The Great Lonnie Belasco

August 15, 2010

So finally one weekend I did manage to cadge an invite over to Lonnie’s hotel…for drinks.  Not dinner, mind you, just drinks.

“No promises,” Max warned me.  “Don’t try to push Lonnie about dinner.  If he even senses he’s being pushed he’s liable to get mad and cancel the whole thing for everybody.”

So here we all were, begging for scraps from a rich man’s table.

It was the weekend of the big Gay Pride parade, San Francisco’s signature civic event of the year.  Max and Claudia were already in the city with Lonnie, having been picked up in Lonnie’s sleek black limo the night before.  No doubt they’d already been treated to one wonderful restaurant dinner.  So I was itching to get over there and break out my charm offensive on Lonnie, to finally get him to include in some of that haute cuisine action.

The hotel was on a small rise on Polk Street.  A big renovated Victorian.  It was Lonnie’s favorite hotel in San Francisco, he always stayed there on his visits, always arranging to stay in the same suite.  Everyone at the hotel knew Lonnie.  So when I mentioned Lonnie’s name at the desk, the desk clerk perked right up.

“Oh yes, Mr Welkin!  We were informed you’d be coming.  Unfortunately Mr Belasco’s out at the moment.  Would you care to wait for him in the lobby?”

“Actually, I’m here to see some guests of his.  Max Nemerov and Claudia de Nemerov.”

“I believe they’re both in.  Shall I ring them for you?”

“They’re expecting me.  I’ll just go up.”

I walked up to 311.  I knocked and heard Claudia’s tell-tale high heeled footsteps on a wood floor from inside.  The door opened and Claudia’s face appeared.  She shooshed me with her finger shoosh to keep quiet.

“Max is napping,” she whispered.  “Come in, come in, Lonnie’s out shopping…”

It was actually two large bedrooms connected by a sitting room.  Stuffed chairs and couches were arrayed against the walls and around a wide, circular coffee table.  A pair of French doors let onto a balcony overlooking Polk Street.  The doors were open, filtering in a pleasant breeze.  On the coffee table was a bottle of wine, several wine glasses, a plate of various cheeses and crackers and fresh fruits.

“So how was last night?” I asked.

“You mean the restaurant?”

“Don’t be coy.  Of course I mean the restaurant.”

Claudia’s eyes shined, she actually swooned a little with the memory.  “Ah!  This wonderful place, Stars, behind UN Plaza.  The chef’s name is Tower, I believe.”

“I know who he is.  He used to be the chef at Chez Panisse.”

“Well!  Wonderful!  Like a great Parisian brasserie!  And the food!  Let me just tell you…”

And Claudia began unspooling everything about the wonderful restaurant and the wonderful food and the wine and the atmosphere and the service and everything else that was wonderful.  She described it all so well my mouth was actually watering.

Then we heard the fumbling of a key in the hotel door lock and the door creaked open and standing there in the doorway was the rich man himself, The Great Lonnie Belasco, three hundred plus pounds of glorious gourmand.  He was steaming with sweat, mouth open wide, sucking for air like a wounded zoo animal.  Apparently the walk from the elevator had nearly done him in.

“Hi Lonnie!” I chirped, pleasant as pie.  The charm offensive was on.

Lonnie said nothing for a full sixty seconds in a gallant effort to catch his breath.  In his arms I noticed a fat sack of groceries, all bundled up and smoothed over, looking rather like a small brown baby in his embrace.

Hell-o!” he finally managed to sing-song.  He moved at glacier pace across the room, his blubber weight all aquiver.

I smiled, I really was glad to see him.  I smiled and sent him telepathic messages along the lines of: Lonnie Lonnie Lonnie, invite me out for dinner, you fat bastard!

But, typically, he paid no attention to me, addressing himself strictly to Claudia.

“Is Max still sleeping?” he said, bending over to deposit the bag of groceries on the table.

“No, I’m awake,” came the sound of Max’s voice.  A bedroom door opened and there was Max seated blearily on the edge of the bed.  He looked bad, dressed only in his underwear.  Max was usually so punctilious when appearing in the company of others.  He was always showered, shaved, dressed and ready to meet people.  Now here he was nearly naked, unshowered and unshaved.  He looked hungover.  Max never looked hungover.  His swollen left leg—all bulging veins and dark purple and yellow bruises–was exposed.  He usually kept it covered.

“Max,” Claudia said, “why don’t you get your clothes on and come out and sit with us?  Jules is here.  We’ll have a nice glass of wine before the parade.”

“Yeah, okay.  Wine sounds about right.  Where are my pants?”  He looked around, found them and shut the door.

“The parade will be nice,” Claudia said to Lonnie.  “Are you coming with us?”

“Oh, I really don’t think so, dear heart.  All that walking, battling the crowds, ugh!  No thank you.”

A minute later Max appeared, fully dressed, hair combed, looking a little better.  He sat on the couch, slumping against the arm.

“You feeling all right, Max?” I asked.

“Not one of my better days, I’m afraid.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Thanks, but no.”  He didn’t seem to be in the mood for further talk so I said nothing.  Claudia jumped in.

“A glass of wine will make you feel better, yes, Max?  You’ll see, we’ll all feel better after a glass of wine.  Jules, would you please be so good as to pour?”

I did so, handing the glasses around.  Lonnie stared straight at the glass as I handed it to him, not even so much as glancing at me.  What the hell, the wine was delicious.  It couldn’t have been cheap; obviously Lonnie had bought it.  I kept smiling and chatting and telegraphing in Lonnie’s direction but Lonnie’s brain wouldn’t budge an inch.  Finally, with our wine glasses empty, I gave it up.  I resigned myself to the fact that Lonnie Belasco would never ever invite me out for a big fancy dinner.

“Claudia, dear, you must remember to be back here by six thirty at the very latest.  Our reservations are for seven and we’re going all the way out to Noe Valley and I don’t want to be late.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t be late, Lonnie, I promise!”

We said our goodbyes and headed out.  Back on the sidewalk Claudia pouted and took my hand.

“Oh, poor Jules!  Don’t be sad!  It is not so big a thing, really.  We eat our dinner and then we go to the pool hall and Max and I watch Lonnie play pool.  It is all quite boring really.”

“Shoot pool,” I said.

“What?”

“‘Shoot’ pool, we say.  Not ‘play’ pool.”

“Oh?  Well, Lonnie likes to shoot pool more than anything.  Max and I sit and watch.  He bets money with other people and wins almost every time.  Lonnie is a very good pool shooter.”

“I wonder why it is he doesn’t like me?  What did I ever do to him?”

“Oh, I don’t think it’s that he doesn’t like you, Jules, he just doesn’t know you.”

“The guy never even looks at me or says anything to me.  It’s weird.  I don’t know what it is.”

“He doesn’t know you, Jules, that’s all!  Don’t take it so much to your heart, okay?  He just likes to have only his closest friends to him, the people he has known for years.  He is nervous around strangers.”

“Oh, so I make him nervous?”

“Oh, poor baby, don’t feel bad!”  She gave me a hug.  “Promise me you won’t starve to death, will you?”

We were walking downhill, passing through Polk Gulch.  Polk Gulch is another notorious San Francisco neighborhood, a homosexual ghetto abutting the western edge of the Tenderloin district.  Polk Gulch was not like its more famous cousin, the Castro.  This was not exactly a friendly atmosphere.  In Polk Gulch there was a constant throb of homosexual menace everywhere in the air.  You could smell it like a chemical sweat, a heady admixture of cheap cologne, spilled lube and stale amyl nitrate fumes.  Sex for trade pervaded.  Pimps with dildos stuffed down their pants fondled themselves as you passed, saying hey baby hey baby and asking, graphically, how you liked to take it.  Trannies with grimy legs and torn sundresses leered from barroom doorways.  Violence walked with you.  Men openly pissed in the gutters, spat angrily on the walls.  Dessicated gutter punks shot up in the recesses of darkened alleys where they let desperate old men blow them for a fix.

Claudia and I managed to make our way down to Market and Van Ness where the parade was set to begin.  Dykes on Bikes, the flagship opening ceremony of the yearly parade, was getting underway.  Hundreds of butch lesbians revving the engines of their Harleys, decked out in leather and denim, bare arms smeared with motor oil and garish tattoos.  Many of the dykes went bare-chested, waving their nipples at the sky.  A legion of hell-raisers, every one of them screaming ball-crunching war whoops at the tops of their lungs.

“Jules, look!  That woman over there, she has hair on her chest!”

“Well, so she does!  Whaddaya know!”

Naturally the streets and sidewalks were full of gays and lesbians of every age and description as well as the straight people they attracted—gawking tourists like Claudia and I–gathered here to participate in this mass celebration.  Mobs of people hung out over balconies and from rooftops to throw confetti, blow bubbles and unleash colorful streamers upon the mixing and mingling crowds below.  Folsom Street was closed to traffic, set up with carnival booths selling plastic gew gaws and nipple rings, trashy t-shirts and lingerie, ice cream and various food and drink and there were games to play too.  People took turns tossing a double-headed dildo through a huge billboard with Jesse Helms’ face painted on it, a big cut-out hole where his mouth should be.  People from ACT-UP were going around passing out condoms.  Men in fairy costumes were set loose carrying clipboards and pens with obscure petitions to sign.  The streets were packed with leathermen and cowboys.  People walked around naked, painted head to toe in psychedelic colors.  The crowd was a whole rainbow spectrum.  There was laughter and shouting, people were hugging each other all over the place.  Music pulsed from the doorways.  Women were kissing each other open-mouthed on the sidewalks.  Men too.  What cops were around did not protest.  In fact they were usually smiling themselves, shaking people’s hands and laughing.  The whole scene, as outlandish as it was, struck me as rather harmless and sweet.  There was no violence, no stridency, no militancy, no preaching.  It was like a big happy Mardi Gras party under California’s dreamy mid-summer skies.

Claudia and I were happy, we hugged and kissed and nobody minded a couple of straights like us making a show of affection in their midst.  In fact they smiled, they liked us.  They kept giving us more condoms.

“Hey, you wanna go to Brick’s?” I asked.

Brick’s Lounge wasn’t far, I was sure the scene there would be just as warm and welcoming as it was out here and would be full of all sorts of the good people we knew.

But Claudia begged off.  “If we go I know I will get to talking with everyone and people will want to buy me drinks and then I might be late getting back to the hotel.  Lonnie would be angry.”

“Lonnie likes the control.”

“Yes, he does, a bit.  But he’s very nice too.  He does many good things for Max.  And me too.”

“I know,” I said, resigned.  “He does many good things.”

[Editor’s note: “Lonnie Belasco”, like many of the people the author associated with in those days, turned out to be bonzo crazy, as well as a drug addicted serial pederast.  Que sera sera!]

Some Kind of Goodbye

May 29, 2010

One night somewhere in all this our front door bell rang.  Denise was out on our porch.  She sounded drunk.  I was in Max’s old room, sitting propped up in bed reading a book

I heard her talking out there.  I heard her ask, “Is Jules here?”

And Roy said, “He’s in back.”

Next thing I knew I looked up and Denise was standing in my doorway, her face all lit up with a big wide smile.  She was very drunk.

“Hey, Jules!”

“Hey, Denise.”

“Whatcha reading?”

“Nothing special.”

Denise tottered into the room and fell into bed beside me, laughing.  Denise was short, on the chubby side, with big chocolate butterball breasts straining underneath a too-tight yellow blouse.  She had on some kind of rich, heady perfume.  She put her hand on my leg, still laughing, and ran her fingers across my thigh.  Then she looked at me very seriously and seemed to sober up just a little.

“You sad, Jules?”

“What, you mean right now?”

“Yeah, you know.”

“About Max?”

“Yeah.”  She was coming off pseudo-bashful, like a little kid.

“No, I’m all right.”

“I was just wondering, you know, how you was and all.  It’s so sad.  I was thinking bout you.”

Now she was rubbing her hand over my belly, inching ever-so-not-so-subtly southward.

“Well, Denise…”

“Lemme ask you something, Jules.  Am I your friend?”

“Sure, Denise, you’re my friend.”

“Yeah?  You like me?”

“Sure.”

“I like you too,” she said.

Her hand snaked deftly under the front of my jeans while the fingers of her other hand played fiddle dee over my zipper.  The zipper went down fast.  She grinned wide, licked her lips and ducked her head.

The front doorbell rang again.

“Shit!”

I could hear Phat [one of the more notorious crack dealers in our neighborhood as well as Denise’s boyfriend] out in the living room, “Yo, Roy!  Roy!  Where Denise at?  Yo, Denise!

Denise ran out of the room.  I heard her voice, breathless, saying, “Oh, Phat, baby, did you get it?  Did you get it?”

“Sure I got it!  Shit!  What the fuck you doin up here?”

“I just got here this second, baby!  I was just saying hi to Jules.”

“Yeah, Jules here?  Jules!  Yo, Jules!”

I zipped up and came out.  Phat was high, feeling good.  He locked me in a too-tight bear hug.  “Man, we gonna party tonight, Jules!  One last go, right?  Man, goddam, I wish you guys didn’t have to leave!”

“We all gotta go sometime, Phat.”

He laughed.  “Mebbe that’s true for you white folks but us niggas aint got nowhere else to go.  We stuck right here.  Denise, you goin anywhere I don’t know about?”

Denise shook her head, looking at me very seriously with big watery doe eyes.  “This our neighborhood.  We grew up here, we gone die here.”

Phat grew mawkish.  “Aw, I wish you boys didn’t have to leave!  C’mon, siddown, I brought me some rock!”

And Roy and Phat and Denise and I sat on the bare floor in a close circle as Phat produced his crack pipe and a bag of rock.  Phat filled the pipe and handed it around.  I was last to take a turn.

“I’ve never smoked before,” I stated matter-of-factly.

“What, you a virgin?  A fuckin virgin!  Whatcha know about that, Denise!  Well, c’mon then!”

“Ah, I dunno.  It’s funny, all the time I lived in this neighborhood and I never smoked.”

Denise grabbed my hand, almost desperately, and rubbed it like it was a good luck charm.  “Go on, have a smoke, Jules, c’mon, for us…”

The three of them eyed me hungrily.  They wanted to watch the newbie bust his cherry.

Honestly, what I was thinking was that Max wouldn’t like it.  He wouldn’t appreciate this scene.  He’d say crack was for people who lacked imagination.  He’d say it lacked style.  That stuff’s strictly for amateurs, he’d say.

I put the pipe to my lips.  Phat lit me up.  I inhaled quickly, strongly, and held it in.  Instantly I regretted it.  The rush built quickly–too quickly.  Suddenly it consumed me.  I got this fuzzed-out tunnel vision and my spine felt like it was made out of brittle glass.  My head seemed to split in half, as if it had been run over by a steam train.  I was physically immobilized for a full sixty seconds, head to toe, while my heart jack-hammered like crazy.  I could only sit there, eyes pinned wide, hoping like hell I wouldn’t have a heart attack.  The stuff was totally nerve-wracking.

Finally, thankfully, it passed.

“Have another!” Phat offered.

“Oh, thanks, but no.  It’s not really for me.  You guys go ahead.”

Roy and Denise and Phat began lighting up for each other in turn.  In between tokes they, like all coke users, talked a lot of dithering, nonsensical shit.  They talked about how we would all miss each other and it was so sad how it was all coming to an end for us as a group, it was the end of an era for the neighborhood, blah blah blah.  At one point Phat actually started to cry.

“Aw, I don’t want you boys to leave, I know you’ll forget about us.  You the only decent white folks we know!”

“That doesn’t say much for white folks, does it?”

Phat shook his head and rubbed the tears from his eyes.  He massaged Roy’s shoulders for the fifth or sixth time.  Poor guy, he was in bad shape.  Denise kept sneaking little secret looks at me.  I pretended to ignore them.  Hell, I didn’t want Phat to shoot me right there in my own living room, not after everything else I’d been through.

“So!” I said.  “What you folks gonna do with the rest of the night?”

“We goin to the card house, play us some cards.  You wanna come?”

Denise nodded vigorously.  “Yeah, Jules!  Come to the card house with us!”

“Ah, sorry, I can’t.  I gotta get busy packing, you know.  I got a lot to do.”

Phat said to me, “Promise you’ll come back to the neighborhood every once in a while, Jules?  Promise you’ll come see your old friends?”

He was crying again.  He was very high, nearly incoherent.  Denise rubbed his arm, looking up at him worriedly.  “Promise me!” he kept saying.

So I promised him I would but in my heart I knew that I’d already broken that promise.  I knew I’d never come back.  Without Max this neighborhood meant nothing to me anymore.  This time of my life was already just a dream and I was nothing but a ghost on these streets.  It was over.

A Diner’s Journal

May 17, 2010

December 5

Middle aged guys talking on their cellphones at the tables.  What a fucking horror.  I gotta get out of here.  My cholesterol levels are up anyway.  More filet and lobster tails.

This Francis Ford Coppola cabernet is surprisingly insipid.  I mean, you figure the guy is a perfectionist, right?  But maybe I’m an idiot?  Yes, that’s probably it.

This meat is RARE.  Shocking, really, that a chain restaurant would serve such undercooked meat.  The dark lighting is meant to cover up mistakes.  The darker the place the crappier the kitchen.

This guy’s still talking loudly on his cellphone.  Like a fucking bully.  Sitting there with his wife and kids, who dutifully soldier on with the bread, too afraid to say anything.

Pieces of the tenderloin dunked in drawn butter.  Everything on my plate went cold five minutes after it arrived.  That’s the microwave talking to you.  Damn you Francis Ford Coppola!  You’ve made this crappy meal even crappier!  At $10 a pop!  Bastard, how dare you!

People flashing cameras.  What an unholy abomination.  Who are these barbarians?

January 17

Business guys across the room talking corporate talk.  Real estate, equity, insurance etc.  Hockey mom next to me on her cellphone.  Welcome to CT.

Me, I’m the solitary freak with a glass of French Bordeaux on the table.  Steer wiiiiiide.

Kobe beef burger: $19.  Worth it?  A resounding NO.  Though it is decent enough.

Big guffaws from corporate-guy table.  Usually this place is full of women lunching.  Why can’t I fit in?  Then again who cares?  I sit in restaurants by myself too much.  My regular waiter at —- reacted with unabashed surprise when I told him I was bringing in a party of five.  I imagine AR has never gone to a restaurant by herself in her entire life.  To do so would be an embarrassment, an admittance of social failure.  And maybe it is, so what?  You ask me it’s society that has failed.  Society is just not that interesting, on the whole.  To me anyway.

Time to go.  Stayed over an hour.  Long-ish for me.  Off to library, then VM, then SW.  Then home.  Where the heart is.

February 6

Reading David Chang’s “Momofuku” about his improbable rise as a famous chef.  Good reading.  Another lunatic obsessive.  Gotta love those types.

Licorice is kind of a 19th Century flavor, isn’t it?  The Pernod in the mussel broth.  I dig it, though I usually dislike licorice flavor.  No one really uses it anymore, do they?  Who even eats licorice anymore except “red” licorice which isn’t licorice at all?

Pretty soon I’m off.  Feet walking.  That would be something said in New Orleans.  Vernacular: “I’m feet walking!”  So obvious and unneeded but funny anyway and in New Orleans funny is always the way to go.  “I wouldn’t do that, me!”  Well, who else?

March 6

There is a surfeit of four year old boys in this joint.  What’s up with that?

I suddenly wish I was in San Francisco.  My mind bends constantly.  But San Francisco isn’t the San Francisco I knew anymore.  Even New Orleans is totally changed since last I was there.  I don’t belong in these places anymore (if I ever did belong).

I think single people disturb these families all around me, they have so much yakkity-yak and gobbledy-gook jabbering at each other.  A silent lone person disturbs that scene.  Like, what’s his problem?

Jesus, the most HOMELY woman you ever saw just delivered my food!  It has negatively affected my sense of taste!  Holy shit!

The scallops, while tasty, are horrendously overcooked.  Drenched in compound butter to make you forget.

All four year old boys!  It’s weird.  All blonde kids.  Right out of “Village of the Damned.”  People keep surging through the door.  One of the little blonde kids wears an old DEF LEPPARD t-shirt.  What the fuck?  Is it 1983?

San Francisco.  My mind reels.

March 12

What the hell is a “brodo”?  Lobster brodo.  Parmesan brodo.  Some made up shit to sound fancy.

Sitting in half light [power outages in the midst of a heavy storm].  In New Orleans people would make a day of this, bar hopping from dark bar to dark bar.

With a brodo.

“My grandmother’s dead.  She’s in Heaven.”  Overheard.

Some corporate guy nearby with a woman, maybe his wife.  He talks like a bloodsucker.  Everything is “product” to this guy.

“When I get blowback what am I gonna do…I gotta do…I mean…he hired him…what am I gonna do?…I like him, he’s no schmuck…half an hour…don’t ask me questions about trading…”

March 23

Me, I’m stodgy.  What do I care for the 21st century?  Not much.  Who are the big writers?  Dave Eggers?  I mean “literary” writers.  Jonathon Safron Foer?  These guys hang out in Brooklyn.  Brooklyn!  They are enamored of immigrant stories.  Spare me.  These guys have never starved in a cheap small room somewhere going out of their minds.  Not that there’s any nobility in that but c’mon, at least pretend to have suffered a little.  These guys are all way too comfortable with themselves.  Where’s Dostoevsky when you need his crazy ass?

May 17

Some local mother and her teenage son are the only other diners in the place.  Very quiet while the café next door is hopping.  Not sure what that says.

My extremities seem to have floated away from me.  A long-stemmed glass is too much to handle.  The pen in my hand retains its relative equanimity.  Always a writer, eh?

The mom is nattering away loudly on her cellphone.  Nice example for her son.  Stupid bitch.

Chicken eggrolls (unremarkable) with mango dipping sauce (even more unremarkable).  Will I go for an order of Kobe beef sliders?  Yes, I believe I will.  Strength!

KN didn’t know what a masochist was.  How do you go through life without knowing something like that?  Wasn’t everybody looking up all the dirty words back when they were horny young teenagers?  I know I was.  And plenty of other stuff too.  I thought everybody was doing it but I was wrong.  Like writing stories: doesn’t every kid do that?  Well, no.

The waitress is filling in the mom about her personal life.  The mom is pressing her for every sordid detail.  Is this appropriate?  Am I just an asshole?  Do I need to hear about the waitress’ back surgery?  How she shouldn’t have any more children or her uterus will fall out?  What her relationship is with her baby daddy?  Her landlord issues?  Her weight issues?

It…is….excruciating.

“That I might have scar tissue?  Like, they find a nerve and destroy it?”

You see, everything ends in a question mark?  Like, yeah?

I’m beginning to regret ordering those sliders.  Where are they anyway?  Get em out here and put an end to my misery!  Oh my god it’s unbelievable!  There’s no one else here to save me!  I’m trapped with these poisonous idiots!

“Like…like…like…like….like?”

Please shut the fuck up.

“I feel like I’m 80 and I’m, like, 30?”

The mom is abetting this torture, constantly asking for more details.  Wealthy CT nitwit!

Have I mentioned I hate CT?

Where are my fucking burgers?

“Scar tissue and, like, skin grafts?  That’s like $5000?  I can’t afford that?  That’s cosmetic?”

Oh, the humanity!

How much worse can it get?  WHERE’S MY FUCKING BURGERS?  YOU MOTHERFUCKERS ARE MURDERING ME!

I’m sitting here, a defeated man, forced to listen to this woman talking about toilet tissue and “feminine napkins” clogging up her toilet.

This…is…absolutely…brutal…

Dream of a Ridiculous Man

April 14, 2010

I often had these elaborate fantasies about saving Max.  I fantasized about selling my first novel and becoming a famous author overnight.  All the big magazines would interview me, the morning tv shows, radio shows, everything.  I’d get rich in a hurry.  The first thing I’d do with my money was buy back Max’s Berkeley house for him.  I’d fix the place up and move in with him in and live upstairs in the old sunroom I’d once rented where I would have all the peace and quiet I wanted in which to write.

Max’s animals would be cared for and never go hungry.  They’d have the best to eat and drink and Max would have the best of those things too.  We’d drink the best wines, go out to the best restaurants.  I would hire top notch private doctors and nurses for Max, splurge for all the most expensive, up-to-date AIDS medicines.

We’d have first class tickets to Paris.  We’d travel Europe, hit London, visit the zoo, go to Poland, drop by the Nemerov ancestral estate.  He’d show me all the places he knew, all the monuments and architecture he loved. 

We would sit together in the living room of his Berkeley house and share stories and laugh just like we used to.  I’d fly his Hollywood friends up for big wild parties and have a projector set up so we could watch reels of his old films.  We’d make it through in spades. 

One night I had a dream about Max.  We were living together in a house in the woods with two women.  It didn’t seem that the house belonged to either of us, that we were just visiting, but it was a house we knew well.  The woods were full of fallen leaves.  The women were close friends of Max’s and through Max they had become good friends with me too.  They were older women, middle-aged, closer to Max’s age.  Early in the dream one of the women entered a room where I was dressing and caught me naked.  But there was no embarrassment about it between us; we even laughed together. 

I sensed that these women were more important to me than I knew; that they were connected with Max and through love for Max in some mysterious way and through him they had come to love me as well.

          At some point the four of us were walking in the woods together.  Suddenly one of the women let out a scream and fell to the ground.  We crouched over her, amazed.  She was dead.

From a hole in the ground at her feet a giant golden snake emerged.  The snake coiled itself about the dead woman’s body.  We were outraged at what the snake had done and so we killed it, cutting off its head. 

Max held the snake’s head in his hand and brought it close to his face, looking into its eyes.  He began speaking to the snake.  The snake’s eyes began to enlarge and turn colors.  The colors reflected Max’s own eyes.  The colors began to revolve and merge, growing larger and larger together.  Some sort of mysterious, powerful charge was passing between Max and the snake.  The charge filled the air with brilliant spinning light, increasing until the charge filled my eyes with one vast kaleidoscope of dancing colors.  Then suddenly everything went black. 

I was returned to that quiet house in the woods.  I was with the other woman.  Max was not with us.  We were standing together, not saying anything, wordless as two people might be after a funeral. 

I slowly reached into my pocket and drew out a set of keys.  I laid the keys down carefully on a wooden table.  They were the dead woman’s keys.  They were the keys to the house we were standing in. 

          I said to the woman, “You know, up until this moment I never really felt that she was dead.”

          And then all the grief in the world flooded my soul.

                                      For Nick Zinicola

                                            1981-2010

                                                R.I.P.

Notes From An Old Journal

April 3, 2010

 Jan 29 ‘01

“I’ll write my epitaph on your mother’s ass.”

                                      -Clyne

March 10 ‘01

fuck the age-old

opium addled poets

I’ve a wreath of scorpions

around my neck

sure, the albatross sits

on my face

but I don’t mind

Verlaine was a puppet

he can sit on my

face

as well

of course I say that

knowing

he’s dead

and what’s left of

his ass

Rimbaud

already

abandoned

March 26 ‘01

I’m in Municipal Court (New Orleans) listening to dozens of people plea before the judge.  A coterie of public defenders is floating in front of the bench.  They wear cheap ill-fitting blazers (some of these outfits look fifteen years old!  Who’d trust a PD dressed like that?).

The judge is a red faced Irishman.  About 85% of the defendants are black, several are women (1 white woman, my girlfriend, arrested and sentenced for petty larceny).

April 1 ‘01

I went in to buy my ticket at the place on Park and 42nd.  Ticket to LaGuardia to meet Mom and Dad.

Woman outside holding the door open.  White middle aged.  A bag on wheels behind her.  Nervous looking.

“Excuse me,” I said, wanting to go in, she blocking the way.

“Oh!  Go ahead!”

And she let go of the door and it shut in my face.

I opened it and went in.  Right inside the door is obviously the woman’s husband.  He’s blocking the way, talking confusedly with one of the uniformed employees.  Another uniformed employee sits in a chair, young Hispanic guy.

I rest my bag while I wait for the husband to move himself and his bags out of the way.

KERPLUNK my bag falls over into the legs of the standing employee.

“Sorry,” I say, picking it up.  The husband suddenly realizes he’s in the way so he starts to move.

The seated Hispanic guy says, “Call 1-800-LAWYER if you’ve been injured in an accident.”

“Blood from a stone, man,” I say.  “Blood from a stone.”

April 3 ‘01

From Shiva Naipaul’s “Black and White”:

“I was constantly beat over the head with the vision of the future: a fast approaching world crisis of combined nuclear war, starvation, uncontrollable disease, epidemics, crime and violence and the extinction of human life on this planet.”

I remember Jim Jones, 3 Mile Island…

April 7 ‘01

In the studio of WWOZ radio station, New Orleans:

its another jobless

sunday morning

the sun is coming

to me with

the promise

of spring

bring it

bring it on

over the darkened

treeline

as the birds sing

for morning

but I’ve been up

all night

blowing all my money

and the top of my

skull off

and knowing each morning-

like this morning-

I’ll have to say

to hell with it

all over

again

June 7 ‘01

So I figured what the hell and began again…

At 8am, after running out of cigs, I went out to the K-store to buy some more.  Circle-K.

8am New Orleans!  Esplanade Avenue.  After a storm too.  Damp and cool.  What a marvelous bright morning!  Impossible to fully describe.

It’s the Romance of the Job

March 27, 2010

I woke up the next morning, had that immediate familiar feeling: I DON’T WANT TO GO BACK. 

          But of course I did, I got on the streetcar and rode it on downtown as usual.  Once again the surly black dishwasher, the saboteur who hated white folks, got on board, looked over at me and sneered. 

          I got into Caligula’s, put on my white cook’s jacket, went out with my pen and notepad to the courtyard and took a seat at a table.  I looked around–to my dismay I saw that I was to be the only production cook working that morning, yet again.

          The meeting began.  “Gonna be a busy lunch today,” said Efraim.  And he talked to all the cooks about what would be expected of them. 

          “Bob, for you, roast bones, smoke ribs, chop up a mire poix for turtle prep, retrieve pork skins, poach eggs…”  The usual litany of shit.  Even more bones than usual, something like six hundred pounds.

          I went into the production room and began draining the stocks.  All those hundreds of pounds of sodden animal bones and boiled vegetables to be sieved out and bagged up and dragged to the garbage.  I seemed to be working in slow motion.  I couldn’t help it.  The usual HURRY HURRY HURRY just wasn’t in me, it was like trying to run through water…

          Because Stewart had been fired the day before they had Tony in to work his station.  Tony came back to the production room.  I looked at him wearily.

          “Bob, c’mere a minute.”  He showed me into the production cooler.  We stood there out of earshot of all the other cooks.  Tony was holding onto a clipboard full of papers, looking down at them.

          “Today for Help meal you’re gonna make chicken etoufee.  You’re gonna need to cut up a whole bunch of celery and onion and peppers–all of it small dice–and then grind up a bunch of garlic.  Saute the garlic first, make sure you don’t scorch it, then add the veggies.  We’ve got all this chicken here, fifty pounds worth, you throw that in, brown it off.  Add your chicken stock, bring it to a boil, then add your roux.  Make sure you pare all the skin off this chicken in here before you throw it in, okay?  Then you make up a nice batch of rice.  Got it?”

          I just looked at him, outraged.  All this would take a considerable amount of time for one man to do; he had to know that.  Plus I had all my other duties, all those bones I had to take down from the meat cutter and start roasting.  I’d have to get the brazier started for the egg poaching.  I’d have to get out all those cases of eggs from the cooler to be poached.  Not to mention the mire poix and the this, that and the other…

          “Look, Bob, we’ve got a lot of production staff now.”

          “I know!” I said.  “They had five people working production last night!  And today I’m supposed to do all this shit by myself?”

          Tony ignored me.  “You know what those kind of staff numbers mean, don’t you?”

          That confused me.  What did it mean?  It meant the sonsofbitches were hanging me out to dry, that’s all I could think.

          “What it means,” Tony said slowly, looking me in the eye, “is that we’ve got too many production people working now.  Understand?  You’re gonna have to prove yourself, make yourself stand out from now on.  All right?”

          Prove myself?  Stand out?  Did that mean things were going to get worse?  Yes, that seemed a fair assumption.  It would be a competition now.  I would be competing against culinary school grads and veteran cooks. 

          So the dirty backhanded motherfuckers were trying to get rid of me!  Tony, my supposed supporter, my champion, was sliding the knife blade deftly between my shoulder blades, so deftly I could barely feel it.  I was too tired to feel it.  I just stood there dumbstruck, taking it in. 

          “Yeh,” was all I could manage.

          “Okay, get started.”

          I stepped out of the cooler and forced myself to break out of the slow motion drag I was in, running now HURRY HURRY HURRY to get upstairs to get the bones and start on those before I’d have to slog through that blasted Help meal. 

          The dirty motherfucking bastards!  I won’t let them fire me!  I’ll show them!  I’m too good for them!  How dare they!

          I ran into the meat cutter’s cooler, hauled out the hundreds of pounds of boxes of bones.  Paul, the meat cutter, was there to sneer at me as usual.  Paul, like most meat-cutters everywhere, was slightly insane, or at least he cultivated that image.  He sneered at me most every morning with his half-insane meat-cutter’s glaring eyes as I rushed into his little frigid work room in my beginning stages of panic and hauled out boxes while his knives and meat grinders and industrial buzz-saws whipped around my ears.

          I hauled the boxes out and over to the elevator HURRY HURRY HURRY.  I pressed the button for the elevator but it wouldn’t come.  Somebody had it stuck on one of the other floors. 

          I won’t be fired!  HURRY HURRY HURRY…

          I rushed upstairs to the attic–no elevator.  I rushed downstairs two flights to the kitchen–no elevator.  That meant it was in the little closet aerie stockroom where John, peaceful John, liked to sleep and peep at the big titty girls and beat off.  I would need a sous chef’s key to open it.  But I couldn’t bear to look Tony or Efraim in the eye just then, those bastards, I was too outraged at everything. 

          I looked around.  Maybe if I pressed the button again the elevator would come?  I rushed upstairs back to my cases of dead animal bones and pressed for the elevator.  Still, it wouldn’t come.  I pressed the button again and again and again.  Godammit, I needed that elevator!  HURRY HURRY HURRY!

          Then like a sledgehammer the realization hit me: I am going to hurt myself today.  Today is the day I break an ankle or a leg.  Today is the day I stick my hand in a blender or a meat slicer.  Today is the day I spill boiling beef fat all down one side of my body, starting with my useless head.  Today is the day I cut off my thumb, set my paper hat on fire, get my ass stuck in a cheese grater.  Today is the day I see the inside of the Charity Hospital emergency room for the second time in less than six months.  Something bad was going to happen.  I knew it.  I felt it way down deep in the core of whatever was left of my soul.

          It was time to say enough.

I left the bones where they were.  Let them rot.  Let Paul, crazy Paul, carry them down, the sneering meat-cutting bastard.

          I walked–slowly this time, perhaps for the only time–down the kitchen stairs and into the kitchen.  I walked slowly past everyone as they hurried about their business and then slowly on into the production room.       One of the bakers was in there whipping up a sauce of some kind.

          “Dude, you gonna be here?  I need you to keep an eye on this.”

          Another impossibility on top of all the other impossibilities.

          “No, man,” I said, slowly packing up my knives, stowing them in my knapsack and throwing the knapsack over my shoulder.

          “You going home?” he asked incredulously.

          “Take care of yourself,” I said.

          I walked down into the kitchen.  A few of the cooks spotted me.  They sensed catastrophe in the air and shied away from me, like nervous horses. 

          Here came Tony striding along.  He smiled when he saw me; then he saw the knapsack and uncertainty came into his eyes.

          “Bob, what the–?”

          I put my hand on his shoulder.  “Tony, I’m no good at this sort of thing.  You have my resignation.”

          “But–Bob?  Why?”

          “I’m not cut out for this shit.”  I started to walk past him.

          “Aw, Bob!  Bob!”  He put his hand on my shoulder, started massaging my neck.  The other cooks nervously watched the spectacle unfold.

          “Be mad at me if you want to, Tony.  Be as mad as you want to be.”

          “Aw, I’m not mad, Bob!  Aw, Bob!  Hey, Efraim!  Bob says he’s quitting!”

          Efraim looked up, unconcerned.  “Ummm…OKAY!” he chirped, then went right back to what he was doing.

          “I’ll send y’all a Christmas card!” I said and walked out.

          I changed out of my clothes and punched the time clock.  On my way through the side gate I saw the white-hating dishwasher, the whistler, the saboteur, standing by the sidewalk with a pressure hose in his hand as he hosed down the sidewalk.  He spotted me walking out, didn’t know quite what to make of it.  But he couldn’t in all good conscience let me go without stopping and asking me.

          “Say, brah,” he said, addressing me for the first time ever in my Caligula’s career.  “You leaving, brah?”

          “Yeah, I quit,” I said.

          A look of triumph spread slowly across his face.  He laughed a good hearty laugh. 

Sabotage! 

THE WHITE MAN HAD FAILED!

Ghost of the Tenderloin

March 23, 2010

I’d wander the streets amongst the Tenderloin crazies, all these scattered armies of bums and whores and criminals and I’d think: Hell, I’m not so bad off.  My brand of insanity’s not nearly as desperate as theirs.  At least I could hold down a job, crummy as it may have been, and manage to keep a roof over my head.  I had a bed to sleep in, a bath to wash in, a chair to sit in, a lamp to read by, paper and pens and a typewriter upon which I was blessed to write whenever I pleased.  Not a bad way for a young writer to live: simple, pared to the essentials.  Just the way it ought to be.  All a young writer needed was a little money, just enough to keep from actually starving to death.  Hell, I figured I could go on living like this for years–as long as I was able to keep writing, which was all that really mattered anyway.

          I was taking everything in.  I’d step over the wastrels on the sidewalks and go into the crummiest of the neighborhood bars.  All the worst, most depraved bars in the city were in my neighborhood, from the Tenderloin flats out to Polk Gulch and down on into the old dwindling Skid Row streets just south of Market.  What unbelievably crazy places!  A lot of the buildings that housed these dives were old turn-of-the-century relics, rollicking barrelhouse juke joints, sport houses, dingy dusty ancient ornate mirrored outback saloons.  Leftover gold-fever honkytonks straight out of America’s Wild West.  I had thought these sorts of places had disappeared a hundred years ago. 

          I was surprised to see people still living like this in our modern age, gathered together in these crumbling brickwork and stamped tin shelters, existing outside of and utterly apart from the ordered workaday world.  These people roared and roiled each night as if the apocalypse was at hand, full up to the rafters with brawling soldiers and sailors, longshoremen, railroad men, cowboys, ex-cops, disbarred lawyers, aging floozies, bikers, yeggs, toothless trannies, B-girl grannies, defrocked preachers on the lam.  All these unaccountable lunatics all jammed in together filling the air with insane ranting and imprecations.  A mix of atavistic California rabble exploded straight out of the perfervid imaginings of Bret Harte, Jack London, Dash Hammett and Hunter Thompson.  All these bizarre characters stranded here on the westernmost edge of the continent, this was remnant mythical outcast America—wild, brawling and free.  I felt like a lone witness to the last rites of a brutal, dying religion.

          I raised toasts and shared drinks with these people.  Lunatic whores offering themselves to every paretic in the place.  Blowjobs and fistfights in the back alleys.  I saw men thrown through doors, men beaten, men taking knives to one another, men bleeding, men pissing themselves, men being descended upon by pickpocket harpy whores from hell.  Here in these ancient tin-shack bars the ethos of the Wild West still reigned. 

          A cadaverous preacher in blue and white corduroy ambling out of mesquite rangelands to appear suddenly, in tall blue Stetson, easily two heads higher than any man in the place.  Irascible eyebrows like broomstraw, sideburns the color of weathered cedar.  Burnt prairie grass in his soul.  Drinking Ten High whiskey.  Arroyo dust in the creases of his hands.  He spotted me across the bar.  He smiled, a mouthful of broken gravestones.  A Gideon Bible sat on the bar.         

          “You’ve heard the Good Word, son?” 

          “Some time ago.”

          “You have then.  And are you a good man?”

          “At times.”

          He frowned.  “Men don’t question anymore whether they’re good men.  They only question whether they’re happy men.  Are you happy?”

          “I don’t question it.”

          His eyes guttered like two small flames surrounded by outer darkness.  Lit by something out of and beyond all Time.

          “The Good Word, son, the Good Word.” 

          He lifted the Bible. 

          “Whensoever an ungodly man crosses me I make sure they hear the Good Word before I send them along.”

          “Yes?”

          “They all hear the Good Word eventually, son, I assure you.  No ungodly man knows anything but what the Good Word says and but what the Good Word tells ‘em.” 

          He opened the book.  The pages were gone.  Instead there was carved a little space, a grave created, and inside the little grave an ornate nickel-plated derringer.  He lifted out the pistol and laid it on the bar.  He smiled and leaned in towards me.  “Son, I never have trouble once I give them a taste of the Good Word…”

          All this fed into the visions of the ghosts in my head and the ghost of myself that I had felt myself to have become.  All these hidden ghostly worlds were real to me now, exposed to me at last.  I was a part of it, taking it all in, putting it all down, alive inside of it all.  I opened myself up to everything.

Trench Foot

March 5, 2010

Back when I was living in the Hemlock there was an older woman I worked with in my department at Macy’s, she took pity on me when she found out where I lived.  She was horrified such a young man should be forced to live under such debased conditions, even after I told her I liked the debased conditions. 

“But that’s a welfare hotel!” 

Poor girl, she simply wouldn’t believe I actually liked it there, much less even thrived there. 

“But how do you eat without a stove?” 

“I heat some water in a crock-pot and stick a can of 99c chili in it.  Boom, hot chili in ten minutes!” 

“Oh my god!”  She was absolutely aghast.

Anyway, her husband owned some big high-end construction company and she was obviously pestering this man constantly to give me, this young stranger he didn’t know from a hill of beans, a good decent paying job. 

She’d come into work breathless, throwing her purse down and whipping off her scarf.  “Oh, Jules, thank god you’re here!  My husband has a job over in Walnut Creek for you next week!  You could lay tile, couldn’t you?  My husband needs someone to lay tile!  $15 an hour!  You absolutely must take it!”

But I’d always beg off.  After all, I already had a job, I was making my rent and expenses and best of all my writing was going well.  I figured why jinx it with a lot of damnable hard work?

Even after I’d moved over to Oakland to be with Max this nice lady would phone me now and again to offer me work.  By then I was broke and needed every penny.  Now I was definitely open to suggestions.  So one day the word came in: a children’s playground over in San Francisco on Harrison Street.  Hauling debris.  $9 an hour.  Unskilled labor.  Forget the Mexicans, they were doing me a favor as a white man.  I took it and gladly.

I explained to Max and Roy, “I need me some decent work boots.  I don’t wanna be wearing my good boots, they’d only get trashed and then where would I be?”

“I’ve got a pair of boots,” Roy said.  “What size are you?”

“10 ½.”

“Bingo!”

Roy found them underneath the rubble in his room and hauled them out for me to inspect.  They looked exceedingly cheap but I didn’t care.

“Where’d you get them?” I asked.

“Found em on the street, where else?”

That figured.  But what the hell, they fit and the price was right, so I wore them in to work.  The job wasn’t half-bad either, not too back breaking.  But I had to trudge through a lot of standing water and do a lot of washing of the wheel barrows I was using and rinsing sludge off of work surfaces.  The playground was actually up on the roof of an industrial building south of Market Street.  This was back in the days when parents started seeking out private playgrounds for their little kiddies, places where parents had to buy memberships, places where the kids could romp around freely without having to fear some drooling pervert lurking in the shadows ready to kidnap and defile their precious offspring.

As the days went on in the job I found my feet getting sorer and sorer.  I just thought it was the result of hard labor and didn’t think much of it.  But finally one day my feet were killing me so much that when I got home I immediately slipped off the boots and socks to examine my feet more closely.  They looked odd.  They were whiter than I’d ever seen them.  In fact they looked dead, like the feet of a corpse.  I touched them and I couldn’t feel anything beyond a certain numbness.  That scared me.  I rubbed them and what happened next made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up.

The flesh of my feet just slipped right off the bone, easily, in layers, like the layers of a rotten onion.  It was all dead flesh.  It didn’t smell and it didn’t hurt but it was an absolutely horrifying spectacle.  I dug at the skin and it just came off in gobs, gobs and gobs of dead flesh, oozing through my fingers like warm candle wax, enough to fill a mason jar.

I instantly knew what it was: trench foot.  That old infantry affliction of World War I.  The soldiers would be stuck in these watery hellhole trenches with cheap military-issue boots for months on end and their feet would begin to rot inside the boots.  Now that’s what I had, rotting feet.

“For fuck’s sake!” I screamed and threw Roy’s cheap boots across the room.

I had to call in sick the next day.  I couldn’t even stand for five minutes at a time, the pain was so bad.  The husband at this construction company, he took my absence in stride until I told him the reason.

“You have what?” 

The man had never heard of trench foot before.  I explained it to him, or tried to, but apparently it was just too exotic for him to wrap his head around, it was too last century.  I might as well have told him I had leprosy or black lung or polio.  He hung up on me.  After that I never heard from him or his wife again.

The Latest and Greatest in Blah

February 27, 2010

The mind reels, right?  My mind anyway.  I’m reading a couple of different books.  Debra Winger, the actress (or ex-actress), wrote a short sort of autobiography.  It’s not bad but it doesn’t really paint a broad picture of her life.  It’s like little vignettes about things she remembers, like her parents, or trips to foreign countries, almost none of them having to do with her work as an actress.  She includes some bad poetry too.  I wish people wouldn’t do that.  I mean, I’ve written plenty of bad poetry in my time, so I don’t begrudge her that.  But I don’t inflict it on other people—or at least not very often.  Anyway, one thing I didn’t know about her is that she is Jewish.  And devoutly so, apparently.  With a name like Winger? 

Incidentally, the actress Joanna Arquette once made a documentary called “Searching For Debra Winger.”  It was about female actresses who as they get older find that they cannot find meaningful work in Hollywood because of sexism, ageism, the old boy’s network, male chauvinism etc.  I watched this flick but don’t remember a single moment of it.  But Joanna Arquette herself I do remember.  She sat next to me at Allen Ginsberg’s memorial service in St Mark’s back in ‘97.  Wow!  Did this woman emanate SEX!  It doesn’t really translate to me when I see her on screen but in person she was va-va-VOOM!

Speaking of Jews, I’m also reading Paul Shaffer’s autobio.  Shaffer of Dave Letterman band fame.  I don’t begrudge anyone their faith but Mr Shaffer has a banal way of insisting upon the superiority of his Jewishness.  Is it just me or is that annoying?  He proudly relates that he insisted his Italian Catholic wife renounce her Catholicism and convert to Judaism.  Why is he bragging about that?  I think that’s a shameful thing, to force someone to renounce their faith as a precondition of marriage.  I’m not a good Catholic, god or whomever knows, but my Catholicism does still make up a lot of who I am.  I’m also Irish American.  If someone came up to me and said, “Yeah, ummm, that whole Irish Catholic thing you have going on?  Yeah, that’s gonna have to stop.  Yeah, you want to hang out with me, you’re no longer Irish Catholic.  I want you to start taking classes in Indian history and the Indian language.  You’re going to practice Buddhism from now on.  You are going to eat Indian food and hang out with Indian people and celebrate Indian holidays.  Any kids you might have?  Yeah, they’re gonna be raised Indian.  No more Irish anything anymore, you hear me?  We’re gonna burn all that Irish right out of you!”

Pardon me but FUCK YOU.  That’s a fucking insult.  I know many proud Jewish people.  How would they feel if someone insisted they renounce their Jewish faith?  They would be OUTRAGED.  And rightly so.  So Paul Shaffer, supposed “nice guy” pianist and bandleader, loses points with me. 

I did come across Paul in a doorway one night in Greenwich Village, as he was coming out of a record store and I and my friends were going in.  This was back in the early 80s, you know, when vinyl records were the norm.  That was my New York life back in my mid-teen years: Greenwich Village record stores and head shops, Washington Square Park and McSorley’s Old Ale House.  All those dreadlocked Jamaican drug dealers exhorting us from the leafy shadows, “Sess, sess, chiba, chiba…”  Danger vibed.  We grokked it.

I just finished Julie Powell’s follow up to Julie and JuliaCleaved, it’s called.  Definitely not what I expected.  Has anybody else read this latest book?  You ask me, she should never have published it.  Written it, maybe, for her eyes only, as therapy.  She does not come off looking good.  Do I want to hear that she routinely cheats on her husband and he routinely cheats on her?  Do I want to hear how she loves some man who is not her husband and pines for this man like a giddy schoolgirl while he pushes her aside because she’s so damned irritating?  Do I want to know that her husband is not good in bed?  Do I want to know how she has anonymous hookups with strange men she meets online, dressing like a slut to get fucked and then feeling guilty about it afterward?  How she likes to get chained up and slapped around during rough sex?  Actually, that sounds like some crazy sexy stuff, right?  Forget it, it just comes off sounding sad.  And all the endless descriptions of carving meat!  Pages and pages of butcher porn!  She does include some helpful recipes for all you “foodies” out there though, so dig in!  But it turns out Julie’s not fulfilled by any of this so later on in the book she decides to go on several “sabbatical” treks around the world that last for months and have no ultimate point.  I’m glad Julie is now rich enough to afford to live like this, but I personally don’t relate.  “Oh, I think I’d like to drink bull’s blood straight from the vein!  I must fly to Africa immediately and live among the Masai!”  Don’t we already have Andrew Zimmern for that?  Sorry, Julie, but this is just ugly narcissism.  Uglier than my own anyway.

Mr White Face Charley

February 15, 2010

Past midnight, downtown Oakland, 12th and Market.  Even at that late hour the sidewalk was crowded with middle-aged and older blacks, hispanics, a few asians.  All of them off their various job shifts.  A desultory, weary, bone tired crowd, waiting only for the late night bus to carry them home to bed. 

          A number of young punks loitered at the curb.  Maybe fifteen or twenty.  High school kids, all black.  Where they’d come from I had no idea.  I didn’t want to know.  Strictly mind your business, keep your mouth shut, catch your bus and get home.  Standing leaning against the Walgreen’s lighted front window, which afforded me just enough light to read by.  I was reading an old paperback.  Chekhov, I think.

A couple of white college boys emerged from the BART station and came strolling over to stand with the rest of us.  These boys were drunk and they were talking and they were talking loud.  They’d just come from a big wild party over in San Francisco and they were letting everybody know it.  They were feeling good, feeling high, feeling like they owned the whole damned world.  They had no idea what they’d just walked into. 

The thing that I didn’t appreciate was that out of all the people in the crowd these two had automatically stood next to me.  I noticed while waiting at late night downtown bus stops and BART stations that other white people often gravitated towards me.  They would stand beside me at the stops and sit next to me on the buses.  I knew what they were looking for.  They were looking for comfort in numbers, you understand, since white people are usually a distinct minority in such places.

I noticed the way black folks eyeballed white folks when they boarded a bus.  White folks would almost always pause for a moment to check out the seating arrangements.  You could see the question in their eyes: any other white people here?  Then they’d spot me and sure enough they’d move purposefully towards me, passing up any number of other available seats along the way.  The blacks would share little knowing looks.  It always made me somewhat uncomfortable.

Me, I took a different tack.  Whenever I boarded a bus I always looked for the biggest, blackest, meanest looking sonofabitch I could find and I’d go sit next to him.  The blacks got a kick out of that.  They’d smile and shake their heads.  I figured I was disarming them just long enough to forget all about hating my white guts, you see.

So now here were these two college boys standing next to me, jabbering at each other, loud and stupid.  I resented it.  People in the crowd stared at them and naturally they stared at me too.

          Can’t you shut up? I thought.  It’s late, everybody’s tired; you’re attracting unnecessary attention.  Don’t you have sense enough in this crowd to keep quiet?

          I hoped against hope it wouldn’t happen but there wasn’t anything anybody could do.  One of the teenage punks at the curb detached himself from his posse and come strolling past.  Then he stopped.  He looked at the college boys.

          “What the fuck you say?”

          The college boys were happy and smiling.  “What?  Nothing.  We weren’t talking to you.”

          “The fuck you aint!  You just say something ‘bout my sistah!”

          Another punk approached.  “Whaddup?”

          “Chucks talkin shit.”

          “Yeah?”

          “’Bout my sistah!”

          The college boys tried to be reasonable.  “Now look, we weren’t talking about your sister, it’s nothing about you guys at all…”

Ever so subtly, still reading my book, I eased myself away from this uncomfortable little scene.  None of my business, right, boys?

More punks stepped up.  Pretty soon the whole posse was standing there, surrounding the college boys.  One of the college boys dared to sass back at the mob.  Give him credit, that took balls.  Then I heard his voice go high and shrieky: “No guns!  No guns!”

The mob pressed in as one.  They were wailing punches.  No one spoke, no one screamed.  The only noise you could hear was the sound of punches landing.  They had the college boys’ heads bouncing off of the Walgreen’s plate glass window.  There was the sound of bones cracking, the mashing of teeth.  Then the college boys went down and a mass stomping commenced. 

A young black girl was cheering from across the street: “YEAH!  GET THAT CRACKER!”

          I was the only other cracker there.  Whenever I took a step in the direction of the crowd, hoping to disappear within the anonymity of the crowd, the crowd would move ever so perceptibly away from me. 

Where were the cops? I wondered.  Where were the donut eaters when you really needed them?

          They left the bodies in a widening pool of blood on the sidewalk.  The punks were laughing, slapping congratulations on each other’s backs.  Then they broke up individually to disappear into the night.

          But a few punks remained.  They were talking something over.  I saw them looking around, surveying the crowd, looking for someone.  I knew damn well who they were looking for too. 

          And there I was, standing not twenty feet away: Mr White Face Charley.

          They swaggered over.  There were three of them, tall rangy dudes.      

“Hey, Chuck, whatcha gotta say?”

          I looked slowly from face to face. 

          “Not a goddamn thing,” I said.

          They smiled.  They liked that.  They walked off laughing.

          Punks.  Wished I had a gun.  But then that’s what every coward says after the fact, isn’t it?

          Sure enough, just as the last of the punks evaporated into the night, here came the donut eaters.   A pair of cruisers pulled slowly to the curb.  The cops stepped out, appearing supremely bored. 

Witnesses?  No, I don’t think so, officer…no witnesses…

          Then the #72 finally pulled up.  The #72, the worst bus in the city, forty five minutes behind schedule, as usual.  I shoved my dollar in the slot and sat with the rest of the late night slobs.  None of us talked.  We were all looking out the bus windows as the cops stood over the two motionless bodies, calling in for an ambulance.  Then the bus pulled away. 

          If only you’d had the sense to shut your mouths, I thought.

          Then it struck me as we headed up Broadway: you’re losing it, Jules, your luck is running out.  For over a year now you’ve managed to fool your way through the ghetto, but who are you really kidding?  The ghetto isn’t your world and never will be.  Once you were the do-no-wrong wonder boy dropped down out of nowhere into the dark inner-city heart of Oakland.  You disarmed people.  Your white face was an oddity.  You were an amusing freak in the great American ghetto sideshow.  But look at you now, you’re just a regular slob, dressed in cheap Salvation Army castoffs, boots with holes in them, can’t even afford the price of a decent haircut.  You’re nothing but white trash now.  That’s what people in the ghetto are going to start treating you like too, so you better get used to it.  Better get ready to use your fists from now on.  Better get ready to use a knife.  Better get yourself a gun.  Better get ready because, just like what happened to those two poor innocent slobs back there, your time she is a-coming…

          I was taking my usual shortcut through the park when I came across a couple of fat whores in the pine grove.  One of them almost had a heart attack when she saw my white face—“OH LAWD!”–taking me for a cop.  She lumbered to her knees and ran toward the bleachers like a startled ox.

          The other one, on her knees, stayed where she was.  The guy was busy zipping up his fly while she spat on the ground.  She recognized me, she knew me.

          “You next, youngblood, c’mon!”

          And I thought, you know, shouldn’t I be settled in some comfortable neighborhood with some comfortable job by now?  Starting a family, working up some stupid career ladder, tricked out with mortgages and car payments?  Wasn’t that what I was supposed to be doing?

          But that old familiar clap of doom rang in my ears: NO.

          I stood in the street outside our house and looked up at the wide front windows, lit yellow from inside.  I could hear Tchaikovsky playing on the stereo.  I could hear the sound of Max’s voice talking over the music, talking on the phone with one of his old Hollywood pals.  I could hear him laughing.  I could hear the sound of his laughter rising upward into the chill night sky over our dark desolate Oakland street. 

          And then it came to me: I’m here for Max.  I’m here to see Max’s story play out.  I had to see his story play all the way out to its end.  I had to be there because that’s what you do when you’re a writer, you see a story play all the way out to its final end, whatever that ending might tell you.

          And so I walked up the stairs to our front porch and gently let myself inside.