San Francisco—June 1 & 2, 2007
My friend from Paris asked me to pick her up a pack of cigarettes. It was Friday and I was headed downtown. By downtown I mean the Tenderloin, not the financial district. Gazebo Smoke Shop came to my mind.
"What brand you want?" I asked.
"Gaulois," she said. "Unfiltered."
Katrine is not exactly into her health. Truth to tell, she's more into her body and sensations. At least that is the way I read her behavior. Gaulois is that big fat French cigarette that smells like a cigar.
"I don't think they sell them here," I said. "I'll see what I can do."
The weather was, as it has been for a few weeks now, damp and cold with some wind blowing the wet stuff around.
I have always wanted to go into Gazebo. Its on the corner of O' Farrell and Jones where you really start to get into the Tenderloin. It serves the smoking needs of the neighborhood.
I asked the Indian fellow who runs the shop if he had Gaulois. He was a clean looking, friendly guy. He looked like he probably didn't smoke himself.
He said that Gaulois weren't distributed in the United States anymore.
"What do you have that is strong and unfiltered?" I asked.
"Just these," he said. "All the rest, they have filters."
He pulled a pack of brown America Spirits off a shelf. "100% pure tobacco," he said. "Probably better for you," he added a little lamely.
"They're not for me," I said. "My friend smokes. She wants something strong."
"Very full flavor," he said. I guess "full flavor" is the way they put it these days. Lots of nicotine, lots of tar. Well, I guess if I smoked that is the way I would want it. Why waste money on some wimpy product that doesn't deliver the goods!
"How much?" I asked.
"Six dollars," he said.
"Sold," I said.
I paid, stuffed the smokes into my bag, and headed down the street to the Weinstein Gallery.
Actually I head back a block to Geary. The big new Weinstein Gallery is on the corner of Powell and Geary. It is the biggest art gallery in San Francisco, I believe. It has a main floor and an upstairs and a downstairs and is about the size of the men's department at Macy's. But it does not sell Jockey underwear at bargain prices. It sells high-class art, about a million dollars a week, I'm told.
I drop by now and then but am not always treated with warmth. They now know I'm not a buyer, and I believe they regard writers as a little dangerous. Although I like Roland Weinstein's taste in art, I don't like Roland himself that much. He is a little, how shall I put it, cold. But maybe that is what owning art galleries does to you.
I'm staring at Robert Kipniss downstairs—the whole floor is Kipniss at the moment—when a rep comes up.
"Own any Kipniss already?" she asks smoothly.
"Me, own Kipniss?" I ask her. I'm about to ask her if anyone really owns Kipniss but catch myself. "Nothing in my current collection," I say, "but I like this guy Kipniss very much." I'm now over looking at a large piece called "The Rock Balanced II." It's a take off on a rock that is balanced on another rock in Central Park in New York.
Russell Manning, a former rep for Weinstein, once explained Kipniss to me. He said there is always something a little "ominous" in his works. There is something a little ominous in "The Rock Balanced II." More than a little, in fact. The rock is huge. Why doesn't if tumble down and crush someone right now? Is there a suggestion of bloody grass in this piece? I don't see it.
"Kipniss must have been in a mood when he did that," I say to the rep. She smiles but now I see something in back of the smile. I don't trust her. I leave, heading across Union Square to Cafe Claude on Claude Lane between Bush and Sutter.
It is still early in the afternoon and there is no one at the bar. Sometimes I prefer it that way when I'm in a mood. Fabrice is in back of the bar.
"Bonjour, Monsieur," I say.
"Bonjour. What can I get you?"
"Well, I have been thinking about a vodka martini for the last two hours, so I guess that is what I better have. I don't want to make the little monster inside of me mad."
"The 'little monster'?" asks Fabrice.
"Uh, yeah," I say, "but you don't want to know about the little monster."
He was content to not know and went to work on my martini.
"Let's actually put some vermouth in it," I say. The style these days is to almost omit the vermouth but I like the vermouth. It adds a nice herbal flavor to it. I also like it very cold.
"Et très froid," I say.
"You want me to shake it?" asks Fabrice.
"Si vous plais."
Franc, the owner, comes in and I ask him about his new place. He is taking over the space occupied till recently by Blue Point, which never really quite came together.
"Mediterranean," he says having trouble pronouncing the word. I can pronounce it but spelling it is another matter. English spellings are hell; guess at a spelling and about half the time you are wrong. Spanish is definitely the best language for consistent spelling. French is consistent enough, but with all the unpronounced syllables, who cares?
Anyway, I think Franc will do well with whatever he does there. Franc knows what he is doing. But just give it a name that folks can spell. Remember how Blue Point spelled Blue Point? Neither do I.
Saturday began promising, except for the clouds of smoke in my apartment. About 9:00 I decided to go out to get some fresh air. Katrine was content to lie on the coutch and smoke American Spirits. Apparently she like them.
Asked if she wanted to come, she said, "Not right now" and stubbed out a butt in a coffee cup.
"Au revoir," I said.
"Cio, baby," she said, barely glancing up from the coffee-cup ashtray on the couch.
I headed down Sacramento, then over to Bush Street when I hit Powell. The weather was just like the night before: damp and wet, with the wet stuff being pushed along by the wind. It was like one of those nights in San Francisco you read about in the old books with thick fog muffling the sounds of gun shots. Did those times actually exist or did someone just make that stuff up? Who knows? Who cares?
I headed down Bush about ten paces till I came to the Orchard Hotel and Vignette restaurant. I wanted to hear Sheryl Mebane's jazz trio again. I heard her two weeks earlier and was impressed. Her trio is called Tangria, and it was playing when I walked in. The bar was empty except for one heavy-set young women at the end who was reading a book. She, I presumed, was in town on business and had to spend the weekend.
I positioned myself in the middle of the bar and ordered the Fog Chaser, a combination of Bombay gin, Chambord, lemon, and lemon seltzer. Not bad, but the seltzer made it a little too sweet for my tastes.
I concentrate on the music as the trio played Footprints by Wayne Shorter. It was the same musicians as two weeks ago with the exception of the bass. Jestin Hellmen was playing bass. I had heard Justin before at Cafe Claude down the street. He is a fine bass player but with Sheryl on drums the performance was absolutely electrifying. Justin plays both acoustic bass and electric. He was playing the electric bass on Footprints, at times playing chords and treating it much more as a rhythmic instrument than the acoustic bass. The drums and electric bass were now playing off each other, each picking up something from the other and creating a more exciting whole. Only Simon Rochester, on electronic keyboard, seemed a little at a loss as to how to fit in on this piece. Then he was floating over the bass and the drums and the whole thing came together.
I read afterwards that this was the end of an eight-month gig at Vignette. I do hope Vignette brings this group back. They are one of the most exciting groups I've heard in recent times. And Sheryl is a superb drummer. I told her as much on break when she and Justin were sitting at the end of the bar where the woman with the book had been. But she is modest; she attributed at least part of it to Justin.
I finished my Fog Chaser, then walked on downtown to Belden Place, through the alley to see how the restaurants there were doing—they were thinning out—then over to Sacramento where I caught the number 1 back up the hill.
Katrine was now into a book, The Immoralists by Andre Gide, I think. She had another coffee cup now, and it was filled with what looked like a very strong brew of coffee. My whole apartment was beginning to smell like a coffee house in Montmartre.
I hung with her for awhile, then said I was going back out.
"Where you go now?" she asked, flipping a page without looking up.
"Downtown," I said. "Way downtown."
"What's happening there?" she asked.
"Don't known. Just going to see."
"Vous êtes étrange," she said.
I put my video camera in a canvas bag with my wallet and a notebook and headed down on Taylor. I wanted to see if I could catch the bad cop of the Tenderloin beating someone up; I wanted to see whatever was happening. I had been heading down on Saturday night now for the last month with my camera in a bag so as to not draw attention to it. It was going on midnight, which is when things seem to heat up down there.
But it looked quiet now. When I got to Eddy I cut over to Mason, first passing all the yups lined up in front of the dance club near the corner—no cops hanging out there as there were last week—then headed down Mason to Turk. I passed another yup club on the other side of the street. It is a smaller club with less tension there, it seemed to me. Then I headed up Turk passing Taylor and Club 21 on the corner. Still nothing. Then I see the flashing lights on up the street toward Jones. I head up that way. At Jones I see lots of police cars with flashing lights. There are police all over the place. I cross the street and ask one of the friendlier-looking cops what is happening.
"Stabbing, " he says.
"Fatal?" I ask.
"Don't now yet."
"Thanks, " I say as he lifts the yellow tape for a resident to cross the line and go into his apartment. It is one of the newer apartment buildings in the Tenderloin, where several different cultures exist these days.
I go across the street and talk with a guy standing in front of an older building. He doesn't know anything except that there has been a stabbing.
"Just got back," he said. He is a nice looking guy and friendly but looks a bit like a junky. He has that nervous look about him that you see in guys who have been on something for a long time.
I then head back down Taylor, passing Aunt Charlie's, and turn the corner at Grand Liquors. On Taylor I see Morino out front of Club 65. I like Morino but I have been warned about him by Frank at Club 21 across the street. Anyway, I owe Morino a drink and go inside with him.
We sit across from the bar against the wall at a little table. There are two black women hanging out at another table next to us. One is playing a game; the other is just sitting. She looks tired and very old. Her skin is leathery. She looks sadly discarded. She asks Morino if it is okay to go outside and smoke.
"Sure, no one gonna do nothin' to ya."
She goes out and lights up a cigarette but stays close to the door.
A guy from the back—I didn't notice him before—passes by our table on the way to the door, slightly brushing my shoulder. I smile at him, as if to say no problem.
"That nigger," says Morino, "if he even talks to me I'll have every bone in his body broken."
Morino is a tough little ex-boxer from New York. He has explained to me that he "don't mean nothin'" when he says "nigger."
"They call me things too," he says. I've in fact listened to him use the N word right in front of black guys. They don't pay any attention. I think this is some special privilege Morino has. If anyone else did it, I think they would get their face busted.
Morino is also big on minding his own business. "Dat's how ya survive," he says.
"I see one of these niggers shooting another, I don't say nothin'. I tell the cops I was in the restroom."
"They only shoot each other. So what's it to me?" he adds.
That's one way to look at it, I guess.
"So what do you do if the shooting happens in the restroom," I ask.
"I tell 'em I was in the bar havin' a drink. I don't tell 'em nothin'."
At that point I was about to get up and go back on my "rounds" but Morino suddenly excused himself to the restroom. I decide to wait till he came back to say goodbye. We actually have quite a gentlemanly relationship. We live in slightly different worlds but I enjoy getting to know things through his eyes.
So about three minutes later he comes back and I say goodbye and I go back on my rounds. Am I going to catch the bad cop tonight or not? I don't think Morino would approve. I'm definitely not minding my own business.
I head on down Taylor toward Market. I think that maybe I have seen it all for the evening. I'm just going to grab a couple of croissants at Donut World on the corner of Market and 6th where Taylor ends. But now I'm seeing flashing lights. They are over there across the street in front of the shop. I start taking the camera out of the bag as I cross Market. It is a confusing scene.
In front of the shop I stop. There is guy on a bike. I ask him what is happening. He points to the floor inside. "Three guys, they shot him in the head," he says pointing.
I look and I see a body sprawled on the floor. It is a big body and a motionless one. It has a big head, a black one, and the jacket that it wears now looks like a rag. I see the dark pools of blood that surround the body. Now there are more police cars arriving and sirens screaming from everywhere. Yellow tape is going up. I'm told to move back.
"They ran down sixth street," says the guy on the bike.
But the next day I hear it was only one shooter and he was wearing a sky mask.
More confusion. A tall cop is asking an older, well dressed black guy what he saw. I stand near by so I can hear but I don't catch much. Apparently he was on the bus platform across the street when the shooting occurred. Another cop is talking to the guy with the bike and ordering me away. He doesn't want me to hear. I go next door where I see a guy standing outside. He looks nervous. I ask him if he knows anything. He heard two or three loud bangs, he says. He is the security guy for the building next to Donut World. A female cop comes up to ask him questions. She doesn't order me away. He is looking more nervous now.
"Maybe you better find yourself another job," I say. The cop smiles.
This is a rough part of town, almost the epicenter of all things bad in the Loin. Almost everybody who hangs out down here, or deals whatever, makes a trip to Donut World. It's the strong coffee and the fresh donuts that bring 'em in. Amazing what a fix coffee and pastry is. If it were illegal, you could make a killing dealing it on the street, I'm sure.
Now I'm feeling sick. Or disturbed or upset. Maybe it is the cold; maybe it is all the lights and excitement. Surely it is the body sprawled on the floor and all the blood. That finally sinks in. At first, strangely, it did not bother me. I walk back across the street toward Taylor and ask a homeless women what she saw. She tells me just one guy. She asks if can give her some money. "I'm hungry, " she says. I pull out a couple of dollars from somewhere. "Where you headed?" she asks. "Back up the street," I tell her. She says she'll walk with me, she has to get something to eat. She tells me her name is Pat. "I'm Louis," I say. We walk back up Taylor together. "My sister, she got shot a couple weeks ago," she says quietly. Now I'm sounding like I'm coming unglued.
"This is all really upsetting," I say, as I feel my body almost beginning to convulse.
She doesn't say anything. She is very calm. I guess this is a typical night for her. Or at least not that weird. There is a little market on the other side of the street. At the intersection she says she is going across the street to get something to eat. "Okay," I say, "bye."
Suddenly I found I had a lot of energy. I began walking up the hill rapidly with no sense of fatigue. Katrine was on the couch when I walked in. She had put The Immoralist down and was just about to light up another American Spirit. She wore a far-away, existential expression, as if she were deeply pondering something; the look did not particularly befit her. Then she came out of it and looked at me with soft warm eyes.
"Monsieur, Vous voyez un fantôme ? Vous ne regardez pas bien. " (Sir, have you seen a ghost? You don't look well.)
I explained to her just a little.
" Monsieur, je fixe le café. Maybe you want to smoke this?"
There are several curiosities about the double-murder story:
First, I'm curious that the police did not question the many folks who hang out across the street from Donut World. Instead, their attention was on casual passer-bys. But maybe this is not very surprising. It appears the Tenderloin police like to keep a good distance from the homeless people there as well as the drug dealers.
Personally I am curious where the drugs go. I have been watching for some time now and have not been able to spot a single transaction. Certainly few of the homeless can afford them. The yup clubs in the area may be a market for them.
Why the police originally thought the two killings were not connected is a little baffling. Clearly the second one appeared to be retaliation with a masked executioner and all. In 2006, there were 85 murders in the city. That would mean that a murder occurred on the average every 103 hours. These two murders appeared about 2.5 hours apart. I hate to resort to the logic of numbers, but almost anyone can see the obvious likelihood here of some kind of connection.
One other curiosity: The contradictory testimony of witness, with the guy on the bike stating that there were three involved in the killing at the donut shop, others saying just one. It has been stated the assailant shouted "expletives and racial slurs" at the victim, Ernest Johnson of Oakland, but then a photo released by the police department shows Johnson being shot in the back of the head while standing at the counter. That does not quite fit the description. One other matter: Why has the name of the first murder victim not been released?