The Rogue Voice


July 01, 2006

We're all insane

By Stacey Warde

Everyone I know is in the midst of having, or is about to have, a nervous breakdown. Why wouldn’t they?
With monsters for world leaders bent on destroying the planet, we can take little comfort in our future.
Unless working people demand accountability and assume responsibility for governing themselves, we can expect more lies, violence, and political disasters like the one that started in 2000 and continues to this day.

The word is that it’s too late for that. The world has become such a mess, people say, we’ve entered a long and painful descent, both human and environmental, into an abyss of suffering, which will surely end in death and destruction, and more campaigns for state-sanctioned torture, terror, spying and intimidation. As global warming melts the polar caps and spawns deadly hurricanes, George W. Bush runs roughshod over Constitutional liberties and spreads hatred and fear throughout the world, giving birth to more terrorists. And it’s only getting worse.
The way things are going in the U.S. — with liberties and privacy disappearing, and friends losing their marbles — we can expect “Special Training Camps” soon, where we’ll be reprogrammed to consider torture a viable option for dealing with our enemies, where war is peace and a government without newspapers is preferred to newspapers without government.
Sure, it makes sense that so many people I know seem edgy and act crazy, threatening to kill their neighbors, or leaving town without a word to their friends or family.
The planet is ruined; civilization is doomed.
If the U.S. doesn’t destroy itself, the earth will upchuck us all into oblivion, a horrendous planetary projectile vomit that will remove the beasts we’ve become from out of its system. The planetary purge will include global meltdown, pestilence, famine and disease. It’s no wonder people act bonkers.
Where are the people who know how to laugh at themselves and their enemies? What happened to decency, diplomacy, respect and humor? What happened to good science? Is it possible to remain sane without these?

I’ve had a recurring dream in which the rest of the world decides to annihilate the United States, and remove it from the face of the earth.
Countless missiles fill the sky, racing toward their targets, which in minutes will turn to dust and ash. The world has had enough. The U.S. must die.
American fighter pilots bravely and futilely scramble in an attempt to intercept the missiles. Terror and panic grip the citizenry as it watches the spectacle above, knowing that the inevitable fiery and miserable end is only seconds away.
The missiles hauntingly streak through the upper stratosphere in quiet determination to reach their targets — big cities, military and industrial complexes, the whole she-bang of American power and might.
I’ve awakened from this recurring dream in a mild fret, musing over the possibility of this nation’s demise. If we stay the course, as proposed and executed by the Bush administration, I tell my self, it’s going to happen. We deserve it.
And then, I go on about my day.
Recently, however, while working in the garden, I heard a horrible, unnatural and deep rumbling in the distance.
“What the hell is that?” I wondered, looking up into the sky. I held onto my shovel, and listened more closely.
“Is that how it will sound as targets in the distance — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vandenberg Air Force Base, and Los Osos — go up in flames?”
By the time such a rumbling would have reached me, I reasoned, it would all have been over. Our great pride and shame reduced to ashes.
Then, on the street below, a shiny black car passed, its overcharged sound system booming, reverberating, shaking the ground: “Boom! Boom-boom! Boom!” The driver, as so many Americans suffering from vacuous choices, was completely oblivious of his surroundings. The earth shook as he passed homes, not caring or thinking or conscious of his impact on the world around him.
“Boom! Boom-boom! Boom!” It went on for several blocks until, thankfully, it finally passed out of earshot.
I realized in that moment that the world would be correct to take us out. Loud, brash and belligerent, thinking only of their precious lifestyle, Americans have become despicable, if not pathetic, to the rest of the world.
Thinking only of themselves, Americans have become their own worst enemies. We don’t need terrorists to destroy our nation. We’re already doing it ourselves.
When it gets to be like this, when the world championed by our leaders resembles a nuthouse, or a staging area for Armageddon, and it feels like too great a burden to bear, I always like to escape alone to work and play in the garden. Or, I’ll read a book. It sets my mind at ease to let it wander among the flowers and insects, or along the pages of a gripping story.
This edition of The Rogue Voice moves me toward the kind of escape that lets me forget how bad things have gotten. It’s racy, juicy and full of humor. It’s human. At times, it reads like a novel. In places, it swings with a gossipy note, or spins into an adult comic book with sassy blondes shooting pool in a bar near the beach.
I’ve come to love this publication because it takes me places I might not have chosen on my own, places where I learn something new about myself and the world I live in. It reminds me that there are still people in the world who haven’t lost their minds, their sense of humor or their humanity. §

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New blonde

Toms at the Tampico Tides part like the Red Sea as Bridget takes her place

By David Lewellen

She swept into the bar, instant sensation, no questions asked. There were always a few decent blonds hanging around the Tampico Tides, most of them dyeing or sun-bleaching or peroxiding their hair, but none of them moved or walked or sat or had a voice like this one.
I mean, I could picture her pad, could visualize the four-poster bed with diaphanous canopy and silk sheets in the dimly lit boudoir, muted red bulbs casting dim light on a wall with a Marilyn Monroe poster from “The Seven Year Itch.” Being a bartender I knew from instinct and experience that women who put Marilyn Monroe posters on their walls were trouble — big trouble.
I mean, she just LOVED being a blonde. She oozed it. First time she walked into the Tides she came with her mousy brunette girl friend, but hardly anyone noticed the girl friend. Time and all action froze as the jukebox blasted away with the Stones or the Dead or the Doors or maybe Dylan or most likely Rod Stewart grating away with “Do you think I’m sexy?” Oh yes.
Our doormen that night, Big Noom and Murph, looked at her, then at each other, then at me, and nodded. She was wearing the tightest black jeans I’d ever seen, accentuating her regal charms, and a white midriff blouse revealing a smooth brown belly and creamy shoulders. As she walked she sort of flicked her head, like a filly whinnying, and those cascading waves flipped across her eyes and off again, falling perfectly into place. The crew of toms clustered around the front door near our bouncers parted like the Red Sea, as did everybody else. She was a battleship leading the armada.
She smiled at a regular named Jim, a seasoned gambler, cynical divorcee and determined drinker who liked the same stool at the same section of the bar I always worked on weekend nights. For the first time ever, he gave up that stool, patted it down for Bridget, and she flashed him this crinkly-eyed smile, a smile so warm and tender it seemed to reach out and touch, and Jim bolted down his drink, rolled his eyes at me, turned and walked out the door and across the street to have a drink at the always-quiet Sunset Bar & Grill.
She perched on the stool, removed a long-strapped purse from her shoulder and crossed her legs, withdrawing a pack of Salems, whispering to her girl friend, nodding, then tamping a cigarette with long-stemmed fingers that were tanned and bejeweled and possessed elongated nails glistening with the same deep ruby color that matched her lipstick and ear-rings and toenails. As these fingers drew the cigarette halfway to her lips, several zippos snapped out flames in a blinding convergence. She ducked her head, accepted a light, smiling at the toms, very quickly, with little mercy, before she cast her green slanty eyes around the bar and caught me trying to act cool and natural and unassuming.
She smiled that smile and crooked her index finger at me, waggling it in her direction. I took my time coming over.
“I hate to say, ‘Bartender.’ It’s so rude. Do you have a name?”
“I’m Leo.”
“I’m Bridget.” She offered her slender hand, and I took it softly, felt a current run up my legs into my crotch, felt my stomach rumble while a vague paralysis shut down my brain. “This is my friend, Sheila.” I glanced in Sheila’s direction, then back at Bridget, taking my hand away.
They both had Beefeater tonics. Neither girl could get their pocketbooks out before the toms were clamoring to pay, tossing bills at me, mindlessly tipping while they bumped in on Bridget, sort of elbowing Sheila out of the scene. I got the hell away from them, retreating to the end of the bar where the dart throwers hung out.
From time to time, I glanced to see Bridget inhaling, exhaling, whinnying, raising a hand to flick at her hair. A bevy of charmers regaled her with stories and nauseating flattery and awkward braggadocio, the whole troop milling and nudging and nuzzling like a litter of pups trying to get at a mother’s tit.
She stayed maybe an hour-and-a-half, left several untouched drinks, sashayed through another pathway toward the door, hind quarters atremble, mousy Sheila trailing like a wake. Bridget fluttered her fingers at the crowd as she exited. I looked down at her ashtray of red-stained butts and felt like somebody had caved a giant hole in the bar.
Now all the others girls relaxed, sighed, as the toms shambled around, tucking bar napkins and scraps of paper and business cards ascrawl with Bridget’s carefully written phone number into their britches and wallets, and slinked back to circulate with stale leftovers.

She came in a week later. Jim was off his stool and out the door before she was halfway down her pathway. She took the usual time getting lit and settled before glancing at me as if I were an afterthought.
She flashed the touching smile, and waggled me over. I came to her like a sideways walking dog, slack-jawed and numbed out.
“Bridget, “ I said.
“Leo. How are you?”
“Good.” I glanced at Sheila, and felt like a man recently condenmed to a hanging. Femme fatale. “Beefeater tonics, girls?”
They nodded. I came back with their drinks. Toms fought to pay me. I just grabbed a bill and rang it up and tossed out the change and scooped up my tip and salted it away in my toke jar and tried to hide. It wasn’t long before a few guys persuaded Bridget to pick up her drink and move to the poolroom.
A few minutes later, my fellow bartender, Marstrulavich, a bearded hatchet-face with a master’s degree in biochemistry, indicated I should come to his end of the bar. I walked on over and observed the poolroom. Bridget was shooting. She was a lefty, of course. She was decked out in a hot-pink mini-skirt and matching tight cotton sweater and white knee-high booties. As she stretched forward, taking aim on the ball, her hind quarters reared up a bit, her one-bootie came off the floor, and her smooth bare brown legs and full thigh and pink bikini panties were exposed. By now, most of the bar was openly gawking as she expertly sank the ball on a neat cut, and tapped the side of the table and said: “Six in the side.” She sank that one, too. Then squirmed around some more and sank the 8 ball. Oh yes! She just LOVED being a blonde.
Anyway, she tortured the whole damn bar and distracted the poolroom shooters for a couple hours before making her grand exit, leaving behind her usual litany of untouched drinks and stained butts and smirking women and anguished men, the crowd taking almost an hour to settle back down to normal.

A week later, same night, same time, she returned. Jim saw her at the doorway and shot off his stool and scuttled out the back door like a flushed ferret. Bridget went through her usual rituals at my end of the bar. While waiting for her to waggle-finger me over I nudged Marstrulavicb.
“She never goes to your side, you ugly fucker,” I said. “She’s obviously in love with me.”
“You’d better hope not,” he said grimly, shaking his head, he being a man who understood fear. “Of course, you’ve always been stupid when it comes to women.”
Seconds later, I was at Bridget’s beck and call. She seemed concerned about me. “Leo, are you depressed?”
“Not that I know of.”
“How come you never smile, honey?”
I shrugged.
“Will you smile for me?”
I think at this point I attempted a foolish grin. She appraised me, frowning, waggle-fingered me closer as the toms crowded around her. I craned forward, tail wagging, and she deftly touched my bearded chin, stroked the tender skin on my throat with one enameled nail, briefly brushed my cheek, and in her ultra-husky voice, said: “You’re such a sweety. May I have my drink now?”
Marstrulavich was leering at me like a cat about to pounce on a trapped lizard. Somehow I got Bridget and Sheila their drinks. Next time I looked up Bridget was up and headed to the poolroom and this time I didn’t dare walk over and watch her preen and stretch and sashay around the table in her skintight leather britches. I didn’t even watch her walk out.
Next Friday night she was there again, same time, and Jim was gone as soon as he heard the commotion at the door.
“Bridget’s here,” somebody cried.
Marstrulavich sidled over, nudged me. “You pansy,” he said. “Here comes your true love.”
“Eat shit,” I said.
“Say that to her. Then you can forget about her.”
“Maybe not,” I said. “Maybe she needs to be insulted, put down, ignored, rejected, scorned, punished, abused …”
“Abused?” he scoffed. “Nah. You’re too gutless.”
I moseyed over to Bridget as soon as she waggle-fingered me.
“I want my smile, Leo.”
I tried to smile.
“Are you my friend?”
I nodded.
“I like to have friends. Men never want to be friends with me. You know how that goes, don’t you?” I nodded. “So will you be my friend? My buddy? And protect me when I’m needy? Sometimes a girl gets down, you know. Even this one."
I felt my face collapsing, the membranes drooping, and I could not control the droop, like a toddler can’t control his bowels, I suppose, and she appeared very concerned. “Whatsa matter, hon-ee? You okay?”
“Beefeater tonics, Bridget?”
She perked up, eyes shining and crinkling as she smiled. “You got it, babe.”
I made their drinks and the same old crew moved in, still gamely trying to woo Bridget, but so far there’d been no scuttlebutt of anybody taking her out or laying a hand on her. She was a cold trail, a sphinx.
Then I saw Lance Larkin, talking to Sheila.
Lance was a model and aspiring actor who’d made a few commercials. He played volleyball, was tall and lean, with ridiculously high cheekbones and the classic jaw lines of a Greek god, I suppose, his blond hair curling up on his neck and matching his eyebrows. He never had money for drinks, and tonight was wearing a new outfit: baggy powder-blue slacks with gold watch chain looped from belt to pocket, suspenders, black T-shirt, offwhite sportcoat with sleeves rolled up on his blond-haired forearms. I stared at him, but he ignored me, because he knew I was going to ask him if he wanted a drink and then flash him a dirty look when he said, no, he didn’t want a drink, as he cased the crowd with casual indulgence.
Now Sheila was buying him a drink. He drank Stoli on the rocks, of course, and without looking at me requested a couple olives, so I tossed olives on top and Sheila paid and tipped and smiled her crooked-toothed smile at Lance, while Bridget remained completely turned away from them, facing her charges, nodding, smoking, flipping her hair, smiling without mercy, getting prepared for her poolroom exhibition. She crooked her head back toward Sheila, and then she saw Lance, and Lance saw her.
She didn’t go to the poolroom. It took Lance about half an hour to creep an inch at a time closer to Bridget, until he was between them, and now Bridget was buying him drinks, always with two olives, Lance never glancing at me once, standing there in all his cool elegant splendor while Bridget became animated, and they exchanged meaningful looks, secret smiles, Sheila out-of the picture now and sitting hunched as she stared dolefully into her drink.
Bridget stayed longer than usual, actually getting a little tipsy as the crew fidgeted and fretted and mumbled and grumbled and shambled off to mingle. Sheila and Bridget collected their junk and stuffed it in their purses and stood to leave. Bridget did not look at me or say good-bye as she parted the crowd and disappeared out the door, while Lance leaned insouciently against the bar like a guy posing for a photo shoot. Then he drained his rock glass and left.

The following Friday night Jim did not have to give up his stool for her. There was no Bridget. Nor was there a Bridget on the following Friday. I was working a Saturday night when she came in with Lance. She was decked out like a starlet. Lance was in matching shorts and shirt that showed off his legs and biceps.
There were no stools, so they stood near the dart crew. They ordered the usual and Bridget paid, flashed me her touching smile, tipped a dollar, and then turned to devote her undivided attention to Lance. Their body language and doting eyes made it quite evident they were more than intimate. Eventually they found stools and sat down. They were so into each other they scarcely noticed the crowd around them. All other toms had given up hope. When Bridget ordered fresh drinks and I served them she flashed me a brief, dismissive smile while Lance kept his eyes on her, and soon they were touching one another, stroking hair, nibbling and cuddling.
I went over and nudged Marstrulavich. “Isn’t it wonderful?” I said. “Two beautiful people in love.”
“Maybe it’s lust. You don’t believe in love, do you?”
“Hell no.”
He sneered. “Sure you do. Instead of just fucking them, you always got to build a case for love. Then they got you by the balls. I’ve seen it before, I’ll see it again. Just be thankful that show-pony took away your true love. Haw haw.”
We glanced over at them. They were whispering to each other, heads closer together. Her hand was always either on his neck, his shoulder, his hand, his thigh. Every minute or so they exchanged little reassuring pecks on the cheek. Finally they worked it up to the point where they were kissing, passionately, like movie stars in a love scene. It eventually got so hot they had to leave,, Lance finishing off his drink and placing his hand on the high curve of her butt as they walked with straight backs out the door.
They started pulling this scene about once a week, usually Saturday nights. What made things worse was, during timeouts of ballgames on TV, this beer commercial of Lance romping around on a nearby beach with a bunch of other beauties and Adonises. One night, sitting at the bar, he looked up and saw himself on TV and Bridget hugged him proudly. That was when I informed Marstrulavich I had to do something.
“So do something.”
I did. I told everybody that Lance dyed his eyebrows white and that his real name was “Dane.” I made sure some volleyballers were within earshot. “Dane knows his eyebrows are the ticket to stardom,” I exclaimed. “He dyes ‘em once a week, cultivates ‘em, combs ‘em out so they’ll be bushy, but not too bushy, but just bushy enough.” I was drunk, of course. “Dane wants to be Robert Redford. Har, har.”
Next time they came to the bar together Lance looked at me for the first time ever. He was grim, upset, scowling, as was Bridget.
“Are you the one started this crap about me dyeing my eyebrows?”
“That’s right, Dane.”
“Dane? What’s this Dane shit?”
“Everybody knows your real name is Dane. You changed it to Lance because you wanna be a movie star.” I looked at Bridget. “He dyes his goddam eyebrows, Bridget. He combs and fluffs them up into perfect tufts, like a damn wuss.”
Lance turned purple. “That’s a lie! That’s slander! I'll sue you, asshole!”
I was livid now, and well-oiled. I’d been drinking tequila during most of my shifts on a regular basis for weeks. Marstrulavich was at my side, leering. “You’re eighty-sixed!” I shouted. “Nobody calls me an asshole.”
“That’s right!” Marstrulavich added. “Especially when YOU’RE the asshole.”
“Dane!” I shouted.
“Dane!” Marstrulavich shouted.
Nobody was on Dane’s side. Most of the crew was growling, enjoying my victory. Bridget glared at me, startling me with a look dark and vicious. I stuck my tongue out at her. She called me a bastard. I don’t know what I called her. Then I picked up the bullhorn used to announce last call.
Dane hustled Bridget out of the bar. Marstrulavich and I had shooters of tequila. We got enormously drunk and stayed after hours with our bouncers and certain select regulars who had hounded after Bridget, and drank, rehashed the story, gloating, rejoicing.

A month or so went by and there was no sign of Bridget or Dane, as we now referred to him. Then one evening Bridget showed up. She was dressed in a sleek body-fitting black dress and black net stockings. But there was something wrong with her. There was no Sheila, no Dane. Between her eyes was a distracted squinch. As always, the crew parted for her, but nobody made a move as she stabbed through the bar on spiked heels and peered this way and that, finally giving up and stalking out.
Several times in the next few weeks she popped in, by herself, looking like a stalking harridan, mouth a corkscrew, eyes cold and hard as she scanned the bar and left. One night she came in wearing her favorite leather britches, and was about to leave when Dane came in the back door with a pouty-mouthed blonde in hotpants on his arm. He was dressed in a striped suit and Borsalino hat. Bridget saw them and pushed and shoved and elbowed and snarled her way through the crowd and confronted Dane, shrilling at him, calling him vile names, crying, then trying to scratch and pummel him, driving poor Dane and the shocked, huge-titted blonde out of the bar and down the alley. The entire crowd of perhaps 100 people spilled out into the alley and watched the spectacle. Last thing we saw was Bridget chasing them down the alley and then up a sidestreet.
Neither of them ever came into the bar again. I was relieved.
Then one night, months later, I was on the prowl, suffering from the usual girl trouble, hitting bar after bar along Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo beaches. I might have been all the way into Marina Del Rey by cab, for all I knew, for it was a change of scenery, new faces, maybe a strange pickup I needed. Anyway, I was in an old-fashioned lounge, listening to a piano player, and there was Bridget, sitting with a group of men in coats and ties. Her hair was platinum, short and sort of bobbed, like Jean Harlow. Almost immediately my heart started thumping in my chest.
I signaled the bartender. I told him to send her a drink. He rolled his eyes at me, sighed, nodded toward her and her crowd.
“She’s got plenty already, pal,” he said.
“Tell her it’s from Dane.”
He did as he was told. She immediately looked over, eyes widening. She did a double-take. “Leo!” she shouted. “Oh, Leo.” She picked up her purse and came right over. I stood, and she fell against me, hugging me hard, digging her nails into my backside. “Oh Leo, my good old buddy, my sweet Leo, I’ve missed you so.”
I couldn’t talk. I had a hard-on that could’ve chopped down a giant redwood. “I miss the Tides so much. And I miss you so much. You are such a good friend, such a dear, you took such good care of me. Oh, honey, you always looked out for me and protected me from all those men …”
“Yeh, yeh,” was all I could utter as I stroked her hair, her neck, her wet face. “Poor Bridget, poor baby. You okay, little baby?”
“Oh I’m better, Leo. You make me feel better.” She disengaged, finding tissue from her purse, sniffing, wiping at the tears. “I’m trying to be a happy person, I’m trying so hard …”
We sat down on stools, facing each other, knees touching, and she started talking. To this day I don’t know what the hell she was saying. She was all over the place, disconnected, rambling, prattling on and on, and we kept on drinking. By and by we were kissing. Her lips were soft as melting hot honey. She smelled of nuanced jasmine, tasted of Beefeater’s and spearmint, and her delicate, slightly swayed backbone fit perfectly in my arms. I peered up between embraces and the suit-and-tie guys were eyeing me stonily. I tipped the bartender a five and had him call us a cab.
Bridget gave the cabbie directions and we wrestled and grappled, kissing hard, clashing teeth, lapping tongues. We rolled up to a two-story apartment house in a nice neighborhood. It was one of those complexes with a pool and lots of single people. We staggered to an upstairs apartment. Sheila was in the front room on a couch in baggy pajamas, watching a black and white movie.
“Remember Leo?” Bridget said. “My dear Leo?”
Sheila cast an eye at me. “Hi Leo,” she said hollowly, and went back to her movie and cigarette.
Bridget’s room was well-lit and a mess, gobs of clothing were strewn everywhere. Her night table was jumbled with loads of cosmetics and brushes and combs. Little hot white bulbs formed a horseshoe around the mirror above the nightstand. The bed was unmade, stacked with more garments. On a wall were side-by-side movie posters of Monroe and Harlow. The opposite wall was lined with snapshots of men. There must have been nearly 50 of them, almost all handsome hunks. Farthest, on the right, in technicolor, was a cooly posing Dane in his bathing suit at a volleyball net.
Bridget was already undressed. She placed her hands behind her neck, flaring her elbows out, and walked toward me, very, very slowly, undulating and rotating her lips, like a belly dancer. My teeth were chattering.
“Are you going to love me forever?” she cooed in that ultra husky satiny voice, eyes intense, beseeching, gazing past me, perhaps at the wall, perhaps at nothing.
“Yes,” I said. §

David Lewellen writes from Silverlake where he works on sets for the movie industry and moonlights at a coffee house.

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Cabby's Corner

Sisters from South Central
By Dell Franklin

I had a good idea who it was going to be when I got an early morning call to Greyhound: black women who rode the bus up from L.A. or down from Oakland/Richmond to visit husbands and boyfriends in the California Mens Colony out on the edge of town. These gals took the red-eye and arrived at the depot around 8 a.m. Often, they were young and attractive and oozing sex appeal. They dressed in their finest out-fits, walked with a strut and did not try to hide the angry, tough, hard ghetto glares that split their otherwise pretty faces. They spent some time in the dingy depot restroom primping, shaping their hair and straightening clothes before settling in my cab, always four of them, bringing with them strong scents of perfume. I wondered if they were visiting drug dealers or pimps, armed robbers or murderers, but never asked, realizing these women lived lives too hard for me to fathom, -being white and lazing in fat, colorless San Luis Obispo.
I could not help but study their smoky eyes in the mirror.
“What you lookin’ at, white-boy?”
I was 43 years old. “Nothin’, hon.”
“How comes y’all wearin’ them funky shades with a safety pin hold ‘em togethah, huh? Who dress y’all?” They all giggled.
“My mother dressed me until I was about 12, and it’s been downhill ever since.” When there was no response, I said: “So how you doing this morning?”
“How my doin’? Sheeeit. Mothafuckin’ bus stop in ev’ry little town ‘long the way. Ain’t nowhere to eat. Ain’t nevah takin’ that nasty bus up here again see MY man. He gon wait ‘til he get his black ass out.”
“You be back,” grumbled one of the sisters.
“You got that right,” added another.
They gazed at the countryside as we pulled out of town, up High-way 1. They could never get over how much land there was, and how green it was in winter.
“Girl, I movin’ up here, soon as I get me enough cash.”
“Hey, boy, how much it cost rent a house up here?”
“Plenty. And you won’t like it, either.”
“How you know that?”
“It’s too white. Only black folks up here are Cal Poly athletes and the brothers they let out of prison from the honor farm to clean the roadsides. Oh, there’s a black lady lives up here with her three kids. I take her to the market once a week. Her husband drives a garbage truck down in L.A. all week and drives up here weekends, so she and the kids can live in this nice white town. Peaceful. No gangs. Very little crime. But she says there’s nobody to talk to, nobody speaks her language. Says she misses her old neighborhood.”
I dropped them off, like so many others, at CMC East, where the harder core criminals reside. The four ladies strode toward the office, where they had to take the end of a long, long line on a very warm morning, waiting to be checked in and inspected before spending a few precious hours with guys who had years to serve, guys in blue pants and blue work shirts with scowls and weight-lifting arms and shoulders.
Back at the bus depot, another woman waited for me — Reese. A heavyset black lady who ran a government office in L.A. and had two children and was waiting for her husband to finish an eight-year armed robbery conviction and go straight — a man who had a year or so to go and had become a born-again Christian. Reese usually came alone, but this time brought her young teenage son and daughter and wanted to stop at the supermarket to pick up supplies for a conjugal visit with her husband in one of the trailers outside prison, where couples spend 48 hours together twice or three times a year.
Reese had to wait. I had to tear to the airport and drive a pilot to a downtown motel room and then stop at a bar and transport a morn-ing drunk home, and when I finally got around to Reese she was in a dither, having already lost about two hours of visiting time with her anxiously waiting husband. Like the other ladies, who’d obviously gotten to the phone quicker, she had taken the all-nighter. She was in a terrible huff, and having trouble with her moody, scowling children, who grumbled about their discomfort and the already stifling heat, both of them decked out in stiff, spanking new Wal-Mart duds. Reese was in what appeared to be her newest, best dress. Sweat rolled down her burnished chocolate face and ran her mascara and make-up, and this large earth mother showed signs of cracking, perhaps crying, perhaps screaming at the misery of it all.
“Where were you, baby?”
“Sorry, Reese. We’re backed up, running late. Two cabs are down. It’s just a mess. I’m all alone.”
“Well, you cool down now. We’ll make it.”
Somehow she always cheered me up, and I cheered her up. She sat up front, window down, staring out while I swerved around town, the kids shifting and grimacing in the back, halting in front of the super-market where she needed to buy groceries for the feast to be cooked for her family.
“You be back in fifteen minutes now, baby. You be here?”
“I’ll try my hardest, Reese.” It took me a few minutes to take out three large suitcases from the trunk and stack them in front of the supermarket where the boy was to guard them while white people shuffled in and out, sneaking furtive glances at his sullen presence, his hair wet and glistening, new clothes blotched with sweat at the armpits, the boy growling and hating his new environment. Just as I pulled away he began shouting at Reese, who tore into him, humbling the boy to the point where he skulked off and sat by himself on a bench near an elderly white woman who skulked away, very uneasy and close to panic.
I didn’t get back to them for more than half an hour. Reese was with the kids, at the bench, beside the stack of luggage and two full carts of food, enough to feed a battalion. Again I lifted the luggage and stacked it in the trunk. Then we started with the bags of meat and poultry and fish and gallon jugs of juices and milk and soft drinks and produce and cookies and chips and condiments …
There wasn’t enough room. Reese had another spat with the boy, threatening to whack him and leave him here, and this was when I stepped in, took charge, a true cab pilot. I told Reese to calm down and instructed the two kids to sit in the back. Then Reese and I began to carefully stack the bags on the two children, until only their heads peeped above the massive jumble of bags. Then I seated Reese shotgun and stacked the last of the bags on her, and she flashed me a weary smile and chuckled, and sighed, saying it was almost over, they were almost home free, and oh wasn't this beautiful country, such a nice day in such a nice place, and she turned around and told her kids that soon they would see their daddy, everything gonna be okay.
She reapplied her makeup and primped her hair in a hand mirror as we climbed the last mile up the hill, and at CMC East we parked, and a prisoner wheeled up a huge sled for her goodies. It took us a while to fill it up, and afterwards Reese paid and tipped me a buck, patting my hand with heartfelt appreciation that left me feeling truly humbled, and blessed. She was the only one of these black women who ever tipped, and it made up for all those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t tip, for whatever reason.
At the front of the slow-going line, the four black women spotted me, and waved. One of them shouted that she wanted me back here at 3:30 p.m. sharp, when visiting hours ended, so I could drive them to one of the cheaper hotels in town that catered to prison visitors for special rates.
I returned to CMC at 3:30 after considerable scuffling — -sweaty, tense, drained — but they were nowhere to be seen. As I pulled out, I saw them sitting in a sedan driven by another black woman. As usual, they had used me for insurance while soliciting a better ride. Well, who could blame them?
Later that evening I saw them on the streets in downtown San Luis. They waved and demandingly flagged me down. They complained about the rude stares they’d been getting, the honks and ugly comments from college boys (“How come you’re not KFC?”) and other wise guys, and about the police, who’d stopped and asked them where they were from and what were they doing in San Luis Obispo.
“Like we ‘hos,” fumed one of them.
“We ain't no ‘hos,” said another. “We come t’ see our men.”
They were going back to their room to have pizza and watch TV, and they wanted me to pick them up the next morning to get them to the prison early so they would not have to wait so long in line, because the process of moving them into the visiting area took forever, with officials inspecting them for drugs and various contraband, shuttling then like cattle as they strained at the leash for precious moments with their loved ones. I said I’d try, and I did, as always, showing up at their motel early, but they were gone, probably with the same sister who had helped them earlier. If they were smart they’d finagle a ride with her back to L.A., too, and skip the dreaded Greyhound.
As for Reese, well, I’d be there for her in 24 hours. She always requested me as her personal cabby, and it always made me feel special to be there for her. §

Dell Franklin is the publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at Read more of his "Cabby's Corner" series:
  • Ode to Tobias Wolff

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    Washing windows across America (episode 10)

    Santa Fe pride

    You have to wonder about a guy who lives out of rust-bucket

    In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.

    By Ben Leroux

    Pride is a funny thing. Without at least a sliver of it, your very existence can fizzle out. Too much, and you set yourself up for a suicidal downfall. Supposedly pride’s a sin, but try going through a typical day without showing people how proud you are, and society dines away at your soul bit by bit.
    When it comes to a guy who parks his rust-bucket randomly in a busy Starbuck’s parking lot, eating donuts and grooming himself mid-morning, as the rest of the adult world functions around him, you have to wonder about his pride. He just sits in broad daylight, parked between Lexus’s and Range Rovers. With really nowhere to be, one spot is as good as the next. He’s been evicted from a Wal-Mart parking lot for vagrancy. Sometimes he just stares into a map of the United States, or into bright nothingness, picking his nose or something. You have to wonder what kind of bleakness is in store for this guy. It’s as though his pride runs on fumes. Maybe he’s waiting around for the stores to open so he can go wash windows. Maybe he’s not paying attention to who is coming up behind him.
    “Good morning, sir.”
    A woman has her head bent to driver’s side level, but she’s a safe distance back. She looks very ordinary. She introduces herself as June from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and gets my name.
    “Ben, I wonder if I might give you a little bit of good news,” she says.
    I can tell that life has recently kicked June in the guts. Maybe a rich husband has left her for a petite blonde with big tits. I get a good vibe from her.
    “Here is our literature.” June hands me her pamphlet mechanically, as if following a checklist.
    I take a look at it.
    “May I ask what you are, Ben?”
    “Today I am a Pantheist, June,” I say, joking.
    “A Pantheist? Now what is that? I haven’t heard of that one.”
    “A Pantheist believes that even though we die, we really don’t, because everything is alive and interconnected, and that you, me, these cars, the solar system, we’re all one thing – one divine, sacred thing.”
    June coils her eyebrows.
    “Hmmm. And why do you say you’re a Pantheist today? Is that part of the religion?”
    “No. Personally, June, I am not wired for religion or belief. Pantheism was just something I was reading about last night in Borders. I was going along with it until the ‘divine’ and ‘sacred’ part. I don’t know why people have to ruin things.”
    “You know Ben, the way you describe Pantheism, it sounds very Shirley MacLaine to me.”
    “I see what you mean, June. Shirley MacLaine would have made a fine Pantheist, yes.”
    “Well, in our religion, we believe that it’s too late for humanity and that the end of the world is preordained and inevitable. It’s man’s fate.”
    “I guess that is good news in a way.”
    “There’s more to it, of course. But I get the feeling you’re not interested.”
    “Don’t take it personally.”
    “Good luck with your travels, Ben.”
    “Good luck with your travels, June.”

    A windowed corridor leads down into the darkened hole that is Jackie’s Pub. I can see day drinkers in there getting started on a brunch of suds. A man with the self-importance of ownership leans against a wall of the corridor, smoking a cigarette. A few customers are smoking with him. His glass panes are nicotine-stained, and I am penniless. A perfect fit, I’m thinking.
    “Hi, are you the owner?”
    “Why, what are you selling?” He won’t look at me. His face is a smug, bloated cherry with a pointed goatee. Finally he looks up and checks me out, and I become conscious that my clothes are badly wrinkled and have become two sizes too large for me. He looks at my window-cleaning gear and grins like he’s having a private joke.
    “I was just going to offer to clean your windows,” I say. “Ten dollars for both sides.”
    Aroused, he springs up and paces buoyantly around his corridor. He makes sure his smokers and his regulars can see and hear him as a spiteful laugh starts to crackle from within him.
    “What did you say? Windows? Ah-ha-ha-ha. You see any windows in my bar? Oh Jesus, ha-ha-ha!”
    “I was talking about these right here.”
    “Windows? Shit. You call these windows?” He pokes his head into the doorway of the bar. “Hey, he calls these windows!” Some regulars look up, but too late for the joke. A couple of the smokers force chortles.
    His hysteria climbs as I pick up my bucket and duffel bag to leave.
    “Yeah, go ahead and clean all the windows in my bar. Ha-ha-ha! Yeah, right. Oh shit! A-ha-ha-ha!”
    In a perfect world, I now set down my gear and walk over to this man. I deliver a solid blow to his throat or eye, or some other fleshy, vulnerable area. By walking away from this man without providing him, at the very least, the sting of a sharp one to the ribs or abdomen, I not only cheat him, but I cheat the delicate balance of the universe. One too many men have walked away from him, not taking the time to stop and restore order.
    But the prideless man, immune to narcissistic injury, turns his back to such a guy and walks away, leaving the problem for the next poor sap.
    “Hey, buddy! Hey buddy!” I hear over my shoulder. “Oh Jesus, ha-ha-ha! Hey, buddy! Hey, window man!”

    I shake it off. The day is brilliant with clarity and tender sunlight. As advertised, Santa Fe is a few things: poor and dark, white and eccentric, dirty and stunning. As an artist’s colony, it is a tolerated visitor in the paint-stroked brutality of the high desert.
    Walking along the main boulevards, I am able to glance down charming, narrow side streets that are spotted with adobe, shade, and cruelty. This is as close as I will get to a travel-guide experience of Santa Fe.
    Such charms, while endearing to the typical American tourist, can be irrelevancies to the window-washer on foot. In my Santa Fe travel guide, there are sections on the crumbling edges of Cerrillos Street, and the sketchy sidewalks that stop and resume willy-nilly, or trail off into gulches or weed thickets, or just simply end without warning into a brick fence or a building.
    And cities are hard enough as it is. Small, remote towns are peppered here and there with dirty windows. But city hustling is akin to trolling for the big fish. You’re looking for a “pocket” of businesses that the local commercial outfit has either forgotten or abandoned. There’s no guarantee that such a pocket even exists. The only guarantee is that you are in for hours and miles of repeated rejection.
    But later that afternoon I find my pocket.
    It starts with a hair salon owned by a Nigerian woman. Strangely, her clientele consists of feeble blue-haired white ladies, and strangely, she has bars on the insides of her windows, which are hell to get around. I have assured her that I can get behind the bars and get the glass cleaned, but I don’t think she believes me. She and her clientele watch me closely. Somehow, in the process, it becomes my job to seat customers as they come through the front door. They sit in the lobby, spellbound by a TV show called The View, which blares from a wall-mounted set. During commercials, they shift in their lobby chairs and gawk at me. When I’m done, I pass a thorough inspection from the Nigerian woman and her clients, and move on to the next cluster of businesses.
    There, a dog-grooming salon hires me to clean both sides.
    Mistakenly though, I start at the window of a neighboring medical office that had already rebuffed me. It is an honest error, since the complex is cramped and it is difficult to tell where one business begins and the other ends. Realizing my mistake, I hurry to remove the water. But the curtains part, and a mortified office-aide frantically mouths to me: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I TOLD YOU NO! NOW, STOP!”
    Through the glass, I attempt to convey remorse for cleaning her window, and explain that I’ll finish it and be on my way.
    “NO, NO, NO!” she gesticulates, pulling at her hair. “LEAVE NOW! LEAVE NOW! AHHH!”
    “Okay,” I say, “but don’t you want me to—?”
    So I leave the soapy water to dry on her window, and move over to the adjacent window where I am relieved to be looking in on Poodle Paradise – a salon exclusively for poodles.
    I resume, but soon spot trouble.
    Inside Poodle Paradise, a small child, possibly 4, sits on the floor. She nibbles at a lunch of McDonald’s while fending off three overgrown, salivating poodles. She eats with the particular boredom of a child who goes to work with mommy every day. I am leery of this child. Two major threats to the momentum of a window-washer are very old men and very young children. Both are fascinated with the art form.
    Sure enough, the little nipper notices me, and her McDonald’s hits the plate. But this one is smart. Before coming for me, she stands and faces the poodles, and points and says “No!” The dogs cower and drool at the McDonald’s.
    The kid then methodically slides a chair over to the window and climbs onto it. She studies me. I pretend not to see her. She is messy-faced with tangled hair. After careful deliberation, she smashes her face to the glass and launches into a routine of fantastic pig-faces. She follows me, working her tongue, lips, and nostrils along the glass like the underside of a snail. Not wanting to encourage her, I show no reaction, though I am somewhat impressed with her feats.
    Her mom, snipping away at a poodle, tells her to stop, but the child is insolent. She knows there’s noting anyone can do. So she follows me, sliding the chair from pane to pane, discharging a trail of grease, ketchup, processed cheese, and saliva on the glass I am to clean.
    Tiring of the pig-face bit, she changes into a blowfish routine, where she unhinges her jaw and begins exhaling against the glass, inflating her little head into a disturbing beacon of redness. I can see into her tonsils. She backs up and looks at her face-prints on the glass, and giggles.
    Inside, the girl becomes my shadow, interrogating me in a language of her own. She follows me from room to room, demanding to be told the names of everything I touch: blinds, buckets, hoses, chairs. She repeats, but is usually way off. She tries to pick up my bucket and poles at times, and, at one point, runs off with my large squeegee. She gets in the way. To shut her up, I give her my small squeegee to look at. She tries to rake the tile floor with it. So I put some water on a window and show her how to slide the squeegee along the glass and take the water off. She becomes silently engrossed, allowing me to finish up.
    “Isn’t that adorable?” I hear someone behind me say to the mother, as the girl and I work side by side.
    “Here I thought she was going to be a dog-groomer,” the mom says, “But look at her. She’s going to be a window-washer.”
    “More,” the little girl turns to me and says. She has gotten most of the water off.
    “No, we’re done,” I say. I pack my things up then go behind her and secretly touch up her work with a rag.
    “No,” she says. “More.”
    Mom tells her it’s time for the man to go and to give him back his squeegee. But the girl wants me to tell her how the thing is pronounced. Otherwise, she’s not giving it back she says. So I tell her, and she comes pretty close, repeating “skee-bee.”
    “Okay, give me back my skee-bee,” I say, prying it from her fingers.
    Her mom pays me much more than I had asked for. As I leave, the little kid chases after me repeating “bye, bye, bye.” As I pass the storefront outside, she waves to me with her face up against the glass. Behind her, the poodles lick up the last of her McDonald’s.
    Still, the day is young in the pocket.
    A few businesses later, Tim, the hyper-effeminate owner of a dance studio greets me like royalty, as students warm up for a ballroom dancing class. The class consists primarily of middle-aged executives who have left work to take lessons from shapely young women. It is filled out with nostalgic couples and studio-rats who will dance to just about anything.
    “Everybody, everybody,” says Tim. “Before we get started, I’d like to introduce you all to Ben. He is going to clean our windows today.”
    “Hi Ben,” they say in unison and wave.
    They wait, as if I am to say a few words. I smile uncomfortably, and look back to Tim.
    “The mirrors too,” I remind him.
    “That’s right, the mirrors too,” Tim says, clapping and pointing to the floor-to-ceiling mirrors that encircle the dance floor.
    “Oooooh,” the impressed dancers harmonize. “Mirrors toooo?”
    As squeegee rubber graces mirror, the first note of jaunty piano music chimes, and the dancers begin moving counter-clockwise to my clockwise around the studio. The strokes of the squeegee and the steps of the dancers start to fall into synchronized rhythms, and I find myself the unwilling participant in a bad, live musical. In graceful strides, the students twirl my way, and during natural pauses, an odd curtsy between dancer and window-washer develops. We smile and nod. It is a very friendly place. Everyone is happy.
    One of the solo dancers is a woman held together by cosmetic surgeries. She could be a forgotten actress that has come to Santa Fe to fade away obscurely. At our curtsy, I kindly warn her to be careful because there may be a little water on the floor.
    “Oh?” she says, her face frozen in something like surprise; then, she twirls away.
    When I finish, there is great fussing over my work. Tim makes a grand spectacle of it, muting the music and clasping his hands under his chin.
    “Oh, that looks wonderful!” he says. “We can see ourselves in the mirror! We can see our cars outside! Look everyone! We can see our cars outside! You are our new favorite person, Ben. Please come back and see us soon.”
    I leave to a round of applause.

    Walking back toward the Plymouth, my pockets are loaded. The dance studio hadn’t been the last of the goldmine. I’d run into a lone Latino strip-mall with the typical shoe store, cantina, market, and bakery. I’d snagged them all. Without counting my money, I know I am going to be relaxing in a cheap motel for a week. The Santa Fe air tastes clean and hopeful with roasting chiles light in the breeze.
    So when I hear the laughter and bottle-clinking of happy hour coming from Jackie’s Pub, I don’t go in immediately. I stand outside for a moment and think, and look down the long glass corridor that leads to the little dark hole where my manhood had been challenged earlier in the day. Only then, after deciding that I should walk on by, do I go in. Truth is, all I want is a cold draft beer.
    But bellying up, I see the glitter of fear in the eyes of the man behind the bar as he recognizes me. I can hear his heart pulsate and the crazy fears that rocket through his imagination. The lowly street-urchin that he’d seen earlier in the day begging for work — someone he never thought he’d see again — is now back, in the middle of happy hour, sun-baked, sweaty, and dirty. Surely he has come back for revenge. But then this street-urchin drops a stack of bills onto the bar so high that they tumble and cascade over one another.
    I start off with a few drinks for myself. Then I order rounds for the house. Since it is not in this bar-owner’s nature to eschew lucre of any kind, he serves me. But he does so with downcast eyes and hesitant mumblings. With each drink he brings me, he slouches a little more, and grows a little more insecure behind his own bar. And as my pile of bills dissipates, I start to feel something like satisfaction.
    I tip him outrageously, vengefully, each time more than the last. He never once thanks me or makes eye contact. He just quietly serves, as his regulars become my new best friends, and they and I get each other drunk.
    Nursing my last beer, I try to come up with one final humiliating gesture to leave this jackass with. I recall the way certain customers used to try to demoralize me when I was a bartender. One trick was to wad up fives or tens into little balls, and toss them behind the bar, to see if I would fetch like a seal.
    So I take a twenty from the pile.
    “Hey buddy, hey buddy,” I say. “Look.”
    I hold up the twenty and crush it up into a tight little ball. Shamefully, he watches.
    “Hey, here you go buddy, here you go.” I fake throws in a few different directions and watch him as he crouches, anticipating the trajectory of the flying tip.
    Then, as all his regulars have stopped to watch this, I start to feel like a drunken, vindictive jackass myself. So I stand up. I un-crumple the bill and flatten it out on the bar. I press the winkles out.
    “This’s for you, buddy,” I say, and leave.
    Outside, I pick up my bucket, poles, and duffel bag and stagger into the warm afternoon. Judging by the weight of my pockets there will be no motel room this week or anytime soon. It’s just as well. I’m headed for eastern New Mexico next. On the map, it looks like the type of wide-open country where a guy could get by on minimal amounts of pride or money. It looks like type of country where a guy in need of a little space could have as much as he wanted or needed. §

    Ben Leroux writes from a motel room in Morro Bay, and still plies his trade as a window washer. He can be reached at Read more of his "Washing Windows Across America" series here:
  • Part 9: Evicted From Wal-Mart

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    Why I'm not patriotic

    It’s obvious that blind patriotism is destroying America

    By Steve Terranova

    “Peace is Patriotic,” the signs read at our futile antiwar protests. I never really bonded with the idea. Nor did I get behind the “Support the Troops: Bring Them Home!” signs. Sure, bringing the troops home is the best thing for everyone, but the irritating message they were trying to refute, smugly delivered by glazed-over automatons in SUVs sporting magnetic yellow ribbons, put us in a bind.
    “Support the Troops,” they’d holler, driving off with a big sneer. They knew they had us. What were we supposed to do, cheer the troops onto some kind of “victory” while they shot, bombed and tortured Iraqis who were ostensibly defending their country from us, the foreign invader? What about the civilian “collateral damage”? What about the people just plain killed in cold blood by frustrated soldiers, still working out their adolescent rage and arrogance? Am I supposed to cheer on raw imperialism just because the poor guys and gals sent over to do the bidding of the thugs in power didn’t know what, or who they were really fighting for? No thanks.
    I suppose that I can see the idea behind saying that peace is patriotic. We purportedly live in a democracy, and part of that democratic process is dissent. So, in a time of war, those who are dissenting and pushing for peace are exercising good old, American democracy. Nice theory, anyway. In reality, once war starts, all bets are off. Our leaders know this all too well, which is why they are so damn happy to start up a war.
    When I worked the Peace Table at the Farmer’s Market in San Luis Obispo, I saw that first hand. We became traitors, a focus of hatred, with a surprisingly ignorant citizenry brainwashed into believing that we were trying to destroy the country. After the war in Iraq started and we continued to set up the Peace Table, things got really ugly. I still recall a guy from the PFLAG table (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) coming up to me and saying that it was “seditious” to protest the war after it started. Didn’t any of these people remember Vietnam? It got so bad that I left the country for a couple of years.
    To me, saying that “peace is patriotic” is almost as Orwellian as saying that “war is peace.” Patriotism is about choosing sides. It is about ignoring the misdeeds of your own country, while trying to highlight those of others. It is about using the resources of other countries with impunity. And it is about believing that the lives of people in other countries are less important than those here. Apart from the Fourth of July, when I start hearing talk of patriotism and see a lot of American flags waving, I think one thing: War is on the way.
    Perhaps patriotism once served a purpose as this country became what it is today (of course, Native Americans might see it differently), but those days are long gone. This world could be annihilated in a matter of minutes. There is little point in creating divisions between countries with terms like “The Axis of Evil.” Eventually, we will not be able to sustain these enemies, so usefully created by our corrupt leaders. Maybe that time has already come.
    The patriotic fervor that has gripped Americans since 9/11 has created a country barely recognizable by its founding principles. Suddenly, we have a president who seems unbound by the laws of the country. Free speech? Seditious. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? Forget about it. The right to privacy? Gone. Torture? No problem. Invading other countries? All in a day’s work. It should be obvious that blind patriotism is destroying America.
    This country is a beautiful place and the people of this country have achieved many things, but we have to start thinking about what is best for the world. Isolationism has led to a kind of ignorance and arrogance in America that is really causing a lot of human misery. The only patriotism that might serve a useful purpose is patriotism to the world as a whole. American patriotism should be left in the scrap heap, like that of other empires of the past. §

    Steve Terranova is a peace activist and ex-expatriated, ex-patriot living on the Central Coast of California.

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    Life in the cage

    Jailhouse pruno
    Homemade booze: it’ll kill you

    By Tito David Valdez Jr.

    As a free man, just 23 years old, I worked as a club/party promoter in Southern California. Spent seven nights a week around hot babes, loud music, and the best assortment of alcohol money could buy. With a $200-a-night bar tab, compliments of the club owners, I often treated all the right people to drinks, so they would come back as repeat customers.
    Looking back to that time, I can now admit I was an alcoholic. Always had a drink in my hand, buzzed beyond the legal driving limit. I wondered sometimes how the hell I ended up home in bed. Did I really get behind the wheel? I drank to be social, but also because of a heavy workload. More money, more problems. I was successful, but having too much of everything was overwhelming. Alcohol took off that “edge,” allowed me to manage the major responsibilities I had, and not take things so seriously.
    The night of my arrest in 1993, a sting operation occurred where FBI agents and local police recorded conversations I was having with a business partner, who happened to be a paid FBI informant wearing a “wire.” I was buzzed, drinking a tall neck Heineken running my mouth, story telling.
    Mere words, spoken while under the influence, put me away for life. And when I entered jail and prison, I figured I’d never be able to drink again. I was wrong.

    I was transferred in 1995 from the reception center in Delano, California, to New Folsom prison, a Level IV maximum-security prison near Sacramento. Folsom was high concrete walls, multiple levels of barbed wire, electric fences. After a couple weeks of moving from cell to cell, trying to find a decent cell partner, I finally settled in with an old-timer convict named “DOG,” who was serving life for killing his wife.
    Dog was from Southern California, a 59-year-old Hispanic man with a moustache like the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and the cold dark stare of a killer. He spoke in Cholo slang with a rasp to his voice — a smoker.
    “Hey Holmes, watcha, can I get those apples you got in your locker?” he said, as he took another hit from his cigarette.
    “Sure, take ‘em all,” I said, handing him a clear plastic bag which contained six apples.
    Later that night, Dog obtained a large clear plastic trash bag. At first, I figured he was going to make a water bag to work out with — many convicts do this to remain strong and muscular. But Dog had another purpose.
    He started mashing up an assortment of fruits he had accumulated in a cardboard box underneath his bottom bunk — oranges, apples, grapefruits, fruit cocktail. He placed them all inside the bag, pouring water and small cartons of orange and grape juice, which we received with our morning breakfast. He finally finished by pouring a pouch of TANG inside the bag.
    “Watcha, Homie, this is how I come up. I just want to let you know that if the placas (cops) come in and find this, I’ll take the rap. I’ll say it’s mine, so don’t trip.”
    “Sure, okay,” I said, going along with the program.
    Dog double-bagged it and cut off the top of a shampoo bottle, using a razor, tying off the top of the bag, and used the shampoo top as a “breathing” apparatus to allow air to enter or be released. He placed the bag underneath his bunk, in the far lower corner, and surrounded it with other boxes of property, so it was not in plain view.
    Every night, for three days, he pulled out the bag, which reeked of alcohol, to check on the status. Due to fermenting, each night the bag had expanded like a blown up balloon. He frequently opened the shampoo lid to let out air, supervising the process like a chemistry teacher. By all means, Dog was making something out of nothing.
    This was his prison hustle.
    On the third night, he took a sock, using it as a strainer, and began to pour the bag contents into sock, and out came a pure orange liquid, which streamed into a big jug placed below. The result was jailhouse pruno.
    “Hey, Homie, have a tumbler, it’s FIRME (delicious).”
    He took my tumbler from my locker and poured me a full cup. I hadn’t drunk any alcohol in nearly two years. The smell of pruno took me back to the clubs, the great memories. Anxious and curious, I grabbed the tumbler and took a few sips. It was delicious, tasted like a wine cooler!
    One tumbler turned to two. Two turned to three. Dog made about 2 gallons from that batch and had carefully measured it all, so he could distribute eight tumblers worth. An inmate porter came by and Dog slid small plastic bags filled with pruno underneath the small crevice below the cell door; each bag contained a tumbler, and sold for $2 a piece.
    Dog turned up the volume of music on his small portable cassette radio, which played a Chicano band from the ‘70s called MALO, playing the song, “Suavecito.”
    “Hey, Holmes, you like the ROLLAS (music)? I got more. Check out my collection. I have Zapp, Tierra, Rick James …”
    The pruno began to take its effect. I was soon talking my ass off, as Dog was, reflecting on memories from the past. The happy days of cruising Whittier Blvd., taking a chick to the drive-in, smoking a little blunt while out with the fellas at the Lowrider car show. I was beginning to have a good time for the first time in my imprisonment. Able to let my guard down and not act the tough-guy role. After two years of being treated like a number, I felt human again. We stayed up until about 2 a.m., and then called it a night. When I woke up the next morning, I had the most terrible hangover I’ve ever had. A terrible stomach ache. I must have taken five dumps that day.

    Weeks later, after evening chow, Dog and I returned to our cell only to find it had been searched by unit officers. It was a total mess, our property mixed together, as if a tornado had struck. Blankets on the floor, sheets taken off the mattress, legal papers taken out of envelopes. Our precious photos of family were on the cell floor with a large footprint of a guard’s boot on them.
    Dog immediately searched underneath his bed, and saw that his pruno bag was gone.
    “Fuck … those PINCHE PLACAS, that GARCIA is an asshole. I bet you he did this. He is probably going to write us up.”
    Dog called over a Chicano inmate porter and told him to get Officer Garcia to come to the cell. Within minutes, Officer Garcia showed up. He was a short Mexican young man, about 5-2, perhaps 23 years old, skinny, looked like Bart Simpson. He was a rookie cop looking to earn some bones, so he could become a sergeant. He always wore a secret service-style earpiece to look important. He for sure had a Napoleon complex. I’ve run into these types before.
    “What’s wrong, inmate, you mad at your pruno?” he said, as he peeped into our cell window, talking to us through the crack of the door, as he spit tobacco chew into a styrofoam cup in his hand.
    “Fuck you!” replied Dog, who was extremely pissed off.
    “Why did disrespect us by throwing our property everywhere?”
    “You got it coming, inmate. You know that manufacturing pruno is against the rules. Every time I walk this tier, it smells like a hole-inthewall bar. Your Homies brought heat to us when they acted a fool last night, fighting in the dayroom. You all brought the heat on yourselves.”
    “All is ask, Holmes, is that you don’t disrespect the cell. I’ll write your ass up if you do it again!”
    Officer Garcia walked off laughing and Dog started venting. “That mothafucka is going to write us up, I know it. This is going to be my third writeup. I’m going to lose my yard privileges this time.”
    Sure enough, the next day, we were both given CDC115 disciplinary writeups for “manufacturing pruno.”
    “Hey, Holmes, I am a man of my word, I’ll take the rap. When they call you for the hearing, don’t make a statement," said Dog in a convincing tone of voice.
    Three days later, I was paged off the recreational yard and told to report to the Watch Office. I was told to enter the lieutenant’s office, which smelled of the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee.
    “Mr. Valdez, I’m Lt. Campbell. I’ll be the hearing officer for this disciplinary writeup. Do you plead guilty or not guilty?”
    “Not guilty.”
    Lt. Campbell was in his late 50s, a white officer with a beer belly, balding head, moustache and mirrored shades. He had the look of a typical cop portrayed on any crime television show.
    “Do you have any statement you want to make, any witnesses you want to call in?” he asked, while sipping his cup of coffee.
    “I have nothing to say.”
    “I interviewed your cellie before I called you in and he says that the pruno was his, so based on this, I’ll be dismissing your 115. Let me give you a word of advice.”
    “Sure, tell me.”
    “I can tell by looking at you that you are a first-timer. Pruno is something you don’t want to be messing with. We have had inmates die due to drinking a bad batch where botulism poisoning set in. Long-term drinking leads to liver problems. If you live with someone who manufactures, it’s in your best interests to move out, or else you could face disciplinary action.”
    I didn’t know that pruno was such a big deal, so I was curious, wanted to know more. “Tell me, lieutenant, what else is there to know about pruno?”
    “I’m gonna shoot straight with you. For decades, we have dealt with the pruno problem. We know some inmates make it to earn money. We know WHO makes it and WHO buys it. We aren’t fools when we walk the tiers and smell jailhouse pruno vapors coming out of cells. We don’t care if inmates drink pruno; it’s only when people start acting like fools that the higher ups send word to us that we got to do our jobs and confiscate it.”
    “If pruno is such a problem, isn’t there any way to stop it?”
    “There is no way to stop it. You inmates use everyday ingredients that, by law, we’re mandated to provide to comply with daily nutritional standards — syrup, raisins, prunes, fruits, sugar, Kool Aid, etcetera. If we were to take away these items, I’m sure you inmates would come up with some other way to make it. You will find that the majority of officers don’t enforce every rule, because there is no way we could regulate and enforce them — too much paperwork.”
    “Okay, thanks. Is that all? Can I leave?”
    “Yes, we are finished here. The only reason we hit your cell last night is because there was an incident in B section, next to yours. Two inmates fought while under the influence. You all fronted yourselves off. You look like a decent guy; my advice, stay away from pruno.”

    I haven’t drunk pruno since 1995. I am tempted, though, on special occasions like New Years Eve. There is a new popular brand of pruno, which is expensive, but looks like vodka, clear like water, and from what I hear tastes great with soda. It’s called WHITE LIGHTNING. It’s more potent and takes about a week to make. The leftovers of pruno contents, left in the sock and bag, are heated to vaporize, the liquid drops then collected. At $25 a tumbler it’s sure to give you a buzz out of this world.
    I recognized that if I ever want to get out of prison, I must not cloud my thinking or judgment, even for special occasions. Anything can happen while being under the influence. And since manufacturing or possessing pruno is subject to disciplinary action, there is always the chance a rogue officer like Garcia will come in the cell to take it. Then there is the disciplinary writeup.
    Each disciplinary writeup adds eight points to an inmate’s classification score. Just one writeup could mean transfer to a higher-level facility or denial of a parole date for up to five years by the Board of Prison Terms.
    Fortunately, some prisons have self-help groups like AA, which I am proud to be part of. Sharing experiences with former fellow alcoholics tends to keep me on a straight alcohol-free path.
    Unfortunately, the desire to drink is still there. Just one tumbler of pruno could help ease the misery I endure at times when I feel like my life is being flushed down the toilet.
    Drinking in free society is legal. In prison, it’s not. That alone is enough to discourage me from drinking entirely. If I were confronted with the opportunity to drink real alcohol, while locked up, I honestly don’t know what I’d do.
    Staying alcohol-free and out of trouble got me to the lowest level security I can be housed at. Doing time in minimum security has its perks. It’s the closest thing to being free. No electric fences, no high cement walls, lots of open space on the yard. I can see the freeway with real cars, just a few hundred yards away. There are real cats and dogs, which come around looking for food, animals I can pet and feed.
    I couldn’t possibly throw it all away just for a drink.
    Even if Hustle Man, the man who can get you anything you want in prison, comes around with the latest merchandise.
    “Hey, amigo, I got a pint of real Bacardi 151 on the market today — $250. You know you want it!” §

    Tito David Valdez Jr. resides at and writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” For times, visit Tito can be reached by email at, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689.
    Read more of the "Life in the Cage" series:
  • Mischief in the prison chapel

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    Jesus Freaks and Streakers

    In the ‘70s, Tustin High’s naked sprinters triumphed over Orange County Puritanism

    By Stacey Warde

    At 15, I felt the impact of a growing “Jesus Movement,” which arose from the excesses and disappointments of hippie love and free, uninhibited sexual expression and indulgence.
    It was the early ‘70s, and young people were afire with a new kind of love. Chuck Smith first reached out to the lost hippie generation — rudderless, looking for a place to go, deeply moved but left empty with the failed promises of peace and love in a world still full of hate. With his calming voice and informal Calvary tent meetings and stories of the overwhelming power of God’s love, Smith captured the attention and newfound wonderment of a disillusioned generation.
    Smith built Calvary Chapel and soon others were spawned, and cozy, folksy church groups formed all over Orange County, setting ablaze young people looking for something real, something to fill in the emptiness of lost hopes. Suddenly, it was cool to go to church.
    Kids quit their parents’ churches — stodgy and crimped and lifeless, overwrought with the formalities of ritual and tradition and the same old tired stories of the inaccessible great Almighty, far beyond anyone’s reach, too far to touch the hem of his skirt, too far for blessing and acceptance.
    Smith brought God down to earth, where the disappointed hippie-generation listened and felt enraptured and could touch God. It was blasphemous to the old school Christians who liked their God formidable, fearsome and unapproachable. Smith was likable, conversational and easy to hear, and so was his God. His voice reached inside of you with warmth, vitality and familiarity. It made God feel closer than ever.
    At Tustin High School, Christianity spread like Holy Spirit wildfire. Churches reached out to young people with their new informal services featuring chatty bible studies, folksy singing with guitars and drums, and hip young pastors with a word from the Lord accompanied with its usual life applications.
    The prettiest girls in their modest print dresses sung at evening church services with their eyes closed, faces radiant with ecstasy and rapture, and the joy of knowing God. A boy my age could go to church every day just for the pleasure of seeing those faces.
    It was scandalous for the old farts who thought church had to be endured, suffered like an endless crucifixion full of tortuous dogma and indoctrination. But the enthusiasm among young people for the new Christianity could be felt everywhere on campus. The “Jesus freaks,” as we called them, were only too happy to share “The Word” and lead people to a higher calling, a life with purpose.

    Once, after arriving early for morning class, I stopped by the cafeteria where a group of the campus believers had gathered inside to hold prayer and bible study and to hear a good word from their spiritual leader, a visiting pastor from one of the local churches. It was revival time, time to get to know God, and spread the Good News.
    A crowd, mostly friends, had gathered outside the cafeteria windows to view the proceedings. The preacher waved his arms and smiled and blessed. The whole week would be devoted to spreading God’s word on campus and bringing in the lost sheep. We couldn’t hear everything spoken through the open windows, but we could make out bits and pieces and knew that this meant daily conversation with our Christian friends sent out on a mission to save aimless, lost souls.
    A few football players wondered aloud if knowing Jesus meant no more parties with the ripening girls inside, angelic and innocent with their heads bowed for prayer, smiling, whispering through plush red lips, holding hands with the boys and girls next to them.
    “I hear Jesus doesn’t like blowjobs,” one of the observers said, half to his self, half to us. The group laughed and a couple of the Christians inside looked up and smiled at us.
    “How do you know that?” another asked.
    “My girlfriend told me.”
    “She told you Jesus doesn’t like blowjobs?”
    “Not like that, you asshole. He doesn’t like her giving them. He wants her to be pure for when she gets married.”
    “What a crock of shit,” someone said.
    “I always thought it was kind of funny when Sally would scream, ‘Oh God, Jesus, yes!’ Now, look. She told me she’s never having sex with me again unless I marry her and take Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”
    “Why not?” said another. “She’s worth it.”
    “That’s a long, frickin’ time to wait.”
    “I’m not getting married, no fuckin’ way.”
    “Shit! Here they come.”
    Suddenly the prayer group dispersed and each participant grabbed a bible and the girls threw their purses on their shoulders and they turned to exit the door near where we stood. Soon, they were upon us, with their fervor and passion and ripeness, pleading with us to spare a moment for a message of God’s love. It was hard to resist.
    One of the more persistent girls grabbed “Moose,” a heavyset lineman on the football team, and said: “You wanna see a miracle? You want God to help you lose weight?”
    “No thanks,” Moose said, “I like being a fat slob.”
    As earnest Christian revivalists reached for their lost friends outside the cafeteria, the group that had watched the prayer service quickly dissolved, and scattered to nearby lockers and classrooms.
    “See you guys later.”
    “Yeah, later. See ya in church.”
    Another round of laughter went up as the jocks broke their early morning huddle around the cafeteria.

    The Christians I’ve known have always expressed an earnestness that makes it hard to ignore them. I’ve respected them because they learned how to be courageous during a moment of weakness. They were falling hard from drunkenness, drug abuse or an abusive home life, or they were suffering too much from any of the myriad hardships that touch young people, a terrible accident or a sudden death. Others were simply too damned scared to go anywhere without a shield, which came with the warm and fuzzy Jesus.
    When things got to be too much, the new Christians told us, Jesus would make everything all right. Jesus understood our suffering and, in fact, had endured suffering on our behalf as God Almighty’s sacrificial Lamb, the one who endured the wrath of God on my behalf. Were it not for Jesus, they said, I’d burn in hell. It was a beautiful story, especially when the world felt so huge and oppressive and impossible, filled with constant reminders from parents and authorities that high school kids like me were little more than fuckups and wastrels.
    We were peering into a huge abyss, our first sobering glimpse into what was in store, a lifetime of beating out a place for ourselves, an agonizingly dull trudge into a vast hole that would consume us as quickly as we came, leaving behind our words, a few soiled clothes, and maybe a hairball or two. Jesus never looked better during moments like these, where fear and weakness got the better of us. With his larger-than-life hand, he could sweep us out of the abyss and place our tender souls into God’s care forever. It gave us courage, a way to move forward again.
    Still, Christians made themselves easy targets for ridicule, even with the warm, fuzzy Jesus by their side, even with their bibles shielding them from errant scoundrels, and murderers and sinners and worse evils like premarital sex. Jesus and his angels watched over everyone; as long as we stayed pure, our Christian friends reminded us, Jesus would keep us safe from harm.
    Unfortunately, Jesus the Great Shepherd wasn’t quite as good at protecting us from his own flock.

    My friend Marcus took a fascination with streaking when that fad hit high school and college campuses and public places all across the nation in the ’70s. Everywhere, young people threw their clothes off and ran naked through the streets, into gymnasiums and taco joints.
    Once, Marcus, a sprinter on the track team, asked me to stand by the door to the football locker room under the stadium. He wanted me to make sure no one would close the door on him as he streaked through a girls basketball game in the gym across the way, and then across the major pathway for students leaving campus at the end of the day, and into the locker room where he’d quickly dress and escape.
    Not long after the bell rang to excuse the final period of the day, I heard a roar of commotion from the gymnasium across the quad. Girls shrieked and laughed. The doors of the gym burst open and out flew Marcus, naked as the day he was born, sprinting in sneakers, a paper bag over his head, coming my way, his goods flapping in the breeze.
    The students walking home, book bags and purses slung over their shoulders, gawked and laughed. Sarah stopped and asked me: “Who was that?” I shrugged. She went on her way with a story to tell. No one was hurt. I closed the locker room door beneath the stadium and checked on Marcus.
    “How’d it go?” I asked as he hustled to dress himself and leave before any coaches or teachers showed up.
    “Fuckin’ great! Did you see that?” He laughed. “Ran through the gym. The girls tried to stop me, man. Wanted me to shoot baskets. Ha!” He smiled, looking up as he tied his shoes. “I was too juiced up. Couldn’t stop, had to keep running.”
    Marcus still hadn’t caught his breath as he zipped his pants and grabbed his gear.
    “Gotta go, man. Hey, don’t tell anyone,” he confided, “but a bunch of us are going to streak in the morning, third period, past the pool and art building. Laurie and Marci are going. Come with us.”
    Laurie and Marcie were close friends, culpable and randy, the hottest girls in school and able to stop a guy dead in his tracks with just a look. They could put up shields or snag you with hooks but once you got to know them they were like silly putty and would do almost anything. One night, on the way to a party, Marcus stuffed a tube of Cheese Whiz into Marcie’s pants and squeezed the whole thing inside of her panties as we drove through town in a friend’s car. She scratched and bit him hard, enough to draw blood, but laughed herself into hysterics, tears streaming down her cheeks, as she fought with Marcus. I had always wanted to see her naked. I couldn’t imagine running with her naked through campus, however, without giving myself away.
    “No thanks,” I told Marcus. “I’ll watch. But I can’t keep any doors open for you this time,” I said as Marcus ducked out of the stadium locker room, “I’ve got art with Mr. Robles.”
    I hadn’t the guts to streak, let alone streak with two girls I lusted after, and I couldn’t imagine myself hobbling along naked through campus, with my wantonness out in the open, chasing after Laurie and Marcie. That kind of nudity, I told myself, belonged behind closed doors, where it couldn’t be observed. But I supported my friends if they wanted to run bare-assed through the campus halls, creating a ruckus, exciting young students and making thrills for the teachers.

    The next morning a buzz stirred in the hallways about students who planned to run naked through the campus grounds. I knew the plan and who was going to do it and kept it to myself, and waited for third period to arrive. Upon entering Mr. Robles’ art class, my friend Tom, the best artist in school who’d had hours of sketching nudes and painting with oils and sold his work to local collectors, confided that the Christians were planning to blockade the streakers from passing through the halls and reaching the getaway van in the street.
    Mr. Olsen, who taught ceramics and led the bible and prayer meetings of campus Christians, caught wind of the nude sprinting and had been informed of the planned route. He stood outside, between the art buildings and the pool area, grousing to himself as Christians with their bibles gathered and stood in a circle and bowed their heads for prayer, and then, like everyone else who had classes near the pool and in the art building, waited for the big event. The bell to start third period had hardly finished ringing when a wave of laughter and squeals and “oh-my-gods!” could be heard in the distance, near the P.E. buildings.
    Mr. Olsen sent his prayer warriors scattering to the gates leading to the street where a van had just pulled up next to the curb. He stood like a sentry, sniffing the air, chest puffed, his potbelly sagging over his belt, and bible in hand. Then, shrieks arose a few classes down, and Mr. Olsen stretched his arms out like Christ on the cross, as though he would soon gather in his lost sheep, but they ran naked with the wind, breezing past him, ignoring him. Marcus, Marcie and Laurie and two other naked sheep, brushed past him and swept through the hall in a kind of nude triumph over Puritanism.
    Mr. Olsen, shocked and scandalized, started, first with a kind of whimper, then a wail and finally a loud roar, “Stop! You students come back here this instant!” He turned to pursue the swift running little lambs shorn of their clothing. “Stop this instant! Come back here!” He tried running after them but his belly wouldn’t allow him more than a painful trot. “Stop them!” he ordered his prayer warriors. He waved his bible and yelled. The prayer warriors, amused and similarly scandalized, stepped aside to let the lost sheep pass through the gate.
    The back doors of the van opened, and the streakers piled in, one naked body after another. I could imagine the rush they were feeling, skin flushed with excitement, heads abuzz and delirious, safe from Mr. Olsen and his moral crusaders. Now, I wished I had gone with them, laughing, rolling around in orgiastic delight in the van as it sped away from Mr. Olsen, who stood helplessly in the street waving his bible, demanding order and propriety.

    Mr. Olsen’s righteous indignation put me at odds with Christianity for a long time. His actions cast a dreary pall over any religious inclinations I had entertained at that point. The campus Christians who followed him showed themselves to be little more than a pack of sweet, earnest killjoys. My lack of desire to attend church only increased because I didn’t want to miss out on life. I didn’t want to trade the exuberance of living out in the open for endless prayer meetings and bibles studies and preachers talking about God. I didn’t want to stop thinking about Laurie and Marcie running naked, free as the wind, past stiff, dried up prunes indignantly waving bibles.
    Deep inside, I knew that Jesus had nothing to do with Mr. Olsen’s crusade to stop streakers from their third-period naked run through Tustin High School. The Jesus I imagined would never take such an intolerant stance, nor would he be such a horrible killjoy. I doubted that Jesus would have waved his bible and yelled at young teens feeling for the first time in their lives what it was like to really be alive. I had a different feeling about Jesus than most Christians at the time, even the well-meaning Christians who wanted people to lose weight and read their bibles. I decided to wait for the time when I might actually meet the Jesus lover who knew how to laugh and who felt the absurd impulse to run naked through a field, a taco joint, or high school campus, who knew, in fact, what it was like to be a human being and live.

    Stacey Warde is editor of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached a

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    Sketches of San Francisco (episode 2)

    The Rain: Russian Hill

    By Talmadge Jarretee Jr.

    After leaving the Hydeout in Knob Hill with a promising buzz that had finally somewhat neutralized my hangover, Rocco and I felt it was a good idea to eat, not necessarily because we were hungry, but because a binge needed to be buttressed by several mini-meals throughout the day-and-night-long siege. And although San Francisco is a prime mecca for gourmet dining, Rocco and I in the past had discovered that nothing ruins a good siege like a sit-down meal with too much food and wine.
    So, after dashing under awnings in the driving rain along Polk Street, we stopped at a one-table, hole-in-the-wall pizza joint just off the corner of Broadway and Polk. While Rocco waited for our meatball sandwiches to go, I sprinted two blocks to the 11211 Cresta Club, our favorite watering hole in San Fran. The Cresta is an unassuming hallway bar, with a narrow, retractable window facing the street, no jukebox, pool table or video games of any kind, with eclectic music, piped-in tapes of blues and jazz; just a bar with a row of stools. I found one remaining and sat down to face middle-aged Irish Jimmy from Philly and ordered my Skyy rocks, which he quickly prepared with soda back, and asked about Rocco.
    “Getting food,” I explained. “Fuel for the grind.”
    “Of course,” Jimmy said, understanding perfectly.
    There was a talk-noisy late Saturday afternoon professional drinking neighborhood crowd who were allowed to smoke. I recognized several faces from past visits with whom I’d inspired coversations, but, like most bar denizens, they had to reprogram themselves to remember who I was when I waved to them, and then of course it eventually dawned on them, and they came over, asking how I was doing, trying to recall where I was from, and then Rocco showed up with our sandwiches and they put two-and-two together and realized we were the pair of hoop/drunks making a pilgrimage to the city from Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, the Skyy was working wonders on what remained of my hangover.
    A regular named Gordon waved at me. Gordon is a railroad buff. I’d purposely brought my 1898 Elgin railroad pocket watch on chain to show Gordon, who’d been all over the country on trains and had visited railroad museums throughout the world. In the past, we had discussed Paul Theroux’s travel books by rail. Gordon was originally from Detroit and his parents were Greek and Syrian. He’d recently retired as a graphic artist for ABC in San Fran. Short, bald, round, jovial, he drank only bottled beer, wore plain baggy pants and 1950-style plaid shirts. He was one of the hubs around which Cresta activity revolved.
    When Gordon came over I showed him the watch and he was very enthused and impressed. I explained to Gordon how this watch had to be opened and rewound every 24 hours. I explained the reason for this: Before this model, winding was controlled by the stem atop the watch, and if the conductor accidentally bumped it the time would be thrown off by a minute or two and could cause a massive trainwreck. Gordon was impressed with my knowledge. He continued to be more than impressed when I opened the back of the watch to reveal the interior mechanism of 21 carat gold. Gordon’s friends flocked around us as Rocco showed up with the sandwiches. I put the watch back together and hung it from the chain at the belt loop of my shorts into my pocket.
    Gordon shook Rocco’s hand. Knowing we were bar buffs, he began telling Rocco and me about a new bar he’d discovered in Chinatown. He described this new bar in its most eccentric, grimy detail. On a cocktail napkin he not only diagrammed how the bar was set up, but jotted down directions to find it. Then Gordon returned to his crowd a few stools over and Rocco and I ate our sandwiches, and I ordered two new drinks and sent one down to Gordon and I was feeling golden, all symptoms of hangover vanished, as if I’d been cured by a magical elixer.
    After wolfing down our sandwiches, we settled in, Rocco standing beside me, conversing with a middle-aged couple, the woman broadshouldered and Irish-born, the husband bald, rotund, articulate, informative, pleasant, charming. They were chain smokers who could drink for hours and never eat and not appear drunk. While Rocco talked to them, I munched on goldfish crackers Jimmy laid out in bowls. I devoured a bowl and Jimmy refilled it and Rocco and I had another round and Jimmy told us how held gone across the bay to Yoshi’s in Oakland and seen McCoy Tyner the night before and felt all tingly when he walked out of the blues club.
    Jimmy worked with no juice or soda guns, only bottles. I was sitting beside 83-year-old Evelyn, a longtime local widow who wore skullcap and kid gloves and sipped Dubonnet in a cocktail glass with a water back (no ice). Evelyn and I usually discussed politics and she told me that she felt President Bush had two major personal problems: one, he had missed centuries of evolution and was possibly simian, and two, he needed a good whore like Monica Lewinsky to straighten his ass out.
    After about half-an-hour of talking politics and current events with Evelyn, I found myself standing a few rows down again consorting with Gordon. I don’t know why I did this. I wanted to point out a few more details about my watch, it seemed. I had the watch all apart and some new friends of Gordon who had just come in were impressed and commented on what a beautiful, unique watch it was and then Gordon and I discussed the railroad museum in York, England, which we did every time I’d come here over the past decade with Rocco, and then I went back to my stool beside Rocco and ate some more goldfish and Rocco ordered another round and was still talking to the Irish couple about his trips to Europe with his wife, Claire, and the many students they chaperoned as a way of gaining credits to maintain his tenure without having to take night classes.
    Jimmy went off duty and a fetching, though not over-dressed thirtyish gal replaced him. We tipped Jimmy sawbucks and he exited with his briefcase of jazz and blues CDs and political tracts as we ordered another round from Maria and sent a brew to Gordon and another Dubonnet to Evelyn. Most of the original crowd was gone but a new one kept the bar hopping, and Gordon was now conversing with his special friend, who had just gotten off work, a small, slender fellow, and pretty soon I was down there shaking hands with him, and Gordon told him about my watch, and again I had it open and was explaining the winding device and 21 carat gold mechanism, and we all agreed they no longer constructed watches like this, and about 10 people were crowded around admiring my watch, until eventually they became distracted and I went back to sit beside Rocco who had struck up a conversation with a local pasty-faced, middle-aged cab driver with a ponytail.
    This was Lawrence, who had once taught English in a local high school, but was finished teaching. Rocco and Lawrence discussed the teaching profession, agreeing there were too many bureaucrats, politicians, a hierarchy of ass-kissers, back-stabbers and petty schemers. Somehow we were all discussing literature . Lawrence had precious tastes — FitzGerald, Henry James, Sartre. I preferred Steinbeck, the Russians, and Bukowski (whom Lawrence pooh-poohed). We went back and forth. Rocco’s head swiveled. Though his wife taught English and forced him to go to “art” movies, he was an action guy, a history buff, and therefore odd man out as Lawrence and I went at it.
    We had more rounds. Maria was gorgeous and built, part Italian, like Rocco — and they got along well. She was soon to be married and going to Tahiti for their honeymoon, and since Rocco and Claire had been to Tahiti, he filled her in. By this time, Rocco and I were starting to droop and yawn, slurring our words, so we had Kahlua coffees and talked to tall, rawboned, rough-hewn Jeff, a framer in torn jeans, work shirt and SF Giant ballcap (faded and sweat-stained), who had parked his battered compact truck with camper shell directly across the street and would again leave it overnight because he would again be too drunk to drive it the few miles to his apartment on the fringes of the city. Over a three-year period, Jeff had accumulated over $2,000 in parking tickets, none of which he had paid, a predicament that seemed not to bother him in the least as he drank down Dirty White Mothers (Kahlua/brandy/milk) at a synchronized pace.
    “They can’t take my truck,” he informed us. “They keep sending me warnings. I just throw ‘em away. What can they do to me? Throw my ass in jail? Been there, done that, no biggy. I’ll spend a month or two in the greybar hotel to cover the fines. The food won’t kill me. Nobody’ll fuck with me. If it happens, it happens. I got jobs lined up, man. I can’t be bothered with these office jockeys. It’s not like I’m a criminal. Far as I’m concerned, that parking spot across the street, it’s mine. My name’s on it. I deserve it. I pay my goddam taxes. To save a lot of trouble and red tape, the bastards oughta designate that spot to me as my own private property. I get real possessive about it.”
    “You deserve that parking spot,” Rocco told him, smacking his arm. “And you deserve another drink.”
    Soon Jeff’s girl friend, who lived a block away, and worked in an office in the financial district, came in, and they hugged, and wandered to the end of the bar. Rocco and I decided to eat. As the rain lashed down, we hustled back to the pizza joint and had sausage sandwiches. It was after nine and we were feeling droopy again, so returned to the Cresta, which was experiencing a lull, had a couple rounds of Kahlua coffees, felt rejuvenated and decided to try the Royal Oak, a few doors down.
    A tiffany bar. Exquisitely appointed English pub motif. Both bartenders strikingly attractive, long-legged lasses — clones in cocktail shorties and strapless tops. Quick. Efficient. Impersonal. Non-stop smilers. The crew along the bar was mostly male — dressed upscale/casual/trendy; neo-yuppies and dot-commers who’d made piles of money at too early an age and moved into San Fran in droves, like an invasion, buying up properties, jacking up rents, gobbling life styles while imposing their own, flooding the streets wielding cell phones and portable computers, jamming into Starbucks where they worked their toys when they weren’t browsing the Wall Street Journal.
    In the Royal Oak, conversations were a low hum — restrained, civilized, laughter a slight gurgle in the stream. Rocco and I quickly downed our weak, over-priced pours and trudged along the rain-soaked sidewalk to the Cresta, which was filling up again, Gordon and his friend entertaining a new group. I started to go join them, but Rocco had me by the shoulder. “Don’t go over there, T.J.,” he said in a reasonable, yet forceful voice. “Don’t show him the watch anymore.”
    I sat down. We were back on the vodka. It seemed, at this point, that people were careful to pay us their most polite respects, but not wishing to indulge in at-length conversations. We finished our strong drinks and were soon outside in the rain, under an awning, viewing Saturday night revelers scurry in the downpour. We wandered down to the corner of Broadway and Polk and joined the soggy, hot crush in Shanghai Kelly’s, a haven for a more ribald version of the neo-yups and dot-commers. Good looking women, dressed in black, outnumbered. We swilled vodkas and went back in the rain. On Polk, we passed the Buccaneer (too many youngsters), The Royal Oak (never again), the Cresta (Gordon was gone and it was thinned out), and visited Brooklyn Dave at the cavernous sports bar down near Green Street.
    There were a dozen or so (mostly men) in attendance, shooting pool or viewing recaps of games on the multiple TV sets placed in strategic locations throughout the comparmentalized bar. Rocco and I visited Dave, who knew what we drank and made it strong. Then the place suddenly filled up and Dave was hopping. Rocco and I were discussing calling a taxi to take us to Gino & Carlo’s in North Beach when we gazed up to see a very large guy in a trencoat and tie looming over us, staring directly at me.
    “You wanna girl?” he asked snickering, all surly.
    “A girl?”
    “Yeh, you like girls?” He cast his leer on Rocco. “What about you? YOU like girls?”
    Rocco rose, fist doubled, a surge in his jugular. I joined him. A crew of trenchcoats at the door started to enter.
    “YOU!” Dave shouted. “Get the fuck outta here.”
    The trenchcoat pointed to himself. “Me?”
    “Yeh, you! Get out! MOVE!”
    “Okay, Dave. Chill, man.”
    “I’m sick of your act. OUT! You’re finished here.”
    Trenchcoat swaggered to the door, meeting his pals. They glared at us. Rocco and I stood, fists doubled, grinning and nodding at them.
    “Sit down, fellas,” Dave said quietly. “It’s over.”
    We sat down. Dave bought us a round. Then we bought another, tipped him twin sawbucks. I started eating free popcorn. Must’ve eaten five bowls, as did Rocco. We floated out, found ourselves in Shanghai’s for last call, as the Cresta had closed. We did last shots as the entire crowd was flushed into the driving, nonstop rain. Rocco and I hustled across the street and tried to order a pizza, but the place was packed, so we managed to get to the liquor store on Van Ness before two o’clock.
    We purchased a loaf of white bread, a package of American cheese, a package of string cheese, lunch meat, a bottle of pickles, salsa, chips, a pint of Skyy and a six-pack of MGD and then scurried back across the street to our room at the Castle Inn, so utterly soaked through that we looked like we’d fallen into the bay. §

    Talmadge Jarretee Jr. was once homeless in San Francisco and now manages a low-income housing unit in Santa Cruz.

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