Excerpt for Cymbal Man With Flat Feet by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This all started on an early December Tuesday in a San Francisco that no longer exists: a city partly razed and littered with the dreck and scum that gets left behind, before all the beer bars turned into fancy drink parlors, when rent was still affordable to roaming bands of artists, part-time trombone players and caroling conmen and record-store clerks, and a raft of your other garden variety hooligans. There were still some all-night diners and doughnut shops around too, and if you were lucky you could catch a cab in the Mission late on a Friday night for a reasonable rate with a driver who was just as reasonably sober. The condos and high-rise towers had yet to completely take over the landscape from lesser-known embattled structures of brick and stone. I knew plenty of people who lived in closets, makeshift living rooms, and the spaces above water heaters. Rooms were cordoned off with accordion panel screens or drapes. People walked to get places. And this, of course, all happened before the yuppies had infested too far into the investment of the city’s future; and before I lost my last job; and before the government had turned into a quasi-fascist state built to behoove the interests of the rich and spoiled and greedy; and before everyone I loved was dead.

As for me, I was only a gawking tourist in reality’s show. Nothing to spit about or throw lemons at. I’d given up trying to make it in any ordinary sense, and avoided parties and concerts and other places of stilted recreation and mass-commodity commotion. I wore old, fusty suits with buttons missing and mustard stains on the lapel. Never cool enough to wear hard-sole shoes with buckles, I plodded on in just floppy, thin-soled Converse with the laces perpetually in need of tying. My glasses slipped down my nose as the nights went, and the lights dimmed on all of my formerly well-lit Broadways.

I had a small studio nestled away on the north slope of Nob Hill, tucked into a corner a few blocks from Chinatown. I’d wake up most mornings to a guy yodeling and screaming just outside my street-facing bay window, “San Francisco! San Francisco! You will burn, motherfucker!” It was much better than any alarm clock. The trash trucks couldn’t even drown him out, and he was as precise as any rooster about it. After a while I think I learned to sleep through it, but it still echoed in my dreams: rife with unfounded anger and forged by angst with nowhere to go, no direction, no purpose. Just like my life, then. One big sleep away from being completely lost, one good haircut away from success. I’d wander more than just aimless through the fog-lush city washed in piss, strobe-lit and petty at its center, a windy street-scavenged mess putrefying in beautiful ruins, as those wonderfully bulb-pocked spans stretched haphazardly rustic to the east and internationally orange-brazen northward.

Gone was the workaday city of the 40’s and 50’s, with its dreams of the railroad earth etched in brick, its sleepy munificence and streetcar congestion and blue-collar homes, smokestack gray and smacked with purpose, filled with stevedores and bootblacks and telephone operators and sailors on shore leave. Cheap coffee in diners, hats on hooks, people tired after a long day’s hard work. A city of boarders who slept in the house and also took their meals with a family; and then lodgers who slept in the house but took their meals elsewhere; and so boardinghouses gave way to rooming houses where no food was ever served. And the rich got richer, and the poor got to leave town discreetly through the service entrance.

And so we got BART trains and buses instead of subway lines. And soon depreciation crept in and city planners got freeway happy and mad with skyscrapers. They tore down historic neighborhoods and built projects. The White Flight of the 70’s and 80’s gave way to Disney Stores, Manhattanization, and Dot-Com booms. No more Barbary Coast or Miracle Mile or Monkey Block— just a Starbucks where a brothel used to be and a Quiznos to take the place of a small Italian Delicatessen and parking lots where movie theaters once abounded, just as the West Coast Stock Exchange transformed into the slightly less glorious Equinox Gym.

There was solace to be had, somewhere. I knew it. I just hadn’t ever been able to find it.

My ex-wife Ramona was in the hospital somewhere in Des Moines. She’d been sick for a long time, and had been making the rounds from one specialist to the next, getting a barrage of tests, all of which had so far determined nothing except that she didn’t have about 500 exotic and deadly diseases. They were ruling things out. That’s all they ever seemed to do.

I hadn’t been in touch with her for a good while. Our separation was messy and stupid, filled with the ruins of both our pettiness and the hardship of having to be away from each other knowing that we’d only hate each other if we were left alone together. The banter of us was gone from the bicker. We were communicating almost solely by rumor. We were serious people now, and we hated each other for it.

I had a friend back then named Leroy. We’d been through all sorts of ringers and routs together, carousing the city in perilous adventures that rarely involved more limb than life. A good drinking buddy if you’d ever want one, but always one ribald battle away from complete lunacy, like a knife handle that’s come unattached from its blade: the memory of being able to slice up anything in sight still fresh, but not being able to do anything about it anymore; and so, well, we drank. And we consumed more than our fair share of illicit and dangerous substances along the way. It seemed like the most normal thing in all of civilization to be doing. I never questioned it.

Leroy was currently having a series of on-again trysts with Ramona’s best friend Helen (who’d flown out to Iowa to be with her a few days earlier), and so was more in the know as to Ramona’s current health situation than I was. I pretty much had to go through him to gather any information about her, which was fine, I guess. In the whole deplorable mess of the universe it was really just a minor charley horse in my constitution. But, still, I wasn’t feeling super or grand about any of it.

Now, Leroy was definitely not what you’d call a well-adjusted and balanced individual. He was an artist, a goof, wiry and tough as a mule deer, an unharnessed blur of ribald energy, messing with everything, knocking the kind and gentle and normal world on its ass every chance he got. Black-rimmed glasses duct-taped together below his always frenetically hopscotching eyebrows, his face was a gnarly mass of scars and bad ideas about a beard, while the always flapping nature of his crooked and dirty mouth coexisted in perfect symbiosis with the thoughtful and almost somber gaze in the swirling lichens of his eyes. In paint-splattered pants and a ripped t-shirt, his cataphract of arm and neck tattoos on display, his next cigarette forever tucked safely away in his ear, he gave any takers a shove more than all they could take, and I admired the hell out of him for it.

He’d recently been laid off from some Institute of High Finances that he’d been temping for, doing some schlepp work around the office, debugging computers, filing forms, spilling coffee, taking himself out for long lunches, and all the likes; and so had himself some extra oodles of free time to spend deciding what the hell he was going to do with his grownup life. Since my work schedule was also erratic at the time, we ended up spending a good deal of our free time together.

I was working on-call at a hospital Emergency Room at the time, and had just finished a week of 12-hour shifts. I was ready for some direly needed time off, and so decided not to answer if they called over the next few days. Leroy phoned me late the night after the end of my last shift, as I lay in bed wide awake yet groggy as hell, and we made plans to see some boozy sights for the next day. I had a sneaking feeling there was some news he was itching to relate.

Lefty O’Doul’s was a Hofbrau and bar on Geary near Union Square. It was touristy, but still had that ingrained sense of local majesty that only comes from many years of regulars doing time inside the wide expanse of its dusty gloaming interior. It was down the hill from me by about 7 or 8 blocks, and seemed an auspicious place to begin any sort of barnstorming activities for the day. I told Leroy to meet me there before 11, as they stopped serving breakfast after that, and lord knows we’d need some sustenance for the forbearance of strong drink. I put on a ragged suit held together by safety pins, and hoofed it down there, cordially acknowledging traffic stops with a drawn hustle, almost becoming flattened into roadkill only a couple times by idiots plowing through reds, dodging and passing up moseying pedestrians on the left and right, as it were, and made it through the door at roughly 10:30.

The food at Lefty O’Doul’s was okay, if you went on the right day. I preferred Tuesdays when they had a Short Ribs Special. They had a decent beer selection (I usually went with the Anchor Porter), but you’d be wise to avoid the Bloody Marys; they were the worst on earth. It was like drinking spiced lemony tomato soup with a sickly sweet tinge and way too much salt, and I’m pretty sure the Vodka level was fairly low, which is a very important part of the concoction if you ask me.

Lefty O’Doul was an old ball player from San Francisco who played in The Bigs in the 20s and 30s, first as pitcher and later as a power-hitting outfielder. He once had the record for the most hits in a season. After his playing days were done he went home to manage the San Francisco Seals, a decent Pacific Coast League team in their day, and is credited for giving another young San Franciscan, one Joseph P. DiMaggio, his start on his way to fame and fortune. Lefty eventually retired and decided to start a bar and name it after himself. He found a place available on Geary.

The building was a vaudeville theatre before Mr. O’Doul bought it, and some say there is a secret tunnel behind the back wall that used to act as a passageway to an ancestor of the now long-gone Gold Dust Lounge on Powell during prohibition. But Lefty came and turned the place into a hofbrau and a bar, which it remained until the day it closed up shop, with its friezes of clam shells peeling green paint, its neon green sign, the stony white and slate bricks of the front wall, and an always present banner on the green awning proclaiming its breakfast, “The Best Deal on the Square.” The breakfast was pretty damn decent for the price, but it was only served until 11, and who in the world can wake up, or for Christ’s sake get any food down them, that early in the morning? It goes without saying I usually schlepped my way in there later in the day, and had to settle for sliding my tray across the metal bars cafeteria-style while trying to quickly make up my boggled mind about what meat and side dishes it was that I was going to try to stomach. The guys behind the counter there were nice, and they helped you out; and it was usually not very crowded when I went, but I still usually ended up dropping my silverware a few times and getting side dishes I didn’t want. “Go with the cucumber salad,” I’d keep telling myself. Most times I ended up saying, “Um, just the potato salad,” though, and by then it was too late, as the guy had already slopped a big old chunk into a bowl and set it on top of the glass partition for me. Then I’d grab a coffee (which is actually damn good), and pay, and go find a seat in the back room, unsteady with my wobbling tray not-so-deftly held out in front of me.

The backroom was incredible. The walls were all fake wood paneling hung with a plethora of old pictures: baseball players like Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth, and Joe Dimaggio in a San Francisco Seals uniform, a team picture of the 1933 SF Missions, a chintzy portrait of Barry Bonds, and of course many of Lefty (my favorite is one of him standing in the rain coaching third base with an umbrella); and many pugilists too, some even of the bare-knuckled variety. There was also an amazing panoramic shot of Seals Stadium, which used to stand on the corner of Bryant and 16th where there’s a Safeway now. A large sculpture of Marilyn Monroe striking her famous dress-being-blown-up-in-her-face pose presides behind the long-defunct back bar, which had two giant TVs behind it, and a backdrop of red gauzy material strung with tiny yellow lights. A dim glow came down from the red-yellow-blue-pink-green stained glass of a few ancient light fixtures; and, if you asked them nicely, the busboys would keep bringing you refills on your coffee (which, as I said, was damn good.)

Burgundy booths lined the walls in the back, and there were plenty of tables to sit at too, all which made for a great place to watch sporting events from, as there were four giant TVs back there which were always turned to either ESPN, or whatever games happened to be on. You could actually watch four different games at once sometimes. It was quite spectacular. Before I had a TV I used to go to Lefty’s to watch all the Giants games. Even when I got hammered and started screaming obscenities at Dusty Baker, or threw my pint glass at the TV above the bar when Rob Nen would blow a save, they never kicked me out. I think the folks at Lefty’s have a soft spot for drunks. Also, a lot of cops tended to eat there, and this might’ve made them a little more accommodating, as they figured the cops would at least be close by if anybody really got too out of hand.

The front room, where the bar was across from the food counter, had more booths (which were by far the preferable place to sit with a small group), and had this strange stone wallpaper between exposed crossbeams on the walls. I think this might possibly have been an attempt to hark back to the old vaudeville days, but I could be wrong; I often am.

I stumbled my way in there that morning, in a dazed sort of bad shape, wobbling and worrying to a stool at the bar, barely intelligible in my maundering of, “Just an Anchor, please,” to the graying Walter-Pidgeon stunt double behind the bar. Leroy was nowhere in sight. I nursed my beer and sat there, waiting for something to happen.

The music, as always, was a steady stream of oldies and classic rock. Smokey Robinson was a favorite. Though at night they have a piano player whom you can sit around in a little alcove right by the front window. I’ve even seen people set their drinks on his piano (with a coaster of course) while they sit and listen. But for the time being, for me, I’d have to be content with imbibing at the well-worn sturdy and long oak bar, which wasn’t a terrible place to pull up a stool at, with many framed pictures of baseball players — and one that seemed to be a blown-up mugshot of a one Mrs. Norma Jeane Dimaggio — hanging above the briar patch of bottles behind it.

The bartenders were usually pleasant enough and would chat with you about the weather and baseball, though often times the bar would fill with cranky drunk geriatrics who would regale you with boring denture-riddled babble about their lives over a miserly cocktail. Unfortunately, this was turning out to be one of those time. I was absently tapped on the shoulder a few times, and wheeled around only to find an elderly gentleman on a walker who was trying to force his way in next to me. I scooted my stool over as far as I could, but the guy was still barely able to squish his walker in there; and after many too-long moments of me now hastily downing my beer, he managed his way to the seat, only stabbing me in the ribs a half-dozen times in the process. His face was all gristle and wear, the wrinkles smoked and chalky on his cheeks and forehead, and the veins in his arms were deep-blue gnarled rivulets of defeat. Everything stunk of ammonia and mothballs. I wanted none of it. I finished off my beer and gave up. There’s only so much you can fight against a situation that obviously doesn’t want you to be a part of it.

I rammed back outside through the doors and hastily lit a cigarette. It was a great defense against the onslaught of daylight’s first defeat, to stand there, leaning against the brick, smoking and watching the wheezing buses and traffic snarl by on Geary. I checked out the swarms of pigeons roosting in the eaves and sills and other nooks of the St. Francis hotel’s façade’s crannies across the street. People stood and waited to cram on the weary Luck-Dragon 38, biding their time, just like me, too, avoiding the writhing shebang of what was always lurking at the mediocre depths of their unrefined souls. Just like me, there, smoking a cigarette, the sheeny film covering my cognizance only slightly abated from a restless week, not ready for anything but ready for the worst too somehow, and it wasn’t even 11 am yet.

Leroy happened upon me just as I was taking a last drag. His mopey face all replete with absolute joy and mischief and some nervous tick of sorrow there too, somehow: something gone haywire in the brows, a rough-and-tumble attempt at suppressing some abstract concept of what it was like to be alive in the world just then, the way we were, then, all the time, and just at that moment, all at once but never together, and his cigarette was also almost gone to the filter.

“You ate without me? Dick.”

His furrowed expression, all scrambling eyebrows and wayward lips, was the stuff great character actors are made on.

“I didn’t get the chance. Some old guy muscled his walker between me and my beverage. It was a real raw deal in there. The worst.”

Leroy scuttled and hopped, stamping out his dead cigarette on the sidewalk beneath the scrappy remains of his once-white-but-now-gone-to-taupe Converse. He laughed a scuzzy laugh, all phlegm and spittle and day-old whiskey gut. “You’re a real bastard. No respect for your elders, kid.”

“Hell. I don’t think I can stomach any victuals right now anyway. But next time I swear I’ll get that cucumber salad for once. I hear it’s excellent.”

“So where to?”

“Anywhere but here. Some place close. I’m pretty walked out for the moment, here.”

There was something awry in Leroy’s presence. An amiss zygomatic in the complexion of it all. I didn’t have the wherewithal to do much sussing out about it, but it was there, and it bothered me. It was like being on the edge of a diving board above a swimming pool which may or may not have any water in it but not wanting to look down to find out if you’d make a splash or just end up splatted there on the cold concrete wishing that you’d never left the solid comfort of land. There was something ticking behind his looks, a time bomb or an alarm clock, or maybe just a goofy meaningless mistake in the gears of his personality. I gave up caring about whatever it was, and just resigned myself to operating on stun until we’d reached some other destination.

Leroy was fidgeting and hemming all his haws in some miraculously mistimed carousel of motion, absent and taking little care of his surroundings, almost knocking the hat off a woman walking by and tripping a rushing businessman on his way to an early power lunch at the Daily Grill next door, and then brought the whole rig to an abrupt stop with a, “Let’s get us to an Irish place.”

It was fine by me. I wanted to be anywhere but where we were. We headed a block south to Johnny Foley’s.

Foley’s was a gussied-up Irish corner bar that had “dueling pianos” going at it most nights for the entertainment and/or displeasure of the loyal patrons and tourists alike. It was nice and polished on the inside: all oak banisters and mahogany paneling and shimmering gold rails.

I made a beeline for the bathroom upon entrance to this fine drinking establishment, which was, not surprisingly, almost empty at this pre-lunch hour. The emptiness suited me just fine. I don’t care for crowds.

The bathroom was mine alone. I dawdled as best I could, cherishing however long these moments of solitude could last, taking extra time to wash my hands— the hot water like liquid balm for the arctic chill wreaking havoc on the hallucinating thunder of my maladjusted frame of mind.

“Thunder! Nanana, nanana! Thunder!”

Someone had put AC/DC on the jukebox. It didn’t seem proper; in fact, I found it almost obscene. Some sort of rocketed slug of a thing sent slithering through my ear canals and rifling through what was left of my jarred brain. I looked everywhere for signs of succor. I found only repositories for my emptiness. Then I saw Leroy at the bar by himself.

There he was, all mustachioed frowns and guttural sighs, sloppy and decomposing on a barstool, a sprained ankle of hope and lust fizzled out to another frazzled squint through duct-taped-together glasses at the weariness of things in general. Another lopsided world to contend with, the shine from last night’s raised-hell gone to a paralyzed gaggle of grunts and heaves. All not so well, as it were.

I ran around and then into a stool next to him, all hunched over there as he was, sipping at a pint glass in a contorted sort of struggle at being at least somewhat alive and aware of his surroundings. Me? I was about the same. The well-dressed bartender, who was tall and mean and gave off the unmistakable aura of indifference, didn’t seem to care for either of our mid-morning brawls against the strained mechanisms of being who we were. I straddled my seat, gripped the bar with both hands, and, with a half-cocked head, ordered a pint of Guinness from him. It was an Irish bar after all— what else could I do?

The jukebox stopped blaring after a bit, and I attempted to get as comfortable as possible on a stool. Leroy tried out a few jokes on me. They didn’t work. I got deflated and morose with an impossible-to-believe strung-out tininess that glommed onto what was still in commission about me. There was a sifting sort of silence that buried us for a bit there.

I asked about Ramona. He inhaled deep and purposeful, and let out a consequential sigh that seemed corroded somehow, as if it were carrying plague.

I remember the way the condensation on the pint glasses made our beers look like they were sweating heavily, making a mess of the thin coasters below them on the bar top. I can still see the exact faces we were trying to make, composed and suitably serious and ready for the worst and contrived, the way they weren’t working out, just like nothing ever seemed to for anyone ever. I readied myself, knowing whatever it was stalking me in the immediate future, this thing wasn’t going to be just laughed off so easily. The histrionics of trauma are not to be overlooked and denigrated; they’re as important to the emotional makeup of a situation just as much as the actual gut-punch of horrible news itself. I made myself make the proper face to match what was hurling around in my head, swarming my intestines, and aching the backs of my legs like dead gnarled vines tangled and rotting and wrapping their way around me. It was a real bum deal all around.

“She got some bad news.”

“How bad?”

His whole face indented at once, bringing his clumsy eyebrows to a narrow conclusion.

“Maybe I’ll just…I guess there’s no easy way around it. I’ll just tell you.”

Some time passed. I drank a long swallow of my beer.

“She’s got cancer.”

A whole year of shocked ragged awe stayed put and hung heavy, then a stiff tremble crumbled reality’s hold on the moment and vomited a cruise-liner of anxiety into my hair.


I wanted to ask a thousand questions, but no words were forthcoming. Saying things out loud seemed like the most worthless thing I could ever do with my time here on earth.

We just stared off, at the sad thicket of bottles behind in the bar, the oak and mahogany railing, at the bartender’s back, at the bathroom’s reflection in the mirror, at anything but each other. We were both weeping like a couple of real sad sacks gone too soft in the sorrows of having been alive for a long-enough while to know what was and what was not ever coming back.

I took a good swallow of my Guinness. That bitter frothy elixir, all rich and dark and full, poured through me, leaving my gums and tongue sticky with a somewhat parched feeling, like I couldn’t smack or lick my lips enough to wet their desiccated plight. It was all a wash, and I was in the spin cycle of it.

Leroy was looking everywhere but at me. He was shaking his head in these wounded little whirls. I asked him all the hows and whats and whys as I could, somewhat coherent. I was talking just to have something to do. He answered as best he could, in these small bursts of sham etiquette in the raspy tones that coddled his answers. It was lung cancer. Bad. Caught way too late. They were going to try chemo, or maybe some new drug that was on trial. I remember thinking, ‘How can a drug be on trial?’ My brain was on a temporary leave of absence.

I stared at my beer for a minute. I ventured something out of nowhere: “Did you know that these guys started the Book of World Records? It was to settle bar bets. People claiming they knew who’d done this or that the most or for the longest. That’s where it comes from: the Guinness Book of World Records. Leave it to the Irish.”

The next thing I knew we were both chuckling and drooling snot and babbling like some mental defects just released from the fetters of shock treatment. We laughed the dour and sick laughs of out-of-work clowns. Some sort of canned jubilation that coats the surface so as not to portend what’s scratching just below it. The bartender came over to us and just stood there, monumental, regal. His presence was a tall, thin shadow, and it was comforting, calm and composed.

“I’m thinking you fellas might like this new whiskey we just got in. I’ll pour you a glass if you’d like. Straight from old Éire. It’ll do you good. Neat. It’s kind to most folks.”

Through this odd chortled hacking we consented.

He set two shot glasses on the bar and poured this deep buttery liquid into them. Everything was melting around it, as if it were giving off energy in rings of acceptance. The glasses glowed with promises as everything shattered to pieces all around.

The bartender told us this one was on the house and left us to our wallowing, our sputtered laughs; and we hefted the two glasses with a ritualistic fervor, arms stiff and jerky, eyes averted towards less grave sights than each other’s eyes, and we clinked these small glass receptacles filled to the brim with the golden hours of forgetfulness, and we drank it down, and we sat there on our stools, and we waited as the thick burn and heat of it filled us, leaving a warm mended trail in its wake.

I told myself, ‘Everything is fine. Everything is okay. All is happening as it should.’

I didn’t believe a word of it, but, after that first powerful click and glow of the whiskey hit, I convinced myself that it was true. I was completely stuck in bogus assumptions, as the fragile state of self-denial enveloped me; and there was no breathing my way out of it. I let its alluring womb reconnoiter my so woebegone and toppled position in reality. I sat there and waited for enough time to pass, so as I could get to feeling decent about being me again.

My head was an unplugged toaster and all I could think was, ‘Bread, bread, bread.’

My head was roiling. I was seeing stars without any stripes. A derelict gumball machine that only dispenses bad news. In the window I made out the close harassing face of a homeless man spying on the lives going on inside doors. I’d had enough of this scuffling, this mild-mannered temper tantrum of a floorshow. Wherever I was, was just where I didn’t want to ever be.

My head was on a swivel. A fly was doing its best mime-trapped-in-a-box impersonation above the bar, pursuing invisible points in mad darts, connecting stars, manically, with pinpoint precision and a sense of purpose that I was wholeheartedly jealous of. I swatted at it with a few meager wafts of my hand. Even the most minimal effort I could muster seemed at least a few miracles away. Everything was fallen, lost, swollen to a rancid stink in the sewers.

Leroy and I made some inane medium-talk over the clatter of glasses and bottles being poured and shelved as the lunch crowd began making their way in. Regular conversation seemed pointless, yet it was important to have it; we needed it to shield us from the dangling sword of Damocles inching closer to our heads.

“Held at the pommel by a single hair of a horse’s tail.”

Leroy’s face was a flummoxed bowl of untouched soup.


“Nothing. This place is starting to lacerate the hell out of my goodwill. Let’s have another hurrah that lasts some-a-where’s else.”

“Yeah. Sure. Just, please, stop talking like some moron in a bad novel. We’re people, here, remember?”

Leroy was always one to talk sense into me during troubled times. I downed what remained of my Guinness in one wonderful gulp. It felt like the best action in the world to possibly be involved in, and we paid the gentleman behind the bar, scooped up our piddling, now-recuperated persons, and bravely lashed outward into downtown’s lunchtime swarms.

We walked towards Powell. An old man pushing a bearded collie in a baby stroller came at us. Leroy let out a stiff yelp and leaped towards the gutter as this belabored sideshow act plowed through us at good clip, narrowly avoiding a collision. Masses of dawdlers were out, crowding on street corners, disobeying traffic signals, gawking and taking up valuable space. Cable cars trundled and clacked to stops and fitful starts as taxis and delivery trucks double parked and clumped at red lights. A sheeny fading glitz thrummed from tired neon and the shriveling texture of what were once blocks of transient, monthly rate, retirement-home hotels for old men. Now it was all a mess of tacky tourist attractions, Disney-fied and plastic and soul-less.

We slalomed through it with the economic haste of reserved furious men, chasing abstract leads always wavering into dissipated folds as we happened upon them, careening down Powell past the sizzle of Tad’s Steaks, almost skidding right out of our shoes at the intersection and sharply hairpinning left onto Ellis. I stopped outside of John’s Grill, festering there in ancient Maltese-Falcon glory with its musky interiors and three stories of cramped over-priced dining, a leftover from another era when space was not a thing to have all to one’s self.

I saluted that old, deadbeat neon sign. “Dashiell. Dashiell. Where have you gone Mr. Hammett? Our stomachs turn their sourest chimes to you.”

Leroy was perched like a thoughtful osprey on the curb, down on his haunches, his backside swaying a bit over the gutter, as he removed a cigarette from behind his ear and stuck it between his lips.

“He wasn’t a stranger to misery, I take it.”

“Dashiell Hammett wrote a book in there once. Drank only water. He was fond of the lamb chops.”

“Dash-ay-heel Hammer-ett-o was a reeeeel ass-a-hole!”

Leroy carved out a place with his hand to light his cigarette in a gusty draft, still squatted on the curb, balanced there with his toes on the stone and his heels in midair, tottering up and down a bit.

“Sure. Sure. We all are when it comes down to it.” I cleared my throat emphatically and screamed up at the sign, “Fuck the Maltese Falcon!”

For some reason we both decided to scramble away as if we’d just robbed the place or left a lit M-80 in the bathroom sink. We pushed and skedaddled our way through the throngs down to Market, howling glib, holy obscenities as we raced through the imaginary obstacle courses in our minds. Nothing was going to stand in our way. Nothing was going our way. Nothing was all we had. And apparently nothing was all the plenty we currently were in need of. The sort of thoughts I was having weren’t something I wanted to catalogue. I had too many songs in my head to keep track of, and the flurry of people crisscrossing my perspective just smeared into one loopy scene of wrong-of-way motion and myopic avoidance and the fusion and fission in the microcosms of threaded doubt of another chance at being alive and well under the sun for the there and then of whatever distraction would make it all last, and, in the convoluted nature of all flesh and blood, to not have to ponder any nexts or whens or hows for the duration. Everything was wrong; and all I kept thinking, over and over, was, ‘Change. Spare some. Change. Spared. Change. I’m spared. Change. Can’t. Be Spared change. Change. Can I get a little change?’

We made it to a four-way signal on Market. A crumbling man with a warthog’s face glowered at me from somewhere below. He smelled of disinfectant and aftershave and yeast. “Hello there, young Jewish man.” His voice was all rotted tonsils and broken teeth. “You got a dollar for an old Indian?” He was sitting cross-legged and leaning against the traffic-light stanchion. Patches and tears abounded on his coat and pants, stains like oil on the elbows and knees, his shoes barely hanging onto their soles.

“Sorry. I’m not Jewish.”

“That’s okay. I’m not Indian.”

We both laughed at the exact same time. I slipped a dollar from my coat pocket and gently set it down in his lap. He smiled a big greasy smile, and his pinto-bean eyes grew so wide that I thought they might pop and explode in a thousand tiny grains of mercy that could never be strained by any person, place, or thing.

We crossed the street to get to the other side.

Market’s wide swath was immersed in a crush of ambulatory frenzy— also the edgy blurts and skids of harried motorists and cabbies plunged into an arrhythmic clangorous stop-and-go concerto of the streets. The intestinal trauma of a thousand shoes clopping along concrete, regurgitated peas and bones; and the harrowing peel of the noontime Tuesday air-raid siren comingles with the whirring ambulance sirens and cop sirens and that special piercing bleat of the fire engine sirens too. Always noise going on somewhere, always something to have to contend with. Backing up flatbeds, garbage trucks digesting their load, honking bastards stuck behind the wheel of midsize sedans, manholes being clanked over, cranes and excavators and cement trucks and hard-hatted construction workers on scaffolding always creating havoc all over the place, people yowling greetings and goodbyes: all the hardscrabble and remote echoes of city life.

And there we were, a couple of daylight suckers, blitzed with a touch of horror and sadness, out writhing in the urbanity, shedding layers of guilt and raw hurt, classless do-nothings, born into this, crammed into it all, and a mess with the unsatisfied grunts of someone never to be claimed or disowned, cleaved into a mishandled purgatory where nothing ever stays or goes or lasts, at least not long enough so that anybody’d care to notice. I was craving piano music; and all I was getting were stuffing recipes.

“Trotsky! Look, holy shit! It’s Leon Trotsky!”

Some bearded malcontent in a moth-eaten pea coat was pointing his forefinger at me, adamantly, and piling on his deranged perspective: “A person must fight at all costs to retain a sense of identity and aliveness, and avoid being absorbed by the homogeneous masses.”

“Well, that, my good sir, is merely your opinion.”

The guy got closer, and then closer still. I didn’t like the scent of his company, and so yarded away from him as best I could while remaining intently calm. He kept coming, as if he’d been sent by Arabian hashish smokers who were in line for a promotion.

Leroy was convoluted in a decent fit of belly laughs, while at the same time trying to ward this could-be robber baron off with drastic semaphores of peace, shaping his hands into soft pats and warm circles.

Eventually, with Leroy putting on his best body-guard act, I muscled my way out of the situation, telling all within shouting distance, “This man is not dangerous. There is nothing to fear here except ourselves,” as the pea-coated madman found a new direction to twist in.

“Shit, man. I don’t get it, but the oddest assortment of characters are always chatting you up.”

“I know. I’m a magnet for it. And I’m in need of some serious depolarization.”

“We need to get you indoors. Come on. Let’s head…” he stopped mid-blurt, planted himself like a leafy elm right next to me, tugged at my arm while scrunching up his countenance, scratched a few deliberate times at the thinning territory of his scalp, and then proclaimed,“…this-a-way!” And we were off to the races once again.

The swallows we take end up becoming the thirst of who we are.

The House of Shields happened upon us just as much we happened upon it. There was nothing to do but go inside and wait out the postprandial banter of businessmen and art-school students who’d be gathering for another hour or so. I’d always had a fondness for the place. It didn’t have any clocks or TVs. The high vaulted ceiling, cross-beamed with flourishes of intaglio-like carvings and splashes of deep blue on the etched wood; the spiffy white floor tiles; the wooden-legged barstools, and the pockets of stiff leather booths lining the windows; the Romanesque statues and reliefs around the back mirror behind the bar with all the bottles of booze stacked in front of it and the high white curtains above. There was always at least a slight twinge of 1908 swirling around in there, and if you caught a sniff of it, on just the right day, say like on a Tuesday when you’ve been moping around in your generational sorrow all morning, when the mood was just off-kilter enough so that you weren’t noticing the drab bullshitters and PowerBar/energy-drink enthusiasts who were lingering around after lunch, and perhaps you had a Fernet cocktail as a companion, and the air was just stuffy and crisp enough to take away the terrible taste of the conditioned normalcy left in your mouth, maybe you might be able to get a sense of peace, a composed solace in the wounds of the world, and you’d lift your glass against it all, against the perpetual mashing of your brains by the grand industrialists of the world, against the wrap and weft of temperance and holding it together, against war and worry and that sad empty feeling you kept getting when the booze got to running out; and you’d cast your doleful eyes up above the booth and out the water-spotted windows at the grandeur of the Palace Hotel where Warren Harding once died across the street, and feel good about being alive just then, at this precise point in the whole kerfuffle of your existence.

We found ourselves a couple of unoccupied stools at the end of the bar. The bartender was Robert Crumb’s wet dream: all thick hips and ass. She had a throaty growl that even threw the usually unflappable Leroy for a loop.

“What’ll it be, gents.”

“Gin and tonic.”

I’d uttered this order without thought. I had no idea where it came from. Leroy looked as befuddled by it as I was.”

He gave me a few elbows to the ribs. “Whooooo, orders Gin at this hour? What’s the matter with you, chump?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny the order.”

“You…what?” He had that look on that always meant he was about two sentences away from strangling me.

Luckily the lady behind the bar intervened.

“Now boys. Boys. Leave it be. Let’s get it together. It’s never too early for gin around here. And for you, Screamer?”

This snapped Leroy back around to a lightheartedness he was always towing around behind him just in case the situation called for it. “Ahhhhhh…rrrrrrrrr…ahem. I’ll just have an Anchor.”

The afternoon droned on. There was no music playing. Soon the bar emptied out a bit as the art schoolers went back to class and the business crowd returned to finish off “killing it” for the remainder of the day. We drank our drinks and sulked as best we could, soon moving off to a booth to reassess our plight and plan our next moves, ulterior or not, as they were.

“Soooo. What’s next?”

“We could be braver men. We could stave off this culture’s remorseless bashing of the courses we run through it.”

“We could hop a train.”

“Or rob one.”

“Stumble our way through it like a couple of drunkards would.”

“I’m done with all this slouching. Let’s eat apples and walk the streets brandishing love letters to dead people. Let’s interrogate the sewer systems.”

“Let’s procure us some most fucking potent drugs.”


Leroy went outside to place a call to a person who knew a person who could achieve these ends for us.

I felt about as vast as a yawn. I wanted out. All I kept getting for my pointless laboring was spoiled fruit chucked at me. Ramona was dying. It was the last thing I could get my mind to rotate to. I nursed the gin from the tonic with short sips from a tiny straw and gave myself over to some serious daydreaming:

She said, “Describe the sky to me.”

“The moon is just a sliver of a fingernail lying on a bed of back-lit yams. Tonight’s the night the clouds will shred to bits of napkin and fall over our kittling around. Whistled stops to the untrained eye, shudders going unannounced through the bluesy heaves and rifts of a rustling star-patched blanket. Needlepoint of golden yarn tips on heavy black felt. Leather ribbons tied over gorilla-glued tinsel hearts. Broomed dust and ink splattered in the threaded whorls of God’s carpet. Food for a flower’s brain.”

“Look. Orion’s an onion!”

“Plato’s on Pluto!”

“A dog. A plane. No. It’s just a floater.”

“Four-score-a-get about it.”

Ramona would lie next to me, asleep, her delicate folds and curves curled into the sheets, her little head just barely on the pillow’s edge, lips twitching to a purse and back again over and over, the wilderness of her mop of auburn curls spread out all over the blankets. The way she slept, holding that patented tuck steady and light, so soft and sweet, hell, it should’ve been against the law. It just wasn’t fair, something to have to remember her by. That place her shape fit so well next to mine, that slight indentation in the mattress, the spot on the sheets where her drool would gather, the cute purring sound her snores, all that’s left of her…all that’s left. She laughed in all the wrong places, and cried when you’d least expect it. When she hugged me I could feel it in my toes. That’s all that’s left. Only things in my mind. Just in my mind, where something was always the matter.

I snapped myself out of the mushy reverie with a, “Don’t go getting all morose and daffy, you asshole.” And then I took a good and long, hearty swill of the gin drink. I was done speaking with myself on and on about all this no-good business.

Leroy had gone all cockamamie and bonkers while conversing outside. He came at me like a real son of a bitch, all rife with busting and botched ideas, cigarettes and bile on his breath. The diplomacy of his plurality had come unhinged again. He needed a drink in that awful way, that way that only staves off the lowest of feelings, one that’s even worse than waking up early to do that horrendous and practical thing people did called going to their jobs.

“Sit down. I’m barely sure what day it is.”

He flopped down on the booth’s sleek leather interior and stared at me with a car-crash on his face, that droopy smile—half-lacerated with wryness and exceptional tortuosities, fuming with a funny grace—his eyes gummy and swum-out.

“I’m getting us two more beers at the Bay-Ar. Stay put.”

“Aye, aye, Captain!” He swung himself vitally to a stalemate there on the table’s edge while visoring his hand up on his forehead at me. His fingernails were rich with grime.

I went and got two more beers, some abatement for the dragging nature of the festivities. The bartender laughed her good throaty laugh a few times at my bad jokes, and it got my spirits up above the Mendoza line for the first time all day. The atmosphere of idiocy had cleared for the most part, as the place began to empty out before the Happy-Hour crowd started arriving. This has long been one of my favorite times to be in a bar, and I wanted to take advantage of it for as long as we could.

“We should’ve had a subway. Long ago. In the 30s. But the bastards who ran the crowded streetcars wouldn’t have it, and the whole thing was voted down. Proposition One. The first fucking one. And it failed. And the cars and buses came to dominate. And the freeways. What a damn shame. A real…damn…shame.”

“What the hell are you moaning on about?”

“Nothing. Here’s another beer to take the place of that empty one.”

“That’s more like it. Ok. So. I got a hold of our mutual acquaintance Mr. Cee. It seems he is in the possession of some quite interesting substances.”


Mr. Cee was a notorious good-natured lowlife who lived above a Korean pool hall in the Tenderloin. I’m not sure what his full name really was, but we always just called him Cee, and he responded to it, so it worked out well for all involved parties.

“He’s going to meet us here in a bit.”

“Great. Glad that’s taken care of.”

We drank our beers and waited for something to happen.

“You’ve got a button missing and mustard on your jacket, Buster.” A woman’s voice, directed my way. I studied the face before me, all punchy cheeks and eyes like railroad spikes. The best head of hair I’d ever seen up close: jagged tufts of deep black sleekness all bundled and bustling all over the place in a perfectly orchestrated disarray of ear-length complexity.


“That’s Militant Millicent to you.”

Millie was a roughhousing, vegan, bi-sexual, anarchist, activist, ex-con, artist, zine-maker, recalcitrant songwriter, anti-fascist, Luddite, one-woman-revolution in a black leather jacket. She was a wonderful person to run into by accident.

She stood over me, lifted me up by my tie, and pretended to be dusting me off while introducing me to her companion, “Scarlet— like the fever, not the color.” She then proceeded to attempt to lick the mustard stain from my jacket’s lapel. I couldn’t stop both giggling and gagging.

Leroy was gaping at the whole scene as if he were watching an ill-rehearsed one-scene play put on by inmates of a mental institution, a tad unsure of what ways he should try to jump into it all.

“Room for one more over there?”

Millie sprung around and scowled at him with a dramatic, “What the fuck’s it to you, dear brother out of arms? Just who the fuck do I currently have this real goddamn pleasure of speaking to?” She was now gripping my jacket’s lapel in her fingerless-gloved hand. “Huh?”

“That’s Leroy. You two’ve never met?”

She gave him the once over a couple of times. “The pleasure’s all yours, I’m sure.”

“I am.” Leroy just let it sit there like a tuna sandwich going bad under a heat lamp. Everything screeched to a halt, and then; with a steady, “You are,” from Millie’s friend Scarlet; all was rocked back into motion again.

It was getting crowded again at the bar, so the ladies decided to join us in the booth for a bit. We didn’t mind the company.

Millie let go of my outerwear and slid in next to me, piping up, “Hey, Buffalo Billionaires. They call me Calamity Jane Eyre around here. Gladder than gold to be welcomed into your gentlemanly fold.”

Scarlet-Like-The-Fever-Not-The-Color scooted in next to Leroy. She was all scintillation and jewels wrapped in a red-and-yellow polka-dotted scarf and a white overcoat. Her skin was not quite as pale as chalk, and she had long slender fingers with the nails cut short. I wondered about the mysteries lying dormant in the layered confines of her shoulder-length dishwater-blond hair.

She caught me eying her. “What’s up, Woody Allen?”

Everyone liked that. People eat that shit up.

I adjusted my glasses nervously, with great pomp and theatrics, rustled my tie, and sputtered, “Yeah. Sorry, I’m not myself since I quit smoking 16 years ago.”

Nobody liked that. People can be real stinkers sometimes.

We conversed over our drinks, getting to know the things about each other that we were willing to show in public, gabbing excitedly about random conceits and barrages of upended stories we kept telling others to keep ourselves convinced that we weren’t just moping through our days. When the beverages got low someone bought another round, until we’d lost track of who was buying, and then, at some erratic juncture in the festivities, that elusive Mr. Cee made his highly anticipated and questionable appearance, jocular as a lap-dance, that thick-necked white mass of rotund muscle and flab, slamming both hands flat on our table with a puckered greasy smile. The guy really thwarted all regular conventions of behavior, sporting fishnets on his forearms and razors in his army boots, he lisped with a demanding purpose; and this time it was, “Fuck these neo-yuppies and their cul-de-sac lives.”

Leroy bounded up from his slouching position, “Mr. Cee! Yes!”

It was all that needed to be said.

Mr. Cee slowly nodded a large circle of maybe-to-no, his ravaged, dyed-navy-blue pompadour sweeping and buckling from side to side. His glazed gaze ran the gauntlet of our disorderly cadre, the empty glasses and crumpled cocktail napkins strewn all over the table, the shifty nature of our sad little party of four.

“I tell you, me. I had a time of it on the way here. All these victims of soul muggings, these puffy slack tourists all over. And me? I’m just some Murray from A Thousand Clowns, all maladjusted and tripping up the rickety stairs of it all. But,” he slid his puma paws outward on the table, his dual watches sewn in thick leather straps on his wrists, “at last, or, maybe at least, here…I made it.”

I gave him my best golf clap. He bowed a tad, standing there puffing out of his gold vest swiped from a three-piece over a short-sleeved burgundy polo shirt. It was quite a getup, but not out of the ordinary for him. I’d once seen him in a rain slicker over a sundress with no socks and white Vans, sporting a “Darby Crash For Congress” pin in his buttonhole. His fashion sense came from a thrift store’s bargain bin. Scarlet was taken with him instantly, offering effusive compliments by the snorkeled dozen. He squeezed in next to her, casual as an apple on a day off.

“This here’s a Scarlet, like the fever.”

“First name, Mister. Last name, Cee.”

“Well’s well. There’s everything in a name.”

“I’m not currently in the business of being in love with anybody.”

“But is there a somebody who’s in the business of loving only you?”

“I’d love to meet a girl named Chevrolet. On a speedway we’d be happy, blitzing through the armaments of the day-to-day, only stopping to gas up and make hay with pitchforks.”

“Hey! Let’s embark for spiffier quarters.”

“I like it here.”

“Yeah. It’s a real top-notch dive.”

“I once met Paul Reubens on a tomato farm in Iowa.”

“You mean some candy ass who I’ve never heard of?”


“I’m a wonderful listener.”

“Great. I need to be around a person who can listen, on account of the fact that I blab on so much.”

This was the sort of rot that I was up against. I wanted out, just then, and so jostled my way out of the booth and went outside to smoke a cigarette and regain some sort of composure.

With my cigarette lit, I leaned against a space between windows, and I started singing softly, “I remember you well, at the Palace Hotel, you were cussing so insane and so sweet, resting my head on the bar like a bed, while the lemonade waited in our suite.” A scruffy fellow with a blown-apart umbrella scrambled by, some lurker of unrefined mystique, and I watched as he shoved the useless device into a trashcan nearby.

For some reason I felt the need to say something. “Another dead umbrella. Well, it served its country well.”

“It’s a goner. Too bad, really.”

“It will not be forgotten.”

He gave me smile on toasted rye.

“Thanks, buddy. That’ll be all. Good day.”

“It’s alright. Thanks.”

He marched away, lost in a sputtering burst of wits and grief, yacking at himself something awful: some nameless soldier without a fight left to find his meaning in. I felt about the same.

I needed to obtain some cash if this debauchery was to going string me along any further, and so I decided to make a visit to the ATM: that tortured servant of American capitalism. There was one inside the Metropolitan Trust building on the corner of Market, so I took a last long histrionic drag from my cigarette and hobbled my way over there.

The old-timey concrete clock sign jutting out from the building’s second floor right at the corner was stuck on 4:34 and 4 seconds. I looked at it for a bit, that set-in-stone ornament of a time gone by, waiting for time to go by; but it just stayed stuck there. A bald eagle guarded the clock’s hands carved into the frame’s bottom, which read “Bank of America” in Sans Serif over the top. I thought about Amadeo Giannini and the Bank of Italy building on Montgomery, about how he loaned out money to ordinary folks after the 1906 quake and fire, and how he eventually changed the name from Italy to America, and about how America was named for an Italian explorer, and then my evaporating concussion-like spell drifted to Monty Clift in Red River, and I got that song stuck in my head about the Red River Valley and a cowboy who loves you so true, and then I was done for, and I ducked inside that damn historic place built in 1907 to get some of my money back from that titan of the American banking institution that ever-so-kindly held it for me. It wasn’t 4:34 and 4 seconds. None of this mattered.

Back out on the street, I had 5 freshly dispensed twenties in my wallet, and the climate of my misgivings had picked up a bit. There was something refreshing about the afternoon’s lull in the action. A pause that could subdue all my aches and crotchets. Some scummy tadpole clouds were scudding by, muddying the sky’s deepening cobalt puddles. The streets were croaking with trolleys as algae-green lampposts stood at ease, busy doing their best Cornelius Vanderbilt impersonations. Newspapers were gone from newsstands. The wind was tossing around trash and dead leaves. My shoes crunched over a flattened Chili-Cheese Fritos bag and I felt somewhat decent about my current emotional whereabouts for the first time all day.

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