Shanghai—6 March 2009
"You touched me," she screamed. I was standing in the narrow passageway between the door and the bar trying to get out but being blocked by the manager. It was a setup. I had not touched her; she had grabbed my hands and placed them on her. The idea was this: I had had a lap dance with her and now owed the club, named Cabaret, 85 Euros. Times were desperate, I guess.
"Ce n'est pas raisonnable," ("This is not reasonable," ) I said to the manager.
"You touched me," she said again like an injured party in a dispute. She was a tall, rather odd-looking black woman. I had gone in for 10 Euros that included a drink to "see the show." There wasn't any. Or I guess she was the show. When she asked me if I would buy her a drink, I said no. When the drink came anyway, I decided there was a problem and got up to leave.
I repeated to the manager, "C'est ne pas raisonnable. She touched me."
This was a trick that was often pulled on tourists. They had little choice but to pay. I had options.
"J'habite ici à Pigalle. Je n'ai pas le temps de votre non-sens." (I live here in Pigalle. I don't have time for your nonsense.) I told him to get out of my way.
"Où travaillez-vous?" ("Where do you work?") he asked.
"Down the street, for Journaux Pigalle," I said. I made up the latter. I am a journalist but I wanted to localize the problem. I then made him an offer.
"I give you 20 Euros—for her drink—to get out of the way. I'm late back to work."
I got out my cell phone. "Okay, I call the police. I think they know you."
He took me up on the offer but didn't budge.
"En le rue," ("In the street,") I said. "C'est dangeroux ici." ("It is dangerous here.")
We went outside, the manager in front of me and still blocking the way to the street. I handed him the 20 Euros and he went back inside.
Then I went to the edge of the sidewalk, pulled out my notebook, and started jotting down the name and address. To the young Indian woman who had induced me inside with the 10-Euro offer, I said:
"Il ya un gros problème ici. Il ya un gros problème. Sortez!" ("There is a big problem here. There is a big problem. Get out!")
Then I started to walk off. Half way to the corner the manager came rushing towards me, handing back my 20 Euros. I guess he didn't need problems, or more problems, with the police.
I had just finished writing Picking Up The Pieces In Pigalle and had decided to hit my neighborhood, Pigalle, before I packed up and left town, when this incident occurred. I lived on rue Jean-Babtiste Pigalle, where the real sex places are. They are classy old bars with a private room in the back. But for some reason I wanted to hit a few of the "sex shops" on rue Clichy, where all the tourists headed, before I left town. They were a curiosity; I didn't know much about them.
Although the incident was a little upsetting, I was mostly I concerned with loosing the money. These days eighty-five Euros was a lot of cash.
Only slightly daunted, I headed down the street and hit another of these "cabaret" places to see the show. Of course there wasn't any there either. When I asked about this, one of the girls went up to a little stage with a brass pole, the "house" lights went red, and she put on a show of sorts. But it did not have much energy or enthusiasm in it. I was careful that no one touched me and that I touched no one.
The show ended with her clothes off, her lips parted suggestively, and a request to buy her a drink. I said rather coldly no and left. I probably should have tipped her but I was still in a mood from the last place. I don't know what Toulouse-Lautrec would have thought of these new tourist sex shops but I don't think he would have found much to paint in them. They didn't have any customers and he was a painter of people.
This was all during the middle of the day, and the strange things is this: There never seems to be any customers. As I said, this is my neighborhood, located near Place de Pigalle, the "notorious" red-light district of Paris. I walk the neighborhood frequently. To get to rue Abbesses in Montmartre and the wine shops and boulangeries there, I have to. How, then, do they survive? Day or night, I almost never see anyone going in or coming out of these clubs. Once I saw a girl out front of a club lure a really old guy inside, and I felt sorry for him. He was having one of those "senior moments" when judgment is lacking. I'm sure he was going to be feeling sorry for himself latter on.
Their "marketing strategy" is baffling. At 85 Euros for a lap dance and 200 or more for sex of sorts in the back, who can afford this? Maybe a few guys on a business trip back in the good old days when budgets weren't tight. But not many now with the current economy. No value for the money. Better to buy the wife some flowers and snuggle at home.
And take me. What was I doing? Yep, packing up my stuff and moving it into storage. I could not afford to have this apartment in a place I love while mostly living in Shanghai, China. I hoped to be back of course, but everything had become iffy. This depended on that, which was unraveling, and that which was unraveling depended upon something else which was crumbling or had already crumbled. Pretty soon I expect to see the club girls out on the street with paper cups along with bankers from Credit Agricole. The times, they are unsettling. The Bushmen, and those who robbed the US Treasury with war contracts, are doing fine, with the exception of a few who are headed to jail. The rest of us, the Bushwhacked, are suffering.
Je suis retraite.
I am retired.
Yes, I have retired. And why not if the work is gone?
In the evening I walked over to Dream Club. Around midnight I had been going for coffee to a place across the street from the Moulin Rouge. I guy on a corner had been begging me to go to "his club." This is of course a common occurrence. I usually ignore such people. But he looked like an intelligent young man who needed some money, and a drink sounded better than coffee. His offer was good. For 5 Euros I got in for any drink and the show. Of course there was no show—I didn't expect one—and the Dream Club might have been better named Hard Times. But it was a friendly place of lowered expectations.
"Avec trois glacons," ("With three ice cubes,") I said to the bartender, who was a nice older fellow. He put three ice cubes into a tall glass, then filled it half way up with Smirnoff.
"Ou est les clients?" ("Where are the customers?") I asked.
"Je ne sais pas," ("I don't know,") he said. "Ce sont des temps difficiles." ("These are difficult times.")
I can see that, I said, looking around at all the empty tables. It was a little after midnight now, when you would think that "les clients" would be on the prowl. But the tables were all empty and the Dream Club was now offering cheap drinks just to get someone, anyone, inside."
I was feeling a little uneasy as their only customer when Linda, one of the girls, came over.
"Une cuppe?" she asked.
"S'est combien?" ("How much?")
"Vingt," ("Twenty,") she said. I winced.
"D'accord," ("Okay,") I said, feeling like I was now doing charity work. I could afford twenty when I was not under pressure. And she had that look on her face like she was expecting me to order he away. She turned out to be half-way interesting. She spoke French, English, and Spanish. I took the opportunity to practice my French with her. I had done this before with the other girls in Pigalle (Le Bon Moment en Pigalle). It was better than hiring a tutor or going to classes. And you learned words and phrases they don't teach in school.
Je ne sais pas.
I don't know.
I wonder sometime how it would be if you fell in love with a girl who was working the business. Some of these girls are very nice. Would it bother you? Would you try to get her to quit her "job." "Job?" you might ask. Yes, I have found in the past that most in girls consider it just a job. They separate themselves from it that way. "Employment" is the mental trick for doing so. But still they are choosing their job. Now Imagine this: You meet a girl and, surprise, you're in love. Then you find out she's in the business, she's that ugly word "whore." She does it for money with all kinds of guys. Thousands. What's in her brain? Do you really know her? It leads to serious question fairly quickly. Like everyone else, you make the little joke about the "skin trade," but on a deeper, personal level you encounter serious problems and become sad. You're not a moralist but you see that something doesn't work here.
Sad and alone
I was sad myself but for another reason. I was leaving Pigalle, not because I wanted to, but because of money. And I was not quite sure what I was doing other than going to San Francisco for awhile. In San Francisco I had money matters that needed attention. In my experience, almost all problems lead back to money problems. Money is the mechanism of control. Sometimes I've had the stuff—lots of it—and sometimes I haven't. If you don't have the stuff, as Voltaire says, you find your self waiting in the antechamber of some person with money. In one way or another you will be asking for it, either through work, a gift, or credit. The less money you need to live, the less money you are going to need from The Man, and he is going to hate you for it. Of course these days The Man is often The Woman. I have worked for some extremely viscous women. The Man just wants to punch you out before enslaving you. The Woman wants to torture you.
Sad I was as I
put my stuff into storage at en piece en plus (an extra room)
en Pigalle. en piece en plus was in fact going to be my only
room in Paris for awhile. The poor don't have "extra rooms."
One of the worst things about traveling these days is security. It is a real drag having to show up two hours early at the airport and then be treated like a criminal. And I always lose something to the security people. This time I lost one of my prize possessions and one of the most useful things I have ever owned: My Swiss army knife. It was a gift from my father years ago and it has saved me from doom many times. I once repaired a motorcycle with it on the road. I have opened numerous bottles of wine when a corkscrew was not to be found. I have cut meat and cheese with it, removed splinters from fingers, trimmed and filed my nails, you name it. The only regret I have ever had about my Swiss army knife is that it did not have a fork and spoon as some models do. If I can ever afford another, it will come with fork and spoon and chop sticks too.
But the security folks at Charles De Gaulle have it now. One of them found it in my carry-on luggage—the only way I travel now after the airlines lost my luggage three times in a row and had me waiting for days without a change of underwear while they found it. Opening the main blade, which is not all that big, she first looked at the blade and then at me, as if to say, "a deadly weapon, surely monsieur, whatever were you thinking?"
I was asked with some kindness if I did not want to put the knife back in the bag and run the bag through regular luggage. Sadly I said no. "Better to lose this wonderful knife then everything I have," I said.
Thus it was, without the confidence inspired by ownership of such a wonderful knife, that I arrived in San Francisco and headed for the Golden Eagle. Know the place? It is famous for cockroaches and bed bugs and inspired down and outers. It is the old sailor hotel in North Beach on lower Broadway at the corner of Montgomery. It has small hallways and stairs, like on a ship, and portal windows on the street side. I suppose in its day it was a classic. Now it is just run down. But it has a fine Hispanic staff that does the best it can do with limited resources. The owner, however, should be taken out and shot. The owner is of course a real estate company that has only one goal in mind: Make as much money as possible. At a hotel like the Golden Eagle, that is not hard to do. The people who stay there, many long-term disability folks on SSI, are not big complainers. They are hugely over charged. What they get is a tiny room with an ancient mattress full of holes—luxury homes to bed bugs—and a rickety chair and table if they are lucky. They also get a rusted-out sink, but showers and toilets are down the hall, where some few hotel guest do not seem to make a clear distinction between the use of these facilities.
This time I got a room on the "bad" floor, the third floor right down the hall from an SSI guy who lived with his door open and whose deadbeat friends spent hours in the hall talking, drinking, and complaining about this and that. From the way they talked, you would have thought they were some of the greatest minds in the world. And of course no one else on the third floor, or the world for that matter, counted.
I remember one of them complaining about the Food Bank in North Beach.
"I told the guy, 'Do you think you're doing me a favor giving me this shit. These are the worst apples I've even seen.' He said I could go down to the Tenderloin Food Bank and maybe get better ones. 'With all those crack heads?' I asked. 'Forget it, man. This stuff is shit.' I threw them at him."
"Crack heads" in the Tenderloin? What about lower Broadway in North Beach? What about on the third floor ...
They were the elite of the down and out, the rest of us so clueless as to not matter. Said Mario, manager of the Golden Eagle, "This guy is a big problem." But what could Mario do? Nothing really. It was just one of those situations in life that one learns to put up with because there isn't a solution.
For me personally there was a solution, however. I was saved by bed bugs. Cockroaches I knew about; we have had numerous close encounters. As soon as I moved in, I went up the street to Walgreens and bought roach killer. Beg bugs were another matter. I had only heard about them in the classic expression that everyone has heard: "Don't let the beg bugs bite!" If bed bugs did bite, I assumed that they always bit other people: The bad guys, the guys who had misbehaved and maybe deserved it. At first I didn't known what they were. Then one morning I spotted a thing climbing up the wall near my pillow. I don't like to kill bugs but I did anyway. I squashed it on the wall, then noticed the fresh bright-red blood that oozed from its body. I have never seen bright-red blood after squashing a bug and realized that what I was looking at was my blood. The battle began. But for the short-term I lost. Mario came up and sprayed the hell out of my room. I thought we were both going to die. I opened the windows and went out for a few hours. But the next day the same thing happened. Eventually I was moved to another room on another floor and so escaped the elite of the third floor. I guess I can thank the bed bugs for that.
Je suis amoureau.
Tu es amoureau.
Now I had a list of things to do in San Francisco. Since business was dead, I was going to do an early retirement. That would serve them right. I was also going to switch banks ... just in case. I was going to look into filing for bankruptcy—who wasn't assessing this options?—and I was going to see my accountant if he had not yet shot himself in the head. I was also going to prowl around town and see what was new, what was old, who had died, who had been born or reborn. But all this depended on having some money. Though I arrived with some—US dollars which I had converted from Euros and Yuan that I carried with me—I was counting on cashing a check from a French bank, and I was counting on using my Bank of China debit card to get more money. Reasonable? Seemed so. But here's reality:
First, the check form the French bank had a 2008 date on it, not 2009, and the bank returned it after two weeks deeming it "stale." So then the writer of the check attempted to do a wire transfer directly into my account. Those are fast, right? No. Pas du tout. The receiving bank supplied the Swift code. The French bank after a week said, no, monsieur, nous avons besoin de l'ABA routing nombre. The routing number was supplied and several business days later, with a weekend dividing them for further delay, the transfer was made. In the mean time I was running out of cash.
And there was another hitch. I had assumed I could access my Bank of China money from the US. I could. I could access my Yuan. But there was a problem. Most of my Bank of China money was in Euros that I had not yet converted to Yuan. I called the bank in Shanghai. I could convert the Euros to Yuan but I had to personally come into the Shanghai office to do it.
I got the feeling that the banks did not want to let go of whatever money they had these days, even if it was yours. Then I was sure of this when I went to Bank of America with a check made out to me and they would not cash it—not until I fought all morning with them. When they finally realized they had to cash the check—there was no excuse not to—the teller I had fought with all morning handed over the cash and asked: "Is there anything else I can do for you today?" Yes, there was but I didn't say it. I then walked my money across the street and deposited it. It showed up in my account immediately. Happy day!
But my disillusionment with the banks did not happen all at once, as I will discuss shortly.
Now without money in San Francisco, one does not lead the good life. One in fact barely lives. Pizza and a donut became my diet. I'm not knocking either of those foods; however, a little variety would be nice. Thank god there was a Trader Joe's in Fisherman's Wharf on the edge of North Beach where I could get pretty good cheap wine. Trader Joe's was made for good times and bad.
Despite these limitations, I decided I would explore San Francisco. I wanted to go back to old places and see what was new. I had this funny idea that I would explore it for places with heart. Also, I would have to use the Internet cafes in San Francisco. The Golden Eagle did not have WiFi; it had, as I said, cockroaches and bed bugs and deadbeats. I didn't really like Internet cafes. I go out for people and places, and computers just interfere with that. But there is no getting around it these days. Some of the simplest things require the Internet and the use of a computer.
Wo you yidian lei.
Je suis un peu fatigué.
I am a little tired.
My base camp for the Internet became Golden Gate Perk downtown on Bush. But I discovered other good places too. One that surprised me was Caffe Trieste. I had no idea they had internet access there—it seemed out of place—but it was kind of a quiet thing off to the side and not in your face. I was very low-keyed about it when I went in. There is also Caffe Roma up on Columbus. They roast their own coffee, have a good assortment of wine, though a little expensive for the down and outer, and someone there has fine taste in music, mostly jazz. I noticed several people, mostly off to the side, doing business there a lot of the day. I like the style. You go in and buy something and you have a good clean place to work all day. Fair enough. For cheap with character, however, you can't beat Caffe Triste with its big glasses of red wine for 3.5 USD and of course their own coffee too. Another striking thing about Caffe Trieste is that it is a real coffee house where people come to talk about things that matter. You actually hear "intellectual" conversations there. Some are surely nonsense but at least they are real conversations about things that matter: philosophy, science—but not computer science as in the latest Facebook app—psychology, music, literature ... There is not much of this left in San Francisco or anywhere else for that matter. Caffe Trieste has a "university of the mind" atmosphere where meaning, rather money, is the focus. Sure, it attracts "crazies"; it also attracts sound minds interested in thoughts and ideas rather than money, marketing, and innovative software designs that aren't.
The weather was exceptional most of the time I spent in San Francisco—more Spring-like than Winter—and just walking around from downtown to North Beach and Washington Square was a delight. I had come from a cold Winter Paris of gray skies and, before that, from a cold and windy Shanghai laden with moisture. I like cold weather but San Francisco was heavenly. And despite the troubled economy, most people seemed upbeat though worried. I guess that is San Francisco where the whole city can burn to the ground and people are still out living it up. It is a refreshing attitude in a strange kind of way. Irresponsible? I suppose. But there are limits to how much reality should get you down, especially if you weren't responsible for it.
With my hot-coffee, pastry, and slice-of -pizza routine, I occasionally joined the irresponsible group and stopped by Cafe Claude for a Ketel One Martini and fries. Extravagant for a guy who could soon be out on the street if funds didn't come through, but it made me feel better. And if I were going to be out on the street, I would be out on the street. I often stayed up late. I would just be doing so outside rather than inside. Call me Old San Francisco if you want. I've been called worse.
In finding the bright spots in San Francisco, the places with heart, it didn't take me much effort. All I had to do was start noticing them. One such place was Happy Donut, right on the corner of Kearny and Columbus, where I got my donut and coffee. Few people probably give Happy Donut a thought. They just stop there all times of the day and night to get a coffee and pastry. You can always count on its being open, the coffee fresh and hot, the pasty tasty and also fresh. It also sparkles with cleanliness. In fact, they don't brag about it but it has a 100 inspection rating by the city. How many places can say that? Just about everybody in North Beach stops by Happy Donut sometimes: cops, strippers, bouncers, B-girls, lawyers, garbage persons, maintenance workers ... Even artists, musicians, and poets, tiring of their coffee-house espressos, can be seen there. And the old Chinese men seem to love it. Coffee house, tea house, what's the difference? Hard to beat the price and harder still to beat the smile of the young Cambodian woman who works the early shift. She lives in Vallejo and gets up every morning at 2:30 to come to work.
"I have my afternoons free," she beams. "The usual?"
The usual is an old-fashioned and a small cup of coffee.
"Of course," I say.
Happy Donut is a chain. But this is one I can do with, not without. It lifts peoples' spirits at all times of the day and night and people need that. If you are living at the Golden Eagle, Happy Donut is indispensable.
Just across the street from Happy Donut on Pacific is, or was, Cafe Prague. The sign is still there but I am sad to see that it has closed. Yes, the food was inconsistent, the staff not especially professional, and the interior a bit bizarre but interesting, but it had some of the best jazz sessions, organized by PJ Papa, in the city. These sessions happened on Saturday evening, and any good jazz artist in The City who did not have a gig that evening showed up. The place cooked. Vicky Burns showed up and sang when she didn't have a real gig. I can still remember her scatting on "Night in Tunisia," sounding just like Dizzy. Attila Medveczky was a regular on bass. Trumpeter Henry Huang was there on more than one occasion. And of course there was BJ Papa himself, not known so much as a keyboard soloist but, like Count Bassie or Duke Ellington, as a musician who brought other musicians together. BJ is legendary in San Francisco but not legendary enough. His tight backing on electric piano made the place sizzle and occasionally explode. Words fail to describe what sometimes took place. "Extraordinary" is about all I could say at times.
There were also the poetry sessions organized by Mark Schwartz. (The Time of Your Life in San Francisco.) There was the cowboy poet with the out-of-tune guitar, the tall guy in feathers, wacky Ossie dressed in black and obsessed with cats, and Mark himself. It was hit and miss but always interesting.
But it's gone now and I have not spotted BJ in North Beach for awhile. We sat over at Enrico's and talked one time. He said he started out on tenor saxophone. Then he started playing keyboard. He was living on Bush Street at the time. He first started "comping" on the keyboard to back other players. He may still be best at that. He is like some kind of super glue that binds it all together, makes it tight so that others can be loose and explosive. Does he get credit for this? Only partially, I think.
Then just over on Gold Street there is Bix's. It is still there. And so is Don Asher, another legendary San Francisco musician. Every time I'm in town I drop by to hear Don play. He goes back to the original Enrico's house band. And while he is getting up there in years, his playing still sparkles, emits little sparks of light as from diamonds. He is the reason I go to Bix's, although if you want to experience an old-fashioned supper club in San Francisco in the best sense of the word, Bix's is the place. The waiters strut in white coats in a way that says style still matters. It is classy place. It is too bad that some of its customers are not classy people. Both Don and I have noticed a trend in male attire that is baffling. Older guys who look like they could be vice presidents of Bank of America or Wells Fargo are now showing up up in blue jeans with untucked shirts wearing, nevertheless, dress coats. It is an odd trend that began before the current financial crisis. You see them downtown like this too after work. They must purposely yank the shirts out of their paints to achieve this. What are they trying to say? They hate their jobs? They hate their wives? They hate the system. Well, I would agree with them there. They should have been artists—maybe they are saying that—not stupid money people. We will probably not know until one of them shoots himself and explains it in a suicide note. In the mean time, fine restaurants in San Francisco are serving slobs. If you want to dress like that, why not stay home?
But Bix's and Don are the living heart of San Francisco. In the same category, though few seem to recognize it, is North Beach Restaurant on Stockton just off Washington Square. When Lorenzo Petroni is gone, it will probably last about as long as Moose's up the street did. Does Eddie and Joey's sound legendary? I'll let you decide. Or haven't you noticed it yet where Moose's used to be?
I stopped by North Beach Restaurant on New Year's eve. The usual bunch were there: Marilyn and Billy at the bar. Billy hasn't been there that long. Only about a year, I think. But with his Robert De Nero look, he looks like he has been there since it began. Lorenzo was there, his hair getting crazier all the time, and Buoy and Joel and Hogan, my favorite waiter in San Francisco. So what is a guy who eats pizza and donuts doing in a classy place like North Beach Restaurant? Well, I used to host expensive dinners there back when I had money. I guess I still felt part of the place. And I don't think anyone could yet detect my diet. It had not yet caused ill health. I also used to bring a lot of lovely women there. Lorenzo even asked me one time, "How do you come up with all these woman?"
Je ne sais pas.
I don't know.
Luck was all I could think of. But money probably had something to do with it too. Back then I had the clothes that went with the money. I still have some of them, although they are bit thread-bare now.
Round about 11 PM a threesome came into the restaurant—a guy and two women—well lubricated it seemed to me. One of the women took a fancy to me. I did nothing to provoke it. I was perfectly happy talking with Billy at the bar. She struck up a conversation. It ignited like gasoline. Her friends disappeared downstairs, to see the wine cellar, I think. For some reason we were talking in French—badly, to be honest. She said she was from "Irlande." I did not pick it up as Ireland with her pronunciation. I'm a little stupid that way. Still we had an exciting rapid-fire conversation. There must have been a need. Then her friends came back from downstairs. They were going somewhere else for dinner or drinks or something. I was not interested in going along. But we kissed rather passionately and innocently as she left. Partly it was New Year's eve when anything goes. Anyway, the whole evening seemed like a reward for a guy who was eating donuts and pizza.
I had another pleasant incident a week later over at Enrico's. I was headed to Caffe Trieste for the cheap wine when I heard music coming out of Enrico's. I went in but not to the bar; I didn't want to pay the price of a bar drink. I stood in the center next to the new counter. I avoided the looks of the servers, who were in fact pretty busy with diners. There was a Brazilian group with a singer, the singer in red and black and quite attractive and with good chops. I shot a photo or so until my Nikon ate up the batteries. The Nikon is ailing and the shots turned out badly. But while I'm standing there, she finishes the into to The Girl From Ipanema, comes over, grabs my hand and pulls me onto the dance floor. It may have been my attire that attracted her. You see, even though my diet is limited and I live in a flop house, I still dress the part. I had on a long black coat, a purple shirt, and a gold silk tie that I bought in Shanghai. I'm not going around with my shirt untucked and in jeans, like some whacked-out CEO at Citibank. We danced for a couple of minutes while the band played. Dumb, I know, but I walked away with a nice giddy feeling. The city did have heart. A big one.
Wo xiang he putaojiu.
Je veux boire du vin.
I want to drink wine.
Later I walk around Washington Square in North Beach. I see its charm. The trees, the grass, Saint Peter and Paul. And the surrounding hills with Coit Tower and Russian Hill. San Francisco is full of curves. Its form is feminine, curvaceous. You want to explore it. San Francisco is like that almost everywhere until it flattens out in the Embarcadero and the Mission. Paris is more flat, other than Montmartre, but you have the fine old architecture everywhere. Shanghai too is mostly flat but it is so big it is somewhat beyond description except by district or new architectural landmarks. But San Francisco is small and toy-like. Once you know it, It charms you in a way no other city does.
Of course I would have to exclude South of Market in that assessment. I had this idea when I started pursuing the "heart of San Francisco" that I would hit some of the south-of-Market bars. I had never really paid them any attention. But I gave up this idea when I went down to Social Services on 7th street to retire. There seemed to be nothing but the Level-1 down and outers. Up on Lower Broadway at the Golden Eagle it had been the Level 2 and Level 3 down and outers. But on 7th Street things are bottomed out. It is a very sad bunch of folks, most of them black, and I'm sorry to say that I do not find anything redeeming there. In the Tenderloin, where I have spent a lot of time, there is always a bit of humor and wit. You find that clear up to Larkin Street, which I don't consider exactly the Tenderloin but city planners and maps do. Why? There is a different feeling to Larkin Street than there is in the heart of the Tenderloin. To me it is more hopeful. Same on Bush Street. Is it Nob Hill or is it the Tenderloin? Neither, I would say. Different feeling. But mainly it is this: On Bush Street the predominant feeling is not down and out or hopeless. It is more like opportunity. When I lived on Bush Street it was like half way up the hill. And if you were headed down, it was downtown on Bush for a drink at Le Central or Cafe Claude. Hardly depressing!
Half way down 7th street, between Market and Mission, you come to the new Federal Building that houses the Social Security offices. It is a giant glass-and-steel monstrosity praised by San Francisco architecture critic John King. While I respect a lot of John King's assessments, I don't know what he is seeing in this building. Maybe he needs to travel outside of San Francisco for awhile. It has only one interesting feature, a kind of floating panel out front or on the side. It replaces the traditional awning, I suppose. The building that it replaces, right across the street, is ten times better. Just use your eyes. Stand at the corner of Mission and 7th and look from one side of the street to the other. And what do you encounter when you first enter this new building? Security, of course. Your first impression. It is just like the airport. Everything out of your pockets and placed in a tray while you pass between the metal bars. Inside it is not much better. You talk with a worker in back of bullet-proof glass. How social or sociable is that? An armed guard stands nearby. But before you get to talk with someone in back of the glass, you need to take a ticket with a number then wait. In my case, the estimated time was 119 minutes. What service! While waiting, the women next to me fell asleep on my shoulder.
She reminded my of the toothless black women who hangs out near the Kerouac Museum on Lower Broadway. Know the place? It's across the alley from The Hungry i. I have mixed reactions to the Kerouac Museum. I always have to ask myself: What would Jack think? Well, he would probably say it was nice but not much else. He was that kind of guy. But would he really like it? I'm not sure. Now I have heard some interesting readings there, and it is fun looking at some of his old stuff. No harm in that. But museums for writers are kind of an odd thing. They always come after the writer is long dead and could not raise an objection. Know the Steinbeck museum in Salinas? They hated Steinbeck when he lived in Salinas. They wanted to drive a steak through his heart. Now of course they have a museum for him. Had he not become famous and worth money, would there be a Steinbeck Museum? Not likely. And the strange thing is this: The building that houses the Steinbeck Museum is standard county construction, like the Department of Motor Vehicles. Why not a nice old Victorian, someone asked the person in charge of the project. Why not something that Steinbeck would have liked? "What does Steinbeck have to do with this?" was the answer. Exactly.
On my recent stay in San Francisco, there was another hanger-outer in the alley between The Hungry i and the museum. A little old hippie guy, maybe 80 or so, who sits on a mat with a display of used books in front of him. He seems to always have cigarettes. He has a very deep voice, as though he is talking to you from the bottom of a wine bottle. He looks totally wasted, and the toothless black woman has taken to sitting next to him most of the time. Now I didn't have time to get into these two new North Beach characters; I had enough to deal with. Maybe I would have found them fascinating if I had. But what I'm really wondering is what kind of impression they make upon visitors to the museum. I can just hear some guy tell his son walking down the street, "And if you read this Kerouac guy's books, you'll end up just like him. Want to spend your life sitting on a street corner?" But excuse my speculation. Both the museum and the old hippie guy are probably very nice once you get to know them.
A pattern soon appeared in my days. I would go to one of the Internet cafes—usually Golden Gate Perk downtown—and check my bank account to see if the French check had cleared, or later, if the wire transfer had worked. I was very patient in the beginning. For two weeks I kept saying to myself, any day now. Then after the French bank demanded the ABA routing number rather than the Swift code, I grew surly. I began to see nothing but delay tactics on the part of the banks. They were all holding onto the money as if it were their money and not mine. I wanted to get even, but how do you get even with the bank? The only way I knew of was to deal only in cash, but I was in no position to do that at this point.
And while waiting to gain access to my money, I developed a little routine of making rounds and looking for the heart of the city. I was still living in the bedbug-infested room; but I had a promise that I would be moved to a new room as soon as one was available, so there was some hope. There was a kind of atmosphere of craziness in the hotel that took a tool on your nervers, but I sympathized with that. These people were being cheated big-time by the owners but could do nothing about it. What would you expect?
My first attempt to find the heart and soul of San Francisco took place down in the Tenderloin, a place I've frequented for years. It brings reality to the city, and to remain centered, all San Franciscans should visit it from time to time. Also, for those San Franciscans who feel that "enough is never enough"—a condition that many Americans suffer from on a daily basis—an occasional visit might bring about a change of heart. They might find peace of mind because, you know, it is hard work going through life with that attitude.
My first stop in the 'Loin was Jonell's, corner of, as you might guess, Jones Street and Ellis. Lee, the owner, was there. She is an older Korean woman who always looks tense. And for good reason. Her place has been chosen for some time as the home of the drug dealers in this part of the 'Loin. True, Cinnabar, has also served as home base over the years, but it has a new Chinese owner now who has painted the insides, thrown out the old funky furniture, and made it look almost upscale. Somehow the new owner has successfully discouraged the drug folks as well. So for now the whole bunch of them are across the street at Lee's.
Dealing drugs, as far as I can see, is not an exciting life. You sit around waiting for a call on your cell phone, you go deliver. Calls are not too frequent, so you have a lot of time to kill. You do it sipping a large cocktail like a Boston Cooler—never a Martini—and playing computer games at the end of the bar. Same as with the ladies in the massage parlors. You are a fisherwoman waiting to make a catch. Only the fish don't have any money these days and are staying home. It's mostly a boring business. If you are thinking of going into it, don't; it's a bust.
But now the bar was almost empty—just one older black guy staring at a beer—and Lee didn't look so tense. For once she was a little bit talkative.
I asked about the Cinnabar.
"They don't open till later," she said.
I guess that's why she had the one customer with the beer.
"We open at noon," she added. Nine words out of Lee's mouth. Not bad. Ten if you count "don't" as two.
"What about Sport's Bar?" I asked. Lee wears a baseball cap but she's not into sports as far as I know—just animals and crime, judging by her TV programming.
"They're open," she said.
The Sports Bar up the street, also known as RJ's, seems to be open all the time. I used to have a girl friend who worked there and I don't go in anymore, even though she's probably long gone. Emotional thing I guess. I liked her way too much but things worked out badly between us. My fault probably; I was afraid of her getting in the way of my work, an old pattern I have that destroys relationships with women. The writing life, it's tough.
This was about as much as Lee has ever said to me. She went back to sweeping the floor of the big wrap-around bar, which must have been a gem in its day, and restocking bottles. She has an exotic display of liquor on the shelves but I don't know who drinks most of the stuff.
I was drinking Jim Beam on the rocks. It's only 5 USD.
There are two TVs at Jonell's, both on the left side of the door as you walk in. On one was an animal show on zebras; on the other was a teen-murder trial. I watched for awhile but found little interest in zebras—they have not been on my mind lately—and only slightly more interest in teen murder.
I was about to leave when Lee said it was nice to meet me. I hadn't actually introduced myself, so I did so, then left. She knows me and I think she meant "nice to see you." Words fail Lee.
Since I was on a limited budget and felt that little more was to found in the Tenderloin in the afternoon, I suspended "project heart" and headed to Cafe Bastille back downtown. Ah, another new face at the bar. It was a guy named Doni from Uzbekistan. Cafe Bastille employees adventurous young people from all over the world. They get a deal; so does Bastille. Uzbekistan, if you don't know, is located above Afghanistan. It was formerly part of the Soviet Union. The written language looks like this:
Doni was eating an inch-think fish fillet on a bed of mashed potatoes. It wasn't from the menu at Cafe Bastille. Visually it was not inspiring but it may have tasted good. The pale fillet blended into the mashed potatoes without distinction. But then I guess the kitchen is not trying to dazzle the staff with visual effects. Chef Edgar Sierra came in. I told him I I was off to Shanghai next. He said he wanted to see food photos. Like me, he loves to eat and travel. He grinned his big grin, then was off to the kitchen to do the dinner prep. Edgar is the life and soul of the kitchen at Bastille. He "punches up" the recipes with a little Mexican spice that saves them from ennui.
I asked Doni what he thought of San Francisco. "The best," he said without hesitation. And right now, with the weather and the little walks I had been having around town, it seemed so. It beat gray Paris and cold wet Shanghai.
But I was a little disappointed with my daytime walk. Places were mostly empty and people were not hanging out and talking, except for over in North Beach, where the lunch hanger-outers along Columbus seemed tense. They had this look as though they were risking their jobs by eating lunch. I felt sorry for them. The way I saw it their jobs were putting lunch at risk and they should hate their jobs.
The next day I made slightly different rounds. Amy, owner of Golden Gate Perk, mentioned Saigon Sandwich on Larkin Street. But she warned me: "You can walk right by it and not see it."
So around noon or so I took the Stockton bus over from North Beach to Sacramento Street and the California 1 over the the top of Nob Hill to Larkin. Then I headed down Larkin Street on foot. As I got past Geary Street I began to keep my eyes open. I see many sandwich places on Larkin. Larkin is actually an interesting street, located as it is on the edge of the Tenderloin. On Larkin Street, I always sense more hope. It is probably the Asian immigrant influence. Fewer down and outers, more of those who are getting somewhere. It has its problems but it is not the bottom. It is quarter way up the hill to a clean apartment and a better life. You see kids there too; you never see kids on Turk and Taylor.
So I'm passing Susan's Massage parlor but focusing on all the sandwich shops offering real deals when I spot Saigon Sandwich across the street. It's just down from Eddy Street. I order the Xiu Mai, or pork meat ball sandwich, for 3.50 USD. I eat half at a little counter by the window. Others, who look like regulars, come in and order sandwiches. One crazy person comes in and rants but is ignored. I wrap up the rest of my sandwich and leave. It's good but Vietnam on Upper Broadway is better. Butter buns and fresher. They cook the meat right on the grill. No microwaving your meatballs. It's more expensive at 4 USD but the difference is worth it. There is nothing like a fried pork or fried chicken sandwich hot off the grill and dripping in juices with Vietnamese vegetables and dip. They serve a lot of other Vietnamese dishes there at Vietnam. I don't think the sandwiches are even listed on the menu. Right next door to Vietnam is Sam's, another long-counter place specializing in hamburgers. But at this point in time, Sam's might best be turned into a museum. Put a wax figure of Jack at the counter with a bottle and a small notebook, and you could sell tickets. That would be authentic.
With my half sandwich in hand, I headed down to Golden Gate, cut left down to Market, saw nothing new there, then took a bus up to Kearny. On Kearny I did a little more walking up to Bush, then over to Cafe Claude in Claude Lane, or is it Alley? If not Alley, it is like one. I was moving upscale but without the money. There at the bar was Horacio from Uruguay. He fixed me a perfect Ketel One martin, very cold; and though I had in mind the Paleron De Flanchet, or flank steak, I only ordered pomme frite. Good fries, thin and cooked with herbs, and coming with a secret sauce worthy of secrecy.
It had been awhile since I had seen Horacio and noticed a difference in his hair. He confessed:
"I'm in a band."
It's amazing what being in a band does for you. First, it seems to liberate your hair. You either don't need to comb it at all, or you can comb it in a way no one else would. I don't know how you do the latter but if you're in a band you do. The liberation of Horacio's hair was not extensive, however; I was tipped off by no more than a little spike on the right side near the temple.
"I didn't know you were a musician," I said.
"Yes, I play the guitar. That's the reasons I'm here."
This is new to me. I had thought of Horacio more as an intellectual type. He has a wry sense of humor, very Latino, and sees irony, though of a cheerful sort, in almost everything.
He mentioned a book he is reading, "Post-American World," by Fareed Zukaria.
"Yes, I can dig what that is all about," I said. He grinned.
I jotted down the title and put it on my reading list, along with George Orwell's 1984, which I had never read. I have a long reading list and much to look forward to. What I'm really waiting for, however, is this: for someone to nail the insanity of the Bush family. Something along the lines of Henry VIII by Shakespeare. Shouldn't be too hard. I somehow have the feeling that historians are not doing their jobs these days. Everyone else has sped up their response time in the Internet age, but historians want to take their own good time getting out the truth. A decade or two, fifty years, what's the hurry? They seem a lazy bunch to me. And of not much value in a society that needs to make critical decisions. Is it time for citizen historian? I hope not but somebody needs to do the job and put things in perspective.
When it was bill time, Horacio asked if it were okay to owe me 32 cents. The bar register was short of change.
"Sure, no problem," I said. "In fact I like this. I can tell folks you owe me money: treinta y dos grandes."
Later in the day I stopped by Golden Gate perk and asked Amy for putaojiu, 葡萄酒. She's Hong Kong Chinese and speakes both Cantonese and Mandarin. But she didn't seem to recognize the word and said she'd always heard wine called jiu, or 酒. But it turns out 酒 just means booze. So for once I was right and someone else was wrong. It's usually the other way around.