Sep 16, 2013

Here are directions to Dante's Inferno from San Francisco. Take Hwy 280 south to San Jose. Look for the 9th Circle exit and follow that to "Round 2".  Not 1 or 3.  They're easy to confuse. From there go to the corner of Sunol and Auzerais. People in the neighborhood don't pronounce it the way it sounds.  They also can't describe where the entrance to the Inferno is. You'll have to find that yourself.  The word above the door is nearly unintelligible. Look closely: Mater Dei Towing (not the actual name but the same shenanigans). This is Round 2. You've arrived. Ask for Virgil. He'll be expecting you.  He doesn't look anything like you'd think. Go inside. It's very dark. He'll leave you at that point.

The place is nearly the size of a football field, with the ceiling as high as an old Hollywood sound stage.  Off to the right you may notice Count Ugolino gnawing on the pate of his one time colleague, Archbishop Ruggieri delgi Ubaldini. You remember the story of those two!  Well, that's why the nickname for this part of the Inferno is "Treachery."

Naturally, you'll take in the very tasteful decor.  There are may be 30 limos for hire, for all the local Kardashians; and then a dozen wrecks for ordinary people. Everything is neat and lined up. There's the sound of tow trucks getting ready to go out; engines revving, radios blaring. And heavy metal coming from somewhere else. There is also a large mobile home, at the end of a ramp — for those who arrive in a wheelchair. This is the devil's office. There's fake grass here and there. And fake plants. And a giant fan. And the lights from the mobile home make you think it's night, even though it's broad daylight just out the door. There's something vaguely cinematic about the whole thing; a place Rod Serling would appreciate immediately.

Now why would you ever come to such a business? Let's say you are in car accident. It's not your fault, and this is a no-fault state anyway, and here these people have been kind enough to tow your badly wrecked car to their business. But there's a little more to it. Hwy Patrol officer, Broderick Crawford at your service, complete with raspy, angry voice, arrives on the scene and with all the charm of a mortician's dead father asks for your information. 'What happened here?' 'Exactly how far were you from the car in front?'

Now let's say that there are three cars in the accident and it will take about 15 minutes to write up a report from each driver, do a visual inspection, say any inane thing that comes to mind, and offer no sympathy to the poor woman standing beside her totaled vehicle, and after all that, complete the report.  You're an accomplished officer. You've done hundreds of these.  And while no one notices, you call up Count Doldrum down at Mater Dei Towing.  You've asked the weeping woman who has no idea what's going on if she's okay. She has no idea but she doesn't want an ambulance so you follow your procedure.  You tell the Count to get right over with a truck.  You scratch my balls, I scratch yours. The truck comes. But the truck can't leave with the lady's car until all the reports have been completed.  That's the gimmick.  I call you as soon as I get to the accident, knowing it's going to take at least an hour, and you come right over and start that clock, and nobody's the wiser. It's all official. It's on triplicate. It's like clocking in.

The candy for the towing company is $200 an hour.  And remember they always round up.  Two hours and 15 minutes is two and a half hours. Two hours at 35 minutes is 3 hours. And then you pay an $80 storage fee per day.  Now let's say this accident happened at 7 p.m.  Well at midnight that's one day.  Any part of the day is a whole day.  Before you can say Ruggieri delgi Ulbaldini you owe the inquisitioners $380.

Now let's say this is a Friday night. The storage facility is closed until Monday, unless you wish to pay a $100 gate fee. So let's say you get there on Monday first thing — because you're donating your vehicle to KarsforKids, if only to get away from that ad, which is like stuffing earwhigs in your ears. So you get there on Monday and you ask the lady behind the counter what the damage is and she says that will be four days plus $300, so that's $620.

You mean 'what's the damage' facetiously because there are all sorts of damages already associated with this wreck. Time lost, job endangered, vehicle destroyed, marriage made uninhabitable. Insurance won't cover any of that or reimburse you for letting the fake priests take you away.

Are you kidding you want to say. But you look at the lady who is a 400-pound chunk of flesh and tattoo.  And lip rings, cheek jewelry, all the lewd and lascivious ideas you can record on one human's body. Diderot's human encyclopedia. And clearly a totem in this part of the world.  You look at her and suddenly all questions and answers are absorbed. Her presence is too overpowering. You have to take her in.  Like coming into a dark room late at night.

Naturally you want to appeal.  No problema. It means waiting for the boss. He's not back from the gym. But he will be. And then suddenly there he is. Just back from the gym, with what looks like two bodyguards, UFC types.  Not caucasian, not asiatic, not black. All three genetically wired together in a video-gamey sort of way. With muscles drawn as it were.

The boss is friendly, forties, ear ring in the left ear, in black attire, black court shoes. You wonder what sort of gym he goes to. The S&M Gold Gym perhaps. 'Where we put your imagination on the wrack and you love it.'

You say to him, 'your driver quoted under $200 for the tow. Your telephone person agreed to $200 for the tow.' And this lady, and you are hardly able to look at her, now says $300.  How can that be? That doesn't seem fair, you say.  And how can you make five hours into a whole day. That is black magic. That's unfair.

By golly.

And later you have to smile, as though fairness was ever a value in the 9th Circle. You forget where you are kind sir. Oh you endlessly naive bastard; and so you make your case. And along the way you try anger. You've already pleaded with the driver, so add pleading. You throw in indignation and outrage, and all of your most cutting Black Irish charm. You throw in ideas and threats and the meaning of it all. You nearly make a rude remark about Rush Limbaugh. But finally you just look at him. You make him your judge. And now everyone is looking at the boss. And he's loving this moment. Oh my God, does he do these moments well, is he not Ray Liotta, bless his pock-faced soul; the power of the owner of a big tow company in a mid-sized town, with his little 'agreements' with Broderick Crawford, with his power over his folks, just out of prison or wherever: meth heads, car thieves, fraudsters and gangstas. He's got them, and they're all smiling faintly. They know this scene so well and they owe him.

Well maybe there's hope, you think. There isn't and you can see what this but you can't do anything about it. He looks still again at this homies standing with him, he's got that quizzical expression, this is when you have to watch out, and that weird, rippling little smile, like something coming apart, and then with the speed and force of Queen Mary's executioner, he comes down on you.

Sep 2, 2013

There's always a new trick. A year ago, three Chinese ladies approach you in the street. Out in the Avenues. They tell you bad news is coming and the only way to deter it is to let them bless your moneys and valuables. Now, in Fremont, the trick is that a man or a lady, or both, come to the door. Usually, two people. They are in uniform; they're from a utility.  PG&E, Recology, sewer cleaners, telephone line maintenance, animal retrieval. They tell you there is an outage in the block caused by a runaway python. Oh my God, you say. Could we check your backyard and we'll take care of it? Of course you can, please come this way, and as you lead them to the backyard through your house the less memorable person in the background is picking up whatever there is, a wallet, a phone, an ipad, an itouch, a knick or a knack, a watch, cash, and the more memorable man quickly looks through your backyard and nope, I don't see one, but it's important that you stay in doors and be careful.  Do you know where your pets are? And suddenly the two people are gone, in their truck, but I don't remember what it said on the side, but then i noticed things were missing. I have a terrible fear of pythons....  How did they know that?