Biding my time at a Blind Pig with Hector and Stubby, I had the Yangtze River blues. I was wishing I were in some melodeon or concert saloon. But I mostly just felt like some ship-caulker with a career behind dirty footlights, dating some tawdry chorus girl with a dirty mouth, waiting for an oubliette to open up below me and get hauled off to Singapore. That was my luck. I was marooned by it. Hector had a knife slung around his neck on a lanyard. He was a crimp at best, as was Stubby. But me? I leveraged my debts with a different sort of forbearance. You see, I wasn’t immune to a certain cajoling from my seafaring acquaintances, and my spells of delusion soon turned to disillusion, bringing about a wondering eye or two from the “touched” element. Somehow the footpads and the pickpockets didn’t bother me much. Guess they’d never knew a guy quite like me since the likes of Tip and Mush Thornton hung around The Whale Bar. And a guy like me, well, a guy like me who hasn’t been sad since The Galloping Cow and Pigeon-Toed Sal were running the show — a guy like that lives in one room and doesn’t count.
No riots left to incite today, in the spotty tinkle of rain and dog-eared clouds carousing by. I have my reservations about the doozies in the backseat. Wept to pawns, again. The crowds go the way of God’s cursing. Me? I stay behind to razz the backers of bad theater. Like this shameful duck hunter named Judah. Tell the ragpickers, the grooms, the bootblacks, and the stevedores that I’ve gone greyer at the temples, and my pockets are filled with plugs and crosses. The rabble around here just make me want to move a few bar stools down and flee without collecting any evidence to the contrary of my station, which is dutifully being moaned — you can bet all the sawdust on the floor of Martin and Horton’s on it. (1)
Nobody worries about clammed up handouts. Not around here. Not when it’s pouring. Not when this horse and buggy’s coming at me like suicide’s back in style. God. I’m leafing through papers, playing hangman with pigeon shit. The usual. It’s copper and steel, the sky, and we’re all under it, trying to spatula ourselves up over a flustering rainbow. I’ve got a nervous disposition. I’m the kind of guy that’ll knock over the sugar shaker at breakfast and then, as I’m getting up to clean it, dump my coffee over. But I stay out of the trouble most folks dive neck-deep into, for the most part. And waking up with a land’s end headache, fists clenching ground ore and a Michigan twenty-gauge. There are more famous guns than these, the ones I show, the ones I never keep. Get me far, get me behind, get the robes from a thousand lawyers and soak them in gasoline. Fool around with love long enough and you’ll get a couple of eyes blacker and more blue than this.
She wrote love notes on the backs of secret Muybridges.(2) Were there never scraps in the hayloft? We’ve got proofs that don’t blame anyone. Seagulls tell more. Smoke Throat Mira loses paychecks like marbles. Besides, life’s just a short vacation from being dead. Faces fade like reputations. I mumble more first names than friends I got, cussed back to breathing again. Bastards mill the gin before they talk tough about speak-easy dreams. Shove another plug in the candy machine, I’m lowing myself into range. There’s a crooked life straying to get in line. Some of it’s plowing over roses. Some of it’s nothing but what it’s not. An overcoat, pants, or vest away up on Pacific Street, with the moon in my pocket and an introduction at the melodeons to The Galloping Cow, Lady Jane Grey, The Roaring Gimlet, and The Dancing Heifer. Go get melted and poured into your pants while Happy Jack gets saved from the purple crocodiles by the ladies of the Praying Band. I am less than weak when it comes to the destructive effects of temperance. In low places where the terriers fight ten-cent rats a toothless kid talks of Haymarket Theatre, Sydney Ducks, the Hop Sings and the Suey Sings, dollar melodrama, the company-girls contralto of Madame Bertha, La Rosa Del Peru, Emperor Norton’s bills (3), and a blood-stained trampled violet. We cater to the rain. The Bella Union’s gone under, and if it’s midway to another we’ve got mouths that don’t want to be fed.
Rust is just a gilt edge on the wrought-iron thoughts I’ve got, the ones that sleep dewy in worried concrete gardens where they’ll never be found. Engaged to snapped-off tree branches and closed-down haberdasheries. Very little is lost. Tap my boots on the pavement, guess at some change in my pocket, toss a pretzel to the birds. The marquees are drooling Casablanca with a rubato wheeze as the moon hangs its head towards a rippled halo of fog. But the finches sneak up on me, and class wears off, and even the snails are rushing off somewhere else. Hell, people want to reduce you to the smallest molecule of your personality. So save it up. Don’t go spilling it all over town. Try not to pencil too many people in to the circumstances of your life. Wait until the air’s so still it’s like being underwater, then make a splash for the brighter of the lamps.
Some mornings you wake up, go into the bathroom to take a piss, and the rod for the shower curtain’s collapsed, taking the shower curtain and your bath mat with it into the tub. And your mule’s left without you. On a day, too, when you wake up with strange phone numbers in your coat pocket written on crumpled dollar bills and bits of cocktail napkins. Maybe there’s some bricks slopped with orange paint that are doing their best imitation of a wall, and that’s about all that’s holding up your head as you wait for the dumbwaiter to rattle up an order of broccoli and beef chow mein. The whole place smells like white-bread toast. The there’s something that comes begging, hopscotched, into your life at around noon or so. And they call this business show. Something very too-close-to-call about it, huh? Like bologna on rye. Big whoop. That’s what I say.
This business called show, from Portsmouth to Mission Creek to the top of Goat Hill, all the way to Alma de Bretteville Spreckels’ trident atop the Dewey in Union Square. Hell, no more gold in any of them hills, as if there ever were. So what? It’s all about as exciting as watching paint dry. And I’m eating chocolate cake for breakfast. Insert cello solo here, you know? Something reeks. Oh lord, I just burped I’ll See You In My Dreams. A smile that’ll fix a flat playing a split-squad game with my emotions, while I go around with a pair of baby-sized moccasins in the breast pocket of my Salvation Army suit. But, maybe, just maybe, I don’t know, you spot a couple of skillets on the sidewalk resting atop discarded couch cushions, and you get to thinking about the rut you’ve been calling your life lately — the long sobs of the violins of autumn.
Shit, I was just a deadbeat kid with skinned knees and ripped pants. We’re going everywhere from now on. Hats are no longer optional. Easters spent getting drunk in a coat-check closet. Dipping more than big, the blasted wreck of the sky’s ship is anchored to streetlights and hydrangeas. The tattered silver vest of a three-piece is hanging from a fire hydrant. Done with doing something, living conditions straying towards anorexic. A glass eye’s take on the surroundings, a few booze-soaked aperçus leveling the playing field for schmaltzy daffodil hoarders and train conductors. But, who knows, maybe there’s another reckless pull left in you. And, well, maybe there’s more left to lose than this. But, you know, probably not.
And just as sure as Black Bart’s shotgun was never loaded, I make my way through all the soapboxed nerve of Old Orthodox and Hallelujah with just enough courage to sweep away the cobwebs at Warner’s and stare a dance-hall girl straight in the eye. The decoys in the deadfalls don’t got a thing on me. I tell you. It’s murder just slopping through the avenues, you know, like how the bagnios such as the House Of Blazes ship themselves over into shape for me. I’m shifty when need be. I Hinckley-Pinckley my sodden way through pitches and cuts and roustabout shifts in character. A real busman’s holiday, like frequenting a tamale grotto in the basement of a dodgy saloon. The stuff I never get before it’s already gone. And then some well-upholstered blonde wanders in and tells me, “I’d rather be an electric light pole on Powell Street than all of the land in the sticks,” and I’m a goner. All the cow-yards, cribs, and parlor houses in town don’t stand a chance. It’s baby-making weather and we’re all plowed by it. The melodeons are all playing my song, and I’m just hanging my head in another concert saloon, fingers slipping from the glass again, gone. Lotta (4), Lotta, where’d you run off to this time? Remember when I was so sick and you told me I seemed so far away? It took a train to bring me to this. It took laudanum’s spell to get me down. Get me a Pisco Punch (5) and four bits to knock Oofty Goofty (6) upside the head. I’m feeling about as blunt as the back of an axe. Put Big Bertha up on the stage and ply me with Miss Piggott Specials until I swill whatever’s around. A Shanghai Smoke for your thoughts, dear. That’ll do. The flags of Jerusalem are flying higher than my spirits ever did. Say goodbye to the wine dumps, the Devil’s Acre, and all the slummers’ balconies in the land. I’m headed west for the dunes, and I ain’t ever coming home.
- The Martin and Horton Saloon was an unpretentious place with long, bare tables, sawdust covered floors, and offered free lunch and very low-priced drinks. Beer never cost more than a dime. It was a favorite loafing place of strange San Francisco street characters during the 1870s.
- Eadweard Muybridge was a San Francisco photographer who became famous for his panoramic shots of The City in the 1860s.
- Emperor Norton was was a citizen of San Francisco who in 1859 proclaimed himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States.” Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.
- Lotta’s fountain is a historical fountain located at the intersection of Market Street, where Geary and Kearny Streets connect in downtown San Francisco. Commissioned by the famous entertainer Lotta Crabtree as a gift to the city of San Franscisco, it was dedicated on September 9, 1875. The cast iron fountain served as a meeting point during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and resulting fires.
- Pisco punch was an alcoholic beverage invented by Duncan Nicol at a bar named Bank Exchange at the end of the 19th century, in San Francisco. Nicol invented a pisco punch recipe using: pisco brandy, pineapple, lime juice, sugar, gum arabic and distilled water. The punch was so potent that one writer of the day wrote “it tastes like lemonade but comes back with the kick of a roped steer.”
- Oofty Goofty was a sideshow performer who lived in San Francisco in the late 19th century. Goofty reportedly would tour San Francisco, baseball bat in hand, and invite anyone who would listen to kick him as hard as they could for 5 cents, smack him with a walking stick for 15 cents, or beat him with a baseball bat for 25 cents.