Melba is all wrapped up in a flimsy taffeta roseate gown as Chester pushes her along in a three-wheeled squealing wheelchair. Jones Street is rife with sidewalk standers and ripe with the festering scent of garbage and feces. Hotel Nazareth has its usual bevy of horticultural enthusiasts crouching and leaning by its corniced entrance. Squatting opiate ushers play nice by the gutter, escorting fiends to their seats by the wall, scouring the scene for a familiar face, plucking smoked cigarettes from the cracks in the sidewalk.
Shadow is holding the crumpled front page of The Chronicle sports section out in front of him like an enemy whom he wants to keep at a safe distance, standing on the corner there across the street from Little Henry’s on Larkin, looking “dourly esteemed,” as he puts it, or would if there were any takers around for his particular brand of nonsense. A cop car rolls by, slows some, and then keeps going past the 1-Hour Valetaria Drycleaners. Shadow is deep in the crest of a hankering, something culled from morning’s last spit and smoke. His eyes roam the newsprint, scanning for anything of interest, some bit or skosh of information that’d get his spirits onward towards a rise.
And the sun cooks the piss on the Tenderloin streets. Jasper and Peanut are holding hands in the cellar of Kong’s pool hall. Nobody has the time.
Sheila only feels safe on the 3rd seat from the door at The Brown Jug, sipping a Mai Tai from a dragon mug, counting the nicks and knife wounds in the bar top. Parch comes in around four, up and at ’em from the murk of his room without a view.
He lets on to the bartender, “Whiskey probably won’t solve any of this, but it’ll do until the real answers show up.”
Lurker is putting down a terrible quart of gin — slower than you’d think, a nip here and there — around the corner, hunched over in a semi-wearable-condition raincoat, cracking his neck as he scans for cigarette butts in the sidewalk cracks.
A pilot on a layover, having a smoke outside of The New Century Theater, sees the disheveled man and says to him, “Smells like rain.” To which the lurking hard-luck specimen replies, “Smells like piss.”
A stripper named Madelyn sings, “Where have my thunderstorms all run off to, off with another sky. I wish I were on Clement Street, eating dim sum with my baby at my side,” as she hurries by toward Geary.
The pilot says, “I wonder if I’ve got a chance with her.” Lurker says, “Why don’t you go ahead and dance with her.”
“I’ve got no idea how to properly fall in love,” the pilot thinks, and then takes a long soulful drag of his cigarette, putting the controls to his personality on automatic.
Some traffic winces over potholes and other divots and abstractions in the street.
Craddy inches along, dragging his veering-left shopping cart behind him, singing: “And you can get back to where you once belonged, but you’ll never be at home because you’ve never really been gone.” And then he stops, spits into a tree well, checks the spotty sky for signs of relief, and tells no one in particular, “Here comes that rain they’ve been going on about.”
Lurker quips back at him, “Ah shit. The weather report around here changes by the minute. They’ll be talking elephants counting seraphim to fall asleep before the hour’s up.”
Down a few block on Ellis, everyone is chopping along with a Toy Dolls’ song that’s playing from a stereo right out there on the sidewalk. A sudden, ephemeral tint of joy sweeps through the surroundings, and even the corner-store clerks come outside and watch, lighting cigarettes and smiling at the festivities.
Chester and Melba go by, all ragged and regal, as if on their way to a ball, and everyone says hi to them and wishes them well, Melba’s teetering wheelchair scraping the sidewalk, Chester shaking his head and cussing too loud for being in public.
A beefy cop in short-sleeve uniform is leisurely leaning against a lamppost, like he’s Sinatra or something, taking it all in, and when his partner asks him who the strange wheelchair duo is, he tells her, “That’s Melba and Chester. He’s got a touch of Parkinson’s and can be a real tough customer sometimes; and Melba, well, she’s got the roughest tongue and the softest heart in the Sixth District. They live down on Turk and Jones. He pushes her around to…I don’t know, just for a stroll I guess.”
Jonell’s is just opening up shop. Already a decent contingent of day drinkers is showing up, one by one, to try to sip their way as softly as possible into the evening. Catarina is behind the bar, soaking it all in, trying to mind her own, but having no luck at it. The regulars converse and babble and settle in on their stools, and Catarina smiles at the distinct way they have of rambling on about the oddest of things.
“You know, we’re all small potatoes here, with the squeamish orange light flinching in the doorway, and last night, you know, I was satisfied with my position in the lineup at the bar, elbowroom even, and then on in comes those Saturday-night morons with the worst drink orders in the world. And, hell, Phil? I’ve never even heard the guy speak. He just mumbles at the bar over half-pints of Heineken. All I want is a place to sit where nobody recognizes me at all, to sit alone and remember what dreams I lost by the light of the galaxy of neon signs on all the chop-suey joints on Grant Street.”
“No service does itself any justice, barring all doors to it. No interest in the hastening of Tuesdays, we repent our sorrow home from the bar. Delete this from the landscape of interest’s territory. Thank God if you choose. We’re all succumbing to the least likely terror of it all. Ha. Lick the spoon, fuckers. The dough’s never rising quite enough for the meek. Fuck it, I’m running for mayor of these parts. Get me to a prison cell. I’m stuffed with suffering, still.”
“These parts are unsuitable for gripers like us, bidding peace to the sirens and car alarms, and the clank and whiny rumble of the 27-Bryant going by.”
“My heart’s locked-up with the dilution of satisfaction, boys. Crawling’s my retribution. And the kids know no paid allowance for the crest of my mishandling of entropy’s highfalutin plastic. Shit. I’m a louse at best, cussing out a dog on some other guy’s leash. But at least the air conditioner works.”
“And me, I won’t call her because she might pick up. Hands full of dandelions. Head full of iodine. And this town’s just full of carnations dipped in aquavit.”
The double-decker rubberneck wagons pull up and disperse their gawking denizens, wide-eyed tourists all gaping and picture-snapping, running amok over Union Square. Larry wends through them, punched-out cigarette in hand, being ignored in his epileptic blurts of queries for a dollar.
Larry is the last of the real Skid-Row bums who used to frequent the cheap hotels and bars south of Market before the Moscone Center came along and wiped them all out, and he looks the part: moth-eaten black overcoat; wrecked shoes pocked with scum, the sad vamps sagging from the welts; disheveled ivory-white hair cowlicked to hell and back; and his face leathery and thick with scars and hard-earned lines. He has bad jokes for everyone, and you’ll never catch him feeling bad for himself. It is rumored that he has a benefactor, a courtly lady in Pacific Heights, who sees that he’s kept fed and clothed when he gets too light in his holy pockets. He is not of the quality of those most listless of bums who must be prodded to move along as they fall asleep in their boots leaning against parked cars or in doorways. No. Larry is always on the move.
He moves on into Jonell’s for a moment, scratching at his neck, jovial, running his dry tongue around his gums, scoping out the scene, perhaps just waiting it all out, hoping for a generous smoker to cop him a cigarette so he can go outside and sit and smoke against the wall, feel bright and right and full again, for a bit.
A besotted individual in an off-the-rack wrinkled suit, with his necktie loose and his collar flipped up crooked on one side, spots Larry wandering around by the bathrooms, and he stops to chat with him.
“What’ve you been doing lately, Larry?”
“Oh, just wandering around. You got a dollar on you?”
“Ah, thanks a ton, good sir. Hey. You know what the sand crab said to the beached whale?”
“Get off my lawn!”
“Ha. I’ll be seeing you around, Larry.”
Larry fires back, “Not if I see you first!” And then hobbles and dodges his way back out onto the street.
The scent of sun-steamed urine rises as buckets of bleach are poured from doors to commingle and wrestle with it. People move to their own rhythms; dancing to avoid the small piles and remnants of shit smeared here and there; emphatically knowing others with screams and yelps and waves just the same. Everyone has their own way of saying hello and goodbye, and it works better than prayers to lift the spirits of those hanging out on the steps of entranceways and huddled around the makeshift sleeping arrangements and tattered tents and sidewalk sales and bus-stop shelters. Everyone has their own ideal place to stand around in.
Larry has got his mitts on a nice nine iron. He just found it lying next to a mailbox on Hyde. He’s not quite sure just what he’s going to do with it, but figures it’ll be useful for something — better than nothing, at least. He tucks it through his belt loop, and it hangs like a sheathed sword there, banging around behind him as he trots the blocks.
The line for handouts of food at Glide snakes all the way down Ellis, everyone jostling and gossiping and eavesdropping and minding their own too. A wiry topless man in just jean shorts who is brandishing a hockey stick tears by on roller skates, waving and swiping the hockey stick at some imaginary character whom he believes he is chasing down. He screams, “I am Jehoshaphat, fucker! I have come for your darling earrings! They belonged to my mother, you asshole! Come back here!”
Soon the rain will start up, and everyone will go sprinting for cover.
Shadow decides to take a seat with rest of the slow drunks around Jonell’s horseshoe-shaped bar. He gets a 7-and-7, and watches the tiny bubbles rise in the glass, remembering his grandmother who used to sing Tiny Bubbles to him when she’d had too much champagne. He forgets more about her all the time, just like everyone whom he used to know, all those folks who are dead and gone, delivered to that great bartender in the sky.
Catarina slinks by and pats the bar in front of him. “You okay, honey? You tiptop, huh?”
“You know me. I’m all smashed potatoes from the neck up. You know what I was thinking about just now?”
“I believe I’ve got no idea in the world, Sugar.”
“I was just thinking that there’s that certain way people’s voices sound to us, like a smell to bring you back somewhere you forgot how to exist in, or that you ever did or were able to. And then there’s that silence that sits in the middle of two people, on stools next to each other at a bar, between swallows, when neither person knows what they’re going to say next. On a delving day like this one, hell, we’re all better off arranging cobalt and burgundy into numbers.”
“I like your voice, Baby. It’s so gruff and sweet.”
“Thanks. I’m not sure I ever know what to say with it.”
“That’s okay. I don’t mind. I gotta go whizz. I’ll be back in two twinkles.”
The bar is growling low and soft, the TVs making their small noise, the clientele shifting around and making all of theirs. Shadow lingers there at the bar, making small talk with his drink, minding his own, and his manners, and he flinches with the sudden thought that this is it, this is all his life will ever be, counting down the hours until it gets darker, and it gets darker all the time, and the streetlights will come on and outshine the moon, and the revelers will shout on in and get their fill, and he’ll just wade through it all, trying to feel free and good about his presence in the world’s heaviest graces. No one to write home about. No one who’ll leave you in the rain to catch your death of cold either, though. And he takes a good long drink of his 7-and-7, and he decides that he’ll get another, soon, and he’s so pleased by this decision, of having something to look forward to, that he stops worrying about everything he’s always worrying about. Nothing can touch this. Nothing. He sits there and waits for nothing to occur, and when it does he is as happy as he ever gets.