This all started on an early December Tuesday in a San Francisco that no longer exists: a city partly razed and littered with the dreck and scum that gets left behind, before all the beer bars turned into fancy drink parlors, when rent was still affordable to roaming bands of artists, part-time trombone players and caroling conmen and record-store clerks, and a raft of your other garden variety hooligans. There were still some all-night diners and doughnut shops around too, and if you were lucky you could catch a cab in the Mission late on a Friday night for a reasonable rate with a driver who was just as reasonably sober. The condos and high-rise towers had yet to completely take over the landscape from lesser-known embattled structures of brick and stone. I knew plenty of people who lived in closets, makeshift living rooms, and the spaces above water heaters. Rooms were cordoned off with accordion panel screens or drapes. People walked to get places. And this, of course, all happened before the yuppies had infested too far into the investment of the city’s future; and before I lost my last job; and before the government had turned into a quasi-fascist state built to behoove the interests of the rich and spoiled and greedy; and before everyone I loved was dead.
As for me, I was only a gawking tourist in reality’s show. Nothing to spit about or throw lemons at. I’d given up trying to make it in any ordinary sense, and avoided parties and concerts and other places of stilted recreation and mass-commodity commotion. I wore old, fusty suits with buttons missing and mustard stains on the lapel. Never cool enough to wear hard-sole shoes with buckles, I plodded on in just floppy, thin-soled Converse with the laces perpetually in need of tying. My glasses slipped down my nose as the nights went, and the lights dimmed on all of my formerly well-lit Broadways.
I had a small studio nestled away on the north slope of Nob Hill, tucked into a corner a few blocks from Chinatown. I’d wake up most mornings to a guy yodeling and screaming just outside my street-facing bay window, “San Francisco! San Francisco! You will burn, motherfucker!” It was much better than any alarm clock. The trash trucks couldn’t even drown him out, and he was as precise as any rooster about it. After a while I think I learned to sleep through it, but it still echoed in my dreams: rife with unfounded anger and forged by angst with nowhere to go, no direction, no purpose. Just like my life, then. One big sleep away from being completely lost, one good haircut away from success. I’d wander more than just aimless through the fog-lush city washed in piss, strobe-lit and petty at its center, a windy street-scavenged mess putrefying in beautiful ruins, as those wonderfully bulb-pocked spans stretched haphazardly rustic to the east and internationally orange-brazen northward.
Gone was the workaday city of the 40’s and 50’s, with its dreams of the railroad earth etched in brick, its sleepy munificence and streetcar congestion and blue-collar homes, smokestack gray and smacked with purpose, filled with stevedores and bootblacks and telephone operators and sailors on shore leave. Cheap coffee in diners, hats on hooks, people tired after a long day’s hard work. A city of boarders who slept in the house and also took their meals with a family; and then lodgers who slept in the house but took their meals elsewhere; and so boardinghouses gave way to rooming houses where no food was ever served. And the rich got richer, and the poor got to leave town discreetly through the service entrance.
And so we got BART trains and buses instead of subway lines. And soon depreciation crept in and city planners got freeway happy and mad with skyscrapers. They tore down historic neighborhoods and built projects. The White Flight of the 70’s and 80’s gave way to Disney Stores, Manhattanization, and Dot-Com booms. No more Barbary Coast or Miracle Mile or Monkey Block— just a Starbucks where a brothel used to be and a Quiznos to take the place of a small Italian Delicatessen and parking lots where movie theaters once abounded, just as the West Coast Stock Exchange transformed into the slightly less glorious Equinox Gym.
There was solace to be had, somewhere. I knew it. I just hadn’t ever been able to find it.
My ex-wife Ramona was in the hospital somewhere in Des Moines. She’d been sick for a long time, and had been making the rounds from one specialist to the next, getting a barrage of tests, all of which had so far determined nothing except that she didn’t have about 500 exotic and deadly diseases. They were ruling things out. That’s all they ever seemed to do.
I hadn’t been in touch with her for a good while. Our separation was messy and stupid, filled with the ruins of both our pettiness and the hardship of having to be away from each other knowing that we’d only hate each other if we were left alone together. The banter of us was gone from the bicker. We were communicating almost solely by rumor. We were serious people now, and we hated each other for it.
I had a friend back then named Leroy. We’d been through all sorts of ringers and routs together, carousing the city in perilous adventures that rarely involved more limb than life. A good drinking buddy if you’d ever want one, but always one ribald battle away from complete lunacy, like a knife handle that’s come unattached from its blade: the memory of being able to slice up anything in sight still fresh, but not being able to do anything about it anymore; and so, well, we drank. And we consumed more than our fair share of illicit and dangerous substances along the way. It seemed like the most normal thing in all of civilization to be doing. I never questioned it.
Leroy was currently having a series of on-again trysts with Ramona’s best friend Helen (who’d flown out to Iowa to be with her a few days earlier), and so was more in the know as to Ramona’s current health situation than I was. I pretty much had to go through him to gather any information about her, which was fine, I guess. In the whole deplorable mess of the universe it was really just a minor charley horse in my constitution. But, still, I wasn’t feeling super or grand about any of it.
Now, Leroy was definitely not what you’d call a well-adjusted and balanced individual. He was an artist, a goof, wiry and tough as a mule deer, an unharnessed blur of ribald energy, messing with everything, knocking the kind and gentle and normal world on its ass every chance he got. Black-rimmed glasses duct-taped together below his always frenetically hopscotching eyebrows, his face was a gnarly mass of scars and bad ideas about a beard, while the always flapping nature of his crooked and dirty mouth coexisted in perfect symbiosis with the thoughtful and almost somber gaze in the swirling lichens of his eyes. In paint-splattered pants and a ripped t-shirt, his cataphract of arm and neck tattoos on display, his next cigarette forever tucked safely away in his ear, he gave any takers a shove more than all they could take, and I admired the hell out of him for it.
He’d recently been laid off from some Institute of High Finances that he’d been temping for, doing some schlepp work around the office, debugging computers, filing forms, spilling coffee, taking himself out for long lunches, and all the likes; and so had himself some extra oodles of free time to spend deciding what the hell he was going to do with his grownup life. Since my work schedule was also erratic at the time, we ended up spending a good deal of our free time together.
I was working on-call at a hospital Emergency Room at the time, and had just finished a week of 12-hour shifts. I was ready for some direly needed time off, and so decided not to answer if they called over the next few days. Leroy phoned me late the night after the end of my last shift, as I lay in bed wide awake yet groggy as hell, and we made plans to see some boozy sights for the next day. I had a sneaking feeling there was some news he was itching to relate.
Lefty O’Doul’s was a Hofbrau and bar on Geary near Union Square. It was touristy, but still had that ingrained sense of local majesty that only comes from many years of regulars doing time inside the wide expanse of its dusty gloaming interior. It was down the hill from me by about 7 or 8 blocks, and seemed an auspicious place to begin any sort of barnstorming activities for the day. I told Leroy to meet me there before 11, as they stopped serving breakfast after that, and lord knows we’d need some sustenance for the forbearance of strong drink. I put on a ragged suit held together by safety pins, and hoofed it down there, cordially acknowledging traffic stops with a drawn hustle, almost becoming flattened into roadkill only a couple times by idiots plowing through reds, dodging and passing up moseying pedestrians on the left and right, as it were, and made it through the door at roughly 10:30.
The food at Lefty O’Doul’s was okay, if you went on the right day. I preferred Tuesdays when they had a Short Ribs Special. They had a decent beer selection (I usually went with the Anchor Porter), but you’d be wise to avoid the Bloody Marys; they were the worst on earth. It was like drinking spiced lemony tomato soup with a sickly sweet tinge and way too much salt, and I’m pretty sure the Vodka level was fairly low, which is a very important part of the concoction if you ask me.
Lefty O’Doul was an old ball player from San Francisco who played in The Bigs in the 20s and 30s, first as pitcher and later as a power-hitting outfielder. He once had the record for the most hits in a season. After his playing days were done he went home to manage the San Francisco Seals, a decent Pacific Coast League team in their day, and is credited for giving another young San Franciscan, one Joseph P. DiMaggio, his start on his way to fame and fortune. Lefty eventually retired and decided to start a bar and name it after himself. He found a place available on Geary.
The building was a vaudeville theatre before Mr. O’Doul bought it, and some say there is a secret tunnel behind the back wall that used to act as a passageway to an ancestor of the now long-gone Gold Dust Lounge on Powell during prohibition. But Lefty came and turned the place into a hofbrau and a bar, which it remained until the day it closed up shop, with its friezes of clam shells peeling green paint, its neon green sign, the stony white and slate bricks of the front wall, and an always present banner on the green awning proclaiming its breakfast, “The Best Deal on the Square.” The breakfast was pretty damn decent for the price, but it was only served until 11, and who in the world can wake up, or for Christ’s sake get any food down them, that early in the morning? It goes without saying I usually schlepped my way in there later in the day, and had to settle for sliding my tray across the metal bars cafeteria-style while trying to quickly make up my boggled mind about what meat and side dishes it was that I was going to try to stomach. The guys behind the counter there were nice, and they helped you out; and it was usually not very crowded when I went, but I still usually ended up dropping my silverware a few times and getting side dishes I didn’t want. “Go with the cucumber salad,” I’d keep telling myself. Most times I ended up saying, “Um, just the potato salad,” though, and by then it was too late, as the guy had already slopped a big old chunk into a bowl and set it on top of the glass partition for me. Then I’d grab a coffee (which is actually damn good), and pay, and go find a seat in the back room, unsteady with my wobbling tray not-so-deftly held out in front of me.
The backroom was incredible. The walls were all fake wood paneling hung with a plethora of old pictures: baseball players like Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth, and Joe Dimaggio in a San Francisco Seals uniform, a team picture of the 1933 SF Missions, a chintzy portrait of Barry Bonds, and of course many of Lefty (my favorite is one of him standing in the rain coaching third base with an umbrella); and many pugilists too, some even of the bare-knuckled variety. There was also an amazing panoramic shot of Seals Stadium, which used to stand on the corner of Bryant and 16th where there’s a Safeway now. A large sculpture of Marilyn Monroe striking her famous dress-being-blown-up-in-her-face pose presides behind the long-defunct back bar, which had two giant TVs behind it, and a backdrop of red gauzy material strung with tiny yellow lights. A dim glow came down from the red-yellow-blue-pink-green stained glass of a few ancient light fixtures; and, if you asked them nicely, the busboys would keep bringing you refills on your coffee (which, as I said, was damn good.)
Burgundy booths lined the walls in the back, and there were plenty of tables to sit at too, all which made for a great place to watch sporting events from, as there were four giant TVs back there which were always turned to either ESPN, or whatever games happened to be on. You could actually watch four different games at once sometimes. It was quite spectacular. Before I had a TV I used to go to Lefty’s to watch all the Giants games. Even when I got hammered and started screaming obscenities at Dusty Baker, or threw my pint glass at the TV above the bar when Rob Nen would blow a save, they never kicked me out. I think the folks at Lefty’s have a soft spot for drunks. Also, a lot of cops tended to eat there, and this might’ve made them a little more accommodating, as they figured the cops would at least be close by if anybody really got too out of hand.
The front room, where the bar was across from the food counter, had more booths (which were by far the preferable place to sit with a small group), and had this strange stone wallpaper between exposed crossbeams on the walls. I think this might possibly have been an attempt to hark back to the old vaudeville days, but I could be wrong; I often am.
I stumbled my way in there that morning, in a dazed sort of bad shape, wobbling and worrying to a stool at the bar, barely intelligible in my maundering of, “Just an Anchor, please,” to the graying Walter-Pidgeon stunt double behind the bar. Leroy was nowhere in sight. I nursed my beer and sat there, waiting for something to happen.
The music, as always, was a steady stream of oldies and classic rock. Smokey Robinson was a favorite. Though at night they have a piano player whom you can sit around in a little alcove right by the front window. I’ve even seen people set their drinks on his piano (with a coaster of course) while they sit and listen. But for the time being, for me, I’d have to be content with imbibing at the well-worn sturdy and long oak bar, which wasn’t a terrible place to pull up a stool at, with many framed pictures of baseball players — and one that seemed to be a blown-up mugshot of a one Mrs. Norma Jeane Dimaggio — hanging above the briar patch of bottles behind it.
The bartenders were usually pleasant enough and would chat with you about the weather and baseball, though often times the bar would fill with cranky drunk geriatrics who would regale you with boring denture-riddled babble about their lives over a miserly cocktail. Unfortunately, this was turning out to be one of those time. I was absently tapped on the shoulder a few times, and wheeled around only to find an elderly gentleman on a walker who was trying to force his way in next to me. I scooted my stool over as far as I could, but the guy was still barely able to squish his walker in there; and after many too-long moments of me now hastily downing my beer, he managed his way to the seat, only stabbing me in the ribs a half-dozen times in the process. His face was all gristle and wear, the wrinkles smoked and chalky on his cheeks and forehead, and the veins in his arms were deep-blue gnarled rivulets of defeat. Everything stunk of ammonia and mothballs. I wanted none of it. I finished off my beer and gave up. There’s only so much you can fight against a situation that obviously doesn’t want you to be a part of it.
I rammed back outside through the doors and hastily lit a cigarette. It was a great defense against the onslaught of daylight’s first defeat, to stand there, leaning against the brick, smoking and watching the wheezing buses and traffic snarl by on Geary. I checked out the swarms of pigeons roosting in the eaves and sills and other nooks of the St. Francis hotel’s façade’s crannies across the street. People stood and waited to cram on the weary Luck-Dragon 38, biding their time, just like me, too, avoiding the writhing shebang of what was always lurking at the mediocre depths of their unrefined souls. Just like me, there, smoking a cigarette, the sheeny film covering my cognizance only slightly abated from a restless week, not ready for anything but ready for the worst too somehow, and it wasn’t even 11 am yet.
Leroy happened upon me just as I was taking a last drag. His mopey face all replete with absolute joy and mischief and some nervous tick of sorrow there too, somehow: something gone haywire in the brows, a rough-and-tumble attempt at suppressing some abstract concept of what it was like to be alive in the world just then, the way we were, then, all the time, and just at that moment, all at once but never together, and his cigarette was also almost gone to the filter.
“You ate without me? Dick.”
His furrowed expression, all scrambling eyebrows and wayward lips, was the stuff great character actors are made on.
“I didn’t get the chance. Some old guy muscled his walker between me and my beverage. It was a real raw deal in there. The worst.”
Leroy scuttled and hopped, stamping out his dead cigarette on the sidewalk beneath the scrappy remains of his once-white-but-now-gone-to-taupe Converse. He laughed a scuzzy laugh, all phlegm and spittle and day-old whiskey gut. “You’re a real bastard. No respect for your elders, kid.”
“Hell. I don’t think I can stomach any victuals right now anyway. But next time I swear I’ll get that cucumber salad for once. I hear it’s excellent.”
“So where to?”
“Anywhere but here. Some place close. I’m pretty walked out for the moment, here.”
There was something awry in Leroy’s presence. An amiss zygomatic in the complexion of it all. I didn’t have the wherewithal to do much sussing out about it, but it was there, and it bothered me. It was like being on the edge of a diving board above a swimming pool which may or may not have any water in it but not wanting to look down to find out if you’d make a splash or just end up splatted there on the cold concrete wishing that you’d never left the solid comfort of land. There was something ticking behind his looks, a time bomb or an alarm clock, or maybe just a goofy meaningless mistake in the gears of his personality. I gave up caring about whatever it was, and just resigned myself to operating on stun until we’d reached some other destination.
Leroy was fidgeting and hemming all his haws in some miraculously mistimed carousel of motion, absent and taking little care of his surroundings, almost knocking the hat off a woman walking by and tripping a rushing businessman on his way to an early power lunch at the Daily Grill next door, and then brought the whole rig to an abrupt stop with a, “Let’s get us to an Irish place.”
It was fine by me. I wanted to be anywhere but where we were. We headed a block south to Johnny Foley’s.
Foley’s was a gussied-up Irish corner bar that had “dueling pianos” going at it most nights for the entertainment and/or displeasure of the loyal patrons and tourists alike. It was nice and polished on the inside: all oak banisters and mahogany paneling and shimmering gold rails.
I made a beeline for the bathroom upon entrance to this fine drinking establishment, which was, not surprisingly, almost empty at this pre-lunch hour. The emptiness suited me just fine. I don’t care for crowds.
The bathroom was mine alone. I dawdled as best I could, cherishing however long these moments of solitude could last, taking extra time to wash my hands— the hot water like liquid balm for the arctic chill wreaking havoc on the hallucinating thunder of my maladjusted frame of mind.
“Thunder! Nanana, nanana! Thunder!”
Someone had put AC/DC on the jukebox. It didn’t seem proper; in fact, I found it almost obscene. Some sort of rocketed slug of a thing sent slithering through my ear canals and rifling through what was left of my jarred brain. I looked everywhere for signs of succor. I found only repositories for my emptiness. Then I saw Leroy at the bar by himself.
There he was, all mustachioed frowns and guttural sighs, sloppy and decomposing on a barstool, a sprained ankle of hope and lust fizzled out to another frazzled squint through duct-taped-together glasses at the weariness of things in general. Another lopsided world to contend with, the shine from last night’s raised-hell gone to a paralyzed gaggle of grunts and heaves. All not so well, as it were.
I ran around and then into a stool next to him, all hunched over there as he was, sipping at a pint glass in a contorted sort of struggle at being at least somewhat alive and aware of his surroundings. Me? I was about the same. The well-dressed bartender, who was tall and mean and gave off the unmistakable aura of indifference, didn’t seem to care for either of our mid-morning brawls against the strained mechanisms of being who we were. I straddled my seat, gripped the bar with both hands, and, with a half-cocked head, ordered a pint of Guinness from him. It was an Irish bar after all— what else could I do?
The jukebox stopped blaring after a bit, and I attempted to get as comfortable as possible on a stool. Leroy tried out a few jokes on me. They didn’t work. I got deflated and morose with an impossible-to-believe strung-out tininess that glommed onto what was still in commission about me. There was a sifting sort of silence that buried us for a bit there.
I asked about Ramona. He inhaled deep and purposeful, and let out a consequential sigh that seemed corroded somehow, as if it were carrying plague.
I remember the way the condensation on the pint glasses made our beers look like they were sweating heavily, making a mess of the thin coasters below them on the bar top. I can still see the exact faces we were trying to make, composed and suitably serious and ready for the worst and contrived, the way they weren’t working out, just like nothing ever seemed to for anyone ever. I readied myself, knowing whatever it was stalking me in the immediate future, this thing wasn’t going to be just laughed off so easily. The histrionics of trauma are not to be overlooked and denigrated; they’re as important to the emotional makeup of a situation just as much as the actual gut-punch of horrible news itself. I made myself make the proper face to match what was hurling around in my head, swarming my intestines, and aching the backs of my legs like dead gnarled vines tangled and rotting and wrapping their way around me. It was a real bum deal all around.
“She got some bad news.”
His whole face indented at once, bringing his clumsy eyebrows to a narrow conclusion.
“Maybe I’ll just…I guess there’s no easy way around it. I’ll just tell you.”
Some time passed. I drank a long swallow of my beer.
“She’s got cancer.”
A whole year of shocked ragged awe stayed put and hung heavy, then a stiff tremble crumbled reality’s hold on the moment and vomited a cruise-liner of anxiety into my hair.
I wanted to ask a thousand questions, but no words were forthcoming. Saying things out loud seemed like the most worthless thing I could ever do with my time here on earth.
We just stared off, at the sad thicket of bottles behind in the bar, the oak and mahogany railing, at the bartender’s back, at the bathroom’s reflection in the mirror, at anything but each other. We were both weeping like a couple of real sad sacks gone too soft in the sorrows of having been alive for a long-enough while to know what was and what was not ever coming back.
I took a good swallow of my Guinness. That bitter frothy elixir, all rich and dark and full, poured through me, leaving my gums and tongue sticky with a somewhat parched feeling, like I couldn’t smack or lick my lips enough to wet their desiccated plight. It was all a wash, and I was in the spin cycle of it.
Leroy was looking everywhere but at me. He was shaking his head in these wounded little whirls. I asked him all the hows and whats and whys as I could, somewhat coherent. I was talking just to have something to do. He answered as best he could, in these small bursts of sham etiquette in the raspy tones that coddled his answers. It was lung cancer. Bad. Caught way too late. They were going to try chemo, or maybe some new drug that was on trial. I remember thinking, ‘How can a drug be on trial?’ My brain was on a temporary leave of absence.
I stared at my beer for a minute. I ventured something out of nowhere: “Did you know that these guys started the Book of World Records? It was to settle bar bets. People claiming they knew who’d done this or that the most or for the longest. That’s where it comes from: the Guinness Book of World Records. Leave it to the Irish.”
The next thing I knew we were both chuckling and drooling snot and babbling like some mental defects just released from the fetters of shock treatment. We laughed the dour and sick laughs of out-of-work clowns. Some sort of canned jubilation that coats the surface so as not to portend what’s scratching just below it. The bartender came over to us and just stood there, monumental, regal. His presence was a tall, thin shadow, and it was comforting, calm and composed.
“I’m thinking you fellas might like this new whiskey we just got in. I’ll pour you a glass if you’d like. Straight from old Éire. It’ll do you good. Neat. It’s kind to most folks.”
Through this odd chortled hacking we consented.
He set two shot glasses on the bar and poured this deep buttery liquid into them. Everything was melting around it, as if it were giving off energy in rings of acceptance. The glasses glowed with promises as everything shattered to pieces all around.
The bartender told us this one was on the house and left us to our wallowing, our sputtered laughs; and we hefted the two glasses with a ritualistic fervor, arms stiff and jerky, eyes averted towards less grave sights than each other’s eyes, and we clinked these small glass receptacles filled to the brim with the golden hours of forgetfulness, and we drank it down, and we sat there on our stools, and we waited as the thick burn and heat of it filled us, leaving a warm mended trail in its wake.
I told myself, ‘Everything is fine. Everything is okay. All is happening as it should.’
I didn’t believe a word of it, but, after that first powerful click and glow of the whiskey hit, I convinced myself that it was true. I was completely stuck in bogus assumptions, as the fragile state of self-denial enveloped me; and there was no breathing my way out of it. I let its alluring womb reconnoiter my so woebegone and toppled position in reality. I sat there and waited for enough time to pass, so as I could get to feeling decent about being me again.
My head was an unplugged toaster and all I could think was, ‘Bread, bread, bread.’
My head was roiling. I was seeing stars without any stripes. A derelict gumball machine that only dispenses bad news. In the window I made out the close harassing face of a homeless man spying on the lives going on inside doors. I’d had enough of this scuffling, this mild-mannered temper tantrum of a floorshow. Wherever I was, was just where I didn’t want to ever be.
My head was on a swivel. A fly was doing its best mime-trapped-in-a-box impersonation above the bar, pursuing invisible points in mad darts, connecting stars, manically, with pinpoint precision and a sense of purpose that I was wholeheartedly jealous of. I swatted at it with a few meager wafts of my hand. Even the most minimal effort I could muster seemed at least a few miracles away. Everything was fallen, lost, swollen to a rancid stink in the sewers.
Leroy and I made some inane medium-talk over the clatter of glasses and bottles being poured and shelved as the lunch crowd began making their way in. Regular conversation seemed pointless, yet it was important to have it; we needed it to shield us from the dangling sword of Damocles inching closer to our heads.
“Held at the pommel by a single hair of a horse’s tail.”
Leroy’s face was a flummoxed bowl of untouched soup.
“Nothing. This place is starting to lacerate the hell out of my goodwill. Let’s have another hurrah that lasts some-a-where’s else.”
“Yeah. Sure. Just, please, stop talking like some moron in a bad novel. We’re people, here, remember?”
Leroy was always one to talk sense into me during troubled times. I downed what remained of my Guinness in one wonderful gulp. It felt like the best action in the world to possibly be involved in, and we paid the gentleman behind the bar, scooped up our piddling, now-recuperated persons, and bravely lashed outward into downtown’s lunchtime swarms.
We walked towards Powell. An old man pushing a bearded collie in a baby stroller came at us. Leroy let out a stiff yelp and leaped towards the gutter as this belabored sideshow act plowed through us at good clip, narrowly avoiding a collision. Masses of dawdlers were out, crowding on street corners, disobeying traffic signals, gawking and taking up valuable space. Cable cars trundled and clacked to stops and fitful starts as taxis and delivery trucks double parked and clumped at red lights. A sheeny fading glitz thrummed from tired neon and the shriveling texture of what were once blocks of transient, monthly rate, retirement-home hotels for old men. Now it was all a mess of tacky tourist attractions, Disney-fied and plastic and soul-less.
We slalomed through it with the economic haste of reserved furious men, chasing abstract leads always wavering into dissipated folds as we happened upon them, careening down Powell past the sizzle of Tad’s Steaks, almost skidding right out of our shoes at the intersection and sharply hairpinning left onto Ellis. I stopped outside of John’s Grill, festering there in ancient Maltese-Falcon glory with its musky interiors and three stories of cramped over-priced dining, a leftover from another era when space was not a thing to have all to one’s self.
I saluted that old, deadbeat neon sign. “Dashiell. Dashiell. Where have you gone Mr. Hammett? Our stomachs turn their sourest chimes to you.”
Leroy was perched like a thoughtful osprey on the curb, down on his haunches, his backside swaying a bit over the gutter, as he removed a cigarette from behind his ear and stuck it between his lips.
“He wasn’t a stranger to misery, I take it.”
“Dashiell Hammett wrote a book in there once. Drank only water. He was fond of the lamb chops.”
“Dash-ay-heel Hammer-ett-o was a reeeeel ass-a-hole!”
Leroy carved out a place with his hand to light his cigarette in a gusty draft, still squatted on the curb, balanced there with his toes on the stone and his heels in midair, tottering up and down a bit.
“Sure. Sure. We all are when it comes down to it.” I cleared my throat emphatically and screamed up at the sign, “Fuck the Maltese Falcon!”
For some reason we both decided to scramble away as if we’d just robbed the place or left a lit M-80 in the bathroom sink. We pushed and skedaddled our way through the throngs down to Market, howling glib, holy obscenities as we raced through the imaginary obstacle courses in our minds. Nothing was going to stand in our way. Nothing was going our way. Nothing was all we had. And apparently nothing was all the plenty we currently were in need of. The sort of thoughts I was having weren’t something I wanted to catalogue. I had too many songs in my head to keep track of, and the flurry of people crisscrossing my perspective just smeared into one loopy scene of wrong-of-way motion and myopic avoidance and the fusion and fission in the microcosms of threaded doubt of another chance at being alive and well under the sun for the there and then of whatever distraction would make it all last, and, in the convoluted nature of all flesh and blood, to not have to ponder any nexts or whens or hows for the duration. Everything was wrong; and all I kept thinking, over and over, was, ‘Change. Spare some. Change. Spared. Change. I’m spared. Change. Can’t. Be Spared change. Change. Can I get a little change?’
We made it to a four-way signal on Market. A crumbling man with a warthog’s face glowered at me from somewhere below. He smelled of disinfectant and aftershave and yeast. “Hello there, young Jewish man.” His voice was all rotted tonsils and broken teeth. “You got a dollar for an old Indian?” He was sitting cross-legged and leaning against the traffic-light stanchion. Patches and tears abounded on his coat and pants, stains like oil on the elbows and knees, his shoes barely hanging onto their soles.
“Sorry. I’m not Jewish.”
“That’s okay. I’m not Indian.”
We both laughed at the exact same time. I slipped a dollar from my coat pocket and gently set it down in his lap. He smiled a big greasy smile, and his pinto-bean eyes grew so wide that I thought they might pop and explode in a thousand tiny grains of mercy that could never be strained by any person, place, or thing.
We crossed the street to get to the other side.
Market’s wide swath was immersed in a crush of ambulatory frenzy— also the edgy blurts and skids of harried motorists and cabbies plunged into an arrhythmic clangorous stop-and-go concerto of the streets. The intestinal trauma of a thousand shoes clopping along concrete, regurgitated peas and bones; and the harrowing peel of the noontime Tuesday air-raid siren comingles with the whirring ambulance sirens and cop sirens and that special piercing bleat of the fire engine sirens too. Always noise going on somewhere, always something to have to contend with. Backing up flatbeds, garbage trucks digesting their load, honking bastards stuck behind the wheel of midsize sedans, manholes being clanked over, cranes and excavators and cement trucks and hard-hatted construction workers on scaffolding always creating havoc all over the place, people yowling greetings and goodbyes: all the hardscrabble and remote echoes of city life.
And there we were, a couple of daylight suckers, blitzed with a touch of horror and sadness, out writhing in the urbanity, shedding layers of guilt and raw hurt, classless do-nothings, born into this, crammed into it all, and a mess with the unsatisfied grunts of someone never to be claimed or disowned, cleaved into a mishandled purgatory where nothing ever stays or goes or lasts, at least not long enough so that anybody’d care to notice. I was craving piano music; and all I was getting were stuffing recipes.
“Trotsky! Look, holy shit! It’s Leon Trotsky!”
Some bearded malcontent in a moth-eaten pea coat was pointing his forefinger at me, adamantly, and piling on his deranged perspective: “A person must fight at all costs to retain a sense of identity and aliveness, and avoid being absorbed by the homogeneous masses.”
“Well, that, my good sir, is merely your opinion.”
The guy got closer, and then closer still. I didn’t like the scent of his company, and so yarded away from him as best I could while remaining intently calm. He kept coming, as if he’d been sent by Arabian hashish smokers who were in line for a promotion.
Leroy was convoluted in a decent fit of belly laughs, while at the same time trying to ward this could-be robber baron off with drastic semaphores of peace, shaping his hands into soft pats and warm circles.
Eventually, with Leroy putting on his best body-guard act, I muscled my way out of the situation, telling all within shouting distance, “This man is not dangerous. There is nothing to fear here except ourselves,” as the pea-coated madman found a new direction to twist in.
“Shit, man. I don’t get it, but the oddest assortment of characters are always chatting you up.”
“I know. I’m a magnet for it. And I’m in need of some serious depolarization.”
“We need to get you indoors. Come on. Let’s head…” he stopped mid-blurt, planted himself like a leafy elm right next to me, tugged at my arm while scrunching up his countenance, scratched a few deliberate times at the thinning territory of his scalp, and then proclaimed,“…this-a-way!” And we were off to the races once again.
The swallows we take end up becoming the thirst of who we are.
The House of Shields happened upon us just as much we happened upon it. There was nothing to do but go inside and wait out the postprandial banter of businessmen and art-school students who’d be gathering for another hour or so. I’d always had a fondness for the place. It didn’t have any clocks or TVs. The high vaulted ceiling, cross-beamed with flourishes of intaglio-like carvings and splashes of deep blue on the etched wood; the spiffy white floor tiles; the wooden-legged barstools, and the pockets of stiff leather booths lining the windows; the Romanesque statues and reliefs around the back mirror behind the bar with all the bottles of booze stacked in front of it and the high white curtains above. There was always at least a slight twinge of 1908 swirling around in there, and if you caught a sniff of it, on just the right day, say like on a Tuesday when you’ve been moping around in your generational sorrow all morning, when the mood was just off-kilter enough so that you weren’t noticing the drab bullshitters and PowerBar/energy-drink enthusiasts who were lingering around after lunch, and perhaps you had a Fernet cocktail as a companion, and the air was just stuffy and crisp enough to take away the terrible taste of the conditioned normalcy left in your mouth, maybe you might be able to get a sense of peace, a composed solace in the wounds of the world, and you’d lift your glass against it all, against the perpetual mashing of your brains by the grand industrialists of the world, against the wrap and weft of temperance and holding it together, against war and worry and that sad empty feeling you kept getting when the booze got to running out; and you’d cast your doleful eyes up above the booth and out the water-spotted windows at the grandeur of the Palace Hotel where Warren Harding once died across the street, and feel good about being alive just then, at this precise point in the whole kerfuffle of your existence.
We found ourselves a couple of unoccupied stools at the end of the bar. The bartender was Robert Crumb’s wet dream: all thick hips and ass. She had a throaty growl that even threw the usually unflappable Leroy for a loop.
“What’ll it be, gents.”
“Gin and tonic.”
I’d uttered this order without thought. I had no idea where it came from. Leroy looked as befuddled by it as I was.”
He gave me a few elbows to the ribs. “Whooooo, orders Gin at this hour? What’s the matter with you, chump?”
“I can neither confirm nor deny the order.”
“You…what?” He had that look on that always meant he was about two sentences away from strangling me.
Luckily the lady behind the bar intervened.
“Now boys. Boys. Leave it be. Let’s get it together. It’s never too early for gin around here. And for you, Screamer?”
This snapped Leroy back around to a lightheartedness he was always towing around behind him just in case the situation called for it. “Ahhhhhh…rrrrrrrrr…ahem. I’ll just have an Anchor.”
The afternoon droned on. There was no music playing. Soon the bar emptied out a bit as the art schoolers went back to class and the business crowd returned to finish off “killing it” for the remainder of the day. We drank our drinks and sulked as best we could, soon moving off to a booth to reassess our plight and plan our next moves, ulterior or not, as they were.
“Soooo. What’s next?”
“We could be braver men. We could stave off this culture’s remorseless bashing of the courses we run through it.”
“We could hop a train.”
“Or rob one.”
“Stumble our way through it like a couple of drunkards would.”
“I’m done with all this slouching. Let’s eat apples and walk the streets brandishing love letters to dead people. Let’s interrogate the sewer systems.”
“Let’s procure us some most fucking potent drugs.”
Leroy went outside to place a call to a person who knew a person who could achieve these ends for us.
I felt about as vast as a yawn. I wanted out. All I kept getting for my pointless laboring was spoiled fruit chucked at me. Ramona was dying. It was the last thing I could get my mind to rotate to. I nursed the gin from the tonic with short sips from a tiny straw and gave myself over to some serious daydreaming:
She said, “Describe the sky to me.”
“The moon is just a sliver of a fingernail lying on a bed of back-lit yams. Tonight’s the night the clouds will shred to bits of napkin and fall over our kittling around. Whistled stops to the untrained eye, shudders going unannounced through the bluesy heaves and rifts of a rustling star-patched blanket. Needlepoint of golden yarn tips on heavy black felt. Leather ribbons tied over gorilla-glued tinsel hearts. Broomed dust and ink splattered in the threaded whorls of God’s carpet. Food for a flower’s brain.”
“Look. Orion’s an onion!”
“Plato’s on Pluto!”
“A dog. A plane. No. It’s just a floater.”
“Four-score-a-get about it.”
Ramona would lie next to me, asleep, her delicate folds and curves curled into the sheets, her little head just barely on the pillow’s edge, lips twitching to a purse and back again over and over, the wilderness of her mop of auburn curls spread out all over the blankets. The way she slept, holding that patented tuck steady and light, so soft and sweet, hell, it should’ve been against the law. It just wasn’t fair, something to have to remember her by. That place her shape fit so well next to mine, that slight indentation in the mattress, the spot on the sheets where her drool would gather, the cute purring sound her snores, all that’s left of her…all that’s left. She laughed in all the wrong places, and cried when you’d least expect it. When she hugged me I could feel it in my toes. That’s all that’s left. Only things in my mind. Just in my mind, where something was always the matter.
I snapped myself out of the mushy reverie with a, “Don’t go getting all morose and daffy, you asshole.” And then I took a good and long, hearty swill of the gin drink. I was done speaking with myself on and on about all this no-good business.
Leroy had gone all cockamamie and bonkers while conversing outside. He came at me like a real son of a bitch, all rife with busting and botched ideas, cigarettes and bile on his breath. The diplomacy of his plurality had come unhinged again. He needed a drink in that awful way, that way that only staves off the lowest of feelings, one that’s even worse than waking up early to do that horrendous and practical thing people did called going to their jobs.
“Sit down. I’m barely sure what day it is.”
He flopped down on the booth’s sleek leather interior and stared at me with a car-crash on his face, that droopy smile—half-lacerated with wryness and exceptional tortuosities, fuming with a funny grace—his eyes gummy and swum-out.
“I’m getting us two more beers at the Bay-Ar. Stay put.”
“Aye, aye, Captain!” He swung himself vitally to a stalemate there on the table’s edge while visoring his hand up on his forehead at me. His fingernails were rich with grime.
I went and got two more beers, some abatement for the dragging nature of the festivities. The bartender laughed her good throaty laugh a few times at my bad jokes, and it got my spirits up above the Mendoza line for the first time all day. The atmosphere of idiocy had cleared for the most part, as the place began to empty out before the Happy-Hour crowd started arriving. This has long been one of my favorite times to be in a bar, and I wanted to take advantage of it for as long as we could.
“We should’ve had a subway. Long ago. In the 30s. But the bastards who ran the crowded streetcars wouldn’t have it, and the whole thing was voted down. Proposition One. The first fucking one. And it failed. And the cars and buses came to dominate. And the freeways. What a damn shame. A real…damn…shame.”
“What the hell are you moaning on about?”
“Nothing. Here’s another beer to take the place of that empty one.”
“That’s more like it. Ok. So. I got a hold of our mutual acquaintance Mr. Cee. It seems he is in the possession of some quite interesting substances.”
Mr. Cee was a notorious good-natured lowlife who lived above a Korean pool hall in the Tenderloin. I’m not sure what his full name really was, but we always just called him Cee, and he responded to it, so it worked out well for all involved parties.
“He’s going to meet us here in a bit.”
“Great. Glad that’s taken care of.”
We drank our beers and waited for something to happen.
“You’ve got a button missing and mustard on your jacket, Buster.” A woman’s voice, directed my way. I studied the face before me, all punchy cheeks and eyes like railroad spikes. The best head of hair I’d ever seen up close: jagged tufts of deep black sleekness all bundled and bustling all over the place in a perfectly orchestrated disarray of ear-length complexity.
“That’s Militant Millicent to you.”
Millie was a roughhousing, vegan, bi-sexual, anarchist, activist, ex-con, artist, zine-maker, recalcitrant songwriter, anti-fascist, Luddite, one-woman-revolution in a black leather jacket. She was a wonderful person to run into by accident.
She stood over me, lifted me up by my tie, and pretended to be dusting me off while introducing me to her companion, “Scarlet— like the fever, not the color.” She then proceeded to attempt to lick the mustard stain from my jacket’s lapel. I couldn’t stop both giggling and gagging.
Leroy was gaping at the whole scene as if he were watching an ill-rehearsed one-scene play put on by inmates of a mental institution, a tad unsure of what ways he should try to jump into it all.
“Room for one more over there?”
Millie sprung around and scowled at him with a dramatic, “What the fuck’s it to you, dear brother out of arms? Just who the fuck do I currently have this real goddamn pleasure of speaking to?” She was now gripping my jacket’s lapel in her fingerless-gloved hand. “Huh?”
“That’s Leroy. You two’ve never met?”
She gave him the once over a couple of times. “The pleasure’s all yours, I’m sure.”
“I am.” Leroy just let it sit there like a tuna sandwich going bad under a heat lamp. Everything screeched to a halt, and then; with a steady, “You are,” from Millie’s friend Scarlet; all was rocked back into motion again.
It was getting crowded again at the bar, so the ladies decided to join us in the booth for a bit. We didn’t mind the company.
Millie let go of my outerwear and slid in next to me, piping up, “Hey, Buffalo Billionaires. They call me Calamity Jane Eyre around here. Gladder than gold to be welcomed into your gentlemanly fold.”
Scarlet-Like-The-Fever-Not-The-Color scooted in next to Leroy. She was all scintillation and jewels wrapped in a red-and-yellow polka-dotted scarf and a white overcoat. Her skin was not quite as pale as chalk, and she had long slender fingers with the nails cut short. I wondered about the mysteries lying dormant in the layered confines of her shoulder-length dishwater-blond hair.
She caught me eying her. “What’s up, Woody Allen?”
Everyone liked that. People eat that shit up.
I adjusted my glasses nervously, with great pomp and theatrics, rustled my tie, and sputtered, “Yeah. Sorry, I’m not myself since I quit smoking 16 years ago.”
Nobody liked that. People can be real stinkers sometimes.
We conversed over our drinks, getting to know the things about each other that we were willing to show in public, gabbing excitedly about random conceits and barrages of upended stories we kept telling others to keep ourselves convinced that we weren’t just moping through our days. When the beverages got low someone bought another round, until we’d lost track of who was buying, and then, at some erratic juncture in the festivities, that elusive Mr. Cee made his highly anticipated and questionable appearance, jocular as a lap-dance, that thick-necked white mass of rotund muscle and flab, slamming both hands flat on our table with a puckered greasy smile. The guy really thwarted all regular conventions of behavior, sporting fishnets on his forearms and razors in his army boots, he lisped with a demanding purpose; and this time it was, “Fuck these neo-yuppies and their cul-de-sac lives.”
Leroy bounded up from his slouching position, “Mr. Cee! Yes!”
It was all that needed to be said.
Mr. Cee slowly nodded a large circle of maybe-to-no, his ravaged, dyed-navy-blue pompadour sweeping and buckling from side to side. His glazed gaze ran the gauntlet of our disorderly cadre, the empty glasses and crumpled cocktail napkins strewn all over the table, the shifty nature of our sad little party of four.
“I tell you, me. I had a time of it on the way here. All these victims of soul muggings, these puffy slack tourists all over. And me? I’m just some Murray from A Thousand Clowns, all maladjusted and tripping up the rickety stairs of it all. But,” he slid his puma paws outward on the table, his dual watches sewn in thick leather straps on his wrists, “at last, or, maybe at least, here…I made it.”
I gave him my best golf clap. He bowed a tad, standing there puffing out of his gold vest swiped from a three-piece over a short-sleeved burgundy polo shirt. It was quite a getup, but not out of the ordinary for him. I’d once seen him in a rain slicker over a sundress with no socks and white Vans, sporting a “Darby Crash For Congress” pin in his buttonhole. His fashion sense came from a thrift store’s bargain bin. Scarlet was taken with him instantly, offering effusive compliments by the snorkeled dozen. He squeezed in next to her, casual as an apple on a day off.
“This here’s a Scarlet, like the fever.”
“First name, Mister. Last name, Cee.”
“Well’s well. There’s everything in a name.”
“I’m not currently in the business of being in love with anybody.”
“But is there a somebody who’s in the business of loving only you?”
“I’d love to meet a girl named Chevrolet. On a speedway we’d be happy, blitzing through the armaments of the day-to-day, only stopping to gas up and make hay with pitchforks.”
“Hey! Let’s embark for spiffier quarters.”
“I like it here.”
“Yeah. It’s a real top-notch dive.”
“I once met Paul Reubens on a tomato farm in Iowa.”
“You mean some candy ass who I’ve never heard of?”
“I’m a wonderful listener.”
“Great. I need to be around a person who can listen, on account of the fact that I blab on so much.”
This was the sort of rot that I was up against. I wanted out, just then, and so jostled my way out of the booth and went outside to smoke a cigarette and regain some sort of composure.
With my cigarette lit, I leaned against a space between windows, and I started singing softly, “I remember you well, at the Palace Hotel, you were cussing so insane and so sweet, resting my head on the bar like a bed, while the lemonade waited in our suite.” A scruffy fellow with a blown-apart umbrella scrambled by, some lurker of unrefined mystique, and I watched as he shoved the useless device into a trashcan nearby.
For some reason I felt the need to say something. “Another dead umbrella. Well, it served its country well.”
“It’s a goner. Too bad, really.”
“It will not be forgotten.”
He gave me smile on toasted rye.
“Thanks, buddy. That’ll be all. Good day.”
“It’s alright. Thanks.”
He marched away, lost in a sputtering burst of wits and grief, yacking at himself something awful: some nameless soldier without a fight left to find his meaning in. I felt about the same.
I needed to obtain some cash if this debauchery was to going string me along any further, and so I decided to make a visit to the ATM: that tortured servant of American capitalism. There was one inside the Metropolitan Trust building on the corner of Market, so I took a last long histrionic drag from my cigarette and hobbled my way over there.
The old-timey concrete clock sign jutting out from the building’s second floor right at the corner was stuck on 4:34 and 4 seconds. I looked at it for a bit, that set-in-stone ornament of a time gone by, waiting for time to go by; but it just stayed stuck there. A bald eagle guarded the clock’s hands carved into the frame’s bottom, which read “Bank of America” in Sans Serif over the top. I thought about Amadeo Giannini and the Bank of Italy building on Montgomery, about how he loaned out money to ordinary folks after the 1906 quake and fire, and how he eventually changed the name from Italy to America, and about how America was named for an Italian explorer, and then my evaporating concussion-like spell drifted to Monty Clift in Red River, and I got that song stuck in my head about the Red River Valley and a cowboy who loves you so true, and then I was done for, and I ducked inside that damn historic place built in 1907 to get some of my money back from that titan of the American banking institution that ever-so-kindly held it for me. It wasn’t 4:34 and 4 seconds. None of this mattered.
Back out on the street, I had 5 freshly dispensed twenties in my wallet, and the climate of my misgivings had picked up a bit. There was something refreshing about the afternoon’s lull in the action. A pause that could subdue all my aches and crotchets. Some scummy tadpole clouds were scudding by, muddying the sky’s deepening cobalt puddles. The streets were croaking with trolleys as algae-green lampposts stood at ease, busy doing their best Cornelius Vanderbilt impersonations. Newspapers were gone from newsstands. The wind was tossing around trash and dead leaves. My shoes crunched over a flattened Chili-Cheese Fritos bag and I felt somewhat decent about my current emotional whereabouts for the first time all day.
A guy in a plaid kilt was playing a bagpipe version of Amazing Grace on some makeshift hydraulic contraption that lifted him up and down on a platform as he squeezed out the notes. It was a tough thing to acclimate myself to, like being barraged by an avalanche of specters, sharp loud squeaks meant to be heard but never witnessed. People were gathered around with dumb rictuses slapped on their mugs, hooting and goading the guy on. It was quite a display: pseudo-mischief performed for no good reason. I wanted none of it. I cursed my way through this pathetic gathering and headed back to another, possibly just-as-pathetic gathering at the bar.
The glow of neon red letters led me back through the bar’s doors. I felt frazzled and wanted to practice my winking technique at some person of the female nature and have them wink back, but there was nobody around worth the trouble. There rarely is.
I passed the group at the booth without giving even a hint of noticing them, and went straight down the back stairs to the use the bathroom. The facilities at House of Shields are, just like the rest of the place, done in a very old-fashioned way. The door always confuses me. There’s something counterintuitive about it. You think, pull, but then you push, and everything goes wrong, and you feel like a dolt, like maybe the thing’s locked, so you stand there patiently waiting for some kind person who has just finished his business to exit, but then, sure enough, some lunkhead squeezes by you and gets in first. The handle’s either on the wrong side or the door is attached by the wrong end, or I’m just a moron— likely it’s all three. It’s a tight fit in there too. The sink is dangerously close to the urinal, so as a lucky individual who happens to be washing his hands has a good chance of having some splash back from the urinal if another person happens to be availing himself of its services at the time— not to mention the uncomfortableness of said circumstances, being pretty much leg-to-leg with each other while one is attending to ablution and the other to micturition. I dread this dire confrontation of two souls. On this rare occasion, to my most pleasant satisfaction, I was alone to attend to my bladder emptying.
Back at the booth by the window rowdiness ensued.
“You are not using the human brain properly. That’s the problem.”
“It’s sooooooo matter of fact, as a matter of fact.”
“No! I’m winded. Trouble is…”
“Goodnight, doctor. Hello, dentist.”
“There’s a rift in our tailor-made sense, here, I do duly and truly believe.”
“What’s the deal? You look incredulous, cowgirl?”
“Panana bancakes for dinner, Mr. Spooner.”
“Don’t blame me. I even compost my tea bags, and I’m careful to detach them from the string, which I then, of course, place in the proper recycling receptacle.”
“Ah. I mean, ahhhhh-ha!”
We got all got cozy in the slightly inebriated harmonium of blustering small talk. I felt plucky but indifferent to whatever was hightailing it inward in the moats and barnacles of me. Some craggy gulf to be always separated from the gist of the lives of others. I gave the tall backs of the booths a good long scan, and then some, and watched people at the bar swarm and then retreat back to their corners. I tried to rattle around the ice in my glass, but it’d long since left for liquid’s proposal.
Scarlet and Millie parted ways from us, as they had some gala function to attend at the Museum of Modern Art. The three of us who remained had other matters to attend to as well. Reality’s blasé sickness was upon me, and I needed exhilaration’s relief.
We crept outside in bleak disharmony, and then made a break for it across the street during a stall in traffic, zigzagging and skidding through the arrayed obstacles of stop-and-go used autos. Leroy bounded up the steps of The Palace Hotel, as bellhops whistled for cabs and carried in luggage and witless patrons stood around ogling the architecture of the three arches overhead and the stained glass. He was pretending to conduct a symphony with his cigarette from the top of the steps, gesticulating calmly with languid semaphore-like sweeps of his arms, head tilted back dramatically, legs crossed at the ankles and gone all scarecrow rubbery, as he wriggled his torso in a magnificently executed epileptic fit. Mr. Cee and I played air violins on the sidewalk as his cigarette-baton act drew to a stunning climax: a feverish roil of strained expressions and bold maneuvers of his raised palm from crescendo to diminuendo. It was Mahler’s 5th, I believe. In a wild moment of exuberance I broke my make-believe violin over a knee as Mr. Cee twirled and tossed his somewhere towards the taxi line. Leroy bowed deeply at the waist, legs crossed the ankles, and threw his now-dead cigarette into the imaginary crowd.
We burst through the entrance door with triumphant zeal, crazed and subdued with the satisfaction of a job well done.
“You were like Bernstein up there!”
Leroy was listing, his legs spread for balance, as if the whole lobby were in an ocean liner on choppy seas. He canted his head, mildly interested in our review of his performance. “I was alright up there. Sure. Yeah. I was BIG. I was…” a shudder went through him like an electric shock, and he let out a quick yip that echoed through the lobby’s interior and the high and wide wildlife refuge of the Garden Court.
I knew that the desk clerk was watching us. His hand was close to the phone, ready to snatch it up and call security at the first sign of trouble. To him we were trouble, and it was only a matter of time before we did something worthy of getting booted from the hotel.
Mr. Cee took control of the situation. “To the facilities with our faculties intact, sirs!” Ushering us both with an arm down the hall to where the restrooms were situated.
The restrooms at the Palace are high quality and pristine, always a swell place to take care of any unfinished business when in the public realm. We splashed our way into the— luckily, for our purposes— empty men’s chamber.
“Ah. This commode will be perfect. What palatial luck.” Mr. Cee rolled up the fishnets on his forearms and pulled out a dime bag of white powder. I could feel the soft downy strains of vellus hair stand up all over my skin in anticipation. “Gentleman, shall we…partake in some nasal insufflation?”
Into a stall we all went, a supplication of a sort to whatever power we would magically be comported by, towards whatever ends we’d meet; or the lifting of all suffering, perhaps, for our trio of waylaid partakers in the ways of all flesh; or just an airy flight to delineate all urges into one comingled plea for forgiveness and sacredness and remembrance and an enhanced eye to enlightenment heretofore to come and reveal itself in this sensory-overloaded madness of conformity and excess and consumption and commercially saturated b.s. that we so offhandedly referred to as civilization as you know it. Or maybe we just wanted to get high.
Leroy stood on the toilet and inhaled a good-sized bump of powder from Mr. Cee’s unflinching mailbox key, and then happily wheezed, “That, yes…that, is, the….stuuuuuuff.”
“And now one for me…and now another for….” he spun his wad of keys towards me, tiny mailbox key still extended, and then sniffed mightily, “…me,” as he dipped the key back in the bag and proceeded to do another quick bump.
“You’re too glorious for this mess, Curly.”
“Fucker.” I was corrupted with anticipation’s impatient ire. “And surely please don’t call me Curly, Moe.”
Leroy fled to the sink. We could hear him wet his hands then dripping the water down his nares, his head likely tilted back like someone trying to staunch a nosebleed the wrong way.
Mr. Cee’s hulking frame was hovering above me with his back to the stall door, the scar-craters on his bulbous nose pulsating, writhing with a life of their own. I was seated on the toilet with the lid closed, waiting for my dollop of courage to be bestowed upon me.
He rooted around in the tiny bag of powder with the key, mashing it up a bit. “You know way a long ago way back in like 1885 these bastards called Parke-Davis sold cocaine legally to the public? They doled it out in cigarettes, powder, and…shit, they even had a liquid ‘Cocaine Mixture Set’ that included a needle for injection. Their big tag line was something like, ‘Our high-quality cocaine products will take the place of meals, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent, and render the sufferer insensitive to pain.’” He stuck the key supporting a wonderful tiny hillock of this pure white powder under my nose and I snorted it up quicker than a blink. “Not a bad description, that, I’d say.”
“Yeah. Seems apropos.”
“It’s all got to do with the complex relationships of the neurotransmitters in our noggins.
“This shit just hops right over the blood-brain barrier and cozies up with the central nervous system. But, but, but, but…la dee Dah, di motherfucking Dah. It’s really all about the coke’s blockade of the dopamine transporter protein. You see, this Dopamine transmitter shit that’s usually released during neural signaling is ten-out-of-ten times recycled via the transporter; you know, like, well…here in the fuck, where were we? Oh yeah, well, your brain up here, you see, it always wants to be in good-old homeostasis, blinking and breathing and all things leveled, and this bike-cop of a transporter binds the transmitter and pumps that goofy fucker out of the synaptic cleft and sends it packing back into the presynaptic neuron, where, you know, it’s booked into the storage vesicles clink. But…!” He took a ponderous moment to thoughtfully arrange his features, tarantula-fuzz eyebrows clinging to the furrowed and glistening curvature of his domed forehead’s basecamp, those bulging eyes intimating pure glee’s cruelest kindness, all forsaken and full of levity, puffy lips flat-lining in playful seriousness. “But, but, but! Our darling cocaine here, well she just tidily binds so very securely at the dopamine transporter, and that goes on and forms a very clingy complex that blocks the transporter from doing its job. So, well, the damn dopamine transporter can no longer perform its reuptake function, and thus…dopamine, that all’s-well neurotransmitter, accumulates in the synaptic cleft, tickling along your mesolimbic pathway, Gabba Gabba Hey-ing with your brain’s reward system, which, for our needy purposes here, means that we are feeling absolutely motherfucking grooooooooooovey…for a bit.”
Leroy pummeled the stall door with a procession of thunderous rapid knocks. “Don’t forget to tell him about Freud, Bozo.”
That first gunky gush of the coke’s drip was lusciously draining down the back of my throat. I knew everything was going to be okay, and no longer had any concerns about what was happening around me. All was well.
“Yes! Oh, fuck, good old Siggie!”
The stall door opened and in came Leroy’s scrambled visage. Mr. Cee put another bump under the nose, which was confiscated neatly up the sinuses, and then the head disappeared with a curt wink.
“I think it was around, what, 1884? That wonder of couch and consultation, Sigamundo the Fried, he published his voluminous work Über Coca, in which he wrote that cocaine causes, ahem: ‘Exhilaration and lasting euphoria…you perceive an increase of self-control and possess more…vitality.’ Or some such drivel. The guy had major issues with the stuff. Injected it, I believe. Had to go to rehab to get off it. Maybe I’m wrong, but what’s the difference? How did I get going on all this? Where are my pants?”
“You’re wearing them, Mister.”
“As. Yes. Yes. Good. That’s something I can count on, at least. Now. For the completion of this kindly derangement of all sense.”
I took another bump, as did he, and we dilly-dallied our way to the sink. Leroy was gone. Some pleased and neat white-coated waiter came in and didn’t mind us at all, heading directly into a stall— most likely, I figured, to partake in some of the same sort of Instant Smile indulging that we had. We dripped some water down our noses from the sink and went out to see what dangerous positon Leroy might be putting himself in.
The hallway was deserted. Mr. Cee plowed ahead of me in some desperate attempt at recon. As for me, I skipped and tumbled my way out into the elaborately ornamented lobby, dreaming of martinis and macadamia nuts.
Once there, I tried strolling, both hands clasped behind my back, performing circular patterns as best I could around by that nervous pipsqueak of a desk clerk. It wasn’t easy. My equilibrium was unstable at best. Something was off. I could feel some bile climbing up my throat, and my stomach was churning away, and I was queasy as hell, and it was hard to put my feet out in front of me in an orderly fashion. So I decided to have a seat on a rococo revival canapé, which was the closest thing to me, but also, unfortunately, directly across from the desk clerk, who was now really giving me a nasty look. The canapé was a nice thing to sit on. The green cushions were soft and took my weight nicely, and it was a good height from the floor, so my knees didn’t come up too high while I sat there recuperating. I looked over at the desk clerk and gave him a good-natured smile. He didn’t smile back. Instead he started feigning as if he were busy reading something on his desk. I sat there and tried to pull myself together.
The Palace Hotel is very old and very grand, its fanciness legendary. All kinds of swell-looking folks were treading their way around in the lobby. It was making me feel a bit nervous, so I got up—while the desk clerk was preoccupied with some more pressing matters—and walked over to the Garden Court dining hall, which was very commodious. It had large glass windows all over the wide arching expanse of the ceiling, letting in a good amount of natural light. I walked around in there, scouting it out. Only a few couples were seated at tables. I guess it was too early for dinner and too late for lunch. The sound of my footsteps was reverberating loudly all over the damn place. I tried to tiptoe, but couldn’t quite remember how. I rubbernecked the ceiling, and also all around at all the nice chairs and tables with nice tablecloths being bathed in all that refracted sunlight. It seemed like such a waste. I went over and sat down at one of the nice tables.
Soon a few burly guys in matching, dark blue, ill-fitting suits came over to where I was biding my time, and they stood around me like a couple of trained apes, chewing gum and giving me an icy glare. One of the guys even curled his lip a little. It wasn’t pretty. I threw up in my mouth a little. I didn’t like the taste of that, so picked up one of the embroidered napkins folded expertly there on the table, unfolded it gingerly, and spit into it what had accrued in my mouth. The beefy duo did not like that at all. One of them curtly hissed, “Hey buddy! Stop that. Not in here. Not in here.”
“So, should I take this napkin elsewhere?”
They really didn’t like that. Then they both sicced an arm, and I was promoted from my sitting position, and promptly carried out like a rolled-up carpet through the lobby by these two HGH addicts. It wasn’t that bad. I like being carried around. There’s something kingly about it.
I was alone, at last, and, in general, feeling damn alright about it. But there were matters that needed attending to. I walked down to Market and took a left around to the other side of the hotel. I knew the hotel bar was over there, and figured that’s where I’d find my two companions. I swung through the doors and made it in without a hitch.
I was right. There they were, at the bar below that horrible too-well-lit Pied Piper painting, yapping away like a couple of dunces among the lawyers and the hedge-fund goons.
“Glad you two shit-for-brains found another bar to hold up while I was busy being escorted out to the curb.”
“You schmuck.” Leroy’s vacuous face scrunched and panned, “You’re always getting the boot. What you need to learn is how to comport yourself under duress.”
Mr. Cee whirled around on his barstool to face me. “Can’t you see that this man’s in dire need of a shave? Where is the barber in this institution? Get this man to a barbershop!”
I didn’t say anything. I just stood there and scoped out the terrible scene. Overweight prunes in business suits sat at marble tables, bland as plain bagels, under the oak beams and the yellow light spreading its gruesome tendrils from the rectangles of skylight glass; the wood paneling and all the stupid framed pictures of Nobodies on the wall; the defeated and oblivious; the wounded and wasted lives.
“This is the most unsatisfactory crap of a scene I’ve ever…”
The tool of a bartender swept up some crumbs from the space in front of Leroy and Mr. Cee with a pristine bar rag. “And a drink for you, sir?”
“He doesn’t partake in drink. This man’s a teetotaler with a capital T.” Mr. Cee was on a talking jag, and couldn’t help blurting whatever inane things were spuming unstuck in his craw. “Lapidary courage aside, the mettle of this here individual is not to be scoffed at. But, as for myself, well, my constitution’s erratic and poorer for the wear, and so I will have another of these little ladies.”
I just nodded and preened the space where my mustache would go if I had one. The bartender made some girlie concoction for Mr. Cee, which was gulped down with immense satisfaction. “That, that…yes, that is the stuuuuuuuff!” He cracked his neck a few times to both sides and mildly burped into a fist.
I’d had more than enough of whatever was flourishing in the place: “Let’s vamoose, kids. The circus’s left town, and we’re not steady enough to hold any of this.”
Nothing happened for a few gradually more hung-up moments, and then some Barry Manilow came on, and that got us up and out of there. It felt good to be leaving under my own willpower.
We strolled proud and bold and wild down the midday sidewalk of the world. Back-clapping and ribald out over that poured concrete ribbon with its cross-lying strain relief grooves, all those tiny pebbles inside some of the squares of the cement, the cement that is more gray and ashy than white, all of those things you never notice until you really look, the grime yellowing in the cracks, the various stains, bird shit splats, more dog shit than you’d expect, the coverplates of electrical boxes all worn and dimpled with a thousand seasons of wear, water damage, bumps from roots under the ground coming up and breaking apart the surface, the surface that is rough and hard and chipped and sad, speckled with black tarry splotches of flattened gum and too many cigarette butts to count.
Shadows dripped and puddled, elongated to more slender strips of stable objects: the slim cut of mailboxes and newspaper dispensers and traffic stanchions and sidewalk trees strung through the enormous block-long blemishes of high-rises, office towers, and other skyscraping wonders of the old modern world. Market was crammed with its usual plodding investigations of bumper-following day drivers, taxis peeling out and checkering through the scrum, daring young bike riders narrowly avoiding death at all times streaming along the gutters with the greatest of ease, while the refurbished museum-piece trolleys wallowed and bumped and clacked their iron-grind and grunts ringing-out down the tracks in the middle of the whole fiasco, side panels rattling above the rails, tethered by trolley poles to the sizzle of the electric wires above, blasting that wailing scrape of metal on metal; and shoppers and loiterers abounded all around us, people drawn and disaffected, wearing advertisements and slogans for the rich and puissant, not paying attention to detail, uncurious, blinders on, streaming along a one-way dreamless pipe, always just barely satisfied enough with the filler and junk of pseudo-nourishment to not strive after richer experiences, unconcerned with the quality of their lives spent buying the products they’ve been conditioned to desire. It was all a gag, a mordant kiss-off for the breadwinning bullshit of commercial excess: dulled promises of better things to come, a sapped feeling that you just aren’t quite good enough, so you better put that latest electronic gizmo on your credit card so you can feel better about your role in this vicious circle’s trap of, “Buy now, or be left behind.” The cards were all the same: fraudulent jokers with dollar signs in their inveigling eyes. But you kept picking up the next one dealt, just in case there were bluer skies up ahead somewhere, and, maybe, some pie cooling on the counter to abate your discontent. The job, the bills, the need to eat three square and have a roof overhead when it rained. Who cared about voting rights when the water heater was on the fritz and the fridge was buzzing like a hacksaw? Work, go home exhausted, watch the requited amount of television, sleep if you can, wake up and do it all again. And no hangovers on Monday, please.
“For Kee-A-Ricest Sakes! Let’s bustle, folks!” Mr. Cee was pounding the pavement at a good clip, leaving Leroy and I huffing to keep up. He twisted around and gave us a heavy glower. “This is no good. No good at all. Groucho!” He extended a thick, knobby forefinger towards me as I came close.
“Yah. Yah. Hay. Yah.” I pretended my cigarette were a cigar and put on a show with my eyebrows. “Yesterday I shit my pajamas on an elephant.”
“Onward, Petal Pluckers. This is not some Saturnalia romp. I have an impending business transaction to arrange.”
We had no idea what any of it meant, but we weren’t averse to being led by his nutty abstractions. There wasn’t much else left to do but be caught between fleeing one place and traversing to another.
I sneezed and blessed myself.
We crossed against all lights, without the least regard for pedestrian safety guidelines. Leroy was almost clipped by a Vespa as he hobbled to avoid it head on. He snarled at the poor bastard in charge of it, “Hey, ass munch! For the love of dogs, learn how control that damn contraption next time, or your horse is going to be radished.” The silver-helmeted hipster flipped him off with a puffy gloved finger while gunning it onward and away.
I yanked him onto the sidewalk. “Let’s not get yourself mutilated over trifles, okay?”
“Sure. Sure. Fuck. Ok. By the way, where exactly in hell are we going?”
“I think the 2nd or 3rd circle. Around the corner from lust, just a few blocks from gluttony. Hey, look! It’s Patrick & Company!” The blue cursive hovered above us, gorgeously drab underneath the chain-link cage of the fronting. “I love that fucking sign, man.”
Leroy hawked a thick loogie into a treewell. “I enjoy the other side more.”
“We’ll get there. Don’t worry.” Mr. Cee was on point and fulminating. He beckoned us next door to the Sutter Station bar. “Through the gray gates, trespassers!” We followed.
Sutter Station was an old tavern jammed between Market and Sutter, with an entrance on each street. A long, narrow bar, right by the triangle-shaped block corner there, and had a pool table, a jukebox, and some tables with chairs, but that’s about it. Leroy and I grabbed two seats at the bar while Mr. Cee hightailed it for another destination in some obsolete corner beyond sighting. The place smelled about as bad as Noah’s ark must have.
Per usual the bar was a disorderly mess of derelicts and drunks and cheap prostitutes and speed freaks and euro trash from the hostel next door. I didn’t feel out of place. Sitting on a crooked stool next to me was a retirement-aged woman in a well-loved, tattered kimono who looked like she’d just gotten into a fight with a Christmas tree. Her high-cheeked-boned face was all smashed in, dark-spotted and pocked with welts and warty masses like rivets— but she had a few teeth left, and didn’t smell quite as bad as a dumpster. I tried to imagine her as a little baby, as she’d undoubtedly once been: someone’s small bundle of joy wrapped up in swaddling bands, being burped and nursed, holding a rattle, saying her first words, soft and diapered, cheeks dabbed in pink hues as she slept innocently on her side in a crib. And here she was now, all woebegone and wrinkled and sallow, a despicably soiled refutation of purity and virtue and moral rectitude: this is what life made of us, what time did to us; these are the things that we become as the past just spools out behind, the failure building and building, gnawing at us in an awful pandemonium until we die.
Elbows on the bar, rocking on my stool a bit, nodding my head and tapping my feet to the Kitty Wells song on the jukebox, I was doing alright. I ordered a can of PBR and put a cigarette in my ear, Leroy-style, hoping that I’d remember to smoke it at some point. Not now though. Not yet. Just sitting there like that, taking hits from my can of PBR, loving the almost holy way things seemed to be occurring, the way they happened, and kept happening, and how I was swimming in it, free, alone, not bothered at all, dreamy even, and at last unfettered from my inhibitions, I was stronger than Atlas and smarter than Einstein, I was where the weather suited my clothes, I was steeped in the good, and the moral, and the beautiful, in the awing ways that the universe moved, and all of my moments were ecstatic and surcharged with meaning. The haggard woman sitting on the bar stool next to me swiveled around, looked at me, tried to say something, made a face like a witch being strangled, and promptly vomited on the floor by my shoes. It was time to smoke that cigarette. I left a few bucks for the bartender and made my exit. Leroy stayed behind to enjoy the dark indoors.
“I only dream in black and white. Except for people’s faces. And cats. That’s my burden, I guess.”
This was some scrawny guy with bad teeth who claimed to be on, “crystal, man.” He had a RoboCop t-shirt on that was so thin that its image of the famous sci-fi crime fighter could’ve passed for a faded tattoo on his chest.
I was okay with it. For some reason I was okay with everything at this point.
“Have you read about me? I’m almost surely famous by now.”
“Yeah. Sure. I believe I read about you in the Bible Comics last week.”
“That’s a riff on being human, I guess. God’s got thicker skin than most. At best I’m a malcontent hooligan with silver stars on my ass, right?”
“That’s good enough for me, buddy.”
“Holly or holy?”
“Sure. It’s all either without an or. And the streets here are lined with coal. Hey, man. Look. I ain’t anybody’s intended. And me, I am for sure not in the business of telling anyone, ‘I admire every square inch of your person,’ or anything like that. Listen up, Lenny Bruce. Or it’s just the same, I guess. I’ve got a dirty mouth but no no-talent wife anymore. Let me tell you, none of it’s ‘pretty good’ at all.”
“Your smoke’s out.”
All the jawing had somehow put my cigarette to sleep. I just shook my head at it, muttering, “Everything’s wrecked.” I flicked the useless prop into the street where it lay waiting to be floated off into the grates of a storm drain during the next downpour, eventually making its way out to sea, and probably ending up with hundreds of other butts on the beach where some unsuspecting kid poking around in the sand might pick it up and wonder, ‘How the hell did this get here?” I hated myself for the dalliance, but couldn’t rouse enough gumption to go snag the thing up for some reason, and so left it there to let nature and time do what it may to it— just like me.
The RoboCop fan wandered off, likely in search of his next meth fix, and Leroy popped out of the bar to join me.
“There it is. Patrick & Co. in all its glory. That whole back side. God, what a fucking radiant beauty she is.” Leroy bent over and lit a cigarette, cupping it against the breeze with a sure hand, and then leaned back, cigarette propped straight up from the vise of his firm lips, to admire the sights.
It was true. Those twin Doric columns below the AD MCMVI in the plaster laurel band. Those sleepy fluorescents behind the indented windows. And that soot-coated gunmetal sign reading, “Patrick & Co.” in the typewriter-style font of Ring Lardner and A.J. Liebling. While exhaling a train song of smoke, Leroy dictated from it: “Stationers. Painters. Metal Products. And rubber stamps. Fucking rubber stamps. Don’t make ‘em like they used to, used to do.” The store itself drab and humble below with it spacious windows and cluttered interior, the window display of arts-and-crafts tchotchkes hung from a dull black board. And just that single lonely fire hydrant planted out front, a weathered veteran of famous times and the bland curses of the present.
“Why don’t we go in there? Buy a thousand pieces of felt. Toss ‘em like confetti at oncoming traffic, or take some poster board and drift it out to sea at Ocean Beach.”
Leroy did his best imitation of a person scoffing. “You’d never make it as an artist. Not enough subtlety. Too many ‘big’ ideas.”
“Eat a tire, dick.”
“Maybe I will. Steal a spare from some unsuspecting fucker’s trunk. Roast it up first, just for the smell.”
“Nothing like the scent of burning rubber to whet your appetite. By the way, I don’t think I’ve had any food for quite a while.”
“Food’s for chumps and door-to-door insurance salesmen. We should crave better sustenance: blimp wreckage, the worn-out tennis balls from walkers, portraits of murdered birds.”
“Funny thing is, I’m not at all hungry, really. Why’d I say ‘funny’? There’s nothing funny about that.”
A moment of brutal silence ensued. Both of us pretended to be lost in thought.
“By the who, you seen Mr. Cee around in there at all?”
“Ah, that guy. He’s dealing, or be dealt, or something. You know, he’s in cahoots with the seedier sort. You feel like taking a walk?”
“Yes. Absolutely. Let’s case a few blocks for signs of life. There’s a place north a bit I’d like to check on, see how it’s getting along.”
We galloped off up Sansome, alert but not on edge. Pigeons amassed around a fallen hot dog, pecking at the bun and each other, madly, with sustained passion and vitriol: a blurred strabismic bludgeoning of blue-green and gray and black wings and feathers, without regard for the needs of others. Want’s force breeding selfishness as survival instincts took over. And the weaker ones, some with mangled feet and missing toes, unable to fend for themselves, left behind, unfit to pass on their craven genes to the next generation, and the powerful got well-fed and widespread, and the whole damn mess of evolution slowly and surely carried on with its harsh and thoughtless ways, leaving nothing but bones to turn to dust in a ditch somewhere just off the main drag in an abandoned parking lot where even the grass won’t grow anymore. I wished them all a lot of luck with it all and walked on.
We hung a right on Bush, there, and I led Leroy down to one of my favorite buildings in the universe.
“See that man? That’s the skinniest building in town. 130 Bush.”
“Wow. That sucker’s just rammed in there like a pipe.”
“Yeah. Such a tall and slender beauty. I love how it’s all squashed-in between those two way broader and way taller buildings. You know, it was built on a lot that was only 20 feet wide and eighty feet deep, man. That’s it. At first it was a necktie, belt, and suspender factory. Built in 1910, its ten stories made it the tallest building around at the time. See that front? It’s got a gothic façade and it’s faced with glazed terra cotta tiles, and each story has hammered copper tiles outside and bowed windows with prisms that direct the sunlight into the narrow interior. That’s the Grant building on the left, there, and that hulking mammoth on the right’s the Shell building, and they just fucking smash the thing in from both sides, making it seem like…or, well, to me…so it seems to like squash its narrow frame and cause the bowed windows to bend. It’s a great optical illusion of a sort. Sometimes I stand across the street and stare at it, wishing that inside one of the windows were a gumshoe’s office, or a writer pounding away at his typewriter, taking nips from a bottle of whiskey and chain smoking.”
“That sounds about right.”
We stood there, gawking, outside of the Crown-Zellerbach across the street, lost for a bit in the dream of it all. The darkened windows where long ago men had worked making belts, neckties, and suspenders, and had looked out onto The City from what at the time was a very high place. Now it seemed puny and ill-conceived, strangled between two much wider and taller beasts, not even enough room to slide a hand between its brick and their sides. It looked quite splendid though, like an overlooked pearl hiding in the murk, waiting patiently to be discovered.
Downtown’s blocks were starting to bustle. The short-sellers and the office workers, the early risers and men of competence and esteem, were getting off work and parading about in swift motion, on their way no doubt to a Happy Hour festivity of bug-eyed TV glancing and drink-special sipping. There was never any relief that lasted for long. I knew we were done for, that we needed a change of location, but I didn’t want to bow down to it all and abscond to safer hunkering downs just yet. These were my streets too. I’d walk them if I damn well pleased.
We pushed off down Bush, headed west, as young men should.
“Ah. The Mills building. I’ll always admire the way those shadows come curling into it from the Russ building across the street. And look at that sucker. The Russ. It’s an incredible building. A landmark. Neo-gothic, steel frame, thirty-two stories of terra cotta tile and brick. When it was built in 1927 it was the tallest building in all the land.”
“Damn finest shade, huh?”
“But the Mills, man.”
We slipped across the street to give it a better gander.
“Mr. Mills commissioned his darling in 1891. And he opted for a pretty revolutionary style, for its time, of architecture. It was done by Burnham and Root of Chicago. All 154 feet of its steel frame. You know something? It’s San Francisco’s only remaining example of this Chicago School of architecture, outlasting the old Chronicle Building at Market and Kearny, which, hell, you know, has been entirely modified. But this here dignified lady? Well she survived the 1906 earthquake, although the interior was virtually gutted by the ensuing fire. It was Mr. Willis Polk of all people who oversaw the building’s restoration in 1907, adhering, of course, to its original design.”
“Gosh to all fucking gollies, I love those first two stories of white Inyo marble, and that street entrance arch; Richardson-Romanesque style; its carved acanthus leaf and egg-and-dart molding framing four pairs of marble Corinthian columns. And check out that fucking staircase in the lobby, man. All original Jaune Fleuri marble. And the floor: sleek inlaid black Belgian marble and lavish Roman travertine.”
Leroy put his face right up to the window and began tapping softly on the glass with all his fingers: “The yuppies are coming, the yuppies are coming, the yuppies are…ah, shit. Fuck it. They’re already here.”
He was right. They were ubiquitous, raising the rents, destroying all signs of culture in their path, swelling and festering from all the city’s wounds and plundered parts, hell-bent on domination, on squelching the warbling voices of the passed-over and floundering and forgotten who worked shitty, unnoticed, and necessary jobs to keep “their” city functioning while these hedonistic mammals treated it as an amusement park and used it as their own personal toilet.
“We better best I bet be getting a going.”
I nodded as best as my capsized spirits would allow. “Uh…huh.
“Ah. Fuck it. Let’s got to The Booth.”
The Phone Booth was a dumpy and cramped corner bar in the Mission, close to Leroy’s place. He’d probably logged in more hours there than he did at home.
“Nah. If I spend any more time taking up space there, they’re going to start charging me rent.”
The sea parted. The sky cracked open and groaned. Nations fell and were rebuilt by the conquering knaves. Urinals flushed. A taxi pulled up to us at the curb.
From the back of the cab, Mr. Cee bellowed above a partly rolled-down window, “Attention, irresponsible twerps! You’re ride has arrived. Get in!”
Geary was all stacked up with the accordion stretch of 38s and the usual composite of taxis and tourists and other unsatisfied customers. Our driver, a staunch Marxist with a flowing white Sam-Elliott mustache who’d been driving, “for longer than BART’s been in business,” kept assuring us out of the side of his mouth that all things were going to be, “picture-fucking-perfect for you fellas until life does you part.” I asked him what he thought of Engels, and he got a bit unruly, weaving into the next lane by Union Square. “Fucking Engels? That cotton-twill blend of a bastard. He was the brains to Karly Boy’s brawn. All tact and squares without logic’s circles or any of the mettle. I swear on my mother’s maiden name, what a once-in-a-generational duo. But talent’s bullshit. Hard work’s all there is to know about it.”
I decidedly whispered just so Leroy could hear it: “Can we turn that down? I’ve had an awful day, and I fucking hate the Engels.”
Fatty Arbuckle’s downfall and career-killer, the St. Francis hotel, went by on the right, and so did Lefty’s on the left, where this whole good-Christian and godly day had begun for me. We passed the corner Walgreens with the always motley assortment of harassing panhandlers out front, and winnowed our fitful way through the Tenderloin’s chops: the shoe repair shop; the half-dozen dry cleaners with odd pieces of lost attire displayed in their windows like museum pieces; the corner stores; the Thai noodle houses; the hostels and SROs; the by-the-slice pizza places; the halal groceries; the “saunas” and massage parlors and The Goodwill; the disorderly malcontents huddled beneath awnings, having shouting matches and fistfights with ghosts, and falling off curbs; and the crumbling remains of bits of neon sputtering on in barely kept-together signs. We were being steered towards a destination, bundled up in the backseat, together, not a worry to our name just at the moment, not looking backwards or ahead, lazing in a certain unbinding of all restrictions, thoughtless and safe, and I found enough contentment in that to last until we got there.
Our fearless cabbie went into full seminar mode: “Something new comes along, and then something newer. The gap closing between the two exponentially faster all the time. Soon we’ll reach that point of singularity in the accelerating returns of it, and there will truly be no difference tween what’s new and what’s next. It’ll all be one whoosh, a steady stream instead of a rung-by-rung climb. Your days will be filled with electronic birdcall and flurries of mechanosynthesis flicking the molecular switch of your dreams on and off, on and off. Your impulse control gets outsourced to the highest bidding handheld device. All your moments coalesce into one uniform moment, and perhaps you might find yourself rocked to sleep by a sheep-counting machine.”
He maneuvered around a double-parked van, plunging the three of us against the side door, as he plastered the horn with blows and seethed with saliva-specked vituperations at the perpetrator of this crime against all that was proper and well-groomed and benignant in the world. We righted ourselves. He drove on down Geary, continuing his sermon.
“All we are is the garbage we make and leave behind. The commensurate decisions of a dashed-off morality one must make in a money-as-purpose culture. The expediency of the moment becomes all there is. And so everything gets swept under the proverbial rug of distraction so as to retain the ability to escape confrontation with the unpleasant realities of the world. Just some brief freedom from the fucking social contract— that’s all we go poking around for. I guess we just get sick of living within these constraints. So, hell, let’s all make babies and prove a few TV pundits wrong under the holy kinetic strobe of redundancy while we’re at it.”
Our cranky caretaker slammed the cab’s tires right up and into the curb by The Edinburgh Castle. “You’ve got to have balance, boys. And step-to-it-ness. Love for The City always; love for its denizens when they deserve it.” He kept chattering as we shook ourselves free from the backseat’s seatbelts and swarmed out the gutter-side door. “Well, you have clearly and definitely reached your trip’s end. Make this not your last, and better make the night last.” I tipped him well, as is my wont for those who so gallantly offer up their services to the meek and poor-of-heart such as I, and slammed the door shut with all the whimpering klutzy passion of a servile, soon-to-ex-communicated priest who’s just shit his cassock. I was ready for anything.
The Edinburgh was pretty vacant, and we had our pick of places to plop down and corroborate our commiseration with beer and whiskey. High-backed booths lined up on the right after the narrow entryway led us in, and the dank and sordid dark seemed a most suitable scene to escape into. I left Leroy and Mr. Cee in one of the booths and went bar-ward to procure libations.
A few clammy citizens were humping the bar, and I leaned into the midst of it, waiting for the rangy old Irish man behind it to make his way to where I was doing the leaning. His hair was slicked back with pomade, graying to a white a luster, and he limped over to me without even the hint of urgency.
I ordered three beers and three whiskies. He moved as if his check-engine light were on and his parts were in some dire need of replacing.
The artifacts of the bar began to step out from their blending into the scenery on the wall. I took some short sips from the first beer he set down and let my eyes roam. There was a row of extremely dust-ridden model airplanes hanging on wires from the ceiling, with the exception of a lone ancient hot-air balloon or airship of some sort. A few toy soldiers were gathering grime on a shelf along with bowling trophies, some featuring headless and/or arm-less bowlers on top, and a viola with only two strings left on it lay on its side between two bottles of gin. The ceiling’s rafters were showing, something I’ve always admired in places, and there was a Schlitz-themed clock leaning against the bar’s top shelf set 15 minutes ahead. I only found this fact out because some smashed acorn of a guy at the other end of the bar rose up suddenly to berate it, “It’s a quarter past four! My good fucking god! A whole damn quarter! I want my money back! My change!” before slumping back into a woozy stupor. The bartender didn’t even flinch while going through the steady routes of his pint pouring. Up above were the tables and chairs on the narrow hulls of the second floor’s U-shaped gallery, and to the north, of course, the lone pool table taking up most of the space on a raised stage. Nobody was racking the balls or calling banks or scribbling their names on the chalkboard on the back wall at the moment. Everything was bleak and desolate and out-of-order, and quite lovely.
I managed to only spill about a third of the beers on my shoes as I clumsily balanced them together in both hands to the booth. Then I went back for the whiskey, drank one off for my troubles, got the gruff and now-somewhat-perturbed barman to pour me another, and plowed back to the booth again with less trouble this time, setting the shot glasses down with a butcher’s soft touch.
“Here we go.”
“Here’s to being alone.”
“Let’s have us a toast, kids. Like grace before supper.”
“How about it, Leroy?”
“Toast? I’m a-fear-ud I might’a burnt it.”
“Come on. Let’s have a toast to the criminals and the boozers and the red-letter whores. All of us scum down here scurrying around in the jackhammered sidewalk.”
I tried to sneak a sip from my pint glass but Mr. Cee swiped at my arm, knocking the sip to the table instead.
I tried out a hymn: “The laundry’s in the window. The bok choy is in the street. And the China Boys are exploding firecrackers against the wall. When you’re south of south of The Slot, and the Old Mint’s making change, and the trolley sounds like a whine of a dog. Emperor Norton is drunk in The Cobweb Palace. His self-issued bonds are on the table. The N-Owl is going home. It’s pouring yuppies. It’s pouring trash. Yes, it’s true, there’s nothing left for us around here.”
“That’s more like it. Hell, here’s to the Chickamauga in all of us, and a girl from Florida named Sara Soda, and the poor and the proper, and the barstool aficionados, and the blind and insane, and the courters of bootleg princesses, and the holy creampuffs, and the soot-ridden, and those called Late For Breakfast, and Countee Cullen too, and the ribald hope that resides in all of us that maybe one day we’ll get what’s always been reserved ‘deserved for others’ for ourselves. Here’s to God and country, and the devil and hell, Plutarch and ashtrays and blue jays. Here’s to the brunt of all this heaving and slobbing around: the cost of what’s gone going ripe-plum crazy in the cigarette smoke of any ode or epode you’d ever chance to get your grubby mitts on, and all the mixed up ways that we are who we are, always and never too, in the deep-sapphire belly of the world.”
Without minding our Ps & Qs at all, we clinked pints and drank.
Leroy deer-leapt his way over to the jukebox, and soon the place was curdled with music.
Tim Harden’s If I Were a Carpenter came on, and I started signing my own lyrics to it:
“If a bricklayer were my trade, and you were a pool man’s daughter, I’d wrestle you anyway, armed without a bother. Sniff some glue for holiness. Sip some dew for slaughter. Give me back my loneliness. I’ll be your to-morrow.”
Soon my bladder was rankled once again. I was off to the bathrooms, stutter-stepping up the stairs to the stage and hanging a swift left behind the chalkboard, past some hideous framed paintings, and into that insanely urine-soaked closet of a single urinal mashed right up against a most incommodious stall. It wreaked of camphor and Lysol. The sink was outside, at least, so one could sing Happy Birthday in peace.
As I emptied my bladder with a foot jammed tight against the base of the lock-less door, I began to get dreamy and obscure, my head a winter birch bereft of leaves, accompanied by a slight tingling of the skull. Ramona…
Remember when I was once your only cantaloupe? And you were so small, never taking up much space, just a passenger pigeon dying in a cage.
Holding our heads lower in the funny rub of a chin or a cheek, chipper, mostly smiles, in the lowering of spirits on a just-made bed: something that once held the weight of us so well. All the things we never said out loud. All the kidnapped silence we begged from each other. You and I were not made of turquoise or copper wires; and I told you about my particular type of keeping over Beethoven’s 14th and a glass of chartreuse. And so now, only, the insulation of forgiveness aggrandizes with each morning’s weeping. I know the place on the back of your wrist where you liked to be kissed by heart; the way you breathed, “Alack and alas,” brushing over my earlobe; your wristwatch ticking madly by my ear as the rain fell all over Kentucky outside the cheapest hotel room we could find; the comforting tedium of your tiniest gestures; the safety in the drip of your gold gooey eyes. Nobody sends me postcards anymore. Your perfume’s gone off to other haunts. And most mornings I still find myself making coffee for two.
There was a place once that I knew so well, a spot just right for spying the fall of blossoms and petals, or the twitchy dive and swoop of a killdeer in the mudflats as it calls its own name over and over; a place carved into the rocks of a steep hillside, like some sort of crenellation or redoubt in the fold of an ancient bulwark; somewhere where we could be away, and finally be alone.
Your name’s on a sign hanging from a bedpost in some tawdry one-night parlor room. The windows all filled with rain. The lights low. Hell, I’m just too damn romantic. A sip of our past, and it’s lights out, Lady. I’m through, through-and-through.
Bladder emptying complete, I zipped up and parted ways with my past for a bit longer, serenading myself with my own words to a Dylan song playing outside as I soaped up my hands, “Ramona, my starling, rub roughly your succulent sties, the tips of all toe-ness will scoop coffee from May Day on high, for the sewers passed gasses, though cough-like, get life-like sometimes, and my use’s done abiding, to deal with your dying…” I stopped myself, feeling the head rush of incipient tears, and rinsed my hands under the drizzling faucet.
Once back at the table I gave Leroy some intense grief.
“What kind of heartless bastard would put on that song at a time like this?”
“Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to. Seriously. I fucked up. I hit the wrong number or letter or something.” He looked genuinely penitent.
“It’s okay. I’m fine. Really. And I’m about ready to be almost dandy too.” I drank off my whiskey before any more moments could be lost. “I’ll be all fixed up in no time.” Anything that might’ve been itching at my throat was eradicated.
Mr. Cee was deep in the throes of removing his eyebrow dandruff with his nails, plucking out the white shrapnel and gingerly flicking it to the floor.
I didn’t want to think about how to call someone who is in the hospital, or Ohio visiting hours, or the coal clump buried and knotted in my gut’s pit. My needs and wants were all jumbled.
“Accostings be damned, let’s roulette this tete-a-tete to a more cordial zone of occupation.” Mr. Cee, now finished with his eyebrow work, caromed out of the booth like a loosed brick from a chimney.
We reconvened in the smoking room, which was a makeshift storage space abutting the front window. An abused upright piano was pushed against the back wall, and there were shelf-like rails along the walls at about chest high where you could set your drink or ash your cigarette into a mason jar.
Sorrow was hung high and dry in that room: a bush-league sadness that really put your socks back on for you, a lilt of a cobwebbed stitch in the fabric of any conceit you might get around to having. Cracks in the molding, stress lines like slanted state borders in the ceiling, floorboards cursed with grime and years of sopped-up spilled beer, the distance riven between things was lacquered thick with mold and misgivings. We were carrying the load of it, whatever it was, and there wasn’t a cigarette in the world that could fix what was wrong with me; but I struck up a match to light one just the same.
A cigarette to make the madness of sustained hurt subside. That deep drag of eternity cooing its surety all over you. Exhaling the giant jaw-drop exhilaration of being alive. A broken-ankle waltz, partner-less, failing beautifully every time at perfection’s Sisyphean task: just the way you should, chocking on success’s excess and defect, reeling with mistakes and false starts, taking insane and perilous chances on yourself to be something more than a blown wall safe of beaten-down misgivings and fear. This was what I was telling myself.
Leroy seated himself at the rundown piano, plunking and poking at the damaged keys—some of which were permanently stuck down, and some completely absent from the keyboard—while Mr. Cee dragged me over by the window and stuck his mailbox key under my nose. I quickly sniffed up that abominable white powder laid so gently on the cuts of the key’s blade.
“Where is this? I mean, when is this?” I was in the midst of some head shakes and shudders.
“Not to worry. There is no present. All we are is past. Time gone.”
I was reassured by this somehow. Mr. Cee had a way of making nonsense meaningful.
Leroy was immersed in making noise at the piano, sending out these melancholic chards and slipped-discs of notes into the muggy atmosphere. A mournfulness ensued.
“This is a wake, man. It’s a fucking wake. I lost my love in a four-car pileup long before you even knew what driving was. Send away the damn clowns. We need a mortician and a holy man.”
“You only get one chance. You get that one chance. And that’s it. It’ll last the rest of your life.”
“And, man, let me tell you, it’ll never just ‘go away’, whatever that would mean anyway.” He did a few more bumps, as did I. We were right by the front window. Anyone could’ve just strolled by and seen us in there blasting illegal drugs up our sinuses. We didn’t care.
“It just stays and stays. There’s no place you can just put it.”
I lifted my beer from the shelf I’d set it on. I thought about taking a swig, but couldn’t stop my mouth: “I’ve got guilt all wrenched in my guts, all of this shimmying and boasting and showing-off that I keep at, I don’t know, it’s like…pulse-less…whatever, it just keeps throbbing through me: you’re no good, you’re not doing enough; you’re a whiner; you should get out more; work harder at things; stop being such a lassitudinous waste of space.”
“Lassy-tude-a-whats? That’s a word?”
“I don’t know I don’t care I don’t know what did you know…did you even know that there are just all these nowheres left to go to. Just another dweeb using the Fibonacci sequence to draw golden spirals of purpose into the phyllotaxis of a stem’s leaves or the arrangement of a pine cone’s bracts. Hell, give me Pascal’s triangle any day, summed shallow diagonals and all. Like the sadness of fog. Just as long as that atomic clock’s up and running away with it. A gorgeous subset. A real golden ratio of a thing. And you know what? I’m still not sure of Cassini and Catalan’s Identities, but I’m sure they’re someone. You know that, though, you always do, right? Right?”
“Ah. I don’t get it. I really don’t. And now the sickeningly hip crowd’s been run out by a new exponentially dastardly wealthy crowd, the power-hungry leaches and tumors of society — and all the trickling down in the world ain’t going to do us a damn Nilla wafer of good. The needy and disheveled are being left for alive, barely, in a world that has no need for common sense or courtesy or just plain human compassion of any form. Culture’s become an item to be bought and sold, not sustained. A room’s just a place to sell to the highest bidder, not a place to live. These giant corporations come in and takeover without a care except to make more profit than they did last quarter in order to please their shareholders. And the rest of us? I guess we get to go take a flying fuck.”
I coughed into my sleeve and drank a long draught of my beer. Mr. Cee’s eyes seemed riveted to something inconsequential. I was staring off at a few girls who’d just wandered in, and were now smoking around the broken-down piano where Leroy was still making his sad discordant noises.
“We’re losing our functional qualities as emotional beings. We’re becoming statistics in some moneymaker’s ledger, unable to cope, suffocating in the stranglehold of the traded stocks and bonds our lives have become. Emptiness suffuses us. We are bank accounts and digital data and blips on a screen, routing numbers and serial numbers and passwords…but when some things go it’s for good…and what’s lost stays gone…always…what’s lost…what is lost?
“What it is, is that you’ve got these real estate speculators thumbing through the housing stock, only interested in making a quick buck and then making a quicker exit. They are stealing people’s homes, robbing poor people of their livelihood without a thought or care to whose lives it is that they are destroying. It’s not enough to just sit back and hope that you’re not next. We’ve gotta, well, just rise up against them, strip them of their powers by enacting laws and electing representatives who actually represent our interests; the interests of the people who live here; not those who greedily bulldozer the citizens of our community down; those who raze people’s homes just to erect condos and ghost towers that gleam emptily like monuments to their excess. Nobody’s home. And soon everybody’s homeless.”
“Just because you’re not part of the problem doesn’t mean that you are part of the solution.”
That Mr. Cee, wise as ever.
The rush of the whiskey and the coke surged through me, but I remained calm, there, leaning against the wall, composed, now taking long luxurious drags from my cigarette. Resting assured and casual with a silent intensity like details in the ornate fretwork of my imagination’s runes. Leroy’s unmelodic dirge settled me. There was a certain irregular pitch and steady cadence to it, like Art Tatum on acid attempting to play the battered upright like it was a percussion instrument. I was sifting through things, momentous and chock-full of stunted delirious ramblings. Out the window the street was breaking into a show of pink and gold as crepuscular bands of light shot through it, leaving a Kodachrome trace on car hoods and storefronts, and sprucing up the trees and the people walking by with a spotty effervescence. A speeding ambulance caterwauled by with its laser-gun zaps and killed the mood. I wanted louder silence, some real Delaware dusk, looser laws and better pornography, popcorn for breakfast, or just a good place to sit.
Then, of course, there it was; sure as breath; that same old miserable feeling. Still there, as it always was, hidden and avoided or not. Just like the past, it never went anywhere.
“Falling in and out of love’s just the pits.”
“I’ll drink to that. Hey, let’s go talk to those two female hooligans over by Leroy. They seem smitten by his key tinkling…or something.”
I followed his lead.
Performing some between-song banter, shaking hands with the ladies, and lighting a cigarette as he hitched himself backwards on the piano bench, Leroy was trying out some congeniality, all supple limbs and deft fluidity of gesture, as he crossed his legs and kicked small circles with his raised foot, pitching a bit back and forth, and bobbed his head to a beat that must’ve been only his to hear.
Mr. Cee crashed the party with a wallop: “We come in war, Sassafrasees. Excuse me, but haven’t I not seen you somewhere before?” He extended a burly palm out to one of the ladies.
“No. That’d be me who’ve never seen you first. What’s with the getup, anyways? You late for a drag race intermission?”
“Only the best duds for the worst of us. You still going by Mud Flaps?”
The other girl, who I’d been nearing, made a quick deflection: “Sure. Sure. And what’s with Mr. Costello and this piano man here? You dumbies gunna rob a bank or something?”
Leroy smoothed the situation with some introductory blather, getting the girls to announce their names for us: “Well, well…well. You have the absolute and greatest pleasure of now knowing the one-if-not-only Joan Wayne, and my lovely coeval here is the inimitable Adair Crumby-Fitch.”
“Those seem like real names. No doubt.”
“Pleasures all around, I’m sure.”
“That’ll take some seeing, and hearing, if not believing too.”
We finished our cigarettes and invited the girls to come sit with us at the booth.
Adair had the perfect shape for sweaters, the hug of her curves accentuated by the tight fit of wool, and the sort of long, slim legs that were curvaceous, taut miracles in high-waisted pants. Argyles sneaking cameos above blue tennis shoes, a clipped dirty crop of black curls snoozing over her drawn yet oval face, Roman nose and thin lips and marionette lines, gutsy laugh creases from apex to apple to hollow, she was a dream just dropped like some pocket change into the cushions. There was a deep-set sadness in the way she wrinkled her eyes when she smiled that made my heart do backflips. I even liked the way she blinked.
Joan and Leroy were trying out jokes on each other across from where I was being nervous and uncomfortable and in the midst of adjusting every single article of my clothing next to Adair. Mr. Cee had pled the fifth to the bar, and soon returned with the requisite drink, sloshing like a mop bucket into the booth next to Leroy.
Joan gave him a mean glare as it got cramped and she got somewhat crammed against the wall.
“My apologies for the wideness of my person, Ms. Wayne. Would a whiskey make it up to you?”
Joan had the hardened, deep-chiseled features of a Mujeres Libres fighter during the Spanish Civil War. Her eyebrows were just thin wisps, and her olive-skinned face was a study in parallel lines. She had the Stan-Laurel habit of tugging up at front of her boyish haircut. She was the kind of person who gets fussy with conviction, whose carefree bugling came off as harsh and shrill grilling at first, but who, once you settled in for a longer haul of it, you found out was really engaging, and could listen and be spastically gregarious without shouting out everyone else. She was smart and made funny faces and squirmed with elegance. It was something to behold.
“I’ll take that.” She guarded the glass with both hands, tipping it slowly around as if she were going to balance the thing on just one side of its octagon bottom.
I was as quiet as an empty shotgun rusting away among a desert’s cactus and antelope brush. The gorgeous lady to my left leaned in for a closer inspection.
“What, are you waiting in line to join the circus or something?”
“Me? I’m just a hack writer who drinks too much and purposefully falls in love with unattainable women.”
“Ah. I see. I’ll cue the zither music for you.”
Leroy panned the failing exchange opposite him and offered some support for it: “Don’t mind him. He’s just a credit card that’s no longer attached to a name. It takes some getting used to.”
I made some half-enamored gum-chewing gesture. She looked at me with anything but longing.
Ernest Tubbs’ Waltz Across Texas came on, and Mr. Cee dove under the table, causing quite the ruckus among our shoes and lower halves, and eventually rolled out and tumbled back upright in the open area between the bar and the booths. With one hand behind him, he extended the other to Adair, “Care for a waltz across Texas with me, dear?”
She obliged him.
They danced in faux seriousness, with precise stabs and twirls. Mr. Cee held her in the firm lasso of his arms, softly, gentle as panda but with the kick of a chainsaw. I didn’t trust the network of burst capillaries in his eyes, leaking bright red into ivory, as I watched them bow and dip from my cruddy vantage point in a startled fit of jealousy: one of the lousiest feelings on the planet. A pain without end, without any assuage or let up, senseless, stupid, insubordinate, not formed from any solid notions or concrete facts— just an evil spell, some hex with pointy teeth that chewed your insides to a pulp, a jinx that could never be removed. I knew this was treacherous territory, but there was nothing to be done about it. I settled in for the duration of its exacting and confidence-taxing eons.
The dance ended, as all things do, and those two devotees of Terpsichore returned to the fold.
Out of some incredible nowhere, our table was covered by baskets of fish and chips with newspaper pages as table mats. I’d completely forgotten that you could order this stuff at the bar from a small English-themed place down on Polk, which was run by a sweet Chinese couple whose kids would carry the food over to the Edinburgh for tips. Apparently Mr. Cee, with much foresight and generosity, had put in for the feast earlier. We threw some cash at him and dug in with the sudden reappearance of our ravished appetites. I hadn’t felt hungry until this exact moment, but the vengeance of its return was upon me, and I stuffed my face as fast as my body would allow. Vinegar was spraying everywhere, and the newspaper was saturated with it soon enough. We were rabid hounds pouncing on a fresh kill, blinded by the pure pangs of hunger, the natural order of things, to eat and survive another night, to restock depleted stores of mitochondria-made cellular energy, to be fit and ready for whatever bean ball this confabulated, desultory, commercial-break of a world could hurl at us next. Greasy fingers and all, newly acquainted strangers plotting tepid revenge on causation’s fallout, we ate without a sliver of self-consciousness or reservation.
The golden hour of the Edinburgh was soon past, and the bouncer took his seat by the front door, and the pool table got a waiting list, and the jukebox was shut down in favor of blaring fashionably hip hits and techno garbage that the yuppies could easily gyrate to, and the aisles and the long bar became sordid with people holding drinks or waiting to be served. I drifted in and out of conversations, losing myself in the darker corners of things, wishing again for a way out, as I often do when rooms begin to fill to maximum occupancy, as I’ve always despised large groups of humans.
I staggered around, squeezing through the crowd with drink in hand, following signs and wonders that denoted excuses and pleading. It was murder in there. I decided to forgo the smoking room and head outside for relief. I downed my drink and hiked onward to the great outdoors.
Geary was settling in for the seedier aspects of Tuesday nightlife: sordid dealings of pill pushers and weed dealers and plastic-pint-bottle vodka drinkers; and the mostly transgender whores who patrolled the sidewalks in high heels and higher skirts; and the SRO dwellers and the petty thieves and the strippers on a break from Mitchell Brothers and The New Century; and the conmen spangers; and the disabled and wheelchair-bound and hard-up and laid-off and the food-insecure and the heroin junkies lurking on stoops, in doorways and stairwells; the down-on-their luck and haunches; and the undercover vice cops and the busboys and singles sellers; and the homeless and crazed screamers and other heroes and tramps of the walpurgisnacht.
Some guy was under the hood of a white ’79 Cadillac Seville at the curb, wrenching around and making all sorts of noise in there. I smoked and watched him fume. The polluted, sodium-yellow puddles of the streetlights were starting to widen their circumference, and I was feeling just about alright—in but not of the fray, as it were— clung to the soft patter of evening’s pull. Orion’s belt was just barely visible through the paling dark. I let my eyes focus and refocus on that certainty of asterisms, still there through it all, “those three stars of the airy Giant’s zone, That glitter burnished by the frosty dark,” and that gave me no small comfort in the far-and-gone locus of my off-centered bearings. I leaned into the wall and smoked.
A woman’s scratchy smoker’s voice disrupted my reverie: “Hey, Baby. How’s you been, Baby?”
“Hey. Wha…Josephine. Aren’t you a sight for all that’s sore.”
“Ah, baby. You so sweet.”
“Gimme a hug, Lady J.”
It was Josephine, an SRO transient who floated her way from one residential hotel to the next down Polk and all throughout the TL. She smelled like bubblegum and gin. I’d gotten to know her and her husband Willie over the years, as they’d been regulars at the ER for a while. There was always something wrong with Willie.
“I love that tie, baby.”
“Thanks. It’s an old standby.”
“Oh. It’s so pretty. Baby. Baby. You got something to help me out? Just a little something.”
Skin like balsamic, short and sinewy, her expression-weary face was too large for her head.
“Sure. I think I can find something. Here you go, Lady J.” I handed her a five, and she immediately crammed it into the back pocket of her jeans.
“Ah, thanks, baby, you the best.”
“Like that haircut, lady. You could change your last name to Baker, I swear it. I need to attend your salon.”
She giggled, bubbly and rough, and ran her hands over the tightly packed corkscrews of her frazzled do.
“I’ll be seeing you, baby. I gotta go find Willie. You seen Willie around?”
“Not at all. Not for a while.”
“Okay. Okay. Baby. You take care of yo’ self.”
“You do the same, Lady J.”
She padded off with a notorious wave, calling out to acquaintances on the block with a few more animated queries and quips as she went: all full of the swagger and the hurry.
Steam was rising out of the street grates and manhole covers, and rats were waking to patrol the refuse of garbage night. Can collectors were out in full force, those elderly scavengers of recyclable items from city trash bins, with their long-visor hats and gardening gloves and plastic garbage bags and folding wheeled utility carts. They rolled and squeaked by me as I stood there admiring their dedication to their craft: the way they snuck around in plain sight, looting the glass and aluminum that uncaring consumers tossed in the garbage, even taking the time to pour out any remaining liquid, crushing cans and packing up their spoils tight behind the bars of their carts. The 19-Polk clambered by and my attention swerved to that gorgeous Woerner’s Liquors sign beneath the Hartland Hotel on the corner of Larkin, right out of the 1940s, that sharp red neon sparkling on a large 8-ball-black rectangle with white-fringed letters: Liquors, Wines, Cigars, Groceries, Tobaccos, Beer, ATM.
Across the street, two Western-style bar doors flung open and a man came flying sideways out of them, rolling into the gutter in a heap. A stentorian voice called after it, “And stay out!” It was so gimmicky that I thought someone might be filming a movie, but it was real. People on the street were cracking up, giving the 86’d guy all kinds of a hard time about it. Eventually the poor bastard dusted himself off and slummed his tawdry way on to other Bethlehems. I didn’t know what to make of any of it, so I stopped caring or trying to. It was all a scratched frying pan of burnt bonhomie and deafening desperation stuck to the surface of what only amounted to a low-level fiddling, in my case, and never placated the never-satisfied Mr. Hyde inside of me, always on the lookout for more of those old-time troubles and tribulations to ensnare me in the clutches of. Exhilarating and exhausting, this constant conniption of being at war with the monsters of my own making. In was my only out.
Back inside, the bar was a dignified mess of noise and staid revelry. I flashed my ID at the seated bouncer— who could’ve given less than a shit, but I doubt it— and pushed and plowed through to the booth. They were boisterous, just as I’d left them, ready to poke the eyes out of poetasters and grab-asses alike.
“Where you been? Whadda ya know? Huh? Huh? Huh?” Mr. Cee was using his elbow like a dagger in my side.
“I’ve been learning about how timing is everything, and how mine is always bad.”
Joan Wayne let me have it: “You poor, poor thing, you. Why don’t you find a corner to go sob in? Maybe a cowcatcher will come around and scoop you up to the heavens for a reprieve.”
“Yeah. He’s a real huffer and a puffer.”
“Ah, leave him be, one-offs. He’s sulking for good reason.” Leroy was the only one who knew the specifics of my current miseries, and I didn’t want to let on to anyone else about it. I decided to nix the whole direction this asteroid seemed to be aiming in.
“Hey. You.” I made a helicopter-blades whoosh with my lips and raised a playful fist at Joan. “Didn’t I cut my toenails in your bedroom once? Yeah. You look real…real…familiar-like. Yeah.”
“Do you shake your fist at me, sir?”
“I shake my fist.”
“Can’t argue with that, but that ain’t what I asked.”
“Seeing is I can’t rightly fight so well, I don’t trust no call to arms.”
“Brother o’ mother, you blutherer of blubber.”
“You butter be, Bread.”
At this point we lost all context of communication and just started spouting gibberish and other drivel and nonsense. It was the most fun I’d had in months, which wasn’t saying much, but it was something, and I let myself be okay with it. I was just so goddamn tired of the burden of this pressing need to always be liked by everyone that I’d do just about anything that’d make me feel free of it for a while. There are times for being stupid, for not caring about the peering eyes across the booth trying to make sense of who you appeared to be; and, for me, this was one of them.
After we got through with some more rambunctious clowning around, the table agreed to move on to a less annoying and more private mise-en-scène. Adair made a dramatic umpire’s safe signal over the table and declared, “What we need here is to restructure the means of our escape.” It was decided that we would take our gory brand of carousing over to Mr. Cee’s abode.
We stopped at a corner store to buy booze and cigarettes. Leroy told us he was going to make Pisco Punch for us, an ancient San Francisco treat, but ended up just buying Hawaiian Punch as a mixer for the cheap gin I’d had the clerk lift from the shelf behind his counter for me. It was just as well; nobody was going to know or appreciate the difference. The clerk had some advice for me on the gin:
“Are you sure you want this one?”
“Well, we are having a sale on this other gin here. See?”
“Yeah. How much?”
“It’s very good. Same price, but cheaper.”
“Wait. So this one’s the same price as the other one, but it’s cheaper?”
“Yes. Very good price. Same price as that one, but it’s very cheap, compared to that one.”
“Ok, then. I will take the cheaper one that’s the same price.”
“Good choice. You will not be disappointed.”
“Thank you. Much obliged.”
I loved the sense of this logic. For the first time in quite a while I felt good about my buying power.
The ladies purchased some beer and peanut-butter-filled pretzels, and we were off.
Mr. Cee’s place was nothing more than an attic/storage room above King’s Pool Hall on O’Farrell. There was a large open living space with a few dumpster-rescued couches by the front window that overlooked the street. A mattress was tossed in the center of the room, and was surrounded by his collection of coats on drycleaner hangers strung from reclaimed shower curtain rods held up by PVC pipes, creating a poor-man’s four-poster drapery. Thrift-store paintings of beach scenes and forests and medieval landscapes hung misaligned on the walls where rows of paperbacks and magazines were stacked below them. His records were all over the place, most of them in a much-less-than-mint condition, many sleeveless and stored flat, and so were warped beyond playing. Butt-filled ash trays rested on Harvard Classics and comic books. Hurricanes of clothes lay in orderly heaps in the corners. The carpet was scarred with burns and tears and never-cleaned spills. It was the epitome of unabashed clutter, but organized in very specific ways that were only apparent to Mr. Cee. He’d notice if you moved even an empty wine bottle from its place in the sordid menagerie.
Delusional, and clearly drunk, we pretended to ransack the place, turning over his bevy of strange display items, removing things from the pockets of his hanging coats, putting books in his toaster, and basically rearranging any ornaments of his shabby abode we could find, to his most grievous displeasure, as he went around putting stuff back where it went, spouting: “Don’t touch that. That’s not where that goes. Jesus, hands off the merchandise. This is not some touching zoo, Zeppos. Get with it.”
We all ended up in the kitchen: a slim arrangement of a washbasin-sink, shelves, and cookware, with a hotplate and an icebox.
“What is this, some Great-Depression-era habitation? Where’s Clark Gable?”
“Mix me a Parlor Cooler.”
“Joan Wayne, the queen of the cowgirls. Saddled with a touch of malaria, taking one for the proletariat.”
“They don’t got Cactus Cooler anymore. Sorry. We’ve got Hawaiian Punch for our troubles now.”
Drinks were made. The mood got set. We circled each other, dog-like, sniffing for clues about what made life what it was.
“Why is there so much salad dressing in here? You’ve got like 15 bottles of Ranch. Oh, shit. This one expired like a decade ago.”
“I’ve always been of the opinion that one can never have too much toilet paper and salad dressing. Onward to the family room, senoritas and caballeros. We have verbs to deconstruct.”
We sat around Mr. Cee on the unkempt yet somehow tidy floor as he divvied up lines of that pure white powder of his on a CD case, using a razor to cut the chunks into a more sniff-able form. Perhaps the carpet had been vacuumed at some point during the Clinton administration, but I doubted it.
“This here, folks, is some of the rarest of stuff you’ll get around these parts. Pure, unadulterated Colombian yayo. No additives. Preservative free. Brought all the way here from the tropics, through many a perilous adventure, enduring many hardships, stowed away in the nose of an unsuspecting jet aircraft.”
“I hope Colombian pure products don’t go crazy like the ones of America.”
“What? This is Indian land. This is all Indian land!”
“That’s Indigenous People’s land, dip shit. Get it straight.”
My eyes fell down on Adair, her incredible belt line and all-around slender curvature, sitting cross-legged so easily, and her long, delicate fingers smoothing along her pants in anticipation, I supposed, of some potent mood-lifting to come.
Mr. Cee launched into some soapboxing as he separated five even lines. “We are creatures of convenience, making do with satisfaction’s lull and dampened state. Sourly, we cannibalize the best of times, taking even our own thoughts for granted.”
Leroy shot back at him, “You’re like an insurance salesman who goes around telling people that, ‘The uninsured life is not worth living.’”
“It’s a good shtick if you can get it.”
The CD case was passed around like an elegant set of jewels on a tray, and we all did a line with the help of a neatly cut straw that’s bottom was sliced at an angle to get the most out of our snorting. That page-ripping sound, and then the runny-nose sniffs of granular infusion. We had our fill, and drank to it afterwards. A dozen different conversations came and went, distracting from each other, and topics fled as soon as they arrived, returned to unknown senders, clicking heels with spiraling eddies and suggestions that wouldn’t sit still.
“Faster than moonbeams, boxed.”
“It’s all about cell signaling, gents and gals. That comingling of a process that rules mightily over basic cellular activities. Cells have just got to, you see, perceive and then correctly respond to their fucking microenvironment. That’s the darn tootin’ basics of development and normal tissue homeostasis.”
“Ah, tissues. You got any? I feel a sneeze coming on.”
“Let’s have some music. Any of these records not completely fucking unemployable? You really need to take better care of your vinyl. This Little Richard album is like The Rockies on one of those raised relief maps, man.”
“A lot of your basic heart and blood pressure medications are just mimics of natural nitrogen-rich signal molecules. Example. Take the organic nitrates…”
“Free range? Gluten Free?”
“…like nitroglycerin, it controls blood pressure by metabolizing into nitric oxide. And you know, even caffeine acts on neurotransmitter receptors, just like morphine, or even fucking amphetamines, for that matter.”
“This machine runs on nitrogen.”
“The glory of the soil.”
“Yeah, dudes. I mean, boys, think about the Wood Wide Web.”
“Your mispronunciation could be taken as a malfeasance, Doll.”
“I ain’t nobody’s doll, Patsy. And my pronunciation is fucking immaculate.”
“Oh. My proverbial bad. Please. Continue.”
“Shit. I’m talking about mycorrhizal networks. They’re these underground hyphal matrixes created by mycorrhizal fungi that connect individual plants together and act like pipes to transfer water, carbon, nitrogen, and all these other nutrients and minerals deep in jungles and forests, like in the amazon and shit.”
“It’s the plural of hypha, Eisenstein.”
“Ah. Sergei Mikhailovich. Maker of some great films.”
“A hypha is a long, like, branching, like, fucking, I don’t know, filamentous like structure of fungi.”
“No. She’s right. It’s gee. Fun-gee.”
“In most fungi, hyphae are like the main mode of vegetative growth…all together they’re called a mycelium. It’s from the Greek word for ‘web’ I think. So, yeah. It’s the Wood Wide Web for plants.”
Adair had swiped a flowing, crenellated swath of fabric from one of Mr. Cee’s exposed “closets.” She wrapped it around her neck, scarf-like, but puffy and stiff as the frosting on a fake wedding cake. I ventured a compliment: “Nice ruff.”
“That’s like a ruff, you know.”
“A ruff. It’s like a colorful ring of feathers or hair on the neck of a bird. And like in the 1500s in England people used to wear this small ruffled fabric on their collars to keep their doublets from getting dirty at the neckline. They were like tally iron or goffering iron or something. Ruffled got shortened to ruff, I guess. Some were like super extreme too, like over a foot wide. They called them cartwheel ruffs. They needed a wire frame to support them, and to hold them at a real fashionable angle. Can you imagine trying to eat with one of those contraptions on? Rough stuff.”
“You’re like a walking list of Encyclopedia entries.”
“What can I say? I was a weird kid. I used to read dictionaries when I got bored.”
“He’s belaboring just for the sake of belaboring again.”
“You’ve got to stop trying so hard to impress people with things that nobody’s impressed by.”
“Ah, you’re just waiting for an extra role in some oater that’ll never get funding.”
“Pshaw, fuck nut. I’m a leading lady if there ever were one.”
“Joan Wayne: the Queen of the Plains. Starlet of the bronze screen.”
“What do you call this concoction, anyway?”
“That’s it! It’s the Bronze Shower! Hawaiian Punch and rotgut whiskey. The cocktail of champions!”
“Chump-ions, more like. Chimp-ions.”
Leroy finally got a record to play properly on Mr. Cee’s bandaged turntable. A tuba’s fuzzy rendition of Love Me Tender came on.
Adair was suddenly up close and inspecting my outfit.
“What’s that? It’s like a tiny, shiny medal or something in your jacket there?”
I’d forgotten about it. It was a tiny gold safety pin that Ramona had stuck there in my lapel one day, and it had stayed there long after she’d decided not to.
“No. It’s just a safety pin. Someone put it there a long time ago.”
“That’s cool. It keeps lasting. Most things don’t. Who put it there?”
“Sure. Says the guy who quotes encyclopedias.”
My charm had fled south for yet another winter.
Leroy wriggled his way to a torsional supine position on her other side, and started playing the drums on his chest to the music.
A pork pie hat came flying at me. I turned up the brim in my lap and then set it on Adair’s little head at an appropriately rakish angle, singing along to the tuba solo.
“Her name’s Adair Crumby-Fitch, my friends. And she’s got the smallest hat size in town.”
Nobody paid it much mind.
“Anyone know of a good watch repair shop? You used to be able to throw a rock, so I’ve been told. Anyone even got a watch? What time is it?”
“Time? I don’t believe in it. We’re all prisoners of the past’s machinations and mauling. We’re all only what has been done to us.”
“You got a John in here, Doctor?”
“Dear, you can perpetrate both numbers of operation in my handy and official commode located directly to your…south…west.”
“Anyone got a compass?”
“Let the north star be your guide, Gladiola.”
“Gee-awd. Enough of this horse shit. Let’s cooperate on another cigarette.”
“Smoke ‘em if I got ‘em, I guess. Here you go. A coffin nail for your aromatic enjoyment.”
A sharp finger-poke goosed me. Joan’s inquisitive visage was all scrunched up and unwound and scanning my person for signs of life.
“You really are just all skin and bones, aren’t you?”
“Mortise and tenon. Tendons and ligaments and blood and guts, and more things of collagen made.”
“All this, and I was born in The Bronx and I’ve never even been to Yankee Stadium, or had a real good pear.”
“And Thurman Munson is dead. Poor, poor sap.”
I got up and carried myself— blinking, jaw grinding, twitchy— to Mr. Cee’s facilities. It was a converted storage area that contained a badly spackled-together shower raised up on a rough-hewn dais with a moldy see-through shower curtain surrounding it, a crooked sink, and one of those industrial toilets you see in gym locker rooms a lot, with an exposed S-trap and a high back bowl that’s rim was a pubic-hair objet d’art. I thought about water closets and earth closets and night soil that had to be emptied and what a shitty job, literally, that’d be. And there wasn’t a mirror in there. And I wanted to check on my nose for crumbs and my hairstyle and to see if my eyes were hanging in there alright. The light above was connected to a fan that buzzed like a flying saucer in a 1950s B-movie, loud and Dopplering up and down the avenue of my skull. It was the droning of death, in there, and I was trapped with it under the sickly hospital light, a constant reminder that I was never where I was supposed to be and that nothing ever happened as it should. The careful ticking of death’s constancy followed you wherever you went. It was the only thing that could be depended on in this upended, upside-down, fallen excuse for a world that we all were doomed to do our existing in.
I pissed in the sink, and then ran the hot water for a bit. And then I was done with all that, and went back to join the activities of the world.
Everyone was jabbering on and on with an exuberant sense of importance, signifying nothing.
“He returns from the humor of all gallows! How was the lightening-of-liquids portion of the nitrogen cycle?”
“I staved off extinction in the mercy of a quality flush.”
“The sewer system thanks you for your deposit. I will be back with refreshments.”
Mr. Cee clanked around in the fridge like some berserk Eskimo whose house is melting, and returned with beers in hand.
I felt like goading him: “About time.”
He scowled as he passed out the beers, eagerly anticipating the formulation of his forthcoming rejoinder.
“Time? No. No. No. Well, you see, our brains are not made to understand the real concept of time. We want linear ways of looking at things: beginnings, ends, the stuff in the middle. Time doesn’t work like this. It just is. The start is the finish, and all the stuff between too. In order to survive our brains had to adapt to see things in a way that would allow us to continue on with some type of order in the chaos, so as we could craft our own reality in a way that made sense to us, that helped us make sense of the world around us, the one we suddenly and constantly seem to find ourselves existing in, over and over. Just to acknowledge this is something incredible. To overcome all of our limited senses (which are limited for a reason, as we couldn’t survive without the streamlined way our brains let us experience things) and doubt about what’s really happening in this pale-blue-dot of a place, and somehow acknowledge that we’ve only got these limited brains constructed over millions of years by survival-of-the-fittest evolution just like the rest of our appendages and innards; and that they only allow us to have these thoughts and ergo render us incapable of seeing the world and time as it really is: infinite. All we can do is use what we’ve got, and see things like we do. But, I don’t know, perhaps we should also keep it in the back of our little brains somewhere that what we experience is just a tiny piece of what really is, and accept that there is no way to break out of this hardwired way of experiencing things either. Maybe this is empowering in some small, strange way. Anyway, these are the sorts of thoughts that keep plopping into my head lately. You can’t prove any of it. It’s like we’re going outside for a cigarette and saying, ‘Let’s go out and see the world.’ Conniving to convince ourselves that this it, that there’s a whole lot more going on within us than we’re afraid to admit there really is.”
Adair, sitting cross-legged by herself next to the bay window, chimed out of nowhere: “Beer and cigarettes. God, I love beer and cigarettes. If only I could only live on just beer and cigarettes. That’d be really living.”
A record skipped and was replaced by another. I drank a beer and felt agreeable to anything, yelling out to her, “Don’t tell me my business. We’re all caught in nets and webs. It’s all nets and webs.”
She went silent and smoked and smoked by the window. The rest of us formed a semi-circle around a pyre of some books, all bug-eyed and camper-happy.
“And coffee. There’d be no way to slough it through any of these weak days without strong coffee.”
“Hell. You can have all your days. Just let me have the nights, and maybe the mornings too. Imagine, if you will, two colliding elliptical galaxies wrapped by a string of blue pearls. That could be me, or even, I dare say, you. Let’s make a list of things we’re scared to think about and then burn it. Take Vic Serf.”
“What’s the matter with him?”
“He’s probably wishing he were back in Roanoke, in 1999, smelling the stink of bar rags and Rolls Royce aftershave. No. Further back in the pantheon of higher-ups, the runners of the show, and wimpy with it too. All the way? Surer than ‘83’s flip of the switch, the one that turned this whole god damn monster on.”
“I’m hungry. Let’s make some coffee.”
“Sure. We can talk over it. It’ll add steam to our gestures.”
“Plagued by Technicolor dreams, and then waking up to history tossing its empties out the window. All of it pointless yet necessary. Shrugging off to more Modest Mussorgsky territories, in the lap of need’s want. To whom it shall never concern, express-written, told-on regards pass more bottles through the war-torn strife of up-yet-not-quite-at-‘em concerns.”
“Nary a worry, lady. There will be Vietnamese takeout to platter all of your headless contention.”
“In the meantime, some sustenance. At last.”
Leroy got up and paced, his cigarette like a flare in his hand as he peered through books and magazines on the shelves, exclaiming and sputtering his patent popped-balloon guffaws as he went along: “Ah! Holy shit. Philip Kay the dick. How do electric sheep sleep? Shouldn’t it be androids counting electric sheep? Ayn Rand! You fascist fuck. Who keeps this shit around? Ha. Did you guys know that Dr. Seuss used to live a few blocks from a real doctor whose last name just happened to be Seuss? His God-given name was Theo Geisel. And this doctor kept getting all this fan mail that was meant for Geisel. He got really pissed about it and like called Geisel out about it, but what the hell’s he going to do, you know? Tell all his adoring fans to stop addressing their mail to Dr. Seuss and instead make it out to Theodore Geisel? Ha. Don’t think so. Oh, the fucking places that you will go. Wait. Are these all Popular Science magazines? Seriously. Who hordes all this shit? What are you going to do with 6 dozen rags full of diagrams about gene theory and gearshifts? God, this shit is dusty. Do you ever dust, man?”
“Once a decade, at least. And ‘rag’ is a disparaging term for newspapers, not magazines, Chatterbox.”
“Let’s open the window and throw eggs at cop cars.”
“History, here, is not in the making.”
Leroy opened a window. “Shut up. Turn off that damn stereo. Listen.”
Some guy was playing a clarinet on the street corner. It infused the rather desolate night with sunken notes, a maudlin pleading, all echoes and hollows and lonely spots, shot-through with given-up meanings of try. Everyone got silent and serious.
“It’s so sad and sweet. I love oboe music.”
“That’s a clarinet, Slim.”
“That’s the nicest name I’ve been called in like forever. When I was a little girl I used to carry around a brief case with me wherever I went. My mom called me her ‘little entrepreneur.’ I thought it was like fertilizer or something.”
Mr. Cee crammed his cigarette into an already overflowing ashtray and let an accusation fly: “How old are you dames, anyway?”
“Twenty five and twenty seven.”
“Old enough for it not to matter. What’re you, fifty?”
“Close enough for it to matter.”
“You guys are ancient.”
“We were all born in the seventies. That’s all that matters. Once you get to a certain age, age is just a number.”
Adair began singing, softly, like a murmur at first, some song older than all of us combined. Leroy accompanied her on a banged-up acoustic guitar that he’d found among Mr. Cee’s troves.
“Eyes like fall, as sleep I never do. The perfume’s in the bower of paths and places you won’t go. Steal me a tiara of green and gold for the road, I take my love à la mode.”
Leroy’s animal magnetism was unleashed. I knew where it all was going; where it always did: away from me. I was just the untouched steamed parsnips on a plate next to a pie slice. There weren’t many options headed my way.
“Get me a Wurlitzer. Load my pistol true. What the world’s always after is what my promises won’t ever do. From peninsulas to harbors to shores of distant blue. My home’s not in this world, boys. I’m just a’ passing on through.”
The night was hemming me in. I’d never cared for nice things or the life of insulation and repose. I needed to be suffering at all times, battling against something, or else my life seemed insignificant and worthless. Who was I to be enjoying myself? What right did I have to be relaxing and taking it easy in the shade of a flag made of corruption and selfishness and the blood of innocents? I despised comfort and all of its trappings. Let someone else have my cake. I’ve never been big on sweets anyway.
The song ended. We all just sat there. I wanted sugary toast with butter and cinnamon, longer goodbyes, and a place to discard my hurt feelings where they’d shrivel and decompose and maybe sprout a tulip from the corrupted soil. I rarely get the things I want.
“All that we know for sure is that we’re all going die. That’s all there is for certain.”
“I won’t second that.”
I chugged what was left of my beer. Everything was a drag. There were no directions to go in that mattered or meant a damn thing. I patted myself down, checking for my wallet and my keys. As long as I had my keys I was granted access, at any time I chose, to my apartment, to a warm bed to sleep in, to coffee in the morning and a hot shower. And if my wallet was there I could get money, and I could prove who I was with my ID. Thankfully, all was where it should be. Leroy and Adair were occupied in the surfaces of getting-to-know-you embroiling, and Mr. Cee had Joan’s undivided attention as he explained the difference between Occam’s razor and Murphy’s Law. I decided to bolt while my contentment was peaking. Nobody noticed my escape.
A bundle of time-sensitive material and shrugs, I swatted open the front gate by the pool hall, jaywalked across O’Farrell, and turned up Larkin. The prostitutes were out in full force, combing the night for the lonely and the chased and turned-down-and-out. A dwarf in a miniskirt wearing too much makeup and stilettos, whom I’d seen quite often plying her trade among the fire hydrants and lampposts out there, shouted at me as I hastily stomped by on Post, ““Hey, you want some of this pumpkin stuff, don’t you?” And I said, “No. No. Not right now.” And she spit in the street and said, “You’ll be back. Shit. I know you. You’ll be back.” Who knows? Maybe I would.
The night was a jaded life, hardly alive with neon’s clipped blinks and sudsy laces. A touch of dust on the lapel. Cockroaches in the moonlight. I’ll tell my grandkids— whose parents, at the rate I’m going, will never even be born— I once was a man of great understanding, of a certain subtle boozy cadence. A room of my own. A job. A lady. Social outings and confidants. The whole rollicking bit. But the romance was gone from the fingertips of it all. Paint wasn’t even dry on my current set of circumstances. Gassed, retreating towards too many knowns to ever warrant the knowing of. Just another choked-up sucker, cut off from any ordinary ways of being alive. But this life was not without its splendid moments, even if they were farther between than few. Me? I took what I could get.
The lilt in the iridescent scheme of those crooked Tenderloin signs spaced with a few cracked, unlit neon letters. Trampled, shambling on home, ripe with whisky, coming down off cocaine, burnt-out cigarette smashed in my weary countenance, longing for the past as I lope woefully up the steep slope of the streets. Never good enough, or waltzing myself through the misery of another evening’s lumps. Just smashed enough to be able to sing out loud in public and not care. Another night of no rain. Waiting for a little magic to catch up with me for once.
But usually, no.
Besides, what’s the score and scant return on it? A paucity, a posed slap, daffodils and daisies on a fire escape. The humpbacked hills, they’d all forget my name. Another curse to outrun only to fall back into the waiting arms of. A stupid purpose to plunge back into. All I did was cuss and bellyache and begin all over again.
The American Dream is a rancid piece of cheesecake slowly rotating around in a closed-down diner’s window display.
“Hey, baby. I like your glasses.” All lipstick and hips and ass, she happened upon me like a bottle rocket’s prayer. I knew it was a come-on, just a ploy to seduce the money from my wallet, but I was in bad need of some esteem-boosting.
“Thanks, Sugar. So Swede of you to say.”
“Where you running off to?”
“Just headed home.”
“You want some company, sweetie? You wanna take me home with you for a while?”
I thought about it. My desires were all confiscated and blotted out, my passion out of whack and order.
“I can’t tonight, honey. Wish I could.”
“You sure? I could ewe…all my cooze…with yous.”
“I’ve always been for Pittsburgh…but, sorry. Nah. I’m alright.”
“Yeah. I guess I’ll be seeing you around.”
“Okay. Don’t go getting yourself in any trouble.”
“Ditto to you. Here’s to dirty minds and dirtier kisses.”
She sputtered off down Post and was soon in the midst of a business transaction with another stranger. I charged up the hill towards home, zigzagging through the grid system’s conforming layout, eventually making my way up Leavenworth: the least inclined slope of the northbound routes up Nob Hill. Golden Coffee was still holding its ground on the corner of Sutter, that ode to American diners of the past, the square cut-out counter, the waitresses who poured coffee and brought out the dishes from the exposed kitchen under the steel hood at the back to the square’s middle where the customers surrounded them on raised attached stools. I wished that it would never disappear. The three-paned windows with the simple white lettering: Golden Coffee, Breakfast & Lunch. The condiments in the silver trays. The food was awful, but I loved it anyway. I got wistful as I strode on, passing the thick, wide-windowed apartment buildings with large, ornate entryways and long, high halls: relics of another era when space wasn’t quite so premium, when you could pace the hardwood of your living space in looping concentric circles instead of mulling in tight spirals, and The Chronicle would be waiting on the mat in the morning with the milk. Sidewalk-stationed maples blocked out the upper stories where insomniacs ranted in panicky jigs behind pulled curtains by the light of the TV under retired chandeliers. My head was done showing me a decent time. I ducked some low branches and counted my steps between the cracks.
A rider-less Cable Car rumbled and creaked by up California, all burnt cords and souped-up quaintness. The Cala-Foods sign was lit up down the hill, still flashing its 24-hour smile. I thought about getting some snack items there, but didn’t want to backtrack, so followed the still-vibrating tracks east towards the hill’s summit.
The gears were cranking in my head still, stuck on repeats, as my limbs grew heavy and my thoughts got all cut apart and pasted back together in some stretched-rubber-band hodgepodge of ideation and snot.
Tonight I’m left talking to a person I almost hardly know and sometimes hate: myself. I’m strictly a pavement man from here on out. No more out-of-town day games. No more field trips to the beach or the zoo. Home’s just a place to roam. Turnout’s low for this not-much-of-a-draw stuff anyway. I want a seat at the table by the window at the Comstock, a sazerac by my side, and the whole damn world on my horizon. Maybe a waitress who wants to know me a bit better. And a girl who drinks at least a little more than she should, maybe with just about the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen.
We bored each other with conversation, just trying to kill some time between newspaper editions. The worse we talked, the rosier it got. She had a knack for appearing dumber than she was. I offered to foot the bill, but she yapped at me over it, telling me, “Money’s just paper crawling with dirt the color of your tears.” We moved on, out, and then around the Capital Beltway, sharing a spurned insolence and a front seat bench. Looked over too many shoulders. Went hay crazy along Diamond Lane. Had breakfast on a Skid Row rooftop. There were other things mattering, sure. But the sure of us was embattled and furious. Off to the war it was. And we made it ours to remember it by. Bitters and seltzer. Rum and molasses. We chanced the bluff with a tailor-made charity case. And what worked didn’t for longer. Pass the Chianti over there. We’re too small for it, made or not. One day you’ll look up and you’ll be forty. Where’d all those years run on off to? Like that girl who wrote her number on a Band-Aid’s wrapper and gave it to me. She was the sprinting image of a wrestler at rest, some flat-iron place with a bullet nose flanked by stocky bays. We talked of Celsius. We learned what our bodies would take.
Grace Cathedral, that pompous monument to Catholicism, gave me a place to take a load off on its side-entrance steps. Nobody was sleeping there that night. I had it all to myself.
Alone and uninhibited, I smoked and sang the strangest songs, and then got up, muddled in a thick stupor, and tripped and floundered my way over to Huntington Park where the naked plaster boys were catching their turtles in the fountain and the ovoid trees were all decked out and festooned with tacky x-mas lights, and where the silver barons had planted their mansions before the great fire came and burned them to the ground. The Hotel Clift sign was burning bright like a theater marquee over the view down Taylor, all those tips of silver flickers in the dark distance rolling away into the snaking river-swell of freeway reds and patchwork of glistening scintilla-spattered hills. No dogs were being walked. I pushed on through the park, and went to the swing set and swung, pretending I were still a kid in my parent’s backyard. It didn’t work. I was too big for the seat, too low to the ground to make much happen. There was nothing left to do except get myself over to Mason and look down at the view.
A sickle moon was out hunting me, slicing away at a few ambushed clouds up there over the Mark Hopkins’ limp U.S. flag. Someone was up in the Fairmont’s penthouse suite, its windows’ lemony gleam like a distant drive-in screen, way up there in that 6,000 square-foot pied-à-terre for the ultra-rich. I stood there at the hilltop gazing north, like some airheaded sightseer, and took it all in: the deep patterns of blackness spotted with tiny orbs like just-struck matches, the Richmond bridge spanning the distance below where the sky starts out there too far to know if you didn’t already, all the homes and churches and retailers, all the complexities of human perseverance and the struggle to create an artificial environment inside of what’s always just been, to replace nature’s ambivalence with carefully constructed care. I was okay. I didn’t do anything absurd like pull the alarm on the fire emergency box on the corner or anything like that.
I clomped down Mason like a racehorse in need of being put out to pasture, too fast to be leisurely, too slow to be dangerous. I only tripped about 4 or 5 times on the way down. It was quite an accomplishment. I angled my key in the front door’s lock. The door opened. I was in.
Porchlight’s adrift on bluesy streams. A cozy lobby’s comforting murmur like a radio’s turned-down trickle of soft echoing voices. In a dream’s warble and oozy mush, the world’s much too enough for a sipper’s glance to bear. The wainscoting’s dripping watermelon guts. Somebody’s gone and stolen the sitting bench by the front window, a place where couples could stare out at traffic lights, watch dead leaves gather, wonder about the songs the church bells make, and be together. The mailboxes are calling it a day. Nobody’s roller skating on the hardwood. Nobody’s taking bets on where I’ll end my night. Post no bills.
I immediately got rid of my shoes and other needless accoutrements of my attire, put my wallet and glasses and keys where they went, and soon was on to slipping around in my socks and boxers in the kitchen. There was no way I was sleeping until I fixed the brakes in my consciousness, and so went rummaging through the drawer where I stored my extraneous pills and potions, and patrolled my options. Ativan was like taking aspirin for a migraine. Restoril was more of a souped-up Motrin for a broken arm. Then there was Valium, which did the job in a pinch, though couldn’t be counted on as a foolproof solution. But Xanax, Godly Xanax. It was like getting a morphine shot that soothed all the ill-wrought and paranoid restlessness on a loop in your mind. I had a couple 2mg bars in there, and so grabbed one, pulled out a misty bottle of cheap vodka from the freezer, poured a few sloppy tablespoons of it into my “Elvis TCB” shot glass, popped the pill and threw back the drink, did a full-body flinch, and exclaimed, “Zan-Zee-Bar, for one, puh-leeze!” Then I had another shot, to soothe what was left of my collapsing composure before the Xanax hit, put on a Hank Williams record, doused the lights and closed the curtains, and fell near the area where my bed usually resided. The phone didn’t ring. Nobody was having a screaming match upstairs or playing their radio at an obscene volume. My head stabilized and got paroled to the semi-oneiric state of playful oblivion.
Recreational distance in these hard-won nuances one gets to detect in the silence slipped in the fault lines between this onslaught of noise and the next. Something slurred but never heard. A glimpse from the bottom of a watershed, up through sewer grates, into the tumult and trash of another lost-and-found station on this smithereens highway we’ve been living on for too long. The diaspora of our promises. It’s all dashboard lights and canaries in the glove box. A window that just won’t roll all the way down. Let’s chug our worst moods and piss ‘em out at the next rest stop.
Kiss those bourbon lips goodbye. Your money’s bad here. A yawn for an opening act. All these filthy mugs and painted-on clothes. There’s plenty of dead fish in the tap. Resurrected, cussed-out, woozy, and then it’s back to making up reasons to survive. Small plans. I’ve been telling the same jokes for too long, and now I can’t find anyone new to listen to them. Drying out my wild years on the clothesline. The gas-masked blackboard artists are closing in. The walls are whispering truths to the ceiling in a crucially misinterpreted expense. Nothing to afford, holier than a wasp sting. Teetering towards a topple, some tattered sort of getting by, so much more than small down here in the thin of it. Hospital beds and cold coffee. No more switching pillows in the night. Just more letters to put me to sleep and never send. Every glittering thing eventually goes dark.
I woke to the obstreperous clunk of a skipping record. My eyes wouldn’t take the light, all gluey and suffused with red wavy floaters. The wreckage of the previous night’s tangled fits of sleep were soon all too apparent in the scuzzy light of my knocked-over floor lamp. Its shade was a generic plastic potato-salad container that had become mostly sharp shards of broken off pieces. Ramona had made it for me as a birthday present when we were first dating. Every year since a little more had broken off from it, but the bulb still shone enough to read by. I should have dusted it more, and there were a lot of dead moths and other house insects lying in the bucket-shape’s bottom. But I was glad to see it still functional on this gloomy Wednesday.
After killing the record player and substantiating a few rumors about what day it was, I decided to make coffee. My head was clotted with fermented string-cheese strands, and I knew things were only going to get worse, and that even though coffee wouldn’t help, making it would— the aroma of its long yards alone could trick the concrete-mixer behind my eyes into slower turns. I managed to only spill half the beans on the linoleum, where most of them rolled to unreachable places under my oven and fridge for the mice to discover. I thought about how great that was, how absolutely fucking perfect everything always went. Somehow I was able to get water in the kettle and boil it, grind the beans to grounds, get a majority of the grounds into a coffee filter that I shakily placed in my one-cup brewer. After the kettle hissed, and I hissed back at it, I poured the hot water over the grounds, putting my face right over them, letting the steam fill my clogged nose and gunky eyes. It was better than any Zen meditation technique I’d ever known.
I’ve never cared for the phrase, “bright and early,” much. The sun was high enough so that it wasn’t blinding me through the windows when I unraveled the drapes. I pulled open a window and settled a screen into it, and I drank coffee and tried not to think as that insane lady whom I affectionately referred to as “The Opera Singer of Clay Street” slowly stepped by below, performing glass-shivering arias for all the neighborhood to hear. Some biplanes droned their sleepy music too, and I fell into a ruffled trance, still not awake or sane enough to know the difference between shapes and sizes and chewable things. I lit a cigarette, donned some aviator sunglasses with mirror lenses to hide behind, and put on a mesh hat reading: “I’d Rather Be On Drugs.” I watched the worst parallel parker in the world try to muscle into a space between a motorcycle and a fire hydrant, blasting horrible country music the whole while. I screamed at this urban cowboy to shut the damn music off, as it was not providing any relief to the crammed insolence of an impending headache. He obliged, but, thankfully, soon gave up trying to park, and drove off to bother someone else with his special brand of curb demolition. I took a long unhealthy drag of my smoke, thinking out loud to nobody but the birds, “A voluptuous crucifixion: the featherweight burden and biting beauty of being alone. And this is the way the world begins. All this pussyfooting around without even a phone call to remind me that I’m who I say I am. Well, shit.”
The phone rang. I had a beige Western Electric model 500 telephone. It was the perfect phone. The double-helix cord stretched and coiled, and you could wrap it around your wrist and arm like a bracelet where it’d leave an Indian-burned pattern of indented hoops. I picked it up to stop the noise, and lugged the smooth curved body of the receiver around the room, slick and hard in the hand, while the squat box skipped over the carpet with its keypad of crunchy raised squares and clear plastic hooks and cradle. Leroy’s pitchy grumble kept my ear at a safe distance from the handset.
“How are you, man? Where the hell did you go last night?”
“I’m here. I went here.”
“Obviously. How’s it go?”
“My sartorial affairs are a wash. I’m thinking of moving to a banana-tree farm in South America. Cut my coffee’s commute down, you know?”
Static crackled. I heard a female voice still scathed with sleep humming in the background. My stomach burned sour as I scanned over the neckties strewn all over the floor by my closed closet, probably knocked off their temporary residence on the doorknob by my drunken antics of the previous night.
Leroy croaked a half-soused, “What’s that?”
I placed the receiver back down where it came from. I was tired of holding the damn thing to my ear.
The sad throb of drums and cymbals and tubas and trumpets thundered from down the street. The Green Street Mortuary Band was going by, leading a funeral procession with a somber rendition of Amazing Grace. My head grew fuzzy with crapulous lint while some stunting inertia set its grip on whatever my legs tried to do. I leaned on a bookcase by the window, smoked what was left of my cigarette, and drank my tepid coffee, watching that ragtag band of malcontents who’d never quit their day job take over the street with a motorcycle-cop escort. Just some late morning disquiet and horror to jab and claw at me as I tried to stand up straight to the onslaught. Nothing to take a bath with a plugged-in toaster over. I drank a large glass of tap water, that glorious Hetch Hetchy stuff, and went into the bathroom where I chastised myself pretty good in the mirror: “You must change your life, asshole.” I respected the encouragement of it, but it didn’t make anything seem any less of a miserable farce. I went back over to the phone, gave it a nice stare, pondered some hopeless attempts at getting in touch with Ramona, felt awful about everything, and then decided to take a shower and get on with this horror show called my life that I was currently accepting a bit part in. I sang Pancho And Lefty while I soaped-up and rinsed, letting the hot water absolve me in the sad music of my own making, while Cleveland stayed colder than any Iowa I could imagine.
After writing, “Yesterday’s Loser, Today’s Shit Heel” in the mirror’s fog, I brushed my teeth and shaved by rote, which made me feel more like a member of the human race. It didn’t last.
The shakes were apparent in my hands. I held out an arm to see how far they’d advanced. I was still in fair shape up to the elbow, but my drinking hand was wobbly and not to be trusted. I reached into the freezer for the vodka, debating the pros and cons of having a few nips to ward off the imminent catastrophe of my mental state; I knew the ayes would have the nays in a landslide, but wanted to at least try and see what it was like to be a decent, upstanding member of society: someone who doesn’t cure katzenjammers with low-quality, high-proof solutions before breakfast. I held that cold bottle of vodka at arm’s length from me, watching it for a sign, but it just sloshed and rolled its eyes. It was hopeless. There was an ember-bright warmth I wanted back in the gyri and sulci of my brain, and this angelic serenity needed its pilot light lit with the flame only alcohol could provide. I made a theatric swing of my arm over an awaiting shot glass, poured, slammed the bottle down on the counter, lifted the shot glass high, exclaimed, “Ragamuffins!” and sent the burning clear liquid down my gullet. I repeated the motion once more, this time more civilly, and the slow heat of it enchanted my stomach, and then my limbs, and soon my perspective was mighty and shrewd again. There wasn’t a thing in the world I couldn’t handle; but I knew I still wouldn’t handle any of it properly.
I called Leroy back, who was lazing in the throes of post-coital bliss above the pool hall, and told him to meet me at The Olympic Café on Geary: “If nothing else, we’re going to successfully get breakfast today, damn it.” He agreed. I checked my closet mirror for signs of decay and rot on my person. There I was, all thin-legged, tousled hair, gaunt and red-eyed as a lamenting widow. I put my sunglasses back on, grappled with a beer-stained necktie until it almost choked me out, covered a faded swan-white button-up with the previous night’s jacket, pulled on some brown Dickies both legs at once, and was able to tie my shoes on only the 3rd charmed time. I gave myself a razzing Bronx Cheer and left to meet my fate.
Mason’s steep grade never bothered me. I’d walked it so many times that my accustomed legs thought it flat. Up I went, faster than most daily joggers, not sweating at all in chill of the overcast miasma of winter’s getup. As I went under the Ewer Alley sign I thought of Ramona’s singular postcards signed, “Wish ewer here.” I wondered if I’d ever get one again.
A pack of shorts-and-fanny-pack tourists were posing for pictures at the hill’s top, and I stopped next to them to admire the view too. Somebody was playing opera that was drifting from the open window of an apartment, and the sailboats were all out on the bay in the sun, and the wind wasn’t blowing too much, and little white trails like frosting were on the water where the boats were cutting up the surface. I could see the cable car tracks going off into the distance, and every once in a while an electric bus went by rattling on its wires up above, the trolley poles nicking sparks with a flurry of sizzles. The sails on the boats were fun to watch. They looked like ghosts skimming above the choppy curls of water. Nobody was bothering me up there on the hill. It wouldn’t last. But just for a few minutes there everything was okay.
I looked again at the view, thinking with a sigh, as I always do at these times of subtle contentment, ‘My little fishing town.’ The view often makes me feel this way, imagining all the cozy houses with their chimneys puffing into the last strained clinging blues of the day, things becoming crepuscular, the ships and husbands coming in from a day’s work later, supper cooking in all those stick-slotted homes in the slow last waning hours of sun, vespers ringing out from Grace Cathedral, the block-away stertorous clang and thrust of the cable cars barreling by all filled-up with tourists who are busy clicking an endless stream of pictures. The Richmond bridge streaked sun-slapped on the edge of the horizon, angel island with its coat of mossy fur humped out there like a sea monster, the purpling waters of the bay spotted with sail boats endlessly circling in the wind, and, like some queen’s Foot Guards with their heads scouting from above the whole thing, the church spires of Peter and Paul’s — sentinels keeping watch over less extravagant structures of old wood and brick. I adjusted my tie and tried not to let anything irk me.
I stood there for a few minutes on the northwest corner of the sidewalk, almost tipping over a few times, and people kept coming by and asking me in broken English to take their picture. I became very good at looking sour, at shaking my head and sneering at them. Nobody liked any of it. That was okay. I wasn’t feeling very social. Being alone was good enough for me. But that damn opera coming from a window somewhere above me. It was close. Close enough to matter at least. Orson Welles and Hitchcock both filmed scenes from up on that corner, for Lady From Shanghai and Vertigo. There was always just something picturesque about it I guess. The majestic L-shaped Brocklebank apartments gleamed alabaster from across the street. I sat down on the sidewalk. I looked at that damn view again. That view was always there. Tens of thousands of times I’d seen it over the years. Always there at the top of my march up Mason to try to catch the 1-California to try to get to work on time to try to keep my job to try to make a living leasing out my brain for the day to somebody else to do with it whatever they liked and then maybe return it to me but most likely not in the same condition it was loaned out to them in — all for the sake of a lousy buck. So is life. At the top of that hill so many mornings, me all out of breath, quickly spinning around to take in the scenery, making sure it was all still there. The red fire alarm box atop a red pole with its missing glass window where there is a hook, and below the white letters: “PULL HOOK DOWN ONCE.” It was inviting, but I had a breakfast engagement to attend.
I said, “Morning,” to the Flood Mansion, running a hand over the puke-green laurels of its iron fence, the top blackened to a char from a close call about a hundred years previous. There was a Pepsi can lying under a spreading oak tree on the pristine green manicured lawn. I wanted to hop the fence and dispose of that aluminum eyesore, another relic of mass consumption’s waste and taint. But I hated that otherwise immaculate lawn too, and all it stood for: the gated-community sinecure of inherited wealth, making the proper donations to all the right places at all the right times, meeting in haughty reserved dining rooms of sophisticated hobnobbing and budget-less escapades into the boring, selfish fortunes made on the backs of the poorly paid workers of the world, whom they’d rather not see united. I walked on, made one of the longest lights in town at California before some cable car came by and screwed it all up, as valets directed traffic into the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins’ brick driveway, all the cabbies lined-up down the block patiently waiting and hoping for an airport fare.
As I approached Pine I noticed an old woman in a leopard-print coat frantically waving me down on the steps by a flowerbed just off the sidewalk. It was one of the Brown Twins, Marian and Vivian, the famous sisters and Women About Town of the neighborhood. She had lipstick all over her teeth, and it seemed her identically dressed twin had fallen without the means of getting to her feet again.
“Please, help. Sir. Oh, my sister Vivian’s fallen.”
“Ladies. Ladies. What can I do to help?”
Vivian was really out of it, lying there in the rhododendrons and bougainvillea, her matching leopard-print cowboy hat all smashed and sideways on her perfectly coiffed do. I kneeled down next to her, checked her eyes and felt her pulse. It was faint, but it was there.
“You’re going to be okay, beautiful. Just relax. Don’t try to get up.”
“She just fell and she’s been sick and I’m worried she might have to go back to the hospital.” Marian was in distress. “We’re supposed to be having lunch at Vito’s. I don’t know what to do.”
“Vito will wait for you. Don’t worry. I think we should get some professionals over here, just to check her out real quick, make sure nothing’s broken or beyond some easy repair.”
Her makeup was thicker than a Crisco paste, and about as shiny, and her legs were quaking a bit. I found a silver necklace in the dirt, as a man wandered out of the French place on the corner and came up to where we were partying. With much collected calm, I asked him to call an ambulance. He went back into the restaurant to do so.
“Here you go, Dear. I’ve got your necklace. You just hold still there. Help is on the way.”
I held her there until the EMTs arrived, her skeletal frame like a sack of rutabagas in my arms, as she shook and said funny things like, “Where were you when the ponies stopped running on May Day?” I told her a few made-up anecdotes about the gray “castle wall” across the street. She got gooey-eyed and tilted her head back, and I thought she might pass out, just as the ambulance pulled up with its flat nose near the flowerbed. I told the guys in the deep blue shirts and latex gloves what I knew, hugged Marian who was in the process of gratuitously thanking me as they took her twin’s vitals, and continued on my way. So long, Marian. That was enough heroics for the day. The show must go on.
My legs ached from all the squatting as I pursued more green lights in my course downward; past the sea lion sculptures guarding the gold-trimmed exterior entryway of that row house next to the Cottage Market’s already fizzing red neon tubes over the balding white letters; past the rock wall of The Summer Place bar where I’d gotten kicked out of multiple times for talking too loud; past the tan bricks of the Marines Memorial and the large picture windows of the bad pasta place below it; past parking meters spaced along the sidewalk’s edge; past the Marriott with its drive-up stained-glass skylight dome and that rigid, Brutalist scab-of-the-block across Post, The Donatello; and past the former First Congregational Church that’d been turned into some Academy Of Art playhouse, it’s giant Gothic opaque windows and heaving white Doric columns and steps still fully intact from its churchgoing days; and past Ruby Skye, that horrid funhouse/dance club for yuppies, set squarely in the Native Sons building with its six terra cotta panels depicting, “The Discovery of California”; “Civilization”; “The Raising of the Bear Flag”; “The Raising of the American Flag”; “The Pioneers”; “The Discovery of Gold,” and the sculptured heads of grizzly bears sneering down from the 3rd floor and that phoenix over the doorway; and past the bicycle day-renters and the Jack In The Box on the corner, and past Pinecrest diner and its 24-Hour overpriced Americana grub, never serving egg-white omelets under penalty of death by firing squad.
Outside Geary’s Pizza By The Slice, a homeless Operation Desert Storm vet in a wheelchair held a cardboard sign reading, “God Bless, Spare Change,” above where a few disfigured pigeons were poking their beaks in the green-glass shards of a smashed pint of gin. He held the collar of a mangy dog and nodded to me. I gave him what coins I had on me, but didn’t want to be blessed by any god just then, so scurried off before he could notice who’d dropped the change in his clear-plastic cup. Theater goers were lining up outside of the A.C.T. for what must’ve been a matinee performance of whatever crappy, popular, overdone musical was playing there. A matted, sandy mess of clouds spit low over the theater and hotel rooftops. The stink of weed and piss was everywhere.
The Olympic Café was the epitome of a greasy spoon. On weekdays it was generally easy to find any seat you wanted. I chose a booth towards the back by the bathrooms and left my jacket on a rusty hook at the end of it. I always like to be within striking distance in case of emergency. The main cook — who was a grizzled, stooped, old Greek with big floppy ears and a wayward smile that cut like a crooked canyon across the rocky territories of his face — was sitting at the counter in a light discussion with a few of his friends, picking orange slices from a small bowl. The only waitress, who was probably somehow related to the cook, was also in a booth, watching the news on a small TV attached to the corner of the ceiling above the counter. The booths weren’t the sturdiest things in the world, and the tables were worn and scuffed, and the kitchen probably had more than its fair share of congealed, splattered grease and crumbs and cockroaches, but the easy atmosphere in there more than made up for any of it. (Though, at least according to a dusty plaque on the wall, they had received a score of 88 out of 100 on The City’s cleanliness testing chart — at some point in their history.)
The waitress brought over a coffee for me, and I sat there adjusting my eyes to the menu as the ceiling fans griped and moaned going about their slow, begrudging twirl. The yellowing walls were sticky and soiled with stains and subtly bowed with layers of scum. Light fixtures moped, bulbs darkened with grime, swaying slightly, bored and bitterly going about their business of illuminating. A slight stink of ammonia and raw egg was always on the air. It’s not that the place was dirty by any means; it just showed its age, proudly even, which is something that I enjoyed about it.
Leroy showed up stag, thankfully, as I didn’t want to deal with any extraneous events or persons, and he took a seat across from me, clammy and screw-loose as ever.
“What’s happening, my man? You look like a dapper hobo.”
“The coffee isn’t strong enough to beat up the napkin dispenser, but it does taste a bit better than gasoline.”
He was all belly laughs and wild nerves, some fouled-out intensity still brewing in the fissures.
“You should’a stuck around last night. It was wild. We dipped into Mr. Cee’s magic mushroom supply. Me and that Adair girl were hallucinating together all through the night, man. It was real fucking splendid. And The Dukette. She’s like a dynamo or something.”
“Can we have a strict no-details policy on all that?”
“I’m still trying to process how any of these breakfast orders is going to get into me and stay there.”
He shifted around on the booth’s ratty Naugahyde like some misfit cousin of Gumby after a bad rollercoaster experience, lifting himself up with his palms and rubbing his shoulders against the back. He had that spaced-out look you catch on end-of-line BART riders who’ve missed their stop by a mile because they passed out after consuming too many happy-hour aperitifs and now have been snapped awake by the ornery train operator who needs to de-board them in the most expedient manner possible, but who can’t really, in the end, do anything about it.
“Have you slept?”
“Sleep. What’s that?” He began using the silverware as drumsticks on the table. “I think…I think I passed out only at about…like four or so. There’s no way to tell for sure. There’s not a damn clock that works right in that place. And I forget to look at clocks all the time anyway.”
The waitress approached in all of her Mediterranean glory, glass coffee carafe in hand, and Leroy flipped over his chipped cup for her to fill, which she did, skillfully, only spilling enough to soak a couple napkins. It was great work all around. She took our orders without writing anything down. I made sure we both got the fried potatoes; they were always excellent there.
“You made it home without dying. That’s an accomplishment.”
“Yeah. My guardian angel must be pulling a lot of overtime lately. Or he’s given the job to some other unsuspecting shmuck who is hating the career choice he made right about now.”
“I’m not sure that’s as funny as you think it is.”
“I’ve given up trying to care. You hear any news about my –ex?”
“No.” He let out a burpish grunt and ran his tongue along a cheek. “Ugh. Haven’t been in touch with Helen. I think she’s done with me again.”
“Great. That’s perfect.”
We sipped at our coffee and listened to sound the TV made, and a few customers at the counter clinking and scraping fork tines against plates. The ceiling fans were circling so slow that I wondered what the point of them even being on was.
“This place is so, I don’t know…lackluster. It’s like lost in another era without trying to be.”
“Well, I’ve got a real affinity for it. And the rye toast is great.”
“Damn it. Why’d you let me order the sourdough?”
“I can’t tell you everything. Where would you put it?”
“Sure. Yeah. You’re a real mysterious fuck.”
“Anyway. This place, it’s most likely looked this way since that old Greek chef was a gangly teenager with acne, still stooping no doubt, and grumbling as he probably always has. Don’t get me wrong. The Olympic is no anachronism of throwback charm. It just happens to be the way it is without trying. A certain peculiar river of the long-gone and the present waterfalling into a pool of longevity and kindness and laughter and, shit, just hardhearted fortitude. There may be nothing subtle about dying, but there is something wondrous in the ancient process unfolding in steady, easy waves, as it does here, drawing out its hours through countless breakfasts, unfoldings of wallets, belches and wadded-up napkins and have-a-good-days and tips left under salt shakers, and tickings of the grease-splattered kitchen clock. I find it peaceful, relaxing even.”
“You? Relaxed? I’d always, always bet against that.”
“I’m calmer than a juniper under a moonless midnight. Where’s the rest of ‘the gang’?”
“The girls had to split for other shores. Pressing matters to attend to, I guess. And you know Mr. Cee, he’s always got to be in Millbrae or Vacaville or somewhere at some ungodly hour to do whatever ungodly things he does with his spare time. I don’t ask questions I’m afraid of the answers to.”
Our food arrived on roomy plates. The waitress slipped them under our noses like some assembly-line automaton and let us be. Omelets and fried potatoes and coffee. The real, no-nonsense stuff of America. We dug in. The dust-slathered fan blades continued their perilous fight above us. The old cook yacked back and forth with his TV-watching friends at the counter. Sunlight scaled the front windows where the cursive-lettered specials were peeling from the glass; and the Hotel Adagio across the street, bold and cerise and decadent, tossed dabs of shadow onto the concrete.
“I’m doomed with all this, aren’t I? There’s nothing to be done, really…”
“Don’t worry, man. Love is, like…cyclical. It’ll come back, and when you least expect it to, too.”
“Easy enough to imagine. Difficult to prove. Like most things.”
He was getting downright epileptic over there, almost knocking over his coffee, and then the sugar shaker took a dive, as his hands trembled and wavered over the table and into and out of his pockets and through his hair and along the Naugahyde.
“Speaking of needing to calm down…”
“Ugh. Yeah. Gurrr. Blech. I’m slipping off my rise, here, a little. I’ll be back. Watch my plate. I don’t trust that waitress.”
He excused his way to the bathroom, and I had some peace to finish my delicious fried potatoes in.
Ramona and I had often dined there in the afternoons, those roseate times of later breakfasts and earlier nights, sitting next to each other in a booth, doing crossword puzzles and getting our coffee to just the right creamy color and temperature, doodling and tracing our hands on placemats. I wandered back, but tried not to stay.
The nape of her neck, one of my favorite spots on the planet, as we leaned in and got lost in breath and jugular pulses.
“I’m so sick of always holding myself back,” (the purr of a thin-lipped swoon) “I just want to let myself fall all crazy in love, like getting dunked in the breakers at Ocean Beach.” (sweat and saliva on skin, better than any perfume) I don’t want to be scared to care too much all the time, waiting for the other shoe to drop.” (an earlobe’s flick, unattached, dips in the crooks of us)
“You know where that phrase comes from? People who lived all crammed together in these NY City tenements during the height of the Industrial Revolution. The walls were so thin in those rooms, everybody bunched together, living four and five to a room sometimes. And when someone came home from work the first thing they’d do is take off their heavy shoes or boots. The streets were like a horse stable, shit and mud everywhere, before pavement took over and cars. Anyway, everybody got to know the sound of a person removing their shoes, first one, and then, inevitably, the other. That heavy plunk followed always by a second thud. Nobody was hobbling around in just one shoe, you know. So, it was always just a matter of time before the second shoe dropped.”
Ramona dumped ketchup all over her eggs and picked at them daintily, like a Wood Thrush. I was always captivated by watching her do the smallest things.
“Me, too. I do the same thing.”
“Should we stop this nonsense that gets us nowhere?”
“Yes. Let’s let ourselves fall in love with each other.”
“How’s the toast over there?”
“This toast is not crisp-i-fied enough, but these fried potatoes…”
“Best in town.”
“Would you marry me over it?”
The waitress was resolved to be on a break for the remainder of our stay. Leroy limp-hopped back over to where his plate of food was getting cold, and proceeded to devour it. I stomached what I could of the whole debacle, steeped in cold-running ghosts while dabbling in some perfunctory sweeps of my meal.
“We’re going to need some antidote for what’s crashing through here.”
Leroy concurred as he scooped up chunks of egg matter and potato. “Not to worry. Jem’s over killing mockingbirds at The Royal today. We can slip by unannounced later and give him a thrill.” Jem was a bartender we knew over at an upscale sports bar called The Royal Exchange. It had a swell, old-timey, businessman appeal to it, and Jem dealt some of the best coke around. He’d put it under a shot glass of Jameson for you after you slipped him the proper amount of twenties. It was an easy and pleasant exchange— royal, even.
“All of our fathers were failures of whom we’re constantly seeking approvals and recommendations from.”
“Nothing. Good. I’m going to do some research in the crapper. If that waitress comes back before sundown let her know that I think she’s a real keeper. I’m buying her flowers and a cat named Samuel. I’ll sing to them, ‘Sam-You-Well, Sam-EEE-A-U-El’ all through the day.”
“Whatever, man. You do what’s necessary.”
“Necessity’s the Frank Zappa of mothers.”
I tipped my imaginary cap to him and wended with sphincter held tight towards enlightenment.
The City was resplendent from behind the cover of my sunglasses, and we hunched over with hands shoved deep in coat pockets, like two out-of-work jugglers, just a couple of drugs-worn-off hucksters on our way to abate the absolute fear and bottom echelon of what we’d rather not face or deal with any or at all: that plinth of denial and blurring of pain, erasing the symptoms with no hope of a cure, and not caring about the difference, never at rest but always assured of what one more drink would accomplish, and how even a hundred more would never do.
Union Square was festering with shoppers, and the annual ice-skating rink was set up and cranking out the prescribed hegemony of pop hits for the teens as they circled and held hands and tried to knock each other over. The St. Francis’s elevators rose and fell like the bars of a perpetually changing, live histogram of stock rates. I needed a drink in that desperate way that I hate to admit to, when my mind gets one-tracked and my blinders go on.
There was a voice, a griddle’s croak of scrubbed, low tone: “My name’s Radio Man, and I work every day.”
A swarthy fellow was upon us, lashing out with a crude baritone, his attire a constellation of filth-caked overcoats and torn gabardine. A feculent, handkerchief-sized U.S. flag hung down from his breast pocket where a day-old hydrangea still held tight to its twig. He towered over us, silhouette-like, recklessly chiseled in the foreground of Post’s stolid backdrop, and, with many clearings of his throat, he continued:
“I’m out here sopping it up, yeah, but man it’s been getting dry lately, you know, and nobody’s got a nickel even for poor Radio. Yeah, it just so happens that I’ve been standing against all walls, doing a lot of leaning, spanging too. That’s what the kids call it around here. Pan handling, piping the stem, begging. You know. Doing time in the bread line. Logged-off from the way society rolls. So, me, what I do, is I croon to it all. Yep. I sing the streets and the bricks and fire escapes and the stray dogs and the Street Sheet peddlers and the hot dog vendors and the cabbies and all the bums over on Turk and the madmen of Leavenworth and the dipsos and the hop-headed junkies and the heroin fiends and the crack babies and the fat old men smoking cigars outside of Lefty O’Doul’s and even Miss Alma de Bretteville Spreckles all the way at the top of the Dewey Monument right up there above you all there. Uh, huh. The most prettiest damn sight in town a way back then when she married rich and stayed poor at heart. Me? I sing the pigeons to sleep on the eaves of the Old Mint. I dance some too. But mostly I preach and yowl. I am Radio Man. And I work every day. So, what’ve you got for Radio Man today? Not just you. I’m asking all of San Francisco, nee Yerba Buena, to give an ear to what Radio Man might be needing to say for the day. Hear me out? Listen. Oh, yeah, well, I guess that too. You know, I’ve got a Comstock Lode all my own here stewing in this old crockpot head. I’m hanging like drapes, you sailors in slippers. Sure as ten dimes buys a dollar, I tell you. I know my way around all the tunnels and traps of this place. I know what goes on around here, you know, behind the two-dollar curtains in the ten-dollar rooms, in the basement rooms, in the library bathrooms and in the Underground’s stations. I know the late night haunts and what park benches not to try to catch 40 winks on. Yeah, I been around the block and then dragged all around some more. So, I go dancing along life’s icy brink, and make wishes on all the cigarette butts in a coma that I find on the sidewalk. Sure, I see you checking out my woebegone duds there. I ain’t one for tailored elegance and all those spotless niceties, if you know what I mean, guy. Downscale’s my up. Just as long as I got a shirt on my back, well, I guess I’m doing okay. My name’s Radio Man, and I work every day. Yes, my name is Radio Man, and I make my living by living out here on the street every day, canticle-ing my ways and collecting tiny round pieces of metal that a stranger’s kindness might hand out to me. Don’t forget me rattling my copper, nickel, and zinc change around in my cup. Don’t forget old Radio Man, still out here after all these years. Still standing like Hotaling’s Whiskey sprayed with sewer water, and twice as tough as Billy Smith for all my wear. Nope. You won’t catch me complaining about any of it. Just sleeping in the cracks of the world listening to the ambulances come and go. Yeah, there go the flower petals scattering down Jones. The pot holes all have their own rhythm and banging ways to bump against the bottoms of cars. The streetlights are praying for forgiveness. The fire hydrants are pursuing a nolo contendere plea. You couldn’t pay me to ride in a taxi at this hour, or, for another matter, to ride the 9-San Bruno after midnight. No way, no siree. Got to keep this old body tough enough to survive. Got to keep on my toes. My name’s Radio Man, and I work every day. She looks to be giving rain a try in a bit, boys. Get indoors and wait it out if you can. Could I ask you something? Just gimme a minute here. You got five nickels? I’m too tense for twenty-five. I hide between the Victorian Stick and the carved marble and the shadows of the St. Francis splashing all over these here parts. I sleep in your socks and hibernate at Candlestick Park and eat the dirt in the track at the old Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park. I’m a stowaway on a BART train. I’m the kiss that your lips miss. I’m on the bow of the Old Ship Saloon. I’m standing on my tiptoes atop the Transamerica pyramid. I’m in a block-long line outside the Glide Memorial waiting for my free food. I’m jumping from the international-orange span of the Golden Gate Bridge. My name is Radio Man, and I work every day. I sip coffee from Café Treiste. I drink Pisco Punch. I throw dice along Chinatown alleys. I flip the bird to the mayor. Don’t you go worrying about not-so-large-or-so-young me. I’ll keep getting on by, somehow. I’ll comb the night for sighs and serenade the bay to sleep every night. You know me. My name is Radio Man, and I work every day.”
I gave him a couple of bucks for his trouble. Leroy passed him a few cigarettes.
His beard oily and parted at the chin, his lips all cracked, and his sunburned skin scabrous and hard; he clenched my clean bills in his dirty hand, ducked his head— all muffled obscenities and spurts of distress now— and walked on away and into the street, not sticking as close to the parked cars as he should’ve.
“Let’s get some drink in us before we do something rash.”
“I know just the place.”
We repaired to a dark bar called The Irish Bank on Bush near Kearny: a drab and rundown stinker of a place that would do for our measly purposes. You could sit outside at tables there and enjoy the day near the horrid stench of a dumpster-lined alley, which nobody was. We curtsied inside where the lights were as dim as my head, and we sat at the bar, which was only occupied by a few SportsCenter addicts blinking adamantly from TV to TV. The two Irish immigrant ladies on duty were busy screaming at each other, obviously in the midst of some long-enduring tiff. Leroy shot his hand up like some grade-school Hall Monitor begging to be called on so he could tattle on me for carving bad words into his desk. The taller of the two— all copper hair and pale, crusty skin sprayed with freckles, a permanent scowl sculpted onto her frowsy mien— came over and lambasted us best she could.
“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I sees, you. Quit your showboatin’. Ah. Okay. What’ll it be, then?”
“We’ll have two of whatever nobody else is having.”
“Don’t cha’ start with me, son…”
I butted in: “Sorry. You must excuse my companion here. His blood pressure is abysmally low today. What he needs is strong beer and some good Irish whiskey, and for me, the same…please.”
She steamed at Leroy for a moment, rolled her eyes, and went to dispense our order, not at all happy about any of it.
“You need to at least attempt to behave like a normal person here, okay? No wise-cracking shit for a bit, okay? This is your first warning.”
“Fuuuuck you, man. Go warn a…”
I shushed him, harshly. He just shook his head and flapped his lips with some big, overdone exhalations and looked up at the TV until our liquid resilience arrived.
“It’s getting darker and lighter. It gets darker and lighter all the time.”
“For worse and for better.”
We drank down our whiskey and started in on the beer. Clouds were parting, but not by much. Globules of aquamarine light finagled in through the tinted transoms and showed all the un-swept places where no broom dared to go. After some nominal conferring and rapid sips of beer, my kidneys were calling for release again. I posed the eternal question to the barmaid: “You got a comfort station in the area?”
“Walk north. You’ll find something that’ll suit behind Door Number One.”
The bathrooms were a slim fit with primordial amenities, a relic of the hardier days of men who pissed in troughs and probably sinks too; but they had a Dyson Airblade Dryer in there to use after you washed up in the dual-faucet, cold-and-colder water sink, and that really made my day.
I returned to my stool with renewed vigor.
“It’s not true that Thomas Crapper invented toilets, but he sure made a lot of them in the early times.”
“Ah, that good-old American whiskey with the eee. Let’s have us some of that. Huh. Is that why we call it The Crapper?”
“No. But I wish it were. It’d be so fucking cool if that were true.” I gave the elbows-on-the-bar nod to our indignant lady server. “Two Early Times, please. Neat.”
“You two lads ain’t takin’ it soft today. Alright. Alright. Molly! What’s happened to you over there? Where the…what the fuck are you off on?”
The other lady’s named was Molly. Of course. Unbelievable. The whole place was a cliché. I perfectly expected the bartender’s name to be Siobhan or Aoife.
Our whiskey arrived. The Irish ladies, who weren’t quite the prettiest things on two legs, kept at their internecine struggle, and the aquamarine light continued to do anything but dance. My eyes were focusing on these colorful prisms behind the lenses in my sunglasses; I put them on the bar and blinked hard, and then harder still, until the colors all blended into one disintegrating vermilion cataract that eventually settled on a residence in the upper left corner of my hindsight. I put my regular glasses on, ready to see what the world had to offer once again. It wasn’t much.
“You okay, man? You look like you’re pureed over there.”
Leroy was doing a bad job of suppressing his instincts for taunting and heckling me.
“Just some vision problems, and my ears are all clogged. But I’m not hearing any too unusual voices. I’ll be fine.”
I got up to throw some darts at a dartboard in the backroom. I was the only occupant. The soft thump of the darts imbedding in the cork was very satisfying, like the sound a car crash makes: some internal, subconscious rhythm satisfied. The floor whimpered and winced with my steps. I lost to myself twice, and then got lost in thought to boot.
Ramona was an expert at getting the shower water just right. Not too hot or cold. I was always fumbling around with extremes, too nice or too mean, too drunk or too sober. I’ve never been able to find that balance and middle ground that most people go through their lives walking to the pattern of. We tested out our limits on each other, and then got muddled in distinctions. My coffee-making skills were put to the test daily as we tracked veracity with guarded suspicion from across the table.
“There are no gleams left that’ll glisten more than today’s. When irises are frowning. But I said that yesterday too.”
“All of your yesterdays, too, for that matter.”
“That’s a thing to thread hope through: just the same, but always different.”
“Looking forward to expected situations that change daily but stay the same. Simple.”
“Bottom-up on the top shelf, surrounding by glasses and cups. If looks could live it’d be a real champ of parlor talk. What’s put in and never taken is what stays, and it’s got more character and grit than you’ll ever lose. Through all mistakes of cottonmouth gruel, forgiveness clones a fake smile and the band plays on.”
“The radio’s garbling again.”
“We’re so damn lucky to be inhabiting this world so far along in our evolution. We’re still working out some kinks, or course, but for the most we’re pretty damn adapted to this place we’ve been put. Born into a long chain of survivors, passing on the genes, building a canopy of knowledge to be sewn over and back into and cross-stitched and patched by each generation, adding to our bulk storage of what it takes to be alive in this place and how the mechanisms of it work and run.”
“So, have a cup of coffee, jerk. Sit around for a while. We’re so damn fortunate. We’re alive. We get to be ourselves here for a short time. I don’t think we value this stuff enough. Just roll along with it.”
“Cup of mud. Joe. Java. Percolation’s perspicacity. See right through, all the way to you. We’ve been reckless without our abandon. Shame’s on the alembic of this combustible reaction, boiling water dumped all over the bits of who we were, the dirt and gravel and atomic dust of us. And now it’s tempered as it has slowly dripped down to the pieces that make up who we are: steaming strange and new.”
That pungent aroma, misty almost, as eyes do the same. Something roasted mapley mixed with cigarette ash and dark chocolate. Something slight yet strong, able to cure stuffiness with an acerbic scent, and raised high, into the ceiling’s warp and wayward cracks and dimples. Something to set on books and tables and radios, to leave traces of the past’s moments: thin circles decomposed to dirt-mark arcs. And there, that, that was who we were, then. A nifty rift in how we were doing our living. Tree-less peaks where the butterflies flee to. Flattened lands where the rivers go slow. A threadbare tablecloth smeared with bleak stick-figure doodles. Sip and behold. The things that are lost and gone, now, and that’s the way it’ll always just be.
Some tumultuous swearing was going on at the bar. I kept tossing my darts. Leroy half-standing above his stool, was animatedly describing some life event of his. I watched him as he fanned out and regaled, recounting how he’d chased down two women who’d swiped his laptop from him in a park in Oakland. He’d been sitting on a bench when they’d dropped some change on the ground next to him, and when he went to pick it up his computing device was gone. By the time he caught up to the lady bandits, they’d put the filched item underneath an actual baby in a stroller and when he tried to lift up the baby to recover the thing they both screamed bloody murder for a cop that this deranged individual covered with tattoos was stealing their baby and they scratched at him and howled until he decided to cut his losses and split rather than have to defend himself against the angry, righteous mob that was forming against him.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to know when to give up. That laptop was a piece of shit anyway. It was a sign. I was better off without it, less distractions, you know?”
Startled by Lord-knows-what, the bartender faced Leroy, as if recognizing that he was sitting there for the first time: “You are…interesting.” She burst into some screechy brogue cackle that got my ears ringing quite nicely. “Look at you. You’re not some typical type. You must be an artist, aren’t cha?”
“Well, now that you mention it…I…am.” Leroy added his patented deep-bass, ringmaster innuendo to the last part, for effect.
“Ah! I knew it!” She was spazzing out some. “Let us buy you one, for the artist!”
The fellows watching SportsCenter looked on with some disgust, but mostly just disinterest. They drank their light beer and kept to themselves.
I sunk all the darts into the board. Not even a single fleck of red or green. It was a bad show all around. I needed a reprieve. Back to the bar I went.
“What time of the day do you think it is?”
“Later than what it was at breakfast.”
The bartender ate that one up, and saddled on downstream from us with a, “I’d dare say it’s whiskey time.”
“Why can’t I meet a girl like that?”
“She’d be dangerous to your well-being, man. You don’t need that sort of encouragement.”
“I’m going out for cigarettes.”
“That old line?”
“I’ll see you at The Royal later. I need a breather.”
“Whatever, man. I guess I’ll be seeing you around then.”
“When I’m feeling more-or-less sacrosanct in general. Take a dive for me. No. Take three. Or more.”
“Got it, Skipper.”
I poured the remainder of my beer into me and went out the way I came.
Stockton was not yet a complete mess of foot traffic and scrums outside lunch spots. I breathed in the roominess while I could. Muriel Castanis’ Corporate Goddess statues weren’t interested in me, all the way up atop the 23rd floor of 580 California, posed there like grim reapers of some contaminated sacred well. Giant bellyaches of cloud encircled The Triple-Nickel Cal, its 52 floors of carnelian granite and thousands of turgid bay windows with few signs of any life going on behind them; and The Russ Building still wrapped up in fits of umbrage with all of its Neo-Gothic regality. I picked up the pace, striding long, fast, and passing up everyone in my way, one refrain ululating in my head: “I walk these streets. I walk these streets.”
I went into Sam’s Grill, that bastion of old San Francisco grit, and stood at the three-person-long bar with my foot on the rail, and waited for someone to serve me. Nobody came by. I thought about serving myself, but thought better of it. Sidling in on my left was a rugose lady in a chemise-like blouse who was trying to pay her tab with a check; she managed to flag down a waiter sporting spats who patted her softly on the back and told her, “In minutes, Darley-s.” I stood there and stood there, awkward as borrowed shoes, and decided that they could have their curtained booths and Crab Louie Salads and weak drinks and dead Oyster Kings; and creased without a fold to the exit. Following the futility of resistance, I slipped down Belden, past the European-style outdoor-seating of fair-weather luncheons where sad people sat eating sadder food and lipping at the straws of even sadder drinks. Bumper’s Arcade was still supporting good-time cheapskates above me as I parlayed my shopworn figuring into a brazen hard left onto Pine, heading up Kearney again, past the prisoner of a bandbox flower booth sitting on her hands and watching the stupid cable cars go by all filled up and overflowing, constant tintinnabulation and cagey switches, scaling up and down California’s altitudinal zones. I would’ve doffed my hat at her, but I don’t wear hats in public, ever. I pushed on, clearing the brush of pedestrians with deft whacks and chops of my hands, and made it onto Grant, Saint Mary’s Cathedral eying me, its damn crosses and gothic arches preaching: “Son, observe the time and fly from evil,” and so I did and didn’t, as it were, all the time, and as it never was or would be, also.
My bleary eyes drifted over all the shop signs with their dead neon bulbs lining the street going on down past Grant — those chalky, crusted, half-erased letters smeared in English and Chinese on their paling surface — getting sappy and nostalgic over Alphabet Row where all the restaurants have names like ABC Cafe and Z&Y’s, and The Poultry Block where they sell live chickens and no cameras are allowed. Then I scanned over the street vendors who sell baseball hats and license plates with normal names on them and Alcatraz-themed t-shirts and sweaters and other tchotchkes, keepsakes, and souvenirs: somebody’s pathetic and commercialized idea of what San Francisco is. It all made me miserable, this force-fed conglomerate group-think that passed itself off as spunky individuation, and I turned my eyes elsewhere while heading up to Stockton and its intersections of all-way scrambles, where buses go by in mass, so crowded with people that there’s not even room for air inside, and when the doors open everybody inside breathes in deep and as much as they can like somebody escaping from quicksand and gasping and spluttering for air. Onward I treaded, having to walk in the street at times because the pullulating mob of midday deal-shoppers was so thick that it was impossible to walk at an even gait, or any gait for that matter, without knocking down at least four or five people every twenty feet or so, if I kept to the sidewalk. Plus, I was not so sure of the current situation as to the abilities of my motor skills. My mind was swamped and miry, and everything was near.
A lady’s clothes-pinned underthings ripple like shredded flesh in a vagrant breeze from the 3rd story window of an ancient red-brick rooming house. The drowsy excitement of newly seen old places stirs and relaxes in my bones. Some guy with a long-handled net is unloading fresh, still-alive fish into a plastic trashcan from a double-parked truck. One flops into the street where a seagull swoops in and snaps it up in its beak. Everything is alive with bartered yelps and dexterous hand motions smoothing over melons and other odd assortments of strange tubers and vegetables and exotic fruit at a corner fresh-air market. Absurdity’s fled and devoured. Floral arrangements wilt in sun-splashed shop windows: another victim of gaze-less eyes. Shot shadows, forlorn and speckled with toroidal cracks, give way to foot traffic’s mores, gum and guano stains. It’s shove-or-be-shoved out.
After taking an irregular interval of rest beneath a clam-shell-fringed awning of an herb store; while absently listening to the beseeching surround-sound susurration of frazzled pigeons with missing toes and gnarled, dented beaks; I decided to move out and walk in the street with the inching-along buses.
In the street I stick close to parked cars and glance over my shoulder hurriedly every few seconds to make sure no vehicles are coming that might make mincemeat of me before I have time to briskly heave myself out of harm’s way. I think about squares for some reason and ponder heading east to watch the old men play elephant chess in Portsmouth Square (the hands-crossed-behind-the-back stance, leaning into the card games, lit cigarette slipped between taut lips, faces blank with some sort of somehow Baltic sadness. The crowded huddles, intense with tonal yaps, around xiangqi boards on milk crates and waxed cardboard boxes, dotting the cement topography like campfires keeping shudderers warm on a cold night), or of maybe walking back towards St. Mary’s Square, tramping around on the soft rubberized surface of the playground area and staring down through the chain-link fence at the empty lot below — filled with broken concrete slabs and thick with weeds taller than most adults.
That was the desultory state of my quarter-soused wandering, looking all over the place for things I’d never find: Ramona’s sallow face in a window’s reflection as we dined on Chow Fun and drank tea from stained little cups, nursing colds with hot & sour soup on the 3rd story of Sam Wo with its rattling dumbwaiter, and its slender teetering confines, and its sloppy, cymbal-clash ruckus. Nobody was whispering garbled secrets into my ear anymore, or remembering all my old addresses or memorizing my phone number.
I elbowed and hip-checked through it all, faced with that deleterious slunk of the booze wearing off, and so, avoiding a few spitting women carrying pink plastic Thank-You bags filled with household goods, I shoved off in hopes of some hunkering down that would last.
The sound of dice being slammed at the Lipo Lounge steered me clear, and The Buddha Bar was empty except for the meathead bartender from Singapore who was convinced he had cancer in both thumbs, and would show them to you and exclaim in his best fake-pidgin, “Look. Look. They all bent in bad shapes. It the cancer. Bad. So bad. No more doorknob,” and then pour you and himself a shot from whatever bottle was close by.
I traveled on, passing the Pressed Penny Machines and the animatronic fortune tellers, Confucius and Zoltar, dueling their staid rhetoric across the street from each other outside of “China Town Kites” and various wok shops and tea shops and Bargain Bazaars with mops and brooms outside and masks in the window. As I bounded up and down curbs and proceeded in gutters to avoid souvenir purveyors, seemingly every language in the world intermingled into a mass of aspirated consonants and diphthongs and cantilevered phonemes that swindled meaning from sound. Brick circles of ancient water stores hop-scotched my footing as I went down alleys and marveled at squamous fire escapes and blocked-off steps leading to underground parlors of unknown repute and use, while the tickle of erhus and ruans imbued the trash-can lined street with their tempering music. I got calm in a jiffy and perused through to Stockton and down Sacramento, finally taking a rest on the steps at the corner of Battery, right underneath the sunblock of Embarcadero One’s Tower. I sat and watched the cars go by from the top of the steps, a bit above it all, and all the 1-California buses that kept flinging by on their wires without me. I was satisfied with my current position in the concurrent world of things, though my brains had taken a drubbing for it.
Ramona and I used to sit on street corners, listening to that special cluck the changing lights made; and we’d watch things happen, taking in all the strange and wondrous minutiae and detritus of the streets that went too-often overlooked.
We had a place in the outer Richmond once, all the way out in the deep Avenues, a few blocks from Ocean Beach. It was a soggy, isolated life, but we kept at it. The “heavy wet” would stroll in nightly, tromping all over the houses with its elephant hooves, and there was a creaky pine in the backyard I could look up at through the back window when I was lying on the couch trying to figure out ways to stop thinking so much while Ramona fended off the relentless attacks of ant invaders in the kitchen. Out in The Sticks, with the skunks and raccoons who scratched at the tailpipes of parked cars and dumped garbage cans, and hissed at you, all rabid and foaming, if you dared too close to their happenstances. We’d walk the beach, toes in the hard sand down by the water, carrying our shoes, using washed-ashore kelp sea colanders as lassos and whips, wondering if the Cliff House was going to just go tumbling into the water or burn down again; and we’d lie in the sand, shivering beneath a few blankets as the tide ebbed and swelled, making up stories about the sky and Playland’s Laffing Sal and Mooneysville-by-the-Sea’s squatters and sliding down from the coops to the dancefloor at Topsy’s Roost and that eerie strip of Highway One…and each other.
She had a Roman nose and was no one’s target demographic. I was the most lost of all causes, and I loved the way her hair fell. What else was there to do? Someone to be yourself for? Another brittle strand of romance just waiting to fall off like an old button from your favorite jacket.
“I’d shoot the chutes with you-ets, cutes.”
“Marvelous. And so goes another sand crab off to diner.”
“The spatula’s run off with the can opener.”
“My mouth just goes all funny…seriously.”
“The dew’s on our noses, Moses.”
“Tongue and groove it, Dovetail.”
“We’ve got to keep meeting like this. Let’s forget whose side of the bed is whose tonight and misbehave.”
We had longer times there, so far away from it all, at the end of bus lines, passing days in lazed lobs never volleyed back. We’d attend estate sales in mansions on Lake Street and pretend we lived there, going through the closets and flipping make-believe eggs in the kitchen, sit on the balcony and sip coffee and look at the view. She’d buy strange articles of clothing and I’d nose around in the books and magazines, always finding something worth keeping and preserving from the stories of those lost lives.
The sky was filling with the trashy meringue of an impending storm. Soon the startled streets would be pillaged by rush-hour crowds. I needed shelter.
I stood around on the sidewalk among those waiting for the bus, gave a look west, all the way up Sacramento’s declivitous grade, up in that grand, near-faraway distance cropped and ceded to ranges of skyscrapers o’er deep-cut valleys of traffic-rivers, congestion the rapids of our era, fading sharply into squeezed conceptions of short and long, and height was just a matter of where you were seeing things from. Scraping my shoe bottoms on the curb’s edge, I did my best imitation of a person meandering, beset by no misgivings, perhaps just getting the gum off a sole, absently, without any heartbreak or skimming low in dissipation’s morass, just a person living normally, going about his business, minding his manners and watching his language, not even ever unkind to strangers at all, waiting to begin.
I headed to The Royal, in hopes of finding Leroy and some life-sustaining urgency, singing with a Shane-MacGowan hoarseness, a bit more than just to myself: “Dirty, old clouds…dirty, old clouds. I missed my bus by the cinema’s wall. Drank a drink with a new M.O., I killed my love with my same-wary vow. Dirty, old clouds. Dirty, old clouds.”
The Royal was getting full of the business-district tools who unwound after a day of buying and selling the unfit, haggard conditions of life’s necessities to and from those who traded in other such worthless commodities daily. Blustering and pointless, high-keyed joviality abounded. I nodded through it, one-tracked with a commitment to assuaging the withers and doldrums of withdrawal with whiskey.
“They got any paper boxes of ice cream here?” I stiff-armed an unsuspecting Leroy as I took a stool next to him at the corner end of the bar, which was a square-shaped job with all the drinks and barmen in the middle.
“You mean with a little wood spoon, like a tongue depressor?”
“Vanilla beans with cacao. Something alluvial.”
“That’ll be good. Rain’s a headed for a try here, they say.”
“They do. As do I. How abouts you a standing me a whiskey?”
“Of course. Where’d you jog off to, Jiminy Stewart?”
Jem, the barman who dealt the most sought-after cocaine this side of Contra Costa County, was upon us, all wide-cuffed grace and elegant poise, the mounting evidence of aging close to retirement’s capstone in the swashed links of his calmer seas seen from the hills beyond any other beyond. He lived in Marin and took the ferry over most weekdays to serve drinks to these self-satisfied movers and shakers. His eyes were sequins pasted on wheat toast.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite un-loyal customers in the district. How’s the festivities, boys?”
“Hale and spleeny, and I shaved, at least. Can’t say as much for this one.”
Jem gave us that knowing hand brush over the bar that meant he knew what we wanted and we gave him that knowing look back that told him we were ready for whatever he was laying down just then. He went to the back and returned with two shot glasses filled with whiskey, laying napkins under them, and as he did so, quite expertly slipping a tiny plastic bag of cocaine under one of the napkins too. We finished the cash transaction with the laying of bills, and Leroy nabbed the bag as he lifted his drink. We drank. All was copasetic.
I looked around at all the ambitious young men and women, hurling insults and swarmed with loud talk about how they were going to somehow rule the world one day, and run the whole thing like a business, valuing nothing over the quotes they were getting on whatever stocks they were unloading or taking on momentarily, finding their worth in their checking accounts and what cars they drove. There they were, those banking behemoths in burgundy booths by the street-side windows, tipping back fancy cocktails, retelling offensive jokes, running off at the mouth about the cost-analyses benefits of whatever narcissistic follies ran the bases in their schemes. The empty, shrill boasts of trained myopia.
Leroy nudged me. “There something wrong with your atoms or something?”
“Ah, you wouldn’t know an atom from Adam.”
“Why so sullen all of a sudden?”
“It’s just this place, right now, I guess.”
“This place. It’s just temporary. It’ll pass.”
“Worshipping warships. Counting other people’s money…and then the kitchen sink gets clogged, just like anyone else’s, and you’ve got to call the plumber.”
“Hey, man. Let me tell you, there ain’t any marigolds in those moonbeams. Better to just leave it be.”
I swallowed the rest of my whiskey, nudged him back, and put my hand under the bar and waited for him to deposit a small bag of white powder into my now-sweaty palm. He did.
The bathroom was more crowded than I’d wished, but had stalls, which was fine for my purposes. I unzipped the bag with shaky fingers and tried not to drop it into the toilet, where I was now letting go of some excess sodium from my diet as well. It was stupid, this multitasking, but I felt I needed a cover for the illicit activity I was partaking in. I wet my pinkie on my tongue and dipped it in the bag, scaring up a more-than substantial amount of the powder, and put it directly up my nose as I pissed to cover the sound of a few giant sniffs. I was very happy with myself, as this all came together without a hitch, and I flushed, placed the coke back in my inner coat pocket, and went over and washed my hands next to some oleaginous son-of-a-bitch with perfectly parted hair and a gold watch. I looked at myself in the mirror and had a very clear and confident thought: “What a gorgeous day to die on.”
Back at the bar, now refreshed and robust, I needled Leroy with some musings: “Let me tell you what bothers me about this sort of environment that’s fostering and unfolding up in here.”
I apparently felt in need of doing some explaining. He ordered some beer and put up with it.
“We’ve built a society that’s geared to do not much except part the individual as expediently as possible from their money by a most underhanded and inconspicuous means. The monopolies reign, set up to only make more and more, to never be satisfied but forever unquenchable in their desire to expand, to build excess from more excess, until bloated and incontinent with discontentment they turn profit into more profits, ad nauseam. There is no ‘enough.’ All is tied to growth and expansion. Everything is measured from comparison to the previous quarter. You made 1.2 billion last year? Well, you just better make at least 1.5 billion next year or you are a complete failure. Better hit those expectations or ‘tis all for naught. And because a corporation has no one to answer to except its shareholders, there can be no morality, no justice, no benevolence towards the consumers; only more shares to sell, more avarice and greed to dispense— all with a proud disingenuous countenance to fend off any naysayers. Telling everybody, ‘We’re doing good because we say we’re doing good.’ They just keep aggrandizing, hovering over us, smothering us with their indomitable Pantagruelian girth, while we just get smaller and smaller in our own personal worth. Soon there’ll be no choices left except ‘more, please’ and ‘please, more.’ Shit. Maybe we should stick a pin in these incorporated hot-air balloons before it’s too late, deflate them and build things from a more sustainable and rich ground, something that depends on humans being decent to one another instead of kowtowing to these uncaring beasts who write the laws we must all obey— gut the fuckers and leave nothing but the bones. Or perhaps we should have done so long ago, and now…well, perhaps it’s been too late for too long now, and we are destined to dwell under their oligarchic rule for eternity. But then again, maybe not?”
“That’ll be the day…”
Leroy took the tiny plastic bag back from me and went off to the bathroom. I sat there, all talked out for the moment, trying to disentangle the yips that were knotted around my legs like kudzu. My jaw was twitching. I decided to pour more beer into that faulty contrivance.
Soon we were dusting ourselves off outside, smoking cigarettes, trying to talk to some young ladies who were out doing the same; not having any luck with it, we went back to our own chatter, and got distracted away from what we probably most wanted to be saying.
Then the rain came.
It was pouring. The gutters ran with it. Fallen leaves got ambushed and held captive over storm drains, blocking them, and the cars splashed through the out-of-place water, drenching innocent bystanders as umbrellas made their first appearance.
“Let’s stop putting off today what we could put off tomorrow.”
“We’re drenched with enough without the rain, anyway.”
I snared two Examiners out of a dispenser, handing one to Leroy. “Here, put this over your head. We’ll run there like hoodlums.” I screamed, “Huddle ‘em! Huddle ‘em!” as we ran, holding the thin copies of the Examiners over our heads, sopping wet messes they became, just like us, trying to take cover under canopies and eaves and awnings as we went, sliding all over the place, letting out feral calls of giddy relief as we fought through the deluge towards North Beach.
“It’s a flood. Let’s sail there on the roof of that Mercedes.”
“All aboard! All feet off deck! Swab the sewers!”
We coasted, lamenting the curse of bipedalism, getting soaked, wild and free.
Montgomery was cresting, and we stood in an alcove and watched the water rise and flow, taking with it all the glut and surfeit and residue of being alive: the discarded trash and used-up, forgotten goods of existence.
“You know, the only reason we’re alive is because some bacteria find our guts useful places to do their living in.”
“Yeah, we’re mostly just bacteria and dead skin cells and water. Just walking bacteria incubators, that’s all we’re good for. Red-tailed hawks make more use out of the city’s buildings than we do. Great places to hunt from.”
We both geared into a sprint, flopping through intersections, skimming and hydroplaning over slick cover plates, clasping parking meters and mailboxes like walking sticks to keep us upright, blazing new life into dim, well-trod trails. Then the Transamerica Pyramid was shooting up above it all, with its spire of aluminum panels, its obelisk body of crushed quartz and thousands of panes of glass showered in cascades of coruscating brilliance and shot with slivers of refracted rain.
“Something better happen soon.”
Menacing clouds cruised along like battleships.
I was shouting over the weather: “Look, man! That’s where the Monkey Block used to go. They built that sucker just like James Lick would’ve. Over 3,000 windows, concrete wings, and a glass cap at the top which even lights up white sometimes. What a fucking horrendous marvel of pragmatic fenestration. America strips a thing down to the part that will sell and disregards the rest.”
A slight letup in the pluvial ministrations gave us some space to dart through, and we plowed up Columbus, that arrow shot diagonally through the grid pattern, past Tosca, and around the bend to Specs.
We thrashed in there, that old haunt, shivering like wet dogs and drying ourselves off with napkins, while the few old-timers at the bar looked on with mild irritation and some dying sort of curiosity they’d lost many gin-and-tonics ago. The bar was darker than anywhere out, as always, and the gallimaufry of moldy, dust-dressed objects gave their usual comfort, like items in a time capsule, things put in place to keep for when you needed them to remind you that, yes, life really was that way, once. The whole place crawled with nostalgia and mildew, and probably not only a few cockroaches.
“What’re you guys, dentists?” Some white-goateed stool plant was giving us the side-eye treatment over his cocktail.
“No. No. Nothing like that. We’re the last of the lamplighters.”
“You look in need of a warmup, sons.”
Leroy circled around the empty tables, past the piano, and disappeared into the bathroom. I plunked down on a stool and got as a dry as I could. A large Canadian flag drooped above me from where its four corners were nailed into the ceiling.
“A soggy time I never had except for a dry day in San Francisco. Let me get you a drink for that.”
It was Sal, with his round-frame spectacles and bushy black eyebrows and that imperial mustache, behind the bar, never in a rush and ready for whatever drifted in.
“I could use whiskey with some coffee in it.”
Sal went over to the silver, vat-like urn on the south end of the bar and got it to drizzle out some coffee into a glass, and then poured the worst whiskey in the well over it. It was splendid. I ordered one for Leroy too.
“I love these gonfalons, Sal.”
He squinted up at the ceiling where all the various-shaped pennants and burgees were stapled and nailed, “Yep. Most of them banners have been there longer than you’ve been alive, I figure.”
Behind him, above the back-bar mirror, was a mural of stickers and plaques and signs, stuff like: “Wild Salmon Don’t Do Drugs” “Beware Of Owner” “So Few Richards, So Many Dicks” and “Reality is a temporary illusion brought on by the absence of alcohol.”
Leroy returned, happier, dryer, and glad of his hot beverage. “Your clock says it’s Mardi Gras.”
“This man pours with his glasses on. He’s alright.”
“Can’t not take you anywhere.”
“Damn good coffee.”
“It’s the whiskey that counts.”
The old-timers couldn’t help but chime in, eager for company.
“What’s his problem?”
“Him? Oh, he writes mediocre poetry for some minor publications.”
“Give his dog to Chef Matsumoto for me, will you?”
“You fellas get caught in a flood or something?”
“How’d you guess?”
“The importance of water. It lasts. Two ordinary hydrogen atoms covalently bonded to a single oxygen atom. That’s the stuff that runs the world.”
Sal filled two glasses with water from the soda gun and set them down in front of us: “You know what? This water is older than anything. It’s real old, this water. All water is. Water’s older than all of us, our whole history. We were born into water. We learned to survive in it. We made life in the water. It makes up a whole lot of what we are. We still need it every day. Can’t live without it. Yep. This water, this water’s old water. It sprang up while the earth was cooling down. Once it covered everything. It supported all life. Every drop’s the same drop that’s been around even before ages. George Washington might’ve pissed out this same water you’re drinking. Or maybe John the Baptist dunked some poor sap in it. Or maybe Mohammed showered with it. Maybe you’re drinking Lincoln’s piss, there, huh? Who knows? You see, water doesn’t go anywhere. It just stays. It transmogrifies, sure. It goes to gas and freezes and melts and flows and sits in pools and lakes and oceans. Irrigation’s a trick we learned long ago: getting water to do our business with aqueducts and dams and gutters and basins and reservoirs. We can filter it, chlorinate it, muck it up with sewage and toxic chemicals. But it’s always the same water. It’s always just been here, and it ain’t going nowhere any time before any of us. So, well, enjoy, you lucky bastards. Bottoms up. Don’t take it for granted as you cower from the rain and bathe and brush your teeth.”
Sal left us alone after that, and we took our drinks to one of the round tables in the back by the piano.
God, I loved those tables. Just your typical round wood table surrounded by hardback chairs. Great places to gather around, to conduct business or raise hell, as if you were in the back of a boardinghouse or a boarded-up speakeasy and juke joint, lost to time’s going by, held in the simple, plain weirdness of old America’s rough and coarse and sometimes gruesome but always infallible joy. And the temperamental piano player would come in and play the same songs he always played: the themes from Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver, and other old standards and standbys. And you’d go outside for a smoke and get lost in four or eleven conversations with pot smokers and Street-Sheet proselytizers and drunks and journalists, and busboys and bartenders and waiters and cooks from all the finest North Beach establishments. And then back inside to the always moving chess pieces around the tables and at the bar, finding a chair somewhere in the madness, maybe by that diminutive maniac Sami Ali Baba and his table of illustrations for sale, or Polaroid Minnie who’d take your blurry and off-center picture for a small donation to her cause, or alone, even, as the voices carry and fill the room, beer in hand, waiting for something preposterous to happen to you.
The rain was still tormenting things outside. We sat at the table and drank our hot whiskey drinks and our cool waters. It was quite refreshing.
“How you holding up?”
“Me? I’m trying not to take note of it.”
“There’s nothing you can do. It’s just something that’ll sink in, you know?”
Something was seared there in Leroy’s eyes, something serious, and I didn’t want to mind it, but I had no choice. There was no escaping the way I was feeling, but escape was all I wanted.
“Here. Give. I’m going to take a little trip out of purgatory.”
He gave me the blow, and I made my way up the steps to the bathroom. Two urinals on the left. A stall in the back corner. A sink that dripped water with a nebulous mirror. I performed my usual two-for-one routine with the coke and the pissing in the stall, this time sucking up a great deal more, hoping it’d be enough to detour the horror of fact-facing. I didn’t immediately feel any better, so I did a few more bumps. I looked in that crappy mirror before I left. What I saw there wasn’t much to look at, so I looked away.
Leroy was barely sipping at his two drinks.
“What’re you, against the way of all liquids now?”
“It’s just the coke, man. I forget to drink. It’s great for moderation.”
I just shook my head and tipped back most of my whiskey-coffee concoction. And my head went back to another rainy day I’d had, when Ramona and I were driving along the coast on Highway One up north, and had stopped at a hotel as the storm downed powerlines and trees and ravaged the shore with pounding biblical waves.
Rained-in, we soaked up the maple syrup and melted butter with gobs of burnt pancakes, alone in the hotel’s dining room except for a lone waiter who managed to make his way to and around us in the feebly lit space. Most of the light was getting in through the large plate glass windows which gave a grand view of the ocean raging in the storm’s tumult just a hundred yards or so from where we sat, all dressed up for breakfast with nowhere to go, nowhere we wanted to go, just hunkering down at this hotel by the ocean until the storm passed, sort of hoping that the electricity wouldn’t come back on anytime soon. Some sloppy footing had gone, and we had each other. We had hot water back in the room, and we filled the tub and sat in it in the dark, listening to the pouring rain’s music, making up names for things, splashing around in the simple joy of being left alone, together.
I wish I could drink the weather back to the way it was then. Murdered birds and weddings and rocks. A log adrift in the shore’s tumult. Electricity gone. Burnt pancakes in the dark. No phones. No shoes. A race through gravel to a wheelwright’s grave. The break of waves into a heart’s shards. Desolate and around for the giving. A killing of cigarettes upon the sea’s worn eyes. A maul of sea foam.
What she told was rife with wonderful things.
“You remind me of someone I used to dream about.”
And then shuffling by, on some rainy gray afternoon, a sushi joint with a big-glasses chef in the window. We were tired with days and nights. I won bread from the chatelaine vendors. I’d been low-tailing it, chancing a “maybe” for most of what I couldn’t hold my tongue about. The iceman was getting the wrong idea—slowly, of course. But who wants to pick up after somebody else?
Ask me nothing. The forefront of youth skips around Union Square, holding hands with aging. Up go the elevators, fast as bullets, and nobody cheers from the bomb shelters. We’ve got swindles in the palm fronds, mules on planks, and the refuse of what we were hides plainer and plainer still, in the histrionics of a cop directing traffic, in dressing up what’s always been just down, or, really, in the salads of digression or the astronomical transit of whom we’ve lost along the way.
“Think of me while you are not. You are my scarecrow, my rangy scarecrow. You make me happy when crows fly away. You’ll never know dear, how much I loathe loving you. Please don’t take my scarecrow away.”
Then there were slides across the slick floor in socks.
“Oh, the toast is on fire.”
You were pasting newspaper clippings of food on a cardboard redbrick background. We had the radio on to Talk. Reviews of butter sellers, chunks of staying the same, and then there was the kettle’s screech: a selective tone of wheezed ire. You’d slant your most kissable smile over to me. There were things, always, to not say. After I get up. After I don’t ever come home. After I move the car from one side of the street to the next. After all that, we can have bluer berries than any pie’s ever seen. Jumper cables, roller skates, and a two-by-four in the trunk. We can sort it all out later.
“They won’t catch us. They’ll never know what they won’t let themselves see. And what’s to get? The after-draft of us scents heavy the morning’s mist with a piney lavender, some smoke-curled roasted-acorn aroma dripping with dew and meadow grass, and maybe some almond and crushed velvet. I do not own a sewing needle but the thread’s in a shoebox inside a suitcase—the one where I’ve carved my initials next to yours in the handle.
“Let’s pretend we’re on a tour of our house. You go first. Show me where you watch birds from.”
The jobs we had. The tax forms. The receipts from hotels and restaurants. Movie ticket stubs. Love notes on underwear packaging.
“I’m grinding your favorite coffee again. It’s been so long since I’ve been to the beach. Tell the rain it is missed, especially its small, small hands.”
Back to the bar. Back to the raiment of pretzels and puzzles and noodles of classy instilled, if not lackluster, motivation. Back. Away. The music’s all too loud and everybody tells it all wrong at just the right time. A jaw drops. A drink gets poured. We dance like there’s still a chance to be someone. Back to the stool. Back to the way we’d sit lost in the darkest and dustiest corners we could find. Back to the worst times of downing doubles under a banner reading “GO GIANTS!” in the dimmest of train-station bars. We’d bluff if we still could, or at least I would, at least. Back to the desert and the blight of a strip mall off the highway late at night when even the streetlights have given up and just go right on blinking yellow right along with the ineffable little lights going ape shit all over up above. Back to the way you loved all the things about me that I couldn’t stand. Back to a dingy hotel room, stark and repulsive and trashed, hunkered down in a rainstorm, awaiting nothing and whatever comes what never does. Back to shaving in a rear-view mirror. Back to mutually assured admiration.
“I’m talking about ammunition, man.” Leroy was off on some tangent that I’d missed the lead-in to. “You’ve got to use it while you’ve got it, and if you’re like, I don’t know, fixated on your scars and this trivial rooting in the past, well, man, I don’t know. You’re just turning into more and more past, until it’s going to be all you are, and you’ll sit here like these shmucks, like a dope…a sucker…no, a shumcker. That’s what you’ll be, sipping at your fucking cocktail and bemoaning to anyone close by enough to hear you. Pretty soon it’ll all be gone, and you’ll just be telling the same fucking story over and over again, hoping it’s the way it was the first time…but it never is. Everything just keeps going by and getting older and becoming more and more past. Ah fuck it. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, right?”
“I’d like to hope not, but I’m not sure.”
“I’m getting us two Olympias. We need cans to slurp from once in a while.”
I sat there, like a dope, and sipped from my cocktail.
Some company came and sat around us: old, failed bar flies and retired wranglers and gum salesmen, failed ballerinas and cigarette girls and believers in myths of the way things were and are. They came and went like party filler, drifting in and out of conversations as I scrutinized the ceiling and walls.
“I’ve always been an admirer of your physique.”
“Whiter-knuckled than a nervous wreck at the wheel. That’s what gets me from Hangover to Cure. ”
“Yes. The wailing misery of cats, I believe. Pretty vacant and almost empty. Worlds of weariness. A discounted life left to its own devices. Every stumble’s bum.”
“No illicit run on nuances here, I see.”
“Reverse is its own pull, not forward’s polarity.”
“Of course. But the years trail from your coattails nonetheless, tax you with unforgiving umlauts of worthless drudgery, crop dull and steady in that unnoticed way you jab and stagger through them.”
“It’s like a young girl asking, ‘How old do you have to be to be in love?’”
“The answer’s at least forty. In my less-than-humble opinion.”
“And she asks, ‘Would you please read for me please?’”
“Me? Hummed all the ding right of all things. I’ve been reading for myself since I was at least forty.”
“Sure. And if you want to speak of skull-heavy reverberations, ahem: before the first football helmet was developed, Edgar Allan Poe III (grandnephew of the famous writer) developed a small leather nose protector which, however, was found to severely interfere with vision and breathing and to come off too easily.”
“I did not know that. Another proctologist’s lullaby for thought, I suppose.”
“Things you should’ve considered, but didn’t because, well, there are always so many damn things to consider. To wit: Christopher Reeve was the best Clark Kent.”
“Sure, but I bet Burt Lancaster would’ve done the role proud. But me? I’m all out of opinions, and facts are sputtering to an untimely end. Open up and say nothing. We’re all out of this apart.”
“No. It’s bleak’s harbinger: fat-headed nonsense being used as grandstanding ideals. It’s always stupidest before the fall.”
“My dreams are absent from the fray, at least. Some untouched valley where I can go moan alone. That’s all anybody needs.”
“Kissed windless through keyholes on clipped wings. We are of the mildest sort of dire.”
“You could say that.”
“I will. I did. I…am.”
“So, as of right this curtailed now, as we’re considering it, I am making a list of people who have been in my kitchen.”
“Have you included a chain-smoking nervous theoretical physicist who loved martinis and loose women and ancient Hindu poetry?”
“Ah, yes. A slugged-around guy who’s always carefully ‘tickling the dragon’s tail’ for results. You got it. Or you don’t, right?”
“And then uranium is enriched for all the wrong rights. Yes becomes your only maybe, and the megatons begat chains of distance, things to never go beyond, words meant as worlds never to be mended.”
“Can it. I’m open to spaces.”
“And all the lilacs in Ohio are without you on these days that the rain turns into spoiled wine.”
“Read the cue cards. Cry between the parentheses. Take your time getting old. It’ll all hold down whatever’s up with your most autumnal moments. Memories form welts warm on the wet hand-holding gibberish relished coy on the mind’s gearshift.”
“Just a painted-over portrait of a churchgoer who happened to one day just go bad. Not that I put money on such things. I’m just overarching. Or would that be overweening?”
“Falling in love at a train station.”
“A transcontinental meeting. A banquet-hall feeling surmounted in the duress of the direst of situations. Post prefab circumstances at play as we hammer the floorboards with paper nails so no one hears us under the shouting we’re too scared to do out loud.”
“Seems partially approved, all this thousandth-timing, all this bigshot talk.”
“Dumped, again. Artfully inept. A broken escalator that’ll never do as just stairs.”
“When I was passing through a town out west, once, I sat parked in my car, shut off the engine but left the radio on. A Johnny Rodriguez song was playing: something about, ‘Don’t pass me by,’ or something. It was a great old country song, sort of sad but twangy enough to not be melancholy at all. I let it take over my thoughts, become who I was, just a sad sack existing in a world of fog and drudgery. I wished I were in a smoke-filled billiards room, sitting at the bar with a beer in one hand and an empty shot glass in front of me. I wanted to be somebody else and myself at the same time. Everything was just memories mixed with drinks. Only passing through. Just a line not used, a hard swallow and a burp. Nobody watching. Nobody to care. Just let me sit there and drown. I guess.”
“‘If you can see this you probably won’t let on that you do.’ That sort of thing, right?”
“A halo around your neck that people pretend doesn’t exist.”
“Love’s attaché case.”
“Oh, and, yes, and rumple-soft the moon’s ripples, banded orange-blue-yellow, streak through stuffed peppers of cloud as the night sinks its talons into what’s ample and there for the taking. God, we’re such morons to never look around and all over as much as possible. Any start that does anything but.”
“But we’ve still got time?”
“When you get to that point in your life when you’re looking back at things more than you’re looking forward to things.”
“A fresher drink, a dirty-faced angel dancing over the tip of your tongue. Hell, let’s go right into the hillbilly numbers.”
“Less than holy moments.”
“The hollow and steady echo of hammers in a high-rise under construction, street noise notwithstanding, the hauling-away of it all is tangible on this brisk chilly day of low sun and clear skies. The kind of day you get a nosebleed on for no reason. And you get caught between paces in a head-on with a fellow pedestrian, narrowly avoiding a collision as you crane your neck back to the situation at hand. When the wind’s blowing bleach and the concrete’s unassailable. Just as the sentinel building-top gargoyles and the intaglios and carved-relief cubs on stairway entrances see fit. A runnel. A rut. The mud you’re stuck spinning your wheels in. Holes to be trapped down. Heavens away from any hope’s dashed haven. Still, brought forth and a tad triumphant, with less zeal than you’d suppose, as the conch-shell blasts of arc welding disturbs no peace but your own. Crawl lengthwise through occupied spaces. React composed and plum with the edges of scrappiness.”
“Of all the gin around, you’re the only one I’ll consider misbehaving with.”
“Yes. Because, ahem, ‘Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits.’ Right?”
“Same here. And I’m left wondering why I can’t be a ‘cool guy.’”
“Dressed to dredge up a consistent perspective. Recall it all and be irrational.”
“Eyes that can never see beyond sight.”
“Rivers instead of roads, maybe, and the cans always do.”
“I have trouble with electricity. Is this common? What’s the frequency? Are these dreams inside of reality? Why do my clocks never work?”
“Questions are only more choices not to make. We only exist because of other people. We are nothing by ourselves.”
“A snitched tell of swept hallways kept musty and crammed with memories. Echoes in the echo chamber. Noise that can only come from music’s profane existence. A preamble to a life’s end.”
“There are multitudes in the microscopic circumspection of doubts and destinies. Creeping into the acts of logic, we muster uncanny formulas in sentient shapes all the time.”
“It’s really all that’s left to do.”
We kept getting more Olympias, going from table to bar to bathroom, and outside for a smoke as the weather let up its fury and the day tried on its evening attire. There was that famous bench out there by the bar’s only window where someone was always in the midst of rolling a joint, and the potted-plant ashtray, and the rusty red Tosca sign coming to life over William Saroyan’s alley, and some early jazz-band rehearsals spilling out from Pearls next door. Across the street the tourists and ex-hippies and backpackers and young male chauvinists and other sotted bar paraphernalia and clichés filed in and out of Vesuvio and stood around in the alley next to it.
I gave some guy I knew from the bar a light, and we smoked and leaned against the wall by the sidewalk, always scattered with people going by and peering quizzically down the alley, trying to see what was going on in this odd cavity of the world’s wisdom teeth.
I told him some of my troubles over the fleeting candor of a cigarette. He was a bit drunk, but lively enough to still spew some coherent aphorisms at me.
“Ah, your least favorite way to spell’s split with reality. You are hollowed to bones and skull from too many commercials, too many day drunks. Coveted denial. Remaining’s last call to the simpering woeful folks who drown in bars, who rest so much less than assured, who claim the rights to so little. What’s left? Here? It’s a tossup, really. It steals the mash from the potatoes. It kicks destiny down the hall with the house wrens and the warblers and the drop-dead drunks. Don’t overestimate the mileage on your bitterness. Without posters. Without just the right amount of drugs in your system. Without the original way to be yourself. Gone to Cincinnati’s kidding again. We are droplets of poison dispersed on pesticide-ridden fields, abandoned and misrepresenting all the corner tones from sumptuous dispositions to hardened reaping. Lingering makes its own case, Botticelli. Down’s up. Don’t remember anything any better than it was. That’s all.”
I thanked him for the avuncular thoughts and returned inside where a can of Olympia was waiting for me.
Specs had cleared out for the most part. Leroy and I were sitting around one of the smaller tables near the front door, and neither of us could stop talking.
“Just loaning out my personality to strangers who take it for a joyride and maybe junk it on a shoulder instead of giving it back…I’m just an overdue library book with busted binding and all kinds of scribbling in the margins.” “I wonder if there are any hits left in that bat up there in the rafters?” “Probably a Seals bat, from like way long ago, like when they played in the Safeway parking lot on Bryant and 16th there. Good Pacific Coast League team in their day.” “Larger looming, smaller ideas, and I can’t get the idea of her out of my head, and, I don’t know, you know? Is it really her I was in love with, or just the idea of her? Because the idea of other people’s really all we’ve got to go on, about them, you know?” “You are a real A-1 whiner, you know that? She’s the one dying. She’s the one suffering and plagued and out there in the Midwest in some hospital bed hooked up to machines probably…I’m sorry…but, man, you’ve got to…we’ve all got to make do with the flight we’re on, not the one that’s been cancelled or that we wished we’d taken.” “God, the flights I’ve overpaid for now. Missing things, all the time, even the things I used to hate, the way we’d fight, and not talk, and I’d get so damn miffed over the tiniest of stupid, petty bullshit all the time. I’d give anything to be irked by the way she would only use specific dishes and plates at specific times only for very even more specific things…coffee in a mug named Frank…stupid, the bad times too, the stuff that clings and seems shinier in the rearview.” “Drink your beer. You’ll be alright.” “Getting close to empty here.”
Sal came over with two more Olympias, mustache bristling, some gentle chord whisked through a visitor in a piano warehouse’s smile, like the father I wished I had instead of the one I got. “These ones are on the house, boys.” He took our empties and we thanked him, a bit too heartily, and with narrowed focus we vanquished what was left of the evening’s overture.
“Growing up and old for no reason, or without one.”
The bar lights came on, which were hardly a step above dim, and the piano player, who hated everybody, sulked his misanthropic way to the piano.
“But, maybe, just maybe, it’s not quite time to drag the couch cushions and count up all my change just yet. And we’re off to other Aprils of the mind.”
The bar was like the rec room of an old folk’s home by this point. The geezers sat around on stools, nursing their highballs, their hot toddies with lemon slices on the side, nibbling at cheddar triangles that Sal had cut for them with the slicer on the big cheese wheel behind the bar, getting exuberant over trifles, memories, long-ingrained notions of the way things were and should always be, taking in the piano music, the same songs they’d heard a thousand times, same place, different time, and they told the same stories and laughed at the same jokes and after a few drinks maybe showed off their gift of gab to some unlucky saps who just happened to wander in to see what the deal was with this hole-in-the-wall place down a small dead-end alley filled like a museum with all of these ordinary plastic objects.
“Hold on. I’m not done punishing myself just yet. Ok. There. God, I love drinking beer from a can. You know what Ramona used to always tell me to be kinder to myself you know and I guess that’s part of it or always was part of it is that I just couldn’t ever let myself off the hook about anything and I’ve got a hard time being nice to myself and so it rubs off on everybody and I’m stuck with whatever misery I’m keeping the worst of company with…ahem. Shit. I mean, amen.”
“Sir, you must get yourself right with the world. Enough of all this kill-yourself-or-die-trying crap. Stop being such a sit-down guy, even if it’s just for yourself. Hold on…blah, blah, blah, and more blah. There. That’s what I meant to say.”
“Sounds better to me. There aren’t any instructions for being an adult. It’s a do-it-yourself kit that’s been handed down and handed down, and now it’s our turn, and it’s a no-brainer, really. But I’d rather be figuring out how to do things than actually doing them. That’s the fucking rub of it.”
“Man, you really ought to get out more.”
“Don’t worry. I always go down swinging.”
Some piece-of-shit was really leaning on his horn on Columbus. The smokers on the front bench aired their grievances, and everyone at the bar put on their best aggrieved expressions and grumbled about the noise. I just went, “Shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up…” and didn’t like myself much in the process.
“Look! It’s a scoundrel. No! A wastrel.”
It was White-Wine Winnifred, in for her strict daily regimen of chardonnay. She lived in a hovel around the corner on Broadway right next door to the Garden of Eden strip club, and had been tucked away in there safely for most of the last thirty or so years, drinking herself back to life every evening, getting sloppy and confused by the end of every night, but never far enough away from home for it to matter much. Her voice was smoke-scarred and screechy, and she overtly slurred pretty much everything she ever said with the bravado of a tour guide.
“Hello, Winnifred. Hello. Hello.”
“Ahhhhh. Who is thisss. You’a’re a friend of here’s?”
“That’s Leroy. He’s a real win-lose guy. Come on, Triple Dub. You know Leroy. He’s an artist.”
She stared at him with those rhinestone eyes, then closed one and clapped her hands, “Ahhhh. I know I knews it was yous. Ha. You knows what…?”
“Well, it juz so hapeeens that it’s a real chamber-of-commerce day out, you know, built for cotton candy and at-‘em balls. And some greeezy, mole-of-a-guy, well, he handles me a pamphlet telling me that thee holy lord will bring his judges’a’ment and wraths upon me…” she cleared a hairball-like substance from her throat and wheezed on, “…but it seems, ah, you know, I’ve maybe, I’ve left my gewed intentions in the backseat of a ’57 Chrysler…a News Yorker. I ams unders the affluence of incohol. So, let’s, uh, shed some serious, very siri-es light on the subject. Fuck it! Let’s crochet us some limelights into the hem of all this.”
She turned away, her hair a tumbleweed of brambly tangles, without a thought or a look to go on, and sat down at her regular seat at the bar where she received her usual glass of chardonnay and proceeded to yack the hell off of Sal’s ear.
“I’m not dismayed.”
“Out of all the ways I could end up, the chance to partake in the stuff of this world, to scamper around through it all in a body…what a fucking, god-damn miracle it all is…to develop organs and a brain, skin to cover the whole blood-bound apparatus, an immune system to fight off invaders, the ability to convert food to energy and get rid of the waste, the excess…the defect…and to top it off, to not have to be alone through the tremors and turbulence of the weeks and decades, to be able to communicate to others who are pretty much 99.99% just like you…to see colors and to wear clothes…to care and be cared for…”
“Okay. That’s about enough out of you for a century or so.” Leroy lightly crushed his can of Olympia in at the sides, just enough to indent his mark, his handhold and grip on the atrophying events. There was a fondness, a stern and clairvoyant understanding somewhere gone-fishing behind his eyes, slipped away only to return fashionably late to whatever petering-out dissatisfaction baited the line of his patience. “You, my friend, are no longer making any of what anyone would ever call sense at all.” He quashed a burp with a hiccup and took his beer over to the sidewall bench seat, where he leaned back against the side panel as comfortable and refined as a bullfighter on vacation.
The piano player played his staples, and a rising staccato and bubbling cioppino of voices carried along with it as the tables got full of tipplers and truckers and indoor-plant wholesalers and merchant marines and sketch artists and polygraph readers and union electricians and doorwomen and pot dealers and opera understudies and Academy of Science janitors and movie-theater projectionists and failed standups and meter readers and Buddhists and Baptists and drinkers of boilermakers. Things were happening as they should.
“Did you know I drove around this whole country, summer of my 21st year, man. That’s all I did that summer was drive.” I’m not sure who was listening to me at this point. Leroy was not really paying much attention to anything. “Visited every state in the union. Got in a car wreck in Connecticut. Hopped a train to Niagara Falls. Spent some cold nights in a Buffalo jail. All these stories I never get a chance to tell people. The crickets in a Wisconsin barn. Minor-league cities. All-you-can-drink nights on Bourbon Street. Beer in the soda machine. Met an Australian girl in Savannah named Georgie. We stayed up all night drinking amethyst lavender gin and listening to Alice Coltrane and exploring the contours of our bodies in the bare bedrooms of a former mansion. Also got drunk on a riverboat on the Mississippi with an Elvis impersonator. Slept outside with the giant winged grasshoppers in Alabama. Saved a woman from dying in a hail storm in Denver. Denver. I could tell you so many things about Denver. And I’ve been to the Alamo.”
I kicked at a chair just so I could hear the sound of it falling over.
A spot opened up at the bar between two long-time dipsos, and I took it, and moved on to the harder stuff.
“Who are you?”
“Who are any of us?”
“Alcohol receptacles without need for names except for the calling of ‘em.”
“So, as I was a sayin’…
“Aunt Martha started out seeing jumpers in her sleep. The high-wire act in her head was drooling and defunct by the end of it. Like a collapsed intake valve of past: bridges she’s seen in some other where of her spent time; or other spot-on marks of former achievements, the sight of which could well up a working title of space without time to be in it. She sold illegal fireworks to kids, the kind that’ll ruin a mailbox or catch fire to a barn. She meddled in optional responsibility. Martha had opinions about the true nature of Tardigrades, about how they’d outlast even our planet itself somehow, and that, really, this world belonged to them; the rest of us were just rushing about on it on a loan from the plants and bacteria, without whom we’d all be toast. This thought pleased her immensely. ‘Get me a jug of dirty hard cider and a rope,’ she’d preach to the muskrats with that lurid way she had, ‘and I’ll never come on back this way again.’ Apparently one day she did just that.”
I cleared a whiskey and got another.
“Ah. Forget the plowing and the preacher-like tug of ecstasy that comes from ‘knowing’ a small truth for a small time to be smaller and smaller even than you’d ever want to convince anybody of. In any two-cow town, scalping the flowers, scraping nothing but the scratch-awled walls. My penitence is never over. And the things I’ve said to absolute strangers would make even the scrawny sandpipers go ape-shit over measly scraps. Here’s one: ‘That’s a Loggerhead Shrike. Those bastards, they’ll even eat smaller birds from time to time, just to keep things interesting out there in the big old ornithological world. They hang their prey up on thorns and barbwire fences. They’ve got black-eye masks and hooked bills, and you only really see them during winter. You really don’t want to fuck with them, buddy.’”
“You say things like that all the time.”
“Did you know that Honus Wagner had an older brother named Butts?”
“Did you know that I used to arm-wrestle with any lady who’d take me on?”
“So what? I told people, ‘I knew Ice Box Chamberlain, Jerk. Don’t remember me. I’m not worth it.’”
I was crowded on all sides, and tipped my stool back and then side to side. It didn’t help. I gave up.
“Tossed through it, I guess. We’ve got numbers that never add up to much. We’ve got cycles of the moon that don’t affect whatever the hell most people are buying. I’m selling what’s left, don’t you worry your stupid mis-loved head about it. I meet people in the worst of places. I get the talking all wrong. And so, get’s the only going that makes any up flop down. Set the typeface anyplace but bold. We’re mostly just playing chicken with the doorman.”
“What’s with you, Charlemagne?”
“Me? Just sullen, I guess, and shirking all duty for another waylaid day. Putting on another cakewalk act for no one. I believe in long, slow, lazy afternoons, the promise of dusk tinging the horizon with juniper and hot asphalt while I mildly sip cloudberry wine with the windows slung open, my feet dangling from the fire escape, or from the eaves— perhaps high-up above town somewhere with only a pinup girl’s photo and a rusty way to say goodbye to my name. Raise low that flag, girls. And take the short way away from here. Pesky cab-hailers and traffic-light disobeyers and all — still, there’s room left in town for folks like us. Forty-nine years gone, and we sit, griping at the bar, wiping the bags under our eyes with cocktail napkins, assailing those who’ve come along and swept us away with their youthful pride. Soaked. Forthwith. And soon the dollop of pride we’ve been clutching finally slips into the drink. All the drinks. From the balcony, any organ grinder will tell you the same: it’s all cored apples and dismal courtyards where the copycats put on a show for those who cackle in their sleep. I am not innocent of anything. I may be callous, sure; but not wholly unkind. So. Don’t come any closer. There’s nothing to tell here.”
All’s gone. Ramona’s lost, here. She’s not a part of this way of existing anymore. She’s in the most incomplete sentences in the world. She’s flickering at the lights. She’s moonlight scurrying from the rain. She’s what makes me guzzle the hard stuff more than anybody should. And we’re alone. And we’re nobody. And we’re nothing without each other but want everything to and by ourselves. We made it and made it up and then didn’t, and, shit, that’s about all we ever get to know or need, no matter what we happen to be making. And even if we’re just lovely necklaces dropped in a stupid box of reflections, we’re still around, and that’s the something in the nothing that we keep missing out on no matter who’s hardly looking.
I made another trip to the bathroom, relieving myself in the stall again, this time shoveling an enormous amount of cocaine up and through my nasal passages as I stared up at the rows of opaque-glass holes in the ceiling there, a few shoes clopping over them from the strip club upstairs, and wondered about the closeness yet almost complete separation of other lives. It was rather lively in there, with the repugnant thump of music from above and the small talk of urinals and sinks, and I flushed the toilet and hollered, “Absalom! Absolutely!”
I found Leroy at the best seat in the house, on the last stool at the south end’s oblique, rapidly chastising some young, rookie drinker about his bad tattoo choices. I told the kid to take a hike and intervened on his stool, getting myself a pint glass of Anchor this time, something to savor and wet my fingers on as I pitchpoled and swam against all currents.
“Here’s to all the masterpieces by Timothy Ludwig Pflueger.”
“That’s right. Nobody knows you when you’re dead and gone for long enough. Bury me in the Yerba Buena cemetery when I’m through, all situated neatly in the midst of sand-hills, and surrounded by more sand-hills, through the ravines of which the bleak western winds sweep terrifically; the only vegetation, some stunted oak or malnourished chaparral, scarcely less sickly than the sand itself.”
“Seriously, man. What the fuck are you going on about?”
“Nothing. I was talking to Herb Caen’s ghost. All the cemeteries are in Colma now anyway. I’m just-trying and just-saying whatever I can before the pleats of me give up and dive from great heights into the shallows of all conversions to general-public conversation.”
We were interrupted by a woman in a fox-hair coat and dark-salmon cowboy boots who squeezed between our stools with the ambition of an eager stagehand. Her perfume smelled like Band-Aids and new carpet. “Hello, gents. Well, if it isn’t you, you long streak of misery, you.”
It was Phyllie, someone I knew from bar to bar, but nowhere else. She was always filled with cider and whisky, and always causing trouble for herself and anyone else who’d listen.
“Staving off another, are we? Well, just roll on without the cards or the wheels to fathom sense that’s anything but common. God’s okay with us letting loose now and again. An ounce of prevention, you know?” She was all black lipstick and mascara and concealer, and she crammed between us and wouldn’t stop talking until we got her a glass of ice and a cider.
“We know what we’re worth, up above and down here too. You see that cop over there? He prays enough to stay even. And his greenbacks are just as green as anybody’s. Take a plash on the bigger times. Toss your hat on the table and stick around for a bit. Cut the best parts from the bible and paste ’em up on the outhouse wall. The strangest places, where you find inspiration sometimes. I once owned a sort of devil, a small fry of a thing, really. Hirsute and squirmy to all get out. He hustled me dizzy and dry, but I kept up. The battle’s long gone. And now he owns the worst real estate in my head. Not scared to feel free and a tad wild anymore, to do some of what I please.”
I tried frantically to get Sal’s attention but it was no use. He was tied up in some keg changing for what seemed the endless foreseeable future. Phyllie unbuttoned her coat, let her hair down, and stuck around.
“To push a few buttons isn’t the ends, but more the means. Over the habit, bad or good or whatever else, I swoon to my own rhythms and make my own peace. Got it? Well, it doesn’t matter. So, deal. I’m all in, no matter what you’ve got. I hear God’s name in the wind, in the sycamore’s shade, in the grass that won’t grow, and in the laughs we’ll never try to hold back again. Something that won’t spell or hate or reel-in all we’ve come to know here. And I’m a sucker for a guy in a uniform. This sister of xylophones, I’ll get the mustard from the gas of all of this pretty right quick. They’ll end up draggin me out of here, hysterical and as sane as ever. I’m through with being nice. My shoes stink of the Last Supper’s wine. Get me to a nunnery, you shyster and no-good huckster. I’m just getting started, and I’ve got a feeling things are going to get mighty interesting for a mighty long time to come.”
“You sure can talk, can’t you Phyllie?”
“We’re all blessed with certain capabilities. It’s all in how you use ‘em.”
I finally was able to flag down Sal, and he delivered a tall glass of ice and the favored beverage of Phyllie to our vicinity. She, being of the overly generous variety, ordered us all a round of Jameson, which we tipped back together, after which she exclaimed, “If anyone wishes to reach me, I will be outside rolling and then smoking a spliff…if you care to join.” Her cowboy boots clip-clopped out like the sound of footsteps in old movies.
“You’re not in the tip of toppest, there, huh?”
There was wiggle room at last, and we used it to our advantage, taking up space, extending our elbows, scaling dormant limits that got crafted up out of bar rags and creosote and Lemon Pledge.
“The dimwitted things that parade through my life every day would make dead ducks of most stable men.”
“It’s the pits, man. I get it.”
“Just the usual indoor hunting of exteriors. Girls who all keep looking the other way.”
“Bullshit. You just don’t give it enough effort. I’ve seen your schmaltz act. It gets tired real quick. You’ve got to take action or everything’s just going to keep standing still.”
“You don’t get it. You never have. You can’t. It’s so easy for you. You don’t understand what it’s like for me. Girls just throw themselves at you. You use sex like a damn flyswatter. And me, it’s like I had this one chance, this one fucking chance in a million, and now it’s done, over, gone, and I’m resigned to it and adjusted to it and all, but it still fucking sucks.”
“You’ll never get the chances you never take.”
“Ah, fuck. Great. Another fucking trope for my troubles. Great. Thanks.”
“You just keep acting the melodramatic shit heel. Let the troubles come to you, right?”
“My expectations are set lower than most people’s ankles.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
I didn’t like that. My mood hit that certain click of no return, where all the madness up in my head welled up and over and began to drip steadily into my eyes. I wanted out.
I went over and stared at the framed sign outlining, “What you need to do around here to get a drink.” And then got frustrated with the small type and my spinning head, and so went outside in the smokers scrum to try get even with myself again.
Phyllie was just finishing up sprinkling weed into some tobacco-lined rolling paper, and soon was licking it closed. I sat down next to her on the bench and thought about crying, but couldn’t, and so just sat there watching her expert fingers seal the spliff’s destiny.
“That’s some fancy jewelry you’ve got on there, Phyllie.”
“Thanks, kiddo. This necklace, it was my mother’s. Sterling silver, noble and precious, just like her. Ah, these copper rings, rings and things, makes me sad, they’ve gone from reddish-orange to green. My mother died alone in a small room above a vegetable market on Powell and Pacific. I bet her last words were, ‘Well, ain’t that just terrific.’ Cold-rolled steel. Pewter plating on brass and nickel. All these saved things. All I’ve got left of her now. I even miss the way she used to scream at me, ‘Philistine! What is this in your trashcan? Are you on drugs?’” She lit her spliff up with a match and inhaled deep and stoic, holding it in and puffing out her rouged cheeks some, and then slowly and smoothly exhaling without a hitch. “Hey, want a hit of this?”
“Sure. Sure. Just a small one. My gears are bent more than a bit over here.”
I’ve never been able to handle pot. It gets stuck in the wrong part of my brain, the nervous and self-conscious, anxiety-ridden tundra of my emotional surfaces. But sometimes, when I’ve had enough alcohol to ward off the jitters of it, it can come in handy, in a pinch. This was one of those times, or so I hoped.
I felt a tingling go all through me, and then lift my head up above my shoulders by about a foot. It was a good perspective to have. I didn’t mind it. I started singing to the tune of that old marching song about Johnny coming home again: “The yuppies go jogging off to brunch again, fuck off, fuck off…”
A guy in a snakeskin jacket laughed his way over to me, “That’s a keeper. Fucking yuppie scum’s taking over these villas.”
For some reason I couldn’t help but encourage him, and we fell into a lopsided conversation.
“God awful, these positions we are put in, the things that come to define us, the horror of living with the fear of retribution, or dying by it. I am me just because I am. There’s nothing else. Get over it, right?”
“The minor inconsistencies of major network failures. I am speaking no language. The rest is not up to anyone.”
“Bare it all. Or b-e-a-r it?”
“The difference is lost, failed and familiar, on all these…onlookers.”
“Or so, as it were, as structural integrity, lacking the imagination for a real empathic quality about one’s own perilous sojourn through the sadder fields of plenty. People come from all over to leave here, and to ask stuff like, ‘How will I think about this strange time of my life when it’s all through.’”
“Lament it all, probably. I need a body double, a stand-in for the reasonable essence of guilt, courage, and strife. Plans to never attack. Those wayward whiffs of pacifistic, surcharged enough-is-enough marginalized into victimization. I play it dangerous. There’s just no other way.”
“Sure. Yes! And mercy’s just a plea deal gone wrong. A broken sort of miracle that hampers your better instincts for escaping the pressure of fitting. There are blocks and blocks cursed by false grades drawn up by no-good wealthy industrialists with greedy pens, where the widows mourn through shallow fits and the stray dogs nose through junkyards of foul promises, probing for reassuring signs of the past. The safety of it. The comfort of being forgotten. My edges have been dulled by financial institutions who need naught but themselves. There used to be a wig shop and a funeral parlor there where that 40-story condo complex now stands. Taking back what they long left to let grow fallow, and now bulldoze in a tax-free exchange to build castles in the sky for yuppies and foreign investors. We are the diminished, the refugees of capitalism’s greasy smile, the chased and the frisked and the choked, the ones who cry wolf in their sleep and crowd the hidden fringes of a world with no need of memories.”
“You gonna Humph that thing all night?”
He took an extra drag of the spliff and handed it back to Phyllie.
“Try not to breathe, Bogie. I believe in such miserable things. And by the way, no. Everyone is not entitled to their own opinion. We are a nation of the lazy and the busy, the misinformed and the needy. What we lack’s all substance with a surface sheen. There’s an undelivered keening just below the sound commercials make. A mild sort of despair, timid and brash, scared and selfish and mean. I used to know a guy, a fire eater who would get drunk and burn his throat. He dated a lady we used to call Priscilla the Monkey Girl. She looked just like Uma Thurman, and danced like Rita Hayworth. Couldn’t take your eyes off of here, twirling through the drugstore. The way she swayed through a barely lit room, no stage would’ve cut it. But when it was all told and said, the lather told the housesmith to ruin a hod carrier, and it got loneliest at the bottom for everyone. Just more failed greatness. A nation of wannabes. Christ and Christopher fucking Columbus. I could use a good week’s sleep. No. I am not mighty. I just toss with no more turns to take.”
I sat there on the bench, feeling gutsy and moribund all at once. I relaxed and let whatever was happening just flow and pass, and remained neutral about it all.
Leroy came out, looking brow-beaten and worried. “Ah. I was wondering where you’d taken off to, Stormin’ Norman.”
“Just passing the time, you know. Just being me for the people.”
He was having trouble keeping his face in working condition for speech.
“What’s the bad word? You look like putrid meatloaf.”
“Ah. Ah. I…”
“Out with it. Don’t worry. I can take it.”
He breathed in through the side of his mouth, curling his lip up: “So, Sal let me check my messages on the bar phone. Helen called.”
“Bad news. Bad news. Right? It’s all I get from all these far-away places.”
He shook his head and just let it out: “She passed away. I’m so sorry, man.”
It sounded flighty and stupid, that phrase. I’d never liked it.
I didn’t want to deal with seriousness. “Well, that was quick.” It was the most insensitive thing I could think of to say. It was avoidance or hell. I chose the former.
“Come on, man…”
I cut him off, angry at him, not wanting to ruin myself with whatever dealing with Ramona being dead was going to do to me just right then.
“What? Was her new boyfriend there by the bedside, holding her hand, saying pithy things, kissing her goodbye?”
“Come on…Stop it.”
“Fuck you. Don’t tell me what to do.” I got up and circled and stumbled around. “Do not tell me what to fucking do, okay?”
“Are you going to be alright?”
I just stared at him, completely licked, stupid and composed: “Don’t worry about me. I haven’t been alright since ’87.”
Phyllie tried to get a hold of me, but I brushed her off. I wanted to be away from there, from all those people, from whatever thoughts and unimaginable terrors were headed my way. I didn’t want to deal with anything. Someone shouted, “Let him go. Just let him go,” as I took off down Columbus, not seeing anything, and then seeing everything, and I made it down to Pacific, poking and charging my way to the shortest street in San Francisco, Balance, where I lit a cigarette and tried to maintain mine against the old, old bricks of a sad, forgotten building. I leaned against that brick wall and I smoked and I tried not to feel anything but I felt too much and not even close to enough, and I was stretched thin with it and I made up new names to call myself, which convinced me that I was just a drifter passing through a strange town and that nobody knew me or cared where I was all broken into a hundred-thousand fragments out here on my own, and it was just me and this cigarette and this was not a place to be but just a way to see and it was god awful and wonderful and I was just a Cymbal Man with Flat Feet drawn on a napkin in her tiny handwriting origamied into the tiniest triangle in my wallet that I never looked at anymore and I crumbled there and sat on the cold, hard concrete and threw my cigarette across the street and I didn’t want to move or think ever again.
I remember falling in love on a dropped forge’s dare, those St. Francis elevators with a view, whizzing up encased in glass, her thin girders trembling under acrophobia’s weight, simple magnetism there in a soft touch on the back between shoulders, “mesmerized, like the Austrian hypnotist Franz Mesmer would’ve approved of, the mysteries of mammals and other errata,” and then a concrete slab in Union Square to lie back on and take in the sky’s arsenal while rubbing fingers, “Clouds like ambulances. Spots of sky like indigo buntings, like little blue herons,” things to say we’d never thought to hear out loud, “Remember, high among spruce and fir in the summer? We had breakfast so far above sea level. Twigs, weeds, grasses, lined with down. We had it all and were having none of it. Hand, please,” and less or more the drink of each other, long, greedy swallows and all, before all was lost, when I could still hope to make apologies for all the stupid things I did and said, before I’d just keep living without even a chance at holding her hand ever again or watching her sift sugar through a sieve into her coffee while standing on a chair so high above the cup, in her pajamas, on tiptoe, or the sound of her asleep, too, or screaming at me and wrestling me to the ground because the mail was late and things were never going to be this way ever again, and the “i” key was missing from the typewriter, so I took a bowling-score pencil and drew a picture on a donut-shop napkin as she lay there next to me, dream-melt pooling onto the hardwood, and she took the pencil and wrote this on the back:
“One of his feet are hobnails. He was hobbled by hobnails. And while holding a sponge/grenade in one hand, sports a kite hate. Bear is making martinis. The electric martini wires connect to the mishmash guy. Squash-tampon rat is eating smaller rats or spitting, drooling banana hat, ghost vacuum, upside-down girl with a sausage braid. Construction-worker man with umbrellas meets hammock toes & dancing asterisk. Plus Cymbal Man with flat feet.”
The batter of some mid-week revelers’ noise dipped into my frying brain, and I thought, ‘I’m just like them. I’m just out for a good time. There’s nothing wrong with me…or any of it.’ I tried to stand up against the wall, but failed, and slid back down, extending my legs out straight, baffled by my inanition. I held that tiny unfolded napkin between two fingers, wishing it were just a piece of paper with meaningless scribblings on it, which it was…but not to me. Not now. Or ever. Or what was ever? Now. Without her around to be around to share a thing like this with…nothing but moments gone.
“Your name should be Gardenia Jones. What should my name be?”
“Depot. Buster Depot.”
“Of course. Of course. And I waited for you, Gardenia. At the depot, at the lunch counter and the suit counter, and you never showed up and I didn’t know what to do. So I got a drink. And then I got all the drinks that I could get. An unblessed heart and a nose that just grows and grows. Baby, I’ve been on the snide for so long now that I don’t even know what a score looks like.”
“You laughing kookaburra, you.”
“My mind’s final fouetté, less graceful without motion to conceal it, will encompass more than should ever rightfully be only mine. Only not for keeps, this once that is, also, by the way, infinity.”
“The cops were creeping me out.”
“Of course! Copper has excellent creep characteristics which minimizes loosening at connections.”
“You’re just mariachi static on the radio. That’s all. On the outskirts of hell’s give-and-take that rooms with every retired boxer in town. Romp and roam and die alone. That’s all there is to it.”
“I’m all strung out on being solitary. There’s no way to hold on any tighter. Everything’s just some black-and-white comic strip that I’m trying to crayon-in the spaces of.”
“Imbeciles like us can’t color in, or even around, any of it. Both of us would be better off scaring up some lentil soup from the cupboard, just sitting around with our socks on, knocking back shots of dandelion tea, resting uncomfortably on perfectly unbalanced chairs. I’ve got it. I really do. It’s all just carrying around a suitcase filled with scotch and water. Emergency exit only, you know?”
“Perhaps this’ll be the time of our lives when we start chanting about it—the Gregorian monks in us having their night in the moon.”
“Rock with me. These chairs were meant for it. That’s all it takes, and, maybe, that’s all we need.”
There are certain concessions the universe makes for us, or that we allow it to seem as if it were, beyond all control, faceless, conned to lower places to lie, as density approaches infinity, as the behavior of quantum foam transmogrifies, as we played the moonlight like a Casio, every flaw distinct while elements sigh from the burden of relativistic and the general dichotomy of the earth, which always sounded, like everything, better coming from her, like the rolling pastures of her expository riff on the Einstein–Cartan theory…“A universe is a sometimes thing that exists between a bang and a crunch. We’ve got torsion and Dirac spinors coupling, and nonlinear spin-spins of self-interactions to take a spin on, and densities so high they’ll be anything but finite…cusps, really. If you really want to know? You don’t and you do. Okay. Larger the scales tip, flatter too, a touch homogeneous and syrupy, isotropic alternatives to that perennial cosmic inflation nobody’s going on about. No points. No. Instead we’ve got fermions spatially extended like sunflowers to dew’s first lavish drips, and all’s collapsing towards a bounce to make a worm-holy bridge to a brand-spanking-new universe just leeward of these parts on the flip side of the event horizon. I’m am not making any more god-damn sandwiches, got it?”
The friction of my shoes toeing the gutter’s edge against the pavement was enough to distract me, and I pulled another cigarette from a soon-to-be-empty pack of cigarettes, another victim of my consumption, another errand to attend to, to keep me alive and wielding the objects of this world, to be involved in the activities that compose a life. ‘I am still here. I am still here.’ —I kept repeating it to myself. Reassurance comes from the oddest angles sometimes. I just went with it. It was all that was left to do.
Everything had that after-the-rain scent on it, and I smoked that cigarette, and I sat there on the curb in complete awe of my surroundings. Sentience came and went, as I avoided all possible outcomes, pretending there were still a craggy shoreline close by, that schooners were all piled up and rotting away in the bay, looted and lost and empty, sinking, awaiting their destiny as landfill for buildings to rise on. My life was just a short vacation from being dead, the cheap performance of a bit player in a chop shop for never-claimed parts and pieces that’ll never go with anything ever again. No more dancehalls or melodeons to bide my time in, no more shore-leave sailors to fall into oubliettes to be hauled away to Singapore, no more shattered delusions to have to float around with, and I just kept sinking and sinking, and there was no bottom to anything.
“What’s a doing, kid?”
“Don’t mind me. I’m just pretending to be myself.”
“You’re shipped out for the winterlands, huh? Okay. That’s a ball. That’s to laugh, or just to.”
“I miss things I’ve never had.”
“No cure for that, except to never start.”
“Just a 36-Long leading an off-the-rack life.”
“There are magnets in my copper fields.”
“I was wondering…I could use the use of twenty dollars. Chap? Hi, there. Hello?”
“I need to get my car out of this parking garage, you see. It’s trapped in there, and I don’t got the dough to pay the fee to get it out. I’m not floating through Venice anymore. Paris screams only in my dreams, now, at me…”
“Man. Oh, man. There was a time in my life, a wonderful time that I knew wouldn’t last for long, when I was in Paris with a beautiful girl. She’s dead now. But that doesn’t matter. She was alive then, and we rented a little apartment and walked all over the city every day and for most of the nights. I lost my favorite pair of shoes…and the rain was different there, and the sky…that marvelous damn sky. Nothing like it. Nothing else ever will be quite the same, ever.”
“Just the same, well, you see, could you spare a stranger a scrap of your life? Just a sliver of what you’ve got. It’d make all the difference. Just twenty bucks. It’s not too much to ask, really.”
“You’re just asking. No. This is…different. Ok. Here. Here. Here.”
I pulled a twenty from my wallet and held it out in my hand there, my elbow resting on a knee, for the elements to do with it as they may. I wished to be done with all superficiality. The world needed to stay, just as it was, even if only for that moment.
“Leave Her out of it.”
“You’re an angel. I swear. An angel’s been sent to me at last. I knew one day something magnificent would happen to me, again. You are the answer I’ve been seeking without question. I want to call you something.”
“Call me Cymbal Man. Call me Flat Feet. Call me anything…”
“Hello. Hello. I am midnight’s colors run with tarnish. I am shored-up now, and never left to just be. Hello. I can go and get my car now. I can drive it away to any other place. This will make all the difference. Hello. There. There. You are the angel that I was supposed to find.”
A thick haze cast itself in front of what was remaining of the moon—its blank face all smashed in like some pissed-off cop had danced all over it with a nightstick. I let my eyes go and they settled on the mist blowing past a streetlight like the flurry of a dust storm, only softer, almost invisible, really, and I was alone there, almost as invisible, and that was fine, and nothing was ever going to be the same again.
I don’t know. I was alone in my apartment. Somebody had died, and I was in love. There was a spindly tree outside my window, and all its pink petals had gone from the branches for a season or two. I was out of cigarettes. There wasn’t much left to do except go get some more. And so, that’s what I did. And I got up and I got myself into shape for public as best I could and I went out the door to buy cigarettes and kept looking back and looking back and I kept doing that for a long, long time, and then I stopped. And this all happened on a few ordinary December weekdays in a San Francisco that no longer exists.