And Then There’s That Horrible Feeling You Get When The Booze Runs Out
I tipped the sidewalk trumpet player, and he stopped mid-song and thanked me with a sir. I just nodded and leaned on a traffic signal stanchion. I couldn’t be bothered in my smooth afternoon sun-glistening dreams over the Audiffred building, which had survived the 1906 fire because some firemen were bribed with whiskey to turn their hoses on it. The Embarcadero was crammed with Sunday afternoon strollers. I wanted to turn my attention away and just be stuck in a calm, dignified mood, let the breeze slip through me, not worry about such dismal things as crowds or stuffy rooms. My longer thoughts turned to the effortless motions of little children who were out making hay along the boulevards and the stiff palms and the cement sculptures and other accoutrements of the center dividers; and women wearing wool suits in the summer; and a couple of newcomers testing each other out: “Let’s get hitched, Seashell Eyes.” “Okay, Seaweed Breath.” There were occupations in need of doing somewhere, I was sure of it; but I wasn’t one to be interested in such mundane investments of my time. There wasn’t a bored bone in my body. Everything was birch sap and dead fish. No gal in town was claiming to be my only one. ‘Suitable,’ I ventured in my head. ‘Nobody’s listening.’
Maybe everybody needs a place to put their empathy, like a kitchen counter of Baltic sadness, a hard-up lick at survival. As for me, the place where I set my coffee mug in the morning is worn and rubbed raw. We’re all a generation of permanent mental cripples anyway. A gaggle of stunted clodhoppers with petroleum-distillate breath. As far as I go about concerning myself with the whole mess, well, I’d rather train my station to another radio. Bread’s lost. Hangdog looks are going around. Indigestion too, for that matter. Nobody’s going to sell me a lemon by telling me it’s a cassava. I’m parked. I tell you. And this shebang drives like a brick.
I moseyed on over to the beginning of Market’s wide swath of concrete. A pliers repairman jabbed his finger into my side like a pistol.
“You built up this life and dreamed another right by its side.”
I didn’t flinch.
“The art of indenting has been lost.”
“Sure. So. When I’m not being holy I guess I’ll run into you soon.”
“Sure sounds quaint. Got any sirens in need of a ring?”
“Wouldn’t cross my heart or anything, but I might bless yours.”
“If I were famous I’d be a jerk to everybody.”
“Phooey. I mean, rats!”
“Same old savagery. I’ll scent you out later, unless you catch wind of me first.”
The guy was withdrawn. But what are you going to do? He was probably just pulling a gag. I was all for it either way.
Walking solved most of my problems. I was listing a bit, though, and so thought it wise to step my way into the reasonable confines of a dark bar for a brief drink. That usually gave me some succor from my disequilibrium.
The place I chose smelled about as bad as Noah’s ark must have. It was called Sutter Station: an old tavern jammed between Market And Sutter, with an entrance on each street. It’s a long narrow bar, right by the triangle-shaped corner there, and it’s got a pool table, a jukebox, and some tables with chairs, but that’s about it. As usual the bar was a disorderly mess of derelicts and drunks and cheap prostitutes and speed freaks and euro trash from the hostel next door. I didn’t feel out of place.
Sitting on a crooked stool next to me was a retirement-aged woman in a well-loved, tattered kimono who looked like she’d just gotten into a fight with a Christmas tree. Her high-cheeked-boned face was all smashed in, dark-spotted and pocked with welts and warty masses like rivets — but she had a few teeth left, and didn’t smell quite as bad as a dumpster. I tried to imagine her as a little baby, as she’d undoubtedly once been: someone’s small bundle of joy wrapped up in swaddling bands, being burped and nursed, holding a rattle, saying her first words, soft and diapered, cheeks dabbed in pink hues as she slept innocently on her side in a crib. And here she was now, all woebegone and wrinkled and sallow, a despicably soiled refutation of purity and virtue and moral rectitude: this is what life made of us, what time did to us; these are the things that we become as the past just spools out behind, the failure building and building, gnawing at us in an awful pandemonium until we die.
Elbows on the bar, rocking on my stool a bit, nodding my head and tapping my feet to a Wilson Pickett song on the jukebox, I was doing alright. I ordered a can of PBR and put a cigarette in my ear, hoping that I’d remember to smoke it at some point. Not now though. Not yet. Just sitting there like that, taking hits from my can of PBR, loving the almost holy way things seemed to be occurring, the way they happened, and kept happening, and how I was swimming in it, free, alone, not bothered at all, dreamy even, and at last unfettered from my inhibitions, I was stronger than Atlas and smarter than Einstein, I was where the weather suited my clothes, I was steeped in the good, and the moral, and the beautiful, in the wonderful ways that the universe moved, and all of my moments were ecstatic and surcharged with meaning. The haggard woman sitting on the bar stool next to me swiveled around, looked at me, tried to say something, made a face like a witch being strangled, and promptly vomited on the floor by my shoes. It was time to smoke that cigarette. I left a few bucks for the bartender and made my exit.
“I only dream in black and white. Except for people’s faces. And cats. That’s my burden, I guess.”
This was some scrawny guy with bad teeth who claimed to be on, “crystal, man.” He had a RoboCop t-shirt on that was so thin that its image of the famous sci-fi crime fighter could’ve passed for a faded tattoo on his chest.
I was okay with it. For some reason I was okay with everything at this point.
“Have you read about me? I’m almost surely famous by now.”
“Yeah. Sure. I believe I read about you in the Bible Comics last week.”
“That’s a riff on being human, I guess. God’s got thicker skin than most. At best I’m a malcontent hooligan with silver stars on my ass, right?”
“That’s good enough for me, buddy.”
“Holly or holy?”
“Sure. It’s all either without an or. And the streets here are all lined with coal. Hey, man. Look. I ain’t anybody’s intended. And me, I am for sure not in the business of telling anyone, ‘I admire every square inch of your person,’ or anything like that. Listen up, Lenny Bruce. Or it’s just the same, I guess. I’ve got a dirty mouth but no no-talent wife anymore. Let me tell you, none of it’s ‘pretty good’ at all.”
“Your smoke’s out.”
All the jawing had somehow put my cigarette to sleep. I just shook my head at it, muttering, “Everything’s wrecked.” I flicked the useless prop into the street where it lay waiting to be floated off into the grates of a storm drain during the next downpour, eventually making its way out to sea, and probably ending up with hundreds of other butts on the beach where some unsuspecting kid poking around in the sand might pick it up and wonder, ‘How the hell did this get here?” I hated myself for the dalliance, but couldn’t rouse enough gumption to go snag the thing up for some reason, and so left it there to let nature and time do what it may to it — just like me.
The RoboCop fan wandered off, likely in search of his next meth fix, and I said my goodbyes. The whole thing was a con job anyway. Everything was broken. I wasn’t in the business of telling anyone, “I like you more than toast, but less than a carburator.” It was a real bum deal all around.
I walked and walked. People were scattered all over the place. Something inside of me was very wrong, like a lispy voice saying, “East Alabama, son. We’re not over a thing.” I was disqualifying myself from adult conversation to say the least.
“the refuge of the incompetent like crayon murals on spackled drywall stiff lowers and a pack of sergeants singing whole for less of a grumpy standstill shake yourself caught remain summed there in the bash of your skull with civilization just a soft touch away grenades tossed to dream of kite-flying weather in rockrose dilemmas of course barely suitable occasional raps on balsa wood and besides who’s delivering Gideons to castanet mechanics in these carry-on times blots of sapped joy fluted to this klutzy clank passed over and eventually away with a newspaper in one hand and can of Raid in the other like some lost little lady wandering into a bar cute to a certain extent reacquainted with a real Euclidean personality crass as hell about it too pouring it on in cripple counts rare and remarkable as ever gator-arming the casket where the with never stays like it should”
The voices I was hearing were matching the ones I was using, for once, and I didn’t want it all to end just yet. But it would. I knew it. Everything’s got to. Really, what else does anything ever do? Besides, I was done fiddling around with strangers’ self-worth. It’s a cop-out strategy I am too readily available for. I wandered. I roamed. I spent much energy and willpower in conquering California’s steep grade up to the top of Nob Hill, and once there my worthless disposition was complete. There was no attention left to get. “Nothing doing,” was all I could spew. The bricks of the Mark Hopkins had gone all pink and gold in the sunset. The flags were fluttering over the Fairmont’s entrance. I stood on the corner of Mason and California and waited for the light to change. There was nothing else left to do.