San Francisco writer Penny Skillman often writes about the marginalized citizens among us. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poems have appeared in diverse publications, among them the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, AVA, and California Poetry Quarterly. Her novella The Cats' Journal was a Small Press Review Book-of-the-Month selection, and was excerpted for a radio reading. A section of What Happened to Easter appeared in City Miner magazine and was read on Jennifer Stone's Berkeley KPFA radio show. Her book of essays, Beats, Hipsters, and California Cool can be accessed on Amazon Kindle.
The author is completing a travel memoir about Spain, tentatively entitled Two Footprints.
Her motto: Don't piss off the wind.
Portions of What Happened to Easter have appeared in sometimes different form in City Miner magazine, Frisco, and Mendocino Memo, and were read on the Word and Image show on KPFA Pacifica Public Radio in Berkeley.
What Happened to Easter
“When you are educated, when you know your power, you’ll need no bombs, and no dynamite or militia will hold you.” -- Emma Goldman, Boston Daily Globe, September 6, 1897
Pam Hynd looked out the door of the Happydaze. The reflection of the late afternoon light along the old-fashioned inset glass tiles outside the door of the bar created a halo of Aztec gold around the entrance. At times this glow would seem supernatural, but in the afternoon light the effects could be muted or brilliant, unpredictable as the temperaments of the clientele who wandered this street of mauvely modest dreams between Market and Mission. Inside, the Friday afternoon patrons were already swimming in their socks. Pam, who preferred things quieter, moved to a place at the end of the bar. She hadn’t more than settled in and finished giving the bartender Phil her order when a man sat down next to her.
“William Patrick O’Donnell – call me Bill,” the stranger said.
Pam adjusted the blonde Afro wig she’d begun wearing six months before. She’d always wanted an Afro, and for her 43rd birthday she’d gone over to the Wig House on Market and tried on close to fifty until she’d found this one. It had just the right tightness in the curl, with a hint of pale lime green in it that accentuated her brown-speckled green eyes. Pam peeked at the man next to her out of the corner of her eye. He wore black-and-white checkered pants and a corduroy jacket with patches on the sleeves. His hand was bandaged from thumb to pinky and around the wrist. His head seemed too large for his body, and because he was short he appeared squat, even though he wasn’t. She asked about his hand.
“I did in a couple of muggers. They caught me outside my hotel door two blocks over, and I had to cream ‘em. They picked on the wrong man, that’s all, they got outsmarted. I’m a thinker, most people aren’t, and that always gives me an edge. I got military experience so they treated me cheap out at the VA Hospital. Not that I need it. My mother was a Countess, rich as they come. She lives over in England. I’ve got my pride, so I make it on my own. Say, this isn’t a requirement or anything but I wondered, are you married?” Pam was surprised at his straightforwardness. She answered before she wanted to. Marriage wasn’t a subject she liked to think about if she could help it.
“I lost my husband years ago,” Pam found herself confessing. “And my daughter too. The funny thing about it was I was the one should have died. I was in the hospital on my deathbed when both of them died, within a day of each other. The doctors said it was some kind of rare stroke. An inherited condition that had to do with their brain waves. A brain-wave abnormality. They just had a kind of stroke the doctors said, because of the terrific stress of my hospitalization.” Pam suddenly felt lonely.
“How that girl loved me. That’s not to say my husband didn’t love me, too. He was willing to do anything for me.” She felt tears welling. She caught herself, and she didn’t reveal the most humiliating part. After she’d paid off her own medical bills and Harold and Sharon’s funeral expenses, she hadn’t had a cent left she could call her own. She’d had to lower herself in ways she’d never known. But she’d always had pride when she had nothing else. She kept certain parts of her history to herself.
“I’m willing to do anything for you, too,” Bill said. “And anytime.”
Pam ignored the insinuation.
“You weren’t in a war or anything, were you?” She wondered what sort of ‘gentleman’ – she always used that term – she’d managed to meet up with this time. Sometimes she couldn’t help wondering whether the many men she’d taken up with since Harold’s death weren’t a kind of punishment for all the times she’d treated him so unkindly. She’d been an outspoken woman when she was younger. Even her friend Sheri used to warn her she was too impossible to get along with any husband. She didn’t believe that, but she had to agree that Sheri was right that she’d regret not having stuck with that medical technician’s training program she’d taken. If only she’d graduated from that course she wouldn’t have had to marry, at least not until she’d gotten to know Harold better. Her life hadn’t been planned out wel,l she was thinking. Bill interrupted her thoughts.
“Actually I was,” Bill said, answering the question she’d forgotten having asked. “WWII, Pacific Theater. They wanted to give me a dishonorable discharge, but I fought it. Good thing, too, because I took the GI Bill and made something of myself. Professor of History and Sociology at Modesto Junior College. I was good, too. But they laid me off. It wasn’t my fault. Some pansy department head who didn’t have the guts to stand up to the administration there. I did have the guts, and that’s why I got fired. Bill O’Donnell is a man. You can depend on that.” He ordered them both a whiskey and beer chaser. Pam sighed a silent sigh of relief. She had only enough cash for necessities in the coming week, yet she needed relief from the itching in her throat. If this Bill fellow wanted to tell her his life story, and be nice about it, why, she had the time to listen. She took a ladylike sip.
“I fought that dishonorable they wanted to give me, fought it and won, I told those army shrinks that all that fighting, the noise and killing and everything, drove me crazy, so I had to get away. Finally they gave me a ‘psychiatric.’ I know a lot of the shrinks out there at the VA.” Pam nodded. How nice it was to have something to clear her mind. Bill went on, perked up by having an attentive listener.
“I went out there to the VA last month and talked with this gal – she was in her early 30’s maybe, and real sweet. She and Dr. Melman, one of the others, asked me if I’d be willing to be questioned by a panel of psychiatrists, because they train shrinks out there, and need people to practice on, you know. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ I’m 54 years-old. I have medical problems, a lot of them. And here were twelve people all sitting around looking at me, clearing their throats and whatno,t and taking detailed notes. They said to me, ‘Do you want to be a girl?” I said, ‘ Of course I’d like to be a girl, if I can just keep on getting my disability checks.’” His cheeks became flesh-colored golf balls when he smiled. Pam was thinking he reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t remember who. The bartender came down to their end of the bar, lit a Kool Ultra, and threw the match into a receptacle under the bar. Bill continued.
“Then they asked me, ‘How can you not ask for anything more out of life?’ I said, ‘I do ask for more out of life, I just don’t get it.’ I’ve heard just about everything from those shrinks by now. Once a psychiatrist even asked me if I preferred to sleep with men or women. I told him I didn’t prefer either if I didn’t have any money. I said I preferred to masturbate then because it was cheaper. I didn’t have to get all dressed up and go out and pose for hours, and I could have it any way I wanted.” He released a soft snort. With each laugh his cheeks looked like nothing so much as bulbous red noses, yet his nose was perfectly pale. Strange, Pam thought. If nothing else, he was an easy man to talk to, educated too. Not like the usual kind she found hanging around this part of the city.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Pam agreed. “I just read in a National Examiner that regular sexual activity prolongs life and good health. It said prolonged abstinence is linked to life-threatening disease, so where does that leave single older people?”
Phil, who’d been listening, was on his way to the other end of the bar where things were hopping. “Seems to me,” he said in passing, “sex is sex. If one kind keeps your heart tickin’, the other should too.”
Before Phil moved away, Bill ordered another one for himself and Pam. He was beginning to feel free and easy, the way a man should on an early Friday evening sitting next to an attractive woman.
Pam adjusted her wig, as if she’d read his thoughts. She took a drink. She’d been on a diet for three weeks now, and hadn’t been able to lose a pound. Yet all of a sudden she was feeling attractive, even slim. When Phil brought the whiskeys and beer he refused Bill’s money. Bill ordered another glass, poured his beer in it, added his shot, and took a swallow. He let out an audible “Aaah.” Pam felt his toes touching hers. He swaggered as he walked to the men’s room. She watched as he went, noting the cockiness in his walk, shoulders moving more than his hips. He sat down, and went on with his history.
“You won’t believe this,” Bill said, “but I was once-- actually twice-- a very rich man. Once when I married a wealthy lady. She was so rich you couldn’t hear her toilet flush. We went all over Europe Africa, everyplace. To the best restaurants, bars, we had chauffeured cars, the works. Then she dies of throat cancer. But she was crazy about me, gave me everything I wanted. I always kept her satisfied. I was taught to satisfy a woman. After she died her family got all the money, they went to court and claimed our marriage wasn’t legal. A technicality. The second time, I just came into the money, a stroke of sheer luck … the most money I ever saw in my life in one place. But the first time when I was rich, from my wife, it was different. That way is the best way to be rich because you don’t have all the responsibility of having to deal with the money all the time. You have to keep hustling with money when you have it, pretty soon it’s the center of your life.”
“How you two doin’ down here?” Phil asked on a trip back to their end of the bar. Phil talked like a sawed-off shotgun, staccato, blunt. But he had a heart of gold.
“Just like South of Market,” Bill said. “Developing.” He launched a wink at Pam. He was the most forward man she’d ever met. Where did he get all his self-confidence?
“My wife was quite a lady. Beautiful, you know, but flawed,” Bill continued. “For one thing, she had hairy legs. And she was kind of squat. And actually had dimples on her butt, visible as hell, if you can believe it. And she drank like a horse in the desert. But she was a lady, the best.”
When Pam tuned in again to what Bill was saying, she heard him say something about “a midget named Warcusi,” or she thought that’s what he said. This seemed to have something to do with his story about getting rich. God, hadn’t she heard every kind of brag in these bars a man could muster? With the young ones, it was like the old Fats Domino tune, “I’m gonna be a wheel someday, I’m gonna be somebody/ I’m gonna be a wheel someday, and then I won’t want you.” With older ones it was always how they used to be rich, but they’d lost it. Usually the wife or some other woman did them in. Pam laughed out loud thinking about this. Bill mistook her laugh to mean he’d amused her. Pam, keeping her mind on business, realized it was close to 9:30. She liked to get home around twelve, and she knew she still had to get over to the Cala Market.
Two hours later, Pam got up from the bed in Bill’s hotel room. Bill was lying against the pillows looking satisfied.
“I can see how your wife kept you. You are good,” Pam said.
“And I’m an old man now. I was a lot better then,” Bill said, flashing his golf balls.
“If I had money, I’d consider keeping you.”
Pam got dressed. What surprised her more than Bill’s performance in bed was the fifty-dollar bill she’d discovered he’d discretely put in her purse when she’d gone down the hall to the bathroom. Fifty dollars was an enormous amount of money.
“Don’t let that stop you.” Bill said, reaching over for the bottle of Guinness they’d been sharing. She saw two big dimples on the cheek of his butt. When he offered her the bottle, she took a swallow, and gave him a kiss.
“See you at the track,” Bill said. “You’ve got the winning number, doll, you can bet on that.”
Pam didn’t meet anyone on the street when she walked down 6th, and on over to Market Street. Meeting Bill, she was thinking, was the best thing that’d happened in a long time. She hailed a cab to take her to the California and Hyde twenty-four hour Cala Market. Her head was already beginning the complicated minuet of neurons releasing themselves from the anesthesia of alcohol. No need to suffer now, though, she’d just stop in at that cozy little bar up from Cala and nip the letdown in the bud.
Inside the market Pam was startled by the bright lights. The wall clock read 11: 59 p.m. She ran through the litany. Tea, toilet paper, Cat Chow, dish soap. And a bubble bath, she added, knowing the bathroom at her cheap hotel didn’t even have a tub. She determined to splurge anyway. At the checkout she scanned the National Enquirer. She read about the TV midget Herve Villechaize having a new romance. In the picture a six-foot, cosmetically perfect singer, was holding Herve’s little hand. Herve looked the same as he had for the last ten years. The caption under the picture quoted the singer, “I love Herve.” Pam picked up a twelve-pack of Heineken tall that had been abandoned next to the checkout and put it in her cart. Generally she avoided impulse buying, but she threw in the Enquirer too. She’d forgotten the cat food. “Tomorrow is time enough,” she thought. “A brand new day.”
Bill became Pam’s Friday night regular. They would meet early Friday afternoon, and first stop at the Hofbrau on Fifth and Mission. They would order dinner, but eat only some of it while dawdling over a shot of brandy they’d gotten from the bar. Bill always ordered Hennessey instead of the bar brand, and he always paid for the food and drinks. Afterwards, they’d walk leisurely down to 7th Street, sometimes going along Mission to sit in late afternoon on the steps of the Main Post Office. It was one of their favorite buildings in the city. Bill said, “There’s a feeling of strength and permanence about it, not like those built-for-a-day buildings like the darning needle they put up over in North Beach.” Pam felt the same. They both thought of the time they lounged on the steps there as special, a restful interlude. They especially enjoyed sitting on the 7th Street side, watching people come and go across the street at the bus terminal. And every Friday when Pam left Bill’s room – occasionally she might stay over, especially if they’d gotten into conversation at the bar and stayed over their usual time – Bill would put fifty in her purse when she was in the bathroom. She kept trying to remember what it was Bill had said to her that first night, about how he’d gotten rich for the second time in his life, but she couldn’t. And she never was able to get him to talk about it. For his part, Bill found himself looking forward to their Friday outings more and more. He decided that what he liked about the Hynd woman was that you never had to wonder about what was on her mind, she just said it .But at the same time, she never told stories about him, or even mentioned she knew him. She never spoke of him at all, in fact, except with Phil. He liked discretion in a woman, it was a sign of good breeding. And he sympathized with her story about how the roof had fallen in on her overnight. The same had happened to him, hadn’t it? The world was chock full of surprises, and most of them were damned unpleasant.
It was an unusually hot night in the city. Phil had removed his white long-sleeved shirt and was working in his T-shirt, something he wouldn’t ordinarily do. He thought of himself as professional, and behaved that way morning, noon, or closing time like now. Nobody at the bar to witness his comfort. Still, he was surprised when he saw the guy in the suit come in, his tie slightly loosened. He’d been coming in for months, and Phil was certain he was the law. Too much nosing around and not enough drinking, then there was the way he’d raise his glass and sip, when he ought to have been gulping; that, and the intact face map without a hint of the red highway. He didn’t talk right, either. City regulars might not have a personal history but they knew about things strangers didn’t. Most knew the race track scene. They knew where the bookies were. They knew about George’s Newsstand next door, and the full kit of literature on the subject available there. Phil, who’d worked inner city bars for fifteen years, knew this guy didn’t seem right from the get-go. But what would the Feds be doing scouting a place like the Happydaze? Phil hadn’t figured it yet. One thing he had figured though, this guy who called himself Fred Handon had his opera glass on either Pam Hynd, or her buddy Bill. Phil had to assume it was Bill because he couldn’t imagine what business the Feds might have with the Hynd woman, although Bill was almost as far-fetched a prospect.
* * * * *
In Bill’s room at the Planter’s Hotel, Pam was taking Bill’s penis in her mouth when the cock ring he was wearing fell to the floor.
“You don’t need that.”
“You don’t need it.” Pam bgan to massage Bill until she saw signs of life. This woman, Bill thought, could turn him on like no other. He didn’t know whether it was her expertise, or something about the strong feelings for her he’d begun to have. He didn’t like to think about the possibility that he was getting attached to Pam. He prided himself on tough-mindedness and his independence. In part this was what he appreciated in Pam, too, a certain practicality that could equal, even exceed, his own thinking about how the world worked – at least, when she wasn’t on one of her maudlin jags about her husband and daughter. He thought of her as a “no-nonsense woman.” He didn’t think that about many women. Then he was lost in the sensations, and let himself go. His thoughts and the titillation were bringing his penis to urgency, and he pulled Pam up on him, and they began a slow movement that would make the pleasure last. They moved as though their body parts had been fitted in a machine shop, maximum slow friction with minimal effort. Bill was more and more unable to summon up his will to change anything about his increasing dependence. He wouldn’t allow himself to think long about it. He just wanted his life to continue on as it was.
The wall of the room cracked as Bill and Pam were reaching one of their drawn-out climaxes. They were aware of nothing else; it was the powder and shards from the ceiling plaster that alerted them. Almost simultaneously they felt the floor of the room pushing them up and sideways, as though a giant hand had picked up the building they were in with a mind to carrying it to another location. Pam and Bill hung on as they felt the bed crash into the wall. A moment later, the wall cracked from ceiling to floor by the hallway door. Although the both of them thought about it, they never even had a chance to get up and go stand in the doorway like everyone knew they were supposed to do. One of the walls fell in on Bill, knocking him out and dazing Pam. When she came to, it took her a while to understand what was happening. She looked back to where the bed had been, and saw a dark blue box with a padlock on it, some cartons of old magazines. They were meticulously arranged. She knew she had to get out of the building before the next tremor hit, because the damage from it would probably bring the building to the ground. Bill had been hit hard on the head when the wall went. He didn’t look good at all. He was bleeding heavily. Taking a closer look at him, Pam concluded he was dead, or close to it, and immediately thought to escape from the building before the next tremor crumpled it. She had a hard time finding her clothes because the chair she’d thrown them on was underneath what was left of the bed. She settled for Bill’s jacket instead of her own black cape.
Fred Handon and Phil were the only people in the Happydaze when the quake hit. Phil had put up the barstools, and was cleaning up a spot in front of Handon where he’d dropped cigarette ashes on the bar. The first tremor, which caved in the front of the bar, throwing the glass inset tiles and part of the frame inside, closed the doorway, leaving the two of them trapped. “Holy shit!!” Phil screamed. He jumped out of the way just before the five-flame-candled lighting fixtures in the back of the bar hit the floor with a crash. Shortly thereafter the bar itself felt as though it’d been picked up like a doll house by a cranky child. Phil was quick enough, but his customer wasn’t so lucky. Handon was pinned beneath the bar when it was upended. He’d been sitting at the bar well, and as he was thrown back and down, he’d spread his arms to catch himself and the bowl of cherries and lime sections had splattered the upper part of his white shirt, leaving a colorful collage. After the second tremor, Phil took time out to try the phone. The line was dead. He went back to check on the condition of his customer and found him in fair condition except that the bar made it impossible for him to move. Phil went to work trying to dig him out from under the heavy debris from behind the bar, all the while looking to the back door that led to the bathrooms with an eye to jumping back there at the next rumble. Didn’t they always tell you to stand in a doorway? Phil laughed out loud. If a doorway was so damn safe, what was the front doorway doing lying there on the floor of the bar? He heard Handon moaning, went around the upturned bar to him.
“You OK, Handon?”
“My legs and back are completely pinned,” Handon groaned. “Can you get me out of here?”
Phil tried pushing the bar up off Handon, trying to give him space to maneuver his way out.
“Can you pull your legs out? When I say ‘pull,’ pull your legs out. One, two, three, pull!” But Handon was pinned as thoroughly as a butterfly on a board.
In the Planters hotel, Pam Hynd was fighting the second tremor that’d knocked her back from clearing away wall studs, plaster, and other debris from the hallway keeping her from the stairs. She was desperate, adrenalized, and she worked with the doggedness of someone who had long depended on sheer willpower for survival. “Poor Bill,” she thought. “If I don’t get out of here, I’ll be the same.” A thought popped into her head, that old cliché that became voguish when the depression had worn on. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Pam added, out loud, “But only when they’re conscious.”
Three hours later, Phil realized it was going to be at least a twenty-four hour wait for a rescue team to get around to the Happydaze, what with the amount of damage to the front of the building, and the sheer volume of the upheaval of sidewalk that vomited concrete and dirt along with building debris into the bar. Phil was sure of it. His cool temperament was made for emergencies, and he knew he might as well make the best of what was going to be a very long wait. He rummaged around, found the better bar scotch intact, and poured for the both of them. Handon, who by now was bandaged around the head and shoulders, thanks to Phil, was propped up at a section of the bar Phil had managed to right, after he’d helped get Handon free. Handon was complaining about his legs and back, about pain and numbness. Talking it over, the two agreed that the damage being what it was in the bar, a good part of the city might have been churned under, or be burning out. For that matter, they had no way of knowing when or whether a fire like what happened with the big ’06 quake might be about to consume the entire block of 7th Street.
“Handon, it’s just possible we’re as good as dead already, whaddya think?”
“I can’t think, I’m in too much pain. Pour me another, would you?”Handon was trying his best not to think too much about his pain, but it was hard. Because of this, and because Phil also wanted to pass the time any way he could that might avoid thinking about what could happen to them, he let Handon know he suspected his line of work.
“Are you a private dick, or what? Federal?”
“What are you talking about? I told you I’m in insurance. Underwriting, that kind of thing.” Fred couldn’t help thinking it hardly mattered anymore if anyone knew what it was he did. Considering the numbness in his legs and the excruciating pain in his back, he knew he wouldn’t be tracking anyone after today, even if his prey were still alive, even if he lived himself.
“G’wan, you were spotted long ago. What I want to know is, who the hell you might be tailing in a place like this.” As he said this, Phil brought a booth cushion over and managed to fold it under Handon’s back so that he was sitting straight up. It was gonna be a long dawn of the new day, Phil knew. Handon was grateful to Phil.
By scotch number four, Handon, although he was pacing himself as a man carefully trained to discipline might, in delirium found himself telling Phil all about the background of the mildly infamous San Francisco Crocker Amazon Bank break-in many years before. He felt for some reason as if he needed to make Phil understand about how it was that he’d been driven to pursue the case even after the Bureau had taken all the agents off it.
“I was there that day in Room 204 of the Hall of Justice. I heard this radical Atlanta X woman on a tape going on about people from outer space, “silver ship comrades,” she called them. Believe me, there wasn’t a person in that room without goose bumps. Was it a hoax? A bunch of crazies putting us on? Or was there really something to it? Everybody in that room was wondering just like me. Where did those women suddenly disappear to? The Department finally dismissed it as a hoax perpetrated by a bunch of kooks who might have had some connection to high society. Something about the case haunted me, though, I couldn’t let it go.”
At that moment Pam Hynd had no idea as she slowly worked her way down the Planters Hotel third floor hallway that she was carrying two treasures with her. Is she’d known, she wouldn’t have been happy about it. But she was innocent then, and immediately concerned. She’d faced catastrophe before, and the fact that she faced death now didn’t keep her from battling to get outside. She was goaded by her keen desperation to “break out.” Her entire life she’d felt safer outside than inside any building. This claustrophobia was at times a strong physical discomfort. When she was a kid she’d been driven to near breakdowns, to near hysterics. Now, even though she heard cries for help, she didn’t stop pushing toward the end of the hallway. One more tremor like the first two had to mean the end of the building. She knew it was too late, but if there was help to be had for the others, it depended on her finding it. Setting down the box whenever it got too heavy, she’d dig out some nearby piece of what used to be the hotel and use it for a pry bar or shovel, meanwhile trying to defend her sensitive lungs from the dust that each attempt to move forward produced. She worked like a terrier at a rat hole.
By dawn’s full light Fred Handon was thoroughly drunk. Phil had heard the story of his professional life, and knew his supposed connection with Bill’s past and the Hynd woman, why he’d chosen them as a possible key to what he wanted to know. Phil saw that Handon had got caught up in some kind of extreme obsession, but he must know his search was ended. He talked with abandon, half in delirium from pain, half from the effects of the strong liquor he’d sipped steadily for hours. And Handon hardly had any choice, he was a lot better off not stopping the flow of anesthetic at hand, of focusing his thoughts on anything but the present. That he could think logically was important.
“ … Nobody knows this De Warcusi, and his midget son from Hungary, it turns out. Nobody anywhere near Hungary knows ‘em. Then the father disappears right after the midget’s murder, to say nothing of the lack of records about where the midget was embalmed and buried – for all I know his remains could be under the five-car carport out there in their old estate in Hillsborough. But De Warcusi, the midget, the son, you see, was running money -- maybe to those women, that’s what we thought. That’s what I think. He was the courier carrying the finances to those crazy women and their so-called guerrilla army. And as far as I can tell, they may actually have gotten all the money from the sale of that Hillsborough estate, too. Now, the robbery and murder of De Warcusi the midget in that Mission Safeway was a fluke they didn’t count on. But, number one: Where did the midget come from, if he didn’t come from Hungary? Logic says it should be a lot harder than that to hide a guy 3’6” who’s a terrorists’ connection, whether international or local. Two: How did those women pull off that disappearance act in the bank basement? That’s the crux of it. But not all of it. Three: What happened to that guerrilla unit, if there was one? Like all those kinds of ad hoc groups, the Department thought they probably fell apart after pulling off their hoax. I was never convinced of that, myself. Maybe they’re still even operating, maybe out of another country. And this Penthesilia X, or Alice C. Easter, or whatever she wants to call herself, the Department knows she’s nothing to worry about, and has for a long time. She’s harmless as pablum.” Handon tapped the side of his head with an index finger. “ When she can’t turn tricks for pin money anymore, the county’ll get her. But where’s the rest of ‘em? The ones supposedly with the guns, ammunition, and training camps? I was never able to get past the idea there was more to this than what it appeared to be. Let’s say there’s a strong instinct you get about cases after more than forty years in the business.”
Phil grinned. He didn’t know why. He was probably very drunk, but too adrenalinized to know it. He poured another scotch for Handon. With each drink he poured, he picked an appropriate amount of money out of Handon’s wallet to cover it, even though he couldn’t change the fives and tens since the cash register was buried beneath the heaviest part of the overturned bar. Phil knew if he did make it out alive, he wouldn’t have a job for a while. He saw no reason why this Handon guy, who as far as he could tell was gonna be on disability a long time, maybe the rest of his life, from the way his legs dragged the floor when Phil finally pulled him from under the bar, shouldn’t contribute his fair share. Phil was a practical man. For the right people he could be an easy touch, but this Handon guy wasn’t one of those who could pierce his professional armor. Then, too, there was the simple fact that bartenders develop a healthy dislike for authorities of any kind. In fact, Phil was half dismissing the guy as a nut case when Handon drew back his wallet off the bar, dug out papers. They looked like genuine FBI I.D.
“What about the money, then?” Phil asked. He kept his voice serious yet casual. “What happened to it?”
“It’s still not accounted for. The two thugs who robbed and murdered the midget De Warcusi claimed they just panicked and handed the whole satchel of cash to some bum on the corner of Mission and Seventh the same day they stole it. Didn’t even see the guy’s face, they said, did it on impulse. They stuck to their story, with the city police and with us, though I never believed them. They said the midget gave them “the willies,” they kept saying how his skin had the color of a paper bag. He wouldn’t hand over the money easy like they’d thought he would, apparently. Chances are good they were lying, and that that ballpark 2 million plus bought a lot of Chevy mags in the Mission district. The bills were untraceable. Whoever spent them could never be traced. But I had reason not to be satisfied about that money, either. I’m still not.”
This guy Handon was spinning such a wild story that Phil didn’t know what to make of it.
“Here’s the kicker,” Handon went on. “On the corpse of this De Warcusi there was a picture. A picture of a guy and his sister. Their name is on the back of the photo. Mark Gratzos and Mimi de la Falange. With an address in England. At first we didn’t know that they were brother and sister, but the address turns out to be that of some English Countess living on a big estate near London, and the picture is of her two grown-up kids. We sent an agent. The sister had died, according to the Countess. That’s about all we got because the agent drew a blank with this Countess – daffy-minded as a headless chicken, our man reported. Senile. But she did know that her son had moved to San Francisco and moved into a Buddhist monastery. We checked this out, find out that some years after he arrived in the States, the guy hit skid row. The Bureau blanketed the skid row area. By the time we were through with our investigation, we only learned two things. One, that this guy Mark Gratzos just up and disappeared one day. And two, we’d created a population of the most paranoid winos to be found anywhere. Believe me, along with prostitutes, winos are the hardest people to get reliable information out of. Any Bureau man will tell you the same. The problem with winos, basically, is that you can never know if their minds have temporarily sailed off to Byzantium, if you know what I mean. It’s a funny thing, you know, but it’s basic. You can’t tell a lie from the truth with them mainly because they don’t know themselves.” Handon made a motion for Phil to pour him another.
“So what do you want from this Hynd woman, saying she’s still alive?” Phil had to hunt up yet another bottle of scotch to fill Handon’s request. “Half the people in San Francisco might be dead by now, and who knows if it’s all over yet. Hot as it is, the rest of us might die from suffocation. We might die of suffocation, Handon, before they bother to see who fell in at the Happydaze late last night. Chances are prime it’s not on the city’s priority list for rescues, and we’ll never know in here because all the phones are kerblooey.” Phil poured himself another scotch.
“Yeah I know. I guess it’s crazy, but I want to know whether she’s human or not, and who she is. Well, I know she’s human all right, but what I mean is, I want to know whether this whole thing had anything to do with some other planet, what that Atlanta X, on the tape back then called Alpha Centauri. I want to know where they got an idea like that, where those women were getting their money from, how they managed to escape from the basement of that bank without leaving a trace. To a man like me it’s only maybe one case in a lifetime that sinks its claws into you like this one has me. I want to know before I die, I just want to know the truth. What did they have in mind? And if the earth was supposed to blow up like they were bragging they knew it would in their communiqué, then it should be happening soon …” Handon fell silent. He had a glazed look on his face, a fever in his eyes from pain and alcohol. Phil finished his thought.
“How do you know that’s not what happened? I mean, the end of the world? This might’ve just felt like it was an earthquake.”
Phil offered Handon some garlic chips. They’d already gone through all the nachos, the onion chips, and the sugared nuts, as well as the opened can of clams Phil found in the bar icebox, which miraculously had remained right where it had been before the quake hit.
“Nah, those things make your breath stink,” Handon said. Then realizing the ridiculousness of what he’d said, he slowly reached into the bag Phil was holding out.
Pam Hynd, forcing her way to the head of the stairs, was stopped for a moment by a sudden realization. The radiation. Could she survive it, if and when she got out? There wasn’t much she could do, she thought, except to wear her handkerchief soaked in water or some kind of liquid, over her mouth and nose, and she doubted it would help. When she made it to the top of the stairs, she saw they were intact except for one or two steps near the bottom. She gathered her things together, and threaded her way down. On the way she stopped to vomit. Her vomiting she understood was a reaction to the radioactivity. Pam got to the door, which was half-open, and off its hinges, held up only by wallboard that had fallen on it, and by the bottom of the top hinge. She pushed it open easily.
When she stepped outside, Pam got her biggest surprise yet. She saw an almost normal Indian Summer sky turning into dawn, at least to the east over China Basin where there wasn’t smoke from fire. Like a brooch on the breast of a city that she saw now had suffered an earthquake, a patch of clear sky was still shining. She saw devastated buildings to all sides, to be sure, and fires, and a shambles that once were city streets, and there was a silence along Sixth Street that seemed to her deathly. But faint stars were visible overhead, the light wasn’t completely blocked out like she’d expected. Pam felt joy seeing the sky and city before her despite the smoke and rubble. She heard sirens far away. Ordinarily she hated sirens, but now they seemed splendid, the universal symbol of humans fighting collective shock, a rational bulwark against chaos. Carrying all she had to carry, among these the few clothes she’d found in the hotel hallway and the blue box, she stumbled her way eastward, toward the patch of clear sky. She’d always loved these early morning hours when daylight nudges dark wash from the sky with its vivid hues of camellia and orange. The city landscape at those hours could take on the appearance of a pristine forest of shining metallic redwoods, as if it were possible what had been made by humans might be occasionally at least as harmless, if not as beautiful as that which more complicated forces fashioned.
The national Guard and FBI set up loudspeakers and announced their proposal to the guerrillas inside. They wanted to send walkie talkies into the basement of the Crocker Bank, and establish phone contact. They tried again after they got no reponse to their proposals. Once again, then again. They conferred and made another attempt. They were met with silence. They were perplexed, then infuriated. Fred Handon was on the phone with San Francisco when he learned the National Guard might be given the go-ahead to storm the bank. He wanted to be there.
When the soldiers attacked the bank they tore up the barricades and trashed everything in their way. They brought in experts to blow the doors of the basement with the biggest charge they were given orders they might use.
When the soldiers were able to make their way into the smoke-filled basement, they were astonished. No trace of humans, no wounded, no weapons, no clothing, not so much as a stray Kleenex. Nothing except a cassette tape lying in the middle of a gray desk that had been moved to the center of the room.
The FBI, politicians, and police department officials called an immediate meeting at the Hall of Justice. Those called to the meeting mulled around, they were an apprehensive, uneasy group. The press was kept at bay in the hall, having been promised a story “as soon as we come up with something.” The transom was covered over with thick cardboard to discourage the press from pulling chairs up to the door and standing on them.
The tape recorder purred, clicked, whirred on for three minutes. An assured female voice introduced herself as Atlanta X.
“I am a member of the Crocker Amazons, a guerrilla band that has adopted its name from this action. We are one of hundreds of guerrilla bands in the United States today. We have been training for this day for years. We have remained anonymous because we didn’t consider ourselves adequately prepared before now.
“We have managed to arm and train our women in secret because we are receiving help from the people of a planet of a star we on earth know as Alpha Centauri.
“The Alpha Centaurians, whom we call the silver ship comrades, approached one of our members in a training camp. They don’t use speech themselves, but do have a written language and communicate by thought transference and can simulate our speech. They easily learned our language, are far superior to us in intelligence and technological development, and they already knew our geological history. They’ve known of our existence but had no reason to contact us since we had nothing to offer them.
“They say our nuclear power technology if allowed to advance forty more years will destroy the planet and contaminate the gas layers around the earth. Human scientists they told us are not nearly knowledgeable enough to realize the effects. This cataclysmal event of which they speak will occur spontaneously. When a certain threshold of nuclear radiation is reached it will react with the radiation from power plants. The reaction will precipitate planet-wide tidal waves and high magnitude earthquakes. An immense cloud of bubbling smoke will billow up from the earth’s surface leaving the planet looking like a test tube of fuming chemicals.
“Little life will remain on earth after this, surviving primates will produce progeny with mutant characteristics of the kind we have only occasionally now. Babies with thalidomide-like flippers for arms and legs, Cyclops or nose-less creatures with no arms or legs. Babies with supernumerary ears on their skulls and nipples over their entire bodies will be the norm. Distorted, humpbacked bug-like creatures will abound. All of these – unlike most of our present-day mutants – will live and be archetypes of a new race. The new humans will have a smaller cortex but will maintain dominion over the few other animal species left. The first fathers and mothers, the survivors knowing only the old standards, will murder their offspring out of revulsion. Humans will then develop a primitive technology again. Their social forms will be simple –religious worship earth-wide will center around fear of self-reflection and worship of mythic forms. Any substance, liquid or metallic, with reflective properties will be accorded a place in religious worship.
“Water gods and goddesses will be worshipped, depicted on temple walls and other holy places. They’ll look like the image we know as Psyche-at-the-Spring, an archetypical image of unattainable beauty and perfection.
“Our Centaurian comrades’ primary interest in us until a few years ago was as objects of scientific observations. They say we’re as predictable in susceptibility to chromosome mutation from the effects of radiation as are the fruit flies our geneticists breed and irradiate in order to study mutations.
“We Crocker Amazons as participants in this first guerrilla action are harbingers of irrevocable change. Resisting will be futile, as the Alpha Centaurains have technologies that we have conceived of only in science fiction. They can disintegrate and re-integrate the atoms of the human body as easily as we disassemble and reassemble the parts of a puzzle.
“The Centaurains can disguise themselves as humans and have done that to collect data here. We exhort all sisters to unite with us to bring about peaceful transition. You are the new leaders … You are the new leaders.”
The tape recorder whirred on until the tape’s tail was free; its spinning made a muted rhythmic counterpoint to the sound of laughter that filled Room 204.
The mayor, straightening the knot of his tie, made an announcement.
“So, it’s that women’s guerrilla art group – the ones that flunked out of the Art Institute and protested at those museum shows for men artists by wrapping themselves in robes made out of brassieres.” He motioned one of his aides to take the tape.
“I believe they were never even in the bank at all -- they’re gonna regret this crazy hoax, if I have anything to say about it.”
Fred didn’t resist the mayor’s move to claim the tape. The day before he’d been in Washington listening to reports about an occupying Amazon guerrilla band that didn’t respond to tear gas in a San Francisco bank, with the National Guard wanting to gut the building; the mayor and governor insisting on a “responsible solution.” Bank muckamucks didn’t want destruction in their building. When it looked like the National Guard would be given the go-ahead, Fred, already packed, had his office put him on the next plane. It had ended more peacefully than he’d expected it would.
Five weeks after the ‘bombing’ of the Crocker Bank, the editor of the San Francisco Examiner received a letter from a Penthesilia X. It was titled “A Modest Proposal,” and was a response to a letter to-the-editor from a D. Varell, in which he’d made a statement that “Women have had equality with men since the mid-1960’s, so what are they whining about now?” The editor did not print the letter. He did, however, report it, and all subsequent letters he received with that same signature, to the authorities. The letter said:
Dear Editor; I have a modest proposal in response to D. Varell’s letter of August 3. Gender equality will have arrived only when women are able to sit in our cars at the Marina Green as I have seen men do, and manipulate our genitals to orgasm, noticed yet unbothered. When we feel free to urinate outdoors, or to take the chance of walking casually into a National Park and having cunnilingus performed on us in the privacy of the bushes, or a restroom, without being hampered by third parties. When that time comes, equality for the outdoor woman will necessarily mean a time of less public violence, and that will be followed by less private violence, improvements which in my opinion must be as cheerful and forward-looking as the planting of trees in our city sidewalks.
“In any empty lot,” Bill went on, “on any corner where winos congregate, in any curb gutter where they’ve been, there’s that same bottle by the dozens, just a bit of the top showing over the plain brown bag. Think about it. This is all over the city. If you check it out you’ll see. Right now two out of three of those bottles are Franzia Brothers brand, most likely Franzia Port. What happened to Ripple, the old standby front runner of past years? Have you ever wondered? And Spanada, the liqueur of the sweet tooth-less? Has inflation upset the whole market? Or has Franzia reaped the benefits of some secret consumer survey on the market of the lie-down drinker?”
Bill was the intellectual among them. Years before he’d been a junior college professor and although he accepted his present situation philosophically, whenever he was sober enough, his sarcastic, sometimes self-effacing humor showed that it still rankled him. It was his way of defending himself against giving up completely, of separating himself from his situation. That was how he was able to keep on believing he would be back lecturing Sociology 1 at Modesto Junior College again, as he put it, “as soon as I can get my act together.”
Mark and Bill had a natural affinity for one another. Both were educated men, both had been successful before they went down and out. They could afford to believe the way they were making a living now, by panhandling, eating and sleeping in the missions, or as of late making their home underneath the concrete overhang on Howard Street with Big Dan, was only a temporary arrangement, that the wino life was something they could leave any time they wanted to.
The winos referred to their home beneath the street as “the caves.” Down there they had mattresses, blankets, pots and pans they cooked in over a gerrymade brick barbecue, the grating of which was an over-sized iron window trellis that doubled as a table where the ends of it hung over the fire pit. Old Dan even had a portable radio and a small library of paperback books.
This was the third night Mark and Bill had slept in the caves and now they were sitting around gabbing over morning coffee, passing a fifth of Tokay between them, then over to Old Dan, each taking a long slow engaging swallow when it was his turn. Each of them wore an old overcoat stuffed with newspapers for warmth, which they had slept in, and each drew a dirty blanket around his shoulders to keep out some of the early morning chill and dampness.
“It could well be that there are fads and fashions in the wino world,” Bill continued, “some of those dashers up on the corners who sashay up to Aquatic Park,say, or Buena Vista, these guys might set the styles, say what’s in and what’s out. You can see how it works. The popularity of a particular brand spreads by word of mouth, via the grapevine in County Hospital detox wards, in the drunk tank, in the city slammer and at St. Anthony’s dining room. I can just see it: There’s this magazine called Wino World, and in it there’s distinguished, classy- looking winos, looking like Mark maybe, and they give testimonials on its pages. ‘I get more from life with Franzia White.’ It’s touted as going with every brand of butt you could find on the street today. ‘It takes the slaps out of the DTs’ – it’s said to steady the Bull Durham rolling fingers enabling you to get that rise and shine smoke with a little dignity. Well, don’t you ever wonder about who sets these fads?”
Mark, who was not in a jocular mood at all that morning, took advantage of Bill’s rhetorical question to attack him. “It’s us, Bill, you and me, that’s who. You and me and Dan, and Bill The Dude, and all of the others. We’re all one of a kind, and all of us, and that includes you, are here to stay. You’d be a lot better off if you could just accept that. You used to be a college professor, I used to own a discotheque in London. So what? Dan is sixty-three, you’re forty-eight, and I’m forty-one, and we’ll probably all die living like this. Of cirrhosis maybe, maybe under the wheels of a bus or in the detox ward, what difference does it make? We ought to quit kidding ourselves, you and me. We’re here to stay Bill, let’s face it. It’s us, you and me that set any trends, all your jokes aside. And maybe the idea that what you do affects all of us, even if it’s what we drink, will inspire you to sew a couple of buttons on that old rag overcoat, or comb your stringy hair, and keep your arse a little cleaner.”
“If you wasn’t such a limey fruit, Mark, I might land a good one right on your nose. But it might kill you, so I won’t. I don’t know what’s got into your craw today, but c’mon, let’s get up on the street and get some of those commuter quarters. Somebody’s got to see we don’t all die down here. It’s just too bad you ain’t all girl, then we could give you the long dick and send you down to the welfare department, then we’d have some steady income comin’ in, wouldn’t we?” The two walked up to the street, leaving their bottle of Tokay with Dan.
Mark was panhandling on the corner of 7th and Mission, almost on the curb edge, so he could catch the heaviest foot traffic at the light crossing, when an old mag-wheeled Chevy slowed in front of him. A young guy in the front passenger side thrust something out at him, without a word, and without moving his head far enough below the top of the window for Mark to get a look at his face, the car sped off. Mark found himself bobbling a leather satchel. Dumbfounded, wondering what had happened, he automatically started across the street to where Bill was panhandling katti-corner from him. On the way he started to unzip the bag to find out what was in it. Bill saw him crossing the street, and began jabbering at Mark, talking as though he’d been locked in a solitary cell for a week, yelling across the street.
“Mark, old boy, you know what we ought to do? We ought to do the same thing the Monarch Butterfly does in winter – fly south to Mexico. We could hitchhike there, spend the winter with the butterflies.” Mark was stepping onto the curb in front of him. “You know, butterflies from all over go down there, from the East Coast all the way down from Canada. They travel thousands of miles, and meet there, in a forest outside of Mexico City – millions of ‘em. They turn the tops of the trees solid orange there’s so many. They just sit up in those trees all winter, not moving, not eating, not doing anything, just resting, getting it all together. Then in the springtime when they head north again, they’re refreshed. They’re saved from this unnatural, life-sapping kind of cold and wet that drains our best energies and makes us weak. I tell you Mark, that’s what you and me ought to do. Fly away south and get ourselves together again ….”
“Take a look inside this thing, Bill. Open it.” Mark pushed the brown satchel at Bill, explaining how it had been thrown at him minutes before.
Bill unzipped the satchel a few inches, then closed it. “Jesus Christ, Mark! How much do you think is there? Looks like nothing smaller than hundred-dollar bills to me. Lots of ‘em. Christ almighty.”
“What are we going to do with it, Bill?” Mark was worried.
“Well, let’s start by taking one of those bills over to Ralph’s and getting ourselves a couple of bottles. Then we better get this bag back to the caves and think this over.”
At Ralph’s liquors, Bill picked out two fifths of the best wine on the shelves. Sauvignon Beaulieu. Mark handed Ralph a one-hundred-dollar bill.
“Where in the hell you guys steal that?” Ralph asked, as he tugged at the two ends of the bill with both hands as though he expected to snap it in two.
“Hell, Ralph, Mark’s mother over in England finally answered one of his letters. You know, they finally came across with some cheese like he’s been trying to get ‘em to do for a couple of years. Finally felt sorry for him getting so screwed up and all, and signing all his money over to one of them Buddhist monasteries, or whatever it was. They finally forgave him.”
“Well, I don’t know what in hell you’re doin’ hanging around here for then. I heard you were from some upper crust family, but I never believed it.” Bill grabbed up the bag with the wine in it, and reached for the change Ralph was counting out for Mark, trying to cut short the conversation with Ralph.
“Well, take it easy drinkin’ that stuff. Ya might kill yourselves on it, you two been drinkin’ that kerosene so long.”
On their way back to the caves Mark and Bill discussed the money. It was probably hot, they figured, and if they got caught with it they might just end up taking a rap for it. On the other hand, if the bills weren’t recorded, and if the guy who threw the satchel out of the car wasn’t nabbed, they were home free with a whole lot of money. They agreed as they walked up Mission and over to the caves on Howard to hide the satchel from Old Dan. When they got back they explained the fancy wine to him as a celebration over the fact that Mark panhandled a ten-dollar bill that morning. Scoring that much was something that happened so rarely that when any of the winos claimed something like this happened it was understood to be a tall tale. Old Dan didn’t question them about it, and they opened the corked bottles with his Swiss army knife and passed them around.
The wine was bitter to their taste. They’d become used to the heavy, sweet tastes of Tokay, Sherry, Tawny Port. Mark and Bill had forgotten how sour a wine like this could taste. Old Dan grumbled that they should’ve got a bottle of brandy instead. He would only drink from what was left of the bottle of Tokay he had from the morning. As Mark and Bill sat around drinking, both knew that each other’s thoughts were on the satchel – Bill thought about how they could each buy themselves a new life with what was in that satchel under Mark’s mattress.
Next morning Mark and Bill got up earlier than usual. Not even drinking morning coffee with Dan, they hurried up to the newsstand two blocks away. There they saw the story they were looking for half-way down the front page of the morning paper.
Midget Murdered, Missing 2 Million Stash
A 31 year-old Hillsborough midget, ‘Little’ Harold DeWarcusi was strangled to death in a Mission district Safeway parking lot while his 310 lb., 5 ft. 10 in. father was inside shopping for groceries.
DeWarcusi’s father, known as Baron DeWarcusi, had just come from the bank where he had gotten the family’s savings converted into one-hundred-dollar bills that he had stashed in a brown leather satchel.
DeWarcusi left the satchel on the front seat floor of the car with Harold when he went into the Safeway. He came back out to the car to find Harold had been strangled with a cowhide belt which was still around his neck. He was underneath the dashboard. The satchel was missing.
‘Little’ Harold DeWarcusi, a retired circus performer with Ringling Brothers, came to the U.S. from Hungary as a youth to travel with the circus. He was billed as the “world’s littlest man” at 3 ft. 6 in. tall. His mother, a bearded lady, and his father had also come over from Hungary to join the circus.
The DeWarcusis were planning to close a deal to sell their Hillsborough home next week and return to Hungary to live.
Further on the article announced:
DeWarcusi and his wife refused to talk about what had happened to them or to allow pictures to be taken. The only statement they made was that they didn’t want the incident to get in the way of plans to leave the U.S. The FBI questioned them for over an hour yesterday afternoon.
Neighbors say the DeWarcusis had grown reclusive over the past year. “Little” Harold hadn’t spoken to anyone in the neighborhood of ornate Spanish style homes for more than a year, although he was often seen out in the yard with the family Doberman Pinscher.
“Well, there’s where our loot came from, Mark. The bastards. They didn’t have to kill the little guy. Christ, they could have tied him up – a guy that size – poor little guy. Somebody like that wouldn’t have a chance in hell against a guy our size. There ought to be more police protection in a city like this. Used to be you could walk around on the streets and not have to worry about getting mugged, or murdered. Now I wouldn’t trust myself to sit down in a doorway anywhere in this city.
“Looks like we’re free and clear with the money, Mark old boy. None of those bills were marked, the guy just got ‘em from the bank and stuffed ‘em in that bag – and it doesn’t even look as if they even give a damn if they get it back or not. The guys who did it must have panicked, probably didn’t intend to get involved in a murder. What do you want to do Mark? I’m for heading to Mexico right now, the two of us, down to Acapulco, then Mexico City, then maybe Europe, we can do anything now, anything we want to. No more scrounging around on Howard Street. We can live anywhere in the world now.”
Mark was thoughtful, and slow to say anything.
“I bloody well know that we can. But what about the others? What about Bill the Dude, and Ice Cream Charley, Harry, and Dan? Aren’t we going to give them some of it? After all, if Old Dan hadn’t invited us to stay with him in the caves we might not have been up on Mission Street, probably wouldn’t have, not that early in the day, anyway, and we wouldn’t have gotten the money in the first place. Dan has taken good care of us, too.”
Something about the tone of Mark’s voice irritated Bill, even more than the stupid things he was saying.
“There you go again, you limey Marshmallow. Those caves are open to anybody who wants to carry a mattress down there, or who has the guts to adopt one of the old ones already there. It’s city property, Old Dan doesn’t own it – anybody can stay there – so don’t give me that crap. And how do you know we wouldn’t have been panhandling right there where we were yesterday morning? You’re not clairvoyant, there’s no way you could predict what would have happened to us yesterday, so don’t even try. What happened, just happened. Coincidence, pure coincidence that we stayed with Old Dan the night before. As for the others, they don’t have a damned thing to do with our windfall, and you know it.”
Mark lapsed into a kind of quavering speech, bordering a whine. “But it could just as easily have been one of the others that this happened to, and we would feel bloody rotten if we found out it had, and they didn’t share at least a little of it with us. Old Dan is sick too, he could use a trip to a doctor for his stomach, and Bill The Dude doesn’t have a tooth left in his head to chew his food. I don’t see how it would hurt us to give all of them some, at least a small cut.”
“Jesus, you’re naïve Mark. For a guy who’s been around money most of your life you don’t know much about money. You’re soft, and you’re gutless too. The only reason you were ever successful in that business of yours back in London was because you had a lot of money backing you up, a lot of rich friends to keep the place going. You’d never have made it if you had to fight your way to the top.”
Bill could see he was going to have to convince Mark and he meant to do just that, any way he knew how.
“First of all,” Bill argued, “how would we decide how much we’d give each of the other guys? Suppose we were to cut them in, say just the other four, gave ‘em each, say, a thousand bucks. Are they gonna be able to keep quiet? Not on your life. All of a sudden four old winos got new overcoats, their hair is cut and combed, they’re cleaned up and they’re floppin’ up in the Planters Hotel instead of under Howard Street or in one of the missions or in the drunk tank, like usual. How is that gonna look? Mighty suspicious. And each of ‘em is buying all this stuff with one-hundred-dollar bills. It would take about two days before the whole city police force, theFBI and CIA for all that matters, were down here investigating. And I don’t have any desire to see the inside of a jail cell for twenty years. Besides, think about it. All those guys would do with that money is buy themselves hard liquor for a couple of months, until the dough ran out. They’d kill themselves right now on booze if they could only afford to. Sure, they’d move up to some of the hotels on Mission for a while, maybe eat a little more than they do now, but not much because all they really want are the spirits. Then where would they be in about five months, when the dough ran out? What makes you think Dan would even bother going to a doctor, or Bill The Dude to a dentist? Did you think of that? You know damn well they’d be right back down here again, and worse off than they were before.
“The other guys, they’re not like you and me Mark, they don’t think, and they’ve got nothing to go back to, no other home but the street, the caves, the drunk tanks and the detox wards. So don’t start complicating this thing. Let’s just split the money, and leave quietly. We can both get ourselves together, get back into the real world where we belong – you know – we both know – there’s something better than this. You could even go back to England now and start another business.”
Mark seemed almost to have caved in to Bill’s forceful logic. Now he looked resigned, and depressed, but at the same time he felt frightened; he talked as though he were arguing for his life, rapidly and with stiffened emotion charging his voice.
“I’m never going back there. That business, and everything else in my life was something my mother forced on me, it was all something she wanted for me. I hated it and everything it stood for. When I left I left to start a new life. I supposed that I could leave my family, my business and my friends all behind me. And I did, in a way, except that I never was very much of a person on my own without all of those props. They were more me than anything I could ever be on my own. I guess they really were all I ever was. That’s why it was so easy for the right person to take advantage of me. You’re very right, I don’t know anything about money, or living either, at least I didn’t until I wound up down here a year-and a-half ago.
“Now I know at least a little about some things,” Mark went on hurriedly, “about eating and sleeping and protecting myself from the cold and rain. I know I’m a disgraceful failure in the eyes of the whole world and my mother, but I’m just beginning to become someone separate from those props that used to be the only me there was. I’ve learned to exist entirely without all those props, and however pitiful my existence may seem to everybody else, no matter how degrading, no matter how people may look at the rags I’m wearing and no matter how repulsed they might be by what they see as the filth I live in, I am, in some small corner of my being, becoming me, learning to be someone, a real person with genuine feelings and thoughts and inspirations all my own. Can you possibly understand that?
“I’ve spent most of my forty-one years despising the absence of myself, the littleness that was my soul. Now at least I can tolerate myself. Someday I might think of going back to that world – if I still could – but it wouldn’t be for a long time yet. This past year has been the happiest in my life, Bill, believe it or not -- if I have ever experienced happiness at all, and I don’t know if I have yet. I’m just now earning my right to live, finding myself, finding the personal thoughts and emotions that should have been mine naturally.”
Bill interrupted him angrily. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and he didn’t want to hear any more of it. It rankled him in a way he couldn’t quite explain, and he didn’t want to be forced to even listen to what Mark was saying, much less have to think about it.
“You’re gonna take your half of that money, Mark. This is the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my life, and I want to leave here knowing I don’t have to worry about you spreading this story all over where the cops or the FBI might catch wind of it. What if they trace that satchel to you? You’re gonna come with me out of town, to Mexico, as soon as we get ourselves cleaned up and get some new clothes, or I’ll kick your ass till you do – so don’t try to argue with me about it, it’s settled.” This time Mark didn’t even try to answer him back. Bill knew he had succeeded, had over-ridden Mark’s objections to the extent at least that Mark would do what Bill wanted him to do. Bill took charge of the situation, and started planning their next moves aloud to Mark, ignoring Mark’s indifference to everything he was saying.
Bill got the two of them a room in a Sixth Street hotel where they could shower, shave, and put on the new clothes Bill had bought for them at the Purple Heart Thrift store with the change they’d gotten from Ralph for the first hundred-dollar bill. Bill pulled a long drink from the Hennessey cognac he’d bought, passing it to Mark from time to time, hurrying him along while he showered, shaved and dressed, patting him on the back every so often.
“Mark, you look like a million dollars, never knew you were such a handsome guy. Let’s hurry it up now and get on down to the Wharf. We’re gonna celebrate first, have a big seafood dinner in Joe DiMaggio’s restaurant on the pier. Break a couple more of those hundred-dollar bills.”
While Mark was in the shower, Bill transferred about a thousand dollars of the satchel money into a wallet he’d bought along with the clothes in the thrift store, wrapping up some of the hotel ash trays in newspaper and displacing the weight of the money he’d taken out by putting them into the satchel. Then he put the rest of the money into a double Safeway shopping bag, which propositioned the world in big red letters: Since we’re neighbors, let’s be friends. Bill planned to give Mark the satchel to carry until he could find somewhere along the wharf to throw it into the Bay where he could be sure no one would find it. He would carry the shopping bag himself.
It was hard to tell where Mark’s head was now, because Mark stopped talking to him. He was silent, almost morose, and he moved only when Bill told him to. He was acting, Bill thought, like a child, like a spoiled child who couldn’t have his way.
When they were both finally ready to go, they looked indistinguishable from any other two businessmen on the city streets. Bill put the satchel into Mark’s hands, and then propelled him toward the door to get him to leave the hotel.
They had just swung off the cable car and were walking down the long, steep hill toward the pier, when Mark broke his silence, muttering a phrase in a voice barely audible, that sounded to Bill like, “The midget was the only one ….”
Then Mark bolted away down the street. Bill gave chase, holding tight to the Safeway bag, but Mark was much quicker, younger, and in better physical condition. Bill watched helplessly, huffing and with a pain in his side, as Mark opened the driver’s door of one of the cars creeping slowly down the hill toward the water. Mark grabbed the lone occupant in the driver’s seat, and in one quick jerk ripped the man out of his car and threw the satchel into the back seat. Mark jumped into the driver’s seat and hit the gas pedal so that the car took off with a jolt toward the pier. Bill ran after it as fast as the pain in his side would allow.
When he got down to the end of the pier, Bill could see the car Mark commandeered where it had landed in the Bay about twenty-five feet off the end of the pier. It landed upright in the water and now sat on top of the Bay, floating but beginning to sink. The rear end was sinking first. Mark was sitting up in the front seat. The people out on the end of the pier were screaming, yelling, pleading with Mark to open up one of the doors and get out of the sinking car before it was too late. But Mark, smiling and waving at the onlookers, just sat, smoking a cigarette, making no move.
Bill could see Mark still smiling as the back end of the car steadily sank into the oil-slicked bay, then the front end of the car took a sudden heave and listed as it sucked water under the engine compartment and disappeared completely. Five minutes after the car sank, the police arrived. They talked to the bystanders. Bill heard them radio back to police headquarters for a diving team to recover Mark’s body if he didn’t turn up.
Bill tightened his white-knuckle grip on the Safeway bag, and slowly walked back up the hill to the cable car turnaround. The words of an old song his father used to sing kept running over and over in his head … It was a song his father and his jobless cronies had sung outside the doors of Salvation Army missions during the Thirties’ Depression.
Oh, why don’t you work like other men do?
How the hell can I work when there’s no work to do?
Hallelujah, I’m a bum again, Hallelujah,
Give us a handout, revive us again
Oh, I love my boss and my boss loves me,
And that is the reason that I’m so hun-gry
Hallelujah, I’m a bum again, Hallelujah,
Give us a handout and revive us again
Oh, I went to a house and I asked for some bread,
A lady came out, says “The baker is dead.”
Hallelujah, I’m a bum again, Hallelujah,
Give us a handout to revive us again
The newsboy worked on his personal journal after he’d done his last deliveries in the heart of the city. He had some big ambitions for the future, his future. Sometimes he wondered how he could make his way.
I hit Jerry & Johnny’s at Third and Mission, and do New Breen’s, and the St. Regis Hotel. Usually I do five blocks on Third all the way in from Harrison. I know old Harlow who just about lives in Jerry & Johnny’s will give me a twenty-five cent tip today if I let him fondle me. But I skip him. As soon as I get through the saloon door, I see Bill the Professor, loaded. His head weaves all over the place.
“Paper?” I say, and he nods, and all’s he has to do is change the direction of his shaking head up and down.
“Put it on the counter, kid.” He gives me thirty cents over the paper’s price.
I go outside, wait ten minutes, and walk in again.
“Sure.” The Professor fishes in his pocket, finds a dollar and hands it over. I know he’s probably good for one more if I’m patient, but I’m late. I head out the back door and rush to Third and Howard. As I run up Howard to Third I stumble over something sticking out of a doorway and hit the pavement. The old drunk passed out in the doorway has a gallon of Gallo next to her and clipped to the top of her pinafore is a spray can of mace, the kind letter carriers clip to their mail pouches to use against dogs. She’s snoring. She wears a wide-brimmed Stetson with a daisy in the band. Everyone on Market to Howard knows her. She’s been passing out in doorways for years. Her name is Pam Hynd, but we call her “Hinky.’ Hardly anyone speaks to her. If you do she starts in to tell you a long story about how she’s really a great ballerina called Danilova who used to hobnob with something called the “oat-moaned” of London and Paris. She puts on an English accent – and she always wears that daisy in her hat. The Professor told me years ago she used to be a normal housewife called Alice Centaur Easter, but she got mixed up in some kind of communist politics, and got in trouble with the FBI. She’s got signs hanging off her neck, and all over her shopping bags. “ I ‘heart’ Tijuana,” “Unionize Don’t Agonize,” “Make Work Not War,” “Moms for Mad Art,” and the like. She smells like an old fried egg.
My next stop is the Palm Gardens where I know I’ll get a whole hot meal.
Today the Professor gave me five dollars. He was stone sober, too, and I wasn’t selling papers.
“I earned that sonny,” he says, “earned it the hard way.” And he laughs. He wants to talk to me about something. He’s generous with his money, keeps asking what I’m doing. He always says, “You learn your lessons in school. Knowledge is power, and you can’t have too much of it. Don’t ever forget that.” He wags his finger in my face. Funny old hound.
Where Pam usually rested out on Howard Street, the sun shone brighter than in most parts of the city, and the wind was softer. She was fond of sitting in the sun. That afternoon she had a bottle of Bras Arme in the inside pocket of her overcoat. The bottle of Gallo and the drunken pose was one of her favorite props – what better way to enable her unnoticed to observe everything? She was thinking in a year or two she would have to toughen up on her boy, begin to teach him what she called the Crocker Amazon dialect. She’d kept track of him most of his life. She wrote down that day’s encounter. It was really a diary, but she was extraordinarily careful because of its potential use as evidence should it ever be found by the wrong persons. She did a good deal of censoring of her entries. Of all the surprises of her life, the newsboy had been the biggest of all. He was uppity, and, like all of them, a bit smug, still, it was normal for his age, especially considering his father. The thought of Bill made Pam smile. Just the fact he’d survived the earthquake had always tickled her, and impressed her. She’d left him in the Hotel when he’d had no discernible heartbeat those years ago, but a medical rescue team, noticing the broken open door, found him. He’d come to after a week in General Hospital. She’d go over today to visit him at Jerry and Johnny’s where he’d be as always, see if he’d invite her to his room. If so, she’d leave him the usual forty dollars. After he’d gotten out of the hospital, she’d paid for his hotel room – set it up permanently so he’d never have to worry, and gave him a good lump sum in a bank account.
Pam reached over, patted the threadbare cardboard overnight case she carried with her. She screwed the cap back on the bottle of Bras Arme, adjusted the can of mace at her neck, got up, collected all her signs, and shambled off toward the Global Assets Bank on Spear Street where she had accounts. The bank officer, she remembered, didn’t bat an eye when Pam had gone in to open her accounts those years before. The fund for herself, the one only she could draw on, she’d privately designated the “Warcusi fund.” The trust was for the newsboy, to be his when he turned twenty-four. She knew some things at her old age that nobody else under Heaven knew, she thought. She thought about Bill again, and gave a snorting chuckle over life’s unfathomable curves and twists, and at the thrills to be found in the neon forests of a big city. And its rare kindnesses, unexpected as a hailstorm along Howard Street. She thought about her upcoming trip to Mexico. She’d convince Bill to join her. He’d been looking peaked lately, looked as if he could use a vacation where the sun shines just about every day.
Pam looked down the street. She saw the old duff in the wheelchair at the corner, lurking like garlic as always. She’d been mulling over a scheme to hire him as a courier to take her place. As she’d taken the place of DeWarcusi. But she knew Mr. Handon could never be told what it was he was doing. She imagined that he deserved a reward for his tenacity. Pam laughed out loud, a good half-guffaw. Great Bastet, but it was wonderful to be free and honest! To enjoy the sunlight, fog and rain, and, sometimes, at this time of year, the moonlight and splendor of the stars. Indian Summers in the city were short but exceptional, the very best of all the seasons.
THE SPANIEL'S BARK
“There were white kids there who had their hair done up in Afros, died dark brown.”
“I felt like I was free to experiment with my life, anything I could imagine might actually come to be.”
“The street was the commons for the community’s creativity.”
“I remember it was non-judgmental, spontaneous, honest and whimsical-- and that was without any drugs.”
Observations on the sixties Haight-Ashbury, by participants.
We’re sitting at the counter of the Mexico City Café at the corner of Shrader and Haight Street. The proprietor, Miguel, who’s also the cook and waiter, serves each of us a platter of food. Right away Beryl is unhappy.
“I didn’t order these beans,” she says to Miguel.
“That’s your order,” he says. “That’s what you wanted. Tacos, beans and rice and extra guacamole.”
“No,” she says.
“Whaddya mean, no?” Miguel says. “That’s what you ordered.” He’s middle-aged, dark, has a popped-out mole on his cheek.
“These are not what I wanted,” Beryl insists. “I wanted refried beans.”
“These aren’t refried,” she adds.
Miguel comes close to the counter, leans over in front of Beryl. Then he leans in further, so much that his mole would be easily caressible if she cared to touch it. He eyes her, puts an index finger to her nose.
“You wouldn’t know a refried bean if you saw one,” Miguel says, and walks back into the kitchen.
“Take some of my beans,” I offer. My beans are brown and proper. I shovel some onto her plate. I’m ahead of the game, anyhow, because Beryl always takes some of her meal from someone else’s plate, this way it’s already covered. My boiled chicken is fine, the rice and beans a specialty in the Mexico City Café. The coffee is black, tasty. I want to enjoy it.
“I know a refried bean, “Beryl says, “and these aren’t refried beans. Who does he think he is?”
She gives up.
“So why didn’t you get a coat at the Sally’s?” she wants to know. “You were headed there yesterday.”
“Because it was nice and warm in Glen Ells. It took me over an hour-and-a-half to have breakfast. After, I was exhausted, and it was so cold and windy I went home. My mother phoned, and then I was hollowed out. I turned on the heat, got in bed, and read for four hours until, happily, the entire day was shot.”
“I bought some acid yesterday,” Beryl says, jumping subjects again. “From that guy Pete who sells the Oracle on Haight Street, only he’s really selling orange wedgies.”
“You think you should be taking that stuff when you’re confused like you say you are?”
“It might help me understand things.”
“What’s to understand? Freedom is what you do.”
“I am confused,” Beryl says. She reaches with her fork, spikes a chunk of sponge cake-colored chicken off my plate, and puts it on hers.
“Good chicken, huh?”
“Fabulous,” I agree. “Like the Rockettes at the Fillmore -- like chicken.”
“Look,” Beryl says. “There’s Pasta Baby’s mother.” She points out the window at a colorfully bedecked young mother we know from the Post Office. Pasta Baby was the name we’d given the toddler whose mother claimed that with every prepared bottle she made for her little boy, she ground up cooked pasta and put it in the mix. She made spaghetti and different kinds of macaroni every day for herself and the baby’s father, she’d told us.
“Pasta Baby. When he’s a little older she can just add cheese and serve it as a casserole.”
“Don’t forget the peas in it.”
“Do you think she’s putting us on?” Beryl adds, “Because I’ve never seen her baby. Or her boyfriend, for that matter.”
“She’s probably one more space cadet very lucky to have scored a real job with the Post Office. But ‘Pasta Baby,’ I think, would make a great TV show.”
Beryl gives weight to the mother’s story because the girl wears jewelry made from dyed organic macaroni shells and fusilli. “She believes in organics,” Beryl insists, “that gives some weight to her words. Her serapes are beautiful.”
Beryl is interested in clothes, she tends to copy what she sees other people wear. But she’s tentative about her own presentation, so she looks square among the Haight Street freaks. She wears her brown hair in a pageboy, her round face never shows evidence of make-up. Sandals are as far as she’s conceded. This reluctance to fit in among people who felt they didn’t fit in was one of the reasons I found her refreshing company, the lack of affectation. Also her lack of certainty, because I shared a form of that, an unevenness when it came to life decisions. Maybe if we were both seen by a shrink we’d be diagnosed as mentally damaged, maybe ours was an infantile form of a full-blown aberration. We had only to wait it out.
I was working the night shift at the Rincon Annex Post Office, got off at seven in the morning and took the Market Street trolley to where it connected with a Haight district bus. I’d usually get off on Page Street near Cole, where, from his perch at a 2nd floor window overlooking Page Street a small cocker spaniel with an eternal vicious bark would assault me. He was startling, unrelentingly reliable, unerring, and he woke me up even if I was dead tired. I hated that dog’s lousy attitude. I’d often walk over to Haight Street and spend an hour or so in the Alpine Club coming down from work before going back to Page Street farther up. I rented a small place down from Stanyan on Page.
The middle-aged couple who owned the Alpine had run a relatively quiet neighborhood bar, its patrons a mix of working class Irish, older women and singles, and at first only an occasional young hippie. The bar was long, narrow and dark, with booths along one wall and across from it the mirrored bar with functional bottles of booze. It had no décor. Matt was the 3 day-a-week morning bartender. When I arrived on his shift he’d pour me vodka in an 8-ounce glass. He believed I was a hooker. I was the only single woman under forty to come in the bar. I liked to sit on a stool, and slowly dissipate my tension-filled mood in the slower morning currents. I’d light up, taking tobacco smoke into my nose and holding it, savoring the varnished smell, and that small delicious jolt it gave. I liked the smell of marijuana that would waft in from the street even in those early hours. The Alpine seemed like the one small arena in my life where there was guaranteed freedom from hassle, a resting place.
Matt pours me a double shot.
“I got some action at the track today. Want to come along?”
“That’s really not my scene.” I couldn’t convince Matt I didn’t turn tricks -- he thought I had specialties, only did certain things.
“This one’s easy,” he says, topping me off. Matt would regularly remind me he could be of use.
“Whaddya need? Grass? Meth? I can get it.”
“I need a different job than the one I’ve got.” He understood this as referring to the hooker’s life. The way I saw it, I already had a job as a big time whore at the Post Office. Just different body parts, and a lot less control.
The old Irishman Dennis would be in by opening time every day -- he would sometimes sleep over. He’d invariably sit at the end of the bar in back, talking to Andre, another regular.
This morning two women my age come in, park in a booth by the door, and carry on serious conversation. One has long blonde-brown hair and wears all black, the other is willowy, has long brown hair falling into her face and a dreamy look with one walled eye. I recognize the shorter one from the Rincon Post Office, I’d seen her a few times in the break room, standing in a corner brooding, almost always dressed in a black turtleneck and pipestem jeans tucked into black boots. When the taller one leaves the bar, the other one sits down at a stool nearby.
Megan Blake and I fall into conversation about the Post Office. She lives in the Haight on Masonic, she’s reading On the Road and Celine’s Journey to the End of Night, and we talk about Kerouac vs. Celine and who came before the Beats, why it is some writers like Jean Rhys are never mentioned, but Ford Maddox Ford is. She’s got a ready opinion.
“Behind everybody who’s famous, everyone, there’s been somebody who did the same thing, only never got credit for it,” Megan says. “The famous people just found a way to sell themselves. That goes for literature, celebrity products, and celebrity people -- everything that’s ever sold, probably.”
Later on that day I walk over to Megan’s apartment to borrow a copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Her rooms look as if she’d simply thrown things on the floor. Piles of books, clothes, shoes, records. Very little furniture, a mattress on the floor, a fold-up table in the kitchen. She doesn’t apologize for the lack. Later, I’d learn that whenever her apartment got too messy, she’d move to a new one. “Just like Beethoven,” I’d begun to kid her, telling her that one year Beethoven moved twenty-six times. “You’re nowhere near the maestro yet, girl.”
Money flowed quickly through Megan’s hands. Mostly for booze, for herself and anyone drinking with her, for books, for rent. She was at home on a barstool with a drink, passing days or nights in that mode of communal story-loving that habitual drinkers are fond of. She was in the Alpine frequently.
Megan is informing me about the Alpine’s owners, Norman and Kay, and the bartender Matt, who ran off with their only daughter, Helen.
“That’s why they don’t come in here when he’s tending bar, they’re furious.”
“So where’d they go if Matt’s still here?”
“They got a room in the Kezar Hotel, around the corner on Stanyan.”
“But why do her parents care?”
“She’s eighteen, he’s forty-three. Helen refuses to talk to them, so they pump me for information. They don’t fire him because they’re afraid they’ll lose track of Helen. They pump everybody in here for information. In the meantime they’re getting filthy rich because of all the people like us who are moving into the Haight.”
“It’s like Left Bank Paris here -- the costuming, the mimes, jugglers, Left politics, street theater, the whole thing is early Montmartre.”
“The Haight is down-to-earth. Janis Joplin buys her clothes down the street in Mansidika -- we call it Man-atsa-dike-a, because of all the men’s suits they sell to women. The Grateful Dead play for free up here, in the Street or in the Park. The Diggers serve free food.”
“Is that the Janis who sings at the Family Dog?”
“Yeah. She’s from Port Arthur, Texas, where I was born, and lived until my Daddy moved to Dallas to work in electronics.”
“Do you ever see your parents?”
“No. My father was a real Nazi. He used to wire up the house and yard when me and my brothers were little. When we went where he didn’t want us to, he gave us an electric shock. My one brother became an alcoholic, the other a sex addict.”
“My mother didn’t have to shock us with electronics, she managed with low-tech energy, hangers and belts.”
“My parents didn’t beat us with belts. But once they moved without telling me their new address.”
When I leave, the street is crowded. It’s normally like this, hard to get across. Vehicles barely move, people carry on leisurely conversations in the street as if it were a pedestrian mall, a crowded one. Jugglers juggle in the middle of the street, and the neighborhood unicyclist idles on his freak bike, his many head feathers flowing down like those of a Sioux chief.
Smells of burning marijuana mix in the morning air with the piquant smells of barbecue wafting from the nearby Kansas City Hickory Pit Barbecue. Street freaks munch on fish and chips wrapped in newspaper bought from the Foghorn .
“Grass? Wanna lid?” the young guy wearing a pirate’s head rag and a gold earring murmurs from where he’s leaning against the wall at the Park Bowl. I nod my head no. He gives me a V-sign.
When I get home I make the phone call I’ve been putting off.
“Hello. How are you?”
“Not well, they cut up my mouth on the outside. And my nose.”
“The doctors. I went to two doctors about the growth. The last one said it’s cancer, and cut off a piece of my mouth. Later, he said it wasn’t cancer after all.”
“There’s something to be said for getting three opinions.”
“But I can’t get to Fort Walton. I can’t drive anymore. It’s your place to come home and take care of me.”
“What about your sons? They’re both in Florida.”
“They can’t come here! They have their jobs and everything where they are.”
“What about my job?”
“You can get a job here. You can always go back later.”
“You don’t think you’re using a double standard?”
“I am not using a double standard!” Her voice rises. “I putchu through college and everything! It’s your place to come and help me!”
“I’d lose my job. I can’t leave my life here.
“My life here is important to me.”
“Well, you’ve spent enough money. Goodbye.” The click sounds loud.
“My life here is important to me,” I repeat, for my own sake.
Starting time for the swing shift is three-thirty PM, and it’s a quarter of. Outside Rincon Annex on Spear Street, Megan and I wait in the car. This time we want to kidnap everybody on the new shift: Dot, Claudia, Todd, Mel, Beryl, anybody we drink with even occasionally who got reassigned temporarily along with us. We want to make the most of our newly freed up late nights.
“There’s Dot with Mia going in. Beryl’s coming up behind us.”
Megan honks the horn, motions them over. Only Beryl cuts away; she gets in the car when Megan opens the door
“Where you guys going?”
“North Beach, to the Capri. We’re gonna try for Dot, Mia, Todd, too.”
“OK, “ Beryl says, “but somebody has to call me in. I didn’t want to go in anyway since they’re not letting us sign out after eight hours anymore. We’d get off at 2:00 AM, with minimum O.T.”
“Yeah,” Megan says, “that mandatory overtime -- that’s why we’re all so flush now.”
The others are getting close to the door. Megan jumps out, runs up the employee entrance steps, starts talking and gesturing. She strikes a posture, points at us, talks some more. Slowly, three retreat from the entrance and come over to the car.
“Get in,” Beryl says. She’s into it now. “We’re heading for North Beach.”
Dot’s not convinced.
“You types are always doing something strange, or illegal. Are we gonna lose our jobs if we go with y’all?”
“Hey,” says Megan. “ It’s strange and illegal to force people to work twelve hours a day against their will, war or no. That should be illegal.”
It’s crowded in the VW. Mia is in front on Dot’s lap, while Claudia, Beryl, and Megan ride in back. I drive down Mission Street to 3rd, cross Market at Kearny, which angles over to the Beach.
“Who’s volunteering to do the sick call when we get there?” Megan wants to know.
Claudia raises her hand.
“No, I’ll do it,” Megan says. “You might tell personnel our plans.”
The Capri bar is cool and restful in the early afternoon as we sip screwdrivers or beer. Megan and I are at a table, Beryl, Dot, Claudia and Mia at the bar.
“So how gay is Todd?” Megan suddenly says.
“He’s not gay at all. I’ve been going with him for four months.” I can’t keep out altogether a defensive tone.
“And how gay is Dot?” I counter. I have to answer, and Dot, who has short hair, a square jaw, and an aggressive manner, looks the part.
“Dorothy doesn’t count,” Megan says, as she puts a hand over my knee. “She doesn’t know it, she thinks she’s just reforming Mia -- and Claudia.”
I remove her hand from my knee.
“From a bad lifestyle, and her desire for Aileen at the Cask, and then Claudia with the drugs. Dot’s Christian, Texas Christian.”
I take out a cigarette, put it in my mouth. Before I get my lighter, Megan’s got a lit match at the tip. I talk to cover nervousness.
“I drove through Texas once. It took an entire day, hours of nothingness, cow pastures filled with cow pies, everywhere the pickups with gun racks in the cab window, and blowing grayish vegetation. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if something went wrong out on those long stretches of highway, with no people or phones around. It’s like a foreign country with all that macho displaying.”
My rejection goes unacknowledged.
“Well, in Texas almost all the women have been raped by the time they’re out of high school. So any woman who survives Texas culture is pretty tough herself--and usually has a pretty good sense of humor-- and most likely has her own gun in the pickup rack.”
Claudia comes over and sits down with us. She’s mixed race, African-American, sweet, a bit younger than the rest of us. We feel protective of her. She portions her time out half to Hare Krishna temple activities, half to getting high on LSD.
Megan puts her hand on Claudia’s knee, gives her her attention. She acts motherly, seems to be struggling for Claudia’s loyalty. With the frequency Claudia was doing acid trips there was cause for concern. Even so, we all echoed Claudia’s favorite saying whenever she was high. “It’s all one, it’s all love,” we’d joke. Claudia was airy and naïve, we hoped she wouldn’t burn out her brains. Though we knew that mushrooms and acid were probably better than doing heroin, hash -- or meth -- less nervous irritation and paranoia coming down, and the hallucinations common to the first two could work to focus the attention. Except for Dot, we’d all experimented with drugs, had our escapades and stories. Among the weekend hippies there was a lot of talk about “expanding consciousness,” but we were skeptical. We weren’t afraid of getting high with no other purpose than getting high. Though “better living through chemistry” was definitely a goal for some-- big pharma must have loved the brisk underground sales of their products.
“This is the first week this month I haven’t dropped acid,” Claudia tells us.”The Krishnas said I have to stop, or drop out.”
Megan gives Claudia’s knee a squeeze. “Have you decided yet?”
Claudia smiles. “I told them it’s not up to me, that the acid knows.”
Dot joins us. She ruffles her bangs with her fingers, runs them back through her hair.
“Taking off for inner space again, Claudia?” Dot laughs in that way she has, out of the corner of her mouth. She’s making it clear to us she’s outside of any of this insanity going on around her. But she sincerely wants to protect Claudia from drugs, cults, sex.
“The Krishnas said I have to stop, or leave the congregation,” Claudia repeats.
“You better pray hard for a decision before you completely fry your brains,” Dot warns her.
Impulsively, Claudia throws her arm around Dot, gives her a big fat kiss. Dot’s face goes cherry red. She pulls away.
“Keep your queer kisses to yourself.” Claudia looks surprised that she’s unknowingly upset Dot, it wouldn’t have occurred to her to curb her impulse.
Megan looks over at the bar, releasing Claudia’s knee.
“There’s Todd and Mel, they must’ve gotten our message.”
Todd is of medium height, with clear blue eyes and a quiet charm. He’s a Stanford grad, smart, and well put together. His friend Mel is taller, partially bald, languid, not good-looking, and has a Masters in Creative Writing. He talks about John Rechy’s book City of Night; inspired, he’s gotten Todd to accompany him on explorations of Tenderloin nightlife. They pull a table over.
“Should we call you two in?”Megan asks. “We did five at once -- a record. The person I talked to didn’t even question me.”
“We’re both off today. We spent the morning at the 24 Hour Donut House. Frederick Street was hopping. Krishnas were having a big celebration at their headquarters.”
Dot looks at Claudia. “And you weren’t there?”
“It was the ceremony for complete immersion, and I’m not eligible. Besides, tomorrow I’m due for my 100th acid trip, I wanted to stay in a meditative space.” She opens her striped shoulder bag, fishes around, and brings out a film container. She pours out several small round purple pills.
“Doesn’t look like those could do much,” Mel says.
“You take a half, and I’ll take a half,” Claudia offers Mel. Todd breaks one of the pills into two fairly even pieces, plus crumbs, with his pocket mat knife.
“Go ahead,” Todd encourages Mel. “I’m driving.”
“I’m driving too,” Dot interjects, “but I sure as heck don’t see how that means everybody else should take drugs.”
Mel pops his half, pulling an index card along the table to catch the crumbs.
Claudia giggles. “Salud,” she says, swallowing her half. “There isn’t anything I can’t come down from with the valium pills my Auntie Victoria gets from her doctor. Two yellows and I sleep like a log, no matter what.”
“You’re not gonna stay in the good graces of the Krishnas that way,” Dot says.
Mia floats over, puts an arm around Claudia, reassures her. “It’ll be fine, Bear,” she comforts Claudia. “It’ll be great.” Claudia is like a teddy bear, her friends use the nickname to show their affection.
We order draft beers all around, and an orange juice for Bear -- she doesn’t like alcohol.
Winter in northern California approaches like a sneak thief. One day everything is all warmth, heartbreakingly warm, soft and mild. Suddenly one morning, you wake and the warmth is gone and there’s a cold crisp snap to the air along with humidity that hints at a long vacation from easy days. There’s a snap in the link to fair days and balminess with its related possibilities, like sunning in a deck chair, blossoming flowers, shorts and T-shirt bike rides in eucalyptus-perfumed weather. The snap happened. The visitor Winter has snuck in with the footfalls of an innocent-seeming day, and with it comes a sore throat, sniffles, fatigue, the symptoms of the body pulling in its tentacles in order to prevent dissipation of energy. To protect itself from the cooling, from entropy. It’s the beginning of a time of conservation, when earth and sky remind us we need to conserve.
Right now, all I can think of is to thank the fire for accommodating the ice. To think of these drafts of cold air coming through the room as like mischievous mice tempting the cat to marshal its resources for an attack. Welcome Winter -- with death you promise rebirth, for those who can last out the harsher season anyway. My Thoughts converge on it.
I must go to the Salvation Army, and get a warm coat. I put on my good cloth jacket, a sweater actually, take a few antihistamine pills, start off by going for a hot coffee on Haight Street.
The booths in Glen Ells are taken, so I sit at the counter where the smells of patchouli compete with the odors of grilling peppers, onions, eggs, and bacon and browned herbalized home fries. In the booths people are decked out in ripped rags, jeans and jackets with holes and patches, personalized, random brightly colored outfits and hats, beads, shells, feathers, with a few coordinated costumes, like the court jester in the back booth with his face painted red and white. Behind the counter, the young boss is questioning the just-arrived waitress.
“Where have you been? You’re really late.”
She has a crew cut, wears a black macramé leather vest, raspberry patent leather shoes, and mandella-shaped earrings.
“I’ll tell you what happened. Cockroaches got into my alarm clock and totally screwed it up so the alarm doesn’t work. And now the time is off too.” She looks him straight in the face.
“I’m not kidding. The rest of the place doesn’t have roaches -- not in the kitchen -- you can come over and take a look, and I’ll show ‘em to you. I don’t know why they go in there. Maybe they eat the grease.”
Her boss doesn’t say anything. She’s got an order up. She grabs her chance, plucks up the breakfast plate set out by the cook.
After serving the breakfast, the waitress turns her focus to making a cappuccino, then serves two big platters of eggs over and country fries, the kind with red pepper and thyme and the onions browned. I order the same.
The jukebox is playing the Youngblood’s ‘Let’s All Get Together’: Smile on your brother/ try to love one another right now. Taj Mahal, Joni Mitchell, and a Judi Henski tune called ‘Farewell Aldebaran.’ Megan turned me on to Judi Henski -- an L.A. folksinger who has an underground following and wears black boots and jeans on a tall frame, and doesn’t worry about appearing unladylike. She sings about lying in the gutter drunk, was musically and sartorially irreverent before Janis Joplin stole all the press. A “semen-all” influence, Megan calls Henski. I fell in love with Henski’s rendition of ‘Baltimore Oriole,” which has made its way onto this little diner jukebox. Megan has been educating literary-wise too. She’s lent me books by Thomas Mann, Alice Miller, Nietzsche, Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me and Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. She’s done one year at UT, Austin, and from out of her brain flows a moving lava comprised of apocrypha, science facts, tall tales, weird events, stories of social awareness, and Texas folklore. None of us really knows what is truth. It’s not easy to figure out, either. Once Megan told us that in ancient Egypt, doctors prescribed skinned mice for children to eat if they were deemed terminally ill. Later on, in the library, I came across the same information -- scientists found skinned mice in the stomachs of mummified children. Afterwards I never dismissed Megan’s crazier claims. You just couldn’t say. Creative thinkers like to ride extreme winds. And we were after all all castaways of a sort, runaways from disenchanted parents, from their and our own ambitions, from social expectations, or the law; culturally feral youth making a family among other struggling out-of-the-mainstream wanderers. Judi sang it: That Baltimore Oriole, draggin’ his feathers around ... We all easily get into a story of a beat bird doggin’ it in the rain. I listen to it, drop more quarters into the machine, so I can hear it again … eat a leisurely breakfast, have a third cup of coffee… life is so fine at such times. I believe a good breakfast is a powerful medicinal, capable of curing the jitters, a headache, a caffeine parch, fog in your noggin, or peach fuzz on your cheeks.
It’s early afternoon. Five to eight of us have been drinking for hours in the Alpine. Beer, screwdrivers, gin, Black Russians. Mia has gone back to the Ladies Room. When she returns, she sits down with us. She’s tall and long-armed, and when she reaches across the table, her pea coat sleeve rises up on her arm and her wrists drip blood across the table. Crimson spots accumulate faster that we expect. Mia sees we’ve seen it, quickly gets up, and goes outside. We grab our things and run after, and find her crumpled up on the sidewalk out front. We tie her wrists off. Almost blinded coming from the dark bar into the outside light, we’re feeling the effects of all the booze we drank. Three people, strangers, are leaning over Mia -- she lets out a tender sigh, like heartbreak, “Aaaah.”
We decide to take Mia to Dot’s place, which is close by. Together we lift her into Dot’s yellow convertible, known as YRT—The Yellow Rose of Texas. People flow out of the Hickory Pit Barbecue nearby. None of us asks for help. No one offers help.
The aroma of pungent barbecue sauce and chicken and ribs in this hole-in-the wall joint is irresistible, and, as always, the Hickory Pit is filled to overflow with people in varied, sometimes extreme states of high and hungry. Outside mills is a single-double-file line of people more wasted than any people, except possibly those in the Park, or down at the Stanyan entrance to the Park. The Hickory Pit serves a spicy Cole slaw or potato salad in small crenellated paper cups for a quarter, so it’s crazy popular with the street people. Right now the twinkling crowd is intent on its own purposes, and nobody bothers with us. They’re thinking, if they do happen to look down the sidewalk at all, that Mia is planked out, drunk, and we’re taking her home.
Beryl and the others bandage Mia’s wrists and comfort her. The aroma of hickory smoke and barbecue ribs mixes with the smell of Claudia’s splattered vomit on the sidewalk around us, and on her. Dot wipes her off as Claudia hangs over the side of the car. Like a rag doll, Claudia, dressed in her saffron Hare Krishna robes for all the world to contemplate, has now fully initiated herself into the Krishna community. Claudia, in her puke-stained robe, Mia, with her pea coat and bandaged wrists, Megan, her black-on-black outfit with black calf boots, Dot, in her over-the-waist bowling shirt and Stetson hat, and me in 2nd-hand bland are all of us under the radar amidst the unfettered wild costuming up and down the street. Which includes teenagers with their rolled up sleeping bags who spend nights in Golden Gate Park, and those who wear wrap-around blankets as daywear as well as nightwear, uniforms of Confederate soldiers or modern military kit with medals and epaulets, or clown outfits, or jugglers wearing sandals despite the cold; and stone heads in mufti, or Navy outfits complete with real deal wool belled trousers, army boots, coast guard officers’ jackets, or hats worn with beads, shells, insignias, political buttons, bizarre earrings of string, metal, cloth, or huge peace symbols of every conceivable material in every conceivable combination, Chinese caps with red star pins, or red stars sewn on as antiwar, anti-capitalism statements; all these together, mixed up in the mulligan stew of customized fashion. The irreverence of freak fashion in the Haight community is on the front burner, its purpose to mock, scoff at, spoof, the world of mainstream fashion or the military, all the institutions of authority. Take fashion away from corporations. Make it a venue of street freaks. Fuck fine fashion, any dictated fashion is the new norm. The walking white satin wedding gown with the gold lame sequins on it in the form of a swastika worn with military boots could as easily be a gal as it is a guy, no way to tell. Middle America turned on its head, legs peddling in the air. Our small soon-bedraggled cohort is merely background fill-in for this Saturday street runway carnival.
At Dot’s apartment, she puts Mia on her couch, takes her time redoing the bandage with gauze and tape gptten from her bathroom cabinet. Dot is the den mother -- drinking is the one behavior she has in common with us. She’s chunky as a lunch wagon, often dresses in men’s Levi’s with a button-down Oxford shirt. She is in her own way uniquely herself. Dead-set against hallucinogens, speed, dpwners,cocaine, grass, antiwar politics. Still she lives in the Haight . She refers to us as “types,” alternatively as “hippies.” Megan is “the mind,” a rebel in black -- she has sworn to wear her black outfit to any job interviews she gets. Although, the only job she’s had so far, I suspect, aside from swamping bars, was with us at the Rincon Annex.
“Do you want to go to the emergency room?” Dot asks Mia.
“No,” Mia murmurs. Dorothy goes to get a round of beers and screwdrivers and prepare her famous Texas fried chicken. Claudia gives Mia a valium. Megan and I plop down on the floor on the many pillows and rugs. American flags on tiny sticks are set in an altar-like arrangement on the end tables, one big American flag hanging next to a Texas flag on two sides of a fake fireplace. She has records of vocals, along with instrumentals of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas.’ Her pillows are embroidered with the stars and stripes. Beryl sits down on a wicker chair with a large red-white-and-blue flag draped over the back of it.
“Don’t desecrate,” Megan admonishes. Megan is carrying her see-through drawstring net bag that shows three Tampax to the world.
“Don’t defecate?” Beryl asks drunkenly..
Claudia is passed out on the floor under one of Mia’s wrists hanging over the edge of the couch.
I turn to Megan.
“So what’s with Mia ranting, crying, and going nuts and slitting her wrists?”
“She’s in love with that woman Aileen, but Aileen married a woman from the Golden Cask -- the one who runs the topless shows and smokes a corncob pipe and studies mathematics at City College. She’s also got big tits.”
“So we’re talking about some lesbian love triangle? Why is it these women spend so much time trying to do one another in? Couldn’t they get that kind of treatment from a man? So what’s the difference?”
“You don’t understand. Lesbians are so busy hating other women, that they have no time for men.”
Beryl laughs. Megan is making a joke. Or no?
I feel the beginning of a monstrous headache, go in to Dot in the kitchen and gratefully receive two aspirins and the offer of a Kahlua and milk, which she carries out for me into the living room. She goes back to tend her pan of chicken.
Beryl calls out to her back: “This is why we call your place Dot’s Place, Dot, all the drinks and southern fried.”
We see Dot as different, and respect her for it. Dot was the only one of us who knew where she was going, she seriously thought about a career. She was temporarily at the Post Office until she got her editorial job her college degree in English had prepared her for. She didn’t apologize for being square in a “hip” world. She put her hair up in old-fashioned rollers, whenever it grwew long enough. She prided herself on no-nonsense rationality.
“Y’all need to straighten out your heads,” she’d tell us at various times. And often.
And went on feeding us, and sacrificing her booze.
Later on, when she got the news that her mother and father had both been burned in a home fire, she drove down to Texas alone.
“I like sleeping with men,” Megan insists to me, in comparison. “It’s their personalities I can’t stand. That’s why I like Ray. We fucked for four hours in the pool at his apartment complex last Saturday. I left around three in the morning, and didn’t have to talk to him until I went to work two days later ….”
“You should come to grips with your latent hetero tendencies.”
All of a sudden Dot is shaking Beryl’s shoulder to awaken her.
“Y’all are gonna have to leave. It’s late. I’ve gotta get some sleep.”
Beryl wakes up. Dot gets Claudia her coat. She leaves Mia sleeping on the couch. By now we’ve finished off the fried chicken, drunk up her vodka, most of the beer, and used up a lot of her aspirin. We’ve talked about everything Dot doesn’t approve of, we disturbed her with our talk about the Vietnam war, and sex and drugs, and filled her apartment with dirty dishes, glasses, bottles, and, as always, she’s gracious about it. She believes she’ll convince us of the rightness of her worldview concerning the war, patriotism, moral issues. Drugs.
Dot drives the four of us to Beryl’s car, parked near the Alpine. We thank Dot. I get behind the wheel. Megan outlines her idea. We’ll drop Claudia off, go on across town to Chukkers, an after-hours club in the Tenderloin. She wants to see someone who hangs out there.
Chukkers is so crowded we can barely fit inside. Once inside, Beryl and I are surprised by the large number of transvestites, from androgynous male to utterly femme, and the dykes in dark business suits with ties wearing black brogans and argyle socks -- “Did they begin their day at the office?” Beryl wonders. There are freaks and straight-looking gays, and gay-looking straight freaks, druggies who seem to be drunk, on speed, tranks, grass, and all possible combinations, Megan tells us. The tension-filled atmosphere peculiar to gay bars is ratcheted up many notches, with an intense crowded pre-dawn alcohol and drug-fueled madness. After we get one of the tiny tables, Megan goes to find her friend, leaving Beryl and I with our watered-down drinks. We’re too drunk to feel self-conscious immediately among the tall, willowy, glamorous women in four-inch heels exhibiting exaggerated gestures and postures. We sense cruising glances. We’re new meat, and we’ve entered their jungle. Beryl begins to sag from alcohol saturation, fatigue, and being out of her comfort zone. And we’re nowhere as high as these hyper flies we’re amongst.
“What’ll we do if Megan doesn’t come back?” Beryl says.
“I dunno, wing it I guess.” Thick smoke hangs low in the funky dark club enveloping us in a fog of excited flirtations, huggings, gropings, yelling raucous laughter. Launching bodies are flying this way and that in almost-Parkinsonian spasms. We hold onto our seats like astronauts readying for launch.
A large, solid-bodied woman sits down next to Beryl and puts an arm around her. One side of her head from front to back has shoulder-length hair, the other side front to back is cut very short, spiky. On the shaved side is a frilly pink bow is attached to her nearly-bald scalp. Stitches of thin white thread show in her skull.
“How ya doin’, honey?”
“Fine,” Beryl says. The woman’s hand is resting across Beryl’s shoulders as she blows marijuana smoke into Beryl’s face, stares in her eyes, pulls her in to her. She seems to compute something, releases her grip.
“You look unhappy, baby. Cheer up,” she says, giving her a pat, and gets up and buzzes over to a pollen-filled blossom on the other side of the low-ceilinged room. One of her legs is shorter than the other, but she can move quickly, even gracefully, and she’s carrying a knitted pink purse in the shape of a woman’s head, embroidered with one side of the hair long, the other short. A blue bow sewn to the crew cut.
“I am unhappy,” Beryl says.
“You are? You’ve been high as a kite since we first saw you today.”
“I don’t mean just today.” She looks down at the table. “ I think I’m gay, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t know.”
I’ve known Beryl for ten months, from the Post Office; she’s never mentioned anything about it before. Except, I realize now, for her comment that day in the Mexico City Café, when I thought she was talking about consciousness-raising.
“Why don’t you talk to Megan?”
“I don’t know.”
“You could go to a therapist.”
Before Beryl can answer, Megan reappears, shows us her newly bought tube of Benzedrine tabls. We each take one, and sit talking until the bennies sober us, then decide to go to the 24-hour Donut House on upper Stanyan. Between 4am and 7am they serve free toast with any order. Toast and coffee sounds good. It was popular with the after-hours crowd.
On the drive back Megan drives, one arm on the wheel, the other on the back of Beryl’s seat. I’m in the back, lost in Benzedrine reveries, objectively reconsidering my future in the Post Office; nowhere to go from there but something like a civil service job with the Social Security Administration … back to school … or Florida …. do I even have a future? .… In interstices of relationships in the nuclear family, where emotional bonds often explode into fireworks, there are complicated conscious alignments of invested energy -- then there’s those other, unconscious alignments, all pushing and pulling at the tissue, contracting, stretching, re-contracting, bubbling up into explosions -- then into many currents flowing in different directions interacting with multidirectional nodes under the surface, while appearing to the casual observer to move in one direction … and then, when it’s all past undoing, everyone sails out into the greater world, and goes about setting up those exact same alignments; we invest a lot of time doing that. Ironically, it’s called ‘growing up,’ or ‘reaching maturity’ … a whole lot of our time --maybe the greater part of a lifetime, must be used up playing that game … so we all have our work cut out for us … what, and who shall we enlist to help us corral the demons?... Toast with strawberry jam -- it’s not really such a big decision …
Doesn’t Beryl ever drive her own car? … I don’t know whether or not I’ve actually seen her driving it ….
I get off the bus at 7:45. It’s Friday, and I’ve brought my granny glasses missing the lenses. Jack is tending bar on Fridays. Jack is middle-aged, wild-looking, and has a heart condition for which he takes digitalis. He tones down its effects with Stoli on ice. I wear the frames, along with a floppy, flowered hat that he calls my “love hat,” for him.
Jack is singing loudly as I walk in. One of the regulars, Andre, is nursing a bottle of beer in the back. One day a few weeks before, a poodle made a puddle on the floor, and Jack jumped on it.
“Andre,” he shouts, throwing a mop at him. “Clean it up for chrissakes, get down there and clean it up.”
Andre grabs the mop.
“Look at you,” Jack explodes. “Look at you! Your ancestors came over here carrying nothin’ but a toothpick on their backs, and now look at you, a goddamn millionaire!!”
Andre is over seventy, wrinkled, black, and he lives on a small pension.
Jack is raving about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“They shot Martin Luther King, and they let you go?!” He nods at Andre. “That beats everything, don’t it?”
“You gonna get your own self assassinated,” Andre warns.
Another regular, the Irish roofer Dennis, is asleep with his head on the bar. He wakes up at Jack’s yelling.
“Can’t you serve a guy a drink in this joint?”
He lights up a cigarette, drops it, struggles to get down to search for it, his body folding slowly, like a crane, hands clinging to the top of the barstool as he descends.
“Keep your pants on Dennis!” Jack roars. He doesn’t refill Dennis’ glass. Dennis will be fishing around a long time. Might just fall asleep like he’s done often down there on the floor.
Linda Ronstadt sings in the half empty bar: You and I we travel to the beat of a different drum/ Can’t you tell by the way I run/ Every time you make eyes at me. This and the Beatles’ ‘The Eggman,’ are frequent flyers on the juke. I am the Walrus, they sing. And the Eggman. Sure and begorra.
When Jack is stimulated like this, he’s capable of anything. Non-stoppable. He leans over me, says, “You know, you only see men as sex objects, you want to get what you want from them, then it stops there.”
“But I don’t expect them to listen admiringly when I tell them all about me. And I don’t expect them to boost my ego all the time.”
Jack is angry about the school teacher from San Jose who wants to go into business with me finding lost runaways. He wanted to collect the rewards offered on the many posters on telephone poles, in cafes and Laundromats all over the Haight Ashbury. Jack said it was “a vampire business” we were planning.
Another regular, Art, the weightlifter with well-coifed hair, jumps in.
“Jack, you’re no angel yourself.”
An Irishman farther up the bar points down at Art, whispers to the man next to him.
“You know how old that guy down there is?” Art looks younger than his age, and fit. “He’s 67, if you can believe it.”
“Maybe so,” his companion says. “But I bet his asshole is at least 80.”
Art hears this. He laughs. Jack has used that one before him.
One day, on one of those static gray cold affairs, there were only regulars in the Alpine, and Jack had been steady at the brandy all morning long, and now he’s talking about how to mix brandy with digitalis.
“Jack,” Andre goads him, “why don’t you just smoke it like the kids do -- go on, get it over with.”
Jack empties a capsule of digitalis into a glass of brandy. He puts a match to it. We’re hypnotized watching the flaming and fizzling. Andre jumps up, backs away.
“Looks like it gonna blow up.”
But it didn’t, it fizzled out and turned sooty like molten solder. Jack shows it around.
“Here’s to the Love Generation! The bastards!” He bolts the liquid, chasing it with a big swig of vodka.
He turns to me.
“Watch it everybody. Janis Joplin’s mother is here, she’s got her .38 under her hat and wants to know who done her baaa-bee wro-oong.” He rolls into a chorus of C’mon people now, try to love one another right now. It’s impossible to stop Jack. Finally Art plays the jukebox to drown him out.
These Alpine mini-dramas went unknown to Norm and Kay, who never came into the bar until late afternoon, wanting to be certain to avoid Matt. Whenever Art, Andre, Dennis or another regular was broke, Jack would serve them anyhow, no tab. Jack didn’t believe in abstinence. He’d lean over me, flapping his polio-crippled left arm.
“How far gone is granny today? She’s gone to the moon five-hundred mikes away!” As time went on, it became a ritual.
I bought two tabs of orange wedgie acid from Pete on Haight Street as he held up copies of the Oracle newspaper to the windshields of the cars creeping down the street. When I get home I take it. For ten hours I float in a world of hallucination and brilliant colors on a magnificent flying carpet rolling through my apartment which is pervaded with a soft purple glow like the luminosity of a Wurlitzer jukebox. Fantastic jewels unfurl across the screen of my mind. Pheasant feathers in a vase on a coffee table become kaleidoscopic shapes, changing colors in configurations like a flowing liquid. My fingernails, hands, arms, my entire body, along with the glass I’d been drinking from, all meld with the mystic mauve light. Ravi Shankar and Sandy Bull and Carole King pulse in my flesh with no distinction between my body and environment. A happiness, complete and superb, takes over. There’s simply no thoughts that are not in sync with this state. Afterwards, when I come down, I understand how LSD could be addicting. When he’d sold me the wedgie, Pete smiled. “It’s trippy stuff,” he said, “it’s the real Love on Haight.” I’d bought the acid incidentally. I went to buy a copy of the Oracle, and he’d refused to sell me one. I insisted, and he gave me the last copy. “Now you’ve ruined my cover.” He used the Oracle sales as a cover in the event that one of the city’s plainclothes narcs were around. I returned it to him. Bought a couple tablets of acid instead.
In daytime people were milling in the middle of Haight Street, and cars would move so slowly their drivers were able to get out and get a coffee to go and get back in their car before the logjam would break. The clothing shops sold 2nd-hand or vintage, and there were cheap eats at places like the Kansas City Barbecue and the Foghorn, Glen Ells and Mexico City Café, and cheap beer in places like the Theatre Club, the Cha Cha Cha and the Jukebox. After hours it was Bob’s Drive-In at the end of the street, and the 24-Hour Donut House at Frederick. All the places soon began to cater to the working class youth who were crowding into the district to live and hang out. Walking the length of Haight Street it was just as likely someone would hand you a joint or piece of hash, or a beer. The fat was on the land, the street was mellow, outgoing and generous. And playful. If people were begging, they were likely to be doing something to entertain, like magic tricks, pulling a foldup rabbit from a sleeve or a card from your ear, or theirs, offering for your donation something individual, and indicating intent or skillfulness on their part. You might be able to buy a lid of grass at the Theatre Club for ten dollars, but you’d give a lot of it away. Same with beer, food, clothes, shoes, and good times. The culture understood the temporality of existence, had a respect for the sacred and the crippled in its midst. It was able to work only as long as the post-World War II wealth -- maybe in sync with this plumping-up of the victors -- enabled this dallying in new concepts and perspectives on goods and commerce and morality, creating a tiny sliver in time in which to work out the trial and error experiment in a city named after the Catholic saint dedicated to poverty. St. Francis might easily have been a vegan-fed juggler with a corgi dog offering up homilies for slices of broccoli- and pineapple-laden pizza, had brigades of brother friars with whom to minister to the poor -- if time had dropped him into 1960s America instead of 13th century Italy.
Mel is telling us about his last Saturday night’s experience at the Hair of the Yak bar in the Tenderloin.
“The music was loud, and everybody was high. We were on a crowded dance floor, fast dancing. She slipped. Before she went down, I instinctively grabbed her hand to pull her back up, but she went on down anyway. I still had her by the hand. And I was still holding it when she got up and grabbed it, and ran out of the bar. Her hand was a prosthetic. I felt terrible. I ran out to find her, but she was gone. I wish I’d handled it better, but really, what could I’ve said? I ordered a new rum and coke, and asked around, but nobody knew this Rita woman. I’m still looking for her.”
“The Tenderloin is something else,” Todd puts in. He and Mel troll Tenderloin bars so Mel can write about them, like John Rechy with the L.A. underground. Mel wants to do the Great American novel. He and Todd met at the Post Office. Everyone in the city it seems worked there at one time or another, and in my mature moods I realize the Post Office is a great force in the U.S. economy. What other institution would have hired us post-World War II crybabies? We’d work six months, quit, get rehired six months later. Now the Post Office in support of the War has decided our shifts will be 10 or 12 hours, according to the volume of the mails. Postal clerks were beginning to resist the forced O.T.
Todd and I were having a hard time finding time to get together, but we were on the same shift and took our half-hour lunchtime together. Most of the time off work we were drinking with fellow workers.
Todd wasn’t always making a pass at me. And we weren’t alone together that much. One night we ended up at his apartment near the Hall of Justice, where bright lights lit up the neighborhood, the jail, bail bond offices, and the nearby streets. The neon splashed in pearl necklaces of colored light, transforming the neighborhood into an impressionable beauty preening and sashaying on the Brannan Street promenade. We sat on his floor. We kissed, but it didn’t escalate. There was none of the usual ensuing and irresistible electric urges. Todd periodically disengaged, got a beer, went to the john, or checked on something. Finally we decided there were just too many klieg lights splashing around his apartment, and went out to get something to eat. Because Todd was intelligent, refined and polite, good-looking and generous. I realized that, compromised with my mother as I was, if I told her I was dating a Stanford grad, she would pray for a marriage. Anyone would like his quiet gracious ways.
It’s a fact that if you pass the shadow of a chicken hawk over a group of newly hatched chicks, they will dart for shelter, while the shadow of a seagull or a blue jay passing overhead doesn’t elicit that response. Distinguishing a specific danger from out of background is instinctive. I learned that in a psychology class. Now, in response, Megan has told me this: fawns don’t give off any scent in order that predators aren’t able to track them. We’ve been discussing prey versus predators. The types of each and this and that. Megan has stories only she knows, and her vodka gimlet is on the bar. She’s begun hanging out every day in the Alpine. Beryl has followed her here.
“There’s plenty of human predators in this city, too, you know,” Megan says. “There’s a teacher over at Mills College who’s written a good book on rape. My idea is to get women together in guerilla groups, armed with guns, and whatever, ready to assault any rapist in the community. I’ve been trying to get the dyke community in the Haight to do this. The hard part is to get someone to be a decoy -- maybe you’d do it, you like to fuck and you could wear a mini-skirt and all, and attract the rapists. We’d follow, and kick their balls, and rape them with a hose. I’ve got a group of five women lined up.” Megan laughs that raucous laughter she falls into after two drinks. It’s infectious.
“Have you told Ray about this anti-rape army?”
“Yeah. He thinks it’s a good idea. I think he thinks it’s just talk. But because he said it’s a good idea, I keep going back to his apartment.”
“As long as he puts out for you, does it matter what he thinks?” There was not another woman I’d make that comment to.
“I know a woman who thinks if you’ve never been raped, you haven’t lived,” Megan says.
“Maybe she’s never experienced actual rape,” Beryl says.
“ It’s all due to the fact that women are superior. Historically, the moon was the first object of nature worship, and the moon cycle corresponds with the menstrual cycle,” Megan asserts. “Not to mention all the business world’s billing activities, payments, notice of debts, and so forth.”
“It’s a fact,” she adds. “The entire world of commerciality is based on the female fertility cycle.”
Nietzsche’s uberfrau, I think.
Beryl orders a Black Russian for herself, a vodka gimlet for Megan, and a beer for me.
“Why,” Megan asks, “did the Irishman always sit right up at the bar when he went into a tavern?”
“Why?” Beryl answers.
“Because his doctor told him to watch his drinking.”
“Probably why we’re sitting here, too.”
I leave when they’re on the 3rd or 4th drink. They’re waiting for Claudia to come down from Frederick Street to join them. We’re all good waiters, I think, we’ve got a knack for it. For this waiting. Except Dot. She’s a believer in progress -- Mel too. The rest of us are at risk of becoming pod fungi.
The Golden Cask was on one side of The Hickory Pit Barbecue. It was a gay bar during the week, a metro bar on weekends. It was a tasteful rustic, with dark wood beams, a dark finished wood bar and a working fireplace. It featured topless dancing boys a few nights during the week-- revolutionary in above-ground venues. It had an alcove in back where our gang on Sundays would get a brunch served with a hair-of-the dog cocktail. An omelet, home fries, wheat toast and jam, a slice of orange and that big bodacious Bloody Mary with a spear of celery in it, with healthy light green leafy ends sticking up out of the glass. We’re all relaxed, enjoying the sunny free day in the dim bar. Off the cuff, Megan says, “Joy is just a bump in the night.” She realized this epiphany, she says, one night when we were smoking marijuana, and now it’s part of her worldview. She insists life is a dull sweep of mainstream occupations, each day consisting of taking in food, sleeping, sex, going to work and getting food -- with, she conceded, an intent to devote a few hours each week to fantasy, and a few hours of conflict, the last according to temperament or parenting. We catch a few stolen hours of joy, or something like it, she says, and poof! our day is gone, over.
“Day-to-day living is an habitual night watch” is her byword. I argue with her that every habit of daily life could and should be a joy in itself. The symbols of the unconscious require an ordering into habits of consciousness, but only where it’s then presented as logical, so, in that way joy, which is in part illogical, is only a bump in the night. It can’t, by its own nature, own every one of our twenty-four hours, could it? It would cancel itself out of existence. Megan ponders this argument for its weakness.
In the Golden Cask Megan is an articulate, free-associative philosopher, moving like a full-finned fish in its home waters. At the Rincon Annex, she’s silent, shy as a nun in her black outfit; if she wasn’t so good-looking she’d have been the subject of sly jokes. As it is, she’s preferred as an object of desire and curiosity. At the half-hour lunch break, she ordinarily goes to Riordan’s bar one block over and has one or two whiskeys. There she converses.
At work we spent a lot of time sorting letters into cubbyholes according to zip codes, and according to the alphabet first-letter of the town or city names in the state. It was dull, the hours dragged. We had twenty-minute breaks in the first half of the shift, twenty in the second half, which we spent downstairs in the swing room buying coffee and snacks from machines, hoping to get through the lines, cool our coffee, drink and eat, and get back upstairs in time. We were rushed, put upon, and one day our section supervisor informed us everyone would have to do overtime whenever it was called out on the PA system because we were at war in Vietnam, and the mail had to move. The entire work floor was in revolt by now, at least verbally, about this order. Todd came to find me.
“Are you ready to leave?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“It isn’t legal for them to call mandatory overtime,” he said. “They busted Claudia and Mel for wearing sandals -- sent them home.” He wanted to leave in solidarity.
“Let’s wait until lunch break. Then I can call in with an excuse about getting sick. I don’t want to get written up.” I realize I need to protect my job.
“Well, I’m checking out, I’ll see you in the Alpine.”
I admired his courage, but Todd could get another job if he had to. His father owned a winery up in Napa. I watched him get his timecard and punch out.
Up the line I could see Megan in her new customized coat. She had ripped the sleeves and inserted leather at the cuffs so the sleeves were belled. She’d taken off the collar, and sewn on a leather collar. The hippest people wore customized outfits. Megan wore this coat everywhere, with a button attached to it: PERCEIVING IS, BELIEVING WAS. The sorting area could get chilly, as we were in a high-ceilinged space. We perceived and believed that the postal management wanted the temperature kept low. Now we had ten-hour workdays to shiver in, and more if we wanted it. I’d done twelve-hour days before, but I’d volunteered for it before it was mandatory -- when the union first won time-and-a-half for O.T. The Vietnam War demanded our attention in so many more ways than one. The mails were flowing from the APO to Asia, and vice versa in huge quantities; packages, boxes, cartons, packets of letters, mail tied on pallets and mail in big tubs. Some of it went with our in-post office-added antiwar flyers and stickers, with joints and copies of the Berkeley Barb, the Oracle, or Good Times. The soldiers in Vietnam did the same with their outgoing. This mode of two-way communication with the G.I.’s was a delicious rebellion, reminiscent of prisoners in the gulag talking back and forth by whatever means they could innovate in isolation. The messages were often about freedom. And celebration and peace.
Farther down the line I see Claudia. I do a roundup of the mail down the long aisle of sorting cases. When I get to Claudia I ask how it went down that she’s back.
“My Krishna congregation has a guy in personnel and they want me to have as much money as I can -- for the offering days. Is Dot here? So I can catch a ride?”
“I saw her talking to Wanda, the girl who has the 3-month-old daughter with cancer of the eye -- just like Wanda has. Wanda wants to catch a ride with Dot if she ever goes to Texas, so she can go see her family with the baby.”
“Is she leaving soon?” Claudia is growing dependent on Dot, she looks up to her. I tell her she hardly need worry.
“Since the P.O. is going onto a 24-hour basis with mandatory O.T., I doubt Dot is going anywhere; keep your saffron robes pressed.”
Claudia peers at me to see if I’m kidding, or expressing hostility.
“Megan says you’re just a front for god Kali Reality -- and you need new clothes.”
“I don’t do big color.”
Later, all of us are sent down to the first floor to sort packages, taking them from a conveyor belt as we line each side of the belt, then throwing them into large tubs lined up behind us. We were given work-resistant gloves for the work, which we got to keep, and turned out to be good for working on cars Todd found out. On the line we would pass the time chatting and singing, invariably someone would start verses of the Country Joe and the Fish antiwar song. We’d shout out the chorus.
One-two-three-four, what’re we fightin’ for?!!
The line is a mishmosh of style. One of the guys has a beard dyed green, and sports 2 green-dyed joints behind his ears. Headbands or bandannas, do-rags, and the odors of sandalwood and patchouli are everywhere, alligator roach clips hang from the bottoms of jeans, and on pockets of sleeveless Levi vests. Patches sewn on a hole are common along with ripped jeans and shirts. The guys who work on the docks as mail handlers are dressed even more casually -- their jobs loading and unloading dirty dusty sacks require tattered sweatshirts and pants, and porkpie hats with antiwar slogans, red star pins and feathered hair and beads, Native American oval bead earrings and fringed buckskin jackets.
Deep ecology is in. We’re on the front lines. The government of the United States is nervous as a frog in a pan of soon boiling water. It’s face is contorted in anxiety and fear.
Dot was hired for an editorial job by Venus Magazine south of the city in San Jose. But now she didn’t want to leave the city. She and Mia have become lovers. Dot was like a teenager, experiencing her first love.
She got a new bumper sticker: WE ARE EVERYWHERE, and stuck it on her VW bug in place of her old one, which said, THE ALAMO IS IN TEXAS! Before this Dot had usually carried a small pistol with her, now she left that at home when she went someplace like the Alpine or the Golden Cask. She began wearing a Nehru jacket, and a puka shell necklace. (Does everyone I wondered, change their fashion or hair styles when they start an affair?), and began drinking White Russians instead of Screwdrivers. She laughed a lot, and stopped her ubiquitous use of “you types” whenever she talked about us, or to us.
The Vietnam War dragged on, and the Post Office dragged on with us in its tow. Todd began hanging out in the Tenderloin with Mel more often. I’d have to wait days before I could catch him in, or have to go to the Alpine where he’d often stop in for a beer on his days off. He developed some kind of infection he didn’t want to talk about.
“I just need to take it easy for a while, and take the medicine,” he said, when I met him one Saturday in the Alpine.
“But you’re drinking beer,” I say. “How does that figure with the antibiotics?”
“It doesn’t, but I can’t give up everything,” he says, his blue eyes evenly on me. He’d recently transferred to driving a collection truck to get away from clerking 8 or 12 hours.
“You’re wrapping yourself in bubble wrap.”
“I’m helping Mel with his research. I’ve met a lot of interesting people. I met somebody who knew John Rechy.
“He used to be until he got a sex change. Now he’s a female social worker. Very natural, no lipstick or nail polish, no exaggerated gestures. She comes across as real.”
He seems excited, like a scientist developing a specimen for study.
“Does she think it’s dangerous in the Tenderloin? I would.”
“She’s an ex-bouncer, she can take care of herself. Clare’s natural as a female, she wears jeans and a turtleneck, no makeup or heels.”?
Was this fellow I’d fallen in with and growing attached to a naïve town boy, or was he more experienced in the world than I’d assumed? In between those two?
If we were to keep on keeping company, I needed reasons besides liking him and drinking the Heineken brand. When I thought that thought, I’d recoil at myself, what was I doing, making a marriageable man out of a fun loving companion? It would disgust me. I was running away from marriage and love forevermore, and the rest of it, wasn’t I?
We decide to drive the coast north in the direction of Mendocino. We knew we could stop anywhere to eat or to drive back at any point, and neither of us would mind that. It’s one of the best ways in which we meshed, we both moved by force of impulse not schedule.
In the booth Dot and Mia are holding hands under the table. Claudia, sitting across from them, is telling us the Krishnas want her to go out to the airport two days a week and give away incense sticks, hoping for some donations in exchange. She’s pressured by it. She doesn’t work well with pressure, she’s the first to admit it. She goes to her Post Office job, donates to the temple, and spends time doing chores at the headquarters on Frederick Street. At her most leisurely pace.
“Incense makes me nauseous, except for myrrh,” Claudia says, trying for Dot’s full attention. Dot and Mia are planning their hopefully permanent move up the coast to Mendocino. Mia intends to teach elementary school while Dot commutes to her job in the city; they’re thick into planning with a capital P. They’re saving money. They’ve been joining us less frequently. Dot’s Place is closed down now. Texas and its yellow rose are fast fading for her. As has her determination to reform Claudia – or all the rest of us. Claudia seems lost with the collapse of Dot’s motherly focus. Beryl, Megan and I have moved our after-hours operations to the 24-Hour Donut House on Stanyan Street at Frederick. We complain to each other about how now we have to pay someone to wait on us. We’re adaptable, and we’ve absorbed a new person into our group, Tina, from the Post Office. She’s from Puerto Rico, from poverty. And we soon understand she’s a marijuana dealer. She wears torn jeans to work, knees razed, one pair ripped widely in the butt area. Beryl noticed her peeking ass cheek at work, and made her acquaintance. Tina gives Megan a run for her money drinking, and it isn’t long before she’s selling grass and pills to Mel, Claudia, Beryl, Megan, Todd and me, and everyone else around the bars and the Post Office.
“How did we get to this?” I wonder to Megan at the bar. She’s uninterested in my angst, she prefers a philosophical view. She’s got a theory.
“There are tribes,” Megan is telling me, “in New Guinea or somewhere, where they still don’t know how children come about -- the old nine month lag time, you know -- they think only the man makes a baby, and anthropologists found even in a situation where a child looked exactly like the mother, the tribes people would deny that it did and claim the baby looked very much like the father. So it’s hypnotism, it’s cultural hypnotism. Same thing nowadays. Once the whole tribe believes something, that’s it. You know, that’s it. Period. And the backup proof is based on any means people find to be convenient, like religion, that’s set up and used to reinforce these beliefs. Same thing. We’re tribally oriented and gotta go along with the group’s beliefs and behaviors. Cultural ideology and its convictions abide, they have whlesale supremacy.”
“That doesn’t jibe with the sexual orientation thing.”
“Yes it does,” Megan asserts, “that’s why it’s so hard to go against the norm. It’s why we can’t get our government to put its military back in its pants. But if you have parents who want to kill you, to get rid of you, want no part of you, well that helps because you finally question everything.” Megan’s father, an electronics genius who’d worked for Texas Instruments, she’d told us many times, wired up their house and yard. If he said a certain place was forbidden to his children she and her siblings risked getting hearty shocks if they ignored him. Her father believed in biological conditioning, in the science of it. It was popular theory, written and studied. The added advantage for a distracted parent would be that he didn’t have to watch them. Ever.
“I wanted the terry cloth mother,” Megan says, her tone sounding serious. “And the terry father.” She gulps down her drink. When she orders another she claims the orange juice makes a Screwdriver a health boost.
“The vodka is just the vector for the vitamin C.”
I take the clue, change the subject.
When I was in the second grade in a small rural New York town, I vividly remember our teacher leading us in a song. I’ve never heard it since. It went: “Ruben, Ruben, I’ve been thinking/ What a grand world this would be/ If the men were all transported/ Far beyond the Northern Sea.”
Then, slowly, we’d sing a second verse. “Ruben, Ruben, I’ve been thinking/ What a grand world this would be/ If the girls were all transported/ Far beyond the Northern Sea.” Where did that song come from? Why had she been teaching it? I can’t remember what teacher it was – maybe she was Scandinavian and had imported that song.
Aside from propagating the species, women and men make mostly trouble for one another insofar as they represent diverging cultures. Ideological gender struggles keep it that way. Even when the myths require lying about female physical potentials, and male emotional capacity. Efforts to cover over the whole set-up requires some wobbly but honed over centuries glamorizing myths. True love, romance, marriage. Male heroism, self-sacrifice in war. As time marches on these constricting myths become difficult to sell, and so the universal religion of macho is continuously propped up and will prevail, and eventually become the final religion, a final killing grounds. Not that any of us believe that this really would be a grand world if members of the opposite sex were carried away beyond the Northern Sea -- in each case there’d be anthropological finds in the future, those ice-encased dolls, maybe, like some Planet of the Apes-type proof of human social selection, bringing to bear on any biological trade-off of the times.
I get off the bus and walk over to the Alpine to find Andre sitting at the bar drinking bourbon and water. There’s a new tender behind the bar.
“Jack’s dead,” Andre tells me. “Yesterday morning he had a heart attack. Somebody already trashed his hotel room. They let me go in and get the portable RCA I lent him. He knew it was gonna happen -- ‘We’re all gonna go someday. So what good is it gonna do to be in pain when it happens? ’ ”
Jack’s repeated semi-joke at the bar.
How many times had I heard that? Enough to not think anything serious about it.
Andre puts a wrinkled hand up to wipe his eye. “Jack really believed that, too.”
Billie Holiday comes on the jukebox. ‘Travelin’ Light.’ I feel Jack’s presence, the arm across the bar as he puts his index finger to the tip of my nose, singing his taunts. My desire to mellow out is dissipated immediately, overridden by a stronger feeling of awe at death’s ability to strip humanity, like that, poof!, to upset even the certainties of daily life, including a simple act of easing one’s mind with a drink of fermented barley and hops. I turn down Andre’s offer of a drink, leave and walk towards Stanyan Street. Across the street business is booming in the Mexico City Café.
Down at Cala Foods at Stanyan the champion shoplifters sit on cement outcroppings waiting to go up against the city’s best and champion plainclothes security guards, using a fold-up rubber chicken, or a big-bandage leg, or a baby bucket, to cover up the contraband, to clash, stash, and remove it from the store. These Alpha gatherers are so good that the costs of milk and eggs in the Cala go up every few months just to pay for more security.
At Stanyan, a walk farther over to Hippie Hill and its conga drums and crowds no longer appeals, so I turn back, and at Shrader Street, go in the Lucky Club. It’s a hangout for pool sharks and gay guys. Just the presence of gay men can drive others to heights of hetero display. This morning I drink everything that comes my way, and play a game of pool, badly but gamely. Mindless distraction -- it’s a worthy band-aid for the state of shock. Mindless distraction God bless it.
When I leave the bar, late morning, it’s raining, so I scurry down Haight passing the Alpine, the Hickory Pit, the Cask, crossing the street to Glen Ells, where I can get a good breakfast. There’s Beryl sitting at the counter in her navy and white windbreaker and black jeans challenging as usual the going dress code. She’s very down. Wilting before my eyes.
“My parents want me back in Oxnard. My mother is sick with some weird disease that may or may not be multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s, or something. My father is going to be transferred to San Diego for ten months, and he wants me to stay with her and go back to college down there.”
“Soon. His transfer’s a month away. I’m moving into Megan’s place tomorrow, just as a roommate, so she and I both can save money.”
“The old gang is breaking up.” I tell her it’s been good times, in North Beach, the Haight, in the Park, all over the city of San Francisco, for that matter. That Todd is talking about learning to make guitars from someone up in Napa, that when I last talked with him he was going out to dinner with the woman Clare that he and Mel met in the Tenderloin.”
“Mel is gay,” Beryl says. “He’s turning tricks in the Tenderloin.”
“He is not.” Her assertion is upsetting. Why should it matter? Does it say something about Todd? Because: Wouldn’t he know?
“Megan knows all about it, she knows people who do the Tenderloin scene, she’s seen him too. She says Mel is very Nellie when he’s cruising.”
The rain is coming down in felonies outside.
“This,” I think, “is why people become workaholics. How much easier it is to go to work, where everything is predictable, and filtered through a single framework. Control of input is what it’s all about.” Aloud, I wonder,
“Have you seen Dot recently? She borrowed my book on throwing the I Ching.”
“Only at work. She doesn’t go out anywhere anymore,” Beryl says -- “If I don’t move back to Oxnard, my parents might disown me -- they’ve more than hinted at it to me.”
“Do you give a damn?”
“I don’t know.” Beryl is finishing up her breakfast and starting on a sweet roll. “You want this?” she asks, pointing at half a cheese Danish. I take it.
The waitress brings my breakfast. Beryl asks if she can try one of my cheese French fries, a new thing now at the Glen. I know it’s noon, but breakfast with fries looks majorly inviting. What the hell, it’s rainy as hell, it’s dark, Jack’s dead, and the rest of us are like octopi tentacles being sawed off one after another, lessening by increasing degrees our grasp on any of our life goals. Grasp on a life of non-goals even. I fork up a few fries for Beryl. The cheese, melted, stubbornly sticks to its own, but with a struggle it’s free. What the heck? Eat Beryl, eat until you’re filled up. Until there’s not a bit more room in there for wiggle-waggle.
“Dot,” Beryl is saying between bites, “got so much less uptight when she fell in love with Mia, did you ever notice that? But it seems like now she’s losing that mellowness. Am I just imagining that?”
“Maybe it’s the stress of boredom. New things get old fast, even a major lifestyle change.”
“I’m not that skeptical at all. Like you are,” Beryl says.
“By the way, “ Beryl says. “The Post Office is requiring us all, all of us, to pass the scheme exam within three months, or we’re let go.”
“A good reason to quit -- maybe that’s the idea. There’s a heck of a lot of zip codes in this city. Where’s Dot’s Place when we need it?”
“Dot’s probably passed the scheme already. She’s always well prepared.”
I have to agree.
“How can everything in the music scene be so exciting, and in the Antiwar Movement, and on the street, and on college campuses, while in the Rincon Annex Post Office everybody needs to stay anesthetized one way or another in order to keep going. The other day I opened a locker in the swing room, two empty vodka bottles clattered out onto the floor.”
“That’s a waste of good booze,” Beryl says. “Speaking of which, did you see Tina up at the Alpine? She’s rougher than any of us had guessed. Those bikers she brought in? That creepy Pig Pen wannabe?”
“The whole street is slowly degrading, the vibe. The violent types are multiplying. Last week I went to a party at a flat off Haight, at Clayton, and we all smoked. All of a sudden instead of Dylan or Carmina Burana or the Chambers Brothers on the changer, there’s a guy with a pistol in his hand at the open window, readying to shoot at something -- or someone. Talk about creeping evil vibes.”
Beryl goes quiet for a while.
“The problem with a culture that promotes pacifism, the more aggressive types, if I may use that word” -- Beryl laughs at this -- “will move in, and crowd out the peaceful culture. Pathetic that it’s bikers, hard drug dealers, and gun nuts.”
Beryl nods in agreement. “Makes me want to go with Mia and Dot up the coast.” Then I say something.
“Do you think Megan might go with you and them? She’s killing herself here.”
Beryl looks at me, reaches for a French fry, twisting it along its cheese solder in order to free it up. She answers in a certain tone. Says, somewhat sheepishly,
“Megan spends just about all of her post-rent paycheck on bar bills.”
“It’s not looking good, is it?”
Despite the hard rain and cold, the Glen is getting crowded. I pay, and, putting a newspaper over my head, I say Chao, leave Beryl and make a run for it, stopping in every doorway for shelter until I reach Shrader, dashing on over to Page. When I get to my apartment, there’s a letter. My mother is going in for another cancer evaluation.
The Trip Without a Ticket store on Cole Street had large windows looking out onto the trolley tracks on Carl Street that ran into the tunnel. Once on that track a crazy guy had gone in and lay down on the tracks. We bystanders tried to stop him, but he had a mission. Just before the next trolley used him as a doormat a police car pulled up and two cops went in, cuffed him and pulled him out. He was yelling angrily. Were there increasing numbers of crazies coming to the city this year, or were the simply erratic eccentrics moving on to becoming crazy as loons?
I picked out a camel hair coat on a jerry-rigged rack. A short, styled coat that had a frayed lining; I was grateful for it. The Diggers ran the store. They gave everything away in support of their anti-money philosophy. The store space was usually run by a scruffily dressed wire-haired guy name Freddy who I’d found could be cranky if not treated with careful deference. He is now spatting with other customers, and complaining about how hard he works. I am readying to leave when he says to us, “I’ve had it with all you freeloaders.” He’s looking my way at the end.
“Isn’t it supposed to be free? It’s not like it’s some kind of a great coat.”
“Put it back then.”
I hold the coat up; before I can react, Freddy grabs it, turns and goes and hangs it back up on the rack. The other three customers and I leave the store. Outside, one of the long-dress hippie girls remarks,
“Everything is free, but you just can’t leave the store with it.” Her two companions laugh.
After those rainy days, it was bitter cold in the city, with a late, week-long freeze. The small puffy brittle white cold-emanating clouds looked down stony faced on us flat earth people. I put on a blouse, three sweaters, and, severely regretting not having kissed Freddy’s Digger ass competently, headed out toward the Mission district Salvation Army at 26th and Army Street. A Civil War coat might do.
Two hours after tripping through bicycles, scooters, tennis rackets, sofas, end tables, and coffee tables, and lazy boy chairs, hula hoops, and Frisbees and office chairs, and all the sweaters, blouses, coats and jeans Sally offered, I made the move for a nice faux pea jacket I found, close to official Navy, yet not the real thing, with a warm lining and very minimum wear. It fit like it was made for me, and I wore it out, carrying two layers of sweaters in my backpack. But later on, on the bus going to the Haigh district, when I looked inside the backpack, the sweaters weren’t there. I was baffled, then remembered after I paid for the coat I’d put the pack down on a sofa at the back of the Sally’s while I’d tried on jeans one aisle over. Someone had filched the sweaters, and closed up the backpack. But I was buttressed. Coated like a decent girl.
I’d gotten at least a fine black pea coat. Spring is coming, maybe I’ll win that trip to Waikiki in the contests I keep entering in the Emporium’s luggage department. I recall how I once won a Sony tape recorder by answering a question about an Oakland A’s game, ‘play of the night’ on the radio-- “a pop fly out to center field ,” I said over the phone early the next morning, naming the batter. When it came to contests or games of chance, I jumped right in.
That afternoon in the Alpine, I’m wearing my coat. The bar is awash with new clientele, it had evolved a grittier ambiance, now it was a young crowd and, and except for the morning regulars like Andre, many of the older neighborhood patrons stay away. Maybe Tina brought the rough crowd with her, but the new bartender in the afternoons had rowdy friends, and also did some dealing. All of us agreed we did not like to drink or get high around bikers. Jack would have hated what happened to the bar, and when Tina began selling grass and pills to the many new patrons, the older neighborhood patrons were angry. They’d considered it their place, their hangout. Whatever craziness had gone on with Jack, it was never illegal, or really mean, or crude; Jack had class in his own wild wilfull way.
Megan comes in, plops on a stool, and orders a screwdriver.
“Nice coat. I thought you’d opted out of outerwear like that.”
“I got it this morning, at Sallys.”
In the course of our conversation about Todd and Mel and their Tenderloin explorations, I happen to mention Mel’s accent. “What is it, is he French? Canadian?”
This triggers Megan, and she segues into a lecture on the Cajun spoken word, concluding with a fact -- factoid, maybe, I never did look it up.
“The French Cajun language spoken in Louisiana was not like France’s French. Or like Canadian French. It was its own dialect of French, because of the Spanish settlers in Louisiana, who influenced it.”
“ Did not know that.” I say this but do I mean it? Is it made up, partial fact? Smokeshot? I think, “This person reads waayy too much.”
Beryl comes in and we move across to one of the booths. A screwy guy comes over to offer us a lid, which he puts down on the table. “A dime,” he says. None of us likes a stranger trying to sell grass to us in here. He’s overweight, got some acne, wears a bolo tie. And he isn’t discreet. Paul, he calls himself. We brush him off.
“Where is Claudia?” I wonder. “I haven’t see her around lately.”
“The Krishna temple picked her out a husband. Some kind of computer machine guy -- he’s wit hone of those new companies in Palo Alto. When they were together doing that 16 rounds of the 108 rosary beads ritual thinggie, they were told to get ready to marry in the next ceremony a few weeks from now,” Megan explains. “At least it’ll get her off the LSD -- unless he takes it, too. She’ll probably do it because she’s sick of selling incense sticks and doesn’t like finger cymbals -- or dancing with them in public. And she likes tangerines -- they use a lot of them in their ceremonies.” Megan laughs.
“Do they have maids of honor? And how many get married in one ceremony?”
“Fifty or more couples I think,” Beryl opines. “Or is that that other cult?”
“Whatever. I’m gonna see Todd tomorrow, maybe he’ll make a tambourine or a ukulele I could give for a wedding gift to Claudia and ------ ?”
“John,” Megan breaks in. “It’s all one, soon. Actually, the swimming part of this is that this John has a full-time, actual, solid job, a good one. Claudia might have a real future in this.”
Megan is hopeful for Claudia. She’s a naïve, pretty kid, and that she might end up finding an alternative to burnout, and the Krishnas, is a framework for a positive outcome. A responsible husband -- astonishing.
“We should celebrate for her,” Megan decides, downing her drink. She orders us a new round. She’s in her black turtleneck and jeans and boots. Her beatnik look passes for youthful affectation. But she’s also very smart, and bisexual, two marks on the debit side of the social account books. Most of all, she’s a dedicated drinker -- she may never notice the dark shadow moving across the ground or hear the rustling wings overhead. All kinds of vultures are always trying for prey. The shadow is there, resting down deep in those bottles lined up like good soldiers behind the bar, and in the meth needles and pipes of hash sitting on their shelves. It’s almost palpable. Don’t always take the short path home, I think, as I watch Megan celebrate. Put out greater effort at least, do not always follow your every desire ; some pain, accept some pains.
But I knew myself to be a hypocrite too. How brave do each of us need to be?
“Do your own thing, man,” the flouncy-haired dude says, throwing a necklace of beads around my neck as he’s handing me a flower.
Surprisingly, the acne-ridden would-be dealer from the Alpine, Paul, is in the backyard, digging out a fire pit with three others, preparing for the roasting of a pig in celebration of Helen and Matt’s recent marriage. They’d just gotten back from Hawaii a few days before, and fifty or more people were here on this crisp cold Saturday in the yard of one of Matt’s Haight cronies to welcome them home; and we meant, as was common custom then, to spend the day and night in grand fiesta. Booze is flowing, joints passing around, acid, and other chemicals, like the symbiotic life forms they are, intent on blossoming in human consciousness, happily sizzling in many guests’ bloodstreams. The newlyweds haven’t yet arrived.
Beryl, Todd, and I arrived together. Dot and Mia, already upcountry, liked Mendocino too much to come unnecessarily to the city. Megan was going to work, Mel was scurling around somewhere in the Tenderloin. Todd went to the beer keg in the back room of the house, while we greeted everyone we knew. The back of the house and fences were strewn with leis and Hawaiian roses, and simulacrums of hula dancers and surfers, made from raffia-like strands, and Hawaiian blossoms and synthetic grass. The tables to set the food on were big surf boards. A large oilcloth banner spanned the yard. Matt and Helen Congratulations. Hand-done in psychedelic lettering like the Fillmore West posters. Aside from the old Dot, though, Helen and Matt were the only conservative Haight-Ashbury residents we knew.
I quickly lose track of Beryl, who’s gone to say hello to Tina. Claudia wasn’t with us, she said she was quitting acid, wanted to spend the day with her betrothed. Although she’d sent over a gift with me of ten blue valiums wrapped up in lovely blue paper with a yellow ribbon -- she knew Matt liked valiums for his hangovers.
On the patio musicians were well set up and playing by early afternoon -- a couple of guitarists, bass, a fiddle, mandolin, a ukulele -- Don Ho, the Hawaiian singer, is still in. By 2pm the yard is bustling, part of the crowd now moving into the house. By 5pm, I can see Tina’s dark pageboy bobbing in and out of the crowd handing something here and there, as she downs her vodka from a paper cup. By 6:30, Todd is regularly resupplying both of us with beer and joints. Meanwhile, the cut-up pig is quietly surrendering to tenderness, roasting on hot pit coals under more hot coals, all of it then covered over with dirt. By now the many guests are dancing and singing, smoking, drinking, lurching, laughing, making up a kinetically brilliant carnivorous human milkshake.
Just before dark some rogue named Maguire climbs the side of the house up to the roof. Someone says he’d been a green beret, and learned to climb buildings.
As we watch he begins dismantling the TV antenna; the host and anybody else sober enough is trying to talk him into coming down off the roof. The host, with ubiquitous Paul, gets a project going to get an extension ladder and expand it on the side of the house. Should someone climb it and take Maguire off? No. Could be dangerous. Anyway, it’s getting dark. “Soon we won’t even see him anyhow,” some jester points out, and the party surges on like some great fueled semi-conscious animal, pulling and pushing groups of people this way and that, making arms, legs, heads, pelvises, and mouths move non-stop. When Helen and Matt arrive, quite stoned themselves, a wild cheer rails up, and the band segues into a prolonged Hawaiian version of the wedding march, with lots of steel guitar and ukulele pastiches within. Beautiful stuff. Grounded and down.
A huge clot of people gathers around the smiling Matt and Helen, pushing wedding gifts at them; when they falter, finally, the host of the wheelhouse gets a wheelbarrow, and, in nearly a final responsible act -- aside from eating -- committed that night, collects the gifts in the wheelbarrow, takes the overflow in his arms, rolls them back, and locks them all in a closet off the back patio.
Todd and I had gone back to dancing when Beryl comes up to us, windbreaker in hand, with a tall girl in tow. She seems far more sober than anyone else. She wants to borrow my coat. She needs to leave for a half-hour. I take the windbreaker, put it on, tell her where my coat is.
“I’ll trade,” she says, “in case you need something here, while I run home and get something -- I’ve got a ride.” The girl smiles. Todd and I smile. We turn back to the music. Out of the corner of my vision I see Beryl’s companion handing her a lit cigarette. She doesn’t even smoke.
“Don’t burn my new coat!”
A little after nine-thirty, the pig is cooked. Those who still care about the food go out to the disinterment. The dirt and coals are shoveled away, and the foil-wrapped packages of pig parts are put out on large platters by the host and his helpers. We line up to get paper plates, forks, knives, and cups of home-made barbecue sauce, potato salad, Cole slaw, poi, pickles and chips. We enthusiastically get at the juicy pieces of pork, pulled, or with its luscious browned skin still on it.
Todd and I eat two platefuls apiece of everything out on the boards. It slows us down, lowers our cranial metabolism, so when Claudia suddenly materializes like a ghost we know we aren’t hallucinating. She’s flying high. She claims she’s been at the party for hours.
“Where were you?”
“In the punch bowl.” There isn’t one anyway.
“John had to go to work at the last minute, and I got lonely.”
She’s wearing the top half of her saffron robe with a pair of Levi’s. We take her into our little clot, and when we go back to the music she dances with us. She’s good, free, inventive, completely non-self-conscious -- she couldn’t possibly be self-conscious. We talk to her, wanting to keep her mind focused, at the least in the party ballpark, and non-hallucinatory in a runaway mode. When she wants to talk Krishna consciousness, we hear her out. Though we’ve got no idea what she’s talking about. The party juggernaut rolls on.
New arrivals bring more drums with them, and they set up and add to the allover awesome volume. By now the scene is controlled frenzy. At one point I see Tina and Paul dancing in wildest abandon out on the lawn. Were they a couple? By this time we knew that Paul was a narc -- could she reform him? Why not? He was already selling like a good drug dealer should.
Maguire is descending from the roof on the ladder. When he’s on the ground, he says he needs to blow his nose. That’s why, he’s saying, he went up on the roof -- he felt uncomfortable, but didn’t know why. Somebody gives him a Kleenex. He blows his nose, says , “ I feel a whole lot better,” and starts in loading a plate with barbecue and poi. He’s come up from L.A. and we speculate as to whether he may be the the Momma’s and Poppa’s model for the William Maguire in the song who “couldn’t get no higher in L.A. you know where it’s at.” He’s short and athletic-looking and his eyes glow like a cat’s in the night. Every few minutes he laughs silently, his mouth stretching open involuntarily, and he moves around the yard on Puma feet. The women are drawn to him. Maybe because of the vials of Black Beauties in his pocket that he shares so easily. Two kinds of amphetamine and a barbiturate in one pill, with it you could consume alcohol until a new day dawned, and still function in most necessary ways.
Todd and I pass on the available extremes. We have Claudia to care for. Around 2:30 AM we remind Claudia that John is probably home waiting for her. We get her in his car, and drive her home, waiting until she keys herself into the apartment. Then Todd drives to my place. He doesn’t ask to come in, saying he needs to get ready to go up to Napa for a Sunday family dinner.
Later, when I’m removing my jeans, I discover Claudia’s wedding gift still there in my pocket. I open it and take one. I’ve worked hard all day, and night. I don’t want feral anxiety creeping into my bed and raking me over with its outstretched claws. Or even to step on my hard-earned rag doll mood. Afterall, I’d just eaten shitboats of barbecue like a bonafide American sleekboat, while aspiring to vegetarianism.
Next day, around three in the afternoon, I phone Megan. I realize Beryl never came back to the party. Had the tall, smiling girl intervened?
Right away Megan picks up.
“I’m home cleaning and neatening up.”
“Is Beryl there? Do you know what happened to her last night. She was just going home for a half-hour and was supposed to come back to Helen and Matt’s reception.”
“You won’t believe this, but I actually got off work early -- I pled sick -- and came home, and about six or seven in the morning there’s a knock on my door. It’s a man and woman, and they’re Beryl’s parents.”
“He, the father, had a nice Naval dress uniform on. They said they’d come to get Beryl and weren’t leaving without her. They were already inside, so I offered a chair, and they didn’t move from them. Along comes Beryl about eight-thirty. I’d told them I didn’t think she’d be home before twelve, so they thought I was lying to them too. I didn’t know what to do really. They were very grim, determined. When Beryl came in the door she was totally floored to see them. Nervous and scared. After some talk they just flat-out took the clothes out of her closet, told her to get the rest of her stuff, and go with them. She just went with ‘em, poof! like that. Oh, the mother made some remark to the father about ‘Beryl never lived in such disarray before.’ What she meant was my place is a pigsty, except she was too polite to just say it.”
“Beryl’s twenty-three years old! She could’ve refused to go with them.”
“Like she’s been kidnapped, isn’t it?”
“She did have a job, afterall.”
“The Post Office isn’t a job, it’s only a resting platform for pre-adult wannabes,” Megan says.
Later on, I understand this might easily have been me that something like this happened to, if my family lived in California, and I was an only child.
Beryl didn’t write or phone any of us. Or, at least we didn’t get any letters from her.
The windbreaker was useless as I walked home after work along Page Street after a cold, searing, humid, windy spring night. I walked hunched over, all sweatered up. Often now went straight home in the mornings. From that time on I never saw the enraged spaniel again. Sometimes in life you get a tiny bit back for a great lot you lose -- although you never do see it at the time. You can only hope the overall flux and flow balances out for the good, because, for the most part, none of us is paying any attention whatsoever as our lives chug and puff along big and little nodes ignored alike under the wheels.
We carried on with our well-paid clerking jobs while watching the Vietnam War endure and endure. Todd came up to the Haight less, and we drifted apart. Megan talks about a car and leaving the city now, but she’s never renewed her license, and Claudia and John moved to a new Krishna commune in West Virginia. The Kansas City Hickory Pit Barbecue shut down and reopened as a head shop, selling roach clips made from surgical tie-offs, tie-dyed bandannas, huarache sandals, and posters that bragged, “Better Living Through Chemistry.” One poster of an enormously doughy fat young woman read, “Free To Be;” another of an elderly woman in a rocking chair smoking a joint exalted, “Be Thyself!” Posters of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and members of the Grateful Dead were popular items in the shop. It reminded me of Megan’s favorite aphorism, “Perceiving Is, Believing Was.” Fast change. The past is immortalized, mythologized, frozen and packaged even when it’s still in the present, and still squiggling around like a live one on the line. Your latest song or shoes or hat or … your anything … is in the works, or reworking, to become a consumer focus in twenty years, so hold on to your hat on your head.
The habitués of the Alpine Club got rougher yet. People on the street were more raggedy and lost their former creative style that was so delightful. Was it drugs plus time? Hard drugs seeped in. The cops arrested more of them, more often, and they cleared the middle of Haight Street. Cars could now roll raucously down Haight again undisturbed by young people in their apostate costumes, be-beaded kids, dogs, jugglers, clowns, street actors, dancers, musicians, and drug dealers-- all sparking dissidence in every one of its imaginable forms.