the place—that housing deadline not drifting off into the blue. Her call came suddenly, although not out of nowhere. She had gotten back in touch very shortly, apparently having done her research and due diligence, and was prepared to talk things through. Sure, where, how, I asked, unclear as to what this could mean in the larger picture, which kept looming larger by the day.
Again, her office space was out, but she couldn’t venture very far away. CitiCenter was too breezy, Bianco too busy; Sutter Station Tavern was too dive-randy for such a material conversation, and the House of Shields too distant in the other direction. So we settled on the Jackson Square area, which turned out to be an easy MUNI ride down Broadway,where I met Alison at the Battery Street stop. Though already pale green at the gills, I was admittedly grateful to get a little break in the Delphoria transactions about then.
“Okay, let’s say you choose to respond.”
“Depends, how do you mean exactly?”
“For instance, approaching them straight on.”
“Them being Team Hassett…”
“Team Hassett, as you put it,” she nodded, smart as could be in a ribbed white linen V-neck under a stone gray cashmere shawl. “Say, this Prescott person.”
So here we were, just off Jackson Square, face to face with a stout, sandblasted red brick anachronism in a district where precious art and antique galleries were washing away in a seiche of digital start-ups and pop-up brokerage boutiques. The three-story artifact housed a Barbary Coast watering hole dating back to Gold Rush days—stated as much in gold leaf lettering across a front window that now reflected nearby engineering firms, advertising agencies, ergonomic office furniture showrooms—all backdropped by the TransAmerica Pyramid.
We had stepped heedfully around a large white spar deck cleat out front, pausing at this patinated wall plaque that told the historical tale. Seemed the bar stemmed from the 1849 grounding of a three-master entering San Francisco Bay, already beset by a 178-day voyage from New York via Cape Horn. The Arkansas crashed against Alcatraz Island in stormy waters—amid a rash of shipwrecks, abandoned by fevered panners rushing off to the Sierra goldfields. Before long, its anchored carcass was towed from Bird Island here into a Yerba Buena Cove then festering with shacks and fascined masts by the hundreds along the Barbary Coast.
“He’s a good place to start, right?”
“You’re a writer, so allow me to lay out a little narrative for you…” She re-crossed the legs of her sleek black slacks.
“Uh, all right, I’m game…”
“Then suppose you decide to contact him again, by email, or better yet, along with a first class letter,” she said, sweeping back her smooth blonde tresses. “Assert that the idea and goodly portion of ‘Verdict Street’ had been drawn from the material you had sent him in good faith. That Team Hassett had essentially misappropriated your story.”
“And what if he responds with a flat-out denial? Then come the fun and games…”
Remnants of the Arkansas and Niantic helped along with other rotting ship ballast and rubble to form the spreading shoreline. Some limey hustler soon sawed a hole into the Arkansas’s bow, rigged up a gangplank entrance and turned the hull into prototypical pop-up bar. It instantly served ‘Gud, Bad and Indif’rent Spirits’ at 25 cents a jar to sailors, gamblers, grifters and bootleggers. But by 1859, the landlocked sailing ship was buried in groundfill, foundation for the seaman’s bar, its boarding house—even a bordello to come. What remained of it all today was the bar we had entered, under iconic spar and mini hull signage reading, ‘Old Ship Saloon—Est. 1851’ and a windblown red shipboard signal lantern. However muted by the clicking heels of her black ankle boots, she had vaguely hinted that she clung to the tiller of the place because it had been one of Gunner’s inkhorn haunts.
“So you follow up by pointing out the particular instances.”
“And what, threaten legal action?” I noodled. “Why not, right?”
We had crossed the forecastle of this landmark ale house well after the heavy lunchtime crush, passing a thinned out center bar of lingering ad types and Financial District pros, some regular old coxswains and ol’ salts sprinkled in. She conned me to this small sidewall table towards the Old Ship’s stern, not far from a galley still astir. That wall was exposed brick, as were those all around us, the saloon feeling about as original bawdy boomtown San Francisco as could be. So many years, and I had never once boarded this Ship before—how could I have missed the boat on it? For here was possibly the best repository of Barbary Coast lore this side of the Maritime Museum, docked over by Aquatic Park. Then again, I’d never been to Yosemite either.
Settling into a sturdy black round-back chair, I could take in a sunlit vessel awash in thematic nautical archaisms, memorabilia and bibelots: polished Helms, rigging—framed historical photos aside period illustrations, gold-sealed certificates and commendations—various Barbary Coast maps or antiquated tidal charts. I could just picture Bird Island back in the day, smell the briny bay and distempered seas beyond.
“Because ‘Team Hassett’ deals with this sort of thing all the time. Not to mention his house, Granite Publishing. Look, Mister Herbert, I’ve more thoroughly researched this IP area…”
“Well, that does sound encouraging… I appreciate your…”
“And here’s what is likely to happen,” she said, our order arriving, along with an Old Ship emblazoned bakelite check tray. “As you can imagine, they have very deep pockets back there. Add to that the fact that Hassett happens to be an attorney himself.”
“Which makes me think they should know better than to be ripping off poor, lowly writers like he probably once was himself.”
No breastaurant here, a scrappy bos’n shirted and waist aproned waitress took our order: brew, wine and a plate of cheddar-bacon potato skins. I tracked her course across hardwood deck flooring toward a dog-eared rectangular center room bar with bottled spirits shelved in opposing u-shaped overhead racks. There a red-bearded tender in a ‘The City’ throwback Warriors jersey pulled taps of Blue Paddle Pilsener and Poppy Jasper Ale beneath tulip lamps and churning electric fans that hung from a varnished wood ceiling trimmed with refinished black beams.
Downing pitchers of Acme California Pale Ale, toasting Gunny Bags and Pisco Punch, the saloon’s rank and file stayed glued to their matching black barstools—mostly to flat screen CNN and ESPN—the only nod to modernity in the room. And as evidenced from the dishes passing us from galley to neighboring tables, Old Ship’s was no swabby pubgrub mess, either. I inhaled heaped platters of Grilled Portabella, Coit Tower, Joseph Anthony and Henry Klee Specials passing by, all this coming on the ‘tween hours, no less. Mouthwatering as this convoy was, the last thing I feared coming on at the moment was seasickness—the first, legal collywobbles.
“Be that as it may, they will all dig as deeply into those pockets as the situation requires, which will only be a rounding figure to them.”
“You mean to make it go away?”
“No, more likely to squash you like a stink bug,” she replied, before nibbling on a cheddar potato skin. “They can swamp you with further denials, bleed you out with a thousand filings, cut by cut, should it come to that. Is this something you can afford to pursue?”
“B-b-but, I’ve got the damn proof on my side!” Just as I was getting my sea legs, she began to cut me off at the knees.
“So they’ll just drag you out in discovery, demand your documentation and purported evidence, then sit on it as the clock runs wild.”
“How on earth can…”
Christ, I began getting queasy again, as though the Arkansas reared up and listed beneath our feet. Jinking the skins dish, my eyes rather pinballed about the place, searching the brick walls for answers, hatching an escape. I picked up on framed, sepia crenulated prints of Gold Rush schooners sailing in through the Golden Gate; to a parchy 1856 Evening Bulletin newsclip on the Arkansas’s landlocked fate titled, ‘A Great Curiosity’; onto a water stained Giants pennant from the team’s maiden San Francisco voyage. Then there was that elegantly oval matted photograph of an Old Ship’s family friend playing his squeeze box on the building’s rooftop back in 1907, amid vintage OS building shots and clientele collages, with the model WWI biplane dive bombing toward some kitchen wall chalkboard menus.
“Moreover, if it were to get to court, they could seek dismissals, file counter motions, get extensions and continuances—create false, dubious deadlines—bring in their resident experts, payoff witnesses and court judges, if need be…because they tend to take cribbing accusations very seriously.”
“But the letters, the voicemails…” I fidgeted, rimming the mug of 805 Firestone with my index finger.
“Keep it up, and they will gaslight and oppo-research you to death, compromise you six ways to Sunday. Have you the stomach for personal scrutiny like that?”
“Uh, haven’t thought of it that way…” All my stomach was doing by now was gnawing itself away. “Don’t know about that, but what about the outright injustice of it all?”
“It’s the big leagues, Mister Herbert. You’d be stoking heavyweight moneybags with a lot at stake in the marketplace, believe me.”
“But still, I…” Was drawing deeply on my draught by now.
“That’s bad-case scenario, and corrective justice doesn’t come cheap,” she said, sloshing her goblet of Ironstone Merlot. “So bottom line, how much value and importance do you place on your ink-stained sweat and tears?”
It was getting to where I could no longer even stomach the side wash from nearby tables, circle and square: All these chatty ‘MidShippers’ devouring Aldo & Ardine’s Brickburgers, O.S.S. Specials over Allagash Draft and Bird Island Gimlets; striking deals over Curly (brunch) Burgers, Tombo Tuna Tacos—piled high Nachos and salad bowls, washed down with Babe’s Montecarlos and Laterre Cab. Instead, I gandered out a side window view of the upper stories and tower of the TransAm Pyramid with my acidic gut agrowl—wondering how Gunner factored into all this, much less me anymore.
“Well, dammit, it is that important to me!” Enough! I quickly snapped to, pounding the table, cushioned by the sleeve of my frayed tan-cord sport jacket.
“Then you’re going to have to decide whether you’re still up to a dogfight like this, after all, Mister Herbert,” she pounded the table back at me. “Because it just so happens I am…”
“You are? Why in heaven would…” I took to OCD rearranging the clear lacquered table top’s condiment dispensers.
“Call me crazy, but it became clear upon further reading that some of the similarities and cherry picks are glaring.”
“Tell me about it, let alone Hassett’s back-of-the-book acknowledgement that he’d never even thought about homelessness,” I fumed, bile now rising free rein as I tugged at my open blue oxford collar. “Bastards even named their protagonist after me—total thumbing me in the eye…”
“Besides, I’m not exactly unsympathetic to the plight of broken-down writers. But frankly, what finally nailed it for me was the Clover reference,” she drank lightly of her merlot, albeit with a faraway gaze, almost as if toasting Gunner’s way. “Like characters set in Washington D.C. would have any knowledge of or access to Clover milk in their bubble. How dare Hassett pilfer that from your story? And I take it pretty personally, because I was weaned on Clover Stornetta. We used to stop at their dairy up in Petaluma on our way to Mendocino. Best milk and punny truck slogans on earth…”
“Amen to that,” I said, stunned and humbly—sensing that she was just hungry enough, already calculating the rule of thumb, if on the off chance they were to blink. Or that we were simply crossing over from here to Saturnity. “But how can I begin to thank you?”
“By getting back to work on the book of yours. With what we might be up against, we’ll need all the documentation we can get. So just keep your head down for now. And you just have to finish that story, and finish it ASAP.”
“Anything else I should know?”
“Uh, no—not really,” I hedged, as I feigned reaching into my blue jeans for a bankroll.
“Then we’re done here, Mister Herbert,” she smiled tightly, pulling out her iPhone 11 for a quick scan of her Apple Pay, as if flashing a Federal badge, deftly laying down the law. “I will be in touch.”
“Me too, Ms. Warner,” I resorted to knocking back some more Firestone, adrift in miscalculation, but already plotting to mutt bag the cheddar skins for calmer seas later on—not knowing what the hell I was actually going to do about this now. Still, hmm, even more protection, what a racket. “Me too.”
Care for More?
CHAPTER 14. A further combing through
The City’s fair housing infrastructure yields
a dense range of tripwires and warning flares…
COVIDose: Whew, time out…gotta recalibrate, got to adjust…REBOUND, NOW…
“You a landlord?
“Hardly…I mean, not at all…”
“Then you’re a tenant?”
“Uh, not exactly…”
“Which is it then?”
Boiling over…another burner to mind—this, with the clock winding down. So a panic-stricken process of elimination had eventually led me back downtown. Setting aside the Hassett business, I spent days to follow disassociating like a mad man around Pacific Heights in a reductive streetwalking daze; sleep was barely a blink of the eyes. Meanwhile, Norguard had emailed me a follow-up offer on a smaller, darker Delphoria unit for current market-rate rent of $1,450 per month and security deposit of $1,600. This for a closet of a room I’d actually taken when I first moved into the house way too many years before. Room #2 marginally passed the smell test back then, and this current proposition smote the senses on a number of levels, in a sinkhole of memories—to where I hesitated signing his acknowledgement sheet from the get-go, while cursing the godawful timing of this all.
“Uh, sort of a middleman, little of both…”
“Look, we have a office full of people waiting here,” he said, barely looking up from his thick stack of plaintive paperwork. “So don’t go wasting my time with guessing games.”
“Last thing I want to do,” I replied, notching up the urgency, inching closer to the counter top for a look at the competition. “My situation is just a little complicated…”
“You’ve got ten minutes, go…”
At-will, lawfully removed: something about the whole termination action didn’t seem right, wasn’t exactly hewing to the facts, the loosey-goosey winks and nods as I recalled them. But a lot I knew about it, or anybody I knew knew about it, for that matter. Still, time was running out, my wi-fi was iffy and I hadn’t clue one where else to turn. So I burrowed into the Yellow Pages’ city directory, and then feebly GPSed my way into the activistic warren of San Francisco’s fair/affordable housing wars. I sucked it up and squeezed into a noxious and fully jammed MUNI bus down Van Ness Avenue, straphanging toward Civic Center Plaza. First stop: the majestic former Masonic Temple, a Byzantine iron and granite stronghold of city government offices near Market Street, and the Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board.
The San Francisco Rent Board was born in 1979, upon the failure of ’78s Proposition 13 to deliver on campaign promises to ease rents statewide—since landlords simply pocketed Jarvis-Gann’s property tax relief. Rent control was tasked from the outset to limiting rent increases and other reasons for mushrooming ‘Manhattanization’ evictions through landlord/tenant oversight and arbitration/ mediation hearings.
What’s more, poor and elderly tenants’ displacement from the infamous International Hotel in ’77, then the Tenderloin’s Dalt Hotel two years later, spurred a heightened groundswell of city outrage. Thousands of Single Room Occupancy hotels were either being demolished or converted into tourist lodgings, save for our inimitable Delphoria. Thus came a city-wide moratorium on hotel conversions (also in 1979); the Residential Hotel Ordinance banned them outright by 1981. RHO prohibitions grew ever stronger throughout the 1980s-90s: said to be the most successful land-use regulation in San Francisco’s history.
“Okay, I’m being terminated as resident manager of an SRO,” I handed him the notices. “And they’re even threatening eviction.”
“Hmm, you’re currently a manager.”
“Not anymore, I guess. And now they’re saying I’m not a tenant either…”
“Officially you aren’t, are you?”
So there I was, negotiating thick walnut doors, signing in at the lobby security desk, all but wanded for bombs and firearms. I clung to the railing of a bucking, thwacky walnut panelled elevator to the third floor, following sketchedarrowed signage through a series of Kafkaesque steel fire doors—doors I’d admittedly darkened before, albeit from another, middling angle—into room 320. Enter a cramped office reception area wall to wall with lease breachers, passthrough protestors, unlawful rent increase complainers and a range of current or pending evictees like me. Here was triage for city housing in perpetual crisis mode. I took a number like everybody else—checking out various guidance posters, tenant rights brochures and a corkboard of board meeting minutes and notices—eventually getting through to the front counter, and this harried, high foreheaded SFRB staffer named Joel Ray.
“Not right now, but I was—before I became manager. And I can’t see why if I’m not a manager anymore, why I can’t be a tenant again. I mean, rent control-wise …
“Well, that could be a problem,” he looked up just long enough to work in a little facial recognition. “Come to think of it, haven’t I seen you in here before?”
“Uh, could be, I…” A stream of staffers caught my eye, as they scurried up and down a stairway to mezzanine work stations.
“Sure, you’ve been in getting updates every so often on rent increasing, and advice on what you called problem tenants…”
“Well, that was all in the line of duty then,” I weaseled, caught flat-footed by a presently higher authority. “You know, on orders from the man, the powers that be, believe me…”
“Okay, your ten minutes are just about up,” huffed Ray, officiously shuffling some papers my way, avoiding further eye contact. “Take these forms and fill them out, declared to the best of your knowledge, and return them to us for investigation.”
“Great, I’ll do just that.” I glanced at one two-sided sheet titled, ‘Tenant Petition’, another ‘Report of Alleged Wrongful Eviction’. “But you know, I’ve not exactly been evicted yet, I…”
“So file them if and when, and we will address your concerns,” he turned away to call the next number. “In the meantime, take our Referral Listing of helpful resources. You might need them with a peculiar situation like yours.”
A quick scan of the forms made me realize I had neither the time/standing nor information at hand to best fill in all the blanks. Besides, 320 presently afforded nary an inch of working space in which to write up my perceived wrongs. I panned about the room, jammed with poor crippled seniors, single multi child-bearing young mothers, fuming sisters from what remained of the Western Addition and their big, surly brothers, three generations of Latino families from the Excelsior, and disoriented Section-8 bounders with stun grenade eyes.
Spouting owners, crying babies, weeping widows, truants mouthing off—faces of exasperation, desperation: All were clutching their number slips with a tissue thin hope and prayer, some others pounding away madly at a bank of public computers. Needy as I may have felt, the need was far greater in here. So SFRB’s ticking wall clock told me it was best to take my petition sheets and hit the streets, poring over that referral listing like it held the long-odds possibility of a toll-free road to home.
“Any just cause otherwise?”
“Not that I know of…”
“And it is your principal place of residence?”
“Nowhere else—for the moment, at least.”
I started out strongly, smoothly enough. Riding high on the Rent Board’s referral guide was San Francisco Tenants United, which is where I was soon headed aboard a Mission Street MUNI bus. Housed in an upright, tan-on-khaki stick Victorian off 16th Street, the T.U. had been fighting the good fight for tenant rights and affordable housing since 1971. I swung through a black iron gate, past a sprawling, prickly palm, up into a cramped lobby papered with fair housing organizing and mobilization posters, and community message boards. Luckily, only two clients preceded me on the drop-in line, beneath a large white wall arrow pointing toward the Tenant Counseling Clinic, emblazoned with United’s logo—a militant fist thrusting through a padlocked front door.
“What’s this sentence at the end here? Acknowledgment, understand the good cause reason for termination—you haven’t signed this BS, have you?”
“Uh, no, wasn’t sure about it, so I’ve been kinda dragging my feet…”
“Well don’t. It’s a death warrant.”
“B-b-but, what is it if I don’t?”
“It’s your line in the sand, that’s what.”
Fearless activism and advocacy, organized resistance—answering questions but not providing legal representation: Tenants United was all about defending the rights of renters against greedy and/or negligent landlords running afoul of rent control and a host of other San Francisco and California housing ordinances. With a little more luck, T.U.‘s chops may even have have included the odd lot SRO.
Before long, I was beckoned into the clinic by this stolid young volunteer attorney of Mimi Farina style and stripe. Her bright white office was mainly the Victorian’s former front sitting room: fireplace, high ceilings, plenty of painted over gingerbread, all business otherwise. I slid into an overstuffed easy chair, taking in walls filled with a gang of movement posters, ‘Direct Action against Gentrification’, ‘No Eviction without Representation’, ‘Ready to Fight for Affordable Housing?’, ‘Act-Up’, of that sort. After Kristen had fully examined the Termination Notices and I had added in the details of my situation, she leaned back in her creaky Herman Miller chair and faced me up with auburn, tight-curled authority, all clad in gypsy rings and raiment.
“You do have rights here, you know,” she said, with a shake-out of her lustrous head.“Been in the house over ten years, is that correct? Once a legal master tenant, always a tenant until move-out, far as I can see.”
“Actually way more than that,” I nodded, gazing past her through the parlor’s tall, narrow bay windows to a Mission District neighborhood awash in brilliant sunshine—whole place was feeling almost…homey.
“And you’re, what, over 60, I gather. That means you’re 60/10, a protected species as far as the city is concerned. That the place is a designated SRO doesn’t hurt your cause either.”
“Protected,” I absorbed that nugget like a B-12 shot, while noting a banner reading, ‘Building Tenant Power’ and a step-by-step poster for counteracting landlord unlawful entry or harassment.
“Now our counseling and case involvement addresses just cause and no-fault through pre-eviction threats, but not the official eviction notice itself,” she advised, removing her rainbow cheaters.
“That’s what the Eviction Defense Collective is for.”
“But you think it won’t come to that, right,” I began slightly trembling anew, particularly upon spotting an Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, amply data visualizing dispossession of San Francisco residents—i.e., red pinning the eviction epidemic and corporate/real estate collusion.
“Which is not to say your situation is bulletproof,” she pulled a booklet and fresh sheets from among her desktop load of stacked manuals, code bulletins, civil procedure circulars and ballot initiative petitions, marking up the page with little red stars. “It does happen to be a bit more complicated than usual, but at least you haven’t been officially served yet. So study our handbook, keep a close eye on the calendar. And here, in case you may want a second opinion, our applicable recommendations. Let us know if you need any further pre-evict strategizing or negotiating tips—meanwhile, don’t go vacating beforehand.”
“Wow, how can I thank you?” I added their two-page referral list to my messenger bag.
“Sign up as a Tenants United member, Mister Herbert, or there is a donation box beside our sliding office door on your way out. Remember, this can happen to anyone these days. Good luck to you…”
I dropped a couple of crumpled dollars and floated out of T.U.’s Victorian like a sinking CEO with a golden parachute, thumbs-upping the wait line, even fist pumping the spiky palm. Always a tenant, far as she can see—protected, just like good ol’ Doyle. I instantly trusted Kristen, glommed onto her assertive positivity and righteous style, how she was advancing the just-housing cause—power to the people, right on!
Clear blue skies ahead, the Mission was colorfully beaming, Carlos Santana spreading San Francisco’s Supernatural spirit and here I was, a protected species firming roots, flexing seniority, no matter what. Still, a second look might be in order—far as I could see. Really, what could it possibly hurt…
Care for More?
CHAPTER 13. A somewhat surprising
meet-up on the Barbary Coast, from
where a ship of hope looks to set sail…
COVIDose: …Another day, more virus lurking on cold, hard surfaces. Figure it’s reason enough why I’m scouring and wiping down every counter top, corner and cranny in sight—with towels, TP and toothbrushes. Spraying and decontaminating with germicidal bleach and peroxide RTU, then scrubbing and sanitizing my hairy paws until I couldn’t stand hanging in such a sterile crib, chasing those sneaky COVIDemons anymore, so… RETREAT, go NOW…
“Just didn’t get around to it…”
“In what sense?”
“In the follow-through, finishing it sense. After what happened, I kind of lost…momentum…”
Wasn’t entirely back up to speed, but at least I did plunge free that clogged porcelain toilet bowl. Then precedence entered in, as did a follow-up email from Alison Paige-Warner. Having double-checked the termination notice’s deadline date, counted down the minutes, assessed and modeled out any progress and pacing, I decided to address second things first, practicality wise. Really, settle a score, then Hail Mary for more. No sense in losing on the scoreboard and the war, went the mixed-minded reasoning at the time, why squander a bright young attorney’s generous forbearance with the Hassett case, no matter what was happening here on the home front?
Prioritize, compartmentalize, firewalls and all that: I balanced and counterbalanced ‘Verdict Street’ v. Delphoria on the scale(s) of injustice along the MUNI bus route from Pac Heights back down to the Financial District, square of jaw, yet scared of shadows, clutching the goods like sudden-death 4th and goal, sitting there trembling on the front seniors bench. I had regathered in self-denial just enough to meet her once again, termination notices be damned, this time with my authorial ducks in a manila row.
“Lost…momentum?” She had a dark blue double-breasted Claiborne trouser suit look going, all put together, all business, sizing me up again, hairline to waist. “With all due respect, sir, sounds like an awfully weak-kneed excuse on the face of it.”
“Guess I was just facing the music. Pretty rank tune, all right.”
“So you simply packed it in…” With that, she removed a yellow legal pad and fountain pen from her Coach glove-tanned, Double Swagger valise.
“Left bottom drawer—forgot all about it, at least until I spotted Hassett’s latest.”
“And you quickly made the connection upon buying the book?” By now she had begun jotting notes.
“Buy it? Damned if I’d buy that abomination,” I huffed, wriggling in my sole sport jacket, gray herringbone with dated lapels. “All I had to do was leaf on through it, right then and there at the store.”
“Well, curiously enough, I did happen to buy ‘Verdict Street’, and have read it—to where I believe I am now reasonably familiar with its story line.”
“Hmph, better you than me—but all I needed was a quick flip-through to catch the obvious rip-offs.”
“I see.” She set aside her pen and pad, then brushed back on her banded blond ponytail with glossy manicured fingers. “The documentation we discussed—that it there?”
“Here you go,” I handed her the bulging folder, a mini cassette jettisoning dangerously near her coffee cup. “Read all about it.”
Same general time, different place: I had sprung from the MUNI hybrid bus by CitiCorp Center, bucking up, game facing around to Market Street, under cover of a fusillade of international flags flapping UN-esque over the marbled entranceway of the building into which I was headed. A subdued masonry relic of the Roaring 20s, The Chancery sported a narrow arcade through to Sutter Street, with a high arching coffered ceiling and hemispheric iron chandeliers. Once lined with a warren of tailors, barbershops and an odd lot of tabac/pipes, sheet music and cutlery, the Florentine corridor had lately been reduced to bordering a sit-in Starbucks and 7-11 Express.
The nearest connection to The Chancery’s rich past mercantile glory was a cafe at arcade’s end that dated back to the early 1980s. So I shuffled by windowalls and a bank of elevators to the building‘s upper office floors in through the interior side entrance to Caffe Bianco, proudly tendering ‘Espresso and Fine Food’ in prominent gold leaf lettering, whereupon I promptly met up with Alison, who had already secured a cozy calico marble top table on the sunny side of a matching marmoreal pillar center room. She had opted for a change of scenery nearest her Hobart office; besides, it was a bit breezy over at CitiCorp Plaza. And the adept young attorney had already ordered me a mocha java and herself a skinny latte—time tantamount to money, and all.
“In any case, I must say one tends to question your commitment and perseverance with regard to the…project.” This, proffered not so much with condescension as filial-like concern.
“My commitment?” I scooped up the mini-cassette and set it lightly beside her latte cup. “I’ve got years of sweat and headaches in that story…
“Then why has it taken you so long? Moreover, I wonder whether you are really up to what could come of pursuing any remedy.”
“Could come of—in what respect?” She still looked to me like every major player’s dream, meaning way out of my league when I was half my age.
“Let’s just say I have done some grounding in this sort of litigative process, Mister Herbert. So why don’t you detail more precisely how your situation transpired to this point?”
“So, as I said before, I sent out a whole batch of query letters…”
“Unsolicited, am I correct?” In between paging through the folder, her shorthand note-taking resumed.
“Uh, yeah, you might say, cold calls,” I tugged at my open blue collar, as if to shroud the fraying of my black undershirt. “Anyway, got some nibbles thrown in with all the rejections, one in particular came back right away, and was pretty encouraging, at that.”
“He said he would be very pleased to receive my material, looked forward to reading,” I sniffed, inhaling a billow of garlic and alfredo. “Wanted me to send him the entire manuscript…”
“Which I gather you weren’t prepared to do.” So noted, as she stopped leafing through the folder at a copy of my original letter to Jenson Brookhouse, followed by the agent’s response.
“Right, so I shot off a gushy thank-you note with exclamation points, explaining that I would ship it to him in the jiffy bag he requested as soon as I had the manuscript polished up.”
“Bit of a stretch about then, wouldn’t you say?”
“Just trying to buy some time at the time. Then I got back to work on the novel and before long, positive responses came from several other New York agencies—big ones, repping writers like Terri McMillan and that Talahassi Coats guy.”
“Ahem, I get the picture…and you followed up how?”
As she continued thumbing through the file folder, I took a deep breath, shook some anxiety from my limbs and glanced around the airy Caffe, mainly its busy cabernet red and blond décor. How its globe lights dropped down from such a high ceiling, illuminating Italian posters framed about the room; while CitiCorp Center and neighboring Sutter Street highrises reflected in off its large front windows. Beyond that massive center column, a steep little staircase right angled up to Bianco’s snug low-headroom balcony with cozier tables yet. Directly below it the Caffe’s colorfully chalked menu boards spanned like midway placards over walk-up serving counters and gorged glass deli cases, crowded out with a late lunchtime rush line. The aroma of pastrami and roast turkey imbued the air, salted with surround sound Verdi and Scarlatti—delivering me back to the footloose days of scarfing along the Piazza della Signoria, when life was not pressing in, as it was here today.
“They all wanted to see a sample package…I wasn’t ready to trust PDF attachments about then, so I got busy at the copy machine.”
“Your package—this consisted of what?” She paged past a series of form rejection letters to the several that invited submissions.
“Basically a synopsis and three select chapters…”
“How detailed a synopsis?” She flipped about the file for a story summation, finding no trace.
“Pretty much laid out the entire novel,” I rued having neglected to include it in the folder. “Took about four pages, along with chapters I thought demonstrated my best work on it thus far. Carefully assembled all the SASE submission packages, and made for the post office, high hopes in hand.”
“Get that synopsis to me, and I assume you have been keeping receipts for all this.”
“Well, yeah, but I didn’t expect to hear back anything for a while, understand—wasn’t totally jacked out of reality or anything.”
“Then you got back to writing?” Onward she rummaged, further through the folder for query replies.
I drifted away to a middle aged couple laughing their way in through Bianco’s arched doorway, darting toward a table beside the pillar, which was being vacated by a trio of admin assistant types who had noshed over Caesar and Feta Lavash wraps and cappuccinos. The clinking of china, rattling of flatware and utensils: seated all around us were power attired junior partners, associate CFOs, CIOs and COOs munching Prosciutto do Parma and Skyscraper Special sandwiches, audit seniors and procurement managers running numbers over Italian meatloaf and Bianco Reubens, HR staffers and deputy department heads sharing Havarti & Dill on ciabatta and arugula salads—washing it all down with cold chai and organic teas, chatting amid sprays of hardy, if not faux ferns and ficus plants.
“That I did, but kept patrolling my mailbox everyday. Not too long later, I’m paging through the New York Times and spot an obit for Brookhouse, apparently he died of a heart attack at Sardi’s.”
“This knocked you off stride did it?” She paused at a yellowing news clip.
“Somewhat, especially when a couple of the sample packages came back battered and bearing polite rejection notes saying ”not right for us’, but good luck elsewhere’. Around then I spotted a follow-up Times Arts article about how a key Granite Publishing‘s editor, Craig Prescott would be taking over representation for Brookhouse’s foremost client, James Marion Hassett. That he would be leaving the publishing house to continuing editing Hassett’s books as well—all on an exclusive basis…”
“Your potential agent repped the the big Kahuna himself?”
“From the get-go—Brookhouse basically discovered him, sold his very first novel—who knew?”
“So where did that leave you,” she asked, double-checking the obit’s publication date.
“Slamming keyboards, at least until I decided to do a Google search and dig up Prescott’s contact information. So I sent him the little intro letter there, cc-ing my correspondence with Brookhouse, asking if he might be interested in taking a look at my stuff.”
“Such chutzpa, Mister Herbert,” she looked up with an arching little smile. “Coattailing off the dearly departed.”
Even more patrons around us were compulsively scrolling and punching their assorted digital devices, marking time and making transactions. Just something to do with their hands, I figured—better than smoking, although apparently more addictive. Not unlike obsessing over some foundering manuscript, yet better that than crawling back onto this downtown hamster wheel with my half-assed tales between my legs.
“What’d I have to lose, right? Anyway, a week or so later, there’s his voicemail on my old machine while I was out for morning coffee.
“You were still using an answering machine…” She registered disbelief, if not dismay.
“Only for the landline—I hate giving up. So it’s this Craig Prescott guy introducing himself, saying ‘any writer of interest to Jenson Brookhouse is of interest to us’. So send me what you have, and he left an Upper East Side address. It’s right there on the mini-tape. Listen for yourself…”
“I’d much prefer an MP3 or DM link,” she examined the cassette as if it were an archeological find. “But oddly enough, I think we actually have an old Code-a-Phone player back at the office. So, what did you do?”
“Are you kidding? I sprinted from Kinkos to the post office—good thing I’m still a runner in my old age. I mean, this was the big leagues…”
“Then what?” From there, she scanned through some of my long-distance telephone records.
“I got back to work on the story full bore, waited by the mailbox and phone…”
“Nothing, not a word for months. Finally sent him a gentle follow-up note—you know, making sure he got both packages all right. Then, again, zip, nothing…I’m thinking he was getting serious about the material, going through it real good…was floating on a metaphorical cloud for a while, typing along, making plans…”
“What was the response to that?” Next came a copy of my follow-up letter.
“Two weeks later, the return package arrived,” I pained. “My synopsis and the sample chapters, thrown together, all out of order. Oh, and a scribbled note on new Prescott Company stationery, just read, ‘Thanks for the look. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m afraid we’re going to pass on this. Best, C.P.’. Interesting idea, he says, interesting i-de-a! Oh, really?! Might as well have signed off with a goddamn rubber stamp…”
“Which left you…”
“Ricocheting between my phone and keyboard with bonfires in my eyes. Instead, I soon became resigned to stuffing the whole business in that desk drawer, vowing to never go through this fiction publishing wringer ever again.”
“Bit rash, don’t you think,” she replied, seemingly paying particular attention to the Prescott rejection—its posted date and its contact information. “Doesn’t every struggling author go through that, and keep plugging away? Really, didn’t you anticipate that going in?”
“I suppose, deep down. But if I had actually known how hopeless the process is, I’d never have laid down word one. Especially given this latest affront.”
“Be that as it may, what’s done has been done. And there’s still that unfinished novel stewing in your drawer,” she said, matter-of-factly, scribbling a few more notes. “So don’t do anything rash, Mister Herbert. You might want to think of it not just as your stillborn baby, but as potential evidence.”
“What are you saying. Are you…”
“Let’s not get out ahead of our skis here,” she packed up her legal pad and my full file folder. “Look, I have to head back to the office for some other discovery. How about this, I’ll take your folder along with me for more scrutiny and research. And you get me your synopsis package. Just drop it off at Hobart’s security desk. Lex will deliver it up to me, safe and sure. And we’ll see what’s what.”
“You’ll do that? I can’t thank you enough Ms. Warner…” Take what I can get, for damn sure wasn’t about to push my luck right then. Mind one burner at a time…
“Just tip for the coffees. I waited tables not that long ago myself.” she rose to take leave through Bianco’s side door. “By the way, what was that word I should be looking out for in ‘Verdict Street’?”
“The least I can do,” I slid two singles under my cup. “And that word is, Clover—you’ll see what I mean…”
“Clover? As in four-leaf?”
“Hmph, I should be so lucky…”
“Well, just keep yourself busy, Mister Herbert, get back to writing, why don’t you,” she said, in nearly the same stern voice she used with Gunther. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Sounds like a plan, Ms. Warner,” I muttered in her wake, increasingly wary of scaring her off now, resigned to letting her first Saturn take its course. “Besides, I’ve got other pots boiling, believe me…”
Care for More?
CHAPTER 12. Taking notice, thus begins
a foray into The City’s formidable
equal/fair housing activisories…
COVIDose: …Still and all, the 19’s nervous lockdown came on so suddenly, hitting home in the worst possible way. These Shelter-in-Place orders got me to seeing those little virus buggers everywhere—everything of modest comfort being overrun by creatures of creeping disease. News outlets caution dire hazards 24/7, scaring the bejeebers out of everybody—feedback looping how COVID pathogens can light anywhere and fester for hours and days on end. But NPR can hold that thought a moment. Let’s REVERT, NOW…
“I said you’ve got to…”
“Uh, I dunno if…”
“But I know for a fact you must do this. You have no choice in the matter.”
“I mean, under the circumstances…”
“Under my circumstances. I have to have access, I’ll have you know. It’s in my lease, my legal right. Believe me, I’ll go to the rent control board with this!”
Already unsettled skies met high pressure/lower level turbulence: I had been biding my time with busywork around the house of late, basically covering my ass under the nimbus cloud of further (registered) mail-in developments. Simple puttering around served the purpose—trimming wild shrubs and bushery, raking leaves, sweeping stairs, switching light bulbs, tightening spigots, replacing washers, vacuuming carpets, scrubbing basins, swapping furnace filters—parceling out trash, compost and recycling like a good, eco-conscious San Franciscan.
Basically piddlin’, diddlin’ stuff, really: Why, I even helped Reyna set up her sunny Russian family feast on the front landing that time—three reverent generations plonked about the steps, feeding from two bountiful banquet tables: trays of bliny and sirniki, pans and platters of kasha, pelmeni and sauteed fish pirozhki. Still, the Starbuck’s shot puller and neighborhood housesitter gave Delphoria 30-days notice. Long waking hours were otherwise spent sedulously gathering and foldering my Hassett purloinery file.
But then I footslogged back uphill to the house from the Marina this afternoon, happening upon the one tenant I’d recently avoided at all costs. I bit tongue, eyes down as with any chance passing, like she and I had for all intents and purposes ceased to exist within the confines of this house. Yet here she was on the very same front landing, frantically punching at her Samsung, having misplaced her keys, essentially locking herself out, unable to get a rise out of anybody else who might come to her aid, even should they be so inclined. Yet with Ms. Her Royal Testiness again rattling her lease agreement and codicils, I decided to let her into the lobby, hastily grab the master keys from my place upstairs, then let her into to her room. Whereupon she right properly slammed the door in my grill with a histrionic sweep of her everyday layered crème cape.
Nothing more was said between us; still, I began second-guessing this move, paranoia setting in. Meaning, was this her ploy, a trap? Now that she has re-established that I had key access to her’s and all units, would she concoct some ‘missing items’ scam from her room. Motive? Petty stuff alright, payback for my suspecting she OCD pilfered an old digital camera through my ajar door a month before. She had already demonstrated she could be that bitter and diabolical on a variety of fronts, which I recollected as I scuffled downhall. There I keyed in on the flapping white paper notice that had apparently been tacked to my door. Seemed my CYA chores and good neighbor practices were little more than whistling past Delphoria’s rear garden.
“Cat lady strikes again, huh? She’s been blasting that damn opera again—can’t tell who’s been screeching in there, her or the stupid tabby,” said Jennifer, peeking out her door, protein bar in hand. “Oh, did you see him yourself?”
“I hear you. But was it the big him?”
“No, think it was that gofer of his. He tacked that notice up on your door.”
“You mean Rogelio?” I scanned the white paper at hand, pulling it down quicker than Porn Hub screen grabs off a University High School bulletin board.
“Whatever, that dude creeps me way out,” said Jennifer, glancing up and down the hall. “You could just ask Tomarrah about him…”
“Easier said than done,” I said distractedly, gesturing toward the notice. “So you’ve already checked this out yourself?”
“Me? No, didn’t go anywhere near it,” she rolled her eyes, fixing to close her door. “What’s the good word?”
“Uh, nothing,” I stammered, poring over the finer print. “Just some house business—you know, legal… mumbo jumbo.”
But I had no idea it would go this far, this firmly, this fast. That earlier certified notice? Apparently, it was not mistargeted; it bore no typos. Reading this new order, I shrank in through my studio door:
Notice Of Termination Of Employment. This is a notice that your employment for Foster Norguard was terminated as of August 17, 2019. Your employment at the stipulated property was pursuant to an oral agreement with Marvin Rosener, Mister Norguard’s predecessor in interest.
You are required to move and vacate the premises and all storage areas upon cessation of your employment. Your license to occupy the premises was granted in connection with your employment and as compensation for your employment. Therefore upon the end of your employment your right to occupancy ceases as well…
As an employee who was furnished accommodations as part of your compensation, you are not a “tenant” within the meaning of the local rent control law and thus are subject to eviction as “exempt” from the ordinance. Chan v. Antepenko (1988) 203 CA3d Supp. 21, 25-26.
Further, an unlawful detainer may be commenced against a licensee or terminated employee without notice. See Code of Civil Procedure Section 1161(1); Chan v. Antepenko…
You are hereby required to surrender possession of the premises and no later than September 15, 2019. If you remain in the premises following the termination of your employment, you will be lawfully removed from the premises pursuant to legal process.
Dated: August 30, 2019
By: Theodore Mastakis
Attorney for the Owner
260 DuBoce Street #3
San Francisco, CA 94103
Christ, legal, another with the attorneys—what was this about? Why me, for godsake, why now? I slumped onto my lumpy brown sectional sofa, clammy hands now compulsively pressing and creasing, creasing and unfolding, spindling and smoothing the notice like I hadn’t since my draft orders came aeons ago. Then started the lookarounds, at my sunny, spacious crib and all the stuff I’d accumulated in here over the years. What to do with it all, I seated, where would I go, what would I do next? Hummmm, hmmm—better to try ignore this stun grenade, as I had the earlier letter, or at least forestall such a hardball reality? Nope, not any more, no getting around this one, not with Norguard’s button-man lawyer involved.
Rip currents of denial and raging resentment coriolised about my steaming skull, even with sneaker waves of resignation and instant nostalgia lapping in. Naw, voices of this couldn’t be, this couldn’t stand battled for primacy, to where I couldn’t help but rise up and commence pacing the room. Scanning and rescanning the notice, my pupils and retinas burned with cross-eyed focus, and thoughts turned synaptically to frantic who and what nows. Person-to-person Foster Norguard—seeking clarification, working through our differences, smoothing the waters, basically pleading my case: Hah! Bloody lot of good that would do me, given our past and present.
Then what about Sedge Eisenhoff? Hell, that dick would just grill me over any concrete observable progress on the Russkie crowd. Yet couldn’t dare bring this up with anybody else in the house—who knew how much they’d be taking up the landlord’s side out of self-interest, if not outright fear? Cackling not least would be that miserable crone down the hall—who more than not triggered this all. Then what about the lawyer gal downtown? Forget that, I’d be lucky enough just to get her aboard on the Hassett case as it was.
Unseated, unsettled, uprooted, discombobulated all at once—with the clock timing out. Bottom line: I had no Twitter or Instagram following, much less a Facebook page; and what remained of my Rolodex was a dead spin at best. Such was the life of a deluded writer type, inartfully painted into a corner chapter of devoted solitary confinement. Such was this bird-brained coexistence in the stately old Delphoria.
Knock—knock, knock, knock—knock knock. Who the hell? What, they’re coming after me already, storming doors? Just like with Nigel Cox and the narco-Feds back in the doomsday. I snuck a peek through the peep hole, expecting a battering crew fixing to hammer away…wait, fuck it’s only Doyle Granger again.
“Time to take the plunge again, boss,” he said, the moment I opened my door.
“Jee-zus, how bad this time?” I asked, wondering if he’d seen the posted notice, what all he might have known about that.
“Same old shit—tits up, right to the top,” he glanced past me, into my place, eyes squinting with the afternoon brightness. “So, what have you heard?”
“Me? About what…”
“You know, the commotion and everything around here lately.”
Figure of speech, his tits-up thing, although our minds did drift momentarily upstairs to room number 6. That would have been directly across the hall from Granger’s, graced by the ever presence of Clarice Watkins. A pneumatic Jersey figure from Cherry Hill, she immediately took over Delphoria’s top floor, yoga in the hallway, Cardi B and Kesha Rose on the box and buds—Victoria Secretly delicate underlayers strewn like wind-scattered supermarket circulars up and down the hall. Which was where the 4th floor common bathroom sat, beside the upper staircase and landing.
Intended for three of the four top-floor tenants, the lavatory was bright white and cleanly functional, but cramped as monthly ragtime, with a tiny utilitarian basin and shower stall instead of a tub. It did have ample shelf space, however—except that Clarice had supersaturated that bloated water closet with her towels, washcloths, Q-tips, ointments, dressings, pads, powders, shampoos, rinses, peroxide, soaps, lotions, lozenges, mouthwashes, pills, razors, bathsalts, pumices, polishes, rouge, lipsticks, mascaras, eyeliners, conditioners, perfumes, facial peels, floss, toothpaste tubes, brushes, whitening strips, flowery Kleenex, scented bun wad and who knows what else. Naturally, remnants of this stuff ended up in the bum, especially her pads and plugs. Hence the periodic need to clear the toilet line, for which I dutifully manned the plunger, dirts cheaper than a Roto-Rooter intervention.
Tight living, tighter fitting: Not surprisingly, Doyle groused about no room to quickly shit, shave and shower in there whenever he was in town, albeit with a sly, lecherous eye. While Clarice continued flexing blithely further along the floor, scantily singsonging her glee when the weird old fart across from her was long good and gone again, not to be seen for months on end. But she was free and Clearasil compared to what had gone on about room number 6 in years past.
“Commotion? How do you mean,” I dodged, holding the door firmly at the halfway open point.
“I haven’t heard anything…”
“Well, I have,” he replied, now focusing more on me, with an up and down read. “Happened to be in my room the other day when those parasites were snooping all around the building.”
“Yeah, so?” I’d wanted to ask him if he’d heard anything about Tomarrah in his liturgical barfari between Perry’s, the Mauna Loa and Balboa Cafe. But apparently there was more on the immediate agenda.
“So they were talking about dumping the place, putting it on the block—that’s why they were really scoping it, appraisal like. Heard Norguard say he feels torched by the whole SRO business, that Marvin Rosener should have never bought the joint in the first place. So he’s been thinking about cashing out, letting somebody turn it into an AirBnBnery or something…”
“Torched, he said that? Seriously?” For which his legal notices served as extinguishers?
“As a coronary,” Doyle nodded, stuffing a take-out menu in the breast pocket of his Planet Hollywood tropical shirt. “That’s why I trucked on down to the Rent Control Board straight off. They said I was 60/10, meaning I am protected, baby. Solid gold security in the ol’ pada terre, no matter who and what. How about you?”
“Uh, not so sure now…kind of betwixt, up in the air…at loose ends, all of a sudden.”
“Well, better get down there, bud—see where the hell you’d stand, rights-wise,” he said, rimming his lid’s wide black brim. “Right after you plunge away…”
“Yeah, plunger—but it looks like I might have to pass that baton.”
Care for More?
CHAPTER 11. A more critical look
at some troubling parallels tips the
balance toward provisory cooperation…
COVIDose: …Really, did the virus start in a Wuhan wet market or a nearby laboratory, derive from a carrier bat or 5g deployment, if not a bio weaponry experiment gone awry? Too soon to tell at the present, and I am running a tad late, so might as well…RETELL, NOW…
“This the letter?”
“That it is…”
“Started everything, you say?”
“Uh-huh, so to speak…”
By this time, any north country noxious air had long cleared from The City, but something more sinister was setting in, and my breathing hadn’t gotten any easier. I’d grabbed an inbound neighborhood MUNI bus, still in the denial stage regarding that termination notice, having run into a skein of resistance overall. But first things first, no matter how less pressing it might seem at the moment, something to take my mind off matters Delphoria for the time being. I otherwise shuffled and re-sequenced another paper file through Chinatown and North Beach, in preparation for this follow-up meeting downtown. I piled out just short of Market Street, about as Financial District as could be, dodging e-scooters, GPS-yapping pedicabs, Uber/Lyft hustlers and Monster-fueled bike messengers at the Sutter Street juncture, before remembering that our plans had marginally changed.
The massive sight before me: What began in 1910 as an ornate little Anglo and London Paris Bank had morphed into an entire CitiGroup Center. The old bank’s classical granite-clad facade was now dwarfed by the 41-story One Sansome office tower it had grown that looked like a tall, toothpaste tubular silver skyscraper with spacey aquamarine windows. So the original Paris-London had been gutted entirely, its 38-foot high Doric colonnade and arches lined with gleaming gray-white dappled marble, fashioning a comparatively serene CitiCorporate conservatory.
“So to speak, what does that mean?”
“You know, in a manner of…”
“Answer specifically, sir, definitively—please answer as asked.”
I had slipped between a rush of overdue brokers and BARTable commuters, around some smokin’, Cokein’, cadgin’ homeless dudes and anti-imperialism activists on into the peristyle atrium, my rubbery footsteps squeaking across its polished marble floor. Cozy, matching marble-top tables were scattered about the sunlit court—hosting al fresco cafe confabs and interludes amid a web of workday scrambles, unbearable deadlines and unforgiving performance reviews.
I soon caught a discreet wave from a far corner, redolently near the Center’s shuttering hot crepe stand. Better here than a stuffy Hobart Building office, said she, where her partner had spread out wall-to-wall documentation from his ongoing Janus-faced REIT litigation. What began as a little local bank grew into splendid granite atrium and gargantuan office tower, all right. But what began as a flaming chance encounter on Union Square had grown into more of a sworn interrogation, the moment I had planted across from her on a black metal lyre-back chair.
“All right, then—that is correct…”
“Good,” she said, jotting a note onto long yellow legal. “Now why did you send it to this individual in particular?”
“Particular? I dunno, sent queries to a whole slew of them back then…” I surveyed the dozen and more spindly Queen Palm trees framing the courtyard, and balmy cross shadows they cast across the conservatory’s marble walls and stone slab flooring.
My tongue and lips fused together just thinking about it. All the queries, all the SASE correspondence, the synopses and sample chapters; all the wait-fests, so much unremitting rejection: I could have written a book about it, no lie. Suffice to say, the process was death by a thousand slights and snubs, the moment I began shopping my story around. Day by drawn-out day, agents near and far responded with the form-letter follies. I foul weathered terse, laser printed Not right for us, Isn’t really for me, Not anything we’d like to work on, Not quite right for our agency, My author’s list is so well filled, rebuffs that likely were sent out by the scores everywhere, every day. Then I calendar watched for the excusatory I’m not the right agent for this, Not a project we feel we can take on now, Not appropriate for our current editorial program, We are too heavily obligated to give it the necessary attention, We’re too small and overwhelmed with work right now, Sorry, I’m months behind in my reading as it is. Therewith I bore witness to the slow drip of derision and disabuse, from zip codes as disparate as the 1002’s to 92014.
“You know, trying to generate interest in the story I’d written…”
“Expecting what, exactly?”
“Just hoping that somebody would bite on the thing, represent it or at least show some interest, pass along some feedback, direction…”
Before long, I had begun pacing up and down angst road, girding for the postcard shuffle: simple, no-nonsense door slams rubber stamped with No thanks not for us, Prior commitments, Too swamped right now, Sorry not interested—good luck elsewhere, some at least scribble initialed on the margins. Worse yet, I sweated hollow points through the slush pile-on, from publishers like Knopf, Norton, Scribner’s, St. Martin’s and Doubleday. Then came the panic attacks as I anxiety wrestled with a mailbox barrage from Putnam, Viking Penguin, Grove, Harper & Row; followed by Little, Brown, Random House, Atlantic—Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Got so I wanted to chop block the USPS carrier and weld the post box shut until all the returns were in and dead letter gone.
“So how did you come to hit upon this person?”
“Just one among many, believe me,” I said, over the murmur of echoing conversations from table all around us. “Think I’ve yanked chains on just about every no-fee type in the LMP directory.”
“Yet you did choose to go after a big fish like this?”
“Big fish? Big and minnows, coast to coast, and every rostered agent in between,” I recalled the printing and gumflap hassle of a scattershot mass mailing. “Hell, I didn’t even know this guy was in that league at the time, much less that he’d be game.”
“Game—are you saying that’s what it was to you?”
Still, not that the campaign was all formula refusals and robo rejections. Some agents actually jotted sparse scraps of advice or encouragement, such as Interesting themes but needs more cohesion, Work in more consciousness and astrological awareness, Looks promising but we’ve been out of business for three years down to Your prose all but swallows up the story, Too self-consciously hip-glib, Plot doesn’t move along fast enough, Get an editor, we’ll take a second look. One Hollywood agency actually invited me instead to submit some original lyrics and songs, when I couldn’t begin to fathom the words of Beck and Swifty, let alone Drake, Nelly or Ga-Ga about then.
“No—look, I’d poured several years of sweat and sobs into the thing, and thought I had something going with it…so I sent out the best lure I could think of—that letter you have right there.”
“I see, fame and fortune, all that—overnight Faulkner and Steinbeck,” she said, setting mine aside, glancing at the reply. “So then you heard back from this particular New York agency, and what?”
“More like hope and a prayer,” I replied, eyes skyward to the atrium’s gambreled birdcage roofline. “But I jumped at the nibble there. I mean, Jenson Brookhouse was on the Upper West Side, right off Central Park…the first real serious deal.”
“Let’s see, been around over 40 years, 15% commission, SAS jiffy bag,” she read the response aloud. “Says here to send the completed manuscript for full evaluation…”
“Right, that was the problem…” I heard isolated bursts of disjointed titter and outright laughter about then—the swoosh of long coats, the teletype clicking of heels.
Meanwhile, query-wise, I had begun getting solicitations back then from fee-based, ego-stroking parasites demanding hundreds of dollars up-front to even look over my material, or per-hour editorial services and writers’ powwows in Iowa and Squaw Valley. Any remaining authorial vanity was no match, however, for my dire economic straits at the time. Still, there eventually were some substantive New York nibbles—from high power, best seller agencies that offered to thoroughly review a completed manuscript. So I began making peace, roller coasting with the entire go-for-broke process. But that was before this Team Hassett flimflam went down, whereupon I stuffed the entire effort on a thumb drive and into a bottom drawer.
“Problem? You didn’t follow through on this?” The attorney said, over the Vivaldi piping in lightly above.
“No, couldn’t, because the novel wasn’t completed,” I muttered, pointing to my short stack of correspondence. “So I sent him that other letter there, begging his patience, and that I would ship the entire story as soon as I could…
“Sooo—did you,” she continued reading.
“Uh, can’t say as I did…” The gurgling spillover of that black marble center fountain became deafening upon my drift.
“Why not? I mean after all the rejections,” she frowned. “You get a big-time sniff and don’t walk the walk?”
“Couldn’t, because the story wasn’t finished, still isn’t, actually…”
“But you stayed in touch with this Mister Brookhouse?”
“Wasn’t able, because not too long after, I read in the Times that he had suddenly passed away,” I rued. “That’s where his obit noted that one of his major clients was James Marion Hassett…guess that’s where the trouble began.”
Better left unsaid at the moment was that I had recently tried to engage the services of ‘Lawyers for the Arts’, then a referral list of Intellectual Property firms. Legal stonewall: none of them liked my contingency chances of butting heads with the Hassett Machine or his publisher, let alone the famed legal thrillerator himself—whom they to a man and woman envied, respected, often idolized. For an unpublished wannabee hack? Nolo contendere, case dismissed with prejudice—who had the time for rank amateurs? Really, have you any idea what you would be up against?
“Trouble? Go on—um, wait a sec,” she replied, suddenly grabbing at the pinging smartphone in her grey pinstriped pantsuit pocket, glancing at a TXT. “Lo siento, I’m going to have to cut this short—that was from a Latina sex/hass client I have to meet down at Civic Center at the top of the hour.”
“Hey, no worry, I’m just appreciative of your interest and valuable time, given what you’ve recently been through,” I alluded to Union Square in an empathetic effort to get and keep her on board.
“Yes, well, I appreciate that,” she softened some. “Tell you what, I’m going to do some further research in this IP/copyright area—you mentioned having a lot more documentation?”
“Not with me, but it’s all in nice and safe-keeping back at…home,” I beamed, late afternoon sun refracting through the atrium’s glass roof, its white skeletal metal bars casting like cellblock shadows over its coarsely textured flooring.
“So get it all to me, Mister Herbert, and we’ll talk further,” she rose, streaked blond hair tousled in a breeze that was infiltrating the conservatory’s open archways, rustling the dwarf palm trees all about us.
“Really? Meaning you might look into taking my case?” I jumped up to meet her hazel-blue eyes.
“We’ll see—be sure to follow up, with the evidence and docs,” she shook my hand, however gossamer lightly, as though she were still wary Guntherwise, maybe sizing me up as to whether I might have been one of those psycho-chauvy pigs back in my day, a rapist-shaming broadside at the ready. “Get back to me when you’re fully prepared…”
“Will do, and don’t worry, I won’t be pulling a Weiner or Weinstein on you,” I added, with a two-handed hold of her own, shying away from Calder’s seductive ‘Star Maiden’ pedestaled statue gracing yonder wall. “Don’t want to be accused of sexual assault by inappropriate grip or emoji. Really, it’s a manssacre out there these days…”
“Totally man made, wouldn’t you say? In any case, I don’t want to come across as Debbie Doubter, but just tell me more thing. What ultimately convinces you that your great American masterpiece was actually purloined at all?”
“A single word,” I replied, still holding her hand with both of mine, buoyed by the mere prospect of associating with someone the likes of her. “Clover…”
Care For More?
CHAPTER TEN. The house edges
toward disorder, especially given
one firmly posted on the door…
COVIDose: …Seriously, face covering, physical distancing—what is with this COVID-19 virus anyway? Is it novel or the makings of one? How did it go from an endemic to a pandemic so damn quickly…JBD RETURN, NOW…
“This your current address?”
“It’s mine, it’s mine, already…what…”
“Got picture I.D., do you?”
That crack to Doyle Granger about the house’s earthquake resilience was no fabrication. For actually, our beloved Delphoria had survived the 1906 quake/firestorm, had come through Loma Prieta ’89 with merely a few dislodged chimney bricks and stress-cracked walls. It was a subdued Queen Anne tower house, circa 1891, with an unpretentious witch’s hatted turret upfront, plenty of chamfered gables and dormers all around. Such was Delphoria’s Victorian surface drama of geometric triangle against rectangle, projecting versus receding components, that there was no telling what mysteries it might lie within.
Light green fancy-butt shingled with creamy white and dark olive detailing, the place was a free-classic jargonaut of architectural elements: picture stick Palladian picture window casings with curvy, sandblown turret glass above. Tasty Eastlake-inspired gingerbread, continuous white cornice lines anchored the riot of triangular roof lines. Saucy green on crème ivy swag trimmed pediments, brackets and the house’s deeply vaginated portal, with its ivory on claret maroon front doors. Crowning it all was a tall top story gable, Venus shell pattern detailed in trilaterally at the roof end, swooping up toward a prominent, knobby gold-leaf shaft finial, figuratively climaxing to the heavens. Given everything, Delphoria could have been in better repair, but what was not to like about living so long in a colorful old nest like this? Looked like I was about to find out…
“My driver’s license, okay?” I rifled through my vermiculated wallet for the pink Missed Delivery form.
“It’s expired,” noted the overworked, undersupported USPS counter clerk at Steiner Station A, apparently oblivious to the haunted ground over which she toiled. I could still hear the long-gone Temple throbbing, its Peoples chanting in full throat to holy hell.
“That’s all I’ve got…”
“Sign here,” she sighed, flicking back the California license in exchange for a certified letter, blowing a bang of lavender processed hair out of her glassy eyes.
With that, I took possession of the labeled white #10 envelope, immediately spotting a return address I had familiarity with, stemming from a number of procedural exchanges. What could this be now, a rent increase notice for one of the tenants, a Three-Day Pay or Quit order for me to tack to some poor piker’s door? I had received such nasty paperwork to deliver time and again over the years—guilt inducing but part of the more toned-down than tone-deaf middleman gig—only never by so official a mailing before. Must have been yet another contentious issue with the basement flat, if not with room number four. Income property ownership in San Francisco, man, who needed it, nothing but non-stop grief and headaches. Landlord-tenant, tenant-landlord, rent control protections to binding, discretionary city review: lord knows I’d long seen it from both sides.
Either way, what good could have come from a certified letter, particularly one picked up around here? I pushed through Station A’s glass doors, out onto Geary Boulevard, far enough to gain a full overshoulder glance at the plainly governmental-modern facility, which now took up the better part of this infamous block. Yet all I could see were the grim baroque caverns once looming side-by-side, the darker, more hellish of the two being a noisome crypt of Biblical proportions. The Scottish Rite kirk cum synagogue had sat cheek by jowl, pew by pew with the spiritual essence of Temple incense that had moldered into fetid Guyana jungle heaps of the People’s remains. I shuddered at the phantasmagoria of it all, long leveled by now, glancing instead across the broad, bilevel Geary Expressway to apparitions of a more celebratory shrine, one that closed far too soon after the fall and horrors of 1978. Eye skating past glorious visions of a thoroughly melted away Winterland—of the Deadhead fare-thee-well and New Riders’ Purple Sage adieu—I wrestled with tearing open the envelope versus stuffing it into my cross-shouldered Timbuk2 messenger bag.
That was until nearly getting siderolled by a team of hulky roadies hauling amps and loudspeakers off the back of a Ryder rig through caged security gates, like so many crews had before them. They wrestled their black audio stacks up those same sanctified metal stairs that heightened opening act hopes while humbling the headliner rockristocracy. Airplane to ZZ, groups and groupies alike had to kiss Bill Graham’s ring on down upon entering the Fillmore Auditorium’s fabled stage doors, chomping apples no matter where they were hitting on the album charts. I could just picture Led Zep’s aerostat and the Rolling Stones’ mobile docked right here in the corner loading zone.
Instead, today’s smoky custom bus was black-window idling for some unsung band whose name would barely register on the buff brick Fillmore’s mainly indie marquee. So the ‘FoolAgains’ didn’t stand out at all as I scanned the auditorium’s flashing roster of upcoming show for groups I’d never much heard of, like Ozomotley and the Rabid Wombats. But that was on me. This, from over here across Fillmore Street, panning toward John Lee Hooker’s ebony Boom-Boom Room cater-corner to my right. I finally dithered open that envelope at the MUNI stop, while waiting for a north-bound 22 trolley—home to a taste of vino, some speedo readeo, a little All Things NPR—likely as not just padding and piddling around the house.
Leaning against a ‘Three Shades of Blue’ glass paneled bus shelter’s support, I unfolded the one-page notice, which instantly began flapping in the Geary corridor wind blowing more vestigial ashen air and who knew what airborne pathogens due east. Okay, same ol’, same ol’—all in a day’s work—seemed I’d served scads of these things over time, particularly since, since… Well, as it happened, Marvin Rosener was never a particularly healthy man, and the store attack on him back in ’78 hardly mitigated his prognosis. Inherently good hearted though he was, the source of his ailments was congenital coronary weakness. He often lamented that his father had suffered a fatal thrombosis before 50; he himself had undergone quadruple bypass surgery deep into his sixties. Surgeons had given him a five-to-ten year horizon after lengthy recuperation from his massive heart attack, which was triggered while toasting a long-sought legal triumph at Perry’s saloon. He managed well more than that by mainly holistic convalescing up in his Marin County aerie, before falling victim to a series of crippling strokes.
“You hook me up?” asked a gruff, gray Western Addition local in passing, bundled three rag layers thick, worldlies-stuffed shopping cart scraping and wobbling behind.
“Me? No way,” I muttered, looking down and away, like a sore-kneed marathon runner from a wheelchaired amputee.
“You ain’t woke?” The street sleeper coughed, dragging further along the Geary overpass.“All come ’round, bro—all come ’round…”
“Sorry,” I glanced back down Fillmore Street, combing the rebirthing jazz district for long, lost 22 MUNI. “Just waiting for a bus…”
“You have a blessed day…” And off he rolled.
In any case, during his surgery and recovery period, Marvin Rosener had essentially entrusted me with uber housesitting Delphoria back in the day, collecting rents and generally keeping the lid on the place for him, which I did faithfully for years on end. But along the way, he had also picked up a partner—either by way of the SOMA hothouse baths or leather bars. Slowly, steadily they had eventually reached some sort of oral and/or anal accommodation—outing via concerts, theatre, lengthy tropical cruises on Rosener’s wallet, to where Foster Norguard had firmly installed himself on the hubby/daddy side of the equation. A big, cultivated bruiser by way of Orange County, he rode herd over the waning landlord lock and stock, increasingly overseeing his store affairs and properties citywide. But as to the letter…
Lessee here, Notice of Termination. Dear Mr. Herbert: You held a position of manager at the property since January 1980. In exchange for your services, you have been provided with the use of unit number one without payment of any rent…
When Marvin finally passed away, his will decreed that Norguard be executor over his irrevocable trust—something like that. But where Marvin was so constitutionally laid-back and laissez-faire in his later years, Foster swooped in with a Hunnish blitzkrieg of consolidation. He swiftly sold Vanro Market, canning the loyal assistant manager who’d been keeping it afloat since Rosener’s heart attack. Norguard then digitized all Marvin’s twentysome other fogtown holdings with blunt edged oversight, fashioning himself as a virtuoso real estate mogul. He soaked and tormented any tenant who steered or strayed, however slightly, over the bright white lines of their exhaustive multi-page leases, cranking up his legal afterburners as The City’s rental market barreled along. But in the case of Delphoria, he inherited a uniquely San Francisco thicket of bollards and speed bumps, and I had long been standing smack between the double yellows withskeleton-closeted red flags and hazard flares in hand. At least until now…
…This notice of termination is hereby given to Kenneth Herbert, that your employment is hereby ended for cause, given that Mister Foster Norguard has engaged a formal property management company. Your employment is terminated pursuant to the at-will laws of California, effective immediately in compliance with Labor Code Section 2808…
…Please undersign this notice in acknowledgement that you understand the reasons for your termination from the management position. Note that this acknowledgement does not mean that you Kenneth Herbert agree with the reason for termination, but rather that you understand the good cause reason for the termination…
Wait…what! Termi-nation notice from what? Employment? What good cause? What did I do? Where the hell was this coming from? Suddenly the letter was burning a hole in my household safety net. I would have torched it right then and there if it weren’t now turning so soggy in the sweating palms of my hands. Waiting riders milled around me as the 22 Fillmore bus wheeled up, queuing to board, front and rear, but I stood frozen against the poetically dedicated blue safety glass overpass shield, staring us through the shelter’s grilled plastic canopy, struggling to decipher what this actually meant. The only thing I could figure first off was that either this was a notice misdirected toward me somehow—right, that this was meant for another property, maybe even another nescient client—simple typo, email chain snafu. Sure, could be a technicality of sorts, having to do with taxes or the intricacies of Marvin Rosener’s Trust. Or else my sweetheart deal was going hard cheese and heartburn from there on.
As the MUNI 22 trolley whirred northward, I couldn’t regret having missed the connection, since I had no certainty it was homeward bound anymore anyway. But hey, this might have no bearing on my actual habitat, only on a gig I frankly had done without in a pinch way back then. Separate, compartmentalize, decouple; house and home: what’s one got to do with the other? Just take it one shoe at a time: if there be any more to drop at all. Yet dizzy, disoriented, I felt increasingly unmoored in the stiffening afternoon winds, getting nearly blown away be a 38 Geary crammed with outbound Asians and Russians.
The articulated local was headed for their respective Richmond District avenues, roaring by a rumple-suited guy hobbling toward the bus stop with his old lady in tow. Finally hitting panic mode, I crammed the letter into my UnTucked plaid shirt pocket and turned away from the gales, glancing over the railing at the thrumming Geary Expressway underpass, downtown skyline in the distance.
There I counted cars and motor coaches echoing to the pounding of my aorta and ventricles, the ratcheting visegrip on my cranium. I squeezed hard on the steel railing, fighting back urges to join them with a one-on-one windshield face-off. All I could hear over the roar of soundwall amplified traffic, under furious whereto/wherenow voices in my brainpan, were FoolAgains’ rocky Fillmore rehearsals in one ear, Boom-Boom Room’s open-mic blues riffs in the other—with ghostly Peoples Temple dirges besetting me in between. Nevertheless I was homeward bound, at the very least notionally so. The soundwall-driven writing couldn’t be much clearer than that…
Care for More?
CHAPTER NINE. Legal concerns
take precedence, one over the other,
which means taking it downtown in earnest…
COVIDose: …But hey, I get it—call to action, do my part, join the pandemic fight—defeat the evil Crown wherever it may reign. Public health, social cohesion: It’s not about me and my disruptions, it’s about everybody’s life and death. Onwards, San Francisco through the lockdown—cooperation and collaboration and all that. Fortunately we have found a way to soldier on despite it all…REJOIN, go NOW…
“I’s seein’ you, blood…”
“Uh-huh—have a great one, okay?”
“Great one? Look what how you did me!”
Determined to rootle back downtown, I was stuck tramping along Market Street with a late-morning cattle rush clogging the cavernous, spindly shaded pedway, up and down the block. In the process, I stumbled onto him…
Here was a tall, hulking lout in layered rags, spit and spittle through a broken brown grill. Calvin bulldozed along with twin full black Glad utility bags over each side of a battered Safeway shopping cart, wide as a dredging scow down the broad red brick sidewalk. He’d just steamed between a festooned Parisian style kiosk and several sun-starved acacia trees, slamming to a can-rattling halt directly in my path. Now this craziac starts lighting me up…just about kneecapping me right then and there. I quickly grasped that he had targeted me amid a busy biflow of main drag foot traffic, and was slowly getting a handle on why.
“Did to you? Me,” not knowing how bad off he was, or what he was on. “What did I do? ”
“You goddamn know what you did, shithook!”
Running hot and tattered as this guy was now, I could repicture Calvin Roe as the grinning, phonepole flyer plastered handyman whose plumbing misadventures had nearly flooded Delphoria’s ground floor flat. He came cheap and scrounged aftermarket parts, having no problemo working off he books on jobs that skirted proper building permits—which landlord, Marvin Rosener had found priced just about right back then.
Still, this one-time unlicensed contractor’s long crack breaks fuzzed up his judgment and taskicity, to where he was no match for our leaking water heater, much less a clued-in city code inspector whom I’d inadvertently tipped off, who threatened to come down hard. But Marvin had methodically greased some palms—and the last I’d heard, Calvin had fled from his debts and immediate family to the Sawtooth wilds of Idaho. Yet here he was back before me again, likely just another drifting ember from the northern fires, much the worse for wear, rotted tobacco teeth and all.
“Oh, r-r-right,” I recalled sorely, though not wanting to dig this hole any deeper about now. But I didn’t dime him out, no matter what he says. “Hey, c’mon, moving on—fist bump, bro?”
“Yah, fist your fuckin’ face! You dimed me out there, mudderfuggin’ ruined my life…”
“Wouldn’t be the first…” More or less an occupational hazard: So instead I dropped a crumpled George on him, and beat my sorry retreat between a hirsute bikinied woman dragging her personal belongings, and a hefty naked guy wrapped and twirling in his heavily soiled blankie like Jeff Epstein around a ‘Little Island’ massage table.
“…Yo, that coffee there for anybody?!”
“Sorry, Calvin, sort of…” I ducked over into a landmark portal, between its stone granite voluted balusters, under scrolled console moldings and a corbel balconette, through ornately baroque doors. The Hobart Building, Willis Polk’s 1914 classical revival masterwork, was reputedly thrown together in a mere eleven months—on an asymmetric polygonal site at the foot of Second Street. Yet fittingly, its 21-story sculpted terra cotta tower was The City’s second tallest at the time. Although now engulfed from all sides, Hobart was still standing historically tall. So with all due respect, I moved on, ducking like an oil-slick mallard inside…
“They’re just out there…”
“You don’t understand, I…”
“…For the taking…”
“No, not like this…”
“Just floating in the aether, I’m telling you, everywhere, like carbon particulates.”
I had taken Alison Paige-Warner up on the coffee. Or rather, I took it up to her—Sulewasi-wise—from a Peet’s franchise over there across Market Street. The former Nazi family-owned chain roaster tucked inside a row of International Style edifices, flags flying above it like those down at U.N. Plaza, as vintage torpedo streetcars rumbled by. I’d dodged opposing trolleys back across the slot, soy skinny grandes in hand, slipping in here past a Powerball scratching desk attendant. under a Conical crystal chandelier, gleaming handcrafted brass and Italian marble foyer: Hobart’s lobby was imposing as all get out, which was exactly what the doorman/guard wanted me to do. Instead, I squeezed into the right of two brassy elevators, just past its closing filagree detailed doors.
“Only not with this much detail, not going down this way.”
“Ideas are just that way,” replied Alison. “So what do you want from me?”
“I dunno, some justice maybe—look into it or something…”
“Look into what?”
“You know, my situation with this,” I said, yanking loose the coffee cups from a corrugated take-out tray. “Doing what you lawyers do…”
The fourteenth floor stop yielded a lengthy corridor of varnished walnut door casings, thickly tufted runners and polished marble walls. Each matching walnut office door framed pebbly glass and gold leaf lettering—strictly Spade & Archer era—all except for the glass window panel of this 1429.
“Which is what…I mean, in your mind?”
“I dunno, maybe right a wrong. It was my work, after all, the bastard stole my work. Even saw him on a PBS interview, admitting that was how he got his best material.” I then pulled a manila folder from a rode-worn messenger bag. “Here, I’ve got a file on it, and everything. Copies of signed correspondence, voicemail tape, the whole works.”
Paige-Warner’s no-name office was largely a cubby hole halfway down the corridor on the left. A pair of narrow windows looked out upon, if not abutting the plainly vertical former Wells Fargo hi-rise at 44 Montgomery. What may have been considered architecturally progressive in the mid-Sixties—Mies, et al.—was comparatively nondescript, and merely shadowing her daylight by now. What I could make out, however, were several classroom style steel case desks, topped with Dell tower computers, routers, H-P laser printers, a flatbed scanner, landline telephones, charger cables, bursting in/out banker boxes and teetering stacks of documents and depositions. The volumal beginnings of a United States Reports and California Code library extended across a row of four drawer hard-copy file cabinets, old bookmarked law school texts filled out whatever space remained up there. Stained coffee cups, a microwave of sandwich wrappers, empty little bottles of energy drinks: in all, it was difficult to tell whether this was an office on the come or provisionally to-go. But it was all I had on my docket at the time.
“Firstly I must advise you I.P. is not my area of expertise,” she said, stirring her Sulewasi over the hum of a rotating floor fan.
“Then what is, if I may be so bold as to ask?” I shook in two packets of brown sugar, one stir-stick short, sloshing my Peet’s like a tumbler of Milk of Magnesia—failing to splashguard my gray wide-wale cord sport coat and chinos, best I could muster on short notice.
“I’m leaning more toward corporate governance,” she replied, handling the folder like a loaded curbside doggie bag. “Best practices, like that…”
“You mean more where the money is,” I noted the wall of framed diplomas over her shoulder: USF, Boalt Hall Juris Doctor sheepskins, citations from Cal, San Francisco Bar Association members in good stead. “Not penny-ante stuff like…”
“Not in so many words—but, frankly, I’m going on 30, still negotiating law school loans,” she said, sculpted cheekbones, slim wireframe readers tipping her tanned retrousse nose—blowing, sipping advisedly on her Peet’s sleeved cup. “I’ve had enough with mock trials and internships, believe me.”
“Saturnough said,” I nodded. “Then this office here is just a strategic way station?”
“So to speak—as they say, location, location, location…” She reached to pull her long, wavy blond tail away from a high-roll collar. Her look was layered black and purple, somewhere between Eileen Fisher and DKNY—workaday to be sure, though with an after-hours mien.
“Then I guess my case would be slumming, an annoying little flare-up along your yellow brick road…”
Didn’t actually intend to take this low road, immediately regretting the imagery, but I was afraid I had no way, nowhere else to turn. Yellow Page ads had yielded a series of snippy receptionists and unanswered voicemails; referral services held out little hope, Lawyers for the Arts were far more interested in issues pressingly visual and other finery than the provenance of words on a page. Nobody was interested in a local geezer hack’s conspiracy trip over some high-roller author filching his Great American manuscript; but I still couldn’t let it ride. So here I was, playing the flaming guilt card on her for a little pro bono redress. Pretty awkward, all right—not exactly my area of expertise. Yet she had opened the door for coffee…and what on earth did I have to lose?
“What…case?” she sighed, wincing at the flare-up metaphor. “Okay look, I will review your file, but it may take several days to get to it.”
“See, I’m still getting situated here,” she said, defensively fingering through the folder. “My colleague is being kind enough to give me a bit of space and latitude to sort of set up shop…”
“Great for you. So what does he do?”
“Peter’s practice is in the area of real estate, REITs, some probate—like that. But he’s done with the cut-throat, white-shoe grind, is striking out on his own. In fact, he’s in litigation right now.”
Striking out: I knew that tune. How this damned whole novel enterprise had been disillusionment and doom from the head-slapping inception. How the rash noodling and doodling had led me down this brambly, if not neurotoxic path. How the clashing voices, the narrative-dialogue shitstorm pinballed relentlessly around my skull with bumpers and circuits in fitful overload. How relationships, resources and telomeres diminished as the pages piled up—living on ketchup, chicken ramen and Cheerios. How the bipolar rush and crash, weeklong keyboard jags and all-night scribbling raked in nothing but…the above. Nevertheless, it was all I could do to stifle the personal vexation awhile and make a connection to spark some sort of course correction.
“So, uh, how’re you doing otherwise,” I straightened up, square cornered a mound of transcripts and legal journals near the corner of her desk.
“Thank you for asking,” she said curtly, setting the file folder aside. “But you clearly have no agency in that respect…”
“Hey, gotcha,” I said, in collateral saturnine retreat. “Don’t go there, right?”
“Ask me in a couple of days…” She propped her sleek black Jimmy Choos up on a overstuffed lower desk drawer.
“Sounds like a plan,” I grinned, grabbing my coffee and making for her door. “Meantime, I’ll just fiddle and chill around the house…”
“I see, another troglodyte with nothing better to do. Just don’t go burning yourself in the process.”
“No reason to worry, counselor, rest assured I’m not that kind of guy anymore.”
“Where have I heard that before…”
Care for More?
CHAPTER EIGHT. A dead-on letter
arrives for the asking, even if it
means all but signing a life away…
COVIDose: …Got that right, time to fleeme shelter. I mean it’s not my place to be contrary, but those blame signs are everywhere along Fillmore Street nowadaze. Stay Home, Quédese en Casa, Manatili sa Bahay: How’s a body supposed to Shelter in Place, stay put for the duration, hunker down until testing on some miracle vaccine goes viral?! But JBD REFOCUS, go NOW…
“Haven’t a clue…”
“She left me no forwarding info or anything, that much is for sure. So I guess she’s still here, tenant-wise.”
“With me neither…all I know is she was always, like, workin’ it somehow.”
“Workin’ it?” Couldn’t have been the same one, I thought…like with that corpse in Moulton alley. But sure, those sweet, stringy ones all looked alike from that angle…
The Union Square flameout was way beyond unspeakable. But I’d since grown rather more obsessed with the Moulton Street scenario. Always workin’ it? No clue? Meaning Jennifer hadn’t liked or befriended her cozy neighbor on Facebook? Hadn’t followed nor retweeted nor played hashtag with our former refugee on Twitter? Never clicked Tomarrah on Flicker, Snapped her on Chat, filtered and storied her on Instagram? Curious how Jenn wasn’t staying networked with her neighborly BFF on who knew whose tracking apps. What was bloody sapp with that?
“You know, dodgy, playin’ it out, one way or another.,” she slid past me out the common kitchen doorway toward her half ajar door. “Oh, did you see them ?”
“The real estate slimos who came by earlier, roaming up and down the halls.”
“Real Estate? In here,” I asked, more strange happenings to process. “Never heard a word about it…”
“Well, somebody sent them, ’cause here they were, nosing around, taking phone notes like madmen,” she said, smart cookie, no nonsense, having worked her way out here from South Boston, by way of a short stint in Near North Chicago. “I could see them through my peephole.”
Ah, yes, peepholes—had to sneak a peek through those peepholes, lock those double dead-bolted doors—so far removed from out open-doors policy of yore. “Jotting slimeballs, huh ?”
“Suits, phone pix, the whole deal.”
“Yeah, well thanks for the heads-up, I’ll…”
“Don’t mention it,” Jennifer kicked at her room door with a nod of the henna red head, Tupperware bowl of leftover kale couscous in hand, leftover Carnitas in the oven, gesturing down the hall. “Just get that one to stop with her bullshit down there…I can’t afford to be puttin’ up with it anymore.”
“R-r-right, workin’ on that…” Tumult all over again behind door number four.
Hmph, could have been anybody, insurance adjusters, city hall HHS types, anybody, right? I wouldn’t put anything past Foster Norguard that way. Still, you’d think they would have given me some advance notice or…BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP…With that, the reheating oven set off two smoke detectors nearest the house’s common kitchen, which prompted me to grab a three-step utility ladder and reach up to reset their batteries and pot them down before city SRO inspectors came poking around.
Folding away the ladder, I followed upon Jennifer’s nod down the hall, reflecting on the floor’s uneasy calm, however untenable it may have been at the moment. Still, this was more R&R these days than a DMZ compared to the way it used to be back in the day—that is, with the occasional exception of room number 4. Hell, make that decades ago—as far back as Nigel and Hildy’s Aussie-Anglo bickering up and down the very same hall. Strange happenings, all right: Then again, so many weird things had gone on in this crazy old house, from the first day I wandered in through its scrollworked double oak doors. By now the place was creaking into its recrudescent year 129—but what was a little century to the likes of an eternally Saturnine Dame Thornia?
Smoke alarms snuffed, I surveyed the cramped, Tupper-and cookware crammed kitchen. Through some lingering steam, the ripening odor of containered garbage and compost, I wondered how any peace was kept in there at all. Turning away to nitpick the carpet runner, I heard a long lost Dead bolt from the past out of room number three: Jenn had dropped a digital needle on ‘Scarlet Begonias’. From the Mars Hotel, might as well have been from the Saturn Hotel.
Instead, they dubbed the house ‘Delphoria’ ages ago—something about Apollo oracles and a white crystalline substance used to relieve rheumatism and neuralgia. They being those at the many Dead family gatherings in the flat downstairs. A return trip to my unit up front summoned flashbacks to my earliest days here, Deborah hosting her steely Uncle John and Jerry acoustic jams in a haze of locoweed and Casey Jones lines, buckets of Lagunitas craft brew and psilocy mushroom stew. Stirring the sticky incestuous intrigues of Bobby, the Godchaux and roving Muldaurs, slipping in a Mickey with a drumroll now and then—blowing the roofs off of surrounding highrises. Heady Hashbury skulduggery right here in a rosette corniced, lacy wainscotted Victorian parlor amid this stuffy old money San Francisco neighborhood. No, not celluloid ‘Pacific Heights’, the real Pacific Heights.
I was party to their variously crooning: ‘Stella Blue’ through the hardwood floorboards, harmonizing on ‘Ripple’ and ‘Candy Man’, pickin’ & grinnin’ through ‘Sugar Magnolia’ and ‘Friend of the Devil’, trippin’ over ‘Dark Star’ and ‘Fire on the Mountain’, toking on ‘High Time’ and ‘Morning Dew’, finally boogieing out onto the New Speedway come daybreak—truckin’ back up to money-money/woodsy Marin and their folksy brokedown palaces for another Sunshine Daydream.
God’s honest, those were a ramblin’ rosy flatful of kicked-back hoedowns, lusty showdowns and occasional overloaded throwdowns back then. T’was a randy Colorado cowgirl from Front Range pioneer family money, and her newborn Grateful family connections, pulling it off. More specifically, it took her father’s on-the-money rent checks to feed the beats and beasts—clockwork across the time zones, month after month without fail. Cashing those bank drafts was the landlord, Marvin Rosener—he of the Vanro Market, that Chestnut Street ‘bodega’, scene of the strong-armed robbery, which nearly took his life back there in 1978. That was where I came in, amid a mind fog over Sydney Mendel’s maddening meanderings, to shape up and basically tourniquet his knife wound with my shirt sleeve until the paramedics arrived.
The grocer was eternally grateful, before long fixing me up in a low-rent room here in one of his buildings. He asked me to ‘eyes and ears’ around the place, whereupon I vowed to look after Delphoria, ever keeping his best interests in mind. Apparently his earlier proceeds from the 24/7 Vanro went toward leveraging a portfolio of investment properties all over low six-figure 1960s San Francisco—primarily throughout Upper Terrace and the Castro. This outlier of his just happened to be in loftier Pacific Heights. Deborah held down the anchor three-bedroom unit in the house by her lonesome, and Rosener was frightful of losing her daddy’s steady checks in the face of pyramided monthly mortgage calls. So when his then building manager was suddenly ousted from the house, tensions arose within hours. Seemed Nigel Cox was shoveling snow on the side, out of his host Australian Consulate, and the Feds had been sniffing around.
“Come to think of it, I do know there was that creep looking for Tomarrah,” said Jennifer, onesie jammies and hairbun atop, Ugg-slipping back into the kitchen for her reheated Mex. She had a work-out sensibility about her, along with a back east Roxbury bite—so different from many of the tenants who had burrowed in up here.
“What creep,” I spun 180, picking up that her downloaded sound track had amped up from the vintage Dead and gone download Shakira.
“The hairy ape up from L.A.,” she kicked her number three door open further, crock and iPhone in hand. “The one who tried to keep her locked away in southern Italy. Like a sex slave in a palacio, real porny stuff…but she finally snuck away.”
“She told you that? I knew she was running from something. But all she ever told me was to keep her hereabouts on the down low, and not let anybody in asking for her. So I did, no questions asked…”
“Well, the dude hit me up for dirt out on the sidewalk one time, flashed me an Instagram of them, asked if I’d seen her—a total fat-ass dirtbag in, like, a Speedo. So I blew him off, and he just said, see you around,” Jenn added, with a ‘Man I’ll Never Be’ Boston ringtone and slam of her door.
“When was this? Ever see him again…” I asked, far too late, resolving to leave her be. By now, I’d learned to keep my eyes and hands to myself around here, defensive posture long deployed.
So hitting rewind once again, I could clearly recall opening the front door for a pair of well-dressed and determined visitors back in the early days, pointing them upstairs toward Nigel’s place. A short while later, they emerged from his unit without saying a word, good-time Nigel standing outside his doorway, waving them off, white as a Colombian line. The Justice Department agents had given him mere days to leave the U.S. or they’d nail his kangaroo carcass to the loo. He and Hildy Bichester then squabbled up and down the third floor hall, slamming doors, wearing out the carpet runner between rooms one and four, until splitting for good to their respective corners of the Empire: London to Adelaide.
That left the house short one manager and Deborah screaming at Rosener that repairs to her flat, some admittedly resulting from her many Dead Headed affairs, were way too undermet and overdue. There were boot spurred rumblings of her moseying on, taking daddy’s checks with her, unless he refilled the managerial void. In a panic, the landlord rummaged for an in-house solution, and there I was, handy and trusty in room number two, hankering to save the day. Our deal was sealed with was a less than zero rent level and move into the brighter, roomier unit number one—been in here ever since. But the same could not be said for dear Deborah downstairs. A year or two on, that groupie and her goodies were gone with the Easy Wind.
Straight off, the arrangement gave me a good, long stretch of breathing and sharp elbow room, a live-in bouillabaisse of hearts and daggers, ultimately a homey buffer between me and the harsher realities of Bay Area living. In all, a good B.O.O. (base of operations) for a low-rent Renaissance man. Just so long as I’d been able to wire some electrical, hang and mud a little wallboard, clear me some drainpipes or tighten a few screws. But mostly just keep the lid on the house and everybody out of trouble—looking after the tenants rights-wise, and maintaining an impenetrable firewall between them and a distrait, sequestered Marvin Rosener.
“What’s that,” I asked.
“Another shaker,” said Doyle Granger, descending from the top floor, one unsteady stairstep at a time. He was the only tenant who had been here longer than me, for a pied-a-terre at dirt cheap monthly rate no less—San Francisco rent control in full force.
“Barely, maybe…why so jumpy?”
“Earthquake weather, just when that damned fire smoke finally cleared away,” he wheezed.
“Gonna bring this whole mothership down on us one of these times…”
“That only comes in the fall. Besides, hasn’t collapsed yet has it?” I scooped up some carpet lint, squared away a small hall mail table. “The old place has made it through every temblor so far, 1906 included. It’s built on a granite rise, Delphoria’s not going anywhere.”
“Yah, well, something’s in the air, all right,” he straightened a white linen cabana shirt, tugged down the brim of a feathered Panama hat he’d scored in Key West, presently on his way down to the lobby. “Something real skeevy’s goin’ down…can feel it in my aching bones.”
“It’s the micro particulates, Doyle, free-floating pathogens…they’re in the air, everywhere.”
“That, too…, stressin’ me out. I’m headin’ for Blue Bottle, what say you?”
“Me? At the moment, I haven’t a clue…”
Care for More ?
CHAPTER SEVEN. A downtown
redux sorely brings back house business
and a cuppa cursory legal opinions…
COVIDose:…Yes, this does feel odd…RESTEADY, go NOW…
“Sorry, Gunther—not buying it.”
“Need some breathing room now, do ya?!”
He hoisted the can as if to toast, but instead began pouring with a vengeance. Regular unleaded washed down like Yosemite falls, green-yellow gasoline over his padded grey wool blend shoulders, quickly soaking through pinstriped broadcloth to the bone. He slumped under the cold chemical weight of this endgame, mumbling to himself, tossing aside the empty gas can, soon crouching to feel for another five-gallon container in a barrel-size black canvas duffle bag.
Dude pinned the second red can between his legs, no simple maneuver given that he had already chained himself by the waist band to a regal blue lamp post over on the northwest corner of Union Square. He then came up firing with a disposable BIC. Few passersby even seemed to notice this volatile, most incendiary situation, what with all the cross-clotted traffic, the motherboard flow of pedestrians, the general buzz of lunch-hour banter in downtown San Francisco.
But then I had clearer perspective, having idly locked on this ruinous dervish in a three-piece suit screaming, threatening, tap dancing around his duffel and despair like an arthritic sidewalk hoofer. He appeared to be a careworn late-20s juniorcrat, a quotidian auditor or systems analyst, a resume booster ploddingly making a careers of his benefits package. Yet here he was going off on a street corner, power lunching with an anti-theft CLUB pulled from his over-parked Daihatsu Charade. His ranting had already pierced the shrill alarm of an ice-blue and black Mini Cooper, the sudden thud of caving sheet metal, the shattering and splintering of safety glass.
This Crunch-buffed figure had rammed his red steel steering lock through the Mini’s pulverized windshield, twisted its wipers with bleeding knuckles, jammed a long, spindled note under its hood seam, then proceeded to boot in Alison somebody’s doors. “Bitch flat-out lied!”
“Come on, drop it, will you,” I had urged, from behind a dripping hydrant. For this alpha maniac was now flicking his lighter to the stony, unmoved passersby, pacing aquamarine like a caged orangutan amid aquamarine heaps of powdered glass. “Don’t be doing that to her. And for chrissake don’t be doing it to yourself…”
“Piss off, I’m dealing with my woman here,” he screamed, reeking worse than an East Bay refinery, menacingly waving his BIC with fire in his gray beryllium eyes. “Grow up, she says—like I’m some kinda’ fuckin’ chump.”
“Listen, you flame out and she’s the one who wins…” Aww, give it up, I muttered, scanning an increasingly restless plaza across Powell Street—as if I had any room to talk. What’s one more hopeless son-of-a-bitch going over the edge? Still, I couldn’t deny once seething with that flamer’s anger so long ago, being no less panicked by his rage.
The direct object of his attention looked to be a trim, tied-back blond whose gleaming blue eyes and jutted chin barely met his sagging lapels. Stabbing her hands hard into the trouser pockets of her own black pin-striped suit, the young woman took to standing on her bulging Coach briefcase for emphasis, then tiptoed stood her ground. “Look at my car! You’re paying, Gunner…” She scrolled her pearly iPhone X for AAA. “Paying full sticker price with treble damages!”
“It’s here in the letter, folks,” he scowled back, pulling an embossed #10 envelope from his vest pocket, waving it like damp legal tender out of a tumble dryer. “But OK for you, if this is how you want it, huh?” He wooshed the lighter before her eyes. “Goin’ down this way…”
“Spare me the spectacle, luv. You know for a fact we’ve done this scene before…”
Tuned in, amped up, I could hear it all so clearly, as though the entire overheated affair were on speakerphone—The Conversation all over again—even over the bus roar, the cold concrete street drilling, the shifting and sliding of steel trench plates. Besides which, I had seen seen how this Gunner guy had brazenly crammed his Charade into a yellow curb delivery zone outside Saks Fifth Avenue. Bad habit, overindulged powers of observation, I had drawn a laser bead on him as he shlepped his canvas duffle through Post Street traffic over to the Square, as if methodically setting up yet another anti-one-percent petition stand. Instead, the stand increasingly appeared to be his last.
“You lied to me, lied to me,” he cried, as a clanging Powell Street cable car momentarily crowded my sight and sound lines. By the time I had refocus, the guy was reaching into his huge black bag for the second five-gallon can.
“Negative, I never once lied to you!” She shook her finger at him as a swarm of day shoppers and trollers began to circle.
“Why’d you have to bullshit me, Alison,” he resumed pouring about himself.
“For God’s sake, Gunther, get a grip—this is downright embarrassing.”
My vantage point was now the left end of a wood-slat courtesy bench line with assorted tourists, who were craning for the sight of another Powell-Hyde Street cable car. This outbound stop was function of a little friendly reconnaissance, all due diligence in the authorial sense—momentary pause while scouting out misappropriated territory pending a fulsomely trumpeted arrival. That was when this high-noon showdown grabbed me, with it the clear chemical bite of reformulated petrol and other toxic inhalants unknown, all somewhat sweetened by the pancake aromatherapy wafting down from Sear’s Fine Food.
“Come on,” she continued, “you know you won’t go through with this. You never follow through with anything!”
“See there, folks,” Gunther said, playing to the thickening circle. “That’s the bitch who flat-out played me!!”
“Oh, stop it,” she shrieked. “You’re impossible, I tell you…and are really beginning to freak me out…”
Downtown for something of a showdown hoedown myself, I had also been trying to chat up a young homeless guy when I noticed her turn of mood. He was a huddled lump wrapped in a frayed blanket—stained and yellow, much the color of his own cankered skin. He figured to have been seated on the shade-chilled concreted long enough for piles to take hold, hunched over a coverless paperback, saying nothing, seldom looking up except to mind the plastic beer cup between his tattered hiking boots, ringing up each passing drop of spare change. Then again, his small longhand sign said it all: ‘I’m living with AIDS. Any little bit goes toward food, maybe even a room. It’s hard out here, thank you very much’. He never even noticed when I dropped everything to run like greased thievery in this Alison’s general direction.
“Gather around people, it’s light up time!”
“All right, that’s it, Gunner.” She spun around toward the intersection, catching just enough of her black-on-black pump heel in an old vent grate to send her tumbling to her knees. “No more TXTs, no more calls, hear…ewwph…”
“Say, are you okay? Can I help you there?” I reached down to grasp her elbow as traffic closed in on us from both the Post and Powell Street sides.
“God knows I’ve tried to be reasonable about this,” she screamed, over a swell of revving engines and horn rage. She then swung her strawberry blond head toward me, turned on me to be more precise. “Do you mind? Get your grubby mitts off…”
“Whoa, hey…” I eased back, spotting Gunther out the corner of my eye as he prowled about with his gas can, ranting over and over to the ever-gathering gawkers and rubberneckers how he was dealing with this woman here. “I’m only trying to…”
“Don’t you dare touch me…” She rose in demonstrable anger, brushing her hair back, dusting off the knees of her Claiborne pants.
She then scooped up her briefcase, pivoting to storm between hard-pressing sedans, hush quiet hybrids, smoky diesel delivery vans and clean-air articulated buses across Powell Street, with me flummoxed but closely in tow. We nearly got pincered between a Hyde Street cable car and clocked-out airport van.
“I really must be some kind of jerk magnet or something. You guys never cease to amaze me.”
“Us guys? I’m not exactly the same dumpster fire…”
“Then that loser’s not your worry, is he,” she snapped, somewhat evasively, defensive shrapnel shredding through. “Save it for yourself, or for the Stein boys, our grabass politicians, or the stalker who just scalped his girlfriend. Or the swine who tossed his daughter off the Golden Gate Bridge. Talk about testosterone pollution—we should be calling in cropdusters to spread the Depo–Provera.”
“Now wait a minute,” I said. Once we cleared the intersection, traffic cemented the noon-hour gridlock in a snarly criss-cross weave. “I just thought you might need a little…”
“Okay, time out,” she heaved, eyeing me head to toe, from my down-market chinos to frayed blue oxford cloth to the scuff marks on my retread running shoes. She then set her wine cordovan case against the first trolly post across Powell. “Sorry about the tantrum, sir, but…”
“Me too, but hey, no problem,” I hastened, however caught short by her presumptive generational divide. “Seems you had your hands full over there.”
“Yes, well…” She refrained from looking back toward Gunner’s fiery performance art and Union Square—instead sizing me up, reaching some sort of summary judgment. “Look, I appreciate the gesture and all…”
“Don’t give it another thought. What’s that scenario all about, anyway?”
“Nada—just some old, spoiled leftovers that keep repeating on me.” The young woman looked to be a Marin bred Paltrow with a fresh, Gloria Allredy mind. She pulled and straightened the fine pinstripes of her double-breasted jacket, before stabbing firmly into an inside pocket, then handing me her business card.
“Sure…” I stuffed the new engraved eggshell card, which read, ‘Alison Paige-Warner, Attorney-at-Law’ into my shirt pocket without giving it a third glance. Hell, if she was this goddamn heartless, she had to be good in the dock. “But what about…you know…Gunther, there?”
“Listen, he won’t do anything further. Gunner’s never seen anything through in his life.” She picked up her attache, tapping her cell phone, checklisting herself for further damage. “Believe me, he’ll be TXTing, spamming my voicemail before I get back to the office…lotta good that T.R.O.s doing me.”
“R-r-right, well…” I peered back again where her eyes refused to go, still hearing him cry out, ‘Alison, lying Alison’ over the churn and grind of opposing trolly cables, the nearby thumping of asphalt whackers. “I’m Ken, Ken Herbert, nice meeting you this…way.”
“Pleased, Mister Herbert, call during business hours if you wish.” She turned to power walk her way up Powell Street toward Sutter, sneaking a glance over at Gunther with a quick wince and shudder, her pleated pinstripes flapping in the breeze. “I’ll pop for a thank-you coffee.”
“Hey, that’s not necessary, I…”
“Can you use the occasional cup, or can’t you?”
CHAPTER FIVE. Inflamed
passions take center stage,
until a hotter ticket
hits the scene…
COVIDOSE: …Really, it’s called getting through to what’s been gone through not long before…JBD RETRACE, go NOW...
“Forget it, will ya, that’s the cops’ business…”
“But the whole thing looked familiar somehow…”
“G’wan, all those little bundles look alike. Who knows what kind of cocktail she was doin’? I’m talking about the real funny shit going on around here.”
The police had ushered me along Moulton Street by laser light, forewarning it was none of my business. Yet I still couldn’t shake the bleak image of a young woman strung out, splayed that way, even now. In retrospect, I imagined the victim had been abused until she was blue in the face—internal blunt force trauma, to where even a naloxone shot to the bone marrow wasn’t about to bring her around.
“All right, alright, what’s the story?” But at the moment, I did still feel beholden to this dick, could have used a new freelance gig about then as well. “I’m all ears, I mean after our little TapeGate and everything. You know I still owe you for the no-play screwup on that Ramsey case…”
“No player? You can say that again,” Eisenhoff offered me a room temp bottle of Sierra Springs water across his desktop, a bumper sticker reading, ‘Best Tail on the Trail’ pressed under glass. “Unforced error—just like with that Rayale Caffe that was down there across the street.”
“Uh, how do you mean?”
“You did frequent the place, right?”
“Well, not frequent, exactly, but…”
“So you knew enough about it then, but still didn’t peg it right.”
“What was there to peg?” I asked, with a twist of the cap. To me, Rayale had just been a plan B since the shutting down of my caffeine routine uphill once MeccaJava Café had given way to yet another pricey fashion outpost for a red haute New York brand. “Cheap, bad coffee and strange sandwich concoctions. Weak wifi and music of the weirdest subterranean kind, for this part of town at least. So I guess Rayale didn’t have a prayer over the long haul.”
“How about the bunch that ran it?”
“What about them? Didn’t say much except the basics, take the order and frown,” I followed his gaze across Fillmore Street. “Kinda surly, guess that was just part of the vibe in there, but it’s long gone now…”
“That they could have been a sleeper cell for all you’d have known…”
Sedge ‘Sy’ Eisenhoff came off as a true second-story man, directly above a vacated pastry shop that never had a chance either. His agency fronted a full floor of offices, pole position, so to speak, due to the sheer longevity of its legacy lease or what he had on the owners. It was on a block that ebbed and flowed with the commercial real estate market, particularly at street level. Down with blanketed sleeping bags of fetal bodies on the sidewalks, in the doorways, where binge drunkards crashed inside bank ATM branchlets. Currently, Sedge’s bastardized Victorian’s neighbors between Filbert and Greenwich were a tipsy Vicky saloon, Indian restaurant, trendy taqueria and wine bars.
Across Fillmore, the storefronts were a boxy lot: beige on beige 50s style. Anchoring the largest was that gray faced, tour de force Euro bike shop, serving full-race coffee that could torch their Nanoflex kits and melt their Vittoria tires. Firing up on the four-barrel French Roast blend were a clutch of ralleye bound cyclists comparing carbon frames, Dura Ace groupsets and GPS map apps on a classic post-war Citroen delivery van split into a wooden bench pop-up park. They were generations removed from the detective agency herein, which likely could relate to hoggish Harleys or Duce Moto-Guzzis at best.
“I mean, the joint always did seem a little weirdly placed for the neighborhood, don’t you think?” Eisenhoff pushed back the sliding glass of his bay window, pointed over toward a squat, incongruously one-story structure mid block, just north of Pixley, another of those San Francisco ‘tween streets. “Like there was always something hinky going on…”
“Dunno, not that much weirder than the Vedanta temple over there on Filbert, with all those onion bulb turrets and ogee arches…”
“Except that thing’s legit, especially since they dolled it up—been there forever, too,” said Eisenhoff, fixing us both past Ginsberg’s Howling sidewalk plaque, onto what remained of that shabby cappuccino brown caffe on a downward slope across the way, with its spoiled creamy cornices and consoles, backed by the fabled Matrix barn now called ‘White Rabbit’. “Same time, Rayale was rotting like old bundt cake until that new salad joint there worked it over.”
Whereas his place was more like a boiler room, with all the double blind, shoe leather trimmings. A florescent lit office, very 50s-60s, permed secretary, portrait on agency wall of former agency partner, Jack ‘Tracer’ Diggens, who was a real Mike Connors character with a Niven mustache and Chuck Connors cut of the jaw. Surrounding the founder’s oil rendering were expired wanted posters, voided mugshots, crimebeat articles and fading covers of Police Gazettes. Mounted elsewise were matted posters of Eastwood’s Alcatraz Escape and McQueen’s Bullitt, alongside numerous City Hall commendations, under the needlepointed slogan, ‘We don’t just tail ’em, we nail ’em’.
Yet I couldn’t help glancing off, toward the graphic salmagundi marshaled about deeper sidewalls, a virtual murderer’s row of celebrity and infamy. Who couldn’t train on framed mugs of Dillinger, Baby Face—Greenstreet, Cagney and Bogey, Eddie G. and George Raft—stills of Dragnet Friday, Serpico, Mannix, Hawaii 5-0 and Magnum P.I.? I spotted autographed action shots of Cheech Marin and Nash Bridges, of Harrison Ford, Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. Then there were crinkling yellow cameos of Duryea and Spillane, Carver and Chandler, with Nick and Nora teeming in—sluiced me back to Gittes and the Mulwrays. Even Eisenhoff’s toothy gal Friday, Geldora Reno looked sleuthy as an Ida Lupino hitting her mark.
“Well, maybe things had been a little slow in that caffe toward the end, all these craft coffees around here and everything,” I squeezed and sipped from the little plastic bottle like a baby rife with colic. “Actually, I hadn’t been in there for a long while…”
Sedge Eisenhoff himself was his sole surviving sidekick and partner in a shootout, wherein Tracer met his Magnum head on, .357 hollow point made. Trim and slick as Tracer appeared in his prime front-office shrine, Sedge seemed to have rounded off to a desk-bound common denominator ever since. Heavily into ensemble noir, a silver string tie offset his sartorial blackness: his Kojaked ankle boots and flared slacks to satin shirt, leather vest and wool waistcoat, albeit fastened and festooned in ersatz gold.
“Nevertheless, I happen to have a client who’s convinced Rayale Caffe was a front all along,” he leaned in, tossing a pushy ponytail back over his shoulder, time-worn pendulus to a graying horseshoe crown.
“Affront—you mean architecturally or…” I couldn’t help suspecting he was packing an ankle piece under that boot cut of his.
“No, genius, a front for who knows what,” said Eisenhoff, grabbing for his red-sashed Stetson, nitpicking its brim before the don. “But you never seemed to pick up on that, did you? See what I’m getting at?”
“Guess so—but what difference does it make now?”
“Listen to me, Herbert. I had long been casing that place with my 8x telescope and a security cam. It got so they were hardly ever open toward the end. Why do you think that was?”
“Could be because business was down. Maybe because everybody from Kinkos to the bike shop is selling better coffee these days, and nobody was eating their oily food anymore…”
A long tail of cyclists turned the corner below us from around the bike shop’s Citroen parklet, in a logoed lycra blur out Fillmore Street, velocitizing toward a twisty tour de Marin—Bermuda Triangle, Marina, bridge, Headlands on up to Stinson Beach. The high pedaling streak drew my eye across Pixley Street. I recalled the flapping, wind-tattered green and white canvas awning outside Caffe Rayale.
Open for business on and off, although there appeared to be fewer takers than usual near the end, free wi-fi or no. Most activity that did evidence about the place had usually spilled out onto Pixley alley, to the discernible tune of Michael Franti and Spearhead. Must have been half a dozen of Rayale baristas, cookstaff and other young male hangers on, often teaming up for a little circular kick ball out there, hands idle as the caffe’s espresso pulls. But by now the renovated place was clean and green as a Palo Alto bistro.
“So what did you make of that?”
“They never told me anything,” I said, recapping the Sierra Springs like it was water torture in a bottle, careful not to spill on my off-brand plaid U-Tuck-It and chinos. “Matter of fact, those guys mainly didn’t talk much at all. Except this one skateboarder dude, from Santa Cruz—he worked some afternoons, making hummus salad plates and pulling capps. At night, he builds bizarre sets South of Market for sado-bondo video shows—real Tor/onion router stuff…”
“Ever talk shop? About the caffe business plan and why the oddball hours,” Eisenhoff pounced, cracking his own bottle with a snap of a Rolexed wrist. “About the mokes he worked for, why when Rayale was open, they just hung outside on Pixley there, all stank eye and cuffing smokes. What was up with that?”
“Likely just taking a break,” I wondered if I’d been missing some signs. “Could be a Middle East culture thing…”
“Exactly, an Arab thing. Maybe that explains why people weren’t going in there so much anymore, worrying about food poisoning or cyanide drinks. You know, all the terrorist crap going on.”
“Terrorists? C’mon, they just played kickball and Hacky Sack out there…”
Virtual stand off, an awkward moment of silence met with the retro clacking of a Selectric typewriter and humming of a fax machine. With that, I rose to huff off, taking my umbrage along with me. At least until the everyday reality of fiscal shortfalls forced me to sit back down beside Sedge’s desk, much to his leveraged buy-in satisfaction. The PI was all business, and I remained all ears, no longer inclined or able to tune out his hard-boiled rigmarole, much less my growling gut reaction. I had no immediate idea what he expected me to uncover, nor what I would actually do to meet said expectations. I still to this day had nothing against those Rayale Caffe people, let alone anything on them.
Yet this clearly was a matter of billable time served, and an old stiff like me could easily have stood some more hours on the clock…and off the cuff. All I knew was I currently had a headful of vengeful torment and houseful of trouble well beyond Sedge Eisenhoff’s gold-on-black Lexus downstairs. So resolved: sign on—write off that Rayale beat altogether, though couldn’t so easily erase images of a young woman’s Moulton demise.
“Point is, you still gotta sharpen your senses, Herbert, better hone your craft,” Eisenhoff rose, tapping my shoulder, sizing my eyes. “Rayale’s what got me to thinking about all the other kinds of terrorist-like shenanigans goin’ on these days, then this new case came along. It’s got international intrigue written all over it.”
“Look, terrorism could be popping up anywhere, right?” Eisenhoff rose, now spieling over my shoulder. “Well, I have this other assignment in the pipeline, about some Russkie operative with a mommy complex who’s gone counter rogue, MIA since they shut down the Consulate spynest over on Green Street. Sleepers creepers, real Polonium 210-Novichok stuff, if you ask me. But we’ll see where it leads.”
“Isn’t that Feds’ territory?” I saw this as way above my pay grade, not that I was getting paid much anyway. But figured I had better tune in, listen up anyhow.
“That don’t cut it with my client right now. He’s materially concerned—down low, if you catch my drift, same like with ol’ man Ramsey. So it looks like I can throw a little more action your way, Herbert. But you’ve really got to step up your game for this one…”
“And you think I’m up to something like…”
“Out of the blocks, anyway. Now let’s see how this one develops, case-wise. In the meantime, I could still use your eyes and ears. Yah, this goddamn labor shortage is killing me these days. So just mole around the neighborhoods, scope things out as we go…”
“Mole, scope—what things?”
“I’ll be looping you into the specifics,” Eisenhoff glanced again out his windows. “Think eyes and ears for now—peel those eyes, Herbert, perk those ears.”
“Gotcha, drift around now and then, keeping it on the down low, like you said,” I jargoned up some, what with the pep talk. “That, I should be able to handle.”
“Aces. Cause this client is damn important to me,” he dusted phantom traces of dandruff from his lapels. “Think he’s also handing me a domestic case, but I’m not sure about the violence part. He’s a big player overseas, Europe—France. Says he’s looking for his former galfriend, figures she’s in California somewhere, wants me to help track her down. Basically a missing person deal, hush-hush, no pole posters or anything. But we’ll hold fire on that for the time being…”
“Do my best, Mister Eisenhoff,” I stood, squaring up, thinking just what I needed, even more two-bit drama. “Minus the hummus and fritzy tape recorders, that is…”
“Make it a smartphone with a good camera, Herbert, get with the program already. And whatever you do, stay in touch,” said Eisenhoff, clapping his hands after a middleweight fist bump. “Yessir, business is picking up alright. Agency’s goin’ global, so hop to it—lean and mean, jelly bean..it could be well worth your while.”
“R-r-right—maybe I’ll get the one with the rose gold finish…lenses like crazy.” Under the circumstances, it was the least I could say or do. Would that it were true…
Care for More?
CHAPTER FOUR. Tending to some
business downtown, where things soon
take a fiery turn…
COVIDose: …Whew, this is making me real uneasy…didn’t expect that it would get this febrile…RECOIL, go NOW…
“I’m telling you, Alison, ain’t no goddamn joke this time,” he screamed, even though she had clearly made her deselection and was now nowhere in sight.
But over the pitched din of horns, sirens and cab calls, I once again tuned in to Gunther’s spiel. There he was, all cranked up, still pacing furiously, dripping in fire accelerant and bicycle chains. The final gas can lay dented and empty aside his rumpled canvas duffel. Although my moling and scoping had brought me to San Francisco’s downtown on other matters, I froze and turned back en route. I couldn’t help but rivet on Gunther again, along with his transfixed crowd—catching my breath, striving to remain somewhat upwind.
Gunner continued strategically staging his little psychodrama near one of Union Square’s busier corners, precisely centered beneath a quartet of breezy entranceway palm trees. By now, the Square’s platinum power shoppers and shopping cart people had begun fully encircling him, milling in and out without appearing to look straight on. Some even tried to talk him down from this; otherwise, a gang of baggy overgrown skateboarders curled and sailed his perimeter, baiting him with matchbooks in mid-flight. Smartphone cameras were catching it all, HD video and stills, Samsungs and i’s raised like this was LeBron at the post-play podium.
“That’s right, no givin’ in, Alison,” Gunner ranted on deliriously, appearing to scratch scattered bug scabs, vapors rising from his shoulders in the high afternoon sun. “Why the holy fuck should I?!” His long bike chain scraped back and forth, sparking against the sidewalk, unmuffled by even the steel-wheel rumble of passing cable cars. “I like her, I love her…I hate her!!” Yet she was still nowhere to be seen at the time.
The skate bangers’ taunts soon proved entirely unnecessary, as he decided to take it upon himself, though already beyond the pale. “You killed us, she killed us, understand? So I kill…for love…”
He waved his green BIC wand like across his chest, then lowered it to his groin and flicked. A full flame torched his legs and torso as the gathered circle gasped, shrieked, turned blindly away. While Gunther ignited, I simply froze, transfixed—halfway staring, halfway averting—as though glimpsing fresh vomit on the sidewalk, wishing it away as nothing more than spilled cioppino. But this was no flambé fantasy, nor could it be dismissed as Tarantino cinema of some Buddhist monk unknown. Gunner’s harrowing, Hadean screaming and wailing sealed that verdict most conclusively.
“Holy heaven, somebody get him,” a Scandian tourist cried over my shoulder.
“Lady, I’m afraid there’s nothing there to get,” I muttered, having edged in behind her, alternately shielding my Chronicle and grainy leather Gold-Pfeil bag before my eyes.
“Then get what’s left of him, for godsakes,” gasped a Saks matron in passing. “Open a hydrant, anything!”
“For-get about it,” said her shopping sherpa, as he pulled her along. “That guy’s just another whacko…real incel loser, if you ask me.”
Fourth degree, fade to black: by now, Gunther’s entire aura was vastly shrinking away, his nerve endings shot, tendons and muscles contracting, his limbs shriveling up into a barely forensic fist. He’d already been gagging and choking, steadily asphyxiated in the toxic fumes, the intense heat searing his lungs amid wholesale tissue disintegration. Flames had consumed hair, dermis, constricted vessels; granular, germinal epidermis down to the capillaries, the papillary and reticular layers. Scalded swatches peeled away from his charred hide, dangling like oily rags—raw, red-blackened gore bubbling like overboiled gristle, leather to the bone. His pressure-cooked carcass reeked of acrid petrochemicals and fetid pork. I was sickened by it, even over here.
A clot of converging sirens pried through stalled downtown traffic like Baffin icebreakers toward Union Square. At long last, traffic eased, fire crews and ambulances arrived, shopping carts rolled on, as did the clack and glide of airborne skateboards. Facebook posts were climbing the walls; Instagram, WhatsApp,Twitter and Pinterest uploads were well on their way. Yet Union Square itself already began returning to what passed for normal once the inferno had scorched away any remaining humanity. Sleekly turned-out shoppers resumed platinum charging toward Tiffany, Bally and Neiman-Marcus with upscale diligence and dispatch.
Commodore Dewey’s monument saluted mid Square, billboards for Apple and Niketown smiled down on Gunther’s memory as his corpse shrank into a final fetal position, reduced to an embering heap of rancid skeletal debris to be hosed over by paramedics and hauled away. No lagging rescue sirens, no sidewalk samaritans could have been much help—not that I was any more valorous when it all hit the fan.
“Attention, people, let’s be clearing a lane here,” shouted a traffic cop, arms waving, whistles blowing all around, which were even drowning out the emergency sirens.
I finally had to disengage from the immolation scene to rather regain some semblance of sanity, focusing on the mission that brought me to Union Square to begin with. Still feeling light headed and nauseous, I plopped down on a park bench directly across from the St. Francis Hotel, preparing to meet my unmaker. I fished rough draft pages from my Gold-Pfeil, hard copy sheets creased and ruffled like a magazine left sunning on a Crissy Field beach mat, as well as a yellow writing pad and quite possibly incriminating correspondence. Getting and holding my ducks in a row, I cursed the afternoon breezes, not to mention my Luddite reluctance to more professionally tap an iPad or Phone.
But too late, no time for lame laments, as hotel doormen and S.F.P.D. motorcycle escorts soon heralded the landing of the bird I was intent on dogging, now rolling down Powell Street, doubtlessly from some salutatory Nob Hill affair. Suddenly, a black stretch limo sliced through it all, traffic jam or no, casting aside taxis, airport vans, Ubers and Lyfts as if the lead car of a presidential motorcade.
The Lincoln Navigator had taken on two extra sets of windows and wings between its smoked glass cockpit and the abrupt rear crown of its Landau roofline. All five side doors opened on cue, a buff, burly entourage wearing charcoal slacks, tobacco brown turtlenecks and blazers choreographed a tight flanking maneuver that served to form an impenetrable corridor between the curb and hotel portico. Like the Secret Service on Five-Hour and anabolics, they plowed away everybody and anything it their paths, barking, “Thank you for your cooperation, people” with robotic authority.
Still, I couldn’t resist gathering up my probative caseload, then furtively plodding across Powell Street to mingle with the lit groupies, starstruck window shoppers and a slipstream of passing tourists all amutter in a clash of tongues. Struck hardest was another AIDed homeless guy, who was bowled over by a strategic knee, his blanket and paperback flying. His wobbly luggage cart, stacked and bungee strapped with doorway bedding, toppled like a ten-pin spare. “You’re welcome,” he whispered, then went about righting his sign and earthly possessions, disinclined and ill-prepared to utter a further plaintive word.
“Hey, watch out,” I growled, game face planted and attitude on, when a broad, closely cropped personal assistant pulled limo doors open further, well into my wheelhouse. So they upended me, my valise and a warmed-over sample Frappé in descending disorder, all teetering on the curb. “And look what your thugs did to that poor homeless Joe over there.”
“Coming through!” Yet another pair of aides, if not plain old bodyguards, pushed open the rearmost door all the more, forming a flying wedge for their still somewhat mysterious charge. Suddenly, a relatively stiff, rangy form emerged from the back seat, built-in bar gleaming, video screens glowing over his shoulder. With that, a crush of gawkers, cameras and autograph junkies vised in from every direction, spontaneously chanting, ‘Marion, Marion, Marion…”
Hotel security guards rushed out to reinforce the cordon, now by a hand-to-hand rope line against the gaping full-court press. A surly MUNI motorman took to yanking the bell cord of an inbound Powell-Mason cable car so hard its clapper all but blew through the brass, its riders climbing down for a closer view of the clamor—not seen since President Ford nearly got his, escaping Squeaky clean. Traffic bound for the St. Francis and beyond stalled behind the trolley clear past the Sir Francis Drake Hotel up to Sutter Street, some drivers blaring and screaming, others abandoning their cars—onrushing, autograph pens in hand. Emergency vehicles fared little better on their pullout, much to the milling Gunner crowd’s handwringing and disputation.
Staring up with invertigo at neon signage for the Drake’s Starlight Room, I rolled forward like a high school tumbler to a full frontal view of the phenomenon before us. James Marion Hassett, mega-selling legal thrillersmith, realigned his loden green wool blazer with his midnight blue turtleneck beneath a back cashmere overcoat. Two steps later, he hiked up his ample black trousers to reveal tooled buckskin-on-brown Tony Lamas.
America’s pre-eminent fount of commercial fiction rotated 180 degrees to fluff his lacquered, thinning gray pompadour as if reflected in a Saks display window across Powell. The celebrated author then adjusted his tortoise shell Alain Mikli shades, before turning like one of his stunning plot twists to greet the latest crowd of semi-literate Marionets, star sapphire and amethyst birthstone rings shining on his fat little fingers.
“Please, keep respectful distance now, people,” firmly pled a running assistant, as the forward edge enveloped Hassett, leading him like pulling guard up into the hotel foyer, swiping aside various flat-surface autographables, scanning the tightly pressed crowd, as though for stalkers or rooftop snipers. “Mister Hassett is in for an address over at the Commonwealth Club, and he wishes his St. Francis stay to be most undisturbed, thank you very much.”
By now, Hassett had been escorted safely into the hotel, nodding and waving his way up the red carped staircase, through the gilded, scarlet canopied portal. Some boyish, buzz-cut handlers scurried about in his wake, bearing books. They held their short stacks closely to their Marion-logoed pullover sweaters, and scattered about the sidewalk, tossing new hardcover copies of ‘Verdict Street’ about the ropeline crowd like so many tee shirts at a Giants ballgame giveaway, selfies going off in a show of hands. One even dropped one on the homeless guy, which glanced sorely off his shoulder. “Here you go, folks,” they said en unison,“hot off the presses.”
“Whoa, real consolation,” I shouted, despite myself, over the hostile clang of cable car bells, irate blowing of shuttle horns and waning Marionet chants. “That poor guy supposed to use it as a pillow, or what?”
“Here, brother—read all about it,” said the nearest advance man, pausing to push a colorfully covered copy my way. “Remember, James Marion understands the pain of your struggles. He’s always fighting for truth and justice, right there in your all’s corner!”
“Hey, I know something about your bossman here, okay,” I blurted, clutching the book like an evidential dossier, save for a flier flying out of it, mapping a Bay Area bookstore touch and go signing tour, from Corte Madera to Menlo Park. “Maybe a whole lot more than you’d think…”
Which wasn’t to say I didn’t stand somewhat awestruck by the blitzkrieg spectacle of Team Marion’s latest North American book tour. The sneak glance at the novel itself found a bright red-orange and blue jacket, with sketched, shadowy imagery of Man under stress, Woman knuckled under his thumb. Blurbs front and back proclaimed ‘Verdict Street’ to be Hassett’s latest, perhaps greatest effort to date—destined, no preordained to for number one ranking on every bestseller list in the land, every land, let alone a large and small screen movie adaptation.
Front flap to airbrushed author’s rear jacket photo, the volume exuded genre dominance and slick, cross-market packaging. But further scrutiny of its liner notes, then a flip-through review of my tablet scribbling left me as heavy of stomach as light of head. I hardly noticed the small silver foil seal on the cover’s lower-right corner, was not certifying early NYT bestseller status, but that ‘Verdict Street” was already hitting the market at 25% off list.
From there, it was a numb, flustered nod to the street sleeper, who was sitting quietly, already paging through his robo-autographed copy, phlegm blue blanket pulled clear up over his head. I reeled away, down yellow wheelchair access corner curbing toward Post Street, traffic homing in again as I flogged my forehead with legal-rule tablet and hardcover thriller. I was plotting to storm through the intersection, along a well-worn Powell Street glidepath between posh St. Francis shops and Chinese lantern streetlights outside the cavernous old hotel.
But I got jammed by an idling Airporter, stuck in a holding pattern now that Hassett’s limousine had rolled on to gobble up a vacated white zone, freeing up the Hyde cable car and two blocks of constipated traffic. A directional cop froze me altogether in fretful place at the crosswalk, taking control of the clog with a shrill whistle and flailing arms. I glanced back between muttering tourists, Marion’s limousine, then at his celebrated new novel itself, with the blunt force reckoning that I couldn’t just let this all pass like so many abrading gallstones. Not when I knew some of Gunther’s demons, had once felt his desperate rage—had it in writing, at that.
Spinning around again toward Post Street, I caught a slimly familiar figure emerging from Saks’ shadows, apparently intent on minding her Mini until a AAA tow truck finally broke through. But not before stopping to snatch a parking ticket or two from under the windshield wiper of Gunner’s sand-tan Daihatsu Charade. I didn’t need any new smartphone to catch a glimpse of that.
Care for More?
CHAPTER SIX. Rumblings of
figures gone and tremors
to come really hit home…
COVIDosage: …Witness this strange, stony stillness along such a normally vibrant thoroughfare. Echoes of emptiness bounce off plywooded store windows—the sporadic whoosh of passing delivery trucks that essentially have upper Fillmore to themselves. I walk along curbside this morning, having Pacific Heights’ main drag largely to myself, recognizing that I could actually hear birds out here again. But JBD RESET, Go NOW…
“I’m kinda like, getting into it, you know? I mean, it’s sooo awesome, the best thing ever! Like, who’s commenting, not just the comments…the group comments or, like, real personal ones…”
“Sorry, could you tone it down a skosh…”
“You got no pushback? WTF,” she added in reply, way uptalking vocal fry, basically ignoring and turning her back to me. A slim-fit nineteener from Moraga or so, early Chabot College coed type, chestnut with a banded mare’s tail, sweats and shredded denim, twizzling about on beaded strap sandals to maintain her bars. She then maintained safe distance in an indented browsing space just outside Bookworthy’s aluminum-framed display windows. “X amount of time, and, like, you’re getting zip, haven’t even bothered to wall up. That’s sooo basic…”
“You see, I’m in the middle of…” Clash of inputs…
“Because I woulda replied in, like, a millisecond! I totally hate you—I mean, like you really suck,” she cried, balancing her rose gold iPhone X atop a Starbucks Vente to go, in full FOMO mode. “I wish I liked you so much I didn’t have to like, defriend you…”
“No, seriously, I’m trying to process a…” Couldn’t hear myself think…
“Wha? Wait, Snapchat or Instagram?! They’re blowing up? 150 likes within ten minutes, fifty comments? And face time on Periscope? They liked it? How many?! VI-ral? Ohmygod, you’re soooo perfect!!! HAK…”
These kids today, with the selfies and TXTSPK—if they’re always on their phones, how could they possibly have minds of their own? Just more tasking/exploiting high-technical marvels for trivial means. Honestly, gotta get your scene out of that screen, girl—off those blamed de-vices, stress on the latter syllable.
But hey, new media, maybe that was the equalizer, the fast path to Publisher’s Weekly instead of Publisher’s Clearinghouse. I could have gone digital already, posted on Scribd; ebook, Kindled the hell out of it, thrown the whole mess up on Amazon or a selfie website: yah, apps, streams and downloads, no paper ventured, no migraines gained—boiling the whole publishing crucible down to simple likes and dislikes, clear-cut thumbs up or down.
Then again, I’d always been a step off and behind, hopelessly analogue, in a dead tree, hard copy kind of way. Paleo old school stubborn, and look where it got me, to the Hassett eyeful I just caught today, bone tired of paying it all so far forward. Still, too little now, too late for line edits or rewrites, when the plot and premise have already been packaged and shipped en masse.
I scanned inside the windows, to displays of crossword paperbacks, art piece puzzles of Cezanne, Edward Gorey and Diego Rivera. Nothing of diversional interest there, so I scouted out the hand-drawn freebie book signing notices and ‘Meet the Author’ sessions, mainly local self-help, minor Bay Area exaltation scribes. That’s when it hit me head on: a glossy four-color poster announcing Hassett’s personal appearance for a Danielle Steele fete, framed with a snippet collage of his past blockbuster book covers. But I could see no further than ‘Verdict Street’. Portrayed in that same bomber jacket and a Green Beret, he and his fellow mega-writer were to be lauded with a reading/Q&A at the Commonwealth Club downtown in but two weeks time, tickets limited and going fast.
“You okay, mister,” the caller turned back to ask, packing away her earbuds on her way across Chestnut Street to another BFF at Tacolicious. She looked at me as if I were south of SSI and Section 8, the breezy eucalyptus nose and sprays of shoreline salt and algae no longer able to mask my sweatful airs. “So weird, ’cause it looks like you just seen a ghost…”
“Uh, more like a ghosted writer, if you see what I mean…”
She couldn’t see it at all. The iPhone coed didn’t know or care less that I was blowing up over purloined words. So there we left it outside Bookworthy’s, with her TXTing over to a Tex-Mex tête-a-tête. Speaking of fitful bars, two watering holes lined up conveniently, if not suggestively right next door. Still, face time was fleeting as my runner’s high, and I had no stomach for further feeding an ulcer.
Parched, famished all right, but I’d already been shaken and stirred enough as it was. So I drifted further up fly Chestnut Street, late-day onshores blustering me along, past the darker recesses of the sleek Campus Club, then the Tipsy Pig and its long-buried phantoms of a one-time ferny CSB&G. Both were already rowdy and raftered with a happy hour crowd, the two pubs bookending a precious old 24-karat goldsmithery, strategically located for any boozy, knee bender proposals to either side.
Not my speed, no such luck there, either: reason enough to drag along by facial ID-rigueur therma-skin cell stores and eye, lash & lipstick salons. I negotiated a mannerly sidewalk obstacle course of baby strollers and roller walkers—of retrievers, bulldogs and feisty Labradoodles as if fresh from a Mudpuppy makeover—their leash masters having finally shed some slavish black on black for more brilliantly colorful North Face and Patagonia. Nevertheless, I kept coming out on the dark, losing side of all that as well.
Still, this cultivated slow-lane congestion did fortify the commingled aromas of Chestnut’s gourmet ghetto. I inhaled not particulates, but the tantalizing essence of taqueria y rottiseria, of the Panotiq bakery across the way, of Hunan Mu Shu, Kung Pao Squid, Curry Mi Fun and Mushroom Vi Mein. Bank branch quietude cater-cornered at Pierce Street was broken by an aging sax player wailing solo under Citi’s foyer cover for pennies on the dollar. Trusty millennials stiffly passed him by, lots of downed, fleecy Un-Tuck-It twents robotically snot-nosed through their smart phones, stoplighting their runaway rug rats, heeling sniffy, leaking kennel-bred dogs.
By this time, my flabby abbs were growling for a Juice Project Maca Chia Seed Protein Cacao smoothie, or maybe some garlic parmesan take-out from Lucca Deli. I fought off the urge to dine and dash from the sidewalk tables of a saucy Italian garlic pasteria; Blackwood’s American Thai Fusion Mieng Kum Kung and Pad Kee; Dragon Well’s Ma Po Tofu and Tea-Smoked Duck, Stanford cliques queuing across the way. But all I could actually dig out of my key pocket was enough for a caffeine fix and momentary breather, barista discourtesy of Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
There I had sipped and steamed, trying to sort out my latest disharmony, absorb and duly process it—to recall where I screwed up in the process that led to James Marion Hassett’s storied crib job. Swallow and wallow: Peet’s cozy sidewalk bench had provided a long, streaming view of Chestnut Street’s early evening traffic, along with variegated whiffs of strong, exotic coffees masking my aerobic odors, and piscine makings from Naked Fish Sushi next door. A striking roseate dusk had soon set in, igniting pastel facades, creating neon glister from the former All-Star Donuts sign, to the grand double-bill marquee of the renewly Deco Marina Theater.
“Got a touch bar, Thunderbolt slots?”
“Not this one, sorry…”
“i9 quad core, 3.5 GHz?”
By now, Marina District restaurants were bursting, bars earnestly firing up. The dinner crowd sauntered up and down Chestnut—smart, gold swipe or (Four) Square pairings lighted from Ubers and Lyfts in designer casuals and sleek, spectral color apres-sports, faces aglow in their little LED screens, if not N95 viral masked. When I wasn’t caffeine mesmerized by pinging, blinking parking meters, I glommed onto the theatrics of the dogs leashed to them: Yappy Shiatzus and Griffons went at it with reticent Corgis and Pugs, with chillin’ Bernese and Aussies. Passersby paused to fawn over snoozing cocoa Labs and English Cremes like they were family firstborn.
But eventually Sumatra shakes, high-end code hackers with their zero-day exploits, the mouthy newsbitchers and dog whistles, those Facebook or Tinder scrollers all got to me. So I cut out between an edgy Vizla and Ridgeback, catching a scent of spicy Ahi, a bouquet of lotions and bath soaps—a mug full of breeze blown smoky alcoholic brine from the cave men in the primeval Marina Lounge. Shapeshifting through hopelessly knotted main-drag traffic, I dodged abandoned e-scooters, a petition wielder and sign spinner, everybody else sporting their obligatory New York/L.A. scowls. I then crossed back over toward the more fruitful side, in through a motherboard of minimalist long blond tables perfectly arrayed with everything iThis and That.
Handy touch Pads, small screen and large; Retina phones, R, S and X—Bluetooth, Siri, laptops galore: Sidewall counters were lined with multi-core desktops and HD monitors, all the way back to the store’s pricey accessories and Genius Bar. Buyers and browsers, iZombies and screen slaves alike crowded around each hard wired display like so many Oxy addicts—caressing, toying with the digital iWare, everything so bright and shiny, vividly backlit wall panels smiling brilliantly down. For my part, it was high time to engage in a little MacSpeak, angling to sneak a free online e-peek.
“This one’s dual—are you…” asked a smiley, red shirted young Apple polisher who had joined me at this laptop table.
“Interested? Definitely,” I replied touch-feeling the new MacBook Pro 16-inch laptop. Yah, interested in freebie checking my email… “Right now I was just hoping to beta check my site’s PHP and SQL real quick…”
“Uh-huh,” he sniffed, eyeing my sweat wear, up and down. “BRB…”
Soon as the sales tech was drawn over to an iWatch table, I tapped into my Gmail, wherein I found a message from the Eisenhoff Agency. The head dick wanted me to check in with him ASAP, about a ‘white-hot client and ballistic new case’. No sleeping on this gig, which still rolled in and out despite my Reese Paulen/JonBenet tape snafu in aught-eight. So there was nothing else to do but log off, peel out of the Apple Store, head back uphill to S³ for the after-hours meeting.
Gritty darkness had descended before I turned a corner on Steiner Street, weaving betwixt some early bird louts on a drunken barfari and accompanying hotties struttin’ their young butts and tossing loose cleavage my way. Here, the gourmet ghetto fanned out with a savory flourish: organic teriyaki to Vietnamese street food, Blue Barn’s Kale Caesar and Detox Burratas—Ace Wasabi’s Sushi to Izzy’s grilled steaks and chops—with wine and probiotic tea bars to wash it all down.
Then again, restaurant row went nowhere fast compared to that greasy feast across Lombard Street. This mis en scène was like a mini 1916 Exposition, only set circa 1956. Cinematic searchlights and gobs of neon flooded this leg of Lombard’s motel strip, Mel’s Diner packed with ‘American Graffiti’ buffs who longed for or never left the Eisenhower era. I cut through the fabled drive-in’s retro street rods, amid the latest rallye redux of post-war Detroit glory. Multicolor illumined palm trees shimmered over the pearl luster and metalflake of diagonally stationed, hand-rubbed lacquered classy chassis.
I speed-shifted around a sweet sixteen of cherryed out vintage Chevys and Fords: past a chopped & channelled ’32 Deuce, two-tone ’56 Chevy ragtop, souped up ’55 Nomad, red ’56 fuelly Corvette and turquoise T-Bird for two. Check it out: a ’40 Ford coupe with those tiny chevron tailights, ’57 Bel Air finback, remade el Camino and Ranchero beds. Pedal to the metal, four on the floor—other aging lookyloos popped wheelies around Iskys, Edelbrocks, Duntovs, AFBs, line-bored small blocks, heads ported & polished; blue dots, teardrops and necker knobs—chrome-reversed wide whites and 4:56 Posi like they couldn’t re-believe. Tonight anyway, Mel’s Drive-In was haul-ass, hot rod heaven—just like the bad old days.
En route, I soaked in all the Gunk and naugahyde, tuned into the loudspeakered ‘Drag City’ and ‘Shutdown Volume 2’. Inside, a restaurant full of aging daddy-O duck butts and bobbysoxer dollies gorged on cheddar burgers and meaty fries, dug meatloaf platters and chicken pot pies, sucking giant double-malts. They bopped under the framed photo stills and memorabilia from George Lucas’s souped up 50’s teener flick, to the jukebox soundtrack of Spector and Wolfman Jack.
I’d grown hungry as hell by now, caught up in Mel’s nostalgia as the star-struck tourists strolling by. Was just as awash in the movie beams, search lights foiling and parrying through the gearhead glitter, polychromatic palm trees and tomato soupy skies—all the way to Mel’s end. But then came the skid marks. Turning the corner around his dumpsters into the mid-block alley between Lombard and Greenwich, I met up with a dimmer backstreet scene. Here, flashing red and blue lights signaled something far more cautionary and grim.
“Just keep moving here, folks, nothing of your concern,” ordered the woman SFPD officer, waving off me and a couple of other shortcutting figures with a lightsaber of Luke Skywalker force.
Easily the darkest, most curious address on this one block length of Moulton Street was this shabby, misplaced Victorian, and the scraggly birch-like tree it was hiding behind. The place rotted across from some Lombard storefronts’ backsides and a couple of rear offices, none of which ever showed any signs of life. A grimy single-story house better suited to west Petaluma sat brown-white and fading between a boxy new apartment building and nondescript over garage flat.
Torn, water-stained drapes fully covered the Vicky’s front windows, with several odd little tribal figurines left tipsy on one’s inner sill. Its solid windowless front door, a few rotting steps up, bore three deadbolt locks, which raised the question of whether nefarious drugs or worse were going down in there, or the place was simply tied up in some drawn-out probate litigation, while its tasseled gingerbread trim and sagging festoons wore further away. Still, it was a house with which I was a bit too familiar.
Tonight, however, the issue was more felonious than that, at least as far as I could see in hasty passing. Down on a short concrete apron leading to the house’s useless garage door, in a dip strewn with doggy bags, crushed cigarette packs, shattered beer bottles and dried hurl, beside a large rotted flower box, appeared to lay the splayed body of a lifeless young woman, face down and away. Squad car flashers and spotlights revealed a shadowy figure wrapped in splashy aquamarine.
I couldn’t much make those contours out any better, and the police were already sheathing the entire apron. But a quick second glance, and I shivered that what if she had once been a fresh, smiling face up at the house, a tenant in beset, tenuous standing. Somehow this figured, though that was just idle projection. All I really knew was the evening was still young; but hereabouts, fields of gray begat tiny streams of red.
That was one way of putting it, but I didn’t want to go there now. For it left such a nasty taste in my mouth…
Care for More?
CHAPTER THREE. An appointment
with a private eye opens one up to
several local scenarios, wherein he is
pressed to keep his peeled…
(aka) Smoldering in Place.
COVIDiary: Some royal Coronation, all right—COVID-19 is gripping The City like sudden-death overtime for the hometown crown.
But I finally had to bust out, had to blow through the lockdown. Wash hands, wipe surfaces, widen to six feet apart. From social distancing orders to sheltering in place on the homefront, the steady Shelter-in-Place sip, sip, sip of Corona stressors is driving me into fevered social desperation.
So I’m spreading ’em out, making way along upper Fillmore Street, fearful of touching, being touched in this season of protective gloves. Pacific Heights’ main drag is deserted, eerily still—even quieter than after the 5:04 pm Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989. To paraphrase a recent adage, you could shoot somebody in the middle of this street and nobody would bat an eye—odious pathological Trumpfoolerly like that.
Barely rending this blanket silence is the sawing and drilling of tailgate carpenters who are gatorboarding up voguish storefront windows like this was ‘Nawlins after Katrina or Northern Ireland after the baby buggy bombs back in the day. Some painted boardovers are even being color-coordinated, with clever ‘Sorry Corona Closed, Hope to See You Soon’ signage, as if for the duration, if not posterity.
How peartly, stylishly San Francisco of these postings—especially at a time when well over one-quarter of the world’s population is now in COVID shutdown mode. Admittedly the Covidoses to follow may represent a small anecdotal pebble on the worldwide Corona beach-head, but it’s the only grain I have these Covidays—the only part of town I essentially call home anymore—and into which I presently dare to de-home.
I pause at Sacramento Street as a screaming patrol car suddenly races by, likely bound for the wilds of the Western Addition. That sets me to scouting about for any essential services left open, coffee-wise—dodging stray strangers, masked or unmasked—determined to gravitate from isolation to re-connection, recollection through shining a fresher light.
On a personal level, time to walk it back, lay bare that I’m still in the game, time to home in on some prior restraints, exercise a bit more self control. So, good thing this whole shebang came along when it did—if nothing else to help get at what got me here today…
Hence revisiting the ‘Just Before Days’ (JBD), starting NOW…
“Imitation is the seamiest
form of flattery…”
Okay, let’s strap it on, give this sucker a go…
Then came a full frontal assault, smack in the grille—a black letter/gilt foiled, rejiggered slap in the face. Here I was, in the endorphin zone, having just come off the usual 5-K, a hill-aerobic, gale-blown slog through San Francisco’s greater Presidio, stately Pacific Heights on down—anything to drop a fleshy belt roll or two. Camphorous, peeling eucalyptus groves, olive-drab military history gone bright Spanish white and terra cotta: the route was usually hard-run balm for my atrophying body and increasingly aggravated mind.
“Do I look like I have any money on me?”
“And I do? Just down from Paradise, lost it all up there. Fire is greedy, you know. It takes everything. Fire’s terrible that way.”
But this homeless encounter now brought back memories of Spare-the-Air granular skies and cherry red-dot sunsets—of particulate matter from the infamous Camp Fire, mixing with residual vestiges of previous Tubbs and Nuns. My lungs still ached some from inhaling the effluvium of these seemingly inescapable Indian summer infernos, and a Kincade Fire had come menacing Napa-Sonoma all over again. The firestorms were largely byproduct of hellacious offshore winds downing power lines, exploding overtaxed transformers across the Bay Area come Labor Day, upshot of climbing temps, deeper brush and drought desiccated fuel beds; of bark beetle infestations, denser savannahs and chaparrals. Designated urban firestorms, they were byproduct of hellacious offshores downing power lines, of exploding overtaxed transformers, lightning arresters, sparky three-phase reclosers all across the wine country terrain.
“Uh, really sorry about that,” I looked away, edging to slip aside, again pointing to my ragged blue Asics running shorts and ancient Puma tee. I was thankful for the rising Air Quality Index of late, but that wasn’t tempering my sudden downward mood swing in the slightest. “I can imagine…”
“Oh, you can, can you…” This haggard street stander reached out from the torn pockets of an ill-fitting black trench coat, leaning forward sockless, in scuffed, brown wing-tipped shoes.
“Matter of fact, I can. So have a good one, okay,” I nodded, moving on. For there were still so many horror stories like his—of Venturi swirls, fire tornadoes, high-velocity eddies and vortices slinging sparks and cinders, creating 100 m.p.h. thermal columns, hoovering combustible material as they rose, soon igniting acreage in vast horizontal swaths. Plumas to Paradise, vineyards to the Emerald Triangle: News accounts had mapped the spread of indiscriminate wildfire destruction—charred chassis, cherished heirlooms, spindly Walmart lounge chairs—hillside mansions to overreaching subdivisions and a valley of quondam mobile homes.
The worst such firestorm in California history, Camp had gutted the lives, precious lands and material treasures of locals like him, who fled extreme events with go-bags in the middle of the night, facing ferocious Diablo winds and ember flows, horrific hot-flash reckonings and door pounding evacuation orders by the municipal scores. This while evacuees choked on the toxic smaze from charred tiles and roofing, thick wood smoke spiked with torched polymers, viscid ash—a carbonic stew of flame retardant and spent fuels—spilling all the way down to The City. Nothing that a good atmospheric river wouldn’t liquidate, minus the mudslides. Still, it made a person wonder where thousands of displaced victims like this guy would be sheltering through years of cleanup, recovery and missed compensation deadlines, having as I did some residual skin in that game.
Otherwise, it was grief and pain and pray for rain: Blame PG&E, rampant overdevelopment or climate change for these horrific fire seasons, power shutdowns and red flag warnings they bring. Not that a decent winter season and cooler temperatures hadn’t eased the infernal threat some lately, All the same, I was suddenly burning even hotter in the here and now.
“Unbelievable,” I gasped—oh, no, not this.
“That’s one way of putting it, to be sure…”
“No, I mean, this can’t really be happening…”
“Oh, but it can, sir,” she beamed, “went up just today.”
By the same token, replay of the NorCal conflagrations had further kindled my recollective cortex. Earlier flashbacks began amid second and third winds along the dune grassy flats of leaden Crissy Field, where long-scuppered thoughts surfaced like channel buoys on the choppy San Francisco Bay, merely a slivered beach away. Despite sucking in sand, long-tail ash and heavy salt-marine air out there, I chugged along powerless to deny an abiding endorphin addiction in any way, shape or form.
Top of mind was how Reese Paulen and I had blown up and out of our whole Anti-Buddies routine since 2008. I’d replayed step by labored step the way our Middle East peace train had gone off the rails. Rhetorically stalemated and polarized our own selves, we were getting cheered and hissed, shouted down and booed off debate stages from Mt. Holyoke to Humboldt State. There were the angry protest placards at Rutgers, sit-ins at Brandeis, counter/counter demonstrations at Columbia, trigger warnings and safe zones at Oberlin and Madison, the cross-bred bomb threats at UC Irvine and Westwood. We got accused of everything offensive—fake prophesy to cheap seats provocation. In retrospect, better we’d never brought the whole thing up in the first place. But somebody had to try to find some common ground. And so we did, notwithstanding all the political pyrotechnics and geo-barriers, at least until the donations dried up.
We had even tissued out a website, which would eventually have been hacked and trolled anyhow. Moreover we tinkered with a podcast, diddled around with the codings of a killer app, at least until the seed feed ended in a round-one TKO. That was about when our secular, well meaning discourse exited stages left and right. Post mortem: Paulen himself couldn’t sell security and settlements; I couldn’t credibly unpack the Palestinian infighting and morass. Sad to say, it was a long shot from the ’08 moment we were sprung from 850 Bryant Street after being cleared of felony charges, due to lack of incriminating testimony or smoking guns. In retrospect, odd what a guilty conscience can make a body do, and get done to, for that matter.
“But such an incredible hype job…”
“Big launch, for a big figure,” the woman tidied up a stack in passing. “Larger than life, wouldn’t you say?”
“Barely larger than lowlife, maybe. But the jury’s still out on that…”
“Sorry, I don’t quite…”
Jogging along Crissy, I had revisited as how Professor Paulen resettled in Berkeley with his daughter to found his Anti-Buddies Research Center with a MOOC component and seminars at the JCCs—despite so little having changed for the better anywhere in the Levant. Rather, Israeli-Palestinian circumstances had spun into an unremitting southern trajectory and standoff with no peaceable closure on the Mideast horizon. So much disputed territory, borders to breach and defend: I figured doc had his hands full, what with the Two-State Illusion likely never to materialize as envisioned for so long. Meantime, one-state, two-state—instigate, insinuate—witness a binary boondoggle if there ever was one. I just needed to pot down those fractious voices in my head again—wishing the level best for the Middle East—that all parties might secure their sense of peace and place in this world. As if that were the last I’d hear of it, as if I couldn’t pretty much guess where it all was really headed, fact by ground.
Nevertheless, we did crack crab now and then to keep doors open on that, brainstorm some other heady projects, compare where we were at the moment and rue the past. At least that was how I could re-piece it all together in my ever-running mind. That is, anytime doc more or less popped back in. Beyond that, I had long come to grips with Dame Thornia’s demise, and the sui generis entrails that ensued. So by now I was content to cool down with recovery calm and good post-aerobic telomeres, head to toe. Then came this potboiled affront.
“Uh, nothing, no matter,” I said, focusing on what was in store. “Must just be your window display or… ”
“Yes, well, it’s his latest, you know,” rallied the studious sales clerk, who had sidled up to dust the new fiction table, center floor at Bookworthy’s, this literary staple of a Marina District that hadn’t suffered such AQI vapors since Loma Prieta 1989.
“Topping the lists already, is it,” I asked, having been faceplanted to the legal thriller section, my New Balance supinators on their old, worn-through heels.
“You bet, like a Saudi oil well,” she tidied up two high hardcover stacks, prominently front and middle on the display counter, which crowded out other New York Times best sellers like Exxon at a Gulf rights bidding war. “He just keeps pumping them out every year.”
“Seems too good to be true, doesn’t it?” I picked up a top copy of ‘Verdict Street’, flipping past its glittery gold-on-mean streets emblazoned cover to the ISBN and acknowledgement pages—lightly fingering through the aroma of black letter ink and bindery glue, cracking and creaking of its virgin spine—finding little or no consolation.
“Yes, it is almost Pavlovian automatic, like with all his others—such a commanding body of work…” She looked on with all due proprietary concern.
Bookworthy’s was by no means a megastore, but wasn’t a cozy little lit nook either—not insignificant in a day when such brick and mortar retail outlets scarcely survived the Amazon onslaught. Long wall shelves of fiction and non-fiction, of genre after genre sections for every decent taste including war stories and tell-all tomes. Beyond front window banners heralding James Marion Hassett’s latest, this voluminous fiction table was thick with his publisher’s thematic bunting, bookmarks and flyers.
Fortifying that promotional push were gushing Sharpie marker store picks, two strategically centered stacks, four more on adjacent floor display at the foot of a nearly life-size cutout of the writer himself, in a leather bomber jacket and Special Forces ballcap, justice scales prominently in hand. Otherwise, Bookworthy’s prime retail real estate offered racks of local to global periodicals, row upon row of home design, cookbooks, coffee table pictorials, bios/autobios, travel, romance and sci fi—of guides, gifts, posters, kitty calendars, clasped diaries, coffee mugs, studio greeting cards and sheeny wrappings. Nevertheless, mega-author Hassett currently lorded over it all.
“Uh-huh, how do you figure he keeps coming up with these story ideas,” I asked, barely stifling the urge to toss the formulaic 400-page legal procedural at Hassett’s cutout like some Dunk-the-Clown booth on an old Playland midway.
“That’s his pure genius, now isn’t it…” The clerk patted the renowned author’s cardboard shoulder, smile as prim as her pastel H&S separates and tight blond bun.
“Guess you could call it that,” I said, weighing the novel’s tactile heft with a jounce of the hands like a rangy reliever palming his resin bag.
“Sooo, find what you were looking for?” Seemed as if she sniffed a whiff of dissent on my part; either that or she finally caught wind of my poly latex saturation and low-grade bodily functions.
“Yes, ’fraid so…”
“Excellent, now you’ll have to excuse me,” she said in withdrawal, with a glance and nod toward the store manager/cashier, Mahler and Mendelssohn mood speakering about.
The opening grabber read, ‘Fields of green begat streams of red’. What kind of stale garbage was this?! Hmm, otherwise looked similar, title was almost a dead ringer, read awfully damn close, trail of my synopsis and teaser excerpts and pulls. Damn, look at that, a couple of characters were named the same. Even the cover image was straight out of my line of sight, fruit of my overworked imagination. He might as well have given me an ‘as told by’ co-credit, citation on the verso ISBN page, or at least a thank you or liner blurb.
So blindsided, so violated: There was little to do but slam the thing down like a towaway parking citation, and storm out of the store essentially empty handed, hoping not to trip its security alarms. Petty theft, backatcha—all the way out the doors. Negativity bias, cortisol flow: suddenly gone was the endorphin high. Old anterior cruciates were screaming for an MRI. I could feel the burn from my ligaments to lungs: Time to dial things up a notch, and all the rest of it…
Still I paused, and turned to fixate once more on the Hassett hype and idol worship, misplaced though it manifestly was. Christ, what possessed me to start down this road in the first place? Stumble through some hellish hard knocks, scheming about grinding a book out of it. Book, shit, great un-American novel, best seller bound, shopping the slop around like a Market Street meth hero peddling demented guitar licks with Orpheum and Shoreline sell-outs in his drippy custard eyes. Mailing queries, synopses and sample chapters back east, down coast—agent to agent, house to house—lot damn better I’d been faring my own self.
Really, all that Kinko copying and SASE two-way postage, thinking it was actually going to get me somewhere, basically giving the goods away, paying the freight for that warped, weighted hard-copy game, getting form rejections way too long after the fact, with nary a nibble or two. When I might as well have gone the vanity press route anyway—bought into the fees, false hope and self-delusional hokum of outfits like Xlibris or authorHouse, with the bored lit-major housewives, retired K-12 teachers and decommissioned brass.
Yet for all the non-responses and piled up stock reject slips, this sucker was different as I let it burn in. It was more personal, much deeper and more asymmetrical, even crookedly diabolical—this one stuck to my ribs.
Care for More?
CHAPTER TWO. Up the street,
Apple polishing, savoring some
some glittery cherries, then a
turn of a corner into the darkness…