I'm sitting six stories above the confluence of Leavenworth and O'Farrell. The suck and swish of red and white, the Doppler shifts of hip hop loops and five-o sirens drift in and out of my head. My roommate, the perennial stoner, is passed out in the closet and I'm finishing another pint glass of wine, diving into my deepest waters for inspiration. Something, anything, not the shit that keeps flowing out of my pen and into my mottled black notebook. Everything up until now has been deliberately obscure - crappy, half-ass roman ā clefs written because I'm a coward and really never had anything to say. I mean, what can you say, 24 years old, going to school still, working part-time as a messenger downtown. Nothing transcendental, nothing profound, nothing with force - and that's what I desperately reach for in the dark.
My neighbor Juke has crazy ideas. His latest idea/dupe is a method for disguising the dubious taste of cheap wine. By cheap I mean bottom shelf screw off variety. The kind you have to dust off. His method is so simple and silly sounding that it actually seems worth a shot: buy five or six bottles of the cheapest bottom shelf fare, mix them all together in a jug, pour and enjoy. It seems sketchy from the start. How can you add bad wine to more bad wine and come up with something decent? It's a question of pure math and my left lobe is telling me it would never work, but, lucky me, I tend to gravitate towards the illogical. So here I am, suckered by Juke's strange scheme, at the bottom of my fourth glass of cheap wine-like swill; but it doesn't taste so bad anymore as I take my last swig. I look at the scribbles in front of me and consider tearing up the pages, chewing on them, and spitballing the pedantic mush onto the face of the city. Instead I throw the notebook to the ground and curse myself. No, I won't be writing anything tonight. I won't make love to the muse; I won't ignite the flame to the immortal poem. I look out the window, down below, at the life that passes by my window, eight days a week. Relentless. Those people have stories to tell, not me, sitting up here in my apartment, worrying about getting up for school tomorrow. The prostitutes are out in force with their shiny sequin get-ups, their hitched-up skirts, their battered heels. This is better than cable television, better than anything I could possibly dream up.
A week ago, I think it was about three in the morning, the action wasn't too hot. There were three girls waiting, sheltered in the bus stop directly across the street from my window. I had names for each of them; I'd seen them so often. There was Stacks, the busty mulatta, China, the painted-up, possibly Asian one, and Rubi, the skinny white girl with a bad attitude (Rubi is short for Rubicon. When I see an unsuspecting john approach her I'm always tempted to yell, Watch out! Don't cross the Rubicon!) That night they were obviously desperate for a trick, accosting practically every man that passed, then spitting and cursing and sucking on their menthol cigs after every rejection. I watched, about to lose my interest, when a man wearing a bulky jacket approached. They exchanged words, then some scratch, and the show commenced. Bulky Jacket took out a camera and started snapping away. Stacks had her top flipped up and was leaning forward. China, with her back to him, was bent over with her skirt pulled up. Rubi was showing some leg and lashing her tongue. Snap snap snap, the flashes looked so lonely that night, for that one brief instant illuminating the tired, hungry girls in the bus stop. Then Bulky Jacket walked away and disappeared into the lower regions of the Tenderloin. Later I tried to write about it, got frustrated with my ineptness and lack of originality, tore it all up and threw the pages with rage out my window, scattering them on the bruised sidewalks six flights down.
It seems like it's gonna be one of those nights as I watch the parade of hookers and johns from my vantage point. Stacks and Rubi are there, China is gone, and a newcomer I call Crooked Legs is working the corner. Crooked Legs hasn't had much luck so far, but I have confidence in her. There are nights when anything can happen; wild, hot nights when uptown folks maunder through the grid in search of adventure, and end up with eventual regrets. Tonight, however, is cold, and so are the clientele. I watch random, fruitless exchanges with only a mild curiosity while I burn through a pack of cigs. Around the corner on O'Farrell comes a slim man dressed in a suit, wearing a fedora. No one wears threads like this nowadays, especially in this hood, except for the pimps. Somehow, Fillmore Slim's style has never gone out. The girls are bunching at the corner, ready to split uphill, downhill, anywhere - because the first reaction of any hooker when she sees her pimp is to run, because he's either gonna take what little money they've earned, or he's gonna beat them for not having it. But they stop. This guy dresses like a pimp, but his awkward mannerism is all wrong. I can hear: "I thought you was a pimp! Man, I thought you was comin' to collect! Haw! Haw! Haw!" I can't discern the rest of what they say from where I am. The slim, well-dressed man moves in, the loose laughing and shiny attire having mesmerized him. The ravenous triad is poised for the kill. They are talking business, hands petting, groping. It's fucking funny that they thought this john was a pimp. Ironic is the correct word. Then I see something strange. Just a little body movement, a twitch of the head to be exact. One of those telltale tics. It hits me. I know this guy! I cup my hands to my mouth and yell, "Hey Lawdy!", my voice reverbing off the four corner buildings. Lawdy looks up, white like Mike. Definitely not the pimp on my block. "Hey Frank, is that you?" he responds, trying to disguise his surprise and embarrassment with an overly exuberant voice. I tell him, "Hey wait. I'll be right down," and grab my jacket and my cigs and leave my apartment.
Lawdy's a guy I know from way back. He isn't really a bad guy, but lately he's been kind of a pain in the ass. He's always telling me how great he is, about his latest band, about this girl and that, about his irresistible sex appeal on stage, and I find most of it ludicrous and laughable. Yet, I won't deny that my distaste for Lawdy's tales could be due to a secret envy. I mean, I'm not exactly Casanova.
Most of his stories, I'm convinced, are fabricated, or somehow conveniently misinterpreted and embellished by him. Even being completely objective I can't possibly see his greatness or irresistible charisma. He's just a kid, like me, struggling to find himself. His music is nowhere near the stature he proclaims. Basically, it just stinks with pretension. He's just better at convincing himself than I am. That, after all, is probably the key to life: complete self-delusion.
I have to take the stairs, as usual, because the elevator's stuck. I think back to a Sunday, about two months earlier, possibly the last time I saw Lawdy before this. I was eating breakfast in a Chinese diner called the Golden Coffee Shop - a couple blocks up on Post street. It was about 1 in the afternoon, the neighborhood was waking up from a scandalous Saturday night, and customers trickled in and out of the diner. Outside the dancing bears and sword swallowing maidens had long gone to bed. I had woken up about five minutes earlier and was trying to adjust to the bright early afternoon light. What I wanted most was some greasy spoon concoction to sop up the left over alcohol in my system. My bloodshot eyes were scanning the Sunday edition Examiner. I was reading an article about a new Marijuana Initiative - thinking that there was hope after all - when someone sat down in the booth across from me. I looked up. It was Lawdy, dressed to the hilt in the latest hip crooner regalia: suit, red rayon big-collared shirt, fedora and all. We often coincided in the Golden Coffee Shop on Sunday afternoons. He placed his order and we made small talk. Then he began preening himself, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of his fabulous reflection in anything on hand: the window, the metallic napkin dispenser, possibly his spoon. Utterly futile. Nothing in that place was clean or new enough to be used as a mirror. I guess at that moment he just had to rely blindly on his unflinching faith in himself. I don't know why, but it seemed to me an absurdity, utterly vulgar, to be so goddamn prim on a Sunday morning in a CHINESE DINER IN THE TENDERLOIN. It just seemed horribly wrong and I dreaded the fact that I would have to spend the next forty-five or so minutes listening to his self-congratulatory stories. Maybe he sensed my displeasure, because after the Chinese diner incident he stopped using me as a pack mule for his tall tales. He simply stopped calling me, and avoided Sunday afternoons in the diner. I was glad. It was time I forged my own pussy-killing tales.
So here I am, two months later, taking the six flights down to meet the ineffable Lawdy. We meet under the awning, exchange the perfunctory greeting, Hi how are you, and so forth, and each light up a cig. I don't really have much to say but there is an involuntary smirk growing on my face. He says:
"I just finished a gig over on Haight Street. You know, just passing by on the way home."
He lives down on Market Street, so I know that this intersection in particular is definitely not "on the way home".
"Oh yeah?" I ask. "How was it?"
"Good man. Yeah, real good. We were tight. I did this thing tonight... this really cool thing... I had someone project a slide of a skeleton over my body while I sang The Pieces. You remember that song?"
"Yeah. I think so."
It's his epic song about chess. He too, I suspect, is sifting through the infinitely bland details of his life and trying to make art of them. If I remember correctly, the song climaxes when his queen is trapped and taken down by a rook.
"Yeah. It was a pretty good showing too. There was this chick there from the SF Weekly that's gonna write up a review on it... the set was a little fucked up though because this hippy guy kept dancing and throwing himself against the monitor... I dunno... it threw me off and I had to jump off the stage and punch him."
"Yeah man... I was so pissed I had to take a couple shots after the gig just to take the edge off... both on the house of course... they love me there, you know, they asked us to come back next month."
"So then you ended up walking back home. Back by my place."
"You know, as I said, I had a few shots."
"It's cool man. I've talked to the hookers too, you know."
"Forget about it."
"I'm hungry. I got the munchies. What about you?"
We cross the street, make our way through a group of neighborhood roughnecks, and enter the corner market. The television in the corner shows saturated images of plastic celebrities - the usual late night garbage - and the cassette player behind the counter is playing the latest Arabic pop singles. We walk past a rack with hotrod and girlie mags and into tottering multi-colored isles. Soup cans and fruit cans - suspicious, quite possibly expired - surround us. We walk to the end, then to the right; nothing looks appealing. In front of us is the glass display of the deli counter. The brownish potato salad and soggy Jalepeņo Poppers scowl back at us, through the buzzing fluorescent-lit air, as if to say, not now, not yet my friend. You need to be really drunk to eat us. We pass up those culinary delights and walk to a stand, up by the cashier. We mutually decide on a bag of tortilla chips. I grab it and we wait in line together. In front of us is the local crackhead asking for a glass pipe. I see him everyday around here, zigzagging in the streets. With a grating voice, he reminds:
"Don't forget the Brillo, man." He jerks and twitches.
The clerk, annoyed, says, "OK OK my friend," and makes sure that he gets his piece of Brillo so he can smoke his five dollar rock.
We are at the counter now and we split change for the chips. The clerk drops nickels and dimes in the register and they go clink clink and with his other hand he turns the radio up, all the while pumping his head. We turn and are about to leave, but the exit has just been blocked by an apparition.
It's The Pimp.
But not only that. I mean, it's not that big a deal to see The Pimp, here, at this hour. The thing that fazes me, that fazes Lawdy, that fazes even his Pimpness, is the fact that Lawdy has on the exact same outfit as The Pimp. From top to bottom, you look at the hat, from Lawdy to the Pimp, The Pimp to Lawdy: the same. You look at the shirt, red chiffon tackiness, big collar: the same. You look at the jacket, black, gray pinstripes: the same. Even around their necks: faux gold on each. Ooooh it's tense, like a showdown, like the hush before a great spectacle. They just stand there, sizing each other up. I'm to the side, not sure if I want to intervene, not sure if I want to be on The Pimp's bad side. I mean, a pimp is supposed to be a pimp, right? Here's this honky clown bitin' his turf. Playin' on his women! Oh boy I know something is gonna go down, right here in this crappy little market to the tune of Punjabi MC. The Pimp, icy, without taking his eyes off Lawdy's, says:
Lawdy is still surprised, not really sure of what to say, not having anticipated this random encounter with THE REAL THING. Finally, Lawdy looks down at his own shoes: nice new and shiny, pointy with buckles, in the poorest of tastes. He looks at The Pimp's shoes. They are of similarly sleazy aspect, only his are worn, beaten and rough at the extremes - from being scuffed on ass, leprous pension hotel walls, rims on purple Cadillacs... So The Pimp is right. Lawdy's shoes are better than his.
Lawdy and I kowtow and The Pimp marches past us, followed by his posse. We leave the market and cross the street. I open the bag of chili-powdered chips. They aren't too bad. At least they aren't expired this time. I hand the bag to Lawdy. He takes it, pauses, and hands it back.
"Know what? I'm not really hungry. Anyway, I gotta go. Gotta get up early tomorrow."
He shuffles away with his hands buried in his pockets, around the corner, down to Market Street. I stay and finish the bag, watching nothing in particular - just life passing by - then walk back up to my apartment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
lives in Barcelona where he's done almost any kind of work available, the most recent being a virtual pimp for an internet porn company. He has been published on Smokebox.net
and has his own website
where you can read more of his short stories and see his short films.