Jan 17, 2009

On one of the last nights of the Reagan era the three of us go to see Slumdog Millionaire. We try to catch the 8 o'clock, down on Van Ness. We're only able to find a parking space on Eddy Street, and as it turns out, at the beginning of a night full of ironies, under the Victorian brow of 850, the law offices of the former DA — "The boss", a Willie Stark character, but at the same time a liberal populist and an Irish warrior. His greatest moment, aside from fighting his belated arch enemy, Da Mayor, was going after corruption in the city's police department and putting brass heads on sticks in front of the Hall. I was one of his men, one of the little king's men as it were.

We get sushi on the corner and argue over whether to leave a $4 or $5 tip, for a $30 dinner. We hurry up the street. The others are saying, "why so fast? There's not going to be a line. Everybody's seen it."

We get to the theater; the line is out the door. I step in and stumble into a fight with my doppelganger. "You're trying to cut in line," he says. I say, "which line is that?" And I go on. The guy behind him, a Latino, sides with me. My dop turns away; I pat him on the shoulder. "Don't touch me," he says. "With a ten foot pole," I say. Jabber-jabber.

Meanwhile, I become blood brothers with the Latino. "Hey, Friday night, right?" he's saying. "Something's always wrong. Your wife, your kids... But you got a job? Right? Maybe not for much longer, but tonight you. Am I right? So let's all just chill."

'You're absolutely right.' Jabber-jabber.

Finally, we get to the front of the line: Slum Dogs is sold out. Me and my dop have misjudged. The Latino has anticipated; his movie doesn't play for an hour. I take it as a sign: The era of get-whatever-you-want-at-the-last-minute is over. I see everything as metaphor, sign and my delusions at the same time. Meanwhile, Dop is looking like it's my fault he missed the movie. "Shall we go piss around a fire hydrant?" I'm thinking?

I look for the others. I see them running off in shame, like an informer's family in Gaza.

I don't say to them, 'Okay, forgive me my trespass, but you see, we needed to hurry. We need to hurry in general. Our dysfunction is catching up with us. The last minute won't do anymore.'

* * *

I trail behind as we wander back down the street, past sleepers in the alcoves, past stores 'closed forever', past where the boss had his campaign headquarters.

Those were the days. After last supper at Max's Opera Cafe in December, 2003, on runoff-election eve, we saddled up one more time, right here, in a flat-bed truck, with a boom box on boom, and rolled out through the Tenderloin, down Eddy, up Franklin, yelling up at curtained condo windows, reaching out to people in black tie on their way to the symphony, and then through Pacific Heights, wailing on megaphone-mantras about how folks should vote for the real progressive. Which was to say, looking back, vote for nostalgia and great American novels and damn the torpedoes. But people didn't want a character, much less an older white iconoclast. They didn't want the petty corruption around him. They wanted the black girl with her glamor and competence, with her fair trade, cultural blend, with her sexy youth and academic perfumes, with her ability to anticipate and to expect, and her pretty speeches, her Faustian ambition, and the secret assurance that Big Daddy, Willy-Jesus would always back her.

Now, even the boss has come round to support her, and nearly everyone who opposed her, although good rumor has it that she's pissed off Very-God-of-Very-God, Begotten-not-made, Lord Jack Davis no end. A little financial shenanigan he's not willing to overlook.

Truth is the boss was tired after two terms. Tired and unwilling to pay any more of his own money for the run. And beaten down by the dead weight of 850 Bryant, by the Hall itself, by that reichstag of sanctimony and corruptions, large and small — along with asbestos in the ceilings, along with black widows and coral snakes, according to legend. Even dead bodies in the heating ducts.

But before you get to legend what about all those tall, Bleak-House gray, tin storage cabinets, hidden in every nook and so filled with files that you couldn't cram in one more motion to delay? You wonder how many cases were miss-filed in those cabinets and because of that folks got freed or never found or never charged or sent back to prison, or got lost in witness protection.... It happened.

People will tell you, and quite seriously — clerks and deputies, even some attorneys, people who have worked in the hall for a long time — they'll tell you how the Hall is haunted, how they know someone who worked for someone who told them that they heard human screams coming through the pipes, which could have been forensics in the old jail, in for a night on the town as it were. But there was more: Things going wrong for no good reason. Hatreds and betrayals out of nowhere. Good, honest people turned to sloths and satyrs. Not to mention the natural paranoia that runs through that kind of place. And what about all the seductions, among people you wouldn't imagine. Fucking on desk tops, with the door open. Blow jobs underneath. Come-ons from the person standing next to you in front of the women's bathroom mirror. From your immediate superior even. Even coke, in the old days.

All that and then throw in the standard deviation of deviance that you find in this city, the priests and politicians trolling for tots, the man who burned his girl friend's breasts with an iron, the man who murdered Polly Klaas, Noel & Knoeller (weird and weirder), Charles Ng and Leonard Lake, all the gangstas, the run o' the mill and the state-of-the-art.... It was all true or true enough to be true, every depravity and fuckup. Boss didn't want to admit it that night at the Opera Plaza cafe, but he'd had enough of the Hall of Horrors. I do know that no one who worked there for long ever lead much of a happy life afterward, and no DA ever got out without being soiled in some way.

These days it's all very professional, all tidied up. Sure, the madame gets the investigators to take her around, which is petty and theft, but otherwise you can eat off the linoleum floors. Still, people will tell you, privately of course, that they greatly miss the boss and the old days, when there was a real passion to prosecute and the office was brimming with new projects, and every day had a high noon.

* * *

We stop at Eddy Street. We have a choice: go back to the car, just half a block away, or go down to Opera Plaza. Perhaps, there's something there we haven't seen. No one wants to go home. We go to Opera Plaza. There's nothing playing, beyond an indy comedy. The last one we saw was horrific: unintelligible, scriptless, souless. If you're going to make a movie, you need something to say. A sexually frustrated girl talking to a boy who works in a video store for two hours is not enough.

We stop at the bookstore. The new fiction seems flat. The old fiction is old fiction. The nonfiction is Terry Gross. We know it all....

We go back to Eddy Street. The car is parked in heavy shadow across from the Rodeway Inn. We've been gone less than an hour. The back window is broken in. Everything has been taken. Two computers, two disk drives, a memory stick — and you wonder how that could be, how could people be so stupid — all that memory, plus school books, an I-pod, toiletries, 'the things they carried' in the demimonde of middle class-nam.

Days later you don't want to take inventory of what's been lost. Otherwise, you're drawn to the Cadillac-feel of blood-lust hate, where you go house-to-house, decrepit room by decrepit room, rounding up suspects, looking at forged papers, looking at the treasure of stolen goods and identities. Where you say to some poor bastard wearing a black stocking on his head: Are you fuckin' kidding me? No, seriously. You can't even make a good forgery.' You shoot some of them in the head. Others, you hang out the window by their heels until they tell you something you already knew. Then you let go and don't wait to see splat.

We call 553-0123. I never forget that number. I give the voice some details. 'You have these options', Voice says, 'Have somebody come out, or walk to the nearest station, or file online.'

Have somebody come out, I say.

'There's two in front of you,' Voice says.

'Okay, I'll wait.'

But I don't. I look in bushes, thinking maybe they stove it for later. I walk around the block and find a black guy with white bone fragments in his face, a performance artist fella, heavy jewelry, make up. Reminds me of the tribal man in Behind The Green Door. He's got a bag; for a minute I think it belongs to us. He calms me down. Sure look in that, he says, but it's not yours. Okay okay. We talk. He motions me over, doesn't want others at the bus stop to hear what he has to say. Happens all the time he says, they come from Fillmore or down there. He points to the Tenderloin.

I used to live there, what is it now? Sixteen years ago. I know it well. He tells me some streets to look on: gotta look for guys in alleyways, look at the spreads on the street. Probably too late now, but you could also try UN plaza, but later. They always got hot stuff over there.

He points the way but I know it and so cross Van Ness, and head into the Tenderloin, which was as you may know named after the wild-eyed, out-of-town johnnies down out of the Gold country to get laid and mindless.

Friday night streets are buzzed. Eyes and bodies darting every which way. Lot of offers. I pass a couple in a doorway. "What you want? Boys, girls, two in one." I'm moving and they don't like it. "little boys," the woman says. "Probably wants little boys."

Who was the car dealer up on Van Ness that used to come here for little boys? His name's on the tip of my tongue.

Turn a corner and there's a dozen kids, black and brown, baseball caps and burly. There's a girl on a hood. I think she's getting cocked. Freely? I don't know. As I pass bodies turn to wall. Scene is blocked out. Ok, I get it, I gotta go round. I don't care. Do what you will.

I find a couple spreads, but there's nothing, old clothes, little boxes of nothing, odds so odd, ends so ended that you can't imagine what they might be worth. All of it for half a penny? Okay, I'll go fat sam, I'll give you a penny for the whole load. It's like the things you throw in a kitchen utility drawer, right down to mislaid screws, half burned candles, twine, screw driver heads, dead batteries, an eighth of an inch nail. As though to say, 'here's anything I can find, here's every object I can get my hands on... you want it?'

It's the long tale, money 1.0. Ebay circa the beginning of the 16th Century.

I go on. Fewer spreads that I would have thought. Check this alley, this doorway, this trash can, this clothing pile in the street between two cars. And then slowly it's occurring to me that I might not pull this off. I've done this before. Years ago, a friend lost in the wilderness and before that a girl murdered. On that one I went looking for suspects on an absolute whim, on the long fingered gestures of a UCLA 'sensitive.'

Suddenly, I'm on Jones Street. Now I'm close to a building where I once lived. For a moment I think about going to it. But out of nowhere, a cop shop. This is since I was here. I step in. Sergeant's behind one inch-thick glass. Off to the right, behind the glass, in a door way, plain clothes drink coffee. I tell the sgt about my theft and search, how I called in. He shakes his head.

Okay, I say, I'm not asking you to break a coffee clutch. But I did notice three black and whites double parked outside, and I know it's not shift change. So I assume it's a slow night. But here's my problem, we're these middle class folks from the outer Sunset — where all the gardens are cement and all the immigrants listen to Suss and the boys in white hoods — and through every fault of our own we made the mistake of coming downtown for a movie, and now we've had a little break in. Some stuff that's actually quite valuable. Now, I'm not asking you to do anything,except give me some hints about places I might go look for stolen goods.

Head shakes, mouth goes down, eyes follow. "I'm sorry," comes out the metal speaker about head high. "Not much I can do there."

"Just some ideas on where to look."

"Can't really tell you that..."

"Anybody else here can tell me that...."

"You kinda just have to look."

"Sorry to bother."

He wants to know if I've reported it. Hell yes! I say. Well, he says, then there's three options. A, B, and C.

'Okay, I got that already,' I say. 'They already told me that.'

"Whatya want us to do?"

"Find me the Maltese Falcon." That's all I can think of.

"You come round the back, I'll write it up," he says.

"No, I told you, I'm already on a list. Plus it's nearly a mile back to where the car is and then drive down here. By then it's day after tomorrow. But it's okay. I'll do it myself. Fuck us all, I'll do it myself."

I'm out the door over to UN Plaza, past where the Scientologists used to get you cleared.

* * *

I worked for a woman once who paid a fortune to get cleared. I called her Big Baby Blonde or just Big Blonde, like Big Blue, a human computer-cipher of all things useless and inane, and tragic. Finally, she got sick of getting Scientologically screened and cleared and rescreened and recleared, and sick from it, and asked me to be an intermediary.

The pscyho-tologists were viscous trying to get her to keep paying every month and there was always a new program, a new level to reach. And if you didn't pay on time you got a lawyer's threat the next week. 'How cleared can she get?' I kept asking them. 'Three months of clearing three times a week hasn't made much difference. She was already wacho before she started this. How much more wacho do you want her to be?'

True and through. This woman was bi-and-tri-polared and ized. And mean as hell. The office manager and accountant was Chinese, a delightful woman who always worked like she was in a rice paddy in a bad year. It was a bad year, actually two. So the boss woman would say to her, "you know what? You need more here." And she would hold her breasts out as though she was offering Turkey on Thanksgiving. "You need bigger tits." The Chinese woman would die right there in front of us. Afterward, she would come into my office and just shake her head. "My family needs me to do this," she would say. And then there she was the next day. She could have filed for emotionally sodomy but she never did.

Still, as much of a bitch as Big Baby Blonde could be, she could also be as charming and gracious and generous as the person you most admire. So it fell to me to keep her personalities in order. I chose to do that. Sometimes, I hated myself; sometimes, not.

She was always asking me to find her a new psychiatrist, even after I'd exhausted the yellow pages, or a new photographer. No one had more photos of herself than this woman. She had the local society paparazzi shooting her every which way, always in "moon shadow" or just shadow and then that was gauzed and the result was airbrushed and in the end you could make out what looked like a pretty blonde late at night. While her images floated in the pan the Photog gave her the plate and she closed one nostril and sniffed like there was no tomorrow. One time she coughed and blew $5,000 into the shag. Clean it up she shrieked. I got her a drink and told Photoberger over and over it would come to smithereens. I know, he said. But he did nothing. I did nothing. We were all fascinated by her self-destruction.

Twice, I took her to the emergency room after she overdosed. From cocaine, meth, dope, dill off the shelf, tranquilizers, pain killers — anything little and red, or little and blue, anything that came in a white plastic bottle with a doctor's order. Placebos had the same effect as the real thing, her mind was that devout, that ravenous.

She was a big woman, as in horses, and blonde, as in Wagner at full volume. Somebody used to call her Sweedissimo. Her father sold used TVs, her mother went nuts and ended up in a nut house outside Sacramento. Big Baby Blonde said to me, "my mother is insane, do you think I'm insane?" I told her, no, I don't think you're insane. Which was half true.

"But I know this," I told her, "you need serious help and you know that. You're in trouble."

I know, she would say and then throw her arms around me.

She had long arms and a huge head — huge — and then her mouth would open and you'd think this woman was a boa constrictor. Plus she was bionic; everything was implanted. She got a lift from very last Dr. Plastica between San Francisco and San Jose. Slept with some of them for surgery and that was not a fair trade for either.

She'd come back from these surgeries and one cheek was hollow; the other, convex. Or one eye was lower than the other. Or else her tits were out of whack. She'd get out of the hospital and go right up to I. Magnin and without a thought spend $1,500 on a pencil leather skirt. Or she'd lease a new car. She loved Buicks. I told her those weren't cool, too Presbyterian. Those are cars for brunettes, I said. Get something else. But she liked a big car, and if it wasn't just the right color she's go get a new car and have it painted silver. She loved silver. You're nuts, I would tell her. 'Want to get fired?' she'd say, licking a wad of cash like it was candy. And then she'd drive to the office in her new car, with that lazy-boy-on-Sunday feel of plush, and in her new face, chubby with silicon, lips on permanent pucker. It all gave her a bad smell, which she tried to cover over in expensive perfumes.

The Chinese woman couldn't stand it and wore a hospital mask and, when asked, claimed she had pneumonia. "Very fatal if you catch it," she'd say and Big Baby Blonde would back off.

Years later, after my time with her, I heard Big Baby Blonde had gone to Eureka, had a child and then died from an overdose. She was found, along with her daughter, a few months old, in a cuddle. The baby was still alive. They'd been like that for two days. I don't know what happened to the child. Or who the father was. He never claimed that girl as far as I know.

She had eclectic taste in men. One was a fighter pilot that she got from her best friend. She had an Egyptian banker, and he may have been the daddy as well as a Warbucks. She loved dentists; in fact, doctors or all kinds, and Larry Ellison wannabes. I scouted several of those, went through their resumes, had drinks. One, a small time banker, with big a view from his condominium and porn on the side tables, was accused of date raping a debutante. Sometimes, I would interview them over drinks. Ask them about their lives. Often, I suggested to her that one or another was not a good match. Sometimes, she took my advice. They all spent the night but were gone by day break.

She was the consummate trophy girl who never found a man with a glass case that big.

* * *

So I passed the building where the Scientologists used to clear and entered UN Plaza. A drizzle had set in. There was a fistfight off to my right. The men looked young and homeless. One of them kicking the shit out of another one. Once upon a time I would have stepped in, out of idiocy. I'm no strong man, but through force of will I could do that. But not now. I walked past, didn't look, marched past like a good German.

There was nothing there. No spreads. No people at all. It occurred to me that I was too late or too early. I thought, well I'll come back at 3 a.m. But then I thought, no, what's the point. Let it go.

And isn't that what life is about? Isn't that the point?

I stayed with that thought and made some U-turns and wandered down Market. All of a sudden, I passed an old dirty movie store on Taylor Street. Another block and that was where I lived for a time. On the corner. It was half way house for Fed folks coming down from stir. And big stir, like Leavenworth. They'd bring in hookers by the boat load, leading them up the stairs, by the hand, as though on the way to a cotillion.

Bottom two floors were for people out of marriage and money. I was there more than six months, less than a year. A tiny room, and what a delight it was, those were good times, in half the size of a small studio. Wash basin in one corner. A bath and shower you could put in your pocket. Something like a carpeted, well-appointed prison cell. The one window looked out on the roof and up at the rest of the building. You had a bird's eye view of seagulls sleeping and shitting.

Original Joe's was across the street. Angelo Viducic was the consummate waiter, moving among the leather banquettes, hawking the creamed spinach or the spaghetti alfredo. He was a Croat and his most famous story was one he heard from his brother about what a Serbian army unit did to a young Muslim couple, two Bozniaks, caught outside the city of Sarajevo. The Serbs took the couple to the top of a hill, above a mosque. They chained the young man to the wheel of a loaded gas tanker. They made him look in the rear view mirror so he could see his wife with a gun to her head. And then the Serbs gave him the choice, you drive this truck into the mosque or we shoot your wife. Which is it going to be? It was the former and of course then they raped the wife and shot her anyway.

So Angelo said. He shook his head. He wanted to go home and fight but he didn't. He had endless other stories, and not just about the Balkans but about life in the restaurant. The place was always filled with cops and politicos. The whispering was just what you thought it was. Felons plea bargaining, cops setting up stings, pols dishing dirt, folks from the suburbs talking about how this was the best steak they ever had.

Years later I went there once with the boss and a journo at the Ex tried to blackmail him. 'Give me the inside scoop and we won't run shit about your office.' I couldn't believe what I was hearing and went into a righteous uproar. The boss patted my arm. Calm down, he said. And then he leaned in to the jerk and made a deal of sorts, although it didn't last.

Outside Original Joe's, there was a narrow parking lot and from time to time you'd see neighborhood girls bobbing up and down in the open sun roofs of pimpmobiles, posting the night away like rich girls riding their horses up to the moon. One time a man stood out on a third story ledge across the street and threatened to jump but some of us got up there and yelled at him to come in. "You won't kill yourself," somebody said, "you'll just bounce and get a lot of broken bones." The guy thought about that, put that to his real mind, and came in.

The Palestinians who ran the corner mart were always getting robbed. They had travel posters of the beach at Aquaba on the walls. All they could talk about was how the Israelis had taken their land and how one day there going home to Ramallah and Hebron, but they were already home and they knew it.

The man who owned the porno store kept a four-foot baby monitor lizard in his window. Sometimes, he'd feed it live mice and people would gather round. You'd see the transsexuals making their way home to the Ambassador hotel. You knew they were transsexuals because they said so and if they were drunk they would tell what they were getting and for how much. They were all waiting for 'the operation.' Most were getting vaginas. I knew a few of those people. When they got scared and high they'd walk along a narrow ledge on the fourth floor of the Ambassador, no ropes, no hopes, just wondering if a breeze would come along and knock them off I suppose.

You'd see the tourists from the East Bay coming out of the Golden Gate theater around 11 p.m., walking back to their cars, looking over their shoulders, less dazzled by the show than by the excitement of being in a bad part of town, and the rock bands loading up their buses across the street from the theater. Sure there were shootings at the SROs around the corner on Turk Street, and over on Eddy Street a baby fell down four flights and landed in a trash can, everything you ever read in the tabloids happened in that neighborhood, and the Franciscan priest at St. A's was dating a black hematologist guy over in Oakland, everybody was fucking of fucked. But on Taylor Street, between Turk and Eddy, it was like living in the shire county of Kent.

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